Things I Will Miss (or Not) about Spain

Marquis de Riscal winery, designed by Frank Gehry

Marquis de Riscal winery, designed by Frank Gehry

Things I Will Miss:

The food. You can get delicious food almost everywhere in Spain, often for little money. It’s heavy on fat, so it tends to be rich and satisfying. Even little holes in the wall offer yummy stuff, freshly prepared. Before I move on, I have to mention a very special restaurant, La Tertulia, in Barcelona. We ate there on the recommendation of our hotel, and it was only a short walk away. We ate outside in a charming patio. By this time, we were getting tired of meat and ordered several dishes of vegetables. All were simply delicious–and so was the menu. I took a few shots of it to treasure, as the English translations of the Spanish descriptions were adorable:

  • Mejillones con ajo y perejil al vino turbio: “Mussels, garlic & parsley to the turbid wine”
  • Paellas: “Cooked by 30% with sea water broth with healthy clams & truly sea”
  • Caldereta de arroz con bogavante: “Lobster soggy”
  • Costillar de Iberico a baja temperatura con grasa de barbacoa: “Iberian ribs low temperature with greasy smoky barbecue”

We ordered some Spanish brandy after the meal. The waiter poured us two enormous servings. There was a finger or so of brandy left in the bottle, so he shrugged and told us to finish it off, leaving the bottle on the table. Tipping is not common in Spain, but this guy got a nice one.

The people. Almost everyone we encountered was helpful and friendly–sometimes extraordinarily so. They worked hard to understand my execrable Spanish. Complete strangers rushed to help if we were having difficulties. Lovely people.

The art and architecture. Spain appears to be a country that values art, and it shows. Although I have traveled to many countries and toured many beautiful buildings, I don’t think I have ever been as gobstopped by architectural beauty before–especially the Alhambra, La Mesquita, the Guggenheim, and La Sagrada Familia. I do not expect to see anything, ever, that surpasses La Sagrada Familia.

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

The wine. As with the food, you can get good wine very cheaply everywhere. Pay a couple more Euros, and you can get GREAT wines.

What I Will Not Miss:

The food. Yes, I know I said I would miss it, but there is a downside. There’s jamon in everything, just about. I know Spain is famous for its jamon, and there are pig’s hindquarters hanging in every restaurant, but I can take it or leave it. When it comes to cured meats (except for bacon, and then it has to be cooked crisp), I can pretty much leave it. Spanish food is very meat-oriented, so if you are eating in restaurants all the time, you might not wind up with enough vegetables in your diet. I once received a platter containing a quarter of an entire lamb that boasted a single asparagus stalk. Also, the food is high-fat, which is delicious at first, but I became rather sated with it. Despite the reputation for tapas being small dishes, even when I ordered medio raciones (half portions), sometimes we received huge platters and basins of food that put American restaurants to shame for serving size. Just too much food.

jamon

Smoking. More people smoke in Spain than in my native California (though I cannot speak for other parts of the U.S.). Being former smokers, Tom and I loathe the smell–I think it’s something your brain does to help you stay clean. People no longer smoke inside restaurants, but they can smoke in the outdoor eating areas. Nothing ruins a pleasant meal in the open air more than cigaret smoke. And the ground everywhere is littered with butts. Gross.

The Weird Reservation Thing: Several times when Tom and I arrived at a more or less upscale restaurant without reservations, we were turned away–even though there were plenty of available tables. In one case, there was not another soul in the entire restaurant. I don’t get it.

That’s all she wrote, folks! I appreciate all the “Likes” and comments I’ve gotten on my trip blog. It’s back to work on the next novel, and I’ll try to think of something interesting to say soon.

Scrambling To Get It All In: The Last Day

Our last day in Spain finally arrived. We decided to get some breakfast and head down to La Rambla, a long mall that leads down to the harbor. Traffic goes by on either side of a pedestrian mall, with booths and kiosks in the middle and shops on either side of the traffic lanes (where shops are usually located, actually). We were warned that this was a prime area for pickpockets. so we were on the alert.

There were tons of people walking la Rambla. Most of the kiosks were selling the same old stuff we had seen everywhere else in Spain–cheap “Flamenco” shawls, a Spanish dancer doll (the exact same one in every city), t-shirts–augmented by Barcelona-specific stuff like Gaudi-inspired plates and keychains. Then we came to the open-air market, La Boqueria. This was a feast for the senses, and if we had not already had breakfast, we would have bought something delicious here. The stalls were piled high with fresh fish and shellfish; eggs of all kinds, from emu to ostrich to quail; the obligatory stalls with pig haunches hanging and cured meats on display; every sort of nut you could imagine; dried and fresh chilis; sweets; exotic fruits; piles of tripe, lambs’ heads, kidneys and other offal meats; spices, teas and coffees. it was overwhelming and beautiful.

Dried chilis

Dried chilis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offal meats

Offal meats

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shellfish

Shellfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every sort of egg

Every sort of egg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seafood

Seafood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this feast for the eyes, we continued down La Rambla, stopping just before the harbor to photograph the living statues. There was Don Quixote, a person dressed like a Salvador Dali painting, a Remington cowboy statue (probably the most boring, despite his dramatic pose), a demon (entertaining), a “bronze statue” of Galileo, and several more.

An entertaining demon

An entertaining demon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dali lady. Not sure the person inside the costume was actually a lady, but no matter.

Dali lady

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By that time it was hot, and we were reasonably near the Barcelona Aquarium, so we went there for a few hours. For people whose local fish museum is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Barcelona Aquarium cannot measure up, but I did see some interesting fish I hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately, labeling was kind of random. You’d see a label above one tank, with no sign of the supposed denizen, then see the same fish in another tank that had no such fish identified as being there. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant couple of hours out of the heat. I do think someone tried to pick my purse in the aquarium. I was waiting in line to buy mineral water and carelessly left the zipper open, displaying credit cards and cash. I saw a hand creep across the ledge in front of me, heading toward my purse. As soon as I clocked the hand, it suddenly became very interested in the surface of the ledge, which had nothing on it but crumbs. I zipped the bag.

Seahorses in Barcelona Aquarium

Seahorses in Barcelona Aquarium

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This iguana had such a pleasant expression that I just had to photograph him. Or her.

This iguana had such a pleasant expression that I just had to photograph him. Or her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don't know what this fish is due to random labeling, but I liked it.

I don’t know what this fish is due to random labeling, but I liked it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the afternoon, we went to Parc Guel. Gaudi had a house there (designed by someone else), and he designed a beautiful installation in the park that would look very familiar had we actually gone in. We already had tickets to see his house and we wandered around the free area of the park, which is also very Gaudi-esque, but not the iconic installation everybody was lined up to pay for. When we went through his house, I was astonished to find out that despite the over-the-top ornateness and whimsy of his work, Gaudi lived a very austere and simple life. His furnishings were simple and sparse. He cared nothing for clothes or material things for himself. A remarkable contrast.

The area of Parc Guel we did not go in, showing more of Gaudi's amazing work.

The area of Parc Guel we did not go in, showing more of Gaudi’s amazing work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kids playing with giant bubbles in Parc Guel

Kids playing with giant bubbles in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaudi's house in Parc Guel

Gaudi’s house in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom standing under a Gaudi-designed bridge in Parc Guel

Tom standing under a Gaudi-designed bridge in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We left without paying to go into the most interesting part of the park, which I kind of regret.

We had an early dinner at a boring restaurant where a large group of people (maybe 100 or so) were playing Scrabble (in Catalan? At least they’d have a ready use for all those X’s!), and so to bed.

Adios, Spain. We had a wonderful time!

More soon about a menu that made me laugh and things I will miss/not miss so much about Spain.

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.

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.

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.

The Mosque with a Cathedral Inside–Or Is It the Other Way Around?

We arrived in Cordoba after an easy drive from Sevilla (it was easy for me because Tom was driving). Our parador sits above the city in a pleasant neighborhood, and overlooks the entire city. Even more important, it has an elevator, which I greeted with cries of joy. Our quarters consist of four rooms–bedroom, sitting room, dressing room, bathroom and a large, sit-able balcony. It may not be as romantico as the parador at the Alhambra, but it is lovely, and there is a pool, which I took immediate advantage of. I enjoyed floating in the cool water, watching the birds drink. There were swallows, which drink on the wing, doves, and little yellow birds that look like goldfinches. There was no one else in the large pool, and the surrounding gardens are full of palms trees, hibiscus and orange trees. Paradise. The lifeguard speaks French, but not English, and I speak French but not Spanish. Between the two of us, we managed to miscommunicate in three languages.

The view of Cordoba from our balcony

The view of Cordoba from our balcony

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today (our first full day here), we visited La Mezquita, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which has been turned into a Catholic church. La Mezquita is one of the buildings I studied in art history, so it looked weirdly familiar, as though I had been there before. It has an odd history. It started as a Visigoth church. When the Moors came in the 700’s, the sultan bought the Visigoth church from the Christians, knocked it down and built a mosque. The mosque was added onto until the expulsion of the Moors. The Christians had the good sense not to tear down this incredibly graceful and beautiful building, but they did plonk down a gaudy sanctuary, altarpiece, and choir in the middle of it and appropriated the side niches as chapels.

The result is a mishmash of styles that mingle awkwardly together, like neighbors who get together to socialize only on Fourth of July weekend.

There was far too much detail to capture on camera, especially my iPhone camera, and some of the interesting things were behind glass or wrought-iron screens. but I will let La Mezquita speak for itself.

The famous striped arches made of stone ad brick.

The famous striped arches made of stone ad brick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ceiling, La Mezquita, Cordoba

The ceiling above the Christian sanctuary in the mosque.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christianity meets Islam in the ceiling

Christianity meets Islam in the ceiling

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High altar, La Mezquita, Cordoba

High altar, La Mezquita, Cordoba

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pipe organ in the choir section, La Mezquita, Cordoba. A matching organ sits on the wall opposite. The position of the pipes is very unusual.

Pipe organ in the choir section, La Mezquita, Cordoba. A matching organ sits on the wall opposite. The position of the pipes is very unusual.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This thing is called a monstrance. I don’t know what it is used for, but it is solid gold. (OK, there’s some silver in the base section. Tom insists I be accurate in my reporting!) It is in the treasury of the cathedral/mosque, Cordoba.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should mention something about Spain, apropos of nothing. All the historical places we have visited have had benches or chairs here and there so people can sit and rest their feet and appreciate their surroundings. I deeply appreciate this–more and more every year. I remember after touring the Louvre many years ago, we were beneath the big I.M. Pei pyramid. I was dying on my feet, and sat down on the floor, as there was nothing–not even a low wall–in sight. A security guard immediately came over and told me in French that it was not permitted to sit there. I asked why and got the most Gallic shrug ever seen. Later, walking around Paris, I sat somewhere random and got told to move along again. I began to feel like a vagrant, and my feet were miserable. Spain has the right idea.

After viewing the mosque, we went in search of the Museum of Al-Andalus Life, that is, the culture of the Moors. This is housed in an ancient Moorish defensive tower that is reached via a bridge across the Quadalquivir River.

View from the Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir River toward the Museum of Al-Andal Life

View from the Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir River toward the Museum of Al-Andal Life. The museum is in the square building at the end of the bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of the bridge, some enterprising people had set up a large stall selling hats and cold water. Did I mention it’s in the mid-eighties today? Not horrible, but we both bought hats to keep the sun off our faces. We went to the museum, but they were closing for siesta in a half hour, so we stopped at a cafe, which, judging by the clientele, is a local fave. I had a beer, which to my nearest and dearest will indicate just how warm I was. Also tapas–of course!–as it was mid-afternoon.

View of the Old Town (Barrio Judica) from the Roman Bridge

View of the Old Town (Barrio Judica) from the Roman Bridge

We decided to backtrack across the bridge and go to the archeological museum. This was open, and we managed to get through prehistory, the Romans, and the Moors before this museum also closed. By this time, it was pretty hot, so we took a taxi back to the Parador, and I, for one, am going swimming!

My beloved in the center courtyard of La  Mesquita

My beloved in the center courtyard of La Mezquita

 

 

 

 

Walking in Sevilla and Getting Damned Tired of It. (Walking, Not Sevilla.)

We’re in Cordoba now, having spent three nights in Sevilla, during which I was too tired to post anything.

I slept quite late the first full day, which was a Sunday, so there wan’t much open in any case. We walked around, took some pictures, got rained on, had some tapas and tried to get oriented.

One of Sevilla's tiny streets in the old Jewish Quarter

One of Sevilla’s tiny streets in the old Jewish Quarter

We actually didn’t do much in Seville except for walk. Our hotel was reasonably near the Alcazar and the cathedral–but we never made it inside the cathedral. We spent a lot of time walking through the narrow, winding streets of the old Jewish Quarter (pre-expulsion). The houses are four stories high, and in some places I could almost touch the houses to either side of the street with outstretched arms. Cars can access some (but not all) of these cobbled streets, and when a car came along, we stepped into a doorway or onto the narrow sidewalk, if there was one. In addition to negotiating the Medieval and Renaissance walking surfaces, we had to keep a sharp eye (and nose) out for horse and dog poop. There are a lot of horses and lovely carriages in the old city that tourists can hire for merely exorbitant prices.

While walking, we passed by an interesting-looking restaurant, Sagardi. It had a small foyer for tapas, and a restaurant in a large, enclosed atrium. We checked out the menu and decided to come back when we were hungry. We had dinner there, and it was every bit as wonderful as we had hoped. We vowed to return for tapas another time.

Atrium roof, Sagardi restuarant

Atrium roof, Sagardi restuarant

Magnificent old tree in central Sevilla

Magnificent old tree in central Sevilla

The hotel we stayed in, La Casa de Maestro Boutique, was an old house on one of the non-car-accessible streets, but we did get a parking spot nearby. The hotel has oodles of charm, but the room was small and the shower miniscule. Once in the shower, if I dropped my shampoo (inevitable, as there was very little place to put anything), it was nearly impossible to pick it up. However, the room was clean and the bed was comfortable, and that counts for a lot.

Driving in this part of Seville is madness for a tourist, so we walked to the Alcazar the second morning. Flamenco is very big in Sevilla, and there are stores selling very high-quality Flamenco-related goods such as fans, silk shawls, dresses, castenets, etc. (You can also get el cheapo versions of these in gift stores). My sister wanted a Spanish shawl, so I went into one of these upscale stores to find one. While there, I saw the most gorgeous shawl I have ever seen in my entire life, or hope to. I have extremely good (read “expensive”) tastes: it was the equivalent of $1500 US. It was love at first sight, but it will have to be a long-distance relationship.

Lusting in my heart for this shawl. Wouldn't this be a lovely Christmas present for me? I thought so, too.

Lusting in my heart for this shawl. All hand-embroidered in silk. Wouldn’t this be a lovely Christmas present for me? I thought so, too.

The Alcazar of Seville was build by King Pedro the Just or Pedro the Cruel, depending on whether you were one of the people (the Just) or an aristo or member of the clergy (the Cruel). Pedro really liked the Moorish style or architecture and ornamentation, and used it throughout his palace. It is fronted by a 12th-century gate, very rustic and antique-looking, considering the elegance lying just beyond. You walk into a vast plaza, flanked on three sides by different buildings. One is Pedro’s palace, one was the house of someone else important–the mayor of Seville?–done in a more traditional Spanish style, and one is another wing of the palace built by a later monarch who very much disapproved of Pedro’s taste in architecture, because it is a thoroughly Italianate Renaissance building. So it’s a rather odd mishmash. Pedro’s palace is rich in lacy Moorish stonework (even bearing the name of Allah in this most Christian palace), brilliant tile work, Moorish arches, carved, painted and gilded ceilings, and fountains. One room, the Ambassadors Hall, is completely tiled up to the ceiling, three stories up.

The Alcazar, showing Pedro's palace to the left, and the important person's house to the right.

The Alcazar, showing Pedro’s palace to the left, and the important person’s house to the right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ceiling of the Ambassadors Hall, the Alcazar Seville

Ceiling of the Ambassadors Hall, the Alcazar Seville

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hall of Ambassadors, Alcazar, Seville

The Alcazar is the residence of Spain’s current king and queen when in Sevilla, but we had an impression that they don’t stay here much. Hard to imagine they would want to stay at a place that is overrun with tourists all the time. We bought tickets for the private royal chambers, which are upstairs, but I’d be willing to bet they have other, much more private chambers there for their actual use. These rooms reminded me of other palaces in other places, with many oil paintings of ladies in voluminous dresses and men in tight white pants, crystal chandeliers, gilded clocks, etc., etc.

Reflecting pool, the Alcazar

Reflecting pool, the Alcazar

There are many lovely courtyards, reflecting pools and fountains throughout the palace, and the whole is surrounded by yet more gardens. It’s a gorgeous place, but I have to admit I was not as thrilled as I should have been because my feet hurt. A lot. I disappointed myself in my unwillingness to do more exploring, but there we have it. We found the cafeteria and had some wine and split a sandwich, then left. We found a horse and carriage next to the cathedral and got a ride back to the hotel, which I thoroughly enjoyed, largely because I wasn’t walking, but I do enjoy the clip-clop of horses and yes, the way they smell.

Gorgeous antique fan on display at the Alcazar

Gorgeous antique fan on display at the Alcazar

Later, we walked to Sagardi for tapas and wine. The tapas were delicious, but we decided to find another tapas place–it’s what people do in Sevilla. While wending our way through the tiny streets trying to find another tapas bar (a specific one; there were plenty of tapas bars. It made me wonder if anyone cooks at home in Sevilla.), I realized I had a blister. A quick trip to the pharmacy solved that problem, and we eventually found our tapas place, situated on a plaza across from City Hall. We had more excellent tapas, but by this time, we were both full. We did stop on the way back to the hotel for small ice creams, but this hardly counts. I feel like we should have gone to the cathedral–it’s the largest in Spain (that means very, very large)–but couldn’t work up enough enthusiasm.

Then it was early (for Spain) to bed, with Cordoba awaiting the next day. I mean, after we pick up our laundry, that is.

 

The Spanish Fitness Regimen for Old Ladies

I have begun to suspect that Tom planned this trip to Spain as a means of whipping me into shape (I admit this is needed, but still). Yesterday we said farewell to lovely Granada and headed toward Seville. It turned out to be oh, so much more than merely a travel day. I may never recover, in fact.

Actually, the first part was entirely my fault. I asked if we could visit Ronda on the way. Ronda is not a female friend, but one of the “White Towns” of Spain’s Andelucia hill country. (Apparently sometime a long time ago, white was the de rigeur color for houses here, and it hasn’t changed since.) The town is bisected by a deep gorge and is very picturesque.

Then Tom mentioned that near Ronda, there was a cave with prehistoric paintings in it, la Cueva Pileta. Well, that cinched it as far as I was concerned (innocent that I was).

We found Ronda without difficulty and headed toward a part of town our guide assured us was more for locals, parked with difficulty and tried to find a restaurant (as recommended by the book). The first place turned us away for reasons unknown (my Spanish isn’t very good, so I wasn’t sure what his excuse was). The second place was so full of people I thought I might become agoraphobic if we tried to eat there. The third place said they had a large party coming in, but as we were leaving, they called us back and set up a small table for us.

Musicians Ronda

Bagpipe band in Ronda

While we were waiting for food, the party arrived, complete with bagpipers and drummers, sounding very Celtic. This makes sense for Northern Spain, as the Celts in ancient times went through there as a stopover on the way to Ireland, as Tom, the man of 100% Irish extraction, pointed out. It turned out that the large party was indeed a group of people from Northern Spain. We enjoyed the music (most of the musicians were in full traditional outfits) and the lunch, which consisted of fried padrone peppers, local snails in their stripy shells (yum!) and cured chorizo. Oh, and some local red wine.

We tried calling the cave a couple of times, but no one answered. We decided to go there anyway and come back to Ronda if it was closed. The cave belongs to the family of the farmer who originally found it, and it is operated by the family, not the government, so it has somewhat irregular hours.

We traveled up into the craggy hills along windy roads, passing through more White Towns. We finally came to the end of the road, or nearly so. There is a small sign and a parking area, but otherwise nothing but an extremely steep flight of stone steps heading up through the chaperral. I left my purse in the car, as I didn’t want to accidentally bump any formations with it (I’ve been in a few caves before, and they frown on this).

Stairs Pileta

Stairs to the Cueva Pileta. Trust me, this was just the beginning of a very long climb.

The stairs went up. And up. And up. In addition to being steep, the steps were of varying depths, and there is a lot of loose scree making it hazardous. At the top, there is a hole in a rock face, and we went in. The young lady inside would not take a credit card or American cash, and the only Spanish cash we had was down, down, down at the car in the purse I had so thoughtfully left behind. To my immense relief, she agreed to come down to the car with us after the tour to get her money.

The cave is beautiful even without the cave paintings, with impressive stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, and sparkling crystal formations. Some of the formations were dark with prehistoric smoke, some tinted with cobalt and other minerals. I have never before seen any cave paintings (though I have seen prehistoric pictographs in California and Hawaii). They have a freshness and energy that looks modern, and it is exciting to think I was looking at the handiwork of someone who lived and died perhaps 30,000 years ago. How they managed to negotiate the cave with only torches is astonishing enough; I had trouble even with the rock steps, steel handrails and clutching Tom the whole way.

Horse in Cueva Pileta

Horse in Cueva Pileta

Because, you see, there were no lights. They give you a feeble little lantern to hold when you come in. This lantern completely blinded me until I figured out how to block the light coming toward me and direct it only at the ground. The guide had a good light that she used to help us, but I am increasingly night blind, and found the whole thing nerve-wracking in the extreme. Add to that a LOT of uneven stairs and very slippery footing. The guide book said to bring something warm because the cave was cold, but I sweated gallons. By the end of the tour, my hair was streaming with sweat and my glasses were steamed up as though I had been in a Turkish bath.

And I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The paintings are amazing. There is a very rare depiction of a fish, quite large, and inside it, you can see another fish. There were paintings of horses, bison, goats and deer, beautifully rendered and informing us what these ancient animals looked like with a few perfectly placed lines and shading. There are strange scratchings, straight lines and bars. The guide said it was to count full moons. Other scratches she said were depictions of vulvas, a symbol of fertility. Maybe, but you can see the same thing in any men’s bathroom. I don’t think adolescent males have changed that much over the millenia. It hardly matters whether these paintings and markings bear deep religious significance or were merely the exercise of horniness and creative expression; they are the only messages we have from our early ancestors.

Fish in Cueva Pilete. Note the fish inside the fish.

Fish in Cueva Pilete. Note the fish inside the fish.

Goat pileta

Goat in Cueva Pileta

Once we emerged from the cave, there was of course, the descent down the rocky hillside to the car. Once we paid our patient guide, we took off in search of the road to Seville–but first, some water. Our GPS system (which was finally speaking English instead of Spanish, thanks to Tom, although the English voice cannot pronounce Spanish place names) wanted to direct us down tiny roads through the mountains. We knew there was a nice highway not too far distant and ignored her. On the way to the highway, we stopped at a little hillside bar for agua minerale. The people there seemed very excited to meet Americans, and several friendly people stopped by to say hello, which was very cheering.

On the road to Seville, I started falling asleep. I don’t sleep in cars any better than I do on airplanes, and kept jerking awake. Exhaustion dragged at me like water-soaked clothing on a drowning man, and by the time we reached our hotel, I was a zombie.

The hotel is a charming four-story building that was once the residence of Flamenco guitarist maestro Nino Ricardo. Our room is on the second floor, which means up three narrow flights of steep stairs, dragging suitcases because there is no elevator. Although the concierge took my big bag, I was still feeling more than exhausted to begin with, so this did not refresh me.

The living room at the Casa de Maestro has this depiction (sculpture?) resembling the strings and sound hole of a guitar. The "strings" reach from the four-story ceiling to the floor.

The living room at the Casa de Maestro has a decoration resembling the strings and sound hole of a guitar. The “strings” reach from the four-story ceiling to the floor.

We went out for tapas at a recommended bar and sat outside on the sidewalk, watching the people streaming by us. The food was delicious–scrambled eggs with black rice, calamari and crayfish, salmon in some yummy sauce, jamon Iberico and something else we can’t remember because we were both tired.

Then back to the hotel, where I completely lost it. All I’m going to say about this dark episode is that Tom is a saint. Once I got to bed I lost consciousness for about 10 hours and awoke refreshed with all evil spirits completely exorcised.

The Sublime and Then There’s Peeing in the Parking Lot

This is the first long-haul trip I’ve been on in a long time that I didn’t just about die from jet lag. Tom and I landed in Madrid in the morning and napped for a few hours in the hotel before heading out for what passes for an early dinner in Spain at 9:00pm. (Tom is in heaven. Nine o’clock dinners and lunch at 4 pm.) We went to bed at about 11 and woke at 6 am. I felt wonderful, and we were now attuned to the Spanish timetable. Absolute magic, especially since the trip lasted approximately 20+ hours in all, and I was awake for the entire time. plus travel to and from airports, because I don’t sleep on airplanes. Please don’t send me your sleep remedy–I’ve tried them all. This time I drank three glasses of wine and took two Xanax and DID NOT GO TO SLEEP. (Also please do not send me warnings about mixing pills and alcohol. I normally would not, but I was desperate–and yet I still didn’t conk out.) It’s been this way since I started flying at the age of two. I am not anxious about flying or tense during a flight. I just Do. Not. Sleep. It’s a major frustration, and sometimes leads to up to three vacation days just recovering from jet lag.

But this morning I was bright eyed and bushy tailed. We rented a car and Tom headed to Granada with no maps or GPs and got us there without any problem. Andalucia reminds me a lot of California, except instead of miles and miles of grape vines, there are kilometers and kilometers of olive trees.

We are staying at the Parador de Granada, which is actually inside the Alhambra Palace complex. We had a bit of trouble figuring out where to go and how to get there without buying a ticket to the palace (we are getting these through the parador). So we parked in one of the paid lots, which is a long way from the parador. As we were walking, we saw a woman sitting sideways in the open driver’s seat of her car with her legs spread wide, peeing on the asphalt. Well, they say travel broadens the mind, and that certainly was a completely new sight in my experience.

Our bedroom at the Parador de Granada

Our bedroom at the Parador de Granada

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The parador is gorgeous, and everything here is amazing. There are nightingales singing in the trees! We couldn’t be happier with the room(s) (yeah, it’s pretty swank, but Tom tells me not to get used to it), and tomorrow we tour the palace.

Sparkling wine and yummy treats awaited us in our sitting room at the parador

Sparkling wine and yummy treats awaited us in our sitting room at the parador

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cool archway in the parador. The paving is made of different colored pebbles in intricate patterns.

Cool archway in the parador. The paving is made of different colored pebbles in intricate patterns, but it’s hard to see in this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, and I have been able to navigate in Spanish and make myself understood, which thrills me because I never studied it. I probably owe this to my mother, who was bilingual English/Spanish, but who for some reason wanted me to take French. (French speakers in California are extremely thin on the ground.) Thanks, Mom! Your blessings continue to enrich my life.