I wasn't looking forward to another long bus ride from Cádiz to Torrevieja (9 ½ hours) but it wasn’t so bad. The scenery along the way reminded me a bit of west Texas, hot, dry, scrubby, some small mountains here and there. I was sweating making my connection in Murcia, but I had 5 whole minutes to spare! My happiness was short lived when I saw Torrevieja, it’s flat out ugly, think Daytona Beach meets Newark. Well maybe not quite that bad, but coming from picturesque old town Cadiz, it’s a letdown.
I was kind of disappointed in my accommodation too. Although it was in a suburb called La Zenia and not as ugly as Torrevieja itself, the neighborhood looked like it had been hit by the downturn in the economy, unfinished buildings, vacant lots that are supposed to parks… This was the second part of my home exchange. I had the owner of this house as my guest while I was in Greece and I banked time for a future date. I was supposed to have had use of her car, use of the community pool and wifi, then one by one those amenities disappeared. Not only that, but when I arrived after 10 hours of travel I had to do laundry since there were dirty sheets and wet towels in the middle of the floor, no maps or guides to help me find my way around and I couldn’t figure out the AC, so it was blazing hot in the house. Not a good first impression. I guess you get what you pay for.
Since this was the first thing that has gone wrong in my first 3 months of travel, I couldn't complain. On the bright side, a 15 minute walk down the street were a couple of places with semi reliable wifi so I stopped by there almost every day to make travel plans, pay bills and try to catch up on this blog. This place has just as many Irish, British and Germans as Spanish people. Lots of them have 2<sup>nd</sup> homes here, but I don’t quite get why, it’s just not that nice of a town, very cementy, no charm, no greenery, no character at all. After spending time in England, where it’s so cold, I am amazed at the tolerance these people have for the relentless heat here. The sun blazed every single day -I’m sure it hit 100 degrees a couple of times, sure made lugging groceries home a pain.
I did get to check out the Spanish health care system, so that was an interesting day. I had this mole that was starting to look a little weird, so I thought I’d go see a dermatologist. Much easier said than done. My Visa card comes with travel assistance and they’re supposed to help you find an English speaking doctor in any foreign country. Unfortunately, the customer service part of Visa doesn’t know they offer this service, so after talking to about 5 different people and getting disconnected with Skype (got wifi in a bar with 2 TVs blaring and everyone smoking) I finally got a referral to a doctor 50kms away (2 taxis and bus ride each way) –not so convenient. Then I remembered that there was a sign for a doctor next to my local British pub, so I peddled my bike up there, only to be told by the Swedish dental receptionist on the next floor, that yes, it was a Doctor’s office but there was no doctor and no one knew when he’d be back (summer/beach/Spain). She gave me directions (and I use that term loosely) to a dermatologist named Ana. So I peddled 4kms in the blazing sun (if I didn’t have skin cancer before, I do now) in the general direction of getting nowhere. I saw a Farmacia and stopped to go talk to the pharmacist (they are more doctors here than pharmacists in the US) and he said I should go to the hospital. I parked my bike, got in a cab and 12 euros later I’m at the private hospital (I couldn’t go to the public one because I don’t have insurance). They were about to send me away with an appointment for another day, but then they changed their mind and in 10 minutes I was being seen by the doc. She said she thought it was just a nonspecific inflammation, gave me a prescription for some cream, a bill for 115€, and an appointment (no charge) in 2 weeks. Quickest hospital visit on record and my 12 months worth of travel insurance, for which I paid $900, will reimburse me.
I finally have some time to read, so that’s nice. I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It’s about some soldiers in the Viet Nam war, I really liked it. I also read Sharp Objects recently by Gillian Flynn, liked that too.
I accidentally downloaded something weird into my computer that was messing up my search engines so I popped in to a computer repair shop on the off chance that someone could fix it and I lucked out. An adorable German geek knew exactly what to do even though this was the first Windows tablet he’d ever seen (no one has tablets here yet and blackberries are way more common than iphones). I was so excited to have my computer working again that I hopped on my bike to leave and forgot it was still chained up. Everything got all tangled up and a nice man from England helped me and I ended up having coffee with him and his wife. I was the first American they’d met since they moved here 9 years ago. They’ve been to the US a couple times and I am always pleasantly surprised when people comment on what nice experiences they’ve had. There is one negative stereotype of the US that persists and that’s that we are all overweight. It was even the subject of an illustration in one of the textbooks in school. And in one English class, the students were naming types of foods that different countries were known for (Italy –pasta, Japan –sushi), for the US they all said "fast food". Mortifying. Fun fact though- in France a McDonald’s drive thru is called a McDrive, in Spain it’s McAuto and at Burger King it’s AutoKing.
Took a day trip to Valencia, the city center is very pretty-Spanish architects sure do know how to make a beautiful balcony. Went to the Cathedral- which home to what has been defended as the true Holy Grail. It dates from the 1<sup>st</sup> century was given to the Cathedral in the 1400’s by King Alfons el Maganim. It is housed in really cool medieval chapel. It seemed to me though, if this was the real grail, Dan Brown would have mentioned it in the Da Vinci code, no? The church also has bell tower, el Miguelete, 247 steps to the top and of course I had to climb every one of them. I think I have some type of bell tower obsessive compulsive disorder and am determined to leave no tower unclimbed during this trip.
There is a beautiful Art Nouveau market here, and while I was walking around, the heat and the fact that I hadn’t eaten started to get to me. I was about 14 seconds from fainting dead away. I remember wondering if I would get robbed while was I passed out, but I bought a glass of pineapple juice, downed it and was immediately revived, so I didn’t get to test the honesty of the Valencians, thank goodness.
I have realized that day trips are not for me. The journey to and from was 2 hours each way and by the time I oriented myself to the city, and saw a couple of sights, it was time to go. I’d much rather spend 3 or 4 days in a place rather than rushing through.
Spent 4 lovely days in Granada, it’s a really nice city, very walkable if you don’t mind the blazing 95 degree sun. Lots of little side streets to wander, easy to get lost in, but fun to explore. There are never any clouds, just relentless blue sky and heat- I guess it’s true about the rain in Spain. Regardless, I had a great time. Visited the chapel that houses the tombs of Queen Isabella of Castila and King Ferdinand - in fact, Granada is where the Queen gave the OK to finance Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the new world. Gracias! I had forgotten that Catherine of Aragon (Henry the VIII’s first wife) was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, they married her off to forge an alliance with England. I love it when the pieces of history fall into place for me!
Granada was the last stronghold for the Moorish occupation, so there is a huge amount of Islamic influence and history here. I visited the old Madrasa, which was turned into the Town Hall after the Catholic regime conquered the last Moors in Spain in the late 1400’s. Luckily, the prayer room of the Palacio de la Madraza was preserved and it was so beautiful I almost cried at the exquisitely detailed decoration all in white and cream. I learned that the only reason the room survived was because a fire in the building had caused a wall to collapse in front of it, so no one knew it was there for many years (most everything else was “remodeled" in the Renaissance or baroque style to remove the Islamic decoration). The Plaza Bib Rambla near my hotel was first the site of the medina’s slaughterhouse, and later the location of lots of executions during the Spanish inquisition-nasty business there.
The Alhambra was absolutely magnificent. It’s a huge fortress on the hill overlooking the city (built 889) and was used as the Sultan’s palace by from the 1200’s until their surrender at the reconquest in 1492. It fell into decay by the late 1800s, but the Nasrid Palace has since been restored and was it ever gorgeous!! As I walked around I could imagine the place bustling with the sultans, their wives, advisors, servants and harem girls- everything colorful, spicy, jingly with jewelry, fountains gushing and gardens blooming. It must have been an intoxicating place to be. One of my favorites for sure.
One of the other best things about Granada is the free food! Thank goodness, because with bus/taxi/entrance fees/buying water to rehydrate…euros are flying out of my wallet muy rapido! Whenever you go to a bar/tavern here and buy a beer or a glass of tinto, you get a free tapa. Had some yummy gazpacho for lunch and a tuna bocadillo (little sandwich) for dinner plus a drink for 4 euros total, yay!!
Saw a fabulous gypsy Zambrano flamenco show in a cave in the Arabic section of the city. The dresses were beautiful, the dancers (and the guitar players) gorgeous, and the dancing was unbelievable-their feet were moving really fast, while their body was perfectly still except for the castanets clicking away at the speed of light, just amazing. It’s one of those things that while I’ve have seen it in a movie, could not really appreciate until seeing it live.
I had planned to just be in Barcelona long enough to catch my plane to Casablanca, but since La Zenia wasn’t that great and it would have been ridiculous to be so close to La Sagrada Familia and not see it, I spent 3 days there and really liked it, especially the Gaudi stuff. I visited Casa Battlo, a private residence and apartment complex and it was awesome. It was like being inside a mollusk- like submarine in the Caribbean. Gaudi was a master at utilizing natural light and ventilation and left no detail overlooked. In fact, the servant’s quarters, laundry room and roof were some of the most beautiful, albeit more starkly designed areas. He even molded the door handles to make them fit the hand, designed the letters designating each apartment and also designed the furniture.
La Sagrada Familia was breathtaking -my jaw literally dropped when I went in the basilica, and it's not like I hadn't seen pictures of it, but in person it's just so much more. Each main pillar is made of a different material, and they branch off at the top like trees, so I kind of felt like I was in super upscale Dr. Suess church. And again, the natural lighting was amazing. Outside the two facades were completely different from each other, the passion façade was very modern and the nativity façade more gothic. If course I had to go up into the bell tower, they make you take an elevator up, but I got to walk the 400 steps down. The museum and workrooms that showed how they continued with the construction even though the plans were destroyed in the Spanish civil war were really cool too, I can’t wait to come back in 15 years when it’s done.
After a full day of Gaudi architecture I was beat, and decided to relax in the park he designed-Park Guell. I missed the turn after I got off the metro and ended up walking a half mile in the wrong direction. Then when I found the right street, it was uphill another half mile and then when I got to the entrance, it was uphill again. Long story short, my vision of laying in the grass at a park, reading and chilling, turned into an uphill/downhill 5 mile trek in the sun- the park is HUGE! Sure, I guess I could have sat on a bench somewhere along the way, but then I would have missed seeing Gaudi’s house and all the cool landscape design. I can sit on a bench some other year.
The beach is nice, but I was puzzled by some of the urban planning. The hospital is right on the ocean (nice views for patients), there’s a really long arcade on the beach that is spectacularly ugly (solid steel panel doors, cement columns) and a beautiful water feature in a shopping area that 1) you’re not allowed to walk over and 2) has a nice waterfall that ends in the parking garage. I doubt Gaudi would approve.
This is a pretty expensive town, the entrance fees are between 10 and 25€ and a large beer is 6€ and definitely no free tapas . Luckily my accommodation is reasonable. I stayed at an AirBnB place which ended up being kind of like a hostel, but it was clean and in a great location at the top of La Ramba. I hung out with the other guests (from Serbia, Canada and Austria) a bit and went to the Magic Fountain. The metros were easy to use and very clean. Also, I have to mention that the bathrooms in Spain have been just stellar-even in the train and bus stations, I cannot tell you how much I appreciated that! I have a funny feeling I won’t be saying that on the next leg of this journey- Morocco!