I once went a'touristing.
It seemed like all the Beautiful People were going to Spain that year, or had been there the year before. We had just been married that autumn and this would be our first summer. I would finish my first year of law school at Northwestern and she would be on summer break from teaching at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, and we read the New Yorker and Holiday and who knows what other glossy, upscale magazines and were aspiring Yuppies, avant la lettre.
We bought guidebooks. In Frommer’s $5-a-Day guide for Spain we were delighted to read in the introduction that he thought you could do Spain quite well on $3 a day.
And of course we had both read Hemingway.
I chose to fly TWA on aesthetic grounds. Their Constellation liners were, I thought, the most beautiful aircraft in the sky (an opinion which I still hold) and I wanted to pass through their extravagantly-designed terminal at Idlewild -- then just recently re-named John F. Kennedy International -- a building so modern that it looked like it should accommodate space travel.
We got our first passport, a joint one: our photograph made us look like a pair of very square Midwesterners. Had we corn tassels coming out of our pockets it would have seemed entirely appropriate. We consoled ourselves that no one looks good in their passport photo, those ours seemed to make the point unnecessarily so. We obtained health certificates attesting that we were proof against cholera and the plague and need not be detained in quarantine.
We were ready to leave on our adventure. We had no doubt it would be the first of many. Despite what our passport picture claimed, we would be Beautiful People, for we were going to Spain.
We first touched down in Portugal where we were glared at by guards (Salazar was still around in those days) and given small bottles of Portuguese wine. We had not expected the wine and, being unsophisticated in these matters, were not sure if it were legal to carry them with us into Spain. As it turned out, this was not an issue as we tried to carry them outside our baggage and we dropped and broke both of them in the airport at Madrid.
After having made this initial bad impression on the Spanish, we took a taxi to the Castellaña Hilton where we had reservations for the first night. In those days, the hotels catering to $5-a-day travelers did not take reservations (I suspect some of them may not have even had telephones) so I began what has been a lifetime practice in my travel of making reservations at an upscale hotel only for the night of my arrival and spending the next day finding a satisfactory cheap hotel for the rest of my stay. We found a very small, very European hotel not far from the Prado and settled in for our stay in Madrid.
Modern travelers know that Europe has gone to hell, that its graffitied cities are awash with scruffy Eurotrash. This was much less so of Europe in those days, and of Franco’s Spain was so not at all. Spaniard and visitor alike were expected to dress appropriately, and the Guardia Civil, with their distinctive patten leather hats and carbines, were constantly present to remind you. Spain, it seemed to me, was a country with a dress code. Whether the Guardia Civil actually enforced a dress code or not, their icy gaze reminded you that you wanted to be a respectful guest in their country. General Franco was by this time an old man, and old people, we knew, expect good manners.
But we were in Spain. In Madrid. The castanets clicked in our ears and we handled great bath-towel-sized peseta notes, beautifully engraved with the portraits of worthies whose accomplishments we could only imagine and our pockets jingled with the linear descendants of ducats and doubloons.
In a public restroom in Retiro Park there were lavatory attendants with towels and talc. I asked the fee. “Four reales,” he said. I knew pesatas and centimos, but I did not know reales. I held out a handful of coins, from which he took 50 centimos. Ah, ha, I realized: eight reales to the peseta: the piece-of-eight still lived, as it did in our own two-bits and four-bits, a relic of those long centuries when the Spanish Dollar was good money everywhere.
We were tourists, honestly and unapologetically, and aspired only to be good at it.
I had bought a camera for the trip. It had looked nice in the box but I soon realized it left much to be desired. It was one of those idiot-proof cameras, though I seemed determined to test its mettle. When we visited the fabulous art collection of the Prado Museum there were signs everywhere forbidding cameras and demanding that they be surrendered upon entry. I of course did no such thing, and in the near proximity of a famous Breugel it fell out of my pocket and shattered on the floor. A guard looked at me quizzically. I swept up what pieces I could see and put them in my coat pocket, all the while attempting to give the impression that I was sure this sort of thing happens all the time. Back at our hotel when I attempted to reassemble the camera I found that I must have missed some of the pieces, but they were apparently non-critical, as the camera still worked.
We went to places the guide book advised. We went to the restaurant on the Plaza Mayor that Hemingway had written about, where they serve a baby pig so tender that it can be cut with the edge of a saucer. We ordered the pig and our waiter cut it with a saucer. In the arcade of the Plaza we were accosted by a man in an unseasonably long coat, which he opened to reveal that its lining was covered with wrist watches secured with safety pins, all of which he indicated were for sale at most attractive prices. He was such a cliché that I assumed he must be in the pay of the Tourist Office. We browsed through a used book shop and I encountered for the first time the work of H.P.Lovecraft. In a coin shop I bought some old Spanish silver.
We took side trips to Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen and to the Alcázar in Toledo, that huge ancient building where a handful of Nationalists had stood off a long siege against preposterous odds during the Civil War. In the Church of San Tomé I saw El Greco’s famous “Burial of Count Orgaz” and in a crypt-like museum I saw the sword of El Cid. I bought an antique pistol.
We strolled broad avenues and narrow, twisting streets and sat at sidewalk cafes and drank Coca-Cola. I wore a wash-and-wear suit, as the travel books advised, and Peggy wore a shirtwaist dress of appropriate modesty. We were Innocents Abroad.
Tiring at length of lolling about the boulevards of the capital, we booked a second-class carriage on a train for the northwest city of La Coruña. It was all so utterly European. We shared our compartment with a businessman who apparently wanted only to sleep, a young couple very much in love and a young lady who affected to speak no English, though she was reading an English novel, and whose boyfriend was apparently traveling by third-class coach, as whenever we stopped she would lean out of the window and yell to him at the back of the train. At night we passed near the city of Avilla and saw its long medieval walls illuminated by floodlights.
In the morning we arrived at the ocean-side city of La Coruña. By this time the Spanish tourist people were promoting their coasts and everyone had heard of the Costa del Sol. La Coruña, jutting out into the stormy north Atlantic, had long been known as the Costa del Muerte, which for some reason had not been as successfully promoted.
We had the happy fortune to arrive in town the week before its season began and our hotel was fully-staffed, but except for us was empty, and our table was attended four and five deep by serving people trying to get in practice for the coming crowds and they served us more courses than we wanted simply to get the experience of setting out and taking away. We loved it and tipped promiscuously.
About this time Peggy had been on the road long enough that she wanted something done with her hair and so, at the recommendation of the concierge she went off to a salon while I wandered around the town. A hour or so later we met, as arranged, in the square, then set up with mechanical rides and booths for the weekend’s festivities.
She was laughing, as that seemed the only thing she could do. While I had some basic Spanish, Peggy had none at all and the ladies at the salon had given her one of those hairspray-hardened bouffant bubbles that were apparently then all the rage in swinging London. Peggy, the Midwestern nursing teacher who was as conservative as I was, could only take comfort that no one she knew would see her and that eventually it could probably be washed out. I took a picture of her in her new hairdo sitting in front of a large mechanical rabbit. She never cared for that picture.
The Costa del Muerte turned out not to be that interesting and we took a plane back to Madrid and from there a bus to Valencia on the Mediterranean coast. On the way there, late at night we passed a power station which I think was the one in the opening sequence of the film “Doctor Zhivago”.
I knew of Valencia from the Charleton Heston movie “El Cid”. The film had given me the impression that the city sat on the Mediterranean, though if this were the case I was never able to find it. The fine medieval walls that had kept out the Saracens were likewise absent, having been torn down a century or so earlier in some sort of civic improvement, which disappointed me at the time, and still does, even though I realize that medieval walls are probably more trouble than they are worth and most cities that had them have long ago torn them down. It was in Valencia that I first experienced paella and gazpacho.
My expectations of the place undoubtedly having been unreasonably inflated by Charleton Heston, we took a short flight to one of those places the Beautiful People were constantly going: the island of Majorca.
Majorca was the first place I became aware of the notion of “touristy”. It was a beautiful place but it seemed to exist for people who weren’t from around there. While in other places I had assumed that we had to speak Spanish, in Majorca the signs in the shop windows invited customers to speak most anything, and there seemed to be a lot of blonds around. I saw a sign in a language I did not recognize and later learned that it was not for the tourists but for the natives: it was in Catalan.
We found a wonderful, old-fashioned hotel with a cranky birdcage elevator and bathroom fixtures that could have been in a museum. We loved it. So diligent had I been to be a good traveler that I had brought a travel iron and decided to touch up some of my permanent press shirts. Of course the wiring in the old hotel was as venerble as everything else and I blew out the power. It was afternoon and no one was around so I put away the iron and we went out for a walk as if nothing had happened. When we got back in the evening the power was restored.
Our trip was, without doubt, a piece of tourism, but even now I see nothing much wrong with it. We went to see the country and its marvels, which is the point of tourism, and did not go out of our way to make superficial friends whom we would never see again. We enjoyed ourselves and learned some things; we picked up after ourselves and tried not to be an inconvenience to the Spanish. We came home content to be who we were and forgot about the Beautiful People.
Copyright 2011 Davis E. Keeler