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TRAVELING in style : SCOUTING SPAIN

<i> Sheldon, with more than 100 million books in print in 30 countries, is currently working on "Sands of Time," a novel about three women in the Basque country. </i>

‘Whenever I write about a place, I do so from firsthand experience. I find that I have to go to see for myself, to smell the smells, feel the excitement, soak in the entire scene and then translate it to the pages of my books.’

Spain is exotic and varied, the romantic land of flamenco and Don Quixote, dark-eyed senoritas with flowers and tortoise-shell combs in their hair. It’s the country that gave us Cervantes, Picasso, Lorca, Pizarro, De Soto and Cortez.

It’s a land of contrasts, both in terrain and its peoples--among them Andalusians, Castilians, Gallics, Aragons, Valencians, Moors, Catalonians and Basques.

I have made quite a few trips to Spain, and since most of my traveling encompasses research for my novels, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Spain figures prominently in two of my books, the best-selling “If Tomorrow Comes” and “Sands of Time,” my ninth.

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As a matter of authenticity, whenever I write about a place, I do so from firsthand experience. I find that I have to go to see for myself, to smell the smells, feel the excitement, soak in the entire scene and then translate it to the pages of my books.

If you read about one of my characters having a meal in a restaurant, you can be sure that not only have I visited that restaurant, I’ve even had that particular meal.

For “Sands of Time,” I wanted several elements. I wanted a Cistercian convent, probably the strictest of religious orders, which can still be found in Spain. Cistercian nuns take a lifelong vow of silence. They are not permitted to even look one another in the eye. They may never leave the convent and self-flagellation and long days of prayers are the way of the order.

I wanted to develop a premise that would dramatically thrust these gentle and self-sacrificing souls back into a world from which they had been completely shut off.

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I also wanted to write about the rich variety of Spain’s mountains, plains and valleys, all set against a realistic and highly charged political backdrop.

I found exactly the convent I was looking for in the Cistercian Convent of the Strict Observance. Built in 1601, the convent is a simple, four-sided group of rough stone buildings around a cloistered courtyard that is dominated by a church. The convent is one of but seven left in Spain, a rare survivor of the hundreds destroyed by the wars that have swept over the Spanish countryside over the centuries. Around the central court, light pours through the open arches and spills a bright beam on the broad flagstone floor. Inside the convent is a system of internal passageways and staircases linking the dining room, community room, the nun’s individual cells and the chapel. Everywhere there is an atmosphere of cold, clean spaciousness. Thick-paned latticed windows overlook a high-walled garden. Every window is barred and is above the line of vision on those inside so as to discourage any outside distractions. The refectory (dining hall) is long and austere, its window heavily shuttered and curtained.

During more than 400 years, nothing has changed at the Convent of the Strict Observance except for the faces of the sisters who have given up the outside world to devote their lives to God. All the sisters dress identically: the capuche (cloak and hood) symbolizing innocence and simplicity; the linen tunic representing the renouncement of the works of the world and mortification; the scapular, the small squares of woolen cloth worn over the shoulders and demonstrating a willingness to labor. A wimple, a covering of linen laid in plaits over the head and around the sides of the face and the chin and neck, completes the uniform.

The living conditions are Spartan to an extreme. The nuns sleep fully clothed on pallets of straw covered by a rough woolen sheet. Each tiny cell is furnished with only a straight-backed wooden chair. In lieu of a washstand there’s a small earthen jug and basin on the floor in one corner. Only the Reverend Mother may enter the cell of another nun. The silence is all-pervading, broken only by the church bell calling the sisters to prayers. They communicate by time-worn hand signals; they never touch. They glide noiselessly along the passageways with eyes cast down, their hands folded in their sleeves at chest level, passing and re-passing each other without the slightest sign of recognition. They enjoy no recreation of any kind. Work and prayer rule their days. There are work areas set aside for knitting, bookbinding, weaving and making bread. There are eight hours of prayers daily--Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Complin, plus benedictions, hymns and litanies.

Liturgy, spiritual exercise, strict enclosure, penance and silence, it is a life more austere than that of any prison for the sisters who come from many different backgrounds and countries. Rich or poor, educated and ignorant, miserable or exalted, all now equal in the eyes of their God, united in their eternal marriage to Him. By renouncing physical love, possessions and freedom of choice, the sisters have also done away with greed and competition, hatred and envy, and all the other pressures and temptations of the modern world. Inside the convent there is an all-pervading sense of peace. There’s a quite indescribable serenity within the walls of the convent and if, indeed, it is a prison, it’s a prison in God’s Eden, with the promise of a blissful eternity for those who have chosen to remain there.

I ALSO REQUIRED DIVERSE terrain and Spain, particularly its Basque country, offers some of the most beautiful and varied--lovely countrysides, charming villages and small towns, mountains, plains covered with fruit orchards--the agriculture is fabulous and the farms are picture-perfect . . . it is truly a beautiful country that assaults the eye with colorful vistas in all directions.

The Basques are very different from other Spaniards. They are a fiercely independent and proud people. There are about a half-million Basques in Spain as well as another 150,000 in France. They can be very friendly. They work very hard, mostly at farming their land, and the farms are quite beautiful. The food, particularly the paella and pollo al chilindron , are exceptional, all washed down with a local Rioja country red wine.

ANOTHER OF MY MANY research stops was in the city of Pamplona, site of the annual Fiesta de San Fermin, the 400-year-old tradition of the running of the bulls. This year it was held July 7-14 and attracted about 30,000 visitors from all over the world.

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Most come to watch, but a few brave or foolhardy souls, depending on your outlook, come to participate and prove their manhood by running in front of the stampeding beasts as they charge through the narrow streets. During this period, it is impossible to find a vacant hotel room; the university students from Navarra claim every doorway and even bed down in the city square, in bank lobbies and in automobiles.

The cafes are packed with tourists enjoying the noisy and colorful parades of papier mache gigantes and marching bands. Exploding firecrackers strung along the tramway poles and wires add to the general confusion, while violet-cloaked paraders, some with hoods of green, others wearing garnet or golden hoods, flow through the streets looking like so many rivers of rainbows.

Although the bullfights are in the early evening hours, the most spectacular event is the Encierro-- the early morning running of the bulls that would be tested in the arena de toros later in the day.

Shortly before midnight in the darkened streets of the lower part of the town, the bulls are turned loose from the reception pens, to run across the river on a bridge to the corral at the bottom of Calle Santo Domingo, where they are kept for the night. From midnight to 6 a.m., everyone is awake, singing, drinking and dancing to the exciting music of Navarra, too excited to sleep. Those who intend to take part in the running of the bulls wear the distinctive red scarfs of San Fermin around their throats. At 6 a.m., the bands pick up their tempo and begin circulating through the streets. At 7 a.m. sharp, a rocket flies into the sky, signaling that the gates of the corral have been opened. Moments later, a second rocket is the warning that the bulls are running through the streets.

What follows is a spectacle never to be forgotten by all experience it.

First comes the sound. It starts as a faint, distant ripple on the wind, almost imperceptible; then it grows louder and louder until it becomes an explosion of pounding hoofs. Suddenly bursting into view are six oxen and six enormous bulls, each weighing 1,500 pounds. They charge down the Calle Santo Domingo like deadly express trains. Inside the wooden barricades placed at each intersecting street corner to keep the bulls confined to the one street, are hundreds of eager, nervous young men intent upon proving their bravery by facing the maddened animals.

The bulls race down from the far end of the street, past the Calle Laestrafeta and the Calle de Javier, past farmacias and clothing stores and fruit markets, toward the Plaza de Hemingway. There are cries of “ Ole !” from the frenzied crowd. As the animals charge nearer, there begins a mad scramble to escape the sharp horns and lethal hoofs. The sudden reality of possible death makes some of the participants run for the safety of doorways and fire escapes. They are followed by taunts of “ cobardon " (coward).

As a rule, it takes only two minutes for the animals to gallop the 900 yards along the Calle Santo Domingo to the arena, and the moment the bulls are safely in the corral, a third rocket is sent into the air.

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THROUGHOUT MY TRIP, which actually began in Madrid and took me north through the Basque provinces, ending up in the beautiful seaside town of San Sebastian, very close to the Pyrenees mountain range that separates Spain from France, I stopped in dozens of pretty smaller villages and towns.

One of the most charming was Las Navas Del Marquas, in a beautiful valley where Acacia and sycamore trees abound, ringed by the Cruz Verde Mountains, an hour from Avila by car. Winters in the valley can be nearly six months long, but in summer, the town comes alive with dancing, laughter and music. Tourists roam the narrow streets fronting the whitewashed stone houses. They gather at the Plaza de Manual Delgade Barredo, with its tiny bandstand built of stone, and listen to the local orchestra and watch the villagers dance the Sardana--the centuries-old barefoot folk dance in which the dancers’ hands are linked as they move gracefully, around and around in a colorful circle. The sidewalk cafes are busy serving apertivo s.

Shopping at the pescaderia-- the fish market--or at the farmacia is brisk. By 1 p.m. the bogeda is always filled with tourists drinking chateo and sampling tapas, seafood and olives with chips.

In the evening the paseo takes place -- boys and girls strolling up and down the Plaza Mayor in segregated groups; the young men eye the girls while parents, grandparents and friends watch with hawk-eyed vigilance from the sidewalk cafes. It’s the traditional mating ritual, observed for centuries in this little hamlet.

SOME OTHER VILLAGES and towns worth seeing are Castilbanca, Villa Castin, Avila (a walled town 112 kilometers northwest of Madrid and the highest city in Spain) and San Sebastian, the latter with its Avenida Sancho el Savio leading to the beach, its crowded streets of strolling couples and its small harbor awash with yachts and smaller craft of all descriptions--the distant mountains forming a lovely backdrop for the city.

I also had a chance to sample the Spanish train system, traveling from the town of Logrono to San Sebastian--about a three-hour journey. There are three classes of service: Talgo, the so-called luxury service, which is the only one I would recommend for all but the most adventuresome; Ter, second class; and the grossly misnamed Expreso, which is uncomfortable, dirty and stops at every station on the line.

Once outside the metropolitan cities, hotels fall considerably below the luxury level, but many are still pleasant. One such is the Hotel Niza in San Sebastian, on the corner of Plaza de Olezabal, just off San Martin Street. It’s a lovely, old, white building with brown shutters and a big blue sign on the roof. Cool breezes blow off the harbor from the sandy beach at the rear of the structure.

I also had a chance to stay at a parador , the government-operated, Spanish equivalent of our bed-and-breakfast inns.

Overall, I became convinced that Spain is a wonderful place to visit and one of the less-expensive countries to see at that. And if one is going to Spain, then the Basque country is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.


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