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 there...it'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...