Madrid to Bailen

On The Road Travel Essays

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Madrid to Bailen

Thirteen kilometers outside of Madrid, a road goes off to the left to Cerro de los Angeles (1.5 km), a hermitage in the geometrical center of the country.

Aranjuez  This town was once a stronghold for the Order of Santiago (a fraternity like the Masons). When the kings of Spain became Grand Masters of this order, they made Aranjuez one of their favorite residences.

Philip II started work on a large palace (which the bus doesn't stop for), which was designed by the same team of architects who designed El Escorial. This palace remained a royal residence until 1890. The gardens are among its most famous features.

The town: The palace blends nicely into the buildings of the town, with arcades running around the large square.

Joaquin Rodrigo immortalized the palace in his "Concierto de Aranjuez."

Ocana  In this town of 7,000 is the maximum security prison for the whole of Spain. Look for the guards patrolling up on the walls (the road runs right next to the walls). Inside are prisoners condemned to death, where they are given their last bowl of gazpacho. The bus might pass road gangs along the road, working out their sentences by contributing to the modernization of Spain. Members of the Guardia Civil are in evidence, on the walls and watchtowers of the prison. (The driver always observes all traffic regulations in Ocana.)

La Mancha  After Ocana, you enter the part of Castile known as "La Mancha." Much of Spanish myth and legend was born here. You might spot a windmill here and there that recalls the days of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

(COURIER: As there's not too much action outside the bus window, you might use this time to talk more generally about Spain, using "Historical Sketch" or "The Spanish People.")

Madridejos  A small town, somewhat off the road. To our right is an old settlement, called Consuegra, which the Romans founded. Remains: castle and some pavement.

Manzanares  Population: 18,000. A farming town, where produce raised in the surrounding fields is processed and shipped to other parts of Spain. As this is the old road to Andalusia, it was always guarded in medieval times. A fortress stood watch in the town to protect the route to Andalusia.

Valdepenas  Population: 27,000. Here we enter an important wine making center of Spain. The landscape has turned from wheat fields to vineyards. The wine is aged in huge barrels kept in bodegas, then bottled and shipped. These brands are labelled "Valdepenas", which is the headquarters of several wineries.

Santa Cruz de Mudela  Here the road begins to climb the Cerro de las Herrerias, which are the first foothills of the large Sierra Morena mountain range. Now you know you're on the road to Andalusia, since the region lies just over these mountains.

Almuradiel  Six km. west of this town is the village of Viso del Marques, which is named for the Marquis Don Alvaro de Bazan, the great Spanish admiral who defeated the Turkish navy in the historic battle of Lepanto in 1571. The admiral's palace, which still stands, houses the archives of the spanish Navy.

Despenaperros Pass  Many engineering improvements have made the crossing of this pass easier. But centuries ago — even decades ago — it was tortuous and even dangerous. This pass marks the boundary between Castle and Andalusia, and the ruggedness of the mountains made it easier for the Moors to defend their kingdoms against the Christian Reconquest. "Despenaperros" = "overthrow of the dogs" (i.e., Moors).

Las Navas de Tolosa, a small hamlet shortly after Santa Elena. This town, though insignificant today, has a famous name that you'll come across in every history of Spain. In this town, in 1212, the army of the Christian King Alfonso VIII defeated a Moorish army, and entered Andalusia for the first time.

The battle (July 6, 1212)  The wars between Christians and Moors had long been at a standstill. Pope Innocent II called for a new crusade, to break the power of the Moors. A large Christian army was formed, with troops from Castile, Aragon, and Navarre, fighting alongside Germans, Frenchmen, and Italians. King Alfonso VIII led this alliance. The Moors were commanded by Emir Mohammed Abou Abd Allah, and they stood ready. The battle was furious, long, and at first indecisive. The opposing forces seesawed back and forth for several days. Finally, the Moors, their forces depleted, abandoned the field and the way was open for the Reconquest of Andalusia. This date marks the turning point in the wars between Christians and Moors. From this point on, the Moors were on the defensive, and could no longer hope to recover lands farther north, or even keep their kingdoms in the south. Twenty-four years later (1236), the great Moorish city of Cordoba fell, and Andalusia itself, the Moorish heartland, was doomed.

La Carolina  Population: 15,000. There are several towns in this area which were founded in the 18th century to develop mining in these mountains. La Carolina was the most important of them, and was named for King Charles III, who sponsored many of these mining projects. Mining was (and still is) mainly for lead.

Bailen  Unimportant in itself, this town is a major crossroads. The road due south goes to Jaen and Granada. The road turning west goes on to Cordoba and Seville.

Napoleon's comeuppance: A famous episode occurred in the town during Napoleon's occupation of Spain. Here, on July 16, 1808, a French army commanded by General Dupont was threatened by Spanish partisans. The French forces were ill-prepared, badly organized, and exhausted by the mid-summer heat. They were thoroughly routed by the patriotic Spanish. Four years later, Napoleon looked back on this episode as the decisive turning point in his own occupation of Spain.

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