Road Trip to the Iberian Peninsula
Story by P. J. McCarthy
Photography Mark McCall
It was a wet and rainy November evening in the UK when the idea that a spring trip south to the sun took hold. The reasoning being to escape the worst of the winter, the Brexit blues and experiment with re-locating, combining work and relaxation.
We made our escape from Sussex to Dover late evening on March 16th to join the first post-midnight ferry to Calais in Northern France, mingling with lorry drivers, students and casual workers making the same journey on the brief one and a half hour trip across the Channel.
Arriving in France on St. Patrick’s Day, the long nocturnal drive south, roads and tolls heading towards Bayonne with smoked salmon sandwiches, flasks of tea and motorway stops until we reach the city by early evening. The Basque past and impressive historic terraces sited at the confluence of the rivers Ardour and Nive, Louis XIV’s fortifications and our impressive second floor apartment with French doors opening onto the quays make Bayonne a very welcome sight indeed! Weekend walks through half-timbered streets, the old town’s crafty, bohemian feel with book and antique shops, an artisan boulangerie for delicious croissants, baguettes and the sight of the Cathedrale Ste-Marie rising above the city with its twin towers and steeple.
Leaving Bayonne on a wet Monday morning, we abandon a planned trip to Biarritz to our return journey and we cross the Pyrenees into Spain, the day’s drive south, through biting winds, sleet and snow on the Sierra de Candleario, past Burgos, Valladolid, Salamanca. The town of Bejar in the distance looks interesting but we keep driving south to Caceres our next stop in central Spain in the province of Extremadura.
We approach the vast industrial estates and apartment blocks of the sprawling city of Caceres, heading towards our apartment on the edge of the old town, it’s monuments, turrets and towers glimpsed in the distance, tantalizing, enticing, the streets narrow, almost vertical, cobbled. The apartment is basic, cold, uninviting after the second floor riverside beauty in Bayonne. However, we make do. The following morning we wander up to the elevated turrets and spires admiring storks nesting on the gables of historic monuments above.
The evident poverty and neglected housing on the route upwards opens onto a vista of three plazas or squares built on an elevated site, more cobbled streets and granite steps guiding you upwards surrounded by majestic palaces, once opulent homes, mansions, a cathedral, convents and churches. From the 13th century Caceres was occupied by aristocratic families from the north of the province who built these palaces and stately homes, completed in the 16th century and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986. Just one example is the Cathedral De Santa Maria with its rich treasures of gold chalices, crosses, candlesticks, monstrances, incense holders, aspergilliums and croziers. There are extraordinary altars in gilt and carved oak built into numerous side chapels, including one gilded ornate example made for Louis XVI of France. A fraction of these treasures would astonish.
It is a remarkable restored city in a city with a history of ecclesiastical certainty, wealth, Spanish power and opulence.
We dined at Puerta de la Estella, built into the ramparts overlooking Plaza Mayor on warm salads with strands of baby eel, a shared Ravioli dish with Cod and Langoustines, a delicious White Rueda to drink, followed by dessert specially made for the approaching Easter, a cross between French toast and bread and butter pudding with a generous dollop of chocolate ice cream. A simple and most delicious meal.
On the route back to our apartment we are reminded once again of the approach of Holy Week as we wandered through the streets of the Old City, standing silently as we watch a handsome bearded Cacerian as he carries a black oak cross upwards along the narrow, cobbled streets as companions follow, some in full dress, the rehearsals well under way for the re-enactment of the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection observed by the Catholic populations of both Spain and Portugal with festivities and solemn pageant.
On the following morning, before we drive south, we visit the village of Cesar de Caceres to buy its famous soft cheese, then on to Malpartida de Caceres, its traditional homes of white walls and granite surrounds on doors and windows, the climate providing the perfect breeding ground for storks nesting on ruins, church towers and atop village lamp posts.
We take the opportunity to visit the extraordinary Monumento Natural de Barruecos, with its giant granite rocks shaped by erosion framing four historic reservoirs, a cross between Joshua Tree and Arizona’s Taliesin West. Again the nesting place for colonies of storks atop sculptural extravaganzas dotting the area and created by a German, Wolf Vostell who settled here in 1976. Inside a 16th century former wool washing factory within the park is the Museo Vostell with Wolf’s own work exhibited, a conceptual Art Collection, its theme, the meeting of Art and Life.
Finally, we visit Garrovillas with its rugged, beautiful countryside, to admire in this narrow, sleepy, deserted town in late afternoon, the incredible arched porticos of the Plaza Mayor, its simple beauty not to be missed.
The road south to our destination on the eastern coast of the Algarve takes us across the Spanish border through Evora, one of Portugal’s most beautifully preserved medieval towns with great Alentejo cuisine of game and lamb as well as superb local wine, within its 14 century walls. On to Mertola, on a rocky spur high above the Rio Guadiana with its narrow streets, white houses and towering castle. Following closely the Rio Guadiana we leave Alentejo and arrive at the coast in Villa Real de San Antonio, heading west though Tavira to Santa Luzia, home of Polvo (Octopus), delicious grilled!
Tavira offers a gateway to some of the best sandy unspoilt beaches of the Ile de Tavira and is situated on the Rio Gilao. It’s a relaxed easy town straddling both sides of the river. Favorites beside the beaches are the Tavira market (Mercado) daily selling the freshest fish, best local cheeses and produce grown in the countryside around. Don’t miss the flea market situated close by each Saturday morning or music in the tiny ornate churches of Misericordia, Saint Francis or Saint Sebastian organized by the Academy of Music. Enjoy too a film at Antonio Pinheiro, the art house cinema, a drink at the Pousada, the reconstructed 16th century convent with courtyard or dine at Pausa, wonderful Tapas dishes cooked by a Columbian architect turned chef. Superb!
On Easter Sunday we head again inland to Sao Bras De Aportel, for an extraordinary Easter celebration held yearly that is like no other. Easter is celebrated by the local people, carpeting the streets leading in all directions to the main square with cut rosemary, fennel, dill, daisies, marigolds, calendulas and osteospermums. Patterns and motifs meticulously repeated on a continuous line allow the crowds to negotiate the narrow carpeted streets. Approaching noon, a procession emerges slowly, a seated viewing area set aside for the elderly, sick and infirm.
Local men in their Sunday best form two rows, each carrying aloft beautiful elaborate bouquets, some with floral crosses on long poles, men and boys marching in rows, stopping intermittently when the cry goes up in Portuguese ‘He resurrected like he said’ and the response shouted out in unison ‘Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!’. The words echo, over and over again, through the crowded streets, the village balconies embellished and ornamented with patterned quilts. The trampling of the rosemary, fennel and dill underfoot as the procession proceeds sends their sweet aromas into the air. Intoxicating!
An extraordinary experience of color, smell, and tradition in a beautiful hill town, its walls and Church overlooking the mountains, the Algarve and the Atlantic Ocean.
Video courtesy PJ McCarthy