Oh my Gaudi!
Hola, Ole - When we returned from Morocco, we took the train to Seville and I had my first experience at a bullfight.
Susan and I both went. I'm not completely sure I understand why I went. We had an opportunity in Madrid but ignored it and didn't really think about it again until we arrived in Seville four weeks later. But when I walked by the arena, an incredible desire to see this Spanish spectacle came over me. I spent an afternoon figuring out how to buy tickets and mistakenly paid for an entry into the bullfighter's museum. It turned out to be really interesting: we were shown the infirmary where the art of medieval medicine is still practiced and the head of the Islera, the mother of the bull that gored and killed Manolette in 1947. If a bull kills a matador, the bull dies and so does his mother. It's the tradition. During a bullfight they have little chapel-like stalls where the mothers of all the bulls fighting that day go to pray to Saint Toro, the patron saint of all bulls, that their kid has a quick and painless death in the ring.
The corrida (bullfight) begins with a processional of three matadores each with their team of two mounted picadores and three banderilleros. Bringing up the rear is the mule team, driven by Alex Caras, that drags off the dead bulls. Each matador fights three bulls and according to my guide book, 24,000 bulls die each year for their country.
When the bull enters the ring there is this sensation of incredible physical beauty and power. He is confused and clueless. He looks around at the moving objects, the fabric of the capes and the horses, and he's slightly distracted by the blaring trumpets of the band. In that moment he is at the peak of his bullhood ready to charge and maim anything that provokes him.
The fight is in three acts. In Act I, the picadores fight the bull mounted on stately horses, blindfolded and without vocal cords (the horses not the picadores). Their job is to attract the bull and entice it into charging their speechless horse while they drive a short fat spear into the bull's shoulder. Although the horse can't see what is going on, they are trained to lean into the charging bull's horns to give the picadore a better angle of attack. The bull's challenge is to tickle the horse's underbelly with its horns trying to make it laugh so hard that the picadore will fall on his ass.
In Act II, the banderilleros try to carefully place two banderillas into the shoulder of the bull while both he and the bull are running towards each other. The bull, with the only weapon at his disposal, is trying to stick his hornarillas into the banderilleros mucho gusto. This is very similar to the game of chickenerilleros which is a very popular sport played by motorists with the tourists on the streets.
Finally comes the last act, Act III the suerte de matar. In this act the matador comes out alone, except for the panting and bleeding bull, and dedicates the bull to his favorite senorita. He exchanges his pink and gold cape for a red one, which really infuriates the bull who has just gotten used to the first one. The matador begins to taunt the bull with "toro, toro, toro", a movie the bull saw and didn't like. The matador uses the movement of the cape to seduce the bull into charging. This is when the crowd begins to chant ole! with each pass and the band wakes up and starts playing Felice Navidad.
In Act III, the matador will turn his back to the bull, walk to the edge of the ring, and get a very long and sharp sword. In the meantime, the bull is tiptoeing in the other direction looking for the gate he came in by. He has six banderillas in his neck, and he's bleeding from several holes made by the picadores. He is more confused and clueless than before, but he'll charge one last time and the sword will pierce his shoulders and in the next instant, his heart, and then he dies. If the matador was good, the crowd begins waving white handkerchiefs and the President may award the matador one or two ears and maybe a tail.
Susan left after the first fight. I was tempted to leave but stayed because I was still curious. In the third round a very bad-ass Toro came roaring into the ring, I knew this was going to be a great fight, a defining moment for me, and a new experience to retell in the Ramble.
The third matador, Victor Janeiro, was the youngest and least experienced of the three matadores, but the crowd loved him for his huge smile and bravado. Toro was the largest and strongest of the lot, charging anything moving, ramming its horns into the barriers, far from confused, and intent on destruction.
Act I. The mounted picador made his move but the bull overpowered man and horse and they tumbled to the ground. The crowd was on its feet. In an instant the banderilleros surrounded the bull distracting it with their capes. I was taken by the remarkable calm of the horse and the incredible horsemanship of the picador. Man and horse battled the bull again, this time gaining the advantage and the picador jabbed the spear deep into the bull's shoulders as the horse once again leaned into its horns. It seemed to have little effect and Toro pushed the horse into the wall of the ring.
Act II. The banderilleros had their problems as well, the first missing with both banderillas. In all, they only landed three. The tension in the crowd was astonishing and the gentleman next to me began shouting something at me in Spanish.
After watching the first two bulls dispatched easily, I incorrectly assumed there is really no challenge for these men in the ring. I thought the bull is so abused and tortured that by the time the matador gets his turn the beast is so weak he can barely charge the cape and many times stumbles doing so. But as I watched Toro I began to realize that the threat of death hangs in the minds of these men. You could see it in the caution that had taken over the corrida. I no longer felt sorry for the bull.
Act III. Victor started out doing so well. The ballet between matador and bull was spectacular and the crowd was yelling it's oles. I had joined in. Victor was stimulated by the support of the spectators, and on each pass he would arch his back, shoulders, and neck, and plant his rear foot, his lower body motionless as he controlled the path of the bull with his cape. Toro grunted and bellowed as he charged the cape and found empty air behind it, never stumbling and continuing to shake loose the banderillas in his shoulder.
In the end, Toro was too much bull for Victor. It happened so quickly and ended as quickly: the bull hooked its horn into Victor lifting him over his back like a small sack of flour and then turned and began ramming and butting Victor's back and head. Everyone ran out to distract the bull and two men lifted Victor and carried him out of the ring gritting his teeth in pain. Toro met his maker and I left the arena.
The next day I purchased a Spanish news paper anxious to find out what happened to Senor Victor Janiero and spent an hour on the bus to Portugal translating the Spanish words. "El pronostico es reservado", "The prognosis is reserved", whatever that means. The article states he was gored, "cogida", but a gentleman I talked to at the arena before I left, said he wasn't. I never met Victor, but somehow I bonded with him, or maybe it was just perverse curiosity. I hope he's OK.
We spent about a week in Portugal, mostly in the rain, with mixed reviews although I have to question my evaluation since rain has a way of depressing me and slanting my views. Also, Susan was mugged on our second day in Lisbon and we were both in a funk for several days after.
We spent a wonderful afternoon at The Portugese Maritime Museum in Belem, a suburb of Lisbon. They had a huge hall filled with hundreds of models of every imaginable sailing vessel. And, it is a little known fact, they also have Columbus's original boats, the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria as well as a transcript of the conversation between Columbus and Isabella recorded secretly by a short monk hiding under Isabella's desk. The boats were stored away in the back of the monastery and don't look anything like the trumped up pictures in the brochure published by the Knights of Columbus.
No one is allowed to photograph the transcript so, to the best of my memory, I have reproduced part of it here:
Chris: Ciao Isabella!
Isabella: Bueno Chris. Wata bringa u here? I thoughta u left for the West Indies?
Monk (whispering): Howa u spell West Indies?
(Isabella kicks the monk under the table).
Chris: Wata was that? (pause) Isabella, itsa abota my boats.
Isabella: Watsa matta with u boats?
Chris: Jesu Christo! Da very smalla boats!
Isabella: Thatsa all I could afford thisa year and Fernando mucho jelloso. Whena I buy biga boat for Magellan, he gotta so mad he taka me to the Chapel of Flagellation.
Monk: Oh no! Nota the Chapel of Flagellation!
( Isabella kicks the monk under his robe. Chris dreamily fantasizes about his first flagellation with Carmalitta.)
Isabella: He didn't usea the whips on me but Santa Christina whata scare. Chris whya u smiling?
Chris (realizing his mistake): I thoughta... neva u mind. Figlio di boutana Isabella, howamI goina to discover the West Indies in thosea smalla boats?
Isabella: Wella Chris, whya donta u first discover America and then ua can discover the West Indies next year?
Chris walks out biting the knuckle of his right pointer finger. Isabella is giving Chris the Italian salute she invented: slightly bent right arm, tight fist with palm up, and her left hand open palm slapping upper right arm. The monk dreamily fantasizes about his first flagellation.
When you read this hopefully well be on our way to France, but now were in Barcelona, putting the finishing touches on the last of the Iberian Rambles and getting a last hit of the Spanish world. Weve circled this great peninsula and have been here longer than we thought we would and yet weve had to miss some good places but its time to move on. Michael Antinori, in a rare letter, hes a busy boy, tells us circles are magical: "You set out traveling, and each step takes you further from the place you left, and at the same time, closer to it, all the way around, until you make it back to the same place to discover that you see it and everything else differently. You are no doubt wiser, yet nostalgic for what had to be left behind."
What a wonderful phrase. We never got to Cordoba, Cadiz or Bilbao to see the museum. We rather dashed along, mostly trying to leave behind some bad weather that clouded the skies and our enjoyment of the places we were. But we saw Sevilla and Santiago do Compostela and Leon and in between, Portugal.
Sevilla is the uberSpanish city. Almost a parody or cliché of itself. Self-reflexive. It is so be-tiled and balconied and balustraded, crenellated and carved that its hard to believe. But absolutely beautiful and a wonderful place to be. It would have been easy to spend a long time there. Decked out with bougainvillea in all colors of the rainbow and geraniums potted and spilled and big oranges hanging from all the trees.
There is a dense, crowded and charming tourist ghetto called the Barrio Santa Cruz in which, at certain quiet times like Sunday evening and the early morning hours you can see real Spaniards going about their business. But usually the tiny streets are clogged with a lot of Americans, Germans, Brits bonking into one another blinded by their maps and Michelins. The newer city is equally lovely as the old Barrios, and this is where the full time inhabitants live and work and shop. And get their hair cut, as I did. Lovely shops, could have stayed to shop. Gorgeous park, one of the best. Full of fountains and flowers and boxwood gardens of roses. The Cathedral is huge, almost or more so than St. Peters or St. Pauls, but not as knock-out as Toledo. Gialda, the old Moorish tower, and the Alcazar both were beautiful. At night, walking after dinner we saw the little guys in orange suits hosing down the streets the town was squeaky clean. The orange suits of the street cleaners are in honor of the orange trees that line the streets, now heavy with fruit. In hindsight, writing now a week, ten days later, its been the best town so far. If we go back, rent a house and hang out, dont be surprised.
But then we bussed to Portugal. We couldnt find a decent train route from Sevilla over into Portugal. Seems like the Spaniards dont want you leaving the country on their trains. But much to our surprise the buses are great: clean, comfortable and fast. Settled in and watched the scenery roll by. All part of our great effort to stay on the ground. No planes.
In Portugal we felt a lot like Goldilocks. The first city was too big (and dreary) the second city was too small (but charming) and the third city was just right (but rainy.) In the first city, Lisboa, I got mugged. First time for everything, I guess. And it happened just like the guide books tell you it will.
It was our second day in Lisboa, it was gray and spitting and we were trying hard to like the city but its dirty and crumbling, the people dour. We walked around trying to find something to like but it was hard. The citys grimy and bedraggled. And there is some of the most hideous moderne architecture Ive ever seen that clashes horribly with whats left of the crumbly old Art Nouveau buildings. Anyway, we took a streetcar to an area called Belem where the presidente lives and there was a wonderful mariners museum that Ron enjoyed so much he tried to take an anchor for a souvenir. Dragging that thing around made us hungry so we had a great lunch and decided perhaps there were some redeeming features, and then on the way back to the hotel, on the streetcar again, two enterprising and adroit kids made off with my wallet.
It was astonishing how slick they were, I really didnt know what happened until it had happened. I was just putting away my wallet, after paying my fare, into the little zipped compartment inside the larger zipped compartment into my really safe bag (!) when a young man pushed into a woman standing next to me, the raincoat he was carrying spread over me, she leaned heavily into me, as if the tram had swayed, and knocked me slightly off balance. As I reached out to steady myself she slipped her hand under the raincoat, into my still open bag and grabbed the wallet. It was very quick, and very smooth. It took me about ten seconds to realize what had happened, and by then they were off the tram. Didnt get much money, about $20, but did get my Visa and Amex and ATM. Ron jumped off the tram and chased down the street trying to find the kids or a cop. I didnt like this part, I was afraid for him, that theyd knock him over the head in an alley. So I jumped off and ran after him, yelling for him to stop just a couple of nutty Americans seeing the sights. Of course they were long gone and there were no police anywhere, so, completely dispirited, we went back to the hotel. After a hot bath, a glass of port in the hotel bar, funny conversation with some fellow travelers, and room service dinner, things looked a bit better but only from inside the Ritz.
So enough of Lisbon. The next day we paid the outrageous hotel bill that had lots of phone calls to the states to cancel the cards and order new ones and left the town. Who says we have to like every city we go to? Isnt that just part of the yin and yang of travel? Without the ugly you wouldnt recognize the beautiful. The irony is that I have been nagging Ron to quit counting his money in the street. I thought someone would see him flashing his cash, and watch which pocket he put it in, and do the old pocket picking thing. Never thought itd be me. However, the kids really struck twice, because when Ron went to get cash from the ATM in the bus station, (again the bus schedule was more convenient than the train) the machine ate his card. SunTrust Bank had put a hold on both our cards. We got on the bus and dreamt of Spain all the way to Obidos.
Obidos made up for Lisbon in spades. Or kings and queens. The town is so pretty that King Dinis gave it to his bride as a wedding present in 1228 and it became part of all the dowries of the queens of Portugal from then on until the 19th c. It is absolutely delightful. The ramparts circle the village and we spent hours up there, imagining ourselves soldiers of old, defending the queen. We had a wonderful dinner in a tiny restaurant snuggled up to the walls. The restaurant is called Barco (boat) and is the new baby of a young couple, hes French and shes Portuguese and we were their very first customers ever. Had a wonderful entrecote with marjoram butter, and fresh smoked salmon that was marinated in olive oil, lemon and spices. More about food in another chapter. Whoever heard of a travelogue without food stories? Im saving them up
We stayed in a funny old converted Convent that was one of those places tourists eat up because its so charming and uncomfortable. I know why the nuns moved out. Actually they never moved in for a reason that escapes me now, but the walls were so thin we could hear the man next door in his bathtub. The room so small we tripped over our luggage. And people liked to hang out on their balconies despairing of their tiny rooms to anyone who would listen across the courtyard. Anyway, the town was worth two days there, one of which was spent rambling around Obidos and the other was a taxi ride to a neighboring fishing village called Peniche for a lunch of fish grilled on the sidewalk. All the little cafes drag out their big black grills, fire them up with white hot wood coals and grill fish and shellfish so fresh theyre still spitting. I had sardines. Ron had chicken. Back to Obidos after admiring the fancy footwork of the men and women mending nets (see pic) and the little statue of the lace-maker. In Peniche, while the men fish, the women make lace. Lace making seems a natural segue from netmaking, doesnt it? and the work is incredibly beautiful. Obidos was so small we considered packing it up and bringing it home, itd fit in our pasture at Lake Seed and make a delightful retirement community for all our friends. But, looking for a little more action, we moved on.
From Obidos by car and driver to Viana do Castelo. Stopped at a couple of cathedrals. One, the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaca is one of the most beautiful Gothic churches Ive seen and in it were the tombs of Dom Pedro and Dona Ines. Strange couple. He fell in love with her although married to someone else and when his wife died he married Ines. She was murdered by the opposition party (probably Republicans). When he became king he killed the murderers by gouging out their hearts (fitting punishment since they broke his heart by killing his lover ) and then had Ines exhumed and crowned. He forced his court to file past and kiss her decomposed hand. Yech. Finally he put her back in her grave and ordered that her tomb should stand exactly opposite his, foot to foot so that when Judgement Day came his beloveds face would be the first he would see when he sat up. I hope he givers her some time to fix her make-up especially after all those worms.
Anyway, Viana do Castelo is the perfect town. Not too big (for me) not too small (for Ron) but just right and our hotel was the most beautiful postmodern take on an old mansion Ive ever seen. Absolutely wonderful use of steel and wood to renovate an old stone and plaster house. Viana is a sexy little sea resort of chic shops and gorgeous art deco mansions. Could have stayed there a bit longer, but it was raining, still, and we were in a drifting mood and seemed to be happy hitting on a town for a night and moving on.
Headed north by train back into Spain: Ron became cheerfully macho as soon as we crossed the border. He likes Spain a lot. But Portugal had some great things going for it: unlike Spain, most people speak a bit of English (thank god, because Portuguese is like Italian, its only spoken in the country, but have you ever heard Portuguese spoken? Its quite amazing lots of soft sibilants and a plethora of vowels. Sort of like Spanish, but not really and the Portuguese are very suspicious and wary of their giant neighbor so they arent pleased when you speak Spanish.). Also, I think theres a law in Portugal that the houses can only be white with red roofs and that all public womens toilets must have bidets. Also, the wines are terrific. And the rivers beautiful. And the coast wild and scenic. Now if it could just be populated with Italians itd be perfect.
One night each in Santiago do Compostelo and Leon. It rained in Santiago which was probably the reason we were disappointed in that town, but cleared a bit by the time we got to Leon and our moods lifted. The cathedral in Leon brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful. Pure, stark gothic ribs held hundreds of stained glass walls and rose windows. Absolutely spectacular. I cant imagine a more perfect fusion of architecture and art. We liked Leon a lot. It is a prosperous, enjoyable little city that celebrates itself nightly starting at seven when everyone comes out to walk up and down the pedestrianized streets and catch up with their neighbors and listen to the best street music we've heard, and in a country full of street musicians, that's saying something!
Which brings me back to Barcelona. We got here at the same time that every University in Europe emptied into the city. There are probably ten million people in this city and three are over 25. Two of them are us. So the city doesnt need electricity, it runs on hormones. There are young couples in clinches everywhere: on benches, leaning against the trees, in the Metro, and have you ever seen anyone negotiate the cross walk of a busy street lip-locked? There is a famous street called Las Ramblas that is a flowing river of twenty-somethings. Yesterday I despaired of seeing anyone who wasnt a size four and walked the streets until I finally found the neighborhood of poodles and paunches. Shady streets, good restaurants, well-cut suits and sensible shoes. Beautiful, expensive art nourveau townhomes. I felt right at home.
So, were here for five days, to see the Gaudis Sagrada Familia cathedral, go to a concert, get our laundry done, balance the checkbook, clean out the dust in the suitcases, repack and then ramble on. Hope everyone on the homefront is well and happy. We really love the notes and responses to the Ramble. Whenever we feel the first symptoms of homesickness (the urge to duck into a McDonalds for instance) were just a click away from our friends and family.