El albergue

El albergue

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My feet are happy feet

My feet at last can rest.  They’ve been going so strong for so many days.  We walked almost everywhere we went while in Valencia, the only exception being our rides on the Metro, so as you can imagine, my feet were worn out at the end of each day.  We had no real schedule or itinerary, so every day our feet followed a path that could more accurately be called a sort of wandering exploration, wandering being the key word.  My shoe of choice during this time of meandering was my flip-flops because they are the most comfortable ones I have, so now my feet are graced with the distinct outline of the thongs of my sandals, eloquent testator to the hours we spent roaming the streets.  We visited a few clothing stores, including El Corte Inglés, which is basically a huge department store and is found all over the place, ate at a couple of different cafes, found a favorite heladería, and shopped at the supermarket and El Mercado Central, a really big indoor market with different vendors selling all kinds of produce, meats, and bread.  For longer trips, like to Buñol, the beach, and el Museo de las Ciencias Príncipe Felipe, we used the metro and gave our feet a little bit of a break, but for the rest, it was all by the power of our own two legs – La Estació de Nord, La Lonja de la Seda, Los Torres de Quart, el Catedral de Valencia, el Museo Nacional de Cerámica y de las Artes Suntuarias “González Martí,” el Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas, and el Jardí Botanic de la Universitat de Valencia.

Now, unless you’re some crazy Jeopardy wiz, you probably have no idea what half of those names signify.  Perhaps you’ll go look them up on Wikipedia (a divinely-inspired web site, I must say) to figure it out yourself, but most likely you’ll just glance over the list and not care quite enough to put the requisite energy into searching for answers.  But my feet care.  My feet have been there.

El Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas is a sumptuous place, with all the floors made of marble.  It’s quite delicious to slip off your shoes and stand on the cool slabs while the museum monitors are looking the other way.  It’s a breath of fresh air in an otherwise warm town, as cool and refreshing as the fountain next to Los Torres de Quart (I think these two towers used to be part of the old city wall).  It’s heavenly to sit at this fountain and swing your feet through the quiet water, relaxing in the quiet of the small park.  There are also the huge pools in front of el Museo de las Ciencias – the modern architecture of the expansive white buildings is quite different from the feel around the ancient Torres de Quart, but the water feels the same on your feet, sweet and refreshing, the perfect way to begin a whole day of wandering through countless exhibits, including one on the science behind super heroes and another on the futuristic science of Star Trek.  (Oh wait!  Let’s stop at this exhibit that measures how far our feet can jump!)  Then there’s the Jardí Botanic, a lovely walled garden of several acres right in the middle of the city.  Here, your feet can wander many different paths, taking you by all sorts of different trees, shrubs, and flowers.  They can also take you to sit in shady nooks next to cool fountains, to relax until it’s time to head back out into the city, time to walk the streets once more.

At night, my feet got to rest, but in the morning it was up and off again, perhaps to some new location, perhaps to revisit familiar streets.  When they finally stepped back over the hostel entrance at night (or early in the morning), they were always tired, but always happy – how could they not after visiting everything they had?  So now I sit at my little desk in my little room, my feet underneath my chair, and they are no longer tired, but still happy.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A bus ride in three acts

Last night, Hilda and I packed our bags.  We had to be ready to leave the Home Backpackers hostel early enough to make it to our 8 am bus to Madrid, and we didn’t want packing to slow us down.  Plus, we figured it would be kind of rude to the four other people in our room if we were clanging through the lockers and zipping all our zippers while they were trying to sleep.  When the alarm went off at 6, we were up and moving as quietly as we could.  We had to wait until the kitchen opened up at 7 so we could eat breakfast, which we scarfed down in record time, then we were out like a shot, hitting the road at 7:30.  We booked it to the bus station and had to laugh at ourselves when we realized we got there in 15 minutes – the first night, when we were trying to get from that selfsame bus station to the train station to go to La Tomatina, we got pretty lost, and we were so close!

Act 1
I read the last of The Man in the Iron Mask during the bus ride.  Didn’t realize it would be so touching.  I was weeping over the emotional end of Porthos, Athos, and Raul, with my eyes brimming so full at times that I couldn’t see the page.  And then I began to sniff.  I couldn’t help it, it was just so darned well written and powerful.  I felt kind of sheepish though, as I sneaked sidelong glances at Hilda and the girl across the aisle, hoping they wouldn’t notice the tears dripping from my chin or the occasional swipe of my arm across my nose.  Luckily, Hilda was asleep.  I thought I might wake her up, but when I asked her later, she told me she hadn’t noticed and then laughed at me for crying over a book.  Ah well, it was so sad!

Act 2
There are some really extensive sunflower fields between Valencia and Madrid.  I mean really, it was like an endless army covering the land as far as the eye could see.  It would have been an enchanted army though, because nearly every head was bowed as in sleep - they could no longer keep their eyes open in their pitiless watch of the sun, and their chins were sunk upon their chests, as that of a sentry sleeping at his post is wont to do.  The magician sun had cast his spell.  There were a courageous few still with their heads held high, but it was obvious that they couldn’t hold out much longer.  Even their stiffly starched petals were beginning to bend, to turn away in magical sleep.

Act 3
This is where I fall asleep.  Or at least I get sort of close.  There’s only so much sleeping one can do when sitting in a bus seat, you know?  So I dozed, and it was lovely.  Quite lovely and refreshing.  Then I woke up, and the landscape was completely different.  Well, it still had a rather arid look to it, but gone were the masses of sleeping sunflowers.  Instead, I found myself amidst olive trees, scrubby bushes, and hardy brown grasses that formed the skin of the oh-so-sweetly rolling hills.  It reminded me of home in its aridity, in the apparent rough-and-tumble sturdiness of the vegetation.  This however soon gave way again to the closing of my eyelids – time to doze.

So we had given ourselves two hours to get from the bus station to the hotel where our program was meeting up, but when we got off the metro that had taken us from the bus station to the airport, where we had to pick up the luggage we had left in Madrid, it was only to realize that we had gotten off at the stop going to the wrong terminals.  Then we had to figure out how the crazy tickets worked, get back on the metro, go back to the other terminals, and figure out where in the world we had stashed our luggage.  You see, we had, with great foresight, rented two lockers in the airport to keep our suitcases safe while we were out and about in Valencia.  We just forgot to remember which locker area we had chosen as the repository for our delightful stash of worldly goods.  Yup, there are more than one.  Bother.  At last we found our luggage…..then we had to figure out the best way to take the metro with heavy suitcases.  And as we discovered, it’s best just not to.  There are lots of people.  And stairs.  It’s kind of a mess.  But we eventually made it to the hotel where we were supposed to meet up with all the people from our program, and we weren’t even the latest ones!  It was a rough road, but we made it :)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

It's hot

It’s hot.  Really hot.  And humid.  Really humid.  Which means that it’s really hot and really humid.  At the same time.  Wow.  I think I’m melting.  No joke.  I really think I might be melting.  At least, that’s what I felt like last night.  Couldn’t sleep.  It’s kind of hard when sweat is puddling on your forehead.  And your pillow is wet.  As though your face was melting off and dripping away.  Everyone in the room is in their underwear, melting.  Together.  We’re all in our underwear, and no one cares.  After all, we’re melting.  45 degrees Celsius during the day.  That’s solidly into the triple digits of Fahrenheit.  And the night isn’t much better.  Especially when there’s no air movement in the room.  It’s actually better outside.  That must be why everyone stays out so late.  Too late.  But at least it’s not so hot outside then.  That must be why everyone goes to the beach.  The searing desert of sand is hot.  Too hot.  But the water is delightful.  Quite lovely.  And everyone is there.  Everyone.  The sands are full.  (I’m not sure why they’re on the sand)  The water likewise.  Full of bobbing heads and splashing bodies.  At least there you aren’t hot.  Your body resolidifies.  That must be why everyone spends all day at the beach.  If they can.  If not, then they melt.  Just like last night.  Oy vey.  I think tonight might be better.  Maybe not quite so hot.  Hopefully my body will all be here in the morning.  I don’t like the melting process.

Friday, August 27, 2010

La Lonja

One of the places we visited today was the Lonja de la Seda.  Only a few blocks down from our hostel, we had walked past it a few times before realizing that it was a national monument and an internationally known piece of architectural art.  Also known as the Lonja de los Mercaderes, this gothic masterpiece was constructed during the 14 and 15 hundreds as an emblem of the golden age of Valencia, during which there was a commercial revolution and great social development as the middle class rose to a position of prestige.  It used to be a hugely important commercial center, where bankers, merchants, and every sort of important person would meet up, hang out, and do business.  And it really is quite impressive.

The outside walls go straight up into the sky, relieved by ornate gothic arches and the sprouting figures of grotesque gargoyles.  As you step in through the massive doors, you are greeted by a room not exactly ornate, but simply beautiful in it’s details and proportions.  It’s a large rectangle with lovely marble floors and stately columns that swirl up to the many-vaulted ceiling.  There is a series of lines crisscrossing the vaults, following the curvatures that separate them, and displaying at each meeting point a circular ornament worked in stone, every one of them different.  Hanging down from the peaks of the many vaults are massive chandeliers, fairly simple in style in keeping with the general tone of the room as a whole.  They seem to be hanging at a middle height between their anchors and the floors, and yet it would still require an extremely tall ladder to reach them.  Just through some doors you find a small courtyard filled with a lush garden of trees and bushes, and after pausing there for a minute to enjoy this oasis, you mount a set of stairs seemingly carved into the rock of the outer wall and pass through a set a stately worked brass doors.  Inside is a heavy, rich room with the feel of state and weighty business.  The ceiling is richly detailed with designs in brass, the floor has a to-the-point yet beautiful pattern in marble, and the darkly paneled walls lend to the overall feel that here met the most important people, the ones with the most money and the most power, to hold court amongst themselves.  Just downstairs is another equally impressive room with heavy blue drapes setting off the rich wood of the ceiling and the heavy marble of the floor.  Perhaps some bankers did business here, seated with pomp at weighty desks filled important-looking ledgers and surrounded by hovering flocks of clerks ready to jump to it at the slightest nod from their masters.    

You can seat yourself on the marble star in the very center of the main room and imagine what used to go on here, imagine the people milling about as they took care of the most significant business of the city of that day.  Imagine the clothing worn by the rich of old, perhaps a cloak here, a high-heeled boot there, weighty clothing to denote weighty importance.  Since the most important industry of the city up through the 1800s was silk, perhaps there could be seen the flowing colors of some bolt of cloth brought in for inspection, the sheen of as yet unworked silk waiting to be purchased by a clothing merchant, the visibly cool feel of the perfectly made cloth on a hot summer day. 

Sit and imagine, enjoy the coolness of the marble floor against your legs, then when you’ve had your fill, it’s time to leave this magical cavern, time to step back through the door and right onto the busy thoroughfare of a modern Valencia.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

.....and continues

This is the part where I fell asleep last night.  So sorry if you were left hanging at the end of the last post :) Hilda was falling asleep, and I decided that I wanted to do the same, so I posted what I had, shut the computer, and slept the blessed sleep of the truly exhausted.  So now back to where I left off…….

Ah yes, the aftermath!  We decided to let ourselves be carried along by the crowd (sometimes just about literally) toward the river, watching as the townspeople started cleaning up everything.  Seriously, those guys have got it down to a science – by the time we got back from the river (probably 20 minutes tops), at least half the mess was taken care of.  Everyone had hoses and brooms out, even the little kids.  The fire trucks made use of their hoses to clear the larger streets, and many of the tarps that had been covering the building fronts were already coming down.  We were pretty clean ourselves too after submerging ourselves in the river, (it was actually more of a stream, but all the signs said “river”) although there were bits embedded in our hair that didn’t come out until we combed it out in the shower that night.

We dried off a bit in the rather warm sun as we bought a snack and trekked our way back through town to the train station.  We kind of got lost for a few minutes and didn’t realize until then just how many tomatoes were used in this fight – nearly every street we went through was filled with the carnage!  Luckily, there was a very sweet old man who told us where to go after we asked him two times (he didn’t quite hear the first time), and we made it just in time to join the massive crowd gathering around the station.  In a déjà-vu sort of moment, we found ourselves immobilized by the bodies around us, and when the gate finally opened, we moved forward really through the will of those behind us rather than our own.  We made it onto the first train out though, which was a wonderful thing, even if we had to stand all the way back into Valencia.  It was a fun experience overall, despite being somewhat uncomfortable at some…ok, quite a few, moments.  In fact, I would probably like to go back again sometime, although I would go with a few more friends (for a greater amount of friendly fighting possibilities) and seek out one of the less crowded side streets where we would have more freedom to move and run around.

After getting back into Valencia, Hilda and I figured out how to use the metro to get as close as we could to our hotel and hopped on.  Unfortunately, we misread the directions the first time and went all the way to the end of the line before realizing that we were supposed to get off about ten stops back.  Then we fell asleep.  When I woke up, I saw the sign on the station we were just pulling out of, misread that, and thought in my sleep-induced stupor, that we had missed it again (keep in mind that we had only slept about 10 hours in two days between the both of us).  After a few minutes of trying, I was able to wake Hilda up and mistakenly informed her that we had missed our stop, again.  We hopped off at the next stop, waited about 20 minutes for the next one, and then when we were on it, I saw the map (we didn’t have one) of the line and realized we hadn’t actually missed our stop and were heading in the wrong direction.  So we got off at the next stop again and waited for the next metro back the way we were supposed to be going.  We got off at the correct stop and then realized that the directions to the hotel we had gotten off the internet weren’t very accurate.  Luckily, a very friendly guy manning the information booth saw us staring rather confusedly at the map of the area posted near the station and gave us precise and clear directions.  So we found our hotel at last, remarked the niceness of the place, took our showers with high gratitude, bought some groceries at a nearby supermarket for dinner, then went to bed.  It was lovely.

It was also lovely sleeping in this morning.  Quite lovely.  Then we checked out of there, took the metro back to downtown Valencia, and found our hostel after only one or two misreading of the directions.  Since that point, we have explored some of the area within walking distance, relaxed in the shade with a glass of lemon sherbet (or something of the sort), and made use of the delightfully convenient kitchen in the hostel.  It has in fact been rather a lovely day, despite the heat and humidity (not quite as dry as Davis, although probably better than the South).  Right now we look forward to going to the beach, visiting the aquarium, eating paella (a sea food and rice dish that originated in the area), and wandering around a few elderly and beautiful works of architectural art.  I think it’s going to be a good week :)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

And so it begins....

Right now, I’m sitting on my cute little bed in the hotel room that Hilda and I have booked for tonight.  It’s small, true, but the furnishings were all chosen with an eye towards esthetics.  The Vora Fira Valencia Hotel as a whole is, in fact, very impressive in its physical appearance, especially considering that this room was basically the cheapest in Valencia that we could find for tonight.  Tomorrow though, we are going to switch over to a hostel closer to downtown, tomorrow when more of the Tomatina hordes leave and open up the rooms that were completely booked when we were trying to find lodging in June.  Which reminds me, you probably want to know how La Tomatina went.  I mean, it’s an internationally renowned, all-out food fight for Pete’s sake, right? 

To start with though, let me fill you in on the details of my flight.   My friend Hilda and I flew out of SFO at 7:30 pm, and everything went well the whole way through the ridiculously long flight that touched down in Zurich around 4 in the afternoon, which puts it around 7 in the morning Pacific time – talk about messing with your body, we had breakfast around 4 am Pacific time on that flight, and my stomach was really confused!    The transfer to our flight to Madrid went well, and we arrived in the Madrid airport around 7 pm.  We spent a while wandering around the airport, figuring out customs requirements, where in the world to store our luggage, and how to get to the metro.  It all turned out well, and we were able to get to the bus station on time to catch our 10:30 bus to Valencia.  Now, I had luckily been able to doze some during the plane ride, but the entire four hours of this bus ride were sleepless.  I tried, but it just didn’t happen.

Around 2:30 am, Hilda and I stepped off the bus in Valencia.  We didn’t want to hire a taxi, so we tried to make it to the train station that would take us to Buñol (where La Tomatina actually takes place) on our own with the guidance of a few scant directions from someone who worked at the bus station.  Well, we still don’t know whether or not we were really lost, but after walking for about half an hour without being very sure of where we were, we finally flagged down a taxi that zipped us over to the train station for only 6 euros.  As we meandered around to the front of the station, we could see a few workers cleaning the floors, so we assumed we weren’t going to be allowed in and continued a little across the area in front to find a place to camp out for the next few hours (keep in mind that it was a little after 3 am at this point).  Getting close to the fence surrounding the area, we could see over into another open area across the street with dozens of sleeping bodes strewn across the pavement.  Yes, there were other Tomatina-goers staking their claim in line at the train station.  Finally the doors were opened at 4:30 and bit by bit the crowd found its way inside, with Hilda and myself in the forefront.  We sat on the ground next to a really nice family from Yorkshire as we waited for the ticket windows to open, and wouldn’t you know it, as more people came in and the level of craziness milling around increased, the information relative to how we were supposed to get to La Tomatina seemed to change every minute.  Fortunately, the dad from Yorkshire found some solid info out, which Hilda actually heard from a station employee as well around the same time, giving us welcome confirmation.  Of course, the rest of the growing crowd had received the same reassurance and we all rushed to get the Metro tickets that we needed to get to the train station that would take us to Buñol.  That’s right, we thought we could get to La Tomatina from where we were, but turns out we needed to be at the Estación Saint Isidre instead– bummer.  We joined the crowd around the metro ticket booths and scampered off with the herd nosing its way.  The metro platform slowly filled up as we all waited for the metro to come at 6:15, and when it did, it was a mad rush to get in and get a seat.  However mad that rush was though, it was nothing like racing everyone else as we made the small trek between where we got off the metro and where we had to get on the train.  In fact, from the train platform the last of us had to sprint down to the last car, trying to beat each other out for a place to sit – it felt so strangely energetic for the early hour.  There was this one group of girls that sat near us; at first they were all drinking Red Bull, chatting about the upcoming extravaganza, and giggling and taking pictures like only a passel of girls will do.  Two minutes later they were all leaning on each other’s shoulders, asleep. 

At last, we arrived.  We were in Buñol.  Granted, it was only about 7:30 am, but the crowd was already bigger than just that which came on the train with us, and everyone was already hitting up the many booths selling cervezas and sangrias.  The two of us changed from our travel clothes to our Tomatina attire in the port-a-potties, trying not to touch anything as we did, then took our backpacks to a luggage storage area before following the general direction of the swirling crowd, figuring that someone in the crowd somewhere knew better than we what to do and where to go.  And then we found ourselves in the street were the main action was supposed to take place.  Not a whole lot was happening as people continued to pour in and the press of the crowd grew so strong that most of the time there was no way to avoid the things people started to toss around of their own accord.  After we had been standing in the street for over an hour and a half, amusing ourselves with a highly varied case study of people watching (there was an abundance of different costumes and personalities), they put out the greased pole.  This pole is the traditional start of the last (and most well-known) day of the week-long tomato festival – once someone climbs up and cuts it down the tomato trucks are supposed to start rolling in.  Mobs of guys (and a couple adventurous girls) tried to shimmy their up the log of lard, finally pulling together enough teamwork to for ladders that wiped off successively higher levels of grease.  And still very few people got close.  A few minutes before 11, one guy amazingly actually touched the thing, but his grip failed and he slipped down before he could cut the ham down and give a proper official start to one huge tomato fight.  However, the trucks started to role anyways, and the fight began, and we were all completely covered in tomato.  Well, that’s not exactly how it happened for Hilda and me.

Around 10:30, the two of us got stuck in the middle of what I shall here call the “splash zone,” the area next to the “water tower,” the iron cage/platform in which different people from Buñol were stationed with high powered hoses that spewed forth ice cold water pumped up from the local stream/river.  At first, it was wonderful, since the day had started to get warm, but after getting blasted without let-up for half an hour, we realized we were getting hypothermic!  We tried to fight our way out of the path of the liquid ice, but the crowd was such that we couldn’t do much of anything, sometimes we weren’t even really in control of our own feet.  Finally we got to a fairly sheltered spot closer to the side of the street, and when the trucks started coming through, we were pushed so far back by the splitting of the sea of people that I was afraid of crushing those behind me, even though there wasn’t really anything I could do about it.  The circumstance of our position plus the fact that most of the fighting was apparently concentrated a little farther up the street, meant that we actually missed most of the combat.  In fact, we got more tomatoed after the fight was officially over than when it was in progress, because as we made our way to the river to rinse off we were in very close quarters with those who had been completely smeared, sharing the tomatoes off their clothes and the ones they gleefully kicked up from the inches-deep rivers running through the parts that had the heaviest fighting.