Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Old World New Year

As mentioned in my last post, I took advantage of my new-found super seniority to bid thirteen consecutive days off without the use of vacation time, which gave Dawn and I the rare opportunity to travel during her Christmas break. Not wishing to altogether shun our kin over the holidays, we attended our families' respective festivities on December 23rd through 25th, and then took off for Spain on Christmas afternoon. Old Man Winter very nearly nearly threw a monkey wrench in the whole works when Atlanta's first white Christmas in some 128 years resulted in our flight to Madrid, among many others, being scrubbed. Instead, we flew to Amsterdam and connected to Madrid on Iberia, arriving scarcely an hour later than the original plan. Unfortunately, my brother Jon, who had been planning on coming with us, backed out at the last minute both due to the weather difficulties and anxiety about making it back for the start of his next college semester.

Last-minute changes notwithstanding, it was a wonderful trip; we enjoyed Spain immensely. I planned a rather ambitious itinerary, encompassing Madrid, Seville, Tangier (Morocco), Granada, Valencia, and Barcelona in the space of seven days. We could have spent a week at any one of these places - Seville and Granada particularly - and will hopefully get the chance to do exactly that sometime in the future. In the meantime, this was an excellent introduction to the country and a great way to ring in the New Year.

We took some 700 pictures over the course of the trip; sorting and editing the photos was a sizable undertaking on our return. Here are a few of my favorites so far, with a few notations.

I wasn't that impressed with Madrid at first blush. It was a nice enough city, to be sure... but it struck me as being fairly blandly, typically European with nothing really identifiably Spanish about it. It reminded me a lot of Paris, which I suppose is rather high praise, except that when I wish to visit Paris, I generally go to France. This was my first impression. But it was a sunny Sunday afternoon, the day after Christmas, and the streets were soon overflowing with Madrileños - at El Rastro Sunday flea market (top), at Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol and on Gran Via, in the tapas bars on Calle de la Cava Baja (bottom), in the galleries at Museo de la Reina Sofia and Museo del Prado. It seemed like the entire city was out and about in 40º weather (4º C), having a good time. That sort of thing is infectious, and I found myself liking Madrid a lot more.

We loved Seville at first sight, even though our first experience in the city was getting hopelessly lost among the tangle of medieval streets at the end of our 5-hour drive from Madrid. Palm and orange trees lining the streets and squares (top) put one in a tropical state of mind on a cloudy 15º C day. The houses and buildings are varied and interesting, and Spain's Islamic past echoes through the years in an abundance of beautiful and intricate geometric adornment (second). Of course there are grander remnants of the Caliphate of Al-Andalus such as La Giralda, the magnificent 12th century minaret that became the Cathedral of Seville's bell tower after the Reconquista (third). Among the maze of back alleyways of the Barrio de Santa Cruz are many hidden treasures like tabernas and tapas bars no much larger than the average American bathroom, or the unmarked entrance to former coal storehouse turned flamenco club La Carboneria (bottom).

I approached our side trip to Tangier with a little trepidation. Not quite Africa, not quite the Middle East, but certainly not Europe, I wasn't sure what to expect. The town's reputation for seediness is as ancient as its port, and travel forums overflow with tales of fraud, petty crime, and persistent touts. After disembarking from the ferry and shaking one of those touts over the course of three blocks, we decompressed over sodas on the terrace of the famous Hotel Continental (top) before wandering into the Medina in search of accommodation - and immediately becoming hopelessly lost. Paying a young Moroccan a few dirham to show us to the Petit Socco (second) earned us persistent entreaties to be our tour guide for the remainder of the day. We found our way to the Kasbah, Grand Socco, and Cafe Hafa (third and fourth) just fine without him, although perhaps his presence might have dissuaded other touts. I do have to say that everyone we encountered aside from the touts was unfailingly kind, polite, and helpful. As our ferry pulled away from Tangier the next morning (bottom), it looked much less foreign than it did the previous day, and I reflected that should I have the opportunity to return, it'll be much easier with a knowledge of the Medina and practice in turning down touts.

Like Seville before it, Granada secured a special place in our hearts. It's a graceful, beautiful town (top) in the shadow of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains, Spain's highest (second, third), and the magnificent Alhambra. The entire complex is beautiful, but the Nasrid Palaces are particularly breathtaking. Photos cannot adequately capture the beauty of their situation, design, and intricate detail (fourth through eighth). We could have spent days wandering the Alhambra, but the sun was soon setting and beckoning us to join the Granadans in staying out late among the multitude of tabernas, bodagas, and tapas bars (bottom).

I've always admired Santiago Calatrava's sweeping, innovative designs, so it was a real treat to be able to visit his Ciutat de les Arts i Ciéncias in Valencia. Several of the structures within the complex are notable in their own right, but to see these sleek designs clustered together in a futurescape of tile, steel, and water is quite striking, and a treat to photograph (first through third). Several kilometers northwest, we climbed the Cathedral belltower for a bird's eye view of the rather more traditional architecture of Valencia's city core (fourth). After dark, the town really came alive (bottom); strolling, people-watching, paella, sangria, and midnight flamenco kept us occupied until 1am, when we realized that an early drive to Barcelona must keep us from staying out quite so late as the Spaniards.
I was impressed by the Spanish roads and drivers, both of which were better than I'd been led to believe. In the interest of time we most often stuck to the Autovias and Autopistas, but made an exception for a glorious stretch of C31 that is scratched into rocky headlands jutting from the Mediterranean south of Barcelona (top). With a wheezing 1.0L engine, our Kia Picanto (bottom) wasn't the fastest car on the road, but it was the best handling. No, wait, it wasn't... but it was quite comfortable. Er, actually not that either. It was truthfully about the worst automobile I've driven in my life. All the same, after 1440 miles I had some unaccountable fondness for the little car.
The highlight of our short stay in Barcelona was a visit to Antoni Gaudi's still-unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia (top, second). I can only hope it is completed in my lifetime. Just down the road lie Gaudi's other contributions to L'Eixample's modernista architecture, Casa Mila (third) and Casa Batlló. Across the Barri Gotic is the original source of Barcelona's wealth, Puerto Vell (fourth), which once hummed with shipping to and from the Americas. Shortly before midnight, we pried ourself away from good Rioja and tapas to join the throngs on La Rambla, headed to Placa Catalunya (fifth). The atmosphere was jubilant and chaotic, but surprisingly there was no mass countdown to midnight. Instead, each counted and celebrated according to his own watch (bottom). I noted that 2011 should be an excellent year for us, as we have seven more hours to make good use of it than all of our friends!

The original plan was for Dawn to fly home on 1 January and for me to remain for a few more days, but then the flight loads closed up on Saturday and opened up for Sunday. Dawn agreed to stay an extra day, and I decided to go home with her. In the meantime we had an extra day to go somewhere we hadn't originally planned on visiting: the Pyrenees of Spain, Andorra, and southern France (top, second). The driving was excellent and the plucky Kia took to the mountains like a fish to water, so long as I didn't mind about 20 degrees of chassis roll from one curve to the next! We spent the night in the foothills some 60 km northeast of Barcelona, in an attractive but sleepy little town called Vic (third). The next morning we drove to BCN, said goodbye to our little car, waited rather shortly for seats (bottom), and flew to New York.


Anonymous said...

Welcome home! Now get ready to deal with the icing and fair to poor braking. Talk to ya at the tower.


Anonymous said...

When the first picture from Valencia scrolled into view, my first thought was: "Where did he encounter a plane wreck with the fuselage rolled to one side and half submerged in water?"

Nice pictures! And nice travelouge! Wishing you and your family a wonderful 2011.

M in PY

Anonymous said...

I remember Spain with affection. Been there twice. Once Madrid - Sevilla - Granada - Cordoba - Toledo - Madrid by auto) and another time - Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela (by autobbus)with a side trip to Galicia (by auto.) I dream of going back. Lovely country.


Aviator said...

I love traveling and seeing new places around the globe, but I just fear sometimes something like the Alaska Air 261 accident happening to me.