Summer in Spain: Excerpts from Travel Journal

August 22, 2009

I spent the summer of 2009 in Andalucía, first as a student and then as a tourist.  Here are excerpts from weekly e-mails that I sent to friends and family tracking my progress and experiences in Spain. Articles containing recommendations on traveling in Spain will be forthcoming.

Shopping street shade

Shopping street shade

May 31, 2009

Warm greetings – no, let me say – hotter ‘n hell greetings from Sevilla, España.

Let’s start with the weather.  It’s close to 100˚ F each day and billowing shades are being set up far above the walkways on some of the cobble-stoned shopping streets in el centro.  They are white, breezy and airy and provide well-needed shade.

I have learned a nifty new Spanish phrase – perdi mi cartera – I lost my wallet.  Yes, on my first day in Sevilla.  Now, it could’ve just been me, filled with jet lag and spaciness; I could’ve easily left it somewhere and walked away.  Then again, this is Spain, and it’s full of thieves. I thank the stars for generous family and friends who gave me ‘emergency’ money as I headed out.  Muchas gracias, amigos.

A fantastic tapas bar is less than a block away from my apartment.  People are talking and drinking at outdoor tables all hours of the day and especially night.  I have never in my life seen a more social bunch of people – it tires me just watching – all that talking, laughing, singing, socializing, gossiping.

20 junio de 2009

As many of you know, I celebrated my 40th birthday on June 17. Really, this whole summer in Spain is my 40th birthday present to myself, but on the 17th, I was sung to in both English and Spanish, ate a brownie à la mode, and took myself to Aire de Sevilla, lovely Turkish baths in the heart of the Santa Cruz neighborhood.  Since my Spanish is crap, this visit was one of following around unsuspecting Spaniards as they went from bath to bath, trying to understand the layout.  Now that that’s done, I’ll be a pro the next time I go, and yes, there will be a next time.

My tutor at school had told me that this was a swingers’ hangout, but I can assure you that I was not swung upon nor did I see any untoward activities taking place.  However, I did finally discover why there were so many smiling women sitting at one end of the jacuzzi.

27 junio de 2009

Seville bullfight

Sevilla bullfight

I went to see a bullfight last Sunday night and now realize why my photos turned out so crappy.  My eyesight was horrendous and I literally couldn’t see well enough to focus my shots.  I found out today that I have conjunctivitis and got some medicine for it – a very quick, easy and ridiculously cheap experience with the Spanish medical system.

But back to the bullfight, what a performance!  It really is wonderful choreography but quickly digresses into some brutal stuff.  Those poor bulls; six of them killed, one every half hour, and quite gruesomely.  Surprisingly, I found most of it easy to stomach, and could focus on it being a cultural experience, if not time travel back to the medieval era or even Roman times.  Somehow I lucked out and got a few good shots, and presumably my photography skills will improve again since I now have antibiotic eyedrops.

Seville is indeed a smallish city and quite homogenous.  There are a smattering of (largely lame) Chinese restaurants around, but beyond that, you’re pretty much going to eat tapas tapas tapas.  Tapas just means snacks, so basically that translates into many different choices but all dishes arriving in relatively small portions, usually at decent prices.  My favorite tapas joint is called Coloniales and is near school – their chicken with almond sauce – pollo con almendras – smothering a few fried potatoes – is divine, as is the tomatos aliñado dish, a plateful of tomato slices in a vinaigrette sauce.  Mmmmmm.

A little more about Andalucía and the Sevillanos.  As far as I can tell, the southern province of Andalucía is considered the problem stepchild of Spain.  The unemployment rate here is 22% and Andalucía enjoys the reputation of being the place “where people don’t work,” even in a good economy; it has the mañana attitude often encountered in Latin American countries. One difference I see is that people here walk a little more briskly and my God in heaven do they speak fast.

3 julio de 2009

It was a grand plan on their part, I must confess.  I was sitting in Parque María Luisa; it was sunny and quiet and the birds were chirping happily.  I placed my camera and purse to my right on a slightly elevated rise and opened my book for a few pages of reading – the exquisite “Saving Fish from Drowning” by Amy Tan.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two men walking on a nearby path – nothing unusual.  Soon there was a gentleman to my far left, asking several questions in a row in Spanish about where he was in the park, holding a guidebook.  Another woman on the bench to my left answered him. I watched out of curiosity.

Something made me turn to my right (gracias, Dios!) back towards my belongings, and a young, handsome man was standing silently just inches from my face, placing his bag down next to mine.  Why was he doing that when there was so much more room nearby?  Then it dawned on me, it wasn’t his bag he was moving – it was mine.  Just as it registered he said muy guapa, placed my bag back down and quietly slid away.

It took me a moment to gather my thoughts.  It all seemed strange but innocent, yet once again I was seconds and inches from having my wallet stolen – granted, this time with less cash and no credit cards – but my purse also contained my house keys and other important items.  And my camera!  Why didn’t he just grab my (very nice) camera and run?  I suddenly felt incredibly grateful for how shallow and hormonal men can be.  Please, Madre de Dios, one missing wallet in Spain is enough for the summer.

I can just picture the wanna-be thief meeting back up with his friend and getting whupped upside the head.  What were you thinking, muy guapa, you bonehead?  Get the cash and run!  Okay, Universe… now I get it.  I need to only bring what is absolutely essential for me out of doors, and I need to keep it close by at all times – velcro’d to body parts, if possible.

Mezquita mihrab

Mezquita mihrab

12 julio de 2009

Córdoba is charming; smaller and less touristy than Seville with a strong and colorful Muslim past.  Córdoba is definitely worth a 3-day visit, if not just to see the immense Mezquita (The Great Mosque), the Alcázar de Reyes Cristianos (Fortress of the Christian Kings – Fernando and Isabel), and the impressive archaeological site of Madinat Al-Zahra, located 7 km from centro.  The Judería, the old Jewish quarter that snakes behind the Mezquita, is relatively free of tourists and still retains considerable charm.  Córdoba is home to one of only three synagogues remaining in Spain after the Jewish expulsion of 1492.

Córdoba became Moorish in 756 A.D. and remained so until the Christian re-conquest in 1236.  The Mezquita was constructed from 756-1002 A.D. and was the third most venerated mosque after those in Mecca and Jerusalem; it became a popular pilgrimage site in the 800-900’s.  By 929, Córdoba was the largest and most prosperous city in Europe, with impressive advances in scholarship, culture, and science, sophisticated irrigation and monetary systems, and ambassadors from other lands. Muslims, Jews and Christians seemed to have coexisted relatively peacefully under Muslim rule.  This changed immediately when the Christians got back into power.

Now the Mezquita is a rather dark affair, with the more modern Christian Cathedral plopped in the middle of endless Muslim columns.  I would’ve preferred to experience the Mezquita as the pilgrims did in the 900’s; with wide open doors and light streaming in, making the columns appear as trees, symmetrical extensions of the date palms from the ablutions courtyard.

The official Cathedral pamphlet – they call this structure the Cathedral though it seems everyone else calls it the Mezquita – is so biased towards Christian history it’s entertaining.  Basically, if the Muslims did it – it was bad and wrong, and if the Christians did it – it was right and good.  Quite a selective memory, I might add, after having seen what those pesky Catholics did to the Maya on the Yucatán Peninsula.

The buildings at the Alcázar are dreary, having been converted to Inquisition headquarters in 1492 and then a prison thereafter.  In a couple of the towers, I swear I could see and practically hear the victims of the Spanish Inquisition hanging by their wrists. The Alcázar is worth a visit for the extensive and beautiful Roman tile floors on display from the 3rd century A.D. and for its expansive gardens.  The Alcázar was also where negotiations began between Fernando, Isabel, and Christopher Columbus for his trip to America.

1492, what a year in Andalucía!   The Jews are expelled, the final Muslim stronghold of Granada is retaken by the Christians, and Chris C. sets off for America.  There’s gotta be a book written about this one year in Spanish history, jam-packed as it is with so much hope, blood, injustice, and gore.

Madinat Al-Zhara arches

Madinat Al-Zhara arches

The vast archaeological site of Madinat Al-Zhara can easily be reached by bus from Córdoba.  I was reminded of sunny, sweaty walks through Maya ruins, and interestingly, many of them were built in the 900’s, same as Al-Zhara, which was constructed in 940.  This elaborate little city partied it up for a very short time, and was ransacked by 1013.  Disappointingly, the main attraction, the salon belonging to Abd Al-Rahman III, was being restored and therefore off limits.

A couple days back in Sevilla, then it was off on the high-speed train to Madrid.  Any city that has a mini-ecosystem of turtles in their main train station gets my vote.  Madrid, which became the capital of Spain in 1561 because it’s the most centralized spot in the nation, is a delight.  It has some of the energy of New York City yet practically none of the stress, garbage, grime, and dog crap.  I stayed in what may be the equivalent of the Upper West Side of Madrid, between Salamanca and Retiro. I braved the Metro (easy, clean) and bought cheap goods at the fantabulous el Rastro.

Cadiz Roman amphitheatre

Cadiz Roman amphitheatre

July 19, 2009

I went to Cádiz for a night this week.  I actually felt chilly there, as it’s right on the Atlantic coast and windy.  It’s the first time in weeks that I’ve needed a light summer jacket.  There I got a wicked sunburn (fell asleep on the beach) and ate some nasty paella con verduras, but other than that it was a nice change of scenery.

Cádiz is a little seedy – a typical beach city with tattoos and rough edges – typically Andalucían with bustling, winding streets and alleys.  I visited an atmospheric Roman Amphitheater, an immense structure that was built from 60-70 A.D., and spent time in the city’s cathedral and crypt.

Cádiz is thought by many to be the longest inhabited city in the Southwest of Europe, having been founded by the Phoenicians around 1100 B.C.  The 18th century, however, was the real boom-time for Cádiz, thanks to trade with the Americas.  Many of the buildings are crumbling due to the sea air and, unlike pretty much every other Spanish city, the population of Cádiz continues to decline.

25 July 2009

Ah, the dramatic small city on top of cliffs – Ronda!  Despite its Bar Harbor-level of tourism, Ronda’s natural beauty is stunning.  Its history spans prehistory (cave drawings and the like), Roman Empire, Arab Middle Ages, and then Christian re-conquest.  It’s not possible to have a more fortified city than one atop cliffs.  The Christians were able to defeat the Muslims in seven days, in 1485, by cutting off their water supply.

Ronda Arab baths

Ronda Arab baths

Ronda’s Arab Baths, built in the 1200’s, are amazingly well preserved.  The hot room, closest to the furnace, was a steam room.  Next was a warm room, for socializing, sitting, lying about, getting massages.  Beyond that was the cold room, with two cold sitting pools.  There was a reception area, and of course men and women used the baths at separate times.  Stars were carved into the arched, brick ceilings in each room, allowing beams of natural light to punctuate the rooms.  A photographer’s paradise.

Ronda has three bridges spanning the cliffs, the earliest one from the Muslim days (perhaps the 12th century, though it’s been reconstructed so many times it’s basically been replaced several times over), the Old Bridge from the 16th century, and the world-famous New Bridge – Puente Nuevo – at only 200+ years of age.  This is where my camera’s polarizing filter plunged to an early death, so far down that I didn’t hear it hit bottom.

Ronda is well known for its bullring, built in 1785, and for the modern style of bullfighting that arose in the ‘Ronda school.’  I wouldn’t have guessed that blowing dust and sand in the eyes would be a hazard to a matador, but now I know otherwise.

I also chanced upon what may be one of my favorite churches of all time, La Colegiata María la Mayor, built from 1489-1704, and largely restored after being ransacked during the Civil War.  This church, which feels more like a cathedral, was made in both Gothic and Renaissance styles and still retains a small portion of an elaborate Muslim mihrab.

The church contains a statue that was so moving it made me cry. This has never happened to me before. As you may know, Spanish Catholics love their life-sized statues of the Virgin Mary and other female saints.  This statue was of a female saint, dressed in a black, velvet dress, with tight black curly hair and a silver halo.  She had chubby, gnarled fingers, and a beautiful face with a dimple on her chin.  Her eyes were cast down and brimming with glistening tears; tears marked dark paths halfway down her cheeks.  I’d never understood how people could see or imagine a statue crying until the moment I saw Her; if you kept Her gaze, it appeared that She was crying. The light can play magnificent tricks.

I also saw oversized hymn books from the 15th century, which Mom would’ve swooned over; large enough for the notes and Latin text to be read by the singers several yards away in their choir seats.

From the mystical to the sublime.  I was waiting at Ronda’s bus station for the bus to bring me back to Sevilla. A man – a handsome middle-aged fellow – asked me for the time, then sat down next to me and started a conversation.  Here’s the Spanish-to-English translation of the conversation that ensued:

Man:  Where’s your family? (A question that means more than just where do your parents live.)

Me:  New York.  (Why not?) But I’m living in Sevilla for the summer.

Man:  Ah.  With who?

Me:  A female friend. (His brow furrows.)

Man:  (Several minutes of fishing around regarding amigo vs. amiga.  Then… ) So, with love, do you like men?

Me:  (Hesitating) Er, yes.

Man:  (Something unintelligible I)

Me:  What? I don’t understand your question.

Man:  (Something unintelligible II)

Me: (Slowly catching on, but playing dumb.)  I’m sorry, I still don’t understand.  Your question for me?

Man:  Do you want to make love?

Me: (I’m sure he didn’t just say that.) What?  I don’t understand.

Man:  Do you want to make love? With me?

Me:  (Blank stare I)

Man:  (Blank stare II)

Me:  No.

Man:  Why not?

Me:  I don’t want.

Man:  Why not?

Me:  I don’t know, but I don’t want.  I have a boyfriend in Seville.  (A lie thrown in for good measure.)

Man:  Can I have a kiss anyway? (Points at his lips for clarification.)

Me:  No.

Man:  Why?

Me:  I don’t want.

Man:  (Sighs) Okay.

Me:  Your name?

Man:  Francisco.

Me:  Hello Francisco, I’m Irene.  (We shake hands.)  Goodbye, I have to go use the toilet.

Sorry, folks, but it just doesn’t get much better than that.

"There is no Conquerer but God"

“There is no Conqueror but God”

August 3, 2009

The Alhambra!  There is a saying – Si mueres sin ver la Alhambra, no has vivido –  If you die without seeing the Alhambra, you haven’t lived.  Now I understand.  The 11th century fortress, the Alcazaba, is an architectural marvel on top of a hill, well-fortified and with views of the mountains and the white city of Granada below.  Tucked next to the Alcazaba is the main attraction of the Alhambra, the Palacios Nazaríes, the royal palace of the Muslim rulers from the 14th century.

I’ve done a little reading on Moorish art and architecture and would love to do more.  The Moorish architectural focus was on representations of nature – shells, trees and the like – and symmetry, with the aim of taking visitors away from thinking and ideas and bringing them to a relaxed state of being, a calm inner rhythm, and oneness with God.  (As you may know, it is forbidden to depict human beings in Islamic art.)  The palace has the inscription Wa-la ghalita illa-Llah – There is no Conquerer but God – on practically every wall and column.  The inscriptions – the Arabic words and the depictions of nature – feel like meditations in and of themselves – repeating, repeating, repeating.

The Generalife gardens and another Muslim palace occupy a separate part of the hill and are lovely – I sat and read about the Spanish Inquisition under a canopy of grapes and vines, with a fountain gurgling behind me.  (I’ll be sad when I’m finished with this book, probably tomorrow; on the other hand, I’ve had about enough of the torment, paranoia and torture.)

Lastly, and I would indeed recommend this lastly, one can visit the odd palace of Carlos V, which was begun in 1526, soon after the Reconquista, and never quite finished.  It is an anomaly within the Alhambra, but you know how rulers love to leave their mark on things.

A trip to Granada wouldn’t be complete without a walk or two through the hills and winding alleys of the Albaycín, the old Moorish section of Granada and, from what I read, the only Moorish neighborhood in Spain not to be completely razed after the Reconquista.  If you have seen photos of the full Alhambra on its hilltop, they were probably taken from St. Nicolás Plaza in the Albaycín.

I met a wonderful man while in Granada.  Not only did I enjoy – wow!  enjoy! – one of the best kisses I’ve ever had in my life, but I also found comfort and companionship with someone who has a similar sense of humor, idea of sensuality, and set of values.  It was interesting for me to note that I felt a kinship with him, a Muslim Turk, which I don’t often feel when interacting with Spaniards.

He told me an amazing story.   A man – a stranger – approached him in Istanbul several years ago and gave him a series of prophecies – all of which have come true except the last one.  The last one was this:  That he was to go to a certain church in Granada and pray for guidance, holding a chain and a key.  This key would remove his obstacles and unlock his future.

Well, as a Muslim, even a very moderate Muslim, he’s a bit wary of praying in a Christian church, and he has asked Imams and scholars for advice on whether he should do this. (So far, the advice is no, which he thinks is ridiculous, and I agree.)  I offered to go to the church with him.  Though he considered this option, he didn’t bring it up again, so I was content to simply give him a gift of a small key, a facsimile of the key to open the Alhambra, which he can consider bringing should he go to the church on his own in the future.

After a two-hour bus ride through the Alpujarras, I landed at the beachside community of Nerja, which is basically a slice of England on the Costa del Sol.  More English gets spoken in Nerja than gets spoken in New York. I visited the pool, the crowded beach, and had my best taste of Spanish pizza in the little white hill-top town of Frigiliana, just outside Nerja.  I visited the famous Nerja Caves and enjoyed them… enough.  It’ll be hard to top my Mexico cave experiences, especially with ones that are as Disneyfied as Nerja, but I remain committed to seeing as many caves as I can, wherever I may go.

I’ve been playing tourist here in Sevilla.  I’ve gone to see the Basilica de Macarena in the Macarena district (yes, that Macarena).  She’s an attractive statue, Maria Madre de Dios, crafted in the 17th century.  She is the patron saint of Sevilla and venerated, especially during Semana Santa, Easter week.  I visited the Casa de Pilatos, a mansion from the 15th century, designed in Mudéjar, Gothic and Renaissance styles, with a strong connection to Italy and Italian art, including numerous Roman statues in the courtyards.

I may be a little late on this, but I’m not too happy with Fernando and Isabel, nor their lunatic daughter, or their useless grandson, Charles V.

August 8, 2009

Sagrada Familia view

Sagrada Familia view

The Romans called it Barcino (with a hard c) but by 878 A.D. it was known as Barcelona.  The Gothic Neighborhood, from roughly 1100-1400 A.D., and built upon the ancient Roman ruins, is smack in the middle of modern, bustling shopping streets, and is a short walk to Barcelona’s beach district, Barceloneta.  After the Gothic city walls were brought down, the city expanded up and out, and this is when the Moderniste architects – Gaudí and his contemporaries – were able to show their stuff.

The city itself is a living and breathing outdoor art museum, flowing up the Paseo de Gràcia and past Gaudí’s Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, over to the immense La Sagrada Família which will be under construction for about twenty more years (all of these just blocks from me); flowing up to the wonderland of Parc Güell.  Just a small fraction of this wondrous city!

It’s hard to believe that Barcelona has less than two million inhabitants – the city feels huge to me, and overwhelming in the same way that a visitor feels on his or her first trip to New York City.  Where do you begin?  I guess you do what I did – just pick somewhere and walk… the Ramblas… the port… over to the beach on a sunny afternoon… find – and eat! – some of the best Thai food on the planet (two times, and counting)… find – and eat! – some of the best chocolate cake on the planet, and check out the Chocolate Museum.  This is a city of chocoholics – I fit right in.

August 14, 2009

Barcelona, You’re going to break me.  Your chocolate cakes, artisanal gelato, fashions and boutiques; your joie de vivre; my never-ending flow of cash.

One of your sons, hard-bodied and mocha-skinned, stands sunning in his underwear on a third floor terrace. I fall into the gutter.

You give me Christian art set among palms, flowers, and dragons, and unending tile mosaics.  Your attention to detail and art shines even on Your sidewalks.  You offer spires and curves, tastes of New York and Dubai. You give me a city full of people who love tea and chocolate as much as I do.  With public faucets (drinkable water!) and plentiful benches and chairs (not filled with homeless guys!), You give me places to rest.  You offer busy city streets and a sunny beach.

You leave me fat and happy, and how often do I use those two words in the same sentence?  How can it be that after a week with You, I can sit at a café with a book and feel a level of comfort and ease as if I’ve been there for five years?

I’ve been praying for guidance. Where should I live?  What should I do for work? Where do I belong?  Where’s home?  Where could home be?  I have no strong gut feeling in any direction.  I find this perplexing, as normally I go on one or two week vacations and leave with epiphanies.  So far, it’s been almost three months, and no epiphanies.

I mentioned this to an expat I met in Barcelona and he looked at me intently and said:  “I’m in the same boat right now, as are so many others I know.  My dad, who’s not into New Age thinking, e-mailed me the other day and said that Mars is close to Earth right now … the closest it’s ever been … and one of the effects is people feeling confused and uncertain.”  “When will it end?,” I asked.  He wasn’t sure, but thought it would be by the end of August.

I turn back to prayer for guidance, trust that Mars will eventually cycle through, and believe that I will know more when I know more.

Trajan and Hadrian walked on this road

Trajan and Hadrian walked on these stones

August 19, 2009

This was my last week in Sevilla and therefore my last week on my Summer in Spain Adventure. So, what does a girl do on her last week in Andalucía?  Well, of course she gets in one last ancient Roman city.  Itálica, originally named by Hadrian as Colonia Aelia Augusta Italica (but no, not written in italics, I checked), was founded in 206 B.C. and Augustus helped move it along in its early days, around the year 0.  Trajan was born there in 53 A.D. and his son, Hadrian, in 76 A.D.

There are many elaborate floor mosaics on which to feast your eyes (how can these survive intact for two thousand years?), and the amphitheatre, built in Augustus’s time, is a joy to walk around, especially while pretending to be a gladiator (or my favorite stand-by for any situation I don’t understand, a baby dinosaur).

However, what I was most struck by was the mundane; the ordinary brickwork that has lasted two thousand years, the flat stones on the road and the curbs carefully built alongside, imagining the togas and Roman sandals that walked these streets on their way to the baths or the planetarium.  These are the creations that I knelt down and touched, keeping my hand curled and curved around a stone or rough brick, to feel a connection to this distant slice of humanity.  I wanted to tell those ancient Roman masons… ‘I’m here!  I’m here with you!  We’re all in on this together!’

I went to see flamenco again, this time at the well-known Tablao los Gallos in Sevilla, and was in for another delightful evening.  One woman in particular was outstanding; every body part was a percussion instrument.  I am dying to learn how to clap the way Gitanos clap.  This was further confirmed when I was able to watch several flamenco musicians and dancers at a cozy location outside Sevilla.  They were from Jerez and incredibly talented – the male singer was the best I’ve seen/heard to date.  When I told him I wanted to move to Barcelona, he scrunched up his nose, shook his head, and said that ‘it smells different there.’

Then there was one last hurrah at the Arab Baths, this time with a short massage included.  I sat in the tepidarium, the caldarium, the frigidarium, and the sudatorium.  I mailed boxes.  I packed.  I flew back to New York City.

What a fine idea this summer was.  I needed a change of scenery; I got it.  I wanted the sunshine, the heat, and a tan; I got them.  I wanted a few new pieces of Spanish jewelry and some new clothes; I bought them.  I wanted to kiss a couple boys; check.  I wanted to make up for years without Magnum ice cream bars; waistline checked – clearly accomplished.  (Note to self:  Start new company that imports Magnums to the U.S.)  I felt empty; I got filled up with Spanish culture, this culture and mentality of abundance.

This summer I felt magic in two Spanish cities – Granada and Barcelona – hair-stand-up, skin-tingling magic.  I learned that if I live in Spain, I’d prefer it be in Madrid or Barcelona. I learned more about the Romans, the Visigoths, the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition (“what a show!”), flamenco, bullfights, and modern architecture.  I speak … er …  slightly less awful Spanish.  I made friends that I suspect I will see again.  And Americans, listen to this – I got free healthcare, and didn’t turn into a Commie.  Oh, right, I already was a Commie – strike that.

Thank you for bearing witness to my three-month Spanish experiment.  It has been an amazing experience. You won’t be getting any more weekly updates from me, but I will let you know when articles become available on my blog.  They will contain more insights, more of the nuts and bolts of my experiences, and recommendations for anyone heading to the places I’ve been.

Until then, muchos saludos.

Get your little butt out there!

Photos: Sevilla y Córdoba, España

June 26, 2009