Two NY Cemeteries: Green-Wood and Woodlawn

Two NY Cemeteries: Green-Wood and Woodlawn

More people are alive now than ever before, and yet the dead still outnumber the living. Many, perhaps most, of those dead are buried beneath our feet. It is unclear whether there are more interments than inhabitants in all of New York City, but it seems at least possible, considering that over five million people are buried in Queens—over twice that borough’s population. Calvary Cemetery alone holds three million bodies, making it the largest cemetery in the country.

Queens became an epicenter for burials in the 19th century, when land scarcity in Manhattan led citizens to look further afield. The state government took a cue from Pere Lachaise, the magnificent Parisian cemetery located far outside the city center. They eventually decided to convert barren and useland land near the Queens-Brooklyn border into an array of cemeteries. According to Keith Williams, bodies in Manhattan were disentered in the dead of night, to be ferried over to their new home across the river; and many were doubtless destroyed in the process.

The city was badly in need of a park around this time. Neither Central Park nor Prospect Park would be open until the 1870s. It was partly for this reason that the beautiful Green-Wood cemetery, which opened in 1838, became so popular. Indeed, the cemetery was such an attractive place to stroll about that, by the 1860s, it had scarcely fewer visitors than Niagara Falls. Though mostly neglected by tourists nowadays, it is still a lovely respite from the noise of city life, not to mention a repository of the city’s history.

I visited the cemetery on a scorching day in August. The air was humid and heavy. My clothes were soaked through with sweat, and the sun beat down harshly in the open space of the cemetery. Autumn or spring is preferable. I entered through the monumental neo-gothic gate at 25th street—a delightful work of architectural exuberance by Richard Upjohn, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects.

Once inside, the cemetery is as rustic and attractive as a park, with roads winding through grass lawns and scattered trees. The tombstones are distributed somewhat sparsely and unevenly in this immense green space. The majority are simple graves, no more than a foot or two tall, with some more imposing obelisks thrown in. Here and there one finds a statue, in bronze or stone, and some of the wealthier families have their mausoleums built into hillsides. Near the entrance at 25th street is one of the original ponds; and nearby is the cemetery chapel, a noble structure modeled after the work of Christopher Wren. Even more beautiful, perhaps, than the cemetery itself is the view that it provides, with several vantage points offering an excellent look at the Manhattan skyline beyond the river. 

Green-Wood Cemetery holds over 560,000 “permanent residents” (as the website calls them) and a great many of them are famous. Indeed, a list of the prominent burials in the cemetery reads like a who’s who of notable 19th century New Yorkers. We have Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887), a preacher who during his lifetime was among the most famous men in America. Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Henry was himself an abolitionist and later on a champion of women’s suffrage. However, his immaculate image became somewhat tarnished during a highly publicized adultery trial.

Another dead titan from this age is William M. Tweed (1823 – 1878), known as “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt and powerful leader of Tammany Hall. After years of stealing millions of taxpayer money, he was exposed and thrown into prison. On the stand, with nothing to lose, his confessions shocked the nation. He hoped for an early release; but that was not to be. Tweed did manage to escape custody once, sneaking across the Atlantic aboard a Spanish vessel; but he was apprehended in Vigo, Spain, by the local police (who had nothing other than a rough sketch to go on). He eventually died in an American jail.

Green-Wood cemetery, though never affiliated with any religion, has prided itself through the years on its respectability, prohibiting all executed criminals, and all who died in jail, from burial within its esteemed grounds. But Tweed, never one to play by the rules, posthumously circumvented this rule and found himself underground for the long sleep.

To discuss all of the notable people sunken in the dirt would take me from now until my own funeral. But I might mention two great musical giants to be found there, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), most famous for West Side Story, and Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012), one of the pre-eminent American composers of the last century, who lived all of 103 years. Yet another of the cemetery’s residents may have had a greater influence on music than either of these composers: Henry Steinway (1817 – 1871), founder of Steinway & Sons. His son, William (1835 – 1896), is there too, who played an important role in the development of Queens. In fact, the 7 train stills runs under the East River in the so-called Steinway tunnel, which William commissioned for his own shipping and transportation.

We may also find some men of the Revolutionary era, such as William Livingston (1723 – 1790), a New Jersey governor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and DeWitt Clinton (1769 – 1828), New York governor who oversaw the building of the Erie Canal. Indeed, the cemetery itself has a deep connection to the Revolutionary War, since it occupied a sight of a major engagement in the Battle of Brooklyn during the opening stages of the war—when invading redcoats routed Washington’s ragtag army, in a colossal defeat for the rebels. 

But the cemetery is not just a collection of famous bodies. A more somber monument is that raised to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater Fire, a conflagration which killed nearly 300 people in 1876. Of the victims, some 100 whose bodies were scorched beyond identification were interred in a common grave here, marked by an obelisk. About twice as many people died in this disaster as in the more famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. It was the third-deadliest fire in American history.

Even if you have no interest in the dead, Green-Wood is worth visiting for its greenery. In fact, Green-Wood is a notable arboretum, and its map also has the location of some notable trees—such as American Chestnuts and large Camperdown Elms. Life prospers where death appears to reign.

On that note, let us leave the Green-Wood cemetery and travel back across the East River, to Manhattan, and then onwards north to the Bronx. Here we will find another enormous and noteworthy cemetery: Woodlawn.

Opened during the Civil War, in 1863, this cemetery received some of bodies removed from overcrowded Manhattan. It has since grown to vast proportions, and is now the resting place of over 300,000 people. While not as inviting and park-like as Green-Wood, and while not providing such an excellent view of Manhattan, the cemetery is quite attractive in its own right. What is more, Greenwood is the final resting place of some of the most iconic figures in American history.

I visited on a cold winter day, last January, with my father. My priority was to see the tomb of Herman Melville (1819 – 1891). It is a simple and indeed humble tombstone, with nothing but an empty scroll of paper as decoration. This was surprising to me. For my money, Moby Dick is the Great American Novel, and Melville our greatest novelist. Yet Melville himself died in relative obscurity. After early success writing potboiler seafaring novels, Melville’s reputation sank once he turned to more serious work; and starting with Moby Dick, he was a critical and financial failure. It was only some decades after his death that his star began to rise again. For any struggling writers (such as myself) his story provides a depressing truth, slightly tempered by the hope that posterity can be kinder than contemporaries.

Melville and Me

My father’s hero is also in this same cemetery: Miles Davis (1926 – 1991). A bass player and jazz lover, my dad has been talking to me about Miles Davis all my life, especially Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue; so it was gratifying for us both to finally visit him. Davis’s grave is a large tombstone, so highly polished as to be almost mirror-like. The first two measures of one of Davis’s compositions, “Solar,” are inscribed on the tombstone. Curiously, Davis is referred to as “Sir,” which as I learned was because he was inducted into the Order of Malta (in a ceremony in the Alhambra in Granada).

Note our reflections
Miles and My Dad.

It would be hard to name a musician so influential in the history of jazz. Yet there is one buried right next to Davis: the Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as “Duke” (1899 – 1974). Ellington has a claim to being the supreme composer of jazz tunes—many of which have become standards in the repertoire—and, indeed, I think he can be justly considered one of the master composers in any genre of the last century, for his music went far beyond the conventional boundaries. His grave is a small plaque in the ground, set before a large tree and flanked by two stone crosses. 

Nearby, up the hill, is the conspicuous grave of Illinois Jacquet (1922 – 2004), an important saxophonist; and not too far off lies Coleman Hawkins (1904 – 1969), another great saxophone player, and further on Max Roach (1924 – 2007), the great bebop drummer. Woodlawn does not, however, cater solely to jazz musicians. Also interred is Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989), the Russian-born Jewish composer who helped to define American music, all while being unable to read music and only being able to play in the key of F sharp. Even if you know nothing of Berlin, chances are you can sing at least one of his songs.

Two major figures from the history of New York City are also here in Woodlawn. Fiorello La Guardia (1882 – 1947), the short Italian sometimes called the “Little Flower” who was arguably the city’s most influential mayor. He sits under an elegant tombstone, which states simply: “Statesman, Humanitarian.” Buried within the community mausoleum is someone perhaps even more influential in the city’s history, Robert Moses (1888 – 1981), the subject of the landmark biography The Power Broker. Moses was a power broker indeed, responsible for the building of parks, roads, public housing projects, and bridges. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of the poor and destroyed whole communities. He died with his reputation in tatters, yet having fundamentally shaped New York in the twentieth century.

Woodlawn, too, is an arboretum, with some beautiful trees on its grounds. Unfortunately for me, January was not the best time to appreciate this. Nor was the bracing breeze of that January day any more pleasant than the oppressing heat and humidity of the day in August when I visited Green-Wood.

In spite of this, I greatly loved my visits to these two resting grounds. Indeed, cemeteries are some of my favorite places. They are storehouses of history, and sites of homage to those who have shaped our world. They are also places of peace, an escape from the bustle of the surrounding city, providing us a space to contemplate how our own lives might be remembered. I recommend a visit.

Memories of Sintra

Memories of Sintra

There are many day trips that one can take from Lisbon, but one stands out both in popularity and importance: Sintra. This small city contains multitudes. Populated since prehistoric times, occupied by the Moors, used as a summer retreat by the royal family, and then beautified during the Romantic age of architecture—the city is bursting with monuments. And, most importantly, Sintra is easily accessible from Lisbon, merely a 45-minute ride on a cheap commuter train from Lisbon’s central Rossio station. 

A penalty of this accessibility and attractiveness is, of course, popularity. The city is crawling with tourists and all of the concomitant junk: overpriced restaurants, tacky gift shops, crowded streets, and so on. But, of course, if Sintra is popular, it is popular for a reason. This is apparent as soon as you step off the train. The surrounding countryside is picturesque in the extreme, with rolling green hills dotted with tile-roofed houses. The old center of the city is just as lovely, filled with imposing mansions (Sintra has long been the wealthiest spot in Portugal) ranged along medieval streets.

The whole place has the aura of a fairytale, so it is fitting that Hans Christian Anderson visited in 1866. A plaque marks the house where he stayed. Lord Byron was another famous visitor, relishing the dark forests and the craggy peaks that loom above the city. When he first visited the city, he wrote “Oh Christ! it is a goodly sight to see / What heaven hath done for this delicious land! / What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree! / What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!” Years later, in a famous line from Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimmage, Byron dubbed the place a “glorious Eden”—words that the Sintra tourist office are grateful for, I’m sure.

The most notable landmark within the old center is the Sintra National Palace. Compared with many other European palaces, this one has a rather modest aspect, striking the visitor as a large manor house rather than an imposing royal residence. Its most notable aspect are the two white cylindrical smokestacks that rise up from one side, like the two ears of a rabbit (used for the kitchen). The interior decoration, too, is quaint rather than majestic. Wood-paneled ceilings are decorated with the images of swans, magpies, and sailboats. The only room that is unmistakably regal is the Sala dos Brasões, or the Blazons Hall, with features a Moorish-influenced wooden ceiling bearing over seventy coats of arms of noble families, with azulejos running across the lower half. One is also reminded of Portugal’s Age of Exploration, since a delicately-carved model of a Chinese temple is also on display. 

The Hall of Blazons, with some distortion from the panoramic

Most of Sintra’s notable monuments are, however, not to be found in the city center; rather, one must ascend the hill overlooking the old town. It is possible to walk up this hill, though it is not for the faint of heart. I think it would take at least an hour of trekking from the base to the top. Most people opt for the bus, specifically the 434 bus, which leaves from Sintra’s train station. Now, I have taken this bus up twice and it has been highly unpleasant both times. The road leading up is steep, winding, and narrow; it is easy to get stuck behind a slow driver. In any case, the bus is normally packed to bursting, so that one may have to stand up during the ride, gripping the railings for dear life as the bus chugs its way up.

The bus stops near two major monuments: the Castle of the Moors, and the National Palace of Pena. I opted for the former during my first visit, for the very silly and superficial reason that it was cheaper.

The Moors were no fools: when they built fortifications, they chose locations wisely. This is just such an example: the old castle sits atop a hill, providing great visibility of the surrounding area and making attack up the steep hill difficult. Nevertheless the castle fell, in the 12th century, to the invading Christians (though it was not taken by force). Henceforth it became a Christian castle, and was periodically rebuilt and reinforced down the years. The walls that stand today probably owe little to the Moors, the castle’s name notwithstanding.

It is an extremely romantic spot. Grey granite walls rise out of the trees, snaking around the hillside. The visitor can walk along these walls, enjoying the unsurpassable view of the surrounding countryside. Below one can see the town of Sintra itself, ensconced in the forest and centered around the palace, with the green countryside beyond speckled with habitations as the land spreads out until the blue sea in the far distance. Though the hill is not very high, standing atop the walls and looking down gives one an amazing sense of height. Aside from the view, the castle itself spurs the imagination. Its crumbling form, wrapping around little but empty forest, evokes a faraway time. Like all ruins, the fortification’s very incompleteness invites fantasy.

The Castle of the Moors, with the countryside beyond

Standing on the walls, back in 2016, I could see across to the colorful, even disneylandish form of the National Palace of Pena. I was both intrigued and repulsed by what I took to by a terrific display of gaudiness. Yet despite this garish impression, enough curiosity formed deep within my psyche to prompt me to revisit Sintra, two years later, with the purpose of seeing this memorable building up close.

Pena Palace, as seen from the Castle of the Moors

The Pena Palace was built in the 1800s, during the high point of architectural romanticism: and it remains a monument to this movement. Romanticism, as a movement, was characterized by a fascination for everything exotic and ancient. The Romantic imagination, no stickler for details, freely mixed elements of medieval France, Renaissance Europe, Golden-Age Portugal, and Moorish Spain, resulting in an eclectic jumble of styles held together by sheer exuberance. The castle today is dominated by its bright pallet of red, blue, and yellow—its flamboyant form visible for miles around.

A model of the Pena Palace

When I spied the castle from the Castle of the Moors, it did not look very big to me—even smaller than the Sintra Palace below. Yet when I finally approached the building, years later, I found it to be gigantic, dwarfing all of the visitors that climbed up to visit. The palace has a roughly tripartite structure, with a red right, a blue center, and a yellow left. The visitor first passes through an elaborate stone gate, reminiscent of the Torre Belém, in order to reach the front entrance. There another gate—the walls covered in blue tiles, with elaborate and gruesome decorative sculptures surrounding the windows—leads inside the palace. From here I entered a sort of cloister, with every surface covered in tiles of blue, orange, and green, rather like those in the Alhambra.

Many of the rooms we passed were similarly decorated. The roofs, however, swelled into elaborate, web-like vaulting: a parody of gothic cathedrals. From within the cloister we could look up to see the bright red tower, whose form is also reminiscent of the Torre Belém. As is typical of palaces, there were rooms full of ornate furniture and other expensive decoration. In one room a beautiful candelabra with glass blown to look like leafy vines hung from the ceiling; in another, the Noble Room, nearly life-sized statues of bearded men held up the candles. Royalty has its rewards. Yet one of the more memorable rooms was the kitchen, whose elegant simplicity contrasted sharply with the pageantry above.

This strange architectural conglomeration owes its form to many hands. The primary architect was the German Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, who is also remembered for his geological research. The King and Queen themselves also lent a hand in the decoration. As it stands today, the palace is somewhat reminiscent of the modernist works of the Catalan architects Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner, though it lacks the controlling intelligence that vivifies the works of those two men. The final impression not one of beauty, but of a kind of whimsical playfulness, strangely contrasting with the normally austere ideal of monarchy.

Eschwege also lent a hand in planning the gardens surrounding the palace, and in this he was highly successful. Both times I visited this hill, I decided that I could not endure another bus ride, and elected to walk down the hill. Luckily, gravity aids greatly in this direction. I recommend this strategy, since the forest is lovely. Here you can see the other layers of walls that form the Castle of the Moors, which slither down the mountain like a ridgeback snake. While lost in this forest, it is easy to see why this spot attracted the attention of romantics: the decaying ruins amid the tangle of trees perfectly evokes that sense of distant grandeur that so beguiled the romantic imagination.

I reached the end of the hill, continued further down through the old streets, once again admiring the many small, nameless corners of beauty in the city. As I got on the train back to Lisbon, I thought complacently that, finally, I had seen what Sintra had to offer. But I was mistaken—which I would have known if, for once, I had done some research before visiting. In fact, I had not even come close to exhausting the treasures of Sintra, so it seems that I must still go back.

The most famous thing I missed is the Quinta da Regaleira. This is yet another monument of the eclectic imagination of the romantic mind. A “quinta” is a large manor house, typically owned by an aristocrat of some sort. This one was eventually purchased by António Cavalho Monteiro, an eccentric who was lucky enough to inherit a large fortune. He used this fortune to create a landscape of mysteries. The dominant architectural style of this property is neo-gothic, which can be seen in the palace and the chapel. The gardens, however, reveal the previous owner’s love of the enigmatic: they feature several tunnels and even two inverted towers that Cavalho Monteiro dubbed “initiation wells.” They were apparently used in rituals related to Tarot cards. Nowadays they are used in the modern ritual of Instagram.

Nearby is the Quinta do Relógio, a Neo-Mudéjar manor house that is currently on sale for over $7,000,000. Tempting, I know. Also close is the Seteais Palace, a large manor house originally constructed for the Dutch consul in the 18th century, and now run as a luxury hotel. Probably outside my budget. Somewhat further off is yet another palace: the Montserrate Palace, which used to serve as a summer getaway for the court. This somewhat strange-looking edifice is yet another example of the romantic style of Sintra’s architecture: colorful, exotic, miscellaneous. 

This short list only scratches the surface. Probably the best way to see everything is with a car and a few days to spare, not just a day-trip from Lisbon. I am sure that such a trip would be amply rewarding. The area is enchanting, and has enchanted so many people throughout the years that it is filled with monuments to its own charm. I can see what Lord Byron was talking about.

Memories of Lisbon

Memories of Lisbon

Lisbon was the very first place outside of Spain that I visited in Europe. It was in April of 2016, during Holy Week, as the end-point of a trip through Extremadura. We took a Blablacar, and I was amazed that there was no border, natural or artificial, between Spain and Portugal.

As we approached the city, the driver turned on the radio to let us hear Portuguese. I had hoped that my experience with Spanish would allow me to understand a little of this sister tongue. But it was absolutely foreign to my ears. Far from sounding like a closely-related language, Portuguese was as familiar as Russian. (I have since learned that this reaction is quite common. Peninsular Portuguese is strikingly different in pronunciation and speech rhythm from Spanish, even though on paper the two languages are quite similar.)

We entered the city on the majestic 25 de Abril Bridge—a suspension bridge conspicuously reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. (The 25th of April, 1974,  is the date of the famous Carnation Revolution, when the dictatorship was overthrown.) Two massive towers hold up a double-decker span over the river Tagus, the whole thing painted a rusty red color. Next to the bridge is another monument that recalls a foreign city: Christ the King, a tall statue of Jesus inspired by the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Through the cables of the bridge we could see the city of Lisbon huddled on the riverbank, its colorful tiles shining in the sunlight. This was my first glimpse of the city.

(The Tagus, by the way, is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, also passing through Toledo and Aranjuez.)

Despite this grand entrance, however, my mood quickly turned sour. I had been spending the previous six months exploring Spain like a madman, slowly getting the lay of the land, coming to understand the ancient country’s geography, culture, and language. Now I was, once again, a complete novice. I did not have the slightest grasp of Portuguese, so I had to rely on English, which made me feel like any other tourist. (This wasn’t a problem for communication, since the Portuguese are excellent linguists.) And I had not even the slightest notion of the history of anything we saw. 

But maybe this is all just an excuse. Maybe I was just sick of being on the road. After all, I had hardly spent a single weekend in Madrid the whole year. Whatever the cause, I managed to sabotage my own trip to Lisbon. I spent the better part of my time in that beautiful city wishing I were back in Spain. As anyone who has been to Lisbon knows, this is a shame, since Lisbon is one of the jewels of the Iberian peninsula—indeed, of all Europe.

Residual guilt and regret prompted me to revisit the city two years later, in September of 2018. TAP Portugal, the budget airline, lets you have a layover in Lisbon for no additional charge. So, before returning to Spain for the new school year, I had a little vacation in the Portuguese Capital, determined to see the city with fresh eyes. It was worth it.


Lisbon has one of the most distinctive profiles of any European city. The streets are paved with the famous Portuguese pavement—smooth bits of stone, black and white, that are sometimes arranged into mosaics. The buildings, meanwhile, are marked by that other distinctly Portuguese art: azulejos, or colored tiles. Even very ordinary apartment buildings are coated in shining porcelain. The city is generally quite hilly; and the smooth pavement does not make walking any easier. But the hills are what make Lisbon so dramatic, for streets will open up into magnificent views of the city and the ocean beyond.

On my first trip to Lisbon I learned something of the history and layout of the city by taking a “free” walking tour. The tour lasted four hours, and it was one of the most memorable experiences from my travels. We were led around by a man with long, flowing, black hair, whose passion for the city was intoxicating. He was a true Portuguese patriot, and an enthusiastic son of Lisbon. As he reminded us, Lisbon is one of the oldest cities on the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the world, founded by the Phonecians and later occupied by the Carthaginians and the Romans. The city is far, far older than the country for which it serves as capital.

In our guide’s memorable phraseology, Lisbon is a woman—with “black, flowing hair” (like his) “studded with seashells, who wears a dress that flaps in the wind like a sail.” Her husband, he continued, was the sea; and their child is the neighborhood of Alfama. This is the oldest neighborhood in the city; and if you have an ear attuned to languages, you will know that its name derives from Arabic. Though popular with tourists, the neighborhood has preserved much of its original charm. When we arrived, neighbors were chatting through their windows, and an old woman was washing something in a fountain. The area preserves the chaotic jumble of narrow streets typical of ancient cities; and this arrangement muffles out much of the extraneous urban noise, giving the Alfama a peaceful atmosphere.

Our guide also took us to the Bairro Alto, the “upper district.” Indeed, the neighborhood stands on one of the city’s hills. It was built considerably after the Alfama, and its streets lack the labyrinthine intricacy of that lower zone. Nevertheless, the streets are intimate and at times reveal lovely views of the city. More importantly, the Bairro Alto is the center of Lisbon’s youth culture nightlife, comparable to Brooklyn or Madrid’s Malasaña. At night the streets are packed with crowds of drinkers freely mingling. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to partake.

I did, however, go to see a fado concert in a café in this neighborhood. Fado is the flamenco or the blues of Portugal: a folk music sung to the accompaniment of a guitar (in this case, a Portuguese guitar). Though I did not understand the words, the music’s mournful quality is palpable. As the guide of our free walking tour informed us, the music expresses saudade, a Portuguese word that means “longing”—a deep state of spiritual disquiet for something missing. Our guide, incidentally, thought that this feeling was at the heart of the Portuguese character: the yearning of a widow for her fisherman husband, lost at sea; or the urge that drove the Portuguese to push off into the unknown during the Age of Exploration; or nowadays the longing of some Portuguese (our guide among them) for the country’s Golden Age, when it was briefly one of the most powerful states on earth.

In the heart of the city is the Baixa area, and at the heart of Baixa is the Plaça do Comécio. This is a grand, monumental square that opens up right to the River Tagus. An equestrian statue of Joseph I of Portugal stands at the center of the yellow buildings, looking warlike and formidable despite being mainly dedicated to opera during his reign. In this area are to be found high-end shopping and touristy restaurants, which I like to avoid. Right next to Baixa is Chiado, a similar zone of shopping and restaurants, containing some of the city’s central plazas. 

One of Lisbon’s most characteristic sights are the trolleys. As in San Francisco, the trolleys help pedestrians to traverse the steep hills of the city; and they have become a tourist attraction in their own right. The trams preserve a retro look, since the cars in use are still of the same rather diminutive size as when the system was built, in the 1870s. The most famous tram line is 28, which often ridden just for providing a good tour of the city. Our guide, however, warned us that it was wise to keep a sharp eye on one’s belongings, since the trolley is patrolled by pickpockets. I took a ride on the tram on my first trip—waiting nearly an hour on line to do so—and was, sadly, quite disappointed in the experience. I think walking provides a much better view of the city.

Lisbon has more recently taken on a strangely south Asian appearance, due to the spread of rickshaws catering to tourists. Again, I preferred to walk.

As befitting a seaside city of steep streets, Lisbon has many excellent lookout points. One is the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, near the Alfama, which offers an excellent view of the deep orange tiles of the rooftops and the pastel blues and pinks of the buildings. Lisbon has none of the brooding majesty of some Spanish cities; it is all light and air. The lookout point itself is a nice place to have a rest, with its tile benches and flowering trees. Right next door is the Miradour das Puertas do Sol—offering another superb view of the Alfama and the river beyond. The last time I went an enormous cruise ship was docked right in front of the old neighborhood. This cannot be good for maintaining its local atmosphere.

By continuing up the hill you will reach what is simultaneously one of the best views and the most impressive monuments of Lisbon: the Castelo de São Jorge. This medieval fortification is built upon the ancestral core of the city, where everybody from the Phoenicians to the Moors had their own forts. This is no surprise, of course, since the castle stands upon an easily defensible spot, controlling all the surrounding ground and providing an excellent view of the river as well. It is a superb spot.

The castle is up above.

What remains today is hardly more than a husk—the proud walls encircling little but trees and a few decaying ruins. But it is worth visiting for the commanding view alone, which becomes especially dramatic once you climb up to the top of the walls. The castle gardens are home to a handful of peacocks, which surprised me by appearing high up above my head, in the branches of a tree. I had no idea that peacocks were so agile. The castle also contains a small museum, showcasing some of the archaeological objects unearthed there—many examples of ceramics, as well as some ornamental Moorish tiles.

From the front of the castle, overlooking the city, the visitor can spot one of the other great lookout points of Lisbon: the Miradouro da Graça. Further up that same hill is the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, a place frequented by sunset lovers and aspiring instagrammers. The city is nothing if not photogenic.

During my first visit to Lisbon I was very surprised by its cathedral, often called the Sé. I was used to seeing the massive gothic, barroque, and neoclassical constructions of Spanish cities. Lisbon’s cathedral seems downright humble by comparison. It was built during the Romanesque period, which necessarily limits its size (since the barrel vaults of Romanesque architecture require a narrow space). What is more, the church has been repeatedly buffeted by earthquakes, most notoriously the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

An engraving of the earthquake, fire, and tsunami

This earthquake was one of the deadliest and most destructive in history. It was a catastrophe. The earthquake struck in the morning of All Saints Day, when most people were in church—heavy stone buildings that were probably the worst place to be. A massive tsunami followed in the wake of the earthquake, and in the chaos a fire raged out of control. In the end, tens of thousands of people were killed and over three-fourths of the city’s buildings were in ruins. During the walking tour our guide pointed out the Carmo Convent, a convent that has been maintained in its ruined state as a memorial.

An old photograph of the ruined Carmo Convent

This disaster caused ripples in Europe’s culture as well as its surface. Many took it as a punishment from God, since it fell on a holy day. Voltaire, meanwhile, was dissuaded of the Leibnizian idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This led, among other things, to the writing of his most famous book: Candide. But before that philosophical tale, Voltaire published a poem on the event, condemning the idea that humans had somehow deserved it: “And can you then impute a sinful deed, / To babes who in their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” Rousseau responded vigorously against this poem, asserting that humanity deserved it by being corrupted by civilization. After all, if the people of Lisbon had been living in little hamlets, spread out thinly across the landscape, the casualties would have been small. But it did not take a Voltaire to see through this casuistical argument.

My second trip to Lisbon was vastly enhanced by visiting two of the city’s museums. The first was the very popular Museo Nacional do Azulejo, which celebrates the great Portuguese art of colored tiles. The museum is somewhat out of the way, located in what was previously a convent: Madre de Deus. But it is well worth the effort to get there.

The collection offers a bit of history on the tradition of azulejos. As you may have intuited, the word is a loanword from Arabic, specifically the word for “small polished stone.” Any visitor to the Alhambra will know that decorative tile had a strong tradition in the Moorish world, the art of geometric design driven by the prohibition on depicting human forms. Even today, many if not most azulejos contain either geometric or plant motifs. However, this is certainly not always the case. Azulejo altarpieces depicting Jesus, Mary, and the saints were on display. Other tiles portrayed scenes of history or of daily life, like the tapestries that hung in many royal dwellings. 

The former church of the convent that now houses the museum

The variety was astounding. From restrained blues and white to vibrant colors of every kind; from quaint flowers to designs created from mathematical algorithms; from plain squares to tiles with three dimensions—the museum showcased the scope of the artform. Just as impressive as the collection, however, was the building itself. The convent has many richly decorated rooms, with golden altars, coffered ceilings, and walls covered with paintings. In one of the more celebrated rooms, the choir, the entire space is ornamented with gilded woodwork encasing high-quality oil paintings.

Yet the most stunning work on display was the Panoramic View of Lisbon before the 1755 Earthquake. This sequence of tiles encircles the walls of a large room, providing a detailed sketch of the riverside of Lisbon as it existed before that calamity. The work was originally commissioned to decorate a palace, presumably to help a monarch keep track of his own domain. Even a superficial inspection of this work will impress the viewer with how much the city has changed since the earthquake. The old city is covered with religious architecture: churches, convents, monasteries—and now only a hint of this monumental majesty remains. This azulejo is likely the closest thing we have to a snapshot of the ruined Lisbon.

The next museum I visited was the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which is somewhat misleadingly translated as the National Museum of Ancient Art (though the word “antiga” just means old, not “ancient,” and indeed hardly anything in the collection comes from ancient times). This is the largest museum in Lisbon and indeed Portugal; in fact it boasts one of the largest collections in Europe—or so they like to boast. 

Judging from my visit, I am willing to believe the claim, for the museum seemed to constantly expand. Luckily, the museum is quite a pleasant space, since it is in an erstwhile palace. I first visited the painting gallery. It was far more impressive than I had anticipated. There were works by Dutch, German, Italian, and Spanish masters. I was particularly pleased to find a wry work by Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in His Study, with the old bearded saint pointing rather impishly to a skull as a memento mori. The airy, triumphant style of Giambattista Tiepolo (who decorated Madrid’s palace) was in attendance, as well as the dark, brooding style of José Ribera.

Dürer’s depicting of St. Jerome

But my favorite work by a long shot was the Triptych of the Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch. Anthony was one of the early Christian ascetics, who isolated themselves in the desert in order to purify themselves. Bosch’s work represents the physical and spiritual temptations that the saint had to endure during his long years of fasting and prayer. As usual with Bosch, this gives rise to bizarre and fantastic imagery. The central panel is the main focus: showing the kneeling saint surrounded by the whole population of Bosch’s superfecund imagination: human-animal hybrids, men lacking limbs and even whole bodies, fish wearing armor, ruined buildings and burning cities—each of these images visually fantastic and symbolic of sin. It seems that Bosch had a both a horror and a fascination of sin, since he was so adept at portraying it.

Paintings constitute only a small part of the museum’s collection. There are all of the items of royal living: elegant furniture, finely-woven tapestries, delicately crafted silver and ceramic tableware—the list goes on. And the collection is not merely from Europe. Pioneering explorers and colonists as they were, the Portuguese collected many fine works from far off places, most notably China and (if memory serves) Japan. The museum’s sculpture collection is especially impressive, if only because of the way that the statues are arranged in the wide halls of the former palace, like silent servants waiting to be called upon.

Inevitably with a museum of this size, some version of fatigue sets in during the visit. Fortunately, the museum has a fine café which leads out to a garden in the back, where you can enjoy yet another sweeping view of the city. I would have lingered there longer, but the museum was closing and the guard kicked me out.

I have spent this long describing the enchanting city, but I have yet left out one of the most splendid corners of the city: Belém. 

The name “Belém” is Portuguese for Bethlehem. The neighborhood stands rather far from the city center, near the mouth of the Tagus river. To get there it is best to take a tram or a train. I took the latter, passing under the 25 de Abril Bridge on the way.

I am afraid that my first trip to Belém, in 2016, only added to my bitterness at Lisbon. This is because the line to visit the Jerónimos Monastery—one of the famous monuments of the are—was very long; and after waiting for an hour and paying to get inside, I found out that the most impressive section of the monastery, the church, is free to visit and has no line at all. Let my experience serve as a warning to any visitors in a hurry.

All carping aside, the Jerónimos Monastery is by far the most impressive work of religious architecture in the city. Its size is immediately striking. Like so many grand monasteries, Jerónimos spreads out with the girth of a palace. While waiting in line, under the hot Portuguese sun, I did get a chance to admire the building’s beautiful façade: ornamented with fabulously intricate friezes designed by João de Castilho (or, as he is known in his native Spain, Juan de Castillo). The cloisters of the monastery are some of the finest I have ever seen, so delicately carved that it makes the stone seem lighter than air. Within this monastery are buried several Portuguese luminaries, such as the novelist Alexandre Herculano and the poet Fernando Pessoa.

The monastery church maintains this exquisite decoration. In the vast and gloomy space, culminating in web-like vaulting, the columns rise up like legs. Each of them has been carved almost from top to bottom. As in the Escorial Monastery in Spain, Jerónimos serves as the royal resting ground. Large pyramidal tombs sit upon sculpted elephants, containings kings and queens. Yet the most famous people buried in the church had not a drop of blue blood. In matching tombs near the entrance are buried Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet, and the famous explorer Vasco da Gama. These tombs were constructed long after those two eminent men died; but their remains were transported here in the 19th century.

The style that characterizes the Jerónimos Monastery is called Manueline—a blend of gothic, Italian, Spanish, and Moorish influences—and it is typical of the Portuguese Golden Age. Nearby is another excellent example of this style, as embodied in the Belém Tower. Indeed, this tower was composed of the same rock as was used to make the monastery. It was built as a defensive structure; but this pragmatic function did not lead to a dull edifice. Rather, the fortification displays the same exuberant decoration as the monastery. The fortress was originally constructed on a small island near the bank; but the shoreline has gradually expanded, so that nowadays the tower can be visited on foot. Both times I saw the tower, the line to enter was quite long, so I decided against it.

Just down the river from the tower is the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a far more recent construction, having been built in 1939 for the Portuguese World Exhibition. It is a worthy addition to the area. The massive concrete fin is shaped like the prow of a ship; and riding on top, in a heroic procession, are great figures from Portugal’s Age of Discovery. In the space in front of the monument, a large mosaic compass has been inserted into the pavement. In the center is a map of the world, with the names of notable explorers and the dates of their voyages marked. Most of the figures aboard the ship are, I am afraid, unknown to me. But at the tip is Henry the Navigator, the Prince who helped to inaugurate and coordinate the first Portuguese explorations.

No account of Belém would be complete without mention of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, a bakery famous for making Lisbon’s most iconic food: pastel de nata. This is made with egg custard inside a small, crispy pie crust. They are omnipresent in Lisbon and make for an excellent breakfast or dessert. The recipe was originally developed in the Jerónimos Monastery itself, by monks who wanted to make some extra money. But when the monastery was secularized in the 19th century, the recipe was sold. While I am on the subject, I should also say that, in general, the food in Lisbon is quite good: fresh, flavorful, and reasonably priced. I especially enjoy the cod.

To sum up this long overdue account, Lisbon is a city of delights. The city itself is beautiful; and it is full of history and culture. Indeed, the only problem with Lisbon is that it is so nice that it attracts a great many tourists. But this is the curse of all great destinations.

Canary Islands: Lanzarote

Canary Islands: Lanzarote

A year had passed since my last trip the Canary Islands. Now it was time to go back—for this trip, to the island of Lanzarote. This time, however, I was traveling on someone else’s dime. Rebe had bought me this weekend trip as my birthday present. Relationships sometimes do pay off. 

The view of the Madrid mountains from the plane window

Lanzarote is the fourth largest Canary Island by area, and the third largest by population. It sits at the northeast extreme of the archipelago, its form like a squiggly oval in the sea. The main thing that I had been told about the island is that it is Martian: bone dry, bereft of vegetation, and covered in red volcanic soil.

As with last time, we would have to rent a car to traverse the island. I was only slightly less nervous about driving than I had been last year. The added time had not added to my experience. I had been behind the wheel remarkably little in the intervening months. At least the car was cheap, and came with insurance. Once again, we rented with PlusCar, and got a Honda Prius with automatic transition (I can’t drive a stick) for about sixty euros, with everything included.

Soon we were on the road. My informants had been right: the island looked like another planet. Misshapen mountains swelled out of the flat red desert, where scarlet soil alternated with fields of black igneous rocks. As in Andalusia, nearly all of the buildings were whitewashed—a recourse against the sun and the total lack of shade. These low-lying dwellings nestled within the wide space, connected by roads that cut through the land at arbitrary angles, there being almost no obstacles in the topography. Though the landscape gave every impression of being inhospitable, the weather was almost perfect: warm but not hot, with a gentle cooling breeze.

Why is Lanzarote’s bone-dry climate so different from the verdant Tenerife’s, which is only a few hundred kilometers away? I suppose the answer must be elevation. The high peak of Teide, Tenerife’s central volcano, captures the mist rolling in from the clouds and channels it downwards to the valleys below; while Lanzarote is quite flat by comparison.

Human habitation on these islands goes back a surprising way. As I mentioned in my previous post, the islands were inhabited by an ethnic group known as the Guanches before the Spanish arrived. But before the Guanches established themselves, the islands were visited by several ancient peoples, most notably the Romans, who left archaeological remains near the pueblo of Teguise. The great geographer Ptolemy even gave the islands’ exact locations. It is a wonder that it did not become a popular vacation spot sooner.

Our plane landed in the afternoon, so our first order of business was, naturally, to have some lunch. We stopped in a place called El Moreno, which specializes in grilled meat (though, again, one wonders where the animals are living). Both of our dishes were delicious. Canarian food has so far never disappointed me in its richness and its simplicity.

From there it was a very short drive to our first stop: the Fundación César Manrique.

Few architects are as emblematic of a place as César Manrique is of Lanzarote. The only comparison I can think of is Gaudí’s relationship with Barcelona. Manrique was a prolific Spanish architect who spent much of his career in New York. Indeed, Nelson Rockefeller—a lover and patron of modern art—paid for Manrique’s apartment. Upon his return, Manrique set about transforming the landscape of his native island. It is largely thanks to him that there are no high-rise buildings or ugly billboards obstructing the natural beauty. He also helped to implement building codes that insured that all buildings have a traditional look. That the island is so well-composed is largely thanks to him.

But Manrique also built his own works of art, scattering them on every corner of the island. The building which serves as the headquarters of his foundation, called the “Volcano House,” was his own home for twenty years.

Anyone expecting the architectural exuberance of a Gaudí will be disappointed. Rather, Manrique’s style is made to highlight and complement the island’s natural beauty. Thus, upon entrance the visitor finds herself in a courtyard filled with exotic plants and little ponds. The only explicitly artistic touch is the mural running across the back wall—which, to my eye, bears the obviously traces of Miró’s style. The low walls also afford a glimpse at the landscape beyond, which rises up into red hill in the distance. It is a charming and comfortable space; yet I found myself slightly disappointed at the simplicity. 

But this feeling disappeared when I descended to the lower level. Manrique put his house on land still scarred by volcanic eruptions. Several craters pockmarked the terrain, which Manrique turned into subterranean rooms—a posh living room, a dance floor, a lounge, a spot for grilling, and a small swimming pool: all decorated with sleek furniture. Manrique carved out tunnels to connect these five spaces, and the feeling is that of being in a high-class nature resort. In the main building some of Manrique’s drawings, paintings, and ceramic work were on display.

Even after this performance, however, I admit to being somewhat less than awed by Manrique’s work. It is admirably simple, and it complements the landscape remarkably well. However, I thought that it lacked a forceful personality behind it, and that it well beholden to a vision of tropical paradise which I did not share. But this was only the beginning of my acquaintance with Manrique’s architecture. For, as I soon learned, there is not a single corner of the island that does not bear his fingerprints.

I should also mention that we met one of Rebe’s friends at the Fundación. He’s from another Canary Island, and had met Rebe during a camping trip. Unfortunately for me, I found his Canary accent to be so thick that I could hardly understand a word he said. It is a very different sort of Spanish.

Now it was finally time to check into our Airbnb. Our bags had been sitting in the car the whole time. Rebe had rented a room in a house a little bit outside the town of San Bartolomé. Like so many places on the island, the neighborhood seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We parked the car and went inside. Already I marvelled at the total lack of parking regulations. “We don’t care about that kind of stuff here,” our host explained. The house was entirely typical: whitewashed, with a tile roof, and surrounded by a fence enclosing a small garden. The interior was of a piece with the outside: mostly empty, with white ceilings, white walls, and full of viny plants.

The beauty of Lanzarote was already beginning to get under my skin. It is the beauty of barrenness, of emptiness, of the desert. It is the beauty of wide open nothingness. What few structures there are—trees, houses, hills—stand out amid the cloudless sky and even terrain, presented as in a minimalist work of art. It is a place that I could get used to.

Since we arrived relatively late, it was already evening when we had settled into our Airbnb and were ready to leave again. Inevitably, we decided to visit another work of Manrique, the Jameos del Agua.

The road there took us across the entire length of the island. When we got into the car the sun was already setting; in half an hour it was quite dark. So far I had been doing decently well in my driving. But piloting in the dark unnerved me. I had hardly any experience with it. On the highways it wasn’t bad, since there were many other cars illuminating the roads, as well as some street lights. And many of the main roads off the highway were lined with reflective plastic.

But our route took us through local roads with no luminescent resources whatsoever. I was driving blind, only able to see the next twenty feet of road in front of me. There were not even any natural contours to the landscape to help orient me; the road was a flat surface surrounded by a flat plain—a line of black asphalt imposed over black volcanic rock. Needless to say I did not find it especially relaxing, and I slowed down to a crawl.

Eventually we reached our destination. It was around eight in the evening and the large parking lot was mostly empty. From the outside the place didn’t look like much—a few nondescript buildings in the middle of nowhere. We paid the entrance fee and went inside, and a winding staircase led us down into a large crater. There we found a restaurant: elegant tables, chatting guests, and a well-stocked bar.

A kind of manufactured “cool” music was pumping through the sound system—a mixture of wavy atmospheric synth and insistent drums, with a woman’s ethereal voice intermittently crying over the ruckus. Such music immediately set the tone of the place: loudly expensive. I did not like it. Though we had not eaten, we did not even consider ordering something from the restaurant, since even a beer was sure to be twice its usual price. Instead, we moved towards the central tunnel.

This is easily the highlight of the Jameos del Agua: a volcanic tube connecting a crater on either end. In the tunnel is a salt-water pond, where a strange species of indigenous lobster lives: the Munidopsis polymorpha. In size it is closer to a shrimp than a lobster, indeed even smaller; and its color is albino white. This diminutive create is blind, and is only found in Lanzarote, for which reason it has become the island’s symbol.

Nearby signs advised us not to throw any coins into the water, since this pale lobster depends on a fragile environment. Meanwhile, shifting lights on the ceiling and bottom of the tunnel silhouetted the jagged rocks. I tried to photograph it but the effect proved too delicate for my camera’s light settings. After admiring the cave for a good while—trying to ignore the irritating music—we moved through the tunnel to the other side. Here we climbed a staircase to another crater.

This space resembled a resort: with lawn chairs, a bar, umbrellas, and a pool in the center. The water glowed neon blue in the darkness. Further on I discovered a concert hall. This was by far my favorite part of the Jameos. The hall was beautiful—built into the cliff side, with rows of seats underneath the amorphous igneous rock. Here the bad mood-music could be heard no more; the space was sonically isolated. It must have had motion sensors, too, for when I entered the lights turned on and music began to play on the hall’s speaker system. It was a medieval motet. Ghostly voices reverberated throughout the hall, slowly ascending and descending in Latin syllables. It was gorgeous. And I was there, alone, to appreciate it: the sounds of heaven under the earth.

Despite the place’s commercial and even tacky aspect, I enjoyed the Jameos del Agua. In the stillness and blackness of the night, with very few people around, it had the mystery of an abandoned place.

With another ride through the night, and a quick dinner at a pizza place, we were already finished with our first day at Lanzarote. The next day was our last.


Our first stop the next day was the island’s national park: Timanfaya.

The drive there took us into a landscape that was even more barren than usual. The soil glowed red in the morning sun as the car passed miles of flat terrain. It was hard to believe that we were going anywhere, as the terrain was so rhythmically monotonous. But the voice of the GPS directed us forward, until we were instructed to turn off the road, towards a statue of a little devil that said “Timanfaya.” (This demon, the symbol of the park, was designed by—you guessed it—César Manrique.)

There, a man in a little shack took our money—it was cash only—gave us tickets, and allowed us to go on. The ground here was no longer red and sandy, but dark brown, rough, and arranged in messy piles. The road took us up a slight hill and towards the visitor’s center, where we were waved into a parking spot. Timanfaya has no trails, only roads; and you are not permitted to drive around it yourself, but must take one of the park’s bus tours.

We boarded the bus, along with about twenty other visitors, and set off to see the UNESCO biosphere reserve. I had little idea what to expect as the bus lurched into motion. A recording began to play on the bus’s sound system, giving us information about the park in three languages: English, Spanish, and German (more languages are available on the park’s app). The bus crawled into the volcanic landscape; and I was repeatedly amazed at the driver’s skill, for it must not be easy to maneuver a large tour bus on the narrow, twisting, uneven road.

The devil statue is an appropriate symbol for Timanfaya, for it is a hellish landscape. The audio guide informed us that it was formed during the island’s most recent volcanic eruptions, in the 1700s. Indeed, the guide even included readings of some eyewitness testimony of the cataclysm. (I believe there were no human casualties.) The ground writhed and churned like a storm-tossed sea. The rock itself had grains, like the wood of a tree that had grown around some impediment. Hardly a speck of vegetation was in sight. I found it impossible to capture the impression by taking photographs through the bus’s windows. The tortured mounds of black and red rock created the nearly nauseating sensation that the ground was alive. 

This is the closest that I have ever been to a volcanic eruption, and it was a powerful experience. Since I have lived in seismically inactive areas all my life, the idea of the earth moving—or, more radically, of the earth spitting up more earth—is difficult for me to even imagine. But in Timanfaya, the evidence of volcanism is so perfectly visible that it is impossible to forget the perpetual burning which boils beneath our feet. 

The visit was, however, surprisingly short. In about forty minutes we were back in the parking lot. Near the visitor there are some pits and holes in the ground. There, a park worker was demonstrating the still-active volcanism of the area. He did this by pouring water down one of the holes, only to have it shoot up in a geyser of steam moments later. I almost had a heart attack the first time. He also stuffed some straw into one of the pits, which promptly caught fire due to the escaping heat.

After witnessing these marvels of nature, Rebe bought some knicknacks at the visitor’s center, and we were on our way again. We next wanted to see Lanzarote’s capital: Arrecife.

The city first presented itself as rather ordinary and unremarkable—a collection of whitewashed buildings and crowded streets. But the prospect considerably improved once we walked to the shore. Arrecife is Spanish for “reef,” and it takes its name from the rock reef that lines the coast. The water was blue and shimmering; and even though we were at the port, it was full of swimmers. Further down we saw Arrecife’s beach, the Playa del Reducto—a typically idyllic combination of sand, sunbathers, palm trees, and resorts.

Soon we came upon the city’s most historic landmark: the Castillo de San José, a small fortress built in the 1700s. It is on an island attached to the mainland by a stone walkway, much like the Castillo de San Sebastián in Cádiz, only more diminutive. Crystal water lapped both sides of the walkway, and the wind whipped up once we reached the halfway point. Two old canons stand guard before the weatherbeaten castle, two hollow tubes before a now obsolete edifice. The fortress now houses a small art museum, but I did not know this at the time, so I did not pay the entry fee to go inside. 

Looking back towards the shore, we could see the Church of San Ginés, perhaps the most notable house of worship on the island. The current structure owes its form to the 17th and 18th centuries; but it was built over the first hermitage on the island, which was established in 1574 to house an image of the island’s patron saint. A flood swept away this original building in the 1600s. Nearby is the Charco de San Ginés. Charco is Spanish for “puddle,” but this is a man-made bay where fishermen moor their colorful skiffs. Needless to say that it was designed by César Manrique.

Our next stop was, of course, yet another of that indefatigable artist’s work: the Mirador del Río. This is on the north-eastern side of the island, somewhat close to the Jameos del Agua, so it took a little time to get there. Thankfully we weren’t driving at night. The road took us up above the sea, passing little villages and some scattered wineries. From the outside the Mirador doesn’t look like much. The parking lot is adorned with one of Manrique’s mischievous statues, but the building itself has been disguised by being built into the cliffside.

We walked in and prepared to pay the entrance fee.

“You don’t want to go in,” the ticket man said. “There’s lots of fog. You can’t see anything.”

“Really? Uh… thanks,” I said, and we began to walk back to the car. 

“Now what?” Rebe said to me, rather disappointed that we had come all this way for nothing.

“Don’t listen,” we heard a voice say. It was a Spanish woman walking out of the Mirador. “Even with the fog, it’s nice.”

“Oh… thanks!” we said, and went back inside.

“You sure?” the ticket man said, seeing us again.

Only in Spain does the man selling tickets try to dissuade you from paying.

Like nearly everything Manrique built, the Mirador del Río has a parking lot, a gift shop, and a café. The man may not have been a groundbreaking architect, but he understood tourism. As usual, the interior is sleek and chic, with curving walls and hand-made metal chandeliers. The space opens up through two enormous windows, revealing the famous view.

Unfortunately, the ticket vendor was right: it was a foggy day. Normally one should be able to see the neighboring island, La Graciosa, and the narrow channel of water between them (called el río, or “the river”). But this sight could only be snatched at intermittently, when gusts of wind blew the insistent fog away. It was impressive nonetheless. The overlaying mist, which smelt of moisture and ocean, lent a mysterious grandeur to the distant island, only visible in stolen moments. And, true to form, Manrique did a wonderful job in integrating the structure into its surroundings; even the gift shop did not seem out of place.

A glimpse of the famous view

Daylight was waning; our time in Lanzarote was coming to an end. For a last stop we went to the nearby Famara Beach, one of the island’s best-known beaches. The sand stretches for miles, and the cliffs of Famara make a picturesque backdrop to the coastline. However, the current was strong and the wind was cold, so there was not a soul in the water. Volcanic rocks were scattered amidst the sand, trapping pools of water here and there. Very carefully, I placed my camera on one of these rocks and set the timer. We had to have at least one photo together on the trip. 

After our fill of salt and sand, we got back into the car to go home. But we decided to make a quick stop to the nearby pueblo of Teguise on the way back. It is certainly one of the more charming villages on the island, with several historic church buildings, old cobblestone streets, and a view of the beach below. In the pale blue light of the dusk, the white buildings had an almost ghostly glow. Here, again, was that spare beauty of the desert, which I had quickly come to cherish. 

The next morning we dropped off the car, boarded the plane, and returned to Madrid. (I should mention that we used PlusCar once again and it was just as cheap and convenient as before.) Just as in Tenerife, I wished that I could have spent more time on the island—far more. Both of the islands were pleasant in the extreme: friendly people, fresh food, temperate weather, and intoxicating natural beauty. I envy the people who live there.

Canary Islands: Tenerife

Canary Islands: Tenerife

I spent the entire plane ride in a panic. The sleep deprivation didn’t help. As usual, I had bought tickets for an early flight in order to save money; and, as often happens, I was too nervous to sleep well the night before. Several seats in front of me, Rebe was contentedly snoozing. I tried putting my hood down over my eyes and drifting off; but every time the plane dipped or turned, I was jolted awake. The art of sleeping on airplanes still escapes me. 

Our destination was Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. This is a group of volcanic islands off the Western coast of Morocco. Including Tenerife, there are seven main islands in the archipelago, along with many minor ones. These islands have been controlled by Spain since the late middle ages. They were conquered as a kind of prelude to the colonization of the New World—during which they were used as a jumping off point to cross the Atlantic.

Before the Europeans came to establish themselves, the islands were populated by indigenous peoples known as Guanches, who had originally came from Northern Africa. Their culture was either totally destroyed or absorbed by the invading Spaniards, so that nowadays only slight traces remain, along with tantalizing archaeological evidence. Today the islands are a kind of offshore European vacation spot.

Considering that I was heading to a tropical island with my girlfriend, it would be logical to assume that I was in a good mood. I was miserable—gripped by anxiety. You see, the Canary Islands are unlike peninsular Spain in at least one crucial respect: the lack of public transportation. You simply must rent a car. Luckily, in my experience car rental prices in the Canary Islands are often very low. Unfortunately, however, I was not very good at driving.

Having grown up with good public transit, I had spent my entire life without serious need of driving. Consequently, I got my license quite late: at the age of 21. And even then, I rarely used it. Moving to Madrid—a place extremely well-connected by trains, buses, and subways—did nothing to remedy the situation. Indeed, I had driven so rarely since getting my license that, before taking this trip to Tenerife, I had probably gone less than 100 miles in total—a few dozen miles a year, here or there.

What is more, I had never driven without the company of a more experienced driver. Rebe certainly did not fall under this category. She did not have her license; she had barely even touched a steering wheel. In short, she would not be any help. I was on my own.

When we arrived at the airport, I insisted on taking a few minutes to have a coffee and relax. But it was no use. As I stared down into the milky brown of the coffee, I felt sure that this was to be the last coffee I would ever taste. My mind flooded with images of gruesome crashes—a head-on collision, careening off a cliff, spinning out of control. This was it: the end. 

Finally it was time to go down to the parking garage and pick up the car. We found the desk and got in line. Behind us a loud bachelorette party also got in line—the women occasionally chanting and singing. I hardly noticed them, however, as I shuffled towards my doom. I was shivering and covered in a cold sweat. Then—suddenly—I felt a sharp pressure in my abdomen.

“I have to go,” I said to Rebe, and ran back upstairs—to the bathroom. Strong anxiety tends to upset my bowels.

Ten minutes or so later, I re-entered the line. Now it was our turn to do the paperwork. I could hardly pay attention to the man’s explanation. As I signed the paper, I felt as though I were signing the order for my own execution. We walked out to the car—a Smart car, tiny and cute. Do these things have good crash safety ratings?

Failure confronted us immediately.

“How do you open this thing?” I said, trying to get the back door opened.

“Wait,” Rebe said, and tried herself to find the handle—also with no luck. 

In shame, I had to ask the rental car guy to open it for us. Not a good omen.

We got in. I adjusted the seat. I adjusted the mirrors. I checked and rechecked my seatbelt. I turned on the car and braced myself. My head pounded, my vision narrowed, my veins felt like they were flooded with fire. And despite doing my best to not let any of this show, my voice quivered when I said:

“Ok, ready?”

The car was ignited and put into drive. Very gingerly, I pressed the gas. Nothing happened. I pressed a bit harder; still nothing.

“What’s going on?” I said. “The car isn’t moving. Why won’t it move?”

“The emergency brake is on,” Rebe informed me.

“Oh, shit.” Another bad omen.

I switch off the brake, and the car begins to move. All of my senses are focused on the vehicle. I try to remember my training—rules of the road, blind spots, when to signal. After a couple spins around the parking lot it is time to get to our Airbnb.

“Ok, what do I do?”

Rebe turns on the GPS and lets the automated voice do the rest. Soon I am merging onto the highway. Nothing difficult so far. None of the cars are going particularly fast. I just have to follow the road for a dozen kilometers or so until we reach our exit. Meanwhile, every slight adjustment of the car provokes a crisis of indecision in me. What is the proper distance to maintain? Should I pass? What is the safest way to pass? What’s the speed limit anyway? Is that guy too close? Am I going too slow?

Finally our exit appears. After negotiating a roundabout, we are speeding down the center of a Santa Úrsula, a small town on the northern shore of the island.

“The Airbnb is right over there,” Rebe says.

“So should I park?”

“Yes.”

“But where? Where?”

“Anywhere.”

“Jesus.”

We drive about a mile down the street before I manage to pull off the road and into a parking spot. By now, I am totally shaken.

Luckily, the Airbnb calmed me down. I had splurged and gotten us an entire apartment. It was magnificent—a kitchen, a couch, a television, and a balcony with a view of the ocean. Perhaps this vacation in a tropical paradise wouldn’t be so bad after all.


The big division in Tenerife is between the northern and southern shores. From what I hear, the south shore—full of golden beaches and massive resorts—caters mainly to foreigners, while Spaniards tend to prefer the northern shore. No lover of sunbathing or swimming in the ocean, I figured that I would stick to the north.

Our first stop was a little town called Icod de los Vinos. We arrived at lunch time. Still very uncertain about my driving, I parked in the first available spot I could find. It just so happened that this spot was very far away from both the restaurant and the city center.

“Are you serious?” Rebe said. “We have to walk half an hour?”

“Listen, I can’t drive anymore right now.”

“Ugh.”

In retrospect, it is absurd that I was so shaken up. The driving could not have been easier. Hardly anybody speeds, and nobody drives aggressively. And if I had not been frantically monitoring the road, I would have noticed that it was a beautiful day. Unsurprisingly, Tenerife looks nothing like Madrid. Far from the arid climate and sandy soil of Spain’s capital, Tenerife looks properly tropical—filled lush greenery, with the ocean rarely out of sight.

I was happy because I was out of the car. Now it was Rebe’s turn to suffer, since she doesn’t like to walk. The way to the restaurant took us up a sizable hill. At the top we had an excellent view of the town—spread out on the slope, with patches of fields (presumably for wine) interspersed between the houses—not that Rebe was in the mood to appreciate it.

Photo by Rebeca López. She brought her fancy new Nikon D3400. This was, as it happens, the longest my beard has ever grown.

We went to a restaurant called (if memory serves) El Frenazo, which specializes in grilled meat. This is quite common in the Canary Islands, though I don’t know where they keep all the livestock. We ordered a parrillada—which is a huge platter of meat. When it arrived, we were stunned—it was an absurd amount of food, with sausages, chicken, panceta, pork chops, ribs, as well as salad and french fries. We ate as much as we could and then saved the rest for dinner.

Photo by Rebeca López

Icod de los Vinos is most famous for the Drago Milenario. This is a massive dragon tree that is supposedly one thousand years old (though nobody knows for sure), which has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Tenerife. Dragon trees, a species native to the Canary Islands, are typically small, even bush-like. This specimen, however, rises to the height of a proper tree. It is a beautiful sight: with the single, massive trunk splitting into a tangle of knotty branches.

The famous Drago Milenario. Photo by Rebeca López
Rebe with a halo of palm tree.

The old center of the town is charming, too. There is a certain architectural style typical of Canary villages: squat buildings of whitewashed granite lining plazas filled with palm trees. It is a strange combination of Latin America and medieval Europe. The local accent furthers this impression. Canarian Spanish is unmistakably different from that of the Peninsula. To me it sounds like the Spanish from Andalusia—clipped, shorn of endings, slurred together—but with a kind of jolly lilt that sounds Caribbean to my ears. I find it very pleasant, even if it is sometimes difficult to understand.

Photo by Rebeca López.

After a very long walk to the car (complicated by me not remembering exactly where it was) we were ready to see more of the island. Though I was still nervous while driving, the island’s beauty began to work on me. Every turn on the highway revealed another impressive view. Unfortunately, I could not properly enjoy these views, since my eyes were frantically fixed on the road. Rebe, meanwhile, sat in the passenger’s seat, blissfully ignorant of my mental state, taking photos through the window with her nice camera.

The Orotava Valley, with Teide in the distance. Photo by Rebeca López.

In half an hour we arrived at our next destination: La Orotava. This is a medium-sized town known for its well-preserved historical center. But anyone who has lived in Europe knows that driving in beautiful historical centers is seldom a quaint experience. The twisting, narrow, and steep streets made my already elevated blood pressure spike up to concerning heights.

“Where do I park? Where do I park?”

“I dunno, somewhere around here,” Rebe said.

On impulse, I turned down a nearby street. But a pedestrian immediately started waving at me and, in a moment, I realized that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. Luckily, a parking space was miraculously available nearby, so I avoided a head-on collision (even though it took me about seven attempts to double park my tiny Smart car).

The center of La Orotava vaguely reminded me of Toledo, both for its antique layout and for its sharp changes in elevation. The town sits splayed out on a steep hillside, making it the most uneven municipality in Spain. As in any historical Spanish town, there are many churches to see. The most noteworthy is the Church of the Holy Conception—a looming structure whose wide façade rises into a series of gentle curves. From the inside the visitor can tell that it is a properly historical edifice, with elaborately carved altars, columns, and pulpits. It is no wonder that the locals affectionately call it a basilica and a cathedral, though it is neither of the two. 

A section of the Church of the Holy Conception. Photo by Rebeca López.

Yet my usual strategy of hunting down historical buildings was inappropriate to visiting Canarian towns. It is far more pleasurable to simply stroll about, admiring the many beautiful angles that opened up into the dramatic ocean beyond—palm trees, church spires, and tiled roofs foregrounding the blue-grey mist of the atlantic.

However, the sun was already on its way towards the horizon; and I was nervous about driving at night. So we went back to the apartment, eating the remainder of our massive meat platter for dinner. The next day was our only full day in Tenerife. We had to make it count.

Photo by Rebeca López

Our first stop after breakfast was Tenerife’s most historically significant city: San Cristóbal de la Laguna (usually just called La Laguna). The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 for being an excellently preserved example of a Spanish colonial city. Indeed, La Laguna was a model city for many of the major Spanish colonial capitals that followed—such as Havana.

The city is located on relatively flat ground, far from the shore. The wide streets are arranged in a grid-like pattern—not strict, as in New York, but still orderly and logical. This is strikingly different from most other historical Spanish cities. Also striking is the city’s complete lack of defensive structures. A wall has never enclosed the historical city center—probably because, after overwhelming the natives, there were few conceivable enemies to defend the city from. As a result La Laguna has a pleasingly open atmosphere.

Photo by Rebeca López

After a stroll through the town—full of locals, tourists, clothing shops, and restaurants—we peeked into the city’s cathedral. It is a rather recent construction, built in the early 1900s. Like Madrid’s cathedral, it is a stylistic mismatch: neoclassic on the outside and neogothic within. Still, it is a pleasing space: open, balanced, well-lit, and filled with altars, statues, and floats used in processionals. The Royal Sanctuary is a far more ancient house of worship, having been built in the 16th century, which houses a famous devotional figure of Christ (thus the name). The most beautiful work of religious architecture in the city is the bell tower of the Church of the Immaculate Conception (the first parish to be established in Tenerife), built in 1511.

Rebe found a wall that she thought was a good background.

Yet the best of the visit was the street life. We ate an early lunch in a kebab place and listened to a couple of street performers do a decent rendition of some blues classics.

But we did not have long to dawdle. Today was the day that we ascended the volcano: Teide. We had to leave ourselves enough time to properly savor the experience. I had a concern, though. Friends had told me that it was very cold at the top of the volcano, and I hadn’t brought anything warmer than a light sweatshirt. When I told Rebe this, she made me even more concerned.

“Do you want to get to the top and be freezing? It’s not even warm down here.”

She was right. It was a surprisingly mild day for a tropical island. I figured that it was better to be safe than sorry, so we walked into a nearby sportswear store, where I bought a thermal t-shirt.

“I hope this is enough,” I said at checkout.

We got back in the car and, after several unsuccessful attempts, we navigated out of the town and towards the mountain. A Canarian friend of mine had suggested the route up the towns of La Esperanza and Las Rosas (basically from east to west), and it was an excellent recommendation. The road took us through bucolic countryside, with tree-shaded roads crossing grassy fields. Rebe put her camera on the dashboard and took photo after photo, while I stole sidelong glances at the scenery.

Photo by Rebeca López

The road up was long. Teide is simply massive: rising over 3,700 m (or over 12,000 ft) above sea level. The volcano is at the historical, cultural, and geological heart of the island. Most obviously, it is evidence of the cataclismic volcanic eruptions that formed the island to begin with. But the volcano has taken on additional significance.

The peak was worshiped by the indigenous Guanches as a god who held up the heavens. And I admit that I, too, am willing to worship the massive hunk of volcanic rock, if my pleas can postpone any further eruptions. One wonders what would happen to the island’s one million inhabitants if the long-dormant volcano should re-awaken. 

The German scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt—a pioneer in the study of how altitude affects the distribution of life—climbed the mountain on his way to South America. And the volcano is featured on Tenerife’s coat of arms. Nowadays Teide is the most-visited natural site in all of Spain—and, indeed, all of Europe.

As we approached and then entered the national park, the environment gradually changed. The trees shifted from deciduous to evergreen, and the fields were replaced by dense forest. The road led up and up, on a seemingly endless gradual ascent, gently turning as it went. Soon we were passing little stopping-points by the side of the road, each one offering a progressively better view of the island.

Photo by Rebeca López

In less than an hour we were above the clouds. It was beautiful. A sea of white drifted in from the ocean, bathing the base of the mountain in mist. I was astonished at how high we were. The road up had not been very steep, but already the coastline below was swallowed into the far distance. And we were not even halfway to the top!

Now, I am very inexperienced with mountains; indeed, the only one that I have climbed is Peñalara, near Madrid. But I would guess that there are few eminences which give such dramatic views of their surroundings. Teide may not be the biggest; but it is surrounded by clear air and open sea; so the full extent of its height can be easily appreciated.

The peak. Photo by Rebeca López

A few signs were set up at the resting points, explaining some of the geological history of the islands. According to them, the valleys below—such as La Orotava and Icod de los Vinos—had been formed in the space of a moment, by massive landslides breaking off from a larger volcanic structure. A sign also had information about the coronal forest, and the conservation efforts to restore it after damage inflicted by severe windstorms. 

Gradually the forest shrank and all but disappeared, leaving a barren landscape, reminiscent of Mars. Now driving became truly nerve-racking. The road kept snaking left and right, with a sharp drop off at least one side at any time. If somehow I lost control, no trees would have broken the fall. We would have tumbled a long, long way. I kept my eyes glued to the road, doing my best to keep the car within the lines as we turned this way and that. Meanwhile, Rebe sat contentedly snapping pictures and oohing and aahing at the natural beauty.

Photo by Rebeca López

Eventually we came to a rest stop. We had been driving for well over an hour already, and we were only halfway up. To actually reach the top, you must take the funicular, which is called the “teleférico.” But the price for non-residents is 27€, and that seemed too steep for us. (After reading a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, who famously ascended to the peak, I slightly regret my stinginess. Maybe next time.) Instead, we decided to have a coffee and then head back towards the north shore.

We sat outside, eating syrupy torrijas (the Spanish version of French toast) and sipping café con leche and hot chocolate. And I noticed something: it was considerably warmer than it was back down in La Laguna. My thermal T-shirt was not necessary after all.

If we had continued our ascent, we could have seen the Teide Observatory. This is an important array of telescopes that have been set up because of the island’s favorable astronomical seeing conditions. (Apparently, across the earth there is a good deal of variation in the degree to which atmosphere blurs stars and planets.) Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, did his PhD research on interplanetary dust here. Thus, from Humboldt to the present day, Teide has maintained a scientific significance.

The road down was just as winding and perilous as the road up. But it was shorter. In just half an hour we were in our next destination: Puerto de la Cruz.

This place was one of the first tourist centers on the island. Alexander von Humboldt himself stayed here during his visit to the island. It remains a place of hotels and resorts—tall white buildings huddled around the beach. The city itself is, thus, not especially noteworthy (though there are many good places to eat and drink). What draws attention is the beach of black, volcanic sand right in the center.

Photo by Rebeca López

We stood for some time admiring the jagged black rock that forms the surrounding coastline. The rich blue of the waters turned a creamy white as it churned and frothed in the waves, battering against the shore and jettisoning into foamy sprays. Rebe spent about ten minutes trying to photograph it. Then, we headed towards the beach. On the way we encountered a strange sort of monument: thousands of little piles of black stones. A lot of man-hours had been spent in making this natural stone garden. It is a local tradition?

The beach was beyond. For a Saturday evening, it was not too crowded. The weather was not quite hot enough for sunbathing or swimming—at least, I thought so. However, it was beautiful. I had never seen a black sand beach before. The sand was courser than normal sand, with a smoother texture. I imagine it gets very, very hot in the summer months. Exhausted, I sat down on the beach while Rebe walked along the water. Her figure was silhouetted in the intense yellow reflection of sunlight on the waves. If I had had a good camera, it would have made an excellent photograph. 

We hung out on the beach, had a drink (well, Rebe did), and went back to the apartment. Our short time in Tenerife was almost spent. We spent the night drinking a bottle of the local wine, which was surprisingly good. I suppose the mild climate and the volcanic soil are well-suited for viticulture.

The view from our apartment. Photo by Rebeca López.

The next morning we drove to the airport. But there was a problem. The whole time we had been driving, there had been yellow warning light in the dashboard, saying “neumático presión.” I panicked when I first saw it, of course, since I assumed that this had something to do with our suspension. But when I asked the rental car agent, he said it was no problem. It had stayed yellow the entire weekend. But on Sunday morning, as we prepared to return to the airport, it turned a bright red and said “urgente.”

At this point I asked Rebe what “neumático” meant.

“You don’t know?” she said, alarmed.

“I’m not sure…”

“It means tires,” she said.

“Seriously?” I said. “Oh, shit.”

Now, to reiterate, I did not know the first thing about car maintenance. I still don’t. So I was at a loss. I had Rebe call the rental car company, who told us to take it to a gas station and use the free tire pressure gauge. We did. It took us about ten minutes to figure out how to use the machine; we must have looked like two bumbling idiots. When we checked, we found that one tire had considerably less pressure than the rest. With five minutes of pumping, balance was restored, and the warning light turned off. Soon the car was returned to the airport parking lot, and my adventure in automobiling had come to a close. 

I should mention that the car rental experience in Tenerife was excellent. I used PlusCar, and I would recommend them to any who wish to travel to the Canary Islands. The price was cheap and included insurance. The company also had a surprisingly relaxed attitude. There was little paperwork, no deposit, no threats of being held responsible for damages, and no attempt to sell us anything extra. And when we returned the car, we just left the keys under the dashboard and walked away. If only renting a car were always like that.

My last image of Tenerife was magnificent. The plane began to accelerate down the runway, taking off and ascending away from the ground. In five minutes the windows were covered with the white of clouds. Moments later, as we broke through the layer of mist, I looked out to see Teide, with its crown breaking through the sea of fog. I could hardly believe it: the peak was still above us! This was the first time I had looked up at the ground from a plane window.

I wish that I had spent more time in Tenerife. It was one of my best trips in Europe. The landscape is beautiful, the people are charming, the food is delicious—and, best of all, the price is reasonable. I would go back.

Despite my constant terror, I also relished the experience of having a car. The prospect of car ownership has never had much appeal to me. But renting a car made me understand: a car means freedom. True, it also means having to take care of the car, as I also learned. Still, I loved the feeling of being able to go wherever I pleased, whenever I pleased. And it is always a relief to conquer one’s fears. I had driven, and I had survived—something I never thought possible. 

Of course, it was also very nice to be able to travel with Rebe. It was our first vacation together, and we managed not to kill each other. It turns out that spending a weekend on a tropical island with your girlfriend is, indeed, as enjoyable as it sounds.

Madrid: Trains & Planes

Madrid: Trains & Planes

I went out of my way last week to praise Madrid’s excellent metro system. Yet this is only a part of the city’s generally superb transport network. Aside from municipal and intercity buses—of which there are many, even at night—the city has an excellent train network.

Madrid, the political, economic, and geographic center of the country, is naturally the country’s train hub. Many of the long-distance trains run at nearly 200 mph (over 300 km/h). These high-speed trains run north, south, east, and west, to nearly every corner of the country. Indeed, Spain has the most miles of high-speed rail in Europe, and the second in the world after China. They are affectionately referred to as AVE (literally “bird,” but short for Alta Velocidad Española), and they leave from Madrid’s two biggest train stations: Atocha and Chamartín. The trains are extremely convenient and are certainly more comfortable than flying; however, they are often more expensive than a flight.

Atocha Cercanías on a typical day

But no resident of Madrid could long survive without the city’s Cercanías, or short-distance trains. These service the city and the surrounding community, covering 370 km and stopping at 89 stations. There are 10 lines, and each of them stops in Atocha before separating off into a different direction. This is the best way to visit Aranjuez, Alcalá de Henares, and El Escorial—three UNESCO World Heritage sites in the outskirts of Madrid. It is also this network which takes you up into the mountains, to the Guadarrama National Park. For those without a car, it is a lifesaver.

The Cercanías map

The trains are not only useful for tourism, however; they are an essential part of basic city transport. The trains are oftentimes quicker than the metro for certain inter-city trips, such as from Atocha to Chamartín, or Nuevos Ministerios to Príncipe Pío. I rely on the Cercanías every time I need to re-enter bureaucratic hell for my visa, since the office is located down south; and I take the trains whenever I have a flight from the Airport’s Terminal 4. They are, in short, extremely useful—especially because the same transport card works for the trains, the metro, and the bus. For a New Yorker used to paying separately for a monthly rail pass and a monthly subway card, it is extraordinary.

An abandoned station building, near the Méndez Álvaro station

For those who wish to learn more about the country’s railroad history, there is the Museo del Ferrocarril. This is a very reasonably priced museum located near the Delicias Cercanías station. Indeed, the museum is located in the old Delicias station building, which was opened in 1880 to serve as the Madrid hub for the trains to Ciudad Real. It is a typical station building—a huge, cavernous space filled with platforms and tracks. And it is still filled with trains, though all of these are antiques nowadays.

What first caught my attention was a massive steam locomotive. Half of the engine car has been cut away, to reveal the curious arrangement of valves, tubes, and chambers inside. I have been cursed with a rather unmechanical mind, so the enormous intricacy of machinery tends to leave me respectfully silent. However, the basic principle behind steam power is easy to grasp: A fire in one chamber heats the water in an adjacent chamber, which evaporates into steam, which is then channeled down to a piston near the wheels, where a valve lets in the steam at intervals, pushing the wheels forwards. Yet for such a relatively simple process, the mechanical design of the cutaway train seemed extremely complex. The sign revealed that this was one of the latest models of steam-power locomotives, constructed in 1960.

Most of the other steam locomotives on display are much older, and considerably smaller—some dating from the 19th century. To a modern eye, many of these ancient, chimneyed contraptions can seem exceedingly quaint and romantic; they are filled with gritty personality, and remind me of movies of the Wild West and of Old Europe. Still, I am glad we have evolved past these clunking, crawling machines, which had a bad habit of exploding (before the invention of reliable pressure valves). Even so, one must admire such an innovative and durable design. The steam locomotive is a landmark in the history of the Industrial Revolution.

The rest of the trains on display (and there are several dozen) are diesel or electric, and more or less approach the sleek, rocket-like aspect that we associate with trains today. The visitor can enter a few of these to experience an echo of train travel from the past. One of these is an old dining car, apparently made of wood. The tables are set with elegantly folded napkins and fancy silverware. Yet unless the train was going quite slowly on a straight path, it is difficult for me to imagine the dining experience was free of sliding silverware, clanging dishes, and sloshing drinks. Still, it must have felt civilized to glide through the countryside while enjoying an expensive meal.

Though the wide variety of trains are undoubtedly the main attraction—the hulking, slumbering beasts that fill up the space—the museum has much else on display. There is a great deal of railroad infrastructure, such as switchboards (mechanical, hydraulic, and electronic), a central control panel, and a little pushcart which was used for repairs. There is also a room dedicated to train models, hundreds of them, as well as models of certain trajectories. I was particularly gratified to find a model of the route that runs from León to Gijón, through the mountains of Asturias—a beautiful line that I had seen in person.

Henry David Thoreau, the great luddite, famously said: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” What he meant is that the technology we construct to make our lives more convenient ends up dominating us. He was prescient. Nowadays, how many modern luddites speak of our phones the same way that Thoreau spoke of the railroad that ran behind Walden Pond?

Nobody can deny that this occurs. Nevertheless, who would argue nowadays that our lives are dominated by trains? To my eye, they are marvelous inventions: both beautifully designed and eminently functional. They use space and resources efficiently; and the tracks and bridges they ride upon blend in far more harmoniously with the landscape than our cars, asphalt roads, and parking lots. Who knows but that, in one hundred years, visitors with cerebral implants might be visiting a Museum of Smartphones, waxing nostalgic about a simpler time.


Air travel in Europe can be startlingly cheap. And since my job blesses me with ample vacation days (thanks to the Spanish school schedule) I find myself waiting in the airport more than is probably healthy.

Airports are not famous for being comfortable places. The lines are long, the food is overpriced, the atmosphere is completely anonymous. At times airports can be sad places, totally empty of intimacy or human warmth; at other times they can be exciting, the portal to exotic domains; but most often they are simply dreary—filled with tacky commercial trash, listless and sleep-deprived passengers waiting on rows of seats, or nerve-wracking encounters with security personnel or border-control officers.

All of this being said, I think that Madrid’s airport is one that the city can be proud of. Confusingly, its full name is the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport. Adolfo Suárez was Spain’s first post-Franco president; and it is called Madrid-Barajas because the airport is actually outside the city of Madrid, in the suburbs called Barajas.

In any case, the airport is easily accessible from the city center. A ride in a taxi takes only about fifteen minutes, depending on traffic and your exact destination. I typically avoid this option, however, since the taxis charge a flat rate of €30. Instead, I either rely on the metro or the Cercacías. Metro Line 8 leaves from Nuevos Ministerios and arrives at Terminals 1-2-3 in about 25 minutes. Meanwhile, the Cercanías Line 1 or 10 leaves from Atocha Station and reaches Terminal 4 in about 45 minutes. Both options are covered with my transport card, though people without a transport card will need to buy a special supplement.

Apart from these options, there are also buses. One municipal bus leaves from Avenida de América and requires no additional cost. And a special Airport Bus leaves from either Atocha Station or the Plaza de Cibeles (depending on the time of day), and costs €5 to ride—a good option if you’re going to the airport very early, before the metro or the trains start working. In short, Madrid’s airport is extremely well-connected.

Once you arrive, you have four terminals to choose from. Terminals 1, 2, and 3 were built at around the same time, and are all next to one another. As buildings they are nondescript: functional, clean, and efficient. Terminal 4 was built considerably later, in the early 2000s, and for that reason it is somewhat isolated from the other terminals—2 kilometers distant. It also looks entirely different: support beams jut out at angles and spread leaves the branches of trees, holding up the undulating roof that hangs over the open space. It’s not exactly worthy of Gaudí, but it is an attractive airport.

Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

I have had nothing but good experiences at the Madrid Airport. Even so, every time I am there I find myself edge. Despite having flown almost monthly since my arrival in Spain, I still find the process unsettling. I worry about checking in, getting through security, weighing my bags—even though none of this has ever been a problem. Yet more frightening is the simple prospect of flying. Planes may be quite safe, statistically speaking; but I still feel that I am risking my life every time I take a flight. I look out the glass windows at the aerodynamic machines waiting on the runway, and I think of all the things that could go wrong. It just goes my intuition to think that I should get on a box of metal that uses explosions to accelerate into the air.

To combat this persistent fear of flying, I set out to learn more about the history of aviation. Luckily, Madrid has an excellent—and free—aeronautics museum: the Museo del Aire. It is located in the south of Madrid, near the Cercanías stop Cuatro Vientos. To get there you must walk about twenty minutes along the highway from the train station, and then cross a bridge over the tracks. On your left you will see another of Madrid’s airports, the Aeropuerto de Madrid-Cuatro Vientos. Opened in 1911, this is the oldest airport in the country. Originally it was used as a military air base, though nowadays it is mainly used for light civil aircraft and flight classes. As a result, the air surrounding the museum is full of small propeller planes circling around. It is a wholly appropriate setting for an aviation museum.

(This is not the only other airport in Madrid, by the way. There are military air bases in Getafe and in Torrejón de Ardoz, to name just two. I have been told that when foreign leaders come to Spain on state visits they land in these bases, not in Madrid-Barajas.)

The Museo del Aire used to be a part of the old airport. The original brick buildings of the air force base still sit next to rows of hangers. And military aircraft are still present in abundance, though nowadays it is all obsolete and, presumably, out of commission. Still it is an impressive sight. Dozens and dozens of aircraft are on display in the museum—helicopters, fighter jets, bombers, water planes—from every era, stretching back to the beginning of Spanish aviation. I admit that I arrived with low expectations, if only because the museum is free and seldom talked about. But it ended up becoming one of my favorite museum experiences in the city.

No short description could give an adequate summary of the museum’s contents. But here are some highlights. The biggest plane on display—a massive defiance of the law of gravity—was for mid-air refueling. In one corner were about ten helicopters, ranging from bare skeletons of metal encasing a clear plastic bulb to intimidating hunks of metal used for transport and evacuation. Planes specialized for water landings had bodies shaped like boats, with the wings elevated on a little platform. On the far end the fighter jets were on display. Of these the most noteworthy was the F-4 Phantom II, an American fighter that was extensively used during the Vietnam War. I simply cannot imagine what it is like to fly one of those things: it is little more than a pair of wings, a jet engine, and several tons of explosives.

The hangers also had much of interest. The first one contained an extensive and expertly made exhibition on the history of aviation. There are replicas of early flying devices, including the Wright brothers’ Flyer. The museum also has a copy of one of the lesser-known paintings of the Prado. It is a depicting of the ascent of the Montgolfier hot air balloon in Aranjuez, in 1784. This was a major event. The Montgolfier brothers were the Wright brothers of lighter-than-air travel, and pioneered the first piloted hot air balloons.

The museum also has informative panels on the earliest forerunners of air travel. Leonardo da Vinci is mentioned, of course, with his imaginative sketches in his notebooks. But I had not previously heard of Abbas ibn Firnas, a polymath from Moorish Spain who, in the 9th century, attempted flight by covering himself in feathers, holding onto wings, and jumping off a high building—and he lived, at least according to the story.

The rest of the hangers were no less interesting, containing all sorts of flying paraphernalia, from radios to helmets. I was particularly captivated by the many jet engines on display. As I said above, I have a rather unmechanical mind; so I tend to stare in uncomprehending awe at these intricate machines. But more than anything I wanted to see the museum’s many examples of Autogyros.

The autogyro is a rather strange combination of a plane and a helicopter, designed by the Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva. Like a helicopter, it has a rotating blade on top; but the air moves up through the blade as the vehicle goes forward, causing the blade to generate lift on its own (without power). This seems quite impossible to my untrained physical intuition; but it worked. And Juan de la Cierva (of whom my coworker wrote a biography) is undoubtedly one of Spain’s great engineers.

An autogyro

This concluded my visit to the Museo del Aire. And, surprisingly, I did feel somewhat better about the prospect of air travel. Our species has been trying to invade the air for about 1,000 years. For most of that time we have, admittedly, been highly unsuccessful. But in the last 100 years we have made such great strides that, nowadays, a man can board a plane, fall asleep watching a movie, and then get off on the other side, excited to see some old buildings—the entire engineering miracle of flight hardly registering.

It is curious that in both the Museo del Ferrocarril and the Museo del Aire most of the visitors are young children. They play excitedly among the antique machines, dragging their parents this way and that, pointing and asking questions. Most adults, on the other hand, are bored even by the mention of a museum dedicated to the history of transport. We are so used to efficient transportation that it is invisible and uninteresting to us. And yet if we were to bring Plato or Aristotle back to life, I suspect they would be more amazed at our metros, trains, and planes, than at any of the things they connect us to.

Celebrating Madrid’s Metro

Celebrating Madrid’s Metro

This year marks the 100th birthday of Madrid’s metro system, and the city is celebrating the occasion. Stations are being decorated, special exhibitions mounted, and festive trains displayed. And I think that we all should celebrate the metro—not just in Madrid, but everywhere—for it is one of those rare human inventions which has worked so well that it has become invisible. Though so often overlooked, the metro system of any city serves as both spine and arteries to the urban body: supporting and guiding development while moving the stuff of life from place to place.  Chances are that, if you live in a city, you depend on the metro many times a week: to commute, to see friends, to run errands. Yet we only stop to notice this subterranean network when, for whatever reason, it stops working.

Like so many inventions in our modern world, the metro has been integrated so seamlessly into our lives that it can be difficult to realize what an enormous engineering triumph it represents. Thousands of workers had to tunnel through hundreds of miles of solid earth in order to lay down tracks and build stations; and the resulting network of subterranean passages has to be used every day, all year, without any cave-ins, collapses, explosions, asphyxiations—in short, while being absolutely safe and reliable. As a result of this collaboration of politicians, architects, engineers, designers, construction workers, and too many others to name, I can walk out of my apartment, down a flight of stairs, and then ascend on the other side of a city. For a very reasonable price.

Madrid’s metro is, in my opinion, especially impressive. Opened 56 years after London’s underground, 19 years after Paris’s métro, and 10 years after New York’s subway, Madrid’s metro has grown to become the ninth largest network in the world (and it is the network with the second-most escalators and elevators, only surpassed by Shanghai). The first line stretched a mere three and a half kilometers, traveling at 15 mph between eight stations. Nowadays, the network has 12 lines, 302 stations, and covers almost 300 kilometers. Very few places in the central zone of the city are more than a fifteen minute walk to the nearest metro. I am lucky to live near two of the most useful lines: the original Line 1, which goes through the heart of the city, and the circular Line 6, which makes a giant loop around the outside.

The entire sprawling network

Counting repeat rides, over two million people take the metro every day—well over half the city’s population. Notwithstanding all this, the metro remains clean, timely, and dependable. After four years of living in this city, I can recall very few times when I have been frustrated at the metro service (a constant occurrence in NYC). True, Madrid’s metro does not have a strong personality. It has none of the gritty charm of the New York subway or the endearing retro-ness of London’s tube. The metro is not especially futuristic, quaint, or beautiful. But it works—without screeching and howling, without unpleasant smells, without delays or derailments.

True to form, the metro’s celebrations have also been quiet, efficient, and unobstructive. They have largely consisted of decorating Metro Line 1, the so-called Centennial Line, with antique photos of the metro’s early days—riders in top-hats and trench coats, besmattered workmen excavating the tunnels, old-fashioned entryways amid a cityscape filled with vintage automobiles. One of the more amusing of these is of the King Alfonso XIII inaugurating the metro: the king stands in a pinstripe suit with his hands folded on a cane, a top hat hanging from its end, wearing a bipartite mustache; and surrounding him are dozens of men dressed and groomed identically. Fashion was very strict in those days. Apparently the current King Felipe VI has been so good as to repeat the voyage taken by his great grandfather.

For those who wish to get a deeper sense of the metro’s history provided by the photographs, there are two free museum spaces run by the metro: the Estación de Chamberí and the Nave de Motores.

Chamberí was one of the first stations opened on Line 1. But like the City Hall station on New York’s Line 6, it was eventually closed down because the station’s curve was too sharp to be used with the newer, longer trains. As such, it became something of a time capsule, preserving the appearance of the first generation of train stations. Unlike the City Hall station, Chamberí was never designed to be an architectural showcase; it is simple and functional. Upon entering one passes the antique ticket-collecting booths, and descends to the old platform. Trains on Line 1 still scream past every five minutes or so.

When I arrived a guide was giving a free tour. Apparently, the station has a reputation for being haunted. You see, like many metro stations it was used as a bomb shelter during the Spanish Civil War, and the souls of victims are said to manifest occasionally to frighten visitors. Well, I did not see anything supernatural, but I did see many charming old advertisements—for cafés, hair gels, jewelry shops, and purgative mineral water. Few things are so evocative of the past as an ad for a product that no longer exists. These are the real ghosts.

The other museum is, by chance, right in my neighborhood: the Nave de Motores. This is a cavernous building made to house three giant diesel engines, which used to provide power to the metro system. Just as the contemporary power grid was too feeble for the first generation of trains along the Hudson line, so Madrid’s electricity infrastructure did not support the power necessary to propel the metro. Thus, these engines had to be built especially for the purpose.

The Nave de Motores, in Pacífico

They are gargantuan contraptions, about half the size of a house. For a time this was the most powerful power plant in Spain. I cannot even fathom the noise they would create, much less the amount of fuel they burned. The current produced by these mammoth machines had to be converted by another array of motors before being wired down to the tracks below the station for use by the metro. On a balcony overlooking the engine space there is a control panel, where dozens of little gauges and meters informed the engineers of the state of affairs. (Apparently it is possible to sign up for a hard-hat tour of the tunnels below, but I cannot find the link on the metro’s website.)

This month (May 17 to June 15) there is a special exhibition in the Nave de Motores, and the opening hours have been extended. The massive wheels have been decorated with lights, and informative panels have been put up all around the space. There are antique ticket machines on display, as well as different generations of metro tickets. One can even put on virtual reality goggles and look around a metro stop of the future. Videos of scenes from metro life are projected from the ceiling onto a table, while television monitors play informative mini-documentaries about the network. I was particularly impressed to see the testing and repair center, a huge warehouse where all the equipment is checked and fixed by a team of engineers and mechanics.

There were even a couple models on display, one of the tunnel-boring machine used to chew out the subterranean passages, and one of Sol’s metro station (one of the largest in the network). These miniatures help to give a taste of just how vast is the scale on which the network is built. Whole mountains of material had to be moved to dig out what is, in effect, another city underneath the city above.

The city beneath the city.

Work continues on the metro. Many of the lines have been adapted to allow for cell-phone service, which is much appreciated. Two years ago, Line 1 was closed for a few months for repairs; and Line 2 was recently closed for the same reason. (It has just reopened.) Every night, from 2:00 to 5:30 in the morning, the metro is closed down for repairs. It strikes me as strange that in Madrid, where people go out all night, the metro stops working, while in New York, where most people are home by 2:00, the subway runs all night. Maybe this is why Madrid’s metro runs so much more smoothly; but it is rather irritating on a Friday night.

The network has, for the most part, been entirely updated and transformed from its early years. However, one strange holdover remains. When the system was constructed, Madrid’s roads were like England’s: people drove on the left. Though the road orientation was switched in 1924, the metro kept is left-ward orientation, and so the trains always approach the station from the right as you are facing the train.

Madrid’s metro, like that of any city, serves a vital economic function: many people would not be able to get to their jobs without it. Aside from its economic function, however, the metro also serves as a center for social life. One becomes a native madrileño while riding on the metro: smushed up against bodies, eyeing strangers with anxiety or curiosity, respecting other people’s personal space with navigating the public space of underground transport. It is a place owned by everyone and no one, and so requires special rules to use. Don’t take up more than one seat. Take off your backpack. Give up your seat to the pregnant, the elderly, or the disabled. And don’t be a creep.

One also becomes socialized in more elusive ways. For example, the level of eye-contact considered acceptable on the Madrid metro can be unnerving for an American. Many newcomers to the city report feeling stared at. More than likely, they are just not used to the constant surveillance of Spanish city life—from shop windows, park benches, and balconies—and so misinterpret disinterested glances as either aggressive or suggestive, or both. Adapting to Spanish life means adapting to different standards of proximity and scrutiny. And much of this adaptation happens on the metro.

The metro can be a place of danger. Pickpockets are common, and their roaming hands are apt to relieve the unwary traveler of his wallet. It can also be an aggressive place. The only fight that I ever witnessed in Madrid was on the metro, between a young hothead and a homeless man. But the community quickly intervened, tearing the two kicking combatants apart. And this is the secret to the metro: that the citizens take an active role, however subtle or even invisible, in keeping it a safe place for everyone.

We can also ride the metro to get a taste of culture. In several stations there are miniature libraries, bibliometros (though I’ve never seen anyone actually use them). And apart from the decorations in some of the stations—such as in the stations of Paco de Lucía, Goya, and the Estación del Arte—there is the music. Hardly a station in the entire network is without its performer, singing and dancing in a busy corner, their hat covered in coins. Other musicians ride the metro, going from car to car, playing the pan-flute, singing duets, or rapping over a recorded beat. Admittedly this is not always welcome. Most of the time when I am on the metro I am trying to read. But city life is intrusive, in good ways and bad, and it isn’t for the rider to choose when and which.

Indeed, you might say that the metro represents Madrid in microcosm—both the frustration and the joy. There is the uncomfortable crowding, the long and wearisome commute, and the occasional bad apple. But just as often there is the snippet of overheard conversation, the random acts of kindness, and most of all the quiet assurance that you can get where you need to go.

So I say we should don our caps to the Madrid metro. We are lucky to have a system that is extensive, clean, cheap, and reliable. Take a ride on Line One. Visit the two free metro museums. And, most importantly, don’t be a creep.

The Madrid Marathon

The Madrid Marathon

I have been a bad athlete for as long as I can remember. Apart from a brief and embarrassing stint on a soccer team in elementary school (all I can recall is spending an entire game crying my eyes out), I have avoided team sports all my life. And they have avoided me. In gym class I was always one of the last to be picked for a team. For all of middle school and high school I was tall, overweight, and consequently I had all the gawkiness and sluggishness of both conditions. True, I did spend a few years taking taekwondo classes in high school, and I was not so bad at it. But my unpromising career as a martial artist came to an abrupt end when all the stretching and kicking made it necessary to go to physical therapy for my aching, cracking knees.

Of all of the sports that I have failed at, the most conspicuous is running. Every year I dreaded the day in gym class when we would be made to run a mile. I always began with the hope that, this time, I would be able to run the whole thing without stopping. After all, nearly everyone else could. But inevitably, less than halfway through, I would run out of breath and have to walk; and I spent the rest of the time alternating between a wheezing run and a panting walk. Not once did I manage to run a mile in less than ten minutes. Just as bad was the PACER test, when we had to run from one end of the gym to the other within progressively shorter intervals, signalled by an ominous beep. The real studs were able to get to level nine, while I gave up far before that—defeated by the high-pitched tone.

This long and undistinguished experience taught me that I would never be a runner. My knee problems only added to this belief. So, after high school, I never tried. I was pragmatically and philosophically committed to a life of inactivity, with the sole exception of walking (a true intellectual’s sport). But then something happened to break my conviction that I could not run.

Last year, I got into the habit of leaving my apartment at the exact minute needed to catch the bus. Sometimes I left a little late, however, and this put me in a dilemma: walk and miss the bus (and this would mean arriving late to work), or run and catch it. My fear of being fired overcame my combined fears of looking foolish, getting my clothes sweaty, and dying of suffocation. So I ran. It started with only a half of a block, just a short sprint to catch the light. Then it became the whole block, and eventually two blocks—sprinting for the light, stopping, sprinting for the next light, stopping again—until I would run almost the whole way to the bus. And the strangest part is that I did not hate it.

Still, nothing changed. I did not participate in my school’s “Race Against Hunger,” a charity race that we do every year. Instead, I sat by the sidelines feeling bored and useless. I did not even own a pair of sneakers. Nevertheless, circumstances were quietly conspiring to make running a reality. Aside from my bus sprints, living in Europe had left a mark. On all my travels I had tried to walk as much as possible, mostly to avoid paying for taxis and buses and trains; and this had made me a resolute trekker, capable of walking miles under the hottest suns.

All of this unintended athletic experience culminated in a growing curiosity: Could I, finally, after a decade of not running, run a mile without stopping? Sure, I was no athlete; but I was skinnier and in better shape than I was in high school. That adolescent experience had left within me the iron conviction that a mile was an impossibly long distance for me, and that my body was simply unable to do it. Yet in the spirit of science I wanted to test this conviction.

So, one cold February day, I went to a sportswear store with my brother. I could not have felt any more out of place as I looked at sweatpants, recovery gels, and headbands than if I had wandered into an Aztec ritual sacrifice. This was not my world. But I managed to buy myself tights, sneakers, and an armband for my phone, feeling absolutely ridiculous all the while.

That same day I carried my purchases home and prepared for my trial. The tights were, well, tight; the armband was awkward to use. When I walked out into the street, I felt acutely embarrassed, as if everyone was staring at me. I had not worn athletic wear since… actually, I don’t know. What was I doing? Long before I began to run, my body became flushed with adrenaline. I was certain that I was about to make a fool of myself.

The walk to the park, where I would begin my run, seemed endless. But finally I arrived. This was the fateful moment. I opened the app, Runkeeper, and started the tracking function. Then, I fumbled in getting it into the armband holder, and then fumbled again in putting it on my arm. Now the run began—slowly. The first steps felt strange. Retiro Park seemed to bounce up and down. I remember finding it odd that I could enjoy the beauty of the trees while running; I had assumed that I would not be able to think about or appreciate anything.

Sure enough, the tightness in my lungs soon came, that horrible feeling of suffocating. But it was never powerful enough to make me want to stop. I kept going until I got to the artificial lake, and then I turned left and then left again, to complete the circuit. The ground was mostly flat but there was a slight hill near the end, and I thought my chest would explode as I crawled to the top of it. Finally, and unbelievably, I made it back to where I had started. And I had run the entire time. I checked the app—1.12 miles, at a pace of 9:39 per mile. For the first time in my life, at the age of 27, I ran a whole mile.


The months that followed were full of constant surprise. The biggest was that I actually enjoyed running. I did not necessarily enjoy the physical sensation of running; the mythical runner’s high eluded me, and I felt mostly pain and exhaustion. But I did enjoy improving; and I improved with every run—running longer distances at faster paces. Unlike writing or playing music, running can be measured objectively, in simple, cold figures. There can be no dispute over which runner is better or worse. This makes progress very easy to see and, consequently, very satisfying.

I chatted about it incessantly, even getting mildly obsessed with the subject. It felt genuinely surreal to be spending so much time thinking about an athletic activity: this was not me. More important, it felt liberating to see myself as someone who could actually do something physical. My carefully constructed self-image as a delicate intellectual had cracked and crumbled. I felt as if a new continent of experience was now available for exploration.

Eventually, my coworker, Holden, suggested that I do the half-marathon. He had signed up for the marathon and had been preparing for months. At first I dismissed the idea as absurd. The longest I had run at that point was six miles, at a very sluggish pace, and it nearly killed me. Yet, the idea was implanted in my head. I thought of the feeling of triumph, of surpassing even my most ambitious running goals. And, of course, I imagined how much weight I would lose in the process of training (it wasn’t much). So, I paid my 40€ (somewhat indignantly) and signed myself up. Now the serious training would begin.

This consisted of one long run a week, in which I tried to increase my maximum distance by one mile, and several shorter runs wherein I worked on my speed. This regime got me to 13 miles two weeks before the day of the half-marathon, April 27 (it had been moved up a day because of the elections on April 28). On my long runs, I would end up going so slowly that I struggled to pass old ladies with canes. But at least I knew that I could go the distance.

Finally there was only one week until race day. I was nervous. Somehow, I was certain that I was going to do badly and disappoint myself. It did not matter what time I got, of course, but I had decided that I was to run the race in less than two hours—not an easy thing for a beginning runner. I followed all the typical advice, taking a break in the days before the race and stuffing myself with platefuls of pasta. By the time Saturday came around I was well-rested, well-fed, and as prepared as I could have been. Would it be enough?

Two day before the race I picked up my bib (the little paper with your number on it, and a chip so they can track your movement). Annoyingly, they put the pick-up location all the way out in Feria de Madrid, a large complex of expo centers on the outskirts of the city. It took some time just to get there; and then it took some time just to walk through the mammoth buildings to the proper hall. There, a series of volunteers in booths gave me a bib, a t-shirt, and a drawstring bag. The rest of the space was full of other booths offering running-related products and services—energy gels, massages, protein powders. Probably many had free samples; but it was late and I wanted to go home.

The next night, I attached the bib to my sleeveless running shirt with safety pins. I was officially ready.


Race day.

I woke up, ate toast and peanuts, drank water and coffee, and headed out the door. I had been told that it’s best to warm-up a bit before the race, so I jogged about ten minutes to the train station. When I walked out of the train, I was surrounded by thousands of men and women in colorful sports clothes. I did not realize it was such a massive undertaking. Stalls were set up for clothing drop off; hundreds of port-a-potties lined the streets (all without toilet paper); rock music blared from enormous speakers. The closer I got to the running corrals, the more I was awed at the sheer size of the event. 35,000 people were running that day—the 10k, the half-marathon, and the full marathon. William the Conqueror had conquered England with fewer.

I waited, warmed up again, and waited some more. Finally it was time to get into my corral. It was like being in a nightclub—a packed mass of bodies. How could I run through this? Rock music blared. The announcer counted down. Athletic-looking people were dancing (motivationally?) on elevated platforms in the middle of the track. They had spent a lot of money on this thing.

Finally the signal was given. I tensed for the exertion; but it was a bit anticlimactic, since the whole mass of people had to walk to the starting line before they actually began running. There were people holding big blue balloons with times on them; they were professional pacers, and would run the race at exactly the time indicated on their balloon. I struggled to find the 2 hour balloon: it was several hundred meters ahead, and had started before me. Finally I crossed the starting line and found myself jogging in a loose formation.

“Hey man,” I heard a voice say. I turned to see David, a friend I had made in my masters program. He had helped me work on my speed in preparation for the marathon, as I struggled to keep up with him on our weekly runs around Retiro Park. (This is something I discovered during training: running with better runners makes it easier to push your limits.) Soon it was apparent that he was still faster than me, as he pulled away through the crowd of runners. Besides David, I knew four other people running that day, but did not see a single familiar face during the whole race, even though our finishing times were mere minutes apart.

Peter Sagal said that anyone could run the first mile of a marathon, since it gives you the sensation of running with a mob. Unfortunately I did not feel the same way. Most people were fairly quiet, just focused on the long trail ahead; nobody burst forward in a mad dash. Our route took us straight north from the starting line, up towards the four skyscrapers near Chamartín station. The organizers had planned the route well, since these first 5 kilometers was the only stretch that was consistently uphill. After we turned the corner to go back south, it was smooth sailing.

The route

Without the reference of the balloon, I did not know if I was going fast enough. I tried to keep a constant pace, not pushing too hard but not going easy. The presence of so many other people was surprisingly motivating. I felt as if I were being urged ahead by a social force, and all I had to do was to follow the wave. For the most part there were not many onlookers—just a few scattered people cheering us on. I appreciated it. There are few sports more boring to watch than long-distance running.

The pacers in action. Photo by Rebeca López.

Fifty minutes in we passed our first water station, and I felt like a real professional as I drank my bottle on the move. I also took this opportunity to have some of the energy gel that Holden had given me. This is a cocktail of vitamins, sugar, and caffeine that tastes horrible but it has a satisfying effect. Suddenly I felt optimistic—even chipper. The exhaustion lifted and I felt my stride grow longer. Was this the elusive runner’s high? Probably it was just a caffeine rush, but it felt great nonetheless. As I reached a downhill area in the neighborhood of Salamanca, I began passing some runners ahead of me—which is strange for me. Also strange, I began to talk to myself in almost ecstatically encouraging tones: praising myself and egging myself on. Caffeine is an amazing drug.

As is often the case in Madrid, it was a perfect day to run: a clear blue sky, no wind, no humidity, and not too hot. I am not sure that I ever saw so much of Madrid in a single day, and the city looked beautiful in the sunlight. This is one of the great benefits of running: it makes you feel a part of the community. I had already experienced this during my practice runs in Retiro Park and Madrid Río. Because you are outside, covering plenty of ground, surrounded by others, you feel that you are really getting to know a place and to belong in it. That day, I felt like I belonged in Madrid.

Just as we reached the end of the hill, we passed through a small tunnel. There were people cheering on the road above. But the real noise came from the runners, who shouted and whooped as soon as they passed underground, making the space reverberate with a kind of barbaric din—a war cry for amateur athletes. I added my own feeble contribution to the chorus of adrenaline, and felt for a moment as part of something bigger than myself, as just one pulsating cell of an enormous beast. This feeling, I thought, is why people run these ridiculous races.

This sensation soon passed, as did the euphoric effect of the caffeine, and the usual pain and strain came back. Luckily, I soon reached another water station, and then swallowed the rest of my energy gel, which gave me another boost. But I could tell that my reserves were running low.

This particular marathon was a “rock ‘n’ roll” race, which meant that there were stages set up periodically along the course where local rock bands were playing. I must admit that I did not find the music particularly animating, partially because I was able to hear so little of it as I ran by. The cheering of the crowd was somewhat more uplifting, especially when I noticed my friend Monica calling my name. But by far the most motivating factor were the other runners, sweeping me up into a constant forward motion.

Partially because the race was a “rock ‘n’ roll” marathon, I decided to run it without headphones. This was the first time I had ever done a long run without my trusty audiobooks keeping me company, and I was afraid that I would get bored. But it turned out to be a good choice. Free from the distraction, I was able to focus my energy on keeping myself going at a steady pace. Indeed, the extended focus on my breath and my moving limbs made the experience at times rather meditative; I was completely absorbed in the experience of the race. Another advantage to not using headphones is that I did not have my running app telling me how much distance I had covered. This was a very strategic sort of ignorance, since it allowed me to keep pushing without fear of burning out too early.

Photo by Rebeca López

I started to enter more familiar neighborhoods, and I knew that I was in the final stretch. The more I ran, the more impressed I became at the scale of the marathon: they had to shut down half the city for us. Now I knew why I had paid 40€ to run. Still, city life tried to go on—in particular the life of the elderly, who refused to stop for any sweaty army. More times than could possibly be a coincidence I had to stop or swerve to avoid an octogenarian slowly crossing the race course, cane or walker in hand. They were either very brave or quite blind.

Soon I passed several men and women shouting directions at us: those running the full marathon had to turn left, while us half-marathoners continued straight. I knew from the map that this meant that we were in the final stretch. I did my best to push myself to go faster, but my whole body was achy and unresponsive. So I compromised by trying not to slow down. A small woman with a very loud voice started yelling what she meant to be encouraging slogans to us, most of which were about the beer waiting for us at the end. This failed to motivate me, I am afraid, since the thought of drinking beer after getting so dehydrated filled me with disgust.

It was around this time that the thought finally crossed my mind that I would very much like to stop. I had been running for almost two hours by then, and I was tired and even bored, and the finish line was failing to materialize. Luckily the course started taking us downhill, past Retiro Park on the way towards Atocha. At this point I spotted Rebe, to whom I had delegated the task of taking photos of the race for this blog. She was busy at work—so busy, in fact, that she did not notice me until I was right about to kiss her.

Photo by Rebeca López. I am on the far left.

Now it was truly the final stretch. We got to the bottom of the hill, into the Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, and then began up the Paseo del Prado. The finish line finally came into view. I was afraid to look at it, since I thought it would be too discouraging to see how slowly it came nearer; so I looked at the ground. The loud-voiced woman started shouting even more loudly and insistently. The crowd around us started to roar. I could hear music.

Before the race, I had imagined that the sight of the finish line would fill me with a final burst of energy, and I would be able to spring the last few hundred meters. But when I tried to speed up my body rebelled; it hurt too much; so I contented myself with, once again, keeping an even pace.

When I was within 100 meters I looked up and beheld the goal. Again, I tried sprinting, but it was impossible. So I jogged under the gateway and across the finish line, weakly raising my arms in tired triumph. I was done. Again, I had assumed that I would immediately feel transports of joy and accomplishment, but I was too exhausted to feel or to think anything—except, of course, at how exhausted I felt.

After the finish line volunteers were distributing medals, water bottles, and little bags full of food: a banana, an apple, a chocolate croissant, and a bottle of Powerade—for which I was extremely grateful. I started gulping down the water as I limped out of the race area and into the Plaza de Cibeles. Somehow, Rebe immediately found me, and we sat down nearby while I slowly recovered the ability to speak. My face was marked with salty-white streaks of dried sweat, my clothes were completely soaked, and I walked with an awkward limp. But I felt fantastic, and only felt better as the day progressed. Indeed, the sense of accomplishment, blended with complete bodily relaxation, creating one of the most pleasant days I can remember.

My final time was 2:05, which is five minutes above my goal time, but still easily the best I had ever run. I felt completely at peace—with myself and with the world. And I finally discovered the most valuable benefit of running: not losing weight, nor being healthy, nor even the sense of accomplishment, but just feeling good. And I felt good.

Soaking in Ourense

Soaking in Ourense

Once again, the December puente was coming around: a long weekend, the first one of the school year. I was exhausted from the last few months of Global Classrooms. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and cheap—somewhere that was not much of a tourist destination and did not have much to see. Thus, after some false starts, I settled on Ourense, one of the most overlooked cities in Galicia.

Galicia has become my favorite corner of Spain. The people are friendly, the landscape is beautiful, the tourists are scanty, the food is delicious, and the cost is low. My plan was, in essence, to go to Ourense with my girlfriend and—apart from stuffing my face with the harty local cuisine—to do as little as possible. In one major respect my plan failed. After eating dozens of unwashed grapes (long story), I got food poisoning during our excursion to Santiago de Compostela, which made eating difficult.

I also failed in my attempt to pick a city without anything to see. Spain is so dense with history that it pervades even its remotest corners. You can’t walk a mile without tripping over a ruin. And, of course, Ourense is not remote; it is the third-largest city in the region, larger than Santiago de Compostela; and its history stretches back to Roman times. This was a fortunate mistake for someone with a travel blog.


As I soon discovered upon leaving our Airbnb, Ourense has maintained an impressive medieval center. The streets are narrow and meandering; and the buildings are appropriately grey and granite, with arcades running underneath. We soon passed by the Igrexa de la Santísima Trindade, or the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is an impressive, almost castle-like gothic church with an enclosed courtyard. In minutes we were in the Plaza Mayor, which had been decorated for Christmas with a giant tree-shaped light.

The Lantern

Right next to the plaza is the city’s cathedral, its most important historic site. From the outside it has none of the towering grandeur of the cathedral in Santiago. Indeed, the cathedral presents a heavy, fortified look, like the above-mentioned church. The inside is far more attractive. Apart from the impressive gothic nave and the beautiful central lantern, letting in light from eight sides, the cathedral is full of splendid decoration. The main altar, which sides under the octagonal lantern, is an explosion of flamboyant gothic, somewhat reminiscent of the enormous altar in Seville. In the center is a panel depicting St. Martin of Tours, to whom the cathedral is dedicated.

By far the most arresting chapel is the Capilla del Santo Cristo. One moves from the stark simplicity of gothic to the extravagant flourish of the Baroque. As befitting that era’s horror of empty space, every inch of the chapel is covered in decoration—shadowy paintings surrounded by delicately carved and gilded wood. In the center a realistic Christ with long flowing hair hangs from the cross. The chapel also contains the Renaissance choir stalls which once stood in the main nave. The final effect is one of extravagance. I am not sure that it is beautiful, but it is certainly impressive.

Yet the most famous work of art in the cathedral is the Pórtico del Paraíso. This is an elaborately carved tripartite doorway, which once served as the main entrance to the cathedral (but has since been engulfed by the growing cathedral). It was designed by students of the legendary Master Matteo, who is responsible for the more famous Pórtico da Gloria in Santiago. According to the audio guide the two cities, Ourense and Santiago, had something of a rivalry; and this doorway was an attempt to keep up with the neighboring city. Having seen both doorways, I can confidently say that Matteo’s is the superior. Even so, the Pórtico del Paraíso is an extremely fine piece of sculpture, which has been well preserved (or restored). The pigments of the paint still shine invitingly, filling the entire ensemble with a joyful glow.

I should not neglect to mention the cathedral museum, which is included in the ticket. There relics, treasures, paintings, altars, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts on display, as well as a few Roman ruins unearthed during excavations and repairs.

Two large churches stand quite near the cathedral. One is the Igrexa de Santa Eufemia, a monumental Baroque church with a concave façade. The other is the Igrexa de Santa María Nai, another fine Baroque church which now stands, it is believed, on the foundation of the original cathedral. However, I mention these churches, not for their beauty, but because I always find it amusing that large churches are placed so close to each other, within a five minute walk of the city’s cathedral. Being a church artisan was a good career in those days; the demand was endless.

After ascending a staircase up to the hill overlooking the cathedral, I came to my favorite part of the city: the Cemetery of San Francisco. This cemetery goes back to the gothic period, and maintains many beautiful tombs and mausoleums. As usual, I felt a deep sense of calm as I walked through the cemetery, a repose from the temporary and trivial concerns that usual occupy my attention. (Rebe, on the other hand, found it creepy.) The hill also provided an excellent view of the city, the cathedral, and the countryside beyond.

The cemetery used to be attached to an eponymous monastery, which has long since been confiscated and shut down. (For two centuries it was used as a nursery.) However, some artwork from the monastery is on display in a free gallery. And right next-door is the old cloister, the Claustro de San Francisco—now detached and homeless. This is without a doubt one of the great sights in Ourense: the cloister is decorated in the finest gothic fashion, a delicate and harmonious space that transmits the meditative peace of monastic life.

Now it was time to cross the river Miño, which runs through the center of the city. The most convenient walking bridge is the iconic Ponte Vella, or old bridge. The origins of this bridge go back to Roman times, though little remains but some foundation stones from that epoch. The current form of the bridge is medieval. It is an elegant construction, resting on a series of arches that stretches 208 meters (almost 700 feet) from end to end, and rises 33 meters (100 feet) over the water. The bridge has proven so important in the history of Ourense that it is featured on the city’s coat of arms.

Yet this is not the only attractive bridge in Ourense. Also lovely is the Ponte do Milenio, a strikingly modern construction distinguished by the floating metal outline of a ship, which hangs suspended from the two slanted support beams. This is actually a walkway, on which you can dip down below the main section of the bridge to get closer to the water, or ascend to the top for a view of the river valley. Normally I am not very keen on modern design; but I was very much taken by this bridge, which combines functionality with an unconventional use, while maintaining an attractive overall form.

I have come all this way but I have yet to mention the greatest attraction in Ourense: the thermal baths. Ourense is highly geothermically active; thus the city is filled with steaming pools of water, many of which are free to visit. I admit that I am unclear on the science of this heating; though since Ourense is not volcanically active, I suppose that the water gets heated by the decay of radioactive elements deep underground. The water, however, is perfectly safe; and it reaches the surface at pleasant temperatures—warm, but not dangerous. This, by the way, is why the bath-loving Romans came to Ourense.

Most of the baths are situated outside of the city center, alongside the river Miño. However, one important bath sits right in the heart of Ourense: As Burgas. This bath has been used since Roman times, and it was believed to have both religious and curative properties. The baths were maintained into the Christian epoch, in part because it provided a welcome comfort to weary pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Also, according to what I can find, the heat was harnessed by artisans and bakers (though I can’t imagine how).

However, I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of taking a bath right in the center of the city, with pedestrians passing by on every side. So, we headed toward the river to visit the baths of A Chavasqueira. The walk there led us across the Ponte Vella to a path alongside the Miño. The place seems designed as a peaceful escape. There are no crowds and no cars, just the quiet murmuring of the river. Still, I felt apprehensive. I had never been to a thermal bath, and I did not much like the idea of sharing a hot tub with strangers. But, I have a blog to write, and this means I have to experience the typical attractions.

A Chavasqueira thermal baths. Image from Wikimedia Commons; photo by Roberto Chamoso G; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

A Chavasqueira, like the other thermal baths, is public and completely free. The baths consisted of four medium sized, shallow pools, rimmed with stone; and each bath is a different temperature. When we arrived, at mid-day, they were moderately full. Now, when it comes to public nudity, Spain is relatively conservative as far as European countries go; you will never encounter naked sunbathers on a stroll around Madrid’s Retiro Park, for example, as you might while exploring Berlin’s Tiergarten. However, they are still less conservative than prudish Americans. It is acceptable for women to be topless; and most people change with a towel rather than retreating to the public bathrooms, as I did. My natural timidity immediately flared up: I felt uncomfortable.

Still, I had come this far, and could not turn back now. Before going into the baths, it is customary to rinse off with the nearby shower. Seldom do I feel more pathetic and exposed than when I am being doused with cold water out in the open. This done, I lowered myself into the least populated pool. The water was quite warm but not scalding. Nearby an older bald man with a potbelly was determinately soaking, his face a serene grimace. I waited to be suffused with the blissful calm of hot mineral water, but felt… quite normal. In fact, I felt a strange combination of anxiety and boredom. The heat made my heart beat more quickly, and I felt my veins flood with adrenaline. What was I doing here? I could be taking a nice hot shower in the comfort and privacy of my own home.

Meanwhile, Rebe was splashing around quite contentedly, seeming to be properly relaxed. I tried to relax, to wait, to adjust. But I felt silly. What was I supposed to be doing, just sitting in water? After ten minutes I gave up, got out, and changed back into my clothes. Rebe wanted to stay longer, so I took a walk further down the Miño. Now, this was relaxing: solitude, cool air, movement, and nature. After thirty minutes I felt properly calmed after enduring the trauma of the hot springs.

After this all-to-typical failure to enjoy myself, I tried the hot springs again on the following day, and had a moderately better experience. Still, I admit that I do not see the appeal and do not find it especially relaxing. Clearly, I am not made for spa life.

But do not let my experience dissuade you. The vast majority of human beings seem to love thermal baths. And, in any case, Ourense is a charming city. Despite my food poisoning, I even managed to stuff myself with delicious Galician food. That is a successful vacation.

The Walk to the End of the World

The Walk to the End of the World

It was 2018, and my Easter break was fast approaching. Leaving the country during Holy Week is always expensive; and, besides, I had already booked two pricey trips—to Prague and to Paris—so I didn’t want to spend more than the bare minimum. Luckily, Spain has one travel option that requires almost no planning and little expenditure: the Camino de Santiago.

Two years had already gone by since my first and last camino, five days from Lugo to Santiago de Compostela. This time I wanted to start up where I had left off, in Santiago itself, in order to walk to the coast. The Romans may have made this pilgrimage before Christ or Christianity; they named the long granite cape that extends into the Atlantic “Finis Terrae,” or the End of the World, because they believed that this was the westernmost extension of the land. Unfortunately they were wrong in two respects: first, they underestimated the world by several continents; and second, Finisterre (as it is now known) is not even the westernmost point of the Iberian peninsula.

The cape has nevertheless continued to attract travelers. After pilgrims began to flock to Santiago during the Middle Ages, many of them decided, after reaching their goal, to keep going to the coast. This may be why the scallop shell became the symbol of the camino: many people wanted a souvenir from the end of the earth. This was my goal, too: to start in Santiago and keep going until the land ran out. I would walk 88 km (or 55 miles) in four days, giving me enough time to be back in Madrid for my birthday.

The best part of this plan was that almost no preparation was necessary. I did not need to book accomodations or even to buy gear, since I already had it. But I did need to obtain a pilgrim’s passport, or I wouldn’t be allowed to use the camino hostels (called “albergues”). This was easy enough. In the Plaza de Santiago in Madrid, at the Parish Church of Santiago and San Juan Bautista, they hand out passports for free (though a donation is recommended). If you go this route, be aware that the hours of availability are a little strange: 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, and then 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. The other option is to go to the Association of the Friends of the Camino, but they are only open Tuesday through Thursday.

My passport in hand, my flight to Santiago booked, I was ready for my walk to the end of the world.


Arrival

The plane descended through the thick fog until the ground suddenly appeared out the window, moments before landing. With a jolt we had reached the earth. I was sleep-deprived and panicky. Even in the best of times flying makes me nervous; but lack of sleep throws my chemical balance off, and I am consequently much more prone to worry. I thus spent the flight alternating between fear and delirium. Though I had woken up at 4:45 that morning to catch the horridly early (but cheap) flight, I could not sleep a wink on the plane. I was wretched.

It was a wretched day in Galicia, too, and I was happy to be there. A short bus ride brought me to the center of the city, where I had breakfast with some friends who were also doing the camino (but a different route). After some aimless wandering, I made my way to the albergue. I had reserved a room in the Seminario Menor. This is a massive building on a hill across from the cathedral, not to be confused with the Seminario Mayor, which is right next to the cathedral. If the building had indeed been a seminary, it had been a major one: the albergue was large enough to house hundreds of pilgrims, and also had room for a primary school.

Though I had vague ideas of seeing more of Santiago, the bed proved irresistible. I collapsed into a feverish nap. By the time I awoke, hours later, I found that the city was suffering under the wrath of a terrible rainstorm. The water came down in sheets, turning the streets into streams and the sidewalks into puddles of mud. I was glad to be indoors. But if I ran into weather like this on my camino, I would be in for a bad time. The only rain equipment I had brought was a poncho. My shoes were not waterproof, nor was my backpack. The thought of simply going back to Madrid flitted through my head. A tempting idea.

But I had something to accomplish on this camino. My renewal deadline was coming up: I had to decide whether I was going to stay in Spain another year, or finally go back to New York to recommence by suspended adulthood. There were weighty factors on both sides. On the New York side I had my family and friends, and the prospect of a career as a public school teacher—quite a good profession in Westchester. Meanwhile, I was in a long-term relationship with a Spaniard, and had gotten accepted into a masters program for the coming year. I felt torn. The prospect of being away from home yet another year frightened me, especially since I had lately been prone to fits of homesickness. On the other hand, the thought of leaving Spain struck me as tragic: the end of an adventure, the end of a relationship, the beginning of a more conventional life. This seemed like the perfect problem to mull over on a pilgrimage.

When the rain died down, I went out to have dinner and buy some final supplies. That night I went to sleep early. I would need the rest.


Day 1: Santiago to Negreira

I set out as the sun was just beginning to rise. Though I am no enthusiast of the morning, it is advisable to begin walking the camino early: you avoid the hottest part of the day, and reduce the chance that the albergues will fill up. The route out of the city took my past the cathedral for one final look, and soon I was again in the Galician countryside.

The day was overcast and a little cold. As usual, I found the mossy green of the landscape to be enchanting. I love Madrid, but its sandy soil can leave me longing for the verdant foliage of wetter climates. Coming to Galicia satisfies this yearning. After an hour of walking I looked over my shoulder to see the two spires of the cathedral in the far distance. I was on my way. I passed suburban homes and granite farms. Horses nibbled idly in a grassy field. The sky alternated between shades of grey occasionally broken by blue. Rain fell periodically, mostly in a drizzle. Two hours into the walk a magnificent rainbow appeared up ahead. It looked like it came to an end right in front of me: a good omen.

Before both of my caminos, I had imagined that I would do a lot of thinking as I walked. But this was far from true. Instead, I found myself in a kind of dreamy stupor, merely observing the slowly shifting landscape and the villages that I passed through—a rhythmic repetition of trees, clouds, hills, farms, fences, and fields. Scarcely an articulate thought broke my awareness. At times I feared that I was not properly savoring the moment, and so I attempted a walking meditation, focusing all my attention on my breath. This did little to change my state of mind, however, and soon I began listening to an audiobook (a history of 18th century Europe).

The first trail marker

The camino has a tendency to lull one into a blissful calm. No thinking is required; every turn is marked with a big yellow arrow, and all one has to do is put one foot in front of the other. It did not take a philosophical mind to compare this with my present life conundrum. While I followed this path which so many had walked before, I was trying to make a decision which many had made before: to stay abroad or to go home. Yet a wrong turn on the camino can be easily detected and corrected; but an unwise choice cannot be so easily mended, as time marches steadily forward.

The decisions we make in life are often compared to turns in a road. Yet life, unlike the camino, has no obvious right or wrong turns. Indeed, the whole concept of right and wrong breaks down when it comes to major decisions. Two turns in a road can be easily compared, since one leads to the desired destination and the other does not (or at the very least one is faster). But in life, the question is often not how to get to the final destination, but which destination to choose. Different answers cannot easily be compared.

What is better, to be a doctor or a painter? This depends on your own values, of course. But what are your values? Though we often think of ourselves as defined by what we deem important, it can be difficult to know what is truly important to us. We cannot simply introspect and encounter our values, since our priorities are revealed in actions over the long term. One may, for example, think that one has a passion for playing the piano; but after a year of practicing and giving recitals, this passion may fade into boredom. In any case, even if we could easily find out what is deeply important to us now, this would not necessarily solve the problem, since values change over time.

Most perplexingly, our values change in response to the decisions we make. So when we make a major decision, we are in the paradoxical position of choosing ourselves. Rather than choose something based on our values, we are choosing our values themselves. But then what can we base our decisions on? In other words, we are trying to choose something in the present which will satisfy us in the future—without knowing exactly what we are choosing will be like, or how the choice will change our own preferences. This seems like an intractable problem. If only life had big yellow arrows directing us in the right direction.

As you can tell, I do not like making major life decisions. No approach seems intellectually satisfactory. No criteria or value suffices. As a result, no matter how much I weigh the pros and cons, I always end up feeling as though I were following a kind of gut instinct. An existentialist would say that this proves that I am free; but personally I do not feel free when I am forced to choose something based on non-rational factors, merely following impulse and whim.

I am writing this now, but I did not think any of this as I trekked the first twenty kilometers of the journey. I merely walked and occasionally worried. The day passed uneventfully. I crossed the Ponte Maceira in Ames, a beautiful medieval stone bridge. The weather was mostly overcast, threatening rain and occasionally delivering. About four hours into the walk it started to rain seriously. I tried to put up with it, but eventually I gave up, rummaged through my backpack for my poncho, and then put it on. The thing wouldn’t fit over my coat, so I had to take off my coat and tie it to my backpack while I wore the blue plastic covering. And, of course, fifteen minutes after going through the trouble, the rain stopped and the skies cleared. This was the last time I used the poncho.

I arrived at Negreira at around one in the afternoon, cold to the bone. After dropping off my bag I went into a restaurant with a menu del día. This is one of the great parts of the camino. Most stopping points have restaurants offering cheap set meals—normally under ten euros—to pilgrims, most of them consisting of plentiful, hardy food. This was no different. I ordered wine, and they gave me a whole bottle, of which I drank more than I should have. It cost me 7.50€. Then I limped and stumbled back to the hostel for a nap.

The host met me at the front desk. He was an older man, with a paunch and a mustache, who was remarkably talkative. I’ll call him Maligno. Normally I do not like to chit chat while I travel, but I was feeling a little lonely just then, so I was glad for the conversation. His mouth rattled on like a freight train, his gravelly voice following the dramatic, sing-song accent common to the region. I got him on the subject of Galicia, on which he was loquacious. He started googling some of the sights to show me: attractive coastal towns, old Celtic ruins, and even a Roman gold mine.

Somehow the subject got changed to people who speak ugly languages. This quickly led him to tell the old joke about how Spanish is for talking to God, Italian for talking to women, and German for talking to horses. He then went on:

“Once I saw this girl, beautiful, just beautiful, I mean everything was perfect. And then she opened her mouth, and it was like—eck! Just the foulest, ugliest language you ever heard. What a shame, I thought. What a shame.”

With this, I excused myself and went to my bunk bed, where I promptly passed out. When I awoke, I decided to do something productive, and I made a pro and con chart of staying in Spain. It didn’t solve anything, of course, but it did occupy some time. After that I wrote a very bad poem, had a light dinner, and went to sleep.


Day 2: Negreira to Olveiroa

This was to be my hardest day—the longest that I had ever walked in my life: 33.6 km, or 21 miles. I had to get going early.

I began before sunrise. The mist was still heavy upon the land. The moon shone out from behind the clouds, and a light breeze blew through the trees. It was almost completely quiet. I felt a keen anxiety grip me as I began walking into the countryside. It was so dark that I was afraid I would get lost. But soon I found the familiar yellow arrows, pointing the way.

The sun gradually rose and I found myself, once again, in the mossy green countryside of Galicia. The walk that day was especially beautiful, mostly avoiding major roads. As the sun rose I could once again see the farmhouses and the fallow fields. A cow peeked its nose from out a barn window, while two dogs snuggled in the road. Once again I saw a rainbow, and once again it seemed to land right in front of me. I felt that I was on the right track.

It was a much sunnier day than the last, and the heat did not make the long walk any easier. I stopped several times—beside a wooden fence, by a stone church, near a running brook—to rest and eat a little. I had bought pretzels in Santiago, an uncommon snack in Spain, and savored a few handfuls on the way. At one point I stopped at a roadside cafe for a chocolate pastry and a coffee. The exhaustion crept up on me slowly; my feet began to hurt, my legs to tire. But the human body is made to walk. It is one of the hidden benefits of bipedalism: aside from freeing up our hands to carry things, walking on two legs allowed us to be more energy efficient. At least that is the theory.

When it was well past lunch time, the path led into an open field and up a large hill. A plaque informed me that this moderate eminence was the highest point in the county. And in ancient times this had been the site of a fortified settlement (though I could find no traces of it). But the view was valuable enough. The beautiful Galician countryside rolled out in front of me, almost painfully pretty in the sun, with its fields of farmland dotted with patches of pine trees. The grass shone intoxicatingly green in the sunshine, filling me with energy that carried me the remaining distance.

By the time I arrived it was four in the afternoon. Olveiroa is hardly big enough to even be called a village; it mainly exists as a stopping point on the camino. The biggest building in the place is the albergue, where everyone seemed to be concentrated. When I arrived it was absolutely packed, which made me nervous about finding a spot. But it turns out that the vast majority of the people eating in the restaurant where on a kind of bus tour, where they hike different segments of the camino each day and then get bused to back to a hotel. It struck me as a strange concept. In any case, I ordered a gigantic plate of food and ate it with ravenous delight.

The rest of the day was spent in my bunk. My feet were blistered and my knees ached. I limped outside around sundown to see the sky, but quickly gave up and hobbled back to my mattress to read. Very few people were staying at the albergue. Among them was a young German couple, probably around my age. They spent the whole time hugging and whispering to each other. I found it very annoying. Whispering, to me, is far more unpleasant to listen to than speaking, since a whisper conserves only the harsh consonant sounds—the hissing and popping.

Maybe I was feeling cranky, since the more I observed the cuddling couple the more irritated I became. At one point I felt inspired by my distaste of the amorous Germans to write a poem in my journal, which I include here:

Why do humans form pairs,
Like socks or testicles?
We arrange ourselves with mates
Kiss, embrace, quarrel, separate.
The world deems successful
The couples that last until death.
A strange prejudice!
Separation is separation,
In the grave or in the courts;
And an amicable divorce may be
A better way to say goodbye
Than a heart attack.
Monogamy has the worst track record
Of any human institution,
Except for all the other ones.
We relieve ourselves with:
Fantasies, flings, fights,
Affairs, breakups, divorce...
Or just the iron patience
Of the ignored wife or the henpecked husband
Waiting, waiting, waiting,
For the end.

And with this bit of free-verse bile, I went to bed.


Day 3: Olveiroa to Cee

The next morning I fell out of bed, and quickly found myself ascending the steep hills nearby. Again, I got going before before dawn. The landscape was shrouded in morning mist. As I walked up the path I began to feel extremely isolated. Panicky thoughts began to pass through my brain. If a pilgrim-hating murderer was hiding behind one of these rocks, they could kill me and get away with it. My eyes began darting left and right, my body tense.

But the beauty of the surroundings, revealed by dawn, eventually calmed my nerves. It was marvelous. The fog opened up below me to reveal a river flowing through the valley. The rising sun cracked through the grey sky, splitting the horizon with yellow light; and in so doing revealed the silhouettes of wind turbines, so common here, immobile on the hilltops. At the time I was reading Don Quixote, and I imagined the old knight making a charge for one of these modern monsters. These power-generating machines are one of our century’s great inventions; their sleek forms make no attempt to counterfeit nature, and yet they blend in so harmoniously with the landscape.

Eventually I reached a fork in the road, where the camino diverges. You see, there are two options for the pilgrimage to Finisterre: the first goes direct, while the second takes a detour to Muxía, another beautiful coastal town somewhat to the north. The second path is considerably more taxing, since there are three days in a row of 30+ km. I chose the first, since I did not have an extra day to spend; but, of course, every road not taken leaves a little residue of regret. Further on, while crossing another field, I caught my first glance of the sea. It was a dreary grey day, and so all the greens and blues looked muted under the brooding sky. But I could smell the ocean, that salty, fresh savor in the air.

I reached Cee by one in the afternoon, a modest coastal town of about 8,000 inhabitants. I found a mostly-empty albergue, dropped off my bags, and then set out to have some lunch. The sight of the ocean put me in the mood for seafood, so I decided to find some of the justly famous pulpo gallego, or Galician octopus. This is one of the finest dishes in Spain. The octopus is extremely tender, without a trace of rubberiness; and the combination of sea salt, olive oil, and the spicy local paprika make it addictively savory.

After a short walk around town I retired to the albergue. The host was another talkative Galician fellow. He was a youngish man, in his mid thirties I guess, and had the air of a tired hippie. He told me that he had gotten addicted to the camino at a young age, when his mother took him for a week on the trail. Eventually he opened up his own albergue, and met his future wife a few years later—a Russian woman who was passing through. She came in the door a few moments later, with their two little lap dogs in tow. It seemed like a happy family. I had a beer while flipping through some of the extensive National Geographic guide books that were shelved in the salon.

A typical Galician church and graveyard

The only other pilgrims in the albergue were two Frenchmen. I guessed they were father and son, since the younger one looked like he was in his teens. Neither of them spoke much English, though it was not for lack of trying on the teenager’s part. He struggled through a ten minute conversation with me, using plentiful hand gestures to make up for the gaps in his vocabulary. From this mime show I gathered that he had been on the camino for quite three months, having started in Seville. I admit that I find it difficult to imagine spending such a long time on the road, simply walking. Surely one would see many beautiful things. But I am afraid my brain would atrophy from the lack of variety. It had only been three days and I was already looking forward to returning to Madrid.


Day 4: Cee to Finisterre

My final day. I woke up a bit later, knowing that it was going to be a short walk. The path took me through stone alley up into the surrounding hills. The sky was overcast yet again, though the bits of clover covering the ground still glowed with a powerful green. My route followed the coastline towards the peninsula, which jutted out into the sea like a moored ship. As I looked down from the pine-shaded hilltop to the granite shore below, I wished, yet again, that I could properly savor the moment, that I could nestle inside the feeling of being alone in nature and just stay there, hold onto it, and take some piece of the feeling with me. But again the sights came and went, and I was left none the better.

Eventually I walked down the hills onto a long beach. A man was playing with his dog on the sand, some hundred meters away. I snapped a photo. Minutes later, as I sat on a bench re-tying my shoes, he approached me, and asked me if I could email the photo to him. Sadly, I have forgotten to do it—until writing this post. We shall see if he replies.

From there I made my way to the town of Fisterra (the Galician name for Finisterre). Like so many places in Galicia, it is dominated by the camino. Half the people walking through the town sported the typical gear of the modern pilgrim: waterproof coat, nylon backpack, collapsible walking stick. Advertisements for albergues were everywhere. Many of the faces I recognized from the past three days; a few recognized me, and we exchanged a wave. I was tempted to stop, but I wanted to see the end of the road first.

The path to the end of the peninsula brought me once again above the Galician shore. Halfway to the end I passed a statue of a windblow pilgrim, dressed in the traditional medieval costume; and I could not help comparing the modern pilgrims (myself included), with their bright neon clothes, unfavorably to this more simply apparelled traveler. After what seemed like an interminably long time, the end came into view.

I admit that I was a little deflated, if only because there were so many people about. I wanted to feel alone on the edge of the world; but instead I felt like I was at a moderately popular tourist attraction—which, of course, I was. There was a stone cross on a boulder, where many were gathered. More gratifying, for me, was to see the final trail marker: 0.00 km. Seeing the constant and yet slow diminution of the remaining distance is one of the more satisfying and yet maddening aspects of the camino; so I felt a great surge of relief at finally seeing a zero. I was officially finished.

Further on, I came to the lighthouse. Next to it was one of those signs that shows the direction and distance to several major cities. One of the signs, pointing directly across the sea, was for New York: 5,235 km away. My home was right beyond the horizon. Or was it still my home? Did I belong on this side of the Atlantic, or that one? I still had not made a decision for next year. The camino had not resolved my dilemma.

I passed the lighthouse and went down to the rocky tip of the peninsula, where it descends into the sea. The base of a red metal tower had been covered in stickers and paraphernalia—pilgrims wishing to leave their mark. Nearby was a metal statue of a single boot, a trademark camino marker. It seemed to be the perfect memorial for the trail—an anonymous testament to the blisters and bliss of untold walkers. I sat next to it and stared into the ocean, turning over my problem in my head. And I decided, then, that unless something unexpected happened, I would go back to New York to pick up my interrupted life.

And in that moment I felt sad to have to leave such a beautiful place that had given me so much; and I felt relieved at having chosen a path. But mostly, I just felt exhausted and hungry. Little did I know that, just two weeks later, my brother would decide to move to Spain, which would change my calculations completely. And so I now find myself, a year later, writing this long tale of failed self-discovery and unsuccessful soul-searching from Madrid.

I picked myself up and dragged myself back into town, where I found a nice albergue and paid extra to have my own room. The rest of the day was spent in walking idly around the port, eating delicious chipirones (squid sauteed with garlic), and writing in my diary. “Will I ever see this shore again?” I asked myself. “It’s very possible I won’t.” (I would.) My brain was eerily silent. The usual little voices which pop in and out of our heads, telling us things to fret about, were almost entirely gone. I felt empty and free.

Fisterra

The next day I walked to the bus station with a Russian man who was staying in my albergue, and who told me that he had begun his camino by taking ayahuasca in Portugal. The bus left me in Santiago de Compostela, and then a train brought me to Madrid. In five days I had been to the edge of the world and back, and was none the wiser for it.