Adiós from España

In just a few hours my plane will leave from Spain – “ojala” or God-willing as the Spanish say, using a word that has roots in Arabic, and like a number of Spanish words has its roots in the 700-year period when the Moors or Arabs ruled Spain.

It’s been an incredibly wonderful adventure, and I will always be thankful for having had been given this opportunity. In four months in Spain, I have not had one bad experience with the Spaniards. They are lovely, gracious people.

I have tried to make the most of each day to listen, learn and grow. I am, however, extremely excited to head home to be with Mims and our daughters, Emily, Marguerite and Isabelle and our dogs, Hollie and Winston. I have missed them greatly.

On Wednesday night, I sat in the cathedral of the Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain in Madrid and enjoyed the Lessons and Carols Service. The spirit was good. It was nice to be singing familiar Christmas carols in Spanish. Then a wonderful pianist started to play and a parishioner named Maestro Toledo, who is now retired but was the Pavorotti of his day in Cuba, sang. It was a magical moment.

Yesterday was my final day in Spain, and it was wonderful. I visited the Monastery of the Descalzadas, where Queen Marianne of Austria, was a monk. It is the most important religious building in Madrid, and it is somewhat difficult to visit, but well-worthwhile as it is a veritable temple of fine artwork. The monastery was created by Queen Juana as a convent for women of nobility.

I then visited the Museo de Bellas Artes, where I saw less than ten people while walking through rooms filled with paintings by Velasquez, Goya, Zuburan, Ribera, Murillo, Sorolla, Julio Romero de Torres and others. It was a spectacular experience visiting great art in rooms where I was often alone with masterpieces of Spanish art.

I had lunch with Bishop Carlos Lopez Lozano, who leads the Episcopal Church in Spain. He is 51, and has served as bishop for 18 years and hopes to serve another 15 years. He oversees about 30 small, struggling churches and has planted at least one church each year that he has served as bishop. He is a lovely man and a fine bishop.

The Episcopal Church was devastated by Franco, who believed only in one church (the Roman Catholic Church), one political party (the Falangists), one language (Spanish and no other dialects or Spanish languages) and one country (no independence for Cataluna or Pais Vasco). Franco oversaw the killing of several Episcopal clergy, who were killed merely for being Protestants.

In the afternoon, I visited the Palacio Real, where the King and Queen of Spain stay when they are in Madrid. It is similar to visiting Buckingham Palace with its splendor. There was a special exhibit of artwork from El Escorial, the Benedictine monastery outside of Madrid, where many of the kings and queens of Spain are buried. Two masterpieces by Titian of Christ on the cross and Christ being prepared by burial were incredible. They are among the finest works of religious art that I have ever seen.

I closed the day by visiting the Museo de Cerralbo, which is a museum in an elegant former private home with a stunning collection of works of art by El Greco, Tintoretto and others. It was a great way to conclude a spectacular day and a four-month sabbatical, for which I shall forever be grateful for having received.

I had hoped to visited Cuenca (a city an hour from Madrid that is famous for its houses hanging off cliff sides) and El Escorial, but it has been rainy this week in this part of Spain, and I have been fighting a cold. So, I decided not save both visits for the future. Bishop Lopez has graciously offered to organize a private visit with a monk at El Escorial when I return one day to Spain and to take me there personally. I look forward to it.

Prior to me return to Spain I spent four days in Segovia, studying Spanish with Miguel Angel, an actor, writer and Spanish teacher, who I met while visiting Segovia previously. He has done all of his work for a doctorate, but has not completed his Ph.d. due to the economic crisis in Spain, simply known everywhere here as the “crisis.” Everyone talks about it. It’s a depressing reality for the entire country.

This crisis has drastically altered Spain, and many people think that there were will eventually be a revolt in the country. It would not surprise me. The sentiment everywhere is the every Spanish politician in Spain, and with 26.5 unemployment and between 50-60% unemployment for younger persons, it is only a matter of time before the people can tolerate no more.

Miguel Angel was my final and my best teacher in Spain. I learned more in a few days of studying and writing compositions for him than from anyone. I hope to return and study with him again. He charges only 10 euros an hour (about $15), which you cannot beat. We discussed literature, philosophy, theater, art, history, politics and religion as we walked around Segovia. If you are interested in studying Spanish, I would be happy to put you in touch with him.

As we walked around the city, Miguel Angel would pause and explain the history of Segovia, noting that one of the towers (in my photos) is the tallest Roman tower in Europe or noting that Segovia is one of only three cities in Spain that has its entire wall still surrounding its city. Avila and a city in Galicia are the other two.

Segovia is one of my favorite cities in Spain. Unlike Toledo, its casco historico or old quarter actually has lots of shops that serve the local residents, rather than Toledo were virtually every shop in the casco historico is a tourist shop. Seville continues to be my favorite city in Spain. My other favorite cities in Spain include Burgos, Barcelona and Salamanca, but I also love Madrid, Cordoba, Leon, Santiago de Compostela, Valencia and many other places.

Spain is an incredible country, and I heartily recommend it to everyone. My guide in northern Spain is Charles Schwalbe, and I would heartily recommend him to you. His contact information is:

Charles Schwalbe Garcia-Lago
Chief Experience Officer
charles@northernexposurespain.com
(34) 648-610-549

Charles is great at organizing expeditions. Two years ago, he arranged for me to visit the pre-historic caves in the north of Spain and the wonderful towns of Santianna del Mar, Castro Urdiales, Comillas and Pontes, all of which are worth seeing.

Prior to studying in Segovia, I spent five days back in Santander, where I studied Spanish two years ago for a week. I studied once again with Estelle, who is a wonderful teacher. I scored poorly on my final exam, but I am not actually in the exam study mode and much of what was on the exam was never taught to me. Still, I was disappointed not to score higher.

My Spanish has made great strides, but there is much more to learn. It is a lifetime project to learn a second language as an adult. There is so much to learn. I bought a book of colloquial expressions, which alone would take years to learn. I return home with a suitcase of Spanish books about history, the Inquisition, art, literature, biographies and poetry. Reading these will improve my knowledge of Spanish and Spain greatly.

Charles and I visited Orviedo and Gijon in Asturias, one of the 17 “autonomias” or essentially states of Spain, where I had spent little time. The culture of Asturias is fascinating. We also visited Victoria, which is the capital of the Basque Country, which would like to separate from Spain. We toured a wonderful old cathedral from the 12th century that is being completely rebuilt after nearly collapsing.

On our final day, we toured San Sebastian, Spain’s most expensive city and a very international and lovely summer resort. We also visited a medieval city called Hondaribbera, which has some of the best “pinchos” or “tapas” to be found. Several appear in my photographs.

There is more to be found on my blog at church that you can visit at: www.stthomaswhitemarsh.org. In January, I will be offering four Sunday Forums to share my experiences of walking the Camino de Santiago and living, learning and traveling in Spain on Sundays, January 5 and 12 and February 2 and 16. In you are able to join us, we would love to have you attend.

I wish to conclude by thanking our Vestry and our church for this incredible experience that has meant more to you than I could ever express. I especially wish to thank my wife, Mims, who has allowed me to take this time. She has done an incredible job of holding down the fort while I have been here. I will always be indebted. I have missed our family and all of you more than I can express in words, and I cannot wait to see each one of you.

On Sunday, December 29, we shall be bidding a fond farewell to my colleague and dear friend the Rev. Hillary West, who is moving to northern Virginia to serve as priest-in-charge of her own parish. Hillary will be greatly missed, but has done an incredible job of serving our church. I am so grateful to her for leading our parish in my absence. She is a great gift from God.

With love and prayers to all of you as wishes for a peaceful and joyful Christmas,

Marek

Valencia is Amazing; Peniscola is Great; Toledo is Touristy

I am ensconced in a very nice public library in Santander, Spain, a resort-community of about 200,000 where I will be studying Spanish intensively for four hours each day this week and living with Antonio and Elena – an elderly couple who take in students. They do not have internet in their apartment so I am working from here before my lessons begin later today.

I first studied Spanish intensively in Santander two years ago in December, so it is good to be back here. I will be traveling each day this week for half-day trips with my good friend Charles Schwalbe, who is a professional guide. We will be visiting Oviedo and Gijon in Austurias (one of Spain’s 17 “autonomias” or self-governed areas of the country – equivalent in some ways to our states) and San Sebastian, Bilbao and Guernica, which was bombed heavily during the Spanish Civil War and began the focus of Picasso’s famous painting exhibited in Paris during the war.

image (3)Last week, I studied in Toledo, which I found enchanting two months ago when I visited it for a day and wrote about it on my blog. It was wonderful to visit a few other sites in Toledo and to enjoy seeing some of El Greco’s masterpieces for a second time. The alcazar or castle was unfortunately closed the day that I went to visit it. Most of my time was spent studying Spanish with a taskmaster of a teacher who was very good, but made me think so much about what I was saying that I felt like I was going backwards in my ability to speak Spanish.

While I can read the newspaper readily and most books and get the gist of what is being said or even fully comprehend much of what I read, I still make 101 level mistakes, which is frustrating. This is what she was working to help me start to realize and overcome. Learning another language is a very long, slow process, if you want to move from “getting around in a country with a language” to “speaking it fluently and correctly.”

On the second go around, I found Toledo to be quite touristy. Only 11,000 people live in the “casco historico” or within the walls of the old city. The remaining 65,000 live outside in newer areas, including students at the University of Toledo, who lived and study in the converted armaments factory, which dates back centuries ago. Toledo was the capital of Spain until 1561 and was also a major city for producing weapons. The streets are filled with shops that cater to tourists, selling enough swords and other weaponry to arm Iraq and Iran.

image (7)It was neat walking through the medieval streets at night once the Christmas tree lights had been erected and the tourists had left. I was living in the Jewish quarter. Toledo, Granada and Cordoba are famous for being “three-culture cities,” where for a time Jews, Christians and Muslims lived somewhat harmoniously each in their own quarter. All three have left profound traces on the culture of Spain today. Only three synagogues from medieval times remain standing in Spain today. One is in Cordoba and the other two are in Toledo. I am now privileged to have visited all three.

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Friday was a feast day and holiday celebrating Spain’s democratic constitution. Sunday was the Feast of the Immaculada, so Spaniards traveled to visit family for the long weekend, and I headed to Castellon, a city of about 100,000 not far from Valencia on the east coast of Spain. I stayed with Pablo and Anna, my close friends from the Camino. We walked the first week of the Camino together meeting on the way from Roncsevalles and saying farewell in Logrono, where they stopped and headed off to Cantabria.

image (11)Pablo and Anna hosted me in their home and took me to visit Peñiscola on Friday, which is a fortified town on the coast of Spain with a former Templar castle built in the late 13th century upon the foundations of an Arab fortress. It sites upon a rocky promontory, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea on three sides overlooking a labyrinth of white houses and narrow winding streets in the town below. The views were spectacular. This was the site of the 1961 Hollywood blockbuster movie “El Cid.”

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During the 14th century, the Catholic Church suffered a great embarrassment when there were two Popes, both whom claimed to be “the Pope.” Known historically as the “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy,” one Pope lived in Rome and another in Avignon. The vote was taken as to who was to be Pope before the French delegation of cardinals arrived in Rome. Upset by the vote, another vote was taken and they elected a different Pope – Benedict XIII, leading to the great schism.

Benedict lived in Avignon and later moved to Peñiscola, where he lived in the castle and had a special room built as his study and library overlooking the Mediterranean at the highest point in the castle. It was a great place to study until he died in 1423. Before that, he had been deposed by the Council of Constance in 1414 and Catherine of Siena had engineered a way to reconcile the varying parties within the Church. If only she were alive today!

We spend Saturday in Valencia, which is a 30-minute train ride from Castellon. It is among the most underrated cities in Spain. Several people told me that Valencia was nice, but I found it enchanting. It is an extremely calm city. There is none of the rush and fever of activity that one feels in Madrid or Barcelona at times or the noise level of those cities, yet it is Spain’s third-largest city. It is a fascinating blend of antiquity and modernity.

image (18)We walked through the Carmen barrio and its winding, narrow streets with wonderful little restaurants and bars along the side of the streets. We toured the Mercado Central (Central Market), which occupies an art nouveau building that opened in 1928 and is one of the largest and most attractive markets in Europe. Every morning 350 or so stalls are opened selling Iberian hams that cost as much at $900 (edible gold in Spain) and the most amazing array of fish and seafood that you have ever seen. The Spainish eat all sorts of ocean life that most Americans could not identify let alone name and order in a restaurant.

image (26)We then toured La Lonja, which is an exquisite late Gothic hall built between 1482 and 1498 as a commodities exchange. It now houses cultural events. It’s walls are decorated with some of the best gargoyles that I have seen in Europe. After lunch we visited the cathedral, which was started in 1262 and added to throughout the centuries. It has three principle doors – a Roman door, a Gothic door and a Baroque door, which is “Baroqua, Baroqua, Baroqua” or super-Baroque as one of my teachers in Seville would say. This last door was constructed in the 18th century.

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We closed out the day by visiting the most remarkable buildings of modern architecture that I have ever visited at the Ciutat de les Arts i de les Ciéncies. Four of these five huge new buildings were designed by Valencia´s world-famous architect Santiago Calatrava. They are surrounded by enormous pools of water, allowing for incredible reflections at night to play off the water and light giving mirror images of each building. (See my final photos, if you have managed to read this far.)

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image (34)One building is designed to imitate a blinking eye, and it houses the IMAX cinema and a planetarium. Another museum resembles the skeleton of a fish with gleaming white arches and houses a history of science museum. At the far end is a magnificent concert hall that can rival Sydney’s famous concert hall. The interior of the hall is not noteworthy, but the exterior resembles the Starship Enterprise or some futuristic space ship that could take off and traverse the universe.

Rarely have I seen a city that embraces the past and the future so well and offers such an incredibly calm environment in which to visit and explore. Valencia is clearly underrated and deserves more international attention and visitors.

As we move through Advent, I wish each of you a blessed season of watching and waiting in expectation for Christ to enter our lives more fully.

With peace and joy from Spain in my final days here before I leave for home excited to see our family, friends and church on December 20,

Marek

Forget Turkey. Eat Bull. Happy Thanksgiving!

We have so much to be grateful for and for which to offer thanks. I am so grateful for the time that I have had in Spain and all that I have seen and learned. I am terribly grateful for my family and our church and for their letting me spend this time abroad. I have tried to make the most of each day.

I have 24 more hours in Seville, before traveling to Toledo where I will study Spanish intensively for five days. At this point, I am studying four hours each day with a professor one-on-one, which is the very best way to learn. I listen to Spanish on the radio or on television, read books and the newspaper, write a four-page paper each day which my professor corrects and I later recopy, study some grammar and try to do at least one cultural thing a day.

image (9)Today, I visited the Inquisition Museum here in Seville. It is not one of the top ten sites, but it’s well worth a visit. Seville, Toledo and Granada were three of the places in Spain where the Inquisition was strongest. The Inquisition also existed in France, Italy, Germany and other countries, but its worst excesses occurred in Spain. I walked through the old castle lining the River Gaudalquivir, where the Chief Inquisitor used to live.

I strolled past the cells where men and women were held captive by the Church, were charged with being heretics or witches and were tortured until they confessed often to heresies and matters that they never committed. It was the Church at its very worst.

Yesterday, I travelled to Cordoba for the day, which until about six years ago was the only province in all of Spain to be governed by the Communist Party. Today, it’s leadership leans more toward the right, because of the economic crisis plaguing Spain.

Cordoba is a wonderful, ancient city and a place of enormous learning. I did not know until recently that Cordoba is where the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, the renowned Muslim philosopher Averroes and the great Latin writer Seneca were born. These are among the greatest thinkers of the Western world, and all three were born in Cordoba, which is not a very large city.

image (7)I toured the synagogue and was astounded to learn that this synagogue, which was built in 1311, is one of only three synagogues from the Middle Ages to survive in Spain. The other two are in Toledo. I have toured one of these earlier in my trip. Jews in Cordoba came under tremendous pressure in 1391, when they were accused of spreading the plague. They were given the option to convert or leave Spain.

Those who converted were known as “conversos.” Those who converted, but continued to practice Judaism secretly were called “marranos,” a pejorative term. The great Jewish philosopher Spinoza was a marrano. I toured the synagogue and then a Sephardic museum, which was constructed in and above the mikvah (a site for Jewish purification baths for women) next to the synagogue that was formerly connected through a series of underground tunnels.

image (4)This was one of the most interesting museums that I have visited in Spain. I learned more about Judaism in this museum in the nearly two hours that I spent there than I have learned in the same amount of time anywhere. Nearby, there is a statue of Maimonides. It is said that “Between Moses and Moses there was no Moses.” Maimonides is considered the second Moses, signifying that there has never been as powerful a Jewish thinker as Moses until Maimonides came along and wrote his “Guide for the Perplexed,” which is one of the great treatises of Western thought.

Maimonides and his family fled from Cordoba in 1391 when it was evident that being a Jew in Cordoba was a great risk. They moved to a variety of cities before Maimonides settled in Cairo, which is where he died. During my visit to the Sephardic Museum, my eyes were opened wider to the enormous pain and suffering that Jews worldwide have experienced while almost always being a minority in a Christian or Muslim world.

In 1492, Columbus discovered America, and Seville was given the sole access to trading routes with the new land. Hence every trading company of any size in all of Europe created a branch office in Seville and the city’s population grew with incredible speed. That same year Granada fell as the last city in Spain to be controlled by Muslims. The “Re-conquest of Spain” was over. Christians controlled the whole land. In that same year, King Fernand of Aragon and Queen Isabel the Catholic expelled all Jews and Muslims from Spain in an attempt to “purify” the country. Jews fled to other parts of Europe and beyond. To this day, Spain has a very small Jewish population.

I studied Averroes somewhat in college and was amazed to be walking the same streets and visiting the same neighborhoods in which intellectual giants like Averroes, Maimonides and Seneca once lived, studied and wrote. Averroes is credited with translating Plato and Aristotle from Arabic into Latin. The West had lost these great writings, but thanks to Averroes they once again had access to these intellectual powerhouses. Averroes’ translations of Aristotle in particular had a major impact on the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great.

image (13)I ate my best meal in Spain after visiting the Sephardic museum at “La Fragua.” I literally ate bull, which was the best dish I have eaten in three months of wonderful Spanish food. The restaurant was rustic with tables fashioned from old tree stumps and an old stove in the corner and an empty paint can sitting near the stove. The food was divine. Regretfully, I chose a different restaurant for dinner so that I could watch the Real Madrid soccer game. The game was fun, but the food paled by comparison.

image (25)In the afternoon I visited the mosque, which was converted into a Christian worship site when a cathedral was built in the middle of the mosque. It is one of the most interesting sites in all of Spain. The mihrab, which signifies the direction to Mecca and hence the direction in which Muslims must face to prostrate themselves and pray, was ornate and stunning. I love beautiful Arab architecture and art. Muslims are forbidden to depict human beings and animals in their art. Their designs are thus otherworldly and often involve Arabic letters and plant-life found in Muslim countries.

image (24)It was fascinating to be in ancient city where Christians, Jews and Muslims once got along well and learned from one another. I find this to be a compelling vision of how the world should be today. We must find ways to embrace the differences that others share with us and not to fear one another’s differences.

In the afternoon I toured the home where Julio Romero de Torres was born and died. He has become one of my two favorite painters in all of Spain, along with Velasquez. I bought a book about Torres so that I had study his life and his paintings, because they utterly fascinate me and they capture Andalusian life and culture unlike any other artwork that I have seen.

image (33)Afterwards, I toured the alcazar or castle which overlooks the city and protects it. It was dark and fascinating to walk around the castle virtually alone. My final event of the day was to take in the equestrian show in honor of our daughter, Marguerite, who loves to ride horses and is excellent at it. These horses literally danced to flamenco music. They were graceful beyond imagination. It was just one more fantastic aspect of the Andalusian culture which I find utterly compelling.

May we continue to count our blessing and give thanks to God for all that we have and all that we are.

With love and prayers,

Marek

Granada, the Alhambra and Malaga

Granada has been a big change from Seville.  While I could walk around Seville in a golf shirt, you need a parka to get around Granada.  The temperature here is much cooler.  From many parts of the city, you can see the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance.  They are about 45 minutes by car or bus from Granada.  The Sierra Nevada Mountains offer what is said to be the best skiing in Spain.  I was tempted to ski, but only two runs are open, it’s costly and I have a cold.

This has been a harder week for me, since I have been sick and the weather is so cold.  With our girls home from school for Thanksgiving and everyone back home getting ready for the big holiday, I find myself missing our family, our home and our dogs a great deal, but I look forward to being home in less than a month.

Granada is fascinating.  The ideal time, however, to visit this famous old city is September or October or to come in April or May.  The summer’s here can be extremely hot.  I arrived just about a week after the weather had turned cold.

I have seen and learned a great deal here and am very grateful to have come to Granada.  I leave tomorrow to return to Seville, which has been my favorite city to visit in all of Spain.  From Seville, I hope to make a day trip to Cordoba and possibly a day trip to Ronda or Ubejda.

image (22)My classes were good, but I was chomping at the bit by the end of week five to be done with group lessons on Spanish grammar.  The lessons were very helpful, but I found myself thinking that there has to be a faster way to learn Spanish.

Each day I have a private lesson, where I converse one-on-one with a teacher for an hour.  I usually practice reading aloud in Spanish and a write a four-page paper in Spanish, which my teacher corrects.  Tomorrow I am taking several hours of private lessons from Moses, a teacher who led some of my group lessons in Seville.  He is very good.

I will have more individual lessons in Toledo, Santander and Segovia, before returning home.  Private lessons are the fastest and best way to learn a language.  I am starting to listen to Spanish radio on my iPhone, which is most helpful for training the ear to understand Spanish.

In each city, I have stayed with a different host or host family.  My favorite family or host was Beni (Benilde) and her sons Santiago (18) and Rafa (16).  They live on the Calle (street) Republica Argentina in Seville, and they made me feel right at home.  The walk from their home to my school by the Plaza de Toros – the bullring in Seville – was one of the most enjoyable experiences that I have had in Spain.

Each family or host has been very different, and I have learned some things from each household about Spanish language and culture.  The rooms have been small, but the food has generally been good.  It’s definitely akin to returning to college, but on the whole it’s been a very good experience.

image (20)Christian (a wonderful guy from Colorado), Joe (a quiet guy from Iowa) and Margaret (a woman from Norway, who decided to leave earlier than planned), have been my flat mates this week.  Pepe, 75, and Trina, 72, have been my host and hostess this week.  They are hard to understand compared to the Spanish speakers in northern Spain.

In culture class, we studied the gypsy culture, which plays a significant role especially in southern Spain.  One day I took a long walk around Sacramonte, the area on the edge of Granada and up in the hills, where gypsies have lived for years and literally carved their homes into the rocky mountainside.

imageThe gypsies in Granada are world-famous for their flamenco.  Last night I attended a fine flamenco show in a cavern on the way to Sacramonte.  In culture class we studied words from the gypsy culture that have entered everyday Spanish such as “molar,” which means “to like,” “chorizo,” which means to “rob but not kill” or “chaval” or “chavea,” which means son or daughter.

image (12)On Saturday, I visited Diego and Alvaro, a father and son whom I greatly enjoyed walking with on the Camino.  They live in Malaga.  Diego and his wife, Cruz, and Alvaro hosted me for lunch at Pips, a famous Malagan restaurant.  Diego took me to visit many fine churches in the city.  Malaga is a city with lovely architecture.  We toured the Alcazar (the castle), which overlooks the city and the port of Malaga.  We also visited the home where Pablo Picasso was born and spent the first five years of his life.

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image (7)On Sunday, I toured the Alhambra, which is a huge complex of buildings that overlooks Granada.  The Moorish kings lived in the Alhambra until Granada was reconquered in 1492, making it the final major city to stand before Spain was reconquered following a seven hundred year reign of the Muslims. It has been linked with the Seven Wonders of the World, which include the Taj Mahal, the Eifel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, Machu Pichu and others.  The American writer Washington Irving wrote his “Tales of the Alhambra” in 1829, which has generated enormous fame for the Alhambra.

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I am currently reading a biography of Washington Irving in Spanish.  I read Spanish better than I speak it, which is normal, but reading helps to build vocabulary and to improve my speaking and listening skills.  I took some of the best photos of my trip while touring Alhambra.  I hope that you enjoy them.  Everyone can be a great photographer in the Alhambra!

I pray that all of you are happy and well.

With every blessing,

Marek

Seville and Cadiz – Spain Just Keeps Getting Better All the Time

I did not think that my journey through Spain could get any better, but it just keeps getting better. If I could live in one Spanish city or return and spend more time somewhere and bring our family back to see, I would choose Seville.

The climate here is lovely at this time of the year. It can be unbearable in the summer. My host said that by 10:00 a.m. the heat is so hot that she cannot cross the bridge, which I walk across every day on my way to school crossing over the Guadalquivir River and passing by the Torre del Oro — the oldest Moorish tower in the world. It’s a great walk that leads me to the Plaza del Torros, Seville’s main bull-fighting ring.

image (29)Unfortunately, the bull-fights end in Spain in September and October as cities around Spain celebrate their patronal feasts and famous bull-fighters come to each city to fight the bulls. From October to March the bull-fighters migrate to Mexico and South America to fight the bulls there. My school is right next to the bull-fighting arena. At lunch, I would go to small cafes, restaurants/bars that were lined with bulls’ heads on the walls as well as photos of all the great bullfighters. It was a great atmosphere.

image (24)The architecture here is beautiful and is vastly different from the north. The school offers wonderful excursions for 5 euros each day. We went on a great walking tour of the Macarena Barrio, where a singing group from Seville made the Macarena song world famous. They attribute its world-famous popularity to the Virgin of the Macarena — a special statue that is housed in one of Seville’s most famous churches in their barrio.

image (25)The architecture ranges from very traditional to buildings in the Amudéjar style, which blends Moorish and Christian architecture into a beautiful fusion. In addition, there is some fabulous modern architecture such as the Setas or ¨Mushrooms,¨ which are seven large contemporary white edifices that are fused together and created what appears to be a giant cluster of mushrooms. I hate mushrooms, but I love Setas. On top, is a viewing walk, which at sunset offers fabulous views of Seville and a bar where you can sit and watch the color of the sky change in brilliant ways.

 

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Seville reminds me of a huge Charleston, South Carolina. There are wonderful winding streets and it’s easy to get lost in barrios such as Santa Cruz, Triana and Marcarena. The air is sultry. The food is distinct. There is a clear southern feel to this exquisite city.

image (26)On my first evening here, I bought a ticket to watch Betis (one of Seville’s two professional soccer teams and the team that is currently sitting at the bottom of the league) play Barcelona, which is perhaps the best soccer team in the world. It was a great thrill to watch Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, Xaxi, Pedro, Cesc Fabergas and others who I have greatly enjoyed watching on television play in person.

What Betis lacked in skill, they made up for in aggression, fouling Barcelona frequently with tackles that seemed more akin to an American football game. I feared for the Barcelona players, especially as the referee rarely called fouls. Thirty minutes into the game, Messi, the world’s greatest player, was injured and will be out for six to eight weeks. The world cup will be played in Brazil next summer and the world hopes to see him in great form.

Highlights of this week included:
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* Visiting the cathedral and seeing the tomb (the Dominican Republic makes the same claim) where Christopher Columbus is buried. Columbus came to Seville to organize and plan his journey to America. Seville was granted the sole trading rights with the new continent, and hence every trading company in Europe created an office or branch in Seville and the city mushroomed followed Columbus’s discovery in 1492.

* Visiting Los Archivos de Indias (the Archives of the Indies), where all of the journals and archives of other Spanish sailors and adventurers are kept, and seeing the document which the Spanish and Portugese government drafted nicely dividing the world between themselves.
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* Having a drink of Poncheran in El Reconciliero — Seville’s oldest bar, which dates back to 1670.

* Exploring El Museo de Bella Artes, where there were very few people and I was alone in rooms with wonderful works of art by Francisco Zuburan, Bartolome Estaban Murillo, Jose Villegas Cordero, Gonzalo Bilbao and a new favorite artist for me from Cordoba — Julio Romero de Torres. It was one of the finest moments that I have ever enjoyed while visiting art. It is very hard to enjoy art to its fullest extent while standing in a crowded room. This was terrific.
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* Visiting the Alcazar fortress, where the kings of Seville and the kings of Spain lived and held court. It’s architecture is fabulous and it’s gardens created a peaceful oasis of silence and reflection.

* Exploring Cadiz yesterday. This is Europe’s oldest city. It is located an hour and a half south of Seville by train. It is on the coast and overlooks Africa and both the Atlantic and the Mediteranean Oceans. It’s strategic importance led Napoleon to capture it in 1810. It was here in 1812 after 1400 sessions that the Spanish constitution was drafted. It is a fascinating smaller city, where one can easily get lost in its meander streets. General Meade of Philadelphia was born here, as my good friend Gus Carey reminded me and encouraged me to visit Cadiz. Thank you, Gus!

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The Spanish spoken in Andalusia is very different from the rest of Spain. People from other parts of Spain struggle to understand the people in Andalusia when they speak. The people in Seville and other parts of Andalusia cut their words short and do not pronounce many of the “s” in words. Hence, it is very hard to understand them and to be understood in turn, but the charm of the city outweighs it all.

There is more to share, but this more than suffices. I encourage you to visit Seville one day. I’m off to catch a train to Granada, which I hear is fabulous. The adventure and the learning continue.

With gratitude and blessings,

Marek

Salamanca – A City of Learning

I have just arrived in Seville after spending the past week studying Spanish intensively in Salamanca and spending Saturday in Zamora — a city about 20 kilometers from Salamanca. Zamora boasts of having 14 Romanesque churches, which is more than any other city in Europe. I love churches, but even I saw enough to make my day complete! Zamora is an enchanting small city, with wonderful Modernistic architecture as well as medieval churches and convents.

image (10)Barcelona is in Seville tonight and is playing soccer against Real Betis, the other soccer team in the city of Seville besides “Seville,” which is playing an away game. Barcelona may be the world’s very best soccer team, and I am leaving shortly to see if I can buy a ticket to see the game. What a thrill it would be to see both Real Madrid and Barcelona play while in Spain.

Salamanca is enchanting. I loved my time there. I studied very hard. The Spanish verbs give me great trouble, but I must practice continuously and memorize them — something I have not had to do for a very long time. My teachers have been good (although some basically just talk about things on their mind or of immediate interest). Others are major grammar Nazis. I enjoyed staying with Carmen, who owned the apartment where I stayed. She is a good cook, which made it worthwhile walking 30 minutes back to the apartment for lunch. I was on my own for dinner, and usually ate something simple, even though Salamanca is renowned for having the best Iberian ham in Spain.

image (12)Salamanca is home to Europe’s second oldest university. I toured the Collegio Pontificio yesterday, which was founded around 1500. Everywhere you walk in Salamanca’s old quarter you find students. The environment is similar to Oxford or Cambridge, and it makes you want to study. I started reading a thick biography of Miguel de Unamuno and one of his novels — La Tía Tula. It was thrilling to be reading about him and also reading his novels in Spanish in the very city where he lived and ran the University of Salamanca. He was one of Spain´s greatest intellectuals and spoke out for the people of Spain during the Spanish Civil War, famously saying to the dictator´s leading general, “You can conquer us, but you cannot convince us,” words which are now famous in Spain.

image (3)I would read each evening in La Casa de las Conchas, which is a famous building with “conch” shells on its outer walls (a photo is included) as well as one looking down on its lit courtyard at night from the tower of the Collegio. This 16th century palace has been turned into a public library. I loved studying there each evening.

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The Plaza Mayor in Salamanca is said to be the most beautiful in all of Spain. I walked across it several times every day going to and from the apartment to class. One afternoon I stopped to have coffee at the Café Novelty — the same café, where the dictator Franco drank coffee while visiting Salamanca. It wasn’t quite the same thrill as drinking coffee at Les Deux Magot in Paris, where Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and Merleu Ponty used to sit and drink coffee. Drinking in a café where a dictator drank felt more like a low-point than a high-point.

image (2)I visited the house where St. Teresa of Avila lived and created a convent in Salamanca. It was a private tour, as it’s not a big draw for most people to see. Each day I passed the round church pictured in one of my photos. It is reportedly one of only two round churches in Europe. The other is in Italy.

One of the highlights of the week was visiting Salamanca’s old and new cathedrals. Salamanca is one of the few cities in Europe to have two cathedrals side by side and attached. The old Romanesque cathedral may be the most beautiful church that I have ever visited. It contains stunning wall paintings in wonderful condition and a retablo that is exquisite. One Saturday night I took a tour of the tower, but had to leave earlier in order to attend a theater production based on the life of St. Teresa. Unfortunately, I struggled to understand any of it. I was quite tired, which may have been part of the cause.

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While in my small room, I would study each night and listen to the music of Paco de Lucia — Spain’s most famous guitarist. I heartily recommend his music. We have culture classes every day, and during one of our programs last week we actually sang and discussed traditional Spanish songs from different parts of Spain and music from different Spanish-speaking countries. I requested Guantanamera, which I managed to sing in my usual off-key manner. I was not aware of the background of this song, which is not a very pro-American piece of music, even though we enjoy hearing it sung.

During the other culture classes last week, we studied contemporary Spain. We learned much about the economic crisis and Spain’s population, which is getting smaller and older each year. Spain has the lowest birth rate in Europe. The average woman is 35 when she has her first child in Spain, and the average family has 1.3 children.

Tourism is a huge part of the Spanish economy, which lacks a major industrial base. Spain is the fourth most visited country in the world, after France, the United States and China. Italy comes after Spain. Each year, 57.4 million people visit Spain. I am so very grateful for this exceptional experience. I try to get the most out of each day. Every 24 hours is a time of wonderful learning and discovery.

With every blessing,

Marek

Madrid

Today is my last day in Madrid. Later today, I head to Salamanca to study Spanish intensively there for a week. The train ride is just under three hours. Salamanca has the oldest university in Europe and is full of history. Both Madrid and Salamanca are in the interior of Spain. They say that there are two seasons here — summer and winter. A week ago it switched from summer to winter. There is no fall or spring.

imageMy studies have gone well. I have included a photo of my class, which included two Londoner’s my age and three college students from Iceland, Holland and London. They were a nice group to study with and spoke Spanish better than the members of my class in Barcelona.

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My host here is a fellow named Gonzolo, who is unemployed at the moment. He is married to Eva, who has been sick all week and I have never seen her. His four cats prowl around the host constantly. He is a better cook than my previous host, so I haven’t missed a meal and an opportunity each night to speak Spanish with him and to be gently corrected when I make mistakes, which is quite often. The water is tepid so I take very quick showers. The other student living here is Dalee, who comes from Finland and is my age.

The unemployment rate is Spain is almost 27%. Among those 18-25, it is 50%. Spain is in the middle of a major economic crisis. The folks whom I have talked with do not see signs of it improving, but I am told that Spanish economy is starting to pick up a bit.

This week I started to learn the “imperfect form of the subjunctive,” which I did not even know existed. Spanish verbs are very tricky. They take forever to learn and there are many irregular forms. I am now trying to use three different forms of expressing things in the past tense. I reached Level B2 in grammar and muddle along. At times I feel lost and at other times I am always challenged. Each student in class tends to bring different gifts and strengths – vocabulary, speaking ability, audio comprehension, ability to comprehend grammar, etc. So, we learn from one another.

Highlights of this week included:

image(4)Attending a professional soccer game in Santiago Bernabeu (one of the world’s great stadiums) to watch El Real Madrid play Seville. Real is one of the world’s best teams with Ronaldo and Gareth Bale – two of the world’s best players. Real won 7-3. It was like a baseball score and extremely rare to witness ten goals in a professional soccer game. Having only watched these players on television, I was thrilled to see them in person.
image(19)Visiting Segovia, where I was invited to con-celebrate the Mass on “El Día de Todo los Muertos” or All Saints Day at Iglesia de San Millán, which was founded in 1111 A.D. I toured part of the convent, where St. John of the Cross is buried (just his head and truck in a reliquary – he is one of Spain’s greatest saints, a mystic and the patron of all Spanish poets. I bought his collected works in Spanish and look forward to reading them. I have read them in English over the years). Segovia is enchanting, and I am making plans to return and study Spanish there with an instructor I met.
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Taking walking tours of Madrid in Spanish to learn the history and improve my ability to listen to Spanish. I miss a lot of what it said by the guide, partly because of the sound system and partly because I have a lot to learn.

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Visiting El Museo Sorrollo, which Margie Rooke and Jamie Bouldin suggested that I visit. It is a museum in the former home of Joaquin Sorrollo — one of Spain’s most important artists of the 20th century. It was a wonderful experience.

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Touring the Prado and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza again and enjoying the great art as well as special exhibitions of surrealism and Velasquez, who along was Goya, Greco, Zuburan and Riberia were among the greatest Spanish artists.

Visiting the naval museum was very interesting to learn about Spain's great armada and how Spain was the first country to have colonies on five continents.

Visiting the naval museum was very interesting to learn about Spain’s great armada and how Spain was the first country to have colonies on five continents.

Eating grilled chestnuts as I walked down the streets of Madrid

Eating grilled chestnuts as I walked down the streets of Madrid

Eating "concinillo" in Segovia. This is a young suckling pig, which was absolutely delicious.

Eating “concinillo” in Segovia. This is a young suckling pig, which was absolutely delicious.

Seeing children and parents dressed for Halloween. Only a small percentage do this, but our American custom is taking root here. It made me miss our daughters and being at home with Mims to greet trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood.
Seeing children and parents dressed for Halloween. Only a small percentage do this, but our American custom is taking root here. It made me miss our daughters and being at home with Mims to greet trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood.

The newspaper is full of stories about the United States spying on other countries and especially on its allies in Europe. Fortunately, few of the Spaniards I am around read the newspapers, but there is certainly strong sentiment in Spain that the United States functions like an imperial power and exports undesirable aspects of its culture to Europe and beyond such as fast food restaurants. McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks and other stores are plentiful in Madrid and Barcelona.

Altogether, I am always happy to be an American, but I love Spain.

With every blessing and lots of love,

Marek

Barcelona Me Encanta! The Magic is Back

I am on a high speed train heading from Barcelona to Madrid. My first week back in Spain was fantastic. Barcelona is enchanting. I learned a lot of Spanish in a week of intensive study and look forward to this coming week of study in Madrid.

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I visited with Emma and Ester, who I met and walked with on part of the Camino. The were wonderful hosts.

I never had a chance to study abroad in college and 30 years later I am making up for it. It is an incredible learning experience on many levels. Barcelona is 2,000 years old, unlike Madrid, which was somewhat of an undistinguished city until the King Philip II moved the government from Toledo to Madrid in 1561.

There is so much to see and do in Barcelona. The city is rich in museums and buildings designed by Gaudi, parks, bars, cages, restaurants, cathedrals and magical little alleyways. Barcelona is also one of the world’s most densely populated cities. It is expensive, and the people of Cantaluna are very proud of their culture.

In addition to studying like mad, highlights of the week included touring Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece, which is only 60 percent completed. They expect to complete it by 2026 in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. I visited El Parc Guel and three houses that Gaudi designed. He was simply a genius. I am reading a biography of him in Spanish, which is a great way of learning the language and culture.

image(2)I found an outlet store named after Zabriskie Point and had the taxi stop and let me out so that I could photograph it. The museum of Cataluna was fascinating. The Museo Historio de La Ciutat is built over the largest underground Roman ruins in the world. I enjoyed walking through them.

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I love art. It feeds my soul. Walking through the Picasso Museum and the Joan Miro Museum as well as the Museo National de Cataluna was like drinking from a fountain of culture. Listening to the audio guides in Spanish was also a great way to learn new worlds and attune my ear to Spanish sounds.

image(10)I am a foodie and ate the best flatbread style Catalan piazza on the planet. Crema Catalan rivals creme brule as a fantastic dessert. I enjoyed a flaming drink called Calmada, which is made with coffee beans and liquor.

Last night I watched in a bar as the world’s two best soccer teams – Barcelona and Real Madrid faced off in El Clasico, the great rivalry image(12)between these incredible teams. The country shuts down to watch it. We will post more photos from Barcelona on my blog this week, if you care to see them.

With love and prayers,

Marek

Monserrat – A Monastery on a Mountaintop

Today I took the world’s slowest train from Barcelona to Manresa – less than 90 minutes from Barcelona, and then rode a gondola to the top of the mountain.

image (0)I spent the day visiting Monserrat – a monastery that was built in the 11th century surrounded by incredible rock formations. The black virgin is kept here and was said to have been carved by St. Luke himself, though carbon-dating suggests that it comes from the 12th century. Sorry Luke.

Pilgrims come from all over rose it and to visit this Christian center, but I found it overrated and overrun by tourists or what the Beatles called day trippers. It is hard to appreciate anything in a huge crowd, especially anything spiritual.

 

The first crowds to overrun the monastery were Napoleon’s soldiers who destroyed the monastery in 1811, if my memory serves me correctly. Fortunately, it was rebuilt and occupied again by monks.

image (1)Monserrat is well marketed, but I felt oddly claustrophobic atop the mountain until the crowd started to dissipate. I enjoyed a competition of human castle building, which is a major cultural activity and competitive sport in Cataluna – the region of Spain where Barcelona is.

A majority of citizens in Cataluna want to be independent from Spain, but the European Union recently announced that if Cataluna breaks off from Spain it will cease to be recognized as any country by the rest of Europe.

I hiked up the mountain, but lacked time to complete my hike, after a slow but wonderful late lunch that began with shaved foie gras and ended with a delicious goat leg. The wine was superb – a crianza.

image (6)The museum was blissfully quiet. It has some wonderful art. My favorite painting was of an old fisherman by Picasso when he was thirteen. It was astonishingly good for a teenager to have produced. Picasso soon moved to Barcelona to study painting and was greatly influenced by Barcelona and Cataluna. He was born in Malaga, which is a major city in the very south of Spain.

image (3)After sitting through an exceedingly boring Mass in Catalan, the language of Cataluna, I came back to the basilica and listened to the first part of a glorious vespers service, where the monks and the world famous Escolana Choir of children, who live, study and are trained to be one of the best boy choirs in the world, were singing.

Both the monks and the Escolana were superb. Here was a special moment after the hoards of day trippers who moved like barbarians had left. This was a sacred moment, and then I had to run to catch the last funicular off the mountaintop.

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I studied a lot of Spanish today on the train, boning up for my entrance exam tomorrow morning. I am going to work hard and learn as much grammar as possible, build my vocabulary and speak and listen to as much Spanish as I can.

My host is Jose, an economist who takes in language students to supplement his income. I have a nice, simple room, a shared bathroom and a fix your own breakfast and a prepared dinner at 9:00 pm each night. Spaniards eat late. There is a German student here with an unusual name and a young woman from South Korea, who speaks little Spanish just arrived.

With blessings,

Marek

Back in Spain – Time to Study

I am safely back in Spain. I arrived in Madrid and dropped my backpack off at a hotel I know and took a great walking tour of the churches and convents of Madrid. Madrid has some of the most beautiful churches and cathedrals that I have ever seen tucked away on side streets and hard to find.

I met my Spanish host and then went on a walking tour of Barcelona with a friend that I met on the Camino. We saw the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, which was incredibly beautiful.

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There was a wonderful concert taking place. We also saw the Barcelona Cathedral, which is stunning.

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Barcelona is a charming city. It will take a while to get a sense of how to get around. It’s small alleyways are different than Madrid, which doesn’t seem to have nearly as many old churches and buildings.

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We had tapas for dinner – the best that I have had in Spain. Now I am a believer in tapas.

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Intensive Spanish studies start on Monday morning. I am already studying hard. Tomorrow, I hope to visit Montserrat.