23 July 2015

Dispatches from Spain 9

by Rich Gilbert

[My friend Rich Gilbert has sent an e-mail from Pamplona, where he and Sallie went after leaving Madrid.  (Yes, he ran with the bulls.)  They’ll be traveling, first in Spain and then farther afield, for six months before returning to the States.  Check back for Dispatches 1-8 (30 November, 10 December, and 20 December 2014, and 14 January, 8 March, and 20 April 2015) to catch up with the story.  They’ll be going to Italy next and, in the meantime, he reports on some interesting and potentially significant developments in Spanish politics and some perhaps less portentous ones in football/soccer, too.  As usual, Rich’s account of his and Sallie’s travels make us feel as if we’re sharing the adventure in Spanish culture and lifestyle.  I recommend that you all also follow Sallie’s blog, Rambling Solo, at http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es.  Rich promises that his next dispatch, from Rome, will arrive soon.]

Leaving Spain‏

Pamplona – July 14, 2015

Dear Friends and Family

Pamplona / San Sebastian

I know I am jumping ahead, but for those of you who have known  me long, yes,  we are in Pamplona.  This is the last day and the closing ceremony, “Pobre de mi” [“Poor me”] is both fun and touching. I ran with the bulls safely on the 7th of July, my birthday, and again on the 13th, but not on the other days. Other than my actual birthday, I often decide each morning, depending on the night before and my gut feeling. Our friend Charlie has been seeing we get fed occasionally in some good restaurants, so Sallie is better with the Fiesta.  Nonetheless, this time, Sallie and [I] got away to San Sebastian for a few days in the middle of the Fiesta, as well as a day trip up through the Roncevailles pass (The Song of Roland) to France for lunch.  San Sebatian is  a really lovely city with some really great tapas, and I am not talking about olives! So much different than when I almost got trapped there during the riots in 1978.  Much better this way. 

One story you may enjoy concerns the location of our hotel in San Sebastian.  It was in the city, but really a bus ride, albeit short, cheap and frequent, away from the places we wanted to see.  There was really only one restaurant within blocks.  We walked up and saw the their tasting menu was 200 Euros [about $220]! No way!  As we walked back, I said “who do they think they are – a Michelin three star restaurant?”  I looked them up on-line and – you guessed it – they really were a Michelin three star restaurant! Turns out the owner is a legend in the Basque Country. Would like to try it someday but on a fixed trip when I know how much the trip will cost and how much we have to splurge.  This is not that trip.

Delays In Writing

I suppose many of you are wondering what has happened to Sallie and me.  It has been well over a month since we left our apartment in Madrid.  I meant to write an email about leaving, but the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had other ideas.  Ten days before we were to leave Madrid, I received an order to file a supplemental brief in one of the cases which I argued when I flew home in January. It is a rare request, and often means that the Court is really struggling with an issue.  However, they wanted it filed by the day we were to fly to Italy.  I have a colleague, Kristen Hughes, who is second chair, so I spent a lot of the time before leaving Madrid drafting the brief and she was able to put [it] into final [shape] and get it filed on time.

Since then we have been traveling.  Between traveling to different places, sightseeing, and sometimes problems with internet, it has been hard to find the time to write what is becoming a longer and longer story.

Leaving Madrid

Leaving Madrid was difficult for us on several levels. Logistically, we had to decide what to send home, what to store at the apartment for later trips, and what we were going to take with us. We had other errands to accomplish as well as planning our trip. (Not to mention writing my brief for the Court of Appeals.) But it was also difficult on an emotional level. We had developed some budding friendships and also good relationships with some of the local merchants, bartenders and restaurant owners. Before leaving I tried to take photos of most of them.  All were gracious about it and most said they would miss us, and probably meant it. There were many parts of Madrid and its surroundings that we never got to visit. I think Sallie and I both felt we could have stayed longer. We would be off traveling without a home to come back to, although our landlady / friend agreed to let us store some things with her. So on the morning of Saturday, June 23, we left Madrid, by train for Malaga.


We spent about 10 days visiting parts of Andalucia, the southern province in Spain, we [had] not visited before.  We had been to Sevilla, Cordoba and Grenada on several occasions, so we headed for Malaga, a relatively large city on the coast.  We rented a car there, which was good because the “airbnb” apartment we stayed in was pretty far outside of town and difficult to get to without a car.  It was in a lovely house on a hillside in an exclusive neighborhood and we had a lovely view of the Mediterranean. Good place to relax, but driving downtown was sometimes a challenge. We got to see Roman ruins, the Alcazaba, an old Moorish palace not as well maintained as the Alhambra in Grenada, and the home where Picasso was born and lived in his youth. We ate seafood on the beach but did not go swimming.


After three days we headed to Gibraltar. We had lunch on the beach in Marbella, a picturesque beach town down the coast. We stayed the night in a hotel in Linea de la Concepcion, the small Spanish city on the other side of the border with Gibraltar. Sallie had booked a bird watching tour of the “Rock.” We did not see many birds other than gulls, despite our guide’s efforts, but it was fascinating anyway. About half the trip was spent hiking on top of the rock, with spectacular views, and plenty of military gun emplacements, most abandoned. (Parts of the top were still being used by the British military, so we could not go there anyway.) Of course, we saw the famous monkeys that are allowed to range freely on the Rock, although they are fed regularly to keep them from coming down into the town. The rest of the time was basically spent driving around the peninsula. Gibraltar’s population is that of a small city and most of them are crammed into a relatively small  stretch of land, much of it reclaimed from the sea. It was odd to hear English spoken and to have to pay in pounds.

Make no mistake, Gibraltar is still a significant source of political controversy. Spain still wants it back – badly. Our guide, who was born and raised in Gibraltar, told us that the locals have no desire to return to Spanish rule.  (The Spanish position is undermined somewhat by the fact that Spain has two such enclaves on the coast of Africa in what would be Morocco, which they plan to hang onto.) Caught in the middle are the literally thousands of Spaniards who cross over from Linea de la Concepcion every day to work in Gibraltar. (We had parked our car at the border and walked over, so we knew what a stream it was.) My guess is, and it is only a guess, that those Spaniards would prefer Gibraltar become Spanish – as long as the same level of economic activity and opportunity existed.


Upon leaving Gibraltar, we drove to Cadiz. We stopped outside Tarifa, the southernmost Spanish city on the mainland, at a stunning viewing point where we could see directly to Africa and see the huge boats sailing through the straits of Gibraltar.  I would like to described the cultural and historical highlights of Cadiz, the port city from which Columbus set out on his first voyage to the Americas. The truth is, however, that we had a hotel on the beach and so we decided to goof off for a day and a half.


After leaving Cadiz, we set out to travel to Ronda, the most famous of the “white hill towns” in Andalucia.  We drove through several other towns on the way.  These are all towns located on tops and sides of hills in the mountains, probably for protection originally.  Whether by regulation or by custom, the buildings are almost always painted white. They present striking images when viewed from afar or from the other side of the valley.  Driving in them can be hair-raising because, being towns from a different century, the streets are narrow, go up and down at quite a slope and are often one way with no clear directions. We simply gave up in Arcos de Frontera, perhaps the second largest of [the] hill towns, tried to get out of town and stick to the main highway, which is like a two lane highway in the United States. Things were a bit easier in another little town we stopped at for lunch, but getting in and out was still a challenge. We got to Ronda in the evening. Throughout this drive we crossed several mountain ridges, with spectacular views. I may have mentioned this, but Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland, so the images you may have seen of the dry, flat plains of La Mancha, while accurate, are not representative.

Ronda might qualify as a small city.  It straddles a deep gorge which separates the truly old, and partly Muslim, part of town from the newer town.  Our hotel, along with others, straddles the gorge and the views were striking.  Ronda also has the first formal bullring in Spain and we took a tour, which was more interesting than I thought it might be. They let us walk into the center of the bullring and standing there in the sun looking up at the rows of seats, you got some sense of the excitement / tension a matador might feel waiting for the bull to enter the ring.

We also went for a hike outside of town, which led us down a rural country road for far longer than we thought it would be.  When we got back to the edge of town, we were tired, hungry and thirsty, so we  stopped at the first place we could find.  It was a small restaurant, clearly frequented by locals, as [we] were still on the outer edge of the town, away from the tourist sites.  It was actually quite good food, with a new treat, deep, but lightly, fried olives. They were delicious, and we have not seen them before or since.

Tour Groups

Since, up until Ronda we had avoided the more famous tourist spots in Andalucia, Ronda was our first, but not to be our last, encounter on the trip with throngs of tourists, especially tour groups. Interesting at first, they became somewhat of a nuisance during the remainder of our trip, because they involved large groups all trying to see the same thing at one time or trying to get to one place at the same time.

A large number of these tour groups were Asian, which surprised us, but probably should not have. After all, there is a lot of money in China, Japan and Korea, even if not distributed equally, and the desire to see and experience new things is, I am sure, common across all cultures. I suppose in the overall scheme of things this influx of Asian tourists into Europe is a good thing bringing an exposure to different cultures; however, the Asian tour groups were more of a nuisance because, probably due to more complete unfamiliarity with the language, they tended to stick very close to the tour leader and each other. If they were coming, just get out of the way.

Of course, there were many other Asian tourists in small groups, often families, who behaved just like any other tourists, so I am not attributing this to any cultural distinction, with one possible caveat. While hardly unique, we noticed the Asian tourists almost universally tended to want to take “selfie” photographs of the sights, perhaps just to show that they had been to the Leaning Tower of Pisa or Palace of the Popes in Avignon. Not a problem of course (unless you were in their shot), just amusing.

We thought the tourists in Ronda were bad, but little did we know. First of all there were no cruise ships for hundreds of miles. And Ronda is nowhere near as well known as Rome, Venice or Florence. (See next email covering Italy.)

Cave Paintings

About an hour outside of Ronda, there is a cave with cave paintings which date back, according to our guide, some 30,000 years.  He said they could be dated because the pigments contained animal fat and could be carbon dated. Apparently the cave was used as a site for prehistoric art for thousands of years; interestingly, the most realistic paintings were the oldest ones. It was remarkable, even though caves are not my favorite places, and this cave was not illuminated in order to keep down changes in temperature and humidity which can destroy the paintings. They also make you go in small groups to minimize those -changes.  To avoid the crowds, and waits, we choose to drive out on Monday morning, on our way out of Ronda. There were just three couples, one from Germany and one from England and us.  Fortunately the guide could speak passable English.

After a beautiful drive out of the mountains, we drove back to Malaga.  We spent a night in a hotel near the airport.  On Tuesday, June 2, we flew to Rome.  I do not want to make this too long, so I will break up our travels.  Italy will be the next email, I promise.

Spanish Politics

I have not been always able to buy El Pais every day, so I have to pick up the latest in Spanish politics piecemeal.  The short answer is that it is a bit of mess right now.  They had elections at the end of May  in many cities and some provinces.  Nowhere did any party win an absolute majority, so governments were built by cooperation, which was a messy process. The national general elections will be this Fall, so the parties are still leery of being too closely identified with other parties.  (I think there is no chance that one party will [win] an absolute majority in those elections either; then things will get really interesting!)

The big losers were the Popular Party, the ruling conservative party.  They lost control over a lot of provinces and major cities including Madrid and Barcelona. By and large, the left gained ground by agreeing to cooperate more with each other.  Both Madrid and Barcelona have new mayors from the populist parties (to be distinguished from the Popular Party, which is conservative) and both cities will be introducing new left-leaning measures.  In Madrid it will be to stop evictions, and in Barcelona to freeze the number of tourist accommodations in the city for several years.  Still, there is much unrest in the parties. The PP has shaken up its leadership, although not at the top where Mariano Rajoy, the current president, will lead their ticket. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, the strongest of the populist parties, and perhaps the most left-wing, is quarreling with about everybody else on the center and the left, so it may be hard for him to form a government either.

The separatist movement in Cataluña is somewhat disorganized.  They want to run a single ticket of independence supporters in the provincial elections scheduled for September, but they claim that they do not want “politicians,” so we will see how that ends up. Recent polls show that if there were a clear choice as to independence, it would narrowly fail.  As I understand it (and predicted earlier), the other members of the European Union have indicated that they would not automatically grant an independent Cataluña membership or allow them to continue to use the Euro.  This would make independence a costly affair (see Greece!), and I think it will narrowly fail.

Given the heating up of our presidential race in the United States, it is easy to think that Spanish politics is merely an amusing sideshow.  It is, I suppose, but it does have  consequences for the United States.  Of all of the political parties in Spain, I think that the Popular Party, which is the most conservative, has been, and would be the more reliable partner with the United States in international matters of mutual interest.  I cannot bring myself to cheer for them however, because there is just so much corruption in the party.  They are not the only ones, but have been much more tarnished by it.  I simply think that they have squandered the right to govern. Whether a Socialist government would still work with the United States is certainly possible, but I think a Pablo Iglesias-led government will be very prickly to deal with on international matters.

Spanish Football

Well, my favorite team, Barcelona, pulled off a rare triple crown by winning the Spanish premier league, (which is decided by league standings; there are no playoffs as such,) the Kings Cup, which is a tournament open to all Spanish clubs, and finally the European Champions League Tournament. There is no active football in Europe for the summer, so more time on my hands.

Of course, being soccer, the other news was off the field.  The most important was the indictment by the United States government of many top officials in FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, for taking bribes to award tournaments, such as the World Cup, and marketing contracts. Probably will be plenty of plea agreements, further indictments, and embarrassment all around. No one thinks this will be the end of it.  It caused the resignation of Sepp Blatter, the Swiss who has be head of FIFA for decades, which many believe was long overdue. (In all fairness, Blatter was not named in the indictment, but there is no telling if he might have been later.)

Meanwhile, consistent with my “rich get richer” complaint, both Real Madrid and Barcelona are busy trying to buy the best players from other clubs in the league.  Do not expect their dominance to fade any time soon.

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