Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Ride Around a Pretty Nice City: Sevilla

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Sevilla! Spain just keeps on impressing! Over the course of three days there were so many amazing things about Sevilla that made me fall in love with the city. From the massive mushroom rising over old-style architecture to a lovely bike stroll through gardens and past cathedrals, the beauty of the city was proven to be modest yet unmatched. (Warning: Picture heavy)

The first, and most striking, thing I noticed was the Metropol Parasol, the world’s largest wooden structure in the Plaza de la Encarnación. Upon first thought it might seem that this extremely modern, honeycomb structure would be at offs with the traditional architectural styles of Sevilla’s Old Town, but the contrast actually serves to highlight the beauty in the differences between the two. This structure serves a few purposes. It houses an archeological museum below ground with space for outdoor concerts underneath the main parasol. There are also farmer’s markets, a café restaurant, and a wonderful walkway winding along the top of the parasol where you can see all of Sevilla laid out before you. I affectionately call the Metropol Parasol the “mushroom.”

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The main cathedral of Sevilla, Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, is a beautiful piece of history to behold in a quaint plaza in the middle of Sevilla’s Old Town. The cathedral tower is actually the tallest point in the entire city by law. To get to the top, you have to climb quite a while up the ramps to get to the top but when you do the reward is totally worth it. The rest of the cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, is stunning due to its size and architectural intricacies. The Moorish influence is very clear, giving it an exotic air once you looks past the pounds of gold poured on every surface.

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The grave of Christopher Columbus. 

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The tower.

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Looking out over all of Sevilla from the top of the tower!

One sunny afternoon, I took a bike tour with the group to see some of Sevilla’s big sights. We crossed all among the city, past gardens and crossing the river, learning about some of the most interesting places. Some of the highlights were:

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I’m SO ready.

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Naked lady loungin’ with a book.

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El Torre de Oro: the Tower of Gold is an iconic landmark along the Guadalquivir River.

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Parque de María Luisa: there was so much greenery in every part of Sevilla, that’s one of the things that drew me to the city. Maria Luisa Park was one of the biggest green spaces I encountered, laid out for strolling and relaxation to enjoy the wonderful weather of Sevilla.

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Plaza de Espana: At the end of Parque de María Luisa, this large plaza is definitely a memorable spot.

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Another amazing spot we visited in Sevilla was the Alcázar, the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. Because it’s still in use, we couldn’t see the whole palace but the main parts we explored satisfied a great deal of my curiosity. This place was so reminiscent of the Alhambra back in Granada in terms of the general Moorish style and intricacies. Again two huge themes were consistently showing up – running water and gardens. These are two things you will find in any heavily influenced Moorish living places.

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While it was a sight-seeing heavy weekend, there was also plenty of time to relax and just get a good feel for the city. I really enjoyed it and would not hesitate to return again and spend more time in Sevilla to explore places outside of the Old Town center.

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BEST ICE CREAM EVER.

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On The Edge of the Earth

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Driving on small, winding mountain roads, not being able to see 30 feet ahead because of the fog, this is how we crept upon the fairytale land of El Torcal de Antequera. El Torcal is part of the mountain range Sierra Torcal in southern Spain, formed by tectonic plates smashing together and the high formations being eroded down by wind and water, creating an imaginative collection of carved rocks.

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Though the fog cut short our time at El Torcal and kept us from exploring on the many footpaths in the area, it gave the craggy gray land a stunning and mysterious air. At the viewpoint near the visitors center, looking out over the railing was looking out over the rock to the absolute edge of the Earth, a solid white wall of nothingness.

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The edge of the earth.

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Mirador de las Ventanillas

Whatever disappointment I felt missing the explorations was completely assuaged by the views I encountered. El Torcal is definitely a place I would love to return to and explore further.

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The sunset lit this field on fire.

Alicante – A Beautiful Town

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Another weekend, another success. Though the weekend was spent mostly waterlogged, a friend and I had a really good time in Alicante exploring the town on our own and with our couch host. Looks like we really lucked out with this couchsurfing excursion, especially considering it was my friend’s first time surfing. Not only was out host very nice and picked us up from the bus station, but we each got our own room in his 3 bedroom apartment with queen size beds and views of the Castillo de Santa Bárbara perched on the tallest hill in Alicante.

After settling in we went out to a couchsurfing meetup group. I didn’t realize these existed but now I love them! We spent a few hours hanging out in a great, casual bar chatting with dozens of fellow travelers and explorers. We heard and shared some great stories from around the world and I was really inspired by all these people just doing what they loved – traveling and meeting new people.

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A lovely cafe ticked between towering trees on the Rambla de Mendez Nunez. Must visit!

The next morning, we explored the castle. It was a quick walk from our host’s apartment. It was a fun place with a lot of floors to explore. The view from the castle was magnificent; you could see all of Alicante laid out around in panorama from the top of Mount Benacantil. We hung out Postiguet Beach and got some delicious juice from a little shack at the end of the boardwalk and then explored the small downtown on our way back to the host’s place.

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It was a climb to get up there!

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We found him!!!

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I made a friend!

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On our last day we only had a few hours before our afternoon bus back to Granada. Our host had the day free so he showed us a really cool gem, the Museo de Fogueres. Every year, Alicante hosts a bonfire festival where artists and laymen around the world create effigies to burn every year in the Spring. The effigies range from simple to elaborate but there is a special motivation to make the most intricate, beautiful, and symbolic statue. Each year, all the effigies are judges and the one judged to be the best is saved and displayed in this museum instead of saved. They were so amazing and creative!

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Then we finished up with a misty walk through the Old Town of Alicante, where no cars can fit on the narrow, tile streets winding up along the side of Mt. Benacantil. The Barrio Viejo was lovely, the bright colors of the tiles and plants everywhere standing out starkly even in the dim overcast of the afternoon. After this venturing, Alicante is cemented in my mind as a beautiful place I would enjoy visiting over and over. The peaceful air, friendly people, good beaches and food have put this in my top list for favorite cities in Spain.

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Tasting Spain: Paella

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Paella is more than just a Spanish tradition, a time-honored dish representing Spain around the world…it’s delicious. A bed of yellow rice slowly cooked in a broth infused with spices, a mix of vegetables and, typically, an assortment of seafood from shrimp and clams to mussels and calamari (paella de marisco). Valencian paella, the original paella, had more land-based meats such as chicken or duck along with some beans. Either way, the result is a rich and savory dish enjoyed by all.

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If you ever are in Spain and looking out for a place to try out some of this delicious Spanish, avoid places with signs with pictures! You can find these exact same signs set up on the street all over Spain and all it means is that this restaurant buys frozen paella, all pre-prepared, and merely heats it up when you order it. I actually tasted a sample of this wanna-be paella when a friend of mine ordered it and they brought it out in 15 minutes. Not only was the rice still hard, but the seafood in the dish was scarce and hard to find.

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On the other hand, if you go to a restaurant and order paella only to be informed by your waiter you must call ahead for it to be prepared, do not be too disappointed! It just means they take pride in crafting their paella from scratch from individual orders and it will be completely worth it when you return the next day. Another hint my program director shared with us: if your paella still has eyes, it’s good.

I’ve been told that paella is a popular lunch to get on a beach day, so when I visited the beach of Salobreña, a mere hour bus ride from Granada, I clearly had to partake in this Spanish tradition. This freshly prepared for the lunch crowd, affirmed by a small sign I saw next to the bar indicating that all the seafood was sourced from the nearby Malaga seaport. (Yes, it was exactly as delicious as it looks, if not better…and it had eyes!)

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Salobreña beach, it’s really quite nice.

The moral of this story is…don’t come to Spain and leave without trying paella! Especially if you’re in the Valencian region of Spain. And since many bars offer it as a tapa, there really is no excuse.

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El Bañuelo

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El Bañuelo is just one of those things that, if you’re spending any time in Granada at all, you don’t really have an excuse not to visit it. It is an old public Arab bath (hammam) located right on Paseo de Los Tristes (or Carrera del Darro) that is free to get into and open from 10am to 2pm on Tuesdays through Saturdays. Keep your eyes out though! It’s quite easy to miss though it’s right on the road.

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It’s pretty small, but a good opportunity to see an authentic Arab bath unchanged from the time it was used in the past. You can easily stop by and check it out for a few minutes and then continue walking up along the road to see a decent view from below of the Alhambra and continue your explorations in the Albaycin or relax in one of the cafés along the street for a cup of tea or some ice cream.

 

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Passeo de los Tristes/Carrero del Darro, El Bañuelo is down this road.

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View of the Alhambra over the river.

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A strange sight in a window…

Gibraltar and Ceuta

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This weekend I had what is probably my best couchsurfing experiences yet (out of a grand total of 2 officially using Couchsurfing.org) in the British territory of Gibraltar. For those of you who aren’t in the know, couchsurfing is a way to travel the world, meeting locals, and staying on their couches (or beds, hammocks, air mattresses, whatever they have) for free. A free membership on the couchsurfing website grants you access to the worldwide network of hosts, surfers, and people who sign up on the website just to meet other locals and travelers on their website. While there are a lot of pros and cons to using this type of system, I’m not here to discuss that. I do my own vetting and research to find a reliable host and have always surfed with a friend so far.

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Our host :)

Gibraltar is nearly the southernmost point of Europe (beat out only by the Spanish city Tarifa), a small outcropping hosting the famous Rock of Gibraltar. You can see the not-too-distant mountains of Morocco and Ceuta in the distance on a relatively clear day from Europa Point.

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Europa Point

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The smaller land on the left is Ceuta, the mountains on the right are Morocco.

So arriving to Gibraltar is relatively easy. Though there are sometimes direct buses to La Línea de la Concepción, the small town right on the Spanish side of the border, we (my friend Amy and I) took a bus from Granada to the nearby port town of Algeciras.  The bus totaled to a little less than 50€ roundtrip, plus an additional 2.30€ for the bus from Algeciras to La Línea and walked 5 minutes from the bus station to the border crossing. The border itself was a joke, you can definitely just flash any small ID-shaped card or passport looking book to get through, the guards care so little. Immediately after the border there’s a British-style red public phone box (perfect for taking tourist photos!) before you have to cross the airstrip for the Gibraltar Airport.

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Algeciras

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Gib runway

We met our host right away and walked with him to the main square, Casemates Square, where he was finishing up dinner with his friends. After hanging out for a while and getting to know them, he drove us up to the top of the Rock to play with the infamous Gibraltar monkeys. I’m not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t the hoards of caramel-colored monkeys, some with babies clinging to their fronts or backs, crowding around and reaching into pockets in search of food. Though feeding them is illegal because they can get somewhat testy, our host brought a bag of grapes to tease them with. Afterwards, he finally brought us to his house so we could put our bags in our room and relax. The view from his balcony was fantastic.

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T’was the season for baby monos.

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The next day was exciting because it would be the first time either of us had stepped onto Africa! Visiting the autonomous Spanish town Ceuta on the northern coast of Africa, sharing a border with Morocco, added another continent to our tally. The easiest way to get to Ceuta is by taking a ferry from Algeciras. The high speed ferry is 62€ round trip across the board (worth it compared to the slower ferry at 59€ round trip) and though its advertised to take only half an hour, it reality the journey is around an hour. Once you land in Ceuta, the city is so small you can walk to anywhere of interest, including the beach, where we spend over an hour combing for sea glass.

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On the “fast ferry” to Ceuta!

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Playa La Ribeira.

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While relaxing in a café later, we wished we had woken up earlier to spend more time in Ceuta since we only had the choice of ferries going back at 6pm and 9pm. This is the biggest downside to couchsurfing as I see it. Though it would not deter me from couchsurfing, you can’t just go in and out as you please like you could in a hostel or hotel. We wanted to make sure we got back to Gibraltar at a reasonable time so that our host would not be put out having to pick us up. It turns out we actually got back at the perfect time though (and we got stamps at the border!), as we had enough time to stop and get some food before hanging out with him and his friends for a really fun night in Gibraltar.

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Yes!

The next morning, we had enough time to drive around a bit and visit Europa point, St. Michael’s Cave, and the tunnels carved into the Rock before heading back to the bus station to return to Granada. One of the biggest perks to couchsurfing is insider local knowledge and discounts. We got to visit the cave and tunnels for free thanks to our host’s Gib resident card, whereas if we were on our own we would have paid around 40£ for them both (rough estimate, around $80USD). In that case, I would have just skipped them, but I’m glad I didn’t have to! After this weekend, I really can’t wait to surf again next week in Alicante, introducing another one of my friends to the joys of free accommodation with extra perks and making new friends.

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The view from one of the tunnel lookouts.

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St. Michael’s Cave

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A beautiful mosque in front of the Rock at Europa Point.