Not being particularly inclined to “follow the herd”, Ilenia and I decided to take our vacation in October, instead of August, when pretty much everyone else in Italy takes the month off. I have a couple friends in Spain that I had been talking about visiting for several years, and the timing finally worked out!
We spent our first few days in Madrid, with my friend Juan Pablo. Didn’t do anything noteworthy… I think the most interesting things were just looking around and getting an idea of “what Spain is like”. On Saturday, for instance, we tooled around Madrid taking in the sights, without seeing anything that extraordinary – except for an Egyptian temple! Indeed, apparently during construction of a damn on the Nile, the Egyptians packed up a temple that would have been inundated, and shipped it to Spain as thanks for help received from the Spanish. One of the more striking aspects of the city was the change between night and day. Out sightseeing, it seemed moderately busy, but a pretty typical weekend afternoon. Come nighttime though, the city center was jam packed full of people and traffic – and not just in the evening, this was at midnight! I was impressed. In what was to be a portent of things to come, it rained.
On Sunday, we went to Alcalá de Henares, a small university town outside of Madrid, that was having a sort of fair. This town was the birthplace of Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), and had one of the first universities in Spain, in addition to a palace where the first meeting between Christopher Columbus (the Spanish somehow derived the name “Colon” from Columbus or the Italian Colombo) and Queen Isabel took place. We ate altogether too much, between a plate of thick potato slices mixed in with ham and egg, fried bechamel/bacon croquettes, and later in the afternoon a plate of “churros”, fried donut-like material which are dipped in chocolate. We were bursting at the seams when we got back! There were a few rainstorms that blew through during the day.
Ilenia and I both like to go hiking and to get away from the city, and so on Monday we took the train up to the “Sierra de Guadamarra” area – Cercedilla to be precise. The poor weather continued, and we were pretty nervous as we drew nearer to our stop, as we could see a large, looming black cloud up ahead. Luckily we passed through the worst of it before arriving, although just the same, we stepped out of the train into notably colder air than in Madrid, with some rain falling. This was our cue to seek some lunch in one of the local restaurants, where I made a lucky stab at the menu that turned out to be artichokes and ham cooked in olive oil… tasty!
Fortunately, the rain cleared up and we actually had a nice day for a hike. We walked up and out of the town towards the mountains. By the end of our hike, we actually arrived at something like 1400 meters – Madrid itself is located at about 7 or 8 hundred meters on Spain’s central plateau, and our train had chugged its way up into the mountains. I hadn’t realized it, but Madrid actually has a few ski stations well within 2 hours’ drive! Being a Monday with bad weather, we had the road and then trail almost entirely to ourselves – which was actually a bit unnerving at times, being so far from home in another country. We enjoyed it a lot though – we had no idea where it went, so we just went to see what we could see. As luck would have it, the trail followed in the footsteps of the Romans, who had built a road (“calzado romano”) there almost 2000 years ago, which went over the pass to the town of Segovia (although we didn’t have time to follow it all that way). There are still some sections that are intact, including a bridge. Quite a nice find for a hastily planned excursion to the woods!
The following day, we packed up and set out for Madrid. After some misadventures trying to find the right place to go, we found the bus station and after a brief lunch (I admit I had a burger… it wasn’t at a fast food chain and was pretty good – much better than any I’ve had in Italy) we sat down for a long ride to Granada. Part of our problem stemmed from the fact that in Italy, most long distance travel is done by train. Buses provide city transport as well as connections between the smaller towns in a region. Juan Pablo explained that there were trains, but they run less frequently, are slower and more expensive, whereas the buses have a central station, but are not run by the state. There are multiple firms that compete, and so the prices are low, even if swerving around in a bus isn’t nearly as comfortable as a train. It rained at times during the bus trip.
After growing up with the empty spaces of the western United States, it was a shock getting used to the very high population density in northern Italy. You need to experience it to really get a feel for it. And pretty much everywhere I’ve been in Europe, it’s been that way – even in the high mountains in the dolomites, there is a bar/hotel/restaurant on top of almost all the passes, even if they aren’t all that important, and even further up in the mountains there is a system of mountain huts, or ‘rifugi’ for hikers (can’t do without a place to get an espresso!).
Spain, on the other hand, was quite empty in places. Long vistas with very few constructions, wild looking hills, farms (especially olive producers) that stretched off to the horizon. It really reminded me of California in some ways, as the vegetation was also very similar in places. It’s pretty easy to see how they were able to find places to film the so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” there! I found it to be a pleasant change from the constant human presence throughout most of Italy. The bus even stopped at what can best be described as a “truck stop” to an American observer, complete with a greasy-spoon type restaurant/cafe/bar, where the bus stopped so that everyone could use the can, have a smoke (thank god they didn’t allow that on the bus), and get a bite to eat.
Granada was our favorite city of the 3 we visited. It’s not too big, has a university, was pretty cheap, had a vibrant atmosphere, and in places a wonderful view up the hill towards the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada beyond. There were an awful lot of tourists, but … I guess we contributed to that ourselves.
The Alhambra was the fortress from which the Moors ruled their last outpost within Spain, and from whence they were driven out in 1492 (according to my guidebook, the year in Spanish history). It really is an incredible palace with beautifully crafted Arabic architecture and decorations, and splendid views of the city below and the mountains above. In addition, we also visited the Al Baicin area of the city which continued to be the Muslim quarter for a time, even after the Christians retook Granada (which had been in the Moors’ possession for more than 700 years).
Before leaving Granada, we spent a morning relaxing in the refurbished Arab baths. They have 7 pools with different water temperatures, and to top everything off, you get a massage. Very relaxing, although going there in the morning was a mistake – all the soothing effects were quickly erased by lugging our baggage to Seville that afternoon! No longer much of a surprise, while on the road to Seville, it rained on and off.
We found Seville to be a very pleasant town with a ‘livable’ feeling. My friend Daniel has a very nice house a short bus ride from the town center. We didn’t notice it, but apparently it doesn’t have heating! A hard concept for me to come to terms with. In some ways the city reminded me of San Diego, with the warm climate (although I guess it’s not so moderate it summer… it gets hotter then hell, as they say) and palm trees, and like several other things in Spain, seemed more “American” at least in terms of wide, straight avenues. Of course it has its share of noteworthy architecture. We saw the Cathedral, and the Alcazar, in between eating a tasty assortment of Tapas at mealtimes. Unfortunately for us, it did rain (a lot one day) when were there.
Back in Madrid on the 20th, before leaving that evening, we went out to lunch with my friend Juan Pablo. Now, anyone who has talked with me about living in Italy will have heard how much I like many aspects of it, and how lucky I am to have the chance to live here. However, aside from my family, there is one thing I miss dearly from the states: Mexican Food. So it was with much rejoicing that we tucked into a plate of nachos – real nachos, covered with cheese, beans, guacamole and meat – at the restaurant Juan Pablo took us to. I followed them up with an honest to goodness Burrito (which is apparently not authentically Mexican, but whatever, they’re delicious). I will be eternally grateful to him for having at last aided me in finding Good Mexican Food in Europe!
And on this happy note ended our adventures in Spain, for that evening we flew back to gray, cold, and burrito-less Venice. But we were happy to be back in our own house, to see our friends, and eat pizza again!