Summer excursion

The other day my dear friend and fine art restorer extraordinaire took me on a whirlwind excursion to see some of his recent work. We took the opportunity to enjoy a nice lunch and ended by visiting our friends at the Paular monastery and to check up on them with the whole pandemic to-do.

Our day started with our traditional morning coffee at our local village café/bar/restaurant/social center: Marcelino. From there we drove over the Guadarrama mountains (yes, the ones where Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is based) to the lovely village of Rascafría. We had a leisurely lunch at a cool garden restaurant “La Pradera” (the natural translation “prairie” has taken the American meaning and spirit, being much larger than a Spanish “pradera” which is more of a field, but enough etymologies, and translation theory!)

After lunch we drove to the small village of Canencia. The root Can from the Latin “canis” for dog (oh no, back to etymologies) is because this village is where the kings’ dogs where bred during the Middle Ages. Jaime restored the gorgeous Gothic pulpit at the church last year. A stone’s throw away from the village is a very elegant Medieval stone bridge.

A short drive away is the town of Lozoya. A manorial village as testified by the many coat of arms decorating entrances. The main door of the church is in a beautiful Plateresco style, which is unique to Spain because it keeps the Gothic style but incorporates Renaissance elements. Jaime is scheduled to restore the pulpit there, a delicate Renaissance piece.

A tiny hamlet nearby is Pinilla del Valle, again with a lovely old church and town square. Jaime is working to secure the restoration of the portico of the church, damaged through the centuries.

We ended our excursion visiting our dear friends the monks at the Paular monastery. They are all fine, including the oldest ones. We snuck in for a quick visit. You see, Jaime restored that monastery from scratch years ago, so he knows it well and I have gone on two retreats there -as you might know from previous posts, so I also know it a bit.

After that visit, it was time to head home over the mountains.

Ring on Deli by Eric Giroux

Ring on Deli ready to sail

Ring on Deli ready to sail

A few months ago I got a request from an old teacher colleague and friend to read his book ahead of the publishing date so I could write a pre-review to get the word out. I got the PDF and had it printed at my friendly neighborhood copy shop – where they accidentally printed it twice and bound it as one, making a hefty tome and an environmental tragedy in one. I did not notice until I started reading it weeks later, by which time it was too late to do anything about it but to work on my biceps.

I posted my review on Goodreads. Amazon, on the other hand, will not let me post it because I have not spent $50 in the last 12 months with them, something I am actually quite proud of. At any rate, here is the review, now go read the book!!

Ring on Deli is a rara avis of the current literary scene. Here is a well-built narrative, with a solid cast of characters that add human depth, texture, and color to a story about complex local -and national- issues such as capitalism, education, local government, even pest control! A story that makes you think, laugh, worry, and cheer. Ring on Deli, although satirical in spirit points to real, current concerns. Eric Giroux has hit the nail on the head with his style: a bit of John Irving to weave the narrative, a bit of Philip Roth for dark humor, and a bit of DBC Pierre for freshness, like cilantro. Using satire to sway opinion is as old as literature itself. From Medieval texts to current opinion journalism, through Voltaire and Swift, all have relied heavily on satire to avoid censorship and inquisition (both real and figurative). Ring on Deli is a brilliant read that I recommend without reservations.

Ring on Deli somewhere in the Mediterranean

Ring on Deli somewhere on the Mediterranean

Greece again (five years later)

My love for Greece started during my first visit there in 1985. Since then I have returned a few times and enjoyed it every single minute. It is easy for me to remember the last time I went to Greece because it was the Summer my father died, 2015. This time was a bit different.

My love for Greece is very much in the Romantic vein, like Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats or Shelley. Maybe even in a philosophical vein like Socrates and Plato, like the Stoics. In Greece you are transported to the origins of our Western civilization, our education, our way of thinking, dare I say, we haven’t even improved that much the concept of Democracy… other than the obvious -although we might even be regressing on that front since it looks like the state of Florida will not allow convicted felons to vote, as if they were not citizens.

The special aspect to this visit was that I arrived by boat! (see previous post). Our first stop was Methoni. This village sits on the farthest South Western corner of the Peloponnese (the mainland) and is therefore a strategic location for anybody passing by. Because of this strategic location, there has been a castle there since Medieval times. During the Venetian expansion they took over the Ionian sea, up to and including Methoni, building or re-building the tower which manages to be strong yet elegant at the same time. Later, the Ottoman Empire took over, and they added their characteristic Byzantine “touch”. Eventually the town and the castle passed hands a few more times as it saw action during the Turkish invasion and World War II. In this fortress in Ottoman times Cervantes was captured after his participation in the Battle of Lepanto.

Right between the castle walls with its Venetian coat of arms -The winged lion of St. Mark’s- and the beach is the lovely Methoni Beach Hotel, where Efi served us a couple of delicious Gin and Tonics! Since we had swam ashore, we were lucky to find a generous fisherman that gave us a lift to the boat. Even though he was a Barça fan and that he did not like Real Madrid, I am grateful for the lift.

Our next stop was a couple of “fingers” over, the quiet little island of Elafonisos, with a great wild beach at Simos. Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore the shore.

The next day we sailed by the amazing Monemvasia, a massive island plateau with a fortified village. It is reminiscent of the Israeli Masada fortress! But our destination was the island of Spetses. We arrived at the lovely cove of Zogeria, with its obligatory chapel and beach restaurant (what in Spain is called a chiringuito). A short motorboat jump away is the main town of Dapia with its old and new harbor. The village sits -like most Greek island villages- on the slope of the hill. Fortunately, only residents can have cars on the island, but still everybody moves around on dusty old scooters and quads with the occasional golf cart or electric runabouts.

Due to the relative proximity to Athens (there are a few high-speed passenger ferries from Piraeus), Spetses is one of the popular getaway islands for Athenians to weekend. Think Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket for Bostonians. This influx of well to do Athenians leads to nice restaurants and shops, with the downside being higher prices and some crowding.

The village is well distributed and has all the requirements of a nice Greek town -and then some:

  • A cute shopping street
  • A grand, old-school hotel: the Poseidonion
  • Great fish restaurants on the harbor
  • Coffee shops
  • Old churches
  • A fantastic bar with the biggest collection of Scotch I have ever seen, and old Rock and Roll!
  • It even has a couple of museums, the Spetses museum which chronicles the history of the town and the small but rich Bouboulina museum. This museum in housed in Bouboulina’s grand 19th C house downtown. She was the first woman ever to have been named Admiral for her continued fight for the independence of Greece. If you are in Spetses it is worth the short visit.

On my last day, my dear friend Matthieu came to lunch on his lovely Boston Whaler motorboat and we went to his house on the mainland village of Tolo. The next day, after a nice dinner by the sea, it was time for me to return to Madrid. Just like that, my short visit was over. But I cannot wait to return to my spiritual home.

Sailing

My stints at sailing have been admittedly few and far between. I loved learning to sail during Summer Camp on Lake Geneva. That feeling of freedom, of you and the wind. After that I remember taking out a Hobbie Cat during my honey-moon, going out on my father in law’s lovely motorboat on Lake Winnipesaukee, and going out on friend’s boats once in a while after that. But when a dear friend invited me to crew his sailing boat from Valencia to a Greek island, I jumped at the opportunity.

The boat

The boat

Spain was still easing out of the Coronavirus quarantine restrictions when I took the train to Valencia. The boat was not ready yet, so I spent a week in Valencia, visiting old friends -even an old student, who I was able to see at her Opera recital!, walking about and helping to get the boat ready for sailing. (See previous post)

Skippering

Skippering

Finally, the boat was ready, Manolo our third man jumped abroad, and we sailed out. The crew was super nice Captain Jose, and Manuel, a good friend of his and a solid sailor, which left me as the lowest on the boat’s hierarchy. But those of you who know me know that I am a sucker for a challenge and always open to learning, specially if it is something as fascinating as sailing.

Full moon during night watch

Full moon during night watch

The boat is a 2006 20 mt German built Hanse that the owner has extensively tricked out. It is a beautiful combination of high-tech and old-world. Each of us gets our own en-suite berth. There is an island kitchen, big, flat screen TV, full bar, etc, etc, etc., oh and super-important: a state-of-the-art Nespresso machine!

Taking a break in Mallorca

Taking a break in Mallorca

We sailed out of Valencia on motor power since there was not enough wind to fill the sails. I was surprised to see Ibiza only a few ours out of Valencia. We sailed on, I got the 1:30 to 4:00 am watch, unexpectedly it passed by in a rush as I explored the gorgeous night sky, meditated, and of course did my watch duties: making sure we didn’t crash with anyone, keeping an eye out for icebergs and making use of that Nespresso machine.

Quiet waters

Quiet waters

I awoke as we approached my beloved and very familiar Mallorca. My heart filled with memories of my youth and family. (See previous posts about Mallorca). I waved bye-bye to my favorite island only to face a rough head wind on the crossing to Sardinia. We were under full sail, but we were slamming 3 mt waves with no prospect of stopping any time soon, so we did a 180 and headed back to the shelter of Mallorca. Our resourceful Captain wisely picked a cove right on the South-East corner of the island so we would be ready to head to Sardinia as soon as the wind changed direction. A little down-time from the buffeting wind was welcome, as was a first swim and a quiet dinner.

On course for the Messina Straight

On course for the Messina Straight

The forecast did not change, so we stayed put another day. We hit the beach on an inflatable kayak which would rip a valve as we arrived on the beach. We stayed for a gorgeous local seafood stew lunch “Caldereta” plus a few cocktails to celebrate Manuel’s 50th birthday. The punctured kayak barely got us back to the boat!

Smoking Mount Etna

Smoking Mount Etna

As beautiful as that cove was, we had to get moving. Instead of risking the continued headwinds on the crossing to Sardinia, we decided to go around the North of Sardinia where the winds were much friendlier.

We had nasty headwinds all the way to Sardinia so before crossing the treacherous -but beautiful north shore we stopped for the night in another gorgeous cove. We arrived too late for a swim, but we did enjoy a nice plate of spaghetti al pesto.

Lighthouse through binoculars

Lighthouse through binoculars

The next day we were running low on fuel, so we stopped to refuel and to rest before the long haul to Sicily. During the way I was allowed to steer for the first time. While re-fueling I managed to run ashore to throw out the trash and to the supermarket where I purchased some overpriced ice, bananas, oranges, and strawberries.

The ice was critical for our sunset chill-out sessions where the crew (not the captain) would enjoy a gin-tonic listening to some nice tunes while enjoying the sunset.

Every sunset is beautiful

Every sunset is beautiful

From there we continued sailing for a couple of days to the narrow straight of Messina that separates mainland Italy from Sicily. Coming out of that channel we were welcomed by a great aft wind that pushed us nicely to Riposto, right under smoking Etna volcano! The nice marina folks allowed us to park for a couple of hours after refueling so we could do some grocery shopping. We passed by the pretty and well-balanced town square with its church and town hall, we did our grocery shopping and still had time for a quick cup of espresso before boarding. I had not been to Italy since 2004, so that brief stop was wonderful, and the cup of coffee one of the best I can remember (see previous post).

The full coffee experience in Sicily

The full coffee experience in Sicily

From there it was a straight shot to Greece, where our first stop was Methoni with its Medieval, then Venetian, then Ottoman, then on and on octagonal tower. My dear friend Miguel de Cervantes was held captive there after being captured after the Battle of Lepanto and before being taken to Algiers where he would spend a total of five years.

The Venetian-Ottoman tower in Methoni

The Venetian-Ottoman tower in Methoni

From there we sailed around the Peloponnese stopping again at the amazing isthmus at Simos beach on Elafonisos. Our final day was an easy sail to the charming island of Spetses.

Isola Molara off the coast of Cerdegna

Isola Molara off the coast of Cerdegna

Although I started this adventure quite worried about my lack of “real” sailing skills, my colleagues were patient and amazing, teaching me everything they could about this beautiful craft and art that is sailing. So by journey’s end I was participating actively on all maneuvers!

The crew

The crew

During my pilgrimages on the Camino de Santiago (see previous posts) I have learnt that spending over ten days outdoors in nature naturally resents your mind and soul. This was no different, if anything it was even better as there are fewer distractions on the ocean: just the sound of the wind, the horizon, the stars at night, even dolphins came to swim with us for a while! It was an experience like no other I have ever had, and I hope to do it again soon. Now that it is over, I miss the camaraderie of the boat, the constant reading of the wind, even the night watches!

PS: If you are a sailing aficionado our trip from Valencia to Spetses was about 1300 Nautical miles, about 1500 land miles and about 2400 km…

Valencia

I discovered Valencia on a business trip in 1992, and I have loved it ever since. Valencia is Spain’s third largest city at over a million inhabitants, it is the largest / busiest port in the Mediterranean and has been for centuries. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately it remains fairly unknown to most folks on the tourist circuit. Because of this, it maintains a certain undiscovered quality to it, a small town feeling.

Valencia is home to the delicious paella, to the “painter of light”, Joaquín Sorolla, the brilliant architect Calatrava, it was the last home for El Cid (check out the film with Charlton Heston), etc. It is a city rich, very rich in culture, history, literature, architecture, and so forth. I have been lucky to keep great, close friends, including my PhD thesis director!

I hadn’t been to Valencia in a year, when I spent a day walking around and catching up on the Museo de Bellas Artes. This time I have had the luxury of spending a whole week here, so I have squeezed every moment here to see and do all my favorite things, which include:

  • Walking around
  • Having breakfast at my favorite coffee shop (ok, I’ll tell you… Café Aquarium)
  • Eating paella by the beach
  • Drinking Horchata (made from a tiger nuts)
  • Eating fartons, a delicious pastry, in my case, stuffed with chocolate.
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Running along the old river bed (after a dramatic and deadly overflow, they made a safer channel for the river, sparing the city of further damages.

It has been a very busy but rewarding week and I even got to catch up with one of my old students which is always enriching and fun.

With the AVE high speed train, Valencia is now only a short two hour ride from Madrid – at 189 mph! So there is no reason not to jump on a train and spend a couple of days in this great city.

 

A good cup of coffee

Of course I have mentioned coffee many times before in this blog, but I have never dedicated a post to it. About bloody time, some of you might say.

As my friend Theo would say I am a bit of a late bloomer, at least on the coffee front, maybe because I did not hit my teenage years in Madrid but in London in the 80’s where a good cup of coffee was as unheard of as a sunny day. Ditto for university in Boston later that same decade. Although I do remember some memorable coffees in the Italian North End where a few cafés knew how to pull a solid espresso!

When I finally got back to Spain in the early 90’s, still young -mind you- then the coffee consumption crept in unannounced. You see, in Spain at mid morning everybody takes a coffee break, who was I not to enjoy a cup? Thus an addiction began.

I do not drink a lot of coffee, preferring to focus on quality over quantity. Normally it is just one a day, mid morning. While travelling, it will be at least a couple, one with breakfast and one mid morning. If I have lunch out, I might have an espresso to finish.

During my PhD, I would meet with my awesome Thesis Advisor a couple of times a week to go over my progress at UNC’s now defunct The Daily Grind, where they knew our orders by heart. Those coffees remain in my memory as some of the most enriching ever.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

– T.S. Eliot

Relative to the rest of Europe, Spain does not have the best coffee. You see after our Civil War (1936 to 39) we had a rough famine through the 40’s while the rest of Europe was in WWII. We were lucky to be included in the Marshall Plan that helped us out. We had a scarcity of coffee so it was over roasted to increase flavor. Folks also drank chicory instead of coffee since this grows naturally in Spain and was widely available and much cheaper. Sometimes they mixed coffee and chicory (in proportions depending on what you could afford). A final trick was to add caramel to the coffee, again to push the flavor. All this means is that we got used to bad coffee, torrefacto. Nowadays this is not so much the case except if you go to a remote village where they still like it “old” style.

Another great coffee moment is Sunday after church, where I do not have any time limit on my coffee. In Florida I would go to Bad Ass Coffee next to St. Ann’s, although eventually I moved to The Brick for the more comfy sofas to read on. Here in Madrid I go to the wonderful Pancomido Café where the girls know me enough to prepare my coffee when they see me walking in!

More important than the coffee itself might be the coffee time: a time of reflection, or reading, or of company, and conversation. The ceremony of coffee whether at home, or at a coffee shop is also equally important; taking the time to enjoy a coffee alone or with a friend.

 

Desperate Literature (or interesting bookstores and libraries)

I fell in love with literature at the American School in London with a couple of great teachers: Soledad Sprackling for Spanish Literature and James McGovern for English. But I did not fall in love with books until college.

At Bentley University I discovered the Bowles Reading Room which had beautiful books. It was glassed in from the rest of the library and every day I went there to do my homework but would invariably end up looking at the wonderful books. I loved that room so much that at the end of my studies, I donated a book about Spain to the Collection. (I contacted the librarians who got me this rare photo of the Reading Room for this post, thanks!).

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

But I would have to wait until after college to have enough disposable income to buy books, which, living in Boston, was very easy. Some days on my lunch break I would sneak to Goodspeed’s to look for treasures. Such is my love for books and literature, that years later, I ended up getting a PhD in Spanish Literature! (see previous posts)

Speaking of UNC, one of the highlights are the libraries. Plural. The old library is the Wilson Library (which is featured prominently in Robin Williams’ great film Patch Adams). I spent hours studying in this library and a couple of times studying very old books in the Rare Book Collection. The big, modern library is the Davis Library with its 7 million books. There, I soon made best friends with the Spanish book librarians Teresa and Becky. I would walk to their office deep in the heart of the library and talk books, (and gossip). This library is as close to the Borges idea of a library as I have ever been: massive and repetitive, but with a soul.

During my studies at UNC, one summer I got a Fellowship to do research at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. What an experience! To get to the rare book collection you have to pass not one, but two security checks, you cannot bring in any pens, books, phones, etc. Books there are treated with the care and reverence one would expect of -in my case- over two hundred year old books. I spent every morning that summer reading most of Francisco de Isla’s first editions, manuscripts, and other pieces attributed to him but not his. That experience is one of the highlights of my academic career. (Their coffee shop in the basement was also excellent – and subsidized! but that is for another post)

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

After UNC I moved to Southern Florida, which is a wasteland for books -must be the humidity. But, in 2016 I did read this great article in Vanity Fair, (to which I have subscribed and read every issue from cover to cover since around 2006) about this magical book store in Santorini called Atlantis Books.

Fast forward to 2018 when my dear friend Matthew came to visit me in Madrid. He stayed at a hotel in the old part of town. One evening after I dropped him off, around the corner from the hotel, on narrow Campomanes street, I bumped into Desperate Literature. I was ecstatic! What a discovery, what a find! A tiny bookstore, but filled with books mostly in English, with a few in Spanish and French for good measure. It was a tiny paradise, an oasis of… books!

Books in time of Covid

Books in time of Covid

I soon found out that this bookshop is part of Atlantis Books which I had read about in that Vanity Fair article. It all fit in, a collection of magical bookstores.

During this Covid-19 pandemic I found out they were sending books to folks. I ordered one and I was able to make use of my workout time to ride my bicycle to pick it up.

In conclusion: support your local -hopefully quirky- bookstores, and read.

 

Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach

My only music post on this blog was published in 2014 about Van Morrison. Well, it is time to add to that. Basically the only thing I listen to nowadays is Bach, as in Johann Sebastian Bach.

Of course we are all familiar more or less with his oeuvre, but I must confess that my first conscious contact with Bach was quite late. After college I got a job in Boston’s Financial District. I moved into an tiny attic apartment on Commonwealth Ave.  in the Back Bay. Walking around I found out that Emmanuel Church on Newbury st. performed the Bach Cantatas on Sundays’ mass, so I started going religiously (sorry, bad pun). I missed the Catholic ritual, but the music more than made up for it!

Fast forward to 2013 in North Carolina when I saw András Schiff  perform the Goldberg Variations and it all came flooding back, and I was hooked. As soon as I could I went to the used record store and got Glenn Gould’s original 1955 recording -yes, the one where you can hear Gould humming the tune in the background! I stuck it in my car’s CD player and it stayed there until the car was sold in 2018. That’s five years of listening to the record over and over. Call me obsessive if you want.

The next step for me was the Cello suites. The progression was simple, although it involved a step back. A step back because I had been surrounded by these pieces when I worked at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, eventually observing and participating in Über-conductor Benjamin Zander’s Master Classes at the school. Now I have Yo-Yo Ma’s 2015 Royal Albert Hall performance of the complete Cello Suites on a loop (see video below).

Occasionally, if I want to mix it up a bit I might listen to some of his organ music or, the Passions, or some of his other orchestral and chamber pieces (sonatas and partitas). There are many of these because back in the day (1685 – 1750) the only serious musicians worked for the king or the church. Bach falls in the latter, so he had to produce music basically for every Sunday! In case you had not noticed, I am not a musician -much to my regret- but this music has everything I need musically and spiritually speaking.

You are welcome.

My happy place, El Escorial

 

Although I have talked about it in various posts, I have never dedicated a  post to my favorite building, my happy place, and arguably the most important building in Spain, El Escorial.

I am blessed in that my parents bought a house not far from this place when I was a boy. My restless dad would often take me here for quick excursions, to walk around the palace, the village or the surrounding countryside. As soon as I could drive (17 with my British license) I started going there on my own: to walk around, to read, to write.

Possibly the main reason El Escorial is so special is that it is a monastery that is a royal palace and a royal palace that is a monastery. So it is huge by monastery standards but it is austere and spartan by palace standards. But it is more than a palace and a monastery: it has one of the finest libraries in the world, a magnificent basilica, a pantheon with (most) Spanish kings (and reigning queens), a school, an art museum, etc.

It was built by my favorite Spanish king Philip II. He had such drive and desire to build it that he spent a fortune to have it built as fast as possible. It was built in 21 years from 1563 to 1584. The result is arguably the finest representation of Renaissance architecture in Spain (his dad Carlos V, built another great Renaissance palace in Granada, but that’s a different story). What happens with most huge old buildings is that they took so long to build that they were started in a certain style and finished in another style altogether -and oftentimes, other styles in between. This is most visible in cathedrals. Oh yes, Philip II is the one who sent out the Invincible Armada, in fact, you can see the desk where he worked -and where he received the news of his defeat.

The palace is built entirely of local granite, has 14 courtyards, and thousands of windows, doors, blah, blah, blah. As you can see from the photos, it is amazing, grandiose but sober. There are plenty of books and web sources about it, so I do not need to add to the mountains of information. There is also the village where the palace is. It is a beautiful little village with great food, little bookshops, and cafés. The combination of countryside, palace, and village is really magical. When a group of the king’s scouting committee where checking out where to build the palace they were caught in a fierce storm that they interpreted as a signal. So they figured that is where they should build. There was a semi-abandoned mine there (Escoria means slag, mining residue, thus Escorial). Plus there is evidence of pre-roman, Celtic settlements in the area, adding to the mysticism and aura of the place. I could go on for hours and hours, but a. I will spare you and b. you can hire me to give you a tour!

Many years ago, chatting with a work colleague and friend we discovered that we were both fans of El Escorial, so we soon founded the Asociación A. de Amantes de El Escorial. (The A. stands for apocryphal, but don’t tell anyone), it is a bit of a joke, but we now go at least twice a year for Asociación “meetings” that involve dinner and a walkabout!

Why is this my happy place? Maybe its the radiation from all the granite, maybe the fond memories of walking around, maybe the relaxing qualities of the beautiful renaissance lines, I really couldn’t tell you.

 

Almodóvar

 

lasmejorespelculasdepedroalmodvar

I can’t believe that in 182 posts and almost ten years of writing this blog I have never dedicated a post to Pedro Almodóvar (although I have mentioned him a couple of times). Forgive me, and let me change that.

Pedro Almodóvar is indubitably Spain’s best know director. He has won two Oscars (I think that is double what any other Spanish artist has – but don’t believe me 100%), has had a handful of nominations, a bunch of Goyas (Spain’s Oscars), his breakout film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was made into a Broadway musical, etc. etc. But more important than his fame or awards is the quality of his films. You see, Almodóvar has an instantly recognizable way of telling a story -and what stories they are! I believe part of his success lies in how Baroque his narratives are, and how they key right into our psyche. Along the story, Almodóvar layers his personal punctuation marks: a colorful palette, a stylish, kitsch decor, perfect locations, and a cast he squeezes the best out of, some of them repeatedly, like Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas or Carmen Maura. In that respect he is a bit like Woody Allen -another one of my favorites- in that they really get the most out of the actors, and that, I believe, is the sign of a great director. Then there are his quirks: every movie has a signature song that marks it, his brother Agustín always gets a bit part, so you are always on the lookout for that. This, by the way, is something Hitchcock also did -insert himself in his movies, which I think is what inspired Almodóvar. Finally he sprinkles a touch of post modernism and surrealism here and there, just to keep the viewer on edge.

I do not have a single favorite Almodóvar film, I have a few. Both Volver and Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) stand out. Both of these are staples of my Advanced classes, as many of my students will testify. I just watched Almodóvar’s 21st film (which was what prompted me to write this) Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory). It is good, all his films are good, but not the best. So, although it received an Oscar nomination, it was not really up to snuff. I will not divulge any spoilers this time (you are welcome), only to say that it is, or at least it feels, autobiographical. 

Most of Almodóvar’s films take place in and around Madrid, with a few of exceptions. Todo sobre mi madre splits between Madrid and Barcelona, Volver, like the name implies takes us to a village in La Mancha not unlike the one Almodóvar is from, La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) takes place in the countryside of Toledo, Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces) takes a turn in the Canary Islands, and a few other exceptions. Madrid is part of the story, it becomes another character. This is something Woody Allen also does with New York, blending it into the narrative.

Also interesting is to see Almodóvar’s evolution as a filmmaker. His first film Pepi, Lucy, Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom) coincides with the birth of La Movida which was an artistic/cultural reaction to 40 years of dictatorship. La Movida was a radical pendulum swing for Spain, it was an over the top celebration of freedom, and Almodóvar hits the note with a raw, sexual, low budget film that captures the Zeitgeist of the time. His current films on the other hand have the sleek look of the bottomless budget of a Hollywood darling.

If you are already an Almodóvar fan, tell me your favorite film of his -and why- in the comments. If you are a newbie grab one, any one, of his films and enjoy!