The Zahir, and Travels Around Central Spain

Right now, I am reading The Zahir by Paolo Coehlo, in spanish.  Personally, I would much rather be reading it in english because Coehlo is both my favorite author ever and has such beautiful language, but when in Spain, do as the Spaniards do, right?

The book really is beautiful, even though it is taking me forever to get through it.  I came upon a passage that I especially liked the other day.

“All you have to do is to pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs, you will learn everything you need to know in order to take the next step.”  (The Zahir, Paolo Coehlo)

It truly is humbling how life seems to work out that way.  Before I get into all of the lovely places I visited this weekend, I have something to confess.

Recently, I have been complaining a bit (mostly lamenting to myself, but hey…it still counts) about my host mom.  She seems to get mad a lot about little things like not wearing our slippers around the house because if we don’t we are going to get sick, putting our backpacks on our bedroom floor, etc., etc.  Sometimes I feel like she hyper-focuses on me rather than my roommate, and I always feel a little out of place. And every time she speaks to me, I feel like she’s looking at me as if I’m stupid, as she always repeats herself and asks me if I understand, again and again and again.  (Boy do I have a new respect for host students and host families alike now!)  Anyway, I was becoming so focused on myself and how annoying things were that I kind of forgot to start looking at the larger picture.  When I read this quote, i was kind of taken aback because I realized I didn’t know the full story.

So I began talking to Momma Blanca.

I now know why she is so worried about germs and wearing special shoes inside for “health”, and why she is deathly afraid of the doctor.

When Blanca was 15 years old, her mother died of cancer.  When she was 37, her younger sister died of cancer as well, after battling it for 11 years.  She says that when she has to go in for check-ups she cries out of fear that she will be next…

It makes more sense now why she seems to get a little bit sad when we talk about our younger brothers and sisters at dinner time.  Why she is always repeating herself and giving me that look of “you don’t understand what life is, you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Her three children, who all live in her same city, one just one street over, don’t ever come to visit because they are too busy with their own lives and careers.  Her son gets irritated with her and tells her she talks too much and too fast, and says that her exchange students probably think the same thing about her as well.  She only has one grandchild, who yells at her and never listens.

I understand why she sits alone on the couch sometimes, holding her phone waiting for someone to call so she can be right there to pick it up and talk to them.

She is the only of her friends still living near who decided to stay home and raise her children when they were young, so while they are out working, she stays at home waiting for them to get off, because it is what she has always done.

I now know why she loves the beach so much, always talking about her summer trips, wanting to go back.  And why she has such a respect for religion, in any shape or form.

Her husband died 12 years ago, leaving her alone in the house that she has lived in for most of her life.  She goes to the beach because it makes her happy.  It’s where she escaped to spent most of her time after her husband passed away.  Blanca says that she was born and will die catholic, but she knows that in all religion there is truth, and in all truth there must be faith.  She has faith because she knows it will never allow her to be alone, that there will always be a God, no matter where she is, or what sky she is under.  When she lays in her bed at night, even though it would appear she was alone, she says she can be happy because God is in the room with her.

Slowly, I think I am learning to be quicker to observe, to seek for understanding even when it is easier not to.  Sometimes life has a way of doing that, of putting you in your place.

But anyway, let me tell you a little bit more about my weekend excursion.  Are you ready for another history lesson?  Here’s a map to help you guys out:

We began by driving to Segovia.  First view = nothing short of amazing.

At least, I think it was Segovia.  Maybe it was Hogwarts.  Maybe I was accepted by the School or Witchcraft and Wizardry, and you guys don’t even know it.

We got to get out of the bus for like 5 minutes to take a picture of the castle on top of the hill, and then we were carted off to the Roman Aqueducts inside of the city.  I know, so unfortunate, right?

The Aqueduct of Segovia is almost 2,000 years old, and guess what?  It’s still standing (obviously), without ANY cement whatsoever.  The Romans built it so mathematically precisely that the stones they used fit perfectly together and show no signs of falling over anytime soon.  The real mystery about this specific aqueduct is WHY it was built in Segovia.  The Romans constructed it in a town that had just over 100 occupants, although the aqueduct’s size facilitates it to be able to provide water to over 11,000 people!  They must have had high hopes for the little village at the time.

I have a new appreciation and understanding of the significance of the keystone.  If it wasn’t placed exactly correctly or it happened to fall, the entire structure would come crumbling down.  It’s amazing what such a little stone can do!

Segovia is also famous for its cochinillo asado, or rather, roast suckling pig.  These pigs usually weigh only 5 kilos, and it is not a rare occurrence for a family to eat several a week!

It looks delicious and super dead.  Oh wait…

Just a few minutes’ walk from the aqueduct we visited the gothic cathedral

If only I could have gone inside!

The clouds were all ready for the photograph too – so picturesque with the sunbeams behind the ancient building.  I was too busy taking a billion pictures of it so I didn’t hear much about the history.  Whoops.  But to be fair, I’d like you to try to listen to a woman speaking spanish with a lisp and a million words per minute when you’re in the midst of all this grandeur.  Just saying.

The people stand outside the cathedral here once a year to watch that statue ‘turn the page’ in it’s book. Apparently, when he gets to end, the world also ends. Luckily for us, he never actually turns the page, and once the people finish watching him not turn the page at midnight, they go drink and dance and socialize in the plaza. Oh, the ancient customs and the community feeling in Spain 🙂

The kind people of Spain also recommended that I “slice myself” too, but I decided not to take the advice.

Segovia wasn’t huge, but it truly had that “european charm” that I love.  The narrow streets, cobblestone roads, quaint little apartments…

(And yes, as you all may have noticed, I AM wearing something different than in the other picture, but that’s because that picture is from earlier this week when I went to Madrid.  I just didn’t want to have to bother making a separate post for it.  No complaining.)

Segovia, like many other cities in Spain, including my hometown Alcalá de Henares, was originally divided into sections according to peoples’ religions – there was a barrio árabe, judio, y cristiano, for the Arabs, the Jews, and the Christians.  Without a doubt, my favorites are always the neighborhoods with the arabic influences.  Although many of you may know this, the Islamic religion prohibited artists from including any humans, animals, or plants in their artwork or architecture, so they had to get creative and come up with all sorts of different designs (although some look suspiciously like nature elements…)  The walls of their buildings were always covered in designs because they thought the rock underneath was ugly, and their streets were built remarkably narrower than any of the other neighborhoods.

In the Jewish neighborhoods, none of the doors or windows on one side of the street would be placed directly across from the ones on the other side, because they preferred their privacy and it was thought of as rude to be watching or looking into other’s homes.  Also, their neighborhoods are known for being particularly plain and in some ways “ugly” (yeah right they’ve obviously never been to the scary ghetto parts of Tucson) because they didn’t want people to know how elegant the insides of the houses were.

Finally we made our way to the Castle of Segovia (Alcazar). This is a “real palacio” or royal palace.  As in, this is where Isabel and Ferdinand lived ), and they’re kind of big deal (not just in the hey-we-sponsored-Columbus kind of way; more of an all-over-in-Spain kind of way).

They joke around that Disney ripped off this castle for his trademark, and I’m pretty sure that’s what really happened. This place is magical, kids, and also full of tapestries (which deserve more credit than they get.  Those things are masterpieces), paintings, gold, gold and oh yeah, more gold. Also, it has a moat. Does life get better? No.

And here, walking through the armory, you can see a picture of me next to my knight in shining armor.  He professed his love for me through a lovely soliloquy….like so:

Okay actually he didn’t, but I wish he would have.  As a matter of a fact, there wasn’t even a guy in that dumb suit of armor.  Oh well, hopefully mine turns out to have more….substance – moreso than an empty metal suit at least.

By the way, on a random note, let me just say that FIVE of my friends have gotten engaged and/or married since I have been here in Spain.  That’s FIVE people in ONE month, and I don’t even have that many connections.  Whoa there Betsy, let’s just slow down a little bit will you all please??

This is me:


Seriously.  It feels great.

This is the headboard above the throne of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.  Written on it are the words “Tanto Monta”, which signified that the king and queen had the same power, a concept that was quite revolutionary for their time in the 1400’s.

Although I didn’t get a picture of their bed, it’s definitely worth noting.  I should point out that it was an extremely large bed for the time (about the size of a “full” in today’s standards) and was considered the bed of scandals, because heaven forbid, the king and queen slept TOGETHER, rather than in separate beds.  These guys were breaking rules all over the place.  Also, I learned that there were often elaborate headboards because in the early ages, royalty often slept sitting up (leaning against the plush backing of the bed), because it was believed that if they laid down for long periods of time, their blood would pool in their heads and kill them.  Silly Spaniards.

Queen Isabella also made a decree that all people should bathe less.  Why?  Because the Arabs who had invaded Southern Spain bathed regularly for religious “purification” and she hated them, so she decided it was bad.  Personally, I just think she hated washing her hair like me because it’s such a gosh dang hassle.

I’ll also inform you that Queen Isabella was considered rather ugly – I mean heck, she was skinny, had dark olive skin, and pointed, delicate features.  Gross right?  Oh wait…that’s what everyone seems to want now days.  The picture above is actually a pretty cool mural, and unfortunately the picture I took of it does very little justice.  It was painted in a style called “trampatrojo”, which was derived from “trampa para ojo”, literally meaning “trap for eye”, or an optical illusion that makes it seem like it’s 3D.  Pretty advanced, eh, eh??  The people look downcast because she was crowned on December 13, the day of St. Lucy (the patron of blindness).  They thought their country was doomed for sure.

The palace windows used to be covered in that wooden trellis stuff, which allowed the queen and her ladies, who were confined to the castle, to peer out at the garden *cough* workers *cough*.  Smart women.  Very sly.

Unfortunately this is a very poor picture, but before Alcazár became a tourist attraction, the windows used to have much shorter guard rails on them and didn’t have windows, which apparently made it very easy for several young dukes and princes to be pushed out of.  Easy way to get rid of unwanted competition and relatives, no?  There was also a secret door built into several of the rooms so that the king could escape the crowds of people during dances or social gatherings if he was bored with entertaining them.  I need one of these.

After we left Segovia, we made an all-too-short stop in La Granja and visited the Palacio Real de La Granja de San Ildefonso.

The colors of the leaves are changing already 🙂  Although the temperature isn’t unfortunately, which is getting pretty old if you ask me.  I just want to be able to wear my cute jacket (as an “accessory”, thank you very much – I don’t like it when I NEED it, just when I can wear it for fun) and a scarf.  Is that too hard to ask for?

The palace isn’t in use right now, but it IS gorgeous inside.  However, they were sticklers here so we couldn’t take any pictures which means I have no memories of it because I for sure have short term memory loss.  Thanks a lot guys.  The gardens WERE beautiful though.

I got to ride a statue.  The nice thing about Spain (for the most part) is that there are very few guards or police, and the ones that are around really don’t care what you do, which means jay-walking and climbing all over statues is ABSOLUTELY OKAY!

I found some fighting statues that reminded me instantly of my sisters too.  Miss them mucho.  There’s also a chicken randomly in the scene too so it fit perfectly.

We returned home to Alcalá that night because it was only a day trip.  Although we were ridiculously tired, Alex, Sarah and I decided to go out and get gelato on the Calle Mayor because we were tired of being cooped up inside a bus for so long.  We have a friend who works there who’s name is Carlos.  He’s adorable and always gives us extra ice cream because we sit in there and talk to him the whole time because he always works alone.  Plus he gives us as many free samples as we want.  #stuckinthefriendzone

Saturday was our trip to Uclés and Cuenca.  I’m going to be serious with you – I REALLY wasn’t in the mood to go out at all.  Plus I didn’t like the shirt I was wearing because it was ridiculously hot and we all felt like we were going through menopause.  Plus my legs felt like they weighed a billion pounds because I ran 8 miles in 50 minutes a few days before and I have ants in my bed so I can’t sleep and being around 18 girls 24/7 is SERIOUSLY starting to get to me.  I think you’re getting the picture.

Uclés really didn’t have much to see either – we visited the monastery which was supposedly relatively important (?) but it was super empty and the sun was really bright so all my pictures turned out GREAT (not).  I took a picture of a cat though.  There were lots of those.

On the bright side (haha pun, get it?) I did get to practice taking some nice portrait shots of people using the natural light that was coming in from the windows.  We truly have a group of gorgeous girls here.  Check it:

Yeah, Mary is incredibly gorgeous.  Very exotic looking.  She has a sister-in-law who is from India and she and I are already beginning on making plans to make a trek over there.  It’s going to happen.  And you can take that to the bank.

Is it bad we took more pictures of ourselves than the actual monastery?  Maybe.  But what do you expect?  Girls are naturally vain.

By the time we made it to Cuenca, my mood had lightened considerably because we spent the bus ride quoting movies, (if you haven’t seen Baby Momma, She’s The Man or Just Friends, you better get on that)

and talking about good looking men (Robert Downey Jr., Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon Levitt made the top of the list).  I feel bad for our poor director who just sat up front most likely thinking “where the heck am I and what have I done to have to endure this infernal gabbing?”

And I kind of fell in love with the adorable little town.  Unfortunately we made it there right as siesta was starting (for those of you who haven’t caught on, the red, underlined words are links to other things – simple modern day technology here) so we couldn’t go into the museum of abstract art or visit the cathedral, but in all seriousness, we didn’t need to.

Cuenca is worth visiting during siesta time even though everything is closed because it’s just so ridiculously beautiful.

Some people call these “hanging houses” or  “casas colgadas” or even “hellscrapers” (opposite of skyscrapers – get it??)  because they have balconies and parts of the house hanging off the edge of cliff with no support underneath. But they’ve lasted for hundreds of years.

They also have a bridge where lovers hang locks with their names written on them and then throw the keys down into the river.

❤  Since I don’t technically have a “lover” I got a lock and put the most important people ever on it.  They will never let me down 🙂

We also got to see a bride and groom coming out of the beautiful cathedral, and all of the groomsmen dressed in snazzy suits had these cool confetti guns that they shot off in their faces. The bride did NOT look pleased, to say the least.  The Ultimate Non-Temple Wedding  – in a picturesque Spanish town in a super old, finely crafted building with all your friends in super, super nice suits and dresses, lots of confetti, and a crowd of man-deprived American girls taking pictures.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to snap a picture of her face because there were so many people.  Just trust me when I say she looked like she wanted to stab someone REAL bad.

The only negative about Cuenca was that it smelled like urine.  The streets, seriously, smelled horrible.  While exploring, we also wound our way into a weird sketchy enclosing between some of the buildings where they kept a bunch of animals.  It reminded me of when we were in Málaga several years ago and walked into the gypsy nudist colony.

I also found a baby door with a creepy face looking out of it.

And now, finally, gratefully, I can conclude this post.  I know it was long, but that’s what I get for promising to upkeep a blog for my family and then only updating it once a week.  It’s good for me though – such beautiful memories are so easily lost as the begin to blend together.

I’ll leave you with one more quote (translated, of course) from the book I am reading right now.

“It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over. Slowly, I began to realize that I could not go back and force things to be as they once were: those two years, which up until then had seemed an endless inferno, were now beginning to show me their true meaning.”
― Paolo Coehlo, The Zahir

Oh my goodness.  This man is brilliant.  I miss you all, and wish I could be with you now.  Hristo, one of my friends who I have made from Alcalá, taught me not to say “adiós”, but rather to say “chao”, or even better, “hasta ahora”.  Adiós is too final.  He says that even if you never will see them again, leave it as if you will.  Life will greet you much better when you come back knocking at the door.


3 thoughts on “The Zahir, and Travels Around Central Spain

  1. Chloe, whenever I read your blog, I am reminded of you as a very young baby. You insisted on being held facing out in order to see everything in front of you. When you began to talk (way to young) you were always pointing and saying “whats sat”…..And you were lucky enough to have a mom who, even though you were a teensy tiny little tot, would explain to you in detail whatever it was you were wondering about. You were always looking and pointing, eager to fill your little mind with so much new information. Going out with you was an adventure because every new thing piqued your curiosity. Times have not changed and I am so very proud that you are becoming ever so wise as you travel this journey.

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