Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Glory of Granada and Some Hiccups along the Way

Friday, February 18 and Saturday, February 19

An excursion to Granada commanded more attention and stress than I had expected.  Problems with my credit card complicated and prolonged the planning phase.  And on top of that, I had little time to deal with the series of hiccups.  This was my first week at my internship and two nights of intercambio (English-Spanish speaker conversations at bars) activities were also planned. 

I resolved my credit card problems with the help of CIEE business program coordinators Jaime and Virginia.  I walked into their office, slightly harrowed from the stress, and Virginia could immediately sense I had a problem.  She offered what I was seeking: access to a phone that would allow me to call the VISA number.  (Although now I know my cell phone may work after all - I did not know that dialing 001 was required).

My trip to Granada would be a series of firsts for me: my first experience on RENFE, Spain's state-of-the-art train network, and my first night in a hotel.  It was not a hostEL with bunk-beds, but a hostAL with a series of individual rooms that share a communal bathroom.  Both, good experiences.

I learned a lot from this trip about what makes the best travel experience for me.  I had thought that Rick Steves's philosophy of entering touring Europe "through the back door" was the best philosophy.  Now, I have a different view.  While I totally embrace Rick Steves's strategy of being travel-savvy and aware of the tourist traps, I found it difficult to be a "temporary local" in Granada.  I realized that I can be a "temporary local" in Sevilla during the week, and then embrace being a savvy tourist on the weekend.  I could not be both in Granada - not with my map, guidebook, camera, and backpack.  Moving forward I would rather embrace being a full-fledged tourist, see the sights I want to see, and come home to Sevilla to absorb the "culture."  I am happy I discovered this now, before I wasted any time trying to be a backpack-strapped "local" in travels outside of Spain.

Two days in Granada was plenty.  I could have completed the sites in one day, but having two days was ultimately the best.  I feel like I really "completed" Granada.  On Day 1, I went to the bustling city market, enormous Catedral, jaw-dropping Alhambra, and a sunset view on the opposite hill.  On Day 2, I saw the tombs of the king and queen that united Spain, hiked throughout the Moorish/Gypsy quarters, had lunch at a family-owned bar, and continued hiking around the outskirts of the Alhambra and the Realejo quarter.

Catedral - This sprawling Cathedral at the center of Granada is the second largest in Spain after Sevilla's.  It is one of two Renaissance-style churches in Spain (the other is in Córdoba).   It was built to celebrate the triumph of conquering Granada, the last Moorish fortress.  Spain would then be a united Catholic kingdom under Ferdinand and Isabella.   I started my tour in the Priest Wardrobe Room.  With its grandfather clock, wooden cabinets, and mirrors, it reminded me of C.S. Lewis.  I then proceeded to the main altar.  I have been to many churches here, but this one knocked me out again.  My favorite part was an altar depicting St. James, the Moor-Slayer, who is trampling a Moor on horseback--pretty grusesome for a church.

Capilla Real - I did not do this until the next day, but I put it here for two reasons: it is logically related and right next to the Catedral; and I could not take any pictures (no mention in web album).  The Capilla Real was a smaller cathedral commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella for their burial.  After all, conquering Granada had been their greatest achievement.  Inside are the tombs of two royal couples: Ferdinand and Isabella; and Philip the Fair and Juana the Mad.  I enjoyed learning about the second couple.  Juana used to kiss the embalmed body of her husband good night when he died.  Their son, Charles would become not only the king of Spain, but ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.  He was the won that built a separate Christian Palace next to the Moorish one at the Alhambra.

Alhambra - This was the highlight of the trip by far.  I am happy to say I picked the perfect time to tour the hill because of the light of that afternoon.  It was also not a mobscene like it usually is.  The Alhambra has several parts, in the order that I visited: (1) Generalife (pronounced "hen-eh-raw-LEEF-ay") gardens, (2) Charles V's Palace, (3) Alcazaba Moorish Fortress, and the main event, (4) Palacios Nazaries (Moorish Palace).  It took me four hours to tour all of the sites.

(1) Generalife Gardens - This was the Moorish sultan's summer palace and vegetable garden.  Like the rest of the Alhambra, water flows throughout the site.  Generalife is situated one side of the U-shaped hill of the Alhambra. It provided great views of the main site (where the Charles V Palace, Alcazaba, and Palacios Nazaries are).  This garden reminded me of a Muslim-twist to Alice in Wonderland.

(2) Charles V's Palace - Back on the main campus, I entered the enormous Christian palace that was installed by Spain's King and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  On the outside it is square; on the inside it seems like a bullring.  It was never finished because Charles's son, Philip II wanted his own palace at El Escorial (the Spanish Versailles).

(3) Alcazaba - This is what is left from the edge of the Alhambra fortress.  It provides the best views of Granada below.

(4) Palacios Nazeries - This is the reason people flock to the Alhambra.  You are assigned a time to enter; I choose the late afternoon so I would have the place to myself.  All the tourists for the 11:00 slot had left by then.  The light was just right.  I was blown away by the architecture.  Aside from repeated motifs, no two rooms of the palace were the same.  The four repeated methods are (1) Carved Wood (doors and ceilings), (2) Molded Plaster (walls and columns, etched with patterns and letters), (3) Tiles (bottom-half of walls, geometric patterns), and (4) Stucco Stalactites (icicle-like ceilings and arches).  The most picturesque parts were the Patio of Myrtles (with reflecting pool) and the Patio of Lions (with endless number of columns).  My favorite room was the Hall of Abencerrajes.  Aside from the incredible stucco stalactites ceiling, the room has a great story.  It was the scene of a murder of an entire family to influence the sultan succession.  Thirty six heads filled the pool in the center of the room, which is still stained with blood.

Mirador of San Nicholas - After finishing the Alhambra, the sun was about to set.  It was the perfect time to hop on the bus and take it to the opposite hill in Granada to see the sun set on the Alhambra.  At the Mirador, many Spaniards gathered to admire the phenomenal view (which includes the SNOWY Sierra Nevada).  I proceeded to check out the tapas scene in Granada.  Unlike other places in Spain, Granada's bars offer tapas free with an order of "cerveza" (beer, pronounced "ther-VAY-tha").  I found the bar with most young people and met up with other CIEE students staying in Granada to take advantage of the nightlife.

Day 2 - I went to the Capilla Real in the morning and proceeded to hike through the various neighborhoods of Granada for the rest of the day (stopping for a great lunch, too).  My three hikes were through (1) the Moorish Quarter, (2) Alhambra Hill (outside the fortress), and (3) the Realejo.

Moorish Quarter (Albayzín) - This is on the slope of the hill opposite the Alhambra hill.  All the streets are extremely narrow and steep.  The influence here is Muslim.  The shops sell Muslim-influenced goods and the restaurants offer more than just white bread and jamón.  Instead, hookah bars and "teterías" (tea bars) are prevalent.  Nonetheless I choose a family-owned Spanish restaurant for lunch, where I feasted on Migas (sauteed breadcrumbs), Paella, and Flan for one price (9 euros).  Add to that a chance to hang out with the family and the patrons at the bar, and I felt as much at home as I do with Montse.  

Alhambra Trails and Realejo - I proceeded for another multi-hour hike on the Alhambra hill, enjoying more views. Realejo is was built as the new Catholic neighborhood after Granada was reconquered.  I was exhausted by the end and ready to catch the train at night.  At the train station, I heard Midwest USA English being spoken and gravitated towards the Chicago mom and dad visiting their Barcelona program daughter.  The sibling, back at home, is going to IU next semester.  Small world, I suppose.

For pictures of this day, check "Granada 2-18" at

Saturday, February 12, 2011

CIEE Goes Beachside in Cádiz

Saturday, February 12

After a bit of sleep, I got an early start on Saturday morning with CIEE's group adventure to Spain's main Atlantic Ocean port city, Cádiz (pronounced, "CAH-deeth").  After a bus ride of one and a half hours, we arrived beach-side on a beautiful and clear day.  My sunglasses saved me on this trip, in addition to a dab of Alisa's (travel partner in Jerez) sunscreen.  (I have been looking for sunscreen here to buy; I have only found fancy and expensive varieties.)

We started our tour of the city by adopting Spanish-speaking guides and roaming via bus.  We stopped at the beach for public bathrooms and photo ops.  Then, we began our tour on foot.

Plaza de España:  Our first site was a monument to Spain's first Constitution in 1812, which formed the first republic (one of many attempts).  It was drafted here in Cádiz, a city known for commerce and liberal thought.  Fittingly, I witnessed my first European protest in the Old Town.  Government transportation workers were challenging Spain's public sector budget cuts.  I also was interested to hear about the lucrative perception of Cádiz.  It welcomed New World riches, and Napoleon made it the capital of Spain when he installed his brother Joseph to the throne. 

Plaza de Flores:  Our next stop of interest was the center of Cádiz's version of Mardi Gras: "Carnival."  The celebration is at the beginning of March.  Spaniards from the across the country prepare costumes and parade the streets all night long.  The Plaza de Flores by day is a flower market.

Mercado Central:  This was the highlight of the day: the best "farmer's market" I have seen in Spain so far.  It was bustling, and the vendors had plenty to offer right off the boat.  Fish of all varieties were on display and ready for chopping.  I enjoyed seeing Merluza (hake), the fish that Montse has prepared for me.  The finale was seeing the chopping of a whole swordfish (pez espada).

Catedral de Cádiz:  Like all towns in Spain, the heart of the city is the Catedral.  We culminated our walking tour with a climb to the top of the catedral to admire the view of Cádiz from above.  We enjoyed bocadillos outside the Catedral and recovered from the steep spiral ramp of the viewing tower.

Gardens:  We took advantage of the beautiful weather by snapping numerous photos in the gardens bordering the Atlantic Ocean.  The first was the Alameda de Apodaca.  Then we moved to the more exotic Parque Genovés, which seeks to mimic the gardens of North Africa.  Cádiz has the climate to maintain the plant life.

I enjoyed the camaraderie of the trip.  I feel closer to fellow CIEE students.  The downside was the English that was spoken all day.  I can tell I am making progress though.  For photos of this day, check "Cádiz 2-12" at

Friday, February 11, 2011

Day Trip to Sherry Country

Friday, February 11

After starting my regular course schedule this week, I was ready to take advantage of an open Friday.  Although I am no drinker, I set out to try the wine for which Southern Spain is known: sherry ("jerez" in Spanish, pronounced "HAIR-RETH").  Fittingly, the town full of sherry wineries is Jerez.  By going to the "pueblo blanco" (white town), I could also get a connecting bus to Rick Steves's favorite Andalucían village, Arcos de la Frontera.

Wanting to ensure access to Rick Steves's recommended "bodega" (winery) in Jerez, I decided to be brave and make a reservation (in Spanish) via my cell phone.  I was told that I could not tour the bodega solo.  Therefore, my next challenge was finding a travel buddy.  It turned out to be easier than I expected.  Alisa from Alabama had been in my Intensive Spanish class.  Her primary goal here is to learn Spanish.  Since I have the same desire to practice Spanish, I knew I would be shielded from a day of English.  When I pitched the plan to Alisa, she was on board (why not, no planning necessary).

Our first stop was Jerez, one and a half hour bus ride from Sevilla.  We hit the ground running by passing through the old town on the way to "Sandeman" bodega.  Once we arrived, we took a private tour (in Spanish) of the bodega.  Our guide was phenomenal, able to adapt to our level of comprehension.  We walked through the open-air barns of "botas" (barrels) of aging sherry as our guide explained the process.  The tour culminated in a taste test of Sandeman's three most famous sherries, each aged at least five years: (1) Palomino Fino (Dry Sherry), (2) Amontillado (Medium (semi-sweet, semi-dry)), and (3) Armada (Cream Sherry).  Each pairs best with different types of food: Fino with fish, Amontillado with cheese, and Armada with dessert.  My favorite was the Amontillado, but as a rank amateur in wine, I have no authority.  Considering the private tour and tasting together was roughly $7.00, it was well worth the experience.

We made our way back to the bus station for our second activity: a side trip to Arcos de la Frontera, thirty minutes away by bus.  Arcos, unlike in the planes of Jerez and Sevilla, is situated atop a cliff.  Alisa and I experienced the Rick Steves Arcos walking tour together.  We were most interested by the city's effort to secure the buildings' foundations following the earthquake of 1699.  Throughout the old town you see arches connecting buildings.  In the case of the Church of Santa María, separate external flying buttresses tethered it down.  Thanks to the foresight, the buildings survived the earthquake of 1755, which destroyed Lisbon.

Alisa and I caught a connecting bus back to Jerez, where we did some extra sightseeing before heading back to Sevilla.  We found a spectacular church (San Miguel) at the last minute, making the trip back to the bus station a little stressful.  But, it was worth it, and we made it.  I enjoyed practicing Spanish the whole day, and was happy everything fell into place.  (To make everyone jealous, it was 68 degrees F today).

For pictures of this day, click "Jerez, Arcos 2-11" at

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Making the Most of Lazy Sundays in Spain

Sunday, February 13

After my hassle-free excursion to Ronda, I was ready to travel elsewhere outside of Sevilla.  But, two realities hit me: first, many historic sites and restaurants are closed on Sunday; and second, my legs were hurting after the steep climbs of Ronda.  Therefore, I decided to stay in Sevilla, and finish the list of Rick Steves's recommended sites.

The weather was beautiful again, a perfect day for my first stop: the Torre de Oro (Tower of Gold).  The twelve-sided Moorish "lighthouse"-type fortification greeted entrants from the Guadalquivir River (which connects to the Atlantic Ocean).  Inside was a naval museum with historic pictures and murals of Sevilla.  The highlight was climbing narrow stairs to enjoy the view of city.  The best shots are of the river and toward the Centro, where the Catedral towers above all.

Archivo de Indias - My second stop was next the Catedral: the Lonja Palace (which was designed my the same architect as "El Escorial," Spain's version of Versailles).  The "Archive" holds all original documents pertaining to the conquest of the New World.  The exhibition inside explained Sevilla's prominence during Spain's golden age.  I happened to arrive just in time for a guided tour.  To the enthusiastic Spaniard that led us around (and spoke Spanish, my listening practice for the day), a dry exhibit of documents was a thrill ride.  Always nice to see someone unabashedly passionate about something.

Museo Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija - This Moorish palace blew me away.  The owner still lives upstairs, but collects income from visitors exploring the first floor.  Every room was filled to the brim with ornate patterns, mosaics, art, fantastic design, and artifacts (Phoencian, Greek, Roman, and Moorish in origin).  One room reminded me of Hadley pottery (the plates and bowls that occupy our cabinet at home).  Hadley had to have been inspired by Moorish tile work.  The courtyard was the most spectacular with its Moorish arches and Roman/Greek mosaic on the floor. 

Iglesia de Salvador - This Baroque Church is another variation on a common theme in Sevilla:  The first structure built here was Roman.  Then the Moors reformed it.  Finally, the Christians constructed a new church on top (although, in this case, only the patio of oranges remains of the Moorish site).  The altars in this church matched the ones I have encountered.  The church had especially high ceilings and an incredible dome.  Most unique was a room devoted to all things gold and silver.  I felt like a pirate discovering New World riches. 

Despite many establishments being closed on Sunday, I managed to hit some spectacular sites.  Happy to have spent a weekend sightseeing.  Now, my regular session of classes begins.  And, I have my food photography internship to look forward to next week.  See pictures of this day at: "Torre de Oro, Palacio Lebrija, Church Salvador"

Monday, February 7, 2011

First Excursion to Ronda

Saturday, February 5

Wanting to take advantage of a beautiful weekend without classwork, I decided to take my first practice round at traveling outside of Sevilla.  After hearing the rave reviews of Ronda, a picturesque cliff side town in Southern Spain, I got up Saturday morning to catch a bus at the Prado de San Sebastián.  Rick Steves was right; no English was spoken here.  But, I managed to coordinate a "Ida y Vuelta" (round-trip) day excursion to Ronda.  The bus ride was worth every euro in and of itself.  For the first time, I saw the "country" of Spain.  As we headed two hours east towards Ronda, the plains of Sevilla valley became steep slopes.  Olive trees and white towns dotted the landscape.

When we arrived, I hit the ground running.  Montse had packed a "picnic" for me since I would not be home for lunch.  I munched on my "bocadillo de jamón york, tomate, y queso" as I headed toward the Moorish old town.  Ronda had been a fortress city, along with Granada, for the Moors.  The two sites were the last to be reconquered by the Christians. 

Palacio de Mondragón - This Moorish palace was my first stop.  The interior had the typical Moorish arches.  The most rewarding part, of course, was the view.  The garden overlooked the Spanish countryside.  Not far was a public garden (Plaza de María Auxiliadora) which featured two rare "pinsapos" trees and another incredible view.

Santa María la Mayor Collegiate Church - This was my next stop.  It offers a nook (intricate arch) where Moors used to pray.  The Christians then built a church on top of the Moorish bell tower, much like Sevilla's  Catedral and the Moorish Giralda tower.  Inside I found more ornate Catholic altars.  What was most unique was a fresco of St. Christopher (Patron Saint of Ronda) with baby Jesus on his shoulders.

Arab Baths - I walked down and down and down into the valley to see the Arab Baths.  The oasis was located at the entrance of the fortress town to cleanse outsiders and re-cleanse town residents.  Inside it was a few degrees cooler.  The site also provided an excellent view of the Puente Viejo (Old Bridge), which the Moors used.

I headed back up to the New town via the Old Bridge and got a snack at a tapas bar before continuing.  It was peak hour, and I made sure to pick the bar with locals.  At Tragatapas, I enjoyed Morcilla (blood sausage) and "Esparrago con queso manchego y mermelada"  (Asparagus with Manchego cheese and Organe Mermelade). 

I took several pictures of the New Bridge, which connects the highest points in town.  I would return later for sunset with another round of photos.  This place is a photographer's (and wannabe photographer's) dream. 

Plaza de Toros - The pride of Ronda is its bullring--the best in Spain.  Entrants can walk around the pit and into the museum within the ring.  I learned about Spain's greatest spectacle with an audio-guide.  When I was in the ring, I was accompanied by a large group of Japanese tourists and 4 Spanish students.  Sensing the Spaniards wanted a picture, but did not want to ask the Japanese group, I spoke up and offered "¿Queréis una foto?"  They were pleased.

Again, there were more pictures at sunset.  Then I got on the bus and headed back to Sevilla.  When I was asked by my colleagues on Monday where I went this weekend, I heard two phrases back: "Ronda, where is that?" and "Wow, good for you; I am too afraid to travel alone."

For pictures, see

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Instensive Session Ends, Sightseeing Continues

Friday, February 4, 2011

After two weeks of my intensive Spanish course, I took my final exam on Friday.  I suppose the most rewarding part of the experience was the most awkward.  Our professor assigned three essays, each based upon interviews we had to conduct with random Spaniards "en la calle" (on the street).  My first attempt, after some hesitance, was a complete failure.  I could not understand a word a Sevillano business student was saying.  I nodded my head and pretended to record notes.  Thankfully, my future interviews were smoother.  Talking to students was less intimating than what was required of the final assignment: adults.  Culminating in a conversation with a rambling "jubilado" (retired man) at the train station, I am proud I stuck my neck out to talk to people.

I was eager to continue sightseeing after a week of papers, assignments, and studying.  We were set for a sunny weekend in Andalucía.  I started off in the Plaza de España, a seven-minute walk from my apartment.  It was the site of the 1929 international fair held in Sevilla.  It showcases tiled murals from each of Spain's provinces.  Not far away is the central building of the University of Sevilla.  The site had been a Tabacco Factory in the 18th century. 

Basílica de la Macarena:  This Church, built in 1947, is behind the most striking processions of Holy Week.  The church houses floats of Jesus and Mary, which sit behind the altar when not in a parade. I am always overwhelmed by the amount of ornamentation in Catholic Churches.  Getting to this church required my first ride on the bus in Sevilla.  Without thinking I took the bus that was "the long way."  But, since I was the only one on the bus, the driver asked me where I was going and shortened the root straight to the Macarena.

Museo de Bellas Artes:  This is Sevilla's primer fine art museum.  A palace (with court yards) houses the galleries, which showcase the two lesser known Spanish artists: Bartolomé Murillo and Francisco de Zurbarán.  Murillo receives the superior treatment with a whole chapel-like room (see below).  Zurbarán paintings are upstairs in narrow rooms (albeit with ornate ceilings).  Murillo is the renaissance religious painter,  Zurbarán the realist (more grim, austere) religious painter.  Although I arrived at 6 pm, I apparently started a trend.  The museum suddenly was flooded with people.  Glad I was not alone, though.

The other highlight of the day was Montse's lunch:  She treated me to my first experience with "mejillones" (mussels).  They were cooked to perfection in a cream sauce.  Perfect for soaking my slices of baguette that accompany every meal.  For latest food pictures, see "Montse's Home-Cooked Meals."

For pictures of this sightseeing day see "Plaza de Espana, Macarena, Bellas Artes:"

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

New Hobby, Now Spanish Internship

February 1, 2011

Since I received my new camera, I have been snapping photos of food.  It began when I traveled to New York prior to the Spain send-off.  I chronicled the food adventures, from breakfast at Sanfords to Gourmet Pizza and Apple Pie night at Laura's apartment with Michele. 

When I arrived in Spain, I was eager to explore the Spanish food world through my personal guide: my host mother, Montse.  Each day, she treats me to two or more eccentric meals -- all dishes she learned from her mother in Granada.  To discover what Spaniards eat at home has been more exciting than browsing the tapas selection at the bars.  So far I have been treated to Squid and Shrimp Paella and Spinach Tortilla, among many others.  I cannot help but take a picture of the creations and document the Spanish diet.  See my gallery for Montse's Home-Cooked Meals:

Little did I expect my new food photography interest to become the subject of my business internship here in Sevilla.  As part of my curriculum here, I must work at a local business for a total of 100 hours for the semester.  Given the time commitment, I hoped that it would be valuable -- in terms of language practice and professional experience. 

Six days after arriving, all internship-seeking students gathered at a hotel for a Interview Forum (Foro de Entrevistas).  Students were free to approach participating companies and discuss their interest (in Spanish).  Sevillano law firms, spas, language tutors, consulting firms, and others were available.  But, upon hearing that one company specialized in Spanish Gastronomy Photography, my decision was made.  I went straight to the firm's table and demonstrated my knowledge of Spanish cuisine.  Given that the internship will involve the firm's blog as well, it helped that I had started writing this one!  The next day, I heard the great news:  I got the internship. 

The firm is called Dual Servicios Corporativos.  The man in charge is Manolo Manosalbas, a gastronomy photographer in Sevilla.  His latest book of photos and recipes of tapas, "Macuro Tapas," is generating international recognition.  Whatever the internship involves, I will be happy to talk Spanish food with true insiders.  Check out Gastroflash, the blog I will be working on for my internship: