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]

Hiking in Spain: Santoña’s rugged coastline and Napoleonic forts

Santoña, hiking in SpainOne of the great things about hiking in Europe is that many trails pass places of historic interest. Whether you’re hiking along Hadrian’s Wall or to a medieval castle, you can learn about the past while living in the moment amidst beautiful scenery.

Spain offers a lot of these hikes. One is an 11km (7 mile) loop trail near Santoña in Cantabria, northern Spain.

My hiking group and I set out early on Sunday morning after Carnival. Costumed drunks were still staggering home as the sun rose. One guy dressed as prisoner lay passed out in a doorway. At a police checkpoint three men dressed as priests were being arrested for drunken driving. I would have felt morally superior for exercising while all this debauchery was going in, but a bad hangover kept me from passing judgement. Except against the drunk drivers, that just ain’t cool.

Santoña is a port in a bay of the same name. It was an important military post during Napoleon’s occupation of Spain and the seafront is dominated by a large fort. Built in a horseshoe pattern, dozens of cannons once covered the entrance to the bay. The peninsula that forms the western boundary of the bay is studded with several Napoleonic-era forts and artillery batteries and the combined firepower of all these defenses must have made the place all but impregnable to a sea attack. Some of these forts existed before Napoleon’s invasion, of course, and many were modified in later years, making a trip around them a good lesson in the history of military architecture.

Also on the seafront is a monument to a different era of naval history. A soaring monolith flanked by statues with religious themes stands as a memory to local boy Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. He was one of General Franco’s must trusted men during the dictatorship and was slated to succeed him. Admiral Blanco was assassinated by ETA in 1973. Franco died less than two years later and with those two hardliners gone, the path to liberalization and democracy was open, although far from smooth.

Ignoring the steady drizzle and clammy temperature, we set out to hike around El Buciero, the mountain that shelters the Bay of Santoña. Much of it is reserved as a natural park. Thick woodland is broken only by outcroppings of rock and the occasional farm.

%Gallery-147993%The loop trail took us around the mountain and along some beautiful coastline. A beach to the west was mostly taken up by a large prison. Putting the prisoners within sight of a beach seems like cruel and unusual punishment to me, not to mention a waste of a good beach! Heading around the peninsula we got some fine views of the sea and passed a small lighthouse.

The most impressive sight was the sea cliffs. Along much of the northern coast of the peninsula the land dropped off sheer, plunging a hundred feet or more into emerald water that crashed and foamed against jagged rocks. Even with overcast skies it was captivating. I’m planning on returning on a sunny day to see it again.

The hike ended, as hikes in Spain generally do, at a local bar where we had a few pintxos (the northern version of tapas) and some wine. I skipped the wine even though my head was feeling better.

The hike is low intermediate level although if it’s raining there are a couple of slippery spots where you need to watch yourself. Santoña can be reached via regular bus service from Santander and Bilbao.

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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Madrid day trip: a classic Spanish castle at Manzanares el Real

castle, castles, Spain
If you like a good castle, Spain is one of the best countries in the world to visit. One of Spain’s finest castles is at the town of Manzanares el Real and makes a good day trip from Madrid.

El Castillo de los Mendoza was built in 1475 for Don Pedro González de Mendoza as both a palace and fortress, although he never actually lived here. It shows an Islamic flair, as you can see from the pictures. Many Spanish buildings from this period do. Despite all the bloody battles of the Reconquista, the Christians, Jews, and Arabs spent as much time trading ideas as fighting.

The castle dates from near the end of the great castle-building age. Artillery was already becoming common in most armies and castles like this couldn’t stand a long bombardment. Luckily it never had to and it’s one of the best-preserved castles in Spain. One hint that it was at the cusp of the modern era are the arrow slits in the outer wall. They all have loopholes at the bottom to fire guns or small cannons out of. While the guns of the 15th century were less accurate and much slower than bows, they could punch through armor much more effectively.

You’d certainly want some artillery to blow a hole in one of the walls, because going in through the gate would be a very bad idea. The defenders could shoot at you from three sides and drop things from above through those charming favorites of castle architecture–the murder holes. While it’s commonly believed that boiling oil was poured through these, one medievalist and author I know says the story of using boiling oil in sieges is a myth. Apparently boiling water was just as good and much cheaper.

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Inside is a beautiful courtyard surrounded by a two-story arcade. The rooms inside have been restored with period artifacts to show what the bedrooms, women’s quarters, and dining halls looked like. elegant tapestries adorn the walls, and there are interactive computer displays to tell you more.

Climb the towers for a splendid view of the strangely shaped rocks of La Pedriza looming to the north and the glittering modern reservoir to the south.

Just east of the castle is a 16th century fountain that refreshed hermits in days gone by. They were headed for two Renaissance churches in town, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (The Church of our Lady of the Snows) and La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Peña Sacra (The Hermitage of Our Lady of the Sacred Stone). Both are worth a visit. There are also the remains of the Castillo Viejo (Old Castle) on the other side of town. Built in the mid-14th century, it’s little more than a crumbled ruin these days.

The town of Manzanares el Real is very compact and all sites are within easy walking distance of each other. If walking around the medieval sights puts you in the mood for something more strenuous, the rocky hills of La Pedriza, with their rock formations, is just next to town. If walking makes you hungry, there are several good restaurants and cafes and the butchers sell excellent locally sourced venison.

To get to Manzanares el Real, take bus 724 from Madrid’s Plaza de Castilla bus station. The ride costs €3.50 euros one-way and takes about 45 minutes. Entrance to the castle is €3.

There’s another castle and Spanish Civil War bunker close to the center of Madrid and hundreds more scattered across the country. For more tips on what to see and do in Madrid, check out AOL Travel’s travel guide to Madrid.

Madrid day trip: Segovia

Segovia, Madrid, Spain
Madrid offers a wide range of interesting day trips, from a Renaissance castle and Spanish Civil War bunker to challenging hikes. My personal favorite is the ancient town of Segovia just on the other side of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. With a beautiful cathedral and castle, one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts anywhere, winding medieval streets, and delicious cuisine, it’s a great choice for a day trip or overnight stay.

The best way to get to Segovia is by bus, which takes a little over an hour. Segovia’s Wikipedia entry says a high-speed train gets there in half an hour, but the high speed train doesn’t go to Segovia, it goes to a station called Segovia several kilometers away from town. You have to take a bus from there. To get to the train station in Segovia proper you go on a local train that takes an hour and fifty minutes. Wikipedia has mistakes!? Shocking!!!!

Anyway, Segovia is a convenient, delightful trip from Madrid. The three big hits are the aqueduct, the cathedral, and the Alcázar, or castle. The Roman aqueduct dates to the late first century AD. Segovia, like many Spanish cities, was a Roman town and perhaps has more ancient roots. The aqueduct is one of the best preserved anywhere and stands 93.5 feet tall in some places and starts at a water source almost ten miles away. It supplied the city with water until the early 20th century. The Romans sure knew how to build things!

The Santa Iglesia Catedral is an impressive Gothic pile started in 1525 and consecrated after many remodels in 1768, making it possibly the youngest Gothic cathedral in Europe. The expansive Plaza Mayor stands to one side. Take time to sip a coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes and enjoy the view. Inside are a series of chapels with often gruesome art, like a dinner party atop a tree. Death is cutting down the trunk with his scythe while Jesus rings a bell. Everyone is ignoring Jesus and a demon is about to pull the tottering tree into Hell. Nice!

%Gallery-128499%Segovia is built on a promontory, and its 12th century castle, the Alcázar, sits at the highest end like the prow of a ship. A rectangular tower soars towards the sky, topped by a beautiful set of round turrets. Inside are the usual displays of armor, weapons, and medieval art that you’d expect in a castle, and a large artillery museum too. The most impressive part of the castle is the view from the top. You get sweeping vistas of the Renaissance skyline of Segovia with its many churches and old houses, as well as the rolling countryside around the city. It gets my vote as one of the best views you can get anywhere close to Madrid.

To learn more about Segovia’s past, check out the Casa del Sol Museo de Segovia. Here you’ll see prehistoric artifacts, Roman sculpture, Visigothic jewelry, medieval and Renaissance art, and tools from Segovia’s early modern period. It’s a great museum but easy to miss, so don’t miss it!

After seeing these sites, take a stroll through the medieval streets of the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Harar, Ethiopia, another medieval walled city that’s on UNESCO’s list, the labyrinthine streets and alleys can get you lost pretty quickly, but the city’s small enough that you won’t stay lost for long. Check out the local artisans specializing in ceramics, the food shops selling tasty meats and cheeses, and more than a score of Romanesque churches.

Segovia gets pretty full in summer, so book your hotel well ahead. Two hotels I’ve stayed at and enjoyed are Natura and Los Linajes. Spring and fall are better times to go, especially September when it’s still warm but the school groups and university backpackers have left. Winter can be bitterly cold.

There are plenty of places to eat. Many restaurants serve two local specialties: cochinillo, roast suckling pig; and Judiones de la granja, which is faba beans with chorizo, garlic, and, if you’re being traditional, a pig’s ear! For a cheap lunch option find a place offering menú del día, a set menu where you have three or four choices for appetizer, main course, and dessert with a drink included. La Taberna de Abraham Seneor at Calle Judería Vieja 17 & 19 in the old Jewish quarter serves up a filling one for €11.90. There are also numerous cafes with outdoor seating in good weather. My favorite place to sit is Plazuela de San Martín, where you can gaze out on a sparkling fountain, a 15th century house, and a Romanesque church.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking more about the Alcázar, my favorite castle in Spain, and Wednesday I’ll be exploring the many beautiful churches of Segovia. Stay tuned!