Friday, May 27, 2011

Spain: Barcelona

By Melissa at 9:26 AM
Just a quick note that for the most part in this post I use the Catalan names for the sites, but I'm a bit lazy so there are probably a few Spanish translations here and there depending on which came to my mind first.

We booked eight days in Barcelona and so we were able to slow down the pace of sightseeing, only visiting about one major sight per day. Also, after traveling for 6 weeks, your brain needs a break from looking at 100 paintings a day. Now, that did not mean we spent a lot of time sitting around because if you know Brian, you know that he does not like sitting still. We were able to spend more time walking (about 6 to 7 hours per day) than we could in Andalucia because Barcelona is just so much bigger than all of the cities we visited in Southern Spain and there is more to explore.

We really loved Barcelona and you could call it the San Francisco of Spain. Like San Francisco, it has a waterfront area, has a laid back feel and is generally more liberal than other cities in Spain. Catalunya, the province in which Barcelona is located, was the first province to outlaw bullfighting. Barcelona also felt a bit more racially diverse than Madrid and was much more diverse than any of the other cities we visited. There are also a greater number of non-Spanish restaurants in Madrid, which is a good thing if you're going to be staying there for an extended period of time. There are even hippies! We happened upon a protest by a group arguing for squatters rights. They marched carnival style, with costumes and music, down the streets of the Ciutat Vella to the Ayunamento, or City Hall, where they proceeded to put on a clown show. We felt right at home.

Our favorite area of the city was the Ciutat Vella, specifically the Barri Gotic and Born District. The best way I can describe it is the Mission meets Hayes Valley. Or, for you East Coasters, Greenwich Village meets SoHo. There are a lot of great restaurants, tapas bars, artisanal bread shops, and clothing boutiques around every corner. The best part is that the clothing in the boutiques is actually affordable. You don't have to pay $60 for a T-shirt with an appliqué bird on it like you do in San Francisco. Oh and the shoes! To die for. This was the first time on the trip that I was bummed about not being able to shop. But c'est la vie, I'll just have to return to Barcelona another year with an empty suitcase.

The Born at night
From Barcelona, Spain

Okay before I go on about what else I liked about Barcelona, let me tell you what I really didn't like; the Ramblas and pickpockets. I personally have no idea why the Ramblas is mentioned in every single guidebook about Barcelona. Some do mention that it's very touristy, but most say go just to experience the ambiance of a stroll down the Ramblas. But as far as I could tell, there wasn't any ambiance to speak of. Just skip it, because in my opinion it's not even worth going to say you've been there. The other less than wonderful thing about Barcelona is the number of pickpockets in the city, which causes you to always be looking over your shoulder when you're in the touristy areas. We witnessed an attempted theft on the metro and our flatmates had a close call as well. It made the experience a bit less relaxing than I would have liked. On the sort of bright side, the pickpockets are very easy to spot because they hang out in the touristy areas, but are obviously looking for their next target and not the sights.

On to the sights, which were all great. Our first stop was La Sagrada Familia Cathedral--Antonio Gaudi's epic, and still unfinished magnum opus. After having visited umpteen cathedrals on this and our other trips to Europe, visiting La Sagrada Familia was like a breath of fresh air. Now, this is not to say that visiting St. Peter's in Rome wasn't amazing and worthwhile, but after seeing a dozen Gothic and Renaissance cathedrals, they can start to blur together. Gaudi's style highlights organic forms and his facades are filled with sculptures of fruit, birds, animals, trees and sea life. And really what better way to show one's worship of God than to showcase his creations in a grand monument. In contrast to the deep beige colored and busy facades of the cathedral, the inside consists of soft white forms with smooth, parabolic arches and egg-like light fixtures. The milky colored walls are punctuated by impressive stained glass and large, clear windows.

Passion facade of the Sagrada Familia
From Barcelona, Spain

Looking across the Sagrada Familia
From Barcelona, Spain

Jesus over the alter in the Sagrada Familia
From Barcelona, Spain

We had a bit of fun touring the insides of the towers, which was a great way to get out of the crowds, get good views of the city and see the work being done on the still unfinished central tower element up close. When we were done touring we had to take one of the spiral staircases all the way back down to the base of the cathedral, which was a very dizzying experience. Thank goodness for handrails. I thought climbing up the inside of the dome in St. Peters was bad.

Looking down the spiral staircase in the Sagrada Familia
From Barcelona, Spain

We also spent a couple of hours touring the extensive collection in the Picasso museum, located in a particularly cute part of the Born District. Afterwards we wandered south and stopped at two of the many bars serving pinxtos (pronounced pinchos) for dinner. I absolutely love pinxtos and wish there was an equivalent dining experience elsewhere. The closest I can think of is those sushi boat restaurants, but those are much more expensive. In a bar serving pinxtos, they pile up the bar with various three-bite sized goodies, usually on top of a piece of sliced baguette. You grab a plate at one end of the bar and then fill up your plate with as many pinxtos as you want and then head to a table where a waiter will come by at your table to get your drink order. At the end of the night when you ask for the check, the waiters take your plates, count up your toothpicks and add it to your drink tab. Each pinxto costs about $2.50 and you can get full on four to five, so it's a relatively affordable meal with a lot of variety. They even make dessert pinxtos.

Pintxos
From Barcelona, Spain

The next two sites were Gaudi and more Gaudi, but that's what Barcelona is known for. La Pedrera, meaning the quarry, is the nickname for an apartment building called Casa Mila, designed by Gaudi and located in the Eixample District. Just north of the Ciutat Vella, but decidedly modern with large avenues and more mainstream shopping, the Eixample was another neighborhood we really liked and spent a while walking around. La Pedrera was built as an apartment complex for well-off Barcelonians. Like Gaudi's other creations it looks like something that just sprung up out of the earth, or in this case, perhaps out of the sea. The building courtyard has a cavelike feel, but the balconies are made of metal ribbons that look just like seaweed draped on the building. Gaudi designed special tiles for the building with raised relief figures of sea life. The tiles have been replicated and installed in the sidewalk in front of the apartment and also stretch to the main street a couple of blocks away. On the roof there are clusters of eerie chimney stacks resembling angry rock people.

La Padrera
From Barcelona, Spain

Sentinels on the roof of the La Padrera
From Barcelona, Spain

Closeup of one of the statues on the roof of the La Padrera
From Barcelona, Spain

Next we headed over to Parc Guell, which is actually a failed real estate development that was financed by Count Eusebi Guell (he also financed several other Gaudi projects). The roads, a public market space, two gingerbread-style guard houses and two homes were built before the project was halted and purchased by the city in 1926. It is currently a public park where you can wander around marveling at Gaudi's surreal creations. You can also visit the Casa Museu Gaudi, which was the home where Gaudi lived for almost 20 years before he moved into the basement of La Sagrada Familia to oversee that project.

The entrance of Parc Guell
From Barcelona, Spain

Market hall below at Parc Guell
From Barcelona, Spain

Our tour through Parc Guell made us yearn for more strolling through green and leafy surroundings, so we headed to Montjuic mountain up on a hill near the sea. The area is filled with many museums as well as attractions from the 1992 Olympics. We took a funicular about half way up the mountain and visited the Fundacio Joan Miro to view the works of this amazing Spanish painter. The collection is housed in a building designed by Josep Lluis Sert, a friend of Miro. This was definitely one of my favorite museums so far. There are almost a dozen sites in Montjuic and we did not leave ourselves nearly enough time to enjoy them all, but just walking around is quite pleasant.

The last two nights we were lucky enough to be able to stay with a friend of a friend of ours from San Francisco. It was really nice to be able to stay with someone who had similar interests. Our hotel and bed and breakfast hosts have been nothing but nice, but it was a real treat to stay with someone who we would hang out with on a regular basis. And even luckier for us, our host, Camilla is a seasoned couchsurfing.com host and she really knew how to make us feel at home. Camilla took us out to the countryside, which of course in uber-connected Europe means a 10-minute train ride, out to a town called Baixador de Vallvidrera. We took a quick stroll up a hill and over a dam to a rustic farmhouse restaurant where we ate a delicious lunch of grilled pork, rabbit and chicken. After lunch we went for a nice hike in the woods to work off our lunch. The town is adjacent to the massive metropolitan nature preserve, Parc Collserola, occupying over 20,000 acres and with miles of well-marked hiking paths.

Camilla and Melissa in the Panta de Vallvidrera
From Barcelona, Spain

Brian and Melissa in Panta de Vallvidrera
From Barcelona, Spain

On our last day in Barcelona we again took the expert advice of our lovely host and rode a train to the nearby town of Sitges. It's a beach town about 45 minutes from Barcelona and in the summer is a very popular gay holiday destination. The town has plenty of character with narrow stone-paved streets, restaurants with outdoor seating and plenty of boutiques, bookstores and ice cream. You could see hints of South Beach in the very toned and tanned people wandering around in slightly-bigger-than-speedos-swim briefs and its-bitsy bikinis, but since it was a Monday, things were very quiet and the beach was not at all crowded.

Melissa on the beach in Sitges
From Sitges, Spain

Father and son on a pier in Sitges
From Sitges, Spain

Friday, May 13, 2011

Spain: Ronda and Granada

By Melissa at 8:10 PM
Ronda, the third city we visited in Andalusia, was a last minute addition to the trip after taking the advice of some fellow travelers we met in a restaurant in Madrid. Ronda is one of the so called Pueblos Blancos, or towns known for their white washed buildings in the southern part of Andalusia. We had originally planned to see some of these towns by renting a car and taking a day trip from Granada, but we changed our minds and decided to stay in one of them. And the scenery in Ronda was well worth it. The town is built on a mountain ridge and you can easily hike down the hillsides filled with wildflowers and into the valley. Partway down we were rewarded by views of the beautiful Puente Nuevo, an 18th-century arched bridge connecting the old and new parts of the city. Rooms built into the bridge used to serve as the town's prison up through the Spanish Civil War. Another quick hike from the old town takes you down to the Guadalevin River where we toured some well preserved Moorish Baths.

Lookout point on the other side of the gorge
From Ronda, Spain

Brian and Melissa in front of the Puente Nuevo bridge
From Ronda, Spain

A view along the old city walls looking into the new town
From Ronda, Spain

View from within the aqueduct that fed the Arab Baths
From Ronda, Spain

From Ronda we took a train to Granada, which is one of Spain's most visited cities. We stayed about a 10-minute bus ride from the center of Granada, which was nice as we found the modern center of Granada to be quite uninteresting as pedestrians. We did however enjoy walking around the Albayzin, or old Moorish town in Granada. It was a nice reminder of the time we spent wandering around the medinas in Morocco, this one decidedly easier to navigate than the others though.

A random street in the El Albayzin
From Granada, Spain

After winding our way up the hill to the Mirador de San Nicolas at the top of the Albayzin district, we were rewarded with a fabulous view of the La Alhambra, the valley below and mountains in the distance. We also spent some time exploring the Cathedral and the Capilla Real, or royal chapel, which is the highlight of the church. It houses the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella, the royal monarchs whose marriage set in motion the unification of the kingdoms that now make up modern Spain as well as funding Christopher Columbus expeditions to the New World.

View of the La Alhambra from Mirador de San Nicholas in the El Albayzin
From Granada, Spain

But of course the icing on the cake was the visit to the La Alhambra, the palace and fortress complex of the Moorish rulers of southern Spain, built on a hill high above the modern city. We were unable to get the advance sale tickets, but luckily they reserve about 500 tickets for same-day sales, so we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6:00am to make sure we would not miss one of the highlights of Spain. When we arrived there were only about 100 people ahead of us waiting for the ticket office to open and we were able to get a morning time slot to view the Alhambra.

Visiting all of the buildings and gardens in the palace took about 5 1/2 hours and we didn't even see everything, so I'll just mention a few things. The highlight of the grounds are the Nasrid palaces, a grouping of three palaces built during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries of truly inspired Moorish architecture. Each palace has a series of courtyards centered around either a fountain or a landscaped garden. Next we saw the Alcazaba, an 11th century fortress that is in much disrepair, but the scale of the building is still quite impressive and there are wonderful views from the top of the remaining towers. We also toured the Generalife gardens and summer palace. The name Generalife is a Spanish mispronunciation of a phrase that means Architect’s Garden in Arabic. The grounds contain a series of luxurious patios with lush gardens and imaginative fountains. You can hear and see water flowing in every location in the Generalife and it must have been quite a wondrous place to spend a summer afternoon.

View of the Albayzin from the lower gardens of the Generalife in the La Alhambra
From Granada, Spain

Fountain in the Generalife of the La Alhambra
From Granada, Spain

Palacio del Mexuar in the Alhambra
From Granada, Spain

Salon de Embajadores in the La Alhambra
From Granada, Spain

From Granada we flew to Barcelona, where we relished being in the same place for 8 days! But I'll write more on that in our next post.

Melissa and Brian in at the top of the Alcazaba in the La Alhambra
From Granada, Spain

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Spain: Seville and Cordoba

By Melissa at 4:03 PM
We decided to spend a total of 12 days in Andalusia, the southernmost province in Spain, visiting four cities. Andalusia is said to be the most quintessentially Spanish part of Spain, the source of bullfighting, flamenco, sherry and old castles.

Our first stop was Seville, where we arrived in time for the last half of the annual Semana Santa (Holy Week or Easter) celebration. Several cities in Andalusia host elaborate processions in which local churches parade carved statues of Jesus and Mary set on top of platforms lavishly decorated in velvet, gold, candles and flowers. The huge and incredibly heavy floats are carried through the streets along a prescribed route by 'costaleros.' Also part of each procession are the 'nazarenos,' or followers, who've devoted themselves to a particular church, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, and carry crucifixes or candles. Marching bands cap off the procession on both ends. The processions leave their respective churches anywhere between 11pm and 1am in the morning and last up to 10 hours. The floats are so heavy that the processions must stop every once in a while to give the costaleros time to rest. Some of the processions have been happening since the 1300s. The processions in Seville's are supposed to be the most elaborate, with over 50 processions planned throughout the week.

Unless of course it rains, which it did... a lot.

The statues are considered works of art and as such, the processions are cancelled if it rains. But the atmosphere on the street was still quite festive. The city was packed with tourists and many of the Sevillanos were dressed to the nines--men in smart suits and the women in black dresses wearing their finest mantillas. Starting around 10pm the streets took on a surreal atmosphere as the nazarenos, whose outfits clearly inspired the Klu Klux Klan, walk in silence from their homes to their respective churches and report for duty. The decision to take out the floats (due to the current weather conditions) are made at the last minute, so everyone involved in the procession still show up. Having hundreds of people walking around in long robes with hoods covering their heads towards some unknown location makes you feel like you're in a movie about a secret society who gathers to perform human sacrifice or some other secret ritual. It was like Eyes Wide Shut meets the Da Vinci Code.

Virgin Mary float
From Seville, Spain

Nazarenos in the procession
From Seville, Spain

More Nazarenos going to where they need to be
From Seville, Spain

We saw a grand total of one procession in the four days we were there, but it was quite an impressive sight and we fortunately did get to see some of the most famous floats on display in their respective churches, the day after their processions were cancelled.

The other main attraction in Andalusia are the impressive Moorish monuments. In Seville we saw the Alcazar, a medieval palace that has undergone many renovations and expansions, but is still a prime example of Mudejar architecture. There has been a palace or citadel on the site currently occupied by the Alcazar since Roman times. The gardens in the back are equally impressive and home to several peacocks.

Patio de las Doncellas within the Alcazar
From Seville, Spain

Fountain in the gardens of the Alcazar
From Seville, Spain

A peacock chillin' in the gardens of the Alcazar
From Seville, Spain

Also impressive is Seville's cathedral, which took a century to complete (1402-1506) and is the largest Gothic church in the world. Inside you'll find a monument to Christopher Columbus, which houses his remains, and an impressive altar, the largest in the world, consisting of 45 carved scenes from the bible. Inside the cathedral you can gain access to La Giralda, or the cathedral's bell tower. The structure was originally built as a minaret and watch tower and is considered the culmination of Almohad architecture. It was used as a model for minarets built in Rabat and Marrakkech. We climbed to the top of the tower for a great view of the city.

The top of the Cathedral and the Giralda
From Seville, Spain

Christopher Columbus's tomb
From Seville, Spain

La Giralda
From Seville, Spain

Seville was one of our favorite cities so far to just walk around in and relax. In the city are hundreds of orange trees lining the streets and at this time of year they are full of dozens of ripe oranges.

Next up was Cordoba, another beautiful city, located on the banks of the Guadalquivir River and filled with great parks and plazas. It was the largest city in Roman Spain and the Islamic Caliphate during the Middle Ages.

The main, and really one of the only attractions in Cordoba is the Mezquita, a mosque completed in the 10th century, considered the greatest mosque in Spain. It has a beautiful mihrab, or prayer niche, and over 1200 columns. After the Reconquista, the building was used as a church and in the early 1500s the Catholic church was granted permission to build a cathedral nave and chorus in the center of the prayer hall. When the renovations were complete, King Carlos of Spain commented that "You have built what you or others might have built anywhere in the world, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world" and we have to agree. The architecture of the cathedral is really at odds with that of the mosque and subsequent renovations and have certainly taken away from the grandness of the original form. But it is still quite an impressive building and Brian spent a lot of time trying to perfect his pictures in the low lighted halls.

The many columns and arches of the Mezquita
From Cordoba, Spain

Extended exposure in the Mezquita
From Cordoba, Spain

Outside of the Mezquita is La Juderia, the old Jewish quarter, which has many cute narrow streets to wander around in the afternoons. We rented bikes for an afternoon and took advantage of all of the great bike lanes, parks and riverfront views.

Street with flowers in the Juderia
From Cordoba, Spain

Biking
From Cordoba, Spain

The Mezquita and the Roman Bridge at sunset
From Cordoba, Spain

Fun with extended exposures
From Cordoba, Spain

After two days in Cordoba we headed to Ronda, an adorable mountain town and Granada, home of the exquisite Alhambra. We'll write about those towns in a later post.