Spain October 30, 1997-November, 1997

October 30, 1997-November, 1997

Alice in Spain
Elsie in the circus
The Rastro

Mind Boggling Days of Exploration
El Escorial (The Slag Heap, The Escarole)
Back in Segovia, on to Pedraza
Observations about Madrid


We are up at 2:00 a.m. to catch the 3:00 a.m. train out of Montpelier, France.  This will allows us to connect with the train to Port Bou on the French/Spanish border, on the Spanish side of that border, actually.

Peg writes:

We found a car with reclining seats, so we dozed a bit for the first three hours.  It’s hard for me to sleep even then, however, as I enjoy seeing the lights of the towns and villages the train passes through during the night.  It’s very peaceful, as the newer trains are very quiet.

We got to the border at 6:00 a.m. and connected there to a Spanish train that left at 7:20 am.  Our train required reservations, which we did not know.  We bought our tickets from the border to Madrid in France.  The French did not tell us that a supplemental payment was required.  The $80 one-way trip for two turned into the $130 trip for two in a flash.  That would have been 30% more if we had bought the supplement on the train.   I had to get pesetas, as the RENFE does not know how to use credit cards yet.  But the change bureau did.  Not at a great exchange rate, perhaps, but I cannot tell yet. (Later: it was a good rate) If a Swiss woman had not told us that we were in her seats and that we needed reservations, we would not have had enough cash with us to pay the conductor.

We got breakfast during the wait — the usual coffee and Spanish pastries.  It was very good but pricey.   Some young girls sat nearby.  They were from the U.S., one a student at SMU.  They had been scammed in Italy by a group of young men.  Some of the young men distracted the young women while a conspirator made off with some of their luggage.  They only lost a few dollars in cash.

Our timing allowed us to see the coastal part of the trip between the Spanish border and Barcelona.  A small portion is quite dramatic.  There are marvelous views of the coast from hundreds of feet up sheer cliffs.  When you head further inland, the trip becomes ordinary.  We have done this trip before and I only remembered the good parts and was a little disappointed.  On the other hand, I remembered that the countryside seemed impoverished.  This time it did not.  Maybe it looks better to me because of the power of suggestion.  I have been reading that the country is richer now than it was.

Peg writes:

The Spanish train traveled down the coast as far as Valencia, which is about three hours south of Barcelona.  For the last two hours of that time, we passed beach resort after beach resort.  They are not at all interesting – sometimes they look like Miami Beach, butt generally they are just large hotel complexes set in the middle of nowhere.  The English, and apparently many other Europeans, like package deals for their summer vacations, and think it’s just great to sign up for a week or two at these places.  I guess they eat at the hotel restaurant and lie on the beach, trying to soak up enough heat and sunshine to last them the rest of the year.  I would hate it.

The more interesting part of the trip, I thought, was the next two hours.  Valencia is somewhat south of Madrid, so we had been taken out of our way.  But as the train was an Intercity, it was still faster than a more direct train.  The train turned slightly northwest to get back to Madrid, picked up speed, and did not stop for two hours.  It traveled through what looked a bit like parts of New Mexico if irrigated.  The land is a light orange color, and has been terraced into large mesas to keep down the erosion.  It has been irrigated using small concrete channels that extend for miles, and planted with orange trees, olive trees, and a few grapevines.   The rail bed is usually slightly higher than the farmland, so you can see for 25 miles in all directions.  There are no towns.  Once in a while you see a farm, but mostly you see these huge groves.  It’s very beautiful, in a strange way.
I disagree with Peg only in that I saw millions of grapevines.  I have never seen that many anywhere.

We arrived in Madrid at 5:30 p.m.  The tourist office found us a very nice hostal in the old center, so we were settled in 45 minutes.  It had been a long journey, and we were tired.  The hostal (a hostal is a hotel but it has no restaurant and is generally cheaper than a hotel; this one cost $30/night) had rooms with lots of hot water in a nicely appointed bathroom.  We were just a block off the Gran Via, the major street in the center of town. Not far were the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, both important centers of activity.

Up and down the small streets nearby were countless bars, restaurants and cafes.  Many offered tapas anytime but to sit down in the restaurant portion meant waiting until at least 8:00 p.m.  All but the fancy places charged 1000 pesetas (about $7.00) for two courses, wine or beer or soft drink, and desert.    There are typically many choices from the menu of the day.  There are always several vegetables and beef, pork, chicken and fish, all very good. The wine is good, and they give a half-bottle per person.  You can find an excellent value most anywhere, as we soon discovered.

The streets nearby are busy with traffic, automotive and pedestrian. The Gran Via is a very wide avenue, with three lanes in both directions.  It is lined with upscale shops.  There are newspaper stands here and there.  There are people selling lottery tickets- the same lottery was being sold in 1967 when I spent the summer here- and roasted chestnuts.

We had dinner around 8:00 and by 9:00 p.m. we were sampling the local television using the remote control.  I found that could understand maybe 50% of what they said during regular programs.  The news was easier to understand, however, as they spoke more clearly and the camera provided some context.


Yesterday the man at the newspaper stand told us to get the Segundamano.  He said that this publication was just ads and that was the best place to find an apartment to rent.  We bought it early in the morning, and a phone card as well.  The room phone was bound to be too costly.  The calls here are charged per minute, and hotels probably charge double what I would pay at the phone both.  I asked how much calls would cost at the desk and the hostess told me it depended on length of call and distance.  This sounded like an
expensive answer.    Possibilities abounded and we decided to narrow things down some.  I would gave Peg an address and she would find the property on the map.   If it was in an area we deemed desirable, we would call.  We also eliminated the very expensive places, and the ones that were not furnished.  If were furnished, they usually said so in the ad.
Some people answered the phone.  Of those, some did not want to rent for less than a year, others had already rented, and still others would not be able to show until Monday.  We did not make a single appointment the whole day, although one place said to come on Monday when they would have openings.  I made several calls from the hotel.   In this way I could check the prices of calls.

Later in the day, one landlord told me that Saturday was a holiday.  This explained why so many people were not answering their phones or could not show their apartments until Monday.  We began to feel that we would never get an apartment in Madrid. The weather was turning bad on our way back from dinner.  This did not help our spirits.

Days of Adjustment


When I first visited in 1967, Franco ruled Spain.  The grip was firm, like that of a Catholic nun on a ruler used to discipline young boys stupid enough to get caught. Franco is gone and most if not all of the ruler swinging nuns.  In some ways both did some good, although there was little personal freedom.  Now there may be too much freedom.  There is more street crime now that the Guardia Civil are not posted on street corners.  In the
Puerta Del Sol drugs and prostitution are evident.  The prostitutes are easily recognized though small in number and most discrete in appearance.  However, several young men dressed in drag walked past.  They could have been going to a costume party, but I doubt it.  Marijuana is legal here, not to sell but to consume.  I saw some people smoking it.
Yet there are not many people hankering for Franco.  There are few very bad areas, according to the young woman who was working the hotel desk this morning.  She advised taking normal precautions.  They always lock the hotel door, she said.  Entry
required that someone come to the door to open it, like in a private house.

All this is an aside to our own drama.  We finally made appointments to see apartments.  We are to see one apartment this afternoon and another Sunday afternoon, the
2nd of November.

While we were having lunch, I overheard an American man talking with a Spanish woman.  They were talking about the English classes he taught.  I asked if it was hard to find a place to live in Madrid.  He said no, that if we just kept on calling, we would find one.  Shorter terms are not a problem. He said to get the Segundamano, a newspaper of just classified ads, and then taught me the difference between an apartmento and a piso.
In Spain, an apartment is called “apartmento.”  It is smaller than a “piso.”  “Piso” translates as “floor” but it means also a class of apartment that is larger than an apartment.  The smallest rental unit is an “estudio,” which is a studio, just like in English.  An “apartmento” might have one or at most two bedrooms.  A piso would probably have two or more bedrooms.  Also in a piso there are probably a full-sized kitchen, a dining room and a living room.  These might be small if not altogether
missing in an apartmento.  Until I learned this I called several people asking about the apartment, and having them say that they did not have an apartment.  This was quite a puzzle until now.  I may have missed some good opportunities as a result of my

His friend gave us the name of a German woman named Utha (the “h” is silent).  She was renting from a woman named Lola and Utha was happy with her landlord.  Lola had many places to rent.  The German woman did not have Utha’s last name, or her phone number.  She did have her address.

We looked at an apartment in the Gran Via area.  However, when we found the street, there were at least 10 prostitutes standing about.  Then we found the building.  I had written down 4C as the apartment number.  “4C” did not correspond to any of the labels
on the call buttons so I started pushing each one and asking if they had a ‘piso’ for rent.  I finally found the man we were looking for and he buzzed opened the door for us.

Peg and I walked five flights up a dark and rickety staircase.  At the top we could go to the left or right down long corridors.  We guessed left and that was right, for after a few turns we found him at the door waiting for us.  He seemed like a decent person.  The apartment had two small bedrooms.  Peg called them closets.  The kitchen ceiling sloped and was too short for us to stand in without stooping.  A gigantic old television resided in
one corner.  At least we learned what $400 might bring.

Next we then took the metro and walked to Utha’s apartment.  This time it took me only two tries to find the right button.  I explained the situation to Utha.  She was happy to help us.  Her landlord had been very good.  But her name was Maria not Lola.  I wrote Maria’s number on the notebook I always carry.   After a beer at a beautifully tiled bar, fairly common although this was the best we had seen, I called Maria-not-Lola.  She said that she would be happy to work with us, especially since we might be coming back regularly to Spain.  At the moment she only had a luxury estudio.  It was brand new and said that for shorter terms she wanted to be sure that she would not have to repaint it after we left.  It was also about $400 per month.  I told her that we would call back if we want to see it.  A studio is too small for us.


This is Sunday, our third day here, and the likelihood of finding something today seems slim.  I figured we would hang out, read the paper, and tour.  After breakfast I bought a copy of El Pais, a well-known and supposedly very good newspaper.  There were just a few ads for flats.  At 10:00 a.m. I called on a promising place.  It was not especially cheap but it had two bedrooms, a living room, entryway, two full baths. It was completely furnished.  I expected that the landlord would be at church.  However, a woman answered.  She said the unit was available.  I asked about the neighbors.  She said there were none.  No neighbors?  How can that be, I wondered.  I also spoke with her husband.  He offered to come and get us.  We could find anything, I said, and there was a lot of traffic in our area, making it inconvenient for him to get us.  He insisted.  He pointed out that today was Sunday. Traffic would not be a problem.

I did not mention anything to him about how long were planning to be here, which was three months.  I had been asking up front if this was an acceptable rental period.  Some landlords I spoke to turned us down outright.  I decided to try a new strategy:  just show up, make a good impression and have cash ready.  I figured that the landlord would probably not turn away cash on the barrel.   On the way to the piso, he did ask how long we were planning to be here.  I answered honestly: at least three months, possibly six and maybe a year.  He said that he preferred renting for the longer period.  “I understand,” I said, and went on to explain that we wanted to see what things were like before we committed ourselves for a longer period.  I told him that we had been landlords too, and understand his concerns and problems.

His name is Fernando.  He works for Burger King.  He takes English classes daily and says that he still cannot speak much English.  I suggested that it might help him if he studied the language intensely for a short period, say a few months.  He was
very pleasant.  He took us to a quiet neighborhood.  I looked and saw that there were apartment buildings to the left and right of ours, so we have lots of neighbors.  We walked a flight up and Fernando opened the door.

Such a heavily protective door I have never seen.  There are a dozen deadbolts operated from a single lock.  The deadbolts make prying this door open a virtual impossibility.  Fernando said this was a ‘puerta blindada,’ an armored door.  I had seen the term in the ads for pisos, but had no idea what an ‘armored door’ really was.

Peg liked the piso almost immediately.  Fernando said that since he saw we were normal, decent people, he would agree to the shorter term.  He even insisted on bringing us back to the hostal to check out and get our baggage.  We gave him 25000 pesetas
(ptas, about $175) as a partial “fianza” (deposit).  He would come to the piso the next day with the lease.  We would pay the first month’s rent and the balance of the fianza, which is one month’s rent.  We hoped that we would not have a problem getting this amount back.  The rent of 85,000 ptas is equivalent to about $570.  We were happy.

Peg writes:

We’re rented a sort of townhouse that is two stories high.  The first floor is composed only of an entryway, stairway to the second floor, and garage.  The actual        living quarters are on the second floor, with an outside stairway to the roof, part of which is a flat terrace.  There’s a clothesline there, but not much else.  Our piso is only a few years old, and very comfortable – huge kitchen, two bedrooms, two full baths, entry hall/dining room, and living room.  The two bedrooms are on opposite sides of the apt.

Ours is a typical Madrid neighborhood undergoing serious urban renewal. You can see some old single-story homes, some of which make you think you’re in Mexico.  They replace them with three-to-five-story housing when the land can be bought.  Not very exciting for tourists, but a dynamic example of Spain’s improving economy and inclusion in the EEC.

They are piping natural gas into the neighborhood but ours is not hooked up yet.  The apartment is heated by gas, and we have a gas cook top with one electric burner.  The gas is in cylinders, delivered in trucks that honk as they go by.  When you need your cylinders replaced, you listen and run out when you hear the drivers.   About next February, the piped gas is supposed to be available.  One more mod con.

The house is heated by hot water flowing through radiators.  An “on-demand” water heater warms the water.   Gas burners fire up only when the hot water taps are     turned on, or when the room temperature lowers.  We’ve had small on-demand water heaters before, for the kitchen sink and/or one shower.  This one is about the size of a one-door kitchen cabinet and does it all.   Pretty amazing, and very cost-efficient.  I do not know if it would be enough for a really cold climate.


Fernando came by to say that the telephone would be installed in from two days to a week.  We might have to pay a deposit of 30,000 ptas and 28,000 to install.  That is a lot of money.  30,000 is about $210!   Compared with Scotland’s $15 installation fee and France’s $50.00 fee, the cost is outrageous.  They need competition here.

Fernando dropped off the television at the same time.  He had offered to lend it to us after I asked where to rent one.   Fernando said it was so expensive to rent that I might as well
buy one.  What a guy!  There is no cable service in Madrid but there is satellite.  He says something about a special offer.  He also called the gas people to make sure they would come by.  Most of the bottles (‘bombonas’) are empty.

It is raining and abnormally cold.  Over the next few days we venture out only long enough to get provisions and a few necessities, such as sheets and pillowcases.  Wednesday the gasman came.  I had been looking out every time heard a truck go buy or a horn honk.  Neither occurred very often.  This time it was they.

“I need four bottles of gas,” I said in Spanish.

“What kind?” he asked.

“What kind?” I yelled back.

“There are two kinds, one with a band on it and another without.”

Out the back door I ran to where the bottles reside.  The only band I see is a painted one.  I told him what we had.  He said he had none of that type but he would be back tomorrow.  What time?  Oh, in the afternoon, he says.

He did not come the next day, Thursday, November 6.  We ran out of gas in the middle of the night and the piso became cold.  The sun finally shined a little so we warmed up later in the day.  I called information for the number of the gas company.  The number they gave was not the right one to call at the gas company.  They cannot forward us to the right department.  I called the number the gas company gave me.  It was wrong also.  It was the repair number.

On the third try I connected with the right number.  There was only an answering machine asking the caller to leave the address and phone number.  I did so but no one called back.  Friday morning, I called again with the same result.  The weekend was
upon us, and I despaired of getting gas in time.  This was the first cold snap of the season, at least three weeks earlier than normal.  Many people needed gas and they were probably inundated with calls and maybe short on supplies.

However, late Friday afternoon they came.  What a relief!  Now all of our moving parts were in order, for yesterday the phone began to work again also (they had shut it off after Fernando placed the order)!  I began to feel comfortable for the first time.

Afterwards we got the bombonas we went to the Plaza Colon (“Colon” refers to Christopher Columbus).  We went to find out about local bus service.  Since we do not have telephone books yet, we decided to go to the bus station here.

On the way we walked by a Telefonica store.  An ad on the window tells us that they have a special offer on satellite television.  We think that the price is acceptable, about $24 a month.  This included two BBC stations!  The young woman fills out the form.  She asks for our bank account number.  We do not have one.  She says we cannot get
service without a bank account.  Payment is deducted from the bank account and there is no alternative.  They accept neither cash nor credit card.

There is time to return to our neighborhood to talk to the banks.   Five different banks all give us the same answer.  We have to have either a certificate of residence or a certificate of non- residence.  I did not understand anyone’s explanation of what a ‘certificate of non-residency’ was.  We get this from some government agency that is closed until Monday.

Alice in Spain


Monday.  It is rainy again.  What happened to sunny Spain?

The metro trip to the place where you get a certificate of non-residency is a long one, almost 30 minutes.  We finally locate the address we are seeking.  It is in a police building.  After a short stay in line, a woman examines our passports.  There are no
stamps in it that record our entry into the country.  We came in from France via Spain, I explain, and of course there is no border check there.  She says that she needs something that proves when we entered the country.  Would a copy of our previous lease in France and our current one be enough, I asked?  She said only if the date of signature on a French document was close to the time we came in to the country.  Thus, our French lease would not do; it was dated in early September.  I tried several ideas on her and none seemed to work.  We returned home.

Peg found a credit card receipt and my prescriptions from the French dermatologist dated in late October.  The first receipt from Fernando was dated November 2.  This should do it. I also got copies of Smith Barney accounts.  They show our financial ability to live here without becoming a burden to the government.  Back on the metro, down to the police station.

I arrived at 3:00.  They closed for the day at 2:30 p.m.!

The next day we arrived early.  There was a new woman at the desk.  The woman to whom we talked yesterday happened to walk by.  She recognized us and spoke to the woman at the desk.  She explained our situation.  I could not understand the response but
I feared the worse.  My fears were unfounded.  Today’s clerk did not want to see my elaborate proof.  We just needed to write and sign a statement explaining where we entered and why our document had not been stamped.  Simple.  Yesterday’s clerk was wrong.  After a few minor miscues, we had our document.

Two things seemed so typically Spanish: 1) they did not have a copy machine in the office.  I had to walk fifty yards to a little shop.  2) the woman who handled our documentation could not give us the certificate.  The fellow right next to her did
that part.  He looked everything over that she had just looked over!  Then we got our certificate.

Afterwards we went to the Plaza de Colón.  There had to be a bank there.  We saw “BNP” in big letters:  Bank Nacional del Pais (National Bank of the Country?).  In we went.  This bank had unsecured entrances, unlike the ones in our neighborhood where you had to pass one at a time through a security door.  The lobby was large, like most banks in the U.S.  We feel that this might be a more modern institution.  In a few minutes we were with Carmen.  She was very friendly.  I told her that at last I had all the documents needed to open an account.

“What documents are you referring to?” she asked.

“The certificate of non-residency or residency, whichever one they gave me.  I cannot tell which one it is.”

“We just need your passport.  We do not need a certificate of non-residency.  You need also another piece of identification, such as your driver’s license or national identification card. Even a credit card will do.”

I could not believe that we had gone through all this when it was not necessary.

“All the banks required it!  Five of them!  FIVE of them.  They all said the same thing!”

“Not BNP,” she said with pride.

After we had filled out the paperwork, Carmen went off to deposit the 50,000 ptas ($350) in cash and a check in dollars from our U.S. account.  A few days ago I had asked our broker via e-mail how to put money into a Spanish account and he told us all we had to do was deposit a check drawn from our account.  So we knew that this would work.  Carmen knew also.  She was well trained and experienced.  While we were waiting, Peg noticed a sign that read “Bank of Paris.”

The ups and downs of the day had exhausted me and it was only 11:30.  Carmen told us to come back at 1 p.m. (they do not always use military time here, unlike the U.K. and France).  I guess it takes that long to get us an account number.  We had snacks and beer at a nearby bar.   Why couldn’t we eat in the restaurant, I asked?  We were too early to use the restaurant, few of which opened before 1:00 p.m., he said.  Nonetheless we enjoyed various ‘pinchos’ (literally “pinches,” which in this bar are full portions).  We ate a tortilla (these are Spanish omelets, usually just eggs and potatoes).  A “sandwich mixto” was a grilled ham and cheese sandwich on white bread.  The beer was Mahou, a very popular pilsner.

At 1:00 Carmen was waiting for us with our account number.  We went back to Telefonica to fill out the rest of the form to initiate the service. The clerk told us to call a number to find out when installation of the dish would occur.  I feel a great deal of satisfaction and relief.

When we got home, I called the number she gave me.  The clerk said that installation would not occur for at least six weeks!   Furthermore, we would need permission of the “comunidad” (community).

Another reversal of fortune!  Waiting six weeks was bad enough, especially if we only stayed three months.  But what was a comunidad?  I usually manage to solve most problems.  It takes persistence and an ability to remain optimistic.  Optimism helps
my brain develop solutions since it keeps me trying.  At the moment, I cannot think of any solutions to so perhaps Fernando or Carmen would have an idea.  I called.  Fernando was gone for a few days, but perhaps she could help, she said.  Carmen explained that we would not need permission from the “comunidad.”   “Comunidad” referred to the governing body or management of a building where there are multiple tenants, i.e. a condominium association.  We do not have any “vecinos” (neighbors) so we did not have a “comunidad.”

Now I understand why she told us we did not have any vecinos when we first spoke.  In this context, “vecinos” means that there is only one occupant in the building, not that you live in the middle of the stinking desert.  It does not mean that your building is free standing; ours is attached to the ones on either side.

Speaking the language and knowing something about the culture does not yield all the knowledge that you need to easily cope with living abroad.  But then again, I have had problems like the ones I’ve just recounted in the U.S.!

I called the satellite t.v. people again, confidently told the clerk that we had no neighbors, and all is on, six weeks from now.  Or thereabouts, she said.


Elsie in the circus

Peg writes:

We went to a circus last night.  It was a one-ring circus, with about 15 very good acts.  Not nearly as much razz-ma-tazz as Ringling Brothers – no big parades, no big band, no crowds of extra pretty girls in shiny sequins, just good acts.  Many people did double duty — for example, two girls who were in the trapeze group rode the elephants in the elephant act. One clown who entertained the audience the three times the ring was being re-fitted.

They had a tiger act – 7 beautiful tigers; a palomino act – 7 beautifully matched palominos; an elephhant act     – 6 beautiful (?) elephants; a “beautiful ggirl on the flying trapeze” who worked solo; a trapeze group act; three very different tumbling acts, two  “strength”/gymnastics acts; a group of dogs playing soccer with balloons, and a few others.  The same guy did all the elephants, tigers and horses.

The most unusual act was billed as “Exotic Isoloda and her Menagerie”–or was it “Isoloda and her Exotic Menagerie”?  Whoever it was, it was pretty funny – although it was supposed to be exotic.  First came three really beautiful cows, very fat, with Elsie-type eyelashes, huge cowbells hanging from their necks.  They slowly walked out, turned around twice, and curtsied.

While they were doing this, a small (very cute) goat walked across a bridge above them.  Then, three FURRY, LONG-HAIRED ugly pigs came out and did a couple of         tricks–believe it or not–, then a tiny pony also did a couple of tricks (the animal trainer subtlety helped Isoloda with this part), and last but not least, five geese walked around the ring, and left.  It was a hoot!!

The circus is one of two in town at this time.  This one is at the Plaza de Ventas, next to the large bull-fighting stadium, which is called the Plaza de Toros Monumental.  This handsome structure looks like a Roman coliseum.  It was here in 1967 that I wrote my first poem.  It was about bull fighting.  I did not enjoy watching the bullfight, and will never see one again.

We learned about El Campo (the Countryside).  It is as big as the countryside, easily the largest shopping mall I’ve ever seen.  It is just two subway stops away from us. The first floor of the El Campo is an enormous grocery store and the second floor is a dry-goods section, rather like a Walmart.  The food section contains more varieties of chorizo (sausage), other sausages, and cured pig legs- yes, the whole leg- than there are people in Europe.  There must be a large number of paraplegic pigs in this country.   I just wanted one little piece of dried chorizo and had no idea how to pick one.

Cheese.  Hanging up and in coolers.  Hundreds of kinds, sizes, shapes.  Every animal that gives milk must have come here to contribute.  Maybe even a few that don’t were made to so an empty space could be filled.  Thank God I do not need any cheese today.   I would not be able to choose.

Shellfish of all sizes.  Large and small clams and lobsters moved from time to time on the ice.  Over backwards I fall.


The weather has improved.  This has permitted us to take long walks through many handsome neighborhoods.  Peg has been looking at the many Madrid maps we have.  Some of them have good drawings of the important buildings.  So far, she’s found about twenty walks she would like to do.   We chose one nearby.  Most of the one and two story buildings that once dominated Madrid are gone.  On this walk there are many tall, tastefully appointed apartment and office buildings we enjoy looking at.  Even the more obviously modest buildings have small balconies.  Some of these are functional, some are purely decorative.   Most buildings are brick, the brick sometimes used to make the building more attractive.  The bricklayers turn the bricks on their side or run extra rows.

Many of the main avenues we tread today are large and often offer long vistas; the streets run straight and sometimes run slightly downhill.  Later we walked to the El Museo de la Ciudad, the City Museum. It is well worth a visit to get better oriented.  The museum is in a new structure.  Most notable for our purpose today are the many models of the city.  They show the changes it has experienced since its founding in 852 by the Moors.  You can see all the main buildings in the current model of the city, and we find our little street in the maze near the Plaza Castilla.

The Rastro

On the 16th we walked through the Rastro (flea market).  There are at least two in town.  One is only about three blocks from our piso.  It is about one-half a mile long on a street that is closed to traffic.  The vendors sell mostly new items.  Prices are not much lower than what you find in the stores.  Clothing predominates, except it is hard to find men’s underwear for some reason.  You can get most anything, even lamps and furniture.  There are fruit and vegetable stands.  Since most stores are closed on Sunday, many people shop at the Rastro.  By 12:00 we can barely walk due to the crowds.

The main Rastro is on the south side of town.  “Enormous” would not be big enough to describe the old Rastro; perhaps “monumental” would be more apt.  The leather goods seem to be of good quality and unbelievably low prices.  Peg warns me that one would need to shop carefully.  Yet if the quality is even just mediocre, there are very good values:  about $25 for a leather jacket with a light weight lining!  Gloves galore.  Shoes galore.

We could have been there most of the day and not seen it all.  There are tools and electrical appliances. Pottery. Carpets and rugs.  Book stalls.

The Puerto de Toledo and the Manzanares River are nearby.  The upper portion of the Puerto has statues and carvings.  The bridge over the river is also decorated.  It is a pedestrian zone and people stroll over the river.  The Calle de Toledo takes you
south towards Toledo and yet more neighborhoods.  Fernando tells me that there are shacks housing poor people on the edges of the city.  We are not close enough to see any.

That night I made paella for the first time here.  There are two basic types of chorizo (sausage):  dried and fresh.  Dried it is rather like pepperoni in texture and even in flavor.  The red color comes from paprika.  I bought some fresh chorizo for the paella.  I also bought some paella seasoning.  It has paprika and saffron, salt and other spices that my little dictionary does not list.  Something made the dish too salty and the rice refused to cook properly.

How much things cost

Spain seems to be a good bargain, except for the telephone installation. During our first week we went through two bottles of gas that cost 1000 ptas, about $7 each.  That was a cold week, but should represent the weekly cost for December and January, the coldest months according to the locals.  Electricity should be minor.  The telephone is fairly cheap to use, although it can add up.  We do not use the phone except for e-mail and calls home, which run about $1.00 a minute.

Food is less expensive than in France, Scotland and even the U.S. We have spent about $200 so far this month, and we had to start from scratch.  In France we spent about $500 per month, and about $350 in Scotland.  We have been eating well.  One could eat for about 20% less than we are spending without having nutritional problems.  Fish is plentiful and inexpensive, far less than in the U.S., more than in Scotland but less than in France.  Meat is a lot cheaper than the U.S., let alone Scotland or France.

Alcohol is a bargain.  Hard liquor is about half what it cost in the UK and France.  Bacardi rum, for example, is about $6.00 per bottle here.  It would be about 30% more in France, 50% more in the U.K.  Wine is about the same price as in France, where you can also get very inexpensive but very good wine.  But the inexpensive wine here is much better and there are many more choices at the lower price levels.  The inexpensive wine here is usually aged in the barrel and not just thrown into a bottle, as it is in France.

The Metro is dirt-cheap.  A ride is 66 ptas, about $.30!  In Glasgow and Montpelier local bus rides cost about $1.00.   Further, the metro here covers much more territory than in either of the other locales.

El Pais, probably the best paper in Spain, costs 225 (about $1.60) ptas on Sunday at the newsstand.  That is the same as the daily edition of the International Herald Tribune.  Consumer goods are perhaps 10% lower than the U.S., depending on the item.  Fifteen-inch t.v./vcr combination sets cost about $400.  Fancy little radio/tape players cost between $25 and $50. I saw a 12x CD-rom for about $150.  I think those cost over $200 in the U.S.  Computer systems are comparable in price to the U.S.  By and large, the cost of living in Spain is probably about 10% lower than, say, Dallas or St. Petersburg, Fl.  My guess is that France, other than Paris, is maybe 10% more than the U.S.  The UK is maybe 20% more, mostly due to the high cost of housing.  I am not including income taxes in these estimates, but am including consumption taxes (“IVA” in Spain).

Internet access costs us the same in Spain as everywhere in Europe via AOL.  That is about $.10 per minute.  The connection speed is 28.8 kbps and the call is local.  We flash on and off in about one minute for e-mail. We think we will spend between $10 and $20 per month for AOL charges.  We are checking our mail twice a day.  In France, we had no phone and went twice per week to an internet cafe and it was costing us about the same as here.

One big cost has been moving within Europe. The cost has averaged about $700 each time.  This includes transportation, meals and lodging and a few minor categories.  Our average monthly cost has been about $2400.  It would be about $1700 if we had not moved around, and probably less than $1500 if we were in Spain the whole time.  This figure includes local and regional travel.  Regional travel would include things like the trip we made to Inverness and the one to the Tall Ships in Aberdeen in Scotland.   It would also include rent cars for local travel, which we did only in Montpelier.  These cost us over $75 each time including fuel, and we did this twice.  Monthly costs could be reduced further without such expenses.

We are spending about $150/month for health insurance for the two of us. The policy is issued by BUPA in the UK.  There is no deductible but they only pay for hospitalization.  They have a policy that pays 100% of everything for quite a bit more.  They do not cover us while we are in the U.S.  That coverage is available, also for quite a bit more.   Most U.S. health policies do not offer coverage to Americans living abroad.  They will cover you on vacations, however.

What we are spending for necessities roughly accords with what friends have reported for living in Greece, without travel expenses included.  Since they lived on a small island, they spent little on local and regional travel.

Mind Boggling Days of Exploration
November 15-December 7, 1997


We were thrilled to learn that friends from our years in Dallas were coming to visit.  David arrived on the 17th.  We made a trial run to the airport a few days before via metro to the Canillejas stop.  From there you can take a local bus.  The total cost by bus and metro one way for one person is only 130 ptas. if you use the ten ride tickets.  You can also take a special bus from the Plaza Colon for about 350 ptas one way.  But from there you have to take the Metro to our neighborhood anyway, so nothing is gained.   A taxi would cost 1500-3000 ptas.

Peg went to meet David on the 17th.  From the time she met him to the time they arrived at the piso, only one hour and thirty minutes had passed.  Total walking time is about 20 minutes.

On the day of arrival, jet lag is usually a problem.  Therefore, we limited our journeying to a trip to a local restaurant.  The next day we visited the City Museum.  As this was our second visit, we could take in more of the exhibits.  My interest in ancient history has been growing.  I want to know more about the ancient Celts that once populated Galicia, and about the Visigoths from the north, the Berbers from the south.  What do we know about these peoples?  I spend more time at the archeological sections of the Museum but learn only a little.  I shall have to go to the Archeological Museum in the near future.



We rented a car and drove north out of Madrid to Segovia and Avila.  On the way we see the gigantic cross at the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), the memorial to the victims of Spain’s civil war.  It is visible from about 20 miles away on a decent day.  Seggovia was an important military town in Roman times.  For the Arabs it was an important textile center.  The Christians captured it in 1085. Later, Isabella (who married Ferdinand and completed the Reconquista) was proclaimed queen of Castilla in this city. Segovia is located on top of a narrow rock.  This made for easy defense and great views across the surrounding hills.  Today, the spot still yields great views not very different from the ones I saw thirty years ago, despite some new buildings on the outskirts.

Segovia is most famous for its aqueduct and its cathedral.  The Alcazar (Moorish for “fort”) is delightful but is not what it appears to be.  Yet it dates from Roman times.   The aqueduct is on par with the Pont Du Gard, the Roman aqueduct that we saw near Nimes.  It is not as big and the setting is not as magnificent as it passes through the town rather than over a beautiful river to rough, mountainous terrain.  However, I think it is more elegant, more slender.  The top is 115 feet off the ground; the length is 2952 feet.  There is no mortar, nor are there straps holding the large granite blocks in place.  Its lacy top tip toes across the small valley on which we stand.  I cannot find out where the water came from but it obviously emptied into the city above the main entry.

We walked under the 118 arches of the aqueduct as countless numbers have since the 3rd century B.C. (Fodor’s 96 says that Augustus ruled around the time of construction).  The road becomes steeper as you climb into the center of the old town.  The Cathedral door opens into a massive, jaw-dropping interior. I feel overwhelmed by what I next saw.  This is a feeling that will repeatedly come to me these next few weeks as we travel.  But let me try, just a little, to give you a feeling of what it is like.

Gold.  There it is by the boatload.  In some chapels- the outer wall is a series of smaller chapels where the gold goes from floor to ceiling, maybe 50 feet high. The Spanish in the early days of the New World were rolling in it.  When you are here, you are rolling in it.

The gothic structure allows a goodly amount of light, although more would be better as even some of the golden walls want greater illumination.  Consider that there is little if any electric light inside, and that the sky is partially cloudy this late November day, it is amazing how much light there is.  Strolling, it takes 10-15 minutes to walk around the interior, keeping to the isles.  In the center part is the main chapel and choir.

There is more gold on the choir than elsewhere, I think. It seems taller.  I am in danger of falling over backwards as I look up.  The choir is largely carved wood, as was common at the time.   It is so much bigger than any I have ever seen.  Yet is not any less carved and otherwise decorated.   The chairs are not much bigger, though perhaps the backs are.  Nonetheless I feel that I am in the castle of giants.  Here is not the land of the ordinary.  Here is the land of the colossal.

People seem small and quiet in here.  The size of the place – which though large is smaller than the cathedral in Sevilla – seems to cause any sounds to be absorbed.  The busy streets outside seem not to exist.

People of my delightful daughter’s age use the term awesome.  I think that my contemporaries used “cool” to mean roughly the same thing.  I really do not care except that “awesome” seems to work better for places like this, rather than awesome and especially cool.  Ordinary musical and other cultural events are not awesome like this place is.  I cannot bring myself to say that this place is ‘cool.’  I might have thirty years ago.

The columns that hold the roof are like stone sequoias.  Drive a car through the middle of one, and on the way, you can open the door and get out.

We walked to the Alcazar.  The external appearance is medieval and the interior has been redone often.  For this it is criticized and downgraded.  Let’s put this criticism in context.  We are in the midst of a country with many, many jaw dropping monuments.  Therefore, something so often modified gets lower marks.  Compared with the best of what most cities and even most countries have to offer, this Alcazar is magnificent.

From the Alcazar you get a great view not only of the hill across the valley – walls are quite steep but are not classiffiable as cliffs but also of the Cathedral.  We are in the slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama, visible from most any angle.

El Escorial was the subject of a visit in the hot summer of 1967.  Today we come by a different route, far lovelier than the normal approach.  We travel back roads to its north, desolate and mountainous.  When we get our first view, we are behind and above what I remembering being a dreadful, death-filled place.  Now as I gaze down upon it, the monastery-palace does not look dreadful but magnificent although it is plain on the outside.  But the sense of death must have come from the lectures our native Spanish teachers gave on Felipe II, who had the structure built and who called it a monastery rather than a palace.  Perhaps there are other reasons hidden in the folds of my memory that a visit would cause to come forth.  We arrive too late, however.  El Escorial closed at 5:00 p.m.  We drove to the Valley of the Fallen, only about 20 minutes away.  It too was closed.  I would have to await a later visit.


Susan and Neal arrived from Dallas.  Now we are host to three guests and bad weather as well.  Since our newest guests are recovering, we travel today only to El Campo.

11/25/97  Tuesday

El Escorial (The Slag Heap, The Escarole)

Another rental car, another journey to Segovia, El Escorial and the Valle de los Caidos.  We had learned our lesson and got the car at 8:00 a.m. this time, instead of at 10:00.  This meant having to deal with traffic in Madrid, but since I have done Palermo, I know I can deal with anything.  But the weather is not good.  As we drive the highway toward Segovia, we cannot see the cross at the Valley of the Fallen.  Well, we have time, so we will see it up close in a few minutes.

But first El Escorial, which our guests pronounced “El Escarole” and which Michener translates as Slag Heap.  He says that Felipe II picked a site where mining had occurred, and in particular the spot where the slag had been dumped.  Escorial = slag heap.  I like Escarole better.

We parked near the Escarole and walked to it in the gentle, cold rain.  Fog bits obscured some of the taller towers and made finding the entrance a slight challenge.  We walked past metal detectors.  X-ray machines looked at our luggage.  After my backpack went through, I was told to check it in.  I had to go back out and walk the 50 yards or so to the check-in counter.   There were no signs saying, “Check all backpacks, luggage, etc.”   All this is thanks to ETA, the Basque separatist terrorists.

What I remember most about El Escarole are the immense passageways.  What a stupid thing to remember, of all things.  At any rate, they are still there and still huge and somber.  I imagine Felipe II walking about.  It took 21 years- short for the time- to put this monastery/palace (I doubt any monks ever lived here) but the very powerful and austere, Hapsburg monarch who controlled so much of Europe had little control over the timing of his death.   He had only about a year to enjoy this place.  I used to think that no one could enjoy this place.  I change my mind not long after we got inside.

Susan writes (and I quote without permission):

El Escorial – castle (of a sort) built by Philip II – 2 hours to tour – quite incredible, very austere and foreboding.  All the kings since Carlos I are buried in a fabulously beautiful marble and gilt tomb – the sarcophagi lining the walls of a circular room that you reach by going down about five flights of more beautiful marble stairs.

Getting to the tomb is a trip in itself.  I mean “trip” in the old hippy sense as well as the regular sense.  You go down and down a very steep tunnel at about a 30-degree angle.  The walls are marble and adorned with gold over brass, the most opulent hallway and tunnel I have ever seen.

The Pantheon, where all monarchs and wives whose offspring became monarchs are buried, is:

The best marble money can buy.
The finest workmanship.
Enough gold to sink the Bismarck

Do not go down here if your heart is weak.  If the opulence doesn’t get you, then the climb back up will.  Take something to wrap your jaw with so that it won’t clatter upon your knees.

The church is a huge, overpowering cavern.  A group of life-sized figures are Carlos V, his wife Isabel of Portugal, his two sisters, María of Hungary and Leonor of France.   Opposite are Felipe II, who built the Escarole, three of his four wives, and his heir Carlos at age 16-17.

A cup of coffee and a bocadillo (little sandwich, baguette thing with a slab of cheese, or chorizo, ham, but only one of those, unless you order a ‘mixto’) prepared me for the cold rain.

Valle de los Caidos

It cost us 2400 ptas (600 each) to get in.  A long drive takes you to a parking lot.  We drove to the front of the monument to take a look and to see if we could park nearer.  In the fog we could see only the base of the 500′ cross!  We walked across ‘Lake Franco’ to get in.

This humongous monument is carved into the mountain.  The ‘cave’ is at least 50′ high, enormously wide and deep into the hillside.  This monument to the victims of the Civil War (1936-39) was built by slave labor composed of the losing side.  It was completed in 1959.

Franco was pretty dumb but smart enough to be extra cruel when he wanted to.  He used Republicans of the time of the Civil War as slaves.  This he justified in part by labeling the Republicans as Reds.  In reality, only a small portion was communist.  The majority wanted a democracy and it was a democracy that Franco defeated after three years of some of the most inept fighting known to modern man.

Franco and General de Rivera, founder of the Falangist party, are buried here near the altar at the front.  This colossal monument looks out over a valley towards Madrid.   Don’t miss it.

Back in Segovia, on to Pedraza

I parked in Segovia near the aqueduct.  A decrepit looking man pointed out a parking place on the other side of the road, one that I had already seen.  He comes to us, opening the doors to help the ladies out.  He demands to be paid.  I tell him to forget it.  He says I have to pay him anyway.  That made me mad. I did not have to pay him and would not.  Maybe the car would be dented or gone when I got back, but I refused to be shaken down.   Even if the guy really needed the money.  We emptied the car.  This car came with a pre-stolen radio, so now there was nothing to tempt a thief.

I shall not recount the entire visit here as it largely repeated what we saw the other day.  However, there is a small government building that we went into that was quite Moorish in design.  We entered through a small door.  It opened up into a small space that led to a courtyard.  The courtyard cemented the impression of Moorish influence.

From Segovia we traveled to Pedraza.  This is a small, striking 16th century village.  It is on the top of an outcropping of rocks and is enclosed by the still intact walls.  It is nestled in the Guadarrama Mountains.  Snow shines at us in the cold and gloom of the dark afternoon.   There are caves across the enclosing gully.


Today at last we can be comfortable walking about as the typical weather is back:  blue or patchy skies but winter temperature in the low to high 50’s.   We strolled through the oldest part of Madrid today, peering into old houses and churches.  We were not far from the Palacio Real (Royal Palace).  There is a tower built by the Moors over 1000 years ago.  Nearby in the outside wall of the Plaza Mayor are bodegas and nightclubs. Some feature flamenco, which is not all that old, maybe 1700’s.  Tourists frequent these clubs and the presentations are said to be of uneven quality.

Observations about Madrid

From previous entries you may have gotten the impression that Madrid is not a place you would want to visit or inhabit for a longer term.  Hardly is this a perfect city but it does not a tremendous amount to offer.  You need never fear of lacking things to do or good transportation.

There are things going on almost everyday of the year and every hour of the day.  This is true even for those who do not speak Spanish.  There are at least six theaters that show current run movies in the original language.  That original language is mostly English.  There are English language pubs, the English and American clubs.  If you can teach English, you can find work. You can get certification in teaching English to help your teaching job search, but it may not be necessary.

There are museums by the score, and several are world class.  Ditto with monuments, plazas, fountains and buildings both old and new.  It has your basic Roman stuff, and of course the Moorish stuff; not a great deal of either, but enough for the casual tourist.

The people are super friendly.  Directions?  Ask anyone.  No Spanish?  They will try to help.  They seldom seem rushed.  Crossing in front of a car?  They won’t beep at you angrily like they did in Montpelier.  They will courteously and patiently stop
for you.  I think that even the cab drivers are honest.  When I took a friend to get a cab the other night, I asked the cabbie how much to the airport.  The more I talked, the higher the price rose as he added the possible extras.  It could cost 3,000 ptas.  My friend David called later and the ride was 1800 ptas.  The cabbie could have taken advantage of him but did not.  Nor is this the only such instance of honesty that I have encountered.

[End of this file] Continued in Spain December, 1997



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