Spain May 2018: following the conquistadores and Cervantes

Dear Friends: A week or so ago we were in Cuenca, Spain, where I looked for a trace of the Spanish conquistadores who in 1557 gave Cuenca, Ecuador its name. According to legend, those guys were marching north after conquering the Incas in Peru when they got the order to establish a city. They came to a place that reminded them of home (which most would never see again) and called it Cuenca. But here in Spain, in this gorgeous UNESCO city, I find nothing that connects the dots other than dramatic landscape and converging rivers (and the unrelated fact that the very modern archive is in the medieval inquisition building, with torture cells in the basement. That’s the archive in the photo above. It is an entirely different matter in the small hill town of Trujillo, a few hours to the southwest and variously described in the guidebooks – without a trace of irony – as: “where twenty American nations were conceived,” and “the cradle of the conquistadors.” A little over 500 years ago, a young man called Francisco Pizarro left Trujillo on his first trip to the New World. He was somewhere in his 20’s, the illegitimate son of an infantry colonel and a “woman of poor means,” but acknowledged by his father. After several expeditions around Panama with Francisco de Orellano, another homeboy, Pizarro landed on the coast of Peru in 1528 and began the terrible business of conquering the Inca Empire. He died in Cuzco in 1541, but Trujillo has never forgotten their local “heroes.” The town is choc-a-bloc with statues (there’s Pizarro on the left), and plaques on enormous stone buildings that say “Palacio of Francisco de Orellano, discoverer of the Amazon,” and the “Museo de Francisco Pizarro, discoverer of Peru.”

I was particularly interested in visiting Trujillo because Orellano and all four Pizarro brothers were born here. All left for the riches of the New World and one of them, Gonzalo, ended up “owning” our land in Cañar for his services in helping conquer the Incas. His older half-brother Francisco made him governor of Quito and gave him extensive land grants, among them “the territory of the Cañaris and all the natives within it.” I’ve actually seen a facsimile of the document (not it below, but maybe one like it?)

Gonzalo’s putative job was to convert these “natives” to Catholicism, of course, but according to history he was one of the most corrupt, brutal and ruthless conquistadors. And like all the Pizarro brothers but one – he died a violent death, beheaded in 1548 by the Spanish king’s forces in Quito when he refused to support new laws to protect the indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, Francisco lost his head in Cuzco, the result of infighting with another conquistador, Diego de Almagro (not from Trujillo, apparently.)

Today, this small city of less than 10,000 is a lovely tourist destination largely because of the conquistadors’ grand palaces (now museums, municipal buildings, and hotels), and churches still gilded with gold beyond belief. All built on the fabulous riches plundered in 16-17th century South America. (I should also mention that Trujillo has amazing cheeses and chorizos and wines, located as it is on the dry hot plain of Extremadura.)

Here we had a wonderful 3-night stay in the small Hotel Baciyelmo owned by a delightful Dutch and Brazilian couple, Herman and Carla. It took a few discussions and additional reading to figure out that “baci-yelmo” is a compound word referring to a debate in the book Don Quijote where the beloved main character insists that a basin (baci) is a helmet (yelmo) to keep out the rain, while other characters insist it is nothing by a basin. Don Quijote’s sidekick Sancho Panza tries to settle the argument, and thus the word, baciyelmo, has come to be “a symbol of a courageous … attitude to unite two opposing worlds: fiction and reality.”

There it is! I’ve had a really hard time writing this blog, working off and on and giving up, but this quote perfectly captures my dilemma: I’m trying to write about the long-past reality of the violent invasion and subjugation of entire New World cultures – the effects still very much felt today – while we are enjoying the lovely reality, generosity and gastronomy of present-day Spain (and now Portugal, where I’ve finally had a free day to struggle to the end with this blog).

It was Carla and Herman who told us about O Facho, a hotel in a tiny coastal corner of Portugal where we are the only guests in a 40-room hotel built in 1910. O Facho (or lighthouse back when it was actually a fire built on the cliff that served as a light beacon for ships) owned by Jorge and Elsa, a taciturn couple who mysteriously glide along the hallways turning on a wall sconce at exactly the right time, adjusting the classical music in the dining room or appearing by the fire in the bar to offer a beer or wine. Jorge – many years in Canada as immigrant Portuguese family before coming back 38 years ago and buying “this ruin” and restoring it while keeping its old-world charm. And Elsa – who reveals nothing but is younger and serves breakfast without a word. Pure peace – no credits cards, no TV, no shampoo, no body lotion, no website… (But I will happily reveal the email address for anyone who asks…)

 

In between Trujillo and here we have been to Evora, Portugal, a gem of a small city with loads of Roman ruins, where we had a wonderful meet-up with my sister Char and husband Fred. And then Lisbon, where we coincidently and briefly met up with good friends Andrew and Claire from London. But in Lisbon, what I think of as the “Seville Syndrome” happened: we just never got our bearings. Wrong hotel in a shabby neighborhood, confusion on the Metro that left us on opposite sides of the turnstile (“one person, one ticket” the guard kept saying as I gestured desperately), train tickets out of a diabolical machine that took too long to get and took us too far, a closed museum after a long bus ride on the evening of “International Night of Museums,” and missteps in finding good food. Oh well, this happens once or twice every trip and we are accepting (which is  not to say that Michael doesn’t complain…)

Now we ready for the last stage of our month’s travel on our way back to Madrid for our flight home to Portland on May 31. Two nights in Viseu (“one of Portugal’s best-kept secrets”), and in Spain a stop in Salamanca (“most magnificent main square in Spain”). Then we will be will back to Madrid and at our beloved Hostal Dulcinea on Calle Cervantes, down the street from the house where Miguel Cervantes died in 1616, and around the corner at the  where he was interred at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, with morning coffee downstairs at the cafe owned by Alfredo from Peru who will greet us with a kiss on each cheek. It all comes together in wonderful ways.

Christians and Moors, Romans, Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths (and more) in Northern Spain

Dear Friends: As I begin writing this final post from Spain early one morning, church bells are ringing, signaling the start of the Fiesta de San Antonio – same patron saint as in Cañar. The name of this beautiful little town, Cangas de Onís, is puzzling. Even the woman at the tourist office has to Google it to tell us that its Latin origin is “mountains surrounding water” or maybe, she says, “water surrounded by mountains.” True in both cases. Oh, those pesky Romans – they were everywhere, spreading their language and religion, naming places and building bridges! They came to Spain about 200 BC and stayed for 700 years. Then the Moors arrived from northern Africa, conquered Spain, built their beautiful structures and lived peacefully with everyone – Jews, Christians, Gypsies, Goths, Visigoths and Ostrogoths (I’ve been Googling, can’t you tell? And excuse me for mixing up a bit of history.)

Here’s the view from our hotel, appropriately called Puente Romano (both the bridge and hotel). Look closely and you’ll see the cross hanging from the peak of the Gothic arch with and A for Alpha and O for Omega – the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. It’s meaning, as Michael-raised-Baptist explains is: When Jesus said, “I am the alpha and omega, he meant his God was the beginning and the end.

Later, I visit the small Roman Catholic chapel of Santa Cruz, built in 737 to honor the “cross that re-conquered Spain.” It was here in Cangas de Onís, apparently, where the Christians began the long series of wars and battles to kick out the muselmanes. That took another 700 years.

Typically, this chapel was built on top of a pre-Christian sacred site, a burial mound maybe 3000 years old, over a perfectly preserved burial stone, or dolmen, that one can see through a glass window in the floor.

The plaque also mentions that the chapel was destroyed in 1936 and rebuilt in 1943, an oblique reference to the Spanish Civil War. Being a tourist in Spain you would hardly know the war had happened – I happened to see a postcard in the museum at tourist office of this town after it was bombed. The war is never mentioned in official literature, and only by the dates can one read between the lines.

As I read the plaque, I was reminded how things have not really changed that much in 2000 years. Repeated conquests, wars, repression, inquisition, one group building on top of the sacred site of another. Later today we visit a monumental example. A few miles from Cangas, the Basilica de Santa Maria was built in 19th century adjacent to a holy cave. Reading THAT plaque I see a priest died in 1936  “a martyr”  another reference to the civil war when many priests were killed in the first few years. 

It was here, as we made the long walk up the zig-zag road to the Basilica that I saw my favorite “desire path” of the day. A perfect example where walkers have stepped over the wall and walked around the fence to take a shortcut between a zig and a zag. We took the shortcut down and had a picnic lunch 

The same day, we made the hair-raising drive (along with mini-buses and tour buses) on a near-one lane winding road high into the mountains to the Lagos de Covadango, where we saw almost as many cows as tourists. The different sounds of their bells made that trip worthwhile, though the site was just too overrun by tourists to feel special (the cows didn’t seem to mind, and they ruled the roads). 

I close this blog in Madrid, where it is 97F today, and 100F tomorrow. Time to leave for New York, where we’ll spend a few days before heading home to Portland. It’s been a good month, our best in Spain these last few years because of the weather. This time we got lucky – four weeks of glorious long days, endless servings of pulpo a la gallega (octopus served warm, often on top of sliced potatoes, with paprika, olive oil and coarse salt), many picnics with jamón y queso and these tasty flat peaches, mountains galore, small hotels, good beds, wonderful folks. We’re already planning our trip back next year.Meanwhile, I think the broken link for comments has been fixed – so please stay in touch. I love to hear from you.

Desire Paths, in Spain and elsewhere

Dear Friends: this morning I was ready to go back to my first Spain Chronicle, after my website was hacked a week or so ago (more on that later), but first I checked the Guardian news and saw the terrible events in London yesterday – where seven people were killed on London Bridge when run down by terrorists in a van and others stabbed. I was further horrified to see Portland, Oregon sharing the front page with an article about a white supremacist who a week ago, on a city train, fatally stabbed two men and injured another after they came to the aid of two young women being subjected to anti-Muslim racial abuse. What is happening to our world? Our own world. Three days ago we were in London and enjoying a night tour with friends near the London Bridge. In little more than two weeks, we will be at home in Portland, where a rally is to be held today, Sunday, June 4, to mark the deaths of the two men. White supremacist groups called the Oath Keepers say they will attend the rally to “provide security” and the chair of the city’s Republican party told the Guardian he was considering contacting groups like these to provide security for party events.

Although in the face of all this it seems superficial to be writing about our trip to Spain, I will go back to where I left off a week ago, when this was the title on my website:  . And when I tried to log in I got this encouraging note: The explanation from my Portland website host was just about as mystifying, but at least they’ve put me back in business. Desire paths – the title of this chronicle. I’m a fan of Spitalfields Life, a daily blog by “the gentle author” in East End London who writes daily about past and the present – working class people, markets, historic buildings threatened with demolition, parks, cemeteries, spring flowers, and cats. A couple of days ago he wrote about “desire paths” – user-created pathways between the shortest or most easily navigated way, often in defiance of authority or established sidewalks. I was captured by the idea, both as metaphor and by our lives; I love to cut across fields (and gingerly climb over an electric fence as we did yesterday), step off the concrete to walk on that parallel path, or just bushwhack between our trail and that one on the other side of the ravine (that recently got us into trouble).

Today – Sunday, June 4, we are in a small town of Panes (pa-nays) in the Picos de Europa, a mountainous area in the north of Spain, in Asturias. At the moment it feels just like Cañar – cloudy, raining, 57 degrees F, and we are huddled in our rural hotel room with the picnic bought for our walk today. Which will now be a picnic in our room:  Michael worried about leaving crumbs in the room so to cut the bread he stepped out onto the balcony, where it looks like this. Those are high mountains in the distance, covered by clouds. Tomorrow we’ll drive through them to a place called Cabrales (of stinky cheese fame).During our first two weeks in Spain, however, the weather was glorious. Madrid – Bilbao – Pamplona – Bilbao – Asturias. Last time I was in Pamplona was in 1968, on my first trip to Europe with my two sisters – a graduation present from our parents. All I remember of Pamplona is a campground with many others looking like us – long hair, short skirts, VW campers – (were we camping too? I don’t remember), but certainly oblivious to the fact that we were in Franco’s Spain. Just as we had been oblivious to the strikes in Paris where we had been that June, or later in July to the military government that ruled Greece. In other words – we were American flower girls, not quite mindless but certainly unaware of events in the rest of the world. The photo alongside was not us then, but maybe seven years ago at the wedding of nephew Alex and Elena. I’d never seen the photo until last week when it popped up on FB. That’s Char, happy mother of groom, in middle; Sherry on left, me on right.

Anyway, I am wanting to say that in Spain this time we are following “desire paths” – no fixed itinerary, no tours, no guides, just going where our serendipitous wayfinding takes us. In Pamplona, I discovered the Archivo General de Navarra and talked to an archivist, Diego. When I asked about the oldest document in the archive, he deadpanned “1000 years” – and brought it up on the screen.The building itself is from the 12th century, refurbished and sensitively modernized by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. A dream of a building for those lone-arranger archivists like yours truly.

We loved Pamplona for the street life and parks and ramparts we walked that encircled the city, outdoor eating, and yes, Michael, we loved the hams too.In the area of Asturias where we are now, coastal Llanes and inland, we saw these fantastic overly-large, overly-rich and mostly empty houses that don’t fit in with the rest of local architecture. Turns out they were built by Indianos, the general term for the hundreds of thousands of poor from northern Spain who migrated to Latin America in the 19th and early 20th century – Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Mexico. Some returned rich to build grand colonial-style houses in their home village and plant the signature palm tree. (All the photos below from the small town of Llanes.)   

We were fascinated by this story because it is so familiar to us from southern Ecuador, where in the past 30 years hundreds of thousands have migrated to the U.S. or Europe, sending money home to build over-sized, brightly-colored, and often empty, houses. (I guess bright colors were not the mode for Spanish emigrants.)

That’s about it for now. I’ll end with two photos from Llanes and our last beautiful weather day, when we walked along the coast and had our first picnic of the trip. Michael shopped hard for that ham – bellota – cut by hand “with the bone in.” No machine-sliced ham for us!  Please stay in touch – I love hearing from you all. 

 

Happenings elsewhere

Dear Friends:  You’ll note by the header image that my horizon has recently expanded beyond Cañar. As far north as Quito, where I spent several days last week in happenings related to both archive/business and pleasure. Pleasure first: a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright Commission in Ecuador. When the evite that came a few weeks ago said: “cocteles between 7:00-9:00″ I imagined a circulate-and-chat event with wine and cheese bits and maybe a few words from the Commission director, Susana Cabeza de Vaca. When the locale on the evite said “Convento Santo Domingo” I imagined a smallish space – maybe the refectory – where nuns had once lived and shared their meals in silence. And when, the week before, an email came from Susana asking if I would speak “for five minutes” about what my Fulbright grants have meant for my life and work, I imagined a stand-up, informal, shout-out with cocktail glasses in hand. So I made a reservation at a nearby hotel for the night of the event, packed a skirt that I’ve never worn in chilly Cañar, my best Goodwill-find French top, espadrilles from Spain as good shoes, and Mom’s pearl and silver necklace made by my nephew Demian. The first surprise was the locale of the event – no austere convent this but a grand church built by Dominican friars in 1581, with Moorish ceilings, wood carvings, a gold and silver altar along with an adjoining monastery and beautiful formal gardens. The church sits on the southeast side of the Plaza Santo Domingo where, with sweet symmetry, Michael and I stayed when we first arrived in Quito in 1991. (We were robbed on the street the next day.) Because the evening was raining and cold and churches and monasteries are not known for their warmth, I gave up the idea of the skirt and espadrilles and put on pants, double socks, no-nonsense shoes, jacket and wrapped a silk ikat shawl for a touch of finery.The next surprise was the crowd! For over an hour about two hundred and fifty invited guests filed into the cloister entrance, dressed in suits and evening wear, and lined up to greet director Susana before being escorted into the church. I began to suspect that I was not in Kansas anymore when I was told to sit in a front “reserved” row and saw a podium on the altar with stage lighting. “Are we speaking up there?” I asked a friend from Cuenca I’d not seen for years who sat beside me, Francisco Salgado. Yes. He too was to speak as an Ecuador Fulbrighter who is now president of a university. As the audience was still gathering, I had time to walk up to meet the master of ceremonies and check the light on the podium, as I would read my little five-minute talk. “Here’s the program,” he said, “first Susana speaks about the history of the Fulbright program, then the American ambassador, then the mayor of Quito, then Doctora (so-and-so), then the Government Minister (of something or other), then I’ll introduce YOU.

The next surprise. The “five-minute talks” were way longer – some honorees read nervously, while others extemporized charmingly. Susana Cabeza de Vaca spoke of the “Fulbright family” of 3000 Ecuadorian grantees since the program began 60 years ago. Much beloved for her dedication, she was given a lifetime award from U.S. ambassador Todd Chapman, who also made a gift of $50,000 to the Commission for projects in Ecuador.

I kept sneaking a look at my little speech, which my Quito friend Marta had edited in Spanish. Everyone else had started by greeting all the dignitaries, one by one and by name. No way I could manage that. “Buenas noches todos,” would have to do. As the program progressed I realized I was there to represent those US Fulbrighters who had come from the north, I being the poster child of one who had stayed and made a life here. I sat waiting nervously, wearing black wool gloves; our breezy “reserved bench” was directly in line with the open archway to the garden. Then I was introduced, removed my gloves, took a deep breath, mounted the podium, squinted into the lights, and began: “Buenas Noches todos!”

Finally, a priest from this grand church gave a short talk and benediction, reminding us that the Dominicans have been around for 800 years, they too dedicated to education. This very monastery complex was, in fact, the first university in Quito, Universidad de Santo Tomas. The genial Spanish priest was wearing a vestment and cape that looked much like this image from Wikipedia.

Whew! It was about 9:30 when we were finally invited out into the colonnade around the garden (still rainy and cold) for the promised “coctel” – and a toast by the ambassador. Ah, a glass of wine at last. A second glass of wine at last. OK, one more and that’s it! My hotel was only steps away and everyone was so charming and here was the circulating and chatting that I’d imagined. It was a wonderful event and I was happy to be a part of it. Great thanks to my good Quito friend, Marta Alban, who made my speech better, to Ana Maria and Ted, who hosted me the first two days, and to all other colleagues and new friends whom I met around the archive project. I’ll write more on that next time AND get back to the Cañar Book Club.

Meanwhile, there’s another pressing subject:We are in the midst of a national election in Ecuador – voting on February 19 – and, other issues aside, it is refreshing that the campaign only started a couple of weeks ago – in Cañar at least – with a few trucks circulating with speakers blaring and party flags flying. I’ve seen one party office in town, and no doubt there’s radio and television coverage that Michael and I know nothing about, although we will both be voting. There are six candidates for president, replacing Rafael Correa a “populist-but-increasingly-authoritarian” figure who has been in office nearly ten years now. Which is not to say his party, Alianza Pais, is going away anytime soon. The candidate favored to win is Lenin Moreno, who served as vice president from 2007 to 2013 and has since been special envoy to United Nations on disability and accessibility. A shooting in1998 left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. (He’s on far right in the graphic above.) You’ll notice a woman in the line-up: Cynthia Viteri, who the polls tell us is in second place. Her central-right Christian Social party promises to make 800,000 new jobs by stimulating production activity along the Colombian and Peruvian borders. OK! Lenin Moreno only promises 200,000 jobs, but says he’ll improve the living conditions of senior citizens through a program called “My Best Years.” Come on!  Bottom line: Michael and I have some serious research to do before we decide on our votes. More details next time. Until then, stay in touch. I love hearing from everyone.

Grabado 1743, Banco Central del Ecuador. 
  

 

Spain 2016: Granada

towersDear Friends: It’s amazing how many of you responded to my first Spain blog. Either (1) you are in Spain right now but far away and it’s too bad we can’t meet up, (2) you are coming to Spain soon and maybe we will cross paths, or (3) you have been here recently with suggestions for where to go and what to see. Thanks to everyone – we are following many of your suggestion and, as it turns out, we will coincide in Madrid the end of the month with a dear friend we’ve not seen in more than twenty years.lush + michaelGranada: as our taxi sped through and left behind the centro historico, past charming winding streets, impressive churches and inviting cafes, museums and convents, and started up a big hilll we were sure we’d made a mistake with our hotel. Didn’t we want to be down here with the action, near all the good wine, jamon serrano and tasty cheeses? I could feel Michael tensing beside me, but held back from saying anything because I had made all the arrangements. And yes, although our Hotel Guadalupe turned out to be up there with the Alhambra, an efficient little mini-bus ran to town every five minutes. We walked down every evening and took the bus up. And since the Alhambra is vast and exhausting and impossible to see at any one time, we could retreat to our room and rest before going back out into the fray.
P1130733And fray it was!  About 7,000 people visit the Alhambra every day, and although the tourism folks have done a pretty good job of crowd control – only allowing a certain number into the most popular sites at any one time – huge tours with “whisper guides” –  speaking softly into a mic to groups of 40-50, each person with a receiver around the neck and in their collective ears. Flocks and gagglescoveys and throngs, And nearly everyone with cameras, phones and selfie sticks, making postcard poses. We simply skipped some rooms of the main sites – such as the emir’s palace with 150-foot ceiling, but there was so much to see we were happy to wander the gardens and other areas.P1130864We had expected southern Spain to be dry and hot and spare, but it is the opposite, at least this time of year. This being May, the fruits trees were in bloom – especially the wonderful orange trees – though M. and I tried one of the big oranges that plop to the ground and they are sour! –  and every inch of the Alhambra and adjoining area is lush and landscaped with flowers and trees – even the forest all around the hill that feels wild but is surely not.

P1130839Of course, the secret is water, water, everywhere, with the source obvious from the balcony of our room: the Alpujarra Mountains in the distance. In fact, the day of our scheduled visit to the Alhambra it was about 50 degrees – cold, gusty, rainy – and by the end of the afternoon the mountains were covered in snow.

Michael, the plumber, loved the waterways and waterworks: canals, springs, streams and fountains and sometimes water burbling up in the middle of a room. He inspected them with interest and was amazed that most are gravity-fed. But not all, though we never saw or heard a pump. P1130755  P1130853P1130854 P1130855P1130849

A final surprise: cats, everywhere. Roaming In the palaces along with the tourists, creeping around in the gardens, sunning themselves on plazas, and clearly a home in the forests. At first, I thought they were feral cats, but here they are placidly hanging around crowds of people in one of the squares, hoping for scraps of bread and ham and cheese. P1130872

We left Granada and the Alhambra with questions that gave rise to an idea for a new kind of guidebook. Michael came up with the name: The Back Side of Spain. It would answer such questions as How many gardeners are employed maintaining La Alhambra? What does the underground plan of the waterworks look like? How many cats live there? Are there efforts to control their population? I so, how? Are they fed or do they survive on tourists’ scrapes and mice?

So, on to Jerez for some sun and sherry (thanks, Pat, for that suggestion). But now whenever we ask a weird question we’ll wish we had that guide, The Back Side of Spain.