by Antonia Lehn
Imagine. it is 11 o’clock in the evening, the sun has just set and a mild breeze cools the summer air. You are sitting in a Roman theatre and a performance is about to commence. You are in Mérida, the capital of Extramadura, the westernmost province of Spain, during the summer festival. Mérida has the best-preserved Roman architecture in all of Spain. From an aqueduct, to the foundations of a Roman villa, to the grounds of a circus and best of all, the amphitheatre which has been undergoing restoration. I had landed there on the recommendations of some fellow travellers I had met in Trujillo, a town a little further north.
The description of Trujillo in my guide book as "one of the most perfect little towns in Spain: had lured me there from Barcelona, on the other side of the country. I was not to be disappointed. Extramadura is the poorest region of Spain and home to many of the conquistadors.
The bus wound its way through tiny villages, where the pace of life seems to have been unchanged through decades, or indeed centuries. On my arrival at the time of the fierce midday sun, Trujillo was quiet, with all but foolish foreigners enjoying a siesta. It was indeed like stepping back into the 15th Century, as I trudged the narrow little streets to my hostal. The Plaza Mayor, the town square, is dominated by a statue of Pizarro on horseback. Just outside the square, the Pizarro Bar is indeed run by descendants of the Pizarro brothers who made their name in the new world. Venture up to the hill and you’ll encounter the Casa-Museo de Pizarro, the ancestral home of the family and now a museum. On top of the hill you’ll see the remaining walls of the Castillo which dates back to the Muslim rule in Spain. My afternoon of sight-seeing was followed by one the most memorable dishes I tasted in Spain - cactus omelette. It is very likely that this dish was a result of Spain’s association with Mexico.
A total contrast to land-locked Extramadura is the port city and site of the 1992 Olympics, the Catalan capital, Barcelona. It is synonymous with art - above all, Antoni Gaudí who has left his trademark all over the city, ranging from the still unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, to Park Güell where the artist added fairy-tale like structures to the landscape. Take a walk down Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla, which teems with hawkers, buskers and performance artists at all times of the day and night. Go to the end of the street, overlooking the sea, and you will come across a tall column, a monument to Cristóbal Colón, known to us as Christopher Columbus. Nearby are the Maritime Museum, well worth a visit, and the Museo de Cera, the Wax Museum, with its extensive collection of figures, ranging from Don Quixote in front of windmills to Pinocchio and Harrison Ford.
In his travelogue Iberia, James Michener enthused about El Poble Español, the Spanish Village. It was constructed in Barcelona in 1929 as a feature of an international exhibition, the Exposición Iberoamericana, and has remained. Behind its entrance gate, a replica of the entrance gate to Ávila, you will find more than 80 buildings, copies of different periods and styles of architecture from all regions of Spain. During the day, the Village lends itself to strolling and exploring numerous specialty shops and savouring refreshments like Horchata, a delicious cool drink made from chufas - tiger nuts. At night the town assumes a different life with discos and nightclubs.
An entirely different experience is a visit to the Barri Gòtic, the Gothic Quarter, just east of La Rambla. It is the mediaeval city, full of rambling, narrow streets and a towering cathedral.
My first introduction to Spain was Madrid. It may lack the physical beauty of Barcelona but its vibrancy and profound sense of history struck a chord with me. On a quiet morning in the Plaza Mayor, it was hard to imagine that this had once been the grisly theatre for the sentencing of 120 heretics, victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Madrid’s Prado offers a different sense of history, with its artworks spanning from Velázquez to El Greco and Goya, as well as French, Italian German, Dutch and Flemish masters. The Museo Naval, the naval museum is a well-kept secret and contains many reminders of Spain’s seafaring days, including a hall devoted solely to galley figures. Tired of museums? Head to the Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s expansive park, next to the Prado, complete with a crystal palace. You can hire a boat and paddle around the lake, watch a puppet show, listen to the buskers or have your fortune told by one of many multi-lingual clairvoyants.
If you are visiting Madrid, take the opportunity to explore Toledo, the last home of the painter El Greco, and the home of famous Toledo steel. In Toledo Arab signs still serve as reminders of the Muslim rule but you can also visit the Jewish quarter and the Roman Catholic cathedral. Toledo’s magnificent cathedral has been a site of worship since Visigoth occupation - indeed, you can attend mass in Visigoth on the first Sunday of each month. During the Muslim occupation the Visigoth basilica became a mosque, only to be replaced by the current Gothic structure in the 13th century.
Head northwest from Madrid and you will encounter Segovia, in the province of Castilla y Léon, which dates its settlement back to the Celts. It is still dominated by its landmark Roman aqueduct and also sports its Alcázar which Walt Disney liked so much he replicated it in California and also used it for the opening of his telemovies.
Now head south and follow the footsteps of the 16th century mystic and founder of the descalced Carmelites, Santa Teresa of Ávila. Some of her holy reliquaries are in the churches and you can even see her cell where she started monastic life, outside of the walled city. The town’s city wall is one of the best preserved in the world. Climb on the towers and you’ll see the storks’ nests just outside the walls. The view will also give you a sense of the vast, dry country beyond the walls, somewhat reminiscent of the parched Australian countryside.
Head further south still and you will reach Andalucía, the home of flamenco. During September in even-numbered years, Sevilla hosts the Bienal de Flamenco, one of Spain’s major flamenco festivals. The Semana Santa, Holy Week, sees daily processions and rites dating back to the 14th century. The city is also home to the remains of Christopher Columbus. Sevilla at springtime is fragrant with orange blossoms. Don’t expect to eat Seville oranges, though. They serve the British export market or are left on the trees, as they are too bitter to eat and the Spaniards have not yet acquired a taste for marmalade!
When you travel in Spain, your daily habits will soon become attuned to the local rhythm. If you are there during the summer, a siesta will become an essential part of the day, especially as shops and museums often close between 1 or 2 and 5 o’clock. Lunch does not commence until 1 o’clock and you will rarely find dinner served before 8.30pm. Breakfast is not an important meal as Spaniards tend to make do with coffee and a sweet bun. You will find substantial breakfasts only in hotels catering to foreign tourists. Although vegetarian dishes do not feature prominently on menus, the abundance of fresh fruits and crisp salads do compensate for this. Even the most humble establishments will take pride in a well-presented table which is never in lack of a cloth. Service is always friendly, courteous and prompt and the facilities are spotless.
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