Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cadiz, Madrid, Manitoba

Jill and I spent almost 3 days in Cadiz. When we arrived on day one we walked the coastal route. Cadiz city is a peninsula so is almost completely surrounded by water. As it was a major trading port and where many ships set sail, jealouse nations attempted to plunder it several times. This means that today visitors can walk the rampart route around the town where lookout towers and heavy stone walls would protect against invaders. The old town is the most densely populated city in Spain. Streets so narrow that it's a wonder any car can fit down them. A maze of pedestrianized streets. And dozens of squares where people who live in the apartments around come to walk their dogs, sit on park benches, eat, drink, chat, children play in the squares and the streets. Elderly people walk by holding arms while walking little dogs that the kids in the street stop to pet. When you get rid of big houses, back yards and 2 car garages, it's amazing the kind of community that you get in return. I can't imagine anyone feeling lonely in this city. Solitude would be found in people's homes, behind closed shutters and in rooms off of the main squares. But community is found on every street, in every square, and every cafe nearby,.

Our second day in Cadiz was bright and sunny so we took advantage to take the ferry (one euro) over to a little town across the bay called El Puerto de Santa Maria. This is one of the main towns in what is called the "Sherry triangle". Like Parma ham and Champagne, Sherry wines can only be called such if they are aged within the specific Sherry triangle. An area between Jerez de la frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and SanlĂșcar de Barrameda. The white grapes grown for the sherry can be grown outside of this area, but for the fortified wine to be called Sherry, it must be made (pressed and aged) within this area. Apparently it's the proximity of the sea while aging the sherry in oak barrels that gives it a particular taste.

So off Jill and I went on a tour of a Sherry bodega in town. There, our lovely guide gave us a splendid tour in English where we learned everything that we ever wanted to know about sherry. Sherry is made from white wine mixes with distilled grape liquor, thus is a fortified wine. Sherry is aged in barrels that are stacked no less than 3 high. As aged sherry is removed from the bottom row for bottling and sale, the more mature sherry from the middle row is used to refill the bottom row, and then the top less mature sherry from the top row is used to refill what was taken out of the middle row. Fresh unaged fortified wine is added to the top to make up the volume difference and then the workers at the bodega wait for the sherry to age before starting the process all over again. This is why bottle of sherry never have a year written on them. As only 20% of a barrel is emptied at a time, it is the sherries of many different years that mix in final barrel before bottling, making the dating of the wine impossible.
There are different kinds of Sherry, from a dry fino (yuck) to the very sweet pedro ximinez which is distilled from dried grapes, nearly of raisin consistency making it a syrupy sweet drink with prune and fig tastes. Not to my liking but the tour was facinating. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town before taking the ferry back to Cadiz and having supper at our favourite restaurant. The translation of the restaurant's name would be "The fat lady makes you eat" and Jill and I obsessed over it. A wide variety of tapas for 2 euros each, with portions meaning that 2-3 tapas made a good meal. We were in heaven as we could finally taste a wide variety of Spanish dishes without the big fear of ordering brains by mistake. We basically ate there for every meal while we were in Cadiz.
Good thing that we had taken advantage of the great weather for our boat ride as our last day in Cadiz was pelting rain all day long. We still braved the weather and headed out to see the local Saturday market (very cool), and visit the crumbling cathedral, and its open air bell tower (great views of the town, and an excavated roman site. As the weather was not supposed to take a turn for the better we decided to book out of town on Sunday, on to Madrid.

I'm usually not a fan of big cities. When traveling I hate to admit it, but I often give most large cities a miss or a measly 1-2 days on my way into or out of a country. Madrid made me rethink my opinion of big cities. With 4 million people (6 if you count the outlying towns) Madrid is buzzing. It had a cheap, efficient and coprehensible metro system. Its downtown is walkable. Old buildings abound and are cherished but are lived in, used as apartments, restaurants, grocery stores. The city has spent a lot of money subsidizing tours meaning that Jill and I got 2 awesome historical guided tours(2 hours each) of the downtown with highly trained historians for the grand price of 3.5 euros each. The prado museum is free after 6 pm. There is a police presence that is heavy enough to be comforting,(you could ask them directions) but not so heavy as to be worrying. The food was affordable and delicious, there are over a hundred squares in the city where residents hang out, AND the 2 main parks take up almost one THOUSAND acres of prime real estate. Meaning that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy some greenspace in a densely populated city. Very cool, very livable, very friendly.

In our time there Jill and I took 2 walking tours, went to the prado museum, another fine arts museum whose name I forget, wandered the streets, went through the royal palace, visited the squares, rode around on a tourist bus snapping photos of the amazing buildings, and generally had a bang up time.

On to our 19 hours of travel back to Manitoba, and now here I am. With one week at home before Marc and I head off to South America. And all I have to do in that time is meet with 3 people, do my January month end, do my year end, get my photos on a disk to send to Monica, stop my mail, take the insurance of my car, pack the cats off to the sitters, contact some may be a busy week home. Stay tuned for Chile and Argentina in about 10 days!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Almost done in Spain, no me digas...

Jill and I arrived in Cadiz this morning after a tearful goodby to our good friend Monica in Cordoba. It had to be done. She has a 2 year old and a 4 year old and a now very tired and tattered husband waiting for her back home in Australia. So off Monica went to Madrid as Jill and I made our way to the coast. Cadiz.

Back to the beginning though. After our most awesome adventures in Granada we bussed our way to Cordoba and our new shoe box sized accomodation. Very clean, very quiet, but truly tiny. One of us had to be sitting down on a bed if someone else wanted to be moving around the room a little. After our first task oriented evening (laundry, internet, finding food, finding accomodation for Jill and I in Cadiz) we were ready to spend a day as tourists in Cordoba. We were up nice and early for our regular cafe con leche and to the Mezquina. The old Cathedral/Mosque/church. The Moorish rulers who took over Andalucia in the 700´s built this huge Mosque (its final size being big enough to hold over 40000 worshipers at one time) on an old Church site. The mosque (La Mezquina) has very unique archetecture with hundreds of double striped arches supported on thin marble columns holding up a carved wooden ceiling. We took advantage of the very awesome audio guide to learn everything there is to know about the building...then of course promptly forgot it.
In the middle of the Mosque is a huge catholic cathedral. When the Christians took over Andelucia in the 1200´s, the rulers took over the Mosque, had it blessed as a church and carried on converting and building to turn it into a Cathedral. Very strange.

On we went to wander through old royal baths, the twisty streets of the Jewish quarter, and for a walk over the old Roman bridge. Getting an idea of the centuries and variety of history here? Everyone once ruled Andelucia. And everyone left their mark. North african archetecture and cuisine meets roman aqueducts and mosaic, meets glitzy catholic virgin Marys´ meets jewish quarters with menoras. And each ruling empire lasted for enough centuries to leave an indellible mark on the area. Facinating.

Also facinating is my knowledge of/lack of knowledge of Spanish. I have managed to get us on the right busses, trains, booked hotels, had casual chats with people, rented a car, asked for directions...but menus still seem to ellude me. We so far have gotten
Fried Anchovies when we thought we were getting fried zucchini
A huge platter sized portion when we thought we were getting a small plate of eggplant
The list goes on
I´m pretty good at getting some of the main ingredients of a dish correct, but one wrong word and you end up getting something very different than you would expect.
So far Spanish food has been tasty but plain. Jill has commented on its lack of presence. You can spot Italian food, Indian cuisine, Thai dishes from a mile away, but Spanish meals tend to be more subtle. The ingredients seem to be more Spanish than anything. Locally made cured hams and sausages and cheeses. Chickpeas and broad beans are used more than we do in Canada. Cafe con leche and Churros for breakfast are a staple not found elsewhere. The hours of eating are also unique. Shops open at 10:30, and close from 2 until 5 pm for siesta, during which main meals are eaten between 2 and 3 pm. This is when restaurants offer a set menu that offers both good value and some more interesting choices that we wouldn´t otherwise try. After a nap, people go out for a stroll or a shop and then head out for a light something at around 9pm. I really don´t know when anyone works.

So Jill and I are now in Cadiz. We spend the afternoon strolling the streets and will be spending the next 3 days here checking out the coast and taking ferries to nearby towns.

Take Care

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Groovy Granada

Ok, it´s confession time. My last blog entry was almost entirly copy and pasted from my travel partner Jill´s email that she sent home. I couldn´t help it, I got lazy and she had time on the train to write up her journal on her snazzy iphone. But I digress.

From rainy and cool Seville we arrived via train to the most sunny and wonderful Granada. Our rental apartment was bordering on posh, our neighbourhood incredibly walkable, and the weather was great. What more could we ask for. We arrived in town at that horrible limbo hour of 3 pm, so by the time that we got into our aparment and got our bearing it was 4 pm, everything was closed and we were starving. No shops are open from 2 until 5'5:30 pm while the populace is snoozing off their big 2 pm lunch. We toodled around the city, gawking at the graffiti filled neighbourhood that our apartment was in, with no one around, wondering if maybe we were in a bad neighbourhood. At 5;30 though, all of the graffiti covered security doorways rolled up to reveal posh shops and the streets filled with well dressed Granadans holding onto the hands of their impeccably dressed children shopping the January Sales. The streets filled up with people within 20 minutes making the place a bussling mass. Very cool.

As we had previously experienced the dismal shut down of a city on a Sunday, we booked our tickets for the Alhambra to fill in the Sunday. That meant that we got to wander the old arabic streets of Granada. We looked through the shops, had tea and sweets at a tea-hooka shop, and meandered up the winding hills to a restaurant with a view of the alhambra. A very nice relaxing afternoon watching the sun play over the old palace. We dawdled our way back home before heading out to experience the free tapas that Granada is famous for. You buy a drink for about 1.5 euros, and you get a tasty hot snack to go with it. A great system but I have no idea how bar owners make a living with all of the free food going around. Beer must be cheeper that I thought.

Sunday we were up bright and early to trek up the Alhambra. I had been in Granada about 7 years previously and had visited the Alhambra, but forgot just how beautiful it is. An old moorish walled city containing military grounds, palaces, and gardens. We spent 5 hours wandering the grounds. After all of our pavement pounding we headed off to a night time arabic hammam. We got to hang out in warm pools and each got a 15 minute massage. Very nice and relaxing, but we left early, there is only so much time that one can spend in a pool of water before you get too wrinkly. Plus we had to get to bed early, we had grand plans for Monday.

Despite not having driven a standard for over 10 years and not having a proper map, we rented a car and Monica drove us out to the coast for the day. We were headed towards Malaga way near the coast. On the way we passed olive groves, beautiful counrtyside, small farms, one of which included an older man in a hat plowing his small field with a donkey and hand held plow. I guess the small plots still make this a viable method. Who knew.
We headed for the Caves of Nerja. The caves were found by some boys in the 1950s and are now a unesco world heritage site. Very cool. When we were finished spelunking, we headed to the town of Nerja to check out the Sea, blue water, white buildings, and more retired english people that you could shake a stick at. We got to enjoy a 20 degree sunny day, and I dipped my feet in the ocean before we headed up to the pretty white town of Friglliani. A beautiful day of walking around, soaking in the weather and for me, generally enjoying the fact that it was Monica, not I who was driving. On the way home we were stuck in a big traffic backlog. At the front of the back up were some national guards holding up traffic. They had big machine guns, but there was no car accident that we could see. Monica did spot a dead cat on the road so we began speculating whether the cat was an internationally wanted criminal recently gunned down by the guard. It was the only explination that seemed to make sence.

Today we headed out nice and early to get to Cordoba before the dreaded 3pm shut down. Alas the travel gods were not with us and our bus broke down, meaning that despite our best efforts, we still arrived at Cordoba in limbo hour. Ah well, time to get the next set of accomadation booked and laundry done. Tomorrow, we´ll see the mezquina, then we say goodby to monica who has to return to her children in Australia, and Jill and I will continue on to Cadiz.

Take Care everyone!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On to Granada

On the train currently between Seville & Granada. It's
a nice bright day and we are passing wet green fields and olive tree
groves with some mountains in the distance.
We finally had the weather we were hoping for in Seville yesterday.

But I'll jump back to day 4 to fill in the gap. Another rainy one but
at least it wasn't cold. We decided to forge ahead with our plans and
caught a bus out of town to Santiponce to see the Roman ruins of
Italica. Loads of old mosaic floors, broad streets and different
floorplans have been excavated here - as well as a massive collosseum.
It really was miserable though - so wet and windy, my umbrella got all
bent out of shape and we were soaked. Bused it back to Seville,
changed to dry clothes and comforted ourselves with a meal at our
corner restaurant. The rest of the day we just kind of hunkered down
with books and popped out for a tapas snack before bed. I'll just
explain how the Sevillian schedule operates - it's very weird. People
sleep in and have bread or jamon sandwiches for breakfast. Then lunch
- the main meal of the day is eaten between 2 & 4pm. Dinner consists
of a smaller tapas meal between 9 & 11pm. Shops are open 10-2 then
again at 5-8:30ish. We are finally getting the hang of this :)

Day 5 was a drizzler again. We wandered around town and checked out
shops. Headed back to apartment for 3 as Angel invited us to eat with
him and his 12yr old daughter Margherita. He cooked up a fabulous
multi course meal with loads of fresh veg - very tasty. He also
showed us his roof garden, such a warm and generous man. Even though
our lodging here was a bit less clean than we would have liked, we are
glad we stayed here to have met him. That evening we met up wih a mob
of people from It was neat to talk to new
people, at least the few that spoke English. Forgot to mention that
Spain doesn't have any smoking bans so Everywhere indoors reeks, and
therefore so do we a lot of the time. Very hard to get used to - seems
like everyone smokes.

Day 6 we woke up to glorious sunshine and warmth. Spent the morning
wandering different neighbourhoods on bike and foot, shopping, having
coffees, etc. Back home for last La Madraza meal and a rest. Then out
for a bike ride more shopping and sightseeing until 9pm flamenco show - it was
fabulous. After show went to a flamenco bar where were heard more
gritty music and saw another dancer. Too smoky here so we didn't last
long! Back home for a snack and bed.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Espana Frio

Jill and I arrived in madrid on Friday to learn that our luggage had stayed in Paris. We got to lament this loss for the next 2 hours as we waited for our friend Monica who was flying in from Australia to meet us in Spain. We all reunited without a hitch, before taking the metro to the train station and heading off on the 2.5 hour train ride to Seville and our rental apartment. Our lovely landlord showed us around our very basic lodgings before we turned in for the night.

Saturday morning our landlord brought us morning coffee and showed us around the neighbourhood, where to buy groceries, where to get a good coffee, where the market was etc. All very handy iformation, including that there was a football (soccer) game going on that evening. Off we went to buy tickets, then learned how to use the city bicycle system. Once the system has your credit card number, you can ´rent´ bikes from a multitude of bike parking areas. the rental is free for the first half hour and 50 euro cents for every half hour thereafter. A great system. You grab a bike, to your destination and hook it back up. The system recognizes your user number, it recognizes which bike you take, and when you bring it back and charges you accordingly. Very handy.
We had a beautiful day of bike riding, drinking beer and having a picnic in the park before heading out to our very first ever European football game. The crowds were amazing to watch with a full section of the stadium singing for the WHOLE game. they had a big drum that kept the beat as they sang. Very fun.

In grand contrast to our glorious Saturday, Sunday was COLD 3 degrees, and raining for the full day. Because everything closes on Sunday this made the day doubly worse as we had no shops to duck into to warm up. We got a chance to tour the bullring and learn about the history of bullfighting in Spain. Apparantly it started as a military training exercise where 6 bulls were chucked into a ring with soldiers who were training. People started watching these training exercises, then formal rules were created and voila, the art of bullfighting was born. I was more than happy to tour the facility and learn about the history, but would never have the inclination to actually see the fight. We learned that top matadores are paid up to 180 000 euros per fight. but out of this pay they must hire doctors, have insurance, pay for the bull, pay for their horses, pay for their costumes, pay for their assistants etc. So though it may be a lucrative job, it does have some high overhead. Seville has 40 bullfights per season, each bullfight has matadores fighting a total of 6 bulls. The meat from the bulls is sold at a high price in the market after each fight. Though I´m not keen on the idea of bullfighting, I´m glad to hear that the meat doesn´t go to waste.

Monday morning had us up and out to visit the Alcazar. This royal palace was built by a series of both christian and Moorish rulers over the span of several hundred years. There is moorish stucco and tile work, with moroccan looking doorways, acres of gardens, and spanish buildings and rooms with coffered ceilings, yellow and blue tile and huge tapistries. The whole place took us well over 3 hours to meander through. I can´t wait to see the Alhambra in Granada when we get there. I had seen both the Alcazar and the Alhambra on a previous trip about 7 years ago, and am finding it very interesting to see everything again. It´s amazing how little I remember!

Tuesday was another pouring rain day that we braved to take a bus to the roman ruins town of Italica. We got to spend several hours in the rain touring the site, including baths, preserved mosaic tile works and an amphetheatre. All very cool.
Today we are looking forward to meeting up with some local people for Tapas. The Seville couch surfing group has invited us out to their meeting, should be a great time. then only one more day of wandering the beautiful streets of Seville before we catch a train on Friday for Granada. Hopefully the weather changes for the better.

Take Care
Stay Warm