For us it was the breakthrough experience, the chance to live
and work in Europe. Beginning with an early morning telephone
call from a European contract employment agency in October 2000,
our tour in Spain officially started the following month when
Greg arrived in Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of the Basque province
in northern Spain and location of GAMESA Aeronautica SA where he
was to work. Lana and Ann followed in December arriving just in
time for Christmas and the two week holiday break customary in
the aircraft industry. Greg had already rented a new furnished
chalet in a village called Mendoza near Vitoria so there was
nothing to do but set off on the first of several sightseeing
The Christmas trip took us to Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast and then along the southern French coast through Cannes, Monaco, Monte Carlo into northeastern Italy, Pisa, Florence and eventually to Rome. Along the way there were several learning experiences including how to negotiate the many toll stations along the French and Italian motorways. At one station Greg's only working plastic bank card was ingested by an Italian toll machine. Of course it was raining torrents and the machine was neither permitting us to move forward nor giving back the card and there were several impatient drivers stuck behind us. Finally, an Italian service person came to the rescue, but we had to wait for over an hour while he disassembled the machine to retrieve the card. The rest of the trip was better, but we used only cash in the toll machines from then on.
Most of our exploration consisted of weekend trips. Spain while not a small country has excellent motorways which encourage speedy travel (cruising at 100+ mph) so it takes less than a day to drive top to bottom or side to side. Typically we would target a location during the week and then hit the road early Saturday, see the attraction, and return for dinner that evening. Nearly every city/town dates back to medieval times so there is something to see in all of them. For those interested in Roman architecture, you'll see some of the finest examples outside of Rome in cities like Segovia where there is an aqueduct built completely from closely fitted stone, no mortar, 100 feet high and six miles long. Doesn't sound like much compared to the Great Wall but considering it has been in place for nearly 2000 years, could still function if needed and was built without any machines, just block and tackle and a lot of slaves it is remarkable. Not more than a mile from our house in Mendoza we found an archeological dig of a roman outpost along the local river. At one time there had been a fairly extensive village built inside a surrounding wall some of which still remains. Below the village stands a roman bridge. A beautiful piece of stonework, it is unmistakable in origin having five distinctly roman arches and is wide enough for a modern vehicle (one way). We drove our car across the same stones that carried roman carts and chariots.
Spain probably has more structures from the middle ages than any other European country, many of which are nearly intact. Having escaped the devastation of both world wars and having been the most powerful European country prior to the ascendance of England in the later half of the 16th century, Spain is full of ruins, a legacy of the powerful aristocrats who dominated Spanish society. And there are the churches, nearly one for every hill top. Most were constructed over eight hundred years ago. Early gothic is word which best describes them. Most are built from limestone ruble which litters the farm fields surrounding the villages. All sit atop the highest locations so are distinctly visible. Most now have been equipped with night lights aimed to illuminate the exterior walls providing a pleasant and dramatic effect.
It has always been a place of castles, knights, ladies-in-waiting, and things medieval. Many of these castles still stand, some in ruins but others remarkably intact or at least maintained. We visited one such castle near Bilbao where the Baltron family dominated the locale for several hundred years. Their castle has been vacant for at least two centuries, and is now a museum. Not a large structure it has most of the elements that one associates with castles: a moat, a well, a draw bridge, porticos with vertical iron grates which could be lowered to keep out attackers, two rings of crenellated walls, and a keep under which was a store room and dungeon. Apparently the castle was only besieged once and never defeated. While under attack from a local rival carrier pigeons were successfully used to summon help from nearby allies who managed to drive off the besieging army. Nowadays the invaders carry cameras and some push baby strollers across the draw bridge and through the portal into the vestibule where the guards once checked all visitors. Today you can gain entrance with a few Euros.
Our small village, Mendoza, has a small fortified tower dating to 1100AD and is now maintained as a museum of heraldry. The tower is about 20 meters high and surrounded by a single wall approximately 4 meters tall and 1.5 meters thick at the base. Inside the wall is lined with the crests of the aristocratic families of the area some dating back a millennium. The entire site has been restored with the first work being done in the late 1960's. Not far away is our landlord's house which by Mendoza standards is relatively new being only 300 years old. We show some of the photos of the village and tower in our photo page.
Spain is much more than medieval buildings and museums. The coastlines of the country are varied and sometimes dramatic. It is also a mountainous area with snow capped peaks some to nearly 3000 meters. The southern regions are arid not unlike the SW deserts of the US. The Mediterranean coast is a renowned summer playground with thousands of kilometers of beautiful sand beaches. And although Spain no longer has the worlds largest empire as once did, it still rules a number of islands in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The Canary islands lie a several hundred kilometers west of Morocco well to the south and have an eternally spring like climate. They are volcanic in origin and now support one of the largest tourist industries in Europe. Similarly but much nearer are the Balearic islands including Majorca, Minorca and Ibiza. Just an overnight ferry ride or an hour by air from Barcelona the Balearics are very popular with the northern Europeans looking for a close, exotic escape. Although these islands are owned by Spain they have taken on their own character due to the large number of non Spanish inhabitants many of whom are German and British.
Finally we must mention some of the famous cities including Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada. Each has centuries of history and distinctive character which can be better described by the numerous guides and pamphlets available on the Internet, travel guides, tour books and on the link we have provided on our web page. Here we will just skim the cream from each. Madrid is of course the capital city with many many statues, edifices, fountains, famous buildings, and the national palace which currently is the official residence of Spain's current king, Juan Carlos I. Like most other European monarchs Juan Carlos is primarily a national symbol having relatively little political power. The last real "ruler" of Spain was Generalisimo Francisco Franco whose fascist party overthrew the constitutional democracy which followed the abdication of Spain's last ruling monarch to become a life long dictator. Franco's iron rule is now generally accepted as the main reason Spain is still one of the poorer European nations; however, he was never seriously challenged during his nearly 36 year rule dying naturally in 1975. Since then Spain has begun to reconnect with the rest of Europe and is fast becoming a first world country. More about Madrid here: http://www.nova.es/~jlb/english.htm
Barcelona is a city full of mischief and old world charm. Long a famous sea port on the Mediterranean coast, Barcelona's waterfront is one of the most impressive anywhere with an extensive promenade, old sailing ships, sidewalk cafes, chic boutiques, aquarium, and the famous pillar of Christopher Columbus. The mild climate supports palms and other semi-tropical plants as well as giving the city one of the best night life environments in Spain. The Spanish come alive after 9PM which is when the restaurants and bars get ready for the nightly crowds of locals looking for something good to eat and drink. Earlier one can find a huge selection of the petite open face sandwiches known as tapas. Many folks simply walk and talk the streets until near midnight and the younger set often stays out dancing and partying until the sun comes up. How they manage to make it in to work at 9AM is still a mystery although the two or three hour lunch/siesta beginning at 1PM is one explanation. See this link for more on Barcelona: http://www.barcelonaweb.com
Our brief visit to Seville was a bit of a disappointment. We weren't expecting the crumbling nature of the city center nor the dirty streets. Even so the past splendor of the city is evident in the Torre de Oro (tower of gold) and pomp of the horse drawn carriages decorated in the style of 17th century Spanish nobility. Spending only a day we obviously missed many of the attractions. The visit was on a Sunday and the local gentry was either just going or coming from church. Many ladies were wearing the traditional costumes which include a shawl over the head and shoulders and the distinctive hair comb. Men were attired in traditional dark suits with ruffled white shirts and some wore the bolero hat. At first we thought that these folks were just hired actors but after seeing them appear around every corner it became obvious that this is their Sunday routine. Another little event which colored our opinion happened outside our hotel. A young street gent noticed as we pulled into a parking space on a side street. He gave us a long, hard look, and I began to wish we could put the car someplace else. Unfortunately parking was scarce so we made sure we removed everything even the contents of the glove box. The next day I half expected to find a window smashed and the CD player gone, but the car was untouched. The gent however was at his usual post and approached us as we packed to leave. He was friendly enough and made a proposition that I might pay him for watching the car the previous evening. At first I was going to tell him to get lost, but then I softened and gave him 500 pesetas ($2.50). I'm fairly certain that he did not watch the car all night, but then he didn't break into it either. Patience has its rewards. For a much better description of the town check out the following link: http://www.andalucia.com/cities/sevilla.htm
Grenada hardly needs an introduction being probably Spain's most popular destination for tourists. The town itself is quite interesting, but the crown jewel is the Alhambra. In fact it was the only place we visited that required a reservation. Not knowing that thwarted our first attempt. Getting a reservation is fairly easy by calling one day ahead to the ticket office. Apparently the Spanish feel that there is a need to control the number of visitors to that attraction although the Alhambra is quite large. Perhaps it is because the real essence of the Moorish period for which the Alhambra is the best and last remaining location is concentrated in one magnificent complex in which it is entirely possible to imagine you have jumped back ten centuries to the time when the Moors invaded Spain and established the northern most region of their empire which included most of north Africa, Spain and for a short time part of southern France. The Moors brought their Arabic culture to Spain in the form of religion, architecture, art, weapons and the characteristic swirling script of their writing. The Alhambra embodies the elements of all these cultural features and more. After all these years you can still feel the presence of the people who created this place. There is a solitude, a simple elegance to all they left behind when they were finally driven out of Spain by the conquering Christian armies of Isabella and Ferdinand. It is to the credit of the Spanish that they realized the value of preserving this man made wonder. While most other Moorish fortresses and mosques were destroyed, the Alhambra was spared. If you go to Spain you must visit the Alhambra. For more about Grenada and the Alhambra try: http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/The_Alhambra.html
It is time now to move on to other countries and adventures, but we certainly only skimmed some of the cream from Spain for this web page hoping that it has given some clues to what is there waiting to be enjoyed. Of course we have omitted most of the disappointments and frustrations during our seven month stay. Why dwell on negatives when there is so much more excitement and adventure than bad experiences. Each country has its pace. In Spain one must adapt to enjoy. We never quite made the transition to the afternoon siestas and late night dinners, but even so we had a great time. Someday we will return to continue the tour. Until then we can only say Bien Viajes Amigos.
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