The flight over from Atlanta was crowded but uneventful. We got to Madrid at dawn. Poor Hector Ramos was waiting for us, early on this Sunday morning.
He drove us to the Hotel Mediodia and were lucky enough to get a room right away, and nap for awhile. Then we had a light (for Spain) lunch and set out to walk for a couple of hours, more or less at random, walking around parks and investigating the train station.
The Madrid gang met us for tapas and dinner (which wound up being more tapas) at 9:00, under the south end of an equestrian statue in the middle of the city, at the Plaza del Sol. We were right by a stone marked with a big zero,which is the reference point for all the milestones in Spain.
We wandered down to a jolly crowded place where they still give free tapas with your drinks (most places charge nowadays). With our group's ten drinks we got a big plate of chorizo sausages and another of Spanish tortilla, omelette with potatoes, carved into warm bite-sized pieces. We could have kept doing that all night, and Gay and I probably _would_ have, since we were starving, but we might have gotten tired standing for hours on end, drinking, so we went off in search of another tapa joint, which turned out to be closed, and then another, also closed. Sunday night after the tourist season.
So we wound up in a third bar where we ordered _raciones_, which are the same varieties of food as tapas, but by the plate full. We arrived at a consensus and got five plates: spicy mushrooms, fried octopus, blood sausage (morcillo), chorizo, and pig's ears. I liked all but the last one, which was too much like pig's feet. Two of them, the mushrooms and blood sausage, were the best of their types I'd ever had, which ain't bad for a neighborhood bar. I ordered a sixth one, squids cooked in their own ink, which was too rich for most people, but we managed to choke them down. I had three glasses of red wine and one of white. The total came to about four dollars apiece.
It does help to go eating with locals. It isn't hard to find dinners that cost five times as much, if you just walk in off the street.
After dinner we spent an hour or so walking off calories. Everybody spoke some English, and a couple of them were really fluent, so I didn't feel cut off. We went to a couple of castles and cathedrals and monasteries, but what really got to me was a music store, closed but well lit, which had an acre or so of musical instruments from a huge range of cultures, genres, and periods. I saw some highly tempting weird guitars and lutes, but fortunately couldn't get my AmEx card under the door. Gay may arrange our trip so that we don't get within a mile of that store in the next three days.
The next day Charles Brown and his companion Gail came in -- they were at the desk, checking in, when we went out into the rain for breakfast. They were exhausted, having ridden the overnight train from Lisbon, but were game for some museum-ing.
Our hotel's right next to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which is basically a modern-art annex to the Prado. It's most famous for its Picasso collection, including the Guernica and the rough paintings and drawings associated with that work, but we'd done that last time, and this time concentrated on the chronological arrangement of Spanish art that goes all the way from Dada to modern conceptual and performance art, in only about five hours of steady tramping. Many of the best pieces were familiar from books, which of course is true of any major museum, but there were startling surprises from artists I'd never seen, and perhaps a few "masterpieces" that the master obviously mailed in.
I watched Dali's "The Great Masturbator," which has a highly abstract female with her eyes in the wrong places but her mouth headed for the, um, bull's eye, for a couple of minutes and overheard three separate Clinton jokes, in Spanish.
It was not a good diet day; I don't think we'll have many in Spain. We had a healthy, or I should say large, lunch at the museum, Charles and Gail each getting half a roast chicken, and then for dinner we went to Casa Botin, the oldest restaurant in Europe (so certified by Guiness) and a favorite of Hemingway's. It's also famous for huge portions: I ordered leg of lamb and got one to myself. (Actually an "arm" of lamb, so it wasn't too gargantuan.)
The next day we went off to El Escorial, a huge pile of granite assembled by Felipe II over 21 years in the 16th century to provide a final resting place for his father, Carlos V, and whoever else might want to die over the next half millenium. It's an austere block supposedly modeled on the proportions of the red-hot grill that San Lorenzo was martyred on. Fodor's remarks that a psycho-historian started an uproar recently by pointing out that it also looks like a prone woman, an unconscious emblem of Felipe's sexual repression, but they're wrong. It looks like a _supine_ woman.
It's all very old and historical, but I found it less than thrilling, I guess because I don't really know enough about Spanish history to give a context to all the ornate boxes full of bones.
The tour bus then took us to the Valley of the Fallen, a few miles away. Now _that_ was interesting. Francisco Franco had it built supposedly as a memorial to the fallen of both sides of the Civil War, but he had it built with the forced slave labor of Republican prisoners.
It's a grotesque architectural parody, like a cathedral designed by Albert Speer. Carved out of solid granite in the side of a cliff, topped by a 500-foot-tall cross. A huge courtyard for massed jackbooted troops. Inside, it's one huge dark room that burrows hundreds of yards into the rock, ending in a domed chamber where Franco and his maryred mentor, Primo de Rivera, are buried. There's nothing at all of the Republican cause represented in the chamber; it's all unrelenting apocalyptic Christianity. It's lined with reproductions of medieval tapestries marvelous in their grotesquerie, people being mutilated and killed in ways that even Franco couldn't have thought of.
We got off the bus in the center of Madrid and searched out an interesting but rather posh seafood restaurant, where I was guilty of a disastrous misreading of the menu. I ordered langosto, lobster, which seemed reasonable at 2200 pesetas, about sixteen dollars. But that price was per 100 grams, and the delectable creature they broiled for me was 800 grams of crustacean, so my meal cost more than everybody else's put together -- for the past two days! It was good, but I probably could have made do with a four-dollar salad.
I spent the afternoon drawing from our balcony window while Gay read and rested. We overlook a large square that fronts the modern art museum, and I want to do a painting of the people wandering around (interesting perspective on some of them, looking straight down). I did all the sketches in ink, since of all things, I didn't bring a pencil. I meant to pack a pink bag full of pencils and charcoal and erasers, but evidently left it behind. I wandered around the neighborhood for nearly an hour, asking various merchants for a lapiz, but all they had was cellos and eels and little ceramic dancers.
For dinner we went tapa-ing again with a couple of Madrilenos and Charles and Gail, winding up in a smoky student dive that had good wine and a fair variety of nibbles. Some of us were about walked out, though. Big city.
The next day was all art museums. First we went to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a decidedly odd private collection that was donated to the city. It's a big and serious collection, three stories of a a large building, arranged in strict chronological order, and going through it in four hours was like watching Sister Wendy's TV series on fast-forward. Fodor's characterization that the collection comprises "the best work of unknown artists and the worst work of famous ones" is unfair but accurate for some periods. The Impressionists and Expressionists seem mostly rough drafts of later works. But classical and baroque are well represented, and there's an impressive room of 19th-century American art. The post-1960 modern art is mostly junk, but what can you say?
A stunningly erotic small Valesquez. A brooding Rembrandt self-portrait. Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters." Dozens of marvelous paintings by people I'd never heard of.
Downstairs there was a big temporary exhibition of Paul Klee, which I liked because there were a lot of watercolors, and it was interesting to see what he did with the medium in total abstraction. There were very few of the clever ink drawings that to me characterize his work, but I was surprised to learn that they took up only a couple of years of his attention.
We had a quick one-hour lunch and moved across the street to the Prado, losing Gail to foot-fatigue. We'd all been there before, so it was largely a matter of looking at old favorites. Much of the museum is closed off for renovation, which made our job simpler.
A striking new exhibit -- actually a rearrangement of acquisitions -- is a room full of Goya's black period, the horrifying, fantastic, pessimistic paintings that characterized his last years. Room after room of his happier stuff upstairs -- "Maja Desnuda" and its sister out on loan -- and two huge and powerful "Horrors of War" canvases in one room.
We located Heironymous Bosch in his new location, and although there were several striking paintings, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" was out on loan. (His Latin name is Bosco, and I started to sing, under my breath, the radio jingle "I love Bosco/It's rich and choc'latey/Chocolate-flavored Bosco/Is good enough for me," which people under fifty may not remember, but Charles and Gay were amused.)
For dinner, the last Madrid one for Charles and Gail, we went to a highly recommended Galician restaurant, a region known for seafood and spice. I had grilled langostinos, small lobsters, and hake "Galiciano," which is baked in a rich paprika sauce with potatoes alongside, and it was scrumptious, the fish (which resembles halibut) fresh and perfectly cooked and presented.
The next morning Gay and I took the train out to Toledo. I suppose that if you only have one day there, you ought to do a guided tour. We spent an hour wandering through spaghetti streets, looking for anything that was on the map. Most of the streets weren't named, and although there were arrows pointing to "Casa de Goya" or "Catedral," following the arrows led us to interesting dead ends.
In most European cities, especially ones as small as Toledo, you could find the cathedral just by looking up. But Toledo's built on a hilltop, and the everyday buildings are tall, and the streets are narrow -- so although the cathedral is huge, we literally came within a block of it before we could see it.
It's a very _Spanish_ cathedral, heavy architecture with ornate decoration. A huge fresco that gave me the feel of a billboard for Christ. One painting almost cost Goya his life -- "El Espolio," Christ being stripped of his raimants. The Inquisition thought it was disrespectful, and threw him in prison. Fortunately, by this time he'd formed alliances with some more liberal clerics, and they got him out.
There was an Informacion place near the cathedral, so we got a more detailed map, and knowing where we were standing was a big help. So we made our way to El Greco's House with only three wrong turns. It was of course under construction. (You miss a lot of crowds, going to Europe after Labor Day, but there are drawbacks.) Still, there were plenty of interesting paintings, by El Greco and his contemporaries, and an impressive library. (Fodor's says that the house is a total fake anyhow. It's on property once owned by Samuel Levi, Peter the Cruel's treasurer, and El Greco once rented a place from him. Not a strong connection.)
Most towns close down for lunch at 1400, but Toledo is tourist-hungry, and the big vendors stay open. So although it was late, we found a huge arts & craftsy place and bought some presents for people. Gay found a nice formal pocketbook and I got myself a pocket knife with elaborate damascene (gold and silver inlay) decoration -- a slim thing that has blade, corkscrew, and bottle opener.
Then to lunch, of course. I had the regional soup, a nice broth with egg and sausage, and then a partridge, which was good but a little short on food. For desert I got a "sheep cheese," crumbly and sharp and delicious.
We ambled up Calle del Commercio and bought some more presents, mostly marzipan, a local specialty, for Spanish and American friends. Then we went on to the Alcazar, Arabic for castle or fortress.
(The Moors occupied Toledo from the 8th century to the 11th, during which time it was a center of religion and learning. Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their faiths. El Cid and Alfonso VI captured the city in 1085, but maintained Arab traditions of scholarship and religious tolerance. That lasted until the 1400's, when Jews and Arabs had a bad time all over Spain.)
The first floor of the Alcazar is a museum devoted to the military. It's a haven for weapons freaks, with room after room of guns and knives and especially swords. Toledo has been a world center of swordcraft since Moorish times. (When I was on the fencing team in college I envied a guy who had a beautiful foil he'd brought back from Toledo. Maybe I should have picked one up for old times' sake.)
The Alcazar has a long history, two thousand years from simple fort to grand castle, but the most obvious part of its heritage now is from the Civil War. Franco made it a monument to Nationalist courage after it withstood months of Republican seige. It got pretty seriously destroyed by repeated bombing and artillery attacks, but Franco had almost all of it restored after the war. One fascinating room, which was the office of the general who defended the building, is left in the battered condition it had after a 155-mm artillery round came in the window. It killed most of the people in the room, but lucky General Moscardo was untouched, sunk in his favorite easy chair.
The pattern of shrapnel invoked a queasy kind of deja vu. In Vietnam, when a shell exploded near a wooden structure, you could look at the angles of the wounds gouged in the wood and extrapolate back to where the shell had landed.
(In the battered room they play a tape over and over, and translations of that short telephone conversation adorn the walls. The Republicans call General Moscardo and say they have his son, and will shoot him in the head in ten minutes, unless the general surrenders the Alcazar. They put his son on the phone and the general abjures him to die like a man. Then he talks to the Republican and says not to bother with the ten minutes; he will never surrender.)
It would be a gloomy, gothic place even without the evidence of man's inhumanity all over the place. It's one of the last surviving memorials to Franco's fascism, where 600,000 died in a dress rehearsal for WWII.
We walked back through winding medieval streets to the rail station, and barely got home in time to change for tapas and dinner. The Madrid science fiction group meets every Thursday night at the same bar, and after an initial fueling, moves on to an odd large Chinese restaurant.
We followed this ritual three or four years ago, and it was just as weird the second time. The restaurant is of course used to them, and it's agreeably cheap. But there are no chopsticks in evidence, and every table has a pitcher of sweet sangria, which is automatically replaced when emptied. The food is loaded with salt and MSG and sugar. I suspect it tastes just like Chinese food did in the States back in the 50's, when Chinese and Italian restaurants comprised the entire universe of foreign food for most Amerians.
It was a fun bunch to talk to, though. Everybody at my table spoke a little English, and I had an enthusiastic interpreter. The talk ranged from definitions of modernism and postmodernism to Monica Lewinski and dick jokes to the dismal state of publishing in Spain to, wonder of wonders, science fiction. It could have been a meeting of NESFA, though the food at Joyce Chen's is better.
Most of the day was taken up with an uneventful seven-hour train ride. Joan Manel Ortiz and his lady Merce were waiting for us, Merce with an improbable grand-daughter in tow. She's younger than Gay! How can she be a grandmother? (Easy -- get pregnant and wait 20 or 25 years.)
We rested at their home, which is in the middle of the bohemian Gracia district, for a little while, and then hit the bricks. Walked for about an hour, checking this restaurant and that one, until we settled on a little Basque place. It was mainly a tapa bar, but they did have a table in the back, about two feet square, with low stools to squat on.
The food was great. We ordered a regional specialty and then adjourned to the tapa bar, where dozens of plates of snacks sat behind glass. Each one has a toothpick; you take as many as you want and leave the toothpicks on your plate for the waiter to figure out your bill, honor system. We drank a couple of bottles of new "green" wine, like Portuguese vinho verde, with the tapas and delicious main course, bacalao (salt cod) fried and served with beans and slightly hot green peppers. Then we had two goat cheeses, one dry and sharp and one crumbly and blue like Stilton, yum. Joan Manel and I had the male desert, crushed ice with a Basque liqueur, while the women had ice cream and a tart. Then we all had some more liqueur and staggered out to walk around Gracia for an hour or so, stopping about midnight at an outdoors bar for a copa.
When we got back home we had a shot of the Bacardi Limon I'd brought as a gift, and got online, talking realtime with friends in Puerto Rico and the Canary Islands. Nice up here in the future.
Right now it's the dark of the morning, and in the middle of the city a cock is crowing. Better get to work.
Saturday was mostly given over to lounging around and shopping, which is a strange and complex activity. Gracia is like a small town in the middle of a large city, and Merce has a separate merchant for everything -- I mean, you get onions from one guy and then walk a few blocks to get olives from another. We kept returning to their place to stack bags of this and that on the ground floor landing, and go back into the fray. (They live on the third floor, no elevator, so this saves a lot of footwork.)
If I lived here I would just take a cart to the central market, which is a couple of acres huge. A lot of people do that, but Merce is both discriminating and canny about prices, so she ranges all around the neighborhood. It does take a couple of hours, but it's a pleasant way to spend a Saturday morning.
The market is a succession of wonders, mostly seafood. Nothing arrives here more than four hours from the sea, except for the shellfish and crustaceans imported from the Caribbean, which take six hours, flown live each Saturday morning. Barceloneans are _serious_ about food, especially seafood.
It was marvelous to watch them cleaning strange fish. A woman small enough to be blown away in a strong wind wields a broad-bladed knife big enough to behead an ox, using it to filet a fish the size of two hands. The detritus goes into a pile for stock; the meat goes onto a square of neat white paper, quickly taped and handed over, and then the next fish flops onto the chopping block. If you watch carefully you might notice that some of the fish are still alive.
One stand had eight gradations of clawed creatures from shrimp to large lobster, all immobilized on squares of crushed ice. Squid and octopus in a similar range, and fierce fish I wouldn't let into the house. Eels and barnacles and anemones. The variety would make a California sushi bar look tame.
The shopping complete, we had a good lunch at their home place, a grill across the street. I had a delicious plate of fava beans followed by filet of sole, French style. Then we lugged the groceries upstairs and finished the day as couch potatoes.
The local TV offers parallel channels; you can watch a movie either in English or dubbed in Spanish. We watched a sixties enviro-thriller about people dying for the elephants in Africa.
Then we went out for a few hours of brisk touristing and occasional tapa-bar hopping, while Joan Manel taped a soccer game. We went to the art museum, which this weekend was given over to a medieval festival. It was somewhat different from similar festivities in the states, since after all they _did_ have a medieval era here -- but it really wasn't all that different. Puppet shows and people in costume and booths selling things that may or may not have existed in the olden days. I couldn't resist a hanging oil lamp with triple wicks; it will be great out on the porch.
Then we found a cafe table overlooking the fountain and waited for the nightly son et lumier show. Along with a bottle of wine, we chomped down about a pound of home-made ("medieval") chocolate, which I liked a lot better than the usual kinds. It was not very sweet, and somewhat chalky rather than creamy.
The fountain show was remarkable, unlike any similar thing I've ever seen. It makes the Disneyworld one look pallid. The water shifts every few seconds into a variety of forms, from amorphous mist to solid forms that resemble ice, with fourteen different colors playing through them, all coordinated with music. The show started out with Strauss's standard "Prelude to 2001" and went on through various classical and opera standards. Then the show rested for a few minutes, and did a second repertoire, with jazz, blues, and rock tunes.
Merce comes here as often as she can; her grandfather's brother ran the original fountain in 1929. It's all done with computers now, but of course back then there was a live orchestra and, in a little console underneath the fountain, a burly man watched a musical score and pushed and pulled levers to coordinate the water sprays and lights with the tunes.
We came back home around ten and Merce laid out a groaning board: four cheeses, three kinds of olives, two kinds of ham, and various breads. We munched and watched the soccer game, and helped Barcelona win.
Sunday morning we followed local custom and went down to Rius i Toulet Square for the free outdoor jazz concert. There was a light mist of rain, on and off, but that didn't deter the musicians, and we sat at a restaurant table under an umbrella (which usually just protects patrons from pigeon droppings). Everybody else read Spanish papers while I perused _Premiere_ in English, and then spent an hour doing a watercolor of the square.
Delicious lunch at a small place I remembered from years ago. I had garlic potatoes and thin filets of pork baked in roquefort sauce, oh my.
Then we walked across town to go through a Gaudi museum, "La Pedrera," which used to be a millionaire's mansion, designed by the artist. (The last time we were in Barcelona, you could only look into the lobby.) Several fascinating floors of architecture and art. The terrace was a wonderful fantasyland of dripping sculpture. I had time to do a pencil drawing of one of the towers.
The same building held a temporary exhibit of Durer's prints and silverpoint. They looked a lot better in Nurnberg a few months ago -- very cold and out-of-place next to Gaudi's modern exuberance.
We came back home to work and relax. I did a couple of hours' rewriting on _Forever Free_ and then watched a truly weird athletic event on TV. Teams from various towns in Catalunya compete to see who can build the largest pyramid of people. This is serious stuff, with about a hundred burly guys on the first level, then dozens of merely large guys on the next, then just plain muscular guys on the third, and so on up until you have four teenage girls swaying atop an unbelievably high pile of people, and then three boys about seven or eight climb all the way up to stand on their shoulders, and one incredibly gutsy five-year-old theoretically clambers all the way up to stand on top. Then, if they haven't collapsed in a horrible pileup of limbs, they deconstruct the pyramid, child by child by man by man. I think I only saw two teams that managed to deconstruct without turning into a frightening cascade of people. (The scoring is a sum of two numbers, one evaluating the building of the pyramid, and the other reflecting how far they got in deconstruction.) Some people seem to be hurt pretty badly when they fall, broken bones and split lips and probably concussions; in the past, people have died of their injuries. But somehow it's all very Spanish. At least they aren't picking on bulls.
At 10:00 I did a two-hour online chat with Spanish-speaking fans from all over the world, sponsored by the semipro magazine BEM, with Gay translating and Joan Manel typing with remarkable speed and accuracy. The questions were unusually polite and well informed. Then we had a good midnight dinner of rice and spicy vegetables, and spent an hour trading jokes over ice-cold rum.
I could learn to live like this. I wouldn't live _long_, but I'd have a hell of a time doing it. Of course Joan Manel and Merce have a more peaceful life when we aren't here to provide an excuse for living it up. Joan Manel is a banker in real life, now on a ten-day holiday, and Merce is a ski instructor in the cold months, who does cybermarketing from home when there's no snow.
The next day I did two interviews for local newspapers, and then prowled through the market gathering raw materials. A couple of writers and fans, Jose Luis Gonzalez and Rodolfo Martinez, came in, one from Valladolid and the other from Gijon, for the somewhat-annual Joe Haldeman dinner. This time Gay prevailed on me to cook something uncomplicated, to make the dishwashing simple in Merce's small kitchen. So I made a big shrimp cocktail for a first course (the approximation to American seafood sauce went over well) and then a many-ingredient salad, and then fresh angelhair pasta tossed with gorgonzola cheese and roasted pine nuts. Joan Manel supplied fine old red wines and a bottle of cava, Catalan champagne. Then we killed off the rest of the rum and severely depleted a bottle of cognac. (I did the Mexican trick of "summoning the devil" with the empty rum bottle -- run hot water around the outside, then dry it and rub it hard for a minute, and then turn out the lights and strike a match over the bottle opening. You get a blue flame that moans like a lost soul.)
It was a linguistically stressful time for me, since I'm doing well if I understand one word of ten in Spanish, and there were often two or even three conversations going on at once, sometimes in Catalan as well as Spanish. Gay tried to translate for me occasionally, but I was pretty well lost. By the time I could compose a sentence to reply to someone, the conversation had moved on to something else. It was enjoyable nevertheless. I suppose that I could actually learn the language if the party went on long enough.
The next morning, Ricard de la Casa joined us, with his father's elegant Mercedes, and we drove down to the seaside town of Sitges. It feels like a cross between Spain and Key West, elegant old architecture and brazen honkytonk. It's the gay capital of this part of Spain, handsome unattached guys studying the passing scene from their posts in sidewalk cafes.
The beach is nominally topless, though only about a dozen women chose to bear their chests to the sun. I like a breast or two as much as the next person, but it does look odd, unsymmetrical, to me. I guess you're either clothed or you are not, and these women are in an odd in-between state.
We had a leisurely lunch at a seaside cafe, yours truly consuming a huge platter of small fried fish, like smelt but fresh from the sea, just with salt and lemon and a good white wine. Then espresso and cognac and off to the museums.
The famous one is Museu Cau Ferrat. The "Iron Den" was the residence and studio of Santiago Ruisin~ol from 1891 to 1931, a hangout for writers and artists important in the Catalan _Modernisme_ period. There are famous painters like Goya and Picasso displayed, but much of the best work is by Ruisinol and other painters not well known outside of Spain. I find _Modernisme_ compelling because of its tension between realism and impressionism -- the subjects of paintings are always recognizable, but the context and overall effect can be strange.
The Maricel Museum, a couple of doors down the street, has some striking paintings and sculpture. There are four riveting marble nudes displayed in front of a picture window overlooking the sea, three sexy ones by Joan Rebull and one, called "Despair," by Josep Llimona, which is very moving in its fluid expression of sadness, a young woman draped over a stone, weeping, wringing her hands.
There are rooms full of Romanesque frescos and Gothic sculpture and furniture from various periods, and lots of model boats and nautical stuff, but what really got to me was a couple of rooms with paintings from the "Luminist" movement, a bunch of _Modernistas_ who interpreted the Sitges sea and beach and town with a wonderful Cezanne-like freedom.
Then we crawled back through the Barcelona traffic to a simple repast of leftovers from last night's banquet. I did a relaxed two-hour interview for BEM, where I solved all the world's problems, but it will be lost in translation.
The next day we drove down to Valencia, a hair-raising high-speed race with Merce at the wheel. She's a good driver, but her style is too risk-taking for Gay and me. Fortunately, I'd bought an English-language _Newsweek_ and carefully studied every word in it. Not knowing which one might be my last.
After about three hours, we stopped for lunch at Peniscola, a beautiful place with a funny name. (The only reference I saw to the name was an assortment of obvious-shaped drinking vessels.) It's picture-book Mediterranean, a sun-drenched beach curving under medieval walls. We went to an open-air restaurant and had a delicious variation on paella, fideua, which uses pasta instead of rice, short pieces of spaghetti cooked in saffron stock, full of local seafood. Then we walked all around the ancient place, resisting vendors.
Since I'd finished the _Newsweek_, I took care to drink enough wine to sleep through the next couple of hours' driving. I only woke a few times to Gay's stifled screams.
By nightfall we were in Valencia, Spain's "What are you doing here?" city. It's a bustling industrial town, at least the size of Boston, too busy for tourism, and so a good place to hold a science fiction convention. We actually met in the suburb of Burjassot, a charming and almost quiet town, except for howling motorcycles and regular explosions.
The explosions are a 4th-of-July kind of thing, called mascleta, that were being fired in honor of the convention. It's usually done in March, to celebrate some military thing. It sounds like an artillery barrage to this old combat vet, and is lots of fun once your heart starts beating again.
They do the show at mid-day -- it's for noise, not light -- and the second time, I went down to check out their set-up. The two guys in charge were glad to show off their handiwork to a fellow mad bomber, I mean demolition engineer. It was impressive, dozens of mortars of different sizes, and hundreds of large firecrackers draped in strings around a field the size of a basketball court. The firecrackers were connected with a plastic tube full of black powder -- faster than regular [time] fuse, but slower than detonation cord.
The people running the convention declared that they didn't want to do just another sf convention, so they minimized panels and speeches in favor of odd stuff like the fireworks and daily banquets. I did one panel on film versus literature, or vice versa, and the rest of the time just sort of signed books and tried to follow conversations. The Spanish version of _Forever Peace_ just came out, and I must have signed a copy for nearly every person there.
There was one moving event, a broadcast telephone conversation with Arthur C. Clarke. Five Spanish authors got to tell him how much his writing had meant to them, and he and I reminisced for a while about the good old Apollo days.
The local historical society put together an impressive display about fictional treatments of flights to the Moon. Lots of old and ancient books under glass, and imaginative displays like the inside of Wells's cannon-powered vehicle. There was a clever laboratory reconstruction with a chunk of Verne's cavorite, being held down to the table with a heavy rope tied to an anvil.
The last night there was an outdoor constume banquet, people mostly in medieval or Tolkeinesque gear. Wooden forks and spoons and hand-made pottery; costumed serving wenches setting out hunks of meat and sausages, and a delicious lentil stew. There were elvish songs and storytelling, and a fun circle dance that eventually had about a hundred people.
Then we adjourned to a courtyard for a last bit of pyrotechnics. A few of us were allowed to don heavy gloves and fire off primitive Roman candles, which tended to explode and blow sparks out the wrong end but were enjoyable in their own way. I burned holes in coat, shirt, and arm, but had fun doing it.
Most of the con for me was conversation with writers and fans, usually through an interpreter. Our good friend Pedro Jorge came up from the Canary Islands, and he was a fluid and accurate translator when Gay wasn't around.
I have to admit to language fatigue. Weeks of trying to deal with French and German, earlier in the year, made dealing with Spanish harder than usual. Three weeks of Spanish is longer than usual, too. (I really would like to spend a month or so in one place, speaking Spanish, but just as a _person_. Being the center of attention is tiring.)
We came back to Madrid with enough time to fit in some tourist stuff. The high point was visiting Lope de Vega's house, which has been restored to its 16th-century state. (It's more accurate than most such restorations, because Lope was punctilious in recording his posessions, even down to the specific vegetables in the garden.) Gay read many of his books when she was an undergraduate, so it was more of a literary pilgrimage for her than for ignorant me.
He was an interesting guy. Quite obviously wealthy, he had a 5000-book library, an opulent chapel, paintings and tapestries all over the walls. He had five children by two wives and six by a succession of mistresses (one of those after he had become a priest in his old age).
He was a contemporary of Cervantes, who lived only a couple of blocks away. Gay asked the guide whether they were friends. He considered that for a moment, and said, "Cervantes would have liked to have been as successful as Lope."
We had a different kind of literary pilgrimage in the evening. _, who is the poet-politician in charge of Spain's national library, likes science fiction, and _ arranged for us to meet him. After going through elaborate security measures, and waiting a while, we did sit down and talk for awhile, mostly about poetry and Cordwainer Smith. He's a man of considerable magnetism and obvious intelligence, a scholar in Greek and Latin as well as his own language and literature.
For our last hurrah in Spain, seven of us went out tapa-bar-hopping (which has its own verb in Madrid, ""). First we went to a lovely Art Deco joint near the Prado, and then walked a mile or so into the old part of town, where there was an authentic 19th-century wine bar, with the traditional specialty, vermouth (on tap) and goat cheese.
They knew I liked spicy food, so the main place we chowed down was a _ bar, which had delicious crumbled pork about as hot as Texas chili. There's a local green pepper that everybody had horror stories about. If the bar had it, nobody asked for it.
Finally, we searched through a pretty seedy neighborhood and found a remarkable bar, about the size of a walk-in closet. The seven of us crowded in with one other customer and the eccentric bartender-owner. A guy in his seventies with long white hair and beard, he makes his own booze in about twenty flavors. We started out with some white lightning he produced from under the bar, easily 150 proof, and then tried some of the more conventional ones, which he dipped out of open jars behind the bar. A hot-pepper one was more fiery than pepper vodka. I cooled off with a beer and a small glass of saffron-flavored booze, sweet and complex.
They call the old man "the last libertarian in Spain." He opens the bar when he feels like it, usually after 10:30, and stays open till dawn, drinking with his customers, chainsmoking.