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.
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?
A glimpse of the catedral in Plaza Mayor
And, I now present you with the main attraction – las Casas Colgadas or, the Hanging Houses.
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.
A peak into Plaza Mayor
A peak at the Catedral, Nueva y Vieja
More than just a peak at Río Tormes…
…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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…
Through the auxiliares group on Facebook, MadridBabel advertised a “trip to the autumn colors” in the Aragonese Pyrenees, including trips to vineyards and very small towns throughout the region of Aragon. (Side note: MadridBabel is an intercambio, through which people from all over the world can practice speaking Spanish and English, among other languages, and get together for various trips and events within Spain.) The trip was advertised in both Spanish and English, and for what was offered in the package, the price seemed like a great deal. My roommate and I were also excited to go on a trip where we only had to put in minimal effort and could meet other people in our age bracket.
So, Saturday morning, we set off to find the meeting point for the bus. Get off at Atocha, walk in the direction of the Ministerio de Agricultura and find the bus situated right by the station exit. We found several buses and asked each of them if they were with MadridBabel. All of them said no. There was one bus left to ask but, seeing an older, mid-aged crowd surrounding it, we figured it wasn’t the correct one and, thus, began our frantic search around la Glorieta del Emperador Carlos V. The Glorieta is a huge circular plaza with many possible areas for a bus to park. We ran in a semicircle, then along the diameter to the other side and back, then back to where we started. Finally, I asked the one bus we bypassed and, you guessed correctly, it was the bus for our trip.
At first, we were disappointed with the demographic (within a group of about 30). There was only one other auxiliar (in our age group), Derrick, from Louisiana and another American, Keith, from Texas. The rest of the group were Spaniards, ranging from age 30 to past 50, which was fine except that half of them were fussy women. In addition to that, the tour guide spoke Spanish 99% of the time and informed us that he did not speak much English. Even the itinerary printout was completely in Spanish. But, we decided to make the most of it and the trip ended up being fun and most definitely worthwhile. Would I travel with this tour group company again? Probably not.
First stop: Grandes Vinos y Viñedos, a company that was founded in 1997 to “channel the sales of five co-operatives,” according to its website. Keith, having lived in Mexico and Spain for several years, was really nice to translate a few tidbits about the vineyard in English. The grape varieties they produce include Cariñena and Tempranillo. Rose bushes are planted throughout the vineyard as they are not only susceptible to the same diseases as the grapevines, but are also even more so susceptible and would indicate the presence of disease before it hit the vines. The early indication would give the growers a head start in treating the disease. Pretty cool.
We were then shown a room with machinery that began with the process of lining up empty bottles, filling them up with wine from the barrels, corking, labeling and, prior to the final process of packaging them into boxes, going through quality control. It is completely dorky to say but I will admit anyway that I thought to myself, “Wow, what great operations management.”
Next, we walked into the sala de crianza, the room in which the wine is aged. Crianza wines are aged for at least two years, at least one of which is in oak. Surprisingly, the oak used in the barrels comes mainly from the United States or France. This room consisted mostly of American oak barrels. RePPin’ aMeriCan pRiDe!
Finally onto the tasting, we tried Beso de Vino Selección 2010. The description on the bottle explained:
“Antonio the Bull, kissed this wine and he fell in love. Now he runs around the world and offers this wine to you. Beso de Vino “Kiss of Wine”, the Spanish Temptation in a bottle. Fall in love. Have Fun. Beso De Vino.”
Their English writing is much more acceptable than the ones on Korean stationery.
Next on the agenda (according to the facebook advertisement): a gymkana in the Aragonese capital “which shall include tapas and history; we’ll eat as we see the city. We have planned a very interesting route where you will discover the city with the information we will provide to you and you will compete with the others in a fun way… No more details can be revealed… ”
A gymkana is pretty much a scavenger hunt. We were given a list of clues and we had to fill-in which tapas bar, monument, etc. to which it was referring. Leigh and I, distracted with taking photos, got separated from the rest of the group and, instead of completing the gymkana, went about our merry way randomly around the city. By the end, we managed to figure out 2 out of the 20 or 30 clues. We win.
Zaragoza is a very small city with a grand plaza, lined with Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (said to be the first church dedicated to Mary in history), La Seo Cathedral and the Fuente de la Hispanidad (in honor of Hispanic heritage, shown above) along its perimeter.
We only had a few hours to roam around and wished we could’ve had more time to graze. That’s the one downside of being in a tour group.
With not much scenery to it, this city was our starting and/or ending point for each day. We stayed at the Gran Hotel, a four-star with a breakfast buffet included.
I don’t know if it was the medieval atmosphere of Aragon or the Halloween weekend but, on the first night, I dreamt that I was being possessed. I woke up shaken and stirred, then calmed myself by gorging on the breakfast buffet. Food does a body (and mind) good.
Torla, Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido
The bus ride to Torla was jaw-dropping. From flat terrains to mountain ranges, through fall foliage alongside blue rivers, passing along shepherd-led livestock and even ghost towns (which are now deserted and uninhabited) – all of it was amazing.
Torla was our rest stop before the bus ride to the Pirineos. Torla is so small of a town, you can walk through it within 10 – 15 min. We packed (aka bought) a picnic lunch for the mountains – a bocadillo de tortilla (omelette sandwich), a bag of cheetos (ghost & bat-shaped), vanilla wafers and a bottle of water. A well-balanced meal for our trek to see the autumn colors.
Red, yellow and green. Ah, autumn is my favorite season.
Leigh didn’t have “appropriate shoes” for the hike and given her foot arch problems, her best bet was to wear her arch-supportive sandals and not her toe-pinching, unsupportive flats. She was fine with the idea but the Spaniards, on the other hand, seemed bothered by it. Throughout the five hour hike, each one of them took turns asking how her feet were doing and mentioning that she probably would’ve been better off with the flats. By the end, she managed the hike just fine and everyone was impressed. Leigh was visibly annoyed. High five for enduring the constant bugging.
The weather had a slight chill but with all the hiking, it was warm enough to just wear a cardigan. Almost everyone else was decked out in full hiking gear – the boots, pants, jackets, backpacks and even walking sticks. None of that was even necessary. Leigh was fine with her sandals, and I was fine with my Tretorn’s.
The explanation of the hike, as per our itinerary: “We’ll begin our route through the Gorge towards the Cotatuero beech tree forest and the spectacular Estrecho, Arripas and The Cave (la Cueva) cascades finishing at the Gradas de Soaso and the impressive landscape overlooking the Circo Glaciar and Monte Perdido.”
All of it was gorgeous and breathtaking. During most of the hike, Leigh and I hung out with Derrick, thereby creating the auxiliares trio.
Our lunch spot. By then, I had already finished my bag of Cheetos and half my sandwich. At least I had the other half of my sandwich saved for the picnic…
Our final destination before going back – the impressive landscape overlooking the Circo Glaciar and Monte Perdido. AH-MAYYY-EE-ZEENG.
By the time we returned to our starting point, the sky began to darken. Leigh and I decided to use the bathroom while the group waited on a long line for the bus ride back. One problem – the bathroom had no lights. I began to do my bizznazz in pitch black, praying that I had the proper squattage/aim ratio. I never listened so intently in my life. If only I applied that skill to high school and college…
Back to the line, we munched on my remaining rations of vanilla wafers. The bus finally came, and the only seat left was a makeshift seat next to the driver. Staring out the front windshield into the darkened road and sky, I felt like I was in a theme park and anticipated dropping off the edge of the cliff into a crazy rollercoaster ride. Although it was just a normal bus ride, I had fun with my imagination. No, I am not on drugs.
The hike took longer than expected and, by the time we reached our next town, it was pitch black. The darkness made the medieval atmosphere even more eerie, especially with glowing jack-o’-lanterns scattered throughout the town. It was too late to go back to Barbastro for dinner, so our tour group leader decided to stay in Aínsa and told us to meet at a particular restaurant in fifteen minutes. Keith mentioned a Guinness sign sighting and at that moment, we knew how to kill the next fifteen minutes. Appetizer? Done. Onto the next course.
What better way to spend Halloween morning than to visit a vineyard in the Somontano wine region? After getting off the bus in front of the Enate winery, I did a 360 and saw nothing but a landscape filled with grapevines, rose bushes, trees and mountains. The only building in sight was the Enate winery itself. Gorgeous.
Having been to quite a few wineries and breweries in the past decade, I was impressed with Enate because of its association with art. Each label chosen for a bottle of wine (for a specific vintage, type or variety) was thoughtfully drawn, painted or designed by a well-known artist. The winery had an art gallery displaying its labels and, unfortunately, no photos were allowed to be taken. The art gallery also had a side storage room with various other artworks, one of which was made with coats worn by prisoners under the Franco regime. Very eerie.
Yet another gorgeous town in the region of Aragon, accompanied by our wonderful shadow. I feel like my vocabulary doesn’t expand beyond “awesome,” “gorgeous” and “amazing,” among a few others.
We climbed the hill to see the panoramic view and to visit the Castillo y Colegiata de Santa María only to miss the visiting hours by literally one or two minutes. We then ate a nice lunch and ended up running out of time to check out the gothic gate that Derrick wanted to see. In the end, we appreciated the nice, leisurely stroll around town.
No trip to Aragon is complete without some legends and mystery. Well, in all honesty, I had no idea these legends existed until we visited the Centro de Interpretación de Leyendas y Tradiciones Populares. One legend involved las abuelas de Sevil (the grandmothers of Sevil) who were the only two survivors of the plague in their village. They sought shelter from nearby villages and the only one to accept them was Adahuesca. Every May 20th, there is a pilgrimage to pray for their souls.
Another legend involves two daughters (from a wealthy family) who had a Moorish father and a Christian mother. After their father’s death, they were raised Christian by their mother. A relative reported them to the Moorish authorities in an attempt to steal their inheritance and, as a result, the two daughters were sentenced to death and publicly decapitated. Wherever their bodies were disposed of, miracles began to happen and, thus, they gained respect posthumously. Happy Halloween.
To celebrate Halloween, we drove to a nearby small town for la Noche de las Ánimas. Underneath the starry sky, the local townies gathered by a church equipped with their jack-o’-lanterns and began a procession towards the cemetery. Most of the street lights were turned off and the only visible light came from the glowing pumpkins and torches. People with painted white faces covered in white sheets began to aimlessly roam through the crowd and even chased a scared person around. The “dead” among the undead.
From time to time, we would stop at a doorway where another person would continue telling the tale. When we finally reached the entrance to the cemetery, the “dead” addressed the crowd, “Bienvenidos a mi casa…”
It would’ve been scarier if the speaker system wasn’t so low quality. It made me laugh instead. Once the welcoming was finished, everyone began to turn around to head back to the main square. No entering of the cemetery. Lame. (Or maybe it was better off that way…)
Afterwards, all of us headed back to Barbastro for dinner. A few of the Spaniards didn’t have costumes and set out to buy them before our trip to Radiquero. Though I’m sure it was a waste of money, it was fun watching them getting into the spirit. Leigh and I recycled our half-assed costumes from school. She was a cat, and I was…a person with a small hat.
We ended the night with drinks at a Halloween-themed bar. They served Guinness, and gave out free drinks (with floating marshmallow teeth) to anyone wearing a costume. It was indeed a Happy Halloween.
back to… Alquézar (y Salas Altas)
On our last day of the trip, the tour guide took us on a two hour hike through the mountainous terrain below the Castillo which he described as “easier” than the Pirineos hike. Let me tell you that by the end of the two hours, everyone was drenched and dripping with sweat. The five hour hike we did through the Pirineos was a dry one. Apparently, “easier” is just a synonym for “shorter.”
A great majority of the hike involved rocky inclines and slippery paths. The rain earlier in the day and the current drizzle made the rocks that much more slippery. Leigh and I feared for our lives.
The highlights were a (bear-uninhabited) cave and the turquoise streams and ponds. At the midpoint of our hike, we had to walk on a narrow metal grating walkway that was screwed into the mountainside, high above the watery and rocky grounds below. It was so narrow at times that I knocked my shoulder into the protruding rocks. This is not a feat for the obese.
When we finally came back to level ground, all of us plopped down, sat on a rock wall and just stared off into space (photo above: a reflection of Leigh, Derrick, and me). That moment involved a mix of heat, sweat, exhaustion and annoyance. I asked Derrick if he wanted to see the gothic gate that he missed the day before. He shook his head from right to left, while sporting a “hell no” look on his face. Serious hellz no.
Our trip ended with a lunch in Salas Altas, a town surrounded by vineyards. The town was so small, it had one sign with “Restaurant” pointing to the left. It didn’t even need to specify the restaurant’s name.