Spain, May 2016: Sevilla

alcazar wall & cathedral towerAs we leave Sevilla on the bus for our next destination, I read the tourist brochures and study the map and make a list of all the important sites we did not visit. This is an essential part of the Backside Guide to Spain – marking the famous sites you don’t see and dividing them into those you regret and those you don’t. (Maybe our tagline should be The Backside of Spain Means No Regrets?)crowds alcazar 2In our case, among the famous sites we did not (see the inside of) in Sevilla was the Alcázar (long lines and large tour groups waiting hours in the hot sun; and we’d already seen the Alhambra); the Cathedral and Giraldo Tower (ditto, plus it’s so huge we couldn’t find the main door – so I made a drawing instead).P1140034

Our grand problem with Sevilla was never getting our bearings. In five days, every time we left or returned to our hotel in the labyrinthian streets of the old quarter, we had to consult the map, and we still got lost. (The image below captures perfectly our confusion.) Or rather maps, plural, as Michael and I each had our favorites, which we guarded jealously and argued over endlessly, Michael complaining bitterly that none were oriented to North. By the last days he was carrying his compass (we still argued). We were not alone – comically, the streets in the old town were full of tourists like us with heads down over maps, gesturing and arguing and walking off in different directions. Sevilla 2

One night we got so helplessly lost that even the maps didn’t help – plus the minuscule type was impossible to read in the dim light. It was after midnight, but we’d been to the opera and were in excellent spirits, so we argued just a little as we spun around in the Plaza de Museo, and then asked for help. A passing señor pulled out his phone and quickly showed us our mistake and how to retrace our steps. (BTW: I will never come to Spain again without a smart phone.)

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Seville is so full of old art and architecture that no matter where we went in our head-spinning wanderings we were surrounded by ancient history. First came the Romans (we saw Roman ruins and mosaics circa 200 BC, discovered by an underground parking construction project in 1990); then the Visigoths invaded from Germany (we never found their style). Christians took over in the first century, but then the Moors invaded from northern Africa in the 7th century and settled in for several centuries to build marvels, still in evidence because when the Christians came back with a vengeance in the 10th century (the re-conquest) they converted the mosques and palaces and towers into churches and palaces. This preserved Moorish art and architecture and the juxtaposition of the two culture has been the most interesting part of our trip.

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So what else did we enjoy of the backside of Sevilla? For me, the highlight was visiting the Archivo General de Indias, right between the Alcazar and Cathedral but with very few visitors. I’d heard about it before we came – it’s where all the documents of the conquest of South America are kept – but I’d been told that to gain access I would need special documents, authentication, recommendations and so on. So my only hope was to simply see the place.

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me archiveThe first day we waltzed right into the old archive, housed in one of those Spanish palaces, built by Queen Isabela for the merchants to keep all the records of the plundering of the New World, and saw a great exhibit, La Frigata de la Mercedes, about a Spanish Armada ship loaded with gold and silver coming from South America and sunk by the British in 1804 as it approached Cadiz, Spain. Two hundred years later, American treasure hunters found the ruins, hauled a half million silver and gold coins and other treasure back to Florida. Spain brought a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court and was settled in its favor. Spain hauled everything back here (my guess is not everything, given the American guys got there first) and the Archivo de Indias exhibited the story in all its splendor, including a mirrored room with the gold and silver coin.silver:gold coinWhen I asked about the present-day archive, I was told to come back the next day to another building around the corner with (1) identification (2) a graphic pencil and (3) A4 sheets of plain white paper, folded in half. That was all I could take into the archive. Thrilled, I showed up as instructed and was vetted, photographed, given and ID and password and shown by a very patient archivist how to use the digital archive.

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The Museum of Science was another off-the-tourist-trail find. It was in the Peru Pavillion from the 1929 Expo, Spain’s extravagant effort to join the 20th century, filled with stone alpacas and mosaics of Inca designs. The entire building was covered in black netting, giving it a macabre feeling, countered by ecstatic school kids screaming with delight at the exhibit of “Excreta y pedos” (shit and farts). Although M. enjoyed that one too, we were there to see Inventos de Leonardo Da Vinci, twelve genius designs realized in wooden models, including the bicycle, helicopter, flying machine (with nod to the Wright Brothers, centuries ahead),  parachute, military tank with spiky wheels and iron balls on chains that whirl around to take off heads, paddlewheel boat, and a prototype of the portable Bailey Bridge, which we’ve seen used in emergencies several times in Latin America.Da Vinci bicycleEvery government building in Sevilla seems to be in a 15th-18th-century palacio, hospital, convent, tower or pavilion, with the exception of the bus station, where we approached from the back side yesterday to buy our tickets for our next trip. And this morning, having a quick coffee in the station, we saw a news crawl on the TV saying Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Hurrah! This will give our eventual winner, Hillary, something to chew on as she polishes her platform.back side bus station

A last word for two friends we were delighted to meet up with in Sevilla: Pedro Cantaro and Javier Andrade. Both first known four years ago in Cañar, where we crossed paths one day when I was documenting the opening of a community tourism project, and they were working on a book of photographs, Los Ecuatorianos. At lunch near our hotel, Pedro introduced us to some of the best food we’ve had in our four days of wandering the streets of Sevilla, and that evening Michael and I passed by the gallery where Pedro and Javier were teaching a photography class and they gave me a copy of their book. I hope we meet again one day.lunch 1

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.

Spain, May 2016

P1130805Dear Friends; We came to Spain a few days ago on an eleven-hour, non-stop flight from Guayaquil to Madrid. With us on the huge, cramped Iberia plane was a French search and rescue team, part of the United Nations’ INSARAG that provides international coordination in earthquake response. The men had just spent ten days in Puerto Viejo, the coastal city most affected by the 7.8 earthquake two weeks ago, a somber reminder of the devastation that has left so many lives and homes destroyed while we take off for a month’s vacation. The men were dressed in their bright red and blue uniforms, heavy boots, helmets, with badges and such. They were treated as heroes and given the roomy exit seats, two of them across and slightly ahead of us (sitting in middle 4-seat rows), so I had many hours to stare at their handsome Gallic profiles and wonder at the terrible things they had seen. (The search for bodies was given up after about a week, when the death toll reached over 650). Interestingly, the men near us were more middle-aged, in good shape to be sure, but not young. At the Madrid airport, they hustled into the “in transit” line for their flight to France while we joined the “exit, non-EEU” line.

P1130608This is our fourth trip to Spain but the first time we’ve actually left the airport in Madrid.  Previously, we passed right through to reach other destinations, but this time,we planned to spend four days in Madrid before taking off for points south. And we were not disappointed, beginning with our accommodations at the Hostal Dulcinea on Cervantes street. In this old neighborhood of narrow winding streets, where Miguel Cervantes, of Don Quijote fame, lived and died, as de Lope Vega, a 16th century scribbler and womanizer who is adored by the Spanish and whose house and garden has been lovingly reconstructed. Thank you our friend, Padre Manuel, for recommending this place. José and María return your greetings.P1130596P1130599   P1130650After four months of local Cañar fare, we were very ready for new tastes and flavors and wines and beers. So – ignoring past experience – we went right out immediatly on arrival and had a big plate of pulpo a la gallega (warm octopus, with potatoes, pimenton, olive oil) and two glasses of wine and beer each.  In Cañar it would have been about 10:00 AM, and that, combined with jet lag, meant a weird night, with my body puzzled about where it was and what was happening. But after a couple of days we adjusted, and last night we went back for more (pulpo that is).P1130660While our barrio de letras was human scale and intimate, the Madrid art museums are outsized and overwhelming. The Prado, where I last visited in the hazy past of 1968, with my two sisters, has expanded to become a small city of art. We started in the Valazquez wing, and didn’t get much beyond, a testament to his prodigious output as much as to our limited stamina. But we loved what we saw, drifting through the galleries with flocks of tourists on guided tours – sometimes up to 50 or 60 in a gaggle. We did better the next day, at the Thyssen Collection, although after the 20th century modern I had to retreat to our hotel for a nap and return to see the rest. Another thing I like: museums stay open until 7:00.P1130699As I write this we are on the bus to Granada (first photo above) – five easy hours, and for the past hour nothing but olive trees marching up hillsides, around mountains, and across plains. Industrial agriculture to be sure, but the scene is lovely – rows of light olive green against reddish soil, with backdrop of cloudy sky (see the reflection of driver on left side?).P1130729 The first three days Madrid, with bright sun and warmth, lulled us into thinking we’d hit the good weather, as did half the population of the city, out in the streets and squares and sidewalk cafes. Yesterday and today: chilly and rain and everyone disappeared, with more rain coming for our visit to the Alhambra in Granada. Stay tuned, more to come…