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On the Washington Irving Route in Search of Michael Portillo

sunny 20 °C
View Andalusia Spain on Jenniferklm's travel map.

We began seeing signs indicating we were on the Ruta de Washington Irving. Who the heck was he? Well, it turns out that he has achieved fame as the prototype of the romantic traveller in this part of Spain. As an American diplomat, ambassador to Spain in the 1840s, and writer (Rip van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow), he followed the al-Andulas route from Málaga to Seville to Granada where he stayed for a time. He was fascinated by the exoticism and history of Hispano-Muslim Andalucia and wrote several books: “The Tales of the Alhambra” and “History of the Conquest of Granada”. They would be interesting reads. He was one of the first American writers to earn acclaim in Europe.

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This was a historical route that in the Middle Ages was an important trade route between the Nasrid kingdom of Granada and Christian territory, covering the lowland plains of the Guadalquivir River valley to the plains surrounded by mountains near Granada. This route was also apparently legendary for contraband and highwaymen in the 19th C. Online scams have taken their place. Give me an old-fashioned highwayman any day!

Carmona was our first stop after leaving Seville. We had made an AirBnB apt. reservation in Cordoba, allowing us about a week to get there (one never knows what awaits on the bike path), so we were staying for 2 nights in Carmona at the lovely Hotel Alázar de La Reina.

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Carmona is perched on the highest point of Los Alcores, an area of hills extending east from Seville. While our ride to Carmona had been flat until a climb into the town, that would not be the case for much of our route.

We had never heard of Carmona and it was amazing. Besides the jaw-dropping 360 degree views of the beautiful agricultural plain that surrounds the ridge on which it is built, there is a lot to see here of a historical nature.

A town of about 30,000 now, it has been inhabited for a very long time, firstly as a Tartessian-Turdetani settlement, then by the Phoenicians and then became one of the main towns of this area in Carthaginian and Roman times as indicated by the remains of huge gates, the Seville, the Córdoba and the Marchena (there were 4 altogether) that protected the town and allowed it to control the lower Guadalquivir Valley.

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There is also a necropolis and an amphitheatre, plus the Via Augusta, a Roman road and bridge. There are numerous palaces, churches and heritages. Caesar declared that Carmona was the best defended town in all of Adalucia. It was also an important town during Moorish rule who built an Alcázar, walls, fountains and palaces. There is a Christian Church built over a mosque, a common practice after the reconquest, that still has the Courtyard of the Orange Trees and the minaret.

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The Alcázar del Rey Don Pedro was built by the Castilian ruler Pedro I, known alternatively as Pedro the Cruel and Pedro the Just, depending on your politics. He was excommunicated by the Pope for his persecutions of the clergy. Within its gates is the Parador de Carmona, one of the government owned hotels that are located within important sites. I had tried to get a reservation there but there did not seem to be any rooms available - not true when we visited it for a drink and I asked - and only 117€ a night for spectacular accommodation, though we were very happy with our less pretentious, elegant Hotel Alcázar de La Reina where we certainly had no complaints about the same incredible view from our room..

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The Parador is a spectacular location however, within the remans of the Mudéjar palace of Pedro I, apparently his favorite residence, which was built on the old Muslim castle. It was plundered and finally destroyed in the 19th by a series of earthquakes. You walk beside the old alcázaba walls and go in through the big gate in the first photo above. The old castle courtyard is where cars park for the parador. In 1976, the Parador opened; it is designed as an Andalusian palace. The back of the Parador where the bar, restaurant and lounge for guests drops abruptly down to the plains below and has amazing views.

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While there were many sights in Carmona that we did not tour, we did spend part of a day at the Roman necropolis site, which was so interesting. It was located on the outskirts of town, for public hygiene reasons, along the old Via Augusta. There was a school group there who were wearing little smocks and being coached in some kind of reinactment of a Roman funeral ceremony by a costumed guide, accompanied by a skeleton lying on a decorated dias, but otherwise few people. And it was free.

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The existence of this very extensive necropolis dating from the 1st and 2nd C. was discovered in 1868 and was plundered over the years with artifacts sold to collectors. From the Museo de Andalucia website:

“… in 1881 Juan Fernández López and Jorge Bonsor, together with the foreman Luis Reyes Calabazo, began a scientific project, beginning with the acquisition of the land that currently makes up the necropolis grounds. This project culminated with the creation of the Carmona Archaeological Society and the Necropolis Museum (in 2001), as well as a circuit that allowed access to visitors in 1885. During these years a large number of tombs were excavated.”

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“After the transfer of the Necropolis to the State in 1930, a new stage began that culminated with the resumption of archaeological excavations in the area of ​​the Amphitheater, an area until then undiscovered, which brought to light a series of funerary structures….”

It is a big area of about 8 ha and the Necropolis is considered to be one of the largest and best preserved Roman burial sites in Spain. The amphitheatre is the first constructed in Spain. It is basically a site of tombs with niches for the ashes of the deceased, the most frequent burial ritual being incineration. These were excavated into the rock with adjacent rooms for ceremonial gatherings, food preparation, and gardens. Many but not all have been excavated. There are also the remains of pictorial motifs that decorated the tomb and in the museum, some amazing artifacts such as these sculptures.

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We basically followed the paths that took us all over the site to see the various tombs and were able to climb down a ladder into one tomb. The remains of the amphitheatre are beside the necropolis. You could also go up onto the roof of the Necropolis Museum for the views over the town and the surrounding countryside. And there was a group of mules sunning themselves in the field next to the necropolis.

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After all our archeological work, we were ready for a good dinner and had one in the restaurant of our hotel.

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I discovered my favourite Spanish dessert there, an earlier version of flan but better than any I have ever had. I had seen it on menus - ‘tocino de cielo’ - which translates to ‘heaven’s bacon’. Whaaat? I could not understand what it might be until I looked it up. Unlike flan, it contains no milk and is mainly egg yolks. It was created in a convent so the reference to heaven, and the caramalized colour and egg yolks look like pork fat. It tasted nothing like pork fat & I am only sorry I didn’t order it earlier when I saw it upon menus.

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We got talking to the couple at the table next to us who have had a house in southern Spain for years though they live in Northern Ireland. That would make a lot of sense given the weather in Ireland! They told us it was a wreck when they bought it. She joked that she was on the hunt for Michael Portillo who has a house in Carmona. We had watched some of his travel shows on Spain before leaving on our trip so were interested to hear this. Michael Portillo’s father father fled Andalusia during the Spanish Civil War as he was an intellectual and a Republican and ended up in Oxford where he met Cora, Michael Portillo’s Scottish mother who was studying Spanish and could speak to him. 4000 Spanish children were allowed to come on a ship to the UK during the war and she was volunteering in one of the residences where they were housed and he somehow ended up there too. Quite a story. Michael Portillo is a former UK Conservative Party politician

We enjoyed walking in Carmona’s streets and along the old walls. There was also a beautiful market plaza surrounded by the Moorish horseshoe arches but not many stands were open when we were there.

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We also wandered into to the courtyard of a public building and saw an art exhibit. Some of the works I really liked. The first is made with pink rubber gloves.

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And there’s nothing more atmospheric than these old towns at night. You can hear the ghosts in the walls.

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After one more wonderful buffet breakfast and extensive use of our favourite coffee machine on the trip so far (and a stealth picnic lunch to go) at our hotel, we said goodbye to fascinating Carmona, our hilltop views and the very delightful Hotel Alcázar de La Reina, which I forgot to mention had a very nice sauna that we both used. We headed off in thick fog, our first and only but somehow appropriate for our departure from this old Roman/Moorish town, bound for our next town along the Rute de Washington Irving, keeping a keen eye out for Michael Portillo.

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Posted by Jenniferklm 19:16 Archived in Spain

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What an amazing trip you two are having. Thanks for all the details and gorgeous photos.

by Joanna

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