Iberia

Trip Start Jan 01, 1974
1
10
19
Trip End Dec 30, 1974


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Where I stayed
Aragones Hostel

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Leaning into the Afternoons

Leaning into the afternoons,
I cast my sad nets towards your oceanic eyes.
There, in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames
Its arms turning like like a drowning man's.
I send out red signals across your absent eyes
That wave like the sea, or the beach by a lighthouse.
You keep only darkness my distant female;
From your regard sometimes, the coast of dread emerges.

Leaning into the afternoons,
I fling my sad nets to that sea that is thrashed
By your oceanic eyes.
The birds of the night peck at the first stars
That flash like my soul when I love you.
The light gallops on its shadowy mare
Shedding blue tassles over the land.

By Pablo Neruda


SPAIN
The Gardia Civil was an armed police force and from the moment we entered Spain they were very much 'in our face'. Each rail carriage had two of them constantly patrolling the corridors with their odd shiny black caps and snub nosed machine guns. We had not been keeping up with the political news and Spain's battle with separatist groups but it was entirely possible that because of our proximity to the Basque region extra precaution was being taken. People of the Basque region had long seen themselves as non Spanish and resisted alliance with Spain sometimes violently with bombings of the urban areas of Spain's cities. Franco, the WWII general who had been President for more than 20 years was ailing and according to rumour was spending more time watching television than running the country. As the lead up to the soccer 1974 World Cup was taking place Spain was naturally interested in the chances of their national team making it to the finals but Franco's obsession was dangerous. During his last days Franco reportedly was creating unrest in the government and Prime Ministers were being appointed and dismissed at an alarming rate. Juan Carlos, son of the former King of Spain, and previously annointed by Franco was kept waiting in the wings for the right time to step into power as President. He was very popular with the people but compared with Franco, even Genghis Khan may have won a popular election. If he spoke Spanish that was. We knew we would need to learn some Spanish language ourselves so with a trusty little Gem Pocket Dictionary we used the travelling time to practise on each other. After our Indonesian experience we knew that 'where is' was a very handy phrase to learn. Coupled with a handful of useful nouns such as 'hotel', 'restaurant', 'rail station' and 'toilet' we could go anywhere. Spanish was a musical language to beginners like us and we enjoyed learning it. The Spanish people were very tolerant of non Spanish speakers and it was just as well for us as we tested their tolerance on a daily basis.
Spain's history was littered with arrival of foreign peoples. Early rule by the Romans and then being conquered by the Moors who also ruled north Africa had given Spain numerous cultural changes and mixes. Many of the tourist attractions were structures built by the intelligent and meticulous Moors. Their Arab influence during a time when Europe was still struggling through medieval times gave Spain an educated advantage. It became a hub of universities and monasteries that attracted the intelligencia with a will to learn, from the far corners of Europe. Spain certainly reached a peak in power about the time they colonised parts of Central and South America. Their mastery of the seaways was legendary but as inevitably as history follows progressive peaks with troublesome troughs Spain became despised and later to be challenged by Britain for superiority at sea.
This Iberian superpower fell from grace but became known internationally when General Franco took power after civil war in 1933. His right wing style of politics was to control Spain until mid 1970s. During this time he formed an unofficial alliance with Hitler and oversaw numerous cases of oppression through brutality. In 1974 West Germany was the host of the Soccer World Cup and it was rumoured that the now ill Franco was obsessed with the fact that Spain was not successful in reaching the finals, at the expense of peaceful politics at home.
Once we were comfortable in the first class carriage of the Spanish train and heading for Madrid, sleep was the main thing on my mind. We put that on hold though as we were sharing a compartment with a nice couple from Australia who had just travelled from Italy. As Italy was on our itinerary we soaked up all the traveller's tales that we could. They described Italy as a bit like Spain so I for one was keen to visit there. Penny however was put off by the stories of amorous Italian males targetting female backpackers.
We arrived in Madrid at 9 am the next morning but for a couple of hours before that I watched the scenes of village life warming into action as the sun rose. The stucco cement farm houses with clay tiled rooves were beautiful and neat with their olive groves and tomato gardens dotted on the rolling hills either side of the train line. Between the small villages we saw snow capped mountains, contrasting with grassy plains and desert areas with rocky outcrops and balancing boulders. Although Spain in many ways was a poor developing country I saw none of the destitution that one normally observes along a rail line approaching a city of over 3 million people. Parts of Madrid were new and much was rebuilt after bombing in 1939 during a 6 year civil war. The weather reminded us of Brisbane and both of us felt at home.
We headed for the old part of Madrid by Metro underground rail. Alighting at Plaza del Sol we found narrow streets ornate buildings with paintings on towers and also under the upper windows of many buildings. A short walk took us to Plaza Mayor and here we found a pension or economy hostel. For a double room we paid around A$1.70 and got a heavy door key that was almost too big to fit in a pocket. We walked around the Plaza area to find many of the shops closed. Traditional areas in Spain still practised siesta which could involve a three hour break for lunch but we were surprised to find that the American Express office also was closed. I asked myself, why didn't Brisbane have this system also?
As we had not eaten breakfast we tried a small restaurant for lunch. We had the basically set meal of fish soup, tortilla, which is a thick omlette containing potato, loads of salad, a bottle of house red and coffee all for the princely sum of A$2.80 (220 pesetas) We asked each other why did we wait so long to visit Spain. Penny's mild depression about leaving England was starting to lift and that also did wonders for my mood. We were both enjoying what Spain had to offer.
The next morning was Sunday and Plaza de Toledo was apparently the place to be. The market there was very popular and we planned to go early, but our small bedroom window did not let in light until about 9 am. Maybe we were just tired after our long day previous. We had a local café breakfast of copious bread and coffee and could see ourselves looking as chubby as the locals in no time. The café staff were preparing the lunch menu. In a glass front counter they gradually added trays of fresh combinations of pastas, beans and vegetables until the option of just waiting there for an early lunch became a real possibilty. With mental pictures of what we would order for lunch we headed for the market. I estimated half of Madrid's population was already there. Normally I did not like large crowds but the Spanish did not seem threatening so we relaxed and enjoyed the myriad of stalls selling paintings, antiques and clothing. Knowing we did not want to carry anything more in our packs we looked for practical items and came away with a denim hat for Penny and a leather water bag. I did have second thoughts about the leather curing processes used in Spain and decided that the bag should be rinsed thoroughly before use. Penny attracted attention as she had the same colouring as the Spanish girls but in the company of an obvious non local. Often the stall owners would talk to her in Spanish only to create an embarrassing moment when she tried to explain that English was her only fluent language. This usually broke the ice with the traders and the event was followed by a flood of comments or laughs and invitations to buy their wares. We both thought that the weather must play a role in determining people's moods with the warm climate also warming the Spanish hearts. The red wine in Spain was very easy to take and Penny and I had no hesitation in following the local custom of drinking it with most meals. In the cantinas we would often see the locals dilute their wine with spa water but as we did not have to go to work in the morning we preferred to savour the full bodied flavour. I am not sure if it was the wine or the weather but Penny's spirit seemed on a higher plain upon reaching Spain. Mine improved also because Penny was happy and also I was less concerned about our finances as I knew my limited savings would go a lot further here than in northern Europe.
Both being in high spirits improved our personal relationship somewhat. Maybe it was the fact that we had a room to ourselves each night but the romance of the history of Spain rubbed off and we both looked forward to bed time each night. Sharing in love making had so many unspoken rewards. Other than the obvious pleasure, for me there was the female company that I enjoyed. Not only the company but the learning process of finding out about a partner's likes and dislikes and a type of teasing of my senses that occured when I was near someone that I found attractive. In the hectic life of back packing we had not had many occasions where we could relax and just enjoy each other's company. In a way it seemed like some proof to me that it was not me personally that turned Penny to low moods. But perhaps I was one of the ingredients in the cocktail that made her blue from time to time.
I think that the Eurailpass was designed for travel in Spain. Madrid at the geographical centre of the country was the hub of the rail services. The spokes of the wheel like rail system were all the side lines that destined to coastal towns each with its own magical charm. Our plan was to see as many of these places as time would permit but we had to balance this desire with the one to take it easy and enjoy ourselves. We took an easy trip south of Madrid to Toledo. Although this town looked like it was owned by the Spanish Museum it still has a definite historical charm. The town was full of examples of Moorish architecture. The narrow ancient streets of the town were surrounded by fortress walls with towers and archways over fascinating gateways. The museums had examples of Spanish weaponry but no where near as many as the number of imitation weapons being sold on the streets by traders. The town accommodated as many tourist buses as could fit along the narrow lanes. It was a type of boy place and appealed to me in the way that the Tower of London also attracted me. For Penny it was quaint as she liked the more modern racy style of Spain. On our way back to Madrid we made our first stuff up on Spanish trains. We changed trains at a town called Castillejo and followed the crowd assuming that the majority of people would be travelling to Madrid. After 1 hour the ticket inspector told us that we were going to wrong direction so we had to alight and wait for another train to Madrid. We were in such high spirits we did not mind the inconvenience.
Determined to conquer our poor understanding of the Spanish rail system we decided to take a trip to Barcelona. This large city was an 8hour trip to the east coast of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. Our rail timetable indicated that our train left at 10:50 hrs. We arrived at the station at 10:30 to find out that the time had been changed to 10:25 and the train had left. The next train was at 14:00 hrs but it would get us into Barcelona after 22:00hrs and too late to get into a hostel. We decided to alight at a town called Zaragosa as it had a hostel in a type of college. Great plan but on arrival at the college we found that the hostel only operated during school times and currently it was holiday time. Wandering back in the direction of the station we saw a café bar called Restaurant Australia. This had to be an omen and as we were in need of refreshment we dropped in. The restaurant name was in honour of relatives of the owner who lived in Melbourne and it so happened that they had a good friend four doors away with a pension room. We could not resist all the coincidence and the landlady friend turned out to be very friendly. She called us from our comfortable room in her house to watch the bull fights on television. It was not viewing to suit all tastes. Penny thought it was gruesome but I held my judgement until I had seen a couple of the 15 minute fights. They seemed to follow a formula, as sports do, with the routine being that the bull arrived in the ring very cocky to face four toreodores. These practised their skills in wearing down the bull. They were followed by a picadore on horseback. He was armed with small spears that he jabbed into the bull's neck while at close quarters. Here the bull started to bleed and look uncertain about his decision to enter this competition. When the matadore entered the ring there was much adoration from the crowd and any bull supporters would have been hopelessly outnumbered. Each time the matadore turned his back on the bull there was a roar of approval but it seemed to me that the matadore always left enough room between himself and the bovine to escape in the unlikely event the bull plucked up enough energy to charge. During the last act the matadore arrived with a sword under his cape and as the bull, almost out of fuel charged towards him the matadore plunged the weapon into its neck. This also brought a cheer to the audience but I could not help thinking that the crowd did not really enjoy themselves as I did not see even one Mexican wave. Penny had long gone to bed and I did not attempt to recap on the highlights over breakfast the next morning.
The next leg of the train trip to Barcelona passed through some dry looking country but the Spanish still managed to grow crops. What looked like potatoes and peanuts and a grain like barley seemed commonly grown as were groves of oranges and grapes. Everything looked neat in rows as though the owners took a lot of pride in their farms and their craft. We passed five river crossings of a moderately sized river which I guess was the source of the water for these marginal farms. The train arrived at Tarragona as we got our first view of the Mediterranean Sea. I wondered if this town was the original home of the cullinary herb tarragon. The coastline of the Meditteranean was mostly rocky but as we moved north towards Barcelona a few beaches came into view. It was 11 pm when we arrived so we took the first pension that we could find. It was called the Hostal Sena and at 200 pesatas we thought it was a good deal as we got a hot shower. The next day we looked around the Calle de San Pablo area. This part of town had more bars and shops to peruse. We found the Hostal Aragones which was five floors tall and looked like it had been a classy place in its time. There were marble staircases, ornate mirrors and internal courtyards. Now it was temporary home to backpackers and needed a paint job. Barcelona was home to Rambalas, a tourist area and also had a castle on a mountain containing an amusement park. It was also a large city with a metro rail system and a fantastic array of women's fashions. According to Penny the fashion was more modern and cheaper than London. We were completely rapped in the leather gear and bags. Some were really beautiful colours and designs and we wished we were affluent and flying directly home so that we could take the stuff with us. We also saw some interesting jewellery with lots of beads and silver and assumed that it was probably Moroccan. The look of the collection was a bit gaudy but it was more information to fire my curiosity about Spain's neighbour to the south. During our wanderings in the back streets we found the Picasso Museum. This collection of art was mostly his early work, some when he was nine years old. It showed pencil and charcoal work and mainly straight traditional styles before he became more abstract in his art. Picasso was born in 1881 and it was around 1920 that his more popular abstract work developed. A guide book told us that some of these designs contained what were said to be images of cats or dogs. Some were a bit difficult to identify as that. The building that housed the Picasso collection was around 1700 vintage and with its courtyards and large potted plants was a fitting site for his work but the lack of windows made the interior a bit dark for taking photos. We probably were not allowed to do that anyway.
We did take the time to ride the cable car to the castle on the hill in Barcelona. This actually went over the castle and allowed us to look down on the amusement area located in the castle grounds. The view was fantastic. 360 degrees from the mountains to the sea and the city of Barcelona spread out between.
In my spare time I did a quick tally of our finances. We had spent A$400 while in Great Britain which put a large hole in our planned budget. Fortunately Spain was cheap but we had a Eurail pass that allowed us travel to northern Europe also. According to my reckoning we would have to make that a very short visit to north Europe and return to the economic south of Europe. Penny did not have any real objection to our travel plan so far but she did tend to shy away from making long term travel plans and basically figured that she should just go home when the money was gone. I still had a plan to travel overland and wanted to make this fit into the money available. This was no easy task and also a source of friction between us when the topic was brought up. I mostly wanted to live in peace so I avoided bringing up the subject of money. However inside I knew that sometime the problem would need to be solved but for now we were on holiday.
Tarragona was the next place we wanted to see for its ancient buildings so we took the train south for two hours. The place was full of tourists and everything was expensive. This was a bit of a shock after our budgeting and as there were no economy hostels in town we decided to stick a pin in the map of Spain and find another place to visit. The lucky place was Benicarlo about two hours further south. The station looked like any other small town rail depot but we were to find out that it was about one kilometre from the town itself. We headed towards the town down a narrow but tree lined road. It was actually very nice and natural and a remote feeling compared to the larger towns we had been in. We could not identify the trees but they had the odour of Vicks Vapourub. As they weren't eucalypt trees I guessed it must have been either camphor or menthol, natural chemicals that they were giving off in the dry Spanish heat. As we entered the town we asked some people where the nearest pension was located and were directed to the Monterray Café. We started to feel that we had entered a reality warp as so many people came up to us and shook our hands, hugged us or kissed our cheeks and called us amigos. They seemed genuine and someone in the bar bought us wine and smoked oysters. Being naturally suspicious and brought up on our share of American mystery movies we thought this must have been a trap of some sort. Many of the people were older than us and we felt really disadvantaged that we could not speak Spanish with them to learn more about the town. Did they rarely see tourists? It seemed unlikely. Did they think that Penny was Spanish? Again unlikely as she could only rely on hand language to converse. Our pension room was very simple and quaint. The room had a great view to the village church bell tower but as it was not near Sunday we figured we had little to fear of the bells chiming early morning. The room had a water jug and wash basin with a bathroom next door. The over enthusiastic hospitality was a little embarrassing so next day after looking around part of the town we took a bus 2.5 miles to another town called Pensicola. This was a tourist town on the Mediterranean coast and very pretty. The old part of town was built around a castle on a hill that jutted out into the sea. The town seemed to maintain an authentic aura. The houses were white washed and old men wore berets while women in traditional black outfits and shawls made the town look like one expected it to look. Oddly though our village of Benicarlo had a lot less of the berets and black dresses and their houses were the colour of muddy cement. Still we found the place very relaxing to return to for a couple of days. In that time we decided that as we were in the south of Spain and so close to Morocco we should head in that direction. According to all sources it was very cheap to travel there so the plan was set to head south after we had revisited Madrid. In Madrid we wanted to pick up some photos developed from a film we had left there days ago. If we had to pay for the rail travel we had been using I am sure our route would have been very different and definitely more direct. Our indirect way to Madrid was to travel on the 6 am train to Valencia also on the Mediterranean coast and after changing trains inland to Madrid.
Valencia was another agricultural area of Spain. Of course they grew oranges there but it was also home to a number of museums. The rail station itself had a museum look with many ceramic panels on the external walls and murals on the ceilings. Fate often acted as our guide during this trip and as we had limited time before our Madrid train departed we took a look at the National Museum of Ceramics. They had 5000 displays with some tiles and crockery dating back to 1200 AD so we did not have a chance of getting a good look at them all. The museum included a collection of Chinese ceramic clocks and chandeliers but neglected to describe how they ended up in Spain. Valencia was said to be the home of paella, a rice dish with sea food. The origins of this may have been Chinese also but it was well and truly claimed by Valencia. We had to try a locally made paella but were disappointed by their insistence of drowning everything in olive oil. We had grown used to having the oil available on the cafe table to add as one's palate required but after our first attempt at their famous dish decided that Valencia paella was an acquired taste. We saved accommodation costs again by sleeping on the train and offended the other first class passengers by bringing our own food along. A very second class thing to do in Spain. The rail system got its revenge on us by booking us into second class seats for the Madrid-Grenada journey. We must be second class by nature or breeding as we seemed to empathise with those travellers in the 'lower' class area. As there was no room to sleep and the carriage was full we had to empathise. Grenada had as its backdrop the Sierra Nevada mountain range which made the town setting very picturesque and on a hill in the town was the famous Alhambra Castle. This was the epitome of the classic Moorish architecture. A building designed 800 years ago and always basically in fashion. This was because some of the Islamic technology was so advanced for its time but like the old adage goes 'a good design never goes out of fashion'. Some of the wall tiles used geometric patterns still in use today. Their idea about the use of water as a soothing environment was used repeatedly throughout this castle. Room after plaza after courtyard had water features of various sizes. One contained the Lion's Court Fountain. It consisted of a ring of lions spouting water from their feline mouths. For me the nicest fountains were those that more subtly trickled over stone walls or sat perfectly still in imitation of the cleanest mirror. Maybe this part of Spain was not always as dry as it seemed nowadays but the fountains made a pleasant contrast between the inside and outside of the castle walls. One of the large halls had a facinating ceiling made of cedar and ebony wood. The black ebony was inlaid with mother of pearl that glistened. The effect was that of the evening stars in a dark sky and if one concentrated on the ceiling alone and not include the walls it gave the sensation of being outdoors at night. An important attraction to Grenada, the Sierra Nevada mountains offered snow skiing in Winter. Neither of us had experienced snow but we somehow sensed that venturing up to the ski resorts would be a waste of time as there may have been no snow left this far into summer and no doubt that would also break our budget . We could always do it on our return to Europe (after we won the Golden Casket first prize). We settled for a nice lunch of a good paella, tortilla, broad beans and salad washed down with Alhambra Cerveza beer for 150 pesatas. That amount was in our budget.
We did venture into the area called Sacromonte. It was located in a hilly area with many man made caves. This was an entertainment area and seemed to be run by gypsies. Here you could see the traditional flamenco danced but every second person in the street seem to be a tout asking for money or encouraging us to enter one of the caves or grottos. As the caves were not deep we could see the activity inside and decided that it looked a bit seedy like a circus does during the daytime. We did not want to spoil what had been an enjoyable look at Spain so far so we headed back to town. The cost of entering the grottos probably played a role in our decision but the place and the entertainment seemed too contrived to be convincing. Maybe this was how gypsies got their often sullied reputation.
We thought we could detect a subtle change in the look and style of the Spanish as we travelled south. It was a good look and I wondered to myself if it was a Moorish or Moroccan influence and this made me keener to see Morocco. Our next stop on the rail line was Algericas although we had not planned on the one hour wait for a train at Bobadil for a change of lines. Our destination was actually the end of that line and this was on the south coast of Spain looking towards the Mediterranean and Morocco on the other side of the sea. On the way we saw some more spectacular scenery of beautiful mountains. Some of the steep ridges were covered in eucalyptus tree plantations. It made us a bit homesick and led me to wonder why I never saw plantations of eucalyptus trees in Queensland only ever acres of imported pine trees. Alighting from the train we asked an old man the whereabouts of the hostel. When he directed us and said that they had hot water we were sceptical. But he was right and we had the nicest shower and clean room we had seen for what seemed like ages after so much train travel. The Spanish ferry from Algericas to Morocco actually entered a region called Ceuta first. This was a Spanish colony on the north coast of African Morocco.
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