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World

A History Fan’s Visit to Spain

I recently had the great fortune to find myself in Spain with a week of time to myself. Being a history fan, I took the opportunity to visit some historical sites, and see buildings that are ten times older than any buildings near my home in the USA.

The Iberian peninsula — the area now dominated by Spain — has a rich history, and so many historical sites that it would take a lot longer than a week to see them all, and a lot longer still to truly comprehend their stories. I wanted to absorb all of it, but history is big like an ocean; you can swim in its waters, but you can never drink it all.

I’ve written about my visits to Toledo and Mérida. In this blog entry, I am leaving some general travelling notes in the hope they are useful to other visitors to Spain.

Tourist map of Mérida
Tourist map of Mérida

Planning The Route

Once I knew I was going to Spain, I started to look into what I would most like to see. That was a hard decision. I quickly learned that Spain is a big square (more or less) and most points of interest are along the edges (plus some right in the middle around Madrid.) So unless I had the time to do a lap of the entire country (I did not) I needed to compromise.

If you are using public transit, you’ll be taking either trains or planes to get around Spain. I went with trains, to see the countryside. Later I learned that planes may have cost less as well as been faster. But I did enjoy the trains.

Spain has nice high-speed trains, so going across Spain takes less than a day (if you start early.) Train tickets can be purchased ahead of time online, but I walked into the train station and got my tickets same day. That meant walking up to the ticket counter in most towns. Madrid had ticket machines (which conveniently had English as a language option.)

In the 3 train journeys I made (on a total of 6 trains) I was able to get a ticket on my desired train same-day. But on the journey from Mérida to Barcelona, I’m lucky I bought the ticket for both legs of the trip in Mérida. If I had waited till Madrid, I would have had to pay double (all the cheap seats were taken by the time I got to Madrid.) Plus it’s cheaper to buy both legs of the trip at once.

View from the train in Mérida
View from the train in Mérida. I don’t have any pictures of the Madrid station; I was too busy looking for my train.

Madrid Train Station

Madrid — the capital of Spain — is right in the center of the country. The train tracks converge there. So there’s a good chance that traveling between any two cities will involve a train to Madrid, and another train from Madrid to your final destination.

The Madrid train station is big. There are three different areas that long distance trains might leave from: lower, middle, and upper. The middle and upper areas are easy; they have a security checkpoint (metal detector and baggage scanner) and feel like airline terminals. They have nice clear signs with train numbers and expected departure times hours in advance. The platform number for each train shows up as departure time draws near.

The lower terminal is different. It’s mostly used for commuter trains. My train to Mérida left from that area, even though it was a 5-hour trip into the countryside. The only sign I found indicating which train went to which platform only showed that info a few minutes in advance (barely long enough to run to a platform.) I was very lucky to find some helpful bystanders (“Look for the train labelled ‘Badajoz’, because it won’t say ‘Mérida‘”) and an angelic station employee who pointed me to the right platform once the train showed up.

If you’re going through Madrid, leave an hour to get your tickets, find your platform, and go through security. It’s hard to find English-speakers there, so if your Spanish skills are limited, allow a couple hours.

Sagrada Familia Door
Door to the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona.

Lodging

This trip was my first experiment with Air BnB. It was a good experience. I was able to get private apartments or rooms with just 2-3 days notice. It only cost me $30 – $50 per night. The lodgings were pleasant, and the hosts quite helpful. Two of the three hosts I worked with communicated well in written English via email and SMS. One host used the opportunity to practice his spoken English with me, and the other two preferred to speak Spanish. I would absolutely work with this service (and these hosts!) again.

View from Sagrada Familia
View from the top of the Sagrada Familia.

Getting Around Barcelona

Barcelona is a pleasant city to walk in. It is a big city, though, so if you use some public transit, you will have more time for destinations. It has busses (slow way to get around) and subways (fast!) Tickets for both are available from machines (with English!) in the subway stations. Both the subway and train tickets are available in 10-ticket books. There’s a significant per-ride discount on those books, and the books aren’t specific to a person; you can take a 5-person group on two trips with one of those books.

Getting to and from the airport is easy with Aerobus. Multiple Aerobus busses per hour run between the airport and Plaça de Catalunya (a big plaza downtown.) The trip takes around half an hour. You can get tickets from machines at the airport or in the Plaça de Catalunya. There are stops in between, but I did not see tickets available there.

Spanish Cereal
Crazy breakfast cereals.

Language

My Spanish is poor. I learned some when I was a kid, but have not used it regularly since then. That would have kept me from picking Spain as a tourism destination, but my company was flying me to Spain, and I decided to take advantage of that paid plane ticket, language barrier be darned.

In the touristy areas of Barcelona, language wasn’t much of a problem. Folks who make a living off tourism in that city often had some English.

However, my weak Spanish became a problem as soon as I tried to leave Barcelona, at the train station. From that point on, I bought all my train tickets using Spanish, and once I was out of Barcelona, 90% of my conversations were in Spanish (the rest of my conversations were evenly divided between pantomime and English.) Though I was often dealing with people in the tourist industry, most of their customers were from other parts of Spain.

I learned there are two common reactions when I ask a Spaniard if they speak English (in Spanish, of course.) Some people give a blank stare or shake their heads decisively. That means “no”. Other people look uncomfortable. That means “yes, but I haven’t used it regularly since I was a kid.” In that case, it’s best to proceed in Spanish, and fall back on English only if absolutely necessary.

Funny story: during one of my three passes through Madrid, I asked an innocent bystander if he spoke English. He gave me the uncomfortable look, so I asked in Spanish if he knew which platform the train to Badajoz uses. In perfect Brooklyn-accented English, he responded, “I have no fucking idea.” After that, he spoke in Spanish and Spanish-accented English. I will never forget my shock / amusement at hearing that perfect Brooklyn accent in the middle of Spain. I wonder where he picked up that particular accent, and why for just that phrase.

Ruins of Roman town in Mérida
Roman ruins, excavated in the courtyard of the Alcazar in Mérida.

In Retrospect

A lot of this post has focused on the challenges of traveling in Spain. That’s just because I figure that is the kind of information that will be most helpful to readers. The overall experience of going to Spain was great. I saw some wonderful things and had experiences that will stick with me forever (for more details on some of the highlights, see my posts about Toledo and Mérida.)

The people of Spain were good to me. In general, there was a laid-back quality to them. There were cultural differences depending on what town I was in. I regretted inflicting my poor Spanish on these good people. But that experience gave me a more personal understanding of the challenges facing those who have trouble communicating, be it because of language or disability.

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World

A History Fan’s Visit To Merida

One of the things I wanted to see in Spain was Roman ruins. Mérida has more preserved Roman monuments than any other city in Spain. Perfect!

This post shares my general impressions of Mérida.

Getting To Mérida

I got to Mérida by train. The train from Madrid to Badajoz has a stop in Mérida. It’s about a 5 hour train trip from Madrid to Mérida. Rolling into the Mérida train station is a real treat — the train goes right between sections of an aqueduct as it slows down for the station.

Aqueduct at Mérida
Aqueduct near the Mérida train station.

Veterans of Augustus

The Roman empire was known to pay its soldiers by granting them some of the land they helped conquer. In this case, a town named Emerita Augusta was founded (how’s that for a literal-minded naming process?) The modern name, “Mérida” is the linguistic descendent of “Emerita Augustus”.

Granting the veterans this land wasn’t just good for the vets; it helped Rome by putting a bunch of experienced soldiers right at an important river crossing, and giving them a personal stake in making sure the place remained under Roman control.

Temple of Diana
This place is called the Temple of Diana. Actually it was a temple to the emperor.

Romans Doing Roman Stuff

As Romans tend to do, they built stuff here. Lots of stuff. They built a bridge that was most of a kilometer long (currently the longest existing Roman bridge), set up a theater / coliseum / palace complex that is an archaeologist’s dream (people are still putting on plays at the theater, and it has been fixed up to give an idea of what it once looked like.) There is a circus (race track) outside town, with ruins of the stable / chariot storage nearby. All around this town there are little treats to see, like the foundations of housing, or a collection of Roman grave markers.

All this is very walkable. Many sites have no admission, as they are part of the city now (like the Roman bridge, which the locals use to walk across the river.) You can get a “complete circuit” ticket to see the paid attractions. I think it was about 10 euros. They hand you a map and let you take as many days as you like to see the sights.

I was very enthusiastic, so I saw all the attractions on the ticket in one day. After that, there was another full day of historical sites spread around town to see.

Monumental Circuit Tickdet
This ticket was my companion for a very memorable day.

Romans are Only Part of the Story

Emerita Augusta was established in 25 BC. As the Roman Empire collapsed, the Visigoths came along. They built a hospital, where monks would care for any ailing travelers. Later the Umayyads took the area, and added their own layer of defensive works to Mérida.

I had many striking experiences in Mérida, but one that really stuck with me was a particular tower. There is a fortress at one end of the Roman bridge known as “the Alcazar.” That is just the Arabic word for palace / castle filtered through a couple other languages, so there are a number of buildings in Spain called “the Alcazar”. There is one in Toledo, for example.

Inside the Alcazar at Mérida, there is a tower. The entrance looks like this:

Tower Entrance

The carved pillars framing the entry were looted from the Visigoth hospital at the edge of town, and dragged over here to build the tower. Similar pillars can be seen inside the tower, used as supports around and over doors.

Inside the tower, a stair descends into a subterranean room with cool air and an enigmatic cistern.

Tower Cistern

Water collects here, seeping in from the river. This is right at the foot of a Roman dike, atop which later rulers built up high walls.

What strikes me about this tower is, though it was built by one culture, the parts of the tower are the legacy of the cultures that came before. Roman stones used to build the walls, Visigothic pillars used for decoration and structure, and overhead a mosque for the Umayyad soldiers. The Roman masons who carved the stones had no idea the stones would be used like this. The Visigothic artisans probably thought those pillars would remain in the hospital forever. But here they are. Being admired by a man who flew through the sky to visit the place.

It’s all very Ozymandias.

Culture

Merida has the most patient drivers anywhere I’ve been. They will stop and wait for anyone who looks like they might be thinking of crossing the street. I caused problems there by stopping at crosswalks and waiting for a break in traffic. Every time, the drivers all stopped and waited for me to cross. I eventually learned to cross without hesitation as long as I was reasonably sure the driver saw me. They always stopped.

The driving culture was different in Barcelona. In Barcelona, the horn is probably the first part of the car to wear out. I wonder if Barcelonans know how to get around without a horn. Maybe they call a tow truck if the horn stops working.

Facial expression and eye contact are a little different in Merida than back home in southern California. In California, a nod or a smile is customary when two people cross paths. The only exception is busy areas, where the nodding and smiling would be constant. In Merida, I noticed no one was returning the gesture. And a lot of people seemed to be staring at me.

Eventually I figured out the staring was because I was being weird (with all the nodding and smiling.) So I learned that in Merida, one A) does not smile and B) random eye contact is okay. Folks staring at you doesn’t mean anything; it’s not aggression or an attempt to communicate. It’s just looking at you.

I felt very comfortable with the folks in Merida. There was a relaxed quality to them. I just needed to stop all my nodding, grinning, and traffic-stopping to realize it.

Further Reading

Plenty of people have written lists of things to do in Mérida. Google will reveal those to you. For a more general writeup, Wikipedia’s article is a good starting point.

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World

A History Fan’s Visit to Toledo

A Hill and a River

The Tajo is a thousand-kilometer river that flows through Spain and Portugal. Near the center of Spain, it makes a horse shoe shaped detour around a hill. For thousands of years, nations have recognized that as a fine place to make a stand against those who threaten them. The Carpetani, Roman Empire, Visigoths, Umayyad Caliphate, and the Christian kingdoms that would eventually become Spain all used this place. In modern times, it was used as a fortress again when the Nationalists held it against the Republicans in the Spanish civil war.

Do You Like Castles?

Street Scene in ToledoThe whole city looks like a castle. Let me qualify that; I was raised in California. There are a few Spanish missions left over from a couple hundred years ago, but mostly cities in California were built so that it is easy to move goods around on trucks. Toledo was built with something else in mind; it was built to keep jerks with spears and arrows away. So there are battlements, towers, bridges, moats — all the things that symbolize castles to a guy whose childhood exposure to castles was fiction books and movies.

So for me, walking down a street barely wide enough for a single car, looking up at stonework shaped by the needs of a bygone era, this place is magical.

Strata of Human Conviction

Altar of the Cathedral of Toledo
The altar in the Cathedral of Toledo. Yes, that is gold.
Baroque Stonework
This overwhelmingly amazing stonework is on the back of the altar. If you are attending a service here, you’ll only see it if you take a walk to go find it.

Amongst the defensive works, there are numerous holy places. The largest is the Cathedral of Toledo. The surfaces inside are marked floor to ceiling with centuries of craftsmanship.  The amount of artistic effort that has been poured into these stones is breathtaking.

Inside the chambers around the nave are objects that each have their own histories and significance. The one that struck me most was the monstrance. It is an enormous complexity of gold with gems. It is said that it contains the first gold brought to Europe from the New World. I have mixed feelings about that; the monstrance is a beautiful and great thing, but built on conquest. That makes it symbolic of Toledo in general; the place is great, and its history is that of the strong taking what they can.

The Monsterance
For scale, note the fellow standing in the background.

The cathedral was built on the same spot as the mosque used by the Umayyads. There are interior walls in this cathedral that are believed to be left over from that mosque. They carry the abstract designs you’d expect from a mosque, instead of the human figures represented in the later Christian carvings.

Also in the cathedral is marked the spot where the Visigoth church was, before it was knocked down to make room for the mosque.

I wonder what was knocked down by the Visigoths to make room for their church.

There was a sizeable Jewish population here, once. I stayed in the Jewish Quarter, and saw small blue tiles with Jewish symbols hidden amongst the cobbles outside many buildings.

Built To Last

Bridge to Toledo
A Roman-built bridge spans the Tajo river. The Alcazar can be seen in the background.

When I first walked into Toledo, I made a point of going by the Roman bridge over the Tajo. It was enhanced by later kings who added towers at either end of the bridge. I don’t know what maintenance the past 2,000 years have required, but it is a special thing to walk across a man-made thing that is so old. They did it without gas engines to bring the stone and lift the cranes. I don’t envy them the effort it took, but I’m impressed by what they did.

Suits of armor in Toledo AlcazarThe Alcazar is the square fort built atop the hill by the Umayyads. Alcazar is the Arabic word for palace / castle, after it’s translated through a couple different languages. Now it’s a military museum, packed with swords, and rifles, and cannons, and plenty of reading material in multiple languages. There’s an American military uniform on display from the time when America and Spain were at war.

There’s an officer’s room that has been kept as-is after it was riddled with bullets in the Spanish civil war. It was a peculiar experience to stand by the holes, and sight out the window, and see the street corner where the Republican besiegers set up their gun.

I spent many hours in that museum, and I felt like I was only skimming the information available.

A Pleasant Place To Be

You don’t have to be a history nut to enjoy Toledo. It is a novel place for a walk, if you don’t mind lots of hills. There are plenty of gift shops with swords and damascene crafts. Plus, there are churros with chocolate for breakfast!

There were a lot of Spanish tourists there — it is conveniently located half an hour train ride from Madrid. There were plenty of foreigners other than me there, but things will be a lot easier if at least one of your party members speaks some Spanish.

The “main” (but still very narrow!) streets tend to get very crowded, but if you step into one of the many side alleys, you can walk for blocks without seeing anyone. “Blocks” may be the wrong word there. The town is like a maze with no 90 degree corners. The street map looks like something M. C. Escher would come up with.

If you get tired of the narrow streets, take a walk down the hill to the river’s edge. There is a well-maintained but quiet trail there. It’s a peaceful place, with birds going about their business the same way they did before humans got fancy ideas about this hill.

The River Tajo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Introspection

Horace Smith’s “Ozymandias”

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Horace Smith wrote this as friendly competition to Percy Shelly’s Ozymandias. More information available in the Wikipedia article.