Day 1 – LEDESMA COUNTRY
Vamos a Salamanca, through the gulches and gulleys of north-central Spain.
We left Madrid at 1:45 and should be in Salamanca to meet Ron Newby “by the statue of some king or other” outside the station in about three hours.
This is our first trip on the Eurail – we had to take the Madrid Metro from outside our hotel, Gran Via – to Chamartin Station on Linea Uno.
So far very few people speak English – we were told many people would, but I think that only applies if you’re here in tourist season. This isn’t the season, and its nice to hear the lilt and roll of Spanish all around you.
We are on 2nd class Eurail, decent enough, four seats grouped together with a table in the middle the vagabonds and move-abouts play cards upon to pass the time. Michele and I slap Rummy 500.
The countryside north of Madrid is green green, and there’s much graffiti everywhere and strange-looking trees and scrub brush and red poppies opening and closing their black mouths. Off in the distance is a small range of verde mountains and cliffs of naranja appear and disappear dotted with meandering, grazing cattle or tiny horses.
The villages we pass are brown stone and stucco, and crumbling stone walls run off willy-nilly over the hillsides.
The countryside is dry up here and there are old stone ruins of the Moors disintegrating on valley plateaus.
It’s sad to leave Madrid, such a venerable, beautiful city. Our hostel was just a block from the Puerta del Sol, and in the central heart of the ciudad. Yesterday we woke up and walked into the Old City for three hours, just wandering around taking in the street life. Our calle held a score of loitering prostitutes, and incredible discount fashions sold out of small boutiques.
At night, in our hostel room, we pushed our single cots together and played cards and then turned all the lights out and listened to the city sounds in the dark, just a faint yellow light twisting in from the airshaft outside our window illuminating the dingy lace curtain tittering against the Spanish shutters.
Last night we sat at the hostel bar and the bartenders told us in Spanish how to make the most increible Sangria I’ve ever had and here is the recipe:
1/3 bottle red wine
Canela liquor and canela sticks for flavor
…we’ve reached the mountains now by train, and are passing through with green valleys below and low, thin-stemmed yellow flora in abundance, and strange mossy ponds cropping up here and there with little bushy or scraggly trees growing from them. The mountainside is spotted all over with sepia-shade rock clusters, and looks like nowhere I’ve been before, with dirt roads running through and dusting off and around into the primeval distance.
…off into the craggy countryside, past Avila with its impressive turreted fort stretching the length, and into dark tunnels under bricked archways, and past netted cliffsides and through dusty green dry low trees and raked rocky farmland and spring-lime green fields and forest-jade green grass, far-off taller trees and into the open air with barely a thing growing or a person walking or an animal grazing for miles and miles and miles around.
..…how to explain everything since we arrived in Salamanca? Ron was right outside the train when we arrived, kiss kiss, one on each cheek.
He took us to his little car, and we loaded our bags in and he drove us down to Salamanca center where we parked. Then he led us winding through the cobblestone streets to the Plaza Mayor, a huge cobbled square where young people mill about, sit sipping café o te and eating tapas at outdoor eateries, or lay right on the ground together, resting on one anothers arms, eyes closed, taking in the Salamancan sun.
Salamanca is a place of great beauty, and we were told by Teresa, an acquaintance we met on the plane who has property in Segovia, that it is by many considered the most beautiful city in Spain and I can see why – the people stroll leisurely along the meandering walkways, and students of all countries lounge about chatting, gypsy girls juggling, friends laughing, a street musician caressing upside-down steel drums, a hypnotic ring shivering along the narrow alleys.
Ron took us first to the gothic cathedral, a massive structure with a leaning dome caused by an ancient earthquake. The Cathedral is breathtaking, covered in bas relief of griffins and writhing animals. Inside there is a box in the center where the choir would sing, and above this the long brass pipes of the organ reaching to the planet-high roof.
Stepping out of the cathedral we wove our way through side-streets and archways, past graffiti of Neruda quotes, and into a garden set upon a rooftop overlooking Salamanca and beyond: to the left, a bridge crossing over the river and leading to the road heading towards Ledesma, straight ahead a garish 5-star hotel on the hillside across the water and to the right, university housing and the Art Nouveau Museum’s intricate stained-glass windows. In the garden flowers crawled down the walls from every direction – roses, irises, tall-stalked pansies, and couples with their arms and legs wrapped around one another kissed among the petals.
Out of the garden and down, down the hillside, across the busy street and onto a stone plateau with a Bronze Age sculpture of a pig (or is it a bull? we check its “testicles” and decide a pig, definitely a pig) and down a few stone steps and down to the river. Couples and friends enjoy the day, a public holiday and a sunny pleasure, by sleeping on the grassy hillsides along the bank, or by joking with friends or playing instruments: recorders, wooden flutes, Spanish guitars. And it all rises up around me in a way, like an aroma, quixotic.
We walk under an old Roman bridge, the stones of which Ron tells us have small indents in them because of the pincers used to lift them when the bridge was being created…and over mushy grassland to the rivers edge. This is the same river that runs behind Rons house, that place unknown, where we will be staying. Ron says, yes, you can swim in the river, but most Spanish people won’t because they don’t like anything dirty………..and on, back up the hillside along a dirt pathway, now underneath the rooftop garden, and back across the street and up up and along the calles to the Biblioteca Publica where Ron points out storks nested in the turrets of the church across the street and where we look at a small collection of photographs themed around people and their bicycles and journeys on them….
…and back down the Biblioteca stairs, and out, and wound around again, and through, to a small craft fair where we peek at glassworks, and slate etchings, and handmade lanterns, and wooden jars and leather sacks with tie pulls. Ron tells us how he wants to get people, craftsmen, to come to his place in Ledesma and sell their wares…
and after, Ron pops in on a few people he knows in the shops and then we are suddenly back at the car again and climbing in.
In the car we cross over the bridge we saw from the Salamancan rooftop and head out toward Ledesma…pass a bit of what he calls a “suburb”, then some project buildings (“where all the problem families are put” as he explains it) and then under an overpass and past one factory, that produces toilet paper, and into the open air, greenest of green grasses, like a delusion, rolling out all around us… and Ron drives like a madman in his tiny beat-up car with the dust puffing out from the upholstery, hitting potholes in the narrow, ribbon-like street without a care…and a quick pull-off down a side lane and we are, with haste, at a nature reserve…and pile out and we go tromping through the shin-high blades of grass, where Ron warns us of Spanish snakes, and then we hit a clearing filled, to the right, with yelling Spaniards enjoying the holiday and we head left, where the river rushes past and a mimosa tree grows lustily, all sensuous dusky mauve…
and down another dry-grass path, to a gravel lane that leads back to the car, and past the car to a rusted metal bridge that we stand upon and take in the river, and the air, and the sun….and after Ron has a pee in the bushes we’re back in the car and back up the side lane, to the street, and a quick right and quick left and we are headed into a valley, and what Ron calls ‘Ledesma Country.’
But we’re not there just yet, first we’re passing through the land of slate stone and ponds and river covered in tiny water pansies and past milling bulls and then we are there, where the rock turns to granite and is heavier and the hillside is covered in green oaks, which produce, Ron tells us, sweet acorns that the pigs feed on which makes their flesh sweet and why, consequently, Ledesma is known for having the best ham in the entire world….
and on, on past the granite clusters and plateaus, past a field of white sheep, two young ones fighting on a rock, banging heads and tangling legs, and a quick pull off from the road and Ron is rinsing his hair in a natural spring and where Michele and I grab a quick drink….and then, just as quick we’re off again and down the road, where we’ve seen only four cars since Salamanca, and passing a tiny village where only one family lives, the father a famous bullfighter, and old stone structures set up for pigeons to be lured in and entrapped, where in the 17th c. people got their lunch…. and then we are there in Ledesma proper and it is this tiny charming village in the middle of here and nowhere and Ron careens up a steep un-cobbled hillside path, upsetting an old yapping dog with a beard, chained to a house, and around bends so narrow I was sure we would smash, and then into an opening – a type of courtyard with a palacial church – and there it is, his house the palace, where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela once lay their tired heads.
And now we are here, just making our way. Another traveler, Aaron from Australia, in another bedroom and Ron’s friend Margaret flying into Valladolid today to come stay.
Last night Michele and I had a ping-pong tournament and listened to Ben Harper, smoking cigarettes by candlelight in an assigned room at the back of the house, a sunny room where one can throw open all the windows, and we talked to Ron a bit and it doesn’t get dark here until ten at night so we ate dinner a bit after ten, acetun sandwiches with sweet peppers and onions, and afterward homemade ice cream in the most tantalizing flavors: pear-ginger, lemon, sweet carrot.
And then we drank beer, Alemanian Beer, and Michele and I had some red wine and Aaron went to bed and Ron, Michele and I talked about America, and basically, our ignorance and then Michele ended up giving Ron a haircut with his clipper and then he went to sleep so he could get up to drive north and pick up Margaret today, this morning, and Michele and I sat and had one last candle-lit cigarette ~ the lights of Ledesma night making bright coronas outside the windowpanes, and then we went to sleep……………