Europe 2015: A Spanish Hiatus - Salamanca, Madrid, Lanzarote (Canary Islands)
As I ride right on up to one of Salamanca's old city entryways, I dismount to walk in. I'm a bit tired of riding, yes, but it's mostly because the crowds that came and went in Almeida or Ciudad Rodrigo in modest numbers have nothing on the masses assembled here. This is a major tourism mecca - for good reason, thankfully - and I'm encountering it as high season approaches (or is already fully in gear) to boot. The absolutely oodles of cafes with outdoor seating are doing a banner business, that's immediately evident - and I'm wondering if they'll want to accept the likes of me. By this I mean that I'm not the tourist who throws out cash like this is one of the last days of my life, or one of only too few of a holiday. That environment is actually one big reason why I tend to shy away from places "enjoying" their high season, particularly destination locations like this. Another is that I frankly feel out of place, not joining in with so many others intent maximizing checklist items in a single day or conspicuously overindulging to feel like I've done a proper day of vacation. I often get the impression that the important thing for such folks is to send the emphatic message that yes, it's me who's being served.
Such are my thoughts, anyway, as I walk through this teeming scene of conspicuous cafe life, a number of folks turning to watch me trudge by with what feels is a bit of disdain in not getting with the program. What I'm focused on, however, is the need to put my bike to rest, switching modes to a modest version of, well, them. But in my purer, holier way, of course. That'll begin with an indulgent use of water called a shower, no doubt, and it's a good thing that my hostel is well-located in the center of all this mess to get that checked off my personal checklist as soon as possible. That my hostel is apparently trying to be a hipster place to get its share of this pie - it even sports a fashionable bar fronting the street - is an unexpected twist. I guess it won't be quite the subtle refuge from the hubbub I imagined, but we'll see.
Paramount to all is the fact that I won't be riding for a good chunk of time and, with cafes and specialty food/drink shops galore just outside my door, I set right away to exploring them happily sans velo. Most only embody entreaties to sip ever more coffees and sample pastries, sure, but I'm always down with that. So I sit down at the nearest cafe in the plaza practically adjacent to the hostel, open my book, and... what's this? I gulp my coffee as my crowning moment of supreme literary rest is disrupted by a weird, loud, and lengthy church procession. Huh?!? They still have these, in this day and age? Worse, what with their chanting and waving of banners and icons, their activity has stopped the street musicians who've been providing a bit of welcome ambiance. Arggh. Well, I can only take comfort in assuming that they'll all go hell for this - even if for how much they look as if they think otherwise. They're wrong.
To be fair, it's not like all the street music that abounds here is fantastic, or even appealing. As usual, the more perturbing ones are the ones who, after every song or two, walk around to each table with their hat out. This is especially annoying when you don't even like their schtick, and it's usually those ones that push the gratuity the hardest. It's doubtful that that's a coincidence, I suppose, since the good ones never have a shortage of folks wanting to come over and drop some coins. Certainly I like to. In these uncomfortable moments of the table approaches, however, and I'm specifically referring to those where I haven't enjoyed the "show" I've been subjected to, I try to bury myself nonchalantly into my book. Usually that serves as hint enough, but for the odd one who doesn't take a hint you have have to resort to the smile and nod of head that says "Thanks, but no thanks." Having busked some myself, I don't know how one builds up the nerve to beg some change without knowing if the trapped audience liked it or not. Blech.
Other than my usual haunting of unsuspecting cafes, I stick to my other typical program of wandering all the not-so-mean streets of Old Salamanca, admiring the ample bounty of architecture found here. I'll soon come to recognize that the stately main plaza I make a beeline to, a closed-in, regal presentation of balconies looking inward, is a particularly Spanish thing - but here I'm introduced to it on one of its grandest scales. I don't know if I should be happy or sad that here they've continued with the tradition of sculptured faces looking down at you from the walls within, but I *can* say that the newer ones - with their decidedly less frilly clothes - effectively reduce the grandeur. On the other hand, they do fill in some blanks...
Naturally, I'll have to drink yet another coffee to ponder such issues with the depth that they require - while also rueing the fact that coffee now costs double what it did in Portugal. I decide better on not worrying over this minimally-increased nibble to the budget, however, preferring to focus on the next morcilla (blood - not my usual thing by a longshot) sausage or cheese on my plate. In no time it's beginning to be an epicurean blur, especially when teaser plates of tapas are on hand. Sometimes they're even free - albeit moreso typically in bars - so what's not to like?
Well, this: the curious down side of placing myself alone at a table amidst such tourism. There's this guilt I sometimes feel when taking a table alone, wondering if the servers here are like those in the U.S., almost seemingly uniform in having a single-minded interested in tips. This translates into turning over tables as quickly as possible, plus wanting more folks seated at them. Unfortunately, Salamanca's the first place on this trip where I constantly wonder if I should be getting a move-on, not the most relaxing feeling for someone who likes to sit around with a book in hand.
Salamanca's *also* a famous university town, of course, but for the most part that tidbit seems an afterthought in this environment. Sure, the students are here - somewhere - but it's all about the ancient buildings and the things to put in your belly as far as I am - or anyone else is - concerned. Of the architecture, I'm especially happy to check out the ornate sculpture work on the cathedral. I'm surprised and amused to find a spaceman, of all things, included in the intricate carvings. What the... ?, I smile to myself, only to learn later that I've stumbled onto one of the most well-known of the city's "Easter Eggs" by accident. Apparently it was a prank done during the cathedral's restoration, initially unbeknownst to the city officials who contracted out the work.
Later, in hanging out with a Spanish cyclist from the hostel - a Renault car assembler from Sevilla who feels similarly out of place, on his way back from cycling a Camino route, rooted out when I see a second bike in the secluded stairwell where my own rests - we look for another famous "egg", circling through many a street. There'll be no repeating of my initial luck, though, no great frog find. Well, we're *pretty* sure we haven't seen it - we may have stared right at it unknowingly - but we're far more surprised to be so heavily recruited to check out strip shows by a few scantily clad women in the street. True, I've already seen some posters for some wet t-shirt concerts, too, but this in-your-face advertising of sex surprises me somehow here. I guess it's the weird merging of an ancient cultural center with the crass reality of human desire that throws me off. I could care less about strip shows or wet t-shirt contests, but Daytona Beach this ain't, either.
So no thanks, I think I'll stick to the sea of architecture in which I've been happily floating - or maybe just the sangria in which it swims. To be fair, too, after enough walking about, even this glorious overindulgence in detail can become grotesque over time - there really is such a massive amount - but then again, maybe that's the point. Isn't such architectural opulence surely just the spoils of empire, displays of church wealth turned repulsive or extravagantly beautiful by their sheer scale and repudiation of humility? I dunno, but I still don't exactly experience any necessity to enter the various buildings to complete the picture with gilded paintings and tapestries. Especially not when I can indulge in a few new kinds of tapas in the cafe across the way, or sample the Spanish meat pie called an hornazo ("oarnahzoh").
It's not like I'm completely about only fun and games here, either, it's marginally worth noting. For instance, I have to repair the pannier that broke off just as I entered Ciudad Rodrigo. Okay, NOW back to the fun and games! Thus, further settling into this new, bikeless-ish mode of being, I upgrade my hostel bed after all of one night. This allows having space to make bike adjustments while comfortably repacking my gear into "civilian" mode. Oh yeah, THIS is why folks get their own room on vacation! I consult train schedules, soon buying a ticket for myself and the bike for Madrid, then put myself to task in a hunt for some new books. That goes effectively nowhere, so I find myself settling on trying out my first whack at an eBook (Grant's Memoirs, of all things) instead. So it goes, and then it's back to further dabbles at indulgence (at my pathetic level) for some more days in Salamanca, adding more items like Iberico sausages and hams into the mix.
In the hostel's basement, meanwhile, in what turns into my de facto practice area, I meet a man named Daniel from somewhere south of Valencia. It's from him that I learn of an art festival taking place at a variety of venues in the city, requiring me to wander a little further from the core tourism area of the old city. It's in these areas that I encounter more of the student scene, even seeing some grafiti for the first time here, both in its sponsored and unsponsored forms. It's always quite easy to distinguish between the two, of course, with the former almost always looking more polished and consuming its wall spaces in entirety.
In these areas just outside of the old city center, too, I note that I'm suddenly not running into any large tourist groups. These almost invariably have been mostly elderly folks being herded by a guide, invariably speaking into a microphone. To be fair, this practice is a lot better than it used to be, mainly since nowadays the mike isn't amplified and instead wirelessly goes to the headsets that the tourists are wearing. But they still look like cattle chewing cud and moving in herds - although it's more likely that that's a frappucchino that they're fighting down.
Then again, it's not like I'm not being quite a tourist myself - if only based on the number of photos I'm taking. But let's face it: This truly *is* a photogenic place, and, even I'm definitely guilty as charged, what choice do I have? And it's not like I'm avoiding proper rites of penance, either, since I'm probably deleting some 60-75% of the photos within a day of taking them, a rate that'll typically rises to about 90% later. What can I say? This entire trip has been such a visual feast! Granted, I DO debate many a time with myself if this process of taking photos lessens or ultimately enhances my experience, but I almost always succumb to the trap phrase of "When will I ever be here again?". It's only a day of rain and thunderstorms that seems to slow this juggernaut down, too, a surprise that also gives an unexpectedly welcome break from the heat at the same time. And maybe it's this wet change that finally makes me decide to end this run I've been making through a prodigious pile of coffees, glasses of wine, tapas and more. Yeah, I'm ready to move beyond Salamanca - although I don't exactly feel pushed, either.
Thus after several days I'm on a morning, (mere) two-hour train to Madrid, a smooth ride on a modern vessel that carries me through an appealing landscape of increasingly rolling hills. Spain's vaunted plains scatter as these hills become ever more forested; the city of note that we pass is Avila, with its stately castle, and that'll have to suffice for a change-up in this scenery menu. Then things get flat again, with the countryside reopening to enter the periphery of Madrid, we officially pull to port in the grand city at its #2 train station, Chamartin.
At Chamartin I get to enjoy quite a clusterfart of logistics to get things started locally. However, after some vain attempts to figure my way out of the station by walking around the entire building, going up and down with all my crap in an elevator a few times, I finally emerge at streetside to begin the ride into my desired side of the city - the old downtown. This is achieved seemingly haphazardly - dangerously should be the more operative word - via a hectic few miles down the city's main thoroughfare of mayhem called Castellanos. Talk about a wild introduction to the capital! Yes, I'm on a cycle path (alongside thousands and thousands of cars), but what of the bikes, I wonder? Then again, maybe the answer lies in the question...
Now nearing the city center, in vain I try to make some contact with my friend who should be visiting town. but there'll be no dice there for now, so in the end I can only continue to head into the very center of this madness, ultimately grabbing one of a last few hostel beds to be had in the area. I locate the building in what is likely the most touristed district, and appropriately enough it's just short of a nuthouse inside as I check in. That mostly comes in the form of the piles of college-age kids standing around the lobby, each attempting to get their tiny slice of a crappy wifi signal that apparently is only available in thereabouts. I make a mental note to netsurf elsewhere, if necessary.
Grabbing my sheets and locking my bike into a central patio where even more students are lounging around drinking beer, I wonder what I've gotten into. What an industrial-sized hostel!, I'm thinking none too happily, nevertheless accepting that it'll have to do for the moment. In my room, however, things calm down nicely and I immediately befriend a young Brit teaching English here in town. Soon he and set out for a bite and a drink and his friends - a Brit-Spanish couple - join us in sitting down for a second session, downing beers and nibbling on tapas in the midst of this bustling tourist/commercial zone. From the two young men, at least, I learn that there still is a lot of demand for English teachers here - which plants a worthy seed in me to nourish, lately harboring ever-increasing thoughts of possibly living a bit on this peninsula.
Come morning, though, I'm more than ready to bail on this particular insanity which is the hostel, and I'm overjoyed to finally be in touch with my friend Diana. She's invited me over to her Mom's house for lunch, and soon enough that turns into the evening as well. Naturally, Diana having just become a first-time mother, all the focus is on her newborn Noah, and rightfully so, but that does nothing to diminish what begins a very friendly visit that earns a hiatus only come nightfall - when I crash with a buzz in her brother's empty room, something of a shrine to the local soccer club Atletico Madrid. Over the course of this day's visit, meanwhile, we've sketched out a feasible plan for me. The upshot is that I'll fly down to the Canary Islands for a week, then maybe shoot off to Istambul or somewhere else while my bike is safely housed here with either Diana's mother or some friends in the city center. Perfect!
Come the next morning I meet these friends, Millán and Fayna, who live in the very multicultural and central district of Madrid called Lavapies. They're a politically and culturally-inspired pair with creative aspirations, ideal hosts for me to pry information out of over my short stay with them. I'm given many ideas for nearby restaurants and Madrid events, although naturally I first immediately turn to mostly only doing my accustomed walkabouts. Yes, there *is* a lot going on, an actually overwhelming amount, so I decide to start off with the usual walking tour suspects as a low-key approach.
Ambling over to the palace and the main plaza are obvious first destinations, even if I don't plan to hang out by them. Gotta get a lay of the land, ya know. And then I just vaguely follow a line I mentally sketch on a map, tramping through gardens past churches, then strolling along the very grand (and thus aptly named) Gran Via with its theaters and showplace facades. After a pretty good-sized loop has properly worn out my feet, I return to the famous and absolutely massive flea market housed in Lavapies. Later, when I've had enough of that, I rumble on over to nearby - and renowned - park Retiro, a candidate for my lazing about worthy of its acclaim. Altogether this is such a different Madrid than the one I remember encountering many years before, of which I practically only recall heading to the famous Prado museum from the train station... and almost dying of heat prostration. I think my friend and I had called it a day on Madrid before even several hours had fully expired. There's no such oppressive heat here this time... so far.
Nevertheless, this time I'll pass on the traditional Prado visit, instead deciding on trying out the newer (since 1992) Sofia Modern Museum. It split off some of the Prado's collection by focusing on non-classic works, stuff of much more my speed - although they aren't necessarily modern. Picasso's Guernica (1937), for example, is the standout piece in the Sofia, and it still packs a punch in its horror of war. Reminiscent of when I checked out the Mona Lisa at the Louvre many years back, however, is the reality that any appreciation of such a famous work is going to be somewhat spoiled by the sheer numbers standing in front of it. Worse are the constant, stern warnings from the security guards - each and every one of then consistently trying - yet failing - to get folks from refraining from taking pictures of the work, flash or no. The good news, at least in this particular case, is that there are study sketches which were used in composing Guernica. They're just over in the next room, a practically vacant chamber, and I enjoy these greatly. I also rather enjoy the fact that I checking all of this out on a freebie day, so even if many of the works I see don't do it for me - and they generally don't, although there are exceptions that include various Dalís - I can't rue the disappointment.
Then, as always, I retreat for yet another coffee or tinto verano (my dedicated reader might be tired of such mention, but this cafe reality on which I consistently focus is all too... real). As for the latter drink, the tinto verano, that's both a great summer staple for Spain and my ready standby. When it's chilled, however, it can be a double-edged sword, as bad Riojas (and they're almost always Riojas) are sometimes cooled down to help hide poorer quality which might be ignored just based on the refreshing temperature alone. One does learn such important things on the road, much like which places offer the good (possibly even free) tapas). Evidently much research is required into such details, and I'm obviously just the man for the task (as always).
On the subject of tapas, it's worth noting that the tapas here in Spain are just as good as those in Portugal, but they're different, too. And it would doubtless take countless pages to note such differences, which further change by region quite a bit as well. What I will say, though, is that the Spanish ones present better visually, but once they pass the lips I wouldn't venture a word more in comparing the two. They're great.
It's also worth noting that most of my "grand" sojourns are done near Lavapies, and that's especially more the case after my grand walkabouts to the main attractions noted. That's because I really like this mini-Africa neighborhood, one which gets its name from a history of footwashing (lavar - to wash; pies - feet) before entering a temple in what used to be the old Jewish Quarter. Nowadays I have no idea how Jewish the district is, if it is at all post the Inquisition and meddling Nazis, but currently Senegal, Morocco, and other nearby countries of North Africa and South Asia are well-represented both in face and dress, not to mention food (the couscous at Al-hambra!!!).
When not in Lavapies, meanwhile, I get to understand the modern Metro system, a handy if sweaty affair chiefly underground. The system also includes what are called its Cercanias extensions, trains which reach out to the burbs. They're quite useful to try out, and I do so a number of times to both make a failed connection with an old Argentine friend while also accomplishing more successful ones with Diana's family. All of these doings, walks and train connections alike, are being happily done under unseasonably gorgeous weather, something which Madrid isn't known for in being this close unto Summer. I'm truly in luck.
Such heavenly climes, however, don't exactly explain why I shortly leave the capital's confines, but it's after only a few days that I'm on a flight to Lanzarote (island) in the Canary Islands. The logic of the trip, of course, is quite obvious, as Diana's invited me out to stay about a week with her and her newborn, plus her boyfriend Stefano. So here I am in the air over only a couple of hours, first making out the Spanish and then the African coasts quite clearly under cloudless skies. This clear-as-can-be geography is easily verified thanks to the onboard map on the screen in front of me, plus in the inflight magazine.
As we make our way south to all too shortly curl down to Lanzarote, I note that I'm evidently heading to a rather stark isle, one of chiefly black volcanic land - if offset sharply by uniformly white houses which hold its roughly 100,000 people. It's a pretty appealing postcard to drop into, to be sure, although I really don't know what to expect down below. Admittedly, the Canary Islands always seemed like one of those places I'd never likely see in my lifetime, yet here I am. The airport I emerge from the plane to enter is tiny, with only a small baggage claim of one belt, and I'm immediately reminded of landing on an outlying Hawaiian island, similarly switch to "island time" - where "whenever" is generally the operative word.
Soon Diana and I, however, are shooting away from the airport in her small car, taking a scenic route in the very present to cut through the volcanic park I spied from above, the dominant feature of the west side of the island. We pass numerous vineyards, each using volcanic rocks to build mini walls and thus create a modicum of protection against the damaging winds which steadily blow here, each tiny refuge allowing the possibility of contributing to the local crop of mostly white wines. We make our way through these otherwise barren lands, only passing on a handful of occasions through the random dots that suffice for towns which ultimately lead us to end up in her relatively new (to her) hometown of Famara.
My temporary home will be here in this village which consists of not much more than a few parallel-ish streets, a place that used to be all about fishing but is now trending toward surfing. Or rather it's turning into a split between the two, with the locals still based on fishing and the imports apparently mostly hailing from Italy (and surfing). Thus it is that her boyfriend being from the north of that country fits right in, in a sense - except *he* doesn't surf. Diana does, however, but this new baby thing is sure putting a dent into her former surf-centric reality.
In any event, as a visitor I find it's quite easy to settle in, especially with Diana willing to play a certain amount of guide. Thus I'm soon learning that Famara's crescent beach lies in the shadow of a large mountainous formation called el risco, for instance, and it's this topographical feature which makes for a microclimate of generally foggy mornings. I'm also educated on how all water is filtered after desalination here, an interesting limit to what one might want to plan on doing/developing here to some extent - and a curious reality for a growing wine industry to deal with to boot. But such details are merely not much more than that - details - as I mostly spend my time getting to know a number of my hosts' friends. I'm jokingly warned on more than a few occasions that maybe something's in the water here - there's a baby boom going on among this small community of surfers - but I soon get to know quite a number of them if not in a biblical way. As for the booming business in toddlers, it's a good thing I've already got the kid (and baby) thing down pretty pat - as in goofing around with them, not making them!
In my short stay on Lanzarote I necessarily learn a bit about Cesar Manrique, a local artist made quite good abroad, who after some time away from the island decided to come back and spend his remaining years on Lanzarote. It's he who is behind everything being painted white, a concession unique to Lanzarote among these islands and one that is both indulged in by the locals and is also accompanied by his numerous other (sculptural) works found around the island. Of the sculptures, his unique and ubiquitous chimney spouts on buildings standout, plus there are any number of terra-formings of land in certain notable locations. They've all been accomplished with some style indeed, each typically taking advantage of their surrounding environments, the culmination of the extent of their grandeur coming in the form of his house.
With Diana I check out some of these places in touring about the island, naturally, but I find the best aspect of all of this lies in merely just driving about the island. That serves well in continuing to receive a growing feel for the overall environment, where "stark beauty" is perhaps the best description I can give... even though that doesn't apply in the least to the local goat cheese. Goat cheese?
Yes, goat cheese. Specifically, goat cheese that's easily the best I've ever had. And what goes especially well with this goat cheese? Why, that'd be the noted local condiments in green (berejil) and red (pico) called mojo. In no time do I look for absolutely no excuses to heavily slather these tasty concoctions on about everything I'm about to put into my piehole - be it fish, squid, roasted peppers, or - especially - said cheese. Helping the matter is that the wines are surprisingly good, too, although this is aided immeasurably by the fact that Stefano works for what might be the best winery on the island, El Grifo.
On one day, Diana generously lends me her car to go roaming about the island. In a Lanzarote minute I happily take her up on the offer, starting with checking out the massive Sunday market in Tequise. It's massive, almost completely artisanal in nature, and I'm tempted to just spend the day there sampling cheeses and mojo if not everything else I might ingest that's amply on offer. But there's a limit to my gut size, shockingly, so ultimately I decide on heading on, deciding on doing a curl around most of the island. So I head out toward the sea cliffs at El Golfo , then south toward Playa Blanca. Sampling fish, wine, and ever more mojo is the main agenda, of course, but I also make the obligatory stop at Manrique's house. This is a detour that's definitely worth the stop - if only just to remark on how he took advantage of the local lava tubes to carve out passageways and living spaces of pristine serenity. Apparently Cesar was gay as all get-out and threw many a mad party - the local headliner for what must've been something of a local ratpack scene - or that's true enough if only guessing by the pictures on display, anyway.
Anywho, that's about how it all goes for about a week in Famara, capped by a party with the Italians where I get a chance to break out my signature black beans. Otherwise, though, it's been a pleasant week of me hanging out with Diana as she attends to her baby alongside her newfound baby community... as Stefano trains for his next triathlon. Turns out that Lanzarote is a major training site for that sport, with many Europeans on the roads to run or cycle them when not in the various pool facilities.
What else do I do? Not much. I trudge to the top of a nearby volcano; I perform the tried and true tourist rite of walking along the shore each day, eventually and increasingly sampling the perfectly-temperatured waters. Diana and I walk around the main town of Arrecife one day, too, if only mainly to eventually have an excuse to cave in to calamari and tintos after first enduring the fun of a flat tire at the famous Mirador by Manrique. All of these themes make for a pleasant week on arid, hot, shadeless Lanzarote, and somehow I manage to not get pregnant - so maybe it's not the water after all - or even sunburnt.
Then back to Madrid I go, then, back briefly for more visits with Millán and Fayna, even if now Millán is nursing a curiously injured foot that is keeping him from his job as a firefighter. I check out some photo exhibits (most of which are presented free to the public) under the auspices of Photo España; I surprising find the sequel to the book I've just finished, Claudius the God, at the traditional massive lineup of book stalls by Parque Retiro, and there I also find a Vargas Llosa tome as well, El Sueño del Celta. Both of these finds come just in time with my reading material running out.
There's also a black-n-white movie night with Millán's dad, a former movie cameraman, on the same night where I learn the difference (not much, to be honest) between gazpacho and its downstream cousin called salmorejo. The latter has more bread and probably more garlic, too. All I can say is Man, how lucky I am to have these new friends in such an awesome location! But... but... but it looks like I have a ticket to leave them all too soon. Yep, the time's come to spend some days off of the Schengen Zone clock, and it looks like I'll be going to this place called... Turkey? Yeah, Turkey, and why not? So it's back to the massive Madrid Airport I go, although this time my exit is much more timely: The famed Madrid heat is now fully on its way.
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