Well, maybe a little of the last two, but our U3A visit was more ‘Castile’s culture and castles’. 28 of us set out from Tonbridge on a wet Sunday morning and were met at Madrid airport by Paul, our tour manager for the week, who would keep us informed and entertained on our journeys. Early May is a perfect time to visit central Spain, before the temperatures rise and the countryside loses its spring green. Another ‘plus’ is seeing storks nesting on rooftops and church towers!
Our 4-star hotel on the outskirts of Segovia provided a good base from which to visit Salamanca, and Segovia itself. These ancient and attractive cities, built of honey-coloured sandstone, have long histories, Salamanca having a Roman bridge and Segovia a wonderful, granite, 100-foot-high Roman viaduct which, without any mortar, has withstood numerous earth tremors over two millennia. On the guided walking tour of Salamanca we saw the ‘new cathedral’, started in 1512, and abutting the Romanesque cathedral which is comparatively small and used only occasionally nowadays. Passing the university buildings, we arrived at the Plaza Mayor – said to be the best main square in Spain.
In Segovia the next day we again heard about the ‘Catholic Monarchs’, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, whose marriage in 1469 in Segovia led to the unification of Spain (and subsequently to the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims). From our perspective it has left some very fine buildings, including the Alcazar, whose exterior is a ‘fairy-tale’ castle – all turrets and towers – and a really pretty old town, with narrow streets in the former Jewish quarter and sgraffito decoration on the exterior walls of houses and churches.
On our way to Madrid for the next three nights we visited the somewhat forbidding granite palace/monastery of El Escorial, with its huge church, royal apartments, library and creepy Pantheon in the crypt, housing tombs of the Spanish royal family.
With the weather becoming sunnier and warmer as we went through the week, while the UK was voting we embarked on an orientating bus tour of Madrid, which included a photostop at the huge bullring built in the Moorish style (bullfighting still being an important feature of Spanish life). During the afternoon people visited the Prado or other galleries, or explored the Botanic Gardens or the large Retiro Park with its boating lake and Crystal Palace, all of which were within walking distance of our comfortable hotel. That evening we visited Chinchon, a small town with an attractive square, up the hill from which was a restaurant where we enjoyed typical specialities of the region, including roast suckling pig; wine flowed and a good time was had by all!
Our last day was spent in Aranjuez, south of Madrid, where the 18th century Royal palace, built to provide a respite from the heat of the Madrid summer, stands in tree-shaded gardens on the banks of the river Tagus. After a ride through the gardens and woods on a little ‘tourist train’, we finished our tour with a peaceful trip on the river.
The holiday gave us an overview of the history of Spain and its monarchs, together with an appreciation of the region and of some of Spain’s finest artistic treasures. In Spain one has to get used to shops and places of interest being closed most of the afternoon, and restaurants not opening for dinner before 8.30pm but with a bit of thinking ahead one can get round these potential difficulties: we had some very relaxed long lunches!
During the week we had plenty of time to enjoy being with old friends and making new ones. When meals were not included at the hotels, we mostly went out in small groups and had a lot of fun trying different eating establishments. Thanks go to the travel team who prepared the way for this holiday and to Margaret and Geoff who, together with the ever-cheerful Paul, looked after us during the week.
U3A holidays are always well-planned, with a variety of interesting things to do and see and are well worth taking part in; one arrives home – to use a cliché – tired but happy.