A Heart-In-Mouth Moment.

Our arrival in Zamora provided a heart-stopping moment. Following satnav instructions, we left the motorway and drove into the city, over the Rio Duero, turned left as directed, then right and left again, with the final announcement, “You have reached your destination”. The photo shows the destination, supposed to be the NH Hotel Palacio del Duero, adorned with four stars! Enquiry of a passing local revealed that we needed one final right and left within the space of another 30m, and there, tucked in behind the renovation work being carries out to the church of Nuestra Señora de la Horta was our hotel. Large sigh of relief!
Zamora turned out to be a lovely city with a distinctly Romanesque style of church architecture, there being an abundance of small, simple churches all through the historic centre of town as well as a number of larger ones, also dating primarily from the XII and XIII centuries. We spent a day wandering around them and visiting the cathedral and the ruins of the castle. Both evenings we ate out at good but inexpensive restaurants in the Plaza Mayor.
Our journey from Zamora to Gijón was shown as around three hours. We had our room until midday and our ferry did not sail until 9.00pm, so we had a full morning to spare. We took advantage of this opportunity to follow the advice of my friend, Luis, and go in search of the Museo de la Semana Santa. What excellent advice it turned out to be. This modern museum is home to the tableaux and statues which are mounted on tronos (thrones or plinths) and carried in procession in the city during Holy Week. They are enormous, they are true works of artisan art and there are around three dozen of them. Also on display (somewhat eerily, it must be said) on mannequins are the vestments of the individual cofradías (brotherhoods) linked to different churches in the city. I suspect that the only thing better than a visit to the museum would be a visit to the city to watch the Holy Week processions.

The road to Gijón took us up and over - and frequently, through - the Picos de Europa mountains with a long, long downhill runout which had my dashboard insisting that I had enough fuel for a further 1,320km. A normal fill-up gives a range of 1,040km without air-con, or 940km if air-con is switched on, and the distance from Frigiliana on the Med to Gijón on the Bay of Biscay is only 1300km. We arrived in mid-afternoon at what was very clearly not a ferry port. Gijón is a major centre of the Spanish steel industry and we had arrived at the gate to a very obvious iron ore port. I sought the help of an agente of the Port Police, who first reeled off a string of directions to get me from where I was to where I needed to be. Then he had a better idea. “Wait,” he said, went across and spoke to his partner, then set the barrier to automatic, climbed into his patrol car and led us along this convoluted route, sailing past ‘authorised personnel only’ checkpoints and straight up to the ferry company office. My wife was astonished at this friendliness, which in truth is not that rare among Spanish people, as she witnessed with even more incredulity when the Guardia Civil officer in charge of border control arrived to take the necessary details from me and then stayed another ten minutes chatting about the differences between the Spanish and the French and English (his wife is French, so he knows what he is talking about).
So then it was just a matter of drive onto the ferry, find our cabin, get a drink and a meal, a night’s sleep and then watch the mouth of the Loire appear. I’m already seeing evidence of the Guardia’s words; what miserable ‘douaniers’ we had to deal with to get off the docks at Saint-Nazaire!


Sadly, No Photo After All!

In March 1989 we drove across Spain for the first time. It was something of a fraught experience. We were travelling with our friends who introduced us to Frigiliana, Pat and Judy, to share the driving and then to spend a couple of weeks as guests at Casa de los Arcos, the house they owned on c/ Chorruelo. Sadly, a month previously Pat had had to undergo a programme of chemotherapy following the recurrence of a cancer which had been thought to be in remission, and so when we arrived in Santander he and Judy took the train via Madrid to Málaga, where they were met by friends. We then drove their car across Spain for them.
Why ʻ a fraught experienceʼ? Well, to begin with it was my first experience of driving on the righthand side of the road, and in a righthand drive car to boot. Secondly, as I pulled on the handbrake on the car deck of the ferry, there had been a great whoosh of steam from under the bonnet, which severely depleted the water in the radiator, so the first thing to be done on the dock side in Santander was to pour 3 litres of best quality Evian water into the radiator and then try and top up further by refilling one of the bottles from nearby puddles. This eased the problem rather than solved it. On the open road everything was fine, but on the slow crawl through each successive town the temperature gauge climbed steadily red-wards, only held under control by turning heater and fan onto full blast; given that the Spanish temperature was in the mid-twenties, this also required both windows to be fully opened to vent the heat from the passenger compartment. My wifeʼs main memory is of rolling through Plasencia with her legs out of the window; not literally true, but you get the picture. In this way we got to Salamanca in the late afternoon and treated ourselves to a night in the parador. We felt we deserved it, and anyway it was the day after our wedding anniversary, so that fully justifed the expense.
Day two unfolded in pretty much the same way as day one, with the added anxiety that the exhaust seemed to be noisier than previously. Still, we bowled down the road from Salamanca, through Caceres and Mérida towards Sevilla. Around Zafra we took a left turn to head across to Córdoba before turning south again for Málaga. We now found ourselves on a lesser road which was in need of extensive resurfacing; so much in need, in fact, that the contractors had already stripped the old surface off a forty kilometre stretch which they were now repairing piecemeal. The noise from the exhaust increased with each kilometre, although it was often hard to hear over the noise of tyres bouncing over the rough, rutted surface.
And so at last we reached the small town of Llerena in southern Extremadura. It had a single ʻhotelʼ next to the railway station - Los Ángeles, a typical Spanish bar with rooms. We asked to see one and were led down a nondescript corridor and through a door on the other side of which we were transported back into the 17th or 18th century and an old venta. Iʼve written about this in one of my early postings, so wonʼt repeat myself here.
The reason for this reminiscing is that yesterday we set off on this yearʼs holiday, two weeks in Brittany and weʼre taking a ferry from Asturias across to Saint-Nazaire. The route allowed us to retrace our 1989 steps and so we booked a hotel in Llerena for our first night on the road, sadly not Los Ángeles. Having checked in, we decided to stroll across town to the railway station and have a drink at our old hotel.. No joy! Where once had stood this ancient hostelry was now a block of very modern apartments. So we came back by another road so that I could at least get a photo of the wonderful old fountain, built out of marble the colour of ivory, and its rim so well-worn by countless Spanish bottoms that it looked like a well burnt candle, an appropriate illustration for todayʼs posting. But that, too, has gone.
Today we drove the rutted road to Zafra, except, of course, that it has a fine smooth surface now. We have driven north past Mérida, Caceres and Salamanca (you donʼt drive through them any more, not now thereʼs the motorway, Ruta de la Plata.) and here we are
in Zamora, a new destination for us, which we look forward to exploring this evening and tomorrow before we head on up to Gijón on Thursday.
Thereʼs a saying, “You canʼt go back.” I think I now know what it means.


The March of Progess?

Before the advent of the railway era in Britain, the canals were the motorways of the Industrial Revolution, transporting fuels, and raw materials to the factories and large items of production to where they were needed. In the forties and fifties, by contrast, when I was growing up in industrial northwest England, the railways were enjoying their hey day and the local canals were silted up, partially filled-in, reed infested stretches of stagnant water, not without their occasional dead dog to fascinate us kids. The railways in their turn were superseded for a while by the new motorways, although they are now experiencing a resurgence. And the canals, too, have made a dramatic reappearance, rescued and reinstated initially by people generally held to be somewhat eccentric - or downright mad - and now the pride of the Waterways Board, a national leisure resource populated by pleasure craft large and small. As the saying goes, what goes around, comes around.

These thoughts have been prompted by a feature by Alasdeir Fotheringham which I read in the Independent On Sunday last weekend, about the massive decline of the vias pecuarias of Spain. These are the drove roads which for centuries (perhaps even millennia) have criss-crossed Spain. They were the motorways of the Middle Ages, the means by which huge flocks of sheep and herds of cattle were moved from the sierras to the plains for seasonal grazing, and by which merchandise travelled from where it was produced to where it could be sold, trains of mules plodding their way along broad green lanes over the plains and winding, narrow tracks through the mountains.
One such road passes through the middle of Frigiliana, though you would never know just by looking. In the days when a friend of ours, now sadly dead, moved here in the early 1960s, the road from Nerja on the coast, through the cane fields, up and along the ridge of La Loma de las Vacas (The Ridge of the Cows; a giveaway!), on and up onto La Loma de la Hermita (The Ridge of the Chapel), now completely built-over as the new village. Thence, down the main street of Frigiliana, in turn, c/ San Sebastián, c/ Real and c/ Chorruelo and on into the mountains, past the hamlet of Acebuchal and on to Granada. In one direction, fish and sea food were carried from the fishing village of Nerja to the city of Granada as well as lime produced in the mountains behind Frigiliana; the return journey brought fresh fruits and vegetables from the fertile plains beyond the mountains. In addition, day labourers from the coast travelled north to harvest the fruit and vegetables, and their counterparts came south for the sugar cane harvest. The route was in constant use.
Now, it is all asphalt or concrete until nearly at Acebuchal, and no longer used by the drovers. And if you want to go to Granada, you take the motorway network and get there in just over an hour!
According to Fotheringham, this is the fate shared by three quarters of the approximately 30,000 km of vias pecuarias in Andalucía; to have been buried under roads for motor vehicles or blocked by motorways, railway lines, or simply by the arrival of huge urbanizaciones of holiday homes. The practice of ‘transhumance’, the seasonal movement of huge herds and flocks from one grazing area to another, has declined from a total still of 200,000 animals in the early 1990s to around a mere 20,000 animals today. He gives the example of a family from the village of Laroles, in Granada province who walked with their sheep the 350km to grazing in the mountains fo Córdoba and then back again as recently as 2009, but have now given up in the face of the danger to life and limb from the heavy traffic they now have to share the route with. And, with the possible exception of Extremadura, the least populated and least developed of the autonomous communities, the same pattern can be seen all over Spain.

One of the many things that I admire about the Spanish is the way in which they protect, preserve and conserve the historic districts of their cities, towns and villages. The motive is local pride, but the spin-off is a valuable tourism resource which brings people to wander the ancient streets and buildings of cities like Salamanca, Toledo, Pamplona, Santiago de Compostela and dozens more. So I am saddened to see so little attention being paid to this other facet of the historic patrimony of Spain. The drove roads were the canals of the Peninsula, if you like, and just like the canals, they provide potentially a rich resource for developing rural tourism to the interior of Spain, a resource for walking, mountain biking, horse riding, birdwatching, study of the native fauna and flora - the list goes on. ¡Ojalá! someone will see this and do for Spain’s vias pecuarias what has been done for Britain’s canals.


Really Good News

The Guardia Civil helicopter has been around again to day. It was ferrying rescuers up into the mountains where Mary Anne Goossens was found alive but trapped in a river gully this morning by three walkers. The rescue is under way at the moment.
Three walkers following a route along the Rio Chillar made the discovery and alerted the authorities at around ten to eight this morning. Mary Anne was conscious and able to speak to them and later to the Guardia Civil officers and apparently explained that she had slipped and fallen into a gully of the river 18 days ago. Whilst able to move, she had been unable to climb back out of the gully or to follow the course of the river up or down, and so had remained trapped since the 17th June. The rescue will take some time because access to that part of the mountains is not easy, and neither will be the task of getting her out of the gully.
No doubt further details will emerge in due course, but everything that I said in my previous post holds true. Her survival, I guess, is due entirely to the fact that a) she was conscious and mobile, b) she had access to ample, drinkable water and c) that her location would have given her shade from the full power of the sun at this time of the year.
For her and for her family and friends, I am delighted that she has been found alive. But she is still a very silly person who has been very lucky indeed; most people missing for that length of time in these mountains would be brought out dead - if at all.