Leon, Spain, November 2004
By: William R. Cotton

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Vollie and I departed for Leon, Spain where I was scheduled to give a lecture in a short course on severe storms.

The flight over was on American Airlines connecting to Iberia. Arriving in Chicago we had to check in because American did not give us a boarding pass. We were lucky we didn't have our seats given away since the person at the desk grumbled that we were not the first ones and they had to do some scrambling to find us seats. It was a bit disconcerting on the flight that first Vollie's foot rest was broke with a single metal bar hanging down. Then we found that none of the electronics on our seats that controlled lights, the sound system, etc. worked. We hoped the airline did better in maintaining the important stuff on the plane like their engines and navigation systems! Our seats were also very close together so when someone leaned back in their seats we couldn't cross our legs and even had a hard time getting out of the seat to go to the bath room. Otherwise the flight was uneventful arriving in Madrid about 8:30AM, about 45 min late.

Jose Luis Sanchez, our host in Leon had arranged for us to have a hotel room near the airport to shower and nap before our 6:45PM flight that evening. So we checked in and showered and I took a nap for a couple of hours but Vollie didn't. Then we took a regular bus to downtown and walked to near a large park where we found sidewalk cafe's open. We enjoyed a lunch of three-flavored cheeses and salmon on toast, some potato chips, and vino tinto. It was nice and sunny and in the 60's so eating outside was a treat. We walked back to a bus stop for direct -to-the-airport and arrived there in about half the time going downtown by local bus. We then took the shuttle back to the hotel, and got ready to continue on to Leon.

Our flight to Leon was on Lagun Air which must be something like United Express. We had a hard time finding the check-in desk because the Iberia personnel we asked never heard of it, but it was at a Iberian domestic check in counter about a 15min walk from the terminal we came in on.. The airplane was a prop-jet that took about an hour to go to Leon. They even served food on the flight but I couldn't eat it as it was a plate of meats.

Arriving in Leon at 7:45, we were met by Jose. The drive into town was only 20 minutes and as we drove along I saw on our left this castle or old monastery-looking building. He said there is our hotel and I first thought he meant a small hotel on the right. No it was this old monastery called Paradores San Marcos! I gather Paradores has turned a number of old churches and monasteries into hotels in the country. We were told that the German chancellor and Spanish dignitaries were going to stay there the next evening! We saw a number of Rolls Royces and people all dressed up in formal wear. All we could think of this place is not us! Here I traveled in my jeans. As it turned out there was a fancy wedding going on which accounted for the Rolls and high fashion. But it is a pretty fancy place to stay.

After getting settled we got a call from Paul Smith from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. He wondered if we would join him for dinner at the hotel. So we had a nice meal with Paul that cost the three of us about $150! Then went to bed and I woke up about 10:30AM.

After showering I got Vollie moving and by the time she was ready it was after noon. We first planned on having breakfast at the hotel but they were closed and were told their restaurant and all the others in town would be closed unto 1:30PM!

We decided to start out walking in old town and see what we could find. Along the way we passed a bar where we could see people eating. We walked in and asked about eating and the barmade said the restaurant wouldn't open for another hour. We asked(Vollie actually since my Spanish is muy mal) about the food the patrons were eating. She told it was bar food that one could eat free with the purchase of a drink. So we ordered vino tinto and stood at the bar and partake. First we got a croissant which we had to pay for. But then she gave us a small plate with potatoes with a spicy creamy sauce. It was great, but very, very rich. I then ordered another vino tinto and asked for some of what looked like pasta in a red sauce-Nope! It was tripe! Since I am a vegetarian, I didn't eat it once Vollie figured out what it was. This certainly was one of the more memorable breakfasts we have ever had.

We then took to walking the old part of town with narrow cobblestone streets, and of course old buildings and churches. We even stopped in to a display of wild mushrooms with color labels on them as to if they are eatable(green), not very tasty(yellow), could make you sick(blue), or kill you(orange). This was a neat way to show people what to pick and not too pick. I saw a child licking an orange lollipop and said in Spanish that it was malo or it could be deadly. Her mother laughed and agreed with me.

We then took pictures of the cathedral. I then suggested we try to walk up to the top of a ridge where we could overlook the city. It was probably three miles or so to the crest of the ridge. It was nice and sunny and I stripped down to a tee-shirt. We enjoyed the views of the city, but it was a bit hazy not unlike the Front Range smog. The countryside outside of town is rather dry looking like sage brush country although the brush is not sage. The walk back crossing the small river was nice and by 6:00PM we got back to the hotel to rest before going to dinner at 8:30PM at Jose's. Gustava Carrio would feel right at home here with the late dinner time.

Jose's home is in a gated community. He moved into the home with his wife and three daughters only a month ago. It is a very nice house with lots of hardwood floors, and marble, decks and large rooms. The dinner consisted of shrimp with garlic and grabs, and for me fish smothered in garlic, roast beef or something such for the others and desert with vino tinto, of course!

We got back to the hotel after midnight. I slept well all night which is unusual since I usually wake up in the night due to jetlag.

Today is workday. I woke up at 0645 and got Vollie moving. Breakfast is normally on the second floor but it had been moved because of all the international meetings going on in the hotel. We rushed down to the first floor and gobbled down breakfast because we were told the bus would pick us up at 0800. But we waited out in the cold until 0835 when the bus finally came. We could have had a nice leisurely breakfast.

Vollie came to the university with me to see what it was like and then walked back. When she got there the place was surrounded by armed guards who indicated she couldn't go on. She told them she was staying in the hotel so they let her go in without even checking her.

The workshop and the severe storms conference that followed was held at the university which appears to be fairly young with small trees and new-looking buildings. Talks were sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish. Translations were available for both languages to Spanish or English. Unfortunately the session chairpersons did not keep the speakers to the designated 1 hour. By 1330(lunch break) we were almost two hours behind schedule. Lunch was held at the University Cafeteria with a fixed menu. It began with a fish soup which I ate. Then came a meat dish with vegetables drenched in meat juices. I elected to take a walk at that time. Unfortunately the soup must have had meat broth in it because my neck and knuckles ached for several days afterward. By the end of the day where Andrea Flossman and I were the last speakers, we were told we had to reduce our talks to 30min since they had to be out of the building by 6PM. Both of us felt insulted but we managed to reduce our talks in length on the fly. In my talk I briefly mentioned Sue van den Heever's dissertation in which she showed that reducing hail size in supercells altered the storm dynamics appreciably and made the storms more likely to produce tornadoes. This generated considerable discussion since a number of the participants were associated with hail suppression programs.

At 9:00PM we had a social in which vino tinto and tapos were served. Many of the tapos contained meat but I found some with cheese and potatoes that I could eat.

Today the European Conference on Severe Storms began. As usual it started late and began with presentations from distinquished dignitarties. All the talks are in English. What a relief! Yesterday one of the speakers gave a talk in Spanish and it was rapid-fire. The translators couldn't keep up and about 2/3rds through the talk they switched translators because he must have blown out mentally. I am always amazed at how the translators can listen and translate at the same time. There are no translators in the conference, however.

The most interesting talk for me was by Bob Johns who gave a history of derechos. It went way back to a fellow who worked with the weather bureau with the last name of Finley. He mixed up tornadoes and derechos as being the same beast. He got in a big fight with a guy named Hendrich's who coined the term derechos. Henrich's argued the damage he surveyed was definitely not tornadoes-good for him. Eventually both guys got into different things and that was that on derechos until Fujita and Johns and Hirt got into them nearly 100 years later. I asked Bob for a copy of his PowerPoint presentation.

In the afternoon I sneaked out and Vollie and I decided to walk along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. This is a historical pilgrimage trail that goes from somewhere in northern Europe through Leon and on to Santiago de Compostela on the coast. I guess some important dudes remains are buried there. Anywhere in old town Leon one can find brass markers that look like clam shells on the walkway that lead toward Santiago. Thinking it would turn into a nice trail in the countryside we began following the markers. We were told a lot of people follow the route walking with backpacks, on bikes, or even horseback now days. We began from our hotel which was one of the historic stopping places, and crossed the river on a footbridge. Since it was about 1300 we took a side trip walking around a nice park. Then stopped in a corner cafe where we had lunch. I had an eggs and potatoes concoction with a reddish sauce that was tasty. I said it had a kind of rusty taste which we think came from some kind of local sweet pepper. Vollie had a scrambled eggs, peppers, mushroom concoction which she enjoyed as well. All this was washed down with vino tinto.

Thus fortified we headed out of town. The walkway was on sidewalks for a while. Then the sidewalks disappeared and the highway encroached on our walkway. Finally Vollie asked a worker where the Camino de Santiago was and they pointed along a cross street where we were to head parallel with the road we were walking along. Finally we began finding stone markers every so often as well as yell painted arrows. The stone markers had the shape of a clam shell much like the Shell gasoline signs. We continued on for a ways along sidewalks. The countryside was generally treeless prairie with some flocks of sheep grazing. But eventually we approached a village where the neighborhood was mostly warehouses and construction equipment including cement mixers blocking our way. It was clear but cool(in the 50'sF) and windy so Vollie suggested we head back into town. We followed the side street we had been walking along and eventually it curved back on the heavily traveled main street. On the side of a building we saw a yellow painted arrow that we had missed going out that would have led us on the back street/road. In all we must have walked 6 or 7 miles.

After a nap, we walked into old town and looked for a place to eat. Since both of us felt we had a main meal at lunch time we sought a fast food place. What we found was a shop specializing in a variety of paellas. I had seafood one and Vollie had one with meat. They were quite good and were reinforced with, guess what, vino tinto! I wouldn't call it fast but at least it wasn't a full course meal. Since Vollie was fighting a head cold we headed back to our hotel for early to bed. It was probably 11PM!

Rising at 0645 for breakfast at the hotel, off I went to the conference. Many of the talks were about this or that European storm without a great deal of science in it in my opinion. Harold Brooks presented results of a 50 year climatology of severe weather parameters derived from NCAR/NCEP reanalysis data. In spite of the crude vertical resolution of the data he did show trends in some parameters especially moisture related parameters which exhibited a drying trend. I am thinking this could be related to aerosol pollution which tends to slowdown the hydrological cycle as suggested by recent GCM simulations.

Escaping the meeting before lunch(1330) I went back to meet with Vollie for some touring. We decided on going to a nearby town called Astorga where there was a Roman museum and a chocolate museum. But after having lunch of sandwiches at the train station we made our way to the bus station. There we found out that the next bus would get us there less than an hour before the museum closed. We decided to try again Thursday morning since I wanted to attend the afternoon sessions at the conference. Since it was cool and windy and showery we elected to tour our hotel, San Marcos. It is quite a fascinating place. It has an old church probably dating back to the 13th century as part of its layout, but most is newer perhaps 300 years old! You couldn't go into the church proper, but we found a place where one could look from above down into the nave. There was a pretty courtyard with trees and shrubs and above it where we were was a arched, covered walkway where meals were served during the warm season. On each floor of the hotel there were paintings, each floor having a different theme. Our floor focused on toros(bulls). Then we headed to our room for a nap before looking for dinner later when the restaurants were open.

At 0730 we decided to venture out into old town looking for an early dinner since Vollie was still not feeling well. As we approached a square we heard music and went to investigate. There was a canvas covered band stage in which a band was warming up. The winds had subsided but there was a light drizzle and it was cool, probably in the 40's. The band headed inside a building so we decided to head into the warmth(and smoke) of a bar/restaurant. Smoke by the way is pervasive every where. The Spanish haven't got it as far as the ills of smoking are concerned. Whether just walking the streets, the hallways of buildings including our hotel, all public establishments, smoke is everywhere. Our hotel room reeked of smoke smells and so of course did our clothes. In the warmeth of the bar we ordered some vino tinto and enjoyed tapas of a egg potato concoction and mussels in the rusty-tasting red sauce all for the cost of 2.2E for two of us. The sounds of the band began coming through the doors and since the restaurant in the bar had not opened we went out to listen. The band played a mix of pop type tunes and folk songs. They were heavy on acoustic guitars and tambourines. Vollie and I danced to their music in the light drizzle. A drunk who was dancing(sort of) by himself tried to dance with me but I gracefully declined!

Finally by 2030 the cafe part of the bar served dinner. We were the first in but shortly a few others came in. Our dinner was great. It consisted of a warm avocado dish with shrimp and interesting flavoring including garlic. For a main course I had small red peppers stuffed with shrimp and other unidentified goodies. Vollie had peppers and stuff. If you don't like peppers or garlic you wouldn't like the food in this region.

Our plan was to do our own tour of the countryside in the morning and return in time for the afternoon session honoring Jean Dessens. I awoke at 0645 with my alarm but decided to sleep a few minutes more with my watch in my hand. This normally amounts to 10 minutes or so. But due to jetlag I awoke at 0800. With breakfast and a 20 minute walk to the bus station it meant we would not make the 0900 bus and the next one was 1045. The 30minute bus ride took us along the road we walked along the Calle de Santiago, especially the part where we missed the turn. For most of the way to Astorga we paralleled a two-track dirt road with signs for Calle de Santiago. At 1130 we arrived at Astorga. We asked several locals where the Roman museum was located and none seemed to know. I sure got the impression it couldn't be a big deal. Finally we found a visitor center and got directions. Astorga is a pretty town with a large cathedral and a large Presbyterian church or castle-like building. There were many open squares where older men and some women hung out. Surrounding the squares were businesses located in old looking buildings. Following the map we came to a square and I looked for this Roman Museum. Nothing popped out at me so I asked a man sweeping the streets by showing him it on the map. He pointed to the building right behind me! The museum consisted of this large Quonset-shaped stone tunnel which had been built by the Romans. We viewed a slide show which showed that some of the walls we walked along were of Roman origin. They also had an upstairs room with various Roman tools, vases, and things that were collected in the area.

We rushed to the next bus to Leon which departed at 1220. This bus took over an hour since it took the scenic route through interesting villages some having outside vegetables on display(especially garlic). We went through a highland ridge which was forested with modest-sized oak trees. I was told afterward that they were probably grown to provide cork that is taken from stripped bark for use as wine corks.

Arriving in Leon about 1:30 we tried to get a fast lunch which is virtually impossible in Spain. Leaving there at 2:15 we had to walk about a mile to the nearest bus stop to the university. Naturally the bus did not take a direct route and several times backtracked over the same streets. We finally arrived at 3:30, having missed Andrea Flossman's talk about Dessens' career. We did arrive in time to hear Jose Luis Sanchez's talk. After that they took a group picture. Then we were taken on a group tour inside and out of the Gothic cathedral. Because the winds were blowing and temperatures in the low 40's the part of the tour outside was not pleasant. We were glad the banquet was at our hotel since we were not enthusiastic to go outside again.

The banquet honoring Jean Dessens started early at 0900. We enjoyed a dinner consisting of soup(salad for me), steak in a pastry covering(fish for me), desert, and vino tinto where the wine glasses never had a chance to get empty. Jose looked after me making sure that I got something to eat.

We got up at 0530(at least Vollie did as she wanted first dibs on the bathroom), and met Jose at 0640. We originally intended to take a taxi but Jose insisted he take us especially since we didn't have our tickets to Madrid. It was a good thing because he had to purchase new tickets for us. The travel agent didn't come through in getting the tickets to us as they didn't with several of the workshop participants. We walked on the plane only a few minutes before takeoff. Poor Jose, after dropping us off he had to return an hour later with Andrea and then in the afternoon with Paul Smith.

Our return flights were uneventful and we got home very tired about 0800. That was about 23hours enroute.

Overall it was an excellent first trip to Spain. I found the country to be quite clean with little litter on the streets and surroundings. Smoking was a royal pain in the butt, however. The people were very friendly but few spoke English. Jose was a great host but he tried to do too much. He needed to have someone like Brenda backing him up!