Chapter 17: Spain – Madrid Toledo and El Escorial

C/-Thomas Cook and Son. Rome. November 11, 1960 

Dearest Auntie Bet,

           I know you have been following accounts of my travels over the last two years via my letters home.  I am now in the beautiful city of Madrid for a week, staying in a charming little hotel in the city centre for a few days. I have covered many miles by train since leaving Rome, travelling up through Italy to the French Riviera, and then overnight south to Lourdes near the Spanish border a week ago.

 I loved receiving your letter written in August, which encouraged me to finally make the pilgrimage so here is my special report to you.  I held you in my thoughts while I was there – it would have been wonderful if we could have been there together. I was moved to read that you have even thought of the possibility of joining me in.  

A pity that you are tied down with the hassle of winding up the old family property In Mt. Gambier, and I imagine that has brought regret with it as well. It’s time for those brothers of yours to help move things along for you. You have spent so many years caring for the family, both in Mt Gambier as well as in Henty with us during the war. Time to start spreading your wings, don’t you think?   Thankyou, too, for offering to help me stay solvent over the last stretch.  All well, so far!

Being in Lourdes was very different from any experience I have had so far. I hadn’t realised how close it was to the Pyrenees and how cold it would be, and that the pilgrimage season, with a few million people there at any one time, only lasts from March to October.

When I got arrived  was hardly anyone around — most of the hotels and shops were closed. It was strangely quiet making my way down the winding road towards the grotto.  I passed a huge cathedral and finally reached the cold misty riverbank, and there was the cave of Massabielle with the spring nearby and the niche in the damp rocky wall where Mary appeared to Bernadette! There was a statue of our Lady there and taps nearby to collect holy water, but the grotto itself was very simple and rather stark except for a tall stand of brightly burning candles.

 I sat there on a hard bench under a tree with my back to the river, shivering and wondering what I was doing there.  After a little while I became aware of a beautiful feeling of warmth and lightness surrounding me with an extraordinary sense of peace. I felt so blessed and grateful for the silence — just the music of the quiet river flowing behind me. I would have loved to share the moment with you.

 Later I wandered up to the sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes, known as the Domain. Lots of churches have been built there. They say that Bernadette’s father helped to build the first little one. Now there is the huge Gothic style upper basilica with a tall spire stretching above it, and beautiful stained-glass windows telling the story of the apparitions.  Below is Rosary Square and the Rosary basilica which is a fine domed church, and high up inside the Dome are a circle of 15 stained-glass windows, honouring our Lady of the Rosary. There are 15 side chapels decorated with beautiful mosaics illustrating the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary.

 Afterwards I went to an evening Mass, had a light meal — French regional cooking is always simple and delicious — and then had an early night in preparation for crossing into Spain in the morning. I  have the beautiful little bottle of Lourdes water you asked for and a few sets of Rosary beads for the family.

So looking forward to seeing you soon. One day we may yet be able to go trotting off and have some adventures together.   A great big hug and lots of love to you

 PS. I didn’t forget to check on John Tremelling, Mt Gambier’s champion pistol shot, during the Rome Olympics, but he did not win any medals! However Australia did very well in other ways, and I really enjoyed being there.

 Madrid. 13th of November 1960

 Dear Mum and Dad,

 I am really enjoying Madrid in spite of the cold — and boy, is it cold.  However I have a very nice little room in a central hotel which is quite cosy, and I only have to pay a pound a day for full board and keep. The meals are very good and I am looked after very well by an elderly waiter who is very patient with my efforts to speak Spanish. I think I am the only English-speaking person in the building, including the other guests. I really like this — it actually makes me feel a little more at home!


Horses preparing to compete in the dressage events at the Country Club in Madrid.

The people working at the office of Catholic Relief Services have proved to be invaluably helpful and friendly yet again.  The secretary of the head of Spanish branch of the organization is a Spanish lass, Mercedes, a delightful person who has taken me under her wing, spending all of her free time with me. This afternoon we went to the Madrid Country Club to see a horse show – reminded me of Picnic Races in Wagga! and even more recently of the dressage events at the Rome Olympics.

I have had such great pleasure over the week  exploring the Museo Nationale de Prado – one of the greatest art galleries in the world.  I loved seeing the best of the Spanish painters.There was Velasquez a brilliant court painter especially his most famous one of the Spanish Princesses. and Goya whose splendid, world renowned nude painting  known simply as The Naked Maja got him into a lot of trouble and there is still speculation today as to which of the Spanish beauties posed for it. He did follow it with a second one of her, now clothed but in such a way it left her looking even more seductive. He too was also a court painter and somehow got away portraying the Royals very honestly.Later in his life he focused on scenes which graphically evoked his horror of war. 

The Prado  – Spani’s National Gallery in the heart of Madrid. A very impressive classical building from the 16th century.

The museum also has a rich collection of masterpieces from other European countries, often obtained through conquest during periods when Spain ruled over Italy and the Low Countries, including the reign of the Bourbons, when there was a Frenchman on the Spanish throne. The great Italian – Botticelli, Raphael, Tintoretto and Caravaggio are all represented, as well as the beautiful Annunciation by Fra Angelico which would be familiar to you.  I was delighted to find more of beloved Rembrandt’s paintings there, and also Rubens and many other artists that I have come to admire.

What a feast it was!  It took me two visits to do justice to this wonderful gallery. I was able to take a break each time, strolling through the Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s favourite park nearby. There is a lake at one end where you can hire a boat to paddle around in, watched over by a huge semicircular monument dedicated to King Alphonso X11, his statue way up on top, and a couple of splendid white marble lions on either side.

 The park is a peaceful place to relax in the shade and sip a cool drink on a weekday, and on weekends my new friend Mercedes showed me how it really comes alive – a great place for families to gather. There’s music, puppet shows for the kids, fortune telling or your portrait painted, or just watching the Spaniards at play. The smaller Royal Botanic Gardens are also within walking distance, with an interesting collection of plants from South America and the Philippines – many new to me..

 Siestas are a regular part of the daily routine, and in the evenings everyone is out and about. It took me a while to become accustomed to dining at about 9 PM in Italy, but here it is rarely earlier than 10 o’clock, and all the entertainment seems to start well after that, and often goes on till dawn. There is a great choice of classical music, opera and Spanish-style operetta, theatre and dance, especially the wonderful gypsy flamenco.

 Last night I met up again with the head of the Catholic Relief Service in Madrid, Senor Henri Amiel, an American of French origin, who now has a very curious accent, probably a bit like mine!  I had first met him in Rome a couple of weeks ago at the big Vatican event at St. Peters when the international head of .CRS was made a bishop by my favourite Pope John 23rd. 

He and his wife took me to dinner at a deluxe restaurant in the city. The food was delicious — I was able to order oysters again for the first time in ages – the last time was at the expense of John Haig & Co in London when, you might remember, I later found out too late that oysters are a very rare treat with a price to match!. This time the host ordered them for himself first, so I figured it was okay to follow suit.

The highlight of the evening, the cabaret, was a magnificent display of Flamenco singing and dancing. – said to be the best troupe in Madrid. I was completely transfixed. I think it was the most wonderful dancing I have ever seen. It really stirred something deep within my soul. Maybe there’s something of the gypsy in me I have never had the courage to let come to the surface. The best flamenco dancers come from the south of Spain, and it was in that moment that I decided that, regardless of money and time constraints, I am destined to go south and visit Andalusia before returning home.

The current Royal Palace in Madrid

Another day I spent exploring Old Madrid on foot, a large area also in the centre of the city with lots of history to share.  In the 16th century it was the capital of the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal.  A Gothic palace replaced an old Moorish fortress, and in the 18th century a huge stately palace was built by the Bourbon kings.

It is still used on state occasions, and is partly open to the public including the Throne Room, decked out in rich crimson and gold. The opulent dining room sparkles with chandeliers and lavish gold decorations, antique furniture and rich tapestries demonstrating great wealth and power. There is one long table, which seating 160 people!

Towering up behind the palace is the huge neo-Gothic Cathedral of the Virgin of Almudena. It was begun in 1879 but the Spanish Civil War held up its completion.

 I entered the Old town through the Puerta del Sol — the Gateway of the Sun — a beautiful half- moon shaped Plaza, a popular meeting place with lots of interesting shops and cafes. On one side is a government building which displays an unusual symbol called Kilometre Zero, indicating the very centre of Spain’s network of roads.

From there I made my way along the main thoroughfare to the Plaza Mayor, a vast rectangular square, created early in the 17th century. The balconies of fine colonnaded buildings surrounding it provided the citizens with views of whatever was going on below Including major public events – religious processions, bullfighting, sittings of the Inquisition, executions, public declarations and all manner of pageants and fiestas.

Today it is exciting enough to just wander through the arcades below amongst the cafes and a variety of craft shops. Nearby is a large market place built early in the 19th century enclosed in a steel and glass structure, where crowds of people come at weekends to stock up with delicious delicatessen fare — seafood, cheeses, pressed meats — or just lunch in one of the restaurants.

 By evening, I am usually foot-sore, weary and happy to return to my hotel. When my waiter asks about my day, I usually tell him that I am ‘muy casada’ which I mistakenly thought meant ‘very tired’, and I wondered why he seemed bemused rather than sympathetic. I discovered too late that I should have said ‘muy cansada’.   Instead, I was telling him that I was ‘very married!’   So much for my Spanish!

A vista of  the Historic Centre of Toledo with its great Cathedral and the Alcacar  castle/fortress dominating the skyline.                                            Source; discoveringspanishculture.blogsp



It’s Monday already, and I have just spent my last weekend in Madrid sightseeing in areas outside of the city. My new friends from CRS took me by car to the city of Toledo, 70 km southeast of Madrid. I loved being driven through the colourful countryside, passing by vineyards and wheat fields and olive groves.

 Mediaeval Toledo was built in the 1600s on a hilltop with the river Tagus winding its way around it.

 As we approached we had our first view of the magnificent Toledo High Cathedral of St. Mary rising above the historic centre of the city so we made for there and began exploring on foot.

 Like the Burgos Cathedral, which had been its inspiration, it took about 300 years to build. With its huge spire, flying buttresses and lots of beautiful stained-glass windows, including a rose window, its external appearance reminded me of the great French Gothic churches. Internally however, it has  much more of the decorative Spanish/Moorish style which appeal to me more.

 El Greco, one of Spain’s most famous painters, lived here in the 16th century, and many of his paintings with their rather strange elongated figures decorate the Cathedral, including a magnificent painting of Christ above the high altar.

 Another building rising above the skyline is the Alcazar, a huge square stone Palace/Fortress – always a very war-like place, originally the site of a Roman fortress, mutating to Visigoth, then Arabic then Spanish, and more recently became a military academy and finally an Army Museum. The Republicans held Franco’s nationalists under siege there in 1936.

The gold and sapphire Crown of the Visigoth King Reccesvinthus

 I found Toledo’s history very interesting, going right back to the Bronze Age. The remains of a Roman Circus is still there. It was the capital of Germanic Visigoths until the 700s and had a big influence over France, Spain and Portugal for four centuries. They introduced their own law codes which gave more power to women, particularly in relation to land ownership, inheritance and racial tolerance – rather like the Basques.

 In 600 AD, their King converted to Christianity, resulting in cooperation between the religious and the nobility, and gradually became recognized as the spiritual centre of Spain, regardless of its political leadership at any one time.  A series of Church Councils, which were known as Synods from that time till the present day, were held in Toledo  from the 4th to the 16th century, not always in Rome as I’d learnt at school..

 Major change came to Spain about 700 AD when Muslim Berbers from Africa invaded and ruled over much of southern Spain and Toledo for the next three centuries, so It gradually became a melting pot of Christians, Moslems and Jews, creating a rich cultural and religiously tolerant centre over that period.

 The Christians regained power again in 1050, though the cultural exchange continued during the mediaeval period; the School of Translators created a vast record of diverse knowledge. Books and manuscripts in Arabic were translated into Spanish and then Latin, and vice versa.

Unfortunately that stopped when the very Christian Royals, Isabel and Ferdinand took over in the late 1400s.  Jews and Muslims were gradually expelled from Spain, and their beautiful mosques and synagogues were destroyed or converted into churches.  We saw an example of this when we explored the Sinagoga del Transito, once a beautiful synagogue, now used as a museum, and in the main market square we discovered a converted mosque which still had its lovely internal Moslem arches.

The massive Royal Monastery/Palace of El Escorial- perfectly square-sided with the basilica in its centre

 The next place we visited was the famous El Escorial, closer to Madrid to the northwest, and its history carried on from what we had seen and learnt in Toledo. It is an enormous palace/monastery built by King Felipe ll in the mid-16th century from which to rule his growing empire – his answer to the Protestant Reformation, aimed at demonstrating the superiority of Spain as the centre of the Christian world in Europe.  For this purpose he chose a plain unadorned style of architecture, which soon became the norm throughout Spain. The result was a huge grey granite edifice standing starkly in the landscape, lacking any charm — in fact I found to be rather forbidding externally, and the whole seemed full of contradictions – austerity clashing with royal opulence !

The original design was to be based on King Solomon’s Temple, but it was gradually extended to include a mausoleum, which contained the remains of most of the Spanish kings,  several museums, a library and chapter house, the basilica and the royal apartments – all constructed during Spain’s golden age when great wealth was pouring in from its American colonies and its European ruler-ship extending to Naples, Sicily, Milano and the Low countries. Its Museum of Art had amassed many masterpieces from these countries as well as great Spanish paintings – one very pleasant surprise!.  It was also a joy to wander through the peaceful cloisters of the monastery, and sit awhile.

Felipe’s royal apartments were very austere in comparison to most of the interior, and his bedroom opened directly on to the high altar! Quite a contrast to the apartments of the Frenc Bourbons kings who came later which were splendidly furnished. The huge library was very impressive, both architecturally with its marble floor and vaulted ceiling decorated with beautiful frescoes, and Felipe’s rich collection of books — once as many as 40,000 of them as well as manuscripts.

 His great gift to posterity was Spain’s first public library. He decreed that a copy of every book published on whatever subject and in whatever corner of his empire be sent to him including books banned by the Inquisition, which was in full swing at the time. It was intended that the latter be destroyed, particularly those written in Arabic, but fortunately, once there, they remained protected.

The dome was the centre-piece of the total rectangular complex, and intended for the use of the aristocracy, with a choir stall for the resident monks. There were dozens of richly decorated side chapels, but the enormous lavish high altar is the star attraction. Such a lot to take in!

The last event of the day was on the way back to Madrid. This was to see a modern monument – the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen — I’ll spare you the title in Spanish! — another very strange place, built under the direction of Generalissimo Franco as a memorial to those killed in the Spanish Civil War. Here, I was in for another history lesson!  

I learnt that Spain had become very unstable in the early 30s. and war between the conservative nationalists and supporters of a republic broke out in 1936. The city of Madrid was heavily bombarded and was on the front line for three years. Franco, who headed the Nationalists, was installed as dictator and has remained in power since.  Many thousands of people were killed and wounded during the war, as well as a large number of volunteers from other countries including Ireland, fighting on the side of the Republicans.

The memorial -”built as a national act of atonement and reconciliation”, consists of a huge plain stone cross, 500 ft. high, if you can imagine, standing on a granite outcrop, and visible for many miles around.  An enormous cavernous crypt the size of a football field was hewn out of the solid rock of the hillside where the cross stands.

The project was begun in 1940 and finally inaugurated in 1957, much built with prison labour, including political prisoners. The bodies of 40,000 of the fallen from both sides lie buried in the valley below. When complete, the building became one of the world’s largest basilicas, even larger than St Peters. It has a huge nave and a high vaulted ceiling.  

From the front of the crypt is a view across the valley, with Madrid in the background.  Franco’s crest – a double-headed eagle design borrowed from the Hapsburg kings! – is on the wrought-iron entrance gates.  It was declared a Basilica this year by Pope John XXIII, who emphasized that it must be a place for peace and reconciliation. Although many people visit here, it is still a source of controversy, as the wounds of the Civil War are still very raw. One thing I’ve found is that people are understandably reluctant to talk about political matters.

 When we returned to Madrid, I began saying my goodbyes and packing, and finishing this long-winded epistle. I will report next from Andalusia. I’m really looking forward to this part of the trip.

 Longing to have news of you all, but it looks unlikely till I get back to Rome. I have had no mail since I left there, which is a worry, and this includes the Bank!    I may yet have to accept your loan offer Daddy, to see me through – I’ll let you know.  

I hope all is going well for you. Soon I can come and find out first hand for myself! Just a few weeks to go!

  Lots and lots of love