AFTER AN INDIFFERENT LUNCH in Burgos, we get back on the bus and head off to Valladolid. (Pronounce it in Castillian: "Va-ya-do-lith". The last "th" is sounded almost like a hiss or a whisper, the tongue softly brushing the roof of the mouth. I don't know why.) It's an important town in the history of the Inquisition; the cathedral was apparently built for Torquemada, and the town square was the site of some of the most awful auto-da-fes. You'd have a hard time imagining that now.

Valladolid is a sprawling, undustrial town whose old quarter, more renaissance than medieval, has been subsumed by busy streets, hurtling traffic and ugly suburbs. "It was early when I set out to see Valladolid, and to speak truth, I found little to see," Hutton writes, a hundred years ago. "The city has become commercial and uninteresting, at least to the lover of art."

He's as despairing about the Cathedral of San Pablo: "The cathedral, which remains a fragment, to me at least is not the disgusting failure that it seems to so many travellers." The facade is impressive enough, but I don't remember anything about the interior, probably because I have no memory of our guide taking us through it. We head, instead, for the Colegio de San Gregoria, the home of the National Sculpture Museum. It says a lot about Spain that all of the work exhibited here is religious in nature -- art, like most everything else, was put to the service of the church, except for politics, which only occasionally controlled the church. 

There are a few museums like this in Spain -- the Museu Frederic Mares in Barcelona is another -- that feature altarpieces, statuary, choir stalls and cielings from thousands of churches, most of whom dispensed with their treasures during periodical renovations, some of whom were simply looted during angry spells of anti-clerical feeling -- an inevitable side-effect of a supersaturated religious culture -- or invasions like that of Napoleon. Antique stores in the older towns never fail to offer second- and third-rate church leavings that have escaped the attentions of the museums or collectors. 

The guide takes us through the narrow streets to a broad avenue and shows us the house where Cervantes lived toward the end of his life. While the guidebooks talk of how the house has been restored and original furnishings found, she confides that he really only lived here for a few years, while suffering financial troubles, and that they have no idea if the furnishings inside really belonged to the great writer. In any case, we don't leave the bus.


"The coach in which I travelled...was full of men and women who continually passed in and out of the innumerable little stations at which se stopped. A strange, a delightful company; for all without exception were in some indefinable way beautiful."
- The Cities of Spain(1925)
Edward Hutton

Spain -- day four. More food, more drink.
Plaza Mayor, Salamanca
Plaza Mayor, Salamanca

BACK ON THE ROAD, we hurtle toward Salamanca, a little impatiently, for much of the group are to be re-united with their luggage at the parador. I can't help but be intrigued by the glimpse I get of the town from the bus as we negotiate the roads into town -- golden church spires and walls and a lovely roman bridge over a broad, sluggish river.

Our parador is a brutal lodging of marble and glass, built in a style I can only call Franco Modern. Inside, though, the floors are cool wood and the views from our rooms over the river to the old town spectacular. We're to be here for two nights and I'm grateful for the break. Across from my room, the old medieval university town catches the evening sun, and I see spires and church towers and red tile roofs. It looks lovely.

The roman bridge, one of the town's great treasures, is closed for repairs, so I'll have to forego a great photo opportunity. No great loss, since I've seen the vista of the bridge and the town countless times in guidebooks and magazines. I should probably be thinking more about getting decent shots to help sell the article I'll have to produce after this trip, but somehow I can't get up the energy to stake out locations and make time for solo shoots, unlike Michael, who seems to be out early every morning with his cameras, wandering the town for shots.

We get back in the bus and cross the river for dinner. Tonight is something of a treat, the best meal we'll have on the trip. A salad, in particular, excites the whole group, if only because of the rarity of greens in Castille's meat-heavy cuisine, but also because of the green itself -- tender, tiny sprout-like leaves called marujas, served with roquefort cheese and tiny chunks of fruit. We finish off with coffee and aguardiente, and Dennis suggests the group head off for the bars around the Plaza Mayor.

Dennis lived here years ago, and tries to find one of his favorite spots, a tiny place next to one of the gates into the plaza. It's gone, replaced by a McDonalds (special today: "McPollo Bocadito"), so we sit down for a drink at a patio next door and gab drunkenly.

Michael, who admits to once being a big beer-drinker, sits on the sidelines. We ask him if he'd like anything, if he minds hanging around with a bunch of drinkers, but he insists that "I just like to watch and listen." Privately, Dennis, Bob and I suspect he's probably AA, and respect whatever might have made him give up booze. We're a bit more put off by Fernando, however, who paces impatiently around the group on tours and hardly says a word at dinner. A Spanish man who doesn't drink, at least a few glasses of wine, seems off-putting, and he's become a bit of a wet blanket. In any case, he left us in Valladolid, catching a train to see his family in Zaragossa, and we're cutting loose tonight.

Angela and Chris start asking us what we all do, with a particular interest in Dennis.

"So I've heard you're not a journalist, strictly speaking," Chris asks him.

"That's true," Dennis tells her.

"He's just a f***ing novelist," Bob and I offer, with theatrical disdain.

"And what about you," Chris asks me. "Do you work for anyone in particular, or..."

"Oh, I'm just a f***ing freelance f***ing pisstank," I tell her. The group bursts into laughter, especially Bob and Dennis. I have a nickname for the rest of the trip: pisstank.

We finish our drinks and head across the square to another bar. Marguerita points out the stone cameo of Franco, set into the 18th century arcade alongside the procession of heads of former rulers and notables of the area. Obviously added much later than the others, it's in an entirely different style and colour. Salamanca was Franco's military headquarters during the civil war, and escaped the damage from German and Italian bombers and Nationalist artillery that decimated parts of Madrid and Barcelona. More ghosts of history.

The morning after the group's first bender, in Burgos, there had been a vague sense of uneasiness, an emotional hangover, notable most of all in the moment when we all spread out to different pews in the church at Silos. Nevertheless, we barrel ahead with the evening, telling personal stories, ordering another round, walking back across the river to our parador in fits of delirious laughter. Bob, Dennis, Vincent and I share some particularly bawdy stories and let loose with some colourful language. We don't imagine the rest of the group, walking well behind and ahead of us, will particularly care.

We struggle back up the hill to our parador and say our drunken goodnights. I close the door of my room, take a deep breath, and try to sober up to place a long distance call home.

and writing 
Rick McGinnis
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