Christmas in Granada

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I knew at some point on my year long trip that it would be Christmas Day and I would not be home.  This fact didn’t make the day’s arrival any less sad for me.  I do love my current travel life, but I really wished I could have magically transported home for just one day and then transport back.  I left Sevilla on the morning of the 23rd by bus and headed for Granada, Spain.  Prior to leaving Sevilla, I kind of regretted not staying because I was having fun hanging out with the hostel staff (as almost no one else was staying there).  I arrived in Granada early in the afternoon to an equally empty hostel,  in a town that was much colder, and not as beautiful as Sevilla in my opinion.  Despite my initial disappointment, the people I met in Granada turned out ok, and I had a fun Christmas holiday time there.

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I read and heard so much about Granada prior to arrival.  Many had told me it was the most beautiful city in Spain.  It’s also a big university town, and has a well known alternative scene.  After taking a local bus into the city from the main bus station, I headed up the hill into the older part of the city to find my hostel.  I immediately noticed the Moroccan influence in the street market like bizarr that was going on.  Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t get a photo of that.  I also noticed a lot of people with dreadlocks or rastas.  Between this, and the smell of marijuana I had a couple times, I got the sense this was a pretty relaxed and welcoming place.

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The hostel I booked, Makuto, was interesting as well.  It was a typical Andolusian style home in which the house served as one wall, while three other adjacent walls formed a central courtyard for the home.  They had a treehouse, along with a bar area in the middle of it.  They also had this huge outdoor brick oven with a large paella pan in the center.

 Christmas Day

So Christmas day started like any other on my trip…  waking up in a hostel dorm room.  We decided as a group that the best thing to do would be to share a meal of the traditional Spanish seafood dish… paella.  It was cool to see everyone in the hostel that day band together like a little traveler family.  Almost everything was closed anyway, so other than walk around the neighborhood, there wasn’t much to do.  The other travelers that day included a young couple from Greece, another couple from Poland, and a guy from England who seemed to be temporarily leaving in the hostel.  As for the hostel staff, there was Daniel, a Spanish rasta guy who had lived in the US for a couple years and spoke English with a mid-western US accent.  Aaron from Wales who is a musician and had moved to Granada to learn Spanish guitar.  And Syrmo, the hostel manager who was from Greece.  We mostly spent Christmas day drinking Sangria and beer, eating paella together and having a lot of laughs.  In the evening, we sat in the hostel’s “chill out” room, drank more Sangria and played guitar and drums.  I know a few guitar chords, and I managed to put something together that seemed pleasing to the drunken crew.  However, I had the most fun following the beat of the better guitarists and playing drums.  Not sure if it was the alcohol, but I remember thinking as a group, we sounded pretty damn good playing together.  Definitely a good vibe.  At one point, Aaron used an empty wine bottle as a slide to play the guitar.  It was a grungy bluesy tune that sounded incredible.  That moment was the only image from the day I managed to capture.

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I wish I had been recording it with my phone.  It was a great blues tune of some sort, and the slide effect of the wine bottle was perfect.  Not everyone in the audience that day got it.  Some thought it just sounded weird, but it was definitely bad ass.  That guy has talent.

So that was my holiday intro to Granada.  I decided to stick around at that point since I still had tons to see.  As I’m writing this, it’s actually late January, and I’m way behind on the blog.  I’ve had trouble finding reliable internet as I move away from the more developed parts of the world.  I’m going to try and write several smaller updates for each city in the future.  Lots more to come on Granada.

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Ridiculously Photogenic Beauty of Sevilla

IMG_3436After my initial visit to Madrid, I found myself in the Andalusia region of Spain in a city called Sevilla.  The best way to describe this city is that it is one of the most photogenic I’ve seen in my life.  I felt like stopping to take a picture almost every time I turned the corner.  The weather was also really nice and sunny for the most part, something like 70F (21C) at its best.  I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a warmer December in my life.  Despite the beauty of the city and the warm weather, I didn’t actually have that great of a time in Sevilla, unfortunately.  For one, I had a chest cold and really bad sore throat for my first couple days.  I think because of this, and the fact it was low season, I didn’t meet too many people to hangout with and explore as I might normally.  I went out one night with some of the staff from the hostel, and then on another I found a couchsurfing meetup at a cool little restaurant.  I really wish I was fluent in Spanish because I felt like I couldn’t engage too many people at the meetup.  Everyone else spoke Spanish and I felt bad anytime someone had to speak English to involve me in the conversation.  I also didn’t do any research on Sevilla or even go on a walking tour for my time there, so I can’t say much about it.  Fortunately, I had a photogenic city to keep me company and took plenty of photos 🙂

IMG_3463IMG_3455IMG_3474 IMG_3495IMG_3476 IMG_3503IMG_3510IMG_3518I got lost so many times just walking around taking photos.  None of the streets in the old town seem to be very wide or run straight.  It’s like this beautiful maze someone constructed to keep you content while not knowing where you are.IMG_3526IMG_3533IMG_3527

Once I started to feel better, I went to visit the most popular attraction in Sevilla.  It’s a place called the Royal Alcazar.  In this part of Spain, the “z” is pronounced like “th” in English, and the last letter of the word is usually dropped.  So the pronunciation of the place is more like Alcatha.  It was originally a medieval Muslim fortress and then a palace.  The city was under Moorish control for centuries, so a lot of the architecture has an Islamic influence.IMG_3539 IMG_3541 IMG_3543 IMG_3548 IMG_3556 IMG_3560

Live peacocks roamed the grounds of the garden.  You could walk right up to them.  I was hoping one would open it’s wings and show-off, but it never happened.IMG_3565IMG_3568 IMG_3576IMG_3577 IMG_3578 IMG_3580IMG_3583IMG_3590 IMG_3603 IMG_3607 IMG_3610 IMG_3611 IMG_3613 IMG_3626IMG_3630 IMG_3634 IMG_3641

Sevilla is on just about everyone’s list when backpacking through Spain.  It’s so beautiful, and perhaps if I had been feeling better and meeting more people, I would have stayed longer.  I felt after five days I had a feel for the place and wanted to move on.  In hindsight, I realize the city is much bigger than I thought it was at the time.  According to Wikipedia, the population is over 700,000.  I definitely didn’t get that sense when I was there, so I must have missed extensive parts of the city.  It happens.  I’m traveling for a long time.  I’m going to get sick.  Things won’t always go well.  There will be down days or even down weeks.   I did really enjoy the warm weather, and it made me feel like it was late September or early October again.  The food was good, and the maze of beautiful streets never annoyed me or got tiring.  If you’re in Andalusia, don’t miss it.

Can I Move to Madrid?

IMG_3354I distinctly remember a few conversations I had with people about traveling to Madrid.  Almost everyone said not to waste too much time there.  “It’s boring”, or “Give it two days max to walk around” were usually what other travelers had told me.  It’s just the capital of Spain, so according to some backpackers, it’s not interesting in terms of things to see and do.  Absolute nonsense.  I ended up really enjoying my time in Madrid.  It was one of those rare cities I found that I truly felt I could live in.  In fact, I was there twice.  Once for a whole week after Barcelona, and then again after exploring parts of southern Spain.  I really just felt at home there for some reason.  Some locals told me that people there are more down to earth than Barcelona.  It still has that big city energy, though.  My visit there had that perfect combination of things I look for…  beautiful old school architecture, great parks and green spaces, good weather, friendly people, a good hostel stay, and delcious food.  I can’t believe I almost let people talk me into not going.

Architecture

For its size, Madrid is really a very clean and beautiful city.   I found the architecture to be amazing.  Barcelona gets most of the attention because of the Gaudi buildings, but I loved the more classical styles I found in Madrid.  A popular spot is Plaza Mayor.  There was a Christmas market setup there, and tons of street performers.  It kind of reminded of some of the architecture I saw in Prague.

IMG_3321Puerta del Sol… a central part of downtown Madrid.  It’s filled with shops, cafes and street performers.  I kind of wish I just tipped some of them so I could take photos of them.  Some are really good, others are kind of strange and creepy.IMG_3331

Various other spots around town…IMG_3334 IMG_4056 IMG_4061IMG_3339

Madrid Parks

In downtown Madrid, there is this wide avenue called Paseo de Recoletos.  It has a green space that runs down the middle which creates the feeling of being in a park.  I loved walking down the street and would go out of my way sometimes to include it when walking to and from the hostel.
IMG_3359IMG_3357My favorite green space in the city was Retiro Park.  This was really a mix of a park and garden along with some palace like places used for art displays.  Between both of my trips to Madrid, I was there three times.  I tried to make it back on my last day but ran out of time.IMG_3391Palacio de Crystal… Not entirely sure what this was made for.  It was a big open green house type of structure.
IMG_3397 IMG_3401Gardens seem to be a popular thing in Spanish cities.  I’ve found them in almost every city I visited.IMG_4044IMG_4047IMG_4052

Tapas Experience

While in Madrid, I got my first taste of Spanish tapas.  I think in the States we usually associate these with small dishes like appetizers.  In Spain, the history of tapas goes back a few centuries when a king ordered that all drinks must include food.  According to a tour guide, this was done to prevent workers from spending all their money on alcohol.  This tradition is more popular in the south, especially in Granada.  However, I did find a good traditional tapas place in Madrid called El Tigre (The Tiger).  For 2.50 euros, you got a small beer and a plate of food.  I went with two Aussies from my hostel, and we thought the food was a little heavy on potatoes and bread, but still good and really filling.IMG_3332

Hostel Experience

Traveling in the low season can be nice sometimes.  There are fewer travelers to meet, but prices are low.  I was in an 8 bed dorm by myself for a couple nights, so I had a private room for a hostel price.  Here was the view from the balcony.  IMG_3380One of the guys working at the hostel, Pablo, was really helpful in getting people together.  On one night, he organized a tapas cooking class and showed us how to make a variety of different types of tapas.IMG_3351 The hostel also organized a visit to a flamenco show at a greatly reduced price.  However, I have to admit, the show wasn’t at all what I expected.  I thought the dancer and guitar player were good, but the singer’s horrible wailing turned me off from the whole experience.  I heard from a few people that this was just how the singing was intended in flamenco.  I went to another show on my return trip to Madrid and learned this wasn’t true.  More on that later.IMG_3382

Fun Last Night in Town

When I was backpacking through California over the summer, I had a great hostel stay in San Francisco.  I met a lot of people to go out with, and one of them was Ara from Madrid.  She was taking a six week English course, but was also doing some day trips out of town on her days off.  We’ve stayed in touch through Facebook, and I messaged her when I reached Madrid.  We met on my last night in the city and had some drinks and tapas.  Between a mix of mostly English and my minimal Spanish, we were able to catch up.  She’s a science teacher in Madrid and is under pressure from her boss to teach her classes in English in a few years.  She got a lot from the classes in the States and enjoyed her time there as well.  She picked up the check for our meal which I tried to stop.  I was a visitor to her city, and she wanted to treat me.  I have a hard time accepting gifts from people, and really need to relax and accept hospitality.  Thanks Ara… Next time I’m there, it’s my treat and we’ll do the whole conversation in Spanish 🙂IMG_3425

After saying goodbye to Ara, I headed back to my hostel.  On the way, I realized I was really close to this well known churros place that I had heard about from a couple sources.  I think every culture has some sort of fried dough treat, and in Spain, one of them is the churro.  There’s a place near Plaza Mayor called San Gines that serves them up 24 hours a day.  It’s famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page.  I got in line, and from hearing the two girls in front of me could tell they were American.  Five minutes later, we were all sitting downstairs in San Gines with our churros and chocolate.  The chocolate is really thick… kind of more like a chocolate fondu than hot milk chocolate.  The churros are deep fried sticks of dough which taste even better when sprinkled with powdered sugar and dipped in the chocolate.

IMG_3430The American girls had both been living in Madrid for over two years and were teaching English.  I was really curious about this, because I figured it would be next to impossible to find work in Spain as an American.  Apparently a lot of Spaniards are learning English to find jobs outside of Spain in order to escape the economic crisis.  The government even funds a program to bring English teachers from the UK and US into the country and provide them with a stipend.  I enjoyed hearing their stories of life in Madrid, and travels around Europe.  The whole evening was one of those memorable nights of randomness.  It was a perfect way to end my first week to Madrid.IMG_3431

Return trip

So after that last night, I left Madrid for the Andalusia region in southern Spain.  Around two weeks later, I came back to Madrid to catch my flight out.  The cheapest flight out of Spain to my next destination was Madrid.  So, I knew I was coming back.  I arrived on December 30 and was hoping to meet people to spend New Years Eve with.  Two hours after my bus arrived, I found an event posted on the couchsurfing forums for Madrid.  It was a language exchange and hangout.  I met a lot of locals there, more than I had on my first trip there.  There were various levels of English spoken at the event, and after a drink, I relaxed enough to try my Spanish.  I’m really bad, but the little bit I know does help bridge the gap if someone speaks almost no English.  Good crowd.  I wished I was staying for a couple weeks so I could see everyone at the next meetup.  I was starting to feel a connection with Madrid at that point.

So I was looking forward to New Years Eve here, and in particular, Spain’s version of Times Square… Puerta del Sol (Sun Gateway).  I met some other solo travelers from the hostel on New Years Eve, and we spent the day together.  There’s a Spanish tradition of eating grapes at midnight.  The story goes something like this… if you can eat all 12 of your grapes in the final minute of the old year, you’ll have good luck in the new year.  I didn’t hear any bells, but just waited till I saw everyone else cramming grapes in their mouths.  I think I made it time, but I had to eat the seeds.IMG_4023

So there I was on midnight in Puerta del Sol with all the other crazy people in the rain.  We ate grapes, we celebrated the new year, and then I fast tracked it back to the hostel.
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A couple days later, I finally made it to another one of Madrid’s famous locals… the Museo del Jambon (Ham Museum) which is really a restaurant.  The ham in Spain is kind of legendary.  It’s something the Spaniards do really well, and I almost always enjoyed it.  IMG_4086 The place was packed no matter when you went.  Another good cheap eats in Madrid… something like 3 euros for a beer and a sandwich.  It was definitely one of those food experiences on my trip that made me glad to suspend my vegetarianism for the time being.IMG_4084

I think the highlight of my return trip to Madrid, and perhaps one of my favorite moments of Spain was seeing another flamenco show.  This one cost just five more euros than the previous horrible one I did last time in Madrid.  However, it was a 100 times better.  It was really a professional show put on by experienced dancers.  I went with a few people from the hostel who added to the experience.  Everyone had traveled a lot and had good stories to swap.  The music, singing, dancing, and company made for a perfect night.  It was really something and gave me a good sense of good traditional Spanish flamenco.

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Epic night.  I love how evenings like that can emerge from hostel stays.

So Madrid rocked for me.  It really felt like a place I could live.  There were tons of things to see and do.  A beautiful city with cool buildings and nice parks to explore.  I met so many good people who I had fun exploring the city with and hearing travel stories from.  I honestly could see myself living there.  That said, it’s obviously not all roses in Madrid.  Spain is in the middle of a horrible economic crisis.  The youth unemployment rate is hovering around 50 percent, and it weighs heavy on everyone.  I still saw a lot of people out and about walking around, going into shops and cafes, and getting ready for Christmas.  I’ll have to go back in Spring or Fall to get another feel for things.  I hope I make it, though.  I know several people there now to catch up with.IMG_4083