Looking back at the months before I left for Spain, I realize now that my itinerary planning was borderline OCD. I have been very well served by the late hours figuring out which sites are most important for my dissertation research, how long I should stay at a given site, where the affordable hotels are etc. I have to give pre-Spain Ed some credit for anticipating some inevitable “Spain being Spain” derailments by penciling in some “cushion time” at the end of this trip. The itinerary has been a strict but benevolent hand guiding me through what would otherwise seem like a Walmart on Black Friday.
That said, like a kid who has behaved himself in church for what he thinks has been a very long time, I am about to test if the itinerary is still watching. Portugal was the first test, but that was just the beginning. I am crawling under the pews with action figures in my hands and I can see daylight at the end of the aisle.
Ever since I decided I was going to work on the architecture of military orders, my trips to Spain have taken me to the central and Southern parts of the Iberian Peninsula. I like this area, but if I had to pick a region to work on after the dissertation is finished, I would choose the northern part of Spain in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, at the time when the border between the Christian kingdoms and the Islamic Caliphate was in the far north, the military orders had not been conceived of yet. There is an 11th century fortress-monastery called Loarre near the base of the Pyrenees that I measured and digitally reconstructed after my first trip to Spain back in 2003, but otherwise I have not had sufficient reason to travel up there.
Having been to nearly all of the major sites on my itinerary, I am getting really close to cushion time. That means I am going north. When I was constructing the itinerary, there were two “outliers” that I simply could not make fit into a logical sequence of driving. The first was the Hospitaller monastery of San Juan de Duero. This site was far from the military border with Islam, and perhaps because of this fact, it was built on an easily accessible site next to the Duero River and there is no hint of fortification. Another possible consequence of the monastery’s confident location in the interior of Christian Spain is the beautifully articulated cloister and church at this site. Between me and San Juan de Duero in Soria are two more fortresses and the totally rebuilt site of the Order of Santiago’s Castilian headquarters at Ucles. Soria is a long way north, but once I am there, I might as well keep going to the second site I had trouble fitting into the itinerary: The Monastery of Las Huelgas in Burgos.
Las Huelgas has almost no connection to the military orders, but its patron Alfonso VIII certainly did. (Remember him? Loser at Alarcos in 1195, Winner at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 and best buddy of the military orders?) Alfonso and his Queen Eleanor Plantagenet (Daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine) are both buried there. If I make it there in the next week you can expect some pictures of their super-cool caskets – lucky you – in the next blog. Still, what I really want to see there is the over-the-top Mudejar decoration at the chapel of Santiago. There is even a bizarrely juxtaposed statue of St. James “The Moorkiller” hacking at Muslims from his horse inside this “Islamic” styled chapel. If Mel Gibson’s character in The Road Warrior drove a diesel Peugeot hatchback and was really into taking pictures of churches my life would be just like that movie.
So as usual I have managed to write this blog backwards. I’ve covered the future, so let’s jump into the present and the past. I am writing this blog from a couch on my balcony at a $50/night four-star winery-hotel outside of Alcazar de San Juan. The weather has taken a rough turn over the last two days, so it is chilly, gray and misty. The balcony overlooks a courtyard with one open side that leads to a grape orchard and the violent reek of fertilizer is blowing my direction. From the restaurant below I can hear a deep female voice singing the smooooothest Jazz version of Soundgarden’s “Black hole Sun” you have ever heard. I’ll wait for your senses to explode along with me as we take our journey.
In the last blog I had just come to the conclusion that I was going to go to Portugal. I mumbled and fumbled my way through the Portuguese language in Tomar, Portugal and really had a good time. I drove over a (reconstructed) Roman bridge at Alcantara and crossed into Portugal a few minutes later with zero fanfare other than a pretty weak sign. I did not know what to expect, but I was surprised to see that almost immediately, the trees and crops changed when I got to Portugal. Obviously when you get closer to the coast there is more rain, and thus Portugal is greener, but even near the border, there were more meadows for sheep, goats and cows. Unlike in Spain where you only see trees if they are too high up to be cut down, the roads I drove on in Portugal were lined with trees I had not seen since I left Charlottesville. Some of you know I basically grew up in the woods, so there was something comforting about seeing oak trees again.
Tomar is a cool town. They have embraced their Templar heritage to the point that the Templar cross seems to have become the town’s brand. This is nowhere more evident than in the design on the pavements of this medieval town:
(This is not actually my photo. My picture of the sidewalks turned out a little blurry.)
The monastery was a total maze containing eight cloisters. You could spend days at this site and not see everything. Obviously the architecture of the cloisters is much later than the stuff I work on, but the round church and the fortress were built in the 13th century. This site is not as well known for the medieval buildings as it is for being the epicenter of Portugal’s uber-intricate, nautical “Manueline” style. The fifth image below is of the famous “Manueline Window” on the exterior of the nave addition to the round church. This is too early to be classified as Baroque apparently, but to my eye it certainly has a touch of the “monstrous” to it. That said, I’ve never been anywhere with more figurative sculpture on every possible surface. I added a few pictures of some of the column capitals I saw.
I wish I could have spent more time in Tomar, but a series of thunderstorms were coming in from the west, so I had to point Dinkus East and drive as far from it as I could get. The rigid itinerary pretty much buckled at this point because after discovering that another Hospitaller fortress to the east of Tomar was closed “the last weekend of each month” (written in what looked like crayon on a rain soaked piece of notebook paper taped the castle door) I used my phone to make a reservation in Toledo, and drove six hours east. I knew that with bad weather coming, I was going to need to stay somewhere where I could be indoors taking pictures, and since Toledo is like one big museum I thought it was a good choice. It was.
Before describing the excellent time I had in Toledo, I wanted to write about a more pressing issue here in Spain. I finally got BBC world news in Portugal. (Spanish hotels never offer this or any other American TV unless it is dubbed) – incidentally you should see “Three and a Half Men” dubbed in Spanish without the laugh track… When there is no auditory signal for a joke, you are forced to listen to the dialogue and conclude for yourself that this show is actually a ham-fisted drama played by mental patients.
… but I digress.
BBC World News showed some great footage of riots in Madrid and Barcelona and mentioned that the general strike was creating demonstrations in 100 other cities and towns. Iberia Airlines was the first to cancel all of their flights indefinitely. Good point Iberia Airlines, you’ve worked hard enough lately. Go take a nap on my stolen suitcase you screaming bastards from hell.
… but again, I digress.
This brings me to my point. I have done some complaining about random fortress closings, Iberia Airlines, Red Bull spitting tourism employees and olive farmers. I am not unaware that the economy here is in the tank, and I am not nearly as self-absorbed as it may seem when I complain about some of these things. Employing people to open these sites costs money, and in many ways, this is the off season. I admit I sometimes wear special history-geek glasses that filter out anything that is not from the 12th, 13th or 14th centuries, but I am sympathetic to the situation here. I have met far more helpful, generous and patient people here than I have Red Bull spitters. I considered starting a second, less self-absorbed blog but Jocelyn told me that the www.whataboutthechildren.net domain was already taken. In all seriousness, by staying away from the cities for the most part, I have not come in very close contact with the hard effects of the economy. 50% unemployment among people under 25 who are looking for work is staggering, and the effects will ripple through Spain for a long time I think. The closest I have been to a real city since the strike has been Toledo, but with the strength of tourism there – especially during the weekend – it is hardly representative of the rest of the country.
So if Toledo does not show you staggering unemployment, what does it show? Answer: medieval awesomeness. I know it has a sort of “authentic Mudejar Disneyland” quality, and even in bad weather it was absolutely crawling with tourists, but I still love this city. One part of its charm is how easy it is to get lost on your first day there. If you don’t want to look up the map of the city on google, just imagine a plate of rectilinear spaghetti noodles with eighteen different inconsistent widths. Having trouble with that metaphor? Then try imagining looking straight through a balled up piece of chicken wire with swords stabbing it. If that is working for you, then imagine that there are actual chickens (symbolizing tourists) inside the ball clucking and jostling each other, and the swords are… actual swords in the millions of medieval sword shops. That metaphor came together nicely, just like olive oil and ice cream.
When you look at the images below, keep in mind that this was the Christian-dominated version of the religious melting pot in Iberia. My favorite example of how complex the architecture is in Toledo is Santa Maria la Blanca. This is a synagogue that was built to mimic a mosque but was later converted into a church… did you get that? It was built when Toledo was under Islamic control, so the original architects were very keen to blend in with the ruling regime but when the Christians took it over they made some very simple changes to make it seem more longitudinal and hierarchical.
The rest of the images below are of a number of Mudejar (meaning constructed by muslim/converso craftsmen or simply built in a so-called “Islamic” style.) churches and city gates. On a sad note, the last image is of an arabesque prison for cats.
Puerta del Sol
The converted mosque-church “Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz”
Synagogue-Church “El Transito”
San Miguel and I taking in the view next to San Tomé
My favorite: The Church of San Román
Arabesque prison for cats.
I had a great hotel that was outside of the main “crazy-medieval and impossible to drive in but dumb tourists try to anyway” part of the city. I loved the location, and as you can see below, I picked it because it was cheap and I knew the view was going to be amazing. I did have to deal with one seriously awkward dinner there however…
Sadly this is not my image either, but it was taken from the same hotel.
Despite how many times I have informed a waiter “just one for dinner/lunch/breakfast” I have yet to find the right phrasing so that the waiter does not look over my shoulder with this look on his face: “No one eats a meal by themselves, I will say nothing and wait for the handlers of this crazy person to join him… any second now… great, now he’s making ape gestures at one of the tables set for two people.”
So this happened as usual, but I was told that the first two-top I chose was reserved. I sat at another table in the huge empty restaurant just before the couple with the reservation came in. They were immaculately dressed and the guy was nervous. I was sitting at the table right next to them trying to order “not pork.” I had a cold which I am still getting over, so as I ate I had no choice but to sniffle my way through a deafeningly silent meal. The couple spoke in hushed voices, the woman sent her food back at least once and the guy was clearly not happy I was there. The waitress apparently knew the couple, and also seemed to know that something big was about to happen because she was acting like an unabashed lurker. Eventually after giving one of my sniffles a weird look, the guy convinced his date to go outside on the patio despite her protests that she was cold. Within seconds the guy was down on one knee proposing to the woman with the discriminating palate and the waitress brought the champagne to their table. The weird, sniffing American eating by himself was busily polishing off an entire bottle of sparkling wine of his own (he had hoped to cork it but didn’t realize it was going to be sparking) so he gave them an off-balance smile and said something he thought meant “congratulations.” Unfortunately “felicitaciones” is one of those words that was invented solely to make buzzed people sound drunk. The couple left before the hobo had finished his dessert.
But what a dessert! I attached an image below, and as you can see, my attempt to order something simple (lemon sherbet) yielded this awesome thing. The glass contained hot water to soften the sorbet inside the rind of the lemon that was resting on the rim of the glass. It took a while for the magic to work, but it was by far the best thing I have eaten here. I must add however that I seriously hope this is the end of the “serving your food inside of its original container” thing. I’ve been forced to eat a lot of Jamon, but I’ll be damned if I am going to eat it out of a pig’s ass.
There is real suitcase news this time. Just after my last blog I received an email from United. A month ago I sent them a long email describing my bag, its contents, my struggles with Iberia Airlines, my routing number, the bag’s plans to enslave the human race etc. It was so long ago I forgot, but lucky me, firstname.lastname@example.org replied with this delightful newsflash:
Dear Mr. Triplett,
Thank you for contacting the Baggage Claims Department.
I am sorry to hear that your baggage did not arrive with you to your final destination. I did make some searches for your tag number and a search by your last name but I was unable to locate your baggage, Please contact Iberia Airlines for a claim form so they can conduct a secondary trace for your baggage. If the bag is not located they will process a settlement for the missing bag.
Ms. B. *******
Baggage Specialist / Baggage Resolution Center
I hope no one pulled a muscle during that epic, month-long search. At least they are sorry.
Thanks for reading.