11th April – Escalona to Cazorla, via Toledo.
Finally some reprieve. With Cazorla only four hours’ drive away, we relished the chance of a little sightseeing on route.
A speedy breakfast and quick outing with our host’s dogs later, we set off to explore the pretty little gem of Escalona. Although Escalona Golf Village may have been a little underwhelming, the town itself was quite a revelation, with its rich heritage dating from before the invasion by the Muslim Moors in the early Middle Ages. And to think that just a day before we hadn’t even known Escalona existed.
At first a Roman villa, then a Moorish fortification near the Alberche River, in the hands of King Alfonso VI of Castile around the 12th century, the town developed into a stronghold for attacks on Toledo. Escalona’s most emblematic monument, the Castillo de Escalona, was built in the 15th century; its moats, walls, towers and walkways still dominating the town. The castle is currently privately owned and open to the public, but try as we might, we could not find an entrance to explore what lay beyond the walls and towers. Being a little pushed for time, we only sneaked a cursory glance at this main attraction and it wasn’t until we stopped to top up with petrol and looked back that we could truly appreciate the vast scale of the ruins.
Of course, we managed a quick dash into the town to look at the walkways and walls, but were easily distracted by the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in a grocery shop. Rather than spending time being impressed by the architecture of the central square, we were seduced by a glut of Spanish strawberries, their sweetness and succulence irresistible… For the next couple of days we overindulged devouring the largest two kilogram punnet of strawberries I have ever paid for, the fruits only second to the best strawberries in the world that used to grow in my Cotswold garden. OK, it is possible I am a little biased, but they were definitely more mouth-watering and delectable than any shop-bought ones, even the Spanish ones…
With our sights set on an extended lunch break and playing tourist in Toledo, we headed for the city’s old historic centre. Whereas Escalona’s legacies had come somewhat as a surprise, Toledo’s cultural heritage is well documented and had piqued my curiosity. After a well-deserved coffee, I left Simon on a quest for antiques in town and forged my own route through the winding, narrow and steep roads that characterise Toledo’s old centre.
Toledo is a fascinating place, blending the architectural styles of its past cultural influences: Moorish, Christian and Jewish. Moorish mosques have been built on Roman foundations; an early, primitive mosque minaret houses the bell tower of the Catholic Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador; the old Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church, was constructed under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use. Santa Maria La Blanca is considered a symbol of the cooperation between the three cultures that populated the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.
Another impressive example of this unique blend of architectural styles and religious tolerance is the Toledo Cathedral, considered to be one of the greatest Gothic structures in Europe. Construction of the current building was started in 1227 on the foundations of a former Visigoth Cathedral originating from the 6th Century. During the Moorish occupation of Spain, the site was also used as a Mosque.
And when in Toledo, the El Greco Museum, which displays some famous paintings by ‘The Greek from Toledo’ himself, is a must. But with Easter only a few days away and schools clearly in holiday mode, the place around the museum thronged with teenagers, chaperoned by teacher-lookalikes… and blocking the entrance to the ticket boot. Free entrance for students, so no hope of me securing a ticket during our brief visit to town… A mural inspired by some of El Greco’s masterpieces was plastered on an adjoining wall! A perfect photo opportunity for the youngsters, trying to match their outfits with the colourful attire of the adulating apostles… But for now, this was the only El Greco work I would feast on, unless of course I ventured into some of the Toledo churches where other El Greco famous works can be seen. In his heyday, El Greco was quite prolific and whilst in Toledo received several major commissions and produced his best known paintings.
On my way back to meet up with Simon, I lost myself in the tangle of small roads cluttered with tourist bagatelles… Oils and olives, sweet turrón, caramelized nut brittle, churros con chocolate offered by nuns, and of course the famed Toledo swords. As early as the 15th century, a Toledo sword crafted by Toledo bladesmiths marked a warrior’s superiority.. Musicians, displaying their prowess on stringed dulcimers, mesmerised passers-by into buying CDs, or just dropping a few euros in a box.
Still, we needed to continue our journey, our last leg, onwards to Cazorla where we would spend the next six days. And Tarja, our last Airbnb host, had not been exaggerating when she told us the best of our road trip was still to come. For miles we traversed across an enormous valley, stretching from Toledo all the way to the Sierra de Cazorla, a massive area of seemingly drought-stricken lands where agriculture thrived. Row upon row of neatly trimmed vines thirsting for rain and drenched by the sun; unending grassy slopes dotted with lonesome trees; the green of olive groves as far as the eye could see …
‘Can we stop, please, Simon,’ I gently nudged my companion, ‘I’d like to take some better pictures of the olive groves. They may well be the last ones we come across.’ We were no longer using motorways, so pulling off onto the roadside was finally within our grasp. I clicked away merrily, as if there would be no tomorrow… I needn’t have worried about olive groves. Little did I know then that Cazorla happens to be surrounded by olive groves and we would be spending most lunchtimes and evenings gazing at them from our rooftop terrace…