Monday, 23 February 2015

A visit to El Valle de los Caídos

Hoping not to be overheard, I almost whispered my destination. 'El Valle?' the bus driver almost yelled back, his eyes wide with surprise.

El Valle de los Caidos: Spain's most controversial monument

Such is the infamy of the Franco-commissioned monument El Valle de los Caídos (the Valley of the Fallen) that it doesn't appear on the bus timetable, even though I was reliably informed that it was on the route. On the approach to El Escorial in the sierra outside Madrid, El Valle was constructed under the former dictator's orders as a memorial to those who fell in the Civil War. Work began in 1940, and the idea was that it would serve as a final resting place for victims from both sides. However, there are estimated to be far more soldiers from the Nationalist (or Franco's) side than Republicans, although exact figures are unknown. This is just one reason why El Valle is incredibly controversial.

It took almost 20 years to build the huge Basilica of the Holy Cross into the rock mountain face, and to top it with a huge cross that's visible from miles around – even as you land at Madrid Barajas airport on a clear day. During this gruelling process (building something of this scale into rock can't exactly be easy), a number of prisoners of war who were working on the construction died. I say a number: what little information is out there varies wildly, sometimes depending on the political persuasion of the author. Once El Valle was finally completed, more bodies began to be moved there, as mass graves around the country were exhumed and the dead reburied at El Valle. This is another sore point, as many families of Republican soldiers were against their relatives calling this pet project of Franco's their final resting place. In a further twist, Franco himself and Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange Española (Spanish Fascist Party) are both now buried inside the Basilica. In the past few years, suggestions have been made that their bodies should be moved to another site.

Inside the basilica at El Valle

So controversial is the monument that several years ago it was closed to the public for a time. Now reopened (although you can no longer go up to the base of the cross), it's a sight that divides opinion. Its absence from the bus timetable is telling; some of the reactions I received to my visit plainly highlighted that even the subject of this monument can still cause a lot of pain. The best reaction I received was puzzlement. As a foreigner who's interested in Spanish culture, I was spared the accusation of being a fascist, but I know this insult has been levelled at others who have visited. However, that interest in the culture and history of the country where I live is what drove me to visit: unfortunately, we can't skip over history's unsavoury chapters, and I wanted to see El Valle de los Caídos with my own eyes.

On a warm autumn day, Kim of Becoming Sevillana and I set out for the sierra. El Valle is accessible  from Madrid by bus 664 from Moncloa, but what its's website makes clear is that it's a 6km walk uphill from the entrance to the monument. Seeing no alternative, we weren't deterred by this, but in hindsight it would be a better idea to take the bus to El Escorial and then a taxi from there to the monument if you don't have your own wheels. After almost an hour in the heat, we made a half-hearted attempt to hitch-hike: not something I'd normally do, but as we were off public roads and exhausted we thought it was worth a shot. We were picked up by a maintenance man in a van who was rather puzzled by the pair of day-tripping guiris on foot, but thanks to him we saw a little more than the average visitor, including accommodation for workers and visiting priests.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Going beyond the tourist trail in Zaragoza

The Aragonese capital of Zaragoza isn't a place that features highly on many tourists' agendas. Best known for its lively autumn festival Las Fiestas del Pilar, Zaragoza has plenty of year-round attractions too: the brightly-coloured domes of the Basilica del Pilar, the ornate interior of the cathedral, the best-preserved Moorish monument outside of Andalucía and Roman ruins aplenty. There's also a lively tapas scene in the tangle of streets known as El Tubo, and a healthy injection of nightlife thanks to its university. Now that Zaragoza has a quick connection to both Barcelona and Madrid on the high-speed AVE train, you'd think the visitors would be flooding in.

Zaragoza's Basilica del Pilar

My first visit to Zaragoza was a trip to Las Fiestas del Pilar, when the city was alive with music, dancing and revelry. There was still time to soak up the sights and tour the Basilica and La Seo (as the cathedral is known) and to have a whistle-stop tour to El Tubo. Returning a few years later for Rough Guides, I plied myself with local information thanks to a maña friend and a fellow Brit who lived in Zaragoza for a year. With these tips plus a full tourist itinerary, my days were packed and my stomach was satisfied. But returning in January expecting to enjoy Zaragoza just as much as my previous visits, I was underwhelmed. And dare I say it, a bit bored. There's no getting around the fact that Zaragoza is cold in winter, and on any given day of the year you run the risk of getting wind-whipped and utterly despeinado thanks to the bitter gusts of El Cierzo. So by going in low season, I wasn't seeing the city at its best. But the centre is also pretty small, and lacks a beautiful casco antiguo that so many Spanish cities spoil us with.

So, is Zaragoza worth visiting? Yes. Go once, even go twice. But three times? I'm not convinced.

Here's a guide to seeing Zaragoza: both the obvious and the not-so-obvious, thanks to local tips.

The obvious


Zaragoza's focal point is the Plaza del Pilar, a long, rectangular 'square' (yes mathematicians, I know that makes no sense but take it up with Zaragoza's town planners) which is home to some of the city's key sights. The baroque Basilica del Pilar is more impressive outside than in, with its turrets and domes topped with multicoloured tiles. For €3 you can take a lift to the top for views of the domes themselves, the Rio Ebro alongside and across the city. It's free to visit the interior, where you can catch a glimpse of the famous 'pilar' (pillar), which St James apparently saw the Virgin Mary descend on back in AD40.

La Seo, Zaragoza

More impressive inside is La Seo, the cathedral, which lies at the other end of the square. Built on top of the city's old mosque, the current edifice is a mix of styles, with plenty of chapels to explore. The €4 entry fee also allows you access to the Tapestry Museum: sounds deathly dull, but with over 60 Flemish tapestries, it's one of the biggest collections in the world, and the detail and life that springs from the cloth is striking.

The colours have been edited, but the tapestries are still pretty damn impressive

La Plaza del Pilar is also home to the Caesaraugusta Forum Museum, which showcases the ruins of a Roman market and the city forum, Brought to life through multimedia displays, it's one of the key sights on the Roman route that runs through Zaragoza, and includes Roman walls, the Caesaraugusta Public Baths Museum, the Caesaraugusta River Port Museum and the Caesaraugusta Theatre Museum. Visiting each sight (apart from the walls, which are free) costs €3, or a ticket for all of them will set you back €7.

In (slightly) more modern times, La Aljafería was built by the Moors as a palace-cum-fortress in the 11th century, and like so many other Moorish monuments, it was added to by the Catholic Monarchs in the 15th century. A 15-minute walk from the Plaza del Pilar, La Aljafería is impressively well-preserved, with pretty prayer niches, calligraphy on the walls and mudejar ceilings. Admission costs €5, or visit on Sunday when it's free.

La Aljaferia


When it comes to dining in Zaragoza, El Tubo is the obvious place to head: and for good reason. With a high concentration of tapas bars in its pedestrianized streets, you can pick and choose depending on your tastes. Two classics include El Champi, famous for its mushrooms (what else, with that name?) and Taberna Doña Casta, known for its variety of croquetas and its huevos rotos. The former I can vouch for, particularly the arroz negro version; the latter just looked like a plate of slop to me, but my fellow diners seemed to be loving it.

The not-so-obvious


Saturday, 14 February 2015

I'm speaking at the Festival del Viaje y sus Culturas on Monday 16 February

Until the end of February, Madrid is playing host to the inaugural Festival del Viaje y sus Culturas. With workshops, talks and city walks, the festival aims to promote travel's role in art, literature, music and photography.

Will Madrid Rio be part of my vision of the city?

On Monday 16 February, I'll be on the panel at the Conectadxs event from 6.30pm at Conde Duque. No, I have no idea what that X is doing in the title either, but the session brings together bloggers from around the world who share their visions of their cities of residence on their blog. I'll be part of the Europe section, sharing my views of Madrid alongside Ana Fernández from Lugares de Cine, who'll be talking about Rotterdam, and Elena de Astorza, a Spanish expat in London who writes Notas desde algun lugar. The event is in Spanish and will be led by the radio presenter Maria Álvarez de Eulate.

After the Europe section, the event continues with Africa until 9pm. If you don't have plans on Monday, please come along – it'd be great to see you there!

The details
Monday 16 February from 6.30pm
Free entry
Salon de Actos, Conde Duque

If you can't attend in person, you can follow the event on Twitter at @FestivalViaje and using the hashtags #CONECTADXS and #CharlaViaje. 

Saturday, 7 February 2015

January Travels: Revisiting Zaragoza & Granada

Zaragoza's Basilica del Pilar by night

A month of travels offline equals a quiet month online: with trips to Zaragoza and Granada in January, I haven't posted here as much as usual. Back in December, I wrote about the #take12trips challenge, which encourages everyone to take at least one trip per month, whether it be a local day-trip or a far-flung holiday. I'll be honest, I had no problem completing this mission in 2014, and I doubt I will this year either, but it's still a fun way to document travel experiences.

For me, the challenge is likely to be visiting 12 new places. Although I love travelling and discovering corners of Spain and the world that I've never previously seen, I am often drawn back to countries and cities I've liked and wished to explore more. Thanks to work travel and trips back home to the UK, I do frequently find myself in the same destinations from one year to the next, with a few unchartered territories thrown into the mix. This year started off in exactly the same vein, with a work trip to Zaragoza (followed by a weekend break in the city, of course) and a couple of days in Granada.

Zaragoza is a city I've visited twice before, once for the hugely enjoyable Fiestas del Pilar, and once to research the city for the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. It may be Spain's fifth-biggest city, but the centre is compact and easily walkable, with most of its sights concentrated around the impressive Plaza del Pilar. Even the prime tapas spots are clustered into one little area; the narrow network of streets known as El Tubo. On this trip, I spent a couple of nights at a hotel in the outskirts for my employer's annual conference, followed by a couple more at the central Hotel Rio Arga. This location two minutes from the beautiful Basilica del Pilar couldn't have been bettered, but a combination of post-conference fatigue (it should be a recognised syndrome), a bitter battle with El Cierzo, Zaragoza's famous wind, and having already seen all the city's main sights made me wonder if the charm Zaragoza worked on me first and second time round had faded.

A windy day at the Alhambra in Granada

I had no such problem with revisiting Granada: the only issue was that I needed more time to enjoy the beautiful andaluz city. It may be much smaller than Zaragoza, but with snappable scenery around almost every corner and free tapas dished up in all bars, there's a lot to like. And that's before you even mention the Alhambra, the hilltop palace-fortress surveying the city that's both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Spain's most-visited attractions. This was my fourth visit to Granada, and I know I'll be drawn back: every trip seems too short. Staying in the rambling hillside Albayzín district on this occasion, I got to explore another side to the city, but I still haven't made it to the barrio of Sacromonte, with its cave-houses and stunning views. And with a high concentration of tapas bars and restaurants, I need to return to work my way through the list of excellent recommendations from Piccavey and Azahar.

So, two trips of 2015 down but no new destinations ticked off. Are repeat visits worth it? Well, if a city charmed you the first time round but you were short on time, yes. But what if you thoroughly enjoyed it and feel like you saw all you needed to? Well, after my experience in Zaragoza, it might be worth 'parking' a return trip for a while, but if you find yourself there again, go off the beaten track. If you spent your first visit exploring the best-known sights and living off a guidebook, try and take a more local approach next time. Seek out advice from resident bloggers and search for those under-the-radar sights, such as Zaragoza's Museo Ibercaja Camón Aznar, which has a huge space dedicated to Goya sketches. The tourist information office can only go so far to help: repeat visitors need to divert from the tourist trail and experience a place as the locals do.

This is why I'd like to introduce a new feature on Oh hello, Spain. 'Like a local' will feature guides to towns and cities around Spain written by locals, whether they be lifelong residents or current expats - just as long as they've been living there long enough to build up some expertise. I'll be writing the first post on Madrid this month, and I'd love to line up contributors for the coming months to show everyone what's great about your city, beyond the obvious sights. If you'd like to find out more and get involved, please email me, tweet me @ohhellospain or leave a comment below.

Full posts on Zaragoza and Granada coming up soon. I'll be posting on Mondays and Thursdays (alternate weeks) again from now on.

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