Blue Heron in flight

Friday, October 12, 2012

Viajamos a España y Catalunya y regresar

The shootings of May 3, 1808 - Francisco Goya
Back and feeling good.

Leslie and I have just returned from a lifetime dream for me, a short voyage to Spain. Our trip focused on the region of Andalucia but we also traveled through several other regions including Catalan.  I thought that you might be interested in a recount of our experiences.

I recognize that reading about other people's vacations can become dreadfully dreary, no one really wants to know about my urgent need to floss my teeth while navigating the picturesque town of Ciudad Real. I will try to keep this type of minutia to a bare minimum and rather give the reader the broad brush highlights of my travels and a small dollop of history, in order to import a little bit of context to the excursion and provide flavor. I also recognize that it is more than a little audacious to be so verbose about a country in which I have spent so little time and offer up my offerings with all the humility I can muster in my exhausted state.

I suppose that before I embark on a big amble, I should furnish a minor preamble, in order to get it out of the way and proceed to greater and more important sights and events. The reason that we were able to go to Spain, at least for a reasonable amount of money, is that were treated by a friend of hers who works for an airline to what is known in the business as a "buddy pass." Four hundred bucks round trip, anywhere in the world, envoy class. But there are a few conditions...

In US Airways parlance this means that we were now travelers officially affixed with the designation 7p non revenue. Little did we know that such a designation actually was an aeronautical scarlet letter, which gave us the status of something akin to the most lowly outcasts in Calcutta in the flying hierarchy.

Such a status might be appropriate for young people wishing to cut out to get stoned in Amsterdam or groove in Nepal for a few months with a backpack on but much more difficult and an entirely different proposition for a couple of slightly graying adults who crave at least a degree of certainty in their lives.

You see, non revenue passengers can be bumped from a flight for any degree of reasons, including but not limited to capacity, weight restrictions and general attitude. We had received an email and letter from our benefactors several weeks earlier admonishing us to smile, stay humble, be flexible and not to dress like bums, less the benefactors themselves lose their benefacting privileges.

We shipped off the cat and the new pero, studied maps and books and finalized our preparations for the journey. I packed entirely wrong for the actual weather but that is another story altogether that I would sooner leave alone in order to ensure my personal safety. Once in a great while I am right, and besides, if I didn't like it I should have done it myself.

We woke up at 3:30 in the morning and drove to the Ontario Airport. Wrong. We were bumped from our first flight. The woman at the counter suggested that we either try to drive to LAX in an hour across morning rush hour traffic or pray to St. Anthony, her patron saint, who was sure to grant us at least one favor. Didn't we know that there were less flights out of Ontario and we would have been much better served flying out of San Diego? No we did not. Besides we were informed, the American Airlines strike was putting a lot of pressure on the whole flying system.

We finally got out, the last two seats on the next flight, to Phoenix. Hoorah! We had started the excursion and had advanced to the east although admittedly only fractionally. We waited a few hours and caught a flight for Philadelphia, which was entirely unremarkable or has been forgotten. After several hours wait in Philly, the town of brotherly love that W.C. Fields made famous by his sterling witticism, we got bumped off the flight to Madrid. The prospects for the next night looked in no way any more fortuitous. We had visions of our Iberian trip becoming instead a week at the Philly airport, dining on hoagies and calzone instead of tapas and sherry.

After a torturous wait in a long lined at the special problems customer service counter we made our first management decision; just get us to Europe and we will take it from there. Besides, BigD, a seasoned world traveler, told me after my frantic phone call that you could get around anywhere in Europe by air for a hundred or so euros.

We got on the next flight to London, racing through security to embark on a half mile dash to catch the leaving plane with my pants falling off and my belt and shoes in my hand. For those of you who have wondered about my cardiac health after my sorry history I can say that if was to ever have a heart attack, that would have been in the moment and I must be now in perfect health. My knees ached but we just made it on time.

Arriving the next morning to the dreary Heathrow sky, we ate at a dreadful Gordon Ramsey restaurant in the airport, wet pork with dry crumbles or something like that, pretty terrible, and sought out that cheap fare to Spain. To my dismay the hundred euro thing was a fantasy. The fares were actually three to five hundred and eighty seven euros, per person. Aargh! My darling wife, ever charming and resourceful, found a caring person at an anonymous desk and explained our plight. This saint (do they have saints in largely episcopal england?) figured out that if she booked us a roundtrip and we conveniently forgot the back end, we could drive the price down to a more tolerable two hundred and twenty eight pounds sterling instead. Done.

Flying over Spain, at least in the direction which we approached it, was an incredible sight for me. So utterly beautiful. Not in a grand alpen way or like visiting a topical paradise but more like the beauty of a Rockwell Kent painting of the desert. Stark, untouched, parched and defined by glorious lines of red earth that make it seem like you are looking down at a contour map.

The Madrid Airport is a wonder of great architectural beauty in a country full of architectural marvels. We collected our luggage, changed a few bills and rented a car, a six speed stick of undetermined make. A rust colored hatchback that proved excellent in the long run. I haven't had a stick shift in decades and was wondering how my bad left knee would react to the prospect of constant clutching.

When you go to a foreign country, there is an initial stress present because everybody in this world does things slightly differently. Signage is different, language and signals are different, customs are different. A new modality. In Spain there is a 0 floor in the elevator, leading one to all sorts of existential questions. I started us off driving that evening and quickly ran into my first crisis.

Being a 7p non revenue also means that you can never make a reservation, simply because you never know when you will arrive or depart in a foreign land. We had planned to spend our first three days in Madrid in order to provide a redundancy factor if we were trapped in Philadelphia for several days. So you have to do everything off the cuff with this method of traveling. Fortunately, my wife and I are pretty resourceful and actually enjoy this sort of continual uncertainty.

But we still needed a place to sleep. Jockeying with the gears I set out on the closest road looking for a hotel. I unwittingly stumbled onto a toll road and to make matters worse, approached an automated lane with no attendant. Trapped. Luckily there were no cars behind me and I backed up to try to get into another lane and talk to the attendant. After finally finding reverse, I narrowly missed crashing into a concrete wall. It may have been my imagination but it was about this time that I believed I heard something from my passenger about how easy things would be going if we were now instead lounging around on Hawaii. I believe that I said nothing. Spain was hot and intense and hard to navigate and perhaps I had made a fatal mistake in even coming. The trip would dish out many challenges and require us to be on the top of our game.

The toll attendant was very helpful and directed us to a hotel in the neighboring surround, Barajas, the Hotel Ibis.I started learning spanish in the third grade and although I stopped shortly thereafter, my grasp and facility with the language is actually quite serviceable. What I lack in syntax and conjugation, I make up for in bravado and exceedingly good pronunciation, if I may say so myself. Not to say that there are no holes in my game but they are pretty navigable. By the end of the trip, I was thinking in spanish, always a good sign.

I guess I should say something about the country in general. Spain is located on the Iberian peninsula, east of Portugal. It is broken down into 17 Comunidades Autónomas, plus two autonomous cities in north africa, Ceuta and Melilla. In the 19th century, Queen Isabella further broke the country down into fifty provinces.

The earliest history of the region traces back to Phoenician, Jewish and Greek settlements in the 11th century b.c. on the eastern and southern coasts. Celts started moving in around 900 b.c. from central europe. In 300 b.c. Carthaginians took over, conquering the Greeks and Tartessians. Hannibal captured Sagunto in the second century b.c., starting the second Punic war. The Romans stepped in and conquered the whole peninsula around 100 b.c. Two hundred years later the region became known as Hispania. Christianity reached the shores in the first century a.d., For the next four hundred years Hispania faced Swabian and Vandal invasions, who were themselves succeeded by the Visigoths around 456, who established a kingdom in Toledo, a town which was founded by early jewish inhabitants in ancient times who are said to have named the place Ten Tribes, Totham, which morphed into Toledo.

The Visigoths were invaded and displaced by Moors from the south in the eighth century after the Battle of Guadalete (711-718.) 718 is also the start of an 800 year old Christian War of Reconquest.  The first Muslim invaders are subjects of the Umayyad Caliph in Syria. Abd al Rahman I breaks with the Caliph in 756 and establishes an independent emirate in Córdoba.

The Christians maintain their areas, the Muslims their own for three hundred years and all three major religious cultures live in relative peace. In 1031 Alfonso VI of Castile conquers Toledo and resettles. The Muslims call on the Almorovads, muslims from the Sahara for help, and they pretty much take over the joint. Pilgrims start journeying on the pilgrimage to Saint James on the Camino de Santiago. El Cid conquers Valencia in 1094.

The Almoravads call in the Almohads for backup but like bad relatives that never leave, they end up usurping them and taking over. Finally there is a great Battle of Las Naves de Tolusa in 1212 and the Muslims are forced into the small Nasrid community of Granada which is finally captured in 1492. The ruler of Granada, Boabdil, is forced to turn the keys to the city to Alfonso and is confronted by the biggest ball busting mother of all time who murmurs the immortal line, "You weep like a woman for that which you could not hold like a man."

Jews, known in Spain as Sephardi, arrived as early as anybody. They got along well with the Muslims and negotiated with the Christians on their behalf. The ancient torah scholar Maimónides was from Cordoba. The jews became very prosperous in Spain, especially around the 9th century. Around the 11th century things started getting crappy with the neighbors and they were moved north to Toledo and Girona. The Christians now forced them to wear red and yellow sashes, much like the yellow stars forced on them by the nazis.

Isabella, the wife of Ferdinand of Aragon succeeded her brother Henry the fourth in 1474. She is opposed by her niece Juana la Beltraneja.

The Alhambra decree of 1492 expelled all non catholics from Spain. Many of the jews went under cover, or converted, living as conversos or marranos. Torquemada helped lead the Inquisition to unmask these jews in hiding. People were burnt, tortured and killed in a variety of creative ways during this period which lasts until the 19th century. Judaism is blotted out of the landscape and churches are built on top of synagogues and mosques, a very common practice. I noticed two museum exhibits during my trip that were dedicated to exploring the wonderful torture techniques and reliving those good old days of the Inquisition.

Columbus discovers a new world in 1492, which came as a hell of a surprise to the people that already lived there. In 1494 the Treaty of Todesillas divided the new world between Spain and Portugal.

In 1496 Juana the Mad marries Philip the Handsome, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. Love the names around these parts, there is also a Pedro the Cruel and a Wilfred the Hairy lurking around somewhere.

Their son Charles eventually rules as Charles I.  He is elected Holy Roman Emperor and becomes Charles V in 1519. The Spanish get pissed at Charles's Flemish court advisors and rise up in several revolts. Charles wars against France and routs Henry II, capturing Milan.

The Spanish wage a plethora of wars for the next several hundred years which I don't really need to get into, but will certainly expound upon if you request.

In the late 17th century Napoleon enters with the pretext of fighting Portugal but turns on his host, the whole megillah culminating in his defeat by Wellington and subsequent exile in 1814. There are a couple of Carlist Wars and a populist revolution brewing. The King abdicates in 1873 and the National Assembly then proclaims the first Spanish Republic. Which lasts until Brigadier General Campos stages a revolt and  proclaims Isabel's son Alfonso XII the new king, instituting Bourbon rule.

The Execution of Torrijos - Antonio Gisbert Perez, 1831
The Spanish tangle with Uncle Sam in the Spanish American War of 1898 and it signals the end of the Spanish Empire. General Miguel Primo de Ribera abolishes the constitution and starts the military dictatorship in 1923. Workers revolt and he is exiled in 1930. Republicans win elections in many parts of the country including Catalan and the King abdicates.

A constituent wins election in 1931 and a constitution is passed but it calls for agrarian reform and large land owners organize and fight the reforms. In 1936 Spain is embedded in a serious civil war. The army takes over and ends the second republic. Franco is named Generalissimo in Burgos, a military town. He is head of the Nationalists and attacks Madrid. Madrid, Valencia and Catalan remain faithful to the Republicans, Andalucia and the rural south is controlled by the Nationalists. The republicans are wracked by dissension and infighting but aided by international brigades like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the United States.

Nationalists attack the north with help from the Germans, who bomb Guernica in 1937. The war ends with the capture of Madrid in 1939, and the beginning of the dictatorship. Franco dies in the sixties and Prince Juan Carlos becomes King in 1975. A few more governments rise and fall and there you have it. Hope you stuck with me.

We settled in to our hotel and walked around the quiet suburb of Barajas. It was a warm evening and all of the bars were full of shouts as the local football team, Real Madrid was playing the dutch team Ajax. We found a restaurant and ordered steak and chorizo from the grill as well as a grilled cheese dish and way too much other food. Washing it down with a frosty mug of Cruzcampo beer, we slid right on in to the lovely Spanish lifestyle. Ronaldo had a hat trick this night and the bar was happy and so were we as we walked back to our hotel hand in hand.

The next day Leslie and I walked back into town and had a nice breakfast at a little place where everybody knew everybody. They treated us very warmly and very well. We then took the metro to the Prado, the most famous museum in Spain and arguably the greatest repository of old masters in the world. We bought a subway pass and figured out the different lines that would take us to the Atocha station. The subway is clean, easy to navigate, cheap and free from graffiti. It is also full of some pretty cool musicians at practically every stop.

In fact I should take this moment to say that the whole country of Spain is the cleanest country I have ever visited. We saw little if any trash our whole journey. Truly an incredible place. And that includes visual clutter. Beautiful roads and highways lacking Burger Kings and Taco Bells and all the other signage that has creeped so far into our life.
Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
The Prado is an amazing place. People say it takes weeks to visit the museum, I can honestly say that we killed it and saw almost everything. Rubens, one of Leslie's favorites, left and right, Titian's as far as the eye can see. Fantastic works by Velazquez, one of the greatest painters ever. One of his portraits of a man on display is on a par with the finest Rembrandt. Goya's black paintings.

Study of Apostle - Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) 
And other painters that I was not familiar with but loved. Like Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779), the german artist. While his finished paintings were a bit over polished, his studies of the two apostles were superbly executed and sublime.

With all of the wonderful old master and baroque paintings and furnishings it was hard for me not to think of my father, who loved this work so much, currently suffering from dementia in a nursing home in the central valley.

The dwarf Don Juan Calabazas, Diego Velazquez. 
I was also quite taken with Velazquez's paintings of jesters, dwarves and buffoons, long a tradition in the Spanish court.

There is a curious and somewhat vile painting of Jesus receiving a crown of thorns from a band of jews that are painted to look like orcs, their features exaggerated and contorted. An early  propaganda piece.

I asked Leslie why Jesus never looks jewish in these paintings and she mentions that when he became a christian, his features sort of goyed up. Grew his foreskin back and everything.

Still don't get how they worship a jewish god, or a one time jew anyway, but pretty much hate all of his relatives so much?

We left the Prado and started to walk around Madrid, one of the most delightful city's you will ever find. We were treated to some of the most entertaining street performers we have seen and I was reminded of the spanish love for clowns indicated in Velazquez's work.

In addition there were musicians of all stripes and timbre, flamenco, ranchera, vibes, rock as well as sidewalk evangelists and the most supplicant beggars you have ever seen in your life.

We walked into two demonstrations our first day in Madrid. Saw some communists bearing their bright red flags and some people demonstrating against the banks. Many police, some on horseback, dragging some people away. I have witnessed many far worse, these were no big deal.

We started hitting different tapas places, one rip off joint an the Gran Via where the server cautioned me to not leave my camera on the table, fearing a snatch and run. Mostly the tapas were incredible everywhere we went. As was the red wine, the delicate riojas we continually sampled. The food in spain good and very cheap. You eat pinchas, tapas or montaditos, all small bites. Then take off for the next place. We think that is why they stay so thin. And the fact that they walk so much. A good way to eat and live.

Our favorite tapas that evening were at the Opera Cafe near the opera house. tuna belly with olives and sun dried tomato. Afterwards we walked by the Royal Palace at dusk. We walked, we watched, we ate. And you don't go to Spain without eating the incredible iberico ham. Free range "blackfoot" hogs raised on acorns (bellota) and olives, until the oil content marbles their dark flesh and creates the most delicious pork on the planet. The grades go from very cheap to the best bellota negra which can become atmospherically priced for the highest grades. Leslie was an expert at negotiating slices of this stuff for us, bless her.

I walked by this old keyhole imbedded in a wall. And Geppetto, a shop window where hundreds of tails wagged and eyeballs moved. We found the remarkable Mercado de San Miguel, an upscale market filled with the most delectable stalls. Probably one of my three favorite markets in the world, along with Toronto and Oaxaca. We had burrata with fig and iberico, risotto balls with truffles, prawns, paella, croquets with shrimp and almond cream. And more. Place was fabsolutely incredible.You could buy incredible wine, cheese, meat, pastries, juices, oysters, fish, yogurt, all manners of tapas, any culinary delectable the most hardened foodie could ever imagine.

Afterwards we continued to walk around the city. Madrid is a city that like Amsterdam, parties late into the night. We never got back to our room before 2:30 in the morning. 

We stopped off at a tavern for one last glass and went home on the subway. Two young spanish gay lovers kissed and the older woman on the train scowled. We walked past amorous couples of the conventional persuasion in hot and heavy embraces at the pub on the way home from our station. Our first full day in Madrid was a thing to behold. We wrung every last drop out of it and for that matter, our whole trip.

I love the spanish people, proud and very refined and not the least bit of hostility or rancor. Very balanced. A pleasure to be around. Gorgeous women. Pink shirts on the men. Madrid a city of red and pink. Tomorrow we drive south to the ancient town of Toledo, once the great capitol of Spain. I am tired and jet lagged and will pick up the thread once again a bit later after I rest. An excellent trip. A dios.


Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Sorry you had an iffy start to your travels but it sounds like you had a wonderful time after that hurdle was crossed. Although I sympathize, I couldn't help but laugh at your description of the run for the plane. I can hardly wait for the second installment!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back,
I'm anxious to read the account of your flights home - hope it was easier than getting there.

It was fun to read your enthusiam for the adventure. I feel that sense of discovery every time I travel. By the way the entire rest of the world has 0 for the ground floor and 1 for what we would call 2.

Don't give in to the jet lag - make your body adjust.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Great to have you back. It sounds like a great trip----looking forward to hearing more.