An Earful in Spain

Politics and a royal wedding share center stage in a college town and at the beach

During one of my undergraduate years, I lived with a family in Santiago, Chile, learning Spanish and studying. Six years later, I found myself in another Santiago, the capital of Galicia, a northwestern region of Spain, visiting my sister who was completing her college year abroad.

I arrived in Santiago de Compostela in April just weeks after March 11 Al Quaeda terrorists bombing of a train that killed 192 commuters. Just days after the bombing, voters rejected the bid of José María Aznar for a second term as prime minister. Spaniards likened the massacre to the September 11 attacks on U.S. soil, and when I arrived there was heated speculation over whether the old government had been driven from power by Islamic fundamentalists punishing Spain for its deployment of troops in the U.S.-led coalition occupying Iraq.

Amidst that contentious debate, a national celebration was approaching, perhaps a healthy distraction from geopolitics and the recent terror. In two weeks, Crown Prince Felipe would marry television journalist Letizia Ortiz. All of Spain buzzed with gossip about the royal wedding and the nation’s future king and queen.

Santiago is a rainy, but lively university town, famous for being the destination of a religious pilgrimage with roots in ancient times. According to Catholic legend, after his execution in 44 A.D., Christian disciples transported the body of Santiago Apóstol (St. James) from the Holy Land and buried him in Spain. Rediscovered in 813, the site has become a holy shrine for Christian pilgrims. Today, tourists join up with the pilgrims in southern France to complete the journey to the Catedral del Apóstol in the old quarter of Santiago, the reported repository of St. James’ remains. The cathedral is Santiago’s architectural center, not unlike many towns and cities of Spanish origin and conquest, and the streets that wrap around the soaring structure make up an alluring grid of shops, apartments, restaurants and bars.

My sister’s friends and roommates were a typical bunch of students in their late teens and 20s who studied hard and engaged in heated debates about music, politics and reality television. They spoke galego (Galician), a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and Celtic that is the colloquial tongue of various regions in Spain. In the company of my sister and me, the college students switched to castellano (Castillian, or formal Spanish). These young adults were universally against the war in Iraq and opposed the foreign policy of Pres. George W. Bush. As for Spain’s own recent national election, they said the race was already very close before the terrorist attacks, and that if anything had encouraged people to vote for the victor, José Luis Zapatero, over Aznar, it was the former government’s bumbling attempt to blame Basque separatists, not Al Qaeda, for the train bombing.

On our last night in Santiago, my sister’s friends organized a Friday night out to say goodbye to their American friends in Spanish style, so we dined around midnight. Sometime during dessert, the muted television switched from images of royal wedding preparations to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. As an American abroad, it was an embarrassing and shameful incident. My sister and I diplomatically, if reluctantly, parried questions about the images and decision-making within the U.S. government.

Later that night, thoughts of torture faded as we tracked the wet streets of Santiago making our way to my sister’s favorite spots for one last good time. Nightlife in Santiago, as in many university towns, is vibrant and engaging. Fonte Sequelo Pub is a lively bar with a small dance floor with loud Spanish pop music. Casa de las Creixas hosts a young local crowd that comes to listen to traditional Galician music. Insomnia is a crevice of a disco in the Old Quarter and when we walked in, it was packed with students singing along to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

The next day we flew to Madrid, picked up a car and headed south on our own pilgrimage—to the beach. During the six-hour drive to Málaga, we crossed mountains and then reached the sea. And like the physical geography, the cultural geography changed as we left Galicia and headed for Andalucía.

We passed through Málaga, with its wide beaches and wide avenues. From the main square, the rosy, tropical color of the buildings and pedestrian streets indicates the proximity to the Mediterranean coast. We continued along La Costa del Sol toward the Strait of Gibraltar. There, with a view of the peninsula and Morocco beyond, we drove over to the Atlantic coast, known locally as Costa de la Luz.

Clinging to the hills south of Cadiz, Vejer de la Fontera is a medieval labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets and white walls displaying a patchwork of old tiles, ironwork and flowers. The stunning Hotel Califa in the Plaza España has fine rooms and a wonderful garden restaurant. As we walked from the reception to our room, we ducked under low ceilings, climbed narrow stairways and crossed blooming terraces. One of the best nights I spent in Spain was on a terrace with a view of the city, listening to my sister tell me about Al Andalus, the name for much of the Iberian Peninsula that fell under Islamic control for nearly 400 years until 1492. The Moors thrived in medieval Europe and their contributions to Spanish culture are still evident in architecture, language, cuisine and heritage, especially in the south.

Along Vejer’s maze of inclines and arches, some built more than 1,000 years ago, we found funky bars and restaurants where you can watch bullfights on a flat screen television and eat cheese, olives, shrimp and calamari and drink rioja with the town’s old men. Restaurante Trafalgar serves excellent modern Spanish cuisine made with local ingredients.

Caños de Mecca and Conil de la Frontera are beach towns, just down the hill from Vejer. Being early May, my sister and I shared the beaches with only an occasional surfer or kite flyer. Mostly we had the beaches to ourselves. The only problem was that the sky offered little early sun and only rain in the afternoon. But we kept to our morning routine, undressing to our swimsuits, until clouds, wind and goose bumps made us dress again just in time for a mid-day meal at 2 p.m. Each day, we packed our beach bags and walked to a restaurant, poking shoulders and checking waists for evidence of a tan.

A few days later, in Madrid, we checked into the Hotel Paris, overlooking the Puerta del Sol in the heart of the capital and in walking distance of most of Madrid’s regal sites. We arrived during the Festival of San Isidro, the capital’s patron saint. Central Madrid was packed with revelers, families and little girls dressed in traditional dresses. The area is active and busy with nightlife. Step into any smoky parlor and discover a loud and sophisticated crowd enjoying food, wine and conversation.

Chueca, a neighborhood north of the hotel, boasts of everything gay. There are bookstores, boutiques, restaurants and bars. Not unlike New York, but even more so, the dancing at popular gay nightclubs doesn’t start before 2:30 a.m. and lasts until late dawn. If you like Spanish and Latin pop music, Polana is a blast. The first drink is free and the crowd is hip, but unpretentious. Closer to the Plaza de España, Cool has a more artificial vibe, multiple levels, neon lights, drag performers and international DJs. On Fridays it is packed with young gay men and their admirers. Ironically, it was there that I met the first young Spanish conservative of my trip—and he was gay. He praised Bush’s foreign policy and scolded the Spanish electorate for ousting Aznar.

When I left for my hotel, I spotted a homeless man shooting drugs into his foot on the steps of the movie theatre on Gran Vía.

The next day, I met my friends at the fabulous Arrocería Gala for black rice where the chef serves a variety of paellas, in this case cooked in black squid ink. From there, I visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which houses a variety of European art from the work of Monet to Lichtenstein. The Museo del Prado and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia are both requisite stops and are the homes of Spain’s most famous masters: El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Picasso and Dalí.

Before leaving Spain, I went on a final day trip, which started with an outdoor lunch at a friend’s house in Torrelodones, a quiet village suburb just north of Madrid. Then we headed toward the Sierra de Guadarrama to San Lorenzo del Escorial, a getaway for royalty and city-weary madrileños. We strolled around the grounds of the palace monastery and watched a wedding party celebrating outside the cathedral. The conversation quickly turned to the royal wedding plans. My friend’s cousin, a police officer, told us over ice cream cones that she would be working the day of the wedding and to look for her on television as the carriage, carrying the newlyweds, passes through Madrid.

We left the next day and one week later I watched the wedding coverage from my apartment in New York City. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t see her in the crowds.

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