A Walk in the Sun!
Some 8 years ago now, after a
rather traumatic time following the death of my father, my wife suggested that I
took a holiday, somewhere to get my head together. At very short notice I sped
off to Spain with the intention of visiting a number of Peninsular battle sites.
Last year, a friend of mine faced similar traumas in his life and after some
discussion he repeated my journey, and was amazed to find that the details in an
unpublished article I had prepared remained remarkably current, except that
prices had inevitably risen.
I therefore offer to you my
Peninsular Journal, in the hope that it may be of some aid to those less
timorous souls who may see a trip to Spain as something more than ogling topless
beauties, Karaoke, and all day English Breakfast!
It is not my intention to go
into great details of the battles, the sites of which I visited, but I have
included links, that will take you to other websites with full details of these
I took a cheap flight to Alicante, £90 from a bucket shop is what my friend paid, booked at very short notice these are available for less than £100. Mine gave me 14 days to complete my journey. Taking a bus into the town I made my way directly to the rail station. Lesson number 1, keep an eye on your baggage, as I queued for my ticket two teenagers tried to unpack my Bergen for me by the subtle use of a Stanley blade, Spotted by an armed policeman they fled without doing damage, but such petty crime is common in some Spanish cities, and as I was told time after time, it never happened in Franco’s time!
The train fare to Madrid led to lesson two. I took the cheapest fare on an overnight stopper. This train was like something out of a 1930s film, wooden seats and complete with grim La Manchan peasant family to keep me company. My advice is to spend the extra few quid to take an Intercity train, unlike the UK version these are fast, clean, and include luxuries such as waitress service and childcare facilities.
Madrid was brilliant! Leaving my pack in the left luggage centre I set to find the Army museum (Museo de Ejercito) just around the corner from The Prado. Next lesson, don’t do this trip in August, most public museums and galleries are either closed or running restricted services. Officially the army museum was closed, but after a long discussion with an army officer I was allowed to tour the place on my own. And there is so much to see! This visit is highly recommended, but unfortunately I was unable to purchase so much as a postcard to remind me of this visit.
The rest of the city had to wait for a later visit, but it ranks as one of my favourite capital cities, so much to do, so many beautiful things to see, and yet a place that is lived in, vibrant and real. Go there!
Back to the station through the heat of the afternoon, and on to a train that wound it’s way through the spectacular mountains of the Guadarramas. I was tempted to leave the train at The Escorial Palace, looking strangely out of place, and brooding in the mountains, but decided to stay in the Napoleonic period for now.
I was heading for Avila. Ever since reading C.S. Forester’s, “The Gun”, and seeing the exciting if ridiculously inaccurate film, “The Pride and the Passion”, I have wanted to visit Avila, (hoping to find Sophia Loren waiting for me, maybe). And I was not disappointed. I recently rewatched the film, and if they did not make the movie at the city, they did a wonderful job at recreating the city walls. Founded as a stronghold during the medieval period by Knights of a military order, the walls are certainly impressive, as is the cathedral, a massive structure that forms an essential part of the defensive works.
The walls of Avila
Foresters novel however is complete fiction, and Avila faced no siege during the War of Independence, no peasant army sweeping up to storm a blood soaked breach. Avila is a very peaceful city, full of churches and remembrances of Santa Theresa of Avila, with many foreign students studying at the seminary, some of whom I met that evening in the Plaza Mayor. I slept that night on a hillside overlooking the city, with Strawhead’s “Eldorado” playing on my Walkman, and the sun slipping down over the mountains. I felt as though my journey had really begun.
The next day I took a bus through the mountains to Salamanca, which has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the World. The Plaza Mayor, scene of Wellington’s victory parade in 1812, is simply remarkable, and still the hub of city life. Visit in the evening and wonder at the famous “Ladies of Spain”, or in the morning for a breakfast of molten chocolate, churos, and brandy. I spent a day wandering the streets of the city, looking for the places mentioned in Sharpe’s Sword. And they are all there, say what you like about Bernard Cornwell, but he does bring a place to life.
Salamanca's Plaza Mayor
Whilst exploring I came across a small building that houses an archive of Spanish civil war documents and images, and I spent too many fascinating hours here rooting through photographs, hindered only by my fractured Spanish, and helped patiently by the non English speaking curator. The Cathedral and University buildings take your breath away, but I was just as fascinated by the ordinary houses especially those tumbling down the hillside towards the river, loads of ideas for model makers there.
The Old Bridge, Salamanca
I spent the night in a very reasonably priced hotel, Hotel Condal, just behind the Plaza Mayor, and treated myself to a long shower, and a comfortable bed.
Next day I set off early, picking up some bread, cheese and wine for breakfast I set out from the city towards Los Arapiles, the scene of the Battle of Salamanca. Crossing the great Roman bridge I really did get a feeling if the history of the city, and looking back the diorama was truly remarkable. But any sense of romance was soon driven out of me when the sun grew hotter and I began to realise that my pack contained far too much for this campaign.
Next lesson, travel light, three pairs of socks, three of underwear, two of shorts, one jeans, light shirts, three or four, light waterproof. I had no tent just sleeping bag, rubberised mat, sleeping bag and a plastic sheet with bungee clips. Do not carry a library! One good guidebook, (I like the Rough Guide series), copies of battle maps, a really good map and compass (and know how to use them). Emergency first aid, soap, razor, knife, spoon, and plenty of water and that is it! Anything else and you will pay the price! Oh and before you set out on your trip, practice walking and break in your boots!
The walk to Los Arapiles took longer than I planned, and when I arrived in the small village half the town came out to look at the mad Englishman trudging down the dusty street with his waterbottle banging on his hip. The great thing is though as soon as you move up a slight rise you see the battlefield spread out before you, you emerge into the valley between the twin hills known as Los Hermanos, which dominate the battlefield. I trudged over to the larger of the hills and clambered the steep frontage to the top. Appreciating the difficulties of Pack’s Portuguese whose assault on this position was driven off with great loss. Hardly surprising as you need both hands to climb the hill, and there is no cover to speak of.
Once at the top the features of the battle are clear, the valley where the French counterattack almost swung the battle, the line of march in the distance taken by the 3rd Division that blunted the French advance, the line of La Marchant’s charge that smashed it. At the time of my visit the monument had been badly vandalised and the rear of the French hill had been eaten away by quarrying. Even so, I wandered over that battle site for during the afternoon and evening totally alone, and picked up a number of musket balls from the edge of ploughed fields.
After a light meal in the village I walked in the cool of the evening towards the town of Alba de Tormes, sleeping that night in a stand of trees.
The next morning I set out early, reaching Alba in a couple of hours. Approaching from the route taken by the retreating French army it is easy to see why Wellington was so angry that the Spanish garrison of the town fled, allowing the French the opportunity to cross the river and escape the pursuing Allies. But the truth is that both the French, and the Spanish were half convinced that the Allied army was retreating towards Portugal. The Spanish commander at Alba, out of touch with the main force and with large numbers of French troops advancing towards him would have had to be a very special man to stand his ground. Especially as De Espana, issued the order to retreat without reference to Wellington.
The Castle at Alba
Alba itself is worth a couple of hours, although it was not possible to visit the castle that overlooks the impressive bridge. Of more interest is the village of Hernando Garcia, the scene of the heroic charge of the Dragoons of the King’s German Legion that smashed a French square and dispersed two further battalions of the French rearguard. Again I slept on the battlefield, trying to ignore my sore feet and aching calves, and somewhat comforted by a flask of local wine.
Next morning I accepted the offer of a lift to Salamanca and took a local bus to Ciudad Rodrigo. Amazingly I was sat next to a French student who was visiting the family of a fellow student for a holiday. Equally amazing to me he knew nothing of the Peninsular War, modern education!
Cuidad Rodrigo stands on a rocky spur overlooking the banks of the River Agueda. The walls are still in place and it is easy to identify the sites of the two breaches through which the storming parties fought their bloody way. Looking out towards the hills known as the Greater and Lesser Tesson as the sun is setting the longer shadows reveal the position of the allied entrenchments on the hillside and the site of the French outwork stormed early in the siege.
|Cuidad Rodrigo the castle and Roman Bridge|
The old town itself is quiet with a maze of narrow streets and a long Plaza Mayor. It is easy to imagine the scenes of chaos played out here following the storming of the breaches. Visitors are able to follow the line of the city walls and note that although the medieval sections were improved during the C18th that they do not seem so strong as we might imagine from the descriptions of the siege. However we need to remember that the action was fought in a hurry, and without the full paraphernalia of siege equipment traditionally available to an army commander. Held by determined troops the city was a tough nut to break.
The castle is now a Parador, or state run tourist hotel, and if you have the money must be a wonderful place to stay. Personally I bathed that night in the river and slept in the defence works near the site of the breaches, the dry brown grass slashed by a carpet of red poppies in the untended earthworks an image that remains with me even now.
The following day, another bus, this time to the Portuguese border and the village of Villar Formosa, a border crossing and a rail station (with an amazing frontage of blue and white ceramic tiles illustrating early railways). Villar Formosa was also the site of Wellesley’s headquarters during the battle of Fuentes de Onoro.
I took a room at the only hotel and stacked my gear, walking back across the border, taking a rock strewn path over a rough plateau until I came to the heights above the village of Fuentes de Onoro.
Fuentes is for me the most fascinating battle of the Peninsular War, and one that perfectly illustrates the favoured tactics of Wellington. Deploying the allied army along the rough terrain between the rivers Turones and Das Casas, Wellington held the high ground, with the sprawling village of Fuentes to his front held mainly by entrenched and barricaded light companies.
Wellington used these bulwarks to break up the French attacks and disrupt their columns, allowing his controlled counterattacks to repulse the assaults. On the right flank the superior French Cavalry made headway against the over extended line, but superior discipline and broken terrain allowed troops in line to disperse the attacking horsemen.
The battle was hard fought, and definitely a soldier’s battle, won at the point of the bayonet, and walking through the narrow streets it is easy to envisage the carnage of those bloody days. I met a number of local men who were happy to show me around the site of the battle, pointing out where the action had been fiercest and where the remains of the combatants lay. I was also given more musket balls to add to my growing collection.
That evening one of my new found friends drove me in a battered and ancient Ford to Fort Concepcion, the stronghold that formed the base of operations for Crauford's Light Division whilst holding the line of the River Coa. It is an eerie place, hardly changed since abandoned by the Allies. The damage to the place caused by its mining in 1810 is not as severe as the damage done by local farmers using the building as a quarry, as can be seen from a number of local houses. After being abandoned for years, it is now apparently a tourist spot, popular with history nuts like myself, although I did not meet anyone else on my visit.
Very tired, I left my friends in the early hours, and more fell than staggered across the border back into Portugal watched closely by two curious police, but not curious enough to stop me. I fell onto my bed and fell straight to sleep; I had a long walk in the morning.
Part 2 coming soon!
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