Saturday, 31 July 2004 10:00

18 memorable days traveling in Spain and Portugal

Written by Dick Strom

My wife Bobbi and I recently returned from visiting the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Our daughter, Shannin, a costume designer who worked for L.A. Opera, and presently freelances on various movies, operas, and the like, had just finished assisting Madrid Opera in costume setup for Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades. 

Active Image
Communication, for me, was a problem; my Spanish stopped - technically, barely started - with Miss Campbell's high school class 39 long years ago, in which I spent more time daydreaming of hotrods and girls I wished I had the nerve to ask out, than on Spanish conjugation. But realizing it's a good practice to establish at least a limited vocabulary to cover the necessities of foreign travel, I quickly picked up on enough of the basic words to sustain life: "viejo" = "cheese to die for," "xocoa" = "chocolate," "helado" = "ice cream," "batigo" = "milkshake," and "aseos" = "bathroom."
Active Image
Beautiful Spanish architecture was observed during the Strom family vacation.
Meeting her in Madrid, we then toured Barcelona, Granada, Nerja, Ronda, Rock of Gibraltar, Sevilla (we didn't see the Barber, or Carmen), Arcos, Salema, and Lisbon, plus stops in between, before flying home from Madrid.

With Shannin as translator, and employing every conceivable means of transportation short of donkey cart, we experienced a sampling of a wide variety of the culture, history, architecture, and inhabitants, mostly of the older districts of this portion of Western Europe… a trip that won't be forgotten this side of Alzheimers.

Move over slowpoke
Active Image
 Active Image
 The architectural influence of the Moors, originally from Northern Africa, who ruled the Iberian Peninsula until 1492, is yet present everywhere.

I'd always had a preconceived notion that all Western Europeans were laid-back. While some businesses and individuals still take a mid-afternoon siesta, at most other times of day those we experienced seemed quite impatient, though not maliciously so.

Clipping along in the fast lane of a freeway at 120 kph (approx. 72 mph) may find your rear view mirrors overwhelmed with the grill and flashing lights of a car or large truck as close as one car length from your tail.

Hesitating at a traffic light for a fraction of a second often evokes a combination of arm-waving, loud unintelligible speech, and horn honking.Being a "pedestrian beware" country, any place is a good place to cross Iberian streets, though if you get hit while jaywalking, it's your problem.

Window-shopping tourists had better get out of the way of local pedestrians on a mid-day mission. Multi-lane "roundy-rounds" being everywhere present in larger European cities, the only drivers seemingly confused in negotiating them are tourists. In short, though locals characteristically drive like crazy, they apparently do so according to a set of rules they all understand and observe. During our 18 days, I saw only one auto accident, apparently caused by a tourist in a rental car. Though there seemed to be less aggression directed toward us as tourists than I'd expected, the good thing about traveling in a country whose language you can't comprehend is that if they are cussing you out, you don't know it!

Constant construction

Active Image
A Madrid curbside gas station looks like a drive-up coffee shop.
 Active Image
 Repuestos/Rafa is a Spanish auto parts store where they sell anything and everything imaginable that is auto-related.

Construction, reconstruction and re-reconstruction are as constant in Spain as life itself; the country appears to be torn between its need to maintain its ancient roots while being very tourist friendly. Many ancient buildings are being totally gutted, except for their ancient fascias, in an effort to incorporate old-world flavor with modern interiors and earthquake-proofing.

Wood having always been a scarce commodity here, long-lasting marble in many beautiful colors is the building material of choice for floors and walls. Roads, sidewalks and alleyways in the older districts are composed of cobblestones and/or bricks cemented together, some of them dating back centuries.

The Spanish and Portuguese have a strange approach to trash. While buying breakfast pastries at a popular old-style "pasteria,"we watched as the older gentleman wrapped our purchase in brightly colored paper tied together with string. However, we couldn't help noticing the litter of wrappings and cigarette butts covering the floor. Curious, we learned that in their culture it's a usual and customary practice to discard such trash pretty much wherever you want, a practice which keeps many street-sweepers and trash collectors constantly employed.

Skilled and innovative drivers

Generally speaking, the older cities are composed of a myriad of seemingly unorganized maze of cobble-stoned and/or bricked streets and walkways between small shops and residences. The result is that most Europeans have become incredibly skilled and inventive drivers. While seated outside a small café we watched, amazed, as the driver of a van drove up, backed 90 degrees onto the cobblestone sidewalk, pulled in his mirrors, and proceeded to effortlessly drive down an adjacent alleyway that was somewhat short of a foot wider than the van itself. Partly to provide shade, these older residences were built close together with no room for expansion, and modern drivers have to make do as best can, which they do well. I got the feeling that without reverse gear, whole cities would gridlock within seconds.

The scarcity of parking spaces in older cities have caused these folks to hone parallel parking skills to a science - we watched them park a car or van in a cubbyhole in which most Americans would have trouble parking a shopping cart… and they do it so effortlessly. Parallel parking European-style, though, often includes tagging others' bumpers, but no one seems to care. In fact, from the number of un-repaired dings, dents and sideswipes coursing the streets, it would appear this isn't a good place to sell auto insurance, or build a collision repair shop.
Will Mikey and Minnie pop out of this cute little pick-up? This vehicle is typical of the economy vehicles found in Spain and Portugal.
No gas-guzzling SUVs

Though most Western European vehicles are quite new, they are generally more compact and lighter weight than are ours. We saw no off-road vehicles with hi-jackers and knobby tires; these folks are strictly into function. Fuel is expensive, parking spaces are tight, and diesel is the petrol of necessity. It seems their every mode of motorized transportation, from large trucks and busses to family vehicles, burns diesel and has a standard transmission. Of the numerous comparatively inexpensive taxis we hired, even the Mercedes taxis had 5-speed standard transmissions and were fueled by diesel.

Underground society

Active Image
Will Mickey and Minnie pop out of this cute little pick-up? This vehicle is typical of the economy vehicles found in Spain and Portugal.

In an effort to retain the old-world flavor of Madrid, a vast, efficient, inexpensive subway system that is well maintained, modern, and policed regularly, connects the sprawling city. All large-truck commercial transport is conducted beneath Madrid's surface streets, relieving what would otherwise be horrific traffic conditions.

But out in the sunshine un-muffled motorcycles and scooters of every conceivable make and configuration, like dueling chainsaws, roar through city streets and alleyways at insane speeds, weaving between vehicles, jockeying for position. Double yellow lines mean little, turn signals and seatbelts seem seldom used, and road signs, often very different from ours, are easy to comprehend.

How did they build that?

While Bobbi and Shannin "oohed and aahed" over the grandeur and opulence of the cathedrals we visited, true to my nature I was spellbound by the mechanical aspects of their construction. Considering many of these are 800+ years of age, I was awed at how ancient builders were able to engineer, cut, and install the millions of blocks of rock that made up their construction, without modern cranes and power construction equipment.

Cathedrals with intricate vaulted ceilings 125 feet high, elaborate, gaudy spires reaching more hundreds of feet skyward, and indescribably intricate hand-carved woodwork, much of it plated in gold and precious stones, was everywhere present. Some of the massive interior columns supporting these structures, originally filled with rubble, reject pottery, and the like, are in a steady state of deterioration, crumbling. Being a seasoned collision repairer observing this maintenance quandary, I had to wonder had they been constructed, even back then, by the lowest bidder? Probably not, but one has to wonder.

But the most impressive cathedral, at least to our minds, was the Temple, Sagrada Familia (Temple of the Sacred Family) engineered and constructed by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona starting in the late 1800s. Aptly described as "poetry, more than architecture," this still under construction monolith is impossible to describe. sing natural shapes and materials, Gaudi was the premier architect of his age, his unique, whimsical workmanship also being displayed in various other buildings throughout Barcelona. Scaffolding, even into the early 20th century, consisted of wooden planks and beams screwed together. And rock work was hoisted into place by block-and-tackle. Even without occasional earthquakes, the constant upkeep these buildings require provides many jobs.

Tourists welcome here

Regardless of what our media implies, this is one of the many countries that welcome American tourists - at least our money. BurgerKing, Subway… they're all here, if that's what one wants, and apparently the local younger set does. In Portugal a "McDrive" equates to a "McAuto" in Spain - a McDonalds restaurant with a drive-up window where you can buy "GreekMacs." But we dined on delicious breads, cheeses, desserts served at "pasterias," fresh-squeezed orange juice, gallons of bottled "agua sin gas" (un-carbonated water), and delicious local fish, lamb, other delicacies.

Shards of broken glass cemented into tops of walls serve to deter trespassers. Electric wiring, like the energy it contains, takes the path of least resistance, routed haphazardly, like untrained ivy, along the exterior of these ancient rock-work buildings.

The architectural influence of the Moors, originally from Northern Africa, who ruled the Iberian Peninsula until 1492, is yet present everywhere, the Alhambra being a prime example. Not far from the (original) Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Alhambra, had successfully fended off its every attack - until tourists. Interior rooms where sultans entertained, or were entertained by their harems, are fronted by gardens, pools, and opulence beyond imagination.

Pickpockets, shady ladies and Gypsies, who lay hot, verbal curses on tourists who ignore their sob-stories, roam the streets in more than sufficient numbers, attempting to increase the flow of currency. Most locals and merchants are good about warning tourists to be wary.

A trip of a lifetime

Flowers grow in abundance from thousands of wrought iron balconies, vying for room with colorful clothing drying in the sun. An older man leans against the patio railing of his ancient upper balcony home and smiles as I take his picture. Senior citizens shuffle the same cobblestone streets their great, great, great grandparents plied, and likely still occupy the same dwelling as elder generations did. Everywhere is the sound of street musicians' guitar, accordion and fiddle, the "click-clack" of vendors' castanets, and the clang of multi-tone church bells that would put a smile on Quasimodo.

So, what were our favorite places? We most enjoyed the Spanish hill cities, Ronda in particular, and the small, laid back coastal town of Salema, Portugal, where the several fishing boats return every morning with their catch of multicolored fish,and octopus caught in terra-cotta jugs. Life is slow and good in these outlying areas. And, yes, we'd return in a heartbeat!

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; (206) 842-3621; e-mail: moderncol@aol.com.