Monthly Archives: October 2011

Basque country

My very first visitors from NYC – Jenn & Julie 😀

We needed to wake up at 6am the next morning to catch the 6 hour bus to San Sebastián. So, in all sensibility, we drank 2-3 bottles of wine the night before, went out to meet a friend of a friend [of a friend] at an overpriced bar for his birthday, drank calimochos (wine with Coke) at a gay bar called Bar Nike and shouted random obscenities at strangers while en route to a pizza place for drunken binge eating. (Why does this seem like deja vu…)

Three hours of sleep and a six hour bus ride later…

San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque/Euskara), Spain

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We knew we entered Basque country when the letters k, x and z began to pop up in every highway and sidewalk sign. In my ignorance, I didn’t even realize the Basque language (also called Euskara) existed. We thought we somehow ended up in Greece for a brief second.

After getting off the bus and stretching our legs, we began walking towards our hotel only to realize that after walking in a giant circle, the hotel was only a block away (in the other direction) from the bus station. Lucky for us, these two fashionable grandmothers decked out in full 70’s outfits and large vintage shades helped us to complete that circle.

Our hotel, Astoria 7, was movie-themed and we ended up in the Kim Novak room. I suppose this beats the chrome space-themed motel room from Blue Valentine. I still have no idea who Kim Novak is though.

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The plan for the rest of the day: wander around Parte Vieja (Old Quarter).

020_Iglesia Santa Maria

What I’ve noticed about a lot of the little towns in Spain is that the neighborhoods are jam-packed with churches and cathedrals. It’s not really a surprise, obviously, but I always get wowed every time I walk down a narrow street or alleyway and bump into a large church at the end of it, like a hinge between the streets.

Also, everyone was stylishly dressed, particularly the children and grannies who seemed to be the demographic makeup of the city. Jenn and Julie speculated that San Sebastián was the Spanish version of Florida, where people go to retire and be fashionably merry alongside the shore. Not sure about the tax benefits though…

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Next day’s plan:

1. Ride the funicular up Monte Igueldo to see a panoramic view of the city
2. Picnic on the beach, La Concha
3. Drink wine by the beach
4. Go on a pintxos bar crawl (also known as txikiteo)

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N̼mero uno Рcheck.

On top of Monte Igueldo was a tacky amusement park that was closed for the day. It had a house of terror that is probably better off labeled as ‘house of terrible.’ The tackiness, however, was so extreme that it indeed was scary.

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N̼mero dos y tres Рcheck and check.

We bought food for our picnic at a mini market but, didn’t get to buy a bottle (or three) of wine. After eating our pre-packaged sandwiches, baguettes and an assortment of cheese, we got our appropriate dosage of the fermented grape at a nearby cafe while looking out into the sea in the sunset and warm breeze.

I dipped my feet into the water. Its aquamarine color made it seem warm and inviting, but I quickly realized that it would be better described as ‘ice blue.’ Egads.

083_Plaza de la Constitucion

N̼mero cuatro Рthe real bizznazz.

According to my guide book, “real connoisseurs should head to Gros, noted for its innovative, high-quality pintxos.” The first bar listed in that area, Aloña Berri, had also been mentioned in a NY Times article, and so, we marched on over with hungry stomachs. You can imagine our disappointment when we found the bar closed for either the season or renovations. Grumbling hungry, we resorted to a nearby Irish bar with a lit up Guinness sign that had assured us of its welcoming love and shelter. Sláinte.

We then crossed the bridge back to Parte Vieja and hoped for better luck with the pintxos bars there. At the corner of Plaza de la Constitución, we found heaven in Bar Astalena.

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The highlights were grilled squid and pistachio croquettes, all washed down with crianza red wine. YUM! Apparently, in a pintxos bar crawl, “it’s usual to try just one pintxo, preferably standing and washed down with a small glass of red wine…” Um, we each had about three or four, on top of the tortilla we gobbled down at the Irish bar. Nevertheless, we forced ourselves to continue on our crawl despite our nearly full tanks.

Next on the bar crawl…

Ganbara – closed.
Cuchara de San Telmo – nowhere to be found.
La Cepa – OPEN!

And so, we ended our night at La Cepa. So much for a bar crawl. On our way back to the hotel, we decided to take a different bus (one that we’ve never taken before) and found ourselves in a twilight zone of apartment buildings. One minute we found our way via a map, and the next minute we were warped into some circular orbit of hell. An hour or so later, we finally began to see familiar territory.

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Monday was a rainy day. After two gorgeously sunny days, a rainy day wasn’t so bad in the end. We meandered around Parte Vieja for some mild shopping, returned to our lovely hotel room and watched Fargo as we pigged out on Cheetos, chocolate and red wine. Aw yea? Aw jeez.

For our last night, we made reservations at a sidrería (cider house), Petritegi, in Astigarraga which was only a 10 min cab ride from town. Although the cider season starts in late January and lasts until early May, this cider house is (thankfully) open off-season as well. And, man oh man, did we feast until maximum capacity or what!

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First course: tortilla de bacalao (cod omelette)
Second course: bacalao frito con pimientos (fried cod with peppers)

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Third course: chuleta (t-bone steak)
Dessert: queso, membrillo, nueces, tejas y cigarrillos (cheese, quince jelly, walnuts and assorted biscuits)

And, of course, all this comes with a large baguette and unlimited cider straight from the barrels.

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I expected cider pouring to be easy, like getting gatorade from a cooler. Instead, you turn a nozzle and the barrel essentially “urinates” into your cup from a distance. When pouring cider from a bottle, you hold the bottle above head level to aerate the cider.

In the beginning, this was no easy matter. If you ever end up in a cider house, avoid wearing long-sleeved shirts and in the event that you do wear a long-sleeved shirt, avoid wearing a white one.

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Me, Julie, and Jenn with our buddy Alfy back at the hotel

Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque/Euskara)

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Back to a sunny day 🙂 Earlier in the morning in San Sebastián, we set out to buy our bus tickets to Bilbao. For anyone traveling by bus, the station is an open-air parking lot and there are two ticket offices that are, at first, hard to find. When facing the river, both of them are to the left of the bus station (the right side is a hotel). One of the ticket offices is around the corner facing the river. The other ticket office (for the Pesa bus) is on the other/opposite corner, a little further down the street.

Apparently, that Tuesday was some kind of holiday and the first ticket office was running on a limited schedule. Luckily, the second ticket office was still open. (We seemed to have a lot of luck on this trip.) Disaster avoided!

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Bilbao has a very efficient, clean and high-tech tram that goes from the bus station to the Guggenheim in less than 10 min and for 1.30 euro one way.

And here, ladies and gentleman, is Frank Gehry’s Museo Guggenheim, accompanied by the creepy spider, Louise Bourgeois’ Maman. Although the spider is supposed to portray protection, it still scares the shit out of me. The museum, on the other hand, is an amazing piece of architecture. I wonder what Howard Roark would’ve thought of it.

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Before embarking on a modern art journey, we needed to get our priorities in order, aka go stuff our faces with more food. The guide book highly recommended the bistro within the Guggenheim and sold us with “surprisingly inexpensive lunch menu.” Usually, reservations are necessary but as it was off season, we were seated immediately without having called in advance.

For 18 euros, we were able to order an entree and dessert from the express menu, inclusive of bread, water and and a glass of wine. Sweet. I ordered the cordero asado (lamb) with butternut squash purée, yogurt ice cream with light citrus cream and elderflower sponge cake, and a glass of red. Our order took longer than expected given that the restaurant was only half full (hooray for optimism) and the waitress unexpectedly brought out a free bowl of croquettes and refilled our wine glasses as an apology. We didn’t even complain.

We happily stuffed our faces with gluttonous glee and, on our way out, the host called out to us holding a small basket of chocolate covered rice crisps. More free food? Sure!

We then waddled our way to the ticket line and to the first exhibit. Note to self: never eat a large meal before visiting a museum, unless you like tearing from excessive yawning and struggling against your droopy eyelids. No photos were allowed in any part of the museum, so the above two photos were the only ones I managed to take. My favorite exhibit was Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time in the fish gallery (the second photo), although it is much better seen from an upper level. I couldn’t sneak in that photo as I was being watched by two security guards.

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Another funicular ride, another spectacular view…

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and a riverside stroll towards Casco Viejo (Old Town).

We walked over to Etxanobe for dinner, from Casco Viejo to Euskalduna. After days of gorging, we thought the walk would be good exercise for our porcine selves. The walk ended up being longer than expected, especially with the darkening sky and increasing winds. When we finally made it, we were the only ones eating at 8:30pm. The restaurant didn’t fill up until an hour or so later.

During our final dinner in this nice restaurant, we felt very upscale and sophisticated…but that was before we finished off our first bottle of wine. Not only did a second bottle increase our volume, but it also increased our incessant, obnoxious giggling. We reached maximum immaturity by the time dessert came out – two plates, one of which had three small pieces of “marshmallow.” After placing said plate onto the table, the waiter then poured hot water over it, expanding the “marshmallows.” The three of us oOooo-ed at the expansion and I, being the brave one, decided to try it first. So, I took a bite, threw it back down onto the plate and broke out into a laughter of embarrassment.

Jenn & Julie: “Wait, what’s so funny?”
Me: “It’s a towel!”

Marshmallow? Nope. I bit into a gauze towel.

Towards the end of dinner, we saw a couple sitting at the next table and became disgusted and yet mesmerized by the gremlin-faced guy. He looked like a Filipino version of Jared Leto which can sound like a compliment, but it most definitely is not. Continuing with our obnoxiousness, Julie pretended to take photos of Jenn but really zoomed in on the guy. To avoid being a complete asshole, I will not post that photo.

Finally leaving the restaurant (which I bet was what the waiters were thinking), Julie and I ran and tried clicking our heels. We both failed, and Jenn failed to take a clear photo of it.

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Much to Jenn’s dismay, Julie and I decided to walk back to our hotel instead of taking the tram. When the pathway split into two, Jenn insisted on going one way and Julie and I insisted on going the other. And so, we decided to race.

Julie and I won (but only because we ran for dear life).

Next day, it was back to reality.

próxima parada: Cariñena, Zaragoza, Barbastro, Torla, Ordesa y Monte Perdido (los Pirineos), Aínsa, Salas Bajas, Alquézar, Adahuesca, Radiquero y Salas Altas

Próxima parada: Granada y Málaga

As a last minute decision, my roommate and I decided to book a trip to Granada for the weekend with a possible day trip to Ronda thrown in there. We found a great hostel (White Nest Hostel), booked it, and planned out the bus times that we’d take the next night. But, a planned trip isn’t complete without some bump in the road for us. Oh no, no, no. Nope. Sigh.

Amy: “By the way, did you book your tickets in advance for the Alhambra?”
Me: “Shit.”

It dawned on me that the reason why I didn’t go to Granada a few years ago and opted for Sevilla instead was sold out tickets to the Alhambra, the main attraction of the city. In a panic, Leigh called the hostel to cancel our reservations only to find out that a short notice cancellation meant a forfeiture of our deposit + one night’s stay. She then called the Spanish bank to stop any payments but, alas, the department that handles these matters did not operate 24 hours a day. Welcome to Spain.

The only slightly comforting piece of information – we could either try to purchase tickets from the La Caixa ATM’s the next day before departing Madrid, or go to the Alhambra on the day of and wait on line for tickets an hour in advance of ticket office opening times. The former attempt proved to be fruitless but after much debate, we decided to f*ck it and go anyway. A very good decision on our part.

Málaga, Spain

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We realized it’d be better to take the 5 hour bus ride to Granada on Friday night so that we could have a full day on Saturday. In an effort to squeeze in more sleep after arriving in Granada at midnight, we decided to save the Alhambra for Sunday and go on a day trip to Ronda on Saturday. Unfortunately, there were only three train times to Ronda, none of which fit our schedule. Plan B – take the bus to Córdoba. Unfortunately (again), tickets were unavailable at the kiosk machine and after waiting on line for a good twenty minutes at the ticket booth, we realized the next available time didn’t work out either. On a whim, we bought bus tickets to Málaga without knowing what was there or if it was worth visiting. The spontaneity churned a spurt of adrenaline and excitement. And then, I read my guide book…

“Málaga seems at first an uninviting place” was the introductory sentence. Nice.

After a 2 hour bus ride, we walked out of the terminal to see an area under heavy construction. The guide book was dead-on. (Although near the bus terminal was the train station, which was connected to a pretty big modern shopping mall.) Walking more towards the city center, we found ourselves in crowded but dirty streets. Even further down, however, the streets became more inviting with food fairs, flea markets, verdant parks and, best of all, a view of the Mediterranean. We felt marinely (not a real word) deprived after living smack in the middle of a peninsula for the past month or so.

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Our itinerary for the day: Gibralfaro, Alcazaba, Museo Picasso and back to the park to relax. To get to Gibralfaro, you can either walk up a winding uphill path that would surely tighten the buns or, take a local and nicely air-conditioned bus. On our attempt to find out where the bus stop was, an extremely friendly local tried to help us out…until he began to pry.

Local man: “So, are you returning to Madrid tonight?”
Me: “No, to Granada.”
Local man: “Will you be going out tonight at all here?”
Us: “No…”
Local man: “Aw, that’s too bad. If you stayed the night, I would’ve joined you guys.”

Creeper. This man was probably in his 50s.

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Gibralfaro, an ancient fortress, provided amazing views of the city (bullring inclusive) and the sea.

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Back down to ground level, we went to see the Alcazaba, yet another citadel, fortress, palace, or whatnot. It was beautiful inside with its gardens and Moorish arches but, it did not compare to the Alhambra in Granada at all.

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I love imagining what would happen if at that exact moment of standing in this citadel…I were zapped back into time when history was living its course. I still imagined that I’d be captured, imprisoned and then stoned to death by a sultan for trespassing onto royal property. Or, maybe they’d think I was an interesting specimen to observe for none have ever before laid eyes upon an Asian, and a particularly beautiful one for that matter (toot toot my own horn). What’s the point in even imagining this? I don’t know.

067_Museo Picasso

Málaga was Picasso’s birthplace. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside…which is a shame since alongside his artwork were quotes describing his thoughts behind why he even painted in the first place. He wanted the viewer to think outside the lines of convention through many of his warped depictions. What made the experience even more fun was imagining his character as he was portrayed in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

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Even further into the city (past the catedral and around the Museo Picasso) were quaint streets and squares. I definitely did not expect to see this when coming out of the bus station earlier in the afternoon.

According to my guide book, “The…unfinished Catedral…despite its huge scale…also lacks any real inspiration and is distinguished only by an intricately carved seventeenth-century sillería (choirstall) by noted sculptor Pedro de Mena. However, Iglesia del Sagrario…is worth a look…”

Well, we passed by the catedral and thought, “pretty on the outside, but probably ‘been there, done that’ on the inside.” And then we passed by what I thought was the Iglesia del Sagrario (photo above). According to Google’s photo search, this is not that iglesia. What iglesia is it then? I have no idea, but it sure is pretty.

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In the above photo, one building masked its work-in-process renovations with a Picasso or Dalí-esque facade. It looked like a reflection of a building in a pond whose surface was distorted by a slight breeze.

On our way back to the main street, we ran into a massive protest, which we also ran into in Granada and, of course, back home in Madrid. Occupy [insert street name or city here].

In fact, when we finally returned to Granada and caught the local bus towards our hostel, we didn’t realize that the bus paths were rerouted due to the protests. We knew something was wrong when the bus ride seemed too long, there were few people left on the bus and the surrounding neighborhoods began to look increasingly shady in the darkening sky. According to one local on the bus, we had reached the pueblos. A scary word, but we were lucky that it didn’t live up to its sentiment. We also had some time left before the buses stopped running. Thank the Lord Almighty.

Granada

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We woke up around 6am Sunday morning, and made it to the ticket office an hour ahead of its opening time at 7am. There were already twenty or so other people waiting on line. The sky was barely turning a dark shade of navy blue and I had nothing to wear but shorts in 45 – 50°F. Luckily, the wait was only for an hour as by 8am, my hands and feet had lost some feeling and other parts of my body had become prickly with pins and needles.

By the time 8am rolled around, there were a hundred or so waiting on line when an announcement bellowed out the speakers informing us that about 400+ tickets were available for morning visits and 170+ for afternoon visits. The announcement also informed us that the ticket kiosk machines by the gift shop were now also open and that anyone could purchase tickets there using a credit card with a four digit pin. At the sound of that, we expected a mad dash of people to head over towards the machines but not too many did. Confused, Leigh decided to go check them out while I remained on the line. A few minutes later, she came back with tickets in hand and I hadn’t yet reached the booth. Apparently, anyone could’ve arrived just then at 8am, walked over to the machines and purchased tickets, bypassing the hundred that had been waiting in line. Does that make sense?

(Keep in mind that this approach of buying tickets on the day of worked out for us because the peak season had already passed. The number of tickets available on that day depend on how many had already been purchased in advance.)

Now equipped with tickets, we headed back to our hostel to shower and wash up at a leisurely pace. Relief!

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At around 11am, we joined a free walking tour around the older part of town, particularly el Albaicín. Along with a brief history of Granada, we walked through a hill covered in layers and layers of white houses. Not only was Granada the last Moorish city to be conquered by the Catholics, but also one (if not the only) that was conquered peacefully. As a result, most of the Moorish architecture was kept intact and not destroyed, occupied by the Catholic population after its abandonment by the Moors. The completion of the Reconquista was glorified by the placing of the cross on top of the three vertical circles on the roofs of mosques-turned-churches.

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The view of the Alhambra from el Albaicín was so gorgeous – sprawling mountains with a city lodged in its midst, and greenery everywhere. After the walking tour, we quickly grabbed falafel and began the breathtaking (literally) uphill walk to the Alhambra. The extra hot sauce in my falafel was not a good idea.

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On the ticket for the Alhambra, they assign you a time to see the Nasrid Palaces. You must come on time or you will miss the visit. Once inside, you’re allowed to spend as much time as you want looking around.

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The details in the archways and wall to ceiling decorations are incredible. My photos do not do it any justice and so, I recommend that you go and see for yourself 🙂 But remember, book tickets in advance if you want to avoid a panic attack.

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The view of the city through the ornate windows of the Nasrid Palaces.

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Outside of the Nasrid Palaces is the Generalife, which translates into the Garden of the Architect. I imagined that this was the general hangout area for the concubines, although they had more of a competitive sentiment with each other than one of friendship. The garden was chock full of every flower a non-allergic girl could want.

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Lastly, we visited the Alcazaba. From this citadel, we saw more amazing views of Granada. With the warm sun on my face and a nice breeze flowing through my hair, I stared in awe at the city. I probably could’ve stood there for a good hour, thinking that life surely was beautiful.

Back at our hostel, Leigh and I decided to take a siesta before a possible free walking tour into Sacromonte, an area of gypsy caves where flamenco was said to be one of the most authentic. Flamenco should not be considered “Spanish music,” but rather an art form of the gypsies. Unfortunately, I passed out and Leigh was exhausted, so we settled on a 6 euro flamenco show down the block from our hostel. It was decent, except for the fact that we were crammed into a tiny cavelike back room and sat near obnoxious tourists from Asia and Australia.

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Our last morning in Granada, we poked around souvenir stands near the cathedral. We high-fived at the success of our trip, given the horror we expected to experience upon arrival. Job well done, my friend. Job well done.

próxima parada: San Sebastián y Bilbao