This past May, I decided that I'd had enough: enough of the stress, enough of "to do" lists, and enough of being tired all of the time. I needed a vacation. Not "time off" and certainly not a "long weekend getaway." I need to go somewhere and that "somewhere" had to be off of this continent.
The place that immediately came to mind was Madrid, Spain. I grew up speaking Spanish at home, so language isn't a problem. My family emigrated from Spain to Puerto Rico towards the end of the 19th century and still has business, educational, and personal connections to la Madre España: For example, my stepmother's father, who was born in Spain, fought on the Nationalist, i.e., Franco's, side in the Spanish Civil War while, three decades later, my father's youngest brother was declared persona non grata for his anti-Franco activities while he attended university in Spain. (It was probably his American citizenship that kept him from staging his own one-man production of "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" inside a Spanish prison.)
I ran my idea past my two best friends hoping against hope that one or both might go with me and, to my delight, my friend Douglas jumped at the idea. His signing on transformed the trip. To understand why, you need to know that Douglas knows more about myths, legends, and stories than anyone I know. To him, King Arthur, Don Quixote and Roland are as real — at least in the ways that matter — as George W. Bush, probably more so. (He is also the best driver I know and a human GPS, more about which below.)
Thanks to Douglas' enthusiasm and planning (I made the needed phone calls and sent the necessary correos electronicos, i.e., e-mail, to the out-of-the-way hotels and casas rurales Douglas found), my much-needed break from everyday life became a 2,000 kilometer-plus road trip across the centuries and among the ghosts that haunt and shaped Spain: Quixote's La Mancha, Roland's Pyrenees and El Pais Vasco, and, especially, El Camino de Santiago, the road traveled by the medieval pilgrims and some modern ones, as well.
After Douglas' arrival in Madrid, we rented a car and went looking for Roman ghosts and suckling pig (cochinillo Segoviana) in Segovia, which you can't miss — just follow the huge Roman aqueduct to the center of town. It was built by the Trajan, one of the two Spanish-born emperors (Hadrian was the other) that ruled Rome at her zenith (itself an Arabic word introduced to Europe through Spain).
Since Roman city planners didn't have cars in mind, we had to park quite a ways from the aqueduct and, more importantly, the suckling pig. That's when Douglas' superpowers kicked in: No going back the way we came for him. He weaved in and out of side streets as if he had grown up in Segovia and within a few minutes we were in the shadow of Trajan's aqueduct.
Standing next to it, I chuckled at what we call "Old Town" back home in Alexandria, Virginia. Sure, by American standards "Old Town" Alexandria is old: It was built in the mid-to-late 18th century and many of the houses date from that period. In contrast, Trajan's aqueduct is 1900 years old, was built without mortar, much less rebar, and it still works — better than some of the houses in "Old Town" Alexandria. (There's a Discovery Networks series called "What the Ancients Knew." The answer is: quite a lot, not only about engineering but about life, as well.)
The drive from Segovia to Sigüenza took us up and over the Guadarrama mountains (Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland) into Castilla La Mancha. We stayed in a 1,500 (!) year-old castle that had been turned into a hotel by the Spanish government: el Parador de Sigüenza.
(Real estate tip: there are an estimated 3,000 abandoned castles in Spain. They can be had for as little as 130,000 euros, approximately $170,000. Granted, it will take an additional one million euros to fix the place up. Still, for the price of many an American "McMansion" your home really will be your castle.)
Remember what I told you about Douglas' love for myth, legend and story? The Parador isn't only a castle in the heart of Don Quixote's La Mancha: in 1123 it was liberated from the Moors by none other than Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid. All that was missing was a sword made of Toledo steel. Actually, it wasn't missing: I had bought one in Toledo for my son, David. (Getting it back to the USA when toothpaste and lip gloss were being treated as possible weapons of mass destruction was a lot tougher.)
In Sigüenza, like on the rest of our trip, we spent some time in the local cathedral. Spanish churches, like the Spanish people themselves, often have visible layers, each of which reveals part of the country's history.
Architecturally, there's the Romanesque layer, which, as the name implies, testifies to Spain's Roman past but also to her Visigothic one, as well. Then there's the Mudéjar layer, the product of Spain's Moorish subjugation. The Gothic features roughly date from la Reconquista, the Christian re-conquest and, finally, the baroque layer from the Counter-Reformation when Spain was at the height of her power. All of these could be seen in various elements of the churches we visited.
Speaking of churches, one of the highlights of the road trip was our stop at the monastery at Santo Domingo de Silos near Burgos. While you may never heard of the monastery, you've probably heard the monks: They're the ones who recorded the album "Chant," that most unlikely of chart-toppers in the early 90s. The directions to the monastery were simple: turn at the sign that says "monastery this way" and follow the road to the back of beyond. Really. The road winds through some ominous-looking mountains that seem to close in around you. Definitely not for claustrophobics.
Once you're there, there's a 1,000-year-old cloister and the tiny town that grew up around it. It's straight out of "How the Irish Saved Civilization" except that these monks were Spanish and Spain didn't need the kind of saving that Britain, France and Germany did, thank you very much. If you stick around for vespers, you will hear them sing. Otherwise, you won't see or hear them.
After the visit to the monastery, we spent the night at Sotillo de la Ribera, a town with, according to its website, "638 habitants," nearly all of whom seemed to be named Arroyo. They claimed not to be related, though. Really?
Besides a last name, they also share a centuries-old connection to viniculture. Calling it the "wine industry" would be an injustice to the people I met like Alejandro Arroyo. Arroyo took us a personal tour of his family vineyard or bodega. He spoke with obvious pride not only about his craft but the place where practices it. He regards the 400-plus year-old caves where he stores and ages his wine as a kind of cathedral and his family still has notebooks and other records dating from the 18th century. Before I met him and the other Arroyos, the idea of living in a town with only "638 habitants" was almost unthinkable. Not anymore.
Of course, if you want to talk about connection to a place, the discussion begins and ends with the Basque Country. I'm of Basque descent on my paternal grandmother's side but apart from knowing that her people came to Puerto Rico in the mid-to-late 19th century as part of Spain's effort to deal with her restive Basque population, the trail goes cold.
The Basques are still restive. In San Sebastián-Donostia (part of the restiveness manifests itself in giving everything two completely-different names and often neglecting to tell non-Basques that they're the same place), we literally ran into a demonstration in support of Iñaki de Juana, who is serving a 96 (85 with good behavior and only if he ends his hunger strike) year sentence for his association with ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, "Basque Homeland and Freedom," also the definite article in Basque), the Basque terrorist group.
We were bummed that we didn't have our cameras. I thought that it might have been cool to have our pictures taken in the crowd, maybe even holding a sign. (Man, am I a moron. That would have violated at least three provisions of the Patriot Act.)
Fifteen minutes from San Sebastian is France. After a morning in the très chic resort of Biarritz (temperature that August day: 58 degrees), we were off to the spiritual and emotional highlight of our journey: the Pyrenees and the route trod by both Roland and the medieval pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James.
Now as then, the pilgrimage begins in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port. From there, it's an eight-mile drive up the mountains to the Spanish town of Roncesvalles (Orreaga in Basque). It was here, according to the Song of Roland, that Roland and the Twelve Peers fought off the Moors and saved both Charlemagne's army and Christendom, as well.
Listening to Douglas tell the story of the noble Roland and the treacherous Ganelon as we drove up the mountain was one of the great experiences of my life. Another was seeing a group of eastern European pilgrims singing hymns in a corner of the courtyard. It was cold (40 degrees), wet, and they had just walked for at least eight hours up the side of a mountain but you wouldn't have known it listening to them. We made our way back to San Sebastian via Pamplona, where the editor will be relieved to know that the bulls were not running.
We made our way back towards Madrid via Rioja where I found the town where I'm most likely to live out my life-long fantasy of being an ex-pat: Santo Domingo (yes, he did get around, didn't he?) de la Calzada. Another stop on the Way of Saint James, the entire main street is one large outdoor cafe. While eating a very good four-course meal that only cost ten euros, I found myself thinking "you know, you can do your job from anywhere with a broadband connection. If you sell your home, you can use part of the gain to buy a place here and the rest to pay for the occasional business trip back to D.C." I can always dream.
By the time we parted company at Madrid's Barajas Airport, Douglas and I had lived an extended MasterCard commercial: "Toll for Autopista A8: €6. Hearing 'Annie's Song' sung by a street-musician in Basque while admiring Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum: priceless." (No wonder they hate us.) We saw a magnolia, palm and sycamore growing side-by-side (I'm told that's unusual) outside of the Basilica of St. Ignatius (Iñigo) Loyola in his hometown of Azpeitia in the Basque Country.
Best of all, we left the continent as friends and came back as the same, despite my prodigious snoring, which makes my "to do" lists a lot more doable.