Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mosques, Black Sand, and Sun Tans

This past weekend, 24 through 27 June 2010, a MSU friend and I went to Malaga and Córdoba, in the south of Spain. Because the buses in Spain are crazy, there is no bus directly from Madrid to Córdoba, so we had to take the midnight bus Thursday night to Malaga and then round-trip between Malaga and Córdoba. I am convinced that we will never have a normal bus ride in Spain. On the way to Malaga from Madrid, there was a guy behind us who spoke a little bit of English, would eavesdrop on our conversation and say "oh yeeaah" every time he heard one of us say "yeah," would leave every so often to smoke a cigarette in the bus bathroom, and would poke my friend's face every time she fell asleep. He also brought beer with him on the bus, which made him more annoying at first, but was a blessing in disguise because he passed out for the second part of the trip. After getting about one hour of sleep on the bus ride, we arrived in Malaga early in the morning. Since we were busing to Córdoba in the evening, we had no place to store our backpacks and walked around Malaga with all of our belongings.

We visited the house where Picasso was born, Castillo de Gibralfaro, and the Picasso museum on Friday (the cathedral was closed to visitors for a holiday). The house was small, but had some unique artifacts in it. Around the corner from the Picasso house, there is an amazing pandelería that had the best and cheapest pastries either of us have had thus far in Spain (they had discounted prices between 8:00am and 2:00pm). After the Picasso house, we climbed the pathway up the mountain with all of our gear to reach the castle at the top. The view of the Mediterranean Sea from the castle and the hike upwards was incredible. After climbing all of the walls and towers of this small castle, we made our way back down the mountainside to visit the Picasso Museum. It was really interesting to see the breadth of Picasso's artistic ability - far beyond the Cubism paintings for which he is most famous. We then walked around Malaga a bit more before returning to the bus station to catch our connecting bus to Córdoba.

From Malaga to Córdoba was probably the most normal bus ride yet, but it had so many different stops in tiny, obscure places that we had difficulty figuring out where/when we were supposed to exit. In Córdoba, we Senses & Colours Seneca Hostal, which was actually a very nice hostal. We met a couple from the United Kingdom (Belfast and London) who had been in Córdoba for a few days and showed us around the Judería neighborhood (a really cool neighborhood with lots of narrow, winding streets), the mosque, and the center of the small city, where we watched the soccer game between Spain and Chile. Córdoba was very different from Madrid and the lack of people on the streets felt like a ghost town. On Saturday morning, we visited the mosque (it is free at 8:30am). The mosque was incredible. When the Muslims were expelled from Spain, the mosque was converted into a cathedral - the Christians tore down the dome and added a Gothic belltower, chapels, and some gothic touches around the mosque's walls. However, the layout of the mosque is completely different than Spanish cathedrals; hence the proper name is the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba. However, all of the pamphlets about the mosque just labeled it as the Cathedral of Córdoba.

After spending a lot of time wandering about the mosque, we visited the Alcázar right next to the mosque with some of the most beautiful gardens so far in such a building, the arched Roman bridge behind the mosque, one of three synagogues remaining in Spain (the other two are in Toledo), and an old Jewish house that served as a museum about the Jewish history of Córdoba.

Córdoba is also in the running to be named the most historic city in Europe in 2016. They have started the campaign to get signitures already, so like a good tourist who likes history, I signed their petition. The people working the table outside the Alcázar were so excited that I had signed it (and spoke in Spanish with them) that they just kept trying to give me free stuff from their booth. I turned down the flyers, but I now have buttons, a pen, and some cool postcards. Finally, we had to catch our bus back to Malaga.

In keeping with the tradition of crazy bus rides, there was a group of guys in the back of the bus who kept speaking very loudly. One kept laughing like a hyena. Turns out, they ended up staying at our hostal (Residencia Malaga Backpackers). Pretty much the only thing going for this hostal compared to all of the others we have stayed at so far is that it is close to the beach. We also learned the lesson that if one stays in a hostal with good showers and bathrooms, one should take advantage of this and use them. This part of Malaga was also not a place to be walking around at night, even with other people. Nothing is open at night and there are no people around. Additionally, Malaga is like the rest of Spain and has a chronic lack of well-placed street signs. However, right on the beach close to our hostal is this amazing Italian restaurant called Pizza Pino's. They had very good, cheap food, so we went there twice. The manager/owner loved us and kept giving us free drinks each time. On Sunday when we went back for lunch, he asked us if we were coming back that evening and we felt very bad that we had to return to Madrid. After spending all day Sunday on the beach in Malaga (the Malaga beaches are famous for their black sand - not caused by oil spills) with our SPF 50 sunscreen, we caught the bus back to Madrid.

The story would almost be over, save for the last quirk of the bus adventure. Because the bus ride back was about eight hours, there were two in-bus films shown. The first one was a dubbed over version of The In-Laws, with Michael Douglas. The second film, Imagining Argentina, was with Antonio Banderas and was about the disappearances in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. It was a very good, but extremely graphic film, making my friend and me question the judgment involved in selecting this movie for the bus ride. The English trailer is below; we watched the film dubbed over in Spanish. The good thing about Antonio Banderas is that he does his own dubbing and so it is easier to watch than listening to another actor's voice.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Una Introducción de Guaraní

Part of the program that I am doing in Spain involves assisting an office that works with Latin American immigrants, especially Paraguayan immigrants. In Paraguay, there are two official languages: Español and Guaraní. Both are used with equal frequency by Paraguayans as well as in the areas bordering Paraguay (such as the border between Paraguay and Brazil). These are a few of the Guaraní phrases that colleagues have taught me:

Che iera (name) - Me llamo (name) - My name is... - اسم من ـــــ است

Mba eichapa? - ¿Cómo estás? - How are you? - حالت چطوره؟

Che sogue - No tengo dinero - I do not have any money - من پول ندارم

Akese - Quiero dormir - I want to sleep - من می خواهم بخوابم
Ajama (pronounced "Ahama") - Adios/ya me voy - Bye! - خدا حافظ

Monday, June 21, 2010

Surprise! A Weekend in Madrid

So, since my friends decided to go to Paris for the weekend but I chose to postpone a French vacation, I had the weekend mostly to myself to just wander around and explore Madrid. It was pretty low-key but still a nice break.

On Friday, June 18, I enjoyed one rare morning where I could sleep in. Since I have had a tremendous craving for good rice Persian style, I found one of three Persian restaurants in Madrid, Tehran Restaurant. It was a little pricey for my taste (chelo kebab kubideh being the cheapest full dish, at 17 euro), but the food was good and I don't think I have been to a restaurant that uses as much saffron in the rice as they did. Since it was the middle of the day when most people are still working, the restaurant was empty and I had the chance to speak (in a crazy mixture of Spanish and Farsi) to the girl about my age working there. She said the restaurant has been open for 26 years but that since there are almost zero Persian people in Madrid, it is mostly visited by Latinos. It was funny because when she found out that I was from the United States, she immediately thought that I was from Los Angeles (aka Tehrangeles), but no, sorry to disappoint, ha ha ha.

After I got my Persian food fix, a friend and I met up to visit the inside of Palacio Real and Templo Debod. The Royal Palace was huge and as ornate as it was, we understood why the current king would choose to live elsewhere, retaining the palace for state functions only. There were two normal rooms in the whole palace - the television room and the billiards room. The rest were more or less like the dressing chambers of the king - covered in ornate (bordering on gaudy) porcelain artwork. Still, it was pretty cool to see and in one of the rooms, there were two violins, one viola, and a violincello by Stradivarius, considered to be among his best works. The armory was cool, too. In the pharmacy section of the palace, there was a room filled with every type of medical herb or solution possible, each in its own jar. Guess this was not good enough for the king though, because he commissioned brand new, blown glass jars with the royal seal on them, displayed in the next room over.

From Palacio Real, we wandered over to Plaza de España to go to Templo Debod. Templo Debod is a temple built in the 2nd century BC and was a gift to Spain in the 1960s from the Egyptian government, thanking Spain for the work its archaeologists did to help save ancient artifacts from the Aswan floodwaters. Of the original three entryways, the temple currently only has two. The temple was free and the inside is open during the day. Pictures are allowed inside and in the main chamber of the temple, you can still see the original hieroglyphics carvings, which were pretty sweet. The temple also has some small crawlspaces off of the main chambers that were said to have held offerings for sacrifices and sacred artifacts. There was nothing closing it off and I could definitely fit easily inside, so next time.... The temple is also open on the second level, where there is a bit more information, an altar, and a map situating the temple. Since we knew it was illuminated at night, we returned later to take some pictures and to see a photography slideshow of Madrid in the park right next to the temple. From behind the temple, it is possible to see the Royal Palace lit up at night, as well.

On Saturday, having a lot more time to myself, I maxed out my Flickr uploads again and then went off to Metro Príncipe Pío because they used to have España jerseys for cheap prices. Instead, I found a really nice Ronaldo jersey for Real Madrid (12 euro). Right now, Ronaldo is playing in the World Cup for Portugual so wearing his number would be supporting them, so I might buy this at some point if I cannot find one of Garay (who is actually playing for Argentina right now). After browsing around the huge shopping center here, I got back on the metro to explore Casa de Campo. Casa de Campo used to be part of the royal hunting fields but is now a park five times the size of New York City's Central Park. I wandered around a little bit and then made my way over to the lake there. After walking around the lake, I returned to the city and wandered around Paseo del Prado, where a lot of the famous museums are. However, as they were closing, I kept walking and found the Glass Gallery. This used to be part of Palacio Buen Retiro, but is now part of the post office and is a plaza covered by a glass ceiling. It echos a lot inside and if you sneeze, it sounds like a firecracker.

On Sunday, June 20, the center that I work with organized a trip to Álaca de Hernanes to visit the Universidad de Carlos II (the oldest university in Spain, built in 1499) and the house Miguel Cervantes was born in. It was a nice little town and very easy to get to from Madrid (public bus number 233, roundtrip ticket was 5.70 euro). There was a group of about eight that went and it was nice to practice Spanish again. Unfortunately, the weekend went by too quickly and back to the grind in Madrid. Coming up, my friend and I will be returning to the south of Spain to visit Malaga and Cordoba.

Vamos al Sur: Granada y Sevilla

For the weekend of June 11 through 13, three other Americans and I decided to take a venture down to the south of Spain to see Granada and Sevilla. Since we are all poor college students, we take the bus everywhere (screw RENFE), and the cheapest company that we have found is ALSA. To save money, we took the midnight bus from Madrid to Granada (an 8 hour ride, with one rest stop) and we had the craziest driver ever. As we board the bus, there is a passenger in the seat in front of me putting his small briefcase in the overhead area when the bus driver yells at him, saying "Don't put that up there! It will fall down and kill someone!" So, following the rules, I put my backpack underneath the seat in front of me when the driver yells at me for placing my backpack there, saying that it is against the rules; he instructs me to place it above the seats. I go to put it above the seat, saying "But you said it would kill someone." He glares at me as I sit down and place my feet on the footrests. This crazy driver then yells at me again, saying that it is illegal to put your feet on the footrests. I looked at him, completely baffled about the rules he enforces on his bus, when some random lady a couple seats back tries to translate in broken English what the driver said about the backpack rule. I explained to her that, thank you but I understood what he said perfectly (it just didn't make sense) but that this time he was yelling at me because I put my feet on the footrest. I think I left her just as confused about the rules of the bus as I was. Our midnight bus finally takes off and the bus driver cranks on a radio station with the most random music ever - first, Michael Jackson's "We Are the World" with Bob Dylan's voice cracking the middle of the song, then "Vogue" by Madonna, then some random song from the 1990s. It was quite the ride.

Upon arriving in Granada, we found our hostal (White Nest - I would highly recommend it); from the porch area across from our room, we could see La Alhambra lit up at night. Since our tickets turned out to be for the afternoon portion and not the morning opening, we toured the rest of the city and visited the magnificent cathedral (beautiful, with the sole exception of the gold sculpture of the conquistador and his horse trampling an African...). After the cathedral, we returned to La Alhambra and spent the next five hours climbing and exploring every single bit of La Alhambra and General Life (ticket was 13 euro, but it was worth every bit). The Palacios Nazaríes were amazingly ornate and you could literally walk through the foundations of old houses and factories before the palace was built. Granada is also surrounded by mountains and the towers of the Alhambra offer incredible vantage points of the city and surrounding countryside. We returned to the hostal to relax for a bit before going out for tapas at a restaurant close to our hostal in Plaza Nueva (Castañeda) - best Sangria so far. After dinner, we went back through the Arab neighborhood Albaicín near our hostal to find la Iglesia de San Nicolás, an incredible vantage point to see all of La Alhambra lit up at night.

The next morning, we woke up to catch an early bus (with a surprisingly normal driver) to head to Sevilla. After checking into our hostal (Sevilla Inn Backpackers - another recommendation, literally a block from Alcázar and the Cathedral (where Cristóbal Colón is said to be buried). Unfortunately, we did not check the times on the church and visited the Alcázar first; when we finished with Alcázar and the gardens, the church had closed. From there, we wandered to the river to see the Torre de Oro (Tower of Gold) and the Museo de Torros (Bullfighting Museum). The bullfighting ring in Sevilla is 240 years old and has bullfights every Sunday. In its entire history, only 3 people have died (only one matador/torreo, but probably lots of bulls). The one matador that died at the ring was gored by a bull whose head hangs on a wall by a huge painting of the torreo. Since the bull killed the torreo, the bull's mother was also killed and her head hangs near her son's. No torreos have been killed at the ring since.

Since there was no affordable way to travel from Sevilla to Madrid, we had to wake up early in the morning to go back to Granada to catch the bus from there back home. When we got to the bus stop, we were all excited to find a McDonalds nearby(I hate fast food, but we needed something cheap and I was getting tired of my American friends dragging me to four different Italian restaurants in two days). We gave ourselves a few hours in between buses to visit the Arab stores near Plaza Nueva, where we found some really cool things. Unfortunately, the vendors were probably used to tourists and did not go for the whole bargaining thing, despite some of them thinking I understood Arabic from a few "Ahlan wasahlan"s. No pasa nada, the prices were good anyway. After spending an hour or so strolling around, we had to taxi back to the bus station to return home. All in all, a great trip.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Adventures in Segovia

My favorite day-trip away from Madrid thus far has been Segovia (June 5, 2010). The bus ride there from Madrid was pretty cheap and short. The bus stop is about one block away from the Roman aqueduct. The aqueduct is incredible - and still runs right through the center of the modern city for nearly a mile. We walked the entire length twice and climbed up to the top for a better vantage point of the aqueduct, city, and the mountains. After visiting the aqueduct, we found the incredible cathedral of Segovia.

From the cathedral, we visited the Alcázar of Segovia. After visiting quite a few alcázars and wondering why they are all called the same thing, we learned that an Alcázar is an architectural style (specifically, a fortified palace). The Segovia Alcázar is by far my favorite that we have been to (the Toledo one would have been just as awesome, I'm sure, but it is closed for six years because of renovations and a museum being installed inside it). It is gigantic and for a couple euro extra, you can climb the tower of Juan II, which used to contain dungeons. If you can make it up the narrow, steep spiral staircase, the view from the top of the windy tower is magnificent. We spent a lot of time at the top of the tower where I came to the conclusion that it would have been really hard to be a good guard because the view from the tower is so beautiful. You can also venture down into the basement of the Alcázar, where you can see the foundations of a previous Roman or medieval castle on top of which the Alcázar was built.After Alcázar, we wandered around Segovia and eventually made our way outside of the city to its northern edge. We climbed some hills and arrived at the Monestario del Parral, my favorite part of the entire trip. The area surrounding the monastery (still in use by monks from the southern order of Guadalupe - the inside is designed with red and white, the colors of the order) was one of the most peaceful places I have been. The monastery is named for the virgin Maria del Parral, who helped a nobleman from Segovia win a duel and he promised to build her the church, which was commissioned six years later. There used to be a school in the monastery as well, but it fell. From the surrounding hills, the entire Alcázar is visible, as is the belltower of Iglesia de Vera Cruz. In between the monastery and the tiny Vera Cruz church, there are a few boulders; carved into one of these boulders on the path, we found a small flower. If you stand in the center of the Vera Cruz church with the entrances unobstructed and talk, your voice is amplified like a microphone.

From the hills and Vera Cruz church, we wandered back across the hills to the monastery to see if it was open for visitors. It is pretty unmarked but we found a bell and were lucky enough to get a free, private tour of the monastery and the connected church. The facade of the church is unfinished because after Enrique IV died, there was not enough money to continue the detailed stonework on the front. Ironically, they made time to place the king's royal seal at the top before the rest was finished (seal is supposed to be the last thing added). When entering the church, there is hardly any light but as one approaches the altar, there is more and more light until the altar is fully illuminated (it is supposed to symbolize a spiritual journey). Around the top of the centerpiece of the church are statues of the 12 disciples. On either side of the centerpiece, there are dark grey tapestries. Traditionally, they were placed over the golden centerpiece during Semana Santa (Easter Week/Holy Week) because the soul is in mourning. On Easter Day, the tapestries are one again placed on the side to symbolize the salvation. However, this tradition is no longer continued. On the right side of the centerpiece, there is original rose-pink painting, which is very rare for that type of architectural style.

It was a full day of walking and climbing hills (although thankfully not as many hills and inclines as Toledo), but it was by far one of the coolest, prettiest places that I have been to so far in Spain. :)

Valencia Vacation

A lil while back (May 28, 2010), my friend and I took a day trip to Valencia for a mini vacation on the coast of the Mediterranean. Getting there was quite interesting, as the Madrid metro is slower in the morning and my friend had to come from the polar opposite end of town. I was able to keep talking to the bus driver so that we were able to catch our bus at the last minute. It's a good thing we did too, because one couple tried to steal our seats on the bus (this was actually a blessing in disguise because now the bus driver could direct his frustration at them and not us, the late American tourists).

The four hour bus trip took us through the mountains and some incredible scenery until arriving at our destination. Getting to the beach was interesting, seeing as street signs are used even less in Valencia than in Madrid and when they are visible, they are in Catalan. The unmarked, unplanned metro took some navigation skills as well, but it was cool to see that it took us above ground for most of the trip (making me question why anyone would actually purchase a metro pass in Valencia). Growing up near the Great Lakes, as much as I loved the Mediterranean Sea, fresh water is so much cooler than salt water. We spent most of the day swimming in the sea and chilling on the beach. One day is far too short for Valencia, a city that boasts Europe's largest aquarium, an amazing museum complex, and an incredible history. Basically, this means that I will need to return at some point over the summer.

After the beach, we wandered back through the metro and toward the center of the city. While we only had time to see the rooftops of some of the main attractions, we were able to climb up through an old gate to the city. The view of the city was more and more amazing with each level upward. Finally, we had to return to the bus to get back to Madrid, but I will definitely be back before the summer is up.

And it appears that this whole trilingual blog idea is failing miserably. In my defense, it is pretty hard to type in Farsi on a computer that refuses to connect the letters and has a screen smaller than an iPad. Also, I forgot my dictionary (which the parents forgot to mail) and there literally are no good online Farsi/English dictionaries. I really have no excuse for slacking off on the Spanish translations, aside from that it takes a while. I will try to update more regularly as well. Lo siento.

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