A Tale of Three Cities (In One Week)

While I’m not a homebody, per say (I do write a travel blog), I will always enjoy a good day spent in the sun, eating crackers and reading a book. That is to say, doing absolutely nothing is one of my favorite things in the world. And if I get to do that while people watching a foreign culture, well, that’s even better. So when I say that I visited three different cities in Spain in the span of a week, it’s not only with great joy, but also fatigue.

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This tale begins in a fourth city, a city of friendship and relaxation and wonderful memories and even a gorgeous a morning run: Almería. My friend Liz and I decided to take advantage of her early weekend and took a Wednesday night ride to Granada, Spain.

Granada, Spain

The city of white houses on a hill, the largest Muslim fortress in Southern Spain, hippies galore and a kind of horrible first experience with paella drew me in with a strange variety of experiences. Our first night was spent on a friend’s guest bed a bit outside the city center; we visited her favorite local restaurant and became acquainted with her very adorable but feisty kitten. We ate big tapas. We met her Spanish friends.

Fast forward 24 hours and Liz and I had moved to a hostel and were laughing raucously in a seafood tapas bar, having met up with two other friends who’d come to see the city with us. Liz and I had already visited the famous Alhambra, hiked up to a beautiful overlook of the city, pretended the paella wasn’t “that bad” and wandered through tiny shops filled with strange smells, bright colors and people with dreads of all styles. (Did you know there are different styles of dreads? It’s true. Granada will prove that to you!) One tapas bar led to another, which led to a nightclub, which quickly led to the next morning greeting us with sunshine and a rushed check out of the hostel. It was already our last half-day in Granada.

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Inside the iconic Alhambra.

That Friday afternoon, Liz and I boarded a bus to Cádiz and I endured what I’m sure is the greatest torture known to modern mankind: being stuck on a 5 hour bus ride and having to pee. For nearly two hours, I endured what is probably the CIA’s secret training weapon. With each apartment building we passed, I could think of nothing else but how many unused toilets must be in each building. Just a little longer, Sally, just a little longer. You’re tough, you can do it. Sprinting to Sevilla’s bus station loo (the mid point of the long journey) will always be one of my great accomplishments. I did it. I didn’t pee my pants on a bus in Spain.

Cádiz, Spain

We arrived in Cádiz at night and dragging our bags to Liz’s friends place, exhausted, we walked into what could only be described as a frat party sans fraternity brothers. Americans teaching English in Spain had converged on Cádiz for Carneval and as I met each person, decked out in tutus, wigs, light-up glasses and glitter, I struggled to figure out what they actually looked like. Exhausted, Liz and I joined into the beer pong and conversation but let the rowdy crowd leave us behind as they headed out into what were likely packed streets, full of celebration and similarly tutu-clad Spaniards. Conversely, Liz and I changed into pajamas, brushed our teeth and hit the sack.

The weekend of Carneval was a blur of activity, and I don’t mean because of alcohol, though that is certainly true of others I may or may not have seen stumbling around the streets. A morning run preceded hours of sightseeing with Liz and suddenly it was time to dress up and get ready to go out. Saturday night was already knocking on our door, and thankfully I’d purchased a 3 Euro golden, glittery mask to complete my all black ensemble. Or shall I say… the all black outfit that I wear in normal life, too. What can I say. I don’t like dressing up.

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Singing in the street. Tutus. Masks. Rum and cokes poured from our friend’s curbside “bar”, or plastic bag full of beverages. A concert. Long lines for the port-a-potty bathrooms. Glitter. New friends that turned out to be a mere 18 years old. Hunger. Liters of beer. A filafel with sauce, when I’d asked for no sauce. Dancing. Singing. Dancing. A shot of whisky I passed off to a stranger, because there’s no way I’m going to drink that. The sheer amount of people still on the street in the wee morning hours. An eventual return to the apartment where I collapsed on chair cushions placed onto the ground. (I was one of the lucky ones. Nearly twenty people in one apartment doesn’t go so well for everyone.)

The next day, Liz and I took a relaxing beach-side walk and caffeinated ourselves. Back at the apartment, she packed her bags for the inevitable return to work in Almería. I photographed the area a little more, pushed my way into the parade crowd and snapped a few more shots. Later, when Liz left for her ride home, I felt a little pang of sadness as one of the only friends I’d spent 7 non-stop days with, without beginning to hate her, diverged paths from me and I was once again “solo” traveling. I stayed another night in Cádiz, rectifying my previous horrible paella experience and enjoying a quieter apartment (and a real bed) with more friends I’d stolen from Liz. The next morning I woke up earlier than everyone else and enjoyed a private dance party / karaoke session in the kitchen with my coffee, cleaning dishes from the night before.

Seville, Spain

The bus pulled into Seville around six, what would have been dinner time in most of the world, but not in Spain. Finding my way over cobblestone streets to the hostel, I passed the world’s largest Gothic cathedral. I didn’t know that yet. I buzzed into the hostel, surprisingly not getting myself lost along the way, and was welcomed by British accents and one of the friendliest atmospheres I’ve ever experienced from any pay-for-accommodation set up. I replenished myself (both with water and internet access) and headed into the streets to wander a bit before grabbing dinner with friends I’d met just a few days earlier at Carneval. For the first time in ages, I was able to talk politics, international policy and other intellectual riff-raff that I just don’t have the Spanish vocabulary for. That, and most of my friends don’t have the patience for such nerdery, either.

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The Seville Cathedral before I headed inside.

Monday morning I started out on an ambitious foot, after breakfast I ventured into the Seville Cathedral and spent some time wandering the massive halls of the world’s third largest church. Somewhere between the first and fifth side room, it hit me. I literally don’t care. The massive and overwhelming structure had achieved its goal of overwhelming me; though I was overwhelmed not with a reverence for god, but with how much money was wrung out of common people and poured into a big bunch of carved rocks. Money which could have been diverted to easing social ills of the time, would have been used to feed hungry mouths otherwise, and which was extorted in the name of forgiveness from god or pious duty. Then I was overwhelmed with tourism and the meaninglessness of paying 9 Euros to walk through an old building. A steady parade of people, paying their dues to enter and stare and take photographs as proof. I was here. What’s the point of all this travel, I suddenly wondered, if I just look at a bunch of things all day?

I took that thought with me as I sat by the river for the remainder of the day with my Kindle and a bottle of water.

Returning to the hostel that evening and hanging out with the owners and other folks staying there, I was reminded of at least one reason travel is well worth it: the people. I ate dinner in that night, the hostel cooked for everyone and we sat family-style on the roof, introducing ourselves at first and later laughing heartily. The world’s largest Gothic cathedral stood lit up in the distance.

Much thanks to La Banda Rooftop Hostel for helping me and my electronics recharge in Seville. Even though you didn’t know it.

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Photoessay: Carneval and Cádiz

Cádiz, a small city on the southwest coast of Spain, is seemingly quiet. The waves are a surreal pale green, the sand white and clean and the boardwalk was surprisingly empty as I went for an “early” morning run at 9 am. It was a Saturday morning in late February, and the peace of Cádiz was in full effect, but within hours the streets would take on a very different feel. Carneval is a celebration that occurs just before Lent all over the world, mostly in countries that had a strong Catholic influence in the past. People dress up in costumes, eat, drink, sing, march in parades and generally just indulge in all of those things you’re supposed to give up for Lent. Cádiz is the epicenter of Spain’s festivities; before the actual festivities dancers and groups spend weeks practicing and preparing for the grand celebration.

But running down the beach boardwalk at 9 am Saturday morning, aside from the occasional group of costumed teenagers still awake from the night before, you would never know. The peace, the ocean and the patter of my feet on pavement filled the air.

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Have you ever been to Carneval in Spain? To Cádiz? Would you like to wear one of those blue or green tutus, too? (Hands up, because I do!)

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Semi-Domestic Bliss in Almería, Spain

I gave myself a month to see Southern Spain, but it wasn’t until I arrived and actually got my feet on the ground that I realized what a tall order “see lots of important things in Spain in one month” actually is. Each person I spoke to insisted on another city, another place, and another event that is, to them, a must-see and since I have an entire month, I must see it. Well, my entire month disappeared somewhere between five days in Barcelona (not enough), two nights in Valencia (enough), one night in Alicante (not enough), five nights in Almería (not enough) and several more cities that I’ve gotten to and plan to go to before March 12th flies me away to Ireland. Somehow what I thought would be a leisurely-paced trip through Spain has turned into a whirlwind tour of only a fraction of the important things this large, complex and gorgeous country has to offer. And while I love to add new cities to my brain’s conversation fodder, I have found myself completely exhausted. That’s why my five days in Almería, a small city on the southern coast of Spain weren’t spent only seeing a few of a multitude of sights nearby, they were spent pretending I was home, even if just for a little bit.

An old friend of mine, Liz, is teaching English in Almería and offered to put me up for as long as I’d like. I arrived thinking that I’d only stay two or three nights, but my friend’s gracious hospitality and equally as incredible Spanish friends reeled me in, and as Liz and I reconnected over cañas and tapas (translation: beer and food) in a small but busy restaurant, I realized that I probably wouldn’t be ready to go as soon as I’d planned.

While I can safely say that I’ve seen the Alcazaba, the second largest Muslim fortress in the province of Andalusia (the largest is Granada’s Alhambra), walked the white, shining streets of Mojácar for a panoramic view of the area, hopped tapas bars around the city, sampling Spanish food and even picked up a postcard along the way, my best memories are a little different, and a little more domestic.

Proof: I did the things you're supposed to do in Almería.
Proof: I did the things you’re supposed to do in Almería, like an obligatory beach picture.

I went running down the boardwalk; the ocean on my left and plenty of other people exercising all around me made me feel like I was part of the daily life, at least for a moment, and it was really just a moment. Within ten minutes I was back to walking, as it turns out you can’t run away from being super out of shape!

We went shopping for fresh produce at a local market and cooked a full dinner for us and friends. There’s something comfortable about shopping for ingredients and creating a meal out of them that I sometimes miss while on the road (even as good as those tapas bars are!). The busy market, the unbelievable amount of fresh vegetables we could pick up for under two euros, and the end result of tons of laughter and excellent food all while sitting on L’s living room couch were much needed after so much of the unfamiliar.

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Liz’s Spanish friends (or shall I say my new Spanish friends? I’m stealing them!) cooked us a homemade, authentic Almerian meal. We all sat together at an old kitchen table decked out with food galore, stuffing our faces and laughing, and enjoying migas. One of the friends is actually a chef, so even though it was a relaxed atmosphere, I essentially got to sit in on a cooking class as I watched him cook one side dish after another, all to be added to the migas (a kind of friend starch) when it was finished.

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Earlier that same day, we toured around an old farm house and then picked organic oranges from an orchard. The chef and his wife showed me the backyard full of olive trees, small plants and other odds and ends that little Spanish farm houses have (like oregano). Standing on the small roof and looking over the nearby landscape wasn’t just beautiful but intimate. Spain felt a little bit more like a place that I could imagine life in. A quick drive down the road and the group of us were in the midst of an orange orchard picking fruits to take back; my Spanish friends said that their parents who are now too old to keep up with the labor are constantly asking them to drive out and pick oranges for them. We were rewarded for our hard work (yeah right!) with way too many oranges for one person to even attempt to eat, alone.

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And, bonus, I watched a herd of goats block the road.

Later my friend and I left to shortly tour Granada before drinking ourselves into oblivion during Carneval in Cádiz (well, other people did that and I mostly just watched) (get excited for those blog posts!), but when I think about Almería, I’ll always think of it as the place where I was most able to immerse myself into Spanish culture and customs, and see a little bit more of what life is really like for those who live here. It was also the place where I was able to rest in between two exhausting bursts of sightseeing and travel. As for things to see, the city didn’t hold a candle to the big bad boys of Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, etc.) but that’s not why I adored being there; it was the laughter and friendship that I’ll always associate with this little town on the ocean. And all of the oranges I had to eat after picking them from the orchard. So. Many. Oranges.

But next time I go, I definitely wouldn’t put up my nose to doing a little more sightseeing, specifically those incredible beaches everyone has been talking about. Laying on the beach does count as sightseeing, right? Right.

Have you ever associated a pretty typical city with incredible memories? Have you ever had migas? Want to pay for me to visit these incredible beaches this July? (If so, let me know! I’ll send a postcard.)

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

Photoessay: Quiescence in Alicante, Spain

Alicante is without a doubt a typical tourist town. The bus terminal is nicely laid out and has cubbies for locking away your things for the day, the local bus system is easy to navigate, suitcases were a common sight and I heard almost as much German and British English as I did Spanish. But there is usually tourism for a reason, namely beautiful beaches, and Alicante did not disappoint. Particularly so after an especially challenging 24 hours up the coast in Valencia, a city who’s street map could easily be converted into a book of mazes, placed next to the Sudoku puzzles in the bookstore. Gorgeous, clean, easy to navigate, but a little touristy? I was happy for the trade off.

I didn’t do much more than relax and walk the beaches, either, and I’m sure my photographs show that. Enjoy a little look into the tourist town that helped me reclaim my sanity, something I desperately need to complete the next four or so months living out of a carry on suitcase.

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Have you ever really enjoyed a place that wasn’t especially authentic? What do you think of Alicante, Spain? How’d you like that fancy vocabulary word in the title?

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Photoessay: People Creeping in Germany

I think people are fascinating. Anytime I have a chance to stare, unhindered and undiscovered for more than a minute, I rejoice in it. I don’t like to judge people for what they’re doing necessarily, and I don’t only stare at weirdos (though that’s always interesting). I just find humans, in general, to be so fascinating. The way someone drinks their coffee, carries their bag, avoids or hops over a big crack in the sidewalk.

So obviously, if you give me a camera, I’m gonna take some creepy photographs of people around me. It’s just inevitable. I had a great time photographing people in Germany during my last vacation, of course often without their knowledge. Occasionally I got caught. It was cool, no one paid mind really. And at the end of the day, I’m happy with my creeping (creepy?) results. What do you think?

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Berlin, Germany
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Oops, you caught me. Hello. Berlin, Germany.
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Creeping on a serious family moment in Lübeck, Germany.
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Berlin, Germany
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Can’t even rest on a bench without me sneaking up with a camera, man. Berlin, Germany.
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This man is not impressed with Berlin. Or maybe just the construction directly to his left (not pictured).
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Here’s a tip: pretend you’re taking a photograph of postcards. Berlin, Germany.
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Posing for one photo, ended up in two. Berlin, Germany.
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Yes, I started early: in the airport on the way to Germany.
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How am I supposed to not take a picture of this adorable little man?! Lübeck, Germany.
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Creepin: hipster biker addition. Berlin, Germany.
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Berlin, Germany.
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Waiting for the bus? You’re still not safe from my camera.
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The lighting was too perfect not to. Berlin, Germany.
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Camera takes a picture of the camera takes a picture of some chick with dreads in Berlin, Germany.
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Oops, you’re blinking and you don’t even know I took a picture. Munich, Germany.
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Capturing a solemn moment in the Jewish memorial of Berlin, Germany.
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At first glance, I couldn’t even tell this sleepy kiddo was breathing at all. Thankfully, she was simply dead tired. Berlin, Germany.
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Sorry I creeped your personal, religious moment. Leipzig, Germany.
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Leipzig, Germany.
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I couldn’t help but stare because that ice cream looks DELICIOUS. And they didn’t even leave leftovers. Leipzig, Germany.
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I think I believe in karma now.

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Photoessay: Naksan Park Fortress Walk

I ventured into Seoul to pick up a book, purchased through the infamous Craig’s List. I ended the afternoon with two new friends and some  beautiful photographs of the old fortress wall that stretches between the two gates in Dongdaemun (동대문) and Hyehwa (혜화). Naksan Park is the name of the green area and pathways around the stone wall, and while the greenery is great, the older, more traditional houses you can take a peek at are just as interesting for the eyes. The sweeping views of the Seoul metropolis don’t hurt either. Thanks to my new friend for pointing me in its direction, because the historic walk to Dongdaemun was a beautiful way to spend the rest of my afternoon before a long ride home.

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