Our lost together locations

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Me and Spain, Spain and Me

Spain and I have a complicated relationship.

It started back when I first traveled there with my friend Rachel, in the heyday of our youth. We took an overnight train from Paris, and spent a sleepless night in upright seats, punctuated with a stopover in the Basque Pyrenees, on a tiny, freezing train platform waiting for a midnight connection – we did not know that France and Spain do not share train systems (still true).

When we arrived in Madrid, we experienced the culture shock inherent in moving from a country where you do speak the language to one where you start to rely largely on sign language. I still retain strong – and highly amusing – memories of a very helpful tapas bar employee who signed “pollo” (chicken) and “pescado” (fish) for us quite graphically. We stumbled around in the heat of siesta looking for a laundromat that was open; we stumbled upon a free open-air pop concert by a local star. We visited museums and I tried in vain to get a glimpse of the Guernica past a wall of oblivious Israelis on a guided tour they were paying absolutely no attention to. So Madrid was a bit of a mixed bag.

Seville was definitely a highlight, full of ochre-coloured winding streets flanked by romantic balconies and filled with patios of students enjoying glasses of tinto de verrano and sangria. Our little pension was adorable, and lively with like-minded budget travellers with whom we sought out, and found, small bars with spontaneous flamenco performances.

We spent only enough time in Granada to visit the Alhambra, which was magnificent, and my only other memory of that city was that they wouldn't let us sit on the grass in the parks; the police were very vigilant, but there weren't many benches as alternatives.

Then we hit Barcelona. The morning of our arrival from Granada, on an overnight train via Madrid, my daypack and all its contents were stolen from beside me as I sat on a bench eating, distracted by some gypsies playing with a newborn kitten in the square (yes, it's an old trick, but I was a new traveller). We had to leave ASAP to get my passport reissued, and we didn't return.

So I have mixed feelings about Spain. On the one hand, I know there are all sorts of things to love about it. On the other, it just doesn't seem to want me get too close.

This time, we arrived in Barcelona after an awesome stay in the Pyrenees. I was looking forward to giving Barcelona a second chance, but when I woke up our first morning with a crippling nausea that soon became a full-fledged bout with gastroenteritis, I came to the sad realization that Barcelona and I just aren't meant to be.

Sick throughout our short stay in Madrid, too, I was pretty glad to head to Portugal and give Spain a rest for a bit. We'd be heading back, with a focus on the southern area of Andalusia, when my parents joined us at the beginning of December.

David's recapped most of Portugal and some of Spain. I'll add some of the videos we took in Spain for some additional highlights. Fortunately, Spain mostly redeemed itself in those two weeks we spent with my parents, though I have to agree with Dad in that southern Spain's cuisine just doesn't really do it for me in the way that some other local cuisines do. But the weather was great, the scenery spectacular, and the cities definitely worth visiting. Just take our advice: don't try to drive there.

We stayed in a town called Mijas, about a 20 minute drive from Malaga, in a little place called Casita Janine. It was a cute little guesthouse up a very steep hill above the town, and the view was unreal – on a clear day you could see as far as the mountains of the Moroccan coastline. It also had its own little olive and orange trees. David tried the olives without realizing that they're not usually very good unless they've been brined. But he also decided to try the oranges, despite a disappointing encounter with the oranges free for the picking all over Lisbon, which were VERY sour (I kept telling him they were ornamental only, but he didn't believe me).

Among the things we did that I hadn't done on my last trip to Spain, we decided to go to Gibraltar, just for the novelty of it, and it is indeed a pretty odd experience to walk across a border where the guards basically just glance at your passport as you hold it up. It really is just a rock jutting up out of the ocean off the coast, and absolutely packed from stem to stern with people trying to take advantage of the shopping there. Truth be told, we didn't see much in the way of bargains, plus they give an awful exchange on the Euro and none of us had brought any pounds sterling.

The other main thing to see on Gibraltar is the “colony” of Barbary apes, which are really a species of tailless monkey. While signs all over the place warn you that they are wild animals, they're pretty tame, and wander past tourists nonchalantly, doing their own thing (much to the amusement of said tourists).

They play

and groom one another

and just generally frolic and are cute. And that was Gibraltar.

Seville lent itself most to video, although sadly there's none of the flamenco show we saw because we were specifically asked not to take video (though we were encouraged to photograph).

We had arrived in time for a major festival day – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I'm not really sure why it's an important festival, or why the Virgin Mary's lack of original sin would be cause for all the kids to be out of school, and all shops closed, but the major street was closed off for endless processions of marching bands!

The band that was playing when I took out my camera had a Mary Poppins repertoire, but they didn't oblige while I was filming, so you can kind of ignore the latter part of this first clip:

Check out the guys salsa dancing in the background in this one (starting at about 0:45):

And, just one more, cause marching bands are fun:

Seville also has the stunning Alcazar, a royal residence that's still in use. Its gardens sport one of two surviving hydraulic “singing” fountains in Europe. We were in time for a performance of that, too!

Our second night in Seville we went to a restaurant recommended by the clerk at our hotel. The restaurant itself was very nice, and the food quite good, the service attentive; however, the space was largely taken up by a family celebrating a birthday, and one of the family members was obnoxiously drunk. We gathered the birthday boy's name was Joe, and that he had turned 25, mainly because Drunken Lout Family Member kept toasting him with barely-decipherable but obtrusively loud cheers of "Viva Joe!" I tried to get some discreet video/audio, but he wasn't obligingly obnoxious during the few seconds I was filming. You can hear how loud he is, still.

At one point, he was so bad that I think the maitre d' went over to their table to express his concern, possibly about his getting home ok.

After they cleared out, the restaurant staff were very apologetic. But they didn't realize that, in fact, we'd been provided with some prime entertainment! Nothing like drunken locals for your local colour of the night.

Our local colour the next day came unexpectedly in the form of some UK football fans who had come down to Seville for a match that afternoon or evening. We could hear their chanting in the streets even from inside the Cathedral (which I'm sure thrilled the folks who like to keep their cathedrals nice and quiet and, you know, sacred).

On further investigation, we discovered that they were, to be precise, Glasgow fans, and David shared a bonding moment with them, revealing to one that he had Glaswegian ancestral roots.

I would have liked to get video of the dancing Andalusian horses we saw in Jerez, but they were very vigilant about cameras. I would also have liked to get video of our tour guide at the Sandeman sherry winery, but our tour guide was awful and self-conscious enough with her English already, I think, that to subject her to filming might have made her thoroughly unintelligible instead of just moderately so.

Cordoba didn't have much to film, though I bet the lady who had the grilled chicken stand would gladly have obliged, since she was very happy to give us an impromptu Spanish lesson with our order!

So anyway, our second (third?) go at Spain was clearly much better, but I still wonder if another try someday might improve my overall appreciation, or if, really, I should just let it lie and stick to other countries.

Like Italy! (Which is where we are now.)

P.S. - I've added a map to our blog so you can track all the places we've been to since the beginning of our trip. I'll try to update it each time we update the blog.


Dawn said...

boys loved the videos!

David said...

Dawn, I love how it's pretty much guaranteed that you're going to comment on a blog post. I'd say that along with my mom, who gets them automatically sent to her in-box, you're our most loyal reader.

That's an award in some circles.

Punishment in others!