The Train in Spain

I’m sitting now as the sky gradually brightens, watching the landscape slip past my window. Barcelona is apporaching, another big city, but we’re not staying the night there. Tonight we will be on a boat, splashing around in the Mediterranean.

This has been a most pleasant train ride — smooth and quiet, augmented by the chicken and Russian beer Cassius scored as we waited to depart. Mmm… chicken. While on the train of course we had to go visit the club car (bar number 120), where we paid too much for beer but both agreed that there was some special charm in sitting in a bar and all the while getting somewhere. We hatched a couple of hare-brained ideas to exploit this good feeling — but those belong in the Get-Poor-Quick category, which has been languishing of late.

Not an eventful journey, but certainly a pleasant one.

Granada

Perhaps because Granada (map) is a large city, it appeals less to me. Perhaps it appeals to a sort of tourism I’m not as good at. It’s just that, for all the old things lying around, Granada is modern.

1492 was a big year in this town, as Ferdinand and Isabella finally gained control of the last of the Moorish holdout and set up their own shop here. (The former Calif was given a very large estate for his cooperation, and the Spanish promised to treat the Muslims well. They did for a little while, anyway.) Not long after that Columbus returned from the New World and fun was had by all. Some of the older Moorish architecture remains, and I find it much more pleasing than the imposing Spanish buildings that came later. It’s a shame that most of the mosques in the region were knocked down and replaced with cathedrals.

The biggest attraction in town, perhaps in all of Andalucia (Southern Spain) is The La Alhambra (As long as the Spanish are adding “La” in front of “Al”, I thought I’d go ahead and tack on a “The”). Some of the Moorish architecture in the old palaces is quite remarkable, especially the incredibly intricate molded stucco; I wished I could read the floral arabic writing all over the walls. The carved stone of the domes and arches was beautiful, and must have been a hell of a lot of work.

Courtyard with graceful pillars
Intricate stucco
The gardens were nice too, but hell, this isn’t a tour guide site. If you’re curious, go look up Alhambra in Wikipedia or wherever. I did take some pictures, the least sucky of which are now up in my gallery. (You can click any of these pictures to see a larger version, and if you just have to have the full-sized version of any image in the gallery, just ask.)

So that was groovy, a few hours well-spent, and there are lots more places in town (old churches, etc.) that we could poke our noses into, but I’m not that much of a nose-poker. I like to relax and get the feel for a place, but I haven’t managed that here, yet. I think it’s the bigness. I have put a lot of miles on the hiking shoes; if I keep this up I’ll get healthy. I better go find a beer somewhere.

Viva Zapata!

Last night I went to a place I really, really, liked. It’s not going to translate to the written word completely, but allow me to introduce you to one of the pinnacles of human society, the tapas bar.

In most parts of the world, one goes to a restaurant and orders a meal, or one goes to a bar and (perhaps) has snacks. The Spanish, however, don’t want to rush, they don’t want to be presented with a big pile of food, wolf it down, and then leave. Oh, no. Down here, not being in a hurry has been raised to an art form. If you’re going to spend a pleasant few hours in a place, perhaps chat with friends, perhaps read a book, you will drink slowly but steadily, and you will eat the same way.

Many bars here will have on display a limited variety of tasty little dishes that you can order for a reasonable price. It’s not always obvious what those dishes are, but there is generally food that fits any level of adventurousness. You can order several things at once, or you can periodically have another dish.

Zapata is somewhat unusual; many of the delicacies on display were uncooked, and prepared on order. Also unusual was that their menu actually reflected what they had, and they had some good, stuff, let me tell you. The Monteditas (little sandwiches) were a good value and really, really, tasty, especially the Zapata (pork, cheese, and stuff) and the salmon with roquefort.

We stayed quite a while, enjoying the atmosphere, some good wine, and nibbling on a wide variety of tapas. It doesn’t get much better than that. So if you find yourself wandering the streets of Cadíz and come across the place, do yourself a favor and pop in.

Cadíz

This afternoon found us in Cadíz, a port city on the Atlantic in southern Spain. Cadíz and Seville were boom towns back in the day, as most of the wealth extracted from the colonies in the New World passed through here. It all started with Christopher Columbus himself, who set out on more than one of his famous voyages from this port.

We arrived not by tiny leaking ocean-going boat, but by air-conditioned motor coach. We walked the perimeter of the old part of the city, and it’s quite nice. I took lots of pictures, and beyond that, there’s not much to report. Beautiful city. Many streets closed to vehicular traffic. Huge Carnival celebrations, apparently. Lots of streets with no cars. Lunch was good and it was cheap. They have the deepest, longest siesta I have yet encountered.

Those are the facts, and today, that’s all you get. Come on over and see it for yourself (or wait for the pictures, if any of them don’t suck).

All right, all right, I’ll give you this: I’m sitting at a sidewalk caf

Lazy day in Vejer

Street in vejer It’s an indication of just how good my life is that I can sit in a congenial tapas bar in a beautiful village in southern Spain (map), nibble good food, nurse beers out over a long stretch, watch the old men goof around, and call it work. I’m taking a brief break from writing, but I’ll be getting back to it in just a moment, after I decide what to nibble next. Electricity may be the limiting factor on my work day; I came out without a full charge, and outlets are few and far between. Still, I’ll nurse things along as far as I can, and I can always resort to writing things by hand. Crazy, I know, but if the cavemen could write on paper, so can I.

One thing I’ve noticed — in these little places, empty chairs at the tables along the wall are turned out into the room, rather than facing the table. It’s a subtle thing, and I doubt people here give it much thought at all, but the message is clear to me: even at the edges, you are encouraged to face into the room and be a part of all that is going on.

I hope, wherever you are, that your day is going as well as mine.

Road Trip to Gibraltar

It was a very pleasant day. I spent the morning puttering around, writing, then exploring Vejer. I stumbled across an Internet place and checked email, although the urgency has gone out of that. I found a little watering hole and, after watching as three people helped a woman negotiate her small car around and extremely tight corner (a forty-three point turn, I believe), I settled in and had a small beer and worked for a bit on Elephants of Doom. Overall, not a bad use of a morning and early afternoon.

I didn’t spend as much time at that bar as I would have liked; this day I had an actual schedule. At 13 o’clock I met with Cassius and his acquaintance Gabriel. Through the grapevine these two had stumbled on an opportunity to visit a guy in Gibraltar (map) and pitch a Web project for the government there. Gabriel is English but lives in a village near here, and has a car. At the appointed hour we hiked to his car, piled in, and headed out. We rolled past hundreds of giant wind turbines (“The same environmentalists who wanted them now want them to be taken down. They are chopping up birds, especially raptors.”) and windswept beaches (“This town is famous for its kite surfing, but the wind will drive you crazy. It is the only village in Spain with its own nut-house.”) and finally the rock came into view, with ships clustered around it, including a large cruise ship at dock.

Gibraltar from our lunch table We parked near the border and found a place to grab a lunch. It was a nice little tapas bar with all kinds of fresh seafood. We ordered too many things, and it seemed the guy was waiting for us to finish each one before starting to prepare the next thing. Each item was delicious. The bread was straight out of the oven, the octopus tender and succulent, the white fish of some sort light and tasty, and so on. The meal stretched out, which wasn’t a problem except that Cassius and Gabriel had an appointment. Finally it came time to leave, and Cassius went to settle up the tab. The conversation, he reports, went something like:

“We’d like to pay now.”
“You have to finish chewing first.”
“We’d like to pay now.”
“You have to finish chewing first.”

Apparently we were not allowed to continue nibbling after payment was made. Or something like that. Finally we were given a number, higher than expected but then again the portions had been bigger than expected, and payment became problematic. They wanted as close to exact change as possible, and that turned out to be a challenge for us. Finally pooling all our small change together we hit the right number and were free to go.

We crossed the border (where only a cursory glance at the cover of our passports was required) and we were in the United Kingdom. We took a taxi to where their meeting was to take place, selected a pub to meet at afterward, and I headed off to explore the town.

Gibraltar is small, but on the not-cliff side of the rock people are packed into the town area, leaving the flatter areas for industry. I ambled downhill and found the Road of Commerce. This road is the reason the cruise ship stops here, not the spectacular scenery farther up the hillside. The town is a massive duty-free shop, and this road is the center. Closed to vehicles, it was thronged with tourists, popping from shop to shop, loading up on booze and electronics. Tourists and schoolgirls. School must have just let out, because there were schoolgirls everywhere, in their modest maroon skirts and white tops, traveling in gaggles, laughing about whatever it is schoolgirls laugh about.

I grew tired of this press of humanity and turned uphill. Quickly I was in a somewhat run-down residential area. For all the money moving around down below, not much of it seemed to be making its way up to these apartment buildings. The streets were narrow and connected by staircases, and I began to doubt my ability to find the designated pub in time. I decided I’d best turn my wandering in that direction, although often I had little control over which direction I went. Several times I had to negotiate with cars in the narrow streets. I found the right pub, convinced myself it wasn’t the right pub, went down to the avenue of shameless commerce (less crowded now), found landmarks, and went back to the right pub. I had just sat down with a John Smith Bitter (ahhh… bitter) when the others showed up. Naturally they had to have a beer also, then we all headed out to explore.

Macaque in regal pose It was generally agreed that up (into the steeper parts of the rock, which was a park) was better than down. Eventually we did a fairly long hike up and around, affording us spectacular views of shipping and industry. Up had definitely been the right choice. There is a network of caves up there, but they were closed. (Gibraltar eschews the siesta and things close at 5pm. What utter barbarians.) On the way back down we met some macaques, the only wild monkeys in Europe. They are wild only in the sense that they can sleep wherever they like. The sun was getting lower, and the monkeys were hanging out on the outskirts of town, waiting for the right moment to descend for an evening of foraging. I imagine it would be right tricky to keep a monkey out of your trash bin. As we walked on, we turned to see a macaque following about 50 feet behind us, and two more following behind that one, evenly spaced, like a platoon of soldiers moving into dangerous territory.

I got some very, very close pictures; we’ll see how they turn out. We returned to the border on foot, which involves crossing the runway at the Gibraltar airport. When we got there the red don’t walk man was on and the gate was closed. We had to wait for a British Airways jet to taxi and take off before we were allowed to cross.

Finally we got back to the car and I, for one, was glad to be off my feet for the journey home.

Vejer de la Fronteria

Vejer Vejer (map) is what is called a “White Villiage”. Perched on a hilltop, the buildings cluster and pile upon one another, and are all painted white. It is a small town, but it is dense, the city is folded upon itself; the streets and alleys twist and writhe, climbing from layer to layer. Many streets are too narrow for cars, even some of the ones people drive on. It is breezy up here, mitigating what would be a harsh sun.

From the roof of the place I am staying one can see a long, long, way — all the way to Africa, in fact. Beyond a shimmering stretch of Atlantic rise the hills of Morocco.

The bus deposited me here during Siesta, so there were only a few places open. I wandered for a bit, up and down the steep streets. There were few other pedestrians, but there were kids roaring around on scooters and atv’s. Occasionally a car would have to wait while I trudged up a road to a place wide enough for me to get out of the way. Once siesta was over I walked back down to the tourist office, found where an Internet shop was, and sent Cassius and email telling him where I would be. Then, there was nothing for me to do but be there. I sat on the sidewalk outside the bar. (Inside was crowded and smoky — there was bullfighting on the TV. I was curious, but I needed to keep an eye on the plaza.)

I was sitting by one of the only two-way roads in the old part of town, but the downhill side was blocked by illegally parked cars. There seemed to be an unwritten rule among the illegal parkers, however, to leave occasional gaps long enough to allow downhill cars to duck out of the way when they met an uphill car. This worked 80% of the time, but more than once the downhill car would have to go into reverse and back up into the plaza to make way for the uphill car. If someone was behind the downhill car, they would have to back up as well. If someone were behind them… well you get the idea. A parade in reverse. The two locals who were out there with me would heckle and call out to friends as the cars did their delicate dance.

There is a big parking lot at the edge of town. There should be a big sign: “Welcome to Vejer. Leave your car here, for the love of Pete.” If it could handle the steep hills and paving stones, this may actually be a place where owning a Segway would make sense.

Once Cassius found me we settled in and went out to a place he knows nearby, then stopped into another that he had never seen open before. The first was nice, the second contrived and tacky, which gave us plenty to talk about. Most of the people in the second place were speaking English, few in the first place were. Fun was had by all.