La Puerta de Acala

La Puerta de Acala

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Circle of Life: Palma, Mallorca

So once again, I've gone a pretty long time without updating the blog, so I apologize for that. Its been a pretty busy two weeks. The week before last was spring break, where I was I split my time between Zurich and Asturias. And unfortunately I had very, very limited internet access and wasn't able to add anything then. I might add something about spring break later but we'll see. I need to catch up and now its time to talk about Mallorca!

Me and eight other kids decided to spend a weekend in Palma, Mallorca! We left Friday morning and got back Sunday night, so we had plenty of time to explore. Palma is the capital of the Balearic Islands and is located on the biggest island, Mallorca. 

Let me just complain a bit. So we flew RyanAir because it was by far the cheapest option. I think the round-trip flight and the hostel for two nights cost me a little over $100. However because RyanAir charges practically nothing, they feel the need to be really obnoxious with everything else. For one, their website is a mess. They also send you like 56 emails between the time you buy your ticket and the day you leave. You can only take one bag on the plane and it has to have pretty much nothing in it. If you want to check a bag, it's an extra 60 euros. If you don't have your boarding pass printed out, its an extra 60 euros. I don't understand that fee but what really annoyed me is that the non-EU citizens had to go to the RyanAir check-in counter and have their boarding pass stamped. I thought the whole point of already having your boarding pass was to avoid the check-in counter completely but apparently not. Thank god I didn't have to do it because it just would've put me into a bad mood lol. 

If that didn't already put me in a bad mood, the weather report for the weekend definitely did. It was supposed to rain Friday and Saturday and then possibly on Sunday. So we were really looking forward to a really wet weekend. When I told my host parents what the weather was supposed to be like, told me we were dumb to go to Mallorca and that we should've picked the Canary Islands haha. Anyway, we learned that Spanish meteorologists are just as bad as the Americans! It rained for an hour or so on Friday and then didn't rain again until Sunday! 

After arriving late thanks to our wonderful friends at RyanAir and taking a couple buses from the airport, we finally checked into our hostal, the Hostal Ritzi. Although everything was a little old and there wasn't really hot water, it was an awesome place to stay. Allan and I got a pretty big room on the top floor which was awesome...except that it was on the top floor. So we had to walk up like 5 flights of steps to get to the room. Not cool lol. After settling into the hostal and using the internet for a bit, we decided to go out and explore Palma. It's actually a pretty neat town. There are ice cream shops everywhere, so its safe to say that we all spent a good amount on ice cream :) And Palma has their own Plaza (actually plaça in stupid Catalan) Mayor! Not really exciting but it was there haha. The cathedral and palace right next door was pretty awesome though. One thing I will never understand about Spain is why you have to pay to get into the churches. I love seeing all the different cathedrals in the cities I go to, but I'm not about to pay 6 euros to get in. A donation, maybe. But not an entrance fee. That's dumb. So we decided to pay 4 euros to get into the Palace of La Almudaina. Unfortunately we couldn't take pictures inside but it was pretty interesting. Another site that was used by Moorish and Christian kings. 

Plaza Mayor!
The palace and cathedral
Saturday was our big travel day. We brainstormed everything we could possibly do and a train ride to the western part of the city seemed like the best idea. It's called the Ferrocarril de Sóller and has been doing daily trips from Palma to Sóller since 1912. And the train definitely looks like it hasn't been remodeled since 1912! 

To and from Palma costs 17 euros and the trip took a little more than an hour. It was a little different then the trains I'm used to (with bathrooms and a cafe car) but the trip wasn't so bad. The Mallorca country side is actually really pretty and I had no idea that such a small island could have some pretty big mountains. Once we got to the Sóller, we just walked about for a bit. There are was a cool little market in the main square that we spent a little time at and then we, of course, got ice cream at the Fabrica de Helado. It was pretty fantastic. However, since there wasn't much to do in Sóller we decided to take the tram to the Port de Sóller. This was easily my favorite part of the trip. After walking up the port and looking at all the boats, we all just chilled on the beach for a few hours. It was great. Even though it was really nice, it wasn't quite warm enough (for me especially but for everyone I think) to get into the water. Not that any of use were prepared anyway but still lol. 

Sunday was a little depressing. The rain finally came unfortunately and we had to check out of our rooms by 11am. Thankfully they let us hang out as long as we wanted in the lounge and they even kept out luggage while we were out. After much discussion, we decided the best plan was to head west of the city to a town called Genova, where there are some famous caves. Getting there was quite an adventure. After pretty much waiting around the bus stop for about an hour and a half, we finally figured out which bus we had to get on. Although that time wasn't completely wasted because Crystal and I found a KFC!!!!! I was so excited. Anyway, after KFC we got on the bus but no one was sure where we had to get off. Not us, not the bus driver, not even the people who we called at the caves. All we were told was that once we saw some restaurant that we should get off. Well, apparently no one saw the restaurant because we completely missed the stop. So we had to get off a few stops down the road and walk back up the hill for about 15 minutes until finally finding the entrance. Not the most fun in the rain but hey, we got there. And it was no Luray Caverns but it was still pretty cool. The picture below is the "grand column" and the line in the middle is a huge crack caused by an earthquake 2000 years ago. Pretty cool. 

Mallorca was pretty awesome. I got to see yet another place in Spain that I hadn't been to before, I got to spend a weekend with some awesome friends and I even met new friends. I love those kind of trips. Especially when the weather was as great as it was, for the most part haha. The one thing that surprised me about Mallorca is it is. Everyone speaks Spanish, Catalan and at least either English or German because there are Germans EVERYWHERE. It was crazy. I mean even signs and stuff were in German. It was kind of weird but hey, they need a warm beach to go to too right? Anyway, I think it's safe to say I had a wonderful time and I'd love to go back. But maybe I'll try the Canary Islands first :) Haha. 

On another note; I've been getting kinda homesick lately. I'm loving it here but I'm starting to want to go home too, which I never thought would happen. I miss my family, my puppies and my awesome girlfriend Millie. Can't wait to see them all again. Less than two months!

Hasta la próxima!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Being classy at the opera

Throughout my time in Europe, I’ve actually been surprisingly adventurous and I try new things whenever I get the chance. Whether it be with food, ridiculous art museums, you name it. It’s one thing about myself that I want to try and improve and being in Europe gives me many opportunities to do so.

Last Monday, a bunch of us went on a UEM-sponsored trip to el Teatro Real to see an opera! Or what we thought was going to be an opera… It was actually a really great deal. I’m not sure how much tickets are normally but we paid less than 6 euros for ours. Someone told me that we got a 90% discount through our school, which is absolutely ridiculous. Needless to say, I was definitely going to jump on that opportunity regardless of how I feel about operas.

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard an opera, except for those JG Wentworth “need cash now” commercials. I was definitely a little skeptical at first but again, I want to try and explore new stuff. And I’m pretty sure an opera falls right into that category.  

However, what we saw was not actually an opera, which was slightly disappointing. It was called C(h)oerus and was a mix between an opera, a ballet and a play. It was definitely...interesting. The singing was great of course but except for the parts where they spoke in French, there were no subtitles. So we had no idea what they were singing about. I also didn't really understand the dancing. I mean it was cool to watch but I guess I'm not a ballet kinda guy, so it was not that exciting for me. But there was also a lot of unnecessary nudity. But whatever. It was a cool experience and I paid less than I would for a chai at Starbucks to get in so I think it was definitely worth it. 
El Teatro Real!
The entrance to the theater
Our view of the stage! We actually had pretty good seats.
Here are some pictures from the opera house because I'm not really sure what else to write about haha. Although I'm in Zurich right now and it is amazing. I really love it and I'm going to be really sad leaving tomorrow morning! But enough about Zurich. That will all be in my next post :) 

Hasta la próxima

Monday, March 19, 2012

Conquering Andalucía one city at a time

Hello all!
So its been a while and I apologize. I always tell myself that as soon as I get home from a trip, I'll start writing a post and by Monday night I'll have it finished.'s been 2 weeks since that first Monday and here we are. 

Anyway this past weekend I went to Granada! Taylor, Carolina, Crystal, Jenna, Allan and I signed up through Villaviciosa's cultural center. The trip was 150 and included bus travel to and from Granada, one night at a FOUR STAR hotel, three meals at the hotel and guided tours of the city and main attractions (aka La Alhambra). Needless to say, it was a really good deal that I did not want to pass up, so I made all my friends come with me haha.
For those of you who don't know, Granada is the capital of the province Granada in Andalucía. The worst part about the whole trip was getting there (and coming back). I do not like buses. Even when I take the bus into Madrid, a 25 minute ride, I hate it. I get claustrophobic and I don't do well sitting in one spot for several hours at a time. The trip to Granada took about 5 and a half hours, which really isn't bad considering we stopped for 45 minutes in the middle of nowhere to eat but still. I was not happy. And for some reason the buses here don't have bathrooms, so that sucked. The other thing I didn't enjoy too much was leaving Villaviciosa at 7am. I'm glad I got to sleep a bit on the bus but I was really happy to arrive at our four-star hotel, the Hotel Carmen, around 1pm. 
Hotel Carmen! Cuatro estrellas :)
The view of the Sierra Nevada from the roof of the hotel
After some free time chillin in our rooms and a wonderful lunch buffet, we went on a tour of Granada. First, the bus took us around the modern part of town and through the university. Over the course of the weekend, we had three different tour guides for the various things we did and each one told us about how the University of Granada is the 3rd most important in Spain and then each one gave us a different number of students it has. So apparently there are somewhere between 60-100,000 students, which is ridiculous for a town with a population of 250,000. Anyway, afterwards we went up into the old part of the city. The bus let us off in the old Moorish neighborhood called El Albayzin. It was really cool to walk through all the old narrow streets and see all the old houses. Many of the houses in the Albayzin are original Moorish houses from the 14th century, which are called a carmens. Something I thought was really interesting is that the group of people who've been in Granada the longest weren't the Moors or the Christians, its actually the Jews. They first founded the Albayzin and then it was slowly converted into the most important part of the city (aside from La Alhambra). However, the coolest part of the Albayzin was seeing La Alhambra from the Mirador de San Nicolas.
Me with La Alhambra in the background
Once we got back to the hotel, the people in charge of the trip told us that later that night we would have the option to see a flamenco show or espectáculo! It cost €17 euros and included a drink. I was super excited to go since Ive never seen a flamenco show and it was such a good deal! After doing some shopping and getting a delicious tapas dinner in Granada's shopping district, we headed back to the hotel to catch the bus for the show. The neighborhood we went to is called Sacromonte, or Las Cuevas. In Spanish, cueva means cave. And this part of town was full of them. The houses are actually catacombs, aka a big whole in the side of the mountain that someone could live in. The Romans started doing it and then was quickly taken over the gypsies and other poor groups of people who couldn't afford to live in a 'normal' house. I don't know but I think it'd be pretty cool to live in a cave. Just saying haha. So anyway, the restaurant with the performance was in a cueva and was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. It was kind of choreographed but each dancer, the two guitar players and the singers were all incredibly talented. It was such an awesome experience. 

After the show, we went right back to our hotel to rest up for the next day. All Sunday was spent at La Alhambra y El Generalife! El Generalife is the old summer palace of the Nazarí dynasty. But along with being a palace, it was the farm of La Alhambra where they grew everything they needed.
Something that I learned on the tour is that a lot of people don't actually know what La Alhmabra is. Palace? Fortress? Farm? None of the above. Well, technically all of the above. La Alhambra was actually it's own little city that served the royals and nobles of Granada. It has El Generalife, the Alcazaba fortress, el Palacio de Carlos V and the Nazarí palaces. We spent several hours walking around the whole compound with our awesome guide Tariq.

My favorite part of La Alhambra was the Nazarí palaces. I just love how every single room was decorated with beautiful tiles and designs in the stone walls. It really is impresionante. The one thing that kind of sucked was that El Patio de los Leones (3rd picture below) was being renovated. And I guess I should be thankful because up until a month or so ago, the fountain wasn't even there. So it was still really awesome to see but I clearly need to come back and see it when the renovation is done. One of the coolest rooms of the Nazarí palaces was the Salon de los Embajadores (4th picture). At the time, it was the biggest throne room in Europe. All the 
decorations were really cool and it even had part of the original floor from the 14th 

 So Granada was awesome. I was always interested in the Moorish part of Spanish history but after seeing two of the main cities of Al-Andalus, I'm really starting to love it. And now that I think about it, this was my first real weekend trip in Spain :) Day trips are great but you get to see so much more over two days and the best thing is that you can take your time doing it. Even though I was only able to spend a day in Cordoba, I think I might still like it better... We also didn't have to spend 5 and a half hours in a bus going to Cordoba, so that probably helps my decision making haha. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Exploring my new home!

So I've been in Madrid for a month now. First of all, its going by WAY too fast already. I am constantly reminding myself that I still have more than 3 months left. But I feel like its about time I get to know my new home! 

And that's exactly what I've been doing all week. Last Sunday, Carolina, Taylor and I went on a free walking tour of the city. Thanks to my awesome friend Katherine, I found out about this company called Sandemans New Europe. They have free tours in like 14 different cities and then special tours (for money) in each city. The other tours offered in Madrid are the Civil War tour, the Pub Crawl and the Tapas Experience. Im SUPER excited to do the tapas one because for only €14 (about $18) you get a free drink and tapas at the 3 different bars they take you. So that should be fun but getting back to the point lol...the free tour! It was really great. I had been to or walked past a lot of what we were shown but it was cool to have a guide explain the history and cool little stories about everything. And the guide was really awesome too! A little quirky but he was very entertaining, definitely knew his stuff and you could tell he loved his job, which was cool. They're free but at the end, you can tip your guide as much as you thought their tour was worth. Very cool idea and we ended up giving $20 because we liked it so much. Here's pictures from the tour. 

The first one is the Catedral de la Almudena, right next to the palace. The second is at the Puerta del Sol where a protest was going on! Walking through that one a tour with 20 other people was pretty interesting. I have no idea how our guide kept everyone together. And the last one is of a couple cool buildings but the one on the left is the Hotel Asturias, where me, my mom and my sister stayed the last time we went to Madrid! Memories! Haha.

So the tour was great. I'm really glad we did it and I cannot wait to do the others! Next up in our adventure of Madrid week was the world-famous art Museum, El Prado. I'm still not sure how I feel about classic art. Some of it is really cool and interesting but most of it is super boring. 

The 3 of us, along with our wonderful guide Encarna and our program director, wanted to figure out a day that wouldn't be too busy so we could see everything we wanted to with no crowds. The group consensus was a Wednesday morning. We were sure there wouldn't be too many tourists. We were so wrong...
This picture was taken on the way out, when there wasn't 200 people waiting on those stairs to get in
Actually to be fair, it wasn't really our fault. We just happened to pick the day that a super-famous painting was going to be released after months of restoration. The painting is called La Gioconda and is a copy of the Mona Lisa painted by one of Leonardo da Vinci's pupils, possibly also with some help from da Vinci himself. Before the restoration there was just a solid black background in the painting but after some scans and tests they realized there was more underneath. So even though there were a lot of tourists, it was almost all locals who were all of the sudden interested in art. And a piece of art that had always been at the museum. There might have been a line to get in but I got to see the Mona Lisa (kind of) without going to Paris. Winning. Also, saving haha.

Thank you Google!
By the way, the worst part about El Prado is that they don't let you take pictures! Not cool! My iPhone is not going to harm your precious art, I promise. Anyway, the three artists we focused on were El Greco, Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya. My favorite by far is Velázquez. Partly because he has several paintings of the Spanish Royal family's personal entertainers...who just happened to be midgets or anyone else with a mental illness or who looked funny to them. But he also did one of favorite paintings ever, Las Meninas. I think the reason I love it so much is that there's so much going on. It's also really, really big. Like, it almost takes up the entire wall. 
Google saving the day again!
After seeing what we came for at El Prado, everyone was pretty hungry and we decided to find some food! We walked around a little and finally found the Plaza de Santa Ana. It's actually one of my favorite places in the whole city. I'm not really sure why but the atmosphere is just awesome. There are always people there but not many tourists. It locals sitting at the cafes outside, playing with their kids in the playground. And everyone is super nice. As I explain a little later, I've visited a couple of the bars here and they're also full of locals. Mainly old guys, talking about politics or soccer or just life in general. I love that. 

The building above is called the Hotel Reina Victoria and is where all the famous bullfighters used to stay while doing a corrida Madrid. Its been since renovated and apparently the terrace is really amazing during the summer. Definitely making a trip there when it gets warmer. So there are several bars around the plaza but we went to a place called Vintoteca. They're famous for their tostas, which is basically a toasted piece of bread with your choice of topping. I got a tosta de jamón ibérico y queso and it was SO good. And of course, the croquetas were amazing. I had croquetas de bacalao for the first time and they were actually really good! Never thought I'd ever enjoy eating fish...

Something really cool that we learned on our tour is that Ernest Hemingway used to constantly hang out at bar at the Plaza de Santa Ana. Its called the Cerveceria Alemana. According to our tour guide, there's a plaque on one of the bar stools that says "Hemingway sat here blah blah blah". On my way to the Banco de Espana I decided to stop by and have a drink. First off, there are no bar stools. There's also no plaque. Or pictures. Or any mention of Hemingway. But I asked the bartender and he said that Hemingway did in fact spend a lot of time there but they never had a plaque or anything. Oh well. I had a beer where Hemingway got wasted. So cool.

They gave me olives with my beer and tortilla...haha...
Ok here goes my last little story, I promise! So Spain didn't always use the euro, obviously. Before 2002, everyone used the peseta. And for some reason I had a bunch of pesetas in my closet since the last time we were in Spain while they were still in circulation. The only reason I brought them is because I read somewhere you could go to the Banco de Espana in Madrid and change them for euros. My dad kept telling me to keep them because they were cool to have but...I didn't really want to listen to that logic since it was possible to exchange them for actual money. And thats exactly what I did. Apparently 9,000pesetas is almost 54euros. So you math people can figure out the exchange rate haha. 

One last goodbye!
I'm getting to know Madrid more and more everyday. And even though I carry a map every time I go, the best way to get to know a city is just to walk around. When I get bored, I just go into the city and explore. It's been hard to do since it's been so cold but now that it's warming up finally, I'm going to be able to do it a lot more. 

Hasta la proxima! 

Possibly one of the most photographed buildings in Madrid

Monday, February 20, 2012

Córdoba in a day!

So this weekend was really awesome! Me and two other girls in my program spent the day in Córdoba with our personal guide and it was a fantastic.

For those who don’t know, Córdoba is in the southern region of Spain called Andalucía. This means that the weather is automatically better than in Madrid. After suffering 40-degree (or worse at times) weather for 3 weeks, it was around 60 for most of the day in Córdoba. That’s normally cold for me, but I’ll take what I can get haha.

The best way to get to Córdoba is to take the AVE, Spain’s high-speed train. The AVE goes to Barcelona, Valencia and several big cities in Andalucía. The people that know me well are very aware that it is impossible for me to sit still for more than 10 minutes. For that reason, I love traveling by train because there’s plenty of room for me to walk around and when I feel like sitting, it’s very comfortable. Another great thing is that train stations are always in the center of town, so you don’t normally have to take a bus or taxi to your next destination. And of course the best thing is that the AVE goes approximately 175mph, so what would normally be a 4 or 5-hour bus trip takes less than 2 hours.

We got to Córdoba around 12:30 and after getting some breakfast and walking around the old city for a bit, we headed to the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, or in English the Castle of the Christian Kings. This palace is one of the many examples of diverse the history of Córdoba is. It was first used by the Visigoths (who invaded Spain after the fall of the Roman empire), then by the Caliphate of Córdoba (the ruler of al-Andalus) and then finally one of Ferdinand and Isabel’s primary residences. One of the really cool parts of the Palace were the ruins of the Moorish baths. The Moors were fascinated by water and were very successful in using it for many different things. They created a ventilation system for the baths and even had cold, warm and hot rooms. Something I found out later is that those same baths were used as torture chambers when Ferdinand and Isabel made the Alcazar the headquarters of the Inquisition. However, my absolute favorite part of the Alcazar was the gardens. There were pools and fountains and orange groves and much, much more. It was truly amazing. 

After the Alcazar, we got lunch at a typical Cordobes tapas bar. Croquetas and patatas bravas did the job for me :) Our next stop was the Sinagoga de Córdoba (Córdoba Synagogue). After the expulsion of the Jews (and Moors) in 1492, just about every synagogue in Spain was repurposed for some Christian us. This is one of 3 synagogues left in Spain. Crazy to think about. But just like everything else we'd seen, this was another really beautiful building. The designs on the walls are extremely detailed and was actually the decoration of choice for the time because it was easy and cheap. 

Finally I got to see what I had been waiting for all day. La Gran Mezquita de Córdoba (the Great Mosque of Córdoba). In my Spanish class last semester we learned all about the history of Spain from the Romans to the 19th century, and we focused a lot on the architecture of each civilization. I had seen pictures of the Mezquita before but nothing could've prepared me for what I saw when we walked into the great hall. I really was speechless. Take a look at some of these of the inside while I think about how I'm going to start describing it.

That first picture is one of the many facades on the outside of the walls. Just like the synagogue, the decorations are just amazing. As you can see, the great hall has hundreds and hundreds of columns and archways. Its often referred to as el bosque de columnas (the forest of columns) because it seems like it goes on forever. The first architect of the Mezquita decided that he wanted the hall to appear much bigger than it actually was, since the ceiling was fairly low. This is why the double-arcs are used. But because the population of Córdoba kept increasing, the Mezquita was expanded several times by the different caliphates in power. However, when the Moors were expelled (also in 1492), the catholics decided they didn't need a mosque anymore and decided to put a big old cathedral in the middle. Our guide told us that when Carlos V (Roman emperor/Spanish king) saw the cathedral for the first time, he was extremely mad because they had ruined something so unique and special to put in something that could be seen in any Spanish city. I couldn't agree more with Carlos. Its such a shame that such amazing building was ruined by those dumb Catholics but hey, at least they didn't destroy it completely.

I really can't say enough how beautiful it was. Not only the Mezquita but all of Córdoba. It has such an interesting history. I loved every minute spent there and I would gladly come back to see it all again, especially since we were only able to take a day trip. If you get a chance to go, DO IT! Córdoba is definitely my favorite city in Spain so far. After Madrid, of course :) 

School has been good by the way! It's been 2 weeks and I've had...I think 3 homework assignments. So it's fair to say that I will be transferring here next semester, haha. This week should be awesome though! On Wednesday our wonderful guide Encarna is going to show us around Madrid's most famous art museum, El Prado, and then take us to El Mercado de San Miguel to get some tapas. I'm super excited because the last (and only) time I was in Madrid, my mom, sister and I tried to go but it was a Monday and they were closed. We also tried to go to the Royal Palace and the Reina Sofia art museum but they were both closed too. So all we saw the whole weekend was the Santiago Bernabeu and Madrid's version of Central Park called El Retiro. Hopefully I'll have better luck this week :)

Until next time!