No matter which city you go to in Spain, they all have something in common. They are completely unnavigable at night to all except locals. When setting an expected timeline for getting out of even the smallest town and/or city, double what you think it will take, then double it again. They come with a guarantee that you will visit most areas of the urban centre (sometimes twice), in your efforts to escape.
On Saturday, after several days delay, I finally packed my things into a car and left Madrid. Since arriving here, I’ve seen a lot of Madrid—both by foot and by bus—and travelled twice to Barcelona. The second trip back made it clear that although travelling in cars is more expensive, it’s also more versatile, and it permits a different view with each trip. Not travelling to someone else’s agenda is a key factor in the enjoyment of a place, the people you meet, and the unexpected discoveries you uncover along the road.
So I’ve hired a car until the 28th. Collecting it from Atocha, it became apparent two things had happened:
Everything evens out in the end I guess. Just would’ve preferred it to even out in my favour.
As I mentioned earlier, I was given a Citroën by the hire company on both occasions. I’ve come to call the cars shit-troens, because they are cars without any guts under the hood that slow down when going uphill, no matter how far through the floor you try to press the accelerator, and stall at the most unexpected and inconvenient moments. I shouldn’t be surprised they are so temperamental, given they’re made in France, but I’ve found that by swearing as loud as I can at the car, it tends to work.
True to previous experiences, navigating in Madrid is like trying to find your way out of a labyrinth, and so a few detours were needed to clear the outer metropolitan area. Segovia was the first destination, but via an unplanned detour to San Ildefonso, another town built around a Palacio Real in the mountains north of Madrid. Ascending into the mountains, the road twisted ever higher towards an alpine ski resort, and the crash barriers of the modern age gave way to brick bollards similar to those in the old James Bond films with Connery or Moore.
By the time I arrived it was already mid-afternoon, and the palace itself was closed for lunch. The exterior was less remarkable than the palace in Madrid, however the gardens behind it, had me wishing I had actually booked a few days in this small town, just so I could explore the palace grounds. Sprawling up the valley wall towards the mountains beyond, and further east or west than I could see, the various gardens were defined by wide formed paths, interlaced with narrow tracks that invited exploration, and every hundred metres or so, the paths opened up to vistas of water features and grand fountains of copper, bronze and marble. Being the middle of autumn, the small forest of deciduous trees had yellowed, and decaying leaves littered the ground. In many ways I was reminded of autumn in Canberra, but on a much more opulent scale.
The downside of an autumn visit was that the deciduous hedges that made up the walls of the giant labyrinth had retreated, and the chain mesh fences that had been installed to discourage short-cuts were revealed to give it a tardy appearance. In the clear, frigid air, the squeals of children playing throughout the grounds echoed amongst the trees, and the air was taking on a warm glow from the combination of setting sun and autumnal leaves.
Time pressed hard against me, as I was still some distance from Segovia and its walls, and beyond that, Salamanca, and my accommodation at Zamora. Reluctantly, I got back in the car and headed to Segovia.
The first thing everyone seems to mention about Segovia is the roman aqueduct, and how imposing it is. On my approach to the town from the south, I could see no indication of an impressive structure, just gently rolling hills on the northern plateau. The new town sprung quickly from the ground, progressing from little single or double storey cottages to ten storey apartment blocks within a few hundred metres. It wasn’t until I got down into the older town that I started to get any hint of an old roman settlement existing here.
Segovia is the northern mirror of Toledo in many respects, though it seems to be less crassly touristy than its southern competitor. It’s most renowned feature is the giant roman aqueduct which spans the valley between the new and old towns; the main structure has undergone some restoration work over the years, yet much of it still seems to be a simple case of excellent stone masonry and gravity working together to hold the structure in place with little or no mortar.
Still, I suppose when you’ve got Russel Crowe swinging a sword in the nearby gladiodome, you’d want to build something right, or face the wrath of his poems.
Like all the old fortified towns in roman hispania, the Cathedral is a dominant feature of the skyline, dwarfing the smaller, finely decorated churches within the town. But Segovia has something few other tourist attractions have. On a rocky outcrop in the north of the old town, sits the Alcázar, a fortified palace with foundations thought to be from before the roman period. It sits so high above the surrounding valley, it’s difficult to imagine how an attacking army could ever have hoped to penetrate the walls and capture the inhabitants, though apparently it happened at least a few times during the years the fortress was in operation.
I was fortunate enough to be in there during magic hour, as my photographs will testify (if and when I ever manage to get them live), so the rich colour of the stone was well aglow when I got to the exterior parapets. The interior was quite basic compared to the Palacio Real, but I guess when you’re couped up in a fortified palace, you’re there for reasons other than taking a holiday.
Before I knew it, the sun had dropped out of the sky, and I was trying to find my way out to the road that would take me on to Salamanca, and beyond that, Zamora, where I was to stay the night. Segovia’s streets are much the same as Madrid’s. They snake between high-rises built too close together, have little signage, and often include slicing between illegally parked vehicles. Should you take a wrong turn somewhere, you have to drive considerable distances to locate a place to correct the mistake, such as an intersection or roundabout; but it doesn’t stop there, often a roundabout will have several roads converging on it, but it might only give you one legal exit, and it’s not the exit you want to take.
When I finally cleared Segovia, I drove out past the old walled town, now brilliantly aglow with massive spotlights around the perimeter (I had thought during the day it could be alright living in those old historic towns, but not if you can’t sleep at night). I drove past the turn-off for Salamanca and found a spot to do a u-turn a kilometre or so down the road—pretty close by Spanish standards—then came back and headed off into the darkness.
Because of the position of Salamanca in relation to Segovia and Madrid, there are no major roadways to link the three, and I ended up on what is to this point, the lowest grade road I’ve been on in Spain. The one between Valls and Mont Blanc wasn’t too good, but I think this one took the cake (so far). Adding the night driving to the mix, as well as the whole left-hand drive thing, AND the Shit-roen effect, and it makes for a nervous driver. Not before nor since, have I clung to a steering wheel so tightly, nor come so close to having my eyeballs stuck to the windscreen, nor used the word nor so many times in one sentence.
Salamanca was a city I could see before I saw it, in that the cathedral, a massive gothic monument, squatted in floodlights in the middle of the night, rearing up from the horizon long before any other part of the city was visible. Only when I got into the city proper, did I start having trouble seeing it, as the traditional high-rises of all cities rose up around it to obscure the view from street level. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is also one of the more impressive I’ve seen, from a night viewing, anyway, outshining even that of Madrid.
I decided to stop in Salamanca for dinner (possibly not a good move), as the only thing I knew of Zamora was that it was smaller than Salamanca, and hence my eating options would be further diminished. I parked the car in an area for which access defies explanation, but suffice to say that on one side was a large flight of wide steps, the other side were either buildings or blocked access. I think it was resident only parking, but as I didn’t get clamped, fined or keyed, I’m assuming anyone who even noticed it was a tourist car simply shrugged and went on their way, such as the Spaniards seem to do.
Despite my grumbling stomach, I had to get my priorities right, and so loaded up with camera gear and marched off towards the cathedral. As it turned out, there was a restaurant close by which the Lonely Planet guide had mentioned, called Café El Ave (The Bird). The food was passable for the price, and I got a nice lungful of passive smoke into the bargain (seriously, the sooner the Spaniards get their act together about smoking bans, the better everyone will be).
The cathedral was closed by that time of night. Nonetheless, I spent close to an hour circling the perimeter and popping off numerous time exposures. In a way it was good the cathedral had closed, as I’m sure I’d have spent another couple of hours on the inside, oohing and aahing at whatever lay inside. If the exterior is anything to go by, I’m quite certain I’d have gone bananas and filled my CF cards several times over.
From Salamanca I went to Salamanca, then to Salamanca, and from there, to Salamanca. Every time I struck out on what I thought was the road to Zamora, I found myself back-tracking to a large and confusing double roundabout on the outskirts of Salamanca, which was the starting point of the directions provided by the hotel I’d booked, supposedly guiding me to Zamora. I was again struggling to grasp the Spanish approach to road signage, which is to assume you are going in the right direction until they tell you otherwise. In this case, the “right” road for me to take, led to Portugal, however there were no signs that said “..oh, and if you want to go to Zamora, take this road too”.
By the time I actually rolled through the tight streets of Villaralbo and turned off the engine in front of Casa Aurelia, it was nearing 11pm. The restaurant had closed and the hotel looked pretty locked up as well. As I arrived at the reception, an elderly lady was talking to some guests about some of the attractions in the area, and after 15 minutes or so of me standing waiting, she took my destinia voucher and checked me in. It was nearer to midnight by the time I actually settled in my room, and despite it only being a 2-star hotel, it was fairly new and the bed was comfortable.
I drifted off to sleep, thinking about the view of the Alcázar from the valley floor, and how much it would look like the castles perched atop mountain peaks with a ring of cloud around the base, such as those in children’s storybooks.