Monday, June 20, 2011

More adventures

With only 5 days left of my program before my parents come I'm definitely trying to fit as much into every day as possible (as well as study for my final exams). We went to a political rally yesterday and on Wednesday we're going to an Arab bath - there will be tea, baklava, hot/cold baths, a steam room and my first massage yay! We're also going to celebrate La Noche de San Juan on Wednesday, a festival in honor of John the Baptist that happens every year the night before Corpus Christi. For Corpus Christi we're going to go to the parade down by the river and then the festival after that, it should be very interesting!

Two weekends ago my friends and I went to Cadiz, a small beach town on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and the oldest city in all of Spain that was founded by the Phoenicians in 1104 B.C.We saw some gorgeous old buildings as well and their famous gold-domed cathedral. We spent pretty much all day at the beach and just walked through the city buying souvenirs in the evening. We tried the local food - tons of fried fish. We had squid, dogfish, and a few other types of fish that I had no clue what they were - we told the waiter to bring us his favorite dishes and it was all really good. Our hostel was really nice too, we shared the room with 3 other people that we didn't know, but they were very friendly. It was a really cool building - four stories with a roof-top terrace that had a ton of super comfortable hammocks and the entire place was decorated with beautiful Spanish tile. It was a very relaxing weekend and it was nice to have time at the beach to work on my tan and get away from the stress of schoolwork! We took the AVE (high-speed train) back to Sevilla Sunday evening and it was a quick 1:30 much nicer than the buses we've been traveling on lately!

This past weekend a group of my friends from the program and I went to Gibraltar (a British colony in the very south of Spain) for a day trip. We went with a planned tour group so it was nice not to have to worry about planning anything for once and to just be along for the ride. It was a 2 hour bus ride but our tour guide illegally downloaded the new movie Hangover 2 for us to watch so that made the time go by much faster. When we got there we had to get our passports checked and go through customs since we were technically in the UK and had left Spain (unfortunately no passport stamp, just like in Portugal!).

It was definitely one of the most interesting places I've been - it was so strange to see everything in English, use the Pound, and have the typical red phone booths, fish and chips, pubs, and British flags everywhere. The population of Gibraltar is pretty mixed - there are a lot of British people that live there but there are also Spaniards who moved there. I wasn't expecting it to be so beautiful - Gibraltar is the southernmost point in Europe meaning that its the place where the Atlantic and Mediterranean Oceans collide (Europa Point), the water was gorgeous. You could also see Africa from there (Morocco) - it was so close! We started out the trip with a bus ride up to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar (its huge!) where we toured St. Michael's Cave, a huge cave with tons of stalactite formed by dripping water. We hiked through it for almost an hour, there was so much to see and we got lost several times. The coolest part was the auditorium at the very bottom of the cave - apparently the acoustics are amazing and they hold concerts there a lot during the summer. After the hike through the cave I saw what I had been waiting for - the monkeys. They were EVERYWHERE, and so adorable yet sneaky. The first monkey experience we had was a tiny monkey clapping his hands and dancing around us to distract us while his friend stole Erin's apple! Such tricksters. We took the bus down to a part of the Rock where a bunch of monkey families live/hang out during the day and we took tons of pictures - one monkey even climbed on my back and started eating my hair.

After this we had 3 hours of free time in the city where we got some amazing Indian food - I hadn't had it in forever and it was just what I needed, something very different from Spanish food. We then walked around the old city to do some shopping and sight-seeing. We saw a lot of the old British buildings like the governor's mansion and the royal chapel, all of the houses and buildings were very colorful and had tons of flowers all over. It was so strange to still be in the Iberian Peninsula but not be in Spain or Portugal, I literally felt like I had hopped on a plane to the UK without realizing it. It was such a great experience, its one of those places you'll probably only go once in your life and it was definitely worth the trip.

Sadly, Gibraltar was my last trip before the program ends. But I am SO excited for my parents to get here on Friday and I can't wait for the amazing trips we have in store for us - a few days in Sevilla then Granada, Ronda, Malaga, Barcelona, and Madrid! It is going to be a great two weeks :) Its supposed to be an average of 102 degrees this week, so hopefully that cools down by the time they get here! Hasta pronto

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

All Around Andalucía

Yet another amazing weekend traveling throughout the Iberian Peninsula - this time it was a planned UNC trip through Cordoba and Granada, the other two major cities in Andalucía (the southern region of Spain) besides Sevilla. We went to Cordoba Saturday morning, came back to Sevilla that night, then left for Granada early Sunday morning and just returned Monday evening (meaning we got to miss class, yay!)

It started out with another 2 hour bus ride (I'm so over buses right now) to Cordoba at 8:30 am - and our first stop was an ancient 1st century Roman bridge leading to the Mezquita de Cordoba. Its a 10th century mosque that was later converted into a cathedral when the Christians took over Spain. It was a little bit creepy walking on a bridge that old, but apparently the Romans knew what they were doing if its worked this long! The mosque (its technically a cathedral now but everyone still calls it a mosque) was absolutely huge - the 3rd largest in the world. It was pretty funny to see how the Christians tried to cover up the fact that its a mosque with religious elements such as crosses and statues - that building definitely had an identity crisis. It was really cool to learn about all of the different styles of architecture in class then be able to see it first hand.

Muslim - style arches in the mosque

We then went to Calle de los Flores, pretty much just a tiny little side street with a bunch of nice flowers. After that we wandered through the old city and through the Jewish quarter in order to get to the oldest synagogue in Andalucia, and one of the 3 remaining synagogues from the Medieval period in Spain. It was really small and had been converted into a Christian hospital in the 1600s, but there was still very beautiful carvings in Hebrew all along the walls. It was dedicated to Maimonides, a Jewish doctor and philosopher who was born in Cordoba before the Jews were driven out of the country. After our tour we had some free time in the city before heading back to the bus, so of course I went shopping. Later we got on our bus yet again to head back to Sevilla for the night (don't ask me why, Cordoba and Granada are only an hour apart, and Granada is 3 hours from Sevilla). We got some good Turkish food for dinner then watched USA get killed by Spain in soccer. 

The next morning bright and early yet again we set off for Granada, a beautiful mountain town. The cooler weather was much appreciated - there was still snow on the tops of the mountains! When we got there we checked into the Hotel Los Angeles - it was very nice with a pool and yummy food. After we got settled in we went on a tour of La Alhambra - the palace complex of Ferdinand & Isabella, and later their son Carlos V the Holy Roman Emperor. Needless to say, it was gorgeous. It was also built by the Muslims, so there were tons of colorful mosaics and intricate gardens surrounding the different buildings. 
Then we climbed to the top of one of the old look out towers used by the army in order to protect the city - this tower was called Torre de la Vela and it has the best view in all of Granada - the climb up those steep stairs was totally worth it!
View from the top of the tower
After our tour of La Alhambra, we had time to explore the city - I'm in love. Its like the Asheville/Carrboro of Spain, so many hippies everywhere and an absolutely gorgeous landscape. We went to a Recycling Fair where everything being sold was made out of recycled goods - there was also a bike-powered carousel and a huge life-size chess board. We kept wandering and found another open air market that had so many different kinds of food - olives, peppers, dried fruit, nuts, cheese, chocolate, crepes, EVERYTHING. We got a lot of samples and it was all amazing. 

After more wandering and shopping we went back to the hotel for a huge dinner, then it was time to hike up to the Mirador (the overlook) at the top of one of the biggest mountains in Granada. Lets just say flip-flops were a bad choice for this trip. But, as always, the view in the end is always worth the hike, and this time we were able to see La Alhambra all lit up at night. After this we walked through the Muslim neighborhood where there were tons of traditional shops, cafes, and restaurants. We ended up going to a Teteria (an Arab tea cafe) where we all sat around a table and drank a bunch of different kinds of amazing herbal teas. Being there was like a total escape from Spain - it felt like we were in a small town in the Middle East, it was very relaxing. By the time that was over it was time to head back to the hotel for the night. The next morning we got a REAL breakfast! Eggs and everything! The first time I've had something besides a plain slice of toast in a nice. Then we went on a tour of La Capilla Real where Ferdinand & Isabella are buried, along with their daughter Juana la Loca and her husband Felipe el Hermoso. Unfortunately we couldn't take pictures in there, but trust me, it was really pretty! The next stop was the Catedral de Granada, another beautiful Renaissance style cathedral - the 4th largest in Spain behind those of Sevilla, Madrid, and Toledo. 
After the tour we decided to stick with the Middle East theme and got some falafel for lunch, and of course we had to get ice cream after. This place was AMAZING - all of the flavors were so unique and it was much cheaper than the ice cream in Sevilla. I got roche and chocolate orange flavor...yum :)
After a little bit more exploring and shopping it was time to get back on the bus and head home (it was perfect timing because it had just started thunder storming). I was very sad to leave - I could have easily spent another week there (good thing my parents are coming soon so we can go back!) We got back to Sevilla right around dinner time and I had tons of homework to do...back to the reality of why I'm actually here. If I had it my way I would just travel around Spain forever, I can't believe theres only 2 weeks left of my program then 2 more weeks of traveling with my parents! Next weekend we're heading to Cadiz (the oldest city in Spain), and I just booked at day trip to Gibraltar for the weekend after that! Hasta pronto :)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Back to reality

Before I get into the details of my amazing four day weekend in Portugal, I should talk about our recent visit to the Reales Alcazares. It is currently used as the King's (Juan Carlos) house whenever he visits Sevilla, but when it was first built Sevilla was the capital of Spain rather than Madrid so it was the King's permanent residence. It was first built in the 700s by the Muslims who came to Spain, and the gorgeous architecture reflects the Arab influence. It was absolutely huge with hundreds of gardens and many different buildings connected by patios as well as some super cool peacocks...I would totally live there if I could be Queen of Spain. 

Now to the main part of the story - we just got back from a four day weekend in Lagos, Portugal and I had the time of my life. Those were easily the most beautiful beaches I have EVER seen and Lagos itself is an adorable little beach town settled into the side of massive cliffs. The weather was perfect for lazing by the beach and it was a very nice break from the scorching heat of Sevilla - this was by far the most relaxing yet extremely fun weekend of my life. All of the people in Lagos were super friendly and spoke really good English and all of the signs/menus were in English as well. We soon realized that Portuguese is really similar to Spanish and that we could understand it when people spoke it to us - they also understood us when we replied in Spanish. They called it "Portspanglish" - a hybrid of all three languages that a lot of the people speak when talking to tourists. 
Church by the beach in Lagos
It all started with a 730 a.m. bus ride - we pretty much didn't sleep the night before since we had to get up so early to walk the 45 minutes to the bus station, so we slept almost the entire way to Lagos. Once we got there around 1 p.m. we checked into our hostel (Lagos Escape Hostel) and it was brand new and very nice - for only 12 euro a night we had our own private room and a huge homemade breakfast every morning. We were literally a two minute walk from EVERYTHING. We spent the whole first day at the beach and saw the amazing cliffs surrounding Praia Dona Ana while playing soccer and other beach games with some local Portuguese people. Since it stays sunny so late here we were able to stay at the beach until 6 p.m. everyday, then shower before heading out to dinner (it was very nice to be able to eat whenever we wanted, rather than waiting until 10 p.m. like we do in Sevilla!)
Where we spent most of our days
Ahhh the FOOD. I probably gained 10 pounds over a 4 day span - the food was just delicious. We found out about this restaurant called NahNahBah's (which has one of the top 50 burgers in the entire world) from a friend who had previously visited Lagos, so we decided to go there for our first dinner. It was a tiny little hole in the wall with Jamaican decor but oh my GOSH was the food amazing. The sandwiches were huge and came with amazing potato chips - by far the best chicken sandwich I've ever had in my life. So of course we had to go back there for our last dinner in Lagos too, and that time I decided to try their world famous I know why its so popular! Even bigger than the chicken sandwich and it had pineapple on it - my mouth died of happiness. We also ate at a local pizzeria, a seafood restaurant, and had some amazing crepes. Full, happy bellies and lazing by the beach all day? Talk about the perfect vacation. 
Best thing I've ever tasted. 
We also went on a grotto boat tour where a tour guide drove us through all of the amazing cliffs and caves in a small motor boat. I got some beautiful pictures and it was well worth the 10 euros to see all of the awesome sights of Lagos - every picture could be a postcard. 
On Saturday we went to a sports bar near our hostel (everything was close to our hostel - the joys of a small beach town) to watch the Copa del Rey soccer game between Manchester and Barcelona. While my friends and I were cheering for Barca, we were surprisingly in the minority. Since Lagos is such a popular destination with people from the UK and Australia, almost everyone was cheering for Manchester. But Barca won so we were happy :) We spent every day from about 11 a.m - 6 p.m. at the beach, and then met up with other friends who were also there from the Sevilla program as well as our new Portuguese friends to hang out at night. 
After some shopping Monday morning we left on the 1:45 bus to head back to Sevilla (or Sevilha, in Portuguese)...a.k.a. back to the real world of school and exams (but really, who can complain about living in Spain?) The bus ride took 7 hours on the way back, 2 more hours than on our way to Lagos, since the bus had to make a lot more stops along the way. I definitely prefer traveling by train, but you can only get to Lagos via bus or a rental car. We were all exhausted when we finally got back to Sevilla, but thats just a sign of an amazing weekend in my opinion :)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Weekend fun

Its Monday, meaning classes have started again (is it weird that I feel like I'm here to explore rather than go to school?), but luckily this is only a 4-day week for us. We went on some really cool trips this past weekend (and now I have a cold...not so fun), and I'm even more excited for the trips we have in store for us. We got up early Saturday morning to go visit some ancient Roman ruins at Italica - it was very interesting and very well preserved considering it was over 2300 years old! The coolest part to me was all of the mosaics - they were on the floors of every room in the houses of wealthy families. They were all made with tiny pebbles and they were SO detailed - its crazy how the colors were still vibrant after thousands of years in the intense Spanish sun. 
This is a mosaic showing the gods/goddesses for each day of the week. The only day of the week that doesn't have an assigned protector is Sunday, so each family could use the deity of their choice - this family chose Venus (the goddess of love) to represent Sunday. A lot of the mosaics had been removed and sent to museums for preservation purposes, but there were still plenty of beautiful ones to see. 

After Italica we got back on the bus and traveled for an hour to playa de Matalascañas (the beach closest to Sevilla). All of the Spaniards say that its not the "nicest" beach around, but we all thought it was pretty awesome! Once you got past the shock of all the old men in speedos and topless women, it was really relaxing. We were mainly just happy to get in the water after all of these super hot days. The coolest part of the beach was the ruin of an ancient ocean tower that was left on the beach. 
We got back from the beach around 6:30 p.m. then had time to rest before going out with friends. Each neighborhood in Spain has its own local plaza where people get together on weekends to hang out. Our goal was to meet some Spanish people at Plaza Alfalfa so that we could talk to them and practice our Spanish - we ended up meeting more people from the U.S and France, but we did meet some nice Spaniards that were studying at the Universidad de Sevilla. 

The next morning we woke up and decided to explore some more, so we went down by the river to see Plaza de Americas. It was very pretty and had two really popular art museums, but everything is closed on Sunday so we'll definitely go back! There was also a little area where you could feed the pigeons and they would land on you...but we weren't too excited about that. 
We also walked by the bull fighting ring since they were having a match that evening - I saw some of the pictures that my friends took who went to the game and I don't think I could stomach actually going to one. Everything just looked very bloody, and I didn't realized that each matador killed 2 bulls, and there were 3 matadors. The majority of the Spaniards I've talked to think that the fights are inhumane and don't like them, but just accept it as part of their culture - apparently they are going to be outlawed next year though. 

The thing I'm most looking forward to is our trip to Lagos this weekend - we're leaving at 7:30 Friday morning (skipping class...oops?) for a 6 hour bus ride to Portugal. We're staying at a beautiful (and cheap) hostel right in the middle of downtown Lagos and its only a 5 minute walk to the beach. Next Monday is a holiday in Spain and we don't have class so we're taking the 4:30 p.m. bus back to Sevilla. I'm sure we'll be exhausted in class on Tuesday but it will definitely be worth it! The following weekend we're going on a 3 day trip to Cordoba and Granada which was planned through the UNC program - I've heard great things about both of those cities so I'm really excited! Then the weekend after that is our trip to Cadiz - we have a lot of fun things in store for us :)

Friday, May 20, 2011

One week in

Its officially been one week since I arrived in Sevilla - hard to believe! I absolutely love it here, and I feel like I've been here for much longer than 7 days. The last few days have been fun and interesting - we had our first full week of classes, we've gone shopping, had a lot to eat, done some people watching, and most of all walked A LOT. I feel like we're learning a lot about the people of Sevilla too (as in, if you see one of them walking straight towards you on the sidewalk, you better move because they will run you over in an instant).

Tomorrow we're leaving for a day trip to Italica to view some ancient Roman ruins, and then we're headed to playa de Matalascañas for some time at the beach! My friends and I also just booked 2 amazing trips - a long weekend in Lagos, Portugal and a weekend in Cadiz (the oldest city in Spain).

We also went to Las Setas - a huge new architectural/artistic structure in the main plaza of Sevilla. It looks kind of like a giant waffle, but the name means "the mushrooms". We were able to go to the top for free as a part of the grand opening and the view was AMAZING. We could see all of Sevilla and the city is absolutely gorgeous at night.

Lola is the cutest senora ever. And it helps that her food has been delicious so far. Unlike many other host moms, Lola doesn't deep fry her food and she cooks with tons of vegetables - its very nice! Sam and I are planning on taking her out to dinner at the cafe/bar that is attached to our apartment complex sometime soon. We also found the most amazing pasteleria (pastry shop), which happens to be conveniently located inside our apartment complex as well. It smells amazing every day we walk past it, so yesterday we finally gave in and went inside - there are SO many different kinds of pastries and ice cream to choose from, as well as freshly made was delicious.

Well I guess I should be going to sleep now since I have to get up early tomorrow morning for our trip! Hasta pronto :)

Monday, May 16, 2011

The first few days

I moved in with my host mother Lola, a single lady around 60 that lives on the top floor of a 7 story high-rise apartment in a residential community off a main street. I am sharing a room and bathroom with Sam and we technically have air conditioning but we can't use it yet (apparently 107 degrees is just a normal spring day in Sevilla). Shes very nice and welcoming - we've had a lot of delicious traditional food and she helps us practice our Spanish a lot. Her 2 daughters also live in the same apartment complex so we see her 3 year old grandson Gonzalo a lot, he is so cute!

These past few days have been a little crazy - I'm ashamed to say we actually slept until 3 pm after our first night with Lola (jet lag!) and until 1 pm the day after that. We're definitely getting used to the time changes and eating late (2:30 for lunch, 10:00 for dinner), and getting accustomed to the Sevillano way of life. We started classes today, both of my professors seem very nice and knowledgeable and I'm really looking forward to Art History of Seville and Advanced Conversation & Composition.

I have done more walking in the past 4 days than in the past few years combined, we walk EVERYWHERE. And being "close" to something in Sevilla is being within 30 minutes walking distance - needless to say, I am expecting amazing leg muscles after this trip. Plus, all of the walking cancels out the daily trips to our favorite heladeria (ice cream shop) on the corner of our street. I couldn't have asked for a more centrally located apartment - we're right by the mall, a gorgeous park & plaza, our university, and tons of amazing heladerias and tapas.

Yesterday Sam and I went exploring and found the Plaza de Espana - I'm convinced that its the most gorgeous place in all of Spain.
The entire palace (which is now used to house government offices) is covered in beautiful Spanish tile and there are so many amazing plants surrounding it. Sam and I rented a little row boat for 5 euros to take around the moat there, it was so much fun! We definitely went over our 35 minute time limit to get around the circle and all of the Spaniards were taking pictures of us and laughing at how horrible we were at rowing, but we were having a great time. After that we went out for our first tapas in El Centro (Cerveceria Giralda), and they lived up to the hype! I got a tortilla (a potato, egg, and onion quiche type thing with a delicious sauce on top), then my friend Kristen and I shared a plate of calamari with fried zucchini and a plate of meat croquettes - it was all amazing & so filling!

Its crazy that after just a few days I know how to navigate our side of the city without a map - all of the exploring really helps! Today we went to el Catedral de Sevilla, the world's biggest cathedral (its even in the Guinness Book of World Records). It was a gorgeous gothic-style cathedral with tons of stained glass windows, and we even saw the tomb of Christopher Columbus! Then we climbed to the top of La Giralda (the tower attached to the cathedral), and after 34 super steep ramps we were able to see the best view in all of Sevilla. As La Giralda is the tallest building in Sevilla, we were able to get a 360 degree view of the entire city!

Well, time for a siesta! I could definitely get used to life here :) Hasta pronto!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sevilla at last

I'm finally here. 30 hours of no sleep, 4 modes of transportation, 2 extremely crazy seat-mates, and a whole lot of adventuring brought me to Sevilla at last. Seat-mate #1 was awkwardly watching self-help videos about depression and lost love on his iPad on the way to Atlanta. Seat-mate #2 was a self-proclaimed "40 year old with extreme ADHD"...that was quite possibly the longest 9 hours of my life. I finally found some fellow UNC students at the Madrid baggage claim and we decided to brave the metro rather than paying for a taxi to get us to the train station (only 2 euros!) - it was uneventful yet very complicated with 3 different metro switches. We finally reached the Atocha train station and I decided to change the time of my ticket to an hour later so I could stay with my friends. The train was very comfortable and took us on a beautiful ride through southern Spain. When we reached Santa Justa train station in Sevilla, we had a short bus ride to the Hotel - all of Spain's public transportation has been creepily clean, it puts NYC subways to shame!

It seems unreal that I could wake up in Carrboro like any other morning, then all of the sudden arrive in the most beautiful place on earth. I know that I've studied Spain for years and seen all of the pictures in my textbooks, but there is something so amazing about finally being able to see it all in person. Our hotel for the night before we meet our host families (the Hotel Alcazar) is located in the old Jewish quarters in the most historic and beautiful part of Sevilla. Right across the street is the Real Alcazar de Sevilla, the huge 14th century palace surrounded by gorgeous gardens. We've already done a little bit of exploring around the old city (while snacking on yummy pastries), but I can't wait to look around more tomorrow!

View from our hotel!