Travel Notes from Spain

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Posted October 26, 2009 by Kristian Lin in Blotch

My recent absence from this blog was due to my vacation in Spain, so I thought I’d report back on what I’ve seen.

Seville was the first European city I visited that made me think, “I could live here.” It’s fascinating because it’s a medieval city that’s totally hip. The place is paved with cobblestones, and the streets are so narrow that you can’t drive down them, not that that stops the locals from trying. (The city’s fleet of horse-drawn carriages is actually rather useful.) For all that, Seville has a thriving cultural scene and lots of nightclubs with young people streaming into them. It’s particularly interesting walking down Calle las Sierpes, which is lined with high-end retail shops. You look down at your feet and it’s the 12th century; you look in the shop windows and it’s Rodeo Drive.

There’s a big-ass Gothic cathedral in the middle of the city, and it makes quite an impression when you come out from those narrow streets, which suddenly open into a big plaza dominated by this building. It’s fronted by a bell tower called La Giralda that used to be a minaret. When the Muslims were expelled from the city, they destroyed their mosque, but the minaret was so beautiful that the new Christian ruler decreed that anyone trying to destroy it would be put to death. The cathedral was built later, and the décor inside is just amazing. The Sevillians are proud of La Giralda; I passed by a pastry shop that had a five-foot high model of the tower made out of spun sugar.

The Sevillians were in a particularly giddy mood because the local soccer team — a pretty good one — had just thrashed Real Madrid the previous weekend. Real spent close to a billion dollars during the offseason to bring in new players. It had been working pretty well for them until they met FC Sevilla, which don’t have anything like $1 billion to spend.

I’m a night owl by nature anyway, so I had no difficulty turning into a proper Spaniard, eating lunch at two and dinner at eight. You walk into the plaza outside the cathedral at 11:00 at night and the sound is like you’re walking into a giant restaurant, which is effectively what the plaza is because all the restaurants there have outdoor seating. Most Spanish cities feature plazas as gathering places where people of all ages come and congregate late into the night. Why don’t American cities do this?

Seville is famous for its tapas, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Practically all the restaurants in that city have spinach with garbanzo beans on the menu, which is good because vegetable dishes in restaurants were otherwise hard to come by. I must have eaten an entire pig’s worth of Serrano ham, which the Spaniards claim is better than Italian prosciutto. I wouldn’t want to give up either, but Serrano is darker, sweeter, and smokier than prosciutto di Parma. With all the meat, fried potatoes, and paella on offer there, I wound up eating lots of fruit bought at grocery stores (many of which were run by Chinese people, interestingly enough) just to balance my diet. Speaking of Chinese people, I wound up in a Chinese restaurant one night and found that — much as they have in this country — the restaurateurs have adapted their cooking to local tastes, so when I ordered a spring roll I got a large flat thing that was rolled up like an empanada and deep-fried until the vegetables inside were soaked in oil.

With all the eating that I did, I actually lost weight because I walked so much. Our hotel in Granada was actually a large private residence that the owner was renting out to tourists. The facilities were pretty nice, but the location was inconveniently placed way up the side of a mountain, requiring a 10-minute climb that always left me huffing and sweating, a good workout at day’s end.

In contrast with cosmopolitan Seville, Granada is much rougher around the edges. The city has a huge Arab population; the street outside our hotel was like Beirut. If you’re traveling in Europe and want Middle Eastern food and döner kebab, Granada is the place to go.

That was great, but I learned there that Spaniards are not big on leashing their dogs. This isn’t a problem in Seville or Madrid, but in Granada the dog poop is everywhere, especially in the old, Muslim-built section of town. That’s a problem.

We saw the country’s cultural treasures, including a bullfighting museum and a giant rose garden outside the house of Federico García Lorca. The Alhambra wasn’t as magical as it could have been, because some of the most spectacular parts were shut down due to restoration work. Still, the workmanship in the carved walls and ceilings is mind-boggling to behold. The La Cartuja monastery outside of Granada was worth the trip because of its outrageous Baroque décor inside. The cultural highlight was my day at the Prado Museum; what an experience to be in the same room as these famous Goya and Velazquez paintings, as well as Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.

High-speed rail transported me between the cities. What’s it like to travel at 200 mph? The ride is surprisingly smooth, but you do feel the G forces. It takes a bit of effort to get out of your seat, and your ears pop when the train goes through a tunnel. The trains don’t slow down when they pass each other, either; I felt slapped upside the head when I leaned against a window just when a train traveling at high speed in the opposite direction went by.

Traveling by rail gave me a chance to see the terrain. The area around Almería is practically desert, but a great part of the uninhabited countryside is planted with olive trees. The next time you buy Spanish olive oil, know that there’s plenty more where that came from. On the other hand, I took a day trip to Segovia high up in the mountains. That turned out to be a bit of a bust, even though I got to see the Alcázar, a fortress with sharp spires like the castles in central Europe (or like Disneyland’s, if you prefer).

I didn’t have enough time in Madrid to get a proper feel for the city, but the Plaza Mayor had a similar feel to it, with lots of traveling musicians and agitprop street theater going on. Some artist even built an arch out of toilet paper over a grate that was blowing hot air up. On my last day there, I picked out a restaurant that gave me one of the most memorable meals of my life. I ordered a duck in what the English-language menu called “bittersweet sauce.” It wasn’t until I tasted it that I realized it was BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE SAUCE. Genius! Why has no one thought of this before? It was a sweet way to end my trip.


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