We had the amazing privilege of visiting Spain during the Thanksgiving holiday. It rose from the untimely observation that only one of our five chicks would be breaking bread with us for Thanksgiving. When Larry discovered his brother’s family was planning a trip to Madrid over the holiday we decided to tag along. I’m sure they were thrilled.
Spanish people are passionate, friendly, and enormously fun. The culture of Spain washes over you, hydrating the thirsty places in your soul, sacramentally profound as baptism, and just as efficacious. We are indelibly etched with the chrism of Spain, we have sipped wine, broken bread, worshiped on sacred ground and now…now we are kin. It’s fair to say my entire life serendipitously positioned me to arrive at this exact location, at this exact point in time, with these particular people, for purposes unknown. I refer to it as grace.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber
Landing in Madrid was uneventful which is exactly what you want when traveling abroad. As my suitcase tumbled down the conveyer belt I may have let out a rather exuberant cheer. Totally appropriate under the circumstances. I admit landing in a foreign country with inadequate language skills leaves me with a sense of trepidation. I can order red wine and find a bathroom everything else is out of range especially if you are looking for an ATM or stationary store?Charades is applicable only in select situations and finding your way home is not one of them.
We managed to secure a taxi to our apartment in the Barrio De Chueca, central Madrid, after meeting up with the owner for keys and final instructions. I found myself promising to water plants, remove my shoes before entering the house, and only allow people I know access to the building. Apparently the Airbnb’s are not approved of in this area and inspectors comb the city looking for code violations. Good to know.
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. John Steinbeck
Anxious to enjoy the flavors of Spain we hit the crowded streets and were not disappointed. Madrid is enjoyed most profoundly on foot, exploring your way through its narrow streets, which lead to intriguing parks, markets, tapas bars and street performers. I’m not kidding. It’s a fairytale. With a plethora of saints to conjure up for divine intervention, I must give a shout out to St. Amand for leading us to a fabulous tapas bar a few blocks from our apartment, we even scored a patio table, enjoying sangria, cheese, and local meats.
Feeling the effects of a fifteen hour flight, smashed between two boulders (Larry and Dante), with seats specifically designed to make sleep impossible, I was ready to slip into my new pajamas, crawl into a double wide bed with Larry (which seemed spacious compared to my recent domicile), and saw a few logs. But that was not to be the case.
From the street below I could hear my sister-in-laws voice float up through the balcony windows, flung wide open to let in the fresh air, and the delicious sounds of Madrid. Marta has two dear friends in tow, Maria and Guillermo, who assure us the night is still young? It was after 10:00 pm., hello.
Praying to St. Amand for a second wind we are persuaded to walk across town to a swanky rooftop restaurant for tapas and wine. What the hell? When in Spain do as the Spanish do. We landed at Oscar’s, with incredible views, wine, tapas, lovely conversations, and before we could protest Guillermo and Maria pick up the tab. We’ve known them for a couple of hours, but this is Spain, the people you meet become family.
“To go to bed at night in Madrid marks you as a little queer. For a long time your friends will be a little uncomfortable about it. Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night. Appointments with a friend are habitually made for after midnight at the cafe.” Ernest Hemingway
It’s a little shocking to realize you slept past ten o’clock, Larry slipped out to secure pastries and coffee, bless his heart. The first thing I did was fling the shutters open wide and let the distinctive sounds of Spain flow into the room. Joining up with Marta, Ken, Maria, Guillermo, and most of our kids we walked to the famous El Rastro de Madrid, a popular open air flea market held every Sunday. It is located along Plaza de Cascorro and Ribera de Curtidores. El Rastro means “the trail,” the market probably owes its name to the tanneries that were once located in Ribera de Curtidores. The market is so crowded we eventually slip into a cafe for a splash of coffee and to rest our feet.
Working our way to the Royal Palace of Madrid for the expected photo, then on to the famous Mercado de San Miguel (too crowded on weekends to linger but we were totally tantalized by the displays of food), stopping for lunch at a local pub, we ate in a cave created by thieves to stash their goods. A total find.
Every few blocks the ornate buildings open up to these charming squares, spaces for gathering, bordered by rustic cafes, coffee shops, and enticing tapas bars. Ornate fountains dot the landscape, historic statues commemorate war heroes, saints, explorers, and politicians (Christopher Columbus is proudly displayed at the Plaza de Colón), and during this time of year Christmas trees have been erected all over town, along with light displays crisscrossing the major streets in central Madrid. It’s magical.
The lifestyle in Spain is enormously attractive, a place where people take time to gather, eat, converse. The pace is unhurried, no one rushes you through a meal, or a conversation. It’s takes a while to get used to but I fear it will be hell to revert to our normal pace when we return home.
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” Clifton Fadiman
There is a small stone slab in Madrid’s city square which marks the geographical center of Spain. Larry and I stood on the nucleus of Spain and I have to say it felt rather special to be in the center of it all.
Madrid’s beauty is in the details, ornate moldings, simple iron balconies, tiled rooftops, cobbled streets, grand statues, majestic fountains, along with impressive architecture, which is sometimes distinctly Arabic in design, but somewhere along the line was adapted by the Christians. The churches are extraordinary, each with there own charisma, saints, and powerful artistic displays of the scriptural narratives. I was completely charmed and sometimes horrified by the stories.
This morning Larry, Ken, Martica, Tim, Sophia, Dante, and I board a private tour bus organized by my sister-in-law Marta, for a guided tour of Toledo. Our bus drops us just outside the walls of Toledo, it takes a series of escalators to reach the elevated entrance, but well worth the effort. Inside the walls you’ll find an array of ancient mansions, ornate building, charming squares, restaurants, and towering churches.
We’re scheduled to have lunch at a local pub, but when we arrive we notice there is no space for a group our size, the waitress escorts though a back door, down a flight of circular stairs, and we enter a mysterious interior room, cave like in appearance, where a table is set for us. For the next two hours we are lavished with plates of sliced ham, local cheeses, and pasta bravas (potatoes), croquetas (fried balls with different ingredients), pimentos de patron, and various meat dishes. By the time dessert came around I was stuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey, but don’t say that out loud, they have no idea what you mean.
We spent more than an hour exploring the Cathedral of Toledo, 13th century, high gothic, considered one of the most beautiful in Spain. From Wikipedia I learned it combines characteristics of the Mudéjar style, mainly in the cloister, with the presence of multi-foiled arches in the triforium. The incorporation of light and the structural achievements of the ambulatory vaults are some of its more remarkable aspects. It is as if they hoped to manifest a divine presence with limestone, stain glass, and majestic arches. It comes close.
Walking the cobbled streets we browse through shops, more churches, taking in the sights and sounds of Toledo. I think to myself will I ever pass this way again? In all likelihood this might be my one and only time to experience this place, I’m no spring chicken, and there is much of the world I’ve yet to see, so I try to imprint the images on my heart.
Today happens to be our thirty-fifth Wedding Anniversary (which we have been celebrating for an entire year), we were married on November 19th of 1983, and Marta graciously reserved a table for us at the famous Plaza de Cibeles, an elegant space on the sixth floor, with magnificent views of the surrounding area. This is a michelin type restaurant with an array of unique entrees and memorable flavors. We decide on the chefs recommended menu and settle in for a long and drawn out meal starting with a splash of champagne and tiny appetizers. Our servers speaks very little english so we enjoy bantering with them in Spanglish. After dinner we have wine left over so they allow us to take it to the adjoining Terraza Cibeles Cocktail Bar so we can enjoy a beautiful but chilly view of the city.
There is no night life in Spain. They stay up late but they get up late. That is not night life. That is delaying the day. Ernst Hemingway
Today our tour bus takes us to Avila, then on to Cuelgamuros, with a spectacular finish in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, and a tour of the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo. A full day is planned so we start at 9:00 am (Brutal, I think I went to bed at 3:00 am), boarding our bus with sleepy eyes, we settle in for an hour drive to Avila.
I remember reading about St. Teresa of Avila years ago, a young girl from a wealthy family fascinated by the lives of the saints, and ended up becoming one. Her mother died when she was young and Teresa turned to the virgin Mary as her spiritual mother. Teresa entered a Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila in November of 1535. She found herself increasingly perturbed with the spiritual malaise at the monastery. Can you imagine? The observances were lax, visitors came and went as they pleased, and according to Teresa they spoiled the “cloistered” atmosphere with frivolous concerns and vain conversations. These violations of the solitude, essential to progress in genuine contemplative prayer, grieved Teresa, so she founded a reformed Carmelite convent, correcting the laxity. This woman really did not like to have fun, she was tight with God, and put all of her personal concerns aside.
“Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” St. Teresa
Exiting the bus outside the walls of Avila we first explore the Basilica de San Vicente, where three siblings, Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta, were martyred a century before Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire. It’s a gruesome story. The children refused to sign a document claiming they were not Christian, they were brutally beaten, tied naked to rotating crucifies, then the three of them were laid together, their heads placed between two large boards, and their skulls were savagely crushed. I can’t stop thinking about these children? How could anyone be so cruel? The girls were only seven and nine at the time. I bring this angst with me inside the city walls.
Avila is completely surrounded by perfectly preserved stone walls. It looks as if it were a recent build, but much like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the walls are under constant reconstruction, and let me just say meticulously preserved. There are nine gates, eighty-eight towers, the average height of the walls is twelve meters, and its average thickness is three meters (I have no idea how to convert this so you’ll just have to deal). This is how the city protected itself against invaders. Entering through the St. Vincent gate, we explore the ancient town, until we get to the Plaza Mayor (main square), and decide to stop for a splash of coffee.
Passing El Torreon de los Guzmanes, a tower of Spanish Renaissance, our tour guide points out the Convent of St. Teresa, built on the site of her birthplace by the architect Fray Alonso de San José. The beautiful baroque facade is distinctive and you can see on it the coat of arms of St. Teresa’s family.
The Cathedral of Avila is our next stop, designed as both a temple and fortress, it is part of the Walls of Avila. The building is surrounded by various stately homes and palaces, which were responsible to ensure the defense of the nearby gates. The Cathedral of Avila is considered the first Gothic cathedral in Spain. We finish our tour of Avila by climbing to the top of the walled fortress, for a unique view of the landscape, and a chance to experience how it must have felt to guard this city from these elevated platforms.
Next stop Spain’s most controversial site, the Valley of the Fallen, in Cuelgamuros. A huge granite cross rises straight up from the rock of the Sierra de Guadarrama, with a colossal esplanade carved out to make a platform for the basilica beneath. The vaulted crypt below was bored into the mountain as part of the construction, which took almost two decades to complete. The whole thing was Franco’s idea.
“There are still plenty of Spaniards who would pay good money to spit on the grave of General Francisco Franco more than 40 years after his death,” claims Stephen Phelan, which happens to be today, November 20th (he died in 1975). There are others who come to lay flowers on the plain stone that bears his name (but not his rank) inside the Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen. Franco and the like-minded Falangist leader Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera have the honor of burial inside the church itself, they are surrounded by the bones of 40,000 followers and enemies alike, buried about the grounds.
Security is tight, no pictures allowed, and you have to go through a metal detector before they will allow you into the church. The site was bombed by Maoist anti-fascists as recently as 1999. Flag-waving Francoists and Catholic-authoritarian Falangists are known to get a bit over-enthusiastic while paying their respects, we actually saw a guy click his heels, and perform a Nazi salute at the foot of Franco’s grave.
To reach the tombs, you have to walk under the cross, held up by granite giants representing the apostles and virtues. Then into the edifice itself, through the airport-style security gate, and past the militaristic icons and apocalyptic tapestries that decorate the interior. There are statues of angels with swords, images of the beast and the false prophet, along with chapels for the patron saints of the army, navy and air force.
The black marble floor shines like a lake at night, the walls echo with the whispers of guests, the effect is powerful, mesmeric, and unnerving. Franco is on the far side, furthest from the daylight, and sunny Spain. This is an extraordinary stop, I’ve never seen anything like it, and the mystique will remain with me for some time to come.
Gathering back at the bus we head to the Chair of Philip II, in la Machota, from which the monarch observed the building of his monastery, and the Abantos Hill, this peak sports a spectacular view. The kids have been jumping across Spain (meaning they jump in the air as the adults attempt to capture the airless moment with a photo) everywhere we go. It’s their signature statement.
It’s a short drive to the historical residence of the King of Spain, in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, about 28 miles northwest of Madrid. It is one of the Spanish royal sites and has functioned as a monastery, basilica, royal palace, pantheon, library, museum, university, school and hospital. I call it the multi-purpose palace.
I was not only witnessing a part of history, but it was as if I was Michael J. Fox, tossed back in time. The palace was the most important center of political power in all of Europe. The main esplanade is enormous, I’m inspired to take a picture of Larry below the statue of St. Lawrence, his namesake.
Marta told me about a concert she attended when she was studying in Spain (twenty-five years ago) on the majestic Patio de Reyes (Courtyard of Kings) at sunset, she said it was a surreal experience, I can only imagine. I wanted to spend more time in every room, from the sensational library, to the tombs of the Spanish monarchs since the 16th century, and the royal pantheon. Luxurious tapestries, frescoes, beautiful codices, and oil paintings comprise an enormous collection of priceless works of art scattered throughout the monastery. Like Nat King Cole sings, it was unforgettable in every way.
Now I must admit to a disordered obsession with the martyrdom of St Lawrence because Larry bears his name. St. Lawrence was a deacon in Rome in 258 AD (he was 33 years old), responsible for the material goods of the Church, and the distribution of alms to the poor. He was sentenced to death by the Prefect of Rome and ordered to hand over the treasures of the church. Lawrence asked for three days to gather the churches wealth but instead he distributed it to the constituents. St Ambrose of Milan claims that instead of treasures Lawrence brought forward the poor, he said, “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.”
The Prefect was so pissed off that he had a great gridiron prepared with hot coals beneath it, and had Lawrence placed on it, and barbecued him to death. How horrible. After the martyr had suffered pain for a long time, the legend concludes, he cheerfully declared: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!” From this St. Lawrence derives his patronage of cooks, chefs, and comedians. All over the monastery are small grills which honor his sacrifice.
Larry and I wake early, jump into some warm cloths, purchase a coffee, and head to the Plaza de Sol on our way to the Museo del Jamon (a Greggie recommendation), taking the time to leisurely browse the adorable shops and cafes scattered along the surrounding streets. It is a charming area to explore while we wait for Ken and Marta to join us.
Our next stop, the Museo del Prado, a famous Spanish national art museum, located in central Madrid. It is considered one of the world’s finest collections of European art, dating from the 12th century to the early 20th century. There are numerous works by Francisco Goya, the single most extensively represented artist, as well as by Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco (my favorite), Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and Diego Velázquez, are some of the highlights of the collection. The last piece we saw was ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch, it is a tritriptych (three part) oil painting that depicts the Garden of Eden (original sin), human life (temptation), and hell (the result). Powerful piece. I think Spain offers one access to all three. We finished off the afternoon with garlic shrimp, bread, and ink pasta. Delicious. Siesta time.
Tonight we celebrate Martica’s (my niece) twenty-first birthday at a fabulous restaurant in the Salamanca neighborhood where all the fashionable brand stores are located. Ken, Marta, Larry and I stopped off at the Mercado de la Paz to join Maria and Guillermo for a glass of wine before dinner. Of course Guillermo hosted us with a beautiful meat tray, pickled garlic, and cheeses. Magnifico.
We walk to the restaurant where I believe close to twenty-five people gather to celebrate Martica’s birthday. The meal is served family style with an assortment of traditional foods, wine, and birthday cake. After dinner (which is well after midnight) the young people decide to hit the discos, enjoying the unique night life of Spain, while the adults move up the street, to the nearest charming bar, and spend the evening sipping wine, laughing, sharing our stories. This may have been our latest night yet. I think I was just closing my eyes as the sun was coming up.
The next few days Larry and I explore Madrid on foot, walking from one neighborhood to the next, admiring the plazas, parks, fountains, shops, cafes, and architecture at our leisure. Just when we’re finally adjusting to the culture of Spain, late night dinners, the slow unhurried pace, siestas in the afternoon, our time is coming to an end. Marta set up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at a local restaurant for fifty, including a bunch of Vidal’s (her family name), who are in town for a wedding. We enjoyed a fabulous turkey meal, traditional desserts, and entertaining company.
Our last day in Spain was memorable indeed.
In the afternoon we arrive at Guillermo’s market (Mercado de la Paz) for a traditional meal. This fabulous market is a hidden jewel right in the heart of the “golden mile”, the swankiest shopping neighborhood in Madrid. Despite this, Mercado de la Paz has elements of a traditional market, selling not only fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, but also boasting a locksmith, cobbler and garment repair stalls.
It’s difficult to describe the warmth that Guillermo and Maria bestow on their guests, it’s more than a cultural display which highly honors hospitality, they exude a generosity that is sacramental in nature, it changes you, and you’re left with this indelible imprint on the heart. Guillermo took Larry and I up to his office to present us with a most precious gift. His family worked closely with the monarchy in the last century or so and Guillermo inherited some historical manuscripts stamped with the royal seal. He had one encased in glass so you can see both sides of the document. “For you,” he says. I didn’t know how to thank him for such a generous gift. I was deeply touched.
There comes a moment on a journey when something sweet, something irresistible and charming as wine raised to thirsty lips, wells up in the traveller’s being. Patrick MacGill
This land, these people, the entire experience has become part of my story. I don’t believe we meet people by chance, I believe every encounter is important, especially the unexpected ones, but sometimes you meet a person who you know will become a part of your journey. Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so the intrinsic qualities are made more clear says Freya Stark. Spain was the destination but not the purpose, travel does this, it takes the simplicity of everyday life, gives it form, and new meaning. That is the unexpected gift of travel.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller
I’m Living in the Gap, drop in anytime, I’ll show you my photos!
- ‘El Gordo’ is the name given to the oldest lottery jackpot in the world – and the richest. Held every year in Madrid on December 22, the Christmas Lottery culminates with the picking of the El Gordo number, the Fat One, which, for many, has become the true Christmas miracle in Spain. Michael Paterniti
- I wish one time in my life I could do what other writers do… get me a villa in Spain and go there to write a book. Lewis Grizzard
- Never go on a trips with anyone you do not love. Ernst Hemingway