Sensational, Sunny Spain

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
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Trip End Oct 11, 2006


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Monday, September 25, 2006

Lodosa, ESPAÑA

Monday, Sep. 25, 2006

I woke up at 5:15AM under gray skies and a cold September drizzle in Paris. Making my way across town to the airport, I noticed that even in the autumn rain, the capital of France still retained its elegant charm on a wet Monday morning. The blushing illumination of the wide boulevards, the golden leaves scattered on the streets, the damp neoclassical facades lining Boulevard de Courcelles, the Eiffel Tower draped in a misty haze, the Seine River dotted with punctuated raindrops -- all evoked a sense of romanticism one could only find in this city.

Today was going to be a full day of travel from France to Spain via Italy. Hence, today also was a day when I immersed myself in three of Europe's strongest cultures and most popular languages. In the morning, I found myself conversing in French while enjoying some chocolate brioches with café au lait at the airport. By late morning, I landed in Milan, and I was speaking in Italian while savoring a Pizza Margherita and Italian panino followed by a delicious cappuccino. In the evening, I arrived in Zaragoza, Spain, where I was using my Spanish while enjoying some more café - un cortado (which was a Spanish espresso with a thin drop of milk).

I came to Spain to attend the wedding of my friends Marta and John. Marta, a post-doctoral fellow at the prestigious M.D.Anderson Canceer Center, originally came from Spain, but she met John, a native of Mississippi, while working in Houston. All of us being good friends, I was very much looking forward to seeing them again. Marta invited me to stay with her family in Lodosa, a town of about 5,000 people in Navarra, a province of northern Spain about less than 80 km from the French border. She had arranged for me to be picked up by her friend Patricia, a native of Zaragoza. However, Patricia never showed up. Marta's uncle Jesús, a polyglot of 7 languages including Chinese, graciously drove 150km to the airport to pick me up and take us back to Lodosa. During the ride, we were engaged in fascinating conversations in such topics as history, linguistics, politics, and the culture of globalization. When I finally arrived to Marta's house at around 11PM, her parents and she were waiting for me for dinner. Her mother had prepared a typical Spanish dinner consisting of chorrizo sausages, local cheeses and peppers, tortilla española (a potato and egg omelette), etc. Her family was extremely gracious and hospitable. Getting a chance to practice my Latin American Spanish to these Castillian Spanish speakers was a great experience. The Castillian Spanish spoken in Spain had a slightly different accent and grammatical structure, but we were able to understand each other clearly.

WEDNESDAY, Sep 27, 2006: PAMPLONA, "ARRIVAL OF THE AMERICANS"

Today was the day when John, his family, and friends were to arrive to Pamplona from Jackson, Mississippi. Their itinerary took them from Jackson to Atlanta, Madrid, then Pamplona. They went to the airport in style in a limousine with champagne to celebrate John's upcoming European wedding. Flying on Delta Airlines, they landed at Barajas International Airport in Madrid only to encounter an extremely long line at Immigration and Customs. They almost missed their connection to Pamplona.

Meanwhile in Lodosa, Marta's parents rented a tour bus to come greet the arriving Americans. Marta's father joked to me by asking why I had forgotten to bring my small American flag and Uncle Sam hat. At around 11:50AM, John's plane landed, and they soon discovered that all pieces of luggage were accounted for, except for one. After filling out an incidental report with Iberia Airlines, the only thing to do was wait (the luggage would arrive two days later). We all got on the bus and headed to the historic center of Pamplona, the capital of the province of Navarra. Founded in 74 BC by the Roman general Pompey, the city gave its name to this famous Roman warlord. Now inhabited by more than 170,000 people, the city was considered the cultural center of Navarra and an important city to the Basques.

Marta and her parents took all of us around the super cute historic center with its quaint narrow medieval streets and flower-decked balconies. Negotiating through the town center's winding alleys where frightened people would run like crazy from the mad bulls, I tried to imagine the intense atmosphere of terror, adrenaline, excitement, and delirium that would permeate the air once a year during San Fermín's Festival from July 6-13. Before lunch, we stopped at a tapas bar for a drink and also had a sumptuous snack. Instead of letting us pay for the food, Marta's family covered the food for 12 of us. For lunch, Marta's family took us to one of Pamplona's finest (and expensive) restaurants, Casa Manolo. We had a variety of delicious appetizers typical of northern Spain, exquisite beefsteak as entrees, delicate desserts, and many bottles of fine red and white wine. John's father, together with me and Steve (a very nice dentist friend of the family), wanted to pay for the lunch. In fact, we had tried to speak to the restaurant staff to allow us to treat everybody. However, we were denied the chance when Marta and her family grabbed the bill for 12 of us. It was very frustrating because the menu price range was not so low for each item. Marta's parents wanted to make sure that everybody ate very well in Spain. There simply was so much food that after finishing lunch at around 6PM, we had to take a stroll to walk off the rich calories we had consumed.

We were taken to the cafe, Bar Iruña, where Ernest Hemingway used to hang out in Plaza del Castillo. Next to the cafe was El Hotel La Perla, an elegant building with a very noble facade, where he used to stay. I was very fond of his work, so following in the footsteps of this American Nobel laureate was definitely interesting to me. In short, Pamplona was a city that evoked a mystical, charming, romantic appeal to me. Its ancient streets and festive atmosphere, together, with its exemplary northern Spanish cuisine, made it one of my all-time favorite places in the world.

THURSDAY, Sep. 28, 2006, BRIONES and LOGROÑO, SPAIN

Today, we left Lodosa together in a private tour bus at around 9:15AM to head to the wine country of La Rioja Province, Spain. The gentle rolling vineyards of La Rioja rose and dipped like playful waves on the verdant hills of this region. Tall impressive mountains guarded over the vineyards like watch towers. We went first to a Bodega, which in Spanish, meant Winery Estate. The Bodega Dinastía Vivanco, a palatial building set amidst the orderly rows of lustrous vineyards, had an exceptional museum of wine. Everything one wanted to know about wine production from the ancient Egyptian-Greek-Roman methods to the ultramodern technology was well presented in a Disney-like, informative multimedia manner. Marta's father bought admission tickets for 15 of us as well as rented English audio devices for the non-Spanish speakers. At the end of the tour, we all had a chance to savor some delicious red wine from La Rioja.

We then went across the street to visit the gracefully alluring medieval town of Briones, perched dramatically on a hill overlooking the fertile wine-producing valley of La Rioja. Like Pamplona, but on a much smaller scale, Briones had a fascinating charm of a pastoral Middle Age town in Europe. We dined in a cave-like cellar at Las Calaos Restaurant. Again, there was just so much to eat, and the robust flavors of this region were evident in the specialty dishes such as roasted lamb cutlets or pork with grilled potatoes. Just like before, some of us wanted to pay for everybody's lunch, but Marta's family would not see to it. They ended up paying for 16 of us amidst objections.

Later we traveled to Logroño to visit the famed Cathedral. It was a very beautiful medium-sized town located 30km from Lodosa. Afterwards, everybody came back to relax a little bit before we all congregated outside the local bar, Cafe Central. John's friends from Chicago and Jackson, MI had flown in earlier in the afternoon. Marta's friends from London also arrived. Together there were almost 20 of us sitting outside in the autumn night, drinking, socializing, laughing, and getting ready for the wedding of the year in this town. Excitement for the wedding was visibly pulsating in the air; as it was the talk of the town. Everybody in this small, friendly town knew about the wedding, and they were curious to meet the arriving Americans, family and friends of John.

On Friday evening (Sep 29, 2006) will be the rehearsal dinner hosted by John's family at a local restaurant in Lodosa. The big wedding will take place at 18:00 (11AM Houston) on Saturday, Sep 30, 2006, which coincidentally will also be the wedding anniversary of Marta's parents. As the hours draw closer to the big day, more of Marta and John's friends are arriving, and the energy, exhilaration, and ebullience are all easily felt in the air. Like in a dream which mesmerized Don Quixote, I feel entranced in this special, peaceful town in northern Spain.
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