Una Semana en Espana

Nov. 15-23 2003

random trip report

I am invited to participate in a three-day conference on 'Webs of Shared Knowledge' at the Residencia de Estudiantes, a government cultural institute in Madrid. I decide to stay for an extra few days. Erica comes along. We're met by Emilio Gonzalez, whom I know through SETI@home and who bought my telescope.


We fly Virgin Atlantic red-eye to London, then British Airways to Madrid. The flights are fine, but Erica has a major allergy attack and I'm tortured by the miserly legroom.

Emilio meets us at the airport. He's in town for an Astrobiology conference later in the week, and he's meeting some of his 'virtual community' of translators in Madrid. It's great to have a contact in a foreign place. We drive into Madrid and find the Residencia, which is well-hidden in the middle of a complex of ministerial buildings, in a neighborhood of embassies and posh restaurants.

The Residencia has simple but very comfortable rooms, and nice touches like a cafe downstairs, pool tables, and lots of places to sit and talk. The auditorium has a grand piano in one corner, a Bechstein that reputedly belonged to Frederico Garcia Lorca. It's good, but way out of tune.

The Residencia has a restaurant; the meals are well-presented and cheap but generally not appealing.


Erica and I go to Plaza del Sol, then Plaza Mayor. We pass the Restaurante Cuchi. It's cold, and we get a coffee. I return at noon for a press conference - each of the conference participants talks for 5 minutes.

Emilio comes; we go to Atocha and walk around the Parque Retiro. We talk about Basque politics. Lunch, then visit the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia (modern art). Guernica is there, but I'm not all that impressed.

I am, however, impressed by the indoor jungle at the Atocha train station. A large and realistic recreation of rain forest, with mist-sprayers that give a humid realism to the air.

I attend the first evening's talks; one is about the Public Library of Science (Catriona McCallum), and the other concerns computers and education. It's clear that this event is more Humanities-oriented than I had realized; I will have to revamp my talk.

The proceedings are translated in real time by a couple of highly talented women in the control room. You can listen using earphone radio thingies.

The Q&A session afterwards is dominated by an older man who asks aggressive but reasonable questions. I'm told later that he attends every Residencia event, and is essentially a professional questioner.


Erica goes to El Prado while I remain in the Residencia to work frantically on my talk. I finish in time to rendezvous at 2:00 in the Prado cafeteria with Emilio and Erica. We take in a few paintings, but my eyes glaze over quickly (except for the Bosch and Breugel).

That evening I give my talk ('intervention') and it goes fairly well. I'm accosted by the questioner afterwards.


After breakfast Erica and I go to the La Latina metro stop and attempt a Walk Through Interesting Neighborhoods. We wander into an area where all the businesses are wholesalers (Venta de Mayor) of imported Chinese clothes. Eventually we emerge onto a street where a protest march is being staged. It's the Spanish tomato farmer's union, protesting the lowering of tariffs (I assume). It's followed immediately by a number of street cleaners in garish costumes; it's not clear whether this is another protest or if they're just cleaning the street. In any case we follow the parade for a while. It emerges into a plaza where a fiery tomato-oriented speeches are being delivered. A truck is dispensing flats of tomatoes and eggplants, and passersby, many of them prosperous-looking men, are carrying off the flats or stuffing their shopping bags with the booty.

We split up; Erica goes to the Museo Thyssen, while I take the subway to a suburban stop in search of 'Bulder King', a climbing gym that Erica located on the web. It's out near Case del Campo. I locate it easily enough, but it doesn't seem to exist any more; there's a gray metal door and a handwritten 'Sala de Escalar' but no answer to the bell.

I opt for the long walk (~4 miles) back to downtown, via working-class neighborhoods, a large park under construction, and a footbridge over the Rio Manzanares (a listless and desultory body of water) next to huge Estadio de Futbol. I pass by a sculpture containing all the Platonic solids. Back in the room, there's some soccer on TV - sweet.

At the talks that evening, the Open-Source speaker has been stranded in Italy. I'm pressed into service on a replacement panel, with a couple of the other speakers and some young open-source firebrands. The discussion is diffuse to say the least.

Emilio has discovered that his conference is TWR rather than WRF, so he's missed the first day.

That night, after intensive web search, Erica and I seek out Flamenco at Casa Patas. Turns out it's a restaurant, and extremely crowded. We can't find anyone to ask about tickets, and the wait-staff races around, studiously avoiding us. After a while we get pissed off and leave. We walk to Plaza del Sol, buy pastries, and eat them in the Residencia.


I wake up with a nasty virus of some sort, and feel weak, sore and dizzy.

We borrow Emilio's car (a diesel mini-van, very nice) and drive to Salamanca. The drive is mostly on brand-new deserted highways, and goes over/through some medium mountains across large rolling semi-arid regions of red soil, and into an area populated by granite boulders. I drive carefully since the insurance situation is not clear, but still have two near misses when speed demons try to pass me while I'm passing a slow truck.

The sight of Salamanca and its enormous cathedrals from several miles away is totally awe-inspiring. Erica and I have the usual tension-inducing experience of entering and navigating a Spanish Centro Cuidad, but eventually we find an underground parking lot by the river, fairly close to everything. We walk into town and check in at the first hotel that's listed in Let's Go, a nice place, 100% marble bath, slighly pricey and breakfast not included.

We lunch at a nice place that brings us an iron dish of fried egg and sizzling potatoes, free, like bread and butter. Erica has a nice veggie lasagna. We visit the Shell House and walk by the cathedral. A panhandler shows us the famous astronaut and demon eating ice cream (which I mis-heard as demon-eating ice cream) that were added in recent restorations to the facade. We continue to the base of the hill and have a hot chocolate while we wait for the cathedral to open.

The cathedral is the largest friggin' cathedral I have ever seen. It's roughly the size of the blimp hangar at Moffett Field. Its interior columns are massive - 12 to 15' thick. It lacks the airy openness of Gothic cathedrals; in fact it lacks any architectural coherence whatsoever, and is crammed full of massive junk.

I return to the hotel, collapse, and rest while Erica wanders some more. She returns with sandwiches (smoked salmon on baguette) and pastries, which more than fill the bill.

In spite of being sick and exhausted, I fail to fall asleep as such, so I'm feeling like crap the next day.


Weak and dazed, I get mobilized. After several sunny days, it's overcast. Erica manages to find a cafe that serves eggs.

We drive to Avila, which is ringed by walls that date to ~1200 AD. A farmer's market is in progress. I'm tired so we leave quickly, but my impression is very favorable and I would love to return sometime.

Part of the highway is a toll road with designated Service Areas. We get sandwiches at the AutoGrill. I watch a woman in a fur coat pull up in a Volvo, toss a wadded paper into the gutter, and get out. I resist the temptation to slightly vandalize her car.

We drive back to Madrid. Erica does an great navigating job, in spite of having only two maps, neither one at a useful level of detail.

Madrid is Parking Hell. We end up in a pay lot under the Caija Catalunya. We drop off our stuff at the Residencia. I relax and rest while Erica returns to the Prado one last time. I call Emilio; he needs to return to San Sebastian so he comes and we retrieve the car. Erica and I have dinner at a Chinese place that's nice although the food is extremely bland.

We watch, on Eurosport, the world "women's fitness" championships, which is the lamest sport I have ever seen: a bunch of scantily-clad women, some with slight gymnastic talent, prancing around, kicking legs in the air and pretending to do one-arm pushups. A bored-sounding British announcer did what he could to make it interesting, occasionally saying things like 'Oh dear!' when there's a suggestive pose.


Another overcast day. We decide to go to Toledo. We walk to Plaza de Argentina, take the metro to Mendez Alonzo, then a bus to Toledo. Very pleasant. The route goes through a vast suburb that consists mostly of giant furniture stores.

We take the #5 local up the hill from the bus station to the main plaza. Toledo has a staggering number of shops that sell exactly the same merchandise: expensive engraved metal plates, swords and other cutlery, and statuettes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

We walk across the old town to the old Synagogue, which was built around 1300, modified in grotesque ways after the Jews were expelled in 1492, then restored in the last century.

We have lunch in a place that starts out promising but then they forget to bring Erica's 2nd course, and it finally arrives cold and unappetizing.

The main cathedral is huge and impressive, but it's crammed full with a hodge-podge of gigantic altars, pipe organs, side vestibules, and so on. At one end is a totally over-the-top Apse on Acid, standing 50' high, a psychedelic Rococo pastiche of angels, cherubs etc., with a central gold sunburst whose rays penetrate many of the figures. A skylight is ringed by life-size figures. The whole thing is executed in Rodin-smooth white marble that actually appears to be melting (help me!...)

A guard patrols the cathedral, periodically bellowing 'No photos!' in stentorian tones, at no one in particular.

In the part of the cathedral that has pews, each column has a large JVC TV monitor and a speaker. Maybe they use them to announce the hymn numbers.

One other thing about the cathedral: it's lit by a smattering of those energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs whose light is bluish and sickly. It seems odd that centuries of back-breaking artisanship, however misguided, isn't acknowledged with decent lighting.

We peer in the window of a restaurant that has, by conservative estimate, 300 hams hanging from the ceiling. These full-leg, hoof-attached Spanish jamones do not attempt to conceal their porcine origin.

We return to the plaza mayor and have a pastry. It starts to rain.


It's raining hard. We check out and take a taxi to the Nuevos Ministerios metro, from which there's a train straight to the airport. In fact, for some flights you can check in right in the metro station! Madrid is so far ahead of SF in public transport it's not even funny. My only complaint: the walk from the metro to the ticket counter is extremely long.

General impressions

The goals of the Residencia de Estudiantes are, I guess, to foment culture and to present it to the public. The results are mixed. I tend to think of everything in terms of class struggle, in this case the contrast between the workmen who crafted the beautiful buildings of the Residencia, presumably with low wages and long hours, and the intellectuals (like me) who stay here, basically goofing off and spewing our platitudes. It's hard to avoid feeling that the workmen did a much better and more honest job than we're doing.

The Spanish urban landscape is forested with construction cranes. These are signs of economic vitality, I guess, but they remind me of termite tubules or some other artifact of ever-expanding insect/microbial infestation.

Spanish food is a disappointment from start to finish. Deep-fried, over-salted, meat-intensive, fat-oriented.

Copyright 2024 © David P. Anderson