Spain has a folly problem. Mayors here are constantly pitching shiny, expensive projects—museums, conference centers, bridges, and useless novelties—to secure their legacies and one-up other cities. Attracting tourists and stimulating economic development are the nominal justifications, but everyone here seems to understand that the real motivations are ego and greed. These projects are frequently ill-conceived or redundant, and always over budget. In Galicia, Santiago de Compostela built an artificial mountain of exhibit halls, then couldn’t think of anything to put in it. Ciudad Real spent a billion euros on an airport to serve a population of fewer than seventy-five thousand, then never finished it. Everyone wants a near-identical bridge or concert hall from Santiago Calatrava, despite or maybe because of the tendency of his projects to run over-budget by hundreds of millions. (Don’t say anything about the cost—he’ll sue.) Maintenance never seems to be part of the plans, so a few years on the glamorous structures of previous administrations tend to sit, mouldering.

Most foreign observers attribute the Spanish addiction to unnecessary and extravagant projects to the Bilbao effect and the mistaken assumption on the part of politicians and planners that the city’s economic resurgence was brought on by the construction of an extravagant art museum in 1997 and not the massive investment in urbanist infrastructure that came with it. And while the Guggenheim’s success definitely inspired the ambitious cultural constructions of Valencia, Santiago de Compostela, and many other cities hoping to draw tourists and advertising shoots, I think there’s something more fundamental at work. After a week of poking around some seemingly forgotten corners of Sevilla, I’ve come to believe that Spain’s drive to build white elephants goes back way further than the ’90s—maybe all the way to the very beginning.

I was thinking about this national tendency to erect and neglect on very hot afternoon walk along the west bank of the Guadilquivir river. The river divides the center of the city from the more bohemian Triana district and the remains of the 1992 Universal Exposition. On the east bank, there is a pleasant, dingy but well-maintained path frequented by dog-walkers, runners, and cyclists, running 8 kilometers from the port on the south end of town to the park that plugs the river at the north. (The main course of the Guadilquivir now runs west of Triana to control flooding and ease ship traffic; the course that runs through the center of the city is a vestigial stump.) The west bank has a very nicely paved bike and pedestrian path that is difficult to access and overgrown. The path is intermittently interrupted with fencing and offers no wayfinding at all I walked on it for an hour and saw only five other people: four on bicycles, and one asleep under a bridge. Someone built this thing, spent an enormous amount of money on it, and then forgot about it.

The path isn’t the only ruin in the area. Although most of the larger buildings from the $8 billion ’92 Expo have been repurposed as government offices, research facilities, or cultural spaces, large parts of the 531-acre grounds remain abandoned twenty-seven years later. The monorail is a series of concrete stumps, the Canal of Discoveries is a wide river of grass, and the Mexico pavilion is an empty shell.

The strangest thing about the semi-abandoned state of the expo grounds is that the people of Sevilla have gone through all this before, and within living memory of the ’92 fair. In 1929, the city hosted the Ibero-American Exposition in the sprawling María Luisa park on the south end of the old town. National pavilions were erected throughout the park, and the delightfully silly Plaza de España was built alongside. Today the remaining buildings are all in use, including the excellent archaeological museum and the Colombian consulate, but large parts of them look underused and dusty.

Given the arc of the city’s history, it’s no surprise that civic leaders remain addicted to big, showy buildings. Just look to the Cathedral: in 1401, according to oral tradition, local religious leaders gave their architects a brief to “build a church so beautiful and so grand that those who see it finished will take us for mad.” They got what they asked for. The church is so huge that it slips past Gothic grandeur into the uncanny vastness of an empty basketball stadium. And the cathedral was hardly the biggest of most ill-advised project of the era. Between building thousands of churches and a series of ever-larger palaces, Spain managed to spend all the riches stolen from an entire continent without meaningfully improving the lives of most of its citizens.

Maybe the mania goes back further still. Some 2000 years ago, Sevilla was the Roman city Hispalis. Nothing remains standing from those days, but if you go out of town a ways to the neighboring city of Italica, you’ll find a massive theater and amphitheater—enormous buildings, dedicated to the glory of empire.


The Torre de Belém, a very pretty river fort with nothing inside

We decided to begin our circuit of Iberia in Lisbon for mostly financial reasons. Tickets from Portland were running around $600 cheaper per person here than to Madrid. I suspect the price difference is thanks to the Lisbon airport’s many failings: it has only one small terminal, so passengers are bussed from their planes to passport control; then they get in line with a few hundred other travelers to wait for the three customs agents working out of a dozen stations to stamp their passports. Coming at the end of an already overlong journey—we were delayed five hours in Portland after a part of the plane related to deicing failed just before takeoff—the experience seemed comical. Other travelers weren’t so amused.

This was not my first time in Portugal, but the visits I made as an exchange student were all to Valença, a city just across the river from Galicia where Gallegos would go to take advantage of the pre-Euro exchange rate and load up on furniture, towels, and sometimes diesel. My only impressions of Valença were that it seemed dirtier than most Galician cities and had an awful lot of linens shops.

Basically, I came to Portugal on this trip as a total newcomer. I like it, even though Lisbon has been entirely taken over by mass tourism. It’s a beautiful city, situated on the wide estuary of the Tagus/Tajo/Tejo river, climbing up seven steep hills. Its streets are works of art, paved in wild patterns of white and black stone that make for slippery, uncomfortable walking but are pleasant to look at. In May there are birds everywhere—Deanna and I both got hit—and the jacaranda trees are absurdly purple. Street art abounds, as does ugly tagging. The buildings are an anarchic blend of rococo excess, buttoned-down neoclassical severity, and occasional hints of the city’s Moorish past.

Looking from the very regular Bairro Baixa, which was completely rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake/tsunami/fire, toward Mouraria and the modern city beyond

And then there are the crowds. I’ve never been in a city quite so abandoned to tourism. Only Paris and New Orleans approach it. (Las Vegas, a theme park pretending to be a city, doesn’t count.) No one seems to live in the flat Bairro Baixa anymore. Its streets, named for professions, are wholly given over to restaurants and gift shops. Parts of the city’s quirky public transit infrastructure, which includes elevators, escalators, street cars, funiculars, and a metro, are completely unusable thanks to the hundreds of travelers who queue up in stifling heat for a chance to ride a rattling, un-air-conditioned streetcar to no place in particular. The Santa Justa elevator, a 117-year-old white elephant, has long since been abandoned by the people who live here; they take the escalator in the metro station a couple blocks away, leaving the cruise ship groups to wait in the sun for a chance to pay €3 for a 30-second ride up a rickety metal tower. When we arrived at the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem, probably the city’s biggest sight, the crowd completely filled the vast square in front of the building.

Bored tourists on a tram to nowhere
At a Mozambican restaurant in Mouraria

If you walk far enough, you can start to see the living city of a half-million people that exists around and parallel to the international mob of travelers. In Mouraria and the Bairro Alta, which require more climbing to enter than most travelers will muster, Lisbon’s remarkable cultural diversity begins to show. We found streets full of Nepali restaurants a few blocks away from a square full of Angolan and Mozambican people hanging out and gossiping just down the road from a cluster of Chinese shops. The city feels much less segregated than Madrid.

Silvia Olivença, with morning port, cheese, and ham

We got a literal taste of the neighborhoods beyond the tourist circuit on an excellent food tour with Silvia Olivença, a Lisbon native who leads small groups on a stomach-stretching haul through the Baixa, Mouraria, and Alfama neighborhoods, with regular stops for wine, codfish, more wine, Mozambican curry, more wine, etc., etc. Silvia was a terrific guide and an all-around fascinating person. If you go to Lisbon, book her tour at Yes, that’s really her professional domain name.

We spent a full week in Lisbon, and while we saw just about everything in our guidebooks, I feel like we got only the barest taste of what city life is like for residents. I’d love to return in the low season, if it exists, and spend more time getting to know the people. Even if it meant having to deal with the airport again. Here are some highlights from our stay.

The ruined Carmelite Convento do Carmo, which the Marquis of Pombal, who oversaw the rebuilding of the city, left standing in semi-ruins as a reminder to future generations.
Jacarandas in bloom all over
Deanna in the cloister of the Mosteiro de Jeronimos, an absurd wedding cake of a building and the only historical site in Lisbon worth waiting in line for
The Tejo Power Station, a decommissioned coal plant that is now a contemporary art space and a museum of energy generations. You can walk inside the boilers and underneath the pumps. It’s delightful, and not even mentioned in the guidebooks.
The peacocks at the Castelo do Sao Jorge have no respect for anyone.
So much good cheese
Sausage on fire
Happy city cats

Roundup: Ten great restaurants and bars in Vancouver

Good things are happening in downtown Vancouver. Like Portland, our northern suburb let its once-vibrant center become a bleak desert of parking lots and pawn shops for decades after I-5 bisected the city. Major efforts at revival starting in the late 1990s filled in many of downtown’s vacant lots with condos, and organic growth has followed. While empty buildings still abound these days, the areas east and north of Esther Short Park are now home to excellent breweries, cafes, restaurants and bars. Here are a few that are worth crossing the Interstate Bridge for—traffic allowing, of course.

10 great restaurants and bars in downtown Vancouver

Review: The Thanksgiving Play

“The Thanksgiving Play,” a biting new comedy by the Sicangu Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse, exposes the uselessness of good intentions. Its yoga-practicing, privilege-checking, farmers-market-shopping characters know that performing Native characters in “redface” is wrong, that the Thanksgiving narrative is “problematic,” that the history of the United States is one of oppression and subjugation, but they’re blind to the arrogance of their enterprise.

‘The Thanksgiving Play’ is a biting satire of white progressive posturing

Review: The Mermaid Hour

Given the awful violence all too often perpetrated against trans people, I watched the first half of “The Mermaid Hour” with a growing sense of dread. I needn’t have worried; this isn’t that sort of show. Though there are plenty of tears and self-questioning — when Pilar realizes the hormonal treatments Violet wants will make her sterile; when Violet is rejected by her gay best friend, Jacob (Kai Hynes); when Bird admits to missing the son he thought he had — everyone winds up pretty much OK.

‘The Mermaid Hour’ explores ups and downs of parenting a transgender child

Review: Between Riverside and Crazy

“I may look how I look, but that don’t mean I am how I look,” Lulu tells Walter as they share a joint on his balcony, and she speaks for everyone in the show. “Between Riverside and Crazy” rejects predictable narrative and neat morality. It celebrates self-liberation but acknowledges the harm one person’s freedom can inflict on others. It reflects the grime of real life but teeters on the edge of fantasy.

‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ looks at the cruel cost of moving on

Review: Macbeth

Beyond finding interesting parts for women in a play that otherwise has little room for them, Van Der Merwe’s erasure of gender shines a light on the Macbeth’s obsession with manliness: feeling like a man, fighting like a man, killing like a man, dying like a man. In “Macbeth,” as all too often in our own times, manhood is inextricably tied to violence.

Gender-bending ‘Macbeth’ finds horror in the shadows

Review: Kodachrome

In its bittersweet tone, as in many other respects, “Kodachrome” recalls Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” It is set in a small New England town — the real and very New-Englandy Colchester, Connecticut. And it’s driven by an all-seeing, third-wall-breaking narrator: The Photographer (Lena Kaminsky), a shutterbug whose luminous images of buildings and people have made her the unofficial recorder of local life.

In Portland Center Stage’s ‘Kodachrome,’ the focus is on love’s blurred lines

In which I spend a lot of time in Oregon City

When Olympia Provisions, Portland’s acclaimed sausage-maker, announced the second permanent location of its hotdog-joint spinoff, OP Wurst, in 2016, the decision was baffling to some. The first location, in downtown Portland’s Pine Street Market, was already a big hit, so an expansion made sense. But why Oregon City?

Why Oregon City’s downtown food scene has become so appealing