Sand Castles in Spain

When I was a child, we used to go to the beach for a few weeks every summer. One of our favorite activities was making “drip castles” out of wet sand. We’d grab a bucket of sand and water and carefully let the wet sand drip from our fingertips, making fantastic shapes and spires. The challenge was to see how elaborate you could make your castle, and how tall your spires could reach before collapsing.

In art history, my first take on seeing a photo of Barcelona’as La Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) cathedral, designed by Antoni Gaudi, was “Drip castle!” I never blew it on the tests, either–the mnemonic was fixed forever. Apparently I am not the only one to see this resemblance, because when I searched for images of drip castles on Google, I found some photos of La Sagrada Familia as well:

Drip castle on the left; La Sagrada Familia on the right. I'm just saying.

Drip castle on the left; La Sagrada Familia on the right. I’m just saying.









The cathedral isn’t finished and won’t be for a decade or more, although it was begun in 1882. Up close, the exterior no longer looks like wet sand. The facade in the photo above (the Nativity Facade) is the one most photographed, I believe, and close up, all those furbelows resolve themselves into exquisitely crafted details. There are the obligatory religious figures, of course, but there are also twining vines, chickens, roses, standard Gothic features like columns that somehow turn into tentacles, rabbits, turtles and trees. It is naturistically sculpted, elaborate, whimsical and ebullient.

This turtle is one of two that hold up pillars, one on either side of what is now the main door. Kind of a metaphor for how mankind treats animals, though I'm sure this was not the intention.

This turtle is one of two that hold up pillars, one on either side of what is now the main door. Kind of a metaphor for how mankind treats animals, though I’m sure this was not the intention.



















Rooster and hens detail from the Glory Facade

Rooster and hens detail from the Glory Facade











This little lizard is one of many creatures peering out from the bronze leaves that completely cover the main door

This little lizard is one of many creatures peering out from the bronze leaves that completely cover the main door. He is peering through a small glass pane. The reflection in the pane is Tom taking a picture of it.







The other facades differ greatly in style. The Passion Facade, which depicts the end of Christ’s life from the Last Supper to the crucifixion, is sculpted in an austere, unelaborated and grimly modern style. some of it couldn’t be photographed because of ongoing construction.

The Passion Facade. The pillars are intended to resemble bones.

The Passion Facade. The slanted pillars are intended to resemble bones.


















Kiss of Judas, Passion Facade

Kiss of Judas, Passion Facade. There’s a cryptogram square to the left, but I haven’t researched its meaning yet.


















The Loneliness of Christ, Passion Facade

The Loneliness of Christ, Passion Facade


















As you can see, this facade was executed in an entirely different style, and it was as deliberate as the Gothic-reminiscent naturalistic style of the Nativity Facade. There are other facades, still under construction, that are more modern still.

I took three art history courses (yes, once it was because I couldn’t pass chemistry, but the other times, it was because I WANTED to!), and not once did I see a photograph of the interior. As gob-stoppingly gorgeous as the exterior is, the interior surpasses it by several orders of magnitude. I have never seen anything like it. It comes close to being unbelievable, as though someone a 100 years ago had had the ability to use CGI to create something impossible and improbably beautiful.

Unfortunately, I have to close up shop tonight and continue tomorrow (or sometime soon), because we are catching a flight to go home. I want to give the interior of La Sagrada Familia the time and attention it deserves, so buenos noches for now, and I will be back as soon as possible.

My Spanish Vacation in Bed

Frank Gehry's astonishing building at the Marques de Riscal Winery

Frank Gehry’s astonishing building at the Marques de Riscal Winery

Well, no, not all of it. But the day after we went to see the Guggenheim and I got crunched by the quieropractica in Bilbao, Tom and I had a down day. We woke up, had breakfast, and then I settled down to work on my novel. I practically fell asleep over my computer at ten o’clock in the morning, and Tom was in the same state. So we retired to our football-field-sized and comfortable bed and snored for a few hours.

When we awoke, I went back to work on my book and Tom went out to explore the surrounding area. I reread and edited and pondered, and came up with a brilliant solution to a plot problem, but didn’t write anything new. I suppose that’s some progress. Tom explored some surrounding villages and took photos. When he got back, we walked around town. We didn’t want to go back to the restaurant in the hotel; we had eaten there three times and couldn’t face it again, though it was very good. So we went to another hotel and ate there. I think we were the only people who ate there that night, and for good reason. The outdoor patio was pretty, though, and we could watch the swallows–las golondrinas–swooping around overhead, catching gnats and flies. I cheered them on.

An interesting decoration made of grapevines, dried fruit and flowers in a cafe in Ezcaray

An interesting decoration made of grapevines, dried fruit and flowers in a cafe in Ezcaray

Every night since our arrival, we had been hearing a church bell ringing at 7:30 pm, 7:45, then again at 8:00. It wasn’t the bells in the church across the street, which rings the hours and half-hours. This bell sounded different, and it was rung in a different manner. So we asked around, first in the restaurant where we were eating. No one had any idea. We went back to our hotel and asked the guy behind the tapas bar. No idea, but he gave us two free glasses of wine to compensate for his ignorance, so that was OK. Then we asked the concierge, who asked around and then told us the bell rang for the 8 pm mass at another church in town. I was astonished. Who would’ve thought that in Spain, no one would know that the bells were ringing for mass? I guess the times, they have a-changed.

So it was early to bed, and we awoke refreshed and ready for more adventures. This was the day for wineries. Unlike in the U.S., in Spain if you want to visit a winery, you have to make an appointment. When you get there, you have to take a tour of the winery–you can’t just walk in and taste.

Our first stop was Marques de Riscal. This has been a winery since 1858, but when you see the spectacular Frank Gehry building rising up from the vineyards around El Ciego, it is an entirely modern and astonishing sight. (Frank Gehry also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which is a sculptural work of art in its own right.) The winery produces something like eight million bottles of wine a year–mostly reds. The winery tour was interesting, as it included both the new parts (a lot of very highly automated equipment) and the old–like the cage where the 100-to-150-year-old bottles are kept for special events.

Old wine cellar at Marques de Riscal

Old wine cellar at Marques de Riscal




















Once the tour ended, they gave us quite a lot of excellent wine. I will be looking for Marques de Riscal when we get back to California!

Gehry Building

View from the vineyards at Marques de Riscal winery

The Frank Gehry building houses a hotel and a 2-star Michelin restaurant. We decided to eat there later. Tom wanted to take pictures of another winery, Ysios, which also has a spectacularly designed building–although they told Tom that they didn’t have any tours in English. When we got there, it looked like they didn’t have any tours at all (it was completely deserted), but the building is fascinating. Tom calls it “pixelated.” It’s supposed to blend into the landscape. IMHO: not.

Ysios Winery. If they had had a tour, I would be able to tell you who the architect was.

Ysios Winery. If they had had a tour, I would be able to tell you who the architect was.

We returned to Marques de Riscal and went up to the restaurant. The concierge downstairs had called ahead to let them know we were coming. When we walked in, we were greeted politely by two people who clearly didn’t expect us. Their foreheads were wrinkled with deep concern: did we have reservations? There were perhaps 50 tables there, and not one of them was occupied at that hour. However, someone who did know the score rescued us, and we sat down to the most exquisite meal we have had in Spain so far. It was delicious, but above and beyond that, it was entertaining. Example: we were served an amuse bouche, consisting of a shallow dish with fog pouring out of it and dark brown “sticks” poking up out of the fog. The waitress said it was vine twigs from the vineyard prepared for our delectation. Then she hung around watching. We nibbled on them, and they were yummy. Then she told us it was actually cheese sticks. I said, “I totally believed you!’ She was pleased.

The town of El Ciego as seen from the restaurant at Marques de Riscal. Viewing the old from the very new.


Everything else was presented with the same whimsey and artistry. We lingered for a long time, peering out through the Frank Gehry swirls of titanium, then we left and sat in the breezy patio downstairs until it was time for our next winery tour.

Which was in La Guardia, a tiny, medieval, fortified hilltop town. You can’t actually drive through the town–it’s strictly pedestrian–though you can drive up to it. Being clueless, we had no idea where to park or where the winery might be. Tom finally parked next to an old church (probably illegally, but no one bothered us)–and set off on foot to ask questions. We knew we were within yards of the winery, but had no idea how to find it. The first few people he asked didn’t know either, but one person grabbed the winemaker and he came out and showed Tom where to go and told him where to park.

Detail of old fountain at La Guardia

Detail of old fountain at La Guardia












The winery is called Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre. It is as sharp a contrast to Marques de Riscal as possible. The family has lived there and made wine for centuries in “caves” excavated underneath their house. The winemaker told us that every house in La Guardia has these cellars under their houses, originally dug to preserve food in their cool, dark recesses, and to hide in when there were wars, which apparently happened all the time. Sometimes La Guardia was part of the Kingdom of Navarre, sometimes the Kingdom of Castile. I suspect the residents didn’t care much, so long as the soldiers left them alone. Once things settled down, they realized they had the ideal conditions for wine storage, and most of the residents make their own wine, though not everyone sells it.

Cave of Bodega Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre, directly under the family's house

Cave of Bodega Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre, directly under the family’s house

First, he insisted on showing us a video about the wine-making process, which we sat through politely. (I told him that Tom used to make wine, but apparently this did not exempt us.) Then he took us down into the cellar. Definitely old school. Ancient stones dripping with mold. Casks dripping with mold–in one case, the mold looked like some sea creature was trying to engulf the cask it was growing on. I put my hand on the wall, and it came away smeared with wet, black mold. Then we tasted the wines–superb. When we toured Burgundy several years ago, some of the winemakers told us that the mold added to the quality of the wine, so maybe they had something there. (Shudder.)

Mold creature growing out of a barrel at Bodega Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

Mold creature growing out of a barrel at Bodega Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

The town was in the midst of a festival in honor of San Juan, La Guardia’s patron saint, so the tiny streets were thronged with merrymakers–bands, dancers, people in traditional costume, others in costumes not so traditional. That was a treat, even if it meant that finding parking was difficult.

Festive ladies at the Festival of San Juan, La Guardia

Festive ladies at the Festival of San Juan, La Guardia

A most satisfying day. We ate at the tapas bar at Echaurren (our hotel) that night and met the chef–who, we discovered is also the chef at the restaurant at Marques de Riscal. He normally works in Echaurren’s restaurant gastronomique, but it, like most of the other top-rated restaurants in the area, was closed for vacation. I guess June is the slow season in La Rioja.

The next morning we departed for Barcelona, traveling through increasingly barren and desertlike terrain. At one point we crossed the Greenwich Meridian line. There was a modernistic arc across the freeway in an otherwise desolate landscape to mark the spot.

Tom stopped for a break at a rest area. There were a few shelters with picnic tables. We were sitting at one of these when a Spanish couple drove under the few trees for the shade, got out and asked if they could share our table. I said sure, and they hauled out a huge cured sausage of some sort and offered us some. I declined, being kind of tired of cured meats by this time, but the Spanish for the most part have been so kind and friendly.

We stopped in Zaragoza for lunch because there was a highly rated restaurant there. We parked the car in a perilous alley (because it was so narrow you had to fold in your side-view mirrors to avoid losing them) and walked to the restaurant. It was locked, though the hours indicated it should be open. I rang the bell, and it was answered by a server who–surprise!–asked if we had reservations. There were many tables, all completely devoid of patrons, but she told us they could not serve us. Because no reservations. (You would think we would learn from these experiences, but we didn’t, and ran into the same issue in Barcelona.)

So we wound up eating at “Smurf2 Cafeteria,” which was every bit as good as you might imagine, and went in search of our car, which we had a little trouble finding. Fortunately, given the heat, we only made two exploratory ventures before re-discovering it, and then we were on our way.

We stopped for gas at a place in the middle of nowhere. Literally–it was just a gas station. No town or anything. To our surprise, the gas tank cover wouldn’t open, though it had done so without difficulty every other time. The lady tending the station tried to help. Other people tried to help. We couldn’t budge it. Tom called the rental company, and they said they had to talk to their mechanic and they’d call back.

I went in to try to explain to the attendant what was going on. She didn’t understand my inept Spanish and called her son, who spoke some English. He asked me if he could drive out to help us! I thanked him for his kindness, but declined. I told his mother over and over how nice they were, how kind her son was. She understood that part.

The rental company called back to tell us that when it got very hot (which it was), the gas tank cover sometimes wouldn’t open. Good to know, but it seems like an impractical design in a hot country like Spain. The car had been sitting in the shade for a while by this time, and Tom tried the cover again. It opened without protest, we gassed up, and were on our way again.

Our hotel in Barcelona, Gran Derby, is lovely–much nicer than we expected. It even has a bathtub big enough for two–though we won’t be sharing–a sitting room with a bullhide for a rug (poor toro), and a bedroom. The shower–Tom said he wished he had taken photos of all the showers we have used. Each one has had strangely shaped controls–squares, sticks, cylinders–and each has had its own system of turning on and off, controlling temperature, etc. This one has square knobs and the drain is a slit in the flooring that runs all around the shower–haven’t seen that before. But the shower flooring is mercifully non-skid, though the bathroom tiling is made of highly polished brown marble that would be a perfect skating surface for someone with wet feet.

Window in our bathroom at the Gran Derby Hotel in Barcelona. Just thought it was pretty.

Window in our bathroom at the Gran Derby Hotel in Barcelona. Just thought it was pretty.

We selected a seafood restaurant right on the beach for dinner, Can Majo. When we got there, we were told that because we didn’t have reservations, they might be able to squeeze us in at 10 pm. (We are very slow learners.) So we made a reservation for 10 o’clock, had a snack at a seaside bar, and then walked down to the water. I dipped my feet in the water; my first-ever contact with the Mediterranean. I have hopes it won’t be my last.

At ten, they permitted us in the restaurant. We ordered paella, which is their specialty. Service was slow, which was fine as it gave us time to people-watch. I noticed a group of three people as they came into the outdoor seating area where we were. There were two model-thin women, gorgeous in that exotic Mediterranean manner, with long. black hair and smooth, brown skin and huge eyes. They were dressed beautifully and they were accompanied by a pit-bull and a man who might have been the model for the dog. I spent time making up stories about who they were and why these two beautiful women were having dinner with this ugly man. Then the two women seated at the table next to us squeaked and pointed. One of them said “Cucaracha, is that the word?” As I was looking for the offending insect, the ladies I had been making up stories about shrieked and dropped their cigarettes as the bug scuttled under their table. It proved to be a bonding experience with our neighbors and we struck up a conversation. They were from the Netherlands, spoke perfect English, and were having a girl’s weekend away. We had a long and pleasant discussion, ate the excellent paella, then headed back to the hotel.

I think it was about 1 am when we got to bed. This may be normal for the Barcelonans, but it’s kind of exhausting for me. Of course, I had had no siesta–I really should spend more time in bed.

Sexy giraffe sculpture in Barcelona. For some reason.

Sexy giraffe sculpture in Barcelona. For some reason.

Goggling the Guggenheim and Getting Crunched

The nearest chiropractors are in Bilbao, an hour and a half drive from where we are staying in Ezcaray. Having had some not-so-good experiences with chiropractors, I was reluctant to see someone I didn’t know, but my rib was giving me a lot of pain so i gritted my teeth, called one (she spoke English very well–bonus points!), and made an appointment.

We hadn’t planned on visiting Bilbao, but my appointment was in the afternoon, so that meant we could spend the rest of the day at the spectacular Guggenheim Museum. The museum had a Jeff Koons exhibition going on. My previous exposure to Koons had been a vast white ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee Bubbles. The white ceramic had highlights in gold, making it look like those awful figurines your Aunt Gertrude loved to collect.

As it turned out, I thought the exhibit was interesting and fun. My favorite was “Puppy,” a towering sculpture completely covered in living flowers that sits in front of the museum, followed by “Tulips,” also outdoors. There were several other artists represented, of course, including someone who does “fog sculptures,” and a “fire sculptor” (which we didn’t get to see because it only comes on after dark).

This view of the Guggenheim from the street shows how huge "Puppy" is

This view of the Guggenheim from the street shows how huge “Puppy” is





"Tulips" by Jeff Koons. This looks very light and insubstantial, but it's quite large--and made of steel.

“Tulips” by Jeff Koons. This looks very light and insubstantial, but it’s quite large–and made of steel.

Another installation i thought noteworthy was a gigantic ( mean VAST, enormous beyond belief) series of curving steel sculptures by Richard Serra. The title had something to do with the impermanence of time.You’re supposed to walk inside them, and it is a very disorienting experience. Sometimes, it felt like walking down one of the tiny, winding streets of Seville, but a Seville painted by Magritte–ancient and deserted, where there should be people. I actually got disoriented and started walking back through the exhibition, thinking I was going in the opposite direction. Sometimes the visual juxtaposition of the curving, rusted steel walls and the gallery itself looked like abstract paintings to me. (See the picture below.)

I saw the chiropractor, a diminutive woman who had lived and worked in the San francisco Bay Area. She put my rib back where it belonged (ayiyiyiyiyi!!!!) and charged me about one-third what my regular chiro does. I’m sore but feeling much better now.

Here’s the photos. Gotta go work on my next novel. I’m thinking about killing off one of my characters, BTW. (Channelling G.R.R.M.?)

"Puppy" by Jeff Koons. Loved this!

“Puppy” by Jeff Koons. Loved this!


















Closeup of "Puppy"

Closeup of “Puppy”












Inside a Richard Serra sculpture. Yes, you are supposed to walk inside.

Inside a Richard Serra sculpture. Yes, you are supposed to walk inside.


















Spider sculpture at the Guggenheim. I didn't see who the artist was. Barbarian that I am.

Spider sculpture at the Guggenheim. I didn’t see who the artist was. Barbarian that I am.


















After visiting the chiropractor, we retired to this cool old bar in Bilbao for much needed copas de vino tinto.

After visiting the chiropractor, we retired to this cool old bar in Bilbao for much needed copas de vino tinto.












Tom in Bilbao bar.

Tom in Bilbao bar.

Velasquez Paints Peter Dinklage (Or Not.)

A few more thoughts on art in the Prado:

There’s a copy of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci in the Prado. It was definitely painted under Leonardo’s supervision, if not by the Master himself. If you have been disappointed by the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre, I strongly suggest seeing this if you get the chance. The one in the Louvre has a yellowy-green cast; this one does not, and has clear, fresh colors. The Louvre version has severe cracking in the paint and warping of the underlying poplar wood; this one was painted on more expensive and durable walnut and is in excellent condition. The Mona Lisa in the Louvre is sequestered in an acrylic box and is usually surrounded by a horde of tourists who are not at all interested in allowing you to get a closer view; the Prado version hangs unimpeded and ignored. You can walk right up and examine it as closely as you wish. This is the Mona Lisa as it must have looked 500 years ago.

I wanted to see Velasquez paintings. The great thing about Velasquez is the faces–he’s one of those artists who are able to paint the soul and personality of the subject. There was one entire room with nothing but paintings of the jesters of King Philip IV and his court. One of the paintings was of a dwarf who looked very like Peter Dinklage, down to the “Don’t fuck with me” look in his eyes.

"Sebastien de Mora" by Velasquez

“Sebastien de Mora” by Velasquez. Or a very early portrait of Peter Dinklage.














This is an allegorical painting called "The Triumph of Bacchus." Bacchus is highly idealized, but if you look at the other faces, they are very real, with great personality.

This is an allegorical painting called “The Triumph of Bacchus.” Bacchus is highly idealized, but if you look at the other faces, they are very real, with great personality.











The Prado also has a number of Rubens, whom I’ve always enjoyed. First, because of his exuberance; he doesn’t just paint a horse, he paints a drama composed of glossy, bunched muscles, rolling eyes, and streaming, flossy mane and tail. (Frankly, his horses are a lot better than Velasquez’s. One or two of V’s horses looked biologically impossible.) His compositions are full of life and motion–even when the subjects themselves aren’t actually doing much. And then there’s the acres of glowing, pink flesh. The man loved ladies, and he hated to skimp on avoirdupois. The more, the better–that was Rubens. He would have adored me.

This one--I think it's the rape of the Sabine women--illustrates both my points about Rubens: horses and women. Leafing through Jansen's History of Art as a child, I used to wonder  how on earth those men were able to pick up the women.

This one–Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by Castor and Pollux–illustrates both my points about Rubens: horses and women. Leafing through Jansen’s History of Art as a child, I I thought those guys must have been INCREDIBLY strong.
















Okay, enough about art.

Ezcaray, where we currently are, is a village of 2,000 residents. The village also has 12 hotels and more restaurants than you would think possible in such a small place. Apparently, there has been continuous human habitation here since the Neolithic Age, followed by Romans, Visigoths, Moors, etc. Over lunch today, we had a discussion with a family about the area–they come every year. The father is from La Rioja (the region we are in), the mother is Brazilian and they live in Brazil. She told us about a ring set into a pillar on the square. The tradition was that if a bandit, Moor, or other outcast could make it through the town (with people throwing fruits and vegetables at them) and grasp the ring, they were granted sanctuary and could settle here. Whether apocryphal or not, here is the ring. It would look more impressive without the pink flyer pasted onto the pillar:

The Ring of Sanctuary. I may use that for a book title some day--it has a nice ring to it.

The Ring of Sanctuary. I may use that for a book title some day–it has a nice ring to it.


















It rained the evening we arrived, and it was pleasant to watch the rain fall against the backdrop of the ancient church across the way. The temperature has been in the 70’s–a nice contrast to the heat of Madrid. The town is peaceful and tiny, bordered by small rivers and sheltered by the steep valley walls. So good to be here, after so many cities.

Although all the art, culture and history tends to be concentrated in cities, I just don’t like them. There are too many people, too many cars, too much noise–just too much of everything. My idea of a nightmare vacation is New York City. Cities just kind of oppress me in some way. I like being in the country or in small towns, closer to nature.

Our first day, we just walked around the town, taking pictures. We stopped to eat at a little bistro. It was quiet and relaxing after all the sightseeing. I am happy to be here.

The view from our hotel room in Ezcaray

The view from our hotel room in Ezcaray


















A pretty little fountain in a square in Ezcaray. People sit here to read.

A pretty little fountain in a square in Ezcaray. People sit here to read.

More Art, No Palaces

Our second full day in Madrid was all art, all day, yet again. We  went to the Sorolla Museum first. Sorolla was a Spanish Impressionist painter, and the museum is located in his house (well, it used to be his house). Our friend Meg McComb recommended it, and as she is never wrong about these things, we went on faith even though we were both unfamiliar with the artist’s work. We’re glad we did. He was an amazing painter, and I enjoyed his work enormously.

“Mujeres del Mar” by Sorolla

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the museum is the context in which the work is displayed: his home. He had it built once he became successful as a painter, and from the looks of it, he did very well indeed. As in many Spanish homes, it has a shady garden with fountains and flowers and tiled walkways. Inside, the rooms are light and harmonious. The family’s furniture and keepsakes are on display. He obviously adored his wife and three children, as paintings of them are everywhere. It gave me the feeling of a life of contentment and balance, filled with family joy and enjoyment. Many artists lived lives of poverty and desperation, or even chaos and madness, but Sorolla proves that it is possible to be both an artist and a happy person.

Bottle Glass Window, Sorolla Museum

Bottle Glass Window, Sorolla Museum

Whew. That’s a relief. Then we went on the Reina Sophia Museum, which is Madrid’s museum of modern art. Tom wanted to see “Guernica” by Picasso in particular. Guernica is enormous, filling a gigantic wall with its expressive agony. I tried to see the painting as contemporaries must have seen it–something unprecedented and revolutionary. Sadly, I failed. I’m afraid when it comes to modern art, I am kind of a barbarian. I don’t mean to say I dislike all modern art, but the art of the early 20th century, so new, experimental, exciting and fresh to many, leaves me pretty cold. Cubism, abstract expressionism, Dada, mechanistic surrealism, etc. etc.–meh. Picasso does nothing for me. Rothko pisses me off. But I love Dali. They had some of his early work, when he was doing cubism. I have no idea whether it is considered good cubism or not; I can’t tell. But I love his later works in their meticulous rendering of the impossible. The Reina Sophia has several of these paintings, and I enjoyed them. I also enjoyed Dali’s artistic posing, his ridiculous mustache, and his pretentiousness. It was all so–I don’t know–endearing. He appeared on the Dick Cavett Show many years ago. Dali was going on and on about some nonsense, and Cavett leaned over and wriggled his fingers at the artist and said, “Boogie  boogie!” That has been my response to artistic pretentiousness ever since. (I love Dick Cavett, too.)

“Memory of the Woman Child” by Dali

Living wall

We passed this living wall in Madrid several times. It seems like a great idea for cities. It cools the environment and refreshes the eye. Plus, oxygen.

We had dinner at a restaurant called D’Fabula, and it was pretty fabulous. We walked there as my feet seemed to have toughened up a bit. It was still pretty hot, even at night, so we ate inside. Everything was delicious except for the cheesecake I ordered for dessert. It came with a scoop of the most intense and wonderful vanilla ice cream I’ve ever tasted, but the cheesecake itself might have been from Denny’s. The waiter asked me about it and I told him what I thought. He went away and came back with two scoops of the fabulous ice cream, which Tom and I enjoyed together. On the way back, we took a different route and wandered through plazas full of people eating and drinking. There was music, and several of those people you see in Europe who dress up as robots or Don Quixote or knights or whatever and hope you’ll give them money. I think Madrid is a very fun place–for people who go to bed later than we do. Even so, we have rarely gotten to bed before midnight.

Tom being attacked by

Tom being attacked by “conquistadore.” El Conquistadore didn’t like his tip.

Yesterday we had breakfast, did a small amount of shopping, then left Madrid. I say that as though it were easy, but it wasn’t. Tom walked to the parking lot down the street from the hotel–which I was delighted to leave–and couldn’t get the machine there to accept his ticket. Until he asked two Spanish gentleman to help, and then the machine was happy to accept the ticket, but would not accept his EU50 bill. I was waiting at the hotel with the luggage, so he came back and explained he needed to get some change. He had to walk nearly to the Prado before he found someone to break the bill, then came back and we both walked to the garage. So that all took an hour or more. Then our GPS system directed us all over Madrid, down byways and odd little streets, until we finally found ourselves on the road to our next destination, Ezcaray, in the Rioja wine country. The landscape changed very gradually from the flat, red-earth plains of the south to the limestone soil and mountains of the north. We went from olive groves and chaperral to vineyards, forests and green meadows. Ezcaray lies in a deep valley, approached by a steep, winding road that switchbacks down a mountainside. Tom drove white-knuckled all the way. Being brave doesn’t mean you are never scared.

Echaurren, our hotel in Ezcaray

Echaurren, our hotel in Ezcaray

We are staying at Echaurren, a Relais et Chateaux hotel with four restaurants that make it a gastronomic destination. It is housed in a building with an ancient stone exterior, and a very modern and sleek interior. We have a king-size bed. After the muggy postage-stamp-sized bed in Madrid, it feels like sleeping on a football field–only presumably more comfortable. The room looks out on an ancient church with swallows swooping around it. The room has every comfort possible, at least every comfort I could ask for, and I love it.

The view from our room

The view from our room

The only fly in my happy ointment is that when I fell in the parking garage, I dislocated a rib, and it is painful. The nearest chiropractor is in Bilbao, an hour and a half drive from Ezcaray. However, Bilbao has the Guggenheim Museum, which is supposed to be worthwhile for the architecture alone, so I made an appointment for tomorrow and we will kill two birds with one drive. In the meantime, Spain has excellent painkillers, so I am not doing too badly, though I am perhaps a tad fuzzy-brained. Tom assures me that I am, actually.

Bosch and Rubens and Goya, Oh, My!

Today was all art, all day. We first visited the Prado. I had one destination in mind: Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych. I have been fascinated with this work since I was a child. My mom had “Jansen’s History of Art” at home, and I used to leaf through it frequently. Bosch’s triptych was endlessly fascinating, and if you are familiar with the work, you know why. As a child, I found it confusing, fascinating, beautiful, ugly, perverse, opaque, scary, astonishing, and just plain weird. I have always wanted to see this painting (or paintings, technically, as there are three panels) in person–and now I have done so.

"Garden of Earthly Delights" triptych by Hieronymous Bosch

“Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych by Hieronymous Bosch

The colors are as bright and fresh as though it had been painted yesterday. The level of detail is breathtaking–it almost feels as though you could use a microscope on it and see not brush strokes, but further levels of texture and precise rendering.

Detail of "Hell"

Detail of “Hell”

As for the subject matter, I have read that to Bosch’s contemporaries, this work would have been perfectly clear, its symbols well-understood and its messages obvious. I’m not so sure. He depicts pink crystal structures floating in water, strange organic shapes that could be fruits made of bones, but with legs and faces, monsters that make the demons of Medieval paintings look like pussycats, and people doing things to each other so creative in their erotic or sadistic inventiveness that it would make the Marquis de Sade blanche.

"Earthly Delights" detail

“Earthly Delights” detail
















These reproductions don’t begin to capture the brightness of the colors or the clarity of the painting. There is a monster with a human face in the “Hell” panel that some have speculated is a self-portrait. The recorded guide said it is a portrayal of the devil. If so, it’s very atypical for the period, which tended to depict the devil as monstrously as possible. It is a calm, handsome face that observes the chaos and horror surrounding it with unearthly serenity. I have no idea if it is Bosch or not, but it is definitely striking.

To Bosch or not to Bosch?

To Bosch or not to Bosch?









Really, if my feet didn’t hurt so much, I could have stood there all day staring at this painting. But my feet did hurt, and there were rooms and rooms of Velasquez, Rubens, and Goya to see as well. Goya, in particular. He’s one of the few painters who shifted back and forth between almost Flemish attention to detail and the loose, evocative brushwork of Impressionism (long before there were any Impressionists).

Goya in full-on court painter mode with "The Family of Carlos IV." Very fine, detailed brushwork.

Goya in full-on court painter mode with “The Family of Carlos IV.” Very fine, detailed brushwork.












Goya in Impressionist mode. Hard to believe it's the same painter.

Goya in Impressionist mode. Hard to believe it’s the same painter.




























After the Prado, we took a break and had some lunch in a nearby restaurant.On the way, we saw this:

The Beer Bike

The Beer Bi






Actually, we saw several of them, all filled with people laughing loudly, pedaling madly and holding up traffic. It’s the Bbike, described thusly: “Bbike is a Beer Bike, a multi-tandem bike for up to 18 people with a built-in beer tap in which you’ll be able to enjoy Madrid in an original, different and fun way.” Can you even imagine such a thing in a U.S. city? Me neither.

After lunch, we went on to the Thyssen Museum. We were there a bit late, and so didn’t see everything by any means. There were a lot of painters I had never heard of before, which was kind of embarrassing, but then, I never held myself out as an art expert. I have to say, I was delighted when they closed the museum. My feet were killing me.

The lacy decoration behind Tom is composed of oversized white Spanish combs that completely covered the ceiling of the restaurant where we ate lunch.

The lacy decoration behind Tom is composed of oversized white Spanish combs that completely covered the ceiling of the restaurant where we ate lunch.

We rested for a bit and then went to dinner at a restaurant called Veridiana. I refused to walk the half a mile to the restaurant, and I don’t feel bad about it at all. The food was great and our waiter looked like President Obama. I mentioned this and he said he gets that a lot, but that he is a happier person than Mr. Obama. I believe him.

Adios Beautiful Pool, Hola Madrid

After returning to the parador from our visit to Cordoba’s Alcazar, etc., I took another luxurious swim in the pool. It was about 100 degrees out, and the water felt heavenly. Later, we went to dinner at the Parador restaurant. By this time, it had cooled down to a lovely temperature and we sat on the restaurant terrace.

The hotel cat came by to see if I would drop some food. This cat haunts the restaurant terrace, scrounging food, but never bothers anyone. She just sits nearby and stares at you with her beautiful, strange, light-blue eyes. If nothing is offered, she quietly moves on. Last night I asked if she had a name–and she does: Rosita. I dropped a small chunk of my excellent steak, and Rosita sniffed at it, but wouldn’t eat it. The server said she only likes fish–but this morning, I gave her some chorizo, and she liked that well enough!

The lovely Rosita

The lovely Rosita

I had thought at first that Rosita was a feral cat, because they are everywhere in Spain. I’ve never seen so many before. But Rosita is too plump and calm and healthy-looking to be a feral–though she may have started that way, because there are certainly feral cats around the parador.

We departed this morning for Madrid. It was a three and a half hour drive on minimally-travelled freeways. It looked a lot like driving in the central coast area of California, except that instead of grape vines as far as the eye can see, it’s olive trees. Every once in a while, there were gigantic shapes by the side of the freeway in the shape of a bull, a Flamenco guitarist, or a donkey. They are essentially billboards–flat cutouts–but there’s no verbiage or other explanation for them. It may remain an unsolved mystery unless we remember to ask someone. If they are just supposed to be iconic Spanish motifs, where’s the Flamenco dancer?

A montage of the three strange "billboards" we kept seeing by the side of the freeway

A montage of the three strange “billboards” we kept seeing by the side of the freeway










Once in Madrid, the traffic became horrible, of course. We had to re-rent the car at the airport, which sucked up some time, and then we headed for the hotel–only to find they had no parking. Tom did find some public parking, but then we had to walk to the car to get the luggage. It’s about 100 degrees here, too, but as they say, it’s a dry heat.

We pulled the luggage out of the car, but then I tripped and landed hard on the filthy floor of the parking garage, hitting my head and bruising my ribs. I was furious with myself. I’ve been so careful on the cobbles, in the slippery showers, going to the cave with the prehistoric pictures–and I trip over a suitcase! After ascertaining that I was essentially OK, we struggled up the steps (later, someone pointed out the elevator). On the way, a very kind man hoisted my suitcase up to the street level. (Now don’t go saying Tom should have done it. He had his own suitcase and a couple of other bags to deal with.)

It’s always hard to come down in your station in life–or in hotels. After the lovely, comfortable, spacious parador in Cordoba with its wonderful pool, this hotel looks several steps below Motel 6 (though it does have an elevator, thank god. We are on the fifth floor–in U.S. terms, that’s the sixth floor.). It’s a cube with a washbasin in the bedroom and a sliver of soap as its major amenity. We had to ask for drinking glasses. But again–it seems clean and the bed is comfortable, which is what really counts.

I am missing that pool, though.