España: Happiness Curves and Hitting Jamon

My Spanish assistant Roberto was catnapping on a chair in front of the Avis desk at the Madrid airport. Born in Nashville but because of a love of Spain, Robert lives in Argentina. He prefers Third World chaos and inefficiency. (His blog, at, explains.) While Robert celebrates things that are needlessly complicated and frustrating, I fight them. Traveling with him will probably be good for me.

It’s a big holiday, so the trains south to Cordoba were booked. We rented a car. Robert can’t drive a stick and automatics are still rare in Europe. Thankfully, Avis had a mighty little BMW — that was automatic — held for us. Robert drives…I type on my laptop. Efficiency. Ricky likes it.

Minutes later, we’re southbound on the freeway, immersed in the vastness of La Mancha. It’s a tough terrain. A windmill — weathered into a rough little useless nub — still caps its blustery hill. I swear, bugs here bounce off the windshield and keep on flying.

We pop into a rustic truck stop for lunch. As my teeth break into my ham sandwich, I finally arrive. España! My passport was stamped, but I didn’t realize that I hadn’t really arrived until I broke through the crisp crust, into the fluffy fresh baguette — and hit jamon.

In Spain, you gotta love the ham…from happy pigs…acorn fed. Cured ham hocks — toned legs with pointed toes, like dismembered farmyard ballerinas in vice grips — are found in every bar. That simple truck-stop sandwich spoke to me. “Welcome to España.”

Europe is changing fast. I once thought when I had TV shows covering the entire Continent I could say “mission accomplished.” But no. Spain still has its short men with tobacco voices and “curves of happiness” — round Buddha bellies. (Sure, some would say “reminders of lives cut short.” The men would say souvenirs of lives well lived.) But you no longer fear the thieves who smash your car window and grab your purse. People don’t throw trash on the bar floors as much as before. Restaurants are no longer hazy with smoke. And there’s orthodontia — young people with straight teeth. Affluence is here. It’s a cell phone and iPod culture.

Traveling shows you that history lives. It has a metabolism — driven by a society confronting (or ignoring) its problems. Solving old challenges…dealing with new ones. For instance, driving south to Cordoba, we pass road signs in Arabic, posted just two years ago. Some locals say “to make sure their Moroccan guests find their way home.”

Five hours after my Alitalia pilot said I could release my seat belt, we pull into Cordoba and settle in. Later, wandering the Art Deco streets, we’re drawn to commotion on a square.

It’s almost midnight. Short men with curva de la felicidad bellies jostle and bark as a dozen little school girls rattle a makeshift stage, working on their sultry. Even with iPods and straight teeth, Andalusia’s flamenco culture survives.

Burrowed deep into my bed, rather than count sheep I review the day: breakfast in Milan, the scare at the airport (long lines and too little time), being wowed by smooth and freshly painted asphalt ribbons lacing together Spain, and Cordoba’s every-night festival of life filling the streets. Then a noisy parade rumbles down the cobbled lane I thought promised a good night’s sleep.

Standing in my underwear and wrapped in the drapes, I peer secretively out my window. Below, a band of guitars and castanets with a choir of tobacco voices funnels down my narrow alley. Grandmothers — guardians of a persistent culture — make sure the children pick up their Andalusian traditions. Suddenly, one looks up and catches my eye. I feel like a Peeping Tom…good.


20 Replies to “España: Happiness Curves and Hitting Jamon”

  1. Rick

    I remember you said throw your napkin on the floor in a breakfast type restaurant between Plaza Santa Ana and Puerto del Sol,
    it was down a side street – forget the name.

    I went in – the place was full of locals only and drenched in atmosphere. I had coffee and churros dipped in chocolate.

    Napkins littered the floor but I felt too self conscious to throw one to the floor.

    That was on my first Rick Steves trip (using your book to travel) about 7 trips ago.

    On my next visit is it still OK to throw the napkin on the floor? – I’ll do it anyway.

    Thanks for a great BLOG Rick.

  2. Rick

    Planning a trip to Spain next week (staying in Torrox) and following some of the tips in your latest book. I was excited to note that you are there now and will watch this site for any other interesting stories.

  3. Rick, I’ve seen your video on Baden Baden in the baths, and yet the image of you in your underwear wrapped in the curtains still makes me laugh out loud!

  4. Roberto was the assistant guide on my Best of Europe II trip in September, 2000. He is fantastic, a top notch guide with plenty of knowledge and enthusiasm. Rick, you have to get him to guide tours for you again.

  5. rick, I remember looking out my window at night over looking a street corner in paris, I caught myself feeling like they were on a stage and I was the audience. But in reality their just going about their lives, completely on aware of my existance.I love reading your blogs,I can’t wait for my next trip to europe.

  6. Hello Rick,

    How refreshing to read your words. I have bought your Europe books and read them like the Bible! I will be adapting your Europe in 2 months (well 2 1/2 for me) and welcome all your insight!!. Have never been and cant wait to go!!!

    (life begins at 40)

  7. Rick, We love all that you do & your straight forward aproach to travel. I’ve enjoyed your blog; wishing you were staying in Italy thru June- hoping of course to meet you! Our daughter is touring/performing w/her HS orchestra in Budapest/Vienna/Prague, so our family is tagging along & adding a week in Italy. We secured a quad at Albergo Guerrato in Venice, the upstairs rooms with Elisabetta Carro in Vernazza & Hotel Primavera in Stressa before flying home (Chicago) via MXP per your Italy 2007 book. Will let you know about agritourismo in Greve! Quick question: Our arrival from Prague to MXP changed from 17:00 to 10:00. I made reservations on Lake Garda (Hotel Aurora in Verona wanted full/advanced payment/no refund- no way!)as we originally couldn’t get to Venice at a descent hour. Any advice? I’m afraid if I try for the night in Venice, Easyjet might make major changes again. We’re saving Milan til the end. Keep up the good work! Enjoyed Andy’s blog earlier this year! Cheers!

  8. Rick
    Traveled to Spain in March with a nephew and his wife. He is in a wheelchair. The trip went off without a problem. Used your book and stayed in the hotels suggested. You couldn’t ask for nicer people. Eat, drink and were very merry.

  9. Spain is on my must do travel list. The culture sounds so vibrant and full of life. I’m not sure what jamon is. I will read the Spain part of your guidebook and dream of the wonderful vacation I’ll be taking there. :) The underwear in the curtain scene made me smile. :):) Have a good day!

  10. I lived in Spain with my parents for a year in 1973-1974. I hear its changed alot since then, but my father visited again in 1999 and said it was still wonderful. I was 8 and had my 9th birthday while living there. We are cuban-american but my father was working with his cousin who had emigrated to Spain after Castro took over Cuba. We lived in Madrid but ventured out on the weekends to places like Segovia and Toledo and El Escorial and Avila and Cuenca. I would recommend Spain to everybody! I still miss it all these years later. I still remember the huge indoor farmers market in Madrid, and the Parque Retiro, and the Prado museaum, and the beautiful countryside near La Granja. We also stayed 2 nights at what is now a top notch parador, the old restored castle at Alarcon near Cuenca. Now that my father is handicapped and cant travel like he used to, he loves to live vicariously through your shows Rick. Enjoy your Spanish holiday and eat lots of Jamon and Manchego for us!! Susanna H.

  11. To: Rick

    I’ve been reading your blog. It is a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to hearing about Spain. Take care.

    From: Dodie in North Dakota

  12. Rick,
    My husband and I are cruising from Barcelona around the western Medeterranean then back to Barcelona where we will take another 9 days to see Spain and France. I have emailed a B&B in Arles (found in your Provance travel book) twice and am still waiting to hear from them. Will I have to call them by phone? Is this a fluke or do they not respond to email?
    Rosalie-May 8, 2007

  13. Malora-

    If you see this, is your daughter going on the Oklahoma Youth Orchestra trip this summer? I know they’re visiting those cities. I’m an OYO alumni (just finished my first year of college, majoring in cello performance), and I went on the Germany/Switzerland/Southern France trip with the orchestra in 2004. I loved every minute of it (Irv is a WONDERFUL guide), and I’ve been infected with the travel bug ever since (hopefully going back to the continent by myself next summer!)


  14. Jon, Congrats on your 1st year of college. Our daughter’s high school orchestra offers international trips every other year and national trips in between. It’s a big school- over 200 kids in 5 graded orchestras & various ensembles(only a bus load on this trip). Many band & choral opportunities as well. They’ve had Grammy Signature status numerous times and are in the top 3 public schools nationally this year. They are traveling with Music Celebrations International, who specialize in this sort of tour. I’m thinking Rick won’t mind this “side trip” as a former piano instructor! See, I’ve learned much from this blog series! So Rick, what are the rules on setting her up as a street musician to cover her keepsakes?!

  15. Rick,
    Looks like my wife and I were two weeks too early to catch up with you in Arcos, according to the hotel staff.

    Something worth mentioning for Grenada was an unmarked terraced trail we found up through an olive grove which leads to an awesome view of the city from a cliffside pergula. It was about 50 yards or so up the hill from the Alhambra minibus stop on the right. Enjoy your trip – we loved Spain.

  16. Rick,
    Thanks for the very human and personal blog. My wife and I spent a month in Spain living by your book (and staying in Paradors), finding restaurants and sights everywhere. I hope you will say ‘hello’ to Concepcion Delgado when in Seville…she was a great tour guide when we were there. Our favorite part of Spain was Andalusia, but after a month, we sort of got tired of ham, cheese, ham, ham…oh, did I mention ham?

  17. Hi Rick,
    I’m thrilled you are in Spain!
    It is one of my favorite places on earth! Salamanca is preciosa, Madrid a marvel, and Torrebarrio is heaven on earth! It is a very tiny 1 bar town outside of Leon. The villages around that area are simply magical. (I was there for a rare sight…thousands of sheep were being herded from Portugal to Northern Spain and they passed through the town! They went on and on and on.)

    I avoid the touristy places in Spain as much as possible. I shared an apartment in Madrid for 6 months and got to know the real Spainish culture. It was simply amazing. My heart lives in Spain.
    We can’t forget tortilla espanola, queso manchego, and cerveza con limon The best on a hot day! Enjoy! I will be in the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain in a few weeks.

  18. Loved the report on Espana! I was very lucky to have been an exchange college student to Madrid for 9 months in l955! Imagine the changes I have seen in the visits we were able to make since then. But the beauty of Spain and it’s people lives on; Gracias a Dios! Spanish ham is really good and so is Paella (sans the seafood, thank you). Our dorm used to begin heating on a certain date in the fall, but it was a few weeks after I thought we began needing it. Again in the spring it was turned off on a spacific date and too early for me. It seems that system stil applies in Venice and maybe beyond. Happy travels, look forward to reading more blogs. We are older slower travelors now but your trip reports are the next best thing.
    Myra, Alvin, TX : May 11,’07

  19. A tall, handsome, retired “hall Porter” who had worked in 4-star hotels in Venice, Rome and Munich, told us that senior citizens in his hometown of Venice, are “three metal” people. Silver in their hair, gold in their teeth, and lead in their fanny. He said, “Residents of Venice must do a lot of walking, but they also eat and drink a lot. After a party, Venetians don’t worry about a ticket for drunk driving, but they may fall into a canal and hope they quickly become sober.” (1988)

    The Venetian storekeeper, where Emmy bought a glass bead necklace (he remembered her from a previous year), pantomimed American tourists with the wife striding through the store and her husband following, handing money to her on demand. And the Italian couple, with the woman in the lead, but the husband in back is saying, “… not so much money, not so fast.” He is a retired music professor and had played with a symphony orchestra, if we understood that correctly.

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