Thanks again for reading!
Sunday, April 1, 2012
Portugal is... OK. It's hard to be inspired to write a creative, interesting and exciting blog entry about a trip that was, for me, just "OK," but I'll do my best to keep your interest as I share with you my reflections on our little four-day excursion to Portugal.
On one hand, the group trip to Évora, Lisboa, Sintra, and Belem was a great refresher in terms of the scenery. Everything I saw was just so green in comparison to Cádiz and the other completely urbanized Spanish cities that I've visited! Having lived for over two months confined by cityscapes, I was at first completely taken aback by the lush fauna and sprawling grassy hills that surrounded us during the bus ride into the country. Then it completely put me at ease as I was soon reminded fondly of the thriving landscapes that I am accustomed to back home in the Pacific Northwest.
On the other hand, Portugal is quite. Portugal is subdued. I've acclimated to the Spanish custom of flocking to the streets and to your neighbor's and to the plazas to mingle and socialize whenever possible. In stark comparison, it was initially difficult in Portugal to find anyone to interact with (granted the exception of other international tourists, and drug dealers). When, on occasion, we did manage to speak with some of the locals, I discovered that they are quick to jump the Spanish-to-Portugese language barrier and speak instead explicitly in English. As a result, I feel as though our trip, although pleasant in general, was strictly an excursion as opposed to the immersion that I've enjoyed in Spain.
An anecdote: One friendly native does stand out in my mind, and I remember our exchange fondly and with a compulsory chuckle. Several of us went out one night for late bite to eat, determined to sample the local fare (a few of us were unclear on what, exactly, "Portuguese cuisine" entails). After walking for a few blocks and considering a several different menus, we wound up in some hole-in-the-wall restaurant that was empty except for a large, rowdy group tucked into the back corner. A cook up front was hard at work flipping tender strips of meat and vegetables on a flattop grill, and the aroma that wafted from his station was overwhelmingly enticing. We were sold! After the owner/maître d' greeted us with a warm bom dia, we asked if he had menus available in Spanish. "Sim, sim! Of course!" he told us as he ushered our group to a table. "What would you like to drink?" After a short wait and returning with our drink order, the man begins to deal us our menus, saying as he does so, "You don't speak Portuguese? No? Well, you speak Spanish," he continues, "...same thing!"
Of course, having already ordered our drinks and being seduced by the amazing smells coming from the cook's area, we probably would have ordered from that menu had it been written in Braille. But, kudos to that crafty bastard who swindled us with his wit and humor! He joked with us for the rest of the meal, which I can say without hesitation, was divine. If you're in the mood for Portuguese: Order frango! This barbecue-chicken dish will practically melt in your mouth.
Other memorable moments of our trip include an ascent into the Serra da Sintra, around 45 minutes from Lisbon. Nestled in the clouds (yes, it rained upon arrival), Sintra is famous for the spectacular palaces and parks that decorate its mountainous landscape; the most notable among them being the 600-year old summer residence of the Portuguese royal family and aristocracy. We toured the Pálacio Nacional da Pena, and Castelo dos Mouros for several muggy hours, taking full advantage of the great photo opportunities:
Several things for you to note:
1. The hazy gray-blue of the sky. Very reminiscent of WA.
2. There's no one leaping into frame at the last possible second; this is because everyone in Portugal, who's from Portugal, takes great precaution to avoid other people at all costs. Unless it's to lure you into their restaurant.
3. It's... so... GREEN.
We also went to some other very photographic places. Such as the Castelo de São Jorge:
Cabo da Roca (the westernmost extent of mainland Portugal and continental Europe):
And Boca do Inferno; Hell's Mouth:
All in all: Portugal is... OK. Yes, I got some great dynamic photos, (should I ever desire to enter a photography competition, I'll be ready) but I'm still left with the feeling that I didn't get much more than that out of our trip.
...Not counting the souvenirs, of course. There's a-a-always the souvenirs.
**Although I am entirely in agreement with this analogy, I can't take complete credit for coming up with the idea to reference (now and forever) Portugal as "Spain's Canada." A group of us mutually decided on the nickname while chatting about the trip with our gaditano crew over a few beers. Now having been to Portugal, it's funny to realize how absolutely perfect a moniker it is. (:
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
(JODER. I definitely haven't meant to leave my blog for so long, but I got caught up in studying for an overly complicated linguistics exam as well as writing a lengthy essay, in a mad rush before we left for a four-day trip to Portugal last Thursday. Alas! I'm back, I'm caught up on school work, and my goal is to update The Dawg's Abroad with the rest of my Barca/Lisboa/Cádiz adventures and get my loyal readers caught up---all four of you, that is.)
Arc de Triomf
In an overly large group, we crossed several streets unknowingly because the paved thoroughfare approaching this landmark is totally unremarkable. As an example, the guys and I snapped the above photo (while we were waiting for the 15+ dawdlers) and I bet at first glance, you didn't even notice the Arch in the background! Its image is obscured by the dusty, hazy Barcelona afternoon air and its wow-factor, its "oomph", is diminished by the plain pathway that leads up to it. But now that I point it out, can you see it? I, spy...
Going under the Arch of Triumph (Arc de Triomf in Catalan) is an odd experience, by stark comparison. It is silly to feel a certain thrill just by walking under a bunch of bricks but there must be some kind of intuition that senses history when approaching a monument, that makes us pretend we are a Roman soldier entering the city while fellow citizens wear laurel wreaths on their heads and make the victory sign with their fingers. Well, you know what I mean: You might remain indifferent while approaching a majestic structure like this, because of the plain-Jane surroundings, but it's easier to get carried away when faced with these monuments, while the pale, ghostly faces of our ancestors stare down at you from the friezes.
In all honesty, there's not a whole lot to say about our afternoon at the beach. We got separated from the guys, saw a glimpse of the water from afar and thought, "Well, why not?" The other girls and I kicked off our shoes and dug our feet into the sand, walked a few kilometers from one end to the other, and fought the wind when it blew hair into our mouths, the whole time gazing longly at that sparkling blue water and wishing, dammit, that it was warm enough to take a swim!
On Friday, the majority of our group jetted to Dublin and left Jason, Jeremy and I to our own devices. I wouldn't say that the rest of our trip was so enjoyable solely for the fact that we didn't have to stop every 30 feet and wait for everyone to catch up, but it helped. The first place that we went: The Picasso Exhibit!
"Don't take pictures," they tell me, as I'm approaching the penultimate room of the exhibit. Oops.
Marina con casas en primer término
Playa de la Barceloneta
I particularly like this series that Picasso painted during his earlier time in Barcelona, and I thought my American mama would too. The colors in particular are so earthy and warm that it's obvious to see how his Mediterranean inspiration is reflected in the work. I'd like to do my own renditions of these someday; another excuse as to why I broke the "no photography" rule.
Portrait of Benedetta Bianco
Jason, Jeremy, and I of course saw some of Picasso's more well-known works of art since the exhibit is pretty comprehensive, and includes a substantial amount of paintings and sculptures in one artistic style after another. The Blue Period, the Rose Period, Expressionism, Cubism... Picasso seemed to continue his work in a series of experiments that really never ends. Although, I have to say, I personally prefer paintings such as the ones above, to even the most famous of paintings, like Las Meninas. Here, for example, is good comparison of Picasso's earlier work, which I prefer, to Las Meninas, which he painted several decades later when he was already all "cool" and "artsy":
Mujer con mantilla
The detail, in particular, is what makes paintings like this so beautiful to me. From close up or far away, it's easy to appreciate Picasso's ability as an artist (and envy him for it, of course).
...and then there's this. It is famous, yes, but the image of the "dog" in the foreground actually made me laugh. That's all I'll say.
La Rambla & El Mercat
Monday, March 5, 2012
Here, I have composed for you a list of the things that I had upon returning from five days and four nights in Barcelona:
- $12 USD in my checking account
- three or four extra pounds (just in time for beach weather, yay...)
- a cold and a cough
- a very special souvenir for my American mama that nearly got seized by airport security (it's a surprise!)
And, most importantly:
- the most significant, enjoyable, and lasting memories that I've made on this trip thus far
Truthfully, it's been a struggle to even begin this blog about Barcelona, because I feel as though my words won't do it justice. I can't adequately describe everything that I was fortunate enough to see and experience (and eat), or how quickly infatuated I've become with "Barca," as it's affectionately called. What I can tell you is that if you have an open mind, two feet, and a pair of comfy shoes, Spain's second city will almost certainly enchant you as well! Here are the highlights:
Taking the Metro
Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I have absolutely no innate sense of direction. I get disoriented walking in the front door and exiting out the back. For this reason, my initial reaction to the elaborate, 11-line and over 150-station subway system was pure terror. The first time we navigated the subterranean labyrinth I had flashbacks of myself in the first grade, when I got off at the wrong bus stop and cried the entire fifteen-minute walk home. However, Barcelona's metro connects to just about every place my group and I visited during our stay, and with the T10 pass we managed to get around easily with ten rides for just €8,25. Plus, at every turn and station platform there are color-coded route maps that show transfer locations, line numbers, and end stops, so with a little luck and through the incredible power of reading, I made it out alive. ...Although I did get stuck in a metro gate with Nolan for several humiliating minutes.
Gaudi's Sagrada Familia
You have to wake up early to get in line to see architect Antoni Gaudi's remarkable, unfinished cathedral, but once you're inside it's completely worth it. His unique and unusual architecture can actually be found all over the city but the impressive Sagrada Familia is certainly one of the most notable. The ground breaking of this impressive Roman Catholic church took place in 1882 and after taking the reins in 1883, Gaudi labored on its construction for 43 years until his death. Now, construction workers busy themselves behind the barricades as tourists snap shots of the finished pieces, which are an eclectic combination of Gaudi's design and Gaudi-inspired design.
Although La Sagrada Familia was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI just recently in 2010, and themes throughout the decoration include words and images from the liturgy, as a Catholic I'm going to say: I just don't get it. Especially in stark comparison with the incredible and ancient Catedral de Sevilla, La Sagrada Familia to me seems less of a church and more of a fun house. That's not to say the architectural and design work isn't impressive, but I think the sheer novelty of Gaudi's concept is the most interesting. It is certainly like nothing I have ever, ever seen before.
Parc de la Ciutadella
When I mentioned to be sure to bring a pair of comfy shoes to Barca, I meant it! Even though the metro is fantastic, there is just too much to see above ground. One example is the Parc de la Ciutadella, a gorgeous city center that we passed through on our self-guided tour. Here, father's pushed toddlers in strollers around a shady grotto, mom's puffed on cigarettes and walked their dogs. A gang of young boys kicked up dirt playing a rough game of fútbol, while nearby younger kids swarmed around a Gazebo laughing and shouting in fun, as kids do. We took a moment to stop and rest our feet, enjoying the sun and admiring the view...
...before climbing to the top to see the park from above.
Then it was on to the next!
(To be continued in Part 2...)
(To be continued in Part 2...)
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
I'd like to preface this blog entry by saying: Nothing can prepare you for Carnival. It's not something anyone outside of Andalucía could easily understand unless you have already experienced it, and I feel that Americans in particular have so few public festivals apart from Mardi Gras that it's hard for someone (like me) from the States to wrap their mind around all that this annual, 10-day celebration entails. In the same league as Rio de Janeiro, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and, of course, Notting Hill, the Cádiz Carnival is one of the world’s best, and it’s also the biggest and most extravagant anywhere in mainland Spain. Add in the fact that Cádiz was the first town in Spain to be granted its own Constitution and coincidentally celebrates its bicentenary this year, and you've got a raucous, riotous, satirical, colourful and exotic party the likes of which this American has never seen, dreamt of, or could even begin to expect.
...not for lack of trying, however. In the day or two prior to Carnival I experienced multiple waves of concern wash over me as my teachers at UCA, our incredible director Rita, and my host familia expressed two core principles regarding the event: "For the love of God be careful, but if you need anything at all, no matter what time of night or day, don't hesitate to call. I mean it. Anything," (not foreboding at all, right?) and, "Watch out for all the piss and shit in the streets. It happens." Hypothetically, if you had nine people tell you these things ad nauseum, wouldn't you be moderately concerned, too? Where is my Carnival informational pamphlet? Why doesn't Rick Steves write about these things?!
Although Carnival is advertised as having officially started on Friday the 17th, my fellow Dawgs and I had heard through the grapevine that the following night was "the best," and Sunday "even better." However, from what I saw on Friday night this unofficial itinerary didn't deter the locals nor the Washingtonians from getting the party started right away. As is Spanish custom, no one really planned on much happening before 10 or 11 PM. By then, the excitement in the air was so thick I could have drizzled it over pancakes. We eagerly congregated in the Plaza de Fragela, otherwise and appropriately referred to as the Plaza Teatro for the Gran Teatro Falla that dominates the square. This is apparently a popular place for day 1 of Carnival to take place, because until dawn the judges of a very large and important music competition** deliberate on the outcome, while the locals diligently wait, mingle, and drink outside until sunrise to hear their verdict.
I, however, did not make it until sunrise. The temperature rapidly plummeted and although I was bundled up in boots, two sweatshirts, a scarf, gloves, and my heavy winter coat, my hands turned a nasty shade of blue and I'm pretty sure I was on the brink of frostbite. Ultimately, it was the cold that drove me home at around 1 AM, but admittedly I wouldn't have lasted much longer than that had it been a balmy summer night. For one, at 10 PM the ridiculous costumes that everyone adorns were interesting and clever. I spotted everything from a herd of cows, to smurfs, tin soldiers, wizards, comic book characters, cops, Nazis, and Waldo from the popular kids' eye-spy book series. Even Gaddafi and Obama attended the festivities! A few hours later, however, the crowd had tripled in size and a large group of men dressed as condoms (with the invitation, "¿Te quieres probar?" or, "Would you like to try?" stamped across their chests) was getting a bit too rowdy for me. For my first impression of Carnival, I was just too overwhelmed to fully enjoy myself, but the rest of Carnival stretched promisingly ahead. Maybe that's why they make it last ten days?
Although I went home Friday night feeling a little in over my head, I really, really enjoyed myself with all that Carnival had to offer Saturday night! My friends and I dressed up in our disfraces as well; a peacock, a candy cane, Cleopatra, a Cheshire cat, a chef, and Jason and myself in awesome (his was a little creepy...) Venetian masks! The evening started with another huge mob scene-- this time in Plaza de San Antonio, where a huge stage had been erected.
See that cannon in the photo above? The stage crew had managed to get several atop the buildings on either side of the plaza, so when the lights dropped and the spot light shone...
...it was as though the French were actually attacking! Cannon fire and gunshots rang out overhead, while an MC on stage prefaced the Siege of Cádiz of 1812 over the sound system. The rest of the show was equally exciting, complete with great light effects, full choirs, and a cast of actors depicting the birth of Cádiz's constitution. Most importantly, all of it was imbued with a very empowering sense of gaditano pride, and while I'm obviously not a native it was fun to join in the anthems that I knew and celebrate being a part of this incredible city.
After the show, the rest of the night was a blur of excitement, crowds, and cheap wine. Street vendors lined the streets offering cheap bocadillos for hungry party-goers and everywhere people crowded around in indistinguishable groups talking, laughing, and making friends with whomever (inevitably) bumped into you or asked you for a spare cigarillo. Thanks mostly to these crowds, it was IMPOSSIBLE to mobilize, but also in part due to the condition of the streets. Remember those warnings I had received? Easily the least glamorous part of Carnival was everyone's blatant disregard when it came time to use the baño. Girls squatted in doorways, while men peed on everything from cars to trashcans all in spite of the fact that the city had taken measures to place temporary bathrooms and port-a-potties in every plaza. I cannot get much more graphic than tossing the words "puddles" and "sewage" out there. Ugh.
Sunday was another wonderful day, not solely for the fact that I was finally able to Skype my family, but also because I was able to Skype my family right before seeing an amazing fireworks show on the beach, as well as an amazing nighttime parade that words cannot describe. Fourth of July, eat your heart out.
The overall quality and creativity of these floats was ASTOUNDING. I didn't think to get photos of some of my favorites until it was too late, or else they came out too blurry. Regardless, I wish you could have seen the life-size Asian elephant, the HUGE mechanical man, the giant lumbering dragon, and an amazing float of showgirls dressed like Napoleon atop a French naval ship. Waves, dolphins, tridents, and huge heads representing the gods of the wind and sea adorned them. Even the people who accompanied the floats on foot were dressed to the nines in incredible and elaborate costumes; a spectacle all their own!
Although I had my reservations in the beginning, Carnival has proven to be an amazing experience! Now I understand why no one can ever really prepare you for its festivities (although I wished someone had warned me to bring muck boots...). As it turns out, my favorite parts of Carnival didn't include staying up until all hours of the evening drinking just for the sake of drinking, but instead were focused on the actual reasons behind the celebration. I would be overjoyed if the US or even just our nation's capital could put together some of these extravagant displays of patriotism and shows for our own Independence day! At least I'll always have the memory of celebrating my gaditano pride in the biggest, raucous way possible.
**The Falla's Contest is a music festival held in the Gran Teatro Falla before Carnival and, to a certain extent, is a relatively serious competition as the show is televised across Spain. Competition is keen, and contestants spend months in preparation (we got a preview of some of the acts back in January during Erizada and Ostionada). The most popular type of group is the chirigotas, choirs normally of ten unison or close-harmony singers that dress alike in ridiculous costumes and for the rest of Carnival clog up the streets with the crowds of people who stop to watch and listen. Some are accompanied by bombo, caja (anything to be used as a percussion instrument), and guitar. My host madre explained that their repertoire is exclusively satirical, but you have to speak really, really good gaditano to appreciate the nuances (dammit).
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Andalucia’s historic and cultured capital, sultry Seville, is the soul of southern Spain. Moorish legacy and Catholic ceremony rule the city: once you’ve explored the enormous cathedral, climbed the Giralda and admired the Alcazar, feel welcome to unwind in the sun at the Plaza de España, and wander leisurely amongst the re-imagined 17th-century casitas that stand over the winding labyrinthine streets of the old quarter. Post-siesta, dine on gazpacho with prawns and filo-dough wrapped cola del torro at one of the city’s tapas restaurants before catching a fiery, foot-stamping flamenco performance (and try to accomplish it all in just two days!).
Although I've recently passed the one-month mark since my arrival to Spain, I still consider myself a complete and utter novice when it comes to traveling abroad. However, we do have a few pro's here with us; my friend Nolan has previously been abroad with the León program, and Taylor has had some incredible adventures back-packing through Europe with her older sister. For our two-day stay in Sevilla, they both did an incredible job of taking the reigns and I can't tell you how wonderful it is to have two private tour guides with you!
First, we explored the Real Alcázar de Sevilla.
The Royal Alcazar of Seville is the oldest active royal residence in Europe and I can vouch for my tourist-phamplet's claims that the structure's exceptional architecture is that of unmatched beauty. It was commissioned in the early 10th century by the Muslim kings that ruled the city, then rebuilt and enriched with new palaces since its recapture by the Christians. From the Alcazar's historical description alone, you can anticipate the kind of breath-taking beauty that we were privilege to enjoy. Both inside...
...and out. The gardens here have understandably been recognized as one of the largest and most beautiful in Europe, and feature nearly two hundred difference species. Imagine 50,000 exceptional square meters featuring an expansive mixture of architecture and nature under the permanent presence of the murmur of water. While we explored the palace and its gardens for nearly two hours, I still feel as though I could have spent the entire afternoon there and still not see everything. Although of everything we managed to get to in the time we were there, my favorite part wasn't, in truth, the incredible gardens. Although impressive in their size and beauty, there was a frigid Iberian wind blowing through all of Sevilla during our entire stay. The gardens, more or less unprotected, were insufferably cold and unfortunately diminished by random scaffolding left there by re-furbishers. Instead, my favorite part was wandering into a large, otherwise un-notable room off of one of the palace's many patios. There, incredible tapestries soared from the floor upwards to vaulted ceilings and were composed of staggering detail. Their historic, religious, and artistic value literally left my mouth agape. Although I considered trying to capture a few photos, in my heart I knew my little digital camera wouldn't do them justice. Here is an image I pulled from Google, just to give you an idea:
While I may have been able to remain there for a few hours more, when I witnessed a few members from a French tour group stretch their greasy hands across the velvet rope and start tugging at one of the incredible tapestries, I knew it was time to go. How do you say, "Didn't your mom ever teach you to keep your hands to yourself," in French?
The Plaza de España was a great stop before lunch! To one side is a fantastic park in what's apparently called a 'Moorish paradisical style' with a half mile of: tiled fountains, pavilions, walls, ponds, benches, and exhedras; lush plantings of palms, orange trees, Mediterranean pines, and stylized flower beds; and with vine hidden bowers. Unfortunately, like the gardens at the Alcazar, the park was rendered much less impressive by random construction tape, broken ground, and (inexplicably) several tons of melting ice (your guess is as good as mine!). The Plaza, however, did not disappoint. The complex of the Plaza itself is a huge half-circle with buildings continually running around the edge, accessible over the moat (complete with hirable gondoliers) by numerous beautiful bridges. In the centre is a large fountain which is almost IMPOSSIBLE to photograph without random smatterings of people running through the frame. Such is life. By the walls of the Plaza are many tiled alcoves, each representing a different province of Spain, where people laze about in the sun and people-watch.
The Cathedral of Sevilla is not only breathtaking, but awe inspiring. You can't miss it. The cathedral dominates the old town center, sitting on the site of a mosque dating from the 12th century. Outside, the sunshine, oranges, fountains and fresh air mingle with the chatter of horses’ hooves on the stony streets. However, the closer you get to the threshold, the more ominously the structure towers over you; foreboding. Not only is the cathedral the largest in Spain, it is the third largest in the world. Its 80 chapels reportedly held 500 daily masses at one time.
Inside, shut away from the fresh air and sunshine, I had an unexpected emotional reaction. When it came to first impressions, the inside of Seville’s sprawling cathedral left me cold. I saw gloom and scaffolding, dust and darkness, while the dreams and shadows of the Spanish Inquisition lurked behind locked gates and doors. The eleven of us quickly split off into small groups, or else wandered freely by ourselves to take in the impressive architecture, astounding laborious statues, divine alter pieces, and other works of art.
One of the most famous sites inside the cathedral is the gold altar piece, Retablo Mayor. It took 44 years to complete the 36 gilded relief panels that depict scenes from the Old Testament and the lives of saints, a culmination that claims the title of largest alter piece in the world.
Another spectacular find in the cathedral is the Tomb of Christopher Columbus. It is believed that the bones of the famous explorer are in the raised casket. According to my handy-dandy informational brochure, DNA testing is currently underway to find out if they really are. The suspense is killing me!
It would be a photographer's dream come true to be able to capture some of the incredible sites encompassed under the soaring vaulted ceilings of the cathedral. Most of us had issues with low-quality resolution, ineffective flashes, or otherwise inconsiderate French/Canadian/French-Candian tourists who seemed determine to leap into the frame a millisecond before the shutter clicked (do you know the term "photo-bombing"?) as we tried to document everything. I swear, it would be easy to waste a lifetime there following these simple (and unavoidable) steps:
1. See something incredible
2. Take a moment to react and reflect
3. Decide to take a picture
4. Attempt to take said picture
5. Wait a moment until people move out of the way
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 about three times
7. Give up or get lucky
8. Move approximately two feet away from where you were
9. Repeat steps 1 through 8