A Travellerspoint blog

Headed West: Galicia and Ourense

sunny 23 °C

Continuing my attempt at conquering the majority of Spain, I found myself last weekend in Galicia, which is the region directly north of Portugal in the Northwest corner of the country. As is a fairly common theme in Spain, there is a different language spoken there, this time a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese, called Gallego. Of course everyone who grows up there speaks it, but its prevalence is not so ubiquitous as catalán is in Catalunya, and for the most part Spanish is the most common language. Anyway, I took an early flight out of Barcelona on Friday and into Santiago de Compostela, the major city in the region. Upon landing, I was stunned with how similar the countryside is to New England. I haven't been searching around Spain for the Vermont equvalent, but greener than green rolling countryside and a brisk morning made me realize that I miss home a little bit!

Interestingly enough, my flight into Santiago was almost empty, while the flight out was full. And I assume that this is generally the case. The reason for this is that Santiago de Compostela is home to La Catedral de Santiago (literally the cathedral of Saint James) as is the end point to the world-famous Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims (since the early middle ages) have been coming from all over the world to start in a variety of locations around Spain and France and walk hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of kilometers to arrive at this church, which is apparently the burial place of the remains of the apostle James. The church is absolutely gigantic and occupies the entire center of the city. Each façade is stylized differently, but the Façade de Obradoiro is the most famous, and actually appears on the back of the 1,2 and 5 cent Euro coins that get made in Spain.

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The inside of the church is no less stunning. As is normal for Romanesque cathedrals, the floor plan is shaped like a cross, with the altar at the center. In such an important church, I wasn't too surprised to learn that they hold three masses per day. The one at noon, however, is a bit special, as it is specifically for the pilgrims. I happened by just after noon, and was greeted by a rather strange sight: hundreds of people dressed for a hike, backpacks, boots, hiking poles and all, packing the gigantic cathedral for a mass that for many, represents a culmination of many days of blisters and exhaustion. The stectrum of involvement in the service ranged from seriously attentive to the mass (which was in Spanish) to seriously attentive to their camera and documenting the moment. And I cannot blame the people documenting the events, as there is something very special about the ceremony that happens in few other churches around the world. Catholics will already know that part of the mass is the swinging of the 'thurimble.' For those now confused, a thurimble is an ornate metallic lamp-looking object that a priest wields during the mass. It is usually attached to a chain and burning incense on the inside in place of a candle causes the smoke and smell to waft over the gathered congregation. The reason for the hype about the thurimble in Santiago, which is called the Botafumiero, or 'smoke expeller' in Gallego, is its size. It weighs about 180 lbs and is about 4.5 feet tall, and gets attached to the ceiling of the cathedral almost directly over the altar. Then, eight men, the tiraboleiros, pull on the rope to which the thurimble is attached, causing it to swing rapidly (think a playground swing) releasing incense in a thick cloud over the attendees. I was in awe at the beginning, which turned to fascination and a bit of fear when I saw how fast it was moving (if you get hit, it will really ruin your day!) and back to awe as I realize that these guys had done this before. At its height, the botafumeiro reaches over 60 feet high, and the distance of the arc is triple that. It was quite the amazing thing to behold! It is also extremely effective at removing the stink of the plethora of backpackers that pack the cathedral each day, perhaps this is why it is so large! (It's tough to see in the photo, but it's the silver thing on the right connected to the rope coming from the top of the photo!)

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Another thing about Galicia is the weather. And the food. But really they go hand in hand, because (at least I am told) that the weather in Galicia is really poor for 3/4 of the year (hey sounds like Rochester!). But as a result, they take a lot of pride in their food, and have some of the best of it in Spain, especially in terms of seafood. One of the dishes that can be found all over Spain is called Galician Octupus, so I jumped at the chance to try it in its native territory. I had already tried Pulpo Gallego (pulpo is octupus) outside, and I was not prepared for the profound difference between the real stuff and the fake stuff. Inevery experience up to that point, octopus has been chewy and tough, but with lots of good taste. So when I threw the first mouthful in and it absolutely melted away in my mouth, I had a revelation (albeit perhaps an unfortunate one, since I won't be happy with Pulpo Gallego outside of Galicia again). It was absolutely on another level. And the food adventures began in earnest.

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In fact, one of my most favorite parts of the city was the market on the outskirts of town. Each city in Spain has a marketplace, in which most days of the week you can stock up on your fresh meat and fish and produce. In Santiago it was quite extensive, occupying several long buildings. Unfortunately on this miraculously sunny Friday afternoon most of the owners were out and about and not tending their stalls. One thing that I really love about Spain is how close you are to the origin of your food (especially meat). In the US we are incredibly sheltered from where our meat comes from and how it gets there. When you are walking around the stalls and there are chickens partially defeathered and butchers are carving into legs of beef it is abundantly clear. And in Galicia, you can see the octopus ready to go into the pot!

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But seriously, how many ten year olds in the US would be able to correlate the breast of chicken they pick up out of fridge in the grocery store with the bird tittering around the farm? It is a shame that we have forgotten these sorts of things and just let companies dictate our feelings toward meat. In these moments, there is a part of me that sees the value in being vegetarian, if only to make a statement about our ignorance about the origins of our food. And then I remember how much I love a good steak or a turkey dinner. Sorry! But I will not soon forget the image of the rabbits, eyeballs and all, chilling (literally) in the refridgerators to be bought and brought home. And of course this applies to all the cities I have visited in Spain, not just Santiago, but it was an interesting thought that I just recently put my finger on. Excuse the tangent. One really cool feature of the market in Galicia was a restaurant just inside the doors that had an interesting offer. For a couple of euros, the chef will take your fresh-bought meat and vegetables and cook them for you right there, before serving you in the restaurant. Talk about fresh! If the marketplace had been more open and perhaps with a friend I would have tried out this service, but things were wrapping up, so I moved on. What a cool idea, though!

Also in Santiago that day, and the following weekend, was a festival in a nearby park. With small amusement rides and cotton candy stands and a ferris wheel, it presented a really strange juxtaposition of the new, gaudy, plastic, loud, and smelly of the makeshift amusement park with the old, sturdy, worn feeling from the old city that I had just walked through.

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In the end, I had planned on spending a whole day in Santiago, since it is not a large city, and found it to be plenty, almost too much. I had the wonderful opportunity to find a tree in a park and read a little bit before having a proper siesta in preparation for my train to Ourense!

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Ourense, Spain is not on everyone's list of places to visit in the country. It is a little city of 100,000 inland from the coast of Santiago with not a lot of draw. It is a beautiful city, though.

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However, I was a special case: I have a connection there. An American girl that I met in Sevilla (remember Rebecca?) way back in the fall lives there teaching English, and she promised to show me around her city if I got the chance to make it there. Of course I find cities so much enjoyable when you have someone to show you the best spots, so I had to try to take her up before she leaves at the end of this month. We planned that I would arrive on Friday and hang around til Sunday evening. Lucky for me, she and her roommates were entertaining some guests that evening (did I mention her favorite hobby is cooking? Sure, I'll taste the soup!) so I came at the perfect moment for an American classic. Homemade tomato soup with grilled tuna and cheese sandwiches for the dipping. Awesome dinner I hadn't even realized I was missing! As per usual in Spain, the dinner wasn't over until after midnight, at which point we started making plans for the weekend.

On the spur of the moment, Rebecca and I decided to join her other roommate and some friends for an excursion to Isla Cíes the next day. Unsure of the logistics, we just bought a return ferry trip at 1:30 am and went to bed ready to catch the 9 am bus to the port, located in the city of Vigo, an hour and a half drive away! For those who have traveled with me before I have this problem with being on time for things. And by on time, I mean early. The earlier the better. I am always way too early to the airport for flights, and get antsy if it's going to be tight. So a bus scheduled to get into Vigo at 10:30 for a ferry at 11 followed by a ferry from the island at 5:30 followed by a bus back at 6:25 (a 45 minute ferry ride) made it a stressful trip. Especially given that everything in Spain runs late! Except the only saving grace was that when I say everything, I mean everything-- buses and ferries alike. So we were right on time for all engagements woohoo!

Anyway, let me actually describe the trip. Rebecca and I hopped on the bus for the trip to Vigo, and arrived at the port to an absolutely gorgeous spring day. If I had a Euro-nickle for every time someone opined how lucky I was to have a sunny weekend in Galicia I would be a rich man. Apparently I got lucky, but honestly at the end of the day the burned tops of my feet could have done with a little cloud cover. Like seemingly every coastal town in Spain, Vigo is tucked away in a nook of mountains that leads down to the water. I was focused on making a ferry on the way in to the city so I missed good opportunities to take pictures from the bus, but you'll have to take my word that the city is beautiful. In fact, our taxi driver on the way to the ferry explained that he actually splits his time between Vigo and somewhere in Mexico (can't remember the name): summers in Vigo, winters in Mexico. As he put it, the summers in Vigo are the best in the world. He seemed like a pretty well-traveled guy, so I'll have to take his word, and this day certainly didn't disappoint.

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We finally made it to the ferry and trundled aboard all of us. The vast majority of people aboard the ferry were young adults, and as we got under way, the speakers started blaring dance music and the people got on their feet, several beers were produced (at 11am, no thanks!) and a dance party commenced with the passage of the ferry. In semi-related news, once we disbarked, the dance party people disappeared to parts of the island unknown and we didn't see them for the rest of the day!

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The scenery around the port and out to the island reminded me lots of the Carribean. Crystal blue waters (not the temperature of the water, though, it was like an ice bath after practice), and islands rising sharply out of the water with extremely white, fine-grained sand beaches greeted us at the end of the ferry ride. Isla Cíes is actually a natural reserve, so trash and walking on the island is closely watched. We had been given trash bags for the transport of our trash off the island, and the paths around it were paved and fenced. We had all intentions to explore the island but noone in the group could find much motivation to do anything except take in those rays that the locals had been missing for the past six months. We did, however, purchase a set of 'Palas'or paddles with a ball to knock around between us. Because those who know me also know that I have a hard time sitting still on a towel all day.

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It was a spectacular day surrounded by new friends and old friends and awesome scenery. One interesting thing did happen near the end, however. As we were packing up our things, I noticed a large sailboat in the makeshift harbor moving a bit more than it should. Sure enough, it became clear that the anchor had come loose, and the boat was drifting toward another of the boats. I watched in helpless (no chance was I braving the aforementioned icebath to swim to help) horror as it clunked angrily into another yacht. Luckily the owner of the second yacht was aboard and came out to nudge the offending boat away, and I expected him to climb aboard to try to attach the anchor again. But remember, this is Spain, and I watched unbelieving as he simply held away the other boat until it had drifted past before climbing back below decks on his own boat. Thankfully, there was another attentive fellow with a dingy, who came out and reattached the anchor of the flailing ship. But really, how could someone just let an unmoored boat drift past at the peril of itself and the other boats anchored around?! Crazy. After 20 minutes of figuring out the best course of action, the boat was finally reanchored more or less in its original spot. I am presuming that they owners of the boat were out exploring the island, what a nasty surprise it would have been to return and find your boat gone!

After a very relaxing day, in which I only forgot to apply sunscreen to the tops of my feet and my lower back (relatively successful), we boarded the ferry back for stressful ride number two. Luckily, we made it to the bus station right on time, and walked onto the bus back to Ourense.

Periodically in Ourense, I am told, they have pinchos (tapas, basically) festivals, in which all of the local restaurants put together a special pincho dish to serve to the public. After three pinchos, a person is allowed to cast a vote for their favorite pincho, and at the end the votes are counted and the winning restaurant is rewarded. The reward for us as consumers is a variety of unbelievable pinchos scattered through the old part of the city, and I was lucky enough to arrive in the middle of one of these festivals. Unfortunately, we only managed to leave the flat at 10 pm in search of pinchos, and since places were really crowded we only got to try two pinchos: one a big fried potato ball filled with Spanish sausage, and the other an octopus dish sautéed with peppers and onions. Both were out of this world. Afterward, I stayed out a bit to experience the Ourense nightlife, which felt very much like the nightlife in Barcelona, only confined to about three blocks in the city center. We called it a (Spanish) early night at about 3 am and headed to bed happily exhausted after a long, sun- and food-filled day.

If there is a calling card for Ourense, it is the hot springs beside the river that runs through the city. Some are free, others have been turned into spas. Rebecca, her roommate Tara and I decided to try one of the paid ones the next day, since Rebecca hadn't been there yet either. We knew that with various sunburned parts it might be uncomfortable, but we were not prepared for how uncomfortable the tops of our feet would be. Rebecca and I tried our best to float around with our feet above the water for a bit, but the resulting ab workout was just too much, and we succumbed to a few minutes of pain before adjusting, and the remaining time wasn't too bad.

We weren't allowed to bring cameras into the spa, so I will have to describe it to the best of my ability. The pools were split into two groups, and the idea is to follow a certain pool progression of either relaxation or agressive rejuvenation. As we didn't have a ton of time, we kind of hopped between whichever pool seemed like the most fun. Some were inside the building itself, others were in seemingly natural pools outside under cabanas, other had pretty vicious water jets to massage sore muscles, others were piping hot, or cool, and (of course) each had a special mineral or salt designed to aid you on your journey of rejuvenation. Honestly my favorite part of these hot springs is that they aren't chlorinated, so the rest was just icing on the cake! Although our visit was a bit frenetic, I did find the whole experience quite relaxing, but in an extremely different atmosphere to those in Budapest... And wow, look at who is becoming a thermal spring connoiseur!!! So if your travels are taking you through Ourense, Spain, check out the thermal springs!

After the springs, we made the trek back on foot, as the goofy little road-train that brought us on the fifteen minute ride out to the springs was full on the ride back. Upon arrival in the flat, I only had a few hours left in Ourense, so dinner of vegetable tortilla was the topper to a great weekend in Ourense!

There is one last notable thing on the weekend; that is the hostel situation in Santiago. After hopping on the evening train back to Santiago in order to catch my morning flight back to Barcelona, I arrived at the hostel at 11 pm. Along the aforementioned Pilgramage path, there are a network of hostels for the backpackers to stay in, but these are unlike any hostels I have ever seen. Since the people are walking all day every day, experiencing the city's nightlife is not high on the list of patrons, and sure enough, when I arrived, the reception desk had closed at 10 and a note with my name was pasted outside had a number to call. During the phone conversation I was given the keycode to the hostel door and told which bed in which room was mine. The sheets and pillowcase were already there with a small placard bearing my name. Unfortunately everything was wrapped in plastic and my entire dorm of 10 was already asleep, so I felt terrible tearing open my present to get at the sheets inside. All for six hours of sleep before my flight! But these types of people are understanding, and besides that I got my due when one of them began sawin it off like a buzzsaw about fifteen minutes later. Ah hostels.

An uneventful trip to the airport in the morning saw me back in Barcelona around 11 am to make it to work just a little late, finishing another great weekend filled with friends and adventures!

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Hey look at that, I think I'm finally caught back up! Let's see how long I can keep on my roll! Take care, and talk to you soon!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 09:53 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Buda & Pest

sunny 20 °C

Alright, let's try to keep the ball rolling! I am writing this post from a train in between Santiago de Compostela and Ourense, in Galicia.... But that's a story for another time! Right now let's talk about the other major stop on my tour of Austria and Hungary, Budapest!

This leg started off poorly enough, when I realized as we were pulling away from the train station that I had left my camera in the room we were sleeping in at Kata's house. Loads better than having left it at a hostel somewhere, as she kindly mailed it back to me in Barcelona, but it meant that I was without a camera in Budapest. So I have gone onto facebook and stolen the photos I like best from my new friends, so I actually appear in more of them than normal!

The three of us arrived in Budapest about noon on Tuesday, and went straight to the hotel to check in. The program took care of our hotel accommodations, and our expectations were not let down. The Intercontinental sits right on the Danube River, which splits the city in half. All of our rooms had views of the river and the hill directly on the other side with the palace and fisherman's bastion. Not a terrible view to see upon throwing open the blinds in the morning.

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So we ventured down into the lobby to explore a little bit. And encountered a fellow Whitaker that we remembered from orientation. So I was surprised (and a bit relieved) to find out that Budapest and Barcelona are in the same time zone. However, for Danielle, coming from Australia, the jet lag would be an absolute battle all week. I can't imagine. Anyway, she was looking a little bewildered and took the opportunity to join us for a walk up to the aforementioned hill to see some of the sights.

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Now, a bit about Budapest. First the language- it's actually called Magyar, and absolutely is the craziest language (written in the latin alphabet) that I have ever seen. Apparently it's also related to Finnish. Languages are fascinating. Anyway, luckily, most people speak passable English, or else it would be impossible to communicate. Also, the city of Budapest is actually two cities, Buda, and Pest, which are separated by the Danube. I kid you not. Buda is on the hilly side of the river, and has the Palace, Fisherman's Bastion and lots of caves within the hills. Pest is the center of the city, and was home to our hotel, St. Steven's Basilica, the opera house, and the market.

So the four of us ventured forth from the hotel across the river and up the hills of Buda. Part of the program was a guided tour on one of the evenings, and we weren't sure where the tour would take us, so we guessed... Wrong. And it took us to the same place. I suppose, though, that the first go around was great for snapping photos of unknown pretty things (well I wasn't doing any snapping) and the tour was good for learning about those pretty things. So I'll put everything here together as best as I can. At the bottom of the hill was the world's oldest funicular. (Good Balderdash word?) A funicular is a cable car that works on a pulley to use half it's weight to assist the trip up the hill. Unfortunately the cable car itself is less interesting than the awesome sigil painted on the wall at the bottom.

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The palace at the top of the hill is absolutely gigantic, and was the castle and palace for Hungarian kings starting in the 1200s. Unfortunately, here too we see the results of the World War. There is a big building just next to the Palace that is riddled with shrapnel holes from bombings that rocked the area during the war. Coming from a country that has seen continued peace within its immediate borders from many many years, it continues te be jarring to see vestiges of the atrocities of war scattered in the biggest cities in Europe.

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Further down, there is a magnificent, 700 year old church called Matthias Church -- it is completely white with ornate and colorful roof tiles. The guide explained that there is a small town in Hungary that specializes in producing these tiles and they are distributed all over the country for some of the most iconic buildings. In fact, I realized that the roof of the Stephansdom in Vienna is made with these as well.

Since I neglected to put any photos of the Stephansdom, here is the roof there:

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And here is the Matthias Church in Budapest:

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Just behind the church is a structure that looked lifted from Disney World. The curving walls and turrets, we were told, were built in 1898 for the defense of the city, and was manned by the fishermen's guild, thus earning the name The Fishermen's Bastion. There are seven turrets representing each of the seven original Hungarian Tribes, dating back millennia.

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After walking back to the Pest side of the city, we adventured to find another well-known church, St Stephen's Basilica, named after the first King of Hungary. This church relatively new, having been finished in 1905, but it is one of the most breathtaking churches I have been in since I got here. I will let the photos speak for themselves, but suffice it to say that after all of the Gothic monstrosities I have entered, the colorful marble gives the church a warm, dark feeling that I really liked.

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Oh that's right, there was a conference too! About 65 of us have been scatted over the globe, doing scientific projects related to biomedical engineering. It is a hugely wide field, so presentations were widely varied, but all cool. There is a girl researching the cells in the eye that regulate intraocular pressure in order to better understand glaucoma. There is a guy implementing his prosthetic arm in Guatemala and spends each day working with people and perfecting his device. There is another girl working to create a new and improved inner-ear hearing aid. My friend Ross uses stem cells to facilitate skin healing after a burn or trauma. So although there were around 10 hours of presentations over three days, all were very interesting and well done. Plus the people that I got to meet and network with while there really put it over the top as an incredible week. We all lamented by the end that we had to part ways around the world with our tens of new friends. Many of us will keep in touch and continue to have relationships as we begin new phases of life after the Whitaker. Here is a photo I took with three alumni from the University of Rochester! We were probably the best-represented school there, with three scholars and one post-doctoral fellow!

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Back to the culture! On one of the evenings, we were given The option to either attend the opera Madame Butterfly or to go to an art museum for a collection of Spanish and Italian art. I elected the opera and was certainly not disappointed. The opera house in Budapest is an intimate place, with vertical boxes rising above the floor seats. I was lucky enough to get put in the third deck of the boxes, and had an excellent view of the stage. It was my first opera and it was quite something to sit in Budapest and listen to an opera performed in Italian with Hungarian subtitles and interact with all of my American colleagues. The opera itself was interesting-- luckily the story line was simple enough that I managed to follow along without too much trouble. Hopefully at some point I'll go to one with at least English subtitles! (In the following photo, I am sitting up on the third level just outside of the photo on the left.

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One of Budapest's other claim to fames is the presence of thermal baths scattered around the city. I can't exactly describe the mechanism by which these occur, but basically they are areas with naturally heated springs, that some intelligent individual has harnessed and charges for entry. We decided to go check them out one morning early before the talks and our willingness to get up a little early was rewarded as the baths were unbelievable. In a relatively non-descript building in the middle of park, there are a set of probably ten baths, inside and outside, and ranging in temperature, mineral presence and sulfuric smell. Some had water falls, and others were circular pools with a slow current to push you around. Some of the people were playing chess on the side of the pool while soaking. Hope the pawns float! There was actually nothing in particular to set them apart from normal pools and hot tubs, except for the slight smell in some and I had to remind myself several times that these were earth-heated. Apparently there is a specific order in which to move through the baths, but we kind of just hopped in the ones that looked cool (read: warm) and then moved on. Also, apparently Friday morning is not the select time for the young and hip, as we got many a curious glance from the throng of old, fat men walking around the pools in their speedos. There were flyers up for big parties in the pool on the weekends, so I suppose we just chose our moment poorly. But we did leave the pools relaxed and energized for the final day of presentations.

The last evening of the conference, we were given one last networking and connecting opportunity on a dinner cruise out on the Danube River! It was an absolutely gorgeous evening, well spent with food and drinks and great new friends!

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Finally spent after a week of travel and science, I returned to Barcelona on Saturday and slept quite well, thank you very much! So there you have it; my Vienna and Budapest adventures!

As always, hope all is well with you!

Hasta luego!

Posted by dclift 11:36 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest opera thermal baths Comments (0)

Headed east

Vienna and Budapest

sunny 18 °C

Hello again e'erybody! Time to step back into the time machine for a quick trip through April 'til some excitement at the end! Here we go!

I actually found out, while my parents were here in February and much to my surprise that I would need to move out of my old flat on the 1st of April. Apparently my roommate Matteo was fed up with dealing with the landlady who had given him trouble over the past years, and he was ready to live on his own. It left two options: for Tiago and myself to both look for a new place to live, or for us to stay and find a new roommate, as well as take over the responsibility of the flat: bills etc. Neither of us were excited about those prospects, so we decided to go separate ways and head in new directions. I now find myself living in a new flat! Hopefully in the next couple of weeks I can upload a few photos and describe the roommates and everything, but I thought it was worth a mention. Nothing like a little excitement halfway through my grant!

Ok, so April was full of getting to know the new roommates and actually I got moderately sick there in the middle, so I was really excited to get healthy just in time for the next adventure! My program, called the Whitaker Fellowship, holds a conference each year for the current grantees somewhere in Europe. This year it was held in Budapest, Hungary! The conference ran on a Tuesday to a Friday, so Ross and I planned a bit ahead to go to Vienna the weekend before, so I'll start there!

Well actually, I'll start in Barcelona before the trip begins. So I have been extremely lucky to have a salary while here, but I have still been flying as much as possible with the budget airlines that travel around Spain and Europe. However, my program is not under the same budgetary restrictions, so they booked my flight to Budapest with Lufthansa. While by no means a luxury liner, I found it to be even nicer than flights in the US now. There was leg room, and they gave be food and drink on all of the flights, including a beer on the way from Munich to Barcelona on the way home. It was so refreshing, for the next flights I peeked at what the prices would be to fly with a real airline and should have known better, really. The prices were four times as much. It's the budget airlines for me!

Ok, so I left after work on Friday, knowing that I would get into Budapest late. We were thinking that we might just go to the train station and sleep there in preparation for our early train to Vienna, but when I got off the plane in Budapest and found Ross and our other companion, Sasi, they had already scoped out some niiiice comfortable metal chairs. Since we didn't know how nice the train station would be, we stayed put. And boy am I happy we did! We found out when we arrived in the morning that the train station there is not exactly built for comfort, so we were relieved that we had made the right decision!

So before we left, Ross had told Sasi and I that he had some family friends (it will take two lines to explain all of the connections, and I'm bound to get it wrong anyway), who live in Vienna and were willing to put us up for the three nights we were there. Little did I know that we would be treated to absolutely king treatment. Wolfgang, the father picked us up from the train station directly and took us to their house, which is a flat just to the northwest of the city. When we walked in at about 9, there was a gigantic breakfast waiting for us on the table! Replete with bread, cheese, fish, eggs, stuffed bell peppers, orange juice... honestly I can't even remember everything on the table and it was like that every day we were there! Notice I am quite happy to ignore the camera!

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Normally when Ross and I travel, we grab a map from the desk and wander around the sights of the city. Not in Vienna! Wolfgang's wife, Kata, had recently retired and was absolutely keen to drive us around the city and show us the sights. She explained that it was much nicer to see the sights in the car first so that we could go back and visit the special ones later. With her in charge, we had the whirlwind tour, including museums, monuments, the famous Viennese opera house, and many a gargantuan palace.

In the countries that I have visited so far, there are vistiges of conflict. The spanish Civil War took a huge toll on many cities and people, and relatively short time ago. However, in Vienna I encountered a much more publicized conflict for the first time: World War II. One image in particular I remember from one history class is the black and white film footage of Hitler standing on the balcony of a huge palace, waving a thousands of cheering people in the yard below. When I walked out into the courtyard of the Hofburg, each of us had a moment of surreal feeling that this was a place history, bad, sad history had happened.

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It would be a feeling repeated in Budapest, unfortunately. The palace itself, however, is a mighty thing, housing many kings to have ruled in Austria, including the Habsburg dynasty which ruled much more than just Austria. Their reach spread even as far as Spain, so that name was not unknown to me. However, the three of us elected to go into a different palace, called the Schönbrunn Palace, which served as their summer palace, to get away from the heat and hustle and bustle of the city in the summer. It was a tough life being a Habsburg king.

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The grounds were just immaculate, and although they were still planting for the spring, a few flowers could be found.

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And perched up on a hill next to the palace is a monument, called the Gloriet, which was erected as a dining hall for the emperorand made for a great spot for a walk and some incredible sights of the city!

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One of the other major sights in Vienna is called the Stephansdom, a huge cathedral dedicated to St. Stephens which was erected in the 1300s. They have covered the huge windows of the interior up with saran-wrap like paper to shed colorful light all over the interior, but it looked a lot like most of the other Gothic churches I have been in, so I'll spare the gory details (also I apprently don't have any photos, so that's not even an option! However, fear not...)

This is opposed to a church on the other side of the city, which is in the Baroque style, and which I found to be much more pleasing. This one is called Karlskirche, or St. Charles Church, and was erected in the 1700s by Charles VI one year after the last plague epidemic out of respect for his namesake, Charles Borromeo who was said to have healing powers.

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Speaking of the plague, after fleeing from the plague in 1697, the emperor then vowed to erect a mercy column if the plague would end. Of course it did, so the city of Vienna is left with this Pestsäule, a quite stunning, intense tower in the middle of the city, with many religious figures adorning the base.

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Finally, on our last night in Vienna, Kata took us out to eat for dinner at a little place that serves mostly as a winery in the hills outside of the city. There, we were treated to some incredible Viennese food (schnitzle, among other awesome dishes), and fresh wine, and surprisingly, a duo of musicians playing local and Hungarian music on the accordian and violin. Soon they were joined by a sufficiently inebriated Viennese man who added some dancing and singing to the mix. What an evening!

The entrance to the restaurant:

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And the food:

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And the musicians:

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Kata and her brother being seranaded:

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I feel like I close with this line a lot, but ya know, if it ain't broke, don't fix it! So here you go, what an unbelievable couple of days! The hospitality shown by Kata and her family was outstanding, and the city of Vienna was beautiful in so many different ways to what I have been seeing in Spain. And with that, on Tuesday morning, we were off to Budapest!

Aaand that's all for now. It got longer than I expected so I'll spare you the epic post and try my best to add in Budapest soon!

As always, hope all is well with you, stay safe!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 10:45 Archived in Austria Tagged vienna Comments (0)

Another catch-up attempt: Las Fallas

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Back to the time machine! I have given up trying to fit everything in since my mountain is only getting taller and taller, so I will just hit the highlights now! And maybe catch up here someday!

So we are headed to Valencia for the weekend of the 16th to 19th of March, for one of the most famous festivals in Spain, called Las Fallas. We were only able to join for the main weekend, but the festival itself funs for about a month running up to the 19th of March every year. I made the trip down on the train again to meet up with Ross and his roommates, one of whom had just moved to Valencia for work. As such, he offered us a mattress on the floor in his flat, which we were happy to occupy for the weekend.

A couple things about Valencia before talking about the festival itself. Valencia is in its own region of Spain, but alaso has its own language, which is an accented Catalán (as described by a Catalán-- I'm sure that a Valenciano would say the opposite). However, it is not spoken as much in Valencia as Catalán is in Barcelona, so that was a nice break for me. Valencia's other major claim to fame (besides the festival) is paella. Paella is a rice-based dish, typically made with a sweet tomato sauce with saffron and simmered in the oven until the rice is cooked. Many people just buy it wherever in Spain, assuming it is a general Spanish dish, it actually originated in Valencia and the best paella can be found there. And although it is typically thought of as being made with seafood, traditional paella is made with the leftover meat in the house- rabbit, chicken and pork. Consider me your myth-buster today! So an obligatory stop while we were there was to a local restaurant to test some homemade paella! Now, there is a third type that I have not yet told you about, but have a look at the photo--

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It's called black rice, and it is made with... squid ink! It was by far the blackest food I have ever eaten, and although the taste was pretty mild, just the color was enough to make me think twice, since food that color is not usually healthy to eat! In fact, the taste was relatively bland, just mostly fishy, and the ink itself was quite greasy, very much like pen ink, so unless I go on a date and she's dying to try the black paella, I'll stay away from here on out. And actually, even then, since it stained all of our teeth! But quite the experience-- also take note that instead of bringing a serving for everyone, they just make a pan big enough for the party. Our skillet was for five, but they were hauling even bigger ones out of the kitchen, for tables as large as 8! That was quite the experience.

Another quick thing about Valencia before the festival: Valencia was one of the cities that really boomed during the Spanish golden years (economically) in the 90s and 00s, so there is a section of town called the 'City of Arts and Sciences' which houses a museum of science, an opera house, a multi-purpose concert sporting venue and an Imax cinema and planetarium, among other things. Just the modern architecture, sharply juxaposed against the older Spanish architecture in the center of the city, is a bigger draw however, and we saw many a tourist like us simply walking around, mouth open. I felt like we had walked onto the set of Star Wars.

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Ok, enough with the trivialities, let's talk about the real reason we found ourselves in Valencia that weekend: Las Fallas. The festival itself is held to honor Saint Joseph and lasts around 3 weeks. There are several traditions that go along with the festival, so I'll shoot for least to most exciting. The first is the dress and flower ceremony in the city. There are parades almost constantly all weekend long that involve the 'Falleras'-- girls and women from the city and surrounding towns that have entered into a supremely involved beauty pageant. I don't know all of the specifics, but I heard that the winner might shell out thousands of euros on appearances and events to campaign in her favor. I don't know much about beauty pageants, but all of the women were certainly beautiful, and boy do I get the feeling that George Lucas might have used the Falleras as a model for Leia...

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Another major part of the festival is the flower parade, in which these aforementioned Falleras bring bouquets of flowers in to one of the main plazas in the city to be mounted on a huge statue of the Virgen Mary. A long a grueling task for the people actually responsible for putting the flowers in the wooden scaffolding, but with a stunningly beautiful reward.

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You may have noticed the fire in the first photo, and if you were wondering if this would be the first major festival here without an element of fire, I'm here to tell you it's not. In fact, the parade during which I caught that photo quickly turned into a toned down version of the Correfoc that I saw in Barcelona back in September. And the parade wasn't all the fire to be had, either. Two other traditions for this festival include La Despertá, which takes place early in the (edit: every) morning and involves roaming marching bands rousing people up for another day of fiesta. And if the band doesn't do the trick, the people following the band throwing 'petardos' (firecrackers) should. In fact, over the four days I was there, the city sounded like a war zone. My ears were quite happy to leave when it came time.

Then, every day during the last week at 1 pm, the city closes down a section of the center square and has a fireworks show, called La Mascletá. Of course during the day, there is not much to see, so the show focuses on making A LOT of noise, and making it in rhythmic fashion. We went the first day and were a little far back, so we improved position the second day, and the noise was so loud you could feel the sound waves concussing your chest. The ground felt like it was moving. Spectacular. And yes, mom, we bought and wore 'tapónes para los oídos'!!

The main attraction of the festival are the Fallas themselves: huge wooden and styrofoam sculptures that get erected around the city. I will sprinkle some photos of them in among the text as I explain a bit about the festival.

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Throughout the year, each neighborhood in the city and the towns around it hold fundraisers (usually involving paella) to raise money to pay for their Falla in preparation for getting judged at the festival. This knowledge was a bit of a relief, as I at first assumed the money was coming from the cash-strapped government.

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Of course there is one falla funded by the government and it is usually one of the biggest in the city, so my relief was shortlived.

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Each of the fallas has a theme, which is oftentimes related to government figures or prominent athletes. Some are more difficult to decipher than others,

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and some are more R rated than others.

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But all of them are done in lighthearted fun. However, only one falla willl survive the weekend, because the last major event of the festival is the Cremá, or the burning. Starting around 10 pm on the last night, the Fallas begin to burn, watched over by the local fire departments. We went to see one of the biggest ones go, the Adam and Eve that you see above, and were there relatively early so we were near the front. As we waited and waited for the event, we got to talking about how we were pretty close to the Falla and that surely the firemen would back us off. Then, suddenly, they took the barriers away! And then pushed us back a couple yards to about 20 yards away from the giant statue. All the while stringing the thing up with twine and fireworks. It seemed like every twelve year old's fantasy: hastily strung up string and twine to set fire to something gigantic. And then they lit it. And unfortunately, I don't have any great pictures because my and everyone else's reaction basically went from 'oh wow, cool!' To 'yikes this is kinda hot!' To 'Holy expletives, I do not want to be here anymore!' And with that everyone was pushing backwards backwards away from the fire, singed eyebrows and everything. I think the firefighters were probably chuckling to themselves, knowing exactly what was going to happen, but it certainly doesn't give me a lot of post-experience confidence that they just let us learn about fire the hot way. Ok, we probably should have known better too. Anyway, we lived; here is a photo of the immediate aftermath: you can see the burned skeleton of the Falla sticking up into the night air. Shortly after the photo, this toppled over too, and the fire was left smoldering for a while while firefighters doused it with water. One of the more unsafe safe things I have done in Spain, and I call it that because although I felt like I was going to burst into flames myself, I have to hope the firefighters knew what they were doing.

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So what a ridiculous way to end a wild and crazy weekend. Fireworks during the day, black seafood paella, three of us on a couple mattresses thrown on the floor, and a lesson in burning huge styrofoam sculptures (which really makes me sad, by the way, I'm pretty sure I watched mother earth die a little bit that night from the fumes), it will certainly go down as one of the most unpredictable and interesting weekends of my time here.

Hope all is well with you and yours, and here's to another post in short order!

Hasta luego!

Posted by dclift 14:18 Archived in Spain Tagged las festival fallas valenica Comments (0)

Road Trip with the Family!

Serves me right for getting behind in the blogosphere, now if I write at the current one-per-week pace and have new adventures every weekend I will never catch up! Perhaps I will be able to do some serious catching up after Easter. Until then, let´s hop in the time machine to the end of February and the arrival of my family!

They arrived on the 24th of February ready to get out and conquer... bedtime. Jet lag is a very real thing and the only real possible fight is to stay awake until night falls. So I dragged their yawning selves on my favorite walk in the city: up to Castle Montjüic. Very much to their credit, after a while admiring the views and a good Turkish dinner, they successfully retired at a reasonable bedtime.

I needed to work the following day and most of the days during the week, so each night we outlined some sightseeing activities during the week and then met up for lunch and/or dinner, so they can certainly tell you about their sightseeing adventures (which included a tour of FC Barça's stadium with Alex). I am more excited to talk about our family adventures in Southern Spain over the next weekend.

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They left for Sevilla on Thursday, and I followed on Friday, at which point we hopped in a rental car and headed south, first to the southernmost point in Spain, which is actually not Spain. Gibraltar is an independent colony of England and the people there will be quick to explain that they don´t really belong to England either (although they´d be quick to ask for military help if necessary I´m sure). I really didn´t know too much about ´The Rock´ as it´s called before arriving, but we parked the car at the hotel and walked toward the border crossing. After a very cursory glance at our passports, the gentleman in the customs uniform waved us through and we found ourselves back in English speaking territory! Knowing little about the size of the territory and everything, we were approached and cajoled into hiring a guide (with a van) for a couple of hours to show us around the territory. In hind sight it was a good idea, as his 24 years of experience were great to explain the most important thing on the territory to us!

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An interesting note about Gibraltar: there is actually an airport in the territory, but it completely blocks off the only road in and out of the peninsula. Therefore, if you are unlucky enough to arrive as a plane is landing or taking off, you could be waiting ten minutes or so to enter the city of Gibraltar! (Plane is the little white dot in the center of the following photo) Aside from that, the day was awesome; the weather was great, we all got to hold monkeys, we investigated about one mile of the tens that were constructed during the World Wars inside the rock itself, we saw the northern coast to Africa, and Alex and I hiked up to the highest point on the rock!

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The following day, we hopped back into the car to head to the small Spanish inland town of Ronda. We decided to take some minor roads to pass by an interesting cave along the way, and I was surprised just how minor this road was. It reminded ma and pa lots of some roads in the backcountry in Colorado, weaving in and out of the hills, sometimes well-maintained, mostly just some pavement. The most interesting thing, though, were the trees along the side of the road that had been stripped of their bark up to above head height. After much speculation within the car about what was going on, we finally happened upon some roadside placards that explained that this region in Spain is one of the world´s largest supplier of cork! Stripping the bark does not kill the tree- it simply regrows every 6 years- and it even helps to avoid devastating forest fires. So next time you pop a bottle, consider that your cork could easily have come Spain!

The aforementioned cave, called La Cueva de la Pileta, was also a wonderful adventure. It´s highlight is some of Europe´s oldest cave art, some originating to 30,000 years ago!! Again, 28,000 BC! We had a guided tour, before which the guide asked me if I could translate the Spanish for my parents. I figured I could give it a shot, but much of the cave and history vocabulary stumped me, and by the end he was repeating everything in English too. I guess I know now my language limits! It was incredible to stand in some of the same spots as some of the first intelligent beings on the planet. Of course the owners of the cave are not interested in photographer´s flash, so I do not have any good photos, but a quick google search can provide some context. We only got to adventure through a quarter of the cave, too, since it is the only portion that is navigable by foot. And as I go through these I am learning that I don't have photos of the caves and cork trees! Another good reason to talk to the rest of the family!

After the cave, we continued on to the town of Ronda, notable for its existence, perched way up high over a gorge. Our accommodations there were interesting: the hotel was located right above a restaurant, and the front desk was attended to by the waiter and owner of the restaurant. We ate dinner there that night, which made finding our rooms pretty easy! The town itself is extremely picturesque, especially the old bridge straddling the gorge, which connects the old part of the city with the newer part. Ronda is also a very important place in the history of bullfights, and every spring there is a huge festival there at the beginning of the season. We declined a chance at a bull-ring tour in favor of a walk down into the old part of the city and to a gorgeous vista of the old bridge.

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Next stop on the tour was Granada, but we elected to drive through Málaga and along the Costa del Sol to get there. After starting the day foggy and drizzly coming through the hills outside of Ronda, we were pleasantly surprised to be met with beautiful clear skies passing through Málaga and down the coast. Just outside of Málaga, the beaches were wide and long, with extremely dark sand. It was fairly fine and clean, with lots of sea shells and glass, but I have never seen such dark sand. As we continued, the coast got more and more hilly, and beaches were relegated to tiny, beautiful coves. Here, the beaches alternated between rocky and more stereotypically sandy. Although the views and scenery were anything but stereotypical. We stopped at one in particular that was incredible, tucked into an alcove. The beauty of driving ourselves was the ability to stop at these little hidden gems; the beauty of traveling in March was that we had the entire beach to ourselves. In one section of the beach the pull of the waves back into the water was so strong that it was grabbing rocks too, and they were making an incredible clunking noise as they were rearranged by the surf.

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Finally we turned north, and arrived in Granada in relatively short order. Granada sits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and even though this can absolutely still be considered Southern Spain, the Sierra Nevadas are high enough to get sufficient snow fall to be skiied on. The city itself is sprawled out beneath the foothills and spills rather unceremoniously into the plains. As such, it gives the impression that it is larger than it is-- actually only ranking 14th in the list of cities in Spain. The interesting parts for us tourists was actually even smaller. The main attraction in Granada is called 'La Alhambra' and is a royal palace which was converted in 1333 from a fortress that was originally built in 889. It is an imposing sight built up on a hill and looking out over the entirety of the city, but also is absolutely gorgeous lit up by the evening sun before the snow-covered peaks in the background.

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The city itself is also magnificent, in particular the neighborhood of El Albayzín, an old Moorish neighborhood set into the hill immediately opposite La Alhambra. Tiny streets wind their way through whitewashed buildings, up the hill, to some which are even caves actually carved into the hill and made into homes by the less affluent residents. '

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At this point in the journey, I took leave on the family on a train back to Sevilla and an airplane to Barcelona to work the next day. They, meanwhile, continued on to Córdoba, so you'll have to ask them about that!

There was one more great adventure to be had with the family. Upon their return to Barcelona, we decided to take the hour-long train ride out to one of the most iconic images of Catalunya: Montserrat. After the train, we hopped on a cable car to the base of the tiny village seemingly hanging precariously in a convenient crevasse in the mountain. (Tiny yellow dot in this photo)

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Literally meaning 'serrated mountain', Montserrat is more important to people here than just for its stunning geology. The legend goes that a group of sheperds saw an image of the virgin mary in the maountain one day and seerched it out and attempted to carry it down the mountain. Along the way, it became too heavy to carry, so they decided that it was meant to stay in that place and they erected a monastery at the place. Now home to the famous 'Black Madonna', which is visited by millions of people every year, the monastery is an incredible feat itself.

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Those who know me also know that if there is a mountain to climb, I will climb to the top, must know that if I left without summiting the mountain I would have left disappointed. Even though the day was drawing to a close by the time we got down, Alex and I made the final push to the top and were rewarded with some unbelievable views of central Catalunya. I have heard that on a clear day, even the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean is visible. Unfortunately there was some haze that day... so I guess I have reason to go back!

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Finally a couple of unbelievable weeks with the family drew to a close and I took them to the airport to send them on their jolly exhausted way. Noone ever accused our family vacations of being relaxing, but we always manage to have a great time!

Few, another marathon! I am still struggling to catch up to current events, but I have a free day tomorrow, so you never know what might happen!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 10:12 Archived in Gibraltar Comments (0)

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