Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Trip dist: 152 kms. Trip time: 8 hrs, 40 min. Tot dist: 2023 kms.

Celebrations II/The German.

Wow. I didn't know I was going to hit the 2000 mark today (was thinking it would happen tomorrow). Also had no idea today I was going to bike the longest distance I've ever biked in one shot, and over 150 kms at that. Must've been the favorable wind. :). I think it is good not to be able to exactly predict when the occasions to celebrate come--makes things more fun that way. :D

It rained pretty hard for the first 2 hours of the ride this morning. Ended up as soaked as if I had just taken a long sojourn in a washing machine with no spin cycle. Blech. But then I found a gas station, where they had those horrible air hand dryers that everyone hates? Lifesaver. In less than 5 minutes of standing patiently under the warm air I was as dry as a history textbook. :D. Great things, those hand dryers.

Anyway, the ride was rather boring after it stopped raining until all of the sudden I see another cyclist, a (blond! blue-eyed!) gentleman in his mid-thirties, pass me quietly without saying a word. This cyclist was on a touring bike and with loaded panniers, indicative of long distance travelling, and because of this, too, not riding as fast as the sports cyclists. Now, when I see such cyclo-tourists, I'm naturally quite curious to find out where they are going, what they have seen and heard, and in general, talk to them, so having someone pass me by like this without a word was nothing less than unconscionable. I promptly, therefore, after debating for a few minutes with myself (if he didn't say hi, chances are he doesn't want to speak to people, so I shouldn't disturb him, but then again, what he did is a rather barbarous thing to do, so should I just pass him quietly as well and embarass him, or what?) I picked up the pace and caught up to him (bonus question for you math-oriented folks: Two cyclists start riding in the same direction at the same time, one travelling at an unknown speed and the second one travelling at 20 kms/hr for two minutes before accelerating--assume acceleration is instantaneous for simplicity--to 26 kms/hr. If the second cyclist overtakes the first cyclist in 15 minutes after reaching the speed of 26 kms/hr, a) what was the speed of the first cyclist? and b) how far did the cyclists travel before the second one caught up with the first one?).

Turns out, he was a German dude from Hannover, had started riding the day before in Alicante, and was headed back to his hometown over the next few weeks. We were heading, therefore, in the same direction for at least the next 500 or so kilometers! Could this possibly be? I couldn't believe my luck! Finally, did I dare to think...the travel companion (blond! blue-eyed!!) I had all this time been looking for? Given the circumstances, I was looking a very exciting and rewarding conversation. He was pedalling a little bit faster than my usual pace, and because of this I had to make some effort to catch him every time we went back to single file due to traffic, but I figured, at this pace my knees won't give way until at least 2 hours from now, and until then, I thought, the sacrifice is worth the potential interesting discoveries, and I'm a buy on credit type of girl, so good tradeoff, right?

It soon became apparent, however, that my German friend was mostly interested in exchanging useless statistics: how much had I biked, how many kilometers did I bike a day, how fast did I go, how many kilometers had I done this day, how many left to go, at what time did I start, and he bikes 120 a day, and expects to do something like 3000 by trip's end, and he started two hours later today than I did, and he was in Alicante for two and a half days but didn't see a thing, because he's simply biking, and my spedometer now reads this, what does yours read, etc but nothing ever nearing anything more meaningful. A few short kilometers later (less than 10, it turns out), we parted, in another very strange and absurd way: the road forked, he turned towards the coast, I followed the more direct route to the next beach town 40 kms away, and when I slowed down as I saw him start to veer away and said to him: "I'm heading this way...", expecting, perhaps, a clarification of why, since we were headed for the same place, he took a different route, he simply nodded and without stopping yelled "Good luck!", congenially, it is true, but the sterile conversation and the hollow nature of the parting left in me an insipid taste in my mouth that reminded me a bit of something Primo Levi said about the Germans in one of his books.

We didn't even take the learn each other's names.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Valencia, Day 2.

Well, today I figured it would be good to see the more "traditional" parts of the city so early in the morning I headed over to the Cathedral. Now, the Cathedral's pride and joy is the treasure carefully guarded in the Chapel of the Holy Chalice because, as it turns out, this is THE Chalice used by Jesus during the last supper. Yup. That's right. The story goes that the Chalice was taken to Rome by St. Peter, and after being taken into custody by each of the Popes in turn, Sixtus II ordered the chalice taken to Huesca to protect it from emperor Valerian, who at the time was commanding a rather virulent prosecution of the Christians. During the 15th century, the Chalice was brought to Valencia, where it has been part of the treasure ever since, and in 1916 (yeah, as recent as that!) it was permanently installed in this chapel. It is made of agate and gold and silver, a very pretty cup indeed.

Yeah. Very impressive, huh?

The problem is, as anyone who has ever seen Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade knows, the real chalice was a carpenter's cup, simple, made out of wood, and what's more the movie shows us very clearly that whoever drinks of the false cups will die a horrible, painful death (like spontaneously combusting, or being pulverized after aging 300 years in 20 seconds, or something rather terrible, at any rate), so....

Incredible that all the way to modern times, 1916, and we're still trying to tell fairy tales to tourists. It makes me so mad.

Anyway, after the fairy tales, I decided I needed a dose of science to recover my sanity, and since I like the Calatrava buildings so much, it was a good excuse to see them from the inside, for they are the site of the Museo de Ciencias Principe Felipe, which I figured, if it is anything like the Science Museum in Boston, it is very well worth the visit.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite as good, though it had some nice features. The Physics exhibits were not too exciting, and the explanations were neither very accurate nor correctly, in my opinion, didactically oriented, except for one nice math/civil engineering panel on catenary arches, where you actually get to assemble your own, but which I suspect (for several subtle reasons not worth listing here) that, like several other panels, was modelled after some exhibits in San Francisco's Exploratorium.

The bio exhibits were quite good though: the explanations were better, it was modernized with lots of current issues and even ethics debates (the issue of cloning was raised and peppered with several newspaper clippings from recent years both for and against both sides of the argument, for instance), and it was full of little tidbits of curious information, like, for instance, the fact that it was the appearance of chromosome #2 which fuses what were previously two other short ones what signified the appearance of modern man, or little recipes for extracting DNA from saliva using simple household ingredients like common salt, alcohol, and sodium bicarbonate, as well as links to the internet genome databases (in this case they went to one which is fairly readable and easy to understand for the layman) and statistics on how many genes each chromosome contains, what they more or less control/determine, and how many Mbs (Megabases) of information each chromosome contains.

Way cool. Hopefully the math/physics section will grow some improvements as well. For the moment, I can understand why the investment in the bio and earth sciences section: these sciences tend to be more colorful, people are more familiar with them (for who hasn't been on a visit to a doctor?) and people tend to shy away from too much math. Still, what better chance to change that. One always hopes...

Monday, May 29, 2006

Valencia, Day 1.

Aaah, Valencia. You can tell you're approaching civilization, when the city is full of bike lanes (though here they are mostly concentrated in the city center, where in my opinion they're not all that useful, but anyway). Besides, how awesome can you get, when the city is the site of neat Darth Vader, beetle, and fishbone-like buildings from the übercool architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava?

Well, you can imagine I spent a good long time at the Ciutat de les Arts i de les Ciences, just wandering around the buildings (it was late in the evening so they were closed and I couldn't visit inside though), and curiously enough, happened to catch an Indian or Pakistani music video crew working on some takes. Now, if you've watched some of these videos on TV, they're always quite amusing, because it looks like they do it on purpose to be funny. In this case, the actor/singer was all clad in a very spiffy white linen suit (which went nicely with the white buildings as backdrop), and an almost white-blond wig, to complement his very tanned skin. The dancers were mostly made of an american crew, lots of blond girls in mini-skirts and guys dressed in the hip-hop style, but all making indian-style dance moves. Very curious.

I did notice something else as well: being an actor must be a very ungrateful job. It is necessary to shoot something like 30 takes (that I counted), in order to produce about 2 second's worth of video, so the actors and the dancers need to posess an inordinate amount of patience to get through the shooting of the day, and wich is, I decided, most definitely not the type of thing that would fit my temperament. Still, it was quite interesting to see, what is real and what is fake, in all of these takes. Camera magic indeed.

Anyway, today was very hot, and the little bit of rain in the afternoon was a quite welcome addition to my stroll through the city. On the way back to the city center, I chatted with a Bolivian woman who walked with me when I asked her for directions. It is always easy to talk to people from your same culture. Perhaps we recognize each other by the Latin-American accent, or perhaps it is simple cultural convention (latins are known to be friendlier and more talkative than most), but in less than two short minutes it is amazing the kinds of things that are exchanged in complete confidence and with very little prompting (Spaniards are talkative too, but instead of exchanging personal vicissitudes they tend to prefer to discuss the tribulations and gossip pertaining to other people, I've found, from my most often unintended designation as a victim of these kinds of cavillations by women hostal and pension house owners). Perhaps, it is because in talking to a stranger whom you're sure you'll never see again while heading home from work allow all the tribulations and remonstrances to come out for air and breathe--no consequences, you see. She told me, for instance, how if you have no European papers you can make up to approximately 600-800 Euros cleaning houses/buildings per month, but how it is hard finding work, and that money is not good enough for the hours and the tired nature of the job, but even so in Spain even though some Spanish people have odd (i.e. unpleasant) attitudes towards Latin-Americans at least they help you get the papers--often within one year, but still, they pay is bad, and the work is bad, and well, the oft heard complaints of immigrants anywhere.

800 Euros. That's a lot less than I was making as a grad student! And I thought back then that I was being a slave when I was stuck tweaking mirrors one Angstrom at a time for a cruel boss 8 hours in the lab each day without seeing the sun at wintertime.

It is amazing, how idiotic we can be, when we take the myopic view that shows us only our own problems.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Trip dist: 70 kms. Trip time: 3 hrs, 30 min. Tot dist: 1871 kms.

Heh, this was a nice, very short ride, the first time, I think, that I manage to average 20 km/hr exactly, and maintained that for the full trip to the city center, which is when I shut off the bike computer (because then all those stoplights and "callejeos" were screwing up the average, pffft!).

Anyway, the ride was not too interesting in itself, except that I passed some rather cool-looking cement factories by the sea, which looked a little bit like those anime cartoons set in futuristic cities, so it was pretty neat.

After arriving in Valencia I was rather sick of the bike, and it was very hot (about 32°C), so I slowly made my way once the sun settled down a bit towards El Saler, which is a beach about a 45 minute bus ride away.

El Saler was a bit disappointing, however, since there was not much pretty to look at (yes, my friends, why else does one goes to the beach other than to scope out the....."fauna"? You mean to tell me that some people actually go there to swim? Ha ha ha ha!!), so after strolling a bit up and down the beach aimlessly I headed back to wait for the bus back into the city.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The people at the bus stop had accumulated, they numbered at least 60 by now.

And waited.

Waited some more.

Went inside a store and bought some cherries (cherries are the best thing of summer!).

Ate them.



The bus wasn't coming.

People still waiting.

I....lost my patience. Started walking to the next village over, 3 kms away (and I thought today was going to be an easy ride and relaxing, restful day, but no...lots of walking still in this heat), in the hopes to catch another bus there.

20 minutes after walking, the bus passes me, packed with the 60 people from the bus stop like a can of sardines. It did not stop to pick up people at the other stops.

So soon other people joined me in the walking.

Some were rather mad and proceeded to call as many complaint numbers as they could think of on their mobiles. When that was ineffective (offices tend to close by 8 p.m. on Sundays ;)), they proceeded to complain and commiserate to me, as I kept walking, just nodding but saying nothing. And I had thought that I was sick of the bike! I wished I had a bike then.

Anyway, after finally making it into Valencia, I was so hungry I actually even considered (! can you believe it?) eating at one of the McDonald's. Shameful, huh? Glad I didn't, though. I ended up having a nice Gazpacho Andaluz instead (it is the first time I've ever tried the Gazpacho), which was wonderful. This one was rather yellow in color, very refreshing, slightly tangy taste. It was so good, in fact, that you seriously wanted to keep it in your mouth as long as possible, without swallowing, heh. And very refreshing given the weather. Once you get past the shock of it being cold, you can't imagine eating it warm. It just won't do.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


Trip dist: 103 kms. Trip time: 7 hrs, 57 mins. Tot dist: 1801 kms.

The road not taken.

Wow, this was another ride with lots of headwind, and therefore rather tough ride up to Minglanilla. There is also a small port/pass on the way to Requena, Puerto de Contreras, which you can approach two ways, on N3 (the national highway, old two-lane), or on the A3 (newer, 4-6 lane highway, not autopista, but almost-like). The A3 is smoother, not too many neighboring towns (you need to exit and travel at least 800 meters away from the highway to get to them), lots of traffic, with a relatively gradual ascent to the pass. The N3, of course, has lots less traffic, is prettier, but the incline according to the locals I polled at the town 10 kms away from the ascent, is a bit harder. Lots of pain, but highly localized and short. "Which one would you take if you were biking?", I asked them.

Shrugs and puzzled/helpless exchanges of glances. Short, sharp pain, or mild, longer lasting? They don't know.

Well, how much longer lasting is it? 10 kms? 3 kms?

Only a couple, says local wisdom.

Besides, they say, bikes are not allowed on the A3.

"Oh?" said I. "I was on it just yesterday..." (and it was true! Also true the day before, when exiting chaotic Madrid...)

"Ah, but if the guardia civil de caminos catches you you're in trouble!"

And I laughed. For that is exactly what happened to me yesterday: I passed right next to a parked guardia civil, except no trouble, they simply smiled at me and shooed me on my way good-naturedly (bikes, tractors, and pedestrians, it turns out, are actually allowed on the autovias, just not on the autpistas. Tricky, but there's a difference).

After explaining this, more shrugs followed. "Take the N3, maybe" they said, rather unconvincingly.

I always think local rules of thumb, when heeded with caution and chosen wisely, have great merit to them, so on to the N3 I went, even though I had been thinking of avoiding it and getting onto the A3 ever since the morning when I started, because the N3 was doing a lot of very pretty but wholly unnecessary uphilly-downhilly (and if you could plot the derivative of the road it would be just as sinusoidal in the z-direction as the road itself!) while the A3 which I could often see run parallel was a whole lot smoother, and had been looking for an excuse to get on it, which the approaching pass did not, in this case, it seems, provide. {shrug}

Now, approaching Puerto de Contreras, the A3 runs exactly alongside the N3. So while on the N3 (the locals seemed to prefer short and quick pain to a mild prolonged one--this is probably quite true for most things in life: hell, I think, is a small, annoying but not show-stopping pain that never ends--like a blister on the back of your heel that is felt only at every step of the right--but not left--foot, if you can imagine), at every approaching new uphill, which dissapoints (because you were hoping the one you just came down on was the last one) and makes you grit your teeth once more, one always has the urge to check up on the other road, which, as it happens, was running along very smoothly on flat plains, and did I make the right choice, and are these little uphillies necessary, and will they drain my energy before I approach the actual pass, and the angle I make on this road with that truck on the A3 makes it seem for an instant like we're travelling at the same speed, let me race it and take advantage of the optical illusion, but no, the truck is way too fast, and why the heck did I take this road, this is sucking more than I thought it would, etc. Doubt always pursues you until the very last moment when the choice, one or the other, takes you to the final consequence or (in this case) destination and it no longer matters. But before that, the "what ifs" can drive you nuts (and maybe if you consider that as I was pedalling I happened to be listening to Shostakovich's obsessive string obbligato in the 3rd movement of his 8th, you can imagine how appropriate the whole environment was: hot weather, difficult ride, and with a coincidentally highly appropriate stressful musical background, while in the distance you can see the smooth, easy, Beethoven's "Pastoral"-like road in comparison!). One...always wonders about the road not taken.

And in the end, you're forced to convince yourself, even when you can see that this road you chose goes downhill (a lot!) way before the pass, implying there will be a high price to pay later, while the other one continues smoothly, perfectly flat until you lose sight of it and you know it is already too late, way too late to go back and get on the other, you now are forced, you have to (for there's no choice about it either), tell yourself, "oh, this road I'm on is prettier", or "oh, this road is less boring", or "oh, that road was too dangerous anyway", and pray you're right, even though all this time your brain is screaming at you what you know by now is true: "Ah, [insert your name here], you were a fool!"

{shrug}. So it goes.

The cool thing about Requena is the old cathedral, which has been restored inside in modern style architecture and now is the site of a museum of modern art. Getting to the old part of town here one has to "callejear" a little.

The verb "callejear" is such a cool word. There's no equivalent in English, but in Spanish this short and elegant utterance means something roughly like: "to improvise and change course on the fly while navigating through narrow labyrinthine city streets in order to get to where you want to go."

Anyway, for dinner I had a delicious "Consomé al Jerez", which is just your generic clear chicken broth and would deserve no mention other than the fact that, while in Mexico we add a little squirt of lemon to make such first courses a little less boring, here in Requena they added a few drops of Sherry, which made it quite interesting indeed, and it was a nice idea, I thought.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Trip dist: 115 kms. Trip time: 8 hrs, 36 min. Tot dist: 1698 kms.

Left Tarancón at 12:00 p.m. since the bus from Cuenca left at 10:30 and I didn't feel like waking up at 6:00 a.m. to catch the 8 o'clock one. Which kind of sucks, because having more than 100 kms to go by midday is never a very good plan, since Witching hour always fast approaches (so pray the ride is flat, in these circumstances. Without a topo map it is a bit difficult to tell...).

Still, the ride was nice, mostly flat, and through very pretty yellow fields. I thought at first that they were wheat fields, but on a closer look decided they must be something else, since wheat only has 1 tuft/spigot/ear (and these had many) which only yields about 80 grains on the average. How do I know this, given that I'm a city girl and I've never seen a wheat plant live (much less taken the time to count the grains on the ear)? Why, because I've read Jules Verne's Mysterious Island as a youngster! :D Ha ha.

Anyway, it was a tiring ride, due to the very strong constant headwinds that slowed me down by at least 6 km/hr throughout the whole ride, but the last 30 kms or so into Alarcón were beautiful, what joy riding with the sun setting behind you, headwinds finally subsiding, orange colors thrown over the golden fields with the last rays of sunshine dying. Had to pedal like a banshee, though. I made it to Alarcón at dusk, and no other nearby town for 20 kms. Was considering staying at the Parador Nacional (super spiffy 5 star hotels run by the Spanish government, always in very beautiful historical buildings, this one, in particular, in the castle of Alarcón, for the very economical price of....144 Euros. Yikes!) if necessary, but luckily found a more affordable (and quite pretty) hostal--the only one other than the Parador, as it turns out--in the town center. But what was kind of cool was the approach to Alarcón, which as you can see from the pictures is basically inside a castle on a "island-hill", because it really felt like being a knight heading back inside the castle walls for safety after the day's adventures and battles, tired trusty (and dusty!) destrier and all.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Trip dist: 84 kms. Trip time: 5 hrs, 39 mins. Tot dist: 1583 kms.

Or, how to save yourself 2 day's time without breaking the continuous kilometer count.

Or, quantum teleportation for beginners.

Ah, it was difficult leaving Madrid. Not for lack of will, mind you (since coming back from Aranjuez I discovered that part of the reason I dislike Madrid is because of its sounds as well: too noisy and stressful and too much shouting...blech), but what with the day trips that took longer than I wanted and, most importantly, the fact that it is actually, logistically, literally very difficult to leave, at least if you're on a bike. Similar to Lisbon, there are only freeways surrounding and linking Madrid to other places, so if you're on a bike you either have to take very long, confusing detours through rather sparse neighboring towns (the towns near Lisbon were nicely daisy-chained together, so the detour, though stressful because of traffic, at least did not significantly add to the kilometer count), or grit your teeth and climb onto the highway and hope for the best.

Anyway, added to the day's traffic stress was some rather strange encounters I had with people in little villages on the way. At the small town of Arganda, for instance, I was passing by the city center, and as the obvious road ended, a local policeman pointed me uphill along a narrow street that was a one-way in the direction opposite the one I was headed, so I jumped off the bike and started push-walking it on the (rather narrow, admittedly) sidewalk, for I was not planning on getting hit by cars coming down blind corners during city center midday chaos.

Well, it was not long before my people obstacle-avoiding came to the inevitable: two older ladies talking in the middle of the street taking up the whole of the narrow walkway, who as it happens, saw me approaching, and unlike most other people that saw me with the bike, seemed to decidedly and purposely stay put and keep chatting, this time, as I neared and overheard, about me, and "Sidewalks are not for bikes, what is she thinking?", etc. One of them moved aside to let me pass when I approached close enough to overhear, but the older one turned squarely to face me and extended her stance (which happened to be positioned exactly in the middle of the walkway) so as to occupy as much space as possible.

Naturally, I stopped, and looked at her quizzically.

"Would you let me pass, please?" I finally asked after a longish pause (I used the formal tone, which we have in Spanish to address older people and anyone you wish to show respect to).

"No," she said. "Why don't you take the street?"

I couldn't supress a chuckle at the ignorance of the obvious. The street was quite trafficed and a large van with difficulties navigating the narrow curved street was approaching us just as she finished saying that, though with her back towards it she may not have seen it.

"Because on the street the cars are heading the other way," I said. "Would you please permit me to pass?"

Can you believe it? "No," she said again. "I'm not letting you pass," then, turning towards the other woman she had been chatting with, exclaimed, "but look at her, look at how loaded her bike is!" (as if they'd never seen a bike before, or what?), and then, squaring herself again to me, stood bracedly as if she wanted to grip the sidewalk with the nails of her toes.

Now, mind you, it was a hot day, I had been riding for many kilometers, I was in a hurry to get to Tarancón, and in general, my personality admits no patience for these kinds of stupid power games. So I did what one does when confronted with a small inconvenience, an ant you brush away when it crawls on the back of your hand, in the path of life: I waited until the van had passed, and then got on the street as I circled around her and got back on the sidewalk behind her, avoiding her as if she were old tree stump.


It was not the only odd encounter of the day, as it turns out. I arrived in Tarancón, fortuitiously, ten minutes before the bus to Cuenca was scheduled to depart at quarter to six p.m.. The original plan, from back when I was in the U.S., was to bike to Cuenca on my way to Valencia from Madrid, but seing as how by now I was already quite behind schedule and biking to Cuenca would take one more day from Tarancón, plus crossing a set of mountains (a sierra, actually) on the way south, I figured best to head to Valencia directly and day-trip to Cuenca. Since I couldn't stand to stay in Madrid one day longer, I decided to day-trip from Tarancón instead, but again, my trusty Let's Go guide claimed that Cuenca was worth staying the night, so on the ride to Tarancón I figured, that if I got there early enough, I would take the bus to Cuenca that same day, overnight in Cuenca, then return to Tarancón in the morning or afternoon and continue biking from there, thus leaving the biking trail chain unbroken.

Well, when I arrived to Cuenca, of course, the first thing I did was look for a hostel. And I found one, cheap, but the owners here too seemed to be afflicted with some strange behaviors: every time I asked them some detail about the room, my question was received with an exchange of glances between the two women attending, plus some supressed chuckles, before the answer came, curtly and with as few details as possible. This made me worry, so I asked for more details (is there hot water all the time, or only at certain hours? How much does the room cost? Would you like me to pay in advance, or later?, and finally, may I see the room?), with the same kind of reaction, glances and chuckles/smiles under the whiskers, yet upon seing the room nothing seemed amiss. It was clear also that there were no other guests staying the night and the hostel was fairly empty, so one would expect that they would be glad to have my business, but then when I told them I had a bike they claimed that they had no place to store it (even though the hostel owners clearly owned the whole of the building, which included a cellar, a hall, three floors, a restaurant, and a back patio), and maybe I should look for a room somewhere else. Even when I told them, no problem, I'll lock the bike on the street outside, more chuckles, this time not as supressed, followed, again with an outright encouragement to look for a room somewhere else.

What? Was I looking very strange or dirty from the long ride that day? No, not particularly. I had showered, as well, that morning, as I always do. Perhaps, dare I think this, no, but, you never now, am I, could it be, a bit too darkly tanned from the bike rides by now for these provincial mentalities (only a week ago in the news there was a big scandal because they found one hundred illegal immigrants---one hundred! stashed away somewhere in the Canary Islands. You should've seen the fuss it made on TV. Of course, when you compare and think that in the US you get thousands of illegal border crossings each day, this one-hundred number is but a teeny-weeny droplet in the sea!)? But why would this matter, when it was clear that I could afford the cost of the room (many times over, in fact)?

Or what is it then, that these people have so much of and can take for granted, that it enables them to afford not to give a damn about anyone else?

I don't know!

Anyway, there was a pleasant anecdote to this day, at least. As I was looking for a hostel, I happened to stop in front of one where three gentlemen in their late 40's or 50's were chit-chatting. As I dropped the kickstand on the bike and prepared to head inside to enquire about rooms, one of them said to me: "I saw you."

Now, these kinds of statements always confuse me, because it is obvious that anyone standing by the door of a place I'm approaching will see me long before I arrive, so the statement of the evident, that I had been seen before the moment of the affirmation, seemed to me quite unnecessary, unless the act of seeing itself were in this particular case remarkable or worthy of note, as in, they could not see me before, but now, due to some unusual circumstance, could, but I could not find any physical evidence of any prior visual impairment that could endow this conjecture with the faintest possibility.

"Oh?" said I, as I struggled to sort out the previous chain of tortuous but unproductive thoughts, also because, by this point, I was rather tired from just having pedalled up the 12% grade or so climb to the old part of the city of Cuenca, and was not in the best shape or mood for reasoning complicated statements like this one at the moment.

"Yeah," added another. "We just saw you a couple of hours ago, as you were biking the ascent to Tarancón!".

"Ah," said I, still not understanding the surprise in the tone of voice, for up until now the gentlemen had limited themselves to expressing to me the obvious. "Well, yes," I continued, as I reprised my decisive approach towards the hostel entrance, "I was in Tarancón just a few hours ago indeed."

"But wait!" said the first gentleman again in an effort to keep me from leaving just a few moments longer, "how did you bike so fast from there to here? It must be at least what, 65 kilometers!"

And there suddenly I understood, and couldn't supress a smile. Of course. They had seen me on a bike two hours before, 70 kilometers away, and now here I was, arriving shortly afterwards, still on a bike. At first glance, it would look a little bit analogous, if you were familiar with the concept, with quantum teleportation! Ha ha ha!! Yeah. Got it. "Nah," I said, as I relaxed my entire stance as I settled in for a longer, clearly more pleasant now, conversation. "Took the bus after arriving to Tarancón. Only 1 hour bus ride."

"Aaaah, of course!" said another, as he elbowed the first gentleman with his elbow. "You see?", and the relief at knowing that their senses hadn't been fooled was palpable, as the group dissolved into a series of chuckles.

"We're cycling too, you know," said the second man (and here it became clear why I had attracted the notice of them in the first place). From then on, it became a rather nice conversation, with some route comparing, they heading northwards in an extended ride through vineyards and mountains, tip and suggestion exchanging, and the like.

"Still," said the first man, "pumping up the hill towards Tarancón...tough, no?"

I shrugged. Nothing compared to the past 20 minutes of climb up to the Cathedral of Cuenca, I thought, but said nothing.

"Good biotins," said he.

"What?" said I.

"You have good biotins."

And at that point I realized with a chuckle, that it was probably the first time in my life, that I was being subtly flattered, not for the mysterious look deep inside my eyes, or my wit or personality or sense of humor, or even, God forbid, a la construction-worker style, for my "*whistle* nice legs!", but, ha ha, for, of all things...nothing less than my apparently quality suitability as a biological specimen.


Anyway, managed to cram some good sight-seing in the last few hours of daylight, and even caught, as the Let's Go guide suggests, the hanging houses at sunset (see picture above). Cuenca reminds me a bit of Morocco's Moulay-Idriss: it is a city on a hill, with medieval labyrinthine streets, the views down to the town are similar (just replace the Mosques with churches and Cathedral) from the hillside streets, and it has a similar feel, living-wise: both cities seem quite poor. The bridge of San Pedro, too (from where the picture above was taken), reminds me a bit of Thorton Wilder's short novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It was kind of cool hearing the wind and looking down into empty space from it. {shrug}

And then, reading some of the signposts on the history of the city it became clear why it had reminded me of Morocco: Cuenca, too, was founded by Moors. Neat, huh?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Well, I wanted to cram El Escorial and Aranjuez onto one visit, in order to minimize my stay in Madrid, which I'm starting to actively dislike (don't know why, I just don't like the feel of this city), but rule 2: "befriend" subsumes any impetus to hurry, and with the sparse trains to and from Madrid to some of these places all day yesterday was mostly spent just "hanging out" and chit-chatting. {shrug}

Anyway, the visit to the Royal Palace of Aranjuez was nice, rather short, and though the palace itself is quite pretty, the exhibit makes the mistake of covering up the floors in garish rugs of tasteles flower designs, that clash shockingly with the devoted efforts of Queen Isabel II, who with much zeal and perseverance proceeded to decorate most of the rooms of permitted access to the visitor. What, the curators have never heard of clear plastic walkways, or is a neutral-colored rug too much to ask? {shrug}

Aranjuez was originally simply a springtime palace for the Bourbon kings (it was founded by Felipe II, though), designed to be fairly isolated from nearby populations and originally accomodating only the main court and a few servants, who were the only ones who stayed at Aranjuez year round. However, under Felipe IV the palace expanded and a town was planned around the palace to accomodate the rest of the court, which explains why Aranjuez is such a pretty town, with lots of tree-lined streets and gardens and a very harmonious layout.

But the first thing that hits you, when arriving into Aranjuez as you exit the train station, is the sound of at least 15 different kinds of birds. It is a beautiful city, not so much because of its architecture, but because of its natural music, and I think I could see, even before nearing the palace, why it became Joaquin Rodrigo's inspiration for his famous guitar concerto. It is very curious, but this is the first place I encounter, where I think the city is beautiful not for its sights, or its architecture (though Aranjuez is pretty for that too), but for its sounds. Cool, huh? So much so, in fact, that as I was walking through the tree-lined streets, during the bright midday light, my eyes had difficulty adjusting, and it was easier to just shut them closed as I walked, and at that point, after having long ago given up on trying to distinguish the individual tones of the different chirping songs, I actually thought, bathed in the chords of so many little symphonies: "I could be blinded at this moment, and I really would not care."

Scary, huh?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

El Escorial.

Day tripped to El Escorial today, which is a huge monastery/palace/mausoleum built by king Felipe II back in the late 1560's.

What was really neat about the visit here was the really nice exhibit in the museum of architecture, which documents how the complex of El Escorial was built. It has some really neat plans, section drawings, and models with topographical studies and everything. The architect and civil engineer's paradise. It was also pretty neat to see the models/reproductions of old 16th century cranes and all sorts of tools used for construction: these folks had a very intricate knowledge of engineering. One way cool feature of the monastery is the "flat vault" of cut stone--it is perfectly flat on top but from the inside it looks like your usual round cupola, and no cross bracing. Neat!

Anyway, along the stroll through the monastery I made a friend from Argentina, who as it turns out was heading to Budapest tomorrow to live there with family for a year, so who knows, maybe I have a pal to grab some drinks with in a couple more months when I cross by Hungary. {shrug}

On the way back to Madrid we stopped for dinner at the "Museo del Jamón", which is this bar/delicatessen/restaurant specializing, of course, in ham and all sorts of pork cured products. Really delicious stuff, and cheap! So next time you're in Madrid, make sure you stop by and try all their specialties. Yum.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Alcalá de Henares/Toledo.

The starving artist's dilemma.

Well, as I mentioned before, Madrid is not my favorite city, so at the earliest opportunity I found the excuse to daytrip away. :D

There are lots of UNESCO World-Heritage sites near the capital which I wanted to see, but since on Mondays most things are closed, best today to go somewhere where the important thing is the city, not the museums.

Ergo Alcalá de Henares, a sleepy little town with lots of schools (and no wonder, since a big part of its claim to fame is its university and several old colleges intimately tied to cloisters and monasteries, as well as the place of residence of some literary greats, like Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega), and cathedral chapels that are closed/boarded up but are painted a la "trompe l'oeil" to give the visitor an idea of what they (should) look like inside. But other than the fact that it has some mildly interesting history (or rather, more precisely, other than the fact that it happened to be where some famous people lived at for a while) I cannot really see why this place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is not even quaint. {shrug}. So I ran away as soon as possible (it is a tiny town, 2 hours is plenty of time to see it) and headed up to Toledo instead.

Aaaah, Toledo. Now this is a beautiful town. Should've started from this one, I ended up regretting a bit arriving there in late-afternoon. The Cathedral is absolutely beautiful, there is very fine stuff in the treasure, among them a super-elaborate custodia and a Bible of San Luis, of which only 1000 copies were ever made, and is an exquisite illuminated manuscript kept in pristine condition.

Here too, I saw some paintings ("El Apostolado") by El Greco that I was, again, absolutely certain I had seen somewhere in Oviedo before, and possibly too, even, at the Museo del Prado just yesterday (I wasn't quite sure of this last one since I'm not a big fan of El Greco and therefore the rooms dedicated to him at the museum received my very perfunctory visit). What? Did he make the copies, or is my memory serving me wrong, or are the tourists, again, being fooled? This bugs me. A lot.

Turns out, there are 4 copies of "El Apostolado" lying around. One, at the Cathedral in Oviedo (I was right!), one at the Museo del Prado (right again!), and two in Toledo, one at the Cathedral sacristy, where I noticed them for the third time, and another, at the El Greco museum just two corners down the street (as it turns out, there also seems to be 2 more sets, but these sets are incomplete--the full Apostolado is, of course, a set of 13 paintings). Now, the reason this bugs me (and the fact that the viewer is not told about the copies immediately) is not, so much, because of the far too prevalent spread of disinformation (something I've never tolerated with much benevolence), in places where one seeks to acquire some (one would hope, quality) knowledge (one just needs to take a look at the tourist groups--the ones coming in scholastic tours in particular, to see that the acquisition of knowledge is not really a major concern for most tourists, in spite of all the cameras and brochure-thumping and guidebook reading that occurs, quite pretentiously, I think, or is even done without in the case of young pre-pubescent kids who are more interested in scandalizing their contemporaries by pointing out to each other the anatomical [in]accuracies of greek sculptures). No, what happens, you see, is that the fact that a work as famous as this one turns out to be only one of four (or six, actually) sticks a very sharp thorn into one of my favorite "trigger topics".

Every interesting person, you see, has at least one or two of what I call "trigger topics". These are concepts, questions, or ideas that such a person has taken some time to think about and develop, and has subjected the premises, reasoning and conclusions to some sort of testing, or at any rate tries to subject them to testing (via conversation, in most cases, or texts read, or things seen, or whateverhaveyou) as often as possible, perhaps because the topic is fun to discuss, or because it is provocative, or because it needs to be disproved, or because it is important to the person in some way or another. These topics, too, always have a brief magic sequence of words that start an unstoppable deluge of thoughts. I have a friend, for instance, with whom you only need to stand in front of, then look at him in the eye, and with an as straight a face as you can muster say to him: "Capitalism sucks." Then brace yourself for the barrage of forceful discourse that will follow, extolling the virtues (no, that doesn't do him justice, he would not agree with this choice of word...."the simply common sense, logical and obvious benefits") of such an economic system, complete with a sophisticated arsenal of historical examples and accurate statistics supporting his virulent denunciation of other (paraphrasing, "appaling in their absurdity") systems and their implementations that can very easily go on for two hours or more. Do the same thing with a family member of mine, substituting the words "There is no God," and, if you're feeling particularly mischievous, do so right after Sunday mass for added effect. And while my family member's discourse style is milder, perhaps a bit more benevolent, even, than my friend's, what they both have in common is the messianic nature of the conversation, and the fact that the topic will be explored, once started, throughout its most recondite corners until it is either exhausted (and how can this topic ever be, for instance, when it has occupied the greatest minds of civilization for many many centuries?), or you are. :). But you see, the point is, what is fascinating, what is so enthralling and the reason to ever purposely seek to trigger these kinds of responses in the interesting people you know is not, of course, to irritate or provoke an argument (though there may be some of that too, surely, especially if you're deliberately acting obtuse or playing devil's advocate in order to curb the hypnotic oratory and create a space to iron out possibly weak details or links in chains of reasoning), but because in such people, it is clear that they have taken a good deal of time to think about the views they expound, their examples and evidence are well informed, and their conclusions solidly supported by their observations and experience. You may or may not agree with their axioms (for they may or may not fit well with your own experience), but there is no doubt that their conclusions follow impeccably from these axioms, that what they say is intelligent, complete, well-reasoned and considered globally in all of its ramifications, and what's more, there is most of the time, even when you do not agree, a lot of things in there that you may not have thought of before, that make you see things a little differently (in a richer way, always), in the end.

Anyway, such is, for me, the trigger topic: "What is art?". (Oh, and by the way, interesting things happen when those three trigger topics intersect. For instance, if you're ever at a loss for exciting dinner party entertainment, ask each one of us in turn, respectively, whether artistic pursuits should ever be state-funded, what role God plays in artistic inspiration, and which of these, if at all, best serves art's purpose, if any. Then sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the fireworks. Long-lasting entertainment guaranteed. But back to the main story...). As explained before, I can (and have, in the past) go on for pages on this one, so I'll spare you, and say simply that the reason El Greco's four (or six) copies annoyed me so much is because, according to my way of thinking, art should be "non-reproducible".

But what about photography, you say? Or lithographs? Or movies, that can get played at will? Are they not art? Yes, sure, what I meant by non-reproducible is, "the creative process should be non-reproducible" (and that is why copies of art are not "art", even if made by the same artist. The creative process that inspired and engendered the first work is no longer present in the copies). And here of course I open a tree of conversation thread possibilities that is part of the reason I could go on for hours, and it is the whole question of what do I mean by "creative process". T.S. Eliot hints a little bit (albeit rather faintly) about this in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (he also says some other things about the nature of art in there that, even though I do not exactly agree with, are nevertheless quite interesting, which is why I point you to the article), and without going too far into it, with my explanations of why I think this way or that way and not another, let me just summarize that art, in my opinion, needs to have (or show evidence of) a creative process that has an intent (an intent to create something beautiful), a purpose (art has a purpose and a "reason for", it does not stand by itself for its own sake!), good execution (the expression of art has a set of conventions, a "form", that needs to be perfected through much study--art is elitist!), and a little seed, a "spark", if you will, of "talent" (and again what I mean by "talent" is in itself its own little conversational detour). There is more, of course, many more particulars and conditions and criteria (I only gave you four--there are more), which would include things like why I consider Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" "art", but not Shostakovich´s orchestration of the "Tea for Two", and why, to the chagrin of my aforementioned unapologetically capitalistic friend, I think "art" cannot be used as a means to feed yourself, for in selling it (or, more precisely, in creating it with the specific purpose to make money, "productizing" it, if you will), it no longer is "art".

Which brings us back to El Greco. According to the curator at the Cathedral of Toledo, El Greco made so many copies of his work because he was starving (he died quite poor), basically, and by selling more copies of a successful work he would make more money. Whether this conjecture is true or not I don't know (I have found several curators already that rather than admit they don't know something they will happily invent things or give you their own, not always well-informed, theories), but assuming it is then do you see the irony here? One unique copy, and it would be invaluable. Six of them, and it cheapens, no, it destroys everything. One unique copy, and you die of starvation. Six of them, you feed yourself a little longer, but starve humanity for posterity.

Tragic, isn't it?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Madrid, Day 2.

This morning, being Sunday, I headed over to El Rastro which is a highly recommended (by my favorite guide Let's Go, of course) outdoor market. I tell you. I should really throw away this little book. El Rastro was nothing more than a simple tianguis, which is a type of marketplace that we have at least twice a week in every big city in Mexico, with the chaos and variety and haggling it implies, and that sells (in Mexico, at least) mostly clothes and imported stuff. So nothing new there, except this one had a lot more secondhand stuff than the contraband American (brand new and cheap!) imports to be found in the Mexican markets.

Afterwards, I decided to take a breather, and head over to assured quality: the Museo del Prado, whose reputation rivals the best museums in Europe and is, in my opinion the thing not to miss in Madrid. Their collection of 12th-17th century Spanish works is unparalleled, and it was really neat to finally see all those famous paintings that you see in your history books as a kid (Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Delights", for instance, Velazquez's "Las Meninas", or Goya's "La Maja Vestida" and "La Maja Desnuda", etc) live. It was great.

A curious thing happened to me though as I was strolling through the the various exhibits, and it was this. All of the sudden, I spotted a famous portrait by Carreño de Miranda, the one of king Charles II, which I as positive I had already seen a few days ago in the Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias in Oviedo (and I had the picture to prove it!). What gives? Which is the original and which is the copy? And why is the fact that one is a copy not indicated in the picture information written beside it? Or at least, why is it not mentioned that x copies exist? And are the copies from the original painter himself, or someone else?

Are the tourists being duped here?

Needless to say, this bugged me. Excessively. It soured up the rest of the museum visit a bit by covering it in a haze of skepticism from then on for me. Remember what I said about the paper tiger?


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Madrid, Day 1.

Today I basically ran errands all day. It took me all morning to find a hostal that wouldn't mind taking me in with the bike or would even consider allowing me to stay in a room with two beds: apparently that's unheard of for single people. {shrug}. Heh, reminds me a bit of the hotels in Florence.

Anyway, after that, took me a while to find a decent internet place where I could actually use ftp (most of the places block access to the DOS window), and although I wandered the city pretty much all afternoon I was also unable to find a bike shop (I need to buy a replacement tire, as you know).

Madrid is a chaotic city, teeming with tourists, American college kids, in particular, which makes moving about it bit unpleasant. Casual relationships abound, judging from snippets of conversations overheard while walking the busy streets, park bench corners, or cafes, and this, the general ambiance, is a bit on (with my apologies to the Madrileños, but this is simply what I observed) the crass side. {shrug}. Methinks I will not be staying here for too long....

Anyway, the French lessons are going along well. I can say things like "Il fait froid," or "Il pleut" or "Il fait du soleil" now (though when one would make use of such phrases stating the obvious to someone I cannot even begin to fathom, but anyway...). My pronounciation is not too bad, either. You can tell I have a slight accent but not really from where (even though the lessons are geared for American English speakers, I managed to eliminate the annoying americanized dipthongs on the dry vowels, and I was also able to eliminate the marked Spanish/Mexican accent in the pronounciation of the "r"s and also made good use of the Italian vowel sounds and German umlauts to get the French dipthongs sounding fairly decent). That's o.k. with me, since if you think about it I have the exact same problem when speaking my native tongues: in Italy, I'm supposedly from Veneto, in Mexico, from Spain, in the U.S., I'm slavic or Hungarian, in Spain....heh. Here they're the only ones who got it right. They know I'm from Mexico immediately. The reason is simple. We pronounce the "z"s and the "ce"s and "ci"s exacly like we pronounce the letter "s". :)

Friday, May 19, 2006


Trip dist: 120 kms. Trip time: 8 hrs, 3 mins. Tot dist: 1499 kms.

Tiredness accumulates? Ha ha ha ha! What tired?

Going into Madrid requires crossing the Sierra de Guadarrama. There are several possible ways to do this, one, through El Escorial, through 3 or 4 passes (puertos, they're called here), and which was my first pick, since the passes seemed lower, but asking around at the bars local wisdom entreated me to go instead through el Puerto de los Leones, at elevation 1511 meters.

What, that's 400 meters higher than killer Passo Cisa in Italy, you say? And even higher than the mountains I ran away from (er, train-rode through) on the way to León?

Well, yes, but the circumspect cyclist remembers something important: it is not elevation that matters, but elevation change. It turns out, Avila is at elevation 1100 meters or so already (how I gained that while biking through seemingly perfectly flat plains is beyond me, but it may explain why the ride from Salamanca had seemed so tiring, since as it turns out Salamanca is at around 795 meters--and how I wish I had a topo map, or at least an altimeter to know these things, instead of finding out post facto by internet search, but at the same time, it may freak me out unnecessarily at times...), and the pass is 60 kilometers away. Plenty of distance to gain 400 meters in elevation.

The ride, of course, was not effortless, but it was not much worse from stuff already encountered before in, say, Portugal. In particular, the actual ascent to the pass was very short, only 4 kms, which compared to Passo Cisa's 20 kms of up to 15% grade slope at some points, was, at only at most 10% grade, a very localized and rather mild kind of suffering, which I easily completed in less than an hour of riding (compare to Cisa's 4-5 hours of push-walk). Acute, but short-lasting, so much so that after taking the requisite pass elevation sign pictures, which took more effort, in terms of camera setup, patience and correct bike positioning for optimum sign show effect than the actual climb, some of the motorists having a snack at the restaurant at the top of the pass remarked that they had seen me pedal uphill and judging from my running around setting and re-setting the camera, positioning the tripod, and picking up the bike each time the wind toppled it over, that I did not look the least bit tired at all.

What were you saying, Fernando? ;)

Anyway, after the pass everything was downhill for the 60 kms to Madrid (well, not quite, since I had to ride on the service roads once the national highway turned into an autopista, there were some fun roller coaster-like up and down short hillies to go over the freeway exits and intersection bridges), and the approach to the city was rather entertaining, navigationwise, as I had to actively search for alternate routes through neighboring suburbs on the fly in order to avoid the freeways into the city, which rather lengthened the ride a bit. But all in all, it was a fun ride, both physically and mentally.

When I arrived I headed for the Let's Go highly-recommended "Cat's Hostel". And I say it again: Let's Go SUCKS! The reason they recommend this hostel is because it has a nice Mudejar architecture decorated patio, complete with fountain and mosaic arabesques, but otherwise, it is exceedingly noisy, full of college age giggly girls and randy boys, and basically a mess. Tomorrow, I'm moving. For two more Euros I get a nice room by myself in a nice, clean, half-empty hostal just two blocks away which may not have the young college kid ambiance, but is a lot quieter and saner. Holy Christ!

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Rules of bon vivre: The best time to walk past the bakeries is early in the morning, when the ovens turn on and the smell of cookies and pastries wafts along the old city alleyways.

In Ávila, they have these very nice cookies called fileteadas. It is unfortunate that the best I can do is show you a picture. If only smell and taste could be recorded....

Anyway, today I met up with Fernando, fellow cyclist I told you about before, whom I literally crossed paths with on my way to Lugo (he was coming down one way, I another, we met at the intersection, out of a vastness of possibilities coincided at the same point in time and space in a mere improbability of chance...funny how these things work, huh? ;)), in Segovia, where he works, for a nice meal and some aqueduct sightseeing, but not before walking along the 1024 meters of medieval walls of Avila, which is basically what it is famous for, as I had some time to kill before catching the Segovia bus.

Other than hanging out by Segovia's city center, visiting the Alcázar and a witches´ museum, it was a rather relaxing day, except for the climb of 152 steps up the Alcázar tower, which I was rather surprised I felt a little bit excessively on my legs for someone my age, I thought. Ha ha. Fernando says that on bike trips like these tiredness only accumulates. And while being the first to point out to me (and he was right!) that my back bike tire needs replacing, I do hope he's mistaken about this one. I'm already behind schedule after puttering about all those days in northern Spain....

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Trip dist: 101 kms. Trip time: 6 hrs, 19 mins. Tot dist: 1379 kms.

Today it was very hot, which made for a very tiring ride, even though it was rather flat, I think, or at any rate, a bit on the boring side. On these occasions when you cannot simply glance over your shoulder to start a conversation with your riding partner, the nearest (and it is not that close) substitute is a portable radio (and I was beginning to wonder why the heck I had brought it along, since I hadn't really had a use for it until now). Nice to see what songs are en-vogue in this country nowadays. Not much different from rest of world, I think. Lots of American music, Madonna, some Luis Miguel from Mexico, etc. The classical music station was intent on playing horrible atonal 20th century stuff, so it was not really worth listening to, and especially not during a very boring and tiring ride. So Madonna it was. {shrug}

After arriving in Avila I had occasion to sup on a super-delicious Sopa Castellana (English recipe here), which I ordered, mostly, because I was fascinated by the waiter's description of it: upon asking "what's good here?" his eyes widened and he gulped and swallowed, for his mouth started watering as soon as he started describing what this soup was made of, and when the very, very enthralling description ended, he added with a small shrug: "well, I really like it", which was, judging from the dreamy and enthusiastic encomium that preceded it, a great understatement.

He was completely correct, you know.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Hung out in pretty Salamanca today. In the morning, I headed over to the University and spent a full 20 minutes looking for the famous frog sitting on top of the skull in the main building (legend has it, that if you can spot this figure on the University´s elaborately carved façade [Ed note: you need to be handy with the zoom if you want to try to spot it in this picture], you'll get married within the year!--Hey, a girl can use all the help she can get. ;).---or, if you're already married, you get a lot of luck for a whole year instead...methinks to offset the misfortune of having gotten tricked into doing so in the first place, ha ha. Still, this frog thing´s not a bad legend for a handy pickup line, you see....;))

Afterwards, strolled over to take a look at the Roman bridge crossing the river Tormes, and which was featured in a rather famous Spanish literary work written by our friend Anonymous (who by the way also seems to like to appear a lot in the comments here as well, oddly enough...;)) called "Lazarillo de Tormes". If you get a chance to find this book, I heartily recommend it, it is a series of anecdotes told by a 10 or so year old boy, who worked as a guide for a very sagacious old blind man, and all the sorts of funny and curious adventures they got into.

By this bridge, of course, there is a statue dedicated to the two characters in this book. I have already noticed that there are many such kinds of statues in Spain, dedicated to fictional personages (countless ones to Don Quixote, for instance), and far more than those few of them dedicated to real people (which in Spain tend to be mostly simply writers, professors, or missionaries/priests/monks). What, doesn't Spain have any "real" heroes? (and I put "real" in quotes because everybody knows there is no such thing. What I meant by "real" was simply "a once-living person"). Sometimes, I don't know what´s worse: paying homage to things that never existed, or fictionalizing into glory things that did. {shrug}

Anyway, afterwards, I strolled over to admire the new cathedral, which is kind of neat, because although started back in 1513 and completed 220 (!) years later in 1733, it has a carving of an astronaut and an ice-cream cone near one of the entrances. How is this possible, you ask? Ha ha. Well, as it turns out, the material with which the exterior carvings were made is a rather soft stone, very prone to crumbling and chipping and general environmental wear and tear, so that there needs to be a lot of restoration work going on constantly. Back in 1999, and imaginative carving restorer decided to make his mark on the face instead, and carved these little figures, for the amusement of the viewer. I thought it was kind of cool, it does not much good, to always remain static and unchanging, architecture is art, and it should flow and evolve with the times. Still, at the cost of destroying the beauty of the old? You tell me.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Trip dist: 66 kms. Trip time: 4 hrs, 44 mins. Tot dist: 1278 kms.

Aaah, the beauty of the central plains of Spain! Whenever people say that they are barren, I have no idea what the heck they're talking about. It is green wheat fields everywhere, poppies dotting the bright verdure, sometimes also punctuated by touches of yellow and lavender, and the smell of chamomille (heh, some parts of it, even, looks a bit like the land of the Teletubbies).

Anyway, arrived in Salamanca in the afternoon (short ride owing to the plains), looking very much forward to it, because being founded in 1218, after the University of Bologna, University of Paris, and Oxford, its University is one of the four oldest ones in the world, and a very renowned University it is. The student-city ambiance of Salamanca, reminiscent of my old days in Boston, hits you immediately, it is vibrant and young, and as soon as I neared the old downtown quarter, the first thing I thought was: "Wow! There are some very good-looking people here!" (and by people, of course, I mean guys. ;)).

Anyway, spent the afternoon leisurely strolling near the Plaza Mayor, enjoying some locally-produced chocolates, and hanging out relaxedly; when you're no longer moving at 20 kms an hour on two wheels, the windless heat makes itself felt, and there's nothing better in this weather, than people-watching while enjoying a lemon tea-flavored popsicle.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Trip dist: 142 kms. Trip time: 8 hrs, 32 mins. Tot dist: 1212 kms.

Ha ha. Extraordinary circumstance. Ride was flat as a tortilla with no head wind for the first 72 kilometers, a little bit of headwind after Benavente, but still very flat. Nice and easy ride, perfect weather (not hot, not cold, no rain), and it was kind of neat, the contrast from the flat beautifully bright green wheat fields and the mountains I had been in throughout the month before.

I arrived with still hours of light left in Zamora, and happened to catch the people in the midst of their Sunday promenade. People young and old in their Sunday's best clothes (by the way, off topic, but did I ever tell you, I want to write a book entitled Sunday's Best one day? Not sure yet, what it should be about, but it has a nice ring to it, and a nice set of images brought to the imagination and memory...) parading about the downtown plazas and main alleyways, with the sounds of laughter and church bells and birds chirping, and what was even neater, there were these little puffy seeds from trees blowing in the air, that look a little bit like dust-bunnies but only prettier (I don´t know what they are called)? Not only did they give beautiful Zamora a very romantic, poetic feel, but as you can imagine, the toddlers and dogs chasing after them in the plazas, clambering on the statues in the parks as the parents laugh and take a picture....

Why this city is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site I can't imagine. It certainly looks pretty enough. And, they even have those signs, posted at every church and palace, explaining what they are and when they were built and everything! :)

Anyway, the culinary delights of the city deserve some mention. At one of the nearby bakeries, for instance, I discovered these very appealing-looking white bread buns--rebollos Zamoranos, it turns out, which were quite delicious and very nutricious-looking, caloriewise (they weigh quite a bit, they're like something between a thick bread and a cookie--less dry than a cookie, but denser than a bread, and sweet, of course, but not as sweet as a dessert)--I promptly bought two for the next few days' bike trips. And later, I enjoyed a delicious Arroz a la Zamorana (for recipe in English, go here). Yummy!

Anyway, people keep asking me (whenever I check into the hostels/hotels, at restaurants, when I stop with the bike somewhere), am I doing the Road to Santiago. Sheesh! What, is all of Spain the road to Santiago now? I thought I was far enough away, and south enough by now, for this to be a possibility to the casual observer. Will this Pilgrim business never end, or will it keep pursuing me until I cross the Pyrinees? Ha ha. It has though, no doubt, been a rather amusing and exciting assumption of identity. :)

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Happiness: hot shower and clean clothes, after hot mint chocolate with churros and minty breath from brushing teeth. Neat, how simply being clean changes everything, huh?

Day tripped to Burgos today (World Heritage Site!). Burgos is not the best place to day trip from Leòn: The bus leaves at 11:40 (mine left late) and arrives after 1:30 p.m., when everything is closed until 4:00 p.m. (in Spain things tend to close between 1:30 and 4:30, plus or minus half an hour), and the last return bus is at 5:40 p.m., which doesn't leave much time for visiting things, especially if you end up, like I did, trekking to the Museo-Monasterio de las Huelgas Reales, clear on the other side of the city, with a tour guided-only visit that is supposed to last 50 minutes but lasted 1 hour 20, and return busses from museum to downtown running only once every 40 minutes, it being Saturday. (Trains are worse: they leave Leon later and return sooner than the busses). Kind of sucks a bit, huh?

Did manage to visit at least the open/free areas of the famous Burgos Cathedral, which is supposedly one of the 3 finest in Spain, but in my opinion (or perhaps because I didn't have time to visit the "pay for" things owing to the bus schedule), not too extraordinary, especially in comparison to the one in Leòn, with its breathtaking 1800 square meters of stained glass windows.

So, all in all, a rather tranquil day (apart from the running the km or so from across town to the bus station to catch the return to Leóen after fidgeting and acting antsy during the whole of the guided visit). A neat thing I noticed about the ALSA busses (ALSA is the national bus network here in Spain) is, not only are their Supra class trips rather neat (you get free food and any drink you want and movie and they give you candies and chocolates and a set of nifty headphones to keep plus a nice keychain/neck mobile phone hanger thingy that looks cool and is not very obviously an advertisement to the casual onlooker), but ALSA has a nice bus route that runs from Irun in Northern Spain through Madrid and then south all the way to Morocco´s Agadir (ferry, I take it)! How cool is that?

Anyway, day was nice and warm, for a change.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Trip dist: 0 kms. Trip time: 2 hrs, 10 mins. Tot dist: 1070 kms.

Did I ever tell you why it is that the king of Spain is not just "So and so, King of Spain", but "So and so, King of Spain, Prince of Asturias"? The region of Asturias was the only region in Spain that was not overrun by Moors between the 8th century and 1492, owing mostly, to the impassable peaks of the Cordillera Cantàbrica. The Asturians then, in effect, preserved the "true" Spain (and it rather explains how proud Asturians I've encountered seem to be of being Asturian) and the title of the kings makes honor to it. Neat, huh?


Ever since coasting relaxedly into Oviedo a couple of days ago the friendly little hills of the Cordillera Cantabrica have greeted me in the mornings smiling happily in the distance, naturally, only in the direction I'm supposed to be headed (south, that is. If you then turn around, the rest of Oviedo ends in tame and cute little grassy plains, in comparison). Well, not really happily and pleasantly, because whenever I look at them and think I have to go up to 1300-1500 meters in elevation from Oviedo which is at 335 meters, and it is not just one mountain to cross but several, one behind the other, well, they do look rather ominous, in fact, what with them being quite stone gray in color and barren as well, compared to the rest of the cheery greenery surrounding the city.

It is at times like this, when you wake up in a very cold and cloudy lightless morning, with the prospect of achieving such a feat ahead of you, with the worry, of not sure how tough the day is really going to be, and are there any villages in between where I can spend the night in an emergency, and will I be able to handle a little more than 6 kms an hour for a bit, or will I be pushwalking the bike for the whole day, and the ascents suck but the descents suck too because it is rainy and freezing and at 45 kms an hour your windbreaker is as good as if being wrapped in just a sheet of paper, and what if according to Murphy's laws the worst thing happens at the worst possible moment, and I get a flat in between towns, uphill headed, and no cars pass by, and no rail lines nearby, or how far away is Leon from Oviedo anyway, is my map accurate this time or not, etc, and how lonely does this get, when no other cyclist seems to be going in the same direction, that you really, really, really wish you had a travel companion. In two, the days are easier, time passes faster, you cheer each other up, push each other, and, most importantly, one is always saner than the other, and stops you from attempting stupid things, or at the very least is there to help you, once you've already started doing the stupid thing.

So, what does one do when faced with the certifiably (ask the Moors!) unconquerable?

Why, one takes the train, of course! :)

What? Surprised that the humble pawn in the corner of the chessboard has rebelled at your amusing little game (and surely, amusing it must be, since you send me to cross impassable rainy peaks via blog vote after drinking your morning coffee in your cozy little office :P)? Shadow-parker/Warmduscher/Through-the-Cantabrian-peaks-bike-on-the-train-bringer, am I?

{shrug} So sue me. I don't see you biking through the Cantabrian mountains, either.


Thursday, May 11, 2006


Day-tripped to Altamira (cyberspace gods' command :P). But guess what? Huge disappointment: the cave has been closed to visitors since 2002 (perhaps this too is why Let's Go forgets to mention it?)! What a waste of time and effort! The consolation prize for the rare visitor that actually manages to make the trek there shunning other more well-known sights of Spain is the "Neocueva", a reproduction of the cave complete with reproductions of the paintings by modern-day volunteers.

Are the gods laughing yet?

Yeah, I was rather crest-fallen, even though nearby Santillana del Mar (the nearest town to the caves) is rather quaint and pretty. Quite frankly, to see reproductions they could've easily put the whole museum somewhere more accessible in a big city like Madrid or whatever. There seems to be (or I seem to be encountering) a lot of "paper tigerness"/gilded/mirage-like stuff here in Spain (the Roman Walls of Lugo with no history blurb signs posted or any good reasons to see, the Cathedral of Santiago in honor of its saint who may or may not be the real saint, the holograms in Oviedo, now this). I hope it gets better in larger cities as I head towards the capital.

So, now what does one do? You visit the "Neocueva". {sigh}. The museum was nice. Good exhibit about how man evolved. It is, if you think about it, kind of cool how far man has come along, all in the blink of an eye, in cosmic time. Why, if you think that homo habilis (the first kind of man that could use tools) appeared 2.5 million years ago, and between the beginning of the industrial revolution with the invention of the steam engine, and supersonic flight/the microchip/supercomputers/lasers/genetic engineering (our modern age) only about 150 years passed, it is incredible, what man has achieved in the last, proportionally speaking, few milliseconds (if 2.5 million years were an hour, the last 150 years would equivalently be the last 216 milliseconds of that hour!).

As for the paintings (or copies of the paintings, more properly speaking), it was kind of interesting to see how the cave dwellers used the features of the rock to guide and emphasize the depictions (round protruberances were taken advantage of to form the humps of the bisons, for instance). Also, all this time I had been taught in school that these paintings were supposed to be ritualistic, perhaps as a prelude to a hunt, but as the museum exhibit pointed out this is not a good theory since most cave paintings of this sort (not just the ones found at Altamira, for there are other similar ones all along the Cantabrian coast and in France, for instance) depict animals that were not hunted for consumption given the remains of the animals found near the hearths of the caves. Personally, the more I saw the variety and "spirit" of the paintings, how, for instance, they used spray painting techniques by blowing paint through bones to paint the famous hands in negative, or how they arranged the animal figures, or how they took advantage of the natural formation of the rock, the more I became convinced that this was actually an artistic effort, for the enjoyment of both the painter and the (eventual) viewer. Quoth Picasso: "After Altamira, everything is decadence".

Well, not sure I agree. Look how far we have come since then. Though who knows, I have heard that some of my friend's boyfriends still grunt and behave like cavemen. Ha ha. :) But I'm sure that's just an old wive's tale. ;)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Trip dist: 29 kms. Trip time: 2 hrs, 22 mins. Tot dist: 1070 kms.

Arrived to Oviedo at 11ish and after lunch, hotel find, and shower, headed downtown to admire the Cathedral, which is kind of cool because it is Gothic, but a rather excessively adorned Gothic, which I very improperly but quite eloquently (ha ha!) call "Gothic Churrigueresque" :). The adornments are really cool too, because within the typical Gothic arches, you find lots of trellis-like patterns, with curves, so not regular at all, but rather free-handed and beautiful. A bit hard to describe. You can take a look for yourself at the pictures here.

Inside the Cathedral they have these amazing, very well made holographic displays of valuable treasures of the Cathedral (which you can then, luckily, still admire at the museum after paying a small fee). Way cool concept (and nice poetic contrast to have them inside this centuries-old place of worship, of all things), but I really do hope the time never comes when this is all we have left to admire. Even though these days all sorts of carvings and sculpture is forbidden to the touch, it is infinitely better, to at least touch the real thing with the eyes, than just the 3D image, no matter how perfectly executed.

Anyway, I afterwards headed up to the museum to take a look at the treasures for real, and of course, one of the first things one notices of these things is the expense and effort people went through to make them. When I saw similar (and far more grandiose) displays of these kinds of things (relicaries, custodias, altarpieces, crosses, you name it) in the Vatican Museums, I couldn't help wondering, why it was that while the Church keeps preaching "help the poor" here you have millions of dollars in emeralds (the Emerald Cross donated to the Vatican Museums by the nation of Colombia was really something jaw-dropping), diamonds, gold, silver, ivory and precious woods sitting in a museum for a handful of people to see (after paying a hefty entrance fee, by the way, in this particular case). A family member once replied to me: "Well, this, this grandiosity, this awe, this magnificence, this is why people believe". (Does this sound familiar, by the way? What did I tell you about Dostoyevski a couple of days ago?)

{shrug} The more I see this grandiosity in favor of these kinds of displays, the less I do.{shrug}

The other thing that is a bit upsetting about these kinds of visits is having to suffer through, via said displays, the fascination, again, with carrying around bones of dead (possibly unknown or not of the identity you would think) people. What else are relicaries for? As if carrying around the metatarsal of a dead someone will make God listen to you harder. What's this whole infatuation with death, anyway? What with all the crypts in the cathedrals, graves behind churches, not to mention the praying to pieces of bone. Religion, and I dare say Catholicism, even, should be about life! Yeah yeah, the Resurection, life eternal, that's the whole thing Christianity is about. But I think it shouldn't be. It would be better, I think, if Christianity were about Christ's life (there were some good things there) and one's life here and now. Not with fear and guilt about deeds to be punished in the future, but with appreciation for the miracle and beauty of existence and the joy of the good things done for others now. Not for redemption and retribution once humanity is dead and there's nothing to care about. Not the rewards of 72 virgins once you're gone and don't have a brain with which to feel pleasure anymore (or the strumming of harps bathed in glorious light too bright for my eyes--though what eyes I'll have once I'm dead I can't imagine--to even turn to, which is the Christian version). What? If my parent's religion forces me to worship a corpse, I'd much rather pay homage to the memory of His (this!) life. {shrug}

Anyway, after stewing about a bit in the Cathedral's museums, I headed for the Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias (Oviedo is the Asturian capital, in case I forgot to mention this before), which houses a rather eclectic (everything from Spanish Renaissance to 20th century), albeit rather small, collection of paintings. Ever seen a Picasso up close? His paintings range a bit in type, depending on his "periods" so it is hard to generalize, but the one I caught here of "Mosquetero con espada y amorcillo" shows him to be a rather careless, or, at best, hurried, painter, which was interesting.

Anyway, I enjoyed my visit to this museum very much, short and varied. Art museums, especially, can be such time sinks (I could always spend days in them, not counting re-visits of the same works), or overdose (overstimulus) dispensers. Anyway, another painting that kind of tied in nicely with what I said before about the Cathedral museum was Cecilio Pizarro's "Ayer y hoy". He's got the right idea, in the "hoy", doesn't he? :)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Trip dist: 83 kms. Trip time: 6 hrs, 30 mins. Tot dist: 1041 kms.

Celebrations. appears that The Danes have hit a snag. I hope Martin gets better soon. Knee injuries can be a serious buzzkill, so I've heard.

As for me, this day was a day of celebrating. For one thing, it's been one month exacly since I started my life as a vagabond. Pretty neat, huh? Today also marks the day of my 1000th kilometer anniversary, the momentous occasion which I marked by promptly stoping at the nearest rest stop and cheerioed with an ice-cream cone. Unfortunately, the fact that the nearest rest stop happened to be a gas station (for the nearest town/village was 15 kms away) rather destroyed the poetry of things a bit, but so what. {shrug}

And as if I needed more reason for celebrating, today I also rode the furthest I've ever ridden on one trip in my life! Cool, huh?

Anyway, the 120 kms of yesterday, it turns out, was indeed an extraordinary circumstance (one doesn't find 40 kms of downhills every day!), so today, and seeing how there are apparently no sizeable towns between Aviles and Oviedo, I rode only 82 kms and stopped at Aviles, for at 6 p.m. I still had 32 kms to go to Oviedo, and that was too close for comfort, even assuming the remaining road was flat (and it is not). I am, however, happy I did stop here. It is one of the most beautiful small towns I've seen so far in this trip, and when I arrived the main plaza was full of children and very happy people, which was refreshing (You can take a look at the video showing all the happy people here). I also met two girls from Barcelona at the pilgrim's refuge (they are the only ones staying there--no hotels/hostels near the downtown area--so hopefully the fact that they're girls and there's only two of them reduces the probability of lots of snoring a bit), and went to dinner with them, and so chattered away the evening.

Tomorrow, if I wake up shortly after sunrise, I may be able to arrive to Oviedo early enough, such that the whole day will not be wasted.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Trip dist: 120 kms. Trip time: 7 hrs, 59 mins. Tot dist: 758 kms.

It appears I have miscalculated. Oviedo is not 2 days away by bike, but, at 238 kms from Lugo, and assuming a respectable 80 kms of pedalling a day, it is actually 3 days away.

Still, it may be worth attempting to do it in two days, 120 kms, after all, is not much more than 110 kms, and I've comfortably done that on two occasions for this trip already. Something to think about.

Anyway, although the Gods have the general plan of sending me to Oviedo, the details are still up to me, since letting them, or worse, asking them to, micromanage, as any good engineer knows, is a recipe for disaster (especially given the God's well known fickle and sadistic nature). It turns out there are two ways to get to Oviedo, one, following the Primitive Road to Santiago, through Fonsagrada, at elevation gains reputedly of up to 1060 meters, and another, along the northern Spanish coast, through Ribadeo, a lot less direct and longer distance (hence 240 kms away).

Which one do you think I chose, with my aversity for steep hills with 30 kg-laden panniers?

Yup, Cisa Pass still gives me nightmares and flashbacks, and 1060 meters is sufficiently worse than Cisa's 1040 for me. So.... It turns out to have been a good choice, after all, since for about 40 kms in between Meira all the way to Castropol, it was all downhill, with an actual, terrific descent right after Meira that lasted (coasting!), get this....a full 25 minutes! (You can imagine, right? How very, very, very, very happy I was that I was not heading in the opposite direction...?). I have no idea when or where I gained that elevation in the past few weeks. Turns out Lugo is at 441 meters above sea level. Makes for a nice 15 kms of coasting to the sea then. :)

Anyway, usually, I start the day with a plan of where I want to get to by the end of the day, while this time, the plan was mostly "pedal as far as you can before Witching hour" (Witching hour is 8 o'clock, a full hour and a half before sunset). Curiously, Witching hour happened almost exactly at the half-way point (you'll see from the stats above how I stopped to the minute before the hour!), which was kind of poetic, in a mathematical sense. :D. The views, of course, were amazing, and the ride was as beautiful as the one two days ago, with the rest of the way rather flat or with some fairly benign hills, ergo, the 120 kms (you can see some pictures here).It was a relief, too, to abandon the old Road to Santiago, for all is history and beauty and significance (as Fernando, a fellow biker I encountered on the road while mountain biking the stones and tree roots of the way to Lugo pointed out, my back tire will soon need replacing, and I owe it, I'm quite sure, to the harsh environment of unpaved side-roads), and finally turn back into a normal person once more.

Still, not sure can do the same distance tomorrow again. Even if the flat terrain remains, there seems to be an ascent to Oviedo (I am now almost at sealevel, of course), so it could be that this long pedalling day may have simply been an exception and it will still take me 3 days to Oviedo, after all. We'll see.

Stayed at a nice little pension in downtown Navia: for 10 Euros, you find a nice, squeaky clean room with queen size bed, TV, and get this: private bath with shower! Aaaah, the joys of tiny unknown coastal towns during low season! :P

Sunday, May 07, 2006


Today it was cold (9°C, which might as well be freezing, for me) and drizzly-rainy, exactly the weather I don't like. There were no people about, as it was Sunday, and everything was closed. So, strolled a bit around the center of town and walked around the Roman Walls (UNESCO World Heritage Site!) and poked in at the cathedral. Other than that, there isn't all that much to see in Lugo (which probably explains why it doesn't even geta mention in Let's Go).

Lugo is currently an off-the beaten path stop on the way to Santiago, so it doesn't really get much of its share of visitors (hanging out at the pilgrim's refuge as I couldn't find a hotel near the city center I saw it only had 5 or 6 people as opposed to the 30-something I had seen in Redondela). It is interesting, for it appears that Lugo is trying to attract more tourists. Just in this morning's paper, I read a letter to the editor where a reader suggested that the best way to do this was for Lugo to build a campground.

Clearly this reader has no idea what being a tourist is all about! In my opinion, encouraging more hotels in the city center and keeping the shops open even on Sundays would help a lot. But most importantly, putting a few signs near the historic buildings and squares is essential, first of all, for instilling in the locals a certain pride in the history and heritage of the city, but also, so that the tourists can feel they "did" something more meaningful than just walk around the city walls without knowing anything or learning why the walls are special other than simply because they are kind of old. Why, even tiny, provincial fishermantown Viana do Castelo in Portugal had many such markings at every single square and government building, surely, Lugo could easily afford to put up some signs.


Anyway, it appears that the Gods of the blogosphere in a rather sadistic streak (for they are fickle, as Greek mythology tells us, and for entertainment like to play with the destinies of men) are intent on having me suffer the punishing fate of crossing the dreaded Cordillera Cantabrica from Oviedo to Lèon, and so tomorrow, I will oblige, and ride towards Oviedo(truth be told, I too want to see the caveman graffiti at Altamira. Turns out there appears to be a train line that drops you right at the doorstep of the caves, says my--hopefully accurate this time--road atlas. Besides, how many of you can actually say you've seen some real prehistoric rock paintings live, huh? Yeah, that's what I thought).