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Friday, April 30, 2010

Holy Week, Cordoba

Arlene and her Spanish counterpart, Paqi, booked us rooms in the Hotel Boston, where the Hassler family stayed several years ago. This time Tom and Arlene would have the front room, overlooking the central plaza, where the parade routes converge and the city hot-shots sit to watch. The square was almost constantly full people, tourists and locals, drinking cappuccinos and people-watching; at night a few more thousand folks flooded in, perhaps because the rest of the parade route was already overflowing with families.

Morning cappuccinos in the square

An astonishing number of mothers with prams were present, which caught my attention because of the absurdity of bringing such a large and cumbersome device to an event this crowded (seriously? Would you walk around a football stadium with a hoola hoop around your waist? Freaking annoying). Also, I thought new parents switched to the baby backpack thing, which frees your hands and eliminates sidewalk hassles? I guess not. Prams: they’re back, make note of it.

Who wants to drag a stroller through this crowd??

Only room for Jesus on these streets

On the topic of Holy Week processions, I was kind of indifferent to seeing it. I thought, well ok it’s so famous it might be fun to see, but then they wear these KKK costumes and I absolutely abhor Catholicism, so…. However I kept myself happily entertained the entire time, taking photos and practicing with my new lens. [Yeah new lens! Sigma 70-200 Macro Zoom!!] It seems like local people are dedicated to keeping this tradition, but that in general there are fewer devotees rushing to the floats and prostrating/kissing the icons like they did even a few years ago. Also, most of the balconies were empty, a shame because they really have the best views.

Imagining the Inquisition....

Float bearers sizing each other up

Cordoba has several famous buildings, including the Alcazar and the Mezquita/Cathedral, both grandiose Moorish structures. Outside the Alcazar is a simple park packed full of palm trees, giving the allusion of an oasis, where one of the parade route starts and horse-drawn carriages await tourist to fork out 40 euro for a city loop.

Children collect balls of wax outside the Alcazar

Behind the Alcazar there are immaculately landscaped gardens, fountains and pools, where men snap pictures of their wives and children and families rest under the shade of nearby trees. By this point in the trip I had fallen in love with Moroccan/Spanish elegance—the tiles, flower-filled courtyards, paradisiacal gardens…

View of gardens from the Alcazar tower

That's me in the gardens!

I think I can appreciate Mexican architecture a bit more (certainly their food! Where’s the spice??), but I’d like to see more of the cultural chain upwind, to learn about what influenced Morocco (must trace back to the Umayyad Caliphate at least). Maybe we’ll swing through Damascus on our soon-to-depart bike voyage…?

Typical Spanish courtyard, I hope to someday return for the Cordoba Patios Festival when the courtyards become a public artwalk...!

By far the funniest picture of Team Hassler (inside the Alcazar)

About to tuck in to some delicious Andalusian soups, gazpacho (cold tomato) and ajoblanco (white almond), but enjoying mugs of sangria for now...

The enormous and uniquely designed Mezquita/Cathedral remains in the heart of the city, surrounded by a maze of narrow alleyways, restaurants and trinket-filled shops. Inside the Mezquita (The Great Mosque) is full of dizzying rows of red and white stripped arches, an entirely unique décor from the Islamic world.

Time-worn arches...

Juxtaposing Islamic and Christian decor

After the Umayyads fell from power in and around Cordoba (circa 11 century), the mosque was converted to a cathedral, so that both faiths can be seen to juxtapose against one another at every turn. Oddly enough, we arrived late in the afternoon and were barred entrance because of a “leetel problem” (as told by one of several police officers arriving suddenly); the next day we learned that a large group of Muslims organized a massive prayer group inside the mosque, but I don’t think they got to see it through.

The Mezquita/Cathedral is enormous... and apparently heavily guarded

One of the inspirations to visit Spain was to meet up with Arlene’s good friends, Enrique and Paqi, and their daughter, Maria. They have been friends for many years, but it’s been years since the Hasslers have gone to visit (maybe even since the last time they took the boys to celebrate Holy Week). They welcomed us to their home and served us delicious homemade Spanish foods like tortillas (actually a potato omelet) and sangria (sold in bottles, like Coke and Fanta!).

I'm amazed Americans can fit through Spanish doorways

Easter picnic with Enrique, Paqi, Maria, and Raul

We met them for several meals, including a picnic, dinner near the Alcazar, a seafood lunch, and for a trip to the archeological park outside of Cordoba, palace of the once-thriving Umayyad Caliphate. The remains are only ruins, but the museum is full of interactive digital TVs that illustrate maps of the history of the Islamic Empire in Spain, how the palace was built, and recreations of what it looked like centuries ago.

Once the setting for the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba, Medina Azahara

Tom and Chris among the moorish ruins of Medina Azahara, outside Corboda

Each night leading up to Easter Cordoba’s streets flood with people; families, tourists, float-bearers, band members, costumed marchers from the parish, etc. Maria’s boyfriend, Raul, told us that each neighborhood’s church is assigned a time slot where they can parade their float through the crowd, all ending up at the central square. Chris and I spent the evenings wandering, photographing and sketching, and sometimes indulging in mint chocolate ice cream cones while drinking in the scenes.

Night time view from Tom and Arlene's room

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Viaje a España!

After 6 hours of sporadic bits of sleep, our bus rolled in to Sheshi Skanderbej at 4 in the morning, before the sun and people crept out of their slumber. Chris and I sat with our backpacks and boxes in a nearby café, nursing overpriced tea, to keep warm and try to pass the time before our 11 am departure flight. As I stood later in the Rines Airport I realized that the first and last time I had been inside there was when we landed in Albania, almost exactly 2 years to the day before. How much my view has changed! Albania is my home now, so comfortable and well-known to me; it strikes an emotion I could never have imagined as an incoming volunteer…

Our tiny jet plane touched down for a few hours layover in Munich which, awesomely, is well stocked with free tea and coffee kiosks alongside English newspapers. Thank you Lufthansa! To pass the time Chris indulged in a hearty German beer, braut, and salty pretzel— a mere sampling of staples from a country we could only see through the window.

Next time you're in Munich... look for these!

Take my picture so I can drink already!

Next stop—Madrid! Arlene and Tom were waiting, camera in tow, to meet us in the arrivals terminal late that night. Tom and Chris methodically stuffed our boxes into the rental car and took off for a 2 hour drive to Segovia, arriving at the dead of night, and checked into a hotel overlooking the ancient and enormous Roman aqueduct.

Midnight arrival= distinct atmosphere

We had swerved off the highway for a minor detour in La Mancha (memorialized in Don Quixote), where a row of now-motionless windmills hover silently on a hill, jutting out of a wide valley plane. There’s a castle nearby, but it paled in comparison to the giant white structures and the harvest moon rising above the horizon…

Don Quixote windmills of La Mancha

Windsurfing, literally

Moonrise over La Mancha

In the hotel, Tom and Arlene managed to score the honeymoon suite, and generously shared their complementary fruit platter (skewered in refined wooden sticks, packed on styrofoam, and wrapped in cellophane… ack! excuse the cynicism, I will try to refrain… ) as we excitedly chattered about our flights and caught up on the last few months of each other’s lives.

View from Arlene and Tom's hotelroom

Segovia's Roman Aqueduct, over 2000 years later and it still works!

In the morning we drew back our curtains for a front row view of the aqueduct over the plaza, already teeming with people. We spent the day exploring the town, mostly wandering the Old Quarter roads that lead up to the castle. Supposedly, Segovia’s castle is the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella castle. It looks so much like the cartoon version that it’s almost comical to me; I subconsciously expected fairy dust to start sprinkling from the sky any moment…

Segovia's Disney castle

Looking back at Segovia from the castle towers

Thank goodness Arlene speaks Spanish. Tom, Chris, and I were handicapped as a bunch of foreign shmucks almost completely at the mercy of the intermittent server with whom we could relay our questions or desires. Arlene patiently translated every menu and conversation for us. After the castle excursion, we stopped for lunch at a popular restaurant offering special cuisine from the once-thriving Jewish community. Our first official Spanish meal practically punched us in the face with the truth of tapas portions and gourmet ingredients. Also that when you order suckling piglet (cochinillo asado), as Chris did, you will actually be served a baby pig chopped in half and roasted. I got lucky with the stuffed eggplant. :)

Team Hassler in front of the Aqueduct

That evening we moved to Jaen, a somewhat off-the-radar city in a good location between Granada and Cordoba. Next morning we drove to Granada, a bustling tourist destination and home of Al-Hambra, the famous palace of the Moorish royalty. The palace grounds are full of elaborately decorated buildings and gardens to wander, amazingly carved and tiled walls, fountains and pools.

Patio de los Arrayanes inside Al-Hambra

El Partal

After a full day of exploring, digitally capturing everything I possibly could, and occasionally basking in the sunshine, we piled into the car and headed back to Jaen for a midnight dinner at a bustling seafood restaurant, well known for their giant steamed shrimp (or were they miniature lobsters?). We would see a lot of seafood in Spain.

Al-Hambra's decor, teeming with intricate carvings and colorful tilework

Gardens inside the Palacio de Generalife, summer palace of the Emirate of Granada

After a morning stop at Jaen’s castle and drinks in the elaborately restored parador café, our troupe crossed Spain’s southern half to Cordoba, through an endless expanse of olive groves-- did you know more than 10% of the world’s olive oil is produced in Spain?? It’s a pretty remarkable landscape, however impossible to really capture from a moving car window. :)

Morning fuel at the parador

Inside Jaen's parador (state hotel)

Out on a ledge, peeking at Jaen and endless olive groves...