I've been fascinated by Spain for a long time. Why? I'm not sure. I've studied a fair bit of history, and I'm aware of the great Spanish navigators. Luiz Vaz de Torres was part of the de Quiros expedition which discovered Torres Strait in 1606. And there were many more explorers who made world history sailing from Spain or neighbouring countries. Their nationality is often argued over: see for instance the story of the Portuguese captain Magellan, who sailed from Seville in Spain. And yes, of course this is from a Eurocentric point of view; there are many other ways of seeing history. Spanish is a major language and Latinos live in some 24 countries, including the USA, as Donald Trump is finding out. Spanish music is and has been huge, popularised in recent times, mainly by Ricky Martin and helped by others like Julio Iglesias. I'm still fascinated by the Spanish conquest of the Americas, with all its consequences. For all these reasons, I wanted to see what Spain is like. I had seen Barcelona some years ago, but Barcelona is not typical of Spain.
When I visited Barcelona some years ago a student said "You're lucky you're not here at a busy time. Sometimes we have 5 cruise ships visit, and the streets are packed with loud Americans". Cruise ships helped bring some of the 65 million visitors to Spain in 2015. Hundreds of cruise ships pump tourists through Spanish ports, especially in places like Ibiza and Mallorca. It's creating imbalances and problems with overcrowding, sewage and noise in the most popular cities.
Still, I was anxious. Travellers are warned to be careful in Spain and Portugal. There are thieves, scammers and pickpockets. With a youth unemployment rate of some 45%, it's not surprising that people of any age turn to theft. I was worried, as my attempts to fit into a crowd are a challenge for an older, six foot four man who gets lost easily.
Madrid the grand capital
But my spirit of adventure led me to Madrid. Even a quick trip around on the Hop On Bus showed that - as a Swiss guy had promised- "everyone wants to go to Madrid, becoz it is so bew-di-full". Grand squares and massive roundabouts showed you stunning buildings, often in gleaming white. I was lucky to find High Mass going on in San Francisco el Grande. I was charmed by dancing in the Retiro Park, folk dancing as well as flamenco. Palaces, cathedrals and other places are packed with gold, silver and expensive art. Madrid is certainly a grand city to compare with Paris, Berlin and Vienna.
A trip to Toledo
My cousin had visited Madrid some years ago and convinced the tour guide to go to Toledo, barely an hour outside Madrid. Websites tell of the huge significance of the place, from pre-Roman times to Franco and after. Serpentine narrow streets, another stunning cathedral which had been a mosque before Spain expelled the Muslims, and a mighty fortress called the Alcazar which had been destroyed during the Spanish Civil War all made for a satisfying trip. Toledo steel is still famous; hard steel must have been one reason – among many others - why the conquistadores defeated the native populations of the Americas. I decided to walk scornfully past the burger joints and sat down in a nice restaurant for a proper meal. Alas, the waitress tumbled down the narrow spiral staircase with a tray full of food and plates. The ensuing chaos kept staff busy and I wended my sad way back to the burger joints.
The train to Toledo was swift and quiet (use of mobiles was thankfully forbidden). But I fell asleep on the train back to Madrid. I awoke with a start- some woman was yelling into her phone. Half awake, I walked towards the ruckus amid many concerned but timid glances. "You! No phone! Shush!" someone said (was that me?). There was a small round of applause and smiles and "gracias" from many. Abuse of phones is a worldwide nuisance.
Seville in southern Spain
The next stop was Seville. Friends had recommended it, and it's the scene of many operas: Don Giovanni, Carmen, and some story about a barber. The hotel was about six streets from the station, but the taxi driver kindly gave me a tour of the city. And then, at last, here was my hotel. The fare was now ten Euros fifty, and I couldn't find the right change, so I gave him twenty. Oh, and by the way there was a charge for the bags, a tourist tax and the special tax for Sunday… I was lucky to get a few cents back in my hand. Taxi drivers might be the real thieves on this trip, I thought.
Seville is an ancient town which has seen many, many stories and events too numerous to mention here. Columbus, Julius Caesar, and many others are celebrated. Alas, the city has numerous tiny streets which wind like coiled serpents. I took a photo once of some of the confused tourists poring over maps. My hotel was also very confusing as it was some kind of converted clump of houses. There were cobblestones everywhere –even in the hotel itself - and my knees and hips didn't much like them. Especially after going uselessly round in circles and trying to get directions from bored locals. But the history of the place unfolded on a river cruise. Seville had been the port which had the major rights to the trade to the Americas. The Golden Tower was used to store much of the gold, and now has models of some of the famous ships which sailed out of Seville.
The cathedrals were stunning. How they ever prayed in such places was a mystery to me. Many cathedrals were converted from mosques, and some retained small orange orchards. Like the palaces, they were packed with gold, silver and jewels. It was overwhelming, and the spaces were dark and gloomy. So, like many others, after a week or two I was on religious overload. No more cathedrals, thanks! Instead, I spent my evenings drinking wine and eating dinner while some young guys did an imitation of flamenco in the square for a few euros in tips. Meanwhile many of us watched on big-screen TV as Cristiano Ronaldo entertained the enormous football crowds. He seemed to change his shirt a lot; maybe they give him a bonus every time he does so. Spain still has its heroes.