Category Archives: Spain

21 – Salamanca, past, present and future – April 11, 2013

I have finally made it to Salamanca, an ancient university city, founded in the 12th century, of similar vintage as Oxford, Coimbra in Portugal and Bologna in Italy, located in the northern mesata, tablelands, with prairie-like fields of grain extending to beyond the horizons in all directions.  It is built primarily of a golden sandstone, very reminiscent of Oxford and of Cotswold villages.  And, of course, it has its own Plaza Mayor, the impressive section on the left with balconies for the royal family when in attendance at events in the square.

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I had the opportunity to enjoy a beer in the outdoor café across the way as the sun was setting and was able capture some of the sandstone’s marvellous glow at this time of the day.

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If you go back to the first photo, you will notice of course that there are many people in the square;  it is a university town and the streets and squares are absolutely filled with 20 somethings.  I think that the city has to hire old folks to stroll about to maintain some sense of balance.  On top of it all, on this day , just beyond the old walls in the open air, a rock concert was taking place with an estimated 6 thousand youngsters enjoying the live band and inevitably littering the parkland.  And the whole scene dramatized in a curious way the conjunction of past, present and future in this city.

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I am actually standing on a Roman bridge which crosses the river to the right, 26 some arches, at least 16 were part of the original span built in the first century of this era.  The church of Santiago in the middle distance is 12th century Romanesque. The curious stone animal is a Varraco that dates from the megalithic period (Stonehenge and other such circles as well as dolmens, burial sites that are found across Europe from around 5000 years ago).  They are found in Spain and their function might have been to assert territorial control or for religious, ceremonial reasons.   And wonderfully loud raucous rock music to bring all these ages together, of course, in the presence of kids between the ages of 16 and 24 and this one old fart. And the cathedrals (Salamanca has two) presiding over the afternoon.

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I chose this photo from the bridge to show how it is still used in this pedestrian-intensive city;  the concert is behind those trees at its far end.  Excuse the cloudy skies.

The cathedrals and university buildings are primarily from the 15th and 16th centuries, the Renascentista Style – popularized in Italy and elsewhere.

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I do not like this style of architecture.  I prefer Romanesque, 11th and 12th century, rounded arches, with relatively simple sculptural additions.  The cathedral is overdone and quite simply makes me uncomfortable to be around and in.  It is simply my preference, my taste, developed to a degree from the time I have spent in the back valleys of Spain searching out small rural parish churches.  I have done this often enough that the simple stone work now gives me a buzz.  Now if I had been alive when this cathedral was being built, would I have been bothered, even been angry at this new fang dangled style.  Romanesque buildings were possibly and probably torn down to build it.  Would anybody else in the town have been upset by this careless neglect of the old and preference for the new?  Did anyone care about what was happening to their neighbourhood? I have found the keys at times to Romanesque village churches in order to see the interiors only to be disappointed, even angry because of the renovations, modifications, “updatings” – “oh, let’s change this old way for the new way” – so many have Baroque altars, everything painted in gold. I first impulse is to lock up and return the key as quickly as possible, muttering “ba-roken, ba-roken” under my breath.  I have spent time in Oxford, with its many colleges, each built in a different part of a different century, in somewhat different and evolving styles.  We do not notice unless we are art historians.  A noted Victorian scholar was so incensed by the “new” look of a recently built college that he purposely changed the route of his daily walk so as not to have to see what he thought was an abomination.  Would anybody in 16th century Salamanca have thought of this cathedral as an abomination?  Were the residents of this ancient city through the centuries concerned about the urban landscape or is this just a 20th and now 21st century concern?

A wealthy factory owner in Salamanca at the turn of the 20th century would clearly have challenged many a resident with the design of his mansion, built on the walls of the old city, looking down over the park (and the Roman bridge, 12th century church and 5000 year old Varraco).

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This is what this jewel looks like today, virtually identical.

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Would you have manned the barricades to prevent  this from being built?  Would you have found yourself saying derisively, “Art Nouveau, what garbage, it definitely doesn’t belong in my city!”

Today within the parameters of this ancient city, with its ancient university buildings and innumerable, it seems, churches, this building contains an amazing museum of Art Deco and Art Nouveau.  What a surprise?

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The original door, gate and carvings in the stonework around the door.  The jewel is the central atrium.  I was not allowed to take photos;  what you see now is therefore illegal.

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A true devotee of these styles could spend all day here;  I learned a lot, the collection is very comprehensive, worth the trip to Salamanca.

I have to add one more sight and insight into Salamanca, past, present and future.

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The Spanish eat a lot of jamón, have for centuries, and will continue to eat this national dish, many of them, I am sure, at every meal.  These sandwiches literally dripping with slices of jamón ibérico possibly say it all.

19 – A Clue to the Roots of Carnival March 17, 2013

In the foothills of the mountains that stretch across the long northern coast of Spain, the tiny village of Cervatos with its twelfth century parish church of San Pedro conceals a possible clue to the pagan origins of the tradition of carnivals, like the one at Laza that I wrote about in the previous post.

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I visited here in the fall of 2009,  I had done a lot of research on the boundless number of small village churches as part of my delight in early Romanesque architecture and sculpture, the carvings found around the doorways and windows, on top of columns and under the eaves.  The iconography is primarily and inevitably religious and Christian.

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Embedded in the facade around the arches over the door are various Christian motifs;  on the left from the bottom, Adam and Eve and the Tree, Madonna and Child, and an angel;  on the right, from the bottom, a badly eroded something-or-other, another angel and a bishop carrying his shepherd’s crook (I am saving the close-ups for the more interesting stuff).  Immediately over the door is some marvellous lace-like tracery in stone and pairs of lions.

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I could do a separate post on the ambiguous symbolism of lions in medieval sculpture.  Other animals (always of symbolic import) displayed asymmetrically are almost ubiquitous on Romanesque capitals but I now want to get to the interesting stuff.

We are in the hills, in the 12th century.  Below on the high plains of central Spain, the Islamic kingdom rules.  From north of the mountains, the regrouped Christian kingdom is gradually moving south in the centuries-long Reconquista.  These mountains and the northern coastal areas had always been  an enormous challenge to subdue, both to the Romans during their 5 or so centuries in Iberia and later to the Christian message.  Today in the eastern parts of these hills live the Basque people with their unique language, culture and desire for independence.  Life would never have been easy, the main stay would have been animal husbandry, primarily sheep, hunting and some cropping.

In The Myth of the Eternal Return, the Romanian religious historian, Mircea Eliade, talks about the many different peoples whose shared story of creation began with chaos, with form and order being given by their deity. These people would recreate this chaos during a period of a few days in the early spring, a few days of chaos, characterized by music, wine, a breakdown in the barriers between the social classes, the wearing of masks and promiscuity (echoed in today’s grand carnivals in places like Rio.)  This recreation of chaos and the subsequent return to an ordered world somehow guaranteed the community’s survival;  the women would safely give birth, that ewes would lamb, the deer and other prey would be abundant,  the crops would ripen, and the weather would be favourable. Regardless of their conversion to Christianity and its different story of creation, these hill people would have held on to their old practices.  And, evidence of this is very clear in the other sculptures on this church in Cervatos, the corbels under the eaves and the capitals in the upper windows.

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We see musicians, acrobats, masked creatures, animals, acrobats and wine barrels galore.  My camera at the time did not have the zoom power of my present one.  Sorry!

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An acrobat, a tumbler, what a wonderful symbol of these few days of the world-upside-down!

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I will first draw your attention (if I can tear you away from the first two up top here) to the one of the right – a person is throwing aball; these were days without work, devoted to all kinds of play. These were normally people who would have worked most of the time in order to survive.  The first one is right out of an Indian temple, a page from the Kama Sutra;  with that clue, you should be able to figure it out, a rather athletic position.  The second is a woman giving birth (she is upside down, the newborn appearing at the top) and the third possibly a masked creature (think of the carnival at Laza from the last post). Fertility was the key to survival.  Other sculptures make this very clear.

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There is obviously much debate among scholars about the meaning of this woman and the male figure opposite her;  there are a number of these pairs at this church.  Eliade and a Spanish scholar whose dissertation I found on the web suggest strongly that it is not a message about lust and the attendant hellfire.  She is wearing the hat of a married woman;  her face is almost serene rather than showing the wages of sin.  There is also no little devil or snake in the corner of this capital.  Later sculpture, within not so many years, would make it abundantly clear about the mortal dangers to the soul given over to lust.  The carnival period was not about this, it was a reaffirmation of the “eternal return” to order after chaos.  IMG_4535

Here we have the feminine principle side by side with the masculine principle.  The Spanish scholar has documented similar pairings in small village churches throughout these hills.  She also has photos of the quite different pairings sculpted a generation or so later when the central authority in the church, the Benedictines from Cluny, would have exerted greater control over the iconography in this area and across the whole of Europe.  The isolation of this village as well as the enduring strength of the old religious practices (paganism) would have allowed these non-Christian motifs to play an important role in the iconography of this church. It is interesting that what we would call the more overt sexual imagery was not erased, that it did survive. Another insight into its significance to the community.

Very interesting, this fascinating mixture of beliefs, but we need only think about the Mexican Day of the Dead, now part of the Christian calendar but clearly from a much older religious culture.

Our carnivals today, New Orleans, Rio and elsewhere, preserve the fun and excesses, a chance to get away from our normal routines, without any understanding of how a few days of this topsy-turvey world were absolutely necessary if the numerous small, isolated communities were to survive another year.

18 – Entroido de Laza – Carnival in rural Galicia – February 2009 – written about – February 2013.

I have returned to my blog, excited to be writing again about Spain and animated by my plans to return there in April. !Que sorpresa!

It’s February, and we will be hearing shortly about carnivals in Quebec City, New Orleans and Rio, carnival nights and weekends in cities all over the world. The origins of carnival are hidden in the distant past of peoples from all corners of the world; anthropologists and historians of religion study, debate and come up with theories.  We can infer that they were held not simply to allow for a few days overindulgence while away from home in the 21st century.

In February 2000, I was in the northeastern province of Portugal, tucked up in the hills and surrounded to the north and east by similarly mountainous regions in Spain.  In the city of  Braganza, I was introduced to the tradition of Máscara Iberica, Iberian Masks.  During the winter solstice and Christmas period and then later in February, many villages have festivals with obviously ancient roots, having in common the use of masks, strange costumes and activities that are repeated each year (similar to mummering in Newfoundland).  I met a wonderful woman in the tourist bureau;  being a quiet time of the year, we had lots of time to chat.  She was passionate about the culture of her region.  She sent me to the Museum of Masks; I lucked out,  being there when the professor who had designed the displays was guiding around his class.  I was given a beautiful  full coloured catalogue by the staff.  I even brought a mask back for a mask-maker friend here in Toronto. I was intrigued. Check out the link – <http://www.google.ca/search?q=mascara+iberica+fotos&hl=en&client=safari&tbo=u&rls=en&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=y50WUeaEM4W6yAHEyICYCQ&ved=0CC8QsAQ&biw=1424&bih=722&gt;   Problems with the link? –  simply google – mascara iberica fotos – to get an idea of the strange beauty and diversity of these simple village festivals. Origins? – medieval and beyond to the indigenous and Celtic peoples before the arrival of the Romans? Humans have been in this peninsula for tens of thousands  of years.

Because of the time of year when they take place, I resigned myself to never being able easily to attend one.  But when I booked for the final two weeks in February 2009, I discovered that I would be there during mardi gras week and so made my way to the small agricultural village of Laza, in the pine-clad hills 25 kilometres north of the Portuguese border for two wonderful days at their entroido, their carnival.

In the unseasonably brilliant 20 degree sunshine, I enjoyed the Sunday of the peliqueiros.  Lines of masked costumed men, in outrageous costumes, wearing cowbells around their waists (warding off evil?), and waving small whips (punishing sinners?), regularly appeared from different directions and crossed the small village square where hundreds, many of them in costumes, were gathering as the day progressed, all the while being entertained by live bands (dixieland among others).

Jerky video?  Let it have a good headstart downloading – grey bar – before starting it.

The masked ones were males of different ages, many from the village, others with roots there, some still farming (their animals kept within the village, at times, on the main floor of their homes),  their sons and grandsons now living inevitably in the cities near jobs, etc. Here is a delightfully charming very short video.

Third generation or more?  being cared for by his grandfather while his father and uncles were among the peliqueiros, the little one dreaming of his turn one day running with the grown-ups.

Intermittently lines of masked creatures appeared and disappeared.  How many were there?  Then the parade with three, who knows, possibly four generations, through the streets. Laza’s population is 700. I was amazed at how many there were.  Where did they all come from?

You can imagine how enjoyable this sunny Sunday in Laza was for all of us. But I had really come for Monday’s event.  I had done my research.  Being there on Monday was the cunning plan.

At noon that day, with the same unusually warm sunshine, an old bathtub full of a fine liquid mud is wheeled into the square.  On either side, the lads, lasses and this old fart are ready in old clothes, me in my rain pants and shell.  We are armed with piles of small towels, ready to be dipped in the mud and thrown over and over again, all afternoon long.  The battle begins.

My cameraman is Juan; I had been chatting with him and his wife, Ruth as we all awaited the arrival of the tub.  He is asking me at the end if I want another go – otra vez.  I decide against it, thinking that it was 30 some kilometres to my hotel, etc., and the others were definitely getting muddier.  I regretted this when I realized before long that the mud dried and brushed off very easily.  But, I wouldn’t have lasted.  They were ganging up and dumping each other in the tub, stealing the bathtub to control the weaponry, and organizing mass raids on the other side. What a hoot!  Later, a team would head out into the fields to bring back hills full of a kind of biting ant.  Not my glass of sangria!  Being an old fart, one does have privileges and chickening out is one of them. In the evening there was going to be a community meal.  I am an outsider, a visitor, just part of the audience, but getting thwacked in the face with the muddy towel made me feel that I belonged here in this afternoon of chaos, of turning the world upside down, always a key element in ancient carnivals.

Obviously this is one of my favourite memories of Spain. I am planning to share some interesting 11th century parish church sculptures in my next blog which should give some insight into the origins of carnival, hidden in the ‘mists of time’.

17 – A Culé at home among 90,000 other culés – December 7, 2012

I felt like a kid going to the fair for the first time, having my first pony ride.  A Barcelona home game with the rest of the family, this time, 90,000 culés, (you will have to reread post #7 to understand this reference) almost filling Camp Nou, their 100,000 seat stadium.  The official attendance was just shy of 84,000, but this late afternoon, children 8 and under were let in free, and there were thousands of the little gaffers, culés in training.  The game also coincided with the birth of Thiago, the son of Leo Messi and his partner (futbol’s Wayne Gretzky – Sydney Crosby – Guy Lafleur all rolled into one.) the day before, a much anticipated event for this city and for the young parents.  Messi came so close a number to times to scoring;  the fans would hoping and praying that he would score to be able to dedicate it to their son.  It didn’t happen;  he had spent a tiring week at the hospital anticipating the event so as to be there during the birth.

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Being covered gradually by the arrival of early fans is the phrase, Mes Que Un Club, in Catalan but almost in Spanish, More than a club.  This team has for decades been synonymous with the Catalan region and its aspirations for independence from Spain.  Reinforcing this is the fact that many, almost most of its players were born in the region.  Most have spent their futbol life with the club, in their outstanding academy.  In a recent game, every player on the field (11) was a graduate of this school – La Masia, an unique event in the history of Spanish football.  Messi arrived over 12 years ago from Argentina and has grown up playing beside the other players that make up the bulk of this team.  The team knows that not all of these youngsters will become professionals;  the emphasis, therefore, is on moulding fine young human beings.

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The happy, long-armed fan, with his itchy Barcelona scarf.  I had  a great seat, about half way up near the centre line, with an excellent view of all the action.  My neighbours on both sides were very friendly and welcoming to the culé canadiense.  The crowd was very warm and supportive;  there was no evidence of the yahoo, too-much-to-drink crowd, that can so often ruin such events. The team is community owned, 10s of thousands of shareholders from the city and region.  Each year some are chosen by lottery to sit on the board along obviously with knowledgeable managing types.

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Some of the youngsters allowed in for free this game, with their jerseys and names of favourite players.  Prices vary from game to game, depending on the strength and drawing power of the opponent, giving an opportunity for more to see the team live, and particularly young fans. In Toronto I have heard so often the comment that with Maple Leaf ticket prices it is very difficult for a family to take in a game.  Barca prevailed 3-1 over a team from Galicia, Celta de Vigo. While the players are shaking hands and the fans start heading home, el himno de Barcelona plays on the PA system, a sober version compared to the one I videod in post 7.

It was a wonderful experience, one that I might never again be able to experience; it will be a question of timing, being in Barcelona when they are playing at home. A treasured memory among a multitude of treasured memories from my time in Spain in the fall of 2012.

16 – Gaudi – love him or leave him. November 15, 2012

I am happily back in Canada, but with a few more blogs still percolating in my old brain.

I wrote about my visit to Colonia Guell in an earlier post, an experimental factory town on the outskirts of Barcelona.  I wanted to see Gaudi’s church.  I found it fascinating, the visit one of the highlights of this time in Spain.

He also built a number of large private homes for wealthy merchant families, gentrification on a grand scale. Casa Batilo presides over one of Barcelona’s principal thoroughfares.  It was built at the beginning of the 20th century.

I have chosen this night photo;  it conveys well the sense of the fairytale that is my primary impression of this place, fun to visit, on everyone’s must list when visiting Barcelona “but now I want to return to my own home”. Six stories and in every room, in every component, in every detail   of the interior and exterior, the architect’s vision dominates absolutely.  I am left wondering whether the family had any input whatsoever.  Beautiful elements such as this mirrored cupboard door abound.  Every element, including the furniture, window, doors and even doorknobs, was designed by Gaudi.

Bringing light into every corner of the house was one of Gaudi’s obsessions.

And, he evidently did not like straight lines.  The pieces of glass would have each been designed by him, many are spirals and suns.  There are two openings within the house, shafts to bring light and air to all of the interior rooms on every floor. Gaudi was an engineering as well as an architectural marvel.

The unusual section below the windows would be for air circulation, another one of his obsessions. The roof is a whimsical world for chimneys covered with recycled pieces of ceramics and sculpted shapes.

A few final photos – it was very challenging with the crowds and with the sheer number of interesting elements and curiosities.  The front balconies and windows conjure up carnival time.

Oh, and next door is very interesting also, from the same time period, by a well-known contemporary, Puig i Cadafalch.

It is an absolute delight to wander the streets of this city to enjoy its architectural treasures and amazing diversity.  I see this delight in the visual everywhere in Spain. But architecture creates environments;  I am like you, I am clearly less comfortable in some of these created spaces. Could you live in the mad King Ludwig’s fairytale castle in Bavaria?  Could be fun to visit for a few hours?  I personally would not have felt at home, would not have felt any sense of sanctuary in Casa Batilo, from what I have seen of it.

I found a great website if you are interested in seeing more of it.

<http://www.gaudidesigner.com/uk/casa-batllo-album.html&gt;

It has many photos organized under the different kinds of elements and materials.  There is also an album of historical photographs of what it would have been like a hundred years ago.  Enjoy.  If the link doesn’t work directly, consider simply typing in ‘gaudidesigner.com’.  His other buildings are probably also featured.  I am going to check it out as soon as I publish this blog.

15 – some wonderful serendipity! November 7, 2012

I am staying in central Barcelona, my third time in a straightforward apartment hotel, nothing fancy, but very comfortable and surrounded in all directions by the balconies of Barcelona.  My first couple times, my room faced onto the street, which becomes quite quiet as the evening progresses.  No problems sleeping!  This photo from the intersection gives you a sense of the barrio.. My hotel is a narrow contemporary fill-in in mid-block, not worth a photo.  All intersections are on the diagonal.

The modern building on the right is an elementary school.  I noticed it first from the other side when I looked out my window to discover serendipitously this amazing ‘third space’.

The back of this very attractive school building with its playground.

I did a bit of research.  This area of Barcelona dates from after 1850.  Catalonia has had a long, difficult history with central Spain, it has been independent and powerful in its own right in the past, it was annexed by the monarchy in Madrid. After one of many rebellions in the early 18th century, the monarchy in Madrid enclosed the city in walls, not to protect the citizens but to keep them in, a larger version of the Jewish ghetto. Curious!  These walls were finally demolished in the 1850s, and the city leaders set out an ambitious plan to expand the city, with broad avenues, plazas, and blocks of housing. It is clearly a grid and my block is typical, something around 100 metres square.  I went for a walk this afternoon around this block.  On the southern flank beside the school is a modern affordable apartment building.

The eastern face is from the early days of the neighbourhood, complete with wonderful balconies and all the usual neighbourhood shops and cafes. The red and yellow flag, ubiquitous in Catalonia, asserts the independence of this region from Spain.

The other flank is also contemporary.  One final very short video taken in the after school period.  The safe place within becomes alive with kids, their grandparents chatting on benches among the trees.

I continue to be impressed by Spain and by its people.  Looking out my window allowed me to deepen this.  As I walk these blocks during future visits, I will be now imagining the interior spaces of the many other square 100 metres, looking for opportunities to have a peak.

14 – And, I have a cunning plan! October 31, 2012

Look at these photos of the balconies of Barcelona.  The city apologizes for its occasional cloudy periods.

The shop directly below is a restaurant – bar;  on the second floor is a hair salon.

Just imagine enjoying tea in this room, watching the world pass by.

Here is the complete building.  Neighbourhoods with similar balconies, some more basic, some amazingly more elaborate, spread in all directions.  These are located, on reasonably quiet streets, within a easy 15 minute amble to Plaza Catalunya, Barcelona’s central square and the gateway to Las Ramblas, their kilometre long pedestrian street.  All within easy reach of subway stops. Many look out over their own pedestrian ways.

The balcony and its neighbourhood, immediately at its feet –

One of Barcelona’s innumerable ‘third spaces’.  On a hot summer evening, it might keep one awake, but surely you would be contributing to the animated conversation, laughter and song.

Here’s the cunning plan!  You have probably seen it coming.  A bunch of us will throw a chunk of euros in the pot and buy one of these places, just above tree level, that we can share over the course of a very long year of warmth and sunshine.  Air Canada flies direct from May to October.  Remember the Mediterranean is a few subway stops away and there are a raft of Gaudi buildings within 10 minutes in whatever direction. Cafes, restaurants, tapas bars, chic shopping, Barca futbol, medieval architecture, the Picasso museum among so many museums (one for chocolate),  the list is endless.

And, here is my favourite balcony, so far, just above street level, but with similar ones reaching up three or four stories.

A bunch of us could come over together, spend some days wandering the streets trying to reach a compromise on the perfect one, hours negotiating in one of those bars or restaurants.

Wonderful to dream, the ideal location of most cunning plans!  Oh, by the way, I would be perfectly willing to sacrifice my time and be here regularly to take care of the place, act as tour guide extraordinaire and give introductory Spanish lessons.  One more!  De acuerdo!

And I know that I have only walked a small fraction of these streets.

Check out the comments and feel free to add your own, although at times I cannot figure out how to save all the comments.  I was not blogging in Valencia;  I was in the only hotel in Spain that insisted on charging a per diem for WiFi, for very slow WiFi, at about $8 a day.  I have praised this hotel in every other way on the reservation site but have said very simply that this situation is intolerable.  A farmhouse in the Pyrenees provided me with rapid, free WiFi (in Spanish, WeeFee).