Getting out of Madrid was a whole lot easier than getting in. We found our way to the highway easily, and had a short drive to the town of Segovia, to see its famous Roman aqueduct. It's pretty amazing to see a gigantic, completely intact stone aqueduct right in the middle of a town: see here. It's about 32 kilometres (20 miles) long, 28.5 metres (93.5 feet) tall at its highest point, and made of more than 20,000 stones, and not a drop of mortar.
Years ago, we saw the Pont du Gard, a famous three-tiered Roman aqueduct in France. We went way out of our way to see it, and were well rewarded for our trouble. This one in Segovia was equally impressive. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and we took a lot of pictures.
Segovia has a "centro historico" dating back to the middle ages, with a Jewish quarter, old churches, and an alcazar (castle) with, I hear, an impressive view of the valley below. There are dozens of similar towns, and we wanted to make sure we have time for the final and important piece of this trip, so we just visited the aqueduct and hit the road.
Then we set off for Cantabria and Asturias, two regions in the north of Spain that are dotted with caves, many of which contain paleolithic paintings. We had reserved a room in the town of Santillana del Mar, outside of Torrelavega, near the larger city of Santander.
We took a very scenic route that wound through country completely different than what we saw in the south. Where in the south the land looked arid and dry, here everything was lush and verdant, with lots of forest and pasture. In the south the sky was huge, you could see for miles and miles, orchards receding into the mountains. In the north it is very closed in, small valleys with steep mountains on all sides, lots of forest, cleared only for pasture. There are cows, sheep, and horses grazing everywhere. The sheep are fat with wool; the cows look dumb and relaxed as cows should. Low stone walls divide pastures. The houses are all stone, too - no white adobe here - although they do have red tile roofs. The country is very different and beautiful.
The road wound through mountains, not fast highway driving, but nowhere near the painstaking crawl we had driving to Ronda. For a while we were on a high plateau. Dozens of large birds were swooping and floating in the air currents. I don't know if they were hawks or eagles, but they were beautiful. At one point, we drove through a fog, and it started to rain a bit. Winding mountain roads, fog, rain, and now some road work! Anything else?? It was a bit interesting for a while, but the fog cleared and eventually the road wound downwards.
I made two stupid navigational errors, which unfortunately took a long time to correct, so by the time we got to the hotel, we had been driving for a long time. The hotel is on the road into town, a short walk from the historic centre, and has its own car park. We checked in, showered, and walked into town.
The town itself is pedestrian only - residents can drive in and out, but they can't drive around. The town is impossibly quaint - cobblestone streets, stone buildings, and everyone has colourful flowers on their windows and in little gardens in front.
This region, Cantabria, and the neighbouring Asturias, are known for a lot of local food products, and all the tourist shops in town are piled high with them: sobao (a sweet cake that looks like cornbread, made with wheat and milk), quesada (a sweet milk cake), local cheeses, sausage, anchovies. We were very hungry and ready for dinner, but of course dinner was hours away. The earliest anyplace serves dinner is 20:00h, otherwise known as 8 p.m. Desperate, we bought sobaos from a tourist store: a package of 12 costs 3 euros.
We went back to the hotel, and sat on the patio with our sobaos and a bottle of cheap vino tinto from Madrid. A teen group from the UK was at the hotel, and we watched them cavorting around, and drank our wine while we waited for dinner. Dinner was very simple, a fixed menu. I had fish soup, a "tortilla" (what we call a fritata) with chorizo, and flan for dessert. And this comes with a bottle of wine, a large bottle of water, and bread, for 10 euros each. It wasn't Gourmet Night at Fawlty Towers, but it was fine.
After dinner we completely collapsed. Allan has two days of cave paintings mapped out for us, and I made reservations online. We're not completely sure it will work out, but here's hoping.
Photos of the acqueduct at Segovia are here.