Friday, September 24, 2010

Spain, Cartagena

This is the second part of a two part post.  You can read the first part here:

Friday, September 17, 2010
Madrid: Plaza Mayor, and Placio Real
Today’s adventure started with an excursion through the streets of Madrid. The first place we saw was El Plaza Mayor. My feet were killing me and we were pushed for time, so I didn’t take any pictures. We met a nice young Italian couple, who couldn’t speak anything but Italian. They wanted me to take their picture.

What we really wanted to see was El Placio Real, the royal palace, and that did not disappoint. There was a lot of stuff we weren’t allowed to take pictures of, and it would be hard to put it all into words. In short, it was opulent. The king of Spain doesn’t stay there; instead it is used for state occasions such as the signing of treaties, etc.

The best part of the Palacio Real for me was the armory, which had swords and suits of armor. People think of the era of knighthood and tournaments and jousting as iconic of the middle ages, but that all happened toward the latter end. Most of the stuff we saw was never used in war. We did see a breastplate that was riddled with dents from musket balls. That was at the very end of the exhibit, 1600s.

Madrid: Mission Reunion.
We met at the LDS temple. I got one picture of the outside of the temple, then my batteries went kaput. I’ll have to have others send me copies of all the group photos we took.

Anna and I got a ride back with a former companion and friend of mine, named Eduardo Saavedra. He and his wife gave us a whirlwind street tour of Madrid. We saw a bunch of places that were very pretty but I don’t remember the names of. It was nice to see the city above ground for a change. The metro is wonderful for getting you from A to B, but you don’t get to see anything but the inside of your train car.

Saturday, September 18, 2010
Madrid: Parque de Refugio
We were spent from all the running around. Wanted to go see Avila, because it was another walled medieval town like Segovia and Toledo, but we woke up way too late. Instead we went to Corte Ingles, then we went strolling through the Parque de Refugio (Park of Refuge). It was crowded with people going on paseo, and eclectic street performers.

We finished the evening with gofres (waffles) topped with Haagen-Dazs, and took another stroll through La Puerta del Sol and watched more performers. A human statue made himself look like a street cleaner. Put money in his cup and he springs to life for a moment, sweeping with his push broom, then goes still. It is utterly convincing. Guys on rollerblades did stunts. The crowd around them was thin and unimpressed. Another man sat beneath a covered table, his face and hair made up to look like an African native, and his head poking up through a hole so he looked like a severed head on a plate. “Guapa!” he called to the women. “Dame un beso!” and made kissing noises. His hands controlled two other head puppets. It gave everyone the creeps, but he always had a crowd.

Sunday, September 19, 2010
The Train to Cartagena
You don’t think of Spain as desert, but it is. The soil becomes more sandy, and dried grass grows more sparse between clumps the farther south you go. Occasional Acacias and prickly pears spring up in thorny patches. Palm trees sway in the heat.

We pass through rough country. Distant mountains jut toward the sky, their sides treacherous and rocky. Hills and crags are made of whitish chalky rock, or layered sandstone. The trees are all stunted pines and cypresses. No sage. It looks a lot like eastern Oregon, but missing are the dark-layered lava flows, and columns of basalt formations you might expect to see. This area is not volcanic.

Groves blanket the hills, mile after mile. It looks like Yakima Valley, but with Spanish architecture. You get the impression that Spain grows all of Europe’s fruit, or at least a good deal of it. Orange groves. Olive groves. Almond groves. Peach groves. Vineyards, with their climbing branches spread between poles. We see no herds of animals, no fields of corn or wheat.

And then there's a castle, right in the middle of nowhere.  This one is Chinchilla de Montearag√≥n:

We pass through clumps of civilization. The houses huddle together, sharing the same walls in the back and on each side. There are no sidewalks and no yards. Doors open onto the street. There is absolutely no urban sprawl. Civilization begins and ends at an abrupt edge, with few (if any) outlying buildings. Free-standing structures are rare. Few people have a car, so they go on foot everywhere.

Houses are always made of brick or cement, with sagging roofs of tile or corrugated galvanized steel. Many have a flat roof that can be used as a terrace. Some houses are painted, or once were long ago. Others are covered with crumbling stucco, the red brick showing beneath. Others are bare brick, or grey cement, or cinder block. Everything has a run-down half-built look to it. Some buildings look new, but quite a few are old, or abandoned and falling apart. American-style gang graffiti is everywhere.

A few years ago Spain had a real-estate boom, just like in the US. Banks gave out loans to people who couldn’t pay, thinking that with the way prices kept rising no one could lose. Now there is a lot of unfinished construction. The buildings stand naked like hulking skeletons. Silent cranes loom motionless in their midst.

We spent the last three nights with Carmen and Jose, friends of Anna’s family. Carmen took us around to see the city. She knows everyone in her little neighborhood. She waves to friends and stops to talk. They kiss each other on the cheek. “Hola, guapa.” It impresses me how social the people of Spain are.

Two and three-story townhouses crowd the streets, built one right against the other. There’s a walled-off space between Carmen’s house and the next door down. Jose tells me it’s for one of his sons when he grows up and marries. “Family roots are very important here,” he explains. The area where they live is the closest thing to a suburb you’ll see anywhere in Spain. It’s has a small town feel in spite of it being a neighborhood in a city of 200,000.

Carmen and Jose have relatives going all the way back to the Visigoths, Moors, and probably even the Romans. Her family is somewhat influential. They have streets named after her relatives. Her father owns a large field only blocks away, surrounded by city buildings. Today it is the site of an enormous fair, with rides and booths. Carmen tells us that she has free tickets if we are interested, but we’re too beat for that kind of excitement.

We have tapas in the evening. I can’t name anything we ate. Some of it was very good. The worst was the salted, cured tuna. Very sharp! Carmen tells me that Spaniards won’t remember places they’ve been, but they’ll always remember the food.

Cartagena is in the middle of a ten-day celebration of the Roman’s victory over the Phoenicians. There are men and women everywhere dressed up in Roman and Carthaginian dress, historical re-enactors who perform mock-battles and plays of important historical events during that period. Everyone thinks it’s a strange thing to celebrate getting conquered, but they all get into the spirit. We find a stand selling churros and have something sweet after our dinner. The fair is packed with people.

Monday, September 20, 2010
Mar Menor
It is rainy and humid. My shirt sticks to my back, and even dry paper has a damp feel to it. Carmen takes us to see her family’s summer beach houses. “Down below us is the house of my aunt. Over there is the house of my brother.” She points to the balcony next door. The view is stunning, in spite of the overcast weather. Their property sits right on the waterfront, overlooking a vast lagoon with sweeping manicured beaches. A long sandbar lies across the horizon leaving only a small opening to the sea, its towering resort hotels like irregular teeth against the sky. The water is very shallow and extremely calm. The people call it “El Mar Menor,” because it is like a tiny version of the Mediterranean. The place has a very affluent feel. “In the summer, when you send your kids to live with us they can go swimming,” Carmen says.

Cabo de los Palos
A lighthouse sits on a high rock, jutting into the Mediterranean. It is raining just a bit. I smell the sea and breathe deep. Carmen likes the ocean. “It makes you feel very small.” She takes a couple pictures of me and Anna in front of the lighthouse.

Cenar (Supper)
We’re having empanadas, meat pies with a croissant crust. Some are very good. Others have a strong flavor. We try each one. Carmen won’t tell us what they are until we’ve taken a bite. I try one, it’s a little strange but not too bad. “That’s morcilla,” Jose informs me. Blood sausage.  I suddenly like it a whole lot less. I keep my mouth shut until Anna finishes hers. “You don’t have to eat it all,” Carmen says. I’m not a huge fan of anything made with blood.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010
The room we stay in has air-conditioning, the only one in the house. We keep it on constantly, but it never feels cold enough. I keep a 16oz bottle of water in my backpack, and it seems like I’m always filling it up.

The Mercado
There’s a huge market close to the port. Fishermen in the town bring in their catch early in the morning. The people eat anything that swims, and a good many things that don’t. The fish stare back with dead eyes. “If the eyes are clear then you know it’s still fresh,” Carmen explains. “That’s why they keep the head on. When you buy, they cut it and clean it for you.” She knows half the merchants by name, and moves among the booths like a veteran. The market smells fishy, but it doesn’t stink.

Boat Tour of la Puerta
Cartagena has been an extremely important Mediterranean port since it was discovered by Hannibal. It is one of the few deep-water ports in Europe, and the ship-yards there export new ocean-going vessles all over the world. Two small submarines lie in the water, sleek and black. They’re bound for South Korea. An enormous three-story yacht sits in the dry-dock. A massive oil rig from Italy awaits retrofitting before heading to the Gulf of Mexico.

When the Romans conquered Carthage they fortified the five hills surrounding the inlet, and called it Little Rome. The hills are ringed with layers of defensive walls, and each one is crowned with an artillery fortification. The mountains are honeycombed with bunkers and tunnels. There is a large naval facility.

The Romans built a huge amphitheater. It fell into disuse when the Byzantines conquered the area, and was burnt down by the Visigoths. The Moors pilfered stones for other buildings, and the people built houses on top of the rubble. Over time the amphitheater was forgotten. It was discovered in the 80s and dug up again in the 90s. It is a stunning find. Anna and I spent more than an hour there.

There is an old cathedral built on top of the amphitheater, which was destroyed by Franco during the Spanish Revolution.

In the middle of Cartagena lies a necropolis museum. It has a fascinating collection of Iberian Celtic, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Gothic, Byzantine, and Moorish, artifacts. We spent another hour there.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Museum of Underwater Archeology
This museum was dedicated to researching shipwrecks and cities that were sunken underwater. I learned that amphorae have a pointy spike on the bottom because early merchants unloaded their cargo on the sandy shore. If your jug has a pointed base instead of a flat base you can wedge it into the sand and it will stay up better.

Train to Madrid
At 4:00pm we began the first leg of our complicated homeward journey. My train ticket had the same seat assignment as another passenger, so I had to sit somewhere else. This caused a commotion at every stop we made until the car was full. The last guy to come aboard was really ticked, and we had to get the conductor before he gave up and went grumbling off to the other end of the car. Thankfully no one else got on until we got to Madrid.

I slept and read. Anna watched a movie. The landscape was interesting on the first trip, but there is nothing new to see. The ride is long and boring.

Thursday, September 23, 2010
Homeward Bound
After a near disastrous wrong stop in the metro, we make it to the airport with no time to spare. They re-open the ticketing gate with no small amount of grumbling. Another woman had a flight that left in thirty minutes, but they wouldn’t let her on. After all the frowns and pointed comments, we make it to the gate and stand around for forty-five minutes before we begin boarding, wondering what all the commotion was about.

Anna and I pass the 8-hour flight watching Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood until the batteries on the netbook give out. That little computer saved our sanity. We have a layover in Atlanta, and I manage to charge it enough for another hour’s respite on the flight to Salt Lake City.

Finally home, and we’re ready to have our normal lives back. The kids are super happy to see us. The house smells unfamiliar, like we’re visiting a stranger. We dole out the presents that everyone got. My internal clock tells me that it’s 5:00am, and my brain is screaming for sleep. Grandma can put the kids to bed just one more night.

Things I’ll always remember from Spain
1. Spanish tortilla. I make this all the time for my family, but somehow the way they do it in Spain tastes better.
2. The bread with the hard crunchy crust on the outside and soft tender part inside. It leaves crumbs everywhere. You can NOT buy this anywhere in the US.
3. Carmen and her husband, Jose, who labored like campeones to make sure we had tried just about every piece of Spanish cuisine there was. Thank you guys, very much!
4. Lentejas with chorizo, which I had only once during our visit. I never knew how much I missed it. I ate a lot of that in the Canaries.
5. Will Beus, a friend from my mission and my years at BYU. We hadn’t seen each other in fifteen years. He’s living in Barcelona now with his family.
6. Eduardo Saavedra. We were only companions one month, and he was one of two native-speaking companions I ever had. Thanks for giving us a lift back to the hotel!
7. Segovia, with its graceful Roman arches and magnificent castle. Anna was least excited to go there, but found it by far the most impressive place we visited.
8. Toledo, where I ran $1000 over our savings to buy souvenirs. I’m still trying to figure out how we’re gong to pay for all that stuff. I hope Anna’s dad likes the sword we got him.
9. The metro and the trains that took us literally everywhere.
10. Puerta del Sol, with its vibrant crowds, and eclectic artists and performers.

It feels like I’ve been on vacation for a long time. My first night back I dream about trains. I wake up to use the bathroom and panic because I can’t remember what hotel room we’re in. It takes half a minute for the logical half of my brain to reboot and realize that we’re not in Spain anymore. “See? There’s carpet on the floor. You never saw that anywhere, did you?” Our trip is finally at an end.

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