You just go to your favourite shelf. A nervous breakdown agitates your hands and, there it is. The usual and much-used typical guide of Spain. Please tear it apart. You have been told to first discard all the topics, kriss krass. No Granada, no Toledo and no Gaudí’s marvels. What’s left for a foreigner’s journey?
A ton and a half of non-frequented spots is what’s left. Let’s simply call them unusual. That is the impression that one might conclude from an non-planned Sunday out.
I shall make an exercise of transubstantiation. Let’s put it this way; Catholic church theoretically turns bread into Jesus’ Holy flesh. I will disguise my noisy Spanish family into a foreign tourist typical situation. Imagine that a local bastard has recommended one of my workmates to send me out of the average tourist circuits. And he does. Like most of Spaniards’ indications on heritage and food, dense, almost impossible. Grasp it if you have what it takes.
Now there am I, driving a rented car right from the middle of the country. A country that tries to avoid the financial collapse with a crazy Sunday traffic. Yet again, the country that has to test my surprise capacity.
‘I have to drive what?’
Email says ‘Take A-3 highway’. That is my very first buzzer-beater!. It is somewhat a rush-hour on a late May Sunday morning. I have been raised (remember I am playing out a wasp tourist) thinking that Spaniards do nothing but going tapas or to the church after holy Sunday’s noon. All the ways of the peripheral M30 and M40 are busy as hell and now I have to figure out the GPS instructions. It seems to work although I get back to one lineal thought: ‘How far away should I get before any peace arrives to this driving? Cor, I am on holiday. I’m not delivering UPS’
For no less than 40km into the Monte-Carlo cours like A-3 and we are thrown into turns and downhills. My car dangerously shares roadspace with fast berlinas and homicidal truckers.
But there is the light. That morning shade is so magic that I have to stop and capture the variety of greens, from pale to shiny. They warn us about the last warm days before the thrilling action of Mr Señor Sun. Olive trees are nicely planted on steps of land, snake-like agricultural land plots that curve the hills and put shiny browns together with yellows. And then marigolds, poppies and carnations. Flowers appear everywhere. And savage drivers along relatively new roads. Is this a place in heaven? My wife (let’s place her under a visitors’ skin too) suggests it even smells morning coffee. We probably are possesed by some Tuscany devil. We don’t hear the roar of the city anymore.
Roman Remains at Segobriga
After a rough 60 mile trip I see Saelices. I should stop for a coffee but can’t wait to see my first recommended place. A monster sized panel shows me the way to the right. I will be in Segóbriga Ciudad Romana within a couple of minutes. Segóbriga, hmm. Let’s face we are fans of Roman life and constructions. It is the same love for their advances as our dispair about how these engineering and culture was spoilt ‘in the name of’. And we -allegedly foreign travellers- had read about Merida, Italica and Ampuria Brava. But, did you check this up?
My workmate’s emailed impressions did not reflect all the truth. He’d visited this Roman settlement some ten years ago. But there has been a major investment on culture. Perhaps it is one of answers for Spanish Public sector debts. Public sectors, may I say. This entire region depends on the development carried by La Mancha autonomous region. Excavations are tidy, ample, enriched by walking alleys, panels and a museum. Priceless work that, today, not more than 100 visitors are enjoying. Sad, although enchanting.
Nevertheless, the imposing scenario developes before our eyes a fantastic and well preserved theatre, a 5.000 plus espectator amphiteater, forum, baths, a huge circus. A 400 metre long circus. We runners confess ourselves as lovers of those old stadiums, the named ‘circus maximus’. We love them by all means. The one at Segóbriga, apparently, was never finished because its late dating. This area started a decline when mining stopped to be needed. But imagine the power of such urban society. The city was the headquarters of the largest source of Roman Empire’s gypsum mines. The special crystal state (selenite) of the gypsum at the surroundings made them a ‘spot to be’.
And I tell you. That had to be a quite central city at Roman times. You can search around those hills and imagine villas, people, chariots, merchants and a lively countryside. Luxurious baths were built to accomodate the fattest arses of the Hispano-roman Empire. As soon as my imagination got tightened to greed and bacchanalia, I started to feel hungry. It was time to be pushed forward to some 1.200 years later.
We drove a nice and softly meandering road. Along Puebla de Almenara and stunning fields of saffron and olive trees, one can see the noble Almenara Castle. La Mancha saffron can be spotted between September and November. The violet colours and the hectic activity invades the grounds. We are entering the Mancha. Quixote’s playground and Cervantes Lab, or the other way round. Spain frequently delivers misunderstood ways of giftedness. As a tourist myself, I wonder how such a geography of non-spaces influences the herds of humans and, like a snap, there it goes, bingo. An individuality. The advent of a particular variety of a bloke that escapes around the back of the sanity. And we are talking about fifteen to twenty miles of that empty rural sanity.
The highly concentrated agricultural population of these regions forces me to drive through the purest essence of the word ‘nothing’. Belmonte welcomes us behind another corner. It lies about 20 miles from the Roman site. The rationale of the naming sends us to a sacred hill. A beautiful hill. Belmonte.
Local poet Luis de León wrote in XVIth century those escapist words: «How tranquil is the life / Of him who, shunning the vain world’s uproar, May follow, free from strife, The hidden path, of yore Trod by the few who conned true wisdom’s lore!». Should he refer to the tranquility of travelling with no pressure, should he speak of religious matter of choice (following Horace’s beatus ille), I will never know. Please remember I am a fake northern European citizen with half a Sunday yet to spend. Period.
Napoleon III was a funny sort of French emperor. He, say, converted A into B in order to ascend to the French throne. Indeed, he turned his sucess at general ellections for the Second Republique Française into an old-fashioned Empire himself. Yet again, he probably shared a particular love to gold as uncle Napo. The big one. In any case, Louis Napoleón met Spanish girl Eugenia de Montijo. She (Eugenia) payed tribute to her brilliant community manager, called Mum. She (Mum) decided that no better spot to progress that moving from the local court to Paris. Heir to the wording and pomp & circumstance of Palafoxes and Montijos, the not-so-young girl married the French top guy and became Emperss of the French. Then she got even more spare time. For instance, she thought in restoring the beautiful Belmonte castle.
After ups and downs, the use of the castle had gone under restoration blockade. No doubt it has been benefitted from public&private partnership for the last twenty years. You only need to check the resorts and rural houses around. Someone got someone else’s funds to refurbish the area, I think. Anyhow, the castle has been restored like if Johnny Depp was to settle his feet on conqueror’s land. I park the car just outside the castle walls and, there it is!
Two miles of a walled slope. Five gates and all the atmosphere of a mediaeval film. The entrance to the castle brings me to a totally renewed porch and patio. No matter how loyal to the original aspect it may be, it has it all!. A huge chimney to roast mammals, game and poultry, stairs, narrow gates, towers, more towers, corridors and a beautifully restored XIX century wing. One thinks Eugenia had far too good taste but she lived too far away. Presumably, Napo the III offered similar astonishing accomodation ‘a la maison’ back at home.
Be aware that most of castillian (coming from ‘land of castles’) fortresses are ruined. Arab castles and towers have been destroyed and taken aback to catholic armies one thousand years ago. Military orders were dismantled. War against muslims moved south and stone from walls and towers suffered despolliation and pillaging for future building. Spanish Civil War also torn some bits of Belmonte apart. Therefore, current state of the castle at Belmonte deserves our respect for taste and modern works. A not-to-miss spot for any traveller. Though, we are about 120km from Madrid.
I almost forget what the time is. Lunch is a particular like-dislike game (package or set meal or tourist menus or bocadillos de tortilla) so I won’t recommend a special place. Just remember we are in the middle of the rough Castille. Eat roughly, if you like, but remember that a demolishing glass of wine can spoil your driving back to the city. Moreover, when turning back to A-3 highway, dozens of radars are hidden in the 50k around Tarancón.
My rented car is now full of herbs, dust, smells of History and I humble about the futility of living. The A-3 is less busy now, I figure out that siestas are at their peak, and we benefit from the service areas at the sides of the highway. A 15-dollar menu includes gazpacho (cold tomato soup) and a 1/4 of roasted chicken and desert. We are surrounded by truckers, travellers and all sorts of humans. I see no other tourists. I am at an unspoilt tourist area, that’s obvious.
One man, one vision, one bizarre cathedral.
Did a Lybian hit squad target on Mejorada? What the heck has happened to that … wait. It is not demolished.
I have been directed to a cathedral under construction?
Right 15 minutes away from the driving chaos of the city, there lies the project of one man. Justo Gallego was a believer. He’d suffered from tuberculosis while being a trappist and his condition got worse inside the monastic regime. He believed his health condition got better because of his faith in Virgen del Pilar and started to work in a plot of land. The story is nicely described at Citynoise article.
Yes, it looks like a cathedral. With all the domes from the distance, the towers and the architecture behind. I can almost place my car right underneath the building because the ‘thing’ has the dimensions of a true gothic cathedral! Entrance is open to all. At the inside, bricks, wooden planks, then counting upwards ten, fifteen, twenty feet… How can that be possible?
Gaudí returns to us. We took all pages from our lonely Planet guide away but the lines and thoughts of visionary Justo Gallego get them back. He chopped tiny porcelains from debris. He collected concrete from building firm’s extra stocks. He designed the entire cathedral and he is aware that it all could be sent to zero when he dies. No permissions are granted to the building. Nothing but the enormous respect to this man makes the visit to be a must.
Is it a sign of the Spanish times? As a flagship, an unfinished illegal cathedral is not the best branding for a country. But hundreds of metaphores come to one’s head.
We are the humans with no size against the magnificent nature. This journey proves it. We belong to the trillion ants’ army that allow rapists and pirates to manage our own welfare system. Out character is our fatal destiny. But do not underestimate us. From many millions of nobodies, from the empty hole, there comes one surprising individual. He or she can erect a cathedral, design a theater where your whispers are thunder. That human can – on purpose – understand the essence of ellegance.
The day vanishes and my car is parked by an ugly fence with a red and white ‘no aparcar’ written on it. The metal seems to reflect a voice that comes from behind us. It is the voice of time, I can clearly hear it now. And I drive downtown.