No one ever visits the same city twice. Because it’s not the same city, and you’re not the same person. I proved this to myself again this week when I revisited two Spanish cities that left me flabbergasted.
My first impression of Zaragoza was wild. I’d arrived oblivious to the fact the city was celebrating the Festival of Our Lady of the Pillar, a traditional religious observance that includes a parade of wild drunkenness through downtown streets. I saw carts carrying huge vats of wine with hoses dangling off the back, so marchers could run up and refill their cups or simply pour more vino into their mouths and often all over their clothes, inciting cheers from the crowd.
I didn’t expect to be greeted with such hullabaloo now, in the off-season, but I was stunned to step off the train into silent emptiness. Yes, this was the same railway station, but on my earlier visit I’d failed to take in its full dimensions. The thing is huge — 2,000,000 square meters, and while a few services lurk in distant corners, almost the entire vast structure is simply … space.
To put it in perspective, the world’s largest city, Tokyo, has 14 million residents and a station of 182,000 square meters. Why did Zaragoza’s 666,880 residents build something so supersized? And why put it nearly five miles from the center of town?
“Just as in earlier times the cathedral was the cohering representative scheme of the urban organization,” the architects’ website explained earnestly, “so here it is hoped that the implantation of the rail station will provide a functional, contemporary, and emblematic boost to town planning.”
Talk about delusions of grandeur! For 2000 years, Zaragoza’s cathedral has housed a statue given to St. James the Apostle, on that very spot, by the Blessed Virgin Mary in her only official instance of bilocation — that is, appearing to him in Spain while she was living in Jerusalem, in 40 AD. Now that’s a church with some gravitational pull. Top that with a new train station? I don’t think so. No wonder people stay away in droves.
In contrast, I arrived the next day to find Barcelona’s 1970s railway station absolutely mobbed. It serves 30 million passengers a year, all of whom seemed to be crammed onto the platform right then. Barcelona attracts 27 million visitors a year; the streets are always jammed with revelers and rubberneckers and the pickpockets who love them. The long promenade La Rambla, which 100 years ago the poet Lorca called "the only street in the world which I wish would never end," is now clogged with souvenir kiosks and selfie-takers. I find Barcelona’s tourist boom so depressing I rarely go there except in transit.
But this time I experienced a completely different city. I wasn’t anywhere near the touristy Ciutat Vella, the old Roman and Medieval center. Instead Rich and I were meeting up with friends who wisely lived well outside the old quarter. For the first time in a decade, I was bedazzled to find all my favorite aspects of the city — great architecture, extraordinary cuisine, a culture of creativity — in a more leisurely and civilized atmosphere.
And staying in that quarter made it easy to visit the legendary estate of Dr. Josep Altamira, an eccentric Freemason who returned from Cuba in 1860 so wealthy he was called “the Count of Monte Cristo.” He built the Tower of the Golden Dome, a fabulous palace surrounded by lakes, waterfalls, caves, and a hypostyle (pillared hall) topped with a small forest. For parties, he would flood the lower garden with water so he could take his guests on boat rides into the caves. And as if all that wasn’t enough, he had — according to legend — a domesticated orangutang acting as a waiter at his parties.
Altamira spent his vast wealth on whimsical construction projects, outrageous parties, and orangutang training. The rest he squandered. Near the end of his life he was penniless and promised his palace to the Missionary Sisters if the nuns would care for him until his death. Today his palace is a convent, and his enormous garden is reduced to a modest greenspace. Rich and I wandered across the old stone bridge, followed winding paths through exotic trees, and sat on a dusty bench hoping Altamira had thoroughly enjoyed every one of his extravagances.
On Easter Sunday we left Barcelona for Tarragona, where I hoped to track down the relics of St. Tekla, who is honored with annual festivities involving human towers. Naturally everything was closed for Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, but this morning I was able to visit her shrine. My best guess was the gold box over the altar holds pieces of her arm, but there was a complete lack of signage or staff to confirm this. It’s a mystery.
Tekla was martyred two thousand years ago, not long after the Romans colonized Tarragona and began building it into a successful military base. You have to hand it to the Romans: they built to last. There are ancient walls everywhere throughout the old quarter, some sitting atop even older walls containing boulders as big as pool tables. One of their most popular projects was the 12,000-seat amphitheater.
The site has a checkered past. After the Roman empire crumbled, it was abandoned, then used as a cemetery, quarry, Visigoth church, prison, convent, and local trysting place until restorations began about 75 years ago. Sitting on its ancient stones, I had comforting thoughts about the fleeting nature of all things. Whenever I feel particularly gloomy about the world, I recall how many crises humans have weathered, and figure we have a pretty good shot at surviving this lunatic era, too.
Tarragona's magnificent Roman temple has been replaced by the cathedral. Elsewhere in the city — nobody seems to recall where — there was an altar put up by Emperor Augustus in 27 BC, in gratitude for the city’s lovely climate helping him shake off his ill health, keeping him fit enough to oversee his demanding schedule of conquest and subjugation.
But like me, Augustus found that you can’t return to a city and expect to find things as you left them. When he came back to Tarragona after an absence, the residents of the city excitedly reported to him that a palm tree had miraculously grown on the altar he’d put up. “Really?” he said dryly. “That must mean it’s not being used very often.” Zinger!
This is the final week of our travels through Spain. On Friday Rich and I return to the US, where (after a brief pause to catch my breath) I’ll be launching the Nutters Tour of California. I know the America I return to won’t be quite the same as the one I left. As usual, there will be cultural references I don’t get, jokes about people I’ve never heard of, and headlines like “A $17 glass of wine is normal at Bay Area restaurants now.” (Yikes!) But one thing I know I can count on: my home state is full of nutty people, places, and activities just waiting for me to discover them. Stay tuned.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
JUST JOINING US? HERE'S THE NUTTERS TOUR SO FAR
Spain Never Runs Out of Offbeat Curiosities (Zaragoza, Barcelona, Tarragona)
I Travel Deep into the Heart of Nuttiness (Palencia & Pamplona)
Road Warriors: Let the Good Times Roar (Léon & Oviedo)
Travel Alert: You Can't Always Get What You Want... (Madrid & Burgos)
Gobsmacked at Every Turn but Embracing the Chaos (Jaén & Valdepeñas)
All Aboard for the Nutters Tour of Spain (Packing & Organizing)
THAT WAS FUN. WANT MORE?
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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