Castile & León, Spain
So we're both sick. I blame my illness entirely on Danny, as he showed symptoms first. Cheers for that.
After our pathetic effort at driving into Madrid we were a little worried about finding our way out. According to TomTom there were only five roads to needed to take, so we thought we could manage it. Somehow we still made one wrong turn (completely TomTom's fault).
Our first stop was Segovia, reached by driving over a large, snow-covered mountain. I don't think we will ever get sick of seeing snow. It was easy to find a car park in the small town, so we pulled over and wandered around the old town. Segovia is famous for its architecture and we could immediately see why. Coming into there was a massive aqueduct, almost 30 metres high, that ran above the buildings below. There was also a mammoth cathedral, which was so big I couldn't fit it into one camera shot. Nearby was an even larger alcazar (castle). Everything seemed to be steroids. The whole town was surrounded by city walls, with the occasional house sitting on top of them. The walls made it slightly difficult to get around as they blocked our path at every turn. Nevertheless, it was visually a stunning town.
We had parked just outside the old town on a busy street, one of the only flat roads around, and had planned to stay there that night. When we returned we found the police sitting in their car directly outside our van, writing in their notepads. As we were walking towards them they drove off without saying a word. We didn't feel entirely confident about our choice of location so we moved our van around the corner. We were so worried about the police coming back that we hardly slept.
Although we didn't have the police knocking on our door we did have other concerns. In the morning we opened our curtains and blinds to discover our car covered in bird poo. It looked like every bird in town had ganged up to send us a message. We weren't sure what that message was, but we weren't going to stick around another night to find out. We quickly drove to the service station to clean off as much as we could and hoped that the rain would do the rest (it did). That's the last time we park under a tree.
We drove back up to the Alcazar in town, which was free for EU citizens on the third Tuesday of the month. Today happened to be the third Tuesday of the month, so it was free for Danny (saving ourselves a whole €4.50). Inside, the castle didn't seem as big as we were expecting, which was a bit of a letdown. Also, while many of the signs were in English, without knowing anything about Spanish history the place didn't mean much to us. The best thing I could say about the castle was that it had amazing ceilings – not Renaissance fresco-type ceilings but geometric-type patterned ceilings. That's the best description I can give with my lack of architectural terminology. I don't know that I've ever spent so much time looking up.
Driving back over the snowy mountain we headed for El Escorial. On the way we passed Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), which is a Catholic basilica carved into the side of a mountain in memory of the people who died in the civil war. It was a little different from other churches we had visited in that it was built in the 1940s, so it felt much more modern. It was enormous, with long, domed hallways and tapestries lining the walls. Every footstep echoed throughout the whole building. If you're in the area, I recommend adding it as a side trip.
The town of El Escorial contained a massive monastery and that was about it. The monastery gardens were neat and peaceful, and provided great views across the countryside. As there wasn't much to do we spent the day wandering aimlessly around the streets. For dinner we decided to head out and the only place we could find that was open (and that wasn't too expensive) was a Chinese restaurant (or as they called it, a Hong Kong restaurant). We ordered a bottle of wine with our meal, which the menu stated came in 3/4 or 3/8 sizes. It took us a little while to figure this one out.
At night we parked way out in the open, with not a tree in sight.
Eleven a.m. We must really be sick to sleep in that late. We ate breakfast around lunchtime, then took another aimless walk around El Escorial. Danny made some soup for "lunch" (mid-afternoon) before we hit the monastery. Again, free for EU citizens today. It was an amazing building and we spent one and a half hours walking through the complex. There were several "tomb" rooms, which sounded creepy but the main one was fascinating. The downside was that there were loads of school groups going through the same time as we were, which caused endless frustration.
From El Escorial to Avila, known for its murallas (walls), which look like old city walls. They were okay, nothing amazing. Inside the walls was an old town that was worth a stroll. Outside was modern and nothing to write home about.
We continued driving through Spain's countryside, with the scenery changing regularly. At times it was rocky and bare, then suddenly there were mountains and trees, followed by never-ending flat paddocks. We arrived at our next destination, Salamanca, just as a striking sunset lit up the sky. We tried to follow signs to a caravan park but they led us nowhere, so we parked on the street and decided to walk through the town at night.
Salamanca was beautiful. All the grand, sandstone buildings were lit up with perfectly positioned lighting, which were phenomenal. Serious photographers could have spent hours shooting the various sights. It was clear that it was a university town, with loads of young people hanging around doing nothing in particular. We would have joined the locals at one of the many bars if we weren't feeling under the weather. Instead we opted for an early night's sleep.
We were keen to see Salamanca during the daytime, however we told ourselves that if we couldn't find a car park within five minutes we would drive on. We drove on.