TEXT & PHOTOS MERCEDES PAGODA: JAVIER ROMAGOSA
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Spain has great scenery to see, great historical sites to visit, great gastronomy to enjoy and – petrolhead heaven!- great roads which link it all together; flowing, well-maintained, pleasingly free of traffic and police. What better than to enjoy all this in a classic convertible?
Thanks to ‘Spain in a Two Seater’ (STS), a classic car rental company based near Madrid, we were able to do just that, putting together a 3 day weekend trip in some of the best of Spain, the provinces of Segovia and Guadalajara which lie to the north east of Madrid. STS´s fleet consists of Alfa Spyder and Duetto, a brace of Morgan Plus 4 but our ride was the jewel in the crown, a beautiful metallic BRG Mercedes 250SL with beige interior and brown hood.
With the benefit of a later 280SL engine and a speed manual, the elegant looks of Mercedes grand tourer would prove the perfect place to see and be seen. From the first, the Pagoda imparted a feeling of confidence and solidity, able to manage everything we threw at it.
Classic Car Rental: Mercedes Pagoda
Leaving STS´s base in Guadarrama at the foot of the Sierra de Madrid early on Friday morning, we headed straight for the mountains: the ancient pass over the ski station of Puerto de Navacerrada, which rises to 1.800 meters. This route through forests of pine trees leads to the Royal Site of La Granja de San Ildefonso, by way of a strong climb and descent of tight bends which include some 2nd gear hairpins. The hood is down and the road surface is excellent encouraging the driver to enjoy the glorious sound of the classic Mercedes six cylinder, which builds speed impressively.
Windows up and hood down, the Pagoda cossets its lucky inhabitants with its solidity and good wind protection. The Pagoda isn´t a sports car which you throw around by the scruff of the neck. It is a heavy and reluctant to respond to harsh treatment or rapid weight transfer when turning or braking, but when treated as it treats you, with finesse and respect, it makes good speed. The car is planted and does what you want. Steering is heavy compared to a modern car but doesn´t overtax the driver in the hairpins. We´re reminded again that the joy of a classic car is that you have to drive it, you grip the wheel, you select the right gear, you brake before the bends and the Pagoda flows with you, rewarding the effort.
In less than an hour, flush with the joy of open air motoring in the mountain air, we arrive in La Granja. Putting the top up to secure the car is incredibly easy, so we leave the car to its admirers (there will be so many admirers this weekend!) and go for a walk.
La Granja de San Idelfonso: Royal Summer Palace
At the base of the mountains some 15kms from Segovia, la Granja de San Idefonso was the traditional summer residence of the Spanish royal family in the 18th and 19th centuries. A small town grew around the palace, to house the court and summer visitors. Typical of Spain in that period, French and Italian influences are reflected in the elegance of the architecture. The palace gardens feature spectacular fountains and the town hosts an ancient glass factory.
There is an excellent ‘Parador’ (the chain of heritage luxury hotels run by the state to high international standards) in La Granja, but due to it’s popularity, book in advance.
Fotos: Sergio Romagosa
In the mountains outside Madrid, with its cold winter climate, all meat is well-raised and well-cooked, the specialty is roast lamb and suckling pig (look for restaurants marked «Asador» , which specialise in this, but expect large portions…), and here there is also a fabulous bean stew (Judiones de la Granja) which simply must be tried. In the summer, La Granja was a retreat from the heat of Madrid and the Castillian plain, so salads and lighter dishes are enjoyed in al fresco dining.
Dropping the hood again, the Pagoda starts first time as ever and we head down the CL-601 to Segovia…
Foto: David Corral Gadea
Segovia: World Heritage Site
How to describe Segovia? Spectacular and charming at the same time, Segovia dates back to Roman times and reflects the mark of the varied cultures which have contributed to its 2.000 year history. The Roman period is defined by the spectacular aqueduct at the entrance to the old town. 800 meters long and 3 stories high, the aqueduct towers over one of the city´s most important squares as a testimony to the skill and determination of the Romans. Just below the aqueduct is Candido´s, the most famous restaurant in Segovia which has been serving its roast sucking pig to visitors for 3 generations.
Climbing the hill up into the old town (a pedestrian area with interesting shops, bars and restaurants all the way) leads to the wide and bustling main square, the enormous Gothic cathedral to your left and a massive selection of terraces and restaurants everywhere else, a perfect Gin and Tonic scenario.
Fotos: Santiago López-Pastor
Leaving that temptation for the evening, we carry on down to the third of Segovia´s embematic buildings, the magnificently romantic Alcazar, which sits on the edge of the city, floating above the valley like a great Ocean liner. Itself the location of several films, you feel that this turreted and moated castle must (at least in part) have informed the Disney view of fantasy castles.
And as in the movies, tired but happy we return to our hotel, sadly not in the historic centre of Segovia, a modern hotel with secure parking. We could hardly let the elegant Pagoda sleep in the streets. Anyway, it´ll repay us in full tomorrow.
Sure enough, on the second day we take the Pagoda into uncharted territory, the hills of Guadalajara (La Serrania de Guadalajara), the least populated region of Spain, a huge area of unspoilt natural beauty with few roads through it and at its heart, the ancient but little known town of Sigüenza, our next destination.
Leaving Segovia, top down again, the 250SL gets into its stride on the N-110, which is a faster, busier and more open road than yesterday´s mountain routes. The Pagoda loves it. This is a 4 speed manual, so a little under-geared for modern conditions, but the car bounds along at 120 kph. The upside is that slower traffic is easily overtaken on a wall of flexibly delivered power. It is not dramatic, but it is effective and the excellent brakes reinforce the feeling of solid engineering and safe performance.
Into the unknown: The Serrania de Guadalajara
If the N110 was playing to the Pagoda´s strengths, what lay ahead was unexpected and more challenging. We went the long way round, arriving at Riaza to head down the little-travelled SG-145. Avoid the SG-145 if your car is a little bit delicate. It is a throwback to the 1950s with 70 kilometers of the worst road surface that we have seen anywhere in Spain. The 250SL shrugged it off, so dropping the pace and settling down into its comfy armchairs, we let the chassis soak up the bumps and potholes in a style which most 1960s droptops could never emulate.
Midway on a road through oak and pine forests, punctuated only by the occasional Romanic churches and accompanying ghost villages, we reached Atienza. Formerly an important centre for the Castillian wool trade, Atienza still clings to life beneath its hilltop castle, but, only 150 kilometres from the centre of Madrid, except for the occoasional rural tourist, seems lost to the world.
Spain eats late and by 14.00 we´re looking to find lunch. We find it in a little village called Imón at a restaurant called ‘La Cabaña’. One of the joys of touring in Spain is that you will be able to stop impromptu in most places and find good food at reasonable prices. ‘La Cabaña’ meets these expectations, offering typical local fare with friendly service.
Sigüenza: Religious splendour
On then, to Sigüenza, which is the capital of la Serrania. As we have established, this means that Sigúenza rules over a largely uninhabited area, which task it has performed admirably since the Romans established it as the midpoint between their two strongholds of Zaragoza and Merida. When the Romans left, Sigüenza became an important early Christian bishopric, which it has remained until the present day, its Cathedral endowing the town with a rich legacy of art, architecture, culture and history, a preserved medieval sandstone jewel which is well worth seeking out.
In fact we stay at a beautiful ‘Casa Rural’ just near Sigüenza, Casa Rio Dulce a charming country house and spa privately owned by an Anglo-Spanish couple Paul Dray and Antonia Barata de la Cruz. Classic car enthusiast Paul (his taste for German performance Youngtimers clearly stated by a 16 valve Golf GTi MkII and Mercedes Benz 500E) had previously invited us to the annual meeting of Club de Clásicos de Sigüenza which takes place in mid June in the shade of the traditional town centre park. This is a delightfully relaxed and friendly event, with a wide variety of classics from the Seat 600 (which put Spain on wheels) to Minis, Porsches, Alfas, Saabs, a vintage Alvis (!) and our Pagoda.
The reception for the Pagoda is as positive as ever. Everyone is drawn to the lightness and elegance of the Paul Bracq design, which has never dated but which so successfully hides the heavy engineering of a 60s Mercedes-Benz. Desirable, but not pretentious, sporting, but not uncompromising, expensive, but not inaccessible the Pagoda is adored by casual onlookers and respected by knowledgeable enthusiasts, even those who normally feel lukewarm towards the 3 pointed star.
After a long weekend with the Pagoda, we are enthusiastic about the model. Even more so when the route back takes us through storms of biblical proportions. Hood now fixed, the Pagoda becomes a friend in need, claphand windscreen wipers manfully clearing the deluge, fabric hood resisting any ingress of water, and that solid chassis refusing to get stressed as it deals with a flooded highway and end of weekend traffic into Madrid. We have rarely felt so relaxed and confident driving a classic in extreme and difficult conditions and return the car to STS with fondness and regret.
It has been a great weekend in the company of a noble classic tourer, one which you can repeat through the good offices of ‘Spain in a Two Seater’´s classic rental service. The company has gone to the trouble of researching touristic routes based around Madrid for those who do not want to do their own thing. The STS classic rental fleet is fully maintained, insured and backed up by roadside assistance. If you want to tour Spain in a classic convertible, without the investment and risk of buying and using your own car, STS´s service is the perfect solution as well as an extremely pleasant and memorable alternative to renting a modern diesel.