I just returned from a three-week trip to northern Spain (Barcelona, Bilbao, Leon, Burgos, Astorga, Santiago de Compostela, La Coruna) and then to Madrid. Barcelona, of course, is famous for its collection of buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi, and these did not disappoint. In Bilbao, we visited the Guggenheim Museum with its renowned building; the building is eyecatching to be sure, but I was underwhelmed by the collection of art it contained--the reaction of a jaded New Yorker? Leon and Burgos are famous for their cathedrals, and the cathedral in Leon is particularly noteworthy for its stained glass, which is simply spectacular. Santiago de Compostela is the home of another famed cathedral, not as ancient or beautiful as those in Leon and Burgos, but holding a special place in the heart of Roman Catholics because it contains the tomb of the apostle Saint James the Elder, the patron saint of Spain. Santiago de Compostela is also the endpoint for pilgrims on El Camino de Santiago, which runs through northern Spain. We had earlier encountered pilgrims in Leon and Burgos, which are also on the Camino. They are hard to miss because they carry walking staffs which are adorned with scallop shells, the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage. The illustration to this post is of a scallop shell like the ones we saw everywhere in Santiago in Compostela. The pilgrimage dates back to the Middle Ages and has become very popular among people of all ages and nationalities in the last decade or so. In La Coruna, we climbed the Tower of Hercules, originally a lighthouse built by the Romans, which afforded splendid views of the surrounding countryside and ocean. In Madrid, we spent a long day (ten hours) at the Prado, and didn't manage to make it through the whole collection. I had forgotten what a treasure trove of Old Masters it contains. We also visited a special exhibit at the Palacio Real of art from Poland, which contained two paintings I had never seen before except in illustrations--a glorious portrait by Rembrandt of a young girl who nearly jumped out of the picture frame at the viewer. The Rembrandt almost stole the show from the crown jewel of the exhibit--Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine. We lingered so long over this enigmatic painting, considered a Polish national treasure, that the guards practically had to throw us out. The rest of the exhibit is also well worth seeing.
We were last in Spain about thirty years ago, and so much has changed. What hasn't changed is the beauty of the countryside and the delectable food made from locally-grown vegetables and fruits. The tomatoes and oranges bear little resemblance to what we buy in our supermarkets back here. I'm going to have to make it a point to frequent farmers' markets this summer and liberate myself from supermarket produce.
The last time we were in Spain, we visited Madrid and southern Spain, and most people seemed to speak Castilian. In northern Spain, depending on where you travel, people speak Castilian, but also Catalan, Basque, and Galician. Catalan and Galician I could cope with, but Basque was completely impenetrable to me. I later learned that Basque predates the Romance languages, and is unrelated to any other European language. That explains my difficulty in understanding it. Something else that struck me was the number and variety of bookstores in Spain. At home, we are all aware that independent bookstores are dying off, and we are left with only a few large chains. This is not the case in Spain, where there may be several bookstores in one block. Although this is particularly true in university towns, it was also true in towns that did not have universities.
Speaking of bookstores, before the trip, I finally bought myself a Kindle and I think I'm in love. I loaded it up with some old favorites and some classics I hadn't read before, and I found it to be a tremendous convenience. At first I missed having a physical book, but I soon found that the format didn't actually make much of a difference in my reading experience. I hadn't brought a laptop with me, but I was able to use my Kindle for email. It works well for reading messages, but not so well for sending messages--not surprising as it is meant to be a reading device.