Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Third Day

Diga Me? I turned my head quickly and found myself facing a slightly peeved grocer with his arms crossed, wondering what I was doing to his perfect stack of oranges. Leslie and I were at the small supermarket in Barajas picking up water and fruit and a few essentials for our trip south.

Apparently in this area at least, the grocer picks the fruit for you. I apologized for not being aware of the local custom and he cheerfully selected a handful of clementines and a few navels for the ride ahead. We grabbed water and paid our bill at the check stand. The cashier wanted to know if I thought one bag would be sufficient, since you are expected to bag your own groceries as well.

We stopped at a small tapas bar and looked at the meagre breakfast fare, deciding to go with the spanish custom of dipping the churro into the coffee and then getting on our way. The man at the hotel had been kind enough to furnish us with google maps directions to Toledo. I translated them and we took off. There were six or seven direction changes in the first kilometer and the perfect directions soon placed us in a cul de sac facing a dead end.

The maps we found in Spain and in all the guide books  we had consulted were terrible and the print very small. They were lacking in both magnification and essential information and we mostly groped around like near blind quixote and sancho panzas, finding our way by smell, intuition and quite a few mistakes. My wife and I are great companions. While stressful events and the caprice of fate might revert each of us into individual catatonic wrecks, when we put our heads together we can solve any problem, given time and patience. Our faith in each other served us well many times on this trip.

We had originally thought about touring Segovia to the north and El Escorial but knew that in our limited time in Iberia we could not see everything we wished to see and decided to head south to the real object of our desire, Andalucia.

We managed to get on a freeway that appeared to be going south as we went our way around the city of Madrid, hopefully in the proper direction. All of the numbers on our directions were now meaningless and the volume and stress level in the car was once again rising. Leslie found the A4 and in time we saw a sign for Toledo, the ancient city that was in our sights for the second day of our journey.  We breathed easier and mostly drove through an industrial section of factories selling mueblas and construction materials, nothing very memorable or attractive.

In a little over an hour Toledo was in our view. I suppose now is a good time to talk about the geography of this region of Spain. We had left the province of Madrid and were now entering the areas of Castile and La Mancha, made famous by Cervantes in the epic book Don Quixote. La Mancha comes from the arabic word manxa, which means dry land. Central Spain is a gigantic plain called La Meseta, or the tabletop. Hot and arid, it is fairly stark and a bit inhospitable. Leslie was really feeling the heat.

Toledo is situated on the Tagus river and rises high, perched up on a granite edifice. The capitol of Spain until 1560, it is basically a high castle, designed to repel invaders. Toledo is known as a place where many of the finest swords in the world were and are still made as well as many other types of silver and metal smithing.

It was also the center of Spain's jewish community and contained two old synagogues and a once vibrant jewish quarter. One of our goals on this trip was to explore Spain's jewish traditions as it was one of the principal places of the diaspora until the fateful inquisition. I had an academic if not spiritual interest in exploring a land of my wandering fore bearers.

Once there were seven synagogues. Now only two remain. We visited them both and the Sephardic museum in the jewish quarter.

The help in the various places were almost to a person quite unfriendly as they described the previous inhabitants with a clinical and slightly disdainful manner like one might have for a failed science experiment or fallen cake. But the buildings themselves were glorious nonetheless.

The buildings stored many jewish relics of antiquity and were beautiful in their quiet and understated elegance. Jews didn't overbuild so much back in those days, or at least not to the level of their christian and moorish neighbors. The courtyard of the larger synagogue had large tombstones of prominent old jewish members of Toledo including a Sassoon. I know a few members of this family today, many of whom were in Shanghai during the early nineteenth century.

When you travel to Spain you find that you spend a lot of time looking up.

Jews occupied many prominent positions in the history of Toledo. One of the most famous was Simon Bar Levi. He was the treasurer and right hand man of Pedro the Cruel who lived up to his name by murdering Levi in order to steal his considerable wealth.

Toledo is very steep. We saw many older people gamely tackling the ascents. People that live in the city must have very healthy hearts!

We continued to walk around the tight and narrow streets of the quarter. We stopped and had tapas at an outside cafe and met a nice couple from Liverpool. We were talking about wine and water and I asked him if he knew what W.C. Fields said about the latter. He said that he did but didn't feel it appropriate to repeat in front of his wife.

He loved big band music and we spent a few nice minutes talking Dorsey and Kenton.

We decided to take our leave of the city and drive south. We decided to, as is our custom, get off the main road. We set our aim on the southern route to Cordoba, our next major stop, a rural route through Ciudad Real. We soon found ourselves on one of my favorite voyages of the whole trip. Within a few minutes we were enmeshed in a land filled with grove after grove of olive trees and vineyards. Old farmhouses and buildings of antiquity dotted the rural hillsides. And to be honest, much of the land looked much like my native California.

Once in a while we would spot a small castle. The tiny towns all had a beautiful church, many in the Mudejar style favored by the early christians. I was in heaven during this stretch of the trip. I love the spaces in between and this area was untouched. We stopped in a gas station and I was amazed by the quality of the products sold inside. Imagine buying freshly baked bread in a gas station?

We drove for several hours through the mountains and into northern Andalusia and finally reached the magnificent city of Cordoba. We drove around looking for the old quarter, feeling that it is usually the best place in which to start looking for a hotel. We ended up getting into some frenetic driving situations, dead end streets and in one occasion trapped in a road we weren't supposed to be on which had a metal post that automatically rose up which I feared was going to impale our oil pan and loft us up in the air so that all could see the traffic violators hoisted on the metal petard.

It got very hairy and Leslie ended up driving down the  most narrow roads imaginable as we found ourselves on ancient streets whose designers had never imagined motorized vehicles. We sucked in our breath as we tried to navigate the tight curves. Hotels were impossible to find as well. I finally broached our plight with a man in a passing car and he told us to follow him to a hotel. We unfortunately lost him. Twenty minutes later into our conundrum he came launching out of a doorway and grabbed us, clearing a parking space at his hotel, an old warhorse named the Abadi. Spartan but sufficient and a warm staff who poured shots of Jamison for us at the bar for an hour. Very charming and delightful people who had sort of saved our ass or at least brightened a darkening mood.

Leslie and I walked into the old city. Cordoba is my favorite city in Spain. Seville is the most beautiful, but I am getting ahead of myself. Cordoba is the most mystical and magical. Inhabited by early Romans, Seneca was born here in 55 a.d. It was also the birthplace of Maimomedes (1135-1204), the ancient rabbinic scholar, physician and all around wise man.

The quarter was delightful and we found the best restaurant of our whole journey, Salinas, a favorite of countless people including the ubiquitous Ava Gardner and Manolete. Founded in 1879, it oozed charm from every crevice.

We dined on young suckling pig, the finest gazpacho known to man, made with bread amongst other things (Leslie got their recipe), pork loin with hazelnuts and cream, black iberico with honeydew melon, lamb chops and the finest liquor I tasted on my excursion, raisin sec by Alfonso Jimenez. You have never tasted anything more rich and sweet. So good we went back the next day.

Cordoba is a great place to walk about at night. You pass magnificent doorways which offer narrow glimpses of the most wonderful open courtyards and fountains. We walked past the Mezquita, Cordoba's famous mosque whose construction started in 780 by Abd ar Rachman I.

Spain is a place where comfortable life required adaptation. It is so very hot, especially in the summer. And so the fan, cool lace, sangria and the siesta. Spain closes down, locked tight from two to five. People have learned to operate in the cooler hours of night.

We walked the now cool streets back to our hotel, exhausted and awaiting tomorrow's adventure.


Sanoguy said...

Great reports. Welcome back writing from Hanalei, Kauai.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Had a similar experience in Cordoba. Finally, I got into a cab and had him drive us to the hotel while husband followed in the cursed car. Once you get parked, it's all so worth it, right? We saw those impaler roads in Amsterdam - scared me to death.

Anonymous said...

Yo Roberto We are going to espana in Abril We need to talk Beth