Sunday, August 31, 2014

Soria Spain

Sometimes life gets in the way. Or at least it feels that way when you wonder what took so long to get around to something you've been wanting to do.

Diana and I have been wanting visit Paco and Alicia for a couple of years. Well, actually, it's been almost exactly two years as their daughter just turned two and we hadn't yet met her. How's that possible?

It was finally time. They were spending the summer in Paco's hometown of Soria and wanted us to come. We picked a good weekend, rented a car for the trip, and started making plans.

When I asked a friend about the best route to Soria he responded "You're going to see the painting, right?" I had no idea what he was talking about but I could sense from his posture and tone that it must be important. "Yes, the painting" he said again almost starting to do that laughing-crying thing like when you tell a joke and start to laugh uncontrollably when you get to the punchline. "You have to go. We've been trying to see it and it's been closed every time."

What the heck? Finally, between giggles, he googled "Ecce Homo" and showed me the first image result. It was a painting that looked sort of half-man, half-monkey. I knew it somehow. I was drawn to it.

You may know it too but, if not, it's a painting on a church wall in tiny Borja, Spain, which is located about 230 miles (370 km) from Barcelona and right on the way to Soria. The painting wasn't anything to write home about until a local 80-year-old woman took it upon herself to "restore" it in 2012. The results became, for some reason no one can explain, an internet sensation. She had transformed Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) into Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey)!

I can imagine poor Cecilia Gemenez had the best of intentions when she went to work. Understandably, the people responsible for the church were pissed. They even considered getting someone to re-restore the painting but, before they could, the internet got a hold of it and people started showing up. Lots of them. If you look at the photo below, you'll see maps on the wall with thousands of toothpick-flags with the visitors' names and hometowns.

Yes, Cecilia managed to put Borja and its Santuario de Misericordia on the map. A modern-day pilgrimage site. The town's turned proud and the church even put up a glass panel to protect (?) the painting! Thank you so much Pablo for telling me. I would have missed it for sure.

Oh, wait, this story's supposed to be about Soria and Paco and Alicia and Violeta. I wrote about Paco and Alicia (pre-Violeta) when we visited them in Aranjuez back in 2010 and they were nice enough to come to the wedding but it had still been way too long. Looking back on that trip, I fondly remember their love of conversation, good food, and nice wine. Well, it didn't take long to rekindle those memories.

Within about 30 minutes of our arrival, we were already on our way to one of their favorite restaurants to have an amazing Sorian lunch. When I told friends about our plans to go to Soria, every single one of them said "the food's really good there". I can now confirm this to be true. We enjoyed many good meals with these guys.

Soria's a small town located about half way between Pamplona and Madrid in north-central Spain. It's not too far from the Monastario de Piedra where Diana and I went back in January. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the small towns near Stuttgart, like Tübingen for example, that we enjoyed so much. It sits along the Duero river, which begins nearby, and is at a surprisingly high 3,500 foot elevation. I hadn't even bothered to look at the weather before we went and ended up feeling cold at times with its dry ~60 degree temperatures, which was a nice break from hot-and-humid Barcelona.

One of the small plazas in central Soria:

Although an entire vacation of good food, good wine, and good company sounds pretty, well, good to me, Paco and Alicia had planned a bunch of activities for us including taking us to search for the creature from the Laguna Negra (Black Lagoon). Unfortunately, we didn't see him but we enjoyed being out in the scenic natural setting.

We also explored Calatanazor, which is a medieval-style village built on top of a village-sized rock.

It reminded me of Garrigas near the Costa Brava. If you're interested living here, this fixer is available. My friend Jim, who's an agent, says real estate's all about location, which must be true in this case.

Near the center of the village, I saw this pole and went over to find out what it was. There was a small sign that said it was called a "rollo" (roy-yo). What I, at first, thought was some sort of religious art turned out to be a punishment pole. When someone in the village did something bad, they were tied to the rollo. Suddenly, I remembered the Spanish expression "todo es un rollo" (everything is a rollo), which is used like we use "pain in the ass" in English. I couldn't stop laughing at finding out what the expression was based on.

Diana outstanding in her field across the road from Calatanazor:

And, again, enjoying what's good in life:

A couple random notes from the trip.

Lots of cars in Spain have stickers showing where the owner's from. In Catalunya, it's a donkey. In Madrid, oftentimes it's an Osborne bull. In Soria, it's Numantian horse, which represents hard-fought freedom for the Sorians. Back in 134 B.C., villagers from Numancia put up a heck of a fight against 30,000 soldiers from the mighty Roman empire. After an eight-month siege, the villagers decided it would be better to die than surrender and almost the entire town killed themselves. It's a very similar to Masada in Israel.

If you look up while you're in Soria, you'll often see giant bird's nests topping many tall buildings. These wooden marvels are the work of the local stork population. The town not only tolerates the nests, they celebrate their neighbors by helping secure them in place if they start to shift. It's tough to tell from this photo but the nests are probably three feet (1m) tall and are quite the architectural marvel.

Finally, on our last day in town, there was kids' festival where large, costumed characters with giant heads chased children through the streets and beat them with balls tied to strings. Yes, you read that correctly. What might get you arrested in many places was a popular event in Soria. Hmm...I can imagine the marketing for this. Come to Soria for the food. Stay for the beatings.

Thanks to Paco and Alicia for the fantastic weekend. And an extra-big thank you and hug to Violeta for teaching me the differences between goat and cow cheese. Next time we meet up I'm counting on learning the difference between torrezno and chicharron. Oh, and when you're old enough, the different wines too.

We can't wait to see you again. We promise life won't get in the way!