Review: The Realms of Being

Review: The Realms of Being

Realms of BeingRealms of Being by George Santayana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mind was not created for the sake of discovering the absolute truth.

George Santayana wrote the four volumes of The Realms of Being over a period of about twenty years. The first volume, The Realm of Essence, was published in 1927 after several years of work; and the last volume did not appear until 1942. When published together, the work fills some 850 dense pages, making it comparable in bulk and bearing with The Phenomenology of Spirit, Being and Time, Being and Nothingness, and other metaphysical monsters. And yet the book received a lukewarm reception during Santayana’s lifetime and has not found a more receptive audience since. So what is in here that Santayana found worthy to devote his final years to?

On the surface The Realms of Being is a metaphysical system. Like a philosopher king, Santayana divides up Being into four territories: Essence, Matter, Truth, and Spirit. Each book is devoted to one of these lands, attempting to delineate its borders and chart its geography. Santayana begins with “essence.” For my part I think this term poorly chosen, since his doctrine has nothing to do with essentialism. Rather, Santayana means “form” in the Aristotelian sense. An essence is any form at all—whether given in sensation, defined in thought, or manifested in the universe. Essence is just pure distinction, any and every quality that differentiates one thing from another. So the look of the Mona Lisa under bright lighting is one essence; the look of the same painting under dim lighting is another essence; and so on, for every distinction imaginable.

According to Santayana, essence does not and cannot “exist”—that is, be a part of the physical universe. Yes, an essence can be temporarily manifested in the universe; but its real being consist purely in its qualities, purely in the fact that it can be distinguished. Mathematics and logic, for Santayana, are just systems of essences; they have no existence save their defined qualities. Since essence consists in pure distinction, the realm of essence is infinite and eternal. Form must be possible before any real thing manifests form. Thus essence logically precedes existence, and is unaffected by existence. And since the vast majority of possible forms will neither be manifested nor imagined, the realm of essence is mostly unexplored and unguessed at.

Matter is precisely the opposite. Matter is the very thing that an essence cannot capture, since it consists of substance, change, and duration. Matter takes up space and morphs through time. Matter is not controlled or guided by any essence, though some essences—such as the equations of physics—may help us to understand how matter behaves, at least locally. But why matter exists in the first place is inexplicable; and whether matter might behave otherwise in other circumstances is unknowable. If the realm of essence is like a shop full of empty dresses, matter is like an impatient child who tries on every dress in an unpredictable order, thus momentarily bringing the essence to life. Matter is the principle of existence.

The historical path that matter charts through essence is Santayana’s realm of truth. It is all the essences that have been, are, and will be manifested in the material universe. Again, Santayana’s choice of term is puzzling, since most philosophers would call this “reality,” reserving the name “truth” for the quality of being correct about reality. But Santayana thought it important to use historical terminology, which is why he called his last realm “spirit,” when his meaning is far closer to “consciousness.” Spirit is the awareness of any creature alive in the universe. Now, for Santayana consciousness has no function in the survival of an organism, since spirit is entirely impotent. Thus the task of spirit is merely to observe and enjoy the world.

This is Santayana’s system in a nutshell. I consider the above paragraphs a fair summary of the basic facets of his realms, and they took me about half an hour and barely a page of writing. So why did Santayana need twenty years and 800 pages? This is because the book is not quite what it at first purports to be—that is, a metaphysical system. Santayana himself disavows having written an ontology of the world: “I am not concerned in these Realms of Being with alleged separate substances or independent regions. I am endeavoring only to distinguish the types of reality that I encounter; and the lines of cleavage that I discern are moral and logical, not physical, chasms.”

Putting aside for the moment whether this can be accepted, let us look at what else The Realms of Being might be. Santayana’s style is certainly not that of a Kant expounding his system. As always, he is suave, eloquent, and cultured. The organization of the book is also not exactly systematic—one part building on the other, with appropriate subdivisions and appendixes—but thematic, tackling different subjects chapter by chapter. All together, The Realms of Being seems more like a series of humanistic essays on metaphysical themes rather than a system of ontology itself. Seen in that light, the book has considerable merits. Santayana was a penetrating cultural critic, and here serves as a sort of critic on the highest planes of abstraction.

Aside from the metaphysical and the humanistic, there is a third aspect to this book: the spiritual. In this way, Santayana’s book is comparable to the Enneads of Plotinus, an ontology that serves as the backbone for meditative or mystical practices. Santayana’s own system is entirely secular and naturalistic. For him, spirituality consists in the mind’s absorption in the realm of essence—in the pure contemplation of form. Remember that, for Santayana, consciousness is entirely impotent; consciousness itself has no power to change anything, but is just a kind of byproduct of the brain. Thus all the suffering we go through in our way through the world, and all the worrying and fretting we do about ourselves, is just a waste. Santayana’s solution to this predicament has much in common with Proust’s—the appreciation of essence, stripped of all attachment to the material world—although Santayana does not consider memory vital for this task.

Here are three ways that this book can be read. Yet, though it is rich with ideas and pungent with wit, The Realms of Being is not wholly satisfying either as a metaphysical treatise, a humanistic critique, or a spiritual guide. First, Santayana is difficult to take seriously as a philosopher because he never deigns to argue: “Technical philosophy abounds in unnecessary problems, which the truly wise will not trouble about, seeing that they are insoluble or solved best by not raising them.” While I fully agree with Santayana that the disputatious tone and nit-picking arguments of philosophy can be wearisome, I also think that mere assertion is hardly less irritating. Indeed, for all his literary excellence, Santayana failed to understand the rhetorical purpose of an argument. To give reasons for an opinion is not pure quarrelsomeness. By understanding the author’s reasons for believing something and for finding it worth writing about, the reader better understands both the what and the why of the point.

Santayana seemingly wants to play an impossible double game by writing metaphysics and then disclaiming metaphysics. He scorns professional philosophers and their subject; and yet who else could be interested in this book? And what does he mean by saying that his realms of being are mere logical or moral categories? The definitions that he gives of his realms are undeniably metaphysical in the traditional sense. Thus I see no way that he can escape from the necessity of arguing his points, unless Santayana escapes into pure subjectivism, claiming only to describe his own experience of reality. But then what would be the point of the book, aside from autobiography? And as a spiritual guide, the book hardly fares better. For Santayana’s main insight—to live absorbed in the moment—is widely preached, without all of the ontological baggage Santayana attaches to it.

The Realms of Being is most successful when read as a collection of critical essays. For Santayana does bring an unusual perspective to bear on many traditional problems of philosophy—the nature of logic, truth, mind, and so on—and writes with the polished elegance that is his trademark. As I hope my updates of the book have shown, these pages brim with epigrams and ideas, touching on a vast intellectual territory.

And yet it must be said that, even here, Santayana is not beyond criticism. Bertrand Russell summed up Santayana’s defect as a writer by comparing his style to a river so wide and so placid that you cannot tell you are moving. This is to say that, when reading Santayana, it can be easy to lose track of where he is going or why he is going there. Partly because of the lack of argument, his train of thought is never obvious; and so elegant sentence follows elegant sentence without apparent direction or design. The final result is that it is easy to put the book down without being able to remember what it was about.

For these reasons I would rank this book behind Santayana’s Scepticism and Animal Faith, which was intended as a critical introduction to The Realms of Being but which adequately sums up the system as well as provides an epistemological argument. Nevertheless, I do not regret reading this book. Santayana’s writing is suffused with a kind of infectious calm, bordering on languor, as if he is an ambrosia-sipping god looking down from Olympian heights. It is invigorating to see somebody so sure of himself, so willing to think in his own terms, so careless of approval. I envy his detachment and his self-assurance even if I do not adopt his system.

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The Galician Coast: Vigo & Las Islas Cíes

The Galician Coast: Vigo & Las Islas Cíes

A train trip brought me from A Coruña, at Galicia’s northern tip, to the region’s southwestern edge: Vigo. The city sits on the southern side of a sizable estuary, the Ría de Vigo, which makes for an excellent port. This, and the city’s advantageous position on the Atlantic, has rendered it the commercial hub of Galicia.

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The city’s name comes from Latin, vicus spacorum, or “small village,” as the Romans had a fortress here. A legend tells that Isabel the Catholic, after winning a battle against the Galician nobility, ordered all the olive trees in the region to be uprooted; but one stubborn tree in Vigo resisted. Thus the city’s nickname is La ciudad olívica, or “The Olive City” (though I don’t remember seeing any olive trees); and the city’s coat of arms features the famously resistant plant.

As I had just left A Coruña, that city of glass balconies and open parks, Vigo could not help but strike me as grey and industrial by comparison. The biggest city in Galicia by population, Vigo has a busy port and a thriving shipping business. It is a city of working people, with the architecture to match. Even its historic center gives the impression of being somewhat run-down and neglected.

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Nevertheless, a walk through the city was not without its visual pleasures. In one traffic circle, a column of metal horses ascended into the air. Empty factory buildings—the windows smashed, the walls vandalized—foregrounded a splendid ocean view. As I walked along the port I observed the slumbering ships and the skeletal cranes standing by, the gateway to an ocean world I barely know.

I want to pause to single out the Bar Carballo for special praise. I ate there twice, and both times was totally satisfied. The tortilla de patata is perfectly creamy, and the empanadillas—meat-filled pastries—are easily the tastiest I have ever tried. Best of all, the food is extremely filling and cheap. If I lived in Vigo I would be a regular.

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Eventually my walk along the port led me out of the city center. Soon I found myself surrounded by a tree-filled park, which then opened up to reveal Vigo’s massive beach, the Praia de Samil. The sand extends 1,115 meters, or almost a mile; and on the day I went, in mid-April, it was totally covered with people.

I must admit that beaches inspire mixed feeling in me. On the one hand there is the natural beauty—conspicuous in the Praia de Samil, with its views of the Cíes Islands. There is also the human spectacle of beachgoers, which cannot but tickle the fancy of anyone with anthropological curiosity. On the other hand I feel uncomfortable in the face of so much exposed flesh, frying in the sun. And the sublimity of the winds and the waves is, for me, disturbed by the legions of people yelling, running, splashing, and playing games. In sum, I like to observe beaches but I do not like being on them. This is in marked contrast to most Spaniards, of course, who generally love beach holidays. And thank heavens they do, since their country has some of the finest beaches in the world.

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Speaking of fine beaches, Vigo is home to a beach even lovelier than the Praia de Samil: the Praia das Rodas. Indeed, in 2007 The Guardian even proclaimed this beach the best in the world. But to get there you must take a ferry, since it is on the Cíes Islands that sit in the estuary a few kilometers off shore. These three islands are Monteadugo (“sharp mountain”), Montefaro (“lighthouse mountain”), and San Martiño (“Saint Martin”). The first two essentially form one continuous island, since they are connected by their shared beach.

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With an area of 4.4 square km, and an official population of three (the guards), the islands have never been important human settlements. But it is an important seagull settlement—in fact providing a home for the largest colony of seagulls in the world. Aside from the beaches, the surface of the island is mostly covered with eucalyptus and pine trees, blowing in the strong ocean winds. And I have read that the whales and sharks enjoy prowling in the water surrounding the islands—though I did not see any gargantuan backs or ominous fins emerging from the waves on my trip.

Due to the islands’ small size and status as a nature reserve, the number of visitors per day is strictly limited to 2,200 people. Thus I recommend booking a spot on a ferry in advance. (I should also note that these ferry companies only operate during Holy Week, when I went, or in the summer months.) But do yourself a favor and give yourself more time on the islands than I did. Thinking that they were small enough to see in a couple of hours, I only gave myself a short window with which to explore the islands; and the ferry company did not let me change my return time. I did have enough time to see everything, but no time to simply sit and enjoy the justly famous beach.

I arrived at the port, picked up my ticket from the booth, and boarded the ferry. The trip lasted about fifteen minutes, which was enough time to give half of everyone on board a sunburn. As we approached the islands, the Praia das Rodas came into view. It was almost as lovely as The Guardian’s rapturous description: “a perfect crescent of soft, pale sand backed by small dunes sheltering a calm lagoon of crystal-clear sea.”

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The lagoon referred to is a feature of the beach’s location between two islands: Water laps the shore on both sides of the sand, the one open to the ocean, the other sheltered with a stone walkway that breaks the waves. I would think that this situation could easily lead to erosion, moving or even destroying the beach; but what do I know about these matters?

Aside from its terrific natural beauty—the water as blue as a postcard, the sand pretty enough to star in a movie—the beach benefits from the limited number of visitors. Visitors are sprinkled at wide intervals over the beach, allowing for calm enjoyment of the scene.

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The visitor can explore the two islands, Monteadugo and Montefaro, using walking paths that lead up and into the interior. At times it is easy to forget that one is on an island, so completely do the trees close out the sea. But then the trees give way to reveal a commanding view of the surrounding ocean. Monteadugo is the larger island, and thus has more ample walking space. Yet Montefaro is also worth exploring, if only for the winding, stair-like path that leads up to the commanding lighthouse at its highest point.

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By the time I had walked the distance of these two islands, the hour of my departure was nearing, and I had to rush back to the ferry. I was sad to go. Every inch of the islands is attractive; and the relative lack of people makes it possible to enjoy the scenery without disturbance.

The ferry deposited my back in Vigo, where I had dinner and went to sleep. The next day I was taking the train to Oporto, just a hundred miles or so south of Vigo. But that is for another post.

A Report on the Battle of Jarama

A Report on the Battle of Jarama

Today I went on a school trip to learn more about the Battle of Jarama, an important and bloody battle of the Spanish Civil War, which took place near my high school. We went with a group of Spanish and Dutch students, who are visiting for the week in an exchange program.

It was, incidentally, amusing to see the students side-by-side—the blond northerners and the dark-haired Mediterraneans. It was one of the first nice days of the year. The Dutch, for whom it was as hot as summer, were wearing bright colors and short sleeves, while the Spaniards felt fine in long-legged pants and dark colors. Climate does make a difference. Another contrast I noticed was how the two groups spent their time. The Spaniards sang together on the bus rides, while the Dutch took every opportunity to play games involving touching their hands and feet together in a rhythm; the boys played slap and the girls a game like patty cake.

Our first stop was at the Arganda Bridge, now called the Puente de la paz by residents of the town. It is an old steel bridge that runs over the Jarama River. In the past it formed part of the highway between Madrid and Valencia; but now it sits, alone and unused, near the Rivas lagoons, while cars buzz by on the new highway in the distance.

To understand the importance of the bridge, a little historical background is required. After the commencement of the military coup, in 1936, the government of the Republic relocated to Valencia in order to get away from the front lines of the fighting. Franco’s forces soon almost entirely surrounded Madrid, hoping to take the city. The highway to Valencia then became the city’s only lifeline. Thus the road was heavily defended by Republic forces. The Jarama River, which ran alongside the highway, formed an important natural barrier that could be used in its defense. In this area only three bridges crossed the water, of which the Arganda Bridge is one.

Puente_arganda (2pac3.0)
The Arganda Bridge. Photo by 2pac; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

To illustrate how crucial was this crossing, it suffices to know that it was over this modest bridge that the paintings of the Prado were carried during their evacuation to Valencia. According to our guide, the trucks couldn’t even fit on the bridge, so the paintings had to be taken out and moved by hand. Later on, during the Battle of Jarama itself, the Republican forced tried to destroy the bridge; but their explosives failed to break or dislodge the structure. As a result, on February 11th Nationalist forces successfully crossed and established a bridgehead.

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From this bridge we went to the Cerro Melero, a hill near the Hospital Universitario del Sureste. There you can find an open-air museum that preserves some of the trenches used in the Republican line. These trenches formed the second line of defense, in case of a Nationalist attack on the city of Arganda del Rey. The eminence offers a commanding view of the valley below; standing there, you can almost see the enemy forces scrambling underneath you. To protect from aerial attacks (both German and Italian fighter pilots participated in the battle), the trenches were built with an air raid shelter 32 meters long. Standing on other side of the hill is a sculpture of a cube split in two, symbolizing the Civil War. On its base is inscribed a fragment of Pablo Neruda’s famous poem, España en el corazón, lamenting the war.

Our next stop was the memorial to Suicide Hill. This morbid name comes from the brigade of British soldiers who sustained heavy loses defending the hill. According to our guides, these volunteer fighters were barely trained and poorly equipped; and they were up against seasoned veterans of Spain’s wars in the north of Africa. Nevertheless, they fought stoutly, holding off the enemy forces from taking the nearby village of Morata while losing over half of their 600 men. A stone cairn was the only thing to mark this spot for many decades, formed spontaneously by visitors piling up rocks. Yet repeated vandalism—a problem for any monument to the war, since it is still deeply controversial in this country—prompted some locals to invest in permanent masonry, so that it at least cannot be easily knocked over.

Not far from here the American volunteers, called the Lincoln Brigades, fought and also suffered heavy losses. One of the survivors, Alex MacDage, wrote lyrics to the tune of “Red River Valley” commemorating the event; and some years later Woody Guthrie recorded the song, which begins thus:

There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama
It’s a place that we all know so well
It was there that we gave of our manhood
And there that our brave comrades fell.

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We walked from this point to the Cota 700, a hill named for its height of 700 meters above sea-level. There we found some stone fortifications still standing from the Republican front line. The guide explained that the machine gunners were stowed in chambers separated by strong stone walls, so that if a bomb struck one of them it would not take out the rest.

Across the valley we could see the hill of Pingarrón, which was controlled by the Nationalist forces. After the halt of the Nationalist advance (largely thanks to the brave fighting of the International Brigades), the Republican forces repeatedly tried to counterattack and take this hill. Yet the lack of cover between the two lines—only a few scrubby olive trees—and the strong Nationalist artillery made it impossible.

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Not far from here, surrounded by fields of olive trees used as hunting grounds, is another monument. Standing on a stone base is a sculpture of two giant hands, one covering the other. This is the work of Martín Chirino, a sculptor from the Canary Islands. It represents the open palm of the fascist salute united with the communist fist, symbolizing the unity of the opposed sides. As with everything related to the war, it has proven controversial. Its base is frequently vandalized with spraypaint, so that somebody must come regularly to paint over the political graffiti. The statue is certainly not calculated to please many, since supporters of neither side are inclined to see each other with sympathy. After all, by now both have felt the sting of defeat, the Republicans after the war itself, the Nationalists after the fall of Franco’s regime.

Our last stop was in the little town of Morata de Tajuña, in a charming restaurant and inn called the Mesón El Cid. Apart from the restaurant, terrace, and pool, the establishment has two free museums: one dedicated to the ethnography of local agricultural ways, the other dedicated to the Battle of Jarama. These are both the work of Gregorio (Goyo) Salcedo, a mustachioed man, now over seventy, who is from this area. His interest in history was sparked by necessity. Growing up in the harsh and scarce times after the war, when the economy was in the doldrums and hunger was common, he and his father and brothers would collect old guns, shells, and equipment from these battlegrounds to sell for scrap. “If the war was hard, so was the postwar,” he said in a newspaper interview; “it was another war.”

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The Museum of the Battle of Jarama. This sculpture was made using shrapnel from the battle, incorporating about three thousands bullets and casings of different calibres

Soon he became interested in these artifacts for their own sake, and began collecting them. As his collection grew, so did his network, as former soldiers and their relatives got in contact with him. Eventually he converted an old garage into a museum, and quite an impressive one. There are thousands of photos, along with stories of individuals who fought and died in the battle. There are pieces of artillery and anti-aircraft, helmets, shells, uniforms, gas masks, guns, knives, flags, and every other manner of war paraphernalia. There is even a reconstruction of a Civil War-era schoolroom. That all this was collected, catalogued, and displayed by one man, is a testament to how much a private citizen can do for the sake of history. It is by far the best and most complete exhibition related to the Civil War that I have seen in Spain.

Like the sculptor Chirino, Salcedo strives for neutrality. As he says in that same interview: “Here there are no sides; all were human beings who fought, suffered, and died. We cannot forget that in war we are all victims, we all lose.”

Like so many battles, the Battle of Jarama was as inconclusive as it was bloody. Despite thousands of casualties on both sides and weeks of fierce fighting, the Nationalists did not break through and the Republican forces did not retake their lost ground. The war shifted elsewhere in the country, and the front largely held until the conflict’s final stages. Yet the soldiers who gave their lives to prevent the nationalists from cutting off Madrid—especially the foreign soldiers, poorly trained and equipped, who chose to come to Spain to fight against fascism—cannot but inspire the visitor with their example of moral and physical courage.

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A memorial to Charles Donnelly, an Irish poet who died during the battle, in Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Shortly before his death, he was heard to say: “Even the olives are bleeding.”

The Galician Coast: A Coruña

The Galician Coast: A Coruña

During my first stay in Galicia, on the Camino de Santiago, I was constantly impressed by the beauty of the landscape and the charm of the culture. Granted, in Galicia you will find little of the world advertised by Spanish postcards. Here there are no Moorish palaces or olive trees, but granite huts and rolling grass hills. Instead of scorching the earth, the sun hides behind clouds. Here the people play the bagpipes rather than flamenco.

Yet if I were forced to choose any part of Spain as my favorite—no easy task—I would decide on Galicia. For me the region has a strange romantic charm that never fails to get under my skin. The deep green of the landscape, the mild weather and overcast skies, the grey granite rock that so abounds—all this gives Galicia a lush, rugged, and ancient aspect that I find deeply appealing.

And this is not to mention the Galician culture. Despite their reputation for being a reserved people, every Galician I have met has invariably been warm and welcoming. I am even fond of the accent, which is distinguished by its throaty pitch and sing-song tone. As in all the north of Spain, the food in Galicia is rich, hearty, and delicious—with high-quality beef and seafood—and, here more than elsewhere, very affordable too. Indeed, in general Galicia is an extremely economical place in which to travel and live, which is no small thing.

Though the interior of Galicia is charming in the extreme—a seemingly endless bucolic pasture, filled with fields and farmers—the province cannot be properly appreciated without a visit to its coast. The granite geology of the region has resulted in one of the most dramatically beautiful coastlines in a country known for its beaches. So, without further ado, here are Galicia’s two biggest coastal cities: A Coruña and Vigo.


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A Coruña

It is not clear where the name of A Coruña came from. It is not even clear what to call the city: officially it is A Coruña, but many Spaniards call it La Coruña. (“A” is the Gallego word for “La,” or “the.”) In Roman times the city was known as Brigantium, named after the Brigantes, one of the Celtic tribes that once populated this region.

Indeed, you may be surprised to know that, back in the foggy mists of time, the Celitic peoples dominated this grassy region. It is due to this fact that bagpipes are part of traditional Galician culture; and this is just one example of a surviving remnant of that ancient race. Galicia even officially joined the Celtic league—along with Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man—in 1986, only to be kicked out a year later because the Celtic language has gone extinct here.

Nevertheless, Galicia does have its own language, Gallego, which is one of the four official languages of Spain. A Romance language closely related to Portuguese, the language is widely spoken and used in daily life in Galicia, though admittedly not as much as Castilian. During the nationalizing currents of the Enlightenment the language almost went extinct, but underwent a revival, or Rexurdimento, in the nineteenth century. Not coincidently, this was also the age of Catalan’s Renaixença, as people responded to the Romantic emphasis on local, rural cultures.

I got off the night bus from Madrid in A Coruña at around seven in the morning, cramped, cold, and exhausted. It was Holy Week and at least it wasn’t rainy. After nursing a coffee and dropping off my things at the Airbnb, I walked towards the peninsula that forms the city’s old center.

Though there are no spectacular buildings to be found, I found the center of A Coruña an enchanting place to stroll about. Narrow streets open up into ocean views; seagulls constantly float past on the seaside breeze.

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Most distinctive are the glass balconies, called galerías, that hang over the streets. These can be seen all around A Coruña’s central square, the Plaza de María Pita, where the stately city hall presides. Incidentally, this square is named after a local heroine, who helped to defend the city from an English attack in 1589. This brave action was rewarded with a military pension by Philip II; and her Gallego battle cry—Quen teña honra, que me siga, “Those who would have honor, follow me”—is still well-known.

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The glass balconies are even more apparent on the seaside avenue, Avenida Marina, one of the most picturesque parts of the city. From there I walked to the Paseo Maritimo, one of the longest maritime promenades in Europe. Handholding couples, sweating joggers, and spandex-clad cyclist went by, while old men waited next to fishing lines for an aquatic nibble. Across the water I could see the green hills on the other side of the bay. I especially appreciated the elegant forms of the rust-colored streetlamps that adorned the street.

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Walking on this way, I eventually reached the park at the end of the peninsula. Here is where A Coruña becomes truly grand. The grassy hills slope down into a craggy mound of rock, lapped by the ocean tides. Statues and megaliths dot the grass, in a playful imitation of Stonehenge amid the English countryside. A curious structure is the Casa das Palabras (House of Words), a kind of enclosed courtyard of obvious Moorish inspiration. An informational plaque declares that it was the burial ground of Muslim soldiers who died in the Spanish Civil War, whose bodies have since been relocated. According to the website, the current function of the building is to serve as a meeting point between different cultures, though it doesn’t look like it gets much use.

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The star attraction, of course, is the Torre de Hércules, or the Tower of Hercules. A legend tells that the Greek hero battled a monster on this spot for three days until finally slaying the beast; then he buried the monster’s head underground, and ordered a city to be built. The coat of arms shows the severed head of the vanquished foe, upon which the Tower of Hercules shines proudly.

The tower not for defense, but is a lighthouse, probably the oldest continually functioning lighthouse in the world—a fact that earned it the status of UNESCO World Heritage in 2009. Built in the 2nd century by the Romans, it is the only Roman lighthouse to survive the centuries. Yet the graceful form that greets the eye nowadays—sprouting 55 meters, or 180 ft, into the air, making it the second-tallest lighthouse in Spain—owes far more to the Enlightenment-era reconstruction, completed in 1791 by Eustaquio Giannini. Inside the structure the Roman masonry survives, though it does not look like much to the untrained eye. In any case, the fact that the Romans would need a lighthouse on the remote northwestern edge of the Iberian peninsula speaks for itself.

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The lighthouse is best appreciated from across the park’s little bay. From there you can see the dramatic rise of the rocks out of the water, like the back of some scaled beast, ascending into a gently sloping grassy hill, the cool green speckled with yellow flowers—all culminating in the tan tower standing high above the waves. After I walked over to inspect the tower, I sat myself on some of the rocks overlooking the sea in order to read a little. I was in the middle of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. In one part Spengler says that Western man’s deepest urge is to be alone with infinity; and as I sat above the crashing waves, looking out at the ocean beyond, I felt the strange peace of being a silent witness to something far bigger than myself.

The other major sight in A Coruña is the Monte de San Pedro, which is quite a walk from the city center. On the way there, I passed A Coruña’s massive beach, which sits on the northern side of the peninsula. Though technically divided into two beaches, the Orzán and Riazor, it forms one continuous spread of sand. The view from the far end, facing the peninsula, is astonishing in the vast sweep of shore curving into the distance. You may also pause to observe the hulking form of A Coruña’s football stadium.

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The most stylish way to go up the hill is via the glass elevator on the northern side. The elevator ascends diagonally up the hillside, going slowly enough to give the visitor a chance to peer out of the glass ball at the ocean scenery. But I was in the mood to walk, so I took the long way around, trekking all the way around the hill before going up from the southern end.

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The Monte de San Pedro sits strategically over the bay, giving a wide visibility in many directions. This is why it was made a naval fortress during the twentieth century, though it never saw any actual fighting due to Spain’s neutrality in the World Wars. Now the big bunkers and guns form part of a park, their gargantuan barrels slowly rusting away—which is the best thing a gun can do, really. The main attraction, however, is simply the view. From the western side one can see the Galician coastline, with a group of four flat, rocky islands off the shore. From the east all of A Coruña is visible, with the Tower of Hercules standing proudly from across the bay.

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These are just some of my fondest memories of A Coruña. The city is easily among the finest costal cities in the north of Spain, one to which I would gladly return.

 

 

 

The Sights of Salamanca

The Sights of Salamanca

“Where’s this damn frog?” I said.

We were in Salamanca on a day trip. We had taken the fast train and arrived early on a Sunday morning to see the city. Salamanca is situated in the southern half of Castilla y León. If you head away from Madrid in a straight line, oriented north west, you will reach Salamanca after passing through Ávila.

The city has long history, having been founded by pre-Roman tribes. From the middle ages to the present day, it has remained one of Spain’s most important cultural centers. As a result, the city possesses so many fine historical structures that its entire old center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. And it is convenient, too, being easily accessible via train from Madrid, making it one of the best (though one of the longest) day trips from the nation’s capital.

“Where is the frog?” I repeated.

We were standing outside the Cathedral of Salamanca, looking for a frog on its façade. You see, everyone told us that ‘finding the frog’ was one of the iconic things to do here, and I would be damned if I didn’t find it.

salamanca_cathedralwhole

We walked from one side of the cathedral to the other, both of us scrutinizing its complex ornamentation. No luck. Then we moved to the front entrance again. There, we observed a little girl pointing to the doorway.

¡Astronauta!” she said.

“Oh, the astronaut!” I said.

salamanca_astronaut

We got closer and, indeed, there was the astronaut—something else I’d been told to find in Salamanca. He was floating in the relief of leaves that framed one of the doors, one hand gripped onto a cord so he didn’t float away.

“Let’s just go visit the cathedral,” I said to GF.

We went in. As we were paying for our tickets, I asked the ticket woman:

“Where’s the frog?”

“Oh, it’s not here,” she responded. “That’s on the university building.”

“But we do have an astronaut,” the security guard added.

We had been searching on the wrong building.

The Salamanca Cathedral is divided into two sections, the Old Cathedral and the New. The Old Cathedral was begun in the 12th century, and completed in the 14th; the New was begun in 1513 and finally consecrated in 1733. The new one was built in such a way that it sort of engulfs the older structure. They now sit side by side, connected with a doorway.

From the outside, the New Cathedral is certainly the more impressive: it is the tallest building around, towering over the many other beautiful cupolas that fill the skyline of Salamanca. It presents itself to the viewer as a monumental collection of spikes and spires; it rises upwards in three levels that sit over one another like stairs. Like so many cathedrals, it is a stylistic medley; at first glance the decoration looks gothic, but the cupola is baroque.

Salamanca_oldcathedralaltar

Our audioguides took us into the Old Cathedral first. The building is notably small—which I suppose is why it was replaced. The walls are covered with fading frescos in the stylized Romanesque style. The main altar is striking, especially the fresco of the Last Judgment that sits at its top. Jesus, with one hand raised wrathfully towards the damned, is standing above four angels who blow horns to celebrate the triumph. To His right are the saved, a multitude of figures in white robes with hands outstretched in prayer; and to His left are the damned, a cowering crowd of naked bodies, vainly trying to run.

We moved on to the new building. It must be one of the tallest cathedrals that I have seen. And yet, the structure somehow managed to seem massive but not inhuman. I didn’t feel squashed by the weight of religious intensity, as I do in some cathedrals. In fact, I felt quite comfortable as I walked around—though quite cold, as it was colder in there than outside. It was especially gratifying to stand in the center, right under the cupola, and look up at the painting of the Holy Ghost (as usual, symbolized by a dove) hundreds of feet above me.

Salamanca_dome

It is lovely cathedral (and you haven’t seen the last of it in this blog post). But for now, in just under an hour, we left to find the university, once again in search of the frog.

FrogSalamanca (Joseolgon3.0)
Photo by Joseolgon; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Like any university, the University of Salamanca is composed of several buildings. The infamous amphibian is located on the façade of the historical Escuelas Mayores. If you are looking at the right building, it is not too hard to find. From afar, the frog does not look especially froglike—more like a bump sitting on top of a skull that forms part of the decoration of the ornate façade. It is said that anyone who sees this skull is destined to return one day to Salamanca. I have not yet, but I plan to.

This old historical building now serves as a sort of museum. We paid the entrance fee and went in.

Founded in 1134, granted a royal charter in 1218, and formally recognized as a university by Pope Alexander IV in 1255, the University of Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain, and the third oldest (after Bologna and Oxford) in the world that is still in operation. Throughout its history, the University of Salamanca has played an important role in Spanish intellectual life. Bureaucrats for Isabella and Ferdinand trained for their posts here; and Christopher Columbus laid out his plans for his voyage to the geographers at this university. Today the university is still one of Spain’s most important, with roughly 28,000 active students. This is why Salamanca is full of young people.

Salamancauniversity(GFreihalter3.)
Photo by GFreihalter; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

The museum building is fairly modest in size. It is designed like a cloister, with hallways surrounding a square courtyard. From this hallway, we walked from room to room, reading the information panels and peeking inside. The majority of these were lecture halls; and compared to the lectures halls in my state university in New York, they were extremely small (which is not a bad thing). The desks and chairs are themselves historical; some even had scratches from idle students, scribbling on the wood with their pens.

We walked up an ornate staircase to the second floor. On one wall were paintings of two men holding candles. A panel informed us that these were saints, and were painted here to discourage students from urinating on the walls at night. I wonder if it worked. Nearby was the old library. Since the book’s are extremely old and delicate, the visitor is only allowed to stand in a glass cube right in the entranceway. Two rows of bookshelves run around the room, full of visibly ancient tomes.

Biblioteca_Antigua Salamanca (Payane8_3.0)
Photo by Payanes8; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

This was apparently the very first university library in Europe, founded by Alfonso the Wise, of Castille, in 1254. In any case, the room is beautiful, filled with old wooden tables and chairs, with globes scattered about. It is the kind of sight that makes one want to become a monk and read Latin theology twelve hours a day.

The rest of the building was full of old pedagological relics. Old maps hung on the walls—some of them hilariously misshapen, but many impressively accurate. A small wooden figure of a man, with removable parts, stood nearby—an old anatomy doll for practicing surgery. There were stuffed birds and oversized models of flowers. Further on, we also saw a giant book of music, used by music theorist hundreds of years ago.

On our way back down we again passed the Aula Unamuno, a lecture room named after one of Salamanca’s most famous professors, the Basque philosopher, poet, and novelist Miguel de Unamuno. Not far from here, in the Paraninfo of the university, Unamuno took part in one of the most famous incidents in Spanish intellectual history. The year was 1936, the first year of the Spanish Civil War. The Francoist general José Millán-Astray was attending a ceremony in the university in celebration of the Día de la Raza. During this ceremony Unamuno dared to say a few words against the war, provoking the general to bang the desk and shout: “¡Mueran los intelectuales! ¡Viva la Muerte¡” (“Death to intellectuals! Long live death!”).

Unamuno responded to this fascist sentiment with the famous phrase, “Venceréis, pero no convenceréis” (“You will vanquish, but you will not convince”). This is one of the many reasons why this quixotic philosopher is among my intellectual heroes. There is, by the way, an excellent cubist statue to the mad Basque standing nearby; and the house in which he lived during his rectorship of the university (he was named rector three separate times) has been converted into a museum. Unfortunately I have yet to visit—I suppose the frog will compel me to return.

Estatua_Miguel_de_Unamuno (Pravdaverita3.0)
Photo by Pravdaverita; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Our next stop was the Roman bridge. This was built in the 1st century as part of the Vía de la Plata, or Silver Road, an old Roman road that used to connect Mérida, in Extremadura, to Astorga in the north. (Apparently it was called the “Silver Road,” not because it was for transporting silver, but because the finely made Roman road reminded people of silver.) This path is still used today, by pilgrims hiking the Camino de Santiago.

The Roman bridge spans the River Tormes, and stretches to nearly 360m (well over 1,000 ft). In style and shape, it is similar to the Roman bridge in Córdoba—short and squat, wide enough for perhaps five people abreast, resting on a series of arches. The river underneath the bridge is somewhat marshy; trees and grass stick up from the water in dense tufts.

We walked along for a while, stopping now and then to enjoy the view. Joggers went past us, dressed in their neon exercise jumpsuits, their breath leaving a trail of fog in the cold air as they huffed and panted. Couples, old and young, strode along the bridge holding hands. Some high school kids were sitting on the wall, chatting amongst themselves. Other tourists like us were taking pictures.

Salamanca_bridgecathedral

After we got to the end of the bridge, we turned back towards town. For a while we walked with no definite goal, since Salamanca has such an exceptionally fine historical center. The entire downtown area might as well be a museum of architecture. Cupolas fill the sky; towers and spires hang above you wherever you turn; finely ornamented facades adorn every other building.

Two buildings stand out for special mention. The Church of Saint Mark is one of the oldest buildings in the city, an eye-catching, squat, circular structure from the eleventh century. Walking into its stark and nearly windowless interior is a memorable experience. There is also the Casa de las Conchas, a gothic mansion covered in friezes of scallop shells—one of the most iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago. It was built for a man named Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, who was a chair of law in the university and a member of the Order of Saint James. According to a legend, the family hid some of its most precious jewels under one of these shells.

Casa_das_Conchas(SergioPT_3.0)
Photo by SergioPT; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

We eventually reached the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca, one of the finest in Spain. It looks quite like the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, except Salamanca’s is slightly more impressive. Both are perfectly square. Both are enclosed by a uniform building. Here, its bottom level consists of several arches, and under these are many shops and restaurants. The upper levels are rows of windows that I believe belong to apartments. (Does anybody live in these places? The constant tourists must be irritating.)

We decided to sit down at a café to rest and drink some coffee. We both ordered café con leche, one of the typical styles of coffee here in Spain.

As a side note, Spanish coffee is quite different from the American variety. Their coffee is our espresso. You can order this shot of bitter caffeine in many ways, however. One of the most common is the aforementioned café con leche, which is about one-third coffee to two-thirds milk (the milk can be steamed or cold, according to your preference). Another common style is café cortado; this is about two-thirds coffee to one-third milk (and consequently has much less liquid, since the amount of coffee is standard). You can also have café solo, straight espresso; or café largo, which is watered down espresso.

Salamanca_plazamayor

Well, today we were both in the mood for café con leche. The coffee was expensive, but was actually some of the tastiest I have had in Spain.

We got up and began wandering again. We kept walking until a building caught our eye: the Convento de San Esteban. Its façade is impressive: underneath a large arch are dozens of friezes carved into the wall. This is one most impressive examples of the plateresque style, which is only found in Spain. The name comes from “plata,” the Spanish word for silver, because the architectural ornament is supposed to mimic the embellishments of a silversmith. This is the same style that is on display on the exterior of the University of Salamanca building and on the cathedral.

Salamanca_Convento

The Convento de San Esteban is a Dominican monastery built during the Renaissance. This is supposedly where Columbus stayed when he came to Salamanca to dispute with the professors of the university. (Actually it was the building that was knocked down to make way for this one.) We paid the entrance fee and went in, and recommend you do the same: there is an impressive church, a cloister, and a museum, with lots of fine religious art.

Once we were back in the street, I checked my phone to see if we had missed anything. It looked like we had. Apparently, the cathedral’s bell tower, Ieronimus, is a separate visit from the cathedral itself. This promised a lovely view of the city, so we walked back to the cathedral to find the entrance.

The price paid, we began the ascent. Visits to old towers are commonly arduous. There are no elevators in these places, and the stairs can be steep and narrow. But Ieronimus was different. Each stairway led to an exhibition room, where there were artifacts and panels with information. Thus we had frequent breaks from the climb, allowing us to rest a bit, learn something about the cathedral’s history, and then keep going.

After continuing on like this for a while, we eventually reached a level where we could go outside. A walkway led onto the roof of the cathedral. To my left were the marvelous flying buttresses, bedecked with ornament; and to my right was the Romanesque tower of the Old Cathedral. Beyond I could see the river, sparkling in the sun, and the Roman bridge with its crowd of tiny people. It was fantastic. How often in life does one get a chance to walk on the roof of a cathedral?

Salamanca_cathedralroof

After further ascent, we found ourselves standing on a narrow balcony, high up above the floor of the New Cathedral. In the distance, at the far end of the building, mass was being celebrated. The amplified voice of a priest boomed through the space. From here, you could really appreciate the height of this structure. I tried taking some pictures, to capture this feeling of extreme verticality, but I couldn’t fit the whole space into one frame. I tried taking a panoramic photo, sweeping my camera from the floor to the ceiling, but this caused everything to look bent and distorted.

Salamanca_cathedralinterior

Another door led us out into the roof; we passed under several archways in the stone (one of which I hit my head against), and then another doorway lead us to more stairs. A little sign on the wall was counting down the seconds until we would be allowed to climb up to the bell tower. (This is to avoid the chance of colliding in the stairs, because they are too narrow to ascend and descend at the same time.)

The tower has two levels. The top one was the more interesting. Inside was an old mechanism for the clock—an impressive contraption, full of gears and chains. Windows ran along the outer wall, providing for a magnificent view, though the thick netting that was stretched across every window (presumably to prevent accidents and suicides) somewhat impeded the experience.

After having our fill of the view, we waited again for the countdown clock, and began our way down. We had to go to the train station to catch our train back. I felt sad to leave, though. It was so much fun exploring this tower that I regretted having to go. If you find yourself in Salamanca, make sure to visit Ieronimus.

Salamanca_bridgefar

Once again, our trip was at an end. We boarded the train and shot off towards Madrid.

Outside the window, the day was still sunny. I later learned that this Sunday broke records in Salamanca for the warmest temperatures in January. It certainly didn’t look like January out the window. The sky was bright and blue, and the ground was covered with green. The train went past miles and miles of farmland. For mountainous and dry Spain, the landscape was incredibly verdant and flat—the flatness only occasionally broken by groups of trees, farm buildings, and metal telephone poles. Other than that, nothing but a delicious, and seemingly endless, field of green stretched out before me.

Looking out at this scene, a feeling came over me, one which I often feel when looking out the window of long train rides or car rides: A sense of my own smallness. The world is such a big place. Whole lives were lived in these fields, for generations and generations. Farmers lived and died here, practicing an ancient profession of which I know nothing. What were they like?

This is why I think sitting on a train, watching the world go by, is so valuable: We get a taste of how big the world really is, how many people are living in it, how many different jobs and towns and ways of life there are. It is one of the most edifying feelings I know.

Thus was I transported back to Madrid, gazing out the window, lost in thought, after a lovely day in Salamanca.

Salamanca_skyline

A Tour of Toledo

A Tour of Toledo

Toledo is one of the most beautiful cities in the country. It has everything: picturesque views, beautiful art, engrossing history, and impressive architecture. The only serious problem with Toledo is that it is so close to Madrid, which makes it a haven for tourists. Now of course every city has tourists; but no other city in Spain, not even Barcelona, is so entirely oriented toward foreign visitors.

Toledo is hardly a city anymore, but a giant museum. Nearly every restaurant and shop exists exclusively for visitors. Tour groups crowd the streets; tour buses surround the city. There is even a zip-line so that runs over the Tajo River, so that people can experience the same thrill as provided in any good amusement park. While it does look fun, the sound of zipping and screaming does disturb the pleasure of standing on the medieval San Martín bridge. It is difficult even to enjoy a peaceful walk in the city, since chances are you will be asked by some passersby to take a photo of them.

But the tourists must be tolerated. The city is worth it. So, without further ado, here are my favorite sites to visit in Toledo.


The City on a Hill

We have to start with the city itself. Seen from the iconic mirador above the river valley, the city is a sight worthy of a painting (which, of course, it was, by none other than El Greco). Toledo stands majestically on a hill, overlooking the whole surrounding area. Houses with beige walls and red roofs are jammed into a chaotic jumble, squeezed into the limited space of the hillside. No green parks can be seen in the city; just stone and tile. Below runs the Tajo River, with trees growing along its banks.

Toledo_bridge

The two most prominent buildings of the skyline are the Alcázar and the Cathedral. The first is an old fortress, built during the reign of Charles V. It is a massive, severe, and merciless building, with four large spires and a cheerless grey façade. The cathedral is slightly more graceful; but the spiky, gothic tower hardly lifts the mood. In short, Toledo looks medieval.

toledo_gate

From any direction, the approach to Toledo is impressive. You can see the old city walls, clinging to the hillside; the Puerta de Bisagra, a massive fortified gate; the Puente de Alcántra, a stone bridge that still conserves its Roman foundations; or the Puente de San Martín, an even lovelier bridge built in the 13th century. Both of these old bridges have fortifications on either end, in the event of an attack. Toledo was a well protected city.

Before entering the city, it is worth a walk around the perimeter. A wonderful park runs alongside the Tajo River, underneath both of the old bridges. There you can walk beside the rushing water, with the impressive cliffs for scenery. In some places there are old ruins—stone structures built alongside the river—that add a certain romantic charm to the walk. I kept going  until I saw a stairwell leading up to the Puente de San Martín, which has one of the best views of the city.

Now you can enter the city itself. Toledo boasts arguably the finest old center in Spain. Cobblestone streets wind up and down the hills, chaotically intersecting with no apparent order or design. The streets twist and turn so much that you can get disoriented very quickly. Once I tried to walk someplace without using a map. I made three attempts, each time taking a different route; and each time I came back to where I left.

Walking up and down the hills can also be a bit exhausting, as your ankles bend on the uneven stone streets. This is unavoidable, for there is really no option but to walk; the streets are so narrow, so crowded, and so closely packed that driving a car would be impracticable (plus it would ruin the experience). But all this is worth it for the feeling that you have been transported in time to medieval Europe.

Walking through town, you will notice shop after shop selling knives and full-sized stores. The reason for this is that, during its heyday in the middle ages, Toledo was famous for the quality of its steel. Another product the city is known for is its marzipan, which is readily available for lovers of the saccharine. After a stroll about town, you can begin to visit some of the seemingly infinite monuments of Toledo.


Santa María la Blanca

Santa María la Blanca is one of the two medieval synagogues in Toledo. As its saintly name indicates, the building was later turned into a church, after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. Built in 1190, it is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe, and surely one of the most beautiful.

As in many buildings in Toledo, the synagogue has a marked Moorish influence. A wooden roof sits atop rows of crescent arches, just like in a mosque; and ornamenting these arches are unmistakably Moorish decorations, carved in stucco. The place is called “la blanca” (the white) because almost everything inside has been whitewashed. This gives the place an angelic, otherworldly aura, emphasized by the LED lights that have been installed in the floor.

toledo_santamarialablanca

The synagogue does not take very long to visit. I highly recommend it, not only because it is quick and cheap, but because the room still has a certain spiritual power. If you’re like me, you will feel calm and meditative when you stand inside.


Synagogue “El Tránsito” and the Sephardic Museum

Just nearby, in the old Judería (Jewish quarters), is Toledo’s other synagogue, El Tránsito, built in 1356. At first glance this synagogue is less impressive, consisting of a large rectangular room. But the wooden ceiling is lovely, and when you look at the walls you will quickly see what the fuss is about. There you can find exquisite Moorish-style stucco ornamentation, perhaps the finest outside of Andalucia; indeed, if you were simply shown a photo, the synagogue could be mistaken for a room in the Alhambra. It’s amazing how much Islam, Judaism, and Christianity borrowed from each other during this time.

Toledo_eltransito

Attached the monastery is a museum of Sephardic culture, which is worth visiting. “Sephardic” is the name given to the distinctive Jewish culture of Medieval Spain, formed from living a long time alongside Christians and Muslims. For many years, Jews had prominent places in the universities as well as the governments of Muslim and Christian rulers. Isabella and Ferdinand even had Jewish advisers; and the El Tránsito synagogue itself was financed by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, treasurer of the Christian king Peter of Castille. But the Sephardic Jews were forced to flee Spain or convert to Christianity in that all-important year of Spanish history, 1492, forming a diasporic community throughout the world.


Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

Nearby both of these synagogues is the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. It was built during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs after their victory against Portugal in the Battle of Toro (1476). The battle was significant, since it meant that the most dangerous obstacle to Ferdinand and Isabella’s union had been overcome.

From the outside, it is an impressive gothic structure, studded with spires. If memory serves, the entrance fee is only to gain access to the monastery’s cloisters. This is no problem, since the fee is small and the cloisters are quite lovely. There are two levels, which enclose a small but attractive garden. The openings of the lower level have fine stone mullions—which showcase the medieval ability to carve rock into pretty, delicate shapes. The upper level was even more impressive, mainly because of the Mudéjar style wooden roof, which used royal insignias within a Moorish pattern of crisscrossing lines and stars—another example of cultural intermixture.

San_Juan_de_los_Reyes(Querubin3.0).
Photo by Querubin Saldaña Sanchez; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

The church attached to the cloisters must be entered from another door. It is an impressive space, with tall vaulted ceilings and colorful stained glass. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t get a lot of time to look around, since by the time I went inside mass was about to start.


Church of San Ildefonso Jesuitas

In another part of town, well outside the Judería, is the impressive Church of San Ildefonso Jesuitas. Construction began on the church in 1629, continuing for over 100 years. I actually only went into the church on a whim, since the façade did not particularly interest me. Indeed, I confess that I find the church’s exterior rather ugly.

The inside, however, is a well-lit and open space, with lovely white walls. But the real treat it not inside the church, but above it. You can climb up to the second floor, pause to enjoy that view of the church, and keep ascending up a metal staircase to one of the towers. From there, you can enjoy one of the best views of Toledo.

Toledo_jesuit


The Church of San Román

The city’s most impressive example of cultural intermixture, even more than Santa María la Blanca, can be found in the Church of San Román. You could be forgiven for believing it was a mosque. Horseshoe arches support a typically Moorish wooden ceiling; and all along the walls runs what appears to be Arabic script. But the elongated paintings of people on the walls reveal the true nature of this building, for representational art is not found in any Mosque.

In reality, this church is a church and has always been a church. Built in the 13th century, the architects quite deliberately imitated Moorish styles, to the point of even writing fake Arabic on the walls. (It is just scribbling meant to look like Arabic.) It even has a church tower that looks like a minaret. The only off-note is a Renaissance cupola affixed to the church in the 16th century.

Toledo_sanroman

In order to find the church you might have to search for the “Museum of Gothic Culture” (Museo de los concilios y de la cultura visigoda), since nowadays that is what the old church is used for. Some of the information and artifacts on display are no doubt interesting, but the church itself is so much more interesting that it was nearly impossible for me to focus on the Visigoths during my visit.


The Burial of the Count of Orgaz

As befitting the former home of El Greco, two of El Greco’s finest paintings can be seen in Toledo. One of the these is The Disrobing of Christ, which you can see in the Cathedral (see below); the other is The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.

This painting is on display in its own special chapel in the Church of Santo Tomé. Originally I thought it was in the church itself, which led to me blustering in and scouring every corner for the famous painting. Don’t bother. There is a special entrance to see it, which leads into a chapel where the titular Count of Orgaz still rests. More than likely this small room will be jam-packed with people; there must have been five separate tour groups when I visited, their guides chattering away in various languages. Nonetheless, El Greco’s masterpiece is worth it.

800px-El_Greco_-_The_Burial_of_the_Count_of_Orgaz

The subject of the painting is based on a local legend. Don Gonzalo Ruíz, the erstwhile Count of Orgaz (actually, he wasn’t a count; the distinction was awarded to his family later) was a pious man who donated money for the enlargement of the Church of Santo Tomé. In thanks, when Don Gonzalo Ruíz died, Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen are said to have descended from heaven to bury him. El Greco was commissioned to paint this scene in around 1586 by the priest of the church. But the scene was not to be purely historical, for El Greco’s contract stipulated that he must include portraits of many of the well-to-do men in Toledo, for obvious pecuniary reasons.

The painting is magnificent. The shining, golden armor of Count Orgaz, the flowing, finely patterned robes of the saints, the way the dead man’s body lies limply in the arms of his holy companions—all this put to rest any doubts I had about El Greco’s technical mastery. The man could have painted with as much facility as any of the finest artists of the Italian Renaissance.

But this realism is integrated into El Greco’s characteristically unreal style. The mourners gather round the grave in an absent space with no volume or depth. Each of the men wears a frilly collar and a black shirt, and seem remarkably unsurprised by the appearance of the saints. Of course, showing shock would have spoiled the portraits that El Greco integrated into the painting; for here El Greco displays most powerfully his skill as a portrait artists. All the mourner’s faces are wonderfully individual and expressive. El Greco has snuck in an entire gallery of first-class portraits into this religious work.

Above this earthly scene flies the heavenly host, with Mary, Peter, John the Baptist, and Jesus in the center, surrounded by angels and saints.There is an interesting mix of contrast and continuity between the lower and the upper halves. The otherwordly observers glow with eternal life, while the black funeral scene below reeks of human mortality and decay; and yet all the figures seem to occupy the same continuous space. The descent of the two saints, garbed in bright yellow robes, bolsters the impression that the boundary between heaven and earth has been ruptured. And if you look long enough at this painting, you may feel this rupture all the more powerfully, as El Greco’s spiritual beauty shines into our profane world.


The Alcázar of Toledo

The largest building in Toledo is its Alcázar, a word that comes from Arabic, meaning “fortress.” Crowning the city at its highest point, it is indeed an ideal spot for a fortification, as the Romans realized thousands of years ago. Roman, Moorish, and medieval Christian ruins still lay in the basement of the building.

toledo_alcazarruins

But the Alcázar’s most famous battle occured far more recently. During the Spanish Civil War, the Francoist colonel José Moscardó Ituarte held out in a prolonged siege against vastly superior Republic forces. Before even the end of the war, this siege became part of the Spanish fascist mythology. In particular, it was told that the colonel willingly let the Republic forces execute his son—whom they had captured—rather than give up the fortress. Whether truth or exaggeration, the fortress became an iconic symbol of Francoist Spain.

That siege almost entirely destroyed the building. It has since been rebuilt, just as splendid as ever. Though the spot has been continually occupied for hundreds of years, the building’s current design hails from Spain’s Golden Age. Juan de Herrera, who helped to design El Escorial, also contributed to this equally severe structure.

The fortress is now home to a military museum, normally free to visit. It is a mixed bag. There are life-sized models of soldiers, fully equipped; there are old cars and helicopters; there are weapons and armor from Roman times to the present day, and explanations of battles and tactics. Most unexpected was the museum’s massive collection of toy soldiers. But the building itself proved more interesting than any of these displays, continually surprising the visitor with its vastness.

Toledo_toysoldiers
An army of toy soldiers in front of a toy royal palace

The Cathedral of Toledo

By now I have seen enough cathedrals that I can say with confidence that the Toledo Cathedral has the finest interior of any in Spain, and perhaps in Europe. It is a jewel in the crown of Spain and obligatory if you visit the town.

To buy tickets, you must go to a small building across the street from the cathedral, where you will be herded through the gift shop before you can make your purchase. The ticket comes with an audioguide, with is extremely well-made. You will enter through a door in the cathedral’s side—a really ugly portal. It has four tasteless Corinthian columns built into the façade. I don’t know why this was done to the cathedral, but whoever did so should be kept away from all religious structure in the future.

toledo_cathedral

Generally speaking, the Toledo Cathedral is not remarkably attractive from the outside. It has one impressive tower; but on the other side is a stumpy Renaissance cupola that throws the whole structure off balance. Certainly the cathedral cannot compare with the mountains of spires you find in Burgos. Nevertheless, the three portals in the front are truly splendid; and the building is covered with dramatic robed figures, preaching to eternity with arms outstretched.

toledo_cathedraldoor

It is the inside that is so impressive. Every inch of space is covered with decoration, in a dazzling mixture of styles, and all of it first-rate. I wish I could give a full overview of every little piece of the building but there is simply too much to see. Here are some highlights.

Like any respectable gothic cathedral, the Toledo Cathedral was built to emphasize height. The vaulted ceiling hangs more than a hundred feet above you, supported by impossibly tall columns of stone. The stained glass windows allow a dull glow to reach the interior, enough to fully illuminate the top but not the bottom of the building; thus a spooky and somber darkness pervades the whole space.

The cathedral has many portals. From the inside, the most impressive of these is the Portal of the Lions. Over the doorway, a breathtaking series of friezes have been carved in the plateresque style, the distinctive ornamental style of the Spanish Golden Age. We see the genealogy of Mary, a tree that begins with Abraham and ends with the Coronation of the Virgin in the center. Emerging from the top of this work is the organ, its pipes jutting from the wall.

After you walk around the main chapel, exploring the lovely decorations that cover both the inside and outside of the central choir and the resplendent golden central altarpiece, you will come upon the most striking and original artwork in the cathedral: El Transparente. This is a marvelous altar that incorporates both painting, stucco, and statues in marble and bronze, which stretches from the ground all the way up to the ceiling and beyond. Right behind the main altar is a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary seated, Jesus in her lap, surrounded by white angels with bronze wings. Above her is a heavenly glow, with bronze shafts of lights emanating in all directions; and baby-faced cherubim fly around, basking happily in the sunshine. Really, there are too many figures to describe or identify. It is absolutely stunning.

Toledo_eltransparente

But the work doesn’t stop there. A hole has been made in the thick ceiling above, allowing sunlight to shine directly onto the work. And surrounding this opening are colorful paintings and seated statues, all of them holy figures who calmly look down on you from several stories up, as the light of heaven pours in from beyond. I cannot fathom the technical challenges of such a work. The vertical arrangement of the figures, the mastery of so many different artistic media, the engineering problem involved in cutting a hole in the roof—and yet the final effect is not strained at all, but tasteful and magnificent.

All this is just a taste of the beauty you can find in the main chapel; but there is much more to see. One of the most impressive rooms in the cathedral is the Chapterhouse. This room was used for meetings with the Archbishop of Toledo, a position which has long been the most powerful religious title in Spain. The archbishop’s golden chair stands in the center of the room, opposite the door; running along the rest of the walls is a wooden bench, where everyone else would sit. The coffered roof is of gilded wood, divided into geometrical shapes. On the upper half of the wall is a series of frescos, showing scenes from the life of Jesus; above the door is an excellent portrayal of the Last Judgment. Running below this, above the wooden bench, is a series of portraits of the Archbishops of Toledo, going back to the very beginning. It is fascinating to see how the style of portraits changes throughout the many years.

toledo_archbishops

Surpassing even the Chapterhouse is the Sacristy—traditionally, where the archbishop would prepare to give services. Nowadays, the huge room is used as an art museum. An enormous fresco covers the entire barrel-vaulted ceiling; it depicts a massive host of angels gathered around a heavenly light, which shines from the word “Yahweh” written in Hebrew. This style of ceiling decoration was common enough in the Spain of the 17th century, but this is the most stunning and successful example I have seen. I once caught myself drooling as I stared up at it, lost in the illusion that I was looking into heaven itself.

disrobing of Chirst

Excellent paintings are hung all along the walls, many by El Greco. The most notable of these is his Disrobing of Christ, which stands in the very center of the room. El Greco captures the moment right before Christ is stripped of his clothes. Jesus stands in the center, staring up into heaven, his bright red robe enveloping his body. He is looking into heaven with a serene and sad expression. His eyes seem moist with tears. A noisy, chaotic rabble surrounds him. But what is most striking is that none of them seems to be paying attention to Christ; instead they are absorbed with each other, seemingly consumed with petty argument. Thus the figure of Jesus stands isolated among the crowd, untouchable, unearthly, abandoned by humanity but not abandoning us in return. In short, it is a masterpiece of religious art.

The Toledo Cathedral also has a lovely cloister. On the outside wall is a series of frescos depicting the doings and lives of several saints from the history of Toledo. From this cloister you can access the Chapel of Saint Blaise. This is an octagonal room, built in the 14th century. Originally the walls were covered with a series of medieval frescos. But unfortunately, since the chapel was built below street level, water has destroyed many of these. This is a real shame, because the remains are utterly enchanting. In style, they strongly remind me of images I have seen of Giotto’s work, and indeed the artists (their names are unknown) may well have been directly influenced by Giotto, as they were from Florence.

Toledo_sanblas

This is just a taste of what you can find in the Toledo Cathedral. Inside you can find superb examples in every medium—friezes, paintings, sculptures, architecture, the decorative arts—of nearly every phase and style of Spanish art: plateresque, Mudéjar, neoclassical, renaissance, baroque, and of course gothic. But what is most miraculous is that all these disparate elements combine to form a perfect whole. It is one of the greatest artistic projects in the world, and something I will always recall with awe.

Toledo_cathedralaltar

 

 

 

Madrid: a Gustatory Extravaganza

Madrid: a Gustatory Extravaganza

Just last week my brother and my oldest friend visited me in Madrid. I took the opportunity to show them the best Spanish food I know. We ate, and ate, and ate some more, and I still have yet to recover.

Madrid is a truly international city, with excellent restaurants of all sorts. You can find quality food from Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, or the Dominican Republic; from Vietnam, Korea, Japan, China, or the Philippines—in short, Madrid has everything. Even if you just want a juicy burger, great pasta, or a fine craft beer, Madrid can satisfy even the most gourmandizing palate.

But of course any international city has excellent restaurants of many kinds. What sets Madrid apart is not the variety of “ethnic” foods but the dishes native to the country. Spain, as is often noted, is a land deeply marked by regional differences; the south, north, east, west, and center each have their own specialties. And Madrid is perhaps the only city in the country where each can be found.

The first thing I did was to go the supermarket to buy high quality cured meats, or embutidos. We tried spicy chorizo, the archetypical Spanish sausage, filled with fat and flavored with distinctive Spanish paprika; and then lomo ibérico, or Iberian loin, tender slices of cured pork.

jamon
A store specializing in cured meats. Whole legs of cured ham are an omnipresent sight in Spain

But the most extraordinary was the Jamón de bellotas, or ham of acorns, so-called because the pigs partake of the acorns of the shrubby holm oaks that grow so abundantly in the south of the country. Spanish ham comes in many price levels, you see. Jamón Serrano is among the cheaper varieties, Jamón Ibérico considerably more expensive, and Jamón de bellotas more pricey still. But the deep, delicious, and almost woody flavor of these Spanish hams, especially of the last mentioned, is well worth the money.

We ate these slices of delight accompanied with Manchego cheese—a firm cheese with a mild yet unmistakably scrumptious flavor, made from sheep’s milk. To wash it down one could do no better than a red wine from either of Spain’s two best-know wine regions, Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

For my birthday last week, I chose to go to Café Melo’s. This is a well-known and well-loved bar in Lavapies, one of Madrid’s more famous neighborhoods, distinguished for its great Indian restaurants and jubilant nightlife. The bar’s menu is delightfully simple. They serve eight items: croquettes, empanadas, pimientos de Padrón (fried green peppers), a plate of Galician cheese, a plate cheese topped with quince jelly, grilled ham, morcilla (blood sausage), and a giant sandwich of fried ham and melted cheese that they call the “zapatilla” (literally, the “canvas shoe”). By itself, this hefty sandwich is enough to give two grown men a full belly and a guilty conscience.

zapatilla
The zapatilla

The croquettes are, for my money, the best in the city, crisp and crunchy on the outside, creamy and meaty on the inside. (Spanish croquettes, by the way, are balls of béchamel and bits of ham, cooled, rolled in breadcrumbs, and then fried.) The pimientos de Padrón—a very typical Spanish dish, using green peppers from Galicia—could not be simpler: fried in olive oil and spiced with salt. But they are fresh and savory. I also took the opportunity to introduce the Americans to the blood sausage, a dish many of us find exotic but which is really delightful and integral to Spanish cuisine. Spanish blood sausage comes in two varieties, made with onions or with rice (called morcilla de Burgos). The former is more flavorful while the latter has a firmer texture. Café Melo’s serves morcilla de Burgos, sliced and fried.

Oscar
My friend with the cider siphon

The next day I wanted to introduce them to the food from Asturias, a region in the north that boasts many famous dishes. For this I went to El Rincón Asturiano, a fairly pricey restaurant near Atocha station. The obligatory drink is hard cider. Spanish cider is neither sweet nor bubbly; indeed the taste, though unmistakably apple, is bitter. It is aerated before serving, traditionally by pouring the cider with the bottle raised high above one’s shoulder, into a glass held below the waist. Of course such a procedure takes practice and has ample opportunity for spillage. So for us neophytes the bottle was served with a little machine that siphoned the cider up a tube and sprayed it at high velocity into the glass.

The bread was served with queso de cabrales, an extremely strong, very soft cheese from Asturias made from a mixture of cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk. It is potent stuff. The flavor is sour and very bitter, and causes facial contortions when ingested. I did not like it when I first tried it, during my first year in Spain, but it has since grown on me.

fabada
Mostly eaten fabada

To begin we ordered one of the iconic dishes of Asturias, fabada asturiana, a bean stew made with chorizo, morcilla, pancetta, and white beans called fabes de la Granja (“beans of the farm”). These beans are large, white, and tender, with a high fat content that makes the stew rich and smooth. The flavor—obtained from the mixing of the cured meats—is something absolutely unique to Spain, smoky, meaty, and slightly spicy. Both my visitors told me that it was their favorite dish of the whole trip.

After that we were already quite full, and not ready to face the main course: cachopo. This is a carnivore’s delight, breaded and fried pork fillet filled with ham and cheese, like chicken cordon bleu. To up the flavor, it can be dipped in the blue cheese. The description speaks for itself. We could not even finish half of the enormous dish, and ended up taking it home to eat for dinner.

cachopo
The mighty cachopo

The story continued the next day when we went to eat paella for dinner (at a truly Spanish time, 10:30 at night) at a place near Gran Vía called La Barraca. It is not the most famous paella restaurant in Madrid, and certainly not the cheapest, but I was satisfied both times I went. As a starter we ordered gazpacho, a cold soup that is one of Spain’s most typical dishes. It is made by blending raw vegetables—tomato, onion, cucumber, garlic, peppers—with bread crumbs for consistency, a bit of vinegar, and plenty of olive oil. In La Barraca the soup was served with little bits of vegetables for added texture, pleasing but not necessary. The broth is smooth and refreshing, perfect for the hot climate in which it originated (it is from the arid south).

paella
Paella with the crisped bottom, called “socarrat.”

The main course was, of course, paella. We opted for the most “traditional” kind, paella valenciana, or Valencian paella. In addition to the usual paella ingredients—medium-grain rice, onions, garlic, tomato, paprika, saffron, rosemary—this variety is made with chicken, rabbit, flat green beans, and big butter beans. (It is also sometimes made with snails.) Few things can beat the rich, special flavor of this king of Spanish cuisine.

The next day we went to Toledo, and took the opportunity to try some migas, a dish typical of Castilla-La Mancha. Literally the name of this dish means “crumbs,” and it is appropriate. Migas are made by soaking a stale baguette in a little water, and then crumbling it. Meanwhile, in the same pot and the same oil you fry chorizo, pimientos, and garlic, which are then removed and set aside. Then the crumbs are fried in this flavored oil until dry and crispy, and finally all the ingredients are mixed. Often it is served with a runny fried egg on top. The dish certainly won’t be winning any health food awards but, when made well, it is a soul-satisfying experience.

migas
Homemade (not by me) migas

The next day we went to the Casa Mingo. This is a famous Asturian restaurant that is a bit far from the usual tourist hangouts. But the place is worth visiting, not only for the food, but because it is next to the Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida. This is now a small museum, free to enter, that contains the tomb of Goya. The ceiling is covered in frescos by Goya himself; the central dome depicts the legend of Saint Anthony reviving a dead man, and can be inspected without neckpain using mirrors.

polloasado
Chicken in the roaster

The restaurant, founded in 1888, is itself a historical building. The walls are full of bottles of Spanish cider, and barrels of the stuff (probably empty) adorn the other side. The menu is simple: a little plastic card with Spanish and English on one side and German and French on the reverse. As an appetizer we ordered Spanish tortilla, one of my favorite Spanish dishes. Do not let the name deceive you: it has nothing to do with Mexican flour tortillas. Rather, it is a kind of omelet made with eggs and potatoes, fried into a little cake with onions and salt. Few things in life are as comforting as a well-made tortilla.

The dish that the restaurant is most famous for is the roast chicken, which is cooked in multi-level rotisserie ovens. The meat is juicy, the skin crisp and lightly seasoned—simple, hearty, and good. I should also not omit to mention the restaurant’s croquettes, which are among my favorites.

tortilla
Spanish tortilla

By this time you might think that we’d had enough. But we continued the next day by eating Madrid’s classic dish: cocido madrileño, which might be translated as “Madrid stew.” For this we went to La Cruz Blanca Vallecas, perhaps the most well-known cocido restaurant in the city. It is somewhat far from the center, but very popular among Spaniards, so reservations are required.

While all part of the same dish, cocido madrileño is normally served in multiple courses. This is because the dish contains multitudes. First a variety of Spanish meats are boiled in broth: chicken, ham bones, pancetta, cured chorizo, morcilla, and lard. The concoction is boiled a long time, perhaps overnight. Indeed the dish owes this preparation to its history, for it originated among Jewish communities living in Spain, who needed long-cooking dishes in order to eat hot food during the Shabbat. In any case, as you can imagine this process instills in the broth a tremendous flavor. Later, vegetables are added to the mix—carrots, potatoes, cabbage—as well as garbanzo beans, all of which is boiled into very soft. Finally, all the ingredients are removed from the broth, and fideos (small noodles) are added to cook.

jay_cocido
A plate of cocido next to my brother, to show the scale

The first course of the meal consists of a bowl of the broth with these noodles. Though no different, in theory, from canned chicken-noodle soup, the broth is so exquisite that the soup must be savored. Then the plate of meat and vegetables arrives. Everything is suffused with a deep, savory flavor, transforming even the cabbage into a meaty delight. We ordered for two people, but the dish had enough food for six. We barely made a dent in it and took the rest home. I still have several portions left in my fridge, which I plan to eat for lunch.

On my brother’s last day we went to El Escorial. After visiting the monastery, we went to a Spanish fusion restaurant named Ku4tro. There we ordered pulpo a la gallega, or Galician-style octopus. This is another of my favorite Spanish dishes, which I make sure to order whenever I am in that verdant province. After being properly prepared, the octopus is boiled in a copper kettle, then dried, boiled, dried, boiled, dried, until the rubbery texture is almost entirely smoothed away. Then it is served over boiled potatoes, drizzled with olive oil and topped with paprika and salt. The meat is tender and lean, and retains its oceanic freshness of flavor.

pulpo

Thus concluded by week of binge-eating. I am still ready for more.

As I hope you can see from this list that Spanish food is not at all like what Americans are accustomed to. The Spanish philosophy of food is simple preparation with high-quality ingredients. Strong spices and sauces are avoided; the point is to taste the purity of the meat, fish, vegetable, or what have you. This is one reason why Spanish restaurants are not common in the United States, since it is impossible to reproduce the flavors without the right ingredients. What is fabada asturiana without real Spanish chorizo, paprika, and beans?

This is also why many Americans—myself included—are initially put off by it. The simplicity and relative mildness can strike us as unimpressive. And truth be told there are lots of very mediocre restaurants in the country, serving ill-prepared dishes. But once you know what to look for and what to order, as I hope I have finally begun to do, the country contains a wealth of gustatory delights whose textures and flavors are unlike any you can find in other parts of the world.

Now, if you excuse me, I need to lie down.

A Conversation with a Music Teacher

A Conversation with a Music Teacher

I have been teaching music classes with José Ramón since October. As a teacher, he really takes advantage of the available time: dividing the class between performance and theory. In the performance section we accompany the kids on guitar as they play songs on Glockenspiels, such as Gary Jules’s “Mad World.” In the theory section we learn about how music works—key signatures, meters, dynamics, instruments, and so on. Last week JoseRa (as people call him) sat down with me to tell me more about music education in Spain.


ROY: Tell me about your background. What did you study in university?

JOSERA: I got a bachelor’s degree in the history of music (musicology) and in the philology of Romance languages. I also got a professional degree from a conservatory, in classical guitar and music theory, harmony, counterpoint, and so on. And I have a masters in comparative literature.

R: So you have four degrees, in musicology, philology, guitar performance, and comparative literature?

IMG_3415

JR: That’s right.

R: What kind of literature?

JR: The masters was focused on Mediterranean literature, specifically in the Iberian Peninsula—Catalan, Basque, Gallego—and their connections with the wider Mediterranean culture. I did this degree because I wanted to diversify my CV. I’m very interested in the humanities in general. For example I studied quite a bit of philosophy, too.

R: How did you get interested in music originally?

JR: It was because of my neighborhood. I came from a working-class area, and in my neighborhood there were a lot of young boys and girls who played guitar. And we were very interested in underground music. I started to play guitar, and I tried to play Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie. That was very hard here. We didn’t have any video recordings available. In those days Spain was a very closed country. It was the last years of Franco. We couldn’t see the musicians, we could only listen to the music and try to imitate how it sounded.

R: Why weren’t there videos? Was it censored?

JR: No, it wasn’t illegal. There just weren’t a lot available and it was too expensive for us. For example we commonly listened to pirated versions of cassettes. In my high school, when I was around fourteen years old, if one student had a record everyone else in class had a copy too. We also used to listen to the radio station. But if you tried to imitate the music by just listening, it was very hard. I would go to concerts and try to stand in front of the guitarist, look at their hands, and try to do the same. But when I got home I didn’t know. It was hard.

R: Were there any bands or musicians that really caught your attention?

JR: Oh yes. For example, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, and some Spanish bands, like Leño, La Banda Trapera del Río, which is a punk band from Cataluña. And Sex Pistols, Bowie, and new bands like Chameleon. Psychedelic music, punk rock.

R: How old were you when you started playing guitar?

JR: I was twelve, more or less. But I started playing seriously when I was fourteen. My first guitar was my brother’s guitar, a Spanish guitar (with nylon strings). To buy my first electric guitar I had to save money for four years. It was very expensive to buy a guitar here. Very difficult.

R: Now that you’re a teacher, do you still play and perform?

JR: Yes, nowadays I play with a band. But I can’t play classical music because I don’t have enough time. It’s very depressing. Because you know how to play but you don’t have enough time to play it how you want to. In my rock band we play covers of Spanish, English, and American bands, like the Strokes, Sex Pistols, Thin Lizzy, the Rolling Stones, and a song by Judas Priest. There are five of us in the band. We’re called “Disorder” (Desorden in Spanish).

R: Can you give me some idea of music classes in Spain. What is the curriculum like?

JR: We have a problem because, in Spain, there isn’t a tradition of learning music in public schools. And it’s very difficult, because the students don’t think that music is important. In primary school there are only 45 minutes per week, and the teacher can’t do a lot of things in that time. Here in high school, in the second year [American eighth grade], we try to explain musical terminology, and play recorders and xylophones. In third year we study the history of music and listen to some pieces of classical music. In the fourth year music is not compulsory, it’s an elective. For me it’s more attractive for them; we learn about rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, musicals—modern music.

R: In the United States, schools often have many performing groups. For example, in my high school we had at least five separate performance groups (band, orchestra, chorus, etc.). Why isn’t this the case in Spain?

JR: It’s impossible here, because we don’t have this kind of tradition. If you want your children to do an activity like this, you need to pay a private academy to do it after school. Instruments and other resources are very expensive. And our national policy is not in favor of such programs. Of course, it would be a good thing to have these performance groups, but here it’s impossible. It’s strange because Spain is a country that has exported great musicians. But people here don’t think that music is an important skill.

R: Why do you think we have music classes in high school? Is it really necessary?

JR: I think it’s an important subject, and not just because it’s my subject. Music helps you to concentrate, work together… It is holistic knowledge. So on the one hand it teaches general skills. On the other hand music itself is very important. Everyone listens to a lot of music. But many people don’t want to learn it. They think that music is just for entertainment. This is a mistake.

R: In my case I think that music classes helped me to become a more dedicated and focused person. Music requires a lot of practice.

JR: Yes, music has a lot of benefits.

R: What are some of the challenges of teaching music to adolescents?

JR: Oh, to maintain their attention. Nowadays they are very narrow-minded. They don’t know a lot of things about modern pop music, and they don’t want to learn more about it. You play punk rock and they think it’s very strange. Another challenge is to convince them that music is important in itself. Music has the magic touch, so to speak, that allows you to discover more things. It is a sentimental education, important in the development of your emotions. Music can take you out of your comfort zone. Arts in general do this. And many people don’t like to study music and the arts for this reason. Art changes your life; and people don’t want their lives changed.

R: Some people insist that they have “no talent” for music. Do you think that’s true?

JR: I don’t agree with this idea. I think you can discover your place in music. We have this idea from the Romantic age of the musical genius. If you are going to do law, medicine, economics, you don’t think you need to be a genius in these fields. But people that start studying music think they have to be geniuses. This is wrong. Amateurs are the base of any artform. All people can play some instrument. They just need to discover which one. Maybe not everyone can be Mozart, Beethoven, or Miles Davis, but they can do it.

R: Do you think music classes benefit society in general?

JR: Yes. The upper classes always try to keep music for themselves. And this is because music helps us to develop our skills, our emotions, our culture, and this can be dangerous.

R: Would you recommend any Spanish musicians, styles, or bands that Americans might not know of?

JR: Nowadays Spanish pop has a good level. There are some bands that I think are quite good, with well-written lyrics. People can be very demanding with the meaning and poetry of lyrics in Spain. Bands like El Columpio Asesino, León Benavente, Mucho, Perro, Leño, Radio Futura… In classical music one of the best musicians of the twentieth century is Andreś Segovia, the famous guitarist, or Jośe Luis Turina, who composes atonal music. A philosophy teacher here sings in a good indie band, Ornamento y Delito. Check it out.