Avila, Segovia and Toledo
Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
10Trip End Apr 16, 2005
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Avila was as stunning from the highway as its photographs had suggested it would be. I instructed Margaret to turn left before the city gate so that we could park in the large tourist car park. "Left?" she verified and then proceeded to turn right. The result of this brain malfunction was that we drove into the confused cobweb of suburban streets surrounding the old town. At least we managed to find a metered parking spot (two euros for a maximum of two hours). With amazing and uncharacteristic foresight I wrote the name of a nearby street on our Avila map. If I hadn't, we would have been in deep trouble two hours later.
At the Convent of St. Joseph a very helpful nun guided us around the small museum. Included in the tour was a re-creation of Saint Theresa's bedroom, complete with its poster of Brad Pitt and her log pillow. We were especially impressed to learn that the recently deceased Pope John Paul II had prayed in the room a few years earlier.
We walked through the city gate, across the small town and down the hill to the Convent of Saint Therese, birthplace of the saint. Margaret was most moved, as Saint Therese is one of her favourite saints. The spot where she was born has been converted into a tiny but fabulously ornate chapel, though it has only one pew. Through a nearby window you can gaze upon her private garden, complete with the original roses and an ancient, rusted lawnmower.
Our parking time was nearly up so we spent only four minutes in the foyer of Avila's cathedral. This was sufficient, as one had to pay a small fortune to enter the church proper. Finding our car proved to be a challenge equivalent to Lancelot's search for the Holy Grail. Our map was totally mystifying and our only clue was the street name (Fontivoros) I had written down two hours earlier. We walked up hills and down narrow alleys, never getting any nearer to our car. At one point we approached a couple of local cops who were busy booking vehicles which had overstayed their welcome. They gave us detailed directions and, much to our surprise, we found it. At the end of Fontivoros Street, perhaps a hundred yards away, was the familiar sleek form of the Peugot. To our horror the two aforementioned policemen were examining the car parked next to ours. We were five minutes over our two hours! We moved with indecent haste, leaping into the car while flashing ingratiating smiles at the cops. Another thirty seconds and we could have been cooling our heels in a Spanish prison or, even worse, paying a hefty fine. Margaret sped off muttering prayers of thanks to her favourite saint.
We were really sorry that we'd only been able to spend a couple of hours in Avila. If we'd been less flustered we would have searched for another parking spot. Margaret would have liked to visit more holy spots and I would have liked to climb the city walls but, as Margaret is fond of saying, it was not meant to be.
It was in Segovia that we experienced our first major difficulty in finding a parking spot. We drove around the entire circumference of the city before entering the town centre. The direction signs were woeful and we were forced to park in a short-term parking spot opposite the Alcazar so that we could begin our search for accommodation. Lonely Planet recommended the Hostal Fornos on Calle Infanta Isabel as having spacious and attractive rooms. The room we were given was neither spacious nor attractive but provided a great view of three grimy walls and a family of endlessly cooing pigeons. At least it was quite central.
We returned to the car so that we could seek longer-term parking and found ourselves once again circumnavigating the ring road around the city. Margaret pulled into a rather rough parking area on the outskirts of town so that we could examine our map once again. A young Segovian stopped behind us, tooted his horn a few times then got out of his car and berated us in some foreign tongue (probably Spanish). We had no idea what he was talking about and couldn't work out what we had done to offend him. Perhaps he only appeared to be angry; maybe he was welcoming us to his city with great emotion.
As always we eventually found a place to leave the car and I dragged our unbelievably heavy bag for what seemed to be ten kilometres up nearly vertical streets to our hotel. I was grateful that Margaret had re-organised our belongings so that I didn't have to drag both big bags otherwise I might have expired before ever entering the Alcazar. A warm beer hastened my recovery and we strolled up to the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral.
No wonder Spanish Catholics don't go to church. Either they are closed or they charge a fortune for entry. Having had a preliminary look-around we returned to Hostal Fornos to recover and prepare for the next day when we planned to explore every nook and cranny of the fairly compact city.
As I write: I bought four cans of beer at a local supermarket and, as we have no fridge, put them in our bathroom sink submerged in cold water. As I have found in other countries, the water inevitably leaks out leaving the beer warm. Better warm beer than none, I say!
In the evening we went to a local restaurant for dinner. Margaret was looking forward to trying the specialty of the region, pig. The restaurant that won our custom did so because it exhibited in its window a really cute (though quite dead) piglet lying on a bier of lettuce. We were completely stuffed by the time we finished and were forced to leave the pig's trotters uneaten on the plate. An American family occupying the table adjacent to us provided entertainment. Dad spoke with a loud and particularly grating accent and referred to his little boy and girl as "angel girl" and "angel boy". What they ate would have fed the Cullis family for a week.
The restaurant lost points in Margaret's estimation when she noticed a waiter placing a bottle of olive oil on the table. At least they could have decanted it into something more stylish, she opined. I agreed, removing my finger from my mouth (I was trying to dislodge a few shreds of pig). We then proceeded to debate the propriety of picking one's teeth at the table. The problem of the correct etiquette was solved when almost everyone in the restaurant began picking their teeth simultaneously.
DAY 20 FRI I woke up feeling more than a little unwell, possibly due to the greasy cochinillo and single glass of red wine I had consumed last night. I didn't tell Margaret and determined to soldier on as best I could.
We walked through the Plaza Mayor yet again then down a narrow lane beside the cathedral to the Alcazar. The castle looks especially impressive when viewed from out of town. Apparently it was the inspiration for the evil queen's palace in Sleeping Beauty. We had thought that the three euro entry fee to the cathedral was a bit of a rip-off (after all it was only a large church) but the same money gave us entry to the wonders of the Alcazar, a much better deal.
The castle contained many rooms; some filled with arms and armor, others with ancient furniture and paintings. Many of the ceilings were extremely beautiful and well preserved. The panoramic views from the ramparts matched those of Beynac Castle and so impressed us that we paid an extra euro to ascend to the top of the tower for an even more stunning view. The climb up the seemingly endless steps nearly killed us and the descent was even more arduous, particularly for the writer whose nausea was growing by the minute. Round and round wound the steps. I was lucky to reach the bottom without being violently sick.
Having definitely got our money's worth we walked all the way to the other end of town to see the Aqueducto. The aqueduct was built by the Romans in the first century AD and once ran for sixteen kilometres. Today all that is left are 163 arches and 728 metres. It's a wonder that even that much remains as it was constructed without the use of mortar. The early Segovians were so awed by it that they believed it had been built by Hercules or the Devil. It was so big and long that I found it almost impossible to photograph, despite climbing hundreds of steps to the top.
In the street below we paused for paella. I asked for a beer which was not a wise thing to do as the waiter brought me an enormous glass brimming with what appeared to be a litre of the amber liquid. I was not ready for lots of beer as I was still suffering from nausea, but a Cullis never wastes something he has paid for and I drank the whole glass and ate a large dish of paella. Amazingly enough I actually felt a little better!
In the afternoon we dozed in our room for a few hours and by the time we arose I felt much better. In the Plaza Mayor we explored a number of souvenir shops where we bought the first souvenirs of our holiday . Margaret's purchases were, as one would expect, tasteful whereas mine were typically trashy.
On our walk to the Aqueducto we had passed the just-closed Iglesia de San Martin. After a leisurely cappuccino in the town square we walked down to Plaza de San Martin and found that the little church was still closed (what a surprise, he wrote sarcastically). We never did see its famous Flemish Gothic Chapel though we could still admire its Mudejar tower and arched gallery.
DAY 21 SAT This was to prove the most stressful and exhausting day we had experienced to date. We drove out of Segovia on the right road but in the wrong direction and had to turn around and start again. We remained calm. There were no signs towards Toledo but we knew we had to head toward Madrid on a particular road. The traffic was a nightmare, crawling along, bumper to bumper, making a mockery of the 120kph speed limit signs. What we had not realised was that on Saturday morning everyone headed out to the giant mall on the edge of town. Once past that mecca the traffic thinned out and we were able to zip along at a more agreeable speed.
My obsession with avoiding tollways meant that we found ourselves almost alone on a road that wound ever higher into the mountains. So high did we get that we found ourselves gazing out on mountain peaks capped with snow. Towards the top of the Pyrenees we were enveloped in clouds and had to slow to a crawl to lessen the risk of driving over the edge and into the void. After what seemed like hours of ascent we reached the summit of the mountain and pulled into the parking lot of a ski resort. There were no skiers at this time of year but plenty of hardy Spanish hikers equipped with stout walking sticks and many layers of clothes. In a nearby bar we learnt that we had reached Navacerrada, a favourite weekend destination of madrilenos. Two cups of steaming cappuccino warmed our cockles and gave us the fortitude to resume our journey.
The road descended as precipitously as it had ascended but it was not too long before we began to see signs toward Toledo. Little did we know that what we had suffered so far was as nothing compared what we were about to suffer.
Lonely Planet recommended two hotels, Hostal Santo Tome and Hostal Santa Isabel, which, it assured us, provided parking. As we drove around the ring road I spotted a couple of signs purporting to show the way to both hotels. Margaret gamely followed my instructions and turned into the narrow street. Unfortunately there were no more signs and the streets became narrower and narrower. We had never in our lives driven down streets so unworthy of the name. Lanes, even glorified alleys, would be an exaggeration of their size. We were petrified! Just when we thought that a lane simply had to widen it became even more constricted. To make the situation even more hair-raising, tourists and locals would squeeze themselves into every nook and cranny to avoid our side mirrors . Speaking of which, we had not learned how to retract our mirrors which was why Margaret scratched deep lines in one as she tried to slip between the walls of the ancient houses.
At one point we found ourselves being followed by a small van. Luckily the driver was more patient than most Spaniards and didn't honk at us as we crawled along. When we entered an impossibly narrow street Margaret got out, walked back to the van and tearfully informed its driver that we were stuck. I had a vision of our two vehicles reversing all the way back to the main road, but the van driver assured Margaret that she'd be able to fit. Miracle of miracles, she did!
We eventually found our way back onto the ring road but in a breathtaking act of stupidity I somehow directed Margaret back into maze of old Toledo and we had to endure the nightmare all over again. By an amazing piece of good luck one of the tourist-infested streets took us right to one of the hotels we'd been seeking. I parked outside and headed towards reception, only to be halted by a Spanish shopkeeper who managed to convey to me with much arm-waving and foreign gibberish that if I parked in that spot the police would get me. Lonely Planet had not been truthful. There was no parking provided. [POSTSCRIPT FROM 2010: A Spanish reader has informed me that the hostal Santo Tome and Santa does, in fact, provide underground parking]. After we had again escaped to the ring road Margaret drove onto the footpath, got out and exclaimed amidst a flood of tears and with great vehemence that she was never going to drive again. "Margaret," I chided, "remember that you're an Australian". She pulled herself together instantly and we continued our search for accommodation.
At long last we drove into an underground parking station just outside the main city gate. Part two of the nightmare was about to begin. Margaret had further rationalised our belongings so that I only had to carry one rather heavy shoulder bag. We trudged up the steep road and through the gate to begin our search for a place to stay. To our rising desperation we found one hotel after another fully booked. Somewhere in the middle of town we met a couple of American ladies who, noticing our distress, offered to assist. One lady was a teacher at the International School in Madrid and had lived in Spain for thirteen years. She was obviously a good Christian because she spent half an hour accompanying us into hotel after hotel and speaking to the hotel receptionists in their native tongue. After many disappointments she learned that there were no vacancies at all in the old city. Apparently people had come to Toledo from all over the country for the annual medieval fair and we would have to try outside the city walls.
The ancient "streets" of Toledo follow no logical pattern and very few are named so it wasn't entirely my fault that we exited the walls on the opposite side of the city to where we had parked. The heat was becoming increasingly oppressive and my shoulder bag correspondingly heavier as we struggled around the ring road. On one occasion I noticed a hotel sign at the bottom of a steep hill and left Margaret resting while I trudged down and verified that it, too, was fully booked. We were almost back at the main city gate when I spotted another hotel. We had nothing to lose and were thrilled to find that it had a room free. It was not a cheap room because Hotel Mayoral was not a cheap hotel. Its three stars came with a price that was more than twice as much as we normally paid, but we had little choice.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around town, though our exploration didn't last long as we hadn't taken our guidebook. I left Margaret resting in our relatively luxurious room and set off to collect my book from the car. The parking station was another kilometre along the road and my aged body was beginning to shut down. The streets were even busier than they had been earlier due to all the visitors who were driving home. The traffic near the main gate was being directed by a large group of whistle-blowing policemen and there was even an ambulance standing by waiting for the inevitable accident.
We dined at our hotel's restaurant and requested a three-course dinner in preference to a single dish because it was cheaper. A Fawlty Towers comedy ensued which injected a little light relief into what had been a very stressful day. I had ordered squid in black ink but what I received looked and tasted suspiciously like fish sans ink. The waiter, possibly named Manuel, insisted that it was squid even after Margaret pointed it out on the menu. She took him at his word and suggested to me that, despite appearances, it must me some sort of Spanish, clear-inked squid. A little later we noticed an American couple remonstrating with the same waiter who was insisting that the husband's squid in black ink was, in fact, fish. He had accidentally substituted our dinners but was not about to admit it! We all had a good laugh and Margaret insisted that our desert be provided free in reparation.
DAY 22 SUN The breakfast provided by our fancy hotel took the form of a buffet. Some guests selected chocolate eclairs and similar fare which we found quite unsuitable for the first meal of the day. There was no Weet Bix and we were forced to make do with rolls and jam. The boiled eggs (which we spurned) were of dubious quality, being of a dirty blue colour.
As I write: Margaret is watching a bullfight on TV and exclaiming in horror. We cannot imagine any possible rationalisation for bullfighting. It is obviously cruel and perverted. As in football broadcasts back home they run replays of the most shocking bits over and over from several different viewpoints.
A good night's sleep had restored our energy somewhat and we laboured once again up the hill, through the city gate and into the old town. We had hoped to take a good picture of the entire town from some high point, possibly the Alcazar, but it was not to be. The Alcazar was closed to the public and didn't look anywhere near as interesting as its counterpart in Segovia. Our main goal of the day was to find El Greco's House and Museum where we hoped to be able to buy prints of his View of Toledo for Tim and Alex. We had no intention of paying good money to actually enter the museum and look at a lot of old pictures so we searched through all the surrounding souvenir shops until we found the print we wanted . If you want a sword or knife of any size, shape or style, Toledo is the place to find it. Every souvenir shop was festooned with steel.
The Medieval Markets were still going strong and the streets were crowded with visitors. We couldn't understand the attraction as it was really just a larger version of the Balmain Markets. We stopped briefly to watch some street theatre which seemed to be about Don Quixote. The high point of the performance occurred when the Don's carriage was accidentally knocked off its chocks and rolled down the hill, crushing several tourists. Five hours of walking with only a couple of short breaks left us with nothing further to see so we agreed that it would be a good idea to cut short our stay in Toledo by a day and arrive in Montserrat a day early.
In the evening we waited in vain for the hotel restaurant to open then learned that hotel restaurants were closed on Sunday nights. For the last time we walked into town and had dinner in a small downstairs restaurant just inside the city gate. It was pretty ordinary fare though apparently typical of the region. Margaret had quail and I had something else (I never learned what it was). The waitress asked me where I was from and whether I wanted wine. I replied "I'm Australian and I want beer!" She was probably either very impressed or very repulsed.
Where I stayed