Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Trains in Spain

**This post is a few days old, but due to connection issues I wasn’t able to upload it while traveling.  I’ve returned to Boston by now, and I’m looking forward to my next adventure.**

The trains in Spain are preposterously fast.  After our bus trip across the Portuguese border to Sevilla, Sophia and I have been blasting across the landscape at 300 kilometers per hour in super sleek carriages.  It’s a good reminder that really anywhere you go, when you get outside of the bubble of cities and suburbs the world is composed of farms.  From the window you can see rolling groves of orange trees, fields surrounded with electrified wire full of bulls dreaming of a day of reckoning in Pamplona, and tri-bladed windmills waiting for a latter day Don Quixote to strike them down.

We were only in Sevilla for one night, but what a night!   Right now is the Feria de Abril, a massive fair that pulls people from all over Andalusia like a magnet.  When we first got to the city I saw elaborately belled horses pulling carriages down main avenues and extravagantly dressed belles striding through the street in frilly flamenco dresses, and I honestly thought the whole thing was kind of hokey and begging for a photo op.

I was wrong!   EVERYONE in the city is wholeheartedly into Feria, and it’s not for tourists at all.  Sevilla’s finest families spend tens of thousands of euros renting horse carts, tailoring traditional clothes, and building casetas on the fairground.  The casetas are temporary houses with front terraces, dance floors, fully stocked bars, and generator powered kitchens that families, businesses and political parties pay for and invite their friends to visit.  Bouncers at the door of private casetas check the name of supplicants against the master list, and if you don’t know anyone inside you’re turned away, banished to the public casetas with the rest of the riff raff and out-of-towners.  The result is a mix between a frat party and the opera Carmen: men in tailored suits lean on trees pulling on skinny cigarillos, women in fantastic dresses dance flamenco in shady tents, and kids in toreador costumes ride cantering horses through the crowds.   Bouncers make sure that no one reels into a caseta that they aren’t invited to, and the party goes til dawn.

From Sevilla we went to Madrid, where I met up with my high school friend David to watch eat tapas at a euro a plate and watch the Champions League clash between Real and Atletico Madrid.   Real Madrid are funded by the Spanish monarchy, have won the Champions League 10 times, and have the swagger of a multibillion dollar football club.  Atletico are a bunch of scrappy underdogs with few notable players, a stadium on a working class stretch of riverbank outside the city, and a serious can-do spirit.  Game on!

We watched in a bar that was so loud that I considered asking the bartender to turn on the TV volume, until I walked past the TV and realized it was already turned on full blast.  I was rooting for Atletico, a team that spends less on player salaries than Real Madrid spends on hair gel.  The game was a scrappy affair.  An Atletico player who broke his nose in the last match featured in the starting lineup, while Real Madrid players fell to the ground numerous times to receive medical treatment for sprained eyebrows and hurt feelings.  Real scored the winning goal five minutes from full time, and true aficionados of football wept.

Tomorrow is another day, I guess.   The next day Sophia and I saw the Guernica painting, a monumental homage to the suffering of the Basque people under the cruel fascist Franco’s regime, which put the soccer situation in perspective a little bit.   I’m writing this now from a train that’s streaking towards Barcelona, where I’ll spend the weekend before flying home.  I’m looking forward to a few days in Catalonia before returning to Boston.

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Portugal

I really believe that there is nothing more glamorous, exciting, or cosmopolitan than traveling. When you’re a stranger in a strange land, the most mundane things assume a special poignancy: drinking a coffee outside, hearing church bells in the distance, tripping over a cobblestone and catching your fall with the aid of a bus bench and your ribs. Because my surroundings are so different, it’s like an out of body experience, and I see everything with new eyes. It’s a fine thing to step off a plane and find yourself in Portugal, and I’m enjoying my time here very much.

I met Sophia in Lisbon, and spent a few hours wandering around the city eating pastries, checking out the Tagus river, and and trying fruitlessly to find an ATM that would accept my card. In Rossio square a man approached me and offered, in english, to sell me a block of hash the size of my thumb. I declined, and it turns out I was right to do so for several reasons. I’ve since learned that it’s a common scam in Portugal to offer fake drugs–chunks of caramel, baggies full of powdered milk– to tourists, and the police can’t prosecute these people because selling caramel is not a crime. Lisbon was an odd mix of being louche and charming. There’s a lot of graffiti on the walls, some of which is really good: huge colorful murals that go unpainted and untagged out of respect. The rest is either nonsense english phrases (“anus gang,” “eat coffee for dinner”) and communist or anti-austerity political scrawlings.

That night we took a train to Faro on the south coast, and that’s where I am now. It’s a great town with a Mediterranean feel, with a walled Cidade Vielha and little restaurants that spill out into the street. This morning Sophia and I went to see something that was a viewing priority for my trip to Iberia: the Chapel of Bones, a small building behind the larger cathedral of Faro. It’s an unsettling place. The chapel was built in 1816 from the bones of 1245 monks, who had been buried around the cathedral but were disinterred to make more room. The chapel is about 15′ by 10′ with a soaring 20′ ceiling, and the walls are made of a crosshatching of femurs and tibia interspersed with skulls that protrude from the walls. When I was in Rwanda I saw Catholic churches with memorials built with skulls from genocide victims, and this was an eerie cross of that and certain scenes from Indiana Jones movies. Pictures to follow in a week.

The afternoon was much more tranquil. We went to the Ilha Deserta, a sandbar off the coast of Faro, and spent the afternoon swimming, walking the boardwalks, and lazing like lizards. I’m pretty dubious of ferry companies that promise to pick you up from deserted islands but ask you to pay in advance, but as you can tell from the existence of this blog post, this operation was legit. There was a lighthouse on a rocky outcropping that Portuguese guys were fishing from, and when I saw it I had the strangest sense of déjà vu. Last fall I went surf casting off Nahant on the north shore of Massachusetts with a few friends, and there too a bunch of Portuguese guys were drinking tinnies and casting off the rocks. One side of the Atlantic isn’t so different from the other, I guess.

Tomorrow we’re off to Seville, and from there to Madrid. It’s great to be on the move again.

The Trans-Iberian Orchestra

I’m traveling again!  This time across the Atlantic to visit my sister and collect some more stamps in my passport.  Sophia has been studying at the University of Paris (coincidentally, at the same branch of the university I studied at, and living with the same homestay family), and we’re meeting in Lisbon for a vacation during her spring break.  Our ambitious itinerary has us traveling from Lisbon–> Faro –> Seville –> Madrid–> Barcelona, at which point we’ll both fly our separate ways.  I’m very excited about this road trip.  We’ll be covering more ground than Napoleon’s armies did, although of course they tried to travel from East to West.

The last time I was in Spain was in 2011, when I traveled with my French ultimate team to play a beach tournament in Huelva.  We failed to snatch the tournament trophy (a 35 pound leg of Serrano ham), but we did manage to swim in the ocean in December and flabbergast countless Spanish waiters and hotel clerks by communicating in French with a Spanish accent.  I’ve never been to Portugal before, but the same is true for Portuguese people when they’re born, and we all have to start somewhere.

Anticipated highlights include visiting a Portuguese chapel made from the bones of 1000 monks, eating my weight in paella, watching the Champions league clash between Atletico and Real Madrid (on the telly, but with ATMOSPHERE!) and visiting friends across Spain.  Stay tuned for updates.

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