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BandA’s Travel Diary

Friday, 07 Dec 2007

Location: Spain

MapChapter 6-Spain (& Portugal)


Friday December 7, 2007
We had expected the ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar to have sailed from Tangier in Morocco to Algeciras in Spain, but the current route (presumably because it is shorter) is from Tangier to Tarifa. Then, included in the ferry fare, there is a bus trip of some 30 minutes from Tarifa to Algeciras. The trip across from Tangier to Tarifa took about one hour. There were comparatively few passengers and once we had climbed a very long set of stairs (there was no lift) it was a relaxing trip. The trip was smooth and uneventful although, as we approached land, we had a wonderful view of Gibraltar and, closer, the encircling arms of the harbour complete with a large statue at the end. During the trip B, of course, went looking for a cup of coffee and discovered that now we were using Euros everything, including coffee, was much more expensive than in North Africa.

We had decided to rent a car in Spain as we thought there would be fewer hassles driving in Spain than in North Africa, and, before leaving Australia, had reserved a car to be collected in Algeciras and returned to Madrid airport 12 days later. For a change Murphy’s Law did not apply and our car, a little 2-door diesel Citroën that we christened “Cissy”, was waiting for us at the terminus. It was a great little car except that the instruction manual was in Spanish which made it hard for us to familiarise ourselves with all the electronic gadgets such as cruise control. We were also surprised that no road map of Spain was included, so we bought one at the Terminal for $20.

Earlier in the year we had been in touch with two Servas hosts in Granada and Cordoba both of whom had offered us a warm welcome—provided they were there at the time. As it turned out, over the preceding couple of weeks, both hosts had a change of plans and apologised that they could not accommodate us. It did not worry us too much as we were happy to be independent for the next 5 days. We still planned to visit Granada and Cordoba so, after fortifying ourselves with a bocadillo of ham and cheese at the bus terminal, we headed off Eastward from Algeciras along the coast towards Malaga. This was the first experience this trip of driving ourselves on the right hand side of the road but fortunately all went well with only occasional lapses of reverting to the left-hand side. It was an excellent road with lots of tunnels, but also lots of tolls, as the route was along the very steep coastline. To our right down sharp cliffs was the magnificent Mediterranean but a large part of the landscape to our left was densely built up holiday and retirement homes, ruining what had been very scenic landscapes. We intended to turn North towards Granada at Malaga but somehow we missed the turn off and continued on to Motrill before heading North. The start of this road was through a very deep chasm with towering mountains on either side. It was just getting dark and as we never like traveling in the dark and missing the scenery we were pleased to come across a wayside Hostal (inn) which had meals and accommodation at very reasonable prices. We really enjoyed the rare opportunity for a hot shower.

Saturday December 8
After a light breakfast at our hotel we set off for Granada on a very good road through very hilly country with little signs of any agricultural activity. All the habitations seemed to be holiday homes or homes of retired people, presumable from all over Western Europe.

Our number one destination at Granada was the famous Alhambra Palace but, on reaching Granada, we missed the correct turn off from the motorway so, when we drove off at the next exit we spent a long time stopping and asking people for directions. . At least everyone we asked knew where the Alhambra was and what was better they could understand A’s Spanish. Eventually we found our way back onto the freeway so that we could take the right exit this time. The Lonely Planet Guidebook recommended an attractive hotel in the old city not far from the Alhambra, so we headed there. What fun we had!! Although we knew exactly where it was on the map it was another matter finding it in reality. The trouble was most of the streets were very narrow and one-way, or bus only lanes, malls, etc., and as often as not came to blind dead ends. We eventually realised that, even if we did find our hotel there was no way we could ever find parking for our car. Actually we found out later that the hotel was only accessible by foot. We tried to find two other alternative hotels nearby but with no better success. We then tried two pensions well out of the city but not too far from the Alhambra, but they were both full. Finally we gave up the search and returned to the main parking area and entrance to the Alhambra where we had seen the Hotel Guadalupe that had many more stars than we required but “beggars can’t be choosers”. By now it was 1600 so we decided it was just about time for tea. The other patrons at the restaurant were having their lunches.

After our meal it was too late to vist the Alhambra (built 1533-1391) so we just went for a casual walk and enjoyed the views of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada. Unfortunately it was A’s turn to feel unwell so, after we had washed our clothes and ourselves, we had an early night. As you have by now guessed, he survived the night.

Sunday December 9
An early rise this morning, as B had to queue up at the entrance to the Alhambra at 0800. They have up to 6,600 tourists a day passing through and it is important to be there early. Even at that early hour the queue was long but eventually B returned to the hotel to collect A and, after paying for a tape recorder that explained all the different places we were to pass through, we entered the complex along a wide path with attractive gardens on either side. Eventually we reached a fork in the road where a sign indicated that the path continuing up the hill led to the Generalife so we chose the left fork which, we assumed led to the Alhambra proper. This took us across a bridge spanning a deep ravine, along a cypress-lined path bordering the ruins of the Medina, past a number of buildings to the Palacios Nazaríes complex. Our ticket carried the stern warning: “El acceso a los Palacios Nazaríes solo podrá realizarse dentro del horario en el billete”. As our tour was to take place at 0930 sharp we had no time to linger. We had chosen to rent an “audioguia” which gave background information on all the points of interest so we did not have to struggle to keep up with a tour guide. Main impressions:
· More wonderful filigree plaster work and carved woodwork
· Large formal, ceremonial halls e.g., the Mexuar where the Sultans conducted everyday administration and business and the Serallo which was a reception area for foreign dignitaries
· Private areas, e.g., the Harem, the Hall of the two sisters which had 5,000+ honeycomb-like cells in the domed ceiling, a small bathing area, the quarters where the American writer Washington Irving stayed in the 1800s, and the Mirador, an enclosed balcony with an extensive view of Granada below and the snow-capped mountains above. We had a similar view from a wooden bridge near Washington Irving’s quarters
· Beautiful patios, e.g., the Patio de los Leones with its carved lions and beautifully carved arches, and others with formal gardens, pools such as the one in the Patio de Comares, etc.

Eventually we left this complex and wandered down a slight slope to the Alcazaba, the fort. Here we climbed the towers which provided birds eye views of the complex, Granada and the fort itself—a very impressive, stone, towering structure. As we were sitting inside these walls two attractive girls approached us. They had noticed that we were carrying a shopping bag from Tunisia and, as they were from there, they decided to come and talk to us as you can see in the photo. From here we moved on to the Palacio de Carlos V —a huge circular building like a stadium, which looked very impressive from the outside but, once in the central courtyard, looked tired and neglected. Apparently it had never been completed. Eventually, we made our way back to the ravine, pausing on the way to visit the Bath House that was drab and not very enticing although the hydraulics were interesting. Finally we returned to the fork in the road and headed up to Generalife where we wandered around the very attractive formal gardens and, once again, admired the views which are spectacular.

By 1330 we had been saturated with the wonders of Moorish architecture. We had found our visit enjoyable but were pleased to see that restorations were under way—they were certainly necessary. The original designers had tried to create a duplicate of Paradise and, in its heyday, they were believed to have succeeded. That probably explains why Isabella and Ferdinand, although Christian, had chosen to be buried there. We were also grateful that Napoleon had failed in his attempts to blow up the complex. Apparently one of his soldiers, horrified at the thought, defused the explosives.

On reaching the car park we tried to drive out, expecting to pay at the gate. No such luck! Finally we found the payment office but could not find anyone there. Some time later we successfully left the Alhambra behind and made our way out of Granada on the road to Cordoba.

Because of all the difficulties we had accessing accommodation in Granada we decided to try and find accommodation in a rural village not far from Cordoba, rather than in the city itself with all the associated parking problems.

The countryside between Granada and Cordoba was very hilly and largely covered with millions of olive trees, but virtually no other agriculture. It reinforced for us what we had learned in North Africa: how important olives are in the Mediterranean region both from the economic point of view and in the daily life of the local people.

We stopped for a late lunch at about 1630 but, as in other places in Spain, found that the kitchens were closed down at this time for their siesta, so we had to make do with a bocadillo. By now we were not far from Cordoba so needed a place to stay the night. The next village we stopped in had a pension, Casa Antonio, but no vacancies. However they told us we could find a pension in the village of Santa Cruz, some 12 km further along the road. Actually there were two pensions in Santa Cruz although the manager of the first had apparently gone off somewhere for the afternoon—there was a notice for travellers to call a mobile number or come back after 1900. The second was a very pleasant country hotel (shared bathroom) at the very reasonable price of $47 compared with $145 the previous night in Granada.

We went for a walk through the very quiet and clean little town. As it was Sunday there were no shops open and, in fact, we didn’t see any sign of shops as outwardly they just looked like ordinary homes. We saw an old church but it was closed. So we returned to our hotel wishing we could have a good meal and an early night. Impossible because the usual Spanish custom was observed—the evening meal was not served until after 2000.

Monday December 10
After breakfast we set off for Cordoba less than 30 minutes away. In contrast to Granada we readily found convenient parking in a deep (four levels down) underground parking lot. As we were leaving the parking lot we drew some money out of an ATM and A left our guidebook on top of the machine. About 10 minutes later we realised what had happened, so B raced back and fortunately found it still there. The main attraction for us in Cordoba was the magnificent mosque (Mezquita) which, in the 13th century, had been converted into a Christian cathedral.

As so often in Europe, the Mosque, which took just over 200 years to complete, has undergone many transformations—Roman temple, St Vincent’s Christian Visigoth Church, c.600 AD, mosque 784 AD, and finally, Christian Cathedral, Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin 1236 AD when Cordoba was recaptured by Ferdinand III of Castile. The Mezquita floor space was huge and the red and white striped double arches seemed to stretch to infinity. There are, actually, over 1000 columns of jasper, onyx, marble and granite. The double arches are designed to support the weight of the huge, heavy roof. Unfortunately a Renaissance style Cathedral does not sit comfortably inside the Mosque. The two styles clash with each other and the only way to cope was to concentrate on each individually. However, that said, it is fortunate that Ferdinand III and later Charles V decided to leave the Mosque standing.

After this quick tour of Cordoba we set out for Sevilla after lunch. Once again the route was through very hilly country but with excellent roads. As on the previous night, we found a pleasant little village. La Campaña, where we stayed the night. Once again we had to wait till 2000 to be fed.

Tuesday December 11
From La Campaña it was a drive of about 10 km to Sevilla through gently undulating country, but the morning was very cold and foggy. We managed to get lost without much trouble in Sevilla but as the Guadalquivir River runs right through the city it was not too hard to sort out where we were so we eventually found a parking spot near the Casino, not to far from the centre of the city.

The big attraction for us in Sevilla was the Giralda Cathedral with its huge bell tower, (98 m) on which it is not unusual to see a stork nesting. Originally the lower section of the tower was a Minaret as this Cathedral was also built on the site of a former Mosque. In 1218 the Mosque was consecrated as a Cathedral. The Gothic part of the Cathedral, commenced in 1431, is 126 m x 83 m but there are also Renaissance and Baroque extensions. It claims to be the largest Cathedral in the world. It also pays tribute to two famous men, Miguel Cervantes and Christopher Columbus , the former by a plaque and the latter by his tomb in one of the side chapels which surround the interior and are filled with “treasures”—gold and silver objects, carvings, vestments and paintings, many by famous artists. The most outstanding and most beautiful feature is the carved wooden reredos behind, and above, the main altar. This was the life’s work of Pierre Dancart and contains 45 scenes from the life of Christ. Our photo shows only a fraction of these.

Having explored almost every nook and cranny inside the cathedral we climbed to the top of the tower. This was not as difficult as expected because, instead of a staircase, the route to the top was by a continuous circular ramp. The climb was made more interesting by displays along the way documenting how the building had been constructed and replicas of the tools used when it was built. The view from the top of the tower was truly breathtaking as one could see the city spread out in all directions. Downstairs again, we paused for a moment to admire the Orange Tree Courtyard beside the Cathedral. This had been retained from the original Mosque.

As we headed back to our car we became pleasantly lost in the Barrio Santa Cruz. Fortunately as we knew we had parked adjacent to the Casino we were able to ask where the Casino was rather than ask passers by where we had parked our car!!

Before leaving, A was keen to visit the Plaza d’España which was one of the few sights he recalled from his visit to Sevilla in 1974. On making enquiries we were delighted to find it was only a few hundred metres from where we were parked. It was rather disappointing for although it had been a magnificent structure when it was first built, 75 years ago, the subsequent upkeep has left much to be desired although the photo gives a good idea of its former glory. Each arch and niche is dedicated to a Spanish region and the second photo shows a close-up of the niche for Badajoz.

We became lost only once on our way out of Sevilla as we headed north towards Badajoz and Merida. After a brief fruitless stop at El Roncillo to draw money from a non-functioning ATM we went a further 22 km on to Sta. Olalia where we were more successful with an ATM but “There was no room at the inn”. It was now late in the afternoon but, fortunately, another 24 km brought us to Monasterio where we were relieved to find vacancies at the hotel. As the evening meal again was not ready till after 2000 we went for a walk around the attractive clean town. We eventually came to an old church, which took up one side of a square where young boys were playing most energetically. Some people cleaning in the church told us there would be Mass later, at 1900, so we went back then, just in time for Mass. There were about 20 women but, apart from the priest and two altar servers, A was the only male in the congregation.

Back at the hotel a Dutchman who was on El Camino a Compostella joined us at our meal. He told us that at many places where he had passed through, hotels and pensions had provided pilgrims with cheap, or even free, accommodation. Thanks to his long walk he was suffering nasty blisters on his feet so Doctor B kindly rendered first aid.

We would have liked to relax in front of TV for a while but, although we had a TV in our room, as on the previous night there were no channels in English.

Wednesday December 12
There was a Citroën dealer beside our hotel so we took the opportunity to find out what all the electronic displays and aids in our car were for. Displays included instantaneous fuel consumption (ours was about 4.5 L per 100 km), distance before a refill needed, average speed, etc.

Our next destination was Badajoz. Not surprisingly it had changed so much in the past 35 years that, as usual, we got rather lost on entering the town. In contrast to the donkey days of 1973 we found it almost impossible to park anywhere in the city centre. Fortunately we learnt that if you purchased something at El Cortés Ingles, you could have two hours free parking beneath the store. We made full use of this facility and set out to find 22 Adelado Covarsi, A’s home in 1973-74. After asking directions about six times we eventually found it, only a block or two from El Cortés Ingles. It was still there and hardly changed but we could hardly go in and inspect the old apartment. Diagonally opposite was the old parish church that we visited with a view to enquiring about the one time Parish Priest, Don José, but sadly learnt that he had moved to Madrid.

After this we wandered round the area, reminiscing and looking at the sights, e.g., a square and the old city wall, before heading for the Post Office where we hoped to find the phone number of A’s friend in Elvas, just across the Portuguese border. No luck there as the place was so crowded that we gave up.

Two days later we had arranged to visit Elvas so as we were not pressed for time we decided to check the route out of Badajoz in the direction of Portugal. We had no trouble, in fact it was so trouble free that we did not even realise that we had passed into Portugal: no immigration checks, no customs, not even a sign “Welcome to Portugal”! Moreover there was very very little traffic on the road.

From Badajoz we headed East to Merida where we had an invitation from a Servas Host to stay for three nights. On the way from Badajoz to Merida we would be passing by the Research Station, La Orden, where A worked in 1973-4 so we decided to make a detour for old times sake. It was after 1500 and all the staff had gone home apart from a security guard with whom we had a long chat and caught up with news of A’s old colleagues. The buildings and driveways looked very run down.

Our Hosts, Javier Segura and Marbella Barraza had emailed to us Google maps, both of streets in Merida and the satellite photo so we had no trouble finding the general area where they lived. We actually found the street but it was one-way and we were at the wrong end so we spent the next hour and a half trying to reach their home via narrow one-way streets. We finally gave up, parked the car and walked to the house where we received a warm welcome. Javier then kindly accompanied A back to the car. In their street cars were parked bumper to bumper but “miracle of miracles” there was an empty spot right outside their house. “All’s well that ends well!” Javier worked next door to their home with a Protestant Church organization, that helped illegal migrants, while Marbella who was from Mexico, was an accountant. Their hours of work seemed strange to us, 0900—1400 and then after siesta 1600—2000. This did not leave much time for a relaxing evening.

After they returned home they suggested we go out for “tea”. (Not sure in retrospect what Spanish word they used for tea!!) As both Javier and Marbella were smokers we sat outdoors at the restaurant and, despite the portable heater and plastic tent-like structure surrounding the tables, it was bitterly cold. As we had experienced earlier on our travels we were not sure whether what was put before us was just an appetiser or the main meal. As our hunch was the former we did not eat too much but sadly it turned out to be the first and last course. One of the offerings sounded like jamon y belotas which is ham and acorns. This did not sound very enticing but it was highly recommended by our hosts. It turned out to be ham from pigs fed on acorns which is a prize delicacy.

Thursday December 13
By the time we woke our hosts were already at work so we had had a good sleep. We were planning to spend the day exploring the historic buildings of Merida, as back in Roman times Merida was the biggest city in Spain. Fortunately it was all within walking distance and most was at the top of our street where we were able to buy one ticket that covered all the monuments.

You have walked with us round the Roman monuments in Libya so we do not intend to take you on a similar walk. As you would expect we visited the Amphitheatre (built c.8 BC and able to hold 14,000 people) and the adjoining Theatre (built by Agrippa c.18 BC and able to hold about 6,000 people. Nearby, we were also able to visit some ruins of Roman villas (first century AD), two of which covered an extensive area near the amphitheatre. These gave some idea of the beauty and comfort that surrounded their wealthy families and contained some charming mosaics. We also visited a cemetery (Columbarios), a fascinating experience, as it too, paradoxically, helped bring the citizens of ancient Emerita Augusta to life. Adjacent to the cemetery was an extensive home (domus) of an obviously wealthy family (second century AD). This site was protected by roofing and raised walkways that allowed you to look down into a magnificent home. Along these walkways were detailed maps and descriptions of what you were looking at which effectively helped to establish the atmosphere. There were some beautiful mosaics and one of these gave the home its current name, Villa Mithrao, because it contained an image of Mithras. The home had three peristyles (enclosed courtyards), excellent plumbing features, and a basement room where the residents could find coolness in the summer heat. One highlight of the morning was seeing, near the Amphitheatre a “real live” dig in progress.

After a morning's explorations we decided to return to our current home and were very proud that we did not get lost. As usual, after a few hours and after getting lost a few times one gradually gets to know the local geography and, of course, one-way streets do not bother pedestrians. As you can imagine parking in the old town was very difficult. At one stage we were very fortunate to find a space, albeit a very small space, not far from our home. A tried several time to back into this restricted space, on the right hand side of the road, without making much progress. In the meantime lots of cars piled up behind him. Finally the driver from the car immediately behind got out and told A very politely to let him back the car into the space which he did without any problem thus allowing all the cars to proceed past us. We had an Australian flag on the back window of the car and our Good Samaritan said gently as he left, “You are used to driving on the left hand side of the road”.

Javier and Marbella came home for lunch and after they returned to work we went out for a second walk to inspect the very old church (560 AD) of Santa Eulalia (the patron Saint of Merida) and the Alcazaba (a fortress built on Roman ruins). On this walk, as on all the others, we continued to see many Roman ruins, some had modern buildings over them but the ruins were kept visible. It was a good reminder that the present is built on the past.

However, this was also a walk down “Memory Lane” as we passed by, and called into, the Parador where A had stayed the first night he and the family had been in Merida in 1973. While that building did not seem to have changed the city seemed much bigger and busier than 35 years earlier!

Today was B’s Aunt’s 100th birthday so we rang her and wished her “Many Happy Returns”. At the same time we tried to ring an old friend of A’s in Spain. Both calls cost about the same, less than $1.

In the evening we talked till midnight over a pleasant meal of mushrooms, ham, cheese and tomato prepared by Marbella.

Friday December 14
Tody we were going to visit an Agronomist friend of A’s, David Crespo , who lived in Portugal not far from the Spanish border. Although we were becoming used to the narrow one-way streets of Merida, Marbella kindly led us out of the town onto the highway heading for Badajoz and Portugal.

David had given us detailed directions to his farm. It was at Vaiamonte which is about 40 km North of Elvas, only about 5 km West of Badajoz just across the Portuguese border. We were supposed to take the third exit to Elvas but missed one and so took the fourth. Then we had an interesting ramble around the Portuguese countryside before we rediscovered the right road. We were rather amused as we entered the little village of Monforte where there was not a car to be seen, to be stopped by traffic lights. As we had observed in Canada, it seemed it was a status symbol to have traffic lights in your town, irrespective of how much traffic there was!

At Vaiamonte we stopped at the ancestral home of David’s wife, Katrina but, as no one was home, carried on a further 3 km to the farm, Hernade Dos Esquerdos. There we received a very warm welcome from David, their first meeting in 35 years, and spent the rest of the day being shown around the various family enterprises of which David was rightly very proud. He and his family have established a very big and progressive seed and fertiliser business, “Fertiprado”, as well as having a very large flock of milking sheep and a cheese factory to utilise the sheep milk. In addition they have large numbers of sheep and pigs on the property of several thousand hectares. Although we had been travelling through farmland for the past six weeks, this was the first time we had actually had the opportunity to get our feet dirty on a farm.

Most of the pastureland was interspersed with oak trees, either Holm oak, Quercus ilex or cork oak, Quercus suber. Not only do the oaks provide shelter for the stock but the acorns from both species, especially the Holm Oak, provide very useful feed for sheep and especially pigs during the winter months. In addition, of course, the cork oaks are harvested every eight years for their cork. The farm was very well managed with strategic cultivation, resowing and irrigation from huge on-farm dams. One was like an inland sea!

David explained that the whole farm was run “organically” although he was very sceptical about the advantages—other than economic—of organic farming. As he said he worried that he is “selling his soul for Euros”. He described the Organic authorities as very fundamentalist and referred to them as the “Agricultural Taliban”. They would only allow the use of rock phosphate and “natural potash” in place of traditional superphosphate and muriate of potash. They do not allow pigs to have nose rings that are traditionally used to prevent them from digging up and damaging the pastures. No herbicides can be used and, as a result, direct drilling is not feasible. As a result, full cultivation is required even though this is both more expensive, encourages more weeds and, as we clearly saw, has led to serious erosion.

David took us into Vaiamonte to lunch in the company of a number of his employees where we had an interesting lunch of fish soup, shark, pork, chips, sweets and very pleasant red wine.

After lunch we went in search of his herd of 70 swine. The ham made from acorn-fed pigs commands a very high premium in Spain and Portugal, as it is particularly tasty. In the open pastures there is a danger of wild boar attacking a herd of sows so it is customary to run a number of domestic boars with the females to ward off attacks from the wild boar.

After an extensive tour of the farm, we inspected the milking parlour. All the dairy sheep have electronic ID bullets inserted in their rumens so that all records of “births, deaths and marriages” are electronically recorded. They have facilities for milking up to 1800 sheep, two sides each of 30 units, with milk testing being carried out twice monthly. It takes about five minutes per sheep and lactation yield is about 250 litres. Lambs are bottle fed for a few days before being introduced to a “lambateria" (in contrast to a calfateria!). After one month the male lambs are sold for meat and the females reared for milk production.

Because of stringent hygiene regulations we were not able to enter the cheese factory but, before leaving to return to Elvas, David presented us with four samples of his cheeses which we were subsequently able to share with our hosts in Spain over the next few days

On the way back to Elvas we stopped at the township of Vaiamonte where David showed us through the magnificent ancestral home of his wife, Katrina . The home had been refurbished into two separate apartments, one for David and his family the other for Katrina’s sister. David sometimes stayed there overnight as the farm was some 40 km from their home in Elvas but Katrina was happier in Elvas.

We followed David back to Elvas so that we could a least say “Hello” to Katrina who gave us a “warm” welcome. During the visit B was introduced to an old Spanish custom. When she sat at the table she was told to lift the tablecloth up on to her knees. Immediately warm air surrounded her as there was a charcoal fire (brazero) under the table.

Unfortunately by the time we arrived it was dark so we saw very little of Elvas except for the magnificent 16th century aqueduct which is beautifully illuminated at night. By the time we arrived home at Merida Javier and Marbella had left for dinner party and, as we had to leave early the next morning, we were unfortunately unable to make our formal farewells.

Saturday December 15
Our destination this morning was a rendezvous at Trujillo with Miguel Granda, another colleague of A’s from the 70s. As we mentioned above, we regretted that we could not farewell our very kind hosts but as it was a Saturday morning and we had to leave early we didn’t want to wake them and had to be satisfied with just leaving them a “Thank You” note.

We were proud to be able to negotiate our way through the narrow one-way streets of Merida out onto the freeway. It was a pleasant drive to Trujillo through fairly flat country covered with a very heavy white frost. Our little Citroën car always gave us a warning that there could be ice on the road when the outside temperature fell below 3ºC. This morning the temperature fell to -3º C so we were glad we had an efficient heater inside the car!

When we met Miguel at a roadhouse just outside Trujillo A initially had difficulty in recognising him after 35 years. We enjoyed a coffee then followed Miguel to his home and farm, Finka Doña Catalina. When we say home that is really a misnomer, as it was more like a palace. The property had been the family home for centuries though the homestead had been rebuilt in 1824 after being destroyed in the Napoleonic Wars.

To reach the home proper we drove through an arched tunnel, buildings either side, into a large courtyard where we parked, went into the house to meet some of the family, then returned outdoors to drive round the farm which is several thousand hectares in size, supporting 10,000 sheep (who have huge guard dogs to live with them and protect them when they are out in the pastures), 600 cattle, and 400 pigs.

These all paled into insignificance beside the magnificent Lipizzans. Picture a gently undulating green parkland setting with scattered oak trees gently sloping to a beautiful lake, blue sky with fleecy white clouds and then look again round the “park”. Scattered around the area and grazing happily are thirty stunning brood mares, mostly snow white although a few of the younger ones are still grey. B, who normally admires horses rather than becoming attached to them, becomes incoherent every time she tries to talk about it; she was transported into another world. Many of the mares were tame enough to want a pat and their hair was like silk. Miguel made no secret of his love for them and they seemed to return that affection. It was a magical time but it had to end and we returned home where, in the stables, we saw another marvellous sight—the 4 Lipizzan stallions, each in his own box. The favourite, who was beyond price, was so tall that even A had to stretch up to pat him. However, they were not gentle and restful like the mares but fiery in temperament, hence the separate boxes.

Before re-entering the house we were taken into the buildings that enclosed three sides of the courtyard. These, in the past, had been converted into a stable for the mules and an area for shearing the sheep; the stone mangers were still along the walls. Their last transformation had been into a huge wedding reception area when one of the children married.

Although Miguel, like David Crespo, was very attached to his farm, for much of the time he and his wife Teresa lived in Madrid so, more often than not, the house was left to the ghosts of the past. As we walked we learned there were 14 farm hands to keep the farm going. It had been a poor autumn so they were feeding hay indoors, especially to the young sheep and cattle but, fortunately, the pigs were thriving on the acorns. To irrigate the pastures Miguel had built a very large dam, more like a lake. In contrast to David Crespo’s farm there were no cork oaks. Despite the obvious wealth of Doña Catalina the driveway to the homestead was in terrible condition and the gates were worse than on a poor Australian farm!!!

Once again we entered the house and were taken upstairs to a very pleasant living area where we sat at a small table for refreshments. At this stage we were joined by Theresa, Miguel’s daughter, and her husband Julio, who were visiting today together with their two children—a young baby and a toddler. Miguel offered A a glass of fine old brandy (1886) which he declined. A does not appreciate spirits. However, to Miguel’s surprise, B accepted with enthusiasm and enjoyed it. To go with the drink we were served hors d’oeuvres—mussels, olives, chorizo (sausage) and crisps. We then moved to the dining room where we were served lunch prepared by Teresa and Julio, soup, judias (beans), and finally very thin slices of meat, all accompanied by white or red wine.

After lunch we said our farewells and Miguel presented us with a silver key ring with the Granda coat of arms, which we currently use for our house keys. We then set out for Plasencia where we had been invited to stay with a Servas Host. The route passed through the Mount Monfrague National Park which was probably the most scenic area of the whole trip.

On arriving in Plasencia we asked directions to Avenida del Valle which was where our host, Juan Carlos Martín, lived. A helpful local told us we were already in it and that Juan Carlos’ apartment was only walking distance further on. After some difficulty we found the apartment. The difficulty occurred because there were a number of identical apartment blocks all with the same number but the apartments had individual numbers and letters. Ours was an attic apartment and that also made it more complicated.

As usual we received a warm welcome and Juan Carlos introduced us to his friend Julia who stayed a while and chatted to us. Later, his neighbours, Rufino and Maria, also Servas members, joined us for the evening meal of chorizos and chocolate. Rufino and Maria had no English but we got on well, showing them the photos in the souvenir calendar that we were to leave with Juan Carlos. The apartment was really quite spacious—lounge, two bedrooms, large bathroom/laundry, and kitchen but, because we were actually in the attic with quite a low sloping roof, A regularly hit his head. Our bedroom was very spacious with twin beds and everything to delight the heart of a little boy. Juan Carlos received weekend visits from his son and the room reflected the care of the father.

Sunday December 16
Sleep in till 1000 then walked to the “Old Cathedral” (12th century) for Mass. There were actually 2 adjoining cathedrals but the “new” one was being renovated when we were there. After Mass, at which there was quite a good crowd, we walked through the town to the Puerto del Sol and then on, up the hill, to the Parque de los Piños which was very well laid out with a large variety of birds and animals. It was a very pretty area with winding paths around the gardens and exhibits but we could not stay long as we had arranged to meet Juan Carlos at the Puerta del Sol. Our earlier visit there had been designed to make sure we could find it later.

Juan Carlos has a clerical position during the week but at the weekend he has a job monitoring all the dynamic details of a hydroelectric dam on a large reservoir, Embalsa de Baldepisto. He was scheduled to work there today from 1400 till midnight so we followed him there. It was interesting going down inside the dam wall and also seeing all the measurement that were being constantly monitored. On returning home Rufino and Maria had offered to take us to see something of the environs of the city. Firstly we went to the Shrine of la Virgen del Puerto, the Patroness of Plasencia. This shrine is set atop a high hill overlooking the city so there were beautiful views of the countryside set out below. Adjacent to the shrine is quite a large friary which is now home to only three friars.

As evening fell we wandered for an hour or so along an old Roman road that traversed the plateau beyond the shrine. On the way we passed a few cattle, some wearing bells, which made us a little nostalgic for our own bovine family.

Monday December 17
Apart from wanting to meet up again with A’s friends from 35 year ago, the main purpose of our visit to Spain was that B had a strong urge to re-visit El Prado in Madrid. She had been there in 1965 but it was time to go there again. So today our destination was Madrid or actually a town just to the North East of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares, where we had an invitation from Servas hosts to stay for two nights. We had all day for this section of the trip so planned to stop for a few hours in Toledo on the way.

As we left Plasencia the ice was very thick on the car and the temperature was -4ºC but we soon warmed up as we drove through the flat country towards Toledo. Although the route was flat, most of the time we could see the snow covered mountains to the North of us. The highway bypassed the town of Oropesa where there is, perched on a hill, a beautiful old castle which in recent times has been converted into a Parador. This was where A and the family stayed the first night after their arrival in Spain in 1973 on their way from Madrid to Badajoz so we stopped for old times sake to take a photo.

We were very glad to have the opportunity to visit Toledo, a very picturesque city with some beautiful old buildings. As always, parking was very difficult but we found a multistorey car park in which the cars were all jammed up against each other and the attendant had to keep moving the cars around like musical chairs in order to enable an owner to retrieve his car. There were plenty of tourists there and no end of souvenir shops, so of course we visited them looking for gifts and a replacement pair of earrings for B. A then decided to do some shopping too and bought B a hair clasp to go with the earrings.

Finally we bought some fresh bread and fruit and, after leaving the city, found a pleasant olive grove for a picnic lunch, enriched by one of the samples of cheese that David Crespo had given us.

It was not far from Toledo to Madrid and we were able to skirt round the southeastern side of the city in the direction of Alcalá de Henares. On the way we passed close to Barajas Airport where we were scheduled two days hence to leave our rental car and fly out of Spain on our way to Japan. As our flight ETD was 0605 we thought it would be a good idea to check out today, while we had plenty of time, where we needed to go to check in and where we had to leave the car. All this worked out well, or so we thought!

When we arrived at Alcalá de Henares we found the street of our Hosts without any trouble but, as usual, parking was almost impossible. Eventually we found a space (though probably illegal!) but it was several blocks from our destination. Anyway we left our baggage in the car walked to the address of our hosts—Apartment 9B number 19 Av'da Guadaljara. Our first problem was that there was no button in the lift for the 9th floor. Fortunately a helpful man told us to push 8 and then walk one flight of stairs. On ringing the doorbell a young girl nursing a baby came to the door. We explained who we were but she knew nothing about us. We then thought perhaps we should try Apartment 19 in building number 9 but discovered there were only 6 apartments in that building! Fortunately we had the phone number of our Host, Pedro, and were able to contact him at his work-place. He apologised for our problem, explained that he thought we were arriving the next day, his wife had temporarily gone out shopping, and the maid was babysitting. He said he would call the baby sitter and explain the situation to her.

As we returned to the apartment there was another lady in the lift with us who turned out to be Rocio, Pedro’s wife. She welcomed us warmly and brought us into her home which the couple share with Javier Durán. All three had come from Peru. Pedro was an architect as was Javier who was also a lecturer and studying for a Ph D in architecture. Javier regularly arrived home from work at 2030 while Pedro didn’t get home till 2300. The reason for these late hours was because of the custom in Spain of everyone having a siesta in the afternoon for about four hours. This might be very convenient in a rural/agricultural environment, especially during the hot summer, but most impractical in an urban situation where people must travel for an hour or so between home and their place of work. It is not surprising that in Casablanca they had introduced a new horarium without a siesta and indeed without a lunch break.

While we were waiting for the two men to come home we chatted with Rocio, who had quite good English, while we helped prepare the vegetables and nurse the baby. Tomorrow we planned to visit El Prado and the family gave us very useful instructions as to how to get there.

Tuesday December 18
Javier was off to work at 0600 and Pedro only a little later at 0730. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of cake and coffee with Rosio and left to catch the 1030 bus to Madrid. Once in Madrid we wanted to confirm our flight to Japan with Lufthansa but could not get through from the locutorio (phone office) at the huge, underground bus depot. We tried from a coin phone but with no better luck. Finally, as a last resort, we went to “Information” to find where the Lufthansa Office was so that we could actually go to the office. The “Information Lady” was most helpful and kindly offered to phone Lufthansa for us which she successfully did once she discovered that Lufthansa had changed its phone number. It was just as well we confirmed our flights, as our flight time had been changed from an ETD of 0955 to 0605. In retrospect we realised we had been told about this before we left Australia but it had not been changed on our tickets.

As we wandered down a large Avenida in the general direction of El Prado, B suddenly recognised the area where she had parked her Dormobile across the road from El Prado when she visited there in 1965. Despite this we kept walking on then realized that B’s memory had been correct and that we had passed the Prado that looked different as it had been extended. Eventually we arrived there only to find a very long queue and a delay of an hour and a half to reach the entrance. While we were waiting we started talking to a very tall Brazilian, Nivardo , who was currently in Spain studying for a Ph D in government as he wanted to join the fight against corruption in Governments. It was actually raining so Nivardo shared his umbrella with us. We have subsequently had email correspondence with him.

The long wait was well worthwhile but half a day in the Prado is certainly not enough. However, it was wonderful to see the new layout, to be given a comprehensive guide to the exhibits, and to see many paintings first hand instead of in prints. A worried the guards who thought he was about to touch the paintings because he kept leaning close to them and pointing out features. Luckily they did not arrest him!

After we had exhausted ourselves at El Prado we returned home and, in true Spanish fashion, had a siesta. As our plane was due to leave the next morning at 0605 we were required to be at the airport at 0400. This meant we needed to leave an hour to get to the airport so would have to get up at 0200; a siesta therefore, was very appropriate. After our sleep we went for a walk and a bit of shopping for our Hosts and visited the big old church of Santa Maria just in time for evening Mass.

The two boys were home a bit earlier this evening so we had a chance to have a good talk with them and they enjoyed looking through all the photos in the personal calendar we left with them.

Wednesday December 19
Our last day (or morning) in Spain. Before leaving our rental car at the airport we had to fill up the petrol tank. If you don’t return your car with a full tank they charge you as if the tank was empty. On the main highway from Barajas to Alcalá de Henares we had passed three roadside service stations and the bus driver told us they were open 24 hour. Of course when we came through at 0330 they were all closed. But this was the least of our worries. When we reached the airport we could not find the way to where we had to leave our car. As you can imagine at 0400 in the morning there was no one from whom to ask directions and time was moving on and getting closer to our departure time. The problem was there are four terminals at Barajas and we had not checked two days earlier when we were at the airport, at which terminal rental cars had to be left. Eventually we recognised where we had to go and left the car in the appointed place.

Our next problem was where to leave the key of the car, as there was no one at the National Office and no little box in which to leave a key if the office was unattended. Eventually we left it at the Eurocar Office and asked them to return it to the National people when they eventually turned up. Our next problem was that Information told us the wrong terminal for us to leave from. Fortunately there was a shuttle bus that took us to the right terminal, a ten-minute drive away. As we were running so late we were allowed to jump the queue and safely caught the plane, which actually was 20 minutes late leaving.

Our route to Japan involved a four-hour stopover in Frankfurt. By now we thought we knew Frankfurt Airport pretty well but when we tried to find our previous rest area with “lie-down” seats we couldn’t find it. At least A managed to sleep while B just sat. In contrast to our passage through the airport 12 months earlier, we found security checks were much less thorough.

As we flew over Germany before it became dark we were interested to see lots of hilly country and forested areas as well a very frequent villages and towns, often industrial towns, with many factory chimneys belching smoke! It looked quite different from the map of Germany in the Atlas.

As on previous flights we were rather unimpressed with Lufthansa which has fairly limited facilities. Unlike on other airlines, we had no personal screens for films, computer games, etc. As dark fell we were well on our way to Japan flying over Finland. Only another three-day stopover in Tokyo and our 8-week holiday would be over but surprisingly neither of us was travel weary or homesick.