Virtual travel to Spain and down memory lane

The week before last I went to one of the Cities of Architecture series at ACCA – (the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) here in Melbourne. This one was on Madrid and was presented by Qianyi Lim, Director of architectural practice Sibling.

Australia may be geographically isolated, but I find numerous opportunities to connect with other  countries, cultures, ideas and foods; I never feel cut off. On the contrary, I celebrate the accessibility of multiple art forms on my door step. Highlights this year so far include attending a flip book film show show by an itinerant German photographer at the Adelaide Festival, spending a day at Womadelaide listening to everything from Jewish chanting, Korean drumming, Chilean pop and Spanish funk to reunited 80s UK band The Specials. Recently I’ve enjoyed taking in Van Gogh and the Seasons at the NGV, and catching the UK theatre production of 1984 with an Australian cast at the Comedy Theatre. Virtual travel at its best.

In a bizarre echo of 1984, the virtual experience morphed into something slightly surreal recently when I got stuck in a lift in the CBD. After a few jolting stops and starts, the lift  jammed on the third floor and an automated voice advised me to press the Emergency Button, which I duly did, only for another voice – this time a human one coming through the speaker – to take the necessary details and call out a technician.  A bit spooky, but I did get out after an hour.

But back to ACCA. The event was supported by local whisky distillers Starward (Port Melbourne) and we were greeted with tumblers of spiced Spanish hot chocolate made with dark chocolate, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla (an underestimated subtle flavouring), cayenne pepper, a bit of honey and a shot of delightful Starward Wine Cask Single Malt Whisky. Deliciously smooth, it was warming, peppery and altogether a bit decadent for a Monday night.

The drink was inspired by the thick Spanish hot chocolate dipping sauce that traditionally accompanies churros – the deep-fried doughnut-like spiral snacks. I last had churros in Spain when I was a third-year Modern Language undergraduate doing ‘my year abroad’ (in my case, half in Granada in Southern Spain and half in Augsburg in Southern Germany) in 1984. Fortunately, Big Brother wasn’t much in evidence back then when CCTV cameras and constant surveillance weren’t part of the backdrop of our lives.

Talking of brothers,  a fellow Bristol University student (Danielle) and I became friends with a couple of boys, Paco and Pedro, who, contrary to the hot-blooded Don Juan stereotypes one might associate with Spain and all things Latin, were in fact sweet, dependable and, it seemed to us, asexual. Whatever their sexual preferences, they were ideal companions and extremely generous with their time in taking us out on day trips to the country, rustic meals, Flamenco dancing, and a couple of times up to the Sierra Nevada to ski. I wonder where they are now and what they are doing? I’d love to find them and thank them.

Left to Right: Paco, Danielle and Pedro

At the other end of the scale was Sarah, also studying at Bristol, who had three men on the go, one at home and two in Granada. I was wide-eyed and agog at her stories and her appetite (a rather splendid euphemism for libido that I heard recently in the film My Cousin Rachel based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel). How Sarah juggled them all – one a market seller from Senegal – and, moreover, smuggled them into the boarding house where she lodged with two crochet-knitting widows beats me.

The churros in Granada were drenched in very strong extra virgin olive oil unlike the finer, crispier version with fluted edges I sampled on a visit to Madrid. The pattern was to go out ‘de marcha’ or ‘de juerga’ meaning to live it up and have a good time until the early hours of the morning. That’s when we’d repair to a bar – probably at 5 a.m. to sop up the alcohol with churros and chocolate. Never a night owl, the combination of going through the night – trasnochar in Spanish – topped off with chowing down artery-clogging churros often meant I climbed into bed about 6.30 a.m. feeling a bit heavy and undigested!

I have no doubt that the urban landscape in Granada will have altered somewhat since I was there. From Qianyi Lim’s talk and slideshow, it’s clear that Madrid has changed hugely. I don’t recall who I went to Madrid with – perhaps one of my flatmates from the stuffy little apartment – my room looked onto an internal courtyard (think laundry lines and cooking smells) – in ‘Pilchard’ Street (Calle Darro del Boquerón – the Darro being the local river). Two of the girls – Lucia and Marie were staunch Catholics and when Mari’s boyfriend Pedro came over, he had Mari’s bed, while Marie bunked up with Lucia, the cross hanging above the bed seemingly warding off sin. I reckon it was the more liberated Pilar, a zoologist,  who had a lovely boyfriend and took the pill, who accompanied me to Madrid.

From Left to Right: Pilar, Lucia and Marie

What I do recall –- as well as trips to the Prado and boating on the lake in the Retiro Park – is visiting a selection of bars at lunchtime on the Sunday – all crowded, noisy and with sawdust-scattered floors –  where we drank beer and ate tapas – not the fancy shmancy offerings you might find on a trendy urban menu now – but simple offerings such as a slice of hot roast pork or some salted almonds.

 

Spot the 1980 car models…

Going on a virtual architectural tour of Madrid gave me an interesting update – and a yearning to go back at some stage. The Puerto de Europa twin towers straddling the Paseo de Castellano built in 1996 by Philip Johnson are like modern day symmetrical towers of Pisa leaning in towards each other. Also built in 1996 are the Girasol apartments designed by the Catalan architect Corderch, their five separate towers with undulating walls designed to maximise light and regulate cooling and warming. And, most surprising of all, the Torres Blancas, which were designed by Francisco Saenz de Oiza during the repressive Franco era (another echo of Big Brother). Tall, cylindrical, curved towers with landscaping at the top, the forward-thinking design represented a covert anti-regime sentiment; architects having more freedom than writers to express their opposition.

Torres Blancas

Other major changes include the newish Reina Sofia Museum building, expanded in 2005, which is part of the Golden Triangle of Art in the Prado Complex. The triangular roof of the Reina Sofia Museum almost dips down to touch the classical Prado in an elegant fusion of old and new.

Qianyi told us that 70% of architectural practices in Spain closed during the Global Financial Crisis – Spain was particularly hard hit. So it was heartening to learn about the post-GFC multi-million dollar Rio Madrid development, a new area on the banks of the Manzanares River. Once a polluted river with a highway running alongside it, the traffic has now been diverted into underground tunnels and it has been transformed into a cultural and recreational zone complete with beaches. With a focus on liveability, air quality and sustainability, it reflects some of the best trends in contemporary urban design.

Taking off and unplugging

I’m about to take off back to Blighty and I’m nearly – but not quite – ready. However much I plan in advance, it always builds up to a pre-trip devil-in –the-detail whirl. I tend to sweat the small stuff first – decanting lotions and potions into small bottles, loading up my Kindle, wrapping presents, buying and packing my favourite herbal teas which, ironically, are made in England. Yes, it’s definitely a case of ‘Coals to Newcastle’ but my mother’s local (rural) town definitely won’t have them. I’ve taken some recipes to try out so I can cook for friends and relatives, loaded up my USB stick with photos, documents and work-related stuff, sorted all my hard copy travel documents into folders, made up my regulation plastic bag of toiletries for the plane, cleaned out the fridge, given my indoor plants to a friend, measured out 72 cups of Bertie’s food (he’s off to a homestay place and I’m already welling up about the thought of saying goodbye to him), and tried to fix my garden sprinklers so my pots don’t dry out and die. I’m flying out tonight so better get some clothes in the suitcase sometime soon. ..

At a time of heightened fear in the media and amid all the rhetoric being spouted by our politicians, It’d be easy to succumb to worrying about security on the flight, Ebola, terrorism, mechanical failure – or even losing my luggage. Who hasn’t had troubled dreams about losing their luggage?! But I refuse to be infected by all the negativity and am planning to get on the plane and RELAX. Long haul fights can be mini holidays in themselves if you can get into the right headspace.

It may be the most unnatural thing for the body to be cooped up in a pressurised cabin full of recycled air, in uncomfortably close proximity to other people, with limited opportunity for movement and far too many rounds of heated-up food and stewed tea, BUT when else do we get the opportunity to do NOTHING but read, doze, watch films and doodle? Well,that used to be the case. What bliss when you couldn’t use your electronic devices during the flight. You could well and truly SWITCH OFF. That’s all changed now. I am not flying Qantas but have just checked their website, which states:
“There are plenty of ways to keep in touch while you are flying with Qantas. You can now use your personal electronic devices such as smart phones, tablets and music players in flight mode, for the duration of each flight, providing uninterrupted access to work and entertainment. On all A380, B747-400 and A330-300 aircraft you can send and receive text messages, make inflight telephone calls and perform seat to seat calls all from the comfort of your seat.”

What a shame! Is there no respite from the frenetic round of communicating, commenting, chatting, texting and tweeting? I’m happy to have uninterrupted down time and to enjoy the freedom that comes with being in a cyber-free cocoon.

My mother’s house is a technology free zone, which again, is no bad thing. I’m going over to spend time with her and Dad, not to be glued to electronic devices. I’ll have to ration my time online for blogging and emails as I’ll be hot-spotting via my phone. Mind you, however much I rant and rave about the joys of unplugging, I also recognise that access to the internet is vital for researching new destinations and travel arrangements. In 1985 – or thereabouts – I spent half a year in Spain during the third year of my language degree at Bristol. I had phoned ahead to book into a three-star hotel for my first few nights, there being no email or online bookings in those days. I arrived in Granada in mid-October about ten o’clock at night, loaded up with four months of luggage. The hotel claimed to know nothing about my booking – they were fully booked as it was a fiesta weekend – so they turned me away.

The Plaza Bibarrambla, Granada

The Plaza Bibarrambla, Granada

I met a fellow student, who had also just arrived from England, and we lugged our suitcases around knocking on hotel doors getting the same response everywhere. It was now getting towards midnight and a park bench was looking like our only option. Finally we found a cheap hostal residencia in the Plaza Bibarrambla. Run by a woman who seemed to spend all day in her dressing gown sweeping the steps, the beds sagged in a well worn banana shape, a bare light bulb in the ceiling flickered and crackled, and the communal bathrooms had chilly concrete floors and strict rules about not putting paper down the loo. It was super basic and the other guests could have stepped straight out of a Picaresque novel, but the place nevertheless had some charm, and offered fabulous views over the square. I wonder if it’s still there?