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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, removedfrom 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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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.
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.
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.
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.
I spent the entire plane ride in a panic. The sleep deprivation didn’t help. As usual, I had bought tickets for an early flight in order to save money; and, as often happens, I was too nervous to sleep well the night before. Several seats in front of me, Rebe was contentedly snoozing. I tried putting my hood down over my eyes and drifting off; but every time the plane dipped or turned, I was jolted awake. The art of sleeping on airplanes still escapes me.
Our destination was Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. This is a group of volcanic islands off the Western coast of Morocco. Including Tenerife, there are seven main islands in the archipelago, along with many minor ones. These islands have been controlled by Spain since the late middle ages. They were conquered as a kind of prelude to the colonization of the New World—during which they were used as a jumping off point to cross the Atlantic.
Before the Europeans came to establish themselves, the islands were populated by indigenous peoples known as Guanches, who had originally came from Northern Africa. Their culture was either totally destroyed or absorbed by the invading Spaniards, so that nowadays only slight traces remain, along with tantalizing archaeological evidence. Today the islands are a kind of offshore European vacation spot.
Considering that I was heading to a tropical island with my girlfriend, it would be logical to assume that I was in a good mood. I was miserable—gripped by anxiety. You see, the Canary Islands are unlike peninsular Spain in at least one crucial respect: the lack of public transportation. You simply must rent a car. Luckily, in my experience car rental prices in the Canary Islands are often very low. Unfortunately, however, I was not very good at driving.
Having grown up with good public transit, I had spent my entire life without serious need of driving. Consequently, I got my license quite late: at the age of 21. And even then, I rarely used it. Moving to Madrid—a place extremely well-connected by trains, buses, and subways—did nothing to remedy the situation. Indeed, I had driven so rarely since getting my license that, before taking this trip to Tenerife, I had probably gone less than 100 miles in total—a few dozen miles a year, here or there.
What is more, I had never driven without the company of a more experienced driver. Rebe certainly did not fall under this category. She did not have her license; she had barely even touched a steering wheel. In short, she would not be any help. I was on my own.
When we arrived at the airport, I insisted on taking a few minutes to have a coffee and relax. But it was no use. As I stared down into the milky brown of the coffee, I felt sure that this was to be the last coffee I would ever taste. My mind flooded with images of gruesome crashes—a head-on collision, careening off a cliff, spinning out of control. This was it: the end.
Finally it was time to go down to the parking garage and pick up the car. We found the desk and got in line. Behind us a loud bachelorette party also got in line—the women occasionally chanting and singing. I hardly noticed them, however, as I shuffled towards my doom. I was shivering and covered in a cold sweat. Then—suddenly—I felt a sharp pressure in my abdomen.
“I have to go,” I said to Rebe, and ran back upstairs—to the bathroom. Strong anxiety tends to upset my bowels.
Ten minutes or so later, I re-entered the line. Now it was our turn to do the paperwork. I could hardly pay attention to the man’s explanation. As I signed the paper, I felt as though I were signing the order for my own execution. We walked out to the car—a Smart car, tiny and cute. Do these things have good crash safety ratings?
Failure confronted us immediately.
“How do you open this thing?” I said, trying to get the back door opened.
“Wait,” Rebe said, and tried herself to find the handle—also with no luck.
In shame, I had to ask the rental car guy to open it for us. Not a good omen.
We got in. I adjusted the seat. I adjusted the mirrors. I checked and rechecked my seatbelt. I turned on the car and braced myself. My head pounded, my vision narrowed, my veins felt like they were flooded with fire. And despite doing my best to not let any of this show, my voice quivered when I said:
The car was ignited and put into drive. Very gingerly, I pressed the gas. Nothing happened. I pressed a bit harder; still nothing.
“What’s going on?” I said. “The car isn’t moving. Why won’t it move?”
“The emergency brake is on,” Rebe informed me.
“Oh, shit.” Another bad omen.
I switch off the brake, and the car begins to move. All of my senses are focused on the vehicle. I try to remember my training—rules of the road, blind spots, when to signal. After a couple spins around the parking lot it is time to get to our Airbnb.
“Ok, what do I do?”
Rebe turns on the GPS and lets the automated voice do the rest. Soon I am merging onto the highway. Nothing difficult so far. None of the cars are going particularly fast. I just have to follow the road for a dozen kilometers or so until we reach our exit. Meanwhile, every slight adjustment of the car provokes a crisis of indecision in me. What is the proper distance to maintain? Should I pass? What is the safest way to pass? What’s the speed limit anyway? Is that guy too close? Am I going too slow?
Finally our exit appears. After negotiating a roundabout, we are speeding down the center of a Santa Úrsula, a small town on the northern shore of the island.
“The Airbnb is right over there,” Rebe says.
“So should I park?”
“But where? Where?”
We drive about a mile down the street before I manage to pull off the road and into a parking spot. By now, I am totally shaken.
Luckily, the Airbnb calmed me down. I had splurged and gotten us an entire apartment. It was magnificent—a kitchen, a couch, a television, and a balcony with a view of the ocean. Perhaps this vacation in a tropical paradise wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The big division in Tenerife is between the northern and southern shores. From what I hear, the south shore—full of golden beaches and massive resorts—caters mainly to foreigners, while Spaniards tend to prefer the northern shore. No lover of sunbathing or swimming in the ocean, I figured that I would stick to the north.
Our first stop was a little town called Icod de los Vinos. We arrived at lunch time. Still very uncertain about my driving, I parked in the first available spot I could find. It just so happened that this spot was very far away from both the restaurant and the city center.
“Are you serious?” Rebe said. “We have to walk half an hour?”
“Listen, I can’t drive anymore right now.”
In retrospect, it is absurd that I was so shaken up. The driving could not have been easier. Hardly anybody speeds, and nobody drives aggressively. And if I had not been frantically monitoring the road, I would have noticed that it was a beautiful day. Unsurprisingly, Tenerife looks nothing like Madrid. Far from the arid climate and sandy soil of Spain’s capital, Tenerife looks properly tropical—filled lush greenery, with the ocean rarely out of sight.
I was happy because I was out of the car. Now it was Rebe’s turn to suffer, since she doesn’t like to walk. The way to the restaurant took us up a sizable hill. At the top we had an excellent view of the town—spread out on the slope, with patches of fields (presumably for wine) interspersed between the houses—not that Rebe was in the mood to appreciate it.
We went to a restaurant called (if memory serves) El Frenazo, which specializes in grilled meat. This is quite common in the Canary Islands, though I don’t know where they keep all the livestock. We ordered a parrillada—which is a huge platter of meat. When it arrived, we were stunned—it was an absurd amount of food, with sausages, chicken, panceta, pork chops, ribs, as well as salad and french fries. We ate as much as we could and then saved the rest for dinner.
Icod de los Vinos is most famous for the Drago Milenario. This is a massive dragon tree that is supposedly one thousand years old (though nobody knows for sure), which has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Tenerife. Dragon trees, a species native to the Canary Islands, are typically small, even bush-like. This specimen, however, rises to the height of a proper tree. It is a beautiful sight: with the single, massive trunk splitting into a tangle of knotty branches.
The old center of the town is charming, too. There is a certain architectural style typical of Canary villages: squat buildings of whitewashed granite lining plazas filled with palm trees. It is a strange combination of Latin America and medieval Europe. The local accent furthers this impression. Canarian Spanish is unmistakably different from that of the Peninsula. To me it sounds like the Spanish from Andalusia—clipped, shorn of endings, slurred together—but with a kind of jolly lilt that sounds Caribbean to my ears. I find it very pleasant, even if it is sometimes difficult to understand.
After a very long walk to the car (complicated by me not remembering exactly where it was) we were ready to see more of the island. Though I was still nervous while driving, the island’s beauty began to work on me. Every turn on the highway revealed another impressive view. Unfortunately, I could not properly enjoy these views, since my eyes were frantically fixed on the road. Rebe, meanwhile, sat in the passenger’s seat, blissfully ignorant of my mental state, taking photos through the window with her nice camera.
In half an hour we arrived at our next destination: La Orotava. This is a medium-sized town known for its well-preserved historical center. But anyone who has lived in Europe knows that driving in beautiful historical centers is seldom a quaint experience. The twisting, narrow, and steep streets made my already elevated blood pressure spike up to concerning heights.
“Where do I park? Where do I park?”
“I dunno, somewhere around here,” Rebe said.
On impulse, I turned down a nearby street. But a pedestrian immediately started waving at me and, in a moment, I realized that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. Luckily, a parking space was miraculously available nearby, so I avoided a head-on collision (even though it took me about seven attempts to double park my tiny Smart car).
The center of La Orotava vaguely reminded me of Toledo, both for its antique layout and for its sharp changes in elevation. The town sits splayed out on a steep hillside, making it the most uneven municipality in Spain. As in any historical Spanish town, there are many churches to see. The most noteworthy is the Church of the Holy Conception—a looming structure whose wide façade rises into a series of gentle curves. From the inside the visitor can tell that it is a properly historical edifice, with elaborately carved altars, columns, and pulpits. It is no wonder that the locals affectionately call it a basilica and a cathedral, though it is neither of the two.
Yet my usual strategy of hunting down historical buildings was inappropriate to visiting Canarian towns. It is far more pleasurable to simply stroll about, admiring the many beautiful angles that opened up into the dramatic ocean beyond—palm trees, church spires, and tiled roofs foregrounding the blue-grey mist of the atlantic.
However, the sun was already on its way towards the horizon; and I was nervous about driving at night. So we went back to the apartment, eating the remainder of our massive meat platter for dinner. The next day was our only full day in Tenerife. We had to make it count.
Our first stop after breakfast was Tenerife’s most historically significant city: San Cristóbal de la Laguna (usually just called La Laguna). The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 for being an excellently preserved example of a Spanish colonial city. Indeed, La Laguna was a model city for many of the major Spanish colonial capitals that followed—such as Havana.
The city is located on relatively flat ground, far from the shore. The wide streets are arranged in a grid-like pattern—not strict, as in New York, but still orderly and logical. This is strikingly different from most other historical Spanish cities. Also striking is the city’s complete lack of defensive structures. A wall has never enclosed the historical city center—probably because, after overwhelming the natives, there were few conceivable enemies to defend the city from. As a result La Laguna has a pleasingly open atmosphere.
After a stroll through the town—full of locals, tourists, clothing shops, and restaurants—we peeked into the city’s cathedral. It is a rather recent construction, built in the early 1900s. Like Madrid’s cathedral, it is a stylistic mismatch: neoclassic on the outside and neogothic within. Still, it is a pleasing space: open, balanced, well-lit, and filled with altars, statues, and floats used in processionals. The Royal Sanctuary is a far more ancient house of worship, having been built in the 16th century, which houses a famous devotional figure of Christ (thus the name). The most beautiful work of religious architecture in the city is the bell tower of the Church of the Immaculate Conception (the first parish to be established in Tenerife), built in 1511.
Yet the best of the visit was the street life. We ate an early lunch in a kebab place and listened to a couple of street performers do a decent rendition of some blues classics.
But we did not have long to dawdle. Today was the day that we ascended the volcano: Teide. We had to leave ourselves enough time to properly savor the experience. I had a concern, though. Friends had told me that it was very cold at the top of the volcano, and I hadn’t brought anything warmer than a light sweatshirt. When I told Rebe this, she made me even more concerned.
“Do you want to get to the top and be freezing? It’s not even warm down here.”
She was right. It was a surprisingly mild day for a tropical island. I figured that it was better to be safe than sorry, so we walked into a nearby sportswear store, where I bought a thermal t-shirt.
“I hope this is enough,” I said at checkout.
We got back in the car and, after several unsuccessful attempts, we navigated out of the town and towards the mountain. A Canarian friend of mine had suggested the route up the towns of La Esperanza and Las Rosas (basically from east to west), and it was an excellent recommendation. The road took us through bucolic countryside, with tree-shaded roads crossing grassy fields. Rebe put her camera on the dashboard and took photo after photo, while I stole sidelong glances at the scenery.
The road up was long. Teide is simply massive: rising over 3,700 m (or over 12,000 ft) above sea level. The volcano is at the historical, cultural, and geological heart of the island. Most obviously, it is evidence of the cataclismic volcanic eruptions that formed the island to begin with. But the volcano has taken on additional significance.
The peak was worshiped by the indigenous Guanches as a god who held up the heavens. And I admit that I, too, am willing to worship the massive hunk of volcanic rock, if my pleas can postpone any further eruptions. One wonders what would happen to the island’s one million inhabitants if the long-dormant volcano should re-awaken.
The German scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt—a pioneer in the study of how altitude affects the distribution of life—climbed the mountain on his way to South America. And the volcano is featured on Tenerife’s coat of arms. Nowadays Teide is the most-visited natural site in all of Spain—and, indeed, all of Europe.
As we approached and then entered the national park, the environment gradually changed. The trees shifted from deciduous to evergreen, and the fields were replaced by dense forest. The road led up and up, on a seemingly endless gradual ascent, gently turning as it went. Soon we were passing little stopping-points by the side of the road, each one offering a progressively better view of the island.
In less than an hour we were above the clouds. It was beautiful. A sea of white drifted in from the ocean, bathing the base of the mountain in mist. I was astonished at how high we were. The road up had not been very steep, but already the coastline below was swallowed into the far distance. And we were not even halfway to the top!
Now, I am very inexperienced with mountains; indeed, the only one that I have climbed is Peñalara, near Madrid. But I would guess that there are few eminences which give such dramatic views of their surroundings. Teide may not be the biggest; but it is surrounded by clear air and open sea; so the full extent of its height can be easily appreciated.
A few signs were set up at the resting points, explaining some of the geological history of the islands. According to them, the valleys below—such as La Orotava and Icod de los Vinos—had been formed in the space of a moment, by massive landslides breaking off from a larger volcanic structure. A sign also had information about the coronal forest, and the conservation efforts to restore it after damage inflicted by severe windstorms.
Gradually the forest shrank and all but disappeared, leaving a barren landscape, reminiscent of Mars. Now driving became truly nerve-racking. The road kept snaking left and right, with a sharp drop off at least one side at any time. If somehow I lost control, no trees would have broken the fall. We would have tumbled a long, long way. I kept my eyes glued to the road, doing my best to keep the car within the lines as we turned this way and that. Meanwhile, Rebe sat contentedly snapping pictures and oohing and aahing at the natural beauty.
Eventually we came to a rest stop. We had been driving for well over an hour already, and we were only halfway up. To actually reach the top, you must take the funicular, which is called the “teleférico.” But the price for non-residents is 27€, and that seemed too steep for us. (After reading a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, who famously ascended to the peak, I slightly regret my stinginess. Maybe next time.) Instead, we decided to have a coffee and then head back towards the north shore.
We sat outside, eating syrupy torrijas (the Spanish version of French toast) and sipping café con leche and hot chocolate. And I noticed something: it was considerably warmer than it was back down in La Laguna. My thermal T-shirt was not necessary after all.
If we had continued our ascent, we could have seen the Teide Observatory. This is an important array of telescopes that have been set up because of the island’s favorable astronomical seeing conditions. (Apparently, across the earth there is a good deal of variation in the degree to which atmosphere blurs stars and planets.) Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, did his PhD research on interplanetary dust here. Thus, from Humboldt to the present day, Teide has maintained a scientific significance.
The road down was just as winding and perilous as the road up. But it was shorter. In just half an hour we were in our next destination: Puerto de la Cruz.
This place was one of the first tourist centers on the island. Alexander von Humboldt himself stayed here during his visit to the island. It remains a place of hotels and resorts—tall white buildings huddled around the beach. The city itself is, thus, not especially noteworthy (though there are many good places to eat and drink). What draws attention is the beach of black, volcanic sand right in the center.
We stood for some time admiring the jagged black rock that forms the surrounding coastline. The rich blue of the waters turned a creamy white as it churned and frothed in the waves, battering against the shore and jettisoning into foamy sprays. Rebe spent about ten minutes trying to photograph it. Then, we headed towards the beach. On the way we encountered a strange sort of monument: thousands of little piles of black stones. A lot of man-hours had been spent in making this natural stone garden. It is a local tradition?
The beach was beyond. For a Saturday evening, it was not too crowded. The weather was not quite hot enough for sunbathing or swimming—at least, I thought so. However, it was beautiful. I had never seen a black sand beach before. The sand was courser than normal sand, with a smoother texture. I imagine it gets very, very hot in the summer months. Exhausted, I sat down on the beach while Rebe walked along the water. Her figure was silhouetted in the intense yellow reflection of sunlight on the waves. If I had had a good camera, it would have made an excellent photograph.
We hung out on the beach, had a drink (well, Rebe did), and went back to the apartment. Our short time in Tenerife was almost spent. We spent the night drinking a bottle of the local wine, which was surprisingly good. I suppose the mild climate and the volcanic soil are well-suited for viticulture.
The next morning we drove to the airport. But there was a problem. The whole time we had been driving, there had been yellow warning light in the dashboard, saying “neumático presión.” I panicked when I first saw it, of course, since I assumed that this had something to do with our suspension. But when I asked the rental car agent, he said it was no problem. It had stayed yellow the entire weekend. But on Sunday morning, as we prepared to return to the airport, it turned a bright red and said “urgente.”
At this point I asked Rebe what “neumático” meant.
“You don’t know?” she said, alarmed.
“I’m not sure…”
“It means tires,” she said.
“Seriously?” I said. “Oh, shit.”
Now, to reiterate, I did not know the first thing about car maintenance. I still don’t. So I was at a loss. I had Rebe call the rental car company, who told us to take it to a gas station and use the free tire pressure gauge. We did. It took us about ten minutes to figure out how to use the machine; we must have looked like two bumbling idiots. When we checked, we found that one tire had considerably less pressure than the rest. With five minutes of pumping, balance was restored, and the warning light turned off. Soon the car was returned to the airport parking lot, and my adventure in automobiling had come to a close.
I should mention that the car rental experience in Tenerife was excellent. I used PlusCar, and I would recommend them to any who wish to travel to the Canary Islands. The price was cheap and included insurance. The company also had a surprisingly relaxed attitude. There was little paperwork, no deposit, no threats of being held responsible for damages, and no attempt to sell us anything extra. And when we returned the car, we just left the keys under the dashboard and walked away. If only renting a car were always like that.
My last image of Tenerife was magnificent. The plane began to accelerate down the runway, taking off and ascending away from the ground. In five minutes the windows were covered with the white of clouds. Moments later, as we broke through the layer of mist, I looked out to see Teide, with its crown breaking through the sea of fog. I could hardly believe it: the peak was still above us! This was the first time I had looked up at the ground from a plane window.
I wish that I had spent more time in Tenerife. It was one of my best trips in Europe. The landscape is beautiful, the people are charming, the food is delicious—and, best of all, the price is reasonable. I would go back.
Despite my constant terror, I also relished the experience of having a car. The prospect of car ownership has never had much appeal to me. But renting a car made me understand: a car means freedom. True, it also means having to take care of the car, as I also learned. Still, I loved the feeling of being able to go wherever I pleased, whenever I pleased. And it is always a relief to conquer one’s fears. I had driven, and I had survived—something I never thought possible.
Of course, it was also very nice to be able to travel with Rebe. It was our first vacation together, and we managed not to kill each other. It turns out that spending a weekend on a tropical island with your girlfriend is, indeed, as enjoyable as it sounds.
I went out of my way last week to praise Madrid’s excellent metro system. Yet this is only a part of the city’s generally superb transport network. Aside from municipal and intercity buses—of which there are many, even at night—the city has an excellent train network.
Madrid, the political, economic, and geographic center of the country, is naturally the country’s train hub. Many of the long-distance trains run at nearly 200 mph (over 300 km/h). These high-speed trains run north, south, east, and west, to nearly every corner of the country. Indeed, Spain has the most miles of high-speed rail in Europe, and the second in the world after China. They are affectionately referred to as AVE (literally “bird,” but short for Alta Velocidad Española), and they leave from Madrid’s two biggest train stations: Atocha and Chamartín. The trains are extremely convenient and are certainly more comfortable than flying; however, they are often more expensive than a flight.
But no resident of Madrid could long survive without the city’s Cercanías, or short-distance trains. These service the city and the surrounding community, covering 370 km and stopping at 89 stations. There are 10 lines, and each of them stops in Atocha before separating off into a different direction. This is the best way to visit Aranjuez, Alcalá de Henares, and El Escorial—three UNESCO World Heritage sites in the outskirts of Madrid. It is also this network which takes you up into the mountains, to the Guadarrama National Park. For those without a car, it is a lifesaver.
The trains are not only useful for tourism, however; they are an essential part of basic city transport. The trains are oftentimes quicker than the metro for certain inter-city trips, such as from Atocha to Chamartín, or Nuevos Ministerios to Príncipe Pío. I rely on the Cercanías every time I need to re-enter bureaucratic hell for my visa, since the office is located down south; and I take the trains whenever I have a flight from the Airport’s Terminal 4. They are, in short, extremely useful—especially because the same transport card works for the trains, the metro, and the bus. For a New Yorker used to paying separately for a monthly rail pass and a monthly subway card, it is extraordinary.
For those who wish to learn more about the country’s railroad history, there is the Museo del Ferrocarril. This is a very reasonably priced museum located near the Delicias Cercanías station. Indeed, the museum is located in the old Delicias station building, which was opened in 1880 to serve as the Madrid hub for the trains to Ciudad Real. It is a typical station building—a huge, cavernous space filled with platforms and tracks. And it is still filled with trains, though all of these are antiques nowadays.
What first caught my attention was a massive steam locomotive. Half of the engine car has been cut away, to reveal the curious arrangement of valves, tubes, and chambers inside. I have been cursed with a rather unmechanical mind, so the enormous intricacy of machinery tends to leave me respectfully silent. However, the basic principle behind steam power is easy to grasp: A fire in one chamber heats the water in an adjacent chamber, which evaporates into steam, which is then channeled down to a piston near the wheels, where a valve lets in the steam at intervals, pushing the wheels forwards. Yet for such a relatively simple process, the mechanical design of the cutaway train seemed extremely complex. The sign revealed that this was one of the latest models of steam-power locomotives, constructed in 1960.
Most of the other steam locomotives on display are much older, and considerably smaller—some dating from the 19th century. To a modern eye, many of these ancient, chimneyed contraptions can seem exceedingly quaint and romantic; they are filled with gritty personality, and remind me of movies of the Wild West and of Old Europe. Still, I am glad we have evolved past these clunking, crawling machines, which had a bad habit of exploding (before the invention of reliable pressure valves). Even so, one must admire such an innovative and durable design. The steam locomotive is a landmark in the history of the Industrial Revolution.
The rest of the trains on display (and there are several dozen) are diesel or electric, and more or less approach the sleek, rocket-like aspect that we associate with trains today. The visitor can enter a few of these to experience an echo of train travel from the past. One of these is an old dining car, apparently made of wood. The tables are set with elegantly folded napkins and fancy silverware. Yet unless the train was going quite slowly on a straight path, it is difficult for me to imagine the dining experience was free of sliding silverware, clanging dishes, and sloshing drinks. Still, it must have felt civilized to glide through the countryside while enjoying an expensive meal.
Though the wide variety of trains are undoubtedly the main attraction—the hulking, slumbering beasts that fill up the space—the museum has much else on display. There is a great deal of railroad infrastructure, such as switchboards (mechanical, hydraulic, and electronic), a central control panel, and a little pushcart which was used for repairs. There is also a room dedicated to train models, hundreds of them, as well as models of certain trajectories. I was particularly gratified to find a model of the route that runs from León to Gijón, through the mountains of Asturias—a beautiful line that I had seen in person.
Henry David Thoreau, the great luddite, famously said: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” What he meant is that the technology we construct to make our lives more convenient ends up dominating us. He was prescient. Nowadays, how many modern luddites speak of our phones the same way that Thoreau spoke of the railroad that ran behind Walden Pond?
Nobody can deny that this occurs. Nevertheless, who would argue nowadays that our lives are dominated by trains? To my eye, they are marvelous inventions: both beautifully designed and eminently functional. They use space and resources efficiently; and the tracks and bridges they ride upon blend in far more harmoniously with the landscape than our cars, asphalt roads, and parking lots. Who knows but that, in one hundred years, visitors with cerebral implants might be visiting a Museum of Smartphones, waxing nostalgic about a simpler time.
Air travel in Europe can be startlingly cheap. And since my job blesses me with ample vacation days (thanks to the Spanish school schedule) I find myself waiting in the airport more than is probably healthy.
Airports are not famous for being comfortable places. The lines are long, the food is overpriced, the atmosphere is completely anonymous. At times airports can be sad places, totally empty of intimacy or human warmth; at other times they can be exciting, the portal to exotic domains; but most often they are simply dreary—filled with tacky commercial trash, listless and sleep-deprived passengers waiting on rows of seats, or nerve-wracking encounters with security personnel or border-control officers.
All of this being said, I think that Madrid’s airport is one that the city can be proud of. Confusingly, its full name is the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport. Adolfo Suárez was Spain’s first post-Franco president; and it is called Madrid-Barajas because the airport is actually outside the city of Madrid, in the suburbs called Barajas.
In any case, the airport is easily accessible from the city center. A ride in a taxi takes only about fifteen minutes, depending on traffic and your exact destination. I typically avoid this option, however, since the taxis charge a flat rate of €30. Instead, I either rely on the metro or the Cercacías. Metro Line 8 leaves from Nuevos Ministerios and arrives at Terminals 1-2-3 in about 25 minutes. Meanwhile, the Cercanías Line 1 or 10 leaves from Atocha Station and reaches Terminal 4 in about 45 minutes. Both options are covered with my transport card, though people without a transport card will need to buy a special supplement.
Apart from these options, there are also buses. One municipal bus leaves from Avenida de América and requires no additional cost. And a special Airport Bus leaves from either Atocha Station or the Plaza de Cibeles (depending on the time of day), and costs €5 to ride—a good option if you’re going to the airport very early, before the metro or the trains start working. In short, Madrid’s airport is extremely well-connected.
Once you arrive, you have four terminals to choose from. Terminals 1, 2, and 3 were built at around the same time, and are all next to one another. As buildings they are nondescript: functional, clean, and efficient. Terminal 4 was built considerably later, in the early 2000s, and for that reason it is somewhat isolated from the other terminals—2 kilometers distant. It also looks entirely different: support beams jut out at angles and spread leaves the branches of trees, holding up the undulating roof that hangs over the open space. It’s not exactly worthy of Gaudí, but it is an attractive airport.
I have had nothing but good experiences at the Madrid Airport. Even so, every time I am there I find myself edge. Despite having flown almost monthly since my arrival in Spain, I still find the process unsettling. I worry about checking in, getting through security, weighing my bags—even though none of this has ever been a problem. Yet more frightening is the simple prospect of flying. Planes may be quite safe, statistically speaking; but I still feel that I am risking my life every time I take a flight. I look out the glass windows at the aerodynamic machines waiting on the runway, and I think of all the things that could go wrong. It just goes my intuition to think that I should get on a box of metal that uses explosions to accelerate into the air.
To combat this persistent fear of flying, I set out to learn more about the history of aviation. Luckily, Madrid has an excellent—and free—aeronautics museum: the Museo del Aire. It is located in the south of Madrid, near the Cercanías stop Cuatro Vientos. To get there you must walk about twenty minutes along the highway from the train station, and then cross a bridge over the tracks. On your left you will see another of Madrid’s airports, the Aeropuerto de Madrid-Cuatro Vientos. Opened in 1911, this is the oldest airport in the country. Originally it was used as a military air base, though nowadays it is mainly used for light civil aircraft and flight classes. As a result, the air surrounding the museum is full of small propeller planes circling around. It is a wholly appropriate setting for an aviation museum.
(This is not the only other airport in Madrid, by the way. There are military air bases in Getafe and in Torrejón de Ardoz, to name just two. I have been told that when foreign leaders come to Spain on state visits they land in these bases, not in Madrid-Barajas.)
The Museo del Aire used to be a part of the old airport. The original brick buildings of the air force base still sit next to rows of hangers. And military aircraft are still present in abundance, though nowadays it is all obsolete and, presumably, out of commission. Still it is an impressive sight. Dozens and dozens of aircraft are on display in the museum—helicopters, fighter jets, bombers, water planes—from every era, stretching back to the beginning of Spanish aviation. I admit that I arrived with low expectations, if only because the museum is free and seldom talked about. But it ended up becoming one of my favorite museum experiences in the city.
No short description could give an adequate summary of the museum’s contents. But here are some highlights. The biggest plane on display—a massive defiance of the law of gravity—was for mid-air refueling. In one corner were about ten helicopters, ranging from bare skeletons of metal encasing a clear plastic bulb to intimidating hunks of metal used for transport and evacuation. Planes specialized for water landings had bodies shaped like boats, with the wings elevated on a little platform. On the far end the fighter jets were on display. Of these the most noteworthy was the F-4 Phantom II, an American fighter that was extensively used during the Vietnam War. I simply cannot imagine what it is like to fly one of those things: it is little more than a pair of wings, a jet engine, and several tons of explosives.
The hangers also had much of interest. The first one contained an extensive and expertly made exhibition on the history of aviation. There are replicas of early flying devices, including the Wright brothers’ Flyer. The museum also has a copy of one of the lesser-known paintings of the Prado. It is a depicting of the ascent of the Montgolfier hot air balloon in Aranjuez, in 1784. This was a major event. The Montgolfier brothers were the Wright brothers of lighter-than-air travel, and pioneered the first piloted hot air balloons.
The museum also has informative panels on the earliest forerunners of air travel. Leonardo da Vinci is mentioned, of course, with his imaginative sketches in his notebooks. But I had not previously heard of Abbas ibn Firnas, a polymath from Moorish Spain who, in the 9th century, attempted flight by covering himself in feathers, holding onto wings, and jumping off a high building—and he lived, at least according to the story.
The rest of the hangers were no less interesting, containing all sorts of flying paraphernalia, from radios to helmets. I was particularly captivated by the many jet engines on display. As I said above, I have a rather unmechanical mind; so I tend to stare in uncomprehending awe at these intricate machines. But more than anything I wanted to see the museum’s many examples of Autogyros.
The autogyro is a rather strange combination of a plane and a helicopter, designed by the Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva. Like a helicopter, it has a rotating blade on top; but the air moves up through the blade as the vehicle goes forward, causing the blade to generate lift on its own (without power). This seems quite impossible to my untrained physical intuition; but it worked. And Juan de la Cierva (of whom my coworker wrote a biography) is undoubtedly one of Spain’s great engineers.
This concluded my visit to the Museo del Aire. And, surprisingly, I did feel somewhat better about the prospect of air travel. Our species has been trying to invade the air for about 1,000 years. For most of that time we have, admittedly, been highly unsuccessful. But in the last 100 years we have made such great strides that, nowadays, a man can board a plane, fall asleep watching a movie, and then get off on the other side, excited to see some old buildings—the entire engineering miracle of flight hardly registering.
It is curious that in both the Museo del Ferrocarril and the Museo del Aire most of the visitors are young children. They play excitedly among the antique machines, dragging their parents this way and that, pointing and asking questions. Most adults, on the other hand, are bored even by the mention of a museum dedicated to the history of transport. We are so used to efficient transportation that it is invisible and uninteresting to us. And yet if we were to bring Plato or Aristotle back to life, I suspect they would be more amazed at our metros, trains, and planes, than at any of the things they connect us to.
This year marks the 100th birthday of Madrid’s metro system, and the city is celebrating the occasion. Stations are being decorated, special exhibitions mounted, and festive trains displayed. And I think that we all should celebrate the metro—not just in Madrid, but everywhere—for it is one of those rare human inventions which has worked so well that it has become invisible. Though so often overlooked, the metro system of any city serves as both spine and arteries to the urban body: supporting and guiding development while moving the stuff of life from place to place. Chances are that, if you live in a city, you depend on the metro many times a week: to commute, to see friends, to run errands. Yet we only stop to notice this subterranean network when, for whatever reason, it stops working.
Like so many inventions in our modern world, the metro has been integrated so seamlessly into our lives that it can be difficult to realize what an enormous engineering triumph it represents. Thousands of workers had to tunnel through hundreds of miles of solid earth in order to lay down tracks and build stations; and the resulting network of subterranean passages has to be used every day, all year, without any cave-ins, collapses, explosions, asphyxiations—in short, while being absolutely safe and reliable. As a result of this collaboration of politicians, architects, engineers, designers, construction workers, and too many others to name, I can walk out of my apartment, down a flight of stairs, and then ascend on the other side of a city. For a very reasonable price.
Madrid’s metro is, in my opinion, especially impressive.Opened 56 years after London’s underground, 19 years after Paris’s métro, and 10 years after New York’s subway, Madrid’s metro has grown to become the ninth largest network in the world (and it is the network with the second-most escalators and elevators, only surpassed by Shanghai). The first line stretched a mere three and a half kilometers, traveling at 15 mph between eight stations. Nowadays, the network has 12 lines, 302 stations, and covers almost 300 kilometers. Very few places in the central zone of the city are more than a fifteen minute walk to the nearest metro. I am lucky to live near two of the most useful lines: the original Line 1, which goes through the heart of the city, and the circular Line 6, which makes a giant loop around the outside.
Counting repeat rides, over two million people take the metro every day—well over half the city’s population. Notwithstanding all this, the metro remains clean, timely, and dependable. After four years of living in this city, I can recall very few times when I have been frustrated at the metro service (a constant occurrence in NYC). True, Madrid’s metro does not have a strong personality. It has none of the gritty charm of the New York subway or the endearing retro-ness of London’s tube. The metro is not especially futuristic, quaint, or beautiful. But it works—without screeching and howling, without unpleasant smells, without delays or derailments.
True to form, the metro’s celebrations have also been quiet, efficient, and unobstructive. They have largely consisted of decorating Metro Line 1, the so-called Centennial Line, with antique photos of the metro’s early days—riders in top-hats and trench coats, besmattered workmen excavating the tunnels, old-fashioned entryways amid a cityscape filled with vintage automobiles. One of the more amusing of these is of the King Alfonso XIII inaugurating the metro: the king stands in a pinstripe suit with his hands folded on a cane, a top hat hanging from its end, wearing a bipartite mustache; and surrounding him are dozens of men dressed and groomed identically. Fashion was very strict in those days. Apparently the current King Felipe VI has been so good as to repeat the voyage taken by his great grandfather.
For those who wish to get a deeper sense of the metro’s history provided by the photographs, there are two free museum spaces run by the metro: the Estación de Chamberí and the Nave de Motores.
Chamberí was one of the first stations opened on Line 1. But like the City Hall station on New York’s Line 6, it was eventually closed down because the station’s curve was too sharp to be used with the newer, longer trains. As such, it became something of a time capsule, preserving the appearance of the first generation of train stations. Unlike the City Hall station, Chamberí was never designed to be an architectural showcase; it is simple and functional. Upon entering one passes the antique ticket-collecting booths, and descends to the old platform. Trains on Line 1 still scream past every five minutes or so.
When I arrived a guide was giving a free tour. Apparently, the station has a reputation for being haunted. You see, like many metro stations it was used as a bomb shelter during the Spanish Civil War, and the souls of victims are said to manifest occasionally to frighten visitors. Well, I did not see anything supernatural, but I did see many charming old advertisements—for cafés, hair gels, jewelry shops, and purgative mineral water. Few things are so evocative of the past as an ad for a product that no longer exists. These are the real ghosts.
The other museum is, by chance, right in my neighborhood: the Nave de Motores. This is a cavernous building made to house three giant diesel engines, which used to provide power to the metro system. Just as the contemporary power grid was too feeble for the first generation of trains along the Hudson line, so Madrid’s electricity infrastructure did not support the power necessary to propel the metro. Thus, these engines had to be built especially for the purpose.
They are gargantuan contraptions, about half the size of a house. For a time this was the most powerful power plant in Spain. I cannot even fathom the noise they would create, much less the amount of fuel they burned. The current produced by these mammoth machines had to be converted by another array of motors before being wired down to the tracks below the station for use by the metro. On a balcony overlooking the engine space there is a control panel, where dozens of little gauges and meters informed the engineers of the state of affairs. (Apparently it is possible to sign up for a hard-hat tour of the tunnels below, but I cannot find the link on the metro’s website.)
This month (May 17 to June 15) there is a special exhibition in the Nave de Motores, and the opening hours have been extended. The massive wheels have been decorated with lights, and informative panels have been put up all around the space. There are antique ticket machines on display, as well as different generations of metro tickets. One can even put on virtual reality goggles and look around a metro stop of the future. Videos of scenes from metro life are projected from the ceiling onto a table, while television monitors play informative mini-documentaries about the network. I was particularly impressed to see the testing and repair center, a huge warehouse where all the equipment is checked and fixed by a team of engineers and mechanics.
There were even a couple models on display, one of the tunnel-boring machine used to chew out the subterranean passages, and one of Sol’s metro station (one of the largest in the network). These miniatures help to give a taste of just how vast is the scale on which the network is built. Whole mountains of material had to be moved to dig out what is, in effect, another city underneath the city above.
Work continues on the metro. Many of the lines have been adapted to allow for cell-phone service, which is much appreciated. Two years ago, Line 1 was closed for a few months for repairs; and Line 2 was recently closed for the same reason. (It has just reopened.) Every night, from 2:00 to 5:30 in the morning, the metro is closed down for repairs. It strikes me as strange that in Madrid, where people go out all night, the metro stops working, while in New York, where most people are home by 2:00, the subway runs all night. Maybe this is why Madrid’s metro runs so much more smoothly; but it is rather irritating on a Friday night.
The network has, for the most part, been entirely updated and transformed from its early years. However, one strange holdover remains. When the system was constructed, Madrid’s roads were like England’s: people drove on the left. Though the road orientation was switched in 1924, the metro kept is left-ward orientation, and so the trains always approach the station from the right as you are facing the train.
Madrid’s metro, like that of any city, serves a vital economic function: many people would not be able to get to their jobs without it. Aside from its economic function, however, the metro also serves as a center for social life. One becomes a native madrileño while riding on the metro: smushed up against bodies, eyeing strangers with anxiety or curiosity, respecting other people’s personal space with navigating the public space of underground transport. It is a place owned by everyone and no one, and so requires special rules to use. Don’t take up more than one seat. Take off your backpack. Give up your seat to the pregnant, the elderly, or the disabled. And don’t be a creep.
One also becomes socialized in more elusive ways. For example, the level of eye-contact considered acceptable on the Madrid metro can be unnerving for an American. Many newcomers to the city report feeling stared at. More than likely, they are just not used to the constant surveillance of Spanish city life—from shop windows, park benches, and balconies—and so misinterpret disinterested glances as either aggressive or suggestive, or both. Adapting to Spanish life means adapting to different standards of proximity and scrutiny. And much of this adaptation happens on the metro.
The metro can be a place of danger. Pickpockets are common, and their roaming hands are apt to relieve the unwary traveler of his wallet. It can also be an aggressive place. The only fight that I ever witnessed in Madrid was on the metro, between a young hothead and a homeless man. But the community quickly intervened, tearing the two kicking combatants apart. And this is the secret to the metro: that the citizens take an active role, however subtle or even invisible, in keeping it a safe place for everyone.
We can also ride the metro to get a taste of culture. In several stations there are miniature libraries, bibliometros (though I’ve never seen anyone actually use them). And apart from the decorations in some of the stations—such as in the stations of Paco de Lucía, Goya, and the Estación del Arte—there is the music. Hardly a station in the entire network is without its performer, singing and dancing in a busy corner, their hat covered in coins. Other musicians ride the metro, going from car to car, playing the pan-flute, singing duets, or rapping over a recorded beat. Admittedly this is not always welcome. Most of the time when I am on the metro I am trying to read. But city life is intrusive, in good ways and bad, and it isn’t for the rider to choose when and which.
Indeed, you might say that the metro represents Madrid in microcosm—both the frustration and the joy. There is the uncomfortable crowding, the long and wearisome commute, and the occasional bad apple. But just as often there is the snippet of overheard conversation, the random acts of kindness, and most of all the quiet assurance that you can get where you need to go.
So I say we should don our caps to the Madrid metro. We are lucky to have a system that is extensive, clean, cheap, and reliable. Take a ride on Line One. Visit the two free metro museums. And, most importantly, don’t be a creep.
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I have been a bad athlete for as long as I can remember. Apart from a brief and embarrassing stint on a soccer team in elementary school (all I can recall is spending an entire game crying my eyes out), I have avoided team sports all my life. And they have avoided me. In gym class I was always one of the last to be picked for a team. For all of middle school and high school I was tall, overweight, and consequently I had all the gawkiness and sluggishness of both conditions. True, I did spend a few years taking taekwondo classes in high school, and I was not so bad at it. But my unpromising career as a martial artist came to an abrupt end when all the stretching and kicking made it necessary to go to physical therapy for my aching, cracking knees.
Of all of the sports that I have failed at, the most conspicuous is running. Every year I dreaded the day in gym class when we would be made to run a mile. I always began with the hope that, this time, I would be able to run the whole thing without stopping. After all, nearly everyone else could. But inevitably, less than halfway through, I would run out of breath and have to walk; and I spent the rest of the time alternating between a wheezing run and a panting walk. Not once did I manage to run a mile in less than ten minutes. Just as bad was the PACER test, when we had to run from one end of the gym to the other within progressively shorter intervals, signalled by an ominous beep. The real studs were able to get to level nine, while I gave up far before that—defeated by the high-pitched tone.
This long and undistinguished experience taught me that I would never be a runner. My knee problems only added to this belief. So, after high school, I never tried. I was pragmatically and philosophically committed to a life of inactivity, with the sole exception of walking (a true intellectual’s sport). But then something happened to break my conviction that I could not run.
Last year, I got into the habit of leaving my apartment at the exact minute needed to catch the bus. Sometimes I left a little late, however, and this put me in a dilemma: walk and miss the bus (and this would mean arriving late to work), or run and catch it. My fear of being fired overcame my combined fears of looking foolish, getting my clothes sweaty, and dying of suffocation. So I ran. It started with only a half of a block, just a short sprint to catch the light. Then it became the whole block, and eventually two blocks—sprinting for the light, stopping, sprinting for the next light, stopping again—until I would run almost the whole way to the bus. And the strangest part is that I did not hate it.
Still, nothing changed. I did not participate in my school’s “Race Against Hunger,” a charity race that we do every year. Instead, I sat by the sidelines feeling bored and useless. I did not even own a pair of sneakers. Nevertheless, circumstances were quietly conspiring to make running a reality. Aside from my bus sprints, living in Europe had left a mark. On all my travels I had tried to walk as much as possible, mostly to avoid paying for taxis and buses and trains; and this had made me a resolute trekker, capable of walking miles under the hottest suns.
All of this unintended athletic experience culminated in a growing curiosity: Could I, finally, after a decade of not running, run a mile without stopping? Sure, I was no athlete; but I was skinnier and in better shape than I was in high school. That adolescent experience had left within me the iron conviction that a mile was an impossibly long distance for me, and that my body was simply unable to do it. Yet in the spirit of science I wanted to test this conviction.
So, one cold February day, I went to a sportswear store with my brother. I could not have felt any more out of place as I looked at sweatpants, recovery gels, and headbands than if I had wandered into an Aztec ritual sacrifice. This was not my world. But I managed to buy myself tights, sneakers, and an armband for my phone, feeling absolutely ridiculous all the while.
That same day I carried my purchases home and prepared for my trial. The tights were, well, tight; the armband was awkward to use. When I walked out into the street, I felt acutely embarrassed, as if everyone was staring at me. I had not worn athletic wear since… actually, I don’t know. What was I doing? Long before I began to run, my body became flushed with adrenaline. I was certain that I was about to make a fool of myself.
The walk to the park, where I would begin my run, seemed endless. But finally I arrived. This was the fateful moment. I opened the app, Runkeeper, and started the tracking function. Then, I fumbled in getting it into the armband holder, and then fumbled again in putting it on my arm. Now the run began—slowly. The first steps felt strange. Retiro Park seemed to bounce up and down. I remember finding it odd that I could enjoy the beauty of the trees while running; I had assumed that I would not be able to think about or appreciate anything.
Sure enough, the tightness in my lungs soon came, that horrible feeling of suffocating. But it was never powerful enough to make me want to stop. I kept going until I got to the artificial lake, and then I turned left and then left again, to complete the circuit. The ground was mostly flat but there was a slight hill near the end, and I thought my chest would explode as I crawled to the top of it. Finally, and unbelievably, I made it back to where I had started. And I had run the entire time. I checked the app—1.12 miles, at a pace of 9:39 per mile. For the first time in my life, at the age of 27, I ran a whole mile.
The months that followed were full of constant surprise. The biggest was that I actually enjoyed running. I did not necessarily enjoy the physical sensation of running; the mythical runner’s high eluded me, and I felt mostly pain and exhaustion. But I did enjoy improving; and I improved with every run—running longer distances at faster paces. Unlike writing or playing music, running can be measured objectively, in simple, cold figures. There can be no dispute over which runner is better or worse. This makes progress very easy to see and, consequently, very satisfying.
I chatted about it incessantly, even getting mildly obsessed with the subject. It felt genuinely surreal to be spending so much time thinking about an athletic activity: this was not me. More important, it felt liberating to see myself as someone who could actually do something physical. My carefully constructed self-image as a delicate intellectual had cracked and crumbled. I felt as if a new continent of experience was now available for exploration.
Eventually, my coworker, Holden, suggested that I do the half-marathon. He had signed up for the marathon and had been preparing for months. At first I dismissed the idea as absurd. The longest I had run at that point was six miles, at a very sluggish pace, and it nearly killed me. Yet, the idea was implanted in my head. I thought of the feeling of triumph, of surpassing even my most ambitious running goals. And, of course, I imagined how much weight I would lose in the process of training (it wasn’t much). So, I paid my 40€ (somewhat indignantly) and signed myself up. Now the serious training would begin.
This consisted of one long run a week, in which I tried to increase my maximum distance by one mile, and several shorter runs wherein I worked on my speed. This regime got me to 13 miles two weeks before the day of the half-marathon, April 27 (it had been moved up a day because of the elections on April 28). On my long runs, I would end up going so slowly that I struggled to pass old ladies with canes. But at least I knew that I could go the distance.
Finally there was only one week until race day. I was nervous. Somehow, I was certain that I was going to do badly and disappoint myself. It did not matter what time I got, of course, but I had decided that I was to run the race in less than two hours—not an easy thing for a beginning runner. I followed all the typical advice, taking a break in the days before the race and stuffing myself with platefuls of pasta. By the time Saturday came around I was well-rested, well-fed, and as prepared as I could have been. Would it be enough?
Two day before the race I picked up my bib (the little paper with your number on it, and a chip so they can track your movement). Annoyingly, they put the pick-up location all the way out in Feria de Madrid, a large complex of expo centers on the outskirts of the city. It took some time just to get there; and then it took some time just to walk through the mammoth buildings to the proper hall. There, a series of volunteers in booths gave me a bib, a t-shirt, and a drawstring bag. The rest of the space was full of other booths offering running-related products and services—energy gels, massages, protein powders. Probably many had free samples; but it was late and I wanted to go home.
The next night, I attached the bib to my sleeveless running shirt with safety pins. I was officially ready.
I woke up, ate toast and peanuts, drank water and coffee, and headed out the door. I had been told that it’s best to warm-up a bit before the race, so I jogged about ten minutes to the train station. When I walked out of the train, I was surrounded by thousands of men and women in colorful sports clothes. I did not realize it was such a massive undertaking. Stalls were set up for clothing drop off; hundreds of port-a-potties lined the streets (all without toilet paper); rock music blared from enormous speakers. The closer I got to the running corrals, the more I was awed at the sheer size of the event. 35,000 people were running that day—the 10k, the half-marathon, and the full marathon. William the Conqueror had conquered England with fewer.
I waited, warmed up again, and waited some more. Finally it was time to get into my corral. It was like being in a nightclub—a packed mass of bodies. How could I run through this? Rock music blared. The announcer counted down. Athletic-looking people were dancing (motivationally?) on elevated platforms in the middle of the track. They had spent a lot of money on this thing.
Finally the signal was given. I tensed for the exertion; but it was a bit anticlimactic, since the whole mass of people had to walk to the starting line before they actually began running. There were people holding big blue balloons with times on them; they were professional pacers, and would run the race at exactly the time indicated on their balloon. I struggled to find the 2 hour balloon: it was several hundred meters ahead, and had started before me. Finally I crossed the starting line and found myself jogging in a loose formation.
“Hey man,” I heard a voice say. I turned to see David, a friend I had made in my masters program. He had helped me work on my speed in preparation for the marathon, as I struggled to keep up with him on our weekly runs around Retiro Park. (This is something I discovered during training: running with better runners makes it easier to push your limits.) Soon it was apparent that he was still faster than me, as he pulled away through the crowd of runners. Besides David, I knew four other people running that day, but did not see a single familiar face during the whole race, even though our finishing times were mere minutes apart.
Peter Sagal said that anyone could run the first mile of a marathon, since it gives you the sensation of running with a mob. Unfortunately I did not feel the same way. Most people were fairly quiet, just focused on the long trail ahead; nobody burst forward in a mad dash. Our route took us straight north from the starting line, up towards the four skyscrapers near Chamartín station. The organizers had planned the route well, since these first 5 kilometers was the only stretch that was consistently uphill. After we turned the corner to go back south, it was smooth sailing.
Without the reference of the balloon, I did not know if I was going fast enough. I tried to keep a constant pace, not pushing too hard but not going easy. The presence of so many other people was surprisingly motivating. I felt as if I were being urged ahead by a social force, and all I had to do was to follow the wave. For the most part there were not many onlookers—just a few scattered people cheering us on. I appreciated it. There are few sports more boring to watch than long-distance running.
Fifty minutes in we passed our first water station, and I felt like a real professional as I drank my bottle on the move. I also took this opportunity to have some of the energy gel that Holden had given me. This is a cocktail of vitamins, sugar, and caffeine that tastes horrible but it has a satisfying effect. Suddenly I felt optimistic—even chipper. The exhaustion lifted and I felt my stride grow longer. Was this the elusive runner’s high? Probably it was just a caffeine rush, but it felt great nonetheless. As I reached a downhill area in the neighborhood of Salamanca, I began passing some runners ahead of me—which is strange for me. Also strange, I began to talk to myself in almost ecstatically encouraging tones: praising myself and egging myself on. Caffeine is an amazing drug.
As is often the case in Madrid, it was a perfect day to run: a clear blue sky, no wind, no humidity, and not too hot. I am not sure that I ever saw so much of Madrid in a single day, and the city looked beautiful in the sunlight. This is one of the great benefits of running: it makes you feel a part of the community. I had already experienced this during my practice runs in Retiro Park and Madrid Río. Because you are outside, covering plenty of ground, surrounded by others, you feel that you are really getting to know a place and to belong in it. That day, I felt like I belonged in Madrid.
Just as we reached the end of the hill, we passed through a small tunnel. There were people cheering on the road above. But the real noise came from the runners, who shouted and whooped as soon as they passed underground, making the space reverberate with a kind of barbaric din—a war cry for amateur athletes. I added my own feeble contribution to the chorus of adrenaline, and felt for a moment as part of something bigger than myself, as just one pulsating cell of an enormous beast. This feeling, I thought, is why people run these ridiculous races.
This sensation soon passed, as did the euphoric effect of the caffeine, and the usual pain and strain came back. Luckily, I soon reached another water station, and then swallowed the rest of my energy gel, which gave me another boost. But I could tell that my reserves were running low.
This particular marathon was a “rock ‘n’ roll” race, which meant that there were stages set up periodically along the course where local rock bands were playing. I must admit that I did not find the music particularly animating, partially because I was able to hear so little of it as I ran by. The cheering of the crowd was somewhat more uplifting, especially when I noticed my friend Monica calling my name. But by far the most motivating factor were the other runners, sweeping me up into a constant forward motion.
Partially because the race was a “rock ‘n’ roll” marathon, I decided to run it without headphones. This was the first time I had ever done a long run without my trusty audiobooks keeping me company, and I was afraid that I would get bored. But it turned out to be a good choice. Free from the distraction, I was able to focus my energy on keeping myself going at a steady pace. Indeed, the extended focus on my breath and my moving limbs made the experience at times rather meditative; I was completely absorbed in the experience of the race. Another advantage to not using headphones is that I did not have my running app telling me how much distance I had covered. This was a very strategic sort of ignorance, since it allowed me to keep pushing without fear of burning out too early.
I started to enter more familiar neighborhoods, and I knew that I was in the final stretch. The more I ran, the more impressed I became at the scale of the marathon: they had to shut down half the city for us. Now I knew why I had paid 40€ to run. Still, city life tried to go on—in particular the life of the elderly, who refused to stop for any sweaty army. More times than could possibly be a coincidence I had to stop or swerve to avoid an octogenarian slowly crossing the race course, cane or walker in hand. They were either very brave or quite blind.
Soon I passed several men and women shouting directions at us: those running the full marathon had to turn left, while us half-marathoners continued straight. I knew from the map that this meant that we were in the final stretch. I did my best to push myself to go faster, but my whole body was achy and unresponsive. So I compromised by trying not to slow down. A small woman with a very loud voice started yelling what she meant to be encouraging slogans to us, most of which were about the beer waiting for us at the end. This failed to motivate me, I am afraid, since the thought of drinking beer after getting so dehydrated filled me with disgust.
It was around this time that the thought finally crossed my mind that I would very much like to stop. I had been running for almost two hours by then, and I was tired and even bored, and the finish line was failing to materialize. Luckily the course started taking us downhill, past Retiro Park on the way towards Atocha. At this point I spotted Rebe, to whom I had delegated the task of taking photos of the race for this blog. She was busy at work—so busy, in fact, that she did not notice me until I was right about to kiss her.
Now it was truly the final stretch. We got to the bottom of the hill, into the Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, and then began up the Paseo del Prado. The finish line finally came into view. I was afraid to look at it, since I thought it would be too discouraging to see how slowly it came nearer; so I looked at the ground. The loud-voiced woman started shouting even more loudly and insistently. The crowd around us started to roar. I could hear music.
Before the race, I had imagined that the sight of the finish line would fill me with a final burst of energy, and I would be able to spring the last few hundred meters. But when I tried to speed up my body rebelled; it hurt too much; so I contented myself with, once again, keeping an even pace.
When I was within 100 meters I looked up and beheld the goal. Again, I tried sprinting, but it was impossible. So I jogged under the gateway and across the finish line, weakly raising my arms in tired triumph. I was done. Again, I had assumed that I would immediately feel transports of joy and accomplishment, but I was too exhausted to feel or to think anything—except, of course, at how exhausted I felt.
After the finish line volunteers were distributing medals, water bottles, and little bags full of food: a banana, an apple, a chocolate croissant, and a bottle of Powerade—for which I was extremely grateful. I started gulping down the water as I limped out of the race area and into the Plaza de Cibeles. Somehow, Rebe immediately found me, and we sat down nearby while I slowly recovered the ability to speak. My face was marked with salty-white streaks of dried sweat, my clothes were completely soaked, and I walked with an awkward limp. But I felt fantastic, and only felt better as the day progressed. Indeed, the sense of accomplishment, blended with complete bodily relaxation, creating one of the most pleasant days I can remember.
My final time was 2:05, which is five minutes above my goal time, but still easily the best I had ever run. I felt completely at peace—with myself and with the world. And I finally discovered the most valuable benefit of running: not losing weight, nor being healthy, nor even the sense of accomplishment, but just feeling good. And I felt good.