November: Spain

When we moved to Morocco I discovered that several European discount airlines flew in and out of Casablanca for something akin to bus fair...I went a little crazy.  In one night I bought tickets for both of us to Lisbon and Madrid...for about the price of two fancy dinners out.  Max stopped me just before I bought tickets to Milan, and it's a good thing.  Who knows where I would have stopped?  I was out of control.

But I do not regret my impulsive travel bargain shopping.

We loved Madrid for the following reasons:

The Spanish Royal Palace & Cathedral
The churches in Spain are pretty much like free art shows - with some extra pizazz...the Catholic kind, I guess.  The Royal Palace Cathedral has some beautiful stained glass and vibrantly painted ceilings.

The Royal Palace was nothing to sneeze at either.  It was a much welcomed honest-to-gosh blustery autumn day and we were glad to make our way through the line into the Palace after an hour or so.  One of the 2,000 plus rooms, the Stradivarious Room, contains the only matching Stradivarious quartet in the world (two violins, a viola, and a cello).  I sneaked a picture of one of them before being tsk tsked by an attendant.  Which, of course, made me very embarrassed.  I hate pushy tourists who think their picture of priceless art is more important than the preservation of said priceless art.  I was just swept up in the Stradivarious moment!
The Royal Palace
 Outside of amazing free art in the Spanish churches we went to a few museums in Madrid that were terrific.  We stood in front of Picasso's Guernica for some time at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.  It is massive - about   137 inches by 305 inches.  Even better than seeing it in person was seeing it in Spain where the tragedy of Guernica actually happened - to read about the history, see part of the country in which it occurred, and then see the art it inspired added another level of appreciation for me.  ...and sometimes, let's be honest, adds the first level of appreciation.  I like art, but I'm not afraid to admit I don't always get it, you know?

El Greco!  El Greco was born in Greece (hence the name) but painted during the 16th century in Spain.  The wikipedia describes his style by saying  

El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school. He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.  

His religious figures are sinewy and sad and always painted as if part of this world and part of the next.  I didn't know much about him before this trip and we were lucky to see his work in several museums in Madrid and Toledo.      

Which brings me to Toledo!

Tagus River Surrounding Toledo on Three Sides
 We took a short 30 minute train ride from Madrid to Toledo and spent a few days wandering up hills (only uphill it seemed) into churches, and mosques and synagogues and having a generally wonderful time.  Toledo was once a haven of relative tolerance and co-mingling of Moors (Muslims from North Africa), Christians, and Jews alike.  We saw many remnants of Toledo's golden age including a Sephardic Synagogue and Museum (the name for Spanish Jews), a Muslim Mosque, and my favorite, the Cathedral of Toledo.  I think this may be my favorite church of the any I've seen in Europe.

The Cathedral of Toledo
Oh, hello.
Toledo's cathedral not only boasts a dozen El Greco's and a handful of Goyas depicting Christ and the Apostles, but also carved stucco in geometric patterns and muqarnes - both very traditional Muslim architectural arts found in Mosques all over the Middle East.  The sacristy contains tapestries and clothing of previous cardinals, including golden banners covered in Arabic writing.  No where else have I seen such a mixture of religious iconography.  Granted the choir seats in the nave of the church depict the violent recapturing of Granada and its surrounding cities during the Crusades, but there are still whispers of a moment where art and devotion were universally appreciated in Toledo regardless of faith. 

Is it wrong that after learning the tiny misericords in the choir (small benches what you lean on while praying) illustrate various naughty activities frowned upon by the Catholic church we tried to figure out what each of them was?  Surprisingly enough, the only one a little blush worthy was a man peeking on a nude bather.  Most of them depicted dragon fighting and animals playing cards together... Strange days, those Middle Ages.    

The amazing gold plated altar piece in the Toledo Cathedral
A peek into the courtyard of one of the monasteries we visited in Toledo.
Best Gargoyle Ever. 
The horseshoe door speaks to Toledo's Moorish past

Toledo at Night
Don Quioxte
Love me some Don Quioxte.  Toledo borders on Don Quioxte's region of windmills and you could find little statues of him everywhere.   When Max bopped into a local shop to ask the shopkeeper the name of Don Quioxte's trusted companion he looked a bit aghast and said "Sancho.  Of course!  This is very important here."  So there you go.  If you go to Spain you'd better know your Sancho.  

I think I found my food heaven.  I am a plate sharer and I like to sample everything at the table.  Enter Tapas.  These tiny portions are usually ordered at bars and people will have a bite and a drink at one bar, mozy down the lane and eat another tiny plate and have another tiny glass of beer and so on. But the experience is equally as good for teetotalers like ourselves.  We prowled the streets looking for tasty menus and then popped in for small plates of sausages, cheese, jamon, grilled veggies or fried fish.

For the record, I had the best garlic shrimp of my life in Madrid.  I watched them dump a handful of shrimp in a small dish of olive oil and oodles of garlic and slowly heat it up until they were cooked.  Max had to stop me from tipping up the bowl of garlicky goodness and drinking it when we finished. We compromised on me sopping it up with a chunk of bread.

Other food highlights include copious amounts of Spanish ham called "Jamon Iberico" - think little four seasons piggies fed on acorns and other lovely things their whole life - spicy chorizo sausage (see a trend?), plates of Manchego cheese and perhaps the finest meal I have ever eaten.  After touring castles and walking up hills all day in Toledo we stopped for an early dinner at the base of the Castle.  After about three hours we had cleaned up a dish of partridge served with giant white beans, roasted red peppers with cured deer meat, roast suckling pig with mashed garlic potatoes and bacon wrapped fillet Mignon stuffed with a fig dressing (respectively).  We finished with a mango moose topped almond custard as well as a chocolate "St. Geronimo" cake.  Once a decade my friends.  I don't know if my waist line (or my wallet) could handle much more than that kind of excess.            

And the hot "chocolate" with dipping churros!  Best. Dessert. Ever.  On more occasions than a weekend really demanded we partook of hot chocolate - really more like pudding - and tiny churros for dipping into the pudding/chocolate.  I'm reliving my food coma just thinking about all the good food. 

On Speaking Arabic
Why would my Scottish looking American husband speak Arabic?

That must have been what our waiter at the Museum of Ham was thinking (Please note that the restaurant is really called The Museum of Ham).  When we struck up a conversation with our waiter and he learned that we were from America he said "Well, I am from Baghdad.  You know, things are hard here.  I work and I work and at the end the day I just don't quite have enough to make the ends meet"

Too bad for him said Scottish looking husband responded in modern standard Arabic "You are from Baghdad!  Well, it's nice to meet you.  How long have you been in Madrid" 

To which our waiter did not respond, so Max repeated it and then the waiter smiled nervously, ducked his head and walked away.


Playing on the sympathies of traveling Americans in regards to the war in Iraq.  Shame on you Mr. Spanish Man.  Shame on you.  But props to my Mr. Red Beard.


  1. Um...wow. Beautiful pictures. And I love the "Arabic" guy!

  2. And can I just say that I laughed out loud multiple times reading this? I've never heard someone say that a Royal Palace was nothing to sneeze at, but it sure made me happy to read that today! Great writing, Brooke. I'm so engrossed.

  3. I've never been to Spain, but I think your photos make it look awesome!
    And why not Milan? You don't actually know us (you're more of what I call an imaginary friend), but you could stay at our house ...

  4. That IS the best gargoyle ever!! What kind of camera do you have, Brooke? Keep up the great pictures!

  5. @ Z. Marie - I refer to my fellow blogging friends as "internet friends"! I always say "I have this friend in X...well, an internet friend." Too funny. I would LOVE to come to Milan before we leave Morocco. I just might take you up on that! When do you guys leave?

    @ Jamie - I have a canon rebel with a basic 50 mm lens. I'm hoping to upgrade both soon because I can tell that things are going south. I do, however, have a serious love for photoshop. That could be part of it ;) Thanks!

    (Oh, I forgot - I also have a canon s95 point and shoot that I just barely got for video and for everything that my 50mm couldn't capture. LOVE it. Its pictures are almost as good as a bigger camera and its itsy bitsy)

  6. I have probably said this before, but it's worth saying again. I absolutely love it when a new post of yours shows up in my reader. You are an amazing story teller and your pictures are always breathtaking!

    Oh, and since people are offering, you're always welcome to come visit us here in Conakry. It's a total garden spot. ;)

  7. So I hear Anne...so I hear... :)

    I actually think it would be totally awesome to visit if tickets weren't a bushel and peck. But you guys are MORE than welcome to visit us in Morocco with all that hardship pay!

    Thanks so much!

  8. I must say, your travel opportunities are amazing!
    I am a little jealous.
    I love all of your pictures!