Much Beyond the Sea Monsters

Trip Start Jul 13, 2007
Trip End Jul 2008

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

When last we wrote we were passing through the Pyrenees, bidding farewell to the south of France.  With sun on our faces and wind on our backs we coasted through a veritable ocean of orange groves past Barcelona, Valencia and past a number of tumbleweeds to arrive at our next destination, Almeria.  It was a pleasure to see our brave and generous friends who had opened up their beautiful home to us.  We were greeted with a feast of local specialties and a view of the Med from a much more southerly perspective than we were used to.  Of course Bruce dove in straight after lunch! 
And so began our holding pattern for the next few weeks.  Wake, feast, play school and go to the beach.  Throw in some people watching, some beach combing, and some good reading and there you have the recipe for the dilemma of what to do in Almeria for December.   The swimming part of it was, however, only for the brave and crazy, unless of course you snorkel.  It is interesting to note that back in the day when the Phoenicians contended with the Greeks for trade routes, they put a spin on the south of Spain.  They said that the Pillars of Hercules (as the Strait of Gibraltar was then known) were sign posts to the ends of the earth.  "There is nothing beyond but seaweed and sea monsters!"  While we did not witness anything quite so treacherous as that we can confirm that nasty jellyfish are aplenty, particularly at this time of year.  Whether or not the Phoenicians met with the jellies is not known, but we do know that thanks to the Spanish sponsorship of Christopher Columbus, the south of Spain became the portal to all that lies beyond.  With great pride the Spanish have made their coat of arms to include the Pillars of Hercules as well as their motto "plus ultra" which roughly translates to "there is a whole new world out there and we conquered it thank you very much!"  As well, it is said that the money used in the "New World" was referred to by the British as the 'Spanish dollar' and its symbol carried the two Pillars of Hercules and the Spanish motto which is written in an S shaped banner. Presto: The dollar sign!  So, there you go.
Getting back to our story, we spent Christmas day as the Spanish do - laid back.  They do not celebrate with gift giving until the Epiphany since that is when the Wise Men came to the Christ child bearing gifts.  Still, there is the lump of coal to be given.  We followed the custom much to the horror of our children until they discovered that the 'carbon dulce' is actually candy.  After much tooth brushing, we took a drive through some bizarre landscape to Tabernas where there is a zoo, and the sets used by Hollywood for all those cowboy movies they used to make.  Take your pick:  The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of dollars, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, or Billy El Niño to name but a few.  We explored the dusty sun drenched town, watched a bank-robbery-shoot-out and enjoyed the zoo which to our delight held a company of genius parrots.  They were trained to ride tricycles, solve puzzles and add numbers.  As well we were thrilled to see a great clutter of Meerkats.  Too bad we couldn't ship them back to the Rat Hole in Provence as they just LOVE to eat scorpions!
Once the New Year was rung in we set out on a road trip to see the sights of Andalusia.  This area is the southernmost province of Spain, but prior to 1492 it was the name for all of the Iberian Peninsula.  This was when the Moors ruled, and for some time Cordoba was the centre point of it all.  With 500,000 citizens in the 10th century it was the biggest city in Western Europe.  While there used to be hundreds of mosques in the area, it is La Mezquita that still remains today.  Upon entering the gates you are met with the Patio de Los Naranjes where you can drink in sunshine or shade as you please while you listen to the bubbling fountains and enjoy the beautifully ordered orange trees.  Once you are satisfied with this taste of serenity you may enter into the mosque itself which is stunning by any architectural estimate.  There are more than 850 granite, marble and jasper pillars throughout.  These pillars are designed to create a sense of endlessness as a sort of visual key to the omnipresence of God.  This massive space is then imbued with a mystical note by the mix of sunlight and hundreds of suspended oil lamps.  The red and white voussoirs are a salute to the Great Mosque of Damascus.  It is truly a forest of stone.  The biggest surprise of all is that deep within all of this is a catholic cathedral!  When the Castilians reconquered Cordoba in 1236 they had plans to demolish the mosque but changed their minds and simply popped a Gothic chapel inside instead.  After much oohing and aahing the Wilson Seis-Paquetes turned to exit the Mezquita to enjoy the sights and sounds of the night market, complete with turrón (Spanish almond candy), belly dancers, and flamenco artists.
Next we hit the sweet site known as Seville.  Home to the infamous Carmen, as well as other celebrities such as Don Juan, and Figaro.  What caught our eye though was the Triana quarter of the old city.  The horse drawn carriages through the cobble stoned streets were simply dreamy.  And it is in this quarter that one finds the Cathedral de Santa Maria which has the bragging rights of being the biggest gothic cathedral in the world.  Immense as it is what really draws the crowds is the tomb of Christopher Columbus.  Like all the others before us we went in to get a peek at the monument to this 'illustrious and enlightened man'.  As it turns out, he requested in his will that he be buried in the paradise he discovered, Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), but he was first buried in Castille, then a few years later moved to Santo Domingo.  When the French moved in, the Spaniards dug him up for a second time and moved him to Havana.  About 100 years later he was once more disturbed and hauled back to Seville were at least part of him now rests.  There are competing claims that some of his remains are still in Santo Domingo, as well as in his hometown of Genoa.  Surely he is the only mortal of whom it can be said in life and death he traveled the ocean blue - again, and again, and again!  The man may never rest though.  There are claims he was a secret Templar; that he is actually Spanish, not Italian; a mystic; and our personal favorite: the illegitimate son of the pope.  Whatever his story, wherever his bones may be; in Seville, his tomb is raised by four monarchs of Spain who pledge eternal gratitude to him for his endeavors. 
Shortly thereafter we sped down to the beach town of Malaga; the birthplace of Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas where everyone is steaming with creativity and sensuality.  Well, maybe not everyone but it is a fun town with a nice beach and ample charm.  We enjoyed the seaside once again and feasted on superb swordfish.  Our clock was ticking though.  Our beast of burden, The Wilson Wagon, had one week left on its lease.  So we sped off to Granada and the Alhambra. 
The Alhambra is a hilltop palace - fortress overlooking Granada with a history spanning more than 800 years.  It is the finest example of Moorish architecture in Spain.  There are countless halls, chambers and courtyards and an infinite number of mosaics and tiles to adorn it.  The skill with which the marble, alabaster and plaster tiles are carved is a testament to the Arabs' love of mathematical precision.  It was built as a representation of paradise on earth with great attention spent on reflection and symmetry.  There are tales of a Moorish Princess who died there unhappy in love and who still haunts the chambers.  There are tales of a spellbound princess wandering the grounds in the form of a cat.  All we can report is that there are dozens of cats prowling around and Princesses or not, they are adored by a never ending stream of snack-packing fans.  They appear quite content, whatever their origins.

With one more stop at the beach to bid farewell to the magical Mediterranean Sea we made the last leg of our Spanish journey to Madrid.  The landscape was a series of changes from beach to snow to olive groves but always drenched with sun.  We passed forests of solar panels and wind turbines and learned that Spain is the world's leader in wind energy.  With nary a metre of land to waste it is also the world's largest producer of olive oil and carob.
Madrid, home to six million citizens, was a bit of a shock after such a long stint of rural living but once we ditched the car we found it much more inviting. Bruce explored the Prado for art and the rest of the six pack explored Buen Retiro park.  Like NYC's central park it offers a pleasant retreat from automania and all the noise pollution that goes with it. Once we all regrouped we enjoyed exploring just a few dozen of the 2800 rooms in the Palace Real.  It was pleasing to see a fresco in the dining room depicting Columbus returning to Queen Isabella with exotic treasures from abroad.  One of them of course was cocoa beans.  Following suit we took to the shops to find some treasures of our own.  The kids can tell you 'chocolate con churros' is a must-do in Spain.  If you like dunking your donuts into cups full of warm chocolate sauce then you will enjoy this Madrid experience.  If you don't like the churros you can ditch them and down the chocolate right out of the cup as some of us are want to do.... We too pledge eternal gratitude for your endeavors Senor Columbus...Mucho Gracias!
The next day, thanks to a sluggy shuttle to the airport the last snapshot of this family in Spain is a flash of two parents, four kids, six carry-ons and one Curious George yelling "¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!" as we dashed across two terminals to catch our flight. We made it in the nick of time and were the last six people to board.  Triumphant in making it and discovering we had four entire rows to ourselves in the back of the plane we high-fived each other and energetically set our sites for our next home: Budapest Here We Come!
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