A Travellerspoint blog

The Parable of a Parador - part Two

A wish fulfilled?

Please see Part One first! (below)
Part Two...

"There's no point in worrying about it now. It can't be that bad. That bus must use the road, after all."
I was trying to play it down, but Harry was in no mood to be buoyed up by false cheerfulness.
"It's definitely much worse than the way up," he said, "and that bus was smaller than us anyway – it had a much shorter wheel-base!"
"I wish you'd stop going on about wheel-bases and cheer up a bit," but I kept this thought to myself. I seemed to have stolen his middle name and this defeatist attitude was becoming a habit.
There was no point though in letting the possible troubles of the morrow ruin the rest of our stay in Arcos, so we returned to the Parador and the luxury of being able to stretch out in that lovely bath and move around the room without treading on each other's feet. Our evening in the Parador of Arcos de la Frontera was perfect. We ate a wonderful evening meal in the restaurant where smiling waitresses were charmingly dressed in traditional brightly-coloured Adalucian costume. They thoughtfully brought us extra supplies of the giant tapas olives after noticing we'd enthusiastically polished off the first bowl in seconds, and didn't blanche for one moment when we requested a vegetarian meal. Nothing was too much trouble, and everything was accompanied by an old-fashioned serving of helpfulness.
That college video hadn't deceived me about the incredible view from the Parador. Our dining room vantage point was above scores of swallows and bats swooping and screeching around the cliffs below in the twilight - a magical experience which almost compensated for all the tiring difficulties and inconveniences of the previous weeks of travelling.
"Well it is an amazing view," Harry had to admit, "Now we're here, perhaps we can forget about staying in a parador for the foreseeable future!"
Had I gone on about it that much? Well, I guess I had.
Afterwards, we stood on the terrace which looks out over both the plaza and the surrounding landscape. A million stars twinkled in an endless sky unpolluted by light. No sound of traffic broke the tranquillity. The air was balmy and perfumed with the herbs of the sierra which stretched out into misty blue folds towards the horizon. I breathed in deeply and knew I would always remember this perfect moment in such a perfect place. I did not want it to end. I was actually staying in the Parador at Arcos, and could not believe how lovely it all was after our problems in getting there. Then an unwelcome but familiar sound began to invade my euphoria…
…The bells!
We returned to our room and reassured ourselves that more than likely they would cease at midnight. After all, the powers-that-be whoever they were, wouldn't want to upset their paying guests in the Parador. We were deluding ourselves. The various bells of Arcos did not take a rest and were determined to deprive us of ours. Along with striking each quarter, the clock in that picturesque church tower marked each hour with a tune which seemed so quaint and pretty in daylight hours. Throughout that hot, interminable night it became a thing of torment. And as if that wasn't enough, for good measure we were treated to an extra peal for matins at some unearthly hour while it was still dark outside. Once this was over, it was then that the local dust cart arrived. Not noted anywhere in the world as being a quiet activity, the garbage collection in the plaza mayor of Arcos de la Frontera was no exception. Past experience has taught us that one should not expect a good night's sleep in any hotel no matter how many stars it boasted, but this was the Mother of them all …. How anyone got any sleep in that place I'll never know.
By the morning we were completely shattered and did not relish the drive back down from the town, which promised to be even more fraught than the upwards journey of the day before. It was no wonder that we weren’t in any rush for an early attempt at the unknown and perilous, deciding to delay our departure until the town was enjoying its afternoon siesta.
"If we leave it till everyone has their siesta this afternoon, we might have more room to manoeuvre" Harry reasoned, " and you can do a bit more exploring if you want."
There were a lot of fascinating nooks and crannies I'd noticed during our guided tour of the previous evening, so this seemed like an excellent scheme. Not only would the streets be deserted while the townsfolk snoozed away the hottest part of the day in the coolness of their shuttered houses, but I could make the most of our limited time in Arcos. I didn't think it would be on Harry's wish-list for us to darken its doors ever again.
Arcos really is a stunning place, but all too soon we realised we couldn't put off taking our leave any longer. In my new-found rôle of tour optimist, I had a bright idea which I hoped might help us with the drive down.
"Why don't I walk in front of the van to see how much room we have each side?"
We'd only be going at a snail's pace, so it seemed a sensible thing to do.
"Well, I suppose you could try it," was Harry's over-enthusiastic reply.
"I could carry a red flag! You know, like they used to when cars first went on roads."
"Mmm. Well let's just get going." My suggestion had fallen flat on its face.
Like a pathetically small carnival procession though without the music, singing and dancing (in fact nothing like a carnival procession come to think of it), we made our tentative way along, Harry in campervan behind, me in front but with no red flag.
As we feared though, the way down was even more torturous and problematic than the way up and our hope that there would be no other cars on the road at that time proved to be just that. Almost immediately we 'picked up' a rearguard intent on staying as close to us as a Garfield on a rear windscreen and it didn't seem possible that he had no idea of the predicament we were in. Our polite pleas for him to back up and allow us a bit of space behind were unsympathetically ignored, with the result that again we had little room to manoeuvre at each bend. Eventually though, and after what felt like eternity, we reached the wider expanses of the road which leads out of Arcos. I'd done my best to gauge the clearances, but it obviously wasn't good enough seeing as in places our van's smart new paint-work now looked like it had been set upon by Jackson Pollock with a pen-knife. Along one side a nasty dent had appeared to balance the composition. We were free though, relatively unscathed and the ordeal of that suffocating afternoon at least was at an end.
Harry pulled over and stopped. He was looking not a little wearied by all the strenuous wheel-turning and shunting backwards and forwards, and sunk the most-part of a large bottle of water. If we hadn't planned to drive on to Seville that day, the occasion would have called for something a bit stronger. I was keen to get going again, but he had other ideas.
"Let's just sit here for a while," he murmured.
We sat quietly and enjoyed the feeling of liberation.
"Thank goodness we don't have to do that again!" It was the understatement of the year.
At the time we were not quite ready to find anything actually funny about our experience, but I couldn't stop myself laughing hysterically with relief.
A few days later, when all of this was becoming a distant memory to be reeled out as one of our 'adventures' when we got home, we had arrived in Seville. Stopping for diesel on the outskirts of the city, I found myself amusing the friendly service station attendant there.
He pointed to the obviously fresh damage, "What ees? You 'ave bang?"
Without thinking, I found myself paraphrasing the slogan used by the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War, which was quoted prominently in the film, 'Land and Freedom'. I pointed to the scrapes and said with feeling,
"Arcos de la Frontera. No Pasarán!" (None shall pass!)
"Ah, Si! Si!" he laughed, obviously appreciating the joke.
As soon as I'd said it though, I felt certain I'd committed an awful faux pas. Was it in good taste to make light of what was, after all, still a sensitive part of Spanish history? I'm still not sure, but I think I got away with it.
Had our visit to Arcos de la Frontera been worth all of that hassle? I shall always treasure the memory of that magical moment on the terrace of the Parador. There will be no room for such romantic notions in Harry's mind though. It will evermore be the place where we acquired that dent in the van and which, during the rest of the time we owned the vehicle and despite all his efforts to eliminate it, still continued to serve as a constant reminder:
It is not always a good thing to have a wish fulfilled.
And I'm sad to say we never did sit on the Parador's sunny terrace and have that glass of Rioja!

Note (1) Namely the Isle of Wight

Info:Paradors are unique hotels created from Convents, Castles, Palaces and many different kinds of unusual and interesting buildings, i equally unique settings.

Posted by hallyally 08:22 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The Parable of a Parador - part One

...or why it's not always a good idea to get a wish fulfilled

sunny 40 °C

Harry turned off the engine, thumped the steering wheel and shouted,
“You wanted to come here. You get us out of it!”
My stomach was gripped with that sickening feeling of panic and as I tried desperately to hold back the tears. As a thousand tiny needles pricked my eyes, the saying,  “Beware of what you wish for, it may come true” began to echo though my mind in an annoyingly smug way.
To stay in the Parador of Arcos de la Frontera had been my wish. Now it was a dream turning into a nightmare.
We'd long been mulling over the idea that one day we would travel through Spain, in a camper van, following in the footsteps of my hero, Laurie Lee. My favourite book of all time was, and still is despite everything, "As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning". It tells of Laurie's trek across Spain in the 1930s on the cusp of the Civil War. In those far off days, those of our mulling that is rather than 1930's Spain, I had no idea who or what a parador was. Determined not to be under-prepared for our trip, I'd taken the plunge and enrolled on the Spanish language course at our local college, and it was there that the fateful discovery was made. Videos used during the course mainly comprised  of scenes where ‘tourists’ asked directions or purchased items, set against the backdrop of some of the most interesting and picturesque parts of Spain, i.e. not the usual high-rise hell which epitomises your average Spanish holiday destination. One episode in particular was especially alluring. It concerned asking if it is possible to do various things…  “Se puede………”
The scene:
….A couple sit on the terrace of the Parador at Arcos de la Frontera, perusing their guidebooks. A waiter arrives, obviously the genuine article since he looks somewhat ill at ease in front of the camera. They ask him if it is possible to have a meal out there…. " Se puede…" etc. The answer unfortunately for them, is in the negative, but they can have a drink! …

All of this might sound mundane, but the setting wasn’t. The 80s-styled, shoulder-padded señorita presenting the video wandered through the shady streets of the town of Arcos de la Frontera, one of the ‘white towns’ or ‘pueblos blancos’ of Andalucia. These towns are romantically set on top of a hill or a vertiginous cliff-face, and since all of the houses in them are  painted white, it does not take a genius to see how they got their name. The Parador of Arcos sits on the summit at the edge of  the high outcrop on which the town is situated. From below it seems to be in a precarious position, suspended like an ornament on a Christmas tree. The views in the video, taken from and around this lofty position, were spectacular and I was hooked.
While the possession of a guide book can give a sense of security in that you think it tells you all you need to know, believe me, this is far from the case. Our Spanish guide book had a lovely photograph of my imagined utopia, and the caption below the picture calmly stated:
“Precipitously situated Arcos de la Frontera, a challenge to motorists"
"Challenge to motorists?" I thought. "We’ve driven up and down Swiss mountains for years; this can’t be any worse! What kind of wimps do they think we British are? O.K. it looks steep, but nothing we can’t cope with, surely?"
However, whenever I use the word, surely, at the back of my mind I can hear the lugubrious tone of our history teacher at school. Not the most inspiring of teachers, and also not keen on the exuberance of youth, Mrs. Sacher would become exasperated whenever someone uttered this word,  grimly admonishing,
“No-one can ever be that sure about anything!”
Like most things young people are warned about, we took no notice and  deliberately used the word just to annoy the poor old thing.  But she did have a point after all.
Harry had promised to treat me to a night in a 'posh' hotel as a relief from life cooped up in the van, so I ordered the Parador brochure and eagerly awaited its arrival. My enthusiasm was not curbed by its contents, but even though full of intriguing places such as restored castles, convents and palaces, my heart was set on the former home of the corrigidor at Arcos. I had pictured myself gazing out from that terrace, glass of Rioja in one hand (although no food) ; there really was nothing else which could compete. And so it was that a few months later  our Spanish sojourn took us en route north from Cadiz, seeking out this fabled place like conquistadors on a quest to find El Dorado. Or at least a less romantic version anyway.
 Upon arrival outside the town our mission ground to a halt. It was not entirely clear how to get up to our destination or even into the town itself. We could see it so temptingly out of reach at the edge of the cliff above us, and I was reassured to see that it actually resembled the guidebook picture. The endearing Spanish tradition of making strangers guess how to find their way around was in practice, and there were no visible directions to the Parador despite its fame.
"Let's find the Tourist Office," I suggested.
"You'll be lucky. It's bound to be their four-hour lunch break," Harry replied.
He was right of course. How many times had we optimistically tried to get information from one of these places only to discover them closed and not only because of lunch but also because it was a Saint's Day/a Monday/an election day/out of season. Perish the thought of a tourist office actually being open when it was needed.
"Well, there's got to be a way up to the Parador, otherwise how would it be in business?"
Harry, resigned to his role as reluctant tour driver, shrugged his shoulders, put the van into gear and we set off once more. The first guess we made as to the way up and into the lower part of town only led to ‘no entry’ signs. At this point it was a pity we didn't hear the warning bells, though we would hear enough real ones later. Even at this early stage, uncharacteristically, Harry was ready to give up. I was determined not to be deprived of my goal.
"We just can't go away without trying a bit harder to find it," I had after all come so far and got so tantalisingly near.
He resisted. I insisted. He lost.
With each time we drove back and forth across its bridges, the foreign green river that flows at the base of the hill upon which Arcos is so "precipitously" set, soon became as familiar as our local town's  supermarket-trolley-containing-stream. However, by the process of elimination, we eventually found a road which thankfully didn't lead us back to where we'd just come from and I felt that now I could actually look forward to my night of five-star luxury. Things were now looking up both literally and metaphorically as this road  was of a reasonable width and actually not too steep. But soon the ominous appearance of one-way signs again tried to confound us, and beads of sweat ran down my forehead, and this time not because of the Spanish heat.
" This is hopeless," it was unlike my normally confident Other Half to admit defeat so soon.
"It can't be much further!" I said, though I was trying to cover up the fact that I agreed with him.
The higher and further into the town we drove, the narrower became the streets. Not in the sense of a British narrowness, that is with pavements or verges and the sensible addition of the occasional passing place, but in the sense of those white, unforgiving walls of buildings actually bordering the way forward. In my enthusiasm, it hadn’t occurred to me for one minute that when donkeys were the only form of transport and in an effort to achieve maximum shade in the relentless summer heat of Southern Spain, houses in towns were built as close together as possible. Our guide book with its emphasis on the steepness of the streets,  had neglectfully omitted to mention their width. And I'd paid good money for it too. There'd been no warning signs. There was no room for manoeuvre. Any possibility of turning round was a non-starter, and in any case out of necessity this was a one-way system. It would also have been hopeless to think of backing up because by then there was a queue of cars building in our wake, these vehicles in true Continental fashion only having a centimetre between their  bumpers.
With both sides of the van so close to touching the walls of the houses  it was nigh on impossible for either of us even to climb out. That we might actually be in a tricky situation seemed a big possibility. On the plus side however, like Pollyanna I'd found a silver lining to our predicament.
"Look! There's a sign for the Parador! Over on that wall!" Our enforced stop had enabled me to spot it pointing to the right up another steep and narrow turning beyond the archway.
"Well in the first place, I doubt if we can get through the arch – it's even narrower than the road we're on. And anyway, how do you think I can get the van round that corner? This van's got a long wheelbase – there's no chance!"
The usually unflappable Harry was already disenchanted with the trip in general and with Spain in particular. This was proving to be the last straw on top the huge stack  we'd accumulated since leaving home two weeks before, and now was the time for him to succumb to an uncharacteristic bout of towel-throwing-in. Helpfully I just wished I could shut my eyes, curl up in a ball and die.
Then, through the murky depths of our despair an apparition from nowhere appeared before us: a young man on a motor-scooter waving his arms about. We soon realised that rather than making rude gestures at hapless tourists (us), he was suggesting we should pull in the wing mirrors to reduce the width of the van. It seemed a sensible suggestion and one worth trying even though we were unsure if this would completely solve our predicament. By now we were also becoming aware that we'd  attracted the interest of several ancient and well-oiled patrons of a bar just up ahead, and our little drama turned into a full-scale pantomime as they began gesticulating and beckoning us on.
“Si! Si! … Se puede!”  they exclaimed excitedly and at the same time doing what could only be described as some sort of grotesque ritual dance.
This was a good time to remember the meaning of those words in my favourite  scene from the language video.
Se Puede! They seem to think we can do it!” I translated helpfully.
It was not like Harry to give up, but the high temperatures and a general fatigue which we were both feeling as a result of driving hundreds of miles since leaving home had taken their toll. After all, being from an island which is only some 22 ½ miles at its widest(1) and even though we'd travelled through France on many occasions, the vast distances involved in our ambitious circumnavigation of Spain was a different ball-game. France is big. Spain is very big and very hot. I don’t really think the re-spray carried out on the van as part of its  re-fit before we left home had anything to do with his sudden caution, but no doubt the thought of that new paint work being scratched did not help. Paint-work aside, there was no real choice for a way out of our situation. The only alternative to cutting the van up into small pieces and carting it off to one of the charming scrap heaps we'd noticed enhancing the Andalucian countryside, was to trust these helpful locals who were surely experienced in this type of thing. So we edged forwards, slightly encouraged by the sight of a small local bus, not quite as large as our van (and with its wing mirrors folded of course), in the queue of traffic behind us.
"If that goes through every day, then surely we can!" Pollyanna chirped.
Of course we had no reason to know that the bus did not actually include a stop up that hill and outside ‘our’ Parador, but emboldened by its presence, gingerly Harry managed to squeeze the van through the archway. Now all that was needed was to get it round that wretched tight corner beyond it, which was so tantalisingly displaying the sign pointing up to our goal. The only way to do this was by shunting backwards and forwards, and despite being able only to turn slightly on each manoeuvre, eventually we found ourselves liberated in the wider expanses of the town plaza mayor. There stood my marvellous Parador occupying  the whole of one side of the square, white and shiny, the jewel in the crown. On one of the other sides there was a picturesquely-crumbling Baroque church and a third consisted of the vertiginous edge of the cliff with its breath-taking views of the surrounding parched countryside. How wonderful, how authentic. At last, the real Spain! The Spain of Laurie Lee…..the country as I had imagined it to be when my hero walked across it in those far off days….
Naturally, I soon had to come back to the here and now because our next difficulty was finding somewhere to leave the van. The square, rather than being an open space for the recreation of the good people of Arcos, was instead a car park. It was at this point that something important occurred to Harry.
"You should have booked a room. After all this trouble, we might not be able to stay there anyway. You didn't think of that did you?"
Why was it always my fault? But I couldn't argue as it was my idea to stay in the place, as he'd already so forcibly reminded me. Maybe I should have had the foresight to book in advance or at least see if they had rooms available for round about the time we intended to arrive.
"You'd better get in there! Here's the Traffic Warden wanting to move us on!"
A mean-looking uniformed man was heading our way, so I willingly left Harry to sort out the problem of parking, and jumped out of the van to make a dash for the hotel reception. It was only then I realised that I looked like a disaster area. My hair was all over the place from travelling with the van windows open, and I was wearing the faded-tee-shirt-shorts-and-flip-flops look which had been great for dossing around on campsites, but to my mind not really suitable attire for a five-star hotel. For the first time in my sheltered life I needed to stop being squeamish about my appearance. I was already unpopular for bringing us here, so it was no good whinging that I should change into something more respectable - or at least put a comb through my hair. Paraphrasing in my mind the words of Basil Fawlty, “Only the upper classes would wear tat like that”, I hoped that the hotel staff would think me one of those English eccentrics, as was our erstwhile reputation abroad before the arrival of the package holiday and the lager lout.
Approaching the entrance, I noticed a smartly dressed couple making their way up the steep path to the hotel pulling wheeled suitcases behind them. It became even more urgent for me to get there before they took the imagined last room, but of course unlike us, they were hardly likely to have trundled all that way up to the Parador without booking. With no time to apply this bit of logic to the situation, I found myself running the last few yards as if my life depended on it, which in a way it did though only in the sense of marital harmony. Obviously used to all sorts there, nobody at the reception desk batted an eyelid at my accelerated arrival technique and bohemian appearance. Those few minutes waiting for my turn seemed like eternity as my inner turmoil threatened to ruin the pretence of outward calm. When I resisted punching the air and hugging the lovely man behind the desk as he confirmed they had rooms available, even I was impressed at my self-restrain.
Filling in the annoying forms in triplicate as fast as I could, I returned to the van and discovered that the parking man was not mean at all, and was helpfully directing Harry to a suitable space which had become vacant. I felt bad at turning him into some kind of  Napoleon, but also could not help thinking that any change of attitude may have been because of discovering our intention of staying at the Parador. By booking in at the hotel, we were no longer rubber-necked day trippers or ageing hippies in a scruffy camper van.
After all the stresses of getting there, we  were keen to get out of the suffocating heat of that town square, multiplied a hundred–fold inside the tin-box which was our mobile home. We grabbed what we needed for that night, including our ‘posh’ clothes, and stuffed everything apart from these into a small case. I'd insisted on bringing this with us for such an occasion, despite there being little space for such frivolities. There was no way that we would enter my precious Parador carrying our things in supermarket plastic carriers.
I gasped as we entered our room. It was huge, and with comfy sofas, a separate entrance hall, tables and chairs, it was also heaven. The bathroom alone could have accommodated the living space inside the camper van some four times over.
"Let's just stay here for the next week, abandon the van and fly home," I suggested.
"Well don't forget whose idea it was to do this trip in the first place,"
Guilty as charged.
I wasn't accustomed  to 'roughing it' and a lifetime had passed since I'd been able to wallow in a deep bathful of warm water.  Designers of camp-site showers needed to go back to the drawing board - nine times out of ten my clothes managed to get as wet as I did, and it was normal for water not being as hot as advertised on the tap. Not unusual either was that this so-called ‘hot’ water ran out half way through washing my hair resulting in a lot of futile insults being shouted at the pipe-work. This was not my idea of a good time.
However, before we could begin to take in and enjoy our surroundings properly, we had to undertake the important task of transferring our cheese supply and other perishables from the van 'fridge into the chilled mini bar in the room. The refrigeration facilities in the van were just about adequate whilst on the move, though good when plugged into the mains on a campsite, but obviously no such arrangements were available in that scorching Town Square. And though there was also a Calor-gas option, we didn't have enough confidence in it to trust our precious stash wouldn't have turned into stinking mush by the following day.
Having done the deed, we could now turn our attention to enjoying the view from our balcony and discovered it to be an excellent vantage point for observing the comings and goings in the plaza below. A good source of interest came from the police station on the opposite side to the Parador. It occurred to us from our observations that the guardia of Arcos must have the best policing job in the world. Their main duties seemed to consist of:
a) lounging provocatively, James Dean-like, astride large motor bikes
b) smoking huge cigars
c) chatting to and sharing a joke with various acquaintances who were passing by
Along with peaked caps, sun-glasses and large moustaches seemed to be obligatory parts of their uniform, so when a workman wearing a yellow hard-hat stopped for a chat, the ensemble was in danger of resembling the 'Village People'. The temptation for a chorus of 'Y.M.C.A.' was too much to resist.
There did seem to be a huge number of police in that square doing not a lot, and we didn’t suppose that crime was a big problem in Arcos. However we found ourselves imagining a Spanish rival for that famous chase in The Italian Job – but on motorbikes rather than Minis. Those steep, narrow and winding alleyways would certainly  make it an exciting prospect – maybe we should suggest it to someone.
However, pleasant as this was and not wishing to spend the whole time in Arcos playing the voyeur from our window, we ventured out into the square to explore. The tourist office (yes, there was one all the way up there) was also opposite, next to the police station, but I was left wondering if it might have been better located somewhere near the town's entrance for visitors to take full advantage. Anyone who had already made it up to the plaza major would probably have no need for one by then. On the door was a poster advertising guided walking tours of the town’s historic buildings and patios, which are apparently famous. Naturally it did not re-open until later that afternoon, so as temperatures began to cool, we returned and took up the offer. As a bonus, this was free for guests of the Parador. Being the only interested party that day, we had an exclusive tour with the pleasant raven-haired young woman from the tourist office, who spoke impeccable English. Harry even managed to make her laugh, something of a feat in Spain, as we passed a noisy bunch of  Germans intent on disrupting the tranquillity of those narrow streets:
"Tut, tourists!" he said,  "We get them at home!"
Despite seeing the exquisite patios and learning about the interesting history of the town, I began to feel uneasy because of the recurrent pealing of bells from its many church campanile. Added to this was much chiming of clocks marking the quarter of each hour. I remembered that one side of the square containing the Parador was taken up by that ancient church which I'd admired so much. The thought should have occurred to me before that churches mean bells; bells mean laying awake half the night. This had been an enduring memory from a previous trip through the Spanish Pyrenees, where clocks chimed not only on the hour, but five minutes before and after. This helpfully made sure that listeners just dropping back to sleep after the first lot were in no doubt of the time for the rest of the night.
"Those bells," I wondered. "They must stop at night, mustn't they?"
"I expect so," was Harry's unconvincing answer.
I put the thought to the back of my mind. We were here and it was all going to be fantastic.
During this tour of the town, like a recurring nightmare an old worry again reared its ugly head. If it was difficult getting up to the top of the place, what would the journey down be like? Deciding to investigate the route we'd have to take the next day, it did nothing to reassure us. If anything, the streets were narrower and had more bends even sharper than those we'd negotiated on the way up. Optimist was now my middle name...

To be Continued...

Posted by hallyally 08:06 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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