Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Portugal and Spain - Going It Alone

Jan and I had so enjoyed our 1991 Holts Tour of Portugal and Spain that we were very keen to go again. First we explored the possibility of going on another tour with Holts. At that time they did two complimentary tours, one mostly Portugal and the other mostly Spain.

In 1991 we had joined the second week, which started at Lisbon but was mostly Spain. We were put off the Portugal tour because one chap who had done both said there was too much cultural activity, or as he put it “A monastery too far”

I knew what he meant, because on more than one occasion I had been disappointed that we left a battlefield to visit a city or a non military museum. You may recall that Jan and I had left the tour to spend more time on the battlefield at Salamanca rather than a “free afternoon” in the city itself. Or when we opted to stay at Talavara with the Military Attache from Madrid rather than spend the afternoon at Toledo. Holts are a very successful tour company, and I am sure that they know what their clients want more than I do. On the other hand I would prefer to spend more time “getting my boots dirty”.

We had no illusions about how difficult it would be to undertake a battlefield tour in Portugal and Spain. Neither of us spoke a word of either language. Neither of us had visited either country before, except with Holts. I was well aware from past experience how difficult it could be to explore a battlefield unless I could get hold of a good map and some directions about how to find each location.

The first decision was which battlefields to visit. I spent a lot of time poring over the map and trying to work out which battlefields to visit, in which order and for how long. I also wrote to anyone I thought might be able to help, including Don Featherstone who had written a book about visiting these battlefields. His reply was very informative and helped me to avoid some pitfalls. I also wrote to Julia Page, who had been one of the guides on the Holts Tour. She was also very helpful, in particular she advised me not to take on too much in one day – very good advice indeed.

Apart from a good road map I also bought a copy of Jac Wellers “Wellington in the Peninsular 1808-1814”. Jac’s “Wellington at Waterloo” had been a great help when we spent a week there in 1971, and I was confident that the Peninsular one would be just as good. I was not disappointed.

The book has a chapter on each of Wellington’s battles. There is also a simple line drawing of each battle. More important there are lots of black and white photographs. So I was confident that if I could find the place where he stood to take each photo it would be easy to orientate myself. I can not stress how important that is when visiting unmarked battlefields.

The only drawback to the book is that there are no directions on how to get to each battlefield. It would be easy enough to find the general location, but exactly where to park and how to find the right spot to view the battlefield was critical. Without that information I was not prepared to undertake a tour on our own.

I first saw Julian Paget’s book “Wellington’s Peninsular War – Battles and Battlefields” in my local library in Salisbury. As soon as I saw it I knew it was just what we wanted. Like Weller’s book, it also contained a chapter on each of Wellington’s battles, and a line drawing of each. No photographs, and the description of the battle was much less detailed, about 6 pages to each. But it had a short description “Where to Go” and also “What to See” on each battle.

For example the Battle of Rolica contained the following:

“The best place to start is the beautiful Moorish walled town of Obidos on the N8 between Coimbra and Torres Vedras. The Rolica battlefield is some 3 miles further south along the N8, about a mile west of the main road, and is signposted.. It is possible to drive still further south along the N8 and turn right to the village of Serranos, from where you can visit the second French position”.

With both books I felt I had all the information I needed, not only to find each battlefield but also to read background information when we were there. It only remained to decide how and where to go.

I will deal with that in the next blog.

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