Friday, August 30, 2013

Oviedo: Or, A Personal Encounter With Spain's Healthcare System

“Oviedo is a delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city. It is as if it did not belong to this world, as if it did not exist ... Oviedo is like a fairy-tale.” -Woody Allen

     After two days in the Picos de Europa, Katie and I went to Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. Oviedo is a nice city to visit, preserving its long history while being a modern city. Among other things, the annual Príncipe de Asturias awards are held in Oviedo, which are presided over by Prince Felipe, heir to the Spanish throne. The awards range from the sciences to the humanities, and past recipients include Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen (who gave an acceptance speech that everyone should see). Woody Allen was awarded the prize in 2002, years before he filmed part of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" in Oviedo, but which no doubt influenced his decision to film there.

Woody Allen statue in Oviedo
     The old part of town is typical Spanish, with small cobblestone streets, several plazas, and big churches. In one plaza we happened upon a wedding with traditional Asturian music (almost like Irish music).

     We were really looking forward to seeing the two pre-Romanesque churches located on a hill outside of town. Built in the 9th century, the churches have been very well preserved and are beautifully shaped. The first one below, Santa María del Naranco, was originally a palace but was later converted into a church. 

Santa María del Naranco
Side view of Santa María del Naranco
     San Miguel de Lillo, a few minutes away from the former palace, is even more beautiful and has a few original stone carved windows (covered now by plexiglass). It is wonderfully symmetric and, aesthetically, is one of my favorite churches.
San Miguel de Lillo
Side view, San Miguel de Lillo
     Back in the city, there is an old fountain called La Fonclada, which is the only surviving "example of civic construction intended for public use dating from the High Middle Ages" (9th century). 

     A few blocks from where we were staying is the famous Hotel de la Reconquista, which we wandered into after having a chicken empanada from a bakery. It was very nice inside. So nice, in fact, that the guy in front did not want to let us inside because we weren't staying there. I told him we might have a coffee from the café, so he let us in. I wanted to see the hotel because it looked great in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." It was also the hotel where Scarlet Johansson's character in the movie was laid up for two days with food poisoning. Foreshadowing? 

     A couple hours later, as it was time for bed, Katie mentioned she felt a little sick. I concurred. The next eight hours were the worst eight hours ever. When 8am rolled around and I was still on the bathroom floor, Katie said,
We have to go to the hospital.
I called a cab and stumbled out of the building, my body so devoid of water I couldn't feel my legs. We got into the cab. Ten minutes later we stumbled into the emergency room. I put my government issued private insurance card on the counter (it was to expire the next day) and was directed to lie on a bed. Apparently Katie gave them any necessary information and sat down next to me. The doctor said I needed an IV. I said I had never had one. There's a first time for everything. Katie said she had to go to the bathroom. She didn't make it out of the door. The nurse caught her as she fell and she was put on a bed too. 
     Four hours later the doctor told me we should stay overnight. That sounded ridiculous to me. Doesn't it cost a fortune to stay overnight in a hospital? 
Maybe in the United States. This is Spain. The insurance will pay for everything. 
Okay then.
Twenty hours later, we woke up, feeling better. The doctor came in.
So we can go now?
Maybe this evening. You have to eat something.
I'm hungry. 
Katie was no longer on an IV (both because she didn't have Spanish insurance and because she is stronger than I am, probably due to her stint in Moscow). She went to get a few things at the hostel and came back. Long story put out of its misery, we left around 8pm on the second day and decided we should call the trip over, even though we had two more places to visit. 
     I learned a couple of things from this misfortune. 1) Don't eat chicken empanadas that have been sitting in bakery windows. 2) My private Spanish health insurance is great. I had private insurance (with Mapfre, a big Spanish insurance provider), given to me by my job. Only around 18% of Spaniards have private health insurance. Principally because few can afford it, but also because there is universal health care in Spain. Part of the deal of the job I have as a Language and Culture assistant is that I am given private healthcare, which in hindsight is a great thing. I was admitted to urgencias (the emergency room) without any wait, was given a plethora of IVs for 36 hours, had a private room, and everyone was really nice to me. (Factor not taken into account: Spanish hospital not wanting an American to die in its care). So, for any auxiliares de conversación out there reading this, rest assured that the insurance given to us is good, and the hospital care provided is as good as in the United States, with the added bonus that you probably will not pay a dime. 
     As for the public healthcare in Spain, I can't speak about it because I have no experience of it. Has anyone out there experienced Spain's public healthcare system? 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Los Picos de Europa and Cangas de Onís

     We left Ramales de la Victoria and took a bus to Laredo, twenty miles north on the coast. The next bus to Ribadesella was full, so we bought some cherries and spent the afternoon on beach, which is a nearly four mile half circle. At some point I had to help some kids get a shoe out of a tree.

I'm the one in the tree.
     Later, we took another bus to Ribadesella, a couple hours west on the coast. We arrived before sundown and stayed in a nice albergue on the beach.

Boats in Ribadesella


     The next morning we took two buses to a roadside motel where we would take trips to the Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe), a mountain chain split between the regions of Cantabria Asturias, and Castilla y León. We were in Asturias, home to the most famous sites of the Picos.
     After unpacking we got a ride into the nearest town, Cangas de Onís. This is a nice little town—more on it later. From there we took a bus to Covadonga, a hilltop town (population 58) and the site of the first Christian victory over the Moors in 722AD, making it the beginning of the long Reconquista (which lasted nearly 800 years). The town has a Christian shrine built in a cave on the side of a mountain and a modern church. Finally, we took a bus from there up to the Picos, climbing several thousand feet in a huge bus on a steep, one lane road with blind turns and two lane traffic. The bus would go careening around a tight turn, honking its horn to warn any oncoming cars to get out of its way. It was an impressive feat of driving. After about 25 minutes we arrived at the trailhead to walk to the Lakes of Covadonga.

Los Picos de Europa

         The trail was easy and along the way we stopped at a visitor's center and some abandoned iron and magnesium mine shafts before arriving at the lakes. A bunch of cattle graze along the shore at the foot of the mountains, making the setting both pastoral and immense. 

Cows at Lake Ercina

Lake Ercina

Panoramic of Lake Ercina and Lake Enol

     After walking for a couple of hours we headed back down the mountains and found a ride back to Cangas de Onís. There, we bought food for dinner. Asturias is famous for its cows. It boasts the best meat, milk, and cheese (some made from goat milk), so we loaded up on Asturian products to cook for dinner. These people are really proud of their meat. We saw a large billboard that had a picture almost identical to the one above of the cows that said something to the effect of "Raised in paradise, brought to your plate." 
"I'm not like the rest. I'm Asturian beef."
      Cangas de Onís was the capital of the kingdom of Asturias until 744 (Asturias has its own language, very similar to Spanish and a minority of the population there can speak it.) It has a Roman-Medeival bridge (completely rebuilt), and the first church constructed after the start of the Reconquista, built in 737. The church has been built a few times, most recently having been destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, and only the foundation stone remains. But the ancient dolmen on which it was built can be seen inside the church.
The "Roman" bridge in Cangas de Onís.
Santa Cruz church in Cangas de Onís.

Inside Santa Cruz church, looking down. The ancient dolmen, several thousand years old. 
     The next day, we walked the two miles to Cangas de Onís and took a bus (of course) to Las Arenas, a village less than an hour east of Cangas de Onís. We were on our way to La Ruta del Cares, a famous hiking trail along the Cares river in the mountains. From the town it was several kilometers straight up to get to the trailhead, so after walking for a little while we got a ride up there. The trail is about seven miles one way through the mountains, and crosses from the region of Asturias into Castilla y León. We were visiting about a week before high season, which meant that our transportation options were limited and, in this case, nonexistent if we were to walk the whole trail. Our only option would have been to walk all the way back to Las Arenas, and we didn't have enough time. So we walked a few miles of the trail before turning back. The trail is beautiful. You are surrounded by the limestone peaks with the clear blue river below. 
     At the beginning of the trail, we saw some mountain goats on the trail. What a nice thing to see. Until they started surrounding Katie and this enormous, wild-eyed, long haired black and white goat appeared (not pictured) and we realized there was a baby for him to protect. I'd say he was about like Goya's El gran cabrón. Eventually the light-hearted situation turned into Katie screaming and I picked up a baseball-sized rock just in case and made a move toward the three goats and they scrambled off, more out of pity than fear. 

Mountain Goat on the Cares trail
     So, after a rough start we continued on, rising in elevation and looking at the mountains around. The mountain range is formed from limestone, which is the reason for its craggy appearance, having been slowly eroded over the millennia. 

On the Ruta del Cares

Looking back from where we came, you can see the winding trail, which flattens after a couple of miles.

     As you can see, the trail is really incredible, and I wish we'd had time to do the whole thing. But it was just as well that we turned back after a few hours, because it was hot and we were hungry.

The Cares river below

          Visiting the Picos was a great choice, even without a car. The buses really can get you almost anywhere, although Spanish skills are highly recommended and we caught a few rides along the way and walked a fair amount. The history of Cangas de Onís just added to the beautiful scenery we were there for, the food was good and the region is more economical than the Basque country. The two routes we picked, the Lakes of Covadonga and the Cares Route, were distinct and breathtaking. On a trip to the north of Spain, the Picos de Europa are a must see. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ramales de la Victoria and the Cave of Covalanas

     Possibly my favorite stop on the trip was Ramales de la Victoria, a small village in the region of Cantabria (west of the Basque region). We took a bus from Bilbao to Laredo and then to the village. There wasn't much in the village itself, but I was drawn there because of the caves. Cantabria is full of caves, with more than six thousand discovered in the region. Along with your everyday caves, the region has some very special caves—ones with cave paintings. I had never seen cave paintings, and was very excited to see some that were over 20,000 years old. The oldest known existent cave paintings are in Cantabria, and are somewhere around 40,000 years old, but they are not open to visitors.
     The first cave we saw is located ten minutes outside the town. On the way there, we passed a bar with an interesting name.

Taberna Nashville, in Ramales de la Victoria.
     That's right—in a town of 2500 people in northern Spain, there is a bar called Nashville. Apparently, several years back a few Americans settled in Ramales to live the Spanish dream, bought the bar and some horses, and eventually rode into the sunset. The bar is now owned by a Spaniard. 
     We reached the cave of Cullalvera and found we were the only visitors. The tour guide told us all about the cave as we walked through it and brushed up on our Spanish geological vocabulary. I guess the last time I learned about stalactites I either didn't understand or didn't care how they were formed. But when he told us that the water drips through a hole in the rock and, as the droplet falls, minerals in the water cling to the rock, slowly accumulating and over tens of thousands of years form a thin hanging rock, I was impressed. 
     The cave, though it is large (its opening is 120ft high and it is over 5 miles deep), is only the sixth largest in Cantabria. It has some cave paintings, but they are deep within the cave and inaccessible even  to the tour guides. At nearly three quarters of a mile in, the paintings are some of the deepest in the world. The cave was also used by the rebels during the Spanish Civil War to store vehicles.

Cueva de Cullalvera
Cueva de Cullalvera
      I was very glad we went to the cave and learned a lot. But Katie had been in bigger caves, and was harder to win over. Luckily, we saved the best for last. The next morning we hiked along the mountains a couple of miles until we arrived at the cave of Covalanas.

Hiking near the Cueva de Covalanas.

La Cueva de Covalanas.
     The exterior of the cave is unassuming. It is the inside that is spectacular. Upon arrival we again found ourselves alone. So, with flashlights in hand and a tour guide eager to practice her English, we entered the cave. She explained that the first part of the cave had been excavated so that people could walk in it. In prehistoric times, in order to enter one would have had to crawl on one's back for several meters until the cave opened up to a height where one could stand. 200 feet in, you see the first painting. The striking oxidized iron red forms the outline of a doe. The paintings were done by one person around 20,000B.C., and it is obvious they were well planned and executed. The artist used the tips of his fingers to make dots that he formed into lines and eventually into animals. This technique is called stippling. On the right side of the cave, the animals face inward, and on the left, outward, indicating a circular motion. The artist used natural curves and lines in the rock to imply backs and hooves of some of the animals, and placed the animals so that they were best viewed from a certain angle. Seeing these paintings was incredible. There are over 20 figures, mostly hinds (female deer), but also a couple of stags, a horse, an aurochs (prehistoric bull), and some dots and lines. 

Detail of a doe.
You are not allowed to photograph the inside of the cave due to preservation concerns, but fortunately there are some good photos on the cave's website.
The aurochs. Notice its back is formed by the cave rock.
Here you can really see the stippling technique.
The horse.
     The artist used indirect lighting to illuminate the cave while painting by burning bone marrow that would have flickered around the cave walls. We arrived at the deepest of the paintings, which are clustered in a space where the left side of the cave splits into two walls, forming a small oval-shaped dome (or, more technically, a diverticulum). Here there are hinds circulating the walls. The guide imitated the bone marrow lighting by waving the flashlight around the cave ceiling. This resulted in a phenomenal sight, the deer shimmering, seemingly moving along the cave walls. This was not an accident, said the guide. She mused that the artist, probably a shaman, would come to this place, drink some hallucinogenic drink, and sit here watching the red deer move along the walls. Of course, the reason for the artist's painting these beautiful animals is unknown, but the guide thought it was a religious one. We will never know, but it is certain that these paintings were expertly executed and planned, and were most certainly not just to practice painting. This is a high form of art. 
Part of the diverticulum.
     After this visit, Katie was thoroughly impressed and glad I had dragged her into the middle of nowhere, taking three buses, walking miles, and staying two nights just to see this cave. If you go, you must book online in advance. Here is the website of the cave system throughout Cantabria. It was certainly a highlight of our trip across northern Spain. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

San Juan de Gaztalugatxe

     San Juan de Gaztalugatxe is a 10th century hermitage in the Basque region. It is different from most hermitages because it is built on a small island that has been connected to the mainland. To get there, you must walk down. Far down. 

Before the descent.
   The hermitage is dedicated to St. John the Baptist. 

     The sea is constantly eroding the small island, evidence of which can be seen by the rock archways formed by thousands of years of waves. 

Before the ascent. 
     At the top, there is a church and a church bell, which you are supposed to ring three times when you reach the top. 

Katie ringing the bell.
     The surrounding Bay of Biscay is breathtaking. Sitting on the far side of the church, you can't sea anything but blue and white, with no sound of civilization. I fell asleep for a while. Eventually we began to descend the hundreds of stairs. 

The descent. 
          At the bottom of the stairs you can get closer to the water, which is cold and clear.

     The hermitage is a little out of the way, but you can get there by taking two buses from Bilbao as long as you ask the second bus driver to stop there. That is what we did—we stayed in Bilbao for two nights, but this excursion was the highlight of our time there.