SPAIN

It seemed somehow fitting that Spain's Ministry of Culture chose the month of the first papal visit here to present its exhibition on the Spanish Inquisition.

Perhaps it was just coincidence, especially since Pope John Paul's trip had been rescheduled a number of times over the past year due to factors like assassination attempts and Spanish elections.

Nevertheless, as the pope triumphantly entered Madrid Sunday down the tree-lined Paseo de la Castellana, just down the road at El Retiro, the city's central park, there was a special display of Goya paintings of what is one of the most controversial episodes of Roman Catholic history. To emphasize the message, there were video presentations, engravings and a full explanation of how the heretics were disciplined 500 years ago.

There may be a certain perversity in the Spanish psyche--a mixture of guilt, or obstinancy, or simple bemusement. It seems more charitable, and perhaps more accurate, to think of it as a willingness these days to stare in the face things once kept in the closet, be they past excesses of the church or the government, in an affirmation of the present and future.

The same exhibition hall two years ago housed a display on the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, something that is not only an unpleasant memory for many Spaniards but is also in constant danger of revival.

In keeping with the openness and democracy Spain now is doggedly striving for, the Franquistas were allotted their own space in the political spectrum during the recent electoral campaign.

At a pre-election rally of the New Force party, partisans of the late generalissimo called for an end to liberalism and a return to fascism. Around the fringes of the crowd, you could buy a Franco cigarette lighter or key chain, or even an ashtray embellished with Franco's likeness and a picture of his gravesite at the Valley of the Fallen.

Edging the boundary of what is permissible, you also could buy a laminated picture of Col. Antonio Tejero, who staged an unsuccessful rightist coup last year, complete with an official safe-conduct pass -- "in the event of the next coup" -- printed on the back.

"The holder of this pass," the card read, "is a person of excellent public and private moral character, has no politico-social antecedents and is not addicted to the democratic regime." It is signed, illegibly, by "the chief of the patriotic provisional junta."

NOT EVERYONE was thinking about politics last week in Spain. Throughout the latter part of the campaign, television news programs reported a more immediate human drama in the eastern province of Valencia, where at least 23 people were killed and thousands were left stranded and homeless in raging floods.

The rain had continued for weeks, swelling the rivers and washing out the orange groves, a principal cash crop of the area. Letter From Spain Agony turned to terror in the early morning of Oct. 21, when the water came pouring over the Tous Dam.

There was at least an hour of warning that the river was coming, and many people escaped. "We are here; the others are lost," one anguished woman told a reporter for ABC newspaper.

The woman was consoled, the report said, "by the presence of the king and queen," who flew to the stricken area.

Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia, if not the Spanish monarchy itself, mean a lot here. "Governments change, the way you would change a shirt, and their promises of massive aid, if not forgotten, can change tomorrow," the paper said.

"But above all, politics is the guarantee of the crown -- in these moments of confusion and sadness it is, without doubt, the supreme guarantee."

The politicians, of course, gave their guarantees, too, and each of the presidential candidates interrupted his campaign to travel to the scene of the disaster. One of them, current Prime Minister Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo, canceled his party's election night victory celebration in advance, donating the money to aid the flood victims.

As it turned out, there was not much to celebrate. The ruling Union of the Democratic Center lost 156 of its 168 congressional seats, including Calvo-Sotelo's.

SOME SPANIARDS were thinking of neither the floods nor the elections. In Consuegra, a village 60 miles south of Toledo, they were thinking about saffron.

Unbeknownst to many, including this correspondent, saffron flowers are not the color of the robes of Buddhist monks, but a bright, vivid lavender that blankets the dry, broad plateau on which Consuegra lies. About this time of year, the endless color is broken only by the stooped figures who gather the blossoms into straw baskets, dumping them into piles at the ends of the rows. At the end of the day, they sweep the flowers into long muslin bags, throw them across their bicycles and head home.

This year was the 20th annual, three-day Saffron Festival in Consuegra, beginning Oct. 29. The several narrow, adobe-lined streets of the village were hung with Christmas-like lights.

Consuegra, and the La Mancha region in which it lies, is also famous for windmills. This is the home of Don Quixote, the village office says, and the townspeople talk about the mythical tilter at windmills like proud relatives. Down the road, they say, is the inn where the man from La Mancha was knighted by a bartender.

On a hill that rises out of nowhere on the plateau and looms over Consuegra are the ruins of a castle, around which are dotted nine ancient windmills. Hanging off the fat, white cones, their wooden blades were long ago frozen in place with cables to keep them in one piece for the tourists.

It is hard to believe that many tourists come to this windswept corner of La Mancha, but the village fathers hoped for a good turnout at the Saffron Festival.