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#22 Spain  (available 2/16/04)

We Made It!

   Spain was our intended destination for this traveling season, though our route is always subject to substantial changes. It was in striking-distance when a string of health and equipment woes hit in mid-September, so getting to Spain took on a new, symbolic importance. Oh yes, and then there was that matter of having just purchased round trip tickets through Madrid when our problems began mounting--that made getting there of economic and practical concern too.  

   We were weeks behind schedule by the time we crossed the border into Spain in mid-November but we were extremely pleased to have made it--with a little boost from a train ride in France. A short stay would definitely be better than none at all as it would answer the questions that arise the first time in any country: “How will we do with the language?”, “Will eating be a delight or a hassle?”, “What about the drivers and the roads?”, and a special challenge for Spain: “Will we at last find a place to be more comfortable in the winter months?”

   I expected Spain to be a little ‘rough around the edges’ and perhaps a little jarring but didn’t find that to be the case. Our first few hours in Spain painted a bit of a frumpy picture, with the immediately narrower and rougher roads and the less affluent communities. But that was a short and unique interval and we soon found eastern Spain to be quite a treat.

   As we scooted south along the eastern coast of Spain we were in Catalunya, the wealthiest region in the country and it showed. We were clearly in a tourist region with prospering towns, good pavement and even a signed, intercity bike route developed on an old rail corridor.  All indications were that we could look forward to a pleasant and relatively hassle-free stay in Spain.

Met Expectations

  We were thrilled to be in Spain as we had 2 agendas in getting there even before life got complicated: the first was for the hoped for (and delivered) warmer winter weather and the second was for the far-west perspective on European history.

   Eastern Africa was the happening place for our early history as a species, the Near East was the hot-spot for early civilizations and we’ve enjoyed focusing on going “way back” to these times for the foundation of our history education. We also have worked like sleuths to understand where the technology breakthroughs occurred and why, tracking things like the development of glass, boat sails, and concrete. All of these advances were unfolding farther east in Europe and the Near East.  In contrast, Northern and Western Europe were the laggards. For example, in other regions bronze was widely produced by 2500 bce and iron by 1000 bce, whereas in eastern, coastal Spain bronze wasn’t produced until about 1000 bce and iron production began around 700 bce.

  And though we are hardly learning our history lessons in chronological order (and often not where the events occurred), we sometimes have a sense that the time is right for a particular slice of history and that was the case with Spain. We at last we felt we had untangled enough history and advanced far enough on the time line to have a basis for learning about the Iberian Peninsula’s place in history. And importantly, we now knew enough about the key players to follow the game.

   Some of the more distinctive remnants of the indigenous Iberian population are the megalithic (big rock) burial structures from about 3000 bce. These structures were frequently built along the Atlantic and their use gradually drifted into the Mediterranean part of Spain. We haven’t seen comparable structures in other regions we have visited.

   Spain experienced a different mix of influences than much of Europe. Its indigenous population was challenged by the Carthaginians (originally from farther east, Phoenicia near current day Syria), Greeks, Celts, Romans, and Muslims. But for all these traders and expansionists, Spain was at the far-reaches of their empires and so their grip was often very tenuous and control sometimes shuffled several times between given powers.

   The Muslims (also called Moors) were a strong force in Spain and arrived earlier and left earlier than in Eastern Central Europe (ECE).  Muslim invaders in Spain were from Syria and later Morocco and were not the Ottomans of Turkey that battled for control in the Balkans.

A Moorish influence in Gaudi's chimneys pots.

   The Muslim missionaries and military arrived in Spain in 711 and rapidly conquered most of the country. They remained a dominant force for about 400 years, though their expulsion by the Christians began almost immediately in some areas. The Christian ‘reconquest’ wasn’t completed until almost 1500. In their heyday, the Muslim culture in Spain was the most sophisticated of medieval Europe.  In ECE, the Muslims were still knocking on Vienna’s door in the 1600’s and fortifications against them were maintained into the 1800’s “just in case.”

  Muslim occupation had and continues to have a strong influence in Spain, as reflected in the architectural styles, words integrated into the Spanish language, the ethnic mix of the people, and in its traditions. There were also some consequences of their presence that we found amusing. Apparently bathing in re-Christianized Spain was considered next to ungodliness as a reaction to the Muslim’s emphasis on cleanliness. And our reading about the artistic styles revealed different stylistic names for the products of Christian artists working under Islamic domination as well as the art of Islamic artists under the time of Christian dominance—a difference that still eludes us. Then there is the one small region in northern Spain, Asturias, that was never conquered by the Muslims and so still considers itself the ‘real’ Spain and that the rest of the country is viewed by them as the ‘reconquered lands.’

Not just a rock but a chopper.

    It was interesting to see how the Muslim culture continues to influence modern  Spanish culture. One of the most surprising examples of contemporary Muslim influence was the inclusion by Antoni Gaudi  of Islamic architectural traditions in with Gothic and the emerging “Modernista” (Spanish Art Nouveau) to create his own innovative and distinctive architectural style in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Yes, Spain was living up to our hopes of adding a new and interesting layer to European history and its art.


   We heavily rely on museums for our ‘studies abroad’ and our first half-dozen museum visits in Spain were an odd but rewarding mix. We are always on the look-out for yet another pre-history museum and one of our first stops in Spain was to one in Girona. The severely underrated-by-the-guide-books museum dovetailed nicely with Tautaval’s museum in the hills of France. The French museum wasn’t as outstanding as we had anticipated, but it did open the door to a new level of understanding about the very earliest tools: choppers and chopping tools (3-2 million bce). But the Girona museum had an absolutely outstanding booklet in English to be read at the exhibit. The information was very current and the guide so well written that we spent over an hour just sitting and reading it and taking notes. The exhibit wasn’t large but the descriptive material made for a very rich experience. And then Barcelona’s archeological museum had a few but very informative displays on prehistory that filled in a few more gaps in our understanding.

A work of art at the Dali museum.

   Interspersed with the tantalizing tidbits from this series of prehistory exhibits was a trip to a museum in Figueres, Spain designed by the surrealist Dali to display his works. Unfortunately for us, there was no dandy audio guide or booklet in English to help us out and we were on our own to understand his art. The best we could do was to leave saying “He was one strange dude.”

Full scale replica of the Real.

    Interesting for different reasons was the visit to the maritime museum in Barcelona. Though the Gdansk, Poland maritime museum is still #1 in our book, Barcelona had one anticipated treat for us: a full scale replica of the Real, the galley (ship) used by Don Juan of Austria in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto with the Turks. Mind you, that isn’t an event that was a part of my body of knowledge until we visited Turkey and then Venice and read about their respective maritime traditions and this battle. The Battle of Lepanto involved the Ottomans, Venice, Spain, the Pope and a few others so it is an often told tale. We appreciated finally having something tangible to associate with the stories.  And another, unexpected tangible remnant was the much heralded Barcelona cathedral crucifix that may have been on the prow of the Real for the one day battle. We have rambled around Europe enough that odd bits and pieces of history like the Battle of Lepanto start getting connected, which adds immensely to the fun of learning.


   We immediately felt at home in Barcelona and were surprised that it was easily challenging Prague in the ‘eye-candy’ category with its abundance of Art Nouveau-like Modernista architectural. There were many “oo’s and ah’s” to be savored as we walked to our next sightseeing venue. And there are all sorts of sights to see: quality historical museums, big collections of major artists (like Picasso and Miro), dazzling architecture, inviting open spaces and parks, an extensive waterfront and hilltop vantage points, and a daily haunt of ours: a self-service vegetarian restaurant where we could dine without the risk of unknowingly eating beef brains.

    Like Budapest, Barcelona’s sights aren’t neatly concentrated in a small old town and so it did require hours of planning to narrow the long list of sights to visit and then to assemble the sightseeing puzzle that took into account the widely dispersed locations and the varied open hours and days of operation. But there was so much to see that each day could be a mix of studious concentration and unlabored enjoyment of what was before us. And even a week of 8 hour sightseeing days left untouched opportunities for our next visit.

    Barcelona’s pockets of goodies are quite spread out but the 60¢ per ride on a 10-ride metro ticket make the metro inviting to use. It’s an easy metro system to navigate and we love their little lighting strip above every other car door showing you which stops have been made and that flash to indicate the approaching stop. For tourists it makes it immediately obvious if you are heading the wrong direction and it eliminates the anxiety about missing your stop because of unintelligible announcements. We assume that the great metro and many bike lanes were just a few of the benefits we enjoyed from Barcelona’s preparations to host the 1992 Olympics.  

   Barcelona provided a delightful but unexpected bit of closure for our ‘studies’ at the end of this traveling season: seeing the ship from the Battle of Lepanto wrapped up the story we read about while in the eastern Mediterranean in the spring; the modern and extensive use of mosaics by the turn of the 20th century architects like Gaudi were a counterpoint to the more controlled but equally dramatic use of mosaics in 6th century Ravenna, Italy; the string of prehistory museums culminating in Barcelona consolidated our understanding of evolutionary developments; and from our museum visits and subsequent conversations we better understand the place of the Art Nouveau and Modernista styles as a relief to the harshness and linearity of the Industrial Revolution and how it gave way to modern art. Sometimes big cities feel like too much work, but Barcelona was worth the effort and gave us plenty of unexpected treats.

Catalunya’s Artists

  Barcelona and the Catalunya region were prolific breeding grounds for artistic innovation in the late 1800 and into the 1900’s. Dali, Picasso, Miro, and Gaudi were all from this area of Spain (even though some French claim Picasso as one of their own). And though we have been more drawn to prehistory and technology development, we weren’t going to pass up the easy opportunities to learn about these notable artists.

One of Bill's favorites at the Miro museum.

   The Picasso museum was great for what it had. Picasso donated many works to the museum but they were mostly his very early and late works, which left a big gap in the middle years. But the text accompanying his early works shed a new light on Picasso. We were stunned by the fine oil portraits done at the age of 14 and enjoyed seeing the progression of his work into his early 20’s. The informative blurbs accompanying his paintings held our attention like a well told story and we were devastated when we turned the corner to discover the exhibit unceremoniously leapt forward 40 years. Absolutely none of his signature works are in the Barcelona museum. We would have happily looked at well done copies from his most celebrated years if only they would have continued with our education.

  Joan Miro was also from Catalunya and he too built a museum to house his works. Fortunately, his collection was very representative of his entire life works and the price of admission included a helpful English audio guide. We are hardly connoisseurs of modern art but we were pleased to have visited the exhibition and gained new insights into his art and place in art history. 

Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia entrance.

  And then there was the architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). I loved this phrase from a handout from La Pedrera, one of his masterpiece buildings: that he “lived during the consolidation process of the industrialization of Catalonia.” Bill and I had been struggling to describe the economic boom that had Art Nouveau as one of its by-products across Europe and “consolidation” nailed it. The steam engine, turbines, electricity, radio, cars—all of those course-altering inventions were stoking the western economies in those years and a segment of society had money to burn, some of which got diverted to amazing architecture. And the talented Gaudi helped put that money to dramatic use.

   Gaudi pulled together the oriental influences of the Muslims, recently revived medieval elements, artisan crafts (especially wrought iron), and the innovations of his day with iron and concrete. He also fanatically drew upon the shapes of nature, using it as a source for his parabolas and helicodial shapes in his designs. Even his “still under construction” and weird La Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family) church was inspired by the rounded rock columns of the nearby Montserrat outcroppings.

Playful chimney pots atop one of Gaudi's earliest residential projects.

   The many displays at La Sagrada Familia construction site helped us understand his creative process. In addition, we ogled at an inner city mansion he designed early in his career in which he had free rein to experiment with his ideas in basement arches and roof top details. Those details are still exposed for us to see the wanderings of his mind, where each column in the horse-stable basement was unique, as were each of his famous chimney pots on the roof. He was innovative for viewing architecture as a complete art form, which included extensive use of decorative arts. He radically broke with architecture styles and tastes of the time and had the bourgeoisie of Barcelona as patrons.

If You’ll Be Traveling to Barcelona

  …Be advised that it isn’t an easy city to breeze through in a couple of days and you can’t count on stumbling across the sights you want to see. The distances between sights are great enough and the hours of operation unpredictable enough that it takes planning to sequence your visits to avoid disappointment.

    In addition, it takes a while to get the hang of navigating around Barcelona. The city maps in our 2 guide books follow convention by orienting north at the top of the plan. However, the several bigger and free tourist maps orient with northwest about at the top of the map but neglect to indicate their break with tradition. This discrepancy continued to be an aggravation even after we understood the problem, especially since we were often combining the wisdom of 4 or 5 maps to locate a small street or devise the best strategy of metro riding and walking to a destination.

   Also be forewarned that Barcelona sightseeing is expensive, as it was too easy to spend $20 per person per day, day after day, taking in the range of wonderful sights. But only one paid sight didn’t deliver, and that was the aquarium. The $13 entry fee was many times higher than the value of the visit--it just didn’t have much that held our attention despite the rare “excellent” rating given by our Lonely Planet guide book.

   Theft is apparently a huge problem in Barcelona though we never feel threatened. Over the last few months we had spoken with 2 different cyclists who lost their bikes or bike and all their gear while in Barcelona and our hotel left a list of anti-theft precautions in 3 languages instead of a chocolate mint on our pillows. We upped our security routines and chose a better hotel out of the tourist center of town to minimize our exposure to theft and had no problems.

“Like Croatia”

   Croatia was the first Mediterranean country we visited and so it continues to be our reference point because of its position as “the first.” Things that are typically Mediterranean often strike us as “being like Croatia”: the miles-long corridors of beach front hotels and complexes, most of which are closed when we tour through in the off season; the occasional stretches of beachside pedestrian boardwalks the lengths of some tourist towns that we have to ourselves; the vast ‘reserves’ of holiday trailers stashed for the winter; the palm trees, often with their giant fronds wrapped tight to their trunks to protect them from the harsh winter winds; the occasional port packed with expensive looking, white-hulled sailboats with their bright blue canvas covers; villages that look like ghost towns because most of the business close from about 1:30 to 5 in the afternoon; and the prevalence of stray cats that foreshadow our approach to the next urban area. Off-season, Mediterranean Spain shares most of these looks and traditions and our visit often triggered the “just like Croatia” comment from us.

   Spain too has an abundance of the same rocky soil in the hills with fields that look like they are “growing rocks” because there seems to be equal parts of egg-sized rocks and red soil. Like Croatia and many of the Mediterranean countries, the Spanish soils have been devastated by several thousands of years of deforestation. Ancient, widely placed olive trees manage to survive in the Spanish hills, like elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. Like in some other countries, we spotted fields of artichokes in the better soils of coastline river deltas and dwarf orange trees laden with fruit where the conditions are just right.

   The Costa Brava section of the eastern Spanish coastline was distinctive with its pinkish-brown, soft looking rock formations. These coastal rocks had hash-mark like scoring across their surfaces—the kind that looks fake to my eye when replicated in dioramas or model train sets.

   The look of the land changed dramatically as we rode the train inland to Madrid. The red rocky soils that were so familiar in Croatia reappeared. The rolling hills were occasionally carpeted with cultivated patches of silvery gray, crew-cut length stubble. At odd intervals, there were stretches of brilliant green scrub pine that looked out of place amongst all of the heathery tones of the low growth—just like in Croatia. The softly rolling, sedimentary mounds hardly qualified as hills with their loosely compacted rock and soil that was rapidly eroding and reshaping. Occasionally the train tracks passed by silvery green olive trees and moved onto rare patches of more familiar brown soil. We and others jumped from our seats for a better view as the elevated tracks traversed rounded canyon walls and narrow gorges. The old handmade roof tiles in the rare villages ranged from cream-colored to soft oranges on their way to shades of mossy greens and again reminded us of those we had seen in Croatia. These mottled tile roofs are cozy and inviting--very different than the more typical, uniform terra cotta orange of machine-made tiles on the newer buildings.

    One very wonderful way in which Spain is totally unlike its Mediterranean kin is in the practice of heating hotel rooms—there is heat in Spain in the winter! We have shivered through many a painfully long evening in Croatia, Greece and southern Italy for the want of adequate heat. Most nights we had enough blankets to sleep, but we slowed like lizards without enough winter sun during our evenings and had abysmal performance in getting through our chores because of the chill. We’ve only had one room in Spain without heat and all the others have had either adequate or stupendous heat. Even in some $35 rooms we’ve been toasty warm. Yes! We’ll be back to Spain in the winter.

   Spain is also distinctive from most of the rest of Europe as it essentially sat-out WWI and WWII and wasn’t subject to the massive destruction of those wars. However, the viscous and violent Spanish Civil War just before WWII and a destructive binge by the Spanish anarchists in 1909 caused the destruction of many great treasures and created the opportunity for their share of ‘renovations’.

Getting Lost

  We both grew up with fatal associations with the phrase “getting lost”. Every year in our Pacific Northwest a number of people “get lost” in the woods and die. Usually it is the fall or winter hikers and hunters that get injured or disoriented and die of hypothermia rather than starvation. And occasionally there is the lost skier or mountaineer that succumbs. But in Europe, we have had to recalibrate our notion of “getting lost” as it is more difficult to get dangerously lost. Here, getting lost is generally an inconvenience as it instead means not knowing where you are on the map rather than being stranded, as we are rarely out of sight of homesteads. I remember being so struck by that lack of aloneness as we traversed the mountains of western Italy our first season and in the hills of Turkey the second year: it felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere, yet we could always see a sprinkling of homes. We have learned to take comfort in the realization that if we are in a desperate situation that it is never far to shelter and help.

   But taking the train from Valencia on the Spanish coast inland to Madrid painted a new picture for us: it was the first time in Europe that we traveled miles without seeing signs of homes or people. It was the first time we had seen a real risk of getting stranded. Many rock homes along the rail line were abandoned long ago and were now roofless and crumbling. We wondered if we were to bike this general route in the future if there would be places to stay and enough food and water along the way. That section of Spain would warrant careful scrutiny before venturing into it by bike, especially since the guide books are usually useless in these less populous areas.


   Ummm, delicious and cheap persimmons and Clementine’s (mandarin oranges) are our wintertime Mediterranean treats. I don’t know that I ever ate a persimmon before coming to Europe. At home, they were one of those novelty items that the grocer’s would bring in occasionally but the high prices and unanswered questions of “How do you select a ripe one?” and “What do you do with it?” destined them to be left behind at the market.

   But in Mediterranean Europe the persimmon prices are low enough that we were emboldened last year to start experimenting. In Spain, the persimmons are about 50¢ a piece and these fist-sized fruits weigh about 2/3’s of a pound each. And Bill has developed a good eye for selecting just the right ones. The trick is to nab the ones that are just shy of rotting—so soft and succulent that they are barely contained by their tough but edible skins. These are definitely something to eat standing over a sink with a napkin ready for mopping up and leave me with a glow like having eaten a prized piece of bitter sweet chocolate.

   Oh yes, and the Clementine’s. We discovered this bargain in Croatia in the winter of 2001—5 pound bags for $1.50. At home, they are a special treat to be savored; in Europe their budget prices qualify them for healthy binge food. When the prices are right the only question we have to answer is how many pounds we are willing to carry at a time.

   And in Spain, the price of red bell peppers has again dropped and the quality has gone up. In some European countries they are a bargain and we chow-down when they are. The red ones tend to be much more flavorful than the green peppers and have become a favorite lunchtime veggie for us. Especially on the cool winter days when we tend not to drink as much water as we should, succulent peppers are an easy ‘sell’. Managing perishables is a challenge in our little pantry just like it is at home and I never have to worry about red peppers spoiling before they get eaten.

   The aisle of canned fish doubled to quadrupled in size when we crossed the border from France into Spain and Bill has been squeaking like a happy penguin ever since. He has taken to having a can of ‘breakfast fish’ each morning to give him more calories at breakfast. He kindly eats it in the bathroom with the door closed as it is a decidedly unappetizing odor for me at the beginning of my day. Sardines in piquant sauces, tuna fillets in olive oil, mackerel in tomato sauces—the variety is endless, the quality high, and the prices are low. He hasn’t branched out into the shellfish-in-a-can yet and the canned calamari I bought him took the quick route to the toilet (without being eaten), but other culinary adventures still await him. I however stick to the muesli and orange juice and wait until he has finished cleaning up the fishy residues before venturing into the bathroom. 

   Overall, we have found food in Spain to be an excellent value. Most of our stables are cheaper here and sometimes we are buying them for the lowest prices ever. Even foods coming from other European countries are cheaper than what we paid in the producing country. My total at check-out time is often a third less and sometimes half of what I expect to pay elsewhere. As usual, we haven’t eaten out much but are quite content with our ‘self-catering’ regime.


  Especially coming to Spain from France, we have found the Spaniards to be very even-keeled. No one gets huffy, snippy, or impatient with us. If the answer is “No” when we ask them in Spanish if they speak English, they wait ready to proceed with the exchange anyway.  Most Spaniards have been friendly, helpful, and assume that neither you nor they will be deterred by a little thing like no common language. Most are very patient and willing to take extra time to understand and to help. We did run into a little pocket of bored-impatience at the train station and our hotel in Valencia, but those city folks looked decidedly French compared to everyone else. And in France where our bikes seemed to get us into trouble with people in positions of power, they instead garnered us a little extra help when navigating through the train and metro systems in Spain.

   In Spain, we often find ourselves saying “They got it right” when looking at a new signed bike route, design details in a hotel room, or a piece of tourist information.

Elsewhere, we can often be found saying “What were they thinking when they did that?” It always makes me feel good to see things that have been done thoughtfully and I’ve been feeling good a lot in Spain.


    Dealing with foreign languages is one of our constant traveling experiences. In places like Hungary, Turkey and Greece, we feel overwhelmed by the inability to get a handhold on the language. In Germany Bill can often be conversant, drawing from his childhood school work and his recommitment to almost nightly study. Then there are the in-between languages like French, Italian, and Spanish where some prior experience gives us enough courage to bumble through some fractured phrases and we have a shred of hope of understanding some of what is spoken to us.

   I was both nervous and curious to see how I and we would do with Spanish. I had a little Spanish in school 40 years ago and found it very helpful in sorting out some basic phrases and words when in Italy. Bill found enough similarities with French to make rapid progress with his traveler’s Italian but he too wondered about diving into Spanish. We knew that there are some important pronunciation differences between Spanish and Italian but at least the general lilt is the same, making it easier to be brave.

   They threw me a curve in Spain as we spent most of our time in the east, in Catalunya where they are very proud to speak Catalunyan rather than the more common Castilian Spanish.  Some of the differences were small enough that I could quickly adapt to them. Spelling the word for city “ciutat” instead of “ciudad” and “aigua” instead of “agua” for water made me question my memory and sent me to the phrase book. But the Catalunyan’s fiddling with the names for the days of the week and other basic words like the one for “closed” did make getting by harder than I expected. And then the overlay of several months of using our traveler’s Italian the last 2 years muddied the waters even more for me. But we both instantly did better in Madrid that distains Catalunyan and suddenly “John” was the more familiar “Juan” instead of “Joan”. I found myself more willing to blurt out cobbled phrases to make inquiries and was relieved at how often I was understood once out of Catalunya.

Roman bronze hydraulic pump.


   Should you be traveling to Madrid, check-out a great resource Bill found--the metro’s website at www.metromadrid.es. Bill found it an easy site to use and it has an English option. Not only could he find out obscure details like if particular metro stations had elevators (big plus if you have a loaded bike) but it also can help you locate hotels, pharmacies and other businesses near a given metro stop. It was through this website that Bill found us a great deal on a hotel that is walking distance from the Madrid airport—information we couldn’t get from our guide book or by calling the Madrid tourist info office.

   We only had time for a taste of Madrid and it seemed fitting to make their archeology museum our first stop. We were disappointed in the absence of English explanations on the exhibits but left savoring the gleaned, new bits of history. I filled in couple of missing, prehistory puzzle pieces and we both marveled at the grand bronze hydraulic pump that the Romans left behind (1st century ce). The only other ancient pump we’ve seen was in Lyon, France and it was wooden with metal fittings, which Bill assumes was designed for larger volumes. We also slouched on the museum’s low benches to gaze up at a ceiling reproduction of the orange and black-toned cave paintings done about 14,000 years ago in northern Spain at Altamira. It left me hungry for more than the large living room-sized display that was offered.

Finally ready for baggage check-in at Madrid.

   But rather than spending a lot of time seeing Madrid, we instead prepared for our journey home. We were thrilled to find a power-wand car wash to get the mud off our bikes in preparation for packing them for flying.  We stashed the bikes in Europe the previous 2 years when we returned home, but ‘the horses’ are going home to stay this year. Bill has been busy ordering parts for new bikes, including disc brakes and a suspension seat posts that can be locked-out when we don’t need the cushioning.

   We have also been busy sifting through every item in our bags in preparation for the flight. We need to find extra space inside our panniers to stow items that we usually strap on the bikes, so some items that are being replaced this year are being left behind so as to make room. We also need to finalize our lists of purchases to be made and chores to be done so we can be working on them even before jet lag clears.  

The News

  One of our other closure activities for the year is catching up on the TV news. We are well aware that though we hear less news as travelers that the news we do get is from a very different point of view than in the US and we like it. In general, it seems to be from a broader perspective and less catastrophic, whether the topic is SARS, the war in Iraq or the state of the US economy.

  We didn’t really start following the news while in Europe until 9/11 and then it seemed urgent—it seemed a matter of survival. Since then, I have realized that one of the life-long gifts of our travels has been the creation in me a greater interest in a bigger chunk of the world. Never having been interested in politics has made following world affairs a low priority and living in the far west of the US has given me an especially western focus. Even the east coast of the US always seemed a bit remote and farther east Eastern Europe was all the more distant. But geographically the Alps have roughly been our new center, our new reference point, and so both the US east coast and Eastern Europe are seemed closer to me here.

   The thousands-of-miles shift in the center of our awareness was underscored the last week in November as we watched the “as it was breaking” news of Georgia’s President Shevardnadze’s resignation. It all but brought tears to my eyes and I felt a tremendous relief at the tragedies his resignation would avert and was delighted in seeing the joy of the Georgian people on TV. It wasn’t as big as the Berlin wall coming down, but it was definitely a regional victory, a success for the people and a story I want to follow.

  While I was enjoying the unexpected news I was also aware of how little coverage the event was likely receiving in the US and if I had been there instead of here, how little attention I personally would have paid to it. And all of that lesser coverage and attention makes perfect sense to me and yet I am pleased to now have a reason to be more attentive to the affairs of more parts of the world. Of course, it is in part due to the nature of the news we have access to but it is also because we are essentially living here.  For me, this greater global awareness has come at the expense following less news in the US. Even if my capacity for tracking political events hasn’t increased, where my attention is directed has certainly changed.

Where Now?  2/16/04

    Yes indeed, I did get behind again. We had a relatively uneventful flight home on December 10.  We immediately bought a photo printer to print our thousand digital photos ourselves this year and that unexpectedly tied up our laptop for weeks, hence no work on this journal update.

   Then we were overwhelmed by working on our photo album, tending to business matters, visiting friends and family, ordering bike parts, and assembling the replacement gear needed to set out on our 4th touring season which will begin February 9 with a flight back to Madrid.  In between those activities, Bill has been restocking his arsenal of route planning dream material by flipping through guide books at his favorite bookstore. (Iceland is in the works for this summer and we are still hoping for China one of these years.)

   I wrote the above 2 paragraphs in mid-January when I thought this piece was about ready to go out. Alas, an unexpected surgery and a string of crises with the new bikes sucked up our spare time. (More about the challenges in Portland soon.) But we are back in Spain again and settling into our more ‘normal’ life.


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