Author: Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Associate Professor of American Art, Faculty Host
It was a rainy day in October when our airplane touched down at Aeroport del Prat on the outskirts of Barcelona. From the first moments in the baggage claim, when our Penn Alumni Travel luggage straps identified me and my husband John as fellow voyagers on the Sketches of Spain, 2012, we were surrounded by new friends from the family of Penn alums – friends that I have come to know and appreciate during the past four years that I have been accompanying these trips as a faculty host. Our choice to travel off of the standard itinerary meant that we were not met at the airport by the tour director, Nani Gonzalo-Vargas, but thankfully, those magical luggage straps meant that we soon connected with another Penn couple in the same situation and were able to share a cab together into Barcelona.
Our new friends were on their third or fourth alumni trip and, like us, were traveling independently so that they could add a few extra days on at the end and visit a few cities that were not on the itinerary. As the four of us discovered toward the end of the trip, and the gathering force of Hurricane Sandy began to threaten our easy return to the East Coast of the United States, this was both a good and a bad decision to have made. But more on that later.
The Group at the Cathedral of Barcelona in the Medieval Quarter. View all my pictures here.
Once at the Hotel Cristal, we met up with Nani, the tour director, and the other members of the group. We were sharing the trip with members of the Rutgers and University of Maryland alumni associations, several of whom had made couples or family trips by bringing friends or siblings. After a day of recovery spent strolling the shopping districts of the nearby Rambla and eating marvelous food at La Boqueria, the largest and most dazzling of the many markets that characterize the sophisticated culinary world of the Catalunya region that Barcelona dominates, we adjusted to the time difference and were ready for the delightful and educational tours that make Penn Alumni Travel so special.
Our local tour guide in Barcelona was Santi, short for Santiago, a specialist in the rich architectural heritage of the city. We traveled with him by bus to the Olympic Park, the waterfront Athlete’s Village, and the absolutely stunning Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia and the Park Guell, both designed by the renowned art nouveau architect Antonio Gaudí. At the Park Guell we learned about the innovative techniques of glass and ceramic mosaic used by Gaudí and his workmen. While there I was able to talk our whole group into posing for a picture! Say, “Queso!”
The Group at Park Guell.
Later that day, Santi guided us through the complex architectural program of the Sagrada Familia, a vast and breath-taking cathedral that was begun over one hundred years ago and is still under construction. While waiting for our entry time to be called, we were fortunate to see the building of a human castle, a community activity in which groups of Catalans compete to see who can successfully build and deconstruct the tallest human tower! This was a really a remarkable undertaking to witness, and I enjoyed seeing the little children, whose job it is to stand steady atop the shoulders of their older compatriots, prepare themselves by strapping on protective head gear and wrapping their waists in the characteristic scarves that are used as grappling tools when climbing atop the stacked bodies!
Here is a link to the video of the Castle Competition.
Our last night in Barcelona we had a beautiful and exceptionally tasty group dinner across the street from another Gaudí building, Casa Battló on the fashionable Passeig de Gràcia. That night the elegant art nouveau building was the site of an elaborate series of digital video projections that caused the façade of the structure to appear to come to life! The narrative of the projection involved the animation of the dragon motif that Gaudí integrated into the building’s program, an homage to Barcelona’s patron saint George, who is known for his heroic feat of slaying a dragon. It was remarkable to witness this contemporary artistic transformation of a cultural landmark into an evening’s entertainment for both residents of the dynamic city and tourists alike.
Here is a link to the video of the Casa Battlo animation.
Casa Battlo during the day.
The following day, we departed Barcelona and Catalunya for the north of Spain and our visit to the Basque Country. After a short plane ride we found ourselves in the charming seaside town of San Sebastián. That day, we had (hands down) the best group meal of the trip at an unassuming little pintxos bar in that city’s old quarter. Pintxos are small bites of food, similar to tapas, that are typically served on little wooden skewers that pierce their centers, thereby giving them their common name (pintxo being Basque for spike). Over the course of two hours, we feasted on succulent lamb, incredibly fresh seafood harvested from the region’s cold Atlantic waters, and fragrant cheeses made in the grassy hillsides to the east, washing it all down with bottomless glasses of refreshing local wines.
Pintxos in San Sebastian.
After lunch, the group dispersed, and my husband and I chose to stroll through the city and enjoy the vibrant street life, watching Basque families chatting with their friends and neighbors as their children played in the numerous squares and parks that characterize this close-knit community of about 200,000. That night we learned a great deal more about the region and its remarkable history from a local specialist who told us about the history of the Basque language (one of the oldest and most unique in Europe) and the difficulties that this culturally and linguistically distinct group of people have historically had with their ambitious neighbors. It was especially affecting to learn of the fascist persecution of the Basque when during the 1930s General Franco attempted to dominate them through a program of genocidal bombing. Following the lecture we were joined for dinner by a dozen English-speaking residents of San Sebastián who ranged in age from about 15 to 50. This was a real treat as it allowed members of our group to better understand the cultural differences and similarities between not only the Basque and other Spaniards, but with ourselves as well. Zorragarri! (“Wonderful” in Basque).
While in San Sebastián and the Basque Country, we also visited the Guggenheim Museum in the industrial hub of Bilbao and the small city of Pamplona. Certainly, the works of modern and contemporary art that were on view in Frank Gehry’s masterpiece of museum design were impressive, but I was most charmed by the narrow medieval streets of Pamplona. Best known to Americans as the site of the Festival of San Fermín and the running of the bulls through the streets to the arena, Pamplona is also a stop on the Camino de Santiago, which runs across the north of Spain to the pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela. While strolling the streets here we encountered many pilgrims with their heavy rucksacks and walking sticks, all walking toward their final goal of reaching the resting place of the bones of Saint James. That afternoon we had lunch at the Café Iruña, a favorite restaurant for the author Ernest Hemingway, who first made the city known to Americans in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. With its tin ceiling and brocade wall paper, the Iruña is an incredible time capsule back to the 1920s and the days when bullfighting was a bit nearer to the heart and soul of Spanish culture.
The Guggenheim, Bilbao
City Hall in Pamplona
We departed the Basque Country by bus, stopping briefly in Burgos, where we toured the great Gothic Cathedral that is the resting place of the medieval warrior El Cid and his wife Doña Jimena. At the end of the day we arrived in the Spanish capital of Madrid and checked into the Hotel Wellington, a truly gracious English hotel where many of us were given unbelievably large junior suites! What a treat and what a nice way to close out our travels through Spain: in its largest and most impressive city. Here we see a group of Quakers posing before the famous sculpture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza!
Quakers with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Madrid.
While in Madrid, our tour director Nani served as our local guide and gave us both a highly informative lecture on modern Spain as well as an absolutely stunning tour of the treasures of that country’s most important museum, the Prado. As a professional art historian, I often find typical docent tours in museums to be a little less than stimulating as many of them choose to focus on the biography of the artist or the story that is depicted in the painting. Because this information often mirrors the didactic materials that are found on the wall labels, I don’t usually find that such tours give me much new information. But Nani’s tour was a real stand out in that she really encouraged the members of our group to look closely at the paintings and appreciate the skill and technique of each of the artists. She also placed each of the works in a historical context of their own and in relation to each other, Spanish art history, and Western art history as a whole. It was really marvelous and I learned so much! Brava y muchas gracias, Nani!
The view of Toledo.
The second to last day on the itinerary found us in nearby Toledo, where we visited the Cathedral and the Jewish Quarter. For many members of the group (including myself), who come from Jewish backgrounds, this was one of the most spiritually affecting parts of the trip as we walked narrow medieval streets and toured the old Sinagoga del Transito, where our Sephardic ancestors had not lived and worshipped openly since the Inquisition. Founded in 1356 and used as a temple for less than two hundred years, this remarkable building bears the visual confluences of the region with both Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions as well as a massive Mudéjar paneled ceiling.
As our trip came to a close, many of us began to worry about making a safe return to United States as the international news was now dominated by reports of the gathering force of Hurricane Sandy, which was due to make landfall on Tuesday – the very day on which my own flight was booked to return to Philadelphia! The majority of the group was able to return home on Sunday as planned, but those of us who had made other arrangements were a bit more up in the air (so to speak) with our travel plans. Thankfully, the folks at Penn Alumni Travel and Alumni Holidays International worked around the clock to make sure that everyone who needed to be was rebooked and felt comfortable with their new itineraries. It was really comforting to know that we were not alone in making our new arrangements and that we had professional travel specialists on our side – a very different feeling than working with the interchangeable and often harried airline representatives on one’s own!
A night view of the Alhambra in Granada.
Because my planned flight on Tuesday was no longer an option, I was rebooked for Friday morning. This was a change in plans for which I found no sympathy from friends or colleagues! Being “stuck” in Madrid due to inclement weather is very different on the scale of travel inconveniences than being stranded in Charlotte or some other domestic location! Needless to say, my husband and I took advantage of this extra time in Spain and visited a few other cities that had not been on the tour. Purchasing a special SpainPass rail ticket, we went south to the Andalusia region of Spain, traveling first to the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada, then to the gorgeous city of Seville (known for its vibrant night life and flamenco culture), before ending up on the whitewashed streets of Cordoba, where we toured the Great Mosque and visited the once-forgotten, pre-expulsion synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter. This final encounter with the architectural remnants of Sephardic culture in Spain was emotionally overwhelming for me: being both a cathartic and an inspiring way to close out my adventure in Spain. My mother’s family is of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic origins, but we know far more about our ancestors who came from Central and Eastern Europe than we do those who once lived on the Iberian Peninsula. Seeing these once vibrant spaces with their moorish-inflected Mujédar architecture gave me fresh insight into that past and sparked new interest in trying to recover this important part of who I am and where my people come from.
The interior of the synagogue in Cordoba.
When I was finally able to return to the United States, I spent several days dealing with downed trees on our property and rescheduling missed appointments. Ultimately, however, I was thankful for the extra days in Spain the storm had given me and for another fantastic trip with Penn Alumni Travel!
[Interested in traveling with fellow Penn alumni? Visit our website to learn more about our program and to browse upcoming trips. You can view all of Gwendolyn’s pictures here].