Snapshots of Galicia

Snapshots of Galicia

As I have written time and again, Galicia is my favorite place in Spain, a region I return to again and again. Part of it is homesickness. Galicia is the only region in the country which bears a passing resemblance to the Hudson Valley—green, hilly, forested. But part of it is due to Galicia’s unique delights: its simple and hearty food, its distinct local architecture and customs, its calm and quiet. And, best of all, a trip to Galicia is very easy on the wallet.


A Coruña

It was the summer of that fateful year, 2020. My brother had just left to return to America. Soon, the school year would begin, and I would go back to in-person teaching—though I could hardly imagine what it would be like after the trauma of the (still ongoing) pandemic. Wanting a last gasp of peace before what I assumed would be chaos, I took a train to my favorite city in Spain, A Coruña.

I had no ambition to do anything but relax. I walked for miles—through the dense streets of the old city, under the distinctive galerías (glass balconies), along the promenade (paseo maritímo) and past the aquarium. One evening, I sat amid the jagged rocks below the Tower of Hercules, a Roman lighthouse, and read a book as the waves crashed below me. Another evening I made my way to Monte de San Pedro and watched the sunset from the old naval guns overlooking the sea. For dinner, I had takeout Chinese food. It was absolutely splendid.

And I packed my running shoes. After the isolation and confinement of the lockdown, I craved the outdoors, and spent as much of my time under the sky as possible. I ran in the late afternoon, with the sun beginning to set. A cool breeze blew in from the ocean, seeming to propel me faster than I had ever gone before. The combination of wind and waves flowing all around me gave me the odd sensation of flying. This, of course, was followed by duck curry and spring rolls.

The only thing vaguely touristy that I did was to visit the Museum of Science and Technology. Considering the museum’s low entry fee and relative obscurity, it is an impressive institution. The halls were filled with beautiful examples of extinct apparatuses—calculating machines, steam locomotives, telegraphs, type-writers… By far the biggest installation is a cockpit of a Boeing 747, which you can walk inside. It must have been no easy task to transport. My only criticism of the museum is that they put the informational texts in three languages (English, Castillian, and Galego)—yet the texts are not repeated in those languages, but continue through them. That means to read the information completely you must be trilingual. 


A Walk in the Woods

The coast of Galicia—like that around A Coruña—is gorgeous. But I had just finished a camino through the wooded interior of the countryside, and I was still craving the forest. So, one day, I decided to take a day trip to a more rural area.

Yet I had little idea where to go or how to get there. In search of a solution, I looked up the stops on the train that runs from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela, and then I examined these stops on Google Maps to see if they looked like decent hiking spots. I eventually settled on a little stop called Cerceda-Meirama, which is remote from any major population center. The fast train had me there in no time.

I emerged onto an empty platform and immediately found myself in the countryside. Having absolutely no idea in what direction to go, I decided to try to walk a lap around a nearby lake. As often happens in Galicia, I passed by a few scattered houses and then was in the woods—or, at least, a grove of trees. (Unfortunately, the countryside of Galicia has been heavily logged and many areas are covered with young saplings, often eucalyptuses, deliberately planted to be farmed later.)

The narrow path took me alongside the Meirama Lake. This is not a natural lake, but was created to cover an industrial eyesore. For decades, not a lake but a lignite mine occupied this area, which only closed as recently as 2017. (Lignite is a type of coal.) Indeed, though at the time I assumed the surrounding trees were planted by loggers, they were actually put into place by the mining company as part of an environmental rehabilitation project that had previously denuded the area. An ominous concrete cylinder still sits, overlooking the lake, next to a featureless gray building.

I cannot honestly say that the path was particularly beautiful. Even so, in my nature-deprived state, I was enraptured by the intermittent calls of birds and even stopped to examine insects crawling along the dirt road. I walked along quite contently, making a circuit around the lake and trying to be mindful of my return time. (The fast train does not pass through this station so often, so I had until about four in the evening or I would be stranded for the night.) Eventually I decided that I had time to spare, and took a detour.

Things went bad very quickly. The path I took trailed off into the forest, and soon I was scrambling through brush. Twice I almost walked straight into a spiderweb with a large awaiting inhabitant. Somehow, to right myself, I had to walk up to an overpass and then along a small highway, before finding a path leading me in the correct direction. Even then, I was not (pardon the pun) out of the woods. The hour of my departure was nearing, and I was still quite lost, just hoping that the path I was on would lead me back to the train station.

Once again, however, the path led to a dead end in the forest. Luckily, by now I was at least close to civilization. Through the brush I could see what was obviously a field of crops. Desperate by now, I went for it—pushing through the thick vegetation and praying that there would be no shotgun-wielding farmer or attack dog waiting for me. Thankfully, not a soul was in sight, and I was able to make my way through the rows of wheat to the nearby road. I only had twenty minutes now before my train arrived. No choice but to run.

Tired and sore, wearing hiking boots, I jogged the remaining distance to the station (scaring off what I believe were two partridges in the process). I made it, sweaty and panting, with just a minute to spare. Sometimes relaxing is hard work.


Pontevedra

The only vaguely touristy thing I did on this trip was to visit Pontevedra. I had been there once before, but it was under unfortunate circumstances. That time, I had parked the car in an underground parking lot (the center of the town is a pedestrian zone), and had scratched it badly against a concrete pillar. This put me in such a fretful state that I could even focus on the city.

But this time was different. I arrived on the early train from A Coruña, ready to do some sightseeing.

The name Pontevedra comes from Latin, and means “old bridge.” And there is, indeed, a rather old bridge in the city, the Burgo Bridge, built in the 12th century. It spans the River Lérez, the dominant water feature of the city, which sits nestled in a bend of the river, near the coast, among the surrounding hills. Pontevedra is not an especially large city, but it is an especially well-planned one. It was a pioneer in instituting a car-free zone in the center and is known for the high quality of life enjoyed by its denizens.

As in any good old Spanish city, there are lots of ornate churches to see. Chief among these is probably the Church of the Pilgrim Virgin. By European standards, it is not an especially old construction, dating back to about the signing of the American Constitution. It was made in order to venerate a rather odd statue of the Virgin Mary dressed as a pilgrim. This image was declared the patron saint of the Portuguese Way, a branch of the Camino de Santiago that passes up through Portugal and then Pontevedra on its way to Santiago de Compostela. Even if you are not a pilgrim, however, you must admit that it is a rather nice church.

The car-free center of Pontevedra is well-preserved and charming. There are tiny side-streets and grand plazas, historic convents and ornate façades, and of course lots of restaurants and cafés. As I strolled around, I came across a life-sized statue of Ramón del Valle-Inclan, an iconic Spanish writer who was born just outside the city. He is outfitted in his usual way: neat suit, thick-rimmed glasses, and a long flowing beard. A literary innovator and iconoclast, he now holds an honored place among the Spanish literary patheon, and is one of the many writers often assigned to suffering high school students.

One of the most interesting sites in the city are the ruins of the church of San Domingos. This is (or was) a lovely gothic structure that now stands without a roof or half of its walls. I have seen ruined churches before, but those have been ruined by some disaster, like an earthquake or a fire. In this case, the culprits are time and neglect. In 1836, during a liberal spasm in Spanish history, a huge amount of land was confiscated from the Catholic church through a law called, in Spanish, the desamortización. This Dominican convent was one of them. The monks had to find a new home and the building was used, in turn, as a women’s prison, hospice, and an infant school. But it fell into decay very quickly under civil ownership and now stands like a ghost in the old city.

I have said before, and will again, that it is often worthwhile to visit relatively obscure museums in Europe, as they can have collections that rival the most prestigious institutions in the United States. This is certainly true of Pontevedra’s Provincial Museum. Even the structure itself is impressive, comprising a complex of buildings which includes modern glass constructions and former mansions. Its collection is vast and varied, including archaeological remains, ornate silverware, religious sculptures, traditional costumes and oil paintings (including those by Goya and Sorolla). Best of all, it is free to visit.

After spending a few hours in the museum, I made my way to the nearest Pulpería I could find. As its name would suggest, this is a kind of restaurant that specializes in octopus. I gorged myself on tentacles and pimientos de padrón (small green peppers), and chased it down with a pitcher of the local wine—typically young and fruity. For some reason, it is customary to drink the wine out of a little ceramic bowl, which reminds me very much of the vessels used to drink saki (called sakazuki).

The meal ended, I contemplated trying to do more visiting. But, somehow, I had lost the motivation. Instead, my legs took me on a meandering walk out of the city and, following the river, towards the ocean. I walked until the city receded into the less dense outskirts, and kept going until I came across a small beach at the mouth of the river. A small boat—more of a dingy—had been hauled up on the sand, looking somehow pathetic next to the water. Smokestacks split the sky on the opposite bank. A helicopter came into view, flying low over the river. Though I was surrounded on all sides by evidence of human life, I was the only person in view, and I had the illogical feeling that I had reached the edge of the world.

This romantic feeling was dispelled when I checked the time and realized that, once again, I had to hurry in order to make my train back to A Coruña. I arrived that night, and celebrated with a final dinner at the takeout Chinese restaurant. It had been an excellent stay in Galicia.


Santiago de Compostela

One year later. It was the All Saints’ Day holiday, in late October, 2021. I had no plan whatsoever, except to relax and to look for some foliage. (Madrid is quite bereft of colorful leaves in autumn, as a result of, well, not having many trees.) I bought a cheap train ticket to Santiago de Compostela, the regional capital, and booked the cheapest Airbnb I could find. My hosts were not thrilled when I arrived at nearly midnight. But at least I was back in Galicia.

My first day was uneventful. It was the day before Halloween, overcast and foggy. I decided that I wanted to take a hike. Santiago de Compostela has some attractive city parks—the two principal ones being the Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval and the Parque da Alameda—but these are rather small. Seeking wider fields to wander, I walked to the edge of town, to the Parque Forestal de Monte Pedroso. This is a large park—well, more of a young forest than a park. The land had obviously been clear cut not too long ago. Virtually all of the trees were young saplings, planted in neat rows on the hilly landscape, doubtless to be themselves harvested at some future date. (Galicia, though beautiful, has mutilated many of its own landscapes.)

Paths led in and out of clearings in the forest, climbing and falling through the misty trees. The fog was so thick that I would have been completely disoriented if not for the AllTrails app on my phone. It was perfect for Halloween, but not ideal for pretty foliage or beautiful views. At the very least, the hike allowed me to work up an appetite for my visit to El Mesón Do Pulpo, one of Galicia’s many fine pulperías, or octopus restaurants.

I must have been in a very suggestible mood, for I allowed the waiter to talk me into buying a plate of octopus followed by a whole steak, washed down with a pitcher of the fruity local wine. It was an excessive amount of food—and absolutely delicious. You can imagine that the rest of that day was not particularly productive. The only thing I managed to do was to have another excessive meal, this time dinner at a Korean restaurant called NuMaru. I am glad I did, since it was perhaps the best Korean food I ever tasted, better than any restaurant I have visited in Madrid (which one would think is more cosmopolitan and diverse than the provincial Santiago). Clearly, then, my first full day in Galicia was a success.

As an afterthought, I wanted to mention the strange architectural installment (sculpture?) I found on the edge of town, on my way to the forest. The thing consists of a kind of arched hallway, constructed of massive pieces of granite. This monstrous monument was built in honor of the Sociedade Xeral de Autores e Editores, which translates to the General Society of Authors and Editors, a private organization that aims to protect intellectual property of those who write and publish music, books, and plays. This sounds noble enough, but it sometimes boils down to publishing companies trying to wring money out of musicians and acting companies—most of which never gets to the artists or writers themselves. Once, the organization charged €96 to a high school theater company who wanted to do a play by Federico García Lorca, who died in 1936. This happened in 2010.

In any case, my next day in Galicia was far, far more eventful. 


A Whirlwind Tour

I awoke early, having set an alarm. The previous day, my Airbnb host invited me on an outing to see his native village. “It is one of the most beautiful villages in Galicia,” he said. The other guest at the Airbnb was going, too. Not having any real plans, I accepted.

The next day, after breakfast, I was ready to go.

“Alright, I’m ready,” the host said.

“And the other guest?”

“Something came up.”

Unphased, I followed my good host and got into the passenger seat of his car. It soon emerged that my host was not simply a man fond of his pueblo. He was a professional researcher and extremely knowledgeable about his native region. As he drove, he rattled off a constant string of information about the area, and I soon realized that, rather than a simple trip to a town, he had an entire itinerary planned out.

Our first stop was the church of Santa Maria de Adina. The church itself is large and attractive but otherwise not remarkable. But buried in the surrounding graveyard is Camilo José Cela, a writer who was born in this town and who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989. I have not read any of his work (it does not seem to be especially popular now), but I was glad to pay my respects to a writer.

Nearby was the town of Padrón, our next stop. This town will be familiar to lovers of Spanish food, for being the home of the famous pimientos de Padrón—delicious small green peppers that are fried in olive oil and served with rock salt. But my host wanted to show me the Parroquial Church. Again, like many local Spanish churches, it was large and attractive but not memorably so. What sets the church apart is the “pedrón.” This is a sort of large stone that is given pride of place in the church. According to legend, the ship that divinely transported Saint James’ body from Jerusalem to Spain was finally moored to this stone.

The truth is actually more interesting than the legend, as the letters clearly visible on the stone were actually inscribed by the Romans to honor the god Neptune. It reads: “To Neptune: the Orieses (?) put up this stone at their expense.” It seems odd that a pagan monument would hold pride of place in a church. But many pagan rites and rituals were taken over by the Christians. (Christmas is December 25, not because we know when Jesus was born, but because it allowed the holiday to replace the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.) According to this website, the stone was used even before the Romans as a place to tie up their ships.

The tour continued. My host then took me to a very small village called Bustelo, in order to show me a fine example of a Galician cruceiro. This is a distinctly Galician artifact, consisting of a large stone cross standing atop a pillar, often with a small carving of Jesus or the Virgin as adornment. According to my guide, since only the properly baptized were allowed to be buried in the church graveyard, babies who died at or near birth were often prohibited from this sacred ground. Despondent mothers thus would bury their babies at the base of this cruceiro, being another kind of religious burying ground. (If you’re curious, this website contains an image and the location of every cruceiro in Galicia. They are quite beautiful, in my opinion.)

Our next stop was another distinctive monument of Galicia: the hórreo (yes, it sounds like the American cookie). This is small building that was used to store food, primarily grain, before refrigerators became common. They are elevated to keep out vermin, and normally have slits in the walls to keep the food dry. Nowadays they sit unused, a charming and constant reminder that one is in Galicia. My guide had an encyclopedic knowledge of hórreos as well as cruceiros, and he took me to see one of the largest ever built, called the hórreo do traba. It is huge: five or six times the length of a normal hórreo. I have no idea why it was built so large.

Next we visited the lovely seaside town of Noia where, mercifully, we had some coffee. But our break was brief: I was whisked off to the church of Santa María a Nova, which now houses a museum of antique gravestones. These are notable for their decoration (though they are often faded by time and weather), which normally feature the deceased person’s profession. I must admit, however, that I did not understand much of what I saw.

No matter, we had pressing business, and within moments I was back in the car on my way to the next destination. This was probably my favorite thing I saw that day, but I admit I was on guard when my host pulled over by the side of a road and told me to start walking into the forest. My misgiving aside, it was a thoroughly lovely example of a lush Galician forest, with moss-covered trees all around, and the Traba river gurgling nearby. Soon we had arrived at our destination, the abandoned village of Xei. Though the ruins appear absolutely ancient, this village was not abandoned so long ago (less than a century, I think). According to this website, the town was depopulated because its economy relied on the water-powered mills, which became obsolete with the adoption of electricity. In any case, I think ruins often have a strange and otherworldly beauty, and these skeletal structures, green with encroaching forest, were wonderfully evocative.

Our next stop was brief, to the nearby Dolmen of Argalo. A dolmen is a kind of megalithic tomb, consisting of a single chamber in a stone structure. In this case, very large slabs of granite were stuck into the ground to form the walls, and dirt was piled up all around it to make a kind of mound. Human remains do not preserve well in the acidic soil, so no bones were found inside. However, archaeologists did uncover stone tools and fragments of ceramics. As my guide remarked, we will never know what the people who built these believed.

Are you tired already? I was, but that did not stop us from visiting yet another stop. I shouldn’t complain, since this was also a wonderfully beautiful spot. We parked the car near a large old monastery building, the Mosteiro de San Xusto de Toxosoutos, which seemed unused. But this attractive old building was not our objective. Nearby, a path led into the forest, along the San Xusto river, and soon we were surrounded yet again by beautiful Galician forest. Better yet, at this juncture the river formed a series of ever-more attractive waterfalls (fervenza in Galician). Also of interest were the large mill-stones which now sit, unused, alongside the river, a reminder of the ancient importance of water-power.

In addition to its many charms, Galicia is rich in prehistoric sites. Not far from the waterfalls, for example, was yet another dolmen, the Dolmen de Axeitos. This one is larger and more impressive than the Dolmen of Argalo, with a massive granite slab somehow elevated in place as a roof over the wall stones. Whoever made this benefited from not a little teamwork, coordination, and technological sophistication, since moving stones of that size is no easy feat.

It was getting late now, and darkness was setting in. But my guide still wanted to show me one more thing. Aside from dolmens, Galicia has many sites known as “castros,” which are the remains of ancient (presumably Celtic) settlements. One of these sites is the Castro de Neixón, which occupies a peninsula on the coast. (Peninsulas were advantageous locations, both ideal for fishing and sea transport, and easy to defend from the land.) To be honest, this site was disappointing compared to the spectacular Castro de Baroña, which I had previously seen. But the interpretation center nearby also houses a fine museum—which, unfortunately, I was too tired to really take in.

We arrived back in Santiago de Compostela at around eight at night. I immediately went to the nearest restaurant I could find, which happened to be a Chinese place. I was ravenous—we had eaten just a little sandwich for lunch—and the order actually discouraged me from ordering the amount of food I wanted to. He was amazed when I ate every last bite. I really am grateful to the host for having shown me such a wealth of interesting things. But it was a long, long day.


A Pilgrims’ Mass

I had just one more morning in Santiago de Compostela, and I knew how I was going to spend it. The previous night, I learned that the other Airbnb guest (the one who had abandoned the odyssey of Galician sightseeing) was a veteran of the Camino de Santiago. He informed me that was planning on attending the so-called Pilgrims’ Mass the following day.

Now, I had already attended this mass several times (once while suffering a severe stomach cramp), and had always been disappointed that the famed Botafumeiro was not used. This is the enormous incensor that, on special days, is swung from wildly through the cathedral on a pulley. Constantly missing this event was perhaps my greatest disappointment in Spanish travel. But according to my fellow guest, today there was a good chance that I would finally witness the spectacle.

The cathedral was packed. There were lines to get in at every entrance. I arrived nearly an hour early and still had to stand, as the pews were completely occupied. It was obvious at a glance that most of the audience was not there to save their souls. Foreign languages abounded, and cameras were held at the ready. I was certainly no different; but even within this great crowd I tried to temper my expectations. I had been in a similar crowd when the Botafumeiro failed to materialize.

But today was different. A hush came over the crowd as the robed priests appeared. Then, somewhere behind me, voices began to echo in the stone chamber. It was a choir, and a very good one. The singers were moving through the space, from the front to the back, but with so many people I could hardly catch a glimpse of them. It hardly matters, as their voices were rendered omnipresent by the reverberations, washing over me like a wave. It was genuinely spiritual music, soothing and even spine-tingling in its ethereal beauty.

The choir ceased, and the priest approached the pulpit. Everyone turned around to face the main altar. Sunlight was pouring in through the high windows, a single bright beam illuminating the white robe of the priest. For the second time in my life, I briefly considered converting to Catholicism. (The first time was in Mont Saint-Michel, and also involved sunlight and choirs.) I was so transported by the atmosphere that I could hardly register anything he was saying. In any case, his prayers were brief. Soon an organ had begun to play, now filling the cathedral with piercing reedy notes, while several robed men got into position around a multi-corded rope.

My body filled with electricity as I realized that, yes, this time I was finally going to see it. The rope was pulled taught and the men began to tug, gently at first, and then more firmly. With every tug, the enormous incensor began to swing higher and higher, from right to left, until it completed an arc that almost touched the ceiling. Smoke poured out of the flying metal casket, and soon the entire cathedral smelled of frankincense and myrrh.

This performance lasted for about five minutes. Then, the Botafumeiro gradually slowed down enough for the brave priests to catch it. This was our cue to leave, and the audience filed out in a respectful silence. I must admit, as absolutely cool as the Botafumeiro was, it did leave me feeling a little sorry for the priests. It is not a sight calculated to inspire religious devotion, merely to please tourists like myself. There is nothing theologically significant about a flying ball of smoke. Even so, I was very happy to have seen it. Though it had been more than a year since my last walk on the Camino, it felt like the end of a long pilgrimage.

Images of Asturias

Images of Asturias

From León, the journey continued north. Our GPS took us on the main highway, the AP-66, which cuts straight through the Cordillera Cantábrica—the major mountain range separating the interior plains from the northern coast—with tunnel after tunnel. Our destination was Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. Thankfully, this time our Airbnb had heating and hot water.


Oviedo

On my last visit to Oviedo, I went into raptures about the beauty of the city. This time around, having much to see, we did not spend very much time in the city. Indeed, though last time I regretted not entering the cathedral to see the Cámara Santa—a pre-Romesque church that has been converted into a chapel, and which now houses several famous relics—during this trip I positively forgot. I suppose I will just have to go back.

Instead, our brief time in the city center was spent visiting museums. If memory serves, we were able to buy combination tickets to the Archaeology and the Fine Arts Museums. In general, it is a good idea to visit even relatively obscure, provincial museums in Europe, as there is a good chance that it will have a collection that rivals far more prestigious institutions in the United States. This was no exception. The archaeology museum had artifacts from the stone age to medieval times, and the collection was housed in a beautiful old monastery. Even more impressive was the Museum of Fine Arts (Bellas Artes), which has a surprisingly large and wide-ranging collection of paintings, including some by Picasso, Sorolla, El Greco, and Goya.

Then, we ventured somewhat outside the city to see what are Oviedo’s most precious monuments: Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo. These are two pre-Romanesque structures from the 9th century—very rare survivals from this time period. I visited these two structures on my last visit to Oviedo, but I wasn’t able to go inside. This time, however, we arrived in time to take a tour of Santa María del Naranco. Despite its religious name, this structure originated as a palace, built for the Asturian king Ramiro I, and was only consecrated centuries later. Compared to what was to come in the Romanesque and the Gothic ages, this structure seems quaint and primitive. Indeed, considering that it is less spacious than many suburban houses, it is difficult to believe that it was intended to be a palace. But for its time, its design was highly innovative—incorporating rounded arches and the barrel vault to make it more spacious and bright inside. Though these two buildings are youngsters compared with, say, the Colosseum or the Parthenon, they nevertheless evoke the feeling of deep time and lost memories.

The last thing I must mention about Oviedo is the food. In Spain, Asturias is famous for its cuisine, and we sampled two of the most iconic dishes: fabadas (a hearty bean stew) and cachopo (similar to cordon bleu). Washed down with the local hard cider, this makes for a hearty meal in the cold, rainy weather.


Cudillero

With a few hours of daylight to spare on our first day in Asturias, we decided to visit Cudillero. To be honest, I had no idea what this was, but Rebe assured me that it was worth seeing. We put the name ‘Cudillero’ in our GPS and started to drive. Within an hour, I was screaming as we careened down a steep, narrow road straight through the center of a seaside village. The street seemed much too narrow for a car, and the many pedestrians paid no heed as they walked back and forth in front of us. Meanwhile, the GPS took us down and down and down, until we were right at the water’s edge. At least there was free parking.

To be honest, I do not have much to say about Cudillero, other than that it is a memorably beautiful and dramatic village. The entire thing is like an amphitheater, with some roads that ring from side to side, and others that lead down toward the water. Every new vantage point opened up another lovely perspective on the town.


Cangas de Onís

We visited Cangas de Onís when the light was already fading and we were pressed for time. It is a small village and, as often happens, parking was scarce. We found a parking spot on the street but it required me to parallel park—something I hadn’t done in years. I messed it up, badly. To make matters worse, an elderly local couple were standing on the sidewalk, watching me. The shame grew too acute and I eventually gave up and drove away. Thankfully, after I circled back, we found a parking lot. (I have since improved my parallel parking abilities.)

The town is quite lovely but we hardly had time to do anything but walk down the main street and admire the elegant “Roman” bridge, which is actually medieval.


Lagos de Covagonda

Our next stop was nearby. Now, if you visit during the off season, it is possible to drive to these lakes yourself. But as this was a holiday weekend (the Puente de la Constitución, in early December), we had to park the car and board a bus at a bus station right outside Cangas de Onís. It is probably wiser to buy the tickets online instead of doing as we did and buying them on the spot, late in the day.

The bus trip is a bit harrowing, as the enormous vehicle navigates narrow mountain roads. But we got there in one piece. It is a stunning place. The lakes are over 1,000 meters up the mountain (3300 feet), and are surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with still green meadows below.


Mirador del Fitu

I do not remember what day we visited this lookout point, but it was one of the best things we did in Asturias. It is one of the most beautiful mountain views I have ever seen.

A special thanks to Rebe, who took many of these photos.

The Drive South

For the drive back to León, and then to Madrid, we set the GPS to avoid tolls. This took us, instead of through the mountain via tunnels, over the top via the Puerto de Pajares. This is a lovely mountain road, full of twists and turns, that leads up and up, giving you a wonderful view of the bucolic Asturian countryside.

Along the way, you can see the historic Rampa de Pajares, a train line that seems to weave around the road. This was constructed between 1880-4, and represented a major engineering accomplishment. I am not sure if trains still use the tracks, though. The high-speed trains (AVE) pass through a tunnel rather than climb the mountain.

Right when we reached the top (about 1380 meters, or 4500 feet) we saw a light covering of snow on the ground. In retrospect, we were lucky. Had the weather been less kind, the road might easily have been impassable with snow. Once we began our descent on the other side of the mountain chain, we saw a series of fascinating rock formations. Rebe look up one particularly noticeable mountain on her phone, and found that it was the fossilized remains of a coral reef! If anything, this is an excellent lesson in geology.

After a brief stop in León (described in the other post), we carried on to Madrid. Our trip was over. It was the best mountain scenery I have ever seen.

The mountain is no impediment.
That ridge is, apparently, an ancient coral reef!

Images of León

Images of León

Three years ago, in December of 2019, Rebe and I took a trip up north, to Léon and Asturias. Though I have already written a post about those two areas, my first visit was brief—and in any case I did not have a decent camera back then. It is with much apology, therefore, that I upload these belated photos of what was a thoroughly lovely holiday.

The drive from Madrid to León is the better part of four hours. Thus, we could have arrived at a decent time, had not the rental company been swamped with angry customers, waiting to pick up their cars. A word to the wise: when you rent at the cheapest company, you end up paying one way or another—in time, emotional energy, and yes, unexpected payments. As the Spanish say, lo barato sale caro. This has been my consistent experience with rental companies and airlines—though, I admit, I am so stingy that I still can’t help myself when I see a good deal.

In any case, we arrived in León just before the sunset. Compared to Madrid, it was frigid—made that much colder by the fact that the airbnb I selected did not have heating or hot water (again, being cheap has its costs). We were greeted by a dramatic sunset, the pinks, oranges, and reds dancing across wisps of clouds, as the shifting light played across the gray surfaces of the city. Such sunsets are rare in normally cloudless Spain.

We headed straight for the cathedral, hoping to visit before it closed for the evening. This cathedral is, without doubt, one of the finest in Spain—and all of Europe, for that matter. León, you see, was a major stopping point along the Camino de Santiago,  and so was visited by a constant stream of pilgrims during the Middle Ages—who, of course, brought both money and knowledge along with them. This explains the notable French influence in the gothic design of León Cathedral.

Although it is, by the exalted standards of gothic cathedrals, not especially big, its placement in an open plaza allows the visitor to appreciate the full, weighty majesty of the structure. In the waning evening light the delicate tracery, the graceful buttresses, and the many points and spires appeared like a dance captured in stone. But the real treasure is inside the walls—or, rather, in the walls themselves: the stained glass. Unlike most gothic churches, León has preserved its medieval windows (wars, bombs, and fires destroyed a good many over the centuries). These are absolutely stunning: full of intricate details and hundreds of individual figures, filling the interior with gemlike colors and ethereal light.

Once we had our fill of divine beauty, we turned our attention to more earthly matters. It was December and the town was full of Christmas decorations and market stands selling all sorts of knicknacks. I did some Christmas shopping—buying a colorful plate with a serrated center, for grinding up garlic, as a present to my grandmother—while Rebe contented herself with a new pair of mittens. And if you are in Spain in the winter months, it is obligatory to have some churros with hot chocolate.

Our meandering took us, inevitably, to Casa Botines, one of a handful of buildings outside Catalonia designed by Anton Gaudí. It is a severe building, strictly neogothic, lacking the exuberance of Gaudí’s later works. Even so, it fits in harmoniously with the city of León and is, at the very least, imposingly symmetrical. Right next to it is the Palacio de los Guzmanes, an attractive Renaissance structure that is now the seat of the local government (Guzmán was a wealthy family who commissioned the original palace).

This was basically it for our evening in León. After a short stroll along the Bernesga River, we drove to the Airbnb where we shivered all night.

Rebe with her new mittens.

However, this was not our last glimpse of the city. Three days later, on the way back from Asturias, we made a stop in the city to see the one major attraction we missed: the Basilica de San Isodoro. The history of the basilica’s name is interesting in itself. Though originally dedicated to another saint, in the middle ages it was re-dedicated after the Muslim ruler of Seville allowed the remains of the venerated Sevillian (he was a theologian and archbishop) to be moved north to León, which at the time was under Christian control.

Above the Casa Botines. Below the Palacio de los Guzmanes.

The basilica can only be visited on a guided tour. And though this tour lasted about an hour, only two things really stick out in my memory. The first is a jewel-encrusted chalice that was displayed in a glass case, in the center of a room devoted solely to this item: the Chalice of Doña Urraca. This item lay relatively unnoticed and uncelebrated in the basilica’s collection until 2014, when two Spanish writers claimed that it was the legendary Holy Grail. The evidence for this assertion was thinner than air. Art historians believe the chalice was likely constructed in 11th century Germany. In any case, there is another potential Holy Grail in Valencia’s Cathedral, if you want to cover all of your bases.

The real jewel of the basilica is, undoubtedly, the royal pantheon. This is the burial place of many of the kings and queens of León—from a time before Spain existed as a country, and León was just one of several small kingdoms occupying the Iberian Peninsula. Yet the pantheon is not famous for its bodies, but for its art. The ceiling is covered in a series of beautiful and well-preserved murals from the Romanesque period. These are of such fine quality that they have been compared with the Sistine Chapel, though stylistically they share little with Michelangelo. As is typical of Romanesque art, the figures are stylized, almost cartoonish, with no attempt at creating accurate proportions or a realistic space. The result is a kind of naive charm that I find quite moving.

A public domain image of the Pantheon.

That was the end of our tour. We ate tacos at a nearby Mexican restaurant (surprisingly good), and kept going back towards Madrid. But not long after we left the city, the sky exploded into yet another gorgeous sunset—with streaks of purple, red, and pink undulating like waves in the rolling clouds. We pulled over to take pictures. By chance, right in our line of sight, was one of the iconic Osborne bulls—the universal symbol of Spain. It was yet another reminder of the enchanting beauty of this country.

A special thanks to Rebe, who took many of these photos.

A Highly Unsuccessful Journey

A Highly Unsuccessful Journey

Rebe was in acute distress. That day, wholly unexpectedly, she was informed that she had been chosen from the list of substitute teachers (interinos) and had been given a real, full-time teaching job. Essentially, this meant going from unemployed to real teacher in 24 hours. Such a change entails a great deal, of course. For one thing, she had to go get a Covid test the following day at a private lab, and then go directly to her new school to meet the other teachers. And, this being the Spanish government, she also had to do a great deal of paperwork.

But this also meant that she could not go on the vacation that she had so painstakingly planned this weekend before, with me, to the Pyrenees. She had mapped out every glacial lake (ibón), and had ranked them in interest. She had examined the weather predictions in every relevant locale, so that we could take advantage of the most temperate conditions. She had even noted which restaurants in which pueblos would be the best for our future repasts. The mountain resort was booked, the rental car reserved. And she could not enjoy any of it.

“Are you going without me?” she asked, as she frantically searched on her phone for information about the next major phase in her life.

The better angels of my nature told me that I ought to stay, in solidarity and support. But the more wicked of my internal cherubins said, in a choir, that this was an opportunity that I could not forego.

“Uhhhh,” I said. “I think so.”

You see, the trip was too good to pass up. The national park of Ordesa is a UNESCO World Heritage site—an enormous expanse of majestic mountains. Tucked into this landscape are medieval villages, some of the loveliest in the country. Every photo online gives the impression of jaw-dropping beauty. Most importantly, despite my years of crisscrossing Spain, this was a region entirely new to me—one of the final frontiers in the country. How could I pass up the opportunity to finally see the Pyrenees?

Thus, the next morning, while Rebe prepared herself for bloodwork and actual work, I left to pick up the rental car. Soon I was driving on the A-2 highway towards Zaragoza. Even though I still have apprehensions about driving by myself, the car went beautifully, and I figured that I was in for an excellent vacation. There was only one slight source of annoyance, however, and that was that the rental agency had given me the car half-empty, even though I had paid for the full-full policy.

Well, this was remedied easily enough. I pulled over and called the office, and they told me to simply bring it back half-empty with no harm done. Then, feeling rather happy with myself, I filled up the car with unleaded gasoline and drank an unleaded coffee.

But trouble started as soon as I got back on the highway. The engine revved up to a high-pitched buzz, even though I was not going very fast. Looking at the RPM meter, I saw that I was dangerously close to the red zone. Meanwhile, I could barely keep up with the creeping tractor trailers. Something clearly was not right.

I pulled over at the next exit. A call to the rental office did not help. First I was told to restart the car—which led to innumerable and seemingly nonsensical error messages popping up on the screen, for everything from the USB connection to the parking brake—and then to reset the battery. This also proved to be quite useless advice, as the “reset battery” button I was assured existed did not, in fact, exist.

Finally I was able to get the car started and took it for a few drives around the parking lot. It felt quite fine—good, in fact. Maybe the trouble had passed?

With some trepidation I once again took the car onto the highway. Once again, I tried to confidently accelerate past the sluggish transportation vehicles, and once again I found that I was the sluggish one. I pulled over and called the office again.

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“Are you sure you put the right type of fuel in?” they asked.

“Almost completely sure,” I said (instantly made unsure by the question).

“Well,” they said, “then I guess the only thing you can do is return the car yourself, or call a tow truck.”

“Do you think it’s safe to drive?”

“If you go really slowly, I think you can make it.”

My heart was beating somewhere near my eardrums at this point, and sweat was rolling down my back in thick globules. But I was willing to do almost anything to avoid having to call a tow truck. So I plugged in the rental car office into the GPS, and began my journey back. But the car seemed even slower than before. I could only go half the speed limit. Fearing an accident, I turned on my emergency lights and prepared for a long, long drive.

But that was not to be. Within just two minutes, a police jeep was following me. They pulled up alongside, gesturing in perplexity, and then trailed me until I pulled over. I must say that the two men were quite nice, if not exactly helpful. Their intervention essentially consisted in telling me that it was too dangerous to drive so slowly on the highway—quite correct, of course, but not very constructive.

There was a rest area very close to where the police pulled me over. In an act of surrender, I parked the car there, took out my things, and called for a tow truck. After all, the car seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. Several times during that short drive, it rattled and shook, like the engine was choking; and before I stopped by the side of the road, the engine had cut out completely. My mind, seeking a reason for the whole thing, insisted on recriminations. Could it be my fault? Did I really put in the wrong fuel?

The stress of the situation was beginning to seem overwhelming until I walked into the rest area and found myself in that most soothing of environments: a Spanish bar. In moments, I was seated outside sipping on a coffee and nibbling on a slice of tortilla, as I waited for the tow truck to arrive. I was in the barren plains of Castilla La-Mancha, an hour away from the nearest city. As a measure of the remoteness of the area, this particular rest stop specialized in wild meats: deer, rabbit, wild boar… The closest pueblo, Saúca, has a population of about 70.

Hardly twenty minutes had gone by when the tow truck arrived, which I found quite impressive. In the blink of an eye the car was loaded on the back and I was stranded. Now, time to call a taxi. The tow truck man told me to call a number on my rental contract; the lady at the other end of the phone told me to call any local taxi service; and just as I was about to do so, I was called by a taxi driver who was on his way, asking where I was, and berating me for not telling him sooner.

Another twenty minutes and the taxi was there. A typical Spanish character, he smoked two cigarettes and downed a coke before the drive. Then, he insisted that I call the rental company—twice—to confirm that the trip was covered by the insurance. Apparently, he had been stiffed too many times.

When his nicotine and caffeine levels had been properly replenished, and his money assured, he finally agreed to drive me back to Madrid. Nothing at all interesting happened during the ride, other than that I found the receipt for the gas station, which confirmed that I put the right fuel in the car after all. This made me feel considerably better. (As it turns out, this particular model of car, the Ford Focus, has had trouble with fuel pumps; and my issues were entirely consistent with a failing fuel pump. So it was not my fault!)

The rental people were very professional: They offered me another car; and when I decided—in frustration—to cancel the trip altogether, they at least reimbursed me for the fuel I bought. If you ask me, though, giving me a car with a failing motor that required several hours worth of towing should have merited a full refund. 

But I am not particularly sad that I did not get to see the Pyrenees. I will see them one day, hopefully when Rebe can actually come. Until then, let this voyage be a counter-balance to all of the nice stories of European vacations on the internet (including, of course, on this blog). Sometimes a vacation simply does not work out.

Images of Mérida

Images of Mérida

One of my favorite places in Spain is Mérida. If you have never heard of Mérida, then this illustrates my point: it is one of Spain’s lesser-known gems, which means that it is not overly crowded nor overly expensive. But it is an extraordinary place. Very few cities in the world can compare with Mérida for the breadth and quality of its Roman ruins. The city was one of the capitals of Hispania (Roman Spain) and had all of the comforts of provincial Roman life.

Most of the major sites in Mérida can be visited on a combination ticket, which you can purchase for 15 euros. I recently had a chance to visit Mérida and to experience anew the impressive monuments. The two stars are the amphitheater and theater. They are both enormous and well-preserved—especially the latter—and give you a good sense of what it would have been like to be a Roman having a day of entertainment. Ironically, the architectural monuments may have more lasting value than what the Romans actually consumed inside—gory violence and farcical comedies.

Ancient comedies and tragedies are still performed in this theater, during Mérida’s anual theater festival

There are several ruins to be seen right in the center of town, free of charge. One of these is the so-called Temple of Diana, which was actually dedicated to the emperor. It is especially interesting because of the Renaissance house that has been incorporated into the remaining pillars (which you can see in the background). Nearby is the old Roman forum, where some fragments and columns still stand.

The temple of Diana
A detail from the Roman forum

Apart from its many monuments, Mérida has an excellent museum of ancient Rome. The building itself is lovely—made of brick, with a high ceiling help up by Roman-style arches, and skylights that illuminate the space. There are artifacts of all kind inside: statues, pillars, mosaics, gravestones, pottery, jewelry, coins, and more. On the ground floor you can see a preserved section of a Roman road, and marvel at their extraordinary engineering. And in the museum’s basement still more artifacts are displayed, which were uncovered during construction.

The National Museum of Roman Art
A Roman interior, with wall paintings and a floor mosaic
A Greek-style vase
A model of how the ancient city may have looked
The impressive Roman road, a section of the Via de la Plata, an which connected the north and south of Roman Spain

Fairly close-by to the museum is the Casa del Mitreo, the excavation of a Roman villa. Whoever lived here must have been extremely wealthy, since there are three separate patios and many interiors are richly decorated. The Romans had taste. Another interesting site is below the Church of Santa Eulalia, were still more ruins have been uncovered. Probably there are rooms, walls, pillars, and shards of pottery under every inch of the place.

The Casa del Mitreo
The crypt of the Church of Santa Eulalia

But some of the most beautiful ruins are located well outside of the city center. One is the Acueducto de los Milagros, a towering aqueduct dominating a grassy field. And it really is miraculous that something so seemingly delicate could survive two thousand years, exposed to the elements. Only slightly less impressive is the Acueducto de San Lázaro, which is near the old Circus Romano.

On the other side of town is the Roman bridge, which is connected to the Moorish fortress overlooking the Guadiana River. It is amazingly long—almost a kilometer in length, making it the longest surviving bridge from antiquity. And this is not the only Roman bridge in Mérida: there is another one near the Acueducto de los Milagros.

But perhaps the most impressive feat of Roman technology is the Embalse de Proserpina, a Roman dam. The Romans were extremely skilled hydraulic engineers, you see, and created their own reservoir to feed the town. The dam a lot more complicated than what meets the eye. There are deep chambers underground that the Romans used to divert the water into pipes, which eventually directed the water to the Aqueducto de los Milagros, which in turn brought it right into the center of the city.

The dam’s retaining wall
The exposed structure of the dam

As I hope you can see, Mérida has many sites for such a small and relatively obscure city. But this is how it always is in Spain: in every corner of the country, treasures await.

Images of Extremadura: Trujillo, Cáceres, and Monfragüe

Images of Extremadura: Trujillo, Cáceres, and Monfragüe

Even though Halloween is not nearly as popular in Spain as it is in my own country, it is still a time of celebration. For the day after Halloween, November 1st, is All Saints’ Day. and this means that we have a long weekend. I took the opportunity to visit one of the lesser-known regions of Spain: Extremadura. This is the area that lies to the Southwest of Madrid. Known for its relative poverty (the area is mostly agricultural, with hardly any industry), Extremadura nevertheless produces some of the country’s finest cured meats. Its cuisine is delightful.

Our first stop was the town of Trujillo. This is a small town (with less than 10,000 inhabitants) famous for being both beautiful and historically significant. The town owes its beauty partly to its location. Situated atop a granite knoll, the town has a commanding view of the surroundings, and the plentiful local rock has been quarried and used to give all the buildings a uniform appearance. The whole place is stone—from the pavement stones, to the restaurants, to the churches, to the city walls.

The town is also known for being the home of several Conquistadores (the Spaniards who conquered the New World), most notably Francisco Pizarro, the man who conquered the Incan Empire. Nowadays, of course, we are more likely to feel uneasy at this “accomplishment” of destroying a whole civilization. Even so, he is a historical character of immense importance. Pizarro’s statue stands in the main square, looking properly triumphant. (Hernan Cortés, the conquirer of the Aztecs, was from a small village not so far off. I wonder why Extremadura was a breeding-ground for these characters.)

The city walls.
The town cemetery. Many families were gathered inside, busy leaving flowers and cleaning the tombs of their ancestors. This is a common tradition on All Saints’ Day.
The main square, with the statue of Pizarro.
The church of Santa María la Mayor, which is both beautiful in itself and which has excellent views of the city and the surrounding countryside
The view from the church tower.

Later that day we went to Cáceres, the second-largest city in the whole province. Cáceres also has a beautifully-preserved historical center, making it a lovely place to walk around. But perhaps even more important, Cáceres has an excellent food scene. There are many superb restaurants in the city.

The Church of San Francisco Javier, in the Plaza of San Jorge. Nearby a musician was playing flamenco guitar and singingand he was excellent at both.
The view from the tower of the Church of San Francisco
The Arch of the Star, a gateway in the main square, made at an angle to allow carriages to pass through from the nearby street.

The next morning we left Cáceres early to go to the National Park of Monfragüe. This is a beautiful area of green hills around the valley of the Tajo River. Humans have been drawn to this area for a long time. In the center of the park, high up on a hill, are the remains of a medieval fortress. In a cave on that same hill, cave paintings have been found, dating from thousands of years ago.

Nowadays tourists mostly come for the birds. A massive rock formation, called the Salto del Gitano (or the “gypsy’s jump”), sits at the river’s edge, creating a persistent updraft. For whatever reason, predatory birds—most notably vultures, but eagles as well—enjoy coasting in this pillow of air. This has made the park one of the best places for bird-watching in all of Europe.

The Salto del Gitano
The old castle

Images of the Galician Coast

Images of the Galician Coast

During our last Easter Vacation, my brother and I took a trip up to Galicia for a few days. I had been to Galicia many times before, but this time I wanted to do something different. My plan was to rent a car and see some of the less accessible parts of the province, away from the big cities.

Well, this went mostly to plan. The main source of anxiety was the car. I was totally inexperienced in car rentals, so I was caught off guard at the office when they told me that I would have to pay more on top of what I had already paid to reserve the car—a lot more. What many rental agencies do is bundle together their gasoline and their insurance policies. So, basically, if you do not want the insurance they charge you a huge “administrative fee” for filling up the car’s tank with gas, and this makes it cheaper to actually get the insurance. As a result, we paid over twice as much in the office as we had paid online to get the car.

Personally I think this practice should not be allowed, since it is transparently a way of squeezing money from customers. But, I must admit, by the end of the trip I was glad I had bought the insurance, since I managed to scratch the side of the car in an underground parking lot.

But getting a car had many positives. One of them was in allowing us to rent an Airbnb out in the middle of the countryside. It was unlike any place I had ever stayed in: a stone cottage where an old Belgian woman lived with her dogs and chickens. If you can find the listing, I highly recommend a stay. (The cottage is quite near the town of Xuño, in the province of Pontevedra.) The surrounding landscape is gorgeous, and the cottage is near many things worth visiting—as I hope to show.

Our little car and our Airbnb, with my brother in the background
The Airbnb had a great mirror

First we headed to the town of O Grove, on the recommendation of a friend. This is a popular destination for local tourism, and it is easy to see why. The town itself is quite pleasant, right on the coastline and filled with good restaurants. We stopped and had some of Galicia’s delicious seafood. (The bad part of driving is that I cannot have wine with lunch.) Across a bridge is the island of A Toxa, which is filled with resorts and hotels. It is worth visiting, however, if only for the hermitage, whose walls are covered in cockle shells.

A fisherman in O Grove
The Hermitage of A Toxa

Closer to our Airbnb was the Miradoiro da Curota, which it a lookout point on the top of one of the tallest hills in the area. Some have called this mirador the best view in Spain, if only because all of the region’s famous island national parks are visible from it. It is an extremely impressive sight. Personally I find the Galician landscape intoxicating, with its mixture of lush green, deep greys, and shimmering waters.

My brother pointing to something in the distance.

Next we went down towards the town of Xuño, to visit the local beach: As Furnas. This beach is famous for being the place where the writer Ramón Sampedro dove from the rocks and broke his neck, turning him into a paraplegic. Unhappy with his life of immobility, he tried for many years to be euthanized, taking his case all the way to the highest court in the land. In the end he lost the case, but he convinced his friends to give him cyanide.

This tragic story was turned into an iconic film—Mar Adentro, or The Sea Inside—by Alejandro Amenábar, with Javier Bardem playing Sampedro.

I was thrilled. You see, as usual I had hardly looked up anything before booking the trip, so virtually everything we saw was done on the spur of the moment. So it was a very fortunate coincidence to come across this beach: The Sea Inside was one of the first movies I watched in the hopes of improving my Spanish. Travelling in Spain is often like this. The country is so jam packed with treasures that you trip over them wherever you go.

This is where Ramón Sampedro jumped and became paralyzed. He misjudged the depth of the water; it is safe to jump at high tide.
A bust of Sampedro

Even if you do not care about the movie, the beach is worth visiting on its own merits. Skeletal granite formations jut into the water, creating fascinating patterns of pools and polished rock.

My brother looking out at the sea.

All of this was great. But the best was yet to come. After doing some searching on my phone, we drove north to the Castro of Baroña. To be honest I had little idea what to expect. It turned out to be one of the coolest things that I have seen in Galicia—or in all of Spain, for that matter.

Situated on a little peninsula, with roaring waves all around, is an ancient fort. Settlement of the land probably dates back centuries before the common era, and the fort was finally abandoned in the first century. This is what is called a “castro,” which loosely means a fortress. It was built by the (appropriately named) Castro Culture—a group of Celtic peoples living in the north. Though the Celtic language has disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula, its ruins (and some aspects of its culture) have remained.

The builders dug a little moat into the isthmus of land connecting the island to the mainland, and built two circular walls around the area. All that remains of the buildings inside the fortress are stone circles, the bases of former constructions. I imagine it would have been very difficult to attack such a place, since the only access is by sea (and there is no good place to land a boat) or across the narrow strip of land. But I doubt that the defenders could have stored enough food for a prolonged siege.

Not only are the ruins intriguing, but the site is beautiful in itself, like so much of the Galician coast.

For my money, the combination of the landscape, the excellent seafood, and the welcoming people makes this region perhaps my favorite in the entire country. And that is saying quite a lot.

The Valley of the Fallen

The Valley of the Fallen

In light of Francisco Franco’s recent exhumation, I am updating and republishing this post, which I originally published in February of 2017.


Any tourist to Berlin will soon be reminded of its ugly past. Monuments to the Nazi movement, to the Holocaust, to the Berlin Wall, and to the Stasi secret police are everywhere. This abundance of tragic memorials might be shocking at first, even depressing; but the very fact that they exist is an encouraging sign. The conflict, persecution, oppression, and violent terror that killed so many and ripped Germany apart—it is not hidden away, but openly discussed, commemorated, taught to children, so that it is not forgotten and never repeated.

A tourist in Madrid, by comparison, can be forgiven for never guessing that there was ever a Spanish Civil War at all. The most notable monument to that bloody conflict hangs in the Reina Sofia: Picasso’s Guernica. But there are no museums, no educational centers, no memorials. Why? Perhaps it is all too recent; after all, Franco died in 1975, and he had supporters right until the end. And yet the Berlin Wall fell even more recently, in 1989, and Berlin is full of references to its famous barrier. So mere historical proximity is not the answer

This question is taken up in Giles Tremlett’s excellent book, Ghosts of Spain. Spaniards, he says, are still so divided on the issue of Franco that it is impossible to present the Spanish Civil War in any kind of neutral way. Any mention of the war is bound to upset one side or the other, threatening to reopen old wounds, to aggravate societal tensions that once ripped the country in half.

The only solution that seems to satisfy nearly everyone is—silence. For a long time, both sides abided by a pact of forgetting, pacto de olvido, pushing the war into the half-forgotten background, letting it collect dust in the basement. As we will see later, this is becoming less and less true recently, but is still very much the norm.

With the political situation in my own country becoming more alarming by the day, I cannot afford to be a part of this pact of forgetting. I do not think it is wise to forget, nor to remain silent, especially now. We cannot indulge in historical ignorance. Averting our eyes away from painful events only makes it more likely that they will reoccur. With this in mind, I traveled to the most imposing monument to Facist Spain, El Valle de los Caídos, to hear distant echoes of Spain’s silent past.


El Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, is situated about an hour’s drive outside the city of Madrid, in a valley called Cuelgamuros in the Guadarrama mountains. It is a Catholic basilica tunnelled into a rocky outcropping, its main altar deep underground. The basilica is situated in a natural preserve that covers over 13 square kilometers, in a picturesque area among pine forests and granite boulders.

The Valley is not exactly easy to get to using public transportation. The best option, I think, is to take either the 664 or the 661 to El Escorial. From there, you can take a special bus that leaves every day at 3:15 pm, and drops you off right in front of the monument. This bus returns at 5:30 to El Escorial (two hours is more than enough time to visit), and from there you can return to Madrid.

The Valley took nineteen years to complete; construction lasted from 1940 to 1959, and cost over one billion pesetas. (I do not know how much that would be in euros.) The two principal architects were Pedro Muguruza Otaño and Diego Méndez, who consciously built the monument in a Neo-Herrerian style—a revival of the architectural style of Juan de Herrera, the architect of El Escorial. But according to the official guide book

… in large part, the Valley is a personal creation of Francisco Franco, since it was his idea to have the monument crowning the rock where the sepulchral crypt would open that contains the remains of the fallen; his is the Program of the Abbey and the Center of Social Studies, after overruling the original idea that there would be a military barracks; his the choice of the site; his the decisions about thousands of little details throughout the construction and, finally, his the choice of the various projects of the Cross and the architects.

(My translation from the Spanish edition.)

The Valley took so long and cost so much money to build because of the massive engineering challenge of building it. The mountain had to be hollowed out, and careful calculations had to be made regarding the vertical and lateral stability of the rock. The rock that was excavated to make the basilica is the same rock that paves the large terrace out front.

Aside from the feat of engineering, the Valley is impressive simply for its size. If part of its interior had not intentionally been left unconsecrated—to avoid competition with the mother church—it would be a bigger Basilica than St. Peter’s in Rome. Even more striking is the cross atop the monument, which is the largest cross in the world; it stretches to 150 meters (500 feet) in height, and is visible from a distance of 32 kilometers (20 miles). A funicular—which wasn’t working when I was there—takes visitors up to the base of the cross. Inside the cross is an elevator and a stairway, which lead up to a hatch in the top. But tourists are not allowed here.

The Valley is officially meant to commemorate the fallen combatants of both sides in the Spanish Civil War. On the opposite side of the mountain from the basilica is a Benedictine Abbey, where the monks hold a perpetual mass to the dead. (I’m not sure if this abbey can be visited.) Interred somewhere within the complex—I think in chambers connected to the side chapels—are the fallen soldiers. There are 33,872 combatants buried there, all unmarked, making the Valley of the Fallen the biggest mass grave in Spain.


When I walked off the bus, I was surprised to see snow on the ground. This was the first time I had seen snow from up close in Spain. The atmosphere was dense with fog, a mist that seemed to suffocate all sound, leaving the surroundings in an eerie silence. There were about twenty of us on the bus, mostly younger people, mostly Spanish.

We followed the signs towards the monument, walking down a simple road, passing a café, towards a large hill that loomed overhead; its top was totally shrouded in the mist. The scene gave me a sense of foreboding—the jagged rocks jutting from the hillside, the pine trees laden with snow, the opaque air, the absence of sound.

I walked on, and suddenly a form emerged through the fog: a concrete arch, about thirty feet high. This was the front of the monument. Soon the path opened up into a large empty space, a flat terrace covered with snow. I walked into the middle of this terrace, my feet crunching in the snow, leaving a lonely trail of footprints. From there I could see the monument’s façade. A semicircular row of arches curved around me in a massive embrace. In the middle was the door, and above that a pietá, or lamentation, showing the Virgin Mary bent down over the dead Christ’s body.

There was something cold and sterile about those concrete arches, lifelessly repeating in perfect order like a row of tombstones in a military cemetery. They impressed at first, but had nothing behind them: doorways leading nowhere, meaning nothing. The dreary grey of concrete was only drearier in the fog. I moved towards the door and looked up at the statue. The Virgin looked so absolutely alone out here in the wilderness, up on the mountain amid the rocks and snow: petrified grief, forever mourning.

I passed through the door, decorated with bas reliefs of the Life of Christ, and went inside. This was the basilica, built in the mountain’s belly. A long tunnel stretched out before me, dimly lit. I could hear the soft mechanical hum of ventilation. Footsteps and conversation softly echoed in the cavernous space. A sign on the wall told me to be silent, for I was entering a “sacred place.”

Through another doorway, and I was standing in another tunnel, this one much larger. In the hallway, yellow bulbs glowed like torches; their light was reflected on the polished surface of the floor, making every surface shimmer with a pallid glimmer. I was deep in the earth now, buried under a mountain of rock, far from the sun’s rays and the cool breeze.

Along the walls, tapestries were hung. I looked and saw scenes of chaos: warriors on horseback attacking crowds, multi-headed hydras trampling people underfoot, angels with swords held aloft, fire and smoke and rays of light, battles and beatific visions, and always God, enshrined with light, watching from above. This was the apocalypse, depicted in eight sequential images along the hallway: the Antichrist, the four horsemen, the beast, and the final judgment. In small nooks, underneath giant bas reliefs, altars hung from the walls, telling the story of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation, the visitation, the adoration of the Magi.

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

My phone was in my hand and I was busy taking pictures, when a woman dressed in black walked by and yelled “No fotos, caballero.” I continued on, pausing here and there to examine a tapestry and an altar, but feeling somehow distracted, maybe even drained. There was something oppressive about the space. Like the façade outside, this hallway seemed sterile, lifeless, inhuman. The perfect symmetry of the decoration—the tapestries and altars arranged in exactly regular intervals, opposite one other, repeating and repeating—and the mathematical precision of every line and angle: there was no warmth in it, no life, only calculation and design.

I ascended a staircase, and found myself among rows of pews. Overhead, on platforms along the walls, were four statues of shrouded figures. Before me was the main altar. Christ hung from a crucifix made from tree trunks, staring up at the ceiling in merciful agony. Now I stared at the ceiling, too, as I stepped into the center of the basilica.

Over me was an enormous dome, golden and flooded with light. It was magnificent. Christ sat enthroned in the center, by far the largest figure, while dozens of believers ascended up towards him in a mountain of men and women. I walked around the circular space, agape at the sight, slowly making my way to where I began. Then I walked around again, this time pausing to investigate the small chapels on either side. They were dedicated to “the fallen.” In one chapel, a man was kneeling in prayer.

Photo by Merce; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

In my third pass around the space, I noticed something on the ground. I approached and saw these words written on a concrete slab: Francisco Franco. So this was it; this was the dictator’s tomb. I paused for a long while and stared down at the grave. Here he was, the man who kept Spain under his boot for forty long years. And what was he now? A pile of dust underneath a concrete slab. But he was not forgotten. A bouquet of white and red flowers sat above his name, neatly arranged. The flowers looked fresh.

As I stood there, looking down at the grave, a strange feeling began to take hold of me. An icy hand gripped my insides and twisted; my knees felt weak; sweat ran down my back. Suddenly a sound snapped me out of the trance. “¡NO FOTOS!” yelled the woman in black at a tourist—her words echoing harshly in the cavernous space and breaking, for a moment, the suffocating silence.

I walked around the room once more, and then I fled—walking through the tunnel, through the door, and back into the open air. I went down the front stairs and into the courtyard. In a corner, someone had built a snowman. The poor fellow was already starting to melt.

I turned to look at the monument once again. The fog had receded somewhat, giving me a better view of the mountainside. Up above, breaking through the mist like a ship pushing through stormy waves, was the cross. It was just an outline, a faint silhouette in the semi-darkness, standing far up above everything in the surroundings.


The Valley of the Fallen is popular: it is the third-most visited monument under the direction of the Patrimonio Nacional, the governmental caretaker agency. But it is also intensely controversial. Indeed, how can it not be? Whatever Franco may have said or thought about its ostensible purpose—commemorating both sides of the war indifferently—the Valley is an obvious monument to Spanish Fascism: nationalistic, Roman Catholic, Falangist, megalomaniac.

Added to this is the uncomfortable fact that part of the labor that went into the Valley’s construction was done by Spanish prisoners of war of the defeated side. Granted, from what I can find, it seems that these prisoners constituted a rather small percentage of the workforce; what is more, the labor allowed prisoners to commute their sentences. Nevertheless, the thought that Republican soldiers contributed their sweat and toil to a monument celebrating their defeat, cannot help but inspire discomfort.

More controversial still are the burials. I mentioned above that nearly 34,000 people are buried in the Valley. But it is important to note that many of these burials were not performed with the consent of the families. To the contrary, Franco’s men dug up soldier’s graves in huge numbers, carting them off to the Valley to be a part of Franco’s grandiose gesture of reconciliation. To this day, families are trying to retrieve their loved ones from the massive vaults of the basilica, where they are interred without name or marking of any kind.

This is not to mention Franco’s tomb. Francisco Franco is the only person interred in the Valley who did not die in the Civil War. More problematically, Franco is buried as a hero: right in the center of the Basilica, still carefully adorned with flowers. There are many who think his remains should be removed,* and others who think they should at least be moved to the mausoleum on an equal footing with the rest of the deceased. The Right counters that this gesture would be pointless, purely symbolic, and would needlessly disturb the populace. So his remains remain.

[*His remains have, of course, been removed, as I discuss at the end of this post.]

I should also mention the only other marked grave in the basilica, that of José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Little known nowadays, Primo de Rivera was the leader of the proto-fascist Falangist party in the Spanish Republic. Due to his revolutionary activities as a politician, he was imprisoned before the Civil War, and was executed after the outbreak of the conflict. He is buried in the center of the Basilica, right across from Franco. Though his political career was marked with some contradictions, his death in prison allowed the Francoist forces to turn him into a martry for the cause. Thus his presence.

In his book, Ghosts of Spain, Tremlett describes a Falangist rally that he witnessed inside the Mausoleum. The flag and symbol of Franco’s party were proudly waved, and Franco’s daughter was even in attendance. These rallies were formally outlawed in 2007, as part of the Historical Memory Law. In 2009 and 2010, when Spain was in control of the socialist party, the monument was closed several times. This was ostensibly for safety reasons, though the Right saw it as a sign of suppression. When the socialists were voted out of power in 2011, masses resumed in the Basilica.

The most pressing question, it seems to me, is what should be done with the monument? At present, the Valley of the Fallen is presented as just another historic Catholic Basilica, like El Escorial, with informational plaques about its artwork and design. A visitor, totally innocent of Spanish history, can conceivably visit the monument and never guess that it was connected with a Fascist government. I think this is not an acceptable situation.

In 2011, an “expert commission” was formed under the socialist government to give advice on the future of the monument. They proposed setting up an interpretive center, to explain to visitors why it exists. They also suggested that remains of the soldiers be identified, and their names inscribed on the terrace outside, and that Franco’s remains should be removed completely. These seem like sensible and good suggestions to me, but the conservative government, upon their ascension to power, announced that they had no intention of following them.

I think this situation needs to change, and soon. As one of my students said, if you see the monument with “non-political eyes,” it is a beautiful and astonishing work. But there is no separating the Valley from its politics; and any attempt to do so is itself a political act—one that tacitly approves of what the monument stands for. History cannot be swept under the rug, especially now; it must be confronted, interpreted, understood, and taught. Reframing the Valley will be a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for Spain to come to grips with its past


Update, October 2019: The Remain’s of Francisco Franco have, at long last, been removed from the Valley. It was the fruit of a long legal struggle between the socialist government and Franco’s family, among other conservative forces. The relocation of Franco’s body was purposefully quiet, dignified, and private—all the better to prevent violent outbreaks.

For my part, I think that this is certainly a step in the right direction, though much work remains to be done. The remains of the dead must be identified and, if the family desires, removed from the basilica. Moreover, information should be available on the site, telling of the monument’s past and not just of its architecture. This will be no easy task, of course, and is certainly many years off. But the removal of Franco’s body gives me hope that Spain is now readier to confront its past.

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Images of the Fiesta de la Transhumancia

Images of the Fiesta de la Transhumancia

Every October in Madrid something peculiar happens: the streets around the center flood with about 1,800 sheep and 200 goats. This is the Fiesta de la Transhumancia, a festival celebrating the history of shepherding in Spain. By the time the sheep arrive in Madrid, they have already had quite a journey. Beginning in the north of the country, in the Picos de Europa, they make their way south for the winter on the cañadas reales, one of which passes through Madrid.

These “royal ravines,” as you might translate the term, were set aside in 1273 by Alfonso X (so-called “the wise”) to support Spain’s wool industry, and it seems that the shepherds have retained their ancient right. I have heard it said that this focus on producing merino wool ultimately damaged Spain’s economy by directing resources away from agriculture. In any case, it has given rise to this colorful tradition.

The sheep enter the city through Casa de Campo, and eventually make their way to the Plaza de Cibeles, passing through the Puerto de Sol during their trek. My brother and I scoped out spot near the bottom of Gran Vía to catch the sheep on the final leg of this journey.

The sheep are preceded by their masters, dressed in traditional garb, singing old songs, and playing historic instruments.

They are followed by a flood of sheep, punctuated by a few brown goats wearing tinkering bells. Alert sheep dogs and shepherds wielding cane sticks kept the animals moving in line. For somebody raised on or near a farm, such a sight would likely not evoke any strong reaction. But for me, it was exhilarating.

The sheep were followed by a team of oxen pulling a card—absolutely enormous beasts—and then a crew of street sweepers, to deal with the mass of urine and excrement left on the pavement.

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.