Author Archives: agnotarte

12 – “…her infinite variety” October 30, 2012

Age cannot wither nor custom stale                                                                                                             her infinite variety.  Other women cloy                                                                                                      The appetites they feed., she makes hunger                                                                                          Where most she satisfies……           

Antony says this of Cleopatra;  I have often had the phrase, “her infinite variety” on the tip of my tongue here in Spain.  Barcelona has become the mistress of many a traveller, I am sure. It is enchantingly beautiful, varied, filled with essential pleasures as well as those hidden in the corners. My memories of Paris pale in comparison.

I went out to the outskirts today to what was built over one hundred years ago as an industrial colony.  Catalonia was and still is an industrial and economic powerhouse.  During the second half of the nineteenth century around one hundred of these colonies were built in the interior, making use of the hydro power for textile mills and to remove the workers from the powder keg of unhealthy overcrowding and political strife.  Initially factory and housing for the workers, but step by step many of amenities of life were added;  schools, churches, libraries, cultural centres, theatres, co-operatives, etc. Similar experiments took place in England and probably elsewhere.

The most interesting is the one I visited today. A wealthy industrialist, Eusebio Guell, was the patron (also Gaudi’s major patron). He moved his textile mill from the Dickensian slums of Barcelona to his farm on the outskirts and hired Guadi to design it, making use of the latest currents in architectural design.

I am very unsure of Gaudi’s work.  I am very moved by the simplicity of early Romanesque architecture.  His Sagrada Familia would not look out of place in Las Vegas, over the top as we say. I do love his Parque Guell in Barcelona.  <–PUNqMHoi3hQeRuICwBg&sqi=2&ved=0CCgQsAQ&biw=1299&bih=755&gt;  It is easy to google with those two words if the link does not work.  My photos are at home. For the kid in all of us!

At Colonia Guell, Gaudi designed the church, but only its crypt was finished.

Some renovation is going on. Reminiscent of the caves he created in Parque Guell.

As a child, the natural world was where he spent every spare moment and as an architecture he sought to recreate the forms and designs of what he saw in nature in his work.  His columns simply remind us that tree trunks do not grow completely straight.  Every piece, every angle is the result of experimentation, as he struggled to arrive at the right combination so that the whole thing does not collapse.  He felt that the Gothic flying buttresses were a cop out. These ideas have been perfected in the much larger Sagrada Familia.  He designed everything, including the pews and the windows.  Every piece, every angle, for example, in the ceiling, is unique. In the next corner, it had inevitably to be done differently so that part of the roof stayed up.

He saw the symbolic in every element;  the ceramics (his designs again) in the window frame, each element has a meaning, and the window itself is framed by the alpha and omega, from the Book of Revelations.  The building lacks uniformity;  it breathes the variety found in the natural world.  And I do so love the uniformity of Romanesque masonry!

My favourite part is possibly this porch, on the front.  Attached porches are very characteristic of early Romanesque rural churches.  I have seen many; Gaudi would have been conscious of this tradition and of their integral role in communal life, a vital ‘third space’ as they say today in urban studies.

I have scores of photos of this crypt, but the town is also of “infinite variety”, with many buildings designed by Gaudi’s colleagues.  Here is Guell’s on site residence.

And a residence in the middle of the town.  Both full of whimsy.

There was a conscious effort to forge a Catalan style using elements and materials used in the villages through the centuries, with medieval and mudéjar (Moorish) echoes. There is a sunken gardens here, the closest one filled with fig trees.  You will easily be reminded of the late nineteenth century Arts and Craft movements, both in England and in the United States, as well as the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.   Fascinating! Hamlet’s line, about an “undiscovered country” also floats through my mind when I am here.  The world knows well Madrid and Barcelona, the beaches, and a bit more, but I am continually finding new treasures, secrets, charms and corners of this country.  It is a joy to share them with you.  Shall we charter a plane for next spring?  This is an “undiscovered country”;  I do come back to Canada, but will be drawn back to “feed my hunger.”  I guess if Gaudi can be ‘over the top’, so can I.  Enjoy.

11- Amistades – friends! October 28, 2012

I connected with the friends I met here in April, Duván and Alberto. The former is the very gifted artist who drew what I call ‘my Don Quixote’, at present gracing my living room.  And today we went for lunch.  And what a lunch!

Besalú is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains about 35 kilometres from the sea, at an altitude of 150 metres.  The restaurant was at the highest point of the highest mountain within sight, at 1200 metres.  The road up was narrow, winding and ever rising. It was quite a challenge to deal with oncoming cars. So nice to be in the back seat for a change! How to choose among the photos;  this one gives a good sense of the interplay of the elements from the summit.  On a clear day we would have seen forever, but the mixture of elements made this day so memorable.

The restaurant is part of a hotel;  the building itself was constructed in the 14th century – another monastery to get away from sin in all its wonderful varieties.

Not the greatest photo because of the intensity of the light – it is more than a 1000 metres almost straight down. You can get a sense of our eagle’s nest and  view of the valley floor through the window.  The salad was delicious.  Then came the pièce de résistance – a risotto with wild mushrooms and fresh sausage – there is a theme emerging.

 Divino!  Sabroso!  Delicioso! Understandable in any language!  Notice that the clouds have totally encircled the mountain top. The valley has disappeared. Assisted by wonderful conversation in Castellano, we did manage to finish the risotto, if there was ever any doubt about it – Alberto and Duván did help.

Miraculously the sun began to reappear and the effect was magical. The valley floor, 1000 metres below, would appear out of the mist, below layers of the ominously dark clouds.  A transcendent effect – hard to capture. It was also constantly evolving, changing, transforming.

On the descent after lunch, we stopped to visit the ruins of the original monastery, constructed in the 10th century, somehow at 900 metres above the valley floor,  this one not quite as removed from the world of sin, but what was much more fun was our own search for wild mushrooms along the road. We would spot, stop, jump out and collect. Here is Alberto’s pride and joy!

We had quite a harvest in the trunk, with some with wonderful red and orange tops;  even I got in on the excitement.  But alas!  the verdict from a young man in the town was that they were all malo  – inedlible, dangerous.  But who cares?  we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves in the quest. This is the improvised sculpture in their home when I visited for coffee and conversation the following morning.

A final photo and video to try to give some idea of the beauty of this part of Spain on this particular day with the mixture of weather, of brilliant sunshine and constantly changing cloud formations and the interplay between these elements, not to mention the brief hailstorm on the way down. First the photo, then the video.

I am enjoying doing this; it has become what I do during siesta in the late afternoon.  I am also enjoying your comments. Just scroll below.

Muchas gracias a Alberto y Duván!

Here is a link to Duván’s website.  <;

It should open at a series of drawings;  simply by clicking on the thumbnails, you can enjoy some of his work.  The very first one, of Don Quixote, is the one I brought home in the spring. In the list to the left, you can click on pinturas to see some of his canvases, esculturas – his sculptures, arte digital – should not need a translation, and procelanos – pottery.

A friendship, from last spring, strengthened during these few days, which will draw me back to Spain.

10 – A favourite town – Besalú October 27, 2012

I am back in Besalú, located two short hours north of Barcelona.  Settlement here goes back to preRoman times apparently.  I had read about it as I searched the web for Romanesque buildings.  In the spring of 2011, I visited briefly and ate extremely well at lunch.  I returned this past spring and spent 5 nights nearby in the countryside, in a house build in the 1760s with an attached fortified tower from the 12th century.  It is within a hour of the sea and the Pyrenees provide the backdrop.  We are not much more than an hour from the French border, near Perpignan. And it is green.  This is not semi-arid Spain.  As green as Ireland, and with much better weather, and much better food.  I feel comfortable and at home here.

I am back for four nights.  I met an artist and his partner here in April, by chance, and bought an original print of Don Quixote from them which now graces my living room. We will be getting together for lunch on Saturday high up on a local mountain, and I have been promised a risotto with wild mushrooms.  I am glad that I am here;  a problem with sciatica has flared up, from so much time in the car, shifting gears etc.  It is in the right hip.  Staying put, regular walks around the village and in the vicinity are resolving the problem. I now present you with a tour of Besalú, with minimal narration, if this is possible with me!

This is the iconic monument, an impressive fortified five arch medieval bridge. I was shown some fascinating photos on a guided tour yesterday, showing some of its history, including the destruction of the first two arches by the French in the Napoleonic years.

Besalú had a significant Jewish population, like most Spanish towns and cities.  Recently evidence of this has been uncovered.  I am in the Jewish ritual bath house within their very tiny ghetto beside the river.  For centuries, the Jewish residents had lived among their Christian neighbours, in harmony, en convivencia. In the late medieval period, one of John Paul and Benedict’s predecessors had ordered all Jewish communities throughout Christendom to be fenced in ghettoes, usually in the unhealthiest part of the town. Nearby Girona has a great museum about the history of the Jewish people in Catalonia. It is thought that the first Jews arrived in Iberia in the second or third century.  They were finally expelled in 1492. (More narration than expected.)

The town is full of narrow winding streets.  Like everywhere in Spain, there is public art.  This very high chair is one of a number of chairs playfully installed in one of these passageways.

Here is a ancient doorway just across from the chair – obviously for someone of a significantly different stature.  It would measure a little over one metre.

Set into the century old buildings are modern shops such as this butcher shop.  In the background, you can see the cured hams hanging from the ceiling, complete with their hoofs still attached.  In the foreground, every variation of sausage possible.  Cheeses complete the window, on the bottom   shelf. They also sell local vintages, like the supermarkets.

Everywhere are found their bread shops, many with tantalizing window displays.

The Spaniards buy their daily bread daily, enough for that one day.  It is a ritual.  Even the smallest village will have a bakery, sometimes a mere hole in the wall, and you will see the women of the village heading to it in mid morning and returning home with the size of a loaf that will be enough for that day.  The ritual repeats itself every morning.  It is so integral to village, town and even city culture.  Finally, I have decided to forego taking photos of their many patisseries.  I have been losing my own sweet tooth and I would not want any of you hopping on a plane for the wrong reason.  Come, for sure, but for some of the many reasons that I have been sharing.

One final photo – the window in the facade of the 12th century church in the central square;  I love Romanesque art, architecture, sculpture – it is infinite in its variety and playfulness.  What are these lions doing?  Protecting the faithful from the forces of evil represented by these strange little creatures or are they reminding the faithful not to stray or they too will be destroyed ? There is so often an ambiguous element in this art.  The people of the period must have enjoyed coming to church as much for the art as for the rites.  They didn’t have television.


9 – Dos buenas memorias – two good memories October 26, 2012

Memory is such a curious ‘thing’.  I can at times quickly remember the most irrelevant trivia, some birthdays and where I have left my glasses. At the end of September, I organized my visit to family in Ottawa so that I would be back for a much anticipated friends’ end of summer barbecue (primarily of David’s Chinese delicacies), only to forget to show up. Dear friends – so forgiving! And a beloved nephew is still unsure of how beloved I am after forgetting to bring a sincerely requested apple pie (which I did make) to dinner at his home.  Oh well, I do, for whatever reason, have a great geographical memory.

I returned today to the town of L’Escala on the Mediterranean within an hour of Besalú.  I was here in April, discovered those two sculptures of La Sardana, featured in my first two posts, and ate a memorable lunch:  a plate of mussels in a savoury sauce and a dish of paella marinera.  I told the young man serving that I was really indifferent to the typical paella in Spain, paella valenciana, the one with saffron rice.  He recommended the local variation, very dark, very savoury, full of seafood, absolutely worth returning for.  I remembered exactly where the restaurant was, overlooking the sea, and the young waiter.  And, he remembered me, charming young man.  I don’t really believe that he was making it up.  We had talked quite a bit together in April. Now for the photos and minimal narration.

First course was a plate of 15-16 fresh grilled sardines, complete with their heads.

I did justice to the plate, without any help.  Step by step becoming a Spaniard.

Here is Isaac presenting me with the paella marinera – it’s dark colour comes from cuttlefish ink.  In Spanish, the fish is sépia. You can see the English word for the colour of early photographs.

It was full of seafood – large mussels, two large prawns and calamari galore. During the meal, bags of mussels etc were being delivered, from this day’s catch.  Isaac explained that L’Escala is still primarily a working town depended on the harvest from the sea.  Tourists do come, but it is clearly not a tony Mediterranean resort. Definitely why I came back.

Thank heavens that the dishes and the young server are photogenic. It’s 6pm, I’m in my hotel.  I do think that I will need a long walk before the restaurants re-open for supper at 8:30.  This post could have been about last evening’s supper, an amazing risotto with wild mushrooms and local sausage. But the server was not nearly as charming!

8 – What’s on the plate and in what language! October 24, 2012

A lump of minced chuck on your plate or steak tartare?  What will it be, what are you prepared to pay for it, and how much will you rave about it later?  Menu items can sound so much more delicious when written in another language. I am in a small family run hotel in an ancient village set against the backdrop of a mountain range that within twenty kilometres or so will see peaks reaching  3000 metres. This farming village looks out over a wide agricultural plain which in turn is protected on the other side by another sierra.  Early one morning, it appeared like this. Dinner my first night and I discover that there is a maestro in the kitchen:  imagine how good this tastes – hojaldre relleno de mouse de pato con salsa de setas.
  Duck pate in a wild mushroom sauce in a puff pastry.  All local ingredients. Delicious also in English, and one of the most memorable plates of food that I have ever tasted.  Second course was wild boar, savoury, very tender, in the style of the area, and so typical of Spain, just the stew served without any vegetables. Complete with peach cake and a bottle of wine – 11 euros.  $15 Canadian. I had lunch the next day in the city of Jaca.  If I did live in Spain, I would want to live in or near this, I am going to say it again, ancient city.  Chiperones rellenos de langostinos gratinados con crema de ajo.    Baby squid (this time without the little bundles of legs – I have gotten almost used to them) stuffed with prawns in a garlic cream. And one final photograph.  A few years ago, passing through Jaca, I stopped for a quick gander and a coffee.  I entered the Casa Fau on the cathedral square and found myself in tapas heaven.  That coffee and one tapas and I have been now back here twice on purpose;  in the spring, I made a lunch of tapas.  A few hours after the prawns and squid, I enjoyed a “light” supper here.

To the left are wild mushrooms on toast, tucked in behind is a house pate, and at centre stage is a bowl of soup which brought joy to my taste buds. From a simple tomato base, garbanzos and sausage were thrown in.  Then, the magical ingredient – orange, juice and peel in sufficient quantities to produce a delectable orange soup.  A revelation, a delight, something to remember and try at home.

7 – It can’t get any better than this! Can it? October 23, 2012

I have come to Spain, drawn by the medieval architecture, Francisco Goya, the food, the people, the geography, and futbol. I have come to the small ancient city of Huesca, in northern Aragón, on the outskirts the ruins of its castle rising against the background of a formidable wall of mountains. It has been raining for days.  I plan to go to a second division league game here, the hometown team against Barca B, the young stars in the making for El Barca.  I find the stadium hours before the game and watch them working furiously to remove water from the field. I return later, buy the best ticket in the house (well under the roof – I am not that tough) and hang out a bit. The Barca team bus arrives. Then, a very vocal group of Barca fans also shows up, having driven for hours to get here, singing raucously, culés, as they are affectionately known.  Catalan comes from an old variation of French and so you might recognize the French for backside (or something less polite) – that’s right!  In the early days of simpler stadia, the working class would have sat on open metal-slatted seats, and from below, their culs sticking through the slats. Probably used in a derisory way originally, it is now worn with pride.  I timidly approached them, introduced myself as a culé canadiense, and asked them to sing el himno de barcelona, sung by the tens of thousands at Camp Nous at the beginning of each match. You might hear my less than dulcet tones as I joined in on the final repetition of Barca, Barca, Barca.

I took my seat, the field only had a half dozen puddles, it was once again raining, but lightly.  The players came out a half hour before the game to warm up and their routines was wonderful to watch, to see the high level of skill. But I am not exaggerating when I say that it began to rain torrentially, with high winds coming from the south. Here is a photo of the devoted end zone fans huddling under umbrellas.  It will give you some idea of their devotion and lunacy.

The few puddles that were visible when I had arrived grew almost exponentially after an hour of very heavy rain;  virtually half the field was clearly underwater.  Even earlier on, when the players were warming up, often they were splashing on what appeared to be somewhat drier puddleless grass.  The ground was absolutely waterlogged.  Throughout the area, there was serious flooding, damage and road closures.  The game was cancelled.  I did not have the chance to fully experience a rainy Tuesday night in Stoke.

6 – A Medieval Day October 20, 2012

Rain – forecast it seems for a few more days – we are definitely up in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and not ‘on that plain, in Spain!’  They have had drought conditions with serious forest fires all summer long.  They need the rain badly and the whole of Europe is being soaked.

I headed south after an enormous breakfast to the ancient (it almost goes without saying) town of Graus, known internationally for its embutidos, sausages, fresh and cured. The video is of their main square, plaza mayor, the focal point of every city, town and  village. This one has been recently restored.  The frescoes echo back to the 16th century when this style was imported from Italy. The final shot is of a butcher shop, carnecería, as in carnal, of the flesh. The town spreads out in innumerable narrow lanes, without any overall plan, a direct link with the medieval origins of the place. The Spanish do their restorations very well.

I headed north again beyond Roda to the 11th century monastery of Obarra (with earlier Visigothic roots). The weather was closing in, the clouds thickening, darkening, threatening and finally thundering, una tormenta.  My spirit was very calm, definitely not tormentado, with my head protected by my cowl (my hoodie) and tonsure as I made my way through the forest pathway – felt quite medieval.

I took this photo a bit later when the weather was clearing. I am now going to try to give you a link to quite a collection of photos of Obarra from the internet.  It will give you a sense of the wall of mountains which rises directly behind the buildings.


May it work, or simply google – monastery of obarra – yourself.

The gorge of Obarra, rising up behind the monastery,  was at times not more than 10 feet wide (the road had been carved into the left side of the river), with some walls rising easily 100 feet. Many tunnels and 9 kilometres later I went over the Pass of Bonansa, at 1380 metres, moving closer and closer to the Pyrenees themselves. The monastery is tucked down to the right in the photo. The original trail through the gorge would have connected with others to eventually connect Spain beyond the Pyrenees to the vast number of other Benedictine and Cistercian houses spread across Europe.

This house would have been Cistercian, noted for their austerity, simplicity, poverty, and a life of prayer and work, the distant opposite of those houses which justifiably had provoked the Reformation. The Cistercian movement had itself been a reformation within the church.

Enjoy. I am heading further north and to the west in the morning. In making it to Jaca, often in heavy rains, I had the pleasure of traveling through two other stunning gorges.

5 – It is so good to be here! October 17, 2012

A smooth flight, arriving at 7 am in the pitch black of a Barcelona morning.  They organize their hours so that they have to sleep in and then have to stay up late. Eminently sensible! I am quickly reminded that I simply enjoy being here.  I have written about what draws me, but it simply boils down to – I enjoy being here, I enjoy living in Spain, in  Spanish for a few weeks.

I reserved a parador, a chain of upscale hotels for my first night, near the small city of Vic, north of Barcelona.  The internet gave me the idea that it looked out over a lake. I was enthralled as I made my way up into the hills through pine forests to discover my room looked out over this.

My first post from Spain and I am going to make you suffer, or thoroughly enjoy, a delightfully bad pun, or a marvellously inventive one.  Spain is crisscrossed with numerous mountain ranges, sierras, which cut through the lower valleys and isolate areas.  Inevitably rivers have eaten away at the rock, digging at times deep ravines.  Spain is absolutely gorge-ous!  Come on, it wasn’t that bad, it was that good! A few years ago I introduced by big brother and sister-in-law to a number of them.

300 kilometres further north, I find myself in the isolated hilltop village of Roda de Isábena, a village with a Romanesque cathedral of all things, the smallest town to have one. The 300 kilometres presented regular changes in topography; pine-clad hills as if I were traveling through a national park, giving way to broad valleys with intensive cereal farming, then semi-arid areas (the mountains creating microclimates, some of which make survival tougher) with olive orchards, villages perched on rocky crags keeping a watchful eye the fields, a few vineyards. The final 30 kilometres seemed to be a continual gradual ascent through mainly scrub land but suddenly I had arrived at the edge with another broad farming valley far below me demanding of me and my car a seemingly endless series of switchbacks to reach. I now am in a comfortable and quiet room overlooking the valley, beside the cathedral.  I headed off on foot back down the winding road that had brought me up to Roda in order to visit the 12th century medieval bridge below.

You can just make out the towers of Roda in the distance.  According to a sign, it’s about 2 k from the bridge. Contrary  information (my very own ‘fact checkers’) is persistently forthcoming from my legs and body; constantly, steadily and I almost want to say steepily, I made it back up to the village.  Believe me, the accountant in me counted the steps, 3000 some.  Every 100 pasos convinced me that I was making progress. And, I actually got stronger as I got farther along and closer to my goal.  LIke the old grey mare knowing that the stable is the reward.

The more often I travel here, the more I am aware of the food and the way in which eating defines a culture as much as anything else; it is all in the small details.  A few examples, one with photos. Breakfast on my first morning, a restaurant in a village with an amazing 11th century monastery.  10:30 am.  I order a tortilla, a light omelet in this part of the country.  A dictionary of their food would take many volumes because of the differences across the regions.  It comes with toast and a ripe tomato that explodes with joy in my mouth. The couple next to me, in animated conversation, are each eating a large ring of homemade sausage, toast with slices of cheese, washed down with a litre of red wine.  Breakfast! Later at lunch, I am enjoying a four course meal in a village restaurant near the parador.  Salad, with another one of these tomatoes, a roast potato dish, and sautéed calamari complete with all the little legs – chiperones they are called in some places here.  The table next to me is given a platter that could have been my second choice – a half dozen or so chunks of their home-made cured meats, pork, venison, wild boar, etc.  They simply slice off what they want to consume.  Their third course would came later, another meat dish.   And, as I tell everyone, you have to consciously try to find overweight Spaniards as you go about your own day. Food defines a culture!

This evening in Roda de Isábena I had to wait until 9 o’clock for dinner.  What a treat!  In a room in the monastery attached to the cathedral, just off the cloister.  Walking to find it in the darkened streets of this village was really a delight.  I found myself in the13th century refectory where the monks ate, here with simplicity.  This was a Cistercian house. Austerity, simplicity, work and prayer were the orders of the day. The traces of wall painting are from the 14th century.

An enjoyable evening!  And the bottle of white wine was almost empty!  I got a bit silly!

4 – Strange Bedfellows – October 11, 2012

I leave on the 16th.  It will be my seventh trip to northern Spain in 4 years.  Today I would like to share a brief overview of some very different passions which continue to draw me there and which will consume me this time as always. My strange bedfellows!

Early medieval architecture, from the 7th century to the 12th draws me into the remote valleys across the north in search of tiny rural churches. Gothic bores me, the baroque appalls me, and cathedrals are curiosities almost to be avoided, statements primarily about power – “We’re here, we dominate totally, don’t mess with us!”  and “One day you will understand the direct connection between our over-the-topism and your contemporary casino architecture and the excesses of Las Vegas!’  It is my blog and I can be as opinionated as I want to be.

I am drawn to small rural parish churches and isolated ermitas constructed between  the 7th and 12th centuries. I hiked to this complex of church and fortified tower from the 11th century – a 45 minute steady climb to this exposed ridge in northern Aragon, part of a system that was built to stabilize defence and resettlement in this area in the early days of the reconquista, the century-long struggle to regain the peninsula from the Moors.  A three-nave church and octagonal tower, with amazing views of the river valleys to the north and south (40 – 50 kilometres?) and the ever-surrounding mountains. Breathtaking!  And to reflect on the amount of effort needed to build these over 1000 years ago in the middle of nowhere!

To visit the tower, I had to use the front and back doors of the church;  there simply was no room along either side of the first building.  I do love to hike;  choosing isolated churches gives me plenty of opportunities.  Do I choose these places in order to hike or do I simply set off because I want to see these places?  A chicken or egg question;  ¿el huevo o el pollo?

I would like to thank Arthur, a professor emeritus of history at York University, for introducing me to another one of my passions,  the art of Frederico Goya.  Whenever in Madrid, I spend a whole day just with this man’s art, in the Prado and in a number of other key locales.  I have been to Zaragoza to visit his birthplace and have spent spend hours in the art galleries there devoted to his work. When in the Prado, I simply stand in front of this immense canvas, The Third of May, and weep.

I am particularly moved by his etchings which catalogue our foibles, the disasters of war, and his passion for bullfighting.

Each time I return to Spain, I enjoy the food more and more. My comfort level with menus and inquiring about any particular item has improved.  I have also discovered the northeast, the region of Catalonia, facing the Mediterranean, outward looking, always ready to embrace distant influences, Italian, French, North African, Middle Eastern.  I was eating lunch in a tiny village in an ancient valley high up in the  foothills of the Pyrenees, a valley whose churches contain a breathtaking treasure of Romanesque wall paintings.  I ordered the ubiquitous specialty, roast lamb and was assured by the dueño, that the lamb had come from one of the flocks I had only just seen wandering with their shepherds within a few kilometres of the restaurant.  I also ordered a salad, with shrimp and a kind of flat green bean. This is what was presented to me.

The two large shrimp were hidden underneath the greens;  the egg came as a complete surprise. The daily lunch menu usually includes a small beer, soft drink, bottled water OR a bottle of the local year-old wine. You learn quickly to enjoy a glass or two and not to try to finish the bottle.

Early medieval architecture, hiking, Goya, the food and finally futbol. Gradually over the past 12 -14 years, I have learned to love, appreciate and tentatively understand soccer. I saw my first live game this past April, Atletico Madrid. In 2011, I made a pilgrimage to Camp Nou, the stadium where el azulgrano plays and triumphs, Barcelona FC. I wrote about my visit to this shrine extensively in one of my emails, as a pilgrimage with so many of the same elements of a medieval pilgrimage, including relics (trophies and dried up old sneakers of famous players) and the side chapels for individual saints .  Yes, this one is for quite the well-known miracle worker, Leo Messi. 

Along with hundreds of other faithful fans (there would have been thousands over the course of the day), I filed past his photo and the Golden Boot as the best player in the world (now three times), and then continued to the other focal points, all in a spirit of reverence, almost like being in the presence of a ‘power greater than ourselves’. November 4 will hopefully see me seated with 90 thousand of the Barca faithful, los culés, in the stadium. I have started learning the words in Catalan to the Hymn to Barcelona that they sing at the beginning of each game.

By then, I will have hiked to see some amazing small rural churches and scenery up in the foothills,  stood before some Goyas that I will not have seen before, eaten well, cheered on Messi and friends and hopefully have discovered  a new passion or two to add to the ones that keep bringing me back. I trust implicitly that Spain has much more to offer me. I am already thinking about next spring.

3 – Estoy enganchado – Hooked on Spain – October 1, 2012

I have been on top of this outcrop of rock that looks like it belongs in Arizona;  it is called La Peña de Lara.  It was on a beautiful 20 degree day in late February 2009. It is located about 30 kilometres south of the ancient city of Burgos, which is itself about a three hour fast drive north of Madrid.  It is in this area that I feel most at home in Spain.  In combination with some other factors, this piece of rock is what ‘hooked’ me to Spain and to this part of Spain in particular.

Estoy enganchado de España.  I say this many times a day when I am there.  I am hooked on Spain.  That late winter day a few years, I had travelled across the country, my goal being to see two small 7th century Visigothic churches, both situated out in the middle of nowhere, probably one of the reasons how they somehow survived down through 14 centuries.  I arrived at the church of Quintanilla de Las Viñas around three, took a pile of photos, and sat down to chat with the full-time guide, Antonio.  This  church is a gem, what remains of it, with a variety of and quality of sculpture that reveals that the Spanish instinct for the visual has very deep roots.  I might write a post some day on it, but then you would have to endure Ed in “his passion for all things Visigothic hat“.  But at least that day you could choose not to read my post.  I would warn you. Here is a photo of the tiny church with the Peña framing it (its nave collapsed many centuries ago – if you look closely to the left of the church you can spot remnants in rock the nave’s foundation).

It was a quiet season inevitably and Antonio was using the time to teach himself how to play the guitar. He was warming up with Greensleaves, can you believe it? My Spanish was still very tentative.  Some of his friends arrived, a young couple, Patricia and Luís.  I stayed around.  At 5 o’clock the church was locked and they invited me to climb the Peña with them.  What the heck!  I headed up the trail.

They knew the route well and it took us a little over an hour.  Here are the three caballeros from up top.  The view was magnificent, hills, cultivated fields, even snow-capped mountains.  In the distance behind is the site where EL Bueno, El Malo y El Feio (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) was filmed.  The landscape easily becomes the American southwest.

Here is another view;  in the middle foreground on the right are the ruins of an 11th century castle, the first one established south of the northern mountains to initiate what the Spanish call the Reconquista, the taking back of the peninsula from the Moors (completed in 1492). In the foreground is one of many small villages and further away the ever-present snow-capped mountains.  I travel here for the most part in the spring and I see snow-capped mountains virtually every day.

And finally the tiny church from up top, from the edge of a ledge where the four of us sat for awhile chatting.  My professor of Art History at York University has been to this church;  I was very happy to share this photo with him to add to his collection of 300,000 photos, the others skillfully taken by him. I get a kick out of sharing my discoveries with him.  He helped imbue me with this passion for the medieval.  Thanks Malcolm!

The hike up, the ongoing conversation, the budding friendships, the hike down.  And, suddenly, it was after 7 and I had nowhere to stay.  Antonio and I exchanged email addresses. I took the photo that I am now using on every post. I headed back 25 km for so to an ancient town, Covarrubias, that I knew from the guide books and had seen en route.  I got myself a room in the local hotel for two nights.  And, every time now that I return to Spain, I return to Covarrubias to the same family-run hotel and restaurant where the host had made me feel very welcome.  I have taken my brother and his wife there and I have come to feel at home in this village and in the surrounding countryside.   And, I always spend time at the little church with Antonio, helping him learn English, hiking with him in the area and enjoying playing the guide to those who show up for the first time to see the Visigothic ermita. Antonio and I stay in touch a couple of times each month.  He emailed today that he has bought himself a motorcycle.

Another post and I might talk about Covarrubias, but this accidental hook explains as much as all the other factors how I have come to love Spain so much, its people, its geography, its history, and particularly its art and architecture.  Adios.  Hasta luego!  Estoy enganchado de España!