Castles and Croquetas: A Road Trip through Iberia

Castles and Croquetas: A Road Trip through Iberia

Day one: Madrid, Spain

to the furnaces of hell; Madrid
in 40-degree heat. We make a beeline for the nearest restaurant
that has realised that wilting tourists are bad for business and
routinely sprays a cooling mist over its patrons. Classic tapas –
croquetas and jamon with melon – are as delicious as the mist.

Ambles past antiquated bookshops on cobbled side streets lead us
to two of the most impressive sights in the city; Almudena
Cathedral, a spectacular blue and white edifice that looks like
Wedgwood designed a church, and the Royal Palace of Madrid. We
enter the latter, a feast for the senses with each room more ornate
than the next and one made entirely from porcelain (which my
boyfriend callously compares to “a fancy public loo”).

Day two: Segovia, Spain

The momentous arrival of Buddy, our white Fiat 500 hire car that
battled through horribly confusing roundabouts on the way out of
Madrid and deposited us safely in Segovia about two hours

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city has a medieval feel and
is centred around the Alcazar of Segovia, a castle that inspired
the one in Sleeping Beauty. Following lunch in the Plaza Mayor we
visit Segovia’s cathedral, a vast structure known as the “Lady of
Cathedrals” for its gothic style. The Alcazar is equally
impressive, steeped in Muslim and Catholic history, with a curious
mix of canons from the Napoleonic wars and intricate Arabic stone
carvings. We walk back through Segovia’s art-filled labyrinthine
streets to the border of the city where a Roman aqueduct still
stands in all its glory. We dine on suckling pig (a Segovian
specialty) in the shadow of thousands of years of history.

Day three: Salamanca, Spain

Spain’s oldest university city fights for attention at every
turn. Not one but two cathedrals, countless churches, dozens of
university buildings, monasteries and libraries are all built in
soft sandstone. In the early evening glow it feels like you are
walking through sunlight itself. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is
particularly sumptuous; by night it is resplendently lit and buzzes
with life. We eat at the brilliant El Pecado restaurant (a
favourite of Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar), finishing with
a white-chocolate soup.

Day four: Coimbra, Portugal

We are not done with Salamanca just yet. We get up brutally
early to catch the University of Salamanca when it opens at 9AM.
Lecture rooms and libraries date back to the 15th century, while
the Convento de San Esteban is a Benedictine monastery built in the
16th century. We are the only people around, exploring the
cloisters and architecture in enviable peace.

Reunited with the beloved Buddy we embark on a three-hour drive
across the border to Coimbra, Portugal. Just over halfway there and
the sun disappeared. We quickly realised that the cause was not a
large raincloud, but the smoke of a mammoth forest fire. It looked
like we were driving towards a bad Nicholas Cage disaster

Built on steep hills and with cobbled streets, this town has not
escaped Portugal’s dire financial straits, nor the anti-tourist
movement that is sweeping through Europe. Xenophobic graffiti is
scribbled and sprayed on every available stretch of wall and the
streets are eerily empty. Our primary reason for the visit, the
world-famous library Bibilioteca Joanina, is remarkable but the
dirge-like Fado music that wafts through the street from a lonesome
busker sums up our feelings about this pretty but fading town.

Day five: Vigo, Spain

We race out of the hotel at 7AM (admittedly out of fear that
Buddy had fallen prey to anti-tourist graffiti, though thankfully
he remained unmolested) and hit the road north, to the coastal town
of Vigo.

We imagined it as the jumping-off point to the Islas Cíes, a
white-sand archipelago just off the coast – before naively
realising that the boats taking passengers there were booked up
several days in advance.

Our second option, the neighbouring peninsula of Cangas, is just
a 10-minute boat ride away. The quiet beach is hugged by forest
with a makeshift bar and several camper vans a nod to the area’s
largely hippie clientele. While admittedly colder than the
Mediterranean, it was not enough to put us off and we plunged
straight into the Atlantic Ocean.

Day six: Santiago de Compostella, Spain

The climax of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route,
Compostella, is also the end of our own journey. Following a teary
farewell to Buddy, we set out to explore. An ancient Franciscan
monastery and tiny squares hugged by lush greenery and leafy parks;
the city reminds me of York meets Seville.
After dinner, we caught a brilliant musical troupe in traditional
dress entertaining a large crowd of pilgrims, tourists and locals.
We joined it and sang along to Viva España late into the night.

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