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.

 

Tonxo Tours first birthday!

As we sit in our quarantine, as I sit at home, Tonxo Tours has quietly turned one year old! So it is only befitting that I write a quick report on our first year of existence – Although it already existed informally and for many of my friends and friend’s friends who had gotten a tour from me.

My first memories of giving tours was as a teenager living in London, whenever friends or families of my dad’s work came to town I was often asked to take them to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham palace. At that time I also took a lot of tours of museums, palaces, etc., so obviously that must have left some valuable residues. In university I started showing Madrid and Spain to my friends who came to visit. One friend showed up with English Rock groups who we would take out during their visits. A friend once showed up with the Monaco Olympic Sailing Team for me to show them around a bit! Then, living in New York and Boston I continued showing people around those cities. With experience and learning, every tour became better and better. Fast forward a couple of decades and many tours of Madrid, Barcelona, Boston and New York later, and I finally made Tonxo Tours a reality. As they say: turn your hobby into your work and you will not have to work again.

This first year has been the expected mix of wins and frustrations. I must admit the wins and the rewards have far outweighed the frustrations. I was lucky to start off right away finding a couple of sources of business: a couple of Internet platforms and a local transport company whose customers ask for tours. I created a homemade website and logo with my trademark bow tie, and I was in business. In my first year I have shown Madrid to over 200 people. My most popular tour has been Old Madrid, I have shown the Prado Museum a few times, the Royal Palace, a handful of other museums, and I have also gone out of town to El Escorial, La Granja and Segovia. I developed a game to play when children come on the tour. I have used the same game adding activities as a university orientation team-building game which I did with my uni, the European School of Economics. I did a tour with a woman in a wheelchair (she had broken her foot doing the Camino de Santiago), I have done tours in minivans and buses with 50 people,  one customer with a chain of pastry shops in Belgium wanted to see the pastry shops in old Madrid, that was fun-and tasty! I have done tours in Spanish, English and French, and I have even done a couple of tours in Italian, which, with only one semester of training, was tough (see the video below for proof). The experience has been so much fun and so rewarding!

Unfortunately due to the Covid-19 I have had to cancel a handful of tours I had booked.

And I have learnt. What a learning curve! Like many things, being a tour guide involves psychology, salesmanship and, of course, knowing your stuff. I cannot wait for many more tours and many more years!

Please spread the word! My favorite and best marketing tool is word of mouth!!

Feel free to share my web www.tonxotours.com and Instagram and Facebook tonxotours

 

(Belated) Summer Summary

You guessed it, things have gotten pretty busy again, enough to postpone my Summer Summary into November. Not that anything earth shattering happened over summer, but still, I enjoy writing and reminiscing about it.

Summer started with a bit of a rush. I only had one week between the doctoral hooding ceremony and the movers coming in to take my few possessions to Florida. They arrived on Tuesday and I drove through torrential rain into Naples in one long day. Wednesday we emptied the truck. Thursday I opened some boxes and did some paperwork at my new school, Seacrest Country Day. Friday I drove to Miami for a flight to Madrid. Saturday morning I arrived in Madrid in time to go to my nephew’s First Communion.

The month of June was spent in Madrid, visiting friends, walking around the city, going to my favorite gym, exploring great art exhibits, taking my niece and nephew to Bernabeu stadium – for their first time – to see the old glories of Real Madrid beat the old glories of Ajax Amsterdam. As much as I love all cities, Madrid is home, it is the city I know best, and she knows me.

It felt odd to go to Mallorca without my father, but we still managed to enjoy it. The beach, the pool with the children, siesta on the balcony, evening walks, the food, beautiful village church on Sundays, running in the pine forest with the Mediterranean in the background, great people at the hotel, watching the Euro cup with my nephew Jimmy, relaxing gin and tonics at night in the bar. The whole experience is very special.

July was in the country – more and more like suburbia each day – at La Navata, great friends, wood fired paellas, cigars and drinks with my sister at night, great little village church on Sundays, a lot of work on the garden, rural outdoor gym, long bicycle rides on my vintage mountain bike, classic bar for coffee in the morning, and as always, a couple of visits to El Escorial with my dear friend Patxi.

August 1 I was back in Florida and ready to start a new school year.

Summer recap and back to school

Well, it has certainly been a different summer, and I am happy to be back to my boring, monastic Chapel Hill lifestyle. When I was a child summers went on forever, but now they are like the weather in Boston, you blink, and its over.

Madrid was home base for the summer, although this year I rarely got out of the house other than to grab a coffee in the morning and around the block to the gym in the afternoon.

My ten days in Greece were my real break. Caught up with old friends, made new friends and enjoyed my beloved old Greece with its special sunlight, and sea, and food.

We passed July in the country house at La Navata where I spent the mornings on babysitting duty for one, two or all three of my sister’s children. We would walk down to the village to buy bread and the newspaper and to have a coffee – Cola Cao – chocolate milk for the kids. During the afternoons I would work on my dissertation, finishing chapter 3. There were a couple of excursions: one to El Paular Monastery and the nearby hills, and of course a couple of visits to El Escorial with my dear friend Paco.

Another highlight of the Summer was having my sister and her two oldest here in Chapel Hill for a fortnight! We had a blast! (see previous blog post).

And then I had my 50th birthday. Well, at least it was better than my 49th, this time I did not get arrested for speeding. To celebrate, I gave this old blog an upgrade! So now it is http://www.antonioyrocinante.com without ads or Wordpress’ promotions. But I must confess it was difficult to pass my first birthday without my father.

Classes started three weeks ago, so we are back to the grind. I am teaching a section of Spanish 204, Advanced Intermediate, the first non required class. Mostly students that want to major or minor in Spanish. It has 12 great students. The downside? Class is at 8:00 am. My other section is Spanish 300, which is Composition. Of course you can’t have a course where you only write, it is like the guys at the gym that have these explosive upper bodies but Tweety Bird legs, as my cousin Arnold would say, so I have to work on integrating all facets of language development into the class.

Start of school also means that I have to get going on my dissertation again. I am starting the fourth – and last chapter (I still have to write the intro and conclusion). I am very excited, but this also means that I will not have much time to blog.

My other project, as I have mentioned before is getting a job for next year, as this should be my last year at UNC. I hope to defend my dissertation in the Spring. As is normal, I have mixed feelings: Of course I want to finish and see what the next chapter in my narrative holds, but on the other hand I love Chapel Hill and UNC and my friends and colleagues here.

So for now it is over and out from Chapel Hill.

WordPress upgrade

Summer Summary

Well, I have been so busy writing my thesis prospectus all summer that I have not had time to update this old blog! But the prospectus (the first draft at any rate) is now well on its way after my Thesis Director recommended some corrections today at the Daily Grind Café. But now back to my summer.

The month of June I was in Madrid going to the Biblioteca Nacional every day and getting some phenomenal research accomplished. Some highlights of June were: celebrating my father’s birthday, going to Alfredo’s new place (see previous post), going to Pedro Espina’s new restaurant Soy to say hi to my old friend and Spain’s best sushi chef, my old student Jacob’s visit to Madrid (see previous post), and pretty much every moment spent in the city enjoying the smells and sounds and tapas and sights.

In July I went with my family to our beloved Mediterranean island of Mallorca. As you can read in other year’s posts it is a great time. Very low-key: great breakfasts, beach, poolside lunch, siesta, workout, pool time, nice Mediterranean dinner, a lovely evening walk, and a drink and some reading for me, repeat. This year around my nieces and nephew were one year older, so more fun, and we had the World Cup to follow – despite Spain’s early departure we enjoyed all the underdog teams putting in great performances! Unfortunately we were only in Mallorca for a couple of weeks.

Back in the mainland we went straight to my parent’s house in the countryside (see previous posts about La Navata). If Mallorca is low-key, this is even more low-key, my routine here is a pre-breakfast swim to wake up, breakfast on the porch, walking to the village for bread, newspapers and to have my coffee in the old café, helping my niece and nephew with their Summer homework, (which this year included reading Le Petit Prince with my niece!), hanging out, lunch and siesta, punching out a page of my prospectus, working out, swimming, dinner and drinks, cigars and chatting – or reading, if nobody is around for conversation. The only routine breakers are driving my mom to the market, going to church on Sundays, and occasionally hanging out with old friends. One of these traditional outings is dinner at El Escorial with Paco Navarro. We walk around, eat, enjoy a coffee and then walk around some more. It is one of my favorite outings and one we have not missed in years!

Then my sister asked me to go hang out with her and her kids in the North Shore of Spain while her husband stayed working in Madrid. I took the train – and the harbor taxi, and had a wonderful week with them. They stay in this old manor house in this cute old village and the only choices they have to make is which beach to go to and which restaurant to have lunch at! Paradise.

The last week I was in Spain I received a request from my Medieval Literature Professor to take a photo of a painting in the cathedral at Toledo. I jumped at the opportunity and I spent a wonderful day alone walking around the old imperial city. I had not been to “the Jerusalem of the West” (for the Jewish, Arab and Christian cultures that thrived in the city) in four years and it was wonderful to slip into the many churches and museums alone with no schedule. I had a nice lunch and a coffee overlooking the Tajo River. It was a very healing experience. I don’t think the photo Prof. Domínguez asked me for came out very well, but still, the excursion was worth it for me.

But by August 5 I was back in old Chapel Hill wrapping up my prospectus and settling down… And now I am back in school teaching two sections of intermediate Spanish 203 and happy to be in my quiet monastic life.

Dad's birthday lunch!

Dad’s birthday lunch!

Breakfast w Jimmy

Breakfast w Jimmy

Chiringuito Camp de Mar

Chiringuito Camp de Mar

20140629_211219 Camp de Mar

Always reading

Reading in Santander

Dinner at El Escorial OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With the photographer's dog!

With the photographer’s dog!

Camp de Mar

Walking back from the beach

Walking back from the beach

Harbor taxi!

Harbor taxi!

Lunch?

Lunch?

at the Cinco calderas

at the Cinco calderas

Las cinco calderas

Las cinco calderas

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

Reading Lists – and the exam that follows…

Reading is hard work, you just can't see it!

Reading is hard work, you just can’t see it!

Patxi at the old and used book fair at El Escorial

Patxi at the old and used book fair at El Escorial

Many of my followers have asked me about the reading lists for my Ph.D. and what is all the fuss about. So here is a brief description: I have finished my first year of the Ph.D. program where I had to take classes. This year, is devoted to preparing for my Ph.D. exam which should be in the Spring of ’14. The exam is based on three reading lists. My first list is XVIII Century Spanish satire, where I have to read about 20 or 30 books of primary reading and another 20 or 30 of theory and critical reading on the topic. My thesis director, the wonderful and extremely patient Prof. Irene Gómez Castellano will guide me with the reading. My secondary or complementary list is on Medieval Spanish satire with the same amount of reading. Prof. Domínguez, the generous and equally patient God of Medieval Spanish literature (seriously, he wrote the book on  it!) will help me with that.  And the final list has to be a transatlantic one. American lit. students have to study a Peninsular topic and vice versa, so I will be reading Colonial lit. with the extremely knowledgeable, razor-sharp but funny Prof. Perelmuter. The exam consists of a morning oral exam with the three reading tutors and a weekend written section with a question for each list. Passing that exam would make me All But Dissertation (ABD) and I have two years to research and write my dissertation.

So I have spent most of my summer (and my summer money) reading and finding books that will fit my reading list. I have toiled in used book stores around Spain breathing musty, old books. I have found some gems, and some that I could not afford, original prints and such. Many of the books I need have long  been out of print, and finding them is a bit of a hit or miss game. I found a handful of books a couple of days before departing Spain at the annual old and used book fair in El Escorial! By the end of the summer I had fifty-four books – enough that I had to fill a second suitcase, albeit a small one. All these are a bit less than a third of the books I need. If I add some books that I already have, I might have, at best, less than half of the material I need to read by April/May… will keep you posted. For now, it is time to get back to reading!

La Navata

La Navata is a tiny village outside Madrid, near the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, where Hemingway’s For whom the Bell Tolls is set, the village is so small it is actually dependent of the bigger nearby village of Galapagar, home of Nobel Prize winning playwright Jacinto Benavente and of the current top bullfighter José Tomás. La Navata itself only has a train station, two bars, a kiosk, a hairdresser, a pharmacy, a small supermarket, and an old, small, stone chapel, San Antonio de La Navata.

My parents bought a weekend/summer house here in 1974, when I was 9 years old. In the early 80’s we added the second floor. If I have a home, this is it. This is my “happy place” where I take my mind when I need to relax. This is where most of my childhood memories were made. This is where I learned to ride motorcycles and to drive – my granddad Antonio patiently guiding me round and round the dirt garden, before we put in grass, in La Petra, our old Citroen 2CV. This is where I made my first and oldest friends, where I learned the little tennis I play, where I have done most of my stargazing, reading, bicycle riding, gardening, hiking and barbeques, where I kissed a girl for the first time (quite sloppy if you must know), where I started tinkering with all things mechanical – although mostly motorbikes, where hiking and skiing trips started, and where great summer (and I guess also winter) parties were hosted.

I used to come here for the weekends in winter, reading by the blazing fireplace, and spending the summer in the pool, the garden and the porch, going indoors only when absolutely necessary.

La Navata is about a fifteen minute drive from El Escorial, built by Phillip II, it houses a palace, monastery, school, mausoleum for all the Haubsburg and most Spanish  Bourbon kings, and one of the most important – and beautiful  – libraries, in the world.  Growing up I spent a lot of time in this place, walking around the palace, gardens, surrounding hills, and the town. I still spend a lot of time here, specially with my friend Patxi, with whom I founded the Asociación A. de Amantes del Escorial in the early 90s.

In 1992 I got a job at a photo equipment supplier near here and I lived in La Navata for about a year. It was a lot of fun, living in this big old house alone, cooking, reading by the fire, and going into Madrid for the weekends doing a reverse weekend commute!

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El Escorial

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The view during a bicylce ride

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Caf’é con leche at the clasico Marcelino bar, at 10 am they have barely opened!

SAMSUNG

Jacinto Benavente at Galapagar´s Plaza

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San Antonio de la Navata

Life in La Navata is very quiet. I start off with a refreshing wake-up swim in the pool, which makes breakfast a cool joy on the porch. Then there is a walk into the village to buy bread for the day, the newspapers and any other groceries, I stop at the bar for a nice café con leche. There are always chores and gardening and pool maintenance to be done before a pre lunch swim. After siesta things actually slow down even more in the heat of the afternoon and I can read, or hang out with the fam. Nowadays with my nephew and two nieces things are a bit more chaotic, but always fun. The afternoon swim is normally the longest one and then I have time to work out in my homemade gym, or run or go for a bicycle ride before dinner. After dinner we sit around, chat, enjoy a mojito made with old Cuban rum (which is unavailable in the US) and mint from the garden, or a gin tonic, or whatever we can  find, sometimes accompanied by a cigar.

Cities and Friends

Besides the enriching experience of teaching, the other benefit of being a teacher is the holidays it comes with. No, we don’t make bank, but not even French government employees get our kind of time off. So after unwinding in Chapel Hill and going on a nice ride with Rocinante (see previous posts) I jumped “the pond” to visit my family in Madrid.

I know I am not original when I say that cities are like people, at least my relationship with them is similar. My relationship with Madrid is that of an old friend and lover. We know each other’s dirty little secrets, but we respect each other like the old friends we are. So coming to Madrid is always special.

One of the first visits I do is to Patxi Navarro. A dear, dear friend from my financial services days. We share a twenty three year friendship. Together we founded the Asociacion A. de Amantes del Escorial since we are both passionate about that monastery/palace/school/village. It is always great to catch up and hear about his life. Another obligatory meeting is with Andrea, another dear college friend who has been there through thick and thin, we had a nice lunch at a neighbourhood “menu” restaurant. A third key friend and one that deserves extra credit when I see him is Felipe Pérez de Madrid, “Pipe”, “The Pipe”, as he is from Valencia. We had a quick coffee in between trains for him, just enough to make sure everything is ok and have a quick laugh. Gracias amigo.

After a few days in town, I was blessed with the visit of Mark Miller and Matthieu, two of my dearest, closest and best friends. We went to university together, Matthieu was a groomsman in my first wedding and Best Man at my second wedding, where Mark was the usher. I had not seen Matthieu since celebrating New Year’s ’08 in NY when Mark, the most gracious and generous host, arranged a spectacular party. Since he is in NY I have had the chance to see Mark more regularly, but not since moving to Chapel Hill.

We spent three days together, eating, walking around the city, drinking, smoking cigars, eating, walking around the city, drinking and smoking cigars. We had paella, roast lamb, jamón, tortilla, garlic shrimp, lots of tapas, wine and coffee. We went to my favorite places, including Del Diego where we met comedian Leo Harlem! It was fantastic to catch up, to share some of the secrets of my old friend Madrid with some of my other old friends, to have a good laugh, good discussions, reminisce and talk about our futures.

Besides the enriching experience of teaching, another benefit of being a teacher is meeting students that eventually become friends. Two days after Mark and Matthieu left, I reunited with Jenny whom I had not seen in a year and a half. Since she graduated from Walnut Hill and I went to see her dance at Mount Holyoke. She is spending the summer in Valencia and came to Madrid for the weekend. We had burgers at my favorite restaurant in Madrid, Alfredos Barbacoa and it was great to catch up, have a good laugh, a good discussion, reminisce and talk about our futures.

My visits to Madrid are few, far between and shorter than I would like them to be, so I never get to see all my friends and family. But one morning coffee I always have is with my godmother Isabel, “Isita”, she is brilliant, funny and wonderful and her advice is always spot on, prejudice free and caring. I love her.

So in one week in Madrid: I reunited with the city, the oldest of friends, I reunited with old, university friends and with new friends – and with my godmother.

Tapa

Tapa

Casa Botín

Casa Botín

Tapas

Tapas

Comedian Leo Harlem

Comedian Leo Harlem

Fernando jr. and Fernando del Diego

Fernando jr. and Fernando del Diego

Del Diego

Del Diego

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

Julieta en Alfredos

Julieta en Alfredos

Here is to friends, I salute you.

Photo creds: Mark Miller (except Julieta)

The countdown hits single digits (almost)

Slowly things fall into place. Finishing up at BB&N was bittersweet. The kids where amazing, we had farewell parties in all my classes and a great end of season dinner for the boys Varsity Tennis team. The nuts and bolts of closing up my life in Boston went smoothly enough. I know I am going to miss old Boston, but after a total of thirteen years there, I needed to move on.

Driving a 17 ft. truck with a two axle trailer with the car on it was a different story. Nobody had given me specific instructions on how to maneuver such a beast. So off I drove confidently in the rain through Connecticut. At a gas station somewhere in Upstate New York I got my trailer driving lesson: I thought I had cleared the pump when I felt a slight nudge on the rig. Surely enough I had cut the corner a bit close and the trailer had gotten caught on the pump. Nothing broken, no problem. I proceeded to maneuver myself into quite a tangle, the trailer facing Canada and the truck facing Mexico (you get the picture). Somewhere in that mess I snapped the pump handle off of the pump! I finally spotted the huge gas tank delivery truck parked on the far edge of the station and I walked in the rain to beg the driver for help. After analyzing the situation, he gave me the lesson I had wanted all along! It took a while to extricate myself from the mess but eventually got out with only the car slightly less scratched than my ego. The station manager was fine with the broken handle. I slept in New Jersey and safely made it to North Carolina the next day.

After unpacking at Friendly lane on a Friday I flew to Spain for the summer holidays with my family. I hung out in Madrid, went to my nieces baptism, went to the beautiful Mediterranean island of Mallorca and at my family’s house in the village of La Navata outside Madrid.

So this is what I have worked three years for, this is when the proverbial manure hits the fan, this is when the action starts. I can’t wait for orientation on the 13th and for classes to start on the 21st.  I’m taking Medieval literature, old Spanish grammar, film in culture and Italian for beginners – like in the movie. On the flip side, I still don’t know what I will be teaching.

This is what I’ve waited for, this is it.ImageImageImage

Winter break

Happy New Year!!

Rocinante finally went to spend the Winter at Boston Harley-Davidson. They have changed ownership since I promised not to return, and I believe in second (and third) chances so there she is since mid December. I can’t wait to get her out and start new adventures as soon as it warms up.

As for me, I came to Madrid to spend the break with my family. My parents, my sisters, my niece and nephew,  and my friends. During my free time I am correcting midyear exams and writing and submitting PhD. applications. I am about halfway done,  it is very time consuming as it needs to be done correctly and carefully, and despite that I still slip.

Valencia finally got a high speed train line, so I went to spend the day with friends and to eat the authentic paella (chicken and rabbit if you must know). In the beautiful weather I got a ride on Pipe’s Harley which made me miss Rocinante.

I also had time to visit Alcala de Henares with my dear friend and antique art restorer Jaime, and to have the annual meeting of the Asociacion A de amantes del Escorial. Held as is the tradition at La Cueva, followed by a night walk around the monastery.

As the applications get sent there is a mixture of relief in having done everything you could have done, and of anxiety waiting for the news. What is it? The need to know and the fear of knowing.

So to keep me busy I finished Zen and the Art  of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I loved and I have jumped into Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, just what I needed.

Now the big silence until we start hearing news… In the meantime enjoy some photos of my break