Category Archives: 2016

• Historic City of Toledo

Visit: 10th/11th December 2016


Toledo was the last WHS of my Portugal/Spain trip in December 2016. After touring Alcalá de Henares on my own I met Natalie at Madrid’s airport and the next morning we caught a coach from Spain’s current capital to its former one.

Toledo is a hilltop medieval city that bears witness (as so often in Iberian World Heritage Sites) to the meeting of cultures – successively the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians, with Jews also present pretty much throughout.


The city’s cathedral, above, was for a long time the centre of Spanish Catholicism. As the Protestant Reformation swept Europe in the 16th century the Catholic authorities sought to retain believers by commissioning artists to paint vivid scenes from the life of Christ. One of the most famous of those artists today was the travelling Greek painter known as El Greco. He lived in Toledo for 38 years and left a legacy of paintings that justify a visit on their own. El Greco is known for his use of shimmering bold colours that seem to burst out of the canvas, combining elements of Byzantine art with Western painting. In the El Greco museum there is a collection of Jesus and the 12 Apostles which I found really impressive.



Toledo is defended on three sides by the Tajo river, much as Durham is by the Wear. We reached our hotel from the bus station by walking up the hill’s steep approach and then went out for lunch. Here follows a top tip: if you ever visit Toledo and enjoy informal but excellent dining, go to the newly-opened Mercado de San Agustín. It is a five-storey food court where you can choose from a range of options and get some really delicious tapas-style Spanish food. We enjoyed it so much we ate there twice. It was similar to the Time Out Market in Lisbon, where we had a great time in March 2015.


Toledo is a maze of narrow alleyways – like Venice without the canals. Local vendors play on the city’s medieval past of course, meaning disconcertingly many shops are packed to the gunwales with swords and daggers for sale. On Sunday morning the weather had changed from the blue skies in the picture of the cathedral, above, to a total white-out caused by thick fog. We set off for a walk to the Jewish quarter and the city’s other cathedral.


Natalie and I realised then that neither of us had ever been in a synagogue. We have been in plenty of churches and the occasional mosque (in my case only in Istanbul), but never a Jewish place of worship. So we took the opportunity to have a look around a former synagogue that is no longer in use here in Toledo.


I liked all the columns and the gold, but it did lack some atmosphere due its not being in active use. Hopefully we’ll get to see a working synagogue eventually.

And that was really the end of the visit. We caught our coach back to Madrid and then the Metro to Barajas airport. My 10 day trip to Portugal and Spain that had begun with the laurel forests of Madeira had come to an end, with a respectable 8 World Heritage Sites visited. I only have a few more to visit in Portugal (in the north and in the Azores), but plenty left to do in Spain, which is a real gold mine. This trip saw me cross the 100 mark (I think that was at the Monastery of Batalha in Portugal), putting my total after Toledo at 104. With 1,052 in the world at the time of writing, that’s just another 948 to go!



• University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares

Visit: 9th December 2016


Following a successful road trip around southern Portugal I had two more nights abroad before I was due to return home. I caught an Iberia flight from Lisbon to Madrid, where I would spend one night alone before Natalie joined me for two more nights. On landing at Barajas airport I took a local bus to Alcalá de Henares, a small city to the northeast of Madrid.


Alcalá, as the locals seem to call it, was the hometown of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes (though I have to admit to not having read the book). He is one of the most significant figures in Spanish literature. Catherine of Aragon was born here too. The UNESCO inscription, however, cites the fact that is was the world’s first “planned university city”. There are quite a number of ‘urban planning’ World Heritage Sites, and they can be a little underwhelming to the layman (of which I count myself as one). I spent the night of my arrival in an Irish bar where I teamed up with a baggage handler and an academic to take part (and score poorly) in a pub quiz.


The next day was devoted to sightseeing, all on my own. This would have been an ordeal if I hadn’t had my Kindle with me. Although this is still an active university city there wasn’t a lot to do on an overcast weekday in December. I took a look around the archaeological museum and the main university building, which features the quadrangle above.


One of my highlights was having lunch in a renowned local bar/restaurant. These mushrooms in garlic butter are a local speciality.

The most memorable thing about Alcalá de Henares, however, must be the huge number of storks that call the city centre home. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that a stork was nesting on on top of every tall building. Enlarge the picture below and see how many storks you can count on a single building.


Alcalá de Henares is not the first university city WHS I have visited. Others include Coimbra, in Portugal, and Padua, in Italy. Coimbra wasn’t terribly interesting either, but for me Alcalá is the least interesting of the three. Padua is great, though – go there!

At the end of a relaxing day of sitting around in cafes and counting storks I journeyed into Madrid to visit the Prado gallery. I had attempted it the previous evening, too, but had been stymied by its early closure due to it being a public holiday. This time it seemed I would make it, but I arrived to find a queue snaking round the block. The museum is free after 6pm, which is when I turned up. I queued for half an hour but it was going nowhere fast, so reluctantly I gave up. Our galleries in Britain are free, yet we don’t seem to have this problem. The Spanish are obviously a very cultural people and hats off to them, but next time I’m going to have to bite the bullet and pay up to enter during the daytime if I’m ever going to see the collection of Velázquezes and Bosches that the Prado is famous for.

• Cultural Landscape of Sintra

Visit: 7th December 2016


Not far to the west of Lisbon in the forested hills lies what UNESCO describes as the ‘Cultural Landscape of Sintra’. This refers to an area of grand palaces built as summer houses for Portugal’s nobility in the 19th century. My family and I drove to this World Heritage Site from Alcobaça after having been to three monasteries, two historic cities and one volcanic island on a five night tour of southern Portugal. The first site we saw when heading for our hotel was this 11th century Moorish palace.


We had arrived in the early afternoon so, although this site consists of a number of palaces and a Moorish castle, we only had time to visit one – the Pena Palace. This eye-catching edifice perched right on the top of a series of jagged hills takes some getting to, being accessible via a bus that winds its way up hairpins so tight it has to stop and do a three-point turn in order to get round one of them.


The Pena Palace was built by King Ferdinand II as a summer retreat. His architects turned this former monastery into a wild pleasure palace that prefigured Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner of the Art Nouveau movement (whose buildings in Barcelona have their own places on the UNESCO list). The Palau de la Música Catalana, for example, was completed in 1908, whereas the Pena Palace had been around since 1854.


It is described as being of the Romanticist style, and features as one of Portugal’s ‘Seven Wonders’ (apart from Óbidos Castle, the others are all World Heritage Sites and places I’ve visited: Guimarães castle, Batalha, Alcobaça and Jerónimos monasteries and the Tower of Belem in Lisbon). It is certainly eclectic and exotic. They say that Disneyland was inspired by the Pena Palace.

Sintra is popular with tourists as it is easily done as a day trip from Lisbon (or at least, it is easy to see parts of it in a day) – and it is priced accordingly. We lost the crowds, however, as we walked down from the Pena Palace through its charmingly landscaped grounds where even the waterfowl live in castles and where we experienced what can only be described as a ‘black swan event’.


• Monastery of Alcobaça

Visit: 7th December 2016


This was our third Portuguese monastery in two days and we were starting to develop ‘monastery fatigue’ (a related condition to ‘Gothic cathedral fatigue’ – both common maladies for WHS visitors). So it was again only Dad and I who looked around this site, in Alcobaça, central Portugal (Mum and Joe went shopping).


The monastery was built in the 12th century under early king Alfonso I on land that had been laid waste during the battles against the Moors. The Cistercian monks who were given stewardship of the area were to become adept at turning the land back to productivity and also at building an efficient, modern institution for the 1,000 brothers who were to live there.


The kitchen is a practical but impressive room at Alcobaça. This enormous oven was used to cook six cows at a time. The monks also installed running water that fed huge sinks to do the washing up in.


The style of Alcobaça, exemplified by the nave, above, is of the austere Cistercian Gothic. It couldn’t be more different to the monasteries we had visited the previous day at Tomar and Batalha. The intent was to avoid the trappings of ornate decoration then so popular with ecclesiastical builders so that the monks could focus on the things that really mattered. It feels more like some sort of Protestant denomination building, though of course Protestantism hadn’t been invented when Alcobaça was constructed.


• Monastery of Batalha

Visit: 6th December 2016


The Monastery of Batalha in central Portugal was the second of three we visited in a two-day period. Unlike the Convent of Christ in Tomar, it was never used as a castle so has no fortifications, sitting instead in the middle of a large town square.


Batalha means ‘battle’ in Portuguese. The whole monastery in fact was built to commemorate the 1385 Battle of Aljubarrota in which the nascent Kingdom of Portugal defeated the numerically superior Crown of Castile. It is therefore of great significance to the Portuguese people as a symbol of their independence as a nation.

Led by their king John (or João) the First, 7,000 Portuguese troops outmanoeuvred John (or Juan) the First of Castile’s 30,000 man army. To mark his victory, João ordered the building of a grand Gothic cathedral and monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary – to whom he had prayed on the eve of battle. João’s wife, Philippa of Lancaster, was buried here (she was the daughter of English nobleman John of Gaunt* – whose heirs male included kings Henry IV, V and VI).


The site is still of major importance to the country’s armed forces, where a constant guard is kept over an eternal flame in memory of the war dead.

When the Manueline style emerged in the 16th century the monastery was extensively redecorated in it. I think of that style as being like textile patterns made with stone.


After 150 years of building works the nation eventually ran out of money – or patience – and one of the major chapels was never completed. Known today as the Unfinished Chapel, it lacks a roof, leaving the ornate World Heritage architecture of its interior a home for pigeons. You can see in the pictures above and below that the intricately-decorated columns simply stop abruptly.


We drove on from Batalha to our destination for the night in the nearby city of Alcobaça. This being in the dead of the off-season, we turned out to be the only guests in the hotel (apart from a solitary Italian businessman).

* Everybody was called John back then.

• Convent of Christ in Tomar

Visit: 6th December 2016


Having spent the night in Elvas, we had a long drive ahead of us from the eastern half of Portugal to the west. We were heading 105 miles to a golden triangle of World Heritage monasteries. Each of these three is a WHS in its own right, and no more than 30 miles distant from one another. The first node turned out to be my favourite: the Convent of Christ, perched on a hilltop overlooking the small city of Tomar.


Before it became a convent the site was a castle built by the Knights Templar – soldier-monks who fought to expel the Moors from the Iberian territories they called the ‘Cordoba Caliphate’. It still retains its fortifications, which now protect orange trees and some of Portugal’s national treasures from nothing more deadly than stray dogs.


In the 14th century the king of France, who was evidently in the ascendancy at the time, booted out the knights in order to seize their riches. It was after this that their church was extended and modified into a convent for monks.


Its most impressive feature is this enormous octagonal altar beneath a 16-segment dome. Repeated references to the number 8 are examples of medieval Christian numerology. There were eight survivors of Noah’s Ark in the Old Testament, and in the New we are told that Jesus was resurrected on the first day of the week after he was crucified (interpreted to mean the eighth day).


The Manueline (a Gothic/Renaissance mix unique to Portugal) nave is covered in ornate designs commemorating the Portuguese Age of Discovery. The elaborate sculpted ropes bring to mind the vessels that bore explorers including Vasco da Gama to far-flung places in Africa, Asia and South America.


The convent’s cloisters are full of details like the elegant spiral staircase, below. The Convent of Christ had been remarkably quiet, though I suppose that may have been because we visited on a Tuesday afternoon in December. After walking along the ramparts it was time to continue our journey onward to another monastery at Batalha.


• Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications

Visit: 5th/6th December 2016


Fifty miles northeast of Évora is the fortified Portuguese border town of Elvas. We stayed overnight here in an apartment in the town centre. As with Évora, one is first greeted by an aqueduct, except this one is not Roman. Elvas is notable for its extensive fortifications, built between the 17th and 19th centuries. This tall and sturdy aqueduct dates from that era, bringing water to the town from 5 miles away.


Elvas is basically an enormous fortress, comprising ‘the largest bulwarked dry ditch system in the world’. It sits at a key point on the road from Lisbon to Madrid, which meant a system of fortifications was inevitable following the beginning of hostilities in 1640 of the 28 year Portuguese Restoration War against Spain.


The ditches and walls date from a period of rapid developments in military architecture. France has a World Heritage Site inscribed as ‘The Fortifications of Vauban’, which I visited a part of on the Amiens trip earlier this year. Vauban was Louis XIV’s chief military architect, and he ringed France with new defences in the 17th century.

I walked over from the main town to the Fort of San Luzia – one of a number of fortlets that were added around Elvas to enhance its security. It was closed for restoration, but since there were no signs telling me so I walked inside and looked around until somebody told me in Portuguese that I wasn’t meant to be there. It did however allow me an opportunity to see Elvas from afar. You can see the aqueduct on the left and the town’s walls on the right, in the photo below.


It was pretty cold that night in eastern Portugal – a contrast to what we’d been used to Madeira. We had drinks and dinner in the nice Restaurante Acontece, where the bartender made us G&Ts with cardamom pods. The photos below show Elvas from next to its castle as we strolled around its narrow streets by dusk.

None of my photos really do the place justice, however – and neither, if I am honest, did my own visit. For to properly appreciate the extent of the fortifications one needs to view this WHS from above. The best I can do is reproduce some Google Earth imagery, first showing the fort of San Luzia and then the city of Elvas in its entirety.