Mallorca: Planes and Trains

Mallorca: Planes and Trains

“Wake me up when it’s time to go,” GF said. “And don’t bother me until then.”

She bundled up her jacket and her scarf, and laid down on the plastic airport seats to sleep. I was sitting nearby, reading my kindle. It was very early. Horribly early. We had a flight at 8:30; our boarding call was at 8:00, but we had already gotten through security by 6:20. We had a lot of time to kill.

On the advice of locals here, we’d taken a cab instead of the subway, since the subway doesn’t start running until 6:00 every morning. It was €30 for a ten minute ride. This struck me as seriously overpriced; and indeed, it almost canceled the good deal we had gotten on airfare.

Our destination was Mallorca. We weren’t going because either of us particularly wanted to go. Indeed, neither of us knew anything at all about Mallorca (GF didn’t even know it was an island). We’d booked the flights because they were cheap on Ryanair: €15 each way. With airfare that low, you’re crazy not to go, wherever it is. But the catch was that both flights, there and back, were so early in the morning that it was impossible to get to the airport with public transportation. Think about this next time you book a flight.

I thought it would take an hour to get through security. It took five minutes. We didn’t even have to check in, since I’d done that online. An hour and a half stretched out before our groggy, sleep-deprived eyes; and since GF was sleeping, it was my job to stay awake. Lucky for me I’d just started a good book: James Michener’s Iberia, a gigantic travelogue of his time in Spain. It is more than just a travelogue, though, for Michener includes a cornucopia of historical information about Spain. I was riveted, and thus had no trouble staying awake despite my sleep deprivation. (I don’t sleep much during the week.)

I read and I read, completely unaware of my surroundings, until a loud noise caught my attention. I looked up to see two Asian tourists, both young men, yelling at the Ryanair staff in English. The staff were telling the tourists that one of their bags was too big and they had to pay a fee to check it in.

“But I picked this bag specifically, because of the information on your website!” one of them bellowed. “This is bullshit!”

The staff responded with something inaudible, prompting some loud cursing from the men. Then, one of them kicked the bag-measuring thingie (you know, one of those things that have a metal box and say “If you bag fits in here, it’s free!” on it). I was afraid there would be a fight, but the other man calmed his friend down. This didn’t stop both of them from yelling more curses in shrill voices before they boarded the airplane in a huff. The staff responded, from what I can tell, in a professional and composed manner. I felt bad for both parties. It’s an awful feeling when a company has you by the balls and can ask you to pay whatever it wants, but it’s also peevish and mean to yell at workers for something outside of their control.

Finally it was time for us to board. I woke GF, and the two of us got on line. This was the first time either of us had flown in Europe since our arrival, five months ago. People had told me that Ryanair nickel and dimes you with fees and rules. “Read the fine print carefully,” a friend told us. The affair with the two men only reinforced this idea in my mind. So I was a bit nervous as the man came to examine our bags and to check our tickets. But we got on the plane without a problem.

The plane was of medium size, big enough for 100 passengers. As befitting a budget airline, everything was bare and functional. The seats were plain rubber. There was no pouch on the seatbacks, there was no monitor to play a safety video, no nothing. But when you’re paying €15 a flight you can’t complain.

The plain taxied and took off right on time. Lucky for me, I had a window seat. It was a clear and sunny day, and the view of Madrid was incredible. I could see everything, every major building, every park and monument. The last time I had seen this view, I was arriving here for the first time. I remember getting off the plane, feeling lost and confused. “What are we doing here?” GF and I said to each other as we walked through the airport, jet-lagged and overwhelmed. I remember in particular that I was terrified of being pickpocketed, so I was something of a nervous wreck as I went through the Madrid-Barajas airport, clutching my bags with an iron grip, anxiously looking for a taxi. Everything was so foreign then, so absolutely new and scary.

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I was looking out the plane’s window at the same city, except it was now familiar to me. It was home, and it was a beautiful place to call home. I felt how far I had come in the last few months. Change is so gradual that it’s often hard to notice; but it’s moments like these, when a circuit is complete, that allow you to feel the passing days and months in your bones. So much has happened in such a short time, and I felt it. Not only that, but I felt how lucky I am, how incredibly fortunate to be able to look at this landscape and call it home.

I looked and looked, and could not get enough of the view. The countryside was divided up into irregular quadrilaterals of farmland, some of them fallow, some of them full. A few towns dotted the landscape, little clusters of white specks amongst the yawning expanse of green. From the air, you get a real sense of how empty most of Spain is. The cities are all crowded together, leaving miles and miles totally empty except for a few roads. This is partly why Spain is such a picturesque country. Another reason is the mountains. In about ten minutes, the plane was passing over a sierra. This was the first time in my life that I was able to look down on the snow-covered peaks of a whole mountain range. I’d only ever seen such a thing in movies, and now here I was. I tried to read, but the view kept pulling me back. I spent nearly the entire plane ride glued to the glass.

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The flight would have been worth the money only for this experience, had not the constant crackling sound of the intercom been added to the mix. I suppose Ryanair has to make money somehow. They do it by barraging you with advertisements during the flight, which they pitch to you through the low-quality intercom system. First was the standard stuff, food and drinks. Then came the tourist junk. After that, they even began to sell lottery tickets. The stewards on these flights are not stewards at all, but salespeople. Not five minutes passed without another sales pitch, in Spanish and mediocre English, through the plane’s intercom. I tried to block it out, but I was distracted. My neck hurt and my throat was very dry. But just when I began to feel annoyed, we left the mainland and flew over the sparkling aquamarine Mediterranean. Ten minutes later, we had landed in Palma de Mallorca.

By a lucky coincidence, our Airbnb host’s wife was arriving at almost the same time, and he offered to give us a ride back to the apartment. We only had to wait half an hour. We walked through the sleek, commercial airport to sit on the benches in the sun outside. As we passed through, I noticed that many of the signs were in another language, not Spanish and not French. This was Mallorquín, which is not really its own language but a dialect of Catalan. Or to be more politically correct, Catalan, Valenciana, and Mallorquín are all dialects of one another.

Languages have a political dimension here in Europe that is hard for an American to appreciate. By the time I was born, most of the native languages of the Americas had been ruthlessly marginalized or crushed. But here the languages stretch back centuries, and they are symbols of identity. The results of this are a lot of squabbles about what constitutes a proper language or only a dialect, with serious implications for the cultural autonomy of the area in question. Thus people from Valencia call their language Valenciana and people from Mallorca call their language Mallorquín, even though it is only a difference of a few words and an accent. But to call it Catalan would give Catalonia cultural primacy, and would therefore relegate Valencia and Mallorca to subsidiary roles. Even so, don’t make the mistake of calling any of these languages “Spanish” or even “dialects of Spanish.” That, they are not. Catalan is as different from Spanish as is Italian or Portuguese; and if you insist otherwise you will not only be wrong, but will make a lot of people very angry.

Another thing I noticed was a particular advertisement. It said something like “There are lots of cold Norwegians looking to buy a home. Sell with us!” This was a service specifically geared to helping natives sell their property to Scandinavians. This is another distinct thing about Mallorca: it is like the Florida of Europe. Tons of cold northern Europeans—Germans and Brits, mainly—move down here once they get old, in order to soak up some sun in their sunset years. Palma de Mallorca (the capital of Mallorca, where we landed) was simply crawling with Germans—in the airport, on the streets, on the train, in the restaurants. (Germans have a joke that Mallorca is the seventeenth state of Germany. “We should just annex it,” one German said to me. “Well, actually it’s kind of a good deal for us. Spain pays, and we get to live there.”)

We reached a bench outside and sat down to wait. The sun was wonderful. Despite the lack of sleep and the long morning, I felt reinvigorated. After half an hour, our host messaged us, and soon we were in the car on the way to the apartment.

We were being hosted by a married couple. The man was from the Canary Islands, and his wife was from China. This actually isn’t so common in Spain, and I was especially interested because my girlfriend is a Chinese American. Surprisingly, the woman didn’t speak Spanish well enough to have a proper conversation; she and her husband communicated in English, which made it easy for us as well.

“How’d you two meet?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a long story,” the wife said. “We met in Barcelona. And you two?”

“We met in a class in college,” I said, a bit disappointed that she didn’t elaborate about their meeting.

“So what do you do here?” GF said.

“We run a marketing business,” the man said. “I do everything. I’m the CEO and also the coffee boy.”

“Oh, wow. So why’d you move to Mallorca?”

“It’s a long story,” the wife said, and that was all.

Soon we had dropped off our bags and were out on the street. As is our habit, we wanted to see the cathedral first, but we took a detour to walk along the seaside to get there. It was a marvelously sunny day; the great ocean was a shimmering pool of light. A solitary sailboat sat in the distance; and if I squinted the scene could have been a painting by Sorolla and not reality. A bike path ran along the sidewalk, and every so often a couple of German bikers would go by—all with white hair—chatting amongst themselves. Seeing Mallorca for myself, I could well understand why the Germans moved here. If I was a German of retirement age, I’d come here too.

We picked an excellent angle from which to approach the cathedral, and I recommend that if you visit Mallorca, see the cathedral from the water and not the city. You get to view the cathedral at its most impressive, sitting elevated above a large pool with a fountain spraying a jet of water in the middle. The cathedral itself fits in perfectly with the tropical environment; its sand-colored façade doesn’t look at all incongruous. And with palm trees and fluffy white clouds framing the view, it is really a marvelous sight.

We walked up, paid the entrance fee, and went in. An audioguide was included, and I think it was the best audioguide I’d ever used in Spain. It had a big screen so that it could display a photo of your next destination. This removes some of the confusion of other audioguides.

The cathedral itself is known, or so I’m told, as the “Cathedral of Light” and the “Cathedral of Space,” although I believe the Granada cathedral also calls itself the “Cathedral of Light.” In any case, it is a spacious and well-lit cathedral. There are big rose windows on both sides of the building, which is unusual, as well as no choir in the center. Apparently, some of these ideas are owed to the famous architect, Antoni Gaudí. My memory is a bit hazy here, but I know that the fine candelabras wrapped around the columns are his work; and I think the main altarpiece is as well. This altarpiece is certainly unique: A heptagonal ring hangs from the ceiling, from which are hung several candles. On the top of this ring are wheat and grape plants (I don’t know of what material), symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. At present, it is still a fairly simple work; but maybe this is because Gaudí quit midway through the project (an embarassing fact that I believe the audioguide neglected to mention).

To the right of the main altar is a really daring piece of modern art done by Miquel Barceló. It is a giant clay sculpture that wraps around a semi-circular space. On the surface, molded into the clay, are representations of Jesus, the fish, the loaves, skulls, and much else that I couldn’t distinguish. The style is, to me, both gruesome and abstract. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone praying at a chapel like this, the tone is so dark and brooding and the style so idiosyncratic. But judged on its own merits I thought it was a fine work, if a bit excessive.

Our next stop was a far off: the Bellver Castle (in Mallorquín, the Castell de Bellver). This is a castle sitting on a big hill, overlooking the whole city. In this respect, it is rather like the Gibralfaro Castle in Malaga. According to my phone it would have taken over an hour to walk, so we caught a bus. But we still had quit a bit of walking to do once we got off, and this walking was all uphill. Soon we found ourselves wandering through a cute little neighborhood, trying to find the right way to enter the park where the castle is located.

“Is this the right street?” GF asked.

“I hope so.”

“What street does it say on your phone?”

“Iunno. I’m just following a direction, man. We gotta go that way,” I said, and pointed.

“Excuse me,” said a lady walking nearby; she was British. “Are you trying to get to the Castle Bellver?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t go this way, it’s very long. Turn around, take a left and then a right, and you’ll see it.”

We turned around and, sure enough, there it was: the entrance to the park. It’s a good thing Mallorca has so many British residents.

As soon as we entered, we were faced with stairs. Lots of stairs. This was the walk up to the castle. We took it slow, not wanting to tire ourselves out—we are two unfit Americans, you understand—but even so, we had to stop and rest. Every time we turned a corner we were faced with yet another stairwell.

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“This is just like the castle at Malaga,” I said. “So many stairs.”

Finally, we reached the top. We only had to climb the flight up to the castle’s entrance. But once we were there, a man stopped us.

“Do you have a ticket?” he asked.

“No, where do you get one?”

“Down there, he said, pointing down the stairs to a little building to our right.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

We walked back down and then went to the little ticket office. Then, our tickets in hand, we walked up the stairs in went in.

The Bellver Castle was built in the 14th century by James II of Mallorca. According to Wikipedia, it is one of the few circular castles in Europe. Seen from above, the castle looks like four concentric circles: the outer wall, the moat, the inner wall, and the central courtyard. To me it didn’t look very big, but I’ve read that it has successfully resisted two sieges. Not bad.

The place was swarming with people. There is a road that leads straight up to the castle, which allows travel companies to dump busload after busload of tourists into the castle for guided tours. Nearly all of them were Spaniards over 50, which I found interesting. Where were all the Germans and Brits?

The castle itself was quite nice—though, like all defensive structures, it wasn’t especially beautiful. If it were only us two, I don’t think it would have taken more than half an hour to explore everything. But every time we wanted to ascend a stairwell, turn a corner, or enter a room, we inevitably had to wait for a parade of tourists to shuffle out, single-file, their coats hanging from their arms, brochures gripped in their hands, chatting happily amongst themselves.

The castle has two floors and a roof. Every room in the place opens up on the central, circular courtyard. These rooms are crammed with artifacts in display cases, like a miniature museum. Unfortunately, all of the information was written in Mallorquín, so I couldn’t understand it. I’m sure it was interesting; many of the artifacts looked quite old, indeed ancient, going back all the way to Rome. Were the Romans here?

The best part of the visit was the view from the roof. Just as in Malaga, from here you could see the whole city stretched out before you, and then the ocean beyond; and behind you can see the green mountains. But we accidently chose the wrong stairwell to go up—the one for descending and not ascending—so we ended up getting stuck in a corner for about five minutes as a seemingly endless tour group walked past us. But the wait was worth it. There is nothing like standing on a castle on a hill, looking out for miles on the surroundings. If you’re imaginative enough, and my imagination is typically overactive, you can easily feel like a king.

We walked around. A little girl jumped out from behind a corner, trying to scare us. But when she realized we weren’t her mother, she ran away in embarrassment. A group of tourists asked us to take a photo of them, and then we asked them to return the favor. Then we descended by the correct staircase and left the castle. We didn’t take the stairs back down, since both of us were a bit traumatized, and instead walked through the surrounding park. It felt good to be surrounded by trees; that’s one of the main things I miss about NY: living near a park. Being in a city all the time—the constant waiting at crosswalks, going underground for the metro, the endless right angles—just gets to me after a while.

We eventually left the park and found a bus to the city center. By now, we were pooped. We hadn’t taken a break since the early morning, and every time we sat down we had to fight to stay awake. We didn’t have energy for anything else. And since it was getting near 7 o’clock anyway, there wasn’t much else to do. So as soon as we got back to the apartment, we searched for a place to eat nearby to we could go to bed early. Our search led us to a Chinese food restaurant in the neighborhood with great reviews.

I know, I know, typical Americans, eating Chinese food for dinner in Mallorca. In my defense, I can only plead that I love Chinese food and it’s tough to find the good stuff in Spain. But this restaurant was special. The ceiling was made of wood, and was elaborately decorated with reliefs of dragons. Lovely pictures of plants and flowers lined the walls; and two gigantic urns, ornately painted, stood in the center of the room. A lot of money had been spent here, and to good effect.

The waitress, an immensely peppy woman, was the most attentive server I’ve ever had. After we asked if they had bok choy, she sent her coworker out to get it, even as we protested “¡No, no es necesario!” Since it was just the GF and I in the restaurant (we were eating very early for Spain) she spent almost the whole time chatting with us. She’d been living in Spain for a long time, and had raised her kids here. As a result, her children were in the same situation as GF: of Chinese descent but unable to speak any form of Chinese very well. GF often talks to me about this, because it puts her in interesting and sometimes awkward situations. Whenever she meets someone Chinese here, they try speaking to her in Mandarin; but she only speaks Cantonese, and that very poorly.

When the food came it was great, almost as tasty as the food in Flushing, Queens (the best place to eat in NYC!). Our stomachs full, we went back to the apartment and went to sleep. It had been a long, long day.

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I had only one thing planned for the following day: the Ferrocarril de Sóller, or the Sóller Railway. This is an old train line that runs between Palma, the capital of Mallorca, and Sóller, a smaller tourist town on the other side of the island. The train between the two places is not only a mode of transportation, but an attraction in itself; the history of the railway stretches back to 1911 and the original wooden train cars are still in use. Not only that, but the hour-long ride takes you past some great scenery.

We got a quick breakfast and walked to the station. There, we were told that round-trip tickets are €21 and that you have to pay in cash. There was also an option to buy a combined ticket, for €30, that included a round-trip ride on the tram to the port. But we were trying to be as cheap as possible, so we only bought the train tickets.

By luck, we arrived at the perfect time and got on the train minutes before it left. Soon the old thing was creaking into motion. The train moved at a leisurely pace out of the city. The tracks made that satisfying double clack as we went over them. For the first ten minutes or so, there isn’t much scenery to speak of. We passed buildings covered in graffiti, some of it quite good graffiti. We passed overgrown fields and empty, broken-down factories. We went under an overpass, the tracks running parallel to a highway. Cars zipped by, going much faster then we were, and two bicyclists in bright colors traveled alongside us. Then we passed a gas station and turned right into a field of olive trees.

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Now the ride became really scenic. We were out of the town and away from the roads, surrounded on all sides by green. The squat forms of olive trees, arranged into neat rows, filled a flat valley. Nearby were the farm houses, with their roofs of red tile. Beyond, the mountains, stony and jagged. We went through a tunnel, the clack-clacking of the train echoing into a frightful jumble of noise. When we got out to the other side we could see a huge valley surrounded by mountains. In the middle of this valley was a little town, its white buildings and tile roofs shinning in the sunlight, its church spire looking tiny in the expansive space. This was Sóller. The tracks curved toward the town, and on our approach we passed by orange and lemon trees. Just as in Palma, many of the buildings on the edge of town looked abandoned. I suppose business hasn’t been great for farmers in Sóller, but the tourist industry is certainly booming.

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By the time we arrived we were ravenous, so we found a place to eat in the main square. The menu was in four languages, English, German, French, and Spanish. It was a sunny day, so we sat outside, which also gave us the chance to enjoy the town. Sóller is quite a pretty place, though most people seem to pass through on their way to the port.

This is what the famous tram is for. According to Wiki, this tram is one of the only first-generation trams in Spain still in use. Like the train, it is an cute, old, wooden thing that crawls along at the pace of a leisurely bike-ride. As we ate we watched it go by, and it was so picturesque that both of us regretted not buying tickets.

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But when we paid for lunch, I asked the man at the bar “¿Es posible para caminar al puerto?” and he said yes, it wasn’t a bad walk at all. We decided to try. We only had two hours until the last train from Sóller would go back to Palma, and according to our phones the walk was one hour. This meant we’d have to turn around as soon as we got there. But we didn’t have anything else to do, so what the hell?

Soon we were outside the city, walking alongside a highway. It was a sunny day, so sunny that I took off my sweater as we walked. Behind us, we could see the craggy cliffs of Mallorca forming giant a semicircle around us. To our right and left were fields of lemon and orange trees. Everything was green, and everything was shining in the Mediterranean sun.

“You know?” I said to GF. “I’m so glad we came to Spain.”

“Why’s that?”

“Everywhere we go is just so fantastic. Everywhere is great. I can’t believe it.”

“Yeah, Spain is really beautiful.”

“Why doesn’t everyone come here?” I said. “I mean, really? If the point of life is to be happy, then why not just give it all up and move here?”

I wanted to say more, but as usual I felt frustrated by my inability to find the right words, unhackneyed words, to express my sentiments. So often, I compare the rat-race ethic of New York with the easygoing pace of life here. For me, these two ethics are summarized by the urban sprawl of NYC and the open, natural landscapes of Spain. We have an idea in the States that if you spend years and years, whole decades, working your butt off and saving money, you can finally relax in retirement. If you do that, you will deserve to relax. You will have earned it. But this whole notion now strikes me as up-side down. We shouldn’t need to earn the right to enjoy ourselves and relax. This is the basic stuff of life. Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we should all just laze about and avoid work. All I’m saying is that, in the weighing of future against present pleasures, many of us in NY pay far too much attention to the former at the expense of the latter.

We walked and walked, and I felt good to be using my legs on such a lovely day. And just as I began to forget about where we were going or how far we had gone, we arrived. The whole landscape opened up and revealed a bay full of bright blue water. It was a beautiful natural port, two long peninsulas enclosing a circular area of water, with only a narrow area open to the ocean. On the ends of each of these peninsulas stood a white lighthouse. The port was a German tourists’ dream, filled with restaurant after restaurant, each with outdoor seats that faced the water. There was a beach, too, though it was mostly empty. The only person in the water was a young man who was surfing on the gentle waves. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen anyone surf before, besides on television. After watching him balance on the waves, I can see the appeal. It looks fun.

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There wasn’t much to do except enjoy the view. We walked along the port, passing restaurant after restaurant, going nowhere in particular. We passed by a musician who was entertaining a bunch of restaurant goers. He was playing the guitar and singing in English, and he sounded like a native speaker to me. But what really attracted my attention was a cat. It looked like a stray, just from the way it held its body around pedestrians.

When I saw the cat, it was standing right in the middle of the sidewalk. I approached it, solely with the aim of walking right past. But when the cat saw me, it began to climb the railing that separated the sidewalk from the beach. I always forget what amazing acrobats cats are. With nothing but smooth, slippery metal bars to hold onto, the cat climbed to the top of the railing and balanced there like a gymnast on a balance beam. Then, it tensed its body and jumped about five feet to a boat that was sitting on the sand nearby. With its claws, it gripped the canvas covering of the boat; and after it steadied itself, it carefully climbed under the canvas and into the boat’s interior. I wonder how many cats make their home this way in boats during the off season.

Just as I began to enjoy myself, I checked my phone. We had to go. In fact, we were already late. We had to get back to Sóller as fast as possible, or we would miss the last train back to Palma. Now the slog began. We turned around and began power walking back to the town. No more enjoying the scenery now, no more relaxing; just footsteps on concrete sidewalks and worried conversations about taking wrong turns. I did my best not to think about what would happen if we missed the train; but I couldn’t help it. Would we have to take a cab to Palma? How much would that cost? Would we miss our flight back the next morning?

After a distressingly long stretch of highway we made it back to the town; and from there it was only a few minutes to the train station. We made good time. When we finally got there, we still had five minutes to spare. Tired but elated, we got onto the train and slumped into the seats. The train creaked into motion, and once again we were treated to the Mallorcan countryside. If you go take the train to Sóller, maybe consider buying the tram ticket.

We were totally wiped out by the time we got back. We only had energy to eat dinner and sleep. Our flight was even earlier this time around: 6:20 in the morning, which meant we had to wake up at 4:00.

The next morning, disoriented, bleary, but full of nervous energy, I was once again sitting in the plastic waiting chars of our flight gate, GF asleep beside me. Once again, I was reading that travel book about Spain; and once again, I was thinking about how great this country is. And you know something is great when it gives you warm fuzzy feelings at 5 o’clock in the morning.

Review: Iberia

IberiaIberia by James A. Michener
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a sense no visitor can ever be adequately prepared to judge a foreign city, let alone an entire nation; the best he can do is to observe with sympathy.

Travel writing is like love poetry. All travelers and lovers are convinced that their experiences are unique, and therefore worth writing about; while in reality most travel stories and love poems express nearly the same basic sentiment, over and over, with only minor variations. Both genres are easy to write and hard to read, which is why far more travel blogs and love poems are written then read. Even brilliant writers sometimes make fools of themselves.

James Michener is not a brilliant writer, but he has done a fine job in this book. And for once in my life, I think I am actually qualified to judge, since I have been to about 80% of the major places he visited. Not only that, but I myself have written about my travels in Spain.

As I said before, Michener is not a brilliant writer; but he is a highly competent one. There are very few parts of this book that are memorably good, but very few that are memorably bad. The best thing that can be said for his prose is that you can read him for hours without getting tired or bored. The only parts that stuck out as bad were in some of his descriptions of churches. For example, I got completely lost in his description of the Toledo Cathedral, even though I’ve been to it—which is a bad sign.

His approach to travel writing is not very different from that of Bill Bryson: go someplace, find an interesting tidbit from the history, and then describe a few nice buildings or whatever. Apart from this, however, the two men are quite different. Michener is very much preoccupied with what in earlier times was called ‘culture’: painting, literature, architecture, music, and so on. Thus much of this book consists of descriptions and appraisals of Spain’s artistic and intellectual life. He covers flamenco, zarzuela, the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, the paintings of Velazquez and El Greco, romanesque, gothic, and modernist architecture, the philosophy of Seneca, Maimonides, and Averroes, and much else.

But most of all, Michener is concerned with history. For him, Spain is a kind of window into the past, and he spends many pages on his so-called ‘speculations’. Mainly, these speculations deal with the following question: Why was Spain once so great and is now not so great? Personally, I found him to be a pretty mediocre historian, academically speaking; but he knows how to find a good story and how to tell one. And it is true that you learn quite a bit about Spain’s history in the course of this book.

Michener spent about thirty years traveling in Spain, on and off. As a result, he is able to cast a wide net, covering almost every major city in the country. Most of the chapters are centered around one city—Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca, Seville, Santiago, Córdoba, Toledo—but Michener inevitably ends up leaving the city and touring the surrounding areas. (The exceptions to this are his chapters on the Guadalquivir Marshes and bullfighting.) Not only that, but Michener is very digression-prone, so he will often pause to tell you some bit of history that interests him. Thus in the course of these 900 pages he travels through nearly all of the country, the only noticeable exception being the Basque Country. It is an encyclopedic travel book.

Some people have said this book is outdated. To a certain extent this is true. Michener first came to Spain as a young man, which must have been in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and then continued his visits until the books publication in 1968. Thus you obviously can’t find anything here about the great transformations and dramas of post-Franco Spain. Apart from this, however, the book has kept its relevance. Every time he visited somewhere that I had been, I found little to no discrepancy between his description and my experience. All the beautiful cathedrals and churches and plazas are still standing today, just as lovely as when Michener saw them.

The only section where the book’s age really made itself felt was in the chapter on Madrid. In one section, Michener adds excerpts from several conversations he had about what would happen when Franco died. What is most fascinating is that nobody saw what was coming. In fact, many people insisted that democracy could never work in Spain and that Juan Carlos was just a weak little boy. A mere seven years after this book’s publication, Franco would die, Juan Carlos would take over, and then the new king would effect a masterful transition from fascism to liberal democracy. Of course, Michener can’t be faulted for missing this.

I am not sure whether this book can be enjoyed by somebody who is not at least planning on visiting Spain. It’s simply too long and too detailed. For those who are planning a trip, the book can be profitably skimmed, and indeed that might be the best way to read it. But frankly this may not a great travel guide, if only because it can make you feel inadequate and envious. You see, Michener was a successful novelist with plenty of time and disposable income on his hands. As a result he went everywhere he pleased, stayed in whatever hotel he wanted, spent months driving around eating, drinking, seeing bullfights. Every time he goes to a new town the local professor comes to talk to him about the local history. He gets private tours of every monument. In short, he has many experiences that aren’t available for the rest of us.

On the whole this book is a very well-done piece of work. It is not poetic, not profound, but it covers a lot of ground in a highly readable way. But the book suffers from several faults. First, it is simply too big and sprawling. Michener needed a better organizing principle than “Hey, this is all the stuff I liked in Spain!” This lack of an overarching organization really wore on me by the end of the book. There are only so many buildings I can hear described in agonizing detail, there are only so many times I can hear him say “This is one of Spain’s finest plazas,” or “This was one of the best meals I had in Spain.”

This is related to another flaw. For travel not to be frivolous, I think it must change you in some way, if only subtly. Well, Michener is certainly not a superficial person, and I think he was deeply affected by Spain. Nevertheless, at times I wondered whether all this travel—all this eating and music and art loving—was just another, more sophisticated version of consumer culture. Of course this is a bigger question than this book; and in fact it can be asked about all modern travel. At what point does the itch to go to a new city and to see all the sights become just as frivolous as the itch to buy the newest iPhone? At what point does travel stop being a rewarding experience and start becoming a consumption of experience? And by the way, this question can be asked of books too, especially on Goodreads: at what point does reading stop being a form of self-learning and start being a form of conspicuous consumption? Probably there is no clear line, but in any case there were several times during the course of this book that Michener’s urge to see and know everything about Spain struck me as the urge to consume the country.

The third flaw was Michener’s preoccupation with authenticity. He often talks about finding the ‘real’ Spain, and I find this grating. He goes from place to place, finding each one more ‘authentic’ and more ‘Spanish’ than the last. I admit that I have had experiences in which I couldn’t help saying to myself “This is so incredibly Spanish.” Just the same, I am deeply suspicious about this idea of authenticity in travel. Every tourist looks for something that is unique to the area they are visiting. This unique thing—whether it’s a dish or a genre of music—becomes profitable and then becomes commodified very quickly by locals hoping to earn some money. Thus a kind of arms-race ensues, with tourists trying to find out where the locals go and locals trying to find out where the tourists go. The whole thing is silly. And the silliest part is that often the locals are not fond of the ‘authentic’ local attraction. I know Spaniards who dislike flamenco, and I’ve met Germans who insisted that the best food in Germany is Döner Kebab.

These flaws are all certainly applicable to myself. I offer them in the spirit of comradeship and not of spite. All things considered, this book is really a marvelous tour of Spain. Michener did a fine job in a difficult task. If you read it, you will learn a lot, and you’ll get many good ideas for trips too. Michener is a clear writer, a knowledgeable guide, and a genial companion. More than that, this book has a special significance for me, since we are two writers with similar experiences, similar flaws, and roughly the same interests. This book spoke to directly to me in a way that few other books have, so I am sad to be putting it down.

View all my reviews

North From Madrid: León, Oviedo, & Gijón

North From Madrid: León, Oviedo, & Gijón

“Hey guys, we’re renting a car next weekend. Wanna come?”

My girlfriend and I received this message from some friends we made here through Airbnb.

“Sounds great!” I said. “Where to?”

“Dunno yet. We’re still thinking about it.”

A couple days passed. They asked if we wanted to go to Andalusia, and we said we loved Andalusia but we’d spent a lot of time there already.

“How about going north?”

“That would be excellent. We still need to visit the north.”

“Ok, the north it is.”

Finally we decided on three cities: León, Oviedo, and Gijón. The car was booked and the hotel reservations were made. We were off.

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“See that?” D said. “That’s the Valle de los Caídos.”

D is a softspoken Spaniard who works in software development. He was our only driver, poor man, because none of us could drive a stick-shift. We were on the highway going north. D was pointing out the window at a gigantic cross in the distance; this was the famous and controversial monument erected by Franco after the Spanish Civil War: the Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen.

“Anyone want a piece of avocado?” T asked.

T is a lively Russian émigré, who teaches English here. We had a very international car.

Our first stop was León because it was the closest. The drive there took about four and a half hours, which is quite a long time when you’re sitting in the back and have long legs and achy knees. I was going into my typical hibernation mode, which I use for all long car rides, when a thought popped into my head.

“Hey guys,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I forgot to bring underwear.”

“Too late now,” my girlfriend said. (Call her GF from now on.)

“Yeah,” T said. “You’ll just have to buy some when we get there.”

I spent a few minutes panicking about whether any stores would be open; but the panic quickly passed, and within an hour I had fallen asleep, as I always do, with my head pressed against the glass.

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León

I woke up. We had arrived. It was dark outside. My neck hurt the way it always does when I sleep sitting up, and my mouth was full of that disgusting taste I always get when I take a nap. D was trying to find a parking spot near our hostel. As we drove along, I looked out the window in the hopes of finding an open clothing store. There were several, and I tried to remember where there were as the car went along.

T really had to go to the bathroom so D dropped us off near the entrance to go find a parking spot by himself. The hostel was confusing. We pressed the buzzer to get in and walked up the stairs to the first floor. There we found two doors, one right and one left, each with a sign on the side of it. T went to one of the doors and knocked. No answer. She knocked harder. Nothing.

“What the hell?” she said. “Does nobody work here?”

She knocked again and we waited, but the building was absolutely silent.

“This is ridiculous,” she said. “I’m calling them.”

She took out her phone and dialed the number of the hostel.

I couldn’t follow the conversation, but after a minute T went over to one of the doors and dialed a number on the keypad. The door clicked and we pushed it open.

We walked inside and found an empty hallway with several doors along the sides. Each door had a keypad on the side of it. The hostel was completely automated, apparently. Pretty cool.

Soon D arrived from parking the car.

“We need codes to get in,” T said.

D looked in his phone and found an email from the hostel. They’d sent it just two hours before. We typed in the codes and went into our rooms. But I couldn’t relax. I had to buy underwear.

“Hey, would you mind if I went to buy some underwear real quick?” I said to T.

“What, are you embarrassed if we come with you?”

“It will only take a minute,” I said. “I want to go before the stores close.”

“Okay, go, go,” T said.

GF and I walked out into the street and started looking. On the next corner was a chino. “Chinos” are ubiquitous here. As the name suggests, they are a type of store run by Chinese people. Inside is every variety of product you can imagine, from a window fan to a white board. These products are normally of mediocre quality, but the stores are very convenient because they are open when most other stores are closed. We walked inside.

¿Hay ropa de interior para hombres?” GF asked the woman standing near the door.

From the confused look on the woman’s face I could immediately tell that she couldn’t speak Spanish. It was really weird to have the shoe on the other foot, for once.

Thankfully, as soon as GF asked I noticed a bunch of underwear hanging nearby. I picked two of them, paid, and went back to the hostel, where D and T were waiting for us.

“Do you guys wanna go walk around and get something to eat?” D asked.

“Sure,” we said.

The four of us went down to the street and started walking. We passed the cathedral and several other building, but it was dark and everything was closed so I didn’t get a good look at anything. I’ll leave my description for the next day. This night, I was mainly concerned with eating, since we hadn’t eaten a proper lunch and I was hungry.

On our walk we passed a park, where there was a small metal model of what looked like a city.

“This is a Roman camp,” D said to me. “León was originally a camp for Roman soldiers. The name comes from the word for ‘legions’.”

(According to Wikipedia, this is true; the name comes from the old Roman name Legio. This is an interesting coincidence, since león is also the Spanish word for lion.)

After about fifteen minutes we found a restaurant and went inside. All of us ordered drinks first, to see what food would be included. Our drinks came with two small plates, one of chorizo, and one of mushrooms in a sauce made from queso de cabrales.

Queso de cabrales, or Cabrales Cheese, is a type of blue cheese that is native to Asturias. (We weren’t in Asturias, of course, but León is nearby.) Now I am not normally a fan of strong cheeses, but I was not prepared for the flavor of this cheese. I winced as soon as it touched my tongue. It did not taste sour or rank the way some blue cheeses do, but bitter and earthy. But it wasn’t the flavor that made me wince, but something else; as soon as it touched my tongue I felt an electric shock. I did not like it very much, but everyone else loved it.

We sat there and ate and drank, all of us a bit tired. After three rounds of drinks and three rounds of free food we’d had enough. I paid (the bill was very cheap) and we went back to the hostel. Once there, we agreed to get up early the next morning and said goodnight. I stayed up for a few hours reading Anna Karenina. Anna and Vronsky had just moved abroad to Italy where they were dallying in European art, and Tolstoy was satirizing them beautifully, with the lightest and most compassionate touch. There’s nothing like traveling with a good book.

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§

We woke up the next day, bright and early, ready to see León.

“Did you do a new underwear dance this morning?” T asked as we met in the hall. (I hadn’t. The underwear was a little tight but still quite comfortable, in case you’re wondering.)

Our first stop was the cathedral, but on our way there we went past the Casa de los Botines, which is one of the few architectural works by Antoni Gaudí outside of Barcelona. I have to admit it has a Disneyish look to me. The style is theatrical neo-gothic. All the windows and towers are designed to be narrow, sharp, and tall; and combined with the somber grey color, the building looks like it belongs on a movie set rather than a city block. The building is now the headquarters of the bank, Caja España. Let it be known, by the way, that I don’t know a thing about modern architecture; nothing.

Soon we were at the cathedral. Now here was proper French gothic. The cathedral had that wonderful, foreboding grandeur of gothic architecture. Two large towers flanked the central section with the rose window, flying buttresses extending from either side. So much mass is concentrated in the front of the building that the final effect, for me, is that the edifice looks like it is about to charge right at you when you’re standing in front of it. All of the architectural elements are pushing and pulling against one another, giving it a feeling of tension and poise; the building has not the calm repose or harmony of parts of the classicist style, but a kind of calculated dissonance and strain. I’ve heard the cathedral at Burgos is even nicer.

We went in. It was quite dark inside. Unlike other cathedrals, the walls and the chapels were not ornately decorated. In fact, not even the main altar made an impression on me. All of the focus was on the cathedral’s stained glass windows. They must be some of the most beautiful in Spain. Standing in that dark room and looking up at the strained glass windows, with their deep greens and blues and reds, was deeply impressive. How could they have built such massive windows in a structure made completely of stone? It is an architectural feat so amazing that I cannot get used to it. Every wall of the cathedral glowed with colorful light and intricate patterns. I soon gave up walking around the cathedral and just sat down on the pews, admiring the windows.

Thirty minutes passed, and we were back on the street. Suddenly the sound of drumming and singing caught my ear. I looked over and saw a procession of about a dozen strangely dressed women. Curious, I started following the little parade. The women were dressed in colorful headscarves, dresses, and black shawls. A man was beating on a little drum and all of them were singing.

“What is this?” I asked D.

“I think it’s a procession for a religious holiday celebrating women,” he said.

“Oh, neat.”

We followed the procession for a while and then cut off to visit the Plaza Mayor. There, we found a farmer’s market. Tables were set up, covered in crates of fresh vegetables. The vegetable vendors were doing good business, too; the place was buzzing. Nearby there were parked several vans, with sides that opened up to reveal red piles of meat; they were meat vendors. D and T, who love buying food from these markets, went right over to one of these meat vans.

I wasn’t particularly interested in buying anything, but the meat vendor almost convinced me. He was giving away samples left and right, giving us a taste of anything we wanted. I was chewing on some particularly good chorizo when a very short man with a big blond mustache, wearing a plastic Viking’s helmet (with the two horns) and carrying about thirty balloons, walked up and started talking with the meat vendor.

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They spoke really fast and I didn’t understand a thing, but apparently they were friends since both men laughed. I was afraid that the balloon Viking was going to try to sell me a balloon, so I was a bit wary. But then the man noticed a wineskin hanging from the meat van. He walked over, grabbed the wineskin, and said to T: “¡Mira!” Then he proceeded to squirt a stream of red wine into his mouth; and I couldn’t help noticing how it turned his teeth and his tongue a blood red, which I found a bit creepy.

Aha!” he said as he finished, using the back of his hand to wipe off the wine that missed his mouth. (Some red specks remained on his blond mustache.) He handed the wineskin to T and commanded her to drink. She did, and then D did, and then it was my turn. A bit apprehensively, for the whole thing struck me as unsanitary, I squirted some of the wine into my mouth. It was very bitter, but otherwise good. And in fact it was so much fun drinking that wine that I momentarily considered buying one of the wine skins for sale. But then I thought about when I would possibly use it, and decided not to. T and D bought something (I forget what), and we moved on.

Since we had two more cities to see and not even two full days, we started to move back towards the hostel to check out. On our way, we passed by the remains of an old wall, which we climbed up. Unless I’m mistaken, the walls of León are extremely old. They were originally built by the Romans, but they may have been rebuilt and expanded by later generations. In any case they look old; and that’s what is most important to a tourist.

We got back to the hostel, paid the bill, and then got into the car. But we only got about a mile before we stopped to see something that caught our eye. This was the Hostal de San Marcos, a large, impressive building that was originally a convent, but is now a luxury hotel. (According to what I can find online, it costs €200 a night to stay there. I’ll wait until I publish my next bestseller.) Thankfully, they haven’t changed the plateresque façade of the building, so it’s still a lovely sight. Part of the building can’t be entered by tourists, since that’s where the fancy guests stay; but there is a church and a small museum you can visit. It was not an extraordinary experience, but certainly worth it if you find yourself in León. I was most surprised to learn that this building, one of the most important Renaissance structures in Spain, was used for political prisoners in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. According to Wiki, more than 20,000 prisoners went through the building, and many of them were likely tortured or killed. This beautiful building is thus a fair summary of European history: from religious piety, to fascist brutality, to high-end luxury.

After half an hour of peeking around, we got in the car and drove off again. This time I stayed awake, for the most part.

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Over the Hills

The drive to Gijón was magnificent. It was a stormy, overcast day. The sky was gray and the countryside was covered in fog. The road wound its way through green hills. The land here was grassy, a big change from the parched area around Madrid. Little towns appeared and disappeared as we went, just a few shabby buildings huddled around the main road.

Running parallel to the road was the railway. It was perched a little bit above us on the hills. It must have been built long ago, for at several points it was sheltered by a concrete bunker that looked ancient. To me the bunker looked like it could collapse at any minute, and I managed to convince myself that this railway must not be used any more, for it was too dangerous. But a passing train told me otherwise. The road and the railway danced around one another through the hills; the tracks passed from our left and to our right as we drove over railroad crossings. Our radio began to flicker in and out, dissolving in a haze of static. The fog, the green hills, the tiny villages gave me that distinctly odd feeling, which I can only describe by saying it felt like I was in a movie.

Suddenly we found ourselves on the top of a mountain. That road had taken us up to 1,400 meters above sea level, and now we began a steep descent. Before us was an entire mountain range, their peaks covered in snow. The road led down into a huge green valley. Little towns could be seen, just mere specks in the enormous expanse. In such an big space the towns looked as fragile and insignificant as ant-hills on a sidewalk. The road twisted and turned around the mountain, into the very bottom of the valley. Horses roamed these fields, pure white and chestnut brown, grazing on the grass.

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After ten minutes we stopped at a restaurant by the side of the mountain, to take pictures of the view. I tried to open the door, and immediately felt an intense pressure pushing from the other side. It was the wind. Strong gusts of cold wind blew constantly up there, forceful enough to make you lose your balance. The wind tore right through your clothes and chilled you in seconds. I had only felt intense wind like that once before, when I was standing on the top of Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. I ran behind the restaurant building to escape the gusts. But there was one creature up there who didn’t seem to mind.

Sitting outside by the parking lot was an enormous dog. I don’t know what was the breed or whether it was a mutt. It had a big, slobbery face and a mottled, gray coat. He was clearly an old dog. But he was friendly. As soon as we got out, the dog raised itself on its creaky legs and started ambling over towards us. At first I was intimidated, because the dog was really huge and I wasn’t sure if he had an owner. But it was obvious from looking at him that he only wanted to say hello. I gave him a few pats on the head, and then GF did the same. Both of us were instantly covered in saliva.

I snapped some pictures and then got right back in the car. It was just too cold. But I felt bad to say goodbye to the dog. I miss having a dog; and this one seemed so lonesome up in that parking lot, sleeping in the cold wind.

We started driving again. But the cold had sapped my strength. I fell asleep almost as soon as I got in, and the next thing I knew I was in Gijón.

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Gijón

“Nice town,” I said, after I woke up and stretched my legs in the tight space.

We were driving through the city center, turning down narrow streets.

“When do you wanna stop?” I asked.

“What do you think we’re doing?” T said. “We’re looking for parking!”

“Ooohh,” I said. I have a habit of making mistakes like these.

Every street we saw was packed, so finally we decided to suck it up and pay to park in a garage. Soon we were out on the street, walking along the harbor.

It was an overcast but otherwise nice day. The harbor was full of little white boats. For the most part these boats were all of the same type: speed boats with two motors, big enough for four people. Were they all for recreation? I suppose you could fish from the boats, but only for sport. Do families go out on pleasure rides on the Bay of Biscay? If so, those are quite choppy waters for buzzing around in a little motor boat.

It was lunch time by now, and all of us were quite peckish. We walked along the harbor looking for a restaurant. Soon we came upon a large red sign that spelled out “Gijón” in stylized letters. Of course, we had ask a passing pedestrian to take a group picture of us.

“Are you from here?” D asked the impromptu photographer.

“No, no, we’re here for the football match.”

We would see more evidence of this football match later on.

We found a restaurant and decided to eat outside, for it was a pleasantly warm day. We ordered the menú del día, which came with the famous fabadas asturianas, or Asturian fabada stew. (Asturias is the name of the province.) This is a stew made with pork, chorizo, and fabada beans. From what I can tell, many regions of Spain have a dish like this, except that they use the local bean. Segovia, for example, has judiones, which uses the same ingredients but with judiones de la Granja, a locally grown type of large bean, instead of fabadas. In any case, all of these dishes make for a very filling meal. The entrée was pork chops in a sauce made from that same Cabrales cheese I talked about earlier. But this time the taste was mild enough so I didn’t mind it.

We sat, drink, ate, talked, and watched a couple of kids who were having fun pushing each other around in a stroller. Then we paid and left. I had no idea what to see or do in the town, so I just followed T and D along. They led us into the peninsula that forms the city center. This peninsula has quite a bulbous shape, and juts out rather impudently into the sea. At the end of this peninsula is a park, and quite a nice one. This is the Cerro de Santa Catalina. It used to be a military fortification, I believe, but now it is a rolling, grassy hill that overlooks the ocean. Once you walk to the top, you can see the whole town behind you, the coastline on either side of you, and the endless stretch of water in front of you.

In the center of the park is a large concrete sculpture that looks like a ring standing on two pillars. But the ring is oriented horizontally, hanging over you without any apparent support. The whole structure looks impressively precarious, as if it can totter any minute. Framed between the legs of the sculpture is the great ocean beyond. There you can sit, hanging your legs off a cliff, enjoying the view.

We walked around the park for a few minutes, and then paused to look at the other side of the harbor. It was filled with cranes, boats, and warehouses; it was the industrial port.

“What’s that?” GF asked, pointing.

I squinted, and noticed a strange, dark cloud forming over the port.

“Huh,” I said. “Weird. Maybe it’s coal or something.”

As we kept looking, the cloud grew bigger and darker.

“Wow, look at that,” T said, noticing the cloud. “Good thing the winds aren’t blowing towards us.”

But almost as soon as she said that, the winds changed. The cloud was moving towards us. I’ve never seen anything like it, a big, black mass of fog rushing over the open waters towards me. It was surreal and a bit terrifying.

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It doesn’t come out so great on camera.

“Let’s get out of here,” T said, and we began to walk away. The other park-goers had a similar idea, and we all started heading towards the town. But we didn’t go fast enough. The next minute, the storm hit. Terrible winds ripped through the park, bending trees, turning clothes into balloons, making people stumble as they walked away. It felt like I was back on that mountain.

“Holy shit!” I said to GF as we hurried back towards town.

Then it started raining. At first it wasn’t raining very hard, but the combination of water and rough wind was enough to chill me right through. So I couldn’t help being filled with pity when I saw a band of teenage girls struggling through the storm wearing tutus with bare legs. Poor creatures.

The rain kept intensifying. It was obvious that there wasn’t any more fun to be had in Gijón, so we skedaddled to the car. We passed street after street, and soon I could hear the sound of human voices in the distance, accompanied by a drum. Who was singing in this weather? We turned a corner and came upon a group of about 50 people, all wearing blue and white shirts. A girl was pounding a simple rhythm on a big drum and the rest of the people, mostly men, were singing at the top of their lungs. It sounded like a drunken, disheveled pep rally. These were the sports fans from Galicia; their team was playing against Asturias that day.

We got back to the harbor, but by now the wind and the rain had gotten too intense. The only comparable experience I’ve had was during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The winds were so strong that you couldn’t walk straight, and the rain was so heavy that you would be soaked in seconds.

“I’ll go and get the car, you wait here,” D said, like a true hero.

The rest of us took cover under the entranceway of a bank. The winds roared, traffic lights swung too and fro, and pedestrians ran for cover. After five minutes of waiting, a group of teenagers joined us in our little shelter. We talked and then lapsed into silence. More time passed. The weather only grew more vicious. It got so bad that I began to be afraid for D’s sake. What if a branch fell on him? What if he was knocked over by a gust of wind? Such questions didn’t seem unreasonable as I watched a man stumbling in the street, his hands raised to protect his eyes from the rain. And indeed, I later learned that this storm caused some significant damage to the town. It was a spectacular thing to see.

Ten minutes went by; then fifteen. I began to wonder if I should go out after him, when suddenly the car pulled up.

“He’s here!” we cried, as we ran to the car and hopped in.

“Let’s get out of here,” D said.

We retreated. Our next stop was our hotel in Oviedo, only 40 minutes away. By the time we arrived there, the weather had turned from a tempest to a calm night.

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Oviedo

We dropped off our bags in the hotel and then went out to eat. All of us were tired and soaking wet, so we didn’t have a lot of energy to go exploring. We walked around for about ten minutes before settling on a bar near the hotel.

“Cider is the typical drink here,” D said. “Sidra.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, “let’s get some.”

The waiter came, and we got a bottle. But we couldn’t just pour it for ourselves. In Asturias they are serious about their cider, and you have to pour it in a special way: by holding the bottle high up above your head in one hand, and the glass as low as possible in the other. Then you try to aim the stream of the cider into the glass. I think the swishing around in the glass it supposed to do something to the cider, but I don’t know what. In any case, our waiter duly performed this feat for us, taking the glass and the bottle to a special pouring station so he didn’t get the floor wet. By the way, cider in Spain is quite different from cider in the United States. Here it is not at all sweet, but instead quite bitter. I like it, but not very much.

Two fellows in the bar were watching a soccer game on the television.

“That’s the game in Gijón,” D said, pointing to the screen.

“Really?” I said. “They’re playing in that weather?”

“Soccer fans are crazy,” D said.

“Yeah, I can’t believe all those people were standing outside and singing.”

“I heard of this one time, when fans of two teams used to meet up before the game and have organized fights. A man even died in Madrid in one of these fights. It’s crazy. Why would you do that for a sport?”

(I don’t know how to verify this information so I myself don’t know the incident in question.)

“I don’t understand sports,” I said. “I’ve never liked them.”

“Well, the Spanish do,” D said.

As a side note, it is true that I’ve never been able to enjoy team sports. And not only do I fail to enjoy them, but I can’t understand why other people do. I’m not going to condemn anyone who is a sports fan; there have been lots of intelligent and decent sports fans. But I will say that this kind of competitiveness and provincialism that sports draws on—the point is to win, and you support your team because they’re from your town—are among some of our worst qualities. Yes, of course there is a huge degree of skill, finesse, strategy, and athleticism in sports too, which are their redeeming qualities. I can enjoy watching Olympic gymnastics, for example, since it isn’t about winning or beating the other team (at least, for me it isn’t).

But the tremendous passion that drove those fans in Gijón to sing in the rain, or the fanatisicm that urges people to beat up supporters of the rival team—these displays of fandom give me the creeps and I cannot help having misgivings about the whole thing. Doubly so, when I consider how much time and money is spent on these activities that could be spent elsewhere. When I see people looking at a TV in a bar, their mouths open, their eyes transfixed, I cannot help thinking of the countless hours they have done the same thing. And how has it benefitted them? It’s like an addiction. Look, I know this has nothing to do with Oviedo, but part of traveling is forming your opinions about certain things in life, and this is my opinion about sports.

Well, we ate, we drank, we paid, and then we went to bed. We’d had a long day, and had another one coming up.

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Our first stop the next morning was San Miguel de Lillo.

This is a little church situated a bit outside the city proper. At first glance, you wouldn’t think much of it. It is scarcely bigger than a house; and to an ignorant viewer, such as myself, it looks like it could have been built fifty years ago. But this is one of the oldest surviving churches in Spain. It was consecrated in 848, and is built in a pre-Romanesque style. It sits, rather lonesome, in a flat space by the side of a road. There are trails leading into the forest nearby, and quite a splendid view of the town as well.

If you mentally compare this little structure—scarcely big enough for a congregation of fifty—with the great gothic cathedrals, you can an idea of the architectural accomplishment of the latter. For to me it is apparent that the builders of this church couldn’t have made it much taller if they tried without risking a collapse. The construction is relatively simple and unadorned; straight, flat walls, right angles, and a few small windows. The gothic builders managed to make windows as big as this church; but the windows here are mere slits in the wall. There are, however, two windows with impressive lattice ornamentation.

From a sign on the door, I learned that there were tours of the building, but there wouldn’t be another one for several hours. I peeked inside some of the windows; it was dark, but it looked mostly empty. We took some pictures, wandered around, and then decided to walk along the road to see the companion of this lonesome structure: Santa María del Naranco.

Along with San Miguel de Lillo, this building once formed a part of a large complex commissioned by Ramiro I, king of Asturias. It was originally his palace, but was later turned into a church. The building is about as tall as San Miguel de Lillo, but considerably longer. Still, it is not a terribly big building; and in fact the idea that it had once served as a palace made me feel nostalgic for simpler times. According to what I can find online, the building is of considerable architectural importance, partly because it presaged many of the features that came to dominate the Romanesque period. Indeed, compared to its sister structure, this building looks quite advanced. Most notable, for me, are the open balconies on either side, formed by graceful rounded arches. The whole building looks much more open than the first. There are more than half a dozen rounded windows on either side, and quite large ones too. If San Miguel de Lillo struck me as claustrophobic and dark, this building was airy and light.

There wasn’t a tour available here either, so we had to content ourselves with taking pictures of the outside. The view of Oviedo from here was even better; and beyond the city were the snowy peaks of mountains. Spain is a place of expansive vistas. Everywhere I go, I see a view worth painting.

We took our fill of pictures and went back to the car. On our walk, we passed an old, derelict house. It’s windows were shattered and it had plants growing on the roof. Broken down buildings have a special charm for me, and I found this one especially pretty. There is a strange beauty in seeing nature reclaim a human structure. Normally, humans build houses to keep out the elements and the pests. Houses are barriers. But when houses are allowed to fall into disrepair, the barrier breaks, and the house begins to be reintegrated into the endless cycle of nature. In a way it is sad, for an abandoned house means that somebody had fallen on hard times and that a lot of work is being allowed to waste. But in another way it is hopeful, for it shows how easy it will be for the planet to heal once we’re gone.

We got into the car and drove into town. The first thing you’ll notice when walking around Oviedo are the statues. There are tons of them, sitting in every park and plaza. Most of them are metal sculptures of people: a mother nursing her baby, a young woman sitting on a bench, a scholar reading a book, a farmer with her donkey, an elegantly dressed woman of society, a traveler in a big overcoat with a pile of suitcases, a fisherwoman sitting amongst her fish, looking bored and tired.

Individually, these sculptures are no masterpieces; but the final effect is to give Oviedo a real charm. For me, the sculptures, with their prosaic subject matter, drew my attention to the poetry of everyday life; to the little dramas and excitements that play out each day on the streets of every city. I felt as if my attention was focused on the little moments of boredom, of anxiety, of tenderness, of enjoyable languor, the microscopic tugs of emotion that we feel every day as we go about our business.

These statues were scattered throughout a truly lovely town. The whole aesthetic of Oviedo is intimate and joyful. No building is too big or ostentatious; everything is on a human scale. The streets twist and turn, effortlessly leading you from one plaza to another. Every time you turn a corner you are surprised by another open space, full of people. Bright colors, blues and yellows especially, give a playful atmosphere to the city. It is a pleasure just to walk around.

The artistic focus on everyday life was matched by the abundance of life I found on the streets of Oviedo. It was a warm and sunny day, and the streets were full of people. Not tourists, but residents going about their day. Patrons crowded the restaurants; children ran through the streets while their parents chatted. An art gallery was open to the public, selling works by local artists—some of it quite good. Women and men of all ages filled the streets, having conversation with friends, carrying shopping bags, smoking, drinking, laughing, gossiping, sitting, standing. But most conspicuous was the market.

On this particular day, a Sunday, Oviedo was full of people buying and selling. Tables were set up in rows, filling several plazas and streets; and on these tables was every sort of thing you can buy. There were jackets, shirts, socks, pants, and a table covered in underwear.

“I’m gonna buy you some,” GF said. “You need new underwear.” She ended up buying three brightly colored pairs of underwear covered in tiny pictures of penguins. I’m happy to report that they are quite comfortable.

There was a lot more than clothes. One table was covered in tools of all sorts: pliers, saws, rakes, clamps, shears, picks, hammers, screwdrivers, levels, planes, axes, and even a meat cleaver—all of it old and rusty. It looked like the set of a horror movie. Moving on, I found electric drills and power saws, extension cords, old flower pots, metal chalices, target arrows, paint brushes, and tea kettles. There were old candelabras, sunglasses, wooden bowls, statuettes of bathing women, ceramic vegetables, floral tea cups, a bust of a woman wearing a bonnet, wooden serving spoons, hand mirrors, golden incense burners, old music boxes with handles to turn, bronze crucifixes, copper bells, tiny metal horse statues, old clothing irons. How had these people accumulated so much stuff? And who wanted to buy it? It was a flea market of the most charming kind, and every table brought to light unexpected mysteries.

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Finally I got to the used books, and spent a quarter of an hour looking through the selection. There was a lot to choose from. Eventually I found something I’d long wanted to buy: a copy of Ortega y Gasset’s La rebelión de las masas, or The Revolt of the Masses, which is his most famous work. Happy in my purchase, I moved on, past a woman selling flowers and into a luxury food shop selling local produce. It was full of quality meats, cheese, vinegars, olive oils, and wines. GF bought herself a big thing of cabrales cheese, and D and T did the same.

It was 3 o’clock by now and we were hungry. D really wanted to eat a cachopo, another typical dish of Asturias. The dish consists of two fillets of veal, with ham and cheese on the inside. I suppose it is quite like veal cordon bleu. We tried one restaurant, but it was full; we tried another, it was full. With most restaurants in the center it wasn’t even worth trying; they were jam packed with people and there was no chance to find a seat.

“Let’s go outside the center to find something,” D suggested. “I think there was a place near the car.

So we walked all the way from the city center to the parking garage. There, D led us down a street to a restaurant. It was closed.

By now all of us were a bit tired, hungry, and cranky, so this repeated failure to find food annoyed us.

“We passed a restaurant on the way here,” T said, and began to march in the direction we came from. We followed, and in five minutes we were standing outside another eating establishment. T got there first; she walked in, spoke with someone, and then walked out again, visibly deflated.

“This one is full too,” she said. “And the guy was an asshole.”

“Let’s just go,” D said.

We went back to the car, got in, and drove away.

“It’s these damn northern towns,” T said. “You can’t find anywhere to eat. It’s crazy. They don’t care about the tourists at all. The locals here all have reservations, so it’s good for them. But what about the visitors? Nothing!”

Thus our trip ended on a slightly disappointing note. We didn’t get to try cachopo, but instead ate at an Italian restaurant in another town. Then we retraced our steps back to Madrid. This time the road led up the mountain, and the view was even more spectacular. Several times we stopped the car and got out to take photos. In the crisp air and the clear sunlight, you could see for dozens of miles. We arrived in Madrid after nightfall, dropped off right on our doorway. And so we were faced, once again, with the melancholy prospect of returning to work in the morning after a great weekend of travel.