Category Archives: Once upon a time in Spain

my travels and unravels on Iberian realms

This Obsession of Labeling

There was this Woody Allen movie I once saw – Vicky Cristina Barcelona – where at some point, Scarlett Johansson’s character gets The Question popped after she confesses to her friend that she´s living with her lover and his girlfriend and she´s pretty okay with it. So the friend asks her something like “so what, you´re lesbian now? Or bisexual?”. And the answer is memorable – and not just because I remember it now for the sake of my latest blog entry – : “you know what? Why should I have to put a label on it? I don´t know what I am. And I don´t really care for naming it. I just know I´m happy and for now it just works out for me just like that” or something along these lines.

No, I´m not trying to get into a heated discussion on that topic. The point I´m trying to make is that ever so often I feel it´s just a sad little world we live in (by the  by, some food for soul: “what if our whole existence is some forgotten C-graded school science project gathering dust on the upper shelf in some alien kid´s room in another galaxy?”. A science blogger was asking himself that and I keep thinking of it whenever I just want to move to the Moon, hopefully, while it´s still unpopulated.) if people keep trying to put names on stuff and label experiences and thus necessarily corset any human possibility within the confined space of limits. I hate that word and everything it implies. Put a limit to thinking, put a label on what people are or are not and you´ve got a pretty full stop for just about anything.

Most recently, I get to be disappointed verging on furious when so many Spaniards who want to learn foreign languages (mostly English) because they suddenly realized they need to go out in an unfairly English-favoring world start by labeling themselves – “how would you assess your English level?” ; “a B1+”, comes the mind-blowing answer. As a teacher, I am always going and waiting, with this general question, for something less self-demanding, like: “I am pretty good at reading and writing, I come up short with speaking and listening and I have issues with understanding”, so, of course, my follow-up questions are around these lines. Then they label me, because “no matter how bilingual you may be, you still can´t master the language as a native speaker, and I can figure out from your accent that you are not native” – whatever that means. Most surely, they say that and they realize “my accent” is different only after they find out directly from my most sincere and foolish self that I, well… am not native. I am also not blonde, I am pale rather than fair-skinned, my eyes are black, I am not tall and most importantly, I am not just yet in possession of an American or Commonwealth passport. But I guess that doesn’t help either.

Let me share my limits with you, as well as the labels I supposedly have to carry along. Continue reading

The cities within the city

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View from inside the Alhambra to the Albayzín

Of course I got lost inside Alhambra. I felt overwhelmed from the very beginning, when it took me so long to get there by bus from the center of Granada, and then walk up to what I thought was the top, the palace, only to discover it was only the meeting point for thousands and thousands of tourists who had got up early in the morning to be sure they had a ticket. I got my ticket and braced myself for a big day.

And big a day it was, because I clearly saw why it´s called ciudad palatina, alhambra12a literally palatial city inside the small town that is Granada. Everything is about the inside: while the reddish outside is plain and seemingly austere, this fortress hides palaces and centennial richness, art, colors, and architecture. It´s so beautiful and impressive that I somehow didn´t even want to find out more than exactly what I saw: I didn´t want to know anything about the construction phases, about the meaning of the colors and the orientation of the rooms; not anything more about the history and the sad last centuries of the Moor presence in Andalucía.

I only saw what a marvelous combination is was: thirteen towers for observation and protection – today offering the most beautiful views over Albayzín; the huge complex built on a red hill – nowadays a rich museum that documents all that is left of a whole era of science, culture and civilization.

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Arabesques at home

Some five hundred years ago, it was just a pagan symbol of what was thought to be an unjust and un-Christian rule and occupation, what the Moors left behind when ushered out of Andalucía by the force of will of a Catholic queen. Today, millions of people want to see it each year, wait for weeks and months to get the ticket that allows them to step inside the courts and palaces and enjoy the sun and light and breeze in one of its gardens. Continue reading

Roughly a Year Ago

Memories are what we are: our lives, our moments, our truths, our beloved ones, our friends and our times; the air we breathe, the mountain tops we see, the books we read, the people we meet. I never thought I wanted to forget anything or anybody, be they as bad as they could get, because one way or another, it is all part of my life. Forgetting or pushing anything aside would be like deleting a part of me. I love my memories and every now and then, I enjoy remembering. It helps me think of what I miss or how far I´ve come. penarroya6 penarroya2
For now and this Sunday afternoon, I miss my travels. I miss the discovery feeling, the tiredness and the lack of sleep, the joy of writing of it all, the interviews, the travel mates and the infinite talks we had, the huge amount of life stories I heard… and the happiness.   morella castel2 horta san joan5
Roughly a year ago, I was happy because in little more than three days, I got to visit three different regions and I climbed up to a castle, Continue reading

The Small Box of Everything

There is always one little box in my house (there was one in all the houses I have lived) that I never get to unpack and it just remains stranded in a corner or a cabinet, but always easy to be found and forever open. I had filled a whole box with all the tickets, invitations, train or plane fares, brochures and whatnot when I first came back home from Germany and I am currently filling one up with everything I want to remember from Spain.

I remembered I had this box just the other day, when I came back from yet another soul touching opera show at the Teatro Real de Madrid. It was probably because I missed going to the Opera, but there I was, enjoying Beethoven and a truly gorgeous mise-en-scène (the kind that makes you understand how talent and vision can actually bring a classic opera show into the 21st century) when I realized I had to open the box again, to make room for another ticket. FullSizeRender (1)

It was surely the music and the opera singers, but I almost cried – of happiness, of joy, of that simply delightful feeling that right then and there I really didn’t need anything else, except to listen and enjoy. This is how I came to think of the box again, and this is how I saw that there is so much more than just paper and cardboard in all these boxes of mine.

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I’ve Had Almond Flowers

Yes, I’ve had them for years.  Yes, I knew it all along and yes, I enjoyed them as I should have, just as every year they bloomed in the only almond tree there was on my street. Only I ever stopped and think about it now, because I miss them.

almendro For the last six years, I’ve been living in beautifully sunny Madrid and I feel I am luckier and happier every single day. I still live here, but I can definitely say a whole era has come to its end, and I won’t be having almond flowers in my life anymore. I’ll be having peace and quiet, I’ll be having the sun beating on my shoulder on a beautiful spring afternoon, drowning the screen of my computer in light as I write, and I’d hopefully be having strength and inspiration to remember and put down every single fact I’ve come to know about Madrid. It will always be the place where I literally landed on the almond’s street, where a sole almond tree blooms every year, spreading its branches over and old abandoned garden that mysteriously gathers up groups of tourists on any sunny day.

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Browsing Through Precious Memories: Almuñécar

It was in Almuñécar, over in sunny and warm Andalucía, that some early spring days a couple of years back, I discovered how people in this remote town literally sit on thousands of years of history worth of tradition, captivating stories and rich food. They have actually preserved the remains of a Phoenician dried fish factory, a Roman aqueduct and the statue of the first Moor to ever have set foot on Iberian soil, founding refuge after escaping from the rival clan who had decimated his family in Damascus.

It is this very beach that over centuries, three of the voyager peoples in the world history – Phoenicians, Romans and Moors – considered worthy of their settlement

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Have a Cup of Coffee at Café Iruña

Once upon a sunny day in September a long time ago, in a beautiful German town, and just before I got ready to make my way towards a new beginning, a very dear person from what is now my past told me if I ever got to go to Pamplona, I should drink a cup of coffee at Café Iruña, possibly at the same table Hemingway used to sit. “Imagine you’re drinking it with me”, he said with that certainty of absolute knowledge of the thing that would happen eventually, even though I for one was sure I would never get there. And yet, a couple of years later, way into that new beginning of mine, there I was. pamplona9

The opportunity showed itself and I simply grasped it. I took a round trip by train thinking I could spend a whole day in Pamplona and then get back to Madrid. I used to love travelling alone, because I didn’t have to depend on anyone or even talk to anyone, if I didn’t feel like it. I got there in the morning, and I took a cab down town. It didn’t take me long to find Café Iruña, but before that, I had some fun and I learned something as well. I couldn’t remember the exact name, so I started asking people who seemed to be locals and a couple of policemen where Hemingway’s cafe was.

“Whose coffee house did you say you were looking for?” asked one of the policemen. “̶Oh, you know”, I started, “the well-known coffee-shop where that American writer, He-min-gway used to come”. I spelled it on purpose. I was definitively sure that was why he didn’t get it; who knew how they used to say his name in Spanish. The policeman smiled and asked his partner if he knew any American writer who lived in Pamplona. The other one knew what I was talking about and told me I should be looking for Café Iruña, in Plaza del Castillo. When he gave me the directions, I realized it was actually nearby. On my way, I found the Museum of Pamplona’s Bull Run, and I stopped there. It was all modern and shinny and the guide was very nice, so I decided to take a look before I had that cup of coffee I had promised, at Hemingway’s cafe. The guide talked about him from the very beginning.

“The Festival of San Fermin (Encierro de San Fermín) takes place in Pamplona for the first time in 1922 and ever since has lasted a week in early July (from the 6th to the 14th) every year. But the Festival has earned its spot on the international map thanks to the American writer Ernest Hemingway, who came here in 1923 and enjoyed it so much that he used to say no other carnival in the world can ever set free the kind of feelings, emotions and sensations the runners tried during the race. Despite the videos, the runners don’t actually run from the bulls”, the guide explained, “as much as with them, practically guiding them towards the Plaza de Torros, where the race ends and the climax of the show takes place”. Continue reading

A Spellbound Place in Spain: Where Ancient and Pagan Legends Meet Christian Stories

There’s a place in northern Spain, in the region of Galicia, very close to the remote northernmost corner of the Iberian Peninsula, that even the inhabitants consider one small borough, even though it has officially been granted the township. It was in the Galician borough of Viveiro, founded back in the Iron Age, where I first discovered that on this particular realm Celtic, Roman and Christian legends and myths get along to spell even the most modern of all travellers. It’s actually true what they say: calm waters run deep. Just as all Galician people, the locals don’t talk much, but when they do share some piece of story, a new and intriguing part of a legend or some genuine explanation for a pagan rite, well… you’d better take notes. They won’t say it again, they most certainly won’t admit they made the assumptions and they won’t even reduce anything to writing.

First of all, if you feel audacious enough to start this affair, pay attention: they won’t actually take you by the hand to show you stuff, but on a closer look, you’ll easily see there is no story, piece of tradition, pagan rite or Christian custom that the locals won’t respect with ever more passion in this small town. Viveiro is officially on the map of itineraries also known as Camino do Mar, created by the pilgrims travelling to great lengths of distance to honor Saint James. It’s therefore impossible for the modern traveller passing through this land hidden by the Bay of Biscay Bay and the creek formed by the Atlantic waters not to hear at least one story about the Celts who seemed to have left this particular place to start the conquest of the British Isles, or even some surreal explanation of the origins of the Tower of Hercules, the oldest Roman lighthouse still working and still standing for almost two millenia.

The old quarter of the city seems to be the most beautiful safekeeping window on the Galician coast of the Celtic Sea, because it counts no less than six old gates from the 13th century which are part of a collection of medieval walls from around the town. At least, that’s what the modern historian says, while imperceptibly leading the visitors deep inside the city, on narrow and arduous streets. Therefore, even more surprising are the vestiges of modernity in this fishermen’s town: Viveiro counts luxurious hotels, cinemas and a theater hall, museums and new buildings, a sports center and a music school. Besides, the locals take good care of the annual carnival, pay their respects during religious feasts, and also mount up parties and even a punk music festival.

The voyager must rest assured: Galicia has its place among the seven Celtic realms, alongside Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, The Isle of Man, Ireland and Brittany. People claim the ancient anonymous Lebor Gabála Érenn, the 11th century Book of the Taking of Ireland simply tells the story for everybody to know it: the son of the mythical leader Breogan is said to have looked far into the horizon, to the north, and there saw a realm he decided he had to conquer. As far as the story goes, after his father’s murder, Ith climbed up in Breogan’s Tower and must have seen the same realm again, because he eventually started the invasion, from right there, on Galician shore, to Ireland – Ith’s land. And it’s not just the beautiful legend of the Celts leaving Galicia to conquer the British Isles. More than one historical source seems to confirm it: the ancient inhabitants of these lands called themselves Celts and a medieval German historian apparently figured out the meaning of a funeral inscription that stated that the country was called “Gaeltia” – also spelled as “Caeltia”. Continue reading

In the Basque Country, it’s All About the Stories and the Food

The first time I came to the Basque Country, it was pretty late during my stay in Spain. I had traveled to Valencia and Andalucía, to Catalonia and even remote Galicia before I ever got the chance to visit the first marvelous Basque city. One of the great things about my job back then was that I didn’t have to be a common tourist. I didn’t have to take pictures, make sure I was in those pictures, take long walks with an itinerary at hand and come back to the hotel, exhausted, but with wonderful memories to tell my friends once I went back to the normal routine of life. Nope, I got to visit each of those parts of Spain with a purpose – a professional purpose.

First I was in Bilbao to cover a huge anniversary exhibition honoring a Romanian sculptor at the Guggenheim’s and I discovered a gorgeously clean town, wishing I could go back and live there when I retired; then I came back at an international congress on political communication and mysteriously enough, an enchanted book called “The Basque History of the World” came my way; I was sent to cover the famous film festival in San Sebastian during some wonderfully sunny fall days; more recently, I think I got to understand what it was all (or almost all) about the Basque gastronomy and especially one part of it where it isn’t just that, the food, because Vitoria-Gasteiz also means jazz, history, monuments, marvels and even inspiration for contemporary fiction.

I thought I knew all about the history, the unique ancient language these people talk, their unknown origins and even the radicalism of some political views. Continue reading