Exploring Guejar and the Sierra Nevadas

After a day spent exploring the Alhambra’s countless secrets I made my way back to the hostel where I washed up briefly before heading to the hostel kitchen for the night’s special event – a group dinner.  For 5 Euro the hostel provided all we could eat paella, a big bowl of soup, and a drink from the bar.

What is paella you ask?  Paella is a cornerstone of Spanish cuisine and a must try for anyone visiting the region – cooked in large pans, not all that unlike the pans used for stir fry, the dish is predominantly seasoned saffron rice with large pieces of pork, horseshoe muscles, calamari, small clams, shrimp and peas. Depending on your region in Spain, and the cook, various other meats and delightful tidbits may be added. The pan used by the hostel was about 3 feet across and circular.  It was quite the sight.

Stuffed and in good company we repeated the previous evening’s rituals.  Starting in the hostel bar drinks and stories flowed before we set out to explore the city’s night life and enjoy Spanish music, culture and sights.

Despite morning coming far too early I awoke to a beautiful, crisp winter day.  Blue skies, gentle  and warm – far from what one might imagine a December day in Spain would look like.   Eager to explore the surrounding area and the Sierra Nevadas I made my way through the city to a large square where I’d been told I could catch a bus into one of the small cities in the mountains.   The walk took me into parts of Granada I’d previously left unexplored and added to my love of the city.  After about 20 minutes of walking I found the square and began asking around…trying to discover which of the regional buses would take me to Guejar.  Before long I’d narrowed down the approximate area where it paused along it’s route to collect people…and had a good idea of when to expect it. I’ll confess that my pronunciation of Guejar was abysmal and my heart was racing as I tried to figure out the bus system and isolate which of the 10 bus stops along the square was mine.

Finally feeling fairly confident that I wasn’t going to miss my bus, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and relaxed by the shallow river that stretched along one side of the square.  There I watched a father and his two children at play.  It reminded me of my time in Europe as a child, exploring grand cities and embracing experiences which fostered the curious passion for travel which drives me to this day.

Before long the bus arrived. One Euro Eighty cents later, I had my ticket in hand and was cozily sandwiched into one of the small bus seats.  I’d picked Guejar at random and didn’t know what to expect, beyond that it was in the Sierra Nevadas.  As the bus snaked through the narrow Spanish streets we quickly left the city behind and began winding our way up through several small canyons toward the mountaintops.  Each time the bus slowed down and paused at a bus stop I felt my pace quicken and my stomach leap into my throat.  I had no idea what to expect.  What would Guejar look like?  How long was the drive? Would there be a bus stop or would it be a proper station?

Resisting the urge to hop off each time the bus slowed to a stop I sat, taking in the scenery as we climbed deeper into the mountains. The snow capped Sierra’s drew gradually closer as the road hung on to the side of a rather steep valley.  Soon, I found myself looking out my window and down the steep slopes below – the narrow roads, tiny guard rails and steep drop offs along a lot of European roads is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get completely comfortable with.

Before long we came upon a large dam.  The dam was significant in size and filled in some two-thirds of the valley.  The water it held back was an emerald green with rich, gorgeous waters lazily soaking up the winter sun. I knew immediately it was something that I needed to explore in greater detail.  The quick views as the bus wound along the valley wall hundreds of feet above wasn’t enough.  As I watched it wind away behind me I decided to get off at the next stop – even if it wasn’t Guejar.

Luckily, just a few minutes up the road from the dam we pulled into a beautiful small city which lazily clung to the side of the valley wall.  Somehow, the bus pressed its way through the narrow streets and down tiny alleyways before coming to a stop on a steep incline next to a small square.  The doors opened and the passengers began to disembark.  I soon realized I’d reached Guejar!

Eager to explore the city I quickly set off from the square and into the small town.  The streets were a delightful warren of small open spaces and narrow corridors – many of which suddenly split or dove off down the hillside.  There were beautiful plants everywhere and interestingly most of the doorways had hanging rugs of them.  I’m not sure if it was to keep out the cold, or a regional tradition – either way it added a fun element to the streets and brought them to life with their own special character.

Legs burning from the steep ascent and descent as I explored the small town, I spent a good 30 minutes wandering up side streets and down back alleyways before setting off back the way I’d come in the hopes of reaching the azure waters I’d seen from the bus.

As I left the town I quickly ran into a problem.  The narrow winding road we’d used to reach the town was just that – a narrow two lane road with a steep drop off and small guardrail. This left very little room for me to safely backtrack along the road – leaving me sandwiched between a steep drop on my left and oncoming traffic on the right. Undeterred, I pressed on, carefully utilizing the narrow space between the guardrail and the steep drop down to the river below. It took me another 5 minutes of careful walking before I reached a bend in the road and paused to snap the photo you see above.

I lingered and took in the view – one that reminded me in a way of the Grand Canyon and Colorado river.  Don’t get me wrong, the view was vastly different – but there was something about it that captured my heart and mind in the same way. It left me slightly awed.  As I paused and shot a few photos/took some quick video I considered my options.  I could continue along the road which continued from my perch for a short ways before winding back behind a small hill and away from the dam for about a quarter of the mile – or I could climb down the hillside a ways and get a better view of the lake, valley and several interesting structures on the opposite side.  Careful not to fall and die, I slowly made my way down the steep hillside – heading towards a slightly flatter area which had been leveled off during the construction of several large power lines – why not right?  What better than large power lines to ensure my safety as I climbed down a steep hillside.

Eventually, I found my way down to the flattened area – where I paused for a drink, some photos and to take in the sights.  The descent had taken me down some 1/3 of the hillside and left me across and slightly above a group of goats and a shepherd I’d been observing from the roadside earlier.   Having descended below the power lines, I finally had an unobstructed view of the lake.  What better place to stop and read for a while?  Enjoying my perch and the moment I pulled out my book and read for about 20 minutes before plotting the next stage of my exploration.  I considered my location, looking back up the steep hillside I quickly decided that down was a far more interesting (and less difficult) alternative – and why not?  I hadn’t hurt myself yet!

In a hail of small stones, mumbled curses and periodic gasps I eventually made my way down two thirds of the way to the river.  The whole affair would have no doubt made the most clumsy of mountain goats proud.  Eventually, I found a small path and decided to follow it instead.

Wondering if I was trespassing and about to get chased off by a local farmer with a pitchfork, I followed the path as it wound back towards Guejar in the general direction of the shepherd and his goats.  The path quickly cut up and took me immediately them…leaving me under the watchful stare of two of his goats.  One of which had an amazing, billowing goat beard and large set of horns.

I wound up, around, between properties and soon found myself back in the city.  With ample time to spare I set to satiating my burning hunger.  No easy task given the quiet nature of the city. Differentiating between tapas bar, bookstore and hardware store was far more difficult than one would think.  None of the residents needed signs.

After exploring the city for another 20 minutes or so I finally found a little hole in the wall joint.  The food was good, the price was incredible, the floor was dirty and the place was populated by old Spanish men – perfect.  I headed inside, ordered and carefully tried to take the following incognito video…my apologies on its…authenticity:

 

After a quick meal, I headed back to the square – checked my watch and relaxed in the winter sun as I read my dad’s book – The Spirit in the Ruins by C. Descry.  Eventually the bus driver emerged from one of the local tapas bars and we began our winding trip back to Granada.

That evening I joined a number of friends from the hostel for a wonderful night out on the town which came to a close at 4 am as we sat perched in the Albayzin looking across at the beautifully lit Alhambra.

It was December 30th.  The following day I caught a train early in the morning to Madrid, where I began preparing for New Years and my return to the U.S.  – what an incredible adventure!

Granada Part III – Hostels, Cities and Adventures

Groggy, but feeling thoroughly refreshed, I awoke to the rustle of bags as two new arrivals settled into their bunks.  Glad to be awake I hopped out of bed, wobbled a bit and then stepped through the door from my hostel room onto the rooftop terrace (above).  There, I inhaled the crisp Spanish air, looked out over the rooftops and reveled in wonder at the amazing adventure I was living.

After a quick glance in the mirror and grimace at my nap hair, I tossed on my cap and made my way down to the entry hall. There I quickly fell into conversation with a number of fellow travelers, checked my e-mail and then decided to duck out for dinner.  Following the front desk’s recommendation, I quickly found my way to a small tapas bar where I picked up a beer and free side of tapas.  In most places in Granada the tapas itself is free, so long as you order a drink, unfortunately, it’s also random….still free is…well…free!  With my appetite wet I polished off my Alhambra beer and stepped around the corner to the local Kebab King.  There I discussed the days events with a Palestinian immigrant fluent in at least 3 languages. Before long I was off and wandering once again, this time with a steaming chicken kebab in hand.

Through the streets, up small narrow stairways and into the heart of the Albayzin I wound eager to explore and discover the city’s hidden secrets. Never quite lost, but often quite turned around, I quickly found myself in the heart of the old city.

As night rolled in I slowly made my way back to the hostel, unloaded my day pack and found my way to the hostel bar. There I bumped into my tour guide from that morning and he quickly introduced me to several of the other regulars. Two girls living in Granada (from Australia/New Zealand) and an English gentleman. All were in their late 20s/early 30s.  We all sat in the tiny, cramped hostel bar, surrounded by walls covered in chalk graffiti left by travelers.  Some of the words scrawled across the walls were quotes, others well wishes and yet others…just downright odd and obviously left after a few drinks.   We drank wine, smoked hookah and exchanged stories. Before long I was privy to all of the recent goings on and had my fair share of insights into the local drama.

As other travelers drifted in the group slowly grew in size.  I quickly got to know Andreas – a traveling Swede who was working at the hostel during an extended stay in Granada. The wine, sangria and Alhambra beer was flowing freely when 9 o’clock rolled around.  One of the other people staying (and working) at the hostel announced the beginning of the free tapas tour and before I knew it, I was swept up with the crowd and into the night.

We toured two tapas bars sampling sliced pieces of Spanish ham on small crackers, Spanish meatballs and various other delicious eats before eventually winding our way down through the city and finishing the tour at a flavorful reggae bar.   The reggae bar was a delightfully odd place. The entrance was little more than a door off the street that dumped you into a small entrance room no bigger than most master bathrooms in the states. As I entered I found myself standing at the small bar.  Immediately in front of the door there was just enough space for 2 or 3 people front to back, which allowed us to stand at the bar 2 deep as we ordered while leaving a small path to the long sloping hallway that ran some 20 feet down and into what must have been an old cellar.

The ceiling in the hallway was arched and just short enough that I didn’t feel comfortable walking completely upright.  As I shuffled along, slightly bowed, I quickly spilled out into a second, slightly larger room where I was greeted by an odd mishmash of sights.  Along one side of the whitewashed cellar was a small bench piled with drinks and stacked coats.  The room itself had a cement floor with a DJ at one end on a slightly raised platform and a small partition at the other end which led to two lock-less bathrooms.  Smoke of all varieties hung heavily in the air and the music boomed down upon us.   Our group of 10 or so unloaded our jackets and quickly set to dancing, drinking and bonding as only travelers can.

An hour or two slipped by before we decided to strike out once more.  Eager to find a flamenco bar we wound up into the Albayzin and eventually found our way to Granada’s famous cave residences & bars.  Though most were closed we eventually found a tiny place carved into the side of the mountain.  With whitewashed walls and ceilings the place had old photos of flamenco players and random women on the walls. The bathroom was outside and more of an outhouse than a proper toilet. Inside the small 2-room bar served everything out of bottles/cans and only had whatever stock they could fit behind the small bar – it was a hoot.   We worked our way to the back and in the smaller of the two rooms crowded together as a series of incredibly flavorful musicians sat and passionately played flamenco.  While I can’t say I was overly fond of the musicianship the passion and setting was an absolute kick…I’ll let you see for yourselves:

As the bar ran out of beer and I grew antsy several of us set off back into the Albayzin eager to see to the Alhambra at night. 3AM had already come and gone.  The views out from the Albayzin and the hill it rests upon are spectacular, as are the winding streets cloaked in shadow and gently lit by the soft yellow glow of aged streetlights.  The Alhambra at night is an incredible sight.  Back lit by the twinkling lights of the city, the Alhambra is lit by a combination of green and yellow lights.

After resting and taking in the sights and gentle sounds of the city as it slept we wound our way back, down through the dew kissed streets and back to our hostel where as quietly as possible I crawled into my bunk bed and began snoring away contentedly.  It was 4:45AM.

Cadiz Part III

Clean, refreshed and ready for a full evening I lazily drifted from my room to the common area after a hearty nap.  There, I checked my e-mail, chatted with the other hostel goers and then decided to set out for a snack.  After a leisurely walk exploring the narrow, winding streets around the hostel I eventually made my way back to my favorite greasy spoon.  Just up the alleyway and around the corner from the hostel…the place was a small bustling tapas restaurant with a large wrap around bar showcasing their various tapas options.  With an old style half door into the kitchen three older gentleman worked the bar in a bustle of commotion.  Taking orders, scooping plates of tapas, pouring beers and joking along with the customers. The place was affordable which, combined with it’s diverse selection of seafood/heavy foods, made for a delightful combination.

During previous visits I’d tried their albondigas, beef stuffed cuttlefish and whole wine steamed cuttlefish.  This time I went for something different:

Always one for an adventure I dove into their escargot. The snails were delicious once you got over their appearance and the the realization that they looked just like the garden snails that had plagued our gardens when I was growing up.  I’ve had escargot a number of times in a variety of countries.  Each time, however, they’ve been prepared in very different ways. This was no exception.  They were cooked in a brothy tomato sauce with slight meat undertones not unlike the sauce the local albondigas was served in. With a glass of local beer, tooth pick, plate of green olives and small loaf of bread, I made quick work of the hearty bowl of snails while relaxing and reflecting on the events of the day.

With my palate wet I made my way back into the city and towards the beach where several of the others had mentioned they might be.  After a brief walk I found the beach and before long had stumbled onto a small group – mostly made up of those temporarily working at the hostel.  There I was quickly welcomed into the group as we all sat on a beautiful sand beach, reclining against the seawall while enjoying a beautiful, warm winter day.

One of the guys had brought a guitar, while one of the girls had brought a bottle of champagne. After the guys tossed a ball around for a bit and the rest of us chatted, we cracked open the bottle of champagne, passing it around as one of the guys played a few guitar licks.

After relaxing and enjoying the beach for a while the sun began to set and we all decided it was time to head back to the hostel.  I made my way back where I caught up with the hostelers I knew, met several new faces, and exchanged a variety of horrible, entertaining, delightful and periodically hysterically offensive stories.

Casa Caracol is one of those delightful hostels that’s small enough and personal enough that the owner can usually be found working, socializing, or generally instigating a good time.   Nick – our patron – was usually somewhere to be found and always had fantastic stories, a smart quip for a silly question or a hearty argument for a good debate.

By 7 we had begun to gather, preparing our various contributions to the Christmas potluck. To my relief and as one might imagine, most of those on the road over Christmas aren’t overly religious. The hostel staff and most of my fellow travelers were no exception. Not a fan or believer myself, I was happy to spend the evening with a crowd who took it for what it was. ..A terrific excuse for good food, a great party and camraderie. As people pulled up youtube music videos for music we sat discussing music, shouting out requests and generally teasing each other for our picks.

I conferred with Aaron – a fellow traveler and chef from New York –  on how best to cook the kilo of small shrimp, potatoes, garlic and peppers I’d picked up. I eventually decided on pan frying them in oil.  As I set to frying the small shrimp whole others created a variety of delicious eats.  There was a huge bowl of curry, a platter of taters, green olives, a large bowl of fruit, deviled eggs, a huge Spanish omlette and other foods I can’t recall…not to mention a multitude of Spanish wines and bottles of beer. Even a few pitchers of mojito mix.The following is a quick walk through in the lead up to the meal:

Before long the periodic nibbling gave way to a full onslaught and within 30 minutes we’d left a devastated table behind, cleaned out most of the food and been reduced to a near food coma. With cigarette smoke heavy in the air we all sat around chatting, breaking periodically for spurts of dancing or wildly re-enacted stories.

As the night carried on (and got progressively more ridiculous) the music got louder, the wine stronger and the stories grew more and more comical.  All set to the backdrop of the seasonally decorated hostel mascot (yes, that’s a donkey doll with a beard and Indian headdress on) and Christmas tree.  I learned various Peruvian card games, cleaned up in a few games of B.S. and learned new and interesting facts about France.

Eventually we elected to set off to one of the local bars – as I recall it was about 2AM or so – but not before we picked up and helped Nick carry a large refrigerator box.  With the box in tow on our heads we made our way through the streets towards the heart of downtown….pausing briefly to gift the box to one of the local homeless men that Nick had befriended. Cardboard box delivered we made our way up a small hill before reaching a number of trendy local clubs.  The mixture of people was engaging and the scene was entertaining. We danced, continued to drink and generally had an amazing time. Sometime around 5:30 we eventually found our way back to the hostel and crawled into bed.

By 1 pm I crawled out of my bunk bed. After taking some flack for snoring heavily I washed up, managed to get my shoes on, ate a quick snack and set out into the city.

The city itself is beautiful in an old, compact, historical sort of way.  I started by wrapping along the peninsula’s coast towards the tip where I’d failed to explore during previous forays. As I passed the main Cathedral I quickly rounded the point and came across the paved walkway that hopped from small searock formation to searock formation as it gently curved out towards the city’s main fortress.  However, before making my way out onto the walkway I paused to take in a spectacular sand carving of a dragon at rest.

After enjoying the artwork for a while I continued out along the walkway as the sandy beaches quickly fell away.  Before long I found myself at the locked doors of the fortress surrounded by a small rocky area just above water level on either side of the raised causeway. To my delight the small waves came crashing in, slowly winding through a series of tunnels under the rocks which had been slowly warn away by the tide’s incessant pummeling. In several places the broken waves came rushing in before eventually crashing against a hollowed-out tunnel which forced the seawater up in a geyserlike fashion.  Always eager for a reason to pause and relax I kicked off my backpack and rested for a while.

Moments like that one are the subtle joys of travel that remind you why life is worth living to its fullest.  After my brief respite and musings I wound my way back down the long walkway before finding another spot too good to pass up.  With beautiful white sand beaches, clear blue waters, beautiful weather and gorgeous, clear blue skies I quickly found myself reclining once more…

A bit sandy but feeling positively amazing I wound along the beach taking in the rest of the old port which now stood vigilant guard over a fishing fleet of small boats. From the beach I set off around the tip of the peninsula before eventually cutting back towards the inland side of the point.  Before long I found myself in a large, beautiful park full of well fed cats, beautifully manicured trees cut in giant cones, amazing spirals and a multitude of other shapes. All decorated with blooming flowers and centered around a small park cafe which was open.  For 4 Euro I snagged a quick soda, 2 chicken skewers and a side of potatoes and then set off through the rest of the park.

After leaving the park I continued along the coast.  As the walls were more protected and no longer faced outwards toward the harsh open ocean, the cement breakwaters were replaced by the city’s old, unadorned defensive wall.  All lined by a beautiful tree-lined walkway and decorated with beautiful wrought iron lamps.

Eventually my path led me back into the beautiful inner city streets.  Paved with cobblestones and lined with lamps the city streets sport an abundance of beautiful painted windows, small flower-laden window sills and countless power lines, wires, and laundry lines stretched across the small gaps between the buildings that the streets create.

Eventually I found my way back to the hostel where I settled in for drinks and the usual evening hostel revelries.  Tomorrow I leave for Grenada.

Eager to see more photos of the places outlined in this post?  View the complete album here!

Sevilla Part III and Cadiz Part I

After my little adventure in the local dive, I set out once again through the warren of twisting, winding streets.   My destination was south, past the Cathedral and into new territory marked on my map by large stretches of green park spaces.  As I wound through the streets I found it nearly impossible to keep my bearings.  Beyond a vague sense of direction the twisting, dead end nature of the streets left me more than a little confused and disoriented…no small feat. Eventually I found myself dumped out in the Cathedral plaza.  Re-oriented I made my way southeast into the heavily touristy downtown area.  Full of parks, tourists, trams and trinket shops the area was bustling with life.  After a brief break to pick up several mandarin oranges I continued south across a large, beautiful boulevard and into a major park.

Though heavily kissed by winters embrace the park was still sporting several blossoming flowers, an assortment of well-trimmed greens and several ponds.  Though fairly boring in and of itself, the park led me to a rather large beautiful building.  Curious I followed it around until eventually found a side entrance.  Exploring it, I quickly was dumped out into a beautiful plaza and one of Sevilla´s gems. I remembered it from my youth, but my memories were dwarfed by the sheer, real, beauty of the plaza.  Built for a worlds fair that never came to pass due to the outbreak of war in 1929, the Plaza de Espana is an expansive, beautiful piece of architecture that stretches around in slightly over a half circle.  In addition to the building´s structural beauty, it is ringed by a set of benches featuring tiled artwork scenes representing all of the major powers in Spain. The benches are built into one of the walls of the outer building´s first story providing an excellent spot to pause and rest, enjoy the sight of the plaza, and to take in the afternoon sun.  Inside the benches there´s a rather large walkway that wraps around the interior of the semi-circle.  The next layer, in what might be called an architectural onion, is a canal about 20 feet across which rings the square. Though drained, it hardly detracted from the ambiance of the location.  The canal is crossed by a number of arched bridges which provide an almost Venetian feel while the inner most ring is a large cobblestone area ringing a large, beautiful fountain.  With horse drawn carriages making their way around the inner circle, the experience as a whole is delightful.

After pausing in the sun for an hour or so and reading a bit of one of Dad´s books, I made my way back through the city streets before relaxing and refueling at the hostel.  As I relaxed, I bumped into two dutch girls I´d met the day before – Natalie and Linda.  They were about to set off to explore several tapas bars and after a brief exchange, invited me to join.  Out we went once more into the crowded Sevilla streets.  Dodging the astounding abundance of baby strollers and smoking Spaniards, we eventually arrived at a great little tapas bar just up the street. We all placed our orders, I ended up going with anchovies on lettuce hearts, and quail eggs on Spanish ham. A beer, some bread, and a few mouthfuls later we cycled through the usual dialog … where are you from, what do you do, where have you traveled, what´s your history, etc. and before long migrated to the second tapas bar.  A tiny corner construction with virtually no room and the size of most people´s bedrooms.  The place had a high ceiling, with walls heavily decorated with pigs legs, wine bottles, old objects, and the like.  The place was so small that when you turned around, somewhat hidden on a shelf next to the door, they had all of their cleaning supplies bottles and tools stashed away. I ordered a delicious spinach and Spanish salsa tapas, while the girls tried what was a local delicacy – some sort of flavorful paste in a bowl with diced ham on top.

After enjoying the atmosphere for a bit (the place was packed) we made our way out into the street, only to be greeted by a large crowd. The crowd filled a small square and overflowed well into the sidestreets.  Curious what the draw was, and hearing a bit of a ruckus, we made our way over using our height to look over the crowd. We realized that it was part of the pre-Christmas festivities.  This particular one had a giant virgin Mary on a silver dais being transported by 20 or so older Spanish polebearers.  In a centipede-like fashion the statue made it´s way down the street, then up through the double doors to the nearby church which had been thrown open.  The crowd burst out into song, then crowded into the small church behind the statue, before singing more songs.  The statue made its way in, paused, then began its gradual crawl back out.  After watching for a while, we split off from the crowd, made our way back to the hostel and picked up several of the others before setting back out to the bar and club district. There the usual night of hostel revelry and friend-making ensued.

CADIZ

Contrary to my best intentions, I failed to book my first night in the Cadiz hostel ahead of time, or for that matter, print out directions. My plan had been to wake up, walk over to the internet cafe down the street, reserve my spot, print directions, and then make one of the hourly regional trains which traveled between Sevilla and Cadiz. Murphys law prevailed, the internet cafe was closed. I decided to wing it and make the walk to the train station anyhow. Somehow the twisting, turning, Sevilla streets turned me around, causing me to drastically over shoot the rail station.  Before long I found myself staring at the Cathedral once again.  I´m willing to guess that the Cathedral serves as a central point – Sevilla´s Roman Colosseum if you will.  Annoyed, but dedicated to persevering I once again setout  into the spiders web of streets, this time continuing to overshoot the train station and ending up in a very rural, very rugged, and very industrial part of Sevilla well out of the tourist center.  A bit apprehensive about where I was and my safety, I continued to press on, adjusting my course, before eventually finding a street sign at a major intersection that pointed the way to the rail station. Knee killing me, back tired, footsore, but rather relieved I eventually found my way to the station.  The whole trek had taken about an hour and a half, backpack on and all.

Once at the station I had a slight adventure booking my ticket, ending up with with a ticket for a train that departed a full two hours later than I´d have liked. Annoyed, but eager to relax my throbbing leg I made my way outside, sat on the steps in the sun and ate sardines and bread rolls while washing it all down with a spot of water.  I read, napped, and listened to music, before boarding my train and making my way south. The ride was very pretty. Southern Spain is amazing in that most of the territory I´ve seen consists of well-tilled, organized, barren fields stretching over gently sloping hills as far as the eye can see.  Because of the season, most of the fields are just tilled dirt which adds to a beautiful uniform feeling.

When I finally arrived in Cadiz, the weather was much warmer than it had been in Sevilla. The train station was devoid of the tourist info stand I´d hoped for, but I did find a small map in front of the station which was a relief.  The station sits outside the city wall, which is raised and leaves one feeling like you´ve reached a beat up dead end, with an imposing castle wall stretching up before you in either direction.  After following the wall for a few hundred feet, the wall leveled out and I was offered an opportunity to make my way into the city toward the tourist information office marked on the map I´d seen back at the station.  I knew the hostel I wanted was in the heart of the city, but that was about it.  Luckily, I found an internet cafe, paid my 1 euro for a chunk of time, checked the hostel location (which read as booked for that night) and with a lump in my stomach made my way to the spot marked on the map.  When I eventually found the door in a tiny alleyway that was, perhaps, 2 shoulders across I was more than a little stressed to discover a ¨we´ll be back at 18:00″ on the door. With only one real hostel coming up for the town, I decided to wait it out at a wonderful little, bustling tapas bar located just around the corner.

As I settled in and ordered tapas from the display window (they usually stretch the length of the bar, full of pre-cooked tapas waiting to be warmed up and eaten) – I decided to try what looked like a mid-sized stuffed cuddlefish.  As I waited for what ended up being a delicious, tender piece of cuddlefish stuffed with chorizo like meats and sauce, served on french fries and with a side of bread and a beer – I started chatting with two guys who were grabbing a few drinks and watching the Spanish synchronized swimming team on TV.  We joked, commented, and generally sat in awe of the swimmers before one of the guys – who I later learned was the hostel´s owner –  asked if I was waiting to check in.  I told him yes, asked if they had any openings, and to my relief he smiled, shrugged, and said not to worry about it.  They headed back to the hostel, I finished off my cuddlefish and then followed suit.

The hostel – Casa Caracol had a great surf-meets-hostel feeling to it. The common area and first floor is an odd zigzag of space in a rough triangular shape with a table surrounded by benches, kitchen, wood burning fireplace and small open space all sandwiched together. The bedrooms were sandwiched on two oddly shaped floors and topped off by a fun rooftop garden.  The Hostelworld rating for the place had been a 70% with a wide mixture of comments.  Though slightly worried it was going to be a dump when I´d first decided to head to Cadiz, I quickly realized that the place had a fantastic personality to it.  The place was a party hostel.  It was loud, it was super social, the staff were friendly, animated, and a bit ridiculous. The place was clean but in a beach house sort of way.

Before long I´d met the owner Nick, a guy who was in effect the hostel´s social chairman, Rob, Yu-Mi a Japanese girl traveling on her own,  (spelled wrong no doubt), a flavorful Aussie guy – David, an east coaster who was also a professional cook – Aaron and a number of others. In a matter of hours we´d all bonded and after Yu-Mi showed up with the basics for Sushi, she and Aaron decided to expand it to a chip in opportunity.  I shelled in my 4 Euro and before long we were enjoying freshly prepared Sushi.  In addition to the Sushi I stepped next door for another go at what has thus far been my favorite tapas bar in Spain.  This time I ended up with a full sized cuddlefish cooked in a delicious wine sauce and covered in spices and chopped onions.  Stuffed, I returned to the hostel where we settled in for a night of wine, stories, bullshitting and cultural shenanigans.

More to come on Cadiz (which is where I spent Christmas) soon!

Sevilla – Part II

The following day I was up and ready to explore by noon.  After a quick errand on the computer I connected with a buddy I’d met in Madrid and ran into in Sevilla. We elected to set off together and explore the city. With no particular plan in mind we began our trip by heading south toward the river. I’d been told the previous day that there was some spectacular graffiti down along the river. As we made our way in that general direction we snagged a quick snack and coffee before meandering our way through the warren of bustling cobblestone streets.

Along the riverfront and the sides of one of the large bridges across the river that flows through town, I was delighted to find a wide assortment of well done, vibrant graffiti art. One depicted an old car and a giant shot of the Godfather, another an anti-war and pro-peace shot of ghostly figures walking, another was of a strange alien figure. All told there were easily 20-30 excellent pieces all done in vibrant colors in the small area I explored. The area they were in was industrial and heavily abused. The large square with a skate park next to it was littered dog feces, trash, empty beer bottles and even the remains of a small bonfire. On one side it had the river as a beautiful backdrop, on the other an old heavily damaged warehouse. It was the perfect spot for the graffiti making its contrast all that much more extreme, but, fitting.

As we continued down along the river, we gradually neared more modern and touristy areas. The parks were better kept, the trash less common. The graffiti bled away and was replaced by vibrant trees, people lazily relaxing along the riverfront parks and fisherman with their long river-fishing poles. The poles, unlike conventional American fishing rods, don´t have reels.  Instead, they are long collapsible things not unlike old branch/bamboo rods. The line is tied to the end and is usually only as long as the pole itself. Though not regularly used for mid to large-sized fish, they do catch the occasional one on them. We paused, feet dangling over the sides of the ancient stone walls lining the river and watched the fisherman fish for about 20 minutes, enjoying the warmth of a bright, sunny winter day.

After a rest, and feeling thoroughly recharged, we continued along the river until we reached an old Muslim tower. The tower, with old canons resting in front, was beautifully framed by palm trees, the river, and the bridge it overlooked. The building itself was made of large blocks of stone with middle-eastern and European influences visible – particularly in and around the windows and doorways.

At the tower we elected to begin cutting in to try and track down some grub. The city streets were overflowing with people, some tourists, mostly locals off work for Christmas or enjoying reduced hours. Before long we found our way through the busy streets dodging carriages, cars, mopeds and trams alike. With a quick turn down a side street we found ourselves dumped into the large area immediately surrounding Sevilla´s main cathedral. Beautifully lit by the golden rays of a 3:00 sun, the courtyard around the cathedral was decorated with 10 foot tall freestanding flower holders  covered in bright red Christmas flowers. Combined with the heavily-laden orange trees, tourist carriages and cobblestone streets, the sight was elegant, beautiful and the epitome of how the holiday season should be. After taking in the building´s exterior, I paid the 2 Euro to explore  inside. In classic form, the interior was massive. With spectacular stone arches gracefully stretching across to form the roof stories above our heads and the rainbow-hued light bouncing through the stained glass windows reflecting off the stone, gold and wood that decorated the Cathedral´s interior. The view was fantastic. After pausing to take in the stunning wooden and metal organ which stretched far above my head I found the ramp up the old Moor prayer tower, turned Christian bell tower, attached to the side of the cathedral. The tower was square, with each side having a sloping ramp. To reach the top you had to traverse some 30 plus levels and a small flight of stairs. Though a hearty hike to the top, the view was spectacular. Looking out from the tower the city stretched away in every direction, while beautiful old bells sat as silent guardians above our heads. From the top, I was able to look down into the interior courtyard in the cathedral – a large space with cobblestone and flagstone floors broken only by a small grove of orange trees. As I looked up and out, I could see over the entirety of the cathedral and down into the sprawling ramparts and minarets that decorated the building.

After making my voyage back down and out through the courtyard, I met up with Rick again and we continued our hunt for food. The venue we eventually found was a small tapas bar that had 3 different areas, each at a different level. Though all open to the others, two were half floors one above the entrance level where the main bar was located and the other below it. The place was a great dark drive and had delicious food. After scarfing down a plate of calamari, fried fish, and a delicious seafood salad, we set off back towards the hostel.

Once back at the hostel, and after a quick nap, we settled in and began the evening ritual … starting at the hostel bar, making new friends, exchanging new stories as well as the same old ones I tell to every new group I meet. Eventually 3 o’clock rolled around and we migrated out to the local park. There we spent another 2 hours relaxing, bullshitting, exchanging entertaining travel stories and generally enjoying the city, evening, and experience.

The following day I was dedicated to wandering at random and rounding out the rest of my brief, if spectacular exploration of Sevilla. With no specific direction in mind I set out eager to explore new streets, alleyways and tapas bars. Eventually I stumbled upon a small grungy dive. The place was small, smoky, dirty and had a good mix of old local men sitting around drinking beer. Ready for lunch I sat down and took in my surroundings.

The place was small. A room off of the bar was the kitchen, the area on and behind the bar itself was heavily laden with bottles of alcohol, breads, legs of ham and decorations. The chairs were all painted with small motifs  depicting the ocean, Spain, or other similar images. Due to the size and layout of the place, all of the plates and silverware were set up on a folding table in one corner. With another table supporting a cooler full of deserts. By the entrance there was a sign with the day’s specialties  and a large display cooler which had several large bowls of some sort of local food. Near the bar there were two large casks upended, one of which was set up as a table with a round glass top. The other had the glass removed and a large saucepan full of a steaming rice concoction resting on a bed of newspaper. The guys working the place would wander by periodically stirring the steaming plate and keeping the rice from burning.

The guy took my order, made a few strong recommendations and before long, grabbed a plate off the back wall, headed over to the steaming bowl and filled the plate with the rice, vegetables and large chunks of pork and ham. In retrospect, I think there was really only one option for that course of the meal, as everyone who came in seemed to end up with it. The bowl was excellent, though much to my chagrin, I found an eyelash about halfway through my plateful of goods. It´s my hope that it was mine! Eventually I finished off the plate -sans eyelash- and the second part of the meal arrived …  a large plate of fresh french fries with 4 little spicy sausage links. The fries were great, the sausage a bit too spicy-sour and pungent for my taste, though it was still tasty.

Times up, time to get back to exploring. I´ll pick up where I left off next time with the rest of my last day and evening in Sevilla and a taste of Cadiz soon!

Sevilla – Part I

Christmas has made writing the last few days extremely difficult. Everyone has been engaged in one giant festival here in Cadiz with stores running odd hours, people everywhere, and lots of fun adventures to be had. As I wait for my train to depart Cadiz, I finally find myself able to sit down and share a bit about my time in Sevilla.

After arriving at the hostel, I unloaded my bag and began to get situated. Oasis Sevilla is a fantastic 4-story hostel with a bar and common area on the first floor, rooms on the 2nd and 3rd, and a rooftop terrace with a (cold) pool and nicely equipped kitchen. From the start, the hostel had a warm, friendly feel to it which built camraderie.

I immediately met two German guys and a Swede who were in my room. We made the usual introductions, I checked my email briefly and eagerly dove into the city. The hostel is located immediately off a large plaza containing a mid-sized cathedral. The plaza, divided  into two park areas, was the site of one of the oddest pieces of construction I’ve seen in a long time. One half had been turned into a large walled-off construction zone as they assembled what looks to be some sort of flying sauceresque large building. I cannot for the life of me figure out how or what the end result will be, but it makes for a very odd addition to the skyline. As I was checking my e-mail I talked briefly with a guy who recommended walking down to the river and tracking down some of the graffiti which I put on my to do list for the following day. With no particular direction or location in mind, I set off picking up a bit of tapas in a small tapas bar along the way. I wandered around the zone immediately around my hostel, taking in the huge crowds of people in the streets, the chestnut vendors cooking and hawking their toasty ashen wares and the general hum-drum of a vibrant city alive with life.

By about 8:30 pm I got back to the hostel just in time to join up with a free Tapas and Flamenco tour provided by the hostel. The guide was a German fellow doing an extended stay at the hostel. With some 15 odd people in tow we set out and wound our way through the streets before  arriving at a small tapas bar on a small stone square full of cafes and small shops. In a stampede we set upon the bar, scratching our heads, picking out tapas and passionately wolfing them down with the customary beer that goes with it. After glancing at a menu, I decided to take a different route than the others and asked the waiter/barman for a recommendation. Something different, exciting, and uniquely Spanish. An older gentleman – Fernando – who was sitting next to me at the bar jumped in, and after a quick conference with the barman they picked out a pork tapas for me. When it arrived it was delicious pork tenderloin in a mild olive oil and garlic sauce, over sliced potatoes with whole nodules of cooked garlic. All served with a basket of crunchies and bread and a glass of local beer. It didn´t take long to devour the entire plate.

As we drank and munched away contentedly we all exchanged stories and got to know each other. As it turned out it was our guide’s birthday was at midnight which added to the festive cheer of the evening. As we all relaxed at the table, I chatted with two brother and sister duos, both traveling from the states, as well as an Australian girl who knew one of the sisters. My buddy Rick, whom I´d met in Madrid at the hostel and bumped back into in Sevilla,  joined us … as did several others, including the two Germans and the Swede from my room.

Eventually our guide rounded us up and we again meandered through the city to a bar entrance off a side street. The building was an odd thing. It had an old stone entryway with a fireplace and small stage. There was an outer room with a tin roof, bar, and an expansive set up of two-tiered tables. We quickly re-arranged the tables and in the second (higher) tier set up a long bench of seats. The venue was a kick with old fans hanging from the roof, propane tower heaters, a thick layer of cigarette smoke, fake plant vines, large movie-sized flamenco posters and other odd decorations. The place was dirty, grungy and packed with flavor. Before we knew it everyone had picked up a cheap pitcher of local beer and the tabletop was littered with pitchers, glasses and cameras.

The flamenco show was good, more traditional and with better dancing than the casual flamenco evening I´d stumbled into in Madrid … but lacked some of the character. The performers consisted of two men, one on guitar, one singing and clapping, and a woman who did the majority of the flamenco dance. Her movements were beautiful and flowing all done to an amazing rhythm. At one point the second man got up and joined her in a passionate, tangoesque flamenco which combined the power of a romantic tease with the feel of a bullfight and the paso doble. By midnight the flamenco was coming to an end. We wished our guide a happy birthday finished off the pitchers of beer and made our way to the door. Or next stop was northward to the bar and club section of the town.

The club part of town is around the Plaza de Hercules – a long plaza/parkway full of cafes and shops during the day. In the evening the place comes alive with bars, lounges and discotecas. About 10 strong, we found our way to a rather odd alternative club. The crowd was a bit edgy, and all of the bartenders were female, with short hair and a lot of piercings. Some had mohawks or other similar hair styles. It was all around interesting…if short lived. About 20 minutes after we´d arrived in the packed, shoulder-to-shoulder press some sort of smoke went off. At first we thought they’d teargassed the bar, but despite being unpleasant to breathe and having a slightly orange aftertaste, it didn’t overly hurt, beyond generally being unpleasant. Jostled by the press to get out of the bar, hunkering low to avoid the smoke/fumes, we joined the others as the bar emptied out into the streets. Some sort of fire extinguisher? Hard to know.

After purging our lungs and trying to figure out what had happened, we continued up the street a ways before finally finding another nightclub. Once there, we settled in until 4:30 in the morning when one of the guys got kicked out (apparently for deciding to water the bar). Laughing at the absurdity of it, we decided to round up the troops and head back to the hostel. The walk back was hilarious, with several games of orange dodgeball in the empty streets, using fallen oranges from the heavily-laden trees that line the streets.

Covered in orange juice and smelling of smoke we crawled into bed and prepared for the morning.

The next day started at 11 am. Time is up, I´m off to catch my train. More adventures soon!

Madrid Part II

As time rushes by the adventure has continued to be an absolute delight. After finishing my last post I set out into the city. In usual form I was more focused on the voyage than the destination. With my map stashed in my back pocket I picked a direction and began to roam. Through small alleyways, along major two lane thoroughfares and beyond I wound my way north across the city. The weather has been delightful, a little crisp but far from too cold. I’ve also been blessed with sunny weather and a total lack of rain. Eventually I found myself in downtown Madrid’s bustling tourist and business center. With beautiful old architecture thrown seemingly at random between new signs for major chains and newer buildings, the city was vibrantly alive with life.

I eventually found a large, beautiful park. I absorbed the beauty of fall-kissed trees, enjoyed the clean crisp air, and breathed in scents coming from all the vegetation. As I neared the center of the park, I came across a number of gorgeous cats who had seemingly laid claim to a small Galapagos monument. Walled away from the people by large wrought iron fences the cats had free reign of a fun, small set of pools and bushes. As I was relaxing and watching the cats frolic an old woman came up with a stroller. To my amazement, in place of the usual child the stroller held a cat strapped into an adorable little vest sitting regally in an unzipped jacket turned quilt. Though tied by its leash to the stroller, the cat was obviously far from interested in wandering off. As he sat there relaxing and watching the birds his mother pulled out a number of cans of cat food, began feeding the strays, conversing with each and calling them by name. The whole thing was adorable.

I watched the cats play in the bushes and harass the local pigeon population before I continued into the center of the park which was based around a small lake. The lake was surrounded by walkways on two sides, with the Galapagos monument on the third, and a large war memorial on the fourth. The memorial was a beautiful thing with a large central pillar, statuary and steps that led down to the water’s edge. Eventually I made my way around the lake’s edge and spent an hour or so napping, reading, and relaxing in the afternoon sun at the base of the steps near the water.

Rested and relaxed I continued my exploration of the park and eventually found a large, beautifully manicured garden which lead me down towards the Prado Art Museum. Despite painfully sore feet, I decided to make every moment count and picked up a ticket. The museum had a wonderful collection, all beautifully displayed. In addition to a number of the usual famous pieces, I found countless less renown works from masterful artists. Most memorable was a fantastic statue created in the 1400 or 1500s that had rich, pure colors and appeared to be almost 3 dimensional. The other pieces that really caught my attention were a series of stunning inlaid tabletops. The tables impressive in their weight to begin with, had tops that were completely covered in inlaid motifs depicting animals, wildlife, patterns, and flowers all created with gorgeous precious stones. One of the more impressive ones was also supported by 4 large beautiful lions.

In addition to their rather sizable art collection, the museum also had small, beautiful sets of Greek and Roman statues, and a number of marble slave masks that were infused with an amazing degree of expression and emotion.

After leaving the Prado I found my way back to the hostel where I rested for a bit before setting out to find some food. As I roamed hunting for a tapas or kebab shop I stumbled into a bustling market street lined with butchers, vegetable stands, and the like. A little further down it I found an entrance into an a large, two story market full of individual produce, fish, meat, olive, and sausage stands. The smells, colors, and assortment of food was absolutely fantastic. As I roamed, trying to decide what to pick up for dinner, I eventually picked up a persimmon and several tangerines. Not in the mood to cook meat, and unable to find seafood prices that fit my budget, I elected to continue my quest for a kebab shop. Eventually, kebab in hand I settled in back at the hostel for another night meeting new friends.

After a few hours spent in the hostel common area meeting, greeting and getting to know each other we set off to explore the city’s night life. As we meandered our way through the city and hopped from bar to bar, we eventually ended up at a fun downstairs club. The entrance was a small staircase where I had to watch my head, but the club itself was a narrow set of basement rooms with a vaulted brick ceiling. The place looked as though it had once stored wine casks. Eager to enjoy the evening, we danced, relaxed, and explored the particularly flavorful and peculiar club which was populated predominantly by locals dancing, smoking, and drinking the night away. By about 4:30AM we decided to call it a night and made the trip back to the hostel. The city at night is beautiful with vibrant lights, people wandering the streets at all hours, and a constant hum of activity.

The following morning I woke up early, explored the area around the hostel a bit more before hopping the tube up to the train station. The train station is a large, beautiful structure, with fun elements and a very flavorful style. One of the large common areas within the station has an indoor garden in the center of it with large palm trees, all sorts of vegetation and even a decent sized pool full of lilies and turtles. After taking it all in, I snagged a quick bite to eat and then made my way to my train. Interestingly I had to put my backpack through an x-ray machine. I then boarded the train through a terminal, as you would at the airport. An all around new process I hadn’t been through before.

I enjoyed Madrid thoroughly, though it´s without question a large city and lacks a lot of the charm of a smaller town. The people were friendly, but in a big city sort of way. The streets while beautiful are somewhat sterile and modernized, not to mention, land-mined with dog nuggets. That said, I enjoyed it immensely and my stay was fantastic, but the city cannot compare in any way, shape or form to Seville which I will write about soon.