I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Holy Toledo, the devil’s licking his chops

After a week in central Spain (Madrid, Toledo, Segovia), I’m heading for Ireland.

I like to catch emerging neighborhoods in my guidebooks. Here’s a new listing for my 2007 Spain book: In Madrid, a neighborhood called Lavapies is emerging as a colorful magnet for people looking for the multi-ethnic tapestry of Madrid society enjoying pithy, cheap, seedy yet fun-loving life on the streets. As is the case with most neighborhoods like this, they experience an evolution: so cheap only the immigrants, down-trodden, counter-culture types can live there. The liveliness they bring attracts those with more money who like the diversity and color. Businesses erupt to cater to those bohemian/trendy tastes. Rents go up. Those who gave the area the color in the first place can no longer afford to live there. They move out and here comes Starbucks. For now, Lavapies is edgy, yet comfy enough for most.

This district has almost no tourists. Old ladies with their tired bodies and busy fans hang out on their tiny balconies as they have for 40 years watching the scene. Shady types lurk on side streets.

For food, you’ll find all the various kinds of tapas bars plus great Indian and Moroccan eateries. I list a couple of places that appealed to me…but explore your options. I’d recommend making the entire walk once, then backtrack and eat at the place or places that appeal.

From metro stop “Anton Martin” walk down Calle Ave Maria (on its way to becoming Calle Ave Allah) to Plaza Lavapies (old ladies hang out with the swarthy drunks here while a mosaic of cultures treat this square as a communal living room) and then up Calle Lavapies to Plaza Tirso de Molina (with a metro stop). This newly remodeled square was once plagued by druggies. Now with a playground and flower kiosks, it’s homey and inviting. This is a fine example of the vision for Madrid’s public spaces.

If traveling to Madrid, keep these places in mind: Bar Melos is a thriving dive jammed with a hungry and nubile local crowd famous for its giant patty melts called Zapatillas de Lacon y Queso (because they are the size and shape of a zapatilla or slipper, €7 feeds at least two, Ave Maria 44). Nuevo Cafe Barbieri is a dying breed of smoky mirror cafe with a circa 1940 ambiance playing classical music in afternoon and jazz in the evening and offering its coffee sippers a menu of loaner books (Ave Maria 45). At Calle Lavapies 44, consider a fun cluster of three places: Indian Restaurant Shapla (good €8 menu); Teteria Lakutubia (an atmospheric tea house); and Montes Wine Bar with countless wines open and served by the glass and good tapas (crawl under the bar to get to the WC).

With a good guide, art–even obscure art buried in side chapels–comes to life. In Segovia’s cathedral I found a fun piece in a side chapel. I added this to my guidebook:

The many side chapels are mostly 16th century and come with big locking gates–a reminder that they were the private sacred domain of the rich families and guilds who “owned” them. They could enjoy private Masses here with their names actually in the blessings and a fine burial spot close to the altar. Its many 17th century paintings hang behind a mahogany wood gate imported from colonial America. The center statue is Mary of the Apocalypse (as described in Revelations, standing on a devil and half moon–looks like bull’s horns). Mary’s pregnant and the devil licks his evil chops waiting to devour the baby Messiah.

By the way, only Americans say “Holy Toledo.” Spaniards and the English don’t recognize the phrase. Locals tell me it’s likely from Sephardic Jews (Spanish branch) who emigrated eventually to America. To their American ancestors, Toledo was the most holy Jewish city in Europe…Holy Toledo!

Whenever I find a new eatery with a business plan driven by a chef’s passion, I am one happy guidebook researcher. Here’s my favorite new find for my Toledo chapter:

Adolfo Vinoteca–The highly respected local chef Adolfo who runs a fine restaurant across the street, runs this wine bar in hopes of introducing the young generation to the culture of fine food and wine. The place offers super elegance without the pretension. You can’t go wrong with their short list of gourmet appetizers (€5 each) and fine local wines (€2 to €3 per glass). I’d just throw myself at the mercy of Jonathan, and enjoy the feeling of gourmet slaves in the kitchen bringing you your wildest edible fancies. If the Starship Enterprise had a Spanish wine & tapas bar, this would be it. Wine is sold at shop prices with a €6 cork fee (daily 12:00-24:00, across from the cathedral at Calle Nuncio Viejo 1, tel. 925-224-244).

Hot in the shade

Madrid is hot. People here say “be thankful you’re not in Sevilla.” I still have a headache from yesterday’s sun. I’ve never had a too-much-sun headache. But it is really hot here. I should break down and trade my headache for a little unsightly hat hair…but no.

I often think people who talk about the weather and traffic have nothing else of greater interest on their mind. (Talking about the weather and traffic in Seattle is tiresome.) But here in the lofty and over-heated interior of Spain, even people with plenty to say are talking weather these days. I can’t believe I am assessing restaurants by their air-conditioning. People who don’t have air-con are going to movies just to get a break from the heat. Poor locals, refugees from the heat, lay like lizards in the shade.

Maybe Americans who really believe there’s no climate change going on aren’t motivated by their economic self-interest. But I believe many deny the existence of global warming because it’s not good for the economy (in the short term) to deal with it. (That was, after all, the official US rationale for opting out of the Kyoto Accords.) Assuming the engines of the First World economies are driving global warming, any industrialist (or person holding their stock) sitting in air-con splendor while the poor world is getting the brunt of their greed is somewhere between wrong and evil. Many of these people (who have no idea what living poor in the sweltering developing world is like) can’t even consume what they have. What drives them? Call me a liberal, but I’m steaming like the rest of the world.

(Of course, me promoting air travel contributes to airplane emissions which add to the greenhouse problems. My goal this coming season is to find a creative way travelers can contribute to forests enough to negate their personal contribution to this inconvenient truth.)

Things are so hot in Spain that they’ve moved the times of bullfights two hours later…to 9pm…no more sun and shade tickets. Everything’s the same–hot in the shade…and I believe that’s where we’re all heading. (For the sake of those who follow us, this topic deserves thoughtful and respectful discourse.)

Two bulls is plenty

Things are so hot in Spain, that they’ve moved the times of bullfights two hours later…to 9pm. No more sun and shade tickets…everything’s the same (hot in the shade). And that’s where I’m heading.

The last stop of the metro line is Madrid’s Plaza de Toros–the biggest bull arena in Spain. From the metro station, the escalator pumps the crowd directly to the front of the arena. It’s all peanuts and crackerjacks…like going to a baseball game. All tickets are only €6 ($8) today as the line up is 3 novice bullfighters (2 bulls each…six fights…two hours of medieval man vs. beast madness). The man in front of me in the ticket line negotiates aggressively for a good seat. I simply say “uno por favore” and end up sitting right next to him. The ramshackle band seems to be directed by the cymbal player who claps a relentless rhythm.

At 9:00 sharp, 500 angry and disoriented kilos of bull charges into the arena. Simple old men sit attentively like season pass holders, girls flutter their fans as if aroused by picadors prancing in tight pants. You can tell who’s local and who’s not. Tourists uselessly discharge flashes on their cameras. Local man croak “ole” like old goats and the Spanish women wave their white hankies with the kill.

The ritual killing lasts 20 minutes. Then another bull romps into the arena. Of course, even attending a bull fight is controversial among animal rights enthusiasts. I’ve always been ambivalent about the spectacle, thinking as a travel writer I need to report what is here (not judge it and support a boycott). When the event is kept alive by the patronage of tourists, I would then reconsider my reporting.

With this visit (my first bullfight in 5 or 6 years), the killing seemed more pathetic and cruel than ever and the audience seemed to include more tourists than ever. I left after two bulls (feeling a bit wimpy as I passed the ushers at the door). Walking from the arena back to the metro, there were the other biggest light weights in the stadium–about 20 people out of several thousand, leaving after only a third of the action: all Asian travelers and American families. I stood next to a Mid-West family–mom holding daughter’s hand and dad holding son’s hand at the subway platform. I said, “Two bulls enough?” The parents nodded. The 12 year old boy summed it up in three words: “That was nasty.”

Mini green peppers, sautéed in Madrid

Changing cultures is always fun. I love to feel disoriented, as I am when I first arrive. After a stint in Austria, I’m in Spain. I got up early. Walking around Madrid at 8am people seem in a kind of fog. It’s not clear who’s starting their day and who’s ending it.

When I enter a new culture, I have certain rituals. In Spain it’s: a plate of Pimientos de Padron–sautéed mini green peppers with a delightful coat of salt and oil; savoring a slice of jamon iberico–the most expensive ham, made from acorn fed pigs; people-watching over a tall glass of horchata–that milky, nutty refreshing drink you find only in Spain; eating really late–8pm is tea time, no one seriously starts thinking about dinner until 9:30 or 10:00; setting the circa 1950s orange plastic machine into motion as several ugly oranges drop down, are sliced, squeezed, and fill the glass with liquid sunshine; and being really, really hot.

Austria is a relatively religious part of Europe. But in Spain, people brand Catholicism into their children with the choice of names. My last cabbie’s name was Angel. The woman at the hotel desk is Maria Jose (Mary and Joseph). The guy who runs my favorite restaurant is Jesus. And another friend is Jose Maria. Men have Maria in their name and women have Jose.

I’m done with TV production for the season. Simon is back in Seattle editing together the two new Austria TV shows we just shot and I’m in Spain for five days to update my Spain guidebook and apprentice one of my guides to do more research. As always, Spain is a festival of life. The streets are jam packed with people…at midnight.

A breathy German voice?

I like the German language. People say it’s guttural, but for me, nothing sounds as sexy as the voice of a breathy German woman singing (or talking to me on my German rental car’s GPS system…leeeenx, rrrrechts, garrrrrada-aussss). And speaking of Nena…I just saw a billboard in the Munich airport with Ms. “99 Luftballons” all excited to have a photo of English heartthrob Robbie Williams on her cell phone.

Our word “cranky” must come from the German word for “sick,” krank. Someone just told me that in many countries with sweeter-sounding languages, German is used in dog obedience schools. Try it on your dog: sitz means “sit,” fuss is “heel,” platz is “lie down,” and schnell is “fast.”