Thursday, April 30, 2009

Down South

Seville, the pulsating capital of Andalusia, earned Spain its international reputation as a sunny land of daring bullfights and passionate flamenco. This is colonial Spain at its rawest and most extreme – I’d say Seville is to Spain what Naples is to Italy. A colorful city throbbing with theatrical energy, it spawned the operatic likes of Carmen, Don Juan, and Figaro.

The city boasts more pleasant park grounds and Old-World bars than seems feasible. In the historic Santa Cruz quarter, the lovely patios of the mansions teem with all types of ceramics and flora. Terrace-bars serving piles of tapas (think succulent jamón ibérico with green olives and dry sherry) spill out into the plazas.

I napped in the sprawling Maria Luisa Park, gawked at the grandiose Plaza de España, admired the angelic Murillos in the Museum of Fine Arts, and strolled by the Gualdaquivir river. Across the bridge I explored the earthier Triana neighborhood. Known for ceramics and flamenco, it emits a bit of a gypsy vibe. Like the wrong-side-of-the-river neighborhoods I visited in Italy, such as Trastevere in Rome and El Arno in Florence, the gritty charm of Triana won me over.

Sun-drenched Sevilla is the most Spanish city in Spain -- the ruffled flamenco dresses, the orange trees, the suppressive heat, the melodramatic conversation, and the over-the-top Gothic cathedral complete with an original Moorish tower. (Although honestly I preferred the lush gardens and Moroccan architecture of the Alcazar, the court complex of the former Spanish-Moorish Empire, to the gloomy interior of the gargantuan cathedral.)

After my visit I have a new understanding of why Catalans want independence from Spain – coming from the northeastern coast I really felt I’d crossed the border into a different country. The almost incomprehensible Andalusian accent and the dramatically sociable manners caught me off guard. Even the style of self-grooming and the clothing choices were distinct. The women made more of an effort with make-up, panty hose, and cleavage, and the men wore longer, gelled hair and had an almost pompous air about them.

I think it was a nice transition from Barcelona, where the majority of residents seemed to be slim, chic, and understated in appearance (at least in my uptown neighborhood) and brusque and reserved in behavior. Seeing some meatier and curvier bodies, noting more fashion faux pas, and mixing with a more welcoming and flamboyant social scene in southern Spain would help ease my culture shock when I returned to the southeastern United States the next week.

In light of the northern and southern Spanish cultural differences I suppose one could make a comparison with the north and south of the United States, or even with the Naples versus Milan contrast in Italy. Why are southern people friendlier? Why do the women wear more cosmetics? Why don’t we enunciate our words better? Why don't our economic and educational scores meet the national mark?
I can’t help what wonder what it is that differentiates these northern and southern cultures so similarly -- and so deeply.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

An Andalusian Paradise

Some argue that Granada is Spain’s one must-visit city.
On one of its surrounding hilltops sits a remarkably preserved medieval Arabic quarter, El Albaicín, its white buildings draped in amethyst-colored wisteria that leave the mountain air heavy with their scent. Gitano (gypsy) men from the adjacent Sacramonte cave quarter speed through the narrow alleyways on motorcycles while simultaneously waling flamenco ballads. (Some of the gypsy population still does live in the caves -- the few grottoes that haven’t been converted into flamenco dinner-theatres and flashy watering holes.)

In the city’s sun-drenched squares masses of dread-locked hippies congregate to sell their hemp handicrafts. Crowds enjoy tapas and sangria out on terraces in the city’s lively, flower-filled plazas lined with lush with green orange trees. A walk down into the colorful Little Morocco district leads to on-trend Middle-Eastern style tea rooms and hookah bars beside small North African shops overflowing with dangling earrings and leather satchels.

But the soul of Granada is deeper than its atmospheric charm and sunshine. Atop the hilltop across from El Albaicín lies essence of the city, La Alhambra palace-fortress. Built under Moorish rule, it could possibly be hailed sensuous building in all of Europe. Set against a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, this is a palace of harems and poetry, of sultans and battles. Its flourishing Generalife gardens evoke comparisons to paradise, while its intricate Islamic architecture and serene fountains could serve as a set for a scene from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

Indeed, Granada’s allure induced the most content moment of my seven-month stay in Spain. While sitting at a sunny outdoor table at a Lebanese restaurant in a corner of Little Morocco, dipping hunks of pita into red-pepper and crushed walnut m’hamara and yogurt cucumber tzatziki in between bites of rice wrapped in grape-vine leaves and stuffed eggplant, I sighed, "Why can’t every day in Spain be like this?"

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Catching my breath in Ronda

In the 6:30 a.m. darkness, I climbed the steep, cobbled streets that wind through Granada’s old Moorish quarter. I walked the 30 minutes to the train station serenaded by a concert of morning bird calls. I was determined to catch the only train to Ronda, which left at 7:15 a.m.

At the station I gulped down a café con leche from a small glass before boarding. The tracks curved through wild, spectacularly scenic landscapes on the journey to Ronda, the most famous of the pueblos blancos — the series of brilliantly bleached settlements dotting the Andalusian countryside.

Ronda sits on an edge of isolated sierra that juts high over an expansive natural landscape. A gaping gorge divides the town, connected by the 18th-century Puento Nuevo bridge built over the heart-stopping 130-meter plunge.

I suffered spouts of vertigo-induced nausea as I peered down over the edges of the look-out points, intent on photographing the sheer natural drama of my surroundings. Vocal, semi-exotic birds swooped down and out of the deep gorge. I contemplated the rows of buildings perilously perched on the gaping edge of the cliff as classical guitar music floated from one of the panoramic cafés.

I took a gentle hike through the valley of surrounding neatly plowed, storybook-quality farmland. While wandering past herds of sheep and olive groves, I wondered if I really preferred the urban lifestyle. Maybe bird songs and green hills suited me more than blaring horns and metro tunnels, I thought.

After my walk, I passed a few hours exploring the town’s historic quarter, snapping pictures of cats napping under orange trees and barred windows accented with colorful flower boxes, periodically pausing to inhale the scent of the wisteria that draped the white adobe walls.

With two hours left before my return train, I set off for another hike, this time down into the gorge to look up at the striking Puento Nuevo from below. I descended far beyond the lookout point, bracing myself during the steep descent. After admiring the fabulous cliffs above, I anxiously wondered if I could make the steep climb back up. With the afternoon sun hot on my back, I spent nearly an hour trudging back up the path that spiraled up the mountain.

The next few mornings I woke with stiff knees, and after an initial groan, I would recall my glorious day getting in touch with my natural side in Ronda.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rustic Lucca with a side of Pisa

I had zero interest in visiting Pisa. I’d read that there was nothing much of interest in the town besides the leaning tower, which most visitors find disappointingly unimpressive in size. But my guidebook (as well as the best-seller Eat, Pray, Love) recommended a visit to next-door Lucca for a genuine Tuscan town virtually free of tourists, so I couldn’t pass up the 15-minute train ride to Pisa.

Once there I immediately hopped on a bus to the Field of Miracles, the nearly-neon green square of lawn with a harmonious collection of regal white marble buildings — a cathedral, a baptistery, and a bell tower (the leaning one). The blank white sky that day made for unimpressive pictures, but that didn’t stop the packs of tourists from insisting that their patient companions devote way too much time to locating the perfect angle to snap a shot of them that would create the illusion that they were propping up the tower.

A once prosperous sea-trading city, Pisa rivaled Florence in power during its heyday. At the peak of its wealth in the 12th century, the city set off with the ambitious project to build what onlookers soon christened the Field of Miracles due to the grand scale of the undertaking. However, Genoa defeated the city shortly after, and now the small grouping of Pisan Romanesque buildings is pretty much the only reason the city remains on the international map.

Today the strip along the Campo dei Miracoli is a bona fide tourist trap. Nevertheless, the 200-foot-tall, eight-story tower, undeniably smaller than expected, is a truly elegant structure with a surprising sense of lightness. It started leaning almost immediately after its construction began, for reasons explained on signs outside the tower and in the guidebooks. (I couldn’t bring myself to read through the engineering technicalities of the explanations. Something to do with erosion and a shallow foundation.) Anyway, various architects (and millions of dollars) have been trying to correct the problem for the past 1,000 years.

In Lucca, my next stop, I looked forward to renting a bicycle to take the 2.5-mile ride on the city’s famous walls, a massive layering of Etruscan, medieval, and Renaissance ramparts. But it turned out to be a religious holiday (Feast of the Epiphany, maybe?) and consequently the bike shops, along with the city’s famous towers, were closed. So I also missed my chance take in the view from the city’s tallest tower, Guinigi, which interestingly has oak trees growing from the roof.

The city seemed vacant that dark afternoon, and I’m sure if I’d visited on a sunny day my perception of Lucca would have been entirely different. I finally came across some life in a plaza by one of the city’s noteworthy cathedrals, where I wandered through a local market and gave in to the temptation to order a fritole, a doughnut-like dessert with melted Nutella from one of the stands. (The newspaper clippings displayed outside indicated its international acclaim! How could I resist?) But I found the heavenly deep-fried mess almost impossibly sloppy to eat and ended up wearing the guilty reminder of my trans-fat indulgence on my jacket for the rest of the day.

By the plaza I spotted one of Lucca's most notable cathedrals, topped with the winged archangel Michael. To my fascination, behind it is a very visible staircase that the medieval clergy would climb to yank a pair of poles that would make the angel flap its wings to the awe of the apparently gullible flock.

When the hour for the passiegetti rolled around, the city’s main avenue, Fillungo, suddenly became almost impossibly crowded with the townspeople on promenade with friends and family dressed to impress each other. The narrow street lined with historic storefronts led to the Etruscan city’s most post-card-worthy site, Piazza Antifieatro, a floodlit, circular plaza enclosed by Renaissance buildings built on the remains of an ancient amphitheatre.

In a more bustling piazza still lit with Christmas lights children ice-skated in a rink. Off to the side I came across a strikingly charming outdoor used book fair. I walked through the stalls and perused the antique books and maps until I came to the end of the merchandise on the gritty yet glowing street corner lined with bicycles and rusty wagons, sighing at the Italian-ness of it all.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

En la Catalonia profunda

Nearly two hours outside Barcelona, our little car curved around staggering green mountains capped with bizarre rock formations. My Catalan friend Laia had invited me to a calçotada, a gastronomical event typical to the region held at the end of winter based upon the en masse consumption of barbecued calçots, an elongated onion type plant. We tried to contain our nausea as we delved deeper into the valley, taking sharp turns around the mountainside spiraled with shallow brick vineyard walls. We were deep in Catalonian wine country, far off any tourist map.

Just when we feared ourselves lost we arrived to the tiny, remote village of La Vilelle Baixa, Catalan for low valley, nestled deep among the astounding mountains. I regretted not bringing my camera because I felt like I was in the middle of a travel magazine photo spread. The Catalan flag flew high. Laia warned her cinematographer boyfriend and me that here our Spanish would get us nowhere.

On the edge of the town we found the public picnic-type site where a team had been assembling hundreds of bundles of still-grubby calçots and piling vines to be used for kindle on the steel barbecues since 7 a.m. Vine smoke clouded the air and the fire crackled. Big dogs wandered around as a couple of mothers played with their toddlers and nursed their babies. The crowd was dressed in hoodies and sneakers. Googly-eyed young couples embraced among friends who laughed at good-natured taunts. A group sat in a circle on the ground playing guitar in the afternoon sun. I felt a world away from chic Barcelona.

As the calçots weren’t quite ready we set off to explore the maze of streets in the village. It had a population of about 100 with the nearest city more than an hour away, according to Laia's veterinarian friend who worked nearby inoculating sheep. Barcelona-born Laia shuddered, explaining that she would be terrified living in such isolation without neighbors above and below. Thinking of my West Virginia roots I jokingly dubbed her a true urbanita.

The village residents must have thighs of steel; We struggled up the nearly vertical streets to get a view of the cathedral, near the sole plaza good-humoredly named New York City. We only came across one little boy playing in the streets as it was the siesta hour.

We returned to find the calçot-team removing the roasted packets from the embers and wrapping them in newspaper to be steamed. We all worked together to dish out the obligatory pounded salvitxada sauce for dipping the mild scallions. They’d bought the largest round loaf of bread any of us had ever seen, made especially for the occasion by a local baker and weighing in at 5 kilos. We cut off chunky slices and then rubbed on tomatoes and olive oil.

Then the frenzy of a feast commenced. A jug of red wine began flowing into our small plastic cups. While standing, we peeled the still-grubby, char-grilled skins off the onion spears, tossing the blackened remainders in a pile on the newspaper. We tilted our heads back to drop the long, gangly strings in our mouths like baby birds with worms.
Soon our hands were black with charcoal and soil from the freshly harvested leek-type plants. Everyone joked that this all must seem so primitive to a foreigner like me. I must consider Catalans barbarians, they said. But I just smiled, dangling another calçot above my head and downing it with as much gusto as the rest of them.