Monday, September 15, 2008

Tour de France

Check out my prior blog entry about Lourdes before reading this one...

The Lourdes train station, my plan was to get a train or bus to another town (Bagnerres de Bigorre) where the Tour de France was to finish the next day. The only problem was that even though this town is only 25 minutes away by car, there is no bus that goes there. You have to take a 15 minute train up to Tarbes, wait 2 hours, and then take 45 minute train down to Bagnerres de Bigorre. No problem, except that the last train home to Lourdes comes back at 5pm, and the Tour riders don´t cross the finish line until 5:30pm. Since there´s no point in going to all that effort and not seeing the Tour, I sit to formulate a plan. Immediately upon sitting, I meet two other Americans who are also in town to watch the tour...James from Michigan and Ryan from Salt Lake. We decide that the next day, Ryan and I will rent a car and drive ourselves to Bagnerres de Bigorre (James will do his own thing hitchhiking up one of the mountains to watch there). The car seems like a cheaper option with more freedom than does a train, bus, and taxi combo because no one seems to be able to tell us how much a taxi back will cost, or IF we would be able to hire one. Plan set, we head out and buy some cheap French wine, some cheese, a baguette, a red pepper, some dark chocolate, and some water and cruise back to my hotel to watch the Tour on TV....turns out it is broadcast IN ENGLISH!!! Yeah!!

That night, after the guys leave my room and I hit the sack...all of a sudden in the middle of the night I wake and itch like crazy. No way. In this nice hotel I am getting bitten by something in my bed. I leap up and find bites all over my arm and feet!! I go downstairs and demand to have a different room. They comply. I throw all my crap into my bag and switch rooms, tired and furious. The next a.m., I wake before sunrise to get ready to meet Ryan to rent the car. While loading my pack, I reach in and...OUCHHHHHHHH....pull my hand back out with a deep slice in my index finger that is oozing blood. (Last night in my haste to switch rooms, I put the knife I used to cut my apple into my bag upside down...lovely.) I´m a real sight now...bug bites all over my arms and feet, a deep cut that won´t stop bleeding. I wrap a (clean) sock around my finger after I wash it out and I walk to meet Ryan.

We get to the car rental place and it is closed for the day! Shit!! The lady yesterday didn´t tell us it was closed Sundays! So we decide to do the train-bus-taxi option anyway and we go in to buy our train tickets. I buy mine, but Ryan has a Eur-rail pass and he left it in his hotel. We have only a half hour until the train arrives, enough time we think for him to run back to his hotel and get back in time to board the train. He asks me to watch his bag...I say no, that if he´s late I don´t want to be responsible for his stuff. He leaves...meanwhile, I'm still holding my hand above my head because my finger is still bleeding, and it´s now 2.5 hours after the time I sliced it! I begin to fear I may need a couple of stitches, and I´m about to go on a train to a place I´ve never been, not knowing how I´m going to get back, and perhaps needing to find a doctor while I´m in this unknown place, on a Sunday. It´s getting closer and closer to the train´s departure time and Ryan isn´t back yet. Finally they are boarding my train and he´s not back yet so I have to make a choice...I decide not to go. It just feels too forced at this point and I think I might have to find a hospital or a doctor soon. One good thing...I actually was able to get 90% of my train fare refunded...this is the only train station that I have ever seen that would refund money. I leave.

Finally, as I'm getting ready to go find the hospital, my finger stops bleeding. Could it be the holy water? Earlier, figuring I had nothing to lose, I went down and held my finger under the holy water faucet (see my prior blog entry about Lourdes) for about 30 seconds. Coincidentally or not, it stopped bleeding an hour after I anointed myself with the miracle H2O. All in all, I spent about 4.5 hours with a sock wrapped around my finger, applying direct pressure, and holding my hand on top of my head until it finally quit bleeding. I am a born skeptic, but maybe, just maybe, I did get my miracle in Lourdes.

So I spend the day watching the Tour in my hotel room, itching, bummed that I can´t get to Bagnerres de Bigorre to watch the finish of today´s stage in person. Afterwards, I go out to the grocery store...a 20 minute walk. It´s closed. Sunday. So I walk all over town looking for a restaurant that DOESN´T cater to every tourist from every country and serve every possible ethnic food including hot dogs, hamburgers, lasagne, quiche, pizza, paella, fish and chips, sandwiches, crepes, pastries, and various mystery mayonnaise-saturated foods. You know how you want to eat at a restaurant that actually specializes in something? Well, you won't find it here in Lourdes. And, can´t a guy get something with vegetables?? (This is a problem all over Spain and France.) Finally I end up in a place that will serve me a salad with lettuce, tomato, hard boiled egg, and diced ham. This is the most natural food I can get, even WITH it marinating in a gallon of mayonnaise dressing. If only I could say "on the side" (or anything else) in French.

Oh yeah...before I watched the Tour and after a quick detour through the cathedral, I visited the CASTLE!!! Now this was one of the coolest places I saw on my entire trip. I have no idea what the name of it was, but it was the awesomest old castle, on the top of a steep hill right smack dab in the middle of this mountainous town, overlooking everything. Turns out that in its early days around the year 1000 it was built as a military fortress. Later when the fortress wasn't needed around 1500 or so, the royalty made it their personal residence. Later around the 1700's, when the royalty moved on, the city of Lourdes turned it into a prison. For the last hundred years or so it's been open to the public to tour. The views up there were STELLAR!!!

Next day...up at 5 a.m. Stake out my spot in Lourdes on a sharp corner where the Tour riders will have to slow significantly before they pass. At least I will get to see them for longer since they´re slowing down. It would be nice to be up on the mountain to watch (better scenery, slower riding, and better Tour action in the mountains), but alas the roads are closed and I didn´t have a car last night to get up there and try to find a spot to park precariously on the cliff´s edge to sleep and wait. All day long I wait, from 6 a.m. on...about 12:30 the caravan begins to come through. The caravan is all the sponsor cars coming by throwing out free stuff to the spectators. Some of it is good, some of it is shit, some don´t have anything to give away, some just have sexy girls dancing in the backs of big vans/trucks. It is a spectacle, watching everyone scurry for the crap getting tossed into the crowd. I have a spot on the railing, in a perfect position to see the riders pass, but not so perfect as to get any of the cool stuff getting thrown out to the crowd. Wait...I do catch a cool pen (yeah a pen, my Tour de France PEN) that I set at my feet by my water bottle, until an old lady reaches down and steals it from me. Bitch!! We have an argument in English and French and neither understands the other, but both of us are pissed off. I tell her she just stole my pen. She intimates that she just reached down and found an unclaimed pen. Oh well, let it go, Den...let it go. Finally, at about 2:15 the first riders come through...about 15 of them. Then, about 30 seconds later the other 165 of them come flying by...and it´s over. That's it?!?! My three days of getting here, my bed bug bites, my inability to get to where I really wanted to be to watch the race, my sliced finger and trail of blood left all over Lourdes, my hundreds of dollars spent...all for less than a minute of Tour action. And I would do it all over again. I was THERE at the Tour de France. I SAW it. And I got one sweet photo of the race.

By the way...turns out that Ryan never did make it back to the train station. He got back to the hotel and realized he didn´t have enough time to make it back so he was sitting in front of his hotel figuring out what he was going to do that day. Turns out, a car of one of the Tour sponsors was loading up right in front of him and they offered to take him to Bagnerres de Bigorre. Of course he went. He watched the tour at the finish line, with two hot American girls, one a triathlete, saw the riders get their daily awards at the podium, and then was able to hitch a ride back. That bastard. :) He did tell me that when in Bagnerres, he spent about 2.5 hours walking through the crowd, up and down the street on both sides, looking for me, and he had the 2 American girls looking for me too. At least he tried to have my back. :) Thanks, Ry.

After they pass, I race back to my hotel to watch the final hour and a half of the stage on my hotel television. It's a great guy somehow musters up the strength, the heart, the force to push ahead of everyone, straight up that insanely steep finishing hill to claim the stage victory. Thrilled to have seen and learned so much about cycling over the last 3 days, I am also thrilled to leave Lourdes and get my ass back to Spain. I need out of tourist hell. Tomorrow morning I will head back to San Sebastian and then out to Leon, Spain and Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

On my last evening in Lourdes, as if to remind me that nothing can go right here, I go out to eat (same fresh iceberg lettuce/egg/tomato/ham/mayonnaise salad) and after eating my meal and a small dessert, realize I've forgotten my wallet. How do you explain that you have no money for the meal you already ate when you can't speak their language? Guess my mime skills are sufficient as not only do I not end up in a French jail cell, but I have them all laughing, slapping me on the back, and high-fiving me by the time I leave. And yes, I did walk back and pay my bill later that evening. :)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Journey to...and impression of..Lourdes, France

So...after Pamplona, Spain, I had 2 days to pop across the border to Lourdes, France where I was to watch the Tour de France. How would I get there? Looking at the map, it seemed really easy. Lourdes is basically just a little northeast of Pamplona and I guessed I could get there in about an hour and a half on any bus heading that way. One small problem...the Pyrenees mountains are between the two cities and I COMPLETELY underestimated that mountain range. I figured for sure there were roads to Lourdes from Northern Spain; after all, Lourdes is known worldwide as a pilgrimage site for devout Catholics. However, in the bus station in Pamplona, as I tried to negotiate my way to Lourdes, I quickly realized that no one had even HEARD of Lourdes, let alone being able to sell me a bus ticket there. Instead, they told me to take a bus west (the complete opposite direction) to the larger town of San Sebastian, Spain and try to get a bus from there to France. I did.

San Sebastian is in the Basque region of Spain and it seems like another world, both in terrain and in culture. They speak a different language (though they will speak Spanish if you try) and they were not particularly friendly. As a group, they seek their independence from Spain and would prefer to be their own country. It is BEAUTIFUL, but it was not beautiful that day - the weather was quite rainy, the people were unfriendly and seemed suspicious of foreigners, and I couldn't find anyone who knew how to get to Lourdes, France. Finally I found a tourist information center and the girl was able/willing to speak Spanish with me, AND she had an idea of how to get to Lourdes once I described where it was. Ultimately, she ended up doing quite a bit of research and she found me a ticket on an obscure bus route that went directly to Lourdes...but only on Saturdays at 9 a.m. Hey, tomorrow was Saturday!!! Adding to the unpleasant San Sebastian experience was the fact that I was in a crappy hostel called Olga's Place (that had gotten rave reviews from, the booking site most people are using these days). It was filled with a bunch of arrogant and selfish surfer guys/girls - they were unfriendly to non-surfers, and they were quite inconsiderate with their drinking and noise during the stated quiet hours of the hostel. I finally had to speak up and kick a few of them out of the dorm room at 2 a.m. when they insisted on partying there, even as they knew that another guy and I were trying to sleep (quiet hours started at 11pm). The next morning, thankful to be leaving San Sebastian after only one evening, I headed out to the bus station. In a little bus station coffeehouse, I was pleasantly surprised to have a nice conversation in Spanish with nice girl...I wasn't really surprised that she turned out to be from Romania, not San Sebastian.

In the pouring rain, I boarded my bus to Lourdes. It rained and rained all day and it really reminded me of home in the Pacific Northwest with all the rain and all the mountains. As the day went on, however, and we got into the Pyrenees, I realized that these mountains are unlike any we have in the Northwest. The Pyrenees are B I G and there aren't a lot of roads. Arriving in Lourdes, I immediately checked into my hotel, which I had booked from the U.S. (the only place I´d booked before I left). It seemed to be a very nice hotel in the middle of a town filled with really ugly hotels. I then found the train/bus station on the map and walked to it. Walking through Lourdes was startling. Not knowing much about the history of the town, I was shocked to see literally hundreds of tourist shops filled with every possible religious (Catholic) artifact for sale. Honestly, it was shocking. Cheap, cheesy stuff with pictures of the Virgin Mary or of St. Bernadette was everywhere, and expensive! Umbrellas, water bottles, ponchos, shirts, trinkets, necklaces, rosaries, fans, posters, hats, and anything else you can imagine was for sale. Crap, all of it.

I guess back in the 1800´s, this young, 11-year old girl called Bernadette claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to her 18 times. The church believed her and the spot (cave) where this supposedly happened became sacred. They built a cathedral on site above the cave. Catholics worldwide began to learn of this spot and began to flock here, bringing their injured/sick friends and family to be cured or granted a miracle. There is a spring in the cave and the water from this spring is supposed to be curative. I swear to God...seriously...this town is FILLED with people in wheelchairs, on gurneys, on crutches, etc., and equally filled with volunteers from around the world pushing them to the holy spring. The spring just happens to now be like a massive drinking fountain with about 30 faucets, but I suppose one day in the past it really was water flowing out of a rock. Anyway, people drink it, bottle it, let it run over various body parts that need some divine attention. Every store sells every size of water bottle, from small 1/2 ounce vials to gallon buckets, for people to take home a little o' Lourdes...their own little portable miracle. To me the juxtaposition of this super holy place with such outrageous capitalization on tourists' devotion is quite the paradox.

Lourdes is kind of an ugly town in a beautiful setting; of course, the pilgrims (and yes, they do call those who come to see miracles 'pilgrims') would probably disagree wholeheartedly.

But I made it...and the Tour de France awaited!!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Running of the Bulls.......what the?!?!

So, the Running of the Bulls takes place every July 6 - July 13 in Pamplona, Spain and the 8-day festival is called the San Fermin. Every morning at 8pm, a number of bulls (6-8??) are released at one end of town and they run as hard as they can through the streets of town until they get to the end of the course, which just happens to be inside the stadium where bullfights are conducted. At the start of the run, a loud gun goes off to tell everyone in town when the first bull has been let out, and shortly thereafter another gun goes off to let everyone in town know that the last bull has left the holding pen and that they are all now running in the streets. The bulls run through a street course with no exits (it's either tall buildings or erected barricades holding them in), so they can't get out.....and neither can the people that have chosen to take part in the run. The bulls go forward, and if anything gets in their way, they go over it or through it. They just run until they're in the bullring and there's nowhere left to run. It sounded moderately dangerous to me, and pretty thrilling to watch, so I hoped I could get there to see it during my Spain trip. I knew before I left for Spain that San Fermin was known worldwide and that getting a hotel room that week in Pamplona would be next to impossible. I tried looking onilne for a dorm bed in a hostel sometime during the festival, but the cheapest I could find was $300 for one night (and, for obvious reasons, no one on was offering a free couch for that 8-day period). Needless to say, I didn't book the bed and decided instead to just go to Spain and see how things all panned out.

All over Spain, in the first two weeks or so that I was in the country, I kept hearing about the Running of the crazy and death-defying it was from one person, how fun and totally NOT scary it was from the next. Many people were telling me to run (anyone can run that wants to) because it was the experience of a lifetime and not nearly as bad as the rumors make it sound. However, the closer I got to Pamplona, in both time and distance, the more the majority started to shift and I started hearing more and more stories of people getting gored and trampled or having very close calls with really big, scary beasts in really tight spaces. I was considering running, but logistically it was going to be tough because I didn't have a room or a safe place to leave my stuff, nor did I have someone that I knew and trusted to watch it. I figured I'd just play it by ear.

As it turned out, Pamplona is essentially on the way from Barcelona to Lourdes, France (where I was ultimately headed to watch the Tour de France bike race). So, as I was doing throughout Spain, I went online to the RENFE website (Spain's official train website) to buy a train ticket. Pamplona is 7.5 hours from Barcelona by train, and I happened to find a train that left Barcelona at 10pm and arrived at 534am in Pamplona. Sweet! That meant that not only could I get to Pamplona, but I could avoid trying to find a hotel room or a dorm bed there by just sleeping a little on the train ride. Then, I could see the run with the bulls at 8 a.m., hang out for a while, and get on a bus heading out of town somewhere toward Lourdes.

It all started out pretty well. I bought a little more expensive ticket in which my seat was one of six in a private room with a door that closed. As it turned out, there were two rows of three seats that faced each other. When I boarded the train and found my seat, I was the only one in there. After a few minutes, two other girls came in. One girl was from Pamplona and spoke really good English, so she could give me the scoop on what to do there. (I hoped she'd invite me to stay at her house so that I could stay an entire day instead of just a few hours, but she never did and I didn't want to push it.) The other was Brazilian and was able to speak both Spanish and English with me. Both were really nice and friendly. We made small talk for the first 45 minutes or so, and then we when we were all friends, we decided to fold down all 6 seats so that they made into three beds. There were three of us so it was perfect...except that as we were making beds, another girl came in. She came in late so she didn't bond with us - she just sat in one seat in the corner next to me while the rest of us still got horizontal and squirmed around trying to get comfortable. At first we were all trying to be polite and not touch each other....after a short while, that became way too much of a hassle and everyone's legs were thrown over everyone else's in an attempt to stretch out and get some sleep. It must've looked pretty odd (or impressive, depending on how you think of it) the way we were all stacked up together. Anyway, the train stopped now and then and it was pretty windy so there really wasn't a lot of sleep happening. At some point, though, I realized that I must have been sleeping because I groggily woke up to a really grouchy old guy and his wife coming in, flipping on the lights, and demanding that we put all the seats upright because two of them were theirs. He was right, so we complied, but so much for the sleeping on the train idea. We rode the last couple of hours in the dark, wide awake, trying to sleep, sitting upright without any leg room. It kind of sucked.

Upon arrival in Pamplona, the local girl from my train cabin offered to take me downtown (a short cab or bus ride away or a 20 minute walk away), but I'd have to wait an hour for her sister to get there. I didn't have an hour to spare so I thanked her and went on my own way. The reason I didn't have an hour was because I'd learned that the long-distance bus station on the other side of the small town had "left luggage" room so I could check my stuff in and go reclaim it later after the festivities...and then I'd already be at the bus station so I could get a ticket out of town going somewhere toward Lourdes. Perfect!!

Usually I would have just walked downtown, but I was tired that morning so I was trying to flag down a cab, along with a few other folks I met outside the train station. No cab would stop for us and we were getting pissed, and no buses were coming to the city bus stop that we were standing at in front of the train station. Just as we were about to walk to town as a group, a city bus came up. Given that it was filled with a bunch of local-looking people dressed in all white with red bandannas around their necks and red sashes around their waists, we knew the bus would be going to the right place (that white/red outfit is what everyone wears to San Fermin). We got on the bus and in 5 minutes we were downtown. I got off and asked a local where the bus station was. After another five minutes on foot, I was waiting in line in the 'left luggage' room of the bus station. Unfortunately, it took quite a while to get to the front of the line and leave my junk and by the time I got out of there and walked back downtown and figured out where I needed to be for the festivities, I had missed the window of time to be allowed to get into the course to run with the bulls and they had locked the course gates. I guess the decision was made FOR me to not run....I had been seriously considering it but hadn't yet made up my mind.

When I got down to the course, I was near the end and had no idea where the beginning was. The place was already JAMMED with people and I knew if I farted around looking at different places to see where the view was best, I'd soon not have any view at all so I stayed put. There was an approximately 5-foot high wooden barricade set up to hold the bulls in, and a few feet behind that was about a 6-foot high second fence on which people were seated or standing, craning their heads to get a view. I'm taller than most Spaniards, but with the people standing on the fence I still couldn't see a thing - all this way, all this effort to get here and I can't see?! Screw that!! I had to think quickly. I saw a dude standing on a plastic dumpster, alone, looking out above the chaos. I walked up, introduced myself, asked him if I could hop up there with him, and soon I had a new German friend named Stefan with whom I was able to take in the event. We let a few other dudes up there with us, but after a while, we had to keep kicking people off or pushing them away or telling them no..whatever worked. In a crowd like that, you stake out your spot, you don't move, and you hold your ground, trying not to be too much of a dick if you can help it.

Do you know it isn't easy to stand for over an hour on a plastic dumpster with a flimsy lid with six other drunk partygoers? I feared that the dumpster fall would be more devastating than any bull goring that happened to take place concurrently, but fortunately I never had to find out. It turns out that the spot was pretty decent and I got a few decent photos (see above). You can see from the photos that there were a lot of people and they were scaling walls, lamp posts, etc. to try to get a better view. There were a couple of ambulances just waiting around, and there were passed out people everywhere. Did I mention that San Fermin is pretty much the biggest party in the WORLD!? I have never in my life seen so much drunken debauchery, honestly (and to be sober was, in fact, a bit sobering). From my sweet, standing, dumpster view, there was one chivalrous guy below who had a passed out friend's head resting on each of his feet, just so that his buddies wouldn't have to lay their heads on the pavement. Of course, if you saw that pavement, you'd understand why. Everyone had told me NOT to go to San Fermin in flip flops because the streets were disgusting, and I really didn't get it until I saw it. There was piss, vomit, broken glass, and trash everywhere; it was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen, and yet somehow the whole event was still charming and electrifying. The streets were so littered that every morning after the bulls run, the fire department comes out with their hoses and hoses down not just the streets but the BUILDINGS, from the ground to about 6 feet up!! They flood the place with so much water that you need to be really careful that you don't get near the roiling, boiling mixture of said piss, vomit, broken glass and trash that flows downhill to wherever they collect it all.

Ultimately, the gun went off and we knew the gate had opened. Then 20 seconds later another gun went off so we knew all the bulls were running. Keep in mind we were about 200 yards from the finish of a 3-mile run and we could see the end but wouldn't know the bulls were near us until they were right in front of us because there was a big building blocking our view to the left. Within about 2-3 minutes, we could see the people up on the balconies beginning to fidget and pointing their cameras down the road so we knew the bulls were near....and then, just like that, the runners on the course that were waiting right in front of us started sprinting away...then a few bulls entered the picture.....some people outran them and made it into the stadium before the bulls did (they got ridiculed and people threw stuff at them for being pansies and not running WITH the bulls)....and amongst the rest there was a lot of scurrying, pushing, shoving, jumping, screaming, avoiding, etc. as the bulls charged through the crowd...and then, calmness. Slowly all the people on the course that had run with the bulls came walking past us, cheering, singing, yelling, drinking, reveling. Stefan and I just looked at each other. Was that it?! I only saw 3-4 bulls, and it didn't look all that dangerous....but click on the lowest photo above to see how big those bulls actually were and how close those big bodies and horns are to the people running in front of them. Ok, maybe I'm glad I didn't get the chance to run. :)

Stefan and I jumped down and said "adios" to each other. I quickly walked over to the stadium and walked into the stands. No one charged me money or asked for a ticket - it was like controlled chaos and no one cared who went in the stadium or how many went in. People crowded the aisles when all the seats filled; it was a fire marshal's worst nightmare. But I was there in the middle of it, checking it out, holding my camera high above others taking video of what was happening below. All the people that had beat the bulls into the bullring or those who'd run with the bulls and gotten to the stadium quickly enough to be inside before the gates shut were now actually IN the bullring. What they do is they let one bull at a time out into the crowd. The bull really has nowhere to run so it just runs at people, who stay in its path as long as they can until they jump aside at the last second, hoping not to get gored, trampled, or thrown in the air. People just want to touch the bull, to get close to it, and to not get killed. Most succeeded. No one died or got seriously hurt, but I saw a number of people tossed in the air the like ragdolls by a well-placed bullhorn, and I also saw a number of people trip and get stampeded by a thousand pounds of frightened mammal. The ambulances took away far more people with alcohol poisoning than with bull-inflicted wounds, I'm positive.

After a little while, I didn't need to watch bulls running around helpless in a sea of people anymore, so I left and I walked through the course and through town watching people party their asses off, at 810 a.m. All the bars were open and they were PACKED. People were wasted drunk, dancing, yelling. People were passed out everywhere. I meandered and just took it all in. I bought a t-shirt. I ate a popular Spanish breakfast, churros and chocolate (basically fried dough dipped into hot, thick chocolate milk the consistency of pudding). I didn't feel like going on a beer bender. Maybe if I'd have been with someone else I'd have felt a little more festive and wanted to party. I know if I'd have had a room, I'd have been able to relax and stay longer. As it was, I was glad I saw San Fermin, and equally glad to get the hell out of there.

Maybe I'll go back next year. If I book now, I can probably find a dorm bed for only $200 a night...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Read the blog, and then come back and look at the photos...they will make more sense. And, you can click on the photos to see an enlarged version. Enjoy!

I finally arrived in Barcelona, after a long supposedly 4-hour train ride that somehow ended up being 5.5 hours. In the Barcelona Sants train station, I exited the long-distance train and navigated my way underground to the subway they call the 'Metro'. I hopped on the light green line to Catalunya and soon I was ascending the steps into the chaos of 'La Rambla". La Rambla is a part of town where there are about a million people wandering around (pickpockets included, so beware) looking at a bunch of crap for sale and watching street performers do their thing. I was prepared for the action because I'd already heard all about it so I just lowered my head and marched on through the sea of people until I finally found my hostel a few blocks away.

Hot, sweaty, dirty, and hungry, I checked into the Somnio hostel. In Latin, Somnio means 'to dream' and this hostel was, in fact, a dream! Honestly, in all of my travels around the world, I have never once stayed in a cleaner hostel. It was more like a sparkling, new hotel with dorm rooms than a dirty, old hostel. It was owned and run by a girl named Lee, who moved to Barcelona a couple of years ago with her sister (Lauren, whom I did not meet) to leave behind the world of investment banking and open up their own hostel chain. Lee was fabulous - not only was she there working the desk, but she was full of valuable information and was truly interested in helping her patrons enjoy their time in Barcelona. She also happened to be very tall and very beautiful....but I digress. Over the next 3 nights and 4 days, I used the Somnio as my home base for my exploration of Barcelona. I didn't really bond with anyone at that particular hostel, though there were a few nice folks staying there at the same time, so I ended up seeing the city by myself.

One day, I just cruised around without a plan, getting lost on foot, knowing that I had a few bucks in my pocket and a map I could use to get home just in case it came to that. I just wandered around the typically Spanish crazy maze of streets, browsing through stores now and then, eating or drinking something that sounded interesting now and then, seeing the more important touristy things, but most of all just getting a feel for the city by being in it. Barcelona was very expensive, but well worth it; it's a beautiful city, situated right on the Mediterranean Sea and with a very mild climate.

I saw the Picasso Museum which was quite interesting. I had no idea Pablo Picasso had been so prolific an artist. There were thousands of drawings and hundreds of paintings...and still there are many, many others in different museums throughout Spain and around the world. Note to any of you that plan to visit: don't try to take a picture when you're upstairs at the museum, even if you haven't yet entered the exhibits: security guards get really pissed, really quickly, and make you feel like a Spanish jail cell is in your very immediate future if you even THINK of snapping that precious photo you want to show everyone back keep it in your pocket! Yes, I know this from first-hand experience.

What else did I see in Barcelona? Well, I went to the beach, which was really great, though not as good as in Valencia. There were a ton of people...and why is it always the old, nasty, leather-skinned women that decide to be topless? Ick. Fortunately, I found an open spot to lay my towel beside a cute, 20-something girl (with a bikini, mom). We didn't talk, but just smiled and each enjoyed our own space. Good karma must have been raining down on me (perhaps for showing such gentlemanly restraint and not staring at this gorgeous girl) because after about a half hour she just up and removed her top and soaked up the sunshine without a care in the world. Why can't American girls be so free and uninhibited? If we saw it all the time, we wouldn't feel the NEED to stare. Ok, we probably still would. And yes, I'm still pissed off that before I left the beach, I decided to walk the length of it. I knew I should've just left, but no, I had to see the whole thing, and that was when I had the unfortunate experience of stumbling onto the nude, gay beach. I felt like a piece of meat because there wasn't any gentlemanly restraint being exhibited here such as I had shown, these boys stared hard at me (NO pun intended, truly!!). Whatever floats your boat, judgment...but, hey, I'm out of here. And now, I am deleting that part of my memory and ending it at the part where the young hottie removes her bikini top again. Yeah, that's better!

Antoni Gaudi's amazing architecture was a focal point of the city...or should I say focal POINTS?! In addition to a handful of odd Gaudi-designed Modernist houses/buildings polka-dotting the city, the main two sights are his Parc Guell and La Sagrada Familia. La Sagrada Familia is a church that was started in 1882 but is not yet completed. Gaudi died in 1926 after he got run over by a tram and, in 1938, anarchists destroyed the only copy of the blueprints being used to finish construction. So, over the years, more and more parts have been finished, but it's still not scheduled to be finished until (optimistically, I hear) the year 2026. I did not go inside La Sagrada Familia, choosing instead to just photograph it from the outside, because I heard it was not much to see due to the construction. The outside, however, was just covered in crazy, Catholic sculptures depicting various religious scenes and historical figures. The new construction looks similar, yet quite different from the original, and apparently there are a lot of critics voicing their opinions on how Gaudi would turn over in his grave if he saw the church's evolution...yet I understand an equal number of people think it's just exactly what Gaudi would have had in mind. See the photos above - one is of the older side of the church and one is of the modern side being constructed. Click on them and look more closely at the detail in the sculptures.

Parc Guell was actually not planned to be a public park. In fact, Gaudi was commissioned by some rich dude named Guell to build a huge, hillside housing playpen for the rich and famous. When the project ran out of money after only two houses were built, Gaudi moved into one of them and at some point it was converted into a municipal park. Gaudi's style incorporated a lot of magical mosaics and curved lines and at first glance, it appears that his buildings and sculptures would easily crumble. The site of the park on the hillside is stellar, affording sweeping vistas of the entire city of Barcelona and the distant Mediterranean.

While I was there, I was wandering around in a section of the park with cavernous ceilings supported by pillars that appear to be composed of loose rock (somehow I trusted they were actually solidly constructed) when I happened upon a pretty girl playing guitar and singing. As I was the only person around, I dropped a Euro coin into her guitar case and sat down to listen to the music and reflect on my journey. When she stopped, we started talking and after discovering that I play the guitar too, she offered me her instrument and sat there smiling while I played and sang for HER. We traded back and forth, each playing a couple of songs at a time, for probably 30-40 minutes. At that point, she had to get going to work so she walked with me through the park and pointed out various things along the way of interest. We had someone snap a picture of us at a place which overlooked the city (though the guy who took the photo didn't really capture any of the gorgeous view!!) and traded emails and went our separate ways. And yes, her name was María too. :)

(See the three Parc Guell pics above: one is María playing guitar, one is a mosaic dragon at the park entrance, and one is a view of one of the crazy Gaudi buildings and the city and sea lurking in the distance.)

Oh yeah...Gema and I were going to meet up in Barcelona, remember? Well, we arranged a meeting at the Arc de Triomphe (yes, the French one isn't the only one) one evening at 800 pm. I got there....waited....waited...waited....and she never showed up. At 900, I decided that maybe she'd meant to meet her at the METRO STOP for the Arc de Triomphe instead of at the Arc itself (see photo) so I walked the one block over there hoping to find her. I didn't. The next day, we were able to connect via email and actually did meet up at a different place. As it turns out, she had arrived at the Arc Metro stop at 800 and had waited until 900, at which time she thought that maybe she needed to go look for me at the Arc itself. Somehow we didn't pass each other on the way. But, as I said, I did get to sit with her over dinner the next night for about an hour and a half before I boarded the 10pm overnight train to Pamplona. She was so sweet too, insisting on walking with me to the metro and going down into the tunnel to wait with me for my train instead of running off to meet her work friends. I took the opportunity to try to convince her to come visit Portland someday...she seemed interested and perhaps she'll come out for a Western U.S. National Park trip next year.

Oh, and check out the picture above of the rental bike rack...there are racks like this all over Barcelona (and Seville and Madrid) and you see ALL the locals using these bikes. They pay a monthly rental, and they can take a bike anytime they want from any rack they want...and return it to a rack near where they are going. So convenient and an inexpensive way to travel quickly around town. It's a little amazing that the bikes don't get stolen or vandalized like they probably would here in the U.S. Anyway, as a tourist, I was not their target customer so I got to use my own two feet on the ground instead of on their pedals....oh well.

Next....the Running of the Bulls, in Pamplona, Spain. Oh my God. Just wait for this...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Valencia and the fabulous Gema.

So I arrived in Valencia via train and Gema was there waiting for me. I told her in Spanish over email that I was a tall, skinny, white guy, with a red beard, glasses, and a shaved head. Somehow she found me. Oh, and you can click on the pics above to make them bigger for viewing individually. :)

Gema was immediately wonderful, genuine and disarming, and I knew that the visit with her would be wonderful. She had walked from the condo where she lives with her mom and brother in downtown Valencia to meet me. We walked to my hostel, about 10 minutes away on foot, and dropped off my stuff. We then walked all over town, stopping at some cool places along the way and just getting a feel for the city. We went into a big cathedral and walked up the bell tower for a great view for miles around. We snapped a few photos (ok, I snapped a few photos). We walked along a path in the Rio Turia - this is the most amazing park ever! Years ago, after repeated flooding of the Rio Turia, Valencianos diverted the course of the river to OUTSIDE of the town and converted the old riverbed into a park! Now, for miles and miles, there are nothing but gardens, soccer fields, trails/paths, bandstands, and even bigger, bolder architecture like a massive aquarium, a science museum, and a music museum.

That night, we dined out for an early tapas dinner. Gema ordered several things off the menu for me to try, including chorizo (a spicy sausage), a cured meat (like salami/ham) plate, and a big ol' hunk of octopus. I am not much of a cured meat fan so I would say it was tasty but not special. The chorizo was actually pretty good. But, the octopus was one of the best foods I've ever had. I never knew it could be cooked in a way that was not tough and rubbery; this was melt-in-your-mouth, and was perfectly spiced heaven. I am still dreaming of that octopus. I am thinking of getting one Fed Ex'd to me from that bar. Later that night, as I was still hungry, we stopped into another bar/restaurant and ate pinchos, which are basically various foods on top of a slice of a baguette, held together with a toothpick. You go into a bar or restaurant and the pinchos are sitting out on plates on the counter and you take what you want, paying later when the waitress asks you how many you ate. It's kind of an honor system, but at something like 3.5 euros (about 6 bucks) per pincho, I guess they're not too worried about losing money. (Yes, all food is very expensive over there!!) There is no description of what each pincho is, so you just have to look for what looks good to you and dive in. I did really well, except for the one I hungrily bit into that was filled with anchovy and caviar. It was horrid, and I couldn't stomach another bite. Gema just laughed at me.

I stayed in a hostel (the Red Nest) while in Valencia...nothing special, and with way too many rules. It felt more like a prison than a hostel. Fortunately I spent all my time with Gema except for when I was sleeping!

The next day Gema picked me up in her tiny car (everyone in Europe has a tiny car....and they make due just fine...makes our SUV's seem rather pointless and a bit pretentious...until you want to go up into the mountains camping, I guess) and drove me outside of town, off the tourist track. First we stopped at the Albufera, a beautiful nature preserve just filled with migrating birds. It is a very interesting geography's a freshwater lake just barely separated from the ocean by dunes.

After the Albufera, Gema drove me around an area adjacent to the Albufera in which there were many square miles of rice paddys and orange groves. Her grandfather owns (though he recently sold a large portion of his) land in the area, and his land is used for growing both rice and oranges. Their family apparently has made a good amount of money from the farms, as they have a nice beachfront apartment in the nearby town of El Perelló. Gema and I went to the apartment, met her mother and her mother's husband, and then went to the beach. On the beach we met her sister Amparo and her sister's boyfriend Carlos. Both were super nice, though we didn't sit with them long as Gema and I went for a long swim and walk on the beach. This beach was one of the most beautiful beaches I've seen, with perfectly fine, light-colored sand, no rocks, bathtub-warm water, and of course, the occasional topless females. Later, after a shower to wash off all the salt water, Gema and I headed down to the next town, called El Perellonet for dinner.

This village is where the famous Spanish food called 'paella' originated, and it is still world-famous for serving the best paella. It was stupendous!! In all the places throughout Spain in which I ate paella, it never tasted half as good as it did at the restaurant Gema, Amparo, Carlos and I went to. I had the traditional rabbit and chicken paella that time, although I tried various other types (veggie, seafood) in other restaurants throughout Spain.

We also stopped for some horchata....which is totally different from the Mexican rice milk/sugar/cinnamon drink we are used to here in the U.S. In Spain, it is made from tigernuts (also called chufas), water, and sugar, and served frozen as a kind of "slushy" drink. It was pretty tasty, but I like the Mexican version better.

The next day, I was off to Barcelona...and so was Gema! She had to go there for 11 days for a class, and I was going just because it was the next destination I wanted to see. Unfortunately we couldn't get onto the same train so we went separately. After my morning "cortado" (that's Spanish for a shot of espresso, 'cut' with a tiny bit of milk, and sweetened with a bit of sugar), I headed off to the train station. As I waited for my train to arrive, I noticed the line to get through security getting longer and longer very quickly. I jumped into the line and it was going nowhere. Finally after about 20 minutes, when I started to get concerned about not getting through in time to board my train, I asked the guy next to me (in Spanish, of course), what was going on. As it turns out, he just LOOKED Spanish and was in fact Dutch so he spoke fluent English AND Spanish. Luckily he was there because I would have been incredibly confused had he not been able to explain the situation to me in English. Apparently, someone had committed suicide by jumping in front of the train that was coming to pick us up. So, in Spain, when this happens, no one can do anything at all until they send out someone from the church to bless the body. That meant we waited. And waited. Finally, after about an hour, our train rolled in and they started letting us pass through security. When I got up to the girl checking us through, she asked if I spoke Spanish. I said yes, but fortunately she told the Dutch guy to tell me in English. He told me that they had added four extra cars to the train and our assigned seats were no longer available. We now had to just jump onto one of the last four cars and find the first available seat we could. So, we got out to the area where we were to board, fighting our way through a mass of people ready to jump into any seat they could find, and the electronic readout on the car said "Madrid", NOT "Barcelona". Now we didn't know what to do. Were we even at the right train? Everyone was confused, including the workers on the platform, but somehow my Dutch savior got the word that in fact it WAS the right train. When they opened the doors, we were able to quickly squeeze into a seat and stow our bags on the shelf above us. From then on, it was smooth sailing....but without the Dutch dude, I'd have been competely confused and unsure of what the hell was going on.

That was my last experience in Valencia, except for the Valencia oranges I'd bought at the local market that morning. (Spanish markets are a kaleidoscope of sights, smells, and sounds in which you can purchase anything from a complete pig's head to a whole fish, to a fresh-sliced fruit bowl.) I'd heard so many good things about Valencia oranges....but the ones I bought were terrible! They're better at Fred Meyer. (Of course, once I was somewhere ELSE in Spain, later in my trip, I had absolutely delicious Valencia oranges so they redeemed themselves.)

My visit with Gema was such a pleasant surprise!!! And then I was off to Barcelona, just 4 hours further up the Mediterranean coast from Valencia. The plan was to meet up with Gema sometime during my 3-4 days in Barcelona...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Granada me encanta! (enchants me)

So, Granada. What a cool place! Super tranquil, beautiful setting in/at the base of the hills, with a great mix of Arab and Spanish cultures. I got fat on chicken schwarma and chicken kebobs. The schwarma rivals Chipotle as the best food for the money on the planet. A "schwarma completo" comes with chicken, egg, cheese, some secret special sauce, beets, onion, cabbage, olives, falafel, carrots, and probably a few things I´ve forgotten. The description sounds disgusting, but it was AMAZING!!!

I stayed at the Oasis Backpackers´Hostel again, one of several in the chain, as it was recommended by travelers I met at the Oasis hostel in Sevilla. This Oasis didn't have a pool on the roof, but it was a really, really cool old Granada building, four stories high, with open, dark wooden balconies on each floor overlooking the ground level...and each balcony had long, green, spider-like plants covering the railings and hanging down into thin air.

I met some great people there...Simon from England/Belgium; Chris from Melbourne, Australia, Laurie from Brussels, Belgium; Eric from San Francisco, CA; Andrea from Norway, and Sue-Tan from Singapore. I also saw once again Jessie and Georgina from north of Toronto, Canada (had hosteled with them in Sevilla). I met Emma and Jane from North Ireland and learned all about the Catholic-Protestant tensions that are still going on there...crazy. There are parts of town the girls can´t go to because they´re Catholic and people will report back to their parents, etc. They could even get beat up, so if they dare go, they only go in a group and they watch their backs closely. I can't relate at all; we really take our complete freedom for granted, don't we?

One night, Eric busted out his guitar and a large group of us spent the waning hours of the day up on the hostel roof watching the sun set, drinking beer/Sangria, and singing/playing songs. It was wonderful!

Oooooh....the Alhambra...this is an amazing, historic Arabic military fortress/king's residence that still stands and looms large on the hill above Granada. It is simply magical. The Spaniards, after nearly a millenium of conflict throughout Spain, finally conquered the Arabs in 1492 and retook Granada/the Alhambra. There are so many visitors every day now that you have to go and buy a ticket in the morning and then come back at whatever time they print on your ticket. They do this to make sure there are never too many people inside the fortress at once. I got lucky when I went to buy a ticket because I was alone and that meant I could go in immediately; people that showed up with several friends often had to wait several hours to be allowed in. Anyway, the Alhambra was amazing! First of all, the setting is idyllic and you can see for miles in all directions. Secondly, the architecture is stunning, with an excruciating attention to detail, and you can see how it was essentially impregnable, unless they wanted you in! I guess it was built over several hundred years and each Arabic king added his own stamp to it. It's amazing to imagine something that impressive being built in the years 900-1500 A.D. There are amazing gardens, huge towers, lavish interiors, city views, and immeasurable charm. Photos can't do it justice, but if you'd like a glimpse of the Alhambra and my time in Granada, check out this link:

On my fourth and final afternoon in Granada, I wanted to buy a souvenir to remind me of my time there so I went into a small shop selling a lot of local wooden crafts. Keep in mind, I had been traveling for over a week in Andalucia (Southern Spain) and really couldn't understand anyone, nor could they understand me. Their Spanish was so fast, and so different (they don't pronounce the last letters/syllables of many words) that it was like learning a new language. Then, I met Maria José, who was working at the souvenir shop (currently her father's, and her grandfather's before that). She is 37 years old and was born on that same street on which she was working the store that day, and has never lived anywhere but Granada!!! She and I just seemed to hit it off immediately, and we could understand each other!!!!!!!!!! I probably hung out there for 45 minutes talking with her in between her times helping other customers. She's been to New Mexico so she was very interested in meeting someone from the western U.S. and talking about her time there. At one point, I decided I wanted to ask her to have dinner with me or something because this was the first person I'd been able to communicate with in Spanish since I arrived. When she came back from helping a customer and I was about to ask her out, SHE asked ME out! Yeah!

Before meeting up with María José, I spent the rest of my afternoon eating one last chicken schwarma and wandering around Granada's crazy maze of streets (the Albayzin, a UNESCO World Heritage neighborhood), in which my hostel happend to be located. I spent a really great hour also with Laurie from Belgium sharing music from each other's iPods, turning each other onto artists the other hadn't heard of. We shared ear buds from the same headphones and we had a bonding moment through music.

Later, María José and I met at the Plaza Nueva at 1030 pm, after she got off work. We walked together, chatting casually, all over her lovely town, with her pointing out various landmarks, talking about the history, etc. We went to her favorite little pub/restaurant for some tapas (small, appetizer-sized dishes popular throughout Spain) and a beer. We ran into her lawyer and his wife on the street and all chatted for a few minutes. We walked along a small creek through town to another plaza, this one directly under the Alhambra up on the hill, which was gloriously lit up at night. We ended up at a little Arabic tea house in which the plan was for me to teach her some English (that plan got scrapped because we were enjoying talking too much to stop the Spanish). Neither of us wanted to smoke the hookah, so we just chatted and chatted. All in all, we ended up spending about 5 hours together and I walked her to her parents doorstep at 330 a.m. (her house was a 30 minute walk outside of town so she wanted to just crash at her parents' place, which was a 5 minute walk away from my hostel and the plaza we were in.) With a gentle hug and a sweet, quick, friendly kiss, we said our goodbyes and wished each other well. That was probably the most special experience of my entire Spain trip; getting off the tourist track isn't always easy to do, so you have to relish the moments when you can bond with someone local.

I arose early the next morning, having already packed my backpack the night before. I hoofed it down to the train station and at about 7 a.m. I hopped on an 8 hour train to Valencia to go meet Gema, a friend of a friend back in the States. I had never even seen a photo of Gema or spoken with Gema, so I had no idea what to expect when I arrived. I hoped it would be fun and not awkward or forced...