Friday, 26 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 16 Preview

La Olmeda Museum
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Unipublic, the organisers of the Vuelta, took a brave step in including the Alto de l'Angliru in yesterday's Stage 15. While it's only been a part of the race since 1998, it's so steep and so difficult that it has already achieved the notoriety of the Mortirolo and Zoncolan and is even approaching the semi-mythical status of Mont Ventoux, the holiest mountain in cycling. As a result of that inclusion Stage 15 - though otherwise really rather non-descript - takes on the feel of a Queen Stage; and for those following it to avoid seeming like somewhat of an anti-climax the route planners will really need to have done their jobs well.

Unfortunately, Stage 16 seems a little bit of a let-down. Having said that, there are those out there who enjoy sprints and prefer to watch a plain stage - those people will probably be glad we're back to the flatlands today after the mountains of Asturias. However, the majority of fans - because cycling is a sport in which we love so much to see our heroes suffer - prefer the mountains; and while today has a couple of upward bits, from a climbing fan's point of view it all seems a little dull. In fact, the really testing mountains are all behind us now: there are some interesting Cat 1 and 2 climbs still to go in the coming days and a selection of respectable 3s and 4s all the way to Madrid, but the big ones have all been ridden.

Oh well. At least there's still lots to look at - and when we say lots, we really mean it on this stage.

A mosaic depicting a hunt, La Olmeda
They've certainly found a good start point - Villa Romana La Olmeda in Palencia was for many years the site of  chance discoveries of Roman artifacts, leading to an exploratory professional archaeological dig beginning in 1969. Yet although some of the artifacts found earlier were impressive, nobody was expecting what turned up 165cm under the present day surface - some of the most splendid and complete Roman mosaics ever found, not just outside Rome itself but anywhere in the world. Subsequent - and on-going - work has revealed the site to have been a village complete with villas, necropolis and a range of buildings, some remarkably well-preserved. During the last decade, a roof has been built over the village to protect the remains, now displayed in situ in an increasingly popular museum.

We leave La Olmeda via the PP-2420 running north-east towards Ganinas de la Vega, turning left at the intersection just before the village to head along the CL-615 to Saldaña, first passing by Lobera de la Vega. We turn right at the junction with the CL-624, head across the wide bridge into Saldaña and then turn right onto the P-240 which at first leads back in the direction we came. The neutral zone ends after 6.4km on a straight section of road around 0.5km from the town.

Abia de las Torres
The road is flat and largely straight until it veers slightly left to bypass Velillas del Duque after 5.1km; continuing past Quintanilla de Onsona, Villaproviano, Gozon de Ucieza (crossing another bridge shortly beyond the village) and Bahillo in a similar vein until we reach a T-junction with the P-236 23.2km into the race. We turn 90 degrees left, then 90 degrees right after approximately 60m onto what the Vuelta road book calls the P-245 but our maps say is a continuation of the P-240. The road passes Abia de las Torres, mentioned by Ptolemy - who knew it as Avia - as being an oppidum, a regional capital with defensive walls. Some remains of ancient defenses can still be seen at the site of what's left of the castle, most of it destroyed during the subsequent centuries and by the construction of the rather unattractive houses now occupying the top of the castle mound; but the Roman tombstone set into the wall of the church's porch is probably more worth a look (the stone, incidentally, was found in the town and incorporated into the church when it was built in the late 18th Century).

Osorno town hall
After another 5km, the route reaches Osorno la Mayor where the peloton come to a junction with the N-120 and turn left to head east towards Burgos. Osorno has taken over from Abia as the most important town in the area these days, though it would have been a busy place in Roman times too due to the presence of a garrison. Towns tended to spring up around garrisons, but to date no organised professional digs have been carried out here, so the Roman importance of Osorno is unknown. It has a very fine 17th Century town hall and a church, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, begun in the 15th Century but incorporating many details from later dates. Nearby, the Yacimiento del Dolmen de la Velilla points to a local human society far predating even the Romans. As we travel around the south and eastern edges of the town, the road becomes the N-611.

Iglesia de la Asuncion. Melgar de Fernamental
We remain upon the N-611 until reaching a junction back onto the N-120 after 36.9km, turning right to head along the very straight, very flat route to Melgar de Fernamental. A crossing over the A-231 and a bridge leading into the city do little to break up the monotony - however, it's worthwhile (for those of us who have time to stop for a while at the end of the section, anyway), because Melgar is a fascinating place. For a start, its name is possibly of Hebrew origin, derived from the name for the sun god of ancient Ammon (though there are other, probably slightly more likely, explanations too; including one pointing to Celtic and Iberian roots). By the early 13th Century, the town belonged to Pedro Fernández de Villegas (hence "Fernamental") and began to grow and, unlike much of Spain, entered a period of great prosperity following the decline of the Moors. Many of the finest buildings in the region date from the centuries immediately after the establishment of the Catholic monarchy; including the Iglesia de la Asunción - though much of what we see today is from the 18th and 19th Centuries. Slightly later is the 16th Century town hall by an unknown architect of considerable skill. We enter the town across a bridge over the Canal de Castilla, the largest civil construction project ever undertaken in Spain at the time work began in the 18th Century and still among the largest today, then turn trhough sharp left and right bends to enter the Av. de Palencia. Since the road is one of the main routes into the town centre, there is a high likelihood of diesel spills, puncture-causing detritus and similar hazards here. After 0.5km, the race turns right and joins the Av. de Burgos, a continuation of the N-120, and leads out of town to the east. The route then turns south-east before curving around to cross the A-231, passing straight through a complex interchange and thus reducing the hazard of diesel spillages, before following alongside the motorway for a short while and heading arrow-straight to Padilla de Abajo.

Eermita Nuestra Senora del Torreon
Padilla, though a tiny community, is worth a brief visit in passing for the Roman milestones built into the wall around the entrance to the church - they're badly eroded these days, but the typically Latin carved lettering can still be seen. The solid-looking 13th Century Ermita Nuestra Señora del Torreón, nearby, should also be seen for its remarkably carved masonry; though the 12th Century carved Señora (actually the Virgin) cannot be seen, as she's been stolen.

Having reached Padilla, the N-120 veers away to the south-east, passing underneath the A-231 and becoming straight once again on the way to Villasandino, taking another bridge as the road curves north-east and once again follows the A-231. There's slightly difficult roundabout junction north of Olmillos de Sasomon, site of a castle that looks precisely how we all expect a medieval castle to look. However, as we look at it little sections which don't look quite right begin to catch the eyes - the turrets which, when we look closely, are not turrets at all but mere decoration; the walls don't have that same solid look that real castles have... in fact, it's a late 15th Century stately home designed to resemble a castle but not to perform the same function and anyone with even a passing knowledge of medieval warfare can see that it wouldn't have withstood a siege for five minutes. During the 20th Century, when the aristocracy began at last to relinquish some of their wealth to the starving masses, the castle fell on hard times and looked like it would rot away. Fortunately it was bought by a caring new owner in 2003 who has spent over three million euros restoring it so that it can now be run as a parador.

We cross the motorway again, following alongside for a little longer this time until we reach Villanueva de Argaño, 74km from the start of the race. We travel south of a steep slope almost 100m high stretching around to the north and ahead, almost a mesa; then through an 8km section without any villages en route to Las Quintanillas - it's an attractive town, the well-executed buildings of light-coloured stone achieving the look of a place far wealthier than it really is. The road bisects the village before turning south-east for Tardajos, another very pretty village that was inhabited for many years by some very ugly people, seeing fit to vote an openly fascist member of the far-right Democracia Nacional party onto its council several times. Less than 2km later, we arrive at Burgos.

The race organisers have decided, for some reason, to make the route through Burgos very complicated; despite the fact that we've completely passed by a few towns in earlier stages that would seem far more suited to a quick tour. Having passed under the motorway one final time, we turn towards Villalonquéjar, an industrial area with many roundabouts making it potentially hazardous. According to the road book, this will lead us to the BU-600 - however, according to our maps there is no road of that name in Burgos. It does, however, lead to the BU-622. If we assume this to be the right road and follow directions by turning right onto it, we arrive at a roundabout located between the Calle de Valentín Niño, the most likely identity of the road book's Av. de Valentín Miño - there being no road in Burgos with that name, either - and the Carretera del Cementerio; which does exist and, as the road book warns us, grows narrower towards the eastern end, thus creating a hazard if the entire peloton try to get down it at the same time. We turn right at the roundabout at the end to travel along the Cantabria, meaning the book has named two roads correctly in a row, arriving shortly at the Plaza del Rey and turn left onto the Calle de Vitoria. This road is also called the N-1 and leads out of the city, heading to the feeding station 2.4km away.

Papamusca, the Flycatcher
While we wonder why the race needs to take such a convoluted route around this city when it's avoided so many others, we wouldn't want to suggest that it's not without it charms. In fact, it has many - one of the finest being the Catedral de Santa María; built in the 13th Century in the French Gothic style it looks, to North European eyes at least, far more how a cathedral should than any other we've seen so far in this race. Among the cathedral's many unique aspects are the Capilla del Santísimo Cristo de Burgos with a rather frighteningly lifelike Christ upon the cross which, according to legend, was found floating far out to sea before being brought here, his body covered in gory wounds and his modesty a little bizarrely preserved by a green silk skirt with lace trim. Less gruesome is Papamusca, the Flycatcher, an automaton by accident or design looking a lot like Mephistopheles. Forming part of a clock, each hour he raises his hand to sound a bell and opens and closes his mouth - this, presumably, having at some point resulted in the demise of a fly and the birth of the name. Nearby, another not so well-known automaton named Martinillo. Just west of the city is the 12th Century Monasterio de Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas. Still run by Cistercian monks, the monastery has a long tradition of providing shelter to any woman who requires it and maintains ten rooms so that such help can be provided.

Arco Santa Maria
There is a great deal of military and civil historical architecture within the city, too. The most important is surely the Arco de Santa María, one of the twelve medieval gates into the city, looking like it belongs in an Arts and Crafts period illustrated tale of King Arthur. It was built in the 14th and 15th Centuries, then completely remodelled during the 16th for no reason other than to make it look more the part of a great triumphal arch - an aim which anyone who sees it will have to agree was surpassed, for it's one of the most impressive sites in Northern Spain. High above the city atop a natural mound is the 9th Century Castillo, much remodelled during the 15th and 16th Centuries; though what we see today is only a tiny remnant of what was once a vast complex since medieval fortifications proved to be of little use against 19th Century explosives when Napoleon's forces blew it up in 1813. In addition, there are numerous palaces, some looking surprisingly Art Nouveau despite their 16th Century origins; many fine parks and squares; countless beautiful houses and a superb selection of theatres, concert halls, galleries and museums.

Oh, alright then - we do know why they took such a long way round the city: there's a lot of stuff worth seeing.

Homo antecessor
When we arrive at the interchange with the A-1, the race turns right and travels south to an interchange with the N-120 upon which, having negotiated the slip-road, it once again makes its way east and arrives almost immediately at Castañares - though an industrial area, the road bends only very slightly and as such there is little danger. An underpass takes us beneath the E-5 motorway and between Tomillares and Castrillo del Val, both strangely regimented places which from the air look as though they belong on a circuit board rather than in the Spanish landscape, then to Ibeas de Juarros. Nearby is the Sierra de Atapuerca where remarkable fossil discoveries of three species of hominids - including our own - have been made. The other two, Homo heidelbergensis and H. antecessor have been extinct for 250,000 years in the case of the former and a million years in the case of the latter, making this one of the earliest sites inhabited by what we would recognise as a form of human being anywhere in Europe. The town has a museum with exhibitions of finds and recreations of their lives.

On the eastern side of the town we reach a junction and turn right onto the BU-820, beginning the first intermediate sprint 120.2km from the start, then soon reaching Arlanzón with a tight right corner onto a narrow bridge. During the Middle Ages, Arlanzón was inhabited by Euskara-speaking Basques - the language has since died out in the area, but echoes still remain in place names and some local family names. Villasur de Herreros, home of what is probably the only museum in the world devoted to mining trains, lies a short way ahead with two sharp corners and another narrow bridge. The terrain it noticeably different after Villasur, having changed from the wide open fields that have characterised the stage so far to more rolling, wooded terrain.

Embalse de Uzquiza
A few kilometres later - and visible long before - we reach the 65m high dam wall of the Embalse de Úzquiza, named after one of the three villages flooded by it. Uzquiza was demolished before the valley was flooded, but pieces of tile and pottery can be found along the shores. The route heads around the northern side and through some of tight and potentially slippery bends among forest, before being joined from the south by the UP-820 - from this point, the road is known as the BU-813. It climbs 50m in the next kilometre, arriving at Alarcia after 136.2km from the start of the race. The highest point of the entire stage, at 1192m (using TeleAtlas altitude data), comes just beyond the village; from here onwards it's downhill almost all the way, but with nearly 70km still to go it's not time to sit up and freewheel just yet.

As we approach Valmala, around 5km from Alarcia, we come to a 90 degree left-hand bend followed by three tight, descending hairpins. The first, dropping 11m, is tightest; the second, dropping 14m, is steepest; the third, dropping 10m, is perhaps the most technical as a smaller road joins at the apex, this tending to result in mud, dust and gravel. The route passes trough the northernmost tip of Santa Cruz del Valle Urbión, taking in a sharp left followed by a sweeping right into a U-shaped bend 130m later. We soon arrive at Pradoluengo, 147.4km from the start, where the BU-813 becomes the BU-811 - or so the road book states, anyway; but it seems to depart somewhat from reality for a while again at this point as there is no BU-811 in the town. The route through is also unclear, but the BU-813 passes through along the Av. de Dionisio Roman before reaching a junction with the Carretera de Belorado (our next town), a road also known as the BU-847 or BU-V-8104, heading north and becoming the BU-811 after some kilometres north-west of Villagalijo. This still leaves the route through Pradoluengo unclear, but fortunately for the riders the way will be marked with the usual barricades and so on. From the point of view of those of us watching the race, a complex route would be better as it's very much the quintessential small Spanish town and well worth seeing for that reason.

Belorado (from SlowCamino, probably the best blog about
this part of the world)
The road to Belorado passes through green valleys before reaching Ezquerra, then follows the Rio Tiron past an attractive village named San Miguel de Pedroso, home to a convent from 759 CE until Desamortización, the long process beginning in the late 18th Century which saw the Spanish government confiscate a large percentage of property belonging to the Church. The race then enters open country, passing by wide fields before arriving at Belorado. Though the largest town we've seen since Burgos, Belorado retains a rural nature and, in parts, a distinctly medieval feel; it has a number of ancient buildings which are of great interest lining narrow, winding streets. It has the country's oldest documented fair, held annually since the 12th Century in what was once the Jewish Quarter (pictured), the right to hold one being awarded by Alfonso the Battler, king of Aragon. Two centuries later, the town supported Pedro the Cruel during his various wars; he showed another side to his personality in the great generosity with which he demonstrated his appreciation. Unfortunately for Belorado, he was eventually defeated by his enemies who punished the town and especially its Jewish population who eventually decided the time had come to depart for pastures new; the loss of them and their businesses adding to the woes of a town that was now in decline. There was once a castle here, but what's left of it is all but indistinguishable from the rocks upon which it stands to the east of the town.

Tormantos (from the village's website)
We enter Belorado along the Av. Campo de Deportes, crossing the N-120 by a little park to join the Calle Las Cercas. This leads us past the medieval arcades and around the town centre, turning right onto the Carretera de Haro which leads out of town and is known also as the BU-P-7101. The road is almost perfectly straight, running alongside a river for a short while and after 171.2km from the start enters the Comunidad de la Rioja - home of the famous wine. 13km after Belorado we come to Tormantos which, until recent years, hosted an annual reggae and ska music festival - rather an unexpected event in a little Spanish village of narrow streets and ancient buildings, but no doubt a valuable addition to the local culture until its demise in 2005 due to opposition from some of the villagers. There are three speed humps on the way through the village, then we're back out into the countryside.

Venus de Herramélluri 
The next town, Leiva, is 2km away to the east. It has a somewhat dilapidated fortified palace, believed to date from the 14th Century and apparently in need of urgent care. The road becomes the LR-200 as it enters the town, remaining such on the other side and on to Herramélluri - the name is believed to mean "burnt village," a reference to the destruction wreaked here and at Leiva by the Visigoths who razed to the ground many of the towns in the region following the fall of the Roman Empire - which the road book calls "Herramalluri." The Romans' presence here is well represented in the archaeological record - in addition to a cemetery and typically Roman road, a bronze figurine of Venus 20cm tall was discovered here and is now displayed in the Mmuseo de Logroño. The road narrows considerably as we enter the village and come to a junction where riders on the right of the peloton risk being forced onto the central island - always the ideal place for bits of broken glass, pieces of metal, sharp stones and a host of other tyre-penetrating goodies to collect. We turn left onto the Calle de las Eras, from which we'll hopefully just be able to glimpse the medieval bridge with its three arches, then leave along the LR-201.

Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Legarda-Ochanduri
Ochánduri passes by on the opposite side of the river, another town which it seems a pity to miss; not least of all in the hope that people watching might decide to visit the town and contribute to its economy, because the unfortunate inhabitants labour under the highest per capita debt anywhere in Spain. The route passes right by the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Legarda-Ochanduri, a medieval chapel which, when constructed, stood at the heart of a long-vanished village. 5.5km later the race reaches Cuzcurrita de Río Tirón ("de" rather than "del" as it appears in the road book), a town that was fortified in the Middle Ages with defensive walls and a castle - the latter being rather ruined today by the addition of ugly modern windows in places no medieval castle would have windows, making it look like a boring social housing project with a castle keep poking out of the top. However, the town is attractive overall, the churches and chapels being of particular note. The bulk of the town lies on the opposite bank of the river, but the route passes through the small part on the southern bank and past some of the best buildings. There are three speed humps and the road narrows beyond the second turning on the left.

Tirgo, less than a kilometre away, is visible from Cuzcurrita. Tirgo's church, restored at various times in its history, has some very strange wall paintings and carvings. Among the characters depicted are a mermaid with two tails, two birds biting a tree, a woman breast-feeding two snakes, clawed demons with the faces of other words, not the sort of thing usually found in a Catholic church. The architect's mindset can only be guessed at - but anyone who suspects he may have been a follower of some bizarre cult or merely fond of experimenting with the local mushrooms could be forgiven for thinking so. Having travelled south of the town centre, the route reaches a junction with the N-232 where the peloton will turn left and then, after the bridge, right 0.5km later onto what the road book says is the LR-209 but our maps call the LR-301. This leads 2.5km over the N-232 and on to the LR-202, where the race turns right towards Haro. The road is straight, wide, flat and leads directly into Anguciana.

Anguciana's most noticeable feature must be the 14th Century Torre Fuerte, built to control the nearby bridge and today looking a bit incongruous on a residential street. It was purchased by a Franciscan order in 1920 and housed a school, more recently passing back into private ownership. The race turns right in the centre of town, travels across the bridge onto the Calle de la Torre de Palacios and following through to the Av. Príncipe de Asturias - the location of the second intermediate sprint: it's straight and shouldn't cause any problems.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Vega - 10th Century,
despite appearances
We cross the AP-68 motorway and, after 197.2km, reach the outskirts of Haro. Having entered the city, the route turns left onto the snappily-named Av. de los Ingenieros del Ministerio Obras Públicas, over the bridge and along the Av. de la Costa del Vino (omitted by the roadbook) to the Av. de Vizcaya. A right turn carries the race onto the Av. de la Estación and back to the Av. de la Costa del Vino. Left leads to the roundabout, then onto the N-124 heading south. Having reached a large roundabout, the peloton turn sharply right to double back along the LR-111, soon coming to another roundabout and a left onto the Av. Miguel de Cervantes. Another roundabout comes after 0.3km, the race going straight on into the final 400m sprint to the finish at the sports ground 203.6km from the start.

Remains of the Roman castle, Haro
Haro was the first town in Spain to have electric street lights - but it has many more claims to fame and a wide selection of old stones to prove it. The earliest is the Roman castle, Castrum Bilibium, of which some traces remain. The first documents to mention the town come from the 11th Century - the first, dated 1040, lists possessions in the city donated by King García Sánchez III to his wife Estefanía de Foix; the second, dated 1063, lists the Jews living in the city. Another charter from the 13th Century mentions the Jewish population again - but, as a contrast to the violent antisemitism found throughout Europe in the middle ages, it's positive: Alfonso VIII of Castile placed the Castillo de la Mota under their care, laving them entirely responsible for it. It should be remembered that not only was this an extremely unusual move at a time when Jews were forbidden from holding public office and involvement in most occupations, access to and use of a castle would have been very welcome indeed to a people who regularly faced attack. Sadly, they were to suffer badly after Haro fell to Sancho IV of Castile and Leon: though the castle withstood a two month siege, it was eventually over-run and the Jews were severely punished. Many were killed and much of their property was confiscated. Following the Expulsion during the 15th Century, the old Jewish Quarter was leveled prior to the construction of the Iglesia de Santo Tomás.

Medieval tower, now an art museum
There are many buildings of interest in a city with so much history. In addition to the castles and Iglesia de Santo Tomás there's the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Vega, of 10th Century origin, despite the Baroque appearance resulting from an 18th Century remodeling; the 14th Century Convento de San Agustín, used since its demise as a convent as a school, a hospital, a prison, a bus station and - since 1989 - a hotel; the medieval tower in the Plaza de la Paz which had been in danger of imminent collapse before 2007 when it was restored at great expense and converted into a museum of contemporary art and the three imposing medieval gates, once the only way to enter the city through its defensive walls.

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