Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Churros and chocolate: a vacation from vacation in Espagne

After running around Italy at hyper speed and spending way too much money on tourist attractions and gelato, we decided to take it easy in Spain, and treat it like a real vacation. Staying in Sevilla made this task a piece of cake.

Bre and I took a luxurious Ryanair flight from Rome to Sevilla Sunday afternoon. We had heard of the horrors of Ryanair and their strict rules about carry on baggage, but by wearing excessive layers of clothing and sitting on our backpacks for half an hour, we successfully made it through the baggage check without having to pay an extra fee. (In reality, our friends had exaggerated a little. Ryanair's carry on baggage size restriction isn't any smaller than the other airlines. They just don't allow for much creative interpretation of their rules and charge hefty fees for disobeying.)

When we touched down in Sevilla, in the south of Spain, we were greeted by sunshine, a warm breeze, and the sweet scent of oranges. I've never smelled a city so delicious. Sevilla is full of parks, orange trees, and everything green, a welcome sight after the cement landscape of Rome and treeless Venice. Walking to our hostel, we saw the street train rolling at a slow pace through the center of downtown, and I loved the sound of its bell. For some reason it reminded me of a port city with a foghorn muffled by morning fog.

Although Sevilla isn't on the sea, it's on a beautiful river which used to be a main trading port. The river scene rivaled the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with a lot less tourists. Less tourists was a common theme in Sevilla, and I felt like I could finally breathe again. During our time there we decided not to spend more money on museums, and found the free attractions, such as la Plaza de Espana, where the planet Naboo from Star Wars Episode One was filmed. Also, although Sevilla's cathedral charges an entry fee, we mistakenly walked inside before it opened and got a quick peek for free. Impressive, even with the lights off. Bre's friend from Wisconsin, and my friend Gayle from Michigan are both studying in Sevilla this semester, so they took turns showing us the sights of the city and explaining the Spanish lifestyle.

From what I can tell, the Spanish lifestyle is pretty laid back, maybe more so than the French. They have a nice long break in the middle of the day, and don't eat until 9 or 10 at night. When making food at our hostel, we attempted to be "Spanish" and eat later, but could only hold out until 8 PM. But at least we tried, right? We allowed ourselves one dinner out, too, and went to a tasty tapas place with Bre's friend. It was delicious, and super cheap. We tried four different tapas and two glasses of "tinto de verano" (Sevilla's take on sangria) all for under 6 euro. Throughout our stay, we remarked repeatedly that it was uber cheap compared to Aix and Italy. I would go back just to eat cheap, delicious tapas.

We also went to a bar with flamenco, which was very touristy, but interesting as well. Sadly, I was exhausted and could hardly stay awake during the performance, but I enjoyed what I saw when my eyes were open. I loved the Spanish culture and how bright and colorful it was. I'm determined to learn Spanish now, so I can visit places like Sevilla and not feel like an idiot.

Sevilla was one of my favorite cities, and like Venice, I was reluctant to leave it. But we had to go on to our last stop: Barcelona. Many people have told me that Barcelona is their favorite city in Europe, and it's very hip and "the place to be," so I had pretty high expectations for it. However, I had low expectations for its pickpockets, and after hearing numerous horror stories, was prepared for the worst, and never let go of my purse in the city. (Luckily, neither of us lost anything.)

As a city, I'll admit that Barcelona is pretty cool. The crazy, colorful Gaudi architecture can be found everywhere, and I especially liked his designs in Park Guell. We also saw the Sagrada Familia, the architect's unfinished cathedral, and it was different from any cathedral I've seen so far. We didn't go inside though, figuring it would be better to pay the 10 euro fee when it's actually finished. (But since it's been in construction for 130 years, it probably won't be finished in my lifetime.) Gaudi's designs would randomly pop up as we walked down the street, and we'd have to stop and take a second look at the curvy architecture. It reminded me of something from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, almost edible.

In addition to the more modern art, Barcelona has a beautiful Gothic quarter, with an old cathedral. This, we also chose not to pay to enter, and admired it from the outside. The Barri Gothic reminded me a little of Aix, and made me a wee bit homesick, I'll admit. Because as much as I liked the marvels of Barcelona, it is still a huge city, and I was pretty tired of all things urban at that point.

While the combination of old and new in Barcelona is cool, my favorite part was the beach. Two of my friends from Michigan who are studying in Madrid met us in Barcelona for Friday and Saturday, so we all trekked to the beach Saturday afternoon after grabbing some delicious fruit and sandwiches from the market. When we arrived, the weather was sunny and warm, a little nippy for sunbathing, but we stripped down to our bathing suits in defiance anyway. There were lots of other people doing the same thing, and we had the delightful opportunity to see a completely nude man on a bicycle ride by not once, but twice! But apart from the biker and an old woman liberating herself by going topless, the beach was pretty clothed in general. Despite the hawkers who walked by us literally every thirty seconds trying to sell everything from massages, tattoos, "sexy donuts" and "sexy beer," we enjoyed the sun and sea for an hour before it turned cloudy and cold. The weather in general wasn't great in Barcelona, but we made the best of it. Seeing the water put me at ease and reminded me of home, and I can't wait to go swimming when I get back to Michigan.

Saturday night we went out to a restaurant, which I like to call the Spanish equivalent of Big Boy. I'm not a fan of Big Boy, but I am a fan of this restaurant, because we got to try delicious paella for a cheap price. Bre and I split the Spanish dish of rice and seafood, and I had some difficulty making myself eat the crustaceans. I've never had to pull the legs and head off of my food before I ate it, and if I hadn't been helped along by a glass of sangria and a tourists resolve to try everything, I may not have been able to eat it. I made some comical faces in the process, but it was tasty enough to make me forget my initial disgust.

Craving a milkshake after dinner (since I have an uncontrollable sweet tooth) we stopped into Burger King, since they're everywhere in Barcelona. Normally I would have sampled something more traditional for dessert, but at 1 in the morning, the usual places weren't open. So we sat in BK slurping our "BK Fusion" (no milkshakes there) and watching people come into the restaurant until around 3 AM. I hear Barcelona is known for its night life, but as usual we were too tired to actually sample it, and I was quite content to catch up on the year's events with my Michigan friends and enjoy the night sights of Barcelona sans clubbing.

Sunday morning Bre and I rose at 7 AM to catch our train, arrived at the train station to learn that there was no train to France (thank you, French strikes), and were herded to a bus instead. Luckily, the bus ride was only a few hours, and we got to our connection in Montpellier at the same time as the train would have. And then we discovered that our train from Montpellier to Marseille no longer existed. So we walked around the beautiful French town for a few hours and napped in a garden before finally catching a train back to Marseille in the evening. Apparently it was the only train back to Marseille, because it was packed with irritated, exhausted travelers, and we had to sit on the floor for part of our journey. The French train strikes coupled with the Icelandic volcano have virtually stopped European travel, especially in France. I consider myself lucky because I have friends who are stuck in the States, stuck in Brussels, stuck in Morocco, and stuck all over Europe. I've never been happier to be back in Aix, studying for finals and suntanning in the park, able once again to eavesdrop on the conversations of people around me. (In a non creepy way, of course.)

If the air clears and travel improves, my mom will be visiting Aix next week, so hopefully I'll be able to show her around the beautiful place I finally call home.

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