If you have read my previous posts, you know that we went on vacation to Spain at the beginning of November. We visited Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla. This was the first trip for us to Europe. We had originally talked about going to the UK, but as the trip got moved to later in the year we decided that Spain would make more sense. As the trip got closer I started thinking more and more about what it would be like to visit the country of my long ago ancestors. During the trip I posted a blog entry about my ancestry, and about what this trip was starting to mean. A month later, I can finally write what this trip was like.
I love that some airlines show you exactly where you are at the moment. During this flight, after the second movie, the screen continually updated with our location. When we were just about over the coast of Portugal, I stopped reading and just watched out the window. I began seeing the outline of the coast, and soon I was seeing little Portuguese coast towns. That is when it hit me, I was about to arrive to Europe for the first time in my life. Maybe that is not a big deal to most people, but Europe has always figured large in my mental geography. Growing up I felt a tug of war in my heart between USA and Europe. USA was where everything cool was from, but Europe was where everything classic was from.
Once in Madrid, and what seemed like the longest walk in an airport, we were in a cab in the wee hours of a Monday morning driving into the city. I was dumbfounded being in Madrid. I always expected that my first trip to Europe would begin in Paris, London, or maybe Berlin, but never Madrid. As soon as I had that thought, I realized the cab radio was in Spanish, and not just any Spanish, but Castellano. Since I moved to the US, 33 years ago, there have been two kinds of Spanish accents that I have heard regularly on radio, TV, or other media, Mexican or Caribbean, usually Puerto Rican or Dominican. However, this was Castellano, the standard language, the language of Cervantes, Garcia Lorca, or Miguel Bose. The feeling of being home was nearly overwhelming. I looked at the streets and at the few souls walking in the street, and my eyes watered. I held back the tears, well because as my mom always told me “you’re a man, men don’t cry.”
“Quiero llorar porque me da la gana.” Federico Garcia Lorca
That morning I saw the sunrise over the Iberian Peninsula and watched Madrid wake up. Cervantes once said “sea moderado tu sueño; que el que no madruga con el sol, no goza del día.” I did enjoy that day, and every day I woke up in my unexpected home.
The streets of Madrid seemed at once very familiar, and very strange. The waves of people washed over us, as we walked. I didn’t expect to see so many Latin Americans everywhere we went. Of course, it makes sense, but Colombian accents would regular rise and wane around me, building that feeling that I was home. Madrid felt, and looked, like the old parts of my native Bogota.
Like Bogotanos, Madrileños seem like a serious and dour lot. Maybe it is because we were there in the rain, or maybe because the economy is not doing well. Whatever the reason, the people looked as familiar as those back in my native home. Speaking of that, when I realized that I looked like every other guy in the street with my dark hair, brown eyes, and short stature the feeling of home cemented. In the US, I’m not white, I’m brown and ethnic. In Spain, I was just another European, or just another Spaniard. For someone that “relishes” being the odd man out, it was comforting that I didn’t have to pretend there. I was just another guy.
Eating in Madrid proved to be tricky, as we both expected, being vegetarian. It seems that every restaurant in Madrid, and every other part of Spain we saw, has the identical menu. The vegetarian tapas available to us were limited to Patatas Bravas, Torta Española and Manchego. If we had been vegan, we would have starved for sure. For one meal we had Indian, which is as familiar to us, as a burger is to an American carnivore. We did enjoy the café culture, and took every opportunity to eat outside even in the rain. We partook of the early evening snack mini-meal. Our hotel was right next to a Chocolate Valor http://www.valor.es/valor.asp café. We visited it every night we were in Madrid.
There was one thing, and only one thing that I needed to do in Madrid, go to El Prado, the national museum of Spain. I have to say that while the museum is amazing, I was a bit disappointed. The week before we left for Spain, Mandy and I spent two days at the American National Museum in DC. There we saw so many Flemish, and Spanish works of art, that going to El Prado, was just more of the same. The American National Museum had pieces from the Renaissance through modern time, including several Picassos, Lichtensteins and Warhols. El Prado, while rich in their collection of Renaissance through the 19th century works of art, just tired us. How many paintings of the Madonna or of crucified Jesus can one person appreciate in one day?
“La abundancia de las cosas, aunque no sean buenas, hacen que no se estimen, y la carestía, aun de las malas, se estima en algo.” Cervantes.
Traveling through Spain via train is fantastic. We had second class tickets, but it felt like we were first class. I wish Amtrak trains were half as nice as Renfe trains. For a large part of the trip to Barcelona, I looked out the window. All the time I wondered if any of my ancestors had ever seen that mound, or that other mound. The land was arid for most of the trip, but there were vineyards everywhere.
Arriving to Barcelona in torrential rain limited what we could see right from the start. It turned out that our hotel was right in El Triangle, next to the Plaça de Catalunya and La Ramblera, the hub of the city and where every tourist in the world seems to be always.
Barcelona seemed wholly different from Madrid. The Spanish that seemed so alluring in Madrid was replaced but the very familiar, but just strange enough to freak me out, Catalan. To my untrained ear, Catalan seems like French being spoken by a Spaniard, and nearly comprehensible to me. Luckily everyone speaks five or six languages, so whatever we said in whatever half-language we said was instantly understood. The first night we had a waiter that spoke to us in Spanish, Catalan, and English interchangeably; we responded in Spanish, and English and it was fine.
Barcelona is a crossroad that Madrid is not, not that far from France, and even Italy, with its own very proud non-Spanish heritage. We were in love with the city straight away. I’m certain we met fewer natives in Barcelona, than we did in Madrid, but the people were happy, hipper, and certainly friendlier.
The word for Barcelona was “architecture.” We visited as many Antoni Gaudí buildings as we could including La Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló, Casa Calvet, and Palau Güell. The vast variety of architecture of the city is breathtaking, even aside Gaudí. There are Art Deco, Gothic, Bauhaus, Classic Spanish, Post-Modern, and all other schools you can name. Someone told me that being in Barcelona is like being in New York. That comment makes both cities a disservice. They are cosmopolitan cities, and as such have many similarities, but the Catalan character of Barcelona is undeniable. We will be back, for sure.
Food was slightly better in Barcelona. It was still difficult to find vegetarian food, as all the tapas restaurants suffer from the same menu problem than the rest of Spain. The superstar Chefs of Barcelona are enamored with game meats, so their fancy restaurants, that do sound amazing, were not welcoming. We did find alternatives, and there are several vegetarian restaurants.
From Barcelona we traveled diagonally across the country to Sevilla. I was looking forward to that trip as I would be going very close to my ancestral home just north of Ciudad Real. I hadn’t realized that by the time we went through Ciudad Real it would be dark, and I wouldn’t see anything beyond the train station. The trip was long, but beautiful until sunset with long stretches of vineyards, and farms.
We arrived to our hotel in Sevilla around 10 PM, having not had dinner. Immediately we set out to find something to eat, which was not as tricky. In the preceding days we had figured out how to find food, but what we hadn’t counted on was the crazy streets of a once Roman city. We did find food, but once again we were pleased with the little bit of the city we saw.
I don’t think we ever got over the fact that no matter what day it is, restaurants and pubs throughout Spain are open at least past midnight. Children are out in the plazas playing football past 10 on a school night. While Sevilla is older and poorer than what we had seen up to then, people are friendlier, and happier than even the Catalans.
Sevilla’s vibe is one of relaxation, with a distinct Andalusian bent. We thought we had seen cafés everywhere in Madrid and Barcelona; Sevilla has them even more so. It is also where the stereotype of Spanish culture comes from with Flamencos, Matadors, Andalusian horses, and Gypsies. A Gypsy woman accosted us, and “read” our future as we tried to get away. She then demanded we pay her for her services. Eventually we did give her four Euros, so she would stop bothering us.
The architecture and art of Sevilla is an amazing combination of Classic Spanish, Roman, Moor and Jewish influences. We spent a bit of time at Sevilla’s Cathedral, the third largest cathedral in Europe after Rome’s Basilica and London’s Saint Paul’s. Also, we visited the huge Plaza de España, the Spanish Pavillion for a World Expo, and what is now the Univesidad de Sevilla, the building where the fictional Carmen of Mérimée/Bizet’s fame was said to have worked. Just when we thought we got the overall mix of architecture, we came upon Plaza de la Encarnacion and the new Metropol Parasol, the world largest wooden structure, http://www.yatzer.com/Metropol-Parasol-The-World-s-Largest-Wooden-Structure-J-MAYER-H-Architects.
We did sit around and drink coffee a lot and watched people, our favorite sport. We enjoyed Sevilla’s people the best. We saw stereotypical romantic Europeans stopping at a street corner just to make out, German tourists in sandals and socks, and loud Brits. Which reminds me; Americans get a bad rap about being ugly and loud, but British tourists seemed to be more obnoxious, more demanding of special treatment, and louder than everyone else. I now wonder if Europeans think that every obnoxious person speaking English is American, when they might be from Kent?
In Sevilla we found a Cuban tapas restaurant, with a large vegetarian menu. We made sure we ate there a couple of times. Why can’t we have restaurants like that in the Boston area? I could go for some fufu and yucca right now.
We liked Sevilla the best from the three cities. It was grittier, but more real, more accessible. The city seemed to be filled with happiness. We also stayed at the coolest hotel, a building built in the 16th century, that while maintaining its original architecture inside, it was updated and felt very modern, and clean.
The last bit of our trip was going back to Madrid. This was my last chance in this trip to get a good look at Ciudad Real, as our train stopped there. The train trip, like the others was fabulous. Arriving to Ciudad Real was similar to arriving at some of the other cities that we went by, like Zaragoza. However, I did get a bit emotional seeing what I could see from the train. I tried to get a couple of pictures but none of them came out. Still, I was a few miles away from my ancestral home and for the last time I thought that my ancestors had seen this very area hundreds of years ago.
Aside from the sights, sounds, smells and flavors that I now carry in my memory of the mother country, I was able to put it in some sort of context in my head. Long ago when I first arrived to the US, I was embarrassed to tell people that I was Colombian, or Spanish. The way that mainstream Americans seem to think of Latinos has changed for the better, but only a little since. However, I’ve been very proud of my roots for many years. I can now be proud of what I still have in me of beautiful Spain, and I can say that I understand it better, having spent a few days there.
I’m still not going to eat their jamon Iberico, nor am I ever going to attend a bull fight, but I feel part, however distant, of the country that are the current Football World Champions, that gave us the insane creativity of Gaudi, or that gave us Lorca and Cervantes.
“Españolito que vienes al mundo te guarde Dios, una de las dos Españas ha de helarte el corazón.” Antonio Machado