Saturday, 22 September 2012

¡Espana Es De Puta Madre! (Spain is awesome!)

Spain was one of the highlights of my trip and for good reason. I missed out on Spain on my grad trip four years ago. Since then I pledged I would go back and see it. Not only did we have a blast, but we enjoyed overall great weather, barely missing the heat waves, and enjoyed fairly cheap food, particularly fruits, vegetables and alcohol.

Amy and I spent over three weeks here. In that time we saw museums, castles, mountains and breathtaking city views, went hiking, swam in a waterfall, relaxed on the beach, did some shopping, eating and a lot of walking, were in a tomato fight, partied all night before, partied many more times, partied with Erasmus students, danced the night away, gained some friends, lost some weight, and even got food poisoning and nearly got some shit stolen.
Standing under a waterfall in Granada 

The mistakes made that led to the latter two were eating leftover pasta sauce in the hostel fridge in Granada and leaving my iPod under my pillow unattended in a hostel dorm room in Madrid. Thankfully I was able to recover my crappy but scrappy fourth gen four gig iPod but it sure made for an interesting experience.

Long story short, another guy had his cellphone stolen, I dialed it and heard the vibration in another person’s locker. After initial shock, then much deliberation, we badgered the suspect, searched through some of his stuff, soon after he tried to make a run for it hauling a large pack, we ran him down outside the hostel, ushered him back and called the cops. He eventually caved in and gave our stuff back, then took off before the cops arrived. Justice should have been served, but at least we got our stuff back. I am afraid this guy is back on the prowl in hostel dorms around Spain, despite his photo and passport photo having been distributed to many hostels in Spain as a result of the debacle. This story is just one example of a major problem in Spain. I have heard many stories about theft in hostel dorm rooms and pickpocketing in the streets and in the Metro stations. The most elaborate scheme I have heard of is of youth “pretending” to celebrate a soccer match victory approaching you, hugging you, hooking their legs around yours, then digging through your pockets.

Anyway, I don’t mean to scare anyone about coming to Spain. As long as you are aware of the dangers and keep your stuff safe, you will love it here!


The main highlight of Spain was meeting people and making friends. La Tomatina, the 50,000 strong tomato fight in Bunol, was wild, but wouldn’t be the same without the mini United Nations group we stitched together while there. We later visited many of them in their current cities of residence in Spain, and the whole group talks about a reunion in Prague. We had random conversations all over Spain, mostly at hostels, and, on occasion, it led to hanging out together. On a few occasions we even ran into the same people in different cities.
Warming up for La Tomatina!
Through meeting locals and going to museums, we learned a lot about Spain’s history and current affairs. Did you know there are four languages spoken in Spain? Castellano is the most common form of “Spanish.” Did you know the Arabs controlled the south of Spain for over 700 years? And that there was a civil war from 1936-1939 that resulted in a dictatorship? It would be ignorant of me not to mention the nation's recent troubles. The austerity measures are really hurting public services such as health and education. Many teachers and doctors among other professionals attended a massive protest last week in Madrid. As a tourist it is difficult to notice any trouble (except for all of the pickpockets) but times are really tough in Spain and it’s almost impossible to find a job.
Tomatoes, mozzarella and olives made by our Couchsurfing host! 
To name a few tourist highlights, there was La Tomatina, the wildest time I have ever had, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, by a large margin the most beautiful and unique church in the world, way beyond anything else you will ever see in your lifetime (this is no exaggeration!), Alhambra in Granada, an impressive castle constructed in Arabic style, and Museum of Modern Arts Reina Sofia in Madrid, containing mind-bending works by Dali and Picasso. We also ate a lot of good food, particularly tapas which Spain is famous for.
La Sagrada Familia - simply an architectural marvel  
Personally, I feel that I will return to Spain to achieve some unfulfilled goals. Firstly, I have started learning Spanish from PDFs downloaded on my laptop, and want to return to take a course in Castellano. Secondly, I want to complete some, most or all of El Camino de Santiago, a 1200 km long pilgrimage. Thirdly, I am simply not done with Spain. There is still Seville and Tarifa in the south, and San Sebastian and Bilbao in the north. Fourthly, as a side note, I bought a harmonica! If I can reach a certain level of proficiency with it, look for me buskering in the streets around Europe.


PS. Currently in Nice. The south of France along the Cote D'Azur is one of the most gorgeous places on Earth!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Paris & Thereafter

I can't tell you what a relief it is to get Paris done with.

No, no, this is not in any way a knock against Paris. In fact, we had an amazing time there and the city is unmatched on the world stage for museums and landmarks with the exception of maybe London. But 5 days in cities like London and Paris is just enough to scurry around like rats to check everything off our bucket list.
My best attempt at drawing the Eiffel Tower while staying completely still 
We did the touristy thing and it was awesome: Le Louvre, Musee D'Orsay, Les Invalides, Espace Dali, Catacombs, Tour Montparnasse (climb this instead of Tour Eiffel), Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, St. Sulpice, Pantheon, Luxembourg Gardens, Tuileries, Ave Champs D'Elysees and wine and crepes.
Le Louvre
But we were tired and nursed painful muscles and joints by the end of it and were relieved to find our next destination in Rennes, a much smaller city with a slower pace. Despite its lack of touristy activities, Rennes surprised us. There was a vibrant outdoor Saturday market, and a lovely park to visit during the day, and an amazing live band performance at night, then a cool light show which played against the backdrop of their regional government building Le Parlement de Bretagne. Overall we had a memorable and nice time there.
Live band in public square
And then, once again, there was more of the touristy thing. On a 1.5 hour bus ride out from Rennes, nestled on the north coast of France, was Mont St. Michel, a magnificent castle dominating a towering hill protected by sand and water. I won't say much more about it except that it was picturesque but overly touristy and tremendously lacked English information.
Mont St. Michel seen from behind while the tide is low 
The most tangible observation I made about France was that it's citizens have been unfairly reputed as being rude and snobby towards people not of their own native flesh and tongue. Speaking English hardly deterred me from being received with warmth and friendliness, even from citizens who knew only the most basic of English. They were willing to help us any way they could, whether it was using their English or our basic French, and sometimes it came down to a game of charades. The other tangible observation about the French is that they walk around city streets with a baguette in one hand, no butter required.

Rushing through Paris was necessary as part of the larger goal I set out since the beginning of this trip: to get to Bunol, Spain by Aug 29 to attend La Tomatina, an annual tomato fight (and we barely scratched out the train tickets for it). But it was also a significant benchmark on our trip signalling the end of intense agenda-crushing tourism. From here on out we plan on stretching time out like a lazy hammock for all our future destinations.

No more two date affairs, I promise. I just want to take it slow and get to know you better.