September 20, 2021

Interior – Cathedral/Mosque Cordoba

Dateline – Cordoba and Madrid, Spain

And on to the last leg of the tour… The intrepid eleven (twelve if you include Fernando, our guide, font of all knowledge, translator, and general herder of squirrels or thirteen if you add in Armenio out stoic Portuguese bus driver) headed out of Granada as the sun rose. Spain is on the same time zone as France and Germany but significantly farther west which makes the sun come up late as it should be at least an hour earlier. After battling rush hour traffic in the suburbs, we entered hilly country, marked mainly by commercial olive groves of gray green trees with the occasional small town in the distance. The towns all look about the same. Whitewashed houses clinging to the side of a hill with a church and citadel on top, the citadel usually in a state of some disrepair as castles haven’t been terribly useful since gun powder came on the scene in the 16th century. According to Fernando, there are more than 2,000 castles in Spain, most of them in various states of decay.

After a couple of hours, we arrived in the city of Cordoba and were dropped near the old city. Armenio and the bus kept heading towards Madrid with the luggage while we had several hours to explore the town. Cordoba was a Roman town way back in the day and, under the height of the Moorish occupation in the 10th and 11th centuries, was the largest city in Europe with a population in excess of a million while London and Paris had fewer than 20,000 apiece. It’s wealth was fueled by its prominence as a river port, complete with Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir, and from nearby gold and silver mines. The Sultans built an enormous mosque on the banks of the river, enlarged it multiple times, and, when the Christians reconquered the city, rather than raze it as happened in most other Spanish towns, they kept it intact and converted it into the cathedral. Over the years side chapels were added and eventually, during the renaissance, a complete Latin cross nave, apse and transepts were plunked down right in the middle of the building. The end result, the mosque-cathedral, is highly unusual with elements from Arabic/Byzantine all the way through Baroque in the same building, but it kind of works in an endearing way. The old town is similar to Granada – lots of twisting alleyways with house abutting the street opening into interior courtyards with fountains and flowers.

Madrid Palace Hotel

Then, on to the train to Madrid. Non stop express of less than two hours. We arrived just after the bus and luggage and checked into the Palace Hotel, just off the main boulevard, across the street from the parliament building on one side and the Prado museum on the other. It was nearly 6 PM when I got settled and dinner was at 7:30 so not a lot of time to explore so I walked around the immediate neighborhood and ended up at the Reina Sofia museum, home of Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica. As it’s free admission after 6 PM, score! And in I went. I’ve seen the painting reproduced many times over the years but nothing quite prepares you for the monumental size of the canvas, as large as a wall. It’s displayed in the midst of a series of galleries that puts it in context, both historic and artistic that make it even more powerful. Paintings from what I suppose is the Spanish equivalent of the Ashcan school of the early 20th century depicting the brutal conditions of urban life and factory work. The explosion of new ideas in the years leading and following World War I – Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism. Galleries of how art was used as propaganda including posters and magazine covers. Galleries devoted to the decadence of between the wars society including a whole lot of Grosz and loops of Bunel film clips. As I was passing through these, all of the parallels between those times of wrenching change and our own came leaping off the walls so by the time I got to the Guernica canvas itself, I was in a heightened emotional state. I had to walk around a couple of blocks after to maintain equipoise. Dinner, in the gorgeous hotel rotunda, was a bit unnerving after – a sort of pleasures of the bourgeoisie built of the backs of the suffering of the proletariat moment. I had one more glass of wine than usual and toddled off to my room to ruminate.

Picasso’s Guernica

I’m sure there’s some sort of grand meditation on the nature of society, my place in the world, and how life works germinating in my brain but I’m not sure tonight’s the night to get it out. It’s been a long day and I’m going to settle in to mindless TV dubbed into some language I don’t speak very well. As one does…

September 19, 2021

Dateline – Granada, Spain

Granada, as it’s in a mountain valley near the Sierra Nevada range, was deliciously cool this morning as the mountain winds descended overnight. I actually needed a pullover for the first time this trip. It rapidly warmed up and was in the 80s by noon, but without the humidity of the coastal areas. Our guide met us this morning and we headed off to the Alhambra. One of the nice things about Tauck Tours is they arrange everything in advance so there is no waiting in line. The Alhambra is one of the most visited sites in Europe and access is strictly limited to keep the flow of visitors down to protect 13th and 14th century buildings and interiors. Tickets often have to be reserved months in advance. However, through whatever magic, we were able to walk right in through the magnificent gate of justice and spent the next two and a half hours in the halls, courts and gardens of the sultans of Granada, the last of the Muslim kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula, lasting from the mid 1200s after the fall of Seville to the Christians through a negotiated settlement and withdrawal to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. The fortified palace the Sultans built for themselves on the crest of the hill with its intricate Islamic decorations, beautifully hydraulically engineered fountains (still using the original plumbing system), and acres of courtyard and terraced gardens was never attacked in war. Napoleon, on leaving the city late in the Peninsular wars ordered that it be blown up to deprive the Spanish of a stronghold, but the French were only able to damage the east end of the complex due to some enterprising Spanish soldiers who cut the fuses to the munitions placed in the west end.

It’s a site that must be seen and that I cannot adequately describe. (Pictures appended, per usual in a separate post). Washington Irving did in the early 19th century in his Tales from the Alhambra, the literary work that put Granada on the cultural map after some years as a backwater. I haven’t read it (or much other Irving except The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) so I’ll have to take our guides word for it that he got it right, even though apparently the majority of his tales were pure fantasy with no historical truth behind them. I’ll settle for the fact that some of the Dorne sequences from Game of Thrones were shot there. What I’ve learned from this trip is how little I really know about Portugese/Spanish history. I know some of the general outlines and a few dates but that’s about it. American World History tends to focus much more on the British and the French. I’ll have to do some reading. If anyone is aware of any works that make Iberian history palatable, point me to them.

After the tour, a walk down the hill through a woodland park to the center of Granada proper. Most of the downtown area is late 19th century neo-Renaissance of no particular distinction, but coming off of the central commercial district are older residential neighborhoods dating back to Moorish times that could easily be in Marrakesh. Whitewashed walls, a rabbit warren of narrow streets and alleys, small little interlinked shops in the manner of an Arab bazaar filled with cheap stuff that seems mainly imported from India (I did not purchase). The cathedral is an amalgam of gothic, renaissance, and baroque built smack in the middle of a residential/commercial district and without a surrounding plaza making it very difficult to get back from it to get a good look. There were a number of other interesting looking old churches, some converted mosques from pre-1942. A few hours of wandering was enough so I took a taxi back up the hill so I wouldn’t have to climb. My nearly 60 year old knees are noticing the amount of walking I’ve been doing. A brief nap and then dinner and a show at the hotel. Dinner -a spicy pork roast. The show – a small revue of traditional flamenco music and dance styles. It was well done but I couldn’t help but think of Ya Ya in Strictly Ballroom saying ‘You dance the Paso Doble?’

Covid news of the day… The FDA has more or less made its rulings on booster shots clear. If you’ve had either Pfizer or Moderna and you are either over 65 or have some sort of immune compromise, get a booster. If you don’t fall into those categories, you don’t need to. Of course, getting a booster won’t hurt you there just isn’t good science that it’s of enough benefit to justify a recommendation. Those who got J and J are somewhat in limbo. The science regarding boosters just hasn’t been done with the same rigor as with the first two so there are a lot of unknowns. There are no formal recommendations yet. However, a booster, either of J and J or of either of the other two, again, is likely not to hurt and may be of some benefit, at least of more benefit than gargling betadine.

Alabama case counts are coming down, fortunately, but the death rate is going up, up 175% over the last two weeks. This is right on schedule. Remember that cases spike first, hospitalizations spike two or three weeks after cases and deaths spike two or three weeks after hospitalizations. The big increase was through the month of August so mid September is exactly when we should begin seeing mortality statistics increase. I just can’t help but feel sorry for the survivors of the recently deceased. Knowing a thing or two about grief and how it changes your world, there are a lot of people in for some very rough times over the next few years, and it’s all so unnecessary. Meanwhile, here in Spain, case counts continue to fall, vaccinations continue to rise and people don’t fuss about having to prove vaccination status or wearing masks. I’m going to miss that attitude when I return home this next week.

We’re up early tomorrow and on to Cordoba. I promise to wash my hands, wear my mask as needed and keep my distance as much as possible.LikeCommentShare

September 18, 2021

Ronda, Spain. The Puente Nuevo New Bridge over Guadalevin River in Ronda, Andalusia, Spain. A popular landmark in the sunny evening in summer

Dateline – Ronda and Granada, Spain.

I had breakfast as the sun rose over the Mediterranean, promising another lovely day on the Costa del Sol. However, I and my traveling companions had a schedule to keep so it was back on the bus. We left the environs of Marbella and soon found ourselves climbing a winding mountain road over the original Sierra Nevada Mountain Range which backs up on the Spanish coast line. At first, we were winding through neighborhoods of opulent villas, reminiscent of Malibu or Bel Air. The occasional Lamborghini or Maserati cruising by completed the picture. Eventually, we were far enough a way from the sea that the cars turned into Renaults and Peugeots and we passed over the crest at about 3000 feet in one of Spain’s National Parks – forests and the occasional white washed village. We then descended into an agricultural plain, mainly ranching rather than crops and were soon in the town of Ronda. a small fortified town on top of a bluff riven by a small canyon formed by the Guadalevin river.

Inhabited since it was first settled by the Celts, centuries before the Romans, it has been fortified, fought over, changed hands, and been the scene of general mayhem many times over the years, most recently in the Spanish Civil War when the Fascists and the Nationalists spent their time tossing each other into the gorge (an episode made famous by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises). Now it’s relatively peaceful and sleepy, only besieged by hordes of tourists who come to see the gorge, explore the old town, and see the famous bull ring, continuously operating since the early 18th century. We peered into the gorge, took in the stunning views of the Sierra Nevadas, had a guided tour of the back ways of the town and ended up in the bull ring (Pepe our local guide being something of a bullfight fanatic). One of my trusty New Balance sneakers decided to separate from the sole halfway through the walk and it detached completely in the middle of the bull ring. I’m sure there’s an omen in that but I don’t think I want to know what it is.

Lobby – Alhambra Palace Hotel

After a leisurely lunch (I had the local specialty – oxtail stew) at the edge of the gorge, back on the bus for a few more hours and to the old Moorish city of Granada. I was on the fatigued side so I did not explore much beyond the immediate surroundings of our hotel as we will be here tomorrow as well. Our hotel, the hotel Alhambra Palace, is on the same hill as the palace itself (being visited tomorrow morning) and has the same spectacular view out over the city. The hotel was apparently designed and decorated by the same people who created the great Moorish 1920s movie palaces in the USA and is delightful in a rather Arab kitsch fashion. Can’t beat the views though and the room is comfortable, although I’m not sure what to make of the combination toilet-bidet that has a control panel more suitable to the Space Shuttle than a bathroom fixture. I’m really afraid to push too many buttons. We all met up for dinner at a charming restaurant just down the bluff from the hotel where we all overate and drank too much wine on the terrace watching the sun set. (Lamb shank with couscous).

Granada, Spain

I dialed into the American news as I was curious to see what had happened with the DC rally in support of those arrested for the January 6th riot at the capitol. It looks from the coverage I’ve seen that it was a complete fizzle with more security present than protestors. I’m wondering if the MAGA movement is beginning to lose steam, what with its leader out of power, sane adults in power helping keep the economy on track, and finally an awakening that being a contrarian in the face of a deadly virus may not be the best strategy for one’s health. I don’t think it’s gone by any stretch of the imagination and it will only take the right cultural fertilizer to have it blossom in some new malignant direction. Those sorts of antiestablishment feelings are as old as the country. They need to be acknowledged and their energies channeled in ways that can benefit rather than destroy.

As a physician, the thing I worry about most is what happens when the next pandemic hits. Pandemics are the easiest of natural disasters to predict. They have always happened and always will. We can accept that inevitable truth or ignore it at our peril. We got away relatively easy with this one as, to date, it’s only killed about 0.2% of the population. What happens when the next one comes – a decade from now, two decades from now and it has a mortality rate of 5 or 10 or 20%? The rancorous distrust of the government, basic public health precepts, the medical system, and the scientific medicine that has now become firmly rooted in the culture will hamper our ability to deal at that time in new and unknowable ways. I worry greatly that Covid, as bad as it has been, is not going to be the real problem. The next pandemic, a more serious disease still, hitting a rickety health care system and a population primed for rejecting the most basic of precautions, is more of a worry.

Here in Spain, with vaccination rates now over 75% and case rates falling, the rules are changing. Masking is no longer required out doors in any circumstance (although most people do it in crowd situations as a courtesy). Masking is still universal indoors unless eating or drinking – and the climate is such that most of our meals have actually been out of doors. I feel perfectly safe moving around the country. I’m not sure I’ll feel as safe back home next week. Our local bell weather school system, where the parents fought back against a ‘conservative’ school board and got them to require masking has noted a significant drop of cases over the last few weeks since masks went into effect. So, of course, they’re lifting the mask rule now. Cases to spike up again in 3…2…1… And the parent groups, full of physicians and university professors, are marching on the school board again…

But that’s not my problem today. My only issue is getting a decent night’s sleep before exploring Granada tomorrow.

September 17, 2021

Dateline – Marbella, Spain

Today was a down day. We’re just a little over half way through the tour and it’s been fairly busy so a day without agenda or having to get up or get on the bus was welcome indeed. I can’t help but think that Fernando, our guide and general herder of cats and Armenio, are bus driver, quite skilled at maneuvering a full size Mercedes tour bus through narrow European streets needed a day away from the intrepid eleven. Today was about swimming pools, beaches, walks on the esplanade, and a couple of naps. A number of us also got together at a beachside restaurant for a lunch of paella and other treats and the whole gang had dinner tonight in the hotel restaurant, mainly steak although I opted of pork loin as I’m really not that much of a beef person.

Today was the first day on this little jaunt that I’ve felt a bit lonely. My travel companions are very kind and gracious and make sure I am not left out in any way but there are times when, as in Side By Side By Side, it’s obvious there’s an empty place next to mine. Tommy’s been gone long enough now, that I think I’m more or less over my acute grief and, while I am not looking for a new romantic/intimate partner, I am starting to feel the need for some reliable activity/travel/shenanigans companions with whom I could share an occasional adventure. I’m sure someone will turn up at the right time. One thing I’ve learned from life is that things usually fall into place when you don’t look too hard and don’t force them.

I went through a backlog of UAB emails earlier today and caught up on the local Covid statistics. The number of folk hospitalized at UAB has been trending down over the last ten days or so which is a good sign. The percentage requiring ICU care, however, is not declining at the same rate. I’m hoping this means that Birmingham, at least, with its significant health care worker population, will be on the downside by the time I get back to work in about ten days. The various trackers I follow show that this is likely in urban Alabama, but the rural parts of the state where vaccine hesitancy is so much higher, continue to be hot spots. Vaccine numbers continue to trickle upwards but the damage done to public understanding of vaccines by politics remains extensive and very difficult to overcome. The FDA met today and came to what I think is a reasonable decision on booster shots: not necessary for most healthy younger adults but appropriate for older adults over 65 and for those with significant immune system issues. How that will be rolled out to the general public remain to be seen but I imagine older adults will be able to receive a booster from most pharmacies no questions asked and no payment necessary as of the first of the month, maybe even as early as next week. As far as the significant immune system issues go, if you don’t know what they are are, you probably don’t have one so don’t worry about it.

I just don’t have much to say this evening. I’ll likely have more tomorrow what with us being back on the road (Ronda and Granada if I read my schedule correctly – I’m not following it too closely, preferring to let the trip pleasantly surprise me from day to day.). Then there’s the gathering in DC in protest of the prosecution of the January 6th protesters. Who knows where that one will end up. As I read the European perspective on American political news, I’m more and more tempted to take my retirement savings and purchase a golden visa for resettlement in the EU where people still look out for their fellow countrymen, rather than be at each other’s throats. Of course the Catalonians and the Castilians might disagree with me on that one. The bar singer below my window is busy destroying Elton John, I have The Last Action Hero dubbed into Spanish on the TV and there’s a lovely moon out so I’m going to sign off and drift off to sleep.LikeCommentShare

September 16, 2021

Dateline – Gibraltar, UK and Marbella, Spain

We all said goodbye to the King Alfonso XIII hotel in Seville early this morning, boarded the bus, and were soon headed out of town in a southeasterly direction. Seville may be a port city but it’s river port, about fifty miles inland on the Guadalquivir river, and we were bound for the coast. Our route led across some rather arid agricultural plains, through olive groves, the ever present citrus, and occasional fields of corn and cotton. Closer to the coast, the terrain became hillier, with limestone outcroppings and we passed through a large nature reserve, supposedly home to deer and antelope but they were not posing for tour busses by the side of the road. We topped a final rise, and there, spread out was the Mediterranean, blue and calm with a large lump on the horizon which we were assured was the Rock of Gibraltar.

Half an hour later, we were in the customs/border control line, getting new stamps in our passports thanks to Brexit and boarding a minivan for a tour of the rock and surrounding town. Having a very British mother, I’ve heard of Gibraltar all my life and have always wanted to see it. Of course, my mother’s knowledge of Gibraltar ended somewhere around the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Lord Nelson during the Napoleonic Wars so I really didn’t know what to expect. The rock itself, a huge limestone outcropping on the edge of the seacoast, has roughly the same footprint as Central Park in NYC although, it rises to about 1400 feet, as a very steep cliff on the east and a bit more gradually on the west. The old town of Gibraltar and its fortifications cling to the base rising to about a quarter of the way up the west side, with multiple bastions from the 15th through the early 20th centuries and topped by a Moorish castle dating back to the 11th. Various sea powers dating back to the Phoenicians have recognized that Gibraltar is the key to controlling the straits of Gibraltar and passage between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic which is why the British, awarded the fortified town by the treaty of Utrecht in 1715 have never wanted to give it up, much to the disgruntlement of the Spanish. Franco closed the border for most of the 60s and 70s which didn’t exactly please the Gibraltarians and they had a plebiscite in which more than 98% of the residents voted to remain British rather than to join Spain. Over the last few decades, enterprising Gibraltarians, a mix of various European people but the language and culture is British, have filled in some of the bay around the base of the rock giving more land to build on and there are now gleaming new high rises and other supportive structures allowing the population and economy to expand. There is still a lack of space. The one land road into the territory crosses the tarmac of the airport and has to be closed every time a plane takes off or lands. There is a new road being constructed with a tunnel under the runway to hopefully solve that problem in the near future. Apparently, the airport is one of the most dangerous in the world, not because of errant traffic on the runway, but because of the crosswinds coming in off the Atlantic and sent into unusual patterns by the bulk of the rock. Frequently, flights have to be diverted to Malaga in Spain, about an hour or so away.

We met David, our guide and a native Gibraltarian in our small bus suitable for the narrow roads on the rock. It was interesting hearing him switch back and forth from Spanish to English with an East End accent but that appears to be what the natives do. We drove through the town, and began the zig zag ascent of the rock over a series of progressively narrow and steep roads. We stopped at Europa Point, the southernmost point in Europe and admired the coast of Africa across the strait (roughly 8 miles away), my first sight of that continent. Then climbing higher, we stopped at one of the many caves within the limestone of the rock, St. Michael’s. Waiting for us there was one of the famous troops of Barbary Macaques, tailless monkeys brought over from Africa as pets which have flourished in the wild. They were bored by our presence (other than the one that reached down and stuck one of his paws into one of my tour mate’s ears) so we entered a lovely cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. I could have done without the tacky son et lumiere show in one portion, but the rest of it was quite spectacular. Then, more monkeyshines and a drive back down to the village for a lunch of fish and chips.

After lunch, another drive up the coast to the resort town of Marbella where we are to spend tonight and all of tomorrow as an R and R day of sun and surf at our half way point. Marbella is a lovely little town, obviously on the upscale end of the Costa del Sol, with a paved esplanade along the water, whitewashed buildings in the original old quarter, and any number of fine hotels, white table cloth restaurants and the boutiques selling jewelry, resort wear, and assorted bagatelles that one finds in beach towns the world over. I stuck my toes in the Mediterranean (the first time since my trip to Italy and Barcelona in 2002), took a dip in the pool and had a light dinner with a very large gin and tonic watching the sun set. Now I am on my ocean view terrace at the Dom Pepe Real Melia typing this and listening to the vocalist from the restaurant below me massacre her way through the pop hits of the 70s and 80s.

I am looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow and having no agenda, other than keeping my hands washed, and wearing my mask indoors.

September 15, 2021

Plaza de Espana – Seville

Dateline – Seville, Spain

The weather held today. Intermittent rain showers throughout the area, but none directly overhead. The storms did help keep the temperature down in the 70s for most of the day which was quite comfortable for touring. (My pedometer is most happy with me this week). The humidity, however, has been a bit above my comfort level but not nearly as bad as Alabama in August. This morning started with the usual upscale hotel breakfast buffet. Lots of choices and always something that appeals but European scrambled eggs tend to be runny and every country does bacon and sausage somewhat differently. The highlights of this morning’s tour were the buildings constructed for the 1929 World’s Fair (most of which remain standing around a large public park). We had glimpsed them on yesterday’s carriage ride but today was a chance to get a bit closer to see the detail, especially on the monumental Spanish pavilion and plaza. I had my picture taken with the medallion honoring Don Quixote and couldn’t resist serenading my tour mates with a few bars of ‘I am I Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha’. I’ve always been partial to the Don and his tilting at windmills as I have spent a good portion of my life doing the same thing metaphorically.

Seville Cathedral

Then, back to the center of town for a tour of the cathedral. Very impressive and the largest Gothic style cathedral in Europe. The nave and chapels are impressive in terms of sheer size and some decent artwork including large Murillo and Goya paintings. After the cathedral, a ramble through the winding streets of the old Jewish quarter, empty of Jews since the pogroms of 1391. Per are guide, there are still almost no Jews in the city (fewer than 100 total at the last census). Recently, the Spanish government has had a case of the guilts over the expulsion of the Jews in the 14th and 15th centuries and, if you can prove Sephardic Jewish ancestry back to Spain and that time, you can claim a visa and a path to citizenship. Given the craziness of our current politics, if I could do such, I might consider it but I’m about 100% Anglo-Saxon/Celt. I am eligible for a Portuguese ‘Golden Visa’ where, if you purchase real property in the country and bring a certain amount of wealth in, they’ll allow you to emigrate. I’ll keep that in mind just in case our politicians continue to drive us over the cliff. My mother was the child of two British citizens living abroad when born and could have claimed British citizenship if she chose. With a good lawyer and a great deal of money, I might be able to do so as well, but with Brexit, I’m not sure that would be much of an improvement to my current living situation.

The Alcazar

We then boarded the bus and headed out into the country to a 16th century hacienda, lovingly restored as an event venue. The location, between the motorway and the aerospace factory, was not promising but the strategic placement of walls and the opening out of other areas to country views made it pleasant. An entertainment program featuring a flamenco dancing horse (I did not know they had such things) and an excellent leisurely tapas lunch followed. Then back to town where I used the rest of my afternoon to visit the Alcazar, the Royal Palace of Seville (and still in use as royal residence if the King comes to town). Very Moorish in its architecture and design but would be a trifle uncomfortable to live in as it’s nothing but stuccoed brick and tile. It has its own private gardens, walled off from the city parks that abut it. full of fountains, flowering trees and bushes. The plants remind me a lot of Southern California – oleander, lantana, jacaranda, bougainvillea, banyan trees and the like.

We passed a rather grim milestone today. The 665,500 US deaths over the last nineteen months means that 1/500 US residents has died from Covid-19. That’s 0.2% of the population. And does not include those who recovered but who still have significant health conditions. It’s roughly the population of Boston. It means that none of us has a life that has been untouched by the disease. All of us have now lost a family member, friend, or acquaintance. And still, a significant portion of the US population remains mired in a bizarre sort of denial. Denial of the disease, denial of the risks, denial of expert opinions. Here in Europe, denialism exists but is a fringe minority opinion. The majority accepts common sense advice like masking, hand washing, social distancing, and vaccinations as something we all do for each other so we can live as normal a life as possible. The rates are therefore somewhat lower here and, quite frankly, I feel like I am far less likely to run into issues here than at home. If I didn’t have patients depending on me, I might be tempted to stay on a while longer. I could get used to a life of 5 star hotels, cathedrals, chateaux, and a populace that actually culturally cares about each other.

Up on the bus in the morning and heading for the UK, or at least a little outpost of the UK known as Gibraltar. I’m betting the Gibraltarians wash their hands, wear their masks and keep their distance.

September 14, 2021

Seville Cathedral

Dateline – Seville, Spain

Today’s leitmotif has been classic musical/film. We all had to get up at an ungodly hour in order to catch the early plane from Lisbon to Seville. I’m not sure why we didn’t just take the bus as they are only just over 200 miles apart. By the time we got through the flight process, arrived at our hotel in Seville and had lunch, the bus had arrived with our luggage on board and it was stowed away in our new rooms. The new hotel is also a five star Fancy Schmantzy called the King Alfonzo XIII and built to house the well heeled and dignitaries who came to Seville for their World’s Fair in 1929. It’s all marble and tile and Moorish influences although my favorite part are the original elevators, mirrored on all four sides giving a bit of a Willy Wonka vibe to trips up and down from the lobby. The room is comfortable. I have a room with a view (but no Cockney Signora manning the desk). And the bathroom has adequate water pressure in the shower. I am a happy man.

As I was standing in line in the Lisbon airport, waiting to board our prop plane puddle jumper, it was dark and foggy with a misty rain. I had my envelope of letters of transit from Lisbon – boarding pass, check – Covid clearance, check – entry card for Spain, check and all I could think was how Victor Lazlo can you get? Or maybe I’m Ilsa. I suppose it depends on the day. The short flight went without incident, although the rain in Spain was mainly on the plane and we were motor coached from the soggy Seville airport into the heart of the city. As we were sitting around the hotel bar waiting for our lunch, it occurred to me that I am making this trip with five married couples, a sort of Iberian bus and truck of Company. I wanted to suggest an impromptu of Side by Side by Side in the lobby, but I don’t think it would have gone over terribly well.

Lobby Alfonso XIII Hotel

After lunch, a horse drawn carriage ride through the historic center of Seville, a town of Moorish influenced architecture, winding streets, pleasant public gardens with flocks of wild parrots chattering away in the trees, and a placid river. After the carriage ride, I spent a pleasant few hours just wandering through historic neighborhoods, poking into shops, and stopping for the occasional gelato. At the end of the day, as I was having my third gelato in the cathedral square as the sun was setting, I did some people watching and had a true Here We Are Again Leona Samish moment (and kudos to any of you who pick up on that obscure reference). We have a formal tour of the cathedral and some of the other historic buildings tomorrow so more on them later.

Seville Shopping District

It’s been interesting comparing the general societal response to Covid measures here as they differ from home. Indoor masking is universal. Outdoor masking is common in crowded situations but isn’t done when just walking on the street unless you want to. People pop on their masks when approaching others or entering a building without fuss and there’s just a general sense of this is what we do for each other as we’re all in this together. The high rates of vaccination are leading to more and more relaxing of rules, but there’s no sense of a wish to race out and push boundaries, rather just one of cautious optimism but tempered with an understanding that things need to be studied and rules adjusted constantly around science and data. Meanwhile, at home, when the science is uncertain and recommendations revised as new data comes to light, people take those uncertainties as a failure of science rather than the result of the scientific method and instead of absorbing and coping with change, decide that their own preconceived notions or gut feeling must therefore be more correct. The latest thing to take off in domestic circles, oral ingestion of Betadine (iodine based antibacterial goop) as a prophylactic. Kids, do not try this at home. It’s highly toxic and we’ve got enough people in the hospital without adding more poisoning victims.

I shall have to change my shoes tomorrow. My usual walking shoes have worn soles and much of the pavement in Seville is of marble or polished cement. This, combined with rain water has made balance somewhat precarious and I really don’t wish to be rushed to Seville General with a head injury. My sneakers have decent tread so I’ll use those instead. I can see a need to take some of my own advice and having to pack a walking stick for cobblestones and other uneven ground in another decade. I’m thinking a gnarled wizard’s staff and a pointy sun hat to go with it. But now, I’m going to turn in. David Lynch’s Dune, dubbed into German for some reason, is on TV and that should be a proper distraction as I get sleepy.

September 13, 2021

The Ajuda Palace

Dateline: Lisbon, Portugal

High thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, a great mattress and a quiet room on the 10th floor of the Lisbon Ritz, far above street noise meant a good night’s sleep and up for breakfast and more adventures this morning. The intrepid eleven were on the bus at 8 AM and headed into the old part of downtown for a brief orientation to the city, and then a drive out to the port district of Belem for a stop at the national maritime museum (much devotion to the 15th and early 16th century Portuguese voyages of exploration launched by Prince Henry the Navigator) complete with a collection of the Royal river barges. Then along to the Palace of Ajuda, the Lisbon home of the Braganza dynasty of Portugal during most of the 19th and early 20th centuries until they were shown the door in 1910.

The Ajuda palace is contemporaneous with Buckingham Palace and has the same general neoclassical proportions. The state rooms are lovely, the banquet hall impressive, and the wandering around between various suites through the servants corridors gave a feeling of Downton Abbey mixed with The Crown. The Portuguese abolished their monarchy a few years prior to World War I, a little earlier than most of the rest of Europe, had a republic for a while and then a dictatorship under Salazar paralleling that of Franco in Spain. In the 1970s, Spain restored the constitutional monarchy. Portugal did not. I looked up the heir apparent should that happen. He’s a descendant of some second cousin of the last king, there being no direct line left. I don’t see him being plucked from obscurity and installed as a monarch at any time in the near future.

Castle of St George

After the Ajuda tour, we were turned loose to spend the rest of the day as we wished. I wandered through downtown Lisbon for a while. Not all that different from the downtown areas of any other major world city, and then headed into the old quarter to see the cathedral and to climb the hill to the castle of St. George on the summit, begun by the Moors, and chief defense of Lisbon against invasion by both land and sea for several centuries. The cathedral was unimpressive. A rather blocky Romanesque affair without much in the way of decoration. The original cathedral was destroyed in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the one that stands was painstakingly rebuilt shortly thereafter to the original plan using what could be salvaged of the original materials. The castle was more interesting with its original fortifications full of arrow slits and murder holes and the like. The view from the castle over the town and the Tagus river were such that it was immediately obvious why it was such a strategic location. Walking up the hill, I stumbled across some partially excavated Roman ruins, part of an ampitheatre and a building whose walls were originally constructed as a public bath. I imagine that if they dig under the castle, below Christian, Moorish, Roman, and Phoenician layers, they’ll probably find some ancient Celtic or Iberian settlement. It’s interesting to think of places being continually inhabited and built upon for thousands of years when in most places in the US, it’s rare to find anything much more than 200 years old. Then, a long walk back to the hotel for a nap and dinner.

O vice-almirante Gouveia e Melo visitou o Centro de Vacinação de Alcabideche, na sequência da decisão da Direção-Geral de Saúde (DGS) de vacinar universalmente os utentes com idades entre os 12 e 15 anos, Cascais, 21 de agosto de 2021. TIAGO PETINGA/LUSA

The news in Portugal today was that they have successfully vaccinated more than 75% of their population and should be up to 85% in the next month. Cases are falling and the government is relaxing outdoor masking mandates (but keeping indoor ones) and is allowing more and more types of businesses to open up. (Nightclubs are next, expected in another two weeks). We could be there in the US but we’re not. Alabama’s vaccine rate remains stuck at around 40%. I feel a lot safer here with mask and common sense than I do at home. I’ve been watching the continued debate over vaccination in the American press. It looks like the general consensus is that the government blanket mandating of vaccination is not overly popular due to the various bodily autonomy/civil liberties arguments. The Biden administration appears to have threaded the needle. They’re not mandating vaccination of all adults, they’re mandating vaccination of those employed by the federal government and those that receive funding from the federal government through contracts and programs. And that’s likely within their purview, especially given years of supreme court precedent. They are also mandating that work places be safe under OSHA. Companies with more than 100 employees have the option of either vaccinating employees or testing them weekly to protect other employees with whom they may come into contact.

The other consensus that seems to be gelling is that mandating vaccines to access life’s necessaries (the grocery store) is not necessary but that it is perfectly OK to mandate vaccines for life’s little luxuries (air travel, sporting events, theaters etc.) I think we’re going to be in for a year or two of carefully danced compromises like this where those who willfully do not choose vaccination will be tolerated but will find their lives more and more circumscribed. Is this a proper strategy? Only time will tell. It is likely to be accelerated by commercial health insurances demanding vaccination for access to their products. The thing that gets left out of this strategy is what to do about that small portion of the population that cannot be vaccinated for significant medical or other reasons. If we all stepped up and got our shots and had a 75 or 85% vaccination rate, then herd immunity would start to kick in and they would be protected without vaccination. With a 60% unvaccinated rate, this just isn’t possible.

Tonight. I’ll celebrate with the Portuguese at achieving their 75% milestone. But I’ve still got my mask, keep my hands washed, keep my distance, and had my vaccines.

September 12, 2021

Palacio National – Sintra

Dateline Porto, Aveidra, Costa Nova, Pasaitas, Sintra and Lisbon, Portugal.

Today was a long day of bus riding down the length of Portugal from Porto to Lisbon with a number of stops along the way. You would think that would be an interminable journey, but Portugal is about 2/3 the size of Alabama so it was a slightly shorter drive than Birmingham to Mobile. It’s just as well as it was another night of somewhat indifferent sleep. Apparently Saturday nights in Porto are spent having drunken singalongs in the wee hours of the morning under other people’s hotel windows. I eventually figured out that housekeeping had not closed my windows properly behind the blackout curtains and when I was able to get that issue rectified, it quieted down somewhat. Although I could still hear the serenades and various other noises until about 4 AM.

After breakfast, all aboard the tour bus and the eleven intrepid guests on the tour, our guide, and the driver, headed across the Ponte Maria and towards points south. Our first stop, an hour or so out of town was the small town of Aveida. Close to the Atlantic coast, it has a series of canals which were used in times past to ferry sea products to storage and processing and now are a tourist attraction. We stopped, took pictures, used the facilities as necessary and then a little further down the coast to Costa Nova, a Portuguese fishing village which has now become a summer resort with all the fisherman’s cottages now painted in bright stripes and turned into Air B and Bs. Time to stretch legs. One more drive of a about an hour to another resort town, Pastais, which has a lovely beach, the usual shops and restaurants one finds in any beach town anywhere in the world. Stop for lunch – delicious Portuguese style salted sea bass caught fresh. (Also some sort of spice-pear upside down cake which was also very good).

Portuguese Coast

Then another hour or so, with pretty much everyone sleeping off their post prandial torpor with the exception of the driver, and on to the town of Sintra, just west of Lisbon. Sintra is built on the sides of an extinct volcano (I imagine it belongs to the same chain as the Azores, Madeira, Vesuvius, Etna, and Santorini) and due to its height and its position near the ocean, it receives the Atlantic winds and is considerably cooler than the surrounding area. Here the Royal family and nobility of Portugal built their summer palaces, places to escape the heat, crowds, and plagues of Lisbon. We toured the Royal Palace, a hodgepodge of buildings built over six centuries so no wing lined up with any other. Beautiful tile work, painted ceilings and an enormous kitchen dominated by two huge conical chimneys that tower over the rest of the complex. As we drove into town and I saw the building, I immediately recognized it. My maternal grandmother had an etching of it hanging in her dining room when I was a child. I had completely forgotten that until I saw those unmistakable chimneys appear. I have no idea if Lisbon and Sintra meant something to my grandparents. They were European and certainly could have taken a holiday there sometime in the 1920s from the UK. It’s a story that never made its way down to me.

Then on to Lisbon, where we are staying at the Ritz, perhaps the poshest hotel room I’ve ever had the pleasure to be in. There appears to be some sort of diplomatic group from a French speaking African nation on my floor. Many distinguished gentlemen in expensive suits coming and going and a bodyguard parked on a chair in the hall just down from my room. While the interior is sumptuous, the exterior looks a bit like a 1950s girls’ dormitory from an undistinguished state college. I’m assuming the building was repurposed in some way from a more pedestrian use. The only issue this time around is the electronic lock on the door refuses to recognize my key. They’ve switched it out three times and it still isn’t working properly. I’ve locked myself out twice and the front desk is getting tired of escorting me up with the master. I heard someone futzing with it a while ago. We’ll see if it works in the morning or if I end up locking myself out again.

Lisbon Book Fair

The Ritz overlooks a large city park. Parque Eduardo VII, named after Edward VII of England who helped strengthen the ancient English/Portuguese alliance (dating back to John of Gaunt’s daughter marrying into the Portuguese Royal Family) in the early 20th century. Currently, it is the site of the famous Lisbon Book Fair. If I had done my research properly and realized this was going on at the time I was here, I might have had some copies of The Accidental Plague Diaries sent over and handed them out. I couldn’t do that, but I did have a copy with me and could not resist running down and having some pictures taken with the signage.
It’s the weekend.

News from Covidland has been quiet and it’s late so I’m going to wind this up now. Spending a long day tomorrow exploring Lisbon, then on to Spain to Tuesday…

September 11, 2021

Interior St Francis Church – Porto

Dateline – Porto, Portugal

Today was lovely. Sunny, no humidity, not too warm. A perfect day for walking tours and boat cruising on the Douro. After my sleep of the dead, the night before, I slept a more normal amount of hours and actually managed to make my way down to breakfast. Portugal definitely works on a different schedule than America. I was finished with breakfast by 7:30, had some time to kill and went out for a bit of a walk. I’ve always loved walking in European cities. One would think that at 8 AM the streets would be bustling. Deserted… even the local Starbucks didn’t open until 9:30 AM. Some of this might have to do with it being Saturday but as Iberian culture breakfasts between 9 and 10, lunches around 2 and doesn’t eat supper until after 9 PM, my guess is they don’t generally get up much before 8:30 for any reason.

The first part of the morning was a walk with the group through the old town. The highlight was a stop at the Church of St Francis. The exterior isn’t much – undistinguished early gothic with a bunch of clashing baroque additions, but the interior is a rococo fantasy of carved wood with every available service covered with gold leaf carried back from Brazil in the 16th and 17th centuries. The estimates are about half a ton of gold in total. It’s no longer used as a house of worship, just as a structure to be admired. I liked it very much but the choice of piped in music was a tad odd. (I got why Schubert’s Ave Maria but it was followed up by the William Tell overture and the Waltz of the Flowers.) Then further down the hill to the Douro riverbank and on to a boat to see all of the bridges from the river’s mouth to the highway bridge somewhat upstream of town. After that, on to one of the ancient port wineries on the other bank of the river. The one we toured was Taylor’s I’ve been to lots of wineries in my time but this was the first time I’d been in one in continuous operation since the 17th century. The process of creating port is somewhat different than table wine involving the adding of brandy very quickly in the aging process to stop the oxidation, and a major reason why port is about 20% alcohol compared to the usual 12% for table wine. Lunch at the winery accompanied by a Fado concert. (Think Edith Piaf songs of longing but sung in Portuguese and accompanied by guitar). Then back to the hotel, some shopping and sitting in sidewalk cafes people watching before turning in. Up relatively early tomorrow again as we make our way to Sintra and then to Lisbon.

Port aging in oak barrels

I would be remiss if I did not note that this was the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. I have very confused emotions about that day and its images due to its interconnectedness with my own private grief. Steve had died on August the first of 2001. It was not unexpected. He had been quite ill with his interstitial lung disease for some time and I had been taking care of him at home along with his paid caregiver Tameka (who was there when I was at work) and hospice services. When his battle was finally over, I decided to take two months off of work with a planned return on the first of October. I wrapped up the affairs that I had to right away, and then I loaded the car and headed out of town. I had no specific itinerary. I’d just been cooped up in the house for a couple of years in my 30s, unable to go much of anywhere other than work. I made a long meandering drive cross country, using the opportunity to connect or reconnect with various friends, eventually ending up in Southern California where I scattered Steve’s ashes in the Anza-Borrego desert (his favorite place on the planet). Well, there’s a very long convoluted story about that which I’ve written up before and which I won’t repeat now. I then headed north to Seattle to spend some time with the family, arriving in early September. I was staying at my brother’s house, sleeping in. He was at work, my sister-in-law was downstairs with my then two year old niece dealing with toddler breakfast things and she flipped on the news. Shriek and then yells up the stairs that I had to get up and see what was happening. She and I stayed glued to the television all morning, watching the drama unfold as the towers burned and collapsed.

Over the course of the next week or so, I flew to Alaska to see my old college roommate (I had been slated to fly out on the 12th but of course that didn’t happen), drove back across the country and ended up in Manhattan about two weeks later. The haze was still in the air. The flyers were still affixed to walls. The smell, a mixture of burning electrical systems and pulverized stone was endemic. I mourned for Steve. I mourned for the ugly scar in my beloved Manhattan. I mourned for the thousands dead and tens of thousands whose lives were uprooted by the tragedy. Even to this day, I cannot separate my grieving for Steve from my grieving for the country. I had hopes that such a national tragedy might unite us and make us stronger. Instead, as we all know, those sentiments were hijacked by the military industrial complex into fruitless conflicts across the globe which made elites wealthy and drained national wealth away from poorer classes helping exacerbate the economic conditions which leave us so riven.

I was wondering today what Steve might have made of this trip. He would have complained about the food (fortunately, McDonalds is close by and I could have sent him there). He would have complained about too much walking on cobblestones. He would have loved the weather and the boat ride. He could have done without the winery. He was seventeen years sober when I met him, and thirty years sober when he died and was prouder of that accomplishment more than anything else. Tommy, on the other hand, would have loved the winery. He never passed up a winery or a wine tasting if he could help it. As a super taster, he could identify all of the notes in a good wine. I can’t do it and he would always make fun of me for that genetic imperfection. The only time I remember him having an issue with wine was on one of our trips to Northern California. We drove up to Napa. He was having a snit about something (at this point I have no idea what) and, even though we stopped at several wineries, I could barely get him out of the car and he was sullen in the tasting rooms. Even a little alcohol in the system didn’t help. He made up for it on other trips where we went out of our way for Washington and Oregon wineries and Biltmore Vineyards in Asheville was a habitual stop.

Enough for tonight. On to the morrow. I have my hand sanitizer, my masks, and my CDC card all ready to go in my day bag.