Tuesday, March 31, 2009

An Introduction to Madrid

I arrived in Madrid at 7:30 a.m. after a tortuous all-night bus ride, instantly comprehending my surroundings to be a throbbing metropolis. I exited the terminal linking the bus station to the metro and almost froze when I found myself facing a fierce stampede of peak-hour commuters. I stood my ground and wheeled my suitcase against the ocean of traffic, surviving untrammeled.
Suddenly my Barcelona home seemed like a serene village. I spent a good portion of my day in the Spanish capital underground, sitting through 40-minute metro rides and walking thousands of meters through terminals. I shook my head at the realization that a bicycle often serves as my principal form of transportation in Barcelona. I wonder if I’m ready for a true metropolitan lifestyle.

I recovered from my initial city shock with my friend Leah, who took me to a café with pastel decor that could have been one of the trendy sweet shops in Charleston, S.C. We ordered Italian-style cappuccinos in memory of our Christmas in Rome.

Madrid is a city of massive highways, palatial buildings, and modern sky scrapers. Even the intensity of the nightlife confounded me. The center swarmed with hundreds of people sitting on terraces, congregating in plazas, and marching through the streets into the balmy morning hours. Crowds donning clubwear even shoved into the metros at 1 a.m.

Many critics discount Madrid as a capital with about as much flavor and mystique as Atlanta or Charlotte. Surely a 24-hour stop-over isn’t enough for a proper assessment, but, in the center at least, I found the regal buildings, landscaped parks, and narrow streets lined with all oddities of continental-style shops enchanting.

We set up an afternoon picnic in a corner of El Retiro, a manicured city-of-a-park with gardens, lawns, and even a lake. We spent the pre-siesta hours wandering past the extravagant landmarks in the Sol quarter. After sunset we took a bus ride past the city’s trademark fountains in all their illuminated splendor. The day ended in a medieval street corner, on the terraza of Chocolatería San Ginés, est. 1894. There we ordered the city’s most famous chocolate and churros, a traditional Spanish breakfast (or more commonly pre-dawn snack) that’s a combination of thick drinking chocolate and fried dough (murder on the arteries, thighs, and the digestive system and not to be repeated).

With sprawling parks, striking architecture, and dark chocolate — my one day as a madrileña was pretty perfect.

Getting all academic in Salamanca

Salamanca made it on my must-see cities in Spain list mostly because I liked the name. Don’t you think it’s a rhythmically pleasing combination of syllables with a distinctly Spanish tone? That and all the guidebook descriptions consistently starting with declarations like “Spain’s most graceful city” and “perhaps the most gorgeous town in Spain” solidified my inclination toward the Castilian destination.

Salamanca is to Spain what Oxford is to England and Bologna is to Italy. It’s home to some of the world’s (once) most prestigious universities, circa 1200 and financed by the likes of Ferdinand and Isabel. The small city also offers some of Spain’s most notable architecture, which reminded me overwhelmingly of intellectual Oxford. Disappointingly, the chilly, dark weekend weather with the occasional gusty sleet outburst seemed to hamper any student life. The town seemed devoid of any undergraduate energy. We only encountered a trace of the supposed hordes of young Americans attracted by the legions of language schools. (Although we did come across a couple sleazy bachelorette party parades.)

However, the intricately ornate academic buildings towering in golden sandstone could not disappoint. The town also boasts a magnificent Gothic cathedral and impressive palaces and solemn convents, all harmonious with its revered institutions of higher learning and many with stately courtyards. But perhaps Salamanca’s most prominent architectural feature is its expansive, quadratic Plaza Mayor, reputedly the most elegant in Spain and a former bullfighting venue.

Completely out of step with all the scholarly medieval architecture is the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco. I must say my delightful Wisconsin friend Leah and I fully appreciated (low brow or not) the partially stained glass turn-of-the-century mansion adorned with delicately molded roses and all the belle époque statuettes and chic Parisian perfume bottles it housed.

We took refuge from the nippy conditions of the Castile Leon province in the cafés and restaurants cramming Salamanca’s pleasant pedestrianized streets in the Casco Histórico. Leah and I each enjoyed a to-die-for-sweet bombon, a three-layer espresso with liqueur and condensed milk, in a happening café/bar with wooden rafters and exposed brick. Later we had a more-posh-than-expected dinner in a hip (albeit not effortlessly so) restaurant. The general customer service we received in the town was characteristically Spanish, meaning the customer isn’t always right and rolling one’s eyes at a client is acceptable. I don’t rush to admit it, but sometimes I miss the United States.

Our lodging experience was a different matter. We were thrilled have upgraded to a real hotel (notwithstanding the two-star rating and paper-thin walls), sharing a room in a well-located historic building by the Casa de las Conchas, a much-photographed mansion with a sea shell façade from the 1500s, for the price we usually pay for a hostel dormitory. Sunday morning the indulgence continued as I ordered a deluxe Spanish breakfast. Rather than the typical diminutive croissant and coffee, I had a zumo, (fresh-squeezed orange juice), a Napolitan (a substantial pastry), and Cola Cao (a ubiquitous Spanish brand of powdered chocolate).

Our weekend ended on a lower note. We’d been warned that Salamanca had a one-hour time difference from Madrid, but upon arrival to the bus station we noted no time change and discounted the warning as misinformed. But somehow when we punctually arrived to catch our departure bus we found that all the clocks suddenly read an hour later. We had missed our bus, forcing us to buy new tickets. It wasn’t until that night that we found an explanation for the oddity. We hadn’t slipped into a twilight zone; Our trip had fallen on daylight saving weekend.

The ride home provided a glimpse of the fabulously diverse landscapes of the Iberian Peninsula. Within minutes, the views shifted from boulder-strewn pampas to rolling green plains of farmland before winding into hilly groves of olive trees. In between naps I spotted a medieval-walled village and a ruined tower atop a rocky cliff.

Not bad for a country larger than California but smaller than Texas.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Spain's Wild Coast

The only road leading to the seaside village of Cadáques perilously spirals a majestic green mountain range, gradually revealing glimpses of dramatic rugged coastline and startlingly blue waters. Eventually, the bleach-white village comes into view from a jarringly deep drop. Near the French border on the Costa Brava, Spain’s wild coast, the small resort town emits a sense of remoteness.

Its whitewashed buildings and picturesque Santa Maria cathedral sit tucked between two long arms of rugged, mountainous coastline that jut into a shimmering blue sea dotted with boats. A walk along one of the craggy limbs leads to rocky coves adorned with patches of fluorescent green moss and tufts of lilac wildflowers that give way to translucent multicolored waters in shades of navy, teal, and turquoise rivaling an impressionist painting. Small, pebbled beaches with colorful parked fishing boats and seagulls (and a topless sunbather or two) appear tucked along the cliffs and Monet-esque waters of the active fishing port.

Since the early 1900s the peaceful town has attracted and inspired a slew of talented artists, most notably Picasso and Dali, who considered it a sort of muse. Cadáques still draws artistic bohemian souls, as all the dreadlocks, ethnic-inspired jewelry, and art galleries indicate.

In the old town, the winding, steep, and painfully cobbled streets lead to art venues and trendy gift shops. Bright blue shutters and clay pots with green plants trim the barred windows of the white houses. Ivy drapes, bicycles lean and cats nap against the stark walls, which occasionally boast medieval-style wooden doors with peeling pastel paint and metal knockers. Along with modernist buildings, an impressive line-up of seafood restaurants and cafes line the main promenade by the bay. On Sundays locals set up a small market akin to an American garage sale in a sandy plaza.

By the beach, conversations in Catalan and French blend with the gentle splash of incoming waves. Chatting friends, laughing families, and kissing couples bask in the blinding sun, claiming the promise of spring despite the chilly breeze.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Roman Christmas Eve

Exhausted after my first full day of sightseeing in the Eternal City, I sat down on a flight of steps outside the Coliseum to rest in the afternoon sun. I pulled an apple out of my bag and bit into it as I began to study the vague map in my guidebook. A small man, slightly pudgy with thinning grey hair and small round glasses, asked if I needed help with directions in a thick Italian accent. I said no thank you, but he proceeded to inquire if I liked Rome and where I was from. I answered his questions politely, initially assuming him to be some sort of police officer with his uniform-like navy blue jacket.

Before long he was reminiscing about his childhood home down the block and telling me stories about selling ice cream cones to tourists by the Coliseum as a teenager. He introduced himself as Giovanni and asked where I was off to next. I’d planned to explore the nearby San Pietro in Vincoli on the Esquiline Hill, and he provided me detailed directions. After thanking him I headed up the hill.

A few minutes later he came huffing and puffing up behind me, explaining that he’d seen me take a wrong turn. He insisted on escorting me to the door of the church while informing me of its history. Normally I would have been wary of such a persistent stranger, but he was no taller than me and I judged him to be at least in his sixties. He knew his hometown history as most of his information corresponded with what I’d read in my guidebook. Once inside the cathedral, he pointed out Saint Peter’s chains above the high altar and inserted a coin into the machine to illuminate Michelangelo’s Moses, explaining that his horns represented wisdom and that when the sculptor completed the masterpiece he struck its knee and ordered, “Now speak!” While pondering the statue I recalled the eloquent description I’d read in my Cardogan guide, which suggested that the powerful image is “perhaps the closest anyone has ever come to capturing prophetic vision in stone.” Giovanni offered to take my picture by the statue and then spent five minutes fiddling with my camera to get the lighting just right.

Following the tour of the church he inquired what was next on my agenda. I’d wanted to walk to the Santa Maria Maggiore church. He volunteered to show me a shortcut through a park as it was on his way home. I accepted his proposal, thinking that I had no excuse to dismiss the opportunity to see a bit of Rome with a personal local tour guide. As we trudged up the hill, he took a brief detour to an obscure corner that offered a postcard-perfect panorama of the Coliseum. He took my picture and offered to take a group photo of a cluster of young Spanish tourists as well. While we walked through the park at dusk, he continued recounting me anecdotes about the city, offhandedly pointing out the church where he was baptized as an infant and attended mass growing up, which happened to be one of the most sacred churches in Rome, San Clemente.

He explained that a 4th-century pope commissioned the construction of Santa Maria Maggiore on a site marked by a miraculous August snowfall, and once inside he led me left of the main aisle into the San Zeno chapel to admire the golden 9th-century Byzantine mosaics. As we exited the cathedral Giovanni invited me to stop for a cappuccino. I initially declined, but he reminded me that in Rome stopping for a coffee is a brief affair that takes place standing at the bar. As I drank my perfectly foamy espresso he mentioned that 20 years earlier he'd visited a girlfriend in South Carolina and explained how he’d learned English from tourists. He asked about my Christmas plans and lamented that he would be alone on Christmas day, although his two sons would have Christmas Eve dinner with him before going to their mother’s house.

When he invited me to have dinner with them it seemed like my opportunity to experience the traditional family Christmas Eve feast of fish I’d read about when researching spending the holidays in Italy. However naturally I was initially a bit cautious. I asked him what his sons would think if he brought home an American girl for dinner. He insisted that his two sons, both a bit older than me, didn’t speak English, and as he had a niece in England he could pass me off as a friend of hers on holiday. It all seemed quite strange to me, but he reminded me that the whole city was closing down for the evening and my only other alternative would be to spend Christmas Eve alone and hungry in my hostel. I remarked that I’d planned on attending the midnight mass in Santa Maria Aracoeli, and he insisted that the church was much too far away from my hostel to walk back home after the service at 2 a.m. Besides, he liked the idea of going to the mass and could give me a ride after dinner. I almost declined, but after considering my options I concluded that interesting, memorable experiences require some risk and trust.

He was right; his sons didn’t understand a word of English and oddly accepted the friend-of-the-niece story without question. I was a bit disappointed that they were neither handsome nor especially polite. Both tall despite their vertically challenged father, the older one, a navy officer, looked the part with his tubby, former-high-school-football-player physique, buzz cut and goatee. The younger and thinner one had a clipped beard and wore a bright purple puffy bomber jacket, tight jeans, and gold chains. Playing out the Italian stereotype to perfection, they both made clear their obsession with designer labels and soccer during the dinner conversation.

The feast in Giovanni’s humble apartment in the Roman suburbs was delicious – a first course of pasta with truffles followed my the main course of fish accompanied with wine and cheese and followed with panettone, the traditional Italian Christmas cake with candied fruit. I tried to hide my disgust when the men argued over who would get to eat the fish's head, reputedly the most savory portion of the meal. After eating they exchanged gifts. Turns out Giovanni had come from shopping for his sons when he ran into me by the Coliseum. He'd bought them what they’d requested, designer cologne – Hugo Boss and Armani if I remember correctly. Next he un-wrapped his present, a cappuccino-maker. While the two younger men made a test-shot of espresso he left the room. He emerged with a small red paper gift bag, which he handed to me. “It’s stupid,” he said, slightly misusing the adjective like so many speakers of English as a second language, “but it’s Christmas.” Inside I found a vanilla-scented votive candle and a floral-printed cardboard music box. He’d obviously just scrounged up something, but I appreciated the gesture while his blushing sons teased him in Italian.

After dinner we returned to the centro historico for midnight mass. While we waited for the service to begin, he advised me when I should sit down and stand up and recounted the legend of the church’s prized relic. Supposedly a monk in Jerusalem carved the wooden statue of baby Jesus, and later it was lost at sea during a storm but miraculously reappeared on Roman shores. He clearly believed the story and had a deep respect for the Catholic faith despite his confession that he no longer attended mass.

Although he dozed off a bit during the ceremonious two-hour service in the unheated sanctuary with unpadded pews, he didn’t grumble too much afterward. I understood that he was lonely and not looking forward to another Christmas alone wallowing in self pity. I went home that night with the experience of a genuine Roman Christmas Eve and a bizarre story to tell, and at the very least I added some interest to someone’s solitary holiday.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Renaissance overload in Firenze

Florence is far from the romantic chaos and imperial ruins of Rome. It lacks any trace of the aquatic melancholy or the Arabian flourish of Venice. Florence is all intellect. This is the city that invented the Renaissance, not to mention its contributions to science, medicine, literature, and music, including the creation of opera. The Tuscan capital's long list of genius residents includes the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Dante.

The world’s best art is in Italy, and Italy’s best art is in Florence. The city center has more masterpieces per square foot than any other place in the world. The city is so crammed with art that any visit is in jeopardy of becoming a long, tiring trajectory of culture torture. I balanced the art overload with a minimal daily dose of gelato (part of my comparative search for the best gelateria in Florence), which I enjoyed while tirelessly mazing through the stern streets.

The austere city lacks lawns and parks, and there is nary a flower or tree in sight. But the sunset perspective of the colorful Ponte Vecchio bridge over the golden Orno River is divine. The views are even more idyllic atop one of the surrounding hills — the Duomo’s grand red-brick dome rising among clusters of rooftops and steeples bisected by the gleaming Orno and framed with Tuscan hillsides and blue skies.

On the cultural circuit, the Galleria Uffizi is Italy’s premier art museum, and as such without reservations the line can be a three-hour-long wait. Unfortunately during my week in Florence the museum wasn’t accepting reservations due to a computer crisis and the online reservation calendar was booked solid until the next month. Luckily I got the tip to get in line an hour and a half before closing and only had to wait 15 minutes, although I didn’t have time to spare once inside. It was a bit magical walking briskly through the palace-of-a-gallery after dark, taking in as many masterworks as I could with a tight deadline. No miniature reproductions or postcards can do justice to seeing Boticelli’s graceful, airy renditions in person, especially the mythical Birth of Venus and Allegory of Spring.

When I looked up at Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia gallery, I found its immense dimensions startling, just like every other visitor exclaims. A David larger than Goliath is a bit disconcerting, and its absolute perfection gives the image a brutal, inhuman air. The statue’s gaze is said to reflect the newfound confidence in the individual liberated by the Renaissance; some critics consider it chillingly arrogant. I found it ambiguous. At 16-feet, the statue was the largest since Roman times, carved by a 29-year-old Michelangelo from a stone quarried 40 years earlier and marred by the botched efforts of earlier sculptors.

Atop the Duomo is the pinnacle of the brutal Florentine artistic route and the city’s showpiece feature, Bruneschelli’s dome. An unprecedented 15th-century engineering feat, it was the biggest and best dome at the time of its construction. Next door is the baptistery with a matching green and white striped marble façade, which historically hosted the annual christening of all of the babies born in the past year. In those days the Florentines believed the octagonal shaped structure to be a Roman temple to Mars, although it was actually constructed in the 7th century, during the darkest of dark ages, and must have seemed almost extraterrestrial to the current population. The odd building's most outstanding feature is the gilded doors, the result of a Renaissance-era contest in which the seven best sculptors of the day competed head-to-head with the assignment to render the sacrifice of Isaac. Ghiberti’s use of mathematical laws to add perspective to his engravings secured him the commission and just might have ignited the Renaissance. As my Cardogan guidebook put it, he succeeded in “interpreting the forms of antiquity with a depth and drama that have never been surpassed.” Ghiberti dedicated the next 21 years to completing the doors, while Bruneschelli, devastated by his second-place finish, abandoned door-making and went on to create the most marvelous dome since antiquity.

I ventured off the cultural course to into a dustier part of town in search of the SantAmbrogio flea market, where I bartered for an antique cameo-bracelet and some chandelier earrings. They were my only Florentine souvenirs, as Florence’s overabundance of exquisite leather goods were far out of my 100-euro-or-less self-imposed price limit.

I spent quite a bit of time in the under-visited Oltrarno neighborhood on the south bank of the river, where along with the revered artisan’s quarter and its workshops I discovered quaint little grocers, sandwich shops, and vintage stores. The district also houses the Boboli gardens, where for 8.50 euros visitors can walk the verdant paths admiring the meticulous landscaping and elaborate fountains. Across the Ponte Vecchio in the main part of town is the city’s principal plaza, Piazza della Signoria, which doubles as an open air art gallery with stunning sculpture such the Rape of the Sabines.

Although Florence hosts numerous markets, the only real success I had was in the Mercato Central, the monumental two-story food market, where I bought some almonds and cashews to mix with dried apricots and bananas for a very reasonable 3 euros. In the San Lorenzo market, perhaps Florence’s largest and liveliest, most of the merchants didn’t look Italian, and the few I heard speaking the language didn’t appear to be artisans in the least. I couldn’t even glance at the merchandise without being accosted by an aggressive vendor in English, and the designs of the leather goods looked the same from stand to stand. I suspected that rather than authentic Florentine crafts they were cheap products mass produced for tourists. I didn’t trust myself to distinguish from the quality goods and the low-quality and low-taste. My retail failures continued on the luxe street Via deTornabunoi, where in an Ermanno Scervino store window I spotted two a lighter-than-air party dresses the Italian designer most certainly confectioned with me in mind. If only I had 2,800 euros to spare one of the deliciously sweet visions of ruffles and origami roses would have been mine.

Along with boutiques Florence has a brilliant concept of free food known as aperitivi. In the early evening hours bars and restaurants offer a spread of appetizers such as bruschetti or mini panini that are free with the purchase of a drink. This offer might sound too good to be true, but in my case the situation was best avoided as it takes quite a bit of self control for a hungry and solitary budget traveler to keep from looking like a glutton or a cheapskate faced with a complimentary gourmet buffet.

The last thing I wanted to do was err on the side of bad taste, having noticed that Florentines tend to have an arrogant air about them, as if they and not their ancestors were the ones to single-handedly give birth to the Renaissance, shaping the future of Western Civilization. (Not that all Florence’s residents are pompous. A faultlessly gracious local led the free tour my hostel offered, politely addressing the doubtful inquiries about her Italian origins in light of her blond hair and blue eyes.) However, the characteristic Florentine attitudes are understandable, as these people are descendants of the Medici family, the dynasty that inspired Machiavelli’s ideas in The Prince. You can’t really blame their haughtiness; it was their hometown that inspired the term Stendhal Syndrome, a breakdown provoked from an exposure to an excess of art and beauty.