The vices of Amsterdam

About the coffee shops…well, they can certainly be a fun part of the experience. You cannot buy alcohol in the same place that you buy marijuana or hash. And, in general, you cannot smoke marijuana in a bar (but you can sure smoke cigarettes, ugh). The idea, I assume, is to protect all the holiday smokers from a nasty combination (and the other patrons from the stupid behavior of f*ed up weekend warriors). Folks – you just don’t want to go smoke an entire joint after drinking beer all night – you won’t have a good experience. But most of the shops we saw in the red light district generally had stupidly stoned tourists slumped in chairs. I won’t judge but its seems to me that experiencing your holiday half-asleep inside a bar is not the way to go. Yet we western tourists do it all the time (an not just in Amsterdam – on many of our holiday trips). On a related note, the Netherlands outlawed the sale of “magic mushrooms” while I was there (Oct 31 was the last day to buy in Smart Shops) – sadly one too many tourist jumped naked into a canal.

Anyway, the neighborhood coffee shops were very low-key, with people stopping in for a bit and socializing, then moving on. I was told – although I have no facts – that only 4% of Dutch-born residents actually use marijuana. It is true that people in coffee shops seemed to be tourists and expat-types, although I suspect a lot of residents just take it home. I found the whole thing to be very civilized and clearly the way to go. In the Netherlands, perfectly respectable and responsible adults can purchase small amounts of a soft drug for personal use. It’s monitored, it’s regulated, it’s taxed. I won’t dwell on this but our government is wasting our money by including soft drugs in the (losing) war on drugs.

Happy Halloween!…update 10-31

I am doing well. I am in Lagos, at the beach, in southern Portugal. I loved the Netherlands but the grey and cold finally got to me. So last week, I hopped the first flight I could to the sun, ending up in Portugal. I procrastinated too long and missed my chance to join the backpacker tour I really wanted to do in Turkey. I thought about it for a few days and ultimately decided that I wonºt be going to Turkey this trip (but soon!) I was just not up for doing it by myself, both handling the touts and also planning everything myself.

Iºve learned a lot about my travel style and actually I really enjoy tours IF they are not hop-on-off-the-big-bus style. Iºve been blessed in the past to do really awesome tours with naturalist-type guides and you can learn so much more than from a book.

Anyway, I was really tired for a while with planning the day by day. You can spend A LOT of time figuring out where to go next…and for any of you that traveled a while ago, the hostel situation has totally changed. Places are booked up days, if not weeks, in advance and often walk-in spots are few. I am not one to wander around with my pack for hours, looking for a bed…I want to enjoy the place. So I sat down and planned (basics) the rest of my trip.

Iºll be in Portugal until 10 November, when I fly to Athens for my week on the budget cruise around historical Greece. Then I return to Spain (Barcelona again and Cordoba) for about a week and head home! I think Iºll be ready by then. I do wish I had more time on the road, but at the same time I am ready to see my friends and family. I definitely miss all you people. I miss our conversations and the comforts that come with knowing someone for while.

Eat some candy for me!

ps a moment of silence for my beloved Ricardo, who moved on 2 years ago today 🙁

Loving Amsterdam

(note that I wrote this while in The Netherlands but I never published it…not sure why. I’m trying to upload photos but am having technical difficulties)

I love the Netherlands. I love the place and I love the people. They are stylish but practical; helpful, friendly and open; bright with a sharp wit – I like the whole package and most of the things they do just make sense to me. It’s true that Amsterdam was cold and often gray, but I felt so happy and at home. Paige says maybe I was just rebounding from Paris, but I don’t think so. I was supposed to be there 3 days but I stayed almost 2 weeks.

We had a great little hotel on the edge of the Jordaan, overlooking a canal. We pretty much spent our days strolling along the canals and soaking in the everyday scenes. Our first night there, we met a woman from England who was traveling by herself. The three of us hit the red light district right off to get it out of the way. There really are red lights everywhere, by the way. If you’ve been, maybe you were as surprised as I was by the literal name. It was a Sunday so it was fine and fun…picking out dildos for each other, staring at women in the windows, gawking at the coffeeshops and what not ;-)~ After that, we had no use for that part of town. It is really a small section of the city and quite easy to avoid if you don’t stay there.

I’m going to post a separate post on the vices of Amsterdam cuz I know you are all interested in that, heh heh.

We visited the Anne Frank house and the Van Gogh museum. We shopped in some street markets and ate in cafes, where I had constant cute-attacks watching the Dutch on their bikes. I cannot even explain how adorable they are. I realize that sounds somewhat patronizing and it’s not really the word I want to use, but its what comes to mind. They ride their bikes EVERYWHERE, with anything and everything strapped to their backs. There are hundreds of bikes – way more bikes than cars – and a thick stream of bikes rush hour! Parents ride babies on the front and older kids on the back. And the best thing is that, when they go on dates, Dutch boys pedal the girls riding side-saddle on the back. And when it rains, she holds the umbrella over them! I’m sorry but it’s just too damn cute.

One night, our friend Amy’s friend Shimon met us for beers at a Belguim brewhouse (mmmmm finally hearty brews). He just finished up his PhD at UT Austin and moved to Amsterdam to be a professor at U of A this fall.

After Paige and Rachel both left Amsterdam, I decided to stay on for a few more days. I basically continued to wander and soak it all in. I saw a couple movies, read a lot, people-watched a lot. On Friday night, I met Shimon and some colleagues for dinner, drinks and some late-night kick-ass jazz. Of course, they all had bikes so he rode me on the back of his. I must say that 2 Americans weaving through the streets of Amsterdam was probably quite a sight! But we didn’t crash. We improved throughout the night and I had a blast!

The next night, everywhere in town was booked up. Its already a popular and expensive place to stay on weekends, but the ING marathon was Sunday and there was a huge electronic music festival all weekend. (note: I should mention that there is A LOT of good music coming through the city. In fact, the South Austin Jug Band and Dale Watson both played there the week before I arrived. And Nick Lowe was playing the day after I left. ) Anyway, there were no reasonable rooms or hostels beds, so I headed about 45 minutes out of town to a beach town called Noordwjick for some more beach fun.

The jungles of Paris

The original title of this post was “F*ck Paris”. But time, as always, has mellowed a painful situation and caused the good times to outshine the bad ones.

However, with all due respect to those of you who love Paris, I thought it was a sour, over-hyped, over-priced city filled with unhappy, indifferent inhabitants who seem to do nothing more than sit in cafes smoking and drinking coffee all day, then sit sit in bars smoking and drinking wine all night. And they never smile.

I am sure Paris is great if you love museums. And probably if you are in love, although Duluth is also great if you are in love.

Anyway, my sister (Paige, for those who don’t know her) and I met up on Sunday – we had rented an apartment for the week. She was tired from the flight so our first night was very low-key. We had some dinner and supremely expensive beers, and even got a chuckle out of a live band singing Depeche Mode, etc later that night.

The next day we walked all around trying to get a lay of the land – this is before we realized how big Paris really is. We hit the Eiffel Tower to get it over with. The line was short and the view was great…until the skies opened and we were completely soaked.

I should mention that it was COLD there, esp compared to Spain. I showed up in nylon travel pants, a fleece and chaco sandals. After 2 days, I broke down and bought boots, jeans, a sweater and a jacket. It was also grey, which I find (unfortunately) diminishes my enjoyment of a places, especially a city.

Paige and I both agreed we were more interested in enjoying the day to day life in Paris than we were in seeing most museums. So we tried valiently to connect with anyone who lived there. But the only people who would talk to us turned out to NOT be from Paris. I didn’t find Parisians rude, as I’d been warned, but rather completely indifferent and uninterested in helping you, much less getting to know you. I knew they prefer you try French, so I had a 2 page cheat sheet of phrases I commonly used in Spain. I really tried. And actually a good number of them responded to me in Spanish rather than English, presumeably because I was using an accent acquired in Spain.

Well, the only Parisians who had the slightest interest in chatting turned out to be men who wanted to take us home. After 3 frustrating days, we admitted that we really weren’t having a very satisfying visit. We blamed ourselves for not planning more. We accused each other of having a bad attitude. We were dazed and confused in the City of Lights. And then we met the Austrian Professor.

He was wandering down by the Louve, late one night, and upon seeing us consulting a map book, implored us to please help him find his hotel. He swore it was within 2 blocks and showed us the key with the name and address on it. I initially dismissed him, as he was pretty drunk, and told him to ask one of the many hotel concierges in the area. He snorted and explained that he had been to several hotels in the area but they had each given him different information and incorrect directions. So we helped him. And his hotel was 2 blocks away.

We were headed his way, so we walked him to the hotel. As he thanked us profusely (and snuck in a little kiss on Paige, ha ha), he told us he was a professor of Business Something Another (and of course he had worked in Texas for a few years, as half of Europe seems to have done) and that that he fancied himself to be a pretty smart and savvy guy. Yes, he said “I’ve navigated the jungles of Vietnam but I can’t find my way home on the streets of Paris…”

Something clicked. Paige and I just looked at each other and busted out laughing. At that moment, we knew he had been sent our way with this message: it’s not you – it’s Paris! So we decided to stop trying so damn hard and take Paris with a huge grain of salt! And our trip immediately improved. Thank you professor!

It was still difficult at times but we just tried to roll with it and laugh when we could. We started a list of people who were nice to us (no shit…it totalled about 10 and none were from Paris) and Paige began asking random people she saw smiling where they were from (only occasionally from Paris). The next day we went up to Sacre Coeur (one of our favorite spots) and sat in a piano bar where we met 2 sisters from the US. One was married to a diplomat working in Paris. They confirmed our findings and emotionally freed us to proceed into part 2 of our week in a guilt-free fashion.

Part 2 of the week was dominated by rugby. Brits and rugby.

Thursday, we decided a day trip out of the city was in order, so we visited Versaille. It was a real highlight for both of us. We especially loved the little village Marie Antoinette created deep inside the property, but the whole place was beautiful and thankfully quite serene. On the way back to the train station, we walked past 4 gentleman laughing and speaking English. Paige asked them where they were from (South AFrica) and they invited us to join them for a drink. We ended up spending a couple of hours talking and laughing and enjoying ourselves with them (in a Mexican restaurant which served us Doritos with our “queso”, might I add). They were in town for the quarter-final matches the next day. South Africa won. So did England.

I will insert an aside here that the first night we met some guys who claimed to be cops at a bar. The night after Versaille, we sought out a bar that Paige’s friend really liked and met half the Parisian police force partying it up. We had a good time with them – they made the “nice list” and even witnessed some table dancing (yes…it was disturbing). They were cutting lose because the entire force was on duty the next night for the France-England match.

That weekend, Paris had been invaded by Brits. Jovial, friendly, open, generous Brits. I know they have a reputation for being stuffy, but I find them to be fun as hell (especially when you add a few drinks). The next night, we walked all around our neighborhood taking pictures of the costumes and chatting with folks on the streets. I actually have a photo of some French people draped in flags and silly face paint, by the way!

As you may know, England beat France. The streets were flooded with celebrating British, all speaking English and all smiling. We bopped from bar to bar on the row of Irish/Aussie bars we found, meeting people and just having fun. Headed towards our apartment, we stopped to take a photo of a group of older gents dressed to the nines in, ummm, their rugby-attending outfits. We befriended them (and the 2 cute sons of one) and spent the rest of the night with them. It was a fantastic night — we rolled in around 6am with huge smiles on our faces. The next day we took a train to Amsterdam and we are grateful to England for sending us out of France in style.

Update 10/22

I’m behind on my blog (and my emails…so sorry!) so I thought I’d post a real-time update. It is Tuesday 10/22. I’m currently in a small beach town outside Amsterdam (Noordijk), basically chilling out. Since leaving Spain, I spent a week an intense week in Paris and a chill week in Amsterdam. I really love the Netherlands so far and decided I needed to get out into the countryside, so here I am.

I have a ticket to fly to Antalya, Turkey tomorrow (10/23) but I am planning to post-pone. I am not overly concerned about the protests/PKK issue, although I am certainly following the news closely. Mostly I’m not ready ready to tackle a new country or culture just yet. The Netherlands is comfortable (although chilly) and small. The Dutch are wonderful – bright and friendly (enough), with sharp wit. They are stylish with a healthy dose of practical. They ride their bikes everywhere. I just really like them.

Anyway, I am learning about my travel style and I need a rest. I expect I’ll head to Turkey on the 28th or 30th.

I apologize to those I have not kept in good touch with (which would be pretty much everyone). I would love to get personal updates from you all by email. I’ve found I spend much of my internet time researching and taking care of banking, etc. Blogging has been interesting for me and I hope for those who read it. I figure when I get too wordy, most of you just skim (buds, do you miss Audrey emails?? ;-). Seriously, figuring out how many and which details to include is a challenge. I should probably have more than one blog, as it is documentation for myself and a way to share my trip, but I can barely keep up with this one.

OK, send me updates! Peace, Audrey

ps Happy Birthdays to the late October birthdays (that I know of): Meg, Vojo, MOM & John. And **Josh**…little J, how could I forget???

Pais Vasco II: beach fun

Every time I’ve gone to the beach recently, I’ve had a blast. An easy but awesomely good time. San Sebastian was no exception. It also marks my introduction to Rugby and La Copa del Mundo 2007!

I stay at a tiny hostel which was basically a relocated Irish dude named David’s home. It is legit and set up well, it’s just his house and he runs it. He moved to SS five years ago.

There were 4 twin beds in the room (yay – not a bunk bed in sight!) I hung with my 3 roommates and random others the next 2 days. In the bed on the left….sweet Katie who is from the US, a recent grad living and working in London, trying to figure out her next move as she has a soon-to-expire student visa. To the right…2 guys from Denmark – old friends on vacation – Anders & Chris who were there to party. Both spoke perfect English plus Chris speaks Porteguese. I love how so many Europeans are multi-lingual.

I arrived about 7pm and plans were being laid to watch the New Zealand-France rugby quarter-final match at an Irish pub down the road. Even David’s 80 year old aunt was excited! Of course I joined right in and went on to learn quite a bit about rugby. Later that night we partied on the beach a bit – they have an elevated boardwalk that runs the length of the beach. Underneath the boardwalk they have clubs that open all night and the partiers spill out on the beach. I’m not into the clubs so I just enjoyed hanging on the beach. I think there were some late-night swimmers but I found the water too chilly for anything but my feet!

SS is a pretty 2 kilometer shell-shaped beach with 2 small “mountains” on each side of the harbor exit. The next morning, Katie and I went for a hike up the one on the right. We had a really rough start after running into a gravely injured kitten. It was traumatic and all I’ll say is that a nice British gentleman carried that kitten on the hill with his bare hands, following a local I’d flagged down and explained we needed a vet who would work on a Sunday.

After that incident had passed, we walked to the top to have a photo op and seek out some reputedly awesome homemade sangria. We found it and had a great afternoon talking and drinking sangria in the sun. We both got a little sunburned! Photos to come. By the way, they were playing Tom Waits 😉

That night, we headed to watch the Argentina-Scotland(?) match. I was the only person pulling for Argentina – I always route for the team from the Americas. We watched it standing in small bar with locals munching tapas. It was seriously perfect.

The tapas in SS are pretty cool. They are called pinchos(sp?) and look like fancy crostini or sushi. The displays are so pretty and fun to look at for a food lover like me 😉 Bars compete for your attention by making awesome dispalys.

Huh, I just noticed that I abbreviated San Seb as SS. And SS are the first letters in Sparkle Search. I’ve been thinking it’s pretty safe to say I have my sparkle back – therefore I shortened the name of my blog to Operation SS. I’m sure the SS will eventually mean something else too, but that is to figure out later! I digress…

I ate A LOT of tapas in SS. Another great thing about them is they are cheap! That night we had probably 5 small beers or glasses of wine each, plus tapas until we were full for 15€ a person. Hello Paris??? Your basic glass of wine in Spain was so cheap and I totally didn’t appreciate it at the time. I mean, I didn’t really realize how affordable it is to eat and drink well there.

There’s not much more to write on SS, although I feel like I had a grand adventure…apparently doing nothing! Seriously, with nothing really to do or see, just eating and drinking and being at the beach always makes the mind relax in a certain way…few choices, less stress. It was a great respite before moving on to Paris, which is what I did the next day.

Pais Vasco I: Bilbao for the afternoon

I originally planned to meet Paige in Paris via Barcelona. But along the way, lots of people told me I should go to San Sebastian. So I did. And I’m glad.

The cheapest way to get there from Barcelona was taking a flight into Bilbao. So I decided to see the Guggenheim for the day then take a one hour bus ride on to San Sebastian. Bilbao is experiencing a cultural transformation. Former industrial areas seem to now be stylish tourist spots and they played opera in the tram! I’m not saying there is a lot to see in the town but I think its worth a stop on a longer trip. It was also the first time on my trip I’d seen green, misty mountains in the distance – for me that’s the landscape that makes my heart feel at home.

The Guggenheim was re-doing the exhibits, so all but the first floor was closed, which was actually fine with me. I got to see a couple of big exhibits and then admire the building (the real draw) up close.

I had extra time so I went to the Basque museum. Bilbao is the capital of the region known as Basque Country, which straddles both sides of the France-Spain border. They have their own language and every sign was in both Spanish and Basque (Etrusxxx…forget name…looks nothing like any other language – see it above the Spanish in the picture) plus often French and English. The Basque people want an autonomous state, and a portion of the population supports ETA, who I believe have now broken their cease-fire. I was looking for more information on the Basque viewpoint and was surprised to find the museum was exclusively about the preserving the lifestyle of the Basque peoples. It was very telling to see how extensively they documented the lifestyle…it was basically a natural/living history museum. The people were either fishermen or shepards, depending on their personal geography. I learned quite a bit about the region so it was worthwhile.

I caught the tram back to the bus station, took my bags out of storage and hopped on the bus for a lively ride to San Sebastian.

BCN (Barcelona)

Barcelona is one of those cities where you are constantly looking up to see what interesting architectural treat is dripping from nearby buildings and constantly looking down to make sure you don’t step in spanish dog doody. Barcelona is somewhere I didn’t really research because I always knew I would come at some point (in fact the BCN in the title is the airport code which I use everytime I search for a flight). So laugh if you knew, but I had no clue about all of the fascinating architecture. The structures (buildings, park walls, street lamps) themselves are the art and frankly it’s much more fun to look at than a wall of paintings!

Anyhoo, I had a rough first day because it rained and I hadn’t been quite ready to leave the comfort of Rob’s home. But once I got into the swing of it again, I really enjoyed Barcelona.

Antoni Gaudi’s influence is everywhere here. I would describe his work, if you aren’t familiar with it, as surreal, funky, trippy, organic, colorful…basically fun! It does have a serious component but I admit I have a hard time taking the more serious structures (ie churches) seriously. The first thing I headed to see was the Sagrada Familia, an insane church that was Gaudi’s final work. It is actually still a work in progress and a site to behold. I didn’t even made it inside because the towers were full when I arrived and that was the part I wanted to see. Knowing I’ll be back, I bailed on seeing only half the inside and just walked around the perimeter taking lots of shots of it. I also wandered to a Parc Guell, which Gaudi created as essentially a subdivision, where it was lots of fun to walk around and take pictures of whatever surprise you stumble upon next. I will upload pictures at some point soon.
The next day I decided I needed to get out of the city so I went to Montserrat. This is an amazing place – a working monestary (first built in 900 AD) and a physically amazing site. I went to hike but many people go on spiritual pilgramages (or to just be a tourist). There are huge rock formations shooting out of the ground. I went to the small natural history museum on site where I learned all about how the land was formed, as well as some history of the place. It has a long history of resistance to religious suppression and was also the center of Catalan resistance during Franco’s rule.

I rode a funicular up above the monestary. It is a system where the cars run on a track and use gravity to help them get up and down efficiently. The car going down pulls the car going up, while the car going up slows the car going down. I planned to do a 4-5 mile hike up to a supposedly amazing lookout point. On the way up I met a guy named Dirk from Germany who was also traveling alone and doing that hike. So we hooked up and hit the trail. Thankfully younger Germans generally speak excellent English so conversation was easy. In fact, I learned it is required for 6 years in school – Dirk is an English teacher, ha! About 3/4 of the way to the top the rain moved in and we heard some thunder. Being on top of a huge rock ridgeline in a thunder storm did not sound fun, so we booked it down the mountain in record time. I was sore for 2 days from bounding down huge “stairs” cut into the trail! We were drenched and cold when we hit the bottom (I love it – fun in the woods!) so we toured the beautiful inside of the cathedral. I enjoyed the space tremendously. Not being Catholic makes me feel a bit like a cheater when I’m in a functioning church and I certainly don’t understand the rituals, however most of the tourists had left so I was able to relax. There is a famous statue of the Virgin Mary there (La Moreneta or Black Virgin) that was supposedly carved by St Luke. You can walk through and touch the orb she holds, attesting your faith or asking for blessing.
We had a coffee and rode the train back to the city. After making plans to meet for a concert the next nights we went our separate ways. It was raining again and I was tired, so I had a quick dinner with a lovely Brazilian woman I met in the hostel and went to bed! She was a huge fan of modern art and convinced me to see the Joan Miro museum the next day. I don’t really like modern art simply because I don’t understand it! But I figured this would be the place to give it one last try. And let me just say that I did try. I really, really did. I rented the audio tour and contemplated and studied and relaxed/meditated but it just would not come. So I admit defeat. I do not get modern art. And the entire time I wondered if I it’s how my brain works and if it’s related to why I don’t get JAVA!
I had gotten one of those hop-on/hop-off bus tickets so I just rode around for a couple of hours, checking out the city. Afterwards I ate the best fresh pasta in La Boqueria Market, then did a bit of shopping and site-seeing on The Ramblas. Lots of street artists, lots of tourists and apparently lots of pick-pockets. You hear lots of stories about Barcelona’s petty crime and I met a guy straight off in the hostel who had his bag snatched while at lunch the first hour he was here (the guy grabbed it and ran as he was exiting the restaurant, but the owners caught him). So I was extremely paranoid at first…didn’t carry a purse or anything. But after seeing tourists with cameras dangling out and backpacks with the zipper open, I realized there were far more obvious targets. I still maintained my vigilance, didn’t carry much cash or my passport and wore my purse tight and in front at all times. Thankfully I didn’t have any troubles.
That evening, I met Dirk for a concert in the amazing Palau de las Musica Catalana (Catalan Concert Hall). I wanted to see something there just to see the inside but ended up lucking out and catching a beautiful show by a famous Spanish classical guitarist MANUEL GONZÁLEZ. He played peices representing a number of the regions in Spain (and after visiting many, I realize how different the regions are from each other). Afterwards we went to a pub for a few beers. I haven’t found myself doing the nightclub thing much here. In small towns it’s fun and manageable, but the big cities are not my thing. Plus you walk around all day and honestly it’s a challenge to have more than a drink or two most nights.
I did some other minor sites and a lot of window shopping in Barcelona. I definitely have a to-see list for when I return. The next day I caught a bus to the train station and flew off to Bilbao.

Lovely Valencia

I arrived at the home of my friends Rob & Augus tired, dirty and sick with the crud. They put me up, cleaned me up, fed me and let me snort unlimited amounts of internet for a few days.
OK, I am exaggerating my condition a bit, but I did arrive on the overnight train with a nasty cold, a pile of laundry and a to-do list a mile long 😉
Rob used to live in Austin, so they have things like SALSA (salsa mexicana), CNN International, English guide books and English keyboards. Ah, the small comforts. (side note: my mom asked me last night if I am homesick or missed anything. Honestly, the answer is no. Of course I miss my wonderful friends & family and sometimes wish you were here with me to share this. And I miss American breakfast and Mexican food. But no, I’m not homesick at all…yet. So there you have it.)
Valencia (3rd largest city in Spain) reminds me a bit of Austin. It doesn’t have a lot of high tech but there is a huge greenbelt running through the city where everyone jogs, rides their bikes, walks their dogs and generally hangs out. On Sunday night, we enjoyed a paseo on it and saw people grilling out, playing soccer, just like Zilker. Rock climbers have put up holds all over one of the bridges and were hanging every which way when we walked by. Yesterday I walked home from some shopping and saw people doing martial arts and practicing rollerblade moves. And everyone with a dog seems to take them there to play. I saw more big dogs in one night on the greenbelt than I have in all of Spain combined! The entertainment complex is at one end – a performance space, an aquarium and aviarium (?birds), a science museum with IMAX, etc. Its all very modern and clean looking. One of the buildings reminds me of the “helmut” from Daffy Duck cartoons…I wonder if it is supposed to look like a conquistador helmut on purpose?

I can definitely tell the difference between here and Andalucia/southern Spain. Besides the obvious climate differences (more humid & temperate in Valencia), the people sadly don’t take a siesta, although they do take a long lunch. And instead of a true paseo, they walk the greenbelt or beach paths. Things are bit more expensive, with restaurants & stores being a bit more sleek & branded. Bascially, it’s a big, modern city and it’s people look the part.

On Friday, while they worked, I slept and surfed the web planning my future travels. We went out for tapas that night and I finally tried bull’s tail. Frankly, it reminded me of pot roast and wasn’t nearly as scary as it sounds. Saturday, we went to a huge market and then later that afternoon, Rob & I walked to the beach. Valencia is right on the water and was the host of the America’s Cup last year. After that, we had pizza from a place called American Pizza (ha!) and I ate an entire pie. The pizza in Spain is just as I like it, with thin crust, little sauce & lots o cheese – but I’d been staying away from it because it seemed too American. Saturday night, I was treated to the Daily Show on CNN International. Yes, they show it on CNN once a week and John Stewart does commentary afterwards. It was the episode with Bill Clinton, should you have caught it too. I am not sad in the least that I am missing our pre-election hype.
On Sunday, we hopped in the car and drove to a little town just outside the city (along with half of Valencia) for the Paella Experience. Every Sunday, Valencians come to this small town that is filled with paella restaurants. We gorged ourselves on a traditional style Paella (even eating right out of the pan) and wine. It was a beautiful day and an enjoyable experience. By the way, the town is by a huge fresh-water lake where people recreate. This lake also feeds rice fields so in my pictures you will see harvested rice.

On Monday, I got my shopping fix by hitting Aqua, a fancy open air mall. The weather is getting chilly at night and I hoped to find some jeans and a 2nd long sleeve shirt. I found the shirt, but the skinny jeans that are in fashion here just don’t want to be painted onto my legs, damnit. So I bought some leggings. Yes. 80’s here I come…again 😉 Anyway, it was here at this fancy mall that I first experienced fancy cash registers which show you dual pricing – your own currency & the euro. You pick which one to pay in. Can I share just how traumatic it is to see a 42 euro purchase show up as $60?!

The Alhambra

Ah, the Alhambra. To quote Wikipedia, “The Alhambra (Arabic: الحمراء = Al-Ħamrā’; literally “the red”) is a palace and fortress complex of the Moorish monarchs of Granada, in southern Spain (known as Al-Andalus when the fortress was constructed), occupying a hilly terrace on the south-eastern border of the city of Granada. It was the residence of the Muslim kings of Granada and their court, but is currently a museum exhibiting exquisite Islamic architecture. “

The Alhambra and it’s gardens (Generalife) are “the thing” to see in Granada. It is one of those places where you fill up your memory stick or kill your battery (or in the days of film, blow through all your spare rolls) before you even get to the good stuff. And of course your photos don’t do the place justice. It was recently in the running to be one of the new “7 wonders of the world” (didn’t win). You are wise to book your tickets at least a week ahead of time, as the hundreds of people who were up at 6am to wait in line for a meager allottment of released tickets found out.

I was assigned a time to visit the Palace rather late in the day, so I toured the gardens first. They are both beautiful and functional. Food is/was grown there and they provided shade, tranquilty and privacy. I believe I read that in Islam, a beautiful garden is a reward. It is the same for water (and in many Arab cultures water is revered for the life it supports) so throughout the gardens, there are pools and fountains everywhere. Combined with the huge variety of colorful plant life, they create cool oases, calm and private resting places, and playful, fun and interesting spaces. I may have said this before but many of the plants in the region are similar to those from central Texas. I believe it is a bit more temporate but still very dry with similar soils. I saw many tourists taking photos of exotic (to them) plants that I have in my own backyard. Please check my pile of photos at under the Alhambra set. As I said, they don’t really do the place justice. There were interesting courtyards, rooms and passage-ways around every corner.
The Palace itself is devoid of interior decor, but it was easy to imagine the furniture, wall-hangings and so on that filled the place. The detail is incredible and everywhere aestetics & functionality are combined. In Islam art, images of things are frowned up, so the designs are an ornamental style reflecting nature (plants mostly) and abstract design. These abstract designs are based on math — there is no beginning and no end, which invokes the Universe. Note of interest: M. C. Escher’s visit in 1922 inspired his following work on regular divisions of the plane after studying the Moorish use of symmetry in the Alhambra tiles.

The glazed tiles on the walls still retained their color but most of the paint had long since faded. There were gorgeous wooden doors and ceilings. And most amazingly, wall after wall decorated with a relief-like pattern of abstract design that was mind-blowing.

Inside the palace, water was also used for aestetics as well as to moderate the environment. I found the design and function of this particular courtyard fascinating. In the summer, the air was drawn across the water where it cooled. The fine wooden lattice (filigree) on the windows above allowed the air to circulate, cooling the inside (it also afforded the women the discretion required of them – ugh – but still allowed them to observe the goings on). In the winter, the sun warms the walls and the water, making the courtyard itself a warm retreat, and again the lattice circulates the air, this time warming the inside.

There are a couple of other parts to the complex, like a castle built by Charles V because he had to have something cool up there too, but I was too tired to see them. You have to walk A LOT and you take in so much intriguing beauty that it is just exhauting. I spent close to 5 hours wandering. There were hundreds of old folks on bus tours there – I’m talking old-old with bad feet and everything. And honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seem so many exhausted old people who looked so happy. No grumpy old men waiting on benches while their wives looked around and no purse-lipped old ladies unhappy about this or that. Nope, everyone was beaming and obviously satisfied. But tired. Including me.