Category Archives: 2019 Italy Spain

Travel Report on Southern Italy – Rome – Lecce – Bari – Matera, Mar. 30, 2019

Gastronomically, Italy compares well with other northern Mediterranean locales. Although I again am drinking mostly red wine – wonderful but not as cheap as in Spain – I have found the Italian Birra Moreti La Rossa on tap to be an extremely malty double bock German beer and quite excellent.  Half the restaurants are pizzerias although most serve more than pizzas.  The pizza generally is excellent, always thin crust with fresh ingredients, unlike the horrid thick breaded pizzas with thawed toppings served often in the US.  Travel is relatively easy, as train service is widespread and comfortable.

The trip to Rome commenced with a flight from Hell – the regional AA flight Tucson to Dallas was delayed 6 times for “mechanical” issues, while all later scheduled flights left on time – ahead of our earlier “delayed” flight.  This caused me missed international connections, twice, with scheduled flights to London and on to Rome.  Twice I had to exit secured gate areas to be rescheduled at the check-in desks.  Then in Dallas, where American had massive cancelled flight problems due to weather, I had to find a special line, one hour wait, to get a boarding pass for the onward flight from London, which the computers in Tucson couldn’t issue.  Upon final arrival in Rome, now late at night, the timing coincided with the simultaneous arrival of 4 jumbo jets from China, full of new Chinese tourists, creating massive lines through the terminal trying to get through passport check.  I did not feel as “joyful” as usual upon arrival.

In Rome I stayed in a large “apartment” type room, with balcony, right at the end of Via Cavour, half a block from overlooking the Roman Forum and the forums of Minerva, Caesar and Augustus, and within sight of the Colosseum about 3 blocks away.  I spent five days wandering through the various ruins, and walking the narrow streets to the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.

From Rome I traveled by high speed rail the long distance south to Lecce in Italy’s heel.  Here the “Old City”, with its maze of alleys and narrow stone streets, almost 100% was uniformly constructed in the 17th and early 18th centuries in late renaissance and baroque style; all structures built of soft yellowish stone giving the entire town an unusual ancient feel.  Scattered throughout are excavated Roman constructions (a small theater and larger amphitheater) over which the baroque city now sits.  My accommodations were in an apartment – really several large rooms – part of an old palace (Palazzo Bernardini).

Part of the excitement of foreign travel is associated with eating in restaurants where the menus are indecipherable, and the waiters do not speak English or Spanish.  In my favorite Lecce eatery, I ordered what appeared to be translatable as a dish of rice mixed with meats – turned out to be a huge load of grilled meats and sausages on a board.  A little heavy, but good.  Later, trying to chat with a local at the bar, I discovered that a couple of the meat cuts and the sausages were horse (my sister will be upset with me – she always loved horses).  It seems Italy eats more horse than any other country, and the heaviest consumption is down south in the heel, i.e. Lecce.  Later, at another restaurant, having carefully checked that no horse (cavallo) was listed, I later discovered that foal or young horse requires a different menu word.

From Lecce I traveled the short distance back northwest by train to Bari on the coast – Bari also has a large Old Town sitting between two harbors on a peninsula sticking north into the Adriatic Sea.  Here sits one of the more amazing churches I have visited anywhere; the Basilica St. Nicolas.  Saint Nicholas is one and the same with St Nick, aka Father Christmas.  Much venerated by Catholic and Orthodox Christians in the northeastern Mediterranean region, I had visited the Island of St Nicolas and his original burial place in Southern Turkey.  Apparently in the 11th century Italian sailors removed his bones from his burial tomb, and brought them to Bari where a Norman built a large crypt as the new burial chamber and constructed the massive Romanesque Basilica over it.  Now devout Orthodox Christians and Catholics pilgrimage to the site and light candles, sit and pray, and kiss the icons and glass encased relics of the saint in the underground crypt.  Above, the church constitutes a massive towering Romanesque structure, outside a brilliant white stone, and inside rows of columns with carved capitals and spanning arches.  The very high ceiling is 100% covered with colorful frescos.

From Bari I traveled by local train to Matera in the neighboring region of Basilicata.  Old Matera is a World Heritage site, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities on earth.  The two halves of the ancient city sit in opposite tilted bowls which descend from a high ridge into a steep and deep canyon with a small river. At the top of the ridge rises the massive cathedral. The rock bowl and cliff faces all are a soft, yellow-white sandstone or volcanic tuft, and are full of natural caves.  Many of the upper caves have been converted into sculpted cave dwellings over the past 1,000 years.  Throughout the middle ages, Byzantine era and into the baroque period large numbers of churches and convents also were carved into the soft stone.  Inside, on walls and ceilings, most of the religious structures were covered originally with colorful frescos, now much destroyed within the last century as the country forced a clean-up the deplorable conditions the people had lived in.  Within the last several decades most of the better preserved caves have been converted to houses or opened as cave museums which can be visited.  Architecture and frescos which still can be seen within the best churches, including in those now built above ground, date mostly from the 11th through the 16th centuries, and usually patterned on Byzantine style.  In many ways this could be a sister location to the great fairy chimney caves and cave churches around Goreme in Cappadocia, central Turkey, although the Turkey cave churches are often older, superior in construction and many still completely covered with wonderful frescos.

As with a few other unusual sites I have visited, Matera is one of those magical places where the normal laws of physics do not apply.  After a day of roaming the narrow and very steep alleys and never ending stairways, it seems clear upon return to the day’s starting point that one has ascended far more than descended.

The weather often has been overcast, cold and windy.  Not unexpected for early spring. From Matera I returned to Bari to catch the direct bus to Naples on the opposite coast.

Later.  Dave


Travel Report from Naples and Florence, Italy, Apr. 10, 2019

Italy, during two time periods lasting a couple of centuries each, originated much of what we consider Western Civilization; the first was the height of the Roman Empire (roughly 0 to 200 AD), borrowing heavily on the preceding Greek and Macedonian traditions, and the second was the emergence of the Italian Renaissance (roughly 1350 to 1550).  For an intoxicating immersion in the output of these time periods, one definitely must spend lots of time in, and attention to, two geographic areas; the coastal area lining the Bay of Naples (Napoli) within the morning shadow of Mount Vesuvius, and the great city on the banks of the Arno River, Florence (Firenze).  Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by Vesuvius’ eruption in 79AD, best preserved great living cities at Rome’s height, along with much of its best art in the form of frescos, mosaics and statuary.  For the output of Renaissance masters, Florence was ground zero producing the earliest, and subsequently also some of the greatest, artwork in paintings and sculpture; these masters included Donatello, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio.

I arrived in Naples on the West coast of Italy on Mar. 30, after a short bus haul from Bari on the Adriatic Sea.  Napoli, as it is known in Italy, reputedly has the best pizza on earth, though I cannot discern much difference from the pizza in Rome, Bari or Lecce – all are very thin crust in the middle, where, fresh from the wood ovens, the centers can be almost soupy with melted cheese and olive oil.  All are delicious as long as devoured before getting cold.  My apartment was located with over a dozen pizzerias nearby, as well as numerous coffee shops and pastry stores selling sinful dark chocolate stuffed in every type of pastry imaginable.

My apartment, on the 5th floor of a very old building, was huge and bright, modern, two levels, and had 3 sets of 12 foot double wooden doors which each opened onto balconies.  The two eastern balconies looked north and south on Via Duomo, the main street in the Old City which runs by the cathedral; to the south the Bay of Napoli could be seen.  The north facing balcony opened directly on the Duomo square and main entrance to the 13th century cathedral, an amazing sight which fully caught the afternoon sun.

My first day I visited the gothic Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, with a number of huge rooms around its cloister, each with colorful wall designs, used during the 15th and 16th centuries for various political purposes.  More interesting was what lay under the church; excavations allow one now to descend many meters under this part of the city to walk the complete original stone roadways, lined with shops and bakery stores, and other merchants, of the original Greek and Roman settlements. I also visited the small church called the Pia Monte della Misericordia Museum to view the famous Caravaggio painting called “Obras de Misericordia.”

On Monday I took a local train (see photo of colorful graffiti covered train below) south around the bay to the west side of Mt. Vesuvius where sits the ancient city of Pompeii.  I had little idea how vast an area now has been uncovered – the entire wealthy and main commercial part of the city all are preserved, and one walks along the original stone paved streets of the city just as they existed up until the fateful day of Vesuvius eruption in 79AD.  The building roofs mostly were destroyed, but the walls, gardens, taverns, shops etc. all remain.  The boulder paved streets show the deep ruts cut over the centuries from the wheeled carts and wagons which plied the ancient thruways.  I spent five hours walking most of the main routes through the excavated parts of the city, visiting dozens of wealthy houses, a few maintaining still some fine wall frescos and floor mosaics.

At the main crossroads of Pompeii lies the huge Forum, full of columns, with the adjoining granary, now housing hundreds of amphorae and other items.  The southeast side of the city held the side by side Teatro Piccolo, or Odeon, and the large Teatro.  Further east lay the huge Amphiteatro where the gladiators fought. After the hours of wandering I truly was tired at the end.

A few of the villas have in situ original mosaics and wall frescos. Among my favorites, photo included below, note the vicious black dog mosaic which covered the floor at the entrance to a huge villa – the dog is chained, but the message is as clear today as any posted sign stating “BEWARE OF DOG” –  and the 2,000 year old posting is far more beautiful and impressive.  The partial Alexander Mosaic is a stunning work of tiny mosaic stones depicting horses in battle with an amazing 3D depth and lifelike moving quality; the photo I have included is of the original which now resides in the Museum discussed below.  Among the in situ frescos, I particularly enjoyed the small room walls with complex garden scenes.  Finally, individual personages in frescos were on display from the nearby ruins of Moregine, which seemed to depict gauze and loose clothing as well as some renaissance masters.

The following day I wanted to visit Herculaneum, the sister city to Pompeii, somewhat smaller and less crowded with tourists; unfortunately I arrived at the railroad station to find the regional train serving the Bay area shut down – a result of a workers’ 1 day strike.  I decided then to visit the museums I had scheduled for the following day, only to find they all were closed on Tuesdays. Because of my scheduling then I never made it to Herculaneum.

I later visited the Naples’ highlight, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, where the best frescos, mosaics and statuary of Pompeii and Herculaneum have been preserved, along with objects from the temples and many implements of daily life.  At the museum one discovers why Pompeii, which seems so perfectly complete and undisturbed, has so few interior spaces still decorated with the famous wall paintings and floor coverings – all have been removed over the past 150 years.  Many were stolen or taken out of the country.  In most cases, just portions of the plaster or mosaic highlights were cut out and retained to be presented elsewhere in frames.  Thus the entire wall or floor coverings were removed from their original location just to preserve pieces.  Some of the signage in the Museum admits that even much of the more recent archaeological work thus destroyed the in situ beauty of what was so perfectly preserved in Pompeii.  Nevertheless, on two floors of the huge museum, room after room is full of small and large fragments of the painted wall frescos and vast and intricate floor mosaics.  I have included a large number of photos below, together with photos of the current villas and casas in Pompeii; mentally one must attempt to put the decorations back together with the architecture.

On Wednesday I visited the Cappella Sansevero at opening to avoid the worst crowds.  It contains one of the world’s great marble sculptures –  “The Veiled Christ” by Sanmartino. Indeed I found it a masterpiece, depicting the dead body of Christ, after crucifixion, covered completely by a veil.  “Astounding” is the correct word describing the appearance of the veil, folds and all, which looks utterly transparent over the body and face of Christ, yet all sculpted from the single block of marble.

On Thursday I took the super-high-speed train, the Frescciarossa, from Naples to Florence – the train travels at 300 KPH, or about 185mph.  It is sufficiently smooth and quiet that, but for the scenery rushing by at incredible speed, one has little idea how fast it is going (bragging rights for these high-speed trains means they put monitors in the passenger compartments which show a speedometer).

My apartment in Florence was the largest I have so far had, 990 sqft; a large living room with two windows over the street, and a huge dining and kitchen area and neighboring bedroom, both with ancient high wooden double doors opening onto an outside terrace.  These large apartments are often in better locations than any hotels (all of my lodging so far has been absolutely central with superb locations – I have only used one hotel). In bridge season like now, I get them at great prices, generally cheaper than most mid-range hotel rooms which are tiny by comparison.  The restaurant next door is Tuscan classic, extremely busy, but wonderful food.

The Florence art scene must be the envy of the world – here there was far too much to digest in a few days.  The crown jewel was the Uffizi Gallery with its massive collection of Italian Renaissance paintings; most were commissioned or acquired in Florence by the Medici family or other nobility during the Renaissance, and most were acquired by or gifted to the Uffizi centuries ago.  Three of the only 15 da Vinci paintings in existence reside here, jostling for space with Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Titian works, all of which fill rooms.  Four hours and my feet wouldn’t allow more time.

The next morning was reserved for the Bargello Museum, filled with its statuary including several pieces by Michelangelo and Donatello’s two different David’s, one in marble, the other bronze.  Sansovino’s Bacchus in marble was made to compete with Michelangelo’s earlier one, and later joined by Giambologna’s bronze, all three of which are found in the same room.  Finally I visited the Gallery Accademia with its masterpiece, Michelangelo’s huge marble of David.  The Accademia held a number of other Michelangelo marbles, and a huge collection of Byzantine-Gothic-very-early Renaissance painted panels.

My final full day I visited the Basilica Santa Maria Novella, with its huge Romanesque exterior and gothic cloisters and austere interior. The Gothic marble facade is a delight for the eyes.  Inside were more riches, from Gothic to early Renaissance frescos and wood panels painted by Masaccio, Botticelli, Uccello and Giotto, all very early artists.

Bottom line, Florence simply contains way too much to try to take in on one visit.  On Tuesday I head to a small town, Lucca, in western Tuscany, where the medieval city walls still are in place.  Smaller towns permit a much less frenetic pace in trying to soak up the history.

Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Lucca, Pisa, and 2nd Visits to Florence and Rome, Italy, Apr. 18, 2019

I last reported on Florence, to which I will again return in this segment. From Florence I took, on April 9, the regional train to Lucca, an ancient walled Tuscany town west of Florence, and famous for its complete set of 16th Century walls built to defend against the threat from the Florence Kingdom which then extended to just 15 kilometers from Lucca; the walls never saw defensive use, and now form over 4 kilometers of one of the finest raised set of gardens, overlooks and bike and walking paths completely circling the old city.  The cathedral and the Basilica amaze with their white marble Romanesque and Gothic exteriors. I stayed in a lovely B&B, the Relais Lucca, just inside the walls, and spent a fair amount of time just getting mildly lost in the maze of old city alleys and streets which run at odd angles.

I took a day trip to visit the famous Cathedral and Tower of Pisa, just 25 minutes away on the wonderful local trains.  Although the regional trains are not the various high-speed versions, and stop at many local stations, they still run at over 100 mph, leave and arrive on time (generally to the minute), and spend just minutes in the stations.  Travel by train is faster, cheaper and more convenient than renting an auto (unless you are with a group).

The Pisa cathedral probably is the most amazing I have seen in Europe, sitting inside its own set of medieval walls, and surrounded by sumptuous and massive related marble edifices all set in manicured green expansive lawns.  All the related structures seem ultimately to exist just to showcase that weird, but now expected, gorgeous white bell tower – it just does not look like it should be able to resist falling.  This World Heritage Site seemed to me to have more tourists than any site I have so far visited.  It is hard to exaggerate the numbers of tour groups and student groups scurrying like thousands of ants over the grounds and into and out of the various structures.  And for the thousands of visitors each hour they provided one set of public toilets, with two stalls for women and two for men.  These were not well maintained, had lines which tested bladder control, and required first lining up at a small ticket office to purchase the 80 cent right to use same.  This certainly seemed an utterly preposterous operational miss for such an astounding site.

From Lucca I had to back-track to Florence before returning to Rome.  I spent two days back in Florence to pick up a couple more visits to their unmatched wealth of artistic highlights.  I visited the Medici Capellas, the domed burial crypts for the most powerful members of that wealthy Florence family dynasty.  The chapels were designed by Michelangelo, and contain a number of his marble sculptures and architectural achievements.  I spent 5 hours the next day visiting a one-time exhibition, presented in the Palazzo Strozzi, entitled “Verrocchio Master of Leonardo.”  Here, for the first time ever, sculptures, paintings and drawings were borrowed from many of the best museums in the world to display the works of Verrocchio, one of the Renaissance great masters, who also was perhaps the greatest teacher producing in his workshop a crop of famous later masters, including Leonardo da Vinci. I understand this Exhibition will move this fall to the US for a few months.

From Florence I returned for a final two days in Rome, traveling via Tren Italo, a competing high speed train doing the entire journey at about 180 mph.  My Rome hotel room this time was across Via Cavour from my last apartment; I now had a balcony facing north over the majority of the Roman Forum and the massive “Altar to the Fatherland” monument, with exceptional evening views.  As in Florence, I used the time to pick up a few of the many sites previously missed.  This included a day spent in the Capitoline Museums on the hill above the Roman Forum.  Here one encounters most of the marble and bronze masterpieces excavated from the central part of ancient Rome.  These include the heroic sized bronze of Marco Aurelio on horseback, the incredible bronze of “Spinario,”, the seated boy pulling a thorn from his foot, the marble “Capitoline Galatian,” also known as the “Dying Gaul,” the marble “Capitoline Venus” and a stupendously detailed black marble centaur, recovered from Hadrian’s Villa.

On the 17th I flew from Rome to Madrid, stayed one night near the Chamartin Station and took the train the next day to Avila, the famous World Heritage Site walled city in Castillo y Leon, to spend Easter with the nightly solemn Processions from and to the Cathedral.

Some closing observations from Italy:

The trains and buses leave on time, and almost always arrive on time, usually within one minute of schedule.  And, for almost anywhere you want to go, convenient train service exists with departures throughout the day. Travel is much faster than by auto, and passes through beautiful countryside rather than along busy highways.

Tour groups are everywhere, but now something like 20% to 30% of all foreign groups are Chinese. This is something you just did not see 10 years ago.  Clearly the middle-class in China has grown substantially and now seeks to explore the world. I am curious to what extent the government promotes this.

About half of all late morning tour groups, in all museums and heritage sites, are middle-school students with drag-along teachers and/or parents trying (usually in vain) to maintain order and some semblance of silence inside the buildings.  As a teacher lectures about what is before the group, most of the students seem to pay little attention.  I suppose some of this cultural heritage finds a way in, and actually may reappear in the future as one acquires more context.

Selfies have become a scourge of travel photography.  Younger people no longer desire photos of just cathedrals or gated walls or Michelangelo marbles or da Vinci paintings or “leaning towers.”  All famous landmarks and works of art become simply settings and backdrops – the photographer becomes the main subject.  Most try infinitely overused poses or camera positions, and all require the subject to get as close as possible to any artwork.  The new Chinese tourists seem to have a special appetite for these, or more often small group photos.  Anyway, if one simply wants a photo of the edifice or work of art, it may be nearly impossible without including in the photo a constant stream of selfie subjects vying to stand in front of or as close to the famous piece as possible.  This somewhat narcissistic obsession with inserting self as the main subject into photos of all manner of external wonders bothers me at a deep level.  Clearly the phenomenon has emerged as part of the social media revolution. (Recent news reports make clear the obsession can become deadly when the backdrops are not man made, but include wild animals or scenic canyon overlooks).

I really like the Italian cigars made in Tuscany -Toscano Clasicos come 5 to the box at about $1.25 each – available in any tobacco shop in the country.  The tobacco, now grown in Tuscany, is a Kentucky variant grown initially for pipe mixtures. The tobacco apparently is allowed to ferment, and then the cigar is made with the moist leaves.  The final cigar is long, fat in the middle, and with a heavy ribbed leaf outer wrap.  The cigars are dry and so do not have to be maintained in humidity.  They look like a double cheroot joined at the fat end. They burn decent and long, and provide a mild smoke.

Many people have dogs they walk in the cobbled streets.  In Lucca, close to half the dogs I saw were odd versions of “wiener” dogs, aka dachshunds – this included short-haired, long-haired, wire-haired, longer legged and fat dogs, including one extraordinarily long dog where the backbone strained to hold the belly off the ground.  My family’s first dog in India was a dachshund of uncertain parentage, so I have always loved the breed.

Almost no one in Italy is overweight, despite the seeming occurrence in the “old towns” of ice-cream (gelato) shops almost every other block (pastry stores with sinful chocolate are in between). Families walk with ice cream dribbling from their cones, over their fingers and onto the street.  An exception to this healthful body appearance, you may guess, is with the American tourists; first you notice the expansive pants – then you pass by and hear the unaccented English.

Italians apparently cannot talk if they cannot gesture and wave their arms.  I have had Italians confirm this to me.  It is amusing to watch a person walking down the street, phone in pocket and headset on, talking to the air in front of their face (common in the Western world) – it is more amusing to watch an Italian doing same, but with both arms waving emphatically with various gestures.  Even more amusing when someone is seated at a restaurant table, phone laid flat in front with speaker phone on, and the diner is conversing with the table while the arms are flailing.  I sometimes wish I was more expressive.

Goodbye Italy.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Avila Holy Week Processions, and Salamanca, Spain, April 26, 2019

Upon arrival in Madrid from Rome I spent the night, and then traveled by train to the ancient and conservative Catholic town of Avila in Castile y Leon.  Avila started with Roman defenses, but now is famed for its 11th century medieval walls and towers which still completely encircle the Old City.  Its 11th to 14th century Gothic cathedral sits on the high point in the town where its apse forms part of the defensive wall structure and 5 entrance gates.

I specifically hurried to Avila for its Easter week sacred processions, which happen each evening after sunset.  All over central Spain, various regional brotherhoods, known as cofradias in Spanish, maintain floats, here called “tronos,” year-round in the churches and cathedrals.  The floats are foundations for religious sculptures and scenes exhibiting events of the holy week leading to the crucifixion and resurrection.  The cofradias, with various other penitents, dress in colorful robes with masks and pointed headdress, called “capirotes”, then march with the tronos through the darkening streets of the old cities, usually with a band playing mournful music.  The processions in Castile and Leon are considered the most solemn and authentic, dating back many centuries.  Most Americans upon first seeing such a procession are stunned that the penitents appear to be dressed as the Ku Klux Klan, though most robes, masks and tall pointed headdress are colorful.  The penitent’s capirote has been traditional for centuries and the head-dress with mask is worn out of modesty, as penance is to be practiced anonymously.  No one seems to know why, or how, the KKK wound up with such a similar copy of this ancient penitent dress, though KKK robes always are white.

I had a wonderful hotel room in Palacio de la Velada, a late 15th  to early 16th century palace, one of many in town; of its roughly 140 rooms, I had one of only five with a balcony opening onto the Cathedral plaza, and so watched some of the processions from my private balcony.  I believe I watched 5 entire processions and obtained some wonderful video.  Again, I wish I could figure out how easily to downsize the high resolution video (each several minute clip of video is many Gigabytes of data) and make it available on my website.

Avila’s mostly 14th century Gothic Cathedral is a magnificent wonder – but Avila has also, just outside the Arco San Vicente Gate, the early 12th century Basilica San Vicente, thought by some to be the finest Romanesque Church in Spain.  It is a beauty inside and out, and the Romanesque portals, arches and capitals are the best preserved I have seen.  Also, inside just before the altar, sits a massive Romanesque cenotaph to the martyred Saints Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta, with the wonderful gold covered sides and preserved carved and painted wooden scenes from the martyrdom.

After 4 days in Avila, I traveled again by train onward west the short distance to my favorite town, Salamanca.  The weather, unfortunately, was chilly and rainy almost my entire time in Avila, and has grown only worse upon arrival in Salamanca.  The locals are complaining this is a somewhat unusual early spring pattern. Tomorrow the weather is forecast finally to improve, and so I have just booked 3 more days in Salamanca to take advantage of some decent sunshine and warmth for photography and outdoor tapas bar evenings.

Once again I am housed in a magnificent location.  The Baroque Plaza Mayor of Salamanca was built in the early 1700s by the Churriguera cousins, and is one of the largest, and considered by many the finest, Plaza Mayor in all of Spain; to my eyes it easily improves on the great Plaza Mayor of Madrid.  Built per request of the King, it became the city center and was used also for bull fights until the last century. It is formed as a huge unequally sided square, with close to 100 arches on the ground levels and 3 stories of balconied rooms above, completely enclosing the square.  Six large entrance arches permit access from all city directions.  All is constructed of the Salamanca soft yellow limestone.  Ten of the rooms above the Plaza have been converted to a private hotel within the last year.  Each room is modern; 5 rooms open on the market to the East of the Plaza, and 6 have wide double glass doors and balconies opening out onto the Plaza itself.  I have one of these rooms.  In my years visiting Salamanca I never have been able to enter the Plaza’s upper floor rooms for a view and now I am living, for a few days, in one.

Later.  Dave


Travel Report from Salamanca, Seville, Jerez and Cordoba, Spain, May 11, 2019

Because my first 4 days in Salamanca were wet and cold, I extended the stay in my favorite town to enjoy the forecasted greatly improved weather – this had me moving to a new apartment down by the river.  My last 3 days were sunny and warm, and permitted some good photo opportunities, as well as more comfortable sidewalk tapas bars in the late afternoon.  Of special note, I continued to visit some of my old haunts which I first encountered when studying Spanish in Salamanca in 2003.  One tavern, with great wood fired grilled meats, then was called Patio Chico.  I had trouble locating it years later until I realized its name had changed to Ruta de la Plata.  Still the same great place – and I recognized one of the bartenders and the grill master who had been there for well over a decade.  I wondered some why the haunted eyes of the grill master now seemed more especially familiar, and then realized he was the spitting image of Jack Dorsey, billionaire founder of Twitter. I include a photo below of him with yours truly for your comparison.  Miguel still grills great steak, panceta and sausage – more valuable by far to me than Twitter.  He never had heard of Jack Dorsey.

I climbed the Salamanca Bell Tower for the Old and New Cathedrals in order to get some large composite photos from roof height of the Romanesque and Gothic dome towers and decorations. Both photos are composites of around 45 individual photos, giving a particularly wide viewing angle and tons of detail (you won’t find photos like these elsewhere).  As over the years I have written much, and published dozens of photos, covering Salamanca’s history and edifices I won’t do a repeat now.  The town is feeling more like a second home than a place to visit.

From Salamanca I returned to Madrid, hitting 3 of my favorite tapas haunts in the Santa Ana neighborhood, before traveling on south for a while, stopping first for several days in Seville.  There I had a 3 room apartment that opened onto a large patio.  I visited for the first time the lovely Casa Pilatos, with Renaissance courtyards and pillars and wonderful Mudejar (post Islam Moorish architectural style) decorations.  Also, spent a morning near the huge tourist line to enter the Cathedral, where I watched a street performance of Flamenco.  Again, for long discourses on all things Seville and large numbers of photos, you must go back to prior travelogues available on the website.

From Seville I traveled south to finally visit Jerez de la Frontera.  Jerez is the birthplace of sherry (“jerez” in Spanish), a fortified wine aged in oak barrels.  I used to think of sherry as that disgustingly sweet wine with which 1960’s TV and movie starlets liked to get tipsy.  What I have discovered in later years is that almost all good sherry comes from just the Palomino grapes, and always is dry (not sweet), but includes several very different colors and tastes based on the aging and whether the fortification allows a floral (yeast) growth to cover the top.  The sweet Sherries come from Moscatel and Ximenez grapes, and mostly seem inferior.  The name “sherry” legally can only be applied to the wine from a small triangle area around the town of Jerez.  I spent several hours at a small Tabanco (originally the name for a tobacco shop, but now come to be applied to the bars that carry the oak barrels of sherry, where one often can find impromptu flamenco concerts or dances).  Paulino, the owner of Tobanco Paulino spent over an hour sitting with me, giving me the history and secrets of making dry sherry (I followed only about 80% of his explanations as his was a rapid Spanish) – you will see the photo of us below.  While in Jerez I stayed in a small efficiency apartment well centered in town, and visited the Alcazar (fortress), Cathedral and related church; the churches both were mostly Gothic in architectural style, but had very poor quality stones which already were sluffing off pieces after just 500 years (2000 year old Roman construction and 1000 year old Romanesque churches have much better quality stone).

From Jerez I traveled to Cordoba, one of my favorite towns, for the annual Festival de los Patios, where dozens of wealthy homes open up their patios which are covered with spring flowers in bloom.  The Great Mosque (Mezquita), for which construction started in the 8th Century and reached completion by the 10th Century, was then the center of the largest city and the major Caliphate in the Mediterranean.  After the Reconquista of this part of Spain, the entire Mosque was converted to a cathedral though only the central portion of the Mosque was renovated. The entirety is an Islamic wonder rivaled, in my opinion, only by the Alhambra in Granada and the Taj Mahal in India.  The entire interior, excepting only the space converted into the Cathedral, is a forest of double stone arches supporting the roof over the space of several football fields.  The Mihrab, which unusually does not face Mecca, has three arched portals the outside of which is completely covered with mosaics made of semi-precious stones.  Inside are protected a number of marble pieces from the original Visigoth Church upon which the 8th Century Mosque originally was constructed.  As with Salamanca and Seville, I previously have reported at length on these towns and their vast architectural treasures, and so will not repeat this trip.

I have enjoyed evenings at the Sociedad Plateros (silversmiths society) restaurant with excellent Andalucian dishes. They have barrels of a local “fino” wine – “Montilla” – similar to sherry but in my view much better – it goes great with an order of deep fried lightly battered strips of eggplant with honey, a specialty in Andalucia.  I also spent one evening in the expensive Taberna Patio de la Juderia, with terrific food and a nightly Flamenco performance.  Every late afternoon I sat on the Plaza Agrupacion de Cofradias, a beautiful triangular plaza on the downhill street to the Mezquita, and had red wine while listening to the street performer, a blind old man with a guitar singing soulful Andalucian songs.  Each afternoon the Royal Stables of Cordoba, where by order of the King, they have maintained the pure-bred Spanish horses since the early 1500s, bring one of their beautiful stallions to the plaza for pictures with tourists; this to entice the public to purchase tickets for one of the horse shows during the festival.

I certainly noticed, after publishing the current webpage, that I have included photos of myself in 4 different taverns.  This – after spending years publishing hundreds of photos with only a rare one including my face.  I guess because I am visiting so many familiar places I have taken far fewer scenic photos, and perhaps have spent somewhat more time relaxing in my favorite afternoon haunts.

Tomorrow I return to Madrid from where I will head north to Basque Country for a number of days in Bilbao, Lekeitio and San Sebastian, after which I will travel on North into France.  Later.  Dave


Travel Report on Basque Country in North of Spain and Bordeaux, France, May 27, 2019

I last reported from Cordoba, from where I traveled north back through Madrid and on to Bilbao, capital of Basque Country.  This is an autonomous community of the Basque people in northern Spain which extends into southern France.  The region is mountainous with a high level of rainfall, and is spectacularly verdant and lush with its many rivers.  I spent 5 days in Bilbao, with unusual beautiful sunshine weather.  Basque Country is noted for its food, and especially its pintxos, the Basque variety of tapas, though these generally are far more ornate and cost extra.

I spent a number of hours in the Museum of Fine Arts, with paintings by Gauguin, Ribera, Zurbaran, Goya and El Greco among others.  I also circled outside and inside the famous Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, a number of times, noting it’s curved and twisting titanium armored plated and glass exterior.  Inside are permanent exhibitions of many modern artists (most still alive), including Jenny Holzer and Richard Serra – these more often than not were not paintings, but massive room filling creations (Serra’s “Matter of Time” includes huge curving metal walls that undulate and lean oddly as they rise to about 15 feet and fill a museum hall that is over the size of a football field; Holzer’s “Things Indescribable” uses moving neon lights, animated metal things and human bones to display disturbing ideas looking at the darkness in humans during war and conflict).  Unique and interesting, but not really my cup of tea.

From there I traveled the short distance east to the small coastal town of Lekeitio, a real gem sitting in its verdant bay.  With a balcony view of the bay I was able to enjoy the 3 days of rain from my own little wine and cigar hangout.  I also almost thought I had reached food heaven with a small local tavern where they had the most wondrous seafood soup, filled with fresh fish and small shrimps.  This was a first course choice of the daily lunch menu, and was served in a huge metal taurine from which you could fill at least 3 large soup bowls.  The included wine didn’t come in a glass, but was always an entire bottle placed on the table for however much was desired (you do need some self-restraint if you wish to stay awake for the afternoon).  Several days later I moved on to San Sebastian, where I have visited several times before.  It is one of the most beautiful bay cities in the world, and is rated higher than any other world city for Michelin star restaurants (I visited none).  The regular small restaurants, taverns and bars mostly have wonderful pintxos and wonderful wine, all simply amazingly inexpensive.  I visited for the second time the fascinating Aquarium with its giant tanks over the sea.

Being so close, and never having visited Bordeaux, I decided to take the short international bus up from San Sebastian.  I am in a loft apartment on the longest pedestrian street in the country, the Rue Sainte Catherine.  Close enough to the 11th century Cathedral St Andrew and the 12th century Basilica St Michael that the church bells seem constant, fortunately drowning out the sometimes almost constant wail of sirens (no idea why they have been so active).  I visited the Musee des Beaux Arts, said to be the second best classical painting museum in the country after the Louvre.  It contains works by Brugghen, Murillo, van Dyck, Rubens, Matisse and Renoir, among others, along with a special exhibition of some of the darkest drawings by Goya.  I had not remembered that Goya moved to Bordeaux from Spain in his final years of going crazy and died here.

Tomorrow I return to Spain and go to Pamplona, at the edge of Basque Country, just a month before the running of the bulls.  There I still will find great pintxos and chocolate, if my memory of 11 years ago is sound.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report for Pamplona, Burgos and Madrid, Spain, June 10, 2019

I last wrote from Bordeaux, France, from where I traveled by bus to Pamplona in the ancient Kingdom of Navarra on the edge of Basque Country.  This is the famous setting for Hemmingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises.”  He wrote most of the book at the Café (Casino) Iruna (Iruna is the Basque name for Pamplona), in the central Plaza del Castillo.  For those who don’t recall, he spent several months here, drinking heavily with his literary friends from Paris, and the book, although a novel, based its characters on his actual friends and placed its setting in Pamplona and the Iruna Cafe.  This novel made famous the San Fermin Festival held every July with the Running of the Bulls.   I spent my wine and cigar evenings, as on previous trips, at the terrace tables of the Iruna Café.

Pamplona has a number of 12th century churches and artwork, all Romanesque in style, which is on the old side even for Spain.  Its small Museum of Fine Arts contains many Roman mosaics and statues, wonderful 11th and 12th century Romanesque capitals from the Cathedral, and a number of decent paintings, including one of Goya’s greatest portraits, that of the Marquis of San Adrian.  The cathedral has the alabaster mausoleum for Carlos III and Leonor, King and Queen of Navarra in the early 15th century before the conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella which united the Iberian Peninsula.  The mausoleum comes with included sets of alabaster mourners arranged around all four sides.

My apartment in Pamplona was a long narrow affair running the entire depth of the 6 story building and so had outward facing windows on both sides.  Although recently renovated, the kitchen was outfitted with matching, dazzling hot-pink, retro-style fridge, toaster and teapot (I included a photo just to verify my report).

From Pamplona I traveled the short distance to Burgos, the seat of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and the place they met with Columbus to send him off for his discovery of the New World.  Here is the great 12th to 14th century Romanesque/Gothic Cathedral which, though not quite the largest (Seville’s has that honor), is probably the finest in all Spain. It also now is the resting place for the remains of Rodrigo Diaz, the most famous of all warriors who led the expulsion of the Moors from most of Northern Spain.  He is better known as “El Cid,” and a mighty bronze statue of him upon a great horse sits at the Plaza El Cid and main bridge into Burgos.  The cathedral also contains a number of mausoleums to patrons and royalty, with alabaster likenesses of the dead within.

My apartment in Burgos was one of those 6th floor roof-top jobs where you literally are under the sloping roof, so your ceilings slope downwards almost to the floor at the walls.  Very peculiar living.  The windows jutting out of the ceiling opened onto the Plaza Mayor affording a magnificent view of the Plaza and Burgos Cathedral.  I have included a large panorama photo of the view taken under black thunderstorm clouds.

Burgos sits by the famous Sierra de Atapuerca sites where a series of underground water courses has opened pits, or “simas,” and caves which provided many of the earliest known locations outside of Africa for early humans.  The Museum of Human Evolution has recently been opened in Burgos to display all the discoveries made at Atapuerca.  This includes 1.3 million year old hominids seemingly from Asia rather than Africa, 1.1 million year old remains of Homo-antecessor which the scientists here now believe was the common ancestor of Neanderthal and Sapiens, and 400,000 plus year old genetic tested specimens from the Sima Pits now confirmed as early neanderthalensis, necessarily making the sapiens divergence much older than thought (probably around 800,000-900,000 years ago).  These continuing discoveries make Atapuerca one of the most active early human sites in the world, and together with southern Morocco and parts of Asia continually challenge the notion that almost all hominid evolution occurred in eastern Africa.

From Burgos I traveled by train back to Madrid last Thursday, and found a terrific set of apartments just south of the Plaza Mayor, putting me into the Latina neighborhood, but still just a short walk from Huertas where I often stay.  Both are famous for their tapas bars and plazas with terraced cafes.  Now-a-days many wonderful bronze statues are placed in locations where they perfectly mimic insertion into the crowds of people, although they don’t seem to move much.  I have included several photos of this wonderful form of public sculpture.

I did spend over 3 hours in the fabulous National Museum of Archaeology, my third time.  It covers the human evolution in southern Europe, most of which occurred in the Iberian Peninsula, followed by the Iberian bronze age cultures and, of course, the many occupations and settlements, first by the Phoenicians followed by the Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors ending finally with the Reconquista.   Several of the most outstanding pieces are life-size Iberian funerary urns of ladies from the late Bronze Age; the best known is the “Lady of Elche” from the late 5th century BC.

I am winding down this trip, and fly back to Tucson Wednesday the 12th.  Life continues to be good.  Later.  Dave