Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “June, 2013”

Freeway Free in Spain: One-Night Stand in Salamanca

Plaza Mayor - SalamanceMy niece Jen suggested that we should stop in Salamanca on our way to visit her in northern Spain, so we did, on the principle that a traveler should always take advantage of local recommendation when you can get them. Salamanca is famous for its beautiful Plaza Mayor, for its university, and for its cathedral, and justly so. You can read about those things in Lonely Planet and Fodor, just like I did.

In twenty-four hours, guide books in hand, we did there mostly what tourists do, saw what the guidebooks said we should see. For every other stopover we had established a home base and enjoyed day trips. Somehow, the home base gave me more of a feeling that I was getting to know an area, where the one-night-stopover felt like… a one-night–stand.

Salamanca- suburban desertOn entering the outskirts of Salamanca we saw the evidence of the disastrous Spanish housing bubble – acres of empty scraped land, streets laid out, with sidewalks and street lights intact, but no paving, set with lollipop trees all dead of neglect except for the hardy pine trees, no sign of construction activity. Gives new meaning to the term “desert”.

After settling into the Hostal Concejo looking out at the small Playa de Libertad, we set out to see Salamanca, maps in hand, cameras at the ready. We toured the famous plaza and dutifully took pictures of the much-defaced, often-replaced plaque of Franco among the other Spanish dignitaries honored on the Plaza in bas-relief.Franco and colleague

A better alternative: Down the hill along the Calle de San Pablo we found the convent de las Duenas.  Here in the cloister the carvings of demons and souls in torment are much more lively and evocative than the formal portraits of the Plaza. One wonders what the nuns made of some of the more explicit carvngs – they  would not seem to lend themselves to calm meditation and spiritual uplift. Adam unleashes demons

We strolled our way down to the old Roman Bridge across the Rio Tormes, admiring the golden carved façade and gilded carved interior of the Cathedral on the way. It felt a little ho-hum after the Roman remains of Merida and the Conquistadors’ gold we had seen flaunted in Trujillo. From the bridge we turned back to look at the city and spotted the amazing blue-stained-glass Art Deco façade of the Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Deco soaring above the river.

Museo Art Nouveau y Art DecoOf course we had to go look. Totally not Romanesque, Gothic, Classic, Baroque, or Ho-hum! Very strict rules against taking pictures inside, though, so you will have to take my word that the interior includes everything from Limoges and Lalique figurines to Kewpie dolls and scatological ashtrays, in a setting inspired by Gaudi and Louis Tiffany. A must-see (and a nice change of pace from all that Old Stuff.)

In Salamanca we had our first real culinary disappointment. The desk attendant at our hotel was not the comfortable matron of the afternoon – perhaps it was her son. We asked him for a recommendation to a local tapateria and he sent us to just the place a beardless youth would like: noisy, crowded,cheap ,bright, beery, and full of soccer fans. We fled, but try as we might we could not locate the kind of cheerful,friendly conversation-friendly place we had enjoyed in Caceras. We ended up in a near-by and near-empty joint with only a few middle aged soccer fans clustered at the bar. Too late we realized this dearth was a reflection of the fare and the service, but we were too hungry to look further . We drowned our disappointment in striacchiatti (chocolate chip gelato) and fresh berry yogurt from a shop on the way back to our plaza.Helado - Spanish comfort food

Freeway Free in Spain: A Dream Deferred

The cookie factoryMy niece Jen teaches English in a small Pre-K through Adult School district in a small town (pop. 8000) in northern Spain. The town is most notable for its Romanesque church, its castle ruin, and its cookie factory, the largest in Europe.
Each morning Jen begins her day with a class of 3-5 year olds, held in the basement of the school. The classroom’s walls are covered with colorful posters and student artwork. The letters of the alphabet with pictures (A, Apple, B, Book) ring the tops of the bulletin boards. The classroom is divided by a long two-sided bookcase into two halves. On one side are several small round tables with chairs, on the other side are a playhouse, a large rug, and a smartboard. Except for the smartboard, it looks a lot like the kindergarten my children attended in California.
The children begin to arrive at 9AM. They exchange “good morning” with Jen, hang up their coats, and go to sit around the rug. T he five-year-olds wear purple gingham smocks with their names embroidered in purple along the front. The Pre-K group of 3 t0 4 –year-olds wear bright red smocks with yellow piping and a blue screen printed border, with their names embroidered in yellow.
Jen starts up the smartboard, which is a combination whiteboard, computer touch screen, and video player. A young man with a guitar appears on the screen to lead the children in a good morning song, while Jen helps the younger children settle in place and makes sure they are paying attention. One of the Pre-K students, Xavier, is Class Leader for the day. He leads the class through several phonics-based games using the touchscreen.
“The smartboard is great,” Jen whispers to me. “It’s like having another teacher in the room. Every class in the school has one.”
Next the students practice reciting a poem which they will present at the school’s Open House in a week. Afterward they break up into groups to color pictures for the presentation. Everything is done and said in English. The three-year-olds are still making mistakes; the four and five-year-olds are nearly flawless.
During her break, Jen takes me on a tour of the school. In the 6th grade class, each of the students is working with his own notebook computer. I am feeling a bit envious – this little town’s school seems as well equipped as those of Silicon Valley, and the 3-year-olds are already learning English. Here is a country that really puts value on education!
Later, while walking back to Jen’s house from the school, we meet one of her friends. He is an attractive young man of about thirty, who speaks excellent English and has an MBA from one of the best universities in Spain. He still lives with his parents. He has been looking for a job since getting his degree, but the best he has been able to manage in Spain’s economic meltdown is a part-time job on the night shift at the cookie factory.
What is the value of education, if it brings one no closer to one’s dreams?cookie factory 2

Freeway Free in Spain: Don’t Forget to Bring…

Thngs to bring

Note plain dark pants; sensible shoes, hat, shirt jacket are the same

Note plain dark pants; sensible shoes, hat, shirt jacket are the same

Note: raffia had, fanny pack as purse, bulging pockets of cargo pants

Note: raffia hat, fanny pack as purse, bulging pockets of cargo pants

I found my packing list for the Spanish trip today.  Reviewing, these are the things which jumped out as having been most useful:

A fanny pack. Mine is a dark color that can double as a purse or shoulder bag. It has lots of zippers, easy-access compartments, an adjustable strap with a sturdy clasp, and room for a water bottle.

A flashlight in the fanny pack –  in Spanish toilets  sometimes the light is on a timer and goes out unexpectedly, sometimes the switch is on the outside and a well-meaning user turns the lights off on exiting, sometimes there is no window and you need a flashlight to find the light switch.

Bandaids and anti-biotic – you hope you won’t need these, but in my case , both came in handy when I bumped the mirror in our Caceras hotel room and then caught it one-handed as it bounced. It only sliced a bit of the web between two fingers, and the Band-Aids and ointment eased both pain and anxiety.

A shirt jacket with a pocket on the front big enough to carry your camera – easy to get to, but out of sight, so you don’t scream “Tourist!” to every passerby. A dark color looks dressier in an urban setting, and is practical; a light color is more comfortable in heat.

Sensible shoes  The best are shoes that can pass for urban wear, but stay comfortable on a hiking trail or after a day trekking in museums. I swear by SAS Freetime, the classic worn by nurses in white and little old ladies in beige and me at countless trade shows and on myriad business trips in black or navy.

there are layers of long underware, a turtleneck, shirt, T-shirt, lightweight hoodie, and windbreaker rounding me out and keeping me smiling!

Six layers of clothing are rounding me out and keeping me smiling in the snow!

Cargo pants These are great for wear in rural areas where you are hiking, biking, or scrambling over cobblestones. The extra pockets can carry what you need and leave hands free.

Dark Casual Pants.  These should have deep pockets for your wallet, but  look like ordinary daywear for the urban areas where you don’t want to advertise that you are a  tourist.

Kleenex packs – you cannot count on finding tissues in the hotel, or toilet paper in those bathrooms.

Compact tablet computer.  I filled mine with free books and read them on the plane and bus trips.  W loaded hers  with tour books.  In both cases, we saved space by not carrying the actual books which are heavy and bulky. And of course don’t forget to bring the charger.

International Transformer/Adapter American plugs don’t work in Spain, and American power requirements can cause a hotel blackout in rural areas.  In a larger hotel in Madrid you can borrow an adapter from the concierge, but not in the smaller towns.

Laundry Soap packets (they work better than the hotel shampoo and don’t leave your clothes smelling of citrus or jasmine or whatever.)

Lots of Layers of clothing!!!. Maybe it’s climate change, maybe it’s not, but we went from 80 degrees. F. to 30 degrees F. in one day more than once.  I packed:

Bottoms: regular underwear, silk long-johns, and lined pants

Tops: regular underwear, silk long-johns, a knit turtleneck, a long-sleeved collared cotton shirt, a long-sleeved knit crew-neck shirt, a fitted knit hoodie, and a water-proof hooded wind-breaker. I never had to use all 7 top layers, but I came close.

Map Even if you have a GPS in the car, even if you have Google Maps on your  iPhone, a real paper map is invaluable for giving an understanding of distance and direction.  You can see how the distance you plan to travel today compares to the distance you traveled yesterday.  You can see whether a suggested side trip is a reasonable distance.  If the map is a good one, it will also give you an idea of the topography, and tell you the names of those distant mountains.  The one I brought was folded and re-folded until it was falling apart at the seams.

Scarves/Buff – neck warmers are key to sealing in whatever warmth your poor body can generate when you are caught in a cold drizzle or snow flurry.  A Buff can double as a hat or earmuffs.

Sun Hat.  If you are traveling with a friend, make your hats distinctive so you can find each other in a crowd.   W and I had nearly identical raffia hats, which we grew adept at spotting a la “Where’s Waldo?”

Step 1 - 2 can pack as flat as 1

Collapsible Suitcase/Tote Bag Here’s a space-saving trick to provide extra carry power: Pack two large poly-fiber grocery bags (the kind you take to the market instead of getting paper or plastic).  They take up scarcely any space. One of these can serve as a handy carry-all for a day trip.  If you have purchased presents that overflow your suitcase for the return trip, you can pack the presents into one of the bags, put the second bag upside down over the first one, then invert the whole thing and you have a tidy package with handles which you can carry on as a personal item.

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Freeway-Free in Trujillo – Local Bad Boys Make Good

Plaza Mayor - TrujilloTrujillo in Extremadura is the hometown of Francisco Pizarro, the Conquistador who accompanied Balboa on his discovery of the Pacific Ocean, then overthrew the Inca monarchy, and was himself murdered by one of his own mutinous fellow- adventurers.  My fellow-traveller W learned most of this history from the Peruvian point of view, which substitutes “betrayed” for “overthrew”, “plunderer” for “adventurer” etc.  So I got a lot of colorful running commentary to accompany the information provided by the local tourist office.

Iglesia de Santa Maria - Ferdy and Izzy were hereFernando and his brothers were rapscallions to the core, and their fellow Trujillanos breathed sighs of relief when they shipped off to the New World in emulation of Cortez. Imagine their dismay when the black sheep returned with piles of Inca gold and an Incan princess under each arm. Most of the Pizarros  eventually died ingloriously in the New World, but not before bringing home a lot of plunder. Some of this was donated to the local church in the form of gold and silver reliquaries and altar pieces in an attempt to buy off the damnation they surely deserved.
Pizarro's PalacioThe survivor, Hernando, probably escaped death only because  during his volatile twenties and thirties he was already serving time in prison for murder.  On release he married his brother Fernando’s daughter by the Incan princess whose brother  Fernando had betrayed and burned at the stake.  The couple corralled the Pizarro fortune and spent it in the old home town on building a lavish public plaza and a huge mansion decorated with bas-reliefs of themselves. and their families . In your face, Trujillo!

The  huge statue of Fernando Pizarro on horseback in the public plaza is actually an impostor.  The statue was originally commissioned by the Government of France as a statue of Hernando Cortez to be presented as a gift to the Government of Mexico.  The French were embarrassed to discover that Mexicans didn’t appreciate being conquered by Cortez and wanted no part of a statue honoring him.  Being both thrifty and resourceful, the French renamed the statue as Fernando Pizarro and sent it to Spain , where Pizarro is warmly remembered despite his wayward youth and unsavory exploits in the New World.Generic Conquistadore - AKA Pizarro of Trujillo

Trujillo’s  old Castillo, originally a Moorish fortification, is  positioned on the top of the  highest hill with its medieval walls either intact or restored.  We walked the entire battlement with some back-tracing and could see for miles across the country.  I understand why the Spanish from this region felt at home in their New World colonies – the green foothills with their rocky protrusions look quite similar to the Sierra foothills of California in spring, even to the serpentine color of the rocks.View from the Castillo - Trujillo

Trujillo is small and walkable and only a 45 minute bus ride from Caceres, so it makes for a perfect day trip with plenty of time for a siesta before venturing out for tapas in the evening.

Freeway Free in Spain: Livin’ the High Life in Caceras

Bride #3 and littlest guestCaceras Bride #2Saturday is the best day for  touring the medieval lchurches in Caceres. In addition to the wonders of the Old Town, you are likely to spot a bevy of up-to-date brides – always a great insight into the local culture.

The Old Town is very old indeed, with Hapsburg castles built on Castilian palaces built on Moorish forts built on Roman walls.  We wandered through maybe a quarter of the
Old Town, taking in the Visitor Center (highly recommended)  in a 14th century lookout tower outside  the wall and the Church of Santa Maria with its carved reredos and 14th century
Christo Negro.   This area was the home of Pizarro and Cortez (more on them later) and the church museum is full of silver and gold reliquaries and croziers made from New World gold and silver.

Caceras Bride #1At the Plaza San Jorge we spotted our first bride of the day, dressed in a very modern white gown – above the knee in front and trailing to the ground in back  –  posing on the step with her family including a tiny ring-bearer who was doing his version of  Gangnam Style   in the front row.

The cathedral of St. Francis Xavier  has a three story gilded reredos studded with saints.  In case there was not enough gilt on view, this particular weekend also featured  a special exhibition of icons from around the world.  In this setting all that glitters is not gold, but might well be ruby, emerald, or mother-of-pearl.Altarpiece, Church of San Francisco Xavier

After being dazzled, we  squeezed our way up a two-story wrought iron spiral staircase (not for the vertiginous!) and then up the spiral stone steps of the two towers, from which one could peer across to say hello to storks guarding their nests at eye level.    A beautiful day  allowed us to look across the green valley to the peaks of the Greda range still well-covered with snow.Stork at home

Second church, second bride (see above leftf).  At the Plaza San Mateo we found a VERY upscale wedding, with the female guests wearing Jimmy Choos and fascinators a la Kate and William’s wedding, and the male guests wearing silk ties which coordinated with their wives’/girlfriends’ dresses.  When the bride and groom emerged the air was full of red and white rice-paper hearts which were carried everywhere and up by the wind.

Taxis whisked the most important guests to the reception, while the other female guests tottered off over the cobblestones in their 5 inch heels. Some had to be assisted on both sides to keep from falling, just like the Chinese ladies of old with their bound feet.  To each her own torture.These shoes ain't made for walkin'

We hit the Cultural Center (also recommended)  and the Artisan Coop (interesting local art, but pricey!)  and headed for our hotel in  time to catch the 3rd bride exiting from the church of San Juan just outside the old city –  more fascinators, more silk gowns.  I felt way under-dressed in my well-traveled raffia hat and cargo pants, but that didn’t stop my snapping pictures of the elegant display.  And no one preening in their finery seemed to object to becoming part of my travel story – no Mafia dons in Spain?

Freeway Free in Merida: Ramblin’ round the Roman Ruins

Roman theatre in MericaIf you OD on medieval ruins in Caceras, you have options.  How about Roman ruins instead?  Merida, another World Heritage Site, is only an hour’s train ride away.

Wow!  Those Romans were some engineers!  Stuff they built 2000 years ago is still being used  in Merida, such as a magical open air theatre where we happened upon a kind of rock n roll High School Musical version of “The Rape of Europa” (That giant white caterpillar with black antennae is supposed to be Jupiter as a white bull).

Temple of Diana - Merida

The Temple of Diana has a 15th Century villa built INSIDE.

Roman bridge - Merida

A graceful bridge across the Guardiana River is used now by pedestrians and bicycles as part of an extensive trail network.

Arc of Trajan - Merida

Cars still rumble under Trajan’s Arch.

Roman road leads to ongoing archaeology

In many places the original Roman roads form the substrata for current city streets.


Museo National de Arte Romano

And there is a great museum next to the theatre and amphitheater which makes sense of it all.

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