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We recently visited the Universidad de Salamanca, Spain’s great university, founded in this town on a hill in 1134, and today a booming campus of 55,000 students. Pictured below is the chair where doctoral candidate students of old would sit, with their feet pressed against those on the sarcophagus of an archbishop while they were questioned by professors in their final exam.

There are five Alcazars — a Spanish-Moorish castle — in Spain, which some say inspired the Magic Castles at Disneylands. We recently visited the Alcazar of Segovia, built in the 12th century, and favorite home of the monarchs of Castille, and it is magical to this day.

Alcazar of Segovia

The others are: The Alcazar of Seville, dating to the 1360’s, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we visited in 2007; the Alcazar of Toledo, which received later fame in the Siege of the Alcazar during the Spanish Civil War; the Alcazar of Madrid, which following a fire in 1734 was rebuilt as the Royal Palace of Madrid on the same site; and the Alcazar of Cordoba, 13th century Moorish castle, once home of the largest library in the Western world, and home of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, where they met with Columbus before his journey to the west. Columbus is now interred in the cathedral there, where we also visited in 2007.

The world knows Picasso’s famous mural painting (he did his monumental piece beginning from 42 sketches he made at the scene) in Madrid of the anguish of the brutal and unprovoked aerial attack by the Nazi’s on the civilian population this small town in the Basque country of Northern Spain, April 26, 1937. We visited the Peace Museum there — the town is locally spelled Gernika, its Basque name, not the more recognized French spelling used by Picasso.
What many don’t recall, if they ever knew it, was that spanish dictator Franco, then an ally of Hitler, gave his friend the Führer permission to test out his new carpet bombing technique on the little town during the Spanish Civil War, because the Basque people of the north of Spain were in conflict with Franco’s regime. To this day, many Basque’s seek political independence. The bombing took place in daylight on a market day, when the townspeople were outdoor in the streets, and more than 1.600 in this little town were mercilessly cut down. Journalists and then Picasso made Gernika a symbol for the complete breakdown of civilization signified by war.

The Gernika Peace Museum is tasteful, and a strong but calm reminder of the agony and inhumanity of war, and the challenges of reconciliation. It was not until 1987 that the Germans apologized for the bombing of Gernika. Franco never even acknowledged that the bombing took place. We were very moved by the town, now more modern than many others in the area, of some 16,000, and by the museum, which is very much worth a visit if you are visiting Bilbao and the beautiful, rugged Basque mountains of the North of Spain. Modern super highways make it easy to get there. As I was just revising this, our cat Cider stretched out across the keyboard — talk about symbols of peace!

The habitues of Morning Joe flapped on this AM about the so-called negative “optics” of First Lady Obama’s jaunt to Spain with her daughter, trailing all the apparent pomp of privilege and security that accompanies the family of a sitting American President. They said that when the Times’ Maureen Dowd said Michelle should be home making her stressed husband toast (Feliz Cumpleaños, and Adiós By MAUREEN DOWD Where’s the first lady when the president needs her? Going her own way.August 7, 2010), that means White House staff are buzzing with hate and envy over the First Lady’s apparent insensitivity to how the masses eye such an adventure.

The Morning Joe crew added that Laura Bush would take vacations to hike in National Parks, a seemingly more patriotic destination. But the truth is, everybody, down to the garbage truck driver, takes a vacation if they can and goes where they want and can afford, and they don’t give a damn what their neighbor thinks about it, and perhaps even gloat about the fish they caught at the lake or the waterslide their kids frolicked on at the Dells.

After a career in public relations, I’m a cynic when it comes to “optics.” Michele Obama does more public service work than any 50 society matrons rolled into one. She’s a sophisticated woman, married to the most powerful man in the world. If she wants to take her daughter to Spain, while her daughter is young enough to want to go with her mom, that’s exactly what they should have done. If they had gone hiking at a National Park instead, which might have been fun, the Park would still have had to shut off vast areas to the public, for security and privacy reasons, still cost the taxpayers a bundle, and if they had done that to please Maureen Dowd and a handful of White House interns and overworked appointees, and even if the “optics” had been a little better, so what? Personally, I’m glad these people aren’t ruled by optics floptics.

Behind every doorway in Cordoba, it is likely a garden lurks.

Tart-sour Seville oranges are the not-so-secret ingredient in the best English marmalade.

March 2023

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