May 18, 2005
FERIA! FERIA! - Letter from Spain
As we came off the plane in Sevilla, the man in front of us kept singing out in a loud, bass voice “Feria! Feria!” The Feria de Abril was on in Seville and the visitors were pouring in. Catherine and I didn’t really know much about this Feria event, other than what we had read on the Internet, but our friend said the crowds were impossible and the city was a mess. So we went straight to Europcar, got a Nissan and high-tailed it out of Seville.
Our first stop was Carmona, a small town about a half hour east. We spent the night at a renovated hacienda with orange groves and cats lying in the sun. The guide books call Carmona “classy” and as we walked around that evening I tried to figure out why. Was it cleaner or fancier or more elegant in some way? Ritzier stores? Better public art? As this was my first town in Spain I really had no basis for comparison.
I did notice however that everyone dressed in brown. Brown jackets, brown hats, brown sweaters, brown skirts, brown vests, brown pants and brown shoes. And all colors of brown from tan to chocolate, camel to tawny. It was a definite thing. (As luck would have it, I had on my brown slacks.) But I could not see how just this brown agreement would earn the “classy” title for Carmona. So I simply took their word for it and now pass it on to you: Carmona is classy, perhaps even tasteful and refined. And a nice place to walk around on a spring evening. Oh yeah, bring your brown outfit.
The next day we headed for Cordoba and the 1200 year-old Mezquita (mosque) with a Renaissance cathedral built within its center. Driving down the A4 highway we saw our first giant bull sculpture, actually a flat wooden cutout standing on top of a hill. We were to see this bull billboard on many another hill throughout our trip. Seen from miles away, it sets a powerful and primitive tone - almost religious in a way. The Great Bull watching over us? According to, this icon came from an advertising campaign:
The Bull can be seen looming on the hillsides in Spain. Once upon a time (1980's) they were billboards for Soberano Cognac. However, when Spain outlawed billboards on national roads in the early 1990's, the bulls were to be taken down. The Spaniards protested, as the lone bull towering along the roadside had become a national symbol. After much toiling, the bulls were painted black and left to guard the hillside.
We got to Cordoba and drove easily to our hotel; of course, Catherine is the world’s best driver. The Los Omeyas Hotel was just around the corner from the Mezquita and the whole of the Juderia (the medieval Jewish quarter) was right at our fingertips. We checked in and went to look for lunch. The area was a warren of cobblestone alleyways, little pocket plazas and tall, white buildings with spindly balconies and pots of red geraniums nailed into their walls. It was a gloriously beautiful day and I was happy to be in Spain. Gypsies read palms outside the Mezquita while inside its courtyard the orange trees were in full bloom and their scent filled the air.
We found a patio restaurant and stared at the menu. To tell the truth, our culinary experiences in Spain were difficult. In fact, we grumbled the whole way. I guess we have been spoiled by the French. The Spanish food was drenched in olive oil and seemed to lack seasoning – like salt and pepper. The gazpacho was watery and the bread bland. We even craved salt for our salted cod.
Then there were the hanging smoked jambons. They looked so appetizing up there on the ceiling. But the meat was too raw for me – obviously an acquired taste. I read that some of these pigs are fed solely on acorns and their meat is the price of gold.
One evening at a rather fancy restaurant, I went into hysterics as a giant igloo of crusty salt was wheeled out ceremoniously to our neighboring diner. The waiter began hacking away at it with a fork. Chunks of baked salt were flying all over; pieces broke off with a thunk. I was laughing uncontrollably. Finally the fish inside of this igloo mound was uncovered, de-boned and served. It was so tiny compared to all the work to get at it.
But such food finicky-ness is unattractive. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit it. So Catherine and I tried this and that and longed for our chevre chaud salads in Paris.
While in Cordoba we went to see Flamenco and we spent a grand time having drinks in the Plaza de Tendillas. (Actually, a lot of café time is one of my Rules for a Successful Traveler.) We bought jackets, brown of course, at a men’s store and loved the surreal paintings of Julio Romero Torres, Cordoba’s favorite son.
In the morning before leaving we watched the local workers stop at our hotel bar for a quick café con leche, always in a glass, and a few “how-are-you’s” before starting their day. And I wondered what the gypsies would have seen in my palm.
We loaded up the car and the wind blew us south. We stopped for a night in Antequera, a hill top town that boasts pre-historic burial mounds, roman temples, Moorish fortresses and baroque cathedrals. A lot of history for a little town. Catherine napped and I climbed the stairs to the top of the mountain. I gazed out over the huge valley and watched two dogs playing. There was a roughness in Antequera that could be felt in the people and the landscape. I guess all that history leaves some jagged edges. Then too, this was “bandito” territory. The next morning we had churros – fried batter shaped like pretzels – and two café con leches at the little diner across from our hotel and headed for the coast.
In general, Catherine and I have been trying to be a bit more freewheeling in our travels, so we purposefully did not book hotels for the next few days. We were either going to the white towns in the hills around Ronda or we were going to explore the Costa del Sol. The one certainty was that we would stop in Malaga, the port town where Picasso was born, and see the new MPM (Museo Picasso Malaga).
Well Malaga won our hearts. The air tasted tangy and the seagulls cut across the brilliant, blue skies. Palms and hyacinth, cypress and magnolia filled the public spaces. Majestic turn of the century buildings in faded pinks and whites and creams lined the grand boulevards. It reminded me of the French Riviera, only Spanish.
We got a room at the Hotel Larios in the Plaza de la Constitution and watched the people walking down the Calle Marques de Larios out of our fourth floor window.
Most of Malaga’s historic section has been pedestrianized. Huge boulevards, quiet arcades and hidden alleys - all paved in marble – all walking streets. No sidewalks or gutters; just drains in the middle for runoff. Cleaning the streets seems to be a full-time activity. Catherine and I saw many a work crew scraping grime from the marble with long handle-held scraping tools. Inch by inch, these workers were restoring the streets to their gleaming beauty. The work wasn’t really that hard, although it sounds it, as most of the time they were leaning on their scraping tools and talking.
We went to the Picasso museum and saw rooms of work including two salons dedicated to the bull and bullfighting. A veritable army of employees, all young, all clad in black, watched our every move. Picasso is big in Malaga and this museum is state of the art.
I followed that up with a long walk down to the CAC Malaga (Contemporary Art Center) for the Alex Katz exhibit. Everywhere I went I saw construction going on. Malaga is beautifying itself in an attempt to capture some of the thousands of tourists pouring into the Costa del Sol playground.
I don’t know why but I loved Malaga. Even sitting here in Paris and writing about it, I have a smile on my face. I guess it is the Mediterranean landscape that I respond to – so lush and bright. There was a relaxed feel to the city and a sense of grandeur just below the surface. We walked the gardens of the Alcazaba, the Moorish palace overlooking the city, and gazed at the Mediterranean Sea.
In Malaga Catherine and I redoubled our efforts to meld with the Spanish schedule for eating and strolling. Despite our best intentions we always seemed to miss the boat. We would be too hungry to wait for lunch and too late for pre-dinner café and treats. We would have dinner instead of tapas and then be too full for post-dinner ice cream. We would be too tired for the evening stroll and go to bed too early. Then in the morning we would be up before café time and it would start all over.
Day after day we made pronouncements like “Tomorrow we will get out in time for the early evening stroll,” or “Tapas at 8pm is the way to go.” We read books and took careful notes but somehow we never quite found the Andalucia rhythm. It seems so obvious – breakfast around 9, big lunch at 2, café and treat in the afternoon, tapas and drinks for evening. We just couldn’t do it.
After Malaga we decided to drive along the Costa del Sol and the Costa de la Luz and go to Cadiz. The day was fine and there were breathtaking views of the Mediterranean and Africa across the way. We remarked on how often we had been standing on one continent and looking at another. It was amazing. After a couple hours of driving, we came to Gibraltar and pulled off the freeway. It took twenty minutes to get through Customs and then we were in England!
We walked the town which was awash with sunburned tourists, had a soggy lunch and couldn’t get ourselves to go up on the Rock. But we saw it and got to go to an English bookstore on the main drag. Catherine bought Pompeii, to prepare for our next trip.
Back in the car we drove from “Gib” to Cadiz. It was nothing short of spectacular. Practically untouched, there stretched miles of deserted beaches, sunflowers, bulls and sheep and horses grazing in groves of trees. The Mediterranean flowed into the Atlantic and here and there a little white town sat on a hilltop. It was idyllic. We arrived in Cadiz late that afternoon. The wind was blowing and the ocean was choppy. The color of the water along this drive ranged from a brilliant turquoise at Gibraltar to a smoldering, bottle green around Cadiz.
Cadiz was murky and marvelous at the same time. Named Gadir by the Phoenicians who founded a trading post here in 1100 B.C., Cadiz claims to have been the “first” European city. It clings to its history and has staunchly refused to prettify. The result is a lack of tourists and a distinct the-way-we-were feel.
I found small bars filled with photos of matadors and bull’s heads and moody, crumbling buildings where dark, little grocery stores and panderias were housed. There were palms and domes, sandstone fortresses and Moorish tiles. Catherine and I wore our brown jackets from Cordoba as we made our way through the tiny streets. It felt exotic and authentic. We happened upon an opening at a contemporary gallery (just like home) and ate our best meal in Spain.
The next day we spent the morning in the Plaza de Flores watching the locals meet and greet over café con leches. Across from us, an elderly couple sold AAA batteries from their park bench while talking to all their friends selling flowers.
We walked to the Catedral de Cadiz and met a flamenco guitarist, Manuel Ricardes, whose wife elongates his photos using Photoshop so he looks very thin on his CD covers. The church bells rang and we wound our way to another plaza for more café con leche. We walked in the parks along the ocean front, dodged smoke-spewing vespas and I saw a beer tap in the shape of a catholic church. No one seemed to take notice of us and we agreed that Cadiz was a good place to visit. Then it was time to go.
Loading the luggage back into the car, we got out the maps and turned back toward Seville and the Feria that we had run from six days earlier. We were more Spanish now and the prospect of Spain at its loudest and wildest seemed exciting rather than overwhelming.
It was a short drive up to Seville, perhaps two hours, and we came into town past ochre and brick-colored mansions, sprawling parks and people everywhere dressed in their Feria costumes. Women in flamenco dresses, all colors of the rainbow, polka dots and stripes, big flowers in their hair. Men in flat brimmed hats and gleaming black riding boots. It was gorgeous! Seville is elegant and showy.
The Feria de Abril is a post-Easter blowout that originated as a cattle fair in the 1840’s. By the 1950’s the cattle had dropped out of the fair and only the horses, folk costumes and partying remained. Regal and rambunctious, raucous and racy, the Seville Feria is a community celebration on a grand scale.
After checking into our hotel, the Casa de la Maestro, which is the former house of a famous flamenco singer, we caught a taxi and went to the Feria. The current venue for the Feria is across the river in the commercial and residential area called Los Remedios, but they keep changing it as the crowds continue to grow. The taxi driver was listening to a bullfight on the radio as he drove. Leaving the taxi, Catherine and I walked under the giant fan-shaped gates into the Feria city.
Row after row of casetas, private “party” tents hosted by companies and families, neighborhood organizations and political associations, filled the fair grounds. We began walking down the streets, which are named after bullfighters, and looking at the casetas. These brightly colored square tents are decorated individually on the inside. Some looked like circus tents, others like grand ballrooms or intimate parlors. There were tables and chairs, bands and dance floors. People were eating, drinking, dancing, talking. Children ran about and dogs barked. The tents were guarded by bouncers. Catherine and I tried to crash one but they wouldn’t let us in.
Aside from the tents, the streets were filled with Andalucian stallions and horse drawn carriages of every style and era. The horses’ manes and tails were braided and adorned with pompoms, flowers, bells and beautiful ribbons. The scene was punctuated by the clopping of the horses’ hooves as they pranced down the streets. Whole families, many generations, in matching outfits were piled into the carriages and being paraded throughout the Feria. Everyone was into it - all ages and types were dressed up and celebrating. We just wandered and stared until hunger drove us back to the center of town.
The next morning Catherine and I (under my insistence) ventured over to the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza – the toro ring - just to see what it was like. Seville’s ring is right next to the river. It is white and gold and in the shape of an oval. There is a huge bronze statue of a matador towering near the entrance. I had seen the bull rings in Antequera and Malaga but only from afar. I wanted to get up close.
It was Sunday, the last day of Feria, and the air was electric. The crowds were pouring in for the noon bullfight. People were arriving by horse-drawn carriage and taxi and bus. Women were dressed in fishnet stockings and high heels; they had Spanish combs in their hair and were carrying their fans. The men wore suits and puffed on big cigars. The excitement was palpable.
I have to tell you, as much as I am opposed to the actuality of killing bulls as sport, the allure of the ritual had gotten to me. Perhaps it was all of the Picasso’s, or the bulls on the hills, or the matador bars, or the Feria parades. Whatever it was, I just had to go. Catherine acquiesced. The noon fight was sold out but we got tickets in the Sombre section (shady area) for the 6:30 event.
On our way home to rest up for the fight we walked around the outside of the Plaza de Toros and came to an opening in the back. People were clustered around the opening. We ventured over to see what was happening. The horses were being brought into the ring along with the matadors’ assistants. It was like being backstage at a rock concert. People were taking pictures and shouting good wishes. A lot of mingling seemed to be taking place. Then from around the side of the ring, out came a pure white stallion with ice blue eyes and practically no hair. Perhaps it was an albino, I’m not sure, but it was mesmerizing. I could see its muscles and tendons rippling as his rider walked off his excess energy. I just stood transfixed. Finally horse and rider headed into the dark waiting pens in the ring to get ready for the fight.
It turns out that the real fight in the bullfight is the jockeying for seats up in the arena. Talk about a contact sport. Sardine City. The seats (except the very expensive ones) are cement bleachers with no backs. The bleachers are painted with lines and numbers. We found ours – number 13 & 14 - and sat down, making sure to stay within our lines. By the time everyone had arrived, Catherine and I were squished on all sides – left, right, front, back.
There is a sitting etiquette to go with all of this: One sits with their legs open so the people on the bleacher in front can fit between them. Then you don’t really want to lean into the legs of the person behind, so you sit hunched forward. On either side, you must watch your elbows and arm movement so as to not disturb the person crammed in next to you. Of course, sitting as still as possible is mandatory except for the fan waving and the cigar smoking. I hoped not to have a claustrophobic reaction.
At exactly 6:30 pm, the crowd hushed and the gates opened to let in the picadors on their padded horses and the banderillos (assistants to the matador) and the three toreros (matadors.) They paraded around the ring and went to the sidelines.
Then the horns blew and the toril gate for the bull opened. He came charging out into the sunlight. It was spellbinding.
This bullfight featured bulls from the infamous Miura ganaderia (a ranch that raises fighting bulls). Hemingway mentions the Miura bulls in the Sun Also Rises. I think these bulls have become infamous because they have killed so many matadors including Manolete, who was considered Spain’s greatest ever. Manolete’s death was so shocking that they put the bull that gored him and its mother to death afterward.
Catherine and I sat pinched and hunched in our seats through the three tercios, the stages of the bullfight in which the picadors, the banderillos and the matadors each do their thing. We listened to the crowd yelling “toro” at a particularly nice pass of the cape (well I assumed that was what they were commenting on – maybe it was a move the bull made that they liked). Everyone seemed absolutely engrossed. There was no goofing off or talking, no hot dogs or popcorn or screaming “get him.” There were no blue faces or chicken outfits or giant #1 fingers being waved in the air. It was serious business up there in the stands and quite dignified. I managed a few photos but people stared lat me and I stopped. I think Catherine had her eyes closed.
At the final moment, there was a spontaneous holding of the breath as everyone prayed for a quick and precise kill. And the bull did simply drop dead. The crowd jumped to their feet and clapped. I whispered to Catherine”let’s go” and she immediately jumped to her feet also. Needless to say, when I tapped the women’s shoulder in front of us and indicated we wanted to leave, she looked at me with complete disbelief. I had a moment of panic – stuck in the toro ring forever. But her boyfriend quickly saw the benefit of us leaving (no knees jabbing into their backs for the rest of the corrida!) and pulled her to the side so we could squeeze by. We got out into the fresh air and immediately went for café con leche.
In reading about bullfighting, I have found out that the Plaza de Toro in Seville is second only to Madrid’s ring and the bullfights on the final day of Feria are practically celebrity events. So if you are going to do such a thing, it was the right way to do it.
And now that I am back in Paris I am glad to be home eating my salads and fighting only for a seat on the Metro.