17. 2005: The Big Trip, Part 1 – Spain, Switzerland

It’s time for another travelog. This was my longest trip since 1985. Then I left as an an unhappy Anglican and came back from Greece nearly ready to be Orthodox. (See Blog Post 2.) This time I left as a happy Orthodox and returned as a happy Orthodox. It was a wonderful trip. All the people we met were enormously friendly and helpful and kind. In four weeks the first rude person I had to deal with was the young woman who tailgated me on I-43 in Milwaukee.

For one week Khouria Dianna and I drove through Andalucia in southern Spain. Then our son David joined us, and we traveled by train to Switzerland. After that they flew home. I headed south to Bari in Italy where the relics of our parish patron Saint Nicholas lie, and then on to Greece. (I have another Saint Nektarios story.) Finally I flew to London for the tenth anniversary celebration of the Antiochian Deanery of Great Britain and Ireland. You’ll hear about all this during the next three weeks. During most of the trip we were just tourists, but with our predilections we saw a lot of religion – or sometimes a lack thereof.

Spain, the hard way

Khouria Dianna and I had always wanted to see Spain, especially southern Spain, Andalucia. We like to explore on our own, so we signed up for an independent trip by auto. We drove from place to place, with accommodations lined up in the various cities – Cadiz, Seville, Cordoba, Granada. Exploring the countryside and towns was wonderful. Great highways. And then we came to the cities where invariably we spent two hours minimum trying to find the hotels! down unbelievably narrow one way streets, seeing the hotels at a distance but not able to get to them. In Cordoba we parked and walked across a large pedestrian mall and asked the hotel clerk how to get there. He said, “Please, drive across the mall.” We just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. (We’re stuck with being “upper Midwest nice”. Would you believe during the 1960s civil rights demonstrations in Milwaukee, the marchers obediently stopped for red traffic lights!) It took us another twenty minutes to get to the hotel the “proper” way. Finally in Granada, after three times around, being separated from the hotel only by a short street which said “taxis only”, we just gave up and pretended to be a taxi for two minutes. As Dorothy said, we were not in Wisconsin any more. But enough of that.

The Moors and what came after them

Yes, there are “castles in Spain”. We saw Spanish architectural wonders from the time of the Moors, North African Arab Muslims who conquered southern Spain in the ninth century and developed a high culture. You know, I assume, that Arabs in the Middle East developed modern mathematics and science, and the Moors brought them to Europe through Spain. Moorish culture was tolerant for the times: Muslims ruled, and Jews and Christians paid high taxes, but “people of the book” as the Muslims call us were not forced to convert or leave, and in many places in Andalucia Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and worked together in harmony. Moorish architecture in Spain developed organically out of earlier Christian design – graceful with intricate patterns, light, airy, harmonious, balanced, incorporating lush gardens and fountains. It was captivating. This is the Alcazar in Seville.

Then the Christians recaptured Spain, but these weren’t the same Christians. These were the fundamentalists of their time – the kind of Roman Catholicism which led eventually to the Spanish Inquisition – which was actually a twelfth century Papal invention. Conformity was enforced. Under Ferdinand and Isabela, Muslims had to convert or leave; all Jews were driven out. And right in the middle of those light airy Moorish buildings, ignoring and destroying their harmony, the Roman Catholics built dark heavy churches. One cathedral ceiling was covered with baby cherubs with fat bodies, harsh faces, heavy limbs, naked, looking as if they might be about to do something unfortunate into the choir. A far cry from the Biblical cherubim. Most of the paintings and sculptures were artificially emotional, with many saints looking heavenward with absurdly enraptured expressions. In one church we saw a morbid sculpture of the head of John the Baptist, the flesh turning green and the arteries hanging out.






To the left is the mosque in Cordoba. To the right is what the Roman Catholics plopped down right in the middle of it. Architecture and art say a lot about a culture and about religion.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am now about to say. I am an Orthodox Christian. I believe in Jesus Christ. He is my life. But while I was in Spain I kept thinking: if my only choices were Spanish Catholicism Inquisition-style or the Muslim Moors, I’d go with the Moors. There are kinds of Christianity which present our Lord Jesus Christ and the Christian faith so falsely that I think they are worse than no Christianity at all. I think to reject these forms of Christianity is a good thing. Thank God and thank the Orthodox Church that those are not our only choices.

The people we met in southern Spain were uniformly kindly, quite unlike the harshness of some of the churches. Is that because we observed almost no religion being practiced? The churches we visited showed few signs of piety – nobody praying, only the occasional candle burning. There is no Orthodox Church in Granada, but at the Roman Catholic cathedral we found a small congregation at Saturday night Mass, so we decided to go to Sunday morning Mass there. On Sunday the place was locked, nothing happening. Dianna suggested we go across the square to Saint Elizabeth Church. It also was locked. That Sunday we didn’t get to church.

Now, I don’t want to sound like my father’s friend long ago who took a train trip to Toronto and came home claiming he had seen “all of Ontario and most of Canada”. We saw very little of Spain. However, what we saw of Christianity there felt demoralizing, depressing, dead – not much going on. We have had similar experiences elsewhere in western Europe. Statistics bear this out. In a succeeding post, I’ll have a debate with myself about why Christianity in the heart of what was once western Christendom seems to be falling apart.

Switzerland – and Trains and Buses and…

We took the Spanish Ave (pronounced as in “Ave Maria”) high speed train (190 mph, smooth as glass, on time to the minute) to Madrid. I warned you some posts back that you were going to get some train videos.

Then from our overnight sleeper train to Paris, I waved to Saint Martin of Tours very early on a misty morning as we sped through. We changed trains in Paris – we didn’t spend time in Paris?! what was wrong with us? –and rode the French TGV (180 mph, smooth as glass, on time) to Switzerland, and settled for a few days in a lovely village south of Zurich, just at the edge of the Alps. Switzerland, “the land of the $100 pizza”, but beautiful, beautiful, beautiful beyond imagining.

On our 1985 trip we went to a well attended Saturday night Mass in Interlachen. This time I can tell you nothing about Swiss religion except that the bell at the local Roman Catholic church rang daily very early, very loud. The reasons I didn’t check out Swiss religion were 1) we weren’t there on a Sunday, and 2) son David and I were too busy riding every train we could find. For us train fans, all of Switzerland is a theme park  – trains under and over and up to the top of almost every mountain. The following video has nothing to do with religion – unless you would like to thank God for this incredibly gorgeous world he has given us to enjoy, and the God-given skill of engineering. It takes you from the main train station in the village of Interlachen up to the top of Jungfraujoch.

In three days Dave and I rode dozens of trains. The latest one was three minutes behind schedule. Oh, poor Amtrak…

Transportation in Europe: a Digression

I’m now going to go off on a rant which also has nothing to do with the practice of religion. Or does it? God is Creator of the heavens and the earth, so is there anything that does not involve him? However, I will take no offense if you wish to skip this part. I’ll even italicize it to make this easy for you.

May I tell you about public transportation in Europe? When I was a boy the United States led the world in this. We lost it. I speak now as a resident of the Midwest Heartland. Milwaukee once had superb train service, fifty a day to Chicago. Even twenty years ago our locally owned Midwest Air gave us excellent direct service all over the country, but it was bought out and destroyed. Our local bus service today is badly underfunded and forever being cut back, and there are few inter-city buses left. Several years ago we almost had new high speed rail but it was vetoed, so today we have eight inter-city trains left – which is a lot for the midwest excepting Chicago. As for public transportation to most small towns in Wisconsin, sorry, you can’t get there from here.

On the other hand, Zurich, Switzerland, about the size of Milwaukee, has over 2,000 (no, that is not a misprint) passenger trains a day – fast, smooth, on time, well-used – and where the rails stop, there are bus connections to every little Swiss village. This is true of all of Europe. Even Greece, now in the midst of economic depression, has buses to almost every little village, and Greece’s Aegean Airlines has excellent service, the best in Europe.

America once had all this. Does it make any difference? When I was a little boy in small town Ohio Grandma couldn’t drive, but we’d hear the bus stopping, and Mom would say, “Grandma’s here!” We would spend the day together, and Grandma would take an evening bus home. Today Grandma in her old age would be trapped at home, and I wouldn’t have got to know her half as well as I did. In Europe, people can still get around easily and inexpensively without a car.

Is this a digression from religion? I don’t think so. God is concerned about everything. Orthodoxy from the Very Top down is communitarian, not individualistic. We believe in Persons and persons associating together. I think there is a social unifying community value in things that are public instead of private, for example, to have people of various sorts associating together  in public transportation, instead of driving around in private little boxes – as much as I love my Toyota! Is this so minor a point as to be negligible? Well…, I think there was great importance in my grandma being able to come visiting. Time after next we’ll get into some much more important contrasts I found between Europe and America.

OK, enough of this. You may begin reading again. However, the only thing left to say is…

Next week: The Big Trip, Part 2 – On to Saint Nicholas (by high speed train) and  Greece 








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