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I got a little hung up on the trip blogging because at some point I decided I should just go through the entire trip in order – and that quickly became a discouraging, daunting task. Mostly because I thought I might do a single post on Seville, but we were there for two weeks, and..what should I do?

So last night, I said, forget it. I’ll just blog topically and randomly, as is my wont. It will all be eventually organized in the proper order on the Travel page anyway.

When we went to Madrid several years ago (my daughter was working in Germany, and this was our way of meeting her for spring break – we’d been to Germany at Thanksgiving and she was ready for a change of scenery by that point), Toledo emerged as a possible day trip, but it lost out to Segovia, and I’m glad. Toledo is filled with daytrippers, and I think we got more out of our time there from not being a part of those hordes.

You might know the aspect of Toledo from El Greco, who settled here and painted it, memorably.

Image result for el greco toledo

That’s all I knew about it, really. Striking setting, old, former capitol. I’d considered staying for longer, and I’m glad we didn’t. Two days was enough. Not that we saw every corner, but there was something about the place that made me ready to leave.

There’s really no mystery about it – and it wasn’t the fact that it was blisteringly hot (high 90’s) during our time there. As I walked around, the best comparison I could come up with was Venice. Toledo certainly has more actual residents than Venice does, even in that historic center – I saw them shopping and sitting in government services waiting rooms (I wasn’t in those waiting rooms – the doors were wide open to the street), and you can see that the city spreads far out beyond the iconic rise on the river bend. But that historic center does seem predominantly tourist-centered in a way that, say, Seville, wasn’t. When I travel, what I enjoy experiencing is that mix of deep history and culture in the midst of vibrant contemporary life. Toledo struck me as more of a museum. Interesting with lots to see in a stunning setting – but still, a museum.

So – I’m definitely glad we went. The Cathedral was spectacular, with one of the most helpful and engaging audio guides I’ve heard, the setting was beautiful and thought-provoking and seeing the El Grecos – memorable. But I didn’t regret leaving – I didn’t think, “I could come back here” as I’ve felt in some other places, large (Seville), medium (Padova, Italy) and small (Uzes, France).

As I mentioned, we didn’t stay in the center. In retrospect, having walked around and seen some of the parking areas, I think we definitely could have managed a different arrangement with a hotel closer in – but not knowing the layout, I was hesitant to commit. So the Marriott it was! 

It’s about a kilometer from the center, and walkable, but…not in near 100 degree heat. I mean – you could do it, I suppose, but starting your day out with a kilometer walk, partly uphill, in that kind of weather, doesn’t make for a great rest of the day. So we took the bus which stopped on the hour right outside the hotel.

Highlights:

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, founded by Ferdinand and Isabella, who intended to be buried here, but ended up in Grenada. I highlight for you the weird monkey on a chamber pot and the prayer on display before the high altar, also pictured. It was nice to see what was on display presented in a way consistent with its original (and continuing) purpose.

 

 

El Greco Museum. There are, of course, several El Greco pieces on display in situ around Toledo, but photographs are not allowed in most of those places. Here at the El Greco Museum, they were – it’s basically a replica of his house, built by some wealthy fellow to highlight a collection. It’s not expensive to get in (maybe 4 Euros? And that was just for me), and it’s not huge, but it’s worth seeing, especially for these portraits of the apostles.

We arrived just as a huge, boisterous group of senior citizens did – so boisterous they had to be shushed by the attendants – glad they were having a good time! But we were able to outrun them and reach the important rooms before they got there.

 

 

We did walk back to our hotel that night – it cooled down a bit, and I wanted to see the area down by the river. You can’t see it from the photos, but fish of some sort were attempting to swim upstream over the little “falls.”

 

 

IMG_20190625_213337It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling – those early evening hours when you’re wandering back “home” and people are horsing around. They drive me a little nuts, but thinking about traveling on my own without them? Doesn’t actually hold much appeal to me.

Next morning – view from the hotel and breakfast.

 

 

Then, on the bus, up to the city. First stop: the Jesuit church of San Ildenfonso – wonderful art inside, and a tower with a great view:

 

 

My favorite detail on the Mary statue is that she’s holding the sword aimed at the dragon’s head. Awesome.

Then, the Cathedral. It is…huge. You don’t just wander in – I think it was ten Euros to enter and tour, and that is a price I can’t argue with. You can mutter, “It’s a church, you shouldn’t charge to enter it,” but with a structure like this, of great historic importance and such an attraction – sure. There’s no way you could maintain the structure and offer the experience without charging something, and ten Euros struck me as very reasonable. I don’t often get audio guides, but I’m certainly glad we got this one – it was very well done, with the explanations just the right length, and engaging as well. You can, of course, read about the Toledo Cathedral in all sorts of places and see wonderful, better images, so here are just a few:

 

 

Some notes:

The St. Christopher is huge – the length of a wall. The audio guide explained that it was a popular belief that if you saw an image of St. Christopher, you’d be protected from death on that day – so they painted this image of the saint so, well…no one could miss seeing it when they entered! Burgos had a similarly huge St. Christopher painted in their cathedral.

In the photo on the third row to the right, you see an oculus – it’s part of a fascinating structure, including a highly ornamented piece opposite – called El Transparente. More:

El Transparente is a Baroque altarpiece in the ambulatory of the Cathedral of Toledo. Its name refers to the unique illumination provided by a large skylight cut very high up into the thick wall across the ambulatory, and another hole cut into the back of the altarpiece itself to allow shafts of sunlight to strike the tabernacle. This lower hole also allows persons in the ambulatory to see through the altarpiece to the tabernacle, as if were transparent, so to speak. It was created in 1729-1732 by Narciso Tomé and his four sons (two architects, one painter and one sculptor). The use of light and of mixed materials (marble, bronze, paint, stucco) may reflect the influence of Bernini’s Cathedra Petri in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

….

Not only was a skylight cut into the top of the thick back wall of the cathedral across the ambulatory behind the high altar, but another hole was cut into the high altar itself to allow the shafts of sunlight to illuminate the tabernacle like a spotlight.

After the two holes were cut, Tomé and his sons designed a way to visually connect the two by sculpting a fantastic company of angels, saints, prophets and cardinals. Abstract designs suggesting flowing robes and foliage hang over corners to mask the details of the architectural piercings. Along the edges of the skylight they arranged an array of Biblical figures who seem to tumble into the cathedral. At the outer edge of the opening sits Christ on a bank of clouds and surrounded by angels. The back side of the altarpiece was converted to a tower of marble which reaches from the floor to the ceiling. Intricate groups of figures were assembled so that the opening to the tabernacle could be hidden yet permit light to pass through.

The photo to the far right on the last row? Paschal Candle holder.

I was struck, as I always am, every time, in places like this, by sights such as you see in the photo on the right in the second row. Dozens – even, given the course of traffic in a single day – hundreds or thousands – of people standing, studying these images, which are not just images, but images that tell a story – the story of Jesus, the story that meets the deepest yearnings of the heart of every person standing there.

We wonder, we worry, constantly – how do we get people into churches? 

Guess what – in places like this – here they are. Here they are. 

 

We stopped in many other churches, ate some very good middle-eastern food, bought IMG_20190626_134620 (2)sweets from more cloistered nuns (left hand photos, top down), saw the remnants of what must have been a spectacular Corpus Christi procession, saw a couple more unphotographical El Grecos, then went back to the hotel to cool off, then – since it doesn’t get dark until about ten o’clock – headed out in the car, first to a castle south of the city. I’d read about it on TripAdvisor – it’s abandoned, high up on a hill – just what we needed to balance out the tourist hordes. The drive in the rental car was a little dicey – a rocky road with lots of switchbacks – but we did it, and my final bill from the rental car company arrived with no extra charges, so I guess I did fine. It was amazing and cooler up there than down below.

 

We then found a mall – this one – again, one of my favorite things to do when traveling. You can’t pay me to go into a mall in the United States, but I do love experiencing non-tourist shopping in other countries. It’s just so interesting to see what’s different – and what’s exactly the same. We ate at the food court, having found, of course a 100 Montaditos. The most popular restaurant, though? McDonald’s of course, and it wasn’t even close. The lines were five deep there – with Burger King right across the way, employees standing around, looking bored…

And the next morning….adios, Toledo! 

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Much blogging this past week, one post of which migrated over to Catholic World Report. 

Look for some concentrated Mary Magdalene posting coming up over the next week, considering her feast is a bit more than a week away. Also much more Spain blogging – I’ll be doing more detailed posts on the main sites we saw.

Remember my short store The Absence of War, is available here. I have sharing enabled on it, so you can get a few reads for the price of one, I’m thinking.

Also, please check out Son #2’s new novel, Crystal Embers here. (If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free) And his blog, focused mostly on film, here. 

Reviewer Steven McEvoy on Crystal Embers:

I would describe this story as a retelling of the tale of Saint George and the Dragon, but from a completely different angel. George has been released from his role in the military after a long and hard-fought civil war. He has been sent home, but home is his men, the battles, and the adventure. He does not know where he fits, and a quiet desperation keeps gripping him. His wife, Virginia, is lost in her own way. Her husband that returned from war is not man she remembers leaving or had built up in her memory. And she is no longer in charge or the lands and has a stranger sharing her bed. George is known as the hero who ended the war. She mourns the loss of her child, and it is a child he never met. They encounter a dragon on their land and both of them become enthralled by it. But everyone expects the hero of the war to kill the dragon. 

 

 

 — 2 —

To break things up, here are a bunch of menus from restaurants in Guadalupe, Spain, taken on a brief pre-dinner walk – so I could return to the hotel room, study and translate before we were actually sitting at a table, panicking under a waiter’s steady gaze.

 

 

 

 

— 3 —

A few interesting links:

Yet another article on how modern educational methods have screwed everything up:

Many teachers have told me that they’d like to spend more time on social studies and science, because their students clearly enjoy learning actual content. But they’ve been informed that teaching skills is the way to boost reading comprehension. Education policy makers and reformers have generally not questioned this approach and in fact, by elevating the importance of reading scores, have intensified it. Parents, like teachers, may object to the emphasis on “test prep,” but they haven’t focused on the more fundamental problem. If students lack the knowledge and vocabulary to understand the passages on reading tests, they won’t have an opportunity to demonstrate their skill in making inferences or finding the main idea. And if they arrive at high school without having been exposed to history or science, as is the case for many students from low-income families, they won’t be able to read and understand high-school-level materials.

The Common Core literacy standards, which since 2010 have influenced classroom practice in most states, have in many ways made a bad situation worse. In an effort to expand children’s knowledge, the standards call for elementary-school teachers to expose all students to more complex writing and more nonfiction. This may seem like a step in the right direction, but nonfiction generally assumes even more background knowledge and vocabulary than fiction does. When nonfiction is combined with the skills-focused approach—as it has been in the majority of classrooms—the results can be disastrous. Teachers may put impenetrable text in front of kids and just let them struggle. Or, perhaps, draw clowns.

 

-4–

Speaking of reading, here’s a list of anticipated (by some) books for the rest of the year. Yes, I’m looking forward to Richard Russo’s new book – and a few others on the list. 

 

 

–5 —

 

Maybe you’ll find something to share here – from the “Secular Pro-Life” Facebook page – “Describe being Pro-Life, using a movie (or TV) quote.” 

And if you want to go darker, you can check out the Dank Pro-Life Memes pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I mean – you don’t have to …but if you want to…

 

— 6 —

Who is Sister Deirdre Byrne, mentioned by President Trump in his recent speech?

 

 

— 7 —

More:

Wearing a black veil and full-length white habit, Byrne enters an office at the Catholic Charities Medical Clinic in D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood with apologies for running late. A minor but emergent surgery had presented a few hours earlier. She performed the surgery in a small but well-equipped room down the hall; for more complex surgeries, she works out of a number of affiliated hospitals.

The modest clinic, a convent until it was renovated in the 1980s, resembles any private practice suite. A tour of the first floor reveals a closet-sized but wellstocked pharmacy, a lab, an ultrasound, three exam rooms, and a patient counseling room. Upstairs, there’s a wellappointed dental clinic and a light-filled chapel. There are two full-time doctors in addition to Byrne, several nurse practitioners, and rotating medical students, including some from Georgetown.

It’s clear that Byrne knows everyone in the building and everyone knows her. She’s a bit of a wisecracker, genially answering questions from colleagues and patients, quick with a touch and a greeting. The work of a surgeon and former medical director includes holding doors open for patients, helping to carry a baby stroller down stairs, and directing UPS deliveries.

It’s an informal atmosphere, seemingly lacking in hierarchy. “They all call me Sister Dede,” she says.

Byrne estimates that most of the clinic’s patients live well below the federal poverty line (about $24,000 for a family of four and about $12,000 for an individual). About half are undocumented. Few patients have insurance, but many pay what they can. “It helps with their dignity,” Byrne says.

 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Cod in Bilbao, Octopus in an Aldi in Madrid, a popcorn machine in Seville that fascinated.

(And a little bit in Italy)

We ate well in Spain, although it wasn’t a continual feast and it was never high-end. For the Seville part, there were six of us ranging in age from five to fifty-eight, of various dispositions, tastes and toleration levels. No, we had no pressing need to set out as a group to eat together for every meal (and in fact various divisions of the party would be off doing their own thing at times), but still, there were many factors to take into consideration which could be challenging at times. But knowing this, the smart person has already lowered expectations, and is happy to take whatever comes.

That’s not a bad suggestion for life in general, I think. Lower your expectations and be grateful for the gift of every moment. Yup.

Two other points:

First, my previous experience in Spain – Madrid and Barcelona on two different trips – had led me to expect more of the same regarding dinner times on this trip. It had been particularly acute in Barcelona, and perhaps I felt it particularly acutely at the time because I was traveling with a teen-age girl, an eight- year old and a four year old by myself. That is: they (Barcelona people – not my people)  don’t even start thinking about dinner until 9pm, and then, they really are just thinking about it. We’d set out at nine, confident that we’d  find a restaurant where we wouldn’t look like fools, as the sole customers – and were confounded every time.

So that’s what I was expecting in Seville. I was ready!

No need. Yes, “dinner” might not get rolling until that late hour, but the impact of the tapas culture is such that you can find people eating much of the afternoon and into the early evening.

Now, many restaurants are closed for a chunk of that – they might have been open for lunch from, say, noon to three or four – then they close and re-open at 8. But usually there are enough tapas bars that are open during that late afternoon-early evening hour that you can find something – and Spanish tapas is more than crackers and cheese. For light eaters, it qualifies as a meal.

So the point is that we never had trouble finding food being served somewhere. 

Secondly, while I enjoyed the food and by no means exhausted the local cuisine, I’ll say this about traveling to an area with a deeply-rooted traditional cuisine.

We look forward to it, right? We can’t wait to hit the pizza and pasta in Italy, the German sausages, the French sauces, the Spanish ham and potatos bravas. 

Well…

When I was in Italy (for two! days!), I was in the laundromat around the corner from our apartment. An American couple of about my age were also sorting and folding, so we got to talking. They were from Virginia and, like us, were on the tail end of a few weeks in Europe. I gathered that they’d been abroad a bit longer – more like four weeks. We had the usual conversation about how it had been great but we were ready to get home, and the woman said, I am so tired of pasta! 

And there you go. When an American travels to a part of the world with deep cultural traditions, we encounter a different world that is very attractive in some ways – in its richness and stability, its self-confidence. But, again, an American just might find some challenges in that landscape as well – I’ll talk more about this in a general way later, but since this is a food post, I’ll limit it to food.

What that stable, deep and rich culture means for food, in my limited experience, is that you encounter wonderful food that’s been centuries in the making, beloved, well-honed – and…not much else. So in Seville and around, the menus of most restaurants tend to share about 75% of the dishes in common: pork-related products (ham, of course, and also pork loin and chops), patatas bravasrevueltos (egg and vegetable scramble), snails (in season right now), and maybe ten other common dishes.

Restaurants doing anything different are scattered. We found one chicken-centered place not far from our apartment (there’s hardly any chicken on restaurant menus), and it was good, but most times we passed by, it was almost empty, as well.

Burger places are popular, though, and not just McDonald’s. There are several chains that do well – one we encountered often and ate at twice, I think, is called The Good Burger.

It’s not just so tired of pasta! It’s the beauty and the gift of the authentic diversity we have in this country  – with Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian, Nashville hot chicken, pizza and biscuits-and-gravy all within a couple miles of my house. A balanced world requires both – it requires the rich, solid, very-reluctantly changing and protected traditions – and the wildness of change and diversity. The trick is figuring out how to balance them, right?

Oh, and cost. You can eat very, very cheaply in Spain – in our experience. As I said, we didn’t go high end. So, for example, a tapas-centered dinner that filled all six of us up (including one five-year old, yes), including drinks – which included a couple/three beers – came, on one memorable occasion, to 43 Euros. Most tapas plates are between 2-3.5 Euros. Of course you can get larger plates, but we tended to stick with tapas-sized.

Anyway. Highlights of food, in no particular order:

 Spinach and chickpeas in Seville (very common); tuna & peppers (again, tipico) and some sort of potato-shrimp-chorizo thing in Seville (it was excellent); Asparagus and Migas in Trujillo – Migas – breadcrumbs, sausage, peppers and egg- a typical dish of the region. Then, snails in Seville. They were in season, and everywhere – and very good. The sauce was a rich tomato – more flavorful than most sauces I encountered in Spain.

Oh, that’s my advice for you if you travel to Spain to eat and have a typical American palate like mine: bring salt. Just a bit, to bring out those flavors a little more.

Asparagus is one of the more common green vegetables in the region. It’s so arid, they just don’t grow much, and they don’t really feature on the menus. Breakfast juice with strawberries. That weird, but tasty “zucchini tart” from Seville, and one of the typical pastries of Trujillo – basically, a custard.

Clockwise from top left: First two photos are from an excellent lunch in Merida. Tuna and peppers for me, delicious pork loin and chicken for the guys. . A typical breakfast in Caceras – toast (thick-cut bread) with ham and some olive oil. A typical pastry from Guadalupe – basically day-old cake bits bound with honey Then a break in Toledo with Middle Eastern food.

Same. Pizza in Lucca – the best, served as they do in Rome, with big sheets of it available for your choosing, sold by weight. Then a very good chain burger place in Seville called Goiko Grill – probably the most expensive meal we had, but they said the burgers were great, so it was worth it. Lamb brains from on of the Seville markets. Tapas that came with drinks in Toledo. Typical bakery in Chinchon. The beginning of pintxos in Bilbao.

In the south you have tapas – served generally from a menu. In the north, you have pinxtos – piled up high at the bar. If forced to choose, I would probably go with the pintxos – the olive/pickles orientation is more my style. The other feature of pintxos is slices of bread with…stuff piled on top. I thought I had photos, but I don’t. It’s easy to find them, though. 

We ate more than this, but a lot of my photos of those meals tend to have family members’ faces in them, and while many social media types have no problem using their families in that way, well, you won’t find that here.

One more: a tale of two montadillos.

There are different kinds of sandwiches in Spain, of course. The smaller is called the montadito. There’s a very popular chain called 100 Montaditos – and that’s exactly what it is. A menu featuring 100 kinds of montaditos priced at 1 Euro each.

I see that they have a few American stores – in Florida. Sandwiches are not a buck each – they start at 2 and go up. 

It’s truly fast food – I would say hangover food, really.  One of our party was fascinated with the concept and wanted to hit it every time we saw one (we didn’t.). I mean – for a euro? It was fine. Hit the spot.

But. 

These on the right  were better. Recommended in many guides, this bar – Bodequita Antonio Romero –  specializes in montaditos, and they were wonderful. I think not too much more than a Euro, but easily five times as flavorful. It’s the kind of thing you really wonder about – why can’t we have this here? Just go up to a bar, order a couple of little sandwiches, have a beer, and move on. Everyone’s professional and courteous, but there’s no need to treat the experience as if you are binding yourself to the establishment for life or need to be assured that you’re loved and appreciated.

(Two reasons, probably – it goes back to the deeply rooted cultural aspect of this food and these places – they’re just part of the fabric – and the no-tipping culture, as well. I found the waitstaffs in Spain to be sometimes on the brink of brusque, but always just…professional. As a person who will go an extra mile for self-checkout and who wants to Death Stare the next server who cheerily asks, How’s it goin’ guys? Having a good day? …this is definitely more my style.)

 

One more random note: While in Seville, most mornings, I went out and got pastries for breakfast from this bakery, called Colette – they were really some of the best I’ve ever had. On the quick jump over to Italy, I was reminded why I am not fond of the Italian take on these pastries – like croissants – they put a glaze on them. 

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Back from Spain, still recovering – as in, my body’s still on Europe time, awakening at img_20190616_174550about 4-5 am every morning. Which is a good thing! Every time this happens, I think, “This is definitely a lifestyle I should embrace.” And then a week later, there I am back in the old cycle of finally hitting the sack at about 1 am.

Because I’m lazy and unimaginative and have another writing assignment due today (Friday), I’m going to take the super easy way out of this and post information about where we stayed in Spain and why. This is part of how I begin to systematically blog the trip.

Previously:

Overview

Driving in Spain

— 1 —

But first!

 

 — 2 —

Oh, one more thing:

The only thing I regret about going to Spain at this point in time is that because of the trip, I missed the Eucharistic Congress held in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Diocese of Birmingham. It was, by all accounts, a wonderful event, the climax of which was a Eucharistic procession through the streets of the city, thousands of participants strong. Thousands! In Birmingham, Alabama!

For more, you can check out the Facebook pages of either the Cathedral of St. Paul or the Diocese.

 

Image may contain: 13 people, people standing and crowd

— 3 —

Now for some more practicalities of the trip to Spain: where we stayed.

First was the big chunk – two weeks – in Seville. I’d be hosting my son, his wife and son, so we needed a place big enough for all of us – and I found it!

I rented this via Homeaway/VRBO. You can read my review on the site. And while I really understand and even in some ways sympathize with views against the mass-marketing of vacation rentals through this agency and especially AirBnB (more on that at the end of this post), I mean – what can you say? Four bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths for less than I’d pay for a chain hotel room in Birmingham, Alabama.

And having a washing machine meant that we, at least, could travel with one very small suitcase apiece.

(No dryer – dryers are not common in southern Europe. The apartment had a clothesline reachable from the kitchen window, hanging over a courtyard.)

-4–

Caceres: This hotel – family room, with three single beds. 

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This is part of the Corpus Christi procession in Caceres, but the building in the middle on the corner, between the two restaurants, is our hotel. The family room was basically in the attic – the only window was in the roof. But it was fine!

 

Guadalupe: This lovely little hotel. This was perhaps my favorite of the hotels, and not just because they welcome you with a small bottle of wine. It was tidy and neat, with a sweet balcony – just the kind of place I’d stay in all the time if I were traveling by myself, and perhaps with just one other kid. It was so inexpensive – E30/night for a double room – that I was able to get two rooms.

First things first;view from the balcony; view of  the balcony from the street to the rear of the hotel. 

–5 —

For Toledo, we went corporate with an AC/Marriott hotel. Here’s the reason – parking. Not being familiar at all with Toledo, and knowing only “Medieval city on a hill painted by El Greco,” I couldn’t imagine that I’d be able to find a hotel with parking in the city itself, and had no concept of the geography of parking garages. This Marriott sits about a kilometer away from the city – it’s not a bad walk at all  – except, as I keep telling you, in 100-degree heat. Fortunately, it’s right on a bus line as well, a bus that shot right into the city and ended up at the main plaza.

In retrospect, and having walked around the city and observed the layout – I’d make a different decision about that today. I wouldn’t be afraid to take a car into the city, if a hotel indicated it had parking.

Anyway, the hotel was fine – a good breakfast, although the boys’ hopes of a waffle-maker, since you know, it’s an American chain – were not met. It was the typical Spanish breakfast with pastries, thick-cut bread for toast, cold cuts, cheese, cereals, yogurt, fruit and tortilla – a Spanish tortilla, remember, is a potato-and-egg baked concoction.

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Hotels in Spain do provide butter, but in cafes – at least in southern and central Spain – one puts olive oil, not butter, on toast. Cafes and bakeries that serve breakfast provide bottles of olive oil on the counter and on tables for breakfast toast. If you think about it, it makes sense. Butter wouldn’t be something that had developed in traditional cuisine in a climate like this. 

— 6 —

Over in Lucca, we went with AirBnB. There were no hotel rooms available by the time I got to planning this part of the trip which was, I hasten to add, not last minute. I mean – six weeks? That’s not at all last minute in my book. There weren’t even many apartments available – the Lucca Music Festival was going on, with a Friday concert by a 90’s band called Take That, which I might have heard of? Probably not. But a lot of women in their mid-30’s were there for it.  And then Saturday night, the reason for our jump over, was the supposedly (as advertised) “Last Concert” of Ennio Morricone – the great film score composer. I’ll write more on it later, but just know that I have a musician son who’s a yuge fan of the Leone Spaghetti Westerns and has Morricone’s scores on repeat, constantly. (Morricone wrote hundreds of other scores, including for The Mission.) 

So, yeah – no hotel rooms in a probably already tight market. I am honestly trying to avoid using AirBnB – I don’t like their Wokeness and while I had a good experience with them last year during the Japan trip and their response to the sudden changes in Japanese law, I don’t really trust them and am suspicious of the business model. But – well, you know? Here I was, so off to the AirBnB site I went.

I rented this apartment – which was in a great location (probably everywhere in Lucca is a great location) and run by very nice people. The only problem was it was SO HOT, even though I could tell the apartment was probably usually very comfortable with its thick stone walls – this heat was too much for it. We didn’t spend tons of time there, and we did what we could to keep it cool, but late Friday afternoon, we were walking by a store, saw a small box fan for sale in the window – and welp – the apartment owners now have a fan for the next guests. No regrets. J said that night was the best sleep he’d had the whole trip.

— 7 —

And Bilbao? Also corporate – a Holiday Inn Express. It was five minutes from the airport where I’d be returning the car and flying out of. It worked out great – the night crew at reception was composed of two lovely young women who both accepted new guests and tended bar.

And when you can get a glass of good local wine for E1.80?

You’ve got my vote….for…something.

***

I don’t know where I ultimately come down on the hotel v. vacation rental issue. I absolutely see how the latter has been exploited. It’s no longer just you renting out your dead parents’ charming apartment in the city while you come in from your more modern suburban digs to give the key to the tourists and tell them about your favorite restaurants. It’s people buying up blocks of apartments – and whole buildings – and turning them into what amount to hotels without having to pay the same taxes and meet the same regulations as hoteliers. We stayed in an apartment in Barcelona ten years ago, well before AirBnB exploded, but I could already see it happening then. We stayed in a fantastic art nouveau apartment there, but as I recall from the listing, essentially the whole building was rented out as vacation stays. What happens to neighborhoods and communities at that point?

Also, if I lived in an apartment in close proximity to a bunch of now-vacation rentals, I don’t know how I’d feel about that. Probably…not happy.

 

 

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Last post: Basic itinerary.

This post: how we got around:

 

In Seville, we mostly walked. And walked. And walked.

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Not usually with bulls, though. 

The central area of Seville is quite, quite walkable. Hardly anything more than a kilometer away – it would have been like nothing if it hadn’t been near or at a hundred degrees most days. We did the bus twice – the first time when we took our grandson/nephew down to the Aquarium from our apartment. Walking a mile and a half img_20190614_130303is fine, but not a great way to start the day with a five-year old if you would like to maintain his enthusiasm. Buses are much better for that. The second time involved the bullfight museum and the Basilica of La Macarena – Seville’s most revered image of the Virgin. I got the bright idea of going to the bullfight museum…but then we couldn’t get tickets for anytime earlier than 90 minutes from that moment. So I went ahead and got the tickets, and then got the next bright idea – that we’d go visit the Basilica – we had just enough time to do it, and All the Information told me it would be re-opening soon – at 4:30. It was just a little far to walk in that time, so sure – bus.

Well, we missed the bus the first time – we were standing in the shade a bit away, it swung by, paused….and left, with us running after it. Too bad! So we waited a few minutes until the next one came, took the bus up to the Basilica…and found that it actually didn’t re-open until five. Ah. By that point, I didn’t feel like walking back to the bus stop and waiting, so I just hailed a taxi to take us back – it was about 1 Euro more than the bus would have been for all of us.

The buses in Seville were – in my limited experience – prompt and clean. Very prompFare was $1.40, payable in cash, change actually given, which sort of shocked me.

Train to Cordoba was fine, although Spanish trains seem far more expensive than trains in at least Italy and France. Yes, they do offer discounts when you book in advance, and img_20190617_174007I’m sure Spanish residents use all sorts of plans and cards to get better deals, but still – I’ll just compare it to our brief stint in Italy. The train between Pisa and Lucca – about a 30 minute ride – was E 3.60, last minute, purchased before boarding. The train between Seville and Cordoba – longer, yes, but still a ride less than an hour – could not be had for less than E11, even in advance, and even on non-high-speed trains. I suppose there are differences in financial structures and support than impact that, but train travel in Spain was simply not as attractive as it had been in Italy in the past.

Above: walking to the Cordoba train station.

As I mentioned in the last post, I didn’t actually commit to renting a car for the second part of the trip until a couple of days before the moment arrived. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, although I’d driven in other countries before, and one stop in the last part of our trip would necessitate a car, absolutely. But still, I would have occasional seizures of hesitancy, and scramble around Google Maps, trying to figure if there were other destinations we could explore that were more friendly to train travel. There might have been, but it would have required me re-arranging my brain – and some of the destinations (like Guadalupe) would have been incredibly complicated to visit if we’d not had a car.

So…a car it was. Rented from Hertz, through the Hertz site. About $200 for ten days, pickup in one city, dropoff in another, much insurance paid for plus insurance through my Amex card.

I am extremely wary of 3rd-party sites when it comes to things like car rentals in foreign countries. Having that extra layer of responsible parties just might mean adding one more party who doesn’t want to help you when things go wrong, handing you back to the party in the previous layer…who would also like to not bother with you, and hands you back.

I read a lot of travel disaster stories and a great many of them involve aspects of travel booked through third-party sites, it seems to me.

International Driver’s License obtained through AAA, as you’re told to do – pay $20, get a form that you can show cops. There’s all sorts of conflicting information out there as to whether it’s required in various countries. All I can say is – the rental agency never asked for it at any point, and since I wasn’t stopped at any point, I don’t know if la policia would have actually asked to see it, rather than just my US state license.

I picked up the car in Seville, at the train station. I could have done so at the airport, but I wasn’t going to the airport, the airport was farther away, and my son and his family were going to the train station anyway on Saturday, so why not? The reason some warn against picking up a car at the train station rather than the airport has to do with traffic for the driver new to driving in Spain – the airport’s further away from the city, of course. But the train station is very near a highway, it was a Saturday, so there wasn’t much traffic – it was fine.

In fact, being introduced to driving in Spain on a weekend was an unintentionally excellent idea. I recommend it. I drove through and out of Seville, up to Merida, then to Caceres, and the next day to Trujillo and back to Caceres, going through the towns, parking in the middle of the towns – with no problems or issues, simply because it was a weekend and traffic was so light.

There were only two points during those ten days in which I felt a little harried behind the wheel – the first was in Talavera de la Reine – our stop on the way to Toledo. It was the middle of a weekday, everyone was out, and I found myself in the midst of traffic I hadn’t expected. I wasn’t keen on driving around in that and found parking as soon as I could, perhaps further away from the Basilica than needed, but at least I was off the road and away from all those other drivers, impatiently tailing me around roundabouts. The second was Tuesday in Bilbao – it was okay, but getting out of town at the end of our day there was a little tense, simply because it was around 5pm on a weekday. Only almost mowed over a couple of pedestrians.

Other than that, most of my driving was on highways – motorways  – as the GPS lady called them. My experience driving these roads was similar to what it had been in France – very relaxing, and for the same reason, I think. The speed limit for cars is 120 km/hour (about 75 mph). I don’t know if it is the same for trucks, but I don’t think it is, because they all seemed to be going at least 15-20 km/slower and they stuck to it. Trucks don’t pass cars on these highways – they generally seem to stick in the left lanes. So with that absence of barreling semis and no billboards to speak of (sorry, Shunnarah!), you have a much calmer driving landscape.

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Trujillo in the distance.

And roundabouts? As I’ve mentioned, I’m a fan. Once you get the hang of it and understand the yielding and that if you are exiting soon, you should hang right as soon as you can – they’re great. I particularly like them because they offer a more tolerant approach to mistakes and changes of mind. You miss your turn? Just drive around again, and there you are. Very…European. 

The only thing I didn’t like and really didn’t understand was the way directional arrows – really just triangles – are painted on Spanish roads. I can’t find an image online of one, and I didn’t photograph it – because obviously, we’d be in the car when we saw it, but picture this:

In the lane you’re driving in, you are approaching a triangle painted in your lane indicated the proper direction traffic should be flowing.  Imagine what this might look like – perhaps, if you’re imagining it, you’re envisioning being in your car and seeing the triangle painted on the road, with a side facing you and one of the vertices pointing away from you. Like an arrow.

But no.

It’s the opposite. For some reason, they do the opposite – a flat side facing away from you indicates the direction of traffic with the vertex pointing at you. I can’t tell you how many times I would get mildly, momentarily freaked out when glancing down and seeing that triangle pointing at me and my car. Am I going the right way?! Yes, my navigator would assure me. Yes, yes. Or, as the Spanish would say, si-si-si. 

I encountered a few toll roads I wasn’t expecting and wasn’t prepared for, but luckily had enough change for or by accident and happenstance got into a lane that took cards, so no disasters there. I stuck to the speed limit, so I don’t think I got a ticket, although in Spain, they don’t seem to have the law patrolling for speeders, but instead use some sort of Super Secreto Radar, and you think you’re fine when surprise  – a traffic ticket turns up in your mailbox a few weeks later.

And, finally, parking. That, rather than the challenges of driving, was the real reason I considered alternatives to driving. I was just really concerned about parking the car in these old towns designed for horsecarts, not cars. Where would I park? How would I know where to park? Would I have to parallel park on narrow stone roads?? That was a needless worry – and I didn’t have to go to the lengths I did to find “HOTEL WITH PARKING PROVIDED” either. Lesson really learned there – for of course, all of these towns are crazy to drive in, no one really wants to drive in them, and the towns don’t want to be clogged with cars either, so of course, there is plenty of parking available in lots right outside the centers, within easy walking distance of anything you’d want to stay, and even hotels.

One of the parking garage companies – I encountered this in a couple of places – has the tickets (we think) jerryrigged with chips or something so that after you pay, you don’t even have to insert it or even make contact with a machine before the barrier arm lifts – it just. There may be something else going on – perhaps an attendant has been watching via camera and knows you paid and raises the arm? But whatever the case, it was efficient and impressive.

Conclusion: I’m glad I rented the car. We were able to see things we would have missed if we’d traveled by bus or train. No way we could have reached Guadalupe as easily as we did, or made the out-of-the way stops we did with as much efficiency. Costwise, it just might have been a wash. If we’d just gone to major sites, even as expensive as train travel is in Spain, when you throw in the cost of parking and gas, I’m thinking it would have been about the same for the three of us. Hard to say, though. Either way, you see things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Left to right: Underground parking in Talavera de la Reine; free parking lot a few hundred meters from our inn in Guadalupe; parking garage outside the old city of Caceres, a ten minute walk from our hotel. 

 

Two spots where a slightly larger car came in handy – driving up the dirt switchbacks leading up to the castle on the left, south of Toledo, and then taking the hard way up a very rocky road to this overlook and then down a dirt path – instead of the slightly easier way involving only rural dirt roads and no straight uphill path of rocks – to the Sad Hill Cemetery.

 

And some of us even rode boats.

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We’re back!

I’m going to do a recap of our trip, partly for you, but mostly for me. If you’ve ever taken an intense trip like this, you know how weird it is, how time compresses, how the moments you are convinced you won’t forget immediately fade into the fog of memory.

As I usually do, I’ll start with the basics. I’ll outline our itinerary in this post, including how we got around, then follow up with a post on where we stayed, then follow that up with several more detailed posts on what we experienced.

So..why Spain?

I have no Spanish blood in me (WASP on one side, French-Canadian on the other). Son #5 has a strong interest in Hispanic-related things, but from this side of the world: Mexico and Central America.

But.  I do find Spain an interesting place – well, everywhere in the world is interesting to me, so that’s not helpful. I wanted a fresh destination for us and one that was easy to get to, closer to the US than say, Poland, and that would be a good spot for not only us, but for one of my older sons and his family (wife and son), who would be joining us for the first part of the trip.

So what evolved was a Seville-centered trip for the first two weeks, and then the three of us exploring for the rest of it. I had a general sense of what we’d do – ending up in Bilbao for a flight out, but I left it basically open until we were actually in Spain. I made some refundable hotel/hostel reservations, but I didn’t make the final decisions until we were actually there, and that included renting a car.

It turned out, I think, to be an excellent choice. For me at least! The one negative was the weather – as you know, Europe was in the midst of an intense heat wave during the last part of June and although almost everywhere we went had air conditioning, it made walking about outdoors not the most pleasant of experiences – in Bilbao, the temperatures were in the 70’s, and it was…lovely!

Anyway, here’s a map of our travels, followed by a day-by-day breakdown.

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June 10:  Fly out of the US

June 11: Arrive, eventually, in Seville, late afternoon.

June 12: Son #2 & family arrive

June 11-June 22 Seville.  One day trip for us &grandson to Cordoba. One two-day trip for Son & Daughter-in-law to Grenada

June 22: Son #2 & family back to US.

June 22: Pick up rental car at Seville train station. Drive to Mérida for the afternoon and then to Cáceres‎

June 22-24 (morning): Cáceres‎ with Sunday afternoon trip to Trujillo.

June 24 (Monday): Drive to Guadalupe. Spend night in Guadalupe.

June 25 (Tuesday): Drive to Toledo, with stop in Talavera de la Reina.

June 25-27: Toledo

June 27: Drive to Madrid – stops in Chinchon and Mejorada del Campo , stay in airport hotel.

June 28-30: Fly RyanAir to Lucca, Italy (via Pisa)

June 30: Fly back to Madrid, get car, drive to Sad Hill Cemetery outside of Santo Domingo de los Silos, late afternoon in Burgos, see the Burgos Cathedral, drive on to Bilbao

July 1: Day in Bilbao, evening, return car.

July 2: Back to US – fly into NYC, spend night, visit with Ann Engelhart  (follow her on Instagram, too!) who picked us up at JFK and took us to the hotel in Astoria, and then with Son #1, who lives in NYC.

July 3: Back to Birmingham!

And how did we get around? In Seville, we walked, with a couple of cab and bus rides here and there. We took the train to Cordoba. Son and DIL took the bus to Grenada.

After Seville, we drove. I’ll probably do a post on driving in Spain later, but just know that it was absolutely fine. Even navigating in towns and cities, while a little fraught, was problem-free. I have driven in Europe before – in Sicily in 2009,throughout France in 2012, then in Italy in 2016 – so, for example, the whole concept of the roundabout is familiar to me, and I really am a fan.

The car was a Citroen Cactus,rented from Hertz for about $200 for the 11 days – very cheap, it seems, especially with pickup and dropoff in two different cities.  I usually go super small (last time in Italy, I drove a small Fiat and it was great fun), but I knew this time we’d be driving on some questionable roads (to get to Sad Hill Cemetery) and a small car was…not advisable for that. It drove very well, and came with GPS, which I’ve never had in a car before, but was invaluable this time.

Well, I started this about 5:30 AM – I’ve been awake since 4, with my body still on Europe clock – and I expect others to start awakening soon, so…more later on exactly where we stayed and what all that was like.

 

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— 1 —

Greetings…not from Seville, finally!

Since last we met (if you only show up here on Fridays), we’ve been to Caceres, Trujillo, Guadalupe, Talavera de la Reine, Toledo, Chinchon and here tonight in Madrid….with a weird weekend trip coming up, then a couple more weird things and then home. 

These trips are very good for making me a homebody…for a while.

For some accounts of what we’ve done and some photos, just click back to previous entries and check out Instagram as well.

 — 2 —

My other news this week is that the Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols was awarded first place in the “Children’s Books” category from the Catholic Press Association:

Many thanks to the great team at Loyola who designed, illustrated and edited this book of which I’m very proud!

— 3 —

Speaking of this book and speaking of today – the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart – here’s the entry on that:

-4–

All right – some travel notes. We were in Toledo Tuesday evening, all day Wednesday and this morning, when we left – gawking at the views, as one does driving around the city in this amazing setting. We weren’t the only ones, of course. The road was already crowded with tour buses of daytrippers stopped at the viewpoints – but it was time for us to go.

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–5 —

First stop was to be Aranjuez, famed for a huge palace that was a summer home for Spanish monarchs. I was a little confused by the directions, traffic was heavy and I really don’t care much about palaces anyway (we were in Paris for five weeks, and I had no interest in seeing Versailles…so we didn’t), so….we just kept driving.

To Chinchon – an interesting little town that boasts a church with an Assumption painted by Goya (his brother was a priest there and he liked spending time there), a proud tradition of anise liqueur production, and a fascinating, medieval-looking central plaza that…is…used for bullfights. !  They were setting up bleachers for one as we wandered. That would be something, wouldn’t it? It was incredibly windy up there, which was a relief considering the highs in Spain over these days is in the 100’s…(seriously). I had thought we’d eat, but nothing really appealed to us except some of the local typical bakery goods, so we just wandered, went to the small local museum, saw the church and went on.

— 6 —

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…have you heard of this? I’d learned about Don Justo a few years ago when we first visited Madrid. I wanted to get out there to see his work then, but time constraints and no car made it impossible that time. But not this time – we have a car, and it was on the way from Chinchon to our hotel outside Madrid.

Here’s the story in his own words:

My name is Justo Gallego. I was born in Mejorada del Campo on September 20, 1925. When I was very young, I had a deep Christian faith and I wanted to devote myself to the Creator. For this reason, when I was 27 I entered the monastery of Santa Maria de la Huerta in the province of Soria. After eight years, I fell ill with tuberculosis and I was forced to leave the community for fear I might contaminate the others.

I came back to Mejorada devastated by this setback to my first attempt at a spiritual life. So I decided to build, on farmland belonging to my family, an offering to God. Little by little, the building was erected, spending my family inheritance to keep it going. There were never any construction plans or official permission. Everything is in my head. I am not an architect or a stonemason. I have never had any training in the building profession. My basic education was interrupted by the Civil War. I was inspired by books about cathedrals, castles and other religious buildings and they gave birth to my own work. But my principle source of illumination and inspiration has always been the Word of Christ. It is He who guides me and it is to Him that I offer my work, in gratitude for the life he has given me and in penitence for those who have not followed his path.

It has been almost fifty years since I devoted myself to building this cathedral and I still get up at three thirty in the morning to start my day. With the exception from time to time of assistants, I have done it all by myself, mostly using recycled building materials… and there is not set date for the end of this work. I content myself everyday offering to the Almighty the work He wishes me to do and it makes me happy to think of what I have already accomplished. And I will continue, till the end of my days, to keep working on the cathedral with my resources and donations from other.

Everything that is made in the name of God helps us to admire his reflected and eternal glory.”

I’m thinking it’s all any of us are called to do: use what’s at hand to create something  – simply a life – that reflects His love and glory. Right?

It was astonishing – far bigger than I’d expected. I also thought it would be out in a field somewhere, but no, it’s right there in the middle of the town. It wasn’t open when we went, but we were able to see enough, including inside, to get a good sense of it, be impressed and be humbled.

— 7 —


Couple more writing notes: The Absence of War is available again and check out this interview with Son #2 about his writing process. Here’s his forthcoming book, available for pre-order.  He also blogs every weekday about film.

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