FINAL NOTES ON VISITING SPAIN
May 23-June 1, 2013
By Ralph Fisher
Hello, itís Ralph. Since Iím headed home to Lutz, FL, USA after an amazing sojourn to Spain over the last ten days, I thought Iíd write some observations and relate some of the experiences I had during the last week and a half for my friends and anyone else who happens to read this. Iím writing this on the last day of the trip while my impressions are fresh in my mind.
Though Iíd been staying in the Andelucian city of Cordoba for four days, enjoying the feria and other delights, I didnít get a chance to visit the famous Mosque in the old part of the city called the ďMezquitaĒ. In a tour book it said it was free to visit from 8 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. before the hoard of tour groups arrived by bus and swamped the place with camera toting tourists on tours.
Before I entered the Mezquita, I found a breakfast place that served eggs and coffee and toast before 9 a.m. which is no small feat in Spain. You see, these fine folk donít even think a starting work before 10 a.m. so the idea of breakfast at 8 a.m. was an anomaly. But I found a place that sported breakfast with eggs and great coffee along the river for only five Euros. It was one of the only restaurants that I returned to, other than the superb Fution which offered amazing dishes.
After a hearty breakfast and a session of translating the local scandals in the El Pais, I set out to the ultimate tourist attraction in Cordoba, Spain: the Mezquita.
The Mezquita was originally a giant Mosque used by the moors that controlled Spain from the year 700 until they were overrun by the catholic Spanish in the year 1236 at which point the Mezquita was turned into a Christian Chapel.
Despite my cynical view on most of life's "big things", I have to admit that this is a tourist attraction that truly overwhelms the visitor. Itís a colossal of a building that consumes many blocks of giant high walled orange wall from every outside view.† Itís not intuitive to find the entrance and you must wander the periphery to find your way to one of the corners that allow entry.
But I found it. Once you enter through one of the towering metal doors that stand open to allow entry you are presented with a soccer field sized courtyard is full of orange trees (most of which have gone to root stock, i.e., the oranges are too sour to eat but look beautiful on the tree long after the normal harvest time had passed). The courtyard led to a 20 foot high metal door that serves as the opening to a cavernous room filled with an 800 columns. The columns are historic in their own right since the Arabs re-used Visogoth and Roman columns from the year 300 to 700 to built the Mezquita. Just looking at the columns is a treat in itself.
The place is dark with no lighting except the bit that comes in from openings built into the building. Therefore there is just enough light to notice that the ceiling is 30 feet or more high and there are arches and amazing breezes that come out of nowhere that give you the creeps knowing that this place was an Arab mosque-a place of worship- that the Christians changed into a kind of mosque/ church combo complete with grave stones under your feet and pure gold plated statues along every wall. In the middle of the whole thing was a Chapel complete with an organ and a seating area for prayers and services.
I felt a chill up my back that early morning as I made my way through and tried to decipher the Latin inscriptions from the year 1250 onward on graves under my feet and read the ancient Spanish and Latin written on the gold plated statues of Saints in the nooks along the walls.
Meanwhile the Arabic text stands tall looking down on it all from the columns, walls and ceiling. When I surveyed the panorama before me at that moment in the quiet cool morning in May I truly felt like I was living in a scene from ďRaiders of the Lost ArkĒ. While I thought this, mysterious organ music began to play, wafting through the empty Mosque surrounded by Icons of Christ and his angels.
As 9.30 a.m. approached, a group of small men dressed in dark blue robes started to walk toward the visitors pushing us toward the exit. It seemed a service was beginning and non-believer tourists we no longer welcome. I made my way toward a the outside light that poured through a giant doorway that led back to the orange tree filled courtyard. I looked back and remarked on the obvious contradiction of the Mezquita: a Mosque with a superimposed Christian Church, both of which begged the same God for attention. I was awestruck and left in a state of humbleness.
As I took a coffee at a nearby cafť I contemplated what I had just experienced and ruminated about the angst and discomfort a believing Arab must have with this Christian overtaking of one of their most sacred churches that is now filled with Christian accoutrements and sporting a Disney-esque money making! Streaming out of the holy place of two religions, I saw fat Americans in white tennis shoes. They were simply checking off things to see on a list. But it had to affect them because the Mezquita is that profound.
After a the visit and later a bite to eat, I bought a fast train ticket (called AVE here) to a nearby town of Seville and spent a half day touring a giant castle and a nearby Cathedral that were just as big as the Mezquita. Seville is a much larger town than Cordoba and it had groups of tourists that moved in packs from one part of the castle to another, listening to guides who shouted in German, Japanese and English about this or that. How much of this nonsense would any of these folks remember? Probably little I thought. The Japanese brought huge cameras, tripods and duffel bags of god knows what to feed the cameras.† Ironically, I rarely saw them actually take pictures. It was a social experience in itself to watch them and wonder about their motivations.
Meanwhile, according to my translation of the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, the poor Spanish try to eke out a living working like dogs for pitiful wages to cater to it all. †As I sat in the cafť, reading the paper and sipping a glass of wine, I looked up and took in a blinding blue sky above and smiled, Spain is beautiful.
On the nearby mountains I could see endless lines of olive trees and dirt trails that led up to the tops of the mountains in the distance. †The afternoon wine soothed me and gave me more impetus to keep writing my notes so I could later describe the pure emotion this country evoked in me.
Taxi drivers are a great source of information in Spain and my meager Spanish came in so handy to talk to them. It is important to speak Spanish because few of the of Taxi-drivers know a foreign language. Itís probably a reason Spain has had so much economic trouble of late but itís a reality. One taxi driver admitted to me that when he drove a German, American, British, French, or Japanese customer around his communication consisted of simply pointing to pictures and addresses on pieces of paper! So it was a minor miracle that I could tell them where I wanted to go and find out a bit about their thoughts about the economy, the weather, their government and their lives.
†As the trip wound its way to an inevitable close (arenít you glad?), I noticed my Spanish was getting better or maybe it was the wine. Anyway I was amazed that I could converse better and better with each day. I sat for a morning coffee and bread (don't even ask how many wasted hours I spent trying to find a restaurant that sold a plate of eggs in the morning) while translating a few article from the local newspaper or the left wing El Pies to try to get an understanding of the profound change going on before my eyes in this marvelous country: for example, with youth unemployment in Andalucia at over 60%, the local government has taken the drastic step of offering anyone who finds a job 400 euros a month for up to 12 months if they will simply find a job. The homeless sleeping on the street and beggars became more and more obvious the more time I spent in Spain.
After a visit to the castle in Seville and an impossibly late lunch (4 pm...itís lunch time!) I headed back to Cordoba on the fast train and plotted a path to the belly of the beast: Madrid.
The fast train ride from Cordoba to Madrid started a little weird. It seems that you go through security to enter the train and the police take x-rays of every bag entering the train. (All of this started in 2004 when some arabs blew up 10 trains at the same time in 2004 and killed 190 and injured almost 2000 people.)
When I got to my reserved seat on the AVE, fast train, I saw a suspicious looking briefcase in my seat. I called it to the attention of the steward with my broken Spanish. By this time the whole rail car of passengers was aware that there was a suspicious bag on the train. So what did they do? They told me to relax: someone had left the briefcase to have a few cocktails (at 9 am?) in the bar explained the steward, heíd be back in a bit! Sure enough, ten minutes later, a well-dressed Spanish gentlemen came back to the rail car looking for his briefcase and I told him where I had placed it. He thanked me and plopped down in the seat in front of me.
Most of you are probably bored of all this rambling but I'll close with a few high point notes I wrote while visiting Spain during the midst of my visit:
Spanish are paranoid of cold weather and they donít trust the weather to be warm even when itís 80 degrees outside. For this reason, everyone I saw carried a jacket over their arm, awaiting a blast of cold weather. I laughed at this as I walked around with nothing but a T-shirt on until upon arriving in Madrid I got off the train and realized the temperature all of a sudden very cold! I had to wear my sweater and a jacket to get over the chill.
The taxi driver explained that they had snow a mere week ago in some northern areas. But then the same afternoon the temperature in the sun rose to over 85 degrees. I found that in the shade it was always cold and in the sun it was hotter than Florida. The sun is so intense. During my visit in May, I noticed that the temperature rose a few degrees every day to a point where in June they say it reaches well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit: go figure.
I was paranoid about robbery and pickpockets because of what Iíd read before I came to Madrid, but I lucked out and never had a problem. However, I was attacked by pigeons that pooped all over me when I was walking down the street one day. The locals howled with laughter. It must be common.
The only real problem in Madrid is getting lost: thank god I know how to say,Donde esta......-Where is .....!
When you use a credit card in Spain you are obliged to present your passport if you are a foreigner but I used cash always to avoid fraud. I heard there are few problems with cards here in Spain.
The Spanish are obsessed with the civil war between the fascists Nationalists and the in socialist Republicans that lasted from1936-1939. The capital, Madrid, was under siege for over two years and you can see it in the faces of the people to this day in the way they party and celebrate their new freedom since the death of the fascist dictator Franco in 1975.
Spanish in Spain has a lot of different words from Spanish in Tampa. For example, bathrooms (banos) in Tampa are either Aseos (toilets) or Servicios depending on where you are. Many other words are totally different and they don't necessarily knowLatin American Spanish here but as a foreigner you just wing it and get out your electronic dictionary until you find a word they comprehend.
The men are macho in Spain: women are supposed to be equal but that's not how it plays out in practice. Women however are stylish here and wear great cloths and always, everyone, is dressed up. I was smart to wear a jacket wherever I went and was treated accordingly.
Subways in Madrid are clean and the way to travel around the city. However be advised that the Metro is a living united nations of people on any given train ride and you can see the world in a subway car, similar to New York but cleaner and cheaper.
When you come to Spain bring more money than you think you'll need and be ready to get lost and wander. You'll find your bearings as soon as you stumble upon the next Metro station.
I still miss Tampa and Lutz! Tomorrow I will make my way home. I'll put photos on my webpage http://www.ralphbfisher.com/