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My Spanish Heart

In 1918, it really was NOT the "Spanish flu"

The BBC's regular feature "Witness History" recently broadcast this fascinating story.


Over 50 million people died from influenza during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Scientists trying to understand why that particular strain of flu was so virulent, dug into Alaska's permafrost to find traces of it to study. Kate Lamble has been speaking to Dr Jeffery Taubenberger who sequenced the genome of the so-called "Spanish" flu virus.




#bbc @katelamble #witnesshistory #witness

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“He picked me up like a sack of beans.”

"I don't like to see people suffer," Gorgui Lamine Sow said of the rescue.
Credit...Roberta Etter, via Reuters

Migrant Rescues Spanish Man from Burning Apartment

from The New York Times 

Story by Rafael Minder

#NewYorkTimes #Spain #Migrants #fire #rafaelminder

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Madrid Buried a Highway, Built a Park: Come on Philly!

Café del Río in Madrid Río, a new park created where a highway once bisected the city. The highway was moved underground.

It was a bit rainy and overcast the day my friend Anne and I rode the circular bus to meet her husband, Luis, for lunch. We were headed to a restaurant located in a new park called Madrid Río, which, to be honest, I didn't even know existed. Luis had chosen the restaurant and neither Anne, a professor of linguistics at Saint Louis University Madrid, nor I had eaten there before. After we got off the crowded bus,  Anne told me a little bit about the new park and how it had dramatically changed the surrounding neighborhoods, once ignored and on the downward slide. As we walked down a wide set of steps into the park, I looked around at the dense housing adjacent to the park and had a sudden appreciation for a civic project that transformed the front yards of thousands of homes from a noisy, dirty highway to a green, healthy park. Already I was impressed.

We walked with great anticipation into the airy and bright Café del Rio, where Luis was waiting patiently, as we were quite late, thanks to the crowded, slow-moving bus. "You've had lunch already?" Luis asked with his dry sense of humor.

The restaurant was busy, even if the weather was not an attraction, and the roofdeck was closed of course, but one could imagine sitting up there on a sunny day, having a long Spanish lunch and enjoying the views of the Royal Palace and the spires of the Almudena Cathedral, a modern Gothic behemoth that serves as the seat of the Catholic Diocese in Madrid.  

The park, it turns out, was created after the mayor and city council of Madrid decided to bury part of a highway and connect the city's River Manzanares to various neighborhoods near the Príncipe Pío metro stop. Sound familiar, Philadelphians?

For decades now, Philadelphia has been talking about creating a park above Interstate 95 to connect the Delaware River to the eastern neighborhoods of the city. Maybe Mayor Jim Kenney and some council folk should take a trip to Madrid.

The Madrid Río project cost 6 billion euros, most of which was spent on building tunnels so the highway could be buried. It was a civic project, not a public-private partnership, as is popular today.

It all began In 2003, when the Madrid city council voted to move part of the M-30 ring highway underground and build a 3.7-mile-long park above it. The mayor, Alberto Ruíz Gallardón, championed the public works project and had little patience for the slow process of courting private donors, according to press reports. By 2008, construction had begun and in 2011, the park was complete with a "beach," sports and recreation areas, 11 new footbridges, 8,000 pine trees, and 17 play areas. A controversial metallic footbridge represented one of its few artistic forays. The park connected poor neighborhoods with the more affluent ones and one stated intention was that all of Madrid would walk, exercise more in the out-of-doors. A sign states the goal. "Walking People" Yes, in English.

We had a delightful and entertaining lunch (the fish was fabulous) and I was so taken with the park that I returned the next day to walk around some more. People were jogging, riding bikes, doing all the healthy things open spaces and parks encourage urban dwellers to do. Sure the trees were still young and, compared to the mature beauty of magnificent Retiro Park, Madrid Río was sparse. But give it a few years and it will be grand. And, unlike Schuylkill Banks in Philadelphia, Madrid Río is a wide park with bike paths that leave a lot of room for pedestrians. Even on a warm sunny day, I could imagine that one would not feel as if they were about to be run down by speed-demon bicycles.


As always, I get a little lost and as I wandered through the park, I had no idea where I was headed, but eventually I began to tire and looked for an exit. Finally, I found a street that looked inviting and left the park to try to figure out where I was and how I might get back to Malasaña and my apartment. But once I was at the corner of the intersection and waiting for the light to change, I looked up and to my happy surprise, I saw a sign that said Casa Mingo. Seems I ended up at just the right place on the Paseo de Florida. Casa Mingo is one of those enduring places where Madrileños and tourists alike are willing to stand in line for a table. It doesn't hurt that it is near the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, where Goya painted the chapel's ceiling and dome frescoes, which I had enjoyed seeing on a previous trip.  

Wow! As it was about 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday, I thought it might be possible to stop in and eat at the beloved Casa Mingo, a rustic Asturian restaurant founded in 1888 and famous for its roasted chicken and ciders. After all, 1:30 p.m. is early for a Spanish lunch, so I thought it might not be too crowded. Wrong, very wrong. Every single table was filled, the bar was two deep and there was a long line of folks waiting for tables. I don't even like roasted chicken that much, but, as I was there, I was determined to have some. You can have lunch standing at the bar, but you have to go over to a little booth, pay for the chicken and carry it back to the bar. There you can order from a variety of ciders and they will serve you, as always, tapas (the free type); mine happened to be a small slice of fresh bread topped with cabrales, a blue cheese from Asturias. Others were served cider-soaked chorizo. I guess the waiter intuited that I'm not much of a meat eater. Anyway, the chicken was so incredibly delicious, I couldn't really believe it. I took some home and it tasted just as good cold as it had when it was hot, fresh from the roaster. Getting lost, it seems, works out okay most of the time.

As with most places in Madrid, I can't wait to return to Madrid Río, which has been celebrated with an array of architectural prizes. Even Barcelona, Madrid's forever competitor (not just in soccer or fútbol as they say in Spain), was impressed with how quickly Madrid Río materialized and the civic determination it took to make that happen.

So, thank you, Luis, for the introduction to a grand park and one more item on my long list of things to love about Madrid!

For more information on Madrid Rio, please go to http://www.archtalent.com/projects/madrid-rio.


#parks #openspace #madridrio #spain #architecture #madrid #casamingo #cafedelrio #river #highway #tunnels


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In Madrid, From Grocer's Market or Recycle Bin, Music Made Possible

On the TV show, Spain's Got Talent, Hamish Binns performs a series of songs using instruments he created from vegetables.


Suppose you wanted to play the cello but you didn't want to pony up $5,000 for one of the cheaper student models. You're in luck! You can construct your very own cello from a coffee can, some wooden spoons, a milk carton and a few other items. You can also make a bass from a wooden toilet seat, a ukulele from a cigar box, a guitar from an egg box, or a sitar from an olive oil can. In fact, you could create an entire orchestra using common discarded or recycled items.


My friend Hamish Binns, who lives in Madrid, will be happy to show you how to do it. His website, Seis Pingüinos (https://www.seispinguinos.com/reciclinstrumentos.html), is dedicated to making music education fun for children (of any age). One section of the website focuses entirely on musical instruments made from recycled objects and others are made from, yes, vegetables! Hamish started the website about five years ago and now has almost 100 instruments posted with videos you can download that will show you how to create music on recycled objects and garden-variety staples such as potatoes, carrots and eggplants.

Even if you're not in the mood to build an instrument, visit the website anyway. You'll have a good time listening to Hamish play "When the Saints Go Marching In" on the musical bottles or "Smile" on a piano made of chopsticks! And even if it's not the season, you'll find plenty of cheer in "Jingle Bells," a family presentation played on a variety of homemade instruments.

The producers of Spain's Got Talent were so amused by Hamish's creations they invited him to come on the show and bring his vegetables, which he did in January 2017. A video of the Telecinco hit show is on Youtube, but unfortunately we here in the States cannot watch, as it's not authorized to play here. (I did, however, manage to get a screen grab of Hamish performing.)

At any rate, the judges loved the novelty of the carrot panpipe with the green tops still intact and hanging from the upside-down carrots, as well as the pumpkin ukulele. He brought along some other vitamin-rich instruments and when he finished his performance, the audience gave him a standing ovation.


The whole Seis Pingüinos project is a tribute to creativity and imagination. The Youtube channel has more than 1,000 subscribers and Hamish says the website gets that many views or more each week. Of course, some folks have questions and Hamish answers emails from all over the world, many from teachers. As you may have surmised, Hamish is not a typical Spanish name. He grew up in England and has Scottish roots, all of which is to say, he can answer emails in English and Spanish. The website is mostly in Spanish but there is some English as well.

"It's really fun seeing some of my instruments and my designs being used," Hamish told me in his modest, understated manner. He continues to develop new instruments all the time and while I was in Madrid, he was working on a new hurdy gurdy, an instrument from the Middle Ages, which he made with a wine box.

When I met Hamish at Saint Louis University Madrid in 1998, he was teaching English as a Second Language and he and his band, Finis Terrae, were just releasing their first album. The band was a big hit in Madrid and around Spain and produced half a dozen albums, with most of the music composed by Hamish, who also played a gazillion instruments and was the lead singer.

Then came the family, his amazing wife, María Jesús Peces-Barba; a daughter, Lyra, and a son, Robbie. Finis Terrae segued into Finis Terrae Kids and Seis Pingüinos soon followed.

Hamish continues to teach at the university, where his wife, who is known as Susi, also teaches and is a professor of dance. In addition, Susi is a physical therapist currently designing a new technique for enhancing performance and preventing injuries in dancers. (What a talented family!) Finis Terrae Kids performs once every month or so. The band gets a lot more requests than it can fill, due to time constraints.

If you're wondering about the colorful illustrations on the Seis Pingüinos website, they were created by Homero Villagra, originally from Chile and a longtime resident of Madrid. A talented guitarist and singer, he was one of the original members of Finis Terrae and continues to be a part of Finis Terrae Kids and Seis Pingüinos. Another gifted member is Robbie K. Jones, who makes the best animal noises ever recorded. (He also plays a variety of instruments and founded the Americana Music Jam Madrid).


Hamish and Homero teamed up to create the Seis Pingüinos Activity Book as well. (It's available on Amazon along with the CD.)

When I watch the Seis Pingüinos demonstrations of how to make recycled instruments and listen with joy to the mini-concerts, I always think of Philadelphia and its persistent 26 percent poverty rate. Making music from found objects could make a lot of kids happy in a city that constantly struggles to find sufficient dollars for education, never mind the arts and music.

In 2017, the Philadelphia School District freed up 1,000 broken instruments that had been stored away for lack of funds, after a great many people put out a huge effort to draw attention to the issue. Prize-winning composer David Lang wrote "Symphony for a Broken Orchestra" and 400 musicians, including members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, performed its debut.

I would so love to see a similar concert played with all handmade instruments created from discarded common items and recycled objects. And vegetables, too. Imagine how much fun the kids would have. And maybe, with any luck, just maybe some Pingüinos from Spain might show up!

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In Madrid, the Song of Life

The Casa de Campo at the edge of Madrid.

¡Ah, Madrid! Where to start? After traveling for a month across the south of Spain, I finally have landed in Madrid, the capital, a city where I recognize the names of streets, buildings and parks, a city with memories going back to my early 20s. I saved the best for last. Madrileños are fun, witty and kind. One young man stood in the lobby of an apartment building with me for half an hour helping me find a friend, whose address I thought I knew, but had wrong.

And yes, this is a tapas town. Order a Coca-Cola, caña or vino tinto and you will be presented with a slice of baguette with manchego, a plate of freshly sliced jamón serrano, a pincha de tortilla, olives, potatoes cooked in olive oil with peppers and onions, manchego and chorizo crudites -- the list could go on and on and these are the free ones!

In the old days, if you ordered vino tinto, the waiter would ask, Rioja? That meant, do you want the better wine or the house wine. Nowadays, Ribero del Duero has come of age and the question is, Rioja or Ribero? This is a significant accomplishment for this wine-making region that produces the most expensive wine in all of Spain, Unico, from the Vega Silicia bodegas. My sensibilities are not quite developed to the extent that I could justify paying prices Unico demands, but I did have the good fortune to savor it once at a dinner party and let's just say, I wouldn't turn it down. But I tend toward modest tastes, in general, though I'm happy to be educated!


My little apartment in the neighborhood of Malasaña is modern, well equipped and on the Plaza de San Ildefonso, a place where people gather for café con leche, afternoon lunch, evening drinks, late night who knows what. Whatever it is, it's noisy, often includes loud singing and some nights goes on until 6 a.m. These have to be young people! I do remember seeing the sun come up a few times here, but that was two decades ago, and I no longer have that ambition!

Before arriving in Madrid this time, I kept going back and forth about where to stay: by the Plaza Santa Ana, near my first landing spot, or Malasaña, just off the Gran Vía, where I've nested during every post-sabbatical visit. Malasaña won and I'm happy about that decision. Metro Tribunal, part of Line 1, is just down the street and makes the whole city accessible. There are grocery stores, artisan bread shops, modern gift and clothing shops, old-school bars with napkins tossed on the floor and more sophisticated upscale restaurants with chic decor. The old church on the plaza clangs its bell to mark the time.

I also was torn between staying in a cramped hostal with no amenities except a private bathroom and WiFi (a great bargain) and a livable space with everything I need. After hours of studying Airbnb, I found this apartment, reasonably priced, modern and with a washing machine that also works as a dryer. That is an unusual luxury! And it even has a balcony (which accounts for my familiarity with the noise from the plaza). The most amazing thing about it, though, is the bedroom, closed off from the street with a soundproof door. I kid you not! When you close the door, the room is almost quiet, and the noise that seeps in is so muted, it actually is possible to sleep!


Much has changed in Madrid, of course, but what hasn't wavered are my friends here. They're still welcoming, sensitive, kind, fun, and one of the reasons I so love this city. Back in the late '90s, when I packed my bags and hopped on a plane to start a sabbatical from The Philadelphia Inquirer, I knew no one here. Now, it really does feel like my home away from home. Sure I've had to work on staying up late, as things don't start happening until 8:30 at the earliest, including dinner. But I've adapted!

My second night in Madrid, I was invited to a birthday party where my friends, the musicians, played casually on guitars and the banjo. Later in the evening, a professional dramatic storyteller was coaxed into putting on an impromptu hilarious show and the talented instrumentalists improvised the perfect soundtrack. Everyone laughed a lot and the musicians got a special round of applause. What a night! I 've been to two jazz concerts, a bluegrass music jam, lunches, dinners, a hike in a beautiful park. It's a delight to do things with friends after weeks of solo travel!


There is sadness here, too. I lost a good friend to cancer last fall and I cried when I met up with her husband, also a dear friend. They and their son visited me twice in Philadelphia and I treasure those happy memories. Of the musicians I hosted in my home in 2000, two have died, one of cancer and the other in a tragic bus accident. So like any place where the roots develop, one experiences the many notes, high and low, of the life song.

The high notes bring joy: talents expanding, the families formed and the terrific children born after I left; the wonderful, fun and gifted new spouses. New friends of friends. The song of life in Madrid is rich, like a Mahler symphony.  

On my own, I've walked through the old neighborhood where I lived 20 years ago, discovered the Park Oeste, and tramped through the zoo at the Casa de Campo, another beautiful park at the end of the city. I'm clocking five miles a day on foot and sometimes seven or eight! Ouch!

I want to revisit the Prado Museum, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary. I have some day trips planned; to the walled city of Avila, Cercedilla in the mountains, maybe San Lorenzo de El Escorial, where I spent the New Year's Eve that turned 1997 into 1998. What a solo adventure that turned out to be! Am I blushing?


I haven't even made it to Retiro Park yet, but the Sunday book fair beckons. The Rastro, the world's largest flea market, is another Sunday tradition, but maybe I'll skip that.

I may just spend a "quiet" day in Malasaña, a neighborhood that has become more upscale in the last two decades. It used to be something akin to South Street in Philadelphia, head shops, sex shops, tons of really young people flocking to the streets. Now the main street of the neighborhood, Fuencarral, flaunts endless clothing stores in all price points, from Mango to Foot Locker to Adolfo Dominguez.

Sneakers are huge here. If you read online that people in Spain never wear sneakers and dress more formally, don't believe it. Sneakers are just as popular here as they are in the States. They come in gold, silver, every variation imaginable. And everyone wears them, well not everyone, but they are definitely "in."

Another thing they tell you sometimes is you don't need to tip. Tipping used to be optional and once a cab driver handed a tip back to me. He told me you don't tip drivers in the day, only at night. That is different now. Drivers gladly accept gratuities and I've noticed that waiters and bartenders happily accept them as well. Am I imagining that they now expect it? Still, a 10 percent tip is a good one here, whereas in Philadelphia, 20 percent and even 25 percent is common.  


The winds of political change are beginning to sweep across Spain, as in the rest of the world. The PSOE, the more liberal party, and the PP, the conservative party, dominated the government for decades after Franco. The current prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, is from the PSOE, but an election is scheduled for April 28, where all the seats in what is basically the House and most of the seats in the Senate, are to be voted on. There are now three parties on the right, the PP, which is traditionally conservative, Cuidanos, center right, and Vox on the far right, some would say the extreme far right. Podemos, a group left of the PSOE, has proved less effective than people had hoped when it formed a few years ago. The question of Catalan independence is still roiling the political scene. I don't pretend to have in-depth understanding of the political scene, but I do like to keep up with the contours of what is going on.

While I still have a substantial amount of time left in Madrid, I feel the climax approaching, the days are barely in double digits. I look forward to seeing my family and friends in Philadelphia. I miss them. It is my home, after all. But already I'm thinking about when I'll return to Spain. I've never visited the north, Bilbao, San Sebastián, the now-famous Oviedo, the city Javier Bardem charmed Vicky and Cristina into visiting with him in the Woody Allen movie (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, 2008). I'm told the city has erected a statue to the filmmaker. I guess I'll just have to go and see for myself! After all, I met Javier Bardem in Philadelphia and had a chance to chat with him. But that's another story for another time.


#madrid #spain #javierbardem #casadecampo #malasana #myspanishheart #vino #riberodelduero #rioja

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Jerez de la Frontera: Fundador & All That Jazz

Bodegas Fundador in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.

The first time I heard about Fundador, I was listening to the Bill Evans / Tony Bennett album the artists collaborated on in 1975. It's a timeless collection of jazz standards, one of which is "When in Rome." The song starts off with a beautiful harmonic introduction from Evans, then Bennett brings the opening lyrics:

When in Spain, for reasons I don't explain

I remain enjoying a brew,

Don't deplore my fondness for Fundador --

You know a Fundador can lead to a few --

And baby, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I really had no idea what he was singing about...obviously Fundador was some kind of high-octane beverage. Having listened to the CD possibly a thousand times, I was never going to forget Fundador. I just didn't know anything about it.

Jerez de la Frontera, it turns out, is home to Spain's oldest bodega and many others, for that matter. Bodegas Fundador, which produces sherry and brandy, is a sprawling estate with beautiful landscaping. After I learned about the sherry and the brandy, I figured Señor Bennett was singing about the brandy, but who knows? I guess we'd have to ask the songwriters, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, to know for sure. Actually Leigh was the lyricist and, as she is no longer with us, maybe we'll never be sure.


After touring the alcazar, that's a given in Andalucía, and checking out the outstanding flamenco that is everywhere in Jerez, I decided I had to tour one of the bodegas for which Jerez is famous. The well-known Tio Pepe bodega, which is extremely popular, was an option and closer to where I was staying. But I don't know any lyrics about Tio Pepe (maybe you do), so Fundador was my one and only.

Jerez can be a little frustrating to find your way around, some of the streets have their names on the corner buildings and some don't. Just try using Google Maps with directions like "turn left on calle soandso." Ha, as if you would ever know which street that was. Anyway, I managed to walk to Bodegas Fundador, it just took a while. (The return trip is always so fast!) Fortunately, I had looked online and discovered the tours were offered at specific times, so I decided to go for the 4 o'clock tour and gave myself over an hour to find a place 15 minutes away!

The grounds are beautiful and the giant buildings filled with barrels of various sherries at multiple stages of development, plus the museum with all its memorabilia, made for a nice late afternoon.

There were eight people on my tour, Germans, British and myself, the sole norteamericano. Almundena Sanchez, our guide, was incredibly knowledgeable, patient with us, spoke fluent English, and had answers for all of our questions, no matter how far ranging. She was willing to give the tour in English and Spanish, but we all agreed that English would suffice.

Why are the giant barrels painted black? So you can tell when there is a leak...the alcohol oozes white and the leak is immediately apparent. Why all the black mold in the man bodega? It helps regulate the temperature. Strange!


The bodegas have welcomed many a celebrity visitor, as the signatures on the barrels testify: the Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz, the great Luciano Pavarotti, Caroline Kennedy, John and Bo Derrick (!). The tour was fascinating, as was the explanation of the processes and the examination of various sherries and brandies as we sniffed their aromas and compared their colors. My favorite part of the museum, which  was part of the tour, were the well-maintained carriages. One beautiful carriage built to carry four people had less legroom than the economy section on an airplane! Maybe people had shorter legs back then?

Ah, but finally, it was time for a sampling of the products, which came at the end of the tour. We tasted dry sherry first and that was a hit. Next came the very sweet, the Pedro Jiménez, which not everyone liked. It was served over ice and with a slice of orange. A chap named John from England and I loved it. His wife was not pleased and passed hers off to him. He was happy to oblige. As we sat and relaxed and began to talk to one another, conversation almost turned to politics after we'd established where we were from. But the Brits and I quickly laid down some rules: no talking about T or B. The Germans laughed.

Thereafter, we had pleasant discussions about all manner of other interesting topics: how beautiful the Cotswolds are, how tough it is to learn to speak really good Spanish, etc.

We polished off most of the samples and lingered until closing at 6 p.m.


It was a delightful time, indeed, so, yes baby, when in Rome ...

#fundador #bodega #sherry #brandy #billevans #tonybennett #jazz #jerezdelafrontera

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Prelude to Córdoba, Jewel of the World

Al-Rahman I arrived in Almuñecar in 755. The city erected this statue in 2005 to note the 250th anniversary of his arrival.

Wanderers often wonder whether to pursue knowledge and culture or just kick back and relax at, say, an inviting beach. The seductive splash of the waves, the cascade of blues that blend sea with sky, the fresh daily offerings of the fishermen; the Mediterranean coast has the power to soothe. I was ready.  


That beach the taxi driver told me about? I reserved a hotel room for three nights and ended up staying for six. Almuñecar, however, unexpectedly offered not just a respite, but the beginning of the story of the Muslim conquest of Andalucía. Almuñecar is where Al-Rahman I arrived in 755 after escaping the purge of the family dynasty in Damascus.

As I had just come from Granada, where the Muslim reign in Spain ended in 1492, I was surprised to find myself in the place where it began.  


The Muslim conquest of Spain that became politically established with the arrival of Al-Rahman I and the Christian Reconquista that finally was completed by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand is a period in history that perpetually fascinates.

In just a few days, I would be on my way to Córdoba, where Al-Rahman I began the incredible mosque that stands today. It was expanded by his sons and grandsons and later transformed into a spectacularly gilded cathedral in the 13th century when the Christians retook the city.


But Córdoba was days away. After dropping off my bags at the lovely antidote to my tiny cube in Granada and flinging open the curtains just to stare at endless sea, I was ready as always to take a walk and explore the town.

Almuñecar is a small resort town of about 30,000 people, which like all waterfront towns swells in the summer. It was founded around 600 B.C. by the Phoenicians, who called it Sexi. When I first saw that name on some of the touristy kitsch, I thought it was some kind of beach branding -- bikinis, Speedos, all that. Silly me.

Most of the businesses were closed as it was off-season, but there were plenty of British and German tourists who did not mind and seemed to be having a grand time in the sun.

The hotel offered three meals a day and nighttime entertainment such as flamenco, games, guitar concerts, etc. Plus there were a few nearby restaurants that were open, along with some souvenir shops and newsstands. I chose to eat in the places away from the hotel, but if I were not as mobile as I am today, I would not mind a bit hanging out there.

I met up with a couple from Cheltenham, England, who had spent 10 days at the hotel. Annette, who did most of the talking, told me about a British author who had written a novel, The Return, about the Spanish Civil War. Apparently, Victoria Hislop is a best-selling writer. I wasn't familiar with her work, though I now intend to read that book.

But I digress. As I walked along the beautiful seaside sidewalk, I came upon a gigantic statue and discovered it was a tribute to "Abd Al-Rahman I … the only survivor of the Umayyad dynasty," as the sign explained. "Later he founded the Emirate of Córdoba, which was independent of Bagdad and so beginning a new dynasty in Al-Andalus." The sculpture had been created by Miguel Moreno, an artist from Granada. I was intrigued to find yet another documented piece of the story of this epic Islamic conquest and Christian reconquest.


The peaceful, tranquil days in Almuñecar energized me. (They believe in free tapas here, too!) The hotel clerk got to know me as that woman who kept asking to stay one more night. But, finally, I knew it was time to head to Córdoba. That involved a two-hour bus ride to Málaga, where I caught the train to Córdoba. Another small hotel room, but this one was a lot more comfortable!

At the top of my sight-seeing list, of course, was the Mezquita.The city's most famous landmark, the Mezquita is spectacularly emblematic of the passionate conflict between Muslims and Christians that spanned 700 years. A sea of red and white double horseshoe arches in the high-ceilinged mosque is surrounded by Christian chapels filled with dazzling displays of gold sculpture and religious figurative paintings, with a cathedral in the center of it all. The juxtaposition of the two competing sensibilities provides a profound and jarring experience, to say the least.

But there is so much more to Córdoba than the mosque. During the 10th and 11th centuries, the Muslim city was the largest and most sophisticated city in the western world, possibly the entire world, some historians say, and was filled with libraries, paved streets with lights and an educated population. It was dubbed the Jewel of the World, supposedly by a German. For roughly 300 years, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace and worked together to produce this accomplishment. While the tolerant Umayyad leaders encouraged Jews and Christians to participate in the culture, the government did demand a special tax on non-Muslims. Only one public synagogue remains, but as the House of the Sefarad reveals, some homes had synagogues within.

The golden period in Córdoba preceded the European Enlightenment by more than 400 years. Much of the translation work completed during these years is credited with saving ancient knowledge of science, math, astronomy, and medicine plus poetry, literature and more.

A most excellent book on this subject was published in 2002 by Maria Rosa Menocal, a Yale professor. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain documents this remarkable era. I find myself re-reading it from time to time.

Córdoba seems to have been a magnet for civilizations long before Al-Rahman I, who was only the latest to arrive. Before him were the Neanderthals, Iberians, Phoenicians, Romans and Visigoths. The city's Archaeological Museum has displays from all of the cultures: coins, pottery, statues, column capitals, even an excavated portion of a Roman theater. As the museum explains in its excellent posting, the theater's seating code reflected the class divisions of Roman society. Senators got the best seats, followed by patricians, free plebeians, freedmen and slaves, and in back of everyone, did you guess it? Women!

For me, there was no down time in Córdoba. Everything there fascinates. Oh, OK, I did stop in at the hairdresser one day. You know, those pesky roots can get so showy! I had to do a little self maintenance. Got to keep up appearances, even if you're traveling solo.


One place I was determined to visit was about 20 minutes west of the city, the Madinat Al-Zahra. Fortunately, there was a bus whose only purpose was to shuttle people back and forth. This was to be a new city, "a shining city," that would be the capital of the Western Umayyad Caliphate. It is only partially excavated and much of it was destroyed only 70 years after it was built, but the vision and ambition are ample. It's a bit of an ordeal to visit, but completely worth it. Once you take the bus to the site, you can visit the museum and view some of the techniques used in building. This was most welcome, though not exhaustive. I'm still curious.

After the museum, you take another shuttle, which runs every 20 minutes, to the actual site, where you can walk around for hours, if you're so inclined. I had climbed maybe one too many alcazars, so I only went halfway down, but the views were spectacular and the breadth of the construction humbling.

I stayed an extra day in Córdoba for a total of six and could happily go back for another six. The place enthralls me! Sadly, however, they're not big on tapas in Córdoba. Maybe a few olives, delicious, and no complaints, but after Granada and Almuñecar, well, one does get accustomed to free food pretty fast! The Cordóbeses do make a really great eggplant tapa, fried and drizzled with honey.

I couldn't decide where to go from Córdoba. After six days in a cramped but nicely appointed hotel room, I needed some space. I even considered returning to Almuñecar. I loved it so. But it seemed silly to waste an opportunity to visit someplace new. I wanted to go to Extremadura and visit the far reaches of the Roman empire, Mérida and Cáceres, but the bus ride was more than I could muster (nothing against ALSA) and the train took even longer. I found a beautiful apartment in Jerez de la Frontera, a place with a kitchen, large dining room table, a place where you can sip coffee without getting dressed for the outside world, a place where you can construct a salad and read the news online. Yes, I was ready for some semblance of home and this was just the place. Who knows what I will discover once I get away from this keyboard? Maybe some really great flamenco!


#almunecar #cordoba #spain  #jeweloftheworld #mezquita 


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In Granada, No More Regrets

An eight-point star forms the cupola in the Hall of the Two Sisters, possibly referring to Gemini.


I had always dreamed of visiting the Alhambra ever since Washington Irving helped me win my first game of Authors. Maybe I was nine years old. Who knows. I was a kid and I loved that card game. The book titles suggested mystery, adventure, all kinds of unknowns. How could you not be entranced by a title like Tales of the Alhambra?

Decades later, I made my first visit and it was overwhelming in its beauty, grandeur, endless details of craftsmanship and precision. The only problem was, the night before I met up with some people at the bar/restaurant near my hostal. It was a mix of Americans and Spaniards and going along with them from place to place (who am I kidding, bar to bar), seemed like a good idea at the time. But as the night wore on and finally out, I was left with just a few hours, or was it minutes, of sleep. I did my best at the Alhambra the next day, but eventually I just crashed and headed back to my hostal to sleep. I was scheduled to leave the next day.

I always felt I had given this incredible monument short shrift and felt terribly regretful, even guilty, about it. So when the older and sadder but wiser version of myself was lucky enough to visit again, I was determined to do it right. I allocated an entire week for this historic city in Andalucia, home not only to the Alhambra but also to Federico Garcia Lorca, eternal poet laureate of Andalucia.

I had prepaid for what I thought would be a comfortable home base for my excursions, but when I opened the door and dropped my bags, I almost wept. The room was small and had an odd feeling to it, no windows, just a door that opened onto a "terrace," which was surrounded by walls and mechanicals. The stall shower stood solitary at attention in the middle of the room. I've stayed in tiny rooms in hostales before, but the feng shui in this one was just disturbing, not sure why. Later, I discovered that as soon as I lay down, I was immediately awake. Insomnia is bad enough on its own, but in a strange place it can be utterly disorienting. But don't take my word for it, check out Mark Twain's "My Long Crawl in the Dark" from Part I of A Tramp Abroad for a hilarious but spot-on description of such suffering.

At any rate, sleep issues aside, I was (and am) traveling at a leisure pace and wanted to the save the Alhambra for a day when I felt settled and could focus completely on the barrage of brilliant sculpture, ceramics, design, scripts, everything about the place that manages to completely overwhelm the senses. As I was not staying in a five-star hotel with endless services, I had some practical issues to deal with, like laundry. I needed to do some. And even though I had packed slowly and methodically before leaving Málaga, I left a key piece of my electronics converter there and my computer notebook was about to say adios.

But on my first full day in Granada, I wanted to scope out the city, so after a bracing cafe con leche, I set out to walk up the Carrera del Darro, which tends to go up and up and up and up into the Sacromonte, where people once resided in caves. The street was so narrow, you had to turn sideways when a bus passed. I was intoxicated by the sun and the mild air and the challenge of finding the end of the road, which I never did. I turned back and walked past the Plaza Nueva, across the street from my hostal, and kept going and going. I walked past Queen Isabella's cathedral, past the Cortes Ingles, a university, endless shops, bars and ice cream heladerias. According to my phone, I clocked nine miles.

The next day, I tracked down a laundromat and walked a mile with my backpack of dirty clothes. What a lovely respite it turned out to be, a beautiful bright laundromat with perfumey soaps and modern dryers. The owner sold large bottles of laundry detergent and had samples on a table. Women came in and smelled the various scents then had long conversations about the properties of each, etc. My clothes came out soft and warm and smelling delicious. Checked that one off my list. Next I wanted to track down the plug I needed, but it was too late. I would do that tomorrow.

Little did I know that tomorrow was the Día de Andalucía, which I only discovered when the next morning I walked up to the taxi driver and asked him to take me to the FNAC, where I was sure I could find the right piece. All the stores were closed, it's fiesta day, he told me.

Great. So I walked another eight miles around the city, checking out various monuments and places on the map that seemed interesting. The town was packed with people, kids eating candy and ice cream, grown-ups drinking beer and wine and eating tapas. It was sunny and warm, what's not to like?

But the Alhambra! On day four, I decided my great quest could wait no longer. I had clean clothes, I had read the books, what was I waiting for? The guide book suggested the best way to approach the monument was to hike up the Cuesta de Gomerez, which happened to be the street where my hostal sat. I thought sure, that's a great idea...feel how remote it is sitting at the top of the mountain, pass through the Puerta de las Granadas. I didn't know it was over a mile straight up. But I made it, and walked around and realized I wasn't even to the ticket office; that was further up the hill. By now, I was a little winded and the sun was strong and I had forgotten to put on sunscreen, oh the perils. When I made it to the ticket office, it was blocked off. The sign said all tickets were sold. No more entrances that day. One of the officials told me it was best to buy your ticket on the internet to make sure you got one before they were sold out. Yes, I should have planned better, but this type of trip is about not planning.

I was devastated. People were milling about. Everyone seemed upset and so was I. Finally, I walked away and saw a bus and took it back to the Plaza Nueva. After three days of walking up and down steep hills, I was hot and tired and didn't know what to do. I spotted one of those flashily painted tourist buses that drive you all over and for the first time in my life, I bought a ticket to be escorted about on a bumpy bus. I was like George Clooney at the end of Michael Clayton, "just drive."

On the bus, I'm thinking maybe I won't even go to the Alhambra again. Maybe one time is all one gets in this life. Too bad if you didn't do it right. Well, that was a bit harsh, but I wasn't thinking very clearly.

Finally, I'd had enough of the bumpy bus. It was time for tapas. This is what I ate for free in Granada: bacalao, clams, steamed prawns, fried calamari, chicken, mussels, fried anchovies  (boquerones), potato chips, potatoes with sauce (patatas bravas), endless olives, cheese and ham. I'm probably forgetting some of them. It's staggering the amount of food they give away in this city. How can you not love it?


Finally, I returned to my room to read my new book about Boabdil, the man who ended the Nasrid rule in Spain when he handed over the keys to the city to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand on January 2, 1492, ending 700 years of Muslim governing.

On this my fourth night, I finally sleep a bit, despite the bad feng shui, stale air, and crying baby down the hall.

I wake up on day five uncertain what to do. Should I track down the electronic plug I need or try again at the Alhambra? I want to put aside yesterday's defeat. But surely my computer has died by now. I take it out of my bag and sit down on the bed. There is a micrometer of juice left, according to the little bar on the bottom right. That usually means it will shut off as soon as you open it, but luck was with me. I found the official website and discovered that this day was the only one not sold out until the following week. I couldn't believe it. If I had gone to the FNAC instead of looking online, I never would have been able to buy a ticket. My computer would be working, but the Alhambra would be beyond my reach! What a close call!

The computer lasted long enough for me to secure my ticket. I dressed quickly and ran out to hail a cab.

I wanted every ounce of energy for my adventure.

This time I gave it my all. I rented the audio guide, listened at every stop, joined the awestruck throngs in picture-taking orgies and also walked every step of the Generalife, a whole city, the guidebook said. After three hours, I was beat. (Hey, I'm not young anymore!)

I left tortured grandiosity, hopped into a cab and went straight to a slick, giant sanitized suburban mall in Armilla, just outside Granada, where the FNAC and another store I didn't know about, MediaMart, had exactly what I needed. Talk about time travel, from the middle ages to the 21st century, in just 20 minutes. Anyway, the taxi driver, handsome, young and talkative and a native of Armilla, offered lots of information. I was interested in a beach, anything nearby. He told me about a place called Almunecar, only an hour away, where his parents always took the family when he was a child.

He also gave me perfect directions for how to catch the trolley back to Granada. Having finally accomplished my goals in this grand city, I was ready for a break. I booked a room in a hotel on the taxi driver's childhood beach, a place I never even knew existed until that momentous ride. Thank you to the universe for letting me forget that computer part!

Thus ends happily another tale of the Alhambra.


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A hit '90s New Flamenco band returns

Kudos to the Philadelphia Free Library! To my surprise, just recently I was able to find a copy there of The Flamenco Clan: Herencia by Ketama, a documentary film made in 2004 by the German filmmaker Michael Meert.
Beautifully rendered, visually and musically, the film recounts the story of the Habichuela/Carmona dynasty of brilliant flamenco artists, who moved from grinding poverty in Granada to Madrid, where they eventually became celebrated musicians. The offspring of the two pioneering brothers make up the core of the New Flamenco group, Ketama. Antonio and Juan José Carmona, who are brothers, and their cousin, Josemi Carmona, found a way to successfully blend pop and flamenco to create some unforgettable music. José Soto and Ray Heredia also were important during the band's early years. Ketama was immensely popular throughout the '90s, though some accused them of a fusion sell-out. Their response was, hey, we're bringing a new audience to flamenco. I can vouch for that. Needless to say, I fell hard for their music and bought my first CD (at the FNAC in Puerto del Sol), De Aki A Ketama, their breakthrough album of 1995, which sold over 600,000 copies. Then I found Dame La Mano, Sabor and, possibly their first album, made in the '80s, Canciones hondas (Deep song, a style that predates flamenco and was celebrated by Lorca). 
In the early 2000s, the group disbanded, though individual members continued to perform and Antonio Carmona, the lead signer, released a couple of solo albums. 
Last November, I discovered through an article in El País online https://elpais.com/cultura/2018/11/13/actualidad/1542138868_276109.html, that Ketama was getting back together and launching a big tour throughout Spain in 2019, starting out, of course, in Granada, on February 23. For a moment, I imagined I would be there, but that didn't quite work out. Still, I'm hoping  to catch at least one of their shows this year!
Reading about the revival tour inspired me to revisit the documentary, pull out my old CDs and visit Youtube, where you can find some great performances such as "No Estamos Lokos," incidentally the name of their 2019 tour. One of my favorites, "Se Llevaba Llevar," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIRX69FD2m0, features the hugely popular (and guapísimo) guest singer Antonio Vega (RIP/DEP), of Nacha Pop and solo fame.
My friend Hamish Binns, who lives in Madrid and is a musician, composer and builder of musical instruments from found objects and even vegetables (!), told me about Ketama. (Thank you, Hamish! BTW, he's also a professor.) I had asked for some suggestions and, along with Ketama, he mentioned Pata Negra, another New Flamenco group. I enjoyed the music of Pata Negra, but Ketama stole my heart. Their music is filled with beautiful melodies, incredibly complex rhythms (like any flamenco), passion, mystery, despair, and what they call in Spain alegria, which is more than just joy or happiness.
Perhaps, you would like to enjoy this music as well!
Here's an introduction:
And they're bringing the next generation along, too:
El Alma No Tiene Color (The Soul Has No Color),

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Madrid & me

Twenty years ago, I was living in Madrid on sabbatical from The Philadelphia Inquirer. At the time I did not have a residency visa, so I was unable to open a bank account, plus I had to leave the European Union every three months. I managed to find an apartment not far from the Plaza Santa Ana, where I was staying in a hostal on the calle Huertas, a busy street with lots of bars, restaurants and a very cool jazz club that recently closed. Every day I would check Segundomano, a shopper-type newspaper, and make appointments to see apartments. Most people wouldn't rent to a person who did not have a bank account, but at last I found an old building with a two-bedroom apartment that seemed good enough. I signed a lease in Spanish and the landlord gave me his bank account number so I could deposit the rent each month. The apartment was the one he lived in when he first got married. He was tall and resembled Ted Danson and was a nice guy. He showed me how to light the old-school heater in the kitchen, so as to have hot water. I was terrified of blowing up the place. He pointed out the washing machine and flipped the dials so I would know how to wash my clothes; pointed to the sink and told me to be careful, he didn't want to have to hire a plumber! Too bad he didn't tell me the word for laundry detergent; I ended up washing my clothes in fabric softener for at least a month.

After the landlord and I completed our transaction, I walked up the hill to a bar/restaurant and was chatting with the bartender. He told me the neighborhood was muy peligroso, very dangerous. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I said to him in Spanish, "dangerous, really? Are they going to stick a gun in my back and rob me?" He said, "no, nothing like that. They might try to grab your purse." Ha! 

The apartment was a fourth-floor walkup. I had forgotten some advice about making sure it had heat, and it didn't. It boasted a couple of portable radiators that you plugged into the wall. By October, I was freezing. My neighbors across the hall were wonderful, a professor of some sort whom I never saw, his wife and daughter, both of whom were extremely friendly and welcoming. They assured me the neighborhood was not dangerous and they had lived there all their lives. One day I was chatting with the daughter and told her how much I loved the pinchas de tortilla, pie-shaped servings of the Spanish egg and potato concoction. She said, "no, no pinchas, you have to eat the whole tortilla." And she was so thin!

One evening after a late-night concert, a taxi driver dropped me off in front of my building, and he noted the number, 36. "That's a very sad number here in Spain," he said. "Why is that number sad?" I asked. "That's the year the civil war began," he told me. Sixty years later, it was still fresh in the memories of many Spaniards, I came to learn. But, of course. Our own Civil War is much deeper in the past and yet still resonates in our daily lives.

Civil wars are always complicated, but the Spanish Civil War defied comprehension at first. It has sometimes been called the last war of ideas: Republicans, the Catholic church, the Nationalists, the Anarchists, the Fascists, the Communists, to name a few, all battled it out and made odd alliances. The first time I visited Madrid, Francisco Franco, who led the Nationalists and won the day with the help of the Fascists and Nazis, was still in power, though he died later that year. A row of Guardia Civil stood at attention with their giant rifles in front of the Prado Museum. It was a bit intimidating, needless to say. They were on the trains, everywhere. All the women seemed to wear long black dresses; there was a somberness to the city.

Years later, when I returned, the city had been transformed. Couples kissed on the street, the Spanish women were fashionably turned out and the young ones invariably had bared midriffs.

The last time I was in Madrid, in 2016, my favorite hotel had been rebuilt and upgraded; the coffee shop next door was gone, along with the glass cups and saucers accessorized by little tubes of sugar and tiny pastries called palmitas. I had to buy my coffee across the street at Starbucks and drink it from a paper cup. That gave me a bit of a jolt and not from the caffeine!

I can't wait to return to Spain in 2019 to see how Madrid continues to transform itself, moving more and more into the mainstream of the modern Western world, even as it maintains some of its most cherished traditions, like the paseo, the tapas, the cañas, and going to the movies on Sunday night.

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