I wanted to explain a little about the photos I’ve posted because they represent some of the things that I love about Spain.
The top photo is of the Palacio de Cristal (Glass Palace), an exposition space in Retiro, Madrid’s most civilized city park. I never get tired of going to see the Palacio because I love how I can see the leaves of the trees through the palace or the different ways the light plays on the panes of glass. Last June, I was in the park with some friends and we stopped by the Palacio to enter the free exhibition called “Breathe–A Woman Mirror” by the Korean artist Kimsooja. The floor of the Palacio was covered in mirrors and all the windows were covered by a translucent film that turned them into a prism. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to shoot photos inside. We had to take off our footwear and they provided socks so we could wander around atop the mirrors. It was quite the reflective exhibit.
Actually, Retiro was bustling that June weekend. It was the Feria del Libro de Madrid (the Madrid Book Fair), which had hundreds of stalls of Madrid publishing houses and bookstores, author talks, etc. Great fun to wander through–it’s two weeks at the end of May/beginning of June every year. It also contained the notable globalizing presence of a Ben and Jerry’s stand, which hit the spot.
The other Retiro happening was Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s La Tierra Vista Desde Cielo (Earth from Above)– an outdoor exhibition of enormous photos from around the world, all of which are accompanied by an informative caption. Many photos are taken to illustrate environmental problems or interesting geographic or man-made features. The photos are stunning. Hundreds quotations of statistics about the horrible impact of 21st-century humans on Earth are also part of the exhibit. Many have to do with the United States (i.e. Americans consume 478 times the amount of gasoline as developing nations … statements in that vein).
Retiro is a wonderful place–both a retreat from Madrid’s congested streets and a cultural center. But I feel a little more affinity with the Parque del Oeste, which lines the upper western side of the city center. It’s closer to where I live; I run its hills and trails. When I first moved here, I considered Retiro Madrid’s Central Park–though it’s much much smaller than the New York version–and Parque del Oeste a little more Riverside Park-like (without the river*). It’s less civilized in a way, less manicured than Retiro. Parque del Oeste slopes downhill from Moncloa (a huge transport hub) and never sees the kind of human traffic Retiro does, so it somehow feels a bit more personal.
[*A note about rivers: Madrid’s biggest defect–in my view–is its lack of any serious body of water. We have a river, it’s called the Manzanares, and most people have probably never seen it because it’s either so low or the construction workers are busy moving it around in an attempt to enlarge the M-30–Madrid’s Beltway. But, the Manzanares has its encanto. It starts way up in the sierra north of Madrid and I’ve bathed twice in its frigid pools and falls. You’d just never know that from looking at the pathetic thing snaking along the western edge of the city.]
The second photo you see is from my favorite place in Barcelona–el Mercat de la Boqueria. Spain is full of markets, but this is the loveliest I’ve seen. The stands are mostly standard market products: fruit, vegetables, nuts and dried fruit, seafood, meat, bread and pastries, candy, etc. But the sellers seem to take a pride in their products that I’ve rarely seen: beautiful and careful arrangements of numerous varieties of fruits and veggies, nicely displayed meats and huge hanging hams, fresh seafood on beds of ice. And then you’ve got bars where you can get a bite to eat and a glass of tinto and, my personal favorite, the Organic is Orgasmic stand. It’s run by a woman named Antonia who, apparently, loves delicious, organic food and serves it up at the market and at a nearby restaurant (that I haven’t had time to patronize). They’ve got a very tempting salad bar at the market and the delicious tapas that you see on the left. I eat at least once at their stand when I’ve been to Barcelona.
Speaking of Barcelona, it’s a really vibrant, interesting place that I enjoy immensely. It has a huge rivalry with Madrid. People are always comparing the two cities. I’ve spent about a week total on separate trips to Barcelona, and I’ve lived in Madrid for 13 months, so I can’t really compare, but I have observations about differences in BCN. For one, it’s got a much bigger alternative vibe than Madrid–tons of skaters, tons of dreads, piercings, tattoos, food like the stand I just wrote about. It’s a little punkier, a little dirtier, a little earthier. Don’t get me wrong: it’s also got plenty of class and swank and businesspeople and the like. But I would estimate that Madrid has more. (I haven’t even mentioned the football rivalry … the two teams face off tonight for the first time this season.)
The last photo in the sidebar is taken at the spectacular Praia As Catedrais (Cathedrals Beach) beach on the northern coast of Galicia (Galicia is the northwest region of Spain). I traveled with my parents through the north of Spain last month and every Spaniard who heard we were going to Galicia told us this beach was a must-see. Well, it is. Rock pillars rise out of the blue sea, huge as towers. Waves crash against the rocks, and it’s all very dramatic. We’d been following the coast since Llanes (in Asturias, just east of Galicia), and it was the most beautiful beach we saw (though there are plenty of gorgeous spots along the way). The Galician government has just declared it a natural monument, which I suppose will help protect it.
Before last month, I hadn’t been to the north of Spain. On the trip, we spent most of our time in Asturias and Galicia, and both places are beautiful–and as different from central and southern Spain as you can imagine. Green green green. And rainy. Between driving crazy curvy roads, hiking through a breathtaking gorge in the Picos de Europa (left), beach crawling, wandering through old city centers, and eating, we had more than our fill of activities for the eight-day road trip. But there’s a lot more exploring to be done up north…