Saturday, May 18, 2013

I Guess I Like Grass

What up my readin' people?!  It's been less than a day, so you know what that second post of the day!

The topic of this post is, drum roll northern Spain trip!  I made the great journey of four cities in five days, and it sounds like a WTF! trip, but it was actually quite do-able, and I did not feel ridiculously tired from the journey.

So, where did I go, what did I do, how was it, you ask?  It was awesome!  I never knew how much I liked grass and and trees and all around greenery until I traveled up north.  It was absolutely refreshing.  The first city I visited was Bilbao.  As the capital of the Basque region (País Vasco for you Spanish nerds) it is home of the weird and confusing language known as Euskara.  Apparently, the language is as old, if not older, than Latin.  It sounds nothing like Spanish, and is filled with X's and Z's, and is all around fun to read and scary to hear.

I decided to ball on a budget when I went up North, so my friend and I flew RyanAir.  Now, if you've never heard of RyanAir picture the worst domestic airline in North America, change the language to Spanish, but then raise your eyebrows in shock at how surprisingly clean and non-death-trapy the plane is.  RyanAir is notorious for their strict one carry-on rules.  You can check luggage if you want, but their prices are outrageous for that, so most people only bring a carry-on.  You must only have one carry-on, your purse must fit INSIDE your carry-on, your coat must fit INSIDE your carry-on or you must wear it, there is no drink or snack service, and I would hesitate to even take a blanket on-board in fear of being charged for that as well.  But, besides the sneaky fees, Ryanair isn't all that bad if you follow all the fine print.  My flight from Seville to Bilbao was slightly less than an hour, and it felt like twenty minutes because I passed out immediately once I was on the plane with 2 Chainz lulling me to sleep.

So, what's so awesome about Bilbao you ask?  Well firstly, if you fly into the city, you must take a bus or taxi from the airport into the actual city, and that journey in and of itself is pretty awesome.  After being in flat Seville for so long, being surrounded by a hilly, green landscape, with mountains in the distance felt wonderful.  I felt like I was breathing in cleaner air, surrounded by all the freshness.  As you drive along the highway, there isn't much to look at besides the mountains in the distance, and then you will enter a tunnel.  The tunnel is nothing special, but when you exit you feel as though you've just been dropped into the beginning of Road to El Dorado because you just pop into this beautiful valley town.  Immediately on your right side when you exit the tunnel is the massive Guggenheim museum, and you see the river that twists its way through the city.  Bilbao is so cool because it feels large enough to be exciting but small enough to see some cool sites in a short period of time.  I spent two days in Bilbao, and I feel like I hit the major sites.  I saw the Guggenheim (which is awesome even if you're like me, and you like you're art like you like your men, real) and it's weirdly awesome sculptures and upside-down paintings and abstract works and walk-through exhibits.  I went to a river-side market and took a tram up a hillside for some great views of the city.  My traveling companion and I took an unintentional detour through the city and found a huge stadium/gymnasium and a park that was clearly for children, but since we were obviously still children at heart we played on the huge rubber jungle gym with no shame.  I can't really say what the food was like in Bilbao, because I didn't really eat out there.  My buddy and I kept it economical and split the bill for groceries each night because the hostel we stayed in had a small kitchenette we could use.  So, all in all, Bilbao was nice.  It was drizzly my entire stay there, but it kind of fit the whole weird, old-world language, Narnia-valley-town feel that it had going on.





My second city on my four city, five day adventure was San Sebastián.  If you go anywhere up north, you must visit this bayside town.  It is soooo pretty.  The city is rather close to the French border and it feels like a whimsical mid-sized town with mountains on one side and beaches on the other.  I only spent half a day there, which admittedly is not enough time, but I still got to view it a bit, and get a feel for the city.  My travel buddy and I got SO lost at one point in this corkscrew of a town.  Luckily we had six hours to kill, and only three hours (four if you count eating then recovering from a food-coma) worth of activities to do.  We strolled along a water-side path, found a stairway to the beach, then walked into the old part of the town full of old churches, an old monastery,  and lots of other old religiously-affiliated things.  There were lots of pretty little gardens and walkways, and the beautiful contrast of standing on a beach with a mountain at my back was just awesome.  I had one of the best meals I've had in Spain at this unassuming basement restaurant in the old part of town.  One piece of advice I have for travelers, especially in somewhat big/popular European cities, is to get lost to find food.  Don't eat where people wearing jean shorts and sun hats are eating. They are tourists and they are being cheated out of their money.  Walk until you start to feel worried. Not "crap we just entered a crime scene" worried, but "wait, where are all the stores" worried.  You will find the best restaurants in residential areas, away from the major streets and tourist traps.  That's also where you will find the best prices.  You're a sucker if you pay 20 euro per person for paella or any other traditional Spanish dish unless it comes served on edible gold leaf paper.  The Spanish love good food at great prices, and they will serve it to non-Spaniards, you just gotta know where to look.

Like I said above, I didn't get to see any of the major sites in San Sebastián, partly because I didn't research what the major sites in the city were (yolo you know?)  Instead, my bud and I just strutted around town, with the mindset that if it looks cool, let's go, well, look at it.  Traveling like that is actually kind of fun.  You can see some cool and unexpected things when you don't strap yourself to a schedule.  For example, my bud and I had about two hours to kill so we took a walk by the river that cuts through the city and empties into the Bay of Biscay.  He noticed this weird rickety-looking bridge that looked like it attached to a random building for no reason, so instead of being normal, schedule-oriented travelers, we thought hey, let's walk across it and see where it leads.  And do you know where that bridge led to? An awesome botanical garden!  Full of peacocks just roaming around and being rather ornery but pretty nonetheless.  We saw cherry blossom trees in full bloom, a cellist just chillin' wit her instrument, and a cool bridge that looked like it would have fit perfectly in Lord of the Rings.  So, what's the lesson to learn from this?  Sometimes that scary, out-of-place looking bridge might actually lead to cool places.  We explored the gardens for a bit then headed back to our bus.  That night we gathered all our stuff and left our hostel and headed to our third city, Santander.  (The pics below are of San Sebastián)

My third city was Santander, the capital of Cantabria.  If you travel to Northern Spain, you must see Santander.  It is nearly a tie with San Sebastián for beauty.  Although, my opinion might be biased because it drizzled throughout my stay in both Bilbao and San Sebastián, but the weather was gorgeous on my last day in Santander.  

Santander is another bayside town with mountains in the distance, only these mountains are snow-capped, so they are even more picturesque.  I spent the majority of my time in Santander on the peninsula de la Magdalena that holds a zoo, a museum, and the old castle of Magdalena.  There were seals and I think I saw a penguin and there were some boats and a huge castle.  It was gorgeous and you could see water on either side of you.  My hostel also happened to be situated right next to the water, so I had a nice view from there (although I do not recommend my hostel because their idea of breakfast was a free glass of orange juice and two slices of toast).  My travel pal and I walked around the city, got lost 'til we found a Mexican restaurant with an owner from Mexico and I had the best margarita and meat and tortilla combination I've had in my life.  Again I only got a day and half to see Santander, so I know, not enough to see a big capital city, but I hit the peninsula, which is like three sites in one, so, I get to say I was there.

My fourth city on my wild northern adventure was the medieval town of Santillana del Mar.  It is about an hour and a half long bus ride from Santander, and if you have the time, it is worth the excursion, just check the bus schedule so you don't end up stranded there for three hours like I was!

My travel bud and I are both students that enjoy history, weird news, and artifacts.  All three of these joys were combined in this small town.  The city is famous for its medieval stone-cobbled streets and buildings and the pre-historic caves nestled into a hillside about a mile outside of the city.  Las Cuevas de Altamira were the main reason we decided to make the journey.  I love archaeology and anthropology and anything to do with history, culture, and artifacts so we made the trek to the museum that hosts an exact replica of the caves.  The actual caves are not open to public viewing because apparently human breath is toxic and was ruining the cave, and also, a bunch of delinquent youths were graffiti-ing the Neolithic artwork in the cave. Who does that? I mean really?!  Anyway, we went through the exhibit and interactive showcase, and it was pretty cool to see art and tools and clothing from a group of some of the first humans.  

Besides the caves, the city really plays up the medieval vibe, and it is full of cool artisan shops like pottery makers, leather workers, wood carvers, and candy makers.  There was also a rather creepy toy museum above the candy shop that was obviously just an attempt by the owners to trap people in their store long enough for them to buy more candy.  There was a medieval torture museum in the center of town, but I didn't get to go inside because my travel bud wasn't feeling it and I wasn't about to enter a torture museum alone, in the middle of a medieval town, in rural northern Spain, as a black woman. As a precaution, if I'm traveling alone, or my travel buddy/buddies don't want to participate, I normally stay away from all haunted woods, torture museums, and plantations as a black woman, just to be safe.

We ate some really funky but good cheese and chilled out around town waiting for the next bus to bring us back to the 21st century.  It was a fun journey, but you really don't need more than four hours there.

All in all, my Northern trip was awesome!  I went during the first half of Semana Santa, which is Spain's version of Holy Week for any Catholics reading this post.  I didn't want to be in Seville during the entire event because it is a rather solemn week and their tradition of dressing in pointy white hoods and sheets (the KKK stole their wardrobe from Spain, not the other way around) and walking down the streets with trumpet choirs and bleeding Jesus statues just isn't my kind of party.  It is definitely something to see if you visit, but I don't recommend viewing it for seven whole days.  So, if you find yourself uncomfortably close to a white hooded figure handing out candy and wondering if there is another place in Spain you could be better enjoying your time, go north!

That's all for now lovely people. As always, thank you for reading, and a new post will be coming soon!

So, I Kinda Fell in Love...

Well hello there!  Did you miss me?  I missed you guys! I'm so so sorry for the ridiculous delay. There is no excuse, but my excuse is that I was too busy with life to write it down. But after constant reminders from friends (and family) that I do in fact have a blog that some people do read, I think it's time for an update on my existence.

So, what's new in my life? Hmmm, well I got a nose ring! Yep, I did it, gave my face an extra hole (a pretty one though) so, you know there's that news.  But honestly, the only big change here in my life here in Seville is the weather. It's not cold and rainy and ugly anymore! It's actually sunny and beautiful and breezy and the weather you think when someone says southern Spain.  There are so many things I could update you guys on, but I think the easiest way to play it is to go in order, so first things first, I'm gonna talk about....Lisbon, Portugal!!!

Yes, Portugal, the land of Portuguese, the most forgotten country on the European continent, and the most confusing accent I've heard thus far.  I mean really they sound like Russians speaking French, what's going on over there?  But seriously, if I have anything to say about Lisbon, it is GO! The food was delicious, the weather was nice, the views were incredible, and the people were pretty friendly as well.  There are three things you need to know about Lisbon, Portugal. Number one:  you will get lost.  Whether you bus into the city like a normal budgeting traveler or prefer to get your fancy on and fly in, you will be confused about how to get around.  Luckily, I went with a group of girls, one of which had lived in Lisbon for an extended period of time and was nearly fluent in Portuguese, so I had a living cheat sheet to help me out.  However, had I not been so lucky to have a group of people to blame for my disorientation, one thing you can count on in Lisbon are the locals.  The people were very approachable.  Many spoke English, and will speak Spanish if necessary (although they hate Spanish, and the Spaniards hate Portuguese FYI), so if you have one of those languages down you should be alright.  If the confusing twists of streets between the various old and new barrios don't get you lost, the ridiculous hills might.  If your'e like me, and see hills as a challenge instead of an adventure, a challenge of not only strength and endurance, but balance and all around uprightness, than Lisbon might prove challenging for you.  The hostel I stayed at (which I highly recommend for the free breakfast, friendly staff, and INCREDIBLE showers) was situated atop a hill that I don't feel is an exaggeration to say had about a 70 degree incline.  However, Lisbon is equipped with those old timey transportation vehicles called trams.  I recommend purchasing a day or week pass for the trams.  You can use them to get all over the city and you feel like you're in a weird world where outside it is the 21st century but you're sitting in a vehicle from the 19th century.

The second thing you need to know about Lisbon is that you will eat cod and pastries sooner or later.  I don't care if you like fish or dessert or not, it will enter your body in some fashion, and you will love it.  The Portuguese are codophiles, and they are proud of it.  They are personally propping up the Norwegian cod industry, so hey, Norway, send them a thank you note, and maybe toss a couple million Euro their way to help 'em through the recession, that's all I'm saying.  Anyway, the cod, yea, it's everywhere.  Like cream of cod soup, and codloaf, and cod with cream sauce, and cod ice cream (ok, not sure if that's real but I wouldn't be surprised).  You will eat cod.  If not cod, it will be some sort of seafood.  Like octopus, or clams, or some other sort of delicious sea creature.  And if not fish, it will be dessert.  The one dessert you must try in Lisbon are pasteis de Belém.  They are this pastry that is made with this flaky crust and filled with this pudding-like cream, and it is baked and delicious.  You can coat it with a bit of cinnamon and powdered sugar and just ignore the stares as you loudly foodgasm over the creamy flaky goodness.  So yea, you will eat, and you will eat a lot, and you won't curl up in your bed that night and wonder how you will afford the next three weeks of life because Lisbon is one of the cheapest capital cities in Europe.  So, recessions aren't always a bad thing you know?  I personally partook in a six course meal with my ladies and in total it was 10 euros per person, including drinks! Also, they have green wine!  It's wine made from young grapes, and it is really sweet and refreshing and fizzy.  So for those of you who are like me and know nothing about wine, you just like something sweet and tasty, green wine is for you.

The third and final thing you need to know about Lisbon is that it is basically San Francisco.  Now, I have not been to San Francisco (although ironically, I'm headed there for the summer!) but on one of the walking tours I took of the city, we learned a lot about Lisbon and apparently a lot of people call Lisbon and San Fran sister cities.  They are both ridiculously hilly, they both have trams/street cars everywhere, and they both have a red hanging bridge built by the same architect.  Weird right?  So, I kind of feel like I know a little about San Fran just by being in Lisbon.  Another cool fact about Lisbon, they have an identical (albeit shorter) version of the Jesus statue that looks over Rio de Janeiro.  And further factoid, the capital of Portugal was actually moved to Brazil for a short period of time when the royal family escaped during an invasion.  So yea, Lisbon, is pretty cool.

So in conclusion, Lisbon, Portugal is the most under-rated capital in Europe.  If you're looking for cheap eats on winding streets,  riding trams with pastries in hand, green wine and cod (couldn't think of a cool rhyming phrase for that one) go to Lisbon.  And if you have more than a weekend to spend in Portugal, travel a bit, go to Porto and Lagos, two famous cities that are known for their beauty.

That's it for the Portugal post, but don't despair, my next post is coming in a matter of minutes/hours so be looking out for that!