Bulls and Border Towns

8 –  10  February 2018

Because we didn’t want to go straight back into Spain we tinkered with the satnav who obligingly took us off into the countryside – great until we realised she was taking us into a tunnel too low for us! Ooops, time for a bit of old-fashioned map reading. We detoured through San Vincente – tiny cottages with huge chimneys – and down narrow lanes through a country of cattle and sheep, grass and cork oak; of hunters and whitewashed buildings with windows outlined in yellow and shutters and doors painted dark green.

But we needed to cross the border at some point so chose Marvao where huge griffon vultures soared above cliffs. At Alcantara we dropped into the gorge cut by the Rio Tajo (Tagus) and stopped at it’s famous Roman bridge. Here the British fought the French and blew-up half the bridge really upsetting our Spanish allies – we had to put a lot of effort into making it functional again. It’s a lovely spot, a national park with signposted trails along the river, and on such a lovely day it was difficult to imagine the chaos of battle.

We entered the remote area of Sierra de Gata in late afternoon and stayed at the remote Aire overlooking the village of Torre de Don Miguel, a grassy strip where we were the only vehicle and which we shared with a friendly grazing horse.

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Next morning our faith in our erratic satnav was undermined further when it took us on a completely redundant visit up steep, narrow cobbled streets into the heart of the village then back down the way we had come, much to the unblinking and unsmiling curiosity of the locals.

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Further on we crossed a dam at a huge reservoir and were shocked at how low it was, mabe 80% below where it should be at this time of year. The 2017 summer drought was the worst on record and followed 3 years of abnormally low rainfall – no wonder everything still looks dry in February.

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There have been huge crop losses across Spain and in this part of the country there are real concerns about availability of grass to feed the cattle and sheep. It really brought home to us the reality of what what the Spanish – and the Italians – had being saying to us about the unusual weather.

Just before the city of Salamanca we turned off the main road and drove through the village of Arapiles and onto the battlefield of Salamanca – or as the Spanish call it, the battle of the Arapiles, named after the two, flat-topped hills of Arapile Chico and Arapile Grande. Wrapped up warmly – and we mean furry hat & big glove time – we walked the battlefield, ably asisted by Wikipedia, our downloaded book & some strategically placed information boards. We crossed the stubble filled fields and climbed Arapile Grande with it’s monument and memorial plaques, then went down across the killing fields

towards the village and the low mound from which Wellington directed operations. Five information boards showed where all the troops were and really helped us to reconstruct what happened. Yes, anoraks –  we know!

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We pressed on with our Peninsula War theme making it to Ciudad Rodrigo by late afternoon. At the only campsite around we were surprised to find it full of young people (ie. under 30) playing loud music and obviously getting ready for a good weekend – our visit had coincided with the city’s annual Carnaval del Toro (a very down-scaled Pamplona, famed for it’s bull-run).  Although inclined to pull up the drawbridge and watch TV, we knew we should go and see what it was about so for the first time in a long time we went out on the town on a Friday night.

Crossing the bridge and walking up into the town we passed lots of young people drinking beer, many dressed in “onezies”, fancy dress clearly being the order of the day.,

At the main square wooden stands had been built to form a rectangular “bull-ring”, the floor covered in sand. We followed the crowd to seats in the stand and waited. The centre of the ring was filled with people at first, but as the long peals of church bells became closer together it thinned out and most of the women left. All but 2 of the gates to the ‘ring’ were closed and the bells pealed again – then a stream young men ran into the ring from the central gate followed by bulls which milled around in confusion then found their way out via the open gate opposite.

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This was repeated a couple more times and then it was over apparently, until midnight.  Although the atmosphere was excellent we didn’t really understand what was going on so joined in with something we did understand – visiting the bustling bars. A real mix, some atmospheric, some filled with families, others just for young people.

We had some tapas but lacked the stamina of the young and by 9.30 were headed home whilst the Spanish were just getting started.

Back in the town next morning people were already out in fancy dress having a drink, but we were there to walk the walls. Along with Badajoz, Ciudad Rodrigo was a crucial border point in the Peninsula War.

It fell to the French in 1810 but was re-taken by Wellington in 1812 following a siege and the town was badly ransacked by British troops despite their officers best efforts to stop them. Hanging and flogging worked in the end – how the British Army has changed..…

From the walls we had a good view of the river, our campsite on the opposite bank and the storks nesting in the tops of trees inside the town, the beak-clacking of their mating ritual an occasional accompaniment on our journey. Half-way round we could see crowds below outside the walls so climbed down to check-it out.

We saw an area was fenced off and then suddenly a bull was in there and men were trying to touch it for luck and get away without being gored. The bull was clearly young and cross, but appeared unharmed . A strange spectacle but not a comfortable one, a bit beyond us foreign, suburban creatures.

Back on the walls we managed to identify the places where Wellington’s troops breached the walls and tried hard to step back in time, but the background of the Carnaval did make it difficult. In the Plaza Mayor the stands were filling again so after grabbing a couple of tapas we got seats and were rewarded by more bulls trotting through, one of them deciding to linger and make threatening moves which the crowd loved.

One young man did put his hand on it’s forehead for a moment but there never seemed to be any real threat to people and at one point the bull fell to it’s knees which was a bit distressing, before getting up, shaking it’s head and trotting out after it’s friends. Time to go.

A mere 27 miles took us across the border back into Portugal and the town of Almeida. We settled on the excellent Aire opposite the walls and devoted the afternoon to visiting the military museum & walking the impressive walls of this star-shaped fort.

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Almeida’s military museum is situated in the ‘Casamatas’, the bombproof buildings built inside the walls to protect the defenders in times of siege. The long chambers felt very solid and safe and held some interesting stuff about the military and the town’s role through time, including a display on the Peninsula War. Besieged in 1810 the fortress town held out for 17 days until a stray shot exploded it’s arsenal blowing up the castle in spectacular fashion and wiping out some 500 defenders in the process. The survivors surrendered but fortunately for them Wellington turned up with his army in tow not too long after and the French decided discretion was the better part of valour and slipped away.

After that we set off around the 3km of walls, overgrown and grassy but essentially intact. We now understood the difference between ‘ravelins’ and ‘bulwarks’ and were able to appreciate the fortifications more than we would have a few days earlier.

We finished the day wandering the cobbled streets of this small, quiet, traditional town and found a deserted bar where we sampled the local speciality, a cherry liqueur called ginginha.