We shipped our skis home and headed across the Alps into northern Italy, wandering through the mountains to Venice. Two nights there put such a strain on our $5 a day limit, that we headed southeast, across the mountains. Snow fell in thick, huge flakes, as we dropped into the Perugian Valley. On the valley floor snow turned into rain. We drove through winter orchards bare of leaves.
The rain stopped. Dark clouds rose and an opening appeared between them. A single shaft of light struck ancient buildings on the eastern foothills, like a dramatic Renaissance painting. We drove up a dirt road to what was clearly a simple church. The parking lot in front was empty.
The church had a central hall with high windows, its walls covered with remarkable 13th Century frescos. We had stumbled unknown into Assisi and the frescos of Giotto.
Gregorian chants wafted into the nave from somewhere below. We found a staircase near the pulpit that led downstairs into darkness and then a hallway lighted by burning tapers. In front of us walked twenty or thirty young chanting boys, fourteen, fifteen years old, clothed in black. Their faces revealed a certainty about life that left me shaken. I watched with envy. The storm, the shaft of light, the faded 13th Century frescos, the mesmerizing music, absolute devotion … Doug saved me from a near religious conversion.
We drove through Italy and traveled along the Mediterranean coast to Spain. It was the late spring of 1955 when we crossed the French border and entered Europe’s last fascist dictatorship. Spain was a close ally of the United States, a partner in containing communism. Spain’s dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco had seized power with the help of Hitler and Mussolini. He had sent his troops into battle in 1936 under the slogan, “Down with intelligence! Long live death!”
At the border the casual courtesy of French guards gave way to the suspicious scrutiny of Franco’s police. They examined our passports for a long time, “What are your intentions in Spain? How much money do you have with you? Are you meeting any Spanish citizens? Where will you be staying?” We were thankful for our US Army license plates.
The countryside beyond the border was bleak, stark and almost uninhabited. Farms seemed deserted. Draft animals listlessly waited in muddy pens. An old man and a woman went on slow, separate errands in a desolate barnyard. Police were everywhere. Soldiers in black uniforms patrolled the roads on black bicycles with black machine pistols strapped to their black crossbars. They were humorless and resentful. We drove to Barcelona without stopping.
We had been traveling around Europe for four months, and our funds were low. We had been downgrading our sleeping accommodations, and in Barcelona we hit bottom at a seedy hotel in a working class district, where the woman behind the front desk couldn’t stop laughing as she handed us our key for a single, cheap room in her whorehouse.
Further south, in Seville, a balmy climate and warm, friendly people, sherry bars with endless supplies of free tapas. I took a long hike into the hills, stumbled upon a community of gypsies living in caves, out of another century. I went everywhere almost unnoticed, dressed in the same Beat clothes that most Europeans wore in those days, dark corduroys and black turtlenecks, rich earth colors that didn’t show the dirt, a black beret.
Ernest Hemingway’s 1932 Death in the Afternoon, an enthusiastic treatise on bull fighting, required us to attend a string of corridas. I was fascinated and not appalled as 2015 political correctness in America probably demands, but I’ve never been tempted to return.
We spent a drunken night on the steps of the Cathedral in Toledo after a day of inspiration from the twisted torsos of El Greco. Spain seemed warm and welcoming to two young Americans.
Then we went to Madrid.