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Jack Smith

The Roads and Romance of an Iberian Trek

November 17, 1987|Jack Smith

On our last night in Lisbon we went to the Ritz hotel for dinner. It wasn't Rick's, but one could hardly hope for a more romantic setting, and the food was superb.

A gray-haired man with a Portuguese guitar entertained near our table. His songs were all old familiars of the '30s and '40s, and mostly American. "Moonlight Serenade," "Long Ago and Far Away," "I'll See You Again."

It was a phenomenon we found all over Spain and Portugal. Either Iberians love American popular music, or they play it to ease the anxieties of tourists. Almost every hotel salon had its young man thumping out "I Just Called to Say I Love You" on one of those Yamaha music boxes.

In Seville, I figured out how not to get lost. I pulled up behind a taxicab and, using sign language, explained to the driver that I would pay him to lead us to our hotel.

He nodded and we set out. It seemed so easy.

I parked the car for two days in the underground garage, and we explored the city by cab. We were awed by the interior of the cathedral, Europe's third largest, and admired the Giralda, a 12th-Century minaret of grand simplicity. Remembering the Alcazar in Segovia, I declined to climb its 230-foot ramp.

I was only too happy to climb into a horse-drawn carriage to be pulled through the inner city and Maria Luisa Park, where we rode behind that pleasant music-- clip-a-clop-a-clip-a-clop-- past fountains and playgrounds and monumental buildings in lovely weather. It was a Sunday, and the local families were out en masse. Their children must be among the most beautiful in the world, and their young women are striking with their dark hair, marvelous eyes and bold eyebrows.

That evening we went to dine at El Meson, a flamenco place that had been recommended by James Michener in "Iberia." Evidently his enthusiasm had not caught on. There was one table of five, one of four, and two of two each. For 1 1/2 hours the dancers and their accompanists performed as if before the king. Such intensity I had never seen. While the dancers tapped out their exciting rhythms, two men spurred them on with "Oles!" and hand-clapping like machine-gun fire. They poured sweat. The dancers expressed pain, anger, defiance and finally frenzy. The drummer looked like Mickey Rourke. One of the clappers was Jim Plunkett. Our waiter was Louis Jourdan.

Just above our table, James Michener grinned at us from an old framed photograph of him and a man who also appeared on a nearby poster as the featured bullfighter of a Corrida de Toros in 1963.

The next day we digressed to Cadiz, the historic port on the Atlantic coast. We didn't get lost in Cadiz. Like Long Beach, it is laid out along the seashore. We simply followed the esplanade in and out.

We did get lost in the countryside trying to find Carmona. A taxi driver who happened to be going that way put us on the right road. In Carmona our parador had been a palace and before that a fortress dating to the Roman era.

The next day we had to get to Cordoba for morning hours at the great mosque. Knowing we would never find it in the central city, we followed signs to the Cordoba parador, and there, on the porch, ran into Wayne Gradman, a Beverly Hills cardiac surgeon, and his wife. They wanted to see the mosque too, and had exactly one hour. We agreed to share a cab for the excursion.

The mosque is a forest of red and white peppermint-stick Moorish pillars and arches. In the 16th Century, the Catholic canons cut out part of the roof of this magnificent structure to erect a vaulted cathedral dome. Nowhere in Spain is the melding of the cultures more disastrous.

Even the Emperor Charles V was dismayed. "You have destroyed something unique," he said, "to build something commonplace."

We drove on to Jaen, through miles of rolling hills covered with olive groves. The parador at Jaen was the most spectacular of all. That evening I turned on TV in our room. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were talking in Spanish. They began to sing in English over Spanish titles.

"Un fino romance, amigo mio. Un fino romance, sin besos. . . ."

We were far from home.

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