ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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to the beach and back – a semi significant juncture

This post is taking forever to get started, because I’m compulsively eating olives and wiping my fingers on a serviette so as not to get the vinegary goodness on my keyboard. Every second word (many of which end up deleted), it seems it’s time to reach for another one… I can’t stop, I’m in Andalucía, resistance is futile! I also keep pausing to dreamily contemplate my setting – one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever sat down to write. I’m sitting at a little mosaic table in the outdoor bar at the top of the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress in the centre of Malaga (on the southeast coast of Spain). The bar overlooks the city, cathedral and port, and is surrounded by the fabulous rambling Alcazaba walls and a curious mix of vegetation – tall pencil pines, orange trees, palms, and something similar to a willow, which give the gardens an exotic Arab, tropical, and European flavour all at once. It’s all very sun dappled and tranquil – apologies to anyone who happens to be reading this in a claustrophobic office with artificial lighting…

So, olives (I’ve finished them now). That’s my latest excuse for the radio silence. It’s been a while since I last posted. I probably made some kind of disclaimer then too; “excuses excuses, etc”. 2015 has been a bit of a slow year, as far as reportable adventure writing is concerned. Looking back, I wonder how I managed to post so regularly in the past. There were a good couple of years in which I seemed to wonder at, and want to write about, everything – even on quiet weekends at home. I suppose this might have had something to do with living in Segovia at the time. There, daily life was a little more magical than it is now in big city Madrid.

This year has been about knuckling down, attempting to get my finances and future under control (by making ‘sensible’ decisions), studying (for the C2 DELE exam, still waiting on results), training (for a marathon, with ambiguous results), a period of panicked emergency job hunting (a long story), and a time, money, and patience draining visa application process (another long story). Needless to say, I haven’t had many positive or entertaining anecdotes to share and so (rather astutely, I thought) have chosen to remain silent, rather than add to the frightening volume of first world problems complaint literature already swamping the blogosphere. Not that I’m above the occasional whining drivel slipping out… it is so awfully tempting… we’ll see.

Malaga, from the road to Gibralfaro - not taken with an iPhone :-P
 
Anyway, apologies for the lull. Here I am again, chipper and optimistic, Eat Pray Love style on the Mediterranean Coast. Glamorising ‘simple’ pleasures and suddenly finding meaning to my existence. Not that I was previously suffering any kind of existential crisis – my life is trundling in pretty much the direction I’d hoped it would (just a little slower than I’d like). But there were a couple of reasons for this impromptu trip to Malaga. The first being what I’ve now come to recognise as my annual (ok biannual) “I need to see sea” panic. Anyone who grew up in a coastal town or city, but now lives inland, will no doubt understand this.

The second reason being the welcome, but rather unexpected fact that I’m starting my new job much sooner than anticipated, before even finishing up (some of) my other work (I have many works). Meaning uh oh I’d better take a break stat or there won’t be another opportunity until goodness knows when.

aw, thanks Cloe! (but why the goat?)I came to the end of my main job contract (in a government school) at the end of June. I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye to commuting two hours per day, to teach spoilt, spoon fed children (it was a wealthy area), in an institution crippled by corrupt management and the most appalling, restrictive, and poorly written set of text books I’ve ever encountered (the writers must have been high, it’s the only explanation). However, I was sorry to say goodbye to a decent base income, a valid visa, and a relatively easy visa renewal process. I know this makes me sound cynical and materialistic, but I’d be lying if I said I’d formed any special bond with the school during my time there. There was a handful (just a handful) of genuinely lovely and competent teachers, trapped in a system that sadly hampered their potential. It was pretty soul destroying work. As for the children, they can’t be blamed for being spoilt (it’s not their fault their parents buy them tablets when they lose a tooth, or take them to Disneyland for their first communion), and there were of course some fantastic characters among them. Although my natural preference as a teacher is for adult students, part of me is going to miss being with kids; especially their contagious laughter and excitement, the circus spectacle that sometimes made me forget that I was working, and the affection they showed me in the form of hugs (hundreds of hugs! it would be so frowned upon in Australia), disatrous homemade biscuits, random portraits, and cards with astonishingly creative mispellings of my name (Jim, Yian, Llin, Jeams…  far more interesting than the old Jean/Jane confusion I get with Anglos).

July was opened by a long weekend of partying, tourist-ing, and reminiscing with an Aussie friend who was in Madrid. But after she left, the month dissolved into a blur of new and complicated private classes (it’s slim pickings in summer in terms of teaching work), and vain efforts to muster up some kind of creativity during the inconvenient timetable gaps, long commutes, and extreme heat. Mostly I was just trying to stay cool. I’ll take too hot over too cold any day, but even I found this July tough. The thermometer hovered around (often above) 40° for the whole month (it’s even hotter in the south of Spain, but I swear you feel it more in big, sticky cities). Our flat is on the top floor, gets sun at every hour of the day, has no air con, and is right next to a whole lot of busy highways (I’m not sure if the cars are responsible for more heat, or it’s just the idea of them). ‘Heat management’ became time consuming. It involved a lot of cold showers, opening/shutting blinds and windows at specific times, mopping floors with cold water (everything counts), spraying plants, rotating frozen water bottles etc. Despite the lack of sleep, if I wasn’t teaching, I usually chose to forsake the siesta (you can’t siesta in an oven) in favour of going to an air conditioned café (or the library) to write or plan classes. There, with climate control, caffeine, and my tablet (my deskbound laptop kept overheating, I named it the wrist-roaster), I could usually squeeze out a few hours of productivity. After that I’d kill a bit more time by aimlessly wandering supermarkets, to make sure I didn’t get home until the sun had left our building (around 10pm) and we could open all the windows.

And there went July.

My plan for August, as the majority of my private students and all of my friends would be leaving Madrid, was simple: hold tight, don’t spend any money, and write. I was kind of looking forward to the austerity, and a clean, distraction free break in which to get some proper writing underway. I wasn’t sure what the outcome of my visa application would be (it was a complicated case, with a technicality I could easily have been rejected on), and while this was in progress I couldn’t leave the country without a permit. Not that I would have risked travelling, with potential unemployment and expensive life relocation on the horizon. But I was happily resigned to just hang on in there, in limbo, trying to make the most of the time creatively. When I found out the definitive answer in September I’d adapt my plans accordingly.

maybe I could just wait around on rooftops, like this guy
 
However, much to my (and my new employer’s) surprise, my visa was approved almost instantly – well over two months earlier than expected. My first reaction was relief – I have a job, I don’t need to get a last minute peak season ticket to Australia, I know where I’m going to be the next year, and, as I posted on facebook, I can now invest in things like a gym membership, pot plants and tabasco sauce… But in a way it was hard to take the definite news that I’ll be away from home for at least another year, something which isn’t getting any easier. And I was really looking forward to being an August hermit, spending all my time writing (going a bit feral… perhaps developing a tic). Now, everything has changed, and I have to start my new job and be professional, like, immediately. I had my orientation last week, and we have a staff meeting this Sunday evening where I’ll get my timetable for August’s summer intensive courses, starting…Monday. I’m really not psychologically prepared to be starting this soon, but that’s the way it is, and it’s definitely better than the alternative.

So the ‘emergency’ 3 day break to Malaga is more of a symbolic interval rather than a real holiday. I’ve had more than enough extended time off over the past few years – I can, should and will survive a little longer without it this time round.

Thinking.

What was initially intended to be a travel post has again, inevitably ended up another ‘about me’ update. I suppose I should add something more about Malaga, to balance it out a bit.

Here are a some things I learnt/realised during my three days away, and a few travel tips for anyone heading to the Costa del Sol. All cunningly organised into lists, as is now the rage, to give a false sense of readability…

  • On ‘on the road’ entertainment: It’s a good idea to finish the addictive series you’re watching before going on holiday, or at least time it to finish on the bus. Nothing worse than your first night in a new destination, in a hostel with a good vibe and a beautiful terrace bar, when you’re sharing a room with a lovely, chatty German girl who’s just got back from a yoga retreat in the country (that you’d really like to pick her brains about) and she’s travelling solo as well so this would be a good time to make friends… but really, secretly, you’re tired of making friends and just want to watch the season finale of Orange is the New Black, with a mojito, by yourself. But you don’t want to be that antisocial loser glued to their tablet, especially if someone happens to walk by during a scene with unbridled violence or prison sex, it might seem a little weird, even though the acting’s really quality, at least that’s what you’re telling yourself. This is definitely the last time, the last time, you’re getting into a series, especially as you always complain you never have enough time to write or study! Well there’s an easy chunk of hours (you don’t want to know how many but the maths is pretty simple) you could’ve spent on much worthier tasks! (Now, get up off yer bum and go for a walk! there’s a city to see!)
  • On navigation: despite having markedly improved since I left the motherland, my sense of direction is still lamentable. Even when my accomodation was across the street from Picasso’s house, one of Malaga’s most signposted landmarks, I managed to get lost every time I tried to find it.
  • On getting lost: extensive experience in this department has led me to believe that this is by far the best way to explore a city. Malaga’s old town (mostly revamped with swanky shops and great bars) is a joy to wander.
  • On Gelati: At the mature age of 30, I’ve finally come to the sad realisation that my two favourite frozen flavours (pistachio, and mint) are not only incompatible, but their colours clash awfully. This, in some small way, aids my reluctant acceptance of the fact that gelati, no matter how delicious, is something I always end up regretting. The end of an era? I fear so, cruel world!
  • On travelling alone: I’m a big fan of solo travel, but then again my ‘loneliness threshold’ is probably higher than most – in fact it probably puts me on par with all kinds of antisocial freaks. However I am actually quite a social person. When not hooked on the final chapters of a book or series, I’m generally open to conversation with just about anyone, and have no trouble making friends (I’ve started from 0 enough times now). But I like solitude, and I consider the ability to be comfortable in my own presence as a blessing. It must be awful to be one of those needy people who can’t be by themselves. These days, and I think this is due partly to having a job which requires constant social energy and patient conversation, as well as maintaining friendships both in the ‘real world’ (the here and now) and in my ‘other’ life (my ‘real’ life back home) – the “socialness” often gets a bit draining, and I need my alone time regularly. So in Malaga I had one night in a hostel (not to meet people but because it’s what was available when I made my last minute reservations), and then two in a budget ‘hotel’ (I think it was some kind of disused University residence, and the weird thing was that upon arrival I realised that I’d actually stayed there before, years ago when I passed through Malaga on my way from Hinojosa to Morocco). Anyway, I wanted to have my own quiet space to go back to in the evenings (after barely talking to a soul all day as well). That was a mistake. There’s a time and a place for solo travel, but Malaga, in high summer, on a weekend, is not it. The streets are literally overflowing with people enjoying the balmy air and delicious looking food and drink in a myriad of fantastic bars… it’s such a lively city, and going there alone, surprise surprise, can make you feel really lonely.

That’s enough unabashed personal word churning – now for some recommendations:

  • Torremolinos: is the town just outside of Malaga where I stayed on my first ever trip to Spain, about ten years ago, with my friend Bec, who was living abroad at the time. I remember it for great nightlife, chiringuitos (beach bars) pumping music all day long, fantastic walks along the waterfront, and life being so so good. It was surreal to be back there, re-navigating the winding streets, walking past Playa Miguel (our favourite chiringuito), thinking all kinds of profound thoughts about time and friendship and ice cream.
  • I wish I could say this was me!  Other person gliding, NerjaNerja: another beachside town, over an hour’s drive from Malaga but well worth it for the beautiful coves, which were accessible by winding staircases, and had much fresher water and atmosphere than the larger city beaches.
  • The Alcazaba and Gilbralfaro Castle: are both Moorish castle-fortresses, the latter being an extension of the former. Construction of the conjoined fortress complex began in the 10th century, and was continued for a few more hundred years, until Malaga was conquered by the Catholic Monarchs in 1487. The siege of Malaga took four months, and not unusually for that period of history, the local population ended up being forced into capitulation by starvation. What was interesting about this particular conflict is that it’s been credited as the first, in history, in which they made use of dedicated transport for the wounded – that is, ambulances.
    If you decide to visit the fortresses, I recommend you not doing as I did, which was to scale the hill in the midday heat on my last day, after checking out of my accommodation and therefore having no opportunity to shower before the long bus ride home. Instead, aim to get there at either sunrise or sunset, for cooler air and more spectacular views, and also to avoid the likelihood of having to share Gibralfaro’s narrow walkways with hundreds of Italian teenagers on summer camp. They are way too cool for school to step aside.
  • El Vegetariano de la Alcazabilla: a fantastic restaurant, with the best moussaka (meat or vego) I’ve ever had. Really friendly, helpful service, and great location just next to the Alcazaba and the Roman Theatre.
  • Did I mention there was a Roman Theatre? But of course there is, this is Spain! It’s just below the ancient Moorish castle-fortresses, about a 3 minute walk from the super Baroque/Gothic/Renaissance all-in-one (yet curiously unfinished) cathedral, and probably within a stone’s throw of countless other ancient buildings of varying historical significance.
    The theatre is pretty cool, it’s nice to walk by at twilight and spot the napping cats…

And, that’s all. I could add olives to that last list of recommendations, just to bring this round in a full circle, but that would be a little contrived. Besides, I’m not really sure the olives are any better in Malaga than in other parts of Spain, or whether it’s something psychological. I seem to remember thinking they were the best I’d ever tasted in Cordoba, and Jaen… I guess most things are pretty fabulous when you’re on holiday and they’re accompanied by a cold drink after a long walk up a big hill.

As for full circles – if only I could ever write a neatly rounded post in one sitting! I got back from Malaga a few days ago. It’s now Friday evening, and I’ve just finished my first week at the new job.

So? So far so good. Most academies get a bad rap amongst the ex-pat ESL teaching population, but I seem to have landed on my feet with this one. It is more work, more responsibility, and less pay than the Auxiliare program, which I suppose means that I’m an idiot or a masochist or both… but to be honest, and despite my exhaustion, I’m loving it. I now have more autonomy, significantly smaller class sizes, an opportunity for creativity, better materials, training and support, a much shorter commute, and a whole host of other little perks… it really feels like the decision to stay here was a good one, and the time, stress and money invested in making it happen will all be worth it. Here’s hoping!

So, now that I’ve got the beach trip out of the way (that was hard work!), bring on 2015 knuckling down part two!

olives

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a little more Pesht than Buda

Just got back from a nearly six day stay in the happening Hungarian capital. Feeling a wee bit on the tired side (it’s only a three hour direct flight to Madrid, but since when have I ever taken direct flights?!), but otherwise content with my getaway. It was the perfect amount of time – I didn’t do everything, but did enough. Didn’t quite stick to my budget, but didn’t go too far overboard either. I forgot lots of (fairly essential) items (like a camera, ear plugs, daypack, and sunglasses) but I don’t think my experience of Budapest suffered too badly for it (although this post has – apologies for the lack of photos). I had a couple of days travelling solo, and then some pilgrim friends I met on the Camino de Santiago joined me for the second half of my stay.

Judging by the other tourists I talked to, and the locals working in tourism, it seems that most people try to “do” Budapest in just a couple of days, before jetting off to Prague or Vienna or Bratislava. Even if it’s at the cost of missing another city, I highly recommend taking a little extra time to soak up Budapest at a more relaxed pace. Particularly as a visit to any of the thermal baths (which is a must-do) inevitably leaves one feeling decadently lethargic, effectively wiping out the rest of the post-bath afternoon. A shame, as there is quite a lot to see.

There are two things that never cease to amaze me about European cities; the beauty and grandeur of the architecture, and the barbarity of the history. Budapest is no exception.

Whilst the walking tour I did was fascinating, the information was a bit all over the shop and difficult to take in. The wind in my ears and the guides malfunctioning microphone didn’t help the confusion. Or perhaps some basic knowledge of European history was required, something which my supposedly first rate Australian education neglected to provide me with. Anyway, the main ideas I managed to grasp were: that Hungarian is completely unrelated to all its neighbouring European languages, and that the country’s history seems to mostly consist of war and oppression. A bit of superficial online research only served to muddle me further, however (after much pausing and pondering) I think I’ve managed to decipher the history of Budapest as more or less the following:

The town was first built by the Celts on the banks of the Danube, where it was a centre of craft and trade, until it was conquered by the Romans sometime in the first century. Under Roman rule, it rose to be the military capital of “Pannonia Inferior” (the geographical region of the Carpathian Basin, which is more or less modern day Hungary). After the Romans came the Huns, followed by Germanic tribes, Slavs, and many others, in the aptly named “Age of Migrations” (around about the 6th – 9th centuries AD). One group, known as the Magyars, conquered the city and surrounding lands in 896, and managed to stick around until this day.

The Magyars, ancestors of modern Hungarians, were a people originating from an area of Eurasia somewhere between the Ural Mountains and Volga River. Back in the day (a long long time ago BC), the tribes of this region were nomadic pastoralists, and spoke various ancient tongues belonging to the Uralic language group. Eventually these tribes went their many separate ways, and their languages developed into modern day Finnish, Turkish, Siberian and Hungarian. (Which is why these languages have nothing in common with most European languages, which developed from the Indo-European language family)

By the time the Magyars came to the Carpathian Basin, they were a little less pastoral, a little more martial. After formally delineating the boundaries of the Principality of Hungary, they sought to extend them, as every fledgling Nation/wannabe Empire tends to do. Their leader, Géza, established a dynasty (however one does) and named his son, Vajk (later baptised as Stephen) as predecessor to the crown. This was in conflict with the old Magyar/Hungarian traditions (which dictated that Géza’s brother should have been next in line for leadership), and Géza’s death provoked a civil war. Young King Stephen won, and with many of his pagan adversaries conveniently dead, he set about to convert the rest of his people to Christianity. Those who wouldn’t convert (many thousands), were killed, and the King was canonised and named patron of Hungary for his miraculous persuasiveness.

Violence begets violence and that pretty much sums up the following millennia until the present day. There was more trouble with the Romans, plus the usual medieval crusades, as well as war/invasion/occupation/oppression with/from/by the Ottomans, Mongols, Goths, Bulgarians, Austrians (until they settled for becoming the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Nazis and finally Soviets. The death tolls of the various wars and executions is staggering, and I really don’t understand how there are any people left there today, let alone how the language has survived (though perhaps the reinforcement of language helps the people retain their identity…dunno, but I’m sure that many academics write theses on the topic).

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hungary transitioned into democracy, and has been a member of the European Union since 2004. It kept its own currency, at the cost of high rates of inflation, and these days one Euro is worth about 300 Florins.

Like most places, the central, touristic areas of the city appeared very affluent (in a vibrant, young money kind of way), and (conversion in mind) the prices were similar to Spain. However, the outskirts were incredibly drab, and there were tonnes of sex shops and empty buildings. Whether or not Hungary has been affected by the current economic crisis, or things are struggling along as they always have, was hard for me to tell. The weather was pretty depressing too; it was cold, rainy, and bitterly windy. All this, in combination with such a bloody history, and brutal memories of communism still strong in much of the population’s memory, it’s no wonder that Hungarians aren’t the smiley-est of people. At least that’s the justification that came to my mind. Some Germans I met thought the service was actually better than in their country, which surprised me, as in general I find Germans to be really friendly (then again, I tend to hang out with the ones that travel). Anyway, I did meet some smiley and helpful Hungarians (notably the staff at Unity Hostel), but these were the exception rather than the rule. I’m afraid to say that in Budapest I experienced some of the rudest, most infantile and petulant service I’ve ever had in my life. Let’s hope it’s just because I was (repeatedly) unlucky. Or perhaps I was unconsciously breaking some social code of conduct, you never know.

Anyway, in general, Budapest is a very easy and tourist friendly city. English is widely (albeit reluctantly) spoken, the public transport (though nothing fancy) seemed reliable and efficient, and strangely enough, the drivers were incredibly courteous of pedestrians, often slowing down to let people pass (even when it wasn’t obligatory).

Despite the sour demeanours and unfriendly weather, Budapest has become quite an epicenter of partying and foodie/hipster culture. Something that makes me think I’ve judged the people way too harshly, because to have built so many inventive and fun venues, there must be a lot of optimism and creativity amongst the population.

Whilst the Buda hills (on the southwest bank of the Danube) boast some nice hotels and the best viewpoints of the city, the real action is almost entirely concentrated in Pest (pronounced “Pesht”) on the north bank. Here, students, tourists, and local intellectuals/elite congregate in the innumerable ruin bars, hipster cafes, alternative art spaces, and converted alleyways/warehouses, to sip designer coffees and, one can only assume, come up with more ideas for more interesting themed bars and innovative pastimes. Budapest is apparently the home of “escape rooms*” (you and your friends pay to be locked up in a room and you have to solve puzzles to get out, but they let you out after an hour anyway), and now you can also find “anger rooms” (you and your friends pay to be locked in a room full of rubbish, which you smash to smithereens), who knows what they will think of next.

*If you’re interested in escape rooms, a film worth seeing is “La Habitación de Fermat”, (Fermat’s room), a Spanish thriller about some ill-fated mathematicians, who were not automatically let out after an hour.

So, what other commentaries and/or recommendations can I make about Budapest?

  • Book Café: It’s amazing how quickly we become creatures of habit. This amazing, decadent old café was upstairs from a massive bookshop on Andrássy street, just around the corner from my hostel. It had high, elaborately painted ceilings, mirrors, chandeliers, and a grand piano (and live piano music). Coffee and cake ranged from about 2 – 5 euro, not a bad price to journey back in time and up a few rungs of the class ladder all at once. Another Budapest favourite is the New York Café, another decadent ancient coffeehouse, but was a bit more expensive, crowded and noisy.
  • A good time to see Buda Castle: is at 12 noon, when you can watch the changing of the guard. It has a certain comic value. I’m not sure if the soldiers always wear sunglasses, or if perhaps they were a tad hungover on the day I was there, but either way I do think they’re a little in need of some fresh choreography and some less restrictive uniforms (or more rigorous training/less strudel). A definite “A” for effort though, and kudos for keeping straight faces and pointed toes!
  • The Hungarian cake of the year: is decided annually on the 20th August (St.Stephen’s Day), by the National Guild of Hungarian Confectioners. What a wonderful tradition! If only I’d found a cake shop (other than the packed out tourist traps next to the Matthias Church) that was selling it! I didn’t really look hard enough though. Mum, if you ever go to Budapest, this is your mission!
  • Hummus Bar: Hungarian cuisine is famous for its hearty goulash, paprika poultry, and disgustingly cheap force-fed-goose-liver-pate, none of which appealed to my newly meat-free palate. Even the vegetable soups and salads seemed to somehow contain hundreds of tiny bits of bacon, and there’s a limit to how much battered fried cheese covered in jam one can eat (it was good, but that’s it for me until 2020). Fortunately, there was Hummus Bar, a Hungarian Restaurant chain which specializes in amazing hummus, plus a wide variety of affordable and healthy Middle Eastern cuisine, with plenty of options for vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike.
  • Bakeries: were both the bane of my existence and a godsend (as Hummus Bar wasn’t open for breakfast). The Hungarians do fantastic things with poppy seeds, walnuts, plums and cottage cheese; strudels, scrolls, and stuffed croissants… the poppy seed strudel fast became my daily staple (ie addiction), so much so that despite being a reluctant baker, I’ve bought nearly a kilo of what I hope is the filling (it’s all in Hungarian but they look like crushed poppy seeds) to try making some at home…
  • Poppy seed gelato: just because two things are delicious separately does not mean we should try them together.
  • A38, aka “The Best Bar in the World” (according to a 2012 Lonely Planet survey): this was… extremely disappointing. A38 is an old Ukranian stone carrier ship that has been reincarnated as a bar/restaurant/“cultural centre” and moored on the banks of the Danube. The idea is cool. The clever lighting is very cool. But we went quite out of our way to get there, and the restaurant turned out to be sleek but boring (very conservative), the cocktails less than ordinary (sometimes not speaking the language keeps me out of trouble, I was so tempted to challenge the bartender to an Aperol showdown!), and although the service was attentive, last drinks were called at 10.30pm! The bar downstairs was closed for a private concert, which sounded like some kind of hideous Hungarian death metal…and so we traipsed back along the windy riverfront, to Pest side, for some real drinks on dry land.
  • Szimpla Kert: A derelict (or should I say, “Derelique”?!) factory, once sentenced to demolition, that was converted into a “cultural reception space” (ie, bar) in 2002. It’s since become a Budapest institution and now hosts an arthouse cinema festival, live music, and lots of dancing every night of the week. The décor is outrageously ‘organic’ (chaotically strewn recycled bits and pieces), and the music is fantastic (electro swing, dance, really old oldies, all done well). There are many sub divisions and mini bars, serving fine wines, pastries, cheap and flavourless local beers, potent berry liquors, hot real food at 3am, kachimbas/shishas/waterpipes (whatever you call them, with every flavour), fresh carrots (I kid you not), CDs, t-shirts, postcards, paintings by local artists… and that’s at a fairly superficial first glance. Despite its dilapidated aspect, it was well run, and even had toilet paper, which is more than can be said for many bars in Spain.
  • Fisherman’s Bastion: a collection of Neo-Gothic terraces on the top of Castle Hill (Buda side), with fantastic views of the city, and in particular, Budapest’s famous Parliament building on the opposite bank. Best to go there at dusk, watch the sunset, and see the Parliament, the Basilica, and the three big bridges all spectacularly lit up.

It’s also worth adding that something I didn’t do, but would have liked to, was see some of the cave networks under the city. The land is apparently full of tunnels, which have played an important role through history (mostly as hiding places, but once as a hospital), and it would no doubt be fascinating to do a tour of some of them.

But tours cost money… and caves make me claustrophobic… and it was such a long way to walk through the rain to to get to the starting point. And I was having such a nice time ‘Pest side’ with the Pilgrims, where there were so many more than six days worth of cafes to visit…


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Madrid, Marqués (de Riscal)… and me (me me)

Another belated and miscellaneous post – for a bit of a ‘where in the world’ update, and to share some photos from a weekend away (which was quite a few weekends ago!).

I’ve never thought of that before… how the retrospective nature of most ‘posts’ lends a double meaning to the word. Very neat.

For any of you who were curious as to my current whereabouts, you’ve probably now guessed the answer; Madrid. After an intense summer of hosting visitors, farewelling Segovia, hiking the Camino de Santiago, and going home to Australia for a month (where the littler of my two big little brothers got married)… I came back to Spain in September, the plan this time being to seek my fortune in the nation’s capital.

There’s nothing like life in a big city to push you to drink, which is why, about a fortnight after moving to Madrid, I was pretty desperate to get out of town for a weekend and head wine-ward (north). My brother and his gir-wife(!) were visiting Spain on their honeymoon, and I planned the trip for the three of us, thinking (not entirely selfishly) that it would be a good way to show them some less touristy parts of the country, and indulge our shared enthusiasm for vino tinto. Having already been to La Rioja earlier this year ‘on reconnaissance’, I was familiar with Logroño and its famous nucleus of bars, La Laurel. But the most important part of our excursion, the bodega (winery), was new to me and a bit of a gamble. Thanks to serendipity, coincidence, and a post-reservation recommendation, we were booked in for a tour at the bodega Marqués de Riscal. To get there, we enthusiastically bussed our way to a little village I’d never even heard of before, appropriately called El Ciego (The Blind Man). There we stumbled across a restaurant called La Cueva, where we lined our stomachs with an excellent value €12 set menu (3 courses, bread, wine, and as much cider as you can drink), before continuing on foot to the main event…

The shiny new Marqués de Riscal “City of wine” was designed by Frank Gehry, of Bilbao Guggeheim fame. For a centuries old winery this was a somewhat controversial choice of architect. Gehry’s instantly recognisable, metallic, undulating edifice creates a striking contrast against the matte and earthy landscape of the Rioja. Strangely enough, it works. This is possibly due to the ‘wine inspired hues’ of the iridescent titanium waves, which are purple and copper-ish, depending on the light. We were lucky enough to visit Marqués de Riscal on a sunny autumn afternoon, when the countryside was in all its autumn-y splendour. However, much of the tour was spent indoors, and in some parts, below ground. For me the highlight was an impressively dusty cellar, where the best of the best wines from every year since 1858 were stored under lock and key (a bit like the wine equivalent of the ancient manuscript museum of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, a.k.a. the forbidden books section in Harry Potter). Apparently some of this wine was integral in persuading Mr.Gehry to agree to the design contract, and the bottles were so old they had to be cut open with a hot wire. In short, the tour was entertaining and informative, the guide spoke excellent English, and although we would’ve liked to have tried more wines for free (who wouldn’t), I think it was incredibly good value. It is a shame though that they don’t offer any ‘mid-range’ tastings (somewhere between the basic 2 wine package, and the complete Michelin starred degustation).  Naturally, we continued our own, self-guided tasting in the groovy, mood lit wine bar… which merged dangerously into a gift shop… and when the cab* arrived to collect us, we were somehow a whole lot heavier and lighter at the same time. *Unfortunately the local bus company offered no return transport to Logroño, but such was our contentment at the end of the day, that this didn’t seem much of a flaw at all.

So… operation big success… either that or the newlyweds were too polite to say otherwise. I certainly enjoyed their visit, and after nearly a week of quality time and carefree culinary indulgence, I was sad to see them go. Having my brother and new sister in law around was a welcome distraction, and a pretext to stretch out the summer’s festivities (although it was autumn it still felt like summer). Their departure marked the end of this phase and the impetus for a stark but necessary return to reality.

No more excuses, it was time to settle in properly and make something of my new ‘home’.

* * *

Madrid is an incredible city; a hub of almost everything and, despite Spain’s lingering financial crisis, a place which, at least in my eyes, is still brimming with opportunities… for those smart, bold, lucky and hardworking enough to find them (I’m not kidding myself).  Prior to this, I’d already enjoyed three challenging, but relatively tame and peaceful years in small-town Spain, starting in Hinojosa del Duque (have fun finding that one on the map!) and most recently in Segovia. However a few months ago I decided it was time to shake things up a bit and see what the big smoke had to offer – my reasons being primarily financial and creative; I felt as though I’d hit a wall in both departments. My closest friends in Segovia were also moving their separate ways, another sign it was time for ‘a change of airs’. Perhaps Madrid would deliver me an instantaneous network of lucrative private students, inspiring writers groups, girls sports teams (why are these so hard to find?), and bohemian artist friends (with a convenient surplus of backstage passes and high end hospitality connections)…

Surprisingly enough, this hasn’t happened, yet. And whilst I am incredibly grateful for having fallen on my feet in the work and accommodation departments, the first month or so in Madrid didn’t quite mirror the starry vision of my daydreams. In fact, I found it pretty tough, morale wise, and the question “what am I doing here and what on earth am I doing with my life?” crossed my mind more than once. This was no doubt due to an inevitable come-down after such an intense summer (tooo much thinking), and the shock-to-the-system of the daily realities of life in a big city (such an overly complicated, arduous affair!). Sometimes I wonder if my dream to be a writer is truly based on wanting to write, or simply wanting to never have to commute to work?! (In which case I’m sure there are much simpler and better paid career options out there!).

Anyway, I’m not going to bore you with my petty gripes and bureaucratic, professional, financial, emotional, and public transport related frustrations (oops, just did!), but suffice to say, I found the first month of this ‘next chapter in life’ to be pretty frustrating. Friends kept telling me that things would come good and it was just a matter of patience, and of course I agreed with them, but it was something I needed to remind myself of all too frequently.

In the end, not so much patience was needed after all. It’s amazing how quickly things turned around. Getting my first proper pay cheque alleviated one massive stress factor, as did the slow but steady increase in private student numbers. I finally managed to ship the last of my belongings over from Segovia, had a few long overdue catch ups, and found my running groove. I’ve now started Yoga, and am giving girls indoor soccer a go next week. I still ‘strongly dislike’ commuting, but I’m finding strategies to avoid/tolerate the peak hour crush. And thanks to the technological know-how of one of my housemates, I’m back on board (‘fully armed and operational’) in the computer department, having fortuitously ended up with not one, but two functioning laptops (I’ve renamed the little one ‘Lazarus’).

Now I know that it was never supposed to be, but life is getting easier. The momentary self-doubt has passed and the optimistic buzz has returned… I can’t help getting excited about what’s on the horizon (ok, a lot of hard work), and I have the feeling…that coming here was a very good move.

view from my new rooftop, Madrid


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Segovia, in pictures

It’s hard to believe it’s over. After almost two years of living inside a fairytale, I’ve packed up my little attic apartment, said goodbye to Señor Cigüeña (the stork outside my window), and did one last scenic walk of the Segovia and its ancient walls. I tried my best to farewell each of my friends and colleagues, and have a last glass of wine and pincho at all of my favourite bars. On Saturday I handed back my keys, and I’m now no longer a resident of what I consider to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Segovia has treated me incredibly well. It’s cheap, easily navigable on foot, surrounded by lush green countryside and snow capped mountains, and, most importantly, almost every bar offers free tapas. One of my reasons for leaving was actually that life there was too easy, and I was worried about getting so comfortable that I’d never be able to hack living somewhere “in the real world”. For me, one of the biggest challenges of the Madrid Metrolpolis will be that “not everything is picturesque all the time”, as is the case in most corners of the globe, save where I happen to be coming from.Señor Cigüeña

So am I sad about leaving Segovia? The truth is, not really. Whilst I loved it there (really loved it) and it will always have a special place in my heart, I simply knew that it was time to move on. I acknowledge my incredible good fortune in having had the opportunity to live somewhere so remarkable (and for so long), but I didn’t want to push my luck, and I didn’t want to let the experience stagnate. Segovia will always be there to go back to, and go back I will. I’m already planning visits for the next Segovian half-marathon and Titirimundi puppet festival, as well as scouting apartments to buy there when I win first division in El Gordo, the fat Christmas lottery.

In the meantime, as a little tribute to Segovia, I’ve uploaded some photos of my wanderings about the city. There are a lot missing, a lot of views that I was meaning to capture, yet somehow just never got around to. I would also love to have done a series of drawings based on the esgrafiados (traditional Segovian facades), and maybe I still will, but excuses excuses, there were just too many other things to be seen and done. Another thing to note is that the city is much greener and in better condition than as depicted in these photos. There are plenty of parks and nice, clean, renovated buildings – it’s just that I’m drawn to photographing old derelict walls.

If you’re interested, click on the links to two different photo pages. Then, at the foot of this post, you’ll find my recommendations for some bars, restaurants, and things to see and do in Segovia.

 DOORS, WALLS & WINDOWS

casa de los picos, calle real, Segovia

FAIRYTALE CITY

Segovia, anochecer

 

Top bars with free tapas:
José María (most famous and well regarded in Segovia city, also has big dining room)
La Judería (generous tapas of Indian/Asian/Middle eastern food, something different for when you get sick of traditional Spanish cuisine)
Fogón Sefardí (consecutive winner of tapas competitions, see menu for mini mains at pincho prices)
La Cueva de San Esteban (Cave-like venue, traditional food and decor)
El Fogón de Javier (lovely terrace, fantastic olives)
Ludos (also has board games and great breakfast combos)

Fine dining restaurants (the best ones are always outside the capital):
La Portada de Mediodía, Torrecaballeros
El Rancho, Torrecaballeros
José María
La Postal, Zamarramala (great weekday set menu)

Great bakery: Limon y Menta (just off the main square)

Fresh food markets :
Thursday morning in the main square
Saturday morning between José Zorilla and Avenida de la Constitución

Best touristy things to do:
The Alcazar
Visit to La Granja Palace and gardens (mini Versailles, but free and minus the crowds)
Museo Esteban Vicente (more for the building than the art)
Pedraza (medieval fortress town about 40mins by car from Segovia)
Puerta de Santiago (an exhibition space inside one of the gates of the old wall)
walk walk walk (around the town, around the surrounding countryside, especially around the wall)

Typical Segovian set-menu:
Judiones de La Granja (jumbo white broad beans in hearty meaty broth)
Cochinillo o Cordero Asado (oven roasted suckling pig or baby lamb)
Ponche Segoviano (sponge cake with egg yolk custard and thin real-almond-not-horrible-fake marzipan icing)

Also try:
Cocido (hearty many-part stew, with noodle broth, vegies and chick peas, and separate mixed meat and sausage component)
Alcachofas con jamon (artichokes with garlic and Spanish ham)
Tejas de almendra (sticky almond ‘roof tiles’)
torreznos (pork crackling bar snacks – not my thing, but is typical of the region)
Empanada de pisto (pastry filled with cooked tomato and onion)
Pulga de tortilla (little bread roll filled with Spanish potato omelette, typical mid-morning snack)
all the grilled/roasted vegetables, especially pimentón (sweet red pepper)


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Logroño, a recipe for crazy dreams

Basque Witch Craze - Edict of grace from the Spanish InquisitionIn 1610, six Basque women accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake out the front of the Santa María Cathedral of Logroño (a city in the north of Spain, just below the Pyrenees mountains). The Spanish Inquisition, notoriously unmerciful in some regards but generally forgiving of witches, announced the existence of a “Devil’s sect” in the area, sparking fear, hysteria, and the first ever full blown witch craze in Spanish history. At the public execution (which was attended by some 30,000 spectators), papier-maché effigies were also sacrificed, of another five unfortunate heretics who had (perhaps mercifully) died of typhoid before the burning ceremony. Fortunately, due to the tireless investigation and campaigning efforts of a heroic young Inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar, the witch panic was eventually quashed. No more innocent old ladies were murdered, and the Logroño executions became an anomaly in Spanish history (unlike much of Europe, where witch hunts were carried out for centuries, and the death toll ran into the tens of thousands).

Today in Logroño, there is a commemorative sign (not quite a plaque) where the burnings took place, which briefly states what happened and lists the unpronounceable Basque names of the victims.

But most visitors to the area aren’t really interested in its bloody medieval history. Most visitors to Logroño are there for only one thing: wine.

Logroño is the capital of La Rioja, probably the most famous wine region of Spain. Like pretty much every city, town and village in the country, it boasts a remarkably large number of bars and restaurants in proportion to the size of its population. So what’s so good about Logroño? Well, a glass of lovely Rioja is particularly cheap there (as it should be!), and the pinchos (bar food) are also cheap, and really, really yummy. But most importantly, the city is a starting point to visit the many bodegas (wineries) of the area.

The majority of the bodegas are in the countryside, scattered across the three distinct subdivisions of the region; Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. In order to visit a selection of bodegas and see as much as possible of the beautiful landscape, a car would be ideal. But cars and winery tours aren’t really a great combination, especially when everyone else is driving on the wrong side of the road. So unless you can afford a private chauffeur, or want to limit yourself to an organised tour (I found none that appealed), everyday shoestring tourists and backpackers are limited to travelling by bus and/or on foot. Which still leaves plenty of possibilities.

Haro is a small town about an hour from Logroño, and home to a large concentration of bodegas (what is the collective noun for ‘winery’, I wonder?). The bus ride is picturesque, and passes through a few small towns which are home to more bodegas and touristy points of interest (wine museums and the like).

It’s recommended to book bodega tours in advance. Plenty of information and contact details are available on the La Rioja website.

Ramon Bilbao American oak barrelsIn Haro, a friend and I visited Ramon Bilbao, one of the newer wineries. This was partly because, of the many I had contacted, they had got back to me offering a tour at a time and price most convenient to our needs (yes, we needed a wine tour). But, coincidentally, Ramon Bilbao just happens to be my favourite La Rioja wine (of the few that I have tried). I even took a bottle of it home to my family last Christmas. It may not be the best or the oldest or the most famous Rioja wine, but for me it is special, and now even more so.

The tour cost 8€, and included a very generous ‘tasting’ of three wines; the Crianza (aged at least 2 years, 1 in oak), Reserva (aged at least 3 years, 1 in oak), and Gran Reserva (aged at least 5 years, 2 in oak). Cristina, our guide, was friendly, animated, and suitably passionate about wine (bordering on poetic). She did a wonderful job of explaining the complex scientific process in layman’s terms, and was overwhelmingly non-elitist in her viewpoint towards the ageing process and personal taste. She also sang to herself at random intervals. I probably would too, if I had her job.

Haro reportedly has a picturesque town centre, and a suburb of winery-outlet bars (cellar doors?). However, due to the inconvenient return-bus schedule, and unbearably windy weather, we decided to go head straight back to Logroño for a post-wine tour siesta.

Our accommodation in Logroño couldn’t have been better if we’d paid double. Hostel Entresueños was cheap, spacious, spotlessly clean, and the staff were friendly and helpful. It had good kitchen facilities, and a comfy lounge and dining area. Best of all, as it was relatively empty, our dorm accommodation was upgraded to a private room with a balcony overlooking the main drag.

The hostel was a stone’s throw from Calle Laurel, a long, narrow, winding street, where all the pinchos bars can be found. My favourite pinchos were the ferrero de morcilla (a ball of rich melted cheese, encased in black pudding and toasted almonds, made to look like a giant Ferrero Rocher), and the bacalao rebozado (lightly battered cod fillet with roasted mini green capsicum), which were both served at a bar called El Muro (the decor was a little too orange for my taste, but the pinchos were worth it).

The city centre of Logroño is quite compact, and can easily be traversed in an afternoon. So that, and a day trip to Haro or any of the other surrounding villages, makes a nice little weekend getaway. I don’t really have an opinion on whether Logroño itself was pretty or not, it probably is in summer. But the weather affects your image of a place, and we really lucked out in that department.

So that was the end of our Carnival long weekend. Zaragoza and Logroño, Goya and mudéjar. Red wine, rich food, and wild, windy weather. Carnival is only half heartedly celebrated in the area, so from Friday to Monday there was a random sprinkling of people in fancy dress, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Suddenly you would be sitting next to Cruella Deville and a baby in a Dalmatian jumpsuit. Are they pirates or have those girls just overdone the eye makeup? And to make matters even more surreal, I was reading Bestiario, a collection of really weird short stories by Julio Cortázar. Houses possessed by faceless demons and people vomiting up rabbits etc.

And then there’s the true history, the witch craze of 1611…   I’ve been having the strangest dreams recently.