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Friday, March 9, 2012

Our Spanish Holiday

We were in España for 16 days, February 18 – March 5, 2012. Driving almost 1,500 kilometers, staying in five cities and visiting three others, our knowledge of this country clearly has grown. Judith and I were last here in May 2011 for 18 days, in the south; in Al-Ándalus.

Between this trip and our previous one, Judith and I have been in Spain 34 days in the last twelve months. We have seen most of the country, with the exception of the far north: San Sebastian, Santander and León. I find in many ways this country is more foreign to me than “the other more obvious ones” that we have visited over the years. I still haven’t adjusted well to the rhythms of late meals and mid afternoon siestas.
The arc of Spain’s history is also hard for me to fathom. I understand the prehistoric period, the Romans, the serial invasions of the Visigoths and Moors; the Christian reconquest, and Spain’s zenith in the Age of Discovery and the Golden Age. But why did the wheels then suddenly start to fall off? Was it some metaphysical revenge for the Inquisition?
Ruinous wars, anarchy, rampant political corruption, the loss of Cuba and its empire, civil wars and the horror of fascism and Franco followed. The fall from grace of this once super power isn’t as well documented as that of Hellenic Greece, Rome or even Islam. It just slipped off the world stage unnoticed.
Free elections weren’t again held here until 1977 – devoid of democracy for so long, a terrible waste of talent and resources for literally hundreds of years. Once one of the richest countries in the world, it now ranks 26th in per capita income and below the EU average. And it was further crushed in the 2008 financial meltdown, and once more teeters on the brink of disaster.

In spite of this, moving through the old city centers, their architecture and their people; the churches, mosques, synagogues and museums provide a way for me to start to solve the enigma of España; bringing history’s events into focus by touching art, artifacts and everyday life. Sitting in the squares, walking the streets and enjoying food and wine in the restaurants all connect me. For almost 700 years Islam had its only foothold in Europe here on the Iberian Peninsula. This Moorish culture creates a very unique place, with the spice of Jewish and Visigoth ethnicity folded in. In this respect, it is unique on the Continent.

Unlike Russia or even France, I never got a sense of bitterness for days of past glory from the Spaniards. Perhaps they, like me, have trouble connecting the present day to the past and thus are more blasé about it.

Below, if you care to read on, is a diary of our trip. The weather was wonderful and surprisingly mild, not a drop of rain.

February 18, 2012 (London; Segovia)
We had an easy ride to Heathrow and a good British Airways flight to Madrid. Border security and luggage pick-up done, we headed off to Europcar to pick up our Audi A6; I splurged for a nice car since we will be doing a lot of driving on this trip. Unfortunately, I discovered we had a flat on our left rear tire, so much for Spanish quality control. The agent switched out vehicles fairly quickly and we were on our way at six-thirty for our 110 kilometer drive northwest to Segovia.
The navigation was problematic; we seem to pick boutique hotels on very small streets in the center of old towns. Tom-Tom never can find them so we “approximate” a location. All went well, except at the end. We circled many times, occasionally zipping through pedestrian zones – thankfully no casualties. We finally made it to this GPS “black hole” address: Calle Daioz, 7 and the Hotel Don Felipe – our home for the next four nights. Its location is good, and although encased in an ancient building, the insides had been completely modernized in 2010. Our room and the place are pleasant; a nice view to the Alcazar.

It is unknown when the city was first settled by Celts, but the Romans arrived in 80 BC and its population grew to perhaps 50,000. The shape of Segovia’s craggy limestone cliff can be conjured into the shape of a ship, with the Alcazar (royal fortress) at the bow, and the aqueduct at the stern, with the Eresma and Clamores Rivers splashing along its two sides. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
We were in later than we planned, so we canceled a reservation outside the city. Dinner was at Jose Maria, recommended by the hotel.  We had the traditional Castilian cochinillo asado, roasted piglet. It’s cooked whole in the oven 2 ½ hours and basted continuously with butter and oil.  Presented sort of spread eagle at the table, the maître d’hôtel proceeds to smash it into four or so pieces with the edge of a dinner plate; not a process I would describe as delicate.
Within a few bites, my bad cholesterol shot up to 500; lots of fat, crisp skin - very messy to eat. I’m embarrassed to mention that I also had several deep fried ham and cheese croquettes as a starter, each the size of a medium chicken egg. 

  We were easily off to sleep with our stomachs rumbling in stereo and in dire need for a flushing with industrial strength Draino.

February 19, 2012 (Segovia)
We were up, had breakfast and were off to explore.
Our first stop was the Alcazar, the royal castle of Segovia, built on a rocky outcrop between the years 1410 and 1455. We arrived shortly after opening and had the fortress almost to ourselves.
The Cathedral of Segovia, dating to 1525, the last great Gothic church built in Spain was next on the tour. Some parts were closed because of Sunday services, but the graceful ironwork grilles and elegantly vaulted ceilings were spectacular. We’ll return during the week.
Then it was on to the marvelous aqueduct, built in the first century AD, an engineering masterpiece. It carried water to the city until the 1950s. The aqueduct is breathtaking; it comprises 166 arches and extends almost 3,000 feet in length, this without any mortar holding it together. What an esthetically elegant engineering marvel the Romans had created.

We walked more of the city and stopped for a very late lunch at El Fogón Sefardí. Today we had the Castilian lamb; same procedure as the piglet – no need to describe the process. In two days my health has been seriously jeopardized. We wobbled back to the Don Felipe.

Toward evening we walked back to the Plaza Mayor; some sort festival was going on, youngsters dancing around in costumes, almost like Halloween. We were to bed early, again with bellyaches.

February 20, 2012 (Segovia; Coca)
I should mention the weather has been bright, but the mornings cold.

Most sights are closed Mondays, so we decided to travel to Castillo de Coca, a little more than an hour northwest of Segovia. Built in the late 15th century, it was a residential palace masquerading as a defensive fortress in the style of military Mudéjar architecture. It has a deep moat with wonderful turrets and battlements. We arrived back to Segovia in time to take in the rest of the Cathedral; the cloister and Chapel of the Conception were worth the return trip.

We decided we had to reign in our eating, so vowed to have only a bit of tapas and a bottle of wine. We found a very nice spot off the Plaza Mayor, called Casares. The tapas were very good, and thankfully light.
After returning to the Don Felipe and planning tomorrow’s trip to Ávila, we fell quickly off to sleep.

February 21, 2012 (Segovia; Ávila)
We were up, had breakfast and were off on another bright but crisp morning. Ávila is about an hour and a half northeast, sitting at 3,710 feet, the highest elevation of any provincial capital in Spain. Its medieval walls span over a mile, punctuated by 88 sturdy turrets. We visited the marvelous Ávila Cathedral with its mottled red and white stone, the Basilica de San Vicente and walked the length of the walls.
Afterward we had a nice lunch at El Tostado at the Gran Hotel Palacio Valderrábanos. Always the intrepid tourists, on the way home we detoured to and visited the Palacio Y Bosque de Riofrío, a royal hunting estate dating to 1752. The tour was in Spanish so it was not all that rewarding.

We arrived back to Segovia after six, had a light tapas dinner again at Casares and lingered in the cold enjoying an evening of music and dance in the Plaza Mayor; it turned out this was the week of the city’s February carnival - then quickly to bed.

February 22, 2012 (Segovia; Salamanca)
After a quick breakfast and a smooth check out, we were on the road to our next outpost, Salamanca, 190 kilometers west. The trip went well and miraculously the navigation worked perfectly. We checked into the very lovely Hotel Don Gregorio about one. Salamanca is a university town, its schools founded by Alfonso IX in 1218.

We were out on a sunny and mild afternoon and walked up Calle de San Pablo to the expansive Plaza Mayor, one of Spain’s largest. Completed in 1755 and designed by the Churriguera brothers, it is an architectural wonder in warm golden limestone; we stopped for cappuccinos at Café Novelty, bathed in the heat of the sun and lazily people-watched in the square.
Afterward we walked north to see Casa de las Conchas, the Convent de las Úrsulas and Casa de las Muertes. Our return stroll had us down Rúa Mayor and Calle de los Líberos to see the cloisters and façade of the University, a perfect example of the Plateresque style. We continued on to the 1st century Roman bridge that still spans the Rio Tormes.

Back to the hotel about six, we had a nice drink in the bar and were off to our room. Our bath is unbelievable, a large and luxurious shower room; even a sauna – we selfishly pampered ourselves after a long day of sightseeing.
Dinner was at Restaurante Victor Gutierrez, a Michelin 1-Star steps from the Don Gregorio.  A small place, 20 or so seats, very minimalist; not even paintings on the wall – it was all about the food. Our tasting menu was delicate and light; a real switch from our earlier fare in Segovia.
One more nightcap at the hotel’s bar and we were out.

February 23, 2012 (Salamanca)
The weather remains bright; cold mornings but by afternoon temperatures moving into the high fifties.

First on our list today were the Cathedrals Vieja (old) and Nueva (new). One enters through the Nueva, completed around 1560, one of the last major churches in the Gothic style. Throughout, the Gothic is competing with ornamental detail of the more “modern” Baroque and Plateresque. The beautiful choir was the design of Joaquin Churriguera.
The Nueva did not replace Vieja, but was merely built beside it; you enter via a connecting chapel. The Vieja dates to 1152 in Romanesque style; the altarpiece is a 15th century golden Florentine masterpiece comprising 53 panels depicting the life of Christ. The adjoining cloister has a marvelous set of chapels.
Just a short walk away was Iglesia Convento de San Esteban, a 16th century Dominican monastery with a unique, superbly ornamented façade. The rooftops are nesting places for several families of storks. Its large single nave church is stunning; an ornate altar of twisted gilt columns decorated with vines. Afterward we visited the nearby Convento de las Dueñas and strolled by the Torre Del Clavero.
It was then to Plaza Mayor and Café Novelty for cappuccinos, a rest and the penetrating restorative rays of the winter sun. Late lunch was at Rio de la Plata on Plaza del Peso; unremarkable. After a short stop back to the hotel, we finished our day visiting the Museo Art Nouveau Casa Lis.

We had a light tapas dinner at a funky café, the MOMO, and fell asleep easily.

February 24, 2012 (Salamanca)
We both were sluggish upon awakening this morning; our diet is doing us in, perhaps the tapas at MOMO weren’t as fresh as they should have been. We reluctantly walked a bit in the morning, but Judith, especially, was feeling under the weather. We spent most of the day in the room recuperating; having a light room service for dinner.
We were to bed early, still a little out of focus.

February 25, 2012 (Salamanca; Cáceres)
Feeling a bit better, we had breakfast and were on the road to our next stop, Cáceres, 200 kilometers to our south; leaving Castilla Y Leon for the Extremadura region. It was another adventure to find the hotel, navigating pedestrian zones and automatic bollards that had a mind of their own. But Cáceres was worth the aggravation; this ancient city is well preserved; the serene Renaissance town dates to the late 15th century, untouched by the wars of the 19th and 20th.
The Relais and Chateaux property of Atrio Restaurante Hotel is fantastic; the whitewashed hews of its modern interior juxtaposed against the 600 year old exterior of this lovely spot in San Mateo Square.
Our friends Lilla and Stan are meeting us here, driving from Portugal; we arrived about one and Judith and I were able to explore a bit before they arrived. We eventually met up in Plaza Mayor and then had some light tapas on the hotel’s lovely terrace. Afterward we did more walking, climbing the tower in the Iglesia de Santa Maria for its expansive view, and visiting a few other sights of this compact jewel. The real value of this experience isn’t any one monument; rather the very unique package of a completely intact late Middle Age city. If you stumble upon a lane deserted by tourists, it truly could be 1500.

Lilla and Stan joined us for dinner. The Atrio is really a restaurant at its heart, having 9 rooms and 5 suites almost as a side business. Still, the accommodations are divine.
The chef, Toño Péres, created an unbelievable culinary experience for us; and the wine cellar, with its 40,000 bottles, is mindboggling. Of course we drank too much; the highlight was the tinto vino 2009 Astrales from Ribera Del Duero. We didn’t leave the table until after one in the morning and bid our friends safe travel back to their hotel.

Our suite is peaceful and calming with views to the Square and the 14th century San Mateo Church; we were off to sleep quickly.

February 26, 2012 (Cáceres)
In spite of our late evening, we were up by 9:30 and had a wonderfully avant-garde breakfast in the hotel. It was then out for some early explorations, visiting the Museo de Cáceres and its ancient cistern, the small Jewish quarter and the Casa y Torre de Carvajal before meeting Stan and Lilla in Plaza Mayor.

The four of us had a pleasant lunch, walked a bit more and then our friends set off back to Portugal. Judith and I toured a little more; afterward retreated to the hotel’s terrace; the afternoon sun had moved the temperature to almost 70˚F. We enjoyed a marvelous bottle of 2010 Basa, D.O. Rueda; 85% verdejo, 12% viura and the 3% balance sauvignon blanc.
Dinner was at the hotel’s restaurant, again excellent. After a tour of the wine cellar, we soon dozed off.

February 27, 2012 (Cáceres; Toledo)
We awoke this morning to the sound of water dripping; the bathroom ceiling had a slight leak. Staff came and we navigated around the problem cleaning up, had breakfast and were on our way. It was a wonderful two days; the hotel’s manager, Carmina Marques could not have been nicer. I would recommend a trip here unequivocally.

By 10:30 we were on our way to Toledo, three hours and 260 kilometers east of Cáceres. It was an easy drive but upon arrival our accommodations went from the sublime of the Atrio Hotel that we had just left, to Dante’s eighth circle, reincarnated as the Hilton Buenavista Toledo.   This corporate property was outside of the old city; 117 soulless rooms, a conventioneer’s oasis. We could have been in Toledo, Ohio; what a pity.
We checked in quickly and took the hotel’s shuttle to the old town. Our first stop was the massive Toledo Cathedral, the second largest only to Seville. Construction began in 1227; the Baroque altarpiece “Transparente” behind the high altar is a masterpiece, as is the double stalled choir.  If nothing else were here, it still would be well worth the trip just for this. Afterward we visited the Iglesia de San Tomé with El Greco’s “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.” A nondescript late lunch followed; then we returned by shuttle to the hotel.

We had tapas and a bottle of wine for dinner, and then, sleep.

February 28, 2012 (Toledo)
After a restless night and a quick breakfast we were on the shuttle heading to the old town. Our first stop was to the Mezquita del Christo de la Luz, a mosque dating to AD 1000, then to Iglesia de los Jesuitas, a Jusuit church and cloister begun in 1629. The high vaulted white nave and Baroque altarpiece were superb, but the real fasination was the remarkable views from its tower.
We continued on to the Iglesia de San Román, a treasure of Visogothic history. A special feature of Toeldo is that it retains wonderful touches of the culture of the Romans, Visogths, Moors and Catholics; it allows one appreciate the ebb and flow civilization’s changing power over the milleniums. 
Today was filled with so many sights; we continued on to the Casa-Museo de El Greco, the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, and finally to the Monisterio de San Juan de los Reyes. This magnificent monestary and cloister, begun in 1477, was originally envisioned as the royal burial place, only to be replaced by the Granada Cathedral after the reconquest in 1492. The splendor; however, remains nontheless.

We had a nice late lunch at the nearby Adolfo Restaurante, and eventually found our way back to the hotel by the shuttle. Dinner was tapas in the bar; then we were out.

February 29, 2012 (Toledo; Cuenca)
We were up early to another brilliant day; by afternoon it’s more like early summer than the last days of February. It was off by car to Cuenca, a three hour 200 kilometer trek east of Toledo. It is a picturesque town astride the steep slopes created by the Júcar and Huécar Rivers. Built upon a Moorish garrison but now with only its tower surviving, this Gothic and Renaissance city is known for its “hanging houses” that jut over the rivers’ ravines.
We had a simple tapas lunch on the patio at the nearby Parador de Cuenca, walked a bit more and then loaded into the Audi for our return trip; arriving back about five.

Almost boringly now, we opted for the tapas and some wine in the hotel’s bar; it’s quiet and peaceful. After some BBC News we slipped under the covers.

March 1, 2012 (Toledo; Madrid)
We were up and out by eleven on our way to Madrid, a short one hour north. We found our hotel, A.C. Palacio del Retiro, with ease, checked in and then dropped the Audi to Europcar at the nearby Atocha train station; if you remember, it was bombed allegedly by al Qaeda almost four years ago on March 11, 2004.
The 50 room hotel is housed in a wonderful 1908 mansion retrofitted in 2004, replete with elegant features including a marvelous staircase, stained glass and frescoed walls. We’re in a lovely suite, room 210, overlooking the royal Parque Del Retiro.

After a small snack at the hotel we were off to the Museo Del Prado, known for its great assembly of Spanish paintings, 12th to 19th centuries, vast stores of Velázquez and Goya. It is a marvelous museum; spacious and well lit galleries, uncluttered. We spend four hours here. Ironically, it wasn’t the usual Spanish masters that enthralled me; rather the 19th century Spanish Realists – Fortuny, Rico, Buruete; and most notably Joaquín Sorolla. His “Young Boys on the Beach” and “They Still Say Fish is Expensive” were wonders of color and light. These were artists I had never before encountered; what a treat.
We strolled back to the hotel; had a late but light dinner and a great Spanish white, a 2008 Belondrade y Lurton, a verdejo grape; and were off to bed.

March 2, 2012 (Madrid)
Up to an overcast morning, we had breakfast and were out to a day with our first chance of rain. We walked from the newer Bourbon district to old Madrid, along the wide Calle de Alcalá to the Puerta Del Sol and the Plaza Mayor. It was then to the Cathedral de la Almudena, begun in 1879 and not completed for a century. I was struck by the emptiness of the edifice; it seems we can no longer build churches that truly inspire.
Next was the Palacio Real; the Bourbon monarchy spared no expense here. The exuberant décor of Carlos III and IV was the most “over the top” suite of rooms Judith and I had ever seen. The Russian czars should be jealous.

We stopped for a late lunch at the Westin on the beautiful Plaza de Las Cortes and arrived back to the hotel around five. Dinner was again at the hotel; and to sleep.

March 3, 2012 (Madrid)
We were up and out early to visit the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum on the nearby Paseo del Prado. The Thyssen-Bornemisza family, Barons Heninrich and son Hans, were wealthy industrialists of Dutch origin that had amassed an art collection starting in the 1920s that was thought at one time to be the second largest private collection in the world. Hans was a busy fellow; five marriages, the last to Carmen Cervera, 1961 “Miss Spain.” Through Carmen’s influence, eventually the collection went to Spain in 1992; but not without great controversy. It is now housed in the Palace of Villahermosa.
The space is neat and organized chronologically, over 800 works, 17th to 19th centuries are covered. Again I was drawn to the 19th, Impressionists, Fauves and Expressionists lifted the heart. Our three hours there passed quickly.

Lunch was late on the sixth floor of the Palacio Cibeles, the recently renovated Madrid communications building; now an annex of the City Hall. The transformation was spectacular, the restaurant, food and wine wonderful. We got back to the hotel about five, relaxed for the balance of the day; going down to the bar for a late snack before bed.

March 4, 2012 (Madrid)
Our last full day, and we admit to one another that we’re running out of gas. We were out on a cloudy morning to visit the expansive Parque Del Retiro; the Pleasure Lake, and the two Neo-classical palaces: Palacio de Velázquez and Palacio de Cristal.
Walking out of the south end of the park, it was next to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid’s 20th century exhibit space. Many of the rooms were closed, which was fine. I still suffer with this period, never really connecting with Dalí, Picasso, Miró and the Cubists. We had a late lunch at the hotel and relaxed for the balance of the day.

Toward evening, we took a long walk up the fashionable Calle de Serrano, eventually stopping on the way the way back at a café on Plaza de la Independencia for some croquetas and wine. We returned to the hotel around eleven and were off to sleep soon after our heads touched the pillows.

March 5, 2012 (Madrid; London)
We were greeted by another sunny morning on our last day in Spain. Final breakfast, packing and we were on our way to Madrid’s Barajas Airport. We had a good flight and easy ride back to our flat; happy to be back in our “adopted city.”