From Segovia we drove north through castle-dotted hills to Leon, and spent the night in the Hotel de San Marcos, a 16th-Century convent and hospital where pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela had once rested.
The San Marcos is one of the many paradores or state-operated luxury hotels adapted from ancient castles, monasteries and other historic monuments.
(We stayed in several of these and also in their Portuguese opposites, pousadas , thanks to an itinerary worked out by our travel agent, Claire Weinberg, and Petrabax, an Iberian travel service. We carried vouchers for every night's lodging, and were never disappointed.)
Before dinner at the San Marcos, we sat alone in the grand salon, surrounded by opulence. I got up and stepped off the room's width: 30 paces. "That would be quite a gain in a football game," I told my wife.
The next day we drove through wooded mountains to Oviedo, then east along the Cantabrian Sea to the medieval walled village of Santillana del Mar. It was a drive of almost 200 kilometers, over a curving mountainous two- or three-lane road. I had to call upon the almost forgotten skill of waiting for a safe moment, then zipping out into no man's land to pass a slow-moving truck and cutting back in again, my heart thumping.
Santillana remains off the tourist path--a quaint and unpretentious village that grew up around an ancient monastery. We stood alone in the golden stone interior of a splendid 13th-Century Romanesque church, and my wife took a flash picture of the vaulted nave. Perhaps a sin unobserved is not a sin.
That evening in Oviedo we dined almost alone in the palatial Hotel de Reconquista. Only two other tables were occupied. A beautiful young couple sat close enough for us to overhear them. They had a bottle of wine and engaged in a spirited conversation. We took them for Spanish. They couldn't have been more than 18 or 20. She was pretty, animated, bright. He was charming. My wife is an incorrigible eavesdropper. I think that's the main reason she loves to travel. She said, "They're speaking French." I had distinctly heard them speaking Spanish. Then a phrase floated across the room from the girl.
" . . . a walk in the night . . . "
It was not only English, it was poetic English.
When we finished, my wife's curiosity triumphed over her manners. She walked over to their table and said, "Didn't I hear you speaking French, Spanish and English?"
"And Portuguese," the girl added with a ravishing smile. She said she was Brazilian and the boy was French. They loved moving in and out of their four languages to suit their mood and subject matter.
How wonderful, I thought, to be young and beautiful and able to make love in four languages.
The next day we drove on to Santiago de Compostela, on the northwest coast, to spend the night at the magnificent Hotel de Los Reyes Catolicos, a restored royal hospital across the square from the great cathedral. It was raining. My wife had suggested bringing an umbrella but I had rejected the idea. We waited for a respite and then ran across the glistening square to enter the cathedral, where the relics of St. James the Greater are enshrined. We saw a priest emerge from the sacristy. He moved straight ahead, looking to neither side. He carried a book in one hand and held the other hand over it. He prayed as he walked. We followed him into a chapel where he began to say a Mass. We eavesdropped again.
Back at the hotel a telegram awaited us. It was from our children:
WE'RE ALL RIGHT. YOUR HOUSE IS ALL RIGHT. DON'T WORRY. HAVE A GOOD TIME.
We were dumbfounded. What could it mean? Obviously, something bad had happened at home. But our children were safe. Our house was safe.
I realized we hadn't heard or read a scrap of news in a week. I turned to the concierge. "Has there been an earthquake in Los Angeles?"
"Oh, yes!" he said cheerfully, as if an earthquake was no more than one would expect of Los Angeles. "Six point five," he assured us.
We phoned our older son to verify this news.
Nothing had happened, he said, except that my wife's six-foot shelf of cookbooks had fallen over the bed in which our house sitter was sleeping.
He had escaped with his life.