Trains on this side of the world are fast. Only a few years ago I sat on a motionless Amtrak car for 45 minutes just outside Portland, Oregon in order for a snail-slow freight train to take priority through town. People on trains in America are an afterthought, a modest revenue-generating use of the tracks. In Europe trains exist to shuttle people as fast as possible from point A to point B. There is no way a cow car is going to slow you down.
The bullet train we took from Madrid to Cadiz has a top speed of 300 km/hr (186 mph) and our train's speed was digitally displayed in every car. Z was thrilled to tell us (and most of the other passengers) when we had surpassed the rate of dad's commuter train, which C has clocked with an iPhone App at 95mph. In 3 hours we had covered 300 miles and gone from drizzle to sunshine.
Cadiz is the oldest continually-inhabited city in Spain and perhaps the oldest in Europe. It was settled by Phoenicians who were concentrated in what is now Lebanon, but considered the entire Mediterranean their realm, Cadiz lying at the far western frontier. The city fell to the Romans in 206 BC during the time that Hannibal the Carthaginian was tussling with the Romans for control of the Mediterranean ports. The Cadizians formed their alliance with Rome and Julius Cesar so valued their commitment he bestowed Roman citizenship on all the city's inhabitants in 49 BC. Over time, as Rome started to crumble, Byzantines and Visigoths fought over Cadiz for a few hundred years until the Moors kicked them both out and the Iberian peninsula saw a Muslim renaissance. I won't go on about the changes fraught by religion, the Spanish Inquisition or how tragic it is that the Visigoths chose to destroy the original city. Fortunately, what was built in its place oozes charm and embraces the pedestrian as the primary citizen. Cars are relegated to the fringes of the old town which allows for a sweet smelling, convivial and leisurely life within its crooked streets.
We were met at our Air B&B apartment by a fast-talking Amazonian woman who grabbed my suitcase and sprinted up the 5 floors to the apartment. The place had an incredible view over the old city, three light filled rooms, a washing machine, and a rooftop terrace. Not to mention a Nespresso machine. Everything felt pretty much perfect. Z was happy because just outside the building's entrance sat a race car ride where, for a Euro, he could buck back and forth in the driver's seat while a speaker blasted him with sounds of a revving engine.
Cadiz was where we really came to appreciate tapas, small plates of food consumed in just a few bites. The word itself means "to cover" and came from the habit of using something like a piece of bread or a slice of salted meat to keep the fruit flies out of your sherry. According to Wiki, the bar owners discovered that offering salty snacks encouraged more alcohol consumption so salty small plates became the habit with your wine before lunch and dinner. I learned later that most of the people eating tapas with us at 8 pm were just warming up for dinner at 11. We didn't manage to become that Spanish.
The central market was a short stroll past the chestnut roasters and churro fryers. I had wandered there during the afternoon siesta when nearly all the vendors had closed for the long mid-day break. On this particular day the place was buzzing with people and flies. The people types were constructing fantastical displays from their leftover fish. (Click on the photo, if you dare, for a larger view.)
A shark dressed up as a surgical scrub nurse, was wearing a wig of blond curls supervising the "hip" replacement of a bloated sword fish, its abdomen opened and entrails resting atop its sheet-draped body. On down the line were fish choir boys, fish Popes, fish butchers and fish doctors. That evening hundreds of people jammed into the market to see the spectacle. We moved with the crowd, no room to turn around, inching past the montages I could now barely see, and breathing in the smell of long dead fish. We never did figure out what the event was about.
We continued to move slowly in Cadiz. We ate cheese and chorizo on the beach, sometimes picking sand from our teeth. No amount of breeze was going to stop our water loving child from running in and out of the waves, rolling in the sand, and racing to the water again, like a dog with a bad case of fleas. Around 2 we'd head back into town, take a chance on ordering from a menu we could not read, and enjoy the tingle of a mid-day glass of white.
We chose to spend our last 3 days driving a rental car between bright white mountain towns. C is always on the lookout for the most obscure and twisty road on a map and we were on one in short order. But after 5 hours of shifting between 2nd and 3rd gear and me threatening to fall asleep or throw up, he stopped at a hotel on the outskirts of the small town of Ubrique. I was so tired of being in the car I told him to just get the room if it wasn't outrageously expensive but regretted my impatience the moment I walked through the door. This place was big, almost fancy, the kind of hotel you would hold a small business meeting or an extended family reunion. It was obviously a family-run operation. Dozens of photos hung on the walls. But when you got closer you could see nearly every one of them contained a dead animal.
Turning away from the photos didn't help as climbing the stairs we were surrounded by 3 walls packed tightly with the bleached-white sculls of horned ruminants. At the top of the stairs was an oil painting of a 4-point buck standing at the brink of a rock precipice looking proud to be alive. Next to him was a hallway sconce fashioned out of half his antler. Once inside our room we had to hang our jackets from the disembodied lower legs of a deer whose hooves had been fixed at a 90 degree angle.
In the morning we stayed long enough to get caffeinated then beat it to the next town of Grazelema, as charming as Ubrique was weird.
If you like to hike, this town would be the perfect base for over a dozen Andalusian walks through the surrounding hills not to mention a hot spot for some of the consistently best white wines we'd ever had. Not a single glass of house white failed to please. During a particularly tasty lunch in the trellis-covered atrium of a Grazelema restaurant, I again felt awash with happiness.
I became even more delirious in Ronda, one of the most visually impressive towns I've ever seen. It's built atop a canyon of limestone cut in half by the Guadalevín River and the precipice surrounding the old part of town drops over 100 meters.
The first bull fighting ring was built here in 1784 and Ernest Hemingway summered in Ronda for years, immortalized her in For Whom the Bell Tolls as the place where Fascist-sympathizing Nationalists were executed by being thrown from the steep cliffs that abutted the edge of the plaza.
Our last stop on the fast road back to Madrid was Cordoba. It's the second largest "Old Town" in Europe, home to the Great Mosque of Cordoba or The Cathedral of Cordoba depending on the century, but decidedly Catholic these days. What's amazing about this grand building is that it's still standing, mosque and cathedral at the same time. Step inside and striped Moorish arches pull you with symmetrical beauty toward the alter decked with baroque cherubs and haloed saints.
Thank goodness someone decided it wasn't necessary to completely raze the building in order to prove themselves victors of a holy war. I was absorbed by the choir stalls, each sporting a carved wooden face with a unique expression; happy, sad, indifferent or grotesque. I would have visited each likeness had it not been for the 4 year old tugging on my arm. "I hate cathedrals." he wails each time we approach a new one. I have tried getting him interested. If I were willing to let him take photos with my iPhone, I wouldn't have to beg for his patience. Usually the promise of ice cream, or the threat of its absence, buys us a few more minutes.
I must admit that Spain had us questioning our decision to stay put in another country, especially one as drizzly as Spain is sunny. Shouldn't we just buy that van and home-school on the road? I feel torn (again) between settling in and taking off. Possibly for us, staying in one place is actually harder than constantly moving. C often feels that "routine" is synonymous with "rut." I don't see it that way as much, but I don't go long without scoping out a new destination. After a few painful gray days back in England, we started to feel at home again in St. Albans. (It helps that our nearby pub has great food, a log fireplace and two cats.) But we LOVED Spain. Go soon. Go to feel what it's like to be part of a tribe in a place where you don't have to walk head down against the rain. Go if you're in a funk. Go if you don't want to feel guilty about drinking at noon. Maybe I did simply need a vacation and I would have felt the same anywhere at 75 degrees. I'll find out soon enough. We're heading back in the Spring...