Monday, 10 October 2016

Dodging the rain in Spain

Leon to Ponferrada, 68 miles 

Over the past few years we've read quite a few motorhomers' blogs and followed their escapades on Motorhome Adventures.Two schools of thought emerge as regards the crucial question of impending inclement weather. There is the 'plucky Brit' approach, which involves donning a cagoul and striding out into the drizzle asserting "We we can't expect sunshine every day." The other is to mutter, "Bugger this for a game of soldiers!" while frantically searching Wunderground for any small spot of sunshine within a 300 mile radius. 

Where we stand in this dichotomy is revealed by the fact that between us we have six different internet weather service apps installed on our phones. It just takes one innocent looking fluffy cloud to float across the clear blue sky and we are crosschecking Il Tempio with Wunderground and the BBC, downloading weather conditions across the Iberian Peninsula, consulting historical data to compare this month's long term forecast with previous regional autumnal weather patterns, then squinting at Atlantic pressure charts making knowing asides about unusual fluctuations in the jet stream. Our conclusion, it's going to rain a lot in all over Spain in the next week or so.

Pure joy..the discovery of an animated chloropeth representation of temperature variations across Spain in the next week...
This news does not render the avid sun-seeker disconsolate, it simply results in a change of tactics, and attempts to avoid the rain altogether are supplanted by an eager search for temporary gaps in the cloud. It is this strategy which has shaped our plans for the coming week. Right now in Leon's beauteous car park skies are blue and the forecast good. Our plan is to head west towards Lugo to visit its famous Roman walls, but stay somewhere in between, possibly just a few miles down road at Astorga. If we have read the meteorological runes correctly, if we then head north towards Galicia's spectacular coast we might get a few clear spells where we can catch a glimpse of Europe's highest sea cliffs in-between the squalls. 

The road west from Leon is ruler-straight reflecting its Roman origins. A white stone path runs alongside the asphalt. The famous Camino de Santiago follows the N120, or more correctly, the converse is true, the modern road follows the ancient pilgrimage way. Along its length latter-day pilgrims trudge westwards, alone, or in gaggles, most adopting the traditional garb of brimmed hat and stout stick contrasting with the rest of their gear which looks distinctly hi-tec.

Can you spot the pilgrim?
 At first I was struck by their overt piety as from time to time you would observe them at rest by the roadside, heads bowed and hands clasped together. Then I realised they were communing with their phone, either tweeting the state of their blisters to the world at large, or checking progress on Google maps. The numbers surprised me, until I checked my own phone and discovered that in 2015 over 179,000 people had completed the Camino. No wonder hotels and hostels line the road and pack the side streets of towns en route. 

Astorga is one such town, and boasts a big Baroque church, an Episcopal Palace built by Gaudi and a bullring. Bullfights are not a regular thing in Spain these days, and the place's car park doubles up as a motorhome aire. It's situated on the edge of town, has a well maintained service point and looks like a good place to stay. We had lunch and wandered into town which was still gripped by Spanish extended lunch break torpor. After we had photographed the church and palace next door, peered at local delicacies in the window of a bakery, and decided to give the Roman remains a miss, we thought, it's only 2.15pm., now what? "

Astorga's large motohome aire, with good facilities next to...

the bull-ring, fine so long as there is not a bull fight scheduled... or you feel strongly about animal rights..

Baroque meets modernista
Baroque facade...
You don't really get  portal sculpture from this period in Northern Europe due to the Reformation.
Gaudi's modernista take on the gothic (plus beauteous contemporary lamp-post.

Lone pilgrim follows the signs ...
The hostals look interesting - and quite comfortable
All the shops were closed, a sure sign of being at a loose end is when you start window shopping at the local butchers...
Let's move on to Ponferrada." I suggested. Not that we knew anything about the town other than it was conspicuous by its absence in our guidebook. A symbol for a castle was shown next to it in our road atlas and the 'All the Aires' book said it had mountain views from the parking place. As we drove though the town's outskirts, dominated by a grid of mid-rise apartment blocks I wondered if we had made a bit if an error. The aire was at the back of a large car park, a few vans had already arrived and as promised, the area had a fine views of the mountains. 

Mountain views as promised
In fact, Ponferrada is an intriguing place to wander around. The area is renowned for mining. Just a few miles away is the site of the biggest gold mine in the Roman Empire, one of the reasons why this part of Spain was highly prized at that time. 

In modern times Ponferrada made a significant contribution to the growth of technology related to power generation as well as being a coal producing area. All this collapsed in the 1980s, but the economy has been revitalised by the building of a new university campus and investment in reintroducing wine making to the region. 

Prior to all of this Ponferrada was, and still is, associated with the Camino. The most important legacy of this connection is the large 12th century castle built by the Knights Templar. The sect began as an armed religious order dedicated to protecting pilgrims but ended up as the first international banking house, handling the financial aspects of pilgrimage throughout Christendom. 

The town has the kind of castle that looks designed by an eight year old.

It has seriously good turrets
All of this rich history is reflected in Ponferrada if you care to look. The most obvious signs are the historical monuments, the castle and the somewhat neglected medieval quarter surrounding it. However, the town's more recent proletarian history is reflected in the working class apartment blocks and walls scrawled with anti-capitalist slogans and hammer and sickle symbols. 

The main square...
The was a local legend about St James and a Marian miracle - a nearby plaque explained it - but I could not figure it out.

Some parts of the medieval centre are in ruins - others, like here well restored.
Lots of flowery balconies
and colour-washed houses.
lovely carved wooden bay windows
and an assertive message from a Taverna called 'La Obrera' - The Worker.
Finally, for anyone who has been involved with EU regional regeneration projects you immediately recognise the well intentioned, but hapless attempts to implant cultural aspiration through community arts projects. Perhaps unintentionally, the drowning in concrete sculpture installed in one of Ponferrada's bleaker urban spaces, summed up nicely the futility of most attempts at social engineering.

A curiously downbeat message I felt from this particular piece of public art...We've all had days like this, I guess...


Even so, somehow Ponferrada has, it appears, revived its fortunes somewhat; it feels like a place with a future. I don't suppose it will ever make it into Lonely Planet's Spain guidebook, lacking something 'must see' like a Gaudi palace, or a hip emerging tapas scene. To me though, it was far more interesting than Astorga because it was thought provoking. Not everywhere has to be beautiful to be interesting, more workaday places can also be worthwhile places to visit too.

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