Category Archives: 2017 Spain

Report from Ubeda, Spain, Sunday, May 7, 2017

Leaving Tucson early Sunday morning April 30, I arrived in Madrid early Monday morning May 1 – total travel time about 19 hours but with a 9 hour time change.  Jet-lag always hits me much harder when traveling east, and I really just recovered by Friday.  This trip I tried a different hotel in Madrid, located just on the south side of the La Huerta district where I always spend much of my time.

As I’ve written before, La Huerta is the old central part of Madrid where Cervantes lived after writing Don Quixote, and where Hemingway spent many boozing hours in the late 1920s and late 1930s.  La Huerta’s narrow streets and alleys, which run in every conceivable odd direction, opening here and there on small plazas, are lined with hundreds of tiny tabernas, cervecerias, jamonerias and chocolaterias, practically all of which have outside seating and provide wonderful tapas with wine or beer, or churros with the thick hot chocolate.  I returned to several of my favorite haunts, including a terrific brewery on Plaza Santa Ana (named Naturbier – Hemingway spent so many hours at the cerveceria next door they had a specific table always reserved for him).  Naturbier serves one of the best German beers I ever have tasted, along with the absolute best olives. I spent many an hour early evenings at Taberna Fragua de Vulcano, on the Northwest corner of the same Plaza, where the house wine costs 2 Euros, each glass freely accompanied by different generous tapas, including the most fabulous tuna salad mix with fresh red and green bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and more drenched in olive oil and vinegar.

I spent my several mornings in Madrid getting my phone sim card, checking transport to the south, and wandering the areas around the Plaza Mayor, Gran Via and Atocha. In checking transport by train I found that one must now pass through an airport type screening to board any train in Spain.  Because no baggage is checked (all is carry-on), among things disallowed are knives.  I had brought a favorite folding pocket knife I have used in the past to cut bulk ham and cheese which I regularly buy in Spain. Because I already have booked my last several days in Madrid (which time covers mid-June, the height of tourist season when the best value hotels are booked way in advance), I was able to drop off my knife at that hotel to be held for pickup when I return in 6 weeks.  The owner recognized and remembered me from my last stay exactly 5 years ago – he seemed pleased to see me so I don’t think the long memory resulted from any past indiscretions.

On Thursday the 4th I headed by Metro to the South Bus Terminal and boarded the bus south to Ubeda.  The highway passes through the arid region La Mancha, where ridges often are topped with groups of ancient, black-capped, white windmills.  I could almost see Rozinante, lathered and snorting, galloping in the distance with Quixote astride, lance leveled and face intense under his inverted wash-basin.

Ubeda, together with Baeza just 6 miles away, lies in the small District of Jaen, the olive capital of the world. International merchants are descending on the Jaen District this coming week for its annual trade festival of olive oil, and so no hotel rooms are available now in Jaen.  The several hundred thousand olive trees which cover the district (and much of Andalucia) all are producing copious amounts of pollen right now, and I had to purchase some expensive eye-drops from the local pharmacist to control the incredible itching and congestion.

I did not come to Ubeda for the olives – I came because the Old Towns of Ubeda and Baeza are World Heritage Sites, ancient walled cities with the best Spanish Renaissance architecture in the country.  Several families from the two towns served as top scribes and courtiers to the Spanish Monarchy in the early to mid-16th century, becoming fabulously wealthy, and had palaces and churches built in the Italian Renaissance style.  In particular, the Sacra Capilla del Salvador was constructed as a chapel-tomb for the Molina family, and its front and side facades, and almost the entire interior, are considered renaissance masterpieces, as also are the Hospital de Santiago and the Palacio de Molina.  While here I am staying in a delightful boutique hotel in a 17th century building, the Alvaro de Torres, located on a small plaza of the same name in the Old Town.  Pictures of all and more are below.

I ate several of my lunches at the Café Ibiut (learning there that “Ibiut” was the original pre-Roman Iberian name of Ubeda), where the 10 Euro daily set lunch includes multiple choices for a first and second platter, preceded by wine (or other drink) together with a tapa, and followed by a desert or coffee.  Always more than I could eat.  Yesterday I had fresh off-the-stove paella as the first dish, a huge portion of saffron rice cooked with mussels, chicken, fish, and artichoke hearts, followed by tender pork tenderloin and scalloped potatoes as the second dish.  As I had inquired the day before about a large net full of small snails being delivered, saying how much I enjoyed them, the waitress brought me, as a free tapa with my wine, a large steaming bowl of escargots (about 35-40 small snails – dime size) in the tasty broth.  These you learn to eat by popping the snail, shell and all together with a spoonful of the broth, into your mouth to suck all the broth; then with some dexterity of the tongue you usually can extract the snail either by further sucking or by grabbing its front-end with your teeth and pushing the shell away with your tongue.  Where this fails, about a third of the time because the snail is too deep, you use a toothpick to extract the delicacy.  In France and New York one may pay a fortune for escargots – in Portugal and Spain, in season (now through June), escargots are extremely inexpensive and absolutely wonderful.

Well, perhaps enough discussing the enjoyment of culinary and alcoholic delights, though those delights prove really a great way to live through jet-lag. Actually, those delights prove a great way to live.  I will stay one more full day in Ubeda, as I have been taking my time visiting the various sites, and have a couple of museums left on my list.  On Tuesday I travel to the sister town of Baeza for a couple of days to view the Renaissance architecture there.  I could not book a room in Jaen due to the ongoing olive oil festival, so will travel then directly to one of my favorite cities – Cordoba – though I barely was able to book a room there as it is the final weekend of the terrific annual two-week Festival of Cordoba Patios, where all the ancient palatial homes in the Old City open to the public their “patios” showing off the myriad potted flowers which cover the patio walls.  Later.  Dave

Report on Baeza, Cordoba, Sevilla and Merida, Spain, Sun. May 21, 2017

I last reported from Ubeda. From there I traveled 9 kilometers, just over the hill, to its smaller sister town, Baeza; together the two towns share UNESCO World Heritage Site status for their remarkable Italian Renaissance style edifices which dominate the ancient town cores.  As I previously noted, the town nobles through the first half of the 16th century served at the highest levels in the Royal Court of Charles V, who both was Emperor of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor.  The nobles brought wealth and an appreciation of Italian Renaissance architecture, along with architects, to Ubeda and Baeza where a number of impressive buildings and palaces were constructed, along with many additions made to the cathedrals.

In Baeza I stayed in a lovely 3 room apartment directly behind the cathedral, where I enjoyed serving up my own version of jamon Iberico (Iberian cured ham) and cheese sandwiches on fresh baked whole wheat baguettes.  I spent early evenings at the Café Mercantile on the corner of the Plaza Constitucion, enjoying very cheap vino tinto with free tapas, including more caracoles (escargots).

From Baeza I traveled by bus to Cordoba, which in the past I have visited a number of times.  Cordoba in the 9th to 10th century became the western Caliphate of Islam, rivaling Mecca.  During this period it attracted scholars and educators from the three great monotheistic religions, Islamic, Jewish and Christian, and was considered the crossroad of the three cultures, with the largest population in Western Europe of around 250,000.  The mosque, mezquita in Spanish, was built on the site of the earlier Visigoth church, and was continually enlarged to become the third largest mosque in the world.   Its Mihrab arches are covered with mosaics of tiny gold and semi-precious stone cubes, a gift from the Emperor in Constantine.  After the catholic reconquest of Cordoba, the mosque was re-converted into a church, and ultimately an entire cathedral rises upward through the original roof in the middle of the huge mosque.

Cordoba is where I began to run into huge groups of tourists.  As the years pass, more and more of the greatest sites in the world are simply becoming overwhelmed with tourists.  It has become more acute in the last several years as huge numbers of Chinese now have joined the rest of the world in venturing beyond Asia.  There simply are too many people who wish to see the world’s greatest cultural and archaeological sites, and those sites are not enlarging nor reproducing.  I see only one solution.  Those sites with the most pressure will need to limit access, and provide some kind of lottery reservation system – this already has been happening at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and to an extent now in Machu Picchu, Peru and the Taj Mahal in India.  I hit Cordoba at its busiest, but the day I tried to visit the Alcazar (Castle) the line snaked out to the street and down the block.  It was similar at the Mezquita, and later the same in Sevilla at the great Cathedral and Alcazar there.  I finally waited in line in Cordoba and did revisit the Mezquita, but in Sevilla I gave up on the major sites, having on previous trips photographed them at least twice.

In Baeza, Cordoba, Sevilla and now Merida, I have been booking newly built small apartments, which are showing up regularly on the website  These all have been available by the day, and are far larger and superior to the hotel rooms I am accustomed to, including coming with small fully furnished kitchens, washing machines and more – and the prices have been equal to or less than the hotel rooms (averaging around $75 per day).  Most don’t have any type of reception, and so one needs to call or email in advance to arrange to pick up the keys and pay the tab.  I have spoken with some of the owners, and they seem to agree this is a new trend coming after the real estate bubble burst in Spain some years ago.  It is certainly a pleasant experience for me.

My mode of travel has been mixed; I traveled to Ubeda, Baeza and Cordoba by bus.  From Cordoba to Sevilla I traveled by train, generally a little more expensive, but often far more comfortable and sometimes faster.  From Sevilla to Merida I traveled again by bus as there is rare train service, but today go north to Caceres by train.

Merida, as I have reported in prior trips, was the first and major Roman city established in the Iberian Peninsula, officially designated the capital of Lusitania in 25BC by Augustus Emeritus (Emeritus morphing into today’s name of Merida).  It contains the best Roman structures, ruins and museum pieces in this part of Europe, and rivals most other sites.  Especially a masterpiece is the Roman Theater, one of the best preserved in the world, built in 25BC, beside which sits the Amphitheater built a few years later for the gladiator sports.  Also always impressive are the remaining sections of the 8-storey tall Roman aqueduct arches, the tops of which serve as the nesting sites for White Storks.  Merida contains the only hippodrome (chariot racing arena) in Spain, and the longest Roman Bridge which crosses the Rio Guadiana.  Merida also contains remains of the great Visigoth culture which supplanted the Romans around the 4th century AD and continued until arrival of the Moors in the 8th century.

I previously have written extensively on Cordoba, Sevilla and Merida in my travelogues of 2003, 2006 and 2010, and so pass over much detail on the sights now.  I will, though, take time to complain about the continuing disappearance of many old classic tabernas and restaurants that I had critiqued in prior trips – one here in Merida, a lunch-time favorite, was an almost snobby old tavern with an upstairs restaurant, with maître de, wood paneling and tables covered with white linen, all sitting over the arches on the Plaza de Espania, across from the Alcazaba (fortress), now gone.  In its place, occupying both floors, sits the white and chrome newly decked out two-story Burger King – it makes me want to cry.

Today I travel the short distance by train north to Caceres, the city of the Conquistadores, where most of the palaces still stand inside the walled city.


Report on Caceres, Trujillo and Salamanca, Spain, May 30, 2017

I last reported from Merida, one of the great ancient Roman cities of Spain with the best preserved structures.  From Merida last Sunday I traveled north to Caceres in Extremadura, the region which was home to most of the best known Conquistadores of the New World.  Caceres preserves what is known as the Monumental City, the “old town” still completely walled, and infused with towers and palaces, parapets, spires and family shields on almost every building. Most buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and display the splendors of construction made possible by the wealth brought home by the conquistadors.

I spent one day traveling the short distance east to Trujillo, a smaller sister city which, in addition to incorporating an old walled city as in Caceres, also contains the older fortress originally built by the Romans, but completely re-built by the Moors during their brief period in control of the region in the 9th and 10th Centuries.  Trujillo was home to the two greatest South American Conquistador families, the Pizarros (4 brothers who conquered the Incas) and Orellana (first European to venture up the Amazon). I have, on previous trips, discussed much detail on the various structures and history of the two towns, and will not now repeat that.

From Caceres I traveled further north to my favorite town, perhaps in the entire world – Salamanca.  I first came here for a couple of months in 2003 as I was trying to internalize Spanish – actually Castilian, as Spain recognizes 4 different co-official languages nationally, which include Basque, which bears no relationship whatsoever to the other 3 Romance languages – Catalan, Galician and Castilian.  I have been back a number of times and always love the place.  Again, I will not dwell on all the history and incredible structures, but suffice it to say that the large walled Salamanca Old City is filled with Romanesque, Gothic, Plateresque Renaissance, and Baroque masterpieces of architecture and interior decorations, to accompany one of the greatest of old Roman bridges and one of the four great medieval universities of the world, with the oldest library in Europe.  The Old Town still is home to a great university with its 10’s of thousands of university students who party all and every weekend.  Through the years of coming here I have always been woken at sunup on Sunday mornings by the loud singing of groups of drunks, returning home from their all-Saturday-night revelry. I love this place.

I have once more a great value hotel room, a huge modern space with balcony and fridge, right off the Plaza Mayor, for about 80 Euros per day. The ancient alleys and streets of the Old City are simply filled with many of Spain’s great Tapas Bars, Cafes and Jamonerias, all with outdoor tables filling the narrow passageways.   A handful of my customary tavern hangouts have changed hands, but my three old-time favorites all are still in place and still popular, the Meson Las Conchas, the Ruta de la Plata (used to be called Patio Chico) and the El Ave.  Las Conchas was the first tapas bar I was introduced to in Spain back in 2003; it is very traditional, and always has a selection of about 45 different tapas on display, constantly rotating.  A wine, or beer, and tapa costs about E2.50.  Three to four rounds is quite filling.  Many locals order their wine or beer mixed half with sparkling water, thus making a terrific meal without getting drunk.  Ruta de la Plata has forever perfected the open, huge, wood-fired grill, which specializes in ribs, lomo and pancetta, all grilled to crackling perfection, which can be enjoyed as tapas or large serving platters as raciones.

Weather, for all but one day in Caceres and every day until today here in Salamanca, has basically been white overcast – rather unimpressive for photos.  I did want to re-enact one old custom from my 2003 and 2006 trips; Back then I initially was overwhelmed by the excellent jamon Iberico bellota (the dry-cured ham from the ancient special breed of black Iberian hogs, which are raised in open oak woodland on wild acorns), considered the best – and the most expensive – ham in the world, along with the famous manchego cheese (hard, medium strong flavored sheep milk Spanish cheese), and baguettes integral (freshly baked whole grain crispy baguettes) – these three ingredients combined make the world’s best sandwich – especially when combined  with a bottle of Spanish red wine from the Duero River Valley.  With these four delicacies in my daypack, quite cheaply acquired from the local Jamonerias, I instituted private picnics on weekends in the tall grasses along the south banks of the Rio Tormes, where there were a number of hidden coves in sight of portions of the Roman Bridge, surrounded by huge cottonwood trees, and backed by a field of Spring wildflowers.  I have very fond memories.  How unfortunate now to find this entire stretch of the bank of the Rio Tormes gone – where once were the trees and low banks now is just wide shallow river, although the flower covered field still exists.  Apparently, within the last 5 years or so, the river flooded and came around the bend and just completely washed out the area, including trees.  Well, I am looking for a new spot further down the river.

I have made reservations next to travel north tomorrow by train to the Asturias and Cantabria region, which faces the Atlantic Ocean gulf between France and Spain, to a small village called Puente Viesgo.  Close by the village are the Cuevas Monte Castillo, which caves contain the oldest cave paintings in Europe, and together with a recently discovered Indonesian cave contain the oldest known paintings in the world (dated to 40,000 years ago, almost 10,000 years older than the better known paintings of the nearby Altamira Cave and France’s Lascaux Cave).  Well, so long for now.  Dave

Report on Puente Viesgo, San Sabastian, Zaragoza and Madrid, Spain, June 11, 2017

I last reported from Salamanca, where I spent 6 days eating and drinking too much.  I traveled by train on Wednesday north through Valladolid, and then on to Santander on the northern Atlantic coast.  From there I took a local bus the short distance south into the mountains to the tiny hamlet of Puente Viesgo.  It is a well-known town by Spanish for thermal and cold baths, spas and beautiful scenery.  For me it boasts the Monte Castillo Caves, two of which may be visited for their Paleolithic art.

The cave entrances are ringed around the upper part of a very unusual pyramid shaped mountain which climbs up from the beautiful valley and small running river below.  The largest cave, El Castillo, contains a huge entrance chamber which had a large opening facing east overlooking the valley. The chamber had been occupied by Neanderthal and then early humans for 10’s of thousands of years.   Inside the chamber archaeologists have been excavating for years, and now are working down into their 25th strata, dating back to 140,000 years ago.  They have unearthed a large number of engraved bones and all forms of habitation evidence.  Standing at the top at what was the current age level in the chamber, one can see the orange markers about 30 feet below where the strata layers were dated to 40,000 years ago, marking the passing of the Neanderthal phase and start of the modern humans in the cave.

Passing beyond the entrance chamber, one climbs through a newly man-made opening and enters multiple chambers with no natural light, which are filled with every form of stalactite and stalagmite, with stone columns and stone waterfalls of many different colors.  In some of the most inaccessible places the paintings exist, consisting of outlines of various animals, including reindeer, horses and bison.  Very often these utilize convex patterns in the rock walls along with cracks or natural lines, which give the animals three dimensional raised engraving appearances.  Mostly red paint from iron oxide was used, along with some yellow and also charcoal black.  The charcoal could be directly dated with carbon 14 dating, but the iron oxide could not – these older paintings were dated by dating the calcium carbonate lime build ups over portions of the paintings, giving the paintings dates of “at least as old as”.

The animal imagery all is 12,000 to 28,000 years old.  The really old images are all iron oxide paint, most apparently sprayed onto the walls by blowing the wet colored powder through straws.  The most common items are negative hands, where someone would place their hand onto the wall, and then the paint was blown onto the hand leaving a large red disk with the hand imaged negatively in the middle.  The hands are of various sizes and with slightly different shapes, but most appear to be the left hand.  One wall contains almost 60 of these images.  Another long passage way is marked for about 40 feet along one wall at shoulder height with a series of a couple of hundred red disks, smaller than the ones with the negative hands.  These negative hands and the disk lines are dated back to “at least” 40,800 years ago, this being the oldest dated paintings in the world (some recent discovery in an Indonesian cave also dates some paintings to 40,000 years ago).  Fascinating to see.  Upsetting that the Cantabrian Regional Government has banned photos, apparently solely so they can market their “official” photos.  This is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the cultural highlights are deemed to belong to all humanity, not owned by the local government.  Oh Well!

The weather had gotten worse, from mostly overcast in Salamanca, to heavy dark overcast much of the time in the mountains.  I traveled from Puerto Viesgo on the 31st of May to Santander and from there on to San Sebastian, the major Basque town – for two days I had off and on rainfall and black overcast.  Not so pleasant.  Even trying to bar hop for the world famous pinxos (Basque artistic versions of tapas) was somewhat out of the question with the heavy winds howling in from the sea, blowing the fine rain perpendicular to the ground.  I did spend several enjoyable hours visiting the famous aquarium on the northern marinas.  From San Sebastian I traveled by train to Zaragoza, my first visit to the capital of the old Kingdom of Aragon.

After one full day of heavy rain, the weather finally cleared for beautiful blue skies and cool weather.  Zaragoza was an ancient Roman city, founded as Caesar Augusta, from which the modern name derives.  Under the old part of the modern city, in the last 40 years, archaeologists have excavated parts of the four major edifices of the Roman city, the Forum and Market, the Theater, the Baths and the River Port Warehouse.  These four now constitute a series of 4 underground museums – very interesting.  Zaragoza also is home to the Basilica del Pilar, a magnificent Baroque church with a huge central dome, 4 massive corner towers and around 8 colorful tiled smaller domes.  From the stone bridge crossing the Rio Ebro it is an impressive site in the morning sunlight.  The Moors also left their mark, most famously in their old palace now called the Aljaferia, since enlarged by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.  It is described as the best Islamic architecture outside of Al-Andalus in the south.

On the 8th I boarded my final train, this time the “El AVE” series train, from the massive Zaragoza station back to Madrid.  El ave literally translates as “the bird”, but the name is actually a play on the word, as it is the acronym for “Alta Velocidad Espanol” or “Spanish High Speed”.  The El AVE trains ply a new gauge of tracks between the largest cities, and are very fast by comparison to US transport.  Whereas the regular intercity trains run up to 150km/hr. (almost 95mph), and the intermediate Alvia trains, which can run on the new and older tracks are much faster at up to 250km/hr. (155mph), the AVE trains run up to 310km/hr. (193mph), but cost considerably more for the usually relatively short distances.  Still, it is quite an experience to watch the countryside pass outside the window – the speed of perspective change, even miles away, is unreal it is so fast, something akin to the couple of seconds just as a jet is lifting off the runway.

In Madrid again, without jetlag this time, I am taking it easy and revisiting some of my favorite museums.  The Museum of Archaeology has been closed throughout my last two trips to Spain for renovations (it took years), and now is opened again.  It is a wonderful museum with many of the greatest national treasures, from the earliest homo genus occupations of the great cave systems of the north, through the early Phoenician cities, the great Roman-Carthage battles and Roman settlements, on through the Visigoths, Moors and into the early middle-ages.  Of most interest to me were the exhibits of objects from the Monte Castillo cave system I visited in Puente Viesgo, presumed Neanderthal prior to 40,000 years ago, and modern human thereafter; these objects include the famous collection of incised animal drawings made on deer scapular bones (the shoulder blades), which provided a relatively planar medium.  These are referred to as the first examples of “portable” human art – over a dozen were discovered in the cave, all at the same age level of about 17,000 years ago (see photo).  Also of interest were the large number of sculptures, mostly life-sized, of apparently deified women found among various Iberian grave-goods from the 5th to 3rd centuries BC (post-Phoenician, pre-Roman), as well as the treasure hoards of the Visigoth Kingdom (post Roman).

I also revisited the Thyssen Museum, one of the three great art museums of Madrid (and the world) which also include the del Prado (perhaps the world’s best art collection) and the Reina Sofia modern art museum.  The Prado and Reina Sofia collections contain great depth in that for many of the world’s foremost painters the museums contain multiple adjacent rooms filled with just the works of each artist, such as Bosch, Rubens, Velazquez, Goya or Picasso. In contrast, the Thyssen, perhaps my favorite, contains a collection of unbelievable breadth – it contains examples of practically every famous painter in an immense collection, covering over 700 years starting around 1300 with mostly religious paintings on wood, through all the classical transformations and onto impressionism, surrealism, modern and pop art.  It even has an entire room of just American art.  All is arranged chronologically so one over hours can meander through the entire history of Western Art, seeing the famous examples of practically every famous painter whose name one can recognize.  I have read that this probably is the finest private collection ever made, and now is owned by the Government of Spain.  At the end of the attached photo collection I have included 19 photos of some of my favorites from the Thyssen Museum, in chronological order, creating a quick romp through the history of some of the finest paintings from 1300 through to the end of the 20th century, skipping the 18th century as that is more properly viewed in the Prado Museum, and heavily weighted to 19th and 20th century (more modern styles – impressionist, cubist, modern and even pop).  As some of you know, I have little expertise in fine art, but do have a great many prejudices anyway – my favorites tend to the early and classical greats, with the evolution of painting from 1300 through the early 19th century, but this museum makes it fun to pass through what I consider the following devolution of art after about 1870.  The masters include Mates, Ghirlandaeo, Cranach, Holbein the Younger, Rubens, Brueghel the Elder, Honthorst, Rembrandt, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin, Matisse, Cezanne, Hopper, Picasso, Dali, Pollack and Licktenstein.

This is the end of my trip as I return to the US this Wednesday, for the long flight back.  Until later.  Dave