Pictures!

I’ve add pictures to my vacation summary, although I have opted not to include pictures of my friends and family without their consent.

Unfortunately, I threw away my bicycle chain at the end of last term, so it looks like I will have to buy a new one. Frankly, that’s probably a good thing, given the state of the old, old, old chain.

Since I got back

I haven’t done much of interest since I got back. I’ve spent a lot of time with Haibo & Co., which has been fun. A big group of us went out to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was a wonderful movie, though not terribly funny. I’ve rejoined rowing, and despite my best efforts to avoid it I was forced to do a 2K test yesterday. My performance was awful, but at least it’s over with. Classes have started, and so far I don’t think I’ve missed any. I haven’t done any studying yet, but I’m sure I’ll start Real Soon Now.

I don’t believe I ever mentioned this on my weblog, but at the end of last term my bicycle chain actually snapped. I was bicycling along to rehearsal one evening and all of a sudden I heard a “pop” and there was no resistance in the pedals. So today, I walked to crew practice, only to find that it was cancelled. On the way back I dropped in at a bike shop, where I bought a chain-reconstructing tool, which I will now attempt to use on my bicycle.

Wish me luck.

More vacation

Saturday, April 23, 2005:
We woke up after nine and immediately began trying to figure out our plane tickets. As with the train, we did not know our exact flight times, nor whose name the planes were booked under. In fact, we didn’t even know which airlines we were travelling on (it turned out to be Iberia, but with a British Airways flight number, bought through American Airlines via our travel agent). This took a long time to sort out, after which we headed off in search of a bar/restaurant recommended by Rick Steves as having excellent churros con chocolate for breakfast. Not that we knew what that was.

Churros turn out to be the spanish analogue of donuts. They are straight, narrow sticks of dough, fried. The chocolate in question is a super-thick hot chocolate, about halfway to being a custard, into which one dips one’s churros. They are absolutely ridiculous as a breakfast food, being obviously dessertlike, but they do appear to be authentic, as there were a few Spanish people eating there with us.

After breakfast we took the nice, though narrow, subway system to the bus station and caught a coach bus to Toledo, a medieval fortified city on a hill, which while not large by the standards of modern cities is enormous compared to the other similar enclosed cities I’ve seen. Toledo is something of a tourist attraction, and as such is somewhat spoiled by a permanent mock-medieval market selling herbal remedies, organic soaps, wood-carvings, and knick-knacks. Nonetheless, the presence of history is undeniable.

The major attraction of Toledo is its cathedral, which took so long to complete that it spans at least the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque, styles. It is fantastically well preserved, and seems to be more “in use” than most of the other great cathedrals. The experience, I suspect, is very close to the original intent of the cathedral-builders.
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For me, the seeming modernity of the cathedral actually took away from the experience: it just didn’t feel old enough. It felt about as mysterious as a shopping mall.

The other interesting piece of Toledo history is that it, like Seville, was originally a Moorish+Jewish settlement, and had 7 synagogues when it was conquered by the Christians. At this point only two still stand, but they are fairly well preserved, despite having been converted to churches until about a century ago. The astonishing thing about these buildings is the intermingling of Hebrew scripture and Muslim art. It is a beautiful juxtaposition.
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As we walked back to the Toledo bus station we encountered a parade whose identity we could not discern, but which stretched for perhaps a quarter of a mile and involved horses, oxen, and a huge number of colorfully dressed pedestrians, some with drums.
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When we got back we hunted for a restaurant suggested by Rick Steves. Unfortunately, Rick had the restaurant in the wrong place on his map, and we only managed to find it by asking around. When we got there it was really more of a run-down sandwich bar, and we ended up spending the rest of the evening bouncing from bar to bar eating tapas, as one is meant to do in Madrid.

Sunday, April 24, 2005:
We spent the morning in the Prado, Madrid’s enormous art museum, containing more famous paintings than I could possibly name, but in particular a great collection of Velázquez. It was relatively near to our hotel, and we walked over without a problem, but while we were waiting in the hour-long line to get in, the marathon started going by. When we came out, runners were passing constantly (including one man in a head-to-toe bunny suit, tail, ears, and all), and the street was barricaded as far as the eye could see. We were ultimately forced to walk all the way to the finish line, luckily only a mile or so away, to cross and head back to our hotel.

We took a taxi to the airport, where we moved between Iberia and British Airways check-in desks to figure out who was on which flight, then rested for about an hour in the calm Iberia club lounge. Five hours later I was getting off a bus in Cambridge, and by midnight I had recovered my bags from storage and moved back in for the start of term.

I must finish

I’ll never get around to writing about the present if I don’t finish with the vacation:

Wednesday, April 20, 2005:
My parents and I woke up absurdly early to make our ~7AM flight to Madrid, where we caught another flight to Granada, where we took a bus into the city and walked to our hotel. We dropped off our bags in our room and left almost immediately for the Alhambra.

The Alhambra was a straight-line walk from the hotel in Plaza Nueva, and probably no more than a mile, but it was exhaustingly steep. By the time we arrived at the top it was entirely clear why this was the place to build a fortress: no army could make good time up a slope like that.

When we reached the top explained that we had bought tickets in advance but had lost them, but could prove our identity. The woman at the booth could not help us, instead giving me the number for the help center and, when I asked, pointing us to the nearest pay phone. I called the help number from the pay phone, and ended up having a protracted Spanish conversation about information we had lost, such as what our region code might be, whose name the tickets were under, and what time they were for, all while feeding the phone with Euro coins and constantly running low. I was sweating profusely from the stress of worrying that the call might be cut off while switching back and forth between talking on the phone in Spanish and to my parents in English by the time that we actually got our confirmation number. Miraculously, it worked, and we had two hours to wander around the ancient forts and Renaissance castle before entering the medieval Moorish palace that forms the centerpiece of the Alhambra.
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The palace is an enormous, beautifully preserved, wholly original building. It is absolutely covered with intricate tesselated patterns on all surfaces, and has innumerably garden courtyards, where thin marble columns support Moorish archways surrounding tasteful water-sculptures. The use of water in the Alhambra is amazing, with water channels flanking virtually every pathway, and long reflecting pools a repeated theme. I am very curious as to how they had access to so much water at the top of a hill in desertlike southern Spain.
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That night, after our siesta, we went in the opposite direction of the Alhambra, up a different hill, into the tangled old quarter in search of a restaurant recommended by the travel book of Rick Steves, which my mother holds infallible. I led the expedition, and as such made sure that I always knew exactly where I was and how to get back. This was fine, except that I didn’t know where the restaurant was; indeed, none of us did. We did eventually find it, but it was absolutely dark, with a sign that simply said “moved”. Luckily, as we retraced our steps we looked up slightly more than we had on the way there, and spotted the sign for the new location on the second floor of a building we’d passed on the way. The food was excellent and plentiful. It was worth the walk.

Thursday, April 21, 2005:
We woke up slightly later than expected and went immediately to the bus station. We waited around for awhile before catching the coach to Seville. Although I had been to Seville on my hitchhike, the area we had walked in was not the area of the bus station and our hotel, so my limited knowledge of the layout was of absolutely no use. Finding the hotel was tricky, because its street was too small to be shown on any map. The hotel itself, Pension Alcázar, was a nice place to stay, though it has at most 8 rooms, but the management was terrible. They had no record of us staying there and two of their three telephones were out of order, so connecting with the Spanish hotelier through whom we’d booked the room was a challenge. They also spoke no English, and the primary desk manager had far too strong and Andalucian accent for me to understand.

As soon as we’d set down our bags we went back out in search of the cathedral, which turned out to be extremely close. The cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe. Its tower, called a Minaret, was originally built by the Moors, in the 1200s, and it still towers over the rest of the city. The rest of the cathedral, with its ancient, dark, vaulted ceilings and gargantuan stone columns reminded me, more than anything, of the mines of Moriah from The Lord of the Rings.
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We wandered around Seville, both the modern and historic district, before heading out in search of dinner. Our guidebook-advised restaurant, far away in the northern part of the new city, turned out to be unsavory and unsuitable for us. In the end, as we wandered back through the old city, we found a tiny, outdoors-only bar/restaurant nestled in the narrowest cranny of all. The food was cheap and relatively tasty, and the guitar performance was extraordinary. We bought a CD of the guitarist and asked him for advice on Flamenco dancing. He told us, drunkenly, in Spanish, to go The Coal Exchange, a popular Flamenco and Jazz bar with no cover, and gave vague directions. We headed off in the right general direction, but couldn’t find it until a stranger informed us that it has no sign. In the end, we passed the late evening watching flamenco in this unmarked bar, populated half by tourists and half by local students.

Friday, April 22, 2005:
In the morning, we went in search of our train tickets. The tickets were initially lost, along with all our other important documents, while my parents were trying to navigate the London Underground from Gatwick to the Savoy. We had ordered new tickets to arrive immediately at the Savoy, but the postal service took its sweet time, and they did not arrive until after we were already in Spain. After much calling and talking to shopowners, we eventually found that the Spanish postal service provides a fax-receiving service, and we were able to get a copy of the second set of tickets.

We proceeded to get on the long, but surprisingly fast, line to enter the Alcázar, which appears to mean fortress in Arabic, and which is about twenty feet from the hotel. The interior of the Alcázar is essentially a mini-Alhambra. However, since the Alcázar is also an active palace of the King of Spain, it has been maintained in very nearly original condition, and probably looks something like the Alhambra did 500 years ago. In short, it is very impressive.
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After the Alcázar we collected our bags and took a taxi to the train station, an enormous bleak rectangle of a building. Inside we went to show our faxed copy of the tickets to the help desk, where despite endless persistence, we were informed that the train company only accepts physical tickets. They can’t even accept tickets faxed from one station to another. Moreover, as we had now bought 6 seats on this train, there were none left in coach, and we were forced to upgrade to Business Class.

As compensation, we made our way to the club lounge and enjoyed our free sodas, snacks, and newspapers to the greatest degree possible before boarding the train to Madrid. On the train we were served about half a meal and drinks while watching some chick flick dubbed into Spanish.

We arrived in Madrid after sunset and took a taxi to our hotel, which turned out to be in the exact center of the busiest square in Madrid. It was a wonderful location, and once we were checked in we went back out for a stroll. We wandered around the area, trying to get a feel for the culture, noticing that about 2/3 of the bars were jam-packed and the other 1/3 absolutely empty. Eventually, we dropped into one of the packed ones, which turned out to have local performers singing perfect New York jazz.

Continued catching-up

Moving right along:
Tuesday, April 19, 2005:
The whole family got on the Underground and managed to find our way to the BBC headquarters, where we took a guided tour. I was greatly impressed, particularly by their ability to air-condition rooms with hundreds of kilowatts of lighting without introducing the slightest hum. In the afternoon, I grudgingly went for a walk with my parents around Trafalgar square, the National Gallery, and Westminster Abbey.

Tuesday night was Grandpa’s celebration dinner, at a wonderful, little-known French restaurant. Not only the Schwartzs, but also our English relatives, the Goldbergs, were in attendance. The food was scrumptious, and we generally had an extremely pleasant evening.

I packed up that evening in preparation for an ungodly early flight out the next morning

Argh! I am never going to catch up on this diary! I have to go to sleep; it’s almost 11 and I have to be at the boathouse at 6:30 AM.

Catchup post

The following multi-entry is unlikely to be of much interest to most of my readers, but this diary is, in fact a diary, and its primary purpose is as a personal record of what I’ve been doing. If you’re not interested by the ten days I spent celebrating and vacationing with my family (or if you were there and don’t need to be told what happened), feel free to skip this entry.

Friday, April 15, 2005:
I had run out of shaving cream just before the hitch, and was convinced by Rachel and Haibo not to bother buying more, and instead just grow a beard. At this point, about three weeks later, I was unquestionably bearded, but seriously in need of touch-up work. Unfortunately, I had not had the foresight to get my razor out of storage, and ended up going to the local Indian market to buy razors. I came back with the cheapest Bic disposable safety razors, which turned out to be surprisingly effective and harmless.

I walked to the bus station with my enormous gray nylon bag, likely bought before I was born. It is theoretically rolling luggage, but its performance over the Cambridge cobblestones was sufficiently abysmal that I ended up carrying it most of the way to the National Express coach station.

I had bought a National Express ticket from Cambridge to Embankment, a stop just a few hundred feet from the Savoy Hotel, where I would be staying. This stop was marked “hand luggage only”, i.e. the driver would not open up the underside compartment. I didn’t think this would be a problem; I would just take my bag on board and place it in one of the empty seats, of which there were certain to be many. Unfortunately, the bus station attendants adamantly informed me that my bag was too large to take on board. In the end, I was forced to get off at an earlier stop, Aldwych, and then take the Tube to Embankment.

I eventually navigated to the lobby of the Savoy, probably the grandest hotel I have ever stayed at. The staff was endlessly confused, having no procedure to handle double rooms whose occupants (myself and my cousin) arrive separately, but I did eventually get a key. The room was enormous, almost cavernous, although this seems to have been some sort of fluke.

I went out to dinner at a very upscale Chinese restaurant near the hotel, after which we went for a walk through a shopping district. I was amazed to discover that my grandfather, who had never really visited tourist sites in London, nonetheless knew the location and history, seemingly, of every high-fashion store on every street.

Saturday, April 16, 2005:
We started touring today, though somewhat late due to jet lag. We toured central London in a private bus with a guide, in particular seeing Westminster Abbey (though we couldn’t go in due to a bureaucratic mixup), Buckingham palace (from the outside), St. Paul’s Cathedral (I loved it), and a few other places. We had dinner in a nice Italian restaurant, followed by a production of We Will Rock You, a relatively new musical constructed entirely from Queen songs. Not being a big fan of Queen, I can’t say I fully appreciated it, but I was entertained.

Sunday, April 17, 2005:
We went off with a different guide in the morning for a tour of the Tower of London. Our tour guide excellently explained the history of all the various parts of the tower, none of which particularly stands out at the moment, except that:
1. I can’t believe that those are the real crown jewels.
2. Medieval/early modern swords were actually pretty light.
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From the Tower, which is not a tower in the sense that it is wider than it is high, which stands on the banks of the Thames, we walked to the docks and boarded our Sunseeker, a huge luxury cruiser in cigarette-boat style. We all piled on, guide included, and floated up and down the river, occasionally getting a bit of information about the buildings we passed on the bank, eating and drinking in high style. My favorite part of the cruise was undoubtedly the dynamic damming system. Designed to prevent storm tides from flooding central London while permitting ships to pass through otherwise, the system consists of about 5 equally spaced flattened pillars spanning the width of the river. Each pair of pillars holds the two ends of what might be described as a segment of an enormous barrel, horizontal along the riverbed. If the tide rises dangerously high, the barriers all rotate up to form, in ten minutes or less, a complete dam. The effect, passing through them, is absolutely spectacular. I felt like I was in the future, where an hour earlier I had been in the middle ages.
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We ended our boat tour at the London Eye, an enormous futuristic Ferris wheel of sorts, from which one may look down on Big Ben and indeed the whole of London.

That evening we were left to our own devices for dinner, so my parents and I sought out an Indian restaurant, which was perfectly acceptable, though the service was surly and the table cramped.

Monday, April 18, 2005:
We were met by the same tour guide as on the first day, but in a different bus, and went to Windsor Castle. We did get to see a changing-of-the-guard parade come by, complete with a military band with tubas but no sousaphones (they are, after all, and American invention).

The castle itself was extremely luxurious, beyond any mansion, but was ultimately not very interesting to me. I was most taken by the original Leonardo da Vinci manuscript, backwards Italian and all.

In the evening we went to a production of The Woman in White, which was executed with the use of a highly motorized totally white set and half-dozen carefully calibrated digital video projectors. I was generally impressed, not just by the well-designed unconventional set but also with the score, singing, and acting.

More to come.

Back!

I’m back!
Again!

I still haven’t unpacked, and I haven’t searched through my paper to find out exactly when and where my exam is tomorrow, but I’m back. Of course, since my blog doesn’t stay up no one’s reading it, but that’s sort of a moot point.

More details on my 5 days in London and 5 days in Spain should be coming shortly.

Leaving

I’m leaving for London tomorrow. I suspect that this website will go down, but there is a slim chance that it will stay up. If it does, it will only be available through my US mirror. Regardless, it should be live again in 10 days, i.e. on the 24th.

Today is going to be pretty hectic. I need to get access to all my stuff in storage, store all the stuff I don’t need for my trip, pack all the stuff that I do need, get access to my old room, which is currently occupied…it’s a mess.

Hmm

I did it again: 20+ minutes on a stationary bike, holding a 180-185 heartrate. That’s pretty weird, because fit people are supposed to have lower heartrates and unfit people aren’t supposed to be able to handle that much exercise. I appear to be at an odd place in the middle.