We hired a Citroen from Avis online but when we picked it up it had turned into a SEAT. Certainly the little Spanish car wasn’t as sexy as the French one; it was older and a diesel. Diesel is very common in Spain with at least two pumps on every petrol bowser, but for noise and performance, the diesel runs like a truck. Although the little SEAT is noisy it is very economical compared to the gasoline guzzling Opel we drove in Germany.
It was 4.30pm before we finally set off from Barcelona and we really didn’t have a clear idea where we were going to go. We ended up heading towards Tarragona largely because it was an old Roman city and had ruins (so yes, that was my choice). It was a long slow drive up the coast past sad old and rundown beach resorts, largely because we had to stop and pay a toll every five hundred yards. One section of the highway between Barcelona and Zaragosa had a toll of 17 euro!! Tarragona and its Roman ruins proved to be a bit of a disappointment (the amphitheatre overlooking the beach was quite impressive but was under restoration) so we quickly moved on. We backtracked a little way up the motorway and headed for Zaragoza.
Zaragoza was another old Roman city, its modern name a corruption of its original name, Caesar Augusta. There are a few scattered remnants of the Roman wall, a market place and an amphitheatre. Most of the Roman ruins however are buried some 70 feet beneath the new city (its amazing how much the surface level has risen in 2000 years) and can be visited on a tour, but we’d done that already in Barcelona so gave it miss. The landscape we drove through was dry and harsh; it seems hard to reconcile the condition of Spain today with that of the Roman era, when Iberian was one of the two most economically profitable provinces in the area (the other was the equally unlikely Libya!). Although Spain was the source of much of the Empire’s silver its most important export was cereal crops and olive oil, which thrived in Spain’s harsh, marginal environment. Spain was also far from the Empire’s borders and was therefore rarely invaded or disturbed by internal unrest and so required only a tiny garrison of between five and ten thousand soldiers and handful of administrators. This made Spain a very cheap province that always turned a significant profit (Libya was even more profitable, garrisoned as it was by only approximately a thousand soldiers). It also goes a long way to explaining how in the 5th century Spain was lost to a handful of Visigothic adventurers (and a later handful of Islamic adventurers).
Zaragoza’s main draw card is its magnificent Basilica. The Basilica’s claim to fame is a statue of the Virgin Mary mounted on a fragment of the pillar on which Jesus was scourged. The statue draws pilgrims from all over Spain and the shops around the Basilica square are awash with religious trinkets (all very tasteful of course). We arrived in Zaragoza late, around 8.30pm and the sun had just set but the Basilica was a beacon of light that guided us to the old centre. With its four enormous bell towers it looks more like an Ottoman mosque than a traditional church and is unique in Spain (perhaps it’s the ghost of the Andalusian mosque whose foundations it shares?). After crossing a river into the old city we pulled into an underground carpark and left the car. We were a little startled however when we ascended the stairs to find ourselves in the main square at the foot of the Basilica. It was simply enormous and although the square itself is huge it was almost impossible to get the whole building into a photo.
We found accommodation in a hostel just behind the main square. Maybe it was the beginning of the off season or perhaps because it was so late but the proprietor charged us half the advertised rate. Great success!! After a quick freshen up we set out to explore. The small old city is well kept, although not overly blessed with character. There were a few nice bars in the side streets and we ate at a restaurant popular with locals that specialised in what we would call ‘offal.’ Fortunately we had an English menu to hand to prevent us ordering something unpleasant!
The next day we had churros and coffee for breakfast before setting off the visit the Basilica. As we anticipated, its internal beauty was in inverse proportion to its external magnificence. Sometimes big is not the best.
Having spent several days in Madrid three years ago we hadn’t intended a return visit on this trip but the drive from Zaragoza to our intended destination, Segovia, seemed to drag on and on. By 5pm we were still an hour from Madrid (and Segovia is an hour further north) so we decided to make Madrid our destination for the night. It was also Saturday and we counted on their being some interesting nightlife after the quiet of Zaragoza. We checked into a suitably dodgy pension, cleaned ourselves up and hit the town.
Madrid is a huge city of some nine million people but the centre is charming and retains a small town feel. There are plenty of bars and restaurants to enjoy and we had a delicious meal of tapas that night. Afterwards we joined the MadRIDE bar crawl which was excellent - certainly the best since Riga. There were three Perth girls (actually from Albany but moving to Perth) and a guy from Adelaide who we may try and catch up with in Munich. We visited four bars, including the ubiquitous Irish bar that always seem to feature in these bar crawls, and finished up at salsa club. Although MadRIDE was well organised the night was not without its problems. Firstly, all the bars we visited were less that honest and employed sharp practices on their patrons, requiring intervention by the crawl organisers. They were the usual scams - overcharging, short changing, refusing to accept discount vouchers, denying all knowledge of organised bar crawls, and refusing to provide complimentary drinks. The MadRIDE guys were good and always sorted out the problem but it was still frustrating.
Secondly, I was pick pocketed outside the Irish bar. Phil from Adelaide and I were outside waiting while the group assembled to move on when a dubious character walked passed us and feigned being spat at in the face by Phil. He made a bit of a song and dance about it but Phil just ignored him so he walked off and sat on a car bonnet across the street. A minute or so later he came over to me and asked where I was from. “Australia”, I answered. He reached out and shook my hand and said, “You play football in Australia?” “Yes.”, I said warily. “Yes yes!” he said and then imitated tackling a soccer ball past me, bouncing around beside me and kicking at my feet. I immediately tapped my wallet and it was gone. He tried to step away but I still gripped him in the handshake and refused to let him go. “You can give back my wallet.” I said with as much restrained menace as a dweeb like me can muster. He laughed as if to say ‘what wallet?’ but I refused to let him go. As I was beginning to cause a scene he handed the wallet back. It was open and he had been trying to pull the cash out one handed but hadn’t had time. He apologise - ingenuously - tapped me on the shoulder, wished me a good holiday and tried to lift my mobile phone from my breast pocket but I again grabbed him. There was no apology this time and as I called out that this man was a thief he ducked away down the alley and ran. Fernando, one of the organisers, ran after him. He later said that they know all the lowlifes around the city and they aren’t supposed to rob their clients. Of course this part of the problem - if they know who these guys are they should be telling their patrons to beware. It all seems part of the seedier side of doing business in Madrid’s downtown. Pick pocketing patrons is generally bad for business but the bars all tolerated it as long as the pick pockets only target patrons when they are leaving their premises. It’s a sad state of affairs. That said I was pleased to have outwitted the thief (obviously I wasn’t THAT drunk) but couldn’t really relax for the rest of the night.
We stumbled in from the crawl about 5am and snatched a couple of hours sleep before we had to check out at 10pm. After a quick coffee and pastry we hit the road to Segovia. Segovia is a famous old Castilian city about an hour from Madrid, although it seemed to take longer. Its main claim to fame is the magnificent Roman aqueduct that carries water from a distant spring to the old city; an essential service as as Segovia is situated in the midst of desolately dry landscape. It is extremely well preserved and towers above the lower city.
We grabbed a spot of tapas in the lower town just below the aquaduct. It was a beautiful day; hot with endless blue skies above. But we found the going a little tough (I wonder why?). Coffee and Red Bull helped but not by much. We walked up into the upper town for sightseeing with little enthusiasm. The cathedral, one of the first gothic cathedrals in Spain, charged an entry fee to visit and we baulked at paying.
We wandered on instead to the Alcazar; the old castle. Alcazar is the Spanish version of the Arabic word for castle and bears witness to the fact that for some three hundred years Segovia was an Islamic city. Although there are some minor traces of the original Arab castle in the lower parts of the wall, the Alcazar as it currently stands is largely a nineteenth century “orientalist” reconstruction.
To best appreciate Segovia you need to leave the town for the hills across from the Alcazar. From that vantage point the sheer cliff top position and mighty walls of the city stand out in stark relief. Unfortunately we never found the view point and were a little too tired to drive around looking for it so decided to push on to Avila.
Avila is less than an hour from Segovia and has the best preserved circuit of medieval walls in Spain. The old city is rectangular in shape and the entire length of its grey granite walls and all 120 towers and bastions are intact. Some parts of the wall trace their origin right back to Roman times, which were then expanded and improved by the Moors. Not that you would be able to tell as Avila’s tourist brochures demonstrate a disturbing and deliberate historical amnesia. In trumpeting Avila’s UNESCO world heritage listing, Avila notes the contribution of the many peoples who have called Avila home - the Iberians, the Celts, the Romans, the Bretons (?), the Jews, the converted Moors. Excuse me? “Converted Moors?” What about THE Moors who were here for some three hundred years? One thousand years after the event and people still cannot tell the truth. History is of course written by people and people are rarely able to be objective or honest about things they find embarrassing or shameful; and countries often have histories that are embarrassing and shameful. So, because it’s going to come up a lot in our travels in Spain, let me fill in a couple of the historical blanks excised from the pages of Spanish ’nationalist’ history.
At the beginning of the eighth century Spain was ruled by the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that the Romans had installed in southern France and Spain as their proxies during the fifth century. The Romans expected to be able to reimpose their authority after they’d dealt with problems closer to home but due to the collapse of the western Roman empire they never did. In For 250 years the Visigoths struggled to maintain any form of legitimate government in Spain. This was largely because they were xenophobic, viciously anti-Semitic and hated (and were hated by) their Hispanio-Roman citizens. Under their stewardship Spain rapidly plunged into economic decline and stagnation. In 711AD, King Roderic seized power after a vicious civil war that shattered all semblance of Visigoth unity, leading a group of dissatisfied Gothic and Roman nobles to invite an Arab and Berber army to cross the straights from Morocco into Spain. A Muslim army of no more than five thousand men under a general named Tariq landed beside the monolithic rock on the southern tip of the peninsula that still bares his name - the Jibr-al Tariq, corrupted into Gibraltar. Roderic managed to pull together an army of some ten thousand men which was all but annihilated in the ensuing battle. The Visigoth regime collapsed like house of cards and within three years the Muslims were in complete control of the Iberian peninsular and southern France. Over the next three hundred years they created in Spain, or Al-Andulus, a culture so outstanding that it remains a wonder of the world. Political collapse and infighting in the 12th century led to the Reconquista of the northern half of Spain by resurgent Christian kingdoms but Al-Andulus survived in the south until the Emirate of Granada was finally extinguished in 1492AD. The triumphant Spanish kings of Castile-Aragon and the Catholic Church then initiated one of Europe’s first genocides, exterminating all trace of Muslim and Jewish culture from Spainish shores (along with most of the Muslims and Jews into the bargain). The few remaining Moorish jewels in the southern Spain such as the Alhambra in Granada and the Mesquite in Cordoba are prized simply because they are the rarest of survivals. It would be fair to say that the triumph of the Reconquista was a victory of barbarism over enlightenment.
Avila’s walls are magnificent and although there was a medieval gothic cathedral and a few other buildings there was little else to see in the city. We attempted to walk the walls in the morning but large stretches were under repair so we gave it a miss. We moved on to Toledo.