Meeting the Man of La Mancha

Toledo behind us, I had one stop left on the agenda before the last long leg to Malaga. “We’re going to fight the giants!” I exclaimed to Little Nicky once we were on the road again.  “too bad you decided to mail the swords home.” “What giants?” “The giants who were really windmills!”  Deciding that his older sister was once again on a loony flight of fancy, Little Nicky heaved a great sigh and said “Fine, lets go see the giants, but don’t forget that I have an ocean view room waiting for me in Malaga!”

And so about 60kms south east of Toledo,we approached the town of Consuegra, and could see, towering above the plain, Calderico Ridge.  Along the ridge, silhouetted against the bright azure blue sky, stood 12 white giants with black faces and 4 long arms.   Legend has it that these are the windmills that inspired Miguel de Cervantes to write that now famous episode in Don Quixote.20180615_182310

Now, I am convinced that the reason most people consider Don Quixote tilting at windmills the most iconic episode of the saga is that it is within the first 50 pages of the 736 page book.  That’s the small print version I own, anyway, which after notes is actually 784 pages.  I can proudly say that I am now on page 164, and Don Quixote an his faithful Sancho have had more interesting adventures since … I am not proud to say however, that the bookmark at page 164 has sat there for the past 4 months.  The print is small, the language archaic, and while very entertaining, I only ever read it with the intention of getting through a few pages before settling down for a nice long Saturday afternoon nap.  As it’s been a rather busy 4 months, I’ve not really had time for Saturday afternoon napping, and so Don Quixote sits neglected by the couch.

I would also like to note that, of the 736 pages of the saga, the episode with the windmills covers just 2/3rds of 1 page, and 1/2 of another.  But thanks to it’s close proximity to the beginning of the book the episode has helped put Consuegra on the tourist map, and has for the past 4 centuries brought in much needed tourist mardavedis, then reales, then pesetas, and now finally euros to the town.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it was Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s first adventure together.  They had ridden out onto the plains of La Mancha, where they discovered 30 or 40 windmills.  Don Quixote immediately claimed that fortune had smiled upon them, and that he was about to do battle with these giants, kill them dead and take all their money, because it was God’s work that they rid the world of such evil seed.  When Sancho advised his boss that they weren’t giants but windmills, Don Quixote proclaimed that they were indeed giants, and if Sancho was afraid, to hide and pray for him while he fought them.  Sancho, convinced of his own sanity, and starting to doubt that of his patron, kept shouting that they were windmills as Don Quixote mounted his nag Rocinante (which can at the same time be interpreted as “old nag” or “best steed,” or, I suppose as Cervantes intended, “best of the worst.”), and went to do battle.

“At this point the wind increased a bit and the large sails began to move, which Don Quixote observed and said: “Even though you wave more arms than Briaraeus, you’ll have to answer to me!”

When he said this – and commending himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, asking her to aid him in that peril, well-covered by his shield, with his lance on the lance rest – he attacked at Rocinante’s full gallop and assailed the first windmill he came to.  He gave a thrust into the sail with his lance just as a rush of air accelerated it with such fury that it broke the lance to bits, taking the horse and knight with it, and tossed him rolling onto the ground, very battered.”

When Sancho reached his defeated employer, he again berated him, saying “they were just windmills, and that only a person who had windmills in his head could fail to realize it?”

Don Quixote, refusing to let go of his delusion, proclaimed that the sage Freston, who held great enmity for our hero, and had earlier robbed him of his library, (actually it had been the village priest, his doctor and his niece who had burnt most of his chivalry books and then sealed the door, hoping it would end his insanity) had also robbed him of this victory, by changing the giants to windmills.


Sleepy Consuegra

And so we wound our way through Consuegra, a sleeply little town where we saw not a soul, and up the hillside to the windmills.  There is some controversy as to whether these really are THE windmills, as no one is exactly sure if they actually stood here at the time Cervantes wrote Don Quixote (part 1 was published in 1605 & part 2 in 1615), or whether Cervantes was inspired to write it by sighting some other windmills (there were lots of windmills all over Spain at the time, and Cervantes was well traveled), or just came up with it all on his own without looking at any windmills at all.  It is quite likely that at least some windmills stood there at the time, though it’s no guarantee that it was these particular windmills.  I have just used “windmills” 7 times in 1 paragraph, well, 8 now, wow.

La Mancha is largely an agricultural region (mostly grain and wood), however it’s also very dry.  The rains is Spain, you see, may be mainly on the plains, however, not the plains of La Mancha.  Ha ha, I make funny.  Because of the arid climate, water mills were impractical, and windmills were utilized instead, and so perhaps it would have been quite normal to see 30 or 40 of them clustered together in 17th century La Mancha.  Today, however, the ridge above Consuegra boasts only 12.  These windmills have been handed down, father to son, for generations, and were only retired in the 1980s.  They have since been lovingly restored, with one functioning as a gift shop, one as a cafe, one as a museum, and one actually functioning as a windmill, imagine that.20180615_181255

We parked at the first spot we found, next to the gift shop windmill, and proceeded to climb the steep slope and through an ancient ruined wall to get a good look at the windmill at the top of the hill.  A fantastic view greeted us.  The vast dry rolling plains of La Mancha spread out all around us.  We turned around, and saw that we were at the very end of the ridge, and the other 10 windmills stood in a line behind us, interrupted about halfway by a castle in rather good condition.

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Frank and I were rather pleased with ourselves, and proceeded to explore the closest structures, as Little Nicky shuffled behind us grumbling, possibly about sea views and hotel rooms.  We then realized that the road follows just below the ridge to the other end where there was a parking lot, and quite happily ran and skidded down the dry dirt access road back to the asphalt.  “Let’s go check out the other side!” And so we did, driving by the castle.  Unfortunately, it being late afternoon, the castle was already closed to tourists, so sadly we had to skip that.

It really would have been an interesting stop.  According to local legend the Romans built a fortress here around 100AD, but there is little evidence of that.  900 years later, the Moors also decided that it was a good spot, and built another fortress.  The castle changed hands several times between Muslims and Christians, until finally it was granted to the Knights Hospitaller in 1183 by King Alfonso VIII.20180615_180819

Formed in 1023 and dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the Knights Hospitaller were originally formed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem to protect and take in the poor, sick and injured pilgrims coming to the Holy Land.  Throughout their long and interesting history, they rose in prominence to rival the Knights Templar.  Their long and interesting history is entirely too long and interesting to write about here, but one of the more fascinating factoids about them is that by some weird twist of fate their last Grand Master was Emperor Paul I of Russia.  The Hospitaller flag, a white cross on a red field, still proudly flies over castle.

The castle was largely destroyed during the Peninsular Wars in 1813, but has since undergone massive reconstruction and preservation, and so lucky tourists (not us) get to explore a big chunk of it.

Before we leave Consuegra, I should say a little bit (or a lot) about the man who inspired our stop, Miguel de Cervantes.  He was a fascinating fellow, and I think his life story would be an interesting book or movie all by itself.  His most famous work, Don Quixote, is, after the Bible, the most translated book in the world.

Born to a barber-surgeon father and a woman of noble birth who was sold into matrimony by her impoverished father, he didn’t have a particularly happy home life.   It didn’t help that his dad was known to rather like the ladies.  Though his dad’s dad was an important lawyer, his own father wasn’t very good with money, and Miguel grew up rather poor.  He was schooled by the Jesuits in Madrid, before he left for Rome.  It is not certain why he left.  He could have simply decided to seek his fortune, or according to some records, a “sword-wielding fugitive from justice”, or “fleeing from a royal warrant of arrest, for having wounded a certain Antonio de Sigura in a duel,” (thanks Wiki).

After getting sick of studying art and poetry in Rome, Cervantes traveled to Naples (then belonging to Spain) to enlist in the Spanish Navy Marines in 1570.  He took part in the Battle of Lepanto, as a memeber of the Holy League under the command of Phillip II’s illegitimate half brother John of Austria, which saw the defeat of the Ottoman fleet in 1571.  The Holy League was a Catholic alliance between Rome, Spain, Venice, Genoa, Savoy & the Knights Hospitaller (who at the time ran Malta, those guys really got around).

At the time of the battle he was severely sick with fever, but refused to stay in his sick bed.  He took 2 gunshots to the chest and one to the left arm.  Despite losing the use of that arm he rejoined his comrades six months later and continued his military life in Naples for several more years, seeing action in several campaigns. His navy career ended however in September of 1575, when the galley he was sailing on was set upon by Ottoman pirates somewhere between Naples and Barcelona.  He was taken prisoner, along with his brother, and served as a slave for five years in Algiers.  This capture was rather untimely, as he was carrying letters of commendation that would have helped promote him to the rank of captain.  He tried to escape unsuccessfully 4 times before freedom came in the form of a ransom paid by his family (his brother was ransomed earlier.  His family being poor it took time to raise money, and they had to free the brothers one at a time) and the Trinitarians, a Catholic order whose main purpose since 1198 was to ransom Christian prisoners from Muslims.  These guys still exist today, which is pretty cool, though in a slightly different guise.

Because, just like authors of today, writers back then needed a day job, he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, tax collector and other various jobs while being rejected for others, such as an accountant in Cartagena and the governor of La Paz.  He was imprisoned twice on misappropriation of funds, stemming from his shoody bookkeeping work for the Spanish crown.  During his second stint in the klink he apparently spent a lot of time there thinking about his wife much younger wife Catalina’s crazy uncle, who is though to have been the inspiration for Don Quixote.

In 1605, Cervantes finally earned a little money for his writing, when Don Quixote was published to rather wide acclaim.  There might not have been a second part, though, if not for the last line of the first part.  “Forse altro cantera con miglior plectio,” or “Perhaps another will sing with a better pen.”

It was common in those days for writers to pick up where others left off, and with Cervantes issuing such a challenge and then not showing any real intention of writing a sequel, someone under the name Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda decided to take up the challenge.  Cervantes did not like this, AT ALL.  He was livid, and completed his sequel and published it as quickly as he could in 1615.  Don Quixote, after all, could not end up, like Avellaneda had written, in a nuthouse in Toledo!  No, he would kill him off in the end instead, so that no one would ever again try to write another sequel!  (Sorry, spoiler).

Cervantes died in Madrid April 22, 1616, of type 2 diabetes, in relative poverty.  His legacy, however, lives on.

And so, here we were, late afternoon, early evening even, hitting the road again for points south.  Days in Spain are long in June, and the sky only started to deepen when we were already deep in the Sierra Nevada.  Full dark came around 10PM.  When the GPS indicated that we were within 15km of Malaga I was starting to worry.  We are still high up in the mountains, when will we drop down to the sea?  And then we came out of a tunnel and turned a corner, and there it was spread out below us, the glittering lights of Malaga.


Dusk falling in the Sierra Nevada

Of course we had put in the wrong address, we needed the hotel in Benalmadena, not Malaga proper, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a hotel with the same name in both places.  Quick recalculation.  Half an hour later we dropped Little Nicky off at his hotel, (a thick fog had rolled in, btw, that wouldn’t lift until after his check out time the next day.  Sorry, little bro!), and got to our own, much cheaper hotel (no ocean view either) just before midnight.  I had ordered a room with a balcony, but there was no balcony.   On a day such as this, could I expect anything else?  At this point though, we didn’t care.  It was nearly 1am. We were happy to shower and fall onto a bed that did not poke holes into us, and sleep like the dead until morning.

Morning, however, came earlier than we expected… at 7am, there was a knock on the door, and my mother’s voice: “Good Morning!!!”




Holy Toledo!


Broiling under the mid-afternoon sun, Toledo behind me.

Now I will admit, before deciding on making a pit-stop in Toledo, I knew very little about it.  I’d had no idea where it was before exploring the option of driving from Madrid to Malaga.  Actually, I’d known less than nothing.  I hadn’t even really been conscious that it was in Spain.  Toledo to me was Cleveland’s neighbor to the west, a blip on the I90 when driving between Chicago and more interesting points east.  The only thing I really knew was that it was the home of the Toledo Mud Hens, Corporal Maxwell Klinger’s favorite minor league baseball team.   When I began researching though, I learned a bit more.  I have already proven that my attention span is sometimes worse than that of a drunken chicken, so is it really a surprise that before finding any real info on the Spanish version I went on a little side trip and found this little gem about the Toledo War?

Ohio and Michigan almost came to blows over Toledo in 1835-1836 due to a mapping error.  Congress had declared that the Michigan Ohio border was to run west to east from the southern most point of Lake Michigan.  Unfortunately, at the time, there were no accurate maps of the area, and Lake Michigan’s southern tip was mapped several miles north of where it actually is.  Ohio, admitted into the Union in 1803 claimed everything around the then important Maumee River, which flows into Lake Eire above that line, and was an important trade route between the Eire Canal and points west.  All went well until Michigan Territory starting asserting its rights according to the original Congressional documents.  Fists were raised, guns were drawn, and militias called up.  Luckily the whole affair didn’t getting any further than Two Stickney (seriously, that was his name) from the Ohio side stabbing Michigan sheriff Michael Wood in the leg with a penknife.  Stickney, by the way, had an older brother named One Stickney.  Their father, Benjamin Franklin Stickney, one of Toledo’s founding fathers, entrepreneur, and all around weirdo, had talked his long-suffering wife into naming their boys such so that they could pick names for themselves later.  The boys apparently were as odd as their father, and kept the monikers.  In the end, Congress declared that Ohio could have Toledo, and the rest of the Toledo strip, an area of 468 square miles.  Michigan was granted a large chunk of the Northern Peninsula.  The vast, largely unexplored wilderness seemed like a raw deal for Michigan, until quite substantial quantities of copper and iron were discovered there and a booming mining industry was born.  Ohio and its bit of relatively useless little chunk of farmland could suck it.

So anyway, here we were, an hour south of Madrid, approaching the ancient capitol of Toledo.   The correct pronunciation, BTW, is To-leh-do, not To-leeeeee-do.  Surrounded tightly by ancient walls, the jumble of buildings seemed to be trying to climb on top of each other to reach the summit of the steep hill, where the Alcazar’s towers stabbed at the cloudless sky.  All very dramatic.

It was rather obvious to see why the place was considered to be a valuable stronghold, worthy of being conquered by the Roman general Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in 193BC.  Though it was never a huge city in Roman times (or ever, really), it was big enough and important enough for residents to hold Roman citizenship, and for Rome to invest money into it for the city to boast a Roman circus (the largest in Hispania, large enough to pack in 15,000 spectators for the chariot races), city walls, public baths, and a municipal water supply and storage system.

Though this is speculation on my part, perhaps Rome decided Toledo was worth the investment during the Punic Wars, (264BC-146BC) most notably against Hannibal.  Ancient Carthage, despite being located in what is now Tunisia, somehow cottoned on to the fact that the weaponry coming out of Toledo was some of the best in the world.  I would love to know how that came about, but alas that is lost to history.  That they were the first to figure this out is a little surprising too, since the smiths of Toledo had been producing the stuff since at least 500BC.  Anyway, sometime soon after Hannibal, Toledo became the main center for production of steel for the Roman Army.

Toledo continued to prosper even as the Roman Empire flailed and fell, becoming a favorite hangout for the Visigoth conquerors in the 5th century.  These Germanic invaders were Christian before their takeover of much of modern day France & Spain, but it was a Christianity of the Arian variety, not the Nician version practiced by Rome.  It was just enough to cause tension between the old Roman citizenry and their new blond, blue-eyed overlords for a couple hundred years.  This was good for the local Jews, who legend has it had been living in them parts in large numbers since before anyone had heard of Jesus.  They were left pretty much in peace to farm and trade as they liked until King Reccared convened the Third Council of Toledo in 589 to sort out which Christianity they would follow once and for all.  The Council decided that everyone should bow to the church of Rome, and that included the Jews.  If they didn’t like it, they could die, or leave, which a lot of them did either one or the other of.  The persecution continued until the arrival of the Moorish invaders in the early 700s.

The city fell into relative obscurity under the Moors, except for as an important center for the Catholic church.  It was the capital of a small caliphate for a while, but all the really important governing stuff was done in Granada, Cordoba & Sevilla.  That’s not to say there wasn’t uprisings and battles, bloodbaths, and drama galore, but it is way too much to write about here.  Perhaps Toledo was a little too close to those pesky Christians who had fled north and were constantly plotting to come back.  Eventually they did, on May 25th, 1085 led by Alfonso VI of Castile.  It was the first major victory of the Reconquista, the long drawn out struggle that only really ended in 1492, a few months before Columbus came begging for funds from Ferdinand & Isabella.

Unusual for the time, Alfonso decided against destroying the Arabic and Hebrew libraries he found there, but had them translated instead.  In doing so, he took a step towards the end of the Dark Ages, helping spread knowledge that had long been lost throughout Christian Europe. Unfortunately, the church didn’t particularly feel any need to thank the Jews for this knowledge, and they went back to burning, torturing, and otherwise killing the local Jewish populous (not immediately, but within a hundred or so years).  They weren’t particularly nice to the remaining Muslims either.

So Toledo eventually became the official capitol of the Castilian kings, and so it stayed until it’s hayday under Emporor Charles V.  As I’ve mentioned before though, he had a more modern capital in mind, and his son, Phillip II made it happen by moving the party to Madrid.  After that, Toledo settled into gradual decline, though it remained the center for the Catholic church.  We can probably thank Phillip II for abandoning the city.  Because of him it has stayed practically unchanged since 1561.

Before we went to Toledo, research had told me to find a carpark outside the city walls, and then take the escalator up to the city center.  This we did with a bit of trouble, especially considering my lack of practice with a stick-shift, and driving on the wrong side of the road for the past 3 years to boot.  The streets of Toledo are steep and narrow.  We parked underground, and then had to walk over a kilometer to where Google Maps informed me the nearest escalator was.  It was hot, we were thirsty, hungry, cranky, and the only thing that distracted me for a while during the walk were the crows roosting in the city walls far above us.  I managed to scratch my leg on the the escalator, ’cause it was that kind of day.


The Escalator

A brief stop at the Tourist Information Center got us a map and instructions on how to get to the Alcazar, and we were finally winding our way through the narrow medieval streets.  It was just really cool.  Seriously, that’s the best I can describe it.  It was like visiting a movie set.  I couldn’t, and still can’t comprehend that that place was for real.  It is so well preserved.


Checking out some medieval houses.


Before our trip, I had convinced Little Nicky that Toledo was worth the stop by uttering one word; “SWORDS!!!”  Little Nicky is a big fan of swords, so after he googled around for about 2 minutes he happily agreed.  We popped into the first sword shop we could find, and a very nice sales lady showed us their wares, demonstrating their balance, and let us play around with them for a while.  “Thank you, you’re our first shop, we’d like to have lunch and a bit more of a look around before making our decision.”  She smiled politely and waved us out the door, never expecting to see us again.


“This one, I want this one!”

Now I need to mention again that Toledo steel is something special.  Valued already in Roman times, it grew in acclaim over the centuries, and became the most sought after weapons through the middle ages.  The Three Musketeers used Toledo steel.  Damascus tried to create competition, and it was a good solid steel, but compared to Toledo it was not flexible enough, and did not do as well in combat.

The process of making a single sword or dagger was arduous to say the least.  It’s actually made of a hard and soft steel combined perfectly by a precise and intricate process.  To get the timing right, blacksmiths would recite specific prayers and psalms during different times of the process to ensure the correct rhythms.  Until the 19th century when mass manufacturing was introduced, smiths could only produce 2 or 3 swords a year.


After a delicious burger lunch at Lizarran, (served to us by a Chilean who had come to Toledo by way of 20 years in New Jersey, and so spoke like a cast member of Jersey Shore), it was time to check out the Alcazar.

The other tidbit I’d used to talk Little Nicky into stopping in Toledo was the Alcazar, which now houses the Army Museum.  We paid for our tickets, and began our tour.  It was not what I expected.  I would even say I was a little disappointed, but it was my own fault.  I though I had done sufficient research to know what to expect, but I was wrong.

The Alcazar, itself a fortress/palace, was built on top of a palace and fortifications dating back to 300AD.  You can still get a good look at the foundations while going up the escalator to the main entrance of the museum.  I will not say that the exhibits aren’t excellent, they really are.  Weaponry dating back to prehistoric times all the way through to the Spanish Civil war are on display, with good explanations in Spanish in English.  If anything, I found it a bit much, but that might have been because I was becoming rather conscious that we were very behind schedule on our little road-trip, at that point by about 2 hours.  There were entire rooms of battle flags and portraits of military notables.  Room after room of weapons seized in battle from Native American tribes.  Matter-of-fact descriptions of the spread of Christianity through the Americas along with paintings and documents filled many rooms.  I found it very interesting that the language was completely unapologetic.  Having been raised and schooled in the United States where history is taught with an “Oh that’s so sad, that really was rather naughty of us” sort of attitude toward the natives, and living in Australia, where the government likes to apologize for everything, I found this sort of bold “yeah, that’s history, baby” type of attitude if not exactly refreshing but pragmatic and interesting.  This was a conquering nation that does not think that it has anything to apologize for.  One of the biggest things that disappointed me was that these halls were all designed as a modern museum space, almost no hint that this had at one point been a palace of the Spanish kings… but that’s because I was uneducated.


Inside the Alcazar

About an hour into our tour we came across a room dedicated to the not so distant past.  It was dedicated to the 1936 Siege of the the Alcazar.  In the middle of the room was a large scale model of the Alcazar, but not as we had seen it this morning.  3/4ths of it was missing, reduced to rubble.  All but one of its towers had been completely destroyed.  The siege lasted from July 21st until Franco’s forces rescued the embattled Nationalists on September 27th.  Inside the fortress, which had for the last 200 years served as a military academy, Nationalists holed up 2 months with 600 or so family members and between 100 and 200 hostages from the local notables, among them the local governor.  The Republicans tried bombardments, full on assaults, and even mining underneath the thick walls, but all failed to budge the besieged.   Even the threat of execution of loved ones didn’t work.  Per Wikipedia:

Colonel Moscardó was called on the telephone by the chief of the Worker’s Militia, Commissar Candido Cabello, on the morning of July 23 in Toledo and told that if the Alcázar were not surrendered within ten minutes, Moscardó’s 24-year-old son, Luis, who had been captured earlier in the day, would be executed. Colonel Moscardó asked to speak to his son and his son asked what he should do. “Commend your soul to God,” he told his son, “and die like a patriot, shouting,‘¡Viva Cristo Rey!’ and ‘¡Viva España!’ The Alcázar does not surrender.” “That,” answered his son, “I can do.” Luis was immediately shot.

Not too long later we found a room unlike any other in the Alcazar.  A large, well appointed office, obviously set up for a military leader, shot to pieces, and left to look exactly as it had on the day Franco rescued the besieged.   This was the office, that was the desk, that was the telephone, from which Colonel Moscardo had ordered his son to die bravely rather than surrender.

Generalissimo Franco, so entitled just 2 days after the victory in Toledo, had the Alcazar rebuilt after the end of the Civil War, and it now houses the provincial library as well as the Army Museum.20180615_150257

A bit overloaded by all this history, I wandered outside into the courtyard, and the boys followed me soon after.  And here we understood the defensive value of Toledo, and why this very spot had been chosen for the fortress.  Any approaching army would find it difficult to conceal itself, and from this vantage you could rain down artillery on the heads of soldiers miles around.  We enjoyed the view, and then decided that it really was enough, it was time to move on.20180615_150838

We made our way to the nearby Plaza de Zocodover, the main square of the town, and I suggested Little Nicky to check out any number of the nearby shops displaying swords.  “Nah, we’re going back to the first one, I told the lady we’d be back.”  I was well over it, and opted to buy a McFlurry from the nearby McDonald’s, and find a shady spot to rest, while the boys went in search of the shop.  It seemed to take ages, as I was cranky, and my ice-cream wasn’t as good as I had hoped for, and the McDonald’s outdoor seating area was an absolute disgusting mess, and there were entirely too many tourists in the plaza, the shady doorstep that I had found to sit on was entirely too hard, and we still had who knows how many hours to drive, and and and and…. finally they were back.

“So, did you get your sword?” I asked the empty-handed duo.  Frank laughed, “No… he got…” “FIVE!” my excited brother yelled.  Well, 2 swords and 3 daggers, 1 of them for free because the shopkeeper had been so pleased that they had returned as promised, and bought more than they had ever hoped for.  For an extra 50 euros they were mailing it for him to Chicago.

And so, mission accomplished, it was time to find the car and make tracks south.  Frank consulted the tourist map and said “Hey, it looks like there’s an escalator right over there, we may not need to go all the way back across town…” And so down we went, wondering all the while how far we would have to walk back to the carpark.  The escalator terminated… right at the carpark entrance.  This did not, as you can imagine, improve my mood.

***On a side note, the history of Toledo is fascinating, and entirely too deep to really go into on a blog such as mine.  We spent about 5 hours there, and barely scratched the surface.  I glossed over so much, and still look how long this post has ended up being. Major kudos to you if you succeeded in making it to the end, BTW.  There is so much there I could probably happily have spent 2 or 3 days exploring the various monasteries, the Jewish Quarter, not to mention the El Greco Museum and riding the zip-line from the Old Town all the way across river.  Perhaps we will return one day.

Adios Madrid!

On Friday, it was time to say farewell to Madrid.  We woke up early, packed up, had a last cup of coffee, and headed to Atocha Railway Station.  At a little under 2 kilometers away, we decided to walk.  What fools we were.  Loaded down with entirely too much luggage (in particular a laptop that over the course of our travels became the bane of my existence, but when we were leaving Australia I had the deluded impression that I would absolutely need it while in Europe for… I don’t particularly recall what now), and too little sense to call a cab, we arrived at Atocha sweaty and not particularly pretty.

Little Nicky, wise beyond his years, had taken a cab from his hotel, and informed us by text that he’d been dropped off at Thrifty’s pick up location.  We told him we’d meet him as soon as we found the office & picked up the keys.  And that’s when our troubles really began…  The signage for the rentals?  Well, we only saw one sign in the entire place, pointing to the left… We wandered and wandered in what turned out to be circles, up escalators, down stairs, through hallways and passageways…

Have I mentioned that I once mistakenly thought I had a decent command of at least basic Spanish?  I’d confidently told Frank that getting around Spain will be absolutely no problem for us, and not to worry about a thing…  I was oh so very wrong.   Every time I asked a security guard or station officer to direct us to where the rental cars were, I got confused looks and uncertain gestures in vague directions.

All this time Little Nicky is texting us, trying to instruct us, and frustrating me further.  “NO! I do not see statues of giant heads anywhere!!!”  I’m pretty sure we added a further 3 kilometers to the 2 we already walked.  Finally, a useful little tidbit was revealed, that would have been very helpful EARLIER!!!!!  “Oh, it’s not in the main station, its across the street.” “#$$T%^&^%$@ #%#& %%$$^!!!!!!!!!”  And so, we dragged ourselves upstairs one more time, crossed the busy road to a building that had giant head statues in front of it, and finally found the Thrifty Car Rental office.

Now, being the good little tourist who was planning to drive in a foreign country, I did a little research before coming here. Pretty much everything I read told me I absolutely HAD to have an international drivers license.  Horror stories of La Guardia (Civil Police, their version of the National Guard, which patrols rural areas) demanding bribes and otherwise harassing unsuspecting tourists without them were rampant on various tourist websites.  No, I would not be one of those.  I went through the rigamarole of getting one through our RACQ (Queensland’s version of the AAA), and proudly displayed it to the Thrifty clerk.  He duly entered all there information, then asked “Any other drivers?”  “No, no, just me.” Frank pipes in “I don’t have an international license.”  “”No problems!” declares the clerk.  “If La Guardia stop you, you just say ‘She no feel good!'” And so Frank was added on to the contract.  As far as I knew, from what I’d read, they weren’t even supposed to rent to people without the international papers, but while we were there we watched 3 or 4 other people of various nationalities go through the same process, none of whom produced the actual paperwork proving they could legally drive in Spain.

I had reserved a compact for pick up in the morning, and drop off by midnight in Malaga… however, the saintly clerk, perhaps seeing my frustration over the last couple hours, and being moved to mercy, gave us a small Opal SUV, and told us we could return it to Malaga Airport before noon tomorrow.  Bless him.

And so finally we had the car, we had Little Nicky, and I had to remember how to drive stick shift, on the right side of the road no less.  3 years is a long time.  After a few false starts I had to remind my brother that he should only keep speaking if he wants to walk all the way to Malaga.   And then, haltingly, we were on our way.  By some miracle we did not die on the roads out of Madrid, and by the time we reached Toledo an hour later, I had it, more or less, well in hand.

The Inquisition, What a Show!

After returning from El Escorial, we made plans with Little Nicky for our last evening in Madrid, and enjoyed a much needed rest.  One of the wonderful things about Europe in June is that the days are long.  Having lived in Brisbane, Australia for 4 years, I’d gotten used to the depressing fact that even in the height of summer it will be full dark by 7:30.  In Madrid full dark only came after 10pm.  It was glorious.

We decided to seek sustenance in Plaza Mayor, center of Old Madrid.  Originally a farmers market, Phillip II commissioned a city square be built there when he decided to move the capital from Toledo to Madrid, though it actually wasn’t completed until 1619, which was already during Phillip III’s reign.  The plaza has been rebuilt thrice due to fires, with the current look coming into being in 1854, when the 5 story buildings were reduced to 4, and all of the buildings were connected to make a complete rectangle, with the streets now going through archways.

A lot of people see Plaza Mayor as a tourist trap, which I guess it is, since the Madrid Tourism Center is currently housed in the former Casa de la Panaderia (House of Bread, which served as the town’s main bakery), built in 1674, and the only building to survive the 1790 fire.  It is the only building in the plaza not painted red, but covered in elaborate frescoes depicting mythical figures. These frescoes date from 1992, as the previous ones needed to be replaced due to deterioration, which is apparently something they’ve had to do several times over the centuries.

The plaza is a cozy place on a summer evening, with twilight just starting to thicken, and a warm soft breeze blowing through the archways.  We entered from the northeast corner and started perusing the various cafe menus posted next to the outdoor seating areas.  One after another we discarded for various reasons… way too expensive, way to “niche,” way too boring…  We finally settled on Eboli, a cafe whose name evoked images of a not too appetizing nature, but whose prices, while not cheap, fit well within our tourist budget.  This was probably the worst meal we had in our entire time in Spain.  Not because it was disgusting in any way, or tasteless… but because the food was not memorable.  I vaguely recall some seafood pasta that was quite edible, but I’m not sure if Frank had it, or I, and Nicky’s steak and fries were “acceptable.”  In other words, while not bad in the least, it didn’t measure up to the rest.

The atmosphere, the company, and the beer however, made up for the food, and we spent a very relaxed couple of hours enjoying everything.  Eboli, by the way, is named for a town in Italy, not the pestilence, so that explains the vaguely Italian theme of the menu.  Did I have a pizza?  I really cannot recall, it was that just okay.

Sitting back, watching the buskers and the African knock-off sellers mix with locals and tourists, it’s time to think of the amount of history that has happened in this very spot.  Besides celebrations for royal births, weddings, coronations, festivals, etc., etc., the plaza also could jam in 50,000 people to watch a bullfight, with people renting out the over 200 balconies that line the square for better views.  The most interesting, and morbid, of course though, was that Plaza Mayor was where the Spanish Inquisition carried out auto-de-fés, (acts of faith) the trials and punishments of suspected heretics.

Despite the Black Legend spread by the English & other northern European nations who at the time were Spain’s enemies, the Spanish Inquisition did not burn 100s of thousands of Jews and witches.  Some blowhards even claim millions were killed just by the Spanish branch, however, considering the population of Europe at the time, that would have been rather impossible, as there would have been no one left on much of the continent, much less Spain.

One of the most fascinating things about the Spanish Inquisition was that it had power only over Christians.  Anyone openly practicing Judaism, Islam, etc were not touchable, and could only be tried by the King and his courts.  Jews who had converted to Christianity to avoid taxes or expulsion and were suspected of still practicing their old beliefs could proclaim that they were once again practicing Jews, and the Inquisition would have to hand them over to civil authorities.  Of course the authorities would often try them for lying about being Christian, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Another fascinating tidbit about the Spanish Inquisition is that they had very very specific rules about torture, and at least initially practiced it much less than most European courts, and followed a certain code of rules. Per Wikipedia:

  1. Confessions obtained through torture could not be used to convict or sentence anyone.  The accusation had to have been already proven, and the accused has refused to admit culpability by any other means.
  2. Only specific forms of torture were to be used, and torturers could not “maim, mutilate, draw blood or cause any sort of permanent damage.”
  3. Sick, old, young, injured and pregnant people could not be tortured.  Women were only tortured for the most extreme crimes, and had to be tortured by women.
  4. Different crimes called for different amount of times a person could be tortured, depending on how heinous it was.  Counterfeiting currency would get you 2 sessions, while the most serious crimes could get you up to 8.
  5. Torture could only be for 15 minutes at a time.
  6. A doctor had to be present at all times to prevent serious harm, and a doctor had to certify that the prisoner was healthy enough to get through the torture without lasting injury.

The Spanish Inquisition apparently was so lily-white and fluffy that it was the preferred way of hungry people to get through a cold winter.  Inquisitors complained during the reign of Philip IV that people “Blasphemated, mostly in winter, just to be detained and fed inside the prison.”  During Philip III’s reign, he got pissed off that people would accuse themselves of heresy “just to be sent under the Inquisitorial jurisdiction instead of the King’s.”

So, while a lot of people were tortured and killed by various courts, and by various Inquisitions (Spain wasn’t the only one to have one), modern scholars estimate that of the approximately 150,000 people tried for various offenses by the Spanish Inquisition,  3,000-5,000 of them were executed between its inception in 1478 by Ferdinand & Isabella (yeah, those same dudes who funded Columbus), to its end in 1834 by the plump and feisty Isabella II.  At the same time, it is estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people were burnt for witchcraft in the American colonies and other parts of Europe, not to mention lots of other nasty things done between various Christian groups in the name of the God, king and country.

Of those 3 to 5 thousand people executed though, I couldn’t find an exact number of how many of them died at Plaza Mayor.  The auto-da-fe that took over a month to plan was an elaborate ceremony that was part mass, part trial, part sentencing, and was a popular draw for the city population, culminating by the always exciting burning, hanging, and or garrotting, at various times either in the plaza itself, or outside the city walls, depending on the event planner who organized the whole thing.  That must have been a hell of a job.


1683 painting by Francisco Rizi depicting the auto-da-fé held in Plaza Mayor in 1680.

Admittedly, living in Spain during this period, particularly for Jews and Muslims, and even conversos and moriscos (converts to Christianity from Judaism and Islam respectively), during the time of the Inquisition rather sucked, however, it wasn’t nearly as bad apparently as we English speakers are taught in schools… the influence of Phillip II’s old enemies such as Queen Elizabeth I and other protestant monarchs is still upon us today, crazy, right?  Can’t be too mad about it though, since it resulted in on of my favorite musical numbers, featuring Mel Brookes spoofing Tomas de Torquemada, the biggest baddest Grand Inquisitor to have ever been…  The Inquisition, let’s begin! The Inquisition, look out sin!  We’re on a mission… to convert… THE JEWS!  Dang, now I’m gonna have the stuck in my head all day.  Here, have an ear-worm:

After dinner we said good night to Little Nicky, and made our way back to Lavapies.  On our last night we planned to visit Bodegas Lo Maximo.  This is the bar kitty-corner from our apartment.  Every evening since our arrival on Sunday, upon our return to the apartment we had been entertained by the antics of the patrons outside the bar, while marveling that none seemed obnoxiously drunk.  Every evening we could hear patrons inside and out singing along with live bands well past midnight.  I really wanted to see what it was all about, and figured our last night there would be a perfect night to check it out… However, on this particular Thursday night, for the first time since we were there, the bar was dark, the street silent.

20180613_233155Bodegas Lo Maximo on a Tuesday night.

So off we went to bed, our last night on our spiky, saggy mattress in Madrid.  Tomorrow we venture south.

El Escorial

Porque somos viejos y petridos, ( Because we are old and moldy), dinner was rather early 9pm at a cafe in Lavapies, along the busy Calle Argumosa, and then to bed, (at least for us, what young Nicky did after he disappeared on foot into the night is known only to him), with plans to meet the next day at Moncloa Station to catch the bus 28 miles northwest of Madrid, to one of the greatest monuments to the Spanish Crown and Catholic Church, El Escorial.

We managed to find our way to the station via metro with minimum fuss, and onto the bus.  We were starving by the time the bus disgorged us at a small station about a 5 minute walk away from our final destination, so delayed the final leg to consume some more delicious ham and cheese sandwiches.  Newly fortified, we were ready.

After the frivolity of Madrid’s Royal Palace, El Escorial can only be described as austere.  Every detail of the complex as we approached screamed solemnity.  El Escorial is huge, a palace, monastery and college all in one.  The main complex stands across a wide parade ground from another row of 4 story buildings in the same style.  From the windows of these long stone buildings we could hear laughing children and the musical stylings of a rather young and enthusiastic orchestra.

We found the side door that served as the tourist entrance, paid for our tickets, stored our bags, and we were ready to explore.  This left us a little discombobulated, as we had grown used to crowds and standing in line.  There wasn’t a single sign anywhere in English that stated “Tour Starts Here.”  Unlike the Royal Palace, tourists are free to roam through much of the complex.  With the basilica of San Lorenzo el Real placed center stage, the palaces of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons flank either side, connected to the school and monastery with passageways run in a gridiron pattern.

The popular theory is that the the gridiron pattern was inspired by the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, who was roasted to death on a grill in the third century.  His feast day, August 10th, was the same date as Phillip II’s victory at the Battle of St. Quentin against Henry II of France.  El Escorial was built by Phillip’s order to commemorate the event.   However, there is evidence that in fact the general floor plan was actually based on descriptions of the Temple of Solomon by Jedeo-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, who upon further investigation is a rather fascinating fellow who is worth reading up on.

We wandered a bit randomly around the galleries of the main cloister until we found a wide stone stairwell leading upward to the second level.  As we ascended the rather dour and plain stairs, above us in the vault loomed an elaborate and gorgeous mural by Luca Giordano, The Glorification of the Spanish Monarchy.  These stairs led to the chapter houses of the monastery.  The first, the vicarial, where all the monks came to meetings, and the prioral, which was reserved for those of higher priestly ranks, were both long rooms lined with hard wooden benches that didn’t look particularly comfortable.  During those meetings the monks could alleviate the tedium by studying the world class paintings that hung above them.  Works of Titan, El Greco, El Bosco, among others, depicted various biblical scenes, as well as trials of the early saints.  I suppose when one closely studies the emaciated form of the penitent Saint Jerome, or Saint Francis receiving his stigmatas, a boring meeting and a sore bum doesn’t seem so bad a deal in comparison.

Exiting through the Prior’s Chapel at the back of the chapter houses, onwards & downwards we went, to the Pantheon of the Infantes.  One of the main purposes of El Escorial was to serve as the burial place for Phillip II’s parents, and subsequently other kings and members of the royal family.  The vaulted rooms we found ourselves in now were lined with the marble sarcophagi of the lesser members of the clan.  A royal crest and label above each tomb named the inhabitants.  Philipvs, Philipi V Filivs, kept company with his brothers Francicvs and Gabriel.  Other labels told of daughters, queens who did not produce kings, and the wives and children of morganic marriages.  The children who did not reach adolescence were laid to rest together in a communal 3 tiered wedding cake-esque tomb in the 6th of the 9 rooms.

In a small alcove is the curious tomb topped with a recumbent statue of a handsome bearded man holding a sword in his bejeweled hands, labelled Ioannes Avstrlacvs, Carloi V Fil Natvralis.  Here lay, dead at the age of 31, the illegitimate but acknowledged half brother of Phillip II, son of Charles V, John of Austria.  He had served Phillip faithfully, and upon his untimely death joined his father’s family for eternity.  It was John who was in charge of putting down the revolt of the Moriscos of Granada, and he did so ruthlessly.  With him at the head of the army, they destroyed Moorish villages who hadn’t complied with orders to forget their customs, religion and language, and deported or killed thousands of Muslim citizens who had made Spain their home for centuries. John’s letters described the forced exile of entire families, women and children, as the greatest “human misery” that can be portrayed.

Leaving behind the tombs of the semi important, our path now lead down a narrow staircase of dark green and red marble, lined with gold.  It emptied out into a room unlike any I had ever seen before.  Arranged in a circle, with a Catholic alter across from the door, the walls were lined with shelves, each one holding a green marble and gold casket.  Here rest the emperors, kings and queens of Spain, going as far back as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.  The set is not quite complete, with a few having chosen to be buried elsewhere, and the last 2 kings being still very much alive, but the effect was still quite something.

Nicky, by this time, was sick of the endless maze of stairs, but could do nothing but sigh and follow us as we climbed back up to another level and entered the Hapsburg palace.  Simple but cozy, these rooms were rather hard to reach, as they had been designed for function rather than impression.  The inner sanctum was built more as a pious retreat than for royal fanfare, and had an almost monastic quality.  In fact, both the king’s and queen’s apartments connected directly to the basilica through private chapels, and there was grill in each of their bedrooms overlooking the high alter.  Phillip suffered gout toward the end of his life, which would often prevent him from going to the church.  This way he could be present at the services, but still be comfortable.

Phillip II died in his bed at El Escorial, at the grand age of 71, having ushered in the Spanish Golden Age, married 4 times (twice to cousins, once to a niece), and been for a short time the King of England and Ireland.  I still find it rather odd that he was married to Bloody Mary.  After she died, according to the marriage contract, he lost control of those realms and went back to persecuting Protestants and Muslims in continental Europe.  Still hoping to turn England Catholic again, he did send his Armada in 1588, but we all know how that ended.  Further attempts to invade England (there were 3) were all cancelled due to bad weather.

I was intrigued to learn that Phillip II is the big baddie in one of my father’s favorite operas, Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi.  In the opera Don Carlos, Phillip II’s son and heir falls in love with Elisabeth of Valois, who is doomed to have to marry his father.  All sorts of tragic shenanigans ensue and in the end the young couple is separated forever, him to the cloister, she to remain the wife of King Phillip.   The reality was quite different.

Elisabeth of Valois was 14 (Carlos also would have been about 14) when she married the 32 year old, already twice married Phillip II.  She was quite happy about it according to her letters, as she found her husband rather cute and fun.  He seemed pretty happy about her too, having just been widowed from his union with Bloody Mary, 10 years his senior, and about whom he wrote: “I felt a reasonable regret for her death.”  Elizabeth unfortunately died in childbirth at the age of 23, producing only 2 girls who survived til adulthood.  If judging by the letters exchanged between Phillip and his daughters after they married and became Queen of France and Duchess of Savoy respectively, they had a surprisingly loving relationship.  This might be due to the fact that Don Carlos, a product of Phillip’s first marriage to his first cousin, was a little inbred git who liked to roast animals alive, chase after servant girls and set houses on fire.  After having a son like that that, when you have 2 normal kids of any gender, wouldn’t you be thrilled too?

Carlos apparently got so bad that he openly threatened to kill his father, tried to conspire with John of Austria (REALLY stupid move) to flee to the Netherlands, and finally drove Phillip to lock him up.  Carlos died in seclusion not too long after at the age of 23.  The English and Dutch used Carlos’ death to further the Black Legend, the anti-Spanish propaganda machine they spread in order to temper Phillip’s influence.

The amount of inbreeding, at this point, was kind of astounding.  According to Wikipedia:

Carlos had only four great-grandparents instead of the maximum of eight, and his parents had the same coefficient of co-ancestry (1/4) as if they were half siblings. He had only six great-great-grandparents, instead of the maximum 16; his maternal grandmother and his paternal grandfather were siblings, his maternal grandfather and his paternal grandmother were also siblings, and his two great-grandmothers were sisters.

Phillip II didn’t learn his lesson though, as he went on to marry his niece, Anna of Austria, with whom he happily produced Phillip III, who was his own great uncle.

Passing through these airy rooms, we ended up in the Hall of Battles.  55 meters long, 6 meters wide, with an 8 meter high arched ceiling, almost every inch of the walls covered in murals depicting Spanish war victories against the French, Moors, and Turks.  It was absolutely fascinating.  Even Nicky woke up from zombie mode, and explained how you could see the evolution of warfare not just by the armor and weaponry, but also by the formations of the foot soldiers and cavalry.   The amount of detail was stunning, battlefields with thousands of figures, sieges, sea battles, executions of captives, it just went on and on.  I tried, I really tried, to get a photo, but the octogenarian security guard was ever vigilant, and “No photo, no photo!” echoed in my ears for quite a while after we left the chamber.  Now, the curious thing about this hall is that there is no evidence it was ever used for any ceremony.  It’s rather out of the way, it’s only real purpose is connecting one end of the queens apartments to the king’s.  As far as historians can tell it was a basically a place to take a stroll.

Due to the proximity of the basilica to the palace of the uber-pious Hapsburgs, it was only natural that it was our next stop.  It was, like the rest of the place, impressive with a capital I.  To quote Frank, “this is breaking my brain.”  The church to me epitomizes Spain’s historical reputation of almost fanatical Catholicism.  Imagine you are in a deep, dark cold vast well, the only light streaming in is from far above , illuminating images of saints and angels in all of heaven’s glory.  This is the basilica of San Lorenzo el Real.

A church is a church is a church, though, for the most part, so other than noticing some rather spectacular paintings of saints, and a rather grand alter piece, it’s time to move our tour along.

Nicky by now was starting to protest fatigue, but as his elder in age and in wisdom, I told him “Stuff it, cultural enrichment is an important, etc, etc.”  Nicky: “But the stairs…”  I must say the stairs up to the library were rather daunting, but… oh, what a library.

Lining the 54 meter long main hall were shelves containing precious manuscripts, some dating back to the fourth century, books on science, art, religion and history printed on old vellum, decorated in gold and precious gems, inscribed with paintings so precise and detailed they could hold your attention for hours.  This library, since it belonged to the king, contained profane and heretical texts that had survived the purges of the Inquisition.  Besides the main hall there are several rooms off to the sides, but sadly they are not open to the public.  The arched ceiling was a frenzy of brightly painted murals, depicting Seneca, Plato and other ancient philosophers, along with such doctors of the Latin church as Sts. Augustine, Jerome and many others.  Embodiments of the arts and science intermingled with depictions of historical church events like the Council of Nicea…   I really could go on and on… I suppose I already have.

Aside from the manuscripts, the library also contained several old globes, and a geo-centric armillary sphere of extraordinary detail and craftsmanship.  The sphere depicted the path of the sun and other heavenly bodies around the earth, and we spent some time after discussing how back then no one thought the earth was flat, just the center of the universe, and what the heck are schools teaching kids these days… this is how we get flat earthers, by teaching bad history… sigh.

So we had one more thing to see before we could make Nicky happy and head back to Madrid, the Bourbon palace.

While the Hapsburgs used El Escorial as a religious retreat, the rather more flightly Bourbons used it as an autumn hunting lodge, in fact, rather than redecorating the humble rooms of their predecessors, they very logically decided to just redesign and redo a rather large portion of the entire complex.  The Bourbons installed a grand staircase (though not TOO grand), hung tapestries everywhere and generally kitted the place out to the nines.  It was pretty cool to see the tapestries based on Goya’s cartoons which we had already seen at the Prado a few days before, and Frank and I enjoyed a game of “find the difference,” as many of the tapestries were reverse images of the paintings, and some had changed between the original concept and the execution.

And so ended our tour of El Escorial.  There are extensive gardens too, but we were entirely exhausted, and so instead made our way back to the bus station, and enjoyed a 45 minute nap back to Madrid.

One added note:  El Escorial is named for the abandoned mines that were in the area when Phillip II started it’s construction, more specifically it refers to the piles of leftover rejected materials.  This colossal example of Spanish Golden Age, this World Heritage Site, considered a wonder of it’s time, this resting place of kings, is literally named Slag Heap.




Invisible Nun Cookies!

Having left the palace, Frank and I insisted on one last stop before we released Nicky to go seek sweet oblivion in sleep.  We told him we must get some cookies from some nuns, and not just nuns, invisible nuns!  We tried to make it sound as sneaky and underhanded as possible, but he wasn’t having any of it.  He heaved a giant sigh and said “lets get on with it.”


We made our way back to the narrow shadowed length Calle de Codo, and to the low medieval, metal studded door that we had briefly paused at on our tour.  This was the entrance to the cloister of Monasterio del Corpus Christi las Carboneras.  Behind the door lived nuns who had forsworn the world.

Founded in 1605 by Countess Beatriz Ramiriz de Mendoza, who apparently was considered an influential female mystic in the court of Phillip III.  They follow the rule of St. Augustine, which holds at its core “The whole group of believers was of one mind and one heart. No one claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common,” Acts of the Apostles 4:32.  I spent a bit of time trying to find out more about the convent, and its founder, but unfortunately information available in English is scant at best.

We arrived at 16:20, 10 minutes before the convent opened after their siesta.  From the shadows of the narrow street we watched an old fat gypsy woman rouse herself from the nap she’d been enjoying in the sunny square, propped against the wall.  She picked up a squat little stool and started to waddle her way towards the door we were standing across from.  I rather dreaded the encounter I foresaw, the outstretched hand, the discomfort as we patted our pockets and shook our heads… but she ignored us and went about what was probably a daily ritual of setting up her stool next to the door, and then arranging and rearranging her wide girth and many skirts into a comfortable configuration upon it.

When the appointed time came, and we had started to move towards the door to ring the bottom of the 2 doorbells we knew we would find there (the top for “Sacerdotes,” priests available for confession, the bottom for “Monjas,” nuns), she rose up and rang it for us.  A voice too faint for us to hear must have answered, as she rattled off a few rapid bursts of Spanish in response.  The door buzzed, and she swung it open for us.  As we approached she saw the uncertainty in our faces, and before we even had to ask explained where we were to go, and what we were to do, and then warned us to watch our heads, pointing to the lintel, where evidence of centuries of sore heads was very clearly visible.20180613_163021

Nodding our thanks, we followed her directions straight down the corridor, turned left, and entered a tiny room that contained what looked like a door for a dumbwaiter, inside which was an ancient wooden lazy susan with high dividers, so there was no chance of glimpsing the other side.  Posted on the right was a list of cookies for sale, 10 euros for half a kilo, 20 for a kilo.  In very bad Spanish, I hesitantly called out, “Por favor, quieremos comprar naranjinas.” (Please, we would like to buy orange cookies).  “No tenemos naranjinas.”  (We don’t have any) a faint disembodied voice answered. “Tienen pastas de almendra?” (Do you have almond?) “Si.”  And so I placed 10 euros on the lazy susan, spun it around, and we had our cookies. “Gracias!” and we retraced our steps to the main door.  20180613_163222

Upon exiting, I passed the gypsy what euro coins I’d had in my pocket, and she in return gave us each a little prayer card for the Virgin of El Escorial.  We nodded our thanks, pointed Nicky in the vague direction of his hotel, and headed home.

For those wondering, the cookies were absolutely fantastically delicious.20180613_172143

Palacio Real, Madrid

To our great disappoint, upon our arrival at the Palacio Real, there was no royal fanfare, no honor guard to greet us.  Did they not know what auspicious visitors were gracing them with our presence?  Apparently not.  Just like all the other shlubs who had not prepaid for their tickets, we stood in line in Plaza de Armeria under the hot sun for maybe 20 minutes, but it wasn’t too bad.  We had water, so didn’t get hassled by the vendors, and didn’t make eye contact with the old gypsy lady who alternately begged, prayed, and cursed at the tourists.

Built between 1738 and 1755 by order of Philip V, who died in 1746, the first king to occupy it was Carlos III, whom I mentioned before came from Naples and was probably the best king Spain had seen in generations.  The last king who resided here on a regular basis was Alfonso XIII, who was booted from his throne and his country in 1931.

Now, the history of the building I do not think is particularly interesting, but the history of the location is.  A Moorish fortress was built near the current location in the late 800s.  Perched high atop the banks of Manzanares River it had commanding views of the river path, and was considered an important defense for Toledo against those pesky Christians to the north.  The citadel of Mayrit not only boasted a fort, but city walls, a mosque and the home of the local emir.  Practically nothing remains of the original buildings, as after Alfonso VI took the city from the Moors much of the stones were repurposed by the new Christian inhabitants.  The city’s cathedral now sits pretty much on top of where it was, though as mentioned before, it was built much much later.

Alfonso decided to build his new alcazar just north of there, and it was the occasional seat of the royal house of Castile for around 400 years.  Lots of infighting and inbreeding later, Charles I, the Holy Roman Emperor and Emperor of Spain started to think that Toledo with its very medieval look was a getting a bit passé, and it was time to start thinking about a new capital.  He started to expand the alcazar with the intention of transforming it into a royal palace, which his son & successor Phillip II took up when Charles abdicated in the 1550s. 

After Phillip II, the alcazar underwent 2 centuries of countless renovations, restorations, extensions, additions and remodeling… to the point where it had morphed into such an unsightly mess that noone was particularly sad when it burnt down Christmas Day, 1734.

The first alarm was raised just as the bells for Christmas matins were ringing, so no one paid any attention to it until the fire was well out of control.  The court, luckily, was at the time residing at the El Prado palace, and so the only thing really in danger were the servants, the royal treasures, and the art work.  Much was lost, but I want to relay the story of one of the treasures that was saved, and then I’ll get on with our tour.  The Pilgrim Pearl.

Found by an African slave in the Golf of Panama in the 1500s, it was the largest pearl that had ever been found up to that point, and it won the slave who found it his freedom. The governor of Panama brought the perfectly symmetrical pearl to Philip II, who in turn gave it to his future bride Mary I (Bloody Mary) of England.  After she died it passed back to the Spanish crown, and it became a popular bauble of a whole successions of queens.  It adorn many a royal busoms in numerous portraits, (starting actually, with a rather frightfully dour portrait of Mary I herself).

Joseph Bonaparte, having been installed as king in 1808, when took to his heals at the end of the Peninsular Wars, took the time to snatch a decent chunk of the royal jewels, among which was La Peregrina, translated to The Wanderer or The Pilgrim, and so it passed to his nephew, the future Napolean III of France.  He himself ended up in England in 1871, short of funds and out of influence, and at some point after that sold it to James Hamilton, the future Duke of Abercorn.  In 1969 the Hamilton family sold the pearl at a Sotheby’s action to Richard Burton, who gifted it to Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine’s Day gift. He had it reset for her, and apparently not well, because it fell out at one point at their suite at Ceaser’s Palace, and one of her puppies ended up chewing on it. Taylor’s estate sold it for 11 million dollars after her death, but I couldn’t find out to whom.

Anywho’s… back to us…

We made our way up the Grand Staircase, and were absolutely wowed.  It was, in every sense, grand, from the first marble step, to the frescoes of Religion Protected by Spain above us on the distant ceiling. Charles IV in a toga glowered down at us from his pedestal as we reached the landing, and turning to look back down we see Charles III in similar dress glowering up at us from the ground floor.  The staircase itself is carved from a single slab of San Agustin marble.  I tried to find out the significance of San Agustin, but google in this case failed me.

I won’t say much about the interior, other than it is… well, rather royal.  Opulent, gilded, in very good taste for the most part, the 20 or so rooms that are accessible to tourists are for the most part what you would expect from a 18th century palace.  However, there was something different about them compared to other palaces I had seen in other parts of Europe.  The rooms, comparatively, were small.  Even the throne room wasn’t massive in any sense of the word.  This I find odd now, considering it is the largest royal palace in Europe by floor space, at 1,450,000 sq ft, but then the palace also boasts 3,418 rooms, and even with almost 1.5 million square feet of floor space that only averages out to 424.22 ft available per room.  We can only imagine how small some of them are.

Anyway, we had a look around.  I snuck some photos, but the guards were vigilant, and even carrying a phone by your side was enough to get you harangued by security.  It was interesting, and of course easy on the eyes, but sooner than I expected we found ourselves back outside.

I noticed people going in an out of a door on the far end of the courtyard, and I dragged my exhausted brother and ever patient spouse over.  Thank goodness, it is the armory.   Nicky, up until now dragging his feet and half asleep in his beard, suddenly perked up.  Now this was interesting!  On the top floor were the obligatory suits of armor of kings and knights long past, sitting on dusty large horses, eternally propped up into threatening war-like poses.  These in themselves were rather impressive, however it was downstairs that truly got the boys excited.  Swords, axes, and other sidearms galore, and that’s even before we got to the guns.

Frank had never seen such a display before, and Nicky and he spent quite a while engrossed in various aspects of the craftsmanship and usability of many of the pieces.  Of most interest to me were several long, heavy (in weight and menace) looking guns mounted on wheels.  Nicky identified them as arquebuses, the type of gun that very likely fired the first shot from Columbus’s ship upon their arrival to Hispaniola.

Having explored what felt like every nook and cranny of the armory, it was time to go.  Tired, hungry, and just plain overheated, it was time for a much deserved nap.