Sunday, February 12, 2012

Christmas in Andalucía

Disclaimer: This one's a doozy, y'all!

The bar/cafe in Arévalo that I frequent to use free Wi-Fi also has a handful of other regular patrons.  Most of these patrons are old Spanish men who really embrace the "It's 5 o'clock somewhere" mentality in life.  One of these men always laughs at me with a smile that is lacking more than a few teeth and says, "La chica Andaluuuzaa."  This man refuses to believe that I am from America and is convinced that I am from southern Spain, the region known as Andalucía.  I might be flattered that he takes me for a native, except for the fact that people from Andalucía are notorious for speaking incomprehensible Spanish.  (Like how that show "Swamp People" needs subtitles even though they are supposedly speaking English.)  To be fair, he does tell me that my Spanish is a lot better than his English (doubt he speaks any)...ummm thanks??  Well, guess I have to take what I can get!  So, for Christmas I decided to take a trip to southern Spain explore my roots, according to this hombre.

Because southern Spain is a huge tourist attraction, there is a great network of high speed trains that go from Madrid to the major southern cities.  The high speed train is called the AVE and it reaches speeds of up to 193 MPH. Dang, that's fast!  Rob was so excited about riding on this high speed train that I swear he would have stuck his head out of the window the whole time if he could have!  So, instead of the bus that takes 5 hours, we took the AVE which gets you there in under 2!  Our first stop was the city of Córdoba.  We decided to use Córdoba as a base city and take day trips from there instead of constantly having to keep our travel packs on our backs every day.  Carrying a pack filled with over 2 weeks worth of clothes and souvenirs on your back is enough to give anyone scoliosis.


Córdoba is home to La Mezquita. (Pronounced like a southern person would say "mosquito"..)  La Mezquita was once the largest mosque in the world and could hold up to 40,000 people coming to prayer at once.  I won't bore you with all the history, but this is a summary of how it went.  The Muslims were like, "WOOOO we rule Spain, we're gonna build this AMAZING place of worship." So they did, and it was cool for a long time.  But then the Christians were like, "Hey get outta here y'all!  We don't want your mosque here! Buuuut...we do love what you did with the place..soooo we'll keep it and just add a little Christian flare."  And that is how the Mezquita came to be the most architecturally interesting place I have ever seen.  Rob and I just stood around staring for over an hour.  Well, part of that hour was spent trying to get a good picture battling the elements of poor lighting and an inadequate camera.  Anyway, this is what we came up with:

The courtyard of orange trees outside!

It is like I stepped into Farmville heaven!

He does smile sometimes, I promise.

There are hundredsss of these amazing arches!

So impressive.

Christian additions..

The architectural detail on the dome is incredible.

All of the domes converging

Proof that I didn't steal these from the internet

Other than the Mezquita there is not a WHOLE lot of interesting stuff to do in Córdoba.  We spent most of our time eating tapas and drinking Spanish wine.  Not a bad way to spend the holidays, right?  These are the other things we did, though.

View of the city from the Alcazar

The sun in my eyes, the Mezquita in the background

Rob trying to seize the Alcazar by himself.  Surprisingly enough, this photo was taken before drinking wine all day!

By the Roman bridge

Beautiful rooftop bar where we spent Christmas day taking in the scenery of the city.  1 euro tapa+cerveza!

This little street always has flowers blooming.  Even in the dead of winter!

Calleja de las Flores


We also took a day trip to Granada where the legendary Alhambra is located.  Just FYI, Granada definitely deserves more than a day for anyone planning a trip here!  Granada is one of those cities that just has a good vibe; it has something you can't place your finger on, but you know you like it.  Even all of the gypsies with their tricks and schemes couldn't get me down here! Travel Tip: Never accept anything from a gypsy, even if you think it is free!  A common scheme is them offering you sprigs of rosemary outside of cathedrals.  You think to yourself, "Well this is a nice gypsy."  Then once you have it in your hand they force you to keep it and demand payment from you.  Hehe, thanks but no thanks, I read about your scheme online and did not fall prey to you!  Thanks Rick Steves for the heads up!

Our first stop was the cathedral in Granada.  This cathedral was unlike many I have seen in Spain.  The original plans were for it to be built in the Gothic style, but by the time they started building it, it was the Renaissance.  Then, by the time they finished it, it was the Baroque period.  So, this cathedral has a little bit of everything.  Definitely wasn't my fave cathedral..with the huge white pillars and gold EVERYWHERE it felt like the residents of New Jersey collectively designed it.  (No offense, guys.)

Next we made our way to The Alhambra.  Completed in the 14th century, it was a palace and fortress complex for the Moorish kings and was later used by some Christian kings.  (Story of southern Spain!)  The incorporation of nature into every element of design is so refreshing compared to the sometimes stuffy cathedrals elsewhere in Spain.  The Arabic architecture is spectacular, with honeycomb and stalactite and arabesque details everywhere.  You can tell that it once must have been even more spectacular with rich colors everywhere that have now faded.  The gardens of the complex are almost as beautiful as the buildings.  Named a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Alhambra is a must see in life!  Sorry for all of the pictures I took, but it was just so dang beautiful!

View of the city

Posing in the gardens.  Cherubic, right??

Bombs away!

I remember seeing this picture in my Art History book.  And here I am!

One of the impressive ceilings

Inner courtyard

architectural detail!

inner garden!

Rob deemed this "the perfect picture"

Pretty column!

Oh hay over theree!

View of Granada from the walls

This is the view of the Alhambra from a lookout point across town

A typical Andalucian tapa of boquerones (deep fried anchovies)
After the Alhambra we ate lunch at a wonderful Indian place.  Going to non-Spanish restaurants is a guilty pleasure of mine when I go to big cities.  Arevalo only has Spanish restaurants and it is nice to have some different flavors once in a while.  With all of the spices and teas in sacks for sale on the side streets, you almost feel like you are in India.  The air is filled with the smells of saffron and lavender.  So delightful!  Loved my day in Granada and hope to have more days here in the future!


Our final destination (hehe) in Andalucía was Sevilla.  Yet another destination that needs more than one day.  We did quite enjoy our day here, though.  We first went to the cathedral (duh) which is the biggest in Spain.  At this point I was kind of cathedral-ed out so I was less than enthusiastic about taking pictures.  Sorry.  It was HUUUUUGE inside and you could climb the top to take pictures of the city.  Here are some of them:

Love the orange trees everywhere in the south!

  We wandered around Sevilla, taking in the different Christmas markets and sights.  The streets were jammed packed with people due to the Christmas holidays.  We decided to get away from the throngs of people and spend the rest of our afternoon hanging out in the beautiful park called the Plaza de Espana.  It was recently remodeled and the effect is spectacular.  There is a canal around the sprawling building and you can rent paddle boats and paddle around at your leisure.  Would definitely recommend this plaza if you're ever in Sevilla!

Plaza de Espana

a face of pure happiness

we got our swim trunks and our flippy floppies

Goodbye, Sevilla!
Sevilla was beautiful, but I think it was so crowded when we went that I couldn't get a good feel of the city.  My girlfriends spent several days there and loved it.  However, we had to hop on the bus back to Cordoba and then take the AVE back to Madrid the following day so Rob could catch his flight home.  We had a truly spectacular Christmas.  Sipping wine outside beneath orange trees in December is a totally surreal experience.

Special Note: A sincere, sincere thanks to both my parents and Rob's parents for helping us be able to afford this trip.  I feel so blessed to have such a supportive family and boyfriend.  I missed everyone back home over Christmas, but this was an experience that I will never forget.  I really am a lucky gal.

Saying goodbye to Rob was difficult, but luckily I didn't have time to fall into a severe depression because my girlfriends from the USA were waiting for me in Lisbon, Portugal to commence a brand new set of adventures!  My next blog will document the crazy time I had in Lisbon and Barcelona with my girlfriends.  However, when you have been at the wi-fi cafe longer than the shift of the waitress, you know it is time to go.  Awkward.

Thanks for reading!  Love you all!  Adios, y'all!

Friday, February 10, 2012


Asturias is a small but beautiful region in northern Spain that borders the Bay of Biscay.  It is known for its green countryside, hardy folk, strong cider, hot bean soup and impressive mountains. (My kind of place!)  In the Iron Age, the region was under the influence of the Celtic people.  When the Moors came to the rest of Spain, they found Asturias hard to conquer because of the mountains and, to this day, Asturias has a distinct Celtic feel rather than the Islamic feel of other Spanish regions. Okay, history lesson complete!

Rob came to visit me for Christmas break and we ventured to the towns of Oviedo, Cangas de Onis and Covadonga in Asturias the first weekend he was here.  Since Rob is quite the bearded mountain man, I figured this region would be a nice introduction to Spain for him.  Using public transportation to get to mountainous regions is rather difficult and taught me ALWAYS HAVE A PLAN B! I realized a Plan B might have been advantageous as I was sprinting after a bus that didn't stop for us, flailing my arms and yelling "ESPERAAAA!!!"  The story has a happy (albeit, more expensive) ending because we ended up taking a train through the beautiful Picos de Europa to get there.  The Hogwarts Express ain't got nothin' on the magical train ride between Valladolid and Oviedo! 

Our first stop, Oviedo, is the capital of the region and has recently been put on the pop culture radar due to the movie "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" directed by Woody Allen.  The town even has a statue of Woody Allen walking down the sidewalk:

The night we got there, we ate a delicious traditional dinner of fabada and sidra.  Fabada is a delicious fava bean stew.  Here is a recipe in case you happen to have some salted pork belly just sitting around..

I have mentioned sidra in a previous post, but Oviedo really knows how to do sidra right.  They have an entire street dedicated to Sidrerias and general merriment.  The cider is made from fermented apples and since it is bottled without any gas, all of the restaurants have servers who know the correct way to pour it so it is correctly aerated.

it takes skill to pour accurately from this height!

 The next day we went to see some beautiful old churches and monuments on a lush green hillside.  Unfortunately, the reason the hillsides are so green is because it rains ALL the time in Asturias and our time there was no different.  We got a respite from the rain long enough to furiously snap some pretty pictures.

View of Oviedo

Santa Maria del Naranco...completed in the year 848!!  So beautiful!

Another view of the city from the hillside

Carrying all I need on my back!


San Miguel de Lillo, also finished in 848.  Apparently it was a good year for churches! 

And here comes the rain...see ya!
The next day we took a bus to the quaint little town of Cangas de Onis right on the edge of the Picos de Europa National Park.  Hikers going into the national park often use Cangas as a base.  Unfortunately, we couldn't go on any hikes as it was December and frigid, but we got to explore the town and experience all of its charms!  The town of Cangas has origins dating back to Roman times.  A reminder of this is the pretty incredible Puente Romano (Roman Bridge).  It has been frequently rebuilt, but it is currently a medieval arch on Roman footings.

The Puente Romano..that is me with my umbrella at the top!

Really hard to walk on this bridge in the rain!


Many of the Spaniards who made money in the new world brought their money back to Spain and used it to build vacation homes in Cangas de Onis.  The mixture of Mexican and Spanish culture is apparent in some of the buildings in the town.

Doesn't this look like it is from a movie set?

At night

Beautiful home!

Typical Spanish scenery on the way to Covadonga.
Finally, after leaving Cangas de Onis, we took a bus to the gem of our trip...Covadonga!  In the year 722, a Christian general named Pelayo successfully routed a group of Muslim soldiers here and ended their reign in Asturias in the Battle of Covadonga.  This battle is considered the beginning of the almost 800 year effort to expel the Moors from Spain...aka the Spanish Reconquista.  When you approach Covadonga, you can clearly see why the Muslims lost this is practically a sheer rock face!  Due to this site's significance for Christianity, there is a beautiful basilica on top of the mountain.  Seriously, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been:

Monument to General Pelayo

Also in Covadonga is the Sanctuario de Santa Cueva.  It is a small little chapel carved into the side of the cliff.  You have to enter through a cave lit with candles and then you open up into the chapel.  There is a beautiful waterfall that runs below the chapel and we happened to be there on Sunday morning and got to witness a service!  This is also where Pelayo's sarcophagus is located.  So amazing! :

The Sanctuario de Santa Cueva

Still rainy!

You can see the service happening    
After Covadonga we took the train back to Valladolid through the snowy mountains.  Most guide books you find will not mention Asturias, but it is a wonderfully picturesque and charming place.  The food is hardy to keep you warm during the cold, rainy winters and the people are friendly, as mountain folk often are.  Rick Steves might not mention that you visit Asturias, but this place is DEFINITELY worth visiting.  My name is Sarah Humphries and I approve this message.

Adios, y'all!