Monthly Archives: September 2012

Street Art in Granada: A Photoessay

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Vibrant colors, detailed portraits, emotionally charged visualizations. You might find these things in an art gallery or a museum, by all you really need to do is spend an afternoon or two wandering around the streets of Granada to see some of the most stunning and personal art. At least to me, the graffiti and murals on the side of building and shops’ metal barriers are some of the most captivating works I’ve seen, not only describing the artist or the place, but the people of Granada and Spain as a whole.

We see not only some great creativity in making even the most boring things eye –catching and beautiful:

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But also Granada’s vibrant music scene:

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People making statements:

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And looks into the gritty reality of what has passed these walls:

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But then some things are encouraging and hopeful for the future:

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And you can tell these people take pride in their work, their city, their freedom, their people, and their county. They love what they’re doing:

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The art I find in the street speaks the most to me. It represents the person who is not represented elsewhere, whose art would not make it into a gallery or a museum. Some people such as Banksy, Os Gemeos, and Harper Ferry have managed to make strong statements through their street art and I like to recognize those artists who speak to their own people through a medium they encounter every day. This is one way I understand Granada.

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The Red Fortress

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I didn’t really know what I was getting into at the time, but after trudging through the cold drizzle, up a massive hill, and fighting my way through hordes of tourists I finally got to see why the Alhambra is such a big deal.

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An artist’s depiction of the area below on the street leading the the Alhambra.

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To start off, even in the rain, hundreds of years after the colorful paint decorating walls and ceilings faded away and people have altered and “restored” the beauty, it still holds its original elegant and detailed beauty, where unbelievable effort way put into every single colored tile along with all the delicate-looking stalactite arches carved along the ceilings.

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Every single room I walked into made me stop and stare, and just as I thought it couldn’t get any better I walked into another, even more elegant and precise work of art, whether it was a trellised garden or a foyer.

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It also helped that I could tell our group’s guide absolutely loved his job. He passionately explained the history and reasons behind such minute details of the house, such as curved entranceways (so outsiders cannot look directly into the building) and the continuing motif of water (fountains, small rivers) and green (gardens, plants) to foster tranquility and peace.

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As the palace and fortress of the Berbers occupying the top of the tallest hill in the Albaycin, it shows the advanced skills and appreciation of beauty and elegance by the Muslim rulers that once occupied southern Spain before the Reconquista. You really have to go see it for yourself to truly believe and appreciate what a work of art it is. And while you’re at it, look out all the windows. The overlooking panorama of Granada and the Sierra Nevada is stunning.

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Toledo, the Walled City of Swords

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On the way to Granada, we had a one-day side trip to the Old City of Toledo, right south of Madrid. Toledo used to be the center of the Spanish Empire and a place where the Christians, Muslims, and Jews of Spain could mingle peacefully before the Jews were prosecuted and forced to convert to Christianity.

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We took a panoramic bus tour of the city before crossing over the San Martín bridge, a medieval, bridge crossing the Tagus River, to enter into the Old City.

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Sheep’s enjoying the view.

The old, nineteenth century Gothic Cathedral and the main cathedral of the city are gorgeous buildings, with a mixture of Gothic and baroque styling including small jokes left behind by the builders.

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Though there are not even enough Jews in the city to have any official Jewish meet, or minyan, which requires at least 10 Jewish men, there are still remnants of the old Jewish culture from before the persecution sprinkled throughout the city. The Synagogue de el Transito is one of them, an old synagogue now hosting the Sephardic (a word designating a Jew whose ancestry is Spanish) Museum.

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There are also a lot of swords. Everywhere. And some pretty interestingly themed ones.

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In our explorations, a friend and I got lost and somehow found outside the city walls. In our search for a way to get back inside, we stumbled upon a set of epic elevators leading back up to the city from below. Later on, I discovered these escalators actually won many national and international awards for their design and functionality.

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I really enjoyed wandering around Toledo and taking in the rich history, which is very well preserved in the Old City compared to many more modernized cities. But at the end of the day, I’m excited to finally be heading down to Granada and settling into what will be my home for the next three months!

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Gourmet burger vending machine found while lost…hmm…

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All Roads Lead to Madrid

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This is my first guest post for API! Check out my post on there website here: http://www.apistudyabroad.com/blog/on-site/what-a-way-to-start-exploring-madrid/

The start of my study abroad orientation in Madrid could not be any easier. Thanks to the metro instructions conveniently provided on their website, the trip to the hotel in the heart of Puerta del Sol, the center of the city, took only about 45 minutes from the airport. I was immediately impressed by how clean and modern it was. My room’s balcony, overlooking the plaza, was a welcome and unexpected bonus. The first day of orientation set a precedent for the rest of the four days we would spend in Madrid and a peek into the much more relaxed Spanish take on student programming. Their goal was not to run us into the ground seeing every single exhibit, museum, palace, or famous something or other in the city. Instead, we were able to enjoy tours of the most important sights Madrid has to offer and orientation meetings while still having our own time during the day and night to explore on our own and get a feel for the city.

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Sheep really enjoyed the view from the hotel room.

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Plaza Puerta del Sol: Home base

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Our location in the heart of the city made it easy to walk anywhere we wanted to go. One of the most memorable places we visited was the famous Prado Museum, the biggest art gallery in the world. The works were stunning and our two hour tour gave us an opportunity to see the highlights and get a feel for the place. The Royal Palace, or Palacio Real, also left an impression. It was a look at royal decadence in the 18th century, with extravagance bordering on the line between beauty and tackiness, slipping to one side or the other in certain rooms. It was easy to see how the King Phillip II of Spain favored El Escorial over his other palaces. The grounds and surrounding towns are so peaceful and quiet they must have made a welcome retreat.

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El Palacio Real.The Royal Palace. 

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El Escorial

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The lovely gardens of El Escorial.

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It did not take long for me to understand the Spanish need for siesta. Afternoons are hot and sunny beyond belief and the only thing you want to do in weather like that is eat and stay inside until the worst is over. Thankfully it’s a dry heat, so at least you’re not automatically drenched in sweat when you step outside like everywhere I’ve ever lived in the United States.

Madrid was also my introduction to the cervercerias. My favorite, which I visited on at least three separate occasions, is the100 Montaditos right on Calle Mayor. Besides having a vast selection of 100 bocadillos, or little snack sandwiches, it also has a good selection of huge salads and on Wednesdays and Sundays everything on the menu is 1 euro (except salads, which are 2). It was a look into tasty and efficient Spanish fast food, where you give the cashier a small form with your order filled out and they call your name within minutes to pick up your meal.

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A cheap and delicious lunch.

One of my favorite places in Madrid has to be El Parque del Buen Retiro, which is located right near the Prado Museum. Besides being a large and lovely place to relax during the day, it is also host to a colony of cats cared for by the citizens of Madrid. I discovered around 7 or 8 playful kittens there during the day and when I returned later that evening at sunset, I had the opportunity to talk to a Spanish woman who was bringing food to them and the number of cats doubled.

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El Parque del Buen Retiro.

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A playful kitten.

Overall, my first impressions of Spain and the API coordinators was more than good, but by the end of the four days in Madrid I was just ready to go to Granada, settle down with my host family, and work on my Spanish!

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Kilometer zero! The origin of Spain’s road.

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Sunset over Retiro Park

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Interesting…art in a sangria bar.

Portugal

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A far cry from my confusing late night arrival in Beirut in the beginning of the year on my own with only the number of the hostel I was staying at (and no phone, useful, I know), my arrival in Portugal was as stress-free as possible. The availability of all the information I needed to get from point A to point B upon arriving in Lisbon seemed like a luxurious change of pace from the wild guessing, personal recommendations, and shady operators I had to base all my Lebanese travel on.

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A bull decorated with the Portuguese flag. 

From the airport, I was able to take a bus straight to the main bus station heading south and immediately found a bus to Lagos, where I would be staying for the next two and a half days. The simplicity and ease of this journey, along with the availability of wifi and A/C on the bus, already had me liking Portugal quite a lot.

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Lagos

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I arrived in Lagos in the late afternoon with enough time to pop down to the beach for a couple hours before finding dinner. Dinner was picanha, my favorite cut of meat due to its delicious flavor and tenderness. The next day, I explored the small town for a few hours before signing up for a kayak tour of the famous Lagos grottos through a random operator I stumbled upon. The kayak ride was the perfect way to spend the afternoon, gliding along the glisteningly clear water and dipping in and out of beautifully formed grottos, despite a man on my tour getting sick and eventually having to be picked up by a passing motorboat. My shoulders were aching by the time we crash landed in a small cove and were able to soak up the sun and relax for a few hours before heading back.

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A Lagos grotto.

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After dinner and a fantastic burger at Nah-Nah-Bah, I went to a gem and minerals shop I had discovered earlier that day to pick up my custom made amethyst necklace. I spend nearly an hour earlier in the day speaking to the owner and rummaging around the store for the perfect stone so he could drill it and tie it up just for me. I love it, it’s beautiful!

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While Lagos was undeniably beautiful, the next time I have the pleasure to visit the Algarve I will skip it and find a town that’s not packed with Australians coming to Portugal to party and get wasted every single night. While I have nothing against Australians and actually love talking to them because of how many places they have all been, drinking to forget the night every single night is just not my cup of tea. Especially when visiting a small beach town, I like a relaxing atmosphere with the opportunity to meet more locals and really enjoy the culture. Next time I visit I will definitely make sure to take the suggestions of a Portuguese guy I met in Jordan who recommended a couple less well-known, small beach villages in the Algarve.

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The next day I made sure to catch a bus and make it to Lisbon in time to check in to Yes! Hostel (which was perfectly located, clean, and welcoming) and visit the Oceanario before it closed. The Lisboa Oceanario is well respected for a reason! Set up with a giant, two story central tank in the middle of the building, the walkways wrap around it and transition through every ocean on the planet with examples of the wildlife and fauna of each. My favorite was the exhibit with the otters, my favorite animals because of their playful natures and cuteness. Otters really know how to love life.

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An interesting sculpture in the park in front of the Oceanario.

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The front of the Lisboa Oceanario.

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Otters…need I say more?

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The crazy-looking sunfish, something I had never seen before, also caught my eyes and I enjoyed watching it slowly drift through the central tank peacefully coexisting with sharks, rays, and schools of shiny fish and other ocean critters.

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The sunfish, or Mr. Derp as I like to call him.

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Photobomb fish.

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I really wish I could have spent more time in Portugal, but I’ll just have to be satisfied with a commitment to myself to return. I only had just that one evening to see a bit of Lisbon before heading over to Madrid for my program, though I loved what I saw and wish I could spend more time there. Somehow, I don’t think it will be too hard to find a time to go back…

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Lisbon, I need to return. 

On the Road Again

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It’s time again! Finally back on the road (or plane) somewhere new. For the next three months I will be eating paella and practicing my Spanish in the lovely (so I’ve heard) city of Granada with a study abroad group from Academic Programs International. I don’t know much about the program besides being in an intensive language class but the colorful brochures, super-responsive coordinating staff, and  promises of excursions throughout Spain and beyond.

However, before getting to Spain I’ll be making a short stop in Portugal to visit the Portuguese capital Lisbon and a small beach town in the Algarve, Lagos. Anyone who knows me know how much I love the beach, and what better way to sabotage my rusty Spanish than by practicing my Portuguese!

In addition to posting about my trips on this blog, I will also be posting on the API blog as an API Student Blogger!