Monday, November 19, 2007



As we continued our trip through Spain, our next stop was Toledo, of which, all I knew was that it was somewhere near Detroit. We arrived on a day with light showers dampening our clothes but not our enthusiasm. The first thing we saw in Toledo was a deep river gorge running through the town, separating the old city from the suburbs. The tour busses had to park on the outskirts, but we were dropped off near the main square and Cathedral, and we walked around the downtown area.

Toledo is well known as the home of the famous artist El Greco, whose real name was Domenicos Theotokopoulos, but of course, that was too hard to pronounce, so everyone called him El Greco, which means "The Greek." From all accounts, he was the only inhabitant of Greek ancestry in town, so everyone knew who he was. We visited the Toledo art museum, which featured many paintings by El Greco.

We stopped in a large store which sold sets of medieval armor, swords, coats of arms and other types of stuff that if you wanted to start a war, you could do so. To re-enact the Thirty Years' War(1618-48), for example, this is where you'd shop. The problem in buying some of this stuff is that the airline won't let you board the plane with it. Some of this merchandise was surprisingly affordable--several hundred dollars for the cheap set, plus several hundred more to ship to the U.S.

Toledo was a major center of Moorish and Jewish culture in the Middle Ages (before 1492). The people here are proud of the Arabesque Jewish synagogue, which is empty, because there are few or no Jews in town (except, amazingly, for the guy who owns the armor store and his family). The synagogue was constructed by an Arab architect, hence the Arabesque style. The Spanish government has encouraged Jews to return to Toledo, but very few have done so.

We hiked back over the San Martin Bridge to our tour bus for the trip to Madrid.


Madrid is a huge, modern city, the size of Chicago, with wide, beautiful boulevards, fountains, statues, museums and heavy traffic. Dianne and I were to spend 5 days in Madrid, staying at the Miguel Angel (Michelangelo) Hotel located in an upscale neighborhood, several miles from the heart of the city. Fortunately, public transportation is good--there are busses and a Metro (subway) system that goes everywhere in the city for 1 Euro (about $1,40).

Our first couple of days there, we hit the major art museums. The Museo Nacional del Prado is a world famous museum bearing the works of Goya, Velasquez, Raphael, and a host of others. Most of the art is religious in nature, and you've probably seen pictures of most of these works in art history books. There is a hall with portraits of the kings and queens and royal families of Spain. In the royal families, there are children (and adults) who are not in line for the throne, They are called infantas. Many infantas had their portraits done, also, by the famous artists.

The Bourbons (kings and queens starting about 1700) were not known for their good looks. Many had large chins, like Jay Leno. Onc prominent king, Charles III, who ruled from 1759-88, was homely, to say the least. "He looked like a moron, but he was actually a good king." He was a visionary king who passed several laws making Madrid a better place to live. One ordered people throwing their slop out the window onto the street to warn passersby to beware. Previously, people would empty their chamberpots by tossing the contents out the window without looking, on the heads of unsuspecting people. Believe it or not, this law was controversial because people had to change their habits. The other law was his decree that people had to wear black hooded cloaks when walking down the street, ostensibly to protect their clothing from the slop from their aforementioned neighbors' chamberpots. Charles III is best remembered for a massive building campaign to construct many of the government buildings still standing in Madrid. He helped finance this by instituting a lottery.

We had some free time and, with several others on the tour (Richard & Tessa, John & Diane, Ed & Hazel) took in the Reina Sofia Museum, which is the modern art museum featuring the works of Picasso and Miro as well as a bunch of other characters. The most famous painting in the museum is Picasso's epic work "Guernica", which is a huge mural (23' X 11') depicting the sad fate of the city of Guernica in the North of Spain which was bombed by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Guernica was a Republican stronghold (remember, the Republicans were the leftists of the day), and the Franco government was brutal in putting down the opposition. The Spanish people we encountered on the trip decline to discuss the Franco years, which ended at Franco's death in 1975.

The painting was a jumble of tangled bodies and faces, done, in Picasso's inimitable style, representing a scene of death, violence, brutality, suffering and helplessness without portraying the immediate causes (which might have gotten him in trouble). The painting was done in shades of black and white to portray the sadness of the situation. Many people lined up to see the work.

Picasso did some of his early paintings straight up, before he got into his modern art periods for which he became famous. This museum has an extensive Picasso collection, and, frankly, some of it is junk. Of course, with Picasso's name on it, it's worth big bucks, and I was afraid to ask how much the museum actually paid for some of this stuff. Actually, I like much of Picasso's (and Miro's) art because of its pretty colors--lots of reds and blues. We didn't want to be the "ugly Americans", but, honestly, it was hard not to laugh at some of the works in this museum (especially several artists not familiar to us) passed off as "art".


Friday night, October 26th, we celebrated our farewell party with a dinner at our hotel. The trip was a wonderful experience with 36 compatible people. On our tour, everyone pretty much liked each other and felt comfortable mingling with each other. We took many pictures at the party. Joe, the tour director, hired the Spanish version of a mariachi band, with 4 uniformed musicians playing Spanish music and involving the whole group in singing and dancing.

Joe, played a big role in keeping everybody going in the right direction. At the many meals on the trip, Joe would mix up the seat assignments so that, ultimately, everyone got to know everyone else. Also, on the tour bus, the assigned seats were posted and changed every day, presumably to minimize the formation of cliques. I think it worked well, but then, I'm not a clique person anyway. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, "I wouldn't join any organization that would accept me as a member."

Steve and Ellen, from Montreal, Quebec. We didn't get to know them much until the last 2 days. Steve was born in the Middle East and came to Canada at age 14, barely speaking English and certainly not French. Ellen, an attractive blonde lady about our age, took an interest in him in high school, and they've been together over 40 years. Steve is a dead ringer for NBA commissioner David Stern, in fact, that's who I thought he was when I first saw him. Instead, he is a real estate developer in Canada, building small shopping centers and office buildings, and he is semi retired, enjoying the grandchildren. We had a wonderful Italian dinner with them Saturday night at a restaurant near our hotel. We got there at 9:00 at night, when the restaurant opened (restaurants in Spain generally close at midnight). Steve & Ellen supposedly left to go home on Sunday, but at the bullfights, I looked over in the next section and saw them. We could wave, but couldn't talk to them, because it was a crowded stadium, and we couldn't move to a different section. We learned later that Air France was on strike that day, and their plane didn't take off. Steve and Ellen are just pleasant down home folks, and we're glad we met them.


Most of the tour people, including Joe, went home on Saturday, leaving 3 couples--us, George and Marshia from Phily, and Steve and Ellen from Montreal. The 6 of us arranged to tour the Palacio Real, the opulent Royal Palace. We had earlier seen it only from the outside. On the inside, it rivals anything in Versailles or St. Petersburg. As expected, it has numerous rooms with extravagant decorating. We used a map to find where we were. It has an armory with suits of armor, swords and firearms from the glory days of Spanish history. The king doesn't actually live at this palace, but uses it for ceremonies and banquets.

After visiting the palace, we had a paella lunch at the Plaza Mayor with George & Marshia. We then left them and went shopping. The major store in Spain is the ubiquitous El Corte Ingles (English court) which has probably about 100 stores scattered around the city as well as in Barcelona and other cities. It is the largest employer in Spain--over 100,000 employees. Like an upscale Sears or Macy's, ths store carries everything. In several locations, it has stores across the street from each other--one store for clothing and soft goods, and the other for hard goods. Everything is expensive there for us, because of the weak U.S. dollar. Unless you're buying something unique, you get more for your money in the U.S. I had run out of clean socks, and I found socks at El Corte Ingles, about 20 different brands.

We caught the Metro and, after taking 3 different trains, got back to the hotel. We tried to do this by looking at the map in the station. The blue line goes to our hotel. the problem was there was another shade of blue which went somewhere else. Fortunately, an English speaking young lady student explained that we were going in the wrong direction. We got off and transferred at the next station. The whole thing cost 1 Euro.

We found a big shopping mall, about 2 blocks from our hotel--the ABC Shopping Center, with all upscale stores. We enjoyed browsing, but bought little. The anchor store is, of course, El Corte Ingles.

The next morning, we went to the public market at La Latina Square, which is open every Sunday. This is Madrid's version of Chicago's Maxwell Street market. It consists of several blocks of street vendors selling every kind of cheap jewelry, arts and crafts, t-shirts, jeans and weird stuff. We took the Metro, and knew it was the correct stop because thousands of others also got off the train to stream into the market. Apparently, this is where normal working people buy goods they can't afford to buy in the department stores. This place was wall to wall people, and you had to guard against the pickpockets and hustlers.


Dianne and I like to hang out in the hotel lobby over drinks. On our second night in Madrid, we met Frank and Marie, an Irish couple who were not on our tour, but were staying in the same hotel. Frank, a big, friendly chap, is in the heating and refrigeration business back in Ireland.

After a couple of nights in the bar, they asked if they could go to the bullfights with us. It was the last bullfight of the season. So we went with them on the Metro which stops in front of the stadium. The bullfight starts at 5 P.M., and we got there about an hour early on a sunny day, with the temperature in the high 60's. At the bullfights, the seats in the sun are the cheapest, so we got those, for 10 Euros each. The reason for that is during the Summer, it gets really hot in Spain--over 100F, and you don't want to be in the sun if you can afford not to be. But since the weather was mild that day, and the sun goes down early in late October, we got a good deal on the seats.

The bullfight starts with much pageantry. The matador and his entourage, all the assistant matadors who help out, paraded around the bullring. There were 8 bullfights on the schedule. We left after 7--the process was similar in each one. The bull comes running out and circling the arena, which is circular, about 100 meters in diameter. Trumpets announce each stage of the spectacle.

The banderilleros (flagmen), 3 of whom were strategically placed around the bullring run out and wave magenta capes to provoke the bull. It charges after them and they duck behind partitions that the bull can't get to because its horns are too wide.

Then 2 picadores (lancers)--men riding big, heavily armored and padded draft horses come out. In every bullfight we saw, the bull would charge and ram the horse broadside and somethimes get its horns tangled. The banderilleros then run out to distract the bull. The picador eventually stabs the bull in the neck to draw blood, which lowers the bull's head and makes it less dangerous.

Then the 3 banderilleros come out with brightly colored spears and provoke the bull into charging at them, and they stab the bull, driving the spears into the bull's neck and back. The bull, bleeding and worn out, then gets involved with the matador who does his thing with a red cape and essentially, gets up close and personal with the bull. Sometimes the matador gets gored. On one occasion, the bull butted the matador in the backside and lifted him off the ground. The others then run over to help.

Eventually, the matador gets his sword and kills the bull, who dies a slow death, being provoked by the banderilleros.. The bull rolls over dead, and 3 draft horses come out to pull the bull out of the ring.

This sport will never catch on in the U.S. The animal rights people would put them out of business. You'd have movie stars picketing. But not in Spain, although it is controversial there also. The Queen makes no bones over her opposition to bullfighting, but the King occasionally presides over an important bullfight.

Spain has farmers who breed bulls just for bullfighting. The bulls are 3 or 4 years old. They can cost over $100,000. After the bull is killed, the meat is sold or given to charitable institutions, or so I was told.

Bullfighting is a cultural thing in Spain. I personally don't care to see another bullfight. On the other hand, in the U.S., we have on TV boxing, extreme wrestling, pro football and reality shows, where people try to kill each other. But at least, no animals are involved.





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