We set off for our next destination in bright sunshine. From the motorway there are a number of roads leading into the interior and we picked one at random. We’re in no hurry and the direct route is not always the most rewarding. Alternatively, we got lost, within five minutes of setting out, and followed a road to see where it may lead. It's a system I use quite often.
Within fifteen minutes we were deep in the Badlands. No other cars on the road, no houses, just mile after mile of scrubland on either side.
‘This is nice,’ Marigold said, brightly. Typically, she was wide awake. If the scenery had been remarkable, she'd have been asleep. Sod’s law.
Pressing on – turning back is for the weak willed – we turned a corner and saw nothing but pigs. Hundreds and hundreds of them. The porcine capital of Spain. Not the factory farmed type of pig either; these were free range with the distant hills as a backdrop. We stopped to look at a huge field containing only sows with their litters. Piglet heaven, running around in the sunshine, tails wagging, squealing and scampering with mum handy for a quick snack when they were hungry.
If they built a luxury hotel in this spot people would flock to visit, yet the piglets had it all to themselves. They don't have any inkling of their future so it's good they can enjoy their possibly fair short lives playing with their friends in these lovely surroundings.
Our destination was to be Caravaca de la Cruz. I’d never heard of it which turned out to be a shameful gap in my knowledge as Caravaca has been given the title of a Holy City by the Vatican, chosen by the Pope himself in 1998, a distinction it shares with only four other cities in the world. The others are Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostella and Santo Toribio de Liebana. So, that means after today we only need to visit Jerusalem and we’ll have the complete set. I bet even the Pope hasn't done all five! Do we get a badge?
Marigold had booked us into a monastery, appropriately enough, and now all we had to do was find it. We found the road easily enough, but it took four circuits of the area before we found the cunningly concealed entrance. Once inside the courtyard we realised the place was massive.
While I dealt with our luggage, just one small bag each but both had come open in transit so not an easy task, Marigold went ahead to book us in. That was the plan anyway. When I caught up with her, she was still trying to open the door. The door in question was a) about fifteen foot high b) very, very old and c) clearly marked, albeit in Spanish, ‘Pull.’ Marigold had been pushing it for well over a minute and was distinctly red in the face.
There was a monk on the reception desk. Full monk’s habit and cowl. Impressive. Even more impressive was my avoidance of any 'dirty habit' wisecracks. The monk booked us in and issued us with a card to get into the room. Given the age of the building I’d expected a vast key, but it was just one of those cards with a magnetic strip on it. We walked up the stairs to the first floor and only noticed there was a lift when we got there. More concessions to modernity.
Our room, number 118, had a passage of scripture on the door, in Spanish so not even Latin, which I almost managed to convince Marigold said ‘no hanky-lanky allowed on these premises’ and inside we found that was not too far from the truth. Two very small single beds, very widely spaced and that was about it.
The building itself was founded by Saint John of the Cross as a Carmelite monastery and Carmelite monks are in charge of both the monastery and the guest rooms. It's a peaceful, contemplative setting with chapels, cloisters and religious artefacts lining long dark corridors. Yes, the rooms were previously monks’ cells, basically furnished and not an iPod dock in sight (!) but the beds are comfortable, there's safe parking in a town where car parking is at a premium and the city itself is right outside the gates.
Inside the walls of the huge castle dominating the city is a splendid basilica, and inside the basilica is a sanctuary where a bejewelled cross is kept. The Caravaca Cross is called a lignum crucis, because it contains a fragment of the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. The cross itself is about a foot long with two horizontal bars.
Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, supposedly found the true cross in Jerusalem in the 4th century. In 1099 records show the cross being owned by the patriarch Robert of Jerusalem. During the 6th Crusade, in 1230 when Jerusalem fell back into the hands of the Emperor Frederick II, the holy relic disappeared and suddenly appeared in Caravaca two years later.
This holy cross is the symbol of the city, and for almost eight centuries pilgrims have come here to benefit from its ‘healing powers’. NB The quotation marks around the words ‘healing powers’ are not intended as my personal opinion as to the veracity of this claim; the English version of the sign describing the ritual includes the quotation marks! In the Spanish language version the quotation marks are omitted. The sign-writer/ translator obviously held fairly cynical views on the effectiveness of historical claims regarding the healing powers of the holy cross. Wonder if he was excommunicated.
At a certain time each day the priest brings the cross out from the inner sanctum into the church and people line up to kiss it. We missed it by fifteen minutes. Perhaps we will trudge back up the hill and try again tomorrow. Perhaps not.
Way back in 1232 the town was ruled by a Moorish king, Sayid Abu-Sayid. Sayid was interrogating a prisoner, a priest, and decided he would like to witness the priest saying mass. However the priest said he could not proceed because he did not have a cross. Suddenly, two angels appeared with the True Cross, which they placed on the altar. The king and his whole court immediately converted to Christianity and the city of Caravaca gained instant importance as a religious site.
Miracles aside, the city is well worth a visit. The ancient buildings are well preserved and the churches, of which there are many, are magnificently decorated. We went inside a couple, both packed with worshippers, and also visited another where there was a scale model of the city, as it had been in the Middle Ages, which was simply magnificent.
So much more I could add about this city, but the highlight was the medieval market and Marigold will be writing about that in a separate posting.
Just in case you think we are welcomed with open arms everywhere we go… on the way here we stopped for a call of nature. When Marigold needs a pee, we swiftly find the nearest bar or café and so it was today. In fairness, there wasn't a great choice of hostelries in one of those Spanish towns that appear to be utterly deserted at first glance. Café Hola it had to be.
Café Hola was packed inside. No wonder the town appeared deserted. All men. All of a certain age. All short, fat and gloomy. Nobody was talking, but everybody turned round to look at the alien species that had just arrived in their midst. Marigold's wacky earrings attracted great attention.
I ordered a beer and a coffee while Marigold dashed off to the facilities. I was asked to pay on ordering which almost never happens in Spain. Obviously regarded as a poor credit risk. Mind you, one euro fifty for two drinks isn't exactly expensive. The beer was, well, beer and Marigold’s café con leche was perfect. She commended the lavatorial section warmly, saying it looked brand new. I pointed out the absence of the fair sex in here and we agreed she was possibly the first ever woman to pass through the door.
I decided to pay a visit myself, while I was there. A bad decision. My expectations weren't high. This is rural Spain, not Mayfair, but even so…
The Gents contained a sink, but no taps, and a plain white toilet. It even had a seat. The seat was raised and it appeared the lavatory itself hadn't been flushed for several weeks, but the porcelain seemingly provided no more than an aiming point. A very general guideline judging by the virtual lake on the floor. Maybe not so much an aiming point, more a mere basis for negotiation. I backed out again, deciding my need was not so great after all.
An enormously fat man, very short too, almost barrel like in appearance, was standing next to Marigold when I returned. He was playing the slot machines but his ample backside overhung the table where Marigold was perched on a chair with no room to evade contact. We went to the door, said ‘gracious, adios’ to the barman who favoured us with what was possibly a smile but may equally have been merely dyspepsia and rushed back to the sanctity of our car.
We’ve had similar experiences in Eastern Europe, but this is Spain, a country with millions of tourists every year! If you're looking for somewhere off the tourist trail to find the ‘real Spain’ perhaps, I can heartily recommend Café Hola. Just make sure your need to 'go' is not urgent before you enter.