A Month in Spain
Letters Žrst sent as e-mail dispatches to a group of friends, for whose patience and interest I am truly grateful.
|1: Time warp||7. Storks and Sephardim||13: Quiet Time|
|2. Crash of tongues, date with death||8: Mentioned by Michener||14: Tip of Europe|
|3: Rococo rant||9: Andalusian weekend||15: The Barber of Seville|
|4: A whole lot of taste||10: Internet apartment||16: Blow, ill wind|
|5: Secular, Sacred||11. Getting bearings||17: A perfect day|
|6: Mag ik de zout?||12: Networking||18: Einstein, Machaut, Mantegna, Franco|
|Spain photo page||19: Aromas and Flavors|
The red-eye out of San Francisco was bumpy and uncomfortable; I think American Airlines is reneging on their well-publicized more humane seat conŽguration, and God knows the food isnt even as good as it once was, let alone really what you might call basically good. But we landed safe and sound at Miami only half an hour late, and found our Thrifty Rental car without having to resort to anything as demeaning as helpful public information. Which seems as yet unconsidered in Chad County.
But from there things looked up. A friend had suggested spending part of a twelvehour layover having brunch at the Delano Motel, in Miami Beach; the hotel itself has been rescued by Philippe Starck (famous for his weird retro chair designs) from shabby gentility and transformed into a witty postmodern wannabe Thirties Deco palace, and the kitchen is said to be looked over by Claude Troisgros, whose brother Michel staged a while Chez Panisse and now runs the family temple in Roanne.
We sat under the ceiling looking out toward the pool and, beyond that if we could only have seen it through the wandering semi-nude readers of the New York Times, the cerulean green Atlantic; and we took our ease and a couple of Mimosas, and consulted our menus and the oddly clad fellow diners, and had an enjoyable couple of hours.
I usually dress up for travel; its one of my few concessions to fashion. I looked like a retired college instructor from a private liberal-arts college, which is in fact one of my roles: Harris tweed sport jacket, Italian silk tie, conservative blue button-down shirt, black trousers and shoes. I dressed so mostly because I would be unable to change before checking in at my Madrid hotel, where I wanted to look substantial, since Id be running up a substantial debt. But it was not the prevailing dress in Miami Beach.
Didnt matter. The main thing about this town, at present, is that you can be anyone and look like anything and Žt quite into the scene. We parked on a side street and walked the Lincoln Avenue Mall, which runs from the imaginatively named A 1 A, Floridas beachfront highway on which all the posh hotels are sited, west toward the sound separating Miami Beach from the city of Miami. I cant tell you anything about Miami; Ive only driven through it. (Well, I can tell you one thing: its perfectly flat.) But I do have a few things to say about Miami Beach, or more speciŽcally the Lincoln Avenue Mall.
The Žrst thing that strikes you is that youve walked into a time warp. I doubt a building has gone up along this mall since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The best buildings are streamline moderne; the worst aspire to it. Where there used apparently to be a street Lincoln Avenue, in fact; in its day an Auto Row, to judge by the remaining Cadillac Building there is now a pedestrian mall, unfortunately interrupted at the end of each block by a stoplight permitting two lanes of trafŽc in each direction.
Along the mall is a curious assortment of chain boutiques, souvenir shops, those odd emporia of computers and cell phones and CD machines that seem to spring up in tourist centers, second-hand clothing shops, gelateria, restaurants serving pizzas and the like, a white gospel church, and one decent bookshop, and the home of the New World Symphony, directed by Michael Tilson Thomas.
The mall is furnished with fountains, cafe seating, a number of vendors of juices freshly prepared from fruits clearly brought in from sustainable local airports, and tall palms, one thicket of which was peppered with noisy green parrots. I wouldnt eat under those trees, and fortunately wasnt asked to.
We killed a bit of time, bought a Spanish-language phrasebook, and ambled over to the Delano for our Mimosa and a leisurely consultation of the menu. For forty-eight dollars each it proposed, beyond that drink, as much as we wanted from a rather elaborate buffet: cereals and pastrys, omelets and sausages, braised duck, or steamed salmon, or roast veal; waffles and pancakes and the like, and a long salad and hors doeuvre station. I had a few oysters on the half shell, wanting to go light since the previous day Id been laid low by a pre-flight flu; and a nice salad of flageolets, and another of eggplant and zucchini and peppers; Lindsey had the same minus the oysters but with seaweed. I followed with duck conŽt, braised with a Chinese-influenced selection of vegetables, with a slice of roast veal just to see what it was like, and Lindsey had truffled eggs Benedict.
Id been entertaining myself watching people. A short young man in whites walked in with a much taller blonde in a skin-tight red dress; the top of his head came about to her Adams-apple. Another elegant young lady applied mascara to herself a table or two away. A number of older diners ignored their spouses by sharing with them the Sunday Times, but at our next table six young beauties giggled over their iPods and cell phones. An intense young man in a bright red tee shirt seemed to have an eye on every detail, and when he noticed me observing him he was right at our table: May I be of some help to you, sir?
I explained that we were by way of being in the restaurant business from time to time, and I always enjoyed watching a good manager. He beamed at that: perhaps hed been concerned I was sent in disguise, as Zeus or Wotan used to be on occasion, to be sure things were running the way they were meant to. We chatted for a while, and he talked freely about the joys and perplexities of attempting a Žne dining operation in a locale to humid to bake bread, to laid back to provide attentive or even particularly competent help, and too rich to house a clientele that didnt already know everything about how such places should run other than the fact that they really knew rather little, and that that came from unreliable sources in the media.
Well: the food wasnt bad. It wasnt up to Troisgros in Roanne, but it was better than Id expected. We had dessert a rice pudding for me, a humid Key Lime Tart for Lindsey and went back out onto the time warp on the mall, convinced more than ever that a part of the upper East Side of Manhattan was passing itself off as the Santa Monica of the 1950s.
I write this in a nice little hotel room on the Calle Clavel, just off the Grand Via, where one guide-book warns us street robbery is more prevalent than elsewhere in Madrid. Its been quite a Žrst day in this promising European capital, until now innocent of visits from Lindsey and me. Our friends Hans and Anneke flew in from Amsterdam to spend the week with us, and we celebrated by going out to dinner at two oclock, at a neighborhood restaurant du quartier, as the Parisians used to say, which Thérèse discovered a trip or two ago, and which has since appeared in Frommers.
La Fuencisla is a small yellow room, square, with about eight or nine tables, opening off behind a bar on Calle San Mateo, near the Tribunal Metro Station an easy walk, even in a light rain, from our hotel. I stepped in authoritatively and eyed the room: only two or three tables busy. The waiter asked how many we were and promised wed be seated immediately. Then he asked my name.
I thought at Žrst this was uncommonly sociable of him, and was on the point of asking his in return when I realized he assumed wed reserved. We hadnt; it had never occurred to me. Its Monday; its past two; just give us a table. But there seemed to be some consternation, and he consulted with an enigmatic presence who until then had been silently reading a newspaper at one of the tables.
This fellow suggested that we be admitted even without a reservation, and nodded to a service table until then stacked with cutlery and folded napkins. We took our seats and looked at the menus.
The waiter had heard me speak English to Hans and Anneke (and Lindsey, of course), and proudly pointed to the English translations in the menu he handed me. But it seemed to correspond inexactly with what the others were looking at, which suggested Žxed-price daily specials. But today is Monday, and what the hell is cocido? It became clear that none of us spoke any Spanish at all, that we hadnt done our homework, and that no one here was about to speak Spanish to us. (The same had happened earlier at the airport, except at the tourist information desk and the Thrifty ofŽce).
Much mime and bad guessing and second-guessing began to restrict the possibilities until Lindsey asked, with some point, if we hadnt bought a phrasebook for precisely that sort of information. And in fact the Harper Collins Language Survival Guide, in spite of its British bias and a few typos, is worth having, and particularly for its food pages. There it was: Cocido: stew made with various meats, vegetables, and chickpeas. We all four had it, of course, preceded by a bowl of perfect chicken-noodle broth and accompanied by a dry dry Rioja 2000, and followed by the inevitable flans and an exceptional espresso featuring Segafreddo coffee. Cost per couple, Žfty-Žve Euros.
After a nap we took a taxi through the rainy trafŽc-jam hour to the Queen SoŽa Museum, a truly great regional museum of twentieth-century painting and sculpture, particularly strong of course with Spanish names: Saura, Tapies, Picasso, Gris, Gonzales, Miro, Dali. This is where Picassos Guernica has found its apparently Žnal resting place, and the sight of it brought tears to my eyes its hard to look at this just now with an American passport in your hip pocket; any number of residences in Iraq must have looked like this in the last couple of years. And the bitterness of this realization was enhanced by the series of documentary photographs taken by Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War, when liberals were Žghting and dying in a futile attempt to preserve their country from the arrogance of an authoritarian, nationalist, bible-thumping and backward-looking leader who played on his countrys fear of Modernism, internationalism, liberalism, and social justice for all.
But I digress, and its time to fold six feet of fatigue into a bathtub designed for one of Goyas dwarfs. Well see how that works out.
Hostal San Lorenzo, Madrid, Feb. 8
Its come to this: were standing at a glitz counter on the fourth floor of the Corte Ingles, speaking English among ourselves and French to a Spanish woman about buying tickets to a Dutch orchestra concert tonight here in Madrid.
This because none of us, neither Hans nor Anneke nor Lindsey nor I, can manage in Spanish. The language is fairly accessible via print, when the prints large enough and close enough to make out. But when it is spoken it is exceedingly difŽcult to deal with. For one thing, it doesnt sound like it looks. What we call Saragossa, and the Spaniards spell Zaragoza, sounds something like tharrahath, the h a heavy breath. And so it goes.
Well, the Concertgebouworkest concert was sold out weeks ago, so well do something else. Theres no shortage. We slept like innocents, unholy ones, and woke up at 8:30 refreshed, and spent two hours planning our day, Žnally settling on a walk, not a long one, to the Prado. The museum clearly needs a week. I could cheerfully spend an hour examining Jan Breughels Žve little paintings dedicated to the senses, and there are many more signiŽcant things than that. The Van Dyck portraits are amazing. The Rembrandts. The Rubenses, many of which lack the fat nude females for which hes best known, and for which I scarcely forgive him.
Eyes grow glassy in a place like this, but you sure can learn a lot about painting. For one thing, you can watch it being done; there were four or Žve people working away at their easels, copying details or entire canvases; some nearing the end of their futile occupation, others just beginning their canvases, sketching out the broad lines of the composition in grisaille (more often in brown or sepia washes) to be covered later with their dutiful and attentive but somehow less masterly homage.
One copy was particularly useful, for it had been made centuries ago, of Rubenss Adoration of the Magi, before he enlarged and changed the original painting. More lessons here: how he became more dramatic and more insightful by slightly adjusting the postures and gestures; how he learned to direct the viewers eye along the lines of his composition. And how the copyist was unable to capture the masters dramatic lighting, and how he utterly gave up trying to paint the kneeling Kings ornately embroidered coat, and so would I have, had I even got anywhere near that far.
After literally rinsing out my eyes I found the paintings had trained them or perhaps it was the exercise of looking Žrst at the grand compositions, then the tiny print on the labels, when we wanted to Žgure out what the hell exactly was going on in these mute but richly Žlled reports from several centuries ago. How people dressed, how they looked, what they ate, how they danced, how they gardened, how they furnished their homes, whether they were nobles or clerics or peasants all that is more and more fascinating. And above all how they differ from us, principally technologically; and how they are the same, above all emotionally. I couldnt help thinking of Capas photos of the Spanish Civil War when I looked at Rubenss panoramas of lustful Greek centaurs and the like. Joy and misery, and the few serene moments that lend meaning to the violence they convey, hardly ever change.
Theres a particularly ugly painting hidden away in a small room where the elevators discharge, an enormous painting of Salomes dinner party, at the moment she shows her father the grisly head of St. John the Baptist. Painted in the early 17th century, its as disgusting a portrayal of anti-Semitism as Ive seen: every face but the Baptists is shows as ugly or deformed or supercilious or depraved. You could imagine it having been painted in Germany in the 1930s.
Lunch in the museum cafe, not bad; then a walk to the Corte Ingles for that language lesson in Babel. And, Žnally, a telephone chip, so I now have a working phone, may it serve me well, and home to rest for an hour. And then for the evening business: we walked down to the Puerta del Sol, a beautiful plaza whose ensemble of buildings, elegantly matched, form the oval facade to a large busy intersection; and then down through the Plaza Mayor to the Teatro Albeniz, imagine tildes and accents, to buy tickets to tonights show. And then retrace the steps to our second typical restaurant du quartier, this one recommended by, of all people, Rick Steves.
The Casa Labra Taberna (12, calle Tetuan, behind the Corte Ingles and down the street from Juan Griss birthplace) is where in 1879 the Spanish Socialist Party was founded, and it looks like a workers hangout, and I think it is. Busy bar on the street, restaurant on the side, casual sit-down tapas joint behind the bar in what looks like a onetime checkroom, with high railroadcar hatracks running all round the room. Here we had delicious salt-cod tapas, and tuna on a toothpick, and mixed salads, and Žnally Fino. When I asked for a Fino the previous night the waiter informed me that in Spain the word was spelled with a V, v-i-n-o, vino. No, Fino, I said, vino de Xeres, Sherry wine, not vino. No, he insisted, is vino with V, and brought me a red wine.
But here in the workers bar, only a few hundred meters further south but far enough, there is both vino and Fino, and I had the Fino, and then just to make sure a Manzanilla, and they were the right stuff.
I wanted it because after all we were going to a flamenco-type show. Carmen, Carmela, it was called, a drama-in-dance conceived and choreographed by Antonio Canales, who played Don Jose, with two singers, a guitarist and a percussionist behind the scenes, and a prerecorded tape of many guitars, a flute, and a chorus to present the key items of Bizets score, and two really good singers; and another male dancer, Diego Llori, as Escamillo; and Lola Greco, apparently the daughter of Jose Greco, in the title role.
Canales changed the story a bit, to get rid of Micaela who I never like anyway, and the third act, which I always sleep through; and to end with a brutal and abrupt surprise. Much of the evening struck me as contrived and jimmied together. But much was valuable: Bizets score revealed again its nervous intensity; Merimees plot led Love to its inevitably cruel end with clarity and grace; the singers Herminia Borja and Jose Valencia stepped forward to participate in the action honestly, intensively, sympathetically. I was reminded of all sorts of things: my despair when I was jilted by a girlfriend, Žfty years ago; the desperate lovers kissing on benches in the Atocha railroad station down the street, the illfated young husbands and wives in Capas Civil War photos, Romeo and Juliet and all the rest.
And then home, after a nightcap, and to get the mail, and so to bed.
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Hostal San Lorenzo, Madrid
What is it with Boccherini? We listened to six of his string trios tonight there didnt seem anything else to do so early as 7:30 in the evening and while the music was clear and melodious and by turns spirited and affecting, Žfteen minutes later we agreed, sipping our tea and mocha and frappuccino at a nearby Starbucks, that it was pretty lightweight stuff. And in fact I couldnt recall a single theme, not even the ones that hed returned to over and over again in a couple of rondo-Žnales.
They were played beautifully, by three young Russians who have taken jobs in one corner or another of the present Spain. The violinist, Yulia Iglinova, is in the Royal Philharmonic of Galicia; the violist, Yulia Malkova, is a soloist in the Madrid Symphony; Anton Gakkel was in the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra for three seasons, and is now, with Iglinova, in the national radio orchestra.
It was a free concert, and it was packed. In fact we couldnt get seats in the 300-seat hall; we sat in an overflow 114-seat hall and watched a bigger-than-life-size instant television relay, with impeccable sound, seated in posh, soft, capacious armchairs.
It was the Žrst of Žve concerts surveying some, by no means all, of the string chamber music of Luigi Boccherini, who died at 62 exactly two hundred years ago, after helping Haydn and Mozart deŽne the idea of the string quartet and quintet. Though he was born in Lucca, much of Boccherinis career unfolded here in Spain; he died here in Madrid, and was only returned to Lucca in 1927, though Im sure it hardly mattered to him.
The series is beautifully produced by the Fundacion Juan March, otherwise apparently mostly a home to contemporary currents of the arts there was a handsome video installation scattered across a number of monitors in one of the lobbies, and a series of works on paper from Picasso forward upstairs. There is a Žne forty-page program, with an intelligent general introduction to Boccherini and terser but still informative comments on each of the Žve programs.
In his introduction Ramon Barce discusses the vicissitudes that naturally accompanied Boccherinis dependency on the Spanish court for his income. He worked at Žrst for the younger brother of Carlos III, don Luis de Borbon, who loved music and painting and the fair sex and hunting and was therefore too immoral to take place, even by fatherhood, among the Holy Catholic Monarchs of Spain. And by methods too Baroque to go into in an e-mail he was aced out of any possibility of ascending to the throne and even exiled from court.
Now according to Barce the music of Boccherini reflects some of this turmoil. He says:
Boccherinis music... takes its place easily within the style and the ethos of the Rococo, where it joins the work of Haydn, Mozart, and the Mannheim School, with an Italian taste for openness, simplicity, delicacy and luminosity. You could think of his music as celestial, compared with the more complex and severe music of Haydn. ... A light sentimentality is quite present in his slow movements and at times in passages that are deliberately descriptive or evocative, with allusions to the hunt, or the Infantas aviary, or the pastoral and bucolic world, material common within the late Rococo.
Bingo: the Rococo. Earlier Lindsey was speculating about her lack of enthusiasm for Goya, as he is represented in the Prado. We saw there the famous two Majas, the nude one and the clothed, each of whom wears her head slightly awry; and the series of court portraits Carlos IV looks like a straw man; Maria Teresa has no room for a brain behind her slightly vacuous expression; even the innumerable dogs and horses seem to lack character.
He could paint accurately and expressively; the wonderful CruciŽxion proves that. And even though the more celebrated late political satires are not to be seen in the Prado no surprise; this is essentially a Royalist collection Goyas sympathy for the proletariat is obvious in the Summer and Winter canvases of his cycle on the four seasons.
But we agreed, Lindsey and I, that most of the Goyas here are clearly Rococo: light, quick, entertaining, decorative, and little more. Velasquez managed to please his royal patrons without an airbrush; Goya didnt seem to mind. He stands a little too close for my taste to Watteau and Fragonard on the majestic march of painting from Cranach and Giotto to Guston and beyond.
We spent the morning in the Prado, mostly looking at Goya and Bosch and Breughel. Clearly one must book a Madrid hotel for a week to study the Prado. I am far from a connoisseur or even an student of painting, and I can easily walk through a museum in Žfteen minutes, especially if its getting close to dinnertime. But I am an enthusiast of painting, and the painting here is meticulously, passionately, intriguingly seductive. You want to spend every minute looking at these paintings, and then every minute thinking about them, and then every minute talking or writing about them. Everything in the world is here, every aspect of human desire and hope and history, individual or social, violent or peaceful.
The Žrst thing that strikes you is that almost none of these paintings looks like the famous and ubiquitous reproductions. This is partly a matter of size and space and lighting, of course; but color and texture enter into this discussion, and it all adds up to substance, imagine that in italics, beyond or behind appearance. We normally think of looking at or seeing paintings, with our eyes, as we see them in photographs or prints or projected transparencies or, these days, on the Internet. Here in the Prado you do that of course, but these paintings, the best of them, which is to say a good half or more of them, get under your skin, Žll your lungs, take over your mind.
In a few hours wed had enough, the four of us, and we walked out the museum into a beautiful day, chilly but beautifully sunny, time for a walk in the park. We headed up for the Buen Retiro what a marvelous name for a park! and ambled the packed-clay paths among the planes and pines. Its winter; parks arent at their best, perhaps. But theres cool clean air, the traceries of the bare limbs (trees, of course, not majas), and the cunning architecture of the park, which spreads formal geometry across unpredictably varied topology.
Suddenly we came upon the huge crystal palace, no longer a Victorian greenhouse like the one in San Franciscos Golden Gate Park but a space for exhibitions of contemporary art. Here we found a number of works by a Mexican sculptor named Gabriel Orozco, who closely observed visitors who, like Hans, took up a cue to drive a billiard-ball into the red target ball that swung like a Foucault pendulum from an invisible line attached to the roof far overhead, or a paddle to play ping-pong with Anneke on a cross-shaped table for four with a lily-planted water hazard at the intersection.
Outside there was a larger pond, and then quite a good-sized one, with rowboats; but we were hungry, and walked back into the city to Las Truchas, which had been recommended for its Žsh. Here we had the local garlic soup, thickened with bread and paprika and a poached egg, bracing and Žlling; and then a platter of whiting and anchovies and squid and daurade, lightly battered and fried, perfect with a pitcher or two of local light-bodied but flavorful white wine, and completed with a huge baked apple.
And then a rest, and the Boccherini. Id have liked to go on after that to a flamenco show, but was outvoted; well get to that tomorrow. Well get to the Titians and Tintorettos later, too; if not tomorrow, then next month, at the end of this tour. You cant do everything, is perhaps what Goya and Boccherini were lamenting; not in this imperfect world. You can try, but Mister Bosch showed us pretty vividly today, in his Garden of Delights, what that can lead to.
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Hostal San Lorenzo, Madrid
Im sure there are many Madrids, and weve only given them three days, which has brought us two museums, Žve or six restaurants, a hotel, and two concerts, most of which youve heard about. Madrid is a huge and sprawling city, probably as big, geographically, as Los Angeles: but except for a late-night taxi and one tour-bus ride today, taken mainly to sit down for an hour or so, weve walked everywhere.
So we can only talk about a small part of town, centering on the famous Plaza Puerta del Sol, more or less the geographical center of the old city, halfway between the Royal Palace to the west and the Prado Museum to the east. Madrid has its Paris-type boulevards, but they do not radiate outward from nerve points. Four lead like the spokes of a flattened X out of the Puerta del Sol, but none lead north and south. The streets are otherwise narrow and rather helter-skelter, for the city lies aslant, with no predictability to the grades.
Nor are there any concentric circles remembering ancient city walls, for Madrid isnt particularly ancient. The Royal Palace lies at the western foot of its gentle slope, its champs-de-mars leading down to the river Manzanares, and the position would not be easily defended: this was clearly the palace of a royal family that feared very little attack. Spain seems to me in many ways similar to the United States, and this is one of the ways: its history seems one of consolidation in relative isolation, from Roman times to the discovery of the New World; and then one of administering a far-flung empire again from this secure relatively isolated position on its own continent.
The empire was deŽnitively lost only a couple of centuries ago, and the aftermath is still unfolding witness yesterdays car-bomb reminder, apparently aimed by a faction of Basque separatists at the Kings participation in an important art fair with an international guest list. Spain is a constitutional monarchy with a relatively weak center administering to a number of semi-autonomous regions, many of them the relics of former independencies with distinctive national cultures of their own: Barcelona-dominated Catalunya, speaking its own language; distant Galicia; to the south Andalucia whose own sub-regions respond, no doubt with occasional local grudges of their own, to Seville.
To complicate things further, the Spanish monarchy overlapped for many years with others. It tried to own and run the Low Countries for a century or two, and the Dutch G retains the harsh aspiration of the Spanish G and J. It was allied to the Kingdom of Naples, and was therefore close to the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, whose decorations were immediately taken up by a court already fond of chinoiserie and various American motifs. There were of course various connections between the Spanish monarchy and the French. We Americans too easily think of distinct European nations as having hard and fast boundaries and clearly deŽned languages, as we are beginning to think of our own regions as being either Red or Blue: but these matters are never descriptions of steady states; they always refer to dynamic processes flowing easily or turbulently within a very complex fluid except that theres nothing you can usefully think of as a source, and nothing that we know of that will be a vast Žnal paciŽc ocean.
Anyhow we traipse up and down the very center of this slanted city, usually on narrow streets, protected by bollards from the little cars and taxis there are no big vehicles here and looking out for green-uniformed men and, occasionally, women, pushing motorized sidewalk-washers with rolling cylindrical brushes and snorkelly flexible snouts. (They clean the pavements at the expense of fouling the air.) The streets are amazingly crowded, and everything youve heard about the Madrid timetable is absolutely true: lunch begins no earlier than two and may continue past Žve, and dinner is unthinkable until nine.
The Madrid we know is a shopping town. There are sales everywhere just now; its the season. I would advise touring shoppers to spend January in Rome; thats the month the government decrees the shops all have their sales. Then move to Madrid for February. You have small boutiques and enormous department stores. The Corte Inglés isnt content with every floor of an enormous building; it spills out into hardly less enormous annexes across this street and that; and you can get anything you can think of there.
If for some reason you want to reject the values of your parents generation, and stay away from this Nordstrom-Magnin-May Co.-Macys perfection, then for the other part of the Madrileños life entertainment there is the local Fnac, which peddles everything electronic, from MP3 players to home theaters, as well as everything media-related, from books and magazines to DVDs and tickets to movies, theater, and concerts. And dont forget the cameras and telephones.
So the streets are jammed during shopping hours, then fall silent during the siesta which is not a siesta at all but eating-time. I suppose this is the result of the weather: it must be beastly hot in the summer, when you hide from the sun for hours; how could you change your pattern for the few months of bitter cold weather in winter? So we go about in our chic black surcoats and scarves and gloves at night, shopping until nine oclock, then nibbling tapas and sipping our wine until midnight, when the shows begin. The youngsters, Im told, roll up the day at Žve in the morning. There are two days to every day.
Still, you wonder, what does Madrid really look like? It looks like architecture. Perhaps because its courting the 2012 Olympics, it is cleaning itself up with a vengeance. The relatively few plazas do not serve as chaotic parking-lots, as piazzas and places do so often in Italy and France: theyve been hollowed out underneath, and steep, narrow ramps lead to multi-level parking structures neatly out of sight. There are sidewalks only on the few wide boulevards, and these sidewalks are often very wide indeed; but they are not lined with trees except along the magnifcent Paseo del Prado which deŽnes the western boundary of the central city.
What there is, to fascinate the tourist eye, is the architecture. The Gran Via, the Calle Mayor and the Calle de Atocha are lined with immense and delightful buildings, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries Id say, all of an even height. (There are tall buildings only in the suburbs, with one unfortunate exception probably the one that suggested the imposition of a limit, as the Tour Montparnasse did in central Paris out at the Plaza de Colon.)
These buildings are uniquely harmonious, contributing a playful sort of dignity, or a sober sort of eccentricity to what would otherwise be too masonry-dominated a city. The facades are full of relief and detail, but the styles are fully achieved and arrived, with an integrated character entirely their own: these buildings need no fake Corinthian capitals or sly Chippendale architraves. Postmodernist historicism seems banned from the center, and while theres plenty of elegant wit theres no heavy joking, no one-laugh architectural effect. You can walk these streets and look at these facades for hours without getting bored or tired.
This morning we went to the Royal Palace, where we spent two or three hours walking through the rooms home to the Spanish monarchs for the last quarter-millenium. The ceilings are painted by Goya and Velasquez, among others. The immense building is designed inside and out to the Italian taste, by Italian architects, only toward the end suffering some redecoration along French lines, Empire or Directoire or, in the end, in a previous kings billiard room, in a sort of romantic Gothic kitsch, the ceiling mural having been panelled over to make the place look like a secular choir in dark carved woods.
There was a lot of taste here, a whole lot. You can be sure this was a decadent period in Spanish history: the royal family didnt have to do too much beyond hunt and dance and listen to music and, of course, eat and drink. There was an extensive bureaucracy to run things, to the extent they could be run, and anyway the old empire was being sold off or traded away or lost to skirmishes for independence, rather as if a formerly wealthy man were Žnally to let his servants have the damn country house anyway, hed rather stay home in the city and play cards with his cronies. I may be simplifying things a bit.
All this taste may have led to a few medical crises, judging by the extensive pharmacy we toured in one corner of the palace, with rooms Žlled with beautiful porcelain jars and glass bottles containing spices and simples of every sort, along with more than a few pure chemical elements and compounds. I suppose the exploitation of Latin America and, to an extent, southeast Asia brought many of these botanicals to Madrid. They did not apparently do enough for the weakening inbred Habsburg line; fortunately, the present Borbón family seems both more stalwart and more sensible in its enthusiasms.
A rest atop the tour bus refreshed us for dinner, which we took at three oclock or so in a restaurant near the Plaza Mayor. (This perpetual disjunction between spelled and sounded Spanish almost made me type what you always hear: plothamy yore.) This was, for Lindsey and me, an unwise but irresistable combination: olives, bread with tomato and olive oil, creamy salt-cod bacalao, creamily tuna-Žlled red peppers, and roast suckling pig, washed down with sangria, then a Žne 1999 Rioja.
Afterward, inevitably, a nap; and then out again this evening to see what was happening in the tourist district down by the lovely early twentieth-century cast-iron San Miguel market. We settled for something simple: anchovies in vinegar and oil and a plate of Manchego cheese, both always dependably flavorful and clean and interesting, with a glass or two of Fino. And then a taxi home.
Tomorrow we leave Madrid. We rent a car, pack our bags, and struggle out through the city trafŽc, about which I refuse to worry further at the moment, and head for Avila, which manages to contain the bodies of both Torquemada and St. Teresa. That must be energizing. Well see how it goes down.
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Hotel Torre del Clavero, Salamanca, Feb. 13
Out of Madrid along the Gran Via, through the Plaza de Espana where (as I understand it) the skyscraper is that took Žre this morning, and through disorganized sprawls of suburbs, then into the Sierra. Spain is transversed by a number of these Sierras, or ranges. The word is related to the word for saw, and refers to the many similar-sized peaks, set more or less in line, like the teeth of a saw; its a familiar geographical feature and therefore word to Spaniards, and so was naturally applied to similar ranges in Mexico.
More to the point, the word also contributes Serrano ham, ham from pigs from the mountains. Well, the word doesnt contribute the ham, the many delicatessens and department stores and bars and cafes and, of course, restaurants contribute the ham. There is a chain of stores called the Mesón de jamon, I think, unless its actually the Museo de jamon, I dont recall at the moment. Its been a long and hard day.
The hams hang high and low in the Museo, unless its the Mesón (itself a transliteration into Spanish of the French maison, but enough etymology for today). How much do they weigh, Anneke wondered, so I asked a shopgirl: Oh, about four, four and half kilos, she said. Some of these hams go for as little as nine Euros the kilo; others range up toward forty. The ham is of course absolutely delicious salted and air-dried. The best comes from the bars in Seville, I think, where it hangs for days directly over the bar, proŽting from the blue cigarette smoke.
There was snow on the peaks, and before long we saw it alongside the road, in the shadows to the north of the rocks and trees. The country began to remind me of that north of Flagstaff, high desert with pines; and then we dropped down to the plain to the north, and before long left the toll highway for a national highway to Ávila.
What a city! The capital of its province, with perhaps 40,000 inhabitants, it is said to be the highest city of any size in Europe, and to have the best-preserved walls. Its entirely encircled by these walls, sturdy high ones composed of the warm beige sandstone of the region with occasional inŽlling of rubble and smaller river-run stone perhaps there were times when the walls had to go up more quickly.
The walls are punctuated by tall cylindrical towers, castellated at the tops, exactly as you expect watchtowers to look; and the city is entered by way of four or Žve gates. Or it is if youre a local. We are not, so we parked in an underground garage a block or two from our hotel, and carried and wheeled our luggage along the sidewalk, then over a road paved with river-run stone noisy wheeling, that and through the main gate and around the corner to our hotel, itself just around a corner from the cathedral.
Ávilas main industry seems to be Saint Teresa, who was born here, but ran away as soon as she could unsuccessfully; she was nabbed a few kilometers out of town and brought back. Im conflicted about St. Teresa; Ive always been attracted to a concept of her that came to me from Virgil Thomsons setting of Gertrude Steins Four Saints in Three Acts; but that concept has little to do with either reality or history, as far as I can tell.
We toured her museum yesterday morning, after a sound nights sleep in a very quiet city. The museum is in the basement of her convent, the convent she established with the help of her friend St. John of the Cross they founded the Carmelite order, famous for its bare feet, though Anneke pointed out that one of the relics in the museum bookshop, along with St. Teresas ring Žnger (complete with ring), was the sole from one of her sandals. (She did not have terribly small feet.)
I was fascinated by the excellent facsimiles, in this museum, of Teresas writings. Her handwriting was fast and fluid but very graceful and amazingly clear; once used to the long S and a couple of other eccentricities of the Spanish of her time, not of hers you could read these manuscripts pretty easily.
And she wrote a lot, and apparently read even more in Latin and Castilian, the bookshop attendant told me proudly, and in books of all sorts. But however much she read and wrote, she is responsible for much more: a quarter of the museum seemed devoted to various editions of various translations of her work and commentaries on it, along with similar literature on a number of saints who trained for their profession under her influence. Some of these are quite recent, and one, born Edith Stein but known now as another St. Teresa, died in 1942 in Auschwitz.
I relate more easily to books than to ancient Žngers. Generalissimo Francisco Franco kept Teresas Žnger, presumably with the ring and in the present crystal reliquary, on his bedside table: I would not be able to do that, not even if I were Generalissimo. Some of St. Johns bones are on view, too, and that somehow seemed indecent; I dont think they were meant to be so publicly laid bare; it doesnt Žt the virginal concept I retain of this particular saint. But, as she so famously wrote, todos pasan, all things pass.
I have the impression Ávila is a conservative town, politically. A prominent escutcheon on one of the walls mentions Francos contributions to the town: his name is writ big, the very Žrst word, though its true the remainder of the Žrst line is chiseled bare. Or, rather, covered over with a layer of cement: perhaps the city fathers are hedging their bets, and remain ready to restore Francos title when necessary.
Conservative or not, its a pleasant city. Our hotel was new last year, installed in what was already an inn centuries ago the columns in the dining room retain iron rings to which horses were formerly tied. From the wall I looked down on another building only a few yards away, a building almost identical to our hotel Las Cancelas: I wouldnt be surprised to see it turned into competition in a year or two.
On arriving in town, a little past noon, we walked the walls thankfully not more than a tenth of them, all that are open to tourism. This was a chore: the steps up are narrow, high, and uneven, and the pavement at the top is also uneven. But the views are marvelous, more so when you admire the architecture inside the walls than when you look beyond to the extramural outskirts, or even to the bleak plains at the north foot of the Sierra.
Ávila is all made of the same warm beige stone; only the Bank of Spain chose to Žnd something more symbolic of its power, I suppose, a whitish granite of some kind; and its false classicism is as inappropriate as its color. Otherwise the architecture is rather humble, the few new or newish buildings carefully suiting their neighbors. But the cathedral is a surprise, made of blocks of stone mottled liver-and-white, giving the building a headcheesy quality with I Žnd oddly pleasant, particularly as it articulates some quite splendid Gothic vaulting.
We slept one night in Ávila, taking our dinner at a place said to be both high in quality and local in flavor. It was okay. I could have given Ávila a day or two more, but I would have gone on to explore another restaurant, I think. But dinner was pleasant, and the walk home, at midnight, kicking a frozen softball-sized ice ball along, passing it back and forth among the four of us, was hilarious.
* * *
We left Ávila about noon, after spending the morning at St. Teresas and then having yet another boisson, as I always call them, in a very pleasant bar-cafe on the Plaza Santa Teresa (what else?) outside the wall, on a huge Plaza di Italia, so called I supposed because of the arched portico along one side, though the other is walled by two particularly unfortunate new buildings.
The road to Salamanca was fast when we werent behind trucks, one lane in each direction, with enough curves and dips to rule out passing when you particularly wanted to. And we did. There were only two or three towns along the route, and they were not interesting. The countryside was mostly open, and when we later learned the area is famous for its beans it became clear why nothing was going on: the Želds are fallow where the country is cultivated; other stretches were dotted with heavy oaks and no doubt populated by pigs lets hope they somehow get to the Sierra before they become ham.
I could spend a week in Salamanca. Weve been here before, but only overnight; on this trip weve spent two nights and seen a fair amount my God, Im tired but have a lot left unseen. Last night we went out to a concert by the regional orchestra, a multi-European affair, strings from Russia and northern countries, to judge by surnames, and winds from Spain; conductor from Colombia. We heard the Mozart Wind Symphonie Concertante and the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, both played for the Žrst time by this thirteen-year-old orchestra, and played very well indeed, in a hall seating 1200 with splendid acoustics a big wooden box of a room with a small balcony, rather the shape of Amsterdams Concertgebouw, the sound utterly transparent and alive.
If Ávilas business is the church, Salamancas is the university. Its university is the oldest in Spain and one of the oldest anywhere. Salamancas spoken Spanish has the reputation of being the best, like the French in Tours, or the Italian in Firenze, or English in Healdsburg. And Salamanca draws students from all over the world, and the students draw non-students, and the non-students draw bars and cafes and bookstores and the like.
The shopping is hip and elegant, and the cafe life is wonderful. I have made a hobby of squares and piazzas and places and pleins, and Salamancas Plaza Mayor is hands down the most handsome I have seen, exactly the right dimensions, perfectly consistent, quite detailed without being busy, and marvelously lit by a caressing sun through the day and subtly placed artiŽcial lights by night. There is no trafŽc in this square other than pedestrians, and the pedestrians are anything but pedestrian. Today, Sunday, we admired elegant and conservative people of our own age at noon; then after dark when we returned we enjoyed a mixed population of younger generations, children included.
Today we also explored the cathedrals Salamanca has two of them, side by side and the University, and a museum devoted to Art Nouveau objects; and of course we had dinner, and boissons now and then, and heard music in the street, and so on. But I have gone on long enough. Tomorrow we drive to Segovia for the night, and the next evening we drop Hans and Anneke off at the airport and move on to the third stage of this little tour of Spain.
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Hotel Infanta Isabel, Segovia, Feb. 14
On the drive from Salamanca to the Madrid airport we stopped off again in Avila, for three reasons:
to look for a book we may have left there in our hotel, but no, lo siento, senor, no es aqui, it wasnt there.
to ask the whereabouts of Barca de Avila, which a friend recommends as a particularly nice country village, but no, lo siento, senor, no es la via al aeropuerto, it isnt on the road to the airport; well have to Žnd it some other time.
to have for Gods sake something to eat. Our breakfast was the one we had yesterday, in our hotel, at the breakfast buffet, where among all the offerings we take a cup of coffee with hot milk, a glass of orange juice, a clementine, and a piece of toast. I, minding my greater need of caloric input, being so much bigger and stronger, have in addition a croissant stuffed with chocolate. Chocolate is insidious stuff; one grows to depend on it. No matter: its good for you.
But such a breakfast only goes so far, and afterward we had a strenuous morning investigating the absolutely marvelous San Esteban church and monastery; whose cloister is one of the most affecting Ive seen; whose monumental staircase contains in its railing an eccentric and quite moving statue of St. Mary recumbent, lying at about a thirty-degree angle upward (the angle of the staircase), resting on her elbows and looking ahead dreamily as if she were conceived by Edward Burne-Jones in the late stages of the 19th century instead of four hundred years earlier; and whose nave is perhaps the most perfect such weve seen, quite high in proportion to its length and width, magniŽcently daylit through its high square lantern-dome, and completed with an elaborate reredo composed of a thousand pieces of wood, intricately carved, then magniŽcently gilded the sort of thing that would be far too much if it were not in an interior so otherwise modestly chaste.
I would say that regardless of the two cathedrals, regardless of the breathtaking library in the University, regardless even of the Plaza Mayor, which I think is the most nearly perfect outdoor living-room in my experience: if you can see only one thing in Salamanca, let it be San Esteban.
Anyway. We then had our coffee with Hans and Anneke, and went back to the hotel to pack and check out, Žrst securing a hotel in Toledo for Wednesday and Thursday. And then to their hotel to pick them up, and then back along the now-familiar highway to Ávila.
I was mistaken if I suggested a few days ago that this highway was bordered simply by fallow bean-Želds. They are wheat-Želds; its perfectly obvious from the occasional grain elevators scattered about. For maybe forty miles the two-lane road winds through rolling wheatŽeld country, before rising into the sparse oaklands and scattered farms; and then pines begin to appear, and the snow is more evident; and before long we were again at the Four Posts where St. Teresa was apprehended by whatever relative it was she was running away from, and then Ávila.
The tortilla in the bar Santa Teresa, in the Plaza Santa Teresa, is delicious it manages to be both Žrm and soft, yielding and structured; the eggs are almost deeply browned on the outside, but still moist and delectable on the inside,with tiny cubes of potato and shreds of uniquely sweet onion to deepen the plot.
All they need is salt. The others were rather jammed into the corner banquette wed chosen two or three days ago on a similar visit, so I approached the bar, waited to be waited upon by the nice pert young man, and, when he asked Dica, which means literally talk to me, I answered:
Mag ik de zout?
This is not Spanish. Its pure Dutch, a construction I learned a long time ago. Mag ik de zout means, literally, May I the salt; the Žnal word, hebben or have, being understood.
This happened simply because wed been having fun talking among ourselves, Hans Anneke Lindsey and I, and of course we were talking in English, but its always a little in the air that their native language is Dutch, then say when for if and occasionally pronounce yellow as jello and things like that, and when I talk to them Im always thinking, part of me, a teeny part of me, in what little Dutch I know. So out it came, or, as the Dutch would say, outcome it did, and the waiter looked at me and, what else, waited, until I explained myself.
Then at the airport when I asked the Eurocar clerk if he spoke English he said Of course, and spoke it better than do I, but with a familiar accent; and when I asked where hed learned it, why, in Netherlands, he said. Oh, I asked, sprekt U nederland? And then we both wisely gave it up, though it was clear he was better than I in Dutch and Spanish and at least as good in English.
I am sorry to report that the approach to the Madrid airport is inscrutable, enigmatic, recondite, concealed, withheld. The signs high above the highway each offer a number of numbers: A1, A6, M40, M11, and so on, all in sizes ranging from barely adequate to invisible, and all interspersed with various irrelevant destinations, some hundreds of kilometers away, along with meaningless abbreviations of other apparently meaningful phrases and various icons and graphic assistances.
When the sign pointing out aeropuerto does Žnally appear it is not overhead where all the other damn signs have been but hunkering down alongside the shoulder as if while hitchhiking it had noticed a familiar car approaching and it were desperately trying not to be observed. I cant imagine who decides to order, or fabricate, or choose, or place such signs. They are an offense to right-thinking drivers, let alone those of us wondering whether this lane or that goes to short-term or long-term, or private car or tourbus or rental, or domestic or international, or whether that tractor really wants to cross the road, or the guy in the Mercedes in the rear-view mirror cares whether he totals both his car and yours in his idiot compulsion to negotiate this maze.
Well. We Žnally found the rental-car place and parked, and I found a push-trolley and we loaded Hans and Annekes luggage; and then we trekked to the terminal. This did not involve any sidewalks or ramps, oh no it did not, it required our crossing four lanes of maniacal trafŽc without pedestrian crossing or stoplight or even a warning sign. And before that even we had to leave the parking lot, which involved getting under or around one of those wooden gate-arms that may swing up to let you through, or may not. In our case it did not, and we managed our way around, and were better off than the hapless group that was coming the other way, and saw the gate miraculously rise, and hustled through, only to gather in alarmed sympathy when it came crashing down the last minute on one poor fellows head, knocking him to the ground. They all looked like so many disciples and hangers-on at the foot of the cross in one of those paintings at the Prado, and we looked on in reverential and shocked and useless sympathy while they gathered the poor man up and dusted him off and continued their miserable flight out into the rentalcar parkinglot.
* * *
But I am writing about eating tonight. We dropped Hans and Anneke off in the terminal, having pushed the cart from one end to the other and back before Žnding the right place the Madrid airport being the most customer-unfriendly I have ever found, either in its highway approaches, or its parking lot, or even within its passenger accommodation facilities, there, Im already using that kind of offputting language. And then we negotiated our change of car, from the spiffy Audio 400 that Eurocar gave us, with a free upgrade, a car that easily did 140 km/hour, to a Hertz KIA, of all things, that will only do 120 with great effort and then on an even grade and with the beneŽt of luxury cars breathing down its neck.
And we drove here to Segovia. I had thought, judging by the two guidebooks we have with us, that this would be rather a simple town: but it is not. Finding our way to the hotel, right on the Plaza Mayor, took us through a number of roundabouts and tight corners and two conversations with bystanders. We pulled up in front of the Hotel Infanta Isabel and checked in, and after we looked at our room we stretched our stay to two evenings and canceled the reservation I made for tomorrow at a desperate halfway point between Madrid and Toledo; we dont have to do that. This hotel is spacious and quiet and pretty and we intend to rest for a day.
And then a walk down the main (pedestrian) street to a restaurant highly recommended. Wed phoned en route, desperately hoping to get a table this Valentines Day, when restaurants are crowded, and were thankful to get one at the unfashionable (indeed unheard-of) hour of eight oclock; and we got there a little early to make sure, and nursed a Fino until twenty after or so, and then took our table in an empty dining room and presided there alone, the two of us and our courtly but friendly waiter, until we were done, or nearly. We had a mixed salad and Castilian soup, in which Ive been specializing broth, garlic, bread, paprika, and egg. And then we had suckling pig.
And, wonder of wonders, the table had a salt-cellar on it, and for the Žrst time in Spain so far the food of course needed no salting.
And with it a bottle of delicious Alizar (tempranillo) 2002, with a very quick violet nose and quite a bit of tannin but very friendly indeed; and then a baked Alaska for Lindsey and some soft floral sheeps-milk cheese for me, and so to bed, after writing this.
There have been things left out, notably storks. But they will have to wait.
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Hotel Infanta Isabel, Segovia, Feb. 15
Storks, yes. Hans and Anneke were excited and delighted when we checked into our hotel Friday night nearly a week ago! to discover stork nests on the roof of the Ávila cathedral, visible out the high window of their room. We hurried in to take a look. I remembered how pleased and surprised a fellow was on a street in a small town in Holland, two or three years ago: he was walking toward me, a big smile on his face, and when he drew near he said Ooeivaar! and I looked it up as soon as I got into my room, and found out he had seen a stork; and I immediately went downstairs to relay the news to our host, and he rushed outside himself to have a look.
Storks are good luck, they say. I was pleased to Žnd one grazing, I suppose, on a small lawn in a desultory town on the German side of our walk across Holland, later that week. But Ive never seen more than one in the wild. Here in Ávila the sky was lousy with them, as Lindseys father would have said. There were nests on every bell tower in town, often three or four of them, many in iron bowl-shaped cages installed there for the purpose.
They migrate between Africa and Scandinavia, I read, and make their stop here in the Spanish mountains for their breeding season. As we walked the Ávila wall we watched them wheel about in the sky, apparently enjoying themselves, perhaps in a sort of courtship dance I dont know; they werent talking. They werent even squawking. They do have a call of sorts, which they make by clacking their bills together quickly several times, sounding like a stick dragged quickly along a picket fence. Its a pleasant sound, really, particularly since its generally so far away.
At the end of our effortful stroll along the city walls we descended into a small park, where two stork couples had built nests in the top of a tree perhaps they couldnt afford the more desirable perches on bell towers. Why were bell towers preferred, I wondered; perhaps theres something about the vibrations that they like, Lindsey suggested. Another stork enigma.
Since its early in the season a number of them were still a-building, and we often saw a stork flying overhead with a stick or a piece of rope in its bill never, as far as I could see, a diaper-slung baby. At other times we saw them simply perching, often on one leg, sometimes with their wings held out stiffly as if to dry. I wondered what they must have thought of the many magpies hanging about, who looked like stork midgets, wearing the same elegant black and white; but the storks seemed to take no notice of them at all.
Ávila was lousy with storks; Salamanca was lousy with storks; but we see relatively few of them here in Segovia. It may be that its simply too damned cold. Salamanca isnt that much higher than Ávila, if at all; I could look it up but Im too lazy; but its in an exposed location, perched on a rock island in the midst of rolling plain, and to the east and south are those mountains, some rising to seven thousand feet or so, and they are covered with snow down to their feet. Ive asked a number of locals if this weather is normal, and they all assure me that it is: es frio, Segovia.
This may be why the stern Alcázar, which is the Spanish word for castle and not for movie theater, was used most recently in its checkered history as a military school. It had been built for a royal residence, back when Segovia was capital of Castilla. (Isabella the Catholic, better known to us Americans as Isabella the wife of Ferdinand and therefore co-sponsor of Columbus, was given her crown here, not far from our hotel, the Infanta Isabella.)
(Another parenthesis, if you dont mind: alcázar seems not a Spanish word at all, but an Arabic one taken up by the speakers of Castillian which is what the language we call Spanish is called hereabouts.)
When the capital was moved elsewhere there seemed nothing better to do with this gloomy fortress of a castle than turn it into a prison, and so it remained for a couple of centuries. Perhaps the prisoners all Žnally froze to death: in any case it was turned into a military school for the artillery, and the museum here offers lots of swords, daggers, crossbows, blunderbusses, mortars, and other instruments of mayhem, along with stone cannonballs. And, more to my interest, models and detailed drawings of apparatus needed for measuring the size and shape of these things, and the force of samples of gunpowder.
For among other things the place was a laboratory for the production and improvement of military chemicals, particularly gunpowder. And then, inevitably, the whole place took Žre, and burned for three days and nights, giving the locals only time enough to escape with their lives and the holy vessels and books.
(You could write a disquisition on the Siamese-twin relationship of chemistry and war, but I wont; Ill just hesitate long enough to point out that peacetime chemicals seem to concentrate on agriculture and are proving as mischievous as the wartime ones.)
The Alcázar was rebuilt, and the inside looks pretty convincing. Rick Steves says the whole thing has a Disneyesque air to it, but I disagree: this Alcázar is nothing like Miami Beach. Or even San Marino. The residential rooms have been put back to what they may have been during the early days, and the ceilings in these rooms are entrancing. Ditto the friezes and the sculpture.
But oh my God this castle is c o l d . We could stand it no longer, and rushed back to our hotel, stopping along the way for chocolate and churros, those deep-fried strips of extruded pastry that serve for doughnuts in this country.
Later the sun came out, though tiny flakes of snow continued to drift, and we tried another tour on foot. Like every other city weve visited on this trip Segovia is fascinating for its architecture, much of which is as early as the 15th century magniŽcent houses with truncated towers, reminiscent of the old residential architecture in Verona, for example, except that almost every important facade is decorated with obsessive repeated textures (as is the Casa de las Conchas in Salamanca, and Salvador Dalis house in Figueras).
Usually these are simply sgrafŽto designs, though they are mostly done in the negative, the Žgure raised above the ground. Sometimes, though, they stand out in a much heavier relief. The champion is on a house that serves now as an art school, its facade studded with pyramidal forms. The guidebook refers to this as symbolic of a womans veil, but Im not so sure. I think they may have been meant to deflect cannonballs. I was pleased, though, to notice a womans jacket on sale in one of the many nearby boutiques, a quilted jacket whose puffs were very similar to those pyramids.
We walked down the hill to look at Segovias famous Roman aqueduct, and were pleased to Žnd a Žne enlarged copy of the famous she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, given Segovia by the city of Rome to celebrate the double millennium of the aqueduct. Does our country ever think of giving little presents like this, I wonder; have we for example given the French anything to commemorate the help they gave us in our quest for independence from England? Dont know. Have to look into this.
We climbed up the other side to have a look at the aqueduct from the top. Its an amazing structure, still able to function, I read, though it hasnt really been used for a century or so. But the wind was blowing, the sun had drifted away, and we were getting hungry. We took refuge at a bar where we could thrust our Žngertips under a sort of steam-table containing basins of tapas, and I asked what they were and was told in incomprehensible Spanish, excuse me, Castilian, so I pointed at this and at that and particularly the little roast potatoes and the meatballs, and Lindsey had a glass of good white wine (chilled! Imagine that!) and I had a tinto, because there was no sherry in this bar, we are not yet in the south.
And so we thawed out a bit and stove off hunger with a good-sized plate of tapas. The bill was three Euros twenty. When I expressed surprise the bargirl was concerned; she apparently thought I was complaining about being cheated. She pointed out the wine list prices. Yes, I said, but what about the tapas? Oh, they come gratis with the wine, she said. So we complimented her on her nations values, which put food at the service of wine, and home we went to contemplate a last Segovia dinner.
Segovia, like all of Leon y Castile, relies on pigs. Roast suckling pig is on every menu; ham is ubiquitous; even the wonderful sopa de Castilia, garlic soup with bread and a poached egg, tastes of lard. So we thought wed go to a Sephardic restaurant wed noticed, though Lindsey did point out that the menu included cochinella, roast suckling pig.
And I started with the Castillian soup, because this one was different: it had quail eggs in it rather than the usual chicken egg. And it was good, though I thought a bit more tripey than Ive had elsewhere.
Afterward, though, we went ethnic. Lindsey had couscous, made with chick peas and rice as well as the couscous, and a Žne assortment of vegetables, and dressed with Žne green olive oil flavored with parsley. And I had Markla hlua, chunks of beef braised with orange sections, tiny white Žgs, raisins, and spices, served with rice with a little saffron. It was not my usual fare, but it was very tasty indeed I could have been in Venice.
Dessert? Six dates, pitted and Žlled to overflowing with almond paste moistened with cream and liqueur, and in the middle a scoop of tangerine ice cream, really a gelato, drizzled with raspberry sauce. I ate it up, every bit of it.
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Hotel Pintor el Greco, Toledo, Feb. 17
Storks have given way to partridges, and snows to cobblestones. We saw our Žrst partridge at a gas station ten kilometers out of Toledo, where wed stopped so I could get out of my jacket infernally hot here, I thought, not having opened the car door since leaving frozen Segovia. And whats that, I asked Lindsey, a partridge? Its some chickeny kind of bird...
She peered at it through the binoculars and conŽrmed that it was. Partridges had been on our minds. We have to eat partridge before we leave this country, she said the other day, and I thought to myself Yes: man can not live by suckling pig alone. But we did not expect to see partridges walking around calmly like this.
As we got back on the autovia we noticed an enormous partridge farm. Ah, so: this is an escapee. The history of Toledo is a history of sieges and escapes, and this lonely partridge, soon no doubt to be recaptured and prepared for his end (and Lindseys sustenance), is a trivial but touching testament to this history.
Our hotel, for example, is near the calle del Transito, and near the two surviving synagogues. I step outside and stroll across the street to the bluff from which, according to James Michener, a mob of Christian Toledans, inflamed by an anti-Semitic sermon, threw all the Jews they could Žnd, having dragged them out of synagogue and slit their throats.
I asked about this in the gift shop on the corner. Oh no, señor, there were no Jews murdered in those years, they all either converted or went away. Theres something in a book about that, but it isnt true.
Well, is it true, I continued, that during the Civil War, back in the 1930s, there were many executions here? Yes, señor, that is true, there were many many people murdered here.
That was in 1936, when the country was torn between liberals and leftists who wanted a democratic republic, of all things, and conservative and theocratic Loyalists or Nationalists, as they were known, who wanted to continue with the disengaged sort of autocracy that had been Spains method for the previous century or two.
Toledo, the religious seat of the entire country, was a conservative city. A group of Republicans were brought in from Madrid to change the towns political opinion, and they rounded up as many conservatives as they could easily Žnd, brought them to this same bluff, and shot them, afterward tossing a number of the bodies down on the same rocks.
As you know, the Loyalists ultimately lost. When Franco Žnally took Žrm control the situation was reversed, and Toledo took its revenge; anyone whose jackets right shoulder showed signs of wear was assumed to have been a rifleman for the Loyalists; all such were rounded up, taken to the same place, and given the same treatment. Thousands of rightists murdered by leftists, thousands of leftists murdered by rightists.
When I was a boy, sixty years ago, Spain was an enigma. It was vaguely allied with Germany and Italy, though ofŽcially neutral; and it remained isolated from Europe and the United States until Žfty years ago, as isolated as Albania, or more recently Libya. Things began to change when the US traded food aid for military bases in the early 1950s; but didnt really change until Franco Žnally died in 1975. When we Žrst visited Barcelona, for example, in 1976, Catalan was still barely spoken, and the police all carried submachine guns.
Today Toledo looks like any other touristy European city. The museums are full of Japanese tourists and grammar-school students, who troop around with clipboards and dutifully write essays about this El Greco or that. The shops are full of ceramics and needlepoint and swords and leather goods, some of which may be manufactured within a few score miles, for all I know. Menus are in four languages. It is often necessary to speak Spanish, which I do very badly indeed, but that was true in Salamanca and Segovia and even Madrid Spanish must be a very satisfying language; it seems that few who grow up speaking it as their native language bother to learn any other.
The name Toledo has always stood for one of only two things to me: scales, or an El Greco painting. Scales, because so many seemed to have been manufactured, when I was a boy and began noticing such things, in Toledo, Ohio: and perhaps to commemorate that fact there is indeed a Calle Toledo Ohio in this city.
The painting, of course, is the famous Storm Over Toledo, which has always led me to believe, foolishly, that Toledo stands on a cone-shaped mountain, occupying most of it, rising above an otherwise bare plain.
Might as well assume all the Apostles had unnaturally long faces and Žngers. Toledo does rise above its surroundings, but the hill isnt that simple: were constantly walking uphill and down. I think the Cathedral, which is big and made of stone, may have been forming a big dimple in the middle of town, the way the Antarctica ice sheet has depressed that continent unnaturally. (Is the stone under the ice unnaturally dense, I wonder; and, if so, will it rebound when the ice melts?) The streets around the cathedral take implausible angles, often reverse angles, in their urge to lead either up or down, never flat contour lines had not been invented when this town was laid out, presumably by the Visigoths.
They are also, at least in our quarter, quite narrow often too narrow for cars, which is a blessing, as you dont like the things sneaking up on you from behind. And the pavements are invariably cobblestone. All this leads to another effect Michener mentions: the town can be infernally loud. Youll hear someone walking down the street outside your hotel with a drum, for example. Why should this be? Why would anyone walk around town in this day and age mindlessly beating a drum? And its not even particularly good drumming; it has no real beat; there are no flams or paradiddles, just mindless thumping.
The schoolchildren are quiet enough when theyre scribbling at their clipboards sweet and intent, in fact; its a pleasure to see whole pages being Žlled with their impressions of the paintings in front of them. But once out on the street, which provides a wonderful acoustical enhancement, their shouts are competitive, demanding attention. Now and then they dont notice your ear is scarcely a foot away, and theyll shout right into it, leaving it ringing for minutes afterward.
Its an aspect of a curious detachment Ive noticed between a number of people here in Toledo and the people around them perhaps because theyve been doomed to live among a vast number of tourists, though I dont recall noticing this detachment in Venice. (Of course there may be no native Venetians at all; the workers there may all be commuters from the mainland, for all I know.)
Shopkeepers and baristas, for example, when giving you your change, or a cup of coffee, or whatever knickknack it is youve bought, rarely set it on your side the counter. They put it down as if its intended for their own use, and you reach across the counter, one elbow raised to keep the damn shoulder-bag from slipping to the floor, the book youve had tucked into your armpit thereby loosed to fall in its own turn, you cant lift the cup and saucer because someone else is crowding in, you cant simply slide it toward you because the counter has a cunningly infernal change of level built into it causing an invisible step to interrupt your action, the coffee slips over the lip of the cup, the spoon falls to the floor...
* * *
I mentioned Michener. Lindseys been reading his Iberia, a combined travel-history he published back in the late 1960s, and she handed it to me to read the section on Toledo. What a fascinating book! Id never read him; I always thought of him vaguely as some kind of political reporter, something like the John Gunther whose Inside... series were so prominent among the Book-Of-The-Month© Club selections that turned up now and then on my parents bookshelves, and which I never read, perhaps because it seemed as if they were something I were supposed to read; or perhaps it was the obligatory © that turned me off.
But Michener, it turns out, is the author I always seem to try to be, combining personal experience with a little real knowledge: except that his experience is so much more interesting than mine, being completely beyond my ever sharing (if only because it took place in a time never to be recaptured, and ever so much more fragrant than my own); and his knowledge so much more extensive.
He tosses off a parenthetical paragraph early on, for example, in which he daydreams about an ideal college education, which would require the student to spend his Žrst and fourth year studying one brief segment of history.
...he would immerse himself in the world culture operating at that period in time, and to do so he would study the art forms, the music, the contemporary understanding of geography, the philosophy, the religious convictions, the economics, the travel, the architecture, the writing and the daily life of the peasant. And he would be obliged to explore in depth the half-dozen nations or principalities which best illustrate the signiŽcant meanings of the age being studied.
Michener chooses A.D. 70 and the fall of Jerusalem, 1832 and the passage of reform in Great Britain, some date when Greece and Rome were in confrontation, and another in the Middle Ages before dissolution of old patterns had begun as the four periods most fruitful for such study, and they seem pretty good choices to me.
Suppose our present Administration were well grounded, for example, in the period during which Christianity deŽnitively defeated Hellenism; or that of Alfonso the Wise; or even Micheners own choice the 1530s, when Francis I, Henry VIII, Carlos V, Martin Luther, Suleiman I, Ivan IV, and Akbar were presiding over France, England, Spain, the Reformation, Turkey, Russia, and India, and the world as we knew it until, say, ten or twenty years ago was being built. (He leaves out China and Japan, which seems a pity.)
Lindsey bought the Herald Tribune the other day, and in it we learned that Arthur Miller thought, among other things, that the mass of humanity had no real awareness or understanding of the forces that manipulated their destinies. I doubt that was true in the 1530s, when even the peasants understood both the stakes and the methods involved in the international struggles to impose new patterns on the chaos that had followed the dissolution of the old ones.
Its happening all over again, but its odd to think of Tony Blair as a Henry VIII, or Jacques Chirac as a Francis I. Mr. Putin may have ambitions to be an Ivan, terrible or otherwise; and for all I know George Bush may think of himself as a Habsburg. That would explain his determination to bankrupt the country with wars and corruption.
Oh well. We had a nice day today; we saw the synagogues, poor things, they started out as mosques, converted to synagogues, then to Christianity, each time apparently losing a little of their beauty along with their principles. One of them was ultimately a barracks for Napoleons troops, and you know how that ends: target practice on the cornices, peeing in the corners.
We investigated the El Greco Museum, full of fascinating paintings; and the Santo Tomé Church, where his Burial of the Count of Orgaz still hangs where he installed it, a marvelous painting. We munched Manchego and a little more ham in our room, and then strolled the town some more: the Museo Santa Cruz, always being reshuffled apparently; the Žne cloister at San Juan de los Reyes, whose handsome church is sober and beautiful enough to have hosted the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella, if only political considerations hadnt taken them instead to Granada. And in a half hour we go out to dinner; and tomorrow we drive to Córdoba, for so many years the real intellectual engine of Iberia, and the site of a splendid garden. And then my mood will improve, and Life will assert itself over death and politics; there will be bacalao and sherry and the good Andalusian life; and well spend the weekend with a beautiful granddaughter.
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Calle Duende, Seville, Feb. 21
A long hiatus in these dispatches, and today Im afraid two of them. You may not feel the need to catch up, but I do.
Castile and La Mancha have given way to Andalusia, but the weather is still cold, cold. Its odd to be so close to Africa while still enjoying the Norwegian air. There are orange trees everywhere, with sour but pretty fruit hanging on every branch, but the air bites.
In fact you enter Andalusia, coming from Toledo, through a fairly high notch in a range of low mountains that deŽne the country pretty deŽnitively. Spain is a nation, but it is not a country; its a collection of countries. The reports in yesterdays newspapers, for example, on the results of Sundays nationwide referendum of the European Union and its new constitution, gave the results by province in a way that seemed more meaningful than our division of our own nation into blue states and red states. Galicia, Catalonia, and Andalusia, not to mention the Basque country, have distinct individual cultures that extend, somehow, to political values.
But while Andalusia is mountainous it is Southern. We spent a night in Córdoba, in a pleasant hotel not far from the principal tourist attractions, the Mezquita and Alcazar, and the night life in the streets seemed easier, more open, more leisurely, than it does in the north. And the Mezquita is clearly an Arabic building, an enormous mosque deceptively concealed behind a plain stone wall, perhaps twenty feet high, that completely surrounds the equivalent of four city blocks.
Inside you come Žrst to the entry garden, a wonderfully symmetrical grove of orange trees designed to calm and ground the urban mind; and then you enter the mosque itself, another grove but this time of evenly spaced stone columns sustaining a seemingly endless succession of perfectly drawn arches, evenly striped red and white. It is rather dark and quite quiet, even when crowded with visitors. It goes on forever, the arches and columns drawing you into a meditative stroll with no particular goal in mind.
I suppose the devout Muslim would have had as his goal the intricate prayer room. A more secular person, me for example, prefers to stroll, admiring the calming effect of the regular rhythms of columns, arches, and interior spaces; and to note the propriety of conversation here, quiet conversation between twos or threes of persons marveling at this place.
During our visit, though, Mass was being celebrated; for in the time of Charles V the Christians celebrated their rout of the tolerant Muslims by tearing the ceiling and roof off a small section of the Mezquita, near the center, and building there a Gothic cathedral. This was set about, Sunday, with signs asking us to respect the spirituality of this odd intrusion, and we did, but we noted the ironic effect of ranks of clerics in their medieval-inspired costumes, speaking of tolerance and humility in a flamboyantly decorated and rather proud cathedral, surrounded by the quiet decorum of the egoless mosque whose architecture, having only a very subtle goal, substitutes calm and meditation for architectural striving and drama. Its a perfect expression of medieval order giving way to the beginning of modernity, and Charles V was right, I think, to shake his head sadly when he saw the then-new cathedral, murmuring Weve ruined it.
The Alcazar garden put me back in spirits, as it has before. Its the outdoors version of the indoors Mezquita, with rows of neatly clipped topiaries, principally enormous cypress columns and mushroom-shaped orange trees, and long narrow pools, and regularly distributed beds. Winter is not perhaps the best time to visit, but the bones show well and the cypress are newly shaved, and the lower light throws deŽning shadows highlighting this ingeniously arranged series of garden rooms.
Then we drove to Antequera, for no particular reason except that wed never been there, seventy-Žve miles or so across plains, then rolling Želds, into one of the subcountries into which Andalusias numerous ranges of hills and mountains assign its agriculturally productive regions. The map sprinkled this area with symbols I took to stand for pine trees, in low mountain forest of some kind, but they turned out to mean olive trees: we were in the heart of olive country.
Antequera lies at the northern foot of the Sierra Nevada, Andalusias highest range, and has been populated for millennia. There are three dolmens on view, for example, one of them really not a dolmen at all but a marvelously constructed, perfectly dome-shaped burial chamber under a mound of earth. These are oriented so as to exit northward and aligned toward a curious and imposing natural feature, a small rock mountain whose proŽle suggests a human head lying on its back, slowly settling into the flat plain around it. Its impossible not to attach signiŽcance to this feature, and among that signiŽcance is the sudden realization that Surrealism is based in nature, that Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dali painted versions of landscapes that only slightly heighten bizarre interpretations that are in fact innate in certain geographies.
Next morning, on to Ronda, a town I wanted to visit for its bridge, a stone affair only a hundred feet long at the most but spanning a gorge at least a hundred yards deep. It was truly frightening to look down into this abyss, but looking across was very pleasant indeed, especially from our table at lunch, a long one in an interesting restaurant successfully bringing traditional foods into a modernized presentation much more successfully than was done by Charles Vs architects.
And then on to Seville, the delayed goal of this trip, and a night in Eves apartment, and next day, yesterday, our transfer to our own. And with that Ill close, lest in describing our present situation I end on too negative a note.
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Calle Duende, Seville, Feb. 22
Im sure our landlady is a very nice woman. I found her attractive, in fact, immediately, in our telephone conversation yesterday, when we arranged a time to get the keys and the instructions concerning our new pied-a-terre in Seville. Her Spanish was measured and forgiving, pitched in a low, melodious voice; and she quickly responded to my own halting and clumsy speech: We can speak Engleesh, if you prefair; I speak Engleesh, but slowly, and in the Engleesh style.
Fine, I said, may we meet at two oclock? Yes, undair the clock of the ceety hall, my hair ees blonded.
When we got there, Žve or ten minutes late, we found a young woman with stylishly unkempt blonded hair; with her, a terrier on a leash, who was getting acquainted with another terrier on another leash, held Žrm by another stylish young woman.
We paraded then down the calle J. Guichot and up the calle Jimios, me wondering all along where our calle Duende might be as it wasnt to be found on any map, and then we came to an abrupt halt in a pile of sand, scaffolding ahead of us, cement mixer to one side, wheelbarrows and hard hats and jackets scattered about.
Our landlady said something to herself in a language I didnt quite catch, and then observed that this was very strange, as everything had been perfectly normal just two or three days ago.
Astonishing, I thought, that so much destruction and so little reconstruction could have taken place in just a few hours of work, for yesterday was Monday, and I was reasonably sure these sturdy, sullen workers had not been laboring over the weekend.
We picked our way past a building that has been completely gutted, whose wall on the calle Duende side has been newly erected, those childrens-toy hollow bricks stacked up within the bearing girders. Some, to give the workers credit, had already been stuccod; part of the stucco had dried and already been painted. But there is clearly a lot of work left to do, and the jobs clearly been under way for weeks.
We stepped across hoses and extension cords and steel cables and dodged workers and wheelbarrows and scaffolding and continued down the passageway, for the calle Duende is nothing more, it is not a street, its a mere passageway and a dead-end one at that, with the door to our building at the very end. On our way we looked apprehensively up at wheelbarrows of freshly mixed stucco being hauled aloft by those steel cables.
Once we climbed the single flight of marble stairs to our apartment things began to look better. Sitting room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom; television, stereo setup, twenty-Žve biographies in Spanish ranging from Alexander the Great to Salvador Dalí. Air conditioner: we will hardly want that. The apartment is freezing, but will soon warm up, were told. Washing machine, microwave, twoburner range, toaster, electric whipper thing.
We gave the stylish young woman our money and she left, taking her terrier with her. Then we discovered there was no hot water. I found a switch, Žnally, that apparently would turn on the water heater. Then we discovered that the toilet had an alarming desire to fall over on its side, like a spavined horse.
Well, Duende, of course, is what all flamenco artists have to have if they are to portray their sense of the tragic with any authenticity. We might have seen this coming.
Its all right. We intend to use the place only for sleeping and resting our tired feet. Seville, like every other town that seems to call us on this continent, is paved with cobblestones for the most part, at least the most part were interested in. The streets are narrow indeed, fewer than half wide enough for even a small car to negotiate. On those streets that do have automobile trafŽc there may be a sidewalk, but its likely to be too narrow to walk on comfortably; two abreast is impossible, and if someone comes your way one of you must step into the street, avoiding those steel bollards that only come up to mid-calf height.
We are near the Plaza Nuevo, a Žne rectangular plaza behind the Ayuntamiento or City Hall, very near the fashionable shopping streets Tetuán and Sierpes, and not far from the Cathedral and Alcázar. Weve spent our Žrst twenty-four hours walking, eating, drinking, sleeping, walking. I like eating in Seville: we generally avoid restaurants, taking breakfast in a bar, lunch at a sidewalk tapas joint when we can Žnd one in the sun, then tapas again later if we feel like it.
Yesterday, for example, we went with Eve for tapas at Los Coloniales, where we must have shared nearly a dozen plates of things potatoes, peppers, pork, quail eggs, fried zucchini, spinach croquettes, ham, several small glasses of sherry and so on, for about thirty dollars. Breakfast is our usual: coffee with hot milk, toast with butter or jam. In the neighborhood bars this costs about Žve dollars for the two of us, and I have a second coffee.
We were last here in November, a year or two ago. February is a different season. There are plenty of oranges on the trees, as noted a day or two ago, but the deciduous trees are bare, the banana trees severely frostbitten, the roses mere sticks. In a month things will be different; in two it will be glorious. I would not recommend Seville between November and March, but were here for museums and bars and the Cathedral, and the promise this weekend of rainstorms doesnt particularly bother us.
Today we were advised to visit the Casa de Pilatos, which some eccentric built in the early 16th century on the supposed plans of Pontius Pilates house in Jerusalem. It is home to one of Spains noblest nobles, and their are no nobles nobler than the Spanish; and the rooms and gardens that were opened to the public upstairs by guided tour only revealed a Žne sense of spatial taste, with a series of rooms looking in on one another and out onto one or another garden, all set about with that geometrical sense of order, clarity, and calm that seems so Spanish, yet so unlike the violence, surprise, and immediacy that form an equal component of the Spanish temperament.
(Maria Rosa Menocals fascinating, occasionally maddening account of Spanish history from Muslim times to the Inquisition, Ornament of the World, takes as its given the idea that no man or nation is worth much that cant hold two opposing concepts simultaneously. This idea comes to ones mind repeatedly here in Spain, and counters nicely an article in yesterdays Herald Tribune, describing the great care the European Union has taken to allow only six heads of state to speak to President Bush during his visit here, and each of them to discuss one topic only.)
We were advised to visit Pilates House today, because Tuesday is the day its open free of charge. But of course this is true only for citizens of Europe. We often Žnd this to be the case: an American passport (but for that matter also one from China or Norway or Zimbabwe) rules you out of this cultural largesse. And, of course, since the house was free to so many, it was very crowded, primarily with Spaniards.
So I stood on the edge of the crowd as it moved from room to room, looking out over a sea of dark-haired heads little blonding here! all at about the same height from the floor, say Žve feet six, looking rather like a flock of dark sheep, with an occasional Dutchman or German or American sticking up like a skyscraper. They say Spaniards of a certain age are all short because they were starved during their childhood, during the terrible Civil War era: but I notice that even the youngsters crowding the bars, or walking quickly by twos and threes, jabbering into their cell phones, are considerably shorter than those Im accustomed to.
Admirable as the Casa de Pilatos is, not to mention the Žne paintings, tapestries, and furnishings in its rooms, it was the gardens, and the way they related to the building itself, that impressed us the most. A number of ground-floor rooms have large open unglazed windows looking out onto courtyards and gardens, and as you stroll these rooms and gardens things keep changing conŽguration, just as life keeps changing as you make your way along. Fountains, doves, the voices of children, murmured conversations in corners reveal the astounding silence that contains them: you cant believe youre just off a narrow cobblestone street winding between hard-surfaced stucco threestorey buildings.
* * *
I called this dispatch Internet Apartment, but that doesnt mean we have any internet connection here. Our Žrst day, in fact, was partly devoted to Žnding a way of connecting. One after another promising lead failed to pan out: Oh no, the boss doesnt let people connect their laptops. Sorry, the computers down today. Oh no, Im afraid that place has gone out of business. No, the cafes closed on Mondays, and only open otherwise from four in the afternoon until eleven.
Finally I went down to the place I used a couple of years ago, whose only disadvantage is that its a bit of a distance away, though a pleasant enough walk, and close to a couple of bars I like, Modesto and El Toboso. So here we are back in touch again. Tomorrow, with any luck, Ill let you know about Sevilles Museo de Bellas Artes, which Ive wanted to see for years. In the meantime, I think Ill see if that water has heated up yet.
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Calle Duende, Seville, Feb. 23
Perhaps because I grew up in the country, where I was allowed to ramble a bit on my own, and it was useful to know at any moment what direction home lay, Im never really content unless I know which way is north. And Ive always thought of myself as having a pretty good sense of direction, so when it fails I get unhappy. Downright anxious at times, Lindsey would say. And the fact is the Žne instrument is losing its edge, and increasingly I Žnd myself disoriented, especially in the city where the direction of shadows isnt always handy, or at noon, or in latitudes more extreme than Im used to, or in foggy weather.
Seville is particularly cruel, because many of the maps, and all the maps we Žnd ourselves using much of the time, are wrongly oriented. Well, not really: in fact theyre properly oriented, for they put east at the top, as was the convention for many centuries. But the convention changed long ago, and Im used to north being at the top, and the result is that on our Žrst visit here a couple of years ago I got used to the idea of a sideways Seville, the old city on the wrong side of the river, the river flowing in the wrong direction, everything all bollocksed up.
So Ive written E A S T prominently in the top margins of the maps, and as we walk through town I try to remember to tell myself what direction were headed. It doesnt help that there are almost no parallel streets in this part of town, or that the river forms a sort of diagonal, or that few streets continue in a straight line any longer than necessary.
This contrasts with certain elements of the Spanish temperament. One of you wrote recently that you like the Spaniards for being tough, not in a bad way, but they are very direct which I... found refreshing after Paris, certainly.
Well, yes. Yesterday I got lost for the Žrst time: I was on an important mission, to buy tickets to a flamenco concert, and I was so intent on getting to the box ofŽce quickly that I took one wrong turn after another, and Žnally had to resort to stepping into a shop: Habla ingles? No. Um, well, okay, (switching to bad Spanish) do you know Ximenez de Enciso street?
She was gorgeous, elegantly coifed, expensively dressed, and her two friends were equal to her, and they all looked at me with a certain amount of disdain. Then she answered, her monosyllable beautifully modulated, rising patiently: sí...
Silence: and then I had to ask: donde está; where is it? She floated toward the front door of the shop, stood in the doorway, and indicated a street with her chin: Take that street, the next right, and continue straight on.
I thanked her and shambled my way out of the shop, feeling myself grow smaller and smaller as I walked away from them.
* * *
Ive been reading, among other things, a fascinating little book by Eugenio dOrs, Three Hours in the Prado Museum, written nearly ninety years ago and never out of print in this country. The premise is of course both stupid and brilliant you have to be able to keep two conflicting ideas in mind simultaneously. The book is written as an engaging conversation with an ideal newcomer to the Prado, young, intelligent; with an instinctive good taste and not confused by too much art doctrine.
DOrs chats enthusiastically about the pictures in the Prado, taking as his point of departure an idea he attributes to the sculptor Adolf Hildebrand, who, when studying the problem of form in art, decided that form always embraced two values: one architectural, the other functional terms for which dOrs substitutes spatial or expressive. Another kind of orientation. And dOrs decides that painting occupies the central position among the arts, because it is uniquely balanced midway between the two values: architecture clearly crowds the spatial extreme; music the expressive.
DOrs then strolls the Prado, Žnding Mantegna excelling at the spatial end, El Greco and Goya at the expressive, Velasquez brilliantly balancing the center. Its a nice kind of thread to string through these galleries, offering a third, objective reference point to triangulate the usual direct picture-to-viewer statement. Its only one way to do this, of course, but its clear and coherent and often gives dOrs a chance to make a brilliant observation, as when a painting of Claude Lorrains recalls to him Baudelaires memorable lines:
Tout nest quordre et beauté,I tried carrying dOrs along with me today in Sevilles Museum of Fine Arts, a rambling old structure climbing stairs and turning corners around three or four courtyards, with a decommissioned church in the middle to house an absorbing series of religious paintings by Murillo. The museum is heavy on the Seville school, whose stars are Murillo and Zurbaran, but it begins with a marvelous collection of 15th-century paintings and sculpture, on religious themes of course, whose depictions amount to almost photorealist portraiture.
luxe, calme, et volupté...
(Nothing here but order, beauty, light, calm, voluptuousness...)
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Calle Duende, Seville, Feb. 24
Dont you think life has more purpose, a greater sense of validity, when each day has some little goal to be met, some challenge to be overcome? I think so too. Ive already noted some of the challenges of our apartment in case youve forgotten, heres the letter I just wrote to the rental agency:
I would like to tell you how we Žnd conditions in our apartment on the calle Duende.I went out a couple of hours ago to Žnd the rubble piled up higher than usual, and more cement dust than usual swirling around the passageway and into the open kitchen door of the little restaurant across the Duende. I also found two cops, one looking a little mystiŽed, the other a little upset. I asked him if he spoke English, and when he said he didnt I told him that Id rented an apartado here, that esto es todo muy mal, very bad for ones health. He agreed, with a serious look on his face, and stepped into the building thats being renovated to have a talk with someone.
The apartment itself is very nice but there are a few problems. The toilet is not attached to the bathroom floor and it is often in danger of falling over on its side. This is very uncomfortable.
The electricity goes out if we are trying to use both the toaster and the microwave. This makes breakfast difŽcult.
There is not enough hot water to make a bath, so we have to heat water in a pan on the stove in the kitchen.
If these things were taken care of the apartment would be very nice.
The building next door is under complete renovation. All day long we hear the noise of the workers, tractors, air hammers, and the like. Also the air is full of cement dust. We must keep the windows closed all the time.
When we walk down the Duende to arrive or leave the apartment we must step through piles of broken tiles and concrete. We must also be careful to avoid being hit by falling wet stucco as it is being put on overhead.
The situation is so bad that we have decided to go away for the weekend, from Saturday until late Monday.
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Calle Duende, Seville, Feb. 25
Across the river, then, Žnally, this morning, to take a walk recommended by one of the guidebooks in the Seville quarter known as the Triana. Seville, the old city, grew up as an inland seaport on the broad Guadalquivir river, and though the river silted up so badly centuries ago that all port activities had to be moved downstream to Sevilles regret, for gold and silver were still coming in from the Americas in those days the river still makes an imposing presence here.
In the last century, for example, there were two worlds fairs held here, an ill-fated one in 1929 that saw some splendid national pavilions built, now being used as government ofŽces, and a more successful one in 1992, whose pavilions are being used as private corporate head-quarters for the most part, though some have been transformed into various tourist venues.
But it was not this Magic Isle, as the 92 fairgrounds is called, but to the older Triana that we wanted to explore. Here is Sevilles oldest still-consecrated church, Santa Ana; and here is the center of Sevilles still-thriving ceramics industry, responsible for the tiles you see in almost every doorway, and the plain or fanciful Žnials gleaming in their luster glazes on the corners of so many rooftops.
After crossing the river, which is so wide and slow-moving as to be almost an endless lake, we strolled its banks for a half-mile or so, walking on tamped granite clay, enjoying the fresh air, playing a few minutes with a blackbird who cheerfully improved upon whatever I whistled to him. On the river there were a number of racing shells, most of them for solo oarsmen and -women, and an occasional tourboat churned by, its upper deck crowded with visitors whose heads all turned in unison this way and that as a voice, unheard by us, pointed out one sight or another.
We browsed the ceramics shops, of course, and found much we liked. But nicely glazed fountains are hard to carry on the airplane, and it seems more logical, if were going to buy such things, to buy them in Mexico. I contented myself with an interesting piece of tile I found in a dumpster. This wasnt hard: Triana, like Seville the other side the river, is undergoing an incredible amount of renovation.
I asked a woman in a ceramics shop why. She was glazing a border tile, and I asked how many more she had to do: Muchos, muchos, she said, handing the one shed just Žnished to her husband, who tossed it rather casually I thought onto a stack while she reached for the next. Its a job for a building being reconstructed, she went on. Times are good; lots of people want apartments or homes or shops in Seville, and everything thats built or rebuilt or restored is done in the traditional manner.
The activity, as Ive mentioned earlier, is intense. You walk past 18th-century facades of threestorey buildings and suddenly realize thats all they are, facades, braced from the front or behind, waiting for an entirely new building to take place behind them. And large plot or small, theres likely to be amazingly deep excavation going on behind. We looked down into a hole bigger than the cathedral yesterday Im skipping: it was in Jerez de la Frontera, not Seville where there will be an underground parking lot of immense proportions.
The underground parking is everywhere, under many of the plazas. This is Žne: you no longer see jumbles of autos parked in plazas, as you so often do in France and Italy unless in the last year or two the same kind of thing is going on in those countries. Perhaps its a European Union mandate; or perhaps its subsidized by Komatsu, who seems to make all the enormous earth-moving apparatus we see everywhere.
Metros, too. Theyre building one in Seville, beginning apparently with the stations; ones going in right outside the venerable Alfonso Hotel at the Puerta de Jerez. I dont know how they can do this without running into classical antiquity, and indeed theres a huge dig across the avenue from the Plaza Encarnacion where what must originally have been commercial development has been transformed into archaeology.
I read the other day that the mayor of Venice, of all places, wants a subway of his own, at least to unite the airport with the old city. Because of the danger of subterranean vibration to the ancient city, built as it is on pilings in mud, the proposal is to put the Venice terminal a little offshore; perhaps people would get there by boat in which case why not simply continue taking the boat to the airport, as is done now? The mayor says the subway will reverse Venices alarming loss of population, down from 250,000 to sixty thousand since World War II: but wouldnt a subway simply enhance continued commuting, by workers, from the mainland? But this is Venetian business, and Im in Spain.
* * *
Speaking of rebuilding and the like, Lindsey wants me to assure you that in fact our apartment is not a dump. The toilet is loose; the hot water is scarce; the circuit-breaker blows readily: but these are minor matters. How much time do you really spend with the toilet, after all, or with hot water, compared to the amount of time you sit on a comfortable couch in a nicely decorated room, reading Michener or dOrs? Not very much.
During the day the place is nicely lit, indirectly, by the sun. I make the breakfast we like very easily in our little kitchenette. The bed isnt all that bad, and the apartment is beautifully situated, two minutes from the Plaza Nueva and the Ayuntamiento, Žve from the Cathedral. So dont get the idea were in a dump. I guess this means: dont take my complaints too seriously.
* * *
And speaking of the Cathedral, it was very interesting to contrast Santa Ana with the Cathedral today. I think of all the cathedrals Ive seen this one in Seville is by far my favorite. (Of course I may be wrong here, because I dont really recall St. Stephens in Vienna well enough. That has to be revisited.) Sevilles cathedral is, Žrst of all, huge: someone famously reported that you could lose Notre Dame in it. The legend is that when it was built, six hundred years ago, the planners said lets build a cathedral so huge everyone will say were completely insane. The ceiling, at the transept, is something like 150 feet high. The columns are nine feet on a side, and they are roughly square in cross-section, but so cunningly carved and fluted that they seem round.
Today as on most winter days it was sparsely populated. A few groups were being herded by their tourguides, in German, or Japanese, or Spanish, or English. Adolescent girls stood around talking on their cell phones, which get good reception in this huge stone building. Americans clustered around the tomb of Cristobal Colombo, as he is called here I always think of him, from the old jazz tune, as Mister Christopher Columbus, [who] sailed the sea without a compass.
The Sevillians were crueler than the Cordobans, who simply tore a few columns out of the Mezquita to install their Renaissance cathedral inside a pre-existing Muslim mosque. In Seville they completely destroyed the mosque that was there. I dont know if there are any drawings of the mosque as it was: Id like to see them if there are. At least they had the good sense to leave the orange-grove in place, and appropriately on the south side of the cathedral. What a wonderful thing these groves are! Symmetrical, calming, a home for birds, easily cared for, and a reminder of Nature in an environment that is otherwise nothing but stone, stone, stone.
Santa Ana, on the other hand, is a comfortable size, a neighborhood church. Its proudly cared for: we got there a minute or two after closing, and at least a half dozen women and one or two men were already at work mopping the floors and dusting. I asked a woman how old the place was: Oh, senor, very, very old, the oldest in the city, much older than the Cathedral. And indeed it is; Columbus very likely worshipped here, or stepped in at least. One of the main streets in this part of Triana is named for Rodrigo, his watchman, who was the Žrst European to catch sight of the New World, at least on that particular day in 1492.
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Hotel la Mirada, Tarifa, Feb. 27
Across a few miles of dull greygreen water, under heavy fog that alternated in fact with pretty stiff rainstorms, we could see the Rif Mountains of North Africa. Tarifa. Its a place Ive always wanted to see, one of the key geographical sites the southernmost town on mainland Europe. Its not the southernmost town in Spain: there are two towns across the Straits, odd enclaves on the African continent, and one day Ill visit them too, but theyll have to wait.
We drove here this morning from Jerez, where wed spent the night after seeing Israel Galván dance in the Feria de Jerez. Galván is one of the bright young Turks, in the old-fashioned expression, on the flamenco scene, bringing his thorough knowledge of the traditional forms and his consummate mastery and discipline with his own body to an art of his own, not always appreciated by flamenco connoisseurs. And I have to admit I dont get it at all myself, partly because I know nothing about flamenco.
For one thing, flamenco is a dance which connects feet to earth. Every other dance form I know of attempts the opposite, works at minimizing the fatal pull of the earth on our weak and fragile bodies. Flamenco does not merely stamp the feet, though it certainly does do that; it roots the body through the feet, through the floor, into the earth, much as the flamenco singer denies the conventional artiŽce of beautiful tone and opts instead for what is often a hoarse, nasal, complex sound whose pitch, even, cannot be precisely identiŽed though it always seems to respect pitch, as the anticipations and delays in a Žne performance of a Chopin piano piece always respects the beat, though the notes may rarely actually fall on it.
Galváns performance brought Merce Cunningham to mind, though Galváns a relatively young man, near the beginning of the important, perhaps even historical part of his career. He has the same mastery over tiny parts of his body as well as his entire body. He can pivot and turn faster than seems possible and then come to a dead stop, each Žngertip placed dramatically, extending the frozen lines of motion that seem to connect the center of his body to every corner of the hall, every riveted eye in the audience, in a web of invisible lines of force.
Well. We saw his performance, which lasted an hour or so, and then stopped in a nearby bar for some tapas olives and capers, cheese and tuna, Žno and then, as a treat on a Saturday night, a glass of anis, that wonderful Spanish anise-flavored liqueur, a cross between Chartreuse and pastis, neither of which is an unpleasant thing in itself.
Toward the end of the glass a beggar came through the cafe. (We were standing at a table outside on the sidewalk, along with dozens of others.) He came directly to me and spoke immediately in an odd German-flavored English, asking for money to buy food. My Žrst instinct was to brush him off. I give money routinely to musicians on the street, and occasionally to begging women; I even give money to the guy at the entrance to Trader Joes parking lot. But beggars who move through restaurants and bars annoy me.
Of course I immediately saw the reason for this: a certain shame or, short of shame, embarrassment at my good fortune in having coins in my pocket and a glass of anis in my hand, when this poor fellow had virtually nothing at the moment, and the prospect of even less tomorrow. So I Žshed out a euro for him and he went on his way to the next table with hardly a thank-you.
At one point he went into the bar, approaching a couple of tables, but soon enough he was shooed out, and stood disconsolately on the outskirts of our terrace. Then he moved in again, and then I lost track of him. But before long Eve nudged me and indicated him with a nod: he was standing out on the sidewalk, and he was being lectured by a guy whod been eating two or three tables away from us, accompanied by a couple of women.
The man spoke to him sternly but with no trace of anger or even irritation. He was younger than the beggar, considerably so, but he spoke to him like a father to an errant son. That was striking enough, but even more so was the beggars attitude. He stood quietly, listening attentively, not returning his lecturers gaze, looking down at the pavement instead, but neither defensive nor evasive. He listened politely, with only very rare vocal responses; and after what seemed four or Žve minutes the conversation was over, the young man moved back to his companions, and the beggar disappeared down the street.
Ive looked at so many paintings of biblical scenes lately, at so many conversations among saints and sinners, that moments like this one, living moments revealing the reality of the lives of strangers, take on a painterly kind of drama and of course the nocturnal light enhanced this, throwing the distance into an unseen but somehow nestling background, the bright light spilling out of the cafe picking out the two faces, especially the whites of the eyes.
Thered been another such moment earlier in the day, though it involved no seen persons. Wed overshot a turn into the days Žrst goal, the hilltop white town of Arcos de la Frontera, and we found ourselves on the top of a hill, looking back at the town over a valley a mile wide or so, fertile and carefully farmed, quite lower than either we were or Arcos was.
Wed pulled off the road to turn around to go back, having found a dirt road that led very quickly to an abandoned, half-destroyed building. The view was so beautiful I turned off the engine to get out to take some photos. The place was littered with detritus broken glass, rusting cans, broken tiles. The building was interesting, and we poked our heads into the rooms, standing open without doors or windows, and I climbed up the external staircase to the roof, which probably had originally been the floor of a second storey.
I dont know what the building was originally meant for. There was a row of bowls cast in concrete in one room, and I thought perhaps theyd been intended for successive treatments in the curing of olives. What was equally interesting was the question of how the building had come to its present condition. It looked as if it had been shelled. Perhaps it was a victim of the Civil War: it could well have been that old. Ill never know, of course.
Places like that always make me feel a little sad. It was undoubtedly built in a spirit of optimism: a place better than its builder had known before, a place where he would work and live, a place he would pass on to his children and here it was, destroyed, beyond salvage, and its builder and other occupants gone and forgotten and unknown. Buildings like this function in their landscapes as skulls do in those vanitas still-lifes: they reveal the transitory nature of the things we cherish and depend upon.
Tarifa is a completely different thing. We took the coast road here, though it doesnt really follow the coast. From the compellingly rolling hills around Arcos wed descended to the immense flat delta on whose margin Jerez and, indeed, Seville are built; and today we continued along the eastern edge of that delta, but soon the road struck out east and south and into foothills again. The country reminded me often of the California coast, especially the San Mateo county coast; and when we Žnally drove into Tarifa Eve said Ah, Santa Cruz, and I thought to myself Ah, Pismo Beach.
Tarifa is in fact a windsurŽng capital, but todays weather, miserable much of the time, discouraged all but the hardiest. There was one stalwart fellow on his sail plank in the Mediterranean, and Žfty yards to his west a row of a dozen or so men (and one or two women) on their surfboards in the Atlantic. Tarifa stands on the point demarcating the two, on the north shore of the Straits of Gibraltar. (Gibraltar itself is far enough away, to the north and east, as to be invisible from here.)
We walked through rain squalls from our hotel, two or three blocks from the old city wall, into the old city, looking for something to eat, and spent a couple of hours in the one restaurant that seemed to be open. Theres a sizable Italian community here, we were told, and we had the kind of meal we are used to, and have missed these last few weeks a bowl of chicken noodle soup to start, a green salad, and a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce, washed down with a bottle of cheap red wine.
The place was full. Old people, young people, a couple of babies, a few other tourists. The service was uneven, and the poor girl whose job seemed to be chiefly clearing away plates no longer needed was lectured a couple of times, once so severely she turned her back on the room, resting her hands on the bar. Look, Eve said, shes crying. And she was, and she avoided showing her face to the dining room for quite a while, and then when she did it was clearly a bit swollen.
It had stopped raining by the time dinner was over, and we walked down to the beach, where we saw the surfers, and then we walked out across the mole to the Isla de Palomas, inaccessible once youre there because apparently dedicated to some kind of military or law-enforcement purpose. The place reminded me a bit of Biarritz, though much less tony; or of places along the southern Dutch coast, or the west shore of Danish Jutland. There are concrete bunkers half-buried in the dunes, and the shell of an improbable castle, small but arrogant in its symmetry, trying to decide whether its Gothic or Victorian. Like that building outside Arcos it was empty, probably abandoned; but it had not been shelled.
Before turning in for the night I went out to get a bottle of water. The hotels dining-room and bar are closed today for the weekly descanso or day of rest, which inevitably falls, in these small hotels, on the one day we choose to book, but there was a nearby bar. There I had a small anis and watched the local scene. A shaky-looking guy, clearly a local, had a second glass of Spanish gin, a tumblerfull to which he added a bit of inexpensive white wine that arrived in a small screwtop bottle.
Two girls sat at the bar smoking and talking, often laughing at something, drinking soft drinks and nibbling at tapas. A couple of families were eating at tables at the back of the room. Then an interesting-looking man came in, wearing an old zipper jacket and a red baseball cap. The bartender handed him a bottle of beer and a glass, without having been asked, and then a dish of olives, and the fellow silently and seriously addressed this meal.
Before long another group of four or Žve people came in, men and women, clearly all together; but as they went to a table at the back of the room one man stopped to greet the man in the red cap. This man was about the same age, early thirties or so, and similarly dressed, but wore no cap; his head was shaved as close as his beard; his high round forehead gleamed; his face was unusually flat, and his wire-rimmed glasses gave him a serious but poetical air: he reminded me of photos of Jaime Sabartès, the poet who was Picassos friend and secretary for many years.
This man went right up to the other, who swiveled around on his stool, and they began an intense, serious, but clearly very friendly conversation. Their hands rested on one anothers shoulders in a gesture that was conŽdential, affectionate, yet serious, and it seemed as if their conversation was resuming from one that had broken off, the day before, or a week before, or years. It was as if theyd been reunited after a separation unforeseen, unavoidable, dramatic perhaps, but accepted as one of those things that happens in this life.
I Žnished my anis, ordered my liter of water, paid my euro and a half, and went back to the hotel.
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Calle Duende, Seville, March 1
Awakened by the lilting sound of Andalusian jackhammers we got regretfully out of bed at nine. I had an appointment, made last Friday, with a highly recommended razor artist in Triana.
The recommendation came from the acquaintance of a good friend, a fellow (the acquaintance, not the friend) who plays guitar, loves flamenco, and knows Seville. Weve followed a few other recommendations of his, concerning restaurants, with mixed results. One or two of his descriptions were right on the mark, but concerned places we already knew about, the Restaurant Modesto and, across the street, Toboso.
Another place he recommended was fascinating for four or Žve truly gargantuan and truly grotesque Žsh hanging by their gills from hooks in the refrigerated display-window, but the menu was both more elaborate and more expensive than weve wanted to deal with, and also, oddly, listed veal stroganoff (who eats that in Seville, anyway?) for a euro more in the English-language menu than it did in the Spanish-language one.
The one recommendation he made non connected to food and drink was a barber in the remote recesses of Los Remedios, a neighborhood beyond Triana, on the other side of the river. I walked there quickly Friday, but a passel of little boys had got there before me, and the barber recommended I return later. I clocked the walk home: forty minutes.
This morning I took a cab. This was trickier than usual, for the Plaza Nueva, a short block or two from our apartment, was completely surrounded by do-not-cross fencing, and its taxi ranks were in total disarray. Two or three of the Žne tall palms in the Plaza had either blown completely down yesterday, when we were away between Tarifa and Jerez, or were leaning so precariously that they had to be taken down.
The six square white pavilions that had been set up early last week, and that had turned out, when I checked on Friday, to contain a good-will tour from Krakow, introducing Polish sausage and lace to the patient Sevillians, who after all have very Žne charcuterie and textiles of their own and hardly need these exotic imports, mandated no doubt from Brussels by the European Union, looked forlorn this morning, closed up, soggy in the rain, and windblown. Perhaps the weather didnt seem so bad to the Poles, who, last time Id seen them, were in native costume and wielding Žddles and accordions along with their beer-steins. But it was pretty wretched weather to me.
Anyhow I grabbed a taxi and headed for a haircut, badly needed, as the last one was in Rome, in November. Last year, todays barber observed, and I agreed, yes, last year, not the November before that one.
He was deft, this barber, doing all his work with a small pair of scissors, only Žnishing with the razor. He didnt once sing Lan lan lalero or any of that other Figaro stuff. In fact he and I, the only ones in the shop at the impossibly early hour of ten oclock, listened to his radio, which was playing a selection of classical piano music from Malaga, impressively played, and curiously both sober and flamboyant a combination of which Spaniards seem uniquely capable and, therefore, particularly fond.
I walked back, clipping ten minutes from my record, as this time I knew where I was going. The weather was better, damp but not actively raining, and after a weekend of inactivity (unless you count driving) I needed some exercise.
* * *
Yesterdays drive from Tarifa home, stopping off in Jerez for another dance concert, was circuitous. We decided to explore the coast road, which really hardly exists between Tarifa and Cadiz. Where it does exist its narrow and hardly marked, clearly a track meant for locals to use in good weather. We followed it through one tiny town after another, most of them agricultural towns, some of them the ones on with beaches clearly resort towns, with more hotels than their size indicates, all of them either closed at this time of the year or hopelessly despondent for lack of customers.
At one point the road disappeared under quite a large expanse of muddy brown water, for things dont drain as quickly as they might hereabouts, and it had rained quite hard over Sunday night. We watched as a car nearly as small as ours came slowly in our direction, indicating the thing was possible. A couple of guys were standing alongside a small truck, recording this brave mariners voyage with a handheld video camera, and Eve delightedly exclaimed that wed all be on tonights news. I asked the driver if hed noticed any problems, and he gave me a thumbs-up, so we put the car in gear and had at it, slowly parting the sea and continuing our northwesterly course.
I suppose it was a little risky, but the alternative was to turn around and go back, maybe thirty kilometers out of our way over ground already familiar. Besides, if anything happened, we had our cell phones though mine had dropped its coverage in these boonies, and Eves was locked into a network in Morocco.
The countryside along this coast is very attractive, often reminding us of the California coast, sometimes the San Mateo beach country, at other times the pine forests around PaciŽc Grove. It was not at its best, but on the whole Id rather be there in February than in the summer, when it must be completely overwhelmed with tourists from England and Germany, to judge by the trilingual menus and hotel advertisements.
Then we struck northerly, heading for a town called Medina Sidonia, I dont know why another of the much-recommended white towns in the hills and mountains bounded roughly by Seville, Granada, and the coast. These must have been picturesque indeed twenty years ago, when theyd have resembled Italian hill towns, perched over Želds and olive groves and connected by a network of simple two-lane roads haphazardly laid out across the rolling landscape.
Now, though, many of them certainly Sidonia and Antequera and Arcos de la Frontera are troubled by good-sized outskirts of identically designed and constructed apartment blocks, and some of them are further compromised by business parks and shopping centers, which combine in the Spanish method in what they call polygons, often composed of rows of two- and threestorey warehouse-style buildings tricked up with false fronts. Not that different, really, from what you see outside so many American towns.
Still, the countryside was really attractive. We slowed down in one town to say hello and goodbye to a horse who stood motionless in the drizzle, oddly having chosen one lane of the towns main street for a little downtime of his own. A one-horse town, I told the equally patient women riding in my car; and they groaned, and we were on our way.
Our way was toward Jerez, and we arrived absurdly early, a little after four oclock, with nothing to do for Žve hours before a flamenco show that started at nine. February 28 is a national holiday hereabouts: Andalusia Day, the day on which the region of Andalusia signed papers giving it partial autonomy from Spain. (That was twenty-Žve years ago, so todays celebration as special meaning, at least to those Andalusians who care about such things.)
Well: on such an important holiday, and particularly when it is cold and miserable, of course everything closes. We parked the car in an underground garage, unnecessarily, and walked somewhat dejectedly about looking for something that might be open, and warm, and dry. We Žnally found a bar: but, as I eventually told the woman behind the counter, you cant drink sherry for four hours. How can we kill some time in this town?
It turned out that though Sandemans cellars were closed, Gonzales & Byass, the makers of the famed Tio Pepe, were not. So up we trouped to their digs, and waited a few minutes for the next tour to begin the last of the day, as it turned out, and only in Spanish.
There were only the three of us and the pretty young earnest tourguide. We rode a sort of tourist train to this shed and that in the huge sprawling facility, and then toured a few more aging parlors on foot, and then sat through a videotaped history of the Žrm, and Žnally took places at one of several hundred tables in a huge hall for tapas and sherry. We were given a tenth of Tio Pepe Žno, which is what Ive been mostly drinking here anyway, and a good-sized glass of the softer, sweeter Crofts cream sherry, and a goodsized platter of openfaced ham sandwiches, and slices of Manchego cheese, and olives.
And then we went to the gift shop, where we bought enough things to be polite, including a pocket-sized bottle of their brandy to keep the chill off; and then it was Žnally time to think about the evenings performance, which turned out to be two parts flamenco, three parts Broadway, as presented by Maria Pages, who manages to Žnd ways for pure flamenco to coexist with jazz dance and show routines.
Her production was everything Israel Galváns was not, two nights earlier colorful, expressive, narrative, entertainment; where he was austere, formal, abstract, and art. I cant imagine two productions better suited to deŽne the possible range in which the ancient and rather hermetic art of flamenco can be suited to a large general audience, and Im very glad we had the opportunity to see them both.
And then it was a quiet and easy drive on a nearly empty highway to Seville, and return the car to its street a little north of our apartment, and an anis with the car-rental guy who was still up, and home to bed at the typically Sevillian hour of well past two. And tomorrow were off, by train, to Madrid, for a Žnal visit to the Prado.
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Hostal San Lorenzo, Madrid, March 2
Lying on a hotel bed back in Madrid, resting, I think about Seville and what I think of it. We actually only spent Žve days in Seville on this trip, in our apartment in the center of the old city. In November of 2002 we were there for a little longer, maybe a week altogether, staying in another apartment, in the Santa Cruz barrio.
Two weeks, in the off season, two years apart, hardly give me any authority to have any opinion, of course. The Seville you may have visited is no doubt quite different from the one I know. Most people dont visit in winter. But of course I have impressions of Seville, and Im about to tell you what they are. If you want authoritative comment perhaps youd best skip the rest of this.
Seville is Spains fourth largest city, but its a distant fourth, with about the same population as San Francisco, a little short of 700,000. Like San Francisco its the cultural capital (and the political one too) of its region, Andalusia being one of the several Regions into which Spain is politically divided.
If Seville is San Francisco, then Madrid is New York, and Barcelona I suppose is Los Angeles. Perhaps Valencia is Chicago, though I doubt it: but it is the third largest city, and a long way ahead of Seville.
Andalusia should be a rich region, but it qualiŽes, along with one other Spanish region, for special assistance from the European Union because of its relative backwardness. This of course sets it apart from California, whose economy is the fourth or Žfth biggest in the world.
But you dont sense this relative poverty in the Seville streets, at least not those weve been used to walking. Last night, in our last walk through town, we strolled a familiar path between our apartment and our granddaughters, past shops featuring very expensive dresses for weddings and Žrst communions. Pundonor is one of the two traits James Michener frequently mentions in describing the Spanish temperament. It means point of honor, and it remains a very serious trait; and I think (though I may be wrong) that the purchase of so expensive a dress to mark so serious a social moment as wedding or Žrst communion is an expression of this kind of point of honor.
But as I say this is a Spanish trait, not speciŽcally a Sevillian one, and Im trying to come to terms here with my feelings about Seville. As we walked the Madrid streets this afternoon Lindsey said she thought she could easily spend a month here, in Madrid; there is no way we could spend a month in Seville. It is too large to be a charming village. I could happily spend a month in a charming village say, Ars-en-Ré, in France. For that matter we have spent a month at a time in a French village, or in the countryside just outside one, and very happily at that its a great way to concentrate on a language, to get some serious writing done, to acquaint yourself more intimately with the provender and cuisine of a worthwhile and unfamiliar culture.
But if Seville is too large to be a charming village, its also too small to supply a month of metropolitan rewards. I know: one shouldnt ask that of her. But she is a city, after all, with museums and music, bookstores and bars; but those attractions, while they are present enough to intrude on my daily stroll or schedule, dont go deep enough to maintain my interest for more than a week or two. I think I could spend a month in Madrid and never visit any museum but the Prado, though there are four or Žve other great museums here for painting and sculpture. The Bellas Artes, in Seville, didnt ask me for a return after a visit of only a couple of hours.
In short theres something, well, provincial about Seville. God knows I am provincial myself; in general I prefer provinces to capitals. But I think a province is at its best to its natives, not to its visitors. Every province is rich with detail; its social and environmental grain can be compelling, fascinating even to a native, who has grown up among that detail, and knows and understands its Žnest points with the kind of engagement a casual visitor can never hope to attain.
Of course there are aspects of Seville, indeed of perhaps any such provincial capital, that would reward a lifetime of study by a passionate professional, an anthropologist or a folklorist or a theology student. Members of my own family are drawn to Seville for its flamenco, and I can understand their fascination. But I am a generalist, not a specialist, and while Seville is busy enough in its urbanity to intrude constantly on my own thoughts, while Im there, it rarely surprises me with an unexpected delight.
But here I will contradict myself. When we arrived I was happy with our apartments situation, a few yards from a magniŽcent plaza, the Plaza Nueva. This is a Žne symmetrical plaza, with a central fountain, newsstands on diagonally opposite corners, planted with Žne sycamores and tall graceful palms, and animated day and night not with cafe society, there are no bars or cafes in the plaza itself, but with pedestrians who cut across it to get from one place to another, or with young people looking for a little solitude in a crowd, or with the occasional down-and-outer who can Žnd an hours shelter and anonymity between stints begging or ranting in more touristy areas.
Shopping streets of three different kinds lead into the Plaza Nueva: formerly very posh streets, now gone Im afraid to department stores and chain boutiques along the calles Sierpes and Tetuan, which are also set about toward the Plaza with cafes and bars; more utilitarian shops, for locals with more basic needs stationery, say, or hardware along the Nuñez and the Zaragoza; and businesses catering to business, telephone stores and computer repair places for example, on the south side, where there are also more bars and inexpensive restaurants.
And on various sides of the Plaza are strategic bus stops and transfer points, and taxi ranks. So the Plaza Nueva is a truly metropolitan area, not simply a place for tourists or students. Its a kind of intersection of the various modes in which people occupy their cities: business, commerce, transportation, government.
Im afraid I took the Plaza Nueva for granted. For example, I never took a photograph of it, or in it its too big, really, and too busily furnished, to be able to get a photo that would give an impression of it as a plaza. I suppose I took it for granted because of the very fact that it did not represent what I went to Seville for: it is not a tourist thing. It functions for the native, for the resident. And when we returned late Monday night to Seville from a weekend away, and found that a couple of those tall graceful palms had come down in a windstorm, and the entire Plaza was off-limits, I suddenly felt ashamed of myself for having neglected it in its better days, for having taken it for granted.
Tuesday morning it was a mess. Men were sawing up the downed trees; people were dodging under the caution-tape lines to catch their buses; people like me were scurrying around witlessly trying to Žgure out where the taxis would be stopping. I thought it would take days to clean this up.
But I was surprised, Tuesday afternoon, to Žnd the Plaza Nueva back to normal. The trees are hardly missed: if anything, their departure has brought the sycamores into greater prominence, and this is a sycamore kind of plaza, palms seem irrelevant to its architecture. Buses, taxis, newsstands, pedestrians were all back in place.
Perhaps the Plaza Nueva stands for all of Seville, and I need to give greater thought to those details. The fragrance of the orange trees, even in February when there are no blossoms and the rain and the cold hardly bring out fragrance. The lovely river. The narrow medieval streets (but they are after all like the streets in any old European city that has not been Haussmannized). The surprising courtyards, glimpsed through doors providently if carelessly left open. The tiles, the tiles: handmade, factory-made, ancient, new, proudly decorating wealthy doorways or Žlling in, as broken pieces, as rubble in a wall or courtyard suddenly laid bare by construction work.
Seville is going through an awkward period, I think. Theres construction everywhere. A subway is being installed. The need to balance traditional architecture and decoration with new construction, humane streetscape with modern business, tourist appeal with concern for the resident that need is evident, and the strain of attending to it is evident as well.
So I will be more forgiving of Seville. I will undoubtedly want to return, partly to see her in other seasons, partly because Im curious to see what will happen to her in a few years when the subway is Žnished, the hotels are up-to-date, and even greater crowds are gaping at Columbuss tomb. Im curious to see just how this political balancing act will develop.
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Hostal San Lorenzo, Madrid, March 3
If you can have only one day in Madrid you can do worse than spend it as we did today. Up at nine, cafe con leche and pan tostada for breakfast, about six hours in the Prado (with a break in its cafeteria for lunch), home to the hotel for a couple of hours of rest, a brisk walk to the Teatro Latin for a zarzuela, a slow walk home afterward, stopping off for a racion of ham and another of cheese and a couple of glasses of sherry.
We spent three hours or so in the Prado a month ago, when we arrived here, and it was clear that that wasnt enough. In the meantime Ive read a little about it not as much as Id have liked, as this hasnt really been a reading kind of month, but a little. Eugenio dOrss Tres horas en el Museo del Prado, for one, which I mentioned a week or so ago, and wont enlarge on here; and the several pages James Michener devotes to it in his book Iberia, which Ive also mentioned, though not his comments on the museum.
The Žrst thing to say about this magniŽcent museum is that almost all its paintings reflect the interests of a single family of collectors. Granted, they were obscenely wealthy; granted, they had a lot of professional help. Velasquez, for example, went on shopping expeditions in Italy, buying up Titians and the like to send back to the king. Still, nearly everything here was at one time really wanted, not merely invested in, or seized, as can have been the case in other museums the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan.
The second thing to say is that this is a Spanish museum, and its collection ignores great expanses of art history that didnt, for one reason or another, speak to members of Spanish royalty. There are some magniŽcent Italian paintings here, because there was a close political connection between the two countries for a number of decades. There are some choice Netherlandish paintings, because Spain owned the Low Countries for quite a while. But French painting is only spottily covered, German painting less so; and the entire collection seems to come to a screeching halt in the early 19th century, having found its historical climax, you might say, in the work of Francisco Goya.
I myself have never been particularly interested in old painting. My own interest was always in Modernist painting, though I have a real enthusiasm for certain painters of earlier ages Vermeer, for example. I have never spent any time studying the history, the technique, or the iconography of painting before, say, Manet and Degas. This may be surprising to those of you who know I worked for years as an art critic: but it was and remains my feeling that an art critic on a daily newspaper is a reporter Žrst and foremost, and in my time and place 1967-1987, Northern California there was so much contemporary work to cover it seemed quite ethical to neglect art that was more conventionally appreciated and understood.
So todays hours in the Prado were an attempt to simply let these magniŽcent paintings speak for themselves, without guides or earphones, catalogues or commentaries. We took them chronologically, and were completely bowled over at the very beginning, with Mantegnas Transit of the Virgin (1461) and Roger van der Weydens Descent from the Cross (1437). Ive mentioned Eugenio dOrss conceit of placing the art of painting midway between spatial or architectural values and narrative or expressive ones, and these two paintings were perfectly paired in that sense. Both seem perfectly balanced between the two poles, but Mantegnas balance favors spatial form, and van der Weydens favors narrative.
And so it went. We spent three hours on the ground floor; broke forty minutes for quite a competent lunch in the cafeteria (beef stew, mixed vegetables, fruit, and dessert, with a small bottle of red wine); then spent another two hours upstairs, concentrating on Rubens, Velasquez, and Goya.
Perhaps half the paintings on the walls demanded full attention. The spacing, lighting, and labeling here are optimal well, the labels could be in English rather than Spanish, but thats an ungrateful criticism. Almost none of the paintings are behind glass; and one can lean across the ropes to almost a nose-length away from the surfaces particularly useful in the case of Breughel and Bosch, whose paintings teem with fascinating detail.
Most of the greatest painting here is of course familiar from reproductions. But the conditions of this museum emphasize a truth we all know anyway in our heart of hearts: in spite of all the postcards and coffeetable books and tee shirts and coffee mugs, reproductions dont really reproduce paintings. They dont even reproduce what paintings look like. They only reproduce what the subjects of the paintings look like. So it becomes clear, after a few hours in front of these paintings, that except for a few overtly political ones portraits of kings, or statements of theological positions these paintings arent really about their subject-matter at all, any more than a movie is about its actors. They are about light and dark, color and grey, surface and depth, texture, and the like.
Of course many are fascinating for what they tell us of life in the time and place of their making. So we see Saint Barbara sitting on a comfortable couch in front of a Žre reading a book, quite as if private life were the usual thing in the fourteenth century: but its interesting to see she holds the book an illuminated manuscript, of course nestled in a sort of napkin, to protect it, I suppose, from the oils of her saintly hands.
But fascinating as such details can be, its timelessness, not speciŽcity, that makes a great painting seem immortal. I was fascinated by the number of times painters several centuries apart, with different techniques and media and social situations, would somehow speak to a common interest, as if a narrative had been set aside in one century, with the death of its narrator, and then taken up again two hundred years later when the correct next narrator happened along.
And then there are the different versions of a single painting, like the two versions Titian made of his Venus and the Organ-Player, one clearly painted much faster, no doubt as his own copy of the original, when hed found another purchaser. Or Rubenss copy of Titians painting of The Temptation of Eve.
And, to end this haphazard walk through the Prado, a revision of my view of Goya last time round: on that visit we did not see the Dark Paintings, Im not sure why; this time we did. Clearly Goya was not one painter but two: the public Goya, who painted to religious and royal commission, is hard for me to respond to. The private Goya, who painted what he really felt about the excesses of his own time and place Spain, 1800-1820 was a completely different painter, and his most stunning work is utterly Modern: Saturn Devouring his Child, For This Were We Born, and that amazing, enigmatic canvas showing a dogs head peering up over the rim of a chasm at the bottom of an immensely tall painting that is otherwise quite blank.
I see Ive forgotten to mention Rembrandt and Claude Lorrain. Oh well.
* * *
The zarzuela was La Tabernara del Puerto, on opening night, and it was delicious. Zarzuela is operetta with a lot of spoken dialogue, or maybe a better description is spoken theater with interspersed musical numbers, some of them light and silly, others of quite operatic ambition.
There was a good-sized orchestra in the pit (fourteen strings, as many winds, harp, and percussion), and quite a large company on the stage say seven or eight principals, a number of company actors, sixteen in the chorus, and eight dancers. There were three acts, and the third opened with a scene in which the romantic leads were tossed about in their little sailboat on a stormy sea, ultimately sinking in a flash of lightning.
Im not sure what the story was, as the supertitles translated only the sung lyrics, and the plot of course advanced through the untranslated dialogue. Beautiful tavernkeepers daughter, returning sailor, smugglers, drunk old couple, epicene waiter, lovelorn kid, put-upon smugglers; all coming right at the end maybe. Even that wasnt entirely certain.
What was certain was the quality of the leads, and the enthusiasm of the entire company, and the great glee of the mostly Madrileño audience, who happily sang along with the cast, and laughed at what must have been local or political comments, and roared at the slapstick. Zarzuela, Michener said in his 1968 book Iberia, is dying out; it speaks of nostalgia for simpler times; but at the same time somehow keeps a hold in its heartland, which is Madrid. Lehar and Strauss speak to all German and Austrian tastes from their own Vienna, but zarzuela is city-speciŽc. But you cant really spend any time in Madrid without seeing zarzuela, just as you have to see a performance of The Merry Widow if youre in Vienna for more than a week. Its a cultural obligation, a tourist tax, and were glad to pay it.
* * *
The ham, cheese, and sherry were at the corner bar outside our hotel, the Viejo Casco. Its strictly a workers bar. My order, at the bar, was taken by an old old man, who couldnt quite believe I wanted sherry this isnt Andalusia, after all; one drinks Rioja here but got a bottle up out of the icebox and opened it, and passed my order for ham and cheese to the appropriate staff, and before long here it was: as unctuous and resonant a Serrano ham as weve had, and great slices of Manchego cheese slathered with a nice olive oil, and a basket of bread.
The tablecloth was paper, and scattered with breadcrumbs when we sat down; and our rations and sherries were passed to us by a woman customer at the bar, for there was no table service at all. The television set blared away irrelevantly with some German slapstick comedy stuff. The old man sat across the serving area from us, watching us curiously, always smiling sweetly, beaming at us even, and affectionately waving good-bye when we left. Ive never felt more at home anywhere on this trip, and Ill never come back to Madrid without stopping in.
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Hostal San Lorenzo, Madrid, March 4
On our way this morning to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, about which more later here, I stopped to take a photo of the Madrid skyline on the Calle de Alcala speciŽcally, two gorgeous bank buildings, one with a couple of bronze three-horse chariots on its roof, the other with a sparkling copper dome.
A young man, say in his thirties, smiled at me and said something about how beautiful Madrid is, and we struck up a conversation. He turned out to be Venezuelan, and like us is flying home tomorrow. Hes not happy about it. Id like to come to Spain, he said, I feel better here. My country is not in a good place at the moment. The people are well, theyre violent. They dont want security, or stability, they want violence.
I thought about that as we continued our walk. Lindsey mentioned the surprising turnabout in Spanish social history that came with the death of Franco, when Spain Žnally began to take its place among the modern European nations. It had tried to do this before, of course, in the 1920s and 30s, but the economy was too unstable, Europe was in disarray, and the peculiar ruling trio in Spain military, church, and wealthy landowners didnt want to risk a socialist state. So there was a civil war, a particularly cruel and bloody one of course (that being historically the Spanish way), and Generalissimo Franco emerged from the chaos, a Spanish version of Italys Mussolini except that he had the brains to resist foreign adventures. By and large the Spanish population preferred stability to civil war, even though the cost was both severe economic hardship and almost complete isolation from the rest of the world; and Franco remained the Spanish way until his death thirty years ago.
But, as Lindsey pointed out, Spain has taken her place among the modern European nations. I think she is still in rather a difŽcult position, Spain I mean, squeezed between rather a secondary position within the European Union, on the one hand, and potential serious threats at fragmentation at home, with the Basques, the Catalans, and the Andalusians continually rocking the national boat, in different degrees of course but still enough to weaken the national center.
These thoughts began to talk to some other things Ive been thinking about, ever since an acquaintance e-mailed the other day to ask what I thought of the next seasons concert programs just announced by the San Francisco Symphony.
I wrote back that I didnt think much of them. There are three Id like to hear, but the rest are either too familiar or too downright weird to be attractive. And after all Im a composer, among other things, and there isnt a single living American composer listed on these programs, let alone California composer, and I Žnd this simply disgusting.
Like it or not, we live in the modern world. No social institution can thrive, or even I think survive, if its response to the complexities and stress of modern life is to try to ignore them, to pretend that life can go on in the familiar nostalgic way. This is true for governments, for educational institutions, for museums, and for orchestras. It is even true for restaurants.
It is true that the Prado, which has preoccupied me so much these last few weeks, is a brilliant and powerful museum of painting that stops with Goya, who laid down his brush nearly two hundred years ago. But across the street we Žnd the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, whose chronological range begins in the Fourteenth Century and extends to just a generation ago; and down the street theres the Reina SoŽa Museum, dedicated to the Twentieth Century (and the home now to Picassos Guernica), and this makes easy a conversation among all these paintings, with Mondrian, say, responding to Lorrain, and Mantegna to Monet, and Degas to Velasquez. All you have to do is walk a few hundred yards and buy your ticket.
You cant do that with orchestral music. Well, you can, of course, if you just listen to records: but that would be like seeing these paintings via postcard reproductions. Theyre an aide-memoire, nothing more.
Why are there so many painters, and why do they paint so many paintings, and why are so many of them so damnably Žne? Well, for one thing, its because were very much aware of them beginning six hundred years ago. If an institution like the San Francisco Symphony were to do its job properly it would offer a Machaut mass from the time of Chaucer, or the great Monteverdi Vespers from the time of Shakespeare (to switch from a painterly comparison to a literary one), at least as often as it trots out Handels Messiah.
Stravinsky, some say, is musics Picasso, and the San Francisco Symphony is giving us Stravinsky next season, on rather an attractive program: Le Rossignol combined with Oedipus Rex. But most halfway sophisticated Americans are familiar with two or three generations of painting, even (or more likely particularly) American painting, beyond Picasso: and San Franciscans are aware of a dozen Bay Area painters since the death of Picasso; but not of Bay Area composers.
When a societys cultural institutions ignore its own living creative spirit, what kind of future can it face? Isnt it precisely in the great Continuity from one generation, from one century, to the next, that civilization consists? And what is Art for? Surely one of its most signiŽcant functions is to keep alert both the individuals and the societys awareness of what is now fashionably called values, namely the preoccupations and observations and responses of imaginative and creative minds as they evolve with the fabric of the time and place they share with us.
Lindsey was also talking, today, about the discussions in the press of the centennial of Albert Einsteins publication of his theory of Relativity. Imagine; there was a time when Relativity seized the popular imagination; and now our society is content to be led by people who believe in literal interpretations of religious books two and three thousand years old, and reject scientiŽc warnings of environmental dangers.
* * *
Well, we went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and there we spent three hours and more on the permanent collection, which is quite magniŽcent, beginning with Italian 14th-c. primitives and running on up to de Kooning and Rauschenberg; and then we went to dinner at El Cenador, a restaurant that had been particularly recommended, and there we ate very well indeed, though relatively simply: a leek-and-cheese tart, then bacalao in tomato sauce, with ice cream for dessert honey and anis ice cream for me, leche merengada for Lindsey and then we went back to the Thyssen-Bornemisza for a special treat, a show of a dozen or two portraits by Hans Memling.
When I mentioned having a few favorite pre-Manet painters yesterday I mentioned Vermeer. Memling is another, of course, as is Cranach, and Durer, and Van Dyck are they all portraitists? Perhaps they are: portraits by these painters are particularly moving, perhaps because they conform to the proposition Eugenio dOrs presents, which I also mentioned yesterday, that Žrst-rate painting somehow balances (Ill use my own terminology here) formalism and expressivity.
(Well, a couple of other favorite painters come to mind here, and theyre not portraitists at all: Hercule Seghers, who has a delicious small landscape in the Thyssen-Bornemisza; and Jan Sanraedam, who is no more evident here in Madrid than is Vermeer.)
One of the problems with our usual understanding of concert music classical music, to use the misleading but universal term is that it is almost completely dominated by a German standard repertory that has swung far to the extreme of expressivity. You could argue that this was the Žrst example of a tendency thats set in among most of the performance arts: in Žlm, pop music, even in fashion, things are getting noisier and sexier and more violent with each passing season.
In the business of orchestral music one result has been the evolution of the huge symphony orchestra thats needed to play, say, a Mahler symphony; and all these people have to be paid, so audiences have to be correspondingly big, which means that machinery has to be set up to persuade potential audiences that its the big noisy music that they want to hear, which in turn means that they tend also to be persuaded that the subtler music, or the music from eras with other values than the big noise, are what they do not want to hear.
In my opinion the result is an increase in the violence of our society, which is not good. Violence is an understandable response to stress and complexity, but it is not a healthy or productive one. It exacerbates problems and makes more difŽcult their solution, instead of examining them and Žnding and instituting corrections. I suppose Francos Spaniards were right; an isolationist and nostalgic evasion of modern society is preferable to violence; but in todays world it is no longer possible.
So I say, let postmodern performance comment on the primitives; patiently allow technology to erode received values and thereby evolve the next steps in human cultures; rest now and then with a tourists nostalgia for the picturesque but dont neglect a sustained commitment to meeting the challenges of the real world. And be careful, you especially Charles, about too complacently insisting that others agree with you!
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Eastside Road, Healdsburg, March 7
You smell like Spain, Eric said, as we got into his car at the San Francisco Airport. Yeah, I said, sweat and stale cigarette smoke.
No, he said, its more than that, Ive often noticed it before, when people arrive from Spain, or when I land there theres a characteristic smell. Its partly sweat and cigarette smoke, but theres a certain perfume, something that means Spain.
Maybe. Id been wearing the same wool sportcoat, a Harris tweed, for a month. In normal weather it would have had a few days off, and maybe even a dry cleaning, but the weather was never normal. It had been C O L D . It was freezing when we left Madrid, Saturday morning; I stowed my topcoat wool, of course in its travel bag just before getting on the airplane. Otherwise it was wool sweater, wool sport coat, all the way home..
Wool, a little sweat, ham, cigarette smoke, and no doubt the scent of sherry I suppose there are those who would take offense at the combination, maybe even some of you reading this; but to me it had grown familiar and even somewhat pleasant, the smell of being alive and even enjoying myself. Paintings and music are Žne, but for intimate pleasures theres nothing like scents, fragrance, aroma. Alice B. Toklas named her second book Aromas and Flavors, and as a title its hard to beat.
Still, when I stepped out of Erics car to open our gate, stepped out into a night that while cool seemed positively balmy after this Spanish vacation, a deep night, no moon, plenty of stars overhead, and the scent of new green grass on the hillsides, the cattle sheds a mile to the south, the peach and plum and nectarine trees in bloom I was home. I could smell so many of the details: the shale on the road, the decomposed-granite patio, the damp teak patio table, the rosemary blossoms, the laurel tree when I brushed against it. Home.
Time to give you a roundup of hotels and restaurants and a few other comments. I give all telephone numbers in groups of three, though custom varies in Spain; called from outside Spain, they must be preceded by the country code, 34.
MADRID: Tourist information ofŽces are on Plaza Mayor and, nearer the Prado and the Atocha train station, on the Carrera de San Jeronimo. The most useful map proved to be Streetwise Madrid, one of those stiff plastic fold-out maps, best used in good light. We got about by walking and taking an occasional taxi (inexpensive).
Hotel: Hostal San Lorenzo, calle Clavel 8, ES 28004, Madrid; Tel: 915.213.057; Fax: 915.327.978; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org We stayed twice at this two-star hotel, in two different rooms. Room 105 was pleasant though cold at Žrst, taking an hour or two to warm up. Comfortable adjacent twin beds, short bathtub. Room 109 was similar but on an airshaft rather than on street, and noisy from a ventilator if the window was open. I could make dialup connections to the internet with my laptop. Breakfast here was okay but a little expensive for what you get (toast or croissant, coffee, orange juice); we took breakfast elsewhere after a day or two. The hotels a ten-minute walk from the important museums, the Puerta del Sol, and the Plaza Mayor. We would certainly stay there again. €75/day, higher at certain periods.
Restaurants: La Fuencisla, calle Augusta Figueroa, just east of calle Hortaleza. A small bar on the street; behind it the dining room, say eight tables, paintings crowding all the walls, a very traditional cuisine served to locals. A good idea to reserve: we didnt and were lucky to get a table on a Tuesday afternoon. Delicious sopa castiliana, cocido, good desserts, well chosen inexpensive house wine.
Restaurant Botin, calle Cuchilleros 17, tel. 913.664.217. The oldest restaurant in the (western) world, says the Guinness Book of Records, but well worth visiting. Dining rooms on three levels, from the tourist Siberia upstairs (but very pleasantly lit and spacious) to the grotto-like cellar. Garlic soup, green beans, roast beef, suckling pig, fresh pineapple, Žg ice cream, and a bottle of wine: €72. Yes yes.
El Cenador, Calle Prado 4, tel. 914.291.561; 914.291.549. Exceedingly posh interior and service; a place to take your time. Delicious leek-cheese tart, two orders of bacalao, two splendid desserts, and a half bottle of house-chosen wine (a very good white), €68. Id go back any time.
Restaurante La Trucha, calle M. F. Gonzalez. This is said to be outstanding for Žsh. I found it acceptable but no more; Lindsey liked it better. Dinner for two, €74.
Prado Museum Café is a good option for either a drink and pastry or a full lunch to break up a six-hour day in the museum. Not expensive, decent food.
Right next to the Hotel San Lorenzo is the Bar Vieja Casca, on the corner of Calle Clavel and Calle Infantas del Rey. Here I had some of the tastiest Serrano ham of the trip, and Manchego served drizzled with oil, and pleasant manzanillas and a Žne anis; and here we took our breakfasts. The atmosphere is marvelous.
Los Galayos, calle Botoneros 5: roast peppers stuffed with bacalao, brandade, particularly good suckling pig, torrone ice creams, an excellent Faustino Rioja: €82.05.
Café la Internacional, plaza Vazquez de Mella 11: manchego, chorizitos, pan tumaca, tarta, tea, water, wine: €36 for four.
ÁVILA: A manageably small city high in the mountains north of Madrid, quiet in the month of February, notable for its perfectly preserved walls, this proved to be well worth a days visit even if youre not particularly interested in St. Teresa of Avila. You dont really need guidebooks to enjoy her museum, the walls, or the idiosyncratic cathedral. Try to be there at twilight and, Im sure, off season, when the austerity and calm bring Italys Pienza to mind.
Hotel Restaurant Las Cancelas, Calle Cruz Vieja, 6 (05001) Ávila; tel. 920.212.249; fax 920.212.230; e-mail: email@example.com. A very attractive bedroom in a very attractive two-star hotel just a couple of minutes from the cathedral and inside the city walls. Dialup internet hookup possible. I would certainly stay there again. Breakfast was reasonable, and the restaurant looked pleasant though we didnt eat there, Id try it next time. €63 excluding breakfast.
Restaurant El Rasto is one of those enormous Spanish dining rooms, nearly empty the cold Friday we were there (admittedly at an early hour). A Žne meal here, quietly served by women (which is unusual) for €48, a bargain.
SALAMANCA: A university city full of life and youth, with perhaps the most beautiful public plaza in Europe, an amazing double cathedral, and enough unexpected pleasures to make a trip to the tourist ofŽce well worth while. This was our second visit and I could return for more.
Hotel Torre del Clavero, C/ Consuelo 21, Salamanca; tel. 923.280.410; fax 923.217.708; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, a very pleasant hotel, well centered a few minutes from the Plaza Mayor, with in-room ethernet high-speed internet connection. Two days: €175.
Restaurant: Bruin Café Erasmus. Amusing for being typisch Nederlands, except that there are no pannekoeken ; a very lively youth scene.
Restaurante Isidro, Pozo Amarillo, 17-19. A local hangout, says Rick Steves, with a nice bar and a long, well-lit dining room; very friendly service; and unmemorable but sound fare.
SEGOVIA: Famous for its castle, its cathedral tower, and its Roman acqueduct, this is a city that really offers little more to the tourist.
Hotel Infanta Isabel, Plaza Mayor 12; tel. 921.461.300. Very attractive lobby; very spacious but old-fashioned room with good bath; no internet connection possible. Restaurant looked attractive though we didnt try it. Good location at top of main pedestrian shopping street, heart of town, easy walk to castle and acqueduct, the two principal sights.
Restaurante Meson Cándida, Plaza Azoguejo, 5 : a very old, traditional, pleasant place, big comfortable dining room upstairs, amazingly cluttered with, among other things, currency from every country in the world diners apparently leave banknotes as a Kilroy-was-here gesture. Excellent what else? roast suckling pig.
Judería, calle Judería Vieja, 5: here you can have strange Sephardic cuisine, though we noticed the omnipresent Serrano ham in its chrome-plated ham-vise on a serving table, and here Lindsey had couscous, and I had something called markla hlua that turned out to be a Venetian kind of combination of meat scraps, rice, raisins, and nuts. And here I had the best dessert of our trip, dates, Žlled with almond cream, and accompanied by a mandarin-orange ice cream.
TOLEDO: Even off-season this town is Tourist Central, and I think I know why: El Greco. Youll want a guidebook here; there are many places to visit, lots of paintings to see, and centuries of history, some of it bloody indeed. Its a tiring walking town but a car will be no help at all. We gave Toledo a full day and two nights, and that was just about the right amount of time.
Hotel Pintor el Greco, Alamillos Del Transito,13, tel. 9188.8.131.52. Recommended by Rick Steves, this is a pleasant enough hotel but sited a bit off-center, near the city walls an easy walk to some sights, farther from others. For two nights, €112, with no internet possible.
Restaurante La Perdiz, Calle de los Reyes Católicos 7: another Rick Steves recommendation, so we thought wed test his judgment, and had a Žne meal in a rather plain, non-touristy dining room: migas del pastor (sautéed breadcrumbs which are very tasty); fresh tuna in a warm salad; medallions of venison; and Žne desserts: a Žg soup and dates with almond ice cream.
CÓRDOBA: This city is an absolute must for its Mezquita, one of the most amazing buildings in the world, a place that has to be experienced because photographs hardly convey its mysterious beauty. Many guidebooks completely ignore its Alcázar and the castle gardens, and thats a pity; Lindsey thinks this one of the great gardens she has seen.
Hotel Boston, calle Málaga 2, tel. 957.474.176; fax. 957.478.523; http://www.hotel-boston.com. Pleasantly situated on a large plaza a ten-minute walk from the Mezquita and Alcázar, but difŽcult of access, with stairs to the elevator, which can only be summoned by desk clerk in the second-floor lobby, and without internet access. We had three single beds in a our room, private bath, for €58.
Restaurant: On a previous visit we learned that the thing to do here is simply to eat tapas, and this time we had very quick and tasty ones at Taberna Rafael, Žnding it comletely by chance while walking from our hotel toward the Mezquita.
ANTEQUERA: No particular reason to visit this town, quite off the usual Andalucia Córdoba-Seville-Granada triangle; but the dolmens on the edge of town are moody and impressive; the cathedral has a magniŽcent carved-wood (and thankfully not gilded!) retablo; and the castle setting is pleasant to stroll.
Hotel: Here we simply went to the tourist ofŽce and took the cheapest one they mentioned; I dont recall the name or location. It was clean and convenient, with offstreet parking, and colder than all Billy-be-damned, with not a very good breakfast.
Restaurante El Escribano, bacalao orange and onion salad with wonderful lettuces, migas, Žne potatoes with the cutlets, beautifully made leche frita (fried cream; really a delicate but Žrm custard ): very good indeed, and in a beautiful setting up near the castle and cathedral.
ARCOS DE LA FRONTERA: a tourist center, one of the white towns in the Andalucia mountains. This must be unbearable in season; theres an enormous tour-bus parking lot on the outskirts. We liked the town principally for its Žne views out over the surrounding countryside.
Restaurante El Convento, Marques Torresoto 7: salad, garlic soup, partridge in almonds, pigeon, meatballs, flan, mousse, tocino, wine & water, €80.38.
RONDA: another tourist-town, famous for the terrifying stone bridge linking its two halves. Guidebooks tout a walk around the old part of town, architecturally interesting.
Restaurante Asador Casa Santa Pola, Santo Domingo, 3: fried goat cheese, a hearty and substantial grandmother soup, berenjenas, lomo, solomillo, pollo, three desserts, the requisite water and wine brought our tab to one of the highest on the trip: €128.93 for three people. But the dining room was handsome and comfortable, the service attentive, and the kitchen very competent.
TARIFA: One very rainy afternoon didnt really give us much of a chance to investigate this charming ancient town whose narrow, crooked streets keep suggesting youre somewhere else a small town on the French Riviera? Sardinia? Perhaps, as one of the guidebooks suggests, North Africa? Id go back in a minute on a dry day.
Hotel La Mirada, San Sebastián, 41; tel. 956.680.626; fax 956.681.162. Outside the walls, a twenty-minute walk from the beach, not quite so far from the center of the old city; no internet possible; clean and quiet; bad coffee get your breakfast elsewhere! Double room with extra bed, €60.
Restaurante Morilla, calle Antonia Maura 13: chicken soup, two salads, spaghetti bolognese, wine, water, and two desserts, €45 for three people a bargain. Not the best service, but crowded.
JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA: We went for the flamenco festival, but its famous also of course for its sherries, and a tour of Tio Pepes home is well worth its small ticket price.
Hotel Ávila, Calle Ávila 6 (I think), tel. 956.334.808, fax 956.334.807. Five-minuute walk from the center of town; no internet access; not a very good breakfast (though this iis unfair, as the power failed before it was served, stranding a couple of people in the elevator for a few minutes). Double room with extra twin bed, €69.
Restaurante Domecq el Gallo Azul, calle Larga 2: tapas for three at a table outside, including roast peppers, bacalao croquetas, tuna, a couple of Žnos, a Fanta, and a Žnal anis: €14.40. Another bargain, and delicious!
Bodega Gonzales Byass, Manuel Maria Gonzalez 12, this is the dining room at the end of the Tio Pepe tour, where our tapas included Žne ham and Manchego cheese and potato chips, a tenth of Fino, and a glass of sweet cream sherry for dessert, for €13.50
SEVILLA: the fourth-biggest city in Spain, about the size of San Francisco, deserves at least a week, a good map, and one or two good guidebooks. This was our second trip and I think I now have the hang of the city center, whose shopping and restaurants are rewarding. The Cathedral is my current favorite anywhere; the Alcázar is impressive and worth the entry price (as is its garden); and there are many other rewarding places to visit.
Hotel: We stayed in apartments on both our visits, the most recent one rented over the internet. I complained about it at length in these dispatches, but it was actually quite comfortable and very nicely situated; we just had to get used to heating bath water on the stove, and picking our way through construction debris in the street the latter no fault of the landlord.
Restaurants: Seville has a number of well-thought-of restaurants, but the most rewarding eating weve found is in the tapas bars, where the food is tasty and inexpensive and deceptively Žlling. The ones weve liked are:
Bodega Taberna Rafaé Deanes, where? : roasted peppers, patatas ali oli (creamy garlic sauce), fried anchovies, ham, bacalao, shellŽsh, water, wine, only one dessert: €28.28 for four persons.
Barbacoa Coloniales, calle Dormitorio 1: tapas papas brava, salmorejo c/hamon, eggs, croquetas, solomillo, pepper paté, calabacines, pepper ali oli, three wines, two Žnos, two waters, €26.85 for Žve persons.
La Sacristia, calle Mateo Gago: a great many tapas of bacalao, fried anchovies, shrimp, potatoes ali oli, drinks for all: €5.10 for four or Žve of us.
Toboso, calle Cano y Cueto near the Plaza ReŽnadores: this is a Žne little tapas bar with excellent tortilla (omelette) tapas and, Im told, even better little bocadillos (sandwiches) of ham and bacalao and smoked salmon. Nearby is the bigger and busier Bar Modesto. There are many other Žne tapas bars: Las Teresas, calle Santa Teresa 2, is one of my favorites.
The one real restaurant meal we had in Seville this time was at Enrique Becera, calle Gamazo virtually next door our apartment off the Plaza Nueva, where we had vegetables bound with eggs, green salad, roast lamb stuffed with spinach (me), merluzza and some other Žsh (them); and a tenth of Rioja Muga 01 (delicious!). Very expensive! As I say, your best bet in Seville is the tapas.
Spain photo page
These letters were Žrst sent as e-mail dispatches to a group of friends,
for whose patience and interest I am truly grateful.