September 15, 2002

Hola otra vez de buena España! I know, the Spanish is going to get old. I can´t help it. I´m even starting to talk to myself in Spanish now, and it´s starting to come more easily. I always had trouble with the multipes of 10 numbers for some reason, 30, 40, 50...now I´m able to say ´¿Cinco y cuarenta para la pendiente?´ Whether I ask for the right item is still up in the air, but I get the cost right. And I haven´t ended up with a big plate of veal when I wanted octopus, yet. So I´m doing ok.

When we last left our travelling girl... I finished out my last day in San Sebastián with a little shopping, an unsatisfying menú del dia, some beach time, and dinner in Parte Viejo. I went down to the beach at around 4:30, which is actually a pretty good time to go. It´s not the extra-crispy sun time but the sun is still pretty strong and the water´s usually at the peak of its warming up, right before it starts to get very cold. I got to know the bahía pretty well. I enjoyed my swim time, swam out to the buoys sectioning off the swimming area from the fishing boats and slowly swam back in with the waves. I sat on the beach and read my book, which I feared I would finish by the end of the day.

Went down again to the beach for sunset; walked along the port wall and watched the light drain from the sky and new lights appear on the water. I looked at my watch and it was nearly 9. Normally around 9 I´m starting to think about dinner, the unofficial start time for the evening meal in Spain. But it was 9-11, and 9:00 I remembered meant 12 in the US, and the minute of silence. So I waited by the rail, looking over the water, thinking about how peaceful it seemed. When I heard the Cathedral bells strike 9, I stood and thought about where I, where everyone, had been at that time last year. Remembered the horrors and the tears and the intense feelings and the families and the victims. I took more than a minute. Then I turned and walked to Parte Viejo, glad to be alive and there in that beautiful town.

I wandered around Parte Viejo for about an hour, going up and down streets I hadn´t seen the last time I was there. There were a lot of cool stores and I started to regret my decision to leave San Sebastián in the morning. I wanted more time to explore. Eventually I ended up at the same plaça I´d eaten in before, but went to another pintxos bar there, to try some new things. I got a pimiento relleno (not quite the same as a chile relleno in the US) and pescado del pastel, basically fish mixed with something else like cream cheese or something and on bread. I also asked for sangria and got a full 16 oz glass full of it. Mmmm, sangria...

Walked back to my room, not particularly unsteadily--the sangria wasn´t that strong, along the bay again. The moon, which was in crescent and had been small and white earlier, had become very large and yellow and low over the city across the bahía. It was beautiful.

As I walked, I noticed the lights from the walk over the bahía were making the water glow green and translucent. I watched as fish swam under the water, large and small. I´d known I was swimming with the fishes all this time, I´d seen a few very small ones in the surf while walking on the beach in the mornings. But I hadn´t quite realized how many. Apparently they stay away from swimmers, as I never had an encounter with one.

Got back to my room and was still vacillating about whether to leave in the morning. It was a hard decision. But I sort of felt I´d gotten what I wanted out of San Sebastián and was ready to move on. I decided to delay all decisions to the morning.

I woke up in the morning and lay in bed for probably 30 minutes, trying to decide what to do. As it is wont to do, the decision finally hit me that I should go. I usually go through this with all decent sized decisions, think think think think, until I don´t know if I can think any more, then the decision hits me and I feel great. Which I did. I got up, packed up, then went out for one last beach stroll.

I left San Sebastián on the 1:30 bus for Bilbao. It´s only about an hour and a half by bus and you can´t get there by train. It´s one of those oddities. There´s actually a train that goes from Bilbao to San Sebastián apparently, but it takes something like 5 hours. Hard to imagine. Anyway, the bus was fine, as it turned out. It was kind of entertaining to see Spain from an actual road, see the way their freeways work--lots of toll stops and tunnels, see the view from higher up.

I arrived in Bilbao mid afternoon and went to the pensión I´d lined up over the phone from the bus station. It was on a little street and the stairs were dark wood with bannisters that swayed as I walked up holding them. The owner only spoke Spanish, but was patient with me. The room was small but clean and had a window that looked out on the laundry the owner had hung out to dry.

I walked out to go to the Museo Vasco, the Basque Museum that was nearby. I was saving the Guggenheim, really the only reason to come to Bilbao, for the following full day. I didn´t want to be rushed. I spent a lot of time in the museum in an exhibition about the Basques relationship with music, how they recorded their history and kept their language alive through music. It was pretty interesting, though almost exclusively in Spanish. I found two parts of the exhibit that had English sections and gleaned most of my info from that.

The Basques seem to have a relationship with Spain similar to the Irish with England. They don´t really want to be a part of the country, but at the same time haven´t figured out how to extricate themselves. And not everyone wants to extricate themselves. I saw a lot of Basque nationalism signs and graffiti in Bilbao, which is much more like a big city than San Sebastián, with I think younger more politically motivated people. I can see how it would be hard to get agitated about anything in San Sebastián.

After the museum, I wandered around a bit, visited the TI and got some maps. On my walk, I noticed a sign for a musical I thought I might like to see, showing at the Teatre Arriaga. Cuando Harry encontró a Sally. Yes, a musical version of the movie When Harry Met Sally in spanish. I just laughed at first. Then I thought, if ever there was a show I might be able to understand, it would be this. I know the movie like the back of my hand, well, better really as I´ve spent more time watching Harry/Sally than I do watching the back of my hand. I´m not really a hand watcher. So I figured, I know it´s a musical, but if they stay reasonably close to the story line, I could probaby follow along. So I found out at the TI how to get tickets and walked over to the Teatre Arriaga and bought a cheap seat for the show that night.

Next I walked to a bookstore with books in English across the river. I found the store and paid through the nose for ¨Possession¨by A.S. Byatt. It was one of the thickest books I could find that I thought would be interesting. When you´re travelling, thicker is better.

On my way back, I noticed all the beggars. It was similar to San Francisco--lots of young, smelly, dredlocked kids begging for money. Sometimes they were playing recorders and such to try to earn the money a bit, or selling things. The city is also very dirty. It had more of a city feel to it than even Barcelona, I think, because Barcelona is much more packed with tourists. Bilbao just seemed like any old city, like New York or Chicago.

I went back to my room and changed into my one nice-ish dress I brought, a sort of spanishy black light weight dress with no sleeves. I took my hair down and put on lipstick. Oh, yes. For those wondering, the lipstick went out the window after about day 2. I got sick of the strap of my bag sliding over my lips inadvertantly when taking it on and off then staining my shirt. Plus it just didn´t seem necessary. Yes, I am au natural.

I went to the show and had a very good time. I think the show probably wasn´t actually that good. But it´s hard to tell in another language. The theater was beautiful, lush reds and pinks and an ornate ceiling and a chandelier in the lobby. The show did stick pretty close to the movie, so I followed the plot and even quite a bit of the dialogue. I didn´t understand the songs at all, as expected, but enjoyed them for the most part. There was a particularly odd one toward the beginning, during which Sally is describing the fabulous life she hopes to have in New York. I suspect I might have been offended by the stereotyping of Americans (boy, that would be funny) if I´d really understood what they were saying. But their voices were very good and they danced well and had good chemistry. I even laughed in several places, understanding well enough to do so. It was fun to get dressed up and go out, something I don´t do often enough even in SF.

The next day was the Guggenheim. I walked over there along the river, looking at the cool pedestrian bridge along the way, and some sculptures. Then I saw the antenae-like stone structures rising up. Then behind them some odd metal curves. Then I was looking at the Guggenheim. I felt like you feel when you first see the Golden Gate Bridge or the Statue of Liberty--something you´ve been anticipating for a long time.

It´s a hard building to describe--once again I recommend you find a website or wait for pictures. But it´s all metal curves and glass and white curves inside and cream colored marbley stone. There´s a pond in back where every hour or so fog comes out from under a bridge and sweeps over the pond, a cold real feeling fog, which is a japanese art piece. It´s quite large and very cool. Out front is an installation/scupture by Jeff Koons called ¨Puppy¨which is easily 20-30 feet tall and shaped like a puppy, made out of flowering plants. Puppy was in bloom.

Inside is all modern and abstract art. One room has particularly odd abstract art pieces made with odd materials, like strips of felt piled seemingly haphazardly on top of each other. There´s a rather cool iron sculpture that snakes down the middle of the room, called ¨Snake¨that you can walk through, it has two walk ways through it. There was a piece I just loved on the first floor, in an alcove, which was made up of nine strips going from floor to ceiling with space to walk through in between each with LED lights in red on one side and blue on the other. Each strip had words going up it at the same time, the same words on each strip at different intervals, a poem about obsessive love, in several different languages. I think it was in Spanish, English, and Euskara--the basque language, but I´m not absolutely sure. The first two certainly. You could see the lights reflected on the smooth walls and ceiling of the dark alcove, which was at least 2 stories tall.

There was a Kandinsky exhibit and an exhibit of Wim Wenders´photographs on the 3rd floor. The 2nd floor was closed. I loved the photographs and, though I´m not much of a Kandinsky fan, I enjoyed that exhibit as well.

I spent about 4 hours at the Guggenheim, wandering, gawking, experiencing. They don´t allow photography inside, they actually seal your camera in a plastic bag while you´re there, but they didn´t know I had my camera. It´s so small... I was pretty good though. I took a picture while walking through ¨Snake¨ and one of a reflection in the ladies room and a couple of the LED installation. And then, of course, I took many many from outside. I walked all around the building, admiringly.

Believe it or not, I went after there to the Museu de Bellas Artes and wandered around there for awhile. Admittedly, it did start to feel like a lot of museum time, but there´s not much else to see in Bilbao. The museum was filled with almost exclusively Spanish art through the centuries and was actually pretty interesting. I expecially liked their more modern works.

I walked home after that, grabbed a bocadillo along the way, and ate in my room. Went to an internet cafe and emailed and instant messaged with my family and my co-worker Teresa. Then I went home. The art had worn me out. And I had a very early train the next day.

I took the 9:25 train the next morning, which meant I had to get up at 7:30 which is early for me these days, to Santiago de Compostela. It´s an almost 11 hour train ride but I was ready to go. Santiago is in Galicia, the northwest part of Spain, and I´d been wanting to see it for awhile. Galicia is celtic influenced, due to their stopping here for a long time at one point in early history on their way to Ireland. Or so Let´s Go tells me.

The train ride was pretty cool, though definitely long. There´s some beautiful land between Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela. Big craggy mountains. Lush green hills and trees. Rivers. And once we got to Galicia, lovely gray mountains with solitary trees spread here and there across the top, and fog floating over. Let´s Go purports that Galicia is considered magical due to its celtic influence and misty hills.

Nearly the first thing I saw when coming from the train station in Santiago de Compostela was a condom machine. That´s pretty much it--Santiago seems to be a study in contrasts. They have the obviously religious thing.

Santiago de Compostela is the end point in a month-long pilgrimage the faithful make starting in France. They walk across Spain to Santiago, carrying back packs and walking sticks, covered in scallop shells they pick up as signs of the pilgrimage. When they arrive, they´re greeted by an enormous cathedral with four different facades and, these days, trinket hockers and street performers in the plazas surrounding it. Inside is a cathedral filled with dozens of small altars? sacristies? I´m not catholic, I´m sorry I don´t know all the right words. Then one enormous gold altar in the center of it all. Just excessively gold everywhere on the altar. Apparently they whitewashed it when being invaded by someone in the past, the visigoths maybe, to keep it intact.

Then there´s the celtic influence--stores everywhere sell celtic symbols in the form of jewelry, magnets, etc. right next to rosaries and holy water holders (yes, sorry, still not catholic). There are witches, dolls and pictures and such, for sale everywhere as well. The brujúa (Galega spelling) seems to be a big figure here.

Then there´s the sex. Sex seems to be sort of pervasive, in an odd way. There was the condom machine. Then there´s a figure of Atlas on the top of a University building--legend has it that if a female student graduates with her virginity intact then Atlas will drop his globe on her. And I saw a shirt in a store front today, while looking at the religious things for sale and jewelry, which had a naked female alien bent over and a naked male alien behind her doing what would be expected in such a situation. I couldn´t tell what the shirt said in Spanish, but I didn´t feel I really needed to. It´s a very odd mix here.

Well, I have a lovely room. I asked for one with windows and the man, who happily spoke english, gave me a corner room with big french windows, one of which looks out onto part of the cathedral. I woke up this morning and looked out at the sun hitting the clock tower of the cathedral. I was even able to hang my laundry in the other set of windows.

My first experience with the Cathedral was a bit daunting. When I came into town, it was raining lightly. It had stopped by the time I went back out, shortly after arriving, maybe 9:00, to look at the town. I walked over and looked at the cathedral by the evening lights. I wandered around it in my usual awe, taking pictures and admiring. As I stood looking, it started to thunder. A bad sign, I thought. I´ll be struck down. The infidel dares show her face and camera...

I was not struck down, and today went to look at the Cathedral more thoroughly. When I arrived in the Plaza on the South side, the bells were ringing, somewhat cacophonously, bells everywhere. Then a man with marrionettes started up his music, and started his puppets dancing. As I listened to the cathedral bells (which incidentally were bells made or stolen by the Moors who forced Christians to carry them on their backs down south, then when the Christians took back the land, they forced the Moors to carry them back to Santiago), I heard bells mixed with the strains of a celtic flute version of ¨Fernando¨by ABBA.

It happens that my first full day in Santiago is a Sunday and when I arrived around noon there was a full Mass going on. I wandered in and took some pictures (yes, still waiting to be struck down) and listened to the singing. Eventually I´d taken all the pictures I could with the crowd inside and started to try to exit. Except there was no exit. They were blocked by hordes of tourists and worshippers. I was stuck. I sat at the base of a pillar and wrote in my journal for most of the Mass. I watched as they gave communion, suspecting that might be very near the end. I got up and wandered closer to the exit, which was also closer to the front.

As I got close, I noticed them bringing out something big and silver. It turned out to be the Botafumeiro, an absolutely enormous incense burner they use during the bigger Masses. It took two men to carry it on a rod up to the altar. It took maybe 5 men to hoist it up on rope. Then those men began to swing it. With the incense flames burning inside, the incense burner swung perpendicular to the altar, ever higher, over the heads of worshippers on both side. It swung very fast, and seemed to be just over people´s heads, as if it might touch their hair, and clouds of incense billowed out of it. It was something to see. I was stunned.

After the Mass was over, I wandered around inside taking pictures and discovered a line. Ever one to assume that if people are lined up, it´s probably for something good, I got in line as well. It turned out the line led up behind the altar, to Santiago himself. The first Santiago you encounter is a bust of him, in gold. He faces out, toward the crowd, but you come up behind him. It´s a little room only big enough for you, the one or two people in front of you, and a priest who´s sitting in the back taking donations and handing out cards of Santiago. The man two people in front of me kissed Santiago and spoke to him in Spanish. The woman in front of me, who was English, touched him. I took a picture. And eyed him. I looked at the priest and he said something in Spanish. I only caught the word ¨traditional¨. The priest stood up and said it again, then put his arms around Santiago at his shoulders. I nodded. What was I to do? I gave Santiago a hug. It felt kind of good. I gave the priest a euro and took a card.

The second Santiago you see is the silver coffer holding his remains, down below the altar. I looked and filed on by, as others kneeled before him and held each other.

I finished my survey of the Cathedral then walked around it to see all the facades. Then I wandered around the city, looking at shops with religious trinkets. I ate an ok menú del dia, I think I may be about to swear off them, but had some nice Sopa de mariscos (seafood soup). Then I felt I needed a rest and returned to my room. I read for a bit, looked at the cathedral out my window. Then walked out again an hour or so later and wandered the streets and shops again until I ended up here.

I´ll stay one more day, I hear there´s a good contemporary art museum here or I might go on a daytrip somewhere, then it´s off to Portugal. I read all about Portugal on my 11 hour train ride so I´m pretty excited. Lots more to see. I´m in day 10 now, 20 more to go. I think I´m doing ok. I´m certainly having a great time. If you want to email me or make comments, I´m obviously checking my email periodically. All are welcome. Hasta luego!

Posted by Alyssa at September 15, 2002 01:30 PM
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