I am writing this final “chapter” on our trip to Spain during the Coronovirus crisis, when we, our friends in Spain and most of the world are sitting at home and dreaming of a time when things might return to normal. Dreaming of being in a crowd or having a coffee at a little Spanish Cafe or a Starbucks. Dreaming of a time when we can simply be around other people. So, I wrote this post in the perspective of reflecting on the strangers we encountered in Spain in Segovia, people that did not know us and who would not remember us as we visited the sites. I wrote this thinking about a time when Covid-19 was unknown.
I carefully watch the road ahead of me, lush green mountains on both sides and the sea behind us as we drive towards our final destination in Spain. My heart aches now, just as much as it did then, not knowing when we would see our friends again and knowing this amazing adventure would soon be coming to an end.
As we seemingly drove out of one set of mountains, we seemed to climb into a completely different set…the green rain forest-like scenery slowly replaced by the dry, tan colored ridges creeping through vast farmlands. The countryside was ever changing as we made the trip south.
There was one last city we knew we needed to bring the boys to see. As we approached the city from the Northwest, out of a sun drenched valley, there she rose…a magical, almost fairy tale city, with a wondrous castle sitting on a dramatic, rocky outcropping, positioned as if it were Camelot at the very edge of the world. A place of beauty and awe. To the Southeast, partially protected by the castle walls sat the old city of Segovia, understated and charming with a Cathedral rising up from her heart. At the far end of the old city, positioned as if a bookend, rose an ancient Roman aqueduct held up by some incantation, as far as I knew, cast more than a millennium ago and seemingly ready to face another millennium. It was Segovia…the town that stole my heart the first time we visited and needing to be explored again, and this time, with our sons.
Plaza Mayor de Segovia
On our last trip to Spain, we had been to Plaza Mayor in Madrid, a place I had learned about in school and felt honored to be their, then. The Plaza Mayor in Segovia reminded me of Madrid, while still being very different, I felt honored to be there. These plazas of Spain, from the small ones to the big ones, are full of magic. The smells of food, the laughter of children and the sights of all that there is to explore. In these plazas of Spain, where the cafe con leche and churros give way to cervezas and tapas is where you will find all you need to know of Spain. These plazas are the heart of Spain, where her people meet and talk and laugh. Where old men gather and stand in circles to talk about soccer or politics or whatever the subject of the day is. It is were you go to endure the heat of the day and enjoy the chill of the night. To see them transform from quiet spaces at siesta to these vibrant outdoor chapels and basilicas of human activity at dinner fills one with life. The music of conversation fills these open spaces and filled my own heart with joy. These plazas of Spain are Spain.
I could see a bit of concern on our waiters face. The plaza was sitting next to Segovia’s Cathedral and was packed with restaurants around the edges, but mostly empty of people as siesta had just ended and dinner was still hours away. We had traveled from the northern region of Asturias, leaving behind our friends and an amazing adventure, arriving at the final destination of our two week journey through this amazing country. While our trip had about 36 hours left in it, it felt like mere minutes. Earlier in the day, the boys had learned that school was just a week away. The wear of travel, the pending school year and hunger all showed on our faces and probably deepened when the waiter told us that the kitchen had not yet opened.
He took our drink orders and hurried off as we discussed the coming school year. We were in the shadow of an enormous 400 year old cathedral, and just a few minutes walk away from both a gorgeous medieval castle and one of the most impressive architectural structures in the world and we sat saddened by the impending end.
The waiter soon returned with our drinks…and a small plate of tapas. I honestly forget what was in the assortment on the plate, but I was extraordinarily grateful for the effort he had put in to find us some food. This small act of kindness from this man immediately boosted our spirits and turned our attention away from endings and dreaded beginnings and back to this beautiful little city in the heart of Spain.
Through this small meal, we discussed what things would be like when we got back and the things we could look forward to. Completely immersed in all that history, the future was the necessary conversation. Ben and Matt talked about their thoughts on the new year. Ben had struggled a bit in grades at the end of the previous year and was determined to do well in the coming year. Matt worried about what class he and his friends would be in and whether he would makes the basketball team. While that meal had a much more somber tone to it than most, it is one of the meals I remember the most…Bittersweet and honest moments with our sons and surrounded in history.
Talking helped us through the emotion of the moment and we began to remember where we were. The kindness of the waiter re-fueled us and, eventually, the conversation would turn to our plans for exploring the city the next day.
Alcazar de Segovia
A small breeze ran through my hair as the warmth of the sun warmed us. I loved the heat of Spain and despite visiting during the height of August, there was only one time I was uncomfortable with it in the two weeks (our afternoon in Seville). When I think of Spain, often my first thought was of standing in the warmth of the sun on the top of the castles in Oropesa, Grenada and now Segovia. Still, the small breeze was welcome.
The stairwell up to the towers of the Alcazar were narrow with awkward steps that caused Andrea to decide it was time to take a break. Like the castle in Oropesa, Ben, Matt and I set out for our own adventure. There were many times in the various castles, we would have to push against the wall to let someone pass to get up the stairs or down. Despite the claustrophobic conditions, there was always a “Gracias”, “Merci” or “Thank you” from the different people trying to squeeze on by.
The Alcazar sits like a ship on the ocean, rising in majesty from the surrounding landscape. Most of the towers are capped in sharply rising points that truly made you feel as if you were in the setting of a medieval fairy tale, having just stepped out to get one last glimpse of Cinderella.
This, the Tower of John II of Castile, was the largest of the towers and was flat on top with traditional medieval parapets and turrets along the edges, allowing you to imagine you were a 15th century soldier on lookout. On one side was a a dusty plain that sat between the tall outcrop of rocks the city, the boys, the castle and I stood on and a small line of mountains sitting out on the horizon…there always seemed to be mountains on the horizon in Spain. It was easy to imagine that the view we had was the same view someone in the 12th century might have had.
The Cathedral dominated the city side of the tower less than a kilometre away, rising like a mountain itself from the relatively small buildings that surrounded it. It is an impressive and beautiful site and had me in awe with how well it seemed to blend in with the surrounding town, yet stood out at the same time.
It was at this point a friendly women, German, I believe, was with her husband and kids trying to take a selfie of themselves with the city behind them. I offered to take their photo for them, but, for some reason, the husband declined. The woman, who spoke a bit of English, seemed a bit disappointed and offered to take our picture, instead. She sweetly and carefully framed a few shots for us, as her family stood to the side. I cherish those photos, but it was that simple act of kindness that I appreciated more.
The Old City
I stood along one of the narrow roads just off the plaza where we had our tapas the night before. Standing with my back to the cathedral, I watch as an endless flow of people funneled away from Plaza Mayor and on to the most direct road down to the Alcazar. I did my best to stay out of the way of the masses while still being able to keep an eye on the door of the shop that Ben and Matt were visiting for the third time in less than 24 hours. They were carefully trying to decide whether to spend their money on the medieval trinkets there or hold out for something better.
I enjoyed watching and listening to the people walk by…the Spanish language had become a beautiful song to my ears and it had become a game for me to try to pick out words that I knew, which wasn’t much.
A small group of well dressed young men in suits and ties walked by escorting women in beautiful dresses, some of the outfits matching. They also wore broad smiles on their faces as they talked excitedly in words I could not translate but understood. The group moved in such a way that they seemed to be floating and dancing down the narrow road…their presence alone seemed to make to road wider.
A short time later, another group, slightly older and slightly slower, but no less happy followed behind. This, a procession of groups of people, continued for a few minutes, with each group getting somewhat older until finally a group of older couples made they way past. The steps more careful and less light. The men holding the women’s arms more tightly and it was not clear who was holding who up. They may not have been floating as much, but they certainly were just as happy.
It was clear they all belonged to a wedding party and I wondered if they were going to the Alcazar for pictures. I wondered how many wedding this fairy tale castle had stood as a backdrop to.
Maybe they were going to the small round plaza we had just stopped in on our walk back from the Alcazar. A fountain stood in the middle with a circular path around it and small white flower pedals fell from the trees like snow. It was a perfect place for pictures, I thought and I wondered if that small child was still down there laughing and playing in the shower of flowers.
The shadows stretched long in the golden hour of the day — and our trip — reaching out from the eastern edges of the new city, making the enormous arches of the ancient aqueduct appear even bigger. The shadows of the engineering marvel standing firmly in the old city seemed to reach out from the past and the irony of them falling directly on a Burger King is not lost on me. Older than my country, older than this country, the aqueduct is a beautiful reminder of mans ingenuity.
These countless stones sit firmly against each other, without mortar, propping each other up and reaching for the sky for more than a millennia. These stones, lost, overlooked and nothing by themselves, but when standing shoulder to shoulder supporting other stones, they are able to reach to the heavens and stand tall through the centuries for countless people to marvel at. Looking back, the metaphor is not lost on me, either.
War, famine and plague all passed beneath its arches through time. Desperation, sadness and poverty surely found their places here. However, it did not take more than a minute to see the wonder and happiness that also surely passed through its arches and to be able to understand that far more wonder and happiness found their way beneath these enchanted stones than grief and sadness. Countless others, like my family and I, stood in those same spots through the centuries and wondered at how such a thing could have been built at that time.
I imagine a Roman soldier, staring up from his formation of hundreds of others for a moment in disbelief at what they had built. I can imagine a Queen, in the height of her power, surrounded by her entourage, humbled by the golden suns glow off it’s stones. I can picture a group of children on a trip from their school all made suddenly silent by the giant that stood a million miles above them.
And I could see the wonder in my sons’ eyes as they tried to grasp the magnitude of the structure.
One Last Meal
As we enjoyed our final dinner in Spain, I watched an older gentleman wander across the plaza in front of the Aqueduct and into the maze of chairs and tables that belonged to the restaurant we were eating at. He was very noticeable wearing a suit and tie while in such a casual location (although the restaurant we were at was one of the more upscale ones we had visited). He was with, whom I can only assume was, his wife and he clearly knew the staff. I imagined it was their weekly dinner out and they dressed for the occasion. They seemed to know everyone as people kept coming up to say hello.
At one point, they decided to move to another table. I’m not sure if they just wanted a better table or if they suddenly were expecting more people to join them for dinner. As he got up to move, the gentleman stopped at our table and asked us in English if we were from America. He went on to tell us that his son lived in the States and I could see a hint of both sadness and pride in his face.
After a few more words, he moved on, as sat and enjoyed our meal with dark skies above…more night than twilight, but enough deep navy blue to provide a contrasting background to the lit up Aqueduct. While we knew our journey through that wonderful land among so many wonderful people was over, we felt content to enjoy the moment. The small interaction with this gentleman served as a fitting end to this trip…A Spaniard talking excitedly about our home country and how he hoped to one day visit it.
Nine months later, as we sit in social isolation, it is difficult not to think about our days in Spain. We bought an espresso maker when we got home, along with a paella grill and churro maker. Pictures of the adventure flicker across our little internet screen in the kitchen and decorate out house. We have even looked into possibly buying a vacation house in Spain one day.
Almost daily, I find myself planning for when the strict social distancing ends. I look forward to making a huge paella for friends and family and churros for their kids. I often have a silly fantasy about opening a Spanish style cafe here at home. And I dream of the day we can go back…perhaps this fall.
Often times we recall stories we had forgotten, like the two sweet women in the town outside Oropessa who produced these terrific embroidered items. The older woman would grab Andrea by the hips to move her over to see some design or playfully push her around to show her other table clothes, place-mats and all sorts of pretty things. It could have been interpreted as literal pushy sales tactics, but it felt more like a proud grandmother, excited to show off her daughter’s work. We felt like family in their homes rather than tourists in a shop.
I think about how, when wandering through Ronda one night looking for a place to eat, a woman stopped us and recommended we eat where she and her daughter were eating. They were from Maryland, a place we knew well, and having their own adventure far from home. It made me realize how small the world really is.
I long to one day travel across the United States with each of my sons by car. I yearn to hike the Rockies with them and stare into the wonderful beauty and depths of the Grand Canyon. I can’t wait to show them just how awesome and wide the Mississippi is and how beautifully flat Kansas can be. I look forward to re-exploring Yosemite’s majesty with them and spending a quiet moment looking out into the Pacific again.
Everyday, I find myself anxious about whether we can return to the Outer Banks of North Carolina this summer, to drive on her beaches, eat at our favorite restaurants and float quietly in the sound. The beauty of those shores are unmatched and they too call to me.
Despite living in Pennsylvania and considering myself a Pennsylvanian, I will always be a New Yorker in my heart and I worry for the city. I know that ever changing skyline will always be there and there are few people as tough as those that live there, but I dream of being among the throngs of people pushing through Times Square again and just enjoy being around people.
And I do love my adopted state of Pennsylvania, the home state of Andrea and the boys. I love the house we call home and the town we call ours. I love its rolling green hills, the vast farmlands and those quiet, twisting little roads that wrap around and over those rolling green hills and past the quiet little farmhouses. I could do without the Eagles and Phillies, but I am proud of my state.
I love my country and all that she has to explore and I would never consider leaving her and all she holds behind.
But Spain…Spain is a beautiful seductress.