Monday, October 24, 2016

Hola Desde España – Part Two: Salamanca, September 19-22, 2016

From Madrid we took the train (gotta love Spanish trains – basic, clean, comfortable and efficient) to Salamanca. We weren’t quite sure why we were going to Salamanca other than because it was written about in both of our tour books (thanks again for the Baedeker, Rob and Tom!) and described as having a lovely central plaza, the oldest university in Spain and an interesting cathedral. That, and it was more or less on the way (as trains go) between Madrid and our next destination: the Spanish Basque Country.

We are so glad we stopped in Salamanca. In fact, so glad that we are now talking about it as a place to study Spanish during some future sailing break. 

Sightseeing in Salamanca

Salamanca is a combination of charming architecture, interesting history and youthful exuberance all due in large part to it's ancient university. It reminded us of one of our favorite places in Mexico – Guanajuato.

Salamanca Streetscape

And Another

Propping Up The Old
Until It Becomes The Renovated

Bryce Strolling Across A Bridge
Originally Built By The Romans

Plateresque Architecture -
Convent of St. Stephen

We arrived just after the city’s biggest annual tourist event – the Feria de Salamanca, a week-long art and music fair. The hotels had dropped their prices and everyone in the tourist business was polite, but very, very tired. The daily English-language tour of the city was no longer being offered so we were left to our own devices – which worked out well.

We wandered a lot, used audio guides when they were available and visited the:

Casa de las Conchas / Public Library

The public library is housed in a beautiful Age of Discovery period building (built 1493-1517) called the Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells) because of the carvings of scallop shells that stud its exterior walls. Scallop shells are symbols (for reasons not clear to us) of the order of Santiago (St. James), and the original owner of the house was a member of the Order. [We failed to get a picture of the outside of the building but a quick internet search will make our description clearer.]

The building has been modernized to house the city’s library (large glass panels letting light into the reading room) and work continues on its beautiful interior courtyard.

Beautifully Reconstructed Ceiling

Restorer At Work

Restoration In Progress

But what really impressed Bryce was the coffee machine in the library reading room. Wow – is this a great country, or what?

A Coffee With That Book?

“Old” and “New” Cathedrals

The “old” cathedral was primarily constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries. By the 16th Century the local bishop (who apparently had some pull in Rome) decided it was too small and too dark and too old-fashioned, so in 1513 work was begun on the “new” cathedral which was finally finished in 1733 (practically yesterday in Salamanca time). Today, the cathedrals are toured as a whole, and we recommend the audio guide (it’s a Catholic church and a Catholic themed audio guide – just relax and go with it).

We spent a lot of time in both cathedrals, awed by their height, light and strength (which of course is the point of cathedrals . . . awing and inspiring):

Molly - Looking To The
Architectural Heavens

In Large Part, It's About Looking Up

A Caballero's (Knight's) Final Resting Place

Though our favorite cathedral moments were in the bell tower.

Bryce As Bell Ringer

A Bell Tower View

Climbing a Bell Tower -
Like Having Mast Steps

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Sign Says Don't Touch The Bells
-- Not A Problem For Molly

Molly was also awed (in a PTSD sort of way) by the Chapel of Santa Barbara where, in the early years of the university, students sat for their final examination. The process sounds like a hideous combination of an oral bar exam and a doctoral thesis defense. The student entered the chapel where he (always, he) was given several subjects and a day to prepare an oral presentation on each. At the end of the preparation period a committee of professors would determine which subjects they wanted to hear and the student would make his presentation on those – leaving much of his preparation on the cutting room floor so to speak. Following the student’s presentation the group would adjourn for dinner while the student dined on food sent through a grill in the wall (extreme exam proctoring!). After this break the professors would return to the chapel to challenge the student’s presentation. If the student was able to adequately defend his initial presentation bells would ring and he and his friends would go get drunk. If not – he left town.

The University of Salamanca

The University was founded in 1254 and originally educated scholars, teachers and church luminaries. During the Era of Discovery and thereafter it churned out civil servants to staff the government agencies charged with stripping the wealth of the Spanish colonies. Today the university is renowned for its Spanish language programs.

The colleges of the university are spread throughout Salamanca and parts of some are open to visitors, offering a fascinating peak into medieval higher education. [Side note: Molly chafed at the references to the university’s former male-only student body so she did some quick internet research. Her Jesuit-run law school notes proudly that it accepted women as early as 1956. Hmmmm. Sexism - it's all just in our minds, yeah?]

Long Ago Graffiti 

When The University And
The Church Were One

Bryce And His Audio Guide

Librarians: Even Excommunication
Didn't Eliminate Book Theft, Apparently

Plaza Mayor
Salamanca’s central plaza is quite lovely and lively, both during the day . . .

Plaza Mayor

Modern Cleaning Technique
For Medieval Plaza

. . . and at night:

Who Needs Disney Lights?

Dining Al Fresco

We celebrated Molly’s birthday (the number shall not be mentioned . . . ) at a restaurant on the plaza watching students first gather and then form teams and play games that looked a lot like versions of  “Red Rover, Red Rover” with alcohol. Great fun if you’re 20 years old – and fun to watch when you’re . . . older.

Other Sights

Many of the buildings in Salamanca that are open to visitors are convents – some operating and some re-purposed. We had an interesting visit to the Convento de las Ursulas where, sadly, we weren’t allowed to take pictures. The objects on display at the one-room museum weren’t spectacular – but the two little sisters (at 5’1" Molly towered over them) who giggled throughout our time there were totally cute and quite picture-worthy. When it was time to lock up and go pray these giggling women, still smiling, became ruthlessly efficient: everyone out, thank you for coming, gotta get praying here.

Another afternoon we were reminded that Salamanca isn’t just a charming living museum, but a modern city. We wandered into a clean energy car show on a plaza and Bryce spent a happy hour trying out his technical Spanish on some hybrid car salespeople. They seemed to understand his questions . . . though he didn’t always follow their answers!

Low Carbon Transportation

And we are sure there are other places to explore, given more time.

Salamanca Logistics

Queen beds are hard to come by in Spain – even for those old enough and tall enough (Bryce) to be willing to pay for more than a budget hotel.  Travel Tip: “Double” beds are often only two twins shoved together. It does make one wonder how the country has maintained it’s current birthrate. We were happy to find a queen bed at the Hotel Eurostars Las Claras.

The hotel had the added bonus of being a block away from Vinodiario (Daily Wine), an informal and charming restaurant with great food and an interesting wine list. If you travel to Salamanca don’t miss Vinodiario – the night manager is a wine-maker and loves to talk and pour wine.

And Then We Were On To Spain's Basque Country! 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Hola Desde España – Part One: Madrid, September 13–19, 2016

Uh . . . Spain? Weren’t we just in Costa Rica? Well, yes we were. But that was two months ago. Now we are in Spain.

Bryce, Checking Out Spain

Here’s how that happened: In August we flew from Costa Rica to California to see family and friends, check on the house and perform the Annual Medical Boogie (doctors, dentists, contact lenses . . . etc.). After a month-plus of that we decided to spend two months of the remaining Central American rainy season in Spain and, without a lot of planning - left. 

Abracadabra is being looked after at Banana Bay Marina in Golfito, Costa Rica; and we will be back there in January to take up our life aquatic as well as our America Central narrative.

At the time of this post we are having a relaxing week in a casita in the tiny village of Lubrin, Andalucia. So relaxing that we've had time to begin writing about the month we have already spent in Spain . . . hopefully before our memories get buried under the continuing experiential downpour of our next month here!

Madrid – September 13 – 19

Streetscape, Madrid

First, a Travel Tip (humor us – we have no children so this blog is our chance to offer unsolicited advice): For those traveling to Madrid from the West Coast of North America: to whatever amount of time you think you want to spend in Madrid, add two days. Madrid is big and packed with museums and sight-seeing opportunities and we found that, at our age “jet lag” is very, very real (particularly after a night in steerage and a nine hour time adjustment). We scheduled six nights (5.5 tourist days) in Madrid because, as our friends and readers know, we are pokey travelers. Even so, we didn’t have the stamina to see/experience all that we had planned.

Some Madrid Logistics (Independent Travel vs. Taking a Tour = Time Spent on Logistics):

  • We took the airport shuttle bus because the train was closed due to rain (all we know is what we were told . . . ). The bus worked flawlessly except that everyone else arriving that morning was in the same line because, well, the train wasn’t working.
  • Our first two nights' stay was at Hostal Bruña. In Spain a “hostal” means a pensión rather than a youth hostel / dorm room adventure. Our room was on the second floor (European first floor) of an apartment building several doors down from the building in which Hostal Bruña’s reception is located. Pack lightly if you plan to stay in “hostals” – they don’t always have an elevator.  
  • Buying a telephone sim card in Spain was more difficult than in America Central. Currently only Vodafone has a no-contract arrangement for travelers and despite what our tour book said, Corte Inglés – the mother of all Spanish department storesis not the place to buy a Vodafone card. Travel Tip: Those with a cell phone plan (that doesn't include us) might consider just adding European coverage to the plan.
  • Our second hotel (we hadn’t planned much in advance and the Hostal Bruña was full after the two nights that we had booked) was Hotel Plaza Mayor which we really enjoyed. Both lodgings were well situated and relatively quiet.
  • Laundry: Expensive – at a Madrid laundromat each load is 8E to wash and 6E to dry. Use the sink if you can or adjust your sensibilities!
  • Again, because we had made so few travel arrangements we spent some time in Madrid’s huge, centrally located Atocha train station getting a pensioner’s discount card (the “Dorado” or “gold” card) and our tickets. Everything worked just fine - but take a number, be patient, and bring your passport!
  • Travel Tip: There are several train stations in Madrid. Tickets reflect the departure station and no one will assume you are so stupid as to need to be told where to find that information. Just sayin'. There are trains from Atocha to the more suburban stations (including, say, Chamartin) that are available to ticket holders at no extra cost. BUT the departure time on the train ticket is the departure time from the suburban station – not from Atocha. Fortunately due to a traumatic missed flight experience in Molly’s youth we often build in “getting lost time” . . . 

Atocha Station

What We Were Able To Do/See In Our 5.5 Tourist Days:

We had a very nice evening at a flamenco performance at Casa Patas, which we had read was less touristy than other flamenco shows (there are shows advertised on every other corner in Madrid’s tourist zone). We don’t really know what’s touristy and what’s not – but we enjoyed the performance very much and the audience was primarily national tourists. We also had the pre-show meal, which was surprisingly good. Even if you aren’t sure whether you are a flamenco fan – well, really, when in Spain . . . one must.

It looks so Passionate:




It sounds so Grieving:


And your admission includes a drink.


A word about food: Madrid seems like a hard place to be a vegetarian. There are pork products . . . everywhere.

The Ham Museum - A City-Wide Chain of
Pork Product Purveyors

We hit the tapas bars for dinner on our first couple of nights and then realized that even though the Spanish love their tapas, they eat them like North Americans eat appetizers – when going out with friends. Not for dinner every night! We soon switched to raciones which are plates to be shared: a half ración of grilled vegetables with one of grilled octopus and two glasses of (exceedingly inexpensive and good!) white wine = a wonderful dinner for two.

We visited two of the “must see” art museums in Madrid – the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sophia. And then . . . we committed tourist heresy. We didn’t go to the Prado. See above re: jet lag and:

The Intimidating Two Block Long Line For
Tickets To The Prado

The two museums we did visit have excellent collections and for those who, like us, are not art experts, very enjoyable and informative audio guides. And possibly just as important to travelers – good cafes.

The Reina-Sofia is now home to Picasso's Guernica which, “back in the day” when it was newly returned to Spain following the death of Franco, was part of the collection at the Prado. At the Reina-Sofia it is part of a display of cubist works and other styles of the same time period. This puts the huge painting in artistic and historical context which is what great museums do. But for Molly, who remembers seeing it in the small out-building of the Prado this somehow diminished the work. It no longer took her breath away as one of the great anti-war statements – it was just an important and impressive cubist painting. She would appreciate hearing from anyone who has seen it in both settings -- thoughts?

We won’t bore you with our amateurish photographs of pictures in the museums' collections – you can see better photographs on line. But we had a fun “travel connection” moment in the Reina Sophia which we took a picture of. There was a nice little exhibit including film of the American modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller who we were introduced to at the Maryhill Museum on a summer road trip through the Columbia River area in 2012.

Loie Fuller In Full Flight

A favorite museum for us was – surprise! – the dowdy and old-style Naval Museum. Fans of sailing ship models and old maps should not miss this one.

Models - Engineering Studies As Art

We visited the National Palace and, as with other palace tours, came away happy someone had been rich enough to support some very talented artists and artisans and that they were later encouraged by some form of political pressure to make their collection available for public viewing.

Bryce - Always At Home At A Palace

We accidentally arrived at the palace in time for the daily guard change which, though not nearly as impressive as similar activities in London or Edinburgh, was taken very seriously by the guards.

Ceremonial Guards
Real Guards

One of our favorite outings was our Sunday afternoon at Parque del Buen Retiro – Madrid’s large urban park. Molly had a tinto verano (red wine and Sprite – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it on a warm afternoon!) and Bryce had a beer while we watched tourists and locals hang out. We felt like we were finally coming out of the jet lag fog!

Sunday In The Park With Us

Much of our entertainment in Madrid came while just walking around. It’s a highly touristic environment – but everywhere we turned there was something to remind us why so many of our fellow humans were there too. In particular in Madrid it’s important to remember to look UP:

Roof Top Statues

Roof Top Politics

Of course not everyone there was a tourist. Some were working – and trying to keep their mobile, informal economy businesses one step ahead of the police:

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Somali Street Vendors On The Move
They Will Be Happy To Sell You An Umbrella,
Sunglasses or a Purse

Others were simply living their lives – like a group of friends gathering in a plaza outside of a church waiting for a wedding to begin:

Pre-Wedding Gathering
Tourists Ignoring The Pre-Wedding
Event Going On Around Them

Our Short Summary: Madrid is very busy, full of tourists and tourist-worthy activities. There's better food elsewhere in Spain. We will be back and will try to remember to build in enough time to slow down and not work so hard at it!

Next: On to Salamanca.