Dianne Konz has taught Spanish literature, language, and civilization at the University of Texas at Austin and at George Washington University. She has also lectured and published studies on Spanish and Latin American literature, and Spanish culture.
Recently, Dianne and a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers explored the Paradores and Pousadas of the Iberian Peninsula.
Stepping out of the gorgeous 16th-century palace—our home in Ubeda—onto the plaza ringed by golden brown Renaissance stone, it is hard not to feel the presence of the past. The tranquil elegance of the beautiful square is undisturbed by the occasional passing of locals headed toward the church at one end, or the breathtaking overlook just down the street. To the right, perhaps the most beautiful plaza in Spain, anchored by a majestic and serene Renaissance palace—today’s city hall. A passing shower has left the smooth, timeless stones of the plaza glistening beneath our feet. It is refreshingly cool this afternoon, and the air is fragrant with the scent of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. We are off to get our bearings and discover the town.
Ubeda is a quiet city where single sounds emerge—church bells, lively conversations, children playing, a car passing. As we amble down the narrow streets, we pass palaces that were once homes to wealthy and powerful figures in the 16th-century Spanish court. Elegant coats of arms carved in stone, like silverwork, adorn the surface of some façades, giving quiet witness to the families that lived there. Today, these palaces are the backdrops for thoroughly modern and vibrant—yet traditional—Spanish life. Our street gives way to another beautiful square with a bandstand in the center. It is nearly the end of the school day and boys kick a soccer ball across a sandy playground. The elegant palace ahead with the Italian-style loggia is now the local music school. As we pass, I ask a teenager which instrument he studies. He smiles, pats the case, and says with a wink, “Saxophone.”
Down the way, we spot a ceramic store. Beautiful earthenware glistens in the window and fills the entryway. Warm browns and deep greens are the predominant local colors. A unique cut-out style graces many pieces. As we enter the store, the rich aroma of burning wood draws us to a fireplace along the sidewall. The crackling fire casts a glow on the ceramics all around. We approach to say hello to the owner’s wife, an attractive, dignified woman seated beside the fire. She greets us warmly and gestures for us to come nearer to admire her three-week old granddaughter in the pram beside her. A lively toddler—big sister—pulls up a small bentwood rocker to join them, singing quietly to herself.
We wander to the back of the showroom, where the owner is deftly throwing a beautiful botijo—a traditional clay water jug—on a potter’s wheel. I ask him about the distinctive cut-out patterns in some of his pieces. It is called calado –“calao” in the softened Andalusian speech—a style introduced by Moorish craftsmen centuries ago. He explains that the tall vases with the intriguing open work were used to burn aromatics—mint, rosemary, myrtle, and more—to “give atmosphere” to the room. Rather suddenly, the store fills with a large number of lively local teenagers, here on an excursion to view the potter’s craft. As they circle around this outgoing artisan, he gives them his full attention, explaining his technique and answering questions. They move down the narrow aisles, examining pieces, snapping photos on cell phones, and talking animatedly. Amazingly, nothing hits the floor. As they file out, the potter waves to them and returns to his wheel. Once again, I am grateful for an up-close and personal view of modern Spaniards—of all ages—in this ancient and traditional urban landscape.
Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Paradores and Pousadas tour here.