A Travellerspoint blog

Africa Adventures

sunny 18 °C

Hello again!! As I write this I sit on a train to Valencia for a four day weekend to experience one of the major festivals in Spain, called Las Fallas. But wait don't let me get ahead of myself, I left you having returned from France and Geneva. (Entry written March 15)

After a whirlwind visit from an old soccer buddy, who had a post in London, I was off to Marrakesh, Morocco with old friends Ross, who lives in Madrid, and Rebecca, who is living in a small town in Galicia, Northwestern Spain. I have been traveling quite a lot, and at that
point I felt likeI was ready for anything, but boy was I not mentally prepared for how different Marrakesh is.

As one of the largest cities in Morocco, I expected a big airport with many gates and airplanes. I suppose I should just warn you now that any time I say that I was expecting something, you can safely expect the opposite. It was a learning experience, to say the least. Anyway, I stepped off the plane into the relative warmth, and was greeted by a small airport at which we were the only airplane. Mildly surprised, I walked through customs easily and exchanged money. It is illegal to transport Dirhams, the local currency, out of the country, so I was forced to buy them there. Also, fortunately, the exchange was almost exactly 10 Dirhams per Euro, which made converting in my head easy (a huge asset as I found later). I walked out of the airport and into the most different and incredible weekend of my life.

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As I stood, bewildered, looking for the bus stop, I was immediately accosted by a man offering a taxi ride. I didn't know how much the bus would cost, but was fairly sure it was less than a cab. So I declined, and he started bartering with me, unprovoked! I knew beforehand that I would be bartering with vendors, but didn't realize that that extended to EVERYONE-- vendors, cabbies, even the guys serving mint tea behind the counter will bargain with you. I staved off the overly pushy cabbie, and hopped onto the bus for the short ride to the city.

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Now, I had a map and directions to my hostel, but of course jumping off the bus map in hand tags you as a tourist straight away (not that I would have gotten away with it anyway, judging by my hair and skin color) but I was beset again almost immediately by a younger chap touting a local cafe. Another lesson: I assumed that politely declining advances by these people would be the best way to get away. Wrong-o!!! Any hint of a response actually proved you to be pliable (Or a sucker, but I never got to ask) so a smile or nod usually caused even more attention. Eventually I found myself being led to my hostel by this friendly stranger. Of course when we arrived he required funds, and I was not inclined to give him much, since while he maybe saved me a few minutes, I surely could have found the place on my own. I left him at the door griping over the 10 Dirham coin in his hand.

The hostel was an incredible place itself. The sign for the hostel was a spraypainted word 'Rainbow' at the exit to the alley which led to the front door. The lobby of the building was a huge open space with tall retangular sofas draped with sheets interspersed with small tables, upon which one was sitting a hookah and upon another a pot of steaming mint tea. I was offered some tea while my host verified that I did indeed have a reservation. If anything, things move even slower in Morocco. The host tisked at me when I tried to move him along, so I contented myself sipping on the tea and looking around at the plethora colors splayed around the room. The following photo shows one half of my dorm room after I was let in. The bed on the right was mine!

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Ross and Rebecca arrived later in the day on the same flight, and the weekend got easier in a posse of three. Marrakesh is an extremely rich city culturally, but not in the architectural or artistic sense like mich of Europe. Here, the people and the Souks are the culture. Our hostel was situated very close to the main square in the city, called Jemaa el Fna. A walk through the square during the day yields interactions with fresh squeezed orange juice carts, snake charmers, men towing around semi-trained monkeys, dentists sitting at tables overflowing with teeth and dentures and a plethora of women offering temporary henna tattoos. All businesses operate the same way. If you so much as pick up your camera to snap a photo, the people will accost you for money. If you want a monkey on your hand, shoulder or head it will cost you even more.

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Around four every day, every single day, the square empties of snake charmers and other men start dragging in carts with benches and tables, and an impromptu food market is set up. Starting whenever they are ready and running late into the night, carts tout anything from snail soup to goats head (tried sheep's brain with my amigos-- it was palatable but mushy and fatty-- not on the top ten list) to cous cous to tagine (a local vegetable and meat specialty cooked in a small ceramic container over an open fire with lots of local spices). Walking through the food area was just as nerve-wracking, as the waiters' jobs were less serving and more cajoling the next customer. We started choosing based on how crowded the tables were instead of how enticing the workers were.

Before:

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After

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Meanwhile, beside the food market, the rest of the square was full of acrobats, storytellers (from whom I understood not a single word as it was in Arabic) and small carnival type games with sodas and fishing poles. A distinct disadvantage of not looking like the people there was I was constantly tapped for money.

Finally, the city around the square is the most well-known part or Marrakesh: the Souks. They have transformed the streets into giant markets, peddling cloths, spices, intricate wooden pieces, shoes, shirts, turtles, instruments, really anything imaginable. The is really where the serious bartering happened. Some vendors actually consider it rude NOT to barter, but I think most would happily take your money. Most prices start about 3 times more than the vendor is willing to sell the item for, and a weak persona is lost money. The single best thing we found was to reach close terms and the. Actually walk away and let them come calling back. After all better a sale for them and a small profit than none at all. The biggest problem I encountered was that I spent so much time worrying about how much I was paying, I forgot to ensure the quality of my purchase. But after getting into the groove, it was actually pretty fun. One interesting thing is that the people will do anything to get your attention. They know just enough English to get your attention (using words like 'please' and 'excuse me' often) and sell their goods. I tried to ask a man if he knew what the New York Yankees hat represented, and he didn't even speak enough English to understand me. But I bet if I'd offered to buy the hat, he would have done just fine. Another example is that I was called Harry Potter multiple times (due to my glasses I suppose, I don't have much more in common with him... Except vicious quidditch skills of course) and Ross was called John Wayne once or twice. I ended up with a tagine for the parents, a Berber flute for Alex, and a scarf and Barcelona shirt for me.

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If theres one word go describe the weekend, I'd go with exhausting. Constantly on alert, I spent the whole time over stimulated and excited. But in the end, what an incredible introduction to the continent of Africa!!!

Next: Family!! And we're almost caught up!!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 16:43 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Voilà! Back in Action!

snow -2 °C

Hola a todos otra vez!! Por favor perdóname para mi ausencia! So sorry for my absence! I have been unbelievably busy the past couple of months with visitors, trips, and other exciting things that you will hear lots about over the next couple of blog posts. So let´s rewind the ol´ hands of time back to the end of January, to find me hopping on an airplane to Switzerland and then a bus to Chamonix, France!

Even though I have found myself traveling abroad to another beach town, I am much closer this time to some big mountains and knew from the beginning that I wanted to get skiing in the Alps if possible. After being unable to drag any friends from home over to ski for a week, I found a program online through an English company that included lodging, food, equipment, and a guide for a weeks worth of skiing. Unable to resist, I signed up without really understanding completely how it would work. I had brought my boots over with me, though, so I figured I could just deal with whatever type of skis I was given.

What transpired was way beyond any expectations. The entire group (220 I think) were housed in a hostel owned and operated by the French government, complete with a bar and a huge cafeteria. Every meal was provided, with a cold breakfast and sandwich makings for lunch, followed by a gigantic 6 course meal for dinner every night. The head chef was a complete nutcase, exuberant and boisterous, but his food was commendable so I didn´t have a problem hearing his shrieks over my meal. Dinners were always soup, a huge green salad, two main courses, usually meat or fish and potatoes or rice, and then dessert, which was always cheese with pepper and honey (a French thing, I was told, which I took an immediate liking to), and then cake or ice cream. Needless to say I didn´t go hungry. And I´m getting hungry now thinking about it.

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The ´big-boy camp´ as I took to calling it, was split into a bunch of different groups, from very beginners all the way up to a backcountry touring course. I was somewhere in the middle, in a group called ´Haupte Montagne´ (means high mountain, for those like myself for whom violà is the extent of your French). The eight of us (4 French, 3 Danes and myself) were assigned a mountain guide instead of an instructor and set loose in Chamonix.

For those unfamiliar, Chamonix is an absolute behemoth of a mountain. In fact, it is the alliance of about 6 different mountains to create one resort. The advantage of such a huge place is that there is always good snow out there somewhere. The disadvantage is that sometimes it takes the whole day traversing mountains and hopping on and off buses to find it. Luckily, we got about 8 inches of snow the night before we started, so the first two days were spectacular.

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One of the cool features of Chamonix is the ability to ski on one of the many glaciers that wind their way down from the top of the cragged peaks. A mountain guide with a rope and a harness is essential for glacier skiing, since a hidden crevasse (sometimes tens of feet deep) can really ruin your day. Although not particularly technical skiing, the glaciers are huge bowls and had untracked powder the first day. Here you have a view of the blue ice looking across the craggy gnarled bottom part of the glacier that is quite unskiable.

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Another iconic Chamonix run is the Vallé Blanche (White Valley), which runs off one of the highest peaks and down to the town for an really long run. Disappointingly, toward the end of the week when our guide wanted to take us up, the weather cratered and the high winds kept the higher lifts closed. We still managed just fine, though, and I supposed this gives me reason to go back!!!I suppose this is as good a time as any to link the gopro video I made of the week. Take a look! Disclaimer: I am by no means a videographer, and my incomplete knowledge of slow motion made for some choppy moments, but it is a great reminder of a great week.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNJMWW5S-Fc

One thing that I had very little experience with before this trip as well was the risk of, and the safety precautions taken around avalanches. Skiing my whole life on the east coast and the tightly controlled bowls in the west coast, I was by far the most experienced skier there to have never seen a beacon in real life. We did a couple of exercises the first day to get acquainted with the equipment, which is very intuitive. With all the snow and windy weather during the week, we actually saw about 5 avalanches: 3 were just off in the distance roaring down a chute, but then our guide set one off that was absolutely massive, but he skied out above it. Then just a minute later, a small one caught one of the skiers and dragged him about 25 feet. He stayed on the surface the whole time, so there wasn´t any danger, but it was still a nerve-wracking sight and I can confess that it got into my head and my form was miserable the rest of the run. If I get into more big mountain skiing, avalanche gear will be high on the Christmas list.

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Overall, what an incredible week. Met some great new friends, got my skiing fix in for the year (although I did actually go this past weekend too, we´ll get there!) and escaped the city for a few days.

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On the way home, I decided I would spend a night and a day in Geneva, since I was flying through anyway. Geneva wraps around one pointy end of Lake Léman within sight of the French Alps. Although not on the top of the list for many people visiting Europe, I got to see the headquarters of the United Nations, as well as those for the Red Cross before wandering around the old part of the city. They also have a really impressive geyser in the bay of the lake, which appeared to be their main claim to fame. Everything in Switzerland was much more expensive, and they have their own currency so I tried not to spend very much money. And interestingly, a stark difference between Switzerland and Spain—A man stopped me after I almost (I didn´t even do it) jaywalked when the light was red for me. He explained that one will actually get a ticket in Switzerland for jaywalking and that he himself was charged heavily when he had just arrived. I was glad for the advice though, since I had not budgeted for a 100 Franc bill. Luckily though I did not have any more run-ins with the law, and made my way back to Barcelona uneventfully.

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So there´s adventure number one, thanks for reading! Next stop, Marrakech, Marruecos!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 12:21 Archived in France Tagged ski chamonix alps Comments (1)

Los Reyes and La Sagrada Familia

sunny 12 °C

Hello again everyone! I am finally getting caught up after a hectic and adventurous holiday season. Hope your new year has started out the right way!

A little bit more Spanish culture for you to start things off: Christmas is obviously (this is a very Catholic country) of the utmost importance here in Spain, but they actually do a cool thing that I wish the US would incorporate. The sixth of December is the day that the Bible tells is the day that the Three Magi (Kings, whatever they were) came bearing gifts for Jesus. Here in Spain, that day is yet another holiday, called Los Reyes (the Kings). It is on this day that the children receive their gifts from the Kings, and in fact since the sixth fell on a Sunday this year, children had school off on Monday as well. I was informed that this was so that they would have enough time to enjoy their new playthings. Duh. The nice thing that this does is separate the religious aspect of Christmas from the consumeristic aspect of Christmas, which I think oftentimes gets drowned out in American culture.

The reason this holiday affects me, and hence the reason I am explaining it, is because each year in the evening of the 5th, cities throw huge parades to welcome the kings to town (think Thanksgiving day parade with Santa at the end). The main focus of the parade are the three huge floats carrying each of the three kings, but second only to that is the candy theme running through the parade.

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From huge candy balloons to flatbed trucks rigged with candy-pults (which were actually quite dangerous, flinging hard candies everywhere, but the kids in the front were dialed in: I saw many a full candy bag as we left), this was clearly kid's day. There were even people walking around with clipboards and huge long lists of names. I asked a fellow bystander what they were, and they explained that they were the lists of the good kids for the year. Kids could go up and find out if they had made the good list (I didn't see any crying so I assume they all passed), at which point they would avoid the dreaded punishment of... wait for it... coal! See we do have some traditions in common! The bringers of the coal came in their own float at the very end, as to make sure that their dirty faces and mellow song would be the last thing to stick in childrens' heads!

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But of course the kings were the heros of the parade. The way it works here in Spain is that children write a letter to their favorite king, and then drop it in the nets of the helpers working with that king. With such huge crowds, you can imagine that collecting all of the letters is no easy task, except that they helpers were often outfitted with ridiculous crane-like backpacks that allowed them to reach over the crowd and leave no letter behind. (This is the best photo I got, you'll have to take my word for it that there's a net attached to the crazy contraption!)

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The Kings' floats were by far the biggest and most elaborate. Each of the kings was seated in an elegant chair, surrounded by huge flowers displaying their associated color.

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The woman that I talked to explained that the King Balthasar is the kids' favorite, since he comes replete with an escort of (mechanical) giraffes, elephants and african drummers. Sold me too!

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Although it amounted to a long while standing, the parade was one of the highlights of my time in Spain. It was a spectacular example of a unique cultural difference between Spain and the US, and yet I was still able to see the joy and wonder for the young kids (and occasionally their parents) that we associate with Christmas. Great night!

I was lucky enough that weekend to check off another major landmark from my Barcelona checklist. A friend from a different part of Spain was visiting, so I decided to go with the to La Sagrada Familia since I had not yet been. A short history of La Sagrada Familia: Construction began in 1882 and was Antoni Gaudí's baby. He worked on it diligently until his death in 1926 (less than a quarter of it had been finished). In fact his death is a tragic story: he was killed after being hit by a tram in the city. He had spent his every penny on the church and since he looked like a beggar, the bystanders to the accident refused to help. He received aid too late and perished. After his death, the construction relied on private donations and progressed slowly. In the 1930s during the civil war in Spain, a group of anarchists get into the studio in the basement of the church and burned many of the plans, leaving many of the finer details undefined. The project was suspended until the 1950s at which time new architects were hired to continue. Since then construction has progressed slowly. In 2010 the interior was finally finished, and the Pope came to consecrate the church. As of now, the project is scheduled to be completed in the 2026. Guess I'll have to come back!!

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The exterior of the church is simply stunning. The intricacy of the sculptures on the two finished façades is mind-blowing. One represents the birth of Christ and the other the Passion. I will append a photo here, but really it does the entire work very little justice. Take a look on my Flickr page for some more photos too! http://www.flickr.com/photos/douglasclift/

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Let me say first of all that I had heard some mixed reviews about going inside the church. It is certainly the most expensive church I have visited, but I reminded myself that the construction is now entirely dependent on entry fees and I felt better. You can also see a fair amount of the curch from the exterior.

Now, I have seen a lot of cathedrals since I got to Spain. Every city here has a Cathedral and they each have their own claim to fame. So while this wasn't my first rodeo, suffice it to say it might as well have been. The inside of the church is absolutely incredible and well worth the money. Gaudí was always looking to nature for inspiration and so designed the inside of the church to represent a forest, with the huge pillars mimicking tree trunks and branching limbs reaching toward the ceiling. It was also the most well-lit church I have seen so far. Stained glass was everywhere, so I assume the colorful mosaic of light I saw scattered across the church is present all day.

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As part of the entry fee, tourists get access to a museum dedicated to the close connection Gaudí had with nature, that inspired so much of his design, as well as a museum dedicated to the creative process of the man who designed the church. Overall, the experience was incredible and absolutely recommended!

So I think finally I have caught back up! I am looking forward to one more relaxing weekend before venturing to France for a week to ski in the Alps and poke around Geneva, Switzerland! So unless something momentus happens this weekend, I'll look forward to seeing you again right here in a few weeks!!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 11:38 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Feliz Año Nuevo!!

Christmas and New Year's adventures

overcast 12 °C

Hello again! Hope everyone's holidays were great, I have all sorts of adventures to share with you from the past few weeks, but first, let's talk about Christmas in Porto, Portugal!!

My roommate, Tiago, offered to take me in over the Christmas holidays this year, and the opportunity to join him and his family as they celebrated and ate good food was too good to pass up. As such, I flew in to Porto on the 19th of December to join him and his family. The city of Porto has a vastly different feel than the city of Barcelona, although no less beautiful. It is set up on a hill directly adjacent to the Douro River (translates to 'Of Gold'') and is endlessly hilly. Four gigantic bridges over the river connect Porto with its sister city Gaia and affort unbelievable views of the cities.

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Whereas in Barcelona I can orient myself immediately based on the continuous slope of the city toward the sea, I felt hopelessly turned around all the time in Porto. Good thing I had Tiago around to keep me straight! The city itself also feels much more old and industrial than Barcelona. While Barcelona seems to sparkle in the almost-endless sun, Porto felt a bit more grungy and blue-collar. Nevertheless, the city was beautiful. The common theme in architecture that I found numerous times on the edifices of churches, train stations and stores was a type of gorgeous painted tiling, found mostly in light blue paint over white background. It's the type of art which you can spend a long time studying for its unbelievable intricacy and detail.

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Porto's most famous export is actually the wine that is only produced upriver of the city in the Douro region of Portugal. People in and around this area are fiercely prideful of the unique, rich, alcoholic wine produced there, called Port. The grapes are grown and aged upriver and then transported down on these tiny motorless boats to the docks on either side of the river to be bottled and distributed. I don't have a great photo of the boats, but there is one in the bottom of the following photo. The scenery around the Douro made it all felt a bit like taking a step back in time.

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I would end up getting to try lots of this wine, and although I would like to blame it on my inability to say 'no' in Portuguese over Christmas dinner, I think the more likely explanation is that I thoroughly enjoyed it and didn't want to say no. Which brings me to the language differences. In general, more people in Portugal speak English than in Spain, however that is mostly limited to the younger generations. At home, Tiago was the only one who could speak English (or Spanish). This made for some funny exchanges between his family and myself. My personal favorite result of the communication problems was that every time I cleaned off my plate, they thought I was still hungry regardless of how much I had already eaten or the status of everyone else. I ate very well, needless to say.

One of the days, we traveled to Guimarães, which is known as the birthplace of Portugal. Back in the 9th century (a few years before the US constitution was written) it was founded and would become the seat for the County of Portugal, the birthplace of Alfonso I, the first king of Portugal, and also was the site of the Battle of São Mamede, which had a large influence on the foundation of the new country. The largest rememnant of bygone days is a huge, absolutely gorgeous castle on a hill overlooking the city.

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Sightseeing and adventuring aside, the reason I was in Porto in the first place was to experience Christmas! Christmas in Portugal is actually a two-day event, with a huge dinner in the evening on the 24th. The meal of choice for Tiago's family is octopus, codfish, potatoes and cabbage, an extremely hearty and delicious meal. I had never eaten well-cooked octopus before but it turned out to be absolutely excellent. After dinner at midnight, gifts were shared and opened, which was followed by a rousing game of 10 cent Bingo! Everyone at the table took a turn reading the numbers off the cards, so I just went with Spanish and hoped for the best. Luckily, the number systems are very similar so with a couple of pronunciation tweaks (and some translation from Tiago) I made it through fine. Although, I had a great three-game streak going at one point, and I'm not sure if that was a result of some favorable translating going on in my head or just luck!

Dinner on Christmas Day was more traditional, with turkey, lamb and potatoes. There were not as many fixings on the side like stuffing and squash, but the meat was cooked to perfection and I again stuffed myself just like I would have done at home.

Since I have gotten on the food train, why step off? Over and over before I left for Porto, I heard about how good the food is. And I am happy to report that I was not misled. The first day there I got to try some of the famous meat empanadas (don't actually know if they're famous, but the way Tiago talked about them before we left I have to assume they are!) and coffee. In contrast to the empanadas in Spain, these were delicious and extremely inexpensive.

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Finally, I have saved the best for last. In Porto, they have a local specialty called the 'Francesinha' which looks like the following. It was tops on everyone's list of things to try while in Porto, so of course I had two (at separate times of course). It really and truly embodied everything great about the Porto culinary scene: several different types of meat, pastry topping, melted cheese, a homemade tomato based sauce, a fried egg on the top, french fries to soak up the leftover sauce, and most importantly, no vegetables!! Feast your eyes.

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Well-fed and sufficiently rested, Tiago returned to Barcelona shortly after Christmas. It was an awesome trip, getting to experience the Portuguese culture and food and Christmas traditions was awesome, even though I missed my own family and our own traditions over Christmas very much. I hope you and yours had an excellent holiday season, and stay tuned in the next few days for my next post, which includes some more Barcelonin holiday traditions and a visit to Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia!!

That's all for now, take care and see you next time!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 03:20 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Feliz Navidad!!

sunny 14 °C

As promised, this is the Holiday edition of my blog! And by holiday I mean Christmas, since there is really only one holiday that is celebrated in Spain. They have some really fascinating traditions here in Catalunya (mostly having to do with pooping), so find the 10 year old boy in yourself and listen up!

The first Catalán tradition is called Caga Tío (Literally poop dude).

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In the photo above, see the wooden figures in the bottom left. The tradition is that the log is placed in a common area in the house before the 8th of december (Day of the Immaculate Conception). The log is covered with a blanket, and every day between the 8th and the 25th small morsels are placed under the blanket by the adults of the family. Then, on the 25th, the children in the family sing one of a variety of songs that invariably command the log to poop! They also have special sticks with which they beat on the log to the beat of the song. After the song, the children reach under the blanket to grab a treat. So I would compare this tradition to stockings in the US, with smaller treats.

Also, there is the Catalán tradition of the Caganer (notice the similarity in their names). This one has a bit more concrete history, as it calls for the addition of a special figurine to the nativity scene: a man mid-defecation! The Cataláns I have talked to have no idea about the history of such an addition to the nativity scene (my Portuguese roommate offered: 'They're all crazy?') but wikipedia takes some speculative stabs at it if you are interested. The fact remains that the figurines are very popular. In the Christmas markets near the Catedral you can't find a stall without a Caganer. The traditional dress, includes a white shirt with a red neckerchief and red hat (bottom of the following photo).

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They also love to make them potential collector's items, so you can find an Obama or Darth Vader or Lionel Messi, or Cookie Monster caganer if you so desire.

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So there are your Catalán Christmas traditions! Along with these ridiculous things, I have encountered some interesting food as well (minus the poop, though). I was looking around the city for some gifts the other day when I ran into the biggest pot of soup I have ever seen:

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And they were giving away free bowls! So of course I had two. The soup, called Sopa de Galets, is made up of large noodles, softened carrots, clear broth and large chunks of unidentified meat. I know that there are some interesting meats that are sold and eaten here, and I had a sneaking suspicion that this was the case here. Indeed, when I talked to a Catalán friend later in the day, he told me likely I had eaten pig ear and/or pig tail. Which might really disgust me, except that I really admire the willingness to not waste any part of the animal. And the meat wasn't bad tasting, but had a texture that fit nicely in between meat and cartilage. Don't get me wrong, if offered some again I wouldn't turn it down!

Finally, for a country in severe recession, they have put a lot of time and money into their Christmas lights and decorations. Every major street is lined with lights of different color and design, making for a very festive feeling. Now we could just use some snow!

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Also, in Plaza de Sant Jaume, right in front of the Town Hall, in three large Christmas baubles, they have set up a series of Nativity scenes, including one of the Immaculate Conception, the journey of the three kings, and finally the classical nativity scene. Although the government and church have decided that they will not uphold the tradition of the caganer, he seems to have snuck his way in to the image of the Three Kings!

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So much for the separation of church and state, huh? So there you have it-- Bon Nadal desde Cataluña!!

I am getting ready to depart for Porto, Portugal, tomorrow to spend Christmas with my roommate and his family, so I can imagine I will have lots to talk about upon returing to Barcelona! And with that, I will take my leave and (provided we make it past the end of the world in a few days) wish you and yours happy holidays! Hasta luego!

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Posted by dclift 19:21 Archived in Spain Comments (1)

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