Travel and Painting in Spain

by William H. Hays
Online, February, 2006

The following travelogue is compiled from emails sent to friends and family by William Hays in December of 2005 and January of 2006. The illustrations are watercolors and drawnings done by William on location. (The paintings are for sale if you would like to inquire.)

William and his wife, Patricia Long, began their trip with four days in Switzerland then proceeded to Spain where they visited Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, Bragança (Portugal), Salamanca, Granada, the Canary Island of Tenerife, and Barcelona before returning to Vermont.

Switzerland, Chur and Zurich
Madrid
Santiago de Compostela
Bragança (Portugal) and Salamanca
Granada, Las Alpujarras, Guadix
Tenerife, the Canary Islands
Barcelona




"Reading Man, Zurich"
Pencil Sketch, 9" x 6"




Starting in Switzerland

Arriving anywhere in Europe after the flight from North America is a pain. You've just stayed up about 24 hours and you have a full day yet to go. So what better solution to the fatigue than to rent a car at the airport and drive to another part of the country? And that's what we did.

From Zurich we immediately headed out to the east and south headed for the regional capital of Chur close to the Austrian border. Most of you would have heard of Davos. It is near Chur.

Chur has Roman and pre-Roman origins. Its medieval center is a warren of narrow streets with shops and historic sights. It was the middle of winter and chilly with snow on the ground. Even in the gray there is a distinct charm to the place and much that is interesting to see and learn about. The surrounding Alps are magnificent and provide the most dramatic entrance to the region with vertical walls of stone many thousands of feet high that hug narrow lakes of exceptional charm and beauty. Of course, in December the higher mountains are snow covered, adding to the drama when the sun comes out.

After our two days spent in Chur, we decided to take the scenic route back to Zurich. Rather than driving a fairly straightforward hour and a half back to the city, we decided to cross the Alps to the south of Lucerne and Zurich. The drive was very beautiful through mountains that reminded us of the Canadian Rockies and the high mountains of Alaska.

The famous little alpine villages were strung together, each punctuated with a unique church spire. Pastureland dotted with Swiss barns tied the towns together along with millennia-old cow paths terracing the land from one barn to the next. The whole thing was very picturesque - glistening mountaintops and hanging glaciers divided by deep glacial valleys with their telltale U-shaped forms of gray, blue and violet.

We kept getting higher and higher. Finally there was snow on the road (which got quite narrow), there was no more traffic, and the towns got smaller and smaller. We were headed for a pass on the map called the Oberalppass. Just outside of a little village there was a gate across the road that made it clear we were not going to Zurich by that road.

We back tracked a little bit and asked a woman with rosy cheeks and thin skin as translucent as oiled parchment who was sweeping snow from her front walk what our options were. She told us there were eight people in the town, maybe the smallest in Switzerland. She also told us the pass was closed for the winter and that we had two options: go back to Chur and drive to Zurich the same way we had come, or go back down the mountain a town or two and put the car on a train that would then take us over the Oberalppass.

That sounded interesting to us. So back we went to get on the train. After a little bit of searching we found the train station and arrived just in time to see the last train pull out of the station.... Dang!

So we drove back to Zurich on the reverse picturesque drive we had just done. It really was quite lovely. We arrived in Zurich about half an hour before sunset and just in time for some pretty heavy traffic in this small city.

The map showed us right where our hotel was. What it didn't show was the maddening system of one-way streets and closed access that made it impossible to actually drive to the hotel. It was quite frustrating and Patricia was sure that my driving skills were going to get us killed! Her perspective may have had something to do with the fact that we found ourselves (more than once) on the trolley tracks in the middle of considerable traffic, attracting withering, glaring stares and a few carefully chosen words from pedestrians and drivers alike.

She finally made me pull over, park and find the hotel on foot - which was easy to do. But driving to it was still unbelievably difficult, even having seen it and knowing exactly where it was.

Having pulled into the small alley where the hotel was, I began unloading our considerable luggage and lugging it into the lobby. Patricia was provided with the registration form while I huffed and puffed the bags into the hotel. She waited for me to finish so that I could fill out the registration.

When I brought the last bag to the front desk the manager declared to us that he had no room for us due to an unfortunate set of circumstances. He promised us a room at a sister hotel along with a free taxi ride for ourselves and for our luggage. But he did not promise to return our rental car for us... which would have been nice.

So we went to the other hotel and got a room that was very nice. I walked back to the first hotel, got in the car and prepared to do battle with the traffic to get it to the return offices near to the train station as I had been told it was located. Well, it was not really by the train station. In fact, not very close at all and definitely not on a major street.

I got a bit lost and found myself on a highway headed out of Zurich to the airport. I got myself turned around and back into the more industrial section of town to find the offices. Fortunately for me, the traffic was heavy, which meant I was moving slow so that I could orient myself and look for the place. To my amazement, I found it.

But I was not so amazed to find that the offices were closed.

So, out to the airport I went. (I already knew the way.) Returning the car was uneventful and I finally made it back to our hotel. I was very tired and it was about three and a half hours later than we had expected.

Zurich is very beautiful. It was rainy, windy and cold when we were there. But it has never stopped us before. One evening we stumbled into a choir concert in a baroque church. We went through the Christmas Market in the alleyways. We walked the beautifully lit streets filled with shops, restaurants and people. We ate in a café that made us feel right at home - bohemian clientele with organic food and drink selections on the menu, sitting at a table with folks we did not know.

After two days of enjoying Zurich we flew to Madrid.

Madrid
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Sketch of Jesus after Corregio, in the Prado Museum
Pencil Sketch, 9" x 6"




It has been six years since we were last in Madrid and it feels quite familiar. I'll go into it more later. Suffice it to say that yesterday we were privileged to stand in front of one masterpiece of world art after another. In the morning I went out by myself and saw Picasso´s "Guernica", many works by Salvador Dali and other 20th century Spanish artists. In the afternoon we went together to see "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronomous Bosch, "Las Meninas" by Diego Velasquez, "The Third of May" and "Jupiter Devouring His Son" by Fransisco Goya and many others at the Prado Museum. As an artist, it is sometimes humbling to be in these museums....

Today is Monday. The museums are closed. We've had a quiet day with a meal of Spanish hams, smoked salmon, anchovies and bread. My fingers are still oily....

Madrid is a large city and densely packed on the dry central plain of Spain. We stayed within in a triangle of three of the best museums in Europe and spent our days going to and from these, the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen Bornemiza. In the evenings the streets of Madrid come alive with folks out for passeo, the evening walk. The restaurants and bars start opening around 7:30 or 8:00 and the narrow sidewalks are jammed with people walking arm in arm. People don't usually start dinner until 9 or 10, often not eating until close to midnight.

Men and women of a wide range of ages go into the bars, stand at the bar, order a glass of wine or beer and often receive a tapa (literally, a lid to put on your drink). The tapas are very tasty and range from simple cheese and bread with olive oil to very spicy chicken on a skewer or sausages, or ham. After finishing their drink folks will generally move on to another place and eventually to a restaurant for dinner.

Ham is the thing here (jamon in Spanish). It is so prevalent that there is a restaurant called Museo de Jamon in Madrid. This particular place has hundreds of legs of ham hanging from the ceiling and walls. Each gray, black and suet white ham, complete with cloven hoof pointing to the ceiling, has a little cup under it to catch the fat that slowly drips from each. One evening I ordered a plata de Iberica without really knowing what I'd get. What arrived was a plate of about six different types of ham and other cured meat. Each was sliced paper thin, almost transparent. Each had a different flavor and texture, from dry and very salty to succulent and very spicy. That and some good bread and olive oil was the meal. I felt thoroughly lubricated at the end of the meal!

In one bar, I ordered a glass of red wine and pulled out my sketch book to do some drawings of the folks in the bar. The bartender saw that I was drawing and struck a pose immediately, saying to me, "OK, do a portrait of me!" So I did, ripped it out of the book and gave it to him and continued with my evening. The following night I went in for a glass of wine and was greeted by the same bartender, who gave me a free glass of wine.

One day I was walking through one of the many little squares/plazas and encountered something that I've not seen anywhere else in the world. There was a crowd of people, mostly men, around a very attractive young woman who had no clothes on, posing for cameras, both video and still. She was followed by another young woman, seemingly drawn from the crowd, then another, and so on. Everyone was thoroughly entertained and it was a lively gathering. In the end, I think it was a promotion for some organization or company called TNT. Who knows!

After five days in Madrid we flew to Santiago de Compostela just a few days before Christmas.

Santiago de Compostela
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"Santiago Street"
Pencil 12" x 9"

The place we stayed for three days was one of the special hotels of the world. It is called Hotel Los Reis Catholicos (the Catholic Kings). They say it is the oldest continually operating hotel in the world (I'm sure someone in China would take exception to that claim!), built in 1492. It was built originally for the many poor and tired pilgrims who traveled to the cathedral beside it, the site of the entombed Apostle James. It is no longer for the poor as it is the most expensive Parador (state-run hotel) in Spain. At the same time, each day there are a set number of rooms that are made available at no cost for pilgrims who've completed the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain.

The hotel is quite large and exceptionally beautiful. It is made of granite and lots of elaborate woodwork, coffered ceilings, parquet floors of mahogany, many old and very good paintings, carved statues of saints and angels everywhere. In the center of the four large sections of the hotel the arched nave of the building rivals the churches in grandeur.

The staff is appropriately stiff and formal, the rugs plush and everything done with some degree of flair, including pouring your Coca Cola on a rolling cart with each piece of ice carefully placed in your oversized glass with a perfect slice of lime.

Christmas Eve we had dinner in the cellar that I think formerly housed the horses and carriages. The huge archways of granite framed a very elegant dining room appointed as beautifully as any we've ever been in. The meal was wonderful as well, octopus and scallops, duck and many sweets (all made from almonds) after dinner.

That evening we went to the midnight mass in the cathedral. We sat in one arm of the transept and had the choir hidden in the (you guessed it) choir above us. It was like the heavenly choir singing over our heads. The fantastically elaborate baroque organ added to the beauty of the music during the service. The bishop of Santiago led the Christmas Eve service, in Spanish, of course, except for a welcome to all the pilgrims in about ten different languages. In all, we enjoyed it very much, despite our having to stand up, sit down, stand up... it's hard to keep track sometimes, especially when you barely understand what is being said in the first place!

At the end of the service and communion the priests brought out a little doll of the baby Jesus. The congregation lined up and one by one filed up to the little baby doll and kissed it. Between each kiss, the priests dutifully wiped the doll clean. We figured, "What the heck!" and got at the end of the line. And wasn't Patricia surprised to see me bow down and kiss the baby Jesus!? Yes, she was.

Christmas is not the huge holiday here that it is in the States. In fact presents for the children are not given until January the 6th, the day of Epiphany in the Catholic calendar. The shops were open until afternoon of Christmas Eve and reopened in the afternoon of Christmas day, yesterday. The streets were full of families strolling about the parks and tight alleys and streets of the old city center.

Last night we had dinner in a noisy college-type bar/restaurant. I had a plate of chorizo sausages that qualified as the toughest little sausages that you can possibly imagine. Sawing through them was an ordeal in itself! But soaked in their red wine sauce, they were very tasty indeed. But you needed good teeth to order that meal.

While wandering around on Christmas Eve, I found an exhibition that was exactly what the doctor ordered for Patricia for Christmas: an exhibit of drawings and paintings by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

I told her I had a surprise for her that she would be very surprised to find in Spain. When we showed up last night, we walked in and on the first floor she was in fact very surprised to see a display of the women's clothes from Mexico. Her first words were, "Those are from Teohuantepec!" (the name of a region in Mexico). She was surprised.

"Christmas Paseo, Santiago"
Watercolor 7" x 10"




"Broken Column" 1944
Oil on Panel by Frida Kahlo




Frida suffered much in her life. Her paintings and drawings show this suffering in way unequalled in art history. One self-portrait after another looks at the various chapters of agonizing medical procedures and life situations that she went through. The climax of the show is a very famous painting of Frida´s body opened up revealing a broken column of marble illustrating her broken back and her body pierced by hundreds of nails. We were both very moved.

Today we left the five-star hotel and went to a one star hotel in a beautiful neighborhood of narrow, angled streets with colonades and overhanging, glassed in balconies. As I said before, it feels quite medieval. The atmosphere is so pervasive that Santiago has been designated on of the world's heritage treasures by Unesco. With good reason.

Tomorrow our plan is to rent a car and explore the province of Galicia (northwestern Spain, north of Portugal) on day trips from Santiago.

There are some interesting aspects to the region that we have noted. First, the street performers instruments are reminders of the clear connection between the Iberian peninsula and the British Isles. You hear bagpipes and celtic harps. Yes, bagpipes! The spoken accent is completely different than in Madrid. In fact, I'm sometimes not sure if the people are speaking Spanish or Portuguese. Instead of saying "Buenas dias", people say "Buon dia." The streets are not called, "calle". They are called "rua" or "ria". Not being a master of Spanish or Portuguese, it can be a little confusing to hear and to read.

Today it is raining and the flagstone-paved streets and alleys are reflecting the gray skies and the black clothes of the passersby. Stores are open and I am off to sit in yet another gorgeous Catholic church in the town.

"Prazas das Praterias, Santiago"
Watercolor 10" x 7"

(some days later)
We stayed in Santiago longer than we expected for a couple of reasons; it is a wonderful little town with much to offer, plus I had a bit of intestinal trouble (more later), and Patricia is the proud recipient of some of Spain's finest dental care... and minus two teeth!

We did end up renting a car and touring the coast of northern Spain just a bit on one of the few sunny days that we've had. We stopped along the way to walk the little beach in a small town called Muros. There we were looking for a shop that would sell us a bottle of water or a soda. When we stopped to ask a woman where there might be such a store, she told us that all were closed but that there was a spring nearby. She called to another woman who proudly took us to what she said was the best water in Muros. She went inside of her house and brought out an empty (read: used and reused) two liter plastic Coke bottle to fill. To show us that the water was indeed good, she stuck her head under the water stream and took a big gulp, then filled up the bottle.

She was so pleasant and helpful, and eager to show us the quality of the water, that we let slip by one of the first rules of travel: Be careful what water you drink. We both drank it over the course of the next day or so, and we both regretted it. I won't go into details as they are not pretty. But it should suffice to say that like most mortals who tread this planet, we had to learn our lesson more than just once.

The coastline was very rural with little stone villages that dotted the bays and beaches backed by pine and eucalyptus forests and mountains. The water was clear and calm where we were, although they say that the far north is quite a bit more turbulent. All along the way we saw what appear to be caskets, or little churches (very little, complete with stone crosses on top) that are made of granite and hoisted off the ground on stone pillar and have slits in the walls for ventilation. They are actually made to store harvested corn and are up on pillars to keep the vermin away from the grain.

The hillsides are dotted with stone fenced in fields that have the occasional cow and plenty of sheep. Just about every building is made of granite and roofed with terra cotta tiles that are imbedded with mosses and tinted with algae from all of the coastal moisture that makes this part of Spain so verdant.

Back in Santiago one evening, we were strolling about the town and going around the Cathedral when we faintly heard music coming from one of the closed doors of the Cathedral. Not being ones to be put off by a closed door, we went around the church until we found an open door and went inside (nearing 11:00 PM) and found that there was a concert underway. We walked into a "Procession of Prophets" concert that was performed by musicians using Renaissance instruments and vocalists dressed as the prophets, up to John the Baptist. You remember the instruments that you see the angels playing in the Renaissance paintings? Well that's what they were playing. Very atmospheric, charming and the music was quite enjoyable. Later we found out that the music was from the 12th century. My oh my.




"A Ride Along The Coast In Galicia"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"




On New Years Eve (Noche Viejo - literally Old Night) we went out to dinner in the rainy streets and had a most memorable meal of shellfish - three different kinds of crab, two different kinds of clams, langostines, shrimp, mussels and most fascinating of all, barnacles. Perhaps it was because it was the first time I've had them. Perhaps it was the unique way you eat them. Perhaps they were just as wonderful as I thought they were. I've never had so much shellfish in one session. It lasted hours. Mmmmm.

Bragança and Salamanca
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"Cold Day in Bragança"
Watercolor 7" x 10"




We finally left Santiago on the fourth of January and went east and south into Portugal. The landscape changed dramatically as we headed away from the coast. Everything got dryer and the mountains got higher until we were passing over treeless, arid mountains where every ridge top was the site of wind farms - huge wind turbines that lazily turned in the breezes. It got colder and colder until there was snow on the mountaintops and in the shadows of the dark stones jutting out of the ochre grasses.

I should note that the highway we took, and actually all of the highways we've been on, were almost empty and brand new. The European Union monies that have served to develop infrastructure have created wonderful roads that are used by few people except trucks. Even then, there was little traffic. It was quite easy and pleasant, much like traveling in Vermont.

Above the border with Portugal, we took a much more rural and windy road south into that country's northern frontier. There are no longer any border crossings to deal with since all states are part of the EU. The landscape was very, very rural with almost no settlement at all. The mountains were covered with heather with a pine tree here and there. It was very beautiful and the stuff of landscape painting (although I did not do one).

After 20 miles of hairpin turns and absolutely no traffic, we began to enter small - really small - villages of stone. It seems that living in these little villages is more and more difficult and they are losing all of their young people one by one. We were traveling through a national park called the Parque Tras o Montes that is intended to preserve this vanishing landscape and lifestyle. As idyllic as it all looks, it is easy to see why folks choose to go to the larger towns.

Finally we came into the town of Bragança, the regional center and one of the only towns of any size in the area. It is about the size of Brattleboro (about 12,000 folks) and straddles a small river. We stayed for two nights. The feeling is completely different than Spain. It is not nearly as well to do, but charming nonetheless.

On the first night, Patricia was tired, so I went out to dinner by myself. The couple of bars I saw were uninviting, so I continued a short way beyond and saw a lit sign that said, Restaurant. On opening the door, the three or four men who were looking at the TV (which was beside the door I just came in) shifted their gaze to me. I smiled and said, "Boa Note." They nodded and I noticed a sign over the doorway behind them that said, "Restaurant." So I walked through that doorway.

Both the bar and the restaurant were quite brown and worn. The floor was of old, broken tile. The walls were nicotine stained. The tables (three) were covered with paper and had dirty dishes on them. The larger of the three tables had a man a woman sitting at them eating. I sat down at one of the smaller tables with the least dirty dishes on it and waited.

The woman having dinner got up and I realized that she was my waitress. She spoke no Spanish, English, French or German. I spoke no Portuguese. But, one can always make oneself understood. I got a menu and was not surprised to see that it was hand written with a ballpoint pen. I chose the one dish that had a word I recognized, "Porco," and some red wine.

The wine came in a small, glass pitcher and was OK. The florescent light of the room made the wine appear rather purple. As I waited for my meal, I occasionally made eye contact with the other person, the man, having his meal in the room. I'd smile and nod and he'd continue to eat, seemingly with his fists, hunched over the table. After the waitress (more properly, the owner) cleared the other table beside me I noticed she left a wine bottle that was opened, but recorked. Inside of it I thought I saw that something had died and was fermenting. It was pretty dark and I shuddered to think what it might be.

I received a bowl of soup that was absolutely delicious, chicken with potatoes and vegetables. Then a platter of fried potatoes and some excellent cuts of fried pork. The woman asked if I would like some "salsa." I said, "Si." She reached over to the table next to me a picked up the wine bottle I had noticed. The things inside were, in fact, dead. But they were peppers in olive oil. I thought, "What the hell. How many times am I going to have a chance to try this?" It was delicious and I lived to tell you about it.

I requested some of the soup to go for Patricia and received it in a plastic container, complete with a spoon, which she said I could bring back the next day. She also threw in a couple of tangerines that were very sweet and perfect. Patricia also thought it was an excellent soup and enjoyed my story of the meal as well as the tangerines.




"Salamanca Cathedral from Los Arco de Hannibal"
Watercolor, 10" x 7

The next day we awoke to a dense fog that enshrouded us for almost the entire day. Also, it was surprisingly cold. It must have been about 33 degrees (about 0 for you Canadians) with 100% humidity. It felt COLD.

We were originally going to go for a ride in another part of the national park. But when you can't see but about 50 feet.... Oh well. So we went to the local museum which one of our books touted as being one of the best in Portugal next to the national museum in Lisbon.

To be fair, it had its moments. Also they were renovating part of the museum that we did not get to see. There were some very interesting funerary stones and stele from Roman times. There were some earlier (Bronze Age) garment pins and tools that were very fine examples in excellent condition. But in other respects, it was a regional museum of modest size and selection. We cruised through the whole thing in about 30 minutes. (Maybe we went through so quickly because we couldn't understand any of the labeling?) Then back out into the cold.

We walked the streets a bit and stopped to get a coffee and pastry. This is one thing that is very popular indeed. No matter where you are you can get coffee and a sweet. The next most popular thing is hot chocolate. They call it Chocolate (in Portugal, Xocolate) con Churros. Churros are an extruded, deep fried pastry that is sprinkled with sugar. They are tasty in and of themselves. But dipping them in hot chocolate makes the dish.

In essence you can imagine it like this: take a Hershey's chocolate bar, melt it in a cup. Put just a touch of milk in it, just enough so that you can stir it, but it will still hold a soft peak when you remove your spoon. ITS GOOD! But rich beyond compare. We rarely have it.

Walking around Branagnça confirmed my earlier observation that this is a town of modest means. There were many, many properties that were empty, with broken windows and crumbling walls. There was much property for sale as well. Think of the opportunity!

There is a wonderfully preserved castle on the hill that overlooks the town. We walked the walls and went into the little church beside the castle keep. There was a wonderful carving of Mary Magdeline that was not nearly as stiff as many can be. The vaulted, wooden ceiling was painted with a trompe l'oiel (sp?) painting of going up into the heavens. It was painted long ago and darkened with the smoke of many candles. The wood had moved around over the years and each plank was separated from its neighbor visibly. But all was peaceful and very nice.

The next day was the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three kings came to visit the baby Jesus. Around here, it is the last day of the Christmas season and the day that children receive their gifts. As we were loading up our car to go we saw a group of young people who were standing outside of a door singing to the inhabitants, wearing paper crowns on their heads.

Our drive was not terribly long or difficult. We went through an amazing variety of landscape, from lush and forested, to dry grassland. When we got well into Spain, in the province of Castille y Leon, the landscape became rolling hills with almost all of the land cultivated. The agriculture is large scale and sophisticated, unlike what we had seen before in the northwest. There were occasional small fields that were set apart with stone fences. Since the stones in the area are sedimentary, they come in slabs. The little fences were constructed from slabs of these stones set upright in the ground, sometimes with barbed wire from stone to stone.




"Beside Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"




On the rolling plains we could see far into the distance. The day turned cloudy after a few hours with occasional rain. And, in case you were wondering, the rain in Spain does (in fact) fall mainly on the plain(s).

LOL I couldn't resist! ;-D

We arrived in Salamanca with a vague plan for where we would stay. I had read about a hotel that was near the Plaza Mayor. So that was our target. It is a town of about 130,000 people and therefore a bit more difficult to navigate with its inevitable maze of one way streets than the little town of Bragança. I anticipated a little added difficulty since we didn't have a map of Salamanca.

But, lo and behold, we took almost no wrong turns and ended up on the doorstep of the target hotel right away. We took a wonderful room in the hotel next door. It is a corner room with two small balconies, one enclosed in Art Nouveau glass and iron. It looks down on a small plaza, the Plaza Libertad, and down one of the streets that leads to and from one corner of the Plaza Mayor.

As evening came on the street below our window began to fill up more and more with people. Eventually the street was solid people for as far as the eye could see. Literally thousands of people out for paseo, the evening stroll. It was Friday night and a holiday, but they assured us that it is always like this on Friday and Saturday nights.

Everyone was strolling about window shopping, gossiping, going to dinner and seeing each other. The women appear to be dressed to the nines in their high heels and their many, many fur coats. We're just not used to seeing fur coats, even in Alaska and Canada. Here it appears that every other woman over the age of 40 has a mink coat, usually full length. It is pretty chilly in the evenings and they are put to good use. However, once they get inside and remove their coats, the clothing is not nearly so posh.

We entered the sea of people and pressed through the small gateway on one corner of the Plaza Mayor. There it opened up into what I think is the most elegant plaza I've ever seen, all lit up with Christmas lights, spot lights on the sides of the interior buildings and cascades of white lights coming down from all of the balconies that surround you completely. All of this was centered on a big Christmas tree and many folks strolling here and there. (Notice that I use the word strolling. They are not walking, but casually strolling, often arm in arm or hand in hand.) The surrounding cafés are full of people, shops are open and there was a constant inflow and outflow of people until about 11 PM.

Salamanca is yet another really old town - pre Roman. But the modern city really grew up around the University that was founded sometime around 1240. The University and the churches provide so much atmosphere it is palpable. Almost every building is made of a golden ochre colored stone that is quite soft and often very deeply sculpted in places. In fact, the stone is so ornately carved sometimes that it is hard to believe that it is stone. You think it surely must be clay.

The Cathedral is one of the five largest in the world. Remembering what it is like to stand in the Vatican and in the Cathedral in Seville, I was not eagerly anticipating seeing it. But it is much more sedate in its interior decoration than either of those. Still, the ceiling soars and it is an enormous space. I described the Cathedral in Santiago as being able to fit 70 or 80 of Brattleboro´s largest churches. Well this one... is bigger by almost two times.

The exterior is very high Gothic and chock-a-block with ornamentation, everywhere. The spires that weight down the buttresses are filigreed. The arched entryway is so full of sculpted surfaces that one could not begin to take in all that there is to see. The main added attraction to the whole thing is the storks that nest on the highest points of every edifice.

There are many of them and they make quite a racket. Not only with their calling to each other, but also with their clacking bills. They hold their heads up and clack, clack, clack then throw their heads all the way back onto their backs like they are laughing uproariously.

Patricia keeps looking up at the bell towers and other high buildings and saying, "Is that a stork up there?" To which I respond, "Yes." Then she says, "Wow, they're big!" And they are too. At times it seems that there is one on the pinnacle of each spire and they can be so symmetrical that it is easy to mistake them for part of the architecture.

I'll leave you with one more thing from today.

We went out for the day´s main meal at around 1 PM. (Spaniards eat their main meal in the afternoon. Sometimes at dinner we'll be the only ones having a meal in a restaurant full of people. We'll have to reset our stomach clocks.) The sun came out and it was pleasantly warming the air, so we sat at one of the outdoor cafe tables in the Plaza Mayor. There was a group of adults dressed in traditional costume (black, full length capes with silver buttons for the men, black mantillas - lace head scarves - and colorful skirts for the women) who were dancing to a drum and flute. We watched them and listened to their rhythmic castenettes (sp?) along with many other folks and enjoyed our meal.

I always like to try something new. So I saw this meal on the menu: Garbonzos con Cullos. I asked Patricia, my local Spanish language expert, "What are cullos?" She didn't know. so I ordered it. It was very tasty, but it was tripe. Not my favorite animal part.

Despite my surprise meal, the afternoon was wonderful and I wondered aloud whether I might be jealous if a friend was telling me that they had done what we were doing.... How very blessed we are.

Granada, Las Alpujarras, Guadix
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"Granada"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"




We are now in Granada. Our drive down from Salamanca was one straight shot that took a full day. We are now in the largest province in Spain, Andalucia, along the southern coast. There´s not really much to report regarding our trip down here except that the landscape variety is always striking when you cover that much distance (over 600 km). For me, the most interesting feature, aside from crossing yet another range of mountains with a little snow on the ground, was the vast expanse of olive groves in the south after we entered Andalucia.

The groves stretch in regular patterns that accent the topography for as far as the eye can see. I assume that there are so many because it is one of the few crops that can live with so little moisture. The land looks baked. But as parched as it is, the backdrop is the Sierra Nevada mountains that reach up to 12,000 feet. They are well encased in snow and are quite a dramatic background. Their height is even a little unexpected they are so grand.

Coming into Granada is not exactly what one expects. The mental image is that of a castle on a hill (of which we saw many examples of on the way down) surrounded by a town. The reality is apartment flats that extend well out from the center of the old town. Shopping centers and highways are in abundance. Construction cranes stand in groups looming over the constuction of yet another shopping center, highway or apartment flat. One gets the unfortunate impression that the old world character is absent. But first impressions can be misleading.

Since we had no idea where we were going to stay, we followed our previous strategy of aiming for the Plaza Mayor, but in this case, we aimed for the Alhambra. The signs guided us on a highway that skirted the city and kept going around and past where we thought we were supposed to be heading. Finally it cut back in toward the town around the back side and up a steep hill toward the Alhambra. In no time, we found a wonderful hotel near the palaces and overlooking the town, way, way down there....

We have been to the Alhambra once so far and will be going at least one more time. It is a walled complex of palaces that are dominated by the Moorish works beginning around the 13th century. We´ve seen this type of architecture before, in Seville at the Real Alcazar. But the Alhambra is a step well beyond that and is truly one of the world´s manmade treasures. (We saw on the news a couple weeks ago where someone had named the Alhambra one of the seven wonders of the world. It deserves it.)

The intricacy of the designs carved in plaster and wood are so complex that it is impossible to convey their elegance of execution. The wood and marquetry, coffered ceilings defy reason in their Gordian knot geometries. They are magnificent.

As an aside, the American author Washington Irving lived in the palace in 1829 as one of the sole residents. He wrote a book called, "Tales of the Alhambra" which we are reading a little bit at a time.

The rest of the time we spend down the hill in the old part of town called the Albaicin. It is the Arabic quarter and is full of little Morrocan shop keepers selling north African wares, incense and scarves. Occasionally there is something from Iran or some other craft that we never see in the US. To us, the shop keepers say, "Hola." To each other they say, "Salaam Malekum," kiss on the cheeks three times and talk in Arabic.

One of our books describes the streets in this neighborhood as labyrintine. I´ve heard the description before. But it has never applied like it does here. There are turns that look like dead ends until you notice an opening in a corner that is just wide enough for one person to go to the next street. They twist and turn and seem to either be going up or down, and steeply in either direction. The pavement is streambed stones of black and white that are set in concrete in swirling patterns and geometrics, very irregular for walking, but handsome.




"Courtyard of the Mexaur, Alhambra"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

"Alhambra from the Albaicin"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"




Just one more thing before I leave you this time. I wanted to relate to you something that we laugh about just about every day. Neither of us is a language genius. Patricia is much more able to make herself understood with words than I am. I spend more time figuring out creative ways to make myself understood by pointing and smiling. We each have select phrases that serve us well in restaurants and on the street. But when we need something out of the ordinary, either we plan ahead, or we´re somewhat lost.

In planning ahead, we´ll look into our dictionary and identify our key word, memorizing it and figuring out how it is pronounced. Our latest task was the laundry, "lavanderia."

So we practice and get to the point where we are ready to ask, "¿Donde esta una lavanderia?" And, inevitably, no matter how carefully we speak, we are met with a quizzical look and, "¿Qué?" (What?). Slightly embarrassed, we ask again. The person listens to our accent and then says, "Oohh! LAVANDERIA!", pronouncing it in a way that seems to be precisely what we just said .... Every single time, "¿Qué?" Just when you think that you are doing really well!

It is funny how much it happens.

first thing you'll notice is that capital letters are hard to come by on this keyboard. The shift key sticks terribly and it is giving my little finger quite a workout. Such is the fate of internet cafes when you're on the road....

I made myself some notes about what has occurred since I last wrote, sent them to myself for later, and then lost them today. Once again, such is the fate of being on the road and dependent on somebody else's computer!

so I'll begin with the fact that we went to the Alhambra Palace two more times and it is a magnificent place. I did two paintings which I'll share with you after we return. we took a couple of day trips from Granada. One was down to the Mediterranean coast, which is jagged and very heavily developed in a style that we just don't see in the States. Every time there is the slightest hint of a beach, the apartment blocks and high-rise hotels seem to block out all semblance of the beauty that brought them there to begin with.

Perhaps this is too harsh a judgment. But it is so unlike what we are used to that it is striking to us.

Nonetheless, we were driving along the coast and saw a small sign for a beach, took it down a precipitous incline where it became a dirt road. Ten we found ourselves on a small crescent of dark gray sand that qualified as a peaceful little beach that we were looking for. Only a couple of cafes were there. The water was clear, warm and calm. we strolled for a little bit and then had a late lunch that was excellent at one of the cafes.

"Albaicin Alley, Granada"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"




"In The Gardens At Alhambra"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"




They call this part of the coast the Tropical Coast since the microclimate is very mild and they are able to grow tropical fruits, papayas, mangoes, oranges, lemons, etc.

Another trip we took was to the southern side of the Sierra Nevadas. The weather had been a bit harsh the previous days and there was plenty of new snow in the upper reaches of the mountains.

The road was extremely windy and closely wrapped around the jagged ravines that led from one tiny village to another. What looked like a simple drive took hours and continually threw Patricia from one side of the car to another. But, it was always interesting and quite lovely. They call this part of the Sierra Nevadas, Las Alpujarras.

After taking yet another wrong turn into a little village and coming into a street that got more and more narrow. We had to back out of a dead end. This is a recurring experience that I do not find pleasant. It is nerve-wracking when the walls of the houses are mere inches from both sides of the car. Once, I scraped the mirror a bit. But otherwise, we have always come out unscathed. Along with being unnerving, it is completely disorienting because you can't see anything but walls.

Anyway, we then got back on the main road and stopped at a little gypsy wagon/craft shop. Patricia found her Spanish again and had a fine and fun exchange with the shop owner. He had all sorts of stuff from Africa, but not much from Spain. He was living in a Mongolian yurt out back, complete with a television set and a pile of prehistoric pottery from Mauritania. He was a nice fellow and we bought a couple of trinkets in appreciation for his personality.

We continued on up, up, up the mountains, into a narrow valley that had three villages that almost literally clung to the hillsides. They are quite striking in that all of the buildings are painted brilliant white. Each is topped with at least one chimney, white washed and capped with what looks like a wide brimmed bishop's hat. Very charming. We hung out in one of the villages, called Bubion, for an hour or two and I later did a painting looking down on the village deep into steep valley below.




"Bubion In Las Alpujarras"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"


Although the highest peak in Spain (aside from the volcano on the Island of Tenerife) was right behind us, glistening in with fresh snow, we did not continue further up the mountains, as it seemed more of the same and would significantly lengthen our journey home, back to Granada.

Another day we went to a town called Guadix. You may be wondering, "how do you pronounce that?" Certainly, we wondered since we were going there. So while driving there, we speculated on all of the possible pronunciations. Patricia concluded that no matter how many variations we came up with, they would all be wrong. Sure enough, once we got into the town, a man told us that the name of the town was pronounced, Hwadik. This one, we had not thought of....

What is fascinating about this place is first the landscape it resides within. It looks like something out of the Badlands of South Dakota. It is heavily eroded and displays the layers of sediment in bands of white, ochres and rusty reds. Against the hillsides the people have gouged out their homes in the soft sediments that is almost like a soft limestone. They have lived in caves for thousands of years here and it is a unique style of architecture that reminds one of North Africa more than Spain.

Pottery is a big thing here as the clay is perfect for it. They make these enormous coil pots that have a mouth as wide as the height of a man. They use them for storing wine by burying them in the ground. They also use them for storing oil and pots that are hundreds of years old still smell like olive oil. The pottery is so important that the names of each family of potters are well known to the people after hundreds of years. They know them simply by the subtleties of each potter's hand.

We are in the Canary Islands now. But I am going to have to go for now. I'll continue tomorrow or the next day.

Tenerife, The Canary Islands
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As I said, we are in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco. It is relatively warm. But the number of bathers in the ocean can be counted on one hand usually. I have not been among them yet. Patricia wet her feet yesterday. It is probably somewhere around 70 degrees (20 C) and today the cloud cover has made it very pleasant. When the sun comes out it gets hotter. I'm not really complaining... but we've become so used to cool weather that any heat sends us scurrying for shade.

Anyway, we drove from Granada to Madrid last Friday. It is about a five-hour drive and seeing new landscape is always interesting. Along the way we saw many bodegas. Patricia says that in Mexico a bodega is a small store. Here, a bodega is a winery, where you can buy the produce. You can tell them by the huge jars that sit by the houses and sometimes in the fields. They hold tremendous quantities of wine, or grapes, no doubt.




"Tenerife Coast"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"




After spending the night in an airport hotel near Madrid, we hopped on a small plane and flew three hours over the Iberian Peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean until a few islands with clouds clustered around their high summits emerged from the ocean. We landed at an airport I did not know existed. I thought we were going to land at another part of the island. So, I had to reconsider my original plan for driving a short way to our first destination. Instead, we were going to have to drive all the way to the other side of the island. But, it is a small island.

But before we could get to the car rental and all that, we were missing a bag from our luggage. Those of you who endured my travelogue from last year will remember when we found we had NO luggage going from Guatemala to Mexico. Well this wasn't so bad. Only one bag missing.

I wasn't really worried about it as they said they would send it to whatever hotel we ended up at. But it did upset Patricia. After all, it was her stuff. I kept remembering that all the weeping and gnashing of teeth that we went through in Mexico was for naught. Everything arrived and all was well. I thought, "Well, it will come. No need to get upset about it really."

So after dealing with the paper work and the waiting around that accompanied the missing bag, we hopped into our trusty rental car about two hours later than we thought and started driving for our destination, which had changed since we were not at the location I thought we were going to be.

Tenerife is very popular with British tourists. Something like their version of Hawaii for Americans, or Bali for the Australians. Everyone buys package tours and goes to resorts with cheap flights and cheap accommodations. The island is not that big. You can drive from one end to the other in about two hours. But, it the middle of it is a substantial volcano that is snow capped and rises up to about 13,000 feet. The volcanic origin of the landscape makes it very rugged and containing a dramatic variety in a short distance.

But this evening driving was easy, if not terribly scenic. We both felt that the towns we saw while skirting the southern coast had something of a mild industrial feel to them. Not at all like the chock-full-of-character towns we were used to seeing in Spain. There are few beaches. It is very jagged and rough with sharp volcanic rock.

We went down into one town that looked like it had a beach from afar. The beach we saw was like walking on broken glass. The volcanic rocks could not have been more forbidding. So off we went to continue our search.

By this time it was looking like the end of the day and it was getting dark. So we sprinted for the most developed beach of them all, Playa de las Americas.

And developed it is! The massive hotels hug the tiny little beaches and are surrounded with a dense thicket of shops and restaurants with lots of very pale Europeans strolling about taking in the atmosphere.

Navigating it by car was very difficult. Finding out that hotel after hotel was full made it even more so. After all, how could such a huge hotels not have one room available in the middle of January!? But such was the case. We looked at probably ten different hotels and they were all full but one. It was more than 300 Euros per night. OUCH!

Finally we just wanted a bed and a place where they could send us our lost bag. We went to another big, big, white hotel and to our relief they had a room. I asked, "Would you happen to have one looking out on the water?" Of course they didn't. But at least it was affordable. So I told the clerk, "I'll go out and talk to my wife about the room and in the meantime, you can find us a wonderful room. Right?" She smiled, knowing otherwise.

When I returned, she said that she did find a nice room. They led us down a hallway to an elevator. Then into another looooong hallway. Then another. I thought, "We're in the basement." But to our surprise we opened the door to the room and the sound of the surf greeted us.

And the next day, they found our bag and sent it to us in our little, tiny corner of this huge hotel.

"Almond Trees on Tenerife"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

We are the youngsters here. It is a most interesting culture for European holidays. Not at all like what we are used to. I'll characterize it like this: We go to a beach in the US or Canada and we expect to find a house. If not a house, a relatively small hotel or condo that you can feel like you're having an individual experience. You have your space and someone else has theirs. Here the expectation is that you will have an urban, shared experience, that happens to have a beach out the back door. We're getting used to it now.




"Tenerife Peaks"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"


A friend wrote and said that I was spending too much time on the beach scene. She asked about the plants, instead of hearing about the volcanic rocks.... OK, OK ! (but I may still include more about the volcanic rocks.)

First, one more beach story... maybe two.

The restaurants along the beach are many. One right next to the other. They do not stand out very well from one another and even their menus seemed similar to us. As a result, some of the more enterprising places will have a tout standing out front with a menu trying to convince the strolling tourists to eat at their hotels.

But we encountered the prize-winners one night. A North African man (maybe Moroccan) was very friendly and almost would not let us pass. With a great smile and exuding charm, he tried to usher us into the restaurant. Seeing that he was getting close to success, the waiters came out to join in with, "Welcome my friend!", more smiles and even a little tugging on the hands.

It was all done with such a sense of fun that we succumbed to their charms and sat down. The front of the restaurant was open to the walkway and the beach. So everyone in the restaurant was pretty much sitting facing out. As the next victim was enticed, each diner quietly giggled at the familiar plight they had just endured themselves.

Almost spontaneously, as the next victim surrendered to the collective charms of the tout and the waiters, the diners would start clapping and throwing up their hands saying, "Welcome my friends!" It was very funny and good humored.

Our waiter was a young man from Western Sahara (a country south of Morocco along the coast of Africa). He was extraordinarily tall, handsome and pleasant. In talking with him we found out that he is getting his Phd in physics from the university on the island. He and his wife will be returning to Western Sahara once his thesis is complete.

We had a wonderful conversation with this intelligent man about science, politics and religion (he is Muslim). Despite the apparent differences in our cultures and life experiences, what we had in common far outweighed any differences we could discern. Meeting him (and talking to him again the following night) is what traveling is all about. It reinforces one's faith in humanity. And that can be a rare thing sometimes.

It is an interesting island. There are eight islands in the Canaries. Each is the product of volcanic activity and each exhibits unique characteristics as a result. But Tenerife has the distinction of being the most diverse for a variety of reasons; it is the biggest, it is the highest, and it has a regularly rainy side and a dry side.




"Pico del Teide"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"


As you ascend the island, on very windy roads that go up and up, there are clear changes in the plant life according to elevation. Around the coastal plains there are many cacti and other very tough little plants that have to endure not only dry conditions, but constant wind and searing sun. There are little plants that huddle in the crevasses gathering what water they can. Some are glistening, as if they have just received the morning dew. When you touch them they are soft and almost a little sticky.

There are plenty of cacti, some of which you would recognize. There are prickly pear cacti with lots of fruits. There are pipe organ-like cacti that reach 10 to 12 feet in height. There are bushes with thick, soft branches that end in a star of little green leaves. Lots of tiny flowers and one, unique flower (found only on this island) that has a stalk that rises from a nondescript cluster of grey-blue leaves to a height of seven feet. It gets so heavy with its own flowers that it droops over a foot or two from the top. The stalk flowers are purple.




"Las Cañadas in Parque National del Teide"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"


As you keep climbing the plants change and we see ficus trees of considerable proportions in towns, offering shade in the squares. The land is plowed for vineyards and other crops. There are a few indigenous deciduous trees. But it quickly changes to what Patricia described as Ponderosa Pines. We don't know if they are or not. But that is what they look like.

At this point in elevation, about 4000 feet above sea level, the pine forest is the dominant feature on stark lava fields with only about three other kinds of plants, none trees.

Then it gets really interesting, for me. The landscape suddenly looks like something out of the American west with buttes, mesas and multicolored lava fields. At this point, we were crossing over the high points of the caldera that remains from the major eruption that formed the island. The very jagged, irregular mountain peaks that ring the caldera are quite dramatic. It is a ring of mountains more than 10 miles in diameter.

Plants become few and far between. This is a desert dominated by lava. The fields of cinders are sometimes white, sometimes red, sometimes gray. The puffy little balls of lava have settled in the low areas and make a beautiful plain.

Flows of incredibly sharp and forbidding lava come down off of the volcano that sits in the middle of the caldera. These flows are sometimes black, or rusty red, or even orange. Their paths are clear as they resulted in the last major eruption in the 1750s and are pretty new. Not one plant on them.




"Los Roques de Garcia"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"


The 12,400-foot volcano (Pico del Teide) is the highest mountain in Spain and had plenty of snow on it when we were there. It makes a great backdrop for every scene.

We stayed at the only hotel in the caldera and I went out every morning and late afternoon to sketch and paint. The sun was intense, though it was cold enough to freeze the occasional water from springs and snow melt. The altitude was enough so that we could feel it in our breathing when walking. When I went out on on hike in particular, all up hill, I really felt it at first. I was probably up around 10,000 feet, skirting the volcano on alternate fields of snow and polychromed cinder fields. Far, far below me were the clouds that literally stretched out across the ocean. The silence was perfect. Not a bird. Not a breath of breeze. Not another person. Perfect and awesome.

I liked that park very much. Patricia knew I would. After all, she jokingly calls me "The Painter of Rocks." And those were some great rocks!

Just one more thing about the coast. Two or three days that we were there the winds were very strong coming off of the ocean. The surf was way too rough to swim in and very dramatic. Within sight, but up the coast from us was a blow hole, a buffadora, that sent up geysers of sea water 50-60 feet in the air. I love this stuff!

Alongside the blow hole were undercut caves where the waves came in and thundered into the back of the openings. The sound is like cannons going off and really ads to the drama of high seas. Great stuff!


Barcelona
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We flew to Barcelona a few days ago and have been enjoying our sixth floor hotel room overlooking the Palau Guell, designed and built by Antoni Gaudi in 1889. The facade is sheathed in scaffolding at the moment. But no matter. Our terrace looks down on the most amazing chimneys (19 of them at last count) that you can imagine. The geometry of their designs in extremely sophisticated and they are mostly covered in multicolored mosaic of ceramic and glass. I'll share pictures when we return, along with at least one painting. But you have to believe me when I tell you that there is nothing like this anywhere else in the world. They are so hip that they look surely like they were designed last year by some wierdo on drugs.

Since the place is closed for renovations, we are very fortunate to be some of the few people to be able to see them on this particular building.

Lastly, Patricia's birthday was Thursday (57) and mine is today (50). I gave here a silver, cuff bracelet. She gave me two little models of two of the wonderful chimneys we see from our room. We've each done what we've wanted on our birthdays, and that has mostly consisted of strolling around, looking at people, architecture and art. Oh yea, we eat too. I may not have much of a tan when I return, but I will have an extra pound or two. It will last longer than a tan anyway!

(some days later)
So we are on our last day of our most recent journey. Neither of us looks forward to ending the trip, as you would surely understand. Still it is over.

Yesterday we went to the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) cathedral that is dominated, once again, by the design of Antoni Gaudi. It is magnificent, even though far from finished. They have been working on it for about 130 years off and on. They say that there are about 25 more years of construction to go before it is done.




"Gaudi's Palau Guell Chimneys"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"




"La Rambla, Barcelona"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

What has been accomplished is amazing and quite unlike anything else. The completed eight spires are the trademark image for Barcelona. But judging by the architectural renderings of what the finished product is supposed to look like, the best is yet to come.

It is so far out that Patricia remarked, "I wonder how he ever convinced them to let him build that design?" It is a good question. The bulbous ceramic mosaic shapes are symbolic, but completely without precedent on any other religious edifice that we know of. The as-yet not started front of the building is a fantastic celestial city that looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings-type imagination, with clouds of Latin proclaiming the glory of God. If any of us are around in 25 years, it will be worth the journey to see it on completion.

Barcelona is a very, very lively city. The streets constantly hum with busy people going this way and that. The most famous street, Las Ramblas, is just a few steps from our hotel and goes all night long with activity, especially on weekends. It is a broad avenue, lined with trees, cafes, street performers, artists, newsstands, bird vendors, flower vendors and the full spectrum of humanity. It goes from the sea about a mile inland to its terminus at the Plaza de Catalunya.

There is a slight melancholy to our leaving Spain. We have seen so much and met so many wonderful people. The variety and breadth of culture and landscape is endlessly fascinating. We are privileged to have been given the opportunity to experience this beautiful country for a second time.

William Hays, February 2006


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The Artist's Loft Bed & Breakfast and Gallery, Vermont
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