Friday, March 08, 2002
Am sitting in an internet joint in Pamplona, the capital of Navarra. A lovely city, as it turns out.
The airport: a tiny outpost a few kilometers outside the municipality, in the middle of a long, sweeping plateau around which are ranged an impressive array of mountains. They tossed us off the plane onto the sunlit tarmac, late-afternoon temperature around 60. A brisk breeze ruffled clothes, distant peaks sported crowns of clouds, showing the white of snow. Inside the terminal, Spaniards talked into cell-phones, baggage slowly appeared, two members of the Guardia Civil kept an eye on us travelers.
I grabbed a taxi, as we approached the city, Pamplona revealed itself to be a long, modestly-sized stretch of urban sprawl skirting foothills. Pretty, and prettier the deeper into it the drive went, until we reached the city's beautiful old section, where I'm staying.
Checked in at the hostal, went back out into the evening light, took a stroll to get a sense of the neighborhood. Old, narrow streets, shops on the ground floor, pisos above, most with the requisite floor-to-ceiling french-style doors fronted by full-length shutters and a balcón. Some residents had caged canaries out on their balcones, singing their hearts out in the evening air.
There are more footwear stores here than any city has a right to have. My barrio in Madrid is the same -- how they all survive I can't say. Also, like Madrid, there is a gross overabundance of places to get tapas, wine, beer and more serious, more substantial food. Numerous bakeries (pastelerías). And a condom shop -- La Condonería (essentially, 'The Condom Shop').
There are also harsh handbills taped up all over the place protesting the recent detaining by Spanish police of a number of people connected with ETA, the terrorist/separatist group based in el País Vasco -- the Basque Country -- that has an unfortunate habit of leaving bombs in places they shouldn't. "Dejad en paz," say the handbills, "a la joventud de Euskal Herría, fascistas!" ("Leave Basque Country youth in peace, fascists!")
My friend Curtis, clearly far more resourceful than I'd ever pegged him as being (and I swear I mean that in only the most positive, most appreciative way), just tracked me down, found me hiding here. We will now adjourn for an evening of tapas-related activities.
Saturday, March 09, 2002
There is something about spending an afternoon with a group of men that is simply unlike an afternoon spent with a group of women. I state the obvious, I know, but it deserves stating.
This morning: found myself awake around 5 or 6 a.m., never really managing to slip back to sleep. Something about people coming and going at all hours in the hostal. Not that we're talking screaming, drunken laughter or sounds of breaking glass -- just other human beings coming and going during the long Navarran night. The lights in the hostal's hallways apparently work with motion detectors, so that when someone comes up the stairway or out of the elevator, the lights flicker on, remain on for several minutes, flicker off. The single window in my little room looks out on a light shaft. Windows from the stairwell look out on the same light shaft. Any time a body ascended the stairs or stumbled from the elevator the lights came on, then went off. On and off. On and off. Fun.
So I found myself awake, but remained horizontal until 9 a.m. Got up, did the basic preening, headed out. The narrow streets of Pamplona were nice to wander at that hour, with atmosphere to burn and few folks about.
Satisfied my internet jones, Curtis appeared, retrieved me, we went for food/coffee. I was never really a coffee person in my life in the States. Now it's close to being indispensible. Of course, I'm talking Spanish coffee, not the American version. And though I've only been here slightly over 24 hours, it's already clear that the food in Navarra, or at least around Pamplona, is superb. Tantalizing. Robust. Delicious.
We found an open joint, had the day's first caffeine infusion and the day's first tapas. Wandered about a bit, trying to find a hardware store (una ferretería), me in serious need of duct tape and so far seeing no trace of it anywhere. Curtis has asked people about it, they all claim to know what he's talking about, but no one knows what it's called here, no one seems to know where to locate some. Swell.
Stopped in at another coffee/tapas joint, an old, elegant joint fronting one of the city's many plazas. More good coffee, more excellent food. On impulse, we went into el Museo de Navarra. A beautiful place, as it turned out -- spacious, airy, with a collection that spans materials from 2500 years before Christ to contemporary art -- crystallizing a feeling I've had that this area feels an awful lot like places in Ireland.
We cut the museum visit short to continue the duct tape hunt. Found two ferreterías, both of which closed at 1:30. We, of course, arrived about 1:36. Much swearing in Spanish and English.
Gave up on the duct tape thing, walked halfway across the city to rendezvous with two friends of Curtis' for the day's main event, a jaunt out into the mountains for a meal at a sidrería.
I found myself in Fiat's version of an SUV, being driven by Marco, an Italian living in Pamplona. Jim -- a large, funny, florid-complexioned American married to a Spanish woman from Burgos -- rode shotgun, deep into conversation with Marco as we headed up into the mountains beneath gray skies. Curtis and I sat in back, him pointing out passing sights, mostly old, old, old churches.
Monday, March 11, 2002
I got driven out of Pamplona both days of my visit (in motor vehicles, not by crowds with torches and pitchforks). Something that struck me both times: the suddenness with which the city's reach ended. One minute expanses of apartment buildings, gas stations, industrial structures -- the next: country. Not something I've seen many times in the States, where the tendency often seems to be to ugly up as much landscape as possible, spreading new construction across huge swaths of beautiful land.
This particular day: cool, overcast. As we drove further up into what I call mountains and what Curtis swore were not actually mountains when compared with the peaks deeper into the range (he referred to the area we were in as pre-Pyrenees), the clouds thickened and lowered, the landscape became more vertical, more dramatic.
Somewhere during the course of a discussion between Curtis and I re: the dubbed version of the Austin Powers films (according to him, the first film's dubbing used different actors for Austin Powers and Dr. Evil, missing the point and squandering comic opportunities; the second one employed a popular Spanish comedian for those voices, as well as for Fat Bastard; something else -- the Spanish version of the name Fat Bastard: Gordo Cabrón, essentially translating out to, er, Fat Bastard), Marco pulled off the highway, started up a small country road, turning off that onto a smaller country road that meandered up and down hills, bringing us eventually into a small settlement of buildings where it wound through and continued on its way. We didn't go with it. Marco pulled up next to one of the buildings, parked, we got out into silence and fresh, cool air.
I wouldn't have guessed there was anything approximating a restaurant nearby, but Marco and Jim seemed to know what they were doing. We walked a bit, came around the corner of a barn, headed toward what looked like a barn door. As we approached, I could see a sign indicating commercial possibilities, and on entering, we found ourselves in a good-sized basement space -- low ceilings, rough, hard floor, ten or so long, wooden tables flanked by benches. Ranged across one end of the room were three or four huge wooden casks, on the opposite side were two more. All bore a one-word legend in the local language, apparently the type of cider or the type of apple that produced the cider.
The name of this rough-hewn restaurant-style concern: Martitxonea Sagardotegia. The owners: Inaxio Begiristain, Ainhoa Garaikoetxea. Walking around Pamplona amid stores, posters, graffiti written in that language -- combined with many centuries of history -- produced a vivid sensation of being in a foreign country. Factor into that the strange, intense political atmosphere, and I found myself in a milieu I'd never experienced before. More on that later.
Two tables were occupied. We planted ourselves at one in front of the smaller bank of cider casks, the owner checked us out, talking a bit with Jim and Marco about the menu, etc. I waited to see what I was in for. During the drive, conversation in the car had been compartmentalized -- front seat, Jim and Marco; back seat, Curtis and myself. Seated, waiting for food, etc., four-way interaction slowly commenced -- three Americans and a tall, long-faced, long-haired, bespectacled, bestubbled Italian -- in Castellano.
Within minutes, the proprietor appeared by one of the nearby casks, holding a narrow rod, maybe a foot long. He called out something to the room, people from other tables immediately flew in his direction holding glasses. Where a normal cask might have a tap, this one had a smear of putty. The proprietor plunged the end of the rod deeply into it, on pulling it out a stream of cider (sidra) emerged, looking for the all the world as if the cask were taking a whiz. The first person in line immediately positioned their glass down near the floor to collect cider while the next person waited, their glass beneath the first person's -- when the first glass became more or less half full, its owner pulled it away, cider streamed into the second person's. And so it went, most participants collecting a fourth to a half of a glassful, then returning to their table. As I learned, substantial quantities of cider were consumed during the afternoon -- taking a quarter to a half of a glass at a time was a matter of pacing oneself. Not just because the quantities of consumed food and drink added up, but because it was hard cider. For some reason -- don't ask me why; I can't explain it, only appreciate it -- the alcohol in the cider doesn't affect me, so that I'm able to consume it with impunity. I get the impression that it may not affect anyone very strongly, the atmosphere being nothing like the drinking scenes I've witnessed in the States or on weekend nights around Madrid, but I could be wrong. It might simply be that the people handle themselves better.
Positioning one's glass so that the stream of cider is as lengthy as possible seemed to be important -- I vaguely remember someone telling me about aeration and its importance to the cider's flavor during my first visit to a sidrería here in Madrid (a very different experience, though also fun). That might be true. Or it might have more to do with ritual than anything else. Don't know.
Tuesday, March 12, 2002
Soon as we sat down, a sizeable loaf of hard-crusted bread materialized, along with a large knife. Marco took to carving the bugger up and strewing slices around, us gnawing on them as we tried out the cider. Before long the first course appeared, a large platter of tortilla de bacalao. On the chance you don't already know this, a Spanish tortilla has no relation to a Mexican one except that they're round and get eaten. Spanish tortilla: essentially a kind of omelet, usually in a form that suggests a quiche/omelet hybrid. Thick and round, made with eggs, with potatoes and/or green or red pepper, often with other ingredients -- ham, shrimp, greens, sausage. Delicious, and a staple of my diet here. Bacalao is salt cod, which is what this tortilla contained. Though I'm not generally a fan of fish (pescado), bacalao is usually mild enough that I can deal, which proved to be the case here. (Note: bacalao is also the Spanish word for techno, as in music of the 210 beats per minutes variety. Why? Got me.)
We were given no plates apart from the platter with the tortilla, leaving us no option but to use forks to cut pieces off rapidly-shrinking mother tortilla and ferry them directly to mouths. Between the four of us, the tortilla dematerialized in no time flat.
Next course: a chuletón. A chuleta is a chop, often a pork chop (chuleta de cerdo). A chuletón is a massive version of a chop or, speaking technically, a huge freakin' slab of meat. In this case a gigantic slab of beef, done dark on the outside, which gave the appearance of having been well-cooked. (Brief pause for snorts of laughter.) On cutting into it, we found ourselves staring at meat of such a deep, shocking red that Curtis wondered aloud if they'd actually cooked the bugger or if they'd just slapped some black paint on it. It was, apart from the seared exterior, some of the rawest flesh I've ever eaten. And, I'll admit it, pretty good. The four of us quickly demolished the first one. Jim called for a second, it appeared. I'd about reached my limit for consumption of raw flesh, but as this one turned out to be bit more well-done, I had a little. When that one disappeared, Jim called for a third. Even the proprietor seemed impressed with that. That final slab essentially went to Jim and Curtis.
During all this, more diners arrived, the calls to cider continued. A couple of times, those calls led the growing crowd down into a sub-basement where two more casks lurked. At one point, the proprietor led everyone outside and around the corner of the building to a storage room, redolent of hay and crisp country air, housing two large metal tanks off at one end, each containing a batch of cider. After the afternoon's initial cider round, Curtis, Jim and Marco collectively decided they preferred wine, they spent the rest of the event working their way through a couple of pitchers worth. I stuck to cider, being immune to the alcohol and enjoying the semi-chaotic ritual of it all.
The crowd sharing the basement with us: an interesting, motley group. Entirely Spaniards, I think, apart from our table, including families with children -- the children sitting together at a table coloring with crayons -- and at least two infants, who received a lot of attention. There were a fair number of 20-somethings, including one anarchist at the table behind me who got some marijuana circulating. We didn't realize this until we saw the proprietor standing by one of the casks near our table finishing off a joint (un porro). We got talking with the 20-something, he immediately laid half of a porro on us, which Curtis and I stared at as if someone had just handed us a live grenade. I prefer to stay more or less lucid, so took a fast, cosmetic, token hit and tossed it to Curtis, who appeared completely perplexed. We tried to give it back to the 20-something, he insisted it remain in circulation, Curtis finally handed it off in another direction.
Wednesday, March 13, 2002
The dessert course appeared as soon as Curtis ditched the joint. Two courses: a big basket of walnuts and a plate holding alternating slices of cheese and something Marco and Jim thought might be conserve or preserve of quince, which grows wild in the mountains locally. The walnuts: not the large, perfect specimens one sees in a supermarket -- Marco thought they might have been grown at this farm. As we dug into them (the management thoughtfully provided a nutcracker, Jim and I immediately struggled over it), I discovered that the more I ate, the more delicious they became. We quickly hoovered them up, leaving the table strewn with mounds of broken shells.
Between the four of us, we'd gone through a pile of food. The bill amounted to 100 euros, about $90 U.S., dirt cheap considering all the entertainment that came with the package. Coffee didn't seem to be available, however -- astonishing, that, considering the way Spaniards normally toss down espresso. We decided to find another site for after-dinner caffeine, Jim saying it needed to be a place that also had cigars (called "puros" here).
We paid up, had a few last words with the proprietor -- a genuinely hilarious individual. When we stepped outside the day had become, if anything, grayer, damper, the air more cool and tangy.
Jim pulled the Fiat into the parking lot of a restaurant by the highway, we wandered inside to the small bar area where coffee and Jim's cigar awaited. As we stood around, sipping espresso, Marco noticed a wooden display case positioned atop a refrigerator that sat by the wall to one side of the bar. Containing arty postcards, all shots of local, rustic scenes, including a particular one that caught his eye, a picture of a hefty guy lifting a large, heavy, square object, apparently as part of a traditional competition, the way Scots fairs have the log throwing thingy. He reached to pick that card out, and with his touch the display shelf fell behind the refrigerator, producing jarringly loud clatter. All action in the bar stopped, all eyes turned to Marco. Curtis and I quietly disassociated ourselves from anything but innocent, unobtrusive coffee sipping. Marco and Jim got the display shelf back up on top of the refrigerator, collected the postcards, put them all back in the display. Except for the one card Marco wanted -- there had only been one of its kind -- which had slipped under the refrigerator, out of reach.
Back in Pamplona, Marco and Jim dropped me and Curtis off where they'd picked us up, way the hell across town from where I was staying, though not far from Curtis' place. Great for him, as he wanted to take a nap. I wanted to hit an internet joint I'd found the night before, so grabbed a taxi.
A local quirk: for some reason, you can't hail a taxi on the street in Pamplona. You have to go to a taxi stand, which means you have to know where they're located, information a furriner like myself might not have. Curtis pointed out a stand, in a driveway in front of a hospital. Without that help, I might have been up the proverbial creek.
I spent a good long time at the internet joint, during which a loud, insistent political demonstration started up, began making its slow way through the local streets. Curtis and I had come across another one the night before, that one looking like a large squad of cheerleaders, done cheerfully up in clown wigs, doing moves to something they chanted I couldn't understand. The kids were high school age, the cheerleader thing seemed like a possibility. Curtis disagreed, looking a bit intense, we let it go at that.
The Saturday night demonstration: larger, very different, consisting of two long columns of kids -- again, high-school age -- done up in traditional folk outfits of some kind including, for many of them, two long bells tied around them so that the bells hung out from their backs, like long, rigid, brass breasts. The kids moved in a slow, trotting cadence that rang the bells loudly in a pronounced rhythm, punctuated by chanting I couldn't make out and horns that other kids blew. This was all done by teenagers -- no grown-ups were involved. In fact, the grown-ups I saw seemed to purposely keep their distance, mostly looking anything but amused. There was something oddly, subtly aggressive about the demonstration, and I made my way quickly by, glad to be past it and off into other, quieter streets.
The point of these demonstrations, I was later told, was support of ETA, and in particular the pushing of a particular cause: the return of imprisoned members of ETA to Navarra, so that they could serve out their sentences there. It's apparently being promoted as a humanitarian idea -- i.e., so families could visit more easily -- that would also be a blow against the Spanish government's "repression" of ETA "freedom fighters." (Why the quotation marks? Because the whole thing has the distinct feel of what I can only describe as extremely partisan propaganda.) The members of ETA who are in prison are generally there for assassinations or bombings, or for activities in support of same, and the atmosphere that I encountered in Pamplona around all this felt intensely charged and unsafe. Apparently, it's not considered wise there to express one's sentiments if one does not support ETA as it can result in violence and intimidation. Or so I'm told.
Pro-ETA graffiti/posters/handbills were ubiquitous in the old part of the city, some bars had pro-ETA literature and posters prominently displayed. In talking with Curtis about all this, he clearly seemed to tap into deep emotions of anger and frustration. The same is true of most Spaniards I've heard talk about it. I can only listen and watch, thinking of the long years of IRA/UDA violence in northern Ireland (my father's side of the family were all from the south of that green island) and the pointlessness of it all.
I don't know what I expected to find in Pamplona, but it wasn't such a sharp sense of danger and paranoia. The juxtaposition of that over a beautiful, lively city, abundant with blossom-covered cherry and almond trees, felt strange, a little unreal.
[continued in next entry]
Wednesday, March 20, 2002
Saturday night, my second in Pamplona, I stepped out with Curtis and a couple of his friends before begging off early (early here being 11:30), hoping to recoup some of the sleep I'd lost to the early-hours light show the night before. Drifting through narrow streets back in the direction of the hostal, I passed what looked like a cross between a pharmacy and a natural foods tienda where I spied one of the greatest ads I've ever seen: a poster of modest dimensions, maybe 18" by 14", consisting of a photo depicting -- and I swear this is genuine -- an attractive woman in a black bra, close up, meaning from her breasts to the crown of her head. She stared down at her boobs in eye-popping, mouth-open astonishment, hands cupped over them.
The line of text across the top of the poster read "Super Eficaz, Super Rápido, Super Práctico" ("Super Effective, Super Fast, Super Practical"). Below that in insistent, oversized letters read the product name "RASSO DRINK" and below that "Concentrado Liquido A Base De Extractos Vegetales" ("Liquid Concentrate From Vegetable Extracts").
Below that read the words "Super Top Efecto Push Up." In other words, Super Top Push-Up Effect.
"Super Top Efecto Push Up." Advertising copy just doesn't get much more basic than that.
From the woman came the astonished cry: "¡No Creo Lo Que Veo Pero... Con RASSO DRINK Sí!!!" ("I Can't Believe What I'm Seeing But... With RASSO DRINK, Yes!!!" With all them exclamation points, this woman is clearly undergoing a life-altering experience.) "...Y," the poster goes on, "Los Resultados Se Ven!" ("...And One Can See The Results!")
I stared happily at this jewel of marketing comedy, completely besotted with the idea that some unknown entrepreneur would throw something like that together for my entertainment. And it must have been for entertainment. It had to be. I had trouble wrapping my teeny brain around the idea that someone might seriously expect this shpiel to produce results. Though, on the other hand, what do I know? There might be individuals who would be drawn to this primal sales pitch like moths to backyard bug-snappers.
That encounter sent me happily back to my simple, spartan room where I watched a bit of fútbol and began to float nicely off to sleep around 12:30. That's when the bar downstairs turned up their music system -- techno, possibly at 150 bps. In general, I like techno, but (and I invite you to picture Jack Nicholson delivering the following line:) NOT AT 12:30 A.M. WHEN I'M TRYING TO GET SOME GODDAMN SLEEP.
My room was located on the third floor, and though the bar was at street level, two flights down, the music literally sounded as if it were right beneath the floor of my space, as if someone had clamped monstrous speakers to the ceiling of the room directly below mine and cranked up a high-powered stereo. Not much a traveler can do about a bar playing loud music apart from (a) plastic explosives or (b) waiting it out. I hadn't brought any explosives this trip, so went for option (b). Turned on the TV, read, put in earplugs (fat lot of good THAT did), pulled 'em out again, read some more, watched parts of some seriously trashy movies. At 3:30 the music finally stopped, I finally got some shuteye.
Thursday, March 21, 2002
Sunday's activities had been scheduled to start early. I was up, showered, shaved and packed by the time Curtis called. When I stepped out of the hostal, bags in hand and overjoyed to be free of the place that had deprived me of two nights' sleep, I found a beautiful Navarra morning waiting -- cool, sunny, skies clear. Curtis and his friend Javier found me, we retired to a bar for coffee and something to eat, found our way to Javier's little car and took off.
I was fatigued enough from lack of shuteye that I could only produce the most basic Spanish, though I understood 98% of whatever conversation was underway. Beyond that I didn't have sufficient energy to do more than sit in the back seat and watch Pamplona pass by as the car headed west out of the city. The western reaches brought a sudden expanse of newly constructed apartment buildings and housing developments, then land being prepared for further development, then rolling fields spreading away to hills and ridges lined with huge wind generators. There were times when the Navarran landscape reminded me of Ireland, other times that Vermont or Scotland came to mind, but the sight of the wind generators gave the land a unique look, a combination of elements I'd never seen anywhere else. They stood in long, sinuous lines, riding the spines of the hills, stretching off into the distance for what looked like miles. As the road wound up in elevation and spun around a curve, Javier took a small side road that brought us up along a number of the generators. Javier parked, we got out.
The land stretched down and away on either of the ridge. To one side, fields of various shades of green, clusters of houses, and off in the distance large, looming peaks -- the Pyrenees; to the other side, more verdant, gently undulating country, stretching itself out beneath morning sunlight until it reached another ridge of hills, more wind generators.
We walked up the road where Curtis began acquainting me with part of the reason he was about to drag me around the countryside: el Camino de Santiago -- the way of Santiago, otherwise known as the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela, a hike he's done not once, not twice, but three times. A long hike. A long, long, long hike, through rugged, mountainous terrain.
The camino intersected the road we were on, coming up the ridge on the side toward Pamplona, crossing over and heading away to the west. At the point of intersection stood a metal sculpture of many people walking, beginning in medieval dress, ending in contemporary dress (that's what Curtis claimed anyway; they all looked the same to me -- silhouettes of walking pilgrims). Above them were stars, referring to the camino itself, sometimes called the Milky Way. Nearby stood a large stone monument commemorating the camino. And as we stood there checking it out, I began hearing the sound from the nearest wind power generator -- not a whooshing exactly; stranger than that, more otherworldly. Javier said a friend of his had come up there with a dog, and when they approached the wind generator, the dog began running back and forth, back and forth, as if the sound of enormous vanes turning were driving it a bit crazy.
[continued in next entry]
Tuesday, March 26, 2002
With Curtis having done el Camino de Santiago so many times, he's fairly knowledgeable about it -- extremely, even excessively knowledgeable compared with someone like me.
As we stood in Sunday morning sunshine, Curtis talking about el Camino, two people hiking the trail toiled up the grade in our direction. Across the small road, off in the other direction, the land spilled down and away. Nesting birds appeared from hillside bushes, making short, swift flights to nearby points, producing sharp bursts of song. Though the sun shone strong and warm, a cool breeze blew -- Curtis had encouraged me to leave my jacket in the car, I found myself glad I had it on and pulled it tightly around me as I peered off across the countryside.
Back in the car, we drove further west of Pamplona. Several miles along, Javier hung a left and sped down another two-lane, flanked by fields and the occasional spread of vineyard, until we approached a turnoff for a small church that sat amid acres of fields, la iglesia de Santa Maria de Eunate. Javier turned in, guiding the car to a small parking area, pulling in by a pair of porta-potties, them looking a bit out of context there in the middle of nowhere but logical considering the number of visitors the place received.
The church: a lovely stone structure, small in diameter with a high domed roof that gave it a sense of great space. Built in the second half of the twelfth century, appearing at once austere and complex in structure. The small windows had no glass, no surprise given where and when the church was constructed -- instead, they're covered with slabs of marble cut thinly enough that they allow light to pass through. The church is surrounded by a portico, nearby sits another building constructed of stone, a refuge for hikers making the pilgrimage, where they can find a shower, get some sleep.
On our arrival, the only other people about were three young women who seemed to carefully avoid us. As we walked back to the car, other vehicles pulled in, discharging people, changing the atmosphere drastically with noise and motion. I was glad we were on the way out.
Javier drove back out to the original two-lane, heading further west to the town of Puente la Reina (the Queen Bridge), a pueblo with at least three churches -- all Catholic, natch. I was taken into two, both several centuries old -- one austere, the other extravagantly elaborate -- both on a long street that ran from the east end of town to the river at the town's west side and the bridge that gives the town its name. Built in, I think, the 15th century. Old, beautiful, nice to walk across, providing nice views of the old town on one side, green hills and flowering almond trees on the other.
The morning sunlight had strengthened, the temperature edged upward to jacket-divesting levels as the day tilted toward noon. We walked back toward the car along a different street -- wider, relatively busy -- passing the third church as we left the river behind, I mulled over how it felt to be among so much Catholicism, past and present.
I grew up in a Catholic family, going to mass every Sunday, attending religious instruction for nine years. (Nine long, long years.) And though the religion was part of my life's routine back then, I never felt at home in it, was never a Catholic. I mean no offense to any Catholics in saying that, it's just the simple truth. In fact, there is no religion that calls to me. I walk my own spiritual path, and I respect the ways other people walk theirs.
There were many things about growing up that way that I genuinely did not enjoy, and it's been interesting spending much of the last two years in a country with such a strong Catholic tradition, with centuries of dark, turbulent Catholic history. I love Spain, and have had no trouble with that aspect of the country -- it's simply what it is, part of the nation's rich, complex character.
From there we traveled west to a stretch of el Camino that ran along the course of an old Roman road, cobbled and crossing an original Roman bridge, out in the middle of countryside, in a ravine off the two-lane where trees were showing green and birds called. As I moved ahead of Curtis and Javier, two hikers passed -- young women, both sporting huge packs, one of which had two or three pieces of washed clothing spread across it to dry in the sun as they walked. Curtis began chatting with them, when I returned from enjoying the near-total quiet off across the bridge it turned out they were college-age American women -- one from Tennessee, one from Illinois -- doing the pilgrimage and experiencing the contrast between what they'd imagined when they dreamed about it and the rigorous, sometimes disheartening reality of traversing mountainous, rural terrain with a full pack. Curtis gave them gentle encouragement, some tips on stops they'd be making in the coming days, and they headed off.
Next stop: the town of Estella, the day's final stop. A medieval pueblo, with old, narrow streets, large plazas, and a pretty, shallow river that wends through the heart of the town. Javier parked the car, we made our way up a long series of stairs to yet another church perched in the, by then, early afternoon sunlight. We passed through to the cloister, a sizeable area of flowers, grass, flowers and a tree or two, sheltered by walls, surrounded and bisected by walkways. Quiet, with lots of old stonework. I would have been happy to remain there a while, as lack of sleep was becoming more and more a factor in my day. Curtis had also been up late -- later than me, I think, having far more fun -- also looked to be at less than optimum. Javier was fine, and when I got too quiet he made a point of chatting me up, explaining things or asking about my experience in Spain. Between that and the fact that he had volunteered to do the driving for the day, he went far beyond what would be expected of someone who had never met me before. An extremely considerate person with a generous, gentlemanly nature.
A mass had begun while we were outside, we couldn't pass back through the church and so took a different stairway down to the street -- old, narrow, with vistas of sky and neighborhoods. We found our way to the center of the town, crowds of chatting, well-dressed locals milling in and out of restaurants/tabernas. We made our way into one, found a space at the bar, got something to drink, then went somewhere else to eat, a place off another narrow, quiet street. A long meal, punctuated by stretches of silence between which Curtis and Javier conversed, Javier now and then addressing some conversation in my direction, which I did my best to engage with. Afterward, we found our way through more narrow streets toward an old medieval footbridge we'd spotted earlier. The street that led us there -- old and, of course, narrow -- only permitted resident traffic, and at the end of a block that fed out onto a larger busier street, passage was blocked by a thick, squat metal column, maybe two feet high, planted in the pavement directly in the middle of the street. A car approached from the outside road, stopping by a box at the roadside where the driver produced a card and swiped it through a slot. A pause, then the column slowly sank into the pavement so the car could pass, after which it reappeared, regaining full height. Freudian traffic control.
We made our way across the bridge, trees and large sprawling expanses of bushes on either side of the river a bright, vibrant green in the early spring sun. Willow trees rose three or four stories into the air, trailing long branches thick with new leaves. Javier and Curtis had yet another ancient church or two in their sights, we made our way toward them though not into them (for which I gave silent thanks), settling down instead on some stone structures by the river to flop and get some sun. It was late afternoon by then, the town had the feel of a place slowly dealing with the coming reality of returning to the workweek. Couples were out, two groups of people came together not far from us, talking, then headed off in the opposite direction from which we'd come and disappeared. We eventually pulled ourselves together and returned to the car, walking along a stretch of el Camino which included an old, well-kept building that functioned as the town's sanctuary for pilgrims.
As we neared the car, the snug street opened out into a small plaza that fronted a park and two old buildings, one of which apparently housed the local equivalent of a circuit court. Paint had been hurled against the door and the facade of the building, leaving splashes of red, yellow and green, the colors of the crest of Euskadi, the Basque Country. As we stepped out into the plaza, I glanced into the windows of the other building we passed, into a room filled with old, old furniture, including what appeared to be an ancient canopy bed, draped with mosquito netting.
At that moment, we became aware of a car coming in reverse along the narrow street that faced us, coming fast, the gearbox whining loudly, insistently, the rear end jerking back and forth as it approached, tires squealing. It skidded into the plaza where the driver hit the brakes, spraying gravel before changing gears then gunning his way through a loud, aggressive three-point turn, almost hitting me at one point, the afternoon air suddenly thick with the odor of testosterone. The driver: a truculent, macho 20-something whose behavior had Curtis hooting and commenting unflatteringly in English. My last image of Estella.
An hour and a half later I found myself at a window seat on an Iberia airliner after saying good-byes to Curtis and Javier, thanking them for setting aside their day to entertain me, assuring them I'd enjoyed it despite my state of burn-out. My last view of Pamplona, from a plane angling up away from the ground: a line of wind power generators ranged along a ridge of hills to the north of the airport, extending off toward the Pyrenees and the border with France.
Sixteen days later, a Tuesday afternoon gradually sliding toward evening. Sensational weather continues -- the air has cooled some from yesterday, though the sun remains every bit as brilliant. Next Monday, my nearly two years in Madrid will give way to a return to the States. I've begun packing and sifting through accumulated dreck, a process which will be a bit compressed because of the fast trip to Granada coming up on Thursday through Saturday.
The days roll on, everything passes.
Went and picked up some Camper footwear for a friend this morning (see journal entry of March 25). Did not have to try on women's shoes, got no strange looks.
On to the rest of the day.