Why an Adventure to Green Spain?
Aragon, Asturias, Cantabria, Galicia and the Basque Country, northern provinces of Spain on the Bay of Biscay, came up on a Google search of little-known places of extraordinary beauty. Sites described the region as mountainous with snow-capped peaks dropping down to a coastline of spectacular beaches while historic towns, medieval villages and seaside ports line the coast. Pastoral scenes reflect the agricultural heritage, with wine and cheese representing major industries. Limestone hills offered spaces for our human ancestors, who created cave paintings, artistic treasures designated as World Heritage Sites.
My travels usually take me to places that have some connection to my Celtic ancestry, and while traveling to the northern coast of Spain seemed like a move in a different direction, ironically, further investigation revealed that Asturians consider themselves related to the Scots and Irish, their presence dating back to the Iron Age. Locals play the Asturian bagpipe for traditional music. I also uncovered another common characteristic with my Scottish ancestors: an independent identity, which typically led to revolts against those who attempted to assimilate and control their region. That’s all the convincing I needed to undertake this journey.
Challenges and Considerations
Politics: As a supporter of anarcho-syndicalism, inspired by my son, John, I am looking forward to visiting Catalonia, where anarchist and socialist trade unions have a rich history. Before the Spanish Civil War, the social revolution spread throughout Spain, and workers controlled the factories, collectively managing their workplaces. The anarchists began their campaign by agitating for the eight-hour day and gained popularity because destitute peasants had no mechanisms to address exploitation. Please note: that despite the media portrayal of anarchists as dangerous, most oppose violence. I think of anarcho-syndicalism as democracy in the workplace.
I hope to visit the bookstore run by the CNT, a syndicalist union that supports worker self-management and solidarity. While in Barcelona, I would like to take this tour that visits famous locations of the Spanish Civil War and to stop in at LaLlibertaria, a bar that features anarchist history on the walls. In 2014 the Catalan government will hold a referendum on independence, and currently, Catalonians have pushed toward independence in protest of the austerity measures. I have been following on Facebook and in the news, one of the leaders of the non-violent movement against the conservative government, Sister Teresa Forcades, who with Arcadi Oliveres, economist, and activist, is advocating for the nationalization of banks, an anti-corruption platform and a manifesto that allows Catalonians to decide what model of governance they should follow. I admire Sister Teresa’s courageous stand against the excesses of capitalism. I might have an opportunity to meet her.
Language: Hola! I hope that my two years of high school Spanish are of some help in negotiating the language, and I’ve tried over the last few months to practice Spanish. I have some kind of language processing difficulty, which makes learning pronunciation embarrassingly challenging. The students in my Spanish class would dutifully repeat a sentence after the teacher, whereas my mind would go blank after the third word. Practicing: Habla usted ingles?
Art: As I began researching Spain, I learned about the significant influence of three artists, with whom I had little familiarity. Being somewhat of a rebel myself, I found, however, I could easily identify with those artists who leaned toward the unconventional. Francisco Goya considered a subversive artist, painted the Family of Charles IV, described by Hemingway as “a masterpiece of loathing.” I’m endeared to anyone who pokes at monarchial institutions (see protests below). Antoni Gaudi, a Catalan architect who broke with tradition, created structures that seem to defy gravity. His work is well represented throughout Barcelona. The most well-known and celebrated artist of the 20th Century, Pablo Picasso became famous for Cubism and collage. His painting, Guernica, depicts the inhumanity of war when the Germans bombed the Basque village during the Spanish Civil War.
Cuisine: As a vegetarian, I won’t be dining on Iberian ham. Many consider octopus as a culinary delicacy, but the creature is a sentient being, and one look at those little suction cups on their arms will be enough for me to lose my appetite. Any beverage with alcohol gives me a headache! Caray! Oh, well, so much for those fine wines of the north. I’ll concentrate on appreciating the varied fruit and vegetable dishes. Vegetariana is not hard to remember, even for one who is linguistically challenged.
Bullfighting: One issue I faced in deciding whether to travel to Spain was the cruelty of the bullfight. I don’t believe bullfighting can claim any legitimacy being that finds its roots in the Roman gladiator fights where both humans and beasts suffered under injustice and torture. After doing some research, I found that most of the Spanish people are more or less indifferent to the practice, and the province of Catalonia has actually banned bullfighting. The bullfighting industry perpetuates this blood sport for their financial gain. I will not be attending any events associated with the practice, and I’ll express my opinion, should anyone ask. This link offers a good analysis of bullfighting as a cultural practice or brutal sport.
Thursday, June 13: Arrive in Barcelona
All went well with the flight although when the airplane banked at Montserrat, the mountain whose jagged peaks jut up over a thousand feet just outside of Barcelona, I thought the pilot was going to clip off the wingtip.
Lunch: LaLlibertarai, Tallers Street, 48, 08001. The rustic bar just off Las Ramblas. Walls are decorated with posters and photographs displaying the anarchist history in Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War.
In April of this year, thousands came out in protest against the monarchy, demanding a return to a republic. The protest was held to celebrate the anniversary of Spain’s Second Republic, April 14, 1931. The royal family has been dogged by a series of scandals, and support for the monarchy has fallen to an all-time low. I find it inspiring to watch the hundreds of beautiful red, yellow and purple flags waving in the wind during the parade. My hope is that Scotland will eventually rid itself of its monarchy.
For 7.5 eros I ordered this flavorful salad for lunch.
Discussion and Chance to Meet a Feminist Nun who takes on the Systems, religious and political! On my first evening in Barcelona, I signed up for an event at the Tibet House Foundation:
Women, Spirituality and Social Change, a dialogue between Teresa Forcades and Lekshe Karma Tsomo, chaired by Ima Sanchis; event described as an encounter between a Benedictine Catalan nun and a California Tibetan nun, who share the same commitment: to promote social change based on inner transformation.
How exciting! Meeting a revolutionary nun! While some may consider her ideas radical, I think of them as being common sense, such as viewing capitalism as an unethical construct. Sometimes when I’m talking with people about the problems of capitalism, they agree but then say, “Well, that’s the way it is.” Teresa says it doesn’t have to be that way.
People lined up early and filled the space. I was lucky enough to have conversations with several women (thanks, Anna!), who helped me with translating what was transpiring since this event was in Catalan. Lekshe Karma Tsomo spoke in English and her part was translated for the audience. So I missed what Teresa said, but watched for the reactions from the listeners, who responded with laughter to many of her remarks. Teresa has a good sense of humor and even posted on her Facebook a satirical comedy sketch involving a meeting between her and the pope.
After the talk, I introduced myself to Teresa. I had sent her a letter several weeks before, and she remembered all the details of what I said in that note! I made a copy of the manifesto that was posted on the Internet, and Teresa signed it for me. She was amazing, such a dynamic personality.
Video with selected clips from the discussion.
Friday, June 14: Barcelona
Comedy of Errors in Checking In
Under normal circumstances, hotel check-in is not that demanding, but as it happened I encountered a number of glitches before I could settle in. I wasn’t accustomed to using the card to turn on the lights, which was my first dilemma. The room was stuffy, and I couldn’t get the air conditioner turned on. The room had a door to a courtyard area, which was surrounded by four five-story walls with a glass top, so that wasn’t much help. I couldn’t get the trickling to stop in the bathroom, and when I sat on the bench provided in the room, it collapsed right to the floor. Ok, time to head down to the main lobby, tripping down the stairs. I opened the door at the bottom of the staircase, and grabbed the knob, which promptly came off in my hand!
By the next day, the problems were fixed, but not before spending a night with the door to the courtyard open, which was a little spooky, but rather that than suffocating, I thought, I’ll opt for the fresh air.
City Bus Tour
After a very slow start, due to jet lag, lack of sleep and air, headache, etc., I boarded the City Hop Hop On-Off Bus Tour for an overview of Barcelona, what I would call the city of balconies, whether plexiglass or intricate iron railings, seems that most of the apartments have a platform to the outside. It’s understandable that living in such a beautiful place, you might want to always have access to the outside.
Today was warm and clear with low humidity, and I just sat back and enjoyed the ride on the top deck of the bus while the commentary continued through the earphones. I got off at Montijic Hill and took a cable car to the top of the mount for panoramic views of the surroundings.
One interesting side note, I thought I had seen graffiti in almost every place possible until I saw writing and initials carved on the leaves of this plant growing in the gardens near the castle.
Saturday, June 15: BARCELONA, GAUDI’S INSPIRED CREATIONS
“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, Boys” ~ Oliver
So before we started out on our tour, we learned that one of the members of our group had their wallet stolen out of her purse from a zippered compartment. She reported she didn’t even know when it happened, but at some point while visiting Parque Guell. Before I left on this trip, I read up on pick-pocketing in Barcelona because I heard it was a big problem, especially in the areas where tourists congregate. I was prepared with several solutions. I tied my wallet to the inside of my purse, and put it in an inner zippered compartment; the purse also had an outer zipper. I planned to always wear a shirt or sweater over the purse and hold it in front of me. Hopefully, that will work.
La Sagrada Familia
This Basilica has been under construction for well over a hundred years and is due to be completed in 2026. It is difficult to comprehend this structure from written descriptions. I told myself not to take any pictures because it’s already been photographed by millions of tourists, but as I approached, I couldn’t help but starting clicking away. It would take a good part of an afternoon to view the inside, but long lines snaked around the perimeter.
Is a masterpiece of architectural creativity. I overheard someone say, “It’s a bit over the top.” What? There is no top for this creation. This is one of those places where you can’t stop photographing, and you just don’t know which way to look next to take it all in. The structures reminded me of my sculpting clay class. It seems as if Antoni Gaudi, Catalan architect of this garden village, was making pottery, but on a larger scale, of course. Gaudi designed curved benches, which were inlaid with ceramic pieces of pottery. This undulating form outlined a large plaza, which on the far end we could view the sea.
At most places that we visited, vendors, trying to collect a small piece of the 81 billion dollars brought in by tourists, set up make-shift stands to sell sunglasses, purses, and jewelry.
In the late afternoon, I strolled down LaRambla, the tree-lined thoroughfare that stretches for a mile right down to the waterfront. I stopped in the CNT Bookstore, once headquarters for the CNT, a confederation of anarcho-syndicalist unions during the Spanish Civil War, and purchased a poster. That’s about all I could do today as we will be getting up at 6:30am tomorrow.
Sunday, June 16: FOOTSTEPS OF PILGRIMS TO MONTSERRAT AND ZARAGOZA
This morning our Go-Ahead tour group left Barcelona and headed toward Montserrat, 9th-century monastery and home of Sister Teresa, mentioned above. One of the routes pilgrims take on the Way of Saint James is through Montserrat. The Way is one of the oldest and most famous Christian pilgrimages and is symbolized by the scallop shell, because the lines of the shell converge in one place, Santiago.
As the bus climbed up the mountain, spectacular vistas came into view at every hairpin turn. Fernando, our guide, told us that Montserrat retains a spiritual essence. I noticed sunbeams, broken by the clouds, streamed down from the sky.
Once we arrived at the top of the mountain, we were drawn to the end of the plazas to gaze at the expansive views. We then walked toward the church for a glance at the famous Black Madonna. Rather than wait 30 minutes in line (she actually can be viewed from inside the church), I decided to take one of the trails up the side of the mountain, leaving behind the hub-bub below of crowds flowing through the main street. As I walked through a serene landscape, birds whistled through the low trees. At each clearing, the vistas stretched for hundreds of miles. Purple and yellow flowers lined the trail.
After coming down from Montserrat, the bus traveled by highway through Catalonia until we crossed over into the mountainous Aragón region. On our way to Zaragoza, the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance bordered rolling brown hills covered with olive trees, planted in neat rows.
Our hotel in downtown Zaragoza faced a picturesque plaza. I had Googled all the locations of the hotels on the tour and this once had one of the nicest adjoining exteriors. I highly recommend using Google maps to find and check out hotel locations. By looking at the street views, you get an orientation to the area, which helps finding your way around town.
Iberian tribes lived by the Ebro River 2000 years ago when the Romans conquered the area. A Roman wall was being excavated just down the street from our hotel. Pilgrims stop at Zaragoza, and in particular, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, where legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to St. James, the apostle. Inside the Basilica, our city guide pointed out paintings and frescos by Francisco Goya, who was a native of Zaragoza. The church authorities did not appreciate his modernistic paintings; but after Goya became recognized as one of the greatest of European painters, the Church regretted their decision to stop his work from continuing.
The plaza outside the church was alive with activity as a Renaissance Fair was well underway with colorful tents filling the square and the smells of cheese, incense, burning wood, and olives intertwined on whiffs of air. Crowds poured over the Roman bridge, as it seemed the entire population of Zaragoza showed up to visit the varied venders who came to sell their wares. Musicians played drums and a bagpipe troop snaked their way through the crowd. I wandered past the booths displaying pottery, jewelry and clothing as people cued up to get a photograph with a raptor or a snake charmer. Children rode antique merry-go-rounds, operated by hand. Video shows kids riding on the quintessential steampunk ride, with airships, balloons, and other flying contraptions.
Monday, June 17: PAMPLONA and SAN SEBASTIAN
As we traveled north toward the Basque region to Pamplona, we passed groves of fruit and poplar trees, used for paper production. Wind farms occupied fields and on tops of mountains, blades spinning in the air, not quite in unison. Spain produces a significant part of its energy from wind, even selling some to its European neighbors.
A Lot of Bull
Pamplona has been made famous for the “festival of the running of the bulls” every July 7. Years ago they had a practical reason for running the bulls. They had to get the bulls from the fields to the bullring. They would close the streets and warn town folk of the oncoming danger. Turned out the locals found the driving of the bulls entertaining to watch, and a tradition was born.
We walked along the route that the bulls run on the way to the bullring. The event, only two weeks away, has shop keepers displaying the traditional white t-shirts and red bandanas. Fernando pointed out the curve where the bulls have to make a sharp turn, and they often crash into the wall. The last hour of bullfight lecture and culminating in imagining the horror of that scene at that corner, well my conviction against bullfighting only strengthened.
Follow the Yellow Brush Road
Leaving Pamplona, ochre-colored Scottish broom lined both sides of the road for several miles. The landscapes changed to green pastures where sheep grazed on the hills; the mountains remained covered with low clouds. Tunnels took us through the mountains and my ears popped with the gains in elevation.
When my flight to Barcelona took us over northern Spain, a thick, unending bed of clouds hung over the land. Europe has had a particularly wet Spring, breaking rainfall records, so it didn’t surprise me that sky grew gray as we approached the coast.
Tuesday, June 18: BASQUE COUNTRYSIDE SAN SEBASTIAN
We woke up to a drizzly day, so with raincoat and umbrella, headed out for a walking tour, guided by Edwardo, of the coastline and streets of the old quarter of San Sebastián. The cool weather required warmer clothes, but this was not a chilling rain. We stood at the mouth of River Urumea, which flows through the city, and looked out toward the seaside. Pastel-colored buildings stood along a crescent-shaped sandy beach against tree-covered Mount Urgull. The gray ocean provided continuous large waves for the surfers, who Edwardo claimed were Americans . . . who else would be out there during this stormy weather?
Shops and tapas bars lined the narrow streets of the Old Town. The balconies at Plaza de la Constitucion provided a viewpoint when years ago bullfights were held there. They numbered each balcony as a standing place for each ticket holder. While bullfighting is not banned in this region, Edwardo said that the Basque people do not support it.
At the other end of town, buildings encircled a harbor. This scene offered a panoramic view of the many leisure and fishing boats, cloud-shrouded mountains, and sandy beach.
After spending three hours in town, we met back at the magnificent building housing the town hall, which at one time housed an exclusive casino. During World War II Nazi officers traveled from France to play. Spain, which was neutral during the war, sustained little wartime damage. Other wars with Napoleon and the British had much more serious consequences. Wellington destroyed the entire town. As the rain poured down and the wind picked up, I was glad to return to the hotel to dry out for a while.
Wednesday, June 19: ART THROUGH TIME, ULTRAMODERN GUGGENHEIM TO ANCIENT ALTAMIRA
Leaving San Sebastián, we traveled west along the scenic Costa Verde to Bilbao. Pines and pockets of deciduous trees alternated dark and light greens as white puffs of misty clouds floated over the vegetation. Towns, once built around the coal industry, nestled in the valleys. The European Union is phasing out all coal production, and the economies of these towns have transitioned to some degree to iron and steel production. In July, coal miners and their families protested the closing of the mines, fearful that they will be jobless and forgotten.
Bilbao, once an industrial center now claims their fame as the home of the Guggenheim Museum of Contemporary Art. My first impression: the building was an architectural marvel, made from titanium, limestone, and glass, designed by American architect, Frank O. Gehry.
Once inside, steel and glass towered upward at different angles in the large plaza area, yet most of the space is curved. The glass elevator took me to the third floor; I felt as if I was walking on scaffolding. I’m not one to feel the effects of being in high places, but something about the railings leaning out and the expansive views through glass tilted every which way, gave that feeling of falling. I returned to the first floor and entered a part of the museum that housed huge curved structures with entrances that invited visitors to wander in. Around and around I went–another dizzying experience. I turned back and was cast out on the other side, at which point I lost my orientation.
On the second floor, I found the exhibit of “art created in defiance of the political atmosphere in France around WWII.” The display included artwork created prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps. Some drawings were done on the lined paper, as the artists had no choice but to use scraps of paper when they could get them. I was unsure of how this artwork survived. I plan to do some research on that subject, for whoever saved these works, preserved irreplaceable art that saved these compelling stories.
I returned to the outside of the museum to take pictures of two contrasting art pieces: the huge dog, entitled “Puppy,” covered in colorful flowers and the equally as gigantic spindly spider, which reminded me of the nursery spider I found in my garden.
The ride to the Altimedia Caves paralleled the Atlantic Ocean. Green hills cascaded down to the sea. Cattle grazed on the lower slopes. Forests covered some of the rocky slopes, and villages appeared in clusters in the lowlands. At the Altamira National Museum, we viewed replicas of the ancient cave paintings dating back to 22,000. In 2002 the original caves had to be closed to all but those conducting research. Visitors enter an exact replica of the cave. What surprised me was the number and size of animal depictions on the cave ceiling, one of the first art collections humans produced.
Some folks on the tour were not comfortable viewing the evolution of their ancestors, as displayed in pictorial representations of early humanoid species. I guess we can’t like all of our relatives. I actually took to task one of the museum’s writings about Neanderthals, which stated something along the lines that they left no ancestors. I might argue with about 4% of DNA that Asians and Europeans share with Neanderthals, well, we could claim them as ancestors, even if not direct. Right?
SANTILLANA DEL MAR
A few minutes ride from the museum and we were walking the streets of Santillana del Mar, a lovely ancient town with cobblestone streets and little shops tucked behind stone facades. Souvenir stores spilled their t-shirts out from the doorways. A royal family built a palace, which is now the Hotel Altamira that dates backs to the 16th Century. My room had a solid, built-in bench under the window that appeared to be original to the building, and the windows had wooden shutters with iron latches.
After I settled into the room, I returned to the streets to explore the village alleyways. Rainwater, dripping from the tile roofs, rushed through a conduit. Flower boxes filled with pink and red geraniums decorated iron balconies. I stopped to hear the birds singing in a nearby field.
Thursday, June 20: ALONG THE COAST THROUGH SEASIDE TOWNS TO OVIEDO
We stopped very briefly at the charming seaside town of Comillas. An old cemetery stood atop a hill, and a couple of us walked over to have a look. Gates, arches and statuary with the backdrop of the sea, and we only had a few minutes to take a picture or two.
We followed a winding road along the coast, passing by remote beaches and river inlets, stopping for lunch at Tazones, a small fishing village. Restaurants and shops crowded along the only street that led to the harbor. The downpours from the night before had stopped, and the dampness and chill gave way to a warm and sunny noontime.
I climbed up steps that led to an overgrown trail along the hillside. Slipping on the rocks I clung to the wooden railing, well worth the effort for the expansive views of the harbor and village.
I must have been influenced by the modern art elements at the Guggenheim and tried this angular view of the bay.
This afternoon, arrived in Oviedo. I had some time to check my email, and my daughter wrote me that she saved a street kitten from almost getting run over in traffic. She took the kitten home, cleaned him up and even found a home for him. Coincidently, this afternoon I saw my first cat in Spain in a churchyard called, city of cats.
Oviedo is the capital city in Asturias and is famous for its more than 100 street sculptures in parks, plazas and street corners. The sculpture below, in a square in the Old Town, is called, “The Traveler.”
Friday, June 21: PICOS DE EUROPA
Picos de Europa, now part of a national park, is a mountainous ridge that earned its name from sailors during the Age of Discovery. Reaching almost 9,000 feet, sailors would look for the Picos de Europa as their first site of land on their return from the New World.
Our first stop on the climb to Picos de Europa was Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga, a Romanesque, pink limestone building that stood in stark and surprising contrast against the heavily forested green mountains. Pilgrims from all over the world come to the grotto of the Virgin of Covadona and the reason the church was built here. The origins of some of the legends about the grotto are obscure but seem to have something to do with rocks falling on the Arab army. Below the grotto, a waterfall fell against the gray stone backdrop. A woman sat in the plaza extending her cup for donations. On our visits to churches, we often met someone begging for coins. Our guide assured us that Spain’s social security system provided for the elderly.
A Non-Believer Wonders Whether Should Have Said a Few Hail Marys Back at the Grotto
On this trip I deliberately scouted out the seating situation on the bus, being prone to motion sickness, and knowing that the climb would twist and turn up the mountain, I conveniently positioned myself in the front seat. As the bus chugged up the mountain, I could see places where the one-lane road crumbled at the sides, and in one place almost half the road had disintegrated.
I peered down at the steep cliffs, and as the bus turned the corner without guard rails, my heart fluttered. The road ahead disappeared in front of me, and I heard the woman next to me exclaim, “Oh sh*t!” as the illusion of falling off the edge seemed inevitable. I mimicked a similar utterance.
This ride competed with the public transportation system along the Amalfi Coast for the most breath-taking bus ride ever.
With a sigh of relief, we reached the two glacier lakes and the stone path to the summit. With the company of a herd of Astrian Valley cattle, we followed the wide stone path to the top. Cowbells gently clanged as the cattle, grazing on the lush grass, swayed their heads from side to side. One of the cows looked me in the eye, and I noticed the very large and pointy horns. I wasn’t going to wave any red bandanas any time soon.
By the time the bus zigzagged back down the mountain, my head was throbbing. We stopped for lunch in the little town of Cangas de Onis, the former capital of the Kingdom of Asturia. A Roman bridge spans the Sella River, where fishermen cast their lines from the rocks below. After lunch, we were on our own to wander through the town, at which point I somehow got turned around and lost and had to be rescued by Carlos, our tour bus driver. I blame my confusion on the residual instability in my head from the trip down the mountain.
The one issue I have with bus trips is that I come down with a good case of “bus wooziness,” a condition having symptoms ranging from light-headedness to sensations of movement when on solid ground and swaying that lasts for hours.
Speaking of wooziness, the famous Asturian cider, or Sidra, deserves a mention. A traditional drink, the technique for pouring the beverage, called escanciado, is of the utmost importance and essential to enhancing the taste. Servers hold the bottle several feet under the glasses, allowing the beverage to aerate as it falls down. The alcohol level is fairly low, but the beverage is supposed to be taken in one gulp. One member of our group reported the “buzz” went straight to the head but lasted only five or six minutes.
Saturday, June 22: CLIMB ATOP LUGO’S ANCIENT ROMAN WALLS
The Province of Galicia has Celtic traditions that go back more than 2000 years, sharing many similarities to the Irish and Bretons. Shops displayed witchy souvenirs, and the favorite musical instrument is the Gaita or bagpipe. A bagpiper played at the entrance to one of the city gates.
The Romans invaded the region around 17BC and mined every last bit of gold, but not before they enjoyed the thermal springs at Lugo. One of the finest surviving Roman walls, dating back to the 3rd century, encircles the old town area for about 1.5 miles. From a staircase, I walked around the top of the wall, about 13 feet wide and almost 40 feet high. Considering when the wall was constructed, the size of the structure was impressive. Seems the Romans had some difficulties with local inhabitants who weren’t happy with the Roman occupation of their land. I wondered whether the size of the walls were in direct proportion to that threat.
Inside the walls, local residents were holding a festival, Arde Lucus, including a recreation of a Roman fort, set up with displays of armor and weapons. Men dressed in traditional legion costumes patrolled the streets, while families strolled along the cobblestone alleyways.
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
Santiago de Compostela remains the most famous city of the Galician province, as legend tells the story that fishermen pulled Saint James ashore and buried him a field. The city, a World Heritage Site, has become an ending place for Saint James’s Way, a 500-mile trek across France and Spain.
Sunday, June 23: CENTURIES-OLD PILGRIMAGE SITE
We started the morning with a tour of the city, and ended at the Praza do Obradoiro, the plaza in front of the main entrance of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. We watched pilgrims carrying backpacks, walking sticks, and the iconic scallop shell, stream in, some with the joyous exclamation, upon arrival to their destination. Pilgrims centered themselves for group photos, raising their arms in celebration. Our guide, Maria, asked one of the young men to tell us about his journey. Alfonso, who walked from Italy, unpacked his passbook of stamps he collected along the way and his certificate authorizing his completion of Saint Jame Way.
Watching the pilgrims on the square, I thought back to a posting I read on Facebook before I began this trip. Nathaniel walked The Way, and his remembrances best express the experience, which is so much more than earning a certificate.
One year ago I began walking the Camino de Santiago and proceeded to walk about 700 miles across Spain in 35 days. That first day, crossing the Pyrenees on rocky footpaths in a blizzard with Francesca was one of the most challenging and memorable days of my life. There is no way to describe the feeling of walking every day, over mountains, deserts, in and out of towns, villages, cities, meeting people along the way. But most significant were the hundreds of hours walking alone, letting my mind wander over that boundless sea of memory. I realized as I walked, and particularly since I’ve returned “home” (since a pilgrimage never really ends) that we all make our own “Camino,” be it in struggle against the boss, the state, or simply the daily hustle to survive, love, to actualize our individual and collective dreams. So as we each wend our paths in this crazy life lets remember the millions who have walked, fought, and fallen before us so that we might rise up and struggle on. Buen Camino. Nathaniel Miller, Facebook, 2013.
Maria escorted us to the church entrance so we could slip in to watch the last fifteen minutes of the 11 o’clock mass. At this part of the ceremony, a botafumeiro or incense container sways the length of the church. As the device swings overhead, the church fills will aromatic smoke. Maria said that in the early years of the church, around the 17th century, people lived there; it was like a hotel. Since bathing was neither practical nor desired, the space became quite ripe. I guess the incense burner was the air freshener of yesteryear. The smoke was so pungent I had to step out temporarily as I began to sneeze, but Maria called us in as the monks hoisted the botafumeiro into the air. It was fun to watch it swing over our heads.
In the afternoon, we took a one-hour ride to O Grove, a fishing town in western Galicia, along the Rias Baizas coastline. We boarded a large catamaran and motored along the estuary to see shell-fish farming done on wooden rafts. One of the crew pulled the muscles and scallops, clinging to long ropes, out of the water for us to see. Afterward, the crew served platters of mussels and bowls of shrimp, and to drink, champagne.
For better views of the bay, I climbed the stairs to the second level. As lively music played, the Portuguese passengers broke out in dance, soon joined by the Americans. Seagulls swooped in circles around the boat as the dancers formed a line down the steps to the deck below and back up again.
Monday, June 24: MADRID
After a morning in Santiago de Compostela, a flight of a little over an hour and we were in Madrid. We left the suitcases off at the hotel and walked to the Plaza Mayor for lunch, where street performers entertained us. Some of these actors put a great deal of thought into their presentations although, in one case, the fellow just walked around wearing a Spiderman costume, also amusing, however.
Then off to the Renia Sophia, the national museum of 20th-century art. I was especially interested in the Spanish Civil War, and the museum displayed posters and artwork from that time period. The other artwork I wanted to see was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which is best described in the museum’s pamphlet,
An icon of the Spanish Civil War, of worldwide anti-war sentiment and of the fight for freedom, Guernica is one of the most emblematic images of the contemporary world and the last great painting of history of the European tradition.
I looked at the series of photographs that showed how the painting changed from during its creation; it seems that Picasso added the image of the horse about halfway through. I find the horse particularly compelling, and evidently, I’m not the only one because there was the horse on a t-shirt in the museum store. If you would like to read more about this painting, this pamphlet describes many of the interesting details. 206_06_eng_pabellon_esp-goya-guernica.
Tuesday, June 25: MADRID
From Mayor Plaza I signed for a free walking tour around the old city, where a nice young man from Australia, Orrin, pointed out important historical buildings, such as the first structure built by the Moors and the Royal Palace, and told us stories and legends of Madrid. Despite Orrin’s taking a leisurely pace and keeping us in the shade most of the time, the sun’s intense rays won out, and afterward, I headed straight for rest and refreshment back at Plaza Mayor, as I couldn’t walk another step. The outdoor cafes put up huge white umbrellas that sprayed a welcomed gentle mist. I returned to the hotel for a mid-day siesta, which lasted until after 4. I’d learned that there’s a good reason for that siesta tradition.
Early evening I returned to the sidewalks heading toward Puerto de Sol, the central square from which all distances are measured. It doesn’t get dark until almost ten, so there are lots of activities on the square. I saw a protest of enthusiastic supporters of reproductive rights, ladies of the evening, and, of course, the street performers. I caught this interaction between children and a . . . well, I’m fairly sure it’s a goat.
Wednesday, June 26: MADRID
The thought of the prospect of being out in the mid-day sun got me up early for breakfast. At eight in the morning, I actually needed a light sweater. I was one of the first to board the on-off city bus tour, and took the front seat on the top deck for great viewing of the streets. I got off the bus at four locations.
Temple of Debod
The Egyptian government gifted the people of Spain one of their ancient temples and is the only one of its kind in Europe. The monument, at a top of the hill with an overview of the city, is in the middle of a lovely park. Cool breezes came through the trees inviting me to stay and enjoy the views as I watched children playing on swings nearby.
Parque del Buen Retiro
Once upon a time, only royalty was permitted in this park until the 18th century when Charles III opened it even to us commoners! The center of the park is a lake where visitors can rent rowboats. Children tossed bread crumbs into the water to feed the carp that splashed at the surface, some diving out of the water in excitement. The carp compete with sparrows, ducks, and pigeons for the cast-offs. An impressive monument surrounded by a semi-circle of columns stood on one side of the lake. In the shady areas, a spicy fragrance spilled from the trees. The horseman on the top is Alfonso XI, unfortunately, restored to the monarchy after trying to establish a republic in Spain.
With many refreshment stands beckoning me with cold drinks and ice cream, I stopped for lunch, feeding the pigeons neglected by previous passer-byes.
The Prado Museum. This museum features one of Europe’s greatest collections of art, so before I left for Spain, I checked on the Internet what masterpieces were a must-see. One painting that I recognized immediately was entitled, The 3rd of May, 1808 in Madrid by Goya. I could actually view this as well as other paintings in magnificent detail in Google Earth, the 3D layer on the left side panel; type in “Museo del Prado” in the fly-to box. For those interested in a critique and analysis of this painting, here’s a good link.
Plaza de Espana
How could I travel to Spain without a visit to a statue of Don Quixote? A stream of posers hopped on top of the platform to get their picture with the Man of LaMancha and Sancho.
Thursday, June 27: MADRID AIRPORT
Looking forward to returning home, but thinking that I don’t want to leave either . . . an incredible journey in a beautiful country.
It has been over two years since I’ve done an international trip. For most of the others on the tour, travel is a regular part of their lives, and many have been to all corners of the world. Most have their itineraries set for the coming year. I asked Dorine, a seasoned traveler, what trip experience would she recommend. Dorine enthusiastically replied, “No matter what the expense, you have to take the balloon ride over Tanzania!”
Autonomous is a very accurate description of the regions of Spain I visited. With their own language and traditions, the people feel a strong emotional attachment to their region. Liliana, our Asturian guide, remarked that after important events, they always sing the Asturian anthem, saying happily, “Then everyone cries.”
On the first day in Barcelona, I noticed immediately that a number of women were smoking on the street. I thought at first that this may have been an incidental observation, but Fernando confirmed that diseases related to smoking are a big problem in Spain. Spain still permits selling cigarettes in vending machines.
Driving Miss Daisy, Not!
When I went for my first walk through Barcelona, I stepped off the curb and almost got run over by a scooter. The cars, cabs, motorcycles, and even bicyclists whizzed by so fast, I had to step away from the road edge. Again, Fernando affirmed that it was true that Spanish drivers wait for no one and are off to the races. You would risk your life if you crossed anywhere but at the corner and didn’t wait for the little green man to appear.
Bullfighting ~ So Yesterday
In the tourist shops, statues of bulls and bullfighters crowded the shelves, looking like relics from a former era, like the armor and helmets from the middle ages that were also often displayed. Many of the old bullfighting rings are no longer in use and have been converted into other purposes.
Philosophical Musings at the Madrid Airport
Arriving at the airport early, I had lots of time to watch the flow of the crowds, and I found comfort in humanity’s desire to travel. Student groups donning same-colored t-shirts, back-packers, people on wheelchairs and children in strollers all taking to the sky to find something in another part of the world. I thought back to our visit to the Altamira Caves and about our ancestors who decorated the ceilings and how their nomadic ways brought them to the northern seaside of Asturias, and how we all carry the gene for wandering.
Travel seems to be psychologically useful. Problems of a former place melt away, and we feel we can start afresh even if we are returning home We may not remain comfortable for long, as we scan the Internet again, perhaps looking for a hot air balloon that glides over the Tanzanian plain.
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Video: Capturing the Sounds of Spain