Monday, April 22, 2013

Almería Rediscovered!

I have lived in Almería for nearly 8 months now and loved every minute, but for the past two weeks I have really been trying to get to know my city even better, and rediscover why I love it so much.

View of Almeria from the Alcazaba
Last weekend, I FINALLY went to the Alcazaba, the old Moorish castle/fortress in Almería.  Basically, it's our lesser version of the Alhambra (see previous entry).  I can't believe it took me so long to finally visit!  It is literally the main tourist attraction in Almería (and there aren't many).  It was worth the wait though. I think I couldn't have picked a better day to visit.  It was a cloudless day, about 75 degrees, and since it's spring, the castle gardens were in full bloom. Part of the castle is old ruins while other parts have been maintained to show it's original character.  Throughout the entire castle are informational signs explaining what everything is or was.  Above all, the best part of the castle is the amazing view of Almería that can be seen from every wall.  We spent about an hour there, and then went down to spend the rest of the day on the beach (yes it is beach season in April!).

Also, the Sunday of the same weekend that we visited the Alcazaba, a bunch of us also toured the "refugios", another historical sight in Almería.  The refugios is a system of tunnels about 4 kilometers long that served as a bomb shelter during Spain's civil war in the later 1930's.  The tour was really interesting and naturally eerie.  We learned that Almería had been a target during the Spanish civil war, and was frequently bombed.  So, the government decided to make a series of bomb shelters including the "refugios" in order to keep it's citizens safe. The watch tower would signal to set of the sirens when they saw enemy planes approaching.  The people had less than ten minutes to get to the nearest bomb shelter and take cover.  For some people that meant going into basements beneath government buildings, churches, etc, but for many people that meant taking one of the many entrances to get in the refugios.  The entrances included street access (the little metal doors can still be seen today), entering through a news kiosk (that had hidden passages underneath), or entering through an apartment building. We learned a lot about the war, but mostly that the refugios served as a safe haven for Almerians for nearly two years.  We walked through 1 kilometer of the cement tunnels during our hour-long tour, and the image of thousands of people filling the tunnels filled my mind.  It was extremely interesting but like I said, eerie.

View of Cabo de Gata
Lunch for only 10 people!
This past weekend I was invited once again by Maribel to go to her family's country house, but this time it was a beach house instead of a mountain village house.  The family took me first to a lookout of the natural park "Cabo de Gata".  The cabo de gata is the cape that makes up the bottom right corner of Spain.  The cape and miles around it are completely reserved, creating a sort of desert/tropical beauty.  Afterwards, we went to a remote beach in the village of the beach house.  The beach was gorgeous and only had a few families and surfers present.  It was a perfect sunny day, and not too hot, so we spent an hour or so there and let Daniel (4 years old) and Carli (nearly 2) play in the sand.  Around 2 we went to the house for lunch and I was reintroduced to the familiar faces of their relatives.  The lunch was just as big as the last one.  This meal included: bread, manchego cheese, Iberian chorizo, cured ham, salad, sausage, bacon, chicken fillets, pork fillets, rabbit, spicy blood sausage, Spanish tortilla, prawns and lots of french fries.  After lunch, we went for a walk through the small village of Rodalquilar, a once thriving village due to it's gold mine.  Unfortunately, I learned that more people working in the gold mine were stealing than working honestly, so it had to be shut down so now it is a small ghostly village just a stone's throw away from the beach.  After our afternoon walk, we came back for coffee and dessert: orange sponge cake, chocolate, and rum/sugar crepes.  All delicious.  About 7:30 the kids were getting tired so we drove the 40 minute trek back to Almería.  All-around great day.  Great views, great weather, great food and great company :)

It's experiences like these that remind me exactly why I am so happy here in Almería.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Family Visit

Okay, I have a lot to update on, so I am going to attempt to keep it as short as possible without leaving out any major details. Disclaimer, it's still going to be long...

My adventure began over two weeks ago, on Thursday, March 21st when I hoped on a morning bus from Almería to Madrid with my friend Amanda.  Our purpose of going to Madrid? The Mumford and Sons concert. We arrived in Madrid around 4:30 and as quickly as we could we got to our hostel, dropped off our things and hopped on a metro towards the concert.  We arrived around 6 (two hours before doors open), which we thought would be plenty of time to get a decent spot in line considering the Spanish laid back mentality, but boy were we wrong.  The line was incredibly long, probably five or six blocks, I lost track. Fortunately, later some friends I met up with managed to get us a closer spot in line and we got great spots for the concert!  The show was fantastic; the openers... not so much but Mumford made up for it! They're even better live.

The next two days in Madrid we did a little exploring.  Because it was my third time to Madrid, I had already seen most of the main tourists sights, so it was nice just to relax and see some new sights that aren't so touristy.  The one stop that I made sure that we made was a trip to the Mercado San Miguel which is a market full of little bites of delicious food: stuffed olives, chocolate, yogurt parfaits, paella, croquetas, etc. My favorite taste of the night was a tostada topped with fresh mozzarella (made right in front of you), pesto and a tomato.  The cheese tasted like cream, needless to say it was incredible.  One my last afternoon in Madrid we visited the Reina Sofia (modern art museum) and I got to meet up with a Bennie friend who was in Madrid visiting family! I love Madrid more and more everytime I go.
Gardens of Versailles 

I left for Paris on an early-evening plane.  By the time I got off the plane, took a train and a metro to the hostel in Paris it was pretty late.  I was so excited to be reunited with my sister (Meggie) and cousin (Sarah)!  Hadn't seen them in nearly 8 months!! They were exhausted too as they had arrived at 9am in the morning and hadn't slept much on the plane, nor at all that day. So the first night we just went to a quaint cafe near our hostel, got some delicious salads and split a bottle of wine and caught up.  The next morning we woke up early and had a full day ahead of us.  First stop, Versaille.  Once again, we thought we would be ahead of the game by arriving at 10am, but we were wrong.  We had to wait 30 minutes to get tickets and an additional hour just to get in the palace!  On top of that, it ended up being in the low 40s that day and we were not prepared, we were frozen.  All the waiting was worth it though.  The palace is truly amazing. We toured the inside and then spent some time in the gardens.  Realistically, you could spend an entire day at Versaille, the gardens are massive, but we were on a tight schedule so we continued on. Next stop, Notre Dame.  We were lucky enough to stumble upon a Palm Sunday mass lead by the Cardinal! Interesting fact, they gave us mistletoe instead of palms for mass. We later found out because there is a surplus of mistletoe in France, so thats why they give it out instead of palm leaves. After mass we went to a crepe stand and shared a fresh nutella-banana crêpe and mulled wine, the perfect afternoon snack to warm us up. Shortly after we got an exciting call from Sarah's brother, Paul, who was touring Paris with his high school. His tour guide offered us 3 VIP tickets to see the Eiffle Tower at night! Of course we accepted.  Visiting Paul and seeing the Eiffle Tower at night was pretty spectacular, but I hate to say that our experience was slightly spoiled by the bitter cold and unforgiving winds.  Waiting over an hour to get up and down the Eiffle Tower was not ideal at the time, but I'm glad we did it. Afterwards, we parted ways with Paul and found the closest restaurant to warm up in.  We ate "coq au vin" which is traditional French food: chicken cooked in wine served with noodles. After thawing out over dinner, we were beat and hit the hay early.

Day two in Paris we woke up early again and went straight to the Lourve. Although we knew the Lourve was giant and we could easily spend hours there, we decided to just see the main masterpieces and move on.  We saw many well-known masterpieces from ancient egypt, greece, italy, franch and more. But I have to say, the biggest disappointment of all was the Mona Lisa.  There was a crowd of nearly 100 people crowded around the picture. If you want to get a picture with it, you literally have to force your way to the front, you have about five seconds to take the picture and thats it. Meggie commented afterwards "I'm not sure I even looked at it."  That's okay though, all of the other spectacular art works made up for it.  After we were on a mission to find Angelina's, supposidly home to the best hot chocolate in the world!  We found it, paid the price (7.90 for a serving), and then indulged in divine liquified chocolate topped with fresh whipped cream. It was incredibly decidant, and despite the steep price, I would recommend everyone try it at least once if you're ever in Paris. Afterwards, none of us really were hungry for lunch, but we admitted we needed substance so we split a French-style hot dog, topped in melted cheese and sandwiched in a baugette. As we munched on the hot dog we headed up the notorious shopping street Avenue des Champs Elysées towards the Arc de Triomphe. We had planned on going to the top of the Arc, but the line was long so we decided to take the short walk over to the Eiffle Tower and take an afternoon nap instead.  It was just what we needed for some r&r. In the early evening we hopped a metro to Montmarte, a famous neighborhood in Paris mostly due to Moulin Rouge.  We saw the Sacre Coeur church (amazing), enjoyed a delightful happy hour of assorted cheeses, bread, chardonnay and escargot (even the snails were good!), and visited the notorious Moulin Rouge. We spent the rest of the night in the hostel, resting and packing up for our early train the next morning to Nice!

The following morning, we had a 5am wake up for our 6am train.  The wakeup was brutal, but we were able to sleep for quite a bit of the 5 hour train to Nice.  After my nap, I woke up for the last hour of the ride and it was incredible, the train followed along the Mediterranean coast. Amazing. We settled into our hostel, had a bit of lunch, and wandered around a bit. Later that evening we visited a candy factory and got to sample tons of different types of candy including candied madarins, flowers, flower-flavored marmelade and chocolate covered espresso beans (my favorite). We discovered a great place for Happy Hour near the main square and split a bottle of Rosé (famous to southern France). Later that night, we went to a restaurant recommended to us by a French girl working at our hostel, and she was dead on.  We indulged in gourmet french food for a price we could afford! I had roasted duck with potatoes and a celery purée, Meggie had truffle rissoto and Sarah had bacon scallops. All delectable. For the first time on our trip we got to see a bit of French nightlife that night.  We had a blast but unfortunately our night ended with Sarah's cellphone getting stolen right out of her hand.  Word of the wise: don't take your phone out at night while traveling, not even just to send a text or snap a photo.

The next morning we explored Nice a bit more: walked along the beach, climbed countless stairs to get to an incredible viewpoint of Nice, munched on baguette sandwiches for lunch, and did a bit of shopping for local goods which included fresh natural soaps, spices, bath salts, flavored sugars, lavender bags, and other French delacacies. For the first time on the trip, we decided to head back to the hostel during the day for a cat nap, we needed it.  That night we went out for all you can eat mussels!  We enjoyed a long dinner and then decided to go out for a beer. We happened across a deserted bar that was hosting an incredible cover-band trio!  We felt so spoiled to have the bar practically to ourselves with an incredible trio who played acoustic covers of tons of popular sons. The bartender even gave us a free drink since we were being a great crowd for the band.  A chill but great night.

The next day we visited Monaco, the richest country in the world!  It was a bit of a rainy day, so we tried to stay inside as much as possible but we tried to not let it hinder our day. We went to the famous Monte Carlo Casino, visited the Monaco palace, walked around port with too many yachts to count, and enjoyed an authentic italian pizza lunch.  We only spent about 6 hours there, but it was enough to see most of the small country. That night we stayed at our hostel for  Brazil party. A Brazilian staying at the hostel offered to make traditional Brazillian food for everyone, and the hostel sponsered it. We were in no position to turn down free food, so we spent the night there! We got to meet people for all around the world who were staying at the hostel.  At one point Meggie even realized that every continent except for Antarctica was represented in the room. We had a fun night but at 2am we had to catch a cab to our night bus.  The bus left at 3am, and we slept all night, and most of the morning.

We only woke up at about 11 or noon with only 3 hours left to go on our 11 hour ride.  Wasn't bad at all! We also got to see a beautiful view of the Pyrenees on the way. We arrived in Barcelona at 2 and I was finally reunited with my parents and other sister (Juju), after 8 months! They were exhausted, but we decided to seize the day as much as we could.  We started with a long lunch on the beach, and when it was it over it was nearly 5!  The only activity we were able to fit in that night was a trip to Montjuic, home to the old Olympic stadiums and a group of fountains that puts on an incredible show at night synced to lights and music. Juju loved it. Afterwards, my family was ready to go to bed, but Meggie, Sarah and I weren't, so we split up and let them go to the hotel and rest and we went out for tapas. We walked to the center, near the Ramblas and gothic part of town and found a cute tapas bar.  I tried to order the most authetic tapas I could think of so I ordered manchego cheese, iberian chorizo and patatas bravas served with a pitcher of sangria.  We also split a dessert of fresh cheese, honey and nuts. Delicious. After tapas we went back to the hotel and crashed.

View of Barcelona from Parque Guell
Day two in Barcelona we had an incredible buffet breakfast at the hostel, nothing like American breakfast: meat trays, cheese trays, any bread or pastry you can imagine, tomato spread, olive oil, mermalade, fruit, grilled vegetables, boiled and scrambled eggs, baked tomatoes, fresh orange and pinapple juice and of course, apple tort and cheesecake. Needless to say we all indulged. First stop of the day was Sagrada Familia, the famous cathedral of Gaudi. We continued on a tour of Gaudi's work and saw three of his famous houses on Passeig Gracia. Then, we moved on to the ramblas and went to the famous Boquería market for lunch. We had stuffed eggplant and falaffel topped with rice, and vegetables. We all loved it. For dessert we indulged in fresh fruit, fresh fruit juices, candied nuts and a bit of chocolate. The Boqueria remains my favorite place in Barcelona (markets/food tend to be a common theme in my favorite places in cities). After lunch we continued down the Ramblas, past the Christopher Colombus statue all the way to the port.  After a bit of relaxing and sun bathing on the boardwalk, we took the metro to Parque Guell.  I showed my parents the same incredible viewing point that I had discovered 4 years earlier when I was there. They loved it! You can literally see all of Barcelona from this point.  Then we spent another hour or two seeing all of Gaudi's work all over Parque Guell including the infamous mosaic lizard. That night we went out for Meggie's birthday dinner and enjoyed a luxurious seafood dinner along with other delightful treats.

Paella in Valencia
Easter Sunday in Barcelona, we woke up early to get to the Easter mass at the Cathedral of Barcelona by 9am. I warned my mom we wouldn't have to fight for seats like we have to in the US, and I was right. The enormous cathedral had maybe 50 attendants, and most were tourists.  Although the mass was given in Catalán and we didn't really understand it, we still were able to follow along and agreed it was a cool experience (fun fact, I have now been to mass in six languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Catalán). After mass, we went to the Picasso museum, one of my favorite I've ever visited. Its great to see Picasso's work evolve from realism to cubism to completely abstract. It makes me have a lot more respect for him as an artist because although I don't understand his late work, I can see the talent he possesses in his early work. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Gothic neighborhood which is full of rich history and beautiful arquitecture. We had delicious sandwiches and desserts at a cafe for lunch, and then it was time to part ways.  We said goodbye to Meggie and Sarah (they flew home the following morning), and the rest of us got on a train to Valencia.  We arrived in Valencia around 6. After settling into our hotel, we walked to the beach for an early dinner (early by Spanish standards, 8pm). We couldnt restist ordering anything but paella considering it's origin is Valencia. We ordered a fresh seafood paella and all loved it, even Juju! Afterwards we walked back to the hotel, snapped a few awesome shots of the science musuem at night and called it a night.

Science Museum in Valencia
The next day we enjoyed another delicious Spanish buffet breakfast and then walked into the center.  Although the center was about an hour-long walk from our hotel, it was enjoyable the whole way. we walked along the dried out river bed, which they've now convereted into a beautiful park.  Also we were able to see Valencia transform from extremely modern to old arquicetucure as we walked towards the center of town. We spent most of our afternoon in old town, checking out the old buildings, a couple of churches, sampling horchata (a rice/nut/milk drink) and churros and chocolate as well as shopping around a street market.  After another delicious deli lunch it was time for me to catch a bus back to Almeria as I had to work the following day.  I took the bus back, and my parents and Juju explored Valencia for another day and a half.

I was reunited with my family one night later in Almeria. They arrived at 8, so we didn't have time to do much, so I brought them to my favorite tapas bar with some of my friends.  They loved trying traditional Andalusian tapas and we had a great night.

Our for tapas in Almeria
The next morning I had to work but I sent my family to visit the Alcazaba (an old fortress in Almeria), the cathedral and mercado central.  After school and met them at the hotel and we went out for lunch at a local favorite.  I brought them to Entremares, a restaurant notorious for having the best seafood tapas in town. My dad was so excited when he ordered anchovies and sardines and received the biggest ones of his life!  The sardine was practically as big as a fish fillet!  I ordered octopus and made them try it (its the best octopus ever), but my mom was mostly happy to have a fresh tuna salad and cod while Juliana was completley content with her Lemon Fanta and hamburger. After lunch, we planned to go to the beach but it was raining a bit, so we changed plans and did a bit of shopping on the paseo instead (my dad was such a trooper while us women shopped! thanks dad!). Then, I brought them by my aparment to show them my place and introduce them to my roommates. They only met for a short while as we planned to have tapas with them later.  Then it was time to go to one of my private lesson family's house.  They treated us to mango sorbet smoothies and orange biscoscho (sponge cake). The parents chatted while Juliana and I played with the little kids, Dani and Carli ages 4 and 1. Then, we made a quick stop to the shopping mall and later met my roommates for tapas. Despite the language barrier (not with my Mom though, she's great at Spanish! and my dad could follow the convo too), we managed to have great conversation between the varying levels of English and Spanish. After that I walked my parents back to the hotel.

We caught a 9am train to Granada the next day. When we got to Granada we went to the center for souvenir shopping and lunch. We had a Morroccan influenced lunch and then continued on to visit the incredible Cathedral of Granada! My mom even said she liked it more the the Vatican. After an hour at the cathedral we did a bit more wondering around the old part of the center and then went back to the hotel.  After a quick break, we went out to our Flamenco and Dinner show!  My family had never seen Flamenco before, but they really enjoyed it!  Especially Juliana who had done a flamenco style dance the year prior at her dance studio.  The dinner served with the show was esquisite! We all loved our food.  After the show we went to the Mirador San Nicolas, a famous viewing point of the Albayzin (the neighborhood we were in).  This viewing point is on top of a hill and you can see all of Granada lit up at night, the Alhambra and the rest of the city!  A great way to end the night.

Mom, Dad and I at the Alhambra
The next morning we woke up very early!  My dad and I took turns waiting for tickets to get into the Alhambra as they are very popular and go fast.  We were in line by 7am and the ticket office opened at 8.  We managed to get tickets for a 10am tour.  We spent over 3 hours at the Alhambra although we could have spent more!  The Alhambra is an old palace/fortress built around the time of Arab rule in Spain.  Do the math, parts of it are over 1,000 years old.  It's the number one visited monument in Spain and it's clear why. From it's impressive Moorish arquitecture to the lush gardens to the incredible views of Granada, an entire day could easily be spent there.  Then we went down to down to get a little ice cream at Los Italianos which supposidly is the best ice cream in Granada. Even Barack Obama went there a few years back when he visited Spain! After that we had a delicious lunch at the hotel and then it was time to say goodbye.  We took separate taxis, my family to the airport to catch a flight back to Madrid and me to the bus station to return to Almeria. I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye but my parents reminded me that I only have a little over two months before I see them again!  I can't believe how time flies.  It was great to have most of my family here to visit me (sorry Chris! miss you).  I don't think we could have had a better week, and I can't wait to see them again soon.