Thirty-three years ago Rich and I inconvenienced our nearest and dearest by getting married two days after Christmas, requiring them to make all sorts of awkward travel arrangements just when everyone really wanted to be home by the fire playing with their new toys. Ever since then, our anniversary has been squeezed into a social calendar revolving around Yuletide celebrations, New Year’s Eve, and Spain's grand finale on January 6: Three Kings Day, which in Seville involves a spectacular parade as a prelude to exchanging gifts.
In the midst of so much revelry, our anniversary celebrations tend to be modest. Researching traditional gifts, I discovered the US and UK don’t even list anything for the 33rd anniversary; apparently so few hit that benchmark nobody could be bothered. Spain, Italy, and Germany observe the occasion with tin, which didn’t help. A can of tuna? A couple of Budweisers? A tin cup? One website suggested a spiritual-themed gift. Why? “33 is an important religious number; it’s the numerical equivalent of AMEN, i.e., 1+13+5+14=33; it’s the age of Christ and also the number of miracles that he performed and it’s also the numerical representation of the star of David.” Sorry, still not inspired. A tin crucifix somehow didn't strike the right note.
Luckily Rich had a better idea: a train trip to Valencia on Spain’s east coast. He found a trendy yet cozy hotel called Maria Berger, which on arrival we learned had just opened the day before. As you can imagine, everything was sparkling clean and I could probably have eaten off of any surface in the room, including the TV remote control (although I did not put this to the test). When Rich mentioned we were celebrating our anniversary, the desk clerk immediately sent a bottle of cava to our room. “I could get used to this,” I said.
As it happened, Valencia’s Fine Arts Museum was having an exhibition of one of my favorite painters, Joaquín Sorolla. A hundred and twenty years ago he was breaking all the rules by painting everyday subjects in this fluid, colorful style:
That one wasn’t in the exhibition, but lots of wonderful works were, and I was ambling around admiring Sarolla’s brushwork when this one stopped me in my tracks.
The painting isn’t all that remarkable, but the subject was the stuff of family legend.
When I was a teenager, my Aunt Beverly stunned everyone by packing up her family and moving to Valencia, Spain. Her letters home were eagerly anticipated and read aloud; everything, including cooking a holiday dinner, became an epic drama. For instance, when she wanted to serve a roast turkey, Aunt Beverly consulted the girls from the village who helped her around the house. They said they knew where to get one and returned the next day — with a living bird. My aunt, whose softhearted attitude to animals made St. Francis of Assisi look like Cruella de Vil, instantly bonded with the turkey and refused to consider cooking and eating her new pal.
An uproar naturally ensued. The family demanded their dinner. Aunt Beverly stood firm. Eventually, as it was five forceful personalities to one, she gave in — but she refused to participate directly. Standing outside the kitchen door, she called out instructions for stuffing and roasting the creature, all the while weeping for its fate. I’m not sure, but that may have been the year she became a vegetarian for life. The story took its place in our family lore, and I suspect the villagers are still telling the tale of the crazy American who didn’t want to eat a turkey because it was her amigo.
Seeing Aunt Beverly’s legendary Spanish turkey in a Sarolla painting wasn’t the only astonishing discovery of the trip. Although I had visited Valencia twice in the past, somehow it had escaped my notice that its cathedral housed the Holy Grail — yes, the actual cup used during the Last Supper.
Some naysayers question the authenticity of Valencia's Grail, pointing to the 200 other claimants to the title scattered across the globe. But this one has better credentials than most, being very old and very simple, made of carved agate polished with myrrh —a carpenter’s cup. Of course, no records exists of its early years; all we really know is that it was taken from the Holy Land, passed on to the Pope in Rome, and later given to Spanish royalty for safekeeping in turbulent times.
Is this the real deal? Every Catholic church contains holy relics, sacred remnants of saints’ bodies or personal possessions, which the faithful believe can work miracles. In medieval times high-profile relics were sold for fabulous sums, and not surprisingly, many have now turned out to be very dubious indeed.
I’m no expert, but having seen the right hand of John the Baptist in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, I had to wonder how his right hand could also be on display in the Serbian Orthodox Cetinje Monastery in Montenegro and the Romanian Monastery of the Forerunner. In other news, John the Baptist's six heads are displayed in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, the Residenz Museum in Munich, Amiens Cathedral in France, Antioch, Turkey, and in a parish church in Tenterden, Kent. How many skulls and right hands can one man have?
Amiens Cathedral displays the actual skull of John the Baptist — or does it? In the famous Bible story, Herod's stepdaughter demanded John's head on a platter. But we know this isn't the actual platter because that's in Genoa's cathedral — or maybe not. Thanks to Wikicommons' Wi1234 for this picture.
No one will ever be able to prove the cup in Valencia is — or isn’t — the genuine Holy Grail. But the sight of such a revered object makes even the most time-pressed tourist slow down and fall into respectful silence, while confirmed skeptics like myself pause to consider the nature of truth. In the end, I’m not sure how much its authenticity really matters. For the faithful of Valencia, possession of this treasure is a miracle in itself, and to be in its presence is to be touched by glory.
Growing up Catholic, I accepted saints and relics and miracles as part of everyday life. And while time, experience, and John the Baptist's six heads have made me question everything I was told as a child, I understand that the universe is entirely too big and complicated for me to define the limits of its possibilities. Sometimes, as the nuns used to tell us, you just have to live with the mystery.
One thing I do know for certain: the excursion to Valencia was a wonderful way to celebrate our 33rd anniversary. Perhaps that website’s suggestion of a spiritual-themed gift wasn’t so far off the mark after all. Our time in Valencia made me laugh, and think, and contemplate the nature of reality. And I think we can all agree, that’s a lot better gift than a can of tuna or a tin cup.
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Next summer, Rich and I will walk out our door in Seville, stroll to the train station with our rolling luggage, and board a train to begin a journey that will last several months and cover thousands of miles. We won't have any reservations anywhere, just a Eurail pass and an iPad full of information about possible destinations. We'll wend our way by easy stages through Central and Eastern Europe, winding up in Transylvania and some of the more obscure Balkan countries, seeking offbeat side trips and weird, wonderful stories and adventures. We hope to connect up with locals and expats all along the way. If you know someone in one of our destination areas – even better, if you ARE someone in one of our destination areas – send us an email and we'll see about meeting up. I'll post a map when we've firmed up the general route. We have decided to begin by taking the train to Barcelona, then the ferry across to Genoa, Italy. And here's what I've learned about that destination city...
Nearly every Genoa tourism website starts off by pleading, “Please don’t rush through here on your way to Florence or Rome. No matter what you’ve heard about us, we really are worth a visit! Really! Please say you'll stay!!!” OK, I’m paraphrasing a little, but that’s the gist. Apparently Genoa is the Newark of Italy, a place most people arrive in only to depart as quickly as possible for more glamorous destinations.
So what does Genoa have to offer? It's a gorgeous old city with lots of historic buildings and museums, promoted with such awkwardly translated prose as: “Thought then to the birthplace, even though few of them remembered their location, so that at first it was a walled marble plaque in memory above the entrance of a building facing.” Hard to understand how that could fail to entice tourists...
Struggling through the prose, I discovered some real (or possibly fake) gems. For instance, the Museum of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo houses the actual platter on which Salome placed the head of John the Baptist after his decapitation. Now THAT’S something worth seeing! Naysayers may question its authenticity, but I for one am ready to believe.
The museum also contains the Ark of the Ashes of John the Baptist, a splinter of the True Cross, and a chalice that was believed to be the Holy Grail when it was brought back from the Holy Land by a crusader. It’s easy to scoff at such ignorance today, now that we all know the Holy Grail was actually found by Indiana Jones.
While some of its ancient relics may be suspect, Genoa does boast a genuine haunted house. Now known as the Ca ‘de Anime (House of Spirits), back in the 18th century it was an inn situated on a lonely road outside of town.
The genial hosts were a family of robbers who killed their richer guests, relieved them of their possessions and buried the bodies nearby. The mysterious disappearances of so many of the inn’s patrons gave rise to rumors that the inn was haunted, but investigators later exposed the guilt of the robber family and executed them all on the spot. That's when the real haunting began...
The inn remained vacant until a desperate family moved in during World War II. The new occupants managed to ignore mysterious sounds and inexplicable broken objects around the house, but when a strange girl seemed to materialize out of the 18th century, they fled the house never to return. Rich and I will be reviewing The Exorcist and Poltergeist in preparation for the visit.
But what about modern Genoan life? The region is famous for its salami and pesto, but what other pleasures could we expect at the Genoan table? I discovered Giada De Laurentiis' wonderful recipes for two regional favorites, Orichiette with Sausage, Beans and Marsarpone and Genovese-style Artichokes. The orichiette (pasta shaped like little ears) was delicious, but the true hit of the evening was the artichoke dish. We stuffed the artichokes with a mixture of garlic, onion, ham (we substituted good Spanish jamon for the prosciutto), Parmesan cheese and parsley.
Then we put them in a deep pot, wedged together to say upright in a pool of white wine, and let them simmer 45 minutes on the stovetop until they were tender and had soaked up the wine flavor.
Rich and I decided that Genoa may have its issues with public relations, artifact authentication and online translation programs, but when it comes to the pleasures of the table, it’s a city second to none. Looking forward to making your acquaintance, Genoa!
If you know someone living in Genoa – even better, if you are living in Genoa yourself – send us an email and we'll see about meeting up. We're looking for insider information about the city and its quirkier aspects. First round of drinks is on us.
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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