A syncopated beat pipes through tiled walls. The city is still asleep. Only a few souls have made it to the coffeehouse. Seated across from a thin, dark Moor - his straight black hair pulled back in a ponytail from an attractive, mustached face, I am intrigued by the capital of Spain and its beautiful people.
Long thin fingers, made longer by pointy fingernails delicately tap his phone. His lifeline. The cellphone phenomenon has crossed all cultures it seems.
Connection no longer requires face to face interaction. Last night, at dinner in an outdoor cafe, an inebriated Dutchman loudly accused a quiet family of “all being on their phones” while the mom sat cross-armed. He phone-shamed them in English. I was both appalled and applauding.
Is it better to be present or to be connected? How can we be both?
I grew up before phones made everything so convenient. When you had to have a map and a camera and a radio and a pad of paper (to write a note). I’m writing this on my phone, so who am I to criticize the technology? Certainly, the phone has made the world seem smaller, more accessible and convenient.
A light breeze blows through the Calle and I watch dog walkers on their way to the park. It is a pleasant morning in Madrid. We are feeling good this morning. Rested and ready to hit the road in our rented Opel. Stick shift. This will take a little getting used to. Just as when I woke up in Bangkok with Kaye, Stanley and I made our way to a Starbucks - no more than a block away. Yet another ubiquitous sign of the times.
I am traveling alone with my son for the first time. This is his graduation present from me. He did all of the coordination for our week together and will stay on another week in the city and attend a language school. I am so proud of him. There is that moment when you look at your child and realize – they made it, they have become a functioning adult.
With his school acceptance in hand, we head south to Toledo today. I got the hang of the driving (but not the parking). Seems you can’t park in the residential areas. ‘Live and learn’ has long been my motto.
Toledo is a medieval fort - complete with moat! All the tiny streets and alleys of this rather steep town are cobbled with stone. They all must radiate from the center because I found myself leading us out to the periphery only to have to go back to the center to find our way out. We did go inside the cathedral at the top of the hill and it was beyond beautiful. Lovely courtyard garden and the anteroom was intricately carved in stone and wood. It is an architectural example of the Christian-Muslim conquests that dot this tip of Europe.
It was quite hot by the time we wound our way back to the bottom of the hill and indulged in a creamy gelato just in time to run around and try to pay our parking ticket. I never did exchange any money and the policia only accepts euros, so we decide to loop back after we spend a few days in Andalusia.
We head south through mile after mile of light brown colored fields polka-dotted with olive trees. The words from My Fair Lady – which I haven’t seen in a very long time – rolled from my memory: "The Rain in Spain stays mainly in the Plain." This is one hot, dry climate. Very few homes or towns- just lots and lots of arid agriculture.
About 3 1/2 hours later we arrived in Córdoba, a former Alcázar (fortress). This southern region of Iberia has ample remnants of the Moorish conquest from 700-1200 AD. The GPS routes us through cobbled city streets so narrow we pull our mirrors in. We finally found our spot and Stanley coordinates to meet our Air BnB host. I could never manage all this coordination, but he’s doing a great job. Wifi is a must. I think if it was just me, I would have to do the hotel scene but the Air BnB does seem to save you money and our apartment was so Che Che. The beds were comfy, the location great and it just helps make you feel a little less like a tourist. We have been swimming in a sea of tourists since we left Madrid.
We head out to get some dinner and run smack into a live flamenco show. We sit in an open air cafe (covered overhead by fabric- which they do a lot here) and enjoy vegetarian paelle while watching a talented trio of brothers: singer, guitar player and male dancer. It was great. Such energy! Of course, we have sangria with our dinner. Again. After the show, we walk around the walled city and take in the clean streets, palm and orange trees and lighted fortress walls. The weather is perfect. We probably could have stayed out later, but ended up home at 11:30pm. We heard a noise around midnight and it was street washing. No wonder everything stays so clean in this dry, dusty climate.
The alarm went off at 8 and we were fast asleep. Didn’t wake up once last night. We put on our white pants and head out for cafe and croissants. It feels so European to sip espresso in these little cups. Don’t really feel like touring old buildings with the throngs, but we did pay to see the Andalusian horse training. The horses are made to bend their heads low and prance about - which sounds kind of cruel, especially when you see them drool buckets. But it was cool to see the horse and rider interaction as they trained them. One guy ended up taking over and I suppose helping the one female rider, though she doesn't seem to welcome his constant instruction. Who knows? I can’t tell anything they’re saying – but it does come across as "bossiness." By 1:30, we grab a quick sandwich and head down to our next destination - Malaga, a Mediterranean resort town.
The terrain got much steeper as we crossed the Sierra Nevadas, though still mostly populated by olive trees. We fill up our tank for 45 euros (and my credit card was denied 😳). Again, we had lots to coordinate and parking to figure out. At first, it felt a little ghetto where we were. Didn’t help that we wanted to be on the beach with all the beautiful people. We finally figured it all out and Stanley stopped for us to get gelato - to cool us off. Again.
But what a blessed sliver of beachfront this is! Perfect temperature, light breezes, tropical plants and beautiful beaches. We rent bikes and begin exploring. It seemed late...but the place was just waking up at 7. I joined an African dance demo in the park and we both jumped in on a beach-side group exercise class. A family that was taking part let us use one of their mats. I finally found one place I didn’t need to know the language: the universal language of pushups.
This is a very bike friendly town with wide marble sidewalks and bike lanes and ample boardwalk dotted with little outdoor cafes and beautiful bodies everywhere you look- some without tops.
We enjoy a lovely sunset and beachfront dinner. It was a treat and energizes us both so we keep riding around through the city park. Stanley found a dried palm branch and picked it up like a jousting stick (on the bike). I couldn’t let him joust alone, so I found one too. We took a couple runs at each other. Such fun. In some ways it reminds me of when he was three-years-old and wanted to play “Batman” with me as Robin. To think that here we are all these years later and I have the privilege of being his friend and partner in crime. I once heard that time is more like a spiral and less like a line. I had the sensation that we had taken a 27 year orbit and were back at the same spot. Only this time I cherished the moment. (When I was a young mom I thought there were more “important” things for me to do.)
We still had some play in us so we biked to the top of the old Alcázar walls. We even had to ditch the bikes and walk the last part- it was so steep. You could see the whole city and shoreline lit up from there. On the way back, I talked him into checking out the grounds of the nicest hotel on the beach - the Gran Hotel Miramar. (If you ever have the chance, I would recommend you stay at this historic resort and spa, considered the masterpiece of architect F. Guerrero Strachan. It took five years to complete and was opened in 1926 by King Alfonso XIII under the name Hotel Principe de Asturias. The grounds alone are magnificent.)
We made it back to our Air BnB about 2:30 in the morning and didn’t wake up until 11. Check out was at 12, so after sitting on our mini balcony and watching the world go by, we packed for the beach, got coffee then headed back to our favorite spot for lunch. Again, the food was delicious and quite reasonably priced. We walked the beach a bit and Stanley got quite an eyeful. I think he likes Spain ever more then me. And I love it.
We enjoyed a little swim in the cool, blue, salty water of the Meditteranean. Cold and quite refreshing. I bargained with a Chinese woman who was offering beach massages. I couldn’t read her “menu” but we agreed on $20 US dollars. It was great! Treated Stanley to one, too. Especially nice after working out yesterday.
We hated to pack up and leave Malaga. This is definitely a place we would both like to visit again. We drove out on a road that overlooked the Med. It was every bit as spectacular as Hwy 1 in California. Impressive tunnels cut through the mountains that were dotted by beautiful white buildings with red tile roofs. After one missed exit - I swear I was watching the road - we turned off A7 to A44 and back north to Granada. We came over the wind turbined mountains just at sunset and into another thriving, pulsing, beautiful town! This country seems to live for the night life.
We checked into our place, right in the heart of town. This room is one of several the woman owns - maybe the whole floor - of a city apartment. We’re sharing the bathroom and she serves breakfast for 2.5 euros. After two pizzas and a vermouth (for me), we came back to the room. My night owl went to checkout the nightlife. It’s 12:45 and though I’m not tired, I let him go solo because I want to get up at 6 and see the sun rise over the Al Ahambra.
The streets were quiet as we made our way east and begin the steep climb to the impressive Alcázar. I’m afraid we didn’t see the sunrise or the building, but it was nice to finally see some “natural” Spain, hear birds and see rat-looking squirrels and a frog in the park that surrounds the fort. We got back, showered and enjoyed homemade ‘desayuno’ overlooking the charming city streets. Stanley found a money exchange store and we got 36 euros for $60 - not a great rate, but we needed $30 euros to pay the ticket and were out of time and options.
It was hard to say such an early goodbye to this city, but returning the car on time necessitated we do so. Stanley was fast asleep by the time we hit the highway and about 3 hours later we stopped for gas and he drove before I dozed off at the wheel. He got us to Toledo and we took care of “mi denuciada”, then got in to Madrid just in time (4:30 pm) to see that all cities have rush hour!
Interestingly, we felt we knew our way around this time when we walked down Madrid’s main avenue, Gran Via. Having gotten up so early we were pretty tired of walking, so after finding our new -tiny room- Air BnB we strolled one last time and found some street pulled pork sandwiches and took in some of the beautiful Retiro Park. His school is one block from it, so should be convenient next week.
Though it was not even 11, we just didn’t have another adventure in us and went home.
Got up a little after 7, out the door before 8 and Stanley walked me to Metro. I’m solo now and made all the transfers, ticketing, security using mostly sign language. Flew across the ocean, got on the subway, then the train out of Grand Central and was home by 6 pm. While it was a whirlwind tour that often left us breathless, I’m so very happy to have made this memory – this connection – this stop on the loop of life - together. I am reminded of the quote: Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away!
Hope this summer suprises you with some serendipitous connections, as well.