I’ve just returned from visiting the new special exhibition in the Prado: Treasures of the Hispanic Society of America. It is fantastic. I had no idea that the Hispanic Society—a relatively unknown and ignored museum in uptown Manhattan—had such a vast and beautiful collection. The special exhibit adds a completely new dimension to the Prado; it is like having an entire additional museum inside the original one. It opened on April 4th and will continue until the 10th of September, and so I recommend you go see it while you can.
The Hispanic Society of America is a museum and library dedicated to Spanish and Latin American culture. It is housed in an impressive Beaux-Arts building in Audubon Terrace, situated in uptown Manhattan. (I’ve never visited or even seen the museum; and since it will be closed until 2019 for renovations, it seems as if I won’t be seeing it anytime soon.)
The museum was founded in 1904 by the exceedingly wealthy and Spain-obsessed Archer Milton Huntington, heir to the Huntington railroad fortune, who commissioned the Audubon Terrace three years later. This building complex (so named because it was built on land formerly owned by the famous naturalist), although beautiful, was not the ideal location for a museum. Being so far uptown, inconveniently distant from the tourist center of Manhattan, the Hispanic Society has attracted relatively few visitors over the years—and this, despite having the finest collection of Spanish art outside of Spain, and despite being free to visit.
The new exhibition in Madrid’s Prado has recently changed this. The Hispanic Society lent its collection to the Prado as part of a mutually beneficial exchange. The Society’s building in New York is in need of repair. Its lack of air conditioning makes it a poor environment to preserve cherished works of art; and there is not enough space to display the Society’s huge collection. The Hispanic Society also lacks the funds necessary to restore some of its priceless paintings. The Prado, in exchange for being allowed to borrow the collection, agreed to undertake these renovations at their own expense. Along with the help of the bank BBVA, the museum is even paying the transportation and exhibition costs. When interested are aligned, cooperation can accomplish marvels.
Even more important than the restoration and renovation work, the Prado’s special exhibit has already helped to make the Hispanic Society more well-known. By the end of the exhibit, 400,000 visitors are expected—and this is incredible, considering that the museum was getting only 25,000 visitors per year in New York. (I am getting most of this information from the excellent article recently published in the New York Times about the exhibit.) Considering what I’ve seen today, it is a shame that the museum languished in obscurity for so long; it certainly deserves a more ample reputation.
It is impossible to talk about the Hispanic Society without discussing its founder. Archer Milton Huntington’s fondness for all things Spanish is particularly peculiar, considering that he was active immediately after the United States fought and won the Spanish-American War in 1898. This was a period of scant respect for Spanish culture, and a period of cultural anguish in Spain (which eventually culminated in an artistic and intellectual revival by those known as the Generation of ‘98; more below).
Huntington used his vast fortune to purchase archaeological artifacts and old manuscript collections, along with works of art in nearly every medium, including several by Spanish masters. (I wonder what I would do if I were born into such a wealthy family; probably not anything nearly so admirable.) But he was careful to extend his activities to the present day as well. Huntington formed close ties with the contemporary Spanish painters Zuloaga and Sorolla, and commissioned the latter to paint several works for the Society. Indeed, what is sometimes regarded as Sorolla’s masterpiece, The Provinces of Spain—14 giant murals depicting Spanish life—was commissioned by, and remains in, the Hispanic Society.
The exhibit in the Prado is organized chronologically, from prehistoric Iberia to the early 20th century. Every object on display is fascinating. The visitor is greeted by copper-age pottery, from around 2,000 BCE, decorated with fine geometrical patterns. We then swiftly move into Roman times: a mosaic, the torso of a goddess, delicately decorated bracelets. There is an exquisite belt-buckle from the Visigothic period, and a pyxis (a small ceramic vessel) from the Ummayad caliphate period of Moorish Spain—covered in vegetable motifs of stupefying beauty. Even more stunning is the so-called Alhambra Silk, from a later period of Moorish Spain, woven with the same intricate, mathematical patterns as the tiles in that famous palace in Granada. Reliquaries, funerary statues, and, most memorably, gothic door-knockers with fantastic beasts—iron dogs, lions, and dragons snarling in wait for the visitor—give yet another intimate look into the Spanish past.
One of the Hispanic Society’s prized possessions is its extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts. There is a private letter from Carlos V to his son, the eventual Philip II, advising the young man how to govern in Carlos’s absence. Illuminated bibles and even a copy of the Torah, every inch of every page decorated with care and skill, along with official grants and royal decrees, bearing both elaborate ornamentation and the original leaden seals—all this is collected for the visitor’s pleasure. I cannot fathom how much time it would have taken to create even one of those books. Everything had to be done by hand; and since every page was beautified with elaborate drawings and designs—even documents of state, which presumably needed to be produced in some haste—I am led to imagine scores upon scores of scribes and artists in the service of the king and the church.
I was especially gratified to find the historic maps on display. It is always fascinating to see old maps; they capture so much about the worldview of the time. There is one map of Teocaltiche—a province of Mexico—drawn up, if memory serves, either by the missionary or the colonial governor stationed there. It is an extraordinary thing: instead of a useful tool for navigation, it is a cartoon featuring naked natives practicing human sacrifice, battling the Spanish invaders with bows and arrows, and in general causing all sorts of chaos. The thing is clearly the work of a European mind, horrified by the “savages” he encountered. More beautiful is the map of the world by Giovanni Vespucci, nephew of the more famous Amerigo Vespucci. This map is impressively accurate, for the most part, in addition to being attractively made. The shape of the American continents is left vague and undefined, mostly because Europeans hadn’t gotten around them yet.
The most prized items of the collection are the three paintings by Velazquez. There is one portrait of a little girl—unnamed, but perhaps a relative of the painter—which showcases Velazquez’s talent for capturing charming young faces. Even better is Velazquez’s full-length portrait of the Conde Duque, Gaspar de Guzmán, Philip IV’s most powerful minister, a kind of Spanish counterpart to Cardinal Richelieu. He stands proudly, dressed in velvety black, looking every inch the ruler. The Hispanic Society also boasts an excellent portrait by Goya of the Duchess of Alba. She is dressed as a Maja (a lower-class resident of Madrid who tended to dress splendidly; there was apparently a fashion for adopting lower-class dress at the time) and pointing proudly down at her feet, perhaps to signify that she owns the land. It is a wonderful picture; there is so much energy in the Duchess’s feature and pose.
I thought that the exhibit would end with Goya, but the Prado has dedicated another floor to the collection. After an escalator ride I found myself surrounded by even more excellent paintings. Of these, the most important and impressive is a series of portraits by Sorolla—an excellent and perhaps underrated portraitist—of notable Spanish intellectuals and artists from the time, including most of the prominent members of the Generation of ’98. This includes the novelist Pío Baroja, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, and the poet Antonio Machado, along with Azorín himself, the essayist who coined the name “Generation of ‘98” (the generation of artists and intellectuals whose lives were shaped by Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898). All of the portraits are remarkable examples of the portraitist’s ability to capture a complex personality in a gesture, a posture, and an expression.
Along with these works by Sorolla—which also includes two of his enchanting beach scenes—the collection also includes some notable works by Zuloaga. My favorite of these was his The Family of the Gypsy Bullfighter, which manages to combined startling realism of feature (I was immediately reminded of Ribera) with more modernist touches of color and shading. This blending of traditional and modernist seems to have been a persistent feature of his paintings, and allowed him to please both parties. He was particularly praised—both by Huntington and by Unamuno, at least—for his ability to capture the ‘essence’ of Spain. (This was a time when many countries were preoccupied with their ‘essences’.)
This little essay has been hastily dashed out, with enthusiasm and love, for a heretofore underappreciated cultural institution. I naturally feel a particular attachment to the Hispanic Society, since it is from New York and connected to Spain. After visiting this exhibit, it is impossible not to share, at least in part, Huntington’s passion for all things Spanish. What a wonderful breadth and depth of history is collected here.
Any tourist to Berlin will soon be reminded of its ugly past. Monuments to the Nazi movement, to the Holocaust, to the Berlin Wall, and to the Stasi secret police are everywhere. This abundance of tragic memorials might be shocking at first, even depressing; but the very fact that they exist is an encouraging sign. The conflict, persecution, oppression, and violent terror that killed so many and ripped the city apart—it isn’t hidden away, but openly discussed, commemorated, taught to children, so that it is not forgotten and never repeated.
A tourist in Madrid, by comparison, can be forgiven for never guessing that there was ever a Spanish Civil War at all. The most notable monument to that bloody conflict hangs in the Reina Sofia: Picasso’s Guernica. But there are no museums, no educational centers, no memorials. Why? Perhaps it is all too recent; after all, Franco died in 1975, and he had supporters right until the end. And yet the Berlin Wall fell even more recently, in 1989, and Berlin is full of references to its famous barrier. So mere historical proximity isn’t the answer
This question is taken up in Giles Tremlett’s excellent book, Ghosts of Spain. Spaniards, he says, are still so divided on the issue of Franco that it is impossible to present the Spanish Civil War in any kind of neutral way. Any mention of the war is bound to upset one side or the other, threatening to reopen old wounds, to aggravate societal tensions that once ripped the country in half.
The only solution that seems to satisfy nearly everyone is—silence. For a long time, both sides abided by a pact of forgetting, pacto de olvido, pushing the war into the half-forgotten background, letting it collect dust in the basement. As we will see later, this is becoming less and less true recently, but is still very much the norm.
With the political situation in my own country becoming more alarming by the day, I cannot afford to be a part of this pact of forgetting. I do not think it is wise to forget, nor to remain silent, especially now. We cannot indulge in historical ignorance. Averting our eyes away from painful events only makes it more likely that they will reoccur. With this in mind, I traveled to the most imposing monument to Facist Spain, El Valle de los Caídos, to hear distant echoes of Spain’s silent past.
Facts and Figures
El Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen, is situated about an hour’s drive outside the city of Madrid, in the Guadarrama mountains. It is a Catholic basilica tunnelled into a hillside, its main altar deep underground. The basilica is situated in a natural preserve that covers over 13 square kilometers, in a picturesque area among woodlands and granite boulders.
The Valley is not exactly easy to get to using public transportation. The first time I tried to visit, I took the bus line 664 from Moncloa, which stops at the edge of the Valley, leaving you with six kilometers to walk after that. But I missed the stop completely and ended up in El Escorial. The better option, I think, is to take either the 664 or the 661 to El Escorial; from there, you can take a special bus that leaves every day at 3:15 pm, and drops you off right in front of the monument. This bus returns at 5:30 to El Escorial (two hours is more than enough time to visit), and from there you can return to Madrid.
The Valley took nineteen years to complete; construction lasted from 1940 to 1959, and cost over one billion pesetas. (I don’t know how much that would be in euros.) The two principal architects were Pedro Muguruza Otaño and Diego Méndez, who consciously built the monument in a Neo-Herrerian style—a revival of the architectural style of Juan de Herrera, the architect of El Escorial. But according to the official guide book
… in large part, the Valley is a personal creation of Francisco Franco, since it was his idea to have the monument crowning the rock where the sepulchral crypt would open that contains the remains of the fallen; his is the Program of the Abbey and the Center of Social Studies, after overruling the original idea that there would be a military barracks; his the choice of the site; his the decisions about thousands of little details throughout the construction and, finally, his the choice of the various projects of the Cross and the architects.
(My translation from the Spanish edition.)
The Valley took so long and cost so much money to build because of the massive engineering challenge of building it. The mountain had to be hollowed out, and careful calculations had to be made regarding the vertical and lateral stability of the rock. The rock that was excavated to make the basilica is the same rock that paves the large terrace out front.
Aside from the feat of engineering, the Valley is impressive simply for its size. If part of its interior had not intentionally been left unconsecrated—to avoid competition with the mother church—it would be a bigger Basilica than St. Peter’s in Rome. Even more striking is the cross atop the monument, which is the largest cross in the world; it stretches to 150 meters (500 feet) in height, and is visible from a distance of 32 kilometers (20 miles). A funicular—which wasn’t working when I was there—takes visitors up to the base of the cross. Inside the cross is an elevator and a stairway, which lead up to a hatch in the top; but tourists aren’t allowed here.
The Valley is officially meant to commemorate the fallen combatants of both sides in the Spanish Civil War. On the opposite side of the mountain from the basilica is a Benedictine Abbey, where the monks hold a perpetual mass to the dead. (I’m not sure if this abbey can be visited.) Interred somewhere within the complex—I think in chambers connected to the side chapels—are the fallen soldiers. According to the Spanish-language Wikipedia page, there are 33,872 combatants buried there.
When I walked off the bus, I was surprised to see snow on the ground. This was the first time I’d seen snow from up close in Spain. The atmosphere was dense with fog, a mist that seemed to suffocate all sound, leaving the surroundings in an eerie silence. There were about twenty of us on the bus, mostly younger people, mostly Spanish.
We followed the signs towards the monument, walking down a simple road, passing a café, towards a large hill that loomed overhead; its top was totally shrouded in fog. The scene gave me a sense of foreboding—the jagged rocks jutting from the hillside, the pine trees laden with snow, the opaque air, the absence of sound. The landscape seemed to be whispering an unintelligible something.
I walked on, and suddenly a form emerged through the fog: a concrete arch, about thirty feet high. This was the front of the monument. Soon the path opened up into a large empty space, a flat terrace covered with snow. I walked into the middle of this terrace, my feet scrunching in the snow, leaving a lonely trail of footprints. From there I could see the monument’s façade. A semicircular row of arches curved around me in a massive embrace. In the middle was the door, and above that a pietá, or lamentation, showing the Virgin Mary bent down over the dead Christ’s body.
There was something cold and sterile about those concrete arches, lifelessly repeating in perfect order like a row of tombstones in a military cemetery. They impressed at first, but had nothing behind them: doorways leading nowhere, meaning nothing. The dreary grey of concrete was only drearier in the fog. I moved towards the door and looked up at the statue. The Virgin looked so absolutely alone out here in the wilderness, up on the mountain amid the rocks and snow: petrified grief, forever mourning.
I passed through the door, decorated with bas reliefs of the Life of Christ, and went inside. This was the basilica, built in the mountain’s belly. A long tunnel stretched out before me, dimly lit. I could hear the soft mechanical hum of ventilation. Footsteps and conversation softly echoed in the cavernous space. A sign on the wall told me to be silent, for I was entering a “sacred place.”
Through another doorway, and I was standing in another tunnel, this one much larger. In the hallway, yellow bulbs glowed like torches; their light was reflected on the polished surface of the floor, making every surface shimmer with a pallid glimmer. I was deep in the earth now, buried under a mountain of rock, far from the sun’s rays and the cool breeze.
Along the walls, tapestries were hung. I looked and saw scenes of chaos: warriors on horseback attacking crowds, multi-headed hydras trampling people underfoot, angels with swords held aloft, fire and smoke and rays of light, battles and beatific visions, and always God, enshrined with light, watching from above. This was the apocalypse, depicted in eight sequential images along the hallway: the Antichrist, the four horsemen, the beast, and the final judgment. In small nooks, underneath giant bas reliefs, altars hung from the walls, telling the story of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation, the visitation, the adoration of the Magi.
My phone was in my hand and I was busy taking pictures, when a woman dressed in black walked by and yelled “No fotos, caballero.” I continued on, pausing here and there to examine a tapestry and an altar, but feeling somehow distracted, maybe even drained. There was something oppressive about the space. Like the façade outside, this hallway seemed sterile, lifeless, inhuman. The perfect symmetry of the decoration—the tapestries and altars arranged in exactly regular intervals, opposite one other, repeating and repeating—and the mathematical precision of every line and angle: there was no warmth in it, no life, only calculation and design.
I ascended a staircase, and found myself among rows of pews. Overhead, on platforms along the walls, were four statues of shrouded figures. Before me was the main altar. Christ hung from a crucifix made from tree trunks, staring up at the ceiling in merciful agony. Now I stared at the ceiling, too, as I stepped into the center of the basilica.
Over me was an enormous dome, golden and flooded with light. It was magnificent. Christ sat enthroned in the center, by far the largest figure, while dozens of believers ascended up towards him in a mountain of men and women. I walked around the circular space, agape at the sight, slowly making my way to where I began. Then I walked around again, this time pausing to investigate the small chapels on either side. They were dedicated to “the fallen.” In one chapel, a man was kneeling in prayer. Who was he? What was he praying for?
In my third pass around the space, I noticed something on the ground. I approached and saw these words written on a concrete slab: Francisco Franco. So this was it; this was the dictator’s tomb. I paused for a long while and stared down at the grave. Here he was, the man who kept Spain under his boot for forty long years. And what was he now? A pile of dust underneath a concrete slab. But he was not forgotten. A bouquet of white and red flowers sat above his name, neatly arranged. The flowers looked fresh. Who left them here? And why?
As I stood there, looking down at the grave, a strange feeling began to take hold of me. An icy hand gripped my insides and twisted; my knees felt weak; sweat ran down my back. Was this a dream? Suddenly a sound snapped me out of the trance. “¡NO FOTOS!” yelled the woman in black at a tourist; and her words, carried by her strong voice, filled up the space and broke, for a moment, the suffocating silence.
I walked around the room once more, and then I fled—walking through the tunnel, through the door, and back into the open air. I went down the front stairs and into the courtyard. In a corner, someone had built a snowman. The poor fellow was already starting to melt. It was the best thing I’d seen all day.
I turned to look at the monument once again. The fog had receded somewhat, giving me a better view of the mountainside. Up above, breaking through the mist like a ship pushing through stormy waves, was the cross. It was just an outline, a faint silhouette in the semi-darkness, standing far up above everything in the surroundings.
I came to the Valley of the Fallen to see a monument to fascism—to the malignant strain of Spanish nationalism that had allied itself with Catholicism and controlled the country for so long. But what I found instead was a monument to human vanity. It was vanity that had cleared away this terrace and had designed this façade; it was vanity that had tunneled into the earth and had elevated this enormous cross; it was vanity that had tried to overpower nature and turn this mountain into a monument to human glory.
It was human vanity—vain in its intentions, vain in its fruits. It was human vanity, spurred by that eternal illusion of earthly power: immortality. But all stone cracks, and all metal rusts, and everything human turns to dust. Nothing of this world will last, not wealth, not glory, not power. For all its permanence, this stone sarcophagus might as well be that snowman, melting in the sun.
The third-most visited monument under the direction of the Patrimonio Nacional, the Valley is undoubtedly the most controversial. Indeed, how can it not be? Whatever Franco may have said or thought about its ostensible purpose—commemorating both sides of the war indifferently—the Valley is an obvious monument to Spanish Fascism: nationalistic, Roman Catholic, Falangist, megalomaniac.
Added to this is the uncomfortable fact that part of the labor that went into the Valley’s construction was done by Spanish prisoners of war of the defeated side. Granted, from what I can find, it seems that these prisoners constituted a rather small percentage of the workforce; what is more, the labor was voluntary and allowed prisoners to commute their sentences. Nevertheless, the thought that Republican soldiers contributed their sweat and toil to a monument celebrating their defeat, can’t help but inspire discomfort.
This is not to mention Franco’s tomb. Francisco Franco is the only person interred in the Valley who didn’t die in the Civil War. What is more, for such a widely despised figure, he is given quite an honorable burial: right in the center of the Basilica, still carefully adorned with flowers. There are many who think his remains should be removed, and others who think they should at least be moved to the mausoleum on an equal footing with the rest of the deceased. The Right counters that this gesture would be pointless, purely symbolic, and would needlessly disturb the populace. So his remains remain.
I should also mention that the other twentieth-century, right-wing dictator of Spain, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, is buried in the center of the Basilica, too. Unlike Franco, he did die in the Civil War; but this does not explain why his tomb is honored above the others.
In his book, Ghosts of Spain, Tremlett describes a Falangist rally that he witnessed inside the Mausoleum. The flag and symbol of Franco’s party were proudly waved, and Franco’s daughter was even in attendance. These rallies were formally outlawed in 2007, as part of the Historical Memory Law. In 2009 and 2010, when Spain was in control of the socialist party, the monument was closed several times. This was ostensibly for safety reasons, though the Right saw it as a sign of suppression. When the socialists were voted out of power in 2011, masses resumed in the Basilica.
The most pressing question, it seems to me, is what should be done with the monument? At present, the Valley of the Fallen is presented as just another historic Catholic Basilica, like El Escorial, with informational plaques about its artwork and design. A visitor, totally innocent of Spanish history, can conceivably visit the monument and never guess that it was connected with a Fascist government, and have no inkling of the controversy that now surrounds it. I think this is not an acceptable situation.
In 2011, an “expert commission” was formed under the socialist government to give advice on the future of the monument. They proposed setting up an interpretive center, to explain to visitors why it exists. They also suggested that remains of the soldiers be identified, and their names inscribed on the terrace outside, and that Franco’s remains should be removed completely. These seem like sensible and good suggestions to me, but the conservative government, upon their ascension to power, announced that they had no intention of following them.
I think this situation needs to change, and soon. As one of my students said, if you see the monument with “non-political eyes,” it is a beautiful and astonishing work. But there is no separating the Valley from its politics; and any attempt to do so is itself a political act—one that tacitly approves of what the monument stands for. History can’t be swept under the rug, especially now; it must be confronted, interpreted, understood, and taught. Reframing the Valley will be a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for Spain to come to grips with its past.
I went to the Valley, in part, to gain perspective on my own country. What I found troubled me. Surprisingly, it was not the monument’s political ideals, profoundly conservative, that did so; nor was it the religious element. As I hinted above, the most disturbing part of the Valley, for me, was the megalomania that inspired its creation.
The impulse to erect a giant cross on top of a mountain and to carve out the world’s biggest basilica underground strikes me as the same impulse, in different form, as the one that spurs people to fight about their inauguration audience size or to constantly boast about their wealth and intelligence. It is the urge to be admired, to demonstrate power, to dominate others. This urge does not seem to me primarily political, but psychological, perhaps even primal.
It is amazing to see how the petty insecurities and lusts of the powerful are translated into physical form—into the Valley of the Fallen, or into Trump’s Tower. What do these constructions tell us about tyranny?
To me, it seems that the real danger is not, and has never been, an ideology, however much I find some ideologies disgusting. The real danger is the ascension to power of a certain type of person, usually a man: self-aggrandizing, bullying, egotistical, and ruthless. A man who is afraid of what he doesn’t understand, who sees everything through the lens of his own sensitive self, who regards all agreement as a sign of submission and all disagreement as an impudent challenge to be squashed.
Such men can do, and have done, lasting harm to democracy. The Valley of the Fallen is a monument to this fact, one that we should keep in mind.
It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.
—Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings
This post is a continuation of a series about Rome. (See here for the introduction; here for my posts about churches; here for basilicas; here for museums; and here for the Vatican.)
By “ruins” I mean all the buildings and monuments that antedate Constantine’s death (337), and were built some time during the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire. I will say no more. The ruins of Rome need no introduction, so I won’t introduce them.
I was stressed, sweaty, tired, and running a little late. Today was my day to visit the Vatican. I needed to get to the ticket office on time, or risk losing my entry to that sacred place. The only problem was that, because I didn’t trust myself with navigating Rome’s metro, especially not when so much was at stake, I opted to walk; and this meant over an hour of trekking, at full speed, on a humid sunny day, as I followed my phone—which occasionally froze and required me to restart the map program—through the unfamiliar city.
Nothing could stop me or slow me down: not the lure of food, not the heat of the sun, not the ambling tourists that crowded the sidewalks. The only thing that could halt my steps was, as it turned out, Trajan’s Column.
I had first seen this monument in art history class; even now I can vividly remember how awed and impressed I was at the craftsmanship displayed by the Romans in this work. The column, I should explain, was made to celebrate the military victories of Trajan. It stands 30 meters (98 feet) tall, and even higher if you include the pedestal. Twisting along this length, covering the entire surface, is a series of bas reliefs depicting Trajan’s military campaigns. The detail is fine and exquisite: hundreds and hundreds of figures, legionaries, barbarians, and beasts of burden, in all varieties of poses and positions, marching and fighting up and down the column. We see Trajan laying siege, crossing rivers, celebrating victory; trumpeters blowing their horns, animals being led to the sacrifice, barbarians being tortured and trampled underfoot.
I must immediately admit, however, that all this detail was mostly invisible to me. You see, the column now sits in a parking lot—quite forlornly, I think—and it isn’t possible to get close enough to really appreciate the bas relief. It would be better if there were some sort of scaffold surrounding the column. As it stands now, the tourist must gape up from a distance.
There is a platform on the top, which can be reached by climbing up the steps inside the column. Originally the work was topped with a statue of an eagle, later replaced by a statue of Trajan himself. This statue was, in turn, later replaced by a statue of St. Peter during the Renaissance. Nowadays the Fords and Hondas that surround the column add an extra contemporary flavor. Thus time and changing fashions conspire to render the old glory of the Roman emperor obsolete and ridiculous. And yet, even now, there is no way to look upon Trajan’s Column without imagining that same emperor standing on the top, looking proudly out at his city and his empire, the ruler and conqueror of all within view and beyond the horizon in every direction.
I turned a corner, and there it was: the Pantheon. I wasn’t even looking for it; I had been searching for the Trevi Fountain. Only in Rome can you unintentionally stumble upon one of the most famous buildings in the world.
The exterior of the building is striking enough. In front is a portico, supported by eight Corinthian columns. Sticking out behind this portico is a somewhat bulbous mass, a circular structure made of plain, drab concrete. The surface is discolored from centuries of rain, leaving ugly water stains, and is cheerlessly grey, even in the bright summer sun of Rome. But contained within this somewhat unpromising exterior is one of the most beautiful spaces in history.
The Pantheon’s name, which means “all the gods,” reveals its original function as a temple. (I read on the Wikipedia, however, that there is some doubt about whether all the Olympian gods were actually worshipped there.) It was built during the reign of Hadrian, in about 120 CE, and is one of the best-preserved buildings from ancient Rome. Indeed, it seems hardly fitting to include the Pantheon in my post on “ruins,” since it is a fully functioning building.
The building was mobbed when I arrived. A line extended out the door; the surrounding area was packed with people; and inside there was hardly an inch of elbow room. This is unsurprising, considering that the ancient temple is right in the center of Rome, free to visit, and one of the most famous edifices in the world.
Since the beginning of the medieval period, the Pantheon has been used as a Christian church. It was this re-consecration and repurposing that saved the building from oblivion. (The official name is the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs.) There is an altar at the far end of the building; and statues of Mary and various Saints stand guard around the perimeter of the building. The final effect is somewhat like standing in the Mezquita in Cordova: the Christian trapping look out of place in building whose architectural language is so different from a usual church.
The real highlight of the Pantheon is its ceiling. Even today, there is no unreinforced concrete dome larger than the Pantheon’s. It is a magnificent architectural feat. To me it scarcely seems believable that the Romans, without computers or calculators or even protractors, could have designed and executed something so geometrically precise. The coffering is so clean and regular that it looks digital.
In the center of this dome is an oculus, or opening, that lets sunlight pour into the building. A bright, yellow spot of the sun’s rays illuminates the interior like a searchlight, traveling around the space as the sun moves in the sky. On the floor below this opening are drains, so that the building doesn’t flood in the rain.
I sat down on one of the pews facing the altar, and stared up at the magnificent ceiling, suspended so enchantingly above me. This temple had been built for many gods, and had been re-dedicated to One; but as I sat there, it was easy to see what that the Pantheon was really consecrating: the force of human genius.
The architecture of Rome speaks the language of power. It has been imitated around the world, in ancient and modern times, to symbolize dominance and military might.
You can see this in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the Porte Saint-Denise in the same city; you can see this in Madrid, with the Puerta de Alcalá; you can see this in London, with the Wellington Arch; you can see this in New York City, with the Washington Square Arch; and you can see this most clearly, perhaps, in Berlin, with the Reichstag Building and its neoclassical portico, the towering Berlin Victory Column inspired by Trajan’s Column, and the Brandenburg Gate, one of so many triumphal arches to be inspired by Roman examples.
One of the earlier and most influential of these Roman arches is that of Titus, located just outside the Roman Forum, on the famous Via Sacra. Built in the first century CE, it has only one arch. The inside of this arch is coffered with floral motifs. On the inner walls, on both sides, are reliefs commemorating the victories of Titus, the emperor Domitian’s older brother. I remembered from my art history class that this arch is notable for having one of the earliest depictions of a Menorah, which is pictured in the frieze celebrating Titus’s conquest of Jerusalem.
Larger and grander is the arch of Septimius Severus, which is in the Roman Forum itself. This was completed in 203 CE, and dedicated to the military victories of Septimus Severus and his sons against the Parthians. It has three arches—a large one in the center, and two smaller ones flanking it—and its façades are covered with reliefs depicting military campaigns. One of Septimius Severus’s sons, Caracalla, eventually had his brother Geta assassinated; and Geta’s name and image were removed from all monuments.
The largest of the three triumphal arches is the Arch of Constantine, completed in 315. This arch is situated between the Coliseum and the Roman Forum; originally it spanned the Via triumphalis, the road that generals and emperors traveled when they entered the city in triumph. It is an interesting stylistic jumble, since it was built out of spolia, or the remains of earlier pieces, which leads to juxtapositions of artistic periods. I can’t help but seeing this gesture—appropriating Rome’s glorious past—as a sign of the empire’s decadence. Indeed, Constantine’s arch, while the largest, was also the last triumphal arch built in Rome.
The Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Colosseum are included on the same ticket. This is important to know, since it makes buying your ticket much more convenient. Most people buy their tickets at the Colosseum ticket office, which can mean quite a long wait on line. You might have better luck doing as I did, and buying your tickets at the Palatine Hill ticket office, on Via San Gregorio 30. There wasn’t a single person ahead of me; in three minutes I had my tickets and was strolling around the Palatine Hill. And this was on a Saturday!
The Palatine Hill is one of the Seven Hills of Rome; and of these seven it is the most central. According to legend, this hill was where the she-wolf, Lupa, nurtured the abandoned Romulus and Remus, and where Romulus, after killing his brother in a fit of pique, decided to found the city that bears his name. The less-mythological origins of this hill are also interesting; archaeologists have discovered settlements dating back to the Bronze Age, the remains of which you can see displayed in the Palatine Museum. Both in fable and in fact, then, the Palatine Hill is at the heart of Rome’s history.
As you stroll up the hill, a jumble of sun-baked brick strikes your eye. Arches tower over arches, in a rolling, chaotic mass of rusty red. I could not guess what any of these skeletal structures had been used for. I was first reminded of the abandoned Yonkers Power Plant, near my home in Sleepy Hollow, a similarly empty pile of brick. Yet that ruin, far younger, is somewhat ghoulish; it still echoes with the sounds of departed life. These bones of Rome had been washed by the rain of a thousand seasons, and bleached by the sun of a thousand summers. They were dead and sterile; they seemed to be part of the landscape, growing from the soil, rather than anything put there by people.
But of course people did build these structures—very powerful people. These ruins are, most of them, the remains of palace complexes of erstwhile emperors; the biggest of these is the Flavian Palace (Domus Flavia), which owes its ultimate form to Septimius Severus, but there are also temples and aristocratic houses from the Republican period. Another notable structure is the one known as the Stadium of Domitian, which looks like a hippodrome for chariot races, except that it is obviously too small to fulfill that purpose. This has led to some speculation as to its function; the most popular theory is that it was the emperor’s private gardens.
Because there were so many different buildings, from different eras, jutting up against one another and superimposed on top of one another, it was difficult for me to get a sense of what it used to look like by walking around the ruins. Instead, I was given a sense of time, of lost time; a feel for the lapsed years that disappeared into an unknown past. So many generations had come and gone on this hill, dismantling, repurposing, renovating, and expanding the work of their predecessors. These were people like me, with their own ambitions and ideologies, their own perspectives; and some were the most powerful men of their time. And now look what is left.
Aside from its ruins, the Palatine Hill is worth visiting simply for the view. Standing atop of the hill, surrounded by the remains of an ancient empire, you can see modern Rome stretch out before you. St. Peter’s stands proudly in the distance; to one side is the Circus Maximus; and standing above the enormous retaining walls, which extended the hill’s scope to accommodate the ever-growing imperial palace, you can see the whole Roman Forum.
The only thing, besides the burning Roman sun, that detracted from my visit were the art installations set up around the site. Take, for example, Mark Lulic’s piece, The Death of the Monument. This is just a large sign that says “Death of the Monument” in bright red letters. Now, in my opinion this piece obviously has no aesthetic merit, since it looks like an unimaginative advertisement. Its only purpose, then, can be conceptual. And as one might expect, accompanying this work is an explanatory caption, written in pretentious art jargon. I will quote an example:
Persuasive and seducing like in the best mass communication marketing tradition, the admonition transforms into an illogical presence of the artwork, which is a monumental negation of itself. The visual impact conveyed through a specialized and unconscious mechanism acquires instinctively a conceptual form, leading us to raise some questions: doesn’t the death of the monument coincide with its birth?
And so on in the same vein.
I find this disturbing on many levels. First, I am against any work of art that lacks both aesthetic and intellectual interest, and requires a condescending and badly written plaque in order to explain the art to the viewer. Good art should never need to be explained, only experienced. This is putting aside the sacrilege of putting such mediocre art in the middle of the Palatine Hill, turning a profound historical visit into a trip to a mediocre art gallery. The artist’s bad taste has been compounded by the bad taste of whoever let him install his art here. And this piece is only one example of many that pollute the Palatine Hill. Such art is a depressing index of our current cultural moment.
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) sits in a valley underneath the Palatine Hill. This forum was, for many hundreds of years, the heart of Rome; it was a center of commerce, trade, worship, and political power. Now it is center of tourism.
Looking down from that hill, you can see the Forum in its entirety. What you see is a jumble of columns with no roof to support, domes hanging over open air, fragmentary walls slowly crumbling to dust, the foundations of demolished buildings, and doorways leading nowhere; you see arches celebrating long-dead emperors, fountains sacred to long-dead heroes, temples dedicated to long-dead gods: the ruins of an entire civilization.
It would take many thousands of words to describe all of these ruins individually. I will only mention a few in passing. The Temple of Castor and Pollux, built around 500 BCE, is now little more than three towering Corinthian columns supporting the smallest bit of roof. The Temple of Saturn, built about the same time, is somewhat more complete, still possessing all of its front portico; in the old temple building, now long-gone, the Romans used to keep the official scales for weighing precious metals. The old Palace of the Vestal Virgins—where virgins lived a life of solitude, tending a sacred flame—has been lost; but several statues of the blessed women still grace the forum.
Perhaps the most impressive ruin, at least for sheer size, is the Basilica of Maxentius. This was completed during the reign of Constantine. Now only three of the basilica’s three concrete barrel vaults, coffered to save weight, remain standing. Rising to 39 meters (130 feet), it was the largest building in the Roman Forum; even now it is so large that it looks scarcely out of place amid the modern city. How on earth Romans managed to construct a building so large, with little internal support, is beyond my feeble understanding and imagination.
The most complete building in the Roman Forum might be Santa Maria Antiqua. Built in the 5th century, this is the oldest Christian monument in the forum, and one of the most important examples of early Christian art. The reason it has been so well-preserved is because an earthquake buried the church in the 9th century, and it stayed sealed under the rocks for over 1,000 years, until finally it was re-opened in the 20th century. This makes the church something of an unintentional time-capsule. What was revealed, upon its re-discovery, was a wonderful assortment of frescoes, their vivid colors preserved by the sterile air. These frescoes are especially valuable, since they provide a window into the pre-iconoclastic period of Christian art.
For my part, although I am ignorant as to their scholarly importance, I could not but be moved by these ancient, decaying portraits of angels and saints. In the dim light and dusky air, amid the faded ink and chipped plaster, the serene eyes of the first Christians stared back at me from across centuries—a triumphant victory, however temporary, against Time’s sharp tooth.
Finally it was time to visit the last ruin. Blinking in the hot sun, overwhelmed by all I had seen—far too much to take in for one day—I walked away from the forum and towards the most famous building in Rome. I still remember seeing the Colosseum in pictures in my sixth grade history class. I remember learning about the gladiators, the battles between wild animals and condemned prisoners, the executions of Christians, the mock-naval battles. Now I was finally here.
Purists will insist on calling it the Flavian Amphitheater. This was its original name, which it took from the name of the dynasty who built it. Construction began in 72 under Vespasian, and was completed in 80 by Titus; then Domitian, also a Flavian emperor, couldn’t resist making a few modifications of his own. It is known as the Colosseum—or so the theory goes—because of the colossal statue of Nero that used to stand nearby. (According to Wiki, this statue was 30 meters, or 100 feet, tall. Now no trace of it remains, save its base. How something like that disappears isn’t easy to fathom.)
The Colosseum is the biggest amphitheater ever built. It could hold somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Its tall outer walls reach a height of 48 meters (157 feet). Elliptical rather than perfectly circular, it is 189 meters (615 feet) long and 156 meters (510 feet) wide; its perimeter stretches to about 550 meters (1,800 feet).
But these numbers seem pale and lifeless compared to the experience of seeing it with your own eyes. It is a mammoth structure. As you stand on the hillside facing its outer walls, the building fills up your entire field of vision. Its walls tower above you, dwarfing the hundreds of people scurrying about its edges. Circumambulating the building takes five long minutes. The tall outer wall only extends about halfway round the structure; where it has collapsed, you can see the rows of interior arches that supported the many rows of seats inside. The entire area around the Colosseum is packed with tourists, tour guides, and vendors. Selfie sticks jut out left and right; groups pose for photo after photo; aggressive guides try to sell you their services.
Even though I had a ticket, I had to wait a few minutes on a long line. The security was pretty tight; everyone had to scuttle through a pair of overworked metal detectors. When you are finally inside, the most striking thing is the place’s familiarity. I had already seen so many photos of the place that every curve of its outline was already known to me. This happens with every iconic monument. It takes an act of will to see the place as it really is, rather than as a cultural symbol. I tried to blink away my preconceptions, to see the Colosseum afresh, as a hunk of stones laden with history; but so many notions had already molded my reaction that I felt strangely disconnected.
There is nothing especially beautiful about the Colosseum’s interior. Every part of the building is the same shade of brown; and its partially collapsed state makes it seem like a rolling mass of dun-colored stones in some lonely desert. The building is so filled with windows and arches that it is practically transparent; what remains today are just the building’s bones, its vital organs having long been reduced to dust. Today there are two levels available to visitors, though in the past there must have been at least four (and many more rows of seats). As I walked in the covered corridors that circumscribe the amphitheater, I was reminded when I was in Madrid’s bull ring, Las Ventas: and in that moment I could dimly imagine how it must have felt to be a Roman bustling through a crowd, trying to find his seat, so he could watch a bloody spectacle.
Beautiful or not, the building is grand and impressive. Merely as a feat of engineering, it is enough to inspire awe. Putting aside its massive size and its thoughtful organization, allowing visitors quick exit and entry, the Colosseum also boasted a system, called the hypogeum, of trap-doors and hidden chambers that allowed gladiators and animals to enter the ring from many different spots. What remains of this elaborate system can be seen in the amphitheater’s arena.
The now-absent floor of the Colosseum was made of wood and covered with sand. The hypogeum was below this, which consisted of walls, cages, and tunnels, two levels deep. Complex pulleys, and even hydraulic equipment, were used to haul men and animals onto the stage. Animals as big as elephants could be introduced this way. Tunnels also connected the Colosseum with nearby stables and gladiator barracks, allowing the “performers” to enter into the arena unseen by the crowd. Before this hypogeum was built, the arena could be flooded with water to have mock-naval battles.
The ultimate irony of the Colosseum is, of course, that something so grand and inspiring, the result of so much knowledge and work, could be used for such barbarous purposes. Slaves condemned to kill other slaves, exotic animals brought to be butchered, prisoners mauled by lions en masse. This is only another example of the sad human truth, that our greatest gifts and capabilities, our art and our technology, can be employed in the service of the darkest side of our nature. This is why we must focus our education on ends as well as means.
Edward Gibbon decided to write his magisterial history of Rome’s decline and fall after seeing her ruins. Upon witnessing these remains of a long-dead empire, the contemporary visitor cannot help but ask the same question as did Gibbon: how did such a powerful civilization collapse and fail? How is it possible that the people who built the Pantheon and who decorated Trajan’s column could vanish?
History teaches few lessons more clearly than this: that all human order requires constant reinforcement, or it will fall into disorder. Gibbon said much the same thing when he reminded us that “all that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.” Rome’s progress from the proud conqueror who erected arches celebrating her victories, to the aging empire of Constantine that looked backward to Rome’s glory days, to the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410; her progress from the glorious marble wings you can see in the Palatine Hill Museum, to the sad faces that stare back at you from the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua; her progress from the engineers who could create the concrete dome of the Pantheon, to the middle ages when the secret of making concrete had been lost: What does all this mean for us? Are we staring into our past, or our future?
And yet, did Rome really fall? Here I am, writing in a Latinized language, in a European country whose laws and institutions were influenced by Rome’s, and whose language, Spanish, grew directly out of Rome’s. Here I am in Spain, one of the many countries of the European Union, an effort to unite the continent largely inspired by Rome’s example. Order, when neglected, may fall into disorder; and perhaps it always does. But the ideal of order persists: it persists in the memories of men and women, it persists in books and the spoken word, and it persists in monumental ruins—in broken columns, crumbling amphitheaters, and cracked foundations—that serve as a beacon for future generations.
In the year 812—or so the story goes—a hermit in the northwest of Spain saw a strange light hovering over an empty field. When he and his compatriots later went to investigate, they found an old Roman tomb; and inside, miraculously preserved, was the body of Saint James the Apostle.
There are, of course, several difficulties with this story. First, James was supposed to have been martyred by being decapitated, but his body was found intact. (This is not to mention the 800-year preservation—although admittedly, under special circumstances, bodies have been preserved for far longer.) Moreover, since he was killed in Jerusalem, it is difficult to explain how his body traveled hundreds of miles to Spain. According to tradition, an angel deposited the body in an empty, rudderless boat, which miraculously sailed all the way to Spain; but this requires that we invoke a legend to explain another legend.
According to another story, St. James was later seen at the Battle of Clavijo, fighting with the Christians against the Moors. This earned him the title “Matamoros” (Moorslayer). Unfortunately, putting aside the obvious problem of resurrection, the Battle of Clavijo is now almost unanimously believed to be a fictitious battle, invented hundreds of years after it supposedly took place.
All of these are legends that stretch credulity to the breaking point. But legends, even if they are not literally true, can often teach us valuable lessons about history. The main thing that these stories tell us is that the Christians in Medieval Spain needed a figure to rally around, a religious and yet warlike figure to provide them with inspiration.
The reason for this is not difficult to discern. In the 9th century, Moors were in control of most of the Iberian Peninsula, with the Christians pushed into a pocket in the north. Fighting an enemy with a different religion, a bigger population, more resources, and a thriving culture was probably not terribly encouraging for the Christians. Thus, Santiago (Spanish for “Saint James”) was discovered, an event that eventually transformed the lonely region of Galicia into one of the most important religious sites in Christendom.
Since the 9th century, people have been visiting Santiago de Compostela, a tradition that has continued, unbroken, ever since. It would not be until the 11th century that people began visiting from beyond the Pyrenees, mostly because the north of Spain wasn’t in Christian hands until then. That route, the Camino Francés, is now the most famous and popular of all, taking the pilgrim from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port across the whole breadth of Spain to Santiago, a journey that takes about 30 days. An older route is the Camino Primitivo, which starts in Oviedo, in Asturias, and takes about two weeks. But nowadays there are innumerable routes you can take, all of them converging on the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
During the Middle Ages, the Camino was often undertaken as a form of penance, a way to expiate some sin. Today the pilgrimage mostly attracts tourists, though there is no shortage of those whose motivation is religious or spiritual. My motivation was, I suppose, curiosity. I had never walked a long distance on foot, I had never stayed in a hostel, and I had never been to Santiago (or Galicia, for that matter). This is not to mention that friends, acquaintances, and strangers all recommended the experience. But since neither GF nor I had a lot of time—not to mention, we weren’t sure we were up to it—we couldn’t dream of doing the whole 30 day trek from France. So we took a week off and decided to spend five days on camino, five days experiencing the pilgrimage. We bought boots and backpacks, and booked our Blablacar to our starting point: Lugo.
We arrived in the afternoon, and I was feeling nervous. I am by nature a nervous fellow, often for no good reason; but that day I felt nervous for what I thought was a legitimate cause: we didn’t have any reservations for a place to stay. This was because, as GF informed me, we could just go to the local albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) and sleep there. But we discovered on the ride up to Lugo that, this very weekend, the city was hosting its popular Roman festival. The town would be packed with visitors. This made me fear that, due to the influx of tourists, the albergue would be totally full. By the time we arrived, I had convinced myself that we’d have to sleep on the street.
In the hopes of avoiding this fate, I was desperately trying to get us to the albergue as quickly as possible, since the beds are always given on a first-come, first-served basis. But to get a bed, first we had to get our pilgrim’s passports. This is a little booklet that allows you to use the pilgrim’s hostels, not to mention to get your certificate of completion when you get to Santiago. It is full of blank pages, which you are supposed to get stamped in the places you stay at and pass through, as a way of proving that you did the camino.
Where you get the passport depends on what town you’re in. We found out from the local tourist office that we had to go to the cathedral. There, a man sold us each a passport for the very reasonable sum of 2€, and then stamped it with the logo of the Lugo Cathedral. From there we rushed to the albergue and found that, contrary to my worries, they had plenty of spots. We got our passports duly stamped at the front desk, paid 6€ apiece—a typical price at the public albergues—and went upstairs to the sleeping area.
It was a Spartan room, with white walls and aluminum bunkbeds. The receptionist had given us both a plastic package at the front desk, which I discovered to be a thin, tissue-like covering for the mattress and pillow, I suppose for hygiene. I put these on the bed, and then had a look around the place. The sleeping area must have had space for at least 20 people, yet the bathroom only had one shower; and the shower had no door or screen, which for me was very distressing, since I like my privacy.
Besides that, the place was lacking one more crucial thing: blankets. A quick look around told me that most of the other pilgrims were smart enough to have brought sleeping bags. Us two, we didn’t have anything. But what could we do now? Just hope it didn’t get too cold.
We had until 10pm to explore the city. If we weren’t back at the albergue by then, we’d be locked out for the night. (This sort of thing is typical of albergues.) But this was more than enough time to see Lugo.
Both of us were very hungry by now. Luckily, because of the Roman festival, the city center was full of little stands selling food. The vendors at these stands were, as befitting a Roman festival, dressed in togas; and the labels for the food were written in Latin. We ordered empanadas gallegas, which are a kind of flat empanada typical of Galicia, cut into triangular slices like a pizza. (By the way, did you know that empanadas originated in Portugal and Galicia?) I had the “pullum” (chicken).
When we were done eating, we took some time to explore the festival. The entire town was a scene of buzzing activities. In one square, wooden walls were built, creating a little fortress; and in front were catapults, trebuchets, and other siege weapons—all life-sized copies, if somewhat crudely made. Young men and women swaggered around in togas, tunics, capes, and armor, some of them holding fake swords. Others were dressed like barbarians, wearing fur cloaks and wielding spears. A marching band passed through, dressed in impressively realistic centurion costumes.
Little stands were everywhere, selling ribbons and garlands of flowers, scented candles and jars of honey, dried meats and cheeses, wooden mortars and pestles, silk tunics and leather-bound notebooks, plastic helmets and toy bows and arrows, fake swords and brightly painted shields. Some people walked around, dragging dozens of floating, cartoon-themed balloons, while firefighters stood on the periphery in case of emergency. It was a lovely sight.
After enjoying the festival, we went back to the cathedral to get a better look. I do not remember the cathedral in enough detail to give a proper description, but I will add that it is a really beautiful place, both inside and out. The exterior has a balance and elegance typical of the Renaissance. Since the day was cloudy and overcast, the inside was quite dark. Thus the cathedral had that gloomy, mystical ambience I so enjoy in Spanish churches—the shadowy space only illuminated by the gleam of light reflecting off the gold altar-piece. There is, for me, something especially profound about Spanish Catholicism, and the Lugo Cathedral exemplified it perfectly. I was quite impressed.
Next we had a real treat: the Roman walls. Lugo is, in fact, the only city in the world still surrounded by fully intact Roman walls. Undoubtedly the walls have been repaired many times over the centuries; indeed, sections were being repaired that very day. Nevertheless, the walls are original, and they encircle the entire old section of Lugo. These walls are made of thin slabs of granite (which are ubiquitous in Galicia), and reach a height of 10 to 15 meters (about 30 to 50 feet), according to Wikipedia. They are free to visit, and have many staircases and ramps to get on or off.
We got on and started walking. I didn’t appreciate how tall and thick the walls were until we got to the top. I wonder why the Romans built them this way, for they seemed unnecessarily big to me. It’s difficult for me to imagine any of the local “barbarian” tribes posing such a serious threat to the Roman military that these robust defenses would be necessary. The walls are too tall to climb, too strong to knock down. Even a modern day truck going at full speed wouldn’t be enough to break through; so what hope did the barbarians have? I suppose that fortifications like these have a psychological as well as a military purpose, demonstrating Roman might. And I also suppose that “better safe than sorry” is a principle that the Romans must have followed too.
The circumference of the walls is more than two kilometers. We did not want to wear ourselves out before the camino even began, so we walked about half that before getting off. After this, there isn’t much to tell. We went to a supermarket to get some food, spent some time relaxing at the albergue, and went to sleep early.
Or at least, I tried to go to sleep. Laying down without a blanket, in a room full of 20 other people, some of them snoring, others whispering, others staring at the ceiling, made me feel uncomfortably exposed. I could see everyone and they could see me. Lying there, so obviously unprepared, I couldn’t help feeling like a fool. It took me about two hours to finally get to sleep; and I was woken up two hours later, shivering all over from the cold. I lay there awake for some time, vainly wrapping myself in my little towel for warmth, too sleepy to think or to feel anything in particular. Then finally my body adapted to the cold and I drifted off once again, but not for long.
Day 1: Lugo to Ponte Ferreira
We woke at six in the morning.
Waking up early had been recommended to us, since, as I said before, the beds in the albergues as given on a first-come, first-served basis; and the idea of walking five hours and then not being to find a bed sent shivers of terror down my spine. I was determined not to let that happen.
The walk did not start smoothly. We attempted to follow the signs for the camino, but quickly got lost. After some panicked walking about, GF looked up the proper route on her phone and we got ourselves on track. The morning was cool, grey, and misty. It was the time of day that seems suspended halfway between dream and reality, when everyone is asleep, when the town is silent and empty, and when the world is covered in a shroud of fog.
Or it would have seemed like this, had not Lugo been full of bedraggled partygoers. The Spanish are really intense: even in this little town, dozens and dozens of people stayed out partying until six in the morning. As GF and I walked along in our boots and backpacks, groups of half-drunk and half-asleep young people—their togas in disarray and their tiaras sitting sideways on their heads—slowly made their way to their beds. It was quite a sight.
Soon we were out of the town, following the path. It was really exciting at first; it felt like a scavenger hunt, following each clue to find a prize. The signs for the camino are shaped like scallop shells, and are usually placed on concrete platforms along the roadway, although sometimes the signs are stuck into the sides of buildings.
The scallop shell, by the way, is one of the most important symbols of the camino. The shape of the shell itself is a wonderful representation of the voyage, with all the lines of the shell converging on a single point, just as all the pilgrimage routes converge on Santiago. Also, the way that scallop shells get swept up by the waves and deposited on the beach is symbolic of pilgrims getting swept up on the camino and deposited in Santiago. It is not known for sure why the scallop shell was adopted as the symbol of the camino. There are various legends surrounding the origins, but the most likely explanation seems to be that pilgrims just wanted a souvenir to take back, and scallop shells made nice keepsakes.
That first morning, the scallop-shell signs directed us on a grassy path surrounded on both sides by granite walls. Then we were led down a staircase under a bridge, across a river, and away we went on a road into the countryside of Galicia. I was still feeling anxious. The idea of spending every night in a place with public showers and no blankets didn’t sit well with me. I imagined myself by the end of the experience, dirty, stinky, and beside myself with sleep-deprivation. But I did my best to put away these thoughts and appreciate the walk.
It was extremely charming, being led on and on by the scallop shells. The morning was still young, and the temperature was perfect: cool, misty, with a slight breeze.
It wasn’t long until we had left the suburbs and had entered the countryside of Galicia. Here I soon noticed that the province of Galicia is quite distinct from the rest of Spain. For one, it is green. Madrid is dry and up in the mountains, so the soil is sandy and the trees are sparse and scrawny. But Galicia is fairly flat and very rainy, so is covered in thick, lush vegetation. For me, this was wonderful, since one of the things I miss the most about New York is the trees and forests—the ability to get lost in the woods, with the sky covered by the canopy overhead and the tree trunks closing in around you. Thus Galicia didn’t feel foreign to me, but made me feel right at home.
Also distinct is the architecture of Galicia, which relies on their copious supplies of granite. They use granite for everything: for houses, barns, fences, statues, bridges, walls, and roofs. The way that towns are distributed in Galicia is also striking: instead of being widely spaced, with big stretches of emptiness between them, as is common in the rest of Spain, the towns are lightly spread throughout the province, with a few farms here, a few cottages there, and not many big areas of emptiness.
The Galicians also have two signature architectural works. First are the big stone crucifixes that they like to put outside their churches. Second are the hórreos, which are raised food storage containers used to keep out rats and other vermin. They are typically built on large platforms, with a barrier on the bottom so that no rodent could climb up. The upper structure is usually made with a granite frame and wooden walls, often with a crucifix on top.
At the time, however, GF and I didn’t know this, so we spent many hours trying to figure out what the things were. Because of the crucifix, at first we thought they were family tombs. But then we noticed that we could see through the cracks in the wooden boards, and there was nothing inside. (Nowadays people just use refrigerators to store their food.) I was wondering if it had some sort of religious significance, like a family shrine; and GF thought it might be used to keep animals. Well, to any who are reading this blog, now you have been spared our confusion.
The route alternated between country roads and forest paths. The latter were certainly preferable, not only because of the more scenic surroundings, but because it felt more comfortable to walk on dirt than asphalt. That being said, the dirt trails were occasionally muddy, at times impassably so; and the first day I managed to get my pants absolutely covered in dirt. A word to the wise: don’t wear white trousers on your camino.
I expected to do a lot of thinking and talking on the camino, but for the most part we went along in a thoughtless silence. Most of the time I simply got lost in the scenery, observing the Galician countryside. We walked through little villages, many just a dozen houses along the road. Dogs were everywhere, barking and sniffing at us as we passed. Now and then we’d go by a farmer, engaged in some day to day task: sitting on their tractor, rummaging around in their shed, escorting their cows out to pasture, switch in hand, whipping and yelling to keep the animals moving. Sometimes the scenery would bore me with its tedious repetitiousness, but then a snatch of singular beauty would shock me out of my weariness: a glance of cows sunbathing through the trees, a granite church by the roadside, a trail lined with purple flowers.
Of course, there was some pain involved. For one, we were sleep-deprived and hungry. We ate a light breakfast early in the morning, and didn’t eat lunch until around 3:00 pm. The only thing that kept us going was a package of mixed nuts that GF had wisely brought along. Thankfully, the path was usually flat, so we didn’t feel exhausted by the walking. But it wasn’t long before our feet began to get sore and our bulky backpacks pressed painfully on our shoulders.
In general, the early mornings were easiest, since we were refreshed from sleep; then, after an hour, we’d begin to get tired; eventually we’d get our second wind, as we got into the rhythm of walking; and then a more complete exhaustion would begin to take hold around noon.
This first day was the hardest. We walked about 25 kilometers, which took seven hours. We arrived hungry, exhausted, tired, sore, and covered in dirt and sweat. All I wanted was a shower and a warm place to sleep; and I was doubtful about getting either of these. But we were in luck. This time, we stayed at a private albergue. This meant that the prices were higher—10 euros instead of 6—but it also meant they had warm blankets and individual showers.
We were actually the first to arrive at the albergue, beating everyone else from Lugo. I was so nervous about not getting a bed, I didn’t allow us to take any breaks or to let up the pace. I don’t recommend this: the camino isn’t a race. Take my advice, and don’t obsess about not getting a place to stay, since it can interfere with your ability to relax and enjoy the experience.
We took our boots off our stinky and sore feet, took long showers, changed into our pajamas, and washed our dirty clothes. We had sandwiches for lunch, and then spent time relaxing in bed, reading and napping. At night we had a communal dinner with the other pilgrims, which I recommend. None of them spoke English, giving us a good opportunity to practice our Spanish. We ate seafood paella and complained about Donald Trump—a perfect dinner, if you asked me.
Then we went to bed, tired and satisfied, ready for our next leg of the journey.
Day 2: Ponte Ferreira to Melide
The next day we woke up at 6, had a communal breakfast, and hit the road.
Again, the landscape was shrouded in mist. A wonderful silence permeated the countryside. The sun was hidden behind the clouds, a cool breeze gently blew, and our voices and footsteps seemed muffled in that heavy air. The dim light and the grey fog turned everything the same liquid color and blurred the boundaries between earth and sky. Gradually the fog receded and clear sunlight poured in from above, making every leaf and flower glow with their proper shade, reestablishing the normal shapes of things.
In addition to being very bright, the sun also has the unfortunately quality of being remarkably hot. I certainly felt this was we walked on into the daylight hours, the sun beating down upon my neck. My back and shoulders were absolutely soaked in sweat, since my backpack prevented any ventilation. The water in our bottles got unpleasantly warm, and soon there wasn’t much water left.
We walked through a pocket of farmland, passing field after field, until we found ourselves in a hilly stretch of open land. On the hilltops were dozens, if not hundreds, of wind turbines spinning away. The path kept leading us closer to them, allowing me to get a better look. I enjoyed this, since I find wind turbines to be really beautiful. They look modern, even space-age with their sleek white form; and yet they blend in so peacefully with the landscape. To me, the view represents the future harmony of humans with their environment, using both technology and taste to achieve a sustainable relationship.
Our path began to take us up one of these hills, disclosing a progressively more expansive view of the countryside around us. Soon both of us were gaping and sputtering—“Wow, wow, it’s so nice!”—and stopping every twenty feet to take more photos and to take it all in.
A little bit after one o’ clock, we reached our destination: Melide. This is a town with a population of about 9,000, which is actually quite large for the area. We found an albergue—with blankets!—and made ourselves at home. Already present was a Canadian woman, holding an ice pack to her leg. She was extremely talkative, and soon we learned that her son had bought her a ticket to Europe as a Christmas present, so they could walk the camino together; but about a week’s walk from the final point she hurt her knee. Also present were a couple women from Puerto Rico, one a makeup artist and one a painter. We made small talk for a while until, compelled by hunger, GF and I went out to get some food.
Melide is most well known for its pulpo (octopus), so we went to the town’s most well-regarded pulpería: A Garnacha. It’s a big place with long, wooden benches and a busy wait staff. GF and I ordered some potatoes, pimientos, and octopus. It was all delicious. Most distinctive was the strong, spicy paprika they put on everything.
An elderly Galician couple sat next to us. I was trying to decide what to drink, so when I noticed the waiter bring them a small pitcher of wine, I asked:
“Sorry, what kind of wine is that?”
“This? This is Ribeiro. It’s good, I recommend it,” the man said.
I ordered some when the waiter came by again, and quickly got a chance to taste it myself.
“Wow, it’s very good,” I said.
“Isn’t it? It’s the local specialty.”
“It tastes very young, very fruity.”
“Yes, they don’t age the wine in barrels, but bottle it immediately. That’s how we like it.”
“Well, cheers!” I said, and we all clinked our glasses and returned to our meals.
After we finished eating, the man leaned over and said:
“Would you like a coffee? We invite you.” (This means he’ll pay.)
“Really? Sure we would.”
“So are you both pilgrims?”
“Yes, we walked five hours today.”
“Where did you start?”
“In Lugo, not too far away.”
“Ah, well, that’s still good. And where are you from?”
“New York, but we live in Madrid.”
“Really? What do you do there?”
“That’s lovely. I’m a Spanish teacher, myself.”
“I work for an NGO here, teaching immigrants how to speak.”
So the conversation went, exchanging pleasantries and making small talk. He told us more about the local cuisine and gave us recommendations for places to see in Santiago. After coffee, the man had me try a couple of the local liquors. By the time I left, I had downed two shots in addition to the wine, making me a bit tipsy. It wasn’t long before we had finished talking and parted ways; but this short conversation is one of my favorite memories from the camino. It felt wonderful to have two local people welcome us like that.
The rest of the evening we spent resting and chatting with the Canadians and the Puerto Ricans. Soon we were off to sleep, ready for our next day.
Day 3: Melide to Arzúa
We awoke to another cool, misty morning.
By now, the walking had already begun to take a toll on us. I felt achy and apathetic. GF felt energetic enough, but her feet were beginning to blister. One of the Canadians told her that Vaseline would help, and even gave her some to put on; but even so treated, her feet felt sore and sensitive.
The trails were much more crowded now. Our route was linking up with the more popular Camino Francés, so we were seldom alone. This did ruin some of the romance of the walk, since it didn’t feel as adventurous with so many other people around. The compensating pleasure was to see all the types of people that the Camino attracts.
There were Spaniards, Americans, Brits, Germans, Chinese, Portuguese, and Italians—not to mention the Puerto Ricans and Canadians. I saw a husband and wife with two young kids, pushing them along in a sports stroller. I briefly met a man from Manchester, who was walking the camino at the impressive age of 83. There were couples, groups of friends, and loners. At a café, I spent some time talking to a father and daughter who had walked all the way from France. And several times we passed a young, hippy couple who were walking along with a donkey, pitching a tent by the side of the road. There were many bicyclists, too, who would often zoom by in their brightly-colored, form-fitting outfits, yelling “Buen Camino!” as they passed. No matter what country you come from, what language you speak, that’s what you say to another pilgrim when you pass on the road: Buen Camino!
Seeing such a variety of people made me think of a section in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. During his pilgrimage to Mecca, as part of the Hajj, Malcolm X saw people of all different races interacting as brothers and sisters; and this experience inspired him to change his pessimistic views about the coexistence of races.
This, I think, is one of the lessons of any pilgrimage. When you’re on the road, with only some clothes on your back and only your feet to push you forward, all the differences that normally loom so large—race, age, nationality, gender, and even religion—become insignificant. Everyone is equal on a pilgrimage. Everyone eats the same food, sleeps in the same beds, and walks the same road. Everyone has the same needs and the same struggles. And not only are you equals, but you are allies; your destination binds you together with common purpose. If only we could treat life more like a pilgrimage—help each other up when we fall, cheer each other on instead of envying success, and feeling our common humanity rather than our petty differences.
We arrived in Arzúa in just about four hours—quite an easy walk. Arzúa is a small town of about 6,000, mostly situated along a central highway.
We got ourselves set up in a nice albergue, and went out to lunch at the town’s best restaurant, Casa Teodora. Though it had very good reviews online, neither of us were expecting much from a restaurant in such a small town. But we were pleasantly surprised. The food was generously portioned, and absolutely scrumptious. I particularly remember the caldo gallego, or Galician soup, a simple but delicious dish of potatoes and cabbage. We left thoroughly full (and in my case inebriated, because they included a bottle of wine), and soon passed out in our albergue. By dinner time, we were still so stuffed that we decided just to nibble on some snacks from the local grocery store. If you find yourself in Arzúa, make sure to eat at Casa Teodora.
Day 4: Arzúa to Pedrouzo
As I write this, my memories of our days of walking are a blur of green countryside, foresty trails, bucolic farmland, and the constant weight of my backpack pressing down upon me. Misty mornings and bright afternoons, sore feet and achy hips, the smell of dew and cow manure, the taste of mixed nuts and chocolate biscuits, the sound of chirping birds and the occasional “Buen camino!”, and always the endless road ahead—all this forms the fabric of my recollections.
Only a few impressions stick out from this day. I remember that some people had taken it upon themselves to print out quotes of famous philosophers on orange and yellow sheets of paper, and to tape them onto the sides of garbage cans along the way. We ran into these in many different areas, which really amused me. The prank crescendoed in a so-called “Wall of Wisdom,” which was a granite wall that had been covered in hundreds of these quotes. Unfortunately I didn’t bother to take a photo, and I can’t remember any quote in particular; but I respected the dedication of the authors and their aim of spreading wisdom to pilgrims. My only other distinct memory is of a wall next to a bar that had hundreds of empty beer bottles sitting on it. Looks like some people had a good time.
Our original plan was to stop in a small town called A Rúa, but we arrived there so early and felt so energetic that we went on to the next town, O Pedrouzo. This turned out to be a good choice, because the town was bigger and had a better selection of places to eat. Yet even though we walked farther than originally planned, we arrived before noon, when the albergue wasn’t even open. We passed the time sitting in a café, wasting time on our phones.
By chance, I found myself reading an article about travel and classism.
“Yo, I just read this article someone posted on Facebook,” I said to GF, after finishing.
“Oh yeah?” GF said, without looking up from her phone.
“Yeah, it’s about travel and privilege.”
GF gave a polite grunt.
“I’ve actually been thinking about this,” I went on. “We have this whole culture of touting travel as soul-expanding and so forth, but the author argues that this is just a form of classism.”
GF looked up, slightly more interested.
“For example, you take all these photos of cool places, you eat in all these expensive restaurants, and you interact mainly with people working in the travel industry—you know, people who speak English and you are paid to accommodate your needs. Then you go back and talk about how enriching travel is. Isn’t that just a way of flouting your privilege?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” GF said. “But, for example, I feel like we don’t do that. We interact with a lot of locals and don’t spend that much money.”
“That’s true. Although even to be here, we had to save up for a while, and probably we couldn’t have done that unless we had parents who let us live with them.”
“Yeah, I guess,” GF said. “But it still doesn’t seem right to put down traveling because it costs money.”
“I agree. I think that’s the problem with this article. To do something that requires money isn’t necessarily classist. And even if it is a sign of privilege, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for you.”
I thought for a moment. GF went back to her phone.
“Though, to be fair,” I finally said, “probably most of this talk about travel is just self-aggrandizing. When people do things that genuinely make them a better person, usually they don’t immediately brag about it.”
“Eh, I don’t know about that,” GF said. “Doesn’t everybody want to look good in front of others?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I said. “But I still think that people often confuse the urge to look good with actually improving themselves.”
“Probably,” GF said. I could tell she was losing interest in the conversation.
Thankfully, it was soon time to go to the albergue. We were the first to arrive. The receptionist hadn’t even started working yet; the cleaning lady had just unlocked the door and started tidying up the place. She let us leave our stuff there, even though she wasn’t authorized to accept our money. So after staking out two beds in the enormous room, we walked into town, bought some snacks at the supermarket, and sat on a park bench.
There isn’t much else to tell about this day, except for something I overheard at dinner. GF and I went to a pizza shop and sat down. The only other people there were a middle-aged Australian couple who had finished eating and were polishing off their beers. I tried not to eavesdrop, but my ears perked up when I heard the woman mention that she had just finished reading a book about the camino. I strained to catch the title of the book, since I wanted to read a book about the camino myself. Unfortunately, I missed it. By the time I started paying attention, she was saying:
“Yeah, and you know, one of the things he says that struck me as so true, was this. The biggest lesson that the camino teaches is to pack light.”
The guy chuckled.
“That’s it?” he said. “Not very profound, I don’t think.”
“No, no, but it is,” she said. “When people start the camino, they think they need to bring all this fancy stuff. But it just slows them down and makes them tired. So they learn exactly what they need, and what they can do away with.”
“But also, that’s an important lesson for life, isn’t it? You really don’t need that much. And most people load themselves down with all sorts of things that just slow them down in the long run. You can just chuck it in the trash. You really need very little to be happy.”
“Alright,” the guy said. “I’ll cheers to that.” And the two of them finished their beers.
Day 5: O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela
I woke up excited. This was it: the final leg of the journey, the last day on the road, the culmination of all those miles. Barring any unforeseen disasters, by that afternoon I would be standing underneath the iconic spires of the Santiago Cathedral.
There was no mist that morning, just blue sky and sun. We quickly located the camino and began walking. Soon we were out of the town, on a forest trail. The trees curved up all around us, their branches sweeping in protective arches. For me, there is a curious mix of the static and the dynamic about trees; they seem like petrified bodies, twisting and turning as if in motion, and yet curiously still.
Soon we were running into other pilgrims; we passed some, and others passed us. A few faces were familiar, but most were strangers. We smiled regardless. But about an hour into the walk, we ran into some friends: the two women from Puerto Rico. They were walking along with a man from Andalusia. GF and I decided to join them. The Andalusian was a nice fellow—though unfortunately I had a lot of trouble understanding him. No matter how good my Spanish gets, that accent defeats me every time.
This difficulty was alleviated when, a few minutes later, the man decided to stop off at a café for something to eat. This left just us and the Puerto Ricans. I think both GF and I were craving some additional company, so we decided to stick with our friends. Walking along, we talked about everything and nothing—the roving, scatterbrained, inconsequential small talk of strangers on a long journey. They taught us Spanish and told us something about their lives. We chatted about the local food, made banal observations about our surroundings, and told each other stories of other places we visited.
The hours passed swiftly as we walked. Soon we were within an hour of our destination. The Andalusian man caught up with us while we tarried at a café, and thus we began our final approach with five people. We stopped for a final rest near the Monte de Gozo, or the Hill of Joy, an elevation overlooking Santiago de Compostela. On top is a funny, modern sculpture with two metal loops and a crucifix on top. There was also small church nearby, where GF and I stamped our pilgrim’s passports. One of the Puerto Ricans offered me a fig, which I gladly accepted. It was sugary, gooey, syrupy, and scrumptious. I made a mental note to eat more figs.
Soon we were off again. We climbed down the hill, crossed a bridge over a highway, and soon began the seemingly endless walk through the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela towards the center. Slowly but steadily, we neared the heart of the city. The buildings grew bigger, the streets more crowded. Eventually I realized that the city was beginning to look medieval, with the characteristic narrow, winding streets. We passed an imposing stone church, and then a granite fountain with the bust of a man in a frilly collar. Then we found ourselves walking past a large, impressive building with the frieze of the royal insignia sculpted on the front.
“What’s that?” GF said.
“Maybe it’s a university,” I said.
“Or a convent?” said one of the Puerto Ricans.
“It’s a monastery,” said a man nearby. He was wearing long dreadlocks but no shirt.
“Oh, thanks,” I said.
“Didn’t want you guys not to know,” he said, and then shrugged.
We passed through a small tunnel. Inside was a man playing the bag pipe, a traditional instrument in Galicia. I wanted to enjoy it, but the hollering ricocheted off the walls until it became truly abrasive to listen to. But soon we were out in the open air again, this time in the Plaza del Obradoiro.
We had arrived. In the middle of the large, square plaza, lots of pilgrims were laying down on the ground, their backpacks still on their backs. Other pilgrims were taking turns posing for pictures in front of the cathedral, their walking sticks held high in the air. Merchants were selling scallop shells, others were going around advertising hostels; but most people were just smiling and enjoying the moment. The pilgrimage was over. This was it.
To our left was the famous Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, a pilgrim hostel established by Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand five hundred years ago. (Nowadays it’s way too expensive for folks like me.) Behind us was the Town Hall of Santiago, with a sculpture of Santiago himself on horseback gracing the top. And in front was the Santiago Cathedral, with its crisscrossing front staircase and two Romanesque towers. Unfortunately, the moment was not quite as picturesque as it could have been, since more than half of the cathedral’s façade was covered with scaffolding for repair work. But, damn it, we made it!
Coming to the end of any journey is always bittersweet. For five days and more, the Santiago Cathedral seemed impossibly distant. There were even times before our trip that I thought I’d never see the cathedral for myself. After all, when was I ever going to find the time and energy to hike on some old pilgrimage trail in the north of Spain? And now, here I was, seeing the thing with my very eyes. I felt fantastic, but also a bit sad. Now I had nothing to be excited about.
Indeed, it was a really bittersweet moment for me. I knew that this was the last big trip in Spain I would take with GF, since she had to go back for graduate school. At least I could say that we had a fitting end to our adventurous year, ending our travels in the most symbolic destination in the country: Santiago de Compostela. We had spent only five days walking; but we had spent eight months traveling. We had seen and done so many things since we arrived. We had tried so many foods, visited so many churches, walked so many miles. We had met so many people, had so many conversations (many in Spanish!), traveled in so many cars, buses, trains, and planes. And were we any different? Or was this all just an exercise in conspicuous consumption? Were we flaunting our privilege, or did we grow?
These questions flashed through my mind, and then I let them go. We said goodbye to our friends and went to our Airbnb. Soon we had put our backpacks down and were lounging on the bed. My back, my hips, my knees, my feet—everything was sore. I was sad to finish, but also pretty happy I didn’t have to carry that backpack anymore.
There was only one more thing we had to do for our trip to be complete. After we rested for a while, we headed back towards the city center. We were going to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office to get our Compostelas—the official document showing that you completed your camino. The office is on Rúa Carretas, 33, about a five minute’s walk from the cathedral.
To get in, we had to show a security guard our pilgrim’s passports. He took some time to look them over. I’m not sure what he was checking, but I believe he was making sure that we walked at least 100 kilometers. Lugo is almost exactly 100 kilometers from Santiago, which is why we chose it. I also think he was making sure we had stamps from albergues along the way. You see, the stamps aren’t just for fun; they are to make sure you don’t just take a bus. Granted, it still wouldn’t be too difficult to fake it, but honestly who would want to do that?
Soon the security guard let us inside. We turned a corner and found ourselves in a queue. I was afraid that we’d have to wait for a long time, since our Spanish professor said that it can take hours. But there were only about ten people ahead of us, and the line moved fast. As in a government office, a monitor over the door displayed the number of an available desk.
Soon it was my turn. I walked up, said hello, and the woman handed me a short form to fill out with basic information. One of the questions was whether I completed the camino for reasons of sport, tourism, spirituality, or religion. The truth is, probably tourism would have been the most honest answer. But a friend of ours advised us that the certificate they give to tourists is far uglier than the one they give to spiritual or religious pilgrims; so with some misgivings, I put down spirituality. In an instant she handed me my certificate.
It was marvelous. The whole thing was written in Latin—they even translated my name! A medieval image of Santiago sat atop the upper right corner; and across the left side was a charming, floral motif. I loved it. Soon the certificate was safely stowed away in a little tube they sold me for two euros, and we were out on the street again. We had officially, certifiably, formally walked the camino. We even had receipts to prove it.
If you travel north-east from Madrid, towards the elbow where the northern coast of Spain meets the western coast of France, you will eventually reach one of the most fascinating corners of the country: el País Vasco, or the Basque Country.
The Basques are an ethnic group indigenous to the region, and they’ve been around a long time. Their origins cannot be precisely determined, but it is thought that they represent a living lineage of the people who occupied Europe before the Roman expansion. This is believed because their language, Basque (Euskara, as they call it), is unrelated to any of the neighboring Romantic languages. That’s clear at a glance. Look at even a Basque street sign, and your eye will rebel at the confusing jumble of consonants—so thick that even German would flee in terror. The language is absolutely isolated; there is nothing similar, no dialects even remotely related. Its survival is an indication of the Basques’ remarkable toughness.
The Basque region has always been troublesome for Spain. This is understandable, considering that the Basques have a different language and culture. Basque separatism has existed since at least the time of Ortega y Gasset, who identified it in his book, EspañaInvertebrada (1922), as one of the forces of disintegration in modern Spain.
Much more recently, the Basque terrorist group ETA fought for independence. To date they have killed over 800 people, and that number rises when you include injuries and kidnapping. Thankfully there haven’t been any attacks in many years. But this antagonism between the Basques and the Spanish still exists. Just this month, while working at a summer camp, some kids from Bilbao got very angry when people from Madrid started making fun of them for being Basque. And one of those Basque kids kept telling me “I don’t like Spain,” even though he lived in Spain and spoke Spanish far better than Euskara.
For all these reasons, I have long been interested in visiting the region; and this is not to mention all the friends who recommended going. So GF and I decided to spend a long weekend exploring the Basque Country for ourselves. Our first stop was the most populous city: Bilbao.
Bilbao is a city of industry. On our train ride from the suburbs to the city center, we passed dockyards, cranes, shipping containers, and factories. Bilbao is situated on an estuary; and the whole riverside, from the city center to the Bay of Biscay, is a scene of unbroken industry. For, unlike many Spanish cities, Bilbao is a place bent on the future. On our way in, GF and I passed the Exhibition Center—a daring building, erected in 2004, that looks like a waiter carrying too many plates in one hand. Once you reach the center of Bilbao, a circular glass skyscraper towers overhead; and a modern bridge made of twisting metal spans the river. Even the garbage disposals look like robots.
But Bilbao also has history. The historical center of the city is the Casco Viejo, which is where we headed to first. It is a lovely area, with narrow streets and plentiful restaurants. One of the most famous things about the Basque country is the food. Instead of tapas, they have pintxos, which are more or less the same thing—small servings of food, mostly on bread.
Our Airbnb host recommended the Casco Viejo for eating; and since every restaurant was advertising pintxos, we randomly picked one and sat down. I’m sorry to say that, although good, the food did not leave a deep impression on me. Indeed, I cannot say that I found the food in Bilbao noticeably different from the food in, say, Logroño—that is to say, it seemed fairly typical of Spanish food. It’s good food, to be sure, but I expected something more distinct. Instead, we had croquetas on bread, jamón on bread, tortilla on bread, chorizo on bread, and so on. In any case, it was inexpensive and filling, so I shouldn’t complain.
We spent some time wandering around the Casco Viejo, enjoying the medieval streets. We wanted to visit the cathedral, which is small and has a lovely façade; but it was closed, for whatever reason. So we decided to leave the old area, and walk towards Bilbao’s main attraction: the Guggenheim Museum.
The walk towards the Guggenheim was delightful, taking us along the riverside. In some sections I was reminded of Paris, with elegant apartment buildings and the old Santander train station, decorated in a colorful art nouveau style. Then the city began to look more modern. Rectangular glass buildings, brutally square, towered overhead; and a small white suspension bridge came into view. Soon we could see the Guggenheim itself, although its strange form was mostly hidden from view by apartment buildings and another suspension bridge. Next to this bridge, two odd, grey towers curled up towards the sky, serving no apparent function but decoration.
As we neared, I grew increasingly excited. I had heard of the Bilbao Guggenheim months before, and had longed to see it ever since. My anticipation growing, we walked under the bridge and turned a corner.
The sight did not disappoint. Designed by Frank Gehry, the Bilbao Guggenheim is covered in overlapping titanium strips, meant to look like the scales of a giant fish. The curling forms of the façade are also reminiscent of a fish, or perhaps of a massive, misshapen boat. Indeed, the building looks more at home in water than on land—a feeling reinforced both by a large pond in front and its location right next to the river. Just as in Gaudí’s work, there is hardly a straight line to be found; everything swells and curves, contracts and expands. In front, a large statue of a ghastly, nightmarish spider welcomes visitors to the museum. It is not exactly a beautiful place, but undeniably intriguing.
We found the entrance and went inside. Because photos were not allowed, and some time has passed since my trip there, my recollection of the artwork is hazy; but I’ll do my best to give an impression.
The first thing we saw was a work by Andy Warhol. Consisting of at least fifty separate silkscreens, the work was an exploration of color and shadow. Essentially, Warhol just took the same silkscreen and made copies of it with many different colors; most of the colors chosen were, as was his style, bright neon. I enjoyed walking around the room, seeing how the image changed as I went along, but GF was deeply unimpressed with the piece. And I cannot say I found it terribly original or impressive, either.
My favorite room in the museum was the largest. It housed Richard Serra’s massive installation, The Matter of Time. The work consists of long, thin metal strips, far taller than a person, arranged in geometrical patterns throughout the space. Some of these are in waves, some circles, some spirals. The feeling of walking through it is rather like being lost in a maze. Several times I lost track of GF, and had to search through the odd shapes to find her. The acoustic properties were also interesting, the metal sheets creating massive echoes, amplifying my footsteps into a loud clacking. The way that the installation warped and stretched my perception of space made it a true work of art. Even so, I cannot imagine how expensive it was to make these giant metal strips and move them inside; and I cannot help wondering if it was worth it.
The most well-represented artist in the museum was Louise Bourgeois. She is mostly known for her three-dimensional installations, which often use everyday materials in their construction. In content, her work tends to be highly autobiographical. The aforementioned spider in front of the museum, which is her work, is meant to represent her mother. This strikes me as rather grim, but apparently, for Bourgeois, the spider’s weaving represents nurturing and protection, though I’m not sure I buy that. Her relationship with her father does not seem to have been any better. One of her most famous works, Destruction of the Father, is an abstract depiction of a banquet in which the children have rebelled and killed and eaten their father. The whole installation is made of soft materials, illuminated with red light that makes everything look like flesh; and the “children,” the “food,” and the “table” are formless blobs. In sum, I find her work a bit creepy.
The most beautiful room in the museum was the one dedicated to 20th century Parisian art. Unfortunately, while I remember being quite pleased with the paintings, the only canvases that stick out in my memory are Robert Delaunay’s portrayals of the Eiffel Tower. These are wonderful works, with the towering form of the Eiffel Tower squeezed, compressed, stretched, and twisted, standing over a trembling Paris below. There is an attractive energy and dynamism to the paintings, which fit well with the aesthetic of Bilbao, for Delaunay’s painting, the Eiffel Tower, and Bilbao are all oriented towards the technological future. More generally, I found the works in those rooms satisfied my ideal of what art should be—original, daring, personal, and yet informed by a tradition of technical competency and well-worn standards of beauty.
This I cannot say about another room in the Bilbao Guggenheim, that dedicated to “Masterpieces” of the museum. This label may have been tongue-in-cheek, for the works contained therein were, one and all, large canvasses covered in either a monochromatic shade of paint, or merely splattered haphazardly with colors. One of them, I remember, looked like someone had randomly thrown blue paint at a white canvass; but the audioguide informed me that the artist had a nude model covered in paint roll around on it. Another one (if memory serves) consisted of an amorphous blob of green, yellow, and blue, which the audioguide explained was meant to represent the countryside of the artist’s youth. It’s things like that which give modern art a bad name. True, there was a work by Mark Rothko, who I tend to enjoy; I don’t know how or why, but I find his paintings exert a strange, calming, almost hypnotic power over me. Apart from that, however, I was left cold. I spent about ten minutes doing my best to appreciate the works, and then finally gave it up.
It took us about three hours to see the whole museum, and then we were out on the street again. My final assessment of the museum’s collection is the same as my opinion of the building itself: not exactly beautiful, but intriguing. There are times when I feel that the modernist emphasis on originality and personal expression has been horrid for visual art; by jettisoning tradition they have abandoned both the technical facility and the standards of beauty that have guided the best artists for hundreds of years. But sometimes, when I see something truly strange and fascinating, I think that this search for new modes of expression, new aesthetics, new mediums, new techniques—in a work, for newness—is both necessary and good. It is, in any case, true that it is impossible to reproduce the aesthetics of earlier times without producing sterile works; great art must reflect both the times of its birth and the vision of its creator.
I wanted to see more, but our day was over. Since we had spent the morning in the car, it was already quite late. We ate dinner, and went back to our Airbnb to rest. Originally we planned to spend two days exploring Bilbao, but a recommendation from our Blablacar driver made us change those plans. Instead, we would try to see the Hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
I always find public transportation a bit nerve-racking—especially in a new city, not to mention a foreign country. Every time I hop on a bus, I feel like I’m taking a leap of faith. I imagine taking the wrong bus and getting stranded in the middle of nowhere, or taking the right bus and getting off on the wrong stop—and these fears aren’t totally unfounded, as I’ve done both of these things. Thus I was filled with apprehension as we searched for the bus to Bakio, the A3518.
My fears notwithstanding, we found it easily enough, arriving at the station just as the bus pulled in. We hopped on, got seats, and off we went to Bakio.
Probably you have never heard of Bakio, because there isn’t much to be heard about it. Bakio is a small town, with a population of about 2,500, situated about 30 kilometers from Bilbao. There is admittedly a beach there, although the chilly, damp, overcast weather of the region didn’t exactly put me in the mood for surfing. Rather, we were going to Bakio because it was the closest we could to get by bus to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
The bus ride to Bakio was quite pleasant, taking us through the green countryside, filled with little huts and farmhouses tucked away into the rolling hills. After 40 minutes we arrived, ate some breakfast, and then set on our way. I had found a little report online (found here), written by somebody who had walked from Bakio to Gaztelugatxe. And attached in that report is a little map, with the walking route the author followed highlighted. But for whatever reason I forgot about this map as we started walking, instead relying on my phone’s GPS to guide me there. Please, don’t make this mistake: just follow the walking route.
GF and I soon found ourselves walking along a busy road, with no sidewalks.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” she said.
“Yeah, man, I’m just following my phone.”
We walked further, and after a while came to a sharp curve in the road. Because there wasn’t any sidewalk, and the road was hemmed in by a rockface on one side and some trees on another, we found ourselves in the predicament that, no matter which side we chose, we would risk making ourselves invisible to an incoming car. Thankfully, the cars only came periodically, with big gaps in-between; and we hoped we’d be able hear them a ways off. Still, it was a bit nerve-racking as we rushed around the corner, trying to minimize our time on the curve.
“I hope there aren’t any more curves like that,” GF said as we got to the other side.
“Me too,” I said.
But five minutes later, we came to another curve. And then another, and another. The entire road, it seemed, wrapped around the hills like a snake, constantly turning left and right. Meanwhile, the amount of cars on the road seemed to be steadily increasing.
“I don’t like this,” GF said. “Is there any way off this road?”
“Umm,” I said, “maybe up ahead.” (I had no idea.)
During the stretches of straight roads, I did my best to enjoy the scenery. It was a nice place, with pine trees and farmhouses all around, and the occasional view of the countryside beyond. But the whoosh of a passing cars destroyed any peace to be had; and the sight of every sharp turn ahead increased my anxiety.
There was over an hour of this, the two of us walking on through the brush and bushes by the side of the road, our feet searching for stability amid the roots and rocks, changing sides whenever it seemed more safe, pressing ourselves against the trees whenever a car went past, rushing around curves with our adrenalin racing, GF nervously complaining while I tried to keep my own fears to myself. And then, finally, just as I was at my wit’s end, the hermitage came into view.
“Yes!” GF said, filled with relief.
Gatztelugatxe is an island off the coast of Biscay, connected to the shore by a man-made bridge. Since at least the 10th century, a little religious building has been perched up at the top of it, though it has burnt down and been rebuilt many times, most recently in 1980.
To get there from the road we had to climb down towards the shore. The path was steep, twisting, and rocky. Even though you’re going down hill, it is exhausting because you need to be constantly on guard against falling. At last we got near the bottom, where there was a lookout point where we could get a good view of the island.
It must be one of the most astonishing sights in Spain. The island is a mound of jagged grey rock, covered in slight patches of green. Its splayed form stretches out into the sea, wherein it is battered day and night, on all sides, by the winds and the waves. In the middle of this island, criss-crossing its way up from the bottom to the top, is a staircase, filled with the miniscule forms of people. And crowning the island is the hermitage, a small shack with a dull red roof.
Perhaps this image is so appealing to me because I find in it a symbol of the relationship of humanity to nature. We have carved a staircase into the rock, and erected a place of worship on the summit of the island; and in this way we can be said to have dominated the place. And yet, how feeble our dominance of nature seems when viewed from a distance—just a pile of boards, liable to be blown away by the first strong gust. The relationship is the age-old contest of craft, cleverness, and perseverance against capricious, indifferent power. And I cannot help thinking that, however successful we are now, there will come a day when the hermitage blows down, and there won’t be anyone to build it back up again.
But these gloomy thoughts were soon gone as I huffed and puffed my way up the staircase to the top of the island. You must remember that, by this time, we had walked over an hour next to that road, my heart in my throat all the while; so we were understandably a bit worn out. It felt all the better, then, when we finally reached the top, and could look back towards the land. In the distance, to our right, we could see the beach of Bakio; and to the left, nothing but steep, grey cliffs and green forests. Gigantic rocks stuck out of the ocean, the biggest one almost as big as the island itself. To one side, far off, I could see what looked like an oil drill. Apart from that, no boats, no freighters, no planes broke the endless blue of the sea beyond or the grey of the sky above. It felt like standing at the edge of the world.
We couldn’t go inside the hermitage, nor even peek through a window. This didn’t bother me, however, since judging by the looks of the plain exterior, the interior would be similar. What we could do was ring the bell. A string hung from the bell on the roof to the ground below, and all the visitors were taking turns having a pull (one kid got a bit too enthusiastic, and his parents had to keep him away). I gripped the chord and lightly tugged, and the satisfying clang of a church bell sounded overhead.
Since neither of us had any intention of repeating that dreadful walk by the road, this time I looked up the walking path on my phone. We found the path without any trouble, which made me feel like such an idiot for not using it the first time. It was such a relief! Instead of the twisting, turning road we had a straight path, free of cars, taking us through quiet countryside. We passed through a copse of trees, and then through some fields where cows were grazing, making our way over gently rolling hills, the seaside on our right, until we were finally back in Bakio. The bus soon arrived, and then we were on our way to Bilbao, where we still had one more thing to see.
The Vizcaya Bridge
The train pulled up to Portugalete station, the doors opened, and we got off. Portugalete is one of the towns, ranged along the Bilbao river, that make up the Bilbao metropolitan area. (The name’s resemblance with “Portugal” is apparently only a coincidence.) With a population of about 50,000, and a land area of only 3.21 square kilometers, it is actually the fifth most densely populated area in Spain (or so says Wikipedia).
To me, the place struck me as a pleasant, moderately urbanized, yet more or less tranquil town. Along the riverside there were some large, attractive restaurants, their tables crowding into the streets—though at this hour, too early for dinner in Spain, the chairs were mostly empty. But the surroundings didn’t attract my attention for long, since I could already see my object: the Vizcaya Bridge. (The Spanish call it the Puente Colgante, or “Hanging Bridge.”)
It is a perplexing sight at first. The bridge has the familiar form of a suspension bridge, but the middle section seems to be misplaced: it hangs ludicrously high in the air, with no ramps to get up or down. The more I looked, the more confused I became, for there didn’t seem to be any way you could use the bridge. Then I thought: maybe they removed the ramps and raised the bridge to protect it from the elements. I knew it was historic, so I figured it was no longer in use.
The mystery was partially cleared up when we approached, and I noticed something strange on the water. Wait, it wasn’t on the water, but hovering above it. I looked up, and saw that the thing was hanging from the bridge. So that’s how it worked! The reason the bridge looked so odd was that it transported a shuttle that hung underneath, almost like a puppet on strings. That’s why the bridge was so high up, and there weren’t any ramps to get on.
But it looked a bit dangerous to me. This shuttle was fairly large; it transported about six cars and quite a lot of people. Could that skeletal iron structure above support so much weight? Dreadful fantasies immediately started rushing to my mind. I saw the bridge snapping in the middle, sending iron raining down into the river below, crushing the shuttle and sending everyone inside to a watery grave. Unfortunately, awful visions like this plague me rather frequently. I wonder if it’s the product of a morbid imagination, or just watching too many action movies.
We went into the office and bought our tickets, though I wasn’t sure what the tickets were for. The man explained that there was an elevator to take you up to the top, where you could walk to the other end. He also gave us a little information pamphlet about the bridge. From this, I learned that the bridge is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site, the only monument in the Industrial Heritage category in Spain. I also learned more about the construction and history of the bridge. The Vizcaya Bridge is a transporter bridge, the first of its kind in the world. If you haven’t heard of a transporter bridge before, that is perfectly normal, since this type of bridge is uncommon; according to Wiki, less than two dozen were built, and only 12 still stand today.
The Vizcaya Bridge, finished in 1893, was designed by one of Gustave Eiffel’s disciples, Alberto Palacio; and Eiffel’s influence shows. The bridge is built in the same manner as the Eiffel Tower, with narrow iron beams riveted together to form a kind of skeletal structure; and like the Eiffel Tower, the Vizcaya Bridge is austere and elegant. Palacio originated the idea in response to a common engineering problem: how do you create a bridge that allows people and cars to cross the river, while leaving the river open for shipping vessels? The Vizcaya bridge, then, in both purpose and execution, is a symbol of the Basque Country’s embrace of industry, commerce, and the future—not to mention art.
(I do wonder, though, whether Palacio’s solution was all that efficient. After all, there must be a reason why the design didn’t catch on. The primary problem, it seems to me, is that the amount of cars and people that can cross at any one time is limited by the size of the shuttle and the frequency of its trips. Perhaps the famous Tower Bridge in London—completed almost the same year—solved the problem more satisfactorily, by putting a drawbridge on the lower level and a pedestrian walkway on the upper. But Palacio’s design is beautiful, original, and elegant, so efficiency can go to the devil.)
Finally it was our turn for the elevator. It was an ancient thing, crawling up the bridge at a snail’s pace. Eventually the lift creaked to a halt, and we got out. A narrow wooden walkway, surrounded by the iron structure, extended from one end of the bridge to the other. It’s really amazing how much of the Vizcaya Bridge is just air. You can see right through the thing, and yet it is strong enough to support the weight of a large shuttle carrying six cars.
I experienced this when one of the shuttles came rolling by, right underneath our feet. I could feel the entire bridge shaking, rattling, and shivering, as the electrical buzzing of the engine roared past. Once again, terrible fantasies started flickering through my mind, this time with myself plunging to a ghastly death. But soon the shuttle came to a halt, and I realized that the bridge was solid as stone. What an impressive achievement: The bridge seems to float high up in the air, supported by the slenderest structure; and yet it is sturdy enough to remain operational after more than one hundred years of daily use.
We took some time to admire the view. On one side we could see the bay, and then the ocean beyond. In the dockyard in the distance, I could see dozens of giant cranes standing silently, like petrified dinosaurs, waiting to come back to life. On the other side, we could see the river gradually making its way towards Bilbao; and in the distance, a factory loomed. Really, wherever you turned you could not fail to notice the signs of industry, filling up the entire estuary with their jagged, colossal, metallic forms. Below us, we could see the towns of Portugalete on one side and Getxo on the other, their streets now full. We might have stayed more time up there, but the wind was quite strong and chilly, so we took the elevator down on the other side. Not long after that, we took the shuttle from Getxo across the river, back to Portugalete; and I am happy to report that the ride was quick and smooth.
There is only one thing more I have to report. Before we left, GF had asked some of her students in Madrid where you can buy good pizza, and they told her to go to Telepizza (a popular chain here, comparable to Dominoes). That sounded awful to me, but GF wanted to try it; so, once we got to Portugalete, we decided to go to the nearest Telepizza for dinner. It brings me no joy to tell you that, as I expected, the pizza was horrible, some of the worst pizza I’ve ever had; and GF was of the same opinion. Is this what Spanish people think pizza is supposed to taste like? No wonder they hold Italian food in such low regard!
The next day, we got up early and went to the bus station. And here I must take a moment to warn you that the bus station in Bilbao is not in the city center. We didn’t even bother to check, so we took the train to Bilbao Station, as usual. Then when we finally looked up the bus station, we discovered that we had ridden right past it. Thus we had to pay for another train ride and wait for the next train, so we could backtrack to San Mamés, where the Termibus station can be found.
Even so, the trip went smoothly. We found a bus without trouble, and in a short while we were standing in San Sebastián.
San Sebastián is a city much unlike Bilbao. For one, it is noticeably smaller, with a population of less than 200,000. But more conspicuously, it is not at all a city of industry, commerce, or manufacturing. Rather, it is a place of tourism. The streets are full of foreigners, squeezed into the narrow streets, filling up the parks, covering the beaches with their bodies. The city is also remarkably pretty. As I strolled along the beaches I was reminded of Cádiz; and as I wandered through the streets, Oviedo came to mind. But the strongest and most persistent impression was surprise at the number of tourists. They were all over the place; every restaurant was full, every shop was crowded. The shoreline was an unbroken wall of hotels. I had no idea San Sebastián was so popular.
Some of this probably had to do with the city being, along with Wroclaw in Poland, one of the European Cultural Capitals of 2016. (If you didn’t know, each year a city or two in the European Union gets designated a European Cultural Capital, which means it will host several Europe-oriented events during the year.) This may have attracted even more tourists than usual. Even so, it is clear that San Sebastián is a major tourist destination, because its whole economy is oriented around visitors. This is fitting, for the city is undeniably charming. Its location is a good one, too, being only 12 miles from the French border, and northerly enough so that the temperature is nearly perfect in summer.
We were hungry when we arrived, so our first order of business was food. Our Airbnb host recommended a restaurant in the center. The restaurant was the Bar Aitona, and it was excellent. We ordered the steak and the octopus. Both were served on a huge bed of fries, both were amply portioned, both were well seasoned, and both were scrumptious. Added to that, the prices were very reasonable. We left very full, and very satisfied. I recommend it with great enthusiasm.
When we were back on the street, we decided to start exploring the city. This inevitably led us to Monte Urgull, the most conspicuous landmark in San Sebastián. Urgull is a hill that overlooks the bay. Nowadays, it is covered in trees, and is basically a park; but in the past it formed as a military fortification, since its high elevation at the bay’s edge made it well suited for defense. And these fortifications were not just for show; they were used in several important battles. Probably the most significant of these was the Siege of San Sebastián, in which the British forces, led by Wellington, ousted Napoleon’s troops in the Peninsular Wars. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time, but was instead attracted by the gigantic statue of Jesus—12 meters, or almost 40 feet tall—that looms over the hill.
We began walking up, and quickly found that it is a delightful place. Old walls, broken battlements, obsolete canons, and other aging fortifications still stand, some in ruins, some overgrown; and for me there is something remarkably romantic about the sight of weeds and trees reclaiming the abandoned dwellings of past times. The hill is divided into several levels, and as you ascend you get a progressively better view of the city. From the top, the whole beach is spread before you, with its azure water, crowded beaches, and the rolling green hills in the distance. We got to the top, where we could stare up at the towering figure of Jesus, and then descended on the other side of the hill.
This part of was a wooded area. But as we climbed down a rocky path, something caught our eye. Right below a cliff, surrounded by roots and trees, was the old memorial erected by the British army after the conquest of San Sebastián. A broken and discolored plaque, bearing the royal insignias of England and Spain, bore a message in both English and Spanish honoring the fallen soldiers. Further on, we noticed another plaque, this one on the side of a rock face, honoring the unknown soldiers lost in the campaign. I know these must be well known, but at the time, with only the two of us, it felt like coming upon an archaeological treasure. This illusion was quickly dispelled, since at the bottom of the hill we encountered a map showing where all the different war memorials, graves, and mausoleums could be found on the hill. In any case, it’s a lovely area, both for its history and its views.
The rest of our day was rather uneventful. We strolled around San Sebastián, enjoying the ocean, the river, the crowded city center. But we did not really visit anything in particular, since we couldn’t find anything to visit. It seems that San Sebastián is a lovely place if you want to eat and go to the beach, but it does not have much in the way of cultural tourism, which is mostly what I’m after. In any case, it was late. We had arrived at around noon, and by now the sun was setting. So we walked along the river to our apartment, and the next morning we said farewell to the Basque Country. But I hope to return, the sooner the better.
Ernest Hemingway was, to put it mildly, not an animal rights advocate; but even he felt misgivings before attending his first bullfight—not for the bull, but for the horses. (More on the horses later.) He went for reasons of art; he wanted a chance to see death for himself, to analyze his own feelings about it, in order to escape what he regarded as the trap of the aspiring writer—to feel as you’re expected to feel, not as you actually feel. Much of his book on bullfighting is dedicated to persuading the reader to do the same; he enjoins us to attend at least one show, and to do so with an open mind—to see how it really affects you, instead of how it’s supposed to affect you.
I put down Death in the Afternoon and decided that I would give it a try. But I still felt uneasy about it. Not many things are more controversial in Spain than the bullfight. The country is split between aficionados and those who object on moral grounds. In several parts of Spain, including Catalonia, the bullfight has even been outlawed. It is easy for me to see why people find the custom unethical. Six animals are killed per show, and they are not killed quickly. Nevertheless, from my studies of anthropology I have retained the conviction that you ought to try to understand something before you condemn it. Thus I wanted to see a fight with my own eyes, to analyze my own reactions, before I came to any sort of verdict.
This post will follow that course, first by providing a description, and then my attempt at analysis. Probably everything I say will seem infuriatingly ignorant to the aficionado, but that is unavoidable. I’m a guiri and there’s no escaping that.
The big time to see bullfights is in May and June, during the festival of San Isidro. A fight is held every day for eight weeks straight. The fight I saw took place in Madrid’s bullring, Las Ventas. It is a lovely stadium, built in a Neo-Mudéjar style with horseshoe arches, ceramic tiles, and elaborate ornamentation in the red-brick façade. I’d bought the cheapest tickets I could. In any bullring, the price of the ticket depends on the distance from the action, as well as whether the seat is in the sun or the shade (the seats in the shade can be twice as pricey). The seats are hardly seats, just a slap of concrete. You can rent a pillow to sit on for €1, which is probably a good idea.
The stadium was completely full; the vast majority of the crowd were not tourists, but Spaniards. Unlike flamenco, the bullfight has retained a strong fandom among the natives here. There were people of all descriptions: young children, teenage girls, twenty-something men, married couples, and senior citizens. Almost everyone was dressed in their Sunday best.
A bullfight is a highly organized affair. Each event has three matadors; each matador fights two bulls—not consecutively, but by turns. The matadors fight in the order of reputation, with the most famous (and presumably most skilled) matador taking the last turn. A complete fight takes less than fifteen minutes. It is divided into three parts, each announced by a trumpet blast.
First the bull runs out, charging into the arena at full speed. The bull is fresh, energetic, and haughty. It charges at anything that moves, trying to dominate its environment. This bull has hardly seen a dismounted man before in its life; it has been reared in isolation, to be both fierce and inexperienced. Before anything can be done with the bull, the bull must be tested. Thus the matador and his banderilleros begin to provoke the bull. To do this, they are each equipped with large capes, pink and yellow, which they use to attract the bull’s attention. It runs at them, and they hide for safety behind special nooks in the arena’s edge. Sometimes the bull tries to pursue them, ramming the wooden wall with his horns; but there is nothing the bull can do once they get into the nook.
The only person who comes out and stands in the ring is the matador, who performs some passes with his cape. Really impressive capework is impossible with the bull at this stage, since it is too vigorous and belligerent. But these passes are not for show. The matador needs to see how the bull moves, the way it charges, whether the bull favors any specific area of the arena. Each bull is different. Some will charge at anything, and others need to be coaxed. Some are defensive, others offensive. Some slash their horns left and right, and others scoop down and lift up. The matador needs to know the bull to work with it.
(It sometimes happens that they decide the bull is unsuitable. This happened once during my show. Suddenly everyone left the ring, leaving the bull alone. Then the gates opened, and half a dozen heifers ran into the ring. The bull, seeing the heifers, immediately calmed down, and followed them out of the ring. I assume that the bull is killed in this case, since it isn’t useful for anything; a bad bull won’t be bred, and a bull cannot be fought twice, since they learn from experience.)
Next the picadores enter the ring. These are men armed with lances, riding on horseback. The horses are blindfolded and heavily armored with padding. The bull is led by the bandilleros towards the horses and provoked to attack. For whatever reason, the bull always tries to lift the horse on its horns. This doesn’t work, because the horse is significantly bigger than the bull; indeed, the horse seems hardly to react at all to the bull’s attack. Meanwhile, the picador stabs the bull in its back, jabbing his lance into a mound of neck muscle. As the bull ineffectually tries to lift the horse, it drives the spear into its own flesh. The pain is usually enough to discourage the bull after about a minute. By the end of the ordeal, the bull’s back is covered in blood.
(In the past, when Hemingway wrote his book, this part of the bullfight was considerably more gory. The horses wore no armor, and were thus often killed. There are some terrible photos of horses being impaled in Hemingway’s book. The bull would rip them apart. The picador thus had a narrow window to do his job, and would often end up on the ground, pinned under his dying horse. I am glad that this isn’t the custom anymore, though doubtless a purist like Hemingway would mourn its passing.)
The bull gives up, the picadores leave the ring. Next the bandilleros must further weaken the bull. They do this by stabbing barbs into the same area of the bull’s back. This is a really dangerous job. The bull must be running straight at them in order to drive the barbs deep enough into its muscles. The bandillero runs at an angle to the bull’s charge, holding the barbs high above his head with outstretched arms, and stab the bull right over its own horns. The pain makes the bull pause for a second—which gives the bandillero much needed time to get the out of there. Even so, the guys have to run like hell, and often end up jumping straight over the wall out of the arena in order to escape. Three pairs of barbs must be speared into the bull. These barbs, which are covered in colorful paper, don’t fall out, but hang from the bull’s back for the rest of the fight.
Finally the matador enters the arena. This is the culminating phase, the part that everything else has been leading up to. By now the bull has been thoroughly weakened. It is tired, injured, and, most importantly, disillusioned of its own power. The bull does not charge at anything that moves anymore, but conserves its strength carefully; it does not heedlessly waste its energy sprinting across the field, but makes more calculated attacks. The bull also holds its head lower, and does not slash with its horns, since its neck muscles have been damaged. In this state, the matador can work with the bull.
With a red cape in one hand and a sword in the other, the matador dominates the bull. It is incredible to see. In just a minute, the bull goes from a dangerous, wild animal to mere clay in the matador’s palm. The matador can let the bull pass within a hair’s breath of his chest; he can stand a mere footstep in front of the bull’s face; he can turn his back and walk away. The bull is completely under his control. I cannot imagine the amount of time spent around bulls necessary to achieve this seemingly mystical ability.
After about three minutes of capework, wherein the matador lets the bull come nearer and nearer to him, then it is finally time for the kill. The matador walks to the edge of the ring and exchanges his sword for a heavier one. (What was the first one for?) A hush comes over the ring. Hundreds of people hiss, urging all conversation and cheering to stop. The matador stands before the bull, holding the sword above his head. With his left hand, he shakes the cape. The bull charges, the matador lunges with his sword, stabbing the bull over its horns and into its back. The crowd erupts in applause. The bull begins to stagger. The bandilleros come out, sweeping their capes at the bull, who is now too weak to properly attack. Finally the bull gives up. It limps away from its harassers, making its way to the opposite corner of the ring. But soon it loses its strength; its legs collapse and it falls to the ground. A bandillero walks over and finishes it off with a dagger.
The fight is over. The bull’s body is tied to a team of mules, and dragged around the arena in triumph before being removed from the ring.
The bullfight is not considered a sport, but an art form. This is important to note, for as a sport the bullfight would fail utterly. There is no winning or losing, only a beautiful or an ugly performance. There is also hardly any element of suspense, since every bullfight follows the same course and ends the same way.
Of course there is a certain unpredictability to a fight, since everyone who enters the ring risks his life. No matter how much you practice around bulls, you cannot eliminate the chance of being gored. During my show alone, the bulls managed to knock down two people, and probably would have killed them if the others hadn’t managed to quickly get the bull away. But the occupational hazard of being killed by the bull, while certainly integral to the fight, is not what excites aficionados. Rather, it is the skill and artfulness of the matador they enjoy.
It does not take an imaginative eye to see symbolism in a bullfight. The bull is a force of nature. It is stronger and faster than any man, a heedless, seemingly indomitable force that will indifferently trample anyone in its wake. The bull is elemental. It is fought by men in elaborate costumes, following a prescribed ritual. The bull moves with violent impulse; the men move with elaborate grace. The bull stands on four legs, his dark brown body close to the ground; the men stand on two legs, holding their brightly clad bodies rigidly erect.
The men defeat the bull because they have intelligence. The bull cannot understand the difference between the cape and the man, and thus all its strength is wasted in pointless attacks. The men use an animal they tamed—the horse—as well as tools they invented—the pike, the barb, the cape, the sword—in order to dominate and vanquish the bull. Thus the bullfight dramatizes the triumph of human intelligence over mindless power, the victory of culture over nature.
Or perhaps you can interpret the spectacle as a psychological allegory. Bulls have been a symbol of the beastly side of human nature since the story of the minotaur in the labyrinth, and probably long before. The bull thus represents unbridled instinct, the untamed animal that lurks within us, the impulses that we have but must repress in order to live in society. The matador controls and then destroys these impulses, restoring us to civilization. In this light, the bullfight represents the triumph of the ego over the id.
In any case, the spectacle is meant to be tragic. The bull is a beautiful, noble animal, who fights with tenacity and courage. The bull is feared, respected, and envied for its power and its freedom. The tragedy is that this sublime animal must be killed. But its death is necessary, for the bull represents everything incompatible with society, everything we must attempt to banish from ourselves in order to live in civilization. To be absolutely free, as free as an untamed bull, and to be civilized are irreconcilable states. Living in society requires that we give up some freedom and remove ourselves from the state of nature. Although we gain in peace and security from this renunciation, it can still be sorely regretted, for it means leaving some impulses forever unsatisfied. Thus we identify with the bull as much as with the matador; and even though we understand that the bull must be killed, we know this is terribly sad, because it means a part of ourselves must be killed.
This is how I understand the bullfight. I am sure many would find this interpretation terribly jejune. But the more important point is that the spectacle is one that can be seriously analyzed for its aesthetics. It is not a mere display of daring and skill, but an artistic performance that touches on themes of life and death, nature and culture, animal and man. It is as ritualized as a Catholic mass, and just as laden with symbolism.
But is it moral? Should it be tolerated? Is it ethical to enjoy the spectacle of an animal getting wounded and then killed? Is it wrong to cheer as a matador successfully stabs a sword into a living creature?
Ernest Hemingway had this to say about the morality of bullfighting:
So far, about morals, I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after and judged by these moral standards, which I do not defend, the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.
If I adopt Hemingway’s view, and take my emotional reaction as the basis of my moral judgments, then I must come to a different conclusion. Of course, I had many emotions as I watched. First I was impressed by the spectacle of the bull charging across the arena. Then I admired the stoicism of the horses as they withstood the bull’s attacks; and I felt pity for the bull as the lance was driven into its back. I was again impressed by the physical courage of the bandilleros as they let the bull charge full speed towards them. And of course I was filled with awe at the skill of the matador, who sometimes seemed more god than man.
But finally I was disgusted. Hemingway described the bull’s death as a tragedy, but for me it was not sad; it was sickening. I felt weak, dizzy, and nauseated. And it was not the type of nausea that I get in long car rides. It was a feeling I’ve had only a few times before. The first time was in the sixth grade. I was performing a dissection on a pig in science class. My partner was a vegetarian, but I was the one who had to leave midway through, because I thought I would vomit.
During that dissection, I felt that I had swallowed a stone, that I was covered in filth, that my blood was rancid, that my skin was alive and crawling. I had this same feeling when I saw a goat have its throat cut open in Kenya, and I had this same feeling as I watched a bull struggle across the arena, its chest heaving, its legs shaking, blood dripping from its mouth, only to collapse into a heap of quivering pain, and die.
If I followed my emotions, I must condemn the bullfight as unambiguously immoral. But I have read enough psychology to know that emotional reactions can often be illogical. And I have read enough Nietzsche to know that moral judgments are often hypocritical and self-serving. Indeed, as somebody who eats meat, I feel odd drawing a line between a bullfight and a slaughterhouse. Does it really make such a big difference if the animal is killed painlessly or not? We do not make this distinction with humans. You simply cannot kill a human “humanely,” though we think we can kill animals that way. So if I want to condemn the bullfight, ought I to become a vegetarian?
Hypocrisy aside, I have trouble deciding how animals should be considered in a moral framework. As I have written elsewhere, I think humans can be held accountable for their actions because they can understand their consequences and alter their behavior accordingly. Bulls obviously cannot do this; a bull cannot reason “If I kill this man, I will be killed as punishment.” Thus a bull cannot be held accountable in any moral framework; and this also means that a bull cannot enjoy the protection of moral injunctions. The golden rule cannot be applied to an untamed animal—or to any animal, for that matter.
For this reason, I am not against meat eating or hunting (except endangered species, of course). But bullfighting is distinguished from those two activities by the amount of pain inflicted on the animal, and all for the sake of mere spectacle. Now, I can understand why this didn’t bother anyone in the past. Death and suffering used to be far more integral to people’s lives; infant mortality was high, childbirth was dangerous, and most people lived on farms, constantly surrounded by birth and death. But nowadays, as we have banished death to slaughterhouses and hospitals, seeing an animal stabbed and killed before our eyes is shocking and gruesome. The reason the bullfight is tolerated is because it is cloaked in ritual and hallowed by time. The tradition and aesthetic refinement stops people from seeing the bullfight as animal cruelty.
As I said before, animals cannot operate within a moral system, so they cannot be protected by moral codes. The morality of bullfighting is thus not a question of the bull, but of us. How does it affect us to watch a creature suffering without feeling compunction? How does it change us to witness a ritualized death and to cheer it on? How does it reflect upon us that we can be so desensitized to violence passing right before our eyes? The willingness to turn a creature into an object, and to use pain as a plaything, is not something I want for myself. I do not want to be so totally insensitive to the suffering of a fellow creature.
Nevertheless, I have serious misgivings about condemning the bullfight. For one, it is an art form, and a beautiful one. But more importantly, I feel remarkably hypocritical, not only because I eat meat, but because my modern, luxurious lifestyle allows me to completely banish the killing of animals into the background. Instead of having to witness it, I allow death to happen behind the scenes, as I go about my day blissfully unaware. Perhaps having to witness death is a good thing, to bring me back to reality and to prevent me from living in a kind of bourgeois fantasyland.
In conclusion, then, I have to admit that I don’t really know what to think. I would be sad to see the tradition disappear, but I also find the spectacle sickening. In any case, I’m happy I went, but I do not plan on going again.
This April, I managed to visit Toledo twice, first with my family and second with some of GF’s friends. In the process I realized that my first post about Toledo was hopelessly inadequate. Now, with more experience, I think I can write something more worthy.
By now I have traveled enough in Spain to be able to say that Toledo is one of the most beautiful cities in the country. It has everything: picturesque views, beautiful art, engrossing history, and impressive architecture. The only serious problem with Toledo is that it is so close to Madrid, which makes it a haven for tourists. Now of course every city has tourists; but no other city in Spain, not even Barcelona, is so entirely oriented toward foreign visitors.
Toledo is not a city anymore, but a giant museum. Every restaurant and shop exists exclusively for visitors, not locals. Tour groups crowd the streets; tour buses surround the city. There is even a zip-line so that runs over the Tajo River, so that people can experience the same cheap thrill as provided in any good amusement park. I saw a young girl zip across, screaming her head off, staring into her phone the whole ride as she recorded herself. Maybe I am quaint, but I can’t see the point of zip-lining across a marvelous river if you are not even going to look at the view. This modern obsession with photographing ourselves does not strike me as healthy. In any case, the sound of zipping and screaming effectively ruins the pleasure of standing on the medieval San Martín bridge, with its impressive battlements on either side. It is difficult even to enjoy a peaceful walk in the city, since chances are you will be asked by some passersby to take a photo of them. The first time isn’t a problem, but by the fifth time it gets irritating.
But the tourists must be tolerated. The city is worth it. So, without further ado, here are my favorite sites to visit in Toledo.
The City on a Hill
We have to start with the city itself. Seen from a distance, it is a sight worthy of a painting (which, of course, it was, by none other than El Greco). The old city stands majestically on a hill, overlooking the whole surrounding area. Houses with beige walls and red roofs are jammed into a chaotic jumble, squeezed into the limited space of the hillside. No green parks can be seen in the city; just stone and tile. Below runs the Tajo River, with trees growing along its banks. (We used a taxi to get up to the hill for pictures; I think it would be a long walk.)
The two most prominent buildings of the skyline are the Alcázar and the cathedral. The first is an old fortress, built during the reign of Charles V. It is a massive, severe, and merciless building, with four large spires and a cheerless grey façade. The cathedral is slightly more graceful; but the spiky, gothic tower hardly lifts the mood. In short, Toledo looks medieval.
From any direction, the approach to Toledo is impressive. You can see the old city walls, clinging to the hillside; the Puerta de Bisagra, a massive fortified gate; the Puente de Alcántra, an old Roman bridge; or the Puente de San Martín, a medieval bridge. Even today, the old fortifications are impressive and perfectly preserved. Toledo was a well protected city.
Before entering, it is worth a walk around the perimeter of the town. A wonderful park runs alongside the Tajo River, underneath both of the old bridges. There you can walk beside the rushing water, with the impressive cliffs for scenery. In some places there are old ruins—stone structures built alongside the river—that add a certain romantic charm to the walk. I kept going until I saw a stairwell leading up to the Puente de San Martín, which has a fantastic view.
Now you can enter the city itself. Toledo boasts the finest city centers in Spain. Cobblestone streets wind up and down the hills, chaotically intersecting with no apparent order or design. The streets twist and turn so much that you can get disoriented very quickly. Once I tried to walk someplace without using a map. I made three attempts, each time taking a different route; and each time I came back to where I left.
Walking up and down the hills can also be a bit exhausting, as your ankles bend on the uneven stone streets. This is unavoidable, for there is really no option but to walk; the streets are so narrow, so crowded, and so closely packed that driving a car would be impracticable (plus it would ruin the experience). But all this is worth it for the feeling that you have been transported in time to medieval Europe.
After a stroll about town, you can begin to visit some of the fine monuments of Toledo. Here are my favorites, in no particular order.
Santa María la Blanca
Santa María la Blanca is one of the two medieval synagogues in Toledo. As its name indicates, the building was later turned into a church after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. Built in 1190, it is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe, and surely one of the most beautiful.
As in many buildings in Toledo, the synagogue has a marked Moorish influence. A wooden roof sits atop rows of crescent arches, just like in a mosque; and ornamenting these arches are unmistakably Moorish decorations, carved in stucco. The place is called “la blanca” (the white) because almost everything inside has been whitewashed. This gives the place an angelic, otherworldly aura, emphasized by the LED lights that have been installed in the floor.
The synagogue does not take very long to visit. I highly recommend it, not only because it is quick and cheap, but because the room still has a certain spiritual power. If you’re like me, you will feel calm and meditative when you stand inside.
Synagogue “El Tránsito” and the Sephardic Museum
Just nearby, in the old Judería (Jewish quarters), is Toledo’s other synagogue, El Tránsito, built in 1356. At first glance this synagogue is less impressive, consisting of a large rectangular room. But the wooden ceiling is lovely, and when you look at the walls you will quickly see what the fuss is about. There you can find exquisite Moorish-style stucco ornamentation, perhaps the finest outside of Andalucia; indeed, if you were simply shown a photo, the synagogue could be mistaken for a room in the Alhambra. It’s amazing how much Islam, Judaism, and Christianity borrowed from each other during this time. We will be seeing more of this.
Attached the monastery is a museum of Sephardic culture, which is worth visiting. “Sephardic” is the name given to the distinctive Jewish culture of Medieval Spain, formed from living a long time alongside Christians and Muslims. For many years, Jews had prominent places in the universities as well as the governments of Muslim and Christian rulers. Isabella and Ferdinand even had Jewish advisers; and the El Tránsito synagogue itself was financed by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, treasurer of the Christian king Peter of Castille. But the Sephardic Jews were forced to flee Spain or convert to Christianity in that all-important year of Spanish history, 1492, forming a diasporic community throughout the world.
Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes
Nearby both of the synagogues is the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. It was built during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs after their victory against Portugal in the Battle of Toro (1476). The battle was significant, since it meant that the most dangerous obstacle to Ferdinand and Isabella’s union had been overcome.
From the outside, it is an impressive gothic structure, studded with spires. If memory serves, the entrance fee is only to gain access to the monastery’s cloisters. This is no problem, since the fee is small and the cloisters are quite lovely. The cloisters have two levels, which enclose a small but attractive garden. The openings of the lower level have fine stone mullions; it always amazed me that stone can be carved into such pretty, delicate shapes. The upper level was even more impressive, mainly because of the Mudéjar style wooden roof, which used royal insignias within a Moorish pattern of crisscrossing lines and stars—another example of cultural intermixture.
The church attached to the cloisters must be entered from another door. It is an impressive space, with tall vaulted ceilings and colorful stained glass. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t get a lot of time to look around, since by the time I went inside mass was about to start.
Church of San Ildefonso Jesuitas
In another part of town, well outside the Judería, is the impressive Church of San Ildefonso Jesuitas. Construction began on the church in 1629, continuing for over 100 years. I actually only went into the church on a whim, since the façade did not particularly interest me. Indeed now that I look at pictures, I confess that I find the church rather ugly.
The inside, however, is quite a different story. It is a well-lit and open space, with lovely white walls. But the real treat it not inside the church, but above it. You can climb up to the second floor, pause to enjoy that view of the church, and keep ascending up a metal staircase to one of the towers. From there, you can enjoy perhaps the best view from within Toledo.
The Church of San Román
Perhaps the most impressive example of cultural intermixture, even more than Santa María la Blanca, can be found in the Church of San Román. If you were not told it was a church, you could be mistaken for believing it was a mosque. Horseshoe arches support a typically Moorish wooden ceiling; and all along the walls runs what appears to be Arabic script. But the elongated paintings of people on the walls reveal the true nature of this building, for representational art is not found in any Mosque.
In reality, this church is a church and has always been a church. Built in the 13th century, the architects quite deliberately imitated Moorish styles, to the point of even writing fake Arabic on the walls. (It is just scribbling meant to look like Arabic.) It even has a church tower that looks like a minaret. The only off-note is a Renaissance cupola affixed to the church in the 16th century.
In order to find the church you might have to search for the “Museum of Gothic Culture” (Museo de los concilios y de la cultura visigoda), since nowadays that is what the old church is used for. Some of the information and artifacts on display are no doubt interesting, but the church itself is so much more interesting that it was nearly impossible for me to focus on the Visigoths during my visit.
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
As befitting the former home of El Greco, two of El Greco’s finest paintings can be seen in Toledo. One of the these is The Disrobing of Christ, which you can see in the Cathedral (more later); the other is The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.
This painting is on display in its own special chapel in the Church of Santo Tomé. Originally I thought it was in the church itself, which led to me blustering in and scouring every corner for the famous painting. Don’t bother. There is a special entrance to see it, which leads into a chapel where the titular Count of Orgaz still rests. More than likely this small room will be jam-packed with people; there must have been five separate tour groups when I visited, their guides chattering away in various languages. Nonetheless, El Greco’s masterpiece is worth it.
The subject of the painting is based on a local legend. Don Gonzalo Ruíz, the erstwhile Count of Orgaz (actually, he wasn’t a count; the distinction was awarded to his family later) was a pious man who donated money for the enlargement of the Church of Santo Tomé. In thanks, when Don Gonzalo Ruíz died, Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen descended from heaven to bury him. El Greco was commissioned to paint this scene in around 1586 by the priest of the church. But the scene was not to be purely historical, for El Greco’s contract stipulated that he must include portraits of many of the well-to-do men in Toledo, for obvious pecuniary reasons.
The painting is magnificent. The shining, golden armor of Count Orgaz, the flowing, finely patterned robes of the saints, the way the dead man’s body lies limply in the arms of his holy companions—all this put to rest any doubts I had about El Greco’s technical mastery. The man could have painted with as much facility as any of the finest artists of the Italian Renaissance.
But this realism is integrated into El Greco’s characteristically unreal style. The mourners gather round the grave in an absent space with no volume or depth. Each of the men wears a frilly collar and a black shirt, and seem remarkably unsurprised by the appearance of the saints. Of course, showing shock would have spoiled the portraits that El Greco integrated into the painting; for here El Greco displays most powerfully his skill as a portrait artists. All the mourner’s faces are wonderfully individual and expressive. El Greco has snuck in an entire gallery of first-class portraits, worthy even of Rembrandt.
Above this earthly scene flies the heavenly host, with Mary, Peter, John the Baptist, and Jesus in the center, surrounded by angels and saints. Every member of this heavenly host gazes up at Jesus—all except Mary, who looks sadly down at the burial below. There is an interesting mix of contrast and continuity between the lower and the upper halves. Although the heavenly host glows with eternal life, while the black funeral scene reeks of human mortality and decay, all the figures seem to occupy the same continuous space. The descent of the two saints, garbed in bright yellow robes, bolsters the impression that the boundary between heaven and earth has been ruptured. And if you look long enough at this painting, you may feel this rupture all the more powerfully, as El Greco’s spiritual beauty shines into our profane world.
The Cathedral of Toledo
By now I have seen enough cathedrals in Spain that I can say with confidence that the Toledo Cathedral is one of the very best. Indeed, the only thing that makes me hesitate to pronounce it the greatest is that I have yet to see the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. In any case, the Toledo Cathedral is a jewel in the crown of Spain and obligatory if you visit the town.
To buy tickets, you must go to a small building across the street from the cathedral, where you will be herded through the gift shop before you can make your purchase. When you go, I recommend the audioguide; it is well-made and adds a lot to the experience. You will enter through a door in the cathedral’s side—a really ugly portal. It has four tasteless Corinthian columns built into the façade. I don’t know why this was done to the cathedral, but whoever did so should be kept away from all religious structure in the future.
Generally speaking, the Toledo Cathedral is not remarkably attractive from the outside. It has one impressive tower, but on the other side is a stumpy Renaissance cupola that throws the whole structure off balance. Certainly the main façade of Toledo cannot compare with the mountains of spires and sculptures you find in Burgos. Nevertheless, the three doors in the front are truly splendid; and dramatic sculptures of robed figures with cover the building, preaching to eternity with arms outstretched.
It is the interior of Toledo that is so impressive. Every inch of space is covered with decoration, and all of it first-rate, in a dazzling mixture of styles. I wish I could give a full overview of every little piece of the building, but there is simply too much to see. Here are some highlights.
First the main chapel. Like any respectable gothic cathedral, the Toledo Cathedral was built to emphasize height. The vaulted ceiling hangs more than a hundred feet above you, supported by impossibly tall columns of stone. The stained glass windows allow a dull glow to reach the interior, enough to illuminate the top but not the bottom of the building; thus a spooky and somber darkness pervades the whole space.
The cathedral has many portals. From the inside, the most impressive of these is the Portal of the Lions. Over the doorway, a breathtaking series of friezes have been carved in the plateresque style, the distinctive ornamental style of the Spanish Golden Age. We see the genealogy of Mary, a tree that begins with Abraham (I think) and ends with the Coronation of the Virgin in the center. Emerging from the top of this work is the organ, its pipes jutting from the wall.
After you walk around the main chapel, exploring the lovely decorations that cover both the inside and outside of the central choir and the resplendent golden central altarpiece, you will come upon the most striking and original artwork in the cathedral: El Transparente. This is a marvelous altar that incorporates both painting, stucco, and statues in marble and bronze, among other media, and that stretches from the ground all the way up to the ceiling and beyond. Right behind the main altar, between two sets of columns, is a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary seated, Jesus in her lap, surrounded by white angels with bronze wings. Above her is a heavenly glow, with bronze shafts of lights emanating in all directions; and baby-faced cherubim fly around, basking happily in the sunshine. Really, there are too many figures to describe or identify. It is absolutely stunning.
But the work doesn’t stop there. A hole has been made in the thick ceiling above, allowing sunlight to shine directly onto the altar. And surrounding this opening are colorful paintings and seated statues, all of them holy figures who calmly look down on you from several stories up, as the light of heaven pours in from beyond. I can’t fathom the technical challenges of such a work. The vertical arrangement of the figures, the mastery of so many different artistic media, the engineering problem involved in cutting a hole in the roof—and yet the final effect is not strained at all, but tasteful and magnificent.
All this is just a taste of the beauty you can find in the main chapel; but there is much more to see. One of the most impressive rooms in the cathedral is the Chapterhouse. This room was used for meetings with the Archbishop of Toledo, a position which has long been the most powerful religious title in Spain. The archbishop’s golden chair stands in the center of the room, opposite the door; running along the rest of the walls is a wooden bench, where everyone else would sit. The coffered roof is of gilded wood, divided into geometrical shapes. On the upper half of the wall is a series of frescos, showing scenes from the life of Jesus; above the door is an excellent portrayal of the Last Judgment. Running below this, above the wooden bench, is a series of portraits of the Archbishops of Toledo, going back to the very beginning. It is fascinating to see how the style of portraits changes throughout the many years.
Surpassing even the Chapterhouse is the Sacristy—traditionally, where the archbishop would prepare to give services. Nowadays, the huge room is used as an art museum. An enormous painting covers the entire barrel-vaulted ceiling; it depicts a massive host of angels gathered around a heavenly light, which shines from the word “Yahweh” written in Hebrew. This style of ceiling decoration was common enough in the Spain of the 17th century, but this is the most stunning and successful example I have seen. I once caught myself drooling as I stared up at it, lost in the illusion that I was looking into heaven itself.
Excellent paintings are hung all along the walls, many by El Greco. The most notable of these is his Disrobing of Christ, which stands in the very center of the room. El Greco captures the moment right before Christ is stripped of his clothes. Jesus stands in the center, staring up into heaven, his bright red robe enveloping his body. He is looking into heaven with a serene and sad expression. His eyes seem moist with tears. A noisy, chaotic rabble surrounds him. But what is most striking is that none of them seems to be paying attention to Christ; instead they are absorbed with each other, seemingly consumed with petty argument. Thus the figure of Jesus stands isolated among the crowd, untouchable, unearthly, abandoned by humanity but not abandoning us in return. In short, it is a masterpiece of religious art.
The Toledo Cathedral also has a lovely cloister. On the outside wall is a series of frescos depicting the doings and lives of several saints from the history of Toledo. From this cloister you can access the Chapel of Saint Blaise. This is an octagonal room, built in the 14th century. Originally the walls were covered with a series of medieval frescos. But unfortunately, since the chapel was built below street level, water has destroyed many of these. This is a real shame, because the remains are utterly enchanting. In style, they strongly remind me of images I’ve seen of Giotto’s work, and indeed the artists (their names are unknown) may well have been directly influenced by Giotto, as they were from Florence.
This is just a taste of what you can find in the Toledo Cathedral. Inside you can find superb examples in every medium—friezes, paintings, sculptures, architecture, the decorative arts—of nearly every phase and style of Spanish art: plateresque, Mudéjar, neoclassical, renaissance, baroque, and of course gothic. But what is most miraculous is that all these disparate elements combine to form a perfect whole. It is one of the greatest artistic projects in the world, and something I will always recall with awe.
As I am slowly discovering, Madrid has an inexhaustible wealth of day trips. I have already written posts for my four favorites—Toledo, El Escorial, Salamanca, and Segovia—and another post for four more: Ávila, Chinchón, Aranjuez, and Alcalá de Henares. Now I must add two more to this already long list: Manzanares el Real and La Granja.
Manzanares el Real
Manzanares el Real is a small town north of Madrid, situated at the food of the Guadarrama mountains. The only way to get there on public transportation is by bus line 724, which you take from the Intercambiador at Plaza de Castilla.
On the advice of a classmate, GF and I decided to spend a Sunday morning of an otherwise lazy weekend on a trip there. It was a dreary February day, cloudy and drizzling. The busride was unremarkable, taking us through several of those nondescript Spanish villages that always manage to disorient me, since they look so similar that I cannot tell whether I’ve seen them before. I spent most of the ride reading, anyway. To be exact, I was reading Hemingway’s famous guide to bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, which was appropriate, since our route took us past a bullring and a statue of a matador.
In forty minutes we arrived. Our first stop was the tourist office, where a very friendly women gave us a map and marked it up with sites to see. In retrospect, I am deeply impressed with her for being so enthusiastic; there are not very many things to do in Manzanares, but she squeezed every last drop out of the possibilities.
Our first stop—and, indeed, the only reason we made the trip in the first place—was the castle. Manzanares is home to one of the best preserved, most picturesque castles in Spain, the so-called “New Castle.” (It was built in the 15th century. We will meet the “old” castle later.)
The castle is surrounded by a wall, full of narrow slits for archers, that wraps closely around the perimeter. The castle itself has a square layout, with a small appendage in the back. Tall towers stand over each corner. Its symmetrical form, gray granite façade, and curving walls combine to form a surprisingly pretty building.
After some mucking about trying to find the ticket booth, finally we did, bought tickets, and went in. To be frank, I am not sure I would recommend doing this. There was not very much on the inside of the castle. In the lower level were a few panels of information; and in upper floors, there were old bedrooms and living spaces with period furniture. But neither of these were memorable. The only thing worth seeing was the view from the top of the castle. You can walk all around the roof, going from tower to tower. On one side you can see the town, and the mountains beyond; on another side, the nearby reservoir (I thought it was a lake at the time).
We were outside again in less than an hour. Now what? We looked at the map the woman at the tourist office had given us. The only thing that caught my attention was the aforementioned “Old Castle.” This is about a ten minute walk from the New Castle, across the Manzanares River that runs through the town. It would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. Hardly anything remains. At first glance it is just an empty, grassy field; the only indication that there used to be a castle here is a small granite wall, no more than five feet tall.
From there, we followed a road the woman recommended, which took us out of the town and towards the reservoir; the idea was to get away from the city, so we could get a good photo of it. On the way, we passed by the town cemetery; the gate was open, nobody was standing by, so we walked in.
I had been wanting to visit a cemetery since I came to Spain, and this was the first opportunity that presented itself. I was interested in cemeteries because, before coming here, I gave a tour of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to a family from Madrid. During the visit, they kept remarking how different American cemeteries are from Spanish ones.
They were right. While Americans cemeteries can look like parks, their Spanish counterparts are totally devoid of vegetation. Instead, the dead are interred in stone sarcophagi that sit on top of the ground; either that or they occupy a slot in a large stone wall. For me, the place had a much more somber feel. There was nothing alive there but us.
We left and kept going along the road. Soon we crossed a bridge that took us over the reservoir, turned around, and admired the view. It was still a drizzly, dreary day, but the gray rainclouds brought out a special charm to the landscape. On the banks of the reservoir, amid the pools of water, white cows were grazing. Beyond was the town, nestled at the foot of a craggy mountain, a mass of jagged gray slithering up into the mist.
We took some pictures, and then headed back into town to the bus station. The surrounding area actually looked like it had some nice hiking paths; but I hadn’t brought the shoes or the willingness to go on a hike. We went to the bus stop.
While we waited for the bus to arrive, I admired some of the storks who made their nest on a tree nearby. This was the first time I heard the strange clacking noise that storks make by rapidly beating their beaks together, as they arch their neck back so far that the top of their skull touches the back of their long slender neck. Actually, I thought the sound was coming from a motorcycle engine at first, the noise is so strange and harsh. Doesn’t it damage their beaks to snap them together so forcefully?
La Granja de San Ildefonso
In Hemingway’s book, Death in the Afternoon, he mentions his favorite things to see in Madrid:
“But when you have the Prado and the bullfight season at the same time with El Escorial not two hours to the north and Toledo to the south, a fine road to Avila and a fine road to Segovia, which is no distance from La Granja, it makes you feel very badly, all question of immortality aside, to know that you will have to die and never see it again.”
All of these places I had seen, except La Granja. Naturally I had to go.
The Palace of La Granja is found in the town of San Ildefonso, in the province of Segovia, near the Guadarrama mountains. From Madrid, there isn’t a direct way to get there on public transportation. First we took the train from Madrid to Segovia. From the train station in Segovia, we took the city bus to the central plaza, near the Roman aqueduct, since that is where TripAdvisor said the bus to La Granja would be. But the bus was not there. We asked a bystander, who told us to go to the bus station, about a seven minute walk. (If you are making this same trip, take the bus from the train station direct to the bus station to save you this walk.)
We arrived and got on line to buy tickets. But once we got to the end, the man behind the desk told us to buy our tickets as we got on the bus. So we went to the loading area. One bus arrived, it wasn’t the right one; then another, also not the right bus. Finally the bus to La Granja arrived. We paid and got on. The ride to San Ildefonso took about forty-five minutes. All told, the trip from Madrid to San Ildefonso took over two hours.
We went straight to the palace. Seen from the town, it is not very impressive. Its main distinguishing feature is a large cupola that towers above everything else in the town. I suppose the kings who lived here were not especially concerned with awing the few citizens of the town; rather, this palace was originally a kind of royal retreat, where the kings spent their summers to go hunting in the forests nearby. The palace itself dates from the 1720s, under the reign of the first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty, Philip V, after the chaos of the War of Spanish Succession. The war ended with a French family on the Spanish throne, and thus this palace bears the mark of French taste. Specifically, it is modeled on the palace of Versailles, built by Philip V’s grandfather, Louis XIV. Like its predecessor, La Granja even has its own splendid French gardens, of which we will see more later.
Our visit began with a museum of tapestries. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of tapestries in Spain, and normally I do not find them terribly interesting. But these were magnificent. The palace had tapestries dating back to the reign of the Catholic Monarchs (the late 15th century). But the most impressive were made during the time of Charles V. They were massive, well over 12 feet tall. The surface was covered with elaborate, allegorical scenes, with damsels and knights, sages and demons, each personifying a virtue or a vice. There were also mythological beasts and historical figures woven into the panoply of images. There was Hercules holding up the heavens, and a representation of Boethius’s Wheel of Fortune, as well as Plato, Seneca, and Solomon the Wise. I wish photos were allowed.
Then we went into the palace proper. The first room had portraits of Philip V and his family, all of them bedecked in frilly outfits and white wigs, all of them smiling gaily. Their smile reminded me of Kenneth Clarke’s episode on the French Enlightenment, in his marvelous documentary, Civilisation. It is an ironical, bemused, dispassionate smile, a smile that Clarke dubbed the “smile of reason.” This was, after all, the Enlightenment.
As usual in palaces, the rooms were beautifully furnished: still-lifes, portraits, and religious paintings hung on the walls; delicately carved and upholstered chairs stood awaiting the royal bottoms (which, alas, do not appear nowadays); and elaborate chandeliers hung in every room. Each ceiling was covered in a large painting, usually of a mythological scene amid a heavenly background.
When I walk through the former abodes of the ultra-wealthy, I tend to feel a little queasy. It all seems so frivolous and so profligate. Nobody should be this rich. Palaces are not warm, welcoming places; they crush you under the weight of all their finery and splendor. I cannot imagine that living in a palace has a positive effect on your psychology. Every single piece of furniture, every clock and candelabra, bespeaks wealth and power. And how do you keep your head and govern a country when your entire world is a never-ending chant to yourself? How do you manage a kingdom when you live in a world apart?
Nevertheless, the royal apartments in La Granja were so tastefully decorated that my usual misgivings about palaces didn’t bother me. It was a really beautiful place, arranged with tact and restraint. We walked through the bedrooms, dressing rooms, the study, the banquet hall, and then went down the stairs to the ground floor. By comparison, this floor was quite empty. The most lovely thing to be seen is a beautiful fountain full of bronze figures, with a backdrop made from seashells. Other than that, however, the ground floor is full of neo-classical statues. These were of very poor quality, I thought, bland and lifeless.
But it wasn’t long until we went through the entire floor and had gone outside to visit the gardens. Now this was the real palace. The gardens of La Granja are massive; indeed, judging from the map, the gardens are bigger than the whole town of San Ildefonso! For the most part, they consist of long, straight avenues lined with trees and bushes that connect several plazas; in each of these plazas is a fountain. The fountains are the most impressive part, even when they are turned off (as they were during our visit). The most eye-catching is the long, terraced fountain that runs down a hill next to the palace; small statues line the walkway on both sides, and at the top are more statues in bronze. From here you can see the palace at its most impressive. Clearly, this is the facade that was meant to be seen.
Philip V must have felt quite smug with himself after having these gardens built; they represent the dominance of French royalty over Spanish affairs. But I did not feel even an inkling of the splendor that the gardens were supposed to represent. Rather, the place was cold and empty. The trees were still bare; a chilly breeze blew threw the gardens; the snow-covered peaks of the Guadarrama stood in the distance; and the fountains sat amid this wintry landscape, dry and silent.
From an anthropological perspective, I thought the gardens embodied certain unmistakable ideals of the Enlightenment: orderly rows of hedges, straight paths, circular plazas, Greco-Roman sculptures. It is easy to imagine Philip V strolling through with his ironical smile and white wig, admiring his taste and power. The garden was planned like a city, with main avenues and connecting streets. There is no Romantic love for untamed nature, no mystical communion with the chaotic. Nature is, rather, domesticated, ordered, disciplined, brought into line with the dictates of reason. The result is impressive, but it lacked what I most crave from parks: life.
We strolled around for about half an hour, and then we left. It was lunch time. I was really excited for this, because the last time I visited Segovia I had some excellent food. We had one meal in mind, the two classic dishes of Segovia: Judiones de la Granja and Cochinillo. The first is a bean stew, and the second is roast suckling pig. They are so popular that almost every restaurant offers a daily special with the two dishes, the first as an appetizer and the second as the main course. The problem is that it’s expensive. We walked around for about twenty minutes, comparing prices, before settling on one restaurant with decent prices and full with clients. (If a restaurant is full of Spaniards eating, it’s probably pretty good.)
Luckily there were seats. We ordered the special, and waited with stomachs grumbling and mouths watering. First came the Judiones. Judiones are big and tender white beans, grown locally. They are served in a stew, along with chorizo, pancetta, and morcilla (blood sausage), a combination that gives it a distinctive smoky, peppery flavor. We finished the stew, mopping up the last of the sauce with our bread. Then came the cochinillo, a huge hunk of meat served over a bed of fries (the Spanish love fries). The skin was crispy, the meat was tender and juicy, and everything tasted of savory oil. I enjoyed it so much my hair stood on end. I stuffed myself and then sat back with a satisfied sigh. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve had here.
Because of the bus schedule, we had about an hour and a half to kill before the next bus to Segovia. Luckily, we happened upon the perfect solution: the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja. Originally it was a factory established by Philip V to make glass products for the La Granja palace. Nowadays it’s not a factory anymore, but a museum dedicated to all things glass.
Most surprising was simply the museum’s size. It has everything. Inside you can find historical examples of the machines used in glass manufacturing, massive metal contraptions that I did not understand. There were also fine examples of stained glass, bottles and jugs stretching back centuries, and an entire wing dedicated to modern practitioners of the art of glassblowing, with some really spectacular examples. But coolest of all, they had two (somewhat unenthusiastic) glassblowers giving demonstrations. The nonchalance with which the glassblower stuck the rod into a fiery furnace and then turned in the red-hot mass into a lovely vase was remarkable.
Indeed, the museum had so much that I wished I could have spent more time inside looking around. But, alas, the bus was coming. We left, took the bus back to Segovia, and then the train back to Madrid.
So in addition to all the many treasures you can see on a visit to Madrid, now I must add that one of the finest castles and perhaps the very finest palace in Spain are within reach of a day trip.
“That’s what the pigs eat, the acorns from those trees. They’re called encinas.”
“Oh, neat,” I said.
We were on our way to Cáceres, one of the major cities in Extremadura. Out the window I could see the flat, featureless, interminable plains of the region. The drive west from Madrid is perhaps the least interesting one in Spain I know. There isn’t anything to see except fields of grass and the aforementioned short, shrubby trees. But the visual dullness is amply compensated by what the traveler can learn about Spain from a trip here. Case in point: jamón ibérico, the finest ham in the country—and ham is fundamental to Spanish food—comes from here. The black pigs roam, free-range, eating the acorns of the encina trees, known in English as the holm oak.
Our driver spoke in the fast, clipped accent of Cáceres, only slightly easier to understand than the dreaded accent of Andalusia. We were on vacation for Semana Santa, Holy Week. Our final destination was Lisbon; but to break the trip into manageable chunks we decided to stop in Cáceres and Mérida on the way there, cities that had been recommended to us.
In two hours we arrived, dropped off our bags, and went into the city center. It was a rainy, overcast day, with a chilly breeze. The gray sky and the dull light gave the town a forsaken aspect. But instead of detracting from the city’s charm, the weather added to it.
Cáceres has one of the finest historical centers in Spain. The walled city is almost perfectly preserved; it looks like it’s hardly changed since the Middle Ages. Most of the buildings are weather-beaten, worn down, but their brown stone façades are all the more impressive for that. Unlike Toledo, few buildings stand out for special comment. Rather it is the entire city center that is the main attraction, the narrow stone streets, the proud walls, the many church spires.
But Cáceres is not exactly beautiful, and it certainly isn’t pretty. The city is impressive for its severity. While wandering through the chilly interior of a cavernous church, or standing in the rain underneath the city walls, you get the powerful sense of what it must have been to live here, eking out a living on the hard soil, taking shelter behind the walls, seeking salvation in another world. The final impression is that life here was precarious and hard; and even now the town seems only to limp by on the strength of its tourism.
The first building we visited was the Concatedral de Santa Maria de Cáceres, a co-cathedral built at the end of the Romanesque period. Like most building in Cáceres, it is rather plain; the outside is devoid of ornament. The most beautiful thing on the inside is a massive carved wooden altar, quite a marvelous piece of work. You can also visit the building’s tower, which affords you with an excellent view of the old city.
Probably the most conspicuous church in Cáceres is the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier. This church sits at one of the highest points in the city, and its two white towers, which flank the main doorway, can be seen from quite a distance. The inside is rather strange. On both the ground and the upper level there is a massive timeline, recounting the history of Spain and the Catholic Church. It wasn’t very well made; the board was so crowded with names and dates, all printed in tiny letters, that you would have to spend many hours to read everything. Also on the upper floor was a museum of Belén (nativity scene) figurines. They had examples not only from Spanish history, but from all around the world. There was everything in the church except a church.
From the top floor you can walk up to either of the tall, white towers. Not only did we get a nice view of the city, but we also got a close look at some of the white storks nesting on the opposite tower. They are lovely birds.
Next we went to the Museum of Cáceres. In truth, I wasn’t expecting much from this museum; and the nondescript building only confirmed my lack of excitement. The place seemed so destitute that I doubted there could be anything worth seeing. But I am happy to report that I was very wrong.
The collection spanned from prehistory to the present day. It began with the region’s pre-Roman inhabitants, their jewelry and clay pots. Next were the Roman artifacts, including little statues and tablets with still visible Latin inscriptions. There were replicas of the agricultural tools used by the erstwhile peasants of the region, as well as their traditional dresses. Down a flight of steps I found a room dedicated to the Visigoths, and down another flight, in the basement, was the most impressive room of all. It was an original aljibe, a water well constructed by the Moors. In dim, subterranean light, the distinctive crescent arches of the Moors stand over a still pool of water. It’s enchanting.
I thought that would be all, but a walkway led to another building, and there I found that the Museum of Cáceres also boasts an impressive collection of modern art, including a sketch by Picasso. On the floor below that, there are also a few examples of Medieval art, and even a work by El Greco. If you find yourself in Cáceres, do visit this museum; it is impressive, and for us it was free!
We were hungry now, and tired, so we ate at a restaurant in the center—very good, by the way—went back to our Airbnb, and went to sleep.
The next day was bright and sunny. We ate breakfast and headed into town. Once there, however, we realized that we didn’t have anything to do. We had seen the major churches, we had seen the museum, we had walked all the streets. Now what? I was lazily turning this question over when I noticed how lovely the surrounding area looked in the sunlight.
“Why don’t we take a walk outside the city?” I suggested.
Thus we turned down a narrow street, passed through the old medieval gate, and emerged on the other side. In just twenty minutes we were surrounded by farms and grass. To our left some horses were grazing, and when we paused to look at them, one of them walked over and stuck his nose through the gate.
“I think he wants to be petted,” I said, and gingerly touched his snout.
GF did the same, and the horse seemed to like it. But then the horse abruptly turned away, and went back to eat some more grass. I think he was hoping we’d give him food.
Soon we found a dirt path leading away from the road, going to our left into another grassy field. We turned and followed it. By now the weather was nearly perfect, with a warm sun and a cool breeze. The grass shone green, and the flowers were in bloom. In the distance we could see more horses grazing in the open fields; and beyond that, the old city center of Cáceres sitting nobly on its hill.
The natural scenery and the blue sky felt so refreshing after the gloomy rain and the harsh Medieval architecture of yesterday. The only buildings here were derelict. An old farmhouse with boarded up windows, stuccoed brick walls, and cracked wooden window-frames stood by the side of the path; its roof was totally caved in, the wooden beams a broken heap on the floor, everything covered in weeds. A stone wall ran besides this farm; shards of colored glass has been glued to the top, though I don’t know why. Elsewhere we found a brick arch, the old doorway of a now demolished building, its top covered in moss.
We walked for hours, holding our jackets, soaking in the sun and breathing the fresh air. But then the sun began to go away, and it became so chilly we had to put our jackets back on. Storm clouds were appearing; in just minutes the blue sky was devoured by gray. We headed back for town, but we hadn’t gotten far before the rain started. Unluckily for us, we didn’t have our umbrellas; but luckily it wasn’t a downpour. Our route home led us through a part of town we hadn’t visited before. It was modern and unremarkable, for the most part; but we did pass by an old church building. This building wasn’t itself particularly beautiful, but on its roof I could count ten stork’s nests, with several of the storks standing guard.
Soon we were back at our Airbnb; we cooked our own dinner that night, and did not go out again. Our two days in Cáceres were spent. If you get a chance, I recommend a visit. It isn’t as spectacular as Toledo or Córdoba, but it is impressive nonetheless. Besides, what Cáceres lacks in beauty it makes up in intimacy. The medieval streets are not filled with noisy street performers or clowns in costume; you won’t have to nudge your way through massive tour groups or dodge gaggles of Americans on Segways. The restaurants are filled with locals; the shops sell food, not gaudy knickknacks. Horses, not double-decker buses, roam the city’s surroundings.
Mérida is an hour’s drive west of Cáceres, pretty near the border with Portugal. As usual, we were taking a Blablacar. Our driver was from Seville, and his friend, another passenger, from Cáceres. Both were lovely people, laid back, sociable, patient with our Spanish, so the drive was pleasant.
The drive became doubly pleasant when a rainbow appeared to our left on the way over. It had been a long time since I’d seen a rainbow from a moving car, maybe even years; so it was interesting to see how the rainbow moved across the landscape with us as we drove. I have this deep-rooted idea from watching cartoons as a child that a rainbow is a stationary object (how else could Leprechauns bury their pots of gold at the end?). But of course that’s not true; rainbows are optical illusions caused by the refraction of light through water droplets in the air, and thus appear at a different locations to each individual viewer. I suppose I’ll have to play the lottery if I want a pot of gold.
After an hour, our pleasant drive was over; indeed, I was having such a good time that I was genuinely disappointed when we arrived. But what could I do?
We picked up our bags and walked to our Airbnb. It was in an apartment building in the center of town, very easy to find. I texted our host, who promptly let us into the building. An elevator ride to the top, and she was at the door waiting.
“Hola, ¿qué tal?” I said.
“Hello,” she said, in a perfect American accent.
“Wait, you’re American?”
“Yeah, don’t you remember?” GF said.
“Oh, that’s right!”
Weeks ago, GF told me that our host in Mérida was an American—information that I promptly forgot. I had been communicating with her entirely in Spanish.
She was a young woman from Alaska, here in Spain to teach English in the government program. Incidentally, I find it somewhat surprising that I have so far met two people from Alaska, given that the state has a population of 800,000. Only two states, Vermont and Wyoming, have less people. I learned one surprising thing about Alaska: it has a very diverse population, including a sizeable colony of Hmong.
But we didn’t stay long to chat. Our bags tucked away, soon we were out on the street. By now it was already rather late; all the monuments were closed, and the sun would be setting in an hour. With few options, we decided that we would stroll along the river. The Guadiana River is the bigger of the two rivers that run through the city; it is the forth largest river in Spain, and further West forms part of the border with Portugal.
(By the way, the prefix Guad- can be found in several other Spanish place names, such as the Guadalquivir, the river that runs through Seville and Córdoba, the Guadarrama, a mountain range near Madrid, and Guadalajara, an old city in Castilla La Mancha. This prefix is a Castillianization of Arabic.)
A park ran along the riverside, green and splendid. Stray cats hid among the bushes, and teenagers sat and chatted on the benches. The river was calm and clear; the overhanging trees were reflected on its surface in the waning daylight. We walked until we reached a bridge, and then climbed a stairwell hoping to cross the river. But once we got to the top, we both gasped.
Half the town was gathered in the square; it was totally packed with people. There, under the walls of the old Moorish fortress, they were having an Easter Parade. The first time I saw a Spanish Easter celebration was in my college course on the anthropology of the Mediterranean. The most immediately noticeable thing—for an American, at least—is that it looks like a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. Either by coincidence or intention, the traditional costumes of the Spanish Easter procession are nearly identical in appearance to that of the American hate group. Of course, the Spaniards created their costumes first, and thus it is absurd to associate them with American racism. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy.
The unease passed quickly, however, and soon I was wholly absorbed in the spectacle. Rows and rows of hooded figures were lined up, some in red, some in white, each of them carrying a stalk of wheat, no doubt of symbolic importance. Among these there were tons of children, who each carried a little bag full of candy with them; as they walked by, they handed each passerby with outstretched hand a treat. Behind the hooded figures was the float. On a large platform was a life-sized figure of Jesus seated on a donkey, on his triumphant ride into Jerusalem. Behind him was a large palm tree, on either side of him a disciple carrying a stalk of wheat, and in front a woman knelt with clasped hands.
I stood there, examining the float for a while, when a man walked up to the front of it and started shouting through a whole in the bottom. Then he knocked on the top of the float, and all the sudden it stood up. Underneath were about twenty people, carrying the thing on their shoulders. I have no idea how heavy it was, but I can’t imagine it being comfortable to have it resting on top of you while you’re huddled underneath with so many others.
Slowly the float lurched into motion, step by slow step, plodding like a giant through the town. Behind the float was the band. It is apparently traditional to have marching music during these processions. The band consisted entirely of brass instruments and drums. The music was very simple, and very loud. The snare drums beat out a slow, methodical march rhythm. Over this, the band played a somber sequence of minor chords—a sour, out of tune, tremendously tragic sound that conveyed a sense of overwhelming loss. Sometimes a trumpeter would play a call-and-response with the rest of the horns, squeezing out a strangled series of shrill notes, to be answered by the violent blare of the other players. If you think I didn’t liked it, you’re mistaken; it was deeply impressive.
We stood and watched the parade for about an hour. This was one of my favorite experiences from Spain. I feel privileged to have seen it.
But now it was dark, and we were hungry. Our host recommended a bar to us, a place called the Bar Alhambra, which she said served free sandwiches included with every drink. We searched and searched, and after half an hour found nothing; finally we had given up and decided to go eat pizza, when by chance we found it. We ducked inside and ordered two drinks. As promised, each one came with a sandwich and a side of fries. The food was not luxurious; indeed, it was so greasy and salty that I felt slightly ill and covered in oil by the time I finished mine. But it was free! I ordered another beer, and got another sandwich. If you’re in Mérida and eating on a budget, go to the Bar Alhambra.
That was it for that night. The next day was Monday. This was to be our only day full in Mérida, so we had lots to see. But there was one potential problem: it was a Monday. I hadn’t thought about this when I made our plans. You see, Monday in Spain is the day that monuments run by the Patrimonio Nacional are closed. I had the sinking feeling that we wouldn’t be able to see any of Mérida’s rich treasures during our stay.
The reason I had chosen to visit Mérida was because of ancient history. Specifically, Roman history. When Spain was controlled by the Roman Empire, Mérida was the capital of Hispania, the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. As a result, some of the finest Roman ruins in Spain, and perhaps anywhere in the world outside Italy, can be found here.
We wandered into town and had breakfast. Then, with bated breath, we went to our first stop, the Roman theater and amphitheater. I sighed with relief when I saw that the place was full of people: it was open.
We bought combination tickets, which included five or six Roman sites, and then went into the complex where the two jewels of the city are found. These are the aforementioned theater and amphitheater, which are situated right next to one another in a walled-off section of town.
We walked inside. I was bursting with excitement. When I was younger, I spent hours pouring over books on Roman military tactics. Much later, I read all six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and made my way through Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Cicero, Seneca, Hadrian—in short, I was about to see with my own eyes something that I had been learning about for almost all my life. The reality didn’t disappoint.
The visit took us to the amphitheater first. It was like the Colosseum on a small scale, although it was still a massive construction, big enough for 15,000 spectators. Many of the entranceways into the area were still perfectly useable, the Roman arches still holding strong. Other parts of the building were in various states of decay, allowing me to see the different layers of materials used in the building. One thing I learned—and I’m mildly ashamed I didn’t know this before—was that the Romans had bricks. Indeed, the bricks looked so neat and pristine, their color still bright red, that I found it hard to believe that they were original. (Apparently, the Romans got the technique for fired bricks from the Greeks.) This brick was mostly used for support and for the arches; the exterior was covered in slabs of gray stone.
The years had been hardest on the seats; most of them were reduced to rubble. Apart from that, however, the preservation was astonishing. Our visit took us through a long tunnel, the main entrance. On either side of the walkway, cardboard cutouts of gladiators were standing; beside these were captions of information, explaining the typical armaments of the different types of gladiators. I had thought there were only two or three types of gladiators, but apparently there were a dozen or more, each with their own distinct weaponry. Some had tridents and nets, some had big, rectangular shields and short swords, and some had small circular shields, heavy helmets, and daggers.
I tried in vain to imagine what it would be like to fight for my life in front of hundreds of cheering people, and gave up. It is a chilling thought to realize that this splendid architectural marvel was built so that the exploited citizenry and overfed nobles could watch slaves kill each other. It is yet another proof that great art can be produced for nefarious ends.
At the end of the walkway, on either side, were the small rooms used to keep the combatants in waiting, so that they could rush out into the arena when it was their time to fight. In the middle of the area there was a depression in the ground; I think this was a kind of trap-door, used to send animals into the arena, but I’m not sure: it didn’t look big enough.
Most extraordinary of all were the faded inscription, on a stone in front of the box reserved for government officials. It read AUGUST. PONT. MAXIM. TRIBUNIC POTESTATE XVI. (I myself couldn’t read it, but there was an informational plaque nearby.) From this we learn that this amphitheater was built during the reign of Caesar Augustus, around the year 8 BCE to be precise. To put that in context, the Colosseum was built about eighty years later, in 75 CE.
After our fill of pictures we went to the next stop, the Roman theater. If the amphitheater was stunning, I don’t know a word for this. It didn’t look real; it looked like a set for a high-budget Hollywood film. I didn’t know such things still existed.
Well, let me describe it. The amphitheater holds about 6,000 people; it was first built in around 15 BCE, but majorly renovated about 200 years later. As in all amphitheaters, a semi-circular stadium of seats surrounds a central stage. At first glance the seats looked to be in much better condition than the seats in the neighboring theater; but this was an illusion created by stone-colored plastic coverings. (Events are still held here on special occasions, so they need working seats.) In the middle is a semi-circular open space, and beyond that, on a raised platform, a larger rectangular space. This was where the magic happened. But the real attraction was the structure behind the stage.
On each side, resting upon two levels of ten elegant Corinthian columns, was a wonderful façade that served as a backdrop for the ancient theater productions. This is called the scaenae frons, a normal fixture of Roman theaters. It had three doors, one in the center and one on each side, that allowed the actors to enter and exit the stage. The columns themselves were lovely, made of delicately textured gray and white marble. Standing in the nooks of these columns were Roman statues (the originals are on display at Mérida’s museum of Roman art; these are replicas) of gods and heroes, with flowing robes and ornate armor.
I feel a powerful sense of helplessness in moments like this, when faced with something so beautiful and so historic. What am I supposed to do? I take pictures, I wander around, I sit, I stand, I stroll, I do my best to examine and appreciate. I feel a sense of awe at the age and splendor of the place, but what am I supposed to do with this feeling? I wish that the experience would humble me, will put things in perspective, and thus ennoble me; but of course the person who walks out of the monument is still the same petty, neurotic person who walked in.
We left. I hoped to visit the city’s museum of Roman art next, but here my fear became reality: it was closed, because it was Monday. So we left to go find some more Roman ruins.
Luckily, Roman ruins were not in short supply. In just ten minutes we came upon the so-called Temple of Diana. This is something of a misnomer, as the temple was actually dedicated to Augustus. Nevertheless, it was an impressive sight; a marble lintel sat atop several towering columns. The only indication, to my eyes, that it was Roman and not Greek was the small arch that crowns the structure. Behind the remains of the temple was affixed an old Renaissance-style house. Apparently, some rich knight decided that it would be nice to live next to the old ruins. The house was elegant enough, but the final effect of the house and the temple was somewhat incongruous. If memory serves, the government considered knocking it down, but finally decided that the house itself was important enough to merit preservation.
Next we went to the Alcázaba. As its name suggests, this is an old Moorish fortress; it stands next to the Roman bridge, so as to guard the old entrance to the city, and apparently was built over the remains of an older, Roman fortress. This fortress came in handy to the Moors, as they faced several uprisings. Even today the walls are tall and thick, and could have easily withstood all but the most organized attacks.
The entrance fee was included in our combination tickets, so we walked right in. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see inside the walls. I imagine that the place was previously full of military barracks and other martial necessities, made out of non-durable materials. The only exception to this was the stone cistern. This was an odd-looking, square building that stands in the center of the fortress; indeed, it looked Egyptian to my eyes, but what do I know? There was nothing inside except a long ramp that leads deep underground. At the bottom was a pool of clear, blue rainwater where, surprisingly enough, some fish make their home. But what do they eat?
Apart from this, there were some plants and some archaeological remains, but nothing really caught my interest. The view from the wall, however, is worth seeing. From there we could see our next destination, the Roman bridge.
This bridge was quite similar to the Roman bridges in Salamanca and Córdoba: a stone road built over a series of arches, not more than fifty feet over the water. But the bridge of Mérida does have the distinction of being considerably longer; indeed, it is the longest surviving bridge from ancient Rome. Including the approaching ramp, the bridge stretches well over 2,500 feet, or about half a mile (for non-Americans, that’s 790 meters). It is simply huge, a stupefying achievement of engineering. My mind reels from trying to imagine how it was built; how do you arrange the stones in deep water?
GF and I walked all the way across, which took about 10 minutes. Once on the other side, we walked through a lovely riverside park towards the other major bridge of Mérida, the Puente Lusitania. This is an attractive, modern bridge, designed by the architect Santiago Calatraba. It was finished in 1991, which finally allowed the city to close the Roman bridge to vehicular traffic. To emphasize that point, the only bridge linking both halves of Mérida until 1991 was a bridge built by the Romans.
The form of the Puente Lusitania was dominated by a big, great fin, like the back of a whale. In the center was a lane for pedestrians, which we took to get back to the other side of the river.
Our next stop was the Circus Maximus. This was on the other side of town; we had to walk about half an hour, all the way through the city center and through a tunnel under a highway to get there. Again, our tickets included this visit, so we walked right in.
In truth, there wasn’t much to see. It is a dilapidated stone wall (previously, rows of seating), that surrounds an oval-shaped grass field. The only impressive thing about the monument was its size: it’s huge. This was, of course, because chariot races cannot be carried out in closets. We walked around the grassy field for a few minutes, while I tried in vain to imagine what a chariot race would look and feel like, the horses stampeding in a confused heap, the wheels rattling, the whips cracking, the men shouting, the crowd screaming. It must have been a heck of a lot more interesting than the Kentucky Derby, at least.
Outside the Circus Maximus were the remains of an old Roman aqueduct, the Acueducto de San Lázaro, one of the three Roman aqueducts of Mérida. Compared with the extraordinary aqueduct of Segovia, this one was rather short—only about 20 to 30 feet. It did go on for quite a ways, however, eventually extending over the other river of Mérida, the Río Albarregas.
We followed it for a while, across the river and into a park, until the aqueduct disappeared over a hill. Then, we broke off for our next destination, the last site included in our tickets: the Casa del Mitreo. This is an impressive archaeological site, consisting of the remains of an entire Roman housing complex. Understandably, you can’t go in; rather, the visit consists of a walk around a platform raised above the ruins, allowing you to peek inside the rooms. The complex was quite large; either it was one very rich family, or several families of more humble means. I don’t know, because all the information panels were written in very small font, in Spanish, and there was a crying kid nearby that kept breaking my focus. Oh well.
In truth, the site was not spectacular to look at, mostly a collection of walls and pillars. There was, however, some impressive floor tiling, beautifully preserved. My favorite was a floor that had three concentric patterns: an outer pattern of criss-crosses, a middle pattern of rectangles, and an inner pattern of an intricate labyrinth. Floor tilling hasn’t advanced much in the last two thousand years, it seems.
The sun was setting now, and both of us were exhausted. We had been on our feet all day, crisscrossing all over town. But we had one final thing see: the Acueducto de los Milagros, or Aqueduct of the Miracles. This meant yet another walk through town, which we dutifully made, painful and blistered as my feet now were. It was worth it.
This aqueduct was massive, about 80 feet tall, standing on three arches. It is partly in ruins now, scarred by the tooth of time, but this only lent it a special majesty. The sun was setting, shinning directly onto the aqueduct, making its brick construction glow a rusty red. All around was a park, where families were talking and laughing. GF and I sat on a bench, resting our aching limbs, staring up at the towering ruin. It was so impressive and so lovely that soon I felt myself full of energy again, ready to drag myself through a dozen more Roman monuments. But there were no more to be seen.
For dinner we decided to go back to the Bar Alhambra. We limped back into town, and were again greeted with a surprise: they were having another Easter Parade. This time the crowd was gathered in front of the doors of a church. Just as we got there, the procession started to exit the church, walking with slow steps to the beat of another doleful march. We watched it go for a while, and then went to feast on beer and cheap sandwiches. Our trip was over. We would be going to Lisbon early next morning, but that’s for another post.
I’m not sure I’ve had a better day in Spain, and that’s saying something. Do visit Mérida. It is an extraordinary place.
“The cathedral in Burgos,” my Spanish teacher said, “is spectacular.”
“As nice as Toledo?” I asked.
That was enough for me; I had to go.
Burgos is a city located directly north of Madrid, in the province of Castillo y León. It is located at high altitude on a plateau, so it’s both chilly and windy. But there is plenty of history to compensate. The city was once the capital of Castile, a legacy which has left it with lots of fine architecture, most notably the Burgos Cathedral, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.
We took our classic approach: Blablacars and Airbnbs. The ride up was long and pleasant. It was only the GF and I, and the driver. The driver was a young man from Galicia who was living in Burgos, working as an air traffic controller. He spoke slowly and with a clear accent, which gave me the pleasant illusion that I was fluent in Spanish. After two hours we arrived. Our Airbnb host was just as nice, a freelance dietician who gave us restaurant and bar recommendations and offered us herbal tea.
Soon we were walking towards the center of the city. As usual in Burgos, it was a cold, cloudy day. But I didn’t care; I was about to see one of the finest cathedrals in Spain.
But first we had to eat. I was hungry. So as soon as we got into the sight of the cathedral, we ducked into a bar for some croquettes and tortilla and coffee. While there, we asked the barman where the entrance to the cathedral was.
“Right around that corner,” he said, in Spanish. “But before you go in, go to the Iglesia de San Nicolás, a very nice church.”
He was right. Just next to the cathedral is this little church, and it’s definitely worth going inside. The central altarpiece is incredible, a towering monolith of white marble carved into an army of angles. There are so many little figures and scenes in it that it would be impossible to look at it all; in fact, the carved reliefs are so tiny that they form only surface details, elements of an abstract pattern. Also of note was a fine Renaissance painting on wood of the Last Judgment.
But now it was time for the cathedral. We walked out of the church and looked at it. It was stupendous. The cathedral of Burgos is one of Spain’s lesser known treasures, at least to outsiders. Although my knowledge of architecture is scant, I believe that this cathedral is the finest example of French Gothic in Spain. I can try to describe it, but a picture will do the job much better.
We walked around the outside for a while, just taking it in. The massive building is impressive from every side. Sculptures stand above the doorway, their noble robed figures looking down on the viewer with infinite calm. Reliefs are carved into the exterior walls, of men, of animals, of abstract decorations. Above one doorway, now unused, is an excellent scene of the Last Judgment, each figure looking like it had been carved yesterday. The whole thing is bristling with spires, over twenty of them, impaling any poor clouds that get too close. The Toledo Cathedral is a granite fugue, a marvelous blend of point and counterpoint, a magnificent jumble of different elements, whereas the Burgos Cathedral is a symphony of stone—balanced, unified, pure gothic.
After we drunk our fill, we went inside. The entry ticket came with an audioguide included. Thinking that we’d practiced enough Spanish that day, we got the guides in English. There were two narrators, a man and a woman, and both of them spoke with such soothing tones and such calm slowness that I felt I was being deliberately lulled to sleep, not informed.
The inside of the cathedral is not as splendid as its outside, which it not to say it isn’t nice. There are fine Renaissance paintings, old Romanesque frescos, impressive sculptures, admirable altars—but nothing which stuck in my memory. Well, there were a few things. First was a wooden figure of a man’s upper half sticking out from a section of the ceiling, high up above; in his hand was a mallet (I think), which he used to strike a bell every half hour. It was a mechanical doodad. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see him in action; but his smiling, impish, bearded face struck me as out of place in a cathedral.
And then there was the central cupola. This was unlike any I had ever seen before. Instead of a large dome crowning the building, it was filled with small windows in an intricate pattern; standing underneath and looking up, it looks like heaven itself is opening up. The audioguide explained how it was created, but I don’t remember now, and even at the time I couldn’t believe it. It is so high up and it looks so delicate, it is impossible to believe it was made from stone.
Right below this is something even more special: the tomb of El Cid Campeador, the half-legendary warrior from the Spanish Middle Ages. The tomb is nothing special to look at—just a slab of granite on the floor—but the man certainly was. El Cid is the star of the first major work of Spanish literature, El Cantar del Mio Cid, an epic poem where he is portrayed as a tireless warrior for Christianity against the Muslims. (The real story was, as usual, more complicated.) I actually read this poem right before I moved to Spain, as a way to get into the right mindset. Thus, standing there before his tomb felt a bit like standing in front of Washington Irving’s old room in the Alhambra: like I had completed a circuit. I love moments like this, when past and present are suddenly thrown together, because it is in these times that we can feel how much we’ve changed and how much we’ve stayed the same.
After hurting my neck from looking up at the cupola, and taking my share of photos, we were back out on the street. It was time for lunch.
On the recommendation of both our driver and our host, we went to Casa Pancho, a restaurant near the cathedral. Even though it was early for lunch, the place was already bustling. We decided to eat in the bar so we could have tapas. They had a wide selection. But I knew what I wanted: morcilla. This is Spanish blood sausage, and the morcilla in Burgos is supposed to be the best in Spain. I ordered two tapas of morcilla to start. It was great, so much better than other morcilla I’ve had here. Then I ordered pepper stuffed with morcilla in a spicy sauce, and it was even better; and after that, a piece of bread topped with a quail egg, a hot pepper, and morcilla. Everything was delicious—and so cheap!
A waiter came over to clear our plates.
“How did you like the food?” he asked in Spanish.
“It was great. Really delicious.”
“Oh, you speak Spanish well!” he said. “Where are you from?”
“We’re from New York,” I said.
He gave GF a quizzical look.
“No, I mean where are you really from?” he said. (GF is Chinese-American.)
“Well, my parents are Chinese,” she said.
“Oh, what part of China are they from? Bangkok?”
“What?” GF said, realizing that Bangkok isn’t even in China.
“Bangkok?” he repeated.
“No, they’re from the south of China.”
“Oh. And where are you from?” he said, turning to me.
“Ah,” he said, smiling. “A real New Yorker.”
Then he gestured at GF, and pulled his eyes back in reference to her Asianness.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
The waiter smiled, and left.
This is actually not the first time this has happened in Spain. To be honest, neither of us were very offended. It’s just ignorance, not malice. The guy obviously didn’t know anything about China; he didn’t even know that Bangkok is in Thailand. Still, it’s pretty shocking to be on the receiving end of such straightforward racism.
In any case, I still highly recommend Casa Pancho. Both of us left satisfied and happy. In fact, the food was so good and so reasonably priced that the meal stands out in my memory as one of the best I’ve had in Spain.
The next stop was Las Huelgas. This is a large monastery that is situated a bit outside the city center. It took us about twenty minutes to walk there. It is an impressively large building, its gray form stretching hundreds of feet.
I was exited to go in; but when we got there we found that it was closed, and it wouldn’t open for another forty minutes. These long Spanish midday breaks! We retreated to a café to kill time. On the television, the news was playing; they were covering the story about the castle in the south of Spain, the Medrera castle in Cádiz, that had been restored in such a hideous way, essentially turning the old castle into a block of concrete. The news story compared it to the other famous botched restoration in Spain, the ecce homo in Borja that an elderly Spaniard had famously turned into ‘Beast Jesus’. In fairness, restoration is difficult, delicate work. But it shouldn’t be the occasion to turn a piece of heritage into modern art.
Finally it was time to go. We paid and went to buy our tickets.
“Is this to visit now?” the woman asked, as I was paying.
“Yeah, now,” I said, not understanding why she was asking.
“Okay, follow her,” she said, pointing to her colleague.
We did, and soon discovered that we were with a group. We were on a tour; the only problem was, the tour was in Spanish. Our guide was a woman with short gray hair, who seemed very professional. Sometimes I understood almost everything she said, other times almost nothing.
On the inside, the monastery is eerily empty. There are many walls completely bare of decoration. But there is also much of interest. One thing that I remember in particular were the many sarcophagi spread throughout the space. For a long time the monastery had served as a royal burying place; lots of kings and queens from the middle ages can be found here. Another thing that struck me as very interesting was the preponderance of Moorish ornamentation on the walls. I don’t know how long Burgos was controlled by the Moors, but they certainly left their mark on this monastery. Some decorations on the walls could easily have been in the Alhambra. Well, not exactly, for many of the decorations had the royal emblem of Castile as well as Latin inscribed into the pattern—a wonderful example of syncretism in history.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures, and I couldn’t understand a lot of the tour, so beyond this I can’t say very much. I’m not sure if they offer tours in English, actually. But if you understand Spanish, it’s certainly worth visiting.
By now it was late. The only thing to do that was still open was the Museum of Human Evolution. It sounded good to me, since I studied anthropology in college, but GF wasn’t terribly excited about it. But what else would we do? We walked there from the monastery—about twenty minutes—and searched around for the entrance. The museum is in a cluster of big buildings, and the entrance is actually not well marked. We walked around for about five minutes before asking somebody, who pointed us in the right direction. Ahead of us in line to enter was an American man, who took the opportunity to complain to the woman at the front desk that the place is hard to find.
“I was looking for twenty minutes!” he said.
“Yes, sir, it’s not very good,” she said.
He paid and went inside; we did the same.
The Museo de Evolución Humana is housed in a huge building. The best way to describe the museum is that it looks expensive. Lots of money had been spent here. Everything was new and shiny. Indeed, it looks like they had money to spare, since they didn’t use the space efficiently; probably more than half of the volume of the building is totally empty.
The first floor (or floor zero in Europe) is dedicated to the archaeological sites in the Atapuerca Mountains, just a few kilometers away from the museum. The site, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site now, is known for being the location of the discovery of the oldest known European hominin fossils, Homo antecessor. The preservation conditions in the caves were excellent so many fossils and tools have been recovered by the archeologists. There was lots of detailed information about the sites and the excavation, but both of us were so tired that we didn’t stand and read all of it.
On this floor there were four raised platforms, the tops of which were covered in a very realistic imitation landscape, with fake trees, shrubs, and grass. These are meant to be the environment of the Atapuerca Mountains. You can walk into the bottom of these platforms, as if walking into the caves; and inside are all sorts of fancy displays, with replicas of bones, tools, and audiovisual presentations. Again, lots of money.
The second floor (European first floor) is dedicated to the theory of evolution. There is some information on Darwin; copies of the first-edition of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, which I found very cool. There is even a replica of half of the HMS Beagle—life-sized!—the ship on which Darwin made his famous voyage around the world, collecting all sorts of data for his as-yet unformulated theory of evolution. You can walk inside the ship, which is decorated to with old-timey stuff to make it look as it would have when Darwin was on board.
Nearby is a timeline of life on earth, from bacteria to fish to reptiles to mammals. Next to that is a larger timeline, arranged in a semicircle, of human evolution. It is complete with replica skulls of hominin fossils, making the gamut from Australopithecines, to Homo erectus, to Neanderthals, and finally to us. But more impressive were the life-sized models of these species, all of them excellently made, quite lifelike. Last, there was a giant bundle of wires, as big as a truck, which was supposed to be a model of the human brain. You could even walk inside, but there wasn’t much to see. It did look expensive, though.
The next level up was about the history of technology. In glass cases were stone tools from different stages of our evolution, ranging from simple choppers to finely crafted arrowheads, as well as replicas of wooden and bone tools. There were projectors playing presentations about cave art, and also a large circular metal contraption that you could enter. We walked inside to find that it was a cartoon presentation on the history of fire, going from the first fires used by our ancestors to interstellar travel. The screen wrapped around the circular space; and there was surround sound, with about five speakers. For the last time, lots of money.
The last floor was a confusing jumble of objects, and then a gift shop. We looked around for a moment, and left. My final assessment of the museum is that they ought to do a lot more with the space they have available, and concentrate more on content and less on wowing their visitors. You don’t need special effects to make science cool; science is already cool, because it makes the world comprehensible. This is not to say that the museum is bad or not worth visiting; there is much to praise. But everything seems designed to impress rather than educate; the space feels ostentatious, not intimate. I think these problems can be remedied.
It was late now, and we had only one more stop: the Taberna Patillas. This was a bar recommended by our host because every night they have free music. We ate a quick dinner of pizza and then huddled into the corner of the bar, drinks in hand, waiting for the music to start. We waited, and waited. The bar gradually filled up. Half an hour went by. I began to lose hope, but then I heard the sound of someone tuning a guitar. I looked, and it was only the bartender playing softly for his own amusement.
As we waited, we took the time to examine the decoration. Every inch of the walls and even the ceilings was covered in old ads, postcards, portraits, posters, photographs, and other paraphernalia—all related to musical performances. There were framed and signed pictures of musicians, and little passport sized photos of men and women. On one wall there was a big painting of the bar itself, with the bartender playing the guitar. Next to it, a guitar hung; and nearby was a mandolin. There were t-shirts, banners, and scarves as well. The place had character.
After forty minutes a group of men walked into the bar and sat down at a table near ours, two of them carrying guitars. All of them were late middle-aged, with graying hair, all wearing collared shirts and sweaters. Everyone around grew quiet and turned their seats to face the men. The two guitarists tuned; then one of the other men stood up. He looked like the oldest of the bunch; he had snow white hair swept back across his head, and an equally white goatee.
The guitarists started playing, running through a few bars. Then the man started to sing. He had a strong voice, almost operatic. When he sung, he held his body in a stiff posture, his shoulders thrown back, his chin raised, gesticulating dramatically with his hands. I don’t remember the song—I hadn’t heard it before—but I really enjoyed it. He finished with a flourish and everyone burst into applause; then he began on another, this one more mellow. One guitarist played rhythm, while the other played little embellishments in-between the singer’s lines. It was fantastic.
After three songs, the singer bowed and made his exit. But the band stayed on. Many of them were also talented singers; and they could sing in harmony. Maybe it was the atmosphere, maybe it was the beer, maybe it’s because I was tired and had seen so much that day, but I thought the music some of the best I’d ever heard. It was so intimate, and so direct. If you find yourself in Burgos, go to Taberna Patillas at about 8:30, and wait.
After about an hour, we left. We were both very tired. I don’t know how long they kept playing, maybe very late indeed. This is Spain, after all.
Our next stop was Logroño. We took a Blablacar there the next morning. The drive from Burgos is about an hour, through some nice countryside. I remember in particular a church that had been carved into the side of a cliff.
For part of the way, we were accompanied by two college-aged girls. I only mention them because they immediately struck me as odd. In Spain, greetings are important. When you get into a car, you often perform all sorts of contortions so you can—like a proper human being!—kiss one another on the cheeks and make introductions. But these girls, who were Spaniards, sat timidly in the corner and gave us nervous smiles. And even though my Spanish was halfway decent by then, I found it impossible to communicate with them. Eventually we stopped in a small, no-name town on the road to Logroño, and they hastily got out without even a word of goodbye. I looked around at the town, which struck me as one of the seemingly identical, featureless towns one drives through on the way to the major cities. Why were they here? Were they running away or something?
“Weird people,” the driver said, as we started driving away. I’m glad I wasn’t the only person to think so.
Anyway, shortly thereafter we were in Logroño. Now, the most popular and, in my opinion, the most delicious wine in Spain is from the Rioja region, and Logroño is its capital. The region is known for its highly drinkable, affordable, and versatile red wines. Our plan was to visit a bodega, which is the Spanish word for winery. (As a side note, I can’t help finding this word funny, since in New York City a bodega is cheap mini-mart. I don’t know why the word signifies such different things.)
That was why we were here—or, rather, why I was here. GF can’t drink wine. Unfortunately for her, GF inherited the recessive genes for alcohol intolerance, which I believe is fairly common among people of Asian descent. As the name suggests, alcohol intolerance is the same sort of thing as lactose intolerance; it is not an allergy—which are due to the immune system—but a genetic lack of a specific enzyme that allows you to break down alcohol. (I’m not a doctor, I’m just a man with an internet connection.) As a result, when GF takes even one tiny sip of alcohol, she gets red in the face, a stuffy nose, an upset stomach, and is overcome with the urge to sleep. It’s a mess.
Our host was out of town, so we were shown in by the host’s mother, a terribly nice woman. She answered all our questions, gave us recommendations, and even made us reservations for a tour at a winery. Specifically, the Campo Viejo winery. But there was one problem. When she left, we realized that she was under the impression that we had a car; the winery was well outside of town, and when I called to ask if it was possible to walk there, the man said “No, no, take a taxi.”
But we were feeling stingy and we didn’t want to pay for a cab. Google Maps said it would take an hour, and that was exactly how much time we had before our tour. So we decided to walk. Our phones soon led us out of the city and into the surroundings countryside. There were no sidewalks, but the roads were mostly empty. We were walking fast, afraid to miss the tour. Soon we came to a fork in the road; our phones told us to go left, but there was a sign for the winery on the road to the right, so we took it. I wondered why Google Maps didn’t tell us to go this way, but then I realized the reason: it was private property. I began to panic, thinking that we were going to get arrested. But there wasn’t anyone around. The road curved up a hill—a sharp turn that was dangerous for us since the cars turning the hill wouldn’t be able to see us. We walked far away from the road.
In just forty minutes we were making our way through rows and rows of grape plants. Or at least I think they were. To my eyes, they looked like stunted trees; don’t grapes grow on vines? In retrospect, it is obvious that the fields looked like this because it was winter. But this was my first (and so far, my only) trip to a vineyard or a winery, and thus nothing made sense.
Finally we arrived, and right on time. The tour began. And unsurprisingly, it was in Spanish. The only things I’ll say about our guide is that, first, he was a welcoming and knowledgeable man; and second, he looked exactly like a winery tour guide.
At a generous estimate, I understood about 20% of the tour. Probably more like 10%. But here’s the outline. To start, he took us outside where he talked about the grapes. Then we went downstairs where he told us about the history of the place. Next he led us into a massive room where hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine were sitting on racks; he had to shout to be heard over the giant fans, which kept the room at a constant temperature, pressure, and humidity. After that, we were shown the factory. On metal platforms suspended twenty feet from the ground, we walked among about forty gigantic metal tanks. He told us about the distillation process, and I understood none of it. But even though I didn’t understand what any of the equipment was for, I think there is something terribly exciting about being around big, shiny, high-tech equipment. I felt like I had stepped into the future, and it smelled like fermented grapes.
The last stop was most impressive of all. A ramp led us down to another massive room at the bottom of the building. Our guide switched on the lights, and suddenly I saw thousands of wooden barrels, all pilled atop one another, stretching out before me like the ocean. Each stack was about ten barrel’s high, and I couldn’t possibly count how many stacks there were. To pick a number out of a hat, there must have been at least 30,000 barrels. It always amazes me that we can develop things like wine-making to the pitch of perfection, an exquisite blend of science and art, and yet we cannot solve problems like poverty. I suppose there’s more profit in the former.
Finally it was time for the tasting. Our group gathered around the bar, and the guide began pouring out classes of white wine. He tried to talk us through the process to properly taste wine, but I had downed my glass before he’d even started. We tried two different reds after that, both excellent. And I had it good, because I got to drink GF’s wine too. I liked everything, but I don’t know a thing about wine; it all tastes pleasant but rather similar to me. Case in point: the thing I remember most fondly from the tasting was not the wine, but the free chorizo and bread sticks that I munched on ravenously.
Best of all, we didn’t even have to walk back. There was a nice Spanish couple from Burgos on our tour, and one of them was very excited by the opportunity to practice his English with us. He spent the whole tasting chatting with us; and when we finished, he offered to give us a ride back to town.
“Do you trust me?” he said, as we climbed into his car. Normally this kind of comment would send chills running down my spine; but in the mouth of a non-native speaker, it seemed nice and innocent.
Well, we survived. In just ten minutes we were back in town. Since we didn’t have any plans beyond our wine tasting, we decided to kill time before dinner by visiting all the chuech buildings in town. Logroño is situated along the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route that runs along the north of Spain. This route is clearly marked with the classic cockle shell insignia; and even though it was cold and off-season, we saw a handful of dutiful souls, wearing blue rain jackets and lugging around giant backpacks, making their way through the town.
My recollections of these church buildings are somewhat vague now. None of them is impressive on its own, especially after the Burgos Cathedral. But taken together, the churches of Logroño are quite lovely. We went to four or five in quick succession. I remember one church with an attractive arched doorway. The inside was empty, except for a lonely priest sitting in the confessional booth; and in the cold silence of that stone building, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the lonely priest, waiting for a congregation that seldom comes.
In another church, a young man was practicing the organ; it was an impressive sound, even if the playing itself wasn’t impressive. After that we went to the Iglesia de Santiago del Real, one of the largest churches; and as we wandered through the entire, examining the chapels and altars, a man came in, kneeled down on a pew, and prayed. Three minutes later he got up and left, the thud of the heavy wooden door echoing ominously through the cave-like interior.
“I wonder what it’s like to be a catholic in one of these places,” GF said. “Does it add to the experience?”
“Shut up,” I said.
I had been wondering the same thing. For the two of us, all the altars, chapels, and architecture of Catholicism are simply art; our appreciation is purely aesthetic. It must be a different thing completely to look upon the giant crucifixes in the stone buildings, and see the Truth of the Universe. Sometimes I feel sad that these stronger, more spiritual pleasures are cut off from me. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out on something really great by being completely secular. But so it goes.
Last we went to the cathedral. We weren’t able to look around, however, because there was a wedding being held. When we peeped in, the groom and the bride were kneeling before the altar while loud organ music was playing. The priest was standing nearby. Catholicism may be fading here, but it’s certainly not dead.
Finally it was time for dinner. Our plan we to eat on the Calle Laurel, the famous street for food in Logroño. The street is so narrow and so full of people during meal times that no car could make it through. Restaurant after restaurant is packed into the small stretch of street; and in each restaurant you can see plate after plate lined up on the bar, waiting for you to partake. Many of these dishes are ostentatious in their presentation: meatballs are served in a wine glass, covered in a bright red sauce; ham is suspended like a flag on a ship from toothpicks sticking out of the top of a croquette.
To avoid the crowd, we got to the street a bit early (7:30), picked a restaurant, and dove in. We ordered whatever caught our eye. But to my dismay, as soon as I chose a dish the waiter took it and stuck it in the microwave. I thought it would be made fresh to order. The food was still good, but a bit dry, with bit textureless, and one croquette was still cold in the middle. We went to another bar and got the same treatment; and ditto in a third bar after that. All told, we samples six different bars before calling it quits, most of the food only moderately good. But thankfully we saved the best for last. To finish we walked into a bar that served only mushrooms. They are the simplest things in the world, cooked in olive oil with a sprinkle of salt; and they are delicious. If you’re in Logroño, find the restaurant with the grill filled with mushrooms and dig in; it’s cheap, relatively healthy, and scrumptious.
We ate our fill and went home. The next morning we took a Blablacar back to Madrid, riding with a couple of guys from Senegal; they both worked in a meat factory in Cuenca. One of them slept the whole time, but the driver was a sociable fellow and we talked in accented Spanish the whole way back.