Monday, November 12, 2012

And Now Onto the Capital of Spain - Madrid

Before I left for Europe I reserved a spot on the AVE express train from Sevilla to Madrid. It's about a 2.5 hour train ride, and if you book early enough you can get cheap tickets. I have to say it was quite an easy and nice travel option. You can arrive close to your departure time unlike airlines and hop on your train and go. The train station in Sevilla was clean, which in my head I don't think I was expecting it to be. There were a few cafes, shops and chess tables to pass the time.

I hopped on the train, which was quite comfortable with plenty of leg room. The train felt much quicker than I was expecting and it was cool to see some of the country side of Spain. I'd def recommend the train!

I arrived in Madrid and transferred to the Metro downtown. I got off at Puerto Del Sol, the center of Madrid, which to me was the equivalent of Times Square in New York. It was quite crowded with street performers, tourists, Mickey, Minnie, and Smurf Characters. I quickly found my way to my hotel at Plaza Santa Cruz. For those that know me it was a bit much for me, as I'm not one for crowded locations.

I had read that the Prado Museum was free on Saturdays after 6, so I decided to take advantage and venture that way. The Prado Museum is an art museum containing many pieces of work by Goya, Velazquez, El Greco, etc. While it was cool to see some of these famous pieces of work, it was mostly the Old Christian type of paintings dating back to 1700-1800's. Those typically aren't really much of an interest to me. I'm glad I went during the free time!

I was getting hungry and tired so I ventured home and stopped in a few tapas places along the way. That is one of the things here, people just tend to stop in and grab a drink and bite along the way - a pub/dining crawl of sorts.

My hotel was situated in Plaza Santa Cruz, right by Plaza Mayor, a famous square built in 1619 (another tourist trap). Going to sleep fairly early on a Saturday night was a bit difficult! There was so much commotion outside, as the Spanish tend to stay out late.

The next day I woke groggy and made my way to the Royal Palace. I did stop for some Churros con Chocolate, a big thing in Madrid. The Churros were a little different than I'm used to. I was expecting more of a sugary donut type thing, but they were not really sugary or sweet alone. They were still pretty good.

The Royal Palace is one of Europe's great palaces, behind Versailles and Vienna's Schonbrunn. Just outside of the Palace is a cathedral and some gardens. I took the tour of the Palace, which was interesting and quite Ornate. The Throne room was pretty cool to see. I always wonder what it must be like to be royal and live in such a grand place.

After the palace I stopped at a cafe for a drink and a bocadillo (sandwich). After, I was so tired that I took a 2 hour nap, which was amazing since I didn't sleep well the night before due to the commotion. When I woke I made my way to Calle Cava Baja, south of Plaza Mayor. Per Rick Steves, this is a street that fills with mostly young, professional Madrilenos "prowling for chic tapas and social fun," right up my alley. I stopped in a modern, poshish establishment for a glass of wine and a pincho (bite size tapa). There was another solo tourist, a girl from New Zealand, who came in and sat by me. It was nice to have someone to chat with, and exchange travel advice. We decided to try a few other establishments along the way. It was a fun night. I made my way home and had a much better night sleep. Sunday night is not quite as lively as Saturday!

This morning I woke and decided to checkout Gran Via, the area my brother's colleague recommended I stay. It was a little more modern and reminded me more of Michigan Avenue/Gold Coast area in Chicago. I then decided to head back to the area by the Prado and make my way to Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the modern art museum and house of some of Picasso and Dali's works. My New Zealand friend recommended it. Plus Picasso is one of my favorite artists. I'm hoping to hang out and go later in the day when it is free. I'll kill some time hanging out at Retiro Park.

All in all it's been a great trip, but I'm excited to meet up with some familiar faces in Bristol, UK tomorrow. My Spanish has been rusty and communication with others has been minimal. I'm also excited to see a new city through a local's eyes versus doing the super touristy thing.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sevilla - A Charming Spanish City

Next stop on my itinerary was a couple day trip to Sevilla in Andalucia, the southern part of Spain. It was a quick and cheap flight from Barcelona; one of the benefits of Europe are the cheap flights allowing you to easily visit different destinations.

I was welcomed to the city with some rainy weather, not quite what I anticipated as it is typically a warmer, sunnier climate, and rain was in the forecast for the remainder of my time in Sevilla. Wonderful!

I made my way to my hotel (a quaint little place in the heart of Barrio Santa Cruz) just in time for a siesta and decided to take advantage.

When I woke I decided to take part in an evening paseo (stroll) per Rick Steves' recommendation. At first I couldn't quite figure out the streets and where I was going, the rain picked up, so I popped in a cervezaria at a nearby plaza for a cerveza and studied the map. I went back out to the streets, which are narrow, cobblestone lined streets, some are meant for cars (super tight squeeze) and some aren't.  I found the heart of Barrio Santa Cruz. It was a charming and lively street lined with orange trees, shops and restaurants. At the end of the street was the Cathedral. I instantly fell in love with the city. Below is a picture of my first impression of the street.

I wandered around and then popped in a local establishment for some tapas and sangria. It's tough to order tapas for one person; I wanted to try a little of everything but knew three or four orders would be too much for one person. So I settled on two, which were still a bit much but good. I then ventured to a little bodega (Las columnas) with a bustling atmosphere, filled with locals and tourists (another one of Rick's recos).

The next morning I woke and ventured back to Mateos Gago street (same street as the previous night) for desayuno (breakfast) and planned my site seeing adventure.

First stop on the adventure was a visit to the Cathedral, which is the third largest in Europe (after St. Peter's at the Vatican and St. Paul's in London). Previously this was a brick Mosque that had been torn down in 1401 by Christians to build the cathedral. The most interesting thing for me to see was that tomb of Christopher Columbus carried by four kings located at the front of the Cathedral. While There, I was stopped at one point by the Sacristy (where the priests get ready) for a procession of priests coming from the Royal Chapel to the Sacristy, there must have been a mass that just took place or something. Next I made my way to climb the Giralda Tower (the bell tower). It is about 330 feet up and offers great views of Sevilla. It was also a way to avoid the rain a little longer. It was a pretty cool view and not a bad climb since it was a ramp taking you up vs. stairs. The rain had settled and I made my exit through the court of orange trees. I love all the orange trees in this city.

Next on the agenda was a visit to Alcazar, originally a 10th century palace for Moorish governors. Today, it still operates as a Royal Palace, one of the oldest in Europe. The design and decorated halls have an Islamic style that seemed familiar to some of the sites I saw when traveling in India. I spent a good deal of time wandering the halls and gardens. The gardens were really pretty. I also loved all the mosaic tiles. When the rain picked up, I stopped by the cafe for a quick read and snack.

Since I knocked out the main tourist attractions and must sees, I decided to spend my last day wandering around Plaza Nueva and Plaza Encarnacion (a square with a bold, modern architectural design). I wandered through the shopping area and over to the bull fighting ring, waited out the rain at a cervezaria with my kindle and a cerveza, took another paseo. Once the rain finally cleared I grabbed an outdoor table for some vino and tapas. I took in the lively atmosphere, people watching. My favorite little game I liked to play with myself was to guess the nationality of passerby's, trying to guess their language. After a little while of sitting there (meals and such are definitely not rushed like they can be in the states) I made my way back to The hotel for the evening.

All in all it's been a lovely couple of days spent in Sevilla. The city is charming and I felt safe at all times. There also was a bit of a romantic feel to the city. I would love to make it bake for a visit and to add Cordoba and Granada to the agenda!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Estoy en Espana - the Barcelona portion

Hola de Espana!

I've been enjoying the last five days in Spain! I began my trip flying into Barcelona, where my brother and nephews picked me up and we went to their place in Castelldefels, a beach city just south of Barcelona. We spent the afternoon celebrating my nephew's third birthday. I then took advantage of my niece and nephews' nap time with a little nap myself to overcome my jet lag.

Post nap we headed in to the city at Camp Nou to watch the Barca Futball game. That was a fun experience. The Spanish really get into the game, and are quite focused. There aren't too many distractions with little advertisements and no alcohol,everyone is solely focused on the game, cheering and chanting. Interesting note, one of the chants was about independence for Catalonians, which my brother later explained many Catalonians want to break off and form their own country, separate from Spain.

The next day was a bit of a low key day hanging with my brother's family before my sister-in-law and niece flew back to Amsterdam for a funeral. It was nice to hang around their house, which they live just off of La playa (the beach), especially since I was still a bit jet lagged. We took my nephews for a walk down the beach with their big wheels (not a common toy in Spain) and picked up some pizza. My brother and I capped off the night chatting over some wine.

I wish I could say I spent the next day site seeing in Barcelona as I had planned, but I didn't. Apparently, John and I polished off a few bottles of wine and I wasn't feeling so hot. So I spent the day hanging out at his house with my nephews who also happened to have a sick day from school. it was nice to spend a little more time with my nephews and get over that jet lag. Plus I knew I would be doing plenty of touristy things later in the trip.

My last full day in Barcelona and I did make it into town! I managed to navigate the bus from Castelldefels to Barcelona. I grabbed a quick bite to eat by Placa de Catalunya, the center of the city, and acquainted myself with my surroundings. I then wandered over to Las Ramblas, a big tourist filled street filled with shops and restaurants. I wandered in and out of the alleyways, and found myself at one of the bars I frequented when I studied abroad 10/11 years ago, La Oveja Negra.

I knew I wanted to see a couple of sites that were a little further out from Placa de Catalunya and Las Ramblas, so I decided to do one of those hop on hop off buses. I was going to do the Fat Tire bike tour but I did not make it in time and this seemed to work out well. It was a great way to see more of the city in less time. I also could hop off at the spots that were of interest.

The first stop I hopped off was at Sangrada Familia, an unfinished gothic church. This is one of Gaudi's most well known pieces of work. He began working on Sangrada Familia in 1883 until 1926, when he died. The church hasn't been completed and isn't expected to be until 2026 tentatively. It is a quite impressive design! I did not make it inside due to a long line and lack of patience, but I know I will make it back again and will make time to go inside. I've seen pictures and it looks pretty amazing.

My next stop was Parc Guell, another design of Gaudi's. It was about a ten minute walk uphill from the bus stop. Parc Guell was one of my favorite stops of the day. There were several mosaic designs, and some fun architectural stairways and columns built into the park's design. There was an interesting mosaic dragon fountain as you climb upstairs to the "hall of 100 columns.". Looking at some of the columns, it seemed to be a bit of an optical illusion. At the top was a big outdoor space with mosaic benches overlooking the city. I believe there is more to the park but I hit up the main attractions and made my way back to the bus

After Parc Guell I rode the bus and saw some additional sites while making my way back to where I started. I got off at Placa De Catalunya and walked up the street to see some more of Gaudi's work: Casa Batillo and Casa Milla. I did not make it in to tour Casa Batillo (I'm pictured in front), as my day was running short and Rick Steves recommended touring Casa Milla over Batillo. Next time I'm back in Barcelona I'd like to tour Casa Batillo. Gaudi's work is quite impressive, I was blown away by his rooftop design (pictured below). I spent quite a bit of time snapping away up there. It was great lighting as the sun was just beginning to set. I'd highly recommend checking it out. I then hopped on the bus back to Castelldelfells to enjoy my last night with my brother's family before heading to Seville the next day.