Tourist in Spain
THE Spanish proverb, “Africa begins at the Pyrenees,” contains a truth which might better be put: Europe ends at the Pyrenees. Spain is not Africa — and it is not Europe. The two forces which have decisively shaped contemporary European civilization — eighteenth-century rationalism and the Industrial Revolution -influenced Spain little and late. Despite the skyscrapers in Madrid and Barcelona, the streamlined A.T.E.S.A. motor coaches with reclining seats, the new hotels with swimming pool and with a radio in every room; despite the chain of American-style “California” restaurants and the other symbols of modernity, Spain remains spiritually withdrawn from the twentieth century.
This is one of its great attractions to the tourist. In Spain, the European as well as the American finds himself truly in a different world. As Gerald Brenan has said in his fine book, The Face of Spain: “Spain today gives off a note which is unlike any other — a sharp, penetrating, agridulce [bittersweet] strain, both harsh and nostalgic like that of its guitar music, which no one who has once heard will ever forget. The northerner in search of new sensations has every reason for going there.”
Spain’s separation from the modern age, which gives it its distinctive flavor, is not without drawbacks. To the majority of Spaniards, the concept of efficiency has little meaning. Everything that is mechanical or that depends on organization is apt to function spottily. And the Spanish themselves like to tell you that there is only one thing in Spain which starts, and runs, on time — the bullfight.
One aspect of Spanish life that is an unqualified delight to tourists is the high standard of honesty. Another is the attitude toward tips. In this matter the Spanish, though their wage scale is just about the lowest in Europe, behave with a dignity which contrasts shiningly with the pressure tactics and frequent surliness of the French. A proud people, they thank you ceremoniously for whatever you give them, conveying by their manner the suggestion that your action was gracious but not really necessary.
The tourist boom
During the past seven years, the annual number of American visitors to Spain has increased nearly 2000 per cent. A major factor in this tourist boom is the exchange rate, which makes Spain the cheapest country in Europe for foreigners. Officially, the dollar is worth 38.95 pesetas, and you can get 10 per cent more by buying your pesetas in the United States; the Spanish government allows each visitor to bring up to 10,000 pesetas into Spain. At this rate, a room for two with bath in Spain’s de luxe hotels costs a bit oxer $6 daily, and a single under $4, with an addition of about 20 per cent for service and taxes. The corresponding rates in Category I hotels are around $4.50 and $2.50. In the paradores or luxury inns operated by the Spanish State Tourist Department — and those I have visited were exceedingly attractive — the top charge for room and board is $3.50.
The cost of food and wine in Spain is equally moderate. A meal in restaurants with a solid reputation ranges between $2.25 and $3 per person, wine and tip included; and there are many more modest places where the bill will come to less. In the halfdozen most expensive restaurants in Spain, a couple can dine handsomely for under $10, sumptuously for $12.
For U.S. travelers going straight to Spain, the most convenient starting point for a Spanish holiday is Madrid; and the best way of getting there is via TWA, which has seven flights weekly from New York with stopover privileges in Lisbon. Roundtrip fares are: First Class, $857.60; Tourist, $576.60; Fifteen-day Excursion rate, $479.60. By investing a further 12 per cent in transportation, you can proceed via TWA to Rome and stop off at Geneva, Zurich and Paris, or Frankfurt and London, on your way back to the United States. The state-owned Spanish airline, Iberia, offers two nonstop flights weekly to Madrid, and Pan American flies to Barcelona. If you hanker for a sea voyage, you can take either the Italian Line to Barcelona, the American Export to Barcelona or Algeciras, or the Home Line to Gibraltar.
Getting around Spain is decidedly more of a problem than getting there. The express trains between the major cities are fairly good - the rest range from bad to terrible. The airline situation, too, is not something to cheer about. Iberia has a virtual monopoly of air transport, and its resources are heav ily overtaxed — on the flights the tourist is most likely to be using, reservations should be made well in advance.
The best way to see Spain is, of course, by car. So long as you never venture off the main highways, road conditions are good and there is little traffic. Self-drive cars can be rented in Spain, but the rates are somewhat higher than those prevailing elsewhere on the continent. Those who are carless should certainly investigate the numerous motor coach tours offered by A.T.E.S.A. (and other companies). These range from one-day sightseeing excursions to all-inclusive tours, the longest of which - a sixteen-day affair — starts out in San Sebastian and runs southward through Madrid down to Cadiz, then swings along the southern and eastern coastline all the way back to Barcelona. Cost: $290, with rooms and meals in de luxe hotels.
When planning a Spanish holiday, it is a help to think of the country in terms of four sectors in which most of the places of interest to the tourist are situated — the Center (Madrid and surroundings); the South (Andalusia and the “Coast of the Sun”); the Northwest (San Sebastian and the “art towns" between it and Madrid); the Northeast (Barcelona, the Costa Brava, and, 55 minutes by air from Barcelona, the island of Mallorca). Spain is a large and mountainous country—the third largest in Europe; and local communications, as I have noted, are on the inadequate side. The visitor with a week to fifteen days at his disposal should probably settle for the Madrid area and one other — my personal recommendation would be the South. Spring and fall are the most attractive times to visit the capital, and in the South the winter mont hs, too, are agreeable. Summer is the high season for San Sebastian, the Costa Brava, and Mallorca.
Sights and spectacles
Madrid is a city in which to linger a while, visiting and revisiting the Prado, especially its incomparable collection of the Spanish masters; making excursions to Toledo, to the gloomy but imposing Escorial, to Segovia and nearby La Granja, the “Versailles” of Philip V, and to the medieval walled town of Avila; sampling the diversity of restaurants — the best in Spain—and looking through the shops where, whet her you make a purchase or not, you will usually be treated with an affecting courtesy. The oldest part of Madrid, which you enter from the exquisite Plaza de la Villa, one of the loveliest small squares in Spain, should be explored by night when the lamplight gives the narrow alleys an unforgettable enchantment.
Until a few years ago, the tourist’s search for flamenco dancing in Madrid was apt to land him in clip joints where he would be grossly overcharged and see only third-rate performers. This frustrating situation has been remedied by the opening of La Zambra, where the finest singers and dancers from Andalusia put on a nonstop performance from 11 P.M. to 3 A.M. The price of drinks is steep, hut La Zambra is good value at that: its show cannot be matched anywhere else in the world. In Granada, in the music hall of the Alhambra Palace Hotel, one can sometimes see good flamenco. The performances in the famous gypsy caves, in Granada’s Albaicin quarter, are pathetically amateurish; but the caves, equipped with electric light and sometimes telephone, and the gypsies themselves, are probably worth the visit.
In Granada, the Alhambra and the gardens of the Generalife, whose wonders have been so abundantly celebrated, fully matched my expectations. And the same, by and large, was true of other great cultural landmarks of southern Spain — the Alcazar and the Cathedral at Seville, the largest Gothic church in existence, and the Mosque at Cordoba.
Seville—of which a proverb says: “God gives a house in Seville to those he loves” — is a town of spacious gardens; of squares perfumed by orange trees and of balconies bright with flowers and ferns; of open doorways that lead your eye into inviting patios, massed with greenery and framed by walls colorfully adorned with the ceramic plates which the Spanish use so tastefully in decorating their houses. These enchantments are best seen in the ancient Santa Cruz quarter. One encounters them again, though not so richly, in the old sections of Cordoba. In Cordoba, the Moorish imprint is everywhere —one really feels oneself on the threshold of Africa.
A tour of southern Spain should not fail to include Jerez de la Frontera, 65 miles south of Seville and capital of the sherry district, where the bodegas of Pedro Domecq, Gonzalez Byass, and other producers are open to visitors between 11 A.M. and 2 P.M. As you are conducted through the churchlike sanctuaries where the barrels are stored, your escort explains the fascinating process by which sherry is produced and invites you to taste a dizzying variety of the three main types - Fino, Amontillado, and Oloroso.
One more of the South’s major attractions should be mentioned — the Costa del Sol between Algeciras and Malaga, which in spring becomes a coast of flowers. Torremolinos and Marbella are the leading resorts, but there are fine beaches all along this stretch of coast.
Most tourists who go to Spain are bent on seeing a bullfight (which nowadays is not, from the statistician’s standpoint, Spain’s most popular fiesta: soccer, known as fútbol, draws more spectators). During the bullfight season, March to mid-October, there are corridas on Sundays and holidays all over the country — but a word of warning is in order. As there are only a few great matadors, the odds are that if you take whatever the local plaza de taros has to offer, you will witness a routine performance— and that can be a miserable spectacle. One way of seeing, for sure, several corridas featuring the greatest matadors is to go to San Sebastian, a summer resort near the French frontier, for the Semana Grande in midAugust.
Between San Sebastian and Madrid lie several of the “art towns" of northern and central Spain — the A.T.E.S.A. tours are a convenient way of visiting them. Leon, capital of the kingdom joined to Castile in the early Midfile Ages, is noted for its thirteenth-century Gothic cathedral, so suffused with colored lights from the magnificent stained glass windows that the inhabitants call it “The Lantern.” The Gothic cathedral at Burgos is also among the masterpieces of religious architecture in Spain. Valladolid’s Museum of Religious Sculpture has an unequaled collection of the works of Berruguete, the greatest Spanish sculptor of the Renaissance, and of the later Spanish masters. Salamanca, seat of Spain’s oldest university, is an architectural treasure house, with its sumptuous platercsque buildings, its startling twin cathedrals—the old, Romanesque; the “new,” Gothic — and its vast Baroque main square.
Barcelona, the metropolis of Catalonia, is to Spain what Milan — hardheaded, commercial, pushing — is to Italy; I have heard its businessmen described as “the Americans of Spain.” A day or two in Barcelona, preparatory to taking off for Mallorca or the Costa Brava, is all that is justified on a two-week timetable. The “Rugged Coast,” which begins northeast of Barcelona and runs 110 miles by road to the French frontier, is a riviera which remains relatively uncommercialized. With its fjordlike inlets and its forests of cork trees and umbrella pine, its sandy bays and its small, dazzlingly white fishing villages, flanked by the rust of the headlands and the blue of the sea, the Costa Brava has few rivals among Europe’s coastlines for sheer beauty.
The Spanish price scale permits most travelers to do well by themselves without ruinous results; and it is unwise to attempt any economies that are not absolutely necessary.
In Madrid, top honors go to the Ritz: it is one of the world’s great hotels, with a distinctive aura of old-fashioned grandeur. Both the Ritz and the Palace are ideal as to location — right beside the Prado Museum and a few minutes’ walk from the heart of the city. Two good hotels in a slightly lower price bracket are the Velazquez and the Menfis.
In Seville, the Alfonso XIII, with its elaborate Moorish décor, is a picturesque curiosity — Victorian but comfortable and well-run. Granada offers the choice of two showplaces — the Parador de San Francisco and the Alhambra Palace. The latter is situated halfway up the hill leading to the Alhambra; and its bar-terrace, from which stretches a magnificent panorama, is as fine a place as any in Spain in which to linger at dusk over a couple of glasses of sherry. The Parador de San Francisco — a remodeled monastery in the gardens of the Alhambra — is the most seductive of the state-run luxury inns of which ihc Spanish Tourist Department is justly so proud. To get one of its sixteen rooms you have to make reservations well in advance.
Other outstanding hotels in the South are the festive Reina Cristina at Algeciras, from which you have a fine view of Gibraltar across the bay; the Miramar, on the ocean’s edge at Malaga; and the new air-conditioned Cordoba Palace in Cordoba. In Barcelona, the Ritz is superlative all round, the Avenida Palace is up-todate and less expensive. There is one top-drawer establishment on the Costa Brava: the Hostal de la Gavina at S’Agaró.
Opinions about Spanish cuisine differ sharply. By and large, it is a cuisine most likely to appeal to the adventurous, and to those who are unconcerned about their liver or their figure. One can, however, protect oneself against the customary practice of frying most foods in pools of olive oil simply by impressing upon the waiter the magic words: preparado en mantequilla — cooked in butter.
The specialties of the various regions include the famous paella (a mixture of saffron rice, shellfish, peppers, and chicken or meat), calamares en su tinta (squids in their ink), bacalao (codfish), gazpacho (a cold soup of raw cucumbers and tomatoes, flavored with oil, vinegar, and garlic), and all manner of shellfish. The beef is usually disappointing, the chicken too. The best meats are roast lamb, suckling pig, and smoked ham. While Spanish wines are rarely great, there are a number which are pleasant and they are rather cheap: in most restaurants, the superior bottles range from 75 cents to $1.75. Among the reds, I recommend Marqués del Riscal and (in the top bracket) Gran Reserva. The driest white wines are Cepa Rhin, Cepa Chablís, Viña Solé, and (best of all) Monopole.
There are three restaurants in Madrid which deserve to be called great — Jockey, Horcher’s (German), and the Commodore. Here are six others, much less expensive and more Spanish in character, which I also found attractive: Valentin’s (a favorite of bullfighters, visiting celebrities, and knowledgeable Madrileños); Chipen’s (good cooking, smart and quiet); Corral de la Morería (flamenco show, outstanding paella); El Púlpito and Casa Botín (modest surroundings and prices, above average food); Mesón de San Javier (in the old quarter, lashings of authentic local color). Barcelona, too, offers plenty of choice — Finisterre and Parellada (expensive); Amaya (Basque cuisine, moderate);Los Caracoles (local color).
In Andalusia, the gastronomic situation declines precipitously. The only places where I fared at all well were the Hostería de Gibralfaro, where you dine on a hilltop terrace with a stunning vista of the twinkling lights of Malaga; the grill room of the Alhambra Palace in Granada; the Cordoba Palace; the Hostería del Prado in Seville; and Los Cisnes at Jerez.
Spanish mealtimes demand a considerable readjustment on the part of foreigners. Lunch is between two and four o’clock. Dinner begins at ten, but if you are eating with Spaniards, you’re not likely to get to table before eleven.
The legend that in Madrid a man can have a well-cut suit made in no time for $40 is not entirely to be trusted. These three-day, $40 jobs are often a mess, and the best tailors insist on at least three weeks. On the other hand, a woman who is staying a week in Madrid can indulge in haute couture at bargain prices. My expert and indefatigable researcher in this province recommends two houses in particular: Marbel and Caruncho (which copies Paris models and also has exciting creations of its own).
Loewe’s in Madrid and Barcelona has the handsomest leather goods I have seen anywhere in the world, but its prices are fierce. The best values in Spain are gloves; mantillas; ceramics — especially the fine old plates from Talavera and Manises; wroughtiron work of all kinds; and antiques. For the last, investigate Linares (Madrid, Seville, Granada) and the Madrid Rastro or flea market, where there are many attractive pieces along with the junk. Maresas, not far from the Palace Hotel, is an honest and conscientious shipper.
For information about Spanish fiestas and other matters not covered in this report write to The Spanish Tourist Office, 485 Madison Avenue, New York 22, New York.
CHARLES J. ROLO