Monday, 29 December 2014

That's a wrap!

The past few years of my life have been rather challenging. I didn't know how much I needed this three months of travel time to heal, clear my mind, and find a more true way to be until I had left Canada. Truth be told, I had a lot of mixed feelings in the days leading up to my trip. Falling in London about four days into my journey felt like the universe was trying to tell me "Hey! Who are you to take a break from life and go off gallivanting around Europe for fun?" In reality though, who was I not to go off and do just that?

Travelling gives you a sense of freedom that cannot be matched by anything else. Each morning I got up and thought, What do I want to do today? Whatever I want! Travelling alone makes you be resourceful and more open (as I've mentioned previously) to meeting others and to new experiences. It makes you simplify your possessions as you have to carry everything and it allows you to reevaluate how you live your life back home "in the real world." Travelling exposes you - mind, body, and spirit - to cultures, peoples, languages, and places you have never been exposed to. It changes you. It changed me. 

Since I've been home, I keep thinking back to what it was like traipsing around Portugal and Spain on my own, and how Morocco was both alien and familiar at the same time. My trip may be finished, but the memories and experiences I have stay with me in my thoughts. I hope that the friends I made overseas stay with me too. Each time I reflect on my time off, I feel happy and grateful. Happy that I gave myself the time I needed have a real break from life, and so grateful that I was able to. The only regrets I have is not seeing some of the places I wanted to (specifically, Tomar and Evora in Portugal) and not taking more time off as the travel bug has bit me hard. I've also noticed how much more expensive it is to stay in one place and live vis-à-vis travelling around. A former university professor once told me the same thing, but I hadn't believed her at the time. I do now!

Adjusting back to reality has been a bit strange as I have been on "Spanish Time." No longer being in a warm climate, no more siestas, now having a home and stuff to deal with/clean, and going back to work has been a bit of culture shock for me. I'm sure it will pass soon.

Wrapping Up:

I've put together a map of all the places that I went to (although the above one is not quite in chronological order). There are 36 sites in total! I really got around!

For an interactive map, click this link. As you can see, I focused my trip on these few countries rather than trying to see as many European cities etc. I like to stay in a place to get a real feel for it, rather than simply checking off places on my bucket list.

There are some tips, tricks, and thoughts about travel that I would like to share with my readers at large:

  • The #1 thing I wish someone had told me ahead of time: DO convert your bank account into the local currency (in my case, Euros) if you are planning on staying in one area for a long time. You will save so much money (I was charged €4 each time that I withdrew money, it really adds up over time). I'm a bit angry that my bank (RBC) didn't mention this option when I let them know I was going to be in Europe for 3 months.
  • DO research the places you want to see and chart them out on a map to try and figure out an order to see things in BUT stay flexible while you are on the road (life is unpredictable!)
  • DO buy a good travel guide and tear pages out of it so that you only carry what you need while discovering a new place. Throw out the pages as you go and your guide will get lighter over time (and believe me, guidebooks are notorious for adding weight to luggage/backpacks).
  • DO research transportation schedules, prices, and determine whether or not a rail pass etc is a good investment. Looking back, I would've only bought a rail pass for Spain and not Portugal as the buses in Portugal were often cheaper and came more often (some were even faster than the train!)
  • DO invest in travel clothes that are light, quick-drying, comfy and versatile.
  • DO talk to people in your hostel, they can offer tips/tricks and also suggestions for places to go eat/stay/visit. Some of the best hostels I stayed in were recommended to me by other travelers.
  • DO have savings that you can dip into if you go over your budget (hey, life happens!)
  • DO take extra memory cards for your digital camera, tablets etc to take as many photos as you can.
  • DO always use a toilet if there is one available to you as you never know when you can find another public one.
  • DO carry water and snacks with you, its exhausting walking around for hours while taking in art/culture/surroundings. Its very easy to get dehydrated, cranky, and overwhelmed when you haven't eaten/drank anything in a few hours.
  • DO use a reusable shopping bag. Some countries don't recycle plastic (I'm looking at you, Morocco). Save the environment and bring your own collapsible bag.

Roll Credits:

I'd like to give thanks for some key people in my life that made both my trip and my blog a reality:

  • C. Farmer - without whom this blog would likely have not been written. My dear friend lent me their iPAD2 without hesitation so that I may have a way to share my thoughts with the world. This friend also bought me a belt with pockets (seen in many photos from the blog) that made exploring better as I had my hands free to snap photos and touch things, and was a safe way to transport my money, cards, camera etc.
  • D. Davies - without whom my sanity would've suffered greatly during moments of insomnia, panic, frustration etc. The support you have shown me while I was away kept me both buoyant and grounded. Much love to you bear.
  • My travel agent friend at the Adventure Travel Company here in Vancouver. I would've not had the ability to get some of key travel arrangements made without the help of Bernie Abromaitis. She helped me figure out the complexity of my Eurail Pass, booked my flights to ensure the best connections and pricing, and supported me via email while I was away.
  • My Aunt Breda (I hope you are still reading!) - thanks for being so enthusiastic and encouraging about my writing. It made me feel that what I was sharing had value and was enjoyable to read.
  • My friends and family who read and shared my blog, and generally gave support and encouragement while I was on the road.
  • My RMTs, chiropractor, and personal trainer - without whom I would still be suffering lots of physical pain and disability from my car accidents.
  • My Financial Planner, Kelsey Smart, who helped me invest my funds and make me financially able to travel.
I wish all of my readers a very happy New Year and all the best :)

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Madrid and (Holy!) Toledo in perspective


I've been home for two weeks now, and I keep thinking that just that short time ago I was half-way around the world and exploring Madrid and Toledo - the last two stops on my travels. Madrid is the centre of Spain, not only in terms of government and commerce, but also geographically and especially for those who drive in Spain, kilometre zero. All roads are measured from Madrid.

Above: the plaque in the sidewalk in Peurto del Sol indicating kilometre 0 in Spain. 

Some folks may say that Madrid doesn't have the same kind of energy and soul as Sevilla and Barçelona, and while I tend to agree, I recognize not everyone feels this way. Madrid was my last stop as decreed by my return plane ticket, and many travellers to Spain either start or end in the Capitol city. I will admit that by the time I got to Madrid, I was pretty darn tired from all the moving about. I had just three and a half days to cover the city and do a day trip to Toledo.

I took the AVE (high speed train) to Madrid from Valencia. Taking the fast train meant that I arrived just before 4pm, and thus, still had time to explore the city. I navigated the metro system (smaller than Barçelona's) and had some help lugging my wheely suitcase up the steps to street level. My hostel (The Way) was just a couple of streets away and easy to find. I got installed and went off walking towards the Prado museum.

For those of you who don't know about the Prado Museum, it's the third largest art museum in Europe, and contains a large number of works from El Greco, Goya, Velasquez, and Titian, as well as the Flemish masters. The museum is free every day from 6-8pm, and it's worth going during free hours as the entry fee was just raised to €14 (from €10) this year. It's impossible to see all that you would want to see in those two hours, so it's best to grab the floor plan and be strategic about your visit, and to consider returning on other days to see the rest. It was my original plan to do just that, but I ended up only going the one night as I ran out of time.

Above: a statue depicting the Spanish painter Velasquez outside the Prado museum in Madrid.

It is forbidden to take photos inside the Prado, and so I had to do a google image search of Fra Angelico's Annunciation (see above picture) as I wanted to share my experience of looking at this masterpiece. It is the first time I have seen a Fra Angelico work in person, and I was really in awe of this painting. Having been to many museums on this trip (and others), I was oversaturated with all the Medaeval religious iconography present in western art. All renditions of the annunciation kind of look and feel the same. Except this one. There was something magical about looking at this alterpiece. The gold rays coming down from heaven were perfectly straight and very fine. The light from the museum highlighted it well - something that's lacking in this image from the internet. This painting was definitely worth seeing. As was Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights - which is huge and takes some time to look at to get the full effect as there is so much going on in the work.

After a few hours in the Prado, I took a stroll down Passeo del Prado to have a look at Madrid at nighttime. I was not disappointed. The moon was full, and the city was lit up beautifully. 
Above: the Palácio de Cibeles (city hall) is a mighty structure with its famous fountain in front. You can see the full moon high in the sky in the top-left of the frame.

I walked down Gran Via towards Centro, and stopped in at a tapas place that my hostel recommended to me. The food was decent and the tapas came with my drink (something that I thought only happened in Granada). I took the metro home as it was rather cold - only about 9 degrees overnight. What a difference in climate from Valencia. 

The next day I took part in my now familiar routine of a free walking tour. The guide was originally from Argentina, but had been living in Madrid for about ten years. His name was Pablo, and he was passionate about sharing tidbits of history and anecdotes from local lore. He had a rather interesting (read: strange) interpretation on the city's symbol of the bear and the madroño tree. The fruit from this tree ferments while still attached to the tree, and so it's possible to get drunk off the fruit. The bear keeps eating the fruit, and keeps getting drunk - rinse and repeat as it were. Pablo thought it symbolized Madrid in terms of its nightlife as having one of Europe's most prolific bar scenes - that the people kept coming back for more night after night. I'm not too sure about his interpretation but I like the statue nonetheless.

Below: the statue symbolizing Madrid in Peurto del Sol. Om nom nom!

Our walking tour went west until we came to the Teatro Real, which was commissioned by Isabel II when she asked the city's architects why all the other European capitals had royal theatres but not Spain. Isabel II was an interesting character - she was counciled to make a politically strategic marriage to a foreign dignitary but refused and said she would only marry for love. She did, and married her cousin Francisco. Unfortunately, the cousin turned out to be not interested in her (as he was gay) and was hoping that through their union, he could have power behind the throne. Isabel threw him out, forbade him to enter Madrid, and put him on a strict allowance whereby any time he needed something, he had to request money in writing. There are a whole pile of these letters requesting funds on display in a local museum (I can't recall which). Isabel had 12 children (of which only 5 survived) by her various lovers, probably including the lover who sculpted this statue of her outside the theatre.

We walked to the Palácio Real and had a fast-forward lesson of 15 centuries of Spanish history. Most I was already familiar with - the Moors invading, the reconquest, inquisition, etc. What is interesting about the Palácio Real is that it is a fairly "new" palace compared to other palaces elsewhere in Spain. This royal residence was built in 1734 on the ruins of the old Moorish fortress that had been a landmark in the city. The King at the time was Felipe V and he had only been in power a short time when he decided to build a new palace. But the people of Madrid were dead set against it and began to grow annoyed with their new sovereign. Felipe V was desperate for public approval, and asked his advisors what he should do. They suggested that he throw a party and invite all the inhabitants to come for free and drink their fill. The party was apparently still the best one Madrid has ever seen (according to the Pablo). While the party was happening, the fortress was set ablaze. Felipe said it was an accident, but somehow all the treasures had survived, as they had been removed earlier that day (what a coincidence). The people in their hungover state didn't know what to make of the wreckage, and so the palace was built in its place. It is one of the largest palaces that you can visit in Europe. Given my limited time schedule, I'll have to come back at some future date to take it in.

No visit to Madrid would be complete without going to Plaza Mayor, or the main square in the city. All plaza mayor's in Spain are modelled on the one in Salamanca. These main squares are where food markets, fairs, and yes inquisition trials and executions where held. Given that there was no mass form of entertainment before the invention of television, people would come to these main squares in the evenings after work with their families to watch (often gruesome) public executions. I'm sure it also acted as a deterrent against crime. Something kind of funny about the Plaza Mayor in Madrid is that it had been rebuilt theee times because the builders kept building the seven stories of the buildings out of wood which kept getting burnt down (there is a bakery in the square). Fed up with having to keep paying money for this project, King Phillip III of Spain decided that the fourth (and last) incarnation of the square would be only three stories high and made of stone. This is what we see today.

My last day in Madrid, I spent three full hours in one of the other famous museums in the city - the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. This museum is devoted solely to modern art, and it's major attraction is Picasso's Guernica which I learned about in my history class in high school when my class learned about the prelude to WWII. The painting depicts the devastation of the 1937 air strikes on the civilian population in the Basque town of Geurnica. It was the first time an air strike was launched against people rather than military targets. It was a way for Hitler to test out his Luftewaffe while at the same time transporting Franco's loyal troops from North Africa back to Spain. That it happened at all suggests the sociopathic nature of both dictators. It was a thrill to see this painting in real life, and while it's impossible to find a contextual picture on google image search, this painting is huge! I looked at it for more than 10 minutes from different angles. Guernica was housed in the Met in New York for more than 40 years, and only moved to the Prado in 1992 as Picasso himself stipulated that the painting could only be returned to his native country upon the restoration of democracy.

Holy Toledo!

70 kilometres away from Madrid lies Toledo, the former capital of Spain for almost 500 years. An interesting fact to note is that Madrid was originally just a Moorish military outpost to protect the capital from the Visigoths in the north. Toledo is a pretty municipality with lots of history and charm. It rises up from the banks of the Rio Tagus. As with other municipal centres on the Iberian peninsula, it was originally founded by the Romans (around 192 BCE), and ruins can be seen nearby. 

Toledo is well known for its "holiness" and all three monotheistic religions have buildings here: Christian churches, Islamic mosques, and Jewish synagogues. While the Moors were in power, all three religious peoples worked in harmony and with tolerance for each other. They shared important scientific and medical information amongst each other, it was one of the greatest exchanges of knowledge in Europe. This was known as Spain's Golden Age. It all came to an end once the Christian Kings Isabel and Ferdinand reconquered Spain from the Moors and made their religious decree of 1492 to try and create religious homogeneity in Spain by converting or expelling all non-Chrisitians. Cue the Spanish Inquisition.

Toledo is also known for its ceramics, steel forging for the creation of swords, and gold filigree work on vulcanized surfaces called damascene (a craft brought over by the Moors from Morocco) which looks like this:

The AVE train from Madrid's Atocha station takes only 33 minutes, and cost me about €6.85 for my return reservations with my Eurail Pass. Once you get off the train, all sorts of businesses are waiting to take your money as Toledo is primarily a tourist town now. You can buy visitor's bracelets which cost varying amounts to see various sites. I chose not to buy a bracelet as I was tired and wanted to just wander around. I took the city bus #5 into town, which cost €1.40 one-way and got off in the main square called Plaza de Zocodover. I was starving when I arrived, so I asked a local where was a good place to eat, and was directed to a tapas place called El Trébol, where I had a delicious "El Greco" tapa which was comprised of marinated quails' legs with red peppers and egg. With a glass of rosé wine, it was one of the culinary highlights of my trip. Simple but very tasty!

After lunch I headed down Calle Comercío towards the numerous churches and the Jewish Quarter. I was "cathedralled-out" from my journey to various cities around Spain/Portugal, so I decided to focus on seeing El Greco's art and the synagogues. I only had about five hours to wander around until my train was due back to Madrid. I stopped in first to the Church of Santo Tomé (Saint Thomas) where one can take in the richly saturated painting by El Greco of El Entierro del Señor de Orgaz. This painting takes up almost an entire wall inside the church's vestibule. Entry is €2.50 for anyone who wants to go inside, and audioguides were an added €1. It is forbidden to take photos of the painting, so I bought a postcard instead. The effect of the piece is minimized by seeing it squished down onto a card, but it gives you an idea of El Greco's style:

After taking in the church, I wandered around the Jewish Quarter. There are two synagogues in Toledo (there used to be more), and both had been converted into churches once the Jews had been expelled from Spain (1492). Synangogue of Santa Maria la Blanca was originally built in the 12th century CE but was converted into a small church. The white horseshoe arches are modelled after the Arabic style, and my first though upon entering the synagogue was that it looked more like a mosque than what I thought a synagogue should look like. But a Jewish friend of mine recently told me that the two can be very similar, and that the cultures borrowed styles freely between each other. This synagogue isn't necessarily worth the €2.50 to see the space, as it's really just one room with the arches and prayer aisles, and that's it.

Given that I was tired from the previous night's activities, I went to a small park overlooking the Rio Tagus to relax on a bench. I was also waiting for the hour to strike 2pm as both the Sephardic Museum/Synagogue of El Tránsito and the El Greco Museum are both free on Saturdays from 2pm and all day on Sundays. The Sephardic Museum holds a collection of artifacts from the Sephardic peoples (Spanish Jews) that includes prayer/religious items, clothing, and homewares. The museum tries to paint a picture of the life of the Jews in Spain during the Moorish period. Unfortunately, the placards describing the objects are not in English, but English summary sheets are available in each salon. The main room inside the synagogue was really dark, so it was hard to get a decent picture as flash was not permitted. There is a small garden of remembrance outside the museum that is a good place to take a break from the crowds.

Below: a prayer scroll written in Hebrew, housed in the Sephardic Museum.

The El Greco Museum is housed in a 16th century house with a courtyard and garden. The original curator, the Marquis of Vega Inclán, wanted to recreate what El Greco's home might have been like and to house his works (mostly from his later years) here. There is one complete set of Apostles by El Greco, his Plan of Toledo and also portraits of local wealthy noblemen. It's the only museum in Spain dedicated solely to this artist and it's worth the visit.

Feeling rather "full" from my day's activity, I went to one of the numerous cafés to relax and had some chocolate and churros and read my book. I walked back to the main square and took the bus back to the train station where I snapped this photo of one of the station's many stained glass windows. The style is definitely Arabic looking and gave of a sense of the majesty that this town must have had when it was the capital of Spain about 500 years ago. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A brief interlude in Valencia

Back a few months ago, when I was originally planning my three month trip, I had highlighted Valencia as a place of interest to visit. While I was on the road however, I found it was nearly impossible to get to Valencia by train from Granada and decided to more or less cross it off my list of places to see. I had intentionally left the last 8 days of my trip unplanned as I wasn't sure how or rather where I wanted to spend the final few days. I thought about going to Salamanca as I heard it was beautiful, but when I saw that it was a 7 hour train ride from Barçelona, I decided to revisit the idea of going to Valencia. Especially as the weather in Barçelona had been cooling off considerably and I wanted another beach day, which looked promising if I ventured further south. 

Above: a sand sculpturist makes a large replica of some of the city's historical buildings on the Playa de las Arenas. 

Valencia is a three hour train journey from Barçelona, and the ride more or less hugs the coastline. Upon alighting from the train, I was struck by how beautiful the Estación del Norte (northern train station) was with its Art Nouveau columns, stained glass works, and ceramic murals. The outside is decorated with orange blossom and fruit motifs. Valencia is well known for its oranges worldwide.

Below: stained glass window from within the Estación del Norte. 

After rolling my suitcase to my hostel (The Home hostel, just across from the old silk market - La Lonja) and getting help lugging it up four flights of stairs, I decided to put on a sundress and go for a walk around the city centre. It was 26 degrees on November 2 around 4pm. The city is known to receive about 282 days of sunshine a year, hence the name of Costa del Sol (Sun coast).

Valencia's core is a jumble of maze-like streets that cross and intersect at strange angles. It's rather easy to get lost as most of the smaller streets aren't even named on some maps. I began land marking based on street art (of which Valencia has a staggering amount), or monuments. A brisk wind came up and I was obliged to buy a sweater from a nearby shop as I was miles from the hostel.

The next day was my planned beach day as it was forecasted to be sunny and 24 degrees. I rented a bicycle for the day through my hostel (€7 for a 24 hour period) and set off towards the Jardines Del Turia which is about 8 km of parkland and bicycle paths that runs through the middle of the city where a river used to be (this river was blocked in the late 20th century to help stop annual flooding in the city). An interesting fact, originally the park was designated to be a freeway to bisect the city to help reduce congestion on other routes. The people of the city opposed this plan, but the local government planned on moving forwards anyway. During the night for the following few weeks/months, locals planted trees in the dry river bed until the park was mostly planted. This action by the residents forced the local city government to give up their plans for a freeway and embrace the park. Talk about power to the people! The park is a really enjoyable way to see the city, especially by bicycle. 

Above: a large and imposing gargoyle protects the entrance onto the Puente del Reino.

Below: an ironwork piano art installation near the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias.

I rode my bike past the old port buildings with their carved statues and orange mosaics towards Playa Malvarrosa. I saw a few sand sculptures on the way - the one of Valencia (first photo above), one of the Last Supper, and one of a multi-level castle. The beach itself was pretty quiet, and it was nice and warm when I arrived. Most of Valencia's beaches are wheelchair accessible and have first aid/life guard attendants available. After about three hours, the wind picked up and started shifting the sand across the beach. I was getting sandblasted. After a cold but refreshing swim, I rode my bike back into town. When I hopped off my bike at one of the intersections, I literally ran into an acquaintance I met from my former hostel in Granada. We hung out for a while and had homemade snacks before heading back to my hostel to see who was around for dinner.

One of the questions I have been asked repeatedly on my trip has been: don't you get lonely travelling by yourself? The answer is no. In my opinion, travelling alone actually makes it easier to meet people. Being alone on the road means you have to stay open if you are to meet people/have connections with other travellers. Often I have met couples or groups of friends travelling together who get stuck in their insular relationships. Being alone on the road means you can talk to anyone, join (or avoid/ignore) any group that you want, or be completely independent in terms of activities. It's like being a free agent. I'm also fortunate enough to already be an open-minded, extroverted, and witty individual. I've met so many amazing people on my trip, some I would not have met if I was travelling with others etc. I would say where it gets hard is the lack of touch. Sometimes days go by without any touch from another individual other than handshakes. I was grateful for the European custom of kissing hello/goodbye on both cheeks. Sometimes my newfound friends would give me hugs. Those hugs went far for me. Other times, I would call on my support people back home and feel affection through a phone call or instant messaging. It was tough some days, but mostly, I managed to stay in the present moment and enjoy where I was.

After dinner, our little hostel group discovered a chocolate shop down the road called Chocolates artesianos de Autor y de selección where you could order drinking chocolate and a local type of pastry (a farton) to dip in it for a few euros. They had a display of how raw, unrefined cocoa beans are made into chocolate. I also bought a delicious 70% dark chocolate bar that was made in a nearby chocolate museum (the Meseo del Chocolate Comes). The smell was so unbelievably delicious, I kept sniffing my packaged chocolate bar. I still have a few pieces left - I'm relishing it slowly.

Below: raw cocoa paste, beans, and scales on display in the shop.

My second full day in Valencia I took the free walking tour around town to get better acquainted with local history and to (hopefully) orient better around the rat maze of small streets. Valencia isn't as packed with history as some other Spanish towns, but it is interesting to note that the town was the "football of Spain" in that it changed hands back a forth a few times between the Christians and the Moors, before finally becoming apart of the kingdom of Aragón in 1238. Valencia also has its own dialect, and one cannot teach in Valencia without fluency in this dialect. 

Above: a model of the remains of the gateway that survived the demolition of the Medaeval walls to allow the city to expand in the 19th century. The three-sided rooms were used as prisons for the gentry or well-to-do people who had been arrested. The reasoning for lack of a fourth wall to close off these cells is twofold: 1) three walls are cheaper than four, and 2) the commoners could throw insults up at the higher class prisoners being held within the gate's cells. A Spanish idiom about this gate exists that goes something like "to be left in the moon of Valencia." What this idiom refers to is that when the door to the gates was shut at nightfall, anyone who didn't make it within the walls were "left in moon" which was a real issue due to the highwaymen and crocodiles that lived in the river not far away. I think it might be similar to "being left in the lurch."

Next two photos: the cathedral (gothic entrance) and bell tower in Valencia.

The cathedral was originally built in 1262 but has been added to over the ages. It has three separate entrances, each in a different architectural style (Romanesque, gothic, and baroque). It is rumoured that the Holy Grail is housed in this cathedral (a rumour that applies to two other cathedrals in Spain as well). Two paintings by Goya are in the first chapel on the right. A visit to the cathedral costs €5 (which I forwent as I have seen so many cathedrals on my trip). The bell tower is octagonal in shape as a conical round tower was not feasible when it was first built. The bell on top is boasted to be both the oldest and the heaviest bell in Spain (although my fact checking shows that the bell in Toledo's cathedral is heavier). The bell weighs more than 7000 kilos and is one of the loudest sounds I've ever heard! It costs €2 to go up 209 steps to gain great views of the city. 

Next two photos: views from atop the bell tower of the cathedral. First view is looking south towards the arts and sciences "city."  The second one is looking northeast with a tiny rainbow visible just next to  the right of my head. You can see the gate with the three-sided prison cells on the far left of the photo's frame.

Below: Valencia is the birthplace of horchata, a drink made from ground sweet earth almonds, water, and raw sugar. It's most popular in summer as a cold, refreshing drink, but our walking tour guide wanted to give us the opportunity to try it out. I liked it so-so. It's different from the horchata of Mexico (which I think is made with rice instead of earth almonds). This horchateria has a mosaic of a woman serving up the beverage on the building's façade. The real woman this tilework is based on is still employed here, only about 40 years older than how she looks in the tiles out front.

Valencia is also the birthplace of paella, but to be honest I didn't have the greatest luck finding good paella here. I did go out on my second night with some hostel folks to try out paella at a local restaurant recommended by my hostel, but I wasn't too impressed. And it was pricey for what it was.

A special mention of the Mercado Cento (central market) is warranted. The art nouveau styled market was opened in 1928 and is one of the most beautiful and largest in Europe. Everyday except Sunday, approximately 350 stalls selling all matter of foodstuffs open for business (7am to about 2pm). It's the best place to buy produce in Valencia. The choices are overwhelming! A friend from the hostel and I spent a couple of hours enjoying both the sights of the exterior of the market as well and browsing for lunch items.

Below: the Mercado Centro from the back. The scale of this market can only be appreciated by walking through it.

Below: the view of the colourful houses and hotels across the street from main entrance to the market.

My only regret is not having enough time to go inside La Lonja (the old silk market). It was formerly a market for luxury items (like silk) etc but now is used to host cultural events. It is the only building in Valencia that has UNESCO historical status (built between 1482 and 1498). It's also the only building I've ever seen that has masturbating gargoyles. Yes, you read that correctly. My walking tour guide said that these gargoyles were supposedly depicting sins that lead mortal souls to hell. The building is covered with an assortment of naughty gargoyles that made me scratch my head as to why someone would want to create and affix these things to a building. There's been some debate that the builders of this market were thumbing their noses at the church, but it's not known for certain.

I left that third day in the afternoon and caught an AVE (high-speed train) to Madrid. The train went about 300 km/hour and only took an hour and a half. It was dizzying looking at the landscape whipping past the windows. Fittingly, I peeled and ate a Valencia orange as the train left the station and headed north.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Figueres - a day trip inside the mind of Salvador Dalí

If you read my last blog post and thought that my week in Barçelona seemed to be missing a few days, well, you would be correct. One day was spent completely hungover with my roommates at the movies (watched Gone Girl in English with Spanish subtitles); and the other unaccounted day was spent going to Figueres, a town in Catalonia which has one major claim to fame - it is the hometown of the artistic genius Salavador Dalí. I recall as a child that one of my piano music books had his famous melting clocks painting ("The persistence of Memory") and being transfixed by it. This image stayed in my mind for many years, not because of any real intellectual understanding of the work, but because I loved that it was a like a dream made in a waking state. I was a kid that was prone to daydreaming and I was (and still am to some extent) able to lucid dream. Dreams fascinate me, and Dalí's work has always been a favourite of mine.

Below: "The persistence of Memory" as a tapestry in the Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres.

When I was doing my research for places I wanted to see in Spain, I was delighted to read that I could go to Figueres as it was close to Barçelona and I could take in a whole museum of Dalí's works. Further, I was really interested to see the museum as a structure in itself - as the Teatre Museu Dalí was a former municipal theatre that suffered damage during the Spanish civil war before being burned down by Pro-Franco troops in 1939. Dalí took an interest in the building and invested much of his money into creating a building that was as surreal as the artworks inside. The Teatre opened in 1974 and includes works by Dalí, some of his students, and a notable surrealist called Antoni Pitxot. This museum is the second most visited art museum in Spain, after the Prado in Madrid.

My hostel roommate Brooke (also from Vancouver) and I headed out to Figueres on a Thursday morning, and we were happy to discover that our Eurail passes covered the train journey for the day. Alighting in Figueres two hours later, we were starving. Following the map to the main square, and then following my intuition, we can upon a tapas place that offered some of the best food I've had in Spain (which is saying a lot). The restaurant is called Lizarran, and they specialize in a form of tapas called pinchos, which loosely translates to "bites." They are pieces of bread with all manner of toppings and a toothpick holding the whole creation together. Pinchos are self-served from a glass case that runs the length of the bar's counter. You simply choose which pinchos you want, and when you are full the restaurant counts the number of toothpicks and charges you depending on the size of the toothpicks (usually €1.50 for a small toothpick, and €1.90/€2 for a long toothpick). The staff at Lizarran even rang a cowbell when they finished preparing fresh, hot pinchos and then circulated them among the diners. What a great experience. I highly recommend them!

Below: the selection of pinchos at Lizarran in Figueres. Yum!

After feeding our bellies, it was time to feast our eyes on the artworks at the Teatre Museu Dalí. Take a look at the entrance courtyard to the museum, it gives a flavour for what lies within:

One could spend probably a whole hour or longer just looking at the outside of this building. Here's another side of the Teatre that is notable for its "eggs" - a symbol that Dalí was fond of as it represents transformation and birth.

Upon entering the museum proper, one is assaulted with an intense sculpture called "Rainy Day Taxi," a modern statue so complex and huge, it takes centre stage in the inner courtyard. There are even mannequin people inside the taxi. It was not possible to capture the whole sculpture within one camera shot. There's actually a boat suspended atop the column of rubber tires, with "water" dripping from the bottom of the boat. There is also a bust of a woman within the topmost tire (also not shown). I recommend googling this statue if you want to see the thing in its entirety.
The museum is semi-circular with the inner courtyard visible from the windows of each level of the building. It was really interesting to be able to see the statue from many viewpoints. Brooke and I started our tour by taking in the many ink sketches that Dalí created in the 1960's and 70's. Most of these works were not identified with placards, but it was nice to take in the work without focusing on its title instead of the work itself. Here's one of my favourites of this type of art that I saw that day:

In the main atrium of the museum, there is a huge (or I should say colossal) painting that takes up an entire wall and faces the "Rainy Day Taxi." It also wasn't identified by a placard, but it was impressive to look at, and stand next to. Look at how tiny I am (bottom centre) next to this painting, and it will give you a clue to the artwork's actual size:

One of the most interesting "pieces" that we saw was the spatial interpretation of "Mae West cum Apartment." Bear with me for a moment and try to picture this: to view the installation, one must climb up a short flight of stairs and look through a lens that is suspended between the legs of an ornamental camel (the camel forms a kind of arch at the apex of the stairs, and has unnaturally long legs - another Dalí standard imagery device). Through the lens, you see objects that alone seem random and unrelated, but come together to form a portrait of Mae West. The original painting is on display in Chicago, this spatial interpretation was completed by the archetech Oscar Tusquets Blanca.

In my mind, the masterpiece of the whole museum is the ceiling fresco in the Wind Palace Room. I was unable to capture the entire ceiling, but here's my best attempt:

Brooke and I stared up at this fresco for a solid ten minutes. There's so much going on in the painting, and the saturation of the colours are really something to behold. I'm not sure what the "official" interpretation of the fresco is, but to me I think it symbolizes the shared dream state of Dalí (figure on the right, easily identified by his outrageous mustache) and his wife Gala (woman on the left, and who was in many of Dalí's works). Whatever the meaning, the painting is phenomenal.

The painting of Antoni Pitxot that captured my attention the most was this one (also not identified with a placard). I love his use of rocklike formations to create human forms, including reflections. All of his exhibited works are of a similar style, but this one really stood out.

The €12 entry fee (adult) to the museum also included entry into the Dalí-Joies (or jewels). In this exhibit, Dalí uses precious and semi-precious materials to create wearable and sculptural pieces that are sometimes bizarre and sometimes stunning to behold. To gain access to the exhibit, you leave the main museum, go around the corner, and into a dark room where sketches are places next to all the pieces which are kept behind glass. Dalí himself thought that using precious materials like gold, silver, rubies etc shouldn't be limited to jewellers, that these materials could be used to form interesting (and at times arresting) art pieces. Here is his somewhat creepy but fascinating brooch which is comprised of rubies and pearls:

After spending about four hours or so in the museum, our brains were "full" and we headed down to La Rambla of Figueres to locate Dalí's self-portrait on the ground. It's amazing that his brain enabled him to draw reflections of things that could be righted by a convex surface. There were a small sample of these in the museum, but my favourite is his self-portrait on the street. Definitely a man with genius. 

The four hours of train was worth the visit to this town and the museum. I don't think I've ever had a unique artistic experience quite like this one! It was also good to get outside Barçelona and see another town within Catalonia. A big thank you to Brooke who came with me, it's always more fun to share this kind of day trip adventure.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Barça! . . . . . . Lona!

I spent a very full and fun week in Barçelona, the capital of Catalonia. After alighting from the overnight train from Granada, I felt a little discombobulated and disorientated. I felt like the ground was rolling under my feet - 11 hours on a train will do that to you. I was glad I had booked a bed on board. I located the metro and took the green line to Passeig de Grácia, and the first thing I saw was this:

Above: Gaudi's Casa Battló on the "block of discord." Good morning Barçelona! The block is so-called because of the discord between the various styles of modernisme in architecture from house to house. They really do clash.

I settled into my hostel, had breakfast and relaxed on the rooftop terrace which has a wee swimming pool. It was nice to strip off my travelling cloths and feel some sunshine on my skin. I then resolved to get myself orientated in this big city and went for a walk with two girls from my hostel dorm (Sant Jordi Rock Palace). We were hunting for Barça's best gelato shop, a place called Gelaaati di Marco. It was really amazing. I tried mango and avocado flavours - so good!

Below: the gorgeous assortment of gelato. I wanted to try them all, but only managed the one visit.

Afterwards, we traipsed over to see the Mercat de la Boqueria, a covered marketplace which sells just about every foodstuff imaginable. From fat figs, dates, and beautiful juicy tomatoes, fresh eggs and fish, to rabbits (with or without fur), and a great big hog's head. The market is located just off La Rambla near Liceu metro station. 

Above: at least six different types of mushrooms, and stings of drying chillies. 

Below: a tower of figs tempts me, while the sweets and sugared fruits are almost too pretty to eat. Cherry tomatoes look so plump as to be fit to burst.

Trying to make the most of my first day in Barça, I took the metro up towards Park Güell, often referred to as "Gaudi's park" as he designed the whole thing. Originally, it was pitched as a housing development but it failed and only two houses were built - one which was Gaudi's but housed his aging father and ailing niece (his only surviving relatives at the time). I was given poor advice not to pay the €8.50 to go on the platform, and so walked around the park instead and took snapshots of it from the sides. I didn't mind not having to compete for a view with all the milling tourists. The park is Gaudi's attempt to harmonize nature and artifice. It's a lovely place to have a stroll, listen to some buskers, and get panoramic views of the city.

Above: the platform with mosaics and columns designed by António Gaudi. A huge mosaic lizard sits nestled between the two staircases leading up to the platform. It's impossible to see it here due to all the people, so google it if you want to see what it looks like.  

Below: the view of the Torre Agbar (left) and the Sagrada Familia (right) from Park Güell. 

My second day in Barçelona was spent at the beach in a nearby tiny town called Sant Paul de Mar. A hostel friend recommended it as being both beautiful and less busy than the beaches in downtown Barça. I had a solid 5 hours of sun, and a chilly swim in the Mediterranean. The train was an hour each way and was about €9 return.

Wanting to know more about Gaudi and the Modernisme movement in Barçelona, I partook in a paid walking tour organized by Sandeman's New Barcelona group. The walking tour was about 2 hours and was well worth the €12 I spent on it. The guide (Leon) really knew his stuff. He gave us political, economic, and stylistic background to the Modernisme movement, and some hilariously insightful stories into Gaudi himself. We started at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, a behemoth of a building that is too wide for the street it was built on. The palace was built by Lluis Domènich i Montaner and completed in 1908. This building contains many of the elements of Modernisme  - use of glass, mosaics, Catalan national emblems (roses, mulberry blooms/leaves) etc. it was damn near impossible to get a decent shot of the place.

Above: our guide pointed out these address signs from olden days. The tiles depict what guild was housed at that location. Nowadays, the current businesses are required to have as similar occupations as shown in the illustrations. The potters (left) is now a fine ceramics shop, but as lamp-lighting is a thing of the past, there is no modern-day equivalent.

The walking tour continued up the the block of discord, where we learned a bit about the three Modernisme buildings that dominate the block. Each building was designed by a different architect, once friends turned bitter rivals in the market to build the next great/bizarre edifice. It's funny to note that Gaudi was often commissioned for designs that he flat-out ignored (or twisted to his own purposes) and just designed whatever he wanted. For example, for the Casa Batlló, he was requested to design a piano room for the family to house their expensive grand piano. Gaudi designed a piano-shaped room that was exactly the dimensions of his client's piano, this rendering the room useless for its original requested purpose.

Below: stained glass from inside the doorway of Casa Amatller. 

Unfortunately, the Casa Milà (more often known as La Pedrera) was covered in scaffolding do it was impossible to take any worthwhile photos. However, the rooftop is said to be the most interesting part of the house. The figures and shapes on the roof actually inspired George Lucas for his Star Wars movies (storm troopers and Tattooine). Oh, and that piano from the Casa Batlló, he put it in this other house and charged the wealthy widow for it! Gaudi was definitely a character!

The walking tour ended with a exposition of the exterior of the famous Sagrada Familia (or Gaudi's cathedral). The task of building the cathedral was given to Gaudi during 1883 after neo-gothic foundations had already been laid. It was to become Gaudi's life work. He was a deeply religious man who went to church every day. He spent the last seven years of his life holed up in the crypt, and he poured all of his savings into the building of this most unconventional cathedral. Unfortunately, Gaudi died before he could see the bulk of his brain-child realized. He was struck by a tram as he was crossing a street to go to mass in June 1926. He had no identification, and as he had been living like a hermit in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia, no one recognized him. He was sent to a hospital for poor people. Two days later, he was recognized as he had a drawing of the Sagrada in his pocket. He was offered to be taken to a hospital for the rich, but declined on the grounds that that particular hospital had been designed by his rival. Pride! The genius died only five hours later. At the time of his death, only one tower had been completed on the Nativity Façade. He is buried in the crypt.

Above: the Nativity Façade with cranes looming overhead to complete the other towers. Work on the cathedral stalled until after the Spanish civil war, and then again until after the Barçelona summer Olympics in 1992, when the world was captivated by this bizarre and beautiful church.

Unfortunately, during the 1930's some anarchists broke into the Sagrada, and destroyed/burned all of Gaudi's oringal plans for the cathedral's completion. Architects like Josep Maria Subirachs (who designed the Passion Façade) are literally flying blind when it comes to the ongoing construction of the Sagrada. Basically, the Friends of Gaudi, instructed the builders and architects to take everything they knew about Gaudi, the Greek bible, and Modernisme and to "go for it." It's interesting to see how the basilica develops. Completion is currently slated for 2026 - the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi's death. Given that 3000 people are working on the project, they might make this deadline.

Above and below: two Sagrada Famila "selfies." Can you see my face above? This is in the doorway of faith on the Nativity Façade.  

Below: the ceiling of the Sagrada Familia. The design is that of Palm trees, which represent sacrifice. The outer aisles are "laurels" which represent wisdom. Gaudi wanted the inside of his cathedral to literally be a forest as he was inspired by God's architecture - nature.

Below: medallions high up on the pillars for the four evangelists. And a statue of Gaudi in the middle. He hated having his photo taken, so few likenesses exist.

I was expecting the inside of the Sagrada to be dark and gloomy like most cathedrals around Europe. Not so with this one. The interior has so much light, and colour from the many stained glass windows around the entire perimeter of the place. Sunlight streamed through the stained glass to project colours everywhere. It was something to behold.

 After visiting the Sagrada Familia, me and two lovely Vancourites from my hostel (hi Brooke & Kat!) went in search of good tapas. Our walking tour guide told us about a place called Tosca opposite the Palau de la Musica, and he was bang on. For €11 we each had three tapas, a glass of wine, and desert/coffee. The tapas were best I've had since Sevilla. 

We booked tickets to see Manuel Gonzales play Spanish guitar that night in the Palau de la Musica, and headed back to the hostel to take a siesta. The concert cost €28 and it was well worth it. We got dolled up and just got there as the concert was beginning. Mr. Gonzales is considered to be the world's leading Spanish guitarist according to the New York Times. After being transfixed by his talent, we took some snaps of the sumptuous interior of the music hall before being shooed out by the ushers. I bought a CD of Mr. Gonzales music, asked him to sign the CD and got a photo with him. It was a great day.

Above: Manuel Gonzales mesmerizes the audience with his musical range and skill on six strings.

Below: the stunning stained glass ceiling of the Palau de la Musica. I could stare at it for hours.

The next day was Halloween, and I decided to strike out on my own and join a walking tour of the gothic quarter and old part of town. The walking tour was free and lasted about three hours. We took in a number of churches, an intact Roman burial ground, and the Born quarter with its awesome graffiti/street art.

Below: the steps to the royal palace in Barçelona. These are the same steps that Christopher Colmbus ran up to tell Isabel and Ferdinard of his "discovery" of the Americas and all the riches to be had.

An interesting story that our guide shared: during the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell fought on the side of the republicans/resistance. The resistance were apparently considering bombing the Sagrada Familia as the church sided with General (and later dictator) Franco. They eventually decided against it. However, later when the war was over, Orwell said that they should have bombed the Sagrada as "it is the single most ugly building I have ever laid eyes one." Well, we know how he feels about it! 

The other thing my walking tour guide talked about was Catalan nationalism/the independent movement. She called it an exercise in "Pride vs. Practicality." Many Catalans do not identify as Spanish, and their culture and language has previously been repressed in an attempt to keep the Catalans under control. Since the death of General Franco, Catalan is no longer illegal to speak. In fact, most signs in Barçelona are written in three languages: first Catalan, then Spanish, then English. The recent Scottish referendum was to be the model for Catalonia to follow. But we all know how that went. It will be interesting to watch what happens politically in the coming years here.

Below: a Barçelona resident displays their flag of independence from their window. These flags, as well as the official Catalan (non-separatist) flags abound, sometimes competing with each other on the same building façade. Clearly Barça is split on the issue of independence.

After the tour, I hustled back to the hostel to have a nap and prepare for Halloween with my roommates. My makeup was my costume - sugar skull inspired from Mexico's Day of the Dead. I crawled into bed around 4am after going to a bar then a nightclub (Barça has great nightlife). The next day I was completely hungover, but did manage to finally get out and see he fountain/light show at Mount Montjuic (free on Friday and Saturday nights from 8-9pm in autumn/winter). It was a great way to say goodbye to this beautiful city. I'll be back again some day...