11 Unique Things About Spain

I traveled to Spain after spending time in Central Europe.

1. Star Wars Siesta

Spain's version of a city park

Spain’s version of a city park

Plaza de España in Seville, Spain

Plaza de España in Seville, Spain

star wars set in seville

Star Wars was partly filmed in seville

Siesta is a Spanish concept that in essence means countrywide nap-time to escape from the sun: 2-6pm. I’m not sure about summer but in winter the Spanish seem to oscillate between using it for sleep and an energetic break time. Either way, nearly all businesses close for four hours. The first siesta I took was in Seville at the Plaza de España, a sun-drenched park covered in ornate tile and sleeping Spaniards. This scenic locale is also featured in Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia and the Dictator. Yes, I napped near where R2D2 rolled.

2. Weird Schedule of the Day, the Day is Focused on the Night

Siesta kind of throws the day off “normal”. Some businesses, like banks, solve this problem simply by never re-opening after 2pm. Others re-open from 6-10pm. Instead of dark signifying the end of a day, it signifies a new beginning. Kids come out to play, old people stroll with their dogs, all well after sunset, meaning that night loses its fear in Spanish cities. As well, “normal” dinner time is shoved back to 9 or 10 pm. The restaurant I went to in Madrid was open from 9:30pm to midnight. So the parties don’t begin until after midnight and don’t really end until sunrise. The only time Spain seemed to sleep was 10am on a Sunday morning.

In Seville, this meant that people in my hostel had a syncretic schedule between Spain and “normal”. There was always someone eating, someone sleeping and someone trying to figure out what was open. Around 6pm the kitchen would fill with travelers, students, a doctor, a chef and me cooking and munching on food. (That chef deeply complimented me on my use of bay leaves.) From 8-9pm our hostel had free sangria. Then we’d figure out where to go to dinner together and what to do after.

3. Spanish Dancing

Flamenco Dancing: I’d seen pictures. I foresaw a tourist trap. Instead I found crazy intense rhythmic clapping and stomping and a highly emotive singer. Flamenco is a dance that is more about its sound and its emotion than its look.
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Street Performer: This guy was impressive. The two characters top halves are stuffed. The man’s feet are his feet, the woman’s feet are his hands. And he makes them dance. Naturally. SAM_0544There was also lots of dancing in the streets at Carnaval. We’ll get there…

4. Columbus and Other History

As I’ve said, Spaniards hang out a lot and don’t seem too worried about getting much done, other than partying. Why is that? Well when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, he brought back ridiculous amounts of gold and silver. So much so that it actually became illegal for nobles to work, because the country had so much money. There are a ridiculous number of parks, plazas and ornate churches. Life in Spain is not centered around work, but around parties and free time.

I also learned that King Ferdinand was not fond of Columbus, there were complicated arguments about profits. BUT Queen Isabella was very fond of Columbus, which might explain the King’s dislike. SAM_0488
One thing that money helped (re)build was the Seville Cathedral. This cathedral incorporates an old Muslim minaret, and is largest church in the world…by volume: meaning St. Peters in Rome has more square feet, but Seville has more cubic feet. Columbus is buried there. Well, the biggest chunk of Columbus in the world. They actually opened his grave up to check that it was him in 2006. 10% of him is there. Yes, that’s the biggest chunk.

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Columbus’ tomb

5. Tapas

When I was in Seville, I’d go out to dinner with friends and we’d share tapas. Tapas are lots of little dishes, like Turkish mezes or Chinese dim sum. I had some delicious eggplant grilled in brown sugar and patatas bravas (spicy fries) among others. After Seville I went to Granada. Every Spaniard I’d met said that “real” tapas were only in Granada.

“Real” tapas meant that you order a drink, usually sangria or beer, and food comes WITH it. This blew my mind, as it meant that Chinese tapas in Granada were considered real tapas because you ordered a drink and then got a plate of noodles, dumplings or eggrolls with it, automatically. Drinks were 2-2.5 euros. In Granada I had Spanish tapas, Mexican tapas, and Chinese tapas. It was easy to round up a group at the hostel to go for tapas because it was a tasty, cheap, good-way-to-bond meal.

6. Churros and Chocolate
SAM_0796Spanish-wide favorite snack. Deep-fried pastry covered in cinnamon and sugar. Dipped in liquid chocolate. Need I say more?

7. Granada: Alhambra, Street Art, Hippies

Alhambra

Alhambra

Granada is the Boulder of Spain with its hippies, good food and nearness to the mountains. This small city is also known for the Palace Complex of Alhambra built as a fortress in the 800’s and transformed into a Palace in the 1300’s by the Sultan of Granada. It wasn’t until 1492 that the Muslim Emirate of Granada was surrendered to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Big year for Spanish history. (1492 was also the year of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews.) The Palace may be one of the most intricate and detailed places I’ve ever seen.

However, the city has more. It has an Arab quarter with steep, winding streets of whitewashed walls. There’s some cool street art, my favorite was a painting that incorporated stairs. At the top of the ridge is a youth correctional facility that use to be a church (odd mix). On the other side of the hill, is a neighborhood that doesn’t officially exist. It’s a series of caves that use to be populated by gypsies and are now squatted in by hippies. Rent-free living. Though half of them don’t have water or electricity. With a high concentration of hippies comes a high concentration of substances but also parks where strangers jam in the park and groups stand around and practice juggling.

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8. Carnival
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An Austrian woman, a Kiwi girl, 2 Swedish guys and I decided to go to Carnaval together in Cadiz. The deal, set up by a university student group, was 20 euros for 5 hour bus rides from Granada to Cadiz and back and 13 hours in Cadiz, and breakfast. However, the hours you are then are 5pm-6am.

Cadiz has 160,000 inhabitants on a peninsula on the Atlantic, where Columbus left on 2 of his 4 voyages. This little city hosts the third largest Carnaval celebration in the world (after Rio and Trinidad) for 10 days, though no one seems to know quite how many costumed people descend on the city. And it is all night, city-wide, costumed street party. We’re talking pirates with tricked out cars starting dance parties in a plaza. The difference from Halloween is that groups dress up together, so there’s 20 Marios together, pacman and ghosts, a flock of chickens, eggs, whatever you can think of.

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I  went from wearing my superman socks, to having a cape, to having a Sponge Bob poncho and painting my face to look like Sponge Bob. It was a good night. Though somewhere there was a parade and somewhere there were groups doing ironic skits about Spanish politics, the party was just too massive to find them.

Creepy Sponge Bob for Carnival in Cadiz

Creepy Sponge Bob for Carnival in Cadiz

9. Art and Whimsical Architecture

After Cadiz and Granada I went to Madrid. Where the highlight was seeing the Prado and works by El Greco, Goya, Velazquez. However, my favorite painting was Caravaggio’s of David with Goliath’s head. While I was at the Prado I ran into Rachel and Alyson who are Fulbrighters in Erzincan and we spent the rest of the evening hanging out and eating some delicious food.

Then I made my way up to Barcelona where Gaudi’s whimsical architecture reigns supreme. Here are a couple of his buildings and parks.

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Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona

Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona

Park Guell designed by Gaudi in Barcelona

Park Guell designed by Gaudi in Barcelona

10. 1 Billion Rising

One Billion Rising in Front of Barcelona Cathedral

One Billion Rising in Front of Barcelona Cathedral

In front of one of the major cathedrals was an event put on by One Billion Rising, that incorporated woman and girls — young and old — dancing, doing skits and playing songs. One Billion Rising advocates against violence toward women around the world. It was a cool event to stumble upon. For Baylorites: a mixture of SING and Tunnel of Oppression.

11. Hot Chocolate and Hospitality

The last hostel I stayed in was in a nice neighborhood outside the hustle and bustle of the center’s tourism. It was more like a house than a hostel, with a Spanish host (Jose Maria) who spent an hour telling every guest about his hostel and his city. What a beautiful, calming place for 6 euros a night. I also slept in a tower. A good place to rest and be refreshed. Not just this hostel, but every other hostel had free hot chocolate in Spain.

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7 Things To Do in Central Europe

I’ve been traveling but really don’t want to rub it in too much for all you working/studying-stiffs in the US or to my Turkish colleagues that don’t get a winter break and have to go into the office even without classes. I’m very blessed to get to travel. So I’ve spent some time in central Europe and wanted to share some of my experiences.

1. Go to Poland, “Stay Forever, Then Leave”

Poland’s deepest love: JP2

It does not seem to matter where you go or quite what you do, everyone loves Poland, even mid-winter. When I was in Berlin, I asked at my hostel what was the cheapest way to go to Poland, the guy working there was from Poland and proceeded to plan out buses and trains to cover 6 days around Poland. He said the cheapest way was through a city named Poznan. Very specifically he told me to only spend one night in Poznan and then head to the next city.

The next morning I took the Polski bus (that kindly waited several minutes for me, since you can only book online). Once in Poznan, I ended up entirely lost. I met several old women who would very kindly chatter at me in Polish about how far away I was from where I wanted to go. But even wandering around with my pack was great in Poland. I ended up walking into a hotel/squash court where the receptionist and I struggled to understand each other but she was intensely kind and helpful. She ended up calling me a cab as I dripped dark, muddy snow on her perfectly white floor.
Charming PoznanI showed up by cab to a beautiful Old Town, pedestrian streets and the Frolic Goats hostel (named after two goats that escaped being slaughtered to frolic in the town hall) as it was starting to get dark. I checked in, met the three Asians in my room (how does that happen?…in Poland) and went out to dinner with the one from Taiwan. The next morning I wanted to see the city and broke the Berlin rule and asked to stay another night. The guy at the Frolic Goats said, “sure you can stay, you’re going somewhere else in Poland, right?”

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The day was great, Poles seem to have no love of Poznan, but every foreigner I met loved the little place. When I checked out the same guy said, “Finally.” My day was highlighted by acting like I knew what I was doing and walking past security into the middle of a movie set. It was the filming of a historic scene of ice skating on a frozen lake in front of a beautiful church with quite the number of guys on horses.

I went to Warsaw after that and stayed in my favorite hostel of all time, the Oki Doki, where Serbian Bojan is the spirit of the place. My room had 10 foot ceilings and was covered in newspaper with a type writer set on the desk. Bojan took a group out to see the Jewish parts of the city (i.e. the out of the way parts of the ghetto wall that still stand from WWII). The Oki Doki also held a hot chocolate outing, pub quiz, and  free spaghetti night while I was there. Full marks.

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Jewish ghetto Wall in Warsaw

Jewish ghetto wall in Warsaw

The old town of Warsaw has been spectacularly rebuilt since World War II. And Christmas was still here! I went to the Museum of Caricature. I also ended up at a fortress/prison that had an intensely interesting set of exhibits about Soviet era re-locating of people including the sending of Poles to the -stans and the pictures to prove it. That place was creepy though since I doubt a thing has been changed since it was a prison.

Huge Christmas Tree in Warsaw

Poland’s got to be the friendliest, least assuming, humble country ever. They’re awesome because they have no clue that they’re awesome. And I still need to go back to see Krakow because it’s supposed to be the best part. I managed to meet up with the guy from Taiwan I met in Poznan again in Warsaw. His advice, “Go to Krakow, stay forever, then leave.”

This Crosswalk Commemorates that Fredric Chopin is Polish. Poles just kind of shrug and smile.

2. Attend An Opera in Budapest

Budapest sleet killed my camera, so this is thanks to Dresden

Budapest sleet killed my camera, so this is thanks to Dresden

The Budapest Opera House looks like it belongs in a movie about the 19th century. It’s regal with stacked opera boxes. It costs $10 to tour the place mid-day, but through a little careful price checking, it only costs $2.50 to go to an opera. You get bad seats, but it’s actually a lot more fun than I thought it would be. Dresden and I went and saw the Flying Dutchman. In German. With Hungarian subtitles. So it took a little patience. But it was a modernist take with hilarious t-shirts (all the sailors and women had their love’s face printed on their shirt) and glow-in-the-dark boots. Both seeing the opera house and hearing the orchestra were independently worth the price of admission.

3. Operate an Air Raid Siren from World War II (Hospital in the Rock) – Budapest, Hungary

Budapest is actually the connection of two cities separated by a river. 1. Buda atop a hill with a crazy-historied castle and old town. 2. Pest with its culture and more vibrant atmosphere. Beneath Buda is a series of caves that were transformed into a bunker-hospital during WWII. During the Cold War it was then turned into a nuclear bomb shelter, complete with top-secret refilling of the gas tanks (a “water flowering truck”). I toured the “Hospital in the Rock” and during the tour they take you everywhere. Near the end of it they explained the air raid sirens that punctuated Budapest’s life during World War II and the year long siege of the city, then occupied by Nazis, by the USSR. As an exhibit they show you two leftover hand operated air raid sirens. But instead of the normal, “Don’t Touch” signs, the tour guide asked, “Do you want to try?” Heck yes.

Fun fact: Sugár in Hungarian means radiation.

3. Swim in a Thermal Lake (Lake Heviz, Hungary)

View of the lake from the air, clearly not my picture, camera still yok.

View of the lake from the air, clearly not my picture, camera still yok.

Three hours outside of Budapest is a Hungarian resort town that few non-German or non-Hungarian speakers every make it to. It’s an entire thermal lake with a resort in the center. The lake itself is just barely warm enough to swim in…with snow around the outside. There’s a resort in the center of the lake that has indoor pools and Soviet style water message (six water jets at different levels that a tone tells you when to shift between). The water itself is supposed to treat Rheumatism along with a host of other illnesses, so the clientele is older.  When Dresden and I checked into the resort (for the “steep” price of $9 for 3 hours), “student” was a very unusual confusing word. Partly the lack of young people, partly the near absence of English speakers. However, since the water is seen as medical treatment, there are a ridiculous number of very proper Hungarian old women, wearing make-up and ridiculous floaties or water wings, and wearing them very seriously.

4. Attend Mass in Prague

Prague

SAM_0230 Prague. I bought myself a camera in Budapest

After wandering around old town, seeing Lennon’s Wall and John Hus’ church (a guy who tried to Reform the Catholic Church a hundred and fifty years before the Reformation), I wandered into the back streets and a small cathedral. As I sat there I heard an organ playing in a small chapel connected to the main cathedral. A third of the population of the Czech Republic is Atheist but the Catholic church I wandered into at 11am was alive, spirited, with a good mix of young and old. The organ was being played by a lively, 60-something man with one leg that was not at full capacity. The singing was being led by a joyous older woman with a strong voice and a commanding helpfulness. She found me a place in the Czech hymnal, not that having the words to Czech songs really helps me sing them… Such life and spirit in that chapel.

5. Visit Dresden with Dresden

Dresden

Dresden

SAM_0182While traveling with Dresden, we made both of our first trips to the town of Dresden. As an Elizabeth I’m use to my name being pretty common, especially amongst European cities. Most cities give me a street, maybe a square, Budapest even gave me a pretty ugly bridge. But seeing your name ever.y.where was a fun phenomenon to witness. Dresden, the city, is famous for the allies fire-bombing it during World War II. But the old city has made a comeback, the biggest cathedral is still getting its finishing touches. There’s also a cool artsy part of the city with a building whose gutters make music when it rains (first place I’ve traveled where I wish it would rain). There’s also a huge war history museum north of the main part of the city that fascinated both Dresden and I. It’s one of the few museums I’ve been in where it’s closed and I haven’t wanted to leave because I’m learning an intense amount. I got to re-ignite the IB love for Bismarck and learn about war and language. There was an interesting thread that ran through everything about World War II, this concept that WWI wasn’t lost militarily and that over-confidence by the Germans led to World War II. Strong dose of guilt.

6. Stop By the Bone Chapel in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
SAM_0273A chandelier that includes one of each bone in the human body. The bones of at least 40,000 people. Human bones making the Schwarzenberg coat of arms. The wood-carver’s signature in bones, the one who “organized” it all. It was also just above freezing in the chapel and Erzurum cold outside. Enough said.

7. Play Around at the Music House in Vienna

Schönbrunn Palace

Schönbrunn Palace

I went back to Vienna, I really love that city. Every street is so pretty. And the Schonbrunn Palace gardens are just as gorgeous covered in snow as when they’re covered in flowers. This was my first time to go to the Music House in Vienna though and it’s perhaps my favorite museum of all time. A four-floor, multimedia extravaganza that teaches you about everything from how you hear to letting you mix and distort 6 out of 100’s of sounds at a time. I also got to conduct a version of the Viennese Philharmonic that actually kicks you out if you’re bad. It also told the real stories of people I think of as stodgy composers, but perhaps that’s just cause I learned about them in Elementary school. They’ve also got a program that uses Mozart’s Name Game algorithm to instantly make a song out of your name. The whole place is pretty sweet.

Alright friends, that’s what I’ve got. For those of you hungar(y)-ing after posts that counts as 7 blogs, right?