January 7-21, 2012

As always, this trip log starts with a page of general information, how we happened to go on this trip, and other self- indulgent ramblings. However, unlike my other trip logs, this introductory page contains pictures. So even if you're only here for the pictures, you might not want to skip this page.

As you read this log, you'll see this symbol scattered throughout: (w) . Those symbols are links to Wikipedia articles giving more in depth information about places we went and things we saw, for those who are interested.

How It Happened

Several years ago, Terry and I made the acquaintance of a man named Greg Bollen, at a church we were attending at the time. Over the years that followed, we attended a number of different churches, and we kept running into Greg - we started joking about which of us was following the other from church to church.

About twenty years ago, Greg and his wife Ginnette decided to become missionaries. They were in Africa for 17 years, and then moved to Spain. We've kept in touch with them over the years (sporadically) via email.

In early 2011, we got an email from Greg saying that he and his son Connor were going to be visiting L.A. for a few days. They were staying at a house owned by a local church, used to put up visiting missionaries. The email was sent to a number of Greg's friends in the area, inviting everyone to come over one night for a pizza party. As it happened, the house where they were staying was just one block from our house. So we picked up a pizza, walked on over, and spent a pleasant evening visiting with Greg, as well as other mutual friends who had shown up.

At that time, we were looking forward to our 30th anniversary, coming up in January of 2012, and we were in the process of considering where we wanted to go. Obviously, we wanted it to be someplace special, and someplace we hadn't been before. So while we were visiting with Greg, we of course were asking him about where they lived in Spain, and I of course was looking the place up on my Google Maps app on my iPhone, and then Terry said something to the effect of, "We'll have to come visit you sometime." Well, as soon as she said that, it clicked - I knew where we were going for our anniversary.

About a month earlier, we had bought a timeshare. So of course, I immediately started looking at our timeshare exchange network for places to go in Spain. The unit we bought (in Florida) is actually two units in one, so the deal is, when we trade in our one week, we get two weeks in exchange. So we decided to spend two weeks in Spain, one week each at two different locations.

Planning the trip was kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. First, I had to find two locations, one of which needed to be close to where Greg and Ginnette live. I also had to find locations that had space available at the time we wanted to go. Then I had to find flights to and from Spain, with the added complication that I was buying the flights with frequent flier miles, which of course meant limited availability.

It took me a while to put together an itinerary, but I finally got it worked out. We would spend the first week at a resort in Calpe, a small town on the eastern shore of Spain, about 120km south of Valencia, and the second week at a resort just outside of Fuengirola, a small town on the southern shore, about 30km west of Málaga. Unfortunately, the only flights I could get were from L.A. to Madrid, in the center of the country, over 400km from Calpe, and over 500km from Fuengirola. It was clear that I'd be doing a lot of driving on this trip.

Spain Isn't Mexico

"Right," I hear you say, "and apples aren't oranges, either." But I've lived most of my adult life in Los Angeles, a place steeped in Mexican culture. I've been to Mexico many times; numerous day and weekend trips across the border to Tijuana and Calexico, a couple of visits to the Yucatan peninsula while on cruises, a long weekend in Puerto Vallarta, and a ten-day vacation trip to Mexico City and Veracruz. Yes, I know intellectually that Spanish is spoken in many other countries besides Mexico, but on a subconscious level, there's this equivalence in my mind - Spanish = Mexico. So I found myself having to remind myself occasionally, "They're speaking Spanish, but this isn't Mexico... it's Spain!"

I had a similar experience with the Mediterranean. Again, I've lived all my life on the East Coast, near the Atlantic Ocean, or on the West Coast, near the Pacific Ocean. So one day, we were sitting at a restaurant by the shore, and I was looking out at the water, and it just hit me: That wasn't an ocean out there... it was the Mediterranean Sea!

It's like this whole trip was one big paradigm shift.

Spanish Languages

The language that we call Spanish - which, in Spanish, is called Español, or Castellano - is the official national language of Spain. But it's not the only language spoken in Spain. There are actually several other "Spanish" languages (w), several with official status in various parts of the country. Most of these other languages, such as Catalan, Valencian, Galician and Aranese, are Romance languages, like French, Italian, Portuguese, etc. And then there's the Basque language.

Basque (w) , a language spoken in northern Spain, southern France and Andorra, is in a class by itself. It has no relation to any other language in the world - it's what the linguists call a language isolate. And it's reputed to be one of the most difficult languages for a non-native speaker to learn. In fact, I once read that there's a legend that the Devil has no power over the Basque people - because he can't learn their language!

The language even looks difficult. Here's a link to the website of a Basque language newspaper, so you can see what I mean. Look at all those z's and k's and x's. The whole language has a very sharp and angular feel (the written language, anyway - I've never heard it spoken). I feel like you could cut your tongue trying to speak Basque.

Another interesting thing that I noticed - In Spain, as in most of Europe, many people speak English as a second language. And often, when I encountered a Spaniard speaking English, they would speak it with a British accent and vocabulary!

Spain Is Old

In California, "old" is measured in decades, or occasionally centuries. In Spain, "old" is measured in centuries, or occasionally millenia.

Examples of antiquity abound in Spain. For instance, driving along through the countryside, I would occasionally spot remains of old towers on a nearby hillside:

...or even an entire fortress:

Also, I would often see ruins of old buildings in the middle of a field. Here are a couple of examples:

Every major city we visited, as well as several of the smaller towns, had at its core an "old quarter," with impossibly narrow streets:

But what impressed me the most was the way Spain preserves its antiquities. One night, driving through a city (I don't remember which one), on an island between the two lanes of traffic, was a section of an old wall. It wasn't attached to anything, it had no utilitarian purpose whatsoever, and I didn't even notice any kind of expalanatory sign or plaque. It was just... there. And they had built the road around it. In this country, something like that would be torn down and paved over faster than you can say "Big Yellow Taxi." In Spain, they leave it standing and build around it. Awesome.

While we're on the subject of age, I'll throw in a little bit of Spanish history, primarily to give some context to some of the things we saw and did, particularly in the second week. If you want to know more, the Wikipedia article on Spain (w) has much more information.

Spain was part of the Roman empire from about 200 BC to AD 400, following which it was controlled by the Visigoths (Germanic Christians). Then in AD 711, Spain was conquered by Moors, North African Muslims, who dominated the country for over 700 years. The Moorish influence is still quite visible in Spain, particularly in architecture and language. Any Spanish place name that begins with "Al" (Alicante, Almeria, Albacete, Algeciras, etc.) is of Moorish origin - "al" is Arabic for "the." In fact, the Spanish "el" comes from the Arabic "al."

But even though the country was under Muslim rule, they were, as one guidebook puts it, "a minority ruling a largely Christian populace." And the Christians fought back, gradually reconquering the country, in a process known as the Reconquista. Then, in the late 15th century, under the leadership of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel (Los Reyes Catolicos, or The Catholic Kings), the last Moorish stronghold, Granada, was captured, and Spain became a unified Christian country.

The fall of Granada occurred in the year 1492, which of course, as we all know, was the date of another significant historical event. Which got me to thinking that maybe we should update the old rhyme:

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
And Spain finally kicked all the Moors out, too!

The next couple of hundred years were Spain's Golden Age, the years of the Spanish Empire. Charles V, who ruled from 1500 to 1558, was, in the words of the guidebook, "the most powerful man in the world, ruling an empire that stretched from Holland to Sicily, from Bohemia to Bolivia." But Golden Ages never last forever, and when the Spanish Armada was defeated by Sir Francis Drake in 1588, Spain went into a decline that lasted into modern times.

Eating In Spain

Spaniards operate on a completely different time schedule than we Americans do. They'll have breakfast mid-morning, and then break for a long lunch at around 2:00 in the afternoon. In fact, many businesses - as well as tourist attractions - shut down completely for an afternoon siesta. Then they'll work until 7:30 or 8:00, and have dinner at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening.

(A short digression on time - In Spain, they use a 24 hour clock. So, in that previous paragraph, I should have said that they break for lunch at around 14:00, work until 19:30 or 20:00, and have dinner at 21:00 or 22:00. When we were in Spain, I tried to get into the habit of using the 24 hour clock, but it didn't come easily to me - I had to stop and subtract. Terry, who works for the Veteran's Administration, had less trouble. In any case, I'll use the 12 hour clock in this trip log.)

One of the guidebooks we brought with us, when describing the Spanish meal schedule, advised "Don't try to buck this system." In other words, when in Spain, do as the Spaniards do. So we did - although we sometimes went for dinner closer to 8:00. And we would generally eat our main meal of the day at lunchtime, and have a lighter "lunch size" meal at dinnertime, to guard against raging indigestion in the night.

Breakfast in Spain tends to be along the lines of what we in this country call a "continental breakfast" - coffee and a roll. Or in my case, hot chocolate and a roll. For example, here's a picture of a breakfast we had one morning in Valencia:

Churros - long skinny sticks of fried dough, dusted with sugar - are also available in Spain. And they also have something called porras, similar to the Mexican churros we get here, but a little different:

...and they're often served with a cup of thick hot chocolate, into which the churros (or porras) are dipped:

Another breakfast option is a tostada. No, not the pile of beans, cheese and stuff on a crispy tortilla that you get here in Mexican restaurants. In Spain, a tostada is a toasted roll, spread with olive oil, and optionally served with one of a variety of toppings, such as tomato, ham, cheese, bacon, etc. Here's a tostada with ham and cheese that I had for breakfast one morning:

For the main meal of the day, many restaurants offer something called Menu del Dia (Menu of the Day). This is a fixed price, two course meal, where you choose each of your two courses from a short list of choices (half a dozen or so). Dessert and wine are usually included - sometimes an entire bottle of wine!

If you've ever eaten at a Spanish restaurant in this country, you're probably familiar with tapas. This is sort of the Spanish equivalent of dim sum - a selection of various small plates, generally served at a tapas bar. Some bars will have a list of available tapas, while others will simply have them on display. Many tapas bars offer their items in varying sizes: a tapa is a small serving, for one person; a racion is a larger portion, for two to share; and a media (half) racion is a size in between, for one hungry person, or for two light eaters to share. For our "light" dinner, Terry and I would often share three or four media racions. Here's a picture of a tapas bar we visited:

Ham (jamon) appears to be a national obsession in Spain. Every tapas bar includes ham on its menu. And in most tapas bars, you'll see a large ham on a wooden stand on the counter, from which they'll slice off your serving right in front of you:

You may be familiar with gazpacho, a cold soup made from pureed vegetables and thickened with bread. Well, in southern Spain, they have something called salmorejo (w), a cold soup which is similar to gazpacho, but thicker. Actually, it's so thick that instead of eating it like a soup, I tore off hunks of bread and ate it like a dip. It's actually quite similar to hummus, but not quite as thick. If you ever order it, though, watch out... it's LOADED with garlic!

Another interesting item to be found on Spanish menus is Rabo de Toro, or oxtail stew. Three big chunks of an ox's tail, in a spicy sauce with carrots and potatoes, surrounded by a pile of french fries. My apologies to any vegetarians in the audience...

It wasn't until a few weeks after we got home that it occurred to me that the "ox" in question could possibly have been a bull that was killed in a bullfight... I guess I won't order Rabo de Toro again.

And then, of course, there's paella (w), a traditional Valencian dish of rice with saffron, with a variety of meats and vegetables. Sort of like Chinese fried rice, but much better:

And of course, Spain has plenty of ethnic restaurants. We saw Chinese, Italian, German, Thai, Indian, British and Scandinavian. But one ethnicity conspicuous in its absence was Mexican. We were told that there are very few Mexican restaurants in Spain, and those that exist serve very bland fare. The Spanish, apparently, just aren't into spicy food.

Driving In Spain

Driving in Spain was a big part of the adventure. Driving on the autovias (freeways) was no different from driving the freeways at home. But when I got into the cities... wow.

There may be some parts of Spain where streets are laid out in rectangular grids. But I sure never saw any. Streets go hither and thither seemingly at random - even in the more modern parts of the cities. And street signs, if they exist at all, are hard to find, so knowing which street you're on is a challenge.

I was fortunate enough to find and purchase a good GPS program for my iPhone, and I used it heavily. It worked well, although I had some problems with it. It turned out, though, that most of the problems I had were due to my inexperience and lack of understanding of how to use the program. And I would have been totally lost without it.

I've already mentioned the narrow streets in the old quarters. I drove through some of these - fortunately, our rental car was a compact:

...but it was still a tight fit in some places.

In some of the old quarters, driving is restricted to residents and taxis, so we would occasionally find a place to park and take taxis to our various destinations. And sometimes, those taxis would squeeze through narrow streets with literally just a couple of inches to spare on either side. I also saw a lot of streaks on walls where cars didn't quite make it through unscathed.

One thing I didn't find a lot of in Spain was traffic jams. There was some heavy traffic in the cities, but no stop-and-go. One reason for this is the prevalance of traffic circles. Every major intersection, and many lesser ones, have circles. They do a great job of keeping the traffic moving. They also make U-turns very easy. And if you miss where you needed to exit the circle, no problem - you just go around again!

And that's it for the introductory material. Click here to start reading the trip log.