Northwestern Magazine
Spring 2009HomeAlumni NewsCampus LifeMailboxPurple ProseBack Issues
Submit a Class Note
Class Codes
Submit a Purple Prose
E-mail the Editor
Back Issues
Update Your Address
Advertise with Us
Contact Us

Sunny Sojourn in Spain

by Ruth Larson Mankin (C54)

As winter winds blow, my thoughts return to sunny days spent in Spain early last fall with the Northwestern Alumni Association's tour that took 29 Northwestern travelers to Barcelona, San Sebastián and fascinating points between.

I found the itinerary interesting and always enhanced by the lectures that introduced us to the cultures of Catalonia and the Basque Country. From the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, we saw glimpses of Spanish culture — all through the prism of the Catalans' and Basques' lengthy and enduring reach for independence.

Barcelona, Catalonia's capital, is a magnificent city, offering an abundance of pleasures: great art, architecture and history. Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi's famous modernist works were a priority for our group. We saw his work at the fairyland Park Güell, a municipal garden; at La Sagrada Família, the yet incomplete many-towered Catholic church under construction since 1882; and in the undulating curves and fantasy rooftop of Casa Milà, a 1906 multifamily apartment building.

On a brilliant Sunday morning, we visited the 13th-century Barcelona Cathedral; on exiting we were greeted by a big brass band and hundreds of locals dancing la sardana, an ancient Catalan folk dance, on the plaza. Some members of our group joined in the dance.

On Montjuïc, site of several of the venues for the 1992 Summer Olympics, we toured the Joan Miró Foundation, a museum of the surrealist's works. Many of us shared an exciting morning at the Picasso Museum. Housed in five medieval palaces, or town houses, joined into contiguous galleries, the museum displays Picasso's paintings according to the chronology of his different periods.

A walk down La Rambla is a must for every visitor to Barcelona. Reminiscent of certain streets in Nice or New Orleans, the wide boulevard is lined with entertainers, cafés and exotic caged birds. The culmination is La Boqueria, a market offering every possible fresh edible.

Our days in Barcelona included a superb Northwestern alumni reception, hosted by Jay Mastin, the NAA's senior director of alumni education and travel. At our dinners together you could hear Northwestern voices raised in "A Toast to the Past"— an old Waa-Mu favorite.

We escaped the city one day to Penedès, home of cava wine, Spain's version of champagne. We toured and tasted at the Cordoníu vineyards, established in 1872, then moved on to the spectacular site of a ninth-century monastery situated high on the jagged mountain peaks of Montserrat. We joined throngs of pilgrims enjoying a concert by the basilica's famed L'Escolania boys choir.

The cuisines of Catalonia and the Basque Country are both unusual and delectable. We took great pleasure in sampling tapas, the traditional little tasty treats. Paella lived up to its well-earned reputation. And the wines — ah, the wines. From the smooth red riojas to the sparkling whites to the slightly biting cider to giant pitchers of sangria, we indulged at every turn.

After visiting Zaragoza, we moved on to Basque Country and its seaside jewel, San Sebastián. This charming little city on the Bay of Biscay has attracted Spanish royalty as a summer spa for centuries.

One evening we had an excellent lecture and discussion with locals about the Basques. It brought us a new understanding of the history of the area, particularly the Spanish Civil War, the Franco regime and the sad time of recent terrorism by Basque separatists.

The next day we visited Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum, a structure that dominates the city. A final treat was a visit to Pamplona, known for its Hemingway lore and the running of the bulls.

Our last night in San Sebastián was spent with Jay Mastin, "doing the tapas thing." Delicious bites of pintxos and sips of cider made memories in the "old town." A rising moon over the bay graced the end of a splendid evening and an equally splendid trip.

Ruth Larsen Mankin (C54), who lives in Lewes, Del., retired from a career in public relations. She has seven grandchildren.

For information on upcoming NAA trips, call 1-800-NU-ALUMS or visit

Printer-Friendly Format
Author Ruth Larsen Mankin at Montserrat, where sandstone peaks form a backdrop for a mountainside monastery.
Tulips, a large outdoor sculpture by artist Jeff Koons at the Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.