Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Discourse on Mosquitos

Mosquitos appear to come in different guises : sneaky sly ones that bite the underside of your thigh through the webbing of your dinner chair, brazen elephants that land on and dwarf your arm in broad daylight, little nippy ones that sneak through the netting at night and brave the fan-driven turbulent air to have a quick snack on an exposed cheek. They all have one thing in common : they itch like hell. The most utilised component of my first aid kit is the hydrocortisone cream......

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Lusitania's capital - Merida

From Wellington, Talavera and the 1800's back in time to the Romans & the Emperor Augustus. Merida was founded in the year 25 BC, with the name of Emerita Augusta (meaning the bachelors – discharged soldiers – of the army of Augustus, who founded the city; the name Mérida is an evolution of this) by order of Emperor Augustus, to protect a pass and a bridge over the Guadiana river. The city became the capital of Lusitania province, and one of the most important cities in the Roman empire. Mérida preserves more important ancient Roman monuments than any other city in Spain and whilst they dont quite match up to some of the more remote African and Middle Eastern ruins, they are actually pretty damn impressive.

It was a baking hot day, and I think I must have drunk gallons of water as I wandered around. First stop was the Amphitheatre and the theatre , both in remarkably good repair. During the summer months, the Amphitheatre continues to be used as a venue for plays, opera and other such events. There was lots of Roman propaganda to be seen, with worshipful statues of Augustus and Livia, his wife. 

 From the theatre it's a quick trip to the aqueduct - Acueducto  de los Milagros, or aqueduct of miracles which evoked much awe in the inhabitants of Merida. It is now beloved of storks, all nesting happily on the tops of the towers.

The town has cunningly built a high view point to help you get the best view of the circus. They are keen to point out their most famous son, Diocles, who won fame and fortune, both in Merida and in Rome as a charioteer.

 The remaining town fort or Alcazaba was built by the Muslim emir Abd ar-Rahman II. My overriding memory by this point was of the temperature rising into the 40's and finding shade and cool in a neat little underground filtration system and reservoir that they built to provide water to the garrison. Next to the Alcazaba is the Roman bridge across the river, still in use today. Beautiful town, well worth a visit.

In famous footsteps

First stop of the day today was Talavera La Reina. It is the site of a major battle on 27–28 July 1809 between Sir Arthur Wellesley ( later Viscount Wellington of Talavera), his Spanish allies vs the French led by Bonaparte. Although its a later period of history than I usually am a fan of, the Bernard Cromwell's Sharpe series, charting the course of the Napoleonic wars across Portugal and Spain, and the charismatic soldier turned officer Rifleman brings it to life in a way that just makes me want to see the real places. Of course there is always the TV series too  - sadly, no Sean Bean in evidence .......

That said, Talavera just wasn't that exciting - the French seem to have made a point of destroying everything they could, so other than seeing the surrounding countryside, there just isn't that much left. It did make me realise one thing though : the wars were only fought during the summer seasons, the uniforms of the time were made of woollen clothe - and Talavera is *HOT*. And its not even July yet! The heat and the drenched with sweat clothing and presumably strong smells just doesn't come across in the books. Makes me think of Sean in a whole new ( and much less attractive ) light.....

It had a pretty church , but basically, time to trog on out of the Province of Toledo, and over into Extremadura. There's this child's habit of mistranslating words in other languages - and Extremadura just calls for that - it's either  'extra wood', or 'extremely hard' - both of which are incredibly apt. There is a lot of cork oak grown here, and as you drive though, the country changes from semi-barren wheat plains to hilly cork oak plantations and in a fair number of totally unagriculturally viable places, sun farms!

There are many beautiful castles, and I just didn't get enough time to visit them all : sights like this one from the motorway were very common!


Intake : 8 litres Output : 0 litres It's gloriously, beautifully hot!!

Monday, 25 June 2012

Taking the plunge & random musings on driving in Spain

I decided that having come this far, to chicken out by heading back north before I even reached Andalucia would be just too much of a cop out. So south I go.

 A few disjointed van related learnings :

  •  The van doesn't like hills. She specially doesn't like the highest mountain ranges in Spain in 42 degrees. Nursing your engine takes on a whole new meaning, when you are permanently running one or two notches hotter than normal, and a 5mph difference on a long hill climb can mean the difference between flashing warning signs on the dash, and a bad tempered but resigned humph from the engine as she drags up the hill 
  • Cloth covered seats, and a lack of airconditioning is a *really* bad mix. I've invested in a cheap and cheerful fan for evenings, but it doesn't run whilst on the move, so sitting on towels becomes order of the day. Its a desperate attempt to not repeat one evening's experience, after a long 4 hour run and having got out to check in at the campsite, getting back into the drivers seat to find it wetter than the North Sea! 
  • Investing in the sports drink bottles with the drop in ice wedge is a fantastic idea, and makes drinking so much more pleasant and refreshing than tepid to lukewarm sludge in a bottle.  And you will be drinking like crazy.
  • Combining your satnav with your phone has some unexpected drawbacks :
    • The GPS component of the satnav is the most incredibly battery hungry piece of technology I've ever seen, so the phone has to be permanently charging off the car battery whilst it's running
    • Charging the phone generates heat
    • Running the Satnav software generates huge amounts of heat
    • Fried phone and shutdown, usually just before I reach a set of complex and unknown junctions.
    • If I don't answer your call and I'm parked up, it's probably because the phone is in the fridge, recuperating.......
  • Spanish traffic police don't feel too worried about stopping distance, driver behaviour and other traffic on the road when nabbing speeding cars - still it gave me my thrill for the day :) and I could feel virtuous as I ambled on at a steady 60mph....

Friday, 22 June 2012

Pigs, piglets, dizzy heights and sparrows

[health warning re later food pictures for rabid vegetarians]

 I pitched up in Segovia last night, and decided I couldn't actually be bothered to move out of range of the van - instead I pitched up the camping chairs, dug out a stale loaf of bread and set to work engendering a battle royale in the local sparrow community. Nearly 3 hours flew by just watching the males disputing bread rights, and a number of the poor female sparrows being royally conned by their beloved fledglings - who mostly were larger than their mothers, and came up begging desperately, waited till Mama fed them, then grabbed not only the nicely prepared morsel, but also the whole hunk of bread and flew away rapidly to a remote spot to gorge. Some decided stealth attacks were the best way to evade notice - flying in under the van, grabbing the bread, and retreating fast in reverse. Needless to say, I'm surrounded by a lot of hopeful sparrows as I write this. And I'm down two baguettes and most of a plastic loaf.
As with Toledo, the old city of Segovia and its Aqueduct were declared World Heritage by UNESCO. Within the environment of the old city, there is a rich diversity of historic buildings both civil and religious, both Catholic and Judaic. Although unlike Toledo, Segovia is not built on a steep hill, I decided to learn my lesson re driving in old Spanish cities - or at least, re parking - and decided to try and find the local bus service from the campsite to the town centre. Given my indoctrination in the Spanish speed of life, by the time I reached there, and wandered around for a while, it was clearly lunchtime! 
I decided to blow my food budget for the next 3 days ( it's bread and cheese for me from now on!) on lunch at an Asador  and have "cochinillo" or roast piglet, a local speciality. Having sussed out the menus, I chose this restaurant due to the overwhelming number of spaniards, many of whom were clearly locals, all having lunch there, by comparison to the tourist cafes in the Plaza Mayor. It offered a 'tasting menu' which worked out the same price as a starter and a roast pork main, so I decided to be a 'Piglet' and have my one meal of the day at lunchtime. (Please note : my trainer will be proud of me.....calories *early*)

They didn't have a table available immediately so they sat me in the bar, and gave me some free tapas to stave off the pangs of hunger - tortilla, bread, and something very fishy. Eating this was a *bad* idea as will shortly become clear. 
As the menu picture is probably too small to read, I'll summarise just how much I managed to snarf in one 3.5 hour sitting.....and the pictures will speak for themselves
  • a local cheese with salad, oil & vinegar & fresh bread
  • local potato croquettes made with cheese & jamon iberico and served with chips
  • tempura seasonal vegetables
  • gazpacho with accompanying trimmings
  • Roast pig
  • Apple jelly with whipped cream & white chocolate
  • Coffee, local wine and water.
Now, I guess it becomes clear where the pig and piglet appear :D

 I have to admit that I've always been told its a good idea to walk a little after a good meal, so with some serious trepidation, I levered a now *very* rotund me up out of my comfy dining chair and headed off . First stop was the Segovia Cathedral which is the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain. It is considered the masterpiece of Basque-Castilian Gothic and is known as "The Lady of Cathedrals."As with all Roman Catholic churchs it was highly adorned but in a much more restrained ( in RC terms of course) than the Toledano cathedral. The cloisters were a wonderful oasis of calm in the middle of a relatively busy city centre. The one jarring note for me, was the grey granite carved entrance in a sharp modernistic style which was completely out of kilter with the rest of the warm amber and flowing gothic style of the building.

From the cathedral on to the Alcazar, the royal palace located on top of a rock between the rivers Eresma and Clamores. It was documented for the first time in 1122. It was one of the favorite residences of the kings of Castile, built in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic and Mudéjar decor highlighting its ample rooms. It was from here that Isabella the Catholic set off in procession to be crowned Queen of Castile in the main square. For a moment or two , I wondered if I'd headed back into France and not realised it, so strong are the similarities with the Loire castles. The castle is filled with gorgeous stained glass windows, something I have a real passion for, and it was great to see them with non-religous scenes.

The other amazing element was the complexity of decoration on the ceilings. It is not something we do very much in the current time, with our white styrofoam tiles or plain white ceilings. I guess people spent a lot of time walking around craning their necks upwards historically, and it's certainly a good way of showing how stonkingly rich you are. I did wonder though, how many kings and queens suffered from indigestion with this array of ancestors staring down at them in the dining room!

 The castle also had a comprehensive display of weaponry as it was converted into a college for Artillery in the 1800s. Perhaps I wasn't the only tourist to be reminded of the phrase 'its not how big it is, it's what you do with it' on seeing the two canons in the right hand image?

 Having finished the tour of the castle with a climb of 152 steps to the top of the Torre San Juan, I was rewarded with a breathtaking view of the local stork population & the obligatory human graffitti collection. I decided that having reached these heights, on return to ground zero I deserved a long cool mocha frappucino to restore myself with, prior to a pleasant amble back to the aqueduct and a return to the 'van. One surprise inhabitant on the way back - this iron bull.