Story By Mary Schramm
Photos by kathy falk
The misadventures of travel sometimes cancel out the joy of discovering new places, which almost happened when four women in our family decided to take a trip to Spain.
My granddaughter, Leah, was taking a “gap” year, a break from her college education, and was already in Europe, so she could meet us there. My oldest daughter was in Nottingham, England where she and her husband were directing a program for students from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. It would be only a two-hour flight from London for her to reach Madrid. Daughter Kathy and I would fly from Seattle.
Our long awaited trip to Spain began at SeaTac airport on Jan. 1 when a rare snowstorm in the Seattle area grounded our 6:30 a.m. flight to Madrid for five hours. Despite frequent announcements regarding our flight delay, there seemed to be only one vehicle capable of de-icing the long line of planes waiting to depart.
Kathy and I had been up since four a.m. and it was almost noon when our plane, free of ice and snow, was able to take off for Chicago. We knew we had already missed our connecting flight.
“We will put you on a later plane out of Chicago,” we were assured. “However, it goes to London, not to Madrid. You can transfer at Heathrow and be at your destination by mid afternoon. Your luggage will follow you,” the gate attendant assured us. “Don’t worry.”
In my opinion, Heathrow Airport should be avoided if at all possible. It is huge, confusing and filled with long, long lines of people waiting for customs, security checks and bathrooms.
I put my coat, purse and my small carry-on bag on the security conveyer belt, one of four checks we encountered. “Take off your shoes,” a woman barked at me.”
“I don’t have to,” I retorted. “I’m 84 years old.”
“I don’t care if you’re 184, take off your shoes!”
I tottered on one foot and then the other as I unzipped my new ankle high boots, and sent them through the cameras.
At the end of the conveyer belt, I grabbed my belongings and tried to find a place to sit to put on my shoes. In my hurry to catch our close connection, I put my boots on the wrong feet and spent the next 10 minutes wondering why it was so uncomfortable to walk.
When we arrived in Madrid, our luggage did not. Leah and Karen were at the hotel waiting for us. For two days we kept checking with the airlines and with our hotel.
It’s one thing to say clean clothes are overrated, but three-day old socks and underwear, not to mention missing medications, make-up and my daughter’s night mouth guard, is aggravating.
It may be a first-world problem, but it’s still frustrating. (My daughter’s luggage arrived a day and a half later and mine finally came after two days.)
Though Kathy and I had been up for almost 30 hours, we found a tapas restaurant near by and a beautiful bottle of red wine.
Most tapas menus list items “to share” such as tempura-battered eggplant, creative shrimp dishes, grilled green beans, calamari and trout. A favorite of ours was caramelized onions on a round of goat cheese.
No meal is complete without a dish of large, green olives, seasoned with garlic and olive oil. The delightful discovery of this kind of Spanish meal for four people, cost only about 40 euros (About $43). We found Spain was a fairly inexpensive place to travel.
Madrid was a good place to begin our trip.
We explored a lovely park surrounded by art and book vendors, then visited the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia museum to see Picasso’s Guernica, the classic painting representing the evils of war.
We also viewed works by Goya, Salvador Dali and Miro.
In the evening we reserved places at a restaurant that featured flamenco dancing. This vibrant, sub-culture dance from southern Spain amazed us. Our table was at eye-level with the wooden stage floor, and for over an hour we watched as the dancers, two guitarists and a singer told the legends and stories of the people who were outcasts.
The singer kept the 12-beat-time with his fingers as his foot beat on the wooden floor. The energy, passion and creativity was a highlight of the trip.
The trains in Spain are mostly all the same: on time, fast, quiet, clean and efficient. The sleek, duck-billed engines took us north to Salamanca where Kathy had spent a semester learning Spanish 33 years ago.
It was Epiphany, Jan. 6, the Three Kings Day a Spanish national holiday. We walked to the huge, ancient Plaza Mayor that featured a ball of red lights, four stories tall.
The parade began with a star float, an underwater theme featuring jelly fish and wide-eyed sea creatures and ended with the three kings waving to the throng of people.
We beat the crowds to a festive restaurant by being there when the doors opened at 8 p.m. In Spain, people rarely eat before nine in the evening. Their day begins later in the morning and many shops close for a siesta in mid-afternoon
Two days later we took the train south to Granada. The long ride took us through olive groves, rows of green houses growing fruits and vegetables, dark rich soil and carefully manicured fields.
We passed villages called “white hill towns” named for the uniform white buildings with red roofs found in the Andalusian region of Spain.
There were occasional wind turbines and solar panels but few signs of litter, either in the countryside or the cities. The country looked prosperous and we were told that for the third year in a row, Granada was declared the cleanest town in Spain.
The big attraction in Granada is the Alhambra, that massive fortification/palace built on Roman ruins in the mid-13th Century by invading Moroccans.
Over the years rival Sultans re-built the edifice to fit their needs, using Islamic architecture and intricate carvings to display their power.
The Christians defeated this Muslim stronghold in 1492 and it was here that Ferdinand and Isabella approved the expedition of Christopher Columbus.
This magnificent structure is now a World Heritage site. It is difficult to describe the creativity and beauty of the Alhambra.
The last days of our trip were spent in Nerja, a town east of Gibraltar and Malaga, perched above the Mediterranean Sea.
The main attraction in Nerja is a magnificent set of caves, discovered in 1959 by five young men who found a hole in a field. It is hard to imagine what it was like to find such immense rooms with skeletons and pre-historic cave paintings.
The largest cave, carved out by the sea, took five million years to form. It is over five kilometers long, and has the largest stalagmites in the world. This tourist attraction is truly a treasure, and an exclamation point to the wonders and beauty of Spain.
The final misadventure, that could have ruined our trip, was again running through London’s Heathrow Airport where we almost missed our flight back to Seattle.
But then we remembered sitting with a glass of red wine, beside the Mediterranean Sea on a warm evening with people we cherish. Life is good.