Medieval Tale

Medieval Market

A couple of weeks ago we went to a medieval market in Alcalá de Henares; a large town about 25km to the east of Madrid. It is where I was working when I first met Dani’s mum. Although I spent about two years in Alcala de Henares I never realised this medieval market was an annual event. I had never heard of it and certainly would have remembered attending it. Whatever…

It turns out that this is the biggest market of its kind in Europe. And it certainly seemed to be.

The kids get in the medieval mood

Uncanny Coincidence….

Apart from this large well attended festival the town is famous for being the birth place and home of one Miguel Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra to give him his full name). Possibly the most famous Spanish writer and one of the world’s pre-eminent novelists. It is said that his most famous novel, Don Quixote, has been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible. That said it is still a book I have never even felt like reading – literary philistine that I am.

The town of Alcalá de Henares is a little like Stratford on Avon in England. While both have other things to see and do their main source of tourism derives from their famous writing sons.

Will Shakespeare: 23 Apr 1564 – 23 Apr 1616 (age 52)
Miguel Cervantes: 29 Sep 1547 – 23 Apr 1616 (age 68)

They died the same day! An odd coincidence. It was far too crowded to get into Cervantes house but we had been before and will probably go again.

A Hard Day’s Knight

The medieval fighting was held inside the old town walls. The crowd was split into 4 groups by the master of ceremonies with the idea being that each section would cheer one of the four knights. Our quadrant was to support the Grey Knight. As luck would have it he was the clown. An absolute cheat and master of dirty tricks. It was all good fun though. The kids loved it. So did I.

It was hot and they must have been burning up in their armour. Well done to the actors.

As expected, after all his antics he met with a timely defeat.

There you go kids. Cheats usually lose.

Licenced to Print Money…

One stall seemed to be making more money than any other. In more than one sense. This guy was punching out “coins” non-stop. At 5 Euros a pop. Literally making money. He had a big selection of coin designs. All he had to do was place the blank “coin” between two stamps and hit with his sledgehammer. Hey presto artificial “money” made; real money paid.

 Dani went for Darth Vader on one side with Superman “S” on the other. While Susana chose Disney’s Elsa (Frozen). Hey. Boys and girls. They are different. No matter what the lunatics out there try to tell us. Dani’s coin went straight in his treasure chest when he got home.

Knocking out the money

Dark Knights to Dark Nights…

The clocks go back an hour this weekend. The weather is turning cooler. Much cooler. There will be few days as warm as this for a while. Dark nights and dark mornings to come. At least in the northern hemisphere.

Meanwhile Dani’s mum has gone to Australia again with work to try and win a contract. ‘Down-under’ winter is over and it will soon be summer. If his mum does well Dani could be learning to surf in Oz this time next year. Maybe… Just maybe…

Into the Valley – of the fallen

 Another weekend, another excursion. This time to a place closer to Madrid. Closer not just in miles (or kilometres) but in the minds of many Spaniards. We visited El Valle de los Caídos – The Valley of the Fallen.

The Site…

Located about 54 km from the centre of Madrid just off the A6 road that leads to Galicia this site can be visited in the same day as a trip to the picturesque nearby town of El Escorial. Set in a huge area of natural beauty construction started in 1940 and was completed in 1959. The most striking feature is the 15- metre high cross, the biggest in the world and clearly visible from 20 miles away. Entering the building is both eerie and spectacular. The long crypt tunnelled some 260 metres through the mountain leads to the main basilica and place of worship. Behind this and outside is a monastery (Benedictine abbey) and hotel.

Beneath the valley floor are the remains of thousands of people, both nationalist and republican, who died during the civil war. Numbers vary up to as much as 40,000. It is impossible to say exactly how many but there are many.

The Controversy…

This place is famous. It is also infamous. It all depends on which side of the political spectrum you stand. For this is where the body of Francisco Franco is laid to rest.

The biggest problem however is that the debate is not really about that. There are now people on the left of politics who want to re-write history. At least in as much as they can get away with.


There is no doubt it. This was; and still is, a vanity project by Franco. ‘To the victor belong the spoils’ as the saying goes ** It would have been no different had the other side won. What also cannot be denied is that it is a fantastic work of art. A magnificent feat of engineering. On any side of the argument nobody can deny it is impressive. It is also a working church and people are buried in such places. It is hard to see why some groups are so determined to exhume a 40 odd year corpse. Are there really so few problems at this moment in time that they have to dig up the past? (both literally and metaphorically).

The main reason given for opposing the place is that its construction used prison labour. Including prisoners who just happened to be on the other side in the civil war. Political prisoners no less. And on this the voices of dissent have a point. Some 10% of the workforce were convicts who, in exchange for a reduced sentence agreed to cooperate.

A Common Sense Approach?

The counter-argument is that the place was built to honour all those who lost their lives – from both sides. There are a couple of things inside which state as much (see photo). Not the best way to honour those who helped build the place though. Something larger and more visible would be better. Another important point is that such forced labour was also used to build huge infrastructure projects such as dams for the supply of fresh water to many large towns and cities. Should those be taken down also?

Surely the best and least disruptive thing would be to build a monument to those who actually constructed this magnificent site. Build it alongside the entrance. There are plenty of places lining the entrance where such a memorial could be located. Under those huge arches for example.

My advice to anyone – especially those who have not seen this place – is to visit before it is changed into a new and different political vanity project.

Dani and the 150 metre cross in context

** “To the victor belong the spoils” is a phrase famously used in a Congressional debate in 1831 by New York senator, William L. Marcy.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Take a look at this video. Then read on….  (Tip: Much better with sound)

You will have almost certainly seen the film. The late, great Eli Wallach´s character Tuco, finds himself in Sad Hill cemetery where he searches frantically for one specific grave. Can you remember whose grave it is?

Sad Hill Cemetery

I had heard some 16 years ago that the Sad Hill cemetery  scene was filmed somewhere just north of Madrid. Well in fact it is a fair bit north of the capital and difficult to find. But find it we did.

The site is in the province of Burgos. Almost in the middle of nowhere, between the small towns of Santo Domingo de Silos and Contreras. In 2014 a group got together from all the small local towns in the area with the idea of preserving – or in the case of Sad Hill, unearthing – several locations in the area used by Sergio Leone for his trilogy of films that became known as the Spaghetti Westerns.

Sad Hill was literally just left after filming. Totally abandoned and forgotten about. Over the years the grass and plants just grew and the place was unrecognisable. But the group painstakingly restored the site to its former glory. The goal was to have the site ready for 2016; the 50th anniversary of the film. People came to help from all over the world at one point once they heard what was going on. Such is the popularity of Leone’s films. There are plenty of items on the internet about this and the place has become famous once again..And now, here is another article about it….

Oddly, the film is called El Bueno, El Feo y El Malo in Spanish (literally The good the ugly and the bad). Either way it is as famous in Spain as in any other country. After all, the three main spaghetti westerns were all filmed here. Eli Wallach passed away fairly recently in 2014 and Lee Van Cleef died way back in 1989. Only Clint is left of the three title characters.

The Good

The film is not just good. It´s great. Everyone who has seen it would probably agree to that. One that has stood the test of time. Over 50 years of time. Half a century! The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was first shown in 1966. Blimey. I was not even as old as Dani back then. There were two men from Texas there when we first arrived. Both about my age I guessed. It had taken them 3 hours to find the place also. They both agreed that when Dani is older he will love the film and look back on the photos of his first visit to this location. I think he will appreciate it in about a year or so.

The Bad….

Getting there is not easy. It is about two and a half hours drive from Madrid. Even then you need to know where you are going. The road from Contreras is a rough track and lasts for some 4km. It’s hard to imagine how the site was first constructed. Back in 1966 this would have been barely even a donkey track.

The Ugly…

It is an amazing site. There is nothing ugly about the place now. OK, it is hard to get to but I suppose that makes it all the more appealing and definitely worth the effort when you arrive. It must have been in a really bad state when they started work on the restoration. Almost a total reconstruction.

When we arrived Arch Stanton´s grave was not in the best of states. Naturally I repaired it like any true fan of the film would do. Poor old Arch. Nobody left to tend his resting place. In the film, the grave marked ´Unknown´ at the side of Arch was full of gold. And that was the prize the three main characters were after.
Before and after shots of Mr. Stanton’s grave…

Now you know the story behind the location for that famous scene. Now it´s time for the remake. Starring Dani in the role of Tuco. Sit back and enjoy…