the diary thing 
luggage tagI HAVE A DREAM THAT, one day, the unwashed, unslept, ill-fed and tightly-packed masses in coach will rise up and slaughter the pampered occupants of business and first-class sections of international flights. It will be an awful, senseless incident, like Entebbe or Lockerbie, but if any common experience has the potential to inflame class resentment and make tenuous assumptions predicated on words like "democracy" and "equality" seem like callow fictions, seven hours in a fully-booked Boeing 747-400 might be just the thing.

Never mind that it takes the first-class traveller just as long to get where they're going as the cramped occupant of coach -- the minor amenities of better food, more courteous service, and capacious leg- and ass-room more than compensate for most people. Certainly, the few times I've been upgraded to the curtained cabin at the front of the plane have shown me a world where tempers are hardly ever frayed; I'd become so accustomed to the chorus of moans, sighs, groans, hisses and occasional enraged barks that build to a crescendo in tourist class that I was surprised that it was missing entirely in the adult seats at the front. 

The simple truth is that the striving, aspirant, ambitious, entitled, western traveller is not so enamoured with their fellow man, even if they're on their way to the same three-star resort, that they like to rub elbows and knees with them while trying to catch a bit of sleep in a semi-upright position.

ENOUGH COMPLAINING ABOUT AIR TRAVEL. I'll gloss over the third-world anarchy of JFK, and mention only in passing that half of our tour group loses its luggage on the way from New York to Madrid. I've pretty much forgotten the enormous line-up at customs and immigration, and will, instead, begin my story on the bus.

The bus will be our home, on and off, for the next week. A standard European tourist coach -- sans loo -- with enormous windows and headrests that will only accomadate the average adult head in one, centred and equipoised position. Our bus driver is curt, faintly surly, and in no way happy about squiring us around the treasures of his country. The longest conversation I have with him during the whole week happens while we wait for the bathroom in a rest stop, and mostly involves grunts, shrugs and hand gestures.

Our group is small enough, eight writers and two officials from Turespaña. Dennis is the unofficial author of my trip, and told Bob and I about it months ago. We form the core of a merry group of conspirators who will make the tone of the trip somehow less than utterly professional. Vincent, a political correspondent for Montreal's La Presse, will become the fourth leg to our wobbly table.

We spot Michael in the endless line-up at JFK, carrying three cameras with enormous lenses, and make bets as to whether he's with us, or just on his way to Chechnya. Chris and Angela are two British women, middle-aged, professional food and travel writers living in British Columbia. Helen is from Manitoba, and usually covers the industrial hog-farming beat out there. Like Vincent, she's been given the trip by her editors as a reward for good work. She's also a lesbian, a basically unimportant fact that, nonetheless, causes some inadvertant drama later in the trip.

Marguerita is our leader, a Catalunyan living in Canada for over 15 years. Fernando is her boss, the head of the Toronto office of Spanish Tourism. He seems bored and distracted for much of the trip, and disappears at one point to visit his family in Zaragossa. He also doesn't drink, a fact that, much more than Helen's lesbianism, will be the source of friction.

Jet-lagged and punchy, we finally get going, after establishing that the missing luggage will join us two days later in Salamanca. Tempers are raw and we could all use a good night's sleep, but it's only morning here in Madrid, and we have a long bus ride ahead of us.

"They change their sky, not their mind, who cross the sea. A busy idleness possesses us; we seek a happy life with ships and carriages: the object of our search is present with us."
- Horace

Spain -- day one. Sorry for back-dating these entries, but I've been at war with my ISP all weekend, and planned to have these up a couple of days ago.
 .the plains of Castille
.the plains of Castille, from the bus window

THE FIRST THING THAT STRIKES US, especially those of us whose suitcases are somewhere back at JFK, is that it's unusually chilly out on the usually sun-baked plains of Castille. Expecting temperatures hovering hear 90°F, I've packed nothing but light shirts and khakis. As we pass through the farms on the plains, on our way to the mountainous region of La Rioja, we also notice that there's been a lot of rain. Even our driver comments on how wet it's been. We have, it seemed, brought the Canadian weather with us.

The sides of the road, low mounds that separate the highway from the fields of grain and potatoes, are thick with pretty purple-blue flowers -- veitch, it's assumed -- and small, bright red poppies. At a rest stop where I buy my first cigarettes of the trip, the group wanders around the scrubby field by the parking lot, acquainting ourselves with each other through some harmless chat about horticulture.

Just before we leave Castille, we pass through Villefranca, a pretty little village, and stop for a pee break. Spray-painted on the door of a garage near the town square: "Puta Logroño". 

Logroño is the capital of Rioja, just an hour away. "Puta" means whore. Political graffiti is a tradition in Spain, and you generally know what province you're about to enter by the scrawls on the sides of gates, walls and public buildings. "Puta Burgos". "Puta Valladolid". Further north in Rioja, the grafitti is in Euskadi, the Basque language, and either attacks or supports the ETA, the Basque separatist organization that killed a journalist and a politician in the weeks before we arrive. In Castille, it attacks the local government in equally vociferous terms, though I still fail to see how such ire can be aroused by the dully bureaucratic administrations that run post-Franco, pro-EU Spain. 

Finally, we arrive at Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and check into our hotel, a state-run luxury hotel called a Parador. It's spectacular -- a former medieval hostelry for pilgrims on the St. James' Way, but we don't have time to relax before we're herded back onto the bus.

NÁJERA IS A NEAT, BOURGEOIS town ringed by steep hills, a slightly swollen river running through its center. On our way to the first of the trip's many monasteries, we pass through the town's "Jewish quarter", basically a bar whose name commemorates the Jewish community that once lived here until they were expelled hundreds of years ago. Most larger Spanish towns have just such ghosts.

The monastery of Santa María la Real sits under the red stone cliffs by the center of the old town, and shows the wear of its thousand years. Made of soft, gray sandstone, the chill and damp of the valley's weather have eroded its sculptures and ornaments like soap. Spain is, supposedly, one of the most Catholic countries in the world, but its history records a less-than-happy relationship with the institutions of the Church. 

Santa María la Real was abandoned for more than a hundred years, during one of the occasional initiatives by the crown to confiscate the considerable wealth of the priests, abbots and nuns during times of financial crisis. (It has to be understood that Spain was tragically governed by two different dynasties for over three hundred years, and that financial crises were almost constant.) During the Peninsular War, Napoleon's troops occupied the monastery, stabled their horses in the church and shot prisoners in the cloister -- bullet holes still riddle the wall. Their retreat was, needless to say, the occasion for much looting.

Stone sarcophagi containing the remains of medieval rulers of the region line the walls near the rear of the church. Damp and rain have eroded some of them to near-abstract lumps of rock. 

It's our first monastery, and I'm duly impressed with the age and picturesque decrepitude. I don't know yet that you can see too many monasteries.

and writing 
Rick McGinnis
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