First, I will start by saying – I think maybe the adventure is finally drawing to an end. I’ve moved to North Carolina, I have a regular job now, and living in the U.S. is a far cry financially from living in Tbilisi, thereby restricting travel opportunities even further. In a lot of other ways, too, but that’s a different post. Suffice it to say it’s not an adventure – at least not in the sense that I meant when I named the blog.
That’s not to say I’ll never take another vacation, but spending a month away from home like I did in September – yeah, that’s not going to happen anymore. So this post should be read in that context. If you feel some sadness in the subtext, you are right. But that’s the decision I made, and now I will reap both the benefits and the losses. Such is life.
So – I am going to try and do the same thing I did for Vietnam, which is to tell one story per day for our trip. I will do the same for Portugal in another post. This is always hard, because a lot can happen in a day! But I always swore this blog would not be a boring travelogue, first we went here, then we went there, etc., and I intend to stick with that one to the bitter end.
So we’ll start with September 5th, day #1. I’m going to write about reuniting with my son, Eli, on that day. He’ll probably kill me if he reads this. But that is my overwhelming memory of the day. It was a long travel day, because of having to get to the Tbilisi airport at 3:00 am, as usual, and the Madrid airport is very, very big. Lots of walking, but found my way to the car rental place. I knew Eli was landing at another terminal (which I found out when I returned a month later and flew out of there – Terminal 4 – is nearly in Barcelona, it’s so far away). I sent WhatsApp messages and waited for him in the glass-walled rental office. And waited, and waited. Finally, just when I was starting to get a little concerned, I saw him walking up to the door. An inexplicable feeling came over me. I was just so glad to see him. It hadn’t been a terribly long time (9 months) – not like Vietnam, where we hadn’t seen each other for nearly two years. But for some reason, I felt a deeper happiness than ever before. He looked good, he was happy to see me, we hugged and kissed (about the only time we ever do that!) and I have a vivid memory of the bristles on his cheek. It’s a strange feeling I guess every parent of a certain age can identify with. Memories of your child as a soft-skinned baby are very strong, and at times can cause you to become overwhelmed at the sheet adult-ness of your offspring. This was one of those times.
Day #2, Sept. 6th, was spent in Madrid. We did a lot of things, but I think the thing that made the biggest impression was the Reina Sofia museum of Modern Art, for three reasons: 1. Richard Serra; 2. Guernica; 3. the building’s architecture. The art was just sublime. The Serra installation was particularly intense because of the setting, which was simple, even minimalist. The stark white walls and the strong sunlight made the metal pieces glow, somehow, not literally but … somehow. Guernica, a painting which of course I have been aware of, but never had particularly strong feelings about, made me weep. I literally cried as I stood there in the crowd, just looking from image to image. It’s not as huge as I had imagined, but much more powerful. The last thing, the architecture, mainly refers to the incredible ceiling that pulls together the museum, its library, and its outside courtyard. I especially loved the juxtaposition of old and new, which was presented without artifice. It cannot be adequately described in words, but I do have some photos. It’s extraordinarily good.
Day #3, September 7th – Toledo. This was our first foray out onto Spanish roads, and it was a bit intimidating, but we made it and spent time there, ending the day at a lovely Airbnb right by the river. My story for the day – I finally, at age 64, got stung by a bee. It may have been a wasp. But either way, that sucker hurt! We did a LOT of walking that day, and at one point, laboring up a long hill to a highly-recommended restaurant, I inadvertently lowered my arm on the beast, which promptly stung me. I was so shocked, I avoided it all these years, and now … ? Where is the justice? I can tell you for sure I am not allergic. It hurt for a while, then it itched, then it burned- but it didn’t stop me from walking through the old Jewish quarter, exploring ancient synagogues and cathedrals, and even trying venison for dinner. I mean, if I can survive a bee/wasp sting, hey, I can do anything!
Day #4, September 8th – Cordoba. We spent a few days in Cordoba and saw/did quite a bit. It was an incredibly beautiful city. For this first day, though, the best thing was seeing my friend Lorenzo for dinner. I worked with Lorenzo on two grants while I was in Tbilisi, both for CHCA. I also saw him socially every time he and his colleagues came to town, usually with several other CHCA friends in tow. We got pretty drunk once at one of my favorite places, Ezo, and I also remember quite a raucous dinner with Dato at some obscure Mengrilian restaurant where I was the only woman in the whole place. Out on the balcony, Dato quizzed me on my Georgian language skills related to numbers, and I acquitted myself fairly well, though 146,363 (or something like that) finally beat me down.
Anyway! We met Lorenzo for dinner at one of the open markets that seem to be a staple in most Spanish cities (we went to one in Madrid, too). Lots of little booths under a big tent give you a wide variety of foods to pick from, and of course there is a wine bar. We wandered about, picked an eclectic mix of stuff, and settled down at a long table for a night of good conversation, recommendations on where to go/what to do, reminiscences, etc. Overall a lovely evening. It’s always good to see a friend, and I hope Lorenzo and I meet again one of these days.
The next day (#5, September 9th) we explored the old Jewish quarter (there appears to be one of these in every Spanish city, we all know why), and a lot of historical sites. We had a hellacious experience trying to find parking – drove in a few places I know for sure we should not have been driving – but finally found a spot quite far away, but secure and safe, left the car there and took a taxi (who also got a bit confused if I remember correctly). We walked so much but there’s only one thing I can write about on this day, and that’s – flamenco!
Of course I always knew what flamenco was, had seen a few videos, read a few articles, but nothing prepared me for this. On Lorenzo’s recommendation, we bought tickets for a small place in the Jewish quarter. I was really quite worried that it was going to be a tourist extravaganza of some sort, not genuine, but to the contrary. The room was very small – there were only about 20 of us crowded in there. We sat at low tables on straw-backed chairs, the room like a cave around us. It wasn’t built to look old, but actually was ancient, always an experience for us Americans. The flamenco performance had four performers – two dancers, male and female, a singer, and a guitarist. It started slowly, with just music, the dancers clapping their hands and gradually ratcheting up their verbal calls, nodding their heads and getting more and more enthused. Eventually, they started dancing. The singer, in particular, was like nothing I’d heard before, with a high, undulating voice, sometimes approaching a shriek. The louder he got, the more excited the dancers got, stamping their feet so hard that the seats shook. It was pretty electrifying, and surprising to me. I had always thought flamenco was a dance, but it’s so much more than that. The singing, the accompaniment, the participation of the dancers when sitting through clapping, calling out words, pounding their feet and sometimes even slamming their chairs down … well, I had no idea, so it was an epiphany for me.
And saving the best for last, a very short video:
A small explanatory coda. We really wondered, was this what flamenco really was, or were the performers vamping it up for us tourists? So, when we were in Seville, we attended a performance at the Museo del Baile Flamenco, Seville’s premier performance venue. Suffice it to say that, if anything, those dancers were even more dramatic and wild than the ones we saw in Cordoba. I now see that authentic flamenco is one of the most uninhibited dance styles in the world. I really loved it, and bought a photo that I think exemplifies the spirit of flamenco to bring home and frame. It will always remind me of this surprisingly intense experience.
We also spent day #6, September 10th) in Cordoba, and there’s only one thing to say – COOKING CLASS! This was a such a fun experience. We met up with two young people, a girl named Marta and a guy named Jose, very friendly and outgoing people. With Jose, I encountered my first (but not my last) anti-French sentiments. I don’t remember how it came up, but I do remember him making a dismissive sniff and saying, in a sneering tone, “the French, yes, they are so special!” It was pretty funny.
So, first we shopped at a market similar to the restaurant mercados we had been to, but this one was more of a farmers/fish market. We bought all the ingredients, fresh, Eli with Jose and I with Marta, and then we walked over to one of the most charming hotels I have ever seen, with a plant-filled courtyard, a lovely fountain, and a large, welcoming kitchen. There, our cooking tools and aprons were all laid out, and our lesson commenced. We learned to make salmorejo, a tomato/bread combination covered with minced ham and hardboiled egg, incredibly delicious and easy to make; Spanish tortilla, which is nothing at all like what I think of as a tortilla, but is instead an egg/onion/potato pancake sort of thing, also delicious; and, of course, paella, which was a lot easier than I had imagined it would be. We ate the fruits of our labors outside in a small garden, and discussed politics, world affairs, cultural differences and a lot of other topics. We had just a great time and for anyone who goes to Cordoba, I cannot recommend it too highly. https://www.instagram.com/foodieandtourscordoba/?hl=en, or at https://www.foodieandtours.com/cordoba. And to whet your appetite, here a few photos of our creations:
Day #7, September 11th, was mostly a travel day, driving to Sevilla, but in the morning we went to the Cordoba Botanical Garden and walked the whole thing. It was mostly green, given the time of year, but there were still some beautiful photos to be taken. Shockingly – and I’m not being sarcastic, it’s really shocking – I forgot my camera on this trip. In one way I was kind of relieved not to be carting around a big camera around my neck. It allowed me to be more present in the moment and not stand out as a tourist so much. But, of course, my photos are not at all as great as they could have been, since I used my phone for every single one. Given that, they turned out better than they deserved to:
In walking around the garden (and also the botanical garden in Madrid), I found myself getting interested not only in the close-ups I love to take, but also in patterns made by the plants. Below are a few photos, from both places, along those lines:
This is a new direction for me, and kind of interesting.
I love walking through these places with Eli, it’s an education – he knows so much about plants. I just appreciate the beauty, but he understands a lot more. There was one image, though, that we both could appreciate on purely aesthetic grounds:
I know I said one story per day, but I cannot resist mentioning our dinner that night at a restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host (a criminally good-looking Cuban guy), outside of the tourist area, called Restaurante Perro Viejo. If you are ever in Sevilla, I highly recommend it. Not necessarily pure Spanish cuisine, but every dish was just so delicious. Culminating in a near food-coma for Eli:
Well, just kidding … sort of. And along the same lines, one of my favorite, unexpected surprises in Spain – Cafe Bombon! It reminded me of the Vietnamese coffees I loved so much in Hanoi, and I drank them everywhere we went.
Day #8, September 12th, was pottery day. We took a class on Spanish tile-making. It was held in a small studio, and there were folks from all over the world participating. Painting tile doesn’t seem like it would be so difficult, and as we watched the teacher show us how, I foresaw a beautiful result for my efforts. It was not to be, haha. Suffice it to say that it’s a lot harder than it looks! Nonetheless it was very interesting and a lot of fun.
Day #9, September 13th, was a thrilling one. We left Sevilla, and Spain, enjoying one last delicious breakfast,
And headed to Portugal.
Portugal was, in many ways, the revelation of the whole trip. I expected Spain to be fantastic, and it was. The people were friendly, the weather hot but beautiful, the food unbelievable, the history deep. I had a lot of preconceptions, most of which were pretty accurate, but for Portugal, not as much. I just hadn’t thought that much about it, perhaps. Yet it turned out to be even more amazing, in some ways, than Spain. I will start another post for Portugal, but for now, I will bid a fond adios to Spain, and take advantage of Black Friday (tomorrow) to purchase a really good blender so I can make myself some of that salmorejo for breakfast next week. 🙂