Sunday, December 09, 2007

Backpacking in Spain - Learning About and Understanding the Country and its People (2003)

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I want to share with you my trip to Spain in late 2003. I have resolved to enjoy life -and a yearly trip to Western Europe is one means of doing so. By backpacking, I get to go where to see and attain what I wanted. And it is cheaper - it costs about a third of a group tour, plus it's more exciting and flexible. By avoiding the trendy/chic places and ways of travel, and later concentrating on small towns and villages, the trips expose me to the locals and thus appreciate and learn more about their cultures and way of life, providing me what I call "proper perspectives".

I hope you'll like my travelogue and be encouraged to travel my way, i.e. by yourself (for women: I suggest two or three of them traveling together).To my age-peers or younger, do so while still physically able and fit. To those my senior, you can do it or join a group tour. Pardon the use of the first person, it's simpler and easier.

NOTE: I did return for 15-day backpacking each in 2005 and 2007, Portugal and Spain (Sept 2005), and Northern Spain (Nov-Dec 2007). Will try to write about these adventures soon.


I have always ignored Spain (and Portugal) in my previous trips to Western Europe because they are less convenient and are outside any sweeping travel loop that could maximize reaching many places of interests in Western Europe. And also in 1999, I had a bad experience with the RENFE, the Spanish Rail System, and I swore not to go to Spain in the future.

But I guess that was a bad instance, not typical, which may be forgotten and charged to experience. Thus in late 2003, I decided to return to Spain and explore its Andalusian region, the southern part of Spain, and former stronghold of the Moors (Muslims) for 8 centuries during their Spanish conquest and rule till the end of 15th century. Having checked the typical weather, it looked no different than being in the San Francisco Bay Area. (I found later it was a little colder). My travelogue follows:

Relatives and friends have been asking. I've got so many pictures to post and put captions on thus the delay and unfinished story.

I flew to Madrid via Paris without any significant problem during flight, or through immigration, customs, and security except for a 2-hour delay in the Paris-Madrid connection. I started thinking about Spanish inefficiency, having a preconceived notion of their laid-back attitude especially as colonialists in our homeland. Upon arrival at the Barajas Airport in Madrid, I went straight to a BBVA ATM machine to get Euro cash ( ATMs made Traveler's checks obsolete, BBVA is one of the largest Spanish banks) and then to the phone card machine to get a country phone card - limited to calls within Spain. Since I expect Madrid to be on the more expensive and was there before, I decided to go to Toledo which is only an hour south of Madrid.

I walked to the TI -tourist info office to inquire and was directed to the location of the underground METRO station (like the London Underground System) at the airport. At the METRO, the info desk girl gave me a Metro Map and highlighted the route I need to take to Toledo. The Metro ticket is 0.75 euros a 10-trip is 5.20 euros with no expiration date! So with my fresh euros,I bought the latter from the station attendants. The Metro lady told me the Toledo train station is out of service due to repair and so bus transport was the other option. By the way, the TI and METRO girls are very good looking.

The Metro train brought me to the Atocha Train Station, above which the large "Estacion Sur Autobuses" (bus) station that services southern Spain, including Toledo is also located. I joined the long line to purchase a 1-way ticket for less than 4 Euros.

It was a comfortable bus ride and the changing scenery from Madrid, a modern city, to Toledo, one of Spain's declared national monuments gave me a feeling of excitement. The bus arrived at the Toledo bus station outside the medieval city walls. Instead of taking a bus or taxi to get to its center up the hill, I took the estimated 30-minute hike -I always looked forward to walking- which turned out to be 1-1/2 hours. I planned to check into the San Servando youth hostel, a former castle up the hill. However, upon arrival, I discovered that it was closed for the holidays. So I ended up going the circuitous way to the city center at the top of the hill and looking for a hostel.

I had to stop twice to catch my breath, take an aspirin, feeling the burden of my 35 lbs backpack. I walked to two hostels I previously selected in my guidebook but they were booked. It was now about 9 pm, December 24,2003. I was walking towards Plaza Zocodover, the main square of the old city center when a pretty woman approached me and asked if I was looking for a place to stay. I said I do and she told me to follow her.

My train of thought was asking if she could be a hooker especially when she led me to a smaller alley. Then we entered a hostel called Plaza Zocodover which turned out to be owned by her family (I found out they have two hostels and a restaurant). A hostel is a place to sleep/bath: sort of between rooms for rent by private homes and regular hotels. I got a single room with a bath for 25 euros. I took a shower and went out to check the main plaza, the name my hostel uses and located just 5 minutes from my hostel, it was practically empty.

I was told people were mostly at home eating dinner and I remembered Spaniards come out late like night-owls. I saw 6 young Chinese -5 girls and a boy- come out to the square to sell personalized Christmas blinking lights and Santa Claus hats and beards. It really strikes me how the Chinese are always seemingly unabashed and industrious. You find them everywhere, mostly trying to earn a living. I guess the Chinese, due to their hard life in the mainland, are thus conditioned to work harder without hesitation to survive and consequently better themselves, materially speaking.

I waited close to midnight to see a midnight Mass and expecting one of those High Masses with Gregorian Chants or Bach's glorious Christmas music. Unfortunately, I found the well-known, magnificent Toledo Cathedral of this leading Catholic city closed (probably thanks to fear about terrorists). I came across an American family from Montana who was similarly looking for one and after asking a few people on the streets, we all walked together to a small church. There were less than 100 people and I thought that the young Spanish people -after the death of the hated and repressive 40-year Franco dictatorship and his support from Spain's Church hierarchy- together with their more recent modernization, apparently have distanced themselves from the church.

Christmas morning, I explored this medieval city on the hill. Because of the season and day, most of the sights I wanted to see were closed: the Toledo Cathedral (described with the expressions "Wow! Holy Toledo! they have a magnificent cathedral" that took 200 years to build from 1226 to1493; the Santa Cruz Museum that has several paintings by El Greco (who has lived, has a house and died here, I saw his house) and the Alcazar, the former imperial residence and "the Alamo" of the right-wing Franco's followers during the Spanish Civil War.

I also saw a couple of handsewn-shoe factories and looked at sword stores (Toledo was and is famous for the Damascene swords). Unfortunately, our 911-incident forbade anything sharp on the plane. It still was a nice, sunny and cold 8 deg C to walk around, I saw a small group of daytripper tourists from the USA and Japan. I checked out of my hostel that noon and walked back to the bus station and bought my ticket back to Estacion Sur.

Although Toledo is south of Madrid. going farther south is best via Madrid where transportation options are more numerous. I noted that several bus riders along the way converse with the driver and among themselves; it is obvious that the Spanish people are sociable and friendly. One rider flagged our bus but did not have a change, so he had to leave and look for change. The driver started driving but also asked aloud if anyone has changed for 20 euros, someone replied yes and the driver called out to the young man and took him in.

Back at the Estacion Sur, I went down to the RENFE of the large Atocha station and purchased the cheapest and "direct" (direct, no stopovers) ticket to Granada, it was 33 euros. The train was long with 19 cars, I was on the 18th and seat 21. It is important to make sure you are on your assigned and reserved or confirmed car/seat. The conductor will ask you to vacate if needed which happened to me in 1999 during which I ended up being dropped somewhere (really) in Spain and waiting for another train that requires no reservations. It was really my fault. I did not make a reservation for the Spanish portion of the trip and took for granted that my Eurorail pass took care of everything.

I had the 8-hour train ride and arrived in Granada at about 5 pm on December 26. From the Granada train station, I walked a quarter-mile to the main street Gran Via de Colon to flag a bus ride -asking the driver the fare to my destination: Plaza Isabel La Catolica -the bus stop closest to the Alcazar. BTW, on walking from the train station to the Gran Via I noted the many orange trees heavy with fruits lining up the streets, they were beautiful and attractive, I wonder nobody was picking them. From here on I noted that most, if not all, streets in the Andalusian region (formerly lorded over by the Moors for eight centuries) are lined with oranges brought in by the Moors of that time, Valencia oranges being the most renowned. I later learned these oranges were sour and were harvested and sold to England's pubs.

I dropped at the bus stop closest to Plaza Isabel.and asked around for direction to my chosen hostal. Christmas time is a good time since all the streets are beautifully and colorfully lit. There were so many people on the streets, cafes, and restaurants I passed by, I said to myself that I'll check them out asap. This was the Plaza Nueva, one of Granada's two main squares. After a couple more inquiries on the street, "Donde esta Hostal Navarro Ramos, etc"; I found my hostel no more than 300 yards from the square.

I had chosen several from my book list and so I was not very worried about finding a place to stay. I rang the doorbell and asked if they have a room for the night. By the way, I show and tell them my Rick Steves guidebook, which immediately indicates that you are a safe backpacker, not a risk. So I was let in, shown the available rooms. I got one which was larger and had a shower; and it was cheaper than Toledo's, at 18 euros! I dropped my backpacks and went out to explore the cafes and tapa bars.

There are many bars and cafes in my neighborhood of Plaza Nueva. They were mostly packed, standing room, and moving inside was difficult. However, in retrospect, I found it easiest to get myself into going to Spanish bars or cafes; easier in Dutch, British, Italian or French, etc but somewhat hesitant in German ones. I should be braver in the latter next time. I noticed a couple of Irish bars! I did not try the Granada specialty of spicy omelet with pig's brain and other organs. Draft beer is only 1.20 euros and tapas about 2-3 euros depending on the bar and where you are situated: standing at the bar is cheaper than being seated (with a table).

I ventured later by walking towards the Albayzin quarter (old Moorish Quarter). I noticed that gradually the streets turned less bright, the buildings older and with graffiti, and fewer people in the streets. After maybe a quarter mile I turned around. It seems it is not wise to go there at this time of the day. I was thinking of exploring it during the daytime later but which I decided not to. In similar neighborhoods, I thought I would feel safer packing an equalizer. Was thinking that I have been to the Middle East and I have seen typical Arab neighborhoods. Being in bed for me from here on begins at around 0100 hrs. The hostel gives a late curfew 0200 hours, but I was handed 2 keys, one for the main street door.

The following morning, I went out to see Granada's world-famous"Alhambra". My hostel is at the only main street Cuesta de Gomerez that leads uphill to the Alhambra. Knowing that the sight gets packed early (reservations required during the peak seasons of April-June, Sept-Oct), I started at 0800 hours and walked the mile uphill. It's like going to the mountains of my folks' hometown in Pangil, Laguna with all the big trees and plants, chirping birds, cold and fresh air, and stray cats. I was so early that I virtually walked straight into the ticket booth and purchased one for 8 euros. I gather the Alhambra admits 8,000 visitors a day, 6,000 tickets sold in advance thus only 2,000 for walk-ins. The ticket indicates your allowed entry time and you are given a half-hour window to do so, or else you permanently missed your chance to enter the Palacios Nazaries, the main attraction, and jewel of the Alhambra, the former Moorish Palace

The Alhambra has the Alcazaba Fort, the Generalife gardens, a Charles V royal palace, and the Palacios Nazaries within its walls. During the Moorish times, the Alhambra is said to have a community/town (medina) of about 2,000 Arabs living within it. I started to check out the empty and ruined fort, the vast and well-trimmed garden called Generalife -the government tries to maintain and keep it as it was then as much as possible, and Charles V unfinished royal palace. You really get a great view of the city from the Alhambra's fort. I noted rat poison pellets in the gardens and more cats. I concluded there must be a lot of pests and rats around they are trying to control. That's the reason for those seemingly stray cats on my way up.

Charles V palace is an aberration since it was a later addition to the Moorish Alhambra after the forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel kicked the Moors and united all of Spain. The royal palace is circular, has a ring at its center, and was designed by a Spanish follower of Michelangelo. In fact, bullfights were held there during Charles V stay. It was left unfinished because his son Philip II decided to move and built one in El Escorial, where the urns of most royalties are said to be kept in its marbled mausoleum. El Escorial is an hour north of Madrid.

The Palacios Nazaries is elegantly beautiful, informative about Arab architecture, and displays the Arab delicate craftmanship/style. It must have been much more so if it was not damaged during the reconquest by the Crusades and subsequent war years with France's Napoleon and the Spanish Civil War. It reflects the integration of Islam in the architecture of the building and the reverence and importance of water in their faith and way of life. You can notice the big presence of water everywhere in terms of many fountains and water distribution at the Palacios, the Generalife, and the whole of the Alhambra, in their faith and way of life. It is said that in 1492, the Arab King Boabdil looked at his Alhambra and wept after being defeated by Queen Isabel's troops. The King was scolded by his mom: "Don't weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man!" (I missed seeing his sword when I went to Madrid's Museo del Ejercito" later).The Generalife or Arab "garden of lofty paradise" and summer home of the Moorish kings has an orchard, again with lots of orange trees, and still is. I gather the annual music and dance festival is held here.

I wanted to stay another day in Granada since my stay seems incomplete, not having seen the Cathedral, the Moorish quarter and other sights, but I needed to stick to my planned itinerary that includes Lisbon and Fatima in Portugal; and so the following morning, I checked out of the hostel to catch the train for Sevilla. I took a bus ride back and walked again on the orange tree-lined streets towards the train station, bought the cheapest train ticket, made a call to a hostal at Sevilla to check availability, and do a reservation. Then I forgot to retrieve my phone card and thus lost about 8 euros.

The 5-hour train ride to Granada was pleasant and very interesting. I was seated across four young, college girls from Malaysia, scholars, and majoring in medicine, computer science, environmental and civil engineering. During the whole time, our conversation covered a lot of topics from current events, studying abroad, traveling, homeland politics, racism, etc. This was their first trip to Europe and everyone said they really love it and they want to go back every year. They were attuned with Malaysian politics, want to go back to serve their country (part of their contract), and greatly admire their recently retired PM Mahathir.

They mentioned a few of their nation’s ethnic -Indians, Chinese, Malays- issues such as discouraging the proposed opening of Chinese private schools and the removal of their affirmative action that provides a 60% admission quota for Malays which they see as divisive, that the Chinese control the retail economy and the Indians, the industry such as rubber. Interesting since the group was composed of 2 Chinese and 2 Malays and had been classmates in high school. They said they are all one: Malaysians. On this trip, they narrated that in Granada, someone knocked on the door of their rented apartment, which they opened, though scared, that one of the girls was ready with a knife on her hand and the drunk panicked and left. I advised them never to open their door. Also, one of their friends lost a bag from a snatcher.

Upon arrival at the Sevilla train station (built during the 1992 World Expo) by mid-afternoon, I took the #21 bus for Seville’s cathedral (a city’s cathedral is always a good place to go to in any new place, known by everyone and usually at the center of town/city anywhere or in most of Europe). The wide main streets were beautiful and clean, also lined with fruit-bearing orange trees. I was dropped at the edge of Barrio Santa Cruz and walked ½ mile to my hostel “Buen Dormir” located at its old Jewish Quarter (also the starting place for the reign of terror by the Inquisition). I was offered two rooms to choose from and took the studio with just a sink. The common bath and toilet were very clean and just two doors away. It cost me an unbelievable 15 EU a day.

The neighborhood and the old houses are nice; the medieval Jews were well-off then, being tax collectors, etc. till the Inquisition came and kicked them out even after some converted to Catholicism (for ostensibly renouncing their Jewish religion they were mistrusted). Most of the streets in the barrio are usually one way and narrower than other Western European towns; there is a little curbside good usually for only one pedestrian leaning against the wall; a car driver had to turn in his side mirrors to get into his garage; most cars are really small. Some alleys are so narrow that some houses are just at two-arm length. Santa Cruz is a lively district with the Real Alcazares, the landmark tower La Giralda, and the Cathedral.

After dumping my stuff I went to see the Cathedral area which was less than a 10-minute walk from my hostel. I passed a lot of bars and cafes packed with people. This place is really lively, a few loud Americans among the crowds. I ventured first to the Plaza Virgen de Los Reyes fronting the cathedral, lined with horse-drawn carriages (30 EU for four) and the 10th-centuryAlcazares (palace for then Moorish governors) though expanded after the 11th-century re-conquest by the Christian king -it is still being used as a royal palace.

At the Plaza Virgen, there was a mime doing a Don Quixote, pretty good actually. He was tall and skinny and kids were attracted to him. He seems to be a nice guy. In fact, I saw him drinking at a bar a day after and asked if we can have a picture together. He obliged and I gave my camera to another; but it was extremely unfortunate for me, the camera indicated a need to change the battery! Lost opportunity. I resolved to buy two extra batteries when I return.

That afternoon I went inside the Real Alcazares and was lucky to see an ongoing photo gallery of the Spanish Civil War, mainly about the leaders of the ill-fated Second Republic. The Republican Front won the general elections in January 1936 but the right-wing generals led by General Franco revolted and helped by Nazi Germany- which bombed Guernica (thus Picasso’s well-known painting of incident) defeated and reinstalled the monarchy in 1939, but Franco called the shots till his death in 1975. They were quite sobering pictures.

The Spaniards seem very resentful of Franco, I did not see anything that honored or about him until I went to Madrid’s Museo del Ejercito (Army Museum). The recent modernization and socio-economic progress of Spain are attributed to the Socialist party which won the elections after Franco’s death in 1975 and ruled for the succeeding years to the present. I checked out the whole palace Sunday (museums, etc usually free-day) and like the Palacios Nazaries of Granada’s Alhambra, this one is also impressive. But maybe the Nazaries apparently was more so and famous because of its hilltop location and Granada was the last Moorish bastion.

Thereafter I checked out the tapas or “pinchos” at a recommended bar: La Teresas. It was crowded but I was starving and went in, ordered “una cerveza” and pointed at one dish “atun” (tuna) on display which turned out to be excellent; had a second tuna and another beer, then selected another tapa: “solomillo con Jamon (pork tenderloin wrapped with Jamon Serrano) which was then broiled for me. I stood at the bar (sitting costs more). All for 8 EU, What a life! Tipping is not a Spanish practice since it’s part of the bill, guidebooks say, but I gave.

The following early morning, I dropped into a “horno de panaderia” to purchase some baguette, got six Chiquita size at 0.18 EU each to eat with French cheese and pate, and wash down with a liter of pineapple-orange juice for breakfast. Great and cheap (made me doubly happy). Strolling later in the neighborhood, I heard some angelic voices coming from a small church and found myself peeping into its door. A woman approached me to ask if I intended to attend Mass (somehow we sort of communicated) and I said I did, so she let me in. It was quite an interesting experience.

There was a lone priest at the center altar, two pews at each side, and one behind him. There were only 6 people at each side and me behind the priest. Then facing the altar were a group of 18 cloistered nuns behind double, staggered floor-to-ceiling iron grids that separated them from us. I can barely figure out how their faces looked though I see at least 3 Africans among them. They were singing and playing several instruments including cymbals, etc during the Mass and the music at times sounded Afro. The grid had a window at the center where they received communion. I was the only one who did not and the priest looked at me. When the priest walked around for the attendants to kiss the infant Jesus, I felt obliged to join and did. After the Mass, some of the attendants conversed with the nuns; I noticed they turned off the lights at their side fast. Then I started to look around inside this 17th-century church.

After a nap, I went to the Los Gallos “tablao” (club) to buy a ticket (27 EU) for a 2100 hrs two-hour flamenco show. Andalusia is said to be the birthplace of the flamenco and Sevilla has some popular clubs. I went back to La Teresas to eat my “dinner” of tapas and beer. I again ordered my new favorite “atun”, then “salpicon de mariscos” – a cold salad with an assortment of fresh seafood and chopped tomatoes, and later the “solomillo con patatas”. I guess the bartender felt I was eating dinner and not just passing time.

I then proceeded to the professional club “Los Gallos” half-hour earlier, as suggested by the ticket vendor, to get a good seat and did get a front seat. The club was packed to its maximum seating. I was served surprisingly a San Miguel beer (first drink included in ticket). That show was so enjoyable, beginning with a younger and beautiful “bailaora” to the more well-known and impressive older dancers. There were a total of 6 dancers: four women bailaora and two men “bailaor”. The bailaor does not seem to be as important as the bailaora. I understand Sevillanas is a folk dance that influenced the flamenco. There are cheaper shows performed by flamenco students/amateurs and there are several bars in the barrio where flamenco can suddenly be staged but Los Gallos is the most well-known in Sevilla. Coincidentally, I saw the older bailaora -forgot her name- of Los Gallos featured on public TV in San Mateo, CA just recently.

I went to see the cathedral, the Alcazares and Giralda on Sunday, Dec 28. The cathedral is the third-largest church in the world, largest Gothic church anywhere and largest area per Guinness Book – this record even displayed at the cathedral entrance; it was started in 1401 after ripping down the mosque
and finished only after 120 years! The main altar is imposing and is said to have 4000 pounds of gold which I failed to take a shot of (no flash allowed). The cathedral also has the tomb of Columbus, carried by pallbearers – representing the four kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Leon, and Navarra. The Giralda tower was a former minaret used to call the Muslims for prayer. It was converted to be the cathedral bell tower on top of which is a 13 ft. A 4500-pound bronze statue symbolizing the Triumph of Faith; the statue rotates (girando, thus the name) to serve as a weather vane. It was a great sound hearing 16 humongous bells during the New Year.

I joined the continuously lengthening line of people trekking up the spiral ramp to the 100-meter high tower. I think the ramp was easier than if it were stairways. The spiraling ramp was designed by the Moors for the Arab riders on horseback to reach the top and make the prayer call. I wonder how the horses reacted especially coming down. The view was great and panoramic at the top.

I had to cancel my plans to go to Portugal since I found out that the next bus to Lisbon would only be three days later - on New Year’s Day, and I did not want to be stranded in Portugal where transportation is not as good as in Spain. So I decided to stay in Sevilla which is beautiful and enjoyable anyway. I researched my guidebook to check out more sights in the city for the next few days until the New Year.

I ventured out with the city map and swung by the city’s University, formerly Fabrica de Tabacos – basis for the opera “Carmen” and went south to Parque Maria Luisa, a vast public park donated by Princess Maria Luisa in 1893 and landscaped in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition, which did not succeed because of the Great Crash/Depression. The most extravagant within the park is Plaza de Espana, decorated with regional scenes in ceramic tiles (common in Andalusia).

I proceeded west towards the Guadalquivir (river), admired its beauty and cleanliness, and continued north along its banks to see: the Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold), Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza - city’s bull-ring; and the Hospital de la Caridad. The 13th century Torre was built with a companion tower on the opposite riverbank. It is said that between them a big chain was stretched across the river to stop enemy ships (I guess this concept apparently was copied by the Americans during the revolution against the British in the Hudson River near West Point).

The famous 18th-century bullring was closed since bullfight season is April to October. A small park next to the bullring has a statue of Manolette, the most popular and revered matador gored and killed in 1947. I then crossed Puente de Isabel II, one of several bridges across the historic river to explore the Triana district, once Sevilla’s gypsy quarter and said to be the flamenco’s birthplace –with a statue for the flamenco bailaora near the bridge.

Unfortunately, the other places I wanted to see at Triana were closed. Triana is not as developed as the Barrio de Santa Cruz and also noted the inhabitants appear working class.

I could see the site where the Expo 1992 was held, which was converted into a theme park with a cinema complex. The street bars were numerous and seem to have lower prices. I did not visit the bars at night since Triana is quite a walk from Sta Cruz but ventured into its public market just to see all the fish, birds, and rabbits they have on sale. I even saw a street named after the Inquisition.

I swung back east and went to the Hospital de la Caridad established by a rich Spaniard in 1674 for elderly patients. The Hospital has a small chapel that has several wall paintings by Murillo and two morbid ones by Juan de Valdes Leal. The paintings are all about sickness, death, and dying, quite sobering. One Leal wall painting depicts the corpses of a bishop and a knight, their bodies are eaten by worms and insects, which symbolically meant all humans are equal in death (unless one is cremated –no worms); the other shows a skeleton, extinguishing a candle (flame of life) while standing on a scattered tiara, splendid garments, crown, etc signifying life can go at any moment and that wealth, renown, power and learning are useless in the end.

A Murillo painting depicted St. Elizabeth surrounded by lepers while removing ringworms from a leper. The high altar shows a colored sculptured “Deposition of Christ” by Pedro Roldan, Spanish art is very realistic and shows pain, sorrow, and even death. There were only about 6 visitors at the time; apparently, death and dying are not very popular art topics.

I explored more streets and encountered a flea market or swap meet of birds and dogs at Plaza Nueva. Did window-shopping, saw some very expensive “abanicos” -hand-painted ones at 120+ EU each! I entered a Corte Ingles store (one of Spain’s top chain stores like Macy’s) to curiously check out the prices of items. I walked to the train station which is about 2 miles from the hostel and found that the fast AVE train back to Madrid is 57 EU, quite expensive to me. I also discovered a Don Bosco College which occupies a whole block bounded by Salesiano and San Juan Bosco Streets. It’s coed but is run by lay people; there are no Salesian priests or brothers when I asked the officials. I must have walked at least 8 miles that day. My feet were tired. It’s good I picked up a liter of Sangria.

The next day, I walked early to the bus station to head for the city of Cordoba and see the Mezquita, the 8th-century Great Mosque that was converted into a magnificent cathedral during the 16th century. I gather there were 800 mosques in this province at the time. The 93-meter cathedral tower was also a former minaret. Unfortunately, it was a holiday and was not able to go inside. I did a street-by-street exploration inside the old Cordoban Jewish Quarter which is said to look unchanged since the 10th century when this was one of the greatest cities in the Western world. I walked into a bar/restaurant and took a picture of a bull trophy on its wall; found the monument to Maimonides, the famous 12th-century Jewish scholar and personal physician to the Arab Sultan Saladin. He wrote the philosophical treatise “Guide to the Perplexed” (reason against miracles).

Noche Vieja, i.e. New Year’s Eve will not be explosive, the hostel owner told me since the previous year was troublesome with drunk, young people and thus fireworks are banned. I spent that night, drinking my bottle of wine, at the Plaza Virgen near the cathedral to watch the official fireworks and a few drunks (still) lighting their fireworks. Most of the bars were closed while all the restaurants were packed. The Spaniards buy a dozen grapes and eat one at every chime of the bells for during the Noche Vieja for good luck.

New Year’s Day, I took a midnight bus bound for Madrid at Seville’s Plaza de Armas; the trip cost me only 18 EU and took 6 hours, a little over 2x the AVE train ride. Upon arrival in Madrid, I decided to go straight to Segovia; thus walked to the METRO, took a short train ride to the bus station Terminal Continental Auto, which serves the North. Segovia is about 1-1/2 hours north of Madrid versus El Escorial, which is only an hour north too; this latter I initially thought of going to check out its royal palace.

My unplanned Segovia trip was greatly enjoyable. Upon arrival at its small bus station, I walked a half-mile to see the best-preserved 11th-century Roman aqueduct. It was truly impressive, the first time I have actually seen one and which reminded me of my Latin classes in high school, where I only read about and saw pictures of them. I then walked up the hill where the old town is. The old town is compared to a ship: the Alcazar towering over the city at its prow, the pinnacles of the imposing Gothic cathedral as masts, and the aqueduct as the rudder. Unfortunately again the cathedral was closed during the New Year. The old town is well-preserved, I dropped into a small café to drink "café con leche," peeped into a cloister, said hello to an elderly nun who then closed the door without responding and took a look at the Alcazar fairy-tale-like castle -externally appeared like Disneyland.

I booked into the old but surprising, and extremely well kept and very clean, Hostal Plaza just a hundred yards from the old town’s main plaza. I left my stuff with the receptionist -since the room I got was still being cleaned- and proceeded down to check out a place to eat lunch. I saw several restaurants featuring the “conchinillo asado” (lechon de leche). I understand Toledo and Segovia are well-known for this specialty. I asked around for the famous “Restaurante Jose Maria”. A lady directed me. Jose apparently is most well-known in town for his “conchinillo asado”. I saw his large picture with Prince Carlos.

I walked in and its bar was filled with people, mostly also waiting for lunch. It was still early 1230 hrs for lunch; I was told to come back at 1330 hrs. Instead, I went to the bar and asked for a Cerveza I was given one and handed also a tapas, this latter was free!! I started conversing somehow, with my phrasebook open, with the guy next to me. He was a bit tipsy already that noon, I took his picture; later he offered to pay for my drink (I initially thought he wanted me to pay for his!). Very friendly, I looked at his hand if he has a wedding ring, he had one. I am queasy nowadays about men who are too friendly. He seemed to appreciate my efforts to speak Spanish. Then he bade goodbye and walked away from the sort of erratically. I drank another beer and ate more free tapas –I thought I did not even need a lunch anymore- and waited to be called in for lunch.

The lunch I had was simple but very nice (to me): a house wine, bread, and my conchinillo. I witnessed -since it is shown to customers- the waiter uses a ceramic plate to cut the lightly roasted piglet, 3-4 weeks old. The piglet is not as roasted red as we do in the Philippines. It was really, deliciously mouth-watering, I felt tempted to order a second but my health considerations stopped me after a long debate in my mind. Those piglets do not have much fat formed yet. That lunch cost me about 30EU, my only splurge –I consider the amount as one- in my whole Spanish trip.

There was a group of about 30 people, seemed an extended family, in a long table celebrating a child’s birthday who ordered several of the specialty. After lunch, I went out for a walk along the town’s pedestrian street, where you see waves of people, families with their children and grandparents, walking up and down the street lined with shopping stores. I came back to my hostel late at night. My room was on the 4th floor, pretty rough walking up since there is no elevator ( 4th floor is actually 5th since in Europe what we call the first floor is the ground floor, without rental rooms). I took the morning bus back to Madrid the following afternoon.

In Madrid, I stayed at the Hostal Miami on the 8th floor of 44 Gran Via Street right at Plaza del Callao. I was just 2 buildings away from the more expensive Best Western. The hostel was pleasantly clean, has a great central location, quiet since I was up there. I used my binoculars to look down at people at the Plaza; a meeting place for friends and lovers, I noted. Gran Via is a major street and very center of the city with many retail stores, movie houses restaurants, etc. So many people, Madrid is really big in size and population of about 2 million. I found a nearby internet café to retrieve my emails, send a few, and surf.

The next morning, I went for a walk to see again the Old Madrid section: Puerta del Sol - the kilometer zero for all roads and one of the city’s liveliest area, the Plaza Mayor, where a lot of trials and executions during the Inquisition were made, the Palacio Real (royal palace) and the new and simpler Madrid Cathedral. I did not revisit the beautiful palace since we were there 4 years ago. I walked to see some historic buildings at Bourbon Madrid, east of the Old Madrid. For the first time, I saw several of Madrid’s beautiful landmarks such as the Plaza de Cibeles, Plaza Canovas del Castillo, Puerta de Alcala, and impressive buildings along the streets. I thought of visiting again the excellent Museo del Prado but was discouraged by a waiting line three blocks long. Later, I visited Museo del Ejercito (Army Museum) which was a great discovery for me.

The Army Museum was so rich with military collections dating back to medieval times, complete with knights and soldiers and real, preserved horses in armor. I had a picture taken of El Cid’s sword (remember Charlton Heston’s 1960’s movie of this warlord’s life). There were so many and various armaments: knife, swords, shields, firearms, cannons, muskets, full-size mannequins in military uniforms of soldiers, musketeers, etc. from Spain and other countries including Japan (samurais) and Filipino bolos, etc. The gun collections were so different and unique and which I never saw before in my life; they made me practically salivate. My gun collection is not even a drop in the bucket.

There was lots of historical information about Spain, the 1930s Civil War with models of fortresses under siege, etc. Among the many large pictures and/or statues of historical, military figures, I noted only two statues of Generalissimo Franco and they were not well lit and were sort of tucked away. I purchased a VHS tape of the museum. I think that the museum needs at least another visit, much like the Prado.

I ate lunch at a restaurant I curiously found called “Museo de Jamon”. I thought it was a joke but yes, it has hundreds of famous and expensive Spanish hams, especially the “Jamon Serrano” to the most delicious and most expensive “Jamon Iberico." Their lunch was cheap for the amount and quality they serve paella, bread, Jamon serrano, cerveza, and calamares fritos all for about 10 EU. On leaving, I bought some a baguette since I brown-bagged the Jamon. With all the saturated fat I consumed on this trip I have to exercise a lot to burn them off. I noted that Spanish dishes seem to be more on the meaty side.

The Feast of the Three Kings is a big deal in Madrid and on its Eve; that night there was a really, really big procession complete with live elephants and camels starting somewhere from Plaza de Cibeles and ended in Plaza Mayor. People were in their balconies, lined up on the streets like 7-people deep. There was then a jam session at Plaza Mayor.

What amazed me later the following morning, at 0330 hrs when I walked out to take my bus ride to the airport was the cleanliness of the streets; after all the thousands of people and all the confetti, etc scattered on the sidewalks and the streets. The cleanliness and the hardworking Spaniards belied my initial prejudice and ignorance about them. My stereotypical assumptions based on Philippine historical writings -many by the conquering Americans at the turn of the 20th century- and experiences were wrong.

Spaniards in Spain are different (unlike the drop-of-Spanish mestizos and mestizas in our homeland, essentially pretenders). They simply love life, they work to live, and not live to work. I left Spain impressed and wanting to go back again.

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