It is an odd feeling, for me, to be flying transatlantic with an actual, paid ticket. So much of my travel is standby that I made it a point to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. Everything went smoothly until my brother and I landed in Madrid and began our hotel search. None of the owners spoke English. Weird. I'd figured a country that had been the destination of pilgrims and tourists for nearly a 1000 years would have a more multilingual hotel industry. Oh well, I was glad I brought a Spanish phrase book!
The first day featured an abbreviated sightseeing schedule -- a little walking around Madrid and the Royal Palace. Layered thickly in room after room of the palace was giltwork, carvings, paintings, chandeliers and absolute luxury. I was glad we took a guided tour (a rarity for me). Otherwise, we would have missed distinctive features of the rooms as it was easy to get numbed by the richness.
A major disappointment was the noisiness of our hotel room that night. Our window looked out on a nightclub which was obviously THE place to be that evening. I'd heard that Madrid night life goes on and on till morning. It did. Never was I so glad to have brought earplugs (even an extra pair for Brian). Shouting, horns honking, music blaring -- it was insufferable. It was still going on when we left that morning for our day trip to Toledo.
The medieval city of Toledo is tucked into a bend in the Tagus River, high on a bluff overlooking the countryside. Its walls shone pale orange in the slanting morning sun as we crossed the footbridge over a gorge into the city. The streets wound back and forth, climbing or descending steeply. We made our way to the main plaza, then veered off to the cathedral. It was an awesome spectacle inside. The domed roof was artfully pierced so shafts of light struck bright color from ceiling frescoes. Gold glimmered dustily on statues, crosses, ornamental carvings, chalices -- you name it.
From there, we wandered towards the Alcazar, which is Spanish for castle. This particular alcazar is more modern fort than anything historical. The building is mostly reconstruction. The only thing worthwhile is the great collection of swords, from 16th century wavy-bladed two-handed swords to corroded green bronze ones from 500 B.C. and before. We followed the visit with lunch outdoors in the main plaza. Then we wandered around Toledo a bit, checking out the thick, bastioned medieval gates, the walls, a former mosque now a church and the racks and racks of famous Toledo swords for sale in the shops. I resisted the temptation to add another one to my apartment walls.
The next day we took the morning train to Segovia. An icy breeze greeted us as we steeped off, but it soon warmed up into a third gorgeous day. We bought a walking guidebook to the city and began at the cathedral. It was not as ornate inside as Toledo's, but more striking outside. We followed the guide's text along the streets toward the castle, stopping where it described interesting churches, facades, and carved, ornamental entrances along the way. The castle itself was impressive with pointy-roofed towers, tall main keep and a commanding view of the surrounding plains. It rises up from the leading edge of the ridge the city is built on like the prow of a ship. Also, inside the castle was an interesting collection of actual medieval and renaissance artillery -- bombards, mortars and such, as well as halberds, swords and armor. We made our way back through town, stopping where the guidebook pointed out the frequent churches, towers and nobles' halls. Many were six or seven centuries old.
After lunch, we made our way to Segovia's star attraction -- the Roman aqueduct. Built nearly 2,000 years ago, this bridgelike structure spans the valley from a nearby hill towards the town. Its arches rise higher and higher as it nears the walls. Its huge, gray stone blocks were joined together without mortar or cement -- and it still stands complete today. As I ran my hand along the ancient stone, my soul stirred. The Romans are my favorites from History. This had been built by them, their legions had marched alongside it, and here I was, marveling, as I walked beside it. It was like touching History.
After that, it was down the steep hillsides into the plains below the city. We visited a church built by the Knights Templar -- warriors from the Crusades who were also monks. It was a strange, 12-sided building with another tiny, two-storey structure in its interior. We also poked through a nearby monastery, another church, and finally, I climbed a hill for an awesome view of the walled city rising up in front of me.
The next morning we took the bullet train to Seville. After finding a room, we walked down to the city center in the steadily rising heat. The Royal Castle was a gorgeous Moorish-style palace. The walls and ceilings were encrusted with intricate carvings of vegetation or abstract patterns. The palace was packed with tourists, as could be expected. We made it a point to put off seeing thenearby cathedral until later in the day to avoid some of the crush. We walked around the city after lunch, taking in a Moorish tower, the river, the bullfighting ring, etc., before finally tackling the cathedral. It is the largest in Europe, with an interior as ornate as we'd come to expect from Spanish cathedrals. As a matter of fact, Brian and I confessed to being a little churched out by this point.
On the way back to our room (in the mid-90 degree heat), we spotted a restaurant/bar advertising NFL football that night. We came back for dinner and watched the first half of Brian's favorite Broncos beating up on the Cowboys. It was a good time, despite not being a Spanish-style evening like Flamenco or a bullfight. My guidebook claims that fewer and fewer Spaniards approve of the sport, and it is becoming tourist dollars that support this cruel spectacle. In addition, since authentic flamenco is spontaneous and doesn't break out till well after midnight, we chose to skip the staged, tourist offerings, too. If I missed some crucial experience here, then I suppose I will have to live without it.
Another train ride took us to Granada, our final city on the trip. I liked Granada quite a bit. On one side, the wooded hill of the Alhambra picturesquely rises, crowned by the massive, walled palace complex the city is known for. Climbing up the other hill is the Albacin -- the old Moorish quarter with its square white houses, twisting streets, laundry fluttering in the breeze and Arab charm. We chose to wander through it first (after getting our room), saving the Alhambra for the less crowed late afternoon. We were also debating which of two hiking excursions we would take tomorrow. We made our decision over an outdoor lunch in a square.
We took the mini-bus up to the Alhambra in the late afternoon. When you buy your ticket, you are given a half hour time slot for the Moorish Palace part of the complex. This is to keep down the crowds in the main attraction. Ours turned out to be for an hour and a half later, so we began our tour with Charles V's Palace, the walls and the dramatic views of the city the towers commanded. All this paled, though, when we entered the Moorish Palace. Picture an intricate, well-decorated wedding cake with multiple swirls and flourishes. Now blow that up to the size of a room, and that is what every chamber looks like. Every inch is carved, patterned or tiled. Walls, windows, floors -- everything. Much like the Royal Castle in Seville, you just tilt back your head and say, Wow!
If the Alhambra was man-made beauty, our destination the next day featured nature's beauty. The Alpujarra region (basically the southern face of the Sierra Nevada mountain range), is known for dramatic hills and valleys, with tiny, white villages clinging to their slopes. We took a bus to the highest of these and spent several hours strolling downhill through the various other villages. Since we were walking along paved road, it was hardly hiking -- but the scenery was excellent. The Arab-type villages were a delight -- many of the square, flat-roofed homes sported flowers beneath windows and decorative ceramic plates embedded in their white stucco. Granada was a fitting climax to our trip, allowing us to sample a far different flavor of Spain from Madrid.
On our final, full day in Spain, I spent several hours shopping for souvenirs in Granada before boarding the train north to Madrid. The cabin window provided a gorgeous view into the heart of the Andalusian region of Spain. Arid plains and hills, olive groves, rocky gorges, abandoned farms -- all flitted silently past. I'd read that this was a poor area, and the crumbling adobe walls and empty homes confirmed that. However, at our stops, entire families turned out to greet or bid goodbye to travelers on our train. Where life was, here, it still beat strongly.
I was able to reflect on the trip during the uneventful flight home. First, Spain had simply the best weather I had ever encountered. Every day was sunny and in the 80's (except Seville's 90-plus frying). I think we saw a total of five hours of clouds the entire week. With its historical sights, Spain had fulfilled my expectations. The people were friendly, for the most part, and I began to understand why travelers have come here for a 1000 years.