Spanish Summer Road Trip: Prelude

Andrea and I took the boys to Spain this past summer. It was such an incredible trip that I began writing about it when we got back. More than two months later, I am still working on it. However, I am close enough to finishing it (and it has become very long) that I decided to start posting it in pieces. This is the first part.

Ronda, Spain…A long ago memory on our wall.

There was a time when she whispered in my ear as I fell asleep at night and then strolled majestically through my dreams like a bull across her golden rolling fields. In the quiet times of my days, she would beckon to me from across the vast ocean, making me long for the quiet of a Spanish cafe just before siesta. As work and life ground away at my soul, she would continue to flourish there, a constant, beautiful reminder of a simpler life.

I had been an unwanted captive of her, at first, a man that had not stepped foot off American soil and scared to do so. The true love of my life, since the day I first met her, sang romantic ballads of that mysterious Iberian land, had finally pried me off my anvil, onto a plane and into a second honeymoon in a foreign land. Portugal, the land of my maternal ancestry, would technically be the first foreign land I stepped out on to. And while beautiful and stunning from a plane, the ATM I could not understand and the McDonalds that refused to give me pictures with the strange words to allow me to order a simple orange juice (suco de laranja) in the airport caused me to mentally retreat like a frightened turtle.

Hours later, I would find myself in Madrid with friends that Andrea had spent the summer before I met her with.  I remember the quick greeting in the cigarette smoke filled Madrid airport, a brief moment of climbing into a car and then arriving at their beautiful charming house. The day after that was a wild blur as we zipped around Madrid trying to take in as much as possible and I don’t honestly remember much before that eerie, strange, romantic and even a bit unsettling twilight would engulf my soul.

It was Good Friday the day we landed in a country re-conquered in the name of Catholicism and whose most memorable hero is know as the Catholic Queen. Those strong Catholic roots brought with them an unexpected tradition…penance processions through the city’s streets of men, women and children dressed in strange robes and hoods, marching to trumpets and drums while carrying floats with statues of Jesus and Mary and other religious imagery. These penitents would rock and sway to this hypnotic music of trumpets and drums.

It was twilight in a Spanish valley not far from Madrid and the hypnotic music bounced around the surrounding mountains. It seemed to literally fill the valley and I felt as if I were swimming in the music and display. After the red eye trip across the Atlantic in which I had barely slept a moment and a day racing around the countryside, I was left floating in this sea with each blast of the trumpets washing over me and rocking me like a wave, breaking down all reservations I had towards this foreign land.  It was in that moment, outside El Escorial that I fell in love with her.

In a single 10 hour period, I had fallen in love with her. She had, in a single day of my youth, enchanted and enthralled me and she had become an unattainable mistress begging me to betray my own country. 

The Roman Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain

The following week was a blur of awe. The first couple of days were spent with friends, visiting impossible 2,000 year old engineering feats and fairy tale castles and learning about both the past and the present of this country. Deliciously simple cafe con leches of the morning were replaced with cervezas and sangria from one outdoor cafe to the next. The beautiful countryside was constantly on display and while the “touristy” places of Madrid would pull us in, they were anchored by our native friends who showed us what the real Spanish culture was about. We saw these sites made ready for postcards in the eyes of the people that saw them daily.

Leaving our friends to venture into the south on our own was initially heartbreaking, but Andrea and I would soon find ourselves in awe again in what my memory had pegged as a little town called Ronda. It, again, became another blissful blur of impossible engineering feats, cathedrals, cafes and exploration.

Ronda added the new twist of a pre-historical cave that had humans living in it 40,000 years ago with paintings on its walls almost as old. To stand surrounded in darkness and stare back through 40,000 years of human history still humbles me to this day.

However, what I remember most…the moment that has stuck with me more than anything was when Andrea and I stopped at a grocery store and picked up a pack of olives and some wine and went back to the hotel and enjoyed them as we sat on the balcony overlooking Ronda’s famous gorge and the bridge that crosses it. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I remember those olives being immeasurably good. The time struck me, though, because it was a quiet moment – a profoundly romantic moment – between us as we indulged in what the sights of this land and what she had to offer, presumably talking about our great adventure and enjoyed each other’s company. So early in our marriage, we could not have contemplated the adventure that was ahead of us in the 18 years between visits and the two young men we would bring with us when we returned. Looking back at those types of moments in the rear view mirror can make them seem lonely because of two people missing, but those sweet moments on that balcony remain…perfect.

From our “honeymoon suite”, we would venture on a few more adventures with more cathedrals and cafes in the city of Granda, famous in the world for the Alhambra, an ancient Muslim city that is nothing short of an oasis but famous in our marriage as a place we only got to see from outside it’s walls.

From there, we turned back to the north to visit the extended family of our friends for a day before heading towards our hotel room in an old palace in Toledo for one last night in Spain before heading home. Instead, we got completely absorbed into the Spanish culture with our friends and were forced to find a hotel closer to the airport out of fear of a rough morning.

Alhambra in Granada

With a large family of Spaniards, I barely understood a word being said around me, but I recognized the laughter and the smiles and the warmth. I also recognized the thing that is universal to all humans, the sharing of drinks and food and there was oh so much of that. These were people that were mostly strangers to me, but I instantly felt like I was part of their family as we sat around that large table under the Spanish sun.

Parting with the family…parting with our friends, was sad. After an interesting last night in Madrid that is a story for another time (hint, “imodium” is the same in Spanish as in English), parting with Spain felt like I was leaving a piece of me behind. I know it is a tired and lame cliche about traveling, but leaving Spain behind left a void in me. However, I knew one day we would be back. Actually, more then that, I knew my soul would need to one day return. The castles and the cathedrals and the cafe’s. The olive trees and the bulls and the laughter. The siestas and the late dinners and food. My heart and my soul and my mind needed all of it.

Eighteen years would pass before a return could happen. Money, work, children all became barriers that left us grounded in the states. Every year for at least the last five years, the journey back to Spain was always discussed with our feet in the sands and water of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Those temperamental shores became a new mistress for our attention and offered up her own siren songs. She had a chance to sing to us each year and by then, the Spanish mountains and countryside had become a faded memory. It became so buried beneath the wonder and magic of our sons that I began to wonder if I had even remembered it correctly. Was it all that my mind had really made it to be? Was it on a false pedestal in my memory only because there was nothing else to measure it up to? There were times where I had wondered if I had even been there.

And then in a moment last summer while still sitting with out feet in the sand, we decided that it was time to see if our memories had served us well and the long awaited return to Spain would finally happen.

(To be Continued)

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