20 Years Ago this Month (Part II): Rain in Spain
Updated: Jun 22
Where am I? I thought as I woke up after a 10+ hour slumber. I got out of bed and opened the blinds to an admittedly less-than-stellar view, but grey skies did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm surging up within me. I was still in Portugal - it wasn't a dream.
After a breakfast that included some items that appeared foreign to me (small turquoise eggs, anyone?) it was time to attend Mass, then learn more about the Marian apparitions witnessed by three shepherd children - Francisco, Jacinta, and Lúcia - back in 1917. We ventured inside the basilica and around the gargantuan concrete plaza that would fill up with faithful pilgrims in the busier times of year.
We then visited the children's homes in a tiny hamlet called Aljustrel (OWL-zhoo-STREYL). Despite the place being chock full of souvenir shops - an unfortunate side effect of worldwide religious renown - it was still satisfying to immerse ourselves in the local history and witness olive and cork trees growing in a somewhat scrubby landscape. (As an interesting side note, about 50% of the world's cork comes from Portugal.)
Andrea and I had a bit more time to explore on our own as well, picking up reasonably-priced keepsakes for loved ones back home. By the end of the day it was time to rest up; we had the longest bus journey of the entire pilgrimage coming up - and a new country to boot.
Day 3 arrived, cool and grey. After our second breakfast of breads, spreads, cold cuts, and strange-looking eggs, we were on the bus, zigzagging east and north; before I knew it, we had crossed the Spanish border without so much as slowing down. Portugal was already in the rearview.
We stopped for lunch at a basic cafeteria-style restaurant just over the border near Ciudad Rodrigo. I had inadvertently tried a tea in Portugal with the word 'pêssego' stamped on it. I later learned that pêssego meant peach. Whenever we stopped, I stocked up, as it was a novelty to me. Of course it was called something different in Spain - melocotón. Surely it was made with local peaches, and the sweetness was delightful - I was hooked.
Our first and only stop on this long travel day was the medieval walled city of Ávila, which at 1,132m (3,714 ft) in elevation, is Spain's highest provincial capital (which I didn't know until researching this post). By the time of our arrival it was mid-afternoon, and the wind whipped us, cold and brazen.
Birthplace of noted Saint Theresa of Ávila, the city is known for its walls, nearly 10 feet thick and 12 feet high. Construction on them was started in 1090. But that wasn't all: the Ávila Cathedral, one of the first two gothic cathedrals in Spain, was a highlight of the trip. Its relatively austere exterior belied a truly magnificent stone interior that I would consider perhaps my favorite of the many churches we visited. I had to keep resetting my falling jaw.
By the time we had emerged from our cathedral tour it was rapidly getting dark and cooling down further. What happened next is a bizarre and vague memory, but I remember having my picture taken with an extremely short Spanish man who didn't speak English and was chuckling about something (yes, I still had my wallet afterwards). Perhaps he was a street person, but he was dressed too well for that. In any case, here's the photo:
We passed back outside the city walls and boarded the awaiting bus again. Upon seeing a sign for Madrid, someone suggested we divert and have dinner there. Given that we still had three hours to our destination for the night, that was a hard "no". The bus lumbered north, passing the capital of Castilla y León and Spain's 13th largest city, Valladolid (Vya-tho-leeth). By the time we got to Burgos, it was about 10pm and the group had become hangry. We lugged our bags up several steps in a cold, driving downpour, then waited inside while an issue with our rooms was figured out. Finally, dinner - one of the latest I've ever had but par for the course for the night owl Spaniards.
Day 4: cold, windy conditions yet again. Opening my room's blinds revealed an aloof, opaque sky. Despite the late bedtime, I was more than ready to perambulate this medium-sized northern Spanish city. With a population around 170,000, its skyline was dominated by another Gothic Cathedral. One might wonder if I got tired of exploring churches and religious sites. My answer is a resounding 'no'. Each one was different, architecturally, historically, and artistically.
Despite these churches' inanimateness, they somehow seemed living, breathing structures, having absorbed centuries of footsteps and steadfast prayers. Houses of God, and spectacular ones at that. The Burgos Cathedral protected us from swirling winds, enhancing my perception of it as a sanctuary both physical and spiritual.
After a satisfying hour or two learning about the cathedral, we were free to roam about; I photographed the city's plazas and paused in front of the somber, tree-lined River Arlanzón. The wind continued whipping indifferently, and Andrea and I ducked into shops to escape it as much as possible.
For some reason, others in my group weren't too keen on Burgos when our time was up. Perhaps it was the late, soggy arrival or the windswept isolation of it. In any case, I thought it was a perfectly delightful locale. It was time to motor east, to Spain's fifth-largest city.
As we arrived in Zaragoza (Thara-GO-tha) - about halfway between Madrid and Barcelona - on the afternoon of November 6, the sun had finally broken free of its overcast prison, and temperatures warmed considerably. In fact, I shed my jacket for the first time in several days. We sat in traffic on approach, and I stared dumbfounded out the giant bus window at a structure that looked like something out of Aladdin. Fourteen steeples - four much taller than the others - towered into the sky as we crossed the Ebro River, longest river entirely in Spain.
This stunning baroque structure, we learned, was called the Basilica del Pilar, and was significantly "newer" than the cathedrals of Ávila and Burgos, constructed mostly between 1681 and 1872. I remember getting off the bus and feeling this city's urban pulse. There was an energy here that I hadn't felt since Lisbon, despite loving every one of our previous stops. Perhaps it was the warm sun, or perhaps I was getting used to being in Europe by this point. I wanted to soak it up and replay it a month or two later when I was looking out a dreary New Hampshire window at endless crusty snow piles.
We met our local guide Carlos, who had a nervous liveliness that fell in line with my impression of this much larger city. I shook his sweaty hand, noting his wild curly black hair and urbane dark-rimmed glasses. At the time he probably seemed older to me, but surely he wasn't more than 30-35 either, younger than I am now. His English was good, but he talked in quick, staccato bursts, like the words came to him in electric pulses and he had to speak them before the linguistic storm subsided.
After visiting a tremendous oblong, sparsely-populated plaza with a sculptured water feature, our next stop was a fortified medieval palace known as Aljafería. I could spend an hour describing the uniqueness of this particular structure, nearly 900 years old and constructed in a Spanish-Muslim style. It has seen numerous tenants over the centuries, and includes architectural features so exquisite that they were lost on a slack-jawed 18-year old. Astonishingly, the photo above is the only one I have of it. Perhaps we weren't allowed to take pictures inside, or I left my extra film on the bus. In any case, I'm truly kicking myself for not capturing more of the palace. I remember exploring the pulsing city streets that evening and re-stocking on peach tea, but not much else.
Day 5 marked the halfway point of our journey; it was time to leave the big city for a diminutive mountaintop monastery. Montserrat was about a three-hour ride due east from Zaragoza, and was surely the most geographically fascinating stop on our adventure.
On approach from the west, a series of serrated peaks came into view, looking like something out of Lord of the Rings. It wasn't just a pretty background though - Vitor would guide our bulbous tour bus up a dizzyingly curvy road right up into it. (Concerningly, we had noticed him imbibing considerable quantities of wine the night before).
Up and up the crags we went. I noticed several of our group had their heads down, whether from fear of heights, motion sickness, or some combination. As harrowing a ride as it was, I enjoyed it very much. Spoiler alert: we made it!
Tucked between folds of the inhospitable mountain was the soul-stirring monastery and related buildings. The setting was truly extraordinary. Sweeping views of the countryside in front of us, a series of buildings hewn into the rock behind. Buildable land was so scarce on this little mountain shelf that the view from my hotel room was a sheer rock face, perhaps 20 feet away from my window.
Spirits soared in Montserrat, not only from the elevation but also the uplifting music we heard that evening. First billing was a boys' choir, followed by the timeless, resonant chanting of the monks themselves. I closed my eyes and was transported - it was suddenly the 16th century. Outside the doors of the church weren't tour buses and a modern restaurant but pack mules and exhausted but satisfied pilgrims who spent days or weeks rather than hours getting here to worship. They'd sleep beneath the infinite heavenly starscape, raising their praise and pleas to the One above. The journey must have seemed impossible, but they made it with a little help.
My head hit the pillow an hour later, thoughts mundane and magnanimous swirling. This storybook location had allowed me a fleeting glimpse of the divine. It had been cold here too, but somehow it hadn't affected me as much. Tomorrow we'd descend physically and metaphysically, traverse another mountain range and begin chapter three of our exploits in France...