The window above was one of a number of rich stained glass windows in an old church in Avila. Below is another window about 25 paces from the other in the same church. There was a gift shop attached where you could also look at the finger bone of the sainted nun of the church and a few other relics. As you left these churches quite often there would be an old woman in black with pictures of her family and her hand out. For some reason these struck me as much more distasteful than your usual beggars.
That morning we decided to venture outside of Madrid and joined a day tour going to Avila and Segovia. Neither of us being particularly enamoured of tours, we still thought it was an easy way to manage our time that day. (For those considering this, and if we were doing it again, I would suggest planning it yourself; it will be quite a bit cheaper, the transportation is quite easy to arrange and the food has got to be better).
While waiting for the bus to arrive we watched a line of men passing bags of concrete from the main street down a sidestreet to a building being renovated. We saw this sort of third world work quite often in Madrid. My theory is that since the buildings are so close together and the streets so narrow, the only way to move materials is the old way. (A couple of days before we had watched six levels of men passing down planks one to the next as they dismantled some scaffolding.)
What struck us again in Avila was the size of churches in comparison to the populations. They were made so that the whole town or city could be inside at the same time. They also tended to double as part of the the defensive structure, forming part of the walls around the town.
From Avila we headed to Segovia and the aqueducts.
When you see these, its no wonder that the word classical can be substituted for beautiful.
This sphinx was in a square. Why do ruined faces and statues missing limbs seem so poignant? For some reason we translate this as common antiquity rather than dwelling on vandalism or erosion. The damage appears to be part of the intrinsic character or the piece rather than something that happened to it.
When we first approached it a young woman was getting her mother to take her picture near it. We had already seen her getting her mother and many others to document her time here. And you had the distinct impression that her purpose was to capture as many versions of her face as possible rather than what her face had been near. It was actually kind of funny; she seemed like a sprite of a sort, a self obsessed spirit.
The last thing we saw in Segovia was this Robin Hood type castle. Inside were all the accoutrements of the knighthood. A prince had ruled on this hilltop and one could easily imagine how this grand structure would have impressed anyone coming around the bend.
The food you ask? Well the bunch of us were herded into what I thought might be the described feast of rural Spanish cooking. The wine was not very good which must have taken a little work in this country of incredible reds but it was passable, and the bread was warm and rich. The food would have found a good home in a trough. Fatty pig parts in some sort of gravy sauce. And the requisite local band playing for the passed hat. The only fun part was us trying to talk to our companions from Mexico (Chihuahua) (he had a wonderful bandido moustache) in our butchered versions of the two languages.
Earlier in the day it was rainy and slightly cold. Not having planned for this, and working with carryon luggage only, we were raincoatless so it was a damp morning. And I had only running shoes with airgrids since I was expecting heat so the socks and feet were wet as well. No matter it was great to walk the old town.
The three of us (C an I and my colleague) found a croissant and coffee place after about a kilometre of walking (Warsaw is still more Polish than international so it is not quite as accomodating to the Western idea of breakfast or of multiple eateries at one’s disposal.) (I remember my father telling me about a trip he took through Russia years ago before the change and how the bus would stop at the side of the road and if you didn’t have your own food you would go into town and knock on doors and see if someone would feed you for a little money; most towns did not actually have restaurants).
We did walk by a couple of very smoky places and one strange white industrial room where someone was amassing a large mound of chopped pink meat. But we got some food in our bellies and then walked some more looking at the old buildings and then parted ways since colleague wanted to look at some Warsaw Uprising sites.
C and I trundled about some more and then found another cafe with pastries. This had a menu of espressos from about 40 sources with detailed descriptions of all. We selected a couple and found them to be utterly bland though the pastries were absurdly good (in general all the Europe we visited well knew its way around baking). A major difference sitting there as we remarked throughout the trip was the relaxed atmosphere in these places. There was no sense that you ever had to leave. In many cases, getting the bill was difficult. That’s it for the writing for this day. See the pictures.
Breakfast was a not atypical hotel assortment of eggs (a little oranger than ours), buns and bread (much much better than what passes here), cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, coldcuts and a large rack of wieners. Orange juice in very small glasses and coffee in half size cups to fill from a Nescafe machine with settings for espresso or regular. This was very much a portent of life for the next week as regards coffee; bad and always machined Nescafe (with a couple of exceptions only) and bread worth writing home about.
Here in Canada, I fear to buy bread even in bakeries at times for the poor quality about but there I had not one slice or bun that didn’t rank high. Didn’t like the butter but it did not matter at all. And cookies or pastries….a very dangerous place for the weight conscious. And in general, the vegetables and fruit tasted better than here; even the potatoes tasted home made. Food in Poland was good (even the hotel convention food) with only the coffee substandard.
We ended up sitting at a table with K, an Australian whose wife was at the conference but he was trying to keep himself amused. He knew a bit of the history and had already done one day in town and offered to be personal tour guide for C. They spent the rest of the day in the Old Town visiting the palace, some of the gardens, various military sites and also the Warsaw Ghetto. C said that she saw a Rembrandt which struck her as somewhat postmodern in that the figure’s hand extends over the picture frame within the painting.
She was also quite moved by seeing the holes in the bases of the palace walls which had once held German explosives and only by chance had not been detonated during the retreat. So much of Warsaw had been bombed and in fact one of the interesting displays at the Old Square was photographs of the destroyed buildings and the reconstruction which took place using Canaletto paintings of the same. (We were to see many more Canalettos later in the Prado.) I could not find the painting displayed but this other one of his will give you an idea of the sort of detail he was capable of (and when 85% or so of your city is destroyed and you would rather recreate the old glory than start fresh, this just the sort of thing you need).
When C and I reunited later in the day she remarked as well on how many beautiful 17 years old girls were in evidence as well as strapping young security guards. But before that I spent part of the day warming seats and listening to others jaw and another part having others listen to me flap my gums. My colleague and I presented in the same session and ended up after in the Gromada bar with our other presenter (from Nigeria) and some amusing individuals from a couple of tobacco companies. Three beer each later and we ended up (with C) in a very fine restaurant (U Fukier) off the old town square. That’s the square below (not our picture) we have some to come during the wet days that followed. But this is kind of what it looked like that night.
After fine dining (Russian crab in crepes, tomato and onion salad, fine red wine, dessert and a good latte) we spilled out into a hot night onto the cobblestoned square which had people under canopies drinking beer (almost all Poles as opposed to the tourist haunts for most of the rest of the trip). As we walked across the square I recalled a German concept I had recently read about called “Platzangst” which is the fear that can overcome you as you are attempting to traverse a square that you will never actually reach the end of it.
We tottered into the bar at the Bristol (an art deco bar dating from around 1905 where Marlene Dietrich reputedly used to hang). Most of us had beer and C at my suggestion tried the bison grass vodka we had read about. Interesting but not repeatable. (I could not find a picture of the bar itself and did not take one regrettably but see one of the hotel below; we did not know it at the time but we would end up spending a couple of nights there). (C almost ended up taking a side trip with one of the others to Krakow and the camps (Dachau and Birkenau) but the price was a little out of range. Krakow would have been great since it had most of the old architecture still intact.)