26 March 2009

Moving through Madrid

Arriving in the Spanish capital on Sunday, I came just in time to experience the city's rituals for that day of the week. The first was El Rastro, a sprawling second-hand market that covers street after street near the center city. Vendors sold everything from gas masks to potted plants. Next up was a stroll through El Ritiro, one of Madrid's most famous park. The wide expanse of greenery and flowing water provided shade and fun for thousands of Madrileños. The last special activity of the day was a bull fight.

The fight took place in the main arena for such sporting events, the Plaza de Torros. I learned a lot about this famous Spanish tradition. There were six fights in all, and each fight is supposed to have three stages.

In the first stage the matador and his assistants wave their capes at the bull, as the images of a bull fight likely are in your head, and at the same time two men on horse back stand-by. When the bull charges one the horses the rider spears it in the neck with a long lance. Waving the capes tests the bull's courage and aggression, using the lances starts to weaken the animal.

For the second stage, the matador and the other men on foot hold smaller spear-like weapons. When the bull charges them the intent is to again thrust the spears into the bulls neck, though this time the spears remain lodged in the bull, flailing as he runs. By this point, the bull's blood is steadily dripping to the arena's brown sand.

In the final stage the matador alone waves his cape at the bull for some last dramatic charges. Then, once the bull appears tired out, the matador withdraws a sword and waits for one last charge. When the bull comes, the matador attempts to stab the bull again at the neck and push the sword into the animal's body as much as possible, hopefully cutting through the spin to bring a quick death. For most of the six fights that I saw, though, the bulls ended up convulsing on the ground; the matador or one of his assistants was forced to either use a short dagger to finish the animal or jostle the sword in the bull's neck until the blade met the spin. Two of the bulls did not show enough aggression and left the arena before the reaching the third stage. At times I did feel sorry for the bull. In the end, though it is more of a bull killing than a bull fight, this tradition at the heart of Spanish culture provided a fascinating experience.

On Monday I visited one of Madrid's famous art museums, and on Tuesday I took a day trip to the nearby town of Toledo for a look at Medieval Spain.

Yesterday was the highlight of the past few days however, as I actually returned to Cordoba for the day in order to visit a friend. I met up with Olga, the Spanish girl who I got to know duirng my study abroad year in Eichstaett. Nearly two years had passed since we had last seen each other. We failed to meet during my first time in Cordoba, and a little over a week ago I thought that I would likely never again be in that city, but luckily we were finally able to make a plan. We spent the day walking around her home town and relaxing under the bright sun.

Tonight I leave Madrid and Spain behind for France. I will head to a town southeast of Paris called Fontainebleau. There I will stay with another friend from Eichstaett for a number of days until at last returning to Germany.

20 March 2009

At the End of Europe

It's been a while since the last post and here's a quick update.

After leaving Barcelona I headed to Cordoba, where I stayed for three nights. In this southern Spanish city I visited the famous Mezquita, one of the world's best examples of Islamic architecture. Built by the Muslim Moorish rulers of Medieval Spain, this exquisite mosque was later consecrated as a cathedral after Christians regained control of the country. A forest of columns and double arches grows in the building's expansive interior; in every direction lines of perspective lead one's eyes to invisible vanishing points in the Mezquita's darkened quarters. I unintentionally but thankfully stumbled into the former mosque early in the morning, before visitors were charged for entrance. After an hour or so of being mesmerized, I left when the large tourist groups started arriving.

While staying in Cordoba I also made a day trip to nearby Granada, where I saw the equally famous Alahambra. This was a former palace used by the Moors. Like the Mezquita, it too is one of the world's finest examples of Islamic design and architecture. To be honest though, I was more impressed with the Mezquita. The Alahambra's cooling gardens were my favorite part of visiting the large palace grounds.

After Cordoba I left for Seville. I only spent one day in this typical Andalusian city as I waited for my bus to depart in the evening. My favorite sight in the city was the Archives of the Indias, which provided several maps and documents on Spain's activities and influence in the New World. Original maps on display showed explorers' routes and the designs for Spanish colonies like Pensacola and St. Augustine, Florida.

I then took an overnight bus to Lisbon, Portugal (Incidentally, overnight buses should only be a last resort). I have been in the Portuguese capital since Wednesday morning, when I arrived at 5:30 and began an early morning search for a place to stay. The city is surprisingly beautiful, perhaps beguiling is a better and more specific description. The old town is set on steep hills and is crossed by narrow cobble stone streets, over which roll antique yellow trolleys. Very often a downhill street gives way to pretty views of the city or the wide Tagus River. A short jaunt to the west lies the Atlantic Ocean; therefore, the river resembles more of a bay at this portion of its journey to the sea.

Today I took a trip to the small and scenic town of Sintra, which is a half-hour train ride northwest of Lisbon. The town was once the holiday and get-a-way spot for the Portuguese royalty and the wealthy families of Lisbon. The royal palaces set in the lush and colorful hills have been opened to the public for visitation.

Tomorrow I will take an overnight train to Madrid, which will be the second to last stop on my trip before returning to Eichstaett. I will arrive on Sunday morning and hopefully be able to buy tickets to that evening's bull fight. That's one opportunity that I couldn't pass up to experience.

13 March 2009


I arrived in this Spanish city on Wednesday around noon. I´ve been in luck with my hostels because they continue to offer free Internet access. Of course, I think you can understand if I would prefer to keep my time in front of the screen short in order to get outside and go exploring.

On my first day I walked around the center city area and along the beach. The city´s most famous street is the Las Ramblas, a curious collection of stands selling everything from chickens to cheap souvenirs set up on a wide median in the street. Throngs of people could be found on the street: locals walking to their destination, visitors gawking at the sights, merchants selling their goods, and others seeking money either through street-art or (likely fixed) games of chance.

Along the Las Ramblas is the St. Joseph´s Market, in which vendors sell a wide array of produce, meats, seafood, and other foods. Some of the more exotic items behind the glass counters were cow stomachs, pig legs from the knee down, sheep heads skinned but with eyes eerily still peering at customers, and various brains and hearts. Of course, other less "strange" food was available. There were several colorful fruit stands offering fresh juice, candy vendors with vast displays of chocolates and confections, and small stands that prepared delicious looking seafood dishes, some with crustaceans and mollusks that one couldn´t find on the menu of an American restaurant.

A stroll along the beach and harbor after the market provided fresh air and a calmer atmosphere.

Yesterday was spent admiring the architecture of Barcelona´s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí. Throughout his career he was inspired by the organic forms he saw and admired in nature. He attempted to recreate these elements into his projects, for example, spirals like those on seashells. Undoubtedly his most famous work, and the internationally recognizable icon of Barcelona, was the Sagrada Familia. Construction on this Catholic church began in 1882 and continues to this day. Not mere cosmetic work remains though, the structure is only about 50% complete and Mass cannot even be held inside yet. Visitors to the construction site, perhaps one of the world´s most famous, can enter the church, but are separated from the areas where construction crews stay busy. If I remember correctly, eight of the towers are complete, but ten remain unfinished or not started. The church´s construction is paid for through private donations and, now, tourist entrance fees. Gaudí saw only an even smaller percentage of the chruch finished; he died an untimely death when struck by a streetcar in 1926. By the way, during the whole visit not a sign, pamphlet, or anyother source in the accompanying museum dared to project when construction on the Sagrada Familia would conclude.

Next I headed to a public park in Barcelona which Gaudí designed and intended to be a neighborhood. The neighborhood concept failed, but the architect´s unusually shaped structures remain. Visitors walk though, around, over, and under colorfully built forms that twist and turn in all directions. Unfortunately, much of the park was closed for renovations.

For the rest of today I will take my time to wander around more of the city. Tonight I will board an overnight train to Cordoba. I will remain there for a few days and take day trips to the nearby cities of Granada and Seville.

10 March 2009

The Riviera

This will have to be short.

I enjoyed the weekend in the Italian region and natural park known as the Cinque Terre. I spent the nights in a village called Riomaggiore, which was snug against the waters of the Mediterranean on steep cliffs and slopes. So steep in fact that more often than not the buildings were literally stacked on top of one another. Cars could only reach the edge of the village because past that point the streets turned into alleys and steps impossible of carrying four-wheeled vehicles.

On Saturday I took an invigorating ten-mile hike from Riomaggiore, the southern-most village of the Cinque Terre, to the northern-most village of Monterosso. Along the way the trails carried up into the seaside hills of terraced vineyards and olive groves and revealed a breath-taking landscape. At times the dirt trail was no more than a foot wide, with a sharp decent into grape vines, brush, and, eventually, the sparkling waters to my left, all of it tempting enough to plunge off into the exquiste beauty. In the villages large numbers of tourists spoiled the ambiance somewhat, but few of those day-trippers wandered off to the trails and nature. Without a doubt, the Cinque Terre was one of the most attractive areas of natural splendor that I have ever seen. Expect photographs at the end of my travels.

Sunday I left Italy for the French coast, and, yes, it's been nice in Nice. Yesterday I explored the ridiculously wealthy atmosphere of Monaco, another of Europe's curious micro-states. It's public parks were the best manicured that I had ever walked through, but with so many posted rules for behavior in them they became less of recreational places and more of three-demensional oil paintings merely for viewing. I did manage to enter the Grand Casino of Monte Carlo, but after a brief walk through its marble halls I left, feeling a tad out of place in my jeans and chewing gum in my mouth. I could have played some of the gambling machines tucked into a corner and meant for visitors like me, but perhaps one day I will return in a suit and tie to stand at the real tables and test my luck in Monte Carlo the appropriate way.

To avoid confusion, Monte Carlo is a neighborhood of the independent Principality of Monaco, which could fit into New York City's Central Park.

After a walk-around in the world famous Oceangraphic Museum and Aquarium I eventually returned to Nice in the evening.

Today I will explore more of Nice, and tonight I will board a train that, through a couple transfers, will take me to Barcelona and Spain. I'll finally be able to put some of the Spanish that I learned about two years ago in Eichstaett to practical use, or at least what I remember of it.

06 March 2009

Ciao Milano

As the title of the post suggests, I'm currently in Milan.  The past few days have offered a quick dip into Italian lifestyle and culture.

I arrived in the city on Monday afternoon.  Valeria, the friend who I met during my first semester in Eichstaett, was waiting for me at the train station.  That night we walked a little around the city and for dinner took advantage of the Italian aperitivo.  The concept is simple; order one drink and have your fill on several foods set out on the bar.  Spring fashion week also ended earlier this week, and a few events seemed to still be going on through the night.

On Tuesday we went to Milan's confectionary cathedral and took steps to the roof in order to walk among the dozens of spires and marble statues overlooking the city center.  Afterwards we walked down the city's glitzy shopping streets, where most people would only be able to afford views into the store windows.  We also passed the Armani building, which, in additon to offices, also contains restuarants, bars, and other non-clothing retail all under the Armani brand.

Yesterday I spent most of the rainy day inside museums around Milan.  Undoubtedly, though, the high point was viewing De Vinci's "The Last Supper" painting.  The artwork is under such protection that one needs a reservation simply for the visit to the church where it is found.  While I had been warned that finally seeing the painting in real life could be disappointing, it was not so for me.  I could appreciate this Renaissance masterpiece far better in real life than ever before from a text book or television view.

I traveled to the nearby city of Turin for today.  Having hosted the Winter Olympics only three years ago, this beautiful Baroque city sparkled with renovated palaces and courts, and relatively new improvements to its public infrastructure.  The main reason for my visit was to the learn more about the Shroud of Turin, the cloth which many believe to have been used as the burial wrappings for Jesus Christ and miraculously bears his image.  The actual Shroud is only revealed to the public for rare speical occasions, with the next presentation due next year.  However, the museum for the Shroud offers detailed information about it and accurate copies.  In Turin's cathedral one can see the room and container in which the Shroud is kept.

Tomorrow I will leave Milan for the Cinque Terre.  With hopes of better weather, I will take in a slower paced example of Italian life.