Several months ago my wife, Laura, suggested a trip to Portugal to visit her son, former Chattanoogan Chris Whitelaw, who is now living there with his Portuguese born wife, Sofia, and their children.
While we were there, she thought, we could also visit another country, like nearby Spain.
And, for good measure, we decided to see it all by rental car, even though neither one of us knew much Spanish or Portuguese.
What resulted was an experience that definitely pulled us out of our comfort zones as we tried in an unintentionally comical manner to find our way across the two countries. But I would not trade the memorable experiences for the comforts of a guided group tour at all – even though we did strike out a few times on meals.
Here is a look at the visit to Spain, with a look at Portugal in an upcoming article.
The trip was challenging from the start, when our overnight flight from Charlotte to Madrid, Spain, on Sunday, June 15, was delayed about four hours. But that did help us sleep a little closer to the normal sleep hours– at least as best as one can snooze in the upright position.
When we landed and walked into the beautifully modernistic and cavernous Madrid airport, we were suddenly hit with the uneasy feeling of what to do next.
After picking up our bags, we slowly and timidly made our way to the rental car counter to pick up our car, which turned out to be a Spanish-made Seat (pronounced like Fiat). Our last question to the attendant dealt with which side of the road you drive on, if that gives you any indication of our knowledge of driving in Spain.
To my pleasant surprise, I found out that both countries drive on the right. But we also discovered that a few challenges still exist, from navigating roundabouts to trying to read the lengthy Spanish street names on buildings – when they are there.
And then there was the discovery that our hotel in Madrid’s city center was on a pedestrian street not open to automobiles. As a result, we did what most first-time visitors in automobiles do – we drove around in circles and down a few strange-looking side streets in the Leon model car hoping for a miracle.
I suddenly knew how the late former Atlanta Braves pitcher Pascual Perez of the Dominican Republic, who knew no English, felt after unintentionally circling Interstate 285 numerous times while trying to find the Braves’ stadium in 1982.
For us, the hoped-for miracle in Madrid did not come initially. However, what did come was a stern warning from a pedestrian policeman, who waved us down and wondered why we ran a red light that to me looked as though it could have been for any of the five other streets on that roundabout.
Fearful that I was about to be put in jail for months, I simply said, “We just speak English.”
His reply in English to me was, “The lights in your country are red, too.”
He thankfully let us go, and we finally found a parking garage, which turned out to be the correct one for our hotel about two blocks away. A nice businessman who spoke fluent English and was catching an elevator at the garage told us it was OK to park there 24 hours.
After that small miracle, we made our way up to our small hotel – the Praktik Metropol. After checking in, we breathed a big sigh of relief that we had made it through the first half day of the crazy hassles of being in a foreign country in an automobile, but with no local knowledge.
Unfortunately, it would not be the last unintentional adventure.
After a brief rest in this hotel that has a neat and quaint second floor eating and lobby area, we went out on the streets to eat lunch. Or was it supper? With the time change, I could not have told you.
We walked around, saw some talented mime artists in the Plaza Puerta del Sol, and even went about a half mile to the famous Plaza Mayor. The latter, a historic open-air site surrounded on four sides by buildings, is where Matt Lauer broadcast a “Where in the World?” segment for NBC’s “Today” show in 2011.
It was certainly fascinating to see everyone out dining in the cafes with outdoor seating, even though Madrid is a late evening town and the night was just getting started. What I quickly noticed was that smoking among Spaniards is still quite acceptable. In fact, the scene brought back memories of having to be involuntarily subjected to second-hand smoke in the United States in the 1980s and earlier.
I also began noticing every few yards some somewhat scantily dressed young women standing off by themselves. Perhaps they were waiting on their fellow girlfriends to go out and enjoy a carefree night, I naively thought.
I was wrong. After seeing about the second or third one, I realized they were working.
After an appetizer of some delicious mango gelato while walking around, we decided on a restaurant right next to our hotel. Only later did I realize it was part of a chain. We ordered paellas, which ended up being chicken cooked in rice and one or two other vegetables.
It was rather bland, and I quickly realized I was about as good at picking Spanish restaurants as I was at navigating the streets of Madrid. We did have a couple of delicious chocolate Napoleon pastries from a bakery for dessert, though.
The next day, a Tuesday, we decided to walk down to one of the famous Madrid art galleries, the Prado, where a number of works by such artists as Raphael and Goya were displayed.
As we walked down there, we saw a number of policemen who had gathered by some of the government buildings. We also saw some bleachers being erected and television trucks beginning to arrive. We quickly realized the reason – the coronation ceremony of Felipe VI in two days.
The visit to the art gallery was very enjoyable, but I actually fell briefly asleep sitting on one of the gallery room benches. Yes, the time difference had finally caught up with me.
That night, I enjoyed a special and unusual treat. Back in the early 1980s when I was attending the University of Georgia and living in the Myers Hall dorm, I befriended a Spanish and Portuguese language instructor named Dr. Joe Snow, who lived in a faculty apartment in the dorm.
He had told me about a university-sponsored trip to Russia and Finland, and my late mother, Velma Shearer, and I ended up going on it in March 1983 with him and his sister, Margaret.
After I wrote a story last year on the 30th anniversary of my trip, I reconnected via email with Dr. Snow. He is now retired after later teaching at Michigan State and is living in Madrid, of all places.
After realizing I would be visiting Madrid, we made plans to get together. This meant that I would be with him on both of my only two overseas trips, despite the fact that they were more than 30 years apart.
It was a neat experience seeing him after he came to our hotel. He took Laura and me to a smaller plaza, where I enjoyed a Coca-Cola and some chips before he led us to a nearby restaurant a little off the beaten tourist path.
He translated the menu for us and we had some delightful food in the two-course Spanish style that is not exactly like the salad and entrée sequence popular in the United States.
For my first course, I had green beans with Spanish ham – which was not that much different from Southern cooking – and a delicious thin and breaded chicken breast and some potatoes for the second course. It was much better than the first meal we had eaten the night before, and the barely cooked steak I had endured earlier that day for lunch.
While dining in this quaint restaurant was a new experience for me, the conversation was quite vintage, and it was great reminiscing and catching up with Dr. Snow.
After he walked us back to our hotel about three hours after meeting us, we had to make some plans for the next day. With the coronation being planned for Thursday and hearsay that we would likely not be able to get out of downtown or even our parking garage on that day, we decided to go ahead and leave town on Wednesday – a day earlier than originally planned.
Of course, we also knew we would miss a little history and not get to walk out of our hotel and watch the parade for Felipe and his glamorous wife, Letzia, a former TV newswoman. And hopefully we would still not be lost and somehow unintentionally become part of their automobile procession.
After breakfast, we loaded up and left. We made it out of the parking garage OK and out onto the main road of Gran Via, and started feeling better.
Unfortunately, that was as good as it got, because we quickly became lost again. The roads we were looking for were not there, or at least the signs for them were not, so we did our Pascual Perez imitation and started driving around in circles.
For the second time in three days, I feared we would be stuck on the streets of Madrid for the rest of our lives.
Finally, however, we found a road we were looking for and made our way to the Spanish equivalent of an Interstate highway.
Once a few miles out of town and heading north, the beautiful Spanish countryside with dry and mostly barren fields and mountains came into view.
Our destination was Segovia, which was a quaint, elevated town with a big cathedral and an interesting castle, the Alcazar. And, for good measure, this town also had a Roman aqueduct.
As we made our way through this neat village, we stopped for lunch. And with me picking the place, it had to be good, right? Not hardly. I struck out once again.
By this time I was hoping for something American, so we went into a sandwich style shop and I ordered what I thought was a mini-pizza. Unfortunately, this pizza had a topping on it that I was not expecting – tuna.
I washed it down with the help of a Coca-Cola, a drink that sells quite well in Spain and Portugal, and then we made our way to the castle at the end of the roughly half mile walk that went partly uphill.
The setting of the castle amid the blue and humidity-free skies was beautiful. We also noticed some birds taking up residence in the tops of some trees by it, and later learned they were storks, which we found all over Spain and Portugal.
I made a suggestion that I later regretted in that I encouraged us not to go inside the castle due to time. The reason for my suggestion was that I had somewhere else to go that day.
One of my favorite movies of all time is “Patton,” which received the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1970. I had read that much of the movie was filmed in Spain.
And several scenes were filmed at the royal La Granja palace about a 15-minute drive from Segovia, I discovered through an online article.
So after visiting Segovia, we made our way over there and found it after having to ask only a couple of people with limited English for directions.
The La Granja palace movie scenes included when George C. Scott was reading the letter about being ordered to apologize to the soldier he slapped, and when he was talking with one of his aides about a possible promotion after he was relieved of command of the 7th Army. Also filmed there was the part when he walked out onto the small palace window balcony after talking with his orderly and learning that Gen. Omar Nelson Bradley had received the top command for the European invasion.
Other filming sequences done there were the chapel scene when he prayed before apologizing to the solider, and the brief scene where he walks out of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s office after he was permanently relieved of any command at the end of the war.
Also, the hallway scene where he talks to his orderly after being rebuked for his comments about the Russians was filmed there. It is known for Gen. Patton’s famous line of, “I must be allowed to fulfill my destiny!”
As when I was dining with Dr. Snow, I experienced another familiar/unfamiliar moment here. Although I was in a place I had never been before, and none of the security guards and workers seemed to speak English, I was getting a firsthand look at some settings in the movie well ingrained in my mind.
“George C. Scott, you magnificent actor, I found one of your shooting locations!” I excitedly thought as I walked through the beautiful – but somewhat barren – palace and grounds, paraphrasing one of Patton’s lines in the movie.
I started thinking that someone could probably find a niche market leading tours to several of the shooting locations for Americans like me who love the movie. Another nearby palace, Rio Frio, also had some filming scenes, and I wish I had made plans to go there.
Despite the grandness of the La Granja palace, the small town square surrounding it is very quaint, giving it almost a Spanish Mayberry feel. While walking the streets and grounds – and going into the quaint restaurant to ask where to find the palace -- I was about as content as I was during the entire two-week trip. A beautiful blue sky and some gorgeous surrounding mountains added to the tranquil setting.
Unfortunately, the tenseness returned because we had to get back in our car and drive to our next destination – Toledo. Although we thought we could go around Madrid as we headed south of the capital, we ended up somehow back on Gran Via. And I about had another grand nervous breakdown.
However, we were somehow able to get back on another freeway after witnessing the growing police presence on bridges and elsewhere due to the coronation. But we soon became stuck in I-285-like rush hour traffic for about an hour.
After that, we got some gas at one of the numerous Repsol gas stations located off special freeway exit roads. We could not figure out whether we paid before pumping, but an English-speaking visitor and even the station attendant helped us get gas. It was one of numerous times when the locals were kind to help us.
We eventually reached Toledo only about 30-40 miles to the south, but our troubles were not over. We tried to find our hotel, La Bastida, on the outskirts of town, but could not. This was complicated by the fact that a festival of Corpus Christi blocked off part of downtown.
We ended up stopping in one hotel, two restaurants (including one of them twice), and even a private tennis club asking for directions. A couple of people seemed to know where it was and tried to tell us in limited English, but they were all a little distracted by watching Spain lose to Chile on TV in a World Cup soccer match.
The situation would have probably been like a Southerner having to give directions to someone who knocked on his door while he was watching his favorite SEC football team in a tense fourth-quarter battle.
People kept telling us to go past a roundabout, and what we eventually realized were that two roads were on the other side of the roundabout, and we kept taking the wrong one.
Needless to say, we saw the entire town of Toledo – including the scenic view from above the deep river -- at least twice. Part of our problem was that we had declined to order the GPS addition to the car.
When we finally found the hotel close to 11 p.m. and breathed yet another sigh of relief, I was beginning to feel like we were taking part in a “Survivor” competition.
We went to bed at about 2 a.m. and did not awaken until 10:30.
By then, we did not have time to visit Toledo and needed to head down to Seville. Of course, we had already seen much of Toledo while lost, even though I was too preoccupied to take any pictures.
We did get to watch the coronation ceremony and parade on TV while eating our late breakfast, and it was neat to see the familiar places back in Madrid.
The more-than-four-hour trip down to Seville went through some simply stunning Spanish countryside of hills, mountains, and dry and bush-covered farmland that looked so different from East Tennessee. A few olive groves and possibly other orchards also came into view.
Once at Seville, we found a main road to our hotel and were feeling good. Surely our driving problems were over, I thought. Well, guess what? I was wrong! That main road turned into several side roads, and those side roads turned into a maze of very narrow streets in the city center where our hotel, the Callejon del Agua, was.
I was beginning to feel like one of the Three Stooges as we tried to get through these narrow streets that I was not even sure we were supposed to be navigating. The roads were almost like a continuous Fat Man’s Squeeze for cars, to borrow the name of the narrow rock opening at Rock City.
After I had about two more nervous breakdowns and somehow made it back on one of the regular streets, we found a parking garage adjacent to the old city center. Relieved, we packed all our belongings needed for the next 24 hours into one of our smaller suitcases and went up the elevator to exit.
Once outside, a simply beautiful setting of buildings, streetcar lines and park space came into view. Needless to say, this good-sized city looked much better than it did a few minutes earlier from the car.
And making Laura happy was the fact that a Starbuck’s was staring us in the face. After sitting there, we were eventually able to find our quaint hotel after having to ask only about three or four taxi cab drivers and local business people.
That night, with the help of the hotel clerk, we found a nice restaurant that served delicious tapas, which are basically small plates of food. I had fried eggplant on one, and chicken and potatoes on the other. I washed it all down with another Coca-Cola, my familiar old liquid friend during an otherwise unfamiliar dining experience.
I am glad I got to experience tapas in Spain, but I did not get to experience the controversial sport of bullfighting or watch some flamenco dancing, even though opportunities for both existed in Seville. In fact, we passed by the bullring while lost and people of all ages were going in, similar to the scene outside a minor league baseball stadium.
The next day, we toured the giant palace also named Alcazar and the giant Seville cathedral. Both were quite ornate, but we had become accustomed to showiness on palaces of old by that time.
The cathedral is where the great explorer Christopher Columbus is buried. It also has a tower, and I climbed it, despite the fact that it has 34 ramps to get to the open lookout area where the bells are.
Once up there, I relished the stunning view briefly before heading back down and getting ready to drive into Portugal after lunch.
I was feeling emotionally on top as well, cherishing the somewhat unique way we were experiencing Spain.