10.28.2010 - 11.03.2010
The last few days in Spain have been extremely varied, from seeing one of the greatest sites so far on the trip, to shopping and spending like a bunch of tourists, to trying to waste the day without spending anything, and finally just counting down our last few days in Europe. We left Sevilla for Granada not really sure what to expect. I’d had a bit of an argument with the Hostal owners, and tickets to the Alhambra were completely sold out online and on the phone for the holiday weekend. We navigated through the old city and eventually found our place, with parking, as we weren’t really into taking risks with the car at this point. My first impression of Granada was that it reminded me a lot of Cuzco, Peru. It is perched high in the mountains and surrounded by desolate plains; it is lined with cobblestone streets, some poverty, nice churches, and of course tourists, all converging really to see La Alhambra, and then spend their money at the surrounding shops. But these weren’t the typical type of tourists that I was accustomed in Europe, a lot were hippies. These were traveling hippies, with colorful and obviously new pants, white boy dreads, the kind of people that look like they came for a month and stayed for a few years. On the other end of the scale were the weekend tourists, filling the jewelry stores and boutiques. I liked the feel of Granada though. It had an interesting blend of over touristy trinket shops, a huge Muslim population selling shisha and falafel, some nice restaurants for tourists, and then tons of pedestrian only stone streets lined with tapas restaurants, and there rule in Granada is that you get a free tapa if you buy a beer. The attitude is mellow, the streets are all inlayed in white and black stone patters, and the maze of streets up into the hills is overwhelming and tiring. As soon as we were shown to our bare bones room we were told that we could go to an ATM in town that sold Alhambra tickets, so we set out, and were very happy when we were able to buy two tickets for an 8:30 entry time, right when it opened the next morning. The alternative was that we would have to wait in line outside for a few hours hoping to get one of the remaining tickets, and since it was a holiday weekend, we had been expecting to have to begin to wait in the cold at 6 am or so.
We woke up a bit too early the next morning, and while it was still pitch black we headed out of the well located Hostal, which was on the street leading up to the entrance to La Alhambra. When we got to the entrance it was just us two and two very nice Canadian girls and we chatted and watched the sun rise behind the Alhambra, and then we were the first ones let in to see the Alhambra that day. This was a great break for us, because even the Japanese tour groups didn’t get in until 9 am. We hurried through the first room to get ahead of the rest of the people and were amazed at this Moorish Palace filled with trickling water, astonishing ceilings, peaceful courtyards, amazing Arabic phrasing on every wall, and a feeling of peace and calm. I studied La Alhambra a lot when I was in college, but like Machu Picchu, reading about it and seeing pictures really doesn’t capture the amazing detail and scale of how remarkable the palace is. In short, this was my favorite site in Europe. I was just so amazed at the detail that went into every bit that was both beautiful and elegant, but not overly pretentious as is the case in so many Catholic churches or medieval castles that we’ve seen. Also, I can’t stress how magical it was to walk through without other people near us, to be able to stop in the courtyard and just here the water running along the marble aqueducts, or just gaze at the view from the curved doorways of the city down below without being pushed out of the way to make way for someone’s photo. We toured the gardens and the museums after seeing the Nazaries Palace, but the palace really was worth every penny. Go early!
So now, we’d seen the palace, eaten some tapas and we still had two more nights, and unfortunately there isn’t much else to do in Granada, and the options became even fewer when it started to rain. I finished two books that I’d been struggling with and we went for short walks in between storms. We ate a few tapas and enjoyed the amazingly cheap beer. We worked on buying gift replacements for the ones that were stolen in Lisbon, but mostly we just anticipated heading to Madrid and even started to plan what we were going to do once we got to Brazil. We headed out early to Madrid on a Sunday morning; it was a five hour drive through the rain and into the spread out capital of Spain. The terrain here is pretty desolate, it’s dry and arid, and there seems to be nothing growing. The people in the north say that outside of the cities in the south, the population does not work. This was confirmed to us when we saw nothing going on anywhere. The people outside of the cities live in a socialist system, where the government is forced to subsidize the nearly 20% unemployment rate by giving 400 euros a month to keep their people from starving, and therefore most of those people feel no real incentive to work.
We arrived into Madrid and were assured that we would be safe and free to park on the street for a few days since it was Sunday and then a holiday on Monday, so we wouldn’t get a ticket. We had felt pretty fortunate that we’d found a cheap place to stay in the city, as during holiday weekends, it is packed, and our normal websites didn’t give us many alternatives. A quick Google search pulled up a small B&B, which we booked and were greeted by the older Argentine couple that owns the place. These two are the friendliest, most talkative, and most Argentine people I’ve ever met. They were so sweet, but Eduardo was also quick with the borderline offensive joke or comment, the strongest opinion in the room, and had a thousand hilarious stories or anecdotes for any situation. Our room was small but very cute, everything had been hand painted, there were little antiques everywhere and we felt very happy and welcome there. We didn’t really have many plans, except the plan of doing nothing, but Eduardo told us that we were fools and had to do a whole list of things, because Madrid is the best city in the world, he said, after Buenos Aires of course! We walked through the city on a chilly night and waited for an hour to get into the Prado Museum, supposedly the best painting museum in the world. It was nice, the Goyas, the Velazquez’, and other Spanish painters had a nice distinction from most of the northern European art that we’d seen. I really like the use of shadow and method to give a three dimensional appearance. We’ve seen enough museums already and since it was free night at the museum it was absolutely rammed, so we sped up through the rest of the exhibits, ate a cheap and terrible dinner and headed home.
The other days in Madrid followed the pattern of heading out in the mornings, relaxing and taking a siesta in the afternoon, then eating a cheap dinner. I replenished a few clothes, tossing out well worn t-shirts and other things and shopping in this fashionable city. I liked walking the streets here as the city is spread out but easily accessible by foot as everything tends to lead to exactly where you need to go. We walked the tiny streets in the shopping district, where small stores were giving way to cheap boutiques and vintage stores, and art galleries were placed in the corners of architectural offices, and everyone was happy to talk to us and explain the direction of the story, the city, or the country. We found an amazing market where we at great cheese, croquetas (breaded fried balls of cheese and goodness), fresh and smoked seafood, and lots of great Spanish wine. I then found a wonderful taco bar, with some of the best Mexican food I’ve had in way too long! We talked for an hour while scarfing tacos with the Brazilian woman who worked there, and after a farewell free shot of Tequila, we began to feel like we’d experienced everything that we needed to in Europe. The next morning we got up and headed out to kill the day, with an evening flight ahead of us, we wanted to tire ourselves out a bit. We bought some last minute gifts and stopped by a ham shop. Now ham is taken very seriously in Spain, it is all aged, and it is left hanging in the shops by the hundreds with a little plastic cone underneath to catch any drippings. All of them are covered in a pleasant mold wrap, and although we have eaten ham in sandwiches and such, we haven’t had a plate of just ham so far in Spain. We wanted to buy a package of ham to take with us and we walked through the legs of ham perched on a stand where the gentleman would slice off a micro thin slice for us to try. We tried a few that were good, but then we tried a ¬reserve Iberico, aged three years, and literally it was different than anything I’ve ever tasted in my life. It wasn’t salty, it was just meaty and a bit oily, but it was so soft that it almost dissolved when it hit the tongue. The finish lingered like an amazing wine, and it was so good, that we bought our package, then headed back the previous nights market where we split a plate of ham, enjoying every bite.
So now we leave Europe, what a trip it’s been here. We’ve been here for more than four months, and have really seen so much since we got here. This continent is so varied, from the calm and beautiful beaches of Greece and Croatia to the chaos and screaming of Napoli and the rest of Italy. We’ve seen the structure and eccentric nature of the Germans, and the relaxed and “whenever I get to it” attitude of the French. I’ve learned a lot about history, culture, language, and us, and seen us have the best nights ever, and the most difficult days of the trip. I’ve been blown away by Paris, Salamanca, Barcelona, a glass of wine, a piece of ham, or perfection in the form of Fois Gras, laughed with friends, and had romantic dinners of rabbit and ridiculously good cheese looking out at the Eiffel Tower on our patio in Paris. Most of all though, I think that going through this with Flavia has been the real treat, the growth of our relationship, the merging of our minds, and the way that we have grown so close, so content with each other, and matured our relationship to the point where we can make it through anything, and in some cases have endured some extremely difficult times. I loved Europe, I loved this part of the trip, and I’m so happy with my life and excited about the future and the possibilities and the hopes that we can bring what we’ve learned here to whatever adventure we take on next.
Next stop… Brazil!