Quitando el Polvo de la Dehesa

 or ‘Brushing off the Dust from the Countryside’

(or let’s just call it ‘A Weekend in Valladolid’ and be done with it already)

Berto found a cheap place to stay online. He said, “30 euros a night for a double room!” Now we know why. Lola and I arrived shortly after sundown. It was freezing and I needed to piss. We had been in the car for nearly 3 hours. We rang the bell a few times and nothing. There was a phone number next to the buzzer so we made the call. The woman on the other end shouted, “Quién es?!” (“Who is it?!”) It sounded like she was in a bar. “Voy pa’ allá!” (“I’m on my way!”) Twenty minutes later she finally arrived. No smiles. No apologies. She unlocked the big wooden door, turned to us with an impatient look on her face, and said, “Está por aquí.” (“It’s this way.”)  (In case you’re wondering, the place is called Hostal Los Arces and you should avoid it like the plague.) We followed Old Misery Bones up a flight of stairs to our room which fit the description of a prison cell much better than that of a hotel room. I thought Lola was going to turn around and walk right out of the place.

The walls were covered with battered pink wallpaper. There were posters of random Spanish towns (the ones they hand out free at tourist offices) taped in odd places (some very high, some very low) all around the room. I peeled the tape up on a couple of them to confirm my suspicions – they were covering tears in the wallpaper and, in one case, an Andy Dufresne-sized hole à la Shawshank Redemption. (Unfortunately, the poster was of an olive tree, not of Rita Hayworth.) The ceiling was covered in gold and brown paper which was sagging and peeling in a few places. There was a portable closet at the foot of the bed, but there wasn’t enough room to open the door more than six inches before it hit the bed. We didn’t bother unpacking. There was a filthy old desk with an ancient TV on it in the corner, but you could barely squeeze between it and the bed to get to the window. The light bulb was one of those energy savers that takes 15 minutes to warm up before you can actually see anything. In hindsight, it was actually preferable to not see anything.

They had built a bathroom in another corner of the room which one person couldn’t even fit into comfortably. You had to sit sidesaddle on the toilet because the sink was only a few inches in front of it. Also, the toilet was electric! You had to push a button and then this slow gurgling sound would start to build… and build… and build… and then all of a sudden there was a great swoosh of water released and the entire bathroom would vibrate and the mirror would shake as if it were about to fall off the wall. You knew exactly when somebody was using the toilet in one of the adjacent rooms. We pulled the shower curtain back briefly to have a peek. This gave us all the information necessary to know that showering was out of the question. It hadn’t been cleaned since Franco’s fifth birthday, and the mini-bathtub was so small that both of my feet couldn’t even fit in it.

Berto and Noe arrived 15 minutes later. At this point there were also a couple of little dogs tearing up and down the hallway. Noe didn’t know what she found more disconcerting: the filthy state of their room or the possibility of not getting any sleep due to the presence of the dogs. (There was apparently a Feria de Mascotas – Mascot Festival – in town that weekend.) Later that night we discovered that the dogs were the least of our problems, but the teenagers drinking in the street below the hotel until 5 am, now that was another story. We decided the best thing to do was go find a bar. After all, the reason we had come to Valladolid was for a Bill Callahan concert which was starting in about an hour.


Bill Callahan

A couple of beers loosened us up and we were able to find some humor (not much, but some) in our current lodging situation. At the Teatro Cervantes we loosened up even more when we saw that you could buy cans of beer and popcorn in the lobby. We found four seats together and waited for the opening act – a woman calling herself  Circuit des Yeux – to take the stage. She played a 12-string guitar with lots of reverb and delay. She did some nice finger picking stuff. But every now and then she’d stomp on an effects pedal and this wall of distortion and feedback would come screeching through the speakers. People were covering their ears and looking at each other awkwardly. She had a nice voice at times, but whenever she stomped on that damn pedal and started shouting and howling it was pretty awful. The introspective songs from the early part of her set started to give way to this tortured artist brand of “let’s see how much the audience can take before they walk out on me” sort of peformance art. I call bullshit. If Circuit des Yeux ever comes to your town stay at home, pour petrol into your ears and light them on fire. It will be less painful and much more enjoyable than sitting through a half hour set by this woman. Then Bill Callahan came out. He did his thing brilliantly and beautifully for an hour and a half without cracking a smile or saying more than two words to the audience, then quietly mumbled good night and disappeared behind the curtain.

Afterwards we found a crusty little hole in the wall bar that smelled like a mix between a boiled egg factory and a Porta Potty at a Hells Angels reunion. A few more drinks and we all agreed that we were sufficiently liquored up enough to crawl back to the hotel and get a relatively decent night’s sleep. Or so we thought…

Next morning I had a bit of a hangover.  “A shower,” I thought. “That’ll do the trick.” But then I stepped into the bathroom and remembered that tiny shower basin. I peeled the curtain back again and had another look. Nope. No way. It was too depressing and dirty to even consider using. Anyway, I’d have to sit on the edge because it was impossible to stand up in there. The thought of sitting on the edge of that mini-bathtub reminded of the Frank Zappa song “Why does it hurt when I pee?’” when he sings “It jumped right up, and grabbed my meat. I got it from the toilet seat.” I decided it was best not to sit down anywhere in that bathroom. Better safe than sorry.

We decided to check out of the hotel, but there was nobody around. I can’t even say that there wasn’t anybody in reception because there was no reception. Just a long, dingy hallway with cheap, depressing rooms on either side. We called the owner on the phone again and she told us to just leave the money (they don’t take credit cards which was no big surprise) in the drawer of the nightstand and leave the keys hanging in the bedroom door. She had obviously dealt with enough angry, unsatisfied customers in the morning to know better than to meet with them face-to-face. What a place! Can’t wait to stay there again!

Berto and Noe were heading back to Plasencia after lunch, but Lola and I were staying in Valladolid another night. So we checked into our old haunt the Hotel París right off the main square. We had stayed there 10 years ago the night before we flew to Finland for a two month backpacking adventure. At the Hotel París the lobby was full of people in town for the Mascot Festival. Big, fluffy, bored looking cats nestled in their carriers… spoiled little manicured dogs and their owners decked out in matching outfits… What a bizarre scene. París let us into the room immediately (11 am!) and we took much needed showers to wash off the grime of Los Arces before we hit the streets.

Berto led us to a good comic book store where I almost broke down and bought an anthology of a Spanish radical magazine from the late 1930s/early 1940s called Luna. It is described as “la primera revista cultural del exilio”  (the first cultural magazine of exile) produced in Franco’s post-war Spain. Luna published fiction, poetry, plays, artwork and political commentary. Thirty issues of the anti-fascist magazine were published by a handful of republicans who were living in “exilio interior” (internal exile) in the Chilean Embassy in Madrid. They formed a collective which they called the “República de las Letras” (the Republic of Letters). The group became better known by others who were exiled in the embassy as “Noctambulandia”  because they would get together and work on the magazine at night. In 1990 Jesucristo Riquelme found the thirty original copies of the magazine in the Central Library of the University of Chile and in 2000 the nearly 650 page anthology was published by EDAF.



Shortly after leaving the comic book store we spotted a little cart heaped with books as we entered el Pasaje Gutiérrez which is an interesting little covered market/shopping arcade filled with shops and cafes. It dates back to the 1880s and is one of only three remaining shopping arcades of this type in Spain. There was a copy of Thomas de Quincey’s 19th century classic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater  on the cart for 4 euros which I snatched up. It was enough to lure us inside where I also picked up a copy of The Travels of R.L. Stevenson and The Collected Works of Nathanael West  all in English. It was my lucky day.

We stopped in a bar and I had a pincho called Obama en la Casa Blanca (Obama in the White House) which was a soft boiled egg with wild mushrooms and black squid ink in a little, round, white ceramic bowl. The dish did look a bit like the White House until I removed the lid. The waiter brought it to the table and asked who ordered “el negrito”  (the little black man).  Then we checked out an exhibition of 113 engravings by Albrecht Dürer in the Museo de Pasión entitled “La Exaltación de la Belleza” (The Exaltation of Beauty). The exhibition pamphlet had a good Dürer quote in it: “Desde ahora me concentraré en el grabado. Si lo hubiera hecho así desde el principio ya tendría más de un millar de florines.”  Translation: “From now on I’m going to concentrate on engravings. If I had done this from the beginning I would now have more than a million guilders.”

For lunch the four of us shared a plate of chorizo criollo (big ass sausages) and a plate of arroz a la zamorana (rice dish with lots of mysterious pig parts and loads of paprika) standing at the bar in a noisy, crowded place called Vino Tinto. This was followed by coffee at the old Café Teatro Zorrilla in la plaza mayor  before Berto and Noe hit the road.


Saint Eustace by Albrecht Dürer (1501)

Lola and I spent the afternoon exploring the city. We strolled through the big park known as “el Campo Grande” and we walked along a section of the Río Pisuerga. Then we stumbled upon a store called, quite simply, American Food Store. Here I discovered there is such a thing as Raspberry Fluff (and Lola discovered that Fluff is a thing that actually exists). We bought a box of Cracker Jacks (something Lola had never experienced in her entire life) and a can of Dr Pepper which made me happier than you can possibly imagine. We stumbled into a photo exhibition entitled “Retratos de Artistas” (Portraits of Artists) by Michel Sima in the Sala de San Benito. The photos were of some of the most important artists of the 20th century (Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp) posing in their homes and studios alongside their work. The photos reminded me of a torn up, coverless, old paperback I have called The Artist in His Studio (1960) by Alexander Liberman which, among other things, includes photos of Cézanne’s studio almost untouched since the artist’s death forty years earlier.

We split a plate of cecina (like jamón, but beef as opposed to pork) for dinner and on Sunday morning we visited the Museo Patio Herreriano (Museum of Contemporary Spanish Art)  which had an exhibition entitled “Experiencias de la Modernidad: Arte Español 1916-1956”  (Experiences of Modernity: Spanish Art 1916–1956) on display. The usual big guns were well represented (Eduardo Chillida, Salvador Dalí, Sonia Delaunay, André Masson, Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies), but I discovered a lot of new names as well (José Caballero, Juan Manuel D. Caneja, Eugenio F. Granell, Manuel Millares, Pablo Palazuelo, Juan Puig Manera and on and on…).

The last stop before returning to Plasencia was el Museo Oriental (the Oriental Museum) located in el Real Colegio de los P.P. Agustinos (the Royal College of the Augustinians).


Hand colored photo of a group of Ainu men (Tokyo, 1870)

The museum dates back to 1874, contains 18 halls of Chinese, Filipino and Japanese art and is considered the best collection of Oriental art in Spain. Spanish missionaries began arriving in the Phillipines, China and Japan in the second half of the 16th century. During the next four centuries over 2,000 missionaries from the College of Valladolid would travel to this area of the world which they referred to as “el País del Centro” (“the Center Country” or Far East). The museum is full of ethnological and artistic objects brought back to Spain by missionaries with the purpose of using them to train the young missionaries who were going to replace them. The 1,000 year old Chinese coins, the wooden sculptures of the Luzón people from the Philipines, and the photos of the aborigines (Ainu) of Japan were especially fascinating.



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