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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