Expect the unexpected – it may be worth it

I am driving on the right-hand side! It is exciting. After getting some confidence up, I decided it was time to go over to the other side of the island to the Timanfaya National Park. Actually, my confidence isn’t that great yet, so instead of going along the highways, I decide to take the nice quiet country roads. I expect that they will be a lot more quiet and a lot easier for me to drive. For the first time, I go up the hill in front of my place. Well, it isn’t quite a hill – more of a mountain really. It is a two-way road but it also isn’t much of a road – more like a goat track that clings precariously to the side of the mountain as it winds its way ever upwards. I am a cold sweat. I am trying to stick to the right hand side of the road, but the mountain face drops straight down. I am hoping nothing comes in the other direction and am unsure which approach I dread more. To meet another vehicle on the straights where I don’t want to get any closer to the edge or on the dreaded hairpin turns. There aren’t even any trees to hit and maybe stop you, if you do go over the edge. Just straight down. I am slowly crawling along, even if I wanted to turn back, I can’t. There is nowhere to turn so I just have to keep going up. After what seems like forever I am up the top and with a great deal of chance, I didn’t see another car. There is a view point, so I get out for some respite, breathing heavily as the wind chills me even more cold due to the cold sweat. The view is amazing and when I see the road I had just driven up, I can’t help but swear loudly.

Not far from the view the goat track meets, what the map calls, a main road. The road base is better, and slighter wider but now the hairpin turns come through cut-outs in the rock. You cannot see if anyone is coming in the other direction or not. Also because it is a main road there are more cars. I am too anxious to head completely over the other side of the island and decide to return by another route and visit the Cactus Gardens instead. The gardens were great, again designed by Cesar Manrique, the signs on the both the men’s and ladies toilets were fairly impressive as were all the cactus plants. After this,  I decided a coffee was in order and headed for the nearest town on the coast.

Driving into the little town, Charco del Palo, there is a large billboard. On it are a naked man and women, holding hands looking back over their shoulders and smiling at those who enter the village. “HA!”, I snort, I have found the nudist beach. I have a short stroll around town to check out what looks like the best place for a coffee. I pass one, it looks a little boring. I see a sign for another café that proclaims it has a tropical garden. Thinking that sounds nice and relaxing after the drive, I head towards that one. It’s closed but there is a sign out the front promoting their “naturists dinner nights”. I laugh, so the nudists come up from the beach to dinner. I head back to the boring one and get my coffee fix. Inside I notice a sign while paying my bill. It is printed out from a computer. There is a naked man and woman but they have clothes over the top of them. In Spanish the words say “no nudity here”. By now the penny has dropped and I realise the whole town is a nudist town. I just chose the clothing only café. On leaving town, I came to a stop sign. Stopped the car, looked right, looked left – where a group of naked men are walking along the street – swinging in the breeze. This time my “HA” was extra loud, as I wondered how long I could stop there for before they spotted me. I drove on. That was a sight I had not expected to see.

I finally did make it over to the Timafaya National Park the next day. The line of cars to get in was horrific. It took me an hour from just outside the entrance until I got to the parking lot. The bring the visitor cars in by sections. They will let about 10-12 cars in and get them to stop. When 10-12 cars leave, the waiting cars get to move up to the next waiting stop and so on. This takes forever. Finally I am there but I don’t see what I am looking for. The landscapes are surreal but I was looking for the black circles that make the ground look like a moon or a giant black golf ball. In the gift shop I buy a post card that bears the image of what I am looking for. On the way out I ask the man, whose job it is to get the geyser to blow by pouring water into it, where I can see what is on my postcard. He gives me directions and I am off. Not far away is the sight I have wanted to see. It’s different from what I imagined, probably because I am at street level and the images I have seen before are all from a bird’s eye view. Rather than a naturally occurring phenomenon, these circles are actually built. They are round walls of volcanic rock and in the circles is volcanic soil – it is a farming practice to grow things. While not what I expected it still looked really cool. Was it worth the wait to get into the national park? I think so, I did get to see yet another Cesar Manrique inspired work of art in its buildings, its landscapes and chefs cooking food by volcanic heat.

Art and driving.

There is a cockatoo here where I am staying. I think Samuel, the guy who got me the car looks after it. It whistles and talks – in Spanish – all day long. Sometimes, it is the only sound you can hear up here on my mountain. That and the rooster that wakes me at pre-dawn each day. After I get the car keys from Samuel and had explained that I was Australian, which is why I made gear stick motions with my left hand, I tell him that the cockatoo is Australian too. “Si?”, has asks, “cockatoo-ah?”. I told him in Spanish that I was certain. As I pass the cockatoo on the way back to my room, it talks to me. I stop and say “Hello cocky, hello cocky” and then sing to it “Dance, cockie, dance cockie”.  The cockie asks me “Que t’all?” which is “how are you” in Spanish. I roll my eyes and smile, thinking to myself, lucky cocky living here but there is no hope for you.

After grabbing my bag and my sunnies, I head for the car telling myself that I just have to remember that I need to be near the middle of the road, not next to the curb. This has helped me stay on the right side of the road, but has not stopped me from grabbing at the door quite a few times when I need to change gears. I start off easy, going to the nearby village, the one I usually walk to. It’s fine, no problems. I even successfully negotiated the round-about. Courage up, I drive north to the small fishing town the ferry leaves from to go to La Graciosa. I take a slightly different route back and drive up to del Sebo Mirador del Rio, which from my understanding of Spanish, means there is a view to be had. Once there, you have to pay to go into a building to see the view but seeing the building was work every cent. It is a curved building on the top of the mountain looking out to the sea and La Graciosa. The building is simple it does not detract from the landscape rather it complements it.Yet there is so much to look at both inside and out at the view. Far below the ferry bobs its way through the tough Atlantic waves back to Lanzarote. There are several levels to the building, curved white walls lead me up to another level. The stairs are white, topped with a black timber. It makes me think of piano keys. There is a restaurant, but it is too late for lunch. I stop off at the souvenir shop to add to my collection of fridge-magnets. As I leave, I think about what I just saw, it was art, it was  architecture and it was the natural environment – all rolled into one single work of art.  On the way home I drive  through the town of  Haria, where majestic palms line either side of the road. The island appears more fertile on this side. The town is crowded and I can’t find a park. I head back home and I am feeling that maybe I will be ok with driving.

The next day I was planning on going to the other side of the island to visit the lava lunar landscape, but think maybe I should stay another day or two without having to go through the main towns to the south until my confidence is a bit higher. I head north again. There is a tourist destination called Jameos del Agua. I’m not really sure what it is. The bus stopped there on the way to the ferry and the place was packed. The car-park was full and people were lining up to get in. I had thought to myself that maybe it was some sort of aqua-farm as there was a sculpture of what looked like a lobster outside. Remember, the only real research I had undertaken before reaching Lanzarote was to look up IMDB and find out where Almodovar filmed. I turned up just after ten o’clock, which is when everything in Spain opens. The car park is not yet packed but there is a line to get in. While waiting on the line, I quickly jump on-line to read what this place is. I am informed reliably by the web, that it is not an aqua-farm but rather a tourist centre combining nature and art and the habitat for blind crabs. There is also a concert hall and a really good restaurant. Okkkkaaaaayyyy. My turn, I pay the price and walk in. It is a lava tube formed when the outside of a lava stream cools quickly and the inside of the lava continues to run out to the sea. It is magical. Inside, there is a sense of refinement, waiters are setting up tables for the day but it is way too early to lunch. There are plants and lights among the rock that give the whole place an air of peace and serenity. The tourists are not at all loud in this place. Down the stairs I go and then further down. There is a natural lagoon on the inside. This is where the blind crabs live. They are not just blind, they are albino and no bigger than one centimetre. At the bottom of the pristine water of the shallow lagoon, the blind, albino crabs sparkle like stars against the black night sky. Exiting the cave into the bright sunlight there is a beautifully landscaped area. It’s not just landscape – it’s art. There are small unobtrusive sculptural pieces among the gardens and a blue pond glistens in its white surrounds. The contrast of the bright white to the black volcanic rocks and stones and the green palms, cactus, mosses and lichens is surreal in a natural beauty of something that has been designed and built.

Like lava, I flow through this place re-entering another part of the tube. This tube has an amphitheatre  shell-shape to it and has been designed as the concert hall. Concerts are held here two nights a week in winter, more in summer. The stage is down in the corner of the shell-shaped tube and black seating with white cushioning make their way up to the back of the theatre like piano keys. It is understatedly beautiful. I start thinking it must have been designed by the same guy as the building from yesterday as again, this place was art, architecture and landscape rolled into one work of art. Also, maybe he designs the roundabouts. I make a mental note to do some research.

If I had been told that morning that by day’s end I would have a new favourite artist, I would not have believed it. That is exactly what happened and his name is Cesar Manrique. Firstly I have to overlook the fact that he voluntarily fought on Franco’s side during the Spanish Civil War. I can do that. He did start off studying architecture but gave it up after a few years. Cesar was born on Lanzarote and had a great love for the island. He lived in New York for a couple of years after receiving a grant from Nelson Rockefeller but returned to his home. He was more than an artist. Cesar had a major influence on local planning decisions. His influence was successful in that there are no high rise buildings on the island and all buildings use the traditional colours on their exteriors. It is heart-warming to see that one man’s passion for nature and for his environment can have such an effect on a place.

I have just found out that his old house is now an art-gallery. Bubble-rooms are dug into the volcanic rocks. His art is on display there but also his own art collection which houses works by Miro and Picasso. I just wish he had lobbied more successfully for better roads. Some of the roads I drove on today were quite fright inducing.  I think that visiting his gallery should be my drive tomorrow. I just wish I had not read that he died in a car accident not far from here.

I have an itch to scratch

I think I first got the itch to visit the Canary Islands on my first visit to Spain back in 1987. There was talk about ‘contraband’ coming into mainland Spain from the Canary Islands. I can’t remember what the contraband was, it was either bananas or hashish. It sounded so exotic and mysterious. I wanted to visit but it did not happen. Years later I was hunting through a book stall and I found a small travel book on the islands, complete with maps. I didn’t know then if I would ever make it to the Canaries or not but for five dollars, I bought the book and poured over the maps. I read about the year-round great weather and the history of the islands. A few years after that, I was watching a film by the Spanish director, Pedro Amodovar, Broken Embraces. The scenery in the film was so stunning. There were black lunar landscapes. Stark yet contrasting landscapes. Large mountains, black beaches and strange sculptures on roundabouts. I had to see this. Since then, like the Camino, the Canary Islands has itched at me that I needed to see it, to relieve the itch, to soothe this itch. I wanted to visit after I had finished the Camino but neither my visa nor my bank account would allow it.

The Canary Islands are 100 kilometres, off the west coast of north Africa. They are adjacent to the Moroccan and Western Sahara border. They are governed by Spain who have controlled the Canaries since around 1495, despite some takeover efforts notably by the Dutch, yet are so different from any other part of Spain I have been to. There are seven main islands and many smaller ones. I read somewhere that many people believe the Canaries were named after the birds however, the more popular belief is that they were named after the Latin word for dog ‘canaria’. I haven’t seen any canaries here but I have seen a few dogs and lots of evidence that there are plenty of dogs around – judging by the dog poo on the sides of the road.

After making it to the airport on time despite the taxi strike, I board my plane and am excited to have not just a window seat but the row to myself. As we fly into Lanzarote, my face is pressed to the window. I can see the blue Atlantic with almost no horizon against the blue sky. There are volcanic craters, sticking their heads out of the ocean. There is a medium sized barren island with two small, white towns hugging close to the sandy shoreline. Then we start to descend onto Lanzarote. There are hills, mountains, more craters, not many trees and colours of green and black against a thousand neutral tones. While waiting to get off the plane, I start to chat to an elderly English couple. They come here all the time and ask where I am staying. I look up on my phone and show them the name of the accommodation and the address. “Ooooh”, he says, “that’s up the  north. It’s very pretty. We are staying up the north too, but further north than that”. I ask them if it is easy to get around the island. “Without a car?”, he questions. As I nod, he slowly says, “There are buses but they don’t run very often. You should download the app. We’ll be getting a bus but I don’t know if it goes through that town. A taxi is likely to cost you fifty euro”. I gasp, eyes pop. I should tell you that the only research I did prior to booking my trip and arriving, was to look on IMDB to see which island the Almodovar movie was filmed on. I booked the cheapest flight plus hotel that I could find on a travel website I had never used before – but hey, I’m flying by the seat of my pants.

Outside in the warm sun, I tell a taxi driver where I am going and show him the address on my phone. He asks another driver and four or five more enter the lively conversation on where it is. Finally, they all agree and I am off. Each roundabout we go through, has on it either a modern sculpture, a landscape feature of cactus, a landscape feature of other plants that don’t need a lot of water, a landscape feature of dry stone walls made from black volcanic rock artistically placed or a combination of some or all of the above. The road north pretty much hugs the east coast as we fly by white villages. To our west large mountains loom in their emptiness. Apart from the roundabout and the villages, there are no trees, especially on the steep mountainsides. We reach my accommodation and although I am only forty euros lighter, I feel the pain of such a high cost of a taxi but am happy as I would have had to do the ‘bag drag’ up the hill from the bus stop I noticed. Ricardo is there to check me in, but he wants to hurry. There is no reception at the place and I had to meet him at a specific time, hence the taxi rather than the bus. The accommodation is a kilometre up the road from the main highway and the coast. It is in a tiny village. I comment to Ricardo how far it is, wondering to myself how the bloody hell I am going to get around. He shows me my room. It overlooks a small blue pool and over the stone wall, I can see the ocean. It has a bedroom, a large living room/kitchen with the very basics and a small bathroom. I ask Ricardo if there is a supermarket nearby and if there are any places to eat in the village. I have a kitchen but no food. He tells me there is one place in the village about 500 metres up the hill. It is only open at breakfast. As I said, Ricardo seems to be in a hurry, he tells me if I want a supermarket I will have to walk down the hill and to the left to the gas station. It’s two kilometres there and back. “You can walk four kilometres”, he says to me. I can, but ….. “ok, adios” says Ricardo and he is gone.

So after the siesta and when the weather has cooled, I walk down the hill. I have to walk on the road as the sides are covered in low-lying brush and rocks with some cactus plants thrown in for good measure. I get to the highway, still no footpath, so along the road I walk, facing the on-coming traffic and get blown and buffeted about by the tourist coaches as they thunder past. I do the Jesus shop, water, wine and bread plus I add a few easy to carry items home to have some sort of dinner. Back along the highway I go, back up the big hill I go. It is so quiet up here, I enjoy my first night thoroughly. The wine helped. I watch tv and sleep like I haven’t slept since I left the farm in South Gippsland.

The next day, I head to the village ‘social club’ for breakfast, the one Ricardo told me about. It’s pretty good, with a tanned woman about my age, wearing short shorts, a singlet top, masses of curls and bright red lipstick who sways to Spanish music as she serves me. A few of the locals are here too, including one man who points to planes as the fly over, looks at me and laughs loudly. On my way out, I see she has tourist maps of the islands, something they did not think of supplying at my place, I grab one as I leave, thankful that I now have some basis of a plan – a map. After breakfast I head back to the gas station. I buy more water, more bread and a few more supplies. On the way past I stop at both bus stops going in either direction and take photos of their timetables, there are just a handful of times in both directions during the day. My plans are firming up. Later that day I research day tours and the bus routes. The day tours are pricey and most start from the populated beach resorts on the south of the island. However, I have a plan for the following day.

The next morning I wake, I can now eat breakfast at home thanks to cereal, pomegranate and yogurt bought at the gas station. After breakfast, it is down the hill to the bus stop to head north. The small island I saw from the plane is the first adventure. The bus detours from the highway, stopping at small towns and villages. It stops at what seems to be a BIG tourist attraction. I am unsure what it is but there is a metal sculpture of what looks to be a lobster. I think maybe it is an aquaculture facility. The bus arrives perfectly timed for me to catch the ferry across to La Graciosa. The ferry ride is fun as the little ferry battles the huge Atlantic waves crossing over the pass between the two islands before settling in to a calmer route along the island. The mountains on the Lazarote side are huge and a string of para-gliders and hang-gliders float and fly above and in front of the black stone sea-facing wall. La Graciosa, has some mountains too but they look small – like mere hills in comparison. The main mountain on Graciosa, gives the appearance that it has been painted using a marbling technique. The colours that radiate out from centrifugal points are neutral, subtle but the effect is amazing.

On the island, we motor into the main village. It is pretty, the houses are all white with either blue or green trim on the doors windows and shutters. The streets are sand. Just sand. I am amazed that the houses stand so straight but I guess under the sand is hard rock. There are restaurants and supermarkets and bikes to hire to ride up the amazing mountain or to some of the remote beaches. I explore for a while before lunching on the waterfront. I explore some more after lunch, there is a bank, a post office, a police station. It is quaint. A perfect setting for one of those light-hearted police or doctor based British mini-series. As we ferry back to Lanzarote the sea is much more distressed, we bob up and down into the headwind and seem to make no progress at all. It is a slower trip back but equally as enjoyable. Once back on Lanzarote, I need to wait 45 minutes for the bus, I pass the time walking around town looking for a supermarket. I figured, if I could by my supplies here I could get off the bus at the bottom of the hill and save walking along the highway. No luck, lots of restaurants, but no supermarket. I have to get off in the town of Arriete, stock up and walk along the highway and up the hill. I reach the corner of the highway and the street up the hill and their is a rally car race down my street. I ask a guy if it is ok for me to walk up the hill “Si, si!” is his reply. I dodge the racing rally cars the whole way up, occasionally jumping to safety into the brush and avoiding the cactus plants which I am assuming would be only slight less painful than a rally car hitting me. I am home but perhaps need to consider a hire car. Doubts flood my mind. I haven’t driven much in the past year. Can I drive on the right hand side of the road? My last attempt, 17 years ago, met with a couple less side-mirrors on other people’s cars. Surely I can do it.

The next morning, I decide it’s time to visit the main town. Down the hill I go to catch the bus. It again takes the coastal route before turning inland. More villages, all white, with the green or blue trim. More mountains. More cactus plants. Lots of tall majestic palm trees in each village. The main town Arricife – ACE is its airport code which is cool – is a pretty town with lots of pedestrian only streets, beaches, shops and marinas. I spend a few hours here before going to a supermarket to get supplies before I head on home and back up the hill. I have made a decision. I will get a car. At home, I start exploring hire car options, then I find out I can get a car from my accommodation. Why didn’t Ricardo tell me this. Expletive laden rant about Ricardo. I ring the number on the website. A man answers “Diga”, (speak) he commands.  I ask if it is Ricardo to whom I am speaking with. It’s not, it’s someone called Francisco. When I ask if he speaks English, he replies that he does. He doesn’t.  In a Spanglish conversation he tells me the bicycles are free. Bicycles? Ricardo didn’t mention those either. I use the Spanish word for car. At just 20 euros a day, I can get a car. I tell him yes, that’s great, I will take one. He tells me someone will come to my room soon and sort it out for me.

Twenty minutes later a guy called Samuel knocks on my door. I pay him the required amount. Samuel speaks no English. I ask if the car is automatic or manual, making gear stick movements with my left hand. He tells me yes, it is automatic and makes gear stick movements with his right hand. We laugh as we both work out it is manual and I work out that I am going to have to get used to changing gears with my right hand. I drive manuals but was hoping for an auto simply because of the fact that I know I will reach for the door rather than the gear-stick whenever I need to change gear. As I am making payment, I think to ask about insurance. Samuel has no idea what I am asking. I am tempted to say “insurancia” but know that would be stupid. I then think of mimicking my screaming and crashing but don’t want to scare him or put the mocca on myself, so tell him not to worry. He takes me to my car. It is a small, bright red Fiat. It suits me fine. I now have wheels. Look out! Look out!! More adventures ahead as I realise visiting just two of the Canary Islands may not be enough to soothe my itch.

Adios Madrid. Adios Nina.

It is now my turn to leave Madrid. I feel after all the art and the Cathedrals and churches, I am no longer in need of divine inspiration. I need natural beauty and landscapes. I need inspiration of landform, and colour and light. I am off to the Canary Islands. I decide to take a taxi to the airport and call the taxi company. I have telephoned once before on my trip and it all went easily enough, despite my Spanish. This time however, something is amiss. I have no idea what the recorded message is tell met. I call again, the same rapid fire message leaves me reeling. I try one more time. Nothing.  I decide to walk up the street as I have seen taxis around close to my accommodation and also up the hill on the main street. There are no taxis. I wait ten to fifteen minutes. Ask a passing guy, he apologises and says to me that this is not his neighbourhood. I wait another five before crossing the road and standing near a bus stop.  A woman comes along, I ask her the best place to catch a taxi. “Aqui”, here she answers. I ask if I just wave them down, she replies yes. I wait, she jumps on the next bus and is out of there.  In the past ten days I have seen lots of taxis on this street. Today there is none. Another ten minutes go by and another woman arrives. I ask her the same question.  “Yes, here is the best place”, she tells me. I tell her I have been waiting a long time and none have passed by. I give her my phone, pressing in the last number I called and ask her to speak to the taxi company for me. She listens, speaks into the phone, hangs up, hands me back my phone and says “they are not working”. Now I am desperate, my Spanish is failing me, and I can feel the gastric juices of stress flooding my stomach. She keeps on and on, speaking to me in Spanish, helping me look. I can see the penny drop and she knows that I am right, there are no taxis. Her bus comes. She turns to me and says, “get on the bus with me, it goes to Sol, there are lots of taxis in Sol. If not, you can catch the train to Atocha, and then a then the metro to the airport. I jump on the bus with her. We sit next to each other and she keeps talking to me in Spanish. I have told her my Spanish is limited but this does not stop her. I catch a word, here and there and know that I have no choice but to trust this woman. When the bus arrives at Sol, she looks around, shakes her head and says “no taxis”. She tells me she will come down to the train station with me and help me. She works just over there, she tells me as she waves a vague hand towards the other side of Sol. Downstairs in the metro, she gets help from one of the station assistants, turns out the taxis have gone on strike but now I have two new friends helping me. Instructions are written on a piece of paper, I have a ticket, they both wish me “Buena suerte!”. I thank them both, especially the first woman. As I sit safely on the train, knowing I will make my plane I realise that in the end, Madrid did not disappoint. It came to my aid and helped me when I needed it most. Farewell Madrid. Farewell Nina.

 

Madrid. The thing that you do.

I had been pierced by grief. I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t feel it at first. Then slow trickles of pain and tears careered towards enormous pain and lots of tears and then nothing. I sat. I couldn’t write. I would go do things in Madrid and as soon as I got out into the sunlight my grief would begin to subside. The sky over Spain has such depth to it. When it is blue – as it has been since I have been here – there are so many different hues of blue. The winter light enhancing the magic of the blue sky. Madrid has long been my favourite city but I have never visited it alone before and it has been difficult to find people to engage with. Perhaps I should have stayed at a hostel instead of my small basement apartment. My apartment is just on the outskirts of the city. It is a walk to everywhere but I have been enjoying the numbness the walks bring to my head and to my heart and allowing the winter sun to warm me. Back in my basement apartment, my bedroom has a window where I can see people’s legs moving by. I feel like Laverne without a Shirley. Other times I feel like Shirley and Nina is my Laverne, all bossy but not quite as uncouth as she would have viewed Laverne. It is quiet  here and comfortable. Certainly it is the most comfortable bed I have slept in since I last slept on mine on 15 January this year.

I have followed Nina in Madrid and I have done my own things in Madrid. I will soon be done with Nina and then be on my own again. I face that day with happiness and fear. Like the last day of high-school. The security and friendship of Nina – not to mention her leading the way on this trip – will be missed. On the weekend I left Nina back in the apartment and spent the weekend as a Madrilena. I spent my weekend as the people of Madrid do.

It started Saturday morning, after breakfast at about 10:30. I left my place and headed up the hill through a couple of different small neighbourhoods and worked my way to the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s biggest plaza, surrounded on all four sides by what looks to be the same building, with arch shaped door ways on entrances in all four corners and on the east and west sides. The Christmas market has been set up and stalls line one side of the plaza like mini-streets, selling food, Christmas hats and stockings, gifts and pieces for the home Nativity scene. You can buy your individual pieces and make your scene as big and interesting or as small and intimate as you want. The have intricate little pieces, like baskets you can put on the wall on one side of the stable, Joseph’s tools where he obviously worked right up until Mary went into labour. I guess some people add to their home nativity sets with a new piece each year. After dodging the tourists, the tourists on segways, the tourists following a person carrying an umbrella, the buskers, the weirdly dressed, the wedding party – actually I stop to take a quick photo of them – I head up the crowded Puerta del Sol. If I had thought the Plaza was crowded – I truly was mad.

In the Puerto del Sol, there are even more people, heading off to shop, out to eat, lining up to buy lottery tickets. The line at the main ticket box stretches the whole ways across the plaza and you have to find a chink in the line to get across it. Other lottery sellers line the edges of the plaza, sitting cheek-by-jowl next to their displays of lottery tickets. Calling to everyone that passes. The women who try to press rosemary into your had before asking for money are here too, harassing everyone that passes. I go to Vodapone to recharge my sim with money so that I can access data – especially important when I need directions. Vodaphone is also packed and a 45 minute wait ensues to do something that takes less than five minutes. I sit in the upstairs section waiting for my number to be called. It is hot and we all wave ourselves with vodaphone advertising pamphets in an effort to keep cool. It is a good vantage point to see the plaza below. Two young women walk about, their voluptuous bodies in skimpier-than-skimpy Santa Claus type costumes. Yet they wear wings on their back that say I heart Madrid. I ponder over their purpose. A large buck, possibly a tourist, wears a loin cloth and Native American head-dress and flexes his muscles at the passing parade. There are a few robots – I’m thinking Titus Andronicus – a few angry bird type things and other dressed up buskers, all who charge to take a photo with them. Finally I am out and back on the streets. I go shopping, to look not to buy and then head for some afternoon tapas. I pass a young sporting team all wearing Australian track-suits. They are some sort of Australian football team. I can’t resist and give them an “oi, oi, oi” as I pass, much to their delight and amusement.

Where to for tapas? There is the Mercado St Miguel, back on the other side of the Plaza Mayor. Inside there are little stands selling different tapas dishes. It is very touristy but I stop for one. The tapas in Madrid have been hit with the fusion stick and they are not all that bad. One appeared to be a spring roll but inside it had some morcilla sausage (blood sausage) and a spicy thin sausage, salchichon. The taste is amazing.  I then head down the Cava Baja, the street that takes me back out to my basement flat. This street is full of Spanish people. It is off the main tourist tracks so you don’t get as many touristas down here, the tapas are cheaper and the staff more friendly and fast. I stop at two of my favourite places before heading home for the siesta.

Later that night I venture back up to Plaza Mayor before dinner. The Christmas lights have been turned on and it looks fantastic. All the usual suspects of touts selling things you don’t need are there. There is one selling small horns to children. I could kill that one if I could find him. As prams are pushed past me with a shrill plastic honk on the small horn. The Spanish are all either ending their day by having their very late afternoon tea or starting their night with pre-dinner drinks and tapas. Tonight I am on Spanish time and enter a restaurant that has been recommended to me, close to where I am staying. The place is packed and there are people ahead of me waiting for seats. The woman behind the bar tells me that as I am on my own, I can have my food at the bar and stay with her. “I will look after you”, she says. Although I had to stand it was a great place to eat dinner. I could see the comings and goings of the patrons, the ham being sliced at the back of the bar and hear as many different conversations as I could manage to understand. Mainly words and actions but it was a fun evening.

Sunday mornings brings the flea market to Madrid. El Rastro – the rat- is the biggest market in Madrid. It is known as the rat as that is where the fleas live. El Rastro main parade is down a very long street, but there are off-shoots into other streets. Most of the antique and second had dealers open their shops and put things out on the street as well. Some of the off-shoot streets specialise in particular wars, paintings, magazine, books, etc. This market is a living organism in its own right. Sometimes the crowd actually stops as there is no-where to go. A human traffic jam. In this market you could almost find anything you want. There is the usual market fare of t-shirts, hats, hippy clothes, jewellery but you can see some amazing old stuff in the side streets. All year, I have been on the hunt for a butter dish – but that’s another story – and I was certain I would find one here in El Rastro. I didn’t but after a quick rest-stop and sustenance it is off over to Retiro for the Sunday afternoon paseo.

The Retiro is  a huge park behind the Prado. Madrileno families love the Retiro, especially on a Sunday afternoon. The playgrounds are full of children, prams are being pushed and row boats full of teenagers mucking about and lovers fill the lake. Elderly Spaniards walk hand in hand.  I visited the Retiro on both my previous visits plus another time. The first we walked around with relatives, eating the peppitas, sun flower seeds, and spitting the husks onto the ground. The second with Robert and joseph where we spent most of our time in the playgrounds. Another time, my sister Mary and I nursed slight hangovers from over-indulging in one sangria too many in several of Madrid’s bars on a quick weekend trip to Madrid when we were in Europe. Today the park was a welcome respite after the crush and heat of the flea market. I walked alone, smiling up at the blue sky, laughing at the kids, feeling the piercing pain of grief ease. The trees helped me by celebrating the end of autumn and the beginning of winter with their red, orange and yellow leaves.

Toledo, time changes many things but it hasn’t changed you.

Although you never expect it when you are in your late teens, time does creep up on us all. Then it moves so fast, memories, images, words, emotions, all become blurred. Sometimes blurring into each other, sometimes totally forgotten, other times so clear and crisp it feels like you have been transported back through time.  And so I travelled back – to the years 1987 and 2000 – to the times I had visited Toledo previously. It was like time had stood still and yet there has been a great schism in my memories.

I though that Nina had visited Toledo but had failed to include it in her memoir She Travelled Alone in Spain. This is not the case. Nina did not get to visit Toledo as she travelled through Spain in 1934. With the atrocities that followed soon after her tour, I wonder if she ever got to Toledo at all. It is a shame Nina missed it. Toledo is not only a beautiful walled town protected on three fronts by the River Tagus, the longest river on the Iberian peninsula, but Nina would have revelled in its history as the political and religious (Catholic) capital of Spain. She also would have loved the beautiful landscapes that surround the city which can be seen from every vantage point

I had decided the best way for me to travel was to do a dreaded ‘day tour’. The very words bring fear into me every time but sometimes it is the best and easiest way of travelling somewhere if you are travelling solo. The tour was six hours. I opted for the two hour walking tour to start with, thinking four hours would be enough to revisit the places of my past. I also viewed the visit as my personal pilgrimage. So off I went. As the bus made it way through the outskirts of Madrid and trundled along the highway to Toledo, I started to plan my day around the places I should visit again.  My original plan was the Church of St Thomas where El Greco’s best painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, is kept. The second item on the itinerary was the Cathedral, third the Alcazar and the fourth added on while on the bus to Toledo was the House of Manchego Cheese – why not?

The walking tour dragged on and on and on and I didn’t actually learn anything new or visit places I hadn’t seen. I just could not remember everything. I have walked this town twice before both times over a number of days. I knew my way around and where everything was. The upside of the walking tour was two other solo travellers, an American and a Brazilian. Madrid had been proving a little ‘stand-offish’ towards me. It is harder to break through in the big city as a solo traveller. My favourite city in the world was making it difficult for me so I loved meeting two other English speakers also travelling solo. We chatted when we could in between the tour guides commentary – it was a bilingual tour so always first in Spanish and then in English. No wonder it dragged – well that and some of us were slow walkers. Finally it ended right behind the church of Santo Tomas, the first stop on my personal pilgrimage.  I told my two solo companions that I would visit the church first and then catch up with them for lunch. I don’t remember having to pay the other times I had visited the church, but like most of the big Catholic tourist attractions these days, I had to pay to get in.

On my first visit in 1987, we stayed with relatives of my companion, Eladio Jose. I believe it was his mother’s cousin. We stayed just outside of the old town and the cousin was a tour guide at the Cathedral. So for a few days, we had a lively, energetic and personal tour guide. It was he that took as to the church on his way to work that morning. It was the first time I had really looked at a Greco and I was in awe of the scene he had painted. The fine detail, right down the priest’s vestments. I then visited again, with Robert and our son Joe in 2000. I remember we sat alone in the church, the three of us looking at the painting. Imagine my surprise when on walking into the church, the painting was not at the alter as I remembered. It was off to the side as you enter the church. I asked the security guard if the painting had been moved from the alter to this place. “No, no, no. Siempre aqui. Siempre”. It has always been there. My memories were not reality. I stayed for some time looking at every aspect of the painting before keeping my promise to catch up for lunch.

I found my two new friends from the bus easily enough and had a leisurely lunch. I hadn’t been looking at my watch or the time but as lunch ended and they started making plans for what they would like to see, I offered my apologies on leaving them, but I had an agenda. Next stop the Cathedral.

I know I have spoken of eye-popping Cathedrals in other blogs but I had forgotten, another memory lost but now reclaimed – just how astounding the Cathedral in Toledo is.  It took my breath away. Again. When I walked into the Cathedral back in 2000, I turned to Robert and said “I have just remembered something. When I was here last time with Eladio Jose and his relative, the Cathedral tour guide, he showed us a secret hole, behind a column. Come on. We  have to find it”. Obviously my memories were better 17 years ago. We searched the columns and found it. It was a hole with thick wire mesh over it. “Put your fingers in Robert. Feel what’s in there, I said to Robert then.” Robert did and made a face “what is it?”, he asked. “It’s part of St Peter’s skull bone”, I said. Well that was what I had been told. “Euwwww, Robert quickly pulled his hand out and we laughed at the strange Spanish devotion to relics. On this visit I again, looked for the secret hole but this time memory failed me. I could not find it anywhere.

I wanted to stay in the Cathedral a bit longer but knew that time was moving fast. Off I raced towards the Alcazar. I past the House of Manchego Cheese but decided I would come back to that. The Alcazar was more important. At the start of the walking tour earlier that day, I asked the guide if they still had the room where the telephone call was made in the Alcazar. The room I was asking about played an important role in the Spanish Civil War. Strategically important due to its proximity to Madrid. In the room that day, as the war raged outside the Colonel in charge received a phone call from Republican forces outside They had taken his 16 year old son, Luis, as a hostage and demanded the Alcazar be surrendered or they would kill Luis. Luis was put on the phone to talk to his father and told him if he did not surrender he would be shot. His father replied “Then commend your soul to God, shout ‘Viva Cristo Rey’ and die like a hero. He was shot. On my first visit there was an audio re-enactment of the phone call.  According to the guide the audio no longer existed, the words could be read but I didn’t quite understand if the room was still there or  not. The room had not been redecorated since that fateful day in 1936. I wanted to see if it had changed in the past 17 years.  I had also read that since my previous visits, the basements and cellars had been opened to the public and you could view Roman ruins. I knew this was the place Eladio Jose’s mother a her family had sought refuge from the war when it reached Toledo. Previously I had not been to the basements. I reached the doors of the Alcazar and the security guard told me they had just closed. It wasn’t to be. I looked at my watch and discovered it was too late to go back to the House of Manchengo Cheese, so that would be  missed too. Today, time like my memory, had failed me.

As I sat near the meeting place to go back to Madrid. I wrote a few postcards and I cursed the fact that I had chosen both to do the waste of time walking tour and take the long lunch with new friends instead of sticking to my own personal pilgrimage. I had seen the beautiful hotel that Robert, Joseph and I stayed in on my walk through and around the town. I laughed at the memory of Joseph, who was about two years old at the time, crying. We could not get him to settle to go to sleep. We were trying everything we could in our toddler-taming-bag-of-tricks, when the phone in our room rang. I answered and a very polite male with a German accent asked if we could stop the baby crying. I asked him if he would like me to hit the baby on the head before hanging up. The next day at breakfast Joseph was all smiles and the perfect child, Robert and I were giving every male that looked slightly German the stink eye.  Although my memory played tricks and time was cruel my day in Toledo was not wasted. I got to light a candle in the church of Santo Tomas for Eladio Jose and I had some great memories of both my previous visits to Toledo. If I ever have the chance again to visit Toledo, I will. It is a hauntingly beautiful town – equal in true natural beauty, built history and sadness.

 

Women and the art of war

“Train journeys in Spain are never dull”, so said Nina. She explained you could look at the landscape of if you found that dull, you could visit the restaurant car. You would surely find the restaurant car interesting – although you may not like the food which is full of surprises as it is elsewhere in Spain. Or, you could people watch as Nina did. On the train from Cordoba to Madrid, Nina shared her compartment with a married couple, “both shapelessly fat”. Nina thought the man looked fifty and the woman forty-five. Nina picks them as a middle-class couple as the man’s hands show no sign of labour and he wears his thumb nail at “Chinese length”. He, by all accounts busied himself with the paper, while she ate two big sugar buns her husband had bought for her. He rarely gives his wife the attention she seeks but Nina believes as husband and wife they are very contented.

This is the story that begins Nina’s chapter on the Women of Spain an anthropological insight into a woman’s place in 1934 Spain. They were allowed to vote, having received the right in 1931. However, women were the property of men. Either their husbands, their fathers or their brothers owned the woman. Nina says “she is still almost as much a prisoner as in the days when she saw the world only through the fretted screens of her window. Many women were not allowed out in the streets with being accompanied by their husband or an old servant. Nina recounts a story she was told by an American woman. A friend of hers, another American woman was married to a Spaniard. They went on holidays, his mistress was on the same train, in another carriage. She stayed in the same hotel on another floor. The man would meet friends and take his mistress with him, as his wife was too much of a lady to be with the men. The wife insisted if the mistress was not sent away, she would leave. The man said to his wife, if you leave, I will call the police and make you return. She left, the police picked her up on the train and took her back to the holiday hotel. The mistress stayed on.

Today’s modern woman of Spain would not tolerate this. Even though Spain is still, very much a man’s world (in the minds of men) Spain maintains a high rank globally in female representation in Parliament. It is number 14 in the world. For comparison’s sake, New Zealand is at number 18 and Australia? You’ll find it at number 50. Women in Spain are allowed to marry other women. There are no barriers to equality when it comes to love in Spain. Unlike Australia. The women in Spain are modern and chic. Like women everywhere, they juggle their lives, their loves, their families and their careers.

This morning, I visited the Queen Sofia National Centre for Art in Madrid. I had gone to see Guernica, the Pablo Picasso painting I love so much. Guernica is a town in the north of Spain, in the Basque region. It was one of the first aerial bombings by German and Italian air forces in support of Franco’s Civil War. Hundreds and hundreds of innocent civilians were killed in a three hour air raid. Picasso’s painting remembers the horrors of the bombing. The galleries sit in a fantastic art space in an old hospital down near the main train station. Each gallery moves through eras of Spain and Spanish history. I started my visit pleasantly enough going through the cubism and surrealism exhibitions and found that I like the work of Palencia. His painting reminded me of landscapes I had seen on the Camino and wished I could paint like him. On I moved through the galleries getting more excited about Guernica.  I did not think, I would get to stand before Guernica and look at it. Really look at it. I thought  I would be looking at it through the back of people’s heads and through others iPhones as they took photos of one of the world’s greatest paintings – but this was not the case. All of a sudden it was there in front of me. There were other people but not hoards of tourist. Respectful, art lovers, Spaniards, quietly taking in the horror the painting shows. When I had looked enough I walked into the next room. There were photos from the International Press Agency and many from Robert Capa showing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. There were photos of women crying over dead children in front of bombed and shot out buildings, there were photos of women firing rifles from the Alcazar during the final fateful battle in Toledo, there were women making bombs, women and children sleeping on the streets. It was hard not to be moved by the images, the sadness in them. Most strikingly, there is a photomural by Josep Renau. One side is a  woman in a traditional bridal dress of Salamanca, the other side is a militia women, wearing trousers and looking confident. The message overlaid on the militia woman reads “The new woman of Spain has rid herself of the superstitions and misery of her past enslavement and is reborn and capable of taking part in the celebration of the future. I can only think to myself ‘what price, freedom?’. Nina would not have seen either Renau’s photo mural or Picasso’s Guernica, she did not know of the future horrors Spain would endure.

I continued my journey through propaganda posters for both sides of the Spanish Civil War, many with women as the image. I was very sad as I walked into the next gallery. It was full of Dali’s follies. I was not in the mood, so I left. As I walked into the bright sunlight I felt the need to visit Toledo again. I have been twice before but was not going to go this time as it would mean travelling backwards. Nina went but didn’t write about it which is quite frustrating for me. Why did she not write about Toledo it is such a magnificent town with so much history? When I first visited back in 1987, we went to the Alcazar. My companion wanted to see it as his grandmother took her young daughters, including his mother,  to the Alcazar for safety when war reached the doorstep of Toledo. My companion’s mother, just a young girl of six at the times, stayed down in the basement as the war raged around outside. I have always felt a personal connection to Toledo and the Alcazar because of this visit and my connection to the family. The need to visit again was now overwhelming. I started trying to plan in my head when I could go, how best to get there, when suddenly I saw a sign “Day Trip to Toledo”. There is my answer.