Learning to cha-cha

Bar Barossa

Bar Barossa

The terrorist attacks in Paris made us want to stick pretty close to home. Our apartment is on one of the best restaurant streets in Madrid, similar to a couple of those targeted in the Paris attacks. At night and all throughout the weekend people spill out from the tiny bars and dining establishments and party in the street. From our fifth-floor apartment we look down upon a river of people.

We went out on Friday night, several hours before the Paris attacks. On Saturday, we stayed in. By Sunday we were starting to feel claustrophobic. This apartment is not big and is our least favorite of the entire trip. The grime in the corners, the chill of the marble floors, and the meager cooking equipment in the kitchen made us long for some freshly cooked food in the brilliant Spanish sunshine.

paella and vermut

paella and vermut

Marcus had been reading an article in Saveur magazine on the sweet, red vermouth (vermut, in Spanish) that is so popular in Madrid. The magazine mentioned a little mom-and-pop place in the Mercado de San Fernando not far from our apartment. I started putting on my shoes as he told me about it. ¡Vamanos!

San Fernando is a typical fresh market prevalent in every city in Spain. Madrid has at least one in each barrio. They’re usually not open on Sundays, so I was surprised to hear music blasting out the doors and see the people milling in and out. Inside, in the center of all the closed market stalls, people were dancing to the hip-swaying Latin beat.

Some of the cafés around the periphery of the market were open, serving up tapas and beers, wine and jamón, and other Spanish delicacies. It didn’t take us long to find Bar Barossa. We even recognized Mom and Pop from the magazine photos. We ordered two vermuts and gobbled down the tapa of paella that comes free with every drink order. When we were done, we climbed up to the market’s second floor that overlooks the open, center space. On an ordinary weekday, this space would be full of tables and chairs for shoppers to rest and refresh with a beverage and a snack after a busy day of shopping, but today it was the dance floor.

It was so good to see people out and enjoying themselves. Giving in to our fears and sequestering ourselves indoors can do us more psychological harm than good. Life will go on, but you have to make that first step. One-two-three, cha-cha-cha.

cha cha cha

Not in Paris

courtesy of CNN

courtesy of CNN

Marcus’s cell phone woke me at 2:00 in the morning with a ring tone notification, a piercing strobe light, and the persistent buzzing of vibration mode. This is the way his phone gets his attention with every new communication, but this time it seemed different—more urgent—but perhaps that’s hindsight talking.

It was an email from his sister Emily: Glad you are not in Paris! Be safe.

Paris? Why Paris?

Marcus checked his news feed. “There’s been a terror attack in Paris,” he said. He read bits and pieces out loud: More than 150 killed in Paris attacks. State of emergency declared. Shooting outside restaurant. Neighborhood evacuated. Night of terror. Chaos in the streets. Explosion heard at soccer match. Gunfire heard outside the Bataclan Theatre. 

My mind, still groggy, recalled another news report just ten days earlier: Moroccan Nationals arrested in Madrid; maximum-risk suspects were extremely radicalized and had a full willingness to take action and carry out terrorist attacks in Madrid.

And there I was, listening to stories about terror in Paris while I was lying in bed in Madrid. My heart went out to the people of Paris. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I can assure you they weren’t giving out any T-shirts.

Leonardo da Vinci airport, Rome, December 17, 1973. First time I had ever traveled alone. I had turned seventeen just the week before, and was traveling from school in Switzerland to my parents’ home in Saudi Arabia. By the time I arrived in Rome, I had negotiated a pre-dawn taxi ride from school to the train station and a train from Lugano to Milan (where I was chewed out by the conductor in a language I didn’t understand for unknowingly sitting in a first-class car on an empty train), and had agonized through an excruciatingly long taxi ride from Milan’s train station to the airport during a transportation strike, barely catching my flight from Milan to Rome. All that remained was the flight from Rome to Riyadh. One more leg, and I would be home. I only needed to get to my gate and sit tight until the flight boarded.

But fate had other plans for me that day, and Riyadh was not a part of them. As I approached the security checkpoint on the way to my gate, Palestinian terrorists opened fire just fifty feet in front of me, killing two people and taking many more hostage. Thirty more would die in fires on board a PanAm jet in the hellish aftermath of grenades thrown through the open doors of the plane on the tarmac. I saw the tail of the jet explode through the floor-to-ceiling window in front of me as I stood unable to help myself, immobilized by fear. I would spend an hour cowering in a restroom, waiting for the gunfire in the terminal to stop, and then several more hours in a cold, dark parking lot while police scoured the terminal for remaining terrorists. When we were finally allowed back into the terminal, I waited in the mayhem of cancelled flights and anxious travelers for a flight that would never depart.

Before that day, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to define the exact moment when I would pass from childhood to adulthood, but for me it was clear. After quietly enduring the hours-long charade of asking the gate attendant when my flight would depart for Riyadh and being assured repeatedly that it would definitely happen in the next hour or so, I faced him across the Saudia Airlines desk. Always a shy child afraid to question my elders, I drew from some previously untapped well. “I know the flight to Riyadh is not leaving tonight,” I said calmly. “I want you to put me on tomorrow’s flight, and I want you to contact my parents in Riyadh and tell them I’m alright. I also want you to get me a room in the airport hotel—at Saudia’s expense. I will not sleep in the terminal tonight.” The attendant looked at me, nodded, and picked up the phone.

I barely slept that night; I was so afraid I would miss my flight the next day. After a few hours of tossing and turning, I got up, showered, put yesterday’s clothing back on, and returned to the terminal. Despite the congestion from the previous day’s debacle, I made it home that day. The nightmares started two days later.

So I’m lying here in this apartment in Madrid, thinking about the terror in Paris. The Madrileños in the tapas bars below our apartment haven’t yet heard the horrendous news and are laughing and carrying on like there’s no tomorrow…as thousands of Parisians were doing several hours ago.

I wish them peace in their souls.

Our familiar

Cava Baja2

After 75 days of packing up and moving on to unfamiliar territory, familiar feels good! Don’t get me wrong: We have loved exploring new places, and that is why we weren’t at all prepared for how good it would feel to come back to something we know.

Over two months ago we began this journey in Madrid, a city I expected we’d find too large and uninteresting. Compared to most of the cities we have stayed in, there really aren’t that many sights to see here in the capital. I thought we’d spend the first week in Madrid recuperating from jet lag and adjusting to the language difference. And after driving 4200 miles through the rest of Spain, we’d spend the last week in Madrid winding down and preparing for our flight home.

Madrid may be the largest city in Spain, but the distinct personalities of its neighborhoods, or barrios, give it such character. It is the kind of city you want to wander in. Within minutes you can stroll from the historic barrios of Palacio and Sol to the art museum promenade of Retiro, the international bohemia of Las Letras, the tapas bars of La Latina, or the chic boutiques of Chueca and Malasaña.

After ditching our luggage in the same apartment we stayed in in September—quickest check-in yet, all our host had to do was hand over the keys!—we turned in our third and final rental car and wandered back “home.” We delighted in seeing places we knew and knowing where we wanted to go. We stopped at an outdoor café on the Gran Vía (it’s still warm enough to have tables out in November!), ordered a couple of beers without having to worry if we got all the verb tenses right, munched on our daily dose of olives, and sat and watched the world go by. No car, no map, no worries. It’s good to be back!

15 of 15!

the communidades (states) of Spain

the communidades (states) of Spain

Today on the final leg of our three-month drive through Spain we crossed from Mérida in the communidad (state) of Extremadura to Madrid in the communidad of Madrid through Castilla-La Mancha. We have now seen all fifteen mainland communidades up close and personal.

Our hosts in Mérida were intrigued by our extended travel through Spain. “Where have you been?” Pablo asked as we rode up to the apartment in the elevator. I rattled off just the 18 cities we had stayed in, and he said, “Oh, my God! You’ve seen more of Spain than most Spaniards!”

In my mind that’s the only way to experience a country, from the inside out.

Mercado de los Tres Culturos

el Casco Viejo (Old City) in Cáceres

el Casco Viejo (Old City) in Cáceres

We’re winding down—only four days to go on this Grand Tour of Spain—and it’s getting harder to get excited about venturing out. While I love my Roman ruins, Moorish fortresses, and medieval walled cities, how many can you continue to experience with enthusiasm after three months? We had exhausted Mérida’s offerings the day before and didn’t like the thought of staying in the apartment all day, so we went ahead with my plan to visit the ancient city of Cáceres.

These walled cities, perched high on a hill overlooking what was once their domain, are always exciting on the approach. As the car enters the Casco Viejo (Old City), the roads become increasingly steeper and narrower, the massive stone buildings grow a bit closer together, and the parking spaces are fewer and farther between. There have been many old city streets that we have declared too narrow to be navigable only to see someone’s car parked outside their home farther up the hill. How do they get them up there? Nerves of steel.

jabalí (wild boar) on toast with melted local cheese

jabalí (wild boar) on toast with melted local cheese

We tried driving to the top—car in first gear, mirrors tucked in tightly, breath sucked in, and ears tuned for that dreaded scrape of metal on stone that miraculously never comes. There comes a point where we wonder if we could actually wedge the car into a space so snugly that we wouldn’t be able to get out. That’s when we lose our nerve and look for a road—any road—heading back down the hill.

Safely at the bottom, we found a parking garage in the more modern and open part of the city and set off on foot to climb the hill. We arrived out of breath in the heart of the Old City and made our way toward the Plaza Mayor. As we walked, booths popped up here and there on either side of the narrow alleyways. By the time we reached the plaza, we were in the middle of a full-blown souk, or zoco as they call them in Spain—a Middle-Eastern market. Vendors, dressed in historic garb, were selling all manner of artisanal crafts. Unbeknownst to us, this was the first day of the Mercado de los Tres Culturos, the Market of the Three Cultures—Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. Spain is very proud of their four centuries of prosperity under Muslim rule when all three cultures coexisted peacefully, and well they should be. We could use a little more of that in today’s world.

meat vendor

grilled meat vendor

wood carver using a manual lathe

wood carver using a manual lathe

We had so much fun shopping: saffron and smoked paprika, olive oil soaps, meats and cheeses—all handmade in Extremadura. The food booths were extraordinary—whole roasting pigs and paella pans full of rice and vegetables, local wines and even craft beer. What an absolutely lovely day we had—the kind that makes you glad you ventured out!


Augustus Emeritas

Augusta Emerita

Despite a fine collection of Roman antiquities, Mérida is one of those cities that doesn’t draw many tourists. It’s located in the Spanish communidad (state) of Extremadura in the remote west of Spain, adjacent to the border  with Portugal. We visited the Évora district of Portugal, just across the border, four years ago. Geographically they are mirror images of each other.  No surprise that they were once one region in the Roman province of Lusitania. Mérida was its capital.

The landscape of Extremadura is every bit as barren as its name suggests. Not much grows in the dust here except boulders. I have never seen rocks so large and round and smooth! I was looking for someplace different to break up the drive from Sevilla to Madrid, and Mérida seemed to fit the bill nicely.

circus maximus

circus maximus

I am just enthralled by these ancient Roman cities in Spain. I can only guess at their grandeur back in the day. Mérida, named for Caesar Augustus, was called Augusta Emerita, and was quite the place. Expansive ruins have been excavated, and they continue to unearth more. There is a gorgeous circus maximus, the first one I have seen outside of Rome. There is a theater with two tiers of exquisite slender arches that is still used for performances. It’s located next to the ruins of a sprawling amphitheater. There is an old Roman bridge that crosses the Río Guadiana, and two (count them: one, two!) aqueducts.

the ugly one

the ugly one

Our host referred to the aqueduct outside our apartment window as the “ugly” one. Although not as captivating as Segovia’s aqueduct, I thought it was beautiful and had high expectations for the “prettier” one. I was disappointed to find that it’s just a small section of the original structure. It’s built in alternating rows of red and white brick, which makes it appear even shorter and stockier. To me, the beauty of an aqueduct is its length. I love the perspective of arch after arch diminishing into the horizon. That the Romans (or their slaves) could even build these engineering marvels is a wonder. That they actually supplied fresh, mountain water to an entire city—even more so.

the pretty one?

the pretty one?

the Alcazaba

the Alcazaba

As if Mérida needed one more gorgeous antiquity, there’s also the Alcazaba, or Moorish fortress. Built on the old Roman city walls four centuries after the Romans pulled out of Hispania, it overlooks the river. The shady side has several café tables on its pathway serviced by establishments across the street—a lovely spot to kick back and relax!

What a shame that the city doesn’t do more to promote itself. The modern city enveloping the ruins looks pretty rundown, and my guess is that unemployment is quite high, as is typical in Extremadura through the ages. But if you use your imagination, it’s not too difficult to find the diamond beneath all that dust.


Italica pano

The Roman province of Hispania, what is now Spain and Portugal, was once an integral part of the Roman Empire. Primarily it was Rome’s bread basket, but it was also an important source of gold, wool, olive oil, and wine. Today we visited the ruins of Itálica, a city built as a retirement home for Italian veterans of the Punic Wars (brutal wars fought between Rome and Carthage). It was never as big as Hispalis (Sevilla), five miles to the south, but it was an important Roman cultural center. And it produced two Roman emperors: Trajan and Hadrian.

pillarI have to say the ruins are quite impressive and extremely well preserved. When the nearby Guadalquivír River silted up during Itálica’s heyday, no one was interested in investing further in a city that had no access to the sea. Itálica’s population dwindled until it was essentially a ghost town. Unlike most Roman ruins, it was never built upon by succeeding civilizations. Much of the stone was carted away by nearby residents who understandably took advantage of free building material, but the footprint is amazingly intact, like a life-sized city map. For the admission fee of €1,50 (that’s about $1.70), you can roam the ancient city to your heart’s content. Aside from the occasional school group, you have the place to yourself.

How interesting to walk down streets that have not been broadened and expanded in more modern times. You can even see the well-defined, original intersections. You can see the outlines of shops that lined the streets and the floor plans of residences. In the gymnasium, you can distinguish the workout room from the baths, and see the outlines of the various pools in the ginormous public baths. (They covered 32,000 square-feet.)

One of the most remarkable features of Itálica is the almost-perfect mosaics found in many of the excavated buildings. One house has a beautiful mosaic of Neptune; another has a mosaic of the twelve gods for whom heavenly bodies were named.

Neptune mosaic

Neptune mosaic

passagewayBut my favorite structure was the amphitheater. Only half the size of the Colosseum, it is still the third largest in the Roman Empire. Unlike the Colosseum, where you are mostly restricted to exploring the upper seating areas, Itálica is completely accessible. You can walk out onto the arena floor and roam through the maze of subterranean passageways where gladiators and wild beasts hung out waiting to be pitted one against the other. In places the intense Spanish sunshine streams into these cool, dank corridors through the portals leading into the arena, and in others the eerie darkness of the tunnels leaves you dreading what you might encounter around the next bend. I paused at a wide gap in my circuit. To my right was the center arena; to my left, a back entrance to the amphitheater. I could just imagine a chariot rounding the corner and charging through this corridor into the arena, whip cracking, the driver paying no heed to whomever had the misfortune to be standing in his path. The image was so strong, I instinctively stepped back into the maze of tunnels.

This little gem, in the middle of the Andalucían countryside, is a well-kept secret, and on this particular day it was all ours.

Real flamenco


We thought we had seen real flamenco in Málaga just because it was in a small bar full of locals. But then we talked to people and read a bit, and I realized we had to try again. There is no better place to seek out flamenco than Sevilla. It is the heart of Andalucía, where flamenco was born.

Here is what I learned: Although there are many forms of flamenco, often regional, they usually consist of four elements: guitar, singing, percussion, and dancing.

I would be happy just to listen to good Spanish guitar. Send home the singers and dancers, the guitarist is the core of the performance. He starts the show and provides the underlying structure; the singers and dancers respond to his music. A skilled guitarist can play four parts at once, two with each hand. He can hold a chord while plucking strings with the little finger of the same hand, and all the while his other hand is strumming and plucking simultaneously. Increíble!

flamenco2Once the guitarist establishes the melody and rhythm, the singer begins. Not on a specific bar, but when she feels it. Flamenco singing is very emotional. There is a lot of wailing and crying out. It can sound odd to someone who doesn’t understand the lyrics, but you have to admire their passion.

Once the guitar and singing blend, the percussion begins. Flamenco is all about the percussion, and it can be accomplished in various ways, usually by the dancers who up to now have been standing by grooving to the music. Typically it starts with a syncopated, back-beat clapping. Like the singing, the clapping is a personal response to the music. The dancers join in as the music moves them, each with their own rhythm and cupping or flattening of hands to create different sounds. In flamenco, clapping is an art.

Percussion can be created with castanets too, but in the performances we saw, the dancers clicked their fingers. The clicking was so loud and sharp, we thought they did have castanets at first. The use of their bare fingers added to the beauty of the performance. Hand movement is very much a part of flamenco, and the clicking enhanced it.

Then the ultimate percussion: the dancing. Male or female or both together, each performance tells its own story. The dancing begins slowly – a natural progression of the clapping and finger clicking. As the hands work, the hips start to sway and the feet start to tap, increasing in intensity as the dancer gets into the performance. The guitarist and singer pick up the pace a bit, and the dancers respond. The skirt is hiked up, and the feet stomp so loudly on the wooden floor you want to cover your ears. The dancers are in each others’ faces; then they’re stomping across the stage in a crazy staccato rhythm. Their feet move so quickly that sometimes they are just a blur, yet always keeping the rhythm. Passion and heat fill the small room. The artists are no longer performing; there is no choreography. They are responding to the music and each other, body and soul.


I thought I could visit Spain and skip the flamenco. Or, at most, one performance would be sufficient. But now I understand why people go back again and again. As they claim in bullfighting, the experience you have depends on the particular talent; in this case, the guitarist, the singer, and the dancers. You never know what each combination will bring, but each time you hope for magic.

The Mushrooms

Metropol Parasol

Metropol Parasol

What is this crazy wooden structure in the middle of Plaza de la Encarnación in Sevilla?

setas2It’s called Metropol Parasol. I don’t understand the name, but it certainly is in keeping with the mystery of the thing. It is art with a purpose beyond esthetics. Below ground level, where you catch the elevator to the top (if it’s still open), there are some Roman and Moorish ruins. On ground level is a food market. Along the top are walkways and a restaurant from which you can admire the city. Unfortunately we arrived too late to go up.

What an unusual juxtaposition of history, art, and gastronomy.

setas3Sevillanos called it “Las Setas,” or “The Mushrooms.” Supposedly it is the largest wooden structure in the world – so big that Marcus couldn’t capture the whole thing in one photo. I looked for a postcard in the gift shop that would show it in its entirety, but they couldn’t do it either. Perhaps that’s what the architect intended – by removing the possibility of the big picture, he forces the viewer to be part of the work. As someone who feels more comfortable knowing where the borders are, I kind of liked getting lost inside for a change.

The “Real” thing

the royal residence

the royal residence

We’ve seen quite a few alcázars, or Moorish fortresses/palaces, in Spain. It seems every major city in southern Spain has one. But Sevilla’s is our first Real Alcázar, or Royal Alcázar, which means that it is still a royal residence. The king and queen of Spain stay here when they are in Sevilla.

love the archways!

love the archways!

Even though it’s called an alcázar, it was not built by the Moors when they ruled Spain. It was, however, built on the site of a 12th-century Moorish fortress, but you really have to search to find the few remaining ruins of the original fortress. This palace is all about the Christian kings who ruled after the Moors.

Pedro I, aka Pedro the Cruel (now that sounds like an interesting story), was the first Christian king to build a palace here. It was built in the 14th century, 100 years after the Moors were kicked out of Spain. The reason the palace is so Moorish in style is that it was built by Mudéjar artisans descended from the Moors who converted to Christianity in the 13th century so they could remain in Spain. The Christian monarchs may have wanted the Moors out of Spain, but they held onto their art and architecture. I love it too. The intricate detail is fantastic!

epigraphy: quotes from the Koran or Arabic poetry

love this epigraphy: quotes from the Koran or Arabic poetry woven into the design

Four centuries later, during the Renaissance, Carlos V updated Pedro’s palace and added some rooms of his own in keeping with the original Mudéjar palace. This is the the royal palace we saw today. As you can imagine, this being a current-day royal residence, it is the finest alcázar we have seen. Granada’s Alhambra was most likely more sumptuous in its day, but it has not been kept up to the degree that Sevilla’s alcázar has.

"half-orange" ceiling installed by Carlos V

“Half-orange” ceiling installed by Carlos V. The balconies and galleries are in the royal residence.

garden grilleThe extensive gardens that surround the palace began as orchards and community gardens rented out to local residents. Later on, probably in Carlos’s day, the space was converted to formal, private gardens for use solely by the royal family. They had both winter and summer gardens. The winter gardens were outdoors, so the royals could soak up that bright Andalucían sun in the coldest months. The summer gardens were underneath the palace to take advantage of the cool shade in the hottest part of the year.

I can just imagine the princes and princesses running through the gardens playing their version of Hide and Seek. What an incredible place to grow up!

a fountain commandeered by ferns

a fountain commandeered by ferns