Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Holiday in Spain

Ok, this post is rather overdue so expect it to be a bit of a long one.  I promise to include a lot a pictures so that there is at least something pretty to look at while you read.

This year's winter break took me to Spain.  Turkish Airlines had a good deal on tickets (just over $500 round trip from Almaty) and so my parents, who work in the middle east, and I agreed to spend our holiday together in this hope-fully-warmer-than-Kazakhstan country.

After spending virtually no time in any of the cities (and consequently having absolutely nothing on which to base the following statement), Our first stop, Madrid, was my favorite of the Spanish cities that we visited.  While I have no doubt that there were thousands of tourists in town for the holiday, it didn't feel forced or fake. Instead, it felt like a major European metropolis: fast-paced, busy, and colorful.  For our one day in town, we visited the train station (to get our tickets for the rest of the trip sorted out) and the nearby Reina Sofia where we spent way too long on the first floor before discovering the magnificence of the second and third floors.  If I ever visit that museum again, I'll be sure to go to the second floor first next time.  We spent the twilight hour of the late afternoon exploring the Parque del Retiro and finding dinner along the always-busy Gran Via.

The next morning we were speeding southward through olive tree-dotted hillsides on one of Spain's high-speed Renfe trains to Seville.  The train was comfortable and fast.  It frequently exceeded 300 kilometers per hour and we arrived in Seville just two hours after leaving Madrid.  Our stay in Seville was short and the one afternoon we spent in town was just long enough to enjoy the orange-tree lined streets, eat a very delicious meal, and marvel at Seville's massive Cathedral Catedral de Santa MarĂ­a de la Sede.  Now on my list of great buildings to re-visit some day, this wonder of architecture holds a million delights from the massive double set of organ pipes perched high above the floor, to the tiny courtyard with a single marble basin to the treasure rooms (common - they're called TREASURE rooms) and, of course, the bell tower (the Giralda) which gives you an amazing view of the city.

Pueblos Blancos - White Towns

Arcos de la Frontera, Spain
Our ultimate goal was to spend the bulk of the holiday in the Pueblos Blancos or white towns of Andalusia, and so the next morning we boarded a bus bound for Arcos de la Frontera where we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The old part of Arcos lies high above the surrounding landscape on the narrow plateau between two cliffs.  The town rises steeply on both sides and many of the streets are really staircases making a good portion of the town inaccessible to cars.  We stayed in a small apartment chiseled into the rock of the cliffs.  Our landlord informed us that the apartment was once a coal storage facility that was later converted into living quarters. From our sitting room window, we could see the reservoir far below and hear the buzz of the vespa motors as they sped up the cobbled street.  We spent our days exploring the narrow, cobbled alleyways and staircases, and even took a walk down into the valley to get a good view of the town below. 

The town was festive for the holidays.  Christmas carols played from loudspeakers mounted on light poles all over town and a ceremonial arch and pretty blue lights brought a festive air to the village.  On Christmas eve we stayed up until midnight to hear the ringing of the Christmas bells from the town's churches, and on a wet and dreary Christmas morning, we happily munched on "nun cookies" the delicious chocolate cookies we'd purchased from the town Convent before braving the rain to have a feast at one of the local restaurants.

On the 26th, after misreading the bus schedule a couple of times and then asking the bus drivers for directions, we caught a bus northward about half an hour to Villamartin, where we had a picnic lunch and then caught another bus eastward across the top of the Sierra de Grazalema natural park to the famously picturesque town of Ronda.  Our original plan was to make the two-hour bus trip in the morning, but with the stop-over in Villamartin, we didn't cross the park until mid-afternoon just as the grey of the clouds began to break into glorious light.  The mountains and cliffs of the park took on a magical hue as the golden light gradually lit up the green slopes.  We arrived in Ronda shortly before dusk, found our hotel just across from the bull ring, and set out to find dinner.

The view from the bus window en route to Ronda
Bull Ring in Ronda, Spain

We spent our two days in Ronda wandering around the cobbled streets, shopping in the little boutique shops selling everything from hiking gear to candy, walking in the vineyard and olive-grove dotted countryside, sampling wine at the Wine Interpretation Center, and just generally relaxing.  We, of course, visited the bull ring (the birthplace of modern bullfighting), and spent quite a lot of time along the gorge (El Tajo).  While quite a bit more expensive than Arcos, (and practically packed with tourists), Ronda's beauty - and the ease in which one could walk out into the country side, makes this beautiful little town one of my favorites.

The "new bridge" in Ronda Spain
The countryside around Ronda, Spain
Ronda from a distance

A fountain in Barcelona, Spain
The morning of the 30th we caught the bus back to Seville, and then jumped on a train to Barcelona on almost the complete opposite side of the country.  I'm not usually one to cross an entire country for a two day stay, but time constraints meant that we had to leave Barcelona for Madrid the afternoon of the first.  In Barcelona we mostly shopped and meandered through back streets marveling at the lengths of the lines to get into museums.  Note to self: line up before the museum opens.  Of all the places we visited, Barcelona felt the most "touristy."  The old town took on an almost plastic "disneyland" does-any-one-actually-live-here kind of feel as throngs of English, French, and German speakers filled it's narrow streets and alleyways.  The newer parts of town felt more balanced.

Our last morning, we dropped our luggage off at the "Left-Baggage" in the Train station, and took a walk up to the art museum and the Olympic park.  From the top of the hill we gazed over the rest of Barcelona: the skyscrapers on the other side of town, hidden from us in the center by hills and monuments - when I go back, that is what I plan to see.  For me, the coolest thing in Barcelona is the ultimate expression of useful art, a giant steel dragon sculpture with a staircase in it's mouth, and fun/fast slides down it's tail and wings.  Every city should have art that can be sat in and played on.

Art to be played on Barcelona, Spain

Madrid Cathedral
My last day in Madrid, I saw my family off and then wandered the streets in the rain.  I went into the Madrid Cathedral to get dry (I'm afraid the beauty of Seville's cathedral ruined met - Neither Barcelona's, nor Madrid's did much to impress) and later found a sporting goods store to pick up some yaktrax for my Russian Tutor before catching the bus to the airport.

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