Friday, September 14, 2012

Toledo and the Ave

The big suitcase was a great idea, except that it holds so much, and therefore weighs more than any suitcase I’ve ever traveled with. It’s allowed me to bring many things I would otherwise have to buy or do without, but on the other hand, toting the thing down the antiquated staircases in the metro was awful. Thankfully, people are helpful and several big strong young men took pity and carried it down for me. Otherwise, its four wheels did an excellent job of wheeling itself with my other tote bag strapped to the top. 

Neptune's fountain, across
from the Prado Museum
Two weeks in Madrid and I finally knew what I was doing, where I was going, how to get there, and how to not overspend my deflated dollars. It would have been lovely to spend one Euro and think that I was spending one dollar, it would have felt normal, but knowing that one Euro was really spending $1.30 and that a simple bus ride was actually three dollars was not comforting. It didn’t help any that I’d spent six months of this year in Mexico where a bus ride was 5 pesos, less than forty cents. It’s all part of those innumerable calculations one must make while traveling.

As I write this, I am zipping along at about 270 kilometers an hour in the Spanish Ave, a high speed train to Sevilla. The countryside is whizzing past so quickly that I must look further into the distance, or nausea will descend. I don’t think I’ve ever gone this fast while on the actual earth, not even in high school when then boyfriend Tom liked to rev up his Camaro on the straight-aways.

The countryside is golden in autumn, wheat fields have been harvested, and lie in yellow strips across rolling hills. This part of Spain looks so much like eastern New Mexico with its farms and distant purple mountains. The music is an orchestral version of Aranjuez, lost entirely on my seat mates who are plugged into iPods. Occasionally a small pueblo comes into view with a tall church tower, but mostly the country is natural with fields planted where possible. The natural “stuff” is dry with a few sages and grasses, maybe even cacti. We’re going way too fast to focus on anything close. Off in the distance are many olive orchards with their dark gray-green leaves. Most of these are short newer trees, unlike the grand specimens in the Jardin Royal of Madrid. Short is probably preferable when it comes to harvesting.

The Ave tracks have been laid straight across the landscape, with cuts through hills and elevated over the valleys. It does not follow any existing road, but cuts its own swath across the landscape with barely a turn in direction. The pueblos we pass are compact and small, with brick or stone walls and tiled roofs. A couple of times, we’ve passed castle ruins on a hill. Once in while another train whizzes by in the opposite direction, our combined speeds make the passing nothing but a quick shake and blurr. It’s always startling though.

Yesterday, I went to Toledo, at one time the capital of Spain and still a beautiful Medieval city, on a high hill, surrounded on three sides by a river, and with strong thick stone walls. It was for a while in the 1500s, home to the famous Spanish court artist and innovative painter, El Greco. Prior to this trip, I had no real appreciation for El Greco, a Greek who had come to Spain after a sojourn in Italy where he learned painting. His personal style developed over his relatively long life, into what can surely be called early impressionism. I’d noticed that aspect when seeing how different his paintings were, compared to his contemporaries in The Prado, but in Toledo, there is a home and museum entirely dedicated to El Greco, and those painters most influenced by him.

El Greco's pre-impressionist style

Next door is a Synagogue with an interesting history. In the early part of the second millennium the Moors occupied much of Medieval Spain with one of their capitals in Toledo. There was a large thriving Jewish community that built a synagogue with the most dramatic tall ceiling, and lavish carved stone walls. In 1492, before the autumn when Columbus discovered the New World, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand managed to kick the Moors out of Granada to end the occupation of the Moors and their abominable tolerance for those who followed a different religion. As a result the Jews were also kicked out of Spain and their Synagogue was turned into a Catholic church. To the church’s credit, the beautiful carved walls and pillars were left intact, merely covered over with wooden retablos. The floor, the tile work, and the architecture remained the same. Now it is a museum to the legacy of the Spanish Jews and their history. Many of the Sephardic Jews left, and many more converted to Catholicism only to be ‘tested’ again and again by the Inquisition which used torture to reveal closet Jews, and inspire their conversion. I’ve often wondered what Jesus, whose entire life was about teaching people to love other people and accept them, would have thought of such horrors done in his name and of similar intolerance today as well.

Catacombs under El Greco Museum's patio,
 once part of a large Jewish home, with cisterns
and baths for ritual cleansing. 

One of the official gates to the city of Toledo,
I am guessing they never had much of a rush hour.

In two and a half hours, we have traversed a quarter of the country on the Ave, over mountains, through tunnels, past forests, and in and out of cities like Cordova. It’s greener closer to the coast, and many degrees hotter.  Now, to explore Sevilla!