Friday, August 20, 2010

2010 Trip Report I: Spain

So, the 'big' trip! We had a bit of a crazy schedule for a few days, driving to Colorado, flying out of Denver to Heathrow and then to Paris, arriving June 20th. We spent the night in Paris, only to leave at a ridiculously early hour for Madrid. Before leaving Denver, I decided that I needed to have one final taste of Mexican food - chips and salsa!

And now, all about Spain, España, or "la Madre Patría" for true patriots! I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Spanish culture and people, which feels like a dirty confession, seeing that I teach Spanish language and Hispanic literature classes. Still and all, I do enjoy visiting and traveling through the Spanish-speaking world, and see it as a must in terms of personal and professional development. Also, Spain is a country that I've had the good fortune to visit every few years or so. Mexico used to be on that list of "places to visit on a regular basis", but it's now just a wee bit too dangerous, so Michael and I stick to day-trips when we are visiting my parents in South Texas and want to restock our tequila supply.But I digress... Back to España.


Here we are in León, which means "lion" in Spanish, but I learned that it actually comes from the Latin word for "Legionaire". Impressive, no?!

I can't say that I know ALL of Spain well, but I have had the good fortune to travel through some of the different regions. The south, Andalucía, provides the visitor with the stereotypical vision or experience: bullfighting, flamenco, the Moorish influence, olive trees, white-washed pueblos, the Alhambra... In recent years, I've avoided the south and the heat of the south, seeing that I mainly come in the summer, and have traveled more in the northern part. I may have to return to the South soon, however, now that I think about it.

The ubiquitous "jamón serrano", hanging from the ceiling in a bar/café/restaurant. I remember the first time I went to Spain, I was in high school, and the idea of eating it did not appeal to me at all. How times and my tastes have changed! It's always on my list of "What am I looking forward to" when I go to Spain now.

This time around, Michael and I left the planning primarily in the very capable hands of his brother and sister-and-law who live in Spain. Why not depend on experts? This meant that other than the ticket to Madrid, two nights in San Sebastián and the rental car, I had to do almost nothing for our entire Spanish interlude! It was great! I'm almost ready to sign-up for an all-inclusive package to the Caribbean after this experience. Okay, just kidding on that. But it was great because Mónica could tell us about the history of different places and her own experiences and impressions. It was like having a private tour guide!

One more digression: This is/was quite the 'banner year' for Spain in terms of the sporting world. Despite it's shaky economic situation (it's part of the "PIGS" - Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, the weak links in the EU), the country was riding high on it's recent successes. I read about the "triple crown": Nadal´s triumph in Wimbledon, obviously the World Cup victory, and, while we were there, Contador's third Tour de France win. We did not partake in any celebrations, but there was certainly a bit of pride on display, depending on the part of country where one was.

Back to our trip - after picking up our car, finding our way to Michael's brother's apartment in Madrid where we crashed for a few hours (totally jetlagged), we ate lunch and then headed north to the town of Zamora in the region of Castilla-León. Little did we know it, but we had embarked on our "stone tour" - visiting one medieval cathedral after another! From Zamora, we traveled north to León, the capital of the region, obviously! Again, more plazas, winding streets, Roman walls, an impressive cathedral and excellent cheap wine!

From the northern part of Castilla-León, we drove further north, over the mountains and found ourselves in the green wonderland of Asturias, one of the regions that is part of the "Costa Verde" (the Green Coast), all along the Cantabrian Sea. I had visited the north before, so I was aware of the stark contrast it provided with the South. The food, language, landscape and people all differ. Michael kept repeating, "We are NOT in Spain!". No doubt the Basque separatists would agree with him! In Asturias, we poked around small fishing villages, visited more cathedrals and churches, ate some amazing "pulpo a la gallega" (Octopus prepared in olive oil and dashed with paprika - I'm sure that it was not "Paul the Octopus", known in Spain as "Pablo el Pulpo", which has some nice alliteration). We also took in a bit of a Celtic festival, bagpipes and dancing and all, but have no pictures to show for that. And I did not join in the dancing, by the way.

Pics from the Costa Verde:

And then, San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, a city that I'd wanted to visit for AGES! I spent some time in Bilbao a few years ago and loved it, but I failed to make it further east to San Sebastián. At any rate, I finally experienced the elegant, sophisticated beauty of San Sebastián. The Lonely Planet (my go-to guidebook when traveling) describes San Sebastián thus: "This is no Grande Dame either, more a cool, svelt, diva who has seen them all, from belle epoque blue bloods to 21st century international rock stars.
I'm not sure that I had quite the "cool" experience, but we did enjoy San Sebastián and the País Vasco. It definitely felt like a different country! While Castellano (more commonly known as "Spanish") is taught and spoken, all of the signs are in "Euskara" or Basque, which throws k's, t's, and x's all together! While in San Sebastián, we visited the Museo Chillida in the town of Hernani, which, for fun, we pronounced "Her-Nanny" when we were out of ear-shot of anyone who might find it offensive. From there, we drove to Pamplona, walked the route that the bulls run for the festival of San Fermín. Fortunately we missed the festival and the whole "running of the bulls" thing. That is an experience that I never want to have! Not because of the danger, but I cannot imagine the crowds of drunken idiots. We also visited some quaint, random villages in the Basque country.
San Sebastián:

Museo Chillida:

A quaint Basque village:

Finally, on the way back to Madrid, we stopped in Burgos which has the bragging-rights to one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Spain. It WAS quite a site - suddenly open and full of light, at least in comparison to the darker, more Romanesque cathedrals that we had visited in Zamora and León. Apparently "El Cid", Spain's epic hero, is buried there, and we did see a stone in the cathedral marking his grave, but I'm skeptical. If you haven't seen the movie "El Cid", I highly recommend it for a bit of a laugh. Sophie Lauren and Charlton Heston (of course!) star. Finally, back to Madrid after eating our final Spanish lunch - it consisted of chorizo, jamón serrano and queso. Pork and cheese - very fitting!
All in all, an excellent trip! We were excited to head to our next destination: Paris, France!

Hola and Adiós from Burgos! Don't I look like a tourist with my Lonely Planet 2005 guide?!


Kim said...

I can't wait for the rest of the trip reports :) I loved reading this! I've been to Spain once and traveled all around (though couldn't make it as far east as Barcelona...or Basque country). I loved it there, especially Sevilla and the south. Have you seen the PBS series "On the Road"? It's a culinary road trip through Spain with Mario Batali, a Spanish actress, and Gwyneth Paltrow. I enjoyed it :)

Jaya said...

WOW! This post was so packed with good stuff, I don't know where to start. I have never been to Spain, but I took an undergrad course in which 2 entire months were dedicated to studying its federalism and the Basque and Catalonian nations, so I definitely have some context and passion already. I also have a love for Spanish olive oil, therefore I must travel to Spain one day. It's amazing how fast the justifications pile up, isn't it? Between your beloved jamon serrano, my post-Paulo Coelho fascination with Andalusia and a burning desire to see the products of Gaudi's inspired mind, you have totally sold me on bumping Spain up my travel list. Can't wait to read more about these travels - lovely post!

Kristina said...

Kim and Jaya,
Thanks for reading the entire post! I'm a bit lengthy at times, but hey!
Michael and I couldn't help but compare the idea of traveling 5 hours in the US vs. traveling 5 hours in Spain. It doesn't hold true for every part of the US, but let's say San Francisco is about 5 hours from LA - yes, it's a very different city, but culturally, it's more or less the same (no doubt someone from the SF Bay area would sniff his/her nose over THAT statement). Go five hours north, south, east or west from Madrid, and there is a distinct difference - often linguistically, certainly culturally (which can be tied to language), and even historically.
Anyway, it was a cool trip - we felt/feel quite lucky!