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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is by far the largest monastery in the country. Indeed it is one of the grandest buildings period. The whole structure of El Escorial is so grandiose that it seems to take up more space than the little town that surrounds it (which is also called El Escorial). Though ensconced in this village, the monastery sits isolated and alone, cordoned off by official buildings that separate it neatly from rest of the town. It is a world unto itself.
El Escorial is perched up in the Madrid Sierra—the same mountain range as Rascafría and Cotos—surrounded by the beautiful forest of La Herrería. It can be easily visited in a day-trip from the center of Madrid, either by bus (line 661 or 664 from Moncloa) or by train.
As one approaches the entrance of the monument, the mountains comes into view, looming beyond, with clouds hovering menacingly over their peaks. The building’s massive form and commanding position high up in the mountains, overlooking the surrounding plains, reveals its origin and function. Though a monastery, the primary purpose of El Escorial has from the first been as a Royal Residence. It was built during the reign of Philip II, one of the most powerful rulers in Spain’s history and indeed the history of the world. For this was the apex of Spain’s might, both on the European continent and worldwide as a colonial superpower.
Nevertheless, such a wild, gloomy, and isolated place (for there was no village here when construction began) is not an obvious spot for a palace. El Escorial seems to exemplify Philip II’s reputation as a dour, dedicated, and antisocial ruler, the personification of the Counter-Reformation. Yet for my part I can see why such a busy and harried man—he ruled over a considerable slice of the world, after all—would want a peaceful place to which he could retreat and focus.
Construction of El Escorial began in 1563. The monastery owes its design to Juan Bautista de Toledo, whose death prevented him from seeing through its completion. That was left to his more famous pupil, Juan de Herrera, whose style has since become synonymous with the Spanish Golden Age, and which has since been imitated in many modern Spanish buildings. The gargantuan heap of stone was completed in 1583, having taken less than 21 years to complete.
Visitors of El Escorial follow a prescribed route through the old hulk. Exploring the monastery for the first time can feel like getting lost in a labyrinth, so many twists and turns does the path take. The visit can also be rather overwhelming, since there are so many things to see: famous works of art, royal apartments, an emormous basilica, the royal mausoleum, and more.
The first stop on the itinerary was a chamber dedicated to a single painting: El Calvario by Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden. (In English, the painting is simply called The Escorial Crucifixion.) The painting is kept in a darkened room, surrounded by information about its history and the costly restoration needed to rehabilitate the time-worn work. As one would expect from a Van Der Weyden crucifixion scene, the painting is a masterpiece. It fully exemplifies the painter’s talent for creating solid, voluminous forms. The work does not so much convey movement and passion, but calm resignation, quiet tragedy, and somber stillness.
Near this room is the stairwell that leads into the Bourbon apartments. For me this is the least interesting part of the monument, looking for the most part like generic palace rooms. But there are some excellent tapestries on display, some of whose designs were drawn by Goya.
The next stop is the palace of Philip II himself. Though ornate, these rooms are more tasteful and bare than the Bourbon palace. Some items deserve special mention. There is a clock in the study with a little torch attached to the front of it, so you could see the time at night—the original version of a backlit watch. Yet perhaps the most scientifically significant item on display is Philip II’s wheelchair. The king had a bad case of gout, you see, which caused severe swelling and arthritic pain in his feet and legs. The chair has both arm- and leg-rests to elevate his sore limbs, but would require attendants to move it. History aside, the chair is a rather pathetic reminder that nobody, not even kings, are immune from sickness.
There were portraits and paintings adorning every wall: some depict members of the Hapsburg dynasty (each equipped with their distinctive chins); some are religious paintings; several are maps; and some are paintings of palaces in Spain, including El Escorial itself. In two of the rooms there is a sun dial, a metal strip on the floor, marked at intervals, with a little hole in the ceiling above. I think one would have to close all the windows to use it.
But the most beautiful objects in those apartments, for me, are the wonderfully ornate wooden doorways that connected room to room. Without paint, the designer has inlaid scenes and decorations in the surface—floral designs and landscapes—by using lighter and darker pieces of wood. Every square inch of the doorways is meticulously detailed. Just trying to fathom how much time it would take to put something like this together takes my breath away.
Near the apartments, up a flight of stairs, is the Sala de Batallas, or the Room of Battles. It is a hallway with an arched ceiling, almost two hundred feet long. It takes its names from the gigantic and elaborate frescos depicting notable Spanish battles. Here we see charging cavalry, marching infantry, men fighting with pikes, guns, and swords; cities are besieged, ships attacked and sunk. The frescos, which are more figurative than realistic, are the handiwork of Niccolò Granello, an Italian painter who worked in Spain.
The room is a brilliant piece of propaganda, a monument to the military triumphs of Golden Age Spain. One scene depicts the Battle of La Higueruela, fought in 1431 between the forces of Juan II of Castile and the Muslim Nasrid dynasty. We also see the naval battle of Ponta Delgada, fought off the coast of the Azores islands between Spanish and French troops, in 1582. There are also numerous scenes from the Italian War of 1551, fought between Holy Roman Emperor (and Spanish king) Charles V and the French king Henry II. All of these battles were, of course, won by Spanish forces.
After leaving this room, one enters a dark hallway that leads down a very forbidding set of stairs, deep into the basement of the building. At the bottom the visitor finds one of the most remarkable rooms in the whole country.
This is the Panteón de Reyes, or the Mausoleum of Kings. Here is buried nearly every king and queen of Spain since Charles V (Charles I of Spain), Philip II’s father. (The two exceptions to this are Philip V, who is buried in the palace at La Granja, and his son Ferdinand VI, who is buried in the Church of the Monastery of the Salesas Reales, in Madrid.)
The mausoleum is so extravagantly ornate that it is almost oppressive. Gold is everywhere, the walls, the ceiling, the chandelier, the window-panes, the columns, the angelic candle-holders, and the sarcophagi. These sarcophagi line the eight walls of the octagonal room from the floor to the ceiling, even above the door. They are made of dark Toledo marble and each has a gold plate on the front with the name inscribed.
For most of her history, Spain has followed the French tradition of only allowing male monarchs. The only exception to this is Isabel II (who reigned 1833 – 1868), whose accession to the throne caused a war, partly because of her sex. Thus, the women buried in this chamber are, for the most part, Queen consorts—the wives and mothers of kings. Another notable exception is Juan, Count of Barcelona, and his wife Maria de las Mercedes, whose remains will occupy the remaining two sarcophagi above the door. Though son of Alfonso XIII, Juan himself was prevented from ever becoming king by the Spanish Civil War, though his son did. What will be done with the remains of the Juan Carlos I (who is living, but has abdicated) and his wife Sofia, or current and future kings of Spain, has yet to be decided. It seems that Philip II did not anticipate the kingdom lasting this long.
Looking at the marble sarcophagi I wondered why all the monarchs of Spain were so short, since the tombs measure scarcely five feet. The answer to this puzzle is that the bodies are allowed to fully decompose before they are placed in the royal receptacle. This decaying is done is a special chamber called the pudridero, which lay somewhere deep in El Escorial. Only monks can visit these chambers, though presumably they do so infrequently, considering that it takes fifty years for bodies to fully decompose. This is where Juan, Count of Barcelona, and Maria de las Mercedes are now.
Few places in Spain, if any, contain such an overwhelming sense of history as this mausoleum. Some of the most powerful men and women in history lie here, dust and ashes. Rulers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century lay side by side, one atop the other.
Right next to this mausoleum is the Panteón de Infantes. The Infantes were the sons and daughters of monarchs who did not themselves become monarchs. There are six or seven different chambers, with sixty available spaces, of which thirty-seven are occupied. The most recent burial was in 1992, of Juan Carlos I brother Alfonso, who was shot in 1956 (he had been decomposing in the meantime; the Infantes have their own pudridero).
The most notable and impressive tomb in this mausoleum is that of John of Austria. He was the “natural” (read “illegitimate”) son of one of Carlos V. This Infante was one of the commanders of the Christian forces (composed of Spanish and Venetian galleys) against the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Lepanto. (Miguel de Cervantes also served in this battle, in which he permanently lost the use of his left hand.) The commander’s tomb is excellent: John is laying down in death, his head resting on an exquisitely sculpted pillow, with a serenely peaceful and noble expression on his mustachioed face. He is dressed neck to toe in fine armor, and is holding a real metal sword.
The other tomb which impressed me was hardly a tomb at all, but an ornate mass grave. It was the collective coffin for the numerous sons and daughters of the king who had died before puberty. The tomb is a regular polygon with twenty sides and two levels, which makes for forty slots—forty young bodies. This richly decorated tomb, with the emblems of royalty painted on every side, is a monument to the advance of medical technology. For every Spanish parent nowadays is better off than were those kings and queens, buried in tombs of marble and gold, who could afford the best doctors money could buy and power could persuade.
Next I ascended another staircase and found myself in a large hallway with an arched ceiling, covered in ornamental painting. This is El Escorial’s art museum. Tastefully arranged throughout this hallway were paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, José de Ribera, Velazquez, Bosch, and El Greco—among others. Every one of these paintings has a religious theme. There were pictures of saints in the wilderness, contemplating crucifixes; of saints being martyred, a knife to their throat; of saints contemplating heaven, face upturned; of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, and more. The famously pious Philip II was responsible for most of this collection.
The highlight of the museum is likely El Greco’s Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, which Philip II apparently disliked since the painter relegated the scene of the actual martyrdom to the background.
The museum leads into the richly decorated cloister, with its walls decorated with brightly colored frescos of the life of Jesus. From here you can see the principle stairwell, whose ceiling is covered in a magnificent fresco of a heavenly scene.
Nearby is a room called the “old church,” though I admit I am not sure why. In any case, it is a bare room, the only decoration being a few paintings on the walls. The most notable of these is by Titian: The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. According to tradition, St. Lawrence was killed by being roast alive on a gridiron; and while he was being killed, he supposedly called out to his torturers “I’m well done! Turn me over!” (This is part of the reason why he’s the patron saint of comedians.) Titian’s considerably grimmer version was first made at the behest of the Church of the Jesuits, in Venice. When he saw it Philip II liked it so much he asked the painter to make a copy, which still stands in the Escorial.
Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo in Spanish) is obviously an important saint for El Escorial, he being its namesake. According to legend, the very floor-plan of the El Escorial monastery was based on the interlocking bars of a gridiron, in honor of St. Lawrence. This is untrue, apparently, though the floorplan is notably grid-like.
After seeing all this—which does not even constitute the half of the massive building—I still had not even broached the largest and grandest space in El Escorial: its central basilica.
It is as large as many cathedrals. The stone ceiling towers high overhead, covered in frescos that are difficult to clearly observe in the dim light from so far away. Paintings hang in little niches all throughout the space: including ones by Titian, Ribera, El Greco, and Zubarán. The main altar is an elegant piece that stands over 90 feet tall. False columns divided it into a dozen niches, in which are either paintings or sculptures. In the very center, below Jesus and the Virgin Mary, was another painting of St. Lawrence being burned, this one by Pellegrino Tibaldi. (The Titian painting was originally destined for this space, but it was too dark in the dim light of the basilica).
The most distinctive aspect of the basilica’s decoration are the statues flanking the main alter. These are shimmering golden sculptures of two royal families, knelt in prayer. To the left of the altar (as the viewer faces towards it) is Carlos V, his wife, and children; to the right is Philip II, two of his wives (not simultaneous), and a son. These sculptures are marvelously rich, each figure wearing finely detailed armor or ornate dress, each one draped in a cape or a robe—and the capes of the kings are painted with the royal insignia.
And yet the most notable artistic work to be found in the cathedral is in a little chapel to the left of the door (again, facing towards the altar). Here you can find a life-sized, white marble crucifix sculpted by the famous Renaissance artist Benvenuti Cellini. It is here because it was given as a gift to Philip II by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The finely made crucifix is one of the few in the world that depicts Christ as fully nude; as such, it is displayed with a white clothe hanging around its waist.
After exiting the Basilica the visitor enters the Patio de los Reyes, or the Courtyard of the Kings, where one can see the basilica’s façade. The courtyard takes its name from the monumental statues of the Kings of Jerusalem, wielding scepters and wearing crowns of gold, who stand above the entrance. From here there is only one more stop on the itinerary: the Royal Library.
This was one of the greatest libraries of the Renaissance, whose presence here contradicts the dour and anti-intellectual reputation of Philip II’s Spain. Yet the choice to put the library here in the mountains, far from any established university, was not without its controversy. Whatever the library lacks in convenience to would-be scholars, however, it makes up with its beauty.
Like the Sala de las Batallas, the main room of the library is rectangular, with a vaulted ceiling, stretching to well over 150 feet in length. The decorated barrel vault is undoubtedly the main attraction: for here we have a allegorical representation of the liberal arts: the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic), and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astrology), not to mention Philosophy and Theology. I particularly like the representation of Philosophy, since it shows the Muse convening with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca. Also to be found are Virgil, Livy, Cicero, Demosthenes, Euclid, and many other intellectual heroes of antiquity.
But it is a library, so there are also books to be found. There are no labels or explanatory plaques, so it is difficult for me to give an account of them. A fire destroyed some of the collection in 1671, and Napoleon’s troops carried off some more after they conquered Spain. (This, by the way, is why the National Gallery in London has a famous painting of Philip IV by Velazquez. It originally hung in this library, but Joseph Bonaparte snatched it, and the painting eventually made its way to England.) Paintings of Carlos V and Philip II still hang here; and the library still boasts an important collection of Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and early Castilian manuscripts. Some of these volumes are opened, revealing the beautiful illustrations that accompany these hand-made books. In the center of the room runs a corridor, in which are displayed scientific and astronomical instruments. It is a veritable temple of learning.
From all this, I hope you can see why El Escorial is arguably the most extraordinary building in a country full of extraordinary buildings. It has the royal mausoleum, a historical library, a palace (actually two), a painting gallery, including several famous works, a massive basilica, and a monastery—and all of this contained within a single magnificent building. If you are like me, when you are finished you will have that museum-goers headache that one gets from trying to absorb too much information.
But once you exit the monastery there is still more to see. For the town of El Escorial itself is attractive. If you visit during Christmas you can see the town’s famous Belén (nativity) display in the main square. Every Christmas, the people erect life-sized plaster sculptures of the Virgin and Child, the three kings, as well as a whole scene with villagers, donkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, and even an elephant and a giraffe. These sculptures are not incredible works of art, you understand, but they are a comical reminder that the very same culture which had given rise to the monastery lives on.
The town itself is built of the same stern granite as the monastery itself; and its twisting, steeply inclined streets are home to many fine restaurants. From the Parque Felipe II, near the bus stop, on a clear day you can see the foothills of the mountains spread out before you, with Madrid in the distance. There are also two excellent parks, the Park of the Casita del Principe and of the Casita del Infante, the latter of which offers a great view of the monastery. Every time I visit El Escorial I discover something new to appreciate. It is one of the jewels of Spain.
“I think that was the train,” I said to GF as the train accelerated away from the station and into the distance.
“Maybe we should have ran for it.”
“Oh well,” she said. “I bet there’ll be another one soon.”
The two of us were standing on a platform in the Chamartín train station in Madrid, trying to get to Cercedilla. A friend of ours, a local, had told us that we could see mountains there. But unfortunately for us—and all too typically—we hadn’t checked any sort of schedule before attempting the journey.
“I guess we just gotta wait,” I said, and pulled out my Kindle to read.
We sat on a bench and I began distractedly reading, glancing up at the sign board every few minutes. Ten minutes passed; then twenty. Finally, the name “Cercedilla” appeared on the glowing sign board: the next train wouldn’t come for another hour.
“We really should have ran for it,” I said, and began to sulk. We gave up and went home.
One week later: Round Two.
This time we looked up the schedule beforehand, and had gotten to the station with half-an-hour to spare. Nothing could stop us now.
The ride to Cercedilla lasts a little more than an hour. This was two years ago, shortly after arriving in Spain, and so it was one of my first times seeing the countryside around Madrid. Most striking, for me, was how parched is the environment. The soil is tan and sandy; the trees are short and shrubby; and rolling brown fields stretch out towards the horizon, with a sierra beyond. To a New Yorker accustomed to towering trees and even taller skyscrapers, the easy visibility across so many miles is startling.
Stop after stop swept by, until eventually we reached our destination: Cercedilla. I have since gone back to Cercedilla a few times. It is an attractive town, popular as a cool getaway during the hot summer months; it sits up in the Madrid Sierra, not far from El Escorial and Rascafría. There are some very pretty hiking trails immediately outside the city.
But I didn’t have much time to look around, for soon I felt GF tugging on my arm.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing to small train nearby.
“The sign says Los Cotos,” she said. “I think those are the trains to the mountains.”
“But I thought that was the train to the mountains,” I said, pointing to the train we just got off.
“I’m pretty sure this is right,” she said.
Three minutes later we were sitting on a quaint old wooden train, much smaller than the one that took us here, with plush red seats which faced each other.
The train creaked into motion. Immediately we were heading steeply uphill; and we remained slanted this way the whole trip, as the train crept up the mountainside. We went by the backyards of houses, passing pools and patios, and kept climbing until we left all signs of the town behind. We were in a pine forest now, a uniform sea of green thorns and pine cones and grey bark.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a movie, the trip was so dreamy and picturesque. As the train wound its way up, making wide, concentric circles—each successive circle decreasing in radius—we were given a more expansive view of the mountains nearby, their sides covered in the same uniform sea of pine trees that surrounded us.
The train to Cotos makes only one stop on the way there, at Navacerrada, which is a small town that mainly serves as a base for hikers and campers. Along with Cercedilla, it is also one of the stops along the Camino de Santiago from Madrid.
Finally the train reached Cotos. Neither of us had any idea what to expect when we got out. There was an old, derelict station building, and a road leading away from the station and up a hill. But whatever curiosity I had for my surroundings evaporated when I walked out of the train and into the cold.
“Man!” I said. “It’s freezing here!”
“You didn’t bring a jacket or something?”
“You only brought your t-shirt?”
“What were you thinking?!”
“But it was warm in Madrid!”
We wandered around, noticing that we had wandered into a national park. But the cold was overwhelming. I tried to warm myself by rubbing my arms and bouncing around, but it was al in vain.
“We really have to go,” I finally said to GF. “Sorry.”
“Are you kidding? We got up early and spent two hours in the train, on a Sunday, and we’ve gotta go back?”
“I can’t stay here. I’m so cold.”
And so, thanks to a small but very stupid choice on my part, we made the long trip down the mountain, back to Cercedilla, and then back to Madrid. We had been defeated a second time.
Two months later: Round Three
We’d figured out the public transportation; I’d bought sneakers, a winter jacket, a scarf, and a hat. In short, we were ready for our third attempt to scale the mountain.
Once again, we took the train from Chamartín; once more, we went through the countryside to Cercedilla; again I was treated to the beautiful sights of the nearby mountains and pine forest as the train wound its way up, climbing to Cotos. And I breathed a sigh of relief in the cold air when, looking out towards the mountain, I saw another cloud gnawing on the same mountain. We were back; and this time I wasn’t shivering.
But before we began to hike, we decided to eat in the café near the station. We both ordered tortillas—which, in Spain, is not the flour-based wrap of Mexican cuisine. A Spanish tortilla is an omelet with potatoes, cooked in the shape of a thick cake and cut into slices. They are gooey, hearty, and delicious—easily one of my favorite Spanish dishes. But I found it so absurd, and so typically Spanish, when our generous slices of tortilla were served on top of generous portions of bread. Potatoes on bread, carbs on carbs. I really have no idea how the Spanish stay so thin. (Nowadays I eat tortilla with bread every day, and I haven’t gained a pound.)
This done, we began. We followed a dirt path up into the forest, towards what I gathered was the top of the mountain. But almost immediately I felt winded, as if somebody had hit me in the stomach.
“I can’t breathe,” I said, loosening my scarf around my neck. “The air here—it’s so thin!”
“Really? I feel fine,” GF said.
“What?” I said between gasps. “How?”
I felt strangely winded, perhaps from the altitude, but more probably it was all in my head. Yet I’m a stubborn person, and occasionally my stubbornness is a virtue—like when I’m trying to force my weak, flabby body up a mountain. So we pressed on. The path zigzagged its way up, from left to right, from right to left, gently leading us up and up.
We were on Peñalara, the tallest mountain of the Guadarrama range, otherwise known as the Madrid Sierra. These are the mountains that bound Madrid’s northern edge, separating the province from Segovia, and which provide some of the best hiking and most picturesque sights in the country. Peñalara itself rises about 3,600 feet (1,100 m) from its surroundings, and at its peak is 8,000 feet (2,500 m) above sea-level. Coincidentally, 8,000 feet is also the altitude at which people begin to be susceptible to acute mountain sickness (AMS). But I knew exactly none of this at the time.
It wasn’t long before I noticed the trees getting smaller and stumpier. We were nearing the tree-line. By now the restaurant below looked like a toy house, and I was getting used to the air; soon I was comfortable enough to start walking at a good pace. Every foot we advanced made the view that much more stunning. I’d never seen anything like it. The mountainous horizon seemed to roll, like an undulating sea; and the head of every mountain was buried in a cloud, which sat like fluffy top-hats over the peaks.
Soon the trees had all but disappeared. The only vegetation left was dry tufts of grass, forcing its way up through the rocky soil, and a few shrubs here and there. The rocks had interesting patches of neon-green on them, which I took to be lichen. Now we were ourselves just a few hundred feet away from a cloud.
We took a break on a big rock to eat some snacks, and noticed a strange little round hut in the distance with a blue door. This is the Refugio Zabala, an open refuge that was built in 1927 by the members of the Guadarrama Society. The door is always open and unmonitored, though two people could hardly fit in the available space (the rest of the building is taken up by material storage and weather-monitoring equipment).
We pressed on. I was tired now, too tired for conversation, too tired even for my usual complaining. But as my mind wandered, I found myself thinking of my copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which has a picture of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog on it, an iconic painting of the Romantic period. A brilliant idea struck me.
“Hey hold on,” I said to GF. “I want to take a picture.”
“Take my phone. I’m gonna go stand on that rock over there.”
So I clambered over a pile of jagged rocks off the path, and carefully positioned myself to recreate, as best I could, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, one leg raised, one hand on my hip, looking out towards the mountains. I felt somehow both extremely cool and unbelievably lame as I did this. But it came out pretty good.
We kept going. There wasn’t much distance now between the clouds and us. The view was so grand it was almost painful to look at. I didn’t feel tired any more, not cold, not winded. All of my senses felt supernaturally acute; the sun seemed nearer, the air clearer, the light more vivid. There was hardly any sound except my own breathing, the crunching of rocky soil beneath my feet, and the breeze going by my ears.
Finally we were there. The view disappeared behind a veil of gray clouds; we were standing in the sky. I could see my breath now. Some patches of snow were laying here and there on the bare ground. A couple of hikers passed us, going the other direction, obviously much better prepared than we were, with poles and those futuristic-looking synthetic jackets. Meanwhile, I was wearing a cheap coat and a hat with a little fluffy bun on the top. But it didn’t matter: we made it.
We walked around a bit, though there wasn’t much to see. In fact, there wasn’t anything to see; we were completely surrounded by fog, which was so thick that the sun was dim enough to look at directly. We walked perhaps three hundred feet before deciding to turn around.
But as we began to head back, a strange feeling started to take hold of me. I looked in the direction which, I was sure, we had come from; but it looked completely unfamiliar. Suddenly I felt lost; I began to feel dizzy. What was going on? Why didn’t I recognize the path? Was I suffering altitude sickness or something? Was I disoriented? Was it safe for me to try to navigate back?
My thoughts jumped to a scene from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, when Bryson himself was climbing a mountain. Being the nervous man that he is, he’d read up about altitude sickness beforehand, learning about how the lack of oxygen had made some climbers hallucinate and act erratically, sometimes making stupid decisions that got themselves killed. So when Bryson got up in a mountain himself, he began doubting his own mental state, suspecting that he may have come unwound without noticing.
Was something like this happening to me? It’s an interesting paradox, trying to determine your own sanity. If I was losing my judgment, how could I judge whether I had lost my judgment?
Terrible scenarios began to pop in and out of my consciousness, wherein we get ourselves totally, hopelessly lost and are eventually eaten by a bear—if there are bears around here—or simply starve or freeze in the vast national park. Nobody knew we were here; nobody would notice if we got lost.
“Want a carrot?” GF asked. She’d brought a plastic bag full of carrots in her backpack, and was holding out an orange stick for me to take.
I took a bite of the carrot; and the crunch, crunch, crunching in my skull snapped me out of it. I took a deep breath; I was completely fine. The path began to be recognizable, and in just five minutes we were stumbling and slipping down the mountain.
We had a train to catch. So, exhausted and hungry, we both made our way past the rocks with the bright lichen, past the dry grass and the stumpy shrubs, until we were again surrounded by tall pines. It took us three tries, but we had conquered the mountain.
Helena Massó is the Bilingual Coordinator in my high school—which basically makes her my boss. She was there on my first day of school, welcoming us into our new workplace, doing her best to make us comfortable, giving us our schedules and explaining how everything worked. She handles every administrative task for us, from renewal to vacation to scheduling, in addition to her many other duties. Not only that, but she is a working teacher. (In Spain administrators commonly double as teachers.)
She took some time from her busy schedule for an interview about her career. Here is the edited transcript.
Roy: Have you ever been interviewed before?
Helena: Yes, a couple times. Once was to become a certified Advanced English teacher . The interview was about why my name starts with an “H.” [In Spanish the “H” is silent; and so the sonically equivalent name is commonly spelled “Elena”.] I was annoyed that this topic was the main criterium to decide whether I was prepared to teach Advanced English, after passing my official tests in English to become a teacher, after getting the Proficiency certificate by Cambridge University, and after getting the Official School of Languages certificate of English. What about my professional development and career?
R: So… why is your name spelled with an “H”?
H: Well, because the Greeks are so weird. Really the explanation is too long. (See below for the story.)
R. How did you learn English so well?
H: I started learning English when I was 8 years old. My school didn’t have English as a foreign language. At the time it was more fashionable to have French. But my school introduced extracurricular English classes. And from the very beginning I became very interested in the language. So I went through my primary school taking English this way, as an extracurricular, and then took regular classes in secondary school. Then, when I had to decide to study something in university, for me it was clear that I wanted to study English. I studied English philology. I really liked the language and the culture. I studied some history, geography and literature of England and the United States. I forgot to mention that music was also a strong reason to enjoy learning English. I love traditional Irish music and rock, so I would enjoy listening to music and translating lyrics.
R: And have you ever lived abroad?
H: No, no I haven’t. Just short stays for courses abroad or holidays, no longer than a month or so. I am a product of public education. My family wasn’t poor but we couldn’t afford any extra resources. So if I hadn’t studied in a public school I couldn’t have become an English teacher.
R: So what brought you to teaching?
H: One thing leads to the other. The career possibilities out of English philology were very restricted. My first thought was that I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher, I didn’t feel prepared for that. Eventually I became a tutor for private lessons. And I liked to see how students improve with your help, and I liked helping them develop their learning skills. So one thing led to another. But my first thought was to become a translator.
R: What are some of the challenges of teaching a second language?
H: Teaching is very challenging in general, and teaching a foreign language… Well, it depends on the context. Before I began teaching in a bilingual program, the challenge was getting the students to express themselves in English. I remember I would start my lessons every year speaking English, and the students’ reactions were, in most cases, “We are in Spain, so you have to speak Spanish.” And my answer was “But we are learning English. We have thirty students, fifty minutes, three times a week.” My students had focused a lot on reading and writing, but not on speaking and listening. So it was a challenge to get them to react in a different way, not being so reluctant to speak.
And this changed totally when we started the bilingual program. Because those students who have studied primary in a bilingual program feel that it’s more natural to have classes in English. So you don’t have to fight against them to speak English in class. This is a very big improvement I’ve noticed.
R: So how do you overcome the challenge of students who are reluctant to speak English?
H: In our school, it’s easier, since it is a bilingual school. When they are being lazy and don’t want to speak English, I pretend that I don’t understand Spanish. So it’s just being consistent, insisting on English every day, so that it’s natural. It doesn’t matter if they make mistakes but they have to keep on trying.
R: Why do you think so many people take a foreign language for years and years, and yet hardly retain anything? I ask this because I’ve met many Spaniards who took English throughout primary and secondary school, and yet their level is absolutely basic. The same thing happens in my country, too.
H: That was one of the reasons for the bilingual program, just to shock the whole situation. And I agree with the initiative. Probably I don’t agree with the way that it was put into practice, the implementation. But why weren’t people learning? In my generation, this happened. The focus was much more on reading and writing a good paragraph, than on keeping the balance between the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and creating someone proficient in English, not perfect in grammar. Nowadays I think it’s different. But I hear a lot of adults complain about how their English courses were boring. Having lots of grammar exercises, focused on accuracy, rather than anything related to their interests.
R: Can you explain some of what you do as the Bilingual coordinator?
H. One of my responsibilities is to try to help teaching assistants feel good and comfortable at school, and empathize with you, because if you are happy working here your impact is huge. And I’m a mediator between teaching assistants and teachers. Another thing I do is keep track of which students might be struggling in the bilingual program, using feedback from teachers and assistants; and if English is their primary difficulty I may formally suggest that a student switches to the non-bilingual track. There are other responsibilities, such as fostering collaboration between CLIL (teachers who teach content in English, but aren’t themselves English teachers, such as Carlos of the history department) and English teachers in the bilingual team; leading the bilingual team; and promoting consistency in approaches and methodologies within the bilingual program, which is quite challenging because this tasks relies on collaboration.
R: Can you explain your approach in the classroom? For example, what sorts of activities and exercises to you find the most helpful?
H: It depends on the level, and it depends on the group. I try to analyze the groups’ needs. Some years ago I had a very good group of year-one students [equivalent to American seventh grade]. (And, by the way, one of those students is the one who won the global classrooms competition.*) I had a great situation and an enthusiastic, creative assistant, and a motivated group of students. That year, I managed to work on To Kill a Mockingbird, which is incredible for that level. This isn’t always the case. This year we need to work on basic stuff, grammar and vocabulary, to get them ready for next year. And my priority is to get them to change their mindset from primary to secondary.
I don’t really like to stick to the books. The books do give the students a sense of order and progress. But I like to do extra things related to the subject. The most challenging issue is to keep the balance between meeting content official content requirements and having enough time to make learning affordable and enjoyable by introducing some creativity in the lessons. Now we’re working on comparatives (better, stronger, faster, etc.), and we are collaborating with visual arts to do comparisons between pictures. So I like to do more creative activities. And I love working on literature. As a whole, I like students to change their mindset from “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet.”
R: Do you think you need natural talent to learn a foreign language?
H: Not really. I think learning a foreign language is a matter of degree. It depends on what your expectations are. If you want to speak a foreign language perfectly of course you need some talent. But there are many ways to be able to express yourself in a foreign language. So I think that’s a mistake in our case in Spain because we want to be perfect, and when we are not perfect we quit. To me learning a language is like doing music or sports: you can enjoy music or sport even if you are the worst singer in the world or if you are not really fit.
R: I ask this because I hear a lot of Americans saying “I don’t have the language gene” or “I just can’t learn a foreign language.” So they don’t try.
H: I think that this is wrong, I think that it is a matter of degree. You need to ask: What do you need the foreign language for? To get access to a new culture? To new ideas? In that case you don’t really need to be perfect. I think it’s much better to think, “Okay, I can get to this level, so now let’s try the next level. If I can, great. If I can’t, no worries.”
R: Do you think that engaging with English media, like TV shows and movies, can make a big different for students?
H: Yeah, for sure. I think so. I’m really surprised when students say “I can’t read this, it’s too hard.” And I say, “Imagine you are working out the instructions for a game console, and they are written in English. You’d probably work it out.” So this is the way. If you are connected with the topic, you will find your way to make sense of that. If you enjoy watching something in a foreign language, one way or another you’ll learn things.
R: I find that my best students are the ones who watch movies and shows in English.
H: I think it’s kind of a loop, a virtuous cycle. The higher your level, the more you can make of what you watch, and so you learn more, and you have more motivation, and so on.
R: What are some of the challenges of a bilingual school, as opposed to a monolingual school?
H: It is difficult to summarize quickly. We could spend our whole lives discussing this. It involves politics, in involves educational views, it involves school and classroom management… And every school is different. So I heard of bilingual schools selecting the students that they want to include in the program. And this is not my view of how bilingual programs should work. The challenge is being fair. A bilingual school should be a social escalator. If we have a bilingual school, we are giving our students, regardless of their background, the opportunity to—who knows?—maybe in the future get a grant, go abroad for studies, and have further opportunities. But I know that in other cases bilingual studies aren’t implemented this way. So the challenge is to be fair, keeping the balance between being a special program and providing equal opportunities to all the students. We are a public school. We have a social role.
Bilingual programs are often criticised when they are implemented in public schools but I’ve neved heard criticism about bilingual programs implemented in private schools. This is looking down on teachers and students of public education. We are giving a particular type of students the option to meet someone like you, someone from a foreign country telling them about their experience with hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for instance. Widening their horizons.
R: Do you think that learning a foreign language is important for society in general? And I ask this because, in my country, we are very monolingual.
H: I think that we should all get a taste of as many languages as we can. That doesn’t mean we have to be fluent in five languages. It means that we should be exposed to as many languages as we can. In Spain I think that it is a big mistake not to have some exposure for kids to all the languages spoken in Spain.** Some basic knowledge. And hopefully somebody decides that they like the way it sounds and they want to learn more. Because it’s our country, it’s part of our culture, our heritage. This way we wouldn’t have these political problems and controversy we have at the moment.***
The more you know about languages, the wider are your views about how the world works.
(By the way, I changed my name into Helena with and H before going to University because my parents had registered me as Mª Isabel when I was born and then baptised me as Mª Isabel Elena, but they would call me Elena. I found out about my official name when I was …eightish?? and told my mum that I wasn’t happy about being called Elena. I though that other names were cool, not mine. Then she told me that I should sign official documents as Mª Isabel but in my daily life I was Elena. I decided to fix such a mess and had to apply for the change in front of a judge and show evidence of my name. I decided to include the H because at the time I was interested in philology, this etymological spelling was quite unusual then. I added my own stuff to my identity, it was cool.)
*Madrid’s public schools participate in a program called Global Classrooms, which is essentially mock-UN. In a future post I will interview the assistant who was responsible for the program this year.
**Aside from Castilian Spanish, Spain has three other official languages: Gallego, Catalan, and Basque. And there are many other regional languages and dialects to be found in the country.
***There is a lot of controversy over the use of Catalan vs. Castilian in public schools in Catalonia.