Witness Post: Iberia
Journal of trip to visit Nancy Hooper in Spain, for three weeks in June, 1979.
Friday, June 1, 1979
McDonogh School’s graduation was today. My younger sister, Mary Hooper, won an award last night for the “Best Effort” in the 8th grade. She was thrilled, as were we all for her accomplishments in the Middle School.
And as if to echo the title of a lecture series in New Haven, answering the question: “Is there life after Yale?” the McDonogh seniors depart for what Val Curran calls “Life after the Eagle.” The senior class is now off to do great things, no doubt: Pam Shriver, Tom Swisher, Ken Bode, Mike Crook, Larry Knight, David Welsh and others. Now I too am off too: to the airport to see another sister in her adopted homeland.
Next season I will allow myself more time for preparation. I need lag-time between finishing teaching, saying farewell to students, turning in grades and getting myself together for international travel. Too much to do, too little time.
The rain held off until the graduation ceremony was over, but then it came down in torrents. Grandma Evans drove me to Cross Keys to catch the shuttle bus to the Baltimore/Washington Airport. After eating an egg salad sandwich on the bus, I reread sections of James Michener’s Iberia. The book had been my primer for Spain and it came along for the journey. Huge droplets of water flowing down the windows washed away the memories of text book and examinations, evaluation sheets and Eagle awards. The slate was wiped clean for something new: Iberian Peninsula, here I come!
Spotting Louis Rukeyser in the Allegheny section at BWI Airport, I thanked him for his show Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser and for his special series on spiraling inflation (+13.3%). He graciously accepted my praise, offered a “thanks and keep watching,” before rushing to catch his plane. Up close Rukeyser’s gray hair looked like steel wool, and it was doing a poor job of covering his rapidly receding hair line.
Once above the clouds (about 25,000 feet), the sky from Baltimore to New York was beautiful. JFK Airport was clear, as the storms seemed to have socked the Mid-Atlantic states and missed New England.
After a quick turn-around at JFK, I had a seat next to a Spanish student, who was studying in Connecticut. He was quite friendly and shared his thoughts on traveling in Spain, alone, and for a period of time. He made for pleasant company, although it was unsettling to hear how few people in Spain speak English. And what about me? It would help to know Spanish.
Saturday, June 2
Welcome to Madrid-Barajas Airport! No bags, no hotel reservations, no general directions, and two hours late. Ola! Ten un buen viaje. So it goes.
The bus to the center of Madrid dropped us off. It was time to sit in Plaza Colon and think. The plaza featured some huge cement obelisks at the north end commemorating people, places and events in history: Seneca, Pinzon, Fray Juan Perez, Granada, 17 de Abril de 1492, etc. etc. etc. Time to get my bearings and collect my thoughts. Not so easy on foreign soil, besides that international unease, my bags missed my flight from JFK. Taking a deep breath, I channeled Mom. She had commented, “Lateness in Spain is relative. Don’t get upset about time schedules or hurrying. Just breathe. You wait in line for everything.” So what if the phone line took 25 minutes of waiting to make a call (pre-cell phone time) and about five more hours for my bags to arrive? Mom had suggested these moments were an opportunity to release that sense of hurry, and let it pass more slowly. The anxiety could otherwise lead to a nervous breakdown.
I called Nancy and she said she wanted me to stay in Madrid for a few days (“Hank, can you make it three days?”) so that she could finish up her exams and write her final papers. Not speaking Spanish, I panicked, but she assured me that of all the cities in Spain, Madrid was the most English-friendly. I had to take her word for it and prepare for the best. What to do now?
Inhale, exhale and look up, it is a beautiful day in the Spanish capitol! The Puerto del Sol never looked so nice. My bags had been found on a later flight from JFK and would be shipped to Hostel Central (behind Tio Pepe – Paris Hotel). The place is as cheap and convenient as I could find in a pinch.
I briefly stopped to peek in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, which is a beautiful place! For my travel budget, though, hostels are the way to go. While the Spanish bear foraged the trees, it was time to see the Prado. No time to waste, I walked quickly to arrive before closing. On to the Museo Nacional!
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain
The Museo Nacional del Prado has to be one of the great museums of Western Europe. I have not been to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or some of the other most esteemed world museums in Prague or Vienna, but compared with my short list (the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the National Gallery), the Prado is the best. Why? Two reasons: it is approachable and I had time.
Standing in front of the original El Greco paintings, and those by Ribera, Velazquez, Titian, Goya, Rubens and Bosch was thrilling. I had never been that close to these masterpieces and had not studied them. The Michelin Guide was some help, but there is nothing like uninterrupted time just looking. I had heard the names of these artists, but the luxury of moving slowly among them, at a leisurely pace, was pure delight. So much to see and to learn.
With the museum closing a few hours after getting there, I vowed to return early one day to see the thousand other masterpieces. Heading back to the youth hostel, I made plans and financial arrangements to stay there for the next two nights. My solo dinner gave me time to read the Guidebook. Should I try to go visit El Escorial, where the King’s family had lived? The train times were not convenient and taxi’s were expensive, so I had to forgo the King’s castle. My heart said to spend the next day at the Museo del Prado.
Arriving bright and early, just as the museum doors opened, I got lost in the 7,500 paintings, 8,000 drawings and 1,000 sculptures for the whole day. It was an immersion course in 17th, 18th and 19th century European art. I stood in front of the painting of El Greco, which is his portrait of St. Bernardino of Siena (1603). It had the long lines and typical attenuated figures, so defined by El Greco. What struck me was the smallness of the saint’s face relative to the size of his robe. Bernardino was one of the most celebrated preachers of the fifteenth century. My eyes focused on his billowing brown cloak and sun-breaking blue-gray sky, so typical of El Greco.
St. Bernardino of Siena by El Greco
(Researching St. Bernardino when I was back in Baltimore, there are two stories that were particularly interesting. St. Bernardino fashioned a placard as a visual aid with the lettering JHS topped with a cross and surrounded by sunbeams. It was a Latin translation of the Greek letters abbreviating the name of Jesus: Iesous Christos. Jesus the Savior of Men becomes “Jesu Hominum Salvator” in Latin, hence the JHS monogram. The J appears as the Letter I, but it could be either letter.)
The other story I heard in Spain was that Bernardino condemned gambling, which bankrupted a man whose livelihood was printing playing cards. The printer, in an ironic twist, seized the JHS symbol and made a fortune peddling a line of Holy Cards with the JHS emblazoned on them. Clever twist.
One of the most famous paintings in the Prado is Diego Velazquez’s, Las Meninas. The Guidebook says that, outside of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Las Meninas is the most celebrated portrait using multiple perspectives. It was a treat to stand in front of the painting, while one of the English-speaking tour guides gave her docent-best version of why, with its six levels of perspective, this portrait is so famous. The stories of the family of King Felipe IV and the artistry of Velazquez are so impressive, beside Velazquez painted himself as the artist on the left side of the portrait. It is truly enchanting.
Velazquez’s, Las Meninas
More time with Velazquez today, as he deserves it. His Forges of Vulcan (so life-like), Topers (mythical and real Bacchus), the Surrender of Breda (perspective is awesome), and Don Juan Francesco (realistic color of his clothes) were all terrific. I can picture the Forgers dressed in Adidas and cut-off shorts, amazingly realistic young men.
Hieronymous Bosch’s (Bosco) Gardens of Delight, as pointed out by another passerby, ‘looks like a painting done by someone who is tripping on LSD.’ The surrealism is amazing, considering it was painted in the 1500’s. The Reubens Saturna was haunting, with the father biting and chewing the flesh of his son’s chest. the images were disturbing, but were a warm-up for some of those by Goya. I’m not a fan of Reubens’ nudes, as they seemed too lumpy. His horses, on the other hand, were astonishing. They were the most impressive animals I saw and the most romanticized as well.
Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, Jusepe de Ribera (1634)
I enjoyed seeing Ribera’s St. Andrew, I thought he was a beautiful old man and was one of my favorite portraits. Plus the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, where the flesh looked so real. His use of dark backgrounds and light / shadow on his figures reminded me of Caravaggio.
Piombo’s Christ and the Cross and Christ in Limbo were realistic, compassionate and soft: these otherwise disturbing vignettes hold fine visual qualities. Titian (Tiziono) has some masterful paintings, including Carlos V on Horseback, and the Entombment of Christ were magnificent. The entombment is a moving, incredibly realistic view of death, mourning and burial before the resurrection. In Verones Dispute with the Doctors in the Temple, his use of space, especially the grandeur of the temple itself, is outstanding. His faces looking in and out of the columns and his use of color in the robes are most memorable.
Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya (1796-97)
Goya’s Saturna, Fusilaminetos de la Monico, and Colossus were great. He gives grand space in his scenes for tapestries and surprising realism. Similar to Reubens, I am not a fan of his nudes (no neck, face looks like a mask, feet too tiny, coloring weird, blanch upper bodies) but I was fascinated with his dark period. Apparently he was quite disturbed at this point in his life (syphilis, schizophrenia, wars, hunger, pain, death) and his paintings emphasize his anguish and mental turmoil. In Fusilaminetos men are being executed by French (no French faces, just backs) and each Spaniard is reacting to the inevitability of death in his own way.
Only partly through the museum, I will have to come back tomorrow. After some planning for the days ahead and a nice meal at Cafe Nebraska, with jet lag in full control, I went to bed.
Sunday, June 3
Christ Presented to the People, Quentin Matsys (1518-1520)
Back to the Prado. This time I tried to find the masterpieces mentioned by Michener in Iberia that I had missed yesterday. Several other works really struck me: Matsys, Christ Presented to the People, the mocking faces, the holy Christ, the mouths, eyes and general expressions of the crowd were part of the marvel. Bruehgel, I took in several smaller pastoral and town scenes which were superb. The were in a temporary collections with many Reubens pieces. Siglo XVI Statue of Percephone and his portraits. One portrait looked to me a lot like Mona Lisa. Tintoritto’s Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles seemed like four separate paintings on one canvas. Interestingly, Judas Iscariot, in the left foreground is the same size as Christ and has more light both directly on him and behind him than Christ does.
Holy Family del Cordero, Raphael Sanzio (1507)
Durer’s self-portrait looks like a long-haired jester or hippy before his time. R. vander Weyden’s Christ Lowered from the Cross, Correggio’s Noli Me Tangere, Murillo’s Immaculate Conception, Raphael’s Holy Family of Cordero, and Goya’s French Woman Delivering Milk were well worth the extra search time.
Time for Mass at a small church east of the Prado. The obligatory Sunday ritual complete, I wandered after the service toward El Retiro. The swallows, sparrows and large black song birds were plentiful and nice to see. I heard tons of doves too. The smell of the Buckeye in bloom was particularly fragrant as were the roses. A solitary stroll is great here, any time.
The Great Lake (Estanque) was the place to be for beer, tapas, ice cream or even canoeing and boating. The Hare Krishna were there en-force and they were chanting away in the heat of the day for several hours non-stop. The lake was full of carp, aquarium plants, and garbage. An occasional barn swallow or swift dipped his beak into the water as it skimmed along the surface.
Walking swiftly back to the hostel for a nap, still jet-lagged, I needed it. Ambling along at any pace all day long is tiring and I was slowly getting used to the time zone.
After the nap, a walking trip to the Plaza Mayor was in order. Time to start on the tour of La Cuidad Antiqua (Old Town) as outlined in the Michelin Guide. Two of the churches, San Francisco and Capilla del Obispo were under reconstruction, and another, San Isidor, had a wedding taking place. The street names, however, were well-preserved by painted tile signs. The tour was definitely worth it. There was a very lovely church service (priest had an attractive, interesting voice, the congregations was all ages and people looked like they wanted to be there) at the San Miguel Basilica, which contracts strongly with the service I went to earlier. Ending at the Plaza Mayor, right back where I started, it was time for a glass of cerveza.
Dinner of tapas and beer tonight, because I could not find Cuevas Des Seramo. The hors d’oeuvres were delightful from the calamari to the olives and peanuts. A sumptuous meal in itself. A walk about the bars and restaurants proved entertaining and interesting.
My itinerary had been altered and it felt like the right time to head south toward Sevilla. Nancy thought some time in Cordoba or Toledo would be perfect, before arriving in her adopted city. Toledo it was.
That night I saw a TV show about an opera singer who traveled to San Francisco and rode on a cable car and walked all over town. The television travelogue of a Spaniard in one of my favorite U.S. cities seemed strange right now.
Monday, June 4
Up early, I made my way via the Paseo del Prado to Estacion d’Atocha and caught the 8:20am train to Toledo. There were five Americans — just out of college — and two Australians in the same car with me. They were all going to Toledo, “for the hell of it,” and did not know what they wanted to do there. I suggested that they stay in Madrid and go to the Prado, but they wanted to sit in the parks of Toledo instead. One of the women was really attractive, but she was just along for the ride, so I decided to keep my own itinerary and invited them to join me, if they wanted. I wanted to see as much of Toledo as I could.
The train took us through field after field of blood-red poppies, which led me to believe that these farms were ostensibly heroine growers with pretty front yards.
Rumination on other words from Mom and Dad, there is no urban sprawl in Spain. The towns and cities are self-contained and really stay within minimum boundaries. Toledo, for example, in almost totally on one hill; a few houses are across the river on the opposite bank, some very nice ones, but that is it!
It took me a while to find a vacancy at a hostel (there are only 2 or 3 hostels in the whole city), but the one I selected is two blocks from the Toledo Cathedral and 1/2 block from the Alcazar. Even getting lost in the town was fine. The Grande Cathedral? I have never seen a more awesome structure! The construction of this house of worship apparently took over three hundred years to complete (circa 1150 – 1495). I was so struck by the church, a second visit was mandatory. The first time I eavesdropped on some tours and wandered around by myself calculating the magnitude and sheer maintenance of a place this size. The series of rose windows were resplendent with color and were an inspiration in and of themselves.
Then it was off to the grand tour, which included the Synagogne del Transito, the mudejar stone carving and the cedar-inlaid-with-ivory ceiling proved worth the extra steps to find it in the heat of the day. The existence of Sephardic Jews, the Moors, and the Christians in such a place as this! It is a wonder. The outside is uninspiring, but the carved granite and woodwork makes plateresque look like rough chisel work.
There was a real surprise at my next stop, the Church de San Juan de los Reyes (St. John of the Kings). The church had intricate sculpted eagles and lions all about it and a nicely painted sacristy. The parts that most appealed to me, however, were the patio and courtyard. Once again, there were carved cedar planks that were also painted in a pattern that dazzled. I walked backwards facing up and was made dizzy by the sight. The picture postcards give a weak resemblance.
From the church I ambled down to the Rio Tajo and crossed Puente San Martin. I watched a boy catch a large fish from the bridge and watched the swallows (violet greens were everywhere) and the swifts on their daily journey for insects. Interestingly, the plants and reptiles are similar to those in the American Southwest: cottonwoods, prickly pear cactus, tamarisk, lizards, even the occasional vole or rodent. The similarities were fun to observe and note.
After stopping into a road side cafe for vino and gazpacho, I walked the entire Carretera de Circunvalacion and captured the finest afternoon vistas of this fabulous city. The river protects it on so many sides, it is no wonder that the city was impregnable from enemy attacks through so many centuries. I balanced myself on the thin wall by the road and enjoyed a good pace and the fresh air.
Back at the Puente de Alcantera, I hurried up to take a tour of the Alcazar. The coolness of the fortress was a relief and I relaxed in the hall before beginning my sojourn. From here I went back to the Cathedral and paid for the ticket to see the “coro” or the Tesoro (monstrance and all) Chapterhouse with its particularly beautiful, multicolored mudejar ceiling and the sacristy — the paintings by El Greco (El Expolio) and Goya (The Taking of Christ) were outstanding.
A pleasant nap, then dinner (partridge & marzipan – the marzipan is too sweet for me, as it really is almond/sugar paste) and a few drinks at the Puerta del Sol. I also went to a few bars around Hostel Labrador, my hotel. I chatted with two Americans who had rented a car in Lisbon and were travelling about. They reaffirmed my good feelings about seeing southern Spain and Portugal. Nothing quite like people who agree with you.
Spending about an hour trying to communicate with the madre of the hostel, I looked up one out of every two words in my little English/Spanish dictionary and fumbled along painfully in a funny, memorable conversation.
El Greco, View of Toledo, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tuesday, June 5
Hostel Labrador had many occupants besides me. Unfortunately most of them were about fifteen years-old and ready to party. The town of Toledo retires much earlier than Madrid, so, when I went to bed at 11:30pm, I expected that others would as well. The boys and girls were of the Madrileno breed I guess because they yacked and threw water balloons and whispered loudly for hours. Their “whispers” reverberated in the echo chamber of the inner courtyard. The racket continued until about 2:30am, when I fell asleep. At 15 students have lots of resilience, they were up and screaming and hollering and dropping water balloons again at 6:30 in the morning.
After a quick shower and shave, I was off for a walk and a bit to eat. The restaurants were still closed, so I walked to the tiled square off the Peurto del Sol and caught a view of the sunrise and early morning. Mist rose from the Rio and dust flew behind the distant plows. Swifts made all kinds of chatter and lawn keepers prepared the large stadium for a soccer game. My perch was 300 feet or so above the river and my perspective was fascinating. For the first time I saw the Arab Walls that James Michener kept referring to (Muralles Arabes). They surround a whole section of the ancient city known as La Antequeruela.
Then some cafe con leche and a bun, before packing up (time to vacate the room or pay for another night). My last visits helped flesh-out what has been a fabulous experience in Toledo: the Santa Cruz Museum and the last peek at the inside of the Cathedral. The paintings by Ribera, who used a technique which is called Tenebrism) and the works of El Greco. The first time I stopped and stared at the painting by the Greek, I was thrilled by it. Each glimpse offered more of what everyone else sees of his greatness. The altarpiece of the Assumption is truly a fine work. It is revered as one of his best pieces. One of my all time favorite El Greco paintings is his View of Toledo before a storm. I first saw a copy of this painting in Wheeler Hall at Loyola Blakefield, when I was in high school. It was a homecoming to see it again in Spain.
In Toledo the natives know that El Greco was not from Greece, but from Crete. His birth name, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, which is a mouthful, was shortened and he was affectionately nicknamed by the Spaniards as “The Greek.” He was born in 1541 and died in 1614. During that time, Crete was under the governmental and artistic influence of Venice, Italy, rather than Greece. Theotokópoulos was brought up as a painter, sculptor, and architect in the Venetian tradition. He was trained as an artist in three countries: Crete, Italy and Spain. When El Greco moved to Toledo, Spain in 1577, his work became part of what has been called the Spanish Renaissance. He completed his first Spanish commission, nine paintings for the church of Santo Doming el Antiguo, which are beautiful.
One of El Greco’s other haunting portraits is of The Holy Trinity. The long attenuated fingers and hands and faces are a signature of this great artist, but I find them more scary than illustrative. The bloodless body of Christ and the skin tone definitely say DEATH. The images of the dove, angels and cherubs do not soften it.
During my last few minutes in Toledo, I slipped back in to see the Cathedral to see the Mozarabic Chapel, which I had missed on my other tours. Using an extra ticket I found, it was fun to wander through the sacristy, my favorite spot. The rest of the church is too much for me.
I arrived at the train station and found, to my great disappointment, that the only way to get to Sevilla was to go back to Madrid and get a direct trip. By 15 minutes, I had missed the train that I thought could take me further down the line. Instead I had to travel back to Madrid to catch a 9:30pm train to Seville, which would put me there at 6:50am the next day. So it goes.
I met a Japanese woman, who corroborated how the train schedule forced travelers to return to Madrid rather than progress to Sevilla. She showed me her extended itinerary, which took her to hot spots all over Western Europe, Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. We would meet up later for dinner and a drink.
Next I walked to the Palacio Real and took an extensive tour of the gardens. The fountains, shade trees, and lovers on every bench made for an interesting visit. I did not have enough time take the palace tour and heard Mom’s advice in my head, “If you have seen one palace, you have seen them all.”
The statue in front of the Palacio is an interesting bronze of Philip IV after a design by Velazquez. The dramatic stance of the horse and the lace-like scarf trailing behind Philip make this an extraordinary statue. There are some convincing lions lower down on the statue and a cool fountain fit for swimming at the base.
I had dinner with the Japanese woman near Puerto del Sol and we walked over to the train station to jump aboard. We sat in a car with a nun and behind a car with two American servicemen and one Canadian traveler. We has some good idle chatter. The evening train was painful, for although we were in first class and the seats reclined, I awoke at every stop, developed a painful crick in my neck and could not, for the life of me, get restful sleep. Sleep finally overtook me for about an hour, and for that I was grateful.
Wednesday, June 6
Leaving my train companion behind, I walked via Barrio de Santa Cruz past the Cathedral and over the Perto de Triana to Calle Espartinas. There I found Senora Announcion who was fully awake and willing to help in whatever way she could.
Nancy and Peggy Brooks were in the process of moving from 100 San Jacinto to Announcion’s house, but when I got there, they were still asleep. It appeared as though the Gate of Jerez had been dumped in their apartment by some famished Moors. Apparently, a cluster of hungry Spaniards and Americans had ascended the steps not too many hours before and helped Nancy and Peggy finish off some food and spirits, punctuated with a lot of cigarettes.
A very disturbed landlord passed the word that Nancy and Peggy were to leave the apartment by high noon, or else! So, after some quick and excellent breakfast (coffee, omelette, chocolate roll and bread) the girls went to work packing their belongings as quickly as they could get their hands and feet moving. The emotions were running high, to say the least. The two girls were mixing in long good-byes and sad farewells to friends (Pepe, wherever you are). And they were struggling with packing, and moving, and the end of the semester.
They suggested that I get out of their way and go for a walk. I didn’t need to be told twice and was off on my tour of this side of Sevilla.
I headed to the Cathedral and spent about an hour and one half consumed in its cavernous insides. A building of any kind, be it a church or the Astrodome, has to be more than just big. This church was simply amazing. The Cathedral de Notre Dame may fit inside this church, but I will remember the Gothic grandeur and the way the parts fit the whole. Both Toledo’s and Sevilla’s Cathedrals have a monstrous St. Christopher, perhaps 10 meters high. There are less art treasures in Sevilla, but the building itself is an irreparable monument. I don’t think I knew what stained glass was until I came to Spain — it was a real revelation.
The “holiness” of the Spaniards is beyond my comprehension, as are the “many uses” of the churches. Nothing is dusted and about 80% of the side chapels are not even open to the public. Huge gates block clear views of any ceremony in the main part of the church and the lighting is such that most or many of the art treasures are never seen by the public. The fact that ostensibly a devotion to Christ or Mary or anything for that matter can bring about such mass human effort and artistic perfection is fascinating.
From the Cathedral I took a quick jaunt up the squared incline of the Giralda. The view was good, but depressing. The day was beastly hot (100F – 44C) and the breeze was too warm to cool me off, but it felt better with the moving air than without it. I could see the hills surrounding Sevilla, the bull ring, the many gardens and some of the Rio Guadelquivir. The depressing parts included the corrosion of many of the buildings (particularly the Cathedral) and the air pollution. Car smog, open fires and the general debris of the city were enough to start an allergic reaction. My sneezing went on for awhile.
After completing a 360 degree of the area, I sat and watched the swifts and swallows dart and dive, sweep and swoosh all about the flying buttresses of the Cathedral. One bird caught my attention, but I could not get a good look through my binoculars. I ran to several locations, yet could still not see it well. I speculated that it was a falcon or a hawk of some kind, but I couldn’t positively identify it. To my surprise I began to see a lot of these birds, about the size of a small pigeon, but having the craft of a slow swift, the gliding of a raven and the coloring of a pheasant. Its grey head, rufus back, dark gray wing-tips, and black tail stripe seemed to make it easily identifiable, but I could not find a bookstore or bird book to check it out.
Nancy, Anna, Peggy and Matt met for lunch at Casa Manolo on Calle Castilla in Triana. The menu was extensive so this was my first lesson in matters gastronomic. We all tried a bit of everyone else’s dishes (fish, chicken, paella, gazpacho, bread, beer, artichokes, spinach, etc.) and each claimed their’s was the best. After lunch we sauntered over to the Universidad, which was an old converted tobacco factory, and decided to meet up with everyone else at about 8pm. I walked around the Alcazar and the gardens by myself. The tapestries, as photographed by Dad, were too colorful to believe. The Goya archetypes were superb and so striking. The admiral’s apartments were equally interesting with a dazzling ceiling of gold and dark wood in a slightly domed shape.
The mudejar work all about the royal apartments is as beautiful to look as it was difficult to make. Some of the doors appeared covered with a molded stucco and others with carved wood, which complemented the intricate stonework. It is tiring to think about trying to keep all of these artists work up to snuff. The tapestry room and Emperor’s salons were poorly lighted, so we passed on the them and headed to the gardens to see these Michelin two star items. The terraced gardens were spectacular. The fragrances, the exotic plants, the sheer variety of plants, not to mention the arrangements of plantings, made it easy for a flower lover to get lost for the day. Throw in a myriad of ponds and pools and the overall appeal was astonishing. At one secluded spot, I took off my shoes and dangled my feet in the cool pool. If it had been more secluded I would have immersed my whole body in the water. The hours I had spend walking made this time to relax even more enjoyable.
All over Andelusia are the sycamore and eucalyptus trees. Combined with the oranges, palms, willows, magnolias, oaks and cottonwoods and you have a remake of Southern California (or vice versa). As Disney says, “It is a small world, after all!”
After a small detour through the Barrio de Santa Cruz, I went to the Garden of Murillo and got a drink of water from the fountains (which may have been the source of some diarrhea later on). Then off to the Parque de Maria Luisa and a view of the Plaze de Espana. Once again this beats the pants off Druid Hill Park! I could become a bum and just laze about in these parks forever.
I met Nancy at the appointed time and we were joined by Peggy and some friends, who all wanted to go to their favorite watering hole near the university. Oh, if I could only speak Spanish! My worthless French can’t get me anywhere, but I did have a nice chat with a Spanish friend, Rafael, whose English is very good. He talked about Sevilla and colleges in Spain with authority.
At this point in the evening the “bad water” from earlier started to do its thing and I was overcome with a case of “tourista,” retreating to the bathroom for relief. I had to sit down, as I was dizzy. Time to take a seat on the sidewalk. We slowly walked back to Senora’s place. I needed to go to bed. Peggy and Nancy escorted me, then left for a farewell tapas meal with Matt, with whom Peggy was to be traveling later in the summer.
Thursday, June 7
Nancy again had some papers to write to complete her course work, so she recommended that I catch the 10:30am train to Cordoba. We had worked out our adjusted travel plans for the rest of the trip that morning and were putting some finishing touches on it. Our original plans (Itinerary #1) included travel to Italy and Morocco and then Spain and Portugal. My time in Madrid and Toledo altered the plans and tightened the circumference of our tour to Itinerary #2. With the time Nancy needed to finish her semester, we had to cut those plans back dramatically, and decided to stick to Iberia. Also the train schedule was less than clockwork, so we had to adjust the times between and among counties a ton. We narrowed our plan (Itinerary #3), and wanted to stay flexible. We’ll wait and see.
I went to the Museum of Culture in Sevilla before catching the train. This personal extra time with the art of Murillo was terrific. The faces? Fantastic images of children, old men, saints, women and angels. I was not fond of lots of floating angels or doves or deities, so some of the painting by Zurberon and Murillo left me cold. Most of the work, however, was very effective and beautiful. Several other artists were impressive in their ability to paint hundreds and hundreds of the same type of painting! Cordero: his paintings were of Spanish impressionism school. The light coming though the trees on ladies dresses and his special shading were exceptional. Domingo Martinez had floats, parades, paintings of tapestries, and every possible view of earth wind and fire. Ramos had great bull fighting scenes and his everyday life depictions were extraordinary. Esquivel is a portrait painter who has prolific style that handsomely captures the ‘Spanish look’ in a face.
From the Museum it was off via train to Cordoba … I was definitely riding in coach. Gone were the fancy club cars and the air-conditioning and the beautifully dressed people sipping tea and reading the newspaper. Throw down the windows, make room for the fat old lady, smell the sweat, and go native. I sat facing and among a pregnant woman, a constantly coughing old man, a squirming little boy and a controlling grandmother. I again wish I spoke Spanish. The chatter was frequently as loud as the train and the sweat beads glistened. It seemed that the common laborers in Spain incur a lot of injuries: broken arms, legs, cut fingers, lacerated hands, wrapped ankles and feet, and some pretty disfiguring scars. Safety must be one of the last things to consider. Several of my travel companions had bad looking burns and cuts, mainly to their wrists and hands.
It was a long, hot ride to the city of Cordoba, but I wanted to go see the Juderia and the famous Mosque. I walked from the station to the Juderia and the site was full of garbage: rarely have I seen as many tons and tons of it, left over from festivals. The fact that the festival was over three weeks ago seemed to make no difference, but with the heat, the odor was stifling. It hit you in the face with a wham. The Juderia was as attractive as the Michelin guide said it would be, much like the Barrio of Santa Cruz in Sevilla.
The Mosque in Cordoba was a real surprise. I spent most of my time there and it was worth every second. The outside was lovely, but it did not give the impression that anything unusual was inside. When the doors opened, however, the red and white paint on the columns caught my attention. It looked fresh and festive. Light came streaming through the unexpected openings in the ceiling, the strange looking church in the middle, the red and white stripes and the coolness of the air were seductive. I could not believe that this mosque was a vestige of the years when the Moors had conquered and ruled the Iberian Peninsula.
Perhaps the most interesting parts of the Mosque were the maksouah and the mirhab. Such splendid mosaics; the colors were wonderful floral designs, with gold, which brought them to life. Inside the mirhab the floral designs were even more pronounced as was the decorated script. The soft colored marble and the shell-like ceiling make this small niche a real find. If hundreds of people hadn’t been there (including two students from Stanford – one a lacrosse player), it would have been that much more powerful.
As my eyes adjusted to the light, the inside of the Mosque became mesmerizing. The shafts of afternoon light came streaming down from the tall windows and I could see particles of dust as they floated in the air around the red and white columns. It was marvelously cool inside too, which helped dry some of my perspiration. The mosque was crowed when I arrived, but a few tour buses arrived and it became jammed, as everyone was trying to get the best pictures of this remarkable Moorish temple. It looked like a candy cane on steroids, as if Dr. Seuss had been its architect long ago.
The Cathedral in the midst of the Mosque seemed so out of place.
[I disagree with Michener and agree with Charles V: something unique was destroyed to build something commonplace in a place so grand. If the Cathedral had been build in another part of the city, it would have been perfect, but I guess we are lucky that the Mosque wasn’t torn down altogether.]
Apparently the choir stalls took 40 years to carve and they are magnificent. Their Baroque style enhances the church immensely. The two pulpits also, with jasper and marble statues of the bull, eagle, angel and lion respectively representing the four Evangelists, are unique and splendid. I just didn’t understand why the church was in the middle of this Islamic house of worship.
I wandered about the Juderia and bought some small gifts and priced some others. It was a pleasant journey, all in all. From the Cathedral I wandered to the Plaza de Colon (Christopher Columbus) and discovered the new world: a park, just like the ones I had always imagined. Beautiful shade trees (palm, sycamore, eucalyptus, cypress, etc), small fountains and one large one in the center, which made the place seem idyllic. Jotting down some notes in my journal and resting with a cool Popsicle, I had to catch the train.
The return ride to Sevilla was very different: I traveled in an air-conditioned first class car. As I stepped on to the train, a bedraggled man with a backpack and camera stepped off. He was from Santa Monica, CA, and was traveling all over Europe. As he stood on the platform he told me how boring it was in first class, because no one talks. I told him to ride the “milk runs” and it would be different. He lived at one time in Beltsville, MD. Having traveled all over Western Europe, he loves Greece and hates to spend too much money. Therefore, he loathed Paris (too expensive and a rip off), and likes Portugal (easy on the escudo). He dislikes San Francisco (too much fog) and the weather in Northern California (not comfortable, ever). In general he had the typical Southern Cal attitude of both ignorance and parochialism. He pointed out those in the first class car: that man snores, that one smokes, watch out for that lady, she is not nice, etc., etc. It is amazing the things that you can pick up in a short time. He had a lot to get off his chest after 8 hours of silence.
All of the Spanish men wore suits and all of the women wore rich jewel rings and necklaces. The Spanish upper crust rode in comfort, or not at all. The only problem with the car seemed to be that there was taped in Muzak, which was not very good, as its speed kept vacillating between 20 and 40 rpm on the turntable.
The view out the windows was quite nice, as we rolled along the Gualalquivir toward Sevilla. Farmers and estate owners, shinny dippers and wheat fields, mansions next to hovels, just a stone’s throw from the tracks.
When I got back to Sevilla, I checked some train schedules and walked back to Triana. Nancy and I grabbed some fried fish, squid, etc, some chicken and bread and beer and we ate along a street near her home. Afterwards, I was too tired to join Nancy at her friend’s party, so I went back to bed. Senora Announcion stayed up watching dubbed movies of British kings and queens and romantic monarchy trysts.
Friday, June 8
I ‘slept like a woodsman,’ as my brother Laurie would say, and sawed off a lot of logs, sleeping past 10am. (By the timber of my voice, I could have been a lumberjack!) I did my shopping in the morning and walked up and down Sierpes for the best buys, some of which were indicated by the small sticker in the window saying American Express. The wares that I waited to buy here were 50 to 100 pesetas more expensive that I had wanted to spend. So it goes.
Nancy says it is better to get Toledo goods in Toledo, so you can be sure of the quality of the craftsmanship, and you can haggle with the maker on the price. Another reason to know the language.
After a brief stroll through the Jardines de Murillo and the Parque de Maria Luisa, I met Nancy outside of el Meson, her favorite 2-fork restaurant. We had been invited, along with her other school mates, by Juan to his apartment for a final luncheon. About 15 people were there drinking cokes and beer and generally having a good time, while trying to ignore the heat. At about 3pm the master chefs brought forth a thick gazpacho type paste with chopped tuna and chunks of orange in it. The thick crusted bread was hand torn and used to dip in the sauce, like a cold fondue. It was a real feast. It was also nice to meet some of Nancy’s fellow exchange students. Many of them were leaving this week for travel in Europe and then return trips to their homes in the States.
My afternoon was a lazy one. Nancy showed me where John Fulton’s estudio was and I wandered about, chatting with the British woman who ran the studio. I bought a copy of her bull among the marsh reeds. I liked the stance of the bull and the water dripping from its mouth, creating a small circle of ripples at its feet. There is also an American Bittern hidden in the marsh in the foreground. The bulls were painted with blood, like the primitive cave paintings, which made them most memorable. The real story of John Fulton is contained in Michener’s Iberia in thorough detail.
The gallery was a few steps from the Cathedral, so I walked over to gaze again at the third largest Cathedral in the world. This time around, I spent most of my attention of the stained glass windows, the light coming through so softly, and the glass figurines up so high on the windows.
In Toledo the windows were up too high to admit much light and to see the figures. I only remember the Transparency. In Sevilla there was so much more light all around and less feeling of being lost. I dozed off in the pews at the rear of the royal chapel and awoke to an English interpreter as he described the coffin of St. Fernando. The silver work here in the chapel and in the sacristy are simply astonishing. How people developed those craftsmanship skills, I will never know.
I bought some carnations on the way back to Triana and put them in the vase I bought for Announcion. Anna was at the apartment, when I got there, and she helped translate to the Senora how thankful I was to have had a room with her. She seemed very appreciative.
Nancy and Peggy returned shortly there after and took most of their belongings to a friends’ house in another part of Sevilla. When they returned, we bought some beer and wine and ascended to the apartment rooftop to await the performance of the band, Triana. I talked extensively to several friends of Nancy’s: Katie Gilbert helped rescue me from my poor French/Spanglish. Katie introduced herself and we chatted about what it would be like to return to Chapel Hill for senior year. Her love of a Spanish man appeared to be the real thing. She seems determined to come back to see how things turn out with this guy.
Most of the people we met had seen Mom & Dad, Charlie and Mary during Semana Santa. They all commented on Charlie’s good accent and personality and Mary’s smile. It is nice getting family compliments from strangers.
The band Triana was not so great, as far I was concerned so I went to bed relatively early (midnight). They did arrive until 11:30pm, so I’m sure I missed the best moments of the concert. Flamenco Rock may make it on the record charts in Andelusia, but its time is farther ahead in the US.
Saturday, June 9
Nancy and Peggy have had some emotional and sentimental times these last few days, so I tried to give them some distance and stayed apart from them. They are great companions, but I was looking forward to leaving Sevilla and the drama of foreign student life. If all works out well, we will be going to Ronda tonight and Granada tomorrow. This morning it was coffee and toast, juice and relaxation. Packing our bags, we prepared for our departure.
With some good hours on our hands and lots of journal writing to catch-up on, I began putting pen to pad and produce. Thoughts, words, deeds, when they wonder too far away in time, often lose their clarity. The sooner written down the better.
Peggy had an important paper to deliver to the Universidad and Nancy and I had bags to carry across town to the Estacion de Cadiz, so we hailed a taxi. We had said “so long” to Announcion and promised some large hugs for Mom and Dad, when we saw them back in the States.
From the station, Nancy and I walked to el Meson for our last Sevillan meal. It was a doozie! Gazpacho, bread, beer and paella in huge quantities that could have fed twice the crowd. Peggy Brooks joined us for a smaller meal, so Nancy and I chowed down, leaving no left overs. Michener, Vavre and Fulton often visited this restaurant and I can see why. I waddled away “tres stuffida,” or as the Klaffs say, “I’m stuffed!” So glad we had a walk before our train ride.
We went to the Hospital de la Caridad, were escorted by a nun dressed in white to the chapel and gathered a view of the Valdes, Leal and Murillo paintings there. The Murillo is of St. Isabel’s has some incredible characters in it. I believe dad got a shot of the old woman at St. Isabel’s feet. The Leals are paintings of death and the end of the world. The Leal paintings in Sevilla, at the Museo of Culture, did not strike me as these two did: vivid, colorful, fantastic, surreal, awesome. The artist seemed to be trying to evoke fear in the viewer to convince them into leading a clean life and avoiding sin. Life can be taken away at any moment; death does not wait for the right time. All is entropy, after all.
After the Hospital, we walked to the Hotel Alphonso XIII, definitely the classiest hotel I have ever visited. From the front fountain to the back terrace, from the patio to the balconies, from the gardens to the front desk, from the dining rooms to the bathrooms, this place oozed class.
Some people I met in Toledo said this was the richest and most elegant hotel in all of Spain. And some say it is one of the top hotels in the world. Nancy recalled that the hotel workers, when they were doing the reconstruction, sat on the stoops and whistled and made “cat calls” at all of the pretty girls as they walked by. The construction was to make the hotel ready for a visit from the King & Queen of Spain. It is the first Five-Starred hotel in Sevilla.
From hotels to trains: two of Nancy’s friends (Craig & Juan) met us at the train station to bid Nancy farewell. They caught up with us just moments before the trained pulled away. The timing was perfect and we made it to our seats for the trip to Ronda.
In short order, we were in Bobadilla and at the station drinking beers between scheduled trains. We brought out our Michelin Guide and Euro-rail maps and discussed ideas for the trip. Our circle of travel, was tightening even further with the unreliable train service. We were now on our third Plan (Itinerary #3), since the first trip would have been much too ambitious with the Sevillan delay. We looked to pivot and spend time in Spain and Portugal. The peanuts and corn crunches and fried beans Nancy brought helped stave off any hunger til we got to Ronda.
By dark we were off the train and in the outskirts of town, and searching for rooms with a bed. We went to the center of town and found a pension room for a great price. If Nancy hadn’t such a strong sense of Spanish, or if I had been alone, we would have missed this place. Two older ladies stood at the door and said they had a nice room to offer. It was very pleasant, but the bed was too saggy for me.
We strolled down the main shopping street and found a side court with a nice tapas bar. We had small servings of squid, pork, salad, veal washed down with some brews. It was a nice little cafe and the price was right. We soon when to bed, wrote some postcards, and turned off the lights. Tomorrow we tour!
Sunday, June 10
Today is Laurie’s 27th birthday and Mom & Dad’s 31st anniversary. We sent them a virtual celebratory blessing. We celebrated ourselves as well by taking an extensive tour of Ronda, including the heralded bull ring. The man who led us into the ring gave Nancy a souvenir poster of bullfighting that dated back to 1976. It included a display of the day’s activities.
We meandered all over the Alameda de Jose Antonio. Apparently the roses and blooming trees were radiating color and smells just a few weeks before we got there. Although the main flowers were through for the season the scene was a beautiful one. The view from the Alameda afforded us a vista of the Rio Guadalevin, which was spectacular and rivals any I saw all last summer. The mountains, the river, the terraced hillsides, the goat herds, the farms, the colors and the soft breeze, what more could we want? (The image of Canyon de Chelly came to mind, but only because of the sheer drop off, of some thousand feet below.)
We walked over the Puente Nuevo to the Ciudad and went to church at a chapel not far from the edge of the old city. Time did not permit us to tour the Moorish baths or to walk across the river for a picnic, as Nancy and Matt had done a few weeks before, so we looked at them from afar. We also saw the House of the Moorish King. Apparently Senora Announcion knew the Moor King, when she lived in Ronda.
Stopping by a store to buy some bread, wine, cheese and vegetables, we picked up some post cards of this scenic town. There are apparently 30,000 people in the vicinity. We had a cup of cafe before we picked up our bags and found our way back to the train station. Nancy bought some good wine from a bodega and we stored it away in my day pack. The bodega brought back some good memories for Nancy.
The train had to stop again in Bobadilla, so we had our lunch in a shaded patio off one side of the station. The combination of foods, spiced with salt and pate de frois gras, was splendid. Some of the best ‘chinking’ I had had in years. The cool temperature of Ronda contrasted with those of our ride to Granada. Many restless hours of little sleep were racked up on our northeasterly trip to Granada. It was a hot, humid, and jolt-filled trip. We arrived sweaty and frazzled six hours later.
At the station we met “Detroit Willie,” as we named him. He was looking for an American to share some words and he didn’t really know what tourists do in Granada. We shared some maps and stories, while waiting for a bus to take us into the city.
The Alhambra and Generalife close nightly at 7pm sharp, so we decided to march out and find a suitable room. We found it at the Hostel California, at the foot of the Alhambra. After laundering and showering, we walked up the hill to the castle and saw the sunset! The pinks and blues and purples were the stuff of dreams, so we basked in it for awhile. We saw the lights of the city and the feria below from a perch above the Parador de San Francisco. Sharing such a sight with young lovers in embraces can be intimidating for a brother and sister, but we didn’t mind. We idled some time amidst the water courses and beautiful oleander trees, watching for bats as they came out that night. This is a magnificent setting indeed. If we had not come here, I would not have known what I missed. Now I know why so many foreign students love their year in Granada. This is a sight that people all over the world come to see for themselves.
Our dinner consisted of large dishes of tender meat brazed in a great tomato-green pepper sauce, fried calamaris, salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar, and beer. It tasted better than it sounds, as I write this entry. Some students from the Universidad played guitar and mandolins and sang as we ate. They were dressed in authentic costumes and reminded Nancy of the Whiffs in tuxedos…(really?).
We found a bar to finish off the evening and come across an incredible place just two blocks from our hostel. The wine selection, tankers of beer and food made this a definite ‘hangout’ for us. As a matter of fact we closed the place down. Nancy ordered a wine-gin-rum concoction that was delicious … and deadly. Our giggles and laughing were pretty loud by the time we left, our humor swept out by the owner. We walked slowly to the hostel and slept soundly.
Monday, June 11
Up at 8:30, Nancy wanted some alone time, so I made my way to the Alhambra and Generalife. It opened at 9am and I was among the first to enter. We all had to wait for the staff to finish sweeping the men’s room before they would allow us to enter the Alcazaba. You have to arrive early for a view of the city and the snow capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, without a hoard of thousands in the foreground.
The Alhambra is awe inspiring. Never in my life have I seen such gardens and stonework and fountains. Water is everywhere and beauty abounds. I spent some valuable hours touring every nook and cranny of the Casa Real and my side adventures were rewarded. Views above on ceilings, stalactites, cupolas, carved stucco and intricate roofing. Views down on the tile floors, water courses, stairways, lower gardens, and many other visual treats. Just looking ahead leads to another surprise discovery. Through the richly adorned, carved mudejar arches, you catch the glimpses of the Sierra Nevadas, snow capped and cool, and the surrounding city, which seems to enter the archway and become part of the architectural splendor.
The Court of Lions is one of my favorite places. Although it was very crowded, I was able to sit down and hear the life story of a woman from La Jolla, California who was widow to an architect many years ago. One of his life-long dreams had been to go see the Alhambra. She was fulfilling that dream for him, and seemed to be having the time of her life. The marble and stone work is reflected in the lattice carvings of pools and waterways. Several stationery pools offer some great reflecting pools for photos, which is a plus. The Court of the Myrtle Trees had the most inviting pool of all. If fewer people had been there, I would have been tempted to take a dip.
The gardens and Perimeter Towers are equally marvelous, as the hillside is turned into a multi-leveled paradise of groomed shrubbery and pools.
I strolled up to the Generalife, not expecting much and was again left in awe. The fountains, cypress, oleander (just coming into full bloom) and roses were unparalleled. The pavilion was graceful and offered a great view of the city and the Alhambra. I particularly liked the water rushing down the handrails and splashing a bit, as it made some semi-circular bends.
Walking back to meet Nancy for lunch, I stopped briefly to view the streets behind with cypress. Crested above the trees was a view of the snow covered mountains. Ah, maybe time to look into buying a retirement place with this view. Too much great images to gather in one trip.
Returning to the watering hole from last night, we had Bocadillos galore! Dishes with artichokes, cheese, butter, tortillas and mussels – artery clogging no doubt. We stopped by another cafe for ice cream and a delicious strawberry tart. We waddled over to the Renfe station to check out the times for the trains, but the station was closed, so we went to the Capilla Real and the Cathedral, two good tours. Each had a special offering. the Chapel had some great grill-work and some exceptional Flemish paintings in the sacristy. The gold and silver monstrances were superb. The simplicity of the chapel and altarpiece was a pleasant change from the highly stylized Baroque and Gothic Cathedrals. The chapel left us with a good feeling. Two sarcophagi carved in marble were in memory of the King & Queen of Portugal.
The Cathedral was large, but nicely lit. The white stone of the supporting columns made all the difference in the world. We followed a Spanish guide and Nancy translated for me. I got the general idea of what she was saying, but the guide’s perspective was very helpful. When we walked out of the Cathedral and past the portrait of the ugly Isabel, Nancy ran into some friends from Sevilla. The cluster of students chatted away for some time.
Our destination was the Church of St. Nicolas by sunset! (Three stars in the Michelin guide.) We walked in a more or less direct route through the city and up toward the Sacramonte, where the Gypsies (Roma) live. Then we turned toward the hill of the city and began our ascent, passing some of the finest patios and courtyards in Granada. The homes with the view and the walls are definitely in the “high-rent” district. Past the dwelling and off to the right we came upon the church. The view in front of us was the perfect picture postcard of our time.
With a splendid view of Granada to our right, the Alhambra straight ahead, and the Generalife off to the left was a start. Add to that view the Sacramonte to our left and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada as icing on the cake.
The sunset that night was crimson color and the snow turned to a pinkish hue and the Alhambra walls were gold. The quilted clouds parted just in time for the spectacular view to unfold. We stayed there getting panhandled by Roma and listened to the Spaniard for over two hours. It was delightfully relaxing.
Though we didn’t want to leave, the pink cotton candy sky was turning dark and the thunder of the motor bikes began to out-shout the pedestrians — it was time. Besides there were water balloons that soon became projectiles (bikers vs. pedestrians vs. Roma) and we were not in the mood to get wet. Nancy and I walked back to the town center.
We went several bodegas and ordered exotic bocadillos and tasted some of the wines. The selections of everything were excellent. I prefer the drier wines from places like Jerez, but am not partial to one area over any other. Nancy is becoming quite a wine expert. She even knows which vintage years are the best. After a discussion of politics in the States, and global nuclear threats, we headed to bed.
Roma dancers of all ages
Tuesday, June 12
Up for a leisurely breakfast we ate at Hostel California. After eating, Nancy ran into a guy she knew who was studying in Madrid. They had met before on a skiing trip to the Sierras. It must have been a good trip, because they both remembered it so well.
Nancy and I decided to take another quick tour of the Alhambra, this time together, so we trotted up the hill and tried to avoid the crowds as much as we could. If we had the time, what fun it would be to spend the rest of the week at the Alhambra and Generalife. They are paradise.
Instead of being in a state of awe, this second trip was about paying attention to some details. It is easy to be starry-eyed the first trip on Monday. Time to notice roofing patterns, which included alternating green and white tiles from the corners to the crest of the roofs. The shrubbery included bushes pruned in the shape of an eight sided star. The Moors were not allowed to use human or animal figures in their artwork, but the flowers, stars and calligraphy abound. Two of my favorite patters are the eight pointed star and the Islamic script.
Unfortunately, I could not find out what this fancy lettering meant, but it is repeated thousands of time on the walls and ceilings, doorways, everywhere. It is probably references to Mohammed and Moses and God the Father. It seems that all of the Abraham religions (Muslims, Jews, Christians) say the same sort of words.
The multi-use of the square was also interesting. Again the patterns were repeated over and over again, with thousands of variations and permutations. They were indeed fascinating! Perhaps the most awe-inspiring thought was how they channel all of this water and keep it constantly flowing in the pools, fountains, courses and walkways. It is simply amazing. The water doesn’t stay in any one place long enough to get stagnant or to breed mosquitoes. It is in constant motion. There are few places, except in the inner chambers of the Alhambra (near the room that Washington Irving slept in) where you don’t hear the sound of water. The thought of getting all of that water to the top of this hill, and the water pressure that that feat entails, is amazing.
Nancy and I agree that the Court of the Lions is our favorite, but the pools of the Generalife are a close second. We were fortunate to see some of the oleander in bloom for it has a soft fragrance, which added a lightness to our walks. We finished our visit in about two hours and headed back to the hostel to retrieve our bags. We ventured to hop the bus, which at 12 1/2 pesetas, was a good deal, but physically getting a seat was another matter. Just like the Chinese women in San Francisco, the Spanish women think that they have the right to get at the front of the line. Tourists be damned. Spanish mothers and their children get first dibs. It is amusing to see Spanish women working together, walking arm-in-arm in lines or down the street. When they are talking, it is at a snail’s pace and you have to navigate around them. When they are getting in a line, they form a phalanx of opposition that is impenetrable.
We bought some fruit, cheese and bread for lunch and prepared to board the train. At the Renfe station, the ticket table help said that there were no tickets and no printed train schedules. The printers were on strike in Spain, even in Madrid, and we were given hand written tickets. Talk about the old fashioned way! So it goes. We got on board our train for El Chorro. Not far from Granada, considering other major towns, we transferred in Bobadilla, again, just in time for our Malaga connection. Two stops later and we were in El Chorro.
The train had chugged through about 15 miles of tunnels and we emerged at this hot, smelly town with a view of a reservoir. We stepped off the train to nowhere. No station, no platform. I was not psyched, but Nancy kept her spirits up by chatting away with the men who were working on the railroad tracks. They told her about the Gorges, the camping, and the beauty. We bought some fruit and a semi-cold beer and ate our lunches. After dessert of a Popsicle, we walked to the station and made plans.
“Well, if you wait here,” said a dark-haired may in a blue shirt, “you can relax, sip some beer and I’ll take you to by train to an ideal spot.” At least that is what Nancy said were his words. What did we know, other than the Caminito del Rey (The Path of the King) having a three-star designation by Michelin guides? Tourists have abused the spot and the trails are exceedingly dangerous.
The El Chorro Gorges, from the little view we got on the train, were magnificent. They look like the narrows of the Virgin River in Zion National Park in Utah. The trail, however, is man-made and built against the side of sheer cliffs. They are a wonder to inspect, much less traverse. Nancy and I decided to wait for these railroad men. We heard stories the men told about refrigerators, lizards, ice cream and cockroaches, while they played dominoes, sipped beers and finished their break.
Finally at 6pm, they were ready to walk, and they ambled off. The dark-haired many said he was ready to give us a lift. He invited us on his engine. He shoved bread and cheese at us, which we accepted gratefully and we were off. Traveling through three small tunnels, the engineer had Nancy blow the train whistle, as we left the tunnels. Before we entered the fourth cavern, he stopped the train, pointed to an ideal spot, told us to depart and stoked the engine to drive off. The spots he designated were for swimming and camping. A nicer man we could not have met, although Nancy claims that the next person you meet in Spain is nicer than the last one. We offered him a bottle of wine for his extra trouble, but he turned it down and refused a cash tip I offered. What could we say? Muchos gracias, Senor.
We found a great spot not far from the river and it was surrounded by pink and white oleander in full bloom. Some short, palm-like bushes offer us cover and privacy from the train tracks, but the ants were not going to be denied.
Escaping the insects, we trekked down river and found a pool approximately 50 feet across. The water had a whitish-green tint and was frigid, but inviting. Sunning ourselves on the rocks hear the far side, we talked of the Gulch in New Mexico and some of the people there. Lots of gender issues surfaced.
We went to the water’s edge of another pond and the banks smelled peculiar so we did not drink it. Instead we cooled some wine in the pool and drank that instead. Nancy told me stories of Don Quixote and Moors in Spain. I ate our dinner of bocadillos and cheese and simply relaxed, while Nancy talked. This was an excellent spot to let the past school year drift down stream, and the vacation to begin.
We brought out our bottle of Cutter’s as the sun set and the flying bugs arrived. The moonlight was beautiful, but the mosquitoes were fierce. Struggling valiantly, we slept until dawn.
Wednesday, June 13
Our original plan was to cross the river in the morning and walk along the Caminito del Rey back to El Chorro. Unfortunately the river rose about two feet overnight (they must have released water from a dam upstream) and it was impossible for us to carry our backpacks to the other side. The water was almost over our heads. Time for Plan B.
We made our way back up the slope and walked on the railroad tracks. No train came through the tunnels and we were afforded an excellent view of the geologic upheaval that took place to cause these gorges. The Guadalhorce Valley is some 1,300 feet below the town of El Chorro. The rock face is limestone and it is completely turned up on its opposite end. By looking at the sedimentary layers, they are at near-exactly 90 degrees. The Guadalhorce cuts a steep gorge through the stone and offers some spectacular views. The surrounding landscape is so totally different, it is hard to imagine how all of this geological configuration came to be. However it arrived, it is worth the trip to see it in person.
The walk back to the town of El Chorro was easy, so we took our time. Stopping at several good spots we were conscious of the goal to be in town for the 2:30 pm train to Bobadilla. By noon we were in town and writing lazily under a huge eucalyptus tree. One small cafe in town was run by a man who was “house sitting” for some friends.
We thought that the town might be relatively new, perhaps being built after the dam was built. The reservoir and electric company employ 80% of the population in El Chorro. Instead, the town is an ancient one that has been around long before current developments. It has stood as a stop off location between Malaga and the other towns in Andelucia. The eucalyptus and pine groves in the area are many, many years old. The image of age shifted when we saw a young child with deaf parents bumbling along. The child had a diaper that was hanging so low, he was bound to trip on it. We left the open area to the family and returned to the bar where our Gorges journey had started the day before. Sitting at a large table were a few of the workmen who had sent us off on Tuesday, and they invited us to join them for a beer.
One of the men brought out his lunch and literally forced us to sit down and share it with him. Nancy was right about the next person being nicer than the last. Reluctant, but hungry, we joined him for filet of beef, ham, bread and of course beer. A few moments later this man’s older brother shows up and he laid out his tuna omelette and bananas on the side. The brother insisted we have a bite of his, lest his wife be offended. In the midst of all of the hospitality, we missed our 2:30 train, so we sat with these men, while Nancy encouraged stories and we waited for the next train. The gentlemen in El Chorro thanked US, believe it or not, for making THEIR day and they shooed us off to catch our 4pm train back to Bobadilla.
If anything, the conductors, engineers, printing strike and train rides all set us up for a series of even more incredible train connections. We were heading to the boarder between Spain and Portugal, where the trains stop in each direction. Sounds like they have to go in a circle to turn around, right? Little did we know that the best was yet to come.
The county-side in this part of Spain is covered with groves of olive trees and acres of sunflower farms. We also spotted fig trees and flaming red poppies. Sprinkle in the gold of wheat and straw … it was quite a marvel.
From Bobadilla we caught our next connection, jumping on to the next train and standing on the stairs with about one minute to spare. We were headed back to Sevilla. Nancy and I embraced, sharing gratitude that we did not have to spend another night in Bobadilla, which had become “our most visited” spot in Southern Spain. From Sevilla, we were on a tight schedule: we had about one and 1/2 hours to shop, hit Nancy’s old watering holes, and get back on the train. Let’s just say that it was a flat-out run the last few hundred yards to catch the last train to Estacion de Cadiz. Part of the delay by the way was jabbering with a guy in a Russian River Rat t-shirt. Californians are everywhere and they talk a lot.
Aboard the train and cruising very slowly to Huelva, dubbed the mosquito capital of Andelucia, we spied a sensational sunset out the left windows. Reflecting on the many sunsets we had seen over the past few nights several thoughts came to mind: 1) the first was on the train going into Ronda, 2) next was from the Alcazar looking at Granada, 3) was from St. Nicolas church looking at the Alcazar and the Sierra Nevadas, 4) the sumptuous valley sunset near El Chorro, seeing the suns rays flee up the mountainside, 5) and now on a train careening toward Portugal. A beautiful series of days into nights and such different experiences in each place.
Huelva? Well, the nicest thing we could say is that “it’s a pit.” A friend named Ernesto had told us it was a pit, but we had hoped for the best. We got ripped off by the first place we stayed. The landlady at this two-star hostel (over-rated) sold us the last room. The hostel had one thing going for it — proximity to the train station. We cussed and Nancy bartered her negotiating best and realized that we didn’t have much leverage, so we settled on a price and stayed the night. Perhaps we should trash the place before we leave? We sipped some Sevillan wine and ate some pate and cheese before we slept. We tried to sleep, that is, on the least comfortable mattresses that quickly became inclined planes.
Thursday, June 14
Today is the feast of Corpus Christi, so most everything in Spain and Portugal is closed. The trains, however slowly, are still moving. We knew that we wanted OUT of Huelva. At the train station we ordered some cafe and watched the short order cooks go to it. They are as good as any talented cooks and waitresses in the US.
We boarded the train for Ayamonte. Nancy saw Mike Gill, a student from Villanova, who had studied with her in Sevilla. Mike looked like he was headed our way, so we considered asking him to travel with us for a time. He agreed.
Ayamonte is a pleasant little town on the Spanish/Portuguese border. Here we bought ferry tickets to Portugal, checked our passports for stamping, gathered our belongings and grabbed some bocadillos for later. In port the ferry was half-filled with cars and half with people. The noise of the boat itself, however, made talking almost impossible. In Portugal, we went through customs, exchanged money (getting to know another European currency) and walked to the train station. We were headed, on Ernesto’s recommendation, to Albufeira, a sleep coastal town about 35 kilometers (16 miles) from Faro, on the Atlantic. Several spots along the trip we wanted to stop right there and run to the ocean. So azure, inviting and beautiful. A wisp of clouds and the deep blue sky, again the essence of another great post card, if nothing else.
We also met an Australian named John, who had an American Aussi friend, DeeDee. John had just quit his job to take a seven month proper vacation. DeeDee had dual citizenship and was a school teacher. The coincidence is that DeeDee grew up in Devon, Pennsylvania, and went to Southern Connecticut College, in New Haven. She played lacrosse for the women’s team at Yale! Naturally, that led to ‘who do you know,’ and we knew some people in common. The world is smaller all the time.
In Albufeira, we took a bus into the town and searched about for a pension, but could not find one. When we had finally decided to sleep on the beach, a man and his wife popped out from an apartment, grabbed us and urged us to stay. We thought about the sand in our teeth and agreed. The price was way too high for what we got, but it was a lot of fun arranging the beds, organizing ourselves and finally getting around the town. We went to the beach by scaling down the cliffs to a patch of sand, for a dip in the Atlantic. Then we returned to the room for showers.
The whole town had closed for the holiday. Stores and offices were shuttered, so we had to settle for an evening at a restaurant. The waiter challenged us every step of the way and was a very colorful guy, but hard to understand. We had some braised pork or chicken in a wine sauce, salads and soup. We had heard that a good meal in the Algarve could cost 200 escudos. We paid several times that amount, though in comparison to US prices, it was still a relative bargain.
We bought some wine and chips at a store around the corner, an insect-infested place, and we drank our fill for the evening. Some good stories and good company; we slept well.
Friday, June 15
A windy and beautiful day at the beach today. DeeDee and I were up earlier than the others, so after her jog and my note taking on a cliff overlooking the city, we went to the center of town to buy the four of us some breakfast. This is a city with paradisaical beaches, so we often just looked south to see the water. Fresh strawberries and oranges, yogurt, coffee, bread and jam. I bought some fresh figs, ripe and juicy, not brown and hard like the ones in Fig Newton’s. It is the sort of fruit that helps keep you regular.
The meal was just right. Some pleasant conversation before we packed and figured our next plan for the day. Nancy and I, after some brief deliberations, decided to stay on the beach in Albufeira today and to head to Lisboa in the early evening. Mike Gill, John and DeeDee want to have the morning on the beach and go to Sagres in the afternoon. We sadly parted company for they were off to some superior beaches (according to the guide books). They also would find a great youth hostel located in a castle that doubled as a navigation school. There are too many neat places to visit and stay in Portugal, but we were being called to Lisboa and Sintra. Days in the sun are great, but not completely worth it, besides, with fair skin, it is usually a burn, peel and freckle experience for me.
Nancy practiced her sun-bathing position for most of the late morning and afternoon, while I walked along watching the fishermen untangle their nets. One man sat in the shade making a new net. He stitched and spread, stitched and spread, making knots and ties so quickly that eyes lost the needle. He had a real knack with the shuttle cock. The net was bright orange and aqua marine in color and the “corks” were made of bright red styrofoam. After only a few weeks, the floats and webbing will likely garner the dull brown color of all ocean baptized fishing nets.
The beer and conversation were flowing freely in the bars in and around the fish market, so I dropped in for a few frosty ones. The tough, young fishermen were flexing their pectorals and showing off their bicep tattoos. The older, seasoned fishermen laughed, joked and told sea stories that probably rival those of San Francisco or Nantucket or Genoa or Lisboa. Too bad I don’t know Portuguese.
What I lack in lingual talent, I made up for with discus prowess. Nancy and I hurled a frisbee around the beach and nearly decapitated a few beach combers along the way. We were ‘the dangerous beach mavericks’ of Albufeira, no doubt. The afternoon was hot and we searched for a hole-in-the-wall, cool place for lunch. The specialty of the house was fish and vegetable soup, boiled sardines, Portuguese bread, potatoes and red wine. It sounded plain but tasted delicious, having some extraordinary spices and flavors. The woman who ran the restaurant was a real character, missing teeth, dark lines in her face, and a conversation clip that sets the acoustic-speed record. She was generous with her guests. When the bill came, it was for less than half of what we paid the night before.
Nancy and I looked like pack horses, as we carried our goods from the hostel in Albufeira, Portugal to the railroad station. We had to the bus to catch the train to the capitol, Lisboa. The walking route navigated the narrow streets, which did not afford much room for cars, but somehow they fit by.
Every person in Portugal, whether in a car or on a motorcycle, feels as if it is their moral obligation to honk their horn at any and every obstruction that lies between them and their destination. There also seem to be more loonies on the road than I’ve ever seen. And taxis? They must charge Honk Fees, which they add to their usual fare, as a surcharge.
As another point on Road Rules, in Spain motorcyclists are not required to wear helmets. In Portugal helmets ARE required. That said, the helmets they wear are either the minimum or the maximum allowed by law. This is to say that most of the riders balance a dark ball on their heads that has leather ear flaps and an untied chin string. These riders look like a cross between a WWI fighter pilot and a roller derby drop out. Whereas the minority of others have the absolute latest in protective head gear, fancy, studded, Star Wars outfits that have been retrofitted to earthling use. The variety and contrasts of helmets are amazing and comical. I do not know the accident rate, but with the honking and speed, it seems to be high, and it’s dangerous on the road.
When we made it to our bus, we were sweating like sauna-users and arrived two pounds lighter. It was a short drive to the train station. And Trains in Iberia are always late. We had never been on one that was less than 20 minutes later than its posted time. This was 1979 Portugal, after all.
Once on the platform, Nancy made an oddly-fateful decision to grab a Seven-Up or Fanta limon from the station counter, before the train departed. The train bound for Lisboa arrived, right on time. I grabbed our gear and carried it to the train. As soon as I dropped the second set of backpacks and bags on the train, it pulled out. Our car was moving, in slow motion, but definitely moving away from the station, sans Nancy!
Just as Nancy arrived on the vacated platform, I stuck my head out of the rail car window and whistled, as loudly as I could. Her arms were stretched out from her side, and her slouching posture matched her forlorn face, showing her anger and frustration at the predicament. What was she going to do?
Better yet, what was I to do? Go forward? Go back? I asked a man in the first compartment if he knew the time of the next train to Lisboa — he said, two hours. (There were no cell phones to remedy the confusion in 1979. My mind was racing: if I got off at the next station, Tunes, I could miss Nancy altogether and not get to Lisboa that day; if I went to Lisboa, I would possibly have to wait for hours for her to catch up with me and her bags; if I went back to Albufeira, how long before she could find me?) Instead of going back, it seemed wiser to wait at the station in Lisboa for Nancy to arrive.
Tunes is the main connecting station from all southern Portugal trains heading north to Lisboa. It is a mere 10km from Albufeira. I was still mulling over what to do, when we rolled into the Tunes station. There we stopped and waited for approximately 10 minutes. During that pause, the conductor added train cars to the rear of the line, we took on locals and all passengers perspired. About one minute before the train left Tunes, Nancy came running through the car and scurried into my compartment. I was thrilled and shocked. Unbelievable!
My sister’s version of the trip is priceless and pure Nancy:
“A man at the Albufeira station was getting off the train as I walked to the platform. When he saw me and noticed that I had that look of shock and alarm, he knew that I had just missed my train. He grabbed my hand and dragged me to his car. He drove me at about 100 mph on a side road, that paralleled the train tracks. I watched in amazement as he pulled even with and then passed the train. We were bouncing around in the car, as he sped along. Before I could catch my breath, he landed me at the Tunes Station and here I am!”
After a series of hand shakes, hugs, kisses and “obrigados,” he stood on the platform and watched our train car head toward Lisboa, waving as we headed up the tracks.
Serendipity? Good luck? Nancy’s charm? Whatever you call it, Nancy and I were now on the same train, in the same car, headed in the same direction for the first time that day. Amen to that outcome! And it could only happen for Nancy on a train in Portugal.
After a few beers, we looked out the windows and watched the sun set over the swamp areas of Southwestern Portugal. We admired the rice paddies, olive groves and scores of cork trees on the surrounding hillsides.
Believe it or not, registering ahead of the storks, ibis, and egrets to me were those cork trees. Apparently it takes three years for the cork to form its bark to a level deemed mature enough to harvest. The many colors of the cork, from a bright rust to a dull grey, indicated how long it had been since the cork’s last harvest. No cutting was happening when we rode by, but some cork did lay besides the tracks ready for shipment to wherever the laborers shape the bark to bottle port or wine and to carve floats for fishing nets.
The gentleman sharing our compartment was a professor of geology at the university in Vila Real (northern Portugal). He spoke excellent English and described the geological wonders of the States and how he wished he could visit there. He helped me get an elementary grasp of El Churro Gorges, which I still need to study. He told us that the train stopped in Barreiro and that we must take a ferry from Barreiro across the Rio Tejo to Lisboa.
We floated near the Portuguese version of the Golden Gate Bridge (where the Sacramento River forms a beautiful tidal harbor, before flowing to the Pacific) and watched the current swirl in the Atlantic, before the ferry swung upriver and into port.
The Terreiro do Paco and the police on the surrounding streets greeted us with the visual twice over look. We considered following the advice of a Canadian girl we met, and renting a room at a near-by hostel, but the nightly fee was way too steep. The policeman we met, directed us to a safe and cheap hostel not many blocks from the Rossio and town center. We took his advice. Four flight up and 300 escudos later and we were in bed and asleep.
Saturday, June 16
Checking our of the hostel, we wandered the streets in search of another hostel, preferably the Hostel do Sevilha near the Botanical Gardens. We stopped along the way for a quick sweet roll and coffee breakfast before we located our next place to say the night. A continental breakfast, a large window and a pleasant shower room were the clinchers. Nancy had stayed here twice before, so she felt she knew the place.
Several of our days and nights on this “vacation” were very, very pleasant. This was not one of them. From the time of lunch to around bed-time was filled with unmitigated shit, aka perhaps food poisoning. By far the least pleasant day, but rather than listing all of the ways it went from bad to sideways to hell, I prefer to write down the things that were right with the day.
Our first site was from the Castelo Sao Gorge. The day was hazy, but you could get a glimpse of Rio Tejo, the harbor, Cacilhas (across the harbor) and the general layout of the hills of Lisboa. The street cars have some fierce climbing to do to get to the top of the inclines. The Castle today is a mini zoo, specializing in exotic birds, such as peacocks, cockatoos, rollers, ostriches, emu and lots of others.
From the Castle we walked through the streets of the Santa Cruz and Alfama neighborhoods, famous for their quaint houses and charming vistas. We bought some bread and cheese for our walk and some beer. We listened to tunes wafting from a local watering hole, Beetle’s songs from a loud speaker. A group of fat, former rugby players were sitting in the plaza and Nancy engaged them in a conversation about life and family in Lisboa. This is the area where families gather for Saturday cookouts, so everyone was in a light, casual mood.
The view from a court near the Miradouro de Santa Luzia was particularly nice so we sat on the stone benches and charted our way to the churches of interest. One was near the Campo Santa Clara, where the Fisherman’s Market was held. The Campo is a street lined on both sides down past the church, a park and a steep down hill section. It resembles the Rastro in Madrid and the flee market in Alameda, California. In Spain the wares are different: coins, fruit, jeans, shoes, cloth, antique everything, plastic anything, good deals, bad deals, misdeals and about as much junk as it takes to fill the spaces between two tables as you can imagine. (It was here that Nancy bought some mineral water, to help ease the acute stomach cramps I had. Sister Nancy to the rescue.)
Several hours later, after a journey past some aggressive Roma (Gypsies), handicapped beggars, and some dozing tourists, we had time for our own nap. Lethargic and not hungry, I walked with Nancy to the Botanical Gardens and strolled around the cypress gardens before heading down toward the harbor.
The Barrio Alto is appropriately named for its streets are very steep and the views of the water are dizzying. Passing the Assembleia Nacional, a massive Romanesque facade near the harbor, we saw hundreds of anti-Fascist and pro-Communist posters all over the walls. From the Assembleia all the way to the water there was hardly a square foot of wall space without a propaganda poster in red and orange. It looks like a cross between the movie posters / voter-candidate posters / and general ads we saw in Sevilla and what one might expect to see is Soviet-spiced Russia.
We walked again along the Avenida da Liberdade and had looked into the incredible Igreja Sao Roque, so the walk along the water was a must. The Igreja Sao Roque is incomprehensible to me. Why in a big, rich city like Lisboa do they let the roof of a famous church collapse? They have preserved the inside as a garden, which seems out of place with this city which is a lot like San Francisco: foggy, wet and seasonally unpleasant outdoor weather. Lisboa must have its reasons to leave the church open to the elements.
Among the steepest hills for travel, is one side of the Avenida do Liberdad. The Calcada da Gloria is a cable car route that tops even the Powell and Hyde line in SF. The cable car is a tourist attraction, rather than a commuter route. As good tourists we wanted to see as much as we could and the Monument to the Discoverers (Torre de Belem) was one of the must-see sites. Statues as tall as ten men climbed the steep slope of this impressive modernistic monument. Inlaid into the stone court before the monument was a map of the world. The places “discovered” and the dates of those discoveries were labeled on the map, presenting one of the richest displays of imperialism in Europe.
The breeze from the water in front of us was pleasant and the Mosteira dos Jeronimas stood behind us. The huge statue, Cristo Rei, stood majestically to our left. As the light of the day faded, electricity took over and afforded everyone a striking view of the Mosteria dos Jeronimas and the Cristo Rei.
We boarded a bus near the Porto 25 de Abril. (The bridge does appear to be a miniature Golden Gate Bridge. The US gets its names and ideas from Spain, and Portugal gets them from the US. There must be some intense Iberian rivalry to understand why Portugal doesn’t get them directly from their neighbor.) We had to wait about 45 minutes and ended our trip at the Square Rossio for a quick bit and brew before going to bed. We had fun boy and girl watching on the Square as the posturing was intense.
Sunday, June 17
Aided by a few glasses of port (must be good for an upset stomach), we slept well. With some lingering malaise, we pulled it together for our Sunday, but laid pretty low. Instead of intense walking it was a day for busses and taxis and trains about town. The chance for views of castles in Sintra was calling us, as well. The castle is fantastic and made for a great day. One hour outside of Lisboa, we waited 45 minutes in the bus for a driver to take us the distance of two miles. (Without backpacks, we could have made a leisurely walk in 30 minutes.) The bus dropped us off at the Palacio Real, whose twin cone domes stand out brightly against the horizon. We walked about the Palace and decided that the magnificence of the Palacio Da Pena awaited us; high on the cliffs overlooking no only Sintra, but all of Lisboa. The expanse of the vast Atlantic lay out there too.
We taxied up the steep, winding slopes, the driver honking at every blind curve and each turn. At the top, we got out and stood in amazement. We were swallowed by the vast ocean. My mind wandered to lots of scenes from California: the view of Mt. Tamalpais in Marine County, the vista of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marine headlands, the view of the city from Twin Peaks.
The Castle in Sintra is positioned in rocks that jut out, up and over. The Castle is dug from the rocks and the crags of the geology. The location seems as curious as the Alhambra in Granada, though on a smaller scale. There is a winding, covered driveway dug into the cliffs that takes you to the palace front. There one is greeted by several anterooms and a large front courtyard, which is surrounded by several turreted towers. The main gateway into the castle is guarded by the ominous creature: half snake and one quarter human, with the rest amphibian. It rises out of the coral reef and supports the roots of huge shell base vines on which grow thousands of grapes. The coral and vine hence form ledges around the castle between different floors. A tour begins to the right of the entrance and takes the viewer though a series of incredibly beautiful, ornate rooms, each with a vista that knocks you over.
Ivory chapels remind the visitor that this was once a monastery for 15th century monks. In the 19th century, the consort of Queen Maria II used the talents of a German architect to turn this into a pretentious, medieval escape. The extravagant castle, complete with a draw-bridge and turreted domes, is described in the guide books as having “the overall effect of a well-constructed Wagnerian movie set.”
The rooms were all different, from the gold and white, huge chandelier-filled ballroom to the sitting room with the intricately carved teak wood furniture. The china, porcelain, mother-of-pearl inlaid tables and desks, ivory figurines, the finest golden fabrics on the spool beds, etc. They were all the finest hand-made pieces of that gilded age.
From the Palacio we walked down through the Parque Da Pena, past manicured gardens and flower beds (shamefully bright and ostentatious) to the outskirts of Sintra and promptly got lost. Nancy’s sense of direction got us back on track soon and we got to the centro pretty easily for lunch. After scouring the vicinity around the Palacion Real, we went into a small restaurant and ordered bifteck and salad. We were served a meal for four with goodies left over. We didn’t eat all of the potatoes, but the rice, salad, cheese, beef, eggs, and sauce were very tasty. Nancy ordered chocolate mousse for dessert, I passed. Nancy told the story of Peggy Brooks and Baked Alaska that our family and Peggy had oooed and aahhed about in Segovia. I missed it!
Wobbling out of the restaurant we trudged to the train station only to spy some curios at the stores nearby. In we went to blow a wad of escudos on all kinds of MADE IN PORTUGAL goods. The rest of Sintra was also outside that day as they strolled in the parque, sat on the benches, and tip-toeing on the walls nearby. The people watching made for a great pastime for us on this Sunday. It were as if we found ourselves at Lake Roland and the picnics were getting started, yet with a Portuguese cuisine.
The train back to Lisboa, a bus (that a nice local man told Nancy how to locate), then another train station before going to Coimbra (A). Again we were on a train during a beautiful sunset. What a beauty!
The thought of landing in Coimbra, left us with a dilemma — go to the Portuguese border now or get up for an early train that could strand us someplace (coordinates unknown). We opted to sleep in a bed that night and head out Monday morning. We found a hostel in the center of town, near the other Coimbra station (B) (confusing town). The story is that we must have looked like a forlorn couple, because a man came out of a bar and asked us in French if we needed a room for the night. I waved to Nancy and we followed this guy through unlit streets, past a demolished house lot, to a dormidas. Up the back stairs and we were in a nice room with a good price. The front entrance was a very nice family restaurant with rooms above to help pay for rent.
We decided to hit the sack, because Nancy’s favorite restaurant was closed on Sundays, and I was still recovering from lunch in Sintra.
Monday, June 18
Up in time to pack, buy some goodies for lunches (for the next three days), we hailed a taxi. The Coimbra Station (B) has the Iberian Habit of not knowing exactly what time it is. The train was on its own schedule and paid no attention to what the conductor told us. It gave us time for coffee and a quick bite.
The terrain we covered was fascinating and the number of different climactic zones we hit were amazing. The country is known as the Extremadura. The rough granite has been shaved down so that the ragged edges show as having been smoothed out in some places. Huge descending slopes have been dug by the rivers and the land would normally be wasteland. Instead, though, the Portuguese and Spaniards have for centuries terraced and walled the land to make it more arable. Wall after rocky wall the earth has been leveled for use by farmers. As far as the eye can see there are walls. Not many are presently farmed and fewer have houses nearby, but this land has brought sustenance to Spaniards for centuries.
There were some especially fragrant trees and bushes and lots of scrub pines as we crossed the slopes. Reaching a higher plateau, the air cooled a bit. Each ridge offered brief glimpses of the Portuguese tiled roofs and the white washed or brick buildings. Occasionally there were stone buildings that seemed to be held together by magic, no mortar seemed evident. The roofs were warped and undulating, several of them had collapsed, leaving the insides open for weeds, bushes and full grown plants. All over Spain there were a series of homes where the only residents were fig trees or mules.
Breaking out our lunch, we munched on fruit, cheese, ham, bread and we sipped some wine. A train ride can be fun, but it can also be a royal pain in the butt. The more things you can bring along, like food and a good book, the better. A nice glass of dry white wine can break the monotony of the train’s constant thumping across the tracks. My personal break was to look up the name of the towns we came through and locate them on our map. The names rattled on like Portuguese travelogue: Mealhada, Mortagua, Santa Comba Dao, Carregal, Nelas, Ribamondego, Fornos de Algodres, Beira, Vila Franca, Phnhel, Guarda … (in Guarda, the train stopped, dropped two cars and we moved up to one closer to the engine) … Rochoso, Vila Fernando, Monte de Margarida, Monte Rerobleo, and finally Vilar Formoso, which marked the Portuguese / Spanish border.
What can one say about this small border town? Almost nothing. We crossed the border, went through customs, exchanged our money and gave a “hurrah” to being in Nancy’s home turf again. Considering the temperature (95 degrees F) and the humidity (zero) and the wind (1km/hr), we could not breathe very well. Besides that the beer was warm and we had four or five hours to wait for the train on the Spanish tracks to arrive into town. So it was to be a long, hot wait for our car to Salamanca.
Nancy thought we might be able to hitch-hike, instead of waiting in the sweltering heat. We sat on the border and asked cars if they were willing to give two Americans a lift. Soon enough the border guards came over and asked us what we were doing. When we said, “hitch-hike” they told us that was not permitted. Back to the station is was. With time on our hands and an itch in our legs, we noticed that the border guard had left the area, so we printed the words SALAMANCA on a cardboard box and stuck out our thumbs to head east. Two vehicles later, a French man in a van picked us up and drove all the way to Salamanca. We arrived approximately five hours before the scheduled next train was to arrive. The sunset was sweet to see on the Plaza Mayor, which was purported by James Michener to be the finest central plazas in Spain.
Back to the journey a minute, the French truck driver spoke very good Spanish, so Nancy and he chatted back and forth fluently and effortlessly. He wore no shirt, had a distinguished Van Dyke beard, and had a tattoo on his right bicep proclaiming his eternal love of Marie. He was selling his hand-made goods out of the back of his truck and had a regular truck distribution route that went from Paris to Porto to Lisboa and back again. His trips were every two weeks and he seemed like a very upbeat guy. We were grateful for his hospitality — he turned down my tip, suggesting in pass it on.
The highlight for me was looking out the front windshield. I could see all of the birds: magpies and hoopoes mostly. But we also spotted crows with grey heads, woodpeckers, hawks, warblers, shrikes and sparrows. It was a bird-watching heaven for me, as the movement and colors and songs had me looking everywhere in anticipation of the next life-list bird.
In Salamanca we passed by the bull ring and missed the latest bull fight on the outskirts of town. The driver dropped us off right at the edge of City Center. He bought us a beer (he insisted) and headed out on his route. We were ready to find a hostel and a place for supper. We found a good hostel right off the Plaza and across the street of a nice cafe. After a warm shower, another beer, and some tapas, we went to a decent restaurant for gazpacho and a lettuce, garlic and onion salad. Then on to a bar where Nancy needed mineral water (she claimed it was because of too many onions too fast). The bar tenders were part of the entertainment, as they played parlor tricks with the guests. It was fun to watch.
We walked again around the Plaza Mayor, leaving the town center via a side street. As we walked we spotted a young couple who looked familiar from a distance. It turned out to be Peggy Brooks and her friend Matt. Surprises all around. To celebrate, we all went out for some cold cerveza (Nancy miraculously survived her onion attack). Joking around, we told lots of stories, wandered to another bar, told more jokes, and ended the night at a bar where Flamenco dancers were stomping on the tables. Salamancans go to bed pretty early so I am sure that we were not welcome revelers returning to our hostel that night. We said goodbye to our friends and made plans for a future get together, then we floated off to bed.
Tuesday, June 19
Up at the crack of noon, we scrambled to make the most of this day in Salamanca. After a meal of churros and chocolate, followed by a cognac coffee, we felt we were channeling our inner Michener. The author had said, “If you search the world over, you will never find a breakfast that could be worse for you, nor one that tasted better. Churros are so greasy you need three napkins per churro, but they taste better than donuts. The chocolate is completely indigestible, but much better than coffee. And the great gobs of unrefined sugar are chewy. Any nation that can eat churros and chocolate for breakfast is not required to demonstrate its courage in any other ways.” (Iberia, page 504) The local restaurant suggested the cognac to complement the coffee, which proved a nice touch.
Walking by the Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells) and the Clerecia, a Jesuit College founded in 1617, we admired the Baroque cloister and classrooms. The staircases going up and down among the floors were very impressive. Then we walked in front of the Cathedral and over to the School’s Square for the best examples of Salamancan plateresque still in existence. It is a sumptuous entrance to the school, indeed, with three levels of higher and higher relief, to compensate for the distance above the ground. Medallions, escutcheons, and portraits make it a fine example for tourists (discussed at length by Michener).
We roamed the University grounds for quite awhile, stopping in the Salinas Hall, the Fray Luis de Leon lecture room and the chapel. Nancy gave me an excellent background as to why these were such famous sites in Spain. The bookstore offered us a chance to buy some fine post cards and a poster with a portion of the zodiac ceiling in Salamanca. The whole scene was set around a pleasant patio in the middle of which grew a delightfully tall, fragrant cypress.
From the University we walked over to some lovely gardens and the New Cathedral (built from 1530-1560). I love their sense of time. The old Cathedral was built in the 1300’s, so it makes sense that 250 years is younger. The church had some amazing drum paintings done in the 18th century and placed just below the huge dome windows. The stained glass shown on these paintings (an octet of them) depicted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. It was a cool, almost cold, church with different uses of color and texture: plateresque, the facade, the columns, the choir-stalls, and its many stained-glass windows.
Next we wandered over to the Monastery of St. Stephen, which was closed, so we stood outside and watched the storks dive and swoop and float around the monastic spires. The huge birds’ nests are on nearly every tall building in this part of Spain. Their long white wings with black fringes on the feathers are distinctive, as are their red bills and flying prowess. Ugly and awkward sitting still, in the air they are wizards.
Walking across the street, we stopped by Las Duenas Convent and who should be there but Peggy and Matt. We had another hug-fest and sat outside with them and made some tough decisions: what to do next? While we sat in the sun, Matt directed traffic, and we finally made our minds up: time for food. Off to the Plaza Mayor. Nancy and Peggy wanted to check out the Renfe departure times, while Matt and I played frisbee on the Plaza. What a rush that was!
The Plaza had the best surface for bouncing the frisbee on some of my trick shots. The space was wide open when we got there and slowly filled with tourists and locals watching this crazy duo of Americans throw this disc around in the air. Soon Nancy and Peggy joined in and we dazzled the crowd. Working up a huge thirst, it was time to taste a cold one, so off we went in search of cerveza.
Several salads and sandwiches later, we sadly decided it was time to part from Peggy and Matt for good. Nancy and I were headed to Avila and Peggy and Matt were headed the next day to Segovia.
Aboard the train again, the walk to the station had been long and hot. If we were pessimistically minded, the abrupt and bumpy ride on this line would have been felt as a bad omen. Our optimism willed itself into reality.
The view from this plain, the highest provincial capital in Spain (at 3,710 feet), was a dramatic one. We approached Avila from the west and looked up to it from lower on the Meseta plateau. When we got to the city itself, we had to hurry and disembark to see the walled Castilian City in the right light. We missed it by only a minute or two. The train started moving again, so we dashed and got off before it really got a head of steam. Nancy, as graceful as she usually is, did not land well, tripping on her shoe and falling with her skirt over her head. She got style points for the landing, but when her backpack landed last and planted itself on her face, it was a rude welcome to Avila. All we could do was laugh. Nancy gathered her poise and her skirt and her backpack and eating her humility until she realized that the posters were still on the train. So it goes, it seems.
Licking our wounds, we began a slow meandering course toward the center of town. Nancy’s strategy is always to go to the Plaza Mayor and branching out to find a good hostel. My newly inspired strategy was to seek out the closest hostel to the train station and see if you could get a better price as you moved closer to the center of town. Ultimately, because of her language skills, we used the Nancy strategy. The first place had only three rooms open, two quads and a triple. The next place was full. The third place was way over-priced and so on and so forth. We headed back to the train station, frustrated and hot, we sought a room in the hostel and the residences near the station. None was available. What were all these people doing in Avila this night? Everyone we spoke to was so unfriendly and surly, in fact, that we considered going back to Madrid, so we walked to the station. Unfortunately the last trip to Madrid had departed just 10 minutes before. When the cussing stopped, we had only one option: go back to the more expensive and less desirable rooms. This time we took a taxi.
We found a place, rented a room and washed up. Frustrated but a bit calmer by now, we walked out for a bite to eat. Nancy and I were treated poorly (as foreigners) as the wait staff wanted to spend their energy on the natives. Madder now than when we arrived, we left the restaurant in a huff and stomped back to our room. We had a bottle of wine we bought at the restaurant so we drank our indignation down with some port before bed. The end was not yet in sight, as the mosquitoes were fiercely biting. And the floor boards were loose and creaky, which made for some sleepless hours that night.
Wednesday, June 20
Sleeping very late today, we took a shower and took a tour after breakfast. Avila is famous for yemas, an egg and sweet meat pie, so we decided to try this savory treat before we left. We chewed some churros and chocolate, chatted about the infamous Carolina Coffee House in Chapel Hill, and then headed to the Cathedral. A battlement from the outside, the inside of the Cathedral is quite beautiful. The Gothic style architecture is enhanced with piebald patches of red and yellow, right in the granite walls. The painting on the stone above the piebald patches really complement each other. The altarpiece and the alabaster statue of the Cardinal Alonso (El Tostado) are magnificent. Alonso was the Cardinal when Theresa of Avila was canonized as St. Theresa. (She was the founder of the disciplined Carmelite order of nuns.) We also saw the sacristy with its gold and silver treasures, including a portrait by El Greco, some small Murillo paintings, and one huge monstrance, probably last used on Corpus Christi.
Next we went to St Vincent’s Basilica, which was not as nice a place, but it had some lovely sculpting work by an anonymous artist. The stone entrance and a huge tomb (St. Vincent) with pictures of his life were of particular note. There was a figure silhouette by a bright yellow/orange light behind the altar. It was gaudy and not in the best taste, we felt. The retables and altarpieces were much more pleasing.
From St. Vincent’s we walked to the walls of Avila and had a food view of these ancient fortifications. The swallows, storks and swifts were having a convocation in the nooks an on the high turrets, so we tried not to bother them. There were even some red flowering plants shooting up from between some of the rocks in the walls. Averaging about 10 feet tall, the walls completely surround the city. Dating from the 11th century, there are eight gateways through the walls and over 80 bastions and towers. It is a serpentine wonder in the high desert.
Before we went back to the train station we wanted to try some yemas, so we walked along the streets and stopped into the likely spots. No one would give us a clue as to where we could buy them. We sat in this one restaurant, we ordered yemas, the waiter said “Si, senor,” and never delivered the food. We were shocked. Apparently patrons have to go to the pastry or candy stores to buy these, but no one had the courtesy to tell us. (And all of the pastry shops were closed on Wednesdays.)
If the residents of Avila take their pride and example from the Carmelite Sisters, they put the traditions in the bottom drawer and lock them away with Sister Theresa’s ashes. When it comes to dealing with foreigners, (extranherros) they earned a failing grade from us. Except for one taxi driver, the customer service was horrendous. One other curiosity was that although nearly all of the rooms were “full for the night,” we saw almost no tourists or visitors about town. We wondered what that was all about. It was time for us to leave this place, so picturesque yet so inhospitable.
The train to Madrid was a smooth one, but as usual, it took so long … so long to arrive in Avila and so long to get to the capital. I considered running up to El Escorial, but there was not enough time to do that safely. Nancy was asleep (catching up for sleep deprivation the night before) and the tours took half a day. We rode on by, catching glimpses of the castles, monuments, reservoirs, and the city in the distance.
It was hard to believe that our time together in Spain was coming to an end. The reality of returning to the States and then going off to New Mexico were revealing themselves in layers. This time in the Iberian Peninsula had been such a marvel. And my time with Nancy such an ephemeral treasure. I will never forget it.
Nancy and I, meanwhile, began to experience some friction. (As a friend said, “Sometimes it is easier to leave mad than sad!”) Her kinship with the people of Spain and her studies in Sevilla put her on a different wavelength than I was on.
We arrived at Estacion d’Atocha and walked around the Prado looking for a hostel. The one we selected was right across the street from the Paseo del Prado and the museum, but we searched up and down the streets, nonetheless. We searched nearly back to the train station before we got back in sync.
A shower and some note-taking, then we were off to see the sights. Up to the Puerta del Sol, then to the Plaza Mayor for a bocadilla of calamares and some beer. We went bar hopping after that, pretty much because we could not decide on the right place to eat. This one was too expensive, this one had no ambiance, that one doesn’t accept American Express, etc. We ended up spending as much money at the collective tapas and nibbles stops as we would at the most expensive restaurant. So it goes.
One bar had some excellent guitarists and a few flamenco dancers. We stopped in for awhile, but I was hot and the place was packed and smokey and did I say HOT? The clincher is that they had no beer and a two drink cover. Nancy clapped rhythmically and got into the Sevillan beat while I nearly keeled over with claustrophobia. About three bars later we were surrounded by American from 15 different places and they were ready to “tie one on.” It was their last night in Spain and it was time to party. I shuttered to think that they were all on my flight back to the States. Oh, well. We left the bar as inconspicuously as we could, making a slow exit.
I had some energy to burn so I jogged to the train station and then back to the hostel, meeting Nancy there for our good night hug.
Thursday, June 21
Nancy and I talked about our tensions from the day before and straightened things out. It was time to go, so I was glad we felt resolution. We walked up the Paseo de Calvo Sotelo and stopped for a coffee and roll before hitting the Plaza de Colon and it’s bus service below. Nancy bought me a farewell beer and we rode together to the airport talking about everything: loves, hates, boys, girls, homosexuals, Gulch matters, family, school, hopes, dreams…Despite some of our times in conflict and not seeing eye-to-eye, we were feeling closer together than we had been in years. So glad I had made the trip to Spain to be with my sister.
After writing down her itinerary of events for her travels with Peggy for the remainder of her time in Europe, we parted. I boarded a 747 bound for New York. Next to me was a lovely couple from Oakland, California. He sells insurance and she is a skating judge who coaches an amateur figure skating duo. She knew all of the international level performers in singles and pairs and was fun to talk with.
Writing in my journal, to get things down before I forgot, we chatted off and on about Californians and politics. I watched the movie The Great Train Robbery. The food was OK, but the company was better. Several hours later I was back on home turf, going through customs, declaring nothing, and ready to make plans to do it over again.
- Three days in Madrid,
- Two days in Toledo,
- Three in Granada,
- Stay well in Lisboa,
- Learn the language,
- Add a gizillion other adventures
Next time I would take a bird book and a smaller set of binoculars. I’ll buy some nice specialty items from the small cities. I would take a pocket camera to capture the faces. I’d rent a car (dreaming here) and keep adding to my list.
The experience was invaluable to me and I know why I love my family so much. My heart goes out especially now to Nancy. I hope she heard that affection loud and clear.