A short fly-drive holiday in Spain's largest province
Tradition has it that spotting the frog squatting on a skull among the elaborately carved façade of Salamanca University means you will be married within the year. The frog theme is everywhere in the gift shops of sunny Salamanca, our first stop on a five-night driving tour of Spain’s largest province, Castilla y Leon, which is far removed in every way from the southern Costas. Mr Crabby Driver was behind the wheel (I’m a terrible coward when it comes to driving abroad).
The Cuidad Dorada, or golden city, is a UNESCO world heritage site that boasts the oldest university in Spain. “Slow” was the only pace to take in the Gothic and Renaissance architecture, so we drifted at tangents through gracious squares and porticoed courtyards. Nueva Cathedral captivated us for an hour with its frescoes, sculptures and paintings. I was hesitant to photograph the soaring interior until I saw a Franciscan eagerly snapping with his mobile phone.
Cyprus trees and cedars were throwing long shadows on wall carvings and ancient wooden doors by the time we arrived at the Plaza Mayor, once a bullfighting venue and now a huge square with a capacity for 20,000 people. Restaurants line its sides, and we sampled the hearty local produce, which specialises in ham and sausage - not neglecting the wines, naturally. The Spanish eat late - a 10pm start is typical - so it was cool and dark by the time we crossed the Roman Bridge to return to our hotel that night. Storks were clacking their bills on their nests in the bell towers and cicadas were noisily flirting in the greenery.
We were staying at the Hotel Vincci Ciudad de Salamanca (www.vinccihoteles.com), an easy drive from our destination airport of Valadolid, with plenty of time to explore along the way.
Next we headed 90 kilometres south to the hilltop towns, forests and orchards of the Sierras de Francia. The medieval village of La Alberca where we stayed appeared to have been dreamed up by Filmset-u-Like. Only a certain dilapidation around the edges elevates it from a sterile ‘quaint’ to ‘charming.’ All props were provided: half-timbered houses, washing draped over balconies, donkeys? Check! Terracotta tiles, pastel shutters, window boxes? Tick! Apart from an old man complete with beret outside the church, obviously planted there for our cameras, the only extras on the streets were feline.
We rode placid horses, triangular iron stirrups “for bullfighting and protection against stone walls”, their hooves kicking up a hot sweet scent. Several courses of botanical specimens were hoovered up by Mr CD’s mount: poppy - munch; lupin, lavender - munch. With more energy we could have opted to go canoeing, quad biking or ballooning. Instead we walked in the nature reserve, bathed in pristine air and fragrance of pine and cedar. Afterwards we were told wolves are still found there…
Sunhats and sunblock gave way to sweaters at the summit of the highest peak, La Pena de Francia, at 1,732m. We shivered, as did the wedding party spilling out of the church. It was a spectacular choice of venue with eagles circling above; but so cold we took refuge inside the restaurant. This time we chose carahillio, black coffee with brandy, and a selection of tapas, their enticing smells wafting from behind the counter. Our lack of Spanish was regarded here, as everywhere, with amused tolerance. People were eager to practice their English, and local pride in their region and dishes was evident.
Our hotel, the Hotel Dona Teresa (www.hoteldeteresa.com) was wonderfully quaint and the staff were tolerant of us snapping in every corner of the public rooms. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from our huge balcony.
Mr Crabby Driver had transformed into Mr Happy Driver by the time we arrived back in Valladolid, our original starting point. It had been a day of motoring on deserted roads past orchards and vineyards, and miles of trees like giant stalks of broccoli. We even turned off a few times to see a castle or photograph a distant village of red roofs - a change from ‘its all right for you, I have to keep my eyes on the road’. Our sense of wellbeing was undoubtedly also helped by the civilised late hour of breakfast and blissfully quiet hotel rooms we had been enjoying, ensuring a sound sleep each night.
Your average town park does not have freely wandering peacocks, but Campo Grande Park, right opposite our hotel in Valladolid, does. We had our final tranquil hour among its statues and fountains. Serendipitously, we had arrived on the feast of San Pedro Regalado, Valladolid’s patron saint. An orchestra and choir were performing in one square, dancing in local costume in another; the real thing with castanets and a band so lively that spontaneous dancing was breaking out amongst the audience. At dusk a light show projected onto a hot air balloon and hundreds of good natured people cheered as it began in spite of the drizzle. We arrived back at our hotel at the same time as bullfighters from their own event, dressed in full regalia and swaggering past posters of themselves displayed in the lobby - the Johnny Depps of the bullfighting world.
Our hotel in Valladolid was the Melia Recoletos (www.solmelia.com) and I've returned to it since, I so enjoyed its tranquil but central position, and huge - perfectly soundproofed - rooms.
On those venerable carved walls in Salamanca, recent restorers have also carved an astronaut. Perhaps it means those who find it among the angels and heraldic beasts will be hurtling into outer space within a year. Myself, I would prefer to be flying back to Valladolid to explore more of Castilla y Leon. I might even drive next time.