North of Madrid and Pau 5.13.11
Our adventures continue with Mark’s sister Florence and her husband Allen. Out of Madrid we drive en route to Segovia, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. This hill town resembles a Tuscan village with red tiled roofs, tan walls, and often flowers on the iron grill balconies.
Segovia claims the largest preserved Roman aqueduct (circa 200 CE). The enormous triple arched structure dominates the town. We climb alongside for personal inspection. The town once had a Jewish quarter but the synagogue was appropriated and thoroughly converted to Corpus Christi church in 1472. Next to the church is a quasi-Jewish museum, the “Menorah Bar” and a Judaica shop. It all seemed a bit faux. Segovia also boasts an Alcazar. However, like the synagogue, this one-time Moorish building is now a Spanish castle.
Our next goal is to view 30,000 years old Paleolithic drawings. We climb into the foothills and pass through tiny villages, Florence sees the turn off for the El Castillo caves. Unlike reproductions in Altamira or Lascaux, the paintings here are real. A guide accompanies a group of 12 and no photographs are allowed.
The caves contain stalactites as well as –mites colored pink, tan, and black from a variety of minerals. Some of the formations have sparkles from calcium carbonate crystals. The drawings show bison, horses, deer, handprints and some symbols of unknown meaning. The handprints seem to have been sprayed with red paint analyzed as iron pigment. The black line drawings are charcoal and have been carbon-dated to determine the age of the caves. Here an unknown people created mysterious art.
Moving into the 21st century, we go to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The swirling titanium roof plates glint in the sun and blocks of golden stone compliment the external undulations. Internally, the curves and swirls continue and appear to merge through the glass panels. Both exterior and interior design challenge outmoded architecturally concepts. Outside art and inside installations dare us to accept new forms. Our favorite is a multiple steel installation by Richard Serra. Feeling a part of his artistic expression, we are dwarfed walking among the massive pieces.
Onwards along the coast we stop at the wealthy enclave of San Sebastian and pass through famed Biarritz, once a major playground for the jet set. The Surgeon General’s report never reached Spain where young and old smoke incessantly. They also cover themselves with suntan oil and spend hours soaking up the UV. Most exposed body parts are lobster- red. Ouch!
In this part of the world, there are numerous tapas bars. The problem is that ham seems to be a required flavoring for almost everything ─ not too grand for a vegetarian. The larger issue is closing of cafes and restaurants around 2 PM and nothing opens again before 8 PM. We have some difficulty adjusting to this Spanish dining schedule.
We take a four day detour into the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Our cousins, Fran and Morley have given us their country house near Pau. Bicycle aficionados know Pau as a mountainous stage in the Tour de France. The villages here are small with micro roads and many were constructed in the 15th century. The lovely tan houses have colorful wooden shutters, stone walls, and flowering plants in window boxes.
The hillside house has a continuous serenade of bird-song and cowbells. Lovely roses ring the porch. Mornings are foggy but in the clearer afternoons, the Pyrenees are visible in the distance. The setting is pastoral and we walk in this lovely countryside. We explore Pau and even watch some Formula-3 auto races. Discovering the church cum movie house, we see Woody Allen’s brilliant “Midnight in Paris.”
Many of the fine area restaurants are closed since we are pre- season. Yet, wealmost miss one of our best meals. At the outskirts of Pau, a hotel has a “Welcome Bikers” sign for the Harley Davidson crowd. However, a local revealed that a meal here is “haute cuisine.” We chance the dinner at Hotel Kastel and enjoy an exquisite French feast that will long be remembered.
We leave our country house and drove over the magnificent Pyrenees back into Spain. The wild flowers and snow patched peaks give us a scenic journey.
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