Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Conquering Spain...Neither Did

Spain, the land of conquistadors, Don Quixote, Goya, the Reconquista and the Inquisition, but also the land often conquered.

Although it has been planned for some time and a fair bit of time, but not enough it seems, was allocated to study our destination, it was always going to be one of those cultural enrichment vacations that could turn out to be less than expected and a minor disappoint or a pleasant surprise and a total delight. What was in stored for us?

Spain! I wouldn’t say it was our first choice, but any country further north was still too cold for our liking this time of year and Greece, well, with its current Syrian refugee problem did not enticed us at this moment. So Spain fitted the bill from a weather point of view and its rich cultural contribution to the Mediterranean and European history, culture, cuisine and art makes it a natural must see on any one’s bucket list. 

The Temple of Debod in Madrid, a rarity of ancient Egyptian architecture that can be seen outside of Egypt. It was a gift from Egypt to Spain as it was possibly going to be submerged due to the building of the Aswan Dam   

Upon our departure I did not feel the usual adventurous excitement during the flight from Lexington to Chicago or from there to Frankfurt, Germany.  With so many current distractions and so much in our lives in flux at the moment, the run-up to the vacation and its immediate preparation felt more ritualistic than the usual flutters of exploration. Flying over France the grey and brown landscape below was not encouraging either, but the moment that opened the front door and let in all the vacation vibe I needed was when the plane made a slight turn to the left while flying over the black and shadowy mass of the Pyrenees Mountains, but with its peaks still covered in snow, out over the deep blue Mediterranean Sea and then banked right again to fly all along the Spanish coast, past what I presumed were the towns of Premia de Mar, El Masnou, and Badalona until we banked to the right again to come in to land at Barcelona’s El Prat airport.

 A cozy little plaza in the shadow of a Roman period relic built around 70AD as daylight was disappearing.  

So off we went in search of Roman ruins below and on Barcelona’s streets and its intriguing buildings that float on the eye like waves rolling in on a beach, and to Madrid where we found architecture and palaces as classical and beautiful as any on offer in France or Italy. We ambled through Gothic-encapsulated streets in Toledo and Segovia to stimulate our history-starved senses and satisfy our inquisitiveness, and I indulged on local cuisine like gazpacho, Spanish omelet, Castilian soup, Catalonian paella fresh in seafood and sweet in red peppers, tapas of all kind at Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, delectable acorn fed jamón (ham), and every morning freshly baked croissants and, well, anytime during the day too, the delicious Café con Leche. Grande, dos, por favor. Two large ones please.  

Tapas, Churros and Chocolate

At the end of the vacation I felt the longer I stayed in Madrid the more I like Barcelona. Madrid started off with a drive through the historic side of town and I felt here was a city that could give Paris a go for its money. The architecture was nearly comparable. But the worse the service got and the overwhelming crowds I realized I had my best moments and ate the best food in Barcelona, and there I also experienced the best restaurant service and more friendliness in general than anywhere else in Spain. Whether it was a waitress that went beyond than what can be expected to introduce us to Catalonian food and the chef coming to our table to talk to us about the food (he did make a half-sized paella specially for me) or a metro assistant helping us buying tickets and took the time to explain the metro system to us, in English, and when I thanked him he said “de nada, I was only doing my job”. So different from Madrid where a metro assistant told me it was not his job to help me buy a ticket, and where every time we went to a restaurant I always had the feeling that I was intruding upon the waiter’s privacy or free time because service in Madrid was slow, unfriendly, less than expected and certainly below par for Europe according to my past experience, except on our last night in Madrid when we dined at the restaurant La Diavoletta on Rondo de Atocha near our apartment where the service was exceptional and the food top class. Even got 2 lemoncellos on the house.
Strolling along centuries ancient streets of Barcelona's Barri Gotic area
We arrived in Madrid at the start of a 4 day long weekend, it was Holy Week ending with Easter Sunday, and although some Madrilenians, no doubt, left town for a short vacation outside the city or to spend time with their family in their home town, many more Spanish and tourist alike poured into the city. The place was a hive of activity and constantly moving masses. Very crowded! After our arrival that Thursday we went out exploring, ended up at one stage at Puerto del Sol square, but it was so crowded we left the plaza immediately again for quieter streets. We were weary of crowds after 2 pickpocket attempts on M in the first hour of being in Madrid’s streets and the events in Brussels the same week. It didn’t look like there was anything of interest in Plaza Puerto del Sol in any case. Overrated! Another New York Time Square!      

 Holy Week procession through Plaza Mayor in Madrid

But Madrid did deliver one of our highlights during its Semana Santa, Holy Week. The Thursday evening before Good Friday we stood with thousands of Spaniards and others for more than 3 hours in Plaza Mayor and waited for and observed the Church of San Pedro’s famous Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, El Pobre, and María Santísima del Dulce Nombre procession. Although not Catholic or religious for that matter, I found the procession quite spectacular and a moving experience in sheer determination from the men, the costaleros, carrying the pasos, the religious icons.

The tale of two streets in Toledo, Spain
In our effort to flee from the Madrid crowds we went to Toledo and Segovia over the weekend. Unfortunately Toledo was a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. With Toledo being much smaller than Madrid and the crowds seemingly larger than Madrid, navigating some of the ancient narrow streets was bumper to bumper traffic. By late afternoon walking on the major streets inside the city walls became totally claustrophobic and we escaped through the Puerto del Sol gate, watched how darkness descended on the old city on the hill and instead of taking a bus or a taxi we took a long slow casual walk to the station to catch our train back to Madrid.  
Segovia skyline with snow-capped mountains in the background

Segovia was slightly less crowded but only because we stuck to the quieter streets on the outskirts of the city, sometimes inside and at other times outside its walls. With snow still on the surrounding mountain peaks, Segovia was also much cooler than Madrid and Toledo. But more about these cities in a later blog post.  
Dusk descending in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, the Barri Gotic.

In the end we did not conquered Spain, the time we spent there was far too short. Although it was a hectic visit, and although we spent more actual hours sightseeing than on most other European vacations, we regularly ran out of time and energy before we could accomplish what we set out to do. We barely scratched the surface of Madrid and Barcelona and I am convinced that Toledo could be a real jewel on a different day and on a longer stay.    
But Spain did not conquer me either. There were many highlight that I will remember for a life time, but Spain did not blow me away the way France and Italy did. But then I have not seen the winemaking valleys of La Rioja, or the hilltop towns of Aragon. Nor did we ventured south to Andalusia with its Moorish history or experienced the desolated plains of Extremadura or the white beaches of the Costa del Sol. But what I saw was more than enough to justify the visit and I certainly would not mind returning one day again. 
Puerta de Alcalá, The Citadel Gate in Madrid.

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