Eating Iberia

A junket whore survives (and transcribes) the pleasures and punishments of anti-travel in Spain and Portugal.

Published October 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There is travel and there is anti-travel. I was hoping this trip -- a press junket -- would fall into the first category, but it didn't. I should've known. I was in a raggedy-ass state of mind before it even began, though I'll spare you the details of that meltdown until the statute of limitations expires. In any case, such times are perfect (aren't they?) to embark on all-enveloping sojourns that monopolize your senses and leave you no time to stew. Whether this little justification is true or not, off I went to Spain and Portugal -- Iberia -- to eat, drink, eat, breath in the atmosphere, eat and put everything else out of mind. And eat.

Press trips like this one are peculiar odysseys at best -- weird, strained honeymoons that typically take place after a quickie three-way marriage between the travel vendor (hotel, cruise line, railroad, state or country tourist board or some combination thereof), the travel vendor's public relations agency and the travel press person who may be freelance or on the staff of a magazine, newspaper or broadcast outlet, but who is invariably a shameless freeloader.

The seduction is a tough one to resist. A writer, for example, is offered an all-expense-paid trip to an exotic location, frequently on the other side of the earth, where the rumpled scribe is feted as minor royalty: wined, dined and given the sort of treatment he could never otherwise afford -- such as first-class train travel, elegant hotels and meals that would make the fabled offerings at the tables of the Sun King seem like turkey pot pie with Pepsi. What's more, the hysterical level of envy these trips ignite in friends makes taking them an imperative.

Did I mention the food? In the course of doing everything humanly possible to encourage the junket whore to write glowingly about wherever the trip has landed them, the hosts lay on extravagant food and drink as if they were, indeed, entertaining Louis XIV and company instead of a small mob of so-called "travel writers." In Spain, where we start this non-trip, it's not much of a task because the food -- chicken stuffed with olives, seafood paella with prawns the size of bananas, squid stuffed with minced ham and served in a tar-black soup, fig and anchovy salad, eggs scrambled with trout and raisins and partridge in cinnamon chocolate sauce -- is already some of the best on the planet.

I'm in Madrid only hours before I'm led down a cobblestone street to a tapas bar where I eat a concise stew of fava beans and clams in the shell and, later, bonito in a sauce of green peppers and tomatoes and later still, finely shredded ham stirred into fried green beans. The red wine is astonishingly good. Not a fat wine, a slender wine, but easy going down, easy to love. Speaking of love, Iberia is Arcadia for olive lovers -- and don't even get me started on the bread.

Our mini-feast energizes me and cancels the jet lag. It's a good thing because soon after I'm standing in Spain's great prairie of art, the Prado, before Goya's "Saturn Eating His Children," and food is the last thing on my mind. Ay, Goya! By the time he was 75 and stone deaf, he'd watched his wife and many of his children die and still wouldn't lay down the brushes. If he didn't earn the right to a Black Period, no one could -- yet he painted straight through it. And his work from that time is as it should be: all but unbearable and for all the right reasons.

The Prado holds one of Europe's greatest collections of art. If you have any interest whatsoever in the work of geniuses, the right way to take it in is to stay nearby and absorb the Prado's treasures in small doses over a period of several days. Short of that, a few hours will let you hit most of the high points and perhaps even allow you to sit for a moment and ponder how it is that a bit of tinted oil brushed on linen can transmit over centuries with a force far greater than, say, Pearl Jam being amplified across a coliseum. Unfortunately, typical of this trip, we blow through the Prado in 45 minutes or so -- just enough time to be teased by Radio Velazquez, which always plays at full volume.

But then time-compression and contemplation-starvation are the givens of anti-travel and have everything to do with the perverse, disconnected reports it generates. True, you're taken to extraordinary places, yet you're rarely in one of them long enough to have an actual experience. Instead, you come away with a fractured sense of having been someplace without any linear idea of what that place is; it's not travel, it's traveloid. Consequently, in order to hack out a "travel story" based on such frenzied movement, even writers of profound integrity may cobble together bits and pieces of reality, imagination, research, over-the-shoulder theft of other, more studious writers' notes and extrasensory perception to deliver an article that provides a more or less credible, seemingly coherent report of a journey, even though the trip has more closely resembled a drag race with meal service. Writers of not-so-profound integrity just lie their asses off (their pieces are by far the most fun to read).

But then that's the sport of it. Writing about anti-travel is like reviewing books you haven't read. Hell, writing a review of a book you've read is a cakewalk, but reviewing one you haven't read? That separates the mammoths from the munchkins. As for little concerns like accuracy, if you believe that the truth is more likely to emerge from fiction than nonfiction, then why burden yourself with compiling facts? Travel's rigorous enough.

The AVE ("ah-vay": Alta Velocidad Espanola) bullet train -- top speed 180 mph -- makes the run from Madrid to Seville in a little under two-and-a-half hours complete with Humphrey Bogart in "The Big Sleep" playing on the video system. As Bogie and Bacall heat things up, we fly through olive orchards bordered by spindly poplars, the low yellow hills made rosy by the falling sun strained through a mesh of clouds. (No wonder this country produced so many master painters. The liquidity of the light and the muted colors of the endless landscape insist on a response. The nothingness here has more to it than the nothingness in other places; Iberia's sky makes the ceiling over Montana seem stingy.)

Long before it was an annoying song and dance, La Macarena was a neighborhood in Seville. The Basilica here is home to a painted wood effigy of Mother Mary: La Virgen de la Macarena. She stands high above the altar wrapped in a volcano of gold and lace and velvet and cries her eyes out all day long, every day. You can tell because you can see the tiny crystal teardrops running down her perfect cheeks. And if you can't see them, there's a stairway behind the altar that will take you to an overlook where you can. A guidebook explains that the "feminine expression of her face evokes an innermost feeling of hope," though she also bears an uncanny resemblance to Leslie Gore invoking the chorus of "It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want To."

After my audience with the Virgin, I wander into the small museum attached to the chapel. It looks like the King's closet at Graceland. There's all manner of golden raiment, thrones, elaborate cloaks, rings, an extravagant gilt platform on which the Virgin is carried through the streets during Holy Week, and assorted other Madonna accouterments. The only non-Virgin garments in the place are a half-dozen dusty, worn examples of "bullfighter garb" nestled between two cases of 6-foot-tall engraved silver "flambeau holders" -- Catholic tiki torches. One of the matador suits, a coral pink number, slathered with brocade, belonged to Palomo Linares; another, in an understated dark blue and gold, was once worn by the legendary Manolete.

Bullfighting invariably (and uncomfortably) comes up in conversations with Spanish friends. They feel obligated to explain it, its rationale, its significance in the culture -- and what a great opportunity it is for the bull. "It is the greatest moment of the bull's life, you see," one woman assures me over dinner in Seville. We've just finished eating a salad of green tomatoes, shredded carrot and anchovies. As I listen, I help myself to batter-fried calamari and sardines -- pescamto fritos. "The bulls are very well cared for and they have a good life," she continues, passing me a plate of eggs scrambled with potatoes, slivered ham and scallions. "Then in the ring the bull can display its nobility and its bravery. Fighting the bull, you must understand, is really done out of love." She tips her glass toward mine to toast the bulls. I want to explain to her that we don't call that love where I come from, but I'm her guest and, besides, the most perfect filets of venison have just arrived, along with a small plate of smoked trout and game bird.

There might have been some fireworks, however, if she'd been there when I was waiting for the train to depart Madrid. As I watched a bullfight on the television in the AVE lounge, my fellow viewers were three bored, road-weary English businessmen sipping manzanilla sherry and scanning the salmon-color pages of the Financial Times. Occasionally they glanced at the tube. The youngest was trying to debate his colleagues on the subject of bullfighting, but the more he raved, the more intensely they stared into their newspapers. And the more I concentrated on scribbling my notes and not making eye contact with him.

"It's indefensible, it's grotesque, it's a throwback to the gladiator spectacles," the young businessman said to anyone in earshot. The bull on TV had a thick saddle of blood spreading over its shoulders. It was visibly weakening and acting disoriented. It was having the time of its life.

"Basically," he said, leaning toward one of his friends who was closely studying an ad for Sterling automobiles, "basically, it's just ritualized animal torture with a religious undertone. You want to be honest about it, get the Pope out there, dressed in gold brocade Capris, Capezio slippers, white tights and a jeweled Coco Chanel jacket. Let him torment the poor beast. You know what I mean?" His associates were memorizing the stock quotes while slowly scooting to the opposite end of the couch.

I don't report the train station incident to my dinner companion in Seville. Instead, in an attempt to put her at ease, I mention my complicity in the recent death of a young pig in Segovia. I didn't kill the wee suckling, mind you, but I didn't protest when it was delivered to my table head first, legs akimbo and well roasted. Its sweet baby gaze was unnerving, while its deep tan made it look like it had recently returned from holiday on the Costa del Sol. But no: It had just come from the kitchen. "Three weeks of mother's milk, three hours in the oven and three hours in your tummy," is how the chef cheerfully put it. Then he held a dinner plate in both hands, used it to chop the succulent baby into a dozen pieces (to demonstrate its tenderness) and threw the plate to the floor where it smashed to bits. At which point the vegetarians ran from the table shrieking and I took an extra large serving. (By the time I finish that account, my Seville hostess has forgotten about bullfighting and so have I.) As my favorite among our group observed at one pork-laden meal: "Ya know, a whole lot of piggies go to market in this country."

What I like about anti-travel -- besides the fact that it's free and I wouldn't have gotten away from home in recent years nearly so frequently without it (not to mention the quality snacks) -- is that it's much like being stoned. After the exhaustion sets in, a dream state overtakes the anti-traveler, and the wine and liquor and being herded about by cheerful keepers and confronted with one fascinating sight after another in rapid succession makes the whole experience start to feel hallucinatory. Soon the writers cease being journalists (assuming they ever were) and liquefy into investigative surrealists. Everything becomes funny or terribly deep or grim or simply confusing. The entire expedition turns into a trip that's like a trip: very trippy, but not what you could call travel.

Seville looks like an old cigar box label tonight, one of those opulent color lithographs with a golden border. The light from the fat moon and peach-toned streetlamps prettifies whatever it falls on. We are walking down Paseo Colon next to the Guadalquivir River and so is the rest of Seville. We're headed for El Arenal, a "tablao flamenco" club a few blocks from the Plaza de Toro. It's nearly midnight, but the streets and squares are more crowded than at midday. People of every age walk talk sit kiss laugh smoke -- inhaling each other's company and breathing out the vital stuff that has kept Spain's street life flourishing for centuries.

As we stroll past nightclubs and apartment buildings, someone mentions that the former tobacco factory, which is now part of Seville University, is where Carmen worked in Bizet's opera. "In the old days it was considered erotic to make the cigars, you see, because the women rolled them on their inner thighs." Recent U.S. history notwithstanding, this was not as salacious as it sounds. Fantasizing horndogs might like to dream of torrid Spanish spitfires in low-cut blouses toiling in hot cigar factories while struggling to keep their raging libidos satiated, but the truth is the women simply needed a good way to affix the labels to the cigars and moistening their handiwork on a perspiring thigh was the best way to get the little paper rings to adhere.

But cigars are not the issue at El Arenal tonight, nor is food, and though sex is in the air, it's not the only thing. Flamenco is high voltage -- lusty, funny, melancholy, playful, fierce and furious. Its sources can be traced to Byzantine liturgical music predating the 11th century, but the influence of Moorish and gypsy culture, and their oppression by the Catholic monarchy, made it what it is. "The Inquisition, the persecution and flight, the blood, violence, fear and superstition, wailing and joy, rebelliousness and oppression, are the roots of this art," Garcma Lorca wrote. Yet you needn't know any of that for flamenco to have its way with you. If you can understand a wicked black dress and lace-up red leather heels in flammable conversation with two racing guitars, you know all you need to.

By the fourth dance and my third glass of wine, the spell starts to take hold. On stage the guitarist watches the dancer's red heels cackle like castanets, while her black stare burns a hole in the wall behind my head. It's as if she's engaged in some kind of internal wrestling match. Every now and then she breaks trance, leaps outside of herself, laughs at the battle of spirits she's got going, slaps her palms to her chest, then jumps back into the inferno. It is bittersweet, heart-rending, ass-wriggling, feverish movement made beautiful by the dancer's split-second transitions from coarse to tender and back again and back again and back again. "I love living, I love life, I love love," she sings. And love, like sex, like flamenco for that matter, can take you to a place where everything else seems unimportant.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Speaking of which, I'm a sucker for octopus, which is what I start with a few nights later at dinner in Lisbon. The chopped pig's ears mixed with olives and parsley and dressed with a dash of lemon and olive oil is also fine. But the octopus is out of this world. In addition to the pig ears and octopus, there are separate dishes of black-eyed peas and lima beans, also served cold with parsley, olive oil and lemon. All are quite welcome because it's a paralyzingly hot, humid night. There's a salad of thin strips of smoked salmon, marinated mushrooms, corn and endive. Then comes the cod -- bacalhau -- grilled with shredded garlic and green olives on top. And to keep it company, fried spinach sautied with bread crumbs. The wine -- Sogrape Reserva Douro Tinto, 1995 -- bravely stands up to the octopus and pig ears, and gallops alongside as the bacalhau disappears into the sunset at the back of my throat.

The conversation has reached that formless stage; we've been delivered to the threshold of delirium by fatigue, intoxication and more experiences than we can absorb. It's that dream state I mentioned, or some kind of all-you-can-eat therapy session. Great things are said that none of us will remember, feelings are flung, disconnected ideas bounce around, images flutter into the brain and out again, flatware gets dropped and punch lines forgotten.

"One good thing about the approach of the new millennium," the woman across from me free-associates, while passing exquisite deep-fried meat croquettes, "is that they're renovating the entire world for the occasion. Everything is being restored. Earth's going to be really nice when they get it finished."

It's true. Much of the world -- especially monuments, castles and cathedrals -- is wrapped in plastic and scaffolding right now, but come Y2K all shall be revealed in its fresh, gleaming glory. "So what if the computers don't work?" she says.

A man three tables away is emphasizing his point by using a wine bottle like a gavel. "Velazquez rocks!" he says excitedly to his companions. "He rocks!" (I'm not sure what he means but it sounds right). "You can tell by the way he looks at you," the fellow continues. "Even after all this time!"

And it has been a long time. Velazquez, who painted extraordinary realist portraits of Philip the IV and his Court, turned four centuries old on June 6 of this year. Our bellowing friend is right about a face-to-face meeting with Velazquez being a revelatory experience. Just as the stare of that flamenco dancer singes brick, the gaze of Spain's greatest painter welds your heart to his -- 400 years gone.

Velazquez's gift for rendering space as matter and people as four-dimensional surpassed the portrait conventions of his day (to put it mildly). He painted the air and everything that moved through it, visible or invisible. His paintings, to use Pound's words, are news that stays news -- novelistic, almost cinematic evocations of his subjects' emotional world. The most affecting is the giant "Las Meninas" ("The Maids of Honor," a mesmerizing portrait of the Princess Margarita with her maids), in which the painter includes himself, looking at the viewer from the canvas, and the king and queen, Philip IV and Mariana of Austria, reflected in a mirror. Standing before that painting in the Prado is where every journey through Iberia should begin.

And standing on the highest peak of the Serra de Sintra at Pena Palace is as peculiar and good a place for it to end as one could hope for.

The forested mountain oasis of Sintra is a short train ride from Lisbon's Rossio Station. Once the summer retreat of royalty and the rich, and declared a "glorious Eden" by Lord Byron, British writer Paul Hyland calls Sintra "a laboratory of Portuguese psychopathology," then adds, "The Palace of Pena really was a maggot in the brain of a Bavarian king." Given those endorsements, who could stay away?

The ride from Lisbon weaves through miles of dreary megalithic apartment buildings, but there are entertaining wall decorations along the way. Plastered everywhere are posters for Marilyn Manson's "Mechanical Animals," and advertisements for his Lisbon concert, accompanied by universal graffiti such as "Bad Nigga," "Heavy Grass," "Acid Smoke a Joint -- Flash," "Keep it Real" and the unsettling declaration that "It's Bombing Time Fuck Buffers!"

Hyland turns out to be right about Pena Palace: It's proof that expensive exercises in architectural balminess weren't invented this century, nor are they restricted to Beverly Hills and Malibu. Still, what the palace lacks in visual coherence and aesthetic reason, it more than makes up for with its brave allegiance to the absurd. This devotion reaches its zenith with the stone crocodiles crawling out of the corners of the tower over the entrance. The fool with money was Ferdinand of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, a cousin of Prince Albert and second husband of the Portuguese Queen Maria da Glsria. By all indications Ferdinand was a fuck buffer and a half (and I mean that it in the best possible way).

While Pena Palace looks like a Mad Ludwig castoff that belongs in Anaheim, the view is spectacular (to the east you can easily make out central Lisbon and to the west, the Atlantic Ocean) and the structure itself has stiff competition in the goofiness sweepstakes from the spooky Regaleira Palace down the hill, and another, Monserrate, an Arabic conglomeration of arches and cupolas and acres of tilework. However, Monserrate's rambling botanical gardens are heavenly and worth getting lost in.

There are a half dozen or so other eccentric palaces and mansions on the slopes of Sintra, along with a reconstructed Moorish castle, a monastery and several churches. The National Palace (Pago Real), located in the small, touristy village, sets the tone with its two prodigious bowling pin-shaped chimneys. Once you get a load of those, it's hard to take much else in the place seriously, which is just one of several good reasons to visit Sintra. Another is that you may come across the same duo I did: a one-eyed painter selling small, dreadful canvasses of the Moorish Castle for 3500 escudos (how about 35 escudos, Jack?) and a cello player in a warm-up suit repeatedly playing the opening bars to "Smoke on the Water."

I doze on the return train to Lisbon, opening my eyes at one point to see two black dogs rolling in a mass of purple morning glories on the embankment next to the tracks. I wish I was down there with them. Later, back in the city, I eat my last bites of Iberia during another long, well-lubricated meal. There are five different kinds of olives to start, along with chorizo, blood sausage and paper-thin slices of strong cheese, a triangular puff pastry filled with marinated mushrooms, octopus in a light red sauce over rice, grouper with a cheese-garlic sauce, wine, melon, kiwi -- and don't even get me started on the bread.

Then it's to bed, because first thing tomorrow the forklifts will be here to ease us onto the groaning flatbed trucks that will deliver us to the great air ships, onto which we will be hefted in massive cargo nets like oxen being loaded on steamboats. We'll then fly across the Atlantic and home, where we'll arrive just in time for dinner.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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