Spain – Madrid & Barcelona

Tuesday, 1 August 2023

My three recent European blogs – Turin in Italy, Lugano in Switzerland, Paris in … now which country is that again? – were the final stepping stones on a 45 day trip from Melbourne in Australia to London in … now which country is that again? Once I’d finally arrived in London I didn’t spend long before I set off again, first stop Spain to work with GeoPlaneta, Lonely Planet’s Spanish partners, to celebrate (again) Lonely Planet’s 50th birthday

▲ corner of Calle del Clavel & Gran Via

From my room in Hotel Iberostar de Las Letras this is the view straight across the Gran Via. There’s definite truth in advertising here, Gran Via is indeed a very grand street.

▲ CentroCentro – Palacio de Cibeles, Ayuntamiento (City Hall) – continue down Gran Via and you’ll arrive at this wonderful confection. I had lunch, with this view in the background, with my GeoPlaneta hosts at the very traditional La Pecera del Círculo de Bellas Artes. I enjoyed a salmorejo de tomate which was described to me as ‘a more full bodied gazpacho.’ I’ve always been an enthusiast for that Spanish cold tomato soup so this was an excellent discovery.

My room in the hotel features assorted four line Spanish poems on the walls. Beside the lifts there’s another literary quote but in English:

I have sometimes dreamt that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and statesmen come to receive their rewards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading.”

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), How Should One Read a Book?

◄ Tony & David Jiménez, Casa del Libro – I’ve learnt never to get too confident, to think you are too special. So I may have been in Madrid to celebrate Lonely Planet’s 50th birthday, Across Asia on the Cheap, the very first Lonely Planet guidebook emerged in October 1973. Big deal, the main event was in Madrid’s impressive bookshop Casa del Libro which was having its 100th birthday, Lonely Planet was a lifetime behind. Plus I was talking with journalist and travel writer David Jiménez and he has spent a long time in Afghanistan, based in and out of the country for 11 years. Plus he’s written a book featuring North Korea. Even before we get on stage we have a lot to talk about, our Afghanistan discussions bring up Nancy Hatch Dupree and her long term contact with the country. I’ve got two copies of her classic guidebook An Historical Guide to Afghanistan and she contrived to die in Kabul in 2017 at the age of 89.

Lonely Planet, GeoPlaneta and Spain have a curious relationship. Spain was a country that received tourists, but the Spanish themselves barely travelled, the tourist flow was all inbound, never outbound. That suddenly changed and, purely coincidentally, LP arrived in Spain at the same time. As a result Lonely Planet is often credited with inspiring Spanish outbound tourism. Just coincidence, nothing more, LP simply came along at the right time. But so much changed post-Franco – Spain is almost before and after Franco, he died in 1975. You certainly couldn’t imagine Pedro Almodóvar’s movies in the Franco era? David Jiménez comments that the Spanish didn’t get rid of Franco – they were certainly not like Portugal and their carnation revolution – they simply waited for him to depart.

▲ Renfe Ava train, Madrid Atocha to Barcelona Sants – time to depart, I took the high speed train from Madrid to Barcelon

▲ Madrid Atocha Station – it looks pretty good from the outside and inside there’s a small tropical jungle

Not everything about my visit to Spain was bright and friendly. The Madrid-Barcelona train is pretty full and many of the passengers are toting enormous bags so it’s a squeeze getting to my (aisle unfortunately) seat. Where, putting my bag down on a seat before lifting it onto the luggage rack I’m subjected to a loud and rude verbal assault – in English – by someone who reckons I’ve put my bag too close to his laptop! Wow. Never mind the Wi Fi works fine and I manage to correspond with the Copelands in Melbourne about Afghanistan, they’ve had a long history with the country. And then with Joe Cummings in Bangkok. At my Madrid bookshop talk I’d mentioned Thailand author Joe’s Bangkok session with Mick Jagger, who wanted to be shown around the city by Joe. Joe was only too happy to oblige and a Madrid journalist wanted to follow up on the story. So it was Spain-Australia and Spain-Thailand communications while I zipped north, international communications, amazing.

▲ Casa Batlló, Gaudi Apartment Building, Passeig de Gràcia

Last time in Barcelona I stayed right on Las Ramblas, this time I am not far away in the Gallery Hotel, popular with visiting writers I discover. It’s only a short stroll from that earlier hotel and this hotel is just off Passeig de Gràcia, which has to be the flash shopping street of Barcelona. There are a couple of the Gaudi apartments there as well. But I do a stroll down the street counting how many shops make you queue outside before discreetly entering – Dior, Chanel, Gucci, Vuitton, etc. Madrid or Barcelona, they both look very well off.

◄ Inevitably you’re asked ‘what’s your favourite place in Spain’ and of course you don’t want to say ‘Madrid, Barcelona’ or ‘Bilboa.’ When Maureen and I did a drive around-Spain-trip way back in 2001 we liked Extremadura, the region to the west, towards the border of Portugal. Interesting towns, but looked upon as being a bit off the beaten track, a bit less well off than the rest of Spain. So on an earlier trip to Spain I announced that I really liked Extremadura. That was clearly absolutely the best thing to say – ‘oh a foreigner who likes Extremadura’ – because it was commented on several times on that Lonely Planet/GeoPlaneta trip and this time as well. In fact Lonely Planet Spain has done a separate Extremadura guide, the author Igor Gonzalo Sanz turned up at my Madrid bookshop talk to thank me for putting Extremadura on the map. As if!

My visit to Madrid included a bank ‘problem’ which I’d preferred to have avoided. Needing some euro I went to an ATM, put in my Australian bank card, which it clearly recognized as non-Spanish because it switched to English. So I put in my PIN number and it announced ‘we’re confiscating your card, contact your bank about getting it back!’ The bank was closed, but I could see somebody inside and after I hammered on the door a bit he reluctantly came to the door and said he couldn’t do anything about it, come back tomorrow. But I’m a foreign tourist I’ll be in Barcelona tomorrow I pleaded, to which he reluctantly (again) said oh OK, opened the back of the ATM and fished my card out.

In Barcelona my talk is at Biblioteca Jaume Fuster which seems to be a public library aimed squarely at travel books. My talk – Jornadas de los Grandes Viajes – is with Xavier Moret, another thoroughly capable traveller, writer and journalist. We’re preceded by Aitor Gallego, talking about his one year trip in a campervan to Mongolia, along pretty much the same route as my Silk Road trip in 2017. I’m left rather confused, did his van break down, could he get it repaired, did he then come back through Russia, did he break something (personally, not in the vehicle) and end up in hospital? Never mind I also meet up with Albert Padrol, a long time Spanish publishing friend, and author Ana Briongos, whose ‘why young people should travel’ statement I quote regularly.