El albergue

El albergue

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

By jove, it's snowing!

I’ve led a rather deprived life.  I’ve never really seen it snow before.  It just doesn’t really happen around my little hometown in central California.  Of course, there was that one historic day in elementary school when it did actually snow a few inches and all the schools closed for the day in the general rush of excitement, but it all fell during the night, so I didn’t get to see it until it was on the ground.  And one time in jr. high a flurry of tiny flakes drew us all out of class in a laughing, happy mob, but it they were really pretty tiny.  Yesterday though, just before my three-hour final started, the entire class was staring through the windows as little spots of white started to drift down, continuing for pretty much the rest of the day. 

That’s right, it was snowing in Madrid!  Apparently, Madrid only started to get snow a few short years ago, and then usually only after the New Year, but here we are at the juncture between November and December, and snow is a near surety for the next week or so.  (Oh global warming, thank you for expanding my climatological experience!)

As I walked the 10 minute walk from my class room to the train station that would take me back to central Madrid, my umbrella only half sheltered me from the clumpy flakes that were drifting around at every odd angle on skittish drafts of wind; but it wasn’t really a problem, since it wasn’t exactly a deluge of snow – a few delicate blobs of ice stuck themselves to my coat and jeans and quietly melted, but they weren’t enough to get me wet.

It was kind of a wet snow in general though, but the temperature wasn’t low enough to keep it from melting into puddles as soon as it touched down to earth.  (However, it was still cold enough that if you’d asked me if my feet were a bit on the chilly side while I was walking, I would have answered, “I don’t know, I can’t feel them.”)  Pretty soon, all those little individual puddles had grown and melded into one another, making…well, larger puddles, the kind of puddles that like to leach up into your pant legs if you’re not paying enough attention.

So yeah, I was kinda cold, but it was fun watching little flurries of snow swirl around in the air – I’m more used to seeing dust devils.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I'd rather go here, there, anywhere....

Oye.  I really don’t feel like doing my homework.  Or studying.  I’m in the middle of an 8-pager that’s due…now, with other assignments waiting on the sidelines.  Massive amounts of studying are looming ahead of me as we barrel down on finals.  And here I sit, without the desire to attend to any of it.  I’d rather be out and about, traveling and exploring new places, like Córdoba and Granada, where we went this past weekend.

Get your bum out of bed at 8 am,
 and maybe you'll get to see a sky as beautiful as this one.
It was a whirlwind trip, with about 100 California kids from two universities in Madrid running amuck for three full days.  Well, there wasn’t much mucking about when we packed out two tour buses at 8 am on Friday morning – everyone was too tired to do much more than crash on the bus, bodies twisted into odd positions of comfort for about 6 straight hours.  Then we arrived…Córdoba!  It was a beautiful day, perfect for wandering the streets a little before taking the group tour of the mosque/cathedral/whatever you feel like calling it.  (Don’t worry, it’s not normally called that, most people referring to it as the Mosque of Córdoba.)

Not exactly your typical cathedral...
It was the largest mosque in all of civilization during the time that the Muslims ruled in Spain, forming an integral part this city that was home to some of the greatest cultural developments of the world.  Then when the Catholics “reconquered” Córdoba in the 13th century, it was converted into a cathedral, retaining pretty much all the same architecture.  This recycling if you will of a place of worship has as its result one of the most fascinating buildings you have ever seen.  You walk through the courtyard filled with orange trees and through a magnificent arched door into a forest of pillars connected by graceful double arches.  It’s extremely simple, the floors plain marble and little decoration besides that provided by the nearly 1,000 pillars.  Then you visit the main chapel, the most prominent Catholic addition, and you wonder, how in the world can this be in the same building as what I just saw?  It’s completely Renaissance and Baroque in style, with ornamentation everywhere you look, vivid colors, gold plating, and a vaulted ceiling. 

The inner courtyard of Carlos V's unfinished palace - it's got some of
the best acoustics you've ever heard.
The tour ended with a stroll through the old Jewish Quarter, then after some tapas, churros con chocolate, and a wonderful tango performance, it was off to bed to catch a few winks before that 7:45 wake-up call.  (The breakfast buffet was amazing – it was nice to eat something besides cereal in the morning, and that’s a lot coming from one of the world’s biggest cereal fans)  The big event of the day came after we arrived in Granada…La Alhambra!  Basically a small, luxurious city on a high hill overlooking Granada, it was built by the Muslim kings when they ruled the area and was turned over to Ferdinand and Isabel when they conquered this last Muslim stronghold in Spain in 1492.  Most of the complex of fortress towers and palaces is Arabic in origin, with evidence everywhere of their deep appreciation for beauty and delicacy, but one building that was particularly interesting was a palace that Carlos V started constructing in the 1520s.  He spent a 6-month honeymoon with his bride Isabel de Portugal here in this royal city, and they liked it so much that he decided to build a palace there for them to stay in whenever they went back (the court was itinerary at this time).  However, when his beloved Isabel died in childbirth in 1539, construction was halted and the project abandoned, as La Alhambra held too many painful memories for Carlos and he never wanted to see it again.  In more recent years, since tourism has become so important, a roof and doors and windows have been put in, and a museum as taken up residence, but it is still lacking the third and final floor and the huge vaulted ceiling that was to have covered the circular inner courtyard.  Despite its unfinished touch, the palace is still quite impressive (and the courtyard has amazing acoustics!).

Did you know about 10 people fall into this pool in the
Alhambra every year as they try to take pictures?
For the rest of the tour, we trailed around after our guide, listening to interesting anecdotes and tidbits of information as we gazed at the beautiful palaces and gardens and tried to recreate in our minds what it might have been like when ancient kings held sway there.

The next day held another beautiful sight in store for us – we trekked up to another high spot in the city, a popular lookout point that commanded a sweeping view from up the valley, across La Alhambra, and down the city towards the coast (although the actual sea was just beyond the line of the horizon).  Then it was back down through the maze of tiny streets to see the Capilla Real, the chapel where THE Ferdinand and Isabel are buried, along with their daughter and her husband, before a couple hours of wandering about, browsing crunched alleys full of tourist shops and warming up in a small café with churros con chocolate (of course!). 

And that was it.  Two cities in three days, and we were back on the bus, consigning ourselves to our seats for another six hours.  Just like that, we were back in Madrid.  It went by so fast.  We saw so much, and yet we saw so little – a whirlwind trip, un viaje relámpago…And now here I am sitting at my desk in my little room, still with the desire to run around the country and excitedly explore all the random little places that I can find.  True, we only have one more week left of studying and applying ourselves to the tasks before us, but I’m still avoiding the long list of things I need to do to finish off this semester.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The warmth of Salamanca

The colors of fall gracefully framed the old Roman bridge, and the leaves were just begging to be raked into a big pile and jumped in.

Last weekend, I went on a last-minute jaunt over to the city of Salamanca with a friend for two days, already knowing that the place was known for having the oldest university in Spain, but not being prepared to find a town with the warmest atmosphere I have ever encountered.  Now, the actual temperature was not very high, especially on Sunday when it was overcast and drizzly, but the town exuded a gentle warmth of spirit that captured my heart.  Perhaps the main reason for this was the overall color of the town – yellow.  Nearly all the buildings in the old town were fashioned from a local stone that happened to be a delightful golden buttery color, and the trees were all putting on their autumn dress, presenting a unified front of glorious, warming yellow.  The people were friendly too, and there was a general feel of camaraderie and openness in the air.  So if you ever feel a slight chill inside, I highly recommend Salamanca – it will warm your heart and make you feel right at home.
It was an absolutely beautiful day, and I loved the way the cathedral towers were illuminated against the backdrop of the clear blue sky, so of course I had to take a picture :)
It didn't hurt my new-found love for Salamanca that there was an awesome book fair in the Plaza Mayor - I bought a book by Charles Dickens for only 3 euros and one by Juan Pablo Ortega for 2!
Of course, the Plaza Mayor was gorgeous even without taking that most awesome book fair into account...
It was really interesting to walk through the old University and imagine myself going to class in those rooms.  Well, I wouldn't have been able to, being a girl, but that's beside the point.
As we were getting ready to head back to Madrid, we found a mushroom exhibit in the streets outside the Plaza Mayor - how sweet is that?  It was a fun little end to a lovely weekend full of warm and happy memories.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Barcelona, city of the old and the new

The main entrance to Parc Güell, one of the most famous attractions in Barcelona

Last weekend, I made a sort of last-minute trip to Barcelona, a city full of life and energy.  Before going, I had some expectations (of course, who doesn’t have thoughts and ideas about what their destination holds in store?), expectations formed around everything I’ve seen in other Spanish towns such as Segovia and Toledo, cities that have charmingly conserved an overall air of antiquity and historical importance.  In short, even though I knew that Barcelona was famous for such modern architecture as that of Gaudi, I was expecting to find a city that spoke to me of older times, that seemed to breathe the same breath as a thousand years ago.  Instead, I found a city of contrasts, modernism next to antiquity, the two coexisting in a juxtaposition that highlighted their differences while at the same time revealing the harmony of peaceful integration.

For instance, when we arrived Saturday morning, we went on a hike up the hills to the north of the city in the area called Tibidao; the hills were covered in a blanket of trees, mute and ageless witnesses to the change that has gone on below them through the centuries, to the creeping expanse of buildings that has grown up from the sea’s edge.  We dodged our way past the cloud of mountain bikers zooming around through the trails, stopping at first one lookout point then another, surrounded by the peaceful presence of nature and looking out at the vista of street upon street and building upon building of a thoroughly modern metropolis. 

The Nativity Façade of La Sagrada Familia
On Sunday, we visited the Parc Güell and La Sagrada Familia, both important works by the modern architect Gaudi, both an interesting mixture of past and present.  In Güell, the calm charms of nature once again formed the backdrop for the works of the present, although here, instead of looking out over them, we found them mingled with the bushes and the trees, oddly placed yet somehow at one with their environment.  La Sagrada Familia was also an interesting mix of old and new – construction began in 1882 and will continue for at least another half century, so some of the building is visibly aging while other sections have the pristine whiteness of fresh fabrication.  We sat on a bench in the park across the street from one of the completed sides, the Nativity façade, trying to take in the enormity of sculptural details that all function together to tell the story of why Jesus came to Earth, contrasting it in our minds to the more modernistic angular austerity of what we had seen in the Passion façade on the other side. 

Walking through the streets around our hostel at night, we experienced an incredible mixing of history and modernity – the crooked paths of the Barri Gótic (gothic neighborhood) were lined with touristy shops and restaurants nestled in among buildings whose architecture represented an age gone by, hordes of tourists pouring through the narrow channels in search of the essence of Barcelona or maybe just some place good to eat.  In the plaza in front of the beautiful, if somewhat dilapidated, cathedral, we came across the curious (and apparently weekly) sight of rings of Catalans in their regular, modern clothes dancing the sardana, the age-old traditional dance of the area, to the sound of a small live orchestra, celebrating tradition in the middle of a gawking crowd of invaders with cameras for eyes and map for minds. 

View of the port from Montjüic

Monday, we spent the day hiking through the vast grounds of Montjüic, a hilly promontory next to the port that combined yet again the durance of nature and the changes of a contemporary culture.  Not only were there magnificent views of the sea and the city, there were historical gardens and palaces once inhabited by the most important people as well as a modern art museum and the sports complex that hosted the 1992 Olympic games, everything connected by both quiet shady paths and busy paved roads. 

The Olympic Stadium
On Monday evening, as we waited for the hour to come when the overnight bus would whisk us away back to Madrid, we sat on a bench in the overlap area of the port and Las Ramblas, one of the most famous and touristy streets in the city, talking and watching the masses of people milling about as the sun set behind the bulky outline of Montjüic and the colors faded from the sky.  The sea breeze fluttered the sails of the boats in front of us, and the water softly washed up against the pier, a reminder of the durance of the natural landscape on which the city has grown; the Monument a Colom (Columbus Monument) stood out against the lights of the city, a reminder of the glory that Barcelona and Spain as a whole has seen in its history; the rumble of traffic filled the air around the large works of contemporary art that lined the port walk, a reminder of the modernity that has integrated itself with the natural and human history of the city.  The contrast of past and present was stark, obvious, yet perfect in its starkness, beautiful in its obviousness – it was Barcelona, city of both the old and the new.
Sunset, and the end of the trip