The Iberian Peninsula contains the nations of Portugal and Spain. Betty and I visited Portugal just once, in the spring of 1983. We visited Madrid, Spain in the autumn of 1981, and I returned to Madrid alone in 1996, ‘97 and ‘99, and Barcelona in 2000.
During Holy week of 1983, I came down with the flu. While able to lead the choir through the liturgy, after Easter Mass it hit me hard, and I was unable to return to work that week. Still, I was scheduled to leave for Düsseldorf the following Monday, and I did, but not feeling particularly well. The weather in Germany was awful—rain, wind, and even hail—which didn’t help. But I was able to keep up with my schedule, and as the week wore on, began to feel better. Finally, Saturday morning, I boarded a TAP (Air Portugal) jet bound for Lissabon (how the Germans spell Lisbon) and a sunnier clime.
My host met me at the airport and drove me to the hotel in Estoril, where my seminar was to be held. Then on Sunday, we returned to Lisbon airport to pick up Betty arriving from home. We didn’t see much of Lisbon, except to note a magnificent Roman aqueduct running across the city. Later in the week, Betty arranged for a city tour, and was to be picked up by a bus to take her from our hotel to the tour terminal. But due to a bus strike, her bus didn’t arrive and she had to take a taxi instead. The taxi then dropped her off at the terminal too late for the tour and was going to leave her there till she protested and was taken back to the hotel.
Later in the week we returned to Lisbon from Porto by train, disembarking at the train terminal at the waterfront where a rental car awaited us. We then had to negociate rush-hour traffic from the heart of the city to our hotel in Evora, near the Spanish border. Lisbon’s streets wind and twist and change names every three blocks, so Betty had a real challenge navigating while I drove. But we only made one wrong turn, and that was quickly remedied. After our weekend on the plain, we returned to the Lisbon airport, which was much easier to reach than the train station.
Estoril is a resort town on the seashore. In mid-April it wasn’t very busy, although the weather was a vast improvement over Germany. Our accommodations were nothing special, but our host knew all the good restaurants and the specialities of their menus. Every evening as an aperitif, we would sip porto secca, dry white port wine, which is magnificently light and smooth. Unfortunately, it is very hard to find at home, expensive, and oxidizes easily so that it doesn’t keep. The seafood in Portugal is excellent, especially the langoustine, which is kind of a jumbo shrimp.
A short walk along the beach from our hotel was the little fishing village of Cascais (pronounced Cahsh-caish), where the fishing boats would be pulled up on the beach at low tide. It was a simple place, very picturesque, and had some small restaurants overlooking the sea.
Sintra castle was nearby, where our host took us one afternoon for a tour. But we had arrived too late, as it was about to close for the day. Built into the side of a rock formation, it looked impregnable, with moat and drawbridge. The place seemed so interesting that we hoped to return at a better time, but didn’t. We found an old manor house with a green lawn and thick hedge spread out in the sun and overlooking the sea, and enjoyed a cup of tea at a white table.
On another afternoon, we drove to Cabo da Roca (Cape of the Rock), the westernmost point on the European continent. The lighthouse was set on the top of a cliff a hundred feet or more above the crashing sea. White portulaca blooming in crevices among the rocks swayed in the brisk wind. (There is a similar coastline north of Sydney, Australia, where the same flowers sway in the wind.) Here is one of the Ends of the Earth.
After the seminar in Estoril, our host drove us to Opporto (or Porto) where another seminar was scheduled. On the way, we stopped at Battalia, the site of a mediaeval battle won by the Portugese. In thanksgiving, they built a beautiful, tall Gothic church on the site, with adjoining abbey. The church still stands—a magnificent piece of architecture—alone on the plain.
We also stopped at Fatima, site of Mary’s appearance to three children in 1917, where she predicted a second world war and Russia’s domination of eastern Europe. A white basilica marks the place of the apparitions, and is visited by millions of pilgrims annually, particularly on the 13th of the months of May through October, when the apparitions took place. It can only be reached by travel on winding, hilly, two-lane roads. Many of the pilgrims arrive on foot from distant places. Donkey-carts were a common means of transportation in that area, even in 1983.
Arriving at Porto, we were on our own for awhile, as our host returned home. We managed to find a good restaurant and excellent wine for a modest price. After the seminar, our host took us on a tour of a port winery. We then took a train back to Lisbon, where we hired an Avis car for the rest of our stay.
Once we had left Lisbon headed east on the open road, I began to relax. But about half-way to our destination, we were pulled over by a patrol car, for what reason, I had no idea. The officer spoke no English and I spoke no Portugese, so I simply produced my license and the Avis contract, which he took to his car. About 20 minutes passed, while we were guessing what we might have done wrong—I was certain that I had not violated the speed limit. He finally returned with a citation and our documents, which he handed to me with the words: “Dona a Avis!” which I interpreted as “Give to Avis!” The citation was entirely in Portugese, so that I was unable to understand it. But I noticed that it had no numbers such as a speed limit, etc., which told me we hadn’t violated any law. When we returned the car, I gave the paper to the Avis clerk and asked for an explanation. I was told that old cars were being taken to Spain, traded for new ones, and returned to Portugal with the same registration, to avoid paying the taxes due. Therefore all new cars were suspect, and the registration of ours was so recent that its number was apparently not on the list the police had, so that a check was necessary.
Evora is a walled city built on the plain by the Romans. At its center, an original temple of Diana still stands. But its most imposing structure is a huge stone church of gargantuan towers and gates—Portugese architecture is endlessy interesting and variable—no two towers were alike.
The best places to stay in Portugal are posadas—ancient castles and abbeys which have been converted into hotels with all amenities. Ours was a fifteenth-century abbey. Our room on the second level had an arched ceiling painted with cherubs blowing trumpets. As we lay on our antique rope bed and looked upward, Betty said we must be in heaven. We dined on oak tables in the original whitewashed refectory, where monks once ate in silence while a lector in a pulpit read selections from scripture. The food was excellent, and so was the drink. The bartender, having studied in the U.S., knew how to make a dry Martini—a rarity on the continent.
We toured the neighborhood on foot, but it began raining, so we took the car to see more of the town. Turning into a one-way street, we continued in a direction I expected to take us to another church. But the street kept twisting and turning, and getting narrower at the same time. I was beginning to wonder if there was an exit, or if we would be jammed between opposite walls. Finally we exited onto a main street, and found ourselves only a block away from our hotel! This was a nice, quiet place to stay for a couple of days at the end of a busy week, but soon ran out of attractions. We then were ready to return to Lisbon and home.
Following our stay in Israel and Greece at the end of October, 1981, Betty and I landed in Madrid. She was able to take a bus tour to Segovia, Avila, and Toledo, while I was teaching, while I saw only Madrid. I returned to give seminars in May of 1996 and 1997. On the last trip, I stayed over a weekend, to see more of the surroundings—El Escorial and Toledo. Then in 2000, I attended a conference in Terrassa, near Barcelona.
Madrid is the capital of Spain and its principal city, located right in its geographic center. Much of its architecture dates from the 16th century, and walking its cobblestone streets brought back the same sensation as walking through the old part of San Juan, Puerto Rico. My hosts in Madrid were very generous with their time and resources, attempting to keep me occupied all of my waking hours. Their attention was similar to what I had experienced in Portugal and in Venezuela. At some point, I had to demur (in all three places) that I needed some time to rest—they certainly could not be faulted for their hospitality.
Any visitor to Madrid must tour the Del Prado art museum—it is the best of all the many museums in the city. Its collection of Renaissance art is magnificent. Of special mention is the work of El Greco, Murillo, and Velázquez. Murillo’s life-size paintings of the saints, cherubs, and especially the Virgin Mary just glow with holiness. But the place is so large, it takes an entire day to see everything, and I tend to become saturated after a couple of hours. Although I haven’t seen Florence, I would have to rate Del Prado next to Le Louvre.
Madrid’s restaurants are superb—but they don’t open until 9:30 PM—far too late for my habits. But my hosts would take me on a walking tour of the town, stopping at a café or two to sip some sherry as we awaited opening time. One old place downtown, La Posada de la Villa, has a second-floor dining-room furnished with antique tables and chairs, and has an excellent menu, specializing in seafood—I have dined there on all three visits to Madrid. An old tradition is the appearance of four or five troubadours— musicians dressed in 16th-century costumes and playing instruments of the period—who serenade the patrons for a few minutes. They are actually music students from the university, proceeding from one restaurant to another, and of course, passing a hat after they finish.
On my last trip, I was taken to a special place where the waiters and waitresses sang operatic arias between courses of the meal. They were accompanied by a pianist who improvised in classic jazz while the waiters were busy. He was excellent, and I told him so during one of the breaks. At the end of the meal, they brought champagne and glasses to each table, and began singing “Finiculi-Finicula,” to which we all drank heartily. It was a marvelous evening, but I didn’t return to my hotel until almost 3 AM. Next morning at 10, my host returned to take me on an all-day sightseeing trip to El Escorial.
We drove north from Madrid, arriving at the famous palace built by Philip II in honor of his victory over the French in 1557. It is an enormous edifice, visible for many miles in all directions. It contains not only the royal apartments, but a monastery and basilica as well. Below its high altar, following a set of marble stairs, is the Pantheon of the Kings, where many of the kings and queens of Spain have been buried, including the famous Ferdinand and Isabella who supported Columbus. The palace is huge, taking us a couple hours to tour, and then we didn’t see it all. The royal apartments are all richly furnished with magnificent tapestries and paintings, whereas the monastery is very austere by contrast.
After lunch in the nearby town, we proceeded to Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), a monument planned by Francisco Franco to honor the dead of both sides in the Spanish civil war of 1936. A stone cross nearly 500-ft high stands on top of a mountain marking the site. The monolith itself is hollowed out to form what is claimed to be the largest basilica ever built. Inside, it is a plain grey dome of granite, essentially unsupported. It is probably more reminiscent of a train station than a church, lacking windows and any ornamentation anywhere near the scale of the walls themselves. The tunnels are laid out in the shape of a cross, as is the traditional floor plan for a church. Outside, it looks simply like a mountain partially covered by cedars, but having a grand stone pavilion at the entrance and the huge cross on top. On the opposite side of the mountain, a monastery is connected to the basilica through tunnels.
After returning to my hosts’ home following this full day of sightseeing, they tried to talk me into attending a concert with them that evening. It promised to be another late-night affair, and I just couldn’t do it, so I had to decline. They returned me to my hotel, where I showered and changed in time to walk to Saturday evening Mass a few blocks away. Then I ordered a room-service meal, accompanied by a bottle of red wine I had been given, and retired early—I really needed a good night’s sleep more than anything, as I had already booked a full-day bus tour of Toledo for the following day.
The tour left from my hotel early, proceeding about an hour and a half southwest of Madrid in the rain to Toledo. Once the capital, the city remains small and retains the charm of antiquity. Its greatest treasure is the cathedral, centrally located. It is dominated by a towering spire, which cannot be seen up close because of the crowding of neighboring buildings, but an appreciation can be gained from inside. The altars are richly adorned, and the choir stalls ornately carved. The dome over the high altar is especially impressive, gathering light from above to illuminate the space below. Art treasures are everywhere, including 12 masterpieces by El Greco, and others by Goya and Velázquez.
A hilltop is crowned by the Alcázar, a fortress dating back to Roman times, destroyed and rebuilt many times, and finally withstanding a siege during the civil war. We did not tour the place. Instead, we visited the abbey church of San Juan de los Reyes, with its magnificent two-story cloister, built by Ferdinand and Isabella. We also visited the only synagogue remaining from the Hebrew colony which was expelled during the inquisition, and the Church of Santo Tomé. The latter has as an altarpiece an enormous painting by El Greco of the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, in which many of the saints await the elevation of the count’s spirit into the heavenly kingdom.
Because the bus couldn’t negotiate the narrow city streets, we had to walk from place to place in the rain. Puddles formed here and there in the stone streets and walks, so it was impossible to keep dry, even with an umbrella. We had to walk across an old stone bridge across the Rio Tajo to reach the bus which took us to lunch. Our tour group consisted of many nationalities, requiring three or four interpreters. At the restaurant, we were seated at tables in groups of six or eight. Apparently no one else at my table spoke English, so I couldn’t strike up any conversation. But a half-bottle of wine and a hot meal removed the effects of the chill rain.
After lunch we watched a goldsmith emboss some iron artifacts with gold thread, a technique known as Damascene, being attributed originally to artisans from Damascus. I bought Betty a small black cross embroidered with gold threads of two different colors, a souvenir characteristic of Toledo. I also bought myself a jackknife of Toledo steel.
The weather began to clear on our trip back, so that I was able to go for a walk in the evening. Next morning, I took a taxi to the airport, bought a dry sherry at the duty-free shop, and returned home.
In June of 1999, I gave another invited seminar in Madrid, and participated in a professional society meeting. The trip began again as an adventure. My flight on US Air from Manchester to Philadelphia was scheduled to depart at 3:18 PM on Friday, June 4th. About 3 PM, an announcement was made that the incoming flight, a Fokker 100 from Philadelphia, had experienced a mechanical problem, and was diverted to Boston. We were told to rebook either at the gate or at the ticket counter. Later, I learned from my son Tom, who saw it on the news, that the flight from Philadelphia had attempted to land at Manchester, but that the mechanism which lowers the landing gear had failed to operate. The crew attempted to lower it manually, but could not verify that it had lowered into position. The aircraft circled the control tower a couple times, but tower personnel could not verify that the gear was in position, either. So the aircraft was directed to Boston, where tower observers confirmed that the gear was in position for landing, and the aircraft did land successfully. None of this information was given to us passengers.
I chose to wait in line at the gate to rebook. After nearly half an hour, as I had almost reached the counter, we were told that the gate had to be used for another flight, and we had to reassemble at the ticket counter. This placed me at the end of the line again. At this point, I called the 800 number of my travel agent, explaining the problem. While I waited on the line for nearly another half hour—as others were waiting to use the phone—my agent booked me on a British Airways flight from Boston to London Heathrow and on to Madrid, arriving about 4 hours after my scheduled flight from Philadelphia. She also booked me on a limousine from Manchester to Logan Airport, leaving at 4:30, arriving at 6 for an 8:10 flight. First, I had to get my ticket endorsed at the US Air counter. So I recovered my luggage and took my position at the end of the line, at about 4:00. By 4:20, I had reached the counter and had the clerk issue me tickets endorsed for use by British Airways—or so I thought. With a sigh of relief, I boarded the limo for the ride to Boston, with a few minutes to spare.
Arriving at the British Airways counter at 6:10, I waited in line to check in, reaching the counter at 6:30. The clerk, however, would not accept my tickets! I was told to go to the US Air counter and have them properly endorsed, and I had to take my luggage with me. BA is at the far end of Terminal E, and US Air at the opposite end of Terminal B, about a half-mile away. While there is a shuttle bus, I couldn’t wait, and proceeded at a fast walk—fortunately, I know Logan Airport pretty well. Arriving at the US Air counter about 10 minutes later, I bypassed the queue and went directly to the counter, which caused the agent to direct me to the end of the line. I refused to go, in that I had spent all afternoon in various lines and it was US Air’s fault that I was given the runaround. The agent looked at my tickets and declared that they were acceptable, and I should take them back to BA. I would not, and insisted he print new ones properly endorsed, which he did, reluctantly. On the walk back to Terminal E, my arms started to give out from carrying my heavy briefcase and towing my suitcase, but I made it about 7:10, and was checked in. Whew!
Arriving in late afternoon at the Hotel Melia Castilla, where I had stayed before, I showered and booked a tour for the next day, and then took a walk. Then I attended 6 PM Mass, took supper in the coffee shop at about 7:30, and went to bed. Next morning, the bus brought us to Segovia, the capital of Castille under Queen Isabella—the same who launched Columbus’ fleet in 1492.
Segovia is located on a rise at the conjunction of two small rivers, about an hour and a half by road north of Madrid. The Alcazar, or citadel, is at the confluence of the rivers, so that they act as a moat around most of the edifice; a third branch was dug to complete the triangle. The drop from the gate to the moat is probably about a hundred feet. The Alcazar is not large, a combination of 12th-century walls and towers, with pointed slate roofs built by the Hapsbergs in the 16th-century. Inside, it is cozy and rather unpretentious—Castillian royalty were somewhat austere. Here, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille were married, joining the two kingdoms in what would be Spain, consolidating enough power to expel the Moors and finance explorations. They ruled the world until the defeat of the armada by the British in 1588. Life-size portraits of Ferdinand and Isabella grace the throne room—she was quite a pretty girl, with round features and a pleasant smile.
Leaving the Alcazar, we walked to the cathedral. Built from 1525 to 1768, it is the last of the great Spanish Gothic cathedrals. Massive Franciscan arches cross the ceiling, illuminated by beautiful stained-glass windows. The pipe organs date from the 18th century, with not only huge vertical pipes, but also rows of horizontal Spanish horns, something not seen elsewhere. The altar piece is mostly gold, but contains tiers of illuminated paintings of the saints, typical of Spanish churches.
Leaving the cathedral, we walked to the marketplace, where we encountered the annual Corpus Christi procession. Led by the bishop and his assistants, there followed cross-bearers, acolytes, and children in their first-communion dress. The girls wore fluffy, long white gowns, and many of the boys wore military dress—sailor suits and officer’s uniforms. Older people in their Sunday best followed bearing candles and singing hymns. In the midst of the procession was golden float carried like the Ark of the Covenant by several bearers. Lavender branches had been strewn in the path of the procession, and many carried bunches of the blooms.
Next, we stopped for a lunch at a downtown restaurant, accompanied by a bottle of wine. It was plain food, typical of the area. After lunch, we were free to inspect the Roman aqueduct, which still carries water across town, 2000 years after its construction. It rises 150 feet above the plaza on two tiers of graceful arches, stretching about a half-mile long, connecting the tops of two hills. It is not as large as the Pont du Gard, but as impressive in its grace. And unlike the Pont du Gard, access to the top is not allowed.
Avila lies about an hour’s drive to the west of Segovia, and is an absolute jewel of medieval architecture. It is encompassed by an 11th-century stone wall forty feet or more high and a mile and a half long, marked by 88 oval towers that rise a few feet above the wall. The construction is of very hard red rock placed in alternate wide and narrow rows and filled in with smaller pieces of the same material so that no spaces remain. The surface shows absolutely no signs of weathering, in contrast to the granite blocks of the aqueduct, which are heavily rounded and pitted where exposed. The wall is so solid and straight and smoothly finished that it appears to have been built yesterday, rather than 900 years ago. The bus had to leave us outside the wall, and pick us up on the other side. We entered the city through the Puerta de Santa Teresa, which led directly to the door of the convent built on her birthplace and named after her.
Santa Teresa was founder of the Discalced Carmelite nuns, in the 16th century, and a famous mystic. At the time of my visit, my mother was living at the Teresian Home in Albany, so I asked the saint for her help to see my mother through the last of her voyage. In a shop off the church, some of the saint’s relics are on display. They include her rosary, a cane she used in later life, autographed letters, and a crucifix from her room. Of special interest is the ring finger from her right hand, bearing a gold ring set with emeralds. Her body did not decay, and relics have been distributed all over the world. Also honored at Avila is San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross), a contemporary of Teresa and fellow mystic. Her writings I can understand, but his I cannot.
We did not remain long in Avila. The cathedral was closed, so I took a couple pictures and moved on. We passed through the city in a few minutes, and boarded the bus on the other side, returning to Madrid. Although we were picked up at the hotel in the morning, the bus dropped us off downtown at Plaza de España, where there is a monument to Don Quixote, at about 6:30. I elected to walk back to the hotel, which took about an hour. There were many people on the streets that Sunday evening, and it was a pleasure to walk among them. However, after midnight, the scene changes. I was driven back to my hotel after 1 AM on three evenings (dinners start late and last long in Spain), and found the street corners populated with “ladies of the night” soliciting business.
In the year 2000, I was an invited speaker at an international control conference in Terrassa, not far from Barcelona. Being invited, my expenses were paid by the conference, and the airline ticket mailed to me. About two weeks before my departure, the flight attendants for US Airways threatened to strike, so it looked like another adventure was in store for me. But the strike was settled at the deadline, and planes left on schedule. Arriving in Barcelona, I was picked up at the airport and driven to my hotel in Terrassa. That evening, I was invited to dine with the conference chairman and the other two invited speakers.
Toward the end of the sessions on the following day, I wanted to see Terrassa, and so returned to the hotel early, changed clothes, and went for a walk. The city was once the Roman city of Égara, although no Roman ruins remain. It is situated at a confluence of two torrents, the valley once being called Vallparadis. The rivers must have been diverted, because only a tiny drainage ditch remains at the bottom of the valley, which is now a park with walkways. An ancient bridge remains, connecting the city to the site of the churches of St. Pere, Sta. Maria, and St. Miguel, a “harmonious mixture of styles and epochs (Pre-Romanesque, Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque),” cites the tourist map. Only the church of St. Pere (St. Peter) was open, a Romanesque building going back to perhaps the 12th century—its interior was quite bare.
On the way there, I stopped at the Basilica del Sant Esperit, dating from the 16th century, situated on a plaça (plaza in Catalan) in the heart of the city. And after leaving the valley, I entered another church, where at 7 PM, people were gathering for Mass. After Mass, I walked the mile or so back to the hotel in the setting sun, and ordered dinner from room-service.
The following evening, the conference was given a tour of the Museum of Science and Technology, which was an old textile mill, with some of the machines demonstrated. We dined there, and were entertained by a group of folk dancers wearing 16th-century costumes.
After the conference on Friday, I met three old friends from Barcelona, and we walked to a local restaurant for dinner. The sherry and seafood were excellent, and it was good to visit with colleagues whom I remembered from my first visit to Spain in 1981. One of them brought me a bottle of Amantillado, having remembered my ordering some at the hotel bar on my first visit, and there being none on hand.
On Saturday, one of my friends from home was going to travel to Montserrat, a mountaintop monastery nearby, and I had asked to join him and his wife. However, his wife didn’t come to breakfast, and didn’t feel up to the trip. I was very tired myself after two nights out past midnight, and so napped until time to check out at noon. Then I walked to the nearest train station, and after getting help through the ticket vending machine, boarded the train for Barcelona. I had the day to spend there, as my plane would not leave for Madrid till evening.
Arriving about 12:30, I walked to the nearest tourist information station and asked where I could leave my luggage. I was told that the nearest place was at another train station about five blocks away. Upon arriving there, I discovered there was no luggage storage available, except at the central station on the other side of the city. This was well removed from the old city which I wanted to see, so I decided instead to go to the airport. I walked the five blocks back to the information station, where I boarded the airport bus. Then I was able to get a flight to Madrid at 4:00. So my time in Barcelona was brief and stressful, burdened with luggage.
Arriving at the Madrid airport, I caught a shuttle to my hotel in nearby Barajas. The hotel was ok, although surrounded by construction sites, muddy in the rain. I took my umbrella, and went for a walk, looking for a church where I could attend Mass, and I found one. Just off the city square was the old church of St. Pedro el Apostolo, bearing a sign with the Horario de Mesias, at 19:00 on Sabado (Saturday). I walked around for half an hour, and a few people began to gather at the locked door. As the hour approached with the door still locked, those waiting became agitated.
Finally, a couple women arrived and unlocked the door, but one of the men waiting discovered that Mass would not be until 8 o’clock, and told me I would have to wait un hora, till ocho, which I understood. The church slowly filled, and the Rosary began. At the end, the congregation sang the Salve Regina, the Latin hymn, “Hail Holy Queen,”popular with the Spanish since the 13th century. It was sung daily on board the ships of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colón), as quoted by historian Samuel Elliot Morrison in his book, The European Discovery of America:
Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae:
Vita dulcedo et spes nostra salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules, filii Hevae.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hoc lacrimarum valle.
Ea ergo, advocata nostra,
Illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte.
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
Nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.
Knowing the words and the melody, I joined them. The Mass followed, after which I returned to the hotel for dinner. The day ended well enough, after a dismal start. Next morning, I took the shuttle to the airport for an 11:30 departure, and arrived home without incident.