Travelogue: Berkhamsted to Cordoba

I can't remember seeing daughter no 2 so excited for a long time. At least since Christmas. She insisted on daughter no 1 sleeping in her room so that they could talk all night. We're off on holiday. That's all. But great to see such enthusiasm all the same.

Her list of holiday items to pack has been ready for some time. Flip flops and nail varnish featured heavily. She piled up those and the rest of her holiday clobber in double quick time before offering her packing services to daughter no 1. The latter has done well on the travelling front this year and has only recently returned from a music tour to the Netherlands and Germany. Daughter no 2 helpfully attempted to repeat the list-trick to speedy things along. Instead, her sister just lay face down on the floor moaning that "Gawd I hate packing".

The taxi pulled up outside John The Greek's house, two doors down under a sky leaking warm, fat, heavy drops of rain. I was already soaked by the time I'd heaved the bulkiest suitcase into the boot. John's garage door rose slowly and revealed his rotund, ageing frame in proprietorial posture. Hands on hips, beady eyes scanning the car. In a moment he would have been over to tell the driver to clear off his land. But he saw and recognised us and instead gave a hearty smile and cheery wave. "Hey Tony, my main man! You have good holiday, no. Yeah?"

We've known John for 15 years. I don't know why he calls me Tony. Many times I've told him. "It's Dave", I say. "Dave. Not Tony." Oh sure, sure he says. Sometimes with slap on the back. Then next time it's the same. I was walking past him with the girls one time and I said, " Watch this. John will call me Tony". "What? Why?" they demanded. But thus prepared they could not keep straight faces. "Morning Tony. S'beautiful day, no?" he said, slightly distracted by the uncontrollable spluttering and giggling of the two young ladies with me. I've given up now. Tony is a perfectly acceptable name. I have no problems.

The heavy suitcase was overweight. I blame the surfeit of flip flops. But no penalty charge was levied on this occasion.

Mrs A was a bit wobbly as we got off the flight. Bumpy air on the approach was mostly to blame. The eternal taxiing to the bargain basement berths of our low cost airline of choice didn’t help either. Past the main terminal, skirting round cargo loaders, skimming the burnt-out jumbos used for fire training and to over the farthest flung weed-infested outer apron of Barajas airport. We were finally allowed to disembark, possibly nearer to London than on our departure.

Jumping in to a hire car and whizzing down to Toledo was not Mrs A’s ideal scenario right then. Thankfully a protracted debate with the automaton behind the Avis counter about coughing up for an unnecessary upgrade and/or needless extra insurance at a staggering 23 euros a day cured any lingering stomach upset and replaced it with bile.

But only briefly. Once on the road to Toledo, spirits were easily lifted. The trip, in truth, was a little uninspiring. Miles of bathroom emporia and furniture stores interspersed with light industrial units. Maybe we were in Milton Keynes...? 

Uninspiring is not the word to describe the old town of Toledo however. Nor the restorative and life affirming dip in the pool (even if a bit on the small side) that preceded it.

Stepping out of the hotel and into the evening city heat of Toledo was like walking into furnace. No southern England mini-heat wave can acclimatise four white-skinned northern Europeans for such a wall of humidity and fire. Hard to comprehend that this was 8pm.

Toledo is a former capital of the country and is stuffed with fine and important buildings. Once inside its Moorish defensive city walls, we climbed a dense network of twisting streets that seemed to sheepishly give up secretive mansions, churches and public buildings. Each of which deserved their own gardens or square to afford the appropriate context. But not here. History tricked down the steep alleys like water escaping from a damaged drain. 

By luck and guesstimation we emerged onto Zocodover Square. Room to breath. The first tapas of the holiday was a joy, overlooking the busy square, which, sad to say, had been infiltrated by a McDonalds at one corner. Daughter No 2 started a grading system for chorizo. Tonight’s offering was awarded a big old nine out of ten, which seemed a little previous to me, but we would see.

After a circuit of the magnificent Alcazar fortress, I began to see why some of the other monuments were tucked away in side streets, as if cowering from this immense and dominating hulk. It covered the entire summit of the Toledo’s outcrop and was visible for miles around. The city is no living museum, however. We perambulated down the other side of the hill and accidentally found and explored the outside public spaces of the El Greco Congress Centre, completed last year in honour of one of the city’s more notable sons. Its modern, marbled, streamlined face seemed to spring out of the very crevices of the old hill. High level walkways, escalators and footbridges cut a busy network across the vertiginous cliff with views over the neon-lit newer part of the city. The girls were more animated here than at any other point in the evening.

Toledo skyline: Alcazar (left) and Cathedral (right)
tierra roja
We breakfasted leisurely and then hit the autovia for the best part of a 3 ½ hour run to Cordoba. Very different scenery throughout the Castilla – La Mancha region. Vast acreage of flat earth under cultivation – firstly olive groves, then vineyards and then grain fields irrigated by elongated, metal-framed, wheeled devises, anchored at one end to a water source. The earth became progressively more red the further south we went. All this punctuated by frequent and rugged hills that were crested either by gothic castles, traditional white windmills or sleek modern wind farms. Never together, thankfully.

I was picking up the lingo too. Mrs A was able to help. I learned to pronounce soft ‘d’s on the back of my teeth and that ‘grathias’ was Madrid dialect and ‘grassia’ (silent ‘s’) would be Cordoban. We passed a sign for Valdepeñas that we both recognised from wine bottles. Easy I thought. Valley of the Penis. I was getting the hang of this.

Nearer Cordoba the scenery became wilder. We broke for a late lunch in the spectacular  Parque Natural de Despeñaperros: verdant spruce vegetation hiding near-white limestone rock plunging into deep valleys. Travelling through them on one twisting viaduct after another felt like a ‘Go Ape’ adventure on steroids.

Navigating through Cordoba was a wholly different funfair experience. Google may be taking over the world, but its routefinding applications are sorely lacking. So it was fantastic to chill – eventually – by and in the hotel pool for a few hours, and then dine under the stars on a mixed grill buffet of tender pork, succulent chicken, flakey sardines and rich salmon.
Daughter No 1 had had a successful Spanish exchange trip to Cordoba in February and we had welcomed Ana to Berko last June. They had both enjoyed the experience so much that we had loosely planned to meet the host family on this trip. Loosely being a good word. Trying to pin down a time and place with the vagaries of Google Translate and sketchy Spanish/English knowledge was fun. I’m not sure that the intermittent wifi helped much, nor the hint of mañana mañana amongst our quarry.

We set off to explore this great Moorish urbanization not quite sure how or when we would be hooking up. Breakfast in a street café under the giant old city walls was the perfect way to start the day. Simple fare of tostadas, marmalada, café con leche and zumos were given extra zest by the location, the weather and the prospect of a good day ahead.

Next to lingering over frothy coffees, my other favourite pastime is pottering. I’m an expert and Cordoba’s Juderia district provides Grade 1 mooching potential. There are miles of undulating, intertwining streets and alleys of Arabesque origin. Tiny gateways give on to North African style courtyards of cool marble, vegetation and fountains. Nearer the Mezquita, the routes became more clogged with tourists and associated shops to slake every conceivable souvenir thirst. My girls included.

The Mezquita itself was worth the trip. Apparently the Moorish world’s most ambitious project, this massive rectangular mosque impresses with its scale. Double arches of red and white stone atop marble pillars create endless avenues displaying early Islamic treasures. My mate Nev told me from Charlton in real-time via facebook, that the red colouring of the arches had originally been achieved using bulls’ blood. No mention of that in my Baedecker’s.

blood red bricks
In a neat encapsulation of Spain’s convoluted history, the very centre of the mosque had been carved out and replaced with an opulent Catholic cathedral begun in the 13th Century after the reconquest. Its bright, open and spectacular central tower, its ostentatious organ mounted on both sides of the choir, its ornate wood carvings, sculpures, statues and relief work all contrasted with the clean lines and simple structure of the mosque that surrounds it. All very impressive. So much so that in a weak moment of unguarded wonder, Mrs A involuntarily and quite loudly broke wind. This is seen as a compliment in many cultures.

Plaza de la Corederra

Having shopped, visited and pottered to the max, and with the mercury nudging 40 in the confines of the centre, we headed back to the airy hotel grounds and the comfort of the pool and bar.

The chances of meeting Ana and her family were receding with every hour. Unanswered texts and ponderous miscommunication abounded. We were heading out for some dinner when we literally bumped into her and her family in the hotel foyer. Serendipity. Five minutes either way and we would have missed them. Loud scenes of introductions and reacquaintance amid hugging and smiles unfolded before an impassive reception staff. Clearly seen it many times before.

We adjourned to the pool bar and waded through the most hysterical Spanglish for a couple of hours. Only Ana could claim to be in any way bilingual and the burdens of translation saw her holding her head in her hands every few minutes. We pressed on regardless: sign language and made up words did just as well. Ana’s brother Rafa was a big football fan and we swapped our list of favourite players. The whole family were music fans and had been to a Green Day gig in Bilbao. The next day when we met again by the pool I played Ana and her Mum some Rammstein with whom they were seriously impressed. Daughter No 1 was appalled and said that Mr Ortensi, her RE teacher, no less, had played the class some Rammstein when he thought there exam stress was getting too high.

Through a complicated series of gestures and phone calls, the decision was made to taxi into Cordoba and eat tapas at a bar where Ana’s Uncle used to work. The Restaurante El Mirador was on the south bank and, as the name implied, offered great views of the illuminated medieval centre. 

There were no tourists here and very little English was spoken. We were in the hands of our hosts who whistled up dishes we would never have dreamt of ordering. A local stuffed meat delicacy called flamenkin stood out. The conversation seemed to flow more readily with good food and ale. The night wore on in traditional Cordobian fashion and we parted the best of friends in the small hours. Daughter No 2 had gained a real affection for this family whilst staying here and was keen for us to meet them. I can see why.

If tomorrow is Saturday, its on to Vinuela.   


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