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A Voice In The Crowd: Spanish treasures, old and new

July 1, 1993

A Voice In The Crowd: Spanish treasures, old and new

By By Jim Spellman

This will be the third time I´ll have written this article! Last week, after four hours of intense language classes in which we were trying to learn a new language by trying to follow instructions in that language, I had just about finished putting this piece on a rent-a-computer to send to The Times when suddenly the little arrow ceased responding to my clicks.

“Sorry,” said the manager.

“But I need to save and send that,” I moaned, pointing at the screen.

The manager´s shrug and the look on his face gave me the answer I didn´t want. What had promised to be a relief from the frustration of classes turned out to be a major annoyance! “Oh, well, it was meant to be,” I growled to myself. “I´ll try again later.”

“Later” was yesterday afternoon, and after I had put about 500 words on the screen, the computer place went dark, leaving all of us customers gaping at blackened monitors thinking about our lost messages. So here goes again!

My education in basic Spanish began July 4th, the day after I had returned to Spain from my sad and taxing week in England. Then on the 5th, after just one day in the classroom, we were bused to the north coast city of Santander for a look at more of this beautiful country.

What Spain lacks of France´s romance and Italy´s mystery, it makes up for with friendliness and a wealth of history and art.

The Prado in Madrid with its collection of paintings by Valazquez, Goya, El Greco, Titian, Van Dyk and scores of others can stand up to any art museum in the world. For instance, right now it is showing more than 70 paintings of nudes by Titian, Rubens, Dürer, Tinteretto, Goya and others, the viewing of which had heretofore been restricted.

But the Prado is only one of the places in Spain where its art and treasures can be seen and studied. Throughout the country, there are hundreds of churches and cathedrals built centuries ago, each holding its own collection of priceless art and valuables. Most of them also exhibit crypts containing the remains of kings, queens, bishops and other religious figures, some like St. Teresa of Ávila, famous for their good works, and others like Queen Isabella, infamous for the evils they wrought.

Remnants of the Roman and Moorish presences such as the still functioning aqueduct in Segovia built by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, the Musquita, a Moorish mosque in Cordoba converted to a Christian church, and the most famous Moorish palace of all, the Alhambra in Grenada, offer even the most serious history buff a lode of treasures to investigate.

With the help of the national government, many Spanish cities and towns have preserved and maintained their medieval castles and the fortresses called alcazars. For me, those antiquities provide proof that the Middle Ages and their horrors existed. For instance, the walls encircling Toledo and Ávila bear the stains of hot oil which had been once poured over the ramparts onto invaders brave and greedy enough to have attempted an assault on those towns.

Earlier this month, as our bus wound its way down the lush green north slope of the coastal range and into Santander, the legendary aura of central Spain faded into memory. This modern city is a major seaport and commercial and industrial center and, just as importantly, a summer retreat for hundreds of thousands of Spanish and other European tourists.

After spending Saturday enjoying the beaches and other attractions along Santander´s sea front, on Sunday morning we were treated to a sumptuous buffet breakfast (breakfast in Spain is usually strong coffee and a muffin or other bread) which offered Spanish specialties such as air-cured ham and sausage sliced paper thin, sheep’s milk cheese, sheep’s milk curd and juice from oranges grown in Valencia and squeezed while we watched. The two hot dishes on the table were scrambled eggs and a Spanish favorite, perros calientes—hot dogs!

After breakfast, an hour-long bus ride along the beautiful Cantabrian seacoast brought us to the busy city of Bilbao and its matchless wonder of the modern world, the awesome Guggenheim Museum. If you didn´t already know, it´s the building shown in the background of the TV ads for Lexus autos.

The museum is located on a seven-acre site on the south bank of the River Navión in the center of Bilbao. It is situated so that no matter how or from which direction it is approached, it is not just another sight, it is an experience! When I first saw it, it affected me much as I had been the first time I saw Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in southern England.

The intense effect of the amazing structure is lightened by the 30 foot high perro de flores, dog of flowers, guarding its entrance. How it is done, I couldn´t tell, but the entire surface of the huge dog is planted with brightly colored living impatiens and other small flowering annuals, giving it the appearance of a giant beagle, spotted, not white, brown, tan and black. but white, fuscia, gold, lavender, red, green and blue.

The museum itself is actually an enormous hollow sculpture, not carved or molded but constructed of limestone, glass, steel and concrete. Its treated glass walls provide the place with light yet protect the treasures within from damaging radiation and heat.

The silver sheen of intersecting walls not made of glass, steel or stone, is created by layers of thin titanium shingles much like fish scales which reflect daylight in a way that gives the structure much of its uniqueness.

Although the building is designed for the display and protection of the marvelous collection it houses, even its functional components, the elevators and their shafts, the stairways and the balconies serve to complement and enhance the beauty of the entire structure and its trove.

Architect Frank Gehry´s work is truly imposssible to adequately describe with words. It is a piece of art which must be beheld and explored!

The Guggenheim in Bilbao is proof that someone or some institution with wherewithal still cares about art and its impact and influence on human thought. It is located in this land of ancient treasures as proof that art, no matter what its age or form, is the priceless continuum of human creativity.

Jim Spelman is a local attorney.

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