Let me put this all down in writing before I lose the details of my memories to the next location:
I’ve already told you about Toledo, and the more you talk about something so special the less you say. We were outside the city walls by mid-morning and captured goodbye glimpses from the southern side of Rio Tago. We made American friends named Bruce and Stephanie—fifties and kind, the type of couple I’m glad to see representing my nation abroad. Lake Tahoe is their home, and the last of their kids was recently dispatched at a university, meaning its their time to see the world. We swapped itineraries, discovering they overlapped often, and took pictures of each other from Mirador del Valle. Anne and I told our story, and for the first time I didn’t feel like I was defending our choice.
We left Toledo satisfied and ready to move forward, promising ourselves we’d return one day. Enough for now, at least. We charted an indirect path to Córdoba because two people who quit their jobs and left their lives when they should be buying a house and starting a family sure as hell better take the road less traveled. The highway was mostly clear, but when the occasional Spanish driver hugged the back of my car I surrendered the fast lane, unwilling to discover what road rage looked like in a foreign country.
Once we veered onto the highway our GPS hadn’t advised, the traffic grew sparse. The vibrant country awakened that rambling American spirit that resides within all of us, and I liberally explored the velocity limits of our tiny Ibiza sedan. For a moment I tricked myself into thinking our journey had just begun, that we were traversing some new route through Californian desert as we drove eastbound toward everything, long before a Nevada trooper pulled me over for a $300 speeding ticket outside Vegas, longer still before four weeks of telling the same story over and over again in Chicago and Boston suburbia to the family and friends trying to understand what we were doing and what we’d do when we finished.
The deserts of Castile-La Mancha spread out to the east and west from the road that wound south toward a low mountain range. This Spain was brown and dry, not unlike our drought-ridden West in the midst of a hot summer that tests our mettle while we zoom toward the pristine blue waters of the Pacific, but the trees were pine of a variety I’d never seen. In a distant corner of a valley, I watched the high-speed Ave train zip north, likely to Madrid from Granada. Windmills appeared up ahead on a ridge and triggered thoughts of Cervantes even though they’d been placed there centuries after he told his stories. “You’re on this for a while,” my Sancho Panza said.
On the approach, Córdoba failed to impress, certainly not like Toledo. The air, more excited in this microclimate four hours to the south in a new valley surrounded by different mountains, carried a foul stench from the green Rio Guadalquivir. Our backs were drenched with sweat after a long hike with our bags from a safe place across the river where we could leave our car parked outside the city center overnight. We checked into our cozy room in Manuel’s home but didn’t linger, escaping to the streets as soon as our body temperatures could tackle a new activity.
We perused the courtyard gardens Cordovans proudly share with the public as we meandered through the gnarled yellow calles of the ancient city. Heating up again, we stopped for icy blonde beers that tasted better than any I’ve ever drank because they were so needed. Dos más, por favor, then more walking, more testaments to great civilizations of the past: a Roman bridge, Muslim walls, tall stone churches built on the site of once-great mosques out of a conqueror’s spite. The sun went down—gracias al Dios—and we ate a poor dinner; anything from a pig sounds delicious, but spare yourself the chewy peculiarities of the ear. Then more walking and a splendid evening getting lost, stumbling upon empty nooks and hectic plazas of the former Muslim capital.
An early start when morning came and the temperature resumed its climb. We rushed to La Mezquita, marveled at its unique splendor, and ventured up the road to explore the Alcazar and its torture cells during the Inquisition. We checked out of our one-night home, not before Manuel led a prideful tour of the house his family has lived in for more than one hundred years on the property it has claimed for three centuries. He spoke slowly to make sure Anne didn’t miss a word, and even I could partly follow along. He was expressive with his hands, kind with his eyes, and in love with the home he’d known his entire life.
Back to the road, to another route charted to take our time before our third Spanish destination. Greener this day. Olive trees everywhere, rolling in perfect rows along the Andalusian hills and covering the sun-baked mountainsides. Gorgeous country, another view beyond my ability with words like Toledo had been. I began to wonder how much longer I could sustain such sensory overload, how many more ways I could try to describe to people back home the beautiful things we’re seeing and the transformative feelings I’m managing. All the destinations we had planned and fixed to such a distant future were falling so quickly into our past, and I began to wonder how much I was carrying away from each place. I began to wonder how much of it all I will remember once this ends, if I’ll forget about this landscape when I’m in Granada, if I’ll forget about Granada when I reach Costa del Sol. Capture it all, I told myself sternly. It’s flying past at such a speed and you need to recognize and remember all there is.
Zuheros up ahead. A stone castle on a cliffside protected a white village overlooking a valley. We stopped for pictures from every conceivable vantage but needed to move on before we’d had our fill. Back to the highway, to the country, to the olive trees that seemed too numerous to cultivate.
Our car sped toward Granada, our minds and hearts ablaze with glimpses of the new and the astounding, the ancient and the inspiring. The weak engine of the Ibiza labored as it cut through more mountains—the tallest we’d conquered yet—until the earth finally flattened ahead of us: Granada at last on the horizon, a city more than our previous Spanish breaks.
A terrible apartment, small and dirty that overlooked a crazy street that felt unsafe. We only relaxed once we reluctantly stepped outside and replaced our anxiety with heat delirium. Arriving late in the evening, we didn’t have much time for anything beyond dinner, and we enjoyed it at a true tapas bar where they bring you a new dish for every drink ordered. One more led to three more. Delicious food from top to bottom. At some point we ate shark and I was too drunk to think twice about it, too content from the local vino tinto calming my initial nerves about the city. We slept off the wine on a mattress that jammed a metal bar into my back or my neck no matter how I contorted my long body that has proven to be too large for European measurements.
Hungover and awake before the sunrise, we struck out when we climbed to Alhambra to purchase tickets on our only potential day to visit because we’d neglected to purchase in advance and a long queue had been established before our arrival. Stumbled back down the mountain and grabbed a sandwich that hit the spot, ate it while we walked back to the apartment to hide from the city and the sun while our hangovers faded. Siesta wasted hours of our day until we sucked it up and hiked steps and roads to explore the Albaicín neighborhood in the early evening. Came across a street festival on a busy plaza, dialed up two cold cervezas to bring us back to life. Another round reinforced us even more. We halted outside every bustling local cafe we passed but failed to join the festive Saturday atmosphere of locals. We walked toward the gypsy caves and heard cheers of “Viva Andalusia! Viva España!” ringing out from somewhere in the hills.
More exploration as we returned to the apartment indirectly, and trends of these Iberian cities and villages began to emerge: the stray dogs and cats riddling the streets and alleys; the friendly prices to rescue our budget after the shellacking it took in Paris; the holy Christian places deliberately placed atop former homes of Islamic worship; that we are half the age of most of our fellow tourists sampling these sites and conquering the hills we must climb to get there; the tapas that are enough to satisfy you in the moment but leave you wanting more when you’ve already proceeded to the next round.
We ate dinner at the same place as our first night in town, with beer accompanying our tapas this time instead of wine. We were gone in the morning before the sun peeked above the range and before the hectic street our apartment overlooked could come alive and make the luggage pickup difficult. Enough light covered the city for us to wave dispassionately at Granada, unlikely to repeat our visit any time soon.
The Ibiza floated through mountain fog reminiscent of the Big Sur coast and reached the sea well before noon. Turned west along the coast and stopped in the town of Nerja. Explored some caves where ancient man once lived before we settled on a beach with coarse rocky sand that exfoliated our feet. Too many speedos to count and a few topless women that didn’t second guess their choice. Read a bit. Napped to make up for what we lost in our Granada pit.
I left my wife lightly snoring on her towel and stepped toward the Mediterranean for the first time. The soft earth swallowed my toes and heels on each step into the water. The gentle waves lightly whacked my thighs but didn’t pressure me to take the plunge any sooner than I wished. The water twinkled. It was cold and few people on the beach accepted its refreshing alternative to the temperature. I looked both ways up and down the rocky coastline and saw California because the world is a reflection of what we already know and are able to grasp. Remember this, I commanded myself, before falling forward and submerging.
Back on the highway, we put the sea on our left. Unimpressive beach towns led the way. “Reminds me of Florida,” my Dulcinea remarked. Skipped Malaga—nothing we really wanted to see there anyway. A cozy studio in Marbella. Another kind host. Another day on the beach after a peaceful night of sleep in our separate twin beds. A homemade salad for dinner—a faint glimmer of a morsel of being home. Wine on the patio. A movie while we laid in our beds. Another strong night of sleep after a long ordeal killing a cucaracha that scampered out of the shower curtains.
Took our time the next morning because we’d grown to value a clean space with a big shower. Goodbye to the sea, for now, as we climbed north into the coastal range which grew greener as we climbed. White villages peppered the mountainsides, but then Ronda appeared, an emperor among petty kings. Busts of Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway in the park. A bridge I can’t imagine being built by mortal men witnessed from the bottom of the gorge it straddles. Another Muslim neighborhood preserved by its conquerors. Then goodbye again, too soon once more.
A steady climb up the next mountains. Fewer cars, occasional sheep wandering down the shoulder that looked more surprised to see us than we were to see them. Less verdant lands the further we drove from the sea. A fake lake after we rounded a bend, turquoise and shaped like a dragon.
Zahara de las Sierras, another white village wedged between two hills, another Moorish castle sitting on top of it, another captured treasure of the Reconquista. Fewer tourists walked the streets, thankfully. A comfortable room with an ideal terrace to gaze upon the town, to look up at the castle and admire the hike we made to its parapets immediately after our descent. A pristine sunset. A blissful night. A morning that came too quickly. A goodbye we weren’t ready to say.
On the mountain road again, we pushed northwest. More white villages, some we wished to see but hadn’t the time to spare. A gentle descent eased the elevation sickness that greeted me in the morning. We stopped in Jerez but jumped back in the car after a brief and lackluster walk through the downtown, instead drove west toward the Atlantic coast to Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Seafood beside the water, fresh from the boats we saw unloading less than a hundred meters away on the beach. Delicious dry manzanilla sherry, as should be enjoyed on a hot day in sherry country. A long walk back to the car underneath the blazing sun, necessary to sweat out some alcohol before the rest of the drive.
The sun had little life left in it when we reached Sevilla, the last stop on our tour through Spain’s breathtaking south. Crossed the bridge from our apartment in Triana once nightfall cooled things off and we briefly sampled the city center. Dinner at La Azotea, our best yet: several copas de vino for less than three euros, a crispy fried triangular-something filled with shrimp and cheese, a hamburguesa that prompted thoughts of all the foods I miss from the States, all the things I haven’t done or eaten in feels-like-forever and won’t do or eat again for who-knows-how-long.
A restless night of sleep in a warm apartment that wouldn’t cool down no matter how vigorously the air conditioner chugged. Avoided the heat during the day and grew adventurous again at night. Returned to La Azotea because we had new dishes to try. A tour on day three—history and Real Alcazar and tapas and wine. A homegrown guide with immense passion for Sevilla, uttering my city over and over. I decided to love it as well.
Night falls—our last—and we ventured to a new neighborhood to meet up with American expats who tell us why they came and why they stayed and why they might never leave. I decided I could do the same as well. A flamenco show in a bar we’d call a dive back home. A singer who belted out her verses with such fervor it seemed to bring her pain, clutching her gut to persevere because we couldn’t be spared a breath of her spirit. The man violently strumming the guitar watched her closely, sweat glistening on his tanned forehead. Their eyes met and they spoke through winces and blinks, never losing each other along the way.
The dancer appeared, the bxailaora with a story to tell through her body and movement and the emotion that flashed across her face in waves every moment she stomped around the stage. Intensity. Discipline. Something communicated from her heart to mine that I couldn’t pinpoint but received nevertheless.
Over too soon, like the rest of it. In bed too late for an early morning flight to Barcelona. A red sun rose over Sevilla’s runways as a taxi delivered us to our terminal. Another beginning. Another place to absorb. Another experience to sense and remember if we have any room left in our souls to store it.
Eleven days from touch-down in Madrid until wheels up in Sevilla. All of it seen too fast. All of it felt too shallowly. A sample of something worth sinking into for a lifetime, collapsed into a week and a half. Thirteen-hundred kilometers of Spanish highway and coursing mountain roads, and somewhere along all that sun-soaked asphalt this adventure stopped feeling like a standard vacation or a temporary break from my normal life, something I wouldn’t simply end soon and return to the office, relaxed and refreshed and sharing stories with interested colleagues as I settled back into the swing of things.
All Anne and I have now is this golden road and all its promises and all its secrets glowing on the horizon, the places along the way of which we see too little in some cases or just enough in others but quench something inside of us regardless simply by being there, something that we locked up and hid away from the rest of the world while we went about the mundane for so long that we nearly lost sight of how big and beautiful and golden this world can be.