Kingfishers in the oasis: camping by the Río Duero

When considering family travel destinations in Spain, Tordesillas – a handsome sun-scorched town about 175km north-west of Madrid – is probably not prominent on many “must-see” lists. In fact, the chances are pretty high that most tourists to Spain haven’t heard of it at all. Its one, glorious, moment in the global spotlight came over 500 years ago – June 1494 to be precise – when the monarchs of Portugal and Spain gathered there to sign the Treaty of Tordesillas, an event which must have put considerable strain on the local high-end hotels.

The Treaty of Tordesillas was essentially based on a crude map of the known world with a big line drawn in ink-dipped quill through the Atlantic Ocean from north to south. In the treaty it was agreed that Spain could lay permanent claim to all newly-discovered lands to the west of the line; Portugal to the east. Rather conveniently, Spain and Portugal both forgot to invite other major world powers to the treaty discussions, each presumably thinking that the other one would do it.*


Treaty of Tordesillas, page 2 recto (Source: UNESCO)

It is surprisingly likely that many of the royal party in 1494 experienced Tordesillas in much the same way our family did 522 years later: under canvas by the banks of the Río Duero. Quite possibly they, like us, were woken up in the mornings by the soft coo- coo-ing of the wood pigeons and the scorching Iberian sun. It is probable that they, too, were treated to the spectacular aerial show of the hundreds and hundreds of swifts soaring and screeching over the bridge and old town. In fact, the ornithologists amongst them may have noted that Tordesillas is a bit of a local paradise for birds; during our stay we also saw the brilliant blue flash of a kingfisher – unmistakable over the shimmering river – and even a vagrant cormorant straying far away from its usual coastal haunts.


Crossing the Río Duero into Tordesillas

On the long and dusty road between Portugal and France, Tordesillas is a welcome oasis. There is a fantastic little family-friendly campsite – Camping El Astral – offering us simple necessities like shade and clean facilities, and little luxuries such as a swimming pool and organised activities for the kids. We always plan on spending one night there and always, ALWAYS end up staying longer. We love to spend warm evenings on the restaurant terrace, then retiring to our tent and simply sitting outside as the air cools and the children sleep, lost in a good book or catching up with our emails to the night chorus of the crickets.


Camping scene, Tordesillas. It is HOT there!


Night camping scene (taking advantage of the more humane temperatures)

Just over the bridge, the town centre is a treat for curious travellers. Much has changed since the royal visits of 1494, but Tordesillas’s old town is still a warren of ancient buildings and narrow, vehicle-free streets, perfect for the children to run and explore. At the centre of it all, the Plaza Mayor is attractively framed by a 17th century colonnade, with child-friendly café and restaurant tables spilling out from the shady arcades.

Best of all are the people of Tordesillas. In the lively area just north of the Plaza Mayor, Joelle went into a friendly opticians to get sunglasses for the three youngest kids. To pass the time, I sat on a café terrace with an espresso and a tortilla, indulging in my favourite pastime of watching the world go by. I saw elderly ladies embracing each other in the street, whilst their male counterparts drank something small and strong from hatches in tumbledown buildings; I observed the lottery ticket sellers hawking their wares from street corners and the unfamiliar pastries piled high in bakery windows. Somewhat self-consciously, I noticed that I was the only person in town with a camera (which explains why this post has rather few photos; I felt embarrassed).

As I peacefully observed Tordesillian life unravel around me, my son managed somehow to spill my half-finished espresso all over me; I never would have thought that such a small coffee could make such an almighty mess. The lady working in the café immediately appeared with a smile, a cloth and, a minute later, with a replacement espresso. She steadfastly refused to be paid for it. That simply doesn’t happen in Luxembourg. (She even offered me another portion of tortilla, but I politely refused; I’m still not convinced about potato tart as a mid-morning snack…)

Tordesillas may not make it onto Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel” lists anytime soon, but it remains our favourite family-friendly Spanish stopover town; our personal sanctuary in the chaos of a trans-Iberian road trip with kids.

Daisy the bus visited Tordesillas in late July 2016

© 2016 Jonathan Orr


* Want some more history? Oh, very well then…

Despite its crude simplicity the Treaty of Tordesillas worked surprisingly well, although the Spanish were rather annoyed when it was discovered – in 1500 – that a large part of continental South America actually fell on the Portuguese side of the line (this is why Portuguese is spoken in Brazil whilst Spanish is the language of all other modern South American nations).

Meanwhile, the world was slowly coming to the conclusion that the earth was, in fact, round and therefore a significant loophole in the treaty was waiting to be exploited. Cue mild panic and a follow-up treaty signed in 1529 (in Zaragoza) which placed an “anti-meridian” line on the other side of the globe, roughly passing through Japan and Australia, and creating the eye-pleasingly straight border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia which still exists even today.

So now you know.

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