Spanish Summer Road Trip: Oropesa, Seville, Ronda and the Car Rental Counter at the Madrid Airport

Oropesa: Catching our Breath

With most of a summer behind us filled with other trips abroad for Andrea and the boys, nights by the fire pit, camps and excitement for Spain, the day leading up to our red-eye flight to Madrid was a surprising relaxed, yet blur of a day. For a trip that was 18 years in the making and had a build up with the boys for a year, it felt “heavier” for me than other trips, but for some reason, that day just moved on like any other day and before I really had a chance to contemplate it, we were sitting in the airport, waiting for the plane and contemplating Andrea’s tooth (you will need to ask her if she wants to tell that story).

The flight went by just as quick as the summer had and, before I knew it, I found myself standing at the rental car counter for what seemed like an eternity. I’m not kidding…The flight from Newark to Madrid was 7.5 hours long and flew by (pun intended) like a blink of an eye but it felt like they were actually building the car for as as I stood in front of the counter. The excitement of being back in beautiful Spain died a slow painful death in that time I spent standing at the car rental counter. I wonder to myself if this was one of the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition (which I had not expected). I did not know it at that moment, but that wait, in hindsight, seemed longer than the entire two weeks we spent in Spain. I won’t say which car rental company it was, because they have been awesome in the past to us, but it seemed so long that I feel like I need to make sure I am sharing it here and recording it for prosperity, as one of our stops in Spain. However, that was literally the only unfortunate thing to happen to us during the entire trip, so, looking back, I guess it wasn’t so bad.

Side note, while waiting for what seemed like an eternity, I had a chance to observe and study the people around me. I noticed these two men in particular because of the unusual facial hair and the way they were dressed. I spent nearly the entire time next to them and felt like I got to know them well. It was rather odd when, two days later and 350 miles away, I would run into them in front of one of Seville’s ally cafes…Very weird.

Anyway, we finally got into our rental, time turned back to normal and we found ourselves driving into the small town of Oropesa after a 106 mile drive. When we had taken a quick stop for restrooms and a little snack for the final leg of the long journey at a rest stop outside of Madrid, the exhaustion of the overnight flight, the wait at the car rental counter and the stress of travelling hit me. And while a small, small wave of excitement brushed against me, I became apprehensive of our trip. The obvious fact that we were in a foreign country hit me in the signs I could not comprehend at the gas station and the looks of strangers who I knew could see my star spangled underwear and knew I was a foreigner. It made me nervous and self conscious and this only increased as we found ourselves weaving through the narrow streets of Oropesa. I had not forgotten about these small roads…I had just somehow thought they must have gotten better in the 18 years since we last visited, ignoring the fact they are likely older than my country.

The tiny winding roads led up a hill to our hotel…one of Spain’s Paradors – old castles and palaces converted to hotels. Ours was a palace that was across the parking lot of from a castle (I’m not sure if the parking lot was there during medieval times, though). We got our bags lugged up to our rooms and realized just how tired we were. We had a castle and a town and a beautiful looking pool to go in, but we were just too tired to launch into it.

The rooms we stayed in were, in some aspects, more modern than most hotels I’ve ever stayed in while still allowing me to imagine it being occupied by a royal guest 200 years ago. The windows, in particular, struck me. They were deep with wooden hatches that opened up to a tan country side, peppered with olive tree orchards and hazy mountain range laying out in the distance. In the foreground, most of the small town could be seen and I spent so much time watching people walking through those winding streets.

However, Oropesa would become so much more than just this Parador and castle and strange Spanish streets. It would become so much more that. Nearly two weeks later, Matthew would speak about how he wished he could go back there and start the vacation over…more relaxed and less tired.

It was in Oropesa where we sat at a small sunsplashed table in the hotel, took in a deep breath and finally brought Spain back into our souls. It is where we splashed and laughed in a pool that was close enough to a medieval castle turret that the ghosts of Spanish defenders could have reached the water with boulders. It is where we ventured into our first modern and typical town plaza where the locals and tourists have been doing life the same way they likely did it 50 years ago.

It was in Oropesa’s plaza that we watched Spanish lives move through their typical Spanish paces. It was not a plaza designed necessarily for tourist. Old men gathering to discuss the things that old Spanish men discuss which I am sure are the same things old American men discuss. (Andrea and the boys still joke with me about how they could imagine me lazily hanging out with these gentlemen on a quiet Sunday morning, standing with my hands behind my back and my belly leaning forward. It has become a life goal, now.) We watched as the plaza lay dormant, quiet in the late afternoon sun and then slowly awake as the shadows retook the space. At a time Americans would begin to wind down their days, the plaza sprang to life as people ventured down for an evening of food and laughter.

In Oropesa, I would venture out on my own to overcome my own insecurities of being in a foreign country. I felt a need to fight back at the fear and insecurity I felt at the rest stop the day before. I had to explore on my own and rediscover the Spain I knew. When the town had collectively retreated into the siesta, I walked around the town to take in the air and the sun and the sights of this land that had been suppressed inside me for so long. At the end of this small journey, I overcame that last bit of language divide, found a small cafe, muttered, “Cervaisas, por favor” and just sat and listened to the music of the handful of Spanish voices that had their own thoughts of how to siesta.

Seville: A Journey Through Spanish History

The journey from Oropesa to Seville was only four hours but the drive through the streets to find our hotel seemed twice that. At times I felt like Clark Griswold, “Look kids, big cathedral, Alcazar!” as we went through down the same crowded street for the 100th time. At one point, I ended up driving onto the plaza, nearly running down some Segways and a horse and buggy. Eventually, we found our way to our hotel and then to a restaurant where Matt finally got the Spanish Tortilla his 1% Spanish heart had dreamed of (yes, I am going to brag about and embrace the fact that I am actually 2% Spanish). With a nice Sangria and despite the newly learned lesson that I do not like gazpacho, the stress of the drive melted into that strong Spanish sun.

Seville was an interesting setting, a maze of alleys and cafes that seemed to twist and turn their way through the city and then suddenly emerge into these large open plazas, parks and open space. Literally, these alleys at times would be roads to drive on and at other time, a place to hang out and drink a beer on. Driving through this tight maze was stressful and frustrating as we struggled to find our hotel during the day, but at night, once again, when the sun set in Spain the whole world changed and those alleys became…magic. I feel like my mind uses the word magic too much to describe parts of Spain but sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be a better word to capture the feeling of the city of Seville at night. There seemed to be so much there that we could explore, so many things to see so many places to eat. At times it almost seemed like this wonderful world was trying to hide from the light,  caught in the dark during the day and bursting into life at night.

These alleys also felt like they were worm holes from one part of the city to another and from one era in Spanish history and into a different era. Connected by the alleys were places like the huge plaza that contained the Cathedral of Seville, the Parque de Maria Luisa and the wide open area around the river with it’s giant bullring and Moorish ruins. In these spaces, you felt as if you were moving from one era of Spain and into the next, walking through both culture and history, all the while feeling comfortable in a modern city.

Exploring parts of Seville was done at a fast pace as we raced from one place to another. We were in the city for barely 24 hours and there was so much to see. We raced over to the river to look at an old Moorish tower and the modern bridges built across it. We then ventured to the park and saw Plaza de Espana, one of the most amazing buildings that I had ever seen in my 46 years of life. It is a building so strange and beautiful, it was used as a Naboo building in a deleted scene from the Star Wars prequels. I’ve never seen a building like this that shaped in this grand curve with towers at either end. Blue and white tile decorated it with yellow streaks, highlighting the might of Spain during it’s years of exploration and conquest. The boys soaked up the deep history of the building.

Once again I was amazed by Benjamin and Matthew’s knowledge of the cities that we were visiting. It didn’t seem like they’re listening to us or reading the books that Andrea suggested. This became evident when we were standing outside the cathedral in Seville and Matthew noted that he thought it was the largest cathedral in the world. I thought for sure the cathedral in Barcelona had to be larger and so we looked it up. Sure enough he was right…the Cathedral of Seville is the largest cathedral in the world as long as you’re not counting the basilicas in the Vatican. (Sagrada Familia in Barcelona will be the tallest once it is complete.)

After seeing the cathedral and the maze of alleys and going to see a little bit of flamenco dancing, we returned to our hotel tired and it seemed like that was going to be the end of our night. But Andrea suggested that we go to the rooftop lounge and maybe get a quick drink for ourselves and a little snack for the boys. From up there we could see parts of the city lit up. I think when I think of Seville for the rest of my life I will always think of that image of the cathedral, lit up like a beacon not more than a few blocks from our hotel. I enjoyed my gin and tonic, the first I’ve had since I was 21 and I was a little concerned the next morning I’ve got a headache but nonetheless I enjoyed it. The heat of the day had dissipated and there was just a cool air that surrounded us. The bartender had a gentle smile and he seemed so happy to be there with us, which seemed odd to me. I think that’s just more of what Spain is about…the people. There are the cathedrals, bull rings, beautiful landscapes, enormous castles, prehistoric caves and everything else that Spain has to offer, yet it is the people that I will always remember.

Ronda: A Bridge for the Boys to Our Past

I think the journey between cities takes a lot of energy out of you and I remember once again arriving in Ronda tired and grumpy and nervous. Even though Andrea and I spent a lot of time there last visit it still made me nervous. Every city would make me nervous at first. However, right away the boys jumped out of the car as Andrea checked in and ran over to the famous bridge of Ronda. You could see the amazement in their eyes as they looked over the edge and tried to get the right angle to be able to see the whole bridge. I felt the nostalgia of being young again with Andrea there. Through them, I felt the awe I had felt the first time I saw it. Ben at one point commented how he’s been looking at pictures of this bridge his entire life on the walls of our houses and he was amazed to finally be there and see it with his own eyes. He seemed to struggle with that sentiment and figuring out with that meant to him.

While in Ronda, we were wandering up another alley lined with cafes looking for a place to eat dinner. An English speaking woman looked up from her table and told us the place they were eating at was rated very highly and the chef was a star. So we sat down at a table next to them and had a nice conversation with the woman and her grown daughter from Maryland with some ties to our area. Even though we didn’t know them before, it made the world feel a little smaller.

I don’t know if it’s how age affects the memory or something else entirely but Ronda seems so different to me this time. While the bridge obviously remained unchanged and the area immediately around the hotel was familiar, so many other parts of it we’re so different to me. In so many ways I felt like I was exploring a new city which was nice, but I was disturbed at how little I remembered of it.

I hesitate to go into the details of our exploration of Ronda. Despite having been there before, being there with the boys felt like we were there for the first time. Whether we were wandering around town shopping, trying to find a way to the base of the bridge or exploring the new city, we always found some new surprise.

There was the tiny little restaurant we stumbled across while meandering towards the old gate at the other end of the old city that had maybe 5 tables and looked more like a home than a restaurant sitting on a cliff looking out towards a countryside that I can only assume Maximus was longing to return to. The paella and the food there was the best we had in all the places we were in Spain, with the exception of the home cooked meals.

There was the abandoned and crumbling electrical building that we found hidden beneath what looked like decades of overgrowth hiding it with a small channel of water still running towards it that we found while trying to get to the base of the bridge (we never found a way there). This purely utilitarian building itself seemed a miracle in engineering with the way it was set against a cliff.

There was the fascinating and remarkably well preserved over 700 year old Arab baths. While we knew they were there, we were all surprisingly in awe of how they worked and what they meant to a town. To imagine travelers all those years ago, stopping in at the baths after arriving in town following a long journey across the hot southern Spain landscape.

There was the memorial plaque to Earnest Hemingway that Benjamin and I sought out and the beautiful vistas and plaza sitting high on the cliff that we found along the way. While I joked throughout the trip that I longed to live like Hemingway’s character in “The Sun Also Rises” and casually travel across the country drinking beer and cafe, it was those quiet moments of conversation with Benjamin that were the discovery.

There was the “road” (or more like a wide pedestrian way that had the occasional car go across) lined with shops and cafes and a plaza or two that terminated at the bullring. We shopped and ate and laughed about our adventures along the way. On shop in particular, attracted the boys. Full size swords, miniature replicas of armor and cannons and other shiny things that appeal to young men became a common attraction as we stopped there no fewer than five times as the boys tried to make up their mind what they wanted (thankfully, no full size swords). In a few ways, like the pizza and the ice cream, it felt like home and the boys found comfort in that. I found comfort in the atmosphere and once again was mesmerized by the charm of the Spanish people intermixed with tourists.

There was so much to Ronda and so many little details to it that causes my heart to ache now as I recall them. Ronda has always been dear to Andrea and I and even though we discovered so many new and wonderful places in Spain, being able to share Ronda with our sons and discover new things about it makes it a very special place it our hearts.

Up next…The Alhambra, Tossa del Mar, Barcelona and heaven in a valley.

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