Archive for the 'Andalucia' Category

Feb 03 2008

Arches of the Frontier!

Published by under Andalucia,Spain

Arcos de la FronteraHow does one find themselves in the town of Arcos de la Frontera, southern Spain’s very own version of what we Americans like to call “the boondocks”? In our case, by laying out a map of Andalucia, blindly jabbing at it with a finger, and agreeing to journey to the closest inhabited locale to the fingernail. And so it was that we found ourselves on a bus to this town we’d never heard of, seen pictures of, or ever been able to find in a Spanish guidebook. As luck would have it, Brittany’s finger did us proud, because we have since come to learn that Arcos is considered by many to be the prettiest of Andalucia’s Pueblos Blancos (White Villages).

Believe it or not, tiny Arcos de la Frontera (Arches of the Frontier?) must receive sufficient annual tourism to warrant the labeling of a “high season” and “low season” calendar in the local tourist office. Despite the beautiful weather, we found ourselves in Arcos in the middle of the so-called “low” season. Information like this comes in handy when negotiating a week’s stay in a spacious apartment in town. As does my smattering of Spanish, which meant that, for once, the object of my negotiating attentions was able to halfway understand the gibberish coming out of my mouth. For purposes of contrast, all I ever really figured out how to say in Greek was “please”, “I agree”, and “very very nice”, so you can imagine how much negotiating leverage I enjoyed on Crete.

Brittany reading in the fields of ArcosArcos probably has an interesting history, but we didn’t exactly get around to learning it. And it has some magnificent looking churches, but we didn’t exactly get around to going inside. After months of being inundated with history, art, and church interiors, we made a pact upon arriving in Arcos to avoid, at any cost, those who would have us learn anything, or soak up any more of that infernal “culture” we keep hearing about. Instead, we spent our days picnicking beside the lake outside of town, and napping in the warm, sunny fields. Most of our nights were occupied by renting movies from the small video store below our apartment.

The biggest challenge here, aside from ensuring that your selected movie can actually be enjoyed in English, is figuring out exactly what you’re renting. Familiar movie titles are not only translated into Spanish, but are often changed entirely. For instance, “Bruce Almighty” is known to Spain as “Como Dios” (“Like God”). My personal favorite has to be “Not Another Teen Movie”, which Spaniards know as “Not Another Stupid American Movie”. On a more somber note, I regret that I was unable, despite all of my language-barrier-bridging efforts, to locate “Shawn of the Dead”. I can’t imagine what the Spanish title would be, but I made a stab at it by asking the clerk if they carry “Shawn de los Muertos”. This, accompanied by my excellent zombie walk and brain-hungry moans, earned me his suggestion of “28 Semanas Despues” (28 Weeks Later), but no satisfaction. Someone please let me borrow Shawn of the Dead when I get home, because I saw Hot Fuzz right before leaving the States, and I loved it. Which reminds me, I owe an apology to every British person I have met, and will yet meet.

Dear once and future friends,

Despite appearances, I DO realize that just because you’re British doesn’t mean you automatically love Hot Fuzz, or want to discuss each one of my favorite scenes at length. But when I hear your silly accent, all your words seem to translate to “please interrogate me about the one British movie you’ve seen!” I can imagine that you must get quite sick of enduring discussions about British comedy with every English-speaking foreigner, so I will make every effort to restrain myself. I promise. Oh, but one last thing before I go: have you ever heard of this group called “Monty Python”?


That bloody Yank

While I’m on the subject of renting movies, I must not neglect to mention the Irish girl who works the counter several nights a week in our favorite Arcos video rental store. How she ever ended up in Arcos remains a mystery, but since English speakers are hard to come by out in the boondocks, she enjoyed finding excuses to engage us in conversation. Startlingly, the first thing she ever said to us in English was: “get out of Arcos while you can!” It’s hard to convey exactly what this was like, but when you’re staying in a strange town where you’re fully accustomed to hearing nothing but Spanish, and a girl you hadn’t noticed in the background suddenly leans over a counter to loudly whisper that you should get out of town WHILE YOU CAN, you tend to be interested in what it is she has to say.

We pressed her on her suggestion, and she came to inform us that wife beating is a prevalent and accepted tradition in Arcos, as is the distateful practice of taking your hunting dogs that displease you out into the backyard, and BURYING THEM ALIVE. Michael Vick would be proud. Now, before the Arcos de la Frontera Ministry of Tourism starts bugging me with e-mails/tries to bury ME alive, let me disclaim that I don’t know how much of the Irish girl’s story holds water, since it’s hard to get a feel for local culture while asleep. I can personally vouch for her reliability in recommending the tastiest local brands of mixed nuts, but in the interest of objectivity, I also feel obligated to disclose the fact that she suffers from a condition that I think is most concisely described as “crazy eyes.” I allow the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about Arcos society.

Brittany rides a horse in Andalucia!We did have some waking hours in Arcos de la Frontera, and I’m happy to say that some of these were spent atop the famous horses of Andalucia. Well, technically, only one hour, but that’s what happens when the price for horseback riding is 20 euros per hour, per person! Brittany has had the pleasure of riding a horse once or twice in her life, but as with many activities on this trip (see skiing in the Dolomites) this was my first time. Thankfully, it turns out that I am able to stay on top of a horse much better than I am able to stay on top of a pair of skis! I don’t think it hurt my cause that the guide knew we were novice riders, because the wild stallions he chose for us were far more interested in the delicious foliage growing alongside our riding path than the prospect of galloping/trotting/strolling somewhat briskly. In hopes of feeling the wind on my face, I finally resolved to kick my horse about half-way through our alloted hour of riding. He stirred for a moment, but ultimately, did not wake up.

Picnics, movie rentals, and horses. Yes, I think that just about sums up our week in Arcos de la Frontera. If you’re ever headed to Arcos, give us a shout, because we can recommend an apartment with a great roof for sitting out and enjoying the view over the town. There’s a video rental place right downstairs, and a diner nearby where all the locals will turn and look at you with bewilderment the first four or five times you enter, but will eventually come to tolerate your presence. You may even end up joining them for that tasty Spanish refreshment, tinto con limon (red wine + carbonated lemonade). Then again, I can’t really think of a reason why you couldn’t picnic/rent movies/make drinks on a Saturday afternoon at home… but oops! Out of time! We’re off to Portugal!

2 responses so far

Jan 30 2008

One Morning in Seville

Published by under Andalucia,Spain

Look, we ALWAYS buy tickets for the metro/bus/tram in every city we visit, no matter how many people we see successfully jumping turnstiles, or how few officials we see actually checking passengers’ tickets. But on the morning we were to catch a bus from Seville to Arcos de la Frontera, we found ourselves running late getting out of our hostel. Rolling luggage in tow, we booked it for the nearest tram stop, where we could catch a ride across the city to the bus station. We hurried through several city blocks, and as the tram stop came into view, we could see a yellow tram pulling up to the boarding platform. There wasn’t time to fumble with the platform’s ticket machine AND catch this tram before it took off again, and it had been something like two months since we’d even seen a transportation controller checking tickets on a ride like this. So we made the quick decision to go ahead and board the tram without buying a ticket, for ONCE in our law-abiding, goody-two-shoes lives.

The Seville tram has only four stops. We boarded at Stop 1, and were bound for the bus station, located at Stop 4. With so few stops, riding the length of the journey takes only a few minutes. Common sense said: “Waste time buying a tram ticket, and you’ll miss your bus to Arcos! You’re only going to be on the tram for five minutes anyway; what could possibly go wrong?” Or maybe it was the wee devil on my shoulder who said that, because wouldn’t you know it? At Stop 2, for the first time in MONTHS I TELL YOU, controllers boarded our tram to check tickets.

To my own credit, I spotted the controllers before they boarded the tram. But to my eternal discredit, I hesitated. I wasn’t 100% sure that these men in green coats were actually Seville’s public transportation officials, and sitting around considering it wasted valuable escape time. I got my confirmation when they boarded the tram, clipboards in hand, but by now it was too late. I whispered to Brittany, “We need to GO!”, and pulled her behind me as I sprang for the door. Smashing fellow passengers’ knees with our awkward suitcases, we managed to reach the door JUST IN TIME for it to close in my face. Desperately, I tugged at the door handle in hopes of springing us, but my thrashing efforts only succeeded in catching the eye of the nearest controller, who hustled over to rebuke me in Spanish for trying to pry open the closed door. He forced me to back away from the exit, and I watched freedom pass us by at the speed of the accelerating tram.

There was a moment or two here, in between the closing of the doors and the inevitable ticket check from this controller, which would be my only chance to evaluate the specifics of our predicament, and try to formulate any sort of plan, escapade or caper. I said to myself: OK, old boy, it’s time to think fast. I said this quietly so the controller couldn’t hear. As best I can recall, my thoughts happened like this:

From where I stand, I can see that there are two controllers on board. One is already checking tickets at the other end of our tram car, and the other is now, rather inconveniently, focused squarely on us. We have no ticket, and there is really no getting around this fact. Based on prior close calls (see Italy) I know that the fine for riding without a ticket is in the lofty realm of 50 euros. And I also know that these men in green are trained to not accept ignorance of the rules as an excuse for disobedience. And finally, I know that there’s no getting off this tram before it reaches Stop 3 in two minutes. All visual evidence indicates that the tram windows are shatter-proof, but even if they aren’t, there’s the issue of getting these heavy suitcases out of here too. Probably not viable. In conclusion, it’s just us and this controller for the next two minutes, and he’s got me right where we wants any dirty no-ticket-buying tram-hopping lowlife. All evidence considered, things aren’t really looking good for my hopes of a successful caper. Instead, I can really only think of one possible approach to this scenario: stall like crazy, in an effort to hold out until these doors open again at Stop 3.

I’ve mentioned before that I studied a little bit of Spanish in school. I believe I learned just enough to make myself more of a nuisance in Spain than a tourist who speaks no Spanish at all. Nonetheless, if there were ever a time for the hours spent in those classes to pay off, this would be it. Please note: in the following account of my conversation with the controller, I apologize for the lack of proper Spanish punctuation. This English keyboard lacks fun things like upside-down question marks.

Ben (our hero): Por favor, senor! Hay estacion numero dos? Please, sir! is this station number two?

Evil Controller: Si, Hay estacion dos. Yes, this is station two.

B: No! Dios mio! Necesitamos estacion numero dos, pero las puertas! Cerrado! No! My God! We need station number two, but the doors! Closed!

EC: Por que? Adonde quiere ir? Why? Where do you want to go?

B: Este tram, es a estacion de autobuses y regresar? Es posible a (here I motion getting off the tram) en estacio tres y regresar con un otro tram? This tram, is to the bus station and to return? Is it possible to (here I motion getting off the tram) in station three and to return with another tram?

EC: Hmm, si, es posible. No es una problema, senor, pero adonde quiere ir? Hmm, yes, it’s possible. It’s not a problem, sir, but where do you want to go?

B: Es bueno, es la verdad. Ai! Pero mi carta! Is good, is the truth. Ahh! But my map!

EC: Su carta? No comprendo… Your map? I don’t understand…

B: Mi carta dice que nosotros hostel esta de estacion numero dos! My map speaks that we hostel is from station number two!

EC: Creo que comprendo, pero… I think I understand, but…

(Here he rattles off a string of upper-level Spanish, clearly oblivious to the fact that I only made it through 202. And what little hope I do have of understanding him is shot due to my concentration on the current speed of the tram. Is it slowing down yet? How much longer until it starts slowing down? Also, I’m running out of things that I know how to say. Is he still talking?)

B: Ayudame! Donde esta la biblioteca? Help me! Where is the library?

EC: Como? La biblioteca publica? What? The library? The public library?

B: Si! Nosotros hostel esta en la proxima de la biblioteca publica! Donde esta, por favor? Yes! We hostel is in the near of the public library! Where is, please?

EC: La biblioteca publica. No es dificile del estacion tres. Se va a la izquierda del estacion, y… The public library. It is not difficult from station three. Go to the left from the station, and…

(Another indecipherable monologue ensues. But suddenly, I feel something. The tram… it’s starting to slow down! Just a little longer, old bean…)

B: Es perfecto! De aqui, la biblioteca a la izquierda y vamos a el hostel con la carta! Is perfect! From here, the library to the left and we go to the hostel with the map!

(Pulling up to the tram station now…)

B: Muchas gracias, senor! Muchas gracias por todos! Thank you very much, sir! Thank you very much for everything!

I’ll never know if he heard my last words of thanks, because the doors opened while I was mid-sentence, and I sprang from the tram faster than the words from my mouth.* Feeling the controller’s eyes behind us, we headed to the left from the station, in accordance with his directions to the library. We hid behind a building for a while, and when we felt assured he had gone, we re-emerged and headed right, along the tram tracks, to the bus station and Arcos de la Frontera. And perhaps most importantly, to a future where we always wake up early in order to have ample time to buy required tram tickets.

Although, if you think about it, that’s really only ONE controller in two-plus months. What are the chances of actually running into another one?

*No small feat, if you ask those who have had to endure a lifetime of me.

7 responses so far

Jan 26 2008

The other side of long-term travel

Published by under Andalucia,Spain,Travel

Last week Ben got an email from a friend back home asking him how our vacation was going. We were both momentarily confused. Vacation? Who’s on vacation??

Because here’s the thing no one tells before you leave: this sort of travel is exhausting. It is, by far, the most mentally, physically and emotionally draining experience I’ve ever undertaken.

But in all my hours of blog-reading and message-board-surfing to prepare for this trip, not a single backpacker mentioned the toll long-term travel takes on your mind and body. So that’s why I feel inclined to dedicate one entry to the not-so-perfect facet of travel.

Of course, everyone knows that this sort of travel is tiring. How could it not be? Enduring 24-hour international bus rides. Hiking several miles every day. Switching hostel bunk beds every night. Struggling to communicate your every basic need through an ever-changing language barrier. The daily battle to plan the next leg of your journey, with no knowledge of your next destination, no information on how to get there, and no internet access.

Yes, you’ll experience the happiest moments of your life while traveling. But along with the emotional highs come equally severe emotional lows – days when you just want to scrap the entire trip and go home where life is easy and people love you.

Which brings up the most emotionally draining factor of traveling: homesickness. I suspect this is highly personal and different for everyone. For me, after the initial pangs of homesickness wore off, I grew sort of numb to it. We were seeing and doing so many amazing things I almost didn’t have time to be homesick.

But along came Christmas (having never missed a holiday at home in all my 25 years). It also happened to be the halfway mark of our trip, which brought with it many conflicting emotions: I can’t believe our trip is halfway done! Wait, we’re only halfway through? So just when you think you’ve got a handle on the whole homesickness thing, you find yourself weeping profusely in a Prague metro station, clinging to your boyfriend, being eyed nervously by old Czech men, all because you’re not going to be there on Christmas morning to see what Santa brings your brother and sister. Your 18- and 23-year-old brother and sister. The exhaustion of traveling manifests itself in unexpected ways.

Compared to most backpackers, Ben and I take it easy. We never spend less than five days in one destination. We take time to maintain this blog to keep up with people at home. Many fellow travelers we meet scoff at our modus operandi (there are always a few travel elitists in hostels who think that they travel “better,” know more, and understand the world more than you ever will). “You’re spending how long in Prague??” they say. “But what will you do?”

I swallow the urge to snap, “see a little more than the museum, jackass.” But then I look at these people, who sleep most nights on trains, stumbling into the hostel, barely aware of where they are, smelling kind of funky, dark purple bags under their eyes, and can’t help but scoff at them when they insist they’re “having the time of my life, dude!”

It’s hard not to get sucked into the GO! GO! GO! mentality of these people – if you don’t see ____ then your whole trip was WASTED. Wake up at dawn! Visit the sites! Party in Euro-clubs until 4 am! Repeat!

I crashed in Barcelona. I think it was after our tenth straight night of sleeping on the floor. I had a bad cold I hadn’t been able to shake for a month. We were walking down Las Ramblas discussing the next leg of our journey: our tour of Andalucia. I was confused – why wasn’t I looking forward to this more?

It dawned on me suddenly: I just can’t do this anymore. So I stopped abruptly in the street, turned to Ben, and told him so. I don’t care if I don’t see all the “must-sees”; I don’t care what our guidebook says, or what other travelers say. All I want to do is chose a small town in Andalucia – one that isn’t mentioned in any book – rent a tiny apartment and do nothing for two weeks. I saw the relief in Ben’s eyes and almost instantaneously, at the mere suggestion, we felt better.

And so that’s exactly what we did.

I don’t know why travelers don’t discuss these aspects of long-term travel more. And I certainly don’t mean to speak for everyone (although it’s safe to say that I’ve never seen anyone more exhausted than a backpacker on month number six). I think it isn’t mentioned because when someone makes this decision – to drop everything, put life on hold, risk money and career – that person feels a need to convince themselves and everyone else that every single moment is THE BEST EVER.

But, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling or worthwhile. Because don’t all meaningful experiences in life require a little work? Do you think going on a life-changing, soul-searching adventure to places unknown comes without challenge? To ignore the hardships and disappointments seems to be ignoring an important part of the journey.

Okay, I’m done my proselytizing for the day. Ben and I put our self-discovery on hold in the small town of Arcos de la Frontera, where 70 degree weather and daily siestas made Operation: Rejuvenation a huge success!

6 responses so far

Jan 23 2008

Granada: Gypsy Flight and Flamenco Night

Published by under Andalucia,Spain

Because we’re masochists, we decided to make the eleven-hour journey from Barcelona to Granada by way of overnight train. Because we’re cheap and stubborn, we opted for airplane-style seats versus the sleeper couchettes. So, once again, we found ourselves on mass public transit, faced with the challenge of sleeping through the night upright and next to strangers.

The train is a vastly preferable form of transportation to the bus, with seats that actually recline, leg room, and the ability to walk around (and dining cars! hooray for dining cars!).

What I dread most about train travel is the trip to the bathroom, which is inescapably a dramatic, humiliating affair for me. The first challenges are 1. finding the bathroom, 2. determining if it is occupied, and 3. figuring out how to open the inexplicable contraption they call a door. But I can generally accomplish those tasks with minimal embarrassment. What I truly dread – what haunts my dreams at night – are the toilets. Because I swear they are OUT TO GET ME.

When it comes time to flush, I turn and warily face my opponent. I slowly reach down, press the button above the toilet and brace myself for the flush. Just when I think I must not have pressed the button correctly, I’ll shakily reach down to push it again. And then, no matter how long I’ve waited – the very moment I determine that it’s simply been too long between push and flush to be functioning properly and bend over the toilet to flush it again – the water is violently sucked out of the bowl, spraying me with blue toilet water and scaring the bejesus out of me. I yelp, spring back, hitting a limb or my head against the mirror or sink, and crash against the door.

I’ll emerge from these battles, bruised and bespeckled, to face a small crowd of inevitably ultra-hip Europeans, who have heard my screams and bangs and curses, and who look at me while they puff away at their cigarettes like I am the least cool person alive.

(And, by the way, if anyone has any tips on how to squat over a toilet on a moving train without peeing all over your pants, I’d appreciate it.)

We arrived in Granada the next morning like we arrive in all cities – tired, hungry and confused. Once we fumbled our way to a hostel, we promptly crashed in our assigned bunk beds, only to sleep through the entire day. Which of course meant that we couldn’t sleep that night. Which of course meant that we had to nap all day the next day. So we successfully spent two entire days in Granada without leaving the hostel at all, except to get food from a nearby mercado. The hostel staff/our roommates were confused by this behavior, and began to eye us suspiciously whenever we ventured out of bed.

Granada overlookWe finally did emerge from the hostel on day three to walk around Granada’s traditional silk market, on the border of the old town’s Arab quarter. Granada is in Andalucia, the southernmost region of Spain and a hop, skip and jump away from Morocco. The African Moors dominated the region for hundreds of years; hence the Muslim influence here is prevalent. The art and architecture is Arabian in style. The street vendors sell hookahs, exotic teas and traditional Muslim attire. The silk market, which I can only assume at one point actually sold silk, has cornered the market on cheap tourist souvenirs. So if you want a Don Quixote statuette or giant poster of a matador, visit Granada’s silk market!

Granada is strikingly different from Barcelona, and it’s incredible that these two places are in the same country (random side note: if it were up to Catalonia, the region that includes Barcelona, they wouldn’t be. The Catalonian and Basque regions of Spain, each with their own distinct languages and customs, have been lobbying for independence from Spain since … well, forever).

After the silk market, we visited a teteria, or teahouse, in the Arab quarter. We’ve seen all sorts of ___erias (pastisseria, baguetteria, fruteria, ferreteria…) in Europe, but never a teteria, which happen to be ubiquitous in Granada. We spent the better part of an afternoon sipping tea and eating Arabian pastries.

gypsy caves of sacramonteWe also visited the infamous gypsy caves of Sacramonte with a tour guide from our hostel. The caves are actually small dwellings carved into the side of a mountain. They are surprisingly modern, with electricity and appliances and even a few windows. Our guide informed us that mostly hippies live in the caves now, as the gypsies have moved on to the suburbs of Granada. This of course prompted many jokes from Ben and me about “gypsy flight” and gypsies driving Dodge Stratuses.

The next day we decided it was time: today is the day we’ll visit the Alhambra! The Alhambra is the reason most people come to Granada, and one of the most celebrated attractions in all of Spain. Originally built as a fortress, the castle was occupied by numerous Moorish princes and their harems, each prince adding to the compound’s lavishness. Some author (Washington Irving?) wrote that you HAVE NOT LIVED if you haven’t seen the Alhambra. It’s true that the Alhambra is fascinating – it is incredibly well preserved and so different than most anything we’ve seen in Western Europe, with its rounded arches, intricate Arabic script, and elaborate fountain structure.

inside the alhambraIt helps your enjoyment if you can ignore certain disturbing tidbits of history such as: “this is the room in which the king kept his favorite girl (or boy) of the moment” and “this is the room in which the king slaughtered 36 princes because he suspected one of them had been intimate with his favorite.” Ben said such tidbits are the best part. I want to imagine every place we visit in its heyday as a magical fairy princess castle. To each his/her own.

But my favorite part about Granada was flamenco night! The hostel receptionist had recommended a good place to watch flamenco dancing, and on our last night in the city, we ventured forth to see the show. Having never seen flamenco, I had no preconceptions about it beyond the dancers’ attire, which I expected to be red, polka-dotted and frilly.

Upon entering the bar, we were directed towards a room near the back. The small, cave-like room had a rocky, low, curved ceiling, and a slightly raised platform at one end. We worked our way through the bibulous throng to two unoccupied stools off to one side. A few moments later, two women and a man cut through the hushed crowd and sat on the stage. The man picked up his guitar and began to play. He was the most amazing guitarist I’ve ever seen perform. He didn’t strum the guitar, but plucked. Each finger moved rapidly over the strings as if independent from his hand, but completely in harmony, like the legs of a spider scampering up a wall.

And then the woman next to him began to sing. She sang with intense passion, her whole body and face reflecting the words of her song. I could understand maybe one of every 12 words she sang, and yet found myself nearly moved to tears, or joyfully cheering, as she told her story through music.

Finally, the young senorita stood up, moved to one side of the stage and started to dance. Her feet moved rhythmically and swiftly, pounding the stage as she swished her skirt and clapped her hands. She gave a deeply emotional performance, using her fists and facial expressions to convey the mood of the dance – from woeful to fierce.

The crowd was riveted. But soon after they began, when the performers were drenched with sweat, they broke the trance, stopped and bowed. The trio exited to cries of “olé!” and roaring applause.

I am writing this from a tiny town near the coast of Spain called Arcos de la Frontera, where we’ve been for over a week. The story of how and why we ended up in this town is for another entry. The good news is: we are almost (finally!) caught up on our blog.

9 responses so far