Monday, January 24, 2011

The Last Leg

Thence began the most miserable part of my trip. I arrived at the Sevilla train station, after a harrowing race against time and through a maze of streets, to find out that the bus was later than advertised, and as soon as I got to the station, I experienced what would become a regular painful pang that told me it was time to find a washroom quickly. I went in the disgusting bus station washroom, found it crowded, and dashed into the street to find another place, running into a tapas bar. The next 15 minutes was nature's way of telling me that I needed to get home eventually and find a doctor.

It's times like this in which travelling alone is unpleasant.

I got on the bus, concerned about the lateness of the time, and grew quickly nauseous over the bumpy roads heading south. The fellow beside me spoke absolutely no English, but offered me something to eat out of his bag, and I politely accepted. It was a pork rind, I decided, and I ate it. It was vile. I thanked him politely, and, in a show of unwanted generosity, he surprised me by pouring a huge amount into my hands.

I ate them, and their effects on my already parasite-tainted body were wholly unpleasant. There was no bathroom on the bus, but it did stop at what seemed like every local village. As the sun went down, we by-passed the depressingly industrial outskirts of Cadiz, and I started to wonder how long it would take.

South and south we went, now in the darkness, until I could see across the straights of Gibraltar to Africa. The lights of Tangiers, Morocco glowed brightly. I got off in Tarifa, quite late, and was on my own to find a hostel. A friend at the hostel in Sevilla told me that rooms in Tarifa were both cheap and plentiful. Neither claim was true. After almost an hour of walking around, I found a seedy place for just over 20 Euros.

Feeling sick in a dingy room in a small town across from Morocco, I guess I should have felt like I was having an adventure, but I had had enough adventure for then. I went to sleep, and woke up to see if I thought anything better of the town in the morning.


But I still decided to explore the place.

Tarifa is one of the principal ports from Spain to Tangiers, Morocco, with ferries running every hour. It was amazing how close Africa was. There was a certain dinginess about the place. I had read that Tarifa is known as being the mecca for windsurfing, with great winds making conditions ideal, but I saw little of that while I was there.

I walked down to the beach, and decided to go for a quick dip. This is the point that separates the Atlantic from the Mediterranean, so I went for a swim in both.

I soon trudged up the main street, hauling my suitcase, and hopped on a bus to Gibraltar. The steep mountains, covered in turbines, looking across the straits to the Rif Mountains, were magnificent. The process of getting to Gibraltar was labyrinthine; I had to get re-routed on a city bus in Algeciras and was dropped just shy of the border. Gibraltar was clearly and dramatically visible from a distance,with a 400 metre tower of a rock rising straight out of the ocean. I arrived there and got through a joke of a border crossing (I didn't even have to stop walking, as I merely flashed my passport). As soon as I got in, I had to walk cross the landing strip for Gibraltar, pausing for any planes that land, and arrived in an English city set in the Mediterranean.

I briefly walked through the town, got a cable car up the Rock, and enjoyed a vast view of the Mediterranean. I found some nice Dutch people to take my picture. I was enjoying the view, but I realized it was time to go home, back to Canada. I realized I really, really missed Canada.

And I needed to see a doctor.

My homeward journey began here.

I took a train to Malaga airport, and slept poorly on the floor. I flew to Paris, then to Montreal, and I have never been that happy to be home. A thunderstorm delay and a short hop of a flight to Toronto later, and I was in Toronto. Did it ever feel good to sleep on my own couch again!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I left Cordoba, a quiet town, called the Damascus of the West (and a town at the centre of the "9-11 Mosque" debacle), and took the bus for Sevilla, a very busy city by comparison. Sevilla is the biggest city in southern Spain and is that region's commercial centre. It is also said to be a town which typifies Spanish culture, sort of a display of Spanishness on steroids. Its bullring, along with Ronda's, is considered the most important in Spain, sort of a Montreal Forum of the sport. Its barrios (historic neighbourhoods) are the birthplace of flamenco, that most Spanish of art forms. It also has the most over the top Santa Semana (Holy Week) celebrations, where men with hoods looking eerily close to those of the Ku Klux Klan parade through town with their crosses and candles and statues of the saints. Months after these parades, the ground is still covered with black splotches from their candles. There are literally dozens of parades during Holy Week, the most dramatic of which features several especially devout men carrying a huge float of the Virgin -- get this -- on the back of their necks. The float weighs hundreds of pounds, and they carry it in shifts for the entire day. Sevilla is famous for its parties in the street, its labyrinthine barrios, and its particular brand of folk dance, which I heard being described as plucking an apple from the tree, twisting it off, taking a bite, throwing it to the ground, and stomping on it, all the while snapping your fingers and looking your partner passionately in the eye. "Passion" is a word you hear applied to Sevilla and its residents a lot. It definitely has a very romantic feel to it, despite its size. The character of Don Juan was based in Sevilla, and there is a statue of him to this day. Any resident of Sevilla can quote you the Spanish poetry which, according to the legend, allowed him to seduce a nun.

Originally (no surprises by now) a Moorish city, it was taken at around the same time as Cordoba, and it became a more important port and commercial centre. Its location on the Guadalquivir River, upstream from the Atlantic Ocean, is still navigable by ocean-going vessels. For this reason, it was the port of departure for Columbus' voyage of discovery, and was the chief Spanish port for the discovery of the New World. It was here that the treasure fleet brought back enormous quantities of New World gold and silver, mined or taken from the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas. You can almost imagine the ships coming back as you stand on the banks of the Guadalquiver. The great piles of lucre that must have come through this port left their mark on Sevilla. It is filled with grand architecture which is very particular to that part of Spain. The King of Spain currently keeps a converted Moorish castle here, letting tourists look at it while he is not there. I did not go to see it, as I was sight-seen out.

I did, however, see what is one of the most prominent sights in the city, the Cathedral of Sevilla. Architecturally, I found the Mezquita of Cordoba to be very interesting, but the Cathedral of Sevilla overwhelms in its sheer volume and grandiosity. In fact, it is the third largest cathedral in the world, after the Vatican and Saint Paul's in London. It had a series of treasure rooms, where the church holds statues, rosaries, and crosses which dazzled the eye with gold, silver, precious woods, ivory, and gems. There were other rooms dedicated to sacred paintings. The cathedral also has the largest alterpiece in the world, which is over-the-top, to say the least. First of all, I would estimate that it was about the area of the small hockey rink, maybe a little smaller, laid on its end. Oh yeah, and it is all gold, as far as the eye can see, with around 50 scenes of the saints. A tad much for me. There is also another, smaller one, made out of silver. They only use that one during Holy Week. I can only imagine what it would be like for a 17th century townsperson to come in and be bowled over by the wealth and power of the church. The bell-tower was interesting. It used to be a square minaret, with a ramp going up to the top, so that the first muezin, who was disabled, could ride it all the way to the top. It was quite a trip up, giving you a magnificent view of Sevilla.

My first job when I got to Sevilla was to find a place to stay, according to the usual pattern. Sevilla is huge compared to the other cities I was in, even just its city core. Also, its streets are more winding and harder to navigate. This made finding a place hard. I overheard these students talking about a hostel, checked it out, and took it. It was the first place I stayed in that was like the hostels that you hear about, with 6 people staying in seperate bunks in each room. It was nice, though, with every person getting their own safe, free internet access, a kitchen, free breakfast, a pool, and lots of social events. I also met some interesting English-speaking people there which was a nice change, and I went around with them for a while. I paid for a tour of the bullfighting ring, as there were no fights on, and that was interesting. The tour-guide was a stereotypically hot-blooded Spanish girl, who started quarrelling with one of the guests, and seemed to be really into the bullfighting scene.

It really is a dangerous sport for all involved: bull, bull-fighter, even occasionally for the fan. While I was there, I saw a picture in a magazine of a bull-fighter getting gored through the mouth by a bull's horn. He lived. On the other hand, just the other week, I saw an article
in the news of a bull in Spain that got into the crowd and injured quite a few people. They are really quite feisty, those bulls. No wonder they go for confession before every fight; they also have two operating theatres on site for every bull fight. I came to have a certain respect for the bullfighters, as they do a dangerous job with a sort of panache. It's kind of like a mix between an art form and a sport, one which runs in families like a trade. Hemingway, who was quite a fan,
called it the only art form where the artist is in danger of death, and in which the degree of brilliance is left to the performer's honor. Walking past the corridors leading to the bull-ring actually got my pulse up, as I imagined what it would be like to walk onto the ring as a matador, knowing either you or the bull were going to die.

I took a walking tour of the city from an Australian guy who lived there, and it was fascinating. The city has quite the history. We went past little courtyards in houses, where it is culturally acceptable to walk into someone's place to look around, as they are quite proud of the way they take care of their gardens. On a sad note, we went to "El Calle Muerte" (the Street of Death), a Jewish ghetto where the inhabitants were savagely killed without warning, during the brutal years of the Spanish Inquisition. Sites relating to the Inquisition are still there to see, as Sevilla was quite prominent in this unfortunate part of history, but I opted not to go see any.

In the evening, a group of us from the hostel went to go see a Flamenco show in one of the most famous barrios in Sevilla, right across the river. On a side note, if you ever listen to the song "Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows, I realize it very well could have been inspired by Sevilla. Flamenco was not what I expected. It's kind of a gypsy thing. There are three components to flamenco. Guitar, voice, and dancing. It's also free-flowing, not being planned ahead. The guitar is highly rhythmical. The voice is not for everyone. One girl I met described it as being like "an Indian rain-making dance". It was definitely very emotive, almost like yelling, with the guy screwing up his face like he was constipated beyond remedy. I was told the lyrics were about bad things happening in love or missing one's home turf, nothing new there. The dancer would occasionally get up and stomp her feet and swing around in time to the music. I thought it was fascinating, but not everyone liked it. The same girl described the dancing as looking like something that one would do at gunpoint.

Regardless, Sevilla was interesting, but in the end, not my favourite, as it was really big and hard to find your way around. I stayed for a couple days, contemplating making a run for Portugal at one point, but ultimately opted against it, as I would not be able to do it justice in roughly 24 hours, and I would exhaust myself in the process. It was in Sevilla that my parasite became fairly apparent. In my last hours in Sevilla, I swung by their free fine arts museum, whizzed through it, and took my bag to the bus station, which was really hard to find, around all the medieval walls of the city, across public squares, and through gardens. I met a lot of nice people at the hostel, and one guy who helped run it told me about a city called Tarifa. It is the southernmost city in Spain, and in Western Europe.

He said that the hostels there were cheap and plentiful. This was on my way home, kind of, and en route to Gibraltar, so I decided to take a bus and wing it when I got there.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cordoba Part 2

I fell asleep that night and slept like a baby, waking up later than I thought, and I rushed off to the Mezquita. I met Amy and her sister, and we got in for free, as the mass was going on.The Mezquita was a phenomenally interesting building, one of the most interesting I saw in Spain. It started as a Visigothic church, 1500 years ago, and one could see remnants of this inside. The Moors took over and built the greatest mosque in the West over the site. It is impressive, with a sea of red and white striped pillars inside, hundreds of them, along with a beautifully decorated prayer wall. Then, the Catholics conquered the area in the 13th century, and built a cathedral -- get this -- inside the mosque. Where there were quranic verses, there now are spaces for images of the Virgin Mary, and in the middle of the mosque, there is an incredibly ornate Cathedral with elements of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. Much of it was built in the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a time when the Catholics were vying with the Protestants for control over Europe. There were incredible amounts of mahogany and decoration which staggered the eye.
Outside of the Mezquita was a courtyard with orange trees where swallows were flitting around in circles, as if they were playing in flight for the mere joy of it. We then got some food at another highly recommended restaurants in the area. We tried orange with salted cod and bull's tail, which was quite tasty.
We checked out a museum which covered the area's history since the earliest inhabitants, thousands of years ago, continuing through the Celtic peoples, and then onto Roman and Moorish history. There were tonnes of Roman artifacts, from statues of gods and goddesses to early Christian art to crypts with skeletons inside. Then, I fell asleep in a sunny courtyard outside. Before supper, we all parted ways, which was kind of sad for me, as I enjoyed the company. I spent the evening walking around by myself, trying some different food before returning back to my original hostel.
As much as I enjoyed Cordoba (it was a favourite of mind), I woke up the next morning and headed out for the bus station and hopped on a bus for Sevilla.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cordoba Part 1

I got on the bus, and left behind the camera debacle as best as I could.

Now, Granada was the easternmost point I went to in Spain, and Cordoba was going to be the northernmost. Granada was a bustling centre of students and a hub for a lot of tourists, while Cordoba was described by Lonely Planet as being a city in the midst of a very rural area. The two cities did contrast. Even the journey over was different. While there were mountains on the way to Granada, the road to Cordoba was one of very gently rolling hills, with olive groves as far as the eyes could see. I wondered, as I looked out at the groves, how the whole world could eat as many olives as there must be growing in this area. At times, the olive groves were replaced by fields of sunflowers or wheat stretching from horizon to horizon.

When the bus rolled into the station, I started the game of getting my bearings again. I walked to the historic centre, stopping only to eat some snails at a roadside stand and pick up some free Team Spain gear that someone was handing out. I looked around and around for a hostel, playing the "let's find an affordable, non-crappy place to stay" game. I was starting to feel desparate when I saw a tiny sign for a "Pension", which I had learned was a type of place to stay. I walked down the narrow side street, and checked it out. It was a beautiful, quiet house with a courtyard inside and this kind of old guy running it. I was one of the only people staying there, and he told me I could have a whole floor to myself. I took it for 18 Euros. It was an even nicer place than the one I had in Granada. As a bonus, the place across from it was a music conservatory, and you could hear the sound of pianos being practiced softly. I bought some groceries, and the people who ran the hostel let me keep it in their fridge.

The whole feel of Cordoba was very peaceful and quiet, yet with lots of rich history. Its quietness contradicts its history. It was the capital of a Roman province, a Moorish caliphate, and it was one of the first cities in Andalusia taken back in the Reconquista. During its Moorish period, it was (I think) the biggest city in Europe, and the centre of research and culture, with a university hosting the finest Muslim, Christian, and Jewish minds. In short, it was one of the most happening places to be. All of these era left their mark on the city. Now, it feels very quiet, like as if it retired and thinks back now on its former years. As per custom, I left my bags in the room, and I went to wander the streets of Cordoba. It was much more walkable than Granada, being smaller. My place was located less than a minute or two from "La Juderia", the old medieval Jewish part of the city, which was phenomenally cool. It was, again, hauntingly quiet, with gorgeous, narrow streets which were at times narrower than my arm span. This neighbourhood was like a labyrinth, but I still soon stumbled on the Mezquita, an old mosque with a cathedral built inside it which I will talk about later on. It was beautiful, even from the outside. I walked a little further and found the Guadalquivir River, with an intact Roman Bridge crossing it. I walked on the Roman Bridge and watched the sun set over the old medieval mosque with the river flowing beneath me. It was stunningly beautiful.

I thought about having supper, then I just started watching a World Cup game from the window of an eatery. All of a sudden I heard, "Hey Steve!" It was Amy again! We caught some supper at a place that used to be a monastary. The food in Cordoba was really good, with a regional specialty being Salmorejo, a cold soup with tomato and lots of garlic, and ham and eggs on top. It was seriously delicious. I've had gazpacho, and this is way better. Then, we wandered the streets and found an old Roman temple devoted to the worship of the emperor, just in the middle of the city, as if it were no big deal, then wevgot some ice cream in an old 17th or 18th century square. Amy had found out that if you wanted to go to the Mezquita, it was free if you went early in the morning, so we arranged to meet there the next day.

I went to bed, and slept like a rock...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Granada Part 2

I'm almost ashamed to say what a difference getting settled into my hostel made to my outlook. Before, you feel homeless and out of place. After, you are ready to go exploring. So, exploring I went.

I immediately walked up the hill from the Spanish Catholic part of town to the older, Moorish section. I sound like a broken record, but the streets around the Albaizin were beautiful and narrow and winding. I wanted to case out the Alhambra, where it was, how much tickets were, etc., for the next day. I asked around, and went up the cobblestone streets leading to the very big hill it was on. What a walk it was! After the heat of the Spanish sun, the path went up into beautiful deciduous trees which reminded me of Ontario woods. On either side of the path watered flowed in a sort of pebbled stone trough, which made a delicious gurgling sound. It was a long way to the top. Afterward, I wandered the streets of the Albaizin, taking in the atmosphere. It was that night that I was to have my worst ever meal in Spain. I went from place to place asking if they were open, as it was around 8:30. They thought it was ridiculous that I would want supper that early, as restaurants only begin to open for supper after 9 PM. Businesses are also usually closed during the afternoon for the siesta, even banks.

However, I found a place that was selling a salad with asparagus, cheese, and ham. This sounded good, so I ordered that, with a drink. The salad came, and it was downright nasty. Pale pieces of iceberg lettuce, with bits of processed cheese, little squares of processed ham, really terrible olives, and canned, pale aspargus, all drowning in mayonnaise that they had just squeezed on in a gridiron on top. I honestly couldn't finish it, and that's saying a lot, as I will eat a lot of stuff. When the bill came, it cost me 9 Euros, which was ridiculous. Feeling ripped off and unimpressed with Granada, I went back to the hostel, bought some fruit juice and went to my room, where I fell asleep before 10, I was so exhausted. I still had not had a really solid night since my mountain experience. I woke up to a drunken guy yelling at his dog in Spanish, made a phone call about my camera to the bus station, and found out that I would not find out decisively until the next morning for some reason. I decided to just enjoy myself in Granada for the next day.
I wandered in search of breakfast and found another sub-par meal, which seemed to be becoming a theme in Granada. It was just the smashed up pulp of a tomato on top of toast. It was cheap, and since my bank card wasn't working, I wasn't going to be prodigal about it. The cathedral was close by, and I stopped in during Mass, as this was the only time the Cathedral was free, and I was curious. It was interesting seeing Mass in a Spanish cathedral, particularly one built in the last city taken from the Moors. I believe it was built right over top of their old mosque. I didn't understand anything the priest was saying, but I'm pretty sure at one point he did the Apostle's Creed or the Lord's Prayer. I checked out the cathedral after. It was not as big as Malaga's, but still interesting. By this time I was ready for some English speaking company, as I was missing Abe. I heard these girls speaking English in an American accent as they were looking around at the Cathedral, and I got talking to them. They invited me to check out the Alhambra with them and walk around the city, and I was pleased to oblige. It was nice to have company. They were dentistry students from Texas. We exchanged travel stories; they had just come from Barcelona and Valencia. We wandered around in search of lunch and found a place where, after we bough a drink each, the owner brought out a free paella and potato salad thingy. It was glorious. Afterward, we checked out the Alhambra. It was impressive, with vast gardens, Moroccan-looking rooms, and vistas looking out over the city below. There was a theatre that the Catholics had built later on, and a separate medieval Moorish fortress inside, with really cool look-out towers. Unfortunately, when we went to see the star attraction, the inner palace, we were told that we had not come at exactly the time our tickets said we should, and we could not be let inside. "It's impossible," the gate keeper said. I suggested that it was not impossible, he could just let us walk in, but that did not change our situation appreciably.
It would have been cool... a friend who did go there said it was amazing inside. But I was enjoying the company and was not too bothered. All this walking around was tiring us out, so we were looking for a green park to just chill during the late afternoon sun. As I was walking in the city core, I thought I heard a voice yelling "Hey Steve!" I looked around, and it was Amy again with her sister! What a welcome sight. My American friends left for a park, and I switched to hanging with Amy and her sister. My debit card wasn't working, so we spent the better part of two hours finding a place to call North America to get it to work, when we finally got it to work, it was quite exciting. We walked around the city a bit, and then we went to a Bodega (winery/restaurant) where her sister had read some of the best eats in Granada were. So far, my Granada experience was underwhelming gastronomically, so I thought I had nothing to lose by going there. It blew my mind. It was busy, and just locals were there. We couldn't get a table so we stood at the bar, in front of 6 enormous casks of wine. We each got something to drink, and it came with some really good, generous tapas. Then we decided to get a cold platter, and it was tremendous. It cost only 15 Euros, and it would have been enough to stuff four of us. It had local cheese, breads, jams, smoked salmon, and loads of meat. It was there where I was introduced to the tinto de verano ("the colour of summer"), a Spanish drink mixing a bit of wine with sparkling lemon soda. It was delicious and refreshing. We had a really fun time there, then we went for some good Spanish ice cream and had a good chat. I made sure they got on the bus back to their hotel, then I went wandering one of the famous tapas streets. I went home satisfied and full of good food, and I slept.
The next morning I woke up, went to make my phone call for my camera in the lobby of the other building, and got hassled by one of the servants and made to feel generally unwelcome. It's OK. It was time to go. I got on a crowded bus for the bus station. It was long, and the longer I was on there, the more ready I was to leave Granada. I made a last ditch attempt to find my camera, but it was ultimately fruitless, so I regretfully hopped on a bus for Cordoba.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Granada Part 1

I got to the bus station with my bag, and a nation of options stared me in the face. At the train station, names like "Madrid", "Barcelona", "Valencia", and "Sevilla" flashed across the departure list, with trains leaving several times an hour. At the bus station, Sevilla, Cordoba, Cadiz, Granada, and other smaller towns were options. I could even get a bus to Romania, but I quickly ruled out that option. I remembered reading a description of a route encompassing Ronda, Granada, Cordoba, and Sevilla in a book which we had on our coffee table at home called "National Geographic's 500 Trips of a Lifetime". That intrigued me and I considered these cities especially, a consideration which was not hurt by the fact that they were far closer than Madrid or Barcelona; all of them were within Andalusia. Check a map if you like. I had previously asked the guy at the desk in the hotel and the girl next door who sold flamenco dresses. They both listed Granada as the top city they would go to, and each of them liked either Sevilla or Cordoba and were ambiguous regarding the other one. Also influencing the decision was the fact that I read that there would be a big bullfight in Sevilla the following day, and this was considered, along with Ronda's, to be the greatest bullfighting ring in Spain. However, I realized I couldn't do everything, and I decided to start off with Granada.

I got my ticket, hopped on the bus, ate a pear and part of my sausage, started reading my book, looked at some of my pictures, and fell into a fairly uncomfortable sleep on the way to Granada. The scenery was mountainous, much like the way to Ronda. Three hours and about 9 Euros later, I arrived in Granada. I heard some girls next to me speaking English and saying they lived in Granada, so I ran out and asked them what to look for in the town. While I was still in the train station, I sadly noticed that my camera wasn't in my pocket, I rushed back to the bus, less than 90 seconds after leaving it, and it was gone. The next few hours were an ordeal, talking with the station information desk, tracking down the bus number, sitting outside what I thought was the bus, etc... the long story is, I couldn't get it back. Theft is widespread in Spain. I was unspeakably disappointed, as I love that camera (I still hold a fool's hope of finding it again), and it cast a cloud over the next while. I realized how much easier things would be with Abe, who spoke Spanish.

Eventually, I realized I had to go, though. Thus began the process of exploring the new city. I can safely describe the process of seeing a new city in Spain in terms of several stages.

1. Arrival. Arrive in the city. Mentally tell yourself, "I am in x. Cool." And, in the future, carefully check your person for everything valuable you should have.

2. Initial let down. You get to the city and were expecting beautiful architecture and history. Instead, you are surrounded by Spanish convenience stores and dilapidated sticks. You realize that you are outside the city centre, and you ask where the city centre is in your best Spanish, which, if you are me, is pretty bad indeed. Bonus points if you ask an interesting person.

3. The journey to the centre. Whether by bus or by foot, you get yourself to the historic downtown, and you begin to be relieved that it doesn't all look like a let-down.

4. The search for housing. You realize that you need a place to stay that night. You feel slightly anxious, fearing the worst. You wander narrow cobblestone streets, dragging your big bag, looking for anything that looks like a hostel. You want something decently nice, but not too expensive. You drag your bags up an entire set of stairs to reach the front desk, only to find out that the rooms are 90 Euros. Too pricey. You keep walking, and your standards start to slide. Maybe you already had a reservation, but you are trying hard to find it on unlabelled streets. You finally find one, and pay slightly more than you told yourself you wanted to.

5. Settling in. You put your bag in your room, feel relieved, and start thinking you could enjoy this new town. You find a map, explore, and get some food in your belly.

6. The visit. Check out everything you want to see.

7. The nudge. You start feeling like you've enjoyed this city, but it is time to see the next one. You hop on a bus, and start the cycle again.

That's the basic pattern. I felt really selfish just living for Stevo, sleeping where I wanted, eating what I wanted after being responsible for a bunch of people. It was like being a bachelor on steroids.

Back to Granada...
After doing everything I could (and I mean everything, spending several hours) to find my camera, I made a booking at the bus station for a hostel, as they had a little booth there set up to get people hostels. 17 Euros. Not bad. I realize the booth may have taken a cut, as you can get places online for about 11, but I was in no position to be picky. The guy at info told me he could get me a cheaper hostel, and he gave me the address for one for 15. Stepping outside in Granada, it looked unimpressive mainly, with a road under construction, some fairly seedy restaurants across, and a McDonald's just up the street. However, off in the distance were the Sierra Nevadas, huge mountains which keep a snowcap year round, even in that hot climate. It was cool seeing snowcapped mountains there. I was told I had to take a city bus to the city centre, so I lugged my huge bag on the bus, paid my fare, and strained my ears and my eyes for "Real Porto" my stop, asking people around me fairly regularly if they knew where it was. You feel kind of vulnerable in a new city by yourself, particularly when your bank card is not working.

I got off at Real Porto, and the city centre was quite different. Busier, narrow cobblestone streets, fountains, old churches, etc. But I would check that out later... I had wasted my afternoon looking for my camera, and I needed to find a place to stay before I thought of anything else. I tried to follow a questionable map to the cheaper hostel, but the old man at the place I came to gave me a quizzical look when I tried to tell him I should get a room for 15 Euros. This one was much more expensive. I went back into the streets and tried to look for the place. I was tired, I was hungry, I was ticked off at losing my camera, and I was getting sick of not having a place to stay. I was even feeling a little bit lost. Granada is a really student-y town with a lot of hippy stores with statues of Buddha. I decided to try and find the first hostel, and, after not too long, I walked past a convent and arrived at it. It was like an oasis. I walked in, and was greeted by a landing with Catholic iconography and a picture of Jesus that said "Jesus is a friend who never fails" written in Spanish. It felt welcoming. Off to the side was a room where a Spanish grandma watched TV. A girl I assumed was her grand-daughter confirmed my reservation, took my passport, and gave me some keys, taking me to another, close-by building, walking me up the stairs and showing me my room. It was much better than I expected, spacious, with a sink, a bed, a desk and a chair, and two windows opening out to the street. She didn't even want me to pay her until the morning. It felt like a Godsend. I still think of the YMCA song when I think of that place, for some reason. What a relief it was. I left my bags in the room, freshened up, and prepared to go out and explore the city.

Let me give a brief intro to Granada. Granada was the last city occupied by the Moors, and it surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabel, a famous Spanish King and Queen, in 1492. That's not too long ago. Partially as a result of that, the city feels quite Arabic. Parts of it really felt like Morocco. The most well-known place in Granada is the Alhambra, an old Moorish palace with fantastic architecture. I believe it was there, in 1492, that Isabel and Ferdinand met with Christopher Columbus to commission him to make his voyage of discovery. The Alhambra is on a big hill, and there is a lot of up and down in the city, with cobblestone streets. Also well known, across from the Alhambra, is the Albayzin, an old medieval Arab neighbourhood, with incredibly narrow and winding streets. Granada is a big student city, with a famous university and loads of students, and some male students there have a dorky habit of growing one really long thin braid. They will regret having pictures of that when they are older. Granada is also famous for its tapas culture, where free tapas are given with every drink that one purchases.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Abe and I had good time in Malaga as we were waiting for his emergency passport to come in, but I really wanted to check out another city on a day trip, since I felt we had Malaga fairly cased. We went in to the consulate on Friday morning as soon as it opened (10 AM for those industrious Spaniards) and, low and behold, his emergency passport was there waiting for him. There was nothing keeping us from staying in Malaga. We made a mad-cap dash for the bus/train stations which lay on the other side of the city centre, I with a big backpack and wearing sandals. The bus, typically, was not keeping to its advertised schedule, and we had a few minutes to pick up some lunch at a grocery store. We did, but ended up making another mad-cap dash for the bus, with two minutes to spare. At this point in time, we decided to be more conservative in our scheduling.
Ronda is somewhat west of Malaga, about two hours, above the Costa del Sol in some nice mountains. The drive was a pleasant one, going through little villages whose primary industry seemed to be pressing olive oil. We arrived in Ronda in the early afternoon, found a map, and headed for the historic centre, stopping only at a video store so Abe could ask if they had "Nacho Libre", an old, presumably very awful comedy which he was obsessed with finding. No dice.
Now, a word about Ronda. Ronda is, quite simply, spectacular. It is the largest of what are called "puebla blancas", Spanish for white villages, a fairly self-descriptive term for white-washed villages in the mountains which the Moors made for defensive value. Ronda is one of the most scenic, as it is situated high on a mountain side, with a 100 metre deep gorge gouging it through the middle, and two magnificent old bridges spanning the chasm to the medieval part of the city. The streets were narrow, steep, and winding, with old men and school-children walking inclines which at times were around 45 degrees. Old churches, monastaries and shrines littered the streets; it would have been nearly impossibly to even walk by all of them. I particularly liked a beautiful, centuries old fountain which the local kids drank out of. It provided cold, clean mountain spring water in the hot dry weather of Andalusia. The town was incredibly beautiful, historic, and peaceful.
We approached the old Arab gates to the city, going by old tanneries and baths which were around a thousand years old. We saw old winding paths going down the river, which in turn flowed out onto the valley floor, littered with olive groves and wheat fields. Guitars were played softly in the streets. How do I describe the sights there? Churches with horse drawn carriages and mountain vistas and old moorish tilework in centuries old houses. The old part of the city was hemmed in by mountain cliffs for about 270 degrees, making all but the most stalwart siege impossible. We checked out a free historical museum, and it chronicled the old Celtic, Roman, Visigothic, and Arabic history of the area. After walking and seeing many sites, we decided it was time to eat. We settled into a little restaurant, got some tapas, and watched the USA play Serbia in the world cup. It was a very satisfying day trip. It was there that I discovered that my debit card wasn't working.
Ronda was definitely one of my favourite places in Spain, and I would highly recommend it.

We got the evening bus back to Malaga, got some more cheap tapas, and stayed our last night in Malaga. In the morning, we checked out of the comfortable Hotel Tribune, I got Abe a taxi going to the airport, and I was on my own. I picked up some chorizo sausage and pears at the farmer's market, and trucked with my bag out for the bus station, blazing my own path.