Cuenca, Spain

and the Southern Meseta

Midnight tapas in Madrid, the plains of La Mancha and the ancient alleys in Cuenca.

One of the greatest trading cities of the Indian world was not far from here. It is in Ohio, where Inuits and Dakota and Navajo traded. I turned off my flashlight, and let the blizzarding snow fall as I stood with my snowshoes on this ancient Indian burial mound, in the middle of an oak forest on a Peninsula in Southern Minnesota.

There is something eerie about a graveyard in the night, and this one particularly, perhaps because it is some 500 years old, and the dead below me are so unknown...So foreign to the midwesterner, who knows nothing of his history. From meandering here and in the desert Southwest, I have learned that the history of the Indians, and therefo re even the Midwest, is tied to the Spanish, who came south of here and introduced horses and wheat and goats and massive slaughter and disease and eventually the creation of new nations and independent states and countless mission communities and Catholicism.

The next morning on Flight 56 to Amsterdam, I remembered the daughter of the Royal Family of Mallorca. She told me that the difference between her people and my people was that, "We can pick up the dirt under our know...and smell it, and feel pride in our country and know that there is a history here."


Parque Regional de la Cuenca Alta del Manzanares

We were greeted at the Madrid airport by my cousin Ralph, who had 'gone south' 13 years ago after living throughout Europe. Ralph wears smiles and wit and carries himself with a sense of passion for life. In this sense, Ralph has become an adopted Madrileño, and I sensed that he too, could 'pick up the dirt and smell it' at least if it was a good Spanish vineyard dirt.

He brought us to the Sanchez Romero Grocery Store in a mall near his flat. Spanish wines, sherry, salami, olives, hams, Japanese rice and Mexican tortillas. Chicken, and several cuts of steak which were quite impressive, but nothing next to the selection of local and French cheeses. Pheasants hung upside down and some still bled from their feathers. The raw brains of lambs. Grouse, partridge and skinned rabbits, which bled out of the remains of their eyes and brains. I examined the seafood section - shrimps, crabs, fish, salmon, lobster, eels and tiny barnacles.

It was strange, but equally impressive that a landlocked city such as Madrid lived on such a high diet of seafood. Very little of this seafood came from Spanish waters. The Mediterranean is essentially a dead sea - fished out from years of over-use. To fish in the Mediterranean today often means illegally dropping bombs to shock 'anything that lives' to the surface,netted and sold dried in Greek and North African fish markets.

Ralph explained that if you want tapas in Madrid, there is only one place to go. Soon enough, we were at Bocaito, a small bar packed with chattering Madrileños. Sherry from Jerez, a plate of salted olives, tuna on bread, chorizo sausages, octopus, fried peppers, monkfish liver, shrimps fried in garlic oil. Tapa - the word for 'cover,' comes from the practice of placing a lid over a glass of wine or sherry to keep out the flies - and adding olives or cheese on the lid as a complement to the wine.

After several sherries and brandies, Ralph was taxiing us across the city. The Museo de Jamòn - a museum dedicated to ham, Plaza de Colòn, Plaza de España , Calle Maria de Molina. It didn't much matter anymore - fatigue and jetlag and brandy made it all a blur of city lights and cafes.

The next afternoon we took the road north where the rocky slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama slid into cork oak and olive groves. The road climbed up into the hills, and soon it was dreary, and snow drizzled from the clouds. We came around a bend and into the gray palace of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, where the Kings of Spain are buried.

I am not interested in buildings and monuments (of which modern culture has little to do), but the city of El Escorial and its palace was a glimpse of the creation of the New World. It was a vision of gold pouring into Europe from South America, and of the inherited kingdoms of Philip II, and maybe even why the Latin American's disdain Spain.

From the Palace we headed north, and up the mountains until we could see Madrid province below. We crossed into the autonomous region of Castilla-Leon, the Northern Meseta. Lily and Ralph took to the bar, and I took to the snowed woods, with a quick jump over the highway and into the backcountry. I tore down the hill, slid down the snow and watched the sun make its brief red appearance before it was lost among the clouds and falling snow and the free-range Clydesdales.

I can see one of the seven peaks. Most of these peaks are unreachable except by foot, and so this entire range protects an array of vultures, eagles and buzzards and Spanish lynx.

From Madridejo, we went west to the town of Consuegra, which, like most other Manchegan towns, hosted a giant cathedral at its center. I walked around a bit in the back alleys before we headed up a hill, past a castle used in the Moorish-Christian wars and to the top, where 11 five hundred year old windmills stood in a line overlooking Consuegra.

We walked underneath the mills, looking out over miles of cork oaks and olive groves. Cervantes traveled through Consuegra around the time the capital of Spain was in transition from Toledo to Madrid, and wrote about it through the adventures of Don Quixote. His adventures not only defined the first modern novel, but established a kind of archetype for the obliviously romantic and confused traveler. It is said that Cervantes chose La Mancha for the backdrop of his novel because its 'backwoods-hickishness' would be endearing to the literate elite of Madrid.


Windmills of Consuegra

Lily and I left Madrid in the morning. We drove south into the flat, parched tablelands and ancient pine forests of the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha; the southern 'meseta' of Central Spain - an uplifted plain that rings Iberia as the Colorado Plateau encloses the center of the American Desert Southwest.

There is little here, except agriculture and empty plains: vineyards and rows and rows of olive trees and the saffron crocuses, which have been harvested here since the age of the Moors. We passed through Ocanà, Guardia, and finally El Romeral across unparalleled flatness to the west and strange steepled mesas to the east, fringed by scrublands where hunters shoot red partridge.

There are few people in the southern meseta and even fewer animals. Most of the people have left the country for the city since the end of Franco's dictatorship (35% of Spain used to live in the city. Now that has risen to 65%). And the animals have gone the way of the Spanish gun. In Madridejo, that absence of life became very real as we sped through the narrow and empty whitewashed alleys.

"Where is everyone?" I commented.

"Don't forget its siesta," Lily said. She was right, of course, but outside these smallest of small towns, the siesta culture is fading as well. When the Dictator Franco died, King Juan Carlos decided the days of political monarchy were no longer useful in Europe. "It was his dad, you know," Ralph said, "who was responsible for telling the King that a monarchy just doesn't work anymore."

Spain elected Gonzales, a socialist who built up the roads and infrastructure. Since then, the new leader, Jose Maria Aznar, became Europe's last market-based leader, and multiplied Gonzales' success by changing the focus onto private business, banking efficiencies and nodding heads from the European community.

Earlier, I had written to the Castillian Communist Party to ask a few questions. Sr. Pedro Higuera wrote back with "revolutionary cheers" and told me that "we are working on a thirty-five hours-in-a-week with no 'salarial' nuclear graveyards in presence of American forces or aircrafts inside our territory...complete autonomy for our community..."

Most of Sr. Higuera's comments could be expected from any number of Iberian leftists, but mention of complete autonomy is common in Spain and a sense of fierce independence has been a Spanish trait long before biblical times when people immigrated here to 'the edge of the world' to escape the difficulties of the organized world to the East. Historically, Spain fought off the intrusions of the outside world on a local and individual level, preferring to hit the mountains and defend by striking in surprise in small groups --the word 'guerilla' was invented in Spain. Today, people still have a strong distrust for lawyers, judges, institutions and associations.

Castle Cuenca

But I never intended to stop with Quixote in La Mancha. The meseta, after all, is where the New World began; where the fleets were ordered west into 'The End of the World.' Although Cervantes is Spain's most famous writer, Jorge Luis Borges is his contemporary. He is a product of Argentina, not of Spain; a symbol of the impact of Spain on the world. He is also considered by many to be the world's most honored travel writer. He writes of Quixote,

"Defeated by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in 1614 in the town of his birth. He is survived only a short time by Miguel de Cervantes. For both the dreamer and the dreamed, that entire adventure had been the clash of two worlds; the unreal world of romances and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century. They never suspected that in the eyes of the future, La Mancha and Montiel and the lean figure of the Knight of Mournful Countenance would be no less poetic than the adventures of Sinbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto. For in the beginning of literature there is myth, as there is also in the end of it."

I went out and buttoned my jacket and walked across a red-dirt field. The sun was setting and the sky was orange and lavender. There were several small buildings, and since I didn't know if this was a private residence, I kept low while examining the whitewashed walls, the small and thick windows and the five hundred year old red-tiled roofs. I learned that this was a farm when I passed the chicken coupe, and understood the importance of this architecture: in La Mancha the summers are devilish and the winters freezing.

Nothing can stabilize the temperature like these walls and tiny windows. At the end of the farm, I found a pair of ceramic colanders half buried in mud. Standing they would be ten feet tall. I dinged them with my knuckles and peered inside - empty. Ralph later explained that these were the storage units for olive oil.

"So how do you extract the oil?" I asked.

"The (wind) mills," he said, "They have these flat presses with an indent for the oil. The press flattens the olives and the oil leaks into the indents and runs into the barrels."


Cuenca, Spain

Back at the flat in Madrid, my cousin and her husband arrived from Grenoble to join us for tapas and the Millennium New Years in Madrid - and who wouldn't? In Madrid, the fiesta is king, and the king of fiestas is the one that only happens every thousand years. Susie and Cristiano are "professional expatriates," preferring to jump from country to country; finding balance in that lifestyle only true expats can pull off: skiing, sailing, traveling and working.

They speak five languages between them, Cristiano six, no less than Ralph. They seem comfortable anywhere. They listened as Lily asked Ralph, "what do Spanish say when they swear?"

"Well in Spain, it's a matter of 'what you shit on...'" He continued, "For example, you can say 'I shit on God.' Or you can also say, 'I shit on the milk.' If you really want to make an impact, you can say, "I shit on the salty sea', but the really, really bad thing to say in Spain is, 'I shit on the wafers that you eat in church.'"
He stood up and waved his hands and took a sip of whiskey and said, "People will really be looking at you if you say, 'I shit on everything that moves.'"

On New Years Eve, we ate olives and lomo ham and watched the world as most everybody did, and when the bells in the Plaza Mayor rang twelve times, we ate 12 grapes, as the rest of Madrid did. 12 grapes for twelve months of luck, but since the grapes had seeds and the bells of Madrid rang quite quickly, the lot of us were stuck stuffing ourselves, and swallowing seeds, and Cristiano said, "Can we drink the champagne now?"

Then it was black-tie and off to the Hotel Continental just before Madrid exploded into fiesta - five hundred Spaniards, and the strange mix of expatriates and Madrid locals who comprise Ralph's band of night prowlers and partiers. I had met Giora, originally from Israel, before, and he took to Lily's interest in his country. "You like Israel? I take you to Israel. I show you all the places to go." "You look like you're Spanish," we said.

But what did a Spaniard look like? After all, Spanish is Jewish, Moorish, Carthaginian, Roman, Gypsy, Gothic, Greek and Mediterranean. Giora is Madrid because he lives for the wine and the talk. In Spain, it is called 'Madrugada' - the time between midnight and dawn, the time of life and fun and cafes and smoky bars.

El Andalus; Moorish for modern-day Spain, was the center of the world at the turn of the last millennium. Cordoba; the Moorish capital just south of La Mancha, was flourishing as the world's largest city. I could ascribe some sort of meaning to this and Madrid at the turn of this millennium. But it's not Spanish to look in the past. After all, the monuments and churches of Spain are for the Americans and the Brits (tourism is Spain's largest industry) and Franco has put a damper on remembering the past.

So, on New Year's, we lived in the present and drank Spanish wine.


The next day, we left for the Serranìa de Cuenca, a stretch of mountains and green-moss rivers and pine forests. We made our way to the café at the top of the mountain near Ciudad Encantada. We ate tapas: Manchego cheese and olives and a tuna and tomato sauce for the bread.

We drank beers and then entered the Ciudad Encantada - a regional park of river-washed stones in the shapes of mushrooms and bears and silly things. I told Susie that the wonder of this place compared to the bizarreness of Southern Utah. Hot springs and caves, and corridors and fissures. It is much like an ancient city, although the blocks of giant limestone here come from the erosion of millenia.

We left from the Ciudad Encantada to the walled city of Cuenca, an eighth century Muslim fortress built on a geological 'island' between two green rivers which fork into each other. Necessity crowded the city out to the brink of its walled-cliffs, so that the houses and apartments hang over its vegetated cliffs.

Cuenca is like few other cities in the world. It blends into its mountainous backdrop; it is aesthetic perfection; a beautiful city with a cathedral lit in yellow, and rows of tapas bars. During the Christian age, medieval buildings were built around and in between the mujedar architechture, which made a good place to eat tapas:sausages and lomo, and olives too, and Manchego cheese.

We drove to Chinchón after dark, and followed the empty yellow-lighted alleys about until we made it to the Plaza Mayor - the town square. Chinchón is a historical city - like Cuenca, it is ringed by water, and in the summers, the whitewashed and wood-framed square is converted into a giant bullring. The center lamppost is removed and rows of stadium seats are erected.

I liked this square, but I also tend to think bullfighting is cowardly torture; something extravagant and flashy and sensational that derives from that same Latin mistake called 'machismo'. Bullfighting is not an ancient Spanish tradition - it is a modern spectacle, a sick and sadistic voyeurism into the blood of death. Flamboyant peacockishness in males can be seen in any culture, but these over-hyped coliseum sports seemed awfully fishy for a landlocked metropolis.

Before bullfighting existed, hip peasants slid into the bullpens of wealthy ranchers and faced the bull bare-fisted, and slaughtered them in the true sense of sport and adventure. That tradition has replaced the sport with extravagance and entertainment. Traditions die, as is the siesta, anywhere. Hemingway loved the bullfight and he also loved marlin fishing.

Unfortunately, Hemingway's love for sport has ruined sport by bringing it fame and frog-belly white tourists. Marlin fishing has been no different than the bullfight: In The Old Man and the Sea and Islands of the Stream, men toiled against nature and beast with hook and line. He wrote of sportsmen and today teams of Floridians in giant yachts and embroidered shirts drop automated gold-plated reels in the water...and for what? All the Hemingway-marlins have been fished from the sea.

Anyway, the gothic movement that is synonymous with Spain's love of blood is one of the few French imports, and when in doubt, just bash the French.

It's easy for a foreigner to dislike bullfighting, but in the end it is a distinct and wildly loved tradition, and after all, what did I know? For that, I admired bullfighting. Nevertheless, If I ever did come across a bullfight, I would probably find justice in the goring of the matador.

Love of blood, like love of bullfighting, is Spanish: the bloody rabbits in the grocery store, the blood of the dying bulls back, the bloody pictures of the Holy Roman Emperor with a crown of thorns, Sangrìa - the blood-colored drink. Blood sausages.

Blood is Spanish, and when Lily compared the Anne Rice screenplay, Interview with a Vampire to Eva from Mallorca, it all seemed to make sense: romantic nocturnal creatures, in love with the high culture, the darkness, the kill, the party. The cafe was small, rows of garlic and catholic crosses hung from the wall. We drank Pacharon, a red anisette brandy made a few miles down the road, and also red freshwater crawfish, strong coffees, and olives too. And then, after some more coffee, and a red wine or too, we were off, in the air and back to Los Angeles.

Explore more in Europa

In Venice, Istrian Croatia and Slovenia, I explore whether another Venice can be built in the future.

On the Island of Paros, I explore whether a musical improvisation master could have thrived in the ancient Mediterranean.

On a road trip to Iceland's remote Westfjords, I explore the decline of the iconic Atlantic Puffin.

In a road trip to Spain's Mediterranean coast, I ponder the value of itinerary-free travel.

Exploring Sicily's Tyrhennian Sea coast, with notes on the effect of climate and migration.

The Alfama district of Lisbon hints at the global influence of colonial Portugal.

Celebrating a family feast in the strange, modern setting of Pomerania, land of my ancestors.

Exploring small towns of Iberia, where some of Europe's most fabled cheeses were born.

Exploring the Bavarian and Swiss alps in search of the region's famous handmade cheeses.

Sketches, illustrations and notes on improvisation and worldbuilding in the Germany's second largest city.

Notes, drawings, sketches and illustrations in different mediums from Paris.

Drawings, notes and Moleskine journal sketches from my travels on the island of Sicily.

Notes on Gibraltar and its famous macaques, plus an interview with one of their protectors.

Drawings, sketches, Moleskine journal notes and illustrations from Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

Midnight tapas in Madrid, the plains of La Mancha and ancient alleys in Cuenca.

My companion notes, sketches and illustrations to my story on the Venetian Adriatic.