Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Alhambra

The lovely Alhambra in the setting sunlight.

Early on Wednesday morning, I intended to dash up the hill to the Alhambra and buy a ticket for the afternoon, but the man at hotel desk talked me out of it. He convinced me put all my stuff in the hotel storage and then go to the Alhambra. That way, I would not have to rush back or worry about missing the checkout deadline.

Standing in the 50-person line at the ticket office, a woman approached me and we chatted in Spanish that I could understand! She was from Bolivia, about 70 years old, a widow, and on her very first solo trip. I think she was a bit desperate for some company, she wanted to go with me all around in the Alhambra, and I would have been fine to do that, but she already had a ticket and I didn’t. As it turned out, my ticket was for later in the day so we never managed to find each other again. Too bad, it would have been nice to practice talking with someone I could more or less follow.

Inside the gardens 
There are two bus lines that go up the hill to the Alhambra ticket office; both also stop in front of the Cathedral. What a ride! Almost straight up the hill. Fortunately for the people in Granada, it doesn’t often snow or ice over. I wandered around the older parts of the city, several times taken by the arm and shown where to go if I stopped to ask directions. The map wasn’t easy to read for the packed older sections of town where the names are long, but the streets are short. 

Along the broader boulevards, there are a number of large department stores and smaller stores of every type imaginable. Banks have large impressive buildings and every few blocks there is a plaza with a monument of some sort, a fountain, and half a dozen small restaurants with outdoor seating. All the cuisines of Spain (and other places as well) are to be found along the boulevards: churros y chocolate, paella, tapas and vinos, cheese and sausages, bread and pastries of every sort.

The clouds decided to sputter and then rain. Wearing trusty river sandals and a gortex jacket I was comfortable and the camera stayed dry.

View of the Alhambra from the Generalife
The Alhambra, in addition to being the Sultan’s palace was also a major military installation, with tall watchtowers and multiple lines of walled defense.  Cannons rest in the same positions they’ve occupied for centuries and the towers had slots for firing arrows and later guns down into invading hoards.

Granada flourished for almost three more centuries after other Muslim strongholds had fallen to the Catholics, mostly because the Catholics were too busy fighting each other. But when Isabel and Ferdinand joined forces in marriage, and forged a united Spain (with a few provinces still at odds with them) they were able to conquer and evict the Moors. That same year, 1492, Columbus began the conquest of two other continents that added to their wealth considerably. For the next two hundred years, Spain was a country to be feared and respected throughout Europe.

Granada benefitted enormously as Isabel chose to live there and build a Cathedral. The royal family moved into the Alhambra, so it has been owned and maintained for 500 years in much the same splendor and elegance it had originally.
Walls are covered with intricate stone carvings

And what splendor! I’ve been to the Taj Majal, another Muslim building with the most incredible stone inlay work, but the Alhambra is much more impressive. Inside the rather plain looking exterior, the royal palace has floor, wall, and ceiling covered with the most amazing stone carvings, some rooms requiring over a hundred years to complete.  Every arch is carved and some painted. There are two large patios, one with a reflecting pool, the other with the famous stone lions fountain.

Standing in the line waiting for our turn as a group to go inside, I was behind a Saudi Arabian family on vacation, a couple with a teenaged daughter and younger son. I chatted with them. The parents spoke English reasonably well and the daughter was happy to practice with me. She had been studying English in school for the last 6 years. We had quite a conversation. They have visited the US twice and Haifa, the daughter would like very much to study abroad. Her mother asked me all kinds of questions such as who did I plan to vote for, Obama or Romney? What did I think of the current administration, etc? I was a bit vague, as I didn’t want to turn them off with the wrong answer; I wanted to keep her talking! 

Haifa with her parents admiring
the walls.
She asked why Americans don’t value family? That was a question that took me by surprise. She explained that so many people get divorced, only have one child, or none, put their parents into institutions instead of doing everything in the world for them at the end of their lives. She was quite opinionated and I really didn’t know what to say. Clearly our cultures have very different values. She said she’s in contact with her family and pointed to her cell phone, “Messaging all the time!” The family misses them so much when they are away. I asked if she liked that and she said “Oh Yes! It wouldn’t be good to live any other way”. So I explained that there are people who might feel smothered by so much attention and family, it would be like being in prison for them. She hadn’t thought about that at all. As we drifted with the crowds through the interior, she explained many of the inscriptions; all were phrases and sentences from the Koran. “God is all powerful and you cannot have any power without God”.

She expressed great sorrow that the Alhambra was the epitome of Muslim creativity. “What happened to us? Why can we not be creating such beautiful art today?” Another question I couldn’t answer with anything other than, “Every civilization has its high point and then falls.”

Another part of the Alhambra is the Generalife (hen er al eef eh). I was told that the Spanish queen Isabel had it built as her summer palace, but that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Her winter palace was right next door! Wouldn’t you want to go up in altitude for a summer place? It was definitely summery though, with portals and open arches for constant breezes, beautiful gardens and fountains, and Islamic carvings and inscriptions from the Koran. Somehow I doubt that Isabel la Catolica would have built that!!
The Generalife

Arabic inscriptions


The original floor of the palace, now replaced by
bricks for the millions of tourists
 who walk through the building every year.

Famous stone lions fountain

A single beautiful tree

Everywhere, carved stone

Reflecting pool and fountain

Inside the Palace, a garden

View of Granada in the evening, from the Generalife

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Albaycin in Granada

I arrived in Granada on Tuesday afternoon and checked into the Salvador Hostel with it’s own excellent restaurant next door. Lunch was a broiled salad! The chef had sliced endive lettuce into eights, broiled the pieces till they were just caramelized on the top and then generously added very crispy sliced garlic on top. They were arranged like spokes, radiating out of a center of pickled carrot shreds and topped with balsamic vinegar and oil. It was amazing, and I had it again as my parting meal from this amazing city.
The Alhambra in the sunset

Tickets to the Alhambra, the city’s most famous attraction, should be purchased online days in advance, but they wisely keep aside about a thousand more tickets for daily purchase. I was told to get there at 8:00 to 8:30 the next morning and I might be able to get a ticket.

Knowing the Alhambra wasn’t an option I went on a walking tour of the Albaycin area. It is the oldest part of the city. People began living there in about 900AD. It was the city that supported the palace of the Alhambra, and was in turn protected by the military might of the Sultan. There are still long stretches of thick walls around the Albaycin and the remains of arches across the river where once thick steel bars prevented outsiders from entering.
Before the tour started at 6:00, there was plenty to explore. Granada is a beautiful modern city with many buildings dating to the reign of Isabella la Catolica, the queen who supported Columbus. In January of 1492, after centuries of intermittent warfare, the last stronghold of the Muslims at Granada fell to the Catholics, and in the following years, Spain lost most of its creative and productive people with the ouster of both Muslims and Jews, it’s economy bolstered instead by wealth flowing in from the New World. In the center of the city is a plaza and monument to Isabella, an impressive sculpture of Columbus asking for her support. The cathedral she built is one of the most beautiful in Spain.

Demonstrators blocking the city's main artery.

The public bus that was to take us to the top of the Albaycin never showed up. Earlier, while wandering about, I’d heard chanting and wondered if a demonstration might be going on nearby. Indeed, the Gran Via de Colon was completely blocked by sitting, chanting demonstrators protesting recent government actions. Wisely, the police were calmly standing on the outskirts of the crowd. Any move on their part might have led to a violent response, as had already happened in Madrid. Our little group walked past and found a bus on down the street.

Typical Arabic home
The Albaycin is steep, built up a hillside with streets as narrow as donkey carts, some are just stairways. From up there, one can see across the top of the Alhambra to the Sierra Nevada, snowless this late in the summer. The guide pointed out homes known as Carmens. They are large impressive homes with gardens and gates, many of which we could see through to the inside. The Albaycin has had running water since it’s inception, funneled from mountain streams via aqueducts, so there are numerous fountains and pools. The architecture is simple with intricate tile designs, carved stone lintels and window frames with Arabic inscriptions. The streets are paved in cobblestones, arranged in designs, including a stylized pomegranate pattern. Granada is the Spanish word for the fruit, and in fact our own word means “apple from Granada”. Most of the buildings are white with thick walls and there are a few instances of more modern, or Catholic, architecture next door to the Moorish homes.

Due to the bus delay, our walk extended into the night. We explored an area where Gypsies used to live, known as Sacromonte, it is a plethora of “cave” homes, that from the street appear to be houses. It’s clear the mountain is directly behind, so the house has interior rooms carved from the rock. It was very romantic with subdued lighting in the streets and the bars. Traffic consisted of roaring motorcycles tearing through the narrow streets and a few small cars. The walkway was high along the river canyon, with a stonewall to prevent falling. Periodically there were arches in the wall through which the Alhambra could be seen, lit up against the night; a half moon perched above like a celestial bird.

Typical cave bar in the Sacromonte area

Pomegranate design in the street,
made from dark thin stones laid vertically.

Once an arch over the river with bars to prevent
entry into the city.

Beautiful decorations on some buildings
Night at the Alhambra

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Spain's economic crisis

I half expected prices to be less in Spain than in the US simply because there’s such an economic crisis and depression going on, but that’s not the case. Rachel just put 21 liters of gas in her car and it was 30 Euros. That’s US $39.00. And 21 liters is only a little over 5 gallons. Americans have no idea how much those government subsidies to oil companies benefit each of us personally. It’s a form of socialism that the right wingers love, but never like to admit it’s true nature. No wonder European cars are so tiny and efficient. And no wonder food is equally expensive. There are no farm subsidies either. Every time I go to a market, I end up paying well over ten Euros ($13) and may only purchase some yoghurt and fruit. In the cities, I was feeling like a cash-flushing toilet. It’s nothing to spend 20 Euros on a meal in a restaurant. At the exchange of $1.30 for one Euro, that’s a chunk of change. The saving grace is that decent wine costs only a little more than soda pop!

Public transportation, while not nearly as cheap as Mexico, is certainly a bargain and easy to come by. Every hour, on the hour, a bus leaves Rio Gordo for Malaga, and another leaves Malaga for Granada. There should be no trouble getting to Granada on Tuesday. The whole trip will cost less than a meal in a restaurant, and the overnight bus or train from Granada to Barcelona, 15 hours, will be less than $90.

Lodging too, in some cases is very expensive, in others, not so much. I’ve been using and have had good luck with finding a decent place with nice hosts. I stayed at a lovely pension (like a hostel for older people) in Seville for around $32 a night. The AirBnB in Barcelona will be a lot more expensive, but it’s in the old quarter, and nothing there is cheap. Lodging is arranged for Istanbul but in between, I’ll have to find other places to explore.

I have about 7 days to get from Barcelona to Istanbul. I’ve tried to work the train system online but unlike airlines, they don’t route you from place to place. There is no direct line for Barcelona to Istanbul, so the system says, “no fare found”. If I knew exactly what cities I would like to visit along the route, I could probably take a train to each place. The map of train routes looks like a spider web of red veins, it’s difficult to tell which lines go directly from where to where, and if you don’t know, you can’t buy a ticket. 

Rachel has told me there’s a 50% unemployment rate in this area of Spain. They must have a decent safety net because I don’t see homeless people or beggars. A man named Mick “squats” in an abandoned house along the river without electricity or water. I’ve met him several times, a tall slender balding man, at the bar in Rio Gordo. He’s very intelligent, speaks half a dozen languages, has a friendly well-fed dog, and dresses in clean clothes, though they seem to be the same ones every day. He walks to town and spends the day hanging around with people, reading under the shade trees. Not someone I would have expected to be homeless! His verbal skills sometimes get him translation work, so he doesn’t go hungry, and of course the medical care is free if he gets sick.

More views of southern Spain
Rachel understands Spanish, the local dialect, better than I do but doesn’t speak it. So there has been a lot of curiosity on the part of the locals about who she is and how she makes a living. A man was working the irrigation ditch. I couldn’t see him behind the cane growing along the river but I could hear grunting noises so I called out to him to see if he was ok. We chatted a little. He indicated that he knew Rachel takes care of the English people’s dogs and that he thought she must make a lot of money. He shook his head with a look of wonderment, as if the thought of paying someone actual money to watch your dog was as foreign as flying to the moon. The English are appalled at the lack of care, in their view, of animals. They are constantly finding kittens and puppies in the trash, and the Spanish don’t neuter their animals. So Rachel and her friends have their hands full with their rescue and placement operation. The puppy Zara was part of a rescued litter and will fly to Germany in a week or so to join a new family there.  Her departure will definitely cut down the decibel levels in Rachel’s house.

Later: In Granada

I arrived by bus early in the afternoon, so I signed up for a walking tour of the Albacin, the old arabic area across the river from the Alhambra, and actually rising to greater heights. It is full of very old buildings and homes, dating back to 1200. We were supposed to ride a public bus to the top of the area and walk down with the guide, but no bus ever came. The guide took us on foot around the streets looking for any bus at all. We came upon a demonstration, people chanting, sitting down and blocking the main arteries of the city. The police were hanging back and traffic in all directions was stopped dead. They were protesting recent government actions that have cut benefits. Eva in Madrid said that now Spaniards pay for medications, they never had to do that before. The IVA, the sales tax has recently gone up to over 21% and many businesses have signs saying they aren't tacking on the extra IVA. In Spain, taxes, tips, overhead, etc  is rolled into the price of everything, so you don't see how much tax you are paying, and lower paid jobs like waitressing or taxi driving are paid a living wage so they never expect tips. So even though it may seem expensive, at least there aren't a bunch of tacked on costs that you weren't expecting. 

Part of Spain's crisis was brought about by the same types who caused the US housing crash. People were lent money to buy homes they couldn't afford, the banks took back the properties, then when the crash came, the banks took more properties, and now are stuck with no buyers for them. Banks are in trouble, the whole economy can no longer afford to keep all the public (socialized) benefits in place, and there are almost no jobs available. It's very serious, this crisis. 

That said, there was a line 80 people long this morning to buy tickets at $13 Euros apiece at the Alhambra, and I had some trouble lining up a lower end hotel for this stay in Granada. It would appear that the tourists are still coming. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

After the disaster

Cana growing along the river.

Sunday after the dog disaster.....

It was a long night. I could hardly get comfortable with scraped skin on the left side and a head ache from being yanked to the ground. By morning, my left arm wouldn’t lift things very far without being painful so feeding the horses was a challenge.

The dogs did not get a walk, and about 11:00 Sandy’s owner came to get her. I thought she was an old slow dog, but when she heard his car coming she was doing her best to squeeze through the bars of the gate. Then she ran up and down the road in joy when we let her out.  She was such a sweet placid dog, I’m going to miss her.

Colmenar's plaza
More Feria posters…..I went in the afternoon to Colmenar, a town higher up on the mountainside from Rio Gordo, on the road to Malaga, with some of Rachel’s friends. In the effort to take me away from the drudgery of the dogs, they took me to a dog show!  At noon it hadn’t even started. The real reason for the trip was to give out flyers and put up posters of the upcoming Feria in Rio Gordo. Colmenar’s dog show was supposed to be for hunting dogs, though some Shitzus showed up with bows in their hair. Clearly the big draw was the beer tent.

A bit later we met another woman on the plaza who agreed to put up posters. Colmenar seems to be a nice Pueblo Blanco, but there wasn’t much going on in the plaza or in the streets. It was a bit early, and I would guess the dog show was siphoning off customers. Driving back, it was obvious that I had been quite wrong in my assessment that Rio Gordo is on a hill. In fact it’s at the bottom of a large bowl surrounded by mountain ranges. The town is on a hill, relative to the bottom of the river, but not when viewed from above. I can see the appeal of Colmenar to foreigners. The views are spectacular in almost every direction, especially south towards the coast.  

Rachel is due back this evening. I will feed the dogs and horses, maybe take the little dogs out for a walk since they haven’t gotten much of one in the last couple of days. It’s been an interesting visit, meeting local people, trying to understand the very slurred dialect of the Spanish who sound almost Portuguese, and seeing daily life in a country so far from my own.

Oleanders growing in profusion along the river banks.

Distant old Arabic fortified town, named Comares,
part of our dog-walking view

More dog-walk views, pretty along the river.

Rachel's house

Rachel's house from the other side

The sweet puppy Zara

Bonnie, the Podenko who fell in love with me.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Wild Dog Adventures


Rachel left about 11:30 in the morning, after we had given the dogs a decent walk, and tended to the horses. She had also washed both huskies and groomed them, plus herself, and packed. The woman has boundless energy. She dropped me off at the bar in town and I spent a couple hours having a glass of nice wine, lomo (pork) with raisins and pine nuts, and super fast Internet connection. Then it was time to go. But I had a problem. It was midday, hot, most people were at siesta (indoors and napping), and there were no cars on the road. The house is only 4 kilometers south of town, not a terribly long walk but not pleasant in 95 degree heat either. After about fifteen minutes, the first car to come along stopped to give me a ride. Of course that couple knew Rachel. Their dog Connie was in the back seat, and indicated that she would just love it if they’d pick up strangers on a regular basis. She got scratched and petted all the way to Rachel’s.

The sun drops behind the ridge on the west around 6:00 causing the valley to cool off immediately. Horses fed and tended, I walked the dogs, letting Charlie and Oscar stay in the horse field, and taking Jack separately because he’s so big.  It was a nice first day. I may not have been crazy to do this job after all.


Bedroom in the Rio Gordo Museum
We all got up early, the dogs and I. They ate breakfast, I fed the horses, mucked the stalls, and then I wanted to do the General & Troops walk with them. Not a good idea. For one thing, the most I’d walked so far was two dogs, and there are six of them. Charlie and Oscar went out for their run in the horse yard. Oscar can’t go with the troops, he’s not been to boot camp yet. So Oscar went into a crate. Charlie would have been ok to walk but I thought he’d already had plenty of exercise. In getting the four other dogs out the gate, Charlie leaped over them and ran up the road. So I shoved the four dogs with leashes back into the yard and locked the gate. Charlie, meanwhile had run up a neighbor’s long drive and was terrorizing someone up on the mountainside. I could hear barking and shouting. By the time I got to the bottom of that drive, he’d reappeared on the road and was dancing ahead of me, taunting me, and trying to make me follow him. I knew I’d never catch him.

Big Bad Dog Charlie

A Spanish gentleman rode up on his bicycle and offered to block the dog once he got on the other side of him. I assured him that Charlie was not dangerous. But Charlie ran past the man who had turned the bike sideways in the road. After a bit of chasing, I headed home and glanced back to find Charlie following me! Two men with walking sticks came by and as they passed, Charlie got even closer to me, afraid of their sticks I think. So I grabbed his collar and we went home. He got a leash and went with the rest of us. Five dogs. One is an untrained puppy, but good sized, and two others are pullers. Charlie and Sandy were on my right, marching right along like old pros, and the other three just about took my left arm off at the elbow. Needless to say, we didn’t go nearly as far as Rachel usually takes them.

Rose came by the house at 11:00 and we went to town. She had a little shopping to do, so we stopped in the bar for some of their wonderful coffee.  An elderly British couple on holiday wanted something, but the owner couldn’t figure it out. He asked Rose to intervene and translate. They just wanted beer, but the woman wanted half white lemonade in her beer, a drink I’d never heard of.  Good thing they didn’t ask me to translate, I would surely have misunderstood! Why not put ketchup in your beer?

Old stone olive oil mill
After the shopping was done, Rose took me to the museum, which is only open on Saturdays. From the street it looks like any other house, but actually it was an old olive pressing mill and the original mill is still inside. There was an enormous cone shaped stone that rolled around on a huge flat stone, meant to be pulled by a horse. The flat stone had grooves for the oil to run down and then it drained into a large vat built into the floor. There were old photos of it in operation. One room was just a bunch of the vats sunk into the floor. The town still has an olive pressing operation, but it’s a coop now and has large modern machinery. It’ll be in full operation when the olives are ripe in a couple of months.

Meanwhile the almonds are ready to harvest. Every day I see men in the orchards with large black nets spread under trees, whacking the tree with sticks so the almonds fall off.

The museum was full of other kinds of interesting old stuff, a wheat grinding flour mill, clothing from the last several hundred years, photos, religious objects, books, toys, and several rooms decked out as they would have looked two centuries ago including a kitchen with a huge stone vat for olive oil!

After the museum, we stopped at a little restaurant and had lunch: flattened white fish with salad, shrimp on a stick over buttered garlic bread, and flattened pork pieces on top of a pile of patatas fritas, or as the Brits call them, “chips”.  I had a glass of red wine, and she drank water, because she was driving. I didn’t see the true wisdom of that until we got on the road and went to her house. It’s up a mile of dirt road barely as wide as her car with dozens of tight turns. One wrong move and we’d have plunged down a cliff without so much as a tree to block the fall.

Roses's lovely shaded patio
Rose’s house is lovely, a 60 year old farmhouse with thick stone walls that she and her late husband remodeled into a charming three bedroom, two bath villa with a small swimming pool. It has shaded porches on several sides and a hidden garden with a large sun shade for patio plants.  The master bedroom was originally the stable, and part of the floor is cobblestone stripes that the wagon wheels once rolled across.

Oh, it would have been so nice to end the day on that “Rosey” note, but alas….

Later on, after the many chores were done, I stuck Charlie and Oscar in the horse pen and took the other four for a walk. We hadn’t gone far down the road when Oscar showed up and pranced around the pack flaunting his glorious freedom. The others went all wiry and excited. I turned back, worried that if Oscar got out, then where could Charlie be?

All dogs back within the yard, I went looking for Charlie who eventually showed up at the front gate, anxious to be back with the pack. This time, taking no more chances, I locked up all but Charlie and Jack and went for a walk. Jack pulls but Charlie really walks along nicely. I thought he might be a good influence. We went down into the river valley and up the other side, saw a cat and Jack yanked me harder than I thought he could. So we turned back. Just around the bend, a family of six or eight people were walking up the road and hidden amongst their legs was a small dog. Jack saw that little dog and he and Charlie both went for it at the same time, yanking me off my feet and dragging me across the asphalt into the dirt. Jack’s lead ripped off my hand, but fortunately by that time, the little dog had hightailed it and people were yelling. I had fallen on my left side and was scrapped up badly, on the leg and sides of the hip. Jack ran off, but came right back and I grabbed his lead while still down on the ground. Two of the men came over, took the leads, helped me up, and told me their dog was just fine.

I was a mess. Bleeding and angry, I was mad at myself for not having paid better attention. I should have braced for the possibility of the dogs lunging for the little one but I didn’t see it till the last second.  I didn’t really know either of those dogs well, and so wasn’t prepared.  Back home, I showered and washed off the black asphalt that was stuck in my skin, patched myself up and put the dogs to bed.  I think I have bitten off more than I can chew. Thank God Rachel will be home tomorrow evening. I don’t know how she does it!

Even Worse Dog Jack

House sitting in Southern Spain

View north from the town of Rio Gordo

The bus trip from Seville to Malaga on Monday was almost three hours long and mostly passed through very dry mountainous terrain. Hundreds of olive orchards and broad yellow stripes of harvested wheat fields patterned the hillsides. The distant mountains are barren, with a few forests at lower elevations. Summer is dry, the rains start in October.

I sat next to a young woman on her way to Ireland to study English for her last year of college. We had a delightful conversation about the subtleties in the difference between rubbish, trash, junk, and garbage. She told me all about signs, posters, and announcements in Spanish. I hadn’t known that a cartel is a poster, having unfortunately associated the word with drug cartels. Now I’m not sure how that word came to be so roughly used.

The town of Rio Gordo is one of many Pueblos Blancos. It sits on a hill, a tight cluster of white buildings with mostly beige tile roofs. The streets are narrow and one-way, some barely as wide as a donkey cart. Some aren’t streets at all but staircases for several blocks. It’s such a small town anyone but the infirm can just walk to the stores. It has a white church with rich decorations, well kept but small. The town has installed a few lookout points with shade and benches. From there, one can see miles into the distance, to tall dry mountains and large haciendas on olive orchard hillsides. Narrow roads disappear into the lumpy hills following the streams.

I came here specifically to house sit for a woman who advertised on She wanted to go to a big dog show in Gibraltar and needed someone to watch after two horses and some dogs for three days. I came a few days early to learn the ropes. It’s been more like a crash course in animal management.

Rachel is a Brit who lives along the Rio Gordo, south of the town. She has a strong but slender build, blond hair and sparkly blue eyes. Her house is an old stone and stucco building, remodeled a lot since she bought in six years ago. It sits along the edge of the Rio Gordo with a sandy bank sloping from the back patio to the water. The property was once a big orchard, hence it’s name in Spanish: Huerta Grande. There are still many citrus and pomegranate trees flanking the large horse pen.  

The dogs went nuts when the
herd passed the front gate. 
In the last two days I have twice been treated to a symphony of goat bells. The area hasn’t had a drop of moisture since May, so I have no idea where the goats might go for pasture, perhaps to a wide creek bottom further down the canyon. Yesterday the goats led the way for several hundred sheep. The road was a gooey mess after they passed, and dozens of large rocks had been knocked down when they climbed up the embankments. After they’d long passed, I heard a single bell tinkling frantically as one vagabond ran to catch up with the others.

Rachel owns two huskies. One is a very expensive female from a long line of champions, working her way up the competition to become one herself. Dako is an unregistered male twice her size. He is the dominant dog at all times in Rachel’s pack of miscellaneous canines. Her business is boarding dogs for other English people who live nearby.

The bitch, Gracie, is one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever met. She can read!! It’s kind of a trick, but still, she is reading. Rachel has large cards with words on them like BAD DOG, and CATS. She holds up two cards, and asks Gracie a question like “What is Charlie?” Gracie paws the card that says BAD DOG. Then “What do you hate?” And Gracie paws CATS. There is a stack of cards a foot tall, and Rachel can hold up the cards randomly to ask the questions. So in a sense Gracie is reading. She also has a board with big paw-sized letters. Rachel asks Gracie to show her the A or the D and she does!! Apparently there’s another dog in the area, named Lucky, who is even better at this trick. He sometimes beats Gracie in the competitions, but the race is often neck-and-neck between them. On YouTube, there are several Rio Gordo videos featuring Grace and Dako.  GraceTrick

The pack of boarded dogs varies from 2 to 12. Fortunately there will only be 6 when Rachel goes away. In addition there are 2 horses, 3 peacocks and 2 chickens. Fortunately her father lives nearby, and the neighbors have offered to drop by to make sure I am still in one piece. Just keeping track of which dog gets which food and how much, how often and in which bowl (they are very possessive of their bowls!) is a small book’s worth of information. I must take them on a long walk in the morning and not a leisurely walk. It’s a march-along at a good pace, every dog in line, not sniffing up the world, “military general leading the troops” kind of walk.   Then another walk, not quite as long, in the evening. The horses get fed twice a day, food that must be soaked 8 hours in advance, so as one batch of food goes out, another must be prepared. And one horse gets tied up till the other is finished or they get into a teeth nashing, hoof-kicking fight.

One of the dogs that will be here this weekend is Oscar, part dalmation and very head-strong. He and a large part-bull-dog named Charlie (yes, BAD DOG Charlie) run together in the horse field. So neither of them will be coming with me on the walk. They go play for an hour or so and come back exhausted. A cute little Podenko, a Spanish breed that leaps high into the air, named Bonnie, has really taken a liking to me. I think she sees me as the pushover compared to Rachel. She comes to the door of my apartment and whines, hoping I’ll let her in and give her the lick of a bowl. My place upstairs is nice and much cleaner than the rest of the house because dogs aren’t allowed. I have a narrow galley kitchen with a cook-top, refrigerator and plenty of cups and plates. The bathroom is remodeled nicely, with a pedestal sink and shuttered window that opens onto the hillside west of the house.

I got here on Monday, and have been following Rachel around in her whirlwind of contacts planning a country fair for the following weekend. Several times, we’ve gone into Rio Gordo. I’ve made good use of the bar’s Internet. It’s always been full of locals: the English who more or less take over the tables by the window, and several Spanish men, loud and boisterous, who sit at the bar. In the far back by the restrooms an elderly man sits at the same table, drinks a bottle of red wine, and eats a daily plate of cheese and bread, very very slowly.
Nice views from the public overlooks.

The Ayuntamiento, the city offices, is in the center of town, a two story affair with a full service bar inside. Appropriate for a bunch of politicians I should think. Next door and across the street are two grocery stores, plus another up the hill. Up and down nearly every street are tiendas, little stores that were once the front rooms of homes. I bought a package of four fly-swatters, now I know the name of them: paletas para mosqueros.  But back home, as soon as I pick one up, the flies disappear, it’s the most amazing thing.

On Wednesday, Rachel was putting up posters so we drove on to another of the Pueblo Blanco towns, to see a friend of hers who will have a booth at the fair. Sue owns a small shop/restaurant/art studio and served us the best lemon cheesecake I’ve ever eaten. It was home-made in the store’s little kitchen, with fresh lemon juice and a thick graham cracker crust. It appears there are two distinct cultures here, the Spanish and the English. Both seem to support and take care of their own. One of Rachel’s friends, Rose, is a perfect cross-over. She is fluent in both languages and has many friends from both cultures. She graciously lent me an extra cell phone for my stay, so I can call for help when I need it. I think the locals have decided this chubby American is either out of her mind, or in over her head.

Some streets in Rio Gordo
aren't exactly streets!!
Although I’ve not gotten a lot of Spanish practice, this glimpse into the rural life of Spain has been fascinating. It’s no different from country life anywhere else; lots heat, dust, and flies to deal with. Things are constantly breaking or needing repair, like the fence the horses keep pushing through to get to the hay bales, or the gate that was damaged when the river flooded last year and washed down a chunk of the mountain into Rachel’s driveway. I just hope the place holds together reasonably well for the three days that I’ll be here alone. Stay tuned. If there are no followups to this blog post, then I’m either dead or have gotten arrested for dogicide.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Plaza de Espana

Some of the Plaza Espana gardens
I had a lot of fun again on Sunday with Dianna and Lucca. We went to Plaza Espana where in 1923 the country built a large plaza, with exhibit halls, an artificial lake with arched bridges, and tiled displays for every conquest in Spain for an Exposition. Even then, it must have cost a fortune because nothing was done half way or like Disneyland, just for show with a completely different world on the other side of the wall. The area is now a popular family hangout and is surrounded by formal gardens with water fountains and sculptures. We rented a row boat and took turns rowing around in the lake for 35 minutes. That was the best 5 Euros I ever spent, just good wholesome family fun.

Rowing a boat in the artificial lake.
Included in the area of Plaza Espana are formal gardens, the anthropology museum, and the Museo de Artes y Costumbres that has a fine collection of furniture, clothing, lace and needlework. The Anthropology museum was free because so much of it was closed for remodeling. I missed out on seeing the really old stuff from the stone age in Spain, dating back 30,000 years. That was a huge disappointment, but the museum had many artifacts left behind by the Romans 1600 years ago. Whole mosaic floors had been transplanted into the museum, funery objects, sculptures of Diana the huntress, Mercury, Venus, and a number of sculpted heads of individual people, now mostly unknown.

The oldest part of Seville had been a Roman settlement for several centuries. As we walked about town, we saw giant ‘wheels’ in the walls that were actually fallen columns that had simply been cut off when they were in an inconvenient location and incorporated into the walls of the building. In one yard, three of them had been excavated to the base, at least eight feet down from the current street level, and then secured with steel framework so they wouldn’t fall onto the house next door. 

Roman columns, cut for a road and
incorporated into the wall of a building.

Three Roman columns excavated
and secured, right in
the middle of town.

Plaza Espana garden urn.

Dianna taking a photo
of the underside of a balcony,
where the architect's name was
written in tiles. 


There's just no substitute for the best, once you've had the best. In Sevilla I happened to walk past a sign for hot chocolate and churros. Having had (supposedly) the best in the world in Madrid, I kinda/sorta expected a similar experience. WRONG. They were the worst churros I've ever eaten, and I've eaten more than my fair share in Mexico. In San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) there was a vendor in the Nigromonte market who pulled them right out of the fryer and stuck them into little white sacks after giving them just a shake of sugar. And of course there was that delectable experience in Madrid on San Gines about it in Foodie Fun. However, the churros in Sevilla were cooked in oil that wasn't hot, they were gooey inside and dripping with grease. The chocolate tasted like Hershey's cocoa powder had been dissolved in water, then heated a bit. It was extremely cheap, only 1 Euro, and thoroughly disgusting.

The monument to Cristobal Colon
and Queen Isabella commemorating
the discovery of the Americas. Sevilla
was the major port city for ships
coming from the Americas.

Surely there would be something in Sevilla to write home about.....and there is. Of course there are many tapas and wine bars, at least a dozen on the short street where my hotel is located. In the evening, they open up and the air becomes redolent with the odors of frying potatoes, fish on a grill, and roasting meats. So far, the tapas have been phenomenal and much cheaper than in Madrid. And the the ice cream, too, is superb.

Yesterday, I met an American woman named Dianna, staying in an apartment next to the hotel with her little boy Lucca. Last night the three of us went to a Flamenco dance concert. It was amazing. For the entire month of September, there is a biannual Flamenco competition here, with performances all over town. This one was just up the street in a small venue with a wooden platform in the center for the dancers and three chairs for the musicians. An intimate and wonderful exhibition of their athletic and artistic prowess. Lucca stayed up way past his bedtime and was entranced by the incredible footwork of the male dancer. So was I. His feet went so fast, he appeared to float across the stage to staccato music.

Homemade ice cream displayed to passing
tourists. Made fresh daily with local ingredients.
Today, the three of us went out on the town again. This time to the intercity bus station where I purchased my tickets to Rio Gordo for Monday, and so we could all explore a little different part of town. They had brought a scooter for Lucca, so he wheeled along on that as we walked down the wide sidewalks in that newer part of town. It was brilliant, he didn't expend as much energy as we did, and so never became exhausted and whiney. We stopped to eat at a little traditional restaurant that serves Andalusian cuisine. But first we picked up a Happy Meal at McDonalds for Lucca. Dianna and I split an order of Paella and found the dish to write home about. It was such a far cry from the pathetic glop I'd gotten in Madrid at Cafe y Te. This one was loaded with shell fish, shrimp, white asparagus, and two large langostinos, one for each of us. The rice was flavorful, not at all sticky or gooey, with peas and tiny pieces of onion and garlic, almost unseen, but definitely part of the blended flavors. We had to wait almost 45 minutes for it to be prepared from scratch, but it was worth every minute. Dianna has been here for a week, and had almost given up searching for excellent food. She'd just been going to the tourist joints, now she knows what to look for. We brought about half of it back with us, and will have it for breakfast tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I have not been going to all the museums but have been content to walk around and just see this lovely city with it's tall palm trees, well maintained parks, beautiful public art, landmarks such as the Torre del Oro, and scoundrels with one scam after another to rake over the tourists. I'm awfully embarassed to admit that I got taken in a palm-reading scenario, but the next time a woman grabbed my hand and tried to tell me about my grandchildren and super long life, I said that her sort had already robbed me, and yanked my hand back. Sigh. Live and learn.

Riding Bikes is big in Sevilla. The red fender bikes
are part of a club you can join, then using a card,
you take a bike for a spin, and return it to any of many
bike stations around town. 
An "Indian" street performer, floating
above the sidewalk. 
Fountain and statue at Plaza de Jerez.

Lots of horse drawn carriages

Most of the narrow streets around
the Cathedral are devoted to upscale
stores and walking customers.

Flying Buttress on the Cathedral

More public art with fountains.