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.
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.
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.
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.
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.