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 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,