TRAVELOGUE # 8 - Avi watching Velasquez watching Velasquez watching Avi



May 15



Avi at the keyboard



When we last saw our heroes, they were boarding a train in Seville heading for...


MADRID.  One very large city, filled with many wonderful buildings and much life, which is in some way rather uninteresting.  Areas reminded us of New York, or of London, or of many of the world’s great cities.  But maybe that was the problem - we could have imagined ourselves anywhere. But not Vancouver (there was absolutely no view beyond the immediate block), so that kept our interest.  The Royal Palace in Madrid was built as the rival to Versailles by a Bourbon king of Spain who spoke no Spanish (have I been learning my European history!) and it was predictably overwhelming while somehow being reasonably intimate and likeable.  There were enough wonderfully painted ceilings, hanging tapestries and huge gilded mirrors to keep us oggling (is that a word?) but it spoke less of power and ostentation than many of the cathedrals we’ve seen.

It’s still a palace in use (Juan Carlos is there from time to time) and we were in the room where the agreement to join the European Union was signed and where later on the Madrid phase of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks took place. Madrid has many other grand buildings, often just crammed into strange corners and generally ignored.  I was fascinated by the Palacio del Correos (the post office), a wonderfully grand turreted edifice which in North America could easily have passed for a state or provincial capital building but which in Madrid didn’t even rate mention on the tourist maps.  But maybe that’s just part of the great Spanish conspiracy to make the purchase of stamps and the finding of a mailbox an impenetrable mystery to outsiders.


Madrid’s real interest lies in its street life.  The streets are filled with people constantly, and at their most lively at night.  Throngs of people of all ages seem to be surging everywhere at 1 AM, though I’m not sure where there is to go to.  The bars and restaurants, I guess- they’re all hopping at that hour. Ruth and I, now experienced eat-at-10:30-and-don´t-go-to-bed-until-2 Spaniards, just thronged with them.  One night we went past a bar with lively and live music from within.  Now I’ve already ranted to you in the past about the general dearth of live music here, so you’ll understand how we were drawn to this aberration.  Turned out to be a Cuban bar.  That figured.  Pulled by music and nostalgia, we went in, ordered our mojitos and listened to the house band knock out a good version of Me Voy Para Mayari.  Unfortunately, when we realized what we were paying for our mojitos in comparison to what we had been paying for them two months ago in Cuba, we decided to call it quits early.


May 1 was our 30th anniversary, and so we celebrated by finding Madrid’s annual Mayday demonstration.

An energetic mix of slogans, Stop the War in Iraq posters (the fighting was over by this point, but why waste a good poster?) and some labour militants bashing the leader of the national union over the head with a picket. Happy anniversary dear.


But the real highlight of Madrid was the Museums.  At the Reina Sofia we saw Picasso’s Guernica, displayed in a large room with many of the working sketches he produced in preparing the final composition.  It was also displayed with two security guards just attached to this one picture - Franco sentiment still runs beneath the surface of Spanish society, and it was only recently deemed safe enough to remove the bulletproof shielding from in front of the painting. But it was the Prado that was the real highlight for me.  Maybe I’m just showing my Kid From The Prairies roots, but it’s a thrill and privilege to stand before the originals of some of the greatest art of the world.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Hyronimus Busch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” in books, but to study the real thing reveals just so much more beauty, humour and horror.   Durer’s “Adam” and “Eve” are wonderfully done - and I’d never realized that they were complete life-size portraits.  But the Prado’s greatest strength, besides all the Flemish Old Masters, Greek sculptures and the rest, lies in its Spanish painters - especially Velasquez, Goya and El Greco.  I readily admit that I don’t know much about art, and so the Immersion Course in Spanish Masters 101 was a lot of study.  El Greco’s elongated figures left me cold, but Goya’s “La Maja Vestida” and “La Maja Desnuda”, displayed side by side, are irresistibly fascinating.


I spent a lot of time before what many consider to be The Greatest Spanish Painting Of All Time, Velasquez’ “Las Meninas”.  It’s a portrait of the Spanish royal family, focusing on the young princess and her courtiers, relegating the king and queen to the background, and featuring Velasquez himself at the side, painting the scene. True, the composition was interesting and the princess was a mysterious mix of childishness and power, but I’m afraid that I just didn’t get it.


We were in Madrid five days, spending an afternoon with friends of a work colleague of Ruth’s, watching old men in the park play some form of lawn bowling where the object appears to be to roll some wooden hemispheres at a bunch of pins and NOT knock them down,

strolling through an outdoor rock concert where much hash was smoked and beer consumed (didn’t I say we could have been anywhere?), and taking a day out for a side trip to….






TOLEDO.  This was the old medieval capital of Spain.


A walled city with narrow streets, great cathedral, Jewish heritage and hordes of day-tripping tourists (of which we were 2).




The cathedral was predictably impressively huge, with a fabulous gilded altar and intricately carved choir stalls. It also had a strange touch of whimsy- red hats dangling at random places from the ceiling and behind altars.  Apparently one of the perks of the job of cardinal was getting to choose where your hat would hang till it rots after you die.


We also toured the church treasury which contained, among other things, a three- meter high, 430 pounds of gold and silver (supposedly brought back by Columbus) monstrance and a sword of General Franco. Holy Toledo! But as we toured the walls with the busloads of Germans and squeezed through the old synagogue with the droves of French,

 and elbowed our way down the narrow streets through the Italians, one overwhelming thought came to us:  This is a medieval Disneyland.  No-one lives inside the old city anymore - they’ve all gone to the newer areas or moved to Madrid where the jobs are.  Toledo is just a web of ancient empty monasteries and an endless supply of expensive restaurants and tourist shops flogging souvenir swords (Toledo craftsmen were famed for the real ones for centuries), schlock (or outrageously expensive) crucifixes and magen david jewelry, and Toledo T-shirts no Toledan would be caught dead in.  What a contrast when, a week later, we had left central Spain and found ourselves in...


GIRONA. Yet another old walled city with a rich Jewish past, though without the history of power and consequent legacy of tourism that accompanies Toledo.


Girona is north, in Catalunya, where history was much more shaped in nearby Barcelona. But Girona had for us the living culture that Toledo could scarcely imitate. For one thing, it’s still a university town and so instead of tourist brochures the local bookstores carry a wide array of periodicals and literature.  Instead of overpriced restaurants the local eateries include crepe dives and even vegetarian food (vegetarians being a very rare species in Spain). Instead of a crowded old synagogue where I was told I couldn’t even take a picture, we found a Jewish heritage centre where we were invited to sit for several hours and read in their library. And, wonder of cultural wonders, I even found a store where they sell Macs! (Mac users in Spain being even rarer than vegetarians)  The owner (after I told him I was a Mac refugee wandering amid sterile Windows lands) welcomed me like a relative from afar and invited me to sit down and use his stuff.

We spent two nights in Girona, and both were strangely Jewish/Spanish.  One night some local group was showing a film about the Israel/Palestine situation that looked interesting. When the discussion began, in Catalan (the language of Catalunya, a Romance language similar to Castilian Spanish or to French), the leader looked at us in the audience, realized we weren’t Catalanophones, and switched the conversation to Spanish on our account.  The next night we attended a talked on Shabtai Tzvi sponsored by the Jewish heritage centre - the talk was of course presented entirely in academic Spanish and we were quite pleased with our ability to follow it.



FIGUERES.  An hour north of Girona is the town where Dali was born and where he purchased a burned out theatre to create his own Theatre/Museum Dali.

I don’t know how to explain this Surrealist place.  How to explain a room which IS the head of Mae West?

How to describe a Cadillac which is raining inside? Or the fabulous jewelry he designed partly to show (like the monstrous monstrance in the cathedral of Toledo) that materials and expense should not be a barrier to art? Or the giant portrait of Gala which dominates the central hall which, when I took a picture of it, turns out in my camera to be a portrait of Abraham Lincoln?


Or the fact that, as you follow the walls past the Christmas cards he designed, past the jeweled serpents, you suddenly find yourself looking at his burial crypt. Let me just say that in one of the rooms of his works is a portrait of Dali doing a portrait of Gala. Nearby is Velasquez, his face replaced by Dali’s, doing “Las Meninas”.  I don’t get it.


BARCELONA.  Barcelona has been the main city of Catalunya since Roman times. Catalunya still dreams of the time when it’s ships dominated the Mediterranean shipping lanes and its language was not subordinate to Castilian.  In a few short days we’ve had several tastes of Catalan pride.  Last Sunday Elie brought us to a local park where a radio station was sponsoring Catalan Pride day. As local musician blared Catalan Rock from the stage, young people wandered about draped in the striped flag.



Then, several hours later, we came across groups of people dancing the Sardana.  This is the old Catalan folk dance, a sort of circle dance adapted from Line Dancing For The Complete Idiot, for which Barcelona is known.  Folks put all their belongings together in the centre and do the regular steps about it as a brass band with some very ancient-looking oboes plays a slow melody.  The stuff in the centre has multiple layers of meaning. For one, it conveys the sense of community and shared property, which is the basis of Catalan unity. On another level, it’s based on the fact that if you leave your stuff unattended, someone will steal it.  Barcelona is known for that, too. The nice thing was that the circles of dancers displayed a complete age range.  Folks in their seventies, folks in their twenties.


Later that night, the streets of Barcelona were filled with the younger crowd, wildly waving Catalan and Barcelona flags and driving through the streets with horns blaring.  A separatist insurrection? Nah, just the results of Barca beating Turin for the European Cup in basketball.  Last night Ruth and I went to a lovely evening of a singer/songwriter backed up by a group of bass/mandolin/violin. The instrumentals were good, his delivery was fine, and the crowd laughed at all his jokes. The songs?  How the hell should I know?- they were all in Catalan!





Barcelona is a showplace for modernist architecture from the turn of the (previous) century.  So we’ve been studying wavy balconies, tiled chimney pots, hyperbolic domed apartment buildings and such from Antoni Gaudi and others of that time.



Even though my grandfather was the first Jewish architect registered in Western Canada, and the discipline runs heavy in my Blankstein veins, I couldn’t begin to describe what all I’ve seen or how much I’ve learned about both the art and the science of construction. But it sure looks lovely.   The crowning piece is Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia temple, a massive church with funky spires and naturalistic columns that is only half finished 70 years after his death.



Going through the construction zone with all the other tourists gave me an appreciation for many things, including the question I’d wondered about as I saw some of the great cathedrals so far.  These things usually were begun in 1376 but not finished until 1748 or something like that.  What’s it like to work toward something that was begun before your lifetime and won’t be done until after it?  Maybe Peace is like that.




One final thing.  Barcelona also has a Picasso Museum.  Rooms of his early work, his Blue Period, the beginnings of Cubism, etc.  The final two rooms are devoted to the work of his final years.  And what did Picasso paint for his final years? Las Meninas by Velasquez! Over and over again, sometimes focusing upon the princess, sometimes upon the king and queen, sometimes on Velasquez, sometimes on the perspective, sometimes on the lighting.


Over 50 paintings, all of them Cubist explorations and variations on this one work! And I moved from one to the other, and back again, and thought back to Dali, and saw myself at the Prado watching Velasquez looking out toward me and painting what he saw, and back to Picasso again.  And slowly, slowly, I’m beginning to get it.