I got over the difficulties I was feeling about having fun (while the world is such a mess and so many people are suffering) and my trip to Spain was one of the best travel experiences of my life. Madrid, Segovia and Jerez were wonderful and I'd love to go back to all of those cities someday.
But I have to say, when we left Jerez to drive through the White Towns and spend a night in Ronda, I was amazed at how absolutely gorgeous Spain is. Andalucia - the mountains, the olive groves, the gorgeous cities built onto cliffs, the farms, it's all so dramatic and beautiful. We took a road from Zahara, which turned out to be one of the steepest mountain roads I've ever been on - and honestly, I was a bit nervous. It zig-zagged back and forth and you'd look straight up and think, "shit, we're going up THERE?" We drove up the mountain on a narrow road with small cement blocks at the edge to keep you from driving off -- and I was actually kind of terrified. I just wanting to get to the other side of the mountain -- and then we found out the road was closed near the top and had to go back down! There was actually a sign that Steve saw that said something like "road cut 3 km" but he decided to go anyway and it turned out to be 13 kms, not 3.
We survived and afterward we had a very delicious lunch in Zahara (garbanzo bean and potato soup, albondigas and a lamb stew) and we drove an easier route to Ronda, which is truly spectacular. It's built on a cliff, over a gorge, and looks out at the most spectacular views you can imagine. (It's also where they used to toss political prisoners during the Spanish Civil War. Horrible.)
We stayed at the same hotel Rilke lived in when he wrote "The Spanish Trilogy" which I never read, but I did love "Letters to a Young Poet." His room is still intact, on the third floor. The hotel is the Reina Victoria and the gardens and the views are stunning. I will add some photos as soon as Steve finishes working on them. I didn't bring my camera this trip because when you have Steve with you, it's hard to think about taking photos. Seeing the trip through his eyes is really interesting.
We wandered around Ronda and had a delicious goat cheese, pine nuts and spinach salad (with some kind of amazing crust on top of the goat cheese) for dinner, along with the ever present olives and a kind of fish croquet, along with one of the best red wines I've ever tasted. (And not expensive.)
After Ronda we got back in the car and continued driving through the mountains and stopped in Moron de la Frontera. Steve lived in Moron over thirty years ago and learned how to play flamenco from Diego del Gastor, one of Spain's most respected guitarists. We stopped in a pena (a flamenco club) because Steve had a photo of Diego he wanted to drop off with the owner. After we visited, we took a walk through town. I was thinking, wouldn't it be great to meet Paco del Gastor (Diego's nephew) and sure enough a few minutes later, I spotted him walking towards us with his grandson, Diegito, his protege. The only thing better would be to hear Paco play. He is a truly great guitarist.
We got back on the road and stopped in Utrera, where we had lunch at the home of a publisher and Steve's partner in his flamenco project, Ignacio. Ignacio and his wife, Carmen were home and Carmen made us a delicious lunch. They spoke almost no English and I speak almost no Spanish. Steve translated and somehow we had a great time. Carmen served us a kind of fish paste that comes in a log and she cut up into little rounds and then put on mayonnaise. It actually tasted pretty good, although I have no idea what it really was. Then she served a pimento or pepper salad, and two kinds of fish stews, one was tuna and the other was shark, I believe, but she called it "dog fish." The best part was dessert. It was called leche frita and she took it from the freezer, fried the small pieces in a pan and then rolled them in sugar. They had a crust on the outside and inside there was a vanilla, lemony firm custard. They gave me the leftovers of the dessert, so I was quite happy.
And then we raced off to Sevilla and that was the high point of the trip.
We met Steve's friends Richard and Andrea on Friday afternoon in a beautiful outdoor cafe. They had sailed across the Atlantic in a sailboat last year and are now living in Spain, on the coast. Steve met Richard over thirty years ago in California. Richard plays guitar and sings and he's a bit of a novelty in Spain. We stayed at Richard's daughter's in-laws' home. One of their homes. Think lifestyles of the rich and famous...think palacio with something like twelve bedrooms and forty or fifty rooms..think enormous interior garden filled with huge plants and Roman columns, several large roof decks, antiques everywhere.
The owners came down on the fast train from Madrid late Friday night and couldn't have been more hospitable and welcoming. And they spoke almost no English, so it was difficult to communicate, but it was still fun. We had breakfast with Maru and Enrique every morning and spent some time during the trip with them too.
The high point was on Saturday night. We went to a flamenco concert and Pepe Torres, who is also from Moron and a great nephew of Diego's, was one of the dancers. Steve has become friendly with Pepe, who is also a member of a group called "Son de la Fontera" - one of the most popular groups in Spain. They have played all over the world and Pepe is a phenomenal dancer. Andrea calls him the "Fred Astaire of flamenco." He also sings and plays guitar brilliantly and he is a wonderful person. The concert had five women dancers (if you want to see real attitude and power, watch a great female flamenco dancer). There were two male dancers, Pepe and another guy, and several guitarists and singers. This particular show generally sends really excellent artists off to Madrid, where they sometimes become stars and form their own companies.
After the concert, we met Pepe for a drink (he drank Coke - he had one more show to do that night.) His wonderful wife Sarah met us there too and then we went to the other side of town (the Macarena - don't blame me if you start singing that song, I did.) We went to a bar that one of Sarah's friends works at. Richard brought his guitar and he and Steve played and sang and then around one a.m. Pepe arrived and he played and sang too. Andrea danced with one of the women patrons and I think that everyone in the bar was shocked at how great Steve and Richard were. When Pepe came, I could see how much he appreciated hearing Steve play the guitar - since he never knew his great uncle, Diego, and Steve learned so much from Diego. It was really eye opening for me and I was very proud of Steve. And I stayed up till almost three a.m. and enjoyed every minute of it.
The other highlights were going to the Alcazar in Sevilla, a magnificent royal residence that I can't even begin to describe, except to say that the buildings and the gardens are spectacular. And the cathedral in Sevilla is the third largest in the world, and the largest Gothic building, a wonder of architecture.
And then there was the first two nights of Semana Santa, a celebration that goes on for the week before Easter all over Spain. Every night, long processions of people dressed in what can only be described as a Ku Klux Klan type of costume (I guess the Klan stole it from them) but in all different colors with hoods that go up to a huge point. They also carry enormous long candles and give out candy to the kids and there's incense and enormous floats with the Last Supper and other scenes, and forty or so men are underneath the floats carrying these heavy things for miles (they switch off somehow.) All you can see is their feet. And there are bands and singers and people come from all over Spain to see this spectacle in every city and town.
What I loved most about Spain, besides how beautiful the country is, is how friendly most everyone was and what a strong sense of family and community exists there. The nightlife is so different than it is here in the states - the restaurants and bars are bright and packed and people stay out till late at night, talking and laughing and drinking. But I never saw anyone drunk, anywhere we went. In the south they still close the shops mid-day for a few hours and take siestas. The food is delicious - are the ingrediants just fresher? My favorite tapas were grilled squid, rounds of bread with a paste made of tomatoes and on top, anchovies and a kind of sardine, jamon (ham, like nothing we have here) and a million kinds of olives.
Oh, I almost forgot. One of the reasons Steve was in Spain was to see a flamenco photography show at the contemporary museum in Sevilla that had the work of eighty-six photographers, including Steve. His photos were two of the best! The show may come to NYC, I will keep you posted.
Steve's flamenco photography project will be opening in Sevilla on September 18, 2009. I definitely hope I can go.
While we were away, Lucy got sick again and had another serious urinary tract infection. Zoe handled it. And on the way home on the plane, I watched "Marley and Me" which was a silly movie, but at the end Marley (the dog) dies and I sobbed along with everyone else on the plane.
I had twelve fantastic days and I am so grateful for that experience.