Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Basque Country: Day 2 in San Sebastián

Saturday, March 26

The story picks up the night of Friday, March 25 when Lara and I caught a bus from Bilbao to San Sebastián.  We made it just in time at our hostel, which was closing its reception at 10:00 pm.  I cannot imagine what we would have done if we had decided to take the later bus.  The Spaniard at the reception was wonderful though, mapping out for us our dinner options.  I had asked Manolo's wife, Blanca, at my internship about her dining recommendations.  She is from San Sebastián after all.  Looking back, we are indebted to her advice.

Our first stop was the night's biggest hit.  It was a jam-packed bar called "La Cuchara de San Telmo."  I was tempted to find a spot more calm, but thanks to Lara (used to fighting crowds in Madrid) we got our order in.  Little did we know how awe-struck we would be with every bite.  I have never tasted food this complex in flavor.  We ordered three tapas, thereby breaking the "pintxos" dogma of Basque Country.  Lara was in charge of ordering, and wow did she get it right.  We had the best goat cheese I have ever tasted, the most succulent and complex piece of veal, and the bar's specialty of Foie.  Every bite almost brought us to tears.  I will never forget Lara's outpouring of happiness.  Afterward, we spent some time trying to find a match, but nothing came close.  Besides, it was getting late and we had had a long day.

Queso de Cabra (Goat Cheese)

The next morning we spent the day admiring the vistas of San Sebastián and of course, eating.  Nearly the whole trip Lara and I were speaking Spanish.  We both feel comfortable in our Spanish voice, and expressing ourselves comes naturally.  After a while, it just flows out; we are surrounded by it all the time. First we explored the best Basque market and both purchased the Basque cheese "idiazábal" (raw sheep's milk cheese).

The layout of San Sebastián is unique; it has a "U" shape (see above).  On the right side of the "U" is Monte Urgell.  On the left is Monte Igueldo.  On the bottom of the "U" is La Concha Beach.  And between the two mountains is Santa Clara Island. Our first stop was Monte Urgell.  The mountain is at the edge of the Old Town.  After wrapping around the promenade we climbed up to admire the view.  Atop Monte Urgell is a statue of Jesus, making San Sebastián feel like Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. 

We descended to enjoy the city center, the Catedral, and lunch.  We went to one of Blanca's favorites: La Espiga.  Another incredible experience.  Lara ordered "Lomo de Atún Rojo" (Red Tuna Loin) and I order the house specialty: "Morros" (Cow Lips).  Both were top quality.  The Tuna had such a deep flavor that every bite blew me away.  The cow lips were tender and delicious (cows are more prevalent in the North). 

 "Lomo de Atún Rojo" (Red Tuna Loin)

The sun was peaking through by the time we exited the restaurant.  We continued along the La Concha beach and absorbed the amazing landscape.  In the middle of the beach is the palace of Maria Cristina (see below), an Austrian who married the Spanish King in 1879.  She choose to spend her summers here, right in the middle of the beach.  She treated her skin with the bay's "magical water." 

Before long we were atop the opposite cliff, Monte Igueldo.  We took the "Funicular" this time because of its steepness.  We were on top of the world looking over the bay.  Lara sipped coffee as we took a break.  Then, the sun came out just for us; and we snapped even more photos. 

We said goodbye the Basque Country by walking back along the beach.  We grabbed a picnic dinner at an artisan bread place and jumped on a bus to Zaragoza for an early plane ride home. 

Sunday would be a more harrowing day.  I must have picked up a bug along the way; no wonder with the little sleep I was running on.  The stomach flu took over (maybe food poisoning).  Typical, right?  (I was eating strange food).  Plenty of bathroom trips in the airport and airplane followed.  I returned home completely exhausted.  I spent the rest of the day in bed between more trips to the bathroom.

Despite the trauma, it in no way interfered with sightseeing, for which I am so grateful.  Thank you to Lara for a tour of Basque Country done right!  Plenty of culture and gastronomy.  This was something more than tourism. 

For pictures of this day, see "País Vasco Day 2 - San Sebastián (3-26)" at https://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39

Welcome to Basque Country: Day 1 Spent in Bilbao

Weekend of Friday, March 25 to Sunday, March 27

My friend Lara Welch and I woke up early Friday morning to catch a cheap RyanAir flight to Zaragoza.  From there we would take a bus to the northern most part of Spain: Basque Country (País Vasco).  I had met Lara in one of my business classes; I was drawn to her preference for speaking Spanish.  As I found out, she had studied in Madrid last semester and developed her Spanish accent and voice there.  She continues her year of overseas study in Sevilla this semester.  Although she loves Sevilla, she longs for Madrid.  She developed many great friendships there and finds Sevilla harder to break into socially.  Upon hearing of her similar fascination with Basque country, I set out to plan a trip with her.  This weekend we realized our initial wish.  Overall the experience was seamless; unlike any adventure we had ever done.  We left feeling that we had discovered a best-kept-secret that many students will never even consider. 

My fascination with Basque country started with its position in the food world.  The region is known as Spain's culinary capital; gourmets from across Europe and the world come here just to eat.  Two characteristics are prevalent:  (1) Rather than "tapas" (small dishes), the Basque people serve "Pintxos," bite-sized-pieces-of-art on a slice of baguette and held together by a toothpick.  You are free to graze the bar's selection; the bill is tabulated by the number of toothpicks you have in your hand at the end.  And (2) Basque males form private eating clubs whereby they come together, cook a meal, and feast.  Lara and I were looking forward to sample the region's fair, for here tourism occurs in restaurants. 

What I discovered about the Basque culinary world led me to the history of the region as a whole.  Its isolation among the mountains helped preserve a culture and language unlike any other in Europe.  The language, "Euskera," has no connection to French or Spanish, but Basque country spans both countries.  Tensions have existed for centuries about the region's independence.  Today the French Basques are more loyal to France than the Spanish Basques are loyal to Spain.  Many think of ETA when Basque Country is mentioned; this is a terrorist group that originated here for sake of independence.  Although Basques still long for independence, they condemn the terrorist network.  The symbol most pertinent to its modern history is Guernica, the region's capital.  During the Spanish Civil in 1937, Franco asked Hitler to test his airforce saturation bombing over the rebellious city.  To make things worse, Franco chose the day in which everyone crowded the streets for market day.  The Germans arrived and bombed the city at the hour most innocent civilians would be killed.  The incident inspired Picasso's masterpiece Guernica, now hanging in Madrid. 

Set with a dramatic and heavy backdrop, Lara and I hopped on a luxurious bus to Bilbao.  It was unique for many reasons.  We had a hostess on board that provided drinks, snacks, and a sandwich.  Seats were conformable, and there was room to spread out.  Outside our window we enjoyed a panoramic view of Northern Spain's countryside.  It seemed we were in another world altogether.   The landscape is nothing like Southern Spain.  We saw lush green fields, steep mountains, and forests.  Southern Spain seemed like a desert in comparison. 

We arrived in Bilbao stunned by its unique architectural style and its sleepy aura.  It seemed a bit depressed; the sun had not peaked through the clouds yet, and the buildings seemed like ruins from an industrial past.  Although we had heard that Basque country contained some of the most wealth and employment opportunity in Spain, we got no indication from the environment.  Here we learned that people do not pass time in the street as they do in Southern Spain.  Rather, the warmth is felt inside the bars, inside the homes.  The weather is not as ideal here, and that explains the lush green we were seeing.

We made our way via Tram to the Old Town of Bilbao.  Our first encounter with the Basque people was a pleasant one.  When we asked of the location of the Tram, the two Basques were in competition with each other to be the most helpful.  We ended up getting an orientation on all transportation methods in the city, not just the Tram.  Add to that, they spoke perfect Castellano Spanish; they pronounced every letter--something rare in Southern Spain.

We arrived in the Old Town and enjoyed a walk through the Basque market and around the Catedral.  We were really here to observe the "Pintxos" scene before lunch.  At one bar we tried four varieties.  Our favorite was a little toast of cod, kiwi, and jelly.  Although they were wonderful, we decided that "pintxos" are better admired as pieces of art.  They left us ready to eat more at lunch.  Next door, Lara and I enjoyed two Basque specialties: "Chipirones en su tinta" (Squid cooked in its own ink) and "Bacalao al Pil-Pil" (Cod in a special and complicated sauce).  Both delicious, but good thing I had my tooth brush with me to remove the black ink from my teeth. 

Our Pintxos (PIN-chos) Selection

We hopped on the Tram again to enjoy the Bilbao river front.  The sun was coming out and the river was beautiful as we approached our ultimate destination: Guggenheim Bilbao.  The museum is stunning and extremely out of place.  Finished in 1997 by architect Frank Gehry, the building uses titanium and limestone to resemble a fish and the movement of the river.  At one point Lara and I had to sit down on a bench from across the river to digest what we were seeing.  The museum and nearby skyscraper indicate a slow rebirth of the industrial Bilbao.  The interior is equally extraordinary with an atrium where all forms meet and a curved glass elevator shoots you up to various collections.  The art inside was nothing special, but we loved the installations outside.  The best was a giant dog statue made of 60,000 flowers.  We enjoyed learning more about Frank Gehry, a modern master, and from our perspective today's most innovative architect. 

As the sun set over Bilbao, we went back to the bus station to catch a bus to San Sebastián.  Within an hour we were in Basque country's greatest gem, ready to enjoy the nightlife.

To see pictures of this day in Bilbao, see "País Vasco Day 1 - Bilbo (3-25)" at https://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sevilla, Senderismo, and Spaniards

Adventures from Friday, March 18 to Monday, March 21

I had not planned any trip for this weekend because I did not think I would be ready to travel right after midterm exams.  Others also wanted to avoid the anxieties of travel preparation the week of exams.  Thus, I stayed in Sevilla Friday and Saturday.  On Sunday, I joined CIEE for an organized hike ("Senderimso") of the Spanish countryside (outside Huelva).  Full of camaraderie, it would be a memorable weekend.

On Friday, I called Salima and Clara to organize a jaunt through Triana, the neighborhood across the river from Sevilla's Centro.  As I described in my last post, Triana is where I work for Manolo; those from Triana are a tight-knit group.  As we discovered, Triana is also home to Sevilla's best farmers market.  Housed in the ruins of "Castilo de San Jorge," the market is comparable to others I have visited.  What I enjoyed was watching how and what Spanish people purchase from the vendors.  We continued by looping through Triana, culminating the visit at the "Portada de Feria."  Here, the campus of tents are already being built for Sevilla's greatest party: Feria de Abril (taking place in May this year).

With Saturday plans still uncertain, I planned a trip to Malaga just in case nothing else sprang up.  I would not end up going to Malaga (thereby saving quite a bit of money) because of an invitation from Clara to join her and her Spanish "boyfriend," Adrián, for a night out in Sevilla.  Adrián brought along Jesus, Raquel, and others for a night of Spanish/English conversation.  We began as we often do at Coffee Corner ("La Esquina"), a bar across from the University with 1 euro "cerveza" (beer) and "tinto de verano" (mix of fruit juice and red wine).  Adrián and Jesus have scholarship money to come to the US this year.  Not knowing where or how to travel in the US, Clara and I drew a map to demonstrate the difference in scale.  The Spaniards had no idea; to them a three hour train ride is "far," while to Americans it is nothing.  We stayed out until 2:00 am.  Having so much fun, I decided that getting up for Malaga would be impossible.

On Saturday, I leisurely got out of bed and reunited with Clara and Salima again for more Sevilla explorations.  The highlights of the morning tour included Maria Luisa park and a stop for churros, the quintessential Spanish breakfast.  They resemble a less-sweet funnel cake, and are enjoyed most often dipped in hot chocolate.  We would continue eating our way through Sevilla that night for a tapas tour.  We ordered one tapa at three separate restaurants.  My first was a cold tapa salad of Pulpo Aliñado (Marinated Octopus).  My second was "Rabo de Toro" (Bull's Tale Soup), my first time trying this Sevilla classic.  Finally, I also tried Cazón en Adobo (Frito) (Fried Marinated Squid).  

My adventure on Sunday, however, would be the best part.  I got on a CIEE bus headed for a "Senderismo" (hike) through the pueblos (small towns) of the Sierra de Huelva.  We started in Castle-guarded town of Santa Olalla de Cala and finished in Cala.  It was nine mile hike through one of Spain's best agricultural areas.  Here plots of land are divided for two purposes: (1) Olive trees, which sheep ("ovejas") often guard, and (2) "Dehesas," or plots of land with "Encinas," trees that shed acorns.  Here the pigs ("cerdos") run free and eat the acorns.  These are the pigs that make for the best jamón in the country, here distinguished by the label:
"jamón ibérico de bellota."  This means a black Iberian pig has grazed the acorns of Huelva or Extremadura (farther north).  After years of curing, each "pata negra" (leg of black pig) hangs in bars and markets waiting to be sliced.  One scent unique to Spain that I will not forget is the smell of cured ham.  Thanks to the hike, I have now witnessed the process full circle: from the countryside to the market.  

As I discovered, hiking was a perfect medium to practice Spanish.  With nothing else to focus on besides the path ahead, I was free to have great conversations with fellow Spanish-speaking Americans and a few Spaniards that had come along as well.  Juan Palma, whom I had met in Córdoba, was my companion throughout the day.  Like Valeriano, Juan is passionate about learning English and understands what struggles Americans have with learning Spanish.  Whenever Juan said something in English that I did not know how to say in Spanish, I would ask him to translate back.  This has been a wonderful way to learn the language: from those "thinking" in reverse.  We are a resource for each other because we both intuitively know what is correct in our own language.  Juan is also unique because he is gymnast and has traveled more than other Spaniards.  I would later meet up with Juan on Wednesday at the business school to help him with an English speaking exam he was preparing for. 

More friendships with Spaniards developed the next day on Monday.  My Corporate Finance class hosted an exchange event, whereby we Americans shadowed a Spanish business class.  Afterward, we all went to the bar across the street and were treated to complementary beers.  This was the first time in which I was among a group of Spaniards at one time and could understand nearly everything they were saying to each other.  Likewise, I could speak quickly and comfortably enough to be part of the conversation.  I was thrilled.  I ended up being the last American to leave the bar, having connected with the group of Spaniards.  Best of all, they are all business students within my same building.  So far I have run into Maria and Alicia again, and they were the ones who approached me and wanted to talk to me.  Refreshing considering the otherwise tight-niche aura of Sevilla. 

A few hours after the bar experience I reunited with Nicole's intercambio, Moises, and his friend, Juan Carlos.  I had invited other Americans per Juan Carlos's request.  Together we discussed the strong cliques of Sevilla.  Juan Carlos explained that those from other towns like him (from Huelva) are more open.  Lara, who had studied in Madrid last semester agreed, saying that students in Madrid are much more open because of the international mix that exists.  The fun continued until 1:00 am in the morning (on a school night).  Juan Carlos had us over at his apartment in the Centro.  Moises and I walked back home at which time I was happy, but ready to crash. 

I will remember this weekend for the relationships that I developed, the Sevilla culture I absorbed, and the beautiful Spanish countryside that I admired (all at little cost to me).  To see pictures of this weekend, see Sevilla and Senderismo 3-19 at https://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fotografía Gastronómica

It is hard to believe I have already worked about 40 of my required 100 hours of my internship here in Sevilla.  I work every Tuesday and Thursday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm.  I zip down to Triana, three metro stops away.  I have enjoyed getting to know this neighborhood.  People from Triana are a tight group.  They have their own expressions; those from Triana (even more than the general trend in Sevilla) are born in Triana, grow up in Triana, go to school not far from Triana, work in Triana, and spend the rest of their life in Triana.  This is the biography in short of my boss, Manolo Manosalbas.  But, he has separated himself by traveling the world and operating his own business--two things that cannot be said of all people here.  I admire his self-made brand; he has combined his interests in food and photography, enjoying a wonderful life in the world of Spain's gastronomy. 

My first day I enjoyed breakfast with Manolo and his wife, Blanca.  Blanca is from the Basque Country in the north of Spain.  Although her culture is similarly close-knit, the gravitational pull of Triana moved her south.  Blanca oversees the other side of the graphic design business--the non-food clients.  Given the interest for gastronomy I expressed in my interview, Blanca planted me at the side of Manolo.  After breakfast Manolo proceeded to introduce me to his photography books.  He has designed many books for food organizations in Spain.  One of the most interesting is devoted to organic food, an idea still new in Spain.  It was clear that Manolo believes in and knows everything about his subject.  His latest book covering recipes of a Triana tapas bar, "Macuro Tapas" (see below), has given Manolo international attention.  The book was nominated among four international finalists in the "Best Local Cuisine" category of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  Here is an article (in Spanish) about the nomination: http://www.ilovetapas.com/2010/12/un-libro-de-tapas-representara-a-espana-en-el-gourmand-world-cookbook-awards-en-la-categoria-best-local-cuisine-book/

I have three main roles at the office that complement each other: (1) the resource for everything English,  (2) research for developing an English-speaking client base, and (3) creating an English blog for Manolo.  Regarding my first role, I have translated a whole website from Spanish to English for one of Manolo's clients: Alcuza Restaurant in Sevilla (http://www.alcuza.es/).  The assignment was rewarding for several reasons.  First I have had to work closely with a colleague, Manuel Campos, to complete the project.  Manuel is Manolo's right-hand design man.  In creating an English interface for the Alcuza, I have translated and Manuel has designed.  We have bonded through the project.  I feel like Manuel has taken me under his wing.  He loves to tell me about local culture and Sevilla's best kept secrets.  An avid soccer fan, Manuel loves to talk sports, which is valuable in a place where the subject is a national obsession.  Aside from that, translating menus is something I would do in my free time; here it is my internship. 

Regarding my second role, I have been doing marketing research into a possible new English-speaking client base for Manolo.  That means looking up food and travel magazines so Manolo can send his new English resume (translated by me) to potential new clients.  The projects have been more individual, but I still benefit from the self-guided challenge.  Additionally, there is quite a bit of speaking and listening practice throughout the day.  Manolo requires that Manuel and I be quick on our feet.  He has a vision for what he wants, so there has been some pressure on me to understand his directions and follow through.  But, there is little stress and each day usually passes quickly. 

My third role is designing a English blog for Manolo.  He already has a Spanish blog (see link: http://gastroflash.blogspot.com/), which I then translate and organize on the sister site.  The project has allowed me to follow Manolo's career and photo portfolio.  He has many client restaurants in Sevilla, all of which are fun to read about.  To see my progress, visit this link: http://phototapas.blogspot.com/.  I had little trouble with the entries until I hit my first recipe.  Learning all of the cooking verbs and kitchenware vocabulary was a challenge at first.  It was a sign of things to come though.  Manolo gave me a signed copy of his nominated book.  Since then I have been reading a recipe each night to practice pronunciation and develop my gastronomy vocabulary.  When I told Montse of my routine, she joked that it was as if I was a Catholic with my book of prayers.  My religion in this case:  food.  "Muy sano" (very healthy), Montse responded. 

The one thing I hope for in the future is the opportunity to accompany Manolo to a food photoshoot.  It would be wonderful to visit a local restaurant and see (and maybe try) its best dishes as photos are taken.  Manolo knows I want this and promises to tell me when one comes up on his schedule.

I have been more than content with my internship for the following reasons: (1) I practice Spanish with Manolo and Manuel, (2) I have self-guided marketing research projects, (3) I observe the management of a self-employed small business, (4) I practice a skill important to today's businesses: blogging (and how to increase blog traffic), (5) I get to learn more about Spain's culture and cuisine.

To see Manolo's website, visit: http://www.manosalbas.com/
I have also posted more of my own food photography from Montse's kitchen:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Day of Rain, Conversation, and Camaraderie in Córdoba

Saturday, March 12

All of Spain is suddenly being punished for its endless string of fantastic weather.  The sunny days have ended.  It has been raining all week here in Sevilla, and forecasts show that it will continue indefinitely.  I could not be more happy that I went to Barcelona last weekend to enjoy three days of great weather there.  Had I gone this weekend, I would have had my umbrella up the whole time. 

I had reserved this weekend for three things: (1) On Friday, an obligatory company visit to a coffee business outside of Sevilla, (2) on Saturday, a guided visit of Córdoba, and (3) on Sunday, my first day of rest in a long time (ideal given the rain).  I enjoyed the company visit on Friday, although it was quite short.  Typical that we visited a coffee business, something sustained my the endless number of cafes here.

On the bus to Córdoba on Saturday, I prepared myself for the day's sightseeing.  I quickly realized that beyond what was covered by our guided visit, Córdoba did not have much else to offer.  A day trip here is plenty; a few hours would suffice.  Thus, I had no real sightseeing priority for the free time we would have later in the day.  But, it ended up working out for the best.  I would meet two Spaniards who came along for the trip to try to pick up some English.  I will ultimately remember this day for the conversations I had with them.

When we arrived after two quick hours on a bus, we split up into small groups for a guided tour (in Spanish) of Europe's greatest mosque: the "Mezquita."  The site had originally been home to a Roman temple and Visigothic Christian church (as evidenced by a mosaic found beneath the mosque's floor).  What is so significant about the Mezquita is its place in Muslim history.  The heir to the centralized Baghdad caliph fled from a coup there.  He settled in North Africa and conquered Southern Iberia to declare a separate caliph.  The split that the declaration caused is the Islam-equivalent to the Catholic/Protestant split.  Córdoba became the capital of the new western Muslim world. The Mezquita was built as the central place of prayer.

We entered the Mezquita through the Patio de los Naranjos (Oranges) (see below).  The bell tower at the entrance served to call the Muslims to pray five times a day.  These two elements (Courtyard and Tower) are exactly like the Catedral in Sevilla.  The difference is that the mosque in Sevilla was destroyed to build the Catedral.  Here in Córdoba, the Christians who later conquered the Muslims installed a Cathedral in the middle of the vast mosque.

A forest candy-cane-like columns (see below) greeted us at the entrance of the mosque.  They seemed to extend infinitely.  Columns are topped with red-and-white double arches.  The design was adopted from the Romans' round arch and the Visigoths' horseshoe arch.  Together the columns support the low ceiling and vast room devoted to prayer.  A closer look revealed that each column was different.  The Muslims had actually found, not built, each column and installed them here according to their design.  Thus, each was a different height; some extended down deep into the floor, while others had to placed on a pedestal.  Likewise, the moldings and materials were different too.  A grand example of recycling, I suppose.

At the back of the Mezquita was the Muslim-equivalent to a high altar (see below).  The "Mihrab" is a space with a high ceiling with skylights and a little room cut from the wall.  All around this space is intricate plaster work similar to the Alhambra.  The purpose of this space is once again, clever.  With a vast room full of Muslims at prayer time, the prayer leader stood in the Mihrab, turned his back to the audience, and recited the prayers into the tiny room.  The space acted to amplify his voice throughout the entire mosque. 

When the Muslims were conquered by the Christians, the future of the mosque was in doubt.  The Christians could have easily destroyed the mosque, but instead they took out about 90 columns in the center of the mosque and erected a grand cathedral.  The contrast is striking.  You are walking through a dark, forest-like mosque with low ceilings, and suddenly you arrive in the center with bright skylights and high ceilings.  The intricate details of the high ceiling, the choir, and the high altar match the plaster work of the Mihrab.  Unlike the cathedral in Sevilla, this space is white and bright.  The Christian also installed a Treasury room at the back of the mosque and separate altars on the outer walls.  Today the Treasury houses all Catholic artifacts.  Observing contrasts was the most rewarding part of the visit: the contrast between religions, architecture styles, and other sites I have seen in Spain (Granada and Sevilla).

To add to mix, we exited the Mezquita to immediately find the Jewish Quarter.  After a walk through the Alcazar (protective fortress of the city), we walked through the narrow, whitewashed streets similar to Sevilla's Jewish safe-haven.  We visited one of the only synagogues in Spain; it could have been confused for a room in the Alhambra.  The Muslims and for a time, the Christians, allowed the Jews to practice their religion.  The Jews adopted the Muslim architecture style to blend in.  Although the plaster looks Muslim, it actually contains Stars of David and writing in Hebrew.  I was fooled.

After some more strolling, it was time for lunch.  I had met along the way two Spaniards who were hoping to pick up some English.  They were shy at first, but were comforted by my level of Spanish.  When I found out they wanted to learn some English, they also appreciated (1) my patience in listening to them speak English and (2) my slow articulation when I spoke English.  We could relate to the challenges of learning another language.  It seems to me that those Spaniards that struggle to learn English are the most willing to help and converse with Americans.

 Left to Right: Jireh (from IU), Valeriano, me, Juan

Juan and Valeriano, both from Sevilla, joined Jireh (from IU, known as "Julio" here) and me for a picnic lunch across the river.  Both Spaniards were just old enough to have not learned English as a child in school.  Both have studied English for some time. But, as I have discovered with Spanish, fluency is impossible without many hours of conversation.  Juan and Valeriano have spent little time outside of Spain, and remain unsure of the correct pronunciation of many words in English.  Although we chatted as a group for a while, working in pairs became easier for the Spaniards.  Juan tested his English with "Julio," while I built Valeriano's confidence.  Of course, the Spaniards acknowledged that they would have to practice Spanish with us to encourage further instruction.  Valeriano quickly identified my weakness with speaking Spanish quickly, informally, and with rhythm.  He focused his efforts on getting me away from my often meticulous-formed, grammatically-perfect sentences.  He taught me a slew of short, informal phrases that will help me both understand Spaniards quickly and allow to respond at the same speed. 

I was grateful for his help.  Valeriano is unlike many Spaniards I have met, and he acknowledges it.  Valeriano has a rare sense of ambition lacking among my Sevilla University students.  Whereas most Spaniards of my age are satisfied with the idea of growing up in Sevilla, studying in Sevilla, trading jobs with a recent retiree (there are no new jobs here, just openings upon retirement), and spending the rest of their life in Sevilla, Valeriano is different. Recognizing the absence of opportunity, Valeriano seeks to better his life by learning English and moving to the United States.  He studies environmental engineering (something akin to landscape design, I think).  Still, his love for Spain runs deep, so he thinks that moving to the American Southwest might at least remind him of this beloved Andalucía.  Again, the idea of moving anywhere outside of Andalucía, let alone the United States, is foreign to many Sevillanos.  Valeriano has a crucial English exam in June.  Therefore, his sense of urgency is greater than anyone I have met; it is actually quite refreshing and inspiring.  Valeriano expressed interest in meeting with me more often, acknowledging the benefit it would have for the both of us.  I hope this is the case. 

For pictures of this day, see "Córdoba 3-12" at https://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39

Friday, March 11, 2011

Barcelona Day 3 - La Eixample

Sunday, March 6

I was relieved to have a third day in Barcelona to cover the other main neighborhood:  La Eixample (pronounced eye-SHAM-plah, meaning "The Expansion").  A street called the Gran Via divides Barcelona between the Old Town (El Barri Gòtic) and the 19th century investment in a grid-plan city.  Wide streets, parks, and promenades are prevalent throughout the grid plan.  At each intersection, the corners of the buildings are cut off, making each an eight-sided block.  The city plan coincided with the emergence of the "Modernisme" style of architecture championed by Barcelona's own Antoni Gaudí.  Known as "Catalan Art Nouveau," the style uses glass, iron, brick, and tile to produce organic, non-angular objects and facades.  Right angles are few; instead buildings look like they are melting.  Gaudí's works look like "cake in rain."  After picking up a map at the Tourist office of all of the Modernisme sites, I spent the day trying to find all of them.  Along the way, I admired Gaudí's three central masterpieces: La Pedrera, La Sagrada Familia, y El Parque Güell.

However, before I started my self-guided architecture tour, I wanted to absorb the electric atmosphere of the Barcelona Marathon that I was hearing so much about at my hostel.  That meant going to the Old Town, but some Modernisme would be found there too (including the magnificent Palau de la Música Catalana), in addition to the day's biggest surprise:  the Barcelona City Hall.

My first stop was the Barcelona version of the Arc de Triomphe (in Catalan, Arc de Triomf).  It was perfectly dramatic for the Marathon.  I continued my people watching in the old city, where I discovered the Barcelona City Hall to be open for visits (Sunday only).  I slipped in and gawked at the stately parliamentary-style halls, fit for a national government, let alone just a city.  After the quick stop, I shot up the "Ramblas" once again and took a photo this time of the madness (Marathon is below, but "Ramblas" is in the web album).

Of the architecture tour, the "Block of Discord" was the first highlight.  Three brilliant works in a row on the right side of the Passeig de Gràcia:  (1) Casa Lleó Morera designed by Montaner, (2) Casa Amatller by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and (3) Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudí.  The block was given its name because it seemed the three architects were competing with each other.  Casa Batlló is covered in shattered ceramic tile, making it glitter in the sunlight.  It seemed like a modernist twist on traditional Muslim tile work.  The balconies are like skulls, while the roof is like scales.  Instead of a traditional "onion top," Gaudí installed a "garlic top."  I went around the block to swing through the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, a contemporary art museum that may have been a bit too contemporary.  The exterior was the highlight, witch its use of brick and wild wire overhang. 

I soon arrived at the Gaudí apartment I would tour: Casa Milà, better known as "La Pedrera" (meaning, "the quarry"). The most endearing thing about Gaudí was his obsession with natural light within his works.  Throughout the interior apartments of the Pedrera, natural light penetrates all rooms, whether coming from the interior courtyard or the exterior.  The absence of right angles applied to much of the furniture and doorways.  Upstairs in the attic, brick arches support the entire structure and a natural ventilation system.  I enjoyed the museum in the attic too.  It not only descried the building, but also Gaudí's other works.  The finale was a visit to the roof, where a series of winding stairs and distinct "chimneys" actually surpassed the great views of the city.  Although, I did take an ever-closer look at the Sagrada Familia.

After a weekend of admiring Barcelona's greatest site from far, it was time to visit the Sagrada Familia.  I had been planning to enter, but upon arrival I saw the ridiculous line and decided a free examination of the exterior would suffice.  After all, (1) I had seen the "forest-like" columns of the Santa Maria del Mar Church that Gaudí copied on Day 1, (2) the Pedrera museum had described the Sagrada Familia in detail, (3) the church is far from complete, in fact not even close, and (4) someone at my hostel said it only took him ten minutes to complete the interior visit.  I was not about to stand in line for 45 minutes for that.  

The Sagrada Familia has three principal facades.  The two sides are complete.  Construction of the entrance has not even begun.  The project started in 1883; after 125 years the church is only half-complete.  The first "side" I admired with the Passion Facade, telling the passion of Christ.  Gaudí never witnessed the beginning of this side's construction.  He died 1926, but left behind exact blueprints of the road to completion.  Another architect oversaw the Passion Facade project.  On the opposite is the Nativity Facade, which was finished during Gaudí's time.  It is much darker that the newer parts (besides not being in the sun).  It is much less smooth than the Passion Facade, and demonstrates perfectly the "melting" style of Gaudí.  I ran across a model of what the entrance, or "Glory Facade," will look like.  Incredible, but they have a long way to go. 

From the Sagrada Familia, I caught a bus to Parque Güell, Gaudí's marriage with nature.  His "organic" architecture blends seamlessly into the forms of the mountain.  Gaudí had embarked on Parque Güell to create a wealthy housing district/gated community.  The idea flopped and today it serves as a public park.  Two gingerbread houses greet visitors.  A grand staircase leads to the "Hall of 100 Columns."  Gaudí had wanted this space to be the farmers market for the community.  Each column is different, and tiles glitter on the wavy roof.  On top is the beach terrace, where visitors enjoy a balcony view of Barcelona.  Continuing up the hill, you wind through Gaudí's "Pathway of Columns," rocks that support more bridges and balconies.  I climbed higher and higher and finally reached the top to picnic and enjoy an opposite panoramic view of Barcelona.

Before long I was back at the hostel.  I went to bed at 8:30 that Sunday night knowing that I would have to rise at 3:00 am to catch my early flight back to Sevilla.  I had little time to rest.  When I arrived Monday morning, I had three classes to look forward to.  Although I feel like I am still catching my breadth from the trip, I could not have enjoyed better weather and such a wonderfully error-free adventure.

For pictures of this day, see
"Barcelona Day 3 (3-6) - La Eixample" at https://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39

Barcelona Day 2 - Montjuïc

Saturday, March 5

I had originally planned to explore Montjuïc on Sunday.  But, a French guy named Emanuel at my hostel warned me that Montjuïc would be closed on Sunday due to the Barcelona Marathon.  He was a runner, as were many people I met at the hostel.  I am grateful for the information; without it my third day in Barcelona would have been ruined.  I switched my Saturday and Sunday itineraries and headed to Montjuïc.

Overlooking the city, Montjuïc ("Mount Jew") is the park that hosted the 1929 international exhibition and the 1992 Summer Olympics.  You enter through the the "Venetian Towers" of the Plaça d'Espanya and start climbing.  The first point of interest is the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC) or simply, the Catalan Art Museum.  I was tempted to stop here, but I knew that starting at the top of the mountain would be easier.  At this point I had missed the bus going up the mountain, so I had no choice but to hike.  It was a beautiful day, so I did not mind.  When I look at pictures of the mountain now, I cannot believe I climbed to the top.  For those who refuse to hike, there are cable cars that whisk people up to the ultimate destination: the Castle of Montjuïc.

The view from the castle justified the hike.  Again, I was fortunate to have a clear and sunny day.  I admired the entire city by the Mediterranean.  I experimented with my camera by taking six consecutive pictures to capture the panoramic view (see web album, starting at photo #20).  There were also great views of Barcelona's port, a chunk of Spain's economy.  The Catalans have always thought of themselves as self-sufficient due to Barcelona's port.  They feel like they are carrying Spain's economy at times. 

After many photos at the castle, I started my way down.  I ran into a famous statue depicting the famous Catalan dance, "Sardana."  It consists of people holding hands high in a circle while they perform the basic steps.  For Spaniards that like to make fun of Catalans, this dance is an easy target.  I settled in a park nearby for a picnic lunch that I had bought at the supermarket.  It consisted of a wedge of brie cheese, a huge baguette, and jam I had found at the hostel.  The total price was about 1.30 euros:  cheap, filling, and delicious, exactly what I wanted.  I cannot believe how low the prices are for good bread and good cheese here. 

My next stop would be the highlight of the day: Fundació Joan Miró (the Miró Art Museum).  Like the Picasso Museum the day before, I learned about the life and artistic evolution of a modern art master.  I ended up wandering the endless collection for two and a half hours, enjoying every work.  Born outside of Barcelona, Miró is a symbol of Catalunya. Like Picasso, Miró spent his early years copying the masters before developing his unique style.  At one point, his paintings resembled impressionism, all of which I loved (see "Ermita de Sant Joan d'Horta" below).  Miró joined the surrealist movement in Paris, but never fully embraced the dogma.  What I enjoyed the most was noting the differences in Miró's styles with relation to Spain's modern history.  His works during the 30's reflect the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War.  After Franco's reign began, Miró turned to escapism with the "Constellations" series.  Many of the typical Miró works have the same elements: black and white lines and primary colors often in the context of the stars and human figures. One of my favorite works was "Estrella Matinal," a classic example of his style; with some effort you can make out the creatures on the left and the woman on the right.  

 Joan Miró - "Ermita de Sant Joan d'Horta" 
Joan Miró - "Estrella Matinal"

After leaving the fantastic museum, I snacked in the gardens outside and made my way further downhill to the Olympic Stadium.  I was happy that I was open; I snapped a quick photo of track and torch knowing Laura would appreciate it.  I then returned to the MNAC (Catalan Art Museum) to take a quick swing through the Gothic and Modern art collections on display.  The visit was a bit uninspired given the energy I had spent at the Picasso and Miró sites.  What would be more memorable about the MNAC was the event outside following the visit.  I walked out the door to discover a big crowd at sunset.  They were waiting for the "Magic Fountain" light show (like Fourth of July).  Hundreds of tourists and Spaniards alike gathered for the event.  Given the spectacular view from MNAC, I could not help but enjoy it too.

I returned to my hostel weak from a day of hiking.  In the hostel's kitchen I met Ferran, a Spaniard from Pamplona (northern Spain) who had come to Barcelona to run in the Marathon the next day.  He started babbling at me in Spanish thinking I would not understand him.  But, once he realized my level of proficiency, he was delighted to strike up a conversation.  Not many hostelers could speak Spanish.  Wanting my company, I invited me to a carbo-feast of spaghetti.  We chatted for a long time about cultural differences between the United States and Spain.  This is why I love hostels now; they allow me to meet and interact with interesting people.  

For pictures of this day see "Barcelona Day 2 (3-5) - Montjuïc" at https://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Barcelona Day 1 - El Barri Gòtic

Friday, March 4, 2010

My decision to go to Barcelona was spur of the moment.  I got a great price on Ryanair and took advantage.  I wanted to visit so many sites that going alone would be the best.  This was my first plane experience from Sevilla since my arrival; and my first Ryanair experience.  Ryanair is the budget airline of Europe that has ridiculous rules you have to follow because you paid such a low price for the ticket.  Your bag must fit within the airline's box; otherwise you do not get on the plane.  I carried my backpack and had no problem.  I ran into some Americans getting on the same flight:  the only problem, one forget her passport.  Ryanair said she could not enter.  Thus, all four students missed their flight.  No wonder I travel alone.  I chatted with a Mexican girl studying in Sevilla.  I was amused by her distinctly Mexican expression: "Que padre."

When I arrived in Barcelona (here pronounced Bahr-THA-lona) an hour and a half later, I hit the ground running.  I would have three days to see the city's three main districts.   My first day would be full of the old city called the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter in Catalan).  After arriving in the city center, I introduced myself to  Barcelona by walking "Las Ramblas" (meaning "streams"), one of the busiest and craziest promenades in Europe.  This is the pickpocket's dream.  More passports are stolen on this street than any other place in Europe.  The walkway is full of street performers that distract tourists while pickpockets work their magic.  I was told never to stand still on "Las Ramblas" (street signs say "La Rambla") and followed the advice.

The real reason I was on the Ramblas was to visit the Boquería, one of Europe's greatest food markets.  I arrived at peak hour right before lunch (and nap time).  The amount of product matched the number of people.  I admired each section: fish, meat, vegetables, fruits, sweets, olives, spices, mushrooms.  I have never seen so much abundance of such quality.  Among the stands are also tapas bars, full of people snacking over the finest flavors of Spain.  I discovered an Organic Market, an idea that is still a bit new in Spain given the high quality that already exists even in conventional markets.  As much as I wanted to stop, I had to continue my itinerary and settle for snacks along the way.

My next stop was the Catedral of Barcelona (every city has one).  Typical of everything in Catalunya, this church was bit different.  Within the courtyard, there were thirteen geese.  The number commemorates the patron saint of Catalunya, Eulàlia, who at age thirteen was tortured thirteen times by the Romans.  I visited the roof and gawked at the towers and the view.  Inside I enjoyed the incredible tomb of the patron saint and the ornamental choir.  

After admiring the ancient/Roman aspects of this neighborhood, I visited a second church: Santa Maria del Mar.  This church was built by sailors and represents pure Catalan Gothic.  It was a Franco stronghold during the Spanish Civil War, so the working class burned the structure, leaving a blackened ceiling inside.  Catalunya was against Franco during the Civil War, and a political alignment with the left in the region continues to this day.  Despite the business class that thrives here, Catalans associate the "right" with Franco and the region's oppression.  Outside the church is a monument to Catalan patriots killed by a Bourbon king of Spain.  This church was a wonderful visit for no charge.  And it had added benefit for later in the trip:  The forest-like columns inspired Gaudi's Sagrada Familia.  Because I saw the columns in this church, I could legitimately skip entering the Gaudi site.  (Although, of course, I enjoyed the exterior).

The main event was still to come: the Picasso Museum.  Prior to entering, I was not thrilled with the idea of strolling through a museum.  But, this visit exceeded all expectations, and possibly could be the thing I most enjoyed the whole weekend.  Picasso was born in Málaga (Costa del Sol, Spain).  But, his formative years occurred in Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris.  What I loved about this museum was witnessing the evolution of Picasso and learning the story behind the artist and his paintings.  Each description, of course, had to be in Catalan, Spanish, and English.  I enjoyed reading each in Spanish.  

Picasso "El Diván" (Copy of Lautrec)

When Picasso won an art competition, he got the chance to study in Madrid.  But, finding art school too conservative, he spent his days copying Diego Velázquez in the Prado museum.  Picasso's works in this period are like realism and impressionism, really fantastic.  Picasso went to Barcelona and adopted the avant-garde scene at a cafe called "Els Quatre Gats" (Catalan: the four cats).  Here and in Paris, Picasso copied his favorite artists: Matisse, Cézanne, Monet and most of all, Toulouse Lautrec.  I loved the Lautrec copies (see Picasso's "El Divan" above).  The museum proceeds to take you through Picasso's blue and rose periods (during which all paintings have blue and red hues, respectively).  Then, the evolution culminates in Cubism.  The final room is unique in that it houses all 50 renditions of Picasso's favorite painting
Velázquez's "Las Meninas" (see below).  I feel like I finally understand the significance of Picasso now.  

Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas

Picasso - Las Meninas

I was spent.  I headed back to the hostel to meet a great mix of students.  I would be staying in a room of nine bunk beds for three nights.  My favorite acquaintances were two girls from Amsterdam.  They could speak English and Spanish (in addition to Dutch).  They had studied in Salamanca (northern Spain) for four months.  Thinking they were fluent, they decided to land a job in Southern Spain.  When they arrived, they could not understand anything of the thick Andalusian accent.  Now I feel a little better. 

For pictures of this day, see "Barcelona Day 1 (3-4) - El Barri Gòtic" at https://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Exclusive Treatment in Lisbon

Saturday, February 27, Sunday, February 28, and Monday, February 29

I did not know what to expect in Lisbon.  It is no one's first choice in Europe.  But, I quickly realized it was a hidden treasure.  The tourist factoid I found most interesting was Lisbon's similarity to San Fransisco.  First, the city's hills require a system of street trolleys, or "trams" and lifts.  Second, the famous "April 25th" bridge is a copy of the Golden Gate Bridge, which straddles the harbor.  And third, Lisbon and San Fransisco are the principal western ports of their respective continents.

After our stops in Sintra and Cascais, we arrived at our hostel in Lisbon: the Kitsch Hostel.  Although my first hostel experience in Granada was nice, I realized that this is what hostels are all about.  If a group of students were to brainstorm the perfect hostel together, the Kitsch Hostel would be the result.  It provided a kitchen for preparing meals, a lobby for meeting international students, free internet-access, a refrigerator for keeping your food, and a wonderful staff full of suggestions for the best Lisbon experience.  On top of that, it was located in one of Lisbon's main plazas.  I hope my future hostel experiences are like this one.  

Saturday night in Lisbon began with a tour of the central district at sunset.  The grand promenades were built after the 1755 earthquake.  Throughout the city black and white tiles with different patterns line the sidewalks and streets.  The one thing missing:  green.  The expansive plazas had no bushes or trees, leaving me a bit cold.  Monuments are everywhere, too.  Bottom line: pretty, but cold and a lot of wasted space.  A distinct place.  Toba gathered everyone for dinner at an authentic Portuguese restaurant.  I had to take advantage by ordering the country's specialty: Bacalhau à Lagareiro (Grilled Cod).  Delicious and with excellent company.  Toba had a bar crawl planned for us that night through Lisbon's hippest neighborhood: Barrio Alto.  Roaming the tiled streets of this district at 1:00 in the morning, filled with people just getting started, I realized why Lisbon is a popular destination for many young people. 

Sunday was filled with more exclusive treatment.  Toba had hired a Portuguese guide to accompany us on the bus and give us a driving tour of the city with photo-snapping stops along the way.  First stop was Parque Eduardo VII, a park at the end of Lisbon's main avenue.  At the peak of the park you admire the city of two hills below. You can spot the park from many places in Lisbon because of its enormous flag.  We also saw the Portuguese bull ring from the bus window.  The architecture is Moorish/Arabic; even more interesting is the nature of Portuguese bullfighting.  The fighters ride horses during the event.  Another great bus-window photo shoot began when we passed the Aqueduct of Lisbon.  Made up of fourteen stone arches, it survived the Lisbon earthquake, which occurred just nine years after its completion.

We finally arrived in Belem for three of Lisbon's most important sites.  First, we toured the Torre de Belem, a fortification protecting the port.  It was a beautiful day to enjoy the harbor.  I climbed halfway up the Torre and gave up reaching the top because of the crowds clogging the narrow staircase.  Next, we arrived at Lisbon's greatest church: the Monasterio de los Jerónimos (Monastery to St. Jerome).  This was not built until Portugal golden age of discovery.  Therefore, the church is covered in sea motifs; ropes line the entrance, sea monsters decorate the cloister in the center, coral adorns the columns, and faces of native people commemorate the New World.  Our last stop was the Monument of the Discoveries, which only continued the running theme of grandiose structures. 

After our tour of Belem, we returned to Lisbon proper and ventured up the hill of the Alfama, the old Moorish quarter.  There we picnicked and enjoyed the unbelievable views from the district's most famous attraction: the Castelo de São Jorge.  The fortress protected the city, for it was impossible to take the hill where it stands.  The castle had originally been built by the Romans.  Later, the Visigoths, Moors, and Portuguese royalty occupied it.  Before the sun went down, I managed to go back to the opposite hill, Barrio Alto, to take sunset pictures of the castle where I had been.  That evening our Portuguese bus driver took us to his family's restaurant where we enjoyed a four-course authentic Portuguese meal.  Again, I had a plate of Bacalhau, but this time fried.  We also had a fantastic kale soup and slice of pork (and fruit for dessert).  Drinks continued at the hostel where everyone enjoyed a low-key night with other international visitors.

We would say goodbye to Lisbon earlier than expected because of an offer by our Portuguese driver.  He suggested that we break up the long drive home by visiting the beach on Portugal's coast.  No one could resist, and within four hours we were in Montegordo.  The beach town is popular among the British.  For that reason, the visit was another cultural experience.  I learned of Portugal's historical alliance with the UK.  Perhaps that explains why Portugal has the British eating schedule (American, too), as opposed to Spain's.  

We returned to Sevilla at 8:00 pm.  We were held up with some traffic, though.  Monday had been the Day of Andalucia.  Everyone is southern Spain took the day off, and as a result, everyone was returning from a vacation.  Although the adventure was extraordinary, I felt a certain level of comfort when we arrived in Sevilla.  Everyone is Portugal is taught Portuguese, Spanish, and English from an early age. But, I still had trouble communicating with the Portuguese.  Spanish came automatically, but I did not want to project the image of (1) an American not knowing the difference between Portuguese and Spanish, and (2) an American assuming everyone knows English.  Back in Spain, back to Spanish.  

For photos of Lisbon and Montegordo, visit: http://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39