There are more shoe stores in Spain than there are anywhere in the known world. There doesn’t seem to be any explanation for this. But someone is selling shoes just about everywhere you travel. Street after street full of shoe stores, sometimes two or three clustered together on a single block.
None of the shoes in these shoe stores fit me. My feet, sadly, are too big for Spain.
However, the shoes in Spain fit my wife, Kathy, all too well. She was in shoe heaven. I endured a lot of attractive shop clerks who looked at my feet, shook their heads, and choked back what I took to be a derisive snicker.
Spain and its many, many shoe stores remain curiously beneath the tourist radar, although, according to the New York Times, that’s beginning to change: by the end of 2016 more than seventy-six million visitors looking for a safe, terrorist-free environment will have visited.
The food here is better than just about anywhere else in Europe, even better—and this is a kind of heresy coming from an unrepentant Paris lover—than in France. The gazpacho is the best a certain gastronomically-challenged patron has ever tasted; one could live on the octopus salad.
At Botin, considered by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s oldest restaurant (founded in 1725), tour groups crowding the street in front, you enter into an austere, dark-wood interior where the brusque maître d’ directs you through the kitchen and into a back room for a superb lunch: a mixed fish casserole for the gastronomically-challenged; grilled prawns for our resident foodie.
What’s more, the price of everything–shoes, food, accommodation, clothing–is often less than half of what it is just about anywhere else in Europe. After the soaring costs of London and Paris, a visitor is in a mild state of sticker shock. You keep looking at restaurant bills thinking that a mistake has been made. It hasn’t.
Of course, the view of Spain is the tourist’s narrow view, the romantic Spain of old, old stones, of a twisting labyrinth of cobblestone streets leading inevitably to cathedrals and palaces—Seville’s Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, the third largest church in the world; the Royal Palace in Madrid, a vaulted complex of such tasteless gilt-edged overindulgence as to leave one breathless; the fabled Alhambra, combination Moorish-Christian palace and grim fortress brooding down on—and dominating—Granada; the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Snows, mounted atop the island of Ibiza.
On and on it goes—just when you are certain the Spanish can’t outdo themselves architecturally any further, you stumble upon Seville’s Plaza de España , built to celebrate the 1929 World’s Fair, an ostentatiously elegant clash of art deco and Moorish styles one local called “The most beautiful place in the world.”
Tourists overwhelm these monuments to the power and religion that have dominated Spanish history—better order your tickets in advance for the Alhambra, otherwise you’re not going to get in.
No sign of the peasants among the grand stones. They don’t write the history and their hovels don’t survive, so it is the kings and cardinals who endure and are remembered. In this modern, democratic time we line up in droves to marvel at testaments to a royal and religious world that effectively shut out any notion of the common man.
History comes via a series of guides escorting the hordes through ancient city centers, attempting, usually with some success, to illuminate a blur of competing cultures and religions, all taking turns invading across the Iberian Peninsula.
The Phoenicians arrived more or less first, people of the Fertile Crescent in what is now Israel, Jordan and Syria, then the Romans, who were replaced for five hundred years by the Moors of North Africa. They, in turn, were finally defeated by the Christians—the last sultan gave up Granada to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella in 1492, the same year Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón as he is known here, set sail for India and instead bumped into the New World. Loathe to admit his mistake, Columbus called the inhabitants Indios or Indians.
The Christians, depending on their mood, either obliterated any sign of the Muslim presence—in Valencia they destroyed the great mosque and replaced it with their own cathedral—or learned to adapt to it, most prominently at the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar in Seville.
For a time, the Christians understood that they could learn much from the Muslims, and that Islam and Christianity weren’t all that far apart when all was said and prayed for, so they simply pinned a few Christian symbols onto the existing Muslim architecture and no one seemed to mind.
The one part of Spanish history that the guides and the guidebooks do not much discuss is the Spanish Civil War between 1937 and 1939. Romanticized in North America thanks to the likes of Hemingway, the war is barely mentioned in the country that was ripped apart by it and resulted in nearly four decades of dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
“That is still an open wound,” said Aitor, a passionate student of history who introduced us to his native Seville. “It’s something the Spanish people don’t like to talk about.”
The lingering effects of the civil war are subtle but still present. For example, all those statutes you see around Madrid? Replicas, for the most part. The original bronzes, amazingly, were all melted down for ammunition during the war.
And one has only to wander into the city’s Reina Sofia museum for a view of Guernica, Picasso’s black and gray masterpiece depicting the bombing of the Spanish town by German planes aligned with the Nationalist forces of General Franco, to be reminded of the war’s atrocities.
Franco died in 1975 and Spain has been a democracy ever since, although lately there had not been a national government. As we departed, the warring opposition parties finally reached a compromise and formed a government amid howls of outrage and protests outside Madrid’s Palacio des las Cortes, the house of parliament known locally as the Pickpocket’s Temple.
Otherwise, no one seemed particularly concerned by the lack of a governing body. Most Spaniards thought the country worked better without a government. Services kept functioning, everyone somehow got paid, the streets of the major cities were clean, unemployment fell, and the previously floundering economy grew at a healthy three per cent.
On a perfect evening in Madrid, one sits in the city’s central square, the Plaza Mayor, teeming with the young and the exuberant, concluding that for all Spain’s dark history, its recent economic woes, this is a vibrant, energetic country where everyone is out on the street, where no one seems to go too far before settling into an outdoor café or restaurant for tapas or paella or pulpo (octopus to you foreigners), accompanied by a glass of Agua de Valencia—a popular cocktail combining cava (champagne) orange juice, vodka, and gin. “It doesn’t taste like liquor,” someone pointed out. “Until you try to stand up.”
You marvel again at the ease of Spain, its rich culture, the intoxicating rhythms that draw you in effortlessly, so much to enjoy here.
If only the shoes fit.