Back in early 1992, a couple of friends and I had the flash thought that we needed to go to the Olympics in Barcelona that summer. Why not, right? As we started reading about Spain we decided we needed to check out a few places besides Barcelona which was bound to be zoo-like during the Games. I, having studied high school in a Latin country, knew a lot more than my peers about the historical cities and buildings in Spain (El Alhambra in Granada; la Mezquita de Córdoba; and the importance of Sevilla in the discovery and colonization of the New World by Spain). I recall one afternoon setting out a large map of Spain on the floor of one of my friend’s apartment and with a book of Spain at hand, set out to plan an itinerary of sorts. Our third friend wasn’t there but he would be fine with whatever we decided.
Planning the trip
OK, that was the extent of our planning. Those days being pre-Internet, expensive international long distance and 3 of us very busy guys, we did not further planning than our route and the car rental (if memory serves me right on that last bit). No hotels, no tickets to events, nothing. We got our tickets but I was to fly a day earlier and from JFK given where I was at the time. The two of them would fly in together the next day on a direct flight from Atlanta (I was connecting through Amsterdam for a cheaper flight – important back then as I think I ended up paying on the cheaper flight about $900!).
Crossing the Pond
This was my first time in Europe but not my first time abroad. I had already been to Panama, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina. Leaving out of JFK was then, as it still is today, an experience. What a zoo. Right after our KLM 747 pulled away from the gate, a TWA plane taking off had to abort the takeoff and crashed (no one died mericfully; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TWA_Flight_843). A sort of benefit from this event is that I now can remember the day I flew to Spain for the first time! (July 30th, 1992).
Anyway, on with the story… This event resulted in planes not taking off for a few hrs but JFK airport being JFK, people and flights kept piling on so we were not taken back to the gate. Instead, we sat on the tarmac for about 4 hrs. The crew decided to go ahead and serve dinner during the period. The plane was hot and this Norwegian woman around me kept talking non-stop. I was not a happy camper… Mercifully, after the dinner service, the plane’s doors were open and staffed by flight attendants (so no one would jump off, I suppose). This helped make the plane a tad less warm and likely prevented someone from slapping the Norwegian silly.
Of course, this meant I would miss my connection to Madrid in Amsterdam. I didn’t miss it by much and that probably irritated me more. But I have to say the travel gods were smiling upon me. Can you imagine if my first landing in Europe with a missed connection had been in CDG?? That would have been a dreadful experience and I am glad I was at beautiful and efficient Schiphol!
In Madrid – Olé
KLM properly took care of putting me on another flight to my destination so I boarded an Iberia flight a couple of hours later to get to Madrid. Of course I was jetlagged but the excitement of being in Europe carried me through. I don’t recall at this point how much I may have slept on the trans-Atlantic flight (I am not a big plane sleeper) but I remember dozing off on the way to Madrid. I had done some research on how to get to town and had ended up booking a hostal for my first night in Madrid (we were to leave Madrid the next day after my friends landed).
An easy bus ride from the airport to Plaza Colón dropped me, off for little money, a few blocks from my hostal. I don’t know if it was technically a hostal but it was like a massive apartment (or several) that an older couple ran (Hostal Principado, near the Thyssen Museum). The room was small but clean and efficient. However, it got loud outside late at night and I learned my first lesson on bringing along earplugs!
I used the rest of the day to walk around and explore. Thanks to trip notes I took at the time, I remember that I walked around the Parque del Retiro then headed to the Puerta del Sol and ended up having tapas at the Cervecería Alemana, back then recommended by my guide book.
Parque del Retiro
The next day, I took the same bus back to pick up my friends at the airport. These not being the days of international ATM’ing, we headed to the American Express office to exchange currency prior to heading to the Chamartín train station to book our train tickets for the overnight ride to Barcelona. One of my friends didn’t speak anything but English and the other, son of Colombian parents raised in the U.S., understood some but couldn’t speak Spanish much which meant I did a lot of the talking – which was fine by me! By the way, we did all this carrying our bags with us (shoulder bag for me)!
We explored some of Madrid that day to keep everyone awake and since we had no accommodations in Madrid as I had checked out of the hostal. (Thinking back, why didn’t I ask them if I could leave my bags and my friends’ bags during that day???) We went to the Palacio Real, Madrid’s awesome Plaza Mayor, and walked to the Gran Vía (a main avenue in Madrid; a great bakery in Puerto Rico which sourced many a birthday cake in our family!). We walked back to the Paseo del Prado (the road where the Prado museum is located) and we decided to just head to the train station from there.
We got lucky that we got a 6-bed compartment (two bunks of 3 beds) just for the 3 of us so we could spread out. Not having been in a real train before, much less overnight, I didn’t sleep soundly but well enough for the purpose.
Our Olympic adventure in Barcelona, subject of my next entry, was about to start!
2010 is a Holy Year (aka Jubilee year) on the Camino de Santiago… so, if you are looking for an interesting and unique travel experience, why not walk 500 miles across Northern Spain…on an ancient pilgrimage route…and if you do it in 2010, you’ll probably be joining 200,000 or more other people!!
In 2010, the feast day for St. James (the patron saint of Spain and the name sake of the Camino de Santiago) falls on a Sunday – a fact that always draws larger crowds to the trail.
Now, if by chance you’re reading this post and thinking “what the heck is this guy talking about?” – no worries, just check out our other post on the Camino de Santiago.
If this is not enough, check out a web site I maintain that provides even more information on the Camino de Santiago (I also have links to You Tube Videos of the trip).
In a land known for being enriched by the comings and goings of history, Córdoba and Granada stand out as the jewels of the mixed currents of history.
Of the two, Córdoba felt more a mixture of glorious history and modern livability. Granted, I did not explore both cities fully, so this is a high-level impression and I welcome comments sharing further perspectives on this. The centerpiece of Córdoba, of course, is la Mezquita de Córdoba. Originally a church, converted to mosque, and returned to a church during la Reconquista (the expulsion of the Moors from Spain), it stands as a record of the currents it experienced. Seeing the inside of the mosque (not sure why we call it a mosque to this day since it is officially a church now but we do) is to marvel at the artistic and architectural talents of the Moors. It is also a credit to someone from the 13th century who, after the expulsion of the Moors, did not go back and undo all the construction done by them so, today, we can enjoy the beauty of the arches that grace the church. (There was some retrofitting done to insert a church within the structure much as the Moors had done earlier when they converted the church to a mosque.) Outside the structure, the orange tree garden is also a nice feature of the grounds. To me, it is one of the most important architectural sites in Spain, or at least one that appeals to me for being a picture of the movements of history.
Granada definitely had a unique feeling as well. Granada felt more regal. From the cathedral as a final resting place of the Catholic Monarchs (“tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando“, for native Spanish speakers, remember that?) to the Alhambra and Generalife settings and gardens, everything about Granada makes me think of “royalty”.
But the most vivid memory for me is the night we arrived. I was at the wheel and we were looking for our hotel in the city center. This is before Internet days, etc. so we just had an address and a map. I found a street that would deposit me on our hotel’s street. However, as the street began to narrow, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Yes, the road continued narrowing as small beads of sweat began appearing on my forehead. Of course, the climax of this was when we came to the narrowest point in the street. The car would not go through. Cars were beginning to accumulate behind me. The motorcycle ahead of me stopped to look back at me. Beads became torrents. How would we get out of this bind??!! Well, thank the Peugeot engineer who decided that model should have folding mirrors. That was the margin of error in passing or not passing… Drivers beware – choose cars with folding mirrors and wear a bandanna when driving in ancient city centers.
Back to the main features though… The Alhambra was a hilltop palace of the Moorish rulers of Spain. The attention to detail in the carvings on the walls, ceilings, columns, etc. is spectacular. Thinking of someone doing that detailed work blows my mind. Some of the most famous sights from the Alhambra are the water fountains in the courtyards of the palace (e.g., the Courtyard of Lions). The Generalife (pronounced “heh-neh-rah-LEE-feh“) gardens are constructed next to the Alhambra and also use water fountains. The design of water flowing between fountains at different levels as you descend down the hillsides is enchanting. To me, it is not that there are fountains but it is how they were able to show water in motion in a clever scheme to move water from fountain to fountain.
Finally, having grown up studying Spanish history and the discovery of the New World, seeing the tomb of the Catholic Monarchs was like closing the book on all those history classes. There they were, their remains in metal caskets in the Royal Chapel, the most powerful people of their time.
Both of these towns have plenty more to offer than I explored or than I wrote about. They are enchanting and should be tops on the list of anyone wanting to see and get to know Spain.
Would like to hear about your experiences in Córdoba and Granada and what you saw that impressed you the most about these two great examples of two cultures clashing or combining, as the case may be.
Guest post by my friend and fellow traveler, Chris Sanders.
I first learned of the Camino de Santiago by watching an interview of Shirley MacClain on CNN’s Larry King show some years ago. I wasn’t even sure I knew who she was to be honest, but I listened with interest as she described a long distance hike – a pilgrimage – she had just completed across Spain – a hike she did alone but in the company of thousands of others on the same route. The experience sounded appealing to me and so I filed the idea away in my mind –to be resurrected sometime in the future…sometime when I had free time…lots of free time….like a month or so off of work!
Well, long story short – within a few months of watching the interview on CNN, I found myself in Spain on the Camino de Santiago, compliments of a leave of absence from my company. I started in the small town of St Jean Pied de Port, France and walked 500 miles to the city of Santiago de Compostela in 30 days flat. Oh, did I mention that I had never been to Spain, I didn’t speak Spanish…nor had I ever really hiked…except for perhaps the half-day hike up Mt. Blood in North Georgia???
Ok, by now you probably want to know more about the Camino de Santiago…so here are the basic facts:
What is the Camino de Santiago? – The Camino de Santiago (or “Way of St. James” in English) is a medieval pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral in Santiago is the burial place of St. James – one of the 12 Disciples of Christ in the Christian religion. Though once a strictly religious pilgrimage, the Camino today attracts people of all beliefs.
Where do I start and how long is the Camino? – There are many popular Camino routes…the most popular is the 500 mile stretch called the Camino Frances. The Camino Frances starts in the small town of St. Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) and continues across Northern Spain – through cities such as Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon.
How many people do the Camino each year and who are they? – Believe it or not, thousands of people walk all or a portion of the Camino each year. According to statistics reported by the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, more than 114,000 people arrived in Santiago in 2007.
Where do I sleep? – The Camino passes through endless cities, towns and small hamlets. The choice of where to sleep is a personal one – most people choose to stay in refugios, which are dormitory style accommodations often housed in monasteries and other old buildings. If you are into more luxurious accommodations, there are plenty of small hotels, Inns, and boarding houses along the way.
To get a glimpse of my Camino experience, check out my video on You Tube:
I could go on and on writing about the Camino de Santiago…its one of my favorite subjects! But we’d rather hear your thoughts and questions. Have you walked the Camino? If so, tell us about your experience. If you are interested in learning more about the Camino or have questions, ask away!
This entry will most certainly not make any justice to Sevilla. But, I am not here to dispense justice, just to share my thoughts (whew!).
It has been a while since I visited the 3 grand cities in southern Spain (Sevilla, Cordoba and Granada). But the impressions they made on me are still quite vivid. Each of these had a different feel for me not only because of the character and history of each city but also because I went to them while the World Expo took place in Sevilla back in ancient times: 1992.
Sevilla is an old town. It has been there for close to 2,000 years and it has seen a lot of history. I will leave the details to Wikipedia or some other site. My time there was limited as the World Expo sucked up a lot of our attention (I went with two colleagues) and energy (party!). However, the history, the architecture, and the flavor of what I think Andalucia is is well captured in Sevilla.
The Cathedral stands out in my mind as one of the finest examples of what a medieval cathedral was. If I recall correctly it is one of the largest. Yet, what stands out in my mind most is how well set up it was for tourists to visit it and understand it. It was well-signed and there was a sheet with numbered entries matching different places in the cathedral so the average, non-connoisseur (like me) could “get it”. It was a fantastic place.
Next to the cathedral was the imposing-in-its-own-way tower called “La Giralda“. As in any town I visit, if there is a place I can hike up to see the town, I do; so I climbed the Giralda to look at Sevilla. After all these years, though, what stays with me is not the view (which was probably good) but the way you climbed it. The tower did not have steps. And, no, it had no elevator: it had ramps. “Why?” would you ask? Well, so people could ride horses up, of course! Clever. I also vividly remember seeing orange trees everywhere. It was a beautiful sight. The last place I will highlight in the city is the Alcázar Real. It is near the cathedral and it is a blend of Moorish and other influences. Worth paying a visit.
The World Expo was a blast but since that was temporary and does not exist any more in the same form, I won’t write much about it (unless someone leaves a comment asking). However, two things worth sharing: I went to the Expo in early August and it is very hot and dry in Sevilla in the summer. However, the Expo had areas where you would walk under vine-covered beams with misters spraying you ever so slightly – the mist helped you cool down just a tad. Also, the liquified and cold gazpacho worked MUCH better than any soda ever would. I have loved gazpacho ever since…
Folks in Sevilla reminded me a lot of the personality of Spanish Caribbean peoples (Cubans, PRicans, Dominicans). The people were much warmer than in other regions of Spain and had a visible zest for life!
During my visit, I did not get to explore dining, bars, and perhaps a good number of historical or otherwise interesting sites in Sevilla. Do you have any of these that you could share with others?