Thursday 29 April 2010

Here comes the Sun - Finally

By Richard Morley.

Taking the sun in the Plaza de Colon.

Finally there are definite signs that winter has skulked back from whence it came and given ways to the joys of spring. Well, I write “spring”, but to an Englishman for whom summer means temperatures in the low 20s with more than occasional rain, today’s predicted maximum of 29 in Madrid is wonderful.

I was in Andalucia last week, almost as far south as you can go in Spain before hitting the resorts. I was a thousand metres up in the mountains and after a couple of days of chilly rain, (winter has been quite tenacious this year!), the sun burnt away the cloud cover and did wonder for my tan. I certainly have a darker complexion than many Madrid office workers.

But they are working hard to catch up. Walking in the Retiro on Sunday afternoon I saw my first bikini of the year (definitely a good sign) and girls who had not come similarly prepared had taken advantage of these modern bras that are pretty enough to be worn as a bikini top and were striving to replace the winter pallor.

A suspicious many, though, were still fully dressed, some in knowledge that until the “fortieth of May” the weather can be fickle, were still in winter jackets. With a similar uncertainly I was carrying mine. I remember well a hot, sticky day in the Retiro where I had spent a quiet hour with a book suddenly transforming into deluge of rain with accompanying thunder and lightening – and a drop in temperature that chilled the bone. Best take no chances.

I had gone to the Retiro to meet a visiting Canadian friend. After the deprivations of a Canadian winter he was taking full advantage of the sun by dressing in the “guiri” uniform of baggy shorts and shirt. I forgot to check if he was wearing socks with his sandals, but had it not been for the fact that my friend is a relative giant in this land where the average height make even me taller than a lot of my friends, he would have been a prime target for those who prey on tourists.

I have written about this before and my friend actually commented, ironically, on that particular post. But given his size he was safe. However, waiters and the kind people who offered to take our group picture in the gardens of remembrance had no hesitation in addressing our group in English. Remember that if you don’t want to be ripped off when you come here. Madrid has to be one of the safest cities anywhere, but don’t go making yourself a target for the low life that we have to share the city with. Try to blend in.

The city is festooned with tulips. On every roundabout, in parks and gardens these gorgeous flowers brighten the city tremendously. Down in Andalucia last week the scent of lilac blossom was almost over-powering. Trees that have looked dead for so many months have a new covering of green. Terrace tables are appearing on the narrowest of pavements. I will never get over the willingness of Madrileños to take a coffee, or even eat a meal, within feet of vehicles belching exhaust smoke. But cafés and bars put rows of table at kerb sides and the people come. It gives me a somewhat ironic amusement that although from sometime in the near future the smoking of tobacco will be banned in catering establishments the residents of this city happily breathe in carbon monoxide with their café cortado whether they smoke or not.

My local park, built alongside the inner city motorway, must have a permanent cloud of noxious fumes hanging over it, but my neighbours walk their dogs, let their children play and partake in various forms of sport there. Reports suggest the city is the most polluted in Europe, although it’s getting better, but we still had record time for the Madrid Marathon last weekend. And I didn’t see anyone running in a face mask!

But some of the competitors complained that by the time they were approaching the finishing line Sunday’s soaring temperatures seriously affected their efforts. A drop or two of rain would have been more than welcome.
Stripped for inacction.
Madrid Metro have switched on the air-conditioning on lines 7 and 10, which was very welcoming, but then I switched to the somewhat antiquated line 9 and the lack of cool air allowed me to see my first fan on the year. It was five o’clock on a crowded commuter train, very hot and sticky, and this lady was obviously feeling it. Out came the fan and suddenly I remembered I was still in Spain.

I am so, so lucky!

PS. My Canadian friend is now in Seville. He reports temperatures of 35 plus. He’s officially dying!!!

PPS. I commented on this glorious weather to a student yesterday. “It’s going to rain by the weekend”, she remarked. Sometimes the Spanish are so English!!

Sunday 11 April 2010

A Kingdom by the Stream

By Richard Morley.

For thousands of years people have lived in the mountains north of Madrid. In the caves of the Guadarrama mountain range archaeologists have discovered human artefacts going back many millennia. When the Moors invaded Spain in 711AD, Christians took refuge in the hills to practise their religion.

Settling in what today is reminiscent of England’s Peak District or the Dales of Yorkshire, where flocks of sheep gather for warmth on exposed hillsides in the shelter of dry stone walls, where deer, wild boar and foxes roam free, the people made a living from farming and livestock.

Of course, they didn’t live in caves. The easily cleaved slate rock, pizarra, allowed them to built dwellings and shelters and for hundreds of years they lived and prospered. Many of the villages state their origin in their names. Here you will find villages called “Valdepeñas de la Sierra”, “Guadalix de la Sierra”, “Miraflores de la Sierra”. Although I think that “Puebla de la Sierra” shows a certain lack of imagination.

I have written before of Spain’s abandoned villages. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution Europe’s history has been one of mass migration towards the cities and the leaving of the hard country life. In the Sierra, with its scrubby, rock strewn, alternatively snow-covered or sun-scorched pastures this was no different. From the high slopes one can see Madrid beckoning.

Recently, on a trip into the mountains about sixty kilometres north of Madrid, on the southern slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama, in fact, to be more precise, in the smaller Sierra de Rincon I was taken by friends to visit one of these villages.

But this wasn’t just any old village. This is the village that had its own king This was a village that defied the French invasion. This was a secret village that even today, if it wasn’t for road signs, you would never suspect was there.

Heading northeast out of Torrelaguna the M102 the visitor would follow what is called the Calle de Canal Isabel II, so called because in the mid 1800s the aqueduct that brought water from the first damming of the Lozoya river into Madrid was built alongside it. The road is level and reasonably straight and follows the fertile and green flood plain of the Rio Jarama. After about six kilometres you will find the rather plain and drab village of Patones. To the north of the village runs a high and rocky escarpment of which the only feature of interest are the ruins of the old aqueduct and the fat pipes that have replaced it running along its summit.

What you might not notice is a narrow valley, cut into the scarp by the trickling stream of the Labradillo. Any view up that valley is obscured by the the heavy stonework of the Cuevas-Roncadero aqueduct which carries the massive pipelines of Madrid’s water supply.

 But if you climb the twisting, narrow road and pass through the aqueduct you have before you one of the prettiest little villages you could wish to find. This is Patones Arriba. Its drab offspring down on the flood plain is called Patones Abajo.

Four centuries before Christ the area had been settled by Celtic tribes. Remains of a defendable fort of some kind have been found, leading to a reasonable assumption that that people have always lived here. In the fourth century the Patón family, who farmed the area but lived in Uceda, a village three kilometres south and the other side of the Jarama River, decided to up sticks and settle permanently on their own land. The town is named for them.

The family minded its own business as a self-supporting community. There were around fifty houses which housed sixty one families. So some must have lived with the in-laws. Some things don’t change! Records from 1752 show that they kept 1500 sheep, and sold the wool, and a similar number of goats. They kept beehives and grew cereals and grapes down where the new village now stands.

All communities have a leader: a head man, a mayor. Patones went one better. It had a king. It is assumed that originally the leader would have been chosen democratically as a first among equals, but it seems the position eventually became hereditary. But it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that this “royal” line came to be recorded. A century late, Antonio Ponz, who wrote about the legend of the “Pastoral Kings” declared the “royal” lineage went back “at least a thousand years.

But in the 1800s there must have been some sort of insurrection as the citizens petitioned the Duque de Uceda to replace the king with his representative as mayor. What a come down: From a Kingdom to only a municipality!

But whatever its status it still managed to defy the might of the French when José Bonaparte took the throne. Well, perhaps defy is not quite the word! I would not wish to impugn the bravery of the people of Patones so I will say they might well have defied the might of the French army – if the French had ever found it. The story is proudly told on a plaque where they claim that through a decree by Carlos III, who ruled Spain until his death in 1788, they were an independent nation and the French would have had no rights over them. The Nations of Patones and France never fought a war, and who’s to say what the outcome might have been if they had. Their defence was their isolation and total obscurity from the knowledge of Bonaparte’s government.

What finally defeated the “kingdom” of Patones was economics and the realities of a harsh life. In the 1960s the villagers came out of their isolation and migrated down the valley into the Jarama flood plain from whence they had come nearly two millennia before and into the comparatively drab Patones Abajo on the main road. A migration of just three kilometres. The old village was left to crumble.

It’s salvation came when astute businessmen realised that its bucolic atmosphere was where the well-heeled might want to have lunch. Now it seems every second building is a restaurant. A word of warning. It’s not the sort of place to go for a cheap menu del dia. But the views from terrace of the “El Abuelo Manolo
where we had a high priced coffee, although it did come with tiny chocolates and a slice each of torrijas, this being holy week, was superb. But Grandfather Manolo is only one of several restaurants in this charming spot, which is just as well considering that following the winding, steep climbs of the ancient streets that weave through the 
village will certainly give you an appetite.
The well set tables of El Abuelo Manolo

The lanes are roughly cobbled and not for the unsure of foot, but around each corner is a surprise, a view that just has to be photographed. The intricate stone work of the rebuilt houses or the un-restored ruins of what used to be someone’s home, the trees that force their way through the rocks and the trickling of the stream under the arched stone bridge. I found myself thinking of some ancient Cornish village and even mythical Brigadoon.
On a tourist guide near the site of the old laundry is written a description of the life of the people. It records that “the fountain and laundry were a feminine world. The carrying of water to the houses and the washing of clothes was the work of the wives and daughters of the village and were regarded as social events”, by which I assume the author meant a chance for gossip. It continues, “The men would gather at the old plaza in summer and at the tavern in winter”. In these days of equality I would not dream to comment.

The old Laundry and water well.

In the old plaza, the old church of San José is now a museum. Opposite is an information centre that on the day we visited hosted a sale of country crafts including local honey and nut based sweets.

The visitor from Madrid could catch the 197 bus to Torrelaguna and then the 197A to Patones, but you would still be left with a steep three kilometre walk upwards into the valley. Much better to have a friend with a car!

But a word of warning. Patones Arriba is not a place to go to eat without making reservations. We only popped in for morning coffee and timed it well. As we left the lunchtime diners were arriving in droves.

The Restarant of the King of Patones. Possibley the only catering establishment in Spain to boast it does not have a bar! 

Even those with cars were finding it difficult to park within reasonable walking distance. Official figures give the population of both of the two Patones as just under four hundred, but visitors on high days and holidays would take this to well over a thousand. But there are green slopes ideally suited for picnics. Open spaces for the kids to run and magnificent views of the hills to the north and the flat plain to the south.

Patones may no longer have a king, but it has food fit for one. It may no longer be a kingdom, but from the top of the hill you can at least pretend to be lord of all you survey. And like the citizens of ancient times you can, if you choose, just for a short time, to ignore those rulers in the city that blight our lives.

I would like to thank Paloma and John for their generosity and for making this visit possible.