Travels through History – Northern Spain – Pontevedra

This book is a travelogue about the cities of northern Spain.

I travelled to Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Valladolid, Segovia, Leon, Gijon, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, A Coruna, and Vigo on board the fast, modern trains of the Spanish railways.

Here is an excerpt about Pontevedra:

Pontevedra is well worth a night’s stop if you’re travelling between Santiago de Compostela and Vigo. The main attraction for me was that traffic is banished from most of the city centre. The current mayor first came into office in 1999 and his philosophy was simple: private property – the car – should not occupy the public space.  Within a month, he had pedestrianised all 300,000 square metres of the zona monumental – the medieval centre, paving the streets with granite flagstones.

Cars were stopped from crossing the city and street parking was banned – people looking for places to park causes the most congestion. All surface car parks in the centre were closed and underground ones were opened, with 1,686 free places. Traffic lights were removed in favour of roundabouts, and traffic calming measures were introduced in the outer zones to bring the speed limit down to 30km/h.

The benefits were and continue to be many. 30 people died in traffic accidents from 1996 to 2006, but there have been no fatalities since 2009. CO2 emissions are down 70%. Three-quarters of what were car journeys are now made on foot or by bicycle, and central Pontevedra has gained 12,000 new inhabitants, whereas the tendency in Galicia is for towns to be losing people. Small businesses have managed to stay afloat because passers-by are on foot rather than in cars and so can window shop and pop into a store to make a quick purchase or by an item to drink or eat. I witnessed the same effect in Athens in Greece. People can be more attentive to their surroundings rather than watching out for cars and making sure they don’t bump into other people on the narrow pavement. There’s more room to breathe and the air is less full of pollutants and toxic fumes from stationary vehicles making the atmosphere more pleasant.

Before this scheme came into effect, more cars passed through the city in a day than there were people living there. Now, most people, like me, walk everywhere. This additional exercise will benefit people’s health and I didn’t see very many overweight people during my stay.

Two adjoining squares, the Praza da Peregrina and the Praza da Ferreira are well worth seeing. In the Praza da Peregrina stands the chapel, the Santuario de la Peregrina, for travellers on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The floor plan is in the shape of a scallop shell and the building is built in the Baroque style.

The Praza da Ferreira shows the benefits of the pedestrianisation of the city. There are arcades, cafes, fountains, and gardens that can all be admired in peace along with the facade of the San Francisco church.

The Alameda is a promenade that takes you away from the centre towards the river. There are many splendid buildings here starting with the town hall or Casa Consistorial / Casa do Concello de Pontevedra, the ruins of the San Domingo church, the provincial council building for Pontevedra or the Pazo Provincial, followed by the administrative building for the provincial council or deputación Provincial de Pontevedra. Edificio Administrativo. There is also a statue of Christopher Columbus here. The flagship on his famous 1492 journey to the New World, the Santa Maria, was built in Pontevedra. 

Travels through History – France – Provence

Extract from the book ‘Travels through History : France” available here

Gordes looks spectacular as it tumbles down the hillside towards the Luberon Valley. The houses and hotels appear well-kept and largely unspoilt with clumps of trees and the occasional swimming pool breaking up the sporadic pattern of buildings. Gordes doesn’t immediately strike the visitor as a place where wealthy people live, but that is probably the appeal. Gordes is classified as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, one of just 156 French villages with that classification.

Around a hundred years ago, Gordes would have looked very different. Dilapidated houses were being abandoned by the villagers and the whole village was falling into ruin. This began to change slowly once Cubist painter André Lhote discovered Gordes in 1938 followed by Marc Chagall, Victor Vasarely and other modern artists who visited and spent the summer in Gordes. Gradually, Gordes became the place where painters, musicians, and film directors wanted to be seen. The houses were restored and the prices soared as artists took a second home in Gordes.

Today, Gordes is one of the most visited places in The Luberon with some of the most costly housing on the planet. The art shops are expensive as are most of the places to eat. However, most visitors seem to amble around the castle and main square, so the back streets tend to be almost deserted allowing the lucky visitor to sample the quietness with just the bees buzzing in the bougainvillea and birds singing in the sunshine. There is a chance to admire the cobblestones, the lovingly restored walls, and the intricate chimneys and roofs.

There is a view over the valley towards the village of Roussillon, which is built on ochre. In between Gordes and Roussillon are some of the most photographed fields in the world. Here is grown lavender in lovely lines disappearing into the horizon. Surely there is no other place in the world with such vibrant and contrasting colours as ochre and lavender in this close a proximity. However, all is not sweetness and light. When the lavender is blooming there is a stampede of photographers to certain places with views of the purple-streaked fields, so much so that the police have to restrict access. In 2015, one photographer tried to mow down with his car some people he felt had deliberately got in the way of his potential prize-winning photograph. Luckily, he missed the people and hit a telegraph pole instead. There are murky, hidden depths even in the loveliest countryside.

Roussillon is another beautiful village teeming with tourists drawn by the ochre cliffs and the colours of the village houses, which reflect the seventeen different ochre tints once quarried here. However, after I passed the shops selling lavender products for all occasions, the streets were nearly deserted and I was able to admire the semi-detached houses with shutters painted in strikingly different colours from their walls and doors. A funeral cortege was making their way through the village and a book of condolences was open on a pedestal by the side of the road. Local people stopped and nodded their head as the procession passed them on the way to the church.   

The ochre quarry is close to the centre of the village and there is a trail around it called the Sentier des Ocres. There are two actual circuits, one shorter than the other, taking visitors through the multi-coloured former quarry, which was of the main contributors towards the tens of thousands of tons of ochre that was exported around the world between the early 1800s and 1958. Production then stopped because the quarrying was undermining the village – there are limits after all. There are still other working ochre quarries in the area, but their output is low compared to the heyday of 1929 when 40,000 tons of ochre was transported around the world from the quarries of Provence.

Les Baux-de-Provence, north-east of Arles, occupies one of the ridges of the Alpilles hills. Visitors have to leave their vehicles outside the village and walk up to the historical centre. Entrance to the fortress above the town is at the far end of the village. The buildings are almost all 16th- and 17th-Century churches and mansions hosting museums such as the art in the Hotel de Manville and the nativity figures in the Musee des Santons.

The main attraction in Les Baux is the Chateau, the fortress above the village, which was razed to the ground on Cardinal Richelieu’s orders. Siege engines and catapults lie around on the bleak plateau, skeletal reminders of the weapons of war of the 17th-Century, although these replicas are used for occasional re-enactments of the brutality of sieges four hundred years ago. The views over Provence and towards the Mediterranean are worth lingering over with many olive trees in the fields closest to Les Baux.

The ruins are fun and enough of the fortress has been recreated to give the visitor some idea of the size and defensive strength of the place. The Coat of Arms on the flag fluttering from the highest tower is that of the Lords of Baux with the 16-point silver star of the Nativity. The village became a centre of Protestantism in the early 1600s and tried a rebellion against the crown. In 1631, tired of conflict, the people negotiated with Louis XIII for the redemption of the castle territory and the right to dismantle the fortifications.

The name bauxite – aluminium ore – is derived from Les Baux where it was first discovered by geologist Pierre Berthier in 1821. The mines were in the area named Val d’Enfer to the north of the village. Dante visited this area of twisted rocks in around 1307 and drew sufficient inspiration from the weirdness he had seen to write the Inferno. The mines eventually closed at the end of the 20th Century and now they form part of an audiovisual experience using the post-industrial landscape to great effect.This attraction is called Carriere de Lumieres and as visitors proceed through the exhibition images are constantly projected on to all the surfaces. The theme of the imagery changes from year to year.    

St-Remy-de-Provence is inextricably linked with Vincent van Gogh because of the year the artist spent at the St-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in the town. 150 of his most famous paintings were inspired by the surrounding area. He was not confined to the hospital, but couldn’t go more than an hour’s walk away. The places where he painted some of his most famous work are indicated, although the subjects of the paintings as Van Gogh painted them are not always still there. St-Paul-de-Mausole is still a hospital and art therapy forms part of the treatment of the patients.

Near to the hospital, and separated from it by a road and fields of sunflowers, are two Roman structures called Les Antiques that originally marked the entrance to the Roman town of Glanum. One is a triumphal arch commemorating the Roman conquest of Marseilles and the other is a mausoleum to two grandsons of the Emperor Augustus. Greek colonists from Marseilles built a town at Glanum between the second and first centuries BC. Then the Romans came along and built another town which lasted until the 3rd Century AD. The main reason for building a town here was a spring, which not only allowed people to bathe in its health-benefitting waters but also meant water could be used to feed the Roman baths and to provide underfloor heating in their houses. Those Romans were so clever and, once again, all of this was done 2000 years ago.          

Travels through History – Northern Spain – Gijon and Aviles

This book is a travelogue about the cities of northern Spain.

I travelled to Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Valladolid, Segovia, Leon, Gijon, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, A Coruna, and Vigo on board the fast, modern trains of the Spanish railways.

Here is an excerpt about Gijon and Aviles:

I wanted to travel by train from Oviedo to the coastal cities of Gijon and Aviles. I knew there was a railway station in both cities and yet when I looked on the RENFE website there only seemed to be one train per day. This was most odd, so when I arrived at Oviedo bus station, I walked to the train station and checked the timetables. Sure enough, there were trains every 45 minutes between Oviedo and both Aviles and Gijon. I didn’t understand, but then I saw a ticket offering tickets on the local FEVE railway, a service run separately from the RENFE system. Problem solved. The next day, I caught the modern train to Gijon and the following day I went to Aviles.

Gijon is the largest city in Asturias, with over 275,000 inhabitants. A lot of the city was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War and there’s a famous story about a colonel in Franco’s forces who ordered his navy to shell the barracks where he was under attack from local miners armed with dynamite. The railway station is about a mile south of the headland called Cimadevilla which juts into the Bay of Biscay. This headland has a narrow neck between the harbour to the West and the Playa de San Lorenzo to the East and most of the interesting sights are in this area.

The Plaza del Marques sits next to the sheltered harbour where the yachts bob up and down on the slight swell. To the landward side, most of the cafes and restaurants in the square have a great view of the Palacio de Revillagigedo, which dominates the square with its mixture of neo-Baroque and neo-Renaissance architectural styles.

Further to the east is the Town Hall, and then the Campo Valdes area with its Roman Baths found when the authorities were attempting to build an underground car park. These ruins are in front of the San Pedro church round the back of which visitors have a great view of the Bay of Biscay. Even in the calmest weather, the waves suffice for paddle-boarders to get some decent exercise, watched by the people on the Playa de San Lorenzo, which stretches for 2km around the city bay from the church. This is the city beach and can become busy at the weekend in the summer.

Just to the west is the Museo Casa Natal de Jovellanos. Gaspar Melchior de Jovellanos was a leading of the Spanish Age of Enlightenment who was born in Gijon in 1744 and in his time was a statesman, author, and philosopher. The Bagpipe Museum is across the Rio Piles from the Estadio El Molinón, or more correctly Estadio El Molinón-Enrique Castro “Quini”, the home ground of Real Sporting de Gijón currently playing in the Spanish second division.

The train journey to Aviles takes a similar length of time as the trip to Gijon. Aviles is much smaller than Gijon but is still well worth a good look around, especially the Centro Oscar Niemayer on a former industrial site on the left bank of the Aviles river. The centre comprises three buildings; A dome, a tower encircled by a staircase and a long curved structure, all of which were intended to do for Aviles what the Guggenheim Museum did for Bilbao. I think it’s fair to say that this has not happened, but I had at least ventured there, though I was the only person looking around on a weekday in September. The centre opened in 2010 and has been in financial trouble during some of its history. Oscar Niemeyer’s vision was based on three themes: education, culture, and peace. Apart from its cultural purposes, the Centre was intended as a catalyst for large-scale urban regeneration that would change the town’s whole waterfront. I thought this hadn’t happened yet.  

Travels through History – Northern Spain – Leon and the Holy Grail

This book is a travelogue about the cities of northern Spain.

I travelled to Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Valladolid, Segovia, Leon, Gijon, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, A Coruna, and Vigo on board the fast, modern trains of the Spanish railways.

Here is an excerpt about Leon:

The history of Leon starts with the Reconquest although The Romans had a settlement on the site in the first two centuries after Christ. As the Christian forces pushed the Moors further south, the Asturian king Ordono II moved his capital from Oviedo to Leon in 914. As more territory came under the city’s control, they split its administration between the city of Leon and the county of Castile. In 1035, Castile became a kingdom in its own right, with Burgos as the capital.

Leon is on the Way of St James pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. It is a very popular destination and stopping off point because of the Cathedral, built between 1205 and 1301. The North Tower and the extraordinary cloisters were completed later, in the 14th Century. The cathedral was built on some former Roman baths, built by the Legio VII Gemina, and these baths covered a larger area than the cathedral does.

Before entering the cathedral, I looked at the western facade with its huge Rose Window and two towers. Even from outside there appears to be a lot of windows. It’s interesting to work out where the load bearing of the towers and the detached nave is happening. The flying buttresses are substantial and I could only wonder how the architect had worked out how so much stained glass could be in place in such a large edifice.

Leon Cathedral has between 1,800 and 2,000 square metres of stained glass, depending on which source you trust, an area second only to Chartres cathedral in France. Rich red and gold colours bathe the interior in places. There’s an openness about the place, a strange way to describe the feeling that you can view most of the interior from wherever you are standing.

I would recommend visiting the cloisters as they are beautiful and peaceful. There’s still the hint of some frescoes which show how colourful the decoration must have been when first painted. I also visited the museum of religious art and would recommend this too, but if you have to choose between the two, I’d select the cloisters.     

The other major site of Leon is the Basilica of San Isidoro dating from the mid-12th Century and built into the city walls on its southern side. Before entering look at the two doorways on the western facade, whose reliefs are of the ‘Descent from the Cross’ and the ‘Sacrifice of Abraham’. Above the latter, visitors can spy San Isidoro riding a horse.

Fernando I, who united Leon and Castile in 1037, founded the basilica. It was built to house the bones of San Isidoro and act as a mausoleum for Fernando and his successors. The tombs of eleven kings and twelve queens are in the Panteon Real, a portico of the basilica. They painted Spanish Romanesque frescoes on the walls at the end of the 12th Century. A Christ Pantocrator in the dome and an agricultural calendar on an arch are still visible. A highlight of any tour of the treasury at the basilica is the Chalice of Doña Urraca, a jewel-encrusted onyx chalice which is alleged by some people to be The Holy Grail. The cup belonged to Urraca of Zamora, daughter of Ferdinand I of Leon, and has been in Leon since the 11th Century.

In March 2014, a book was published called The Kings of the Grail. This book claims the chalice, or part of the chalice, is the Holy Grail, and this led basilica staff to withdraw the chalice from display, because the crowds seeking to visit the museum were too large for the treasury to accommodate. The museum now displays the chalice in a separate room in the tower next to the old library at the very end of the guided tour of the Basilica Treasury. The room is not open to individual travellers.

The authors, Margarita Torres and José Ortega del Rio, claim they had traced the origins of the chalice to the early Christian communities of Jerusalem. Some recently discovered papers in a Cairo archive provided this information. The chalice was transported to Cairo by Muslim travellers and was later given to an emir on the Spanish coast. From there, the chalice came into the possession of King Ferdinand I of Leon, father of Urraca of Zamora, as a peace offering by a Moorish ruler from Al-Andalus. The dating suggests the chalice was made between 200 BC and 100 AD. Salah al-Din, known in the West as Saladin, was the main opponent of the crusaders in The Third Crusade. When his sister fell ill, he requested a piece of the grail be cut off and sent to him, so it would cure his sister, which it duly did. 

There’s plenty of sights outdoors in Leon. The train station is due west of the old city just over the River Bernesga. When you arrive in Leon station, it’s slightly confusing as the station is a terminus, so even long-distance trains from Barcelona / Irun / Bilbao heading to Galicia go out of the station the same way they came in, rather than going straight through.

Travels through History – Northern Spain – Valladolid

This book is a travelogue about the cities of northern Spain.

I travelled to Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Valladolid, Segovia, Leon, Gijon, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, A Coruna, and Vigo on board the fast, modern trains of the Spanish railways.

Here is an excerpt about Valladolid:

Valladolid has a bewildering array of churches, statues, palaces, and plazas. I started in the Plaza Mayor built after a fire in the 16th Century. The buildings are all painted in a rich red colour including the Ayuntamiento or City Hall, which takes pride of place on the northern side. This plaza was the first of its kind in Spain and formed the model for similar squares in Spain and most of South America.

Heading due south through an area of shops including the department store El Corte Ingles, you come to the area called Campo Grande on the far side of which is the railway station. The Campo Grande is a park with shade-giving trees containing a small lake with a jet of water. On the southern side is the Oriental Museum and the Iglesia de San Juan de Letran. The Museo Oriental has the largest collection of Oriental art in Spain. The Augustinian Fathers christianized the Philippines and then headed to China and Japan. As they worked in these countries, they collected the best art they could find and sent it back to Spain. These items including ceramics, sculptures and paintings form the basis of the collection in the 18 rooms of the museum.

To the east of the museum is the Plaza de Colon with a large statue of Christopher Columbus. Heading north again, I came to the Casa del Principe, the house of the prince, a residential building, built in 1906 and an outstanding example of art nouveau architecture. The tower sits above the front door, has five storeys, and is topped by a dome. To the east is the Casa de Cervantes where the writer stayed between 1604 and 1606 during his time in the city, during which period Don Quixote was first published. The inside attempts to recreate the atmosphere of a house inhabited by a seventeenth-century Spanish nobleman.

Close by on the Plaza de Espana is the colossal facade of the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz completed in 1963, which can’t be missed because of the large parabolic arches that reach high up on the facade. I will leave it up to you to decide whether the arches are ugly or not.

Heading up Lopez Gamez street brings you to the area near the Cathedral. Before visiting the cathedral, head right along R Hernandez to the Convento de las Salesas with behind it the Casa Colon. Christopher Columbus died in this house in 1506. The museum is spread over four floors and has many interactive exhibits. There are old maps that take you on a journey through Christopher Columbus’s trips to the Americas. The top floor describes Valladolid in the days of the great explorer.

The cathedral dates from the 16th Century and was built on top of the remains of its medieval predecessor. The main point of interest is the retablo mayor by Juan de Juni. Visitors can climb the 70-metre south tower for outstanding views over the city. The main layout was designed by Juan de Herrera in Renaissance style. The original design would have created the largest cathedral in Europe. It was initially planned as the Cathedral for the capital city of Spain, but only 40-45% of the project was completed due to a lack of resources after the royal court moved to Madrid, and because of the expenses incurred when stabilising the foundations of the church.

Around 400 metres north of the cathedral is the Iglesia de San Pablo. If you’re going to see one church in Valladolid, make sure it’s this one. I say this largely because of the carvings on the south-western facade, which are elaborate, beautiful, and numerous. The church was commissioned by Cardinal Juan de Torquemada between 1445 and 1468. Incidentally, the cardinal was the uncle of Tomas de Torquemada, Spain’s first Grand Inquisitor. The church was subsequently extended and refurbished until 1616 with various sponsors and notables asking for additions to the facade. King Philip II and King Philip IV of Spain were baptized in the church.

Travels through History – Northern Spain – Pamplona

This book is a travelogue about the cities of northern Spain.

I travelled to Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Valladolid, Segovia, Leon, Gijon, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, A Coruna, and Vigo on board the fast, modern trains of the Spanish railways.

Here is an excerpt about Pamplona:

Pamplona is the capital of the Navarre region. In the city, most of the signs are in Spanish and Basque. Pamplona is called Iruna in the Basque language. The city is named after Pompey, the Roman General, who was part of the First Triumvirate (60–53 BC). This was an informal alliance between himself and two other prominent Roman politicians: Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus, at the end of the Roman Republic.

Pamplona is an important stop for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. I saw scallop shells on pavements all over the city, showing the route to follow to Santiago. A large scallop shell was used as a sign on the exterior wall of a building to indicate this was a hostel where pilgrims could bed down for the night at a favourable rate.

Roncesvalles is just over 30 miles away from Pamplona. Legend has it that here in 778 the Basque tribes defeated the armies of Charlemagne and killed Roland, commander of Charlemagne’s rearguard. This event features in the epic 11th-century poem Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland) and today’s Basques still revere their forefathers for this battle. Camino pilgrims give thanks at the famous monastery in Roncesvalles for a successful crossing of the Pyrenees, one of the hardest parts of the Camino.

Pamplona’s city walls are still much in evidence. I enjoyed the view from the Parque de la Toconera high above the River Arga. The foothills of The Pyrenees looked impressive as was the Portal Nuevo an arched gateway leading into the Old Town. The Portal de Francia behind the cathedral of Santa Maria is well worth seeing too.

They built this church between the 14th and early 16th centuries although the western facade is 18th Century. It’s worth paying the entrance fee to view the fine ceilings of the cloisters, the Barbazana Chapel, the refectory, and the Preious Doorway whose tympanum shows scenes from the death of the Virgin Mary. The finest sight is the tomb of King Carlos III and his Queen, Eleanor, in the nave, a delicate memorial to the couple.

I then enjoyed a pleasant stroll along Ronda Obispo Barbazan on top of the eastern battlements towards the area behind the bullring where there’s a lift down to the canal. This lift is a metallic structure and doesn’t fit in with its surroundings but I am sure the designers regarded it as a bold statement of modern architecture.

Heading back into the centre I passed the statue dedicated to the bull running or encierro. This is an impressive piece of work showing the runners and bulls interacting with each other. One runner has fallen, and a bull is about to charge him with horns lowered. I winced at the impending collision. The other runners keep out of harm’s way and one is waving a newspaper at the bulls.

Nearby is the Plaza de Castillo, located south of the old town of Pamplona and serving as a link between the old town and the new part of the city known as Segundo Ensanche. Like most Spanish squares, it has porticoes on all sides, but there is no uniformity of architectural style as they added the buildings over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. The facade of the Palacio de Navarra is prominent on the south side and on the eastern side stands the Goyeneche Palace, a baroque palatial house. The square is pedestrians only and at its centre is an 18-metre high music kiosk – what is referred to as a bandstand in the UK – with Ionic columns supporting the roof.

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