Monday, April 18, 2011

Ole' Espana!

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While Italy is a wonderful, culturally rich country and may call to Evan's soul, Spain is the “Queso Grande”, the big cheese for me. Me encanta Espana. Who could not love the land of tapas, flamenco, and Don Quixote? It had been 21 years since Evan and I backpacked here, and we were eager to show it to the kids. Brendan and Heath have had 2 years of Spanish camp under their belts, so this gave them the opportunity to “habla Espanol” a bit.

We landed in Madrid without any problems, and grabbed the Metro to the Plaza del Sol. This Plaza is in the heart of Madrid. In fact, “kilometro cero (kilometer zero)” is here.

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Outdoor cafes, street performers, and people taking a paseo are here all hours of the day. This place hums with activity. We could feel the vibe when we stepped off the metro. Our hotel (with a balcony over the plaza) was just a few steps away.

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Not to waste a moment, we ditched the bags and went out to explore the city. Once again, trusty 'ole Rick Steves and a city map led our way. First, we gave our regards to Charles III and the statue of the bear with the madrono tree (a symbol of Madrid).

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Then we slowly started making our way up cobble stoned, twisting streets to the Plaza Mayor, one of my favorite places in Madrid! This plaza is square shaped and dates back to the 1600's. Today it is filled with shops and cafes, but when I'm here, I can just picture the bullfights and royal pageantry that took place here. Apparently the Inquisition had trials and executions here, too but I don't like to dwell on that!

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From the Plaza Mayor, we continued onward, passing mercados and restaurants, the Cathedral of Alumdena, and the Royal Palace. Eventually we wound our way around to the Prado just in time for the evening hours. (Side note---In Greece, the major archaeological sites were closed by 3 pm with the docents “shooing out” everyone by 2:30pm, but in Spain, major museums and sites stayed open until 8pm! You gotta love a land of afternoon siestas and evening hours!)

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The Prado is truly one of the great art museums of the world. Knowing that we only had a couple of hours, we tried to hit the highlights (first the aseo—I think Amarra's mission on this trip is to visit each major site's toilet)---Velazquez's “Las Meninas” and “Los Borrachos”, de Goya's Maja paintings, “Third of May, 1808”, and “The Family of Charles IV”, works of El Greco, Titian, Rubens, Murillo, and Hieronymous Bosch (Evan's favorite). After that, my feet were killing me, and I was starving, so I suggested that we go, but the boys were appalled that we had missed several works that we had studied in our art book. Who am I to impede education? Yep, we closed the Prado down and had a late supper afterwards. I guess something stuck from all that homeschooling!

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Madrid's other premier art museum is the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia which exhibits contemporary art. It has wonderful works of Miro', Calder, Picasso, and Dali', but its signature painting is Picasso's “Guernica”. Picasso painted this piece in response to the saturation bombing devastation of the Spanish town of Guernica in 1937. Hitler used this this town as a “guinea pig” to try out Germany's new air force with Franco's permission! Picasso's painting is stark in black and white with images of a dead mother and baby (modern pieta), screaming horses, and confusion. I can't describe how powerful the painting is in person. “Guernica” was kept in the US until after Franco's death in 1981 when it was safe to be returned to Spain. (Perhaps the British Museum could take a lesson and return the Elgin Marble to Greece?)

We also visited two other museums: the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of the Americas. The Archaeological Museum has some nice pieces, but it is currently being renovated so only a small amount of its collection is on display. The Museum of the Americas, on the other hand, was great! This museum has treasures of North and South America brought back by the conquistadores. It even has one of 4 remaining pre-contact Mayan codices in the world. The museum was tastefully arranged, and the exhibits were pristine. I could have spent several hours in there, but unfortunately the rest of my family didn't agree, so we compromised and went for helado.

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As with any trip, we always have one goof or missed opportunity! We knew that a lot of sites were closed on Monday, so we saved touring the Royal Palace (not closed on Mondays) and the outdoor Egyptian temple of Deblod (a gift from Egypt to Spain for help with conservation during the construction of the Aswan Dam) for then. Drats, foiled again! Apparently, there was an “official function” at the Royal Palace on Monday, so we couldn't tour. The Temple of Deblod, while open on the outside has an inner chamber that was, you guessed it, closed on Mondays!!!!

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We did, however, have a great walk seeing the external Palace, the periphery of the Temple of Deblod, and the Don Quixote statue at the Plaza de Espana. Oh well, I guess that gives us a good reason to return to Madrid!

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For lunch that day we headed the Mercado de San Miguel. We gave the boys 10 Euros each and sent them off together to fend for themselves with the admonition to speak only Spanish! This is a small, touristy and enclosed market—so they were safe all you worried relatives. I think they really enjoyed the opportunity to test their independence, their Spanish and their taste buds! They came back with some interesting choices and, we think, really enjoyed the experience. Meanwhile Evan and I enjoyed great Spanish wine, cheese, serrano ham, olives and croquettes. Amarra nibbled a bit of everything.

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From Madrid, we headed south by train to Granada. Granada was the last stronghold of Moorish rule before Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Moors in 1492. Perched above the city is the well preserved gardens, palaces, and fort of the Moors, and later, the Christian rulers. Since we had not had the foresight to purchase tickets to the Alhambra months ago, we got up early, hiked up the hill, and scored same day tickets! Who knew you couldn't just walk right in like we did 21 years ago—a few things have changed in Europe since those days.

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We started at the Palace of Charles V. Although lovely, this Renaissance structure certainly looks odd in a compound where everything else has Moorish architecture and art! Next, we roamed through the oldest structure (from 1200's) known as the Alcazaba or red fort. The kids had a great time climbing watch towers and admiring the view of Granada and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

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Finally, our ticketed time for the Palacia Nazaries arrived. We (and a few hundred friends) entered the palace to gape at the exquisite stone carvings and tiles. The inner courtyards were lovely although the most famous, the courtyard of the lions, is being renovated and does not have the lions and fountain in the courtyard itself. However, the recently restored lions were on display in another room and looked gorgeous! We ended our 5 hours in the Alhambra at the Generalife and Summer Palace. Just as 21 years ago, the gardens and fountains were beautiful! Roses, pansies, and wisteria were in bloom with flower perfume everywhere.

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As in Madrid, we did a walking tour of Granada, seeing a caravanserai (traveler's inn from the Silk Road days), the old Silk Market, small enclosed plazas, and the Royal Chapel where Ferdinand and Isabella are entombed. Christopher Columbus petitioned the Catholic Monarchs here in Granada for his discovery voyage to the Americas. The Royal chapel held the silver box that contained the jewels Isabella gave him to finance the trip.

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From Granada, we decided to do a quick, one night trip to Sevilla. Although Sevilla doesn't have a lot of physical sites to see, it is always known for the ambiance---tiny winding streets, outdoor cafes, bullfighting and flamenco. Arriving by train, we checked in and went for a walking tour (sound familiar?) through the Barrio Santa Cruz. With so little time, we decided to skip the Cathedral and Alcazar visits(next time, maybe), and instead went to the bullfighting arena and museum. Evan and I had been to a bullfight before in Mexico, and that was enough for me! However, bullfighting is certainly a passion and part of the culture in Andalusia, so we wanted the kids to experience at least a little. Lucky for me that there were no fights scheduled until Sunday, so we just toured the arena, chapel, and the museum. The tour included some fairly grizzly explanations of how a fight is conducted. Unfortunately, the ring itself was being readied for the start of the bull fighting season in a week or two so it was packed with heavy equipment and piles of rock and sand making photography challenging.

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Flamenco is Seville's other love. The only Flamenco museum in the world is in Sevilla. Besides visiting the museum, we bought tickets for the night's performance. In addition to dancing (female and male), flamenco also incorporates stylistic guitar playing, clapping and shoe tapping as well as singing. (Interestingly, the singing reminded me of the muzzein's call to prayer that we heard in Turkey!) Amarra was thrilled to see the performance! She dressed up in her own flamenco outfit, watched enthusiastically, and then gave her own impromptu performance on the stage after the show to the appreciation of the remaining audience.

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Dinner was at a bodega near the hotel and included fried aanemone and some delicious lamb chops. Even though our time was short, I think we had a good taste of this passionate, full of life city. Adios Sevilla, hello Barcelona!

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Barcelona was our last stop in Spain. Arriving by train, we checked in our hotel, and did....wait for it....a walking tour of the city! We rambled down the Ramblas and made it to the Museu Picasso for their evening hours. Picasso lived in Barcelona from ages 14-21, so they have a lot of his early pre-cubist pieces---fantastic! The highlight here was Picasso's many interpretations of Velasquez's “Las Meninas” that we had seen in the Prado. Heath was especially impressed by it and even spent his own allowance money buying prints for his room at home.

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No visit would be complete to Barcelona without going to La Sagrada Familia. This cathedral envisioned by Antoni Gaudi has been undergoing construction for over 100 years. When we were here last, the main building wasn't even enclosed. It is truly spectacular now. They anticipate only 20 more years to finish it. Once completed, it will be a gigantic, amazing blend of nature, traditional Catholic symbols, and modernista architecture. Don't miss this if you're in Barcelona. Amarra says she'll bring her children here to see it, just like we brought her!

We ended our sojourn to Barcelona with an exploration of the Barri Gotic, finding hidden plazas, remnants of bombing from the Spanish Civil war, and even remains of a Roman temple.

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I just can't end this blog without talking about the food of Spain. For the most part, we have eaten “family style” here so that we can try many different dishes while saving on cost. Spain is known for its pork products—-Serrano and Iberico ham, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), etc., and I think Evan has eaten every type of ham available! We have had amazing tapas of cheeses, marinated olives, calamari sandwiches, tortilla (egg and potato frittata), croquetas, patatas bravas, home made potato chips, octopus salad, fried padron peppers, bacalao, and olive tapanade. Some of our main dishes have been stewed ox tail, paella, parilla, duck confit, fava beans with ham, lamb chops, fried sea anemone, and Sea Bass. In fact, we have been so eager to try new things, that our waiter in Madrid told Evan, “stop!” (along with a hand gesture) after the 4 items he'd ordered (we'd planned on 8!). He then told us that if we were still hungry after eating what we ordered, we could order more. He was right; we were stuffed after that! The kids rave about “churros y chocolate” for breakfast. Perhaps, the part that we love the best is the late afternoon custom of sipping beer, wine, or sangria (soft drinks for the kids) with tapas like olives or nuts at a little sidewalk cafe.

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Although a lot of things have changed in the last 21 years, what is the same is that I still love this vibrant, passionate, and welcoming country. We'll be back! Hasta luego, Espana!

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