April 26, Day 10 (2) Cordoba to Almagro.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, a who’s who of those travelling.
After leaving the synagogue in Córdoba, it was back to our van and on to Almagro where we had reserved rooms for the night. The NIV E5 now followed the Guadalquivir closely. To our left, the Sierra Morena loomed closer, but to the right cereal fields stretched into the distance. We left the NIV E5 at Montoro (about 45 kilometres/ 26 miles east of Córdoba), and turning north on the N 420, entered the foothills of the Sierra Morena.
The N 420 is a much more attractive alternative than the NIV E5 which continues east for some 60 kilometres (37 miles) before turning north at the eastern end of the Sierra Morena. Between Montoro and Puertollano (on the north side of the Sierra), the N 420 is quite wild with no towns or villages … so make sure you have enough gas/petrol in your tank to cover the 107 kilometres (66 miles) between Montoro and Puertollano.
Leaving Montoro, we climbed gradually through extensive olives groves with wild flowers edging the roadsides.
The gentle gradient, the easy turns and the lack of traffic made for a very pleasant ride. As we climbed, the olives gave way to holm oak forests and thick scrub of broom, thyme, heather and other shrubs.
What especially took our breath away were the rock roses (cistus), in full flower; we stopped to admire them (and take photos, of course!).
After crossing over a few easy passes, we suddenly came to a dramatic view of the Valley of Alcudia, which signalled the end of the Sierra Morena.
Another short climb and we were bypassing the unattractive coal-mining town of Puertollano. Shortly after Puertollano, we turned east on the CM 413 and followed it across the fertile plain of Campo de Calatrava to Almagro.
Almagro is a quiet town of around 10,000 inhabitants which scarcely figures on tourist routes and yet is well worth a visit. It was once the stronghold of the powerful order of fighting monks, the Knights of Calatrava, to which its owes much of its noble atmosphere, with old mansions bearing ancient coats of arms edging narrow, cobbled streets. The town also has many churches, convents, and monasteries.
Margaret and I had stayed a couple of times in the luxurious, ivy-clad state-run Parador, a 16th-century Franciscan convent in a quiet corner of the town.
This time, however, we chose the Retiro del Maestre, a boutique 26-room hotel on Calle San Bartolomé, in the historic centre of the town and only about 5 minutes’ walk from the stunning Plaza Mayor. The Retiro de Maestre ranks amongst the best of the many excellent hotels we stayed in on this trip. Attentive personnel, spacious and tastefully decorated rooms, all mod cons, a beautiful inner patio, lots of atmosphere (and photos of bullfighters who had stayed there) and a large underground garage. For 130 euros per room, including breakfast and garage, it was a great find.
As soon as we were settled in, we headed for the Plaza Mayor, Almagro’s main attraction and one of the most unusual squares in Spain.
At one end of the square, you’ll find the local town hall, and at the other end, through which we passed, there is a small park with a statue of Diego de Almagro (1478/9-1538), conqueror of Chile.
Rectangular in shape, it seems less Spanish and more northern or central European in character. The explanation goes back to the 16th century when the wealthy Fugger brothers, German/Flemish bankers to Charles/ Carlos V were given rights to develop the nearby mercury mines of Almadén. The Fuggers established Almagro as their base and brought with them fellow countrymen and commissioned the building of the square.
The square’s distinctive features are the green-coloured, two-storeyed wooden, enclosed balconies that frame the two longer sides of the square. The balconies are supported on stone pillars behind which a walkway provides much needed shade from the searing summer heat, and protection from the winter cold. Lining the walkway are all kinds of little shops and bars that spill out into the square.
Halfway along one of the balconied sides of the square is one of the jewels of Almagro, a small 17th-century theatre, the Corral de Comedias, and Spain’s only surviving theatre from its Golden Age (16th and 17th centuries)
Originally the open courtyard of an inn, its whereabouts was unknown for a long time and was only discovered in 1950. Now renovated, it puts on Golden Age plays during the Festival of San Bartolomé at the end of August and beginning of September; at other times its stages a variety of entertainment
We spent a couple of hours in the square, enjoying in particular the sight of families taking the evening paseo (walk) and children playing in all corners. This was heartening in times when TV, social media and other activities constantly challenge the tradition paseo.
One tradition for which Almagro has always been famous is intricate hand-made lace embroidery, possibly a legacy of those 16th-century Flemish settlers. When Margaret and I first visited Almagro we saw groups of ladies seated at their doorsteps doing lace work while watching their children (or grandchildren) and catching up with local gossip. It was a social activity notably absent on this visit.
When we asked about this, we were told that it was a dying art, that people were otherwise occupied, and that young people were sadly no longer interested in keeping it. The few who still practice the art now do so indoors. You can still see how it’s done in a couple of places e.g. on the Calle de San Agustín, just off the town hall end of the square, and close by there is an excellent Lace Museum (Museo del Encaje).
John: Almagro: if you did not know that you were in a town in Castile, you would swear that this plaza was in a small town in northern Europe. The colours and the open wood structures with their overhangs reminded me of some place in the Netherlands…somewhat appropriate as it was built by bankers from there in the 1600s. Along with the buildings, I enjoyed seeing a lady doing the hand-made lace embroidery. I could not get over the speed that she was working or how she was able to keep organized with so many threads on the go. We ate at one of the many cafes around the plaza and watched the families out for the evening.
On the square, opposite the Corral de Comedias, there is an excellent shop, Artes El Villar, where you can buy all kinds of exquisite lace embroidery. On past visits, we have bought several beautifully embroidered table linen sets there. After buying some more table linen, we enjoyed a pleasant meal on the terrace of a nearby bar in the square, watching children at play. It was late by the time we got back to our hotel. It had been a long and busy day and we were ready for bed. Our street was quiet and the hotel pleasantly warm and inviting. We were soon asleep.