Wednesday, March 24, 2010


It might sound cliché to say this, but if you've ever heard Sevilla described as a feast for the senses (and if you haven't, just play along, because I'm telling you now), the sentiment is not an exaggeration. I can't think of any other way to describe this city myself. But I don't want to be trite, so in order to convince you just how Sevilla will tickle your fancy, I'll tell you literally.

Andalucia 101: How to Experience Sevilla in 5 Simple Senses

See: The Royal Alcazar of Seville, a thousand year old castle that dates back to the first caliph of Sevilla, Abd Al-Rahman. This was my favourite part of Seville, and one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The gardens in the court yard are even greener than the photos.

Feel: your way through the Labyrinth outside Alcazar (pictured above).
Feel: how much your calves will sting as you scale the tower of the Cathedral. It hurts, but it's worth it. Bonus: no stairs, the climb is a ramp (below).

Hear: the soulful plucking of guitar, hand claps, and wavery singing of flamenco. Often performed by dark, handsome soulful Spaniards that put Antonio Banderas to shame. Bonus sensory experience: watching the dance. I tried to get a picture (below) of one of the dancers but it came out blurry because he moved that fast.

said gorgeous Spaniard with soulful guitar and flowing hair

Smell: the overpowering scent of the orange trees that appear to outnumber Spaniards in Seville. The oranges on these trees are bitter, not to be eaten. They are there for decoration, and apparently, to make you hungry because of how good they look and how tempting they smell.

said orange trees in the Cathedral garden, sitting there and looking delicious. Lies!
Taste: when you're hungry from staring at the most orange oranges you'll ever see, and when you're tired from walking around tourist sites, I recommend a good lunch. If you want to go the typical Spanish route, tapas and paella are your best bet. But as much as I loved the paella myself, I can't help but instead recommend a good ice-cream cone. True to the stereotype, Sevilla is hot (!) and nothing is as soothing as something sweet and cold. My favourite combination: one scoop blackberry with one scoop turrón (nougat).
Our group Lto R: Amalia, Doris, Sima, Amanda, and Amalia's marido Jesús.
Doing what Spaniards do best--relaxing.

If Madrid breaks stereotypes of what one imagines a Spanish city to be, Sevilla lives up to them. Nowhere else can one lunch on some paella while viewing Mudejar--Muslim design in Christian building-- architecture in between watching flamenco concerts, attending bullfights, or scaling to the top of Spain's largest Cathedral. Located in Southern Andalucia, Sevilla is the picture of colour and movement, much in the same way as the skirts of flamenco dancers. In this part of--as the Andalucians pronounce it--Epaña, visitting mudejar castles and exploring the history of the conquest of the New World is all in a day's work.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Te Dejo Madrid--

Following a weekend of enjoying nature and pondering monasteries, I managed to undo all the soulfulnnes the next weekend by running around Madrid and Seville, drinking cocktails and watching dizzying flamenco. I'll update about Seville next post, because it merits a fair dedication of time, so for now I'll merely extrapolate upon the marvel that makes up the Capital of Spain.

The best way I can think of to describe this city is a Shakira lyric. Now, don't get me wrong about my taste in music, but I have to admit it; perhaps with the exception of "She Wolf" (and I know my sister will disagree with that), Shakira is actually a great lyricist. And it's my favourite line from her song "Te Dejo Madrid" that really gets at the heart of the city: No puede con uve pequeña vivir. I guess in English it'd mean to live with a capital L.

Life with a capital L: Me, Doris, and Sima making the most of Madrid night life

But really, that's the Vida, the espiritu of Madrid. Madrid is the New York of Spain, defying all expectations of Spanish stereotypes. It's not the place to find flamenco dancers, Arab architecture or bullfighters abound, that's Sevilla's department. No, Madrid is the hub of urban España. Next to the World's Oldest Restaurant (Guinness Book certified) stand ultra-modern apartments and offices. Sex shops and piercing parlours stand next to old-fashioned cervezerias (beer and sandwich shops). And the Plaza Mayor is so full of tourists that no real Madrileño would step foot in there.all tourists: note the video cameras and maps

The juxtaposition of the tranquil Glass Castle and City Park with the diverse population and the strangest street performers I have ever seen make Madrid a real feast for the senses. I honestly can't wait to go back. The art museums, the giant Enrique Iglesias billboards, the countless coffee shops, and the tastiest mojitos I've ever had made it really hard to leave.

my favourite street performer of all time, the ever-creepy (and useless) Confetti Goat Man. I don't know if I get it either, but it's simple in theory: Confetti+ Goat = $. If you come close enough, sometimes he clucks at you.

the Sunday Rastro, or street market, where I cheaply purchased some jewellery and a bag

we got so lucky that the moment we approached the palace the King Of Spain happened to be arriving in his Royal Carriage!

This is me, excited about the Other King of Spain

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's the Shire! A Pilgrim's weekend in Espain

some bird feathers along the Camino de Santiago

I've had a very spritual and tranquil weekend, especially by Spanish standards. For one thing, I did not go out and botellon (drink in public) or go clubbing and bar hopping. Instead I opted to stay in reading and relaxing in my pyjamas. For another thing, I spent Friday and Saturday on day trips to religious sites in our area: the Monasterio de las Huelgas in Burgos, and saturday walking a segment of the Camino de Santiago, or, Way of St. James.
Here, have some photos of the Camino before I continue:

Allright, moving on:

The monasterio is located in a quiet, semi-residential part of town, a stone's throw from my house. I've often walked past it myself and I've always loved how much it reminds me of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The 12th Century architecture certainly reminds one of Harry Potter, and the gnarly, knobbly trees that line the garden bring to mind the Whomping Willow. Obviously, having walked by this place and imagined myself on a broomstick, I was delighted that I would have the time on Friday to take a guided tour. Oh yeah, and that my university would reimburse me for the (cheap) admission fee.

The guided tour takes you through the majority of the monastery, and explains its history in brief. The monastery was founded in 1187 by King Alfonso VIII and his wife Leonor de Plantagenet. The project was actually an antiquated feminist campaign on the part of Leonor, who wanted the monastery to serve as a place where women had as much responsibility and respect as men within the Church. I won't spoil other details for you, though I highly recommend the tour. It was brief and informative, and even if you don't understand Spanish, it's worth getting a peek at the monastery.

On Saturday, I took a day trip with my university program to Fromista and Castrojeriz, two points along the Way of St. James. The Camino de Santiago starts in France and ends Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It's over 1000 years old and one of the ONLY pilgrimage routes in Europe that was not discontinued during the Protestant Reformation, war, and the Black Plague. The Camino began as a route to the supposed burial site of the apostle James and is still thriving a millenium later, sometimes as a cheap and adventurous spring break trip for European students.

On the way, you'll see medeival churches, pilgrim albergues, or lodgings, and pilgrims bearing a concha. The concha--or scallop--shell is the ultimate pilgrim accessory. It's the icon of the Camino and is often worn as a necklace or affixed to the clothing/bags of a pilgrim. For me, though, the best part was being outdoors in early spring weather, and taking pictures of what looked like the Shire from Lord of the Rings. I guess everywhere I go in Spain, I make a literary reference.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Man Edition--Part I: Caught in A Bad Bromance

I've been miserable lately. My nose is running, I've got chills and I can't sleep because I came down with a gaydar infection over the weekend. After a month of living in Burgos, my tolerance of the strange habits of the Spanish male species has surpassed critical mass and exploded due to oversaturation of a little thing called bromance.

Last week I went to a bar with some of the boys from my floor. Of the 12 or so people I went with, I only knew two of them. The first was one of my Basque friends, too shy and sober at the moment to think of anything to talk about. I'll call him Silent Bob. The other was Carlos, my neighbour with a penchant for maroon pants and changing his outfits three times per day (Reason 12490 my gaydar has gone haywire). Seeing that I was a bit uncomfortable, the affable Carlos struck up a topic: Had I noticed any cultural differences between Spain and the States?

My mind made a beeline for the local excess of inter-male affection, also known as bromance. "Well, it's like romance," I said. "You know, romance. Only, you know, platonic affection between close male friends."

"Es romance?"

"No," I huffed, lowering my gaze at him and silently noting how dapper he looked in argyle. "Romanza, con una 'r'. BRO-mance, con un 'b'. Como brother, a friend very close to your heart." It took me two repetitions of this before Carlos and Silent Bob grasped the concept. Or at least, they understood what I had said, but that didn't stop them from resting their hands on eachothers thighs and touching eachother's breasts.

If my roommate Doris had been able to see this, she would uttered her trademark phrase: "Spain is just one big gay bar." Normally I would agree, but some very personal experiences with Castilian men--ranging from cuddling (that's another story) to shouts of "Rubia!" (blondie)--have allowed me to confirm their heterosexuality.

Conversely, it is more difficult--much more difficult--to tell if a boy is the opposite. I could take my pants off in public and these boys wouldn't cease fondling eachother, but their public displays of masculine sensuality are but one factor of my off-wind gaydar.

In the same way that zebras huddle together for camouflage and stick bugs blend in with their surroundings, Spanish men have similar natural mechanisms for obscuring their sexual orientation. Why in God's name they would want to do this is beyond me, but then again, this is Spain. It's a whole difference force of nature.

For one thing, Spaniards are generally much better dressed than Americans. If you take a turn around the university campus, where students are dressed at their most casual--though you may spot torn jeans and ratty sweaters everywhere, you will never see anyone come to class in any of the following:
a: pyjama bottoms
b: work out clothes
c: sweat pants bearing the logo of the university, Victoria's Secret, or other
d: Uggs.
For the most part, Spanish males appear to have acceptable hygiene habits and acceptable apparel across the board. Of course, it's always more difficult when they come out in their weekend best.

For another thing, you know the stereotype of the pierced ear? This was probably more prevalent in the 90s, but a single pierced ear on a boy has often connoted gay, depending on the ear. Not the case here. Not only do many of my comrades have a wooden-like hoop dangling from their left orejas, but it was only today at lunch one of them recommended places for me to get earrings just like his.

Finally, there's one more sign. And it's not the mullet that seems to grace the heads of almost half the boys I go to class with. It's the lisp. Spaniards add a slight lisp to their c's, z's and sometimes d's. Barcelona becomes "Barthelona". Cerveza, or beer, becomes "Thervetha". And El Cid, this country's answer to Braveheart, becomes "El Theeth".

Womp womp.

Thus, last week, watching my purple pantalooned amigo fondle Silent Bob con carino while thipping their thervethas, it all came together. And I realized I would never get any action in this country.

And finally, this past weekend a handful of the boys and girls I live with came into my room to partake in some drinks. I had just purchased my first legal bottle of Vodka in Spain, and was very proud. As I poured shots and drinks I turned around to see Silent Bob and Turtle--another one of our friends--sitting on Doris' bed together. Shoulders touching. Holding hands. Fingers? Interlocked.

The next morning I woke up unable to breathe through my left nostril. And that's when I knew. My gaydar was officially infected. I thought all Spaniards were walking replicas of Antonio Banderas and Enrique Iglesias--plump-lipped and easy to understand in their virility. I thought wrong. Well, not about the plump lips. I realized that the Spanish were foreign creatures I would never completely understand. I couldn't help but wonder if my own lips would shrivel up eventually as a result. And the vodka bottle on my desk started looking a little friendlier.

Oh well, theeth happens.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

We can't stop here, this is Basque Country

I am fully aware that I have overused this phrase to title everything from facebook photo albums to journal entries. But I couldn't help but fall in love with Basque Country. I spent the past weekend in San Sebastian, or, Donostia in Basque, with my comrades Doris, Sima and Amanda. Basque Country is an autonomous region of Spain with its separate culture, language, gastronomy and traditions. It's a bit of an anomaly as Basque has no linguistic connections to any currently existing European language. When my friends and I arrived on Friday, we settled in at the most wonderful lodgings ever--Olga's Place, a hostel right near one of Donostia's three beaches.

This was my first experience in a hostel, so I had few expectations. But the beds turned out to be more comfortable than my own in Burgos, the facilities were fastidiously clean, and Olga herself was delightful. Friday night, some of the people living in the hostel invited us out to go on a pub crawl. I was absolutely game to go, and ultimately I'm so glad I did. Everybody was absolutely great to get along with, but it was amazing to meet a whole group of people who chose to be somewhere all for the same reason: just to be there.

It's a mentality I could get used to. On Saturday, I really saw the appeal of the San Sebastian area when our friend Mikel from school took us to see his pueblo, Hondorribia. A twenty minute bus ride from San Sebastian, it was absolutely gorgeous.
We'd been expecting what loads of people referred to as "the perfect storm"--a force of nature was forecasted to hit our area. At the end of the weekend, over 50 people had died in France and many areas were damaged. Somehow the storm completely passed San Sebastian and Hondorribia and the worst we got was a bit of cloud.

See that on the other side of the river? Oh, that's just France, no big deal.our never less than lovely tourguide, Mikel

After a day with Mikel, we arrived back in Donostia to enjoy the sunset, pictured above, the increase in temperature and some dinner and drinks. Saturday was a quiet night in for all of us, but Sunday began early with a vuelta (turn) around town and a Eurotrash picnic on the beach.Doris and AmandaFrolicking in the sea was very much called for. The weather hit almost 20 degrees Celsius, which in San Sebastian means swimming and surfing. Some of the surfers in these parts go out when it's only 10 degrees out. I myself had no more courage than enough to go knee deep in the water and collect some sea shells, but all the same, you know? Coming from Burgos, where I still need my thick scarf, my peacoat, and boots going to San Seb was like changing climates.
On Monday, our last day, before we got back on the bus to Burgos, we made one last tourist stop. There's not much to see in San Seb, besides a few museums and the Cathedral, but the absolute must-see is the sculpture garden on the cliffs--el Peine de Vientos. Or, the Comb of the Winds.
Damnit, Sima foils my candid!

King of the World. Pretty much how this town makes me feel.

I have a feeling I will be going back to Donostia very very soon. It is la ostia, or, the shit, as the Spanish might say. Donostia es la ostia, as Sima became fond of saying, has a pretty nice ring to it, no? It really makes an impression. If I'm honest, it's one of the few places I've ever missed after leaving.

Palm trees--HELL YEAH!!
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