Ole! My Trip to the Motherland. (Espana Part 1)

22 Jun

Y’all, Espana. Who knew? It’s my new favorite country. (Sorry, Turkey.)

I’ll come back to finishing our Tuscany trip soon. I want to get Spain down before I forget the details.

LeAnn had promised to come visit us while we were in Romania and was trying to book a ticket on her Delta miles but Delta doesn’t fly into Timisoara (shocker, I know). So Patrick, being amazing and also kind of a genius, said, “hey, what if she flew into somewhere that WizzAir, the Hungarian budget airline that flies into Timisoara, flies. And then, what if Melissa met her there for a few days so she could get a much needed break from kids, Romania, and homeschooling kids in Romania.” (Seriously, have I mentioned how much I love this man?)  So after much protest and hesitation on my part, I agreed. Hahahahahaha. Just kidding. I was booking tickets before he even finished his sentence.

Valencia was an inexpensive flight away (like $30. Seriously) and I was interested in seeing where my ancestors came from, so Spain it was! I would fly into Valencia, rent a car, drive to Madrid, and pick LeAnn up at the airport there the next morning.

I kissed the munchkins and my wonderful man goodbye and hopped my flight on Monday night. Landing in Valencia, we flew over the Mediterranean and then circled over acres of orange groves. It was gorgeous from the air. I rented my car, an adorable Fiat Panda that I promptly fell in love with, plugged in the iPod and enjoyed three hours of blissful, beautiful solitude. The landscape was unbelievably beautiful, rivaling Ireland and Tuscany for prettiest I’ve ever seen. It was balmy and the early evening light was just perfect. Occasionally, I’d drive past “bullboards” randomly placed on hilltops and in fields. At one point, I had to take a detour off the highway and found myself up in the mountains driving through a long tunnel and emerging alongside a glassy mountain reservoir.

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I made it to Madrid around 11:30, then spent another half hour trying to find parking. We’d found a great little place to stay in the heart of Madrid. The problem is trying to find parking in the heart of Madrid. True to any European city, the roads were narrow, randomly one way, and lined with tiny cars parked bumper to bumper. I circled around for quite a while before deciding I’d better just park and hike to the apartment. The proprietor was only going to be there until midnight and it was getting pretty close. I figured I’d park, meet her and get the key, then go back and move the car closer to the apartment. Except in my haste I failed to note where I’d actually parked.

Madrid comes alive after dark. Even at midnight, the street were filled with people, all the cafes were open, their terraces full. Our apartment seemed to be in a young area, there were a lot of student types around. I walked quite a ways uphill to the apartment, where I met our proprietor, got the keys, and dropped my bag. Then I headed back out (it’s about 1am at this point) to move the car. But as I noted, I didn’t quite know where I’d parked it. I headed downhill, then wandered side streets here and there that looked vaguely familiar. At this point, the streets were quieting a little, especially the further I got from the apartment. There were a few shady characters around, including one that seemed to be following me. I decided to give up and just go look in daylight. I headed back up to the apartment and went to bed, confident that I would find the car in the light of day.

Unfortunately, in the day time, I still had no idea where I’d parked the car. What if I’d accidentally parked in a restricted zone and got towed? I must have walked every street downhill from the apartment at least twice. At this point I was starting to doubt the color of my car. It was white, right? It had wheels? I had drived to Madrid, hadn’t I? I wasn’t finding it any where and at this point was starting to panic. I considered calling the police. But being that it was early morning and Madrid, I figured they would laugh at me when I told them I couldn’t remember where I’d parked my car and tell me not to drink so much.  I was getting more and more agitated, especially since I needed to get to the airport and pick LeAnn up. Right when I was trying to figure out how to get a hold of the police, I turned a corner and saw a little white car’s lights flashing. I’d been clicking my key fob on and off, hoping the car would light up and I’d spot it. I shrieked with joy, alarming the man standing in a doorway near my car. I headed out to retrieve LeAnn.

She got in fine and we headed back into town to settle into the apartment. Having been granted a whole four days of freedom in a new country, I was raring to get out and explore. Poor LeAnn had just made a transatlantic trip though and was not as peppy as I was. She was a champion though and let me drag her out as we followed a Rick Steves walking tour to familiarize ourselves with the city.

We headed up to Puerta del Sol, a main plaza. It’s huge, with multiple statues, fountains, and street performers everywhere. There were dance crews, levitating people, and weirdos dressed up as furry animals and raggedy Disney characters. Seriously, you want me to pay you money for dressing in an animal costume? Go to clown school.015d766e33437cf3754a82223e6630cfb80fe6a9b6

We grabbed lunch at a little place just off the plaza. It was fine, nothing fantastic. LeAnn had mediocre paella and I had something that was obviously not memorable because I can’t recall it at all. After that we strolled up some side streets, popping into a cookie store to try some traditional Spanish cookies. Thankfully, LeAnn is very much a food tourist, like me. So we made sure to sample as much of the local cuisine as we could without bursting. We headed through the gigantic Plaza Mayor, with it’s endless murals and balconies, and over to the Mercado de San Miguel. This is a gentrified covered food market, offering all kinds of Spanish delights. We wandered around, oohing and ahhing at all the tiny little works of edible art and noticing that ham (or jamon) really is a national obsession. We tried some macarons and fruit tarts and then noticed a booth for a flamenco bar that I’d looked at online. We talked to the guy there and he was offering a market discount way cheaper than anything I’d found. This place, Cardamomo, is one of the highest rated flamenco tablaos in Madrid so we jumped at the offer and made reservations for the next night. 013f41c704fc49d326179fe3d134a922a057cd2bac

After the plaza we headed up a side alley where Rick recommended trying the cookies baked by cloistered nuns. When we got there, there were about a half dozen people standing around, most of them holding a Rick Steves book, waiting for the cloiser to reopen after siesta. We decided that we didn’t really want to stick around for nun cookies and instead wandered into a charming jewelry shop that sold local handmade jewelry that was just beautiful. We browsed and picked out a few pieces. I fell in love with a pair of earrings that LeAnn treated me to. She kept picking things up to look, then the super attentive saleslady would come over and talk about how good it looked on her and LeAnn would be like “okay, you convinced me, I’ll take that too.” She was the shopkeeper’s dream come true. Unfortunately, LeAnn did not call her card companies before traveling (always alert your card companies, people!) so she found herself without access to money. Thankfully, she had her sugar-daughter-in-law to bankroll her, so we left the shop with several jewelry bags in hand

At this point, I could tell that poor, jet-lagged LeAnn was running out of steam, so we headed straight over to the Royal Palace, rented some audioguides and took a tour. It’s a shame I don’t have any claim to the Spanish throne, because that was one beautiful palace, the chapel was especially stunning. I wanted to break through the cordon and sit on the throne, but knew that I would probably get kicked out and possibly deported for that, so I resisted.

01bcd5fc33641a3ceb254ef1904a3df27bd04c511aAt this point, LeAnn was done so we headed back, stopping to pick up some groceries on the way. We ate and LeAnn spent the next few hours on the phone with her credit card companies and bank trying to get them to take her off hold. She was going to head for bed as soon as she got it done. I was still feeling energized so I said goodnight and headed back out into the city. I went back up to Puerta del Sol and watched street performers for a bit. Then I just wandered side streets, exploring, doing a little shopping. I found myself near the Mercado so I popped in and grabbed a bit of fresh buffalo mozzerella with blueberry jam and arugula on crostini that was like a little fluffy bit of heaven. I wandered some more until I found myself in a tiny alley with a famous chocolate and churros shop. I parked myself at a little table on the patio, ordered up my churros and pulled out my kindle. It was a quiet alley but there was a steady stream of people walking by, so it was a perfect evening of people-watching and chocolate-eating. Little did I know that I was committed a grievous sin of eating churros and chocolate without LeAnn, something I would be scolded for the next day.

The next morning we slept in a little, and then decided to head out of town to visit Toledo. I had been doing some family history this spring and traced most of my family lines back to where they came over from Spain to the New World. They came over much farther back that I had realized, several lines in the early 1500’s, several conquistadors among them. Several generations in my De Leon line had shown up in the church records of a little village outside Toledo called Fuensalida. Looking online, it appeared that an old church was still standing in the village center, so we decided to make a stop there on the way to Toledo and see if we could find anything interesting. 01b82a807a63f552c55f0e29fa9383ca589cbd234a_00001

We pulled up to the church and went it. It was clearly very, very old. Inside though it was shiny and clean. It’s still the main church for the village. We looked around, noting the interesting artwork and pieces that may have been around when my ancestors lived there, in the early 1500’s. There was a man bustling around that looked like he belonged there, so I stopped and told him that I was looking into my family history. He asked what I wanted to find out and I told him anything really. I just wanted to see where my people had come from. He really seemed to be touched by that and invited us back into the church offices. He was the caretaker and knew the structure very well. We spoke for a while and I wrote down the information I knew- names and dates mostly. He was interested in finding any record of my family, so he promised he’d look into the church archives and see what he could find and e-mail me. He was very excited about it but cautioned that much of the historical records had been lost or burned during the Spanish Civil War, so it was hit and miss what was still surviving.

01485d33426dd7b293d8ff4ebebe0b94b95bd3ac64He stood up and told me to follow him. He grabbed a set of keys and led us towards the back of the church. We stopped in front of an ancient stone baptismal font. It was the original font, meaning that my ancestors who had lived there were baptized in that font. Then he unlocked a heavy set of ancient doors and showed us into a tiny crumbling chapel. This room, he explained, was the original church, built in the late 1400’s, then expanded into the current structure later. The room had stone coats of arms carved into the walls, along with stone reliefs and the original, battered wooded doors to the church. I took lots of pictures, knowing that Grandpa Joel would be interested to see it. The caretaker was so kind and told us about the church’s history. I had been hopeful that there might be a cemetery on the grounds but was told that, like so many church, the cemetery had been moved over time, with most of the graves lost. A plaza was built over the original cemetery, most of the bodies were moved to cemeteries out of town, and the headstones were left in the ground underneath the plaza, so there was no way of knowing who was buried there or finding specific graves.

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It was all much, much more than I’d hoped to find. It was a special experience for me and definitely a highlight of my trip. Driving away, I kept looking around at the land where at least a few of my ancestors had lived hundreds of years ago.

As we drove out of the tiny village, LeAnn remarked quite seriously, “well Toledo was smaller than I expected.” I burst out laughing and explained that that was definitely not Toledo.

Part Two is upcoming: Definitely Toledo, flamenco dancing, and jamon. Lots and lots of jamon.

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