Napoleonic Wars Refought In Spain

Spain, Napoleonic Wars
The second of May is a date that every Spaniard knows. In 1808 on that date, the Spanish people rose up against Napoleon and started a long struggle to kick his troops out of the country. They’d been occupied the year before when Spain’s weak king had foolishly allowed French troops march through his territory to invade Portugal. Napoleon, being Napoleon, decided to keep both countries.

The Peninsular War, as it was called, was long and bloody. At first the Spaniards were outmatched, but they developed an effective guerrilla war that stymied the invaders. In fact the term guerrilla (“little war”) originated in this conflict. The English moved in to help and in 1814 their combined forces kicked Napoleon’s troops back into France.

All across Spain in the first week of May, communities hold festivals to commemorate battles and celebrate local heroes. Here in Cantabria in northern Spain, the municipality of Camargo holds a reenactment in honor of Pedro Velarde y Santillán, an artillery captain who was born in the town and died heroically on the first day of the uprising.

Camargo is a small place that most foreigners and even locals miss. We’ve lived ten minutes away from it for a year and we had to look up how to get there. Despite this obscurity, they put on a good show. A big street fair sold food and local crafts. Strangely there was French cheese and wine for sale, a rarity in a country with enough excellent cheese and wine that there’s no need for imports. I suppose it was in the spirit of the occasion.

%Gallery-187602%Modern and traditional stalls sat side by side. Kids took burro rides while their parents looked through traditional clothing or modern trinkets made by local craftsmen. A local Moroccan restaurant had even set up a tea stall and hookah stand. Why not? Some Moroccans ended up in both armies. I wasn’t too happy to see a mother let her 10-year-old boy take a toke from a hooka, though. You should keep dangerous, addictive drugs like tobacco away from children.

In a nearby park reenactors portraying Spanish and French troops drilled and answered questions from curious onlookers, while a fencing master gave sword-fighting tips to the kids. Soon the reenactors marched into town, firing off their flintlock muskets with an ear-splitting roar. French cavalrymen rode around the crowd shouting to the Spaniards that they were going to occupy the country forever and sleep with all the women. The Spaniards called them “sons of whores.” All in good fun.

So if you’re passing through Spain in early May, keep an eye out for one of these festivals. There’s an especially big one in Madrid, which was the flashpoint of the uprising, but you can find them in most regions, even in little towns like Camargo that you’ve never heard of.

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Photo Of The Day: Umbrella In Paris

Paris is a visually arresting city no matter where you look, whether it’s the city’s ornate architecture, fashionable residents or jaw-dropping art museums. Take this photo by Flickr user Cosmic Smudge, who captured this intriguing Paris scene after a rainstorm, as evidence. I love the mysterious umbrella holder, whose face remains unseen, complemented by splashes of bright red and flashes of gold from the buildings behind.

Taken any great travel photos of your own in Paris? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Cosmic Smudge]

Weird monument in Wales has interesting history


If you’re staying in Aberystwyth, Wales, you can see it from pretty much everywhere–a tall tower on a bluff to the south of town. At first it’s hard to see what it is, so my wife, five-year-old son and I decided to walk there and have a look.

It was an easy two or three kilometers from town through a wooded trail up a fairly steep slope. What greeted us once we made it through the trees was rather surprising–a giant stone cannon pointing at the sky. The bluff gave a commanding view of the town, a horse racing track, and the open sea. A little plaque declared that this was a monument to the Duke of Wellington, who beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo with some timely help from the Germans. It was erected c. 1852.

WalesBut. . .why? What’s the connection between a Welsh seaside report and one of the British Empire’s greatest heroes? There isn’t even a statue of the Duke duking it out with the undersized French dictator. From town it looked for all the world like the smokestack of some Victorian factory.

The owners of our B&B, the Seabrin Guest House, told us the tale. It’s called the Derry Ormond Tower, after the local landowner who first came up with the idea of the tower. Ormond was a veteran of Waterloo and wanted to honor the general he served under.

Originally the cannon was supposed to serve as the base for a statue of the Duke of Wellington astride a horse, looking suitably imperious. Money ran out, however, and some say the statue languished in a stonemason’s yard in Cardiff until someone with deeper pockets took it off their hands.

So Aberystwyth is left with half a monument. Ah well, at least the view was nice.

What’s your favorite odd monument? Tell us about it in the comments section!

A classic sailing ship in northern Spain

sailing ship, Santander, SpainIf you’ve been following my travels here at Gadling, you know I’ve moved to Santander in northern Spain and am busy settling in. I’ve had my first of many hikes in Cantabria and have even ventured into the chilly northern surf. I need to buy a wetsuit.

One advantage of living in a port is you get to see sights like this, a reconstructed sailing ship from the Golden Age of Sail. Called the Nao Victoria, it’s a Spanish ship from the 16th century and is currently on tour around the coast of Spain.

A nao, also called a carrack, was a type of sailing vessel used by the Spanish and Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was a precursor to the galleon. The Nao Victoria was the first ship to circumnavigate the globe on Magellan’s voyage from 1519-22. Magellan didn’t survive the voyage and the commander to bring the boat back to Spain was Juan Sebastián Elcano. I saw his hometown while hiking the Basque coastline.

The Fundación Nao Victoria also manages a second ship, a reproduction 17th century Galeón Andalucía.

The reconstructed nao is a floating museum where you can see how a ship was run back in the olden days. It had a large storage capacity and could handle rough seas, important for long voyages to unknown parts of the globe. It’s not a completely faithful reconstruction, though, what with its flush toilet and electricity. I suppose the folks sailing this thing shouldn’t be expected to suffer from the filth and scurvy the old sailors did!

Downdecks is an exhibition on Spain’s first constitution, adopted in 1812 as Spain and her allies were busy pushing Napoleon out of the country. The constitution allowed for universal suffrage for men, extended numerous rights to citizens, and ended the Inquisition. The constitution was abolished two years later with the reinstatement of absolute monarchy. It came back a couple of times in Spain’s tumultuous history before other constitutions were introduced in later times.

The project is funded by various regional and municipal governments and government institutions. The stress they put on the Spanish constitution appears to me to be more than just celebrating the bicentennial. Deep fissures are appearing in Spanish society as various regions, especially the Basque region and Catalonia, are pushing for more autonomy or even outright independence. In Spain, any emphasis on national unity carries a political message.

If you like old sailing ships, be sure to check out Madrid’s Naval Museum.

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Top five castles of Extremadura, Spain

castle, castles, Spain, Badajoz
Spain is one of the best countries in the world to see castles. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Iberian peninsula was split between various Christian states and the Moors, Muslim invaders from North Africa. These factions fought and traded with each other in a constantly changing network of political alliances. Leaders protected their domains with castles and walled cities. One of the hot spots for fighting was in the southwest in what is now the autonomous community of Extremadura, including its provinces of Badajoz and Cáceres. There are literally hundreds of castles here. Below are five of the best, picked for their accessibility and general coolness.

Olivenza
Olivenza is a town in the province of Badajoz. It’s right on the border with Portugal and is actually claimed by that country, although it has been under Spanish jurisdiction since 1801. The castle of Olivenza is an impressive Templar fortress adapted from an earlier Muslim castle taken in 1228. It features high walls and imposing square towers. As you can see from the photo in the gallery, these included “murder holes” set out from the edge of the tower from which to drop rocks and boiling water on attackers. The idea of dropping boiling oil is a myth. Water was much cheaper and easier to obtain, although one account from a siege in France talks about using boiling lead! The castle at Olivenza was expanded in the 14th and 16th centuries and is very well preserved, still dominating this small town of 12,000 people. A gate flanked by slender, semi-round towers, and a wide moat also survive.

Fregenal de la Sierra
This castle is also in Badajoz and guards the road to Seville. As you can see from the above photo, courtesy Fregenal01 via Wikimedia Commons and taken under much better conditions than the crappy weather we had on our trip to Extremadura, the high walls and seven towers now share the skyline with church spires. This wasn’t always the case. The first fort here was built by the Romans, later reworked by the Visigoths and Moors. After the land was taken from the Muslims, King Fernando III gave the castle to the Templars in 1283. They expanded and improved the fortifications and they were still being used as late as 1808 by Napoleon’s troops! The castle courtyard is now the town’s bullfighting ring.

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Trujillo
Perhaps the most visited castle in Extremadura is in the charming old walled city of Trujillo in Cáceres. In the 16th century Extremadura was a poor region that had seen generations of warfare. This bred tough and desperate men willing to take a chance to better their lives. Trujillo was the home of many of the Conquistadores that won the New World for Spain, including Francisco Pizarro. His house is now a museum and sits in the shadow of one of Spain’s most impressive castles. Trujillo was taken during the Moorish invasion of 711 and remained in Muslim hands until 1232. You can see many Arab flourishes to the design, such as the horseshoe-shaped arches. An informative tour takes you all around the battlements. The guides like to point out where the Virgin Mary appeared to rally the Spanish in their final assault against the Moors.

Castillo de Floripes
For something a little different, head to this partially submerged 15th century fortress. Close to the small town of Garrovillas de Alconétar in Cáceres, it got inundated by a reservoir project in 1969. The main tower still rises majestically from the waters, and when there’s a drought you can see much more of the Gothic stonework and even walk around the grounds. It’s a bit squishy, but atmospheric. Supposedly it has its origins in Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish times, but there’s no chance to conduct an archaeological excavation.

The Fortified Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe
Spain was a rough place back in the Middle Ages, and monks weren’t immune to the violence. This World Heritage Site in the town of Guadalupe, Cáceres, has been one of Spain’s most important monasteries for centuries. Founded in 1340, it became a center of learning and medicine. The tour takes you around the tall towers, the cloisters, and painting of monks done by Zurbarán. The highlight is Our Lady of Guadalupe, a holy image of the Black Madonna. It’s a popular pilgrimage spot, so the town has many hotels.

For more information and photos, check out the Castillos de España website (in Spanish) and its English sister site (which sadly doesn’t have as much material) Castles of Spain. Both feature a handy interactive map. For more general information on castles, go to the website of castle expert Lise E. Hull. She focuses on the British Isles, but includes a lot of general information on castle construction and daily life in the Middle Ages.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: Paradores: the luxury hotels of Spain!