I arrived in Madrid and oriented myself with art at the Prado. I was greeted with a parade celebrating a National Day. Apparently, I just missed the royalty. An auspicious beginning all around.
The trip the next day to Torrelavega by train was a wonderful cinematic whiz through the countryside, almost straight north. Spain still has quite a bit of industry: chemical, mining, concrete, in this part of the country. Torrelavega is an industrial town. Jane and Francisco, my first www.workaway.info hosts, met me at the station and took me to their home outside of the city, a small town called Puente San Miguel. It is a 15 minute walk to the train station. My stay here, almost 11 days, is fully hosted - all room and board generously provided. They host everything but my own excursions and museums. In return, my ¨work¨is to talk with them about my life experiences. This is quite the deal! They are VERY energetic, especially Jane. She is from Brazil and is a teacher of languages primarily. She uses workaway as a means of gaining fluency in English, and keeps her interested too. Francisco is a pediatrician. Both are well educated, well informed, well traveled and interesting.
I knew this trip would be challenging to my soul, but I did not know how physically challenging it would be too. Jane took me on a walk to Santillana and the cave museum at Altamira. She said it would be about 45 minutes. Well, about 8 kilometers and an hour and a half later, we arrived at the place... That was just the first of many such excursions.
We have covered a lot of ground in this one relatively small area of the country. Here are some of the highlights along with a gallery of images of this wonderful country.
Santander Jane walked me all over this bustling city of 120K people. It suffered a major fire in 1947 and is now mostly rebuilt, with only sections of the old still intact. Santander also incorporates a dramatic and beautiful coastline. It has extensive parks and places to walk. And, of course, tapas bars.
Santillana del Mar Despite its name, this town is not on the sea. The medieval town was the seat of the Inquisition in the 1600´s. It was wealthy and cruel. Now it is a tourist town with a Saturday market, artisans carving traditional furniture and cabinetry, pottery and hosts a torture museum. It also has Siderias - bars serving the local cider. It is poured from high above the glass to aerate the cider, which is about as alcoholic as beer. you cannot just have one glass. You ned to share a bottle, which is what Jane and I did, with, of course, tapas.
The Foods This region is noted for cheeses made from cow, sheep and goat milk, and for its cured meats. Small salami-like sausages, corizo (not spicy) and other cured, dried meats of pork and beef. I found out that Serrano ham, which I thought was the best, is number 4 out of 5 types of ham. I don´t know if the three top types are even sold in the USA. They are all delicious. Jane gave me a taste test of them all. There are also olives, anchovies (and other fishes) and sweets - saobao, similar to pound cake, and quesada, a very eggy cheese cake. Both are delicious. And then there is the beer - the most served is Estrella Galicia, light and refreshing.
Cuevos I think the highlight for me here were the prehistoric cave paintings of Altamira and the two real caves I got to experience. The museum at Altamira is a reproduction of the real cave, which, like Lascaux in France, experience too much love and needed to be preserved. Now, a lucky few get to see it by lottery. The two caves I got to see are not as spectacular as Altamira, but still very good. The guide said there are 7,000 caves in Cantabria alone. This was a highly populated area during the Paleolithic times.
Entering the cave is like entering the womb of Mother Earth. It is living, breathing rock. It is alive with energy. The two I saw both had large open rooms with high ceilings and mysterious alleyways. It is easy to imagine what it might have been like in its original days, harboring the mystery of life itself. The first, El Castillo, had many paintings and rooms with columns like a fantasy castle. The second was more geological with crystal columns and just a few (but perfect) paintings. Spectacular.
El Camino Everywhere here, there are signs of El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage trail leading to Santiago de Compostela. I am not walking the road, but certainly following it. The most powerful experience was in Llanes. It is a medieval town on the sea. The church, which dates to the 13th-14th century, is extensively decorated and small. I walked in and immediately felt emotion welling up inside of me. I felt like crying, but had nothing to cry about. There were few people around and I got to absorb some of the enveloping peace of the place.
The sea at Llanes is powerful. It is a convergence of natural beach, river and jetty-like fingers of rock reaching out to calm the sea. I sat down on the man-made jetty with colorfully painted huge cubes of concrete forming the sea wall of the jetty and felt the breating of the sea. This is a fishing village and I watched two boats unload with the Picos de Europa, the mountains (snow capped in winter) reveal themselves, shining in the sun, intermittently behind the veils of fog and cloud. A beautiful day, culminating in a glass of fine Ribera.
I have experienced a number of these ancient coastal towns now, with another to follow tomorrow. The people here are warm and friendly, the pace relaxed, the countryside pastoral. I could see myself living in Llanes, I think...
Art - The Guggenheim at Bilbao 20 years ago, Bilbao was transformed from a rundown industrial city into a vibrant center for culture and life in the Basque country. The building by Frank Gehry is a titanium covered wonder, full of sensual flow. The art inside is a celebration of modern art with some featured Spanish artists and classics dating from 1911 to about 1969 on loan from the NYC museum. A centerpiece is a series of 7 installations in one by Richard Serra. His pieces are explorations of steel, space and non-space, pushing tensions and energy flows in and around his sculptures. The energy is palpable. After 3 hours, my head was full. Then, of course, tapas. They settle everything...
The Civil War I am learning more about the Spanish Civil War, which occured from 1936 to 1938. It really did not begin there, nor end there. I have more to learn and digest before comment. It is an interesting topic of conversation and certainly connected to this part of the world as well as to my next destination - Catalunia. The separatist movements are alive and well in both the Basque country and in Catalunia. More to come on this topic.
Even in this relaxed atmosphere, Jane and Francisco provide so much stimulation that it is hard for my head to sleep. The pace will change soon. Friday, I go to San Sebastian, the heart of Basque cuisine and culture. Sunday, I go to Santiago de Compostela, the end point of pilgrims from all over the world, and the heart of Galicia. Galicia has Celtic roots and another language all its own.