Tuesday, March 31, 2015


There's something similar between Segovia and Salamanca, the light of their stones in the spring sun.

Although in Segovia there's more of Piedra del Parral and Salamanca Arenisca de Villamayor, I felt a certain warmth of the stone colour in both towns. They're sandstone types and in addition in Segovia the roof of the castle, Alcazar, is made of black pizarra/slate from the same area. For the first time I paid attention to how we built cities by using the nature around.

Many times the stones would come from nearby, as it would have been too difficult to carry them long distance. In Barcelona for instance the beautiful gothic church Santa Maria del Mar was made of blocks of stone brought from the close by hill of Montjuic by the port stevedores, on their backs. These two Castilla cities instead had around the type of rocks mentioned above.

There I felt peace and quiet, taking life at a slower pace myself. After all the running around in Madrid I took my time, for one day in Segovia, two days in Salamanca, to sit down, think and contemplate more. Seeing whatever I found on my way, without putting too much pressure and ticking lists.

It was quite fascinating to find out that queen Isabel la Catolica was actually crowned in Segovia and that Cristobal Colón - known as Columbus in English - met their Catholic majesties in Salamanca. There's so much history around, I felt like stepping on their tracks.

I landed in Segovia, name being of Celto-Iberic origin, before the Roman conquest, by mid-morning, after an interesting ride crossing the scenery of the Civil War, Sierra de Guadarrama and Valle de los Caídos. The setting is amazing,  I guess even more in spring, with the city raising in its warm light surrounded by snow capped mountains and the fresh shades of green brought by the season. Apparently Celts, Romans, Arabs, Jewish and finally Spanish found it all very appealing. As Segovia is not big and built on a rock about 1000 meters high, you get lovely different views as you make your way through the narrow streets.  Romanic churches, Plaza Mayor, the Jewish Quarter, are all dominated by three great landmarks: the Roman Aqueduct, built without mortar, the blocks of stone hold by themselves; the enormous late Gothic Cathedral and the elegant and solid Alcazar, the fortified castle that looks like a fairy tale one, especially if seen from the Eresma river bank, topping the abrupt rocks. Apparently the Sleeping Beauty Disney castle was inspired by it. Too bad they probably ignore the splendid mudejár decorations. Climbing to the terrace is rewarding the curious traveler with breathtaking panoramic views.

Wandering in the streets I found the less customary Gastronomic Museum, in some old house where every room tells a story about beans, chick-peas, wine, growing sheep and pigs and the by-products. Segovia is actually quite famous for its roast suckling pig and lamb and the huge white beans called judiones, not a bad idea for a consumable souvenir. The Gastronomic Museum also offers a small tasting of bread, cheese, jamón, sausage and wine, all very good, especially the jamón that happened to be made of a hairy sheep looking pig from Hungary, called mangalica. BThis and a delicious soup and a blue fish salad tapa at the Alcazar café made for lunch. Then eventually ventured out of the city walls to check on two Romanic churches, one now a convent.

It's also worthy for the sight of the high city and above all of the castle from below, plus you can take an enchanting walk by the river and re-enter through another gate. This way I found an incredibly beautiful and rather unusual Gothic façade of a convent, Santa Cruz la Real, that's now hosting an university. The famous and sinister first general inquisitor Torquemada was once a prior here.

All in all, small as it is, I still missed a few churches I wanted to visit and the Cathedral tower, so I have a good excuse for another visit.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


MOVE - It's one of my strongest peremptory needs, if I sit still for too long I get anxious, and confined spaces drive me nuts. This need became evident when I read "Anatomy of Restlessness" by Bruce Chatwin, back in 2000. I understood then that travelling is like an inner call that natural born nomads have to follow in order to keep being themselves. Johnny Walker, keep walking! Even at work I need space, big windows, light, to see the sky and when possible trees to feel comfortable. I started taking lunch walks back in 2006 in Canada, half an hour is for eating, the other half is for moving, walking dramatically improves my well being.

On the other hand I also need a change of landscape, air, language, from time to time, it's like breaking up habits keeps my brain alive, and gives me a sense of freedom. At the same time big metropolitan centers also make me feel uncomfortable, caught between stone or concrete surfaces. I am less and less attracted by the idea of travelling to a city, may that be as fascinating as Berlin or Paris. Besides, they started being so similar, packed with hordes of tourists, crossed by metro lines, filled with Irish pubs, French bakeries and Italian fake restaurants next to horrible fast food or so called gourmet coffee chains. All big cities have a cathedral, national museums and world famous landmarks. I long for wide horizons, green meadows, thick forests and majestic snow capped mountains, surrounding small historical towns or picturesque villages. All with a bit of quiet and solitude, although it's already been said you can't feel lonelier than in the middle of crowds.

So having to take a week off by the beginning of spring I left aside the hypothesis of Amsterdam, Brussels, Lyon or Florence and decided to go to the closest cheapest flight destination: Madrid. Not only it's a big city, but I'm not even fond of it like I am of New York, Paris, Rome or more recently London. I am fond of its liveliness and mix of cultures though and only during this fifth or sixth visit I started to internalize its structure and subtleties, finding my favourite corners. Some of its best features are being reasonably close to Lisboa and playing host to great temporary exhibitions plus a good cultural alternative scene. Last but not least, quite a few friends call it a home and it's nice to see them after wandering all day by myself. Although being by myself didn't mean that I didn't talk to unknown people in the hostel or on the street. It's nice to enjoy all that time and temptations without having to please anyone else and be able to talk to someone around if you feel like, madrileños are quite social and easy going.

I wonder if during any of my former trips I was ever so conscious about how madly I can run all day covering kilometers, with very few and short stops, even to eat or sit down a bit. Why on Earth do I have so much physical energy to spend? Each evening would find me exhausted with my head busting with impressions and memories of the day. I didn't even count the number of exhibitions I visited and I was even scared of my hunger to see and learn more. On every trip I keep learning also about myself and my way of being in the world. At the same time I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was also a form of escapism, of running away from my life. So putting this now on paper helps me saving something, giving it a sense.

Since the first day a friend took me to La Tabacalera former cigarette factory, now a cultural centre, and inspired me to take more abstract photos. I started looking around in a different way for the whole week. The way that objects are placed in an exhibition and how people deal with it. Putting out of the context certain parts and play with them. Then there were the social photographs at Caixa Forum, quite an amazing contemporary building . Photographs taken around the less charming nowadays Spain, portraits of guerrilleras from San Salvador or Afghan refugees in Greece next to heartbreaking images of refugees all over the world, especially from Africa and Middle East (Syria and Iraq) with their most prized possession since they left home with very little, could be a buzuk (music instrument), bracelets, a cane, a donkey, whatever gave them comfort on the way.

Later I got enchanted by the amazingly bright rainbow like paintings of Raoul Dufy who wanted to render light through colour, followed by the disquiet harmony and subtle anxiety of Paul Delvaux, both provoking the eyes and the mind in diferent ways.

In between exhibitions I managed to fall in love with the Malasaña and Lavapiés colourful and kind of irreverent neighbourhoods, with the alternative shops and eateries of the first and the multicultural flavour of the second, especially the Mercado de San Fernando and the UNED library that used to be a church.

And when my mind was really crying for some green and some peace I walked along the Manzanares river green path and went to discover also Casa de Campo and Campo del Moro parks.

I couldn't resist paying another visit to Bosch, Goya, Ribera, my Museo del Prado favourites and I also discovered the history of Madrid in the city museum, quite interesting as it explored both its architecture and the social fabric of its inhabitants, customs and habits. Walking into yet another free cultural centre: Casa Encendida, I got acquainted to Colombian Suarez Londoño and his masterful sketch books drawings.

Just before taking the plane, and while looking desperately for a mailbox for my postcards, I managed to find time for the insightful Giacometti exhibition dedicated to the look: El hombre que mira, completed by very inspiring quotes on eye perception of the human body. I was very touched by an apparently simple drawing: an eye looking at a tree, that for me became suddenly the symbol of the wonder of spring.

And to top all this, I went twice to the theatre, as I managed to get a ticket, unbelievably, for Robert Lepage's "Needles and Opium", he's one of my favourite directors hailing from my former home Québec. Then it was an alternative play loosely based on "Fuenteovejuna" by Lope de Vega, that was actually quite weak, although the actors were making quite an effort.

When did I see my friends then? Well, some for lunch and a walk, some for dinner, for a tea, night drinks or an exhibition, or even host me for a couple of nights. It felt great and refreshing to see them and I guess I'll return to Madrid sooner than two years this time.

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