Random Stuff on Spain

Sunday, September 27, 2009

More short thoughts, because I can’t be bothered to try and string this all together into something more coherent.

- Almost as soon as I’d crossed into Spain things seemed a but more untamed than in France. It was a bit like moving from England to Scotland. Maybe the sun is stronger? Or bigger? It feels like the light is different. And the landscape is just more… Spanish. It’s brown and scrubby, and the hillsides are covered in trees planted in straight lines. Olive trees maybe?

Taken on the run, on the hillside past Alhambra, with my cell phone camera

- Trains are a dirty way to enter a city – it's all back lots and industrial buildings and stray dogs and garbage and laundry and it's the same everywhere. It’s not pretty.

- Trains in Spain, at least the ones I’ve been on, require an airplane-like check-in system, complete with baggage x-ray. However, the x-ray seems to be entirely for show. I’ve sent the Aeronaut through two x-rays now, complete with small folding scissors and large exacto knife, and have received nary a second glance from the eagle-eyed inspectors.

- Café Bom Bom! It may be my new favourite thing. It’s sweetened condensed milk topped with a shot of espresso. It’s kind of like Vietnamese iced coffee without the ice. YUM.

Cafe Bom Bom!

- As I suspected, the language is frustrating. My French is certainly not brilliant, but I was totally functional in France. In Spain I’m once again reduced to grunting and pointing. I went for breakfast after I first arrived in Barcelona and the waiter said something that required me to respond in the affirmative. Here’s what I said: "Oui… Yeah… Si... Oh God..." It’s a bit depressing to realize that this is what it’s going to be like for the foreseeable future.

- Also, the whole “Castillian lisp” thing sounds really funny. I know it’s not really a lisp – that’s just how things are properly pronounced in these parts. As one website I read pointed out: not recognizing the difference would be like expecting “sing” and “thing” to have the same meaning in English. But I still find it odd to ask for “una therveza”.* And it’s tricky to remember when to replace the “s” sound with the “th” sound and when not to. For instance “gracias” is pronounced “grathias” not “grathiath” or “grasias”. It’s only Cs that get replaced, not Ss or Zs. And not all Cs. Weird and frustrating.

- La Rambla in Barcelona has more than its fair share of living statues, including, at various times: 2 different headless men, a gorilla, a man covered in artificial flowers, an all-brown soldier sitting on an ammo box, a guy with wings, and a woman in a sparkly sequined dress. I happen to believe that the “living statue” is pretty far down the ladder of artistic expression (somewhere alongside balloon folding and bongos), but for if you’re going to do it, then there is one simple rule you need to follow: DON’T MOVE. Really. If you’re not standing stock still, then you’re just somebody dressed strangely begging for money. Have some professional pride.

- I didn’t mention it in my posts about Barcelona, but the festivities surrounding La Mercè didn’t only start on the day of the parades and Castellars. For the whole week leading up to the big day there were stages being set up in almost every square I walked through, and there were concerts at night. On Day 101, as I made my way home from kayaking, I happened on the tail end of a very cool video show. They were doing large-scale projection on the facade of a building in Place Jaume, and it was really well done. The pictures don’t to it justice, but here’s a still shot:

Video Projection

And a VERY short video that shows the Big Finale

(I told you it was short...)

- I did get in to Alhambra at night, just as Rick Steves promised. In fact, I saw everything except the famous Palacios Nazaries during the afternoon and returned to see the palace at the (to me) ungodly hour of 10:30pm, when the rest of Spain was just starting to think about having dinner. It was interesting being at Alhambra at night, and a bit strange. It’s a long walk up the hill in the dark, and there were almost no people around, so it was a bit nervous-making. This meant I was surprised to see how many people were already in line for tickets when I got there.** There were actually loads of people waiting to get in to the palace, and it was a bit of a crush moving through all the rooms. I can’t imagine what it must be like during peak daylight hours. Still it was quite nice, and a change of pace to see a sight like that in the dark. My Rick Steve guidebook had a nice blow-by-blow description of each room; my favourite was the Grand Hall of the Ambassadors, where the sultans*** used to sit. This was was also the room, years later, where Columbus made his pitch to Queen Isabel for a few ships to go check out the Orient.

It was hard getting decent pictures in the dim lighting, but here’s a bit of the palace. (There are lots more daylight pics of other Alhambra sights at Flickr.)

- I finally dipped my toe in the waters of tapas in Granada which is, as the LP points out “one of the last bastions of that fantastic practice of free tapas with every drink.” And it was true! I went into a little bar advertising free tapas and got a small beer and it came with a toasted ham and cheese on a bun and some fries with Spanish sort of ketchup and spicy mayo. All that for €2.00! (That’s quite a lot more food than most tapas). The next round, there was more free tapas but something different. Impressively, the guy doing the food was able to keep track of what round everyone in the bar was on. Odd numbered rounds came with fries, even numbered rounds came with olives. (Round 1: Toasted ham and cheese sandwiches with chips, Round 2: tiny hamburgers with olives, Round 3: open-faced tuna and spicy mayo with fries.) Better still, both nights I went to this place I met friendly English-speaking people that I ended up chatting with for ages! The first night it was Karen – a Spaniard who was nearing the end of a 3 month trip and was happy to dust off her Edinburgh-learned English to help me figure out the whole free tapas thing. The second night I met Nick and Simon, two Londoners who visit Granada every year. Yay for free tapas!

A plate of olives I got with my beer in Granada. And notice the brand of beer…

- Granada has a large contingent of Roma (gypsy) women with a very particular modus operandi. They stand with a bunch of sprigs of rosemary and press one on passing tourists. As Rick Steves says: “The twig is free… and then they grab you by your hand and read your fortune for a tip. Coins are bad luck, so the minimum they accept is €5. Don’t make eye contact, don’t accept a spring, and say firmly but politely, “No, graçias.”. They were aggressive, and I found the best tactic was to keep my hands in my pockets and my head down.

A rosemary lady in the square outside the Royal Chapel.

- The street signs in Madrid are BRILLIANT!! Not only are they more reliably present than anywhere I’ve been so far, they are made of pretty ceramic tiles and they have pictures on them showing what the street name means.

- The siesta - how I have grown to love it! Perhaps it’s because I’ve been fighting this slight cold, or perhaps it’s because I’m generally kind of tired and run down, but I have been taking full advantage of the mid-afternoon nap. It helps that lots of places shut down for a few hours in the afternoon, and it helps that lots of places stay open late at night. This means you can have a full morning, a hearty late lunch, a nice long nap, and then wake up refreshed and ready for, say, a bit more sight-seeing, a short run, and some beer and tapas. Eminently civilized.

I may have more to say about Spain, and Madrid in particular, in another post. Or I may not. Right now I’m taking it fairly easy,**** trying not to let this minor head cold turn into something more, and seeing a maximum of one sight per day. Mostly I’m looking forward to getting to Portugal where I have a care package from home and a friend with a spare room awaiting me.

* The trick with this particular word is to avoid the whole question entirely by ordering “una caña”, which means a small beer, and also sounds less touristy.

** While standing in line I overhead the two women behind me who were talking in English, but with strong German accents. They were whinging about having to wait in line because only one ticket window was open, and lamenting their lost sight-seeing time. Clearly these two were not cut out for the pace of life in Spain. In fact, they might want to reconsider their priorities entirely since one of them said, "The most important is this palace. If I don't see this palace will kill myself." Lady, you need to relax. I skipped the whole freakin' Rijkssmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and I lived to tell the tale.

*** Are you kidding me? SULTANS? When I was a little kid I had an LP of “Tales from the Arabian Nights” and for a time I used to listen to it almost every night when falling asleep. And there I was in the SULTAN’S ROOM! It was a moment.

**** Ok, I’ll admit that “taking it easy” today included going for a long run. But it turned out to be the best long run I’ve had of the whole trip. The weather was perfect - cool and overcast, and Retiro Park turned out to be an almost-5km loop, just like Assiniboine Park at home. And much to my surprise, I was able to complete FIVE loops. I was really really happy - the whole run was 30 kms, and exactly 3 hours long. It's by far the longest run I've had, and though it wasn't fast, it was a huge confidence boost with Athens only 39 days away (oh God...).


Heather Moore said...

You had me at sweetened condensed milk. Love that stuff. And I do have an espresso machine. Actually that's how I make Vietnamese iced coffee (without the ice)since I don't have one of those Vietnamese coffee presses.

Unknown said...

When I went on my only long trip in 1989 (3 months Europe + 1 month across Canada by train), I found I had trouble hanging out with folks who were on a trip of less than a month. The time imperative is just very different.

As for missing things: That is a great excuse to go back to somewhere in the future. If you do it ALL then you may never go back, and for many cities, that would be a tragedy. Always leave the door open for a triumphant return. Who knows, the next visit might be even better?

Your wonderful blog reminds me of my theme of that trip in '89: To observe the smell of life. It worked when I was 27. It may still have some good influence on future travels.

In the mean time: Work!

Have fun.

Rob H.

anne said...

I don't know about you, but I find the Retiro Park is an oasis of calm and the lake is very interesting if you're into people-watching.

Allan said...

Pam, your photos and writing are fantastic. Please don't stop. And I am firmly on the fence about the *'s. Whatever floats YOUR boat is fine, never mind the armchair critics out there ;)

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