24 August 2008

Cordoba, Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, San Sebastian

Cordoba is a typical Andalucian town. It has tiny winding streets covered in ornate stone patterns, and the homes are all stark white. Meandering through the streets, every so often a small plaza filled with small trees and fountains would open before me. In Cordoba I happened to catch two free outdoor flamenco shows. Young girls did the dancing and stomped their feet at amazing speeds in silk polka dotted dresses. The band played guitar and drums and of course clapped their hands to mimic the rhythm of the dancers feet. They sing desperate melancholy songs and the emotions are reflected in the expressions of the dancers while they pour their hearts out on stage. While in Cordoba I also had the opportunity to visit the Mezquita, a mosque/cathedral expressed by the unusual mix of Catholic and Muslim architecture.

I was so exited to get back to Madrid, one of my most favorite Spanish cities. The entire city seems alive with people out in the streets, eating long afternoon lunches, sietas in the park beneath the towering maple trees, and vibrant nightlife lasting until the morning. The massive Retiro park was my first spot to visit. It was actually the first place I went when I came to Madrid two years ago. It was definitely more crowded now, but it didn´t stop all my memories from coming back. I walked to the football field sized lake and watched the boaters rowing through schools of orange and black fish. I enjoyed a cold coke at the first cafe I ever visited in Europe, and I followed the sounds of beating drums to the central monument on the lake. Here I found a group of at least 12-14 drummers beating wildly to their own tune, somehow working perfectly together. Crowds of people gathered and the hippie, dread-locked Madrianos danced barefoot to the beats.

The next day in Madrid I continued to revisit the parts of the city I had already known. The memories unfolded in my mind as I walked down the Calle de las Huertas, a long narrow walking street lined with colorful builings, cute shops, and popular cafes. I returned to the Corner Cafe where I often had breakfast and enjoyed a fresh squeezed orange juice. Walking into the Plaza Mayor I stood in awe of its size, a huge square surrounded by four connected buildings, forming one seemless courtyard, a retreat for pedestrians. The cafes had spread out into the plaza, and the street performers were filling my ears with music.

The next morning I headed for Segovia, a smaller town about an hour and half by bus from Madrid. I visited Segovia on my last trip to Spain. I revisited the areas I had known as well as I few new to me. I first came to sit in the shade of the enormous roman acqueduct. The grass was cold and soft so I had a bit of a siesta. I continued to the top of the acqueduct for a view of the red-roofed city below. I wandered through the little streets to the plaza mayor, and on the left was the famous cathedral. I continued down the hill to the alcazar, a castle that was supposedly the inspiration for Disney´s own castle. Below the castle winds the paseo walking path until finally below the city is a cool quite park where most of the university students go for siesta. I finally grabbed a bite to eat at the cafe Ven Ven where I had once met a group of crazy swiss folks two years ago before heading back to Madrid.

The next day I went of to check out Toledo. It is much like Segovia with a castle and cathedral, but no acqueduct. It is set on a huge hill along a deep valley with a little river flowing through. I wandered about, stopping for a siesta and had paella for lunch.

I had originaly planned to travel to Biarritz, France, but when I missed the train by 10 minutes I had to quickly run off and find an internet cafe for a new destination. After nearly 2 hours of work I found a less than expensive, but not cheap, hostel in San Sebastian and had a ticket to board the next train. I was excited that I would actually see the city I have always wanted to visit.

The night I arrived we had a down pour with thunder and lightning. The next morning I set out to find cheaper accomodation, with success, in the pouring grey morning. The rest of the day in rained on and off and I wandered up and down along the harbour at the edge of the Atlantic ocean. Elderly men and women were the only ones crazy enough to swim, but it was the perfect oportunity to beat the usual crowds of sunbathers.

I hiked to the top of the castle and had a view of the entire city and the cresent shaped harbor that it rests against. By the afternoon of the second day, the sun had come out and I was at the famous surfer beach watching all the beginners attempt the less than ideal waves. I returned to the beach just a few blocks from the hostel until the sun set and I began to freeze again. Today I am off to the beach once more to relax, work on my tan, and have a swim in the cold Atlantic.

14 August 2008

Valencia and Granada

Valencia is a huge city full of interesting people and amazing architechture. I was so surprised by the beauty of Valencia. The entire city is divided in half by a long, narrow park, not unlike the park blocks in Portland. I walked through this park on the first day and discovered something new around every corner. There were fountians, soccer fields, hiking trails, and even a carnival. I stopped to watch a soccer game and wandered through carnival, watching people play all the little games and winning prizes like TVs, minibikes, and even Jamon (a cured leg of ham).

There was this crazy play structure for kids that was a sculpture of a man dressed like Robin Hood, lying on his back. It was enormous. I even climbed to the top, ran around a bit with the kids, chose my favorite of about 6 different slides, and had a go myself! At the end of the park was the strangest group of buildings I have ever seen. It was three museums but it looked like a city on another planet. There I saw 2 couples having their wedding photos taken and even a live rock band as the sun set. Valencia is very near the beach so of course we made time to go for a swim. The water there was the roughest, but the warmest water I´ve swam in this trip.

Granada is a wonderful city set out in the middle of the desert and was once completely overtaken and ruled by the Moors. There are loads of buildings that look like they belong somewhere in Morocco and you feel a bit as though you are there, especially wandering through all the street vendors and outdoor markets. The main attraction here is the Alhambra, a palace built by the Moors. We heard that we must get in line at about 7 am to see the monument by 10 am, so we met some friends at the hostel, got up at six, climbed up the hill in the dark to the Alhambra and were waiting in line by 6:45. We thought for sure we could get tickets, but after 5 hours, the line had only moved about 10 feet.

We discovered that there was an alternative line for credit cards, so we moved over and within an hour we had our tickets, and as it turned out, we bought the very last 4 tickets! Unfortunately we had to come back later in the evening to use them, and even more unfortunate is that we came too late and had to rush through the gardens and the castle to see the palace on time.

08 August 2008

Montpellier, Sete, and Barcelona

Our last night in Montpellier, I met Jeff from Chicago and Jacklyn from Montreal. The three of us spent the evening making dinner in the park like hobos amongst the other Montpellian hippie kids. We joined several more friends from our hostel at a pub just around the corner. We sat outside enjoying the live reggae band and the lively nightlife.

The next day we took a short train ride to Sete. Sete is a cute little town right on the Mediterranean coast. The town is divided by several canals that serve as marinas for all the boats in the city, and practically everyone here has a boat it seems.

The first night we arrived, we met Ben and Jade who work at the hostel. Ben walked with us to a little beach about an hour and a half from the hostel. We were going to see some live music which was a part of a big music festival that lasts a couple weeks each summer. When we arrived we discovered it was just a DJ at a restaurant on the beach, but it was beautiful and free, so I had no complaints. The next morning we got up and spent a full day at the beach snorkling and sunbathing, ending the day with sunburns.

A couple relaxing days later we were off to Barcelona. When we arrived it was already quite late, and we spent the next hour navigating the metro when we came upon a live band in the underground playing reggae with a crowd and people dancing. I couldn´t wait to get back to the city and check it out the next morning.

Our hostel was about 6 miles outside the city center so we had to take a train there and back each day. When we first came into the city on our first full day, we walked down the main street called La Rambla. The street is just for pedestrians and is filled with street vendors and performers at all hours of the day and night. We saw people selling pets as well. It was never a dull moment on La Rambla!

We wandered all around the city, even stopping for a mid-day siesta along side the other Spaniards in the park under a tree. We randomly found one of the best secret restaurants frequented only by Spaniards. It was a tiny place filled wall to wall with people. The food was fast, delicious, and cheap.

The next couple days we walked all over the city, had time to see the maritime museum and the Gaudi park and several of the buildings he built throughout the city. One night after a late dinner we accidentally missed the last train to our hostel! The guard at the metro said we would have to wait until 5:30am to get the next one. I began to panic as I had no clue how I would begin to find the place as we had only gone to and from by train. I could not comprehend staying in the city all night, especially since we were both beyond exhaustion. Finally, I found a taxi driver who offered to take us for 20 €. I did not care the price at that point, I just wanted to get home.

We have left Barcelona and after a 9 hour wait at the train station, and a 3 hour train, we have finally arrived in Valencia!