Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Spain”

Freeway-Free in Spain: It is Good to be the King

Plaza and Portico and PalaceThis bright sunny morning was almost too nice to spend inside, even if “inside” is the Palacio Real, home to the monarchs of Spain beginning in the 18th century.  We took our time along the way, stopping into a beautiful local market to admire the produce and incidentals on offer.Que Bello Mercado!

At the palace we waited about 10 minutes for entry while being entertained by a guy making giant bubbles and an accordionist playing, inexplicably, “Michele” and “Theme from The Godfather” instead of “Lady of Spain.”

The palace makes  Versailles look tawdry. I never imagined so much gold-and-silver-embroidered silk and velvet existed in the world. The extravagance is excused nowadays because the rooms are opened to the public in general for viewing and are otherwise used only for state occasions; the current king prefers to live in more comfort and less pomp in a smaller palace in the suburbs. But still, the amount of wretched excess is a little stomach-turning after viewing the homeless living in cardboard boxes in the arcades of the closed shops in the Plaza Mayor.

The state rooms are, of course, all tapestry, chandeliers, and mirrors, with frescos on the ceilings painted by Tintoretto and Velasquez and other lesser lights. We also got a glimpse of some of the rooms which had been used as private living quarters by various monarchs; these had been decorated to match  then-current tastes and ranged from a faux-Tyrolean-beer-hall decor for a billiard room through an all-Chinese porcelain and stucco and tile sitting room to an Empire/Egyptian room with sphinx holding up the table.

A visit to the Royal Armory Museum at the close revealed that the excess had been going on for at least 500 years – a wealth of gilded and engraved armor, including lots of matching miniature armor for the princelings to play in, and elaborate headpieces and breast-plates and rump-covers for the horses, all gilded, lavishly engraved or sculpted, and provided with satin covers and embroidered saddles to finish the look. (None of the kings ever actually fought in these things, although they may have jousted once in a while.)

After leaving the Palacio we took refuge in Taberna de Alabardero, an al fresco stree-tside cafe recommended by Lonely Planet AND Rick Steves, overlooking the palace and gardens. The prices were high and the service slow, but the people-watching was prime.

We finished off the afternoon with a stroll in the Royal Gardens and the Campo del Moro, then caught the Metro back to the hotel. For the evening we enjoyed a gala dinner at nearby Tres Encinas, a rather upscale (for us) seafood restaurant nearby. I  seized the opportunity to wear my one “nice” outfit, just so I can say the suitcase space wasn’t wasted.
Our maitre’d  was unabashedly charmed by Winifred’s Peruvian-accented Spanish, and monitored our table closely as we divided a wonderful salad of grilled vegetables and prawns (with heads and legs still attached to show how fresh they were) followed by a sole in the same state for the same reason but expertly divided and de-boned, followed by a dessert of chocolate brownie plus trimmings, and a couple of complimentary cuplets of cherry liqueur as a gift of the host. We were very glad we had dressed for the occasion!Shrimp Appetizer - Tres Encinas P1010262web P1010263web

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Freeway Free in Spain: Madrid and its Museums – Thyssen- Bornemizso

the Baron and BaronessThe Thyssen-Bornemizso museum is the last of Madrid’s”Big 3″ and perhaps the most cosmopolitan/ecumenical, as it spans from early medieval art through the impressionsts all the way to Roy Lichtenstein and Marc Rothko. In addition to the core collections, this museum had the most intriguing special exhibitions of the Big 3. On the day of our visit we happened on a special exhibit devoted to the influence of open-air painting on the Impressionists. We took this in first, then approached the regular collection already half-dazzled.

Famous blue horsesThe regular collection is now actually TWO collections, that of the Baron and his family which had been a-building for two generations, and that of late-comer Baroness Carmen Tyssen-Bornemizso (a former Miss Spain, and well-qualified judging by the full-length portrait which hangs in the entry gallery). So one is forced to zig and zag from the Middle Ages to the Barbizon school with the Baron, then leap to an unusual collection of American painters from Winslow Homer to Roy Lichtenstein with Carmen, then back to the Renaissance again with Carmen, then back to the Impressionists with the family collection. One wonders why the two collections could not simply be integrated along chronological lines; probably feminism has something to do with it.

Edward Hopper

 

A nice small special exhibit of paintings showing women going about daily life rounded off over seven hours at the T-B. There was one more exhibit of modern art entitled “Hyperrealismo” but we ran out of brain cells.

We went back to El Retiro to stop and smell the roses one last time. On this warm sunny Sunday it seemed all Madrid was celebrating La Dia de la Madre in the park: picnicking, strolling with the obligatory gift rose in hand, rowing in the rectangular Estanque. On the way back to the Metro we discovered a street of bookstalls like those along the Seine selling used books of all sorts. I barely resisted “Matilda”, one of my favorites from Roald Dahl. Perhaps in the park we discovered the real elusive center of Madrid.

Freeway Free in Spain: Toledo Transit

Bus to ToledoWe started off at a good hour for our expedition, arrived at the station in plenty of time to catch the 9:20 train, only to find that it was sold out. Next available train on a busy commute and tourist day was at 12:20. Scratch.

We went back to the hotel by Metro to save energy, I said something about our failed plans to the desk manager, and he replied quickly, “Why not go by bus?” Turns out the express bus leaves every hour, from a station about a half hour away by Metro.

With one thing and another we got to the bus station in time for the 11 AM bus and we were in Toledo by noon. A wonderful town for traipsing around.

The Last Supper - Toledo Cathedral facadeWe started with the awesome (in the original sense) cathedral, a soaring flamboyant Gothic/Baroque structure on the outside, with a wonderful Last Supper going on in sculpture across the front above the main door. If you look at it from the rise of steps across the plaze, you can see down onto the table where the sculpture was careful to provide both bottles of wine and a plate of rolls as required.
On the inside more of the same – a LOT more. In addition to the profligate use of gold from the New World to decorate altars, clothe icons, and create 10 foot-tall monstrances to hold the Host between communions, it contains more great paintings than they have room to hang or light or even identify decently – a whole set of Christ and the apostles by El Greco hung kitty corner to the viewer behind a grate, Titian, Correggio, and Rembrandt hung in a half-lit chapel on a temporary scaffold in front of the altar and again behind a grate.

St John and Cousin Jesus

St John and Cousin Jesus

The most awesome thing about the Toledo Cathedral is the detail – everywhere you look there is an artwork that would be worthy of its own exhibit in any other context.  For example, this mosaic of John the Baptist with his young cousin Jesus – at least 30 feet tall over the door of the cathedral – not even mentioned in the audio guide or anywhere else – but so powerful!

We got halfway through the audio tour and elected to pause for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant Winifred had located online nearby. (We are on a veggie kick since being greens-deprived in our first day in Madrid.) There are good and bad veggie restaurants – Madre Tierra  was excellent – a wonderful salad and then a cream of spinach soup so thick and rich I could have eaten it with a fork.

Virgin and Unicorn - Choir stall - Toledo Virgin M crowning a saint in ivory - Toledo Saint and demon contending- choir stall - Toledo Jacob and Esau? Choir Stall - Toledo

Then back to the cathedral for the rest of the tour of amazing carvings and sculpture.  (See some of the amazingly evocative carvings in the choir stalls above)

The art highlight – the Sacristy- was closed for renovation, which was probably a blessing in disguise. Otherwise we would never have made it to the El Greco Museum, which had a different set of apostles, much better displayed, hung in a setting designed to recreate a 15th century home such as El Greco might have lived in during his time in Toledo – quite charming.

Back to the bus, stopping for Winifred to pick up some mementoes and gifts. The express bus was full, so we took the milk run, whistle-stopping through a series of villages and small towns, letting off matrons who had been shopping for their week’s supplied in the supermercados of Toledo, taking up young people who had been visiting their families for the holiday and were headed back to Madrid – it was fun to make up stories to explain the meetings and partings.

Evening on the bus

Freeway Free in Spain: Madrid and its Museums – El Prado

El Prado 3D galleryEl Prado

At El Prado you can thrill your fill on the Big 3 of Spanish painting: Goya, El Greco, Velasquez.  Wow!  I warmed up with a roomful of Hieronymous Bosch (inspiration for every sci fi paperback anthology cover ever printed).  The Garden of Earthly Delights is enough to give one nightmares for a week.  On the wall catty corner is Breughel’s Triumph of Death  with Death leading an army of skeletons against the doomed remainder of mankind – the original zombie apocalypse.Bosch - Earthly Delights and Torments After

Unfortunately, a guard informed me that photos are not allowed soon after I left Bosch and Breughel, so I will have to link you to websites for you to get your tastes of G, V, and el G.

I was headed for Goya but got side-tracked by Velasquez.  Three hundred years before the Impressionists, this man knew exactly how to make light shine out of a picture.  I could have looked at his portrait of the Infanta Maria  and her handmaidens and dwarves for hours speculating on what was happening in each person’s mind, but the traffic of Japanese, German, French, and Spanish tour groups impeded reflection.

So I proceeded on my search for Goya but went the wrong way and got caught by El Greco  – even earlier than Velasquez, and combining use of light and of exaggeration to portray emotion and character in a way that prefigures Toulouse-Lautrec by 400 years.

W and I had split up after Bosch and Breughel.  When we reunited for lunch I was ready to babble about El Greco while she had found and been immersed in Goya, especially the “black Goyas” from his late period.  We exchanged enthusiasms, and then went out to explore again.

This time I found the Goyas and worked backward from the black period all the way to when he was hired to do “cartoons” of designs of frolicking gypsies and children,  to be used as patterns for tapestries at the local royal weavers workshop.  Amazing.  Age and war do alter one’s  point of view, and to go backwards in his career, from the murals of massacre and the blindness of fate to these sunny comic scenes, was especially poignant.

So which was the greatest painter of the Big Three?  Impossible to choose.

 

 

Freeway-free in Spain: Madrid and its Museums: Reina Sophia

Line for Dali

Madrid is a big city, the largest we have visited in Spain. Unlike the other largish cities we have visited, it does not seem to have a historic center; the Plaza Mayor is a nice place in daylight, but in the evening it is a haven for the homeless who are sheltering in cardboard boxes left over from the day’s sales of tidbits and trinkets for tourists. The main gathering place for events is the Puerta del Sol, site of the city hall and of Madrid’s civic mascot, the statue of a bear reaching for fruit on a strawberry tree (obviously not the kind of strawberries we grow for shortcake in the US).  Unlike other European capitals, it does not have an iconic identifying landmark, like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben  or the Brandenburg Gate or St. Paul’s Cathedral.  What Madrid has is Art, in three world-class museums, and in Madrid we looked at Art, with an occasional eyeball-break in the lovely Parque del Buen Retiro.

Here are our experiences with the Big Three (spreading over a couple of posts):

Museo de la Reina Sophia
Reina Sophia focuses on  Spanish modern art with the jewel of the collection being
PIcasso’s  Guernica Pablo-Picassos-Guernica-001.  The museum was having a special exhibit of Dali
which had started two days before our arrival and despite the drizzle the line to get in there was across the plaza  when we arrived at 4:30.  We decided to do the rest of the museum and come  back later for Dali.  We worked our way up in the general admission line, and  discovered gleefully that as seniors we qualified for free admission to  everything but Dali.  W had done her prep and started us on the second floor, but even  then we wore out our feet and our brains before we got to Guernica.  

Two days later we came back to the Reina Sophia for a second go-around.  This time we let ourselves drown in the overwhelming torrents of Dali and Picasso. These had never been my favorite painters, but after learning of the background against which they lived and painted I am more favorably inclined.

I did not know that Guernica had been painted on commission by the republican government of Spain to show at the Spanish pavilion at the 1936 World’s Fair in Paris.  I did not know it  was part of an attempt to win world sympathy for the republicans in the Civil War against Franco. (They got a lot of sympathy, but Franco still won). And I did not know that during World War II Dali had to flee Spain for France, then for the USA. There he became the first performance artist/career celebrity, perfectly reading the needs of the host country, anticipating Paris Hilton and Madonna by a half-century.

After drinking from the fire hydrant of history and art at Reina Sophia, the park was a chance to stretch our legs and our eyes over some longer distances.  There is something very refreshingly basic about a vista that includes a little girl and a pigeon.

Park and Pigeon

Freeway-Free in Spain: People and Public Art

There’s something about a statue, especially if it is reasonably representational, that makes people want to interact with it.  Here are some that we ogled, sat on, cuddled with during our trek in Spain.  Can you identify where we were?
Ware the Plague or the Inquisition - CacerasThe Goddes Ceres - Caceras Storks frozen in bronze - Caceras Pisarro AKA Cortez - Trujillo Paso Doble Dancers - Caceras Native son - Toledo P1000990web On the Pilgrim Road - Burgos Grandparents? Burgos Madrid Icon The Fallen Angel - Park de Buen Retiro, MadridT

Freeway-Free in Spain: Burgos

Burgos CathedralWe had a ladies day in Burgos, with Jen and her five-year-old daughter Lucia having a couple of small shopping errands to do in the  City .  After the errands, Jen led us through the flamboyantly baroque cathedra. The cathedral is such a beautiful building that I forgot that I don’t care for Baroque – they had just finished a mammoth cleaning and restoration project and everything was as bright and gleaming as you might imagine the Pearly Gates to be in your best dreams.

The Crossing - over the grave of El CidThe carved apertures in the domes look like fine lacework, letting the sun shine in on the Crossing where El Cid and his wife Dona Eximee are buried, and on the effigies of the High Constable and his wife in the Constable’s Chapel.

(I remember sweating over the Corneille classic in  high School French IV.  (For those of you who don’t read French, the Charlton Heston/Sophia Loren version was pretty good, too.)Sr. & Sra. High Constable - Castile

We were hungry after and asked a friendly-faced woman passing by if she could recommend a local place for lunch.  She directed us around the corner to La Favorita! The entry was jammed with folks waiting, but thanks to a good-hearted waitress and  Lucia’s soulfully hungry eyes we were soon seated and served with some of the best plates of goodies we have had in Spain so far.  About halfway through Jen’s eyes widened and she pointed out a tall balding man with glasses standing at the bar – “That’s the President of the province of Castile y Leon!”  It was about then that we noticed the Michelin stars on the door.  Despite the trendy crowd and the power clientele, the bill was extremely reasonable- tapas is definitely the way to go in Spain!Lunchtime, La Favorita, Burgos

After some separate R & R time we met the family for chocolate and churros at the local bar/chocolate shop.  “Hot chocolate” here is a thick hot rich goop like a pudding which you eat with a spoon or by dipping the churros into it.  Sinfully good.  Afterward I hiked up to the castle on the hill by myself to catch the sunset.  Very nice in the evening light, but when I turned to look for the mountains toward the north east I saw only a wall of gray moving toward me. By the time I turned for a last look at the valley the snow was already whirling around me in big soft flakes.El Castillo, Aguilar de Campoo

Freeway-free in Spain: The Marvelous Caves of Cantabria

Cueva de la CastillaWhere do you spend a cold, wet day in northern Spain?

How about in a cold wet cave?  We got tickets to see the Museum at the Caves of Alta Mira and had planned to spend the rest of the afternoon strolling around Santilla, billed as “the most charming village in Spain.”  However, no village is charming, or even quaint, on a blustery day with fifty degree temperatures, and we were fascinated by the museum’ artifacts and stories about paleolithic life and how the cave of Alta Mira with its marvelous ceiling paintings was discovered in the late 19th century. The museum  includes a digitally recreated exact replica of the main room of the original caves,  which are currently closed to all but researchers. The digital recreation claims to give you the experience of being in the cave (same dimensions, same temperature, same images on the ceiling, same crick in the neck) but THIS IS NOT SO.

We wanted to explore more, and found out that there are other caves in the area which are still viewable in the original, so off we went to las cuevas del Castilla and nearby Las Monedas. Believe me – the real thing is logarithmically greater than the digital imitation.P1000966web

First, we drove along a twisty one-lane road to the unlikely Visitor’s Center perched on the side of a hill overlooking the mist-filled valley far below.  Then we waited, huddled under one umbrella,  for the guide to return from her lunch and unlock the Visitor’s Center.  We looked over the few postcards and tchotchkes while the guide located the keys to the Cave .  Then  W and I and a handful of other soggy visitors followed the guide to the first Cave, El Castillo.Limestone curtains in Las Monedas

Wow!  the geological formations in the limestone caverns are well worth the twisty drive up the mountain road and the price of admission.  We felt something of the wonder and mystery that the first paleolithic explorer must have felt when he discovered these marvels by torchlight and decided that they must be sacred and secret. Among the limestone cascades and columns the guide pointed out  paleolithic drawings of bison, horses, goats, and dee.  In one spot an upper wall and cieling were covered with  dozens of negative-imprints of hands made by blowing ochre powder through a tube.  Was this some sort of early graffiti, or a sign of a rite of passage  accomplished?  Some of the hands were large, others small and child-like, and all were of the right hand. What did this mean, once upon a time?

The other visitors, deterred by the increasing rain, decamped, but W and I decided to visit a second cave further down the gravel road, Las Monedas.  We had to wait in a cleft in the rock while the guide closed up the first cave and saw the other visitors off.  It was marvelously quiet.  The only sounds were the drips of rain onto the hood of my windbreaker.  The mist was so thick that we could not see the valley below at all.
Trace of Paleo Graffitist - el Castillo

Finally the guide appeared, unbarring the second opening. Then she  led us among marvelous columns and curtains of frozen flowing limestone, spangled with calcite crystals and painted in gold, red, and blue from mineral deposits. We saw a well which once held the skeleton of a trapped cave bear, and a deep crevice in which had been  found mysterious coins from the 15th century, indicating that someone had discovered the cave centuries before it became known in the 19th century, and apparently escaped alive though slightly poorer.

When someone tells you that a movie or a photo exhibit or a museum diorama  is “just like being there” – DON’T BELIEVE THEM!  GO AND SEE!Sign for Cueva de las Monedas

Freeway Free in Spain: Picos de Europa



View from Fuente De

I was apprehensive about the road to el Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa, the high peaks of the Cantabrian Mountains which burst out of the plains about 100 twisty KM from our base at Aguilar de Campoo.  In fact,the road was much better than my imagination had envisioned, parts were beautifully kept, and all had marvelous scenery that made us think we must have teleported to Switzerland or the Italian alps.

We drive through beautiful green valleys carpeted with wild daffodils, dandelions, and other white and yellow flowers.   The pastures are occupied by plump unshorn sheep with their new white lambs, plump silky looking cattle with impressive horns, plump draft horses with new foals either just born or about to be.

We go through spring all over again each time we descend from a pass where winter still shows snow and sere branches, down to the green valleys foaming with blooming peach and wild plum trees. Wisteria vines, roses, and calendulas  bloom in farmyards whose yellow sandstone homes were probably built in the 14th century.

P1000913webAbove the green valleys soar snow covered peaks rising up 3000 meters and more. At the end of our drive is the Fuente De, a cul de sac at the end of the road from which we ride a funicular up 1800 feet to the top of one of the peaks, passing waterfalls on their way down, looking an eagle in the eye as he swoops past, and alternating ooh’s and aah’s with frantic picture taking. At the top of the funicular is a 360 degree view of green valley, snowy peaks, and cascading waterfalls.  An eagle flies beneath my feet on the see-through viewing platform.  Spot the eagle below?

Signs point across the snowfield to a trail which leads down to the valley.  We watch an intrepid bicyclist begin the trail – before long he is carrying his bicycle through the knee-deep snow.  I hope he made it to the bottom.P1000929web

We descend via funicular and return to the town of Potes, which is the tourist center and activity start point for the southwest side of Pico de Europa.  We want to take a hike, but miss any trail markers there might have been, and end up taking only a half hour walk up a slope to a spot shaded by pine trees. We sit on a broken pallet, eat our indifferent apples, and admire the stupendous view.bucolic countryside near Potes

My neice Jen says the joke in the region is that every small village has its Romanesque church, its plaza, and its idiot.  We pass through at least a dozen villages on the way back, each church in its plaza more picturesque than the last.  We don’t spot the idiots, but they were probably picturesque also.

Freeway Hazards – Northern Spain

Your friendly Hertz dealerMy neice warned me about driving in Spain – “be sure to read up on the signs” – but it was not the beautifully paved Spanish autovia that nearly undid us, nor even the ubiquitous round-abouts instead of on and off-ramps. It was my lack of cultural understanding of the German transmission of the Opel we were first assigned. I had no problem with the Ford replacement, after just a little coaching about the differences between current manual transmissions and that of the VW fastback I drove so confidently cross-country several decades ago.

The nice lady at the Hertz rental agency had me drive the replacement in the parking lot after the first car had been towed still smoking to her office, and after watching the car buck just a little, she hinted tactfully, “I think you are trying to start in third gear.” Oh. First gear is where reverse used to be, so I had been avoiding that slot. Once we got that cleared up, it was smooth sailing from then on.

And those roundabouts – no problem. I only found myself going the wrong way around once, and fortunately there was no oncoming traffic at that moment, and I was able to exit quickly. After that incident W made sure to keep her eyes helpfully on the direction signs as we approached each circular intersection rather than on her guide book or the GPS screen.

AguilarDeC mapAnd it was not our fault that we missed the turnoff to my niece’s village. She had told us to exit at the first sign for Aguilar de Campoo, cross a bridge, and we would be almost at her house. We did this, defying the urgent pleas of Griselda the GPS lady to take an earlier exit. Neither my niece nor we could know that the Aguilar de Campoo sign had been knocked down from that earlier exit, so the first signed exit led us not over a broad, well-lighted bridge to the downtown plaza as expected, but over a narrow one-lane bridge into the warehouse dock of the local cookie factory. Not many folk about at 9PM, but finally we located a friendly local who was able to re-direct us.

We got great value from our five-day rental, and most of the time was spent on back roads. In general, though, I’d still opt for trains and buses when possible. I prefer to take my wrong turns up one-way streets on foot.

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