Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The almost annual Pierwigian trip

It's become something of a habit. The group of friends from our Pierwige days travel together. Last year, it was to Valencia and this year, to Andalusia. Spain is so lovely in the Spring.
We were a group of four couples, this year. F and C seem to have dropped out. That worked out perfectly, as it happened, because Y. has a friend who is French but whose mother was from Seville and who has spent his life between Spain and France. He volunteered to organize our trip and be our guide and driver. That made us a group of 9, the limit for a van rental with a normal driver's license.
The Parisians (J-P, R, Paul and I) found one another in the baggage drop-off line. We had lunch together at the airport and flew straight to Seville, where A met us. We just had time to introduce ourselves to A. before the others arrived, having connected in Madrid. It was already a bit past 5 pm and by the time we picked up the van and got into the city to the hotel, it was 6.
First thing to do was to explore Seville. The hotel was not the one originally reserved, but no matter, the Ferdinando iii is an excellent hotel, not far from the Cathedral. We walked and walked and walked. The path from the hotel to the Cathedral took us past the Sephardic Jewish Exhibition Center in what was the Jewish quarter. It was close to closing time and reservations are recommended for this. When we came back to Seville at the end of our trip, we were disappointed that it opened at 11 and that we would not have enough time to visit. This is a must for our next trip to Seville, when we will concentrate on the city. We went through the Murillo Gardens and then headed back to the hotel with a stop for tapas on the way. There we were, sitting at an outside table at a street corner, when Paul cried out N...., quickly followed by P-F. Our nephew and his wife were strolling through the streets of Seville, too! You never know who is going to turn up where you just happen to be! After that pleasant encounter and the photo to prove it, we sat back down, finished our tapas and went back to the hotel for a short rest before heading out for the evening. Remember, we didn't get started until after 6 pm and were now getting ready for the evening.
Audience participation
The evening was a taxi to the Triana for a dinner of more tapas at 10:30 followed, after midnight, just around the corner from the restaurant, la Casa Anselma. I understand the frustration of those who queued up for this and then saw some go in ahead of them. A. had reserved for us. Anselma comes out, a little after midnight, and says something in very rapid Spanish that sounds a bit scolding. She then allows people in, one by one. There were a few individuals ahead of us, then a group, then us. We could hear people complaining. As the small room filled up, we could see that many were frequent visitors and they added a lot of animation during the evening. All were dressed in normal attire, not in flamenco costumes. As the entertainment heated up, they would get up and dance, clap the rhythm, sing along. The bad reviews on Trip Advisor are from people who did not get in, and I can understand their feeling after having waited over an hour in the night chill. For us, it was an extraordinary privilege to be there. A. is well-known, there, and spent time chatting with the musicians and with Anselma. We had excellent seats, in the second row. I couldn't understand the language, but the emotions of the songs came through loud and clear: love, anger, humor...
After breakfast we were treated to a carriage ride through Seville before we piled into the van and headed westward towards the rio Tinto. I think we got off the highway to head towards La Palma del Condado and continued on to the southern edge of a reservoir on a tributary of the rio Tinto to the Ctra. El Berrocal.  If you look at a map (I'm looking at the via-Michelin map) and zoom in on road HU-4103, there's a private road off to the right that goes to the southern edge. That's where the 600-hectare (more than 1482 acres) hacienda where we were having lunch is. Before lunch the owner gave us a jeep-tour of the property where he raises bulls. Of course, not all the cattle is bull-fighting material. There are the cows that are selected for breeding at 2 years. There are the bulls that are just not going to make it. It's very hilly territory. While the other half of our group went on their jeep-tour, A. took us on a walking tour. We were hungry for lunch by the time it was served, after 2. First, there were countless tapas, which were all excellent and which we were encouraged by the hostess to finish up. That would have been fine, if it weren't followed by a paella! We staggered up from the table at about 5 and headed towards El Rocio.

El Rocío is a small town of 1500 permanent residents. During the pilgrimage, just after our visit, there can be up to 2,000,000! The town is on the border of the Doñana National Park. It's built on sand. During the pilgrimage, cars are not allowed, only horses. Every home and shop has hitching posts in front. Our little hotel had stables on the ground floor, under the rooms. This is not an ancient village. It's got a grid layout, with large avenues in a V formation from the closest asphalt road leading to the church, near the river. The streets are wide and, as said earlier, hitching posts everywhere. Close to the church there are big grassy grazing areas surrounded by restaurants and streets with shops full of flamenco dresses and riding suits. We had a carriage ride that took us through the town and a little bit into the park. There were lots of bird watchers out. There were pink flamingos out on the river. On a walk, we saw a bird watching information center. And storks. As we drove out the next day to go through the park and some standard tourism, we saw stork nests on almost every electric pylon along the road. We arrived with a little time to rest and walk around the town a bit before dinner, but in the short rest at the hotel before going out for dinner, Paul and I decided we'd had too much lunch and went to bed before the others got back. They reported, at breakfast, that they had had a very nice dinner of tapas.
We set out towards Matalascañas where we intended to turn west into the park. We got as far as the roundabout when we encountered a bicycle race. The road we wanted to take was blocked. That meant turning around, going past El Rocío and up to the highway to head towards Huelva. The strawberry pickers were out, but here, the  plants are all in greenhouses, so you don't see fields from the road; you see plastic.

We did a bit of standard sightseeing. There's the monastery Santa Maria de la Rabida that hosted Christopher Columbus and encouraged his discovery trips. The picture shows the patch of original fresco of the cloister with the "restored" painted all around it. The tidal wave from the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1775 hit the monastery! There's a room full of interesting boxes of earth collected from the Spanish colonies in America.  Just down the road is Palos de la Frontera, with the replicas of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, a well-done information center on the first expedition. They are really small. The Santa Maria was the admiral ship and it never made it back to Spain. It got grounded in the islands and the crew had be distributed between the two tinier boats (hard to refer to them as ships).
We took the road that we had planned on taking in the morning and stopped at a beach to have lunch -- another great selection of tapas, including fresh sardines. And a stop at a nearby Parador, a luxury hotel overlooking a beach, far below. We went a bit further along and stopped at another beach, but the sandy walk down from the car to the beach was pretty long and steep and when I reached the cliff edge and saw how small the people on the beach still appeared, I stopped and did not go all the way down. It was still quite a hike uphill getting back to the van.
Sunday, we left El Rocío after lunch. Cars and horses were pouring into the town. The road leading in was jammed while our way out was empty. The cars, from Sunday evening, would be banned and parked out in the fields to make way for the horses and carriages for the pilgrimage.

The road ended at El Esparragal, a ranch in American terms: 40 km²! It's a beautiful place. Once a private home, now a luxury hotel that hosts weddings and communions. As we arrived, a wedding party from the ceremony on Saturday was leaving, a lovely couple: he, American from Boston; she, Spanish. They now live in New York. The parents stayed on and were the only other guests at the place with us. A. had negotiated a remarkably low price for us. Walking around the estate, we picked sweet grapefruits and oranges from the trees and had our afternoon snack. There were storks in their nests and more storks flying around. A. told us that up to about 15 years ago it was an active farm; the stables still held horses and there were carriages. He used to take a horse and just go riding around. There are Roman ruins on the property and a chapel, site of an annual pilgrimage from the nearby village. There's a road that divides the property, vertically. There was a small group of cows just outside our window, and orchards along the road, but not much sign of farm activity, much to A.'s regret.

On our way out the next morning, we drove up to the chapel, just for a quick view, and then continued on to a hacienda that raises bulls for bullfighting in the traditional manner. The herd manager is French, from Nimes, a connaîsseur and traditionalist. He's also an author: Fabrice Torrito with a blog. I'm not much of a fan of bull fighting, but I understood his point of view and we saw how the bulls, cows, and calves are handled. It wasn't completely new to us, since we'd had our lessons last year at the féria in Camargue, but more intense. The animals have a much nicer life than those destined for their meat from birth. As a traditionalist, Fabrice does not do artificial insemination; he has large areas set aside for groups of 30 cows and a bull and lets nature take its course. We visited a field with a 3-year-old bull and plenty of cows and calves. The breeding cows are selected at age two and the ones who don't make the grade are sent to the slaughter house. The breeding cows can live a long life until they die a natural death. The cowboy was sent off, after our ride around the grounds, to look for a missing 20-year-old cow that had probably gone off to be alone to die. The bulls have a nice, quiet life, with some fighting among themselves for dominance, but they won't go to a bull fight until they are 5 or 6. 6 is the limit. These are the bulls we visited! Once a bull has seen a cape, a single bullfight, he's done. Even if the president of the corrida graces him, he'll go to the slaughter house afterwards. (Very rarely, a graced bull gets to go home and breed and live out his natural life.) It's not pleasant, but really is it worse than the cattle that go straight to the slaughter house?
Gardens at the Palace
Fabrice sent us into the nearby village of Gerena for lunch. Again, only local people, friendly, warm, and stuffing us with good food. Then, back to Seville for a walk around town, again. Starting from a different hotel, it was a different walk. We tried to reserve to see the Alcazar on Tuesday, but with the size of our group, it wasn't possible until after our departure for the airport. In Seville, that is not a problem. We visited the Casa de Pilatos, which has nothing to do with Pilate other than the builder of the house was fascinated with Roman history. It was built in three distinct styles, starting with a heavy, moor influence, then Italian Renaissance, and another addition, later. It's well worth the wait for the guided tour of the upstairs. The house was still lived in two years ago!
More walking, lunch, and back to the airport. A fine time was had by all and we were already discussing where to go, next.

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