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Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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   Salamanca, Spain
Tuesday, November 21 2023

Room 215 on the Andorinha on the Douro River in Barca de Alva, Portugal

Breakfast was earlier than usual in the Andorinha's dining room because we had to get up earlier than usual for the day's excursion: to Salamanca, Spain. This was the only excursion Gretchen had signed us up for, partly because it would be the first time either of us had been to Spain.
The bus ride to Salamanca took two hours and the changes in landscape along the way were drastic. Initially we were in the Douro Valley, with its terraced landscape covered with intense agriculture of the few products it produces. But then we were on an increasingly-flat plane, where the fields were often occupied by cattle or (less commonly) sheep. At some point, off in the distance, a line of mountains came into view in the south. The whole time, our guided Carmem prattled on in the way she does, filling the bus with the sound of her voice without saying much more than truisms. Occasionally she also told jokes, though these were always told after plenty of notice was given, including her insistence that they would be funny. (One of them actually was funny, and was built around a miscommunication about what "WC" stands for. [It wasn't hard to find on the internet.]) Perhaps more troubling was Carmem's constant pro-Portugal boosterism, usually at the expense of Spain. On this ride, for example, she would say that only the Portuguese were wise enough to install locks on all the dams of the Douro inside Portugal, implying that the Spanish were too lazy or incompetent to install locks on the upper Douro. She also said that the Portuguese, unlike the Spanish, do not take siestas because they are "industrious."
Carmem also talked a bit longer than she should've about bullfighting in Iberia. It turns out that the cabbie in Lisbon was right, the bulls are no longer killed in Portuguese bullfights. In Spain, though, they still are, and she didn't know which was a better outcome (suggesting that the bull is left in horrifying condition either way). She said bullfights weren't so popular except among the wealthy, and that is why they persist. She also said that the region we were driving through was where many of the bulls come from. She said this as though the bullfighting bulls are the main reason cattle are raised at all, as if there is much less interest in producing milk, beef, or leather.
After passing through some smaller towns, we arrived in Salamanca, whose skyline features the towers of its two cathedrals, which are so close to one another that they share at least a wall if not a few rooms. After parking, we were assigned to our guide, a middle-aged woman whose English wasn't so great and didn't have much charisma. But the rules of Spain are that interpetive guides for Spanish attractions must themselves be Spanish. We listened to her through radio-assisted remote audio devices similar to the ones we'd used at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg back in 2019. She led us past the place where she said the condemned during the Inquisition were killed, directly to the ourside of the more modern of the two cathedrals. There, she quickly pointed out some amusing modern touches that had been added during a renovation of the delicate stonework near the entrance door. In among objects that wouldn't look out of place to a medieval peasant is an astronaut in a space suit, complete with chonky space boots and various tubes to keep him alive in outer space. Inside, the cathedral was stunning in a way that we'd been missing in everything we'd seen in Portugal. It reminded us more of the wonders of Paris or Rome, and a likely reason Salamanca could have such a wonder was that it was richer for longer than any city in Portugal had ever been. Even so, there were indications that the cathedral would've been even more dramatic had it not been built under budgetary restraints (at least for phases of its centuries-long construction). For example, in some places the ceiling was richly decorated in one area right next to a patch of ceiling ornamented only with the ribs of its underlying structure. Our guide pointed out a tiny "pigeon" high above us in the dome of the new cathedral's central tower, saying its wing span was six meters. It looked tiny. And then an older woman in our group insisted it was a "dove," revealing herself to be that person in our tour (there's always at least one). ("Dove" and "pigeon" are interchangeable, particularly for people speaking in something other than their first language.)
From there, we drained out into a couryard, stopping for a stand in the bathroom line for those who needed it. At this point I was looking with fascination at the mechanisms for some 16th Century pipe organs.
Our guide then led us through an area that was given over more to the Salamanca university than the cathedral (athough the divide between the two was less precise than the divide between the old cathedral and the new one). In one courtyard, generations of students had bragged of their new doctoral degrees by carefully painting their names in red paint on the rusty sandstone walls, a practice that seemed to have been tolerated for hundreds of years (since the graffiti was so well done and often high on the wall). At one gate featuring elaborate stonework, we were told a sculpture of a frog had been hidden, and that legend had it that anyone who could find the frog would get their degree without ever having to study. Then our guide pointed out the frog to us, since none of us were studying in this particular university. Evidently that hidden frog is a huge part of the lore of the Salamanca tour, since a woman was selling green frog keychains nearby, and they'd occasionally make a "ribbit" noise.
Our guide led us through a few squares and then to the Plaza Mayor, a beautiful secular place for things like farmers markets (where we'd been told to be wary of pickpockets). From there, we walked down a narrow but stunning street past a vast convent where only about four or five nuns still live. I was realizing that one of the reasons Salamanca is so much more attractive than, say, Lisbon, is the ruddy pallet resulting from the use of sandstone containing a small amount of iron. This makes the surfaces of Salamanca's structures look great no matter how grimy they get. In Lisbon, where the surfaces are usually some variant of white, things look grimy unless they are cleaned extremely often.
Lunch was served in a restaurant called Oroviejo (it described itself as an "gastrobar"). It featured beautiful arched-brick ceilings and stone walls so thick that the windows appeared to have been awkwardly hacked in at the bottom of chimneys through the roof. Unfortunately, all the vegan restaurants in Salamanca had been too small to accommodate our group, so the tour planners had picked Oroviejo. It featured large hunks of meat hanging on the wall as we walked past. (I'm not sure how these are kept from attracting flies and maggots.)
Randomly, we ended up at a table with nothing but other North Americans. That gay couple from Ft. Lauderdale were the people we actually knew, and they quickly imparted the unfortunate news that Oroviejo does not have vegan wine. That wouldn't've been a problem for me, but it would've been hard to order non-vegan wine in front of someone who makes such a big deal about it. While we sat there, Gretchen introduced the Ft. Lauderdale boys to the New York Times Spelling Bee, which they hadn't heard of. I'd already gotten to genius on my phone, where it is hard to use my offline system, so I'd spoiled the game today for Gretchen.
As for the food, we were all given hunks of cheap white bread and then soup, which was pretty good. But then the main course came out, and it was a bowl of porridge. Well, technically it was mushroom risotto, but it was utterly boring. There was also some fuckup in the kitchen and the Filipino guy (among others) never ended up getting their porridge. Gretchen and I decided to leave the restaurant before the dessert came out, well before anyone else in our group did. By this time, we were in the "free time" part of the Salamanca excursion. As we walked away from the restaurant, Gretchen observed that the Ft. Lauderdale boys are "boring" and that she hoped not to get stuck sitting again with them any time soon.
Gretchen wanted to check out the Museum of Art Noveau, since we both love Art Noveau and there are so few examples of it in the United States. This particular museum was full of a lot of crap of questionable taste, including a whole wing full of early 20th Century baby dolls and plenty of figurines that Gretchen said she would have trouble unseeing. There was also some great furniture with various plant motifs and interesting brass detailing.
Later we went to the museum's built-in café, which was itself a tasteful example of Art Noveau. There Gretchen ordered us both glasses of port (or "oporto" as they call it in Spanish), forgetting for the movement that we were mo longer in Portugal. It camed to three euros per glass and tasted a lot like bottled port back in the United States.
After that, we walked about half-way across an ancient Roman bridge spanning the Tormes River, which is not much larger than Esopus Creek. We returned to our bus at the pre-arranged time, which was 4:30pm Spanish Time/3:30pm Portuguese Time. Then we had to sit there a little too long, waiting for some stragglers from New York City to come back from their shopping.
I tried to sleep on the ride back to the boat, but of course Carmem was prattling for most of the ride, telling her "jokes" and making jingoistic observations about Spaniards. At some point on the motorway near the Portuguese border, we stopped at a gas station so those who needed to piss could do so. I went in to see if Gretchen wanted to use the ATM machine (the fees ended up being too high) and was astounded to see the gas station was selling guns, though they might've only been air-powered.

Back on the boat, I went to get a robot-produced cappuccino, and a waiter from Brazil with a refined mustache asked if I knew of "Neelix." I didn't know if he was talking about an app or what, so he brought up a picture of a DJ named Neelix on his phone. The guy looked like me maybe ten or fifteen years ago, and the resemblance was uncanny. He even has a penchant for wearing chonky black-rimmed glasses. From some angles, Neelix even had my posture down, as if he had studied me and decided to take my appearance on as a persona. Other than the age difference, there are a few other flaws in the mimicry, especially where lighting throws his more-pronounced adams apple into greater relief. People have told me in the past that I look like various people (when I was in my 30s, that person was usually Willem Dafoe), but I never really saw it. With Neelix, I saw it. I immediately posted something about it on Facebook and showed Gretchen as well. She agreed, this Neelix guy is the closest I have to a doppleganger.
Tonight Gretchen and I dined with a couple consisting of A, an American woman from Michigan and JP, a man from Holland. Together, they now have two homes: one in northwest Ireland and an apartment near Lisbon. Gretchen had talked to JP earlier on the trip and determined that he and I have a lot in common. Currently, for example, he is trying to develop a way to better capture and use the waste heat produced when burning fuels to generate electricity.
At dinner, JP and I were taking turns talking about the sorts of things that excite us, such as (for me) large thermal masses and microcontrollers and (for JP) Stirling engines, possibly made use ceramics.
JP also talked about his career, starting when his parents tried to get him to become a lawyer instead of his preference, an engineer. So JP ended up as an economist, but soon landed a job where he was pulled into the nitty gritty of writing software, since the company's software development team was too ossified and procedure-bound to get anything done. After JP and his skunkworks team delivered a project early and under-budget, the software developers did everything they could to sabotage JP and his team. So JP ended up leaving and founding his own company, one that used block-chain-like technology to help banks communicate at least a decade before the invention of BitCoin. His system was so great at encrypting bank messages that it soon became a favorite of terrorists. From there, JP wouldn't tell us more, though we got the impression that he then partnered with American intelligence services (which would've been a crime in Holland) to install backdoors that allowed the Americans to track and, eventually, intercept bank communications benefitting terrorists. Now he's retired, though it seems all that work was enough to make it possible for him to go on riverboat cruises whenever he wants.
A, JP's wife, is a psychotherapist, and, like Gretchen, she serves as the human-interfacing half of the relationship, since (as he readily admits) JP is "out on the spectrum."
Meanwhile, our dinner proved to be the best so far on the cruise, with some sort of delicious deepfried eggplant thing and delicious balls that might or might not have been dumplings.

After dinner tonight, Gretchen and I watched a biopic called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which was based on a documentary that Gretchen had seen. At first, Gretchen had been perplexed by the need for a biopic, but someone on the boat had told her that it is a great movie, and damn, they weren't wrong. The biopic format allowed for recreated scenes from Tammy Faye's backstory, back in the early 1960s when she just looked like a cute white girl. But over the years, her evangelical lifestyle and connection to Jim Bakker, gradually turned her into something of a monster (at least visually). Jim Bakker was something of a grifter with a penchant for running up debt he had no idea how to repay, and eventually his narcisism destroys his empire. But not before Tammy Faye displays an interesting, inclusive form of evangelism that accepts gay people and even AIDS patients as fellow children of God. As least with respect to Tammy Faye (if not Jim), it's a much more complex and nuanced story than I remember from when it actually happened. The best scene hands-down is the one where Tammy Faye, ignored by Jim through one of her pregnancies, accepts the advances of a music producer only to experience the breaking of her water while riding him like a pregnant cowgirl.

The drive to Salamanca, seeing trees on the Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

Spanish plane. Click to enlarge.

The new cathedral's tower behind the Art Noveau museum. Click to enlarge.

A small crucifix. Click to enlarge.

On the way to the cathedrals. Click to enlarge.

On the way to the cathedrals. Click to enlarge.

On the way to the cathedrals. Click to enlarge.

A shell-shaped nook holding a king. Click to enlarge.

Modern graffiti tolerated in this one rectangle. Click to enlarge.

A tiny window on a wall. Click to enlarge.

A tower. Click to enlarge.

The two towers for the old (right) and new cathedrals. Click to enlarge.

I'm not sure what this tower is. Click to enlarge.

Extremely fancy gates. Click to enlarge.

The main entrance gates. Click to enlarge.

The entrance gates. Click to enlarge.

Fancy gate detail. Click to enlarge.

Entrance gate detail. Click to enlarge.

Lovely owls carved from stone. Click to enlarge.

Kids sitting on the ground near the main entrance gates to the cathedral. Click to enlarge.

You won't see anything like this in Lisbon. Click to enlarge.

I'm not sure what the Vitruvian Man is doing here near the cathedral entrance. Click to enlarge.

Wise men with metal halos? Click to enlarge.

Gargoyles, some apparently missing their stone beasts. Click to enlarge.

Gothy spires. Click to enlarge.

Renovated entrance stonework, including that astronaut. Click to enlarge.

Entrance gate detail. Click to enlarge.

Serious vaultage. Click to enlarge.

Wood carvings near the big organ. Click to enlarge.

An astronaut added to the stone details in a recent renovation near the cathedral's entrance doors. Click to enlarge.

Ornate and non-ornate ceiling in the new cathedral, likely the result of budget constraints. Click to enlarge.

Lots of babies and angels. Click to enlarge.

I'm not sure what's going on with this cartoonishly-long Madonna. Click to enlarge.

Some of the art was comical in its primitiveness. Click to enlarge.

That's dark as Jesi go. Click to enlarge.

Up there in the middle of the dome is a pigeon with a six-foot wingspan. Click to enlarge.

Gretchen chatting with our guide. Click to enlarge.

Many of the organ's pipes are horizontal. Click to enlarge.

A more typical Jesus. Click to enlarge.

Nooks with icon-like art. Click to enlarge.

Lots of little figurines. Click to enlarge.

There is a lot going on there. Click to enlarge.

Jesus sorting out the souls. Click to enlarge.

Wolve guarding what I think are tombs. Click to enlarge.

Cracks near a window from the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Click to enlarge.

Gretchen taking pictures. Click to enlarge.

A stone flower cracked by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Click to enlarge.

The other half of our group had this guide. Click to enlarge.

Jesus with skulls, etc. Click to enlarge.

An ancient pipe organ. Click to enlarge.

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Gretchen in a courtyard. Click to enlarge.

A double-headed eagle represents the Spanish Empire. A single-headed eagle represents the Spanish Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

Freshly-minted doctors bragging in red paint graffiti. Click to enlarge.

There's a frog hiding somewhere in all those stone carvings. Click to enlarge.

The frog everyone tries to find is on this skull. Click to enlarge.

Froggy souvenirs. Click to enlarge.

A shell-covered wall. Click to enlarge.

Details of the shell wall. Click to enlarge.

A distant bell tower. Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

A catlike gargoyle. Click to enlarge.

A freaky old-man chimera gargoyle. Click to enlarge.

A stork nest in a bell tower. Click to enlarge.

A facade in the Plaza Mayor. Click to enlarge.

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A shell nook with a pope. Click to enlarge.

Walking down a narrow street past a mostly-empty convent. Click to enlarge.

A means to keep horny gentlemen out of the convent. Click to enlarge.

I love the way the stone blocks in Salamanca are stacked. Click to enlarge.

A tower with foreground grapes. There isn't otherwise much greenery on the streets of Salamanca. Click to enlarge.

Freaky miniatures in the Art Noveau Museum, where photography was prohibited. Click to enlarge.

Gretchen in the Art Noveau museum. Click to enlarge.

The old bridge built by the Romans across the Tormes, now only for pedestrians. Click to enlarge.

The road back to the boat in Portugal. Click to enlarge.

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