Category Archives: Spain

Spain, revisited

In some ways, it felt like I never left and, in other ways, I’ve changed so much that the feeling of being back in Madrid was like revisiting a memory as a different person…like coming back to your hometown after being away in college. I’ve grown in ways I never could’ve imagined and certain aspects of Madrid felt so unchanged that being there was a juxtaposition of sorts. More importantly, it was the beginning of very much needed closure.

I spent most of this 2 week vacation on old stomping grounds so, I’ll highlight the new places.

Buitrago del Lozoya, Spain

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A perfect day trip (or even half day) from Madrid, about a 1.5 hour bus ride one way. I caught the Line 191 bus from the Plaza Castilla station which cost about EUR 8.60 round trip. One of the things I truly miss about Madrid is its generally dry weather. After you spend a summer in NYC, you will understand this appreciation.

What I remember most vividly about this day was the perfect combination of sun and breeze, not too hot to break a sweat but warm enough to be comfortable in a t-shirt. I walked along the walls of the fortress, and passed the ruins of the castle and ended my short journey at the church of Santa María del Castillo.

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The last thing on my list of things to see was the Picasso Museum, which held a very small yet quaint collection of artwork that was given to Eugenio Arias, a barber and longtime friend of Picasso as well as a native of Buitrago del Lozoya.

Madrid

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One of my fondest memories of this trip was when my good friend Victor taught me how to make tortilla and salmorejo from scratch in his kitchen. I regret not taking any photos or video clips but, I was too distracted with trying to perfect my tortilla flip on the pan. The food was so simple, so delicious and so Spanish. I still make salmorejo to this day.

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A couple of native friends recommended Cardamomo as a great venue to watch authentic flamenco. Most places in Madrid cater their performances towards the tourists so, if a native tells me it’s worth it, then it definitely is. You wouldn’t think it of me but, I love watching dance performances whether it be the New York City Ballet or a gypsy in flamenco. If it’s heartfelt, you’ll see me fighting back tears. No shame.

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My night of necessary closure began at a Peruvian restaurant, Mis Tradiciones, located alongside el Parque de la Arganzuela in Madrid Río. Awesome ceviche and grilled chicken. To walk off the gluttony, we strolled in the park and on el Puente Monumental, which is probably one of the coolest pedestrian bridges I’ve ever seen. Not much else to say except that I’m thankful that things ended up the way it did, although I did not previously feel this way. It goes to show you that nothing is the end of the world and, if it is, then it’ll be over soon.

Almería

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I visited my friend Teba (for the second time) down on the southeastern coast, only to be met with winds so strong, even the locals stayed away from the beach. Teba, being the amazing host, brought me to the neighborhood pool on the days we couldn’t make it to the beach and cooked delicious meals when we stayed indoors. I’m so grateful to her that I wish she could make it to NYC so that I could return the favor. My door will always be open.

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We finally made it to the beach on a day that later brought lightning storms. Now, I’ve always learned in school to stay away from the beach when lightning is present. This was not the day that I listened to my teacher. In amazement, I watched the electric bolts hit the sea against the eerily darkened sky and surprisingly brightened cloud backdrop. It was gorgeous. And possibly life-threatening. I probably shouldn’t do that again. It was really cool though.

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The last time I visited, we didn’t make it to el Bar de Jo, which I don’t know how you can find without having a local to drive you. I was excited to finally go this time around! Outside of the main road, we came upon obscure dirt roads that led up to this outdoor bar owned by expat French bikers and located in Cabo de Gata near Los Escullos (camping grounds). The atmosphere is so chill that even past midnight, some locals brought their children who ended up falling asleep on the benches. A great place to unwind after a long, arduous day on the beach.

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I’m ending this entry with my favorite drink of the summer – tinto de verano. Cheers to you, and you, and you and you and you.

Snapshots – Madrid

Madrid, Spain

Palacio Real 01

Palacio Real desde el Campo del Moro

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…and in the sunshine.

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Plaza de Cibeles a la izquierda, El Rastro a la derecha

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Palacio de Cristal en el Parque del Retiro

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Templo de Debod

Mercado de San Miguel 01   Puerta del Sol 01

Mercado de San Miguel y Puerta del Sol

Chambao at La Riviera 03

Chambao en La Riviera

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Primera Division Liga España, Atlético de Madrid vs. Bilbao
Estadio Vicente Calderón, 21 de marzo

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Flamenco en Vallecas

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My “surprise” farewell fiesta with Antonio Nosolotapas, with some of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. Eres bueno, Antonio 😉

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I was practically a permanent fixture that I should’ve been given an asset life and taken depreciation on. Yes, this is an accounting joke. Ashamed, I am.

Caños y cañas

Los Caños de Meca, Spain

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One of my closest friends, Tracy, came out to visit me and we set out on an adventure of pure stationary-ness. It almost became too strenuous to walk from the beach back to our hotel, a five minute walk away. As if we weren’t exposed to enough salt, we devoured a bag of sunflower seeds (salted, of course) and assorted snacks that in no way could’ve come from nature and washed everything down with a giant bottle of Aquarius. Then, we went back to napping on our beach towels.

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We somehow managed to make the long, tiring journey to la Jaima Meccarola and quenched the throats that our journey parched with refreshing fermented beverages. Feel bad for us yet? The ocean had our undivided attention…until our glasses ran dry.

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A view of el Faro de Trafalgar

Travel tip: To get here without a car (particularly in the summertime when buses are actually running and frequent), we first took a train from Madrid to Cádiz, then took a bus from Cádiz to los Caños de Meca which was about a 1.5 hr trip one way. The cost of the bus for a roundtrip was a little over 12 EUR, and the bus station is located right next to the train station in Cádiz. We pre-purchased our tickets on the website for convenience and in case the bus became full (otherwise, you can purchase them at the station or, if my memory serves me correctly, on the bus). For the hotel, we stayed at Hotel Madreselva which I highly recommend. It’s very clean with a beautiful courtyard and a pool and is a very short walk from the beach

Ronda

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We took a break from the beach and went inland for some history. Walking around carefree, we passed by the bullring and peaked in through slightly opened gates (the poor man’s version of a tour), and then became entranced with the surrounding landscape and the river gorge El Tajo that was split across by el Puente Nuevo. Simply amazing.

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Puente Nuevo, a beautiful bridge that loses (or maybe gains) some of its wonder when you realize that prisoners were thrown off of it in centuries past.

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One old man told us where to get an amazing view of the Puente Nuevo. After we thanked him, he demanded that we give him a euro. Tough economic times? I think so.

Travel tip: We took a bus back to Cádiz from los Caños de Meca, then took a bus from Cádiz to Ronda (using the same website mentioned above). A trip to Ronda cost a little over 17 EUR and was about a 3.5 hr trip one way. Yes, a good portion of our trip was spent on a bus or train but, when neither of us could drive (or drive manual), it was worth it. We both also loved the bus rides through the Spanish landscapes. Paradise for a daydreamer. For the hotel, we stayed at Hotel Colón which was clean, simple and great for location (close to the bus station and to the city center).

Almería

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For the last stop of our trip, we went to go visit my good friend Teba with whom I worked in Madrid and who spent most of her childhood in Almería. It was a full, fun house – Teba and her boyfriend Diego, her sister Lidia and her boyfriend, their two dogs Lola and Jared, their cat Asia…and us two Americans. We went to Las Negras (pictured above, pronounced s-less in Andaluz) which is a black sand beach with volcanic origins and, after a nice paella lunch along the shore, drifted into a nice siesta. Ahh, perfection.

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We drove to el arrecife de Las Sirenas and visited the lighthouse and, before Tracy and I needed to catch our train back to Madrid, made one last beach stop…

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…to el Cabo de Gata. On the edge of the photo is Jared, the happiest and friendliest dog to have ever existed. He tried to make friends with Asia (the cat) and followed her relentlessly throughout the house despite the cat’s annoyance. If he couldn’t fit into a little nook where the cat went, he sat patiently outside it with an expression of oblivious happiness, tongue sticking out and tail wagging. I was thoroughly amused by this situation.

Travel tip: We took a bus from Ronda to Málaga – about a 2 hr trip and 11 EUR one way, then a bus from Málaga to Almería – about a 3.5 hr trip and 17 EUR one way. In other words, if you can drive manual, please…rent a car. We caught the train back to Madrid.

Más Semana Santa

The boat ride from Lanzarote to this island alone made me feel not just alive but, more importantly, thankful to be alive. How often have you felt this lately? I often forget that life is beautiful. All I seem to pay attention to is how I’ve been mistreated or how the world always seems to be against me. What I don’t realize is that maybe I’ve brought and continue to bring this onto myself. But, nothing is permanent and you have the power to change your circumstances. So, why not start now?

I’m on the verge of accomplishing my first of three new year’s goals and, I feel change coming. It’s always a little bittersweet when you let go of something that you’ve loved until now while knowing that it’s for better things in the future. The only thing I can really do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

La Graciosa, Spain

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I spent a decent portion of my semana santa wishing I was back in Madrid with a certain someone, wishing I could be with him to soothe and balance out his roller coaster emotions. Sure, I loved him but, where was the love for myself? Coming to this island made me feel an independence that I knew I needed to re-realize. There was me. There was this beautiful blue. There were blocks of white against the blue. There was my soul’s reawakening. I made it here at last.

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After I grabbed a quick lunch by the shore of pulpo (octopus) and white wine, I rented a bike in the adjacent shop and made my way across the island. The island seemed flat but, with each push on the pedal, my thighs whimpered at the hidden inclines. There was also my body’s reawakening.

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I parked my bike here thinking that this was the only bike rack in the vicinity. Half a mile of walking in the scorching sun later, I found plenty of spaces by the beach. Curses! (Think Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls.)

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First stop – Playa de las Conchas in the northwestern part of the island. Whimpering thighs be damned. This was worth all the pain.

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Bahía del Salado

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Playa Francesa

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And, the last stop on my bike adventure, Playa de la Cocina against Montaña Amarilla. Note to self: never attempt to ride a bike on soft sand unless you want quivering thighs and to reach your nearby destination in quadruple the amount of time.

Travel tip: I was staying in Puerto del Carmen on Lanzarote at the time. I took the Line 02 bus from Puerto del Carmen to Arrecife, then the Line 09 from Arrecife to Órzola. From here, I caught the ferry to La Graciosa. Be mindful of bus and ferry schedules to and from!

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I probably teared up every time I watched this video and, that’s when I knew that of all places to visit while living in Spain, I had to get here somehow.

Gran Canaria, Spain

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So, “I had to get here somehow” involved finding people on Facebook to travel with me. One positive thing about having worked in a corporate job for 5 years prior was having some cushion to spend on traveling. And then, on the other hand, there were all the late nights at the office, eating bad takeout, drinking 5 cups of coffee a day, working on multiple engagements and literally wishing someone would just push me in front of a fast-moving bus on my way to work every morning. So yea, there was that, too.

Most of the people in the Auxiliares program were freshly graduated undergraduates. And, here I was, with a Bachelor’s, Master’s and several years of work experience…and, equally lost in the world. So, with that, it was hard to find someone willing to dish out the cash to fly to the Canary Islands, climb a volcano and see the galaxy suspended above your tiny speck of a body. (I mean, why wouldn’t you want to?? Really, why?? Don’t worry, I’m coming back to question you again.) I managed to find just one interested person in a Facebook group dedicated for Auxiliares and, in some ways, I think I may have been better off alone. She was a stereotypical blonde (sorry, I tried to be as politically correct as possible…um, a ditz who just happened to be blonde? Is that better…?) from the midwest with a Spanish vocabulary much more extensive than mine but, horribly butchered by her very American Fargo accent. She managed to sprinkle “like” in her almost fluent Spanish (if you ignore the accent).

“Like, dónde está, like, el centro de, like, la ciudad?”

“Quiero, like, un bocadillo de, like, tortilla.”

I entered Bobby’s World in SAP and may have even encountered Howie Mandel in the process.

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I first flew into Gran Canaria which is the main island that people access during travel since there are more flights available to/from the mainland. It’s a nice place to start because it has more of a city feel with beaches closeby but, don’t spend more than 1-2 days here if you’re limited on time. The true beauty of these islands lies in the ones adjacent to this one. Pictured above are las dunas de Maspalomas located in the southern part of the island.

Travel tip: I just remembered that due to a planned countrywide strike which affected public transportation, I slept overnight in the Barajas airport in Madrid to make sure I caught my morning flight to Gran Canaria. For whatever reason, it didn’t occur to me that Gran Canaria would also be affected and I ended up waiting a long time for a bus to arrive to take me to the city center (Line 60 to/from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; Line 66 to/from Maspalomas). Make sure you look up possible strikes before you travel anywhere.

Tenerife

And, so begins my journey to the Milky Way on el Teide. Most sensible people opt to take the cable car up (el Teleférico del Teide) and then hike the rest of the way to the peak. You can probably tell where this is going. For whatever reason, I tend to take the longest paths and do things in the most difficult and possibly most inconvenient way. So, I decided to go on foot and hike my way up (about 4-5 hours) to the shelter (el Refugio de Altavista del Teide), spend a night there and hike the rest of the way up at the asscrack of dawn. Now, this is me literally taking the longest path. The figurative aspect involved me wearing inadequate clothing and Tretorn’s (think Converse) which left me frozen to the bone and slipping on rocks.

Travel tip: I believe we took Route 102 from the North airport to Puerto de la Cruz. When we arrived in the city center, we had just missed the last bus going towards the cable car station at el Teide. Our last resort was to catch a cab which ended up being better as we were dropped off right at the hiking route, at about 40.7 km on the TF-21 highway (you will see the mile markers or, rather, the km markers along the side of the road). I don’t remember the exact cost of the cab though my memory wants to say that it cost up to EUR 80 or 90 in total, as opposed to a bus ride cost of less than EUR 10 each way. Be mindful of the bus schedule when you plan out your trip.

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But, nothing beats my Fargo-ian travel companion lugging her rolling suitcase up rocky paths, steep inclines and high altitudes with thinning air (pictured above). When making our travel plans, we both knew we’d be doing this 4-5 hour hike. Maybe I didn’t go out and purchase the necessary hiking gear but, I at the very least made sure to pack just a backpack. Given that we were doing this hike shortly after arriving in the airport, we were unsure we could even lock our luggage in an airport locker or leave it safely elsewhere. This time, logic was on my side. Other hikers kept looking at her in amusement and disbelief, with a few scoffs here and there. I found even more amusement in their amusement but, I have to hand it to her. She was adamant on dragging that mini fridge on wheels all the way up and all the way down, and tried to make it seem like it was no big deal at all.

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If you look from one photo to the other, you can see the movement of the clouds and gauge just how windy it was, especially in the higher altitudes.

You have no idea how disappointed I was when I found out as a child that clouds weren’t big pillowy clumps of cotton that you could sleep on but, instead, were masses of vapor you can clearly fall through. Or, maybe you can relate…

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The scenery throughout the hike was not just amazing but, AH MAY ZEENG. (‘I still would rather take the cable car,’ you say. ‘You are wrong,’ I retort. It’s been a pleasure having this dialogue with you.) It was just unreal seeing the geological differences that resulted from the volcanic origins of this mountain and island. Still, I felt great relief at the sight of the shelter (at an altitude of 3,270 meters or 10,728 feet). I’m sure I was still pretty out-of-shape from the probable 10 pounds that I gained in India several months before this trip. No, I clearly did not get Delhi belly in India and, yes, I’m not kidding about the weight gain.

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If you decide to stay the night at the shelter, make sure to pack an easy meal, some snacks and water. The shelter had a small basic kitchen and a cold/hot drink machine. There is also a bathroom but, no showers. Due to the high winds at night, the shelter shuts all windows and doors at a certain point and bedtime is around 10:30pm, after which you are not allowed to make any noise. If you don’t want to sleep, there is a common area with benches.

A night’s stay cost about EUR 24. There are a few rooms filled with bunk beds and bedsheets/blankets are already set up for you. The bed was actually very comfortable and toasty that a part of me just wanted to never leave. Unfortunately, you are supposed to leave by 7:30am since they close around 8am (and reopen around 11am). A good thing is that you are allowed to leave your luggage in the main area when you make your final climb in the morning and pick it up on your way back down.

In order to make the final climb, you generally need to apply for a permit for a specific day and time slot. However, if you stay a night at the shelter, you don’t need this permit. If you take the cable car up [like a wimp] and make the final climb from there, you need the permit.

At around 5:30 or 6am, the first group of people decided to start their ascent. It was still pitch black, windy as hell and freezing. My Fargo buddy and I decided to tag along with these Spaniards because, like idiots, we didn’t bring flashlights or head torches…nor proper hiking gear. Now, I may have been poking fun at my Fargo buddy this entire time but, she’s a frequent hiker with speedy legs and despite being thin, she somehow has the skin of a high blubber content whale. In just yoga pants and a thin jacket, she zoomed through the trails and felt only a little cold. I, on the other hand, couldn’t keep up and couldn’t feel my hands and feet after just 5 minutes of hiking. The Spaniards with flashlights and Fargo girl in yoga pants were so far ahead of me, I couldn’t see where I was going anymore because it was still pitch black. After one Spaniard came back to fetch me a few times, I told them that I would return to the shelter on my own so that they could keep going and reach the top in time for the sunrise. I would have to wait until sunrise to attempt the climb again.

So, off they went. And, I was left alone in the black trying to descend a rocky path. I tried using the meager light from my cell phone (didn’t have the flashlight app) and almost fell a few times. It was still so cold, I couldn’t hold out my phone for too long without losing feeling in my fingers. I remember at one point, I just stopped, leaned against a rocky wall and thought that I might die out there. I decided to take a few slow breaths and just stared off into the night sky. The beautiful starry night sky. I thought I could make out the Milky Way but, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing anymore. I realize now that it probably was the Milky Way and that professional photos always make it seem unrealistically bright through the use of high exposure camera lens. At least that’s what I tell myself.

I was glad that I took those few minutes to examine the night sky. That was my main reason for making this trip and my trying to catch up to the others only made me stare at the ground to make sure I was stepping on stable grounds. But, after those few minutes, I couldn’t feel my face and so, I slowly made my way back and waited until sunrise to finish the climb.

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The sea of clouds was just pure awe and beauty. When the sun rose, a group of college kids asked if I wanted to finish the climb with them. Yes, thanks 🙂

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The hike to the peak probably took about another 1-2 hours. At the top, it reeked of sulfur and was still so windy and cold. The view was spectacular but, the highlight for me is still those few minutes I took looking up at the starry sky shortly after I expected my imminent death.

I met the Fargo girl back at the shelter and we made the 4-5 hour hike back down. Once we made it down, we had no planned way of getting back to the city center. To give you an idea of where we were, please refer to the picture below:

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We basically had 2 options:

1. Walk/wheel luggage a few miles in one direction to the main cable car station (which also has a food court and restrooms), and catch the bus into the city center or,
2. Walk/wheel luggage a few miles in the other direction to the next town and somehow catch the bus from there.

We chose option 2 (not sure why) and Fargo girl began speed walking with her luggage and left me way behind without bothering to check on me. After being in the freezing cold up top, I was feeling fatigued and like utter shit. Option 2 also left me feeling like I might die for the second time on this trip with each curve I turned and encountered a car speeding past inches away, oblivious to my existence. So, as she zoomed on, I decided to take a break at a lookout point along the side of the road which opened up to a panoramic view of the mountains. I tried looking up cabs on my phone but, I either couldn’t find someone willing to come out there or it ended up costing a fortune. I finally decided to walk back to where we started and ended up bumping into the Spaniards who offered to hike to the peak with us earlier that morning. They were jumping into their car and readily offered me a ride to the cable car station. It is a time like this when I truly realize that there is some universe looking out for me. It’s something I would realize everyday if I weren’t so distracted by my own useless worries.

At the station, I was able to catch the bus back to Puerto de la Cruz and on the second or third stop, guess who comes on? Dontcha know??

Lanzarote

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I came here at the suggestion of a Spanish friend of mine and I totally suggest it to anyone planning on traveling to the Canary Islands. When we arrived at our hotel, we bumped into a French guy from Lyon who had a half day to spare before he needed to return his rental car and fly out. He offered to take us to la Fundación César Manrique, which was the house of the native artist turned into a museum and foundation.

I thought, “Why the hell not?” The French guy was a rugged-handsome and had just spent the last few days windsurfing. Rugged, sporty and manly; willing to drive us around; fun to talk to (as opposed to Fargo girl). Definitely ‘why the hell not.’

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César Manrique built his home over volcanic bubbles/lava caves which were formed after an eruption in the 1700’s and made rooms within each cave, interconnecting them with small passageways. Some rooms were lounge areas that led to a small pool area and a dance floor. MTV Crib this!

His artwork is displayed on the ground floor above the lava caves along with his contemporary art collection which included paintings by Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. After living in cities both in and outside of Spain, he settled back in his hometown in Lanzarote for a quieter life and dedicated himself to preserving the natural habitat and local architecture of the island. He played a part in preventing large hotel chains from overtaking the coasts, and most buildings are only a few stories high and are painted white by mandate to preserve the look of the landscape. If you saw the landscapes of Lanzarote, you’d appreciate all of Manrique’s efforts and how it continued after his passing.

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With some time left before the French guy had to return his car, we stopped in a small random seaside town and ate at a seafood restaurant by the shore – Restaurante Salmarina, Playa Quemada. One of the things I love about Europeans is how easygoing they usually are with meeting people, going out and just plain enjoying themselves. There are no attachments or expectations. If some stranger in the states offered to take me to a museum and restaurant (which, first of all, they probably wouldn’t even do but, hypothetically speaking), I would expect myself to be brutally murdered or tied up in a basement after being sexually harassed. This may also be due to the copious amounts of Law & Order: SVU episodes I’ve been watching lately.

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My dish – pulpo y papas arrugadas con mojo or, octopus with potatoes in a special sauce that’s native to the islands (usually spicy). I bet you are salivating…because I am.

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And, this is the day that Fargo girl and I officially parted ways and never spoke a word to each other ever again. She went north to join a surf camp and I decided to stick around and do a tour of the island’s natural wonders. I really wanted to try surfing but I realized that I could learn it anywhere. Could I see volcanic ruins anywhere? Less likely. So, at the last minute, I booked a spot on a tour bus called (how fitting) Last Minute Excursions. Though I was on a bus with a bunch of British and German families, it was nice being carefree on a bus while a guide explained everything in great detail. First stop, pictured above – El Golfo.

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The beautiful and unreal landscape of the island. We drove past the salt flats of Janubio and through el Parque Nacional de Timanfaya. At a lookout point and restaurant area (aptly named El Diablo), they brought us to a hole in the ground that was filled with air so hot that when they stuck a pitchfork of dried plants into it, the plants burst up into flames within seconds. Note to self: do not trip and fall into hole. Got it.

They then brought us to an adjacent area with smaller holes in the ground. When water was poured into each of them, the water shot back out high into the air like a geyser. The sound of it was startling at first and this one lady crouched towards her husband in fear while the husband held so tightly to the bottom of his shirt that at the loud sound, he lifted it up to reveal a part of his midriff. Note to self: do not stand near couple where husband is oddly holding onto a piece of his clothing and there are startling noises? Gotta work on that one.

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This part of the tour through the craters and lava fields was, by far, my favorite and is only accessible through chartered tour buses. I’m too lazy to consult a thesaurus so, I’m going to say that it was AMAZINGGGG!! Can you see the large crater in the last photo above?

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Next stop: a vineyard at El Campesino. SQUEAL! The wine was a bit too sweet for me but, I welcome any wine tasting (especially when it was included in the tour package that I paid for). The vines are planted behind semi-circle stone walls called zocos to protect them from the fierce winds. Definitely could’ve used one of these on my hike up el Teide…

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Next: Jameos del Agua. One of César Manrique’s creations and home to the blind albino crab which look like tiny creepy crawly spiders. Manrique transformed this volcanic cave to include an auditorium, swimming pool and a restaurant (among other things). Just seeing how blue the pool was made me want to jump in so badly. I suppose it’s worth following the rules and not getting kicked out and banned from a place, right? Then again, I’m most likely not coming back…

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Last stop on this tour: this magnificent view on our way to the Guinate viewpoint. What’s that word that I barely used…ah, yes. AMAZING!! From here, you can see the island of La Graciosa, the island I loved the most (and the last part I will write about).

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After staying in the Puerto del Carmen area for about 3 days, I decided to spend my last in the southern part – Playa Blanca. To get here cost effectively, I took the Line 02 bus from Puerto del Carmen to Arrecife, then Line 60 from Arrecife to Playa Blanca (bus info). This part of the island is definitely geared more towards families with its shopping and variety of restaurants. It also seemed cleaner and more spacious. From Marina Rubicón, I caught the water taxi to las playas de Papagayo, pictured above. There are several beaches separated by cliffs and all of them are a nice leisurely walk to the other. I loved that it felt remote and sparsely populated. I sunbathed here and relaxed with my Kindle until the last water taxi departed.

Las Fallas

Valencia, Spain

Many Spaniards told me that Valencia wasn’t really worth visiting unless I was going for Las Fallas and/or to eat paella. In general, there isn’t too much to see in this modern city and the beaches are mediocre compared to other parts of the country. Las Fallas, however, was definitely worth seeing. It’s a traditional celebration to commemorate Saint Joseph and it lasts for 5 days and nights. Since I had to work during the week, I wasn’t able to go for all of the celebrations. But, in the Facebook group for the Auxiliares program, a small tour company run by 2-3 people called Mono Loco advertised a day trip to Valencia for the final day of Las Fallas. For the low price of EUR 39, a coach bus would take you on a roundtrip from Madrid to Valencia, leaving at noon the day of Monday, March 19 and returning by 8am the next day. In addition, there would be a “champagne breakfast” and tour guides. Since I had Mondays off and it sounded like a deal, I thought, “Why not?” We’d be returning at 8am the next day and my plan was to go to work straight after (genius idea, I know). One girl I worked with also thought it sounded fun and came along with me.

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We arrived in Valencia around 4 or 5pm and the city was, as expected, packed with people. To further explain Las Fallas, the celebration involves multiple groups of people showing around the large statues/monuments that they planned to build and constructed throughout the year (made of paper mache, wax and wood) which are mounted on a foundation loaded with firecrackers. The entirety is called a “falla.” Each falla has a theme, usually satirical in nature.

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I was amazed at all the intricate details of these fallas. They looked like giant fondant cakes on display within a very distorted Disney World. It was hard to imagine each of these being up in flames by the end of the night, with all that hard work culminating with fire and ashes. In the days preceding, each day of celebration begins with an early morning wake-up call by bands marching down the street (La Despertà). By the afternoon, there would be a fireworks show (La Mascletà).

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In the days following, the fallas need to be completed and there is a flower offering to a large statue of the Virgin Mary and some more fireworks.

Since arriving, we walked around to look at the fallas and finally situated ourselves at Lizarran to grab a bite to eat for dinner. There was a small food mart down the block and we grabbed a bottle of whatever alcohol and a bottle of Aquarius as a chaser to carry around with us. We then went bar-hopping and from thereon the night was nothing but a blur. If looking at the above photo for 30 seconds starts to make you feel swirly, then I am the photo I take (or, rather, I was the photo I took). At some point, I tripped over a crevice or pothole on the street, fell and ripped a hole through my jeans on my left knee. I still have a bump there to commemorate my stupidity.

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Of the larger group, we girls stuck together the most. If you ask me what their names are now, I won’t know a single one…except for the girl I worked with who came with me. But, that doesn’t matter. We were friends for that night and had a blast together. A one night stand, if you will. I’m not sure how we came about that unicorn/horse balloon but, I remember it being there and everyone carrying and posing with it at some point in the night…and thinking it was hilarious. In the end, it doesn’t matter how we got the unicorn/horse. What matters is that it was there.

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So, what we really came for was the last day of celebration which involved a parade of fire (Cabalgata del Fuego) in one of the main squares and, finally, past midnight…

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…the burning of all the fallas, known as La Cremà. The one being burned above is the falla in the second photo in this entry. It was the last one to be burned and the culmination of the entire event. The falla was…on fiyah. (I had to.)

Afterwards, we slowly made our way to where the bus was supposed to pick us up to take us back to Madrid. But, the bus wasn’t there. The tour group leaders frantically tried calling up the bus driver but, couldn’t reach him. Later on, we found out that either the bus broke down at some point or, the bus driver fell asleep somewhere and didn’t wake up in time to come get us. If my memory serves me right, it was the latter. The bus driver overslept.

To make matters worse, it had begun to rain and we were waiting outside by the main train/bus station, locked out for the night. By then, it was probably past 3am. Everyone’s buzz began to wear off and the sleepiness and crankiness took over. It was annoying as hell. Finally, the bus came around 4-5am…and most of us ended up being late to work by a good 1-2 hours. Luckily, I was friends with some of the teachers and was covered. Unluckily, I had to assistant teach these classes hungover with a bloody ripped hole on my left knee. I had completely forgotten about it until someone pointed it out to me. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone on this trip but, in the end, I’m glad I did. Never again, though. I think.

Emerita Augusta

When I was in elementary school, family vacations were usually to any place within a reasonable driving distance. My parents, being immigrants, were pretty frugal with money and while other kids in school would go to Disney World or come back with braided, beaded hair from the Bahamas, I would be left with a miniature model of a monument made of resin from D.C., a place we visited twice on two separate vacations. I used to be so envious of the other kids and their Mickey Mouse-shaped pens and Goofy plush keychains. I, too, wanted noise-making multi-colored-beaded hair (a la Monica and her frizzy hair). I mean, my parents’ honeymoon was in Disney World (they actually met and got married in the states), not Bali, Fiji or some place exotic. But, now that I look back, I really treasure those vacations. I became a professional daydreamer, staring at the endless trees passing by quickly on the side of the highway. If my brother wasn’t busy pestering me and crushing me and my sister against the car door every time my dad made a left turn, I was zoning out into a dream world where my life was exotic and I was the popular girl (shuttup, I know it’s a loser daydream). My brother made a cassette tape holder in woodworking class at school which he would bring to every car vacation. In it were mixed tapes he made and full albums he bought – Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, When in Rome and OMD. My parents put up with it and let him play his tapes for the majority of the ride. If it weren’t his tapes, we would be listening to overly vibrato-ed opera-esque songs from the Korean War days or church songs in Korean, neither of which were pleasant to our ears. Now, when I listen to “The Promise”or “Was It Something I Said,” I remember all those times I imagined being with the boy I liked in school (haha, wow, this all sounds so idiotic).

One time we went to Atlantic City and because we were all underaged, my parents left me and my sister under the supervision of my teenage brother at the doorway to the casino while they went inside to gamble. Haha, I’m really cracking up while writing this. We were bored out of our minds just standing there with the security guard.

So, you’re probably thinking, what trip is she going to write about that has this kind of a prologue?

Mérida, Spain

When I first started assistant teaching, a teacher I worked with a lot drew a map of Spain for me and pinpointed a bunch of places that he thought I should visit. Mérida was one of those places. My roommate and I had already hit up a lot of the more popular cities and were slowly running out of options so, this city seemed like a nice, quick weekend getaway destination. We caught the avanza bus from Estación Sur in Madrid (metro stop Méndez Álvaro, around EUR 40-50 roundtrip) and went our way. The ride was around 4-5 hours each way.

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After we arrived at the main bus terminal, we walked across a modern bridge, Puente Lusitania (next to Puente Romano, the older bridge), to get into the city center, around a 20 min walk. We checked into our hotel where we were staying for the night (the name of which I don’t remember but, the city is so small, you can easily find a decent one on booking.com or whatnot), and quickly made an itinerary to go sightseeing. It was a short list of things to see which felt nice because it meant that we could take our time. But, upon visiting some of these sights, I realized that Mérida is probably one of those places where families on a low budget would visit and drag their kids to on a vacation, a “D.C.” for the Spaniards, except there is a lot more to see and do in D.C. but, still equally boring in the perspective of a kid. I wouldn’t readily recommend this city to a tourist, though I don’t regret coming here. I just wouldn’t come again, unless a friend’s family lived here and I tagged along to visit.

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We grabbed a bite to eat at the Plaza de España which was probably our usual bocadillo de tortilla and a caña. I wish there were plazas like this in New York, where you can just sit out in the sun for as long as you wanted and order cañas (glasses of beer that are sometimes smaller than a half-pint so that it would stay chilled to the very last sip). I suppose we have parks and brunch places with outdoor seating but, it’s really not the same.

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We bought a combined ticket called the entrada conjunta for EUR 12 which covered the entrance to multiple sights and was valid for a few days. First stop was the Teatro Romano and Anfiteatro. Little did I know that Mérida contains more Roman remains than any other city in Spain. I sat here for a bit and wondered what it was like back in the Roman times and what opera was being performed which I might’ve slept through. It goes to show you that a bit of history can make a mundane place a little magical.

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We then ran into Tilda Swinton having a headache. I thought it would be rude to ask for an autograph.

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Next stop was the Circo Romano (not pictured) which looked like an acre of just grass with some residual rocks along the perimeter. According to my guide book, up to 30,000 spectators could watch horse and chariot races here. Now, I imagine the only action this piece of land sees is from an all-wheel drive lawn mower.

Pictured above is the Acueducto de los Milagros. In the past, this aqueduct used to bring water to the city. A short walk away is the newer aqueduct which, in comparison to the one in Segovia, was really nothing special to see.

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At Casa del Mitreo, an old Roman villa, remnants of mosaic flooring showed bits of a cosmological scene featuring heaven, earth and the sea. Even if bits were missing from it, it was still beautiful and intricate. Whoever lived here in the past really lived it up.

The remaining sights on the combined ticket were the Alcazaba, Cripta Santa Eulalia and Zona Arqueológica de Morería. We visited them all since they were all included in the combined ticket and I had this slight mania with getting the ticket punched for all the sights. Also, that frugal upbringing of mine needed to get my EUR 12 worth of sightseeing. The Alcazaba was an old Islamic fort or, what was remaining of it. Again, with some history and a little imagination, it was nice walking around for a bit. The other sights, on the other hand, weren’t really worthwhile. I can see why all of this is available in a combined ticket.

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And, lastly, what would a Spanish city be without a bullring? We didn’t go inside but, I thought it looked beautiful from the outside.

Coo-en-cah

Cuenca, Spain

The father of one of Leigh’s private lesson students raved about Cuenca and claimed that at least 3 days should be reserved to thoroughly enjoy this city. The fact that this was his hometown should’ve been our first obvious clue to approach his suggestion with the utmost precaution.

When we told a few other Spaniards our weekend plan to visit Cuenca, they reacted with a straight up “Really? You sure?” That should’ve been our second obvious clue.

Luckily, we only allotted one day for this city. Though beautiful, there really is nothing to see.

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The father was also visiting Cuenca the same weekend and suggested that we meet for coffee. As we crossed the Puente de San Pablo, he called Leigh to tell her that he could see us crossing the bridge from the window of some restaurant in the distance. He kept asking if we could see him also. Our view from the bridge was not too different from the photo above. Do you really think we could see you? Really?

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Pretty pastels

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A glimpse of the catedral in Plaza Mayor

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And, I now present you with the main attraction – las Casas Colgadas or, the Hanging Houses.

The end.

Won’t you take me to…college town?

Salamanca, Spain

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“Have faith, in you.”

A great motto not only for a college town but also for life in general, no? It is a motto I am still learning to grasp. That’s for sure.

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A peak into Plaza Mayor

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A peak at the Catedral, Nueva y Vieja

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More than just a peak at Río Tormes…

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…and Puente Romano, on the other side of which we may or may not have excitedly ridden horsies on springs in the playground…and for a good 20 minutes or so…

Yes, I used the word “horsies” instead of “horses.” I am 27 years old.

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The Plateresque facade of la Universidad de Salamanca in the midst of which lies a carving of a frog atop a skull “said to bring good luck and marriage within the year to anyone who spots it unaided.” I must say, it’s pretty difficult to find it completely without aid when every souvenir shop you enter is filled with postcards and posters of the frog. Nevertheless, most of the photos were close-up’s and, despite them, it was still a challenge to find said frog within the overly ornate facade. I eventually spotted it and now conclude that it is pure B.S. as I still remain unmarried and with wavering luck. Or, maybe it’s just half B.S. as I wasn’t completely unaided? I sound like some self-proclaimed non-superstitious person who still reads and secretly hopes in horoscopes.

Before heading back to the bus station, we decided to grab some dinner. This may or may not have been at Telepizza.

Travel tip: Leigh and I bought roundtrip bus tickets with an open return. Keep in mind that with an ‘open return,’ you cannot just show up at the station and hop on the next available bus. You first have to go to the ticket booth and reserve a seat. Not knowing this, we tried getting on the bus only to find out we couldn’t and after rushing to the ticket booth, found out that only one unreserved seat remained. Joder.

próxima parada: Cuenca

Murallas

Ávila, Spain

It’s been ages since my trip to Ávila, so I will recount my most vivid memories as I do not remember anything else, hehe.

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A trend that I noticed within Spain is that they like to post up signs leading to specific sites and once you’re on your way, the signs disappear and you find yourself falling down a rabbit hole into the twilight zone. We tried to find the tourism office only to be led to an abandoned, boarded-up, dilapidated building with a fading sign that read “Tourism Office.”

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The catedral was near the entrance/exit, so we decided to come back at the end to visit. We came back, and it was closed. Note to self: check opening and closing hours.

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This was probably the first weekend where we really began to feel winter weather. We were eventually forced to buy 3 euro gloves in a souvenir shop. The best souvenir I ever purchased.

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Frozen, we decided to hit up a cafe to warm up with a nice dosage of caffeine. As we started to thaw, I read my guide book and realized that the closing time for the wall walk was in another half hour. We ran to purchase tickets and tried to cover as much wall distance as possible before being kicked out. Not a complete fail this time! Upon exit, we found the new tourism office…cerrado.

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The Convento de Santa Teresa, which houses the mummified (and bejeweled) hand of Santa Teresa. Eerie? You betcha.

Before heading back to the train station, we wanted to grab a quick and cheap dinner, and what better place than Telepizza? When we told our friend Iñaki where we ate…

“WHAT? You went to Ávila and ate Telepizza?”

Yes. Yes, we did.

próxima parada: Salamanca