When my son's Spanish teacher told us that he was not performing to expectations, my wife and I, zealots for foreign travel and languages, began to worry.
His grades in algebra, physics, history and English were all good. Only the Spanish reports coming from the high school caused concern. Eight minutes into worry, my wife, Annabelle, announced: "We'd better get Miles to Spain."
We queried friends for leads on a Spanish-speaking family with one or more kids in Miles' age bracket. A horse-mad English friend told us about an equine veterinarian named Willie Manley, his wife, Begona, and their three teenage sons living near Madrid. The Manleys, she said, might be interested in having Miles stay with them and, in turn, having their youngest son, Santiago ("Yago"), stay with us in New Jersey.
A few e-mails and phone calls later, the son-swap was a deal. Miles would spend most of June with the Manleys on their farm or -- for life is notoriously unfair -- at their house in Marbella (think yachts, sybarites and the Mediterranean). Then Yago would fly with Miles to New York and spend July with us in Princeton (think bicycles, scholars and Lake Carnegie).
Less than 48 hours after he completed his sophomore year of high school, Miles was Madrid-bound for immersion in all things Spanish. For company, his mother and 8-year-old brother, Winslow, flew over with him; I followed two days later.
Did we have an ulterior motive in getting our son to hit the road to learning? Absolutely. If higher grades hadn't been a sufficient cause, then our favorite sin, wanderlust, would have been.
Before Miles moved in with the Manleys, the four of us explored some remarkable cities in central Spain: Segovia, Avila, San Ildefonso and San Lorenzo de El Escorial. For a base, we stayed in a timeworn yet stubbornly appealing village, Sigueruelo ("Goldfinch"), a fairly easy drive from each of those cities.
In the end, we each got what we wanted from Spain: adventure (and grammar) for Miles, animals for Win, architecture for my wife (a preservation architect), and art for me. And all the while we tried to make sure that our sons were hearing and speaking Spanish, not merely adrift on the iPod sea.
The school of experience was in session when I arrived at Madrid's Barajas International Airport. My wife and sons collected me in a rented Ford, and we pointed it north toward the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. After a couple of days visiting the Prado Museum, the Royal Palace and too many Madrid restaurants, Annabelle, Miles and Win were ready for green slopes and quiet nights. We planned to spend several days in the country before depositing Miles with the Manleys.
Leaving Madrid, we could have been driving outside almost any city in the United States, so numerous were the branded behemoths, from Staples to Toys 'R Us, on either side. Like an old face that had gone under the knife, what had once been rough and idiosyncratic -- the roadside factories and old towns -- looked stretched and sutured into something smooth and standard. "Oh," said Annabelle, "Spain's been Starbucked."
Although I have lived in Europe over the years, I had not visited Spain since my backpacking days, shortly before the 40-year Franco dictatorship ended with the old generalissimo's death in 1975, and I hadn't observed the country's embrace of consumerism in the ensuing years.
Getting to the countryside of the province of Castilla-Leon felt like absolution: sprawl gave way to plains, plains to arid hills, and arid hills to wooded valleys beneath mountains. Two hours after leaving the airport, we reached Sigueruelo, the village from which we planned to visit historic cities lying in an arc outside Madrid.
We'd chosen Sigueruelo for two reasons -- first, its proximity to Madrid and the Manleys' farm; second, the village's only hotel was a bargain, with breakfast and dinner included in the room price. The owners also offered riding, cycling, walking and canoeing trips, perfect for two boys who require motion. Two phone conversations with David, the laid back son of the Posada de Sigueruelo's owner, confirmed our choice. When I asked David whether or not he wanted to secure our reservation with a credit card, he said, "Why?"
Neither the hotel nor the village will ever be fashionable; they lack views, amenities and "marketing strategies." Yet each possesses a seductive quirkiness that no chain hotel or tourist hotspot will likely ever have. Nothing matches but everything feels of a piece. Our room, a big "quad" with stone walls, looked out on a field visited by butterflies, birds, rabbits, a sad-looking donkey and, at night, the wind.
The mother-and-son proprietors were lovely hosts, and for the first couple of days we were the only guests. If Win wanted to look for wandering dogs, David organized a safari. If Miles wanted something special for breakfast, David arranged with his mother to prepare it. Dinner each evening -- ham, pork, lamb or fish served with lots of vegetables and fruits -- was delicious, including the pleasant red wines from the region.
It takes a village
Closer to poor than rich, with a dusty poetry to it, the village of Sigueruelo is a web of streets and alleys among fields and hills. The local population of feral cats, retired sheep dogs and white storks exceeds that of humans. Depopulation has become intense in rural Spain; the money trail is one-way -- from the village to the city.
We were happy in Sigueruelo and the surrounding country. The boys shared our pleasure in exploring places that other tourists rarely go. By consulting guidebooks and asking David for advice, we managed to see enough architecture and art to keep Annabelle and me satisfied while fomenting enough fun to keep the boys from complaining about "culture."
One day we visited La Vereda ("The Path"), a nearby stud farm, and spent the morning horseback riding across hot fields. Later, La Vereda's director showed us several Spanish purebreds, some in the multimillion-euro category, which he breeds and helps train for riders competing on the international show circuit. And he let Miles and Win ride two ATVs around the stable courtyard.
After leaving the farm, we drove to Segovia, an ancient city with much that appeals to kids and older people alike. We spotted Segovia's towers several minutes before we reached the outskirts. Built on high rocks and surrounded by two rivers, Segovia is grandly sited. Miles and Win liked the vast Roman aqueduct and the many-spired Alcazar (a Spanish castle). Annabelle and I were impressed by the exceptionally beautiful Cathedral of Segovia. Begun in 1522, it is widely considered the last great Gothic church to be built in Spain.
We entered the old city by walking beneath the aqueduct, a 2,000-year-old feat of engineering and a sublime piece of civic sculpture. A third of a mile long and nearly 100 feet high, the aqueduct is the finest still-standing and functioning structure of its kind from the Roman era. The granite blocks are held in place by the pressure of the keystones; there are no rods or mortar.
Almost 1,500 years after Roman workers built the aqueduct, Isabelle was crowned Queen of Castile in the huge Alcazar. In 1862, fire destroyed much of the original structure, and the present building is largely a romantic reconstruction. Its turrets and steep roofs above a rocky promontory make it the archetypal fairy-tale castle. We climbed to the top for unobstructed views of the cathedral, much of the city and the surrounding countryside.
Stone and water
The next day, keeping to our culture-and-adventure plan, we visited the walled city of Avila and kayaked in a flooded canyon in the Parque Natural de las Hoces del Duraton, northeast of Segovia.
The walls surrounding the old city of Avila, about 7,500 feet long and 36 feet high, are among the best-preserved in Europe. We walked along the top of them, occasionally descending to explore the cathedral and other buildings. Miles and Win liked the strange beasts and people carved in stone on the cathedral's exterior walls. And they spotted storks, a species threatened by wetland reclamation and pesticides, nesting on roofs, chimneys and spires.
A few hours later, we were kayaking when the wind blew hard down the canyon that forms the key physical feature of the nature reserve. The wind was good for the griffon vultures, some with six-foot wingspans, which glided from their nests high up the canyon walls. But it was bad for Win and me, who were paddling our kayak erratically against the wind. After watching the vultures, Winslow and I left Annabelle and Miles in their kayak and returned to a sandy spot to swim in remarkably green water.
Another day, we visited two royal palaces as well as a celebrated glassworks. The palaces express antithetical aspects of the Spanish (and human) psyche. La Granja de San Ildefonso, a garden of earthly delights in the town of San Ildefonso, near Segovia, is luxurious, romantic and built to amuse royal pleasure-lovers. San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a religious retreat and imperial mausoleum about 30 miles from Madrid, is huge, severe and designed to help steer royal souls to heaven.
And then it was time to head toward the Manleys' farm. Along the way, we made one last stop at one of the grandest monuments of the 20th century: Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos -- the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen. The huge cross, 490 feet high, atop a subterranean basilica, contains 40,000 coffins of soldiers killed in the Spanish Civil War. Truly, the art of death.
When we reached the Manleys' farm, it was crowded with horses, dogs and kids. A short time later, when Annabelle, Win and I left Miles with his borrowed Spanish family, he hugged us and said "Adios."
It was a start.
IF YOU GO
Several airlines offer connecting service to Madrid, Spain, from BWI Marshall Airport.
Posada de Sigueruelo
-- C/ Baden 4040590 Sigueruelo (Segovia). 011-34-921-508-135 or www.posadadesigueruelo.com. Rustic inn in a small village near the town of Segovia.
Tourist Office of Spain
-- 666 Fifth Ave., 35th Floor, New York. 212-265-8822, www.okspain.org or spain.info