A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART III

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Spanish saints of long ago.

[In the summer of 1990, I left the United States for the first time in forty years on an inexpensive two-week tour for older travelers sponsored by the University of New Hampshire. “Inexpensive” was key for me — which explains why the destination was Salamanca, Spain, the hotel had only one star, the food was unhealthy and unexciting, the program had twenty-eight participants (too many) and I agreed to share a room with a stranger. It wasn’t all a disappointment though. R., my luck-of-the-draw roommate, turned out to be terrific. And during that first trip I learned what I liked when traveling and what I didn’t.]

Among my discoveries was that one of the joys of travel can be eating.  This insight did not come from the breakfasts and dinners at the Gran Via included in the program price, which sustained (perhaps over-sustained) life but could hardly be described as “joys.”  However, in our second week of Salamanca togetherness, R. and I broke step with the others for lunch at a “real” restaurant in a part of the city not considered “Old.” There we found that food as we know it did indeed exist in Spain, together with spotless tablecloths, cloth napkins, crystal wine glasses, leather bound menus and a young waitress clad in sleeveless pastel linen eager to practice her charmingly shy but correct English on us  — the daughter of the proprietor, home for the summer from college in the states.  The bill, by our standards, was high. But worth every penny.

After we had paid it, carefully doling out equal numbers of pesos from each of our wallets, came the interesting question of who was to keep the “factura.”  I want to say that like small schoolgirls playing hooky from the tour, we played one potato, two potato or eeny miney moe for it.  But I seem to recall that in fact R. ceded it to me because of the two of us I was the virgin traveler.  Here it is, all fancy-framed and still hanging in my kitchen:

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Souvenir of my first European restaurant meal in forty years.

I see we had wine, salad, perfectly cooked salmon and black coffee. The bread on the bill came, and was charged for, without our ordering it, but neither of us was then savvy enough to send it back when it appeared, not knowing we would have to pay.  Oh well.

Our second hooky experience was more adventurous.  We cut out for a whole day — missing, I think, an educational visit to a convent or two — not specifically for a restaurant meal, but to see the Prado in Madrid. (How could anyone come to Spain for twelve days and not see the Prado?) But it goes without saying  we weren’t going back to Salamanca after the museum without first experiencing gastronomical Madrid.

It was a round trip by train, tickets acquired at the train station by means of R.’s then relatively primitive Spanish.  (She’s far more fluent today.) A woman who taught first grade in a New York City public school wanted to come with us.  Here we are after two or three hours of wandering from Velasquez rooms to Goya rooms to the museum bathrooms. Some people take photographs in museums despite pictograms everywhere showing cameras with big X’s on them, but I was good and didn’t.  So all you get of this wonderful museum, through the kind ministrations of a passerby, is the three of us outside, beneath Velasquez himself:

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NYC public school teacher (left), R. (center), me (right) and Velasquez (on high).

Afterwards, we had a short stroll through a park nearby:

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Madrid. Near the Prado.

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Madrid park.

And then — a Madrid meal!  Bookish ladies, we took a taxi to what  the Frommer guidebook identified as Hemingway’s favorite restaurant and ordered, with reckless disregard for gastrointestinal consequences, what the elderly waiter, who spoke some English, identified as Hemingway’s favorite dinner.  Was he really old enough to know? Was this kitchen lore? Piggyback hearsay?  It was roast pork, with many trimmings. (We were all three ethnically Jewish, but had left observance far behind long before crossing the entryway.) It was heavy on the plate, heavy on the fork and later heavy on the stomach, especially in the Spanish heat.  Also very very expensive.  Maybe they got away with charging extra because of the Hemingway benediction? But it was a cozy little place, and fun while we chose and chewed, and I’d probably go again if I were still there, If only to try to find my own favorite dinner on the  menu.

As I acknowledged in the first of these three posts, the Hotel Gran Via — despite its single star (not to be confused with a Michelin star) — did try.  One night, they even provided musical entertainment to enhance their tasteless and boring dinner.  I tend to disfavor non-spontaneous simulations of native culture, trimmed and flavored for tourists.  But then I thought: the musicians were at least working, which might not have been the case for them every day.  And many of our program’s twenty-eight participants seemed to enjoy the hokey performance.  So who was I to carp? I took a picture instead:

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After-dinner song at the Gran Via: employed musicians, gratified patrons.

Another afternoon we were taken to a sort of bullfight, with paella afterwards. I say “sort of” bullfight because this bull had had much experience, which is not supposed to happen, and had been trotted out and put through some paces for our benefit.  Neither matador not bull died at the end, and no one was even injured.  (There were no picadors.)

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Showing tourists how the cape stuff is done.

But the paella was pretty good.  Not quite as good as one Bill and I ate in Barcelona twelve or thirteen years later, but maybe third most memorable meal of the trip, so I’m not complaining.

Another discovery was how much I disliked being endlessly bused from place to place to cover all the “must see” historic artifacts and “must see” cathedrals in the area, with too-long stops on dusty highways for impromptu lectures and photo ops. The lectures could have been delivered on the bus, if it had been equipped with sound equipment.  And souvenir books contain better pictures, taken by professional photographers, than you can ever take yourself.

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“Professor Nena” lecturing about aqueduct with great seriousness during bus stop on way to Segovia cathedral. Lecture was followed by photo op.

I also became depressed by all the unrelieved religious suffering depicted in Spanish art.

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Excruciating suffering in Segovia cathedral. Note the skulls below the crucified Christ.

I preferred Segovia’s window boxes:

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Cheering view from the bus.

Sitting in Segovia’s Plaza Major, where we ate lunch-time sandwiches, was also a pleasant experience: we watched whoever walked by while waiting for more busing. We were going on to Alcazar, summer palace for Ferdinand and Isabella.

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Alcazar: the royal summer palace. It’s above the plain, so presumably somewhat cooler than below. But it wasn’t really cool inside, believe me, despite the thick stone walls. And we weren’t wearing layers of fifteenth-century royal trappings!

What I really wanted to see was how life was being lived in 1990 by people still alive. Which is probably why I took this picture on our next day’s busing to the province’s largest city:

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You can see where my mind was at.

But by the time we got through the Sculpture museum in Vallodolid, and hurried past the Palacio de Justicia (which would have been interesting to me, but no dice), it began to rain.  So this is all I can show you of Vallodolid cathedral.  Does it look much different than other cathedrals of the period?  I am not the one to ask.

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Vallodolid cathedral in the rain.

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Vallodolid’s Plaza Major. Same (unanticipated) rain as above. We didn’t have umbrellas.

Here’s a happy picture.  On the next day’s bus trip, to Avila, our pit stop for toilet needs was (oh joy!) an up-to-date modern bathroom.  You can see that R., like me, thought it a welcome event.  At last!

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What a great john!

Our destination that day was the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila:

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Inside the cloisters of the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila.

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Leaving the St. Thomas monastery.

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Edible souvenirs of Avila’s Santa Teresa. I didn’t buy any.

When we reached the Avila cathedral, I was cathedral-ed out.  But I couldn’t resist these three near the door:

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Detail: Avila Cathedral.

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A photo op of something outside Avila. I photographed the photographers. Oh, there is R. in the purple t-shirt, tirelessly taking pictures. I wonder if she still has them, and if so, whether she ever looks at them.

Our last bus trip was to:

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Graffiti even here, in Spain. How did they manage to spray paint so high?

First stop: the Hostal de San Marcos, Leon. This is the most luxurious of all the stops for religious pilgrims. We weren’t supposed to photograph the interior, but this time I was not a well-behaved tourist:

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Illicit shot of interior of Hostal de San Marcos, Leon.

And then it was back to Salamanca for our farewell dinner at the Gran Via.  They tried to make it festive.  We actually had fresh oranges for dessert.  Here is Pedro — yes, I finally found his picture! — peeling an orange decoratively:

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Pedro — waiter, maitre d’, général factotum. He did his best. We tipped him generously. I’m glad I found his picture after all.

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But of all the photographs of this first trip [and I’ve spared you more than half of them], the ones I still like best — together with the two from behind the village of La Alberca in the last post — are these, taken in front of Avila cathedral.  I couldn’t decide which I preferred, so I enlarged and framed them both. They hang over the upright piano in our small dining room where I can look at them every evening while we have supper.  The children so intent on their game and oblivious to the foreign lady with the little camera are now adults in their thirties.  But in my awkward pictures they remain forever at play with a ball, caught in a moment before they grow up and raise their eyes to the saints above them.

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Avila cathedral, 1990.

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Avila Cathedral, 1990.

Well, what’s past is past. Time to put the album away and get going with making dinner.

A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART II

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University of Salamanca. August 1990.

[The story thus far:  In the summer of 1990, I left the United States for the first time in forty years on an inexpensive two-week tour for older travelers sponsored by the University of New Hampshire. “Inexpensive” was key for me — which explains why the destination was Salamanca, Spain, the hotel had only one star, the food was unhealthy and unexciting, the program had twenty-eight participants (too many) and I agreed to share a room with a stranger. It wasn’t all a disappointment though. R., my luck-of-the-draw roommate, turned out to be terrific. And during that first trip I learned what I liked when traveling and what I didn’t. The pictures that follow are not good. They were taken by an extremely inexperienced photographer (me) with a small automatic camera on film that passed through customs x-rays twice, albeit in a lead-lined bag, and then was developed without instruction by sending it out through a drug store back home.  I couldn’t crop, brighten, or edit. So what you see is what I got.  But for me, anyway, these prints certainly bring the trip back.  Which, aesthetics aside, is what vacation pictures are supposed to do, no?]

Because a university had sponsored the trip, there was necessarily an educational component to this vacation, which I could have done without. After all, I had already had twenty-two years of schooling, not counting nursery school and kindergarten. Nevertheless, for the first three or four days our mornings began after breakfast in a classroom: teacher, blackboard, pointer, the works.  Here is “Professor Nena Lucas, N.A.” telling us what she and the colegio for which she worked thought we ought to know before we actually saw anything.  Her English was reasonably fluent but heavily accented.  She was twenty-six, married with two small children, and earning summer money to finish her doctorate.  She was dedicated to her job with us:

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“Professor Nena Lucas, N.A.”, map of Spain, and back of elderly American  heads.

I liked her.  I really did.  She worked so hard. But you can tell from the picture I took that I sat in the rear of the room.  You also can tell from the blur what an amateur photographer I was. Anyway. Salamanca is the capital of the Province of Salamanca in the Community of Castile and Leon [in northwestern Spain].  Its Old City was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1988. It is the second most populated area in Castile and Leon after Vallodolid, and ahead of Leon and Burgos.  16% of Spain’s market for Spanish language study is here.  It has lots of iglesias (cathedrals and churches), conventos (convents) and a Roman bridge of which fifteen arches date from the first century B.C.  That’s the kind of information Professor Nena was there to provide. She also offered a brief overview of Spanish history  — tactfully omitting Franco, under whose regime she must have grown up —  Spanish economics, art and literature.  I confess I remember none of it and just now paraphrased Wikipedia to give you an idea of what our first few mornings on the tour were like.

Some of us were more interested….

Some of us were more interested….

…than others.

…than others.

I counted four unattached men among the twenty-eight participants. It later turned out one of them had brought his girlfriend along so he was already part of a couple. There were also perhaps five married couples, of assorted ages but all over fifty. That left about eleven unattached women — nine if you subtract R. and me.  Of the three “available” men, the one in the picture on the left worked in a monastery as a lay clerk and was with us for the religious experience, and also to improve his Spanish. Another (face hidden in picture on right) had gone on every tour the University of New Hampshire ever offered and was still unattached, which might tell you something.  Then there was W., also on the right, checking me out instead of paying attention to Professor Nena.  Boy, was he busy during his twelve tour days fending off attention from women, visibly playing them off against each other and loving it. Conclusion: Do not sign up for older-traveler tours to meet men!  Mr. Right — or even Mr. Acceptable — generally doesn’t go for this kind of thing alone.

After the lectures, we were free to roam.  There was the bridge, the two main cathedrals — old and new — and the University to see. [Shot of University at top of post.] That University, which dates from 1136, is the oldest in Spain, the fourth oldest in Europe and remains an important center of learning. A few parting words, though, about the “educational” component of non-specialized tours. (I exempt specialized programs specifically focussed on architecture, or horticulture, or Great Homes of England, or like that.)  Even before the Internet, we could have found everything Professor Nena had to say in a guide to travel in Spain, and I wish the program had provided recommended preliminary reading for those who signed up and cut the “colegio” hours.  It would have left more time for looking, which is what most of us, except perhaps the monastery guy, had come to do. There’s also a lot of dead time on buses — perfect for little refresher courses on whatever we might be going to see that day.

Below is what almost all architecture in the Old City looks like to the uneducated eye.  I’m sure there are important architectural differences between buildings erected in different long-ago centuries, but I couldn’t tell you what they are and I’m sure no one else on the tour could, either.)

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One of the two major cathedrals. The newer one, I think. But don’t bet on it.

Note that one of the real difficulties in capturing an entire significant building on an automatic camera is the inability to adjust for size.  Unless I was very far away, I had to do tops, or bottoms, or a detail. (Details were usually of saints.)  Hence you get only a piece of cathedral here, and only a small piece of the university up at the top of the post.  On the other hand, the university courtyard  — with R., the American tourist in the middle of the picture, rolled-up souvenir between her white-sneakered feet — came out much better.

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Courtyard of University of Salamanca, 1990.

The camera also worked well for city scenes:

Watching the world go by.

Watching the world go by.

Tight squeeze.

Tight squeeze.

Delinquent (?) youth.

Delinquent  youth.

Lacemaker.

Lacemaker.

Self explanatory.

Self explanatory.

Street market.

Street market.

And then we hit the road. August 15 is some sort of local religious holiday in a tiny village called La Alberca. You can reach it from Salamanca in about an hour by bus.

The countryside is not scenic.

The countryside is not scenic.

There’s a pageant, with traditional costumes, and people who’ve come from all around the vicinity to see the show.

August 15 festival procession at La Alberca.

Trying to get a good view at the August 15 festival procession.  La Alberca, Spain.

The children were more interested in playing behind the scenes.

The children were less interested in the procession’s religious significance.

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I can’t explain what all this means. No one explained it to us. It was colorful, though.

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Villagers after participating in the procession.

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Are you taking my picture, lady?

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Woof. It’s hot.

But the part of La Alberca I liked best was in the countryside just behind the village.  Before the bus left to take us on to Miranda del Castenar (another village), I walked back there by myself. After the tumult of the procession and its spectators, it was so peaceful, quiet and green I could have sat down beneath the trees and stayed and stayed….

Instead, I took these two photographs, which are still in my bedroom, twenty-four years later, enlarged and framed:

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Behind La Alberca. August 15, 1990.

Behind La Alberca. August 15, 1990.

Behind La Alberca. August 15, 1990.

Miranda del Castenar is a village from another time.  (Although people still live there, and have cars — which spoil the view.) I’m a sucker for places like this.  It has too many steps without railings for me to think of ever, in my real life, living there. Or anywhere like it. But I do love the idea of life in an earlier, simpler time.  I know, I know: a time when life was, as Hobbes famously said, “nasty, brutal and short.” But isn’t travel a form of fantasy?  We can never know what it’s really like to live anywhere, unless we move there ourselves.  And even then, we’re “the others.” So let me have “my” Miranda del Castenar — stage set for a daydream about long ago.

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Stone steps. Miranda del Castenar, Spain.

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Miranda del Castenar, Spain.

But you must be tired by now. That was a lot of sight-seeing for one time. I’m tired too.  (I’m not so deft at uploading photos and inserting them where I want them in a post.) So I think I’ll call it a day and try to finish up next time.  Or the next two times. ( I do tend to run on.)

[To be continued]