Tuesday 29 September: From Lleida Pa and his fellow Dutchmen were taken by train (handcuffed and in a goods wagon) to the concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro, some 240 miles west. On the way the train stopped at Zaragoza. We had to return our rental car there, so we drove the first part of the journey and took the train the rest of the way.
Wednesday 30 September: Pa describes the horrific conditions at Lleida, but says little about Miranda, which apparently was even worse. Little of the camp remains, except the washhouse, the guard hut, the base of the guard tower and the walls which surrounded it. We walked around the area, and met a Belgian couple on a very similar mission. In the tourist information office we were shown a book about the history of the camp, and given a photocopy of the page relating to the Dutch contingent who were there in 1943.
We spent the rest of the day looking at places of general interest, but Miranda is a small town and there are not many!
Thursday 1 October: An alternative title for this blog might be ‘prison and freedom’.
After two months at Miranda, Pa and his friends were released, and given train tickets to Madrid, where they were accommodated in hotels while waiting for their transit visas for Portugal. They were not allowed to leave the city, but had plenty of time for sightseeing. We’d visited the city once before, but that was 12 years ago, so we were happy to have another opportunity to see some of the sights, focusing on places that Pa mentions in his book.
Friday 2 October: Had a frustrating morning. Pa & co spent a lot of time at the British Embassy Reading Room, finding out as much as possible about ‘the nation they hoped to join’. We’d looked up the Embassy online, and found the road mentioned easily enough. But after fruitless searching, we discovered that the Paseo de la Castellana is the longest road in Madrid, and the Embassy is about four miles out of town. We went there by Metro, managed to get through security but not past reception (despite the website saying that they are open to visitors!).
It was obvious that (a) the Embassy no longer has a reading room, and (b) the flashy tower where they are now based did not exist in 1943. Eventually we located the previous home of the Embassy, although the building appeared to be later than 1943. We had little luck with the Dutch Consulate, where Pa was taken on arrival in Madrid. He gives the name of the street, but not the number, and we walked the length of the street without being able to identify the building.
We had no problems of course in finding the Prado Museum and the Retiro Park. The zoo mentioned by Pa has long since disappeared, but the boating lake is still there. Finally we visited the Atocha railway station, a sight worth seeing in its own right, and the place from which Pa left for Portugal. We cannot stick to the order in which he did things, or we’d be zigzagging across Madrid for weeks!
Saturday 3 October: Another frustrating day. Pa went frequently to the River Manzanares, where there was an indoor swimming pool. Our enquiries about this had mainly produced blank looks or shrugs, but one lady had pointed us to an outdoor pool (with an indoor section, she thought) at Moncloa, close to the river. We took the metro there, but despite the ‘Piscina’ sign the building was completely locked up, and for various reasons we doubt if that was the place we wanted.
We walked along the river to the Principe Pio shopping centre, formerly the Estación del Norte, where Pa arrived from Miranda. Then on to the Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, where Pa and several friends attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1943. Afterwards they walked back to the Hotel Internacional, and we did the same. They had to report every week at the Seguridad in the Puerto del Sol; we were not sure which building it was in. However, there was no problem identifying the famous department store, El Corte Ingles, where Pa used the ‘chit’ he had been given to buy new clothes.
We went to the Museo de Historia de Madrid, hoping for (ideally) a map of Madrid as it was during the war. But they had nothing as recent as the 20th century. The friendly ladies there told us that we really needed the Historical Library of Madrid – but that was closed for the weekend!!!
A small bonus tonight. We paid an early evening visit to the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which used to be the General Hospital for Madrid, and was therefore the place (we assume) where Pa visited his sick comrades.
Sunday 4 October: First stop today was the Basilica de San Francisco; we were able to get in this time, and the interior is certainly impressive, but sadly photography was not allowed. Next to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales; Pa does not mention it, but we missed out on our previous visit to Madrid. We discovered that you have to take a guided tour, and the next one with availability was not for two hours. We filled the gap by going down to the main part of the river and having another fruitless search for Pa’s swimming pool. The monastery was also a disappointment: the many works of art are doubtless priceless, but not to our taste.
Monday 5 October: Pa and his friends were not allowed to leave Madrid unaccompanied, but they got permission to visit Toledo, escorted by a policeman in mufti. They did a day trip by train; we did not need to return to Madrid, so decided to make Toledo the next stop on our journey. But before that…
We got up early and visited the Historical Library of Madrid. We were there well over an hour, struggling with language and technology (it’s a long while since we used microfilm!). But we made a number of useful discoveries:
- In 1943 the British Embassy was located at the address we visited on Friday (though probably not in the same building)
- The Netherlands Consulate was at number 25 in the Calle Claudio Coëllo
- The Seguridad was in the main building in the Puerto del Sol
- The swimming pool was called La Isla, and was located in the Calle Ribera del Manzanares – where we had walked on Saturday, but on the opposite bank. With this information, Ian was later able to trace it on the Net, and even obtained a photo!
We went to Calle Claudio Coëllo, and took photos of number 25, before returning to our apartment, collecting our luggage and heading for Atocha Station, where we caught the train to Toledo. The procedure for buying tickets was incredible (we succeeded finally by using a machine) and the security system for boarding was akin to that at airports.
In Toledo we saw many examples of the steel blades mentioned by Pa, and the damascene work which he admired. We visited some of the places where he had been, notably the cathedral with its treasury (and the tower – we climbed to the top, not sure whether Pa did that). And the beautiful synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, a former mosque. We intended to visit the El Greco House and Museum, but it is closed on Mondays, so we went there the following morning, before setting off for Portugal.