Monday, April 29, 2013

April 29th: Lightning Strikes Twice

The weather hadn't improved when dinner time rolled around. We left our place and combed the neighborhood for somewhere to eat, but the menus just weren't thrilling and it was only 8:30 and all the places were empty. Even though it was raining cats and dogs, I just couldn't bear the shame of being the first couple in the place. So we left our barrio and crossed the street into the tourist land at Plaza Mayor.

While the outside tables were set up, and covered with umbrellas, there were no patrons – it was just too cold. As we walked around the outer portico checking menus, a short waiter tried to get us into his place, but it looked like the worst diner on the worst day of the year so we went on. We stopped at the first main gate and read the menu for a place halfway down a set of slippery stairs. I told My Lovely Wife to wait at the top – no reason to climb if the menus stunk. I liked to looks of one of them but when I got to the bottom of the stairs, they were not yet open. But I noticed another, with the really unappealing name of “Kitchen Stories.” They had a “best sellers” list written on a chalkboard out front and one of their specials was Duck Cannelloni. Now how could a place with anything Duck be bad? I motioned to My Lovely Wife to come down the stairs. She wasn't sold but I applied what was left of my rain-soaked charm and she consented. We went in and grabbed a table.

What resulted of that soggy decision was the best meal I've had in Spain. She monopolized the Cannelloni and I went with the Magret de Pato, a Madrileño riff on that tapa I’d left behind in Sevilla so many days ago. Rare duck breast with sauteed vegetables and a little pile of caramelized onions – who could ask for more?

A couple of glasses of wine, a superb dinner, a nice conversation with the owner about the various aspects of New Mexico chiles and we had the best possible last night dinner imaginable. Given the weather, the nature of the places we had to choose from, nothing suggested that we’d end up wishing our meal would never end. The owner topped us off with a couple of flutes of some sort of red Ouzo and we were on our way back into the rain after double cheek kissing her on the way out the door.

Much like our trip to the gardens and the wonder of vegetables, tonight’s dinner was one of those grand experiences you don’t expect. We might have had just another set of boring tapas with a tourist hating waiter. Instead we had a wonderful meal, some great conversation and the best end to a great trip.

Throughout these last two weeks, we’ve toasted each dinner with the same words “El Viaje es la Cosa.” The Journey is the Thing. And it is, undoubtedly.


April 29th: The Royal Vegetable Collection

It took us three attempts to get to the Royal Botanic Gardens today. This was the first bad day of weather on the trip, bad in the sense that it was cold, windy and raining pretty hard. Our first time out, we made it as far as the Corte Ingles on Calle Arenal (~.5 miles) before it just became too wet. So we browsed their bookstore and stopped for coffee before returning home.

After sitting around for a bit and looking out the window, it seemed like it might be letting up little bit so we left again, this time heading across and out of Plaza Mayor (~.5 miles) before the wind and rain really kicked in and we called the journey due to weather a second time. Three-fourths of the way back to the house we decided to wait out the weather over lunch and stopped by one of the places that had relegated us to their basement last year for being too early for dinner. We were seated in a pretty fancy dining room, one way more deserving that the bocadillos we wanted so when it came time to order we were told that bocadillos are only offered in the bar. The 8x10’ bar that luckily had two stools available. We sat and ate and were entertained by a large tour group that managed to cram itself into the bar with us. I asked the bartender if this was typical and she told me that they handle three large tours every afternoon, with each allowed one hour to eat. The bar improved when the group was kicked downstairs to the basement.

The sun came out just as we were polishing off a slice of Ponche at the Mercado so we made our third attempt and actually made it to the gardens before the rain started again. In for a penny as we always say, we paid and went in and spent an hour roaming around in the drizzle looking at the myriad plants and trees. One of the guidebooks called it a “tree museum” and they were right. There was even a stand of Sequoia, but the highlight was the vegetable garden. Imagine spending a year practicing another language and then flying a quarter of the way around the world, walking for an hour in unsettled weather and then being wowed by a great collection of Cabbage, Beets, Carrots, Artichokes, Broccoli and Lettuce. Next door to the Prado no less. I had my iPhone out to do on the spot translations as we circled the beds oooing and aahing and taking pictures of the incredible specimens.

By now though it was really starting to come down, we had the umbrellas out and it was time to go. We crossed the Paseo del Prado and picked a street that headed up the hill through the Las Huertas neighborhood, one of our favorites. By the time we were home, the sun was out again and the showers had stopped.

Today’s Travel Lesson of the Day – excitement and wonder are often just where you never expected to find them.

Center Lane, Royal Botanic Garden.

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Rhododendron

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Camelia

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Weeping miniature Rose Tree

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Rhododendrons

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Lettuce and Kale

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Cabbage

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Artichoke

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Test your Spanish on this useful guide

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Pink flowering something or other

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My Lovely Wife and the Wisteria she will never have

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Did you see a guy run out of here with a bag?

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

April 28th: Why we travel, part eleventy.

We spent the better part of Sunday trying to figure out the washing machine. Before that though we took a hike to El Rastro, Europe’s largest flea market. But before that, we had to figure out how to get across Calle Mayor without disrupting the Madrid Marathon. It turned out to be a day of this and that, a mishmash of interesting stuff.

We awoke to the sounds of helicopters go hovering overhead and figured it was just another demonstration. Only when we walked up the street did we discover that we were on the route of the marathon. Trying to get across through a never ending stream of runners was tough, but we finally found a window and scooted through the throng, hopefully without disrupting anyone’s pace. We popped into Mercado San Miguel of the off chance of finding some coffee but the bar was three deep and frankly I burned up all my interest in jostling during my years in China. We left and headed downhill to the flea market and spent the next couple of hours roaming up and down without buying. It was a great place for early morning people watching but none of the wares were appealing today. I already have enough Palestina scarves to last a lifetime and nothing else was jumping out at us. We headed back up to the Plaza Mayor and took a spin through the Sunday coin and stamp market before stopping in a local place for chocolate and churros. It’s interesting how each chocolateria produces a different product. Sometimes it’s thick like pudding, other times thinner and sweet. This time it was on the thin side but it retained that dark chocolate flavor, it ranked among the best we’ve had.

The afternoon was devoted (once again) to trying to make the washing machine work. I did one load that came out okay, but got sucked into an multi-hour slugfest when I tried to re-wash some clothes I did the other day, that came out smelling like soap. I finally figured out where the soap was supposed to go, and ran a cycle or two but the result was the same – the rinse water was foamy as heck. I finally gave up after I got it down to being mostly water, spun them out and put them on the rack to dry. Thankfully it was the last load of the trip.

Later in the afternoon we went out for a walk on Calle Arenal, stopping in some shoe stores and an electronics place that was like Best Buy squared. There was a live concert going on in the foyer that was being loudly broadcast throughout the store. We shopped cameras a bit, checked out the various Nespresso offerings and then went back out and down the street to the Corte Ingles bookstore where My Lovely Wife bought an English language book to get her through the trip home. By then it was time for dinner so we decided to reprise the other night and eat at Elmandela, the African place down the block.

Our pals from the other night, Jose and Aba were surprised and glad to see us and we got the same window table as last time. I opted for a big beer from Cameroon figuring I’d stay in style. My Lovely Wife, vino tinto de la casa. There were a few locals in the place eating tapas and drinking tea, and a few more guests arrived while we waited for our food. I had a chicked stew with plantains and vegetables that I topped with a few scoops of the same screamingly hot chile sauce I’d had on my peanut stew the other night. My Lovely Wife had grilled fish, West African style that arrived on a bed of fried plantains, head and all. We dug in and were not disappointed, the food was excellent. Jose had Aba bring a wine bucket to keep my beer cold and her continuously filled my glass, the bottle delicately wrapped in a white napkin as though it was the best bottle of white Rioja in the house. We visited a bit with Aba, talking about the weather which had taken an unfortunately cold turn during the day.

A couple of young men carrying instruments wandered in while we were eating. Aba told us that they were the floor show, two musicians from Guinea. They set up and started to play forlorn songs from their homeland, one on an instrument built from a large pumpkin called a Kora and the other doing percussion on a half a gourd and a tiny symbol. What a really nice and unexpected treat. The place continued to fill up with more people from the neighborhood, all of whom knew each other. We listened and shared a piece of chocolate cake and sampled some coffee liquor the Aba had brought by. It was getting pretty loud and crowded and late so we asked for the check and bid our adieus, telling Aba and Jose that we would return next year. They were both very glad we’d come by and wished us safe travels. As we left I went over to the musicians, now on break, told them I’d enjoyed their music and slipped the singer a 10.

What a great night – food, music, some fleeting friendship. Yet another “why we travel” moment from a simple dinner and a restaurant chosen for no reason other than I liked their menu a year ago.

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April 27th: Dinner among the Proletariat, desert among the Bourgeoisie

I’ll admit that this waiting around until later than 9 PM for dinner is a bit annoying. The Mali fellow at the African restaurant told me that they sometimes stay open until 3 or 4 in the morning for dinner guests. This makes me wonder how this country functions because I’d be of no use at work if I was out drinking and eating until 4 every night.

After lying around and recovering from our day of hiking in Toledo, we decided to go out for dinner. It was 8:30 and so we’d at least be hunting and gathering at a more socially acceptable time. On the walk over to Plaza Mayor, My Lovely Wife hit on a brilliant idea – let’s act like Spaniards and go eat tapas instead of dinner. That’s what they were all doing, and we could pretend we are like they are, only we wouldn’t be going out to dinner at 11 after we finished the tapas. I suggested one of the places we’d eaten last year, the one where we were relegated to the basement when we’d incorrectly answered the Test Question, “Dinner or Tapas” with “dinner.” The place was open but there wasn’t a soul inside, and even if we’re pretending to be tapas eaters, I am not about to be the first person in the restaurant and face that shame. So I a pivot and said, “Let’s try that place over there,” a working class hole in the wall jammed with locals.

We went in and took the last table. I ordered potatoes with garlic and mayonnaise, grilled mushrooms and mixed croquettes. Two glassed of vino tinto de la casa turned out to be served in little half juice glasses. The Real Madrid fútbol game was on the wide screen and a Spanish family to our left was yelling and arguing and slapping each other on the back. What a really nice change from all the places we’ve eaten over the last week. If this had been the states, there would have been a bowling alley out back. It was great. The food came, it was tasty and the din only died down a bit when the family shuffled off to a room in the back. Sitting there I could have imagined myself in any town in Spain in the 1930s, stopping in for a bit and a cup after a long day working on the railroad.

We spent the next part of the evening at the other end of the spectrum, the Mercado San Miguel. Formerly a neighborhood market, it’s been gentrified into an upscale “stand up and eat” place frequented by people who want to be seen. We’ve tried a couple of times to eat there but it is such chaos and truly you have to stake out a seat at 3PM and hold it if you want to sit and eat at 10. I found us a square foot at the wine bar, ordered two glasses which came in stemware, a distant echo of the place where we’d just had dinner. Leaving My Lovely Wife there, I went off and bought two slices of ponche, and brought them back. A couple next to us apparently felt infringed upon because they made a lot of noises and gestures and the big shiny headed husband of the two eventually inched his way in front of me, taking up room for three. I guessed that they didn’t understand the concept of European Socialism. But it didn’t matter, we ate our desert, drank our wine and watched the young women who were doing neither, hogging the prime seats while hoping a disowned Spanish prince would come along and take them away from it all.

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April 27th: Adventures in Toledo

My shins are killing me today, the legacy that is Toledo, that wonderful, maddening, beautiful former citadel of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The city sits on a knob in bend of the Río Tajo, about 30 minutes SW of Madrid. It’s an easy train ride and while a short walk into town from the station, the smart ones pay the 4€ cab fare and save their legs for the climbing inside the town, not up to it. You ask to be dropped off at Plaza Zocodover and grab a bite to eat. Or just march off into the warrens.

We began our day walking our street which was mysteriously covered in chicken feathers as though the bar crowd had held a light night pillow fight. Across Plaza Mayor and then hiking down Calle Atocha to the train station, we stopped along the way for a couple of Americanos (hot) and a napolitano. It was cold, probably 20 degrees lower than what we’d been used to in Sevilla, and the wind was blowing up the street into our faces, making it feel far more like November than the end of April. I had chosen the wrong jacket, figuring I’d walk myself into warmth but that was a misguided expectation so the first thing I did at Atocha Station was buy a scarf. You might think that you’d pay more in such a transportation hub where most of the goods are aimed at fathers who forgot to buy something for their kids on their business trip. But the scarves were the standard 1 for 3€, 2 for 5€ you see everywhere in town, including the El Rastro flea market. Apparently there is a Scarf Cartel that keeps prices fixed and thus promotes equality among sellers. I chose a nice multicolored striped one from India and put it on.

The train left on time with us on it (my kiosk ticket purchase having been successful) and off we went for our second trip down this line. On our last visit we’d tried to hit the high spots – Cathedral, Church of San Juan of Los Reyes and the wonderful little Mezquita that sits tucked away quietly in a far corner of the town. In doing so we’d missed the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, an oversight that I came to realize by eavesdropping on the photos of the girl sitting in front of me on the return train. My sole purpose for coming back was to visit this little gem.

Toledo has a long and storied history, beginning first with the Romans who used the strategically defensible site as a transportation hub. The beginning of the Jewish history are here, relocated from Italy proper to the hinterlands to act as managers and merchants. The Visigoths filled the void after the fall of Rome and in 711 they were supplanted by the Moors, who held out until 1085 when Toledo was one of the first cities to fall to the Reconquista. Many of the Moorish craftsman remained behind and they work imparted a very heavy influence on the architecture. Of all the cities we’ve visited in Spain, Toledo by far looks the most exotic. Toledo was considered the cultural and spiritual capital of Spain until Philip II moved the capital to Madrid. Some say it was a matter of geography, Madrid being easier to reach, more central and more amenable to expansion. Others say it was Philip’s desire to draw a strong line between the spiritual and the governmental. In either, Toledo fell asleep until the 19th century and the era of the Grand Tours of Europe.

Following our own advice we hied ahead of he train crowd and grabbed the first cab in line. I asked about the weather – it was threatening – and the driver launched into a long tale of which I got about 10%, most notably that it was typically over 100° in the summer and that even if it did rain we were better off being here today. I stopped at the tourist information booth and grabbed a map, knowing full well that it was by and large a waste of time because Toledo is the unmappable city. There are so many streets, sub-streets, passageways, nooks, crannies, deadends and lanes that any map that include them all would either be unreadable or 5 feet square. As I’ve said in the past, maps in these old cities are basically nothing more than guidelines and that adage is brought to full fruit here. The best you can do is count intersections and hope for the best. Even asking for directions from shopkeepers is a waste of time.

Given our location, we headed off in the direction of the Mezquita del Cristo de la Cruz, the finest remnant of the 10 mosques in the city. Dating from the 10th century, it was converted into a church in 1187 following the Reconquista and its name purportedly refers to the Cid’s horse which upon entering the city, knelt down in front of the building in honor of a Christ that was hidden in a wall and illuminated by a lamp (de la Luz.) I suppose to most people it would be an afterthought, but I think it’s very special. Tiny, sacred and abutting a garden that sits alongside a section of the city wall that offers a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. The inside is divided into 9 squares, each with a unique dome held above by four columns and four double arches, very similar to its much grander cousin in Córdoba from which it took its inspiration. Like that, it’s columns and capitals are largely reused Visigothic materials. To one side is a semi-circular apse added when the building was converted. The as yet unrestored remains of 13th, 14th and 15th century frescoes illuminate the dome of the apse. It’s a fine little place and worthy of the horrible climb up necessary to get back into the center of the old city.

The Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz

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Our next goal was on the far end of town so we did the struggle up and walk down and check the map routine, stopping here and there to admire some little square or the face of some ancient building. Much of what it old in Toledo remains, repurposed for apartments or homes or shops. The Islamic and Mudejar styles predominate and every once in a while you find a house on a side lane that was probably one of the other 10 mosques, never restored. We stopped to admire a shop offering the traditional gold and steel work that Toledo is known for. I had passed on purchasing one of the little black and gold plates that are emblematic of the work of these craftsmen and have regretted it since. They’re expensive, not so much as the broadswords also for sale, but costly. But this time I decided I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice and bought one featuring little birds in a garden scene. It helped that the proprietor, a very nice elderly gentleman, came outside and chatted me up while inviting me into his shop. He let me use the loupe on his workbench to admire the details of his work and produced a certificate that guaranteed the quality of the gold. One more of those little fun interactions with real people.

Back on the road and heading towards the Sinagoga, the maps again presented an interesting representation of the real world. We ended up zeroing in on it by going in every shrinking circles until, after one more corner we found the entrance. I remembered it from last year and our decision to skip it, because we were caught in a rain shower and decided to keep moving until we got into the Church of San Juan de Los Reyes that was just up the street. A young woman in a black suit with multiple facial piercings pointed out the fact that we’d overlooked the ticket office, through no fault of our own. The outside was pretty simple and not enhanced by the fact that it was mostly covered with scaffolding and construction scrims but once inside, I was glad I’d made the effort to return. What a gorgeous place.

Built sometime between 1200 and 1280, this was once the main synagogue for Toledo’s Jewish Quarter. Despite its obvious Islamic style, it is one of the few religious buildings in Toledo that was never a mosque, commissioned by the town Rabbi, built by Mudejar craftsmen and converted to a church in 1492 following the expulsion of the Jews, it only served two faiths during its history.

As you enter, you’re faced with 4 long rows of white columns, capped with carved stone capitols depicting pine cones (a Middle Eastern traditional element representing the unity of the People of Israel) which in turn support horseshoe shaped arches. Above them, another series of wooden arches supports the beams of the roof. At the end of each row is a small apse, topped with either a dome or a half dome in the form of a seashell. While not as shocking as the Mezquita in Córdoba, this one was ever bit as powerful in promoting a true sense of contemplation, again achieved through the beauty of the pieces and parts, not a bleeding saint. Just wandering around made me glad I’d taken the time and effort to amend my miss from our last time here.

Interior of the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca.


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Now it was time for lunch, and like all lunches here finding the right place to eat is an effort in intimidation and indecision. This place being one of Spain’s premier tourist traps, even the tapas places were grossly overpriced. Just a simple lunch was going to run into the $50 range, or twice as much as what you’d pay for the same in Madrid or Sevilla. The options were weird too, either fancy restaurants with linens and wine glasses already on the tables or garish tourist joints with photographs of every meal plastered to the front. I’ll admit it, I don’t do well with these kinds of options, preferring to find something a bit more authentic but not so much so that the patrons all stop talking when you come in. So after passing on a few choices we decided to head downhill (since that was the way we eventually needed to go) and to try and escape the traps along the main thoroughfare. We finally settled on a little, not too busy place next to the El Greco museum and ordered Americanos and a lomo (sliced pork) bocadillo (sandwich.) It came fast and as the waiter arrived, he sort of yelled at My Lovely Wife “please, please, please” and grabbed he menu out of her hands, replacing it in its cradle on the table. We couldn’t quite figure out what that was about but at least we didn’t have to take it personally when he did it to the guy at the next table. We ate, paid and left deciding to head back into the tourist frenzy for desert, which here could only be Marzipan, Toledo’s tasty almond treat. Again faced with the same restaurant dilemma (most of the sweets shops were mobbed) we stopped to look in the window of a small shop. The owner stuck his head out, said “5€ for a sampler,” I said “deal” and we were once again on our way with marzipan para llevar (to go.) It turned out to be a nice little box with a dozen pieces in the shapes of snails, apples and loaves of bread.

We were now on the downside of our trip and with an hour and a half left we turned right, taking the next lane downward and towards the river. I had one last place that I wanted to see, the Puente de Alcántara, an old Roman bridge protected by a gate that was one of the first in the original city walls and the original entrance for religious pilgrims. Last year, we had come down the hill on the other side of town and started walking towards the area only to become discouraged by not really knowing how far we had to go. We hailed a taxi a very short (and embarrassing) distance from the train station and I was very disappointed to see that we’d given up just a bit too soon. So I made a solemn commitment to see these last sights this time around.

Our map showed an intriguing route, a combination bike path/hiking trail that ran along the river so we angled downwards figuring it would be a nice respite from climbing and descending on cobblestones. We found the remains of some ancient baths, either Roman or Moorish, on the banks of the river but unfortunately the informational signs were completely obliterated by graffiti. Continuing on, we opted to continue downhill in hopes of finding the hiking path. At the end of the paved rode, we found it, a nice hard dirt track that took off past an old mill and through a picnic ground. It was nice to be on dirt for the first time in weeks, having the kind of walk we have at home. The river was rushing by, birds were singing in the trees, fisherman were trying to catch lunch. Poppies and daisies in full bloom rose up to the base of the old city walls that towered above us. Every once in a while we’d come upon some old structure, a defensive tower or gate, sticking out of the side of the hill. We went on like this for perhaps a half mile until we reached a little paved square at the base of a steep cobbled lane that climbed back up into the city center. Our path ended.

Having a look at the map, the green line we’d been walking along was supposed to continue on, perhaps all the way the train station, but from here there was no way out. Our way was blocked by a house and a gated set of stairs that led down into the water. Our only option was to climb, one…more…time, back up until we found another route. So we did and after a short bit and a few dozen stairs we discovered the Ruta de Don Quixote, the path we should have been on in the first place. We’d been fooled when presented with the dirt path back by the baths, and the joker who created this map didn’t see anything wrong with drawing a green belt that was continuous when in fact it was broken in half. This path wasn’t dirt, but it had all the other amenities we’d just had – birds, flowers, trees and the sound of the river. We followed it until we hit the bridge, saw the gate, took some photos and went off in search of coffee before our train ride home.

Puente de Alcántara.

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For more photos, please click on the  link below to visit the gallery -
 
Toledo Photo Gallery

Friday, April 26, 2013

April 26th: Dinner, African Style

Last year, on one of our last days of our stay in Madrid, I found a little restaurant just down the street from our apartment that had an interesting menu. I wanted to try it, and finally a night presented itself and we went by. Only to find it closed. There are a lot of little holes in the wall here around Calle Espejo that are like that. Open certain days only, open only late at night, open only for 15 minutes at a time soon to be announced. Between the Spanish expectation that dinner starts at 10 and the weird hours, it’s tough to scrounge a meal anywhere but places that cater to Brits, Germans and Americans. In other words, places that start serving at 7 PM.

Yesterday we were heading down the hill and the little place had a menu out front. We stopped to read it and it looked good. The “menu of the day” was a prix fixe meal of pumpkin soup, mixed salad and Iberian grilled pork shoulder. A meal that sounded really good. While reading it, the waiter stuck his head out the door and handed me a card, telling us that it was an African restaurant, specializing in Sub-Saharan cuisine. Well, that sounded interesting, but it sure didn’t sound particularly African. I took his card, asked him what time they opened and we made plan to return.

So tonight we sat around, My Lovely Wife doing International Herald Tribune crosswords while I tried to recover the disaster I had made out of washing my jeans. These European washers are bizarre, and not particularly self-explanatory. I had done the single load figuring it was a good way to waste a couple of hours (these machines are slow) and as a result of (perhaps) overdosing it with soap, I’d ended up with a huge amount of foam. So much foam that it simply wouldn’t rinse out. So I sat on the floor in the kitchen and ran all kinds of cycles - “centrifugo,” “aclarado,” “vaciado,” “frio,” “60°,” “40°,” etc., etc., etc. Pretty much each ended with the same result – my now very clean blue jeans suspended in a cloud of soap foam. After a few hours of this, I hit on the proper combination - “vaciado,” “frio,” then “centrifugo” - and the foam was gone. It was also now 8:30 and a more respectable time to show up at the restaurant so off we went.

Arriving at the completely empty restaurant the waiter told us we were just a bit early but that it was fine. He gave us a nice table in front of a window and we had a look at the menu. I ordered wine and beer and asked for the menu of the day. Well, menu of the day as it turned out literally meant “day” which meant “not now” so we were faced with having to make an alternative plan with a menu of African specialties most of which we had no idea about. My Lovely Wife had a brief discussion about spiciness and settled on grilled pork with fried plantain. I opted for the stewed beef in roasted peanut sauce. He brought us bread and olives and fell into a conversation with the other waiter who happened to be from Mali. He told us he’d been here 5 years and had become fluent in Spanish during that time. He mentioned his friends in North Carolina and said he very much liked the US. We talked about the food of Mali and how spicy it was and he stated his clear preference for food that makes your head sweat. Dinner came and it was utterly stupendous. The Spanish waiter had brought me a little pot of hot sauce that was blistering, but with an unfamiliar flavor. Some kind of African Chile no doubt. My stew came with a plate of fresh steamed rice and I mixed it with the hot sauce and the peanut stew. Very, very good. My Lovely Wife received 5 grilled pork medallions dripped with a mustard sauce on a bed of plantain chips. Truly, there was nothing not to like on either of our plates.

When we were done, the Mali waiter came back and introduced himself. I asked him about the turmoil in his home country and said that I had read about the ruining of his cultural heritage and in particular the old Islamic texts that were being destroyed by militants. He gave a long response about how crazy the militants were, not only in his country but in all of the Islamic world from Sudan to Afghanistan. He told us that the library in his country was the oldest and most complete of any in Africa and that it was all gone. I told him I thought the whole world had gone crazy and he nodded and shook my hand. We talked a bit about Boston and he expressed his condolences.

The bill came and the waiter’s name turned out to be Jose Jimenez which opened an entirely new avenue of discussion but it was getting late. We paid and left and told them that we’d try to come back. And I think we will.

Nights like this are what makes getting on a plane worthwhile. Having a bit of small world harmony with someone from another country, someone that you can be simpatico with is just worth every bit of the inconvenience of making it happen. We might think the reason we travel is to look at churches or ruins or mountains, but in reality it’s all about broken washing machines, being early at restaurants and discussing African politics in Spanish with a friendly and like minded waiter. It’s all about sitting back 5 years down the road and feeling richer for having made these acquaintances.


April 26th: Churros, The Prado and train tickets.

We slept in a bit, recovering from the terrible bed we had in Sevilla. It’s very nice to be back in this apartment, our second visit, because it’s everything a rental should be. Well appointed, bright, roomy and located in a perfect neighborhood close to Puerto del Sol, Plaza Mayor and Calle Arenal.

It didn’t take much time to get back down the street to the Chocolateria for a post breakfast refueling of churros and molten chocolate bars. I suppose one should consider the consequence of eating a liquid Lindt bar before lunch, but really, why would you? This is vacation and the rest of the year is for thinking smartly.

A short trip to the Prado was on today’s agenda, our second time here. We got there late and it turned out to be a good choice as it wasn’t very crowded outside of the usual youth tours wasting their parents money, including a big batch of really rude French second year students. Not nearly so much last time and thus easier to get a good look at the paintings I had brushed by on our last visit. I don’t really like the way the Prado is laid out, it’s confusing to follow eras and schools, unlike the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which is across the street. There, as you wander the floors you advance in time and style, so you gain some knowledge about the way painting changed over the centuries. Here, the art is loosely organized by era, but with a more detailed concentration on nationality and specific tributes to the Spanish greats – Velazquez, Goya, El Greco and the Italian, Titian who was a court painter for the Spanish king, Philip II. What you end up with is a hodgepodge that is hard to follow and you’re often left wondering how you ended up looking at the austere style of El Greco when you just left a lush gallery of Velazquez pieces. But who am I to criticize, it’s one of the four most significant museums in the world and I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

I had two major goals on this visit, a nice long look at the Velaxquez masterpiece “Las Meninas” and a closer visit with Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” The former was easy, and the latter required some elbow checking to get through another group of teenagers raptly listening to their guide while standing with their backs to the painting. But I got to see what I wanted and so I left happy. We also stumbled upon a “Mona Lisa” done by one of Leonardo’s students that we’d missed last time. The real beauty of this second visit was starting on the second floor and not being totally saturated by walking by everything on the first floor. And the fact that we had no pressure to absorb it all.

Garden of Earthly Delights

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Las Meninas

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A quick bite to eat and a walk down Paseo del Prado brought us to Puerta de Atocha station. We’d made a plan to take a return trip to Toledo tomorrow and it being a) Saturday and b) a popular day trip destination, we thought it a good idea to buy the tickets in advance. Unfortunately the ticket office was 10 people deep so I thought I’d ask the customer service guy if I could either buy them on line and print them out at the station, or buy them in a kiosk.

This is tough stuff for my rudimentary Spanish so I asked if we could talk in English. He replied in the affirmative and I presented my questions. He response was an unintelligible stream of words and phrases that came nowhere near making my choice clear. So I asked again in Spanish and he responded, “Do you want to do this in English or Spanish?” so I said, “Both.” He proceeded to tell me that I could not buy at home and print at the station (something I suspect is not true) and that the ticket office was across the atrium (which I already new.) He failed to address the kiosk question although he might have said “no.” I told him that there were too many people in the ticket office and he suggested that I try the other one, in the direction of the Metro station. We took off in that general direction, ignoring all the signs pointing to where we’d just been and just when we were about to give up, there it was. Along with a dozen kiosks. I took a number (we were 16 people down the list,) gave it to My Lovely Wife and went out to try a kiosk. It took me a while to figure out how to get the thing working but when I did, the purchase was easy. Tickets in hand, I returned to My Lovely Wife while she was still 10 people behind.

It was a long slog back to our place in Las Asturias, unlike Valencia and Sevilla, Madrid has hills and they’re tough. It was sprinkling a bit, not enough for an umbrella but plenty to make the marble sidewalks slick. What is it about every other country and marble? I almost died so many times in China that it just seems to be obvious it’s a bad choice anywhere that ever rains or snows. We finally found our way back to Plaza Mayor and stopped for a slice of “Ponche Segoviana,” that cake, pudding and marzipan wonder we fell in love with last time. Now it’s time for a rest and some laundry and a plan for the remainder of the day.

A cool garden growing on the side of a building.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

April 25th: The last of Sevilla and the first of Madrid

One of the great things about renting apartments for your vacation is the interaction you have with the landlords. Barring problems, most of the time it’s minimal and friendly but when thing arise it can get challenging. The language barrier always adds an additional degree of difficulty and once you give a hint of your skill in their native tongue, things can get dicey.

I’d been conversing with Juana our landlord for a couple of months, starting in English and ending in Spanish. Her skills in the former were about equal to mine in the latter, but I like the chance to practice and I make liberal use of online translators. I start by trying to write it and then verify before sending. Our conversations went to the next level when the cellular internet device she’d provided informed me that I’d used up my quota and would henceforth see reduced speed. “Reduced” in this case meant diminished to the old days of dial up modem. If you’ve tried to use the modern web recently through a 56k connection, you know what I am talking about. Since our travel always involves sharing a lot of photos, I was forced to shrink them as small as possible and then wait an hour while they uploaded. Even a single picture in a blog took a solid 5 minutes. I told Juana what had happened and she offered to bring me another device, as soon as her other client was done with it. She did, and it was no different, (I’m assuming he burned up the data allowance and simply didn’t tell her.) I told her this and she claimed ignorance, suggesting I sit closer to the window. My suspicion was that she knew she had a limit and wasn’t about to provide any more. She finally told me “oh well.”

When it came time to discuss our departure, I wrote her a note and told her we’d need to leave about 9:30 for a 10:45 train. She offered to call us a cab and said she could not make the time and would instead send her colleague Antonio. We went back and forth a couple of times refining the instructions and finally I felt all was set.

We’d decided to do one last load of laundry before leaving and were sitting around waiting for the load to end when our doorbell rang. This was only the second time that had happened, the first being the young girl next door who launched into a rapid blast of Spanish when I opened the door, asking me to borrow some olive oil. This time I was met by a dapper middle-aged man, hat in hand who said “good morning” and handed me 150 Euros. I must have looked stunned because he tapped his watch and indicated that it was in fact, 9:30. It was Antonio, coming to see us off. A day early. I told him “tomorrow” and he was now the one looking stunned. He took out his phone, nodded and walked away.

Our final day in Sevilla was dedicated to gift shopping and wandering around. We stopped one last time at Casa Milagritos for coffee and napolitano and the headed back into the warren to visit the gift shop at Casa Pilatos. I bought a cone of almonds from a vendor outside and when finished there we crossed the street to pay another visit to the gift shop across the street. We’d had a nice conversation in English with the shopowner a couple of days ago but today she wasn’t there. When we were ready to pay, the guy behind the counter responded in English and together we discussed the noise on the street out front. For some reason, the traffic was horrible at this time of day and we’d been pinned to the walls a couple of times on sections where the sidewalk was mostly non-existent. He said working there gave him a headache because the Spanish love as much noise as possible, even going out of their way to create it when the silence became to oppressive. “Noise,” he said, “Is happiness to the Spanish.” It turned out that he was French and had lived all over the world and was now stuck here in the noisy barrio because his wife, the shopowner, wanted to be here. I regaled him with stories of Chinese fireworks during Spring Festival and we both agreed that it was maddening. I told him we’d had a nice conversation with his wife earlier in the week and he was glad that we’d come back. Another one of those “Why We Travel” vignettes, the English-speaking Frenchman living in the Sevilla barrio running a gift shop and slowly being made crazy by the tumult.

One last lunch was devoted to the duck tapa at Cafe Giralda which was much less crowded and more enjoyable early on this weekday. I have a goal to try and recreate it, but I’ve yet to figure out what magred means and until I do, I’m not going to be able to cook that masterpiece at home. I don’t think I mentioned it earlier, but the inside of this cafe is pretty cool, delicate plaster arches held up by recycled Visigoth columns, owing to the fact that it is a repurposed section of the old Arab baths. My Lovely Wife noticed the provenance on the menu board, an 800 year old restaurant interior that had been serving tapas for 70 years. Of all the places we’ve eaten on this trip, I’m going to miss this one the most.

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The one remaining tourist attraction as yet unvisited was the Belles Artes Museum said to be the second best museum in Spain after the Prado. We’d saved it for a hot afternoon, mainly because it was a mere 100 steps from our apartment. Created inside a 17th century convent, it turned out to be a stunner and well worth a visit.

Religious art is an acquired taste, and when you’ve seen as much as we have on these last two trips you have a tendency to devote less and less time appreciating it. Churches create the same result, particularly the neighborhood versions here in Sevilla where every retablo mayor is more shocking that the last, and more unexpected considering the humble exteriors. I remember being completely saturated on our visit to the Prado last year. This museum though stocked with the same old stuff turned out to be a nice one, almost empty, quiet, cool and peaceful. The original church in the center of the convent, now a long cross-shaped gallery was every bit as striking and baroque as the many cathedrals we’ve visited. And, in spite of looking at hundreds of these dark and dreary paintings depicting the lives and deaths of countless saints, we discovered a new element – body-less flying baby heads. I saw them the first time last week in some cathedral, a stature of the Virgin standing on three disembodied heads. At the time I wasn’t sure what to make of that, were they decapitation victims? Or lost souls? It was hard to do a respectable analysis since it was a statue up on a plinth and I couldn’t get close. In these painting though, they were clear – plump little baby heads with curly blond hair whose bodies were nothing more than a pair of wings. Now I’ve seen Cherubim by the boatload, but these were new to me. It was almost like adding a new species of bird to my lifelist and once we found one, we found them all over the place, bursting out of clouds, tormenting souls in purgatory and providing a nice step ladder for soaring saints.

In addition to the permanent collection that had pretty much been looted from churches in the early 1800s, there was a traveling exposition of Dutch paintings from the 17th century depicting daily life in Holland and on the seas. In a corner of a small side gallery we found a pair of paintings, comprised of tiny 4”x4” insets depicting the animals and birds of America and Africa. We stood there a long time discussing each panel and wondering how a painter had gained access to the actual animals, given that this work came from the dawn of the Age of Exploration. Somehow the painter had seen Red and Military Macaws, either as live or stuffed samples. We were so animated in our discussion, pointing and talking that the guard came over and sternly warned us to keep our fingers and toes behind the line. I apologized and he went back to his newspaper.

We saved a special place for our final dinner, a beautiful patio restaurant along the Calleja de Agua in the barrio called “Corral de Agua”. We’d seen it on the Day of our Scripted Walk and decided to come back. We’d also been by a couple of times on nighttime strolls and it never looked busy enough to merit a reservation but of course, on this night it was very busy and the first words out of the waiter’s mouth were “Do you have a reservation?” I said “No” and he looked around and pointed to a table near the door and offered it. We took it and sat down.

After some initial worrying about being ignored we got a menu, made our meal and wine choices and the food appeared pretty quickly. My Lovely Wife had duck ala orange and I had grilled pork shoulder and both dishes were pretty good. Our waiter it turned out was from Baja California, La Paz to be exact and was living in Spain because his family was here. Fluent in English, we chatted a bit after he got over my lack of sophistication demonstrated by my refusal to order an appetizer. After licking our plates and finishing our wine, we ordered desert, she opting to try the Tocino del Cielo, “sky bacon” and unlike my gelato of the same flavor in Córdoba, this one turned out to be the best flan ever eaten. Rich caramel sauce and a custard that was dense, semi-transparent and delicious. The perfect end to the perfect meal on a perfect trip. The evening as a whole was just wonderful between the setting – a lush garden in a pink-walled patio, the darkening sky above full of darting Swifts and My Lovely Wife’s blue eyes.

We walked back through the unusually quiet city streets, stopping to take a few final shots of the Catedral. When lit, it is quite beautiful. Sadly, I had to pass on one last cookie stop at Horno de San Bonaventura, the counter was full of tourists looking for a late evening snack. Better for me no doubt, but a disappointment nonetheless. We talked about everything we’d enjoyed here and the list was long. Many, many perfect days and the only complaint was the heat – almost 90 every day. But in the cool narrow lanes, even the baking afternoons were forgotten. One more detail on a great trip.

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The taxi actually did arrive at 9:30 and we were at Santa Justa station in about 15 minutes. After coffee and a napolitano, we boarded and the train left right on time. We had the misfortune to sit in front of two college age American boys who like many of our brethren felt it was necessary to talk as loud as possible. Unfortunately their loud speech was peppered with lots of “f-words” and at one point the louder of the two was question who some girl was sleeping with in particularly indelicate language. I was glad when they plugged their earbuds and went to sleep, but their presence and behavior, like so many of their peers whom we’ve seen this past week once again set me to thinking about what must be one of the greatest financial scams of the modern era – the year abroad studying a foreign language. If only their parents knew.

An hour outside of Madrid I contacted the rental agent and told him we’d be there around 1:45. I was reminded that normal check-in is 2:00 and that he’d be there then. Fine, so we got off the train and caught a cab to Mercado San Miguel planning on killing the remaining 30 minutes over a cup of coffee. Naturally it was mobbed and dragging suitcases through the crowd was challenging. I only ran over one set of toes, as far as I could tell. I survived the coffee scrum and stole the idea of getting it go go from an American woman who ordered ahead of me. We fought our way out and found a bench where we sat and enjoyed our drinks. At 2 we took off down Calle Espejo to wait for the agent. Who was not there. After 15 minutes I texted him and received no answer. So I called and was met with silence. I took a moment to look up the Spanish word for “irritated” and while doing so a cute young woman showed up, not the Juan I was expecting. Without apologizing for making us stand out on the street for 30 minutes she rattled off that Juan was delayed and that she’d show us up. We signed the papers and had a nice conversation about her Spanish (she was from Dominican Republic), Spanish Spanish and Latin American Spanish. I remembered to ask about the internet connection and should have tried it before she left. Because it didn’t work. I shot off a text and received and answer and 15 minutes later, Juan showed up and fixed the router and all was good. Time to head out into Madrid.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

April 24th: Flamenco at Casa de la Guitarra

Given that these countries we visit have a vibrant music scene, we’ve had pretty poor luck in actually taking any in. On multiple trips to Ireland and countless hours wandering around Temple Bar, I think I found one bar offering traditional Craich and it was too jammed to squeeze into.

We’ve been to Spain three times now and have yet to stumble upon a decent opportunity. Last year in Madrid, we looked at three different shows but the price is off-putting. The bigger tablaos off two dinner shows a night, and depending on the quality of the performers and how much they want to gouge the tourists, the cost ranges from 30 to 100€ per person. In general, these are not even good restaurants so $80 to $260 just seems like a lot of money for an average experience.


The Sevilla guidebooks pretty much presented the same offerings, although there were some that were a bit less costly, show and drinks only. We had a chat a couple of days ago at the local Flamenco museum, the Casa de Memoria and the young woman there felt that their show was the best. “Muy intimata” as she put it, only 100 guests. It sounded like our best option with a decent price and no drink/food expectations so we filed that thought away figuring a weeknight would be better than the weekend.


In the course of our Scripted Walk Day we happened upon another place, the aptly name Casa de La Guitarra. This one sounded much better, less than 30 guests, only $18 a head and two shows a night. That sounded much better, so last night after our trip to the ruins, we went out about 6PM hoping to find tickets for that night’s later performance. As it turned out our non-weekend strategy paid off, and we were able to secure tickets for the 7:30 performance and to reserve second row seats. Not that position mattered all that much, the room was perhaps 30x30 including the stage so the experience was bound to be much more “initmata.”


We killed an hour having a cup of coffee and watching two yogi on the square behind the cathedral. One was sitting on the end of a bamboo pole and the other was holding him up. Both were locked in a trance and for the life of me I cannot explain how it was being done.


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The show began on time with a solo guitarist performing a couple of traditional Flamenco songs. He was next joined by a young man and they performed a couple of duets. Then a young woman came out and after an interesting explanation about how Flamenco represents the pain and horror of life, she began to dance. The singer clapped and sang along, and she turned into a whirlwind of claps, stomps and spins. It was breathtaking and very evocative of the struggle of living.

Following her performance, the singer and guitarist did a couple of other numbers and then the young woman reappeared in a new outfit, this time dancing in the style of Cadiz, Spain’s Atlantic port city. It was lighter and faster and her red and white outfit was ablaze under the lights. The entire performance lasted a little over an hour and was just great. We felt really lucky to finally have the opportunity to hear the music and see the dance, and doubly lucky to do it under such ideal conditions.


Please click on the link below to visit the gallery -

Flamenco! 

 



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Today really turned out to be one of those rare Perfect Travel Days. Between the bus trip, the ruins and the Flamenco, there was nothing left to ask for. And what is the perfect end to the perfect day in Spain? Tapas of course.

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April 24th: A journey back in time

On this day, we decided to ride a bus. Not a tourist bus, an actual city bus with a city bus route. While walking to the station, we got talking about the last time we’d ridden a bus, not including those airport rental car buses but buses that required sitting with other people, interacting with the driver and going to a place that was not guaranteed (unlike the Hertz counter.) My Lovely Wife decided her last bus ride was from her college in Fort Collins to Denver when she swore she would never ride a bus again. That was the golden age of bus travel, when you sat next to people in the station who were talking to themselves and when you had to discard your clothing after the ride because it stank of lavatory disinfectant. She allowed that she might have ridden some buses in Mexico with her Uncle Ike, but the Fort Collins ride was so bad everything else has become a repressed memory, I had many bus rides during my college career including the one where an older woman sat next to me and pulled bras and panties out of her purse, gently lying them out in her lap and asking me which choices I liked. I remember running away from that bus station the minute we arrived. I also had several Beijing Capital Airport to Beijing Old Airport bus rides and we debated whether they counted and I successfully argued that they did because they left the airport grounds and careened through city seats. Those were cool because the driver was too lazy to put the luggage in the luggage bin, preferring to continue to smoke cigarettes and read the newspaper while we the travelers figured out a way to climb over the bags that were choking the aisles.


All this reminiscing filled the two blocks worth of time it took to get from our apartment to the station. I was moderately sure we bought the ticket on the bus but no so much so that I was going to risk it. The bus we wanted was leaving in 5 minutes and I didn’t want to wait an additional half hour so I forced My Lovely Wife to go to the information booth to seek confirmation. The gal inside, a very stylish middle-aged Spanish woman was too busy on the phone to answer immediately, preferring to make us wait. When she did deign to interact, it was with the pronounced smile that said, “You’re a moron tourist” but that didn’t matter because we discovered what we wanted to know.


Now the bus we were supposed to take was line M-172 and for some odd reason the appropriate schedule showed M-170B leaving for our destination at the time we wanted. So not only were we going to ride a bus, we were going to ride the wrong bus, in direct conflict with every single guidebook I had read. This, was turning out to be my kind of adventure.


We found M-170B on the platform, mostly through luck since the buses were only displaying their designations for perhaps 3 seconds at a time. We took our place in line and when I asked the driver if this was the bus and the answer was “yes” so I paid our 3€ and we took seats about midway back. The ride out of town was wonderful, we got to cross a main bridge, go past a Carrefour super-center called “Carrefour Planet,” past lots of interesting factories and auto repair shops and a mess of regular stuff. We went went through the village of Camas, the road was lined with azulejadores, factories producing tile in the Sevilla style. Tile reproduction is a big business here, with these companies producing tiles that are exact copies of those used in the Moorish and Mudejar architecture of the region. Each factory had examples of their wares mounted on the walls by their entrances, and it was cool to point out the ones we’d during our explorations.


We passed an enormous convent as we came to the town of Santiponce, and while stopping nearby the driver said something that led the other non-Spanish speakers to try to get off the bus. He assured them we were not there yet and so they returned to their seats.


By now you might be wondering where we were headed - Italica, some of the finest Roman ruins in all of Spain.


Italica was founded in 206BC by Scipio Africanus as a recuperation spot for veterans of the just completed Punic Wars. The Romans liked what they saw so they came back and conquered all of the Iberian Peninsula, remaining for another 7 centuries until a melange of barbarian tribes came and put an end to that. Spain during this time was the primary agricultural provider for the rest of the empire, making many Roman wealthy through the production of of olives, grapes and wheat. Italica eventually grew to have a population of nearly a half million, making it the 2nd or 3rd largest city in the empire. The Emperor Trajan was born here - the first from the provinces – and he bestowed a great deal of largess on his birthplace, adding many temples, homes, baths, and a amphitheater that was among the largest int the Empire, holding more than 30,000 spectators. The growth of the city continued under Trajan’s son Hadrian, also born there, and continued until it was abandoned when Rome fell.


Today, most of the site is still underground, both in the countryside surrounding Santiponce and under the town itself. What has been dug up and restored is remarkable. You enter through a grove of trees and top first at the amphitheater, now mostly decayed but still stunning. The center ring is filled with the characteristic yellow clay of Andalusia and the seating, all done in dark gray stone rises up to perhaps 50 feet above the ground. A well preserved set of tunnels, the galleries where the Gladiators waited to fight circles below the seating on both sides of the ring. Tall brick pillars rise in a center pit, called the hypogeum. The pillars supported a moveable, sand covered platform which was punctuated by smaller elevator platforms that delivered wild animals from the cages in the basement to the fights in the rings. Standing in the middle of the ring was quite a humbling experience, the scale of the place was so big.


The rest of the site is limited to the foundations of villas and temples and some truly amazing mosaics including one that depicts 30 species of local birds. The roads, still paved in their big bumpy flagstones went to the four cardinal points at perfect right angles to each other lined by brick cubes that must have supported columns at one point. Standing at the high point of Italica, you’re less impressed by what’s there than what remains to be uncovered. The archeologists did a nice thing, scraping off and restoring the roads but leaving mounds between them, covered with purple and yellow wildflowers, piquing your curiosity about what lies below. In a large corner section, Trajan’s Baths have been mostly opened up, and a series of signs shows photographs using ground penetrating radar. What’s below seems to go on forever.


When done, we took a stroll into town to find a well preserved Roman theater but there wasn’t much to see at ground level and neither of us felt like climbing a hill in the heat to find a purported overlook. We headed back to the bus stop and while grabbing a seat in the shade, My Lovely Wife spotted our bus just up the road at the actual bus stop. That was a remarkably good catch because it would have been quite unfortunate to stand by the road and wave as it went by.


It was 5 minutes before scheduled departure and the driver sat in his driver’s seat and went through his pre-launch checklist, refusing to open the door 30 seconds early. He finally did, we got on and took the long ride home, exactly reversing the trip out, stop by stop.

Please click on the link below to visit the gallery -



Italica


How we roll, Part 2

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

April 23rd: Córdoba and the Mezquita


Forty minutes by train outside Seville lies Córdoba, the 10th century capital of Al Andalus, the Moorish name for their empire in the Iberian Peninsula. Being the train ride lovers that we are, we decided to make a day trip there, primarily to see La Mezquita, the orginal grand mosque of the empire.

You can never find a taxi when you need one and our day began as a testament to that old saw. We figured we go to the taxi stand by the fancy hotel, just down the block from our apartment. Of course on this morning there were none to be seen and the doorman was running up and down the tiny streets trying to flag a couple off of the nearest boulevard. We’d left plenty of time to walk to the station (2 miles) but though a cab ride would be a better way to start the day, allowing for fresh feet and legs. But now, our strategy was coming under fire. Heading off in the general direction of the train, we saw a cab drop off a fare in a small park, so I waved until I got his attention, jaywalked through the morning traffic and secured our lift.

We made it with plenty of time, and the train left promptly at 9:20. On the same ride down from Madrid, we had been on the east side of the train and the scenery had been interesting. The same cannot be said of the western view – flat, agricultural, weedy and dry. It’s amazing what a few rolling hills can do to liven up the vista.

It was about a mile from the station to the entrance to the old city. We passed a Roman funerary site on the way that was very disappointing between the graffiti and the trash but even in spite of these modern offenses it’s always interesting to see something so old sitting there ignored in a modern urban park. Almost an afterthought.

Like all medieval towns, Córdoba’s was tight and confusing. Entering through the Almodóvar Gate, I thought it a bit seedier than the barrios in Sevilla and Barcelona. Not trashy or in poor condition, just a bit less attention to detail, as though the residents didn’t take as much pride in raising the appeal of their neighborhood. We found the 6th century Synagogue closed (of course) so we kept on moving towards our primary goal.

The Cathedral of Córdoba stands on the site of a 6th century Visigoth church that was purchased from the recently conquered Christians by Emir Abd al Rahman I in 785. He began the process of building the Grand Mosque, a process that ultimately lasted almost two centuries ending finally by the Reconquista in 1236. You enter through the Plaza de Naranjas, another patio of orange trees that is much superior to the one we visited in Sevilla. Towering above is the bell tower, built in 1600, and surrounding are long corridors displaying examples of carved wooden beams from the 10th century. Getting into the place was very confusing for the average tourist, judging from the long line of people unwilling or unable to use the very simple and fast automatic ticket machine, and from the numbers kicked out of the entrance line for having no ticket at all. See a line, stand it it seems to be one of the most fundamental aspects of human nature.

Entering, you are immediately hit with the grandeur of the place. More than 800 delicate stone pillars holding up a ceiling of delicate arches of alternating red brick and white stone, seemingly marching off into infinity. The pillars and capitals, composed of marble, granite and alabaster were larger crafted from re-used Roman and Visigoth materials. The place is dark, cool and very peaceful. This was the original prayer hall and is said to have held more than 10,000 worshipers at the height of its history and the architect’s goal was to humble visitors with a demonstration of Allah’s immensity.

The second thing you notice are the chapels, added sparingly at first during the 14th and 15th century. The contrast between the ideals of the Arab builders and those of the Christians is a theme that repeats over and over as you walk around. The former sought to impress with size and simplicity, the latter with blood, violence and guilt. Many of the Mudejar chapels that line the outer walls are quite beautiful and impressive in their construction but the feeling is always the same – sorrow, horror and pain.

In 1523 Bishop Alfonso Manrique put an end to the coexistence and a genuine cathedral to be plopped right down in the middle of the Mosque. Initially the Town Council opposed it, but King Carlos V intervened and the work went ahead. And what a cathedral it is. Clearly coming from a position of insecurity, the goal here was clearly to conquer the pagan elements by overpowering them with Renaissance and Baroque elements. The result makes you shake your head as you have all these traditional church elements merging with those of the older Mosque. In some places, you even have carved embellishments on the arches, Muslim on one side of the aisle and Christian on the other which creates sort of a demilitarized zone in the middle. Some of the chapels even feature the usual ornate statues of saints, Virgins and cherubs side by side with quotes from the Koran. The best thing you can say about the cathedral is that it is a grand representation of all that was fancy, ornate and overdone during the era. The builders clearly took something stunning and changed it into something less so, still arresting in execution and size, but far less beautiful and uplifting. It reminded me so much of the Fountainhead in which our hero’s modern, stylish buildings were neutered by the addition of Greek and Roman elements in the name of “public taste.” The true beauty of the place remains around the perimeter of the cathedral, where the Islamic elements remain largely untouched.

Even now, 8 centuries later the place remains controversial. As a reminder of the original Visigoth Christian roots, a glass panel in the floor displays a mosaic from the 6th century church, a less than delicate reminder of who came first.



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We paid a visit to a very pretty but almost impossible to photograph Roman temple that was in a much grittier part of town and then headed down the hill to the river to take a few photos of the Puente Romana, a bridge across the Guadalquivir River that still uses the original Roman foundations. The walk along the river varied from nice (bird songs, burbling water) to foul (homeless camp garbage dump) but the view was consistently nice. We took a turn back up into the old city to find some coffee and a pastry and found a nice little cafe right by the gate we had used earlier. Two Americanos and Tarta Cordobeses, a local delicacy that turned out to be apple pie and french vanilla ice cream. School was getting out and we sat by the lane and watch dozens of little children in their school uniforms head home, escorted by parents and grandparents.

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The train ride home was fast and simple and we caught a cab much more quickly at the train station than we did in our neighborhood. After dark we walked across the Iron Bridge to Triana and had a tapas dinner along the river. Fried fish, chicken with garlic and tomatoes with fresh tuna. A cold Alhambra beer and a glass of vino tinto to wash it down. A stop at my (now favorite) cookie store for a bag full of light desert capped the day quite nicely.


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Córdoba

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Photos: Dresses of the Fería de Abril

During the week of the annual Fería de Abril, many of the women of Sevilla don traditional Flamenco wear for their trips out and about. We saw ladies ranging from toddler to Doña throughout the city although the greatest concentration was on the actual fairgrounds. Walking in groups, or alone, chatting on cell phones or accompanied by their beaus who were often dressed in the standard Spanish business attire – tan or gray slacks, blue blazer and shirt, conservatively colored tie – their presence ala flamenca created a very festive and urbane atmosphere, particularly in contrast to the sunburned tourists in cargo shorts, tank tops and athletic shoes. Many Spanish women are quite stylish, both in cutting edge and conservative fashion, and seeing them in their dedication to this more traditional wear was a true highlight of our visit. 

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Dresses of the Fería de Abril


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April 22nd: Sunday among the tourists

Sunday turned out to be sort of a knock around day roaming streets we’d been to before, covering sections that were off our previously beaten path and visiting the site of the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. The day began with a stop at our new favorite Local Coffee Shop on the Cathedral square, Cafe Milagrito - “little miracles.” Unbeknownst to us, there was a morning floor show, three young men and a young woman, dressed to the nines at 10 in the morning, clearly coming off a long night of partying. One was responsible, trying to keep the loud drunk one in line. She was trying to blend into the background and the 3 boy was sound asleep at the table. In Latin America, I suppose they’d be called “hidalgos”, the compressed version of hijo de algo, or “son of someone.” The designated driver was having a bit of a hard time with the drunk, who was alternating between singing and laughing out loud at their sleeping friend whom they decided to abandon, wandering off down the street but stopping to look back every 5 yards or so, occasionally calling his name. Loudly. Eventually the drunk came back, stood next to the sleeper and yelled until he woke up. We clapped and the drunk looked pretty stunned. I tipped my coffee cup in honor of his stupidity. They left and so did we.

From there it was hither and yon with no particular purpose. The triad of Roman columns mentioned previously were a nice, as were many of the less traveled streets in the northern part of the old city.

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From there it was hither and yon with no particular purpose. The triad of Roman columns mentioned previously were a nice, as were many of the less traveled streets in the northern part of the old city. Circling back around, we stopped at our more worldly coffee shop (site of yesterday’s mini-blog) and then on to the Plaza España. Originally intended to boost Andalusia’s economy, its opening happened to coincide with the crash of the NY Stock Exchange and the subsequent worldwide depression. The place is pretty impressive, a giant semi-circle of red bricks facing an open square. Lining the inside arc are beautiful tiled benches representing the various regions and cities of Spain and some of their historical events. Rental rowboats circled in the central moat, and it was very entertaining to watch teenagers try to paddle them like canoes, lacking a basic understanding of oarlocks. The place had the interesting effect of acting like a solar oven, reflecting the 90° heat right back down on our heads. I was glad to get out of there, stopping only to admire the Cristobal Colon monument and then back into the Barrio where the shade was much more friendly.

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After a break it was back out to watch the sunset over the Río Guadalquivir (unspectacular), my attempt to sneak into one of the exits at Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza (bull ring, caught, plead ignorance) we ordered dinner at El Arenal, a local fish restaurant in the neighborhood of the same name. We’d passed it on Saturday night when it was mobbed and I made My Lovely Wife promise that we could go back. You place your order, they deep fry it, serve it up in stiff paper cones and your stand outside at tables, enjoying your steaming hot dinner with a cold beer or glass of wine. We hit the right node, getting our food just before the bull fight let out. It was a great dinner and a nice way to end an otherwise purposeless day.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

April 21st: A scripted walk

I was very sorry to hear that Google had decided to stop publishing the Frommer’s Guides. I suppose they bought the brand thinking that they would do some cute, high-tech thing with it, selling e-books for Android tablets instead of actual books. And maybe Frommer’s has been in a financial pit every since the death of paper books was announced, some years back. But for me, I think we’re a case of the “cost of everything and the value of nothing,” because if there is one thing I like, it’s my Frommer’s Guide. Particularly their “Day by Day” series, and in double particular, the Neighborhood Walks they feature.

We first used one of these cool little books on our trip to Valenica, following the map and itinerary for the old neighborhood we stayed in. The offer so many cool encounters, places where lovers through themselves off roofs, little pieces of the ancient Roman stonework included in the walls of a pizzeria, fun little stuff like that. I find that they give you a much more intimate relationship with wherever you find yourself. On this day, we decided to follow the route through the Barrio Santa Cruz, the oldest part of Sevilla.

First we took a long stroll along a nice section of the city walls. Built by the Moors, the walls failed to keep the Christians out and the city fell in 1248. One of the best things about the Muralles that I’ve found is that they provide wonderful shade on a hot day.

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Next was the Plaza Alianza and the restaurant we accidentally ended up eating later in the day. A plaque placed by the Sevilla Opera Society informed us that this was the site of the opening scene of Cervantes 1605 play, Don Juan. A quiet fountain in the center and orange trees quietly shedding last year’s leaves in the gentle morning breeze.

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Twisting and turning our way through the narrow lanes, we found ourselves on the tiny Calle Susona, who according to local lore was a beautiful Jewish girl who fell in love with a Chrisitian. She betrayed her father (who was plotting against the Inquisition) and she and her family were executed. She asked that her skull be buried in the street as a reminder of her treachery and a tile in the wall on the small square commemorates her request.

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We exited the square onto Callejon de Agua, a lane that ran parallel to the old aqueduct that provided water to the Barrio. A plaque here commemorates the home of one of our great authors, Washington Irving, who lived here in 1831. In a couple of places where new streets cut through the old walls, you can see the original 10th century clay pipes that distributed water to common use spigots at the end of the streets.

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A beautiful home on Plaza Alfaro features a balcony what was used in a scene between two lovers in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, and across the street are are the Jardines de Murillo, formerly the vegetable plots for the Alcazar. Named for Seville’s most famous painter, Bartolome Esteban de Murillo, they are absolutely lovely and a great place to get out of the sun. In a small side plaza, you will find a statue of another famous Sevilliano, Don Juan.

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A little more wandering and we found Murrilo’s house and the Plaza Santa Cruz where he was buried. The church is gone, but there is a small iron cross and cage in the center of the square, which interestingly had a can of cat food and a small saucer of water in it. Murillo’s door had some very old graffiti carved into it, dating to 1768.

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A few more twists and turns and it was time for lunch at Bar Las Teresas, a taparia that has been serving here since 1870. We rolled the dice and had lomo con tomate and papas alinata, the former tender chunks of pork shoulder stewed in tomato sauce (ala my mother’s spaghetti sauce with spare ribs recipe) and the latter chunks of potato served in chilled olive oil and dusted with fresh tuna. Both were outstanding and helped us for the next phase of the day, the long walk to Estacion Santa Justa to purchase tickets for our planned trip to Cordoba.

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It was an interesting walk, about mile and outside the tourist district through what were probably regular working class neighborhoods. Trash on the street, weedy lots and nothing much to look at, much like Shanghai. However, in one intersection, something caught my eye. Two sections of arched ruins that look like an aqueduct. We took pictures and later researched it, and sure enough these were two of the three pieces of the original aqueduct that ran from the hill town of Carmona to Roman Sevilla.

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As always buying train tickets is a mini-adventure, you take a number and you wait for what seems like forever. As we got to the window, the credit card machine became unavailable but no worry, because I had cash. Purchase completed we made our way home and on the way stopped to buy water at a medium sized bodega that for some reason had a big stand full of plastic oil cloth in very cool patterns by the front entrance. Like very other one in Sevilla, this one was run by a Chinese man and he lit up when I told him that I was a Dongbei Ren, a Chinese from Dalian. He got very excited as he too was from Dalian’s province. It’s been an entertaining trip for me in this regard, because every time I see a Chinese shopkeeper, I speak to them in Hanyu which result in confused mishmash of Spanish (in which they are invariably fluent,) Hanyu and sometimes a bit of English. I bought water from this guy, oranges from the store at the end of our street and bread from a fellow today, each time conducting the transaction in their native tongue.


After a rest we went out again for dinner, trying two of the restaurants recommended by our landlord, Juana, but both were not yet open due to the early hour of 8:45. As mentioned earlier, we ended up at La Hosteria del Laurel. I had cuchinillo, baby roast pig and My Lovely Wife had the traditional Sevilla roast fish platter. We split a bottle of Andaluz vino tinto and I had a nice chocolate gateaux for desert. We took the long way home, stopping in a bakery so I could stuff my face with some fresh cookies and then we went down to the river for the final mile’s walk along the paseo.