Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Travelling Spain: Meeting, Memories & Mérida

There was one more city to visit before Madrid. I had considered crossing eastwards to Valenica or even going over the border into Portugal. In the end, I decided to keep things simpler and start making my way inland. From Cádiz, I journeyed 300km north to the Extremaduran capital of Mérida, where there was added incentive to stop and explore.

Since telling my parents of my trip to Spain, they had been tirelessly reminding me that I have a cousin in Mérida. But this wasn't someone I had spent Sunday afternoons with in childhood. Frances was raised in London by my father's oldest sister and her English husband, who, I will always remember, had once told me about living through the Blitz. Despite being first cousins, circumstances meant simply that we had never met. 

Nevertheless I decided, with relentless encouragement from my father, that I would try and make contact with him. But upon reaching only a Spanish lady who didn't seem to speak English, I thought I had been given the wrong phone number. Tired and uncertain, I went to a nearby bar and tried to order a tapa of goat's cheese, only to end up with a full plate of salad.

The next morning, I tried the same number and was relieved to hear Frances complimenting my "brave attempt" to ask if it was right. It was, in fact, a babysitter I'd been talking to the night before. Upon first meeting, Frances confirmed that I indeed had the “head of a Tobin”. His own resemblance to his father was equally faithful.

Frances' marriage to fellow Londoner Rupee in the summer of 1995 had actually been the cause of my first trip out of Ireland. While my parents attended, my older brother and I stayed with my Gran Aunt in her London apartment. I recall her talking about how Real Zaragoza midfielder Nayim had defeated her beloved Arsenal with that audacious lob over David Seaman in the 1995 Cup Winners' Cup Final. 

In the meantime, Frances and Rupee had two children of their own. On meeting them, the younger daughter turned anxiously to her mother and commented: "I don't know Mum, he's a bit big". Afterwards, Frances took me to see the Roman ruins that Mérida is famous for. They were just as compelling as anything I had seen in Moorish Andalusia. 

That afternoon and evening, I was treated to amounts of food probably sufficient until I get home. In between were conversational insights into Spanish society that I could have never incurred on my own or in hostels. Spending time with my cousin and his family turned out to be biggest education of my whole Spanish adventure. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Travelling Spain: Cádiz

After the sparseness of Tarifa, I arrived in Cádiz happy to be back in a busier spot. The sea-surrounded city is one of Europe's oldest population centres. But historical emphasis lies on the eighteenth-century, when it replaced Seville as the region's main port. Maritime is the definitely the primary theme, and I spent a considerable amount of time on the old fort of Castillo de San Catalina, captivated by the sight of Atlantic waves crashing furiously against the rocks.

On drier ground, the nineteenth-century Cathedral conformed eagerly to the opulent standards set by the other Christian temples I've encountered so far, though a baroque style was something of a departure. Descending into the crypt was definitely the highlight. On a Tuesday afternoon in early December, I was all alone amongst darkness, crucifixes, and portraits of dead bishops. Compounding the mystique were the strangest acoustics, apparently induced by the nearby ocean. That alone was worth the €5 entry. 

Day two saw me visit the Torre Tavira, a viewing point once used to monitor the arrival of ships carrying cargo from the new world. Here I was treated to the amusement of a "camera-obscura". But the young guide reciting her rehearsed script was equally entertaining. At once, I played the part of adult and child, reacting excitedly to her tailored statements. Toward the end, she used a card to "pick up" people walking around the city. Being familiar with her line of work, I did all I could to show that I really did care.

In Cádiz, I stayed at the Rough Guides recommended Casa Caracol. This hostel felt like the most alternative of all I've stayed in so far. The people running it reminded me of the buskers in Granada, and there was definitely more of an emphasis on recycling and shared responsibility for the upkeep of the hostel. Like La Banda in Seville, delicious food was provided every evening by staff. Initiatives like this make the hostel experience much more worthwhile: nothing breaks the ice like talking about how nice food is. 

Leaving Cádiz marked the end of my visit to Andalusia. My impression before was formed by literature that informed how it was Spain's poorest, yet most charming, region. There were surely signs of economic hardship, and an atmosphere of decline permeated throughout. My euros were also noticeably more valuable than in Ireland. But there wasn't manifest poverty. Andalusia instead conveyed itself as a resilient place, possibly assisted by traditional virtues of family values and charity. Adding dynamic culture, vast history and very tolerable weather, I find reasons for not visiting hard to come by. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Travelling Spain: Tarifa

Leaving Ronda afforded me the first opportunity to use Spain's renowned railway network. And a two-hour journey to Algeciras was enough to deduct that Renfe is very much worth its reputation. The train ride was clean, comfortable and complimented by yet more mountainous scenery. 

I did, though, have another dose of loudness. This time, a group of elderly women made intermittent, yet very unsettling, exclamations. One was so sharp that it shook me suddenly in my seat. 

After a brief stop in Algeciras, I made my way down to Tarifa. As Europe's most southerly point, this small town is vitalised by the port's use as a gateway to Africa. Indeed the Morroccan coastline is perfectly visible across the water. When I told my father that on the phone, he replied simply: "You're Joking!"

Before becoming a kitesurfing hotspot, Tarifa was morbidly known as one of Spain's suicide blackspots. Speculation as to why centred on the constant presence of very strong winds. Having spent just over one day there, I have to agree that they were depressingly difficult to tolerate. Sandblast and sunburn tainted my lengthy walk on the otherwise beautiful beach.

Nevertheless, the old quarter provided enough for me to stay occupied with. The San Mateo church and the sculptures inside were one point of interest. Spain's Catholicism is different than its Irish cousin. Chapels are more elaborate and depictions of the crucifixion and saints' martyrdom more graphic. It's made me think even harder of what exactly the message is. 

Ultimately, I'll remember Tarifa for two eqsuisite meals. For obvious reasons, seafood was very much on the menus. But I was lucky enough to discover a tiny Vegetariano that served up the finest of samosas. I also divulged in probably the largest amount of tomatoes I have ever eaten, sandwiched by mozarella cheese. It would be nice to eat like that more often. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Travelling Spain: Ronda

There wasn't much I knew about Andalusia before deciding to come here. Major cities like Sevilla, Málaga and Granada sounded familiar, not least from all that time spent playing Sensible Soccer and Championship Manager. That's what made a place called Ronda alluring- I'd never heard of it. Subsequent planning revealed a “white town” divided by 120 metre-high bridge running over a chasm. I was going. 

But the most profound experience of my two nights in Ronda turned out be a single ensuite room and some time to myself. After sixteen nights in shared accommodation, the last three of which were harassed by incessant snoring, I had been desperately seeking solitude. Hotel Morales was the perfect remedy.

Early starts allowed me to explore this dramatically situated town properly. The Moors fortified it well, and throughout the centuries, Ronda had become the site of repeated sieges. The eighteenth-century bridge, or Puente Nuevo, was certainly impressive. Looking cautiously down, accounts of prisoners being thrown over during the Civil War ran eerily through my mind. I also visited a museum exhibiting documents, photographs and paraphernalia related to the nineteenth-century Andalusian “bandits”. Average. 

A recurring theme on this trip has been to find a sunny spot where I can sit and read. One afternoon, I scouted out a suitable spot on the crest of one of Ronda's many urban slopes. Here I was presented with a clear example of Latin peoples' tendency for oral projection. I couldn't quite believe how loudly four men were speaking to each other on the corner. It must have been an argument, even if definitive signs of aggression or submission were lacking. Whatever the topic, the sound of Spaniards in Spain is something I won't forget quickly. 

After moving to a quieter location, I managed a few chapters before being approached by a young family. Dad started off by hassling me for a cigarette or bread. When I told him I had neither, it sounded like he enquired if I was Chinese. At that point, I asked if he spoke English. Immediately he turned to the oldest child, who was nine at most. In a moment of inspiration, she tenuously interpreted the elders' short conversation. But her younger sister stole the show by listening intently to the Inglés introductions and contributing with something like: "Mee nay ess Sara!"

Afterwards, I vainly hoped that they might remember me as some kind of nomad from parts unknown (as if Spain was on the other side of the world, didn't use the euro and wasn't serviced by Ryanair). I also continue to wonder if I somehow seem Chinese. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Travelling Spain: Seville

Having descended from the higher ground of Córdoba and Granada, my first impression of Andalusia's capital was its weather. Winter in Sevilla turned out be the warmest I've ever encountered. On each of the five days spent there, afternoon temperatures climbed well over twenty degrees. Sitting short-sleeved on the grass, I could only imagine how oppressive the summers must be. 

I was formally introduced to Seville by another walking tour. It was guided by a local engineering student and centred on the fundamentals of a very long history. Given my interest in the more recent events of the 1930s, I was intrigued to hear how Franco and the Nationalists projected Andalusian traditions as the most "appropriate" expression of Spanish culture. But that could never have detracted from my later viewing of an authentic Flamenco at the local museum. The fusion of the dancers' graceful technique with elite musicianship made every one of my twenty euros count. 

The rallying point for Seville's sightseers is the Cathedral. But because I had just seen Córdoba's Mesquita, I opted instead for a walk around the nearby Alcázar. Here, as is common across the region, a Moorish palace is augmented by Christian alterations. But there remains enough class to make parts of it truly breathtaking. Combining intricate carvings with a "cupola" cedar-wood ceiling, the Hall of Ambassadors rivals the finest of Granada's Alhambra.

Strolling around Seville was especially rewarding. A distinguishing feature was to stumble upon concealed public gardens with elaborately painted and tiled seating. There was also the unmistakable drama of Plaza De España (pictured). Relaxing here revived my fascination with Europe's "patriotic" buildings. I always enjoy seeing how once mighty powers used architecture to project the notion that this continent was the centre of the world. 

My bed in Seville came courtesy of the very central La Banda Rooftop Hostel. This recently renamed digs is run by four English guys, the oldest of which looks about twenty-five. While being thoroughly dependable for anything weary travellers might need, they personified the laid-back attitude that every hostel is so desperate to convey. La Banda was definitely the first place that I felt like I got to know people. The "internationality" of these places makes them difficult to dislike. 

But there are two sides to every story. One night, as one of the hosts was closing the rooftop area, two well-wined guests demanded to know what the "craziest story" from the hostel was. It was 1am midweek, and as he struggled to recount sufficient "craziness", the Englishman's fatigued expression revealed a more realistic side to the lifestyle of low-budget accommodation. 

Then there was the snorer who shattered the previous tranquillity of our eight-bed dorm. I've never been subjected to so many different tones of breathing. After about three hours of sleep, I watched him gently climb down his bunk, delicately cross the floor, and almost silently lock the bathroom door. He was, in wakefulness, the most courteous of people.   

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Travelling Spain: Córdoba

The outskirts of Córdoba looked more like American suburbia than an ancient European city. Arrival at dusk coloured my search for the right way in an orange glow. Enclosed by blocked streets lined with palm trees were the luminous signs of fast-food chains, soft-drinks and auto-parts. It was close to the images I conjure of southern California, most directly influenced by watching COPS a lot when my house got the "English channels" in the mid nineties.

A taxi journey into town changed all that. Within minutes I was back in that familiar maze of streets and alleys. The driver described Córdoba in minimal English. My replies came in even scanter Spanish. But it didn't matter; you know when someone is trying to make you feel welcome. Courtesy, patience and Latin animation have compensated for almost all communication difficulties in Andalusia so far.

Perhaps due to my arrival on a Wednesday, Córdoba was at first quieter than Granada. This was nice. I enjoyed sauntering around slowly and picking away at tapas in empty bars and restaurants. "Little and often" might describe my dietary regime so far. However, with some exceptions, I've found vegetarian options quite limited. Pork is particularly tricky to avoid- Spain's taste for bacon is said to have arisen during the inquisition, when it became an expression of Christian identity.  

Backpacker Al-Katre was my nicest lodging yet. A small open yard gave access to a common area, bathrooms, bedrooms and a stairs to the first floor. One of the hostesses told me she learned English in Cork, and that accordingly, she could understand every variation of the language. An Argentinian traveller shared a room with me. He too was documenting his trip, and made me feel amateur by being gone before I awoke and returning only after I fell asleep. 

Rivalling the Alhambra for the most visited of Spain's 44 world heritage sites, is the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba. Its famous red and white arches bestow a sense of vastness, once filled by thousands of Muslims on their knees, facing toward the spectacular Mihrab. As in the Alhambra, Christian additions and restructuring is plentiful. Chapels, statues and all-out extravagance, though impressive, come across as an attempt to outshine the subtle magic of the Moorish original. In total, this stunning structure took about two hours to see. Other highlights included the minuscule ancient synagogue and the Roman bridge (pictured). 

Unfortunately, my enduring recollection of Córdoba will be, once again, centred on folly. On the night before leaving, I returned to the hostel around 0:10. The door to Al-Katre was shut, allowing only guests with a key access. But even when I unlocked it, the door refused to budge. There followed around twenty minutes of cursing, victimhood and repeated knocking. Eventually the hostess opened up and asked if I had forgotten my key. "It doesn't work!" She me asked to show her. I did. And figured out that there were two locks, the second of which was released by a extra turn to the right. I shuffled off to bed wondering if she had happened to meet anyone like me in Cork.