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Sam-I-Am Violin on the streets, fundamentalist Judaism, planting organic vegetables, and the like.

9 UNESCO Sites in 8 Days: A week with my parents

SPAIN | Tuesday, 10 June 2008 | Views [1445] | Comments [2]

Bocce league. Standings on the side bulletin board. Barcelona.

Bocce league. Standings on the side bulletin board. Barcelona.

Day 1. Wait for my parents by the side of a downtown Barcelona road, reading in the daily newspaper 'El Pais' about the heroics of Catalan great Pau Gasol, during the Lakers' run to the NBA finals. Barcelona continues to not be a real city. It is by far the most 'liveable' city I've ever seen, and for the same reasons, it lacks grittiness, reality. I didn't see any homeless people at all among its 1.6 million citizens. I didn't see a financial district. All I saw was tourists, plazas, and funny architecture. It certainly has its own character, and is very interesting, but it all feels a little like a meticulously cleaned playground. A fun playground, though.

Dinner is incredibly tender chicken and hake cooked on a fire in the dining room of an intimate restaurant in the next town over from Les Piles. Nominee best meal of the trip.

Day 2. My parents sleep late in their first casa rural 2 minutes down the road from my farm. The privilege is mine, to show them around my home for the last three weeks, take them to the fields in which I toiled, wander through a small Catalan village. It is so awesome to say, 'Here, try it', and pick some fava beans or pluck some onions stems from the rows to offer to my parents.

So I say goodbye to Joan, the rest of the family, and El Sombra my argentinian neighbor and sporting companion, and we drive on to Cuenca. Dinner in that city is non-descript except that my pizza has a fried egg in/on it.

Day 3. Cuenca's hilltop old city built on the edge of a gorge is rather dramatic. I guess there is technically only one actual casa colgada, for which it is famous, but the whole cliffside is lined with three storey buildings perched precariously and fixed with a red viaduct spanning the gorge beautifully.

The better part of the day is spent in Segovia, which is every bit the fairy-tale I imagined some Spanish cities to be. The old city occupies an almost-round hill surrounded by a river valley on three sides so it rises fast, protected by its ancient walls and viewing from all points the expansive green plains surrounding the city for miles. At one extremity lay the Alcazar, the palace/fortress which was apparently the inspiration for Cinderella's castle at Disneyland. At first it looks pretty dull, but gradually it dawns on me how much this place looks like a part of childhood dreams.

Dinner is gazpacho and hamburgwaysas, as my mom pronounced them (she has sinced improved impressively). On the road out we are greeted by a sign in Hebrew for the Jewish cemetery we are hoping to find, and it is hidden inconspicuously but beautifully across the river valley in the woods just before the great plains begin.

Day 4. The image of my father biking through the streets of Madrid is a good one. Meanwhile, my mother and I have some quality time with Albrecht Durer and Francisco Goya and company at the Prado Museum of Art. Big time art museums, you know, the really big time ones - they really excite me. Goya's painting of Saturn devouring his children stands out.

My attempts to start sampling the regional cuisines of Spain are thwarted when the cider depot/Asturian restaurant is closed. The backup dinner spot is across the street in a romantic alley venue and satisfies an apparent craving for steak on the part of my parents.

Day 5. Toledo greets us with a statue and quote in three languages. Not Spanish, French, and English. Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. The more well-preserved of the two Toledan synagogues is an uplifting lesson, a Jewish place of worship, with not only Hebrew but also Arabic adorning the walls, and built in the beautiful and highly-skilled Mudejar style of the Muslims in Spain. Arabic language in a Jewish synagogue! Stop the presses!

Lunch in Toledo begins my successful run with regional cuisine. I eat partridge soup and a traditional Toledan pork dish. Dinner, though, is another nominee best meal. We are in Cordoba, it is past midnight, and I am eating rabo de toro, Cordoban oxtail stew. Dad gets four pounds of Spanish potato omelette and mom gets elegant lettuce wraps and smoked salmon.

Day 6. Cordoba is famous for its Mezquita (mosque), and rightfully so. It is really too bad that the fundamentalists have gotten to it though. Not even fundamentalist muslims, its the christians who've gotten to this one, since they made the mosque into a cathedral the minute they took over Cordoba. The flyer for the mosque/cathedral attempts to poke not-so-subtle holes in the architectural integrity and liberal rule of the Moorish reign. Thankfully the hauntingly enormous and empty Mezquita is also hauntingly beautiful. Don't get me wrong, I love the cathedrals too, but it's nice to see a holy place that isn't carved all up and down with imagery designed to force a certain idea into your head.

Dinner is in Sevilla, Andalusian gazpacho is dad's favorite because it's the most familiar tasting (it's great that my two grandmothers have somehow overtaken the nation of Spain as the real originators of gazpacho).

Day 7. Sevilla is hard not to like. The drive to the hotel through the tiny old city streets, following behind a friendly Sevillan biker who knows the way, is memorable. The flamenco show is way more epic than I previously had expected, credit to mom insisting we go. I need a 500 year old traditional music form that deeply expresses emotion through singing and instruments and dancing. At least I played the violin on the rooftop balcony of our hotel during twilight.

Lunch is my long-awaited sampling of gallego food (from Galicia). For those not in the know, my new favorite region of Spain is Galicia in the northwest corner, though its somewhat arbitrary. The reasons are basically octopus, shipwrecks, and nature. I have an avocado filled with shrimp and apple and russian dressing, and pulpo a la gallega, in which the octopus is waaaay more tender and non-rubbery than I've ever experienced.

And another paragraph for dinner, which is in Marbella on the Costa del Sol, at a Basque restaurant that does tapas by having the waiters walk around with plates of bite-sized creations on offer at that moment. I wanted to try all of them. Apparently the Basques are widely-accepted as having the best food in Spain. It was good.

Day 8. The stars align and, despite not having advance tickets for the Alhambra and also missing the alarm and oversleeping two hours, we are admitted to the Moorish palatial grounds in Granada at about 10 am. A poor attempt at audioguide narration by an immitation Washington Irving fails to sully the beauty of the place. Man I need to learn how to actually read Arabic calligraphy. Talk about time-consuming, talk about wondrous, the artwork of the palaces here are just so beautiful.

Dinner is quick in downtown Granada but we end well with chocolate con churros for the road. I hold molten chocolate in a plastic cup over my dad's lap so he can dip his churros while focusing on the highway in front of him.

Tags: culture, food, roadtripping, spain



What a whirlwind, wonderful, memorable time we had together. You did a great job of capturing the highlights. Here are a few more, from the mom's perspective, although I know I'm not remembering them all right now (but hopefully I've got the order correctly!).

Day 1 (Barcelona):
We went to the local food market, where we saw all kinds of meats, seafoods, fruits, vegetables, and snacks for sale in a crowded, colorful, square area. Although there are apparently no blackberries or raspberries in Spain, we had the most delicious strawberries I can ever remember eating. A walk down (and up) Los Ramblas was a sight, with vendors organized by type of product, including a whole block of purveyors of birds and various bird paraphernalia. Samuel arranged for us to stay in the most lovely casa rural near his temporary home in Les Piles, and we had that great country dinner in a restaurant in Santa Colome de Ste. Couralte (sp?).

Day 2 (Les Piles & Cuenca):
My son, the farmer. And the farm equipment engineer. And the older "son" and "brother" in an incredibly hard-working, ecologically-minded, kind family. Leaving Les Piles, we drove to Tarragona, which surprised me with its beauty, right on the sea. I think I could live here. In Cuenca we drove and walked up those streets until we couldn't go any further, amazed at the buildings built so high and savoring the views.

Day 3 (Segovia): Probably the biggest surprise for me. I hadn't expected to see walled cities, or their remains, everywhere I went, and this was the first, or at least the first that seemed mostly intact. A great aqueduct, clean streets, the original Cinderella's Castle more impressive on the inside than the outside, and an old Jewish quarter here that I hadn't read about beforehand in our guidebooks. The ancient Jewish cemetery that Samuel found was really a bonus, with a description that explained how the bodies were laid out inside caves dug into the hillside or in mounds built onto the hillside, the evidence of which still existed for us to explore and honor. Our first night in Madrid took us for a long walk around the city and dinner in a local tavern. Of course we didn't eat until about midnight, which fits our lifestyle perfectly. I was ready to go out partying, but the guys were too tired.

Day 4 (Madrid):
As reported, quality Mom-and-son time in the Prado and for lunch at a nearby cafe, while Dad went bike riding for a more expansive view of the city. Wandering around for dinner (after we found the place Samuel selected closed), we found a stylish restaurant that surprisingly was closing at midnight so we had to hurry a little - but it was good steak! As it was still early, we proceeded to a famous Chocolate & Churros haunt for dessert. Harold would have loved it!

Day 5 (Toledo): Another walled city, each of which seems to have a Juderia, or old Jewish quarter, where the Jewish community lived prior to their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Most of what existed prior to this has been destroyed, but there are 3 pre-1492 synagogues still existing, 2 of which are in Toledo. We got to see one, plus a nice Jewish museum attached to it. I roamed the streets (and shops!), while the guys visited the big cathedral. We arrived late in Cordoba, but not too late for dinner at an elegant, lushly decorated restaurant with multiple friendly waiters meeting and anticipating our every food desire. I was on Cloud Nine.

Day 6 (Cordoba):
This city had the most Islamic/Arabic feel to me of all the cities we visited, and I felt the most at home in it. Maybe because it had the other existing pre-1492 synagogue plus a really good Sephardic museum, and we stayed in a place called the Maimonides Hotel, complete with a realistic-looking bust of the great rabbi, born here in Cordoba. The combination of the Jewish and the Muslim aspects reminded me of Jerusalem. I too was in awe of the simple beauty of the Mezquita, sullied by the seeming disrespect of the Christian chapels and cathedral built inside, as awesome as the cathedral was.

Day 7 (Seville):
Ah, Seville! This could be my favorite of all the places we visited. We had to walk our bags to the hotel, as the streets became alleys and no cars could get by, only pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles. We had a penthouse suite, and Samuel serenaded the neighbors with his beautiful violin music. After dinner, the authentic flamenco show was a glimpse into a fiery, artistic culture, with amazing vocal and dance performances by women and men. Great outfits!

Day 8 (Granada):
We stayed overnight in Marbella and arose early (but still late) to get to Granada and hopefully get some of the tickets reserved for drop-ins at the Alhambra. We were lucky, and spent much of the day admiring the architecture and gardens and views from this legendary palace. After a final dinner in a lovely square in the new city, followed by chocolate and churros, we dropped Samuel off at the bus station in Malaga, to make his way to Lisbon. We old folks drove back to Marbella, looking forward to our next, and last, day in Spain.

Day 9 (Marbella):
We really needed this day after all the driving and climbing and early mornings and late nights of the week before. This is a tourist town, but the old section of the city is charming and the beach is lovely. We relaxed under the palm trees, with the Mediteranean on one side and the bustling street with restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels on the other. The sun and sea were restorative, and helped put out of mind the frustrations of driving the poorly numbered and labeled Spanish highways all week, trying to stay on schedule to see all that we had planned. Aside from the synagogues and cathedrals and alcazars and museums, the memories are of beautiful landscapes along the way between cities - olive trees, vineyards, fields of sunflowers, towns nestled between mountains, whitewashed homes, no advertising billboards (amazing how this improves the picture) - the serious Spaniards who both work hard and enjoy life, and the amazing history, culture, art & architecture of this proud and once great ("epic" as Samuel would say) nation.

Most of all we enjoyed and will always treasure the memory of having been able to share in Samuel's travels, to experience a bit of what he has been doing for the last 6 months - exploring the world and learning to appreciate all its diversity. What a treat it was for us!

  Mom Jun 14, 2008 8:41 AM


Sam, just finished catching up on your blogging. You never fail to inspire me. Miss you bud.

  Adam R Jun 16, 2008 2:40 AM

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