England and Spain, 2001

2001 England and Spain

In the surreal and tense wake of the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the United States, we headed off to England on the first flights out after a week of quiet skies due to the air travel ban.  We needed to get away, stretch our lungs and legs in the English countryside.

We had been targeting the Cotswold Way for some time, a 102-mile footpath along the Cotswold Edge escarpment, passing through Paul’s hometown of Cheltenham.  In fine weather, we departed quaint Chipping Campden for stately Bath.  For the next week we passed through the Gloucestershire landscape, stopping in honey-colored villages and towns, enjoying the local pubs, chippys, and curry restaurants.

Descending from Cleeve Hill with sweeping views of Cheltenham, we passed Chantilly (the house where Paul was born — still awaiting a commemorative plaque!), visited Paul’s aunt Sue and cousin Danny, and celebrated Paul’s birthday with his mother Liz at The Daffodil, a restaurant in a converted Art Deco cinema where Liz went to watch movies in her childhood.  Our day in Cheltenham was a warm welcome to city sophistication after days in the bucolic countryside.

Baby Paul in England ~ Paul Visits Chantilly ~ Proud Parents at Paul's Birth Home

Our feet again trodding the Way, we enjoyed a memorable night in Painswick with a fine pub meal and accommodation in an Elizabethan-era B&B which featured an unusual “birthing bed” rising high from the floor.  In the evening while strolling through the distinctively manicured yew trees in the parish churchyard, we were invited up the the bell tower to listen to the locals practice change ringing.  It was an unforeseen delight and the experience provided vivid images years later when I read Dorothy Sayers’ gripping and highly recommended murder mystery The Nine Tailors.

At week’s end, we arrived in Bath and toured the historic Roman baths and the handsome downtown.  We met Liz there and she treated us to a nice meal and in a graceful Georgian concert hall, we were stirred by Barber’s Requiem performed in memoriam of the fallen victims of the 9/11 attacks.

We soon headed to Portsmouth on the southern coast, saw Dickens’ birth home, and boarded the P&O ferry Pride of Bilbao to Spain.  It was a rough crossing since we rode through the remnants of a  North American hurricane blowing east to the Atlantic ocean’s European edge.  Despite the rocky seas, we rested our tired legs and enjoyed the leisurely hours watching films, dining, reading and chatting with other passengers some of whom were on edge due to uncertainty and heightened security resulting from the 9/11 attacks still smoldering on the forefront of everyone’s minds.

36 hours after departing the UK, we disembarked in sunny Spain at Bilbao’s port.  I was newly energized, hungry for tasty Spanish tapas, and eager to hike the Pyrenees Mountains as we headed towards Barcelona.  It felt good to be back on Spanish soil, the warm sun and steady earth provided sure footing and comfort after the adventurous voyage through the Bay of Biscay.

In Bilbao, we admired the striking curves and shiny metallic design of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, then only a 3-year-old celebrated marvel.  Sadly it was a Monday so the museum was closed so we could only enjoy the architectural exterior but still very satisfying.

We picked up our rental car and headed to San Sebastián (known to Basque locals as Donostia), ate excellent seafood tapas and gazed at the blue seas of the pretty La Concha bay.  Wanting to linger in this charming city, we pressed on to Pamplona where Hemingway immortalized the running of the bulls in The Sun Also Rises.  Since the historic center under full restoration, we focused instead on the culinary rather than architectural treasures, and were not disappointed by the pleasant people and agreeable restaurants.

From the city, we headed to the foothills of the Pyrenees.  We stayed in the quaint stone village of Torla, thankfully empty of tourists in late September.  We hiked the green valleys, lush waterfalls, ocher fall foliage, and jagged peaks in Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park.  We sat on the high border between Spain and France, I reflected on the dangerous flight of countless thousands of Spaniards feeling the tyranny of Franco as the Second Republic fell during the Civil War.

We spent a couple more days enjoying the quiet mountain villages and expansive valleys in Navarra and Aragón.  Our idle hours we filled with peace and leisurely moments together.

Next we arrived in bustling Barcelona, promptly found a friendly pensión just off La Rambla, a people-watching paradise.  We dined in the Arab quarter, toured the excellent Picasso museum, visited the modernist architectural gems of Antonio Gaudí: the Sagrada Familia cathedral (still a work-in-progress after 120 years but stunning nevertheless), the Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera), and the fanciful Parc Güell set high in hilly Gràcia neighborhood.   In the unruffled gardens of the park, we unwound with the help of a bottle of wine, bread and almonds and watched the Catalan families and friends enjoying calm and togetherness.

Our vacation at its end, we caught the RENFE Talgo express train to Madrid for a hearty Asturian meal and quick overnight in Salamanca before flying back to the United States.  That final night in our hotel room, we watched on TV as the United States military began bombing al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Afghanistan.

Operation Enduring Freedom was now underway in Afghanistan.  Even a dizzying few weeks after the 9/11 attacks we knew Iraq was next.  The international situation remained tense and unstable, the violent images on the television screen were highly unsettling to both of us.  After two placid weeks walking together through the idylls of rural England and Spain with sympathetic and friendly faces all around, our days of peace were over.

The War on Terror had begun.  A decade of conflict, bloodshed and hostile politics continues to this day…

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