Walking out of the Picasso Museum in Malaga and almost immediately entering a café for a small beer and an empanada, I realized that Spain now is like the France that my mother grew up in, and understood in that moment what made my parents start my life in Europe.
Cafés succeed one another in the old towns and shopping streets of Spain, interspersed by bakeries with racks of fresh bread every couple blocks. That contemporary set of comforts is pursued within a physical environment of centuries-old buildings and a treasure chest of fine art.
The Picasso Museum in Malaga was small but deeply rewarding with an audio tour as part of the ticket. The tour puts his paintings and sculptures in context and quotes from his writing. The quote I remember had to do with Picasso's concept of time.
He said most people look at the past and future as two mirrors on either side of the present with images of the present reflecting back and forth through them, whereas he saw the present as just one of the images, one of the panes, part of series progressing from past into future.
After such deep thoughts and art appreciation, a cold beer was a blessed relief, in sight of the massive central church of Malaga. As with nearly all those we encountered in Spain, the waiter was welcoming and friendly.
The beer was what you always get in a cafe in Europe, cold, golden, delicious draft pilsner, with craft beer not an option. Along with it, the empanada at the Cafe de l'Abuela was not the usual crust-enclosed pie but rather an inch-high square of a mixture of tomato and sardines on a thin crust, delicious and filling. The college-age girls at the table next to us were clearly Asian, yet conversed among themselves first in English then in flawless French.
The Petit Palace hotel where we stayed is in the heart of the walking streets of Malaga, and I left the French windows open at night, soaking up the sounds of the street, people talking at an outdoor restaurant until well past midnight on a Wednesday night, and, in the darkest hour before dawn, the machines and voices of street cleaners.
The hotel was full the second night so we decided to keep moving, taking the rental car out of public parking and negotiating through the one-way streets back to the freeway and on towards Cadiz. But Cadiz in October turned out to have the melancholy of a beach resort after the crowds have gone. The vast, empty beach and temperate ocean are perfect for a long morning swim.
Our hotel called Tryp La Caleta, with the long hallways fit for summer crowds, was half-empty. But the rooms were comfortable and the staff was very helpful and friendly.
Driving the next day to Seville, we decided upon arrival to spend a second day. The fine old Hotel Becquer reflects the grandeur of a past époque with wood furniture that matches the mouldings and an enormous bed with a huge headboard that has two seraphed B's etched into the wood. The staff is efficient, friendly and helpful and the rate is modest compared to U.S. prices.
The city itself is the most Spanish of all the cities we visit in Spain, dominated by locals and, with its inland location, free of the daily cruise ship passenger invasion that is prominent in coastal cities. All along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, I had heard England English and often Swedish spoken on the street, as the region has become a common location for vacation and retirement apartments bought by people from the chilly climes of northern Europe.
On a rainy Saturday morning at the Café de Indias across from the hotel, we ordered bocadillos, small sandwiches of fresh bread and cured ham, with a café Americano, and watched as a parade of wedding guests walked under umbrellas towards a nearby church. Many of the men were in tails and every woman wore a fancy hat, the kind I only see when I watch a news story involving the Queen of England.
Our waitress explained that it was a simple, local wedding. Seville is an extremely traditional town, she said, and next Saturday, when her best friend was getting married, she too would be wearing a fancy little hat.
The thing that stood out in the course of walking a good part of the day through the central city of Seville was the social life of the local people. After nine o'clock or so in the evening, the restaurants, cafes and bars were full and remained so until past midnight.
Returning from a professional soccer game on Saturday night, I ran into a stretch of four big, open bars at the corner of our hotel's street, Reyes Cristianos or Christian Kings, and the Isabel II bridge over the Alfonso III canal.
Attached to each bar was a flotilla of tables stretching the breadth of a wide walkway. It was close to 2 in the morning and the tables all had people standing and talking and drinking. Many of the men were dressed in the light, simple dark blue or gray suits of office workers and an equal number of women of all ages were smoking, drinking and dressed for a night out. I followed a small line of people pushing their way along the sidewalk just to get through the crowd.
Back at the hotel, merciful sleep came easily after a day of walking through the city.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.