Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spain - Valencia

My feet in the Mediterranean Sea

Waiting for the seven-hour train from Córdoba to Valencia, I watched someone eat a typical Spanish breakfast, Pan de Tomate: Half a sub roll slightly toasted, slathered with olive oil, then tomato pulp spread on top, with salt and pepper. When I finally tried it for myself, I was hooked. I've been eating it at home, but the bread here isn't as coarse or as yummy as in Spain.

Once on the train, I met a woman from California, Irina, who was originally from Russia, whom I would spend the next three days with, exploring Valencia. I had wanted to take the train instead of a plane so I could see the landscape going from south-central Spain north to the Mediterranean coast. But after hour after hour of nothing but olive trees, I realized I could have skipped the train. I did observe that olive trees grow from a base of two trunks, so they're easily recognizable.

In Valencia, two high school girls guided us to a bus stop that wasn't too far from my hotel. It turned out that I had booked a hotel right on the beach, with a beach view, A/C and breakfast included, for only 40 Euros = the best buy of my trip. I could see the starting place of the America Cup from in front of my hotel. Irina had booked a private apartment about a mile away and had some problems getting the key, but it all worked out in the end.

View from my room

I am an ocean and beach lover, so the first thing I did after I got to my room was walk along the beach. I saw some creative sandcastles. The waves from the sea, plus the expansive sandy beach, muffle noise, so I didn't hear anything in my room. The water and air were too cold for swimming.

The next day Irina and I took the bus into the center of town and walked - a lot. There was a rally for Tenerife, the team playing Valencia that night, and the fans were rooting loudly. We shopped at a street fair selling touristy things in front of the cathedral. We ate cheap and delicious kebab sandwiches. We found a used bookstore with mostly books in English, newly opened by Andy from Scotland. I got a new Lee Child book, Hard Luck and Trouble, in hardback. Later that night, Irina and I walked the beach, bundled up against the wind, and had gelato.

Breakfast at the hotel was good enough to write about: granola with yogurt (what I eat at home), coffee and fresh-squeezed Valencia orange juice. Yummy!

The following day we bussed to the Museum of Arts and Sciences, a huge complex of science-related buildings with exhibits. We spent four hours at Oceanographic, where we enjoyed the dolphin show, aquariums, water birds and wetland birds. Then we went over to the Hemispheric Imax theatre and saw "Wild Ocean", a movie about the sardine run off Africa and the fish and sea mammals that feed on the sardines.

Later, we bussed into the city then split up. I was faced with the challenge of finding the Feria de las Naciones, an international fair. I actually did find it, but it turned out to be only booths selling wares, that all looked alike, from different countries. I grabbed a caña and a Cuban empanada and sat a while to enjoy them. Then I bussed back to my hotel, and sat on the beach wall, enjoying the salt air.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Spain - Córdoba

My introduction to Córdoba was a good one. The people at the Tourist Information desk and the taxi driver were friendly and helpful. Plus the rain stopped and it was starting to warm up a little. Things were looking up.

The city map was awful, and I got lost. Apparently, I wasn't alone, because stenciled on a wall was the sign above, Estoy Perdido, which means, I Am Lost.

Because of the cold weather, I had been wearing the same clothes every day, and they were ripe. I handed over my jeans, a t-shirt and a thin sweater to be laundered. When I got them back the next day, the cost was about $15. Arrgh.

I timed my trip to Spain, and to Córdoba in particular, to coincide with the annual Patio Flower Competition. I got a map for the patios that were open to the public to show off their flowers.

My first stop, though, was at the statue of Maimonides, a 12th century doctor, rabbi and philosopher. Rubbing his foot was supposed to do something - bring luck? erudition? - so I rubbed it, then walked down the street to the sinagoga, one of three (two in Toledo) to survive the Inquisition of 1492.

The patio flower map wasn't much better. I simply could not find some of the patios indicated on the map. I learned that the map used previous years' locations. But I did see many of the patios, and the flower displays were pretty: red and pink geraniums, impatients, hydrangeas and petunias. Coming from Costa Rica, though, where there are gorgeous flowers year-round in my back yard, I was a little disappointed.

Patio Flowers

I walked along the Guadalquivir River, surprised that buildings along the riverfront were not developed as restaurants or for tourism. I was trying to find a patio route, but failed. I stopped at a bus stop and asked a cute young guy for bus help back to my hotel area. He said to take the #4, with him. He was studying economics and enjoyed practicing his rudimentary English with me. As the bus made its way past the municipal building, I saw a crowd of people standing on the street, so I got off to check out what was happening.

It was the Hermandad de Nuestra Senora del Rocio - an Asuncion Day tope, a romeria (pilgrimage walk). I got to talking with a couple of Dutch couples and a couple from Toledo. I played translator for all of them. The horses and their riders were on parade. The men were dressed in traditional Spanish garb, and the women and girls were wearing beautiful flamenco gowns.

Two Dutch couples and me

The Mezquita/Cathedral was free before 10am. The building itself was just an immense empty hall with pillars, but with an elaborate altar and side rooms devoted to saints. This was built was a church, then became a mosque, then because a church again - a story typical of cathedrals/mosques in southern Spain.

As I was about to take a picture of the ornate altar, I had to change the batteries in my camera. So I put in the new ones that I had brought, but the camera wouldn't work. Oh no! I was halfway through my trip to Spain with a broken camera. I left and went back to my hotel room, which was directly across the street, and tried the second pair of fresh batteries I had brought. They worked! Then I had to hurry back to the cathedral to get in before they started charging money. But the altar had just been roped off to tourists for a real live mass, so that picture was not to be.

Next on my dwindling list of To Do's in Cordoba was the Alcazar. The map showed it two blocks from my hotel, yet I could not find it. What I did find was the public library, and I went in. It was an old building on the outside, but brand spanking new on the inside. I used the free computers to check my email and bank accounts and to use the bathroom. While I was at the computer, a group of three-year-olds paraded in. They were all attached by a rope and looked between curious and bewildered. They were very cute.

Finally I found the Alcazar. The gardens were lovely, and the sun was starting to warm me up and shine on the beauty. There were purple flowers, red poppies, roses, pools, fountains and a statue of three Christian kings who stayed there when they visited Córdoba.

I spent some time sitting in a big plaza called Tendillas, just people-watching. I observed that women don't show off their big breasts with low cleavage here (in Costa Rica, the bigger and barer, the better). Nor do they have big hips or butts. How can they eat white bread and pastry and not have big bottoms?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Spain - Seville, May 11-13

So I trained from Toledo back to Madrid and then to Seville, which is pretty far south in Spain. On the train, I watched a forgettable US movie. They hand out earphones, just like on a plane. I watched farmland and empty space pass by the window.

In Seville, my hotel was so obscure that even my taxi driver didn't know how to get there. After I showed him on a map, we finally arrived close enough for me to roll my suitcase down the alley. The clerk and the maid carried it up to the third floor for me. The center of the hotel was a courtyard that acted as an echo chamber. All the noise traveled upward. Plus the noise from the alley traveled upward. And my (private) bathroom was down the hall. It was not a restful place to stay.

It was much warmer in Seville and the sun was out. I toured the cathedral, the largest ever built. More homage paid to saints. I liked the Christopher Columbus part and the crown that contained the biggest pearl in the world as the body of an angel.

Then I climbed the 35 ramps up the Giralda Bell Tower (ramps so the horses could get to the top), and looked down on the city. Seville looked very big from up there. After, I stopped to rest my legs and drink some fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Then on to the Alcazar, which showed Moorish influence in the tiles. The gardens of this royal palace were beautiful and inviting. So inviting that I laid down on a cement bench in the sun and fell asleep. Half an hour later a guard yelled at me to wake up. People were standing around, looking at me. It was funny, but a little embarrassing. I needed a nap!

After enjoying all the flowers in the garden, I walked and walked, taking streets and alleys, getting lost then finding my way again. A lot of stores and restaurants were out of business - a sign of the bad economic times. The sun stayed out til 9ish with no rain. I was wearing my jeans, a t-shirts and a thin black pullover.

I crossed the Guadalquivir River, where crews were rowing and a few kayakers were paddling. I walked from one bridge to another, then down a commercial street and bought a pink blouse to go with my leotard pants. I heard a lot of French spoken.

Then I stopped for dinner along the river. It got cold, and I wrapped my new pink top around my neck for warmth. It was a lovely view. I had a caña (small beer), a tarrina (small bowl) of salmorejo (ooh, a delicious thick soup that starts out as gazpacho, with sour cream and garlic added, and topped with pieces of chorizo and hard-boiled egg). I should have stopped there, but I had already ordered an assortment of fried fish, which I left half of. There was cod, calamare, and a few other fish I didn't recognize.

About 8:30pm, people started pouring out onto the street. Everyone walked, except those who ran. Spaniards love going out at night.

May 12

Amazingly, I slept great the entire night. For breakfast, I wanted something American. The sign at a nearby restaurant said, Omelet with bacon, coffee, toast and juice for only 6.30 Euros. A bargain! I was psyched for real eggs and bacon, sitting outdoors in the sun.

What I got were two eggs over easy (I wondered how to order that in Spanish), two pieces of nearly raw bacon, a hunk of bread from last night's dinner presumably, too-strong coffee, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Everything I wanted to see in Seville, I saw yesterday, so today was devoted to seeing/walking in new parts of the city.

I can usually find my way out of a wet paper bag, and I had several years of navigational experience on boats, but nothing prepared me for the map of Seville. And I wasn't the only one confounded. When I stopped to read the map, there were others doing the same thing.

While walking in the center of the flamenco district, passing shops with flamenco dance dressed, fans, hair combs and shawls, I happened upon a store selling dance shoes. I have been on a quest to find comfortable and protective closed-toe, leather-sold shoes to dance in (merengue and salsa) for a few years. I needed shoes that protect my toes that I can spin in. Shoes made for flamenco dancing, it turned out, fit the bill. The black pair that I bought cost 60 Euros. They're not particularly pretty, but they're functional.

More walking and window shopping. The sun came out and went in, over and over. I bought a novel in English by one of my favorite writers, Michael Connolly. Then I stopped at an outdoor cafe, more to rest my feet than to eat or drink. A woman speaking English asked if she could share my table. Diane was in Spain for 10 days - on her honeymoon, alone. She told me right away that she had been stood up at the altar. It was to be her first marriage. He just never showed up. She didn't cry, but she was miserable. She didn't like Spain, she vented about the poor service and lack of clocks in hotel rooms. I lent an ear for an hour, then I had to escape.

More walking and getting lost, then I stopped for a boca of paella and a copa de vino at an arabic restaurant with tile and arches. There was relaxing arabic music playing, and I enjoyed some down time. Later, I walked more, then turned in to read my book.

Spain - Toledo, May 9-11

May 9

Things did not start out great in Toledo, my second city. I took the train from Madrid to Toledo. When I got there, I learned that I would not be able to take a train directly to Seville in two days. I would have to train back to Madrid, then train to Seville. I didn't have enough cash on me to pay for a reduced fare ticket, so I had to pay over $100 by credit card, plus get hit with a foreign transaction fee by MasterCard.

I took a bus to the center of town and went to an ATM to get Euros. Nightmare! I couldn't get any cash. I tried another bank's ATM - no cash. It was a Sunday and the banks weren't open. I had enough Euros to get me through to Monday, but I started to panic. What if I couldn't get any Euros the rest of my three weeks in Spain?! I looked for an Internet place so I could call Fidelity, which I use as my bank, but the Locutorios didn't open until later.

So I checked into the hotel, and went out to enjoy Toledo since there was nothing I could do at that moment to resolve my cash problem. Toledo is a city built on a hill, so there was a lot of uphill and downhill walking. I went to the Sinagoga de El Transito, one of the few synagogues to withstand the Inquisition in 1492.

The narrow streets in Madrid were nothing compared to the alleys in Toledo. I could almost spread my arms and touch buildings on either side of the street.

Finally I found a Locutorio and called Fidelity. I sounded really upset, and the agent was able to get someone on the line with me from the bank that services Fidelity. On a Sunday! She said that my account looked fine on her end, my money was not blocked, and there were no recent rejections for my account. She couldn't do anything for me. I left and went to a third ATM, and lo and behold, I was able to get Euros. What a relief!

Feeling much better, I walked around until I found a great-looking little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I sat in the bar area and had a wonderful glass of Spanish wine, enjoyed the best, most tender green olives in tomato sauce with onions I've ever had, and listened to some great old recorded smoky American jazz. My main dish was ensalada de churrasco, a steak salad that was to die for, with carmelized onions.

Toledo is known for a few things: marzipan (an almond candy), knives, swords and guns. I can attest to the marzipan. It is delicious. I thought that I would never again have the chance to buy a really great chef knife at a decent price, so I splurged and bought one. I have been very happy with it. I also bought one for my friend, Patty, who was overseeing my condo during my absence.

I saw my first cathedral in Toledo. What an immense structure! The money that went into building it and adorning it in ornate gold and jewels could have fed hundreds or thousands of people for years. In the room with photos of Spanish cardinals, I couldn't help but wonder how many of those men were child molesters. I am such a cynic. Or a realist.

A great attraction that wasn't in the guide books was the Centro Cultural San Martin. I got free entrance to this bank-sponsored museum, which had an exhibition on nudes - paintings, photos and sculptures. It was the best thing I saw in Toledo.

I took some side streets and ended up walking up a very steep hill. There was a grand view of a couple of buildings. Then I was so tired, I hopped on a bus, hoping it would bring me back to the center of town. As it turned out, after turning three short corners, we arrived in the center.

At only 6:35pm, I took a hot bath and crawled into bed, tired from walking the hills. I listened to lovely classical music on TV, and wrote in my travel journal. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any white noise TV stations for the rest of my trip, so some nights I slept, and some nights ambient noise kept me awake.

May 10

I was up bright and early, eating an apple pastry with cafe con leche. The Museo de Santa Cruz was my first stop. It is a museum about local history. I saw a retrospective of tile-making through the ages and learned about the history of lower Toledo.

It was another day of walking in the rain, up and down hills, taking narrow streets and alleys to see where they went. Stores were open today, so I stopped in to see what was in fashion. In Toledo, it seems they sell either teeniebopper or matronly styles. I bought earrings and a necklace, just cheap costume jewelry.

For lunch, I stopped at Adolfo, a hip, modern place. While listening to Katy Perry sing, I Kissed a Girl, I had a yummy glass of Syrah wine made locally, and an appetizer of toasted bread crumbs sauteed in olive oil with chorizo. I like to order local food, but I made a bad mistake with the half partridge and discolored beans disk (sounds more appetizing in Spanish, judías pochas con 1/2 perdiz). It was my only regrettable meal in Spain. I thanked the bird for giving its life, especially for such a terrible tasting dish that I couldn't finish.

I checked my email at the Arab-run Locutorio, then had tea at an outdoor cafe, while listening to American music. American music is everywhere!

I could easily have spent only one day in Toledo, especially given the rain and cold and only intermittent sun and so few things to see that interested me.

I tried to find the restaurant from the day before, but it had disappeared. I couldn't get back to that alley. I wanted lamb chops, and this was the city for meat. I went back to the restaurant where I had tea, and ordered the lamb chops for dinner. They were tasty, but nothing special. The wine was good, though.

The food may not have been the best, but the people-watching was very interesting. First, there was an overweight, stressed-out mother pushing a carriage with a boy of 1.5 years, which is a difficult chore over the cobblestone streets and cracked sidewalks. Her 7-year-old ADHD daughter was prancing about, running off then coming back, not always finding her mother again. They came out of the Chinese store, a big pulperia that sold everything from cosmetics to housewares to potatoes, and the girl was crying loudly and throwing a fit. Clearly she wanted something inside that store that her mother didn't get for her. The mother talked to her, but the girl kept making a scene - all this right across from my outdoor table. The mother pushed the carriage up an alley; they girl eventually followed. Five minutes later they returned and went back into the store. I could see a long line formed at the cash register. In about three minutes the mother, daughter and carriage emerged from the store and walked to the corner. They could not have stood in line to pay for a purchase. The mother took something out from a compartment of the carriage and bent, with her back toward me, over the girl. A few seconds later, the girl was hopping and prancing very happily, and went over to a car's side view mirror to admire the dark maroon lipstick that her mother had applied to her lips. She stood in front of the mirror a long time, missing the direction that her mother had taken with the carriage. When the girl had ogled herself enough, she went looking and calling for her mama. She entered the Locutorio, where I knew her mother had passed on her way to another street. But then the mother came back to my area, calling for her daughter. They met up again in front of the store. The mother went in yet again, picked up a lollipop, unwrapped it, and give it to the boy in the carriage. Then the three of them left the area.

I was still sitting at my table, sipping my wine, when I saw two guys in their late 20s arrive at the store. The one with hair went inside, while the one with the shaved head except for an island of long curls and a strip of bloodied stitches overlaying his left front lobe, and dirty plaster casts on both his arms, waited outside with their two dogs. I am not making this up. The mutts blocked the store entrance, waiting for their companion in the long line. A woman, I'm guessing Muslim because of her head-to-toe covering (not a burqa), wanted to leave the store, but she was afraid of the dogs. Petrified, is more like it. She looked around, obviously nervous, hoping to find the dogs' owner, but no one came to her air. The injured companion wasn't looking in, so he didn't know that his dogs were causing problems. I thought of going over to help her since I wasn't afraid of the dogs, my body even twitched to move towards her, but I stayed put to watch how the scene would play out. She would take a step toward the street, then back up, step then back up again. Finally, she stepped onto the street, eyes glued on the dogs, who could not have been less interested in her, then she hurried away.

The final interesting thing was two men wearing accordions on their backs stopped in front of the store and had a smoke with another guy. I had not seen any accordions so far on my trip and thought the scene was interesting enough to take a picture of them.

Spain - Madrid, My First Stop - May 5-8

Me in Plaza Mayor, Madrid

May 5-6, 2010
This trip was over a year in the making. When I finally landed in Madrid, nonstop direct from San Jose, Costa Rica with only a 25-minute nap on the 10.5-hour flight, I was excited and a little awestruck. I used to travel for my work in the 70s and 80s, bopping in and out of airports, when I was young and resilient. But in Madrid, I had to concentrate on understanding Spanish, which, although I've been studying and practicing for five years, still eludes me at times.

But I quickly got my bearings, took out Euros at the ATM with my US debit card, and learned how to buy Metro tickets from a machine. The hostel had sent me directions from the airport, so I got off at the prescribed Metro stop, only to find out that my hotel was not located anywhere near there. A kind security guard brought me over to an information clerk, who looked up my hotel in the phone book, then told me which stop I needed. The guard let me enter the Metro without paying again, and I was on my way, lugging my suitcase behind me. So my first experience of the people in Madrid was very friendly = muy amable.

My private room at the hostel could not have been more tiny, but the bed was comfortable and the shower had hot water. I was surprised by the pillow; it was more of a roll that extended the width of the bed. Even in hotels where I slept in a double bed, the pillow was as wide as the bed. Despite the odd shape, the pillows were comfortable, and I had hardly any neck problems during my 20 days in Spain.

But I didn't go to Spain to stay in bed, so after a brief nap, the street noise lulled me out. I walked down the street from the Gran Via (a main street with majestic old buildings) to the Puerto del Sol, a popular plaza, and then meandered down streets too narrow for cars to drive. The shops were quaint and darling.

It was colder than I was used to, and most of the women were wearing scarves. I don't usually like things around my neck, but I found two nice scarves for 5 Euros (about $6.50), so I bought them and wore one or the other for the next two weeks. If I had brought my earmuffs and gloves, I would have worn those, too.

My first night I felt a little homesick for Latin music, but then I saw a sign for Club Cubano, and walked there about 9pm. I listened to a guy with a guitar sing Cuban songs, many of which I knew from my Buena Vista Social Club CD. I stayed long enough to have a Caipirinha, a Brazilian drink that had me drunk in 3 sips, and a dish of papas rellenos, potatoes stuffed with chilis, which were delicious.

Back in the room about 11pm, I knew I had to adjust to the local time, so I took a Tylenol PM and slept for 11 hours.

May 7
I had found a TV station with only white noise and no picture, so I had that going all night. It took the place of my white noise machine that I didn't bring.

Churros and Chocolate

I arose at noon on my first full day in Madrid. For breakfast, I went to a place in the guide books that served churros, long and narrow fried dough, with liquid chocolate. I dipped the churros in the chocolate, and drank the chocolate, too. Qué rico!

To get an overview of the city, I took Bus #27 from the Prado Museum north to Castellano, walked through open-air food stalls, then took the bus back. I went into the Prado and saw old art by Velasquez, Goya and El Greco. I am not a big fan of these religious paintings, so I was out of there in about an hour, just in time for a light rain. I walked more, went in stores, including El Cortes Ingles, the biggest Spanish department store, where prices were high. I bought 19 fans for friends back home. At an outdoor cafe, I grabbed a pencil-thin sandwich of smoked salmon, anchovy, lettuce and cream cheese, and chased it back with a caña, a small beer. I was beat after a long day of walking.

May 8

Me in the Crystal Palace

This was another walking day to see Madrid, starting with a cafe con leche and a chocolate croissant. I went to the Botanical Garden and the Parque Buen Retiro. Madrid knows how to do parks right! They are expansive, manicured and clean, and lots of people enjoy their beauty in the midst of the country's capital. I was particularly impressed with the Crystal Palace, a building made of glass.

Even though I had a 10-ride Metro pass, I preferred to walk, even in the rain, with my scarf over my hair. Finally back near the Puerto del Sol, I stopped in at a bar, La Abuela, and ordered sangria. I wanted mussels, but they were out, so the bartender/owner, Antonio, gave me a sample of boquerones, anchovies in oil and garlic. I would not ordinarily eat anchovies, but ooh, they were good! I got to talking to two guys, Fernando and Miguel. Fernando was a bookie for bullfights and other sports; Miguel was a transplanted businessman from Cadiz. We spent a few hours at the bar,drinking and eating. Miguel and I made plans to go dancing that night, and said we'd meet back at La Abuela at 9:00pm.

Miguel and me

I got lost on the way back to La Abuela - so many narrow streets! - but finally found the place. The place was crowded with people watching a soccer game on TV, so Miguel and I hung out there, eating and drinking, til 11, when we went to a dance place he knew about. It was closed - boo! - so I suggested Club Cubano. It was raining, so he bought us an umbrella for the walk. On the way, he propositioned me. I thought about it, but declined. He was handsome and had money and was only 42, but I was leaving the next morning, and I missed Indio, so I declined. He stayed at Club Cubano long enough to buy me a drink, then said he was leaving. I stayed and enjoyed the music, then left an hour later.

Friday, June 4, 2010

My First Trip to Ebais

All expats living in Costa Rica have to join the Caja. That's the nation's socialized medical program. For a monthly fee, about $42 in my case, I get unlimited medical coverage.

Today is the first time I have used the Caja since I joined six weeks ago. When I arrived in Barcelona on May 18, I got a cold. It started in my throat, worked its way down for a couple of days with coughing and a sore throat, then worked its way up with sneezing and a head full of mucus. The cold mostly went away after I got situated back home in Santa Ana.

But my throat remained sore, rough and red. I had to keep clearing it of phlegm or else drown. The more I cleared my throat, the rougher it became.

So this morning I went to my local Caja office, called an Ebais. I got there at 6:30am to stand in line to get an appointment to see a doctor later in the day. There were already 22 people ahead of me, so my appointment was for 11:15.

I left, went on my morning walk, came home for breakfast and a shower, wrote some emails, then went back for my appointment. I was taken right away. First a nurse took my vital signs, using old-fashioned equipment: a pump blood pressure cuff, a scale with weight balances, and a watch to count my resting pulse. Plus I had to stand against the wall without my shoes on to get measured for height. Yes, I am still short.

Then I sat outside the doctor's office for just a few minutes. When she ushered me inside, she took a brief medical history since this was my first visit. Everything was conducted in Spanish. How do non-Spanish-speaking foreigners get through this system?! I wondered.

She looked at my throat and concluded that I needed antibiotics for my virus. No no no, I said. I do not do antibiotics anymore. I told her about the antibiotics I took in October for bronchitis that caused all kinds of yeast and UTI infections. So she backed off and wrote me two prescriptions for allergies medications.

Allergies?! I rarely am affected by allergies in this country, and when I am, it usually happens in October when it's really rainy. But then I thought about it. It was extremely dry in Spain, so much so that my skin puckered up. Then I came back to humidity and rain here in Costa Rica. Maybe my immune system was a little depressed from traveling.

I had to return to the Ebais for a third time today, at 2:30pm, to pick up my prescriptions - free of charge. So I'll try these meds and see if they help.

Getting health care here is a full-time occupation.