“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” – Dagobert D. Runes
My parents came to Spain to celebrate the New Year away from the usual chaos and disorganization of the family back in Pennsylvania. They flew overnight from Philadelphia to Madrid, rented a car and drove two and a half hours west straight to Plasencia. We had a quick lunch of croquetas (my mother’s favorite) and jamón (my father’s favorite) and we hit the road. It was a two hour drive north (most of which my parents spent snoring in the backseat) to our next destination: Ciudad Rodrigo. Population: 14,000.
The views as we drove through the Sierra de Gata were breathtaking. There are olive groves as far as the eye can see and then, as you climb higher and higher into the mountains, endless pine forest and a few cliff-hanging switchbacks to keep you on your toes. As we crossed the border into Castilla y León, leaving Extremadura behind, there were traces of recent snowfall melting along the side of the road.
When Lola and I travel on our own we usually stay in cheap one-star or two-star accommodations or, if the weather is nice, a campground. But when we travel with my parents we go all out because they foot the bill (insert high five) in exchange for having a driver (me) and a translator (Lola) at their disposal 24 hours a day. In Ciudad Rodrigo we stayed at the local parador. Paradores are state-run luxury hotels usually located in historic buildings like monasteries and castles. This particular parador overlooks the Águeda River and is located in a 14th century castle built by Henry II of Castile. There are tapestries adorned with various coats of arms, dusty old paintings of nobles, and suits of medieval armour decorating the lobby and hallways. It’s quite an impressive place to spend the night.
We arrived with only an hour of daylight left so we immediately hit the streets and did a bit of exploring. The cathedral was already closed for the day, but we stumbled upon the local feria del libro (book festival!). This was a simple affair consisting of about a dozen tables sheltered from the freezing cold drizzle (which was starting to put a bit of a damper on our wanderings) under the medieval arches of some medieval building in some medieval square next to some medieval little church. After rummaging through the books for a little while it really started pouring down so we did the only responsible thing one can do in that sort of predicament: we found a bar. After a couple of drinks we realized the place also served food. We had a look at the menu and before you could say Ostras! we had polished off two bottles of wine and enough meat and fish to give even the most gluttonous of medieval nobles an incurable case of gout.
The following morning we had café con churros in a bar which was full of rambunctious little old men (there must be a law in Spain that says anybody over 75 years of age has to be under five feet tall) swinging their walking sticks around and shouting at each other and drinking chupitos at 9 a.m. We then walked over to the cathedral, but were told to return a bit later as there was a mass in session. The woman suggested we visit the Museo del Orinal which was just across the way. I thought my ears had deceived me.
Did she just suggest that we visit the Chamber Pot Museum?! “It’s the only one of its kind in all of Spain,” she continued.
A chamber pot from the UK
Now, to be perfectly honest, the visit to the Chamber Pot Museum is really the only reason I’m writing about this trip. Sure, Ciudad Rodrigo is a beautiful little town. It has the typical well-preserved protective wall that completely encircles the medieval town center. You can walk around the medieval part of town on top of the wall. It’s only a couple of miles and it has sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and distant, snow-covered mountain ranges (in December anyway). The town also has plenty of history. In 1810, During the Napoleonic Peninsular War, the French invaded Ciudad Rodrigo. Nearly 500 Spaniards were killed and roughly 1,000 were injured. The town was completely ransacked. Two years later the British General Wellington kicked out the French during his campaign to liberate Spain. Unfortunately, the British officers were unable to control their soldiers and the town was sacked once again.
But after ten years in Spain I’ve become a bit jaded. Another little medieval town… another fortified city wall… all the bad graffiti… the reek of frying garlic… endless little mounds of dog shit everywhere… But what’s this? A Chamber Pot Museum?! Mi amor, where have you been hiding all this time?!
We crossed the cathedral square, walked into a stone building which used to be part of the local seminary, climbed a flight of stairs and entered a long, dark hallway. As we neared the end of the hallway a light was switched on and two little old men popped their heads out of a doorway. They looked at each other eagerly. Tickets were two euros each and, I have to say without a doubt, it was the best two euros I spent all last year. As we started looking at the collection – which contains over 1,300 chamber pots from over 27 countries – I could sense the two little old men standing behind us, breathlessly awaiting a question so they could share their vast knowledge of chamber pots with the general public. The museum was freezing cold (I could see my breath) and there was water damage and peeling paint on some of the walls and ceilings, so I was surprised when I learned the place had been opened to the public as recently as 2007.
The museum was started by José María del Arco Ortiz (aka: “Pesetas”) who is apparently the only Spanish collector of chamber pots, with the exception of the late Nobel Prize-winning writer Camilo José Cela who had a small collection of about seventy. In 1982 “Pesetas” saved some old chamber pots from destruction from an old hospital that was being renovated. Thus began his obsession which grew over the years to include many British pieces, thanks to his wife who is British.
Lola pointed to a beautifully crafted mahogany chair with a hole in the middle (for doing one’s business) and a ceramic chamber pot underneath (for catching one’s business).
“Se llaman Dompedros porque el primero en usarlos fue Pedro I – Pedro El Cruel.” (“These were known as Dompedros because the first person to use one was Pedro the First, aka: Pedro the Cruel.”)
One of the little old men was off and running! He accompanied us from room to room, explaining all of the most interesting and important chamber pots in the collection, as his sidekick switched off the lights behind us.
A fine example of a Dompedro
There were chamber pots for men. There were chamber pots for women. There were chamber pots for children. There were chamber pots for travelling. There were chamber pots dating back to the 13th century. There were chamber pots made of clay, ceramic, brass, stone, tin, steel, porcelain, copper, alumin(i)um, glass, gold, silver, platinum and wood. There were hand painted chamber pots and there were screen printed chamber pots. There were Victorian chamber pots and there were Edwardian chamber pots. Some of them looked like beer mugs. Some of them looked like wine decanters. Some of them looked like gravy boats. Some of them provided warnings, like the one from the Central Pacific Railway which states, “Notice to Passengers: Do not empty this chamber pot out of train window.”
There were posters on the walls informing us of various important moments in chamber pot history:
-“¡Agua va!” used to be a common warning in Spanish streets when somebody was getting ready to empty the contents of a chamber pot out a window.
-The first flush toilet was invented in 1596 by Sir John Harrington who was a godson of Queen Elizabeth I. The toilet had a flush valve that let water out of the tank.
-In 1775 Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cummings was the first person to patent the “S-shaped bend” plumbing design for a flush toilet. The design prevents dangerous sewer gases from entering buildings.
-Joseph Gayetty introduced modern commercially available toilet paper to the world in 1857. (I could go on and on… I learned heaps of useless information that day.)
The museum even has a large collection of spittoons which in Spanish are called escupideras (escupir – to spit) or salivaderas for spitting tobacco or wine.
At one point Lola whispered in my ear, “How many rooms are in this place?” We were in the third large exhibition room. Forty five minutes later we reached the eighth and final room. Lola was exhausted by that point. She was having trouble extricating herself from one of the little old fellas who apparently felt as if she still hadn’t learned enough about chamber pots. My mother was freezing. My father was taking photos of pretty much everything in sight. (Unfortunately, two weeks later my parents left their camera in the rental car when they returned it in Madrid at the end of their vacation.)
I was in heaven. There was a porcelain chamber pot with the words “Caca-Culo” printed on it in imitation of the Coca-Cola logo. (The literal translation of “Caca-Culo” is “Shit-Ass”.) There was another chamber pot, also made of porcelain, which caught everyone’s eye. It had a large pair of breasts painted on it. The breasts were covered in a light blue dirndl like a Bavarian waitress would wear at Oktoberfest. I remember thinking, This would make a great gift for that friend with a golden shower fetish.
As we were nearing the end of our visit I noticed a large framed photograph of Spain’s Prince Felipe and his wife Princess Letizia. They were smiling and holding… a chamber pot. Next to the photo there was a letter, also framed, from the royal couple. They were thanking the museum for the chamber pot which had been sent to them on their wedding day! I assume that it was sent as a kind gesture, but it could also be seen as a rather subversive gesture. “Here’s a chamber pot since you are both a couple of complete shits! Enjoy your honeymoon!”
Suck it, Coca-Cola
Anyway, if you ever happen to be passing through Ciudad Rodrigo I wholeheartedly recommend skipping the cathedral and heading straight for the Museo del Orinal which is located in the same square. (According to the local tourism board the Chamber Pot Museum already gets more visits than the cathedral.) Best two euros you’ll ever spend! By the way, neither of the old fellas running the place speaks a word of English and all of the exhibits are labelled in Spanish. Just so you know…
After our visit to the Chamber Pot Museum we had a quick look at the cathedral (meh), checked out of the hotel and got back on the road. Our next destination: Porto. Ciudad Rodrigo is only 25 km from the Portuguese border. Since Portugal is on Western European Time (WET) we turned our watches back and gained an hour. Spain used to be on Western European Time, but the Spanish dictator General Franco, to show his solidarity with Nazi Germany, changed Spain to Central European Time (CET) in 1942. In September 2013, a Spanish parliamentary committee proposed changing back to WET. But that’s a story for another zine.
The harrowing two and a half hour white knuckle drive to Portugal’s second largest city took nearly four hours due to the unrelenting rain and wind. But the stress of the road was forgotten shortly after arriving as I was seated at a table with a plate of bacalhau à brás (thinly sliced salted cod, onions, potatoes, scrambled eggs, black olives and parsley) in front of me and a glass of vinho verde (literally “green wine,” but more accurately “young wine”) in my hand. But that, too, is another story for another zine.
“We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.” – George Orwell