People and Places

An Iberian Dispatch

Posted on July 3, 2014

We are on vacation in Spain and Portugal, having arrived in Madrid a week ago Sunday.  While we’ve been to Spain before, this is the first time to Madrid and the first time back since The Crisis, as Spain and Portugal’s economic meltdown is universally called.  Madrid, Spain’s vibrant capital, is a gorgeous city with wide tree-lined boulevards, bountiful parks, hidden away squares or plazas, and an incredible array of architectural styles that all seem to work together.

A recent visit to Paris reaffirmed that it remains the world’s most beautiful city.  But Madrid seems more pleasant and livable in many ways and even in the central districts that attract most tourists, there is a sense that Madridniks (as Woody Allen calls them in Love and Death) are everywhere going about their daily lives.  While we saw lot of fellow visitors, most of the restaurants and cafes in which we ate were crowded with Spanish business people, young crowds, and others as well.  That feels less true in London or Paris, where the city centers feel crowded with the very wealthy (often from elsewhere) and hordes of tourists.

Someone told us that Madrid is Europe’s greenest city and it certainly feels true.  As we drove into the city from the airport we immediately noticed that almost every street was lined with shade trees.  Many boulevards have green belts that run down their middle.  Parque Buen Retiro, laid out in the 17th C, is a charming green space right in the middle of the city, including 15,000 trees, formal French-style gardens, a Crystal Palace, an artificial lake where families and young couples row small boats, and lots of places to picnic under the trees.


It reminded me of a much larger version of Boston’s Public Gardens and Madrilinos (what they are actually called) flock to it for respite from urban concrete.  Between the parks and the cafes, one senses that the people of Madrid spend a goodly portion of their lives outside.

We decided the best way for us to get the lay of the land was a 4.5 hour bike tour with Bravo Bikes.  With our old friends Carolyn and Gary, we headed off with owner/guide Kaspar (a Swiss and former banker).  What a great way to see the city and while no Montreal or Copenhagen on this score, Madrid is pretty bike friendly.  There are bike lanes (though nervously situated between a car lane and a bus/taxi lane quite often), one can ride on the sidewalk, and Madrid is working hard to create more no-car spaces in the city. 

 Kaspar was an able guide, providing just the right amount of commentary, and bikes offer just the right balance of pace (allowing one to see a lot more than when walking) and immediacy (not being insulated in a car or bus), plus it was good, if leisurely exercise.

We’ve become big fans of guided tours, whether they be the very affordable group strolls with a London or Paris Walks or our bike tour or with an expert strolling through a museum.  For example, we spent an amazing three hours at the Prado, Madrid’s world class museum, with Hernon.  It was a private tour focusing solely on the works of Valasquez and Goya, two titans of Spain’s monumental arts heritage.  Through the lens of maybe only 15 or so works, Hernon vividly captured the genius of the two men, illuminated much of Spanish history, brought to life for us an amazing array of characters, sprinkled in stories of intrigue, love and lust, politics and power — and did it all with a master story teller’s sense of timing, drama, and build up.  Even with tired feet, we longed for more.  It was, simply, the best museum experience of our lives.

In Madrid, we also did a wine and tapas tour with the able Andres, who walked us around La Latino, Madrid’s old medieval section, and brought us into little tapas bars we might never have discovered on our own.  Andres was absolutely passionate about his wines, starting with the odd Madrid offering of Vermouth on tap.  Not a big Vermouth fan, I was expecting some sickly sweet concoction, but this was more like mulled wine, redolent of spices and herbs, and not overly sweet.  It actually enhanced the flavor of the Iberian ham Andres paired with it.

Can I digress on ham for a moment?  I have never seen a more ham-mad country than Spain.  Every tapas bar has a ham leg on the counter and others hanging somewhere.  Ham is served with almost every meal.  People debate ham – which is the best from where, how cured, how served?  We had dinner in the world’s oldest restaurant and I had an excellent suckling pig, the specialty of the house.

In truth, it is all excellent ham, but I can go for a while now without eating ham again.  The life expectancy of a pig in Spain must be among the shortest of all animals.

Another wonderful tour has been with Eugenia in Porto, Portugal.  We arrived there from Spain on Thursday and I found Eugenia on Trip Advisor, curiously offering free tours and routinely getting rave reviews.  Turns out she worked for tips, whatever one wished to pay her, allowing her to stay off the regulatory radar screen.  We met Eugenia for her 4 hour walking tour of Porto, a glorious pile of a city on hills overlooking the Douro River near the Atlantic.  Porto, a UNESCO World Heritage site, gave Portugal its name and is the home of port wine. 

All the big producers have their warehouses here – Graham’s, Sandeman’s, Dow’s – and this is where the British controlled (note the names) port industry has been centered and from where the shipments made their way north to the UK.  Anyway, Eugenia is a fledgling guide, but a passionate Porto native whose love for her city and its history was infectious.  Like the others, she took us down alleys and into places we’d never discover on our own.

Great guides like Kaspar, Hernon, Andres, and Eugenia are not great by virtue of their command of names and dates.  Guide books and audio tours offer those in ample supply.  Great guides, like great teachers, are so because of their passion and gift for making places and people and history come alive for the neophyte, the first time visitor.  Or for the return visitor who has a place come alive for them again because they now know the significance of things they unthinkingly walked by before.  Part of the delight is also learning something about the guide, situating their vantage point.  For example, Swiss-born Kaspar still gets exasperated with the ways Spain doesn’t work very well, though he clearly loves the place.  Hearing him outline the issues (in his view: politicians refusing to declare what everyone knows to be true, that Spain is in fact bankrupt, or the widespread corruption and misdeeds of King Juan Carlos, who just stepped down).  Eugenia doesn’t vote (“They are all equally corrupt”), roots for the much-hated Lisbon football team (“It was my father’s fault—that was his team, so I must root for them.”), and can’t name fewer than 8 singers when I asked her favorite Fado singer (Fado is Portugal’s impossibly sad music of longing and loss). 

Hernon quit his job as a university professor because of Spanish students’ lack of real intellectual engagement and the low standards of Spanish higher education (“Not even one Spanish university listed in the world’s top 300!”) – again, in his view.

No audio guide or print guide to a country can provide the richness and texture of these conversations or the passion they have for their subjects.  It’s what good teachers do with young people, where the education is so much more than grasping the material.  It’s what a good guide can provide a traveler seeking to really understand a place without having the luxury of living there long enough to get their on their own.

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