ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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Zaragoza – madness and mudéjar

The first time I came across the name Zaragoza was when studying a map of 1612 Spain for a uni history assignment. The subject was “Witches and Witch Hunting in Europe”, a bit of an anomaly amongst my other more modern and ‘relevant’ studies. The topic for my final essay was The Basque Witch Craze and the Spanish Inquisition, a theme which I found a little too absorbing – the research obsessed and possessed me. Hours of poring over exotic, illuminated documents and ancient maps, with names like Zugarramurdi, Urdax, Almándoz and Zaragoza, transported me to the mystical world of early 17th century Spain. I imagined it as a fiery, craggy landscape, dotted with tiny wooden villages and inhabited by a backward, superstitious people, who trudged through the mud and mist, wailing in overly pious hysteria and cackling with deranged laughter as they burned ‘heretics’ at the stake (condemning them to a hell even more insufferable from the one they already inhabited). Over the course of my research I also developed a slight crush on Alonso de Salazar; a young inquisitor with beautiful calligraphy and a formidable determination to save the innocent lives of old, misunderstood spinsters. You can read the essay here if you like.

Back in the real world, it came as a bit of a shock when I found out that Zaragoza now has a population of 800,000 people, and is considered to be one of the most modern and architecturally advanced cities in Spain (and it was the first to have a telephone network introduced). How disappointing.

Undeterred, I resolved to visit it after all, mostly because Zaragoza is such a cool name, but also because it’s the province where Goya was born and is home to a number of his works.

Last weekend was “the bridge of Carnival”, a four day weekend to facilitate the debauchery that traditionally precedes the solemn fasting period of lent. I did not partake in any debauchery and nor do I have any intention of being solemn, fasting or ‘doing’ lent, but bridge weekends are great for domestic tourism, so off I went with a friend to visit Zaragoza.

The city itself was a little disappointing, through no fault of its own. The weather was awful, the modern architecture (slick bridges and shell-like exhibition centres) didn’t interest me, and we had to pay for tapas, which felt like a terrible injustice. There were a lot of unfortunate looking run-down high rises and abandoned shopping strips, which is completely normal, I suppose, for a normal city in a country in the midst of a financial crisis.

However, despite not being particularly attractive, Zaragoza did have its attractions, which rendered the trip completely worthwhile:

Goya’s etchings: Forget the crown-commissioned tapestry designs and religious frescos of his younger years, it’s when Goya was an old man  – deaf, depressed, and disheartened by society – that his true genius surfaced. At the Museo de Ibercaja in Zaragoza you can see his complete engravings. They’re beautifully displayed, with each series to a cabinet, and carefully lit to showcase all their gory detail. The atrocities of war, brutal excitement of bull fighting, chaos, despair, and madness…these are the demons that haunted Goya’s darkest years. Although he lived a full century and a half after the witch craze in the same area, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was contemporary to the event, and witness to the winged devils reported in Salazar’s investigations. Goya’s etchings are the star feature of a three level exhibition that also boasts some fantastic medieval art, and an incongruous selection of modern works (some of which are tenuously connected to or inspired by Goya). Overall it’s a lovely gallery, with an easy layout, pleasant atmosphere, and a lot of thought provoking material on offer. Well worth a second visit, especially as it’s free!

Mudéjar: Refers to the Arabs who continued to live in the Iberian Peninsula long after the Christian reconquest, and also describes a particular style of Moorish architecture found in Castile and Aragon in the North of Spain. Zaragoza has some fantastic examples, the most notable of which is the Alfajería, a beautifully conserved castle which boasts elaborate Moorish arches, detailed painted ceilings, an Andalusian style orange garden, a small (but fascinating) exhibition on the history of Aragonese shields, and various bits and pieces of ancient pottery and Islamic tiles. Another great example of Mudéjar architecture is La Seo del Salvador, now a Christian cathedral. Like many in Spain, it la Seo del Salvadorhas a bizarre mix of Arab and Christian design – a tessellated mosaic facade, a sombre Gothic interior (vaulted ceiling), and rows of ostentatiously gilded chapels (each devoted to a particular saint). There’s a lot to take in, and to be honest, I found it a little oppressive, but if Christian symbology is your thing, I’d definitely recommend it. If not, at least check out the exterior.

El Tubo: If it weren’t for this recommendation (a student of mine used to live in Zaragoza), we would have been completely lost when it came to eating out. El Tubo is a series of narrow side streets adjacent to the Plaza de España. Although the tapas weren’t free, they were cheap (1 or 2 euros each), and delicious, and there were a tonne of slick-yet-affordable bars to choose from. All had friendly service and a welcoming atmosphere. However, many stopped serving food shortly after midnight on Saturday. Again, another shock to the system!

In short, after two days and nights in Zaragoza, I was feeling culturally sated, but a wee bit underwhelmed by the gastronomy and nightlife. I’m told the city has a second ‘hub’ on the other side of the river, but this seemed a long way off, and the weather was not conducive to exploring. After a slight mishap with trains (fortunately resolved by the world’s most friendly station attendants) and a three hour wait (spent in a restaurant, of course), we boarded a train for Logroño – another key city in my witch hunting project, which these days is more commonly known as a wine Mecca.

to be continued…


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BRAZIL & ARGENTINA

To: People on the old mailing list
Subject: you guessed it, BRAZIL and ARGENTINA (plus a wee bit on Uruguay)
From: jean

The continued adventures of Bec and Jean (rain goddess and dog whisperer, respectively)

we went to Brazil, it was nice for a bit, and then it rained, and rained, and rained.
which is about all i remember to begin with, though if i concentrate really hard i remember that other stuff happened too…

BRAZIL: was (probably still is) absolutely HUGE. we only spent a week in Rio, and then took a bus down to the Iguazu falls. so there is a lot lot more to see – must. go. back.
carnival. another year maybe.

RIO DE JANIERO

  • we stayed in Santa Teresa, an old grey suburb with lots of winding cobblestone streets and big houses with high fences and intricate facades.
  • we saw the big jesus but it was super foggy so the view wasn’t great, but all the more surreal, the rain made it look like like jesus was crying
  • there was a bar in our hostel, and Dippy the Indian/American bartender (curently fleeing an arranged marriage, at large in Rio!) made the most amazing capirinhas (and often forgot to put them on the tab)
  • there were also bongos. bongos + capirinhas + other hippy vices + tedious lack of talent= serious exercise in patience. Especially when its breakfast time, especially when you have a hangover.
  • I saw some very very cool graffitti, but was always too scared to take my camera out to capture it. there was also a ridiculous amount of tagging, everywhere, all over big old buildings and statues, sad.
  • Portuguese is NOTHING like Spanish. it is indecipherable gibberish, that sounds like the bastard child of Italian and German, with weird nasal intonations. i had to resort to flapping my arms to order chicken. apparently the word is “frango”. so not a romance language.
  • the beaches were beautiful, and the people on the beaches were either beautiful or eccentric. the cast of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet would fit in nicely.
  • wearing nothing but budgie smugglers to the supermarket? big fat hairy man belly? completely normal.
  • it is very fashionable to show off your tan lines, providing they are very very precise. There were a number of black girls walking round the city, sporting spaghetti thin tan lines which suggested that by some streak of ultraviolet they were actually white, once. Bec and i attempted the same reverse Michael Jackson trick but apparently it’s an artform that gringos are not very adept at. we remained a pale shade of tartan.
  • we went to a Carnival rehearsal which was heaps of fun, thousands of locals turn up because they can’t afford the real deal, it was bucketing rain but everyone sat around getting drenched and drunk and cheering on the biggest band i have ever seen in my life, it took about an hour for one band to march/dance past!
  • we met a lovely American couple from Melbourne, Florida. (i never knew there was another Melbourne!)
  • rode a motorbike to the top of a favela; apparently it was a race, and my guy won. it was my first time on a motorbike, and i was hugging my stranger for dear life
  • street party=insane fun.
  • we ate pirahna soup. it tasted like fish soup.

 

IGUACU/IGUAZU/IGUASSU

  • biggest waterfalls ever!! did heaps of walks, went for a paddle at the bottom (away from the scary bit), ooh-ed and ahh-ed and took many photos (and some rather amateur zoomy videos that give you motion sickness).
  • couldn’t afford “grand nautical adventure”, rafting not my thang anyway.
  • the main bit was “the devil´s throat”, a collection of falls surrounded by seemingly tranquil lakes and wetlands, which converge all of a sudden as though the bottom has fallen out and millions of tonnes of water come crashing down in one go. !!! !!!

 

Then we had the most laid back border crossing ever (compared to the crossing between Peru and Ecuador, where we passed some uncertain hours in was was certainly a military bunker). this time we just took a taxi

ARGENTINA

  • is a big producer of steak and red wine.
  • I have officially renounced all intents and desires of becoming vegetarian.
  • the serviettes in all the restaraunts are USELESS. they are little squares of grease-proof paper which only serve to smish around whatever mess further.
  • went on many 20+ hour bus journeys out and about the countryside – of varying degrees of comfort.
  • played bingo on one of the snazzier buses.
  • Lake district – looks like Switzerland! well i have actually never been to Switzerland but Bec has, and apparently this was just like Interlakin. there were cedar forests and chocolate and fondue shops and even a mock “Swiss Village”
  • the Argentines are all addicted to Mate, a very strong, smoky herbal tea which they drink out of ornate handleless cup-mug things, through metal straws which filter out the grassy pieces. everyone carries a thermos with them everywhere (even in sweltering heat) so they can constantly top up their Mate. it tasted okay, but it was weird drinking through a hot metal straw.
  • another Argentine obsession is “dulce de leche”, a sickening, caramelised sweetened condensed milk spread/filling/foodstuff (?). sounds like it should be my kind of thing, but it was way too sweet, i met my match, i couldn’t stand it. however as 50% of all bakery goods, chocolates and ice-cream flavours are some variety of dulce de leche, it made decision making a lot easier for me!
  • there were lots of dogs everywhere (especially in Bariloche, a town we stayed in in the Lake District), they were super friendly and clean and not at all like the peruvian hairless. many of them followed us around (a couple even tried to follow me into a cubicle, i had to be very assertive). our favourite was Banjo, he spend a whole day with us. we went bush walking, saw a waterfall and then had lunch together, it was really quite sad when he couldn’t come back with us on the bus
  • Buenos Aires has very deceptive pavement. lots of the square tiles look to be intact and then suddenly flip and splash filthy warm water all over your legs. just warning you
  • we stayed at Milhouse hostel, one of Buenos Aires most notorious “party hostels”. it was fun, the people were cool, there were always heaps of activities, and it was also next door to a porn cinema. so all the rooms on the left side could hear the most interesting sounds, wafting through the windows and vents, all night and all day…everywhere seemed to be playing Bob Marley. i will quite happily go the rest of my life without hearing buffalo soldier again.
  • in Mendoza Bec and i had a “fancy dinner” from hell. we´d been eating a lot of supermarket food, the time was nigh for a civilized meal, and we’d heard trout was a local specialty. we went all out and washed and wore dresses to quite a nice looking restaurant, and were expecting nothing short of decadence. half an hour after ordering we were told no trout, 20 mins later, no salmon either. desperate to somehow nail the craving, i ordered seafood stew. it was disgusting, and chewy. the worst part was that the salad bar was booby trapped and (thinking maybe it was corned beef) i accidentally ate tongue!!!
  • the Argentines are really into offal
  • and “jamon”. not like lovely cured spanish jamon, like dubious cheap supermarket ham that is always warm and has a funny smell and they put it in everything too.
  • we saw an amazing Tango show, it included a dance lesson beforehand and a three course meal and wine (lots). the show was unbelievable, it detailed the history of tango from when it was just danced by men in bars, and then prostitutes, up to some present day interpretations. it was cabaret style and the singers and narrator would come and sit down at the table with us, and there was a live band, and the food was the best meal we had and the dance lesson was, interesting!
  • there are board game bars!!! we need more of these in Melbourne!

 

URUGUAY

  • well i have a stamp on my passport but i really only went on a day trip to Colonia (an old smugglers port and one of the oldest cities in South America). so i’ve not really seen a whole lot of Uruguay.
  • i slept through the bus tour (not my fault!! there were bedbugs in my hostel the previous night!) so have no idea what the CBD is like, or even if there is one.
  • the ferry was slow. but the seats were amazingly comfy and there was a live music performance (at 10am) with this chic singing Abba and Queen (she was actually head banging) to pre-recorded backing vocals. repeat phenomenon on return journey.
  • the water all the way from Buenos Aires to Uruguay (3 hr boat trip) was milky brown, i watched, it never went blue even for a bit. the locals assure me its not due to pollution (apparently it´s some kind of complicated geological phenomenon), but i’ve smelt the water in the port, and i’m not convinced.
  • because Uruguay was part of a big tug of war between the colonists, there are some excellent comparisons of both spanish and portuguese architecture side by side
  • spent the arvo walking around talking to a girl from Venezuela, so i learnt more about Venezuela and the Chavez regime than i did about Uruguay or Colonia.

 

THREE INTERESTING PEOPLE

  • Mr.Hugo, a jovial old Italian man who rented bikes (for winery tours) in Mendoza. at the end of the day when the tourists return the bikes, he turned up the music and gave us all unlimited free wine until late in the night. he pays off the bus drivers regularly to stop at his place and drop off/pick up tourists, and he had a menagerie of pets (including a parrot with a pommy accent), and children. Mrs.Hugo was equally delightful, rotund, and hospitable.
  • Mr.Tumnus! well, not really, but his name was Tomás, and he was the manager of one of the hostels. He looked so much like a fawn, all he ever wore were baggy brown fishermans pants, he had a fuzzy goatee and dreadlocks tied up on his head, and was always drinking Mate out of a stone cup. (I don’t think C.S.Lewis ever specified exactly what sort of tea fawns drink…)
  • Libby…the Hungarian theology student. everything about her was vague, dopey, irritating, but intriguing. she carried around a cactus which she’d uprooted somewhere, potted, and was planning to take home to her mum. her proposed tactic to get through customs was to put it in her hair (on ze side, like zis…) and pretend it was plastic. great idea, except for it being quite large, alive looking, and dirty.

 

NOW

I’m in Buenos Aires, still, staying in a really chilled hostel, doing not a whole lot. there’s always awesome music playing, they’ve got an astroturf backyard and a spiral staircase, the people are cool and i play chess with the owner most days (he beats me every time)(but its nice to use my brain again, try and stop it turning to marshmallow). we had a dinner party the other night, good times.
also been doing a lot of reading, sitting in cafes, walking round the city…my dream lifestyle, almost.
i leave in a couple of days (planning on booking a massage between now and then, if my schedule will allow it…)

then it’s back to Melbourne (via four flights including 21 hours stopover in LA, Ginnie please be there!!). arriving home next mon morning :-)

and then, unfortunately back to uni (i thought I’d finished but now they tell me i need one more subject. not happy jean).

HIGHLIGHTS (of whole trip)

  • Ecuador- the countryside, the people, the climate, the food, and the fact it’s not as touristy as Peru. if i was to go back and live for a bit in South America, Ecuador would be my number one pick!
  • Inca Trail
  • Iguazu falls
  • Tango show
  • Museo de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires (I loved it so much i went there twice!)

 

the end

xx jean