La Mancha

Wednesday 21st September 2011, Riaza, Province of Segovia
Last night Ian was unwell. It was almost certainly due to the heat but possibly also because we spent the day relaxing – apart from doing a load of washing, putting up two blogs, sorting out a hundred photos, preparing another blog, dealing with a problem concerning our motor insurance and answering a batch of emails.

However, as a result we were asleep before 10pm and thankfully Ian was fine this morning after eight hours uninterrupted sleep. It got quite chilly overnight which helped enormously.

This morning we left France behind and slipped over the border into Spain. The transition passed unnoticed. Many of the road signs are in Basque anyway so it took a while before we realised. Much of the day has been spent simply putting as many kilometres as possible behind us. It's the best thing to do when crossing the centre of the country in 34 degrees of heat. We passed near Burgos, a city we visited previously. Lovely as we know it is we pressed on using the free autovia rather than the paying autopista which is very expensive. Lorry drivers are aware of this and were our constant travelling companions. Indeed there were ten international heavy goods vehicles for every car. The countryside was dry, treeless and arid, brown from the summer sun without an animal or bird to be seen anywhere. There was hardly any habitation and for most of the journey we were weaving between road works as the route is upgraded. Occasionally we'd pass a small village or hamlet clustered around the church. With the heavy pink tiles of the houses, the villages looked bleached and empty, isolated on the desolate burnt landscape. We pulled off the autovia into a lorry park for lunch and a snooze but otherwise we've simply driven with the windows open trying to keep cool.

This evening, about 100 kilometres north of Madrid we turned off to follow a pitted country road through rural badlands of scrub and exposed bare soil. The sun continued to beat down on us. Despite my misgivings at driving off into what amounted to desert Ian confidently directed us to an open campsite. Why it's here I cannot imagine. It's the last thing I would expect to find but, out on the plain with just a few pine trees offering minimal shade we found a modern campsite with excellent facilities and a couple of English campervans! Joy of joys we also found ourselves at the epicentre of a thunderstorm with torrential rain that has, after a couple of hours, calmed to a steady, cool rain tapping away on Modestine's roof. We've cooked supper, darkness has fallen and with luck we will be away tomorrow morning before the sun gets too overpowering. In the shower block an English lady told us of a campsite south of Madrid at Aranjuez which she says we really should visit. It's the summer residence of the Spanish Royal Family (the town, not the campsite) so should be worth investigating.

Below are a few photos Ian took as we drove along.

Basque country seen from the motorway

Gigantic bull welcomes us to Spain

Bleached and brown Spanish landscape

Sierra de Guadarrama. From north

Sierra de Guadarrama. Near Riaza

Thursday 22nd September 2011, Aranjuez, Province of Madrid
Before moving on from last night's campsite high on the mountainous plateau surrounding Madrid, where temperatures plummeted overnight to nine degrees, we investigated the ancient little town of Riaza. It had a definite charm, in its unsophisticated way. It's not on the tourist route and stands alone in the burnt wilderness, twenty kilometres from its nearest neighbour. But every house has its balcony, some so low pedestrians risk bruising their heads as they walk on the pavement below. There are numerous little cafes and at least five butcher's shops. Bread was harder to discover but eventually we found what we needed near the main square.

House with balcony, Riaza

Actually the "square" was circular, designed that way when the town was first constructed with it picturesque church back in mediaeval times. Nowadays it is used as an arena for the annual bull run through the narrow streets. This took place last week and today the seats and scaffolding were being taken down. People tell us we missed a real treat.

Clearing up after the bull run, Riaza

Street scene, Riaza

Soon the day was heating up and we moved on southwards along the Autovia towards Madrid. It can be best described as driving through a manmade Hell. Everywhere was scarred by heavy diggers carving out yet more motorways, the landscape was burnt a deep cinnamon and advertisement hoardings were strung out along the roadside. Motels had sprung up in the midst of a desolate no-man's land of lorry parks, abandoned rubbish and piles of dust.

Embalsa de Riosequilla seen from the north

Motorway scenery, Madrid ring-road

For the next few hours we concentrated on navigating our way around the capital using the various motorways. On the map it looked straightforward but signing is not brilliant and we risked getting swept onto paying motorways to places we didn't wish to visit. Ian's navigation was excellent and Modestine and I did the rest. With relief we left both the airport and the city of Madrid behind and eventually found our way to Aranjuez where we are camping near the river that used to carry the Royal family down from Madrid for a visit to their palace away from the city's oppressive heat. Because of the complex of royal palaces and gardens here, Aranjuez is on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Actually it has been very hot and unpleasant here this afternoon and although the guidebooks marvel at the green grass and beautiful gardens it is all relative. Yes, the gardens do offer some respite from the heat but they are dust bowls beneath long avenues of trees while areas that have not been watered are as parched as the rest of the country. Everywhere within the parks looks exactly the same and we spent precious energy wandering around the three kilometres of walkways today trying to find our way out! There are several impressive fountains, a Chinese garden and what is called a labourer's house. It is anything but. Built around 1910 it is an extravagant summer hideaway built for King Charles IV and is filled with luxurious furnishings and ostentatious decoration. At least we suppose it is. We were told we couldn't see around without purchasing a ticket from the main palace. This turned out to be twenty minutes walk away! In this heat we had no intention of walking that distance to buy a ticket and then return. The writer of the famous handbook for travellers in Spain Richard Ford (who ended his days in Heavitree a mile or so from where we live) wrote of it in the mid-nineteenth century: "another plaything of that silly Charles IV, a foolish toy for the spoiled children of fortune, in which great expense and little taste are combined to produce a thing which is perfectly useless." Perhaps we didn't miss much.

Jardin del Principe. Fuente de los Atlantides, Aranjuez

Jardin del Principe. Chinese garden, Aranjuez

Jardin del Principe. Casa del Labrador, Aranjuez

We did eventually make our way to the main palace. It is a stunningly impressive building with shady arcades beneath the long wings of the building and around the various paved courtyards. At the entrance we were told that as it was Thursday, if we waited until 5pm we could visit the palace for free as EU citizens! This seemed a very generous offer and one we eagerly accepted, trotting off for an ice cream until it was time to return.

Palacio Real, Aranjuez

Palacio Real, Aranjuez

Jardin de la Isla. Fountain of Hercules, Aranjuez

The palace was cool and away from the glare of sunlight. It was largely built in the late 1700s and lavishly decorated with furnishings of the time. (Photos not allowed.) Many of the rooms had been refurnished by Queen Isabella II during the 19th century. She was the last Spanish monarch to really use the palace and lived a lavish life style there until a revolution sent her into exile in Paris where she died around 1870. She was apparently a nymphomaniac. Intriguing as this sounds we've been unable to discover anything more about it though her scandalous private life was one of the factors that led to her being deposed.

Amongst the most impressive rooms was one decorated entirely in porcelain with chinese figures, birds and animals in high relief on the walls, and a smoking room made up as a mosque based on the decoration at the Alhambra in Granada. Both were good fun but meant to be taken seriously.

The tour of the royal apartments ended with a museum of life at the palace with exhibitions of decorative fans, military and ceremonial uniforms, toys used by the royal children, family portraits and photographs – the Bourbons were none too pretty a bunch of royals - and finally an exhibition of various royal wedding dresses.

Thrown back into the overheated world we slowly made our way across the park to our campsite, a shady tree and lots of glasses of water. Tomorrow the campsite is fully booked as people flood out of Madrid to spend a weekend here hoping for some cool, shady walks and some boat rides on the river. Having spent an agreeable afternoon here today we will move on south. It has definitely been worth visiting Aranjuez but it's impossible to enjoy anything in this heat.

Friday 23rd September 2011, Sta. Elena, Andalucia
It has been another day of hurtling along one of Europe's most boring motorways across the flat, burnt landscape of La Mancha. Never again will I call Les Landes of southern France monotonous! They are just not in the same league as central Spain! The country is obsessed with building roads. They are on a massive scale, often with four lanes in each direction, plus a hard shoulder, crawler lane and service roads to either side. And that's the free ones. Beside them there are frequently paying motorways going to the same destination. There are countless link roads between the two and it takes constant vigilance to avoid being channelled from one to the other. These motorways snake off in all directions across the Spanish plain, crossing over and under each other without a building or any sign of life for mile after mile. Any crops that may have grown have been gathered in and the surrounding countryside is now just a massive dust bowl of scorched grass and rubble from road laying. Meanwhile the sun glares down leaving no patch of shade anywhere. From time to time there were filling stations, cafes and ugly roadside hostels for travellers all grouped together on a dusty, overheated tarmac forecourt. There were also vast flat areas of asphalt for use as lorry parks. Some were specifically for winter use when the motorways become impassable with snow. Presumably the lorries can all pull off and congregate together in an icy wilderness until conditions improve. And there really are hundreds of lorries on the free motorways. That's probably why the others have been built but they looked deserted running alongside the free ones.

Normal view of the landscape, La Mancha

A rare moment of variety on the flat plain of La Mancha

La Mancha is famed for Manchego cheese, windmills and the story of Don Quixote. The first two were evident. Cheese was advertised on hoardings to be seen from miles away across the plains and several attractive windmills could be seen on rising hummocks along the route.

Windmills of La Mancha

Fields of solar panels harvest the sunshine, La Mancha

Don Quixote was a naive 17th century Spanish gentleman anxious to uphold the ideal of chivalry. He left his comfortable home and wandered around the countryside wearing a suit of rusty armour, accompanied by his horse Rosinante and his faithful servant Sancho Panza on a donkey, attempting to carry out chivalrous acts. Somehow he was unable to see the world for what it was so spent his time tilting at windmills thinking they were giants, and attacking sheep believing them to be armies. His servant was forever rescuing him – the voice of reason in Quixote's mad world. After spending the day in the hot, dusty, arid and ugly countryside of La Mancha I'm convinced his reason simply snapped with the strain.

Just as I felt I could take the boredom no longer we finally reached the gateway to Andalucia and began climbing up from the plains into the rugged bare mountains. Things gradually became slightly greener and far more interesting.

Approaching the mountain range of Andalucia

We found a campsite beneath pine trees on a windy ridge overlooking olive trees that stretch to the horizon. They are the only green things growing on the open hillsides. It was still early afternoon but with free internet access and a dropping of temperature from 35 down on the plains to 24 up in the hills, we decided to spend the afternoon "relaxing" and catching up on electronic paperwork. A cool breeze as we worked outside made a delicious change from the past few days. We have been surrounded by dozens of jays, squawking in the pines and olive trees and sticking their beaks into the fresh water taps supplying the pitches as they try to get something to drink. Everything, even the birds, are parched.

Thirsty jay, Sta Elena campsite

Late afternoon we packed up and strolled down into the village intending to visit the local museum dedicated to the history of the famous Battle of Navas de Tolosa against the Moors which took place here in 1212 and was seminal in the Spanish endeavour to force the Moors out of Spain. We never found the museum! Signing for anything but Manchego cheese is really awful in Spain and we simply couldn't find it! We gave up and went off to discover the bullring instead. They are still an integral part of Spanish life and even a tiny little town like Sta Elena in the mountains has one!

Bull ring, Sta Elena

We also enjoyed pottering the dusty tiled streets of whitewashed, single-storey houses with their heavy rounded roof tiles and little balconies. Here we chanced upon a couple with a novel idea for repainting the front of their home – the husband lifted his wife, paintpot in hand, on the front of his forklift truck, so she could easily reach under the eaves. As she finished an area he delicately moved her back and along, repositioning her up or down as necessary! They seemed delighted to have us as an admiring audience.

That's the way to do it!