Thursday, September 27, 2012

Take A Holiday in Spain.. Part Dos (Granada)

And right when I thought Spain can't possibly get any better we took a few hour drive through fields of Sun Flowers. Oh yes, I just said "fields of sunflowers" and they were just as amazing as you can imagine. Acres of gold rolling down the hills of Spain until we came to Granada. Granada is the home of the Alhambra, a Moorish citadel and palace built high a top a hill. Designed to be "paradise on earth" it was inhabited by the last Muslim rulers in Spain until it was taken back by the Spanish under Ferdinand and Isabella. As you explore the palace you can hear the sweet sound of running water as there are fountains throughout the palace, courtyards, and gardens. The intrinsic details that were carved into the palace are truly amazing. If you go to Spain this is a MUST SEE! And the gardens that surround the palace are amazingly green and lush with roses and labyrinths. The only thing that took away from the beauty of this place was our tour guide, Maria who wore a tank top and did not get paid enough to buy deodorant or a razor.

We also happened to explore a cathedral in Granada where the tombs of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella where. Intricate statues depict Ferdinand and Isabella laying on pillows, the funny thing is, Isabella's head lay deeper in her pillow than Ferdinand showing she was probably a little smarter. I loved that!

 Fortunately for us we happened to be in Granada in June during the Corpus Christi Festival. The Corpus Christi Festival celebrates the presence of the body of Jesus Christ in holy water. Back in the 16th century, the Catholic kings used Corpus Christi as a tool to influence the religious beliefs of the population that had been under Muslim ruling for centuries. The festival is celebrated in various forms throughout Spain but it's most famous in Granada. Besides taking place alongside the annual Feria of the city, Corpus Christi holds a bigger significance in Granada's history as compared to the rest of Spain. As Granada was the last Spanish city to be reconquered by the Christians, Muslims beliefs were most rooted here and thus Corpus Christi was taken seriously by the Catholic kings.

The Feria was filled with children's rides, food booths, and white lights strung over head in rows. Little girls ran from ride to ride in their miniature Flamenco Dancer dresses and little boys strutted in their miniature matador costumes. Myself and three of my good friends rode the Ferris wheel, munched on cotton candy, and even rode the biggest mechanical bull I've ever seen. In essence it was a long log with the head and tail of a mechanical bull that moved up and down and all around. I think I almost wet my pants from laughing so hard as we all hugged and clung to the bull for our lives.

And this wraps up my jaunt in the south of Spain, I have to ask what are you're favorite Spanish spots in the south?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Take a Holiday in Spain...

Take a Holiday in Spain is one of my favorite Counting Crows songs maybe because it has a great melody or maybe because it reminds me of Spain. When life gets tough do you ever have passive thoughts about "getting away?" For me, I've often thought maybe I should just pick up and move to Cadiz. When I was in college a good friend of mine that went to UCLA did a semester abroad in Cadiz. She'd email me and explain how amazing the beaches were, how great it was to live in a culture that had siestas, and how easy it was to hop over to the stunning Canary Islands for a getaway.

It didn't take long for me to book a ticket to Spain. My first stop was of course Cadiz. Cadiz is the southern most point in Spain on the Mediterranean Sea not far from the straight of Gibraltar. I'm always fascinated by the history of places, so bear with me for a quick history lesson. It's the most ancient city still standing in Western Europe. It was the home base of the Spanish Armada, Christopher Columbus departed on several of his voyages from Cadiz and in the 1500's it was occupied for a short period by Sir Frances Drake.

As I started to explore the city, hoping on and off public buses I talked to the locals. Something that took me by surprise was the seeming Lisp they all had. Instead of pronouncing Cadiz as "Ca-deece" they would say "Ca-deeth." A persistent urban legend claims that the prevalence of the "lisp" sound in Spanish can be traced back to a Spanish king who spoke with a lisp, and whose pronunciation spread by prestige borrowing to the rest of the population. This myth has been discredited by scholars for lack of evidence but I still think it's a fun theory none the less.

The beaches of Cadiz are gorgeous, thatched Palapas line the sand to provide shade to beach dwellers. It's common to find a pick up game of beach soccer  and you can't forget the occasional beach side bar. I stopped at one that reminded me of the bar that Tom Cruise tended in Cocktail. Yes, I realize that wasn't in Spain but it looked the same to me. Sangria was my drink of choice, fruity and refreshing. I kind of liked the way every time I ordered a Sangria, the taste varied, it kept me on my toes. I love seafood and Paella quickly became a new favorite dish with rice, shrimp, calamari, scallops, and lots of powerful flavors- it kept me coming back for more. One thing to keep in mind when visiting Spain is that Spaniards operate on their own time schedule. Everything shuts down mid day for a siesta and no one ever seems to be in a hurry. I loved it. How refreshing, coming from America where everyone is governed by an agenda and list of things to do.

We visited a beautiful cathedral in Cadiz and were told a story about a painting they had of St. Anthony. Apparently the painting was stolen and a few months later it showed up in a antique show in New York. The ironic beauty of the story is that in the Catholic church St. Anthony is the saint you pray to when you lose something. Ha!

While in Cadiz I did a quick getaway to Sevilla. Sevilla houses the 3rd largest cathedral in the world that boasts having the tomb of Christopher Columbus- the funny thing is, the tomb is raised- hovering in the air- being held up by four statues because Christopher Columbus vowed to never be buried in Spain. In Sevilla a friend and I decided to wander around the town and stumbled upon the Plaza de Espana. The Plaza de Espana is a huge half-circle with buildings continually running around the edge accessible over the moat by numerous beautiful bridges. In the centre is a large fountain. By the walls of the Plaza are lots of tiled alcoves, each representing a different province of Spain. It was originally built for the World's Fair and truly is breath taking- the majesty of it reminded me of one of my favorite places, the palace of fine arts in San Francisco. We sat and watched couples in love as they rowed, sat, and rendezvoused in small boats along the water ways. Sevilla is a town of love, it could have been the fact that I missed my lovey back at home but while I was there it seemed like every where I looked there was a young couple in love. Sevilla has several bridges through town which creates a fun atmosphere, a few of my friends and I settled in to a bar on a river and enjoyed the warm summer night with a pitcher of Sangria. The funny thing about Sangria is... it's so sweet that it's easy to forget how many you've had until you stop. look around. And start to see Penelope Cruz sitting at the next table, Antonio Banderas is your waiter, and by the time you think Javier Bardem is driving your cab back to your hotel you realize I may have had one too many.

Athens... The Mexico of Europe???

Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Athens. I was young (20) and it was my first time ever traveling by myself. I remember feeling both terrified of all things that COULD happen that my mom had warned me about and also feeling completely FREE. I got off the plane, hailed a taxi, and with a wad of Drachma (Greek Currency) in hand I was ready to take on the world. Shortly after I arrived at my hotel, I looked out my window and saw the breathtaking Acropolis up on a hill. Absolutely jet lagged I poured myself a bath, opened a bag of peanut M&M's, and cried. I was exhausted, emotional, and desperately home sick. After a good face mask and some bad foreign TV I fell asleep.
The next morning I headed to the continental breakfast where I met Genevive, a boisterous persian College Cheerleader with lots of hair (of which she quickly pointed out were extensions). She was also from southern California and was ready to embark on the same international semester program I was going on. I'm not sure if it was the fact that she had a tongue ring that snapped as she talked or the way everything she said came out in dramatic inflections to seemingly unfinished words like "Totes" instead of totally or "abs" instead of absolutely but either way she intrigued me and I enjoyed her company. We decided to explore Athens together. That day we walked all through the city. We hiked the slippery marble steps of the Acropolis to see the Parthenon which was pretty amazing. The ancient collumns stand so much higher than I ever could have imagined. The views looking down on Athens were pretty awesome however the congestion was a little frustrating. It's hard to take a great photo all the while surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. We cruised Plaka, a historic district at the foot of the Acropolis and stopped at a restaurant for lunch by this time our group of friends had grown to about seven of us. We enjoyed classic greek salads and before we could leave the owner came out with complimentary shot glasses of Ouzo, a sweet liquor to share. After buying our fair share of silver jewelry with the zig zaged eternity symbol etched on them we toured Zeus's temple and ran into a greek club soccer team that agreed to pose in photos with us. We ended the day hanging out on our hotels roof top pool before finding a bar on the beach to enjoy a few drinks.

So why might you ask would I label Athens "the mexico of europe?" Let me begin by saying I love mexico, in recent years it's gotten an unsafe label because of the drug cartels violence. I can honestly say some of my favorite vacations have been in mexico from Puerto Vallarta, to Ensenada, to Cabo San Lucas, to Mazatlan, to my personal favorite Punta Cana near Cancun, mexico has a beautiful coastline. Mexico's downfall is it's pollution. From spray painted walls, to trash on the sides of roads, to air pollution, Mexico unfortunately has earned a certain stigma in my head as being dirty away from the resorts and beaches. I hate to say it but after my travels to Athens I felt the same way. Sidenote: my trip was before the Athens Olympics so they may have cleaned things up a bit, but when I was there I was surprised by the spray painted walls, the smog in the air, and trash in the streets. Now don't let this scare you away from Greece. In my travels we were able to cruise around most of the Greek Isles and the water and scenery were breathtaking. I didn't jump off any cliffs like Blake Lively in the sisterhood of the traveling pants but as I saw it, the Greek Isles are filled with opportunities for both serenity and adventure. Before we met, my husband spent six weeks living in Greece and one of his favorite sites was the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron in Meteora, Greece. As pictured below.

I've just shared a snap shot of Greece... my rather brief snapshot of Greece... Which begs the question... Where are you're favorite spots in Greece???