Friday, June 19, 2009

San Sebastián and Barcelona: el finál

San Sebastián is a gorgeous place. Calm, pristine beaches right in the heart of the city, next to hundred-year-old buildings. It didn't hurt that the weather for our stay was brilliantly sunny and unseasonably warm. Rob, Dunja, Paul and I arrived by train Tuesday evening and joined Dunja's awesome parents for a late dinner. After shutting down our beach cafe, we migrated to a bar, Va Bene, near the hotel. There was beer, wine, and a whole lot of patxaran. Though I only partook of the latter two, I still found it ... more of a challenge than usual to get back to the hotel room. It's a night I'll always remember fondly. If fuzzily.

Wednesday, Paul and I explored San Sebastián. After a late night of drinking and general debauchery, why not hike up a small mountain at 9:00 a.m.? That was our hangover remedy, anyway. Monte Urgull has a lot to take in: castle, big Jesus statue, fortifications, even a small English cemetery. After getting our fill of mountain views and walking around the Parte Vieja, we headed back toward Playa de la Concha. We had vague intentions of walking around the bay to the ubiquitously photographed Peine de los Vientos sculpture, but got sidetracked along the way and never made it. Next time. We did walk over to Kursaal later on, and enjoyed an amazing lunch at the Martin Berasategui gastropub. We had just enough time afterward for a dip in the Bay of Biscay (I waded; Paul went the full nine yards) before meeting up with Dunja and Rob, Bea and Juan for preshow drinks and pintxos ... back at Kursaal.

There was a major ticket snafu on the part of the concert promoters and venue for San Sebastián, resulting in our worst seats of the trip by far. Luckily, our friends fared much better thanks to Bea's debate skills. Dunja kindly gave us her spare set of tickets, moving us up ten rows to row 19 (!). The sightlines were good, though, and what I remember best about the San Sebastián show is the band playing I'll Fight. Yay! Afterward we met Dunja's parents again for one last night on the town. No Va Bene this time, though. Lesson learned.

Thursday Paul and I took a bus to Bilbao and flew to Barcelona. Friday would be our day to wander, but Thursday night was the last concert of the trip. Our crazy cab driver (who read to us from an English phrase book's haircut chapter while stuck in traffic) dropped us off at Hotel Jazz. From there we decided to walk the 3 km to the Auditori. We had plenty of time, and stopped in the adjacent bar/coffee shop for a drink. This is where Paul was recognized by Ana and Xavi, the Barcelona couple who runs the Spanish Wilcoclub website. Ha! Before I knew quite what was happening, chairs were being commandeered from nearby tables and we found ourselves meeting family members, a local promoter, the man responsible for a big Spanish music magazine (who also spotted the bbop, so to speak) and being invited out to dinner the next night by Xavi and Ana. My memory of the concert is somewhat overshadowed by the bustle surrounding it, but I know we had fun. It was Mike's birthday, and a cake appeared onstage during the encore break. The show was unusual in containing only a single song from the new record. The crowd was more subdued than we were used to; one of our new friends later said a Barcelona crowd was more of a "European" crowd than a "Spanish" crowd. They were attentive and appreciative, and Barcelona was a nice city to end our string of shows.

Friday was Antoni Gaudí day. As proclaimed by me. The various Gaudí buildings were what I most wanted to see in Barcelona. Over the course of the day we toured La Sagrada Familia and Casa Milá (La Pedrera), and saw Casa Battló, Palau Güell, and another Gaudí church. And some Gaudí street lamps. After seeing all of this, I have to say, Gaudí was freakin' insane. I loved every bit of it.

Besides the modernist architecture tour, we managed to squeeze in a little more of what Barcelona had to offer. We walked along Passeig de Gràcia and brunched at a Paul bakery (the first opened outside France.) We wandered around Barrí Gotic, stopping at an outdoor flea market in front of the cathedral. We rambled down La Rambla, past the buskers and birds for sale. I got carried away and bought a kilo of cherries at La Boqueria. They were so cheap!

That evening, Xavi and Ana escorted us to their neighborhood, where they treated us to a wonderful four-hour dinner of traditional Catalán dishes and nonstop conversation. I had my first snails, guys! By the time we took the metro back to Universitat and stumbled into our hotel, it was only two hours before I had to leave for the airport. Attempting sleep was futile. A surreal cab ride down La Rambla (absolutely hopping even at 3:30 a.m.), flight to Amsterdam, flight to Philly, flight to Chicago, and drive to Wisconsin later, I was at home by Saturday evening.

Spain and Portugal were full of beautiful, vibrant cities, and we saw some great music there. But what stands out just as clearly - maybe even more clearly - is the warmth, generosity, and hospitality of the friends we met, old and new. As Bea said, good friends are the most beautiful part of every city. The more I travel, the more I know she's right.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Santiago de Compostela: friends and pilgrims

Predictably, life right now has been interrupting my blogging about life two weeks ago. Bachelorette party, house cleaning prep for guests, and a lovely drive through Black Earth to Mazomanie for brunch with friends: all completed weekend tasks. Now to rewind back to Spain. I've been enjoying these daily summations, but was starting to freak out about how long each one was taking. Luckily, Paul has been stepping up on the posting front! You can read recaps of Sevilla and Portugal (Braga and Lisbon) on his blog. There's not a lot for me to add, other than how much I enjoyed Lisbon. (LeezhBOa, that is.) I love a city you can absorb by wandering.

Originally, we'd planned on taking a 10-hour bus ride from Lisboa to Santiago de Compostela. A few days into the trip, we decided that wasn't going to cut it. We already had an all-day train ahead from Santiago to San Sebastián. Did we really want to waste another full day in transit? The convenience of a flight was worth the expense. So on Monday morning, we flew to Santiago de Compostela. This gave us a bonus afternoon and evening, so we could actually see the city. Good decision.

My philosophy of sightseeing for this trip was simple. I knew we had limited time in each city. We could have done exhaustive research, meticulously scheduling the absolute best destinations for the time allotted. But I had a feeling that would be a recipe for disappointment. Did I really want to spend hours reading up on things I knew we wouldn't have time for? No. Instead, I glanced at a couple of websites and books to find two or three goals for each place. Then I stopped. Done. Paul's familiarity with some of the cities helped a lot, but this worked surprisingly well. It gave us some clear directives. Granada: Alhambra, parador. Sevilla: bull ring, ajo blanco. Santiago de Compostela: cathedral, walk around old town.

Done, done, and done. Santiago de Compostela was one of the major pilgrimage destinations in medieval times, along with Rome and Jerusalem. Many Christians today still walk the Way of St. James. The (tourist) shops of the old town, as well as random carts and stands in plazas, offered shiny clusters of walking sticks for sale. We saw plenty of pilgrims in Santiago - a surprising number of Germans, actually. The cathedral was our first stop, and it was very impressive. Legend has it that the remains of St. James the apostle are located there. We tried to maintain a proper level of apostolic respect before the crypt, though our fellow visitors were not very observant of the "silencio" signs.

After thoroughly exploring the cathedral, we set out rambling through the streets of old Santiago. Santiago de Compostela had some of the more entertaining store windows I saw on the trip. Small enough to have interesting things in them, and not all for tourists. Of course, there were plenty of tourist shops. One of my favorite spotted items was a t-shirt with the MTV logo and a somewhat inexplicable caption. Ah, English-language t-shirts in foreign countries.

We chose a random restaurant for lunch, and though I think Paul had one of his more disappointing meals (always have a backup plan!), the courtyard setting was pleasant and picturesque. For dessert I sampled a tarta de Santiago. I hope Paul enjoyed his Magnum. After lunch we resumed our walk, branching out to the university area. Eventually we wound our way back to the cathedral square, and took a taxi to the hotel.

Santiago marked a turning point in our trip: we were meeting up with friends there. Dunja and Rob had come from Germany, and we met Bea and Juan, in from Asturias. Aside from the obvious fellow travelers, Paul and I had been on our own for over a week. We were looking forward to spending time with our international comrades.

After a nice drink and some conversation on the hotel patio, our sextet headed over to the night's concert venue. (A short jaunt through an open gate and some shrubbery to the Palacio de Congresos e Exposicións de Galicia.) We had a bit of a wait outside before doors opened, where we noticed the only way into the theater seemed to be through the front door. Later we saw equipment being loaded out that way too. Strange.

The Palacio was enormous inside, and we visited the roomy bar for another beverage before the show began. (Foreshadowing San Sebastián?) The concert was fun, if a little odd in setting. Essentially, it was a huge lecture hall. Some of the seats had foldaway desks. Once again there was a notable difference between the main set with everyone sitting down, and the encores when everyone stood up and moved toward the stage. Both Kingpin and Side with the Seeds made their Spanish tour debuts, although Jeff seemed at a loss for a good, pandering replacement for Pekin during the former. "Livin' in Santiago de Compostela" must not have had the rhythm he was looking for. I'd put in a good word for I'll Fight earlier that afternoon, and was hoping it might pop up in the setlist. That didn't happen, but I still had hopes of hearing it before the tour was through.

After the show we just managed to sneak into the bar of a hotel across the road before closing, squeezing in a few bocadillos de jamón and beverages on the terrace before they turned the lights out. We said goodbye to Bea and Juan, but only for a day! We'd be seeing Dunja and Rob bright and early for the train to San Sebastián.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Granada: palace and parador

Another train on Wednesday, and we were in Granada by early afternoon. Granada was the city I'd originally meant to skip. We'd made plans for an extra day in Madrid, and a leisurely journey to Sevilla on Thursday. Some extra time in both places, and a day without travel. Perfect.

Plans changed about two weeks before the trip. A coworker, telling me about her own Spanish vacation, said the best part had been Granada. In particular, staying in a magnificent parador inside the Alhambra's walls. Uh-oh. I have a weakness for unique lodgings, and my lingering pre-trip regret was not working in a stay at any of Spain's paradors. I did some research and learned that the Parador de San Francisco, a 14th century mosque-turned-convent-turned-hotel, is the most famous parador in Spain. Unfortunately, reservations need to be made months in advance. I emailed the parador anyway. Wonder of wonders, they had a room available! A suite, actually. An amazingly expensive suite. No matter. We were totally in.

Our taxi from the train station took us right into the Alhambra. (Which is best thought of as a small city, lest you wonder how the taxi managed to get inside.) There it dawned on us that perhaps we hadn't done as much research as we could have. It turns out you don't just wander up to the Alhambra in the afternoon and expect to see the palaces that day. Tickets go on sale at 8:00 a.m., and sometimes people are queued up at 6:00 a.m. The parador offered to set us up with a guided tour the next morning, but we were scheduled to take a train to Sevilla at 10:00 a.m. Clearly, that wasn't going to cut it. You can't come to Granada, stay at the Alhambra, and not visit the palaces. After some quick schedule triage, we decided: tour Thursday morning, and an afternoon train to Sevilla. If something had to be sacrificed, it wouldn't be this.

Following a brief survey of our impressive suite (and view), we set out to explore the Alhambra. We couldn't go everywhere, but there was still plenty to see. We spent a few hours wandering, then returned to the parador for an amazing and very late lunch. It turned out to be a one-meal day; at least it was a good one. One thing we'd already learned: odds of finding food past 1:00 a.m. anywhere in Spain were very slim.

Back to town. Switching trains involved returning to the Renfe station, where I was forced to use my Spanish for something beyond pleasantries. Though we had the world's most unhelpful clerk, we succeeded in securing tickets for the following afternoon. That accomplished, we headed to the Palacio de Congresos neighborhood. We walked along the river (unlike Málaga, not dry), stopped at a bar where everyone was glued to a Nadal tennis match, and I visited my first Corte Inglés. Then, concert #3. To be honest, the things I remember most about the Granada show were the abundance of English speakers in attendance and the fact that the show conflicted with a huge futbol match between Barcelona and Manchester United (allowing us to improve our seats dramatically). Smaller crowd notwithstanding, it was an excellent way to spend a Wednesday night.

Returning to the parador took longer than expected due to police blockades. People were really pumped about Barcelona's win. We ate a meal of complimentary Parador petit fours and wine, and got some rest for the grand Alhambra tour in the morning. The tour was an infinitely better use of our time than an early train would have been. Our guide took us on a leisurely stroll through the Generalife first. We then walked through the gardens and back past the parador, stopping at a shop to see fancy woodwork in the making before entering the main palaces. Each ticket has an entry time, and the number of people is limited each day. Hence, the queues.

The palaces were amazing. The detailed stonework was like nothing I'd ever seen on a grand scale. We learned that most of it was done piece by piece in molds and then attached to the walls. The effect of it is stunning, as is the intricate tile work. Our guide was very informative, although she seemed oddly intent on telling us where every single bathroom in the palaces had been located. When we'd finally had our fill of patios, arches, and courts we returned to the parador for one more great lunch. Then it was back to the train station. Time for Sevilla.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Madrid: art and ice cream

Our first Renfe of the trip took us from Málaga to Madrid on Tuesday morning. We only had one day, so I'd requested an early departure. Any regret I felt at our self-imposed 5:30 a.m. lobby call was tempered by arriving in Madrid by 9:00 a.m., with a full day ahead to see the sights.

Of course, one whole day! in Madrid could barely scratch the surface. That was the story of our trip, in some ways. Not being able to do everything, however, didn't mean we couldn't dive in and accomplish as much as we could. That was also the story of our trip. (The trip, it has many stories. You'll see.)

Our hotel was a short walk from the Sol metro, very close to Plaza Mayor. Paul pointed out the celebrated pastelería La Mallorquina as we passed, and it shortly became our first stop of the day. Ah, a light tartaleta de manzana and chocolate for breakfast.

Next, a walk to the art museums. I was forewarned of the art fatigue that can easily set in when faced with such a wealth of material. Nevertheless, I forged ahead and purchased a pass for the big three art museums of Madrid: the Prado, the Reina Sofía, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. We visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza first. It was as impressive as Paul had claimed, and I'll take his word for the fact that it's more manageable than the others. True, it was the only museum we actually set out to see in its entirety. I'm sure we couldn't have done that in one day with the others, not if we wanted to do anything else. But the Thyssen-Bornemisza still holds a whole lot of art. I enjoyed it very much, but occasionally found myself entering rooms that I swear had just materialized out of thin air seconds before. It didn't help that I was feeling the lack of sleep and a bit of delayed jet lag. Uh-oh.

No time to take a break, however. On to the Prado! Once inside, we spent about ten minutes figuring out where we were on the museum map. Then we set off to see some masterpieces. (Helpfully denoted in our pamphlets and guidebook.) In the Prado, frankly, you really don't need to be looking for them. They find you. Walking into one room, bam, there was Las Meninas. I didn't even know Las Meninas was in the Prado! (I'm not sure how I didn't, since it's probably the museum's most famous piece.) We wove our way in and out of rooms of El Grecos and Raphaels; Goyas, Titians and Botticellis. And students. Wow. Kids from all over Europe must come to the Prado on field trips. We wound up our tour at The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch, and returned to the brilliant sunlight outside. It was, by then, late afternoon. Aaand I decided I didn't really need to see Guernica. Paul was triumphant with the accuracy of his art fatigue predictions, but I'd had my fill of masterpieces for one day. The pass to the Reina Sofía is good through the end of 2010, so hey.

Instead we stopped for tapas and then walked through Parque del Retiros - the remaining "to do" item on my somewhat random list. We visited el Palacio de Cristal, featuring a giant rat and a panda dangling from the ceiling. (I could probably look up why, but it's more fun not knowing.) We saw the the boating lake and another palace (under renovation.) We walked through a sea of crazy sculptures. Then we walked out of the park, to the nearest metro stop (about four from where we began), and back to the hotel with a couple of hours to spare before a brief jaunt to Plaza Mayor and then the night's concert at 9:00.

Wilco concert #2 was at Teatro Hāagen-Dazs Calderón, through sheer dumb luck only about two blocks from our hotel. Amazingly, the venue featured a full array of Hāagen-Dazs cups, cones, and beverages in the lobby. I chose Banoffee Pie ice cream over Akron/Family that night. Sorry, Akron/Family.

Through an earlier email exchange with the promoter (a crash refresher in Spanish on my end), I'd learned the location of our seats. At least, I was pretty sure I had. They were in a box near the stage, which in venue photos seemed to contain a suspicious view-blocking wall. As it turned out, though, the view - though marred slightly by a giant cable - was good. The wall did block my view of keyboard Pat entirely, but what can you do? The location made it easy to stand and dance without blocking anyone, and I took advantage. Once warmed up, the crowd was great. Maybe the best I saw in Spain. Olé was chanted. There was rhythmic clapping. In contrast to the somber show in Málaga after the shocking and sad news of Jay Bennett's passing, the band seemed more upbeat. Glenn held a baby doll aloft before I'm the Man Who Loves You. We saw the debut of You Never Know, bringing me one step closer to confirming a mysterious lyric. Magazine Called Sunset was dusted off, thanks to a request by drum tech Nate.

By the end of the show I wasn't tired anymore. Bad timing, since it was past midnight. Train to Granada in the morning.

Monday, June 8, 2009

London and Málaga: getting started

Another trip over; another handful of blog entries unwritten. When I'm away I often put off writing, claiming I'll catch up when I get back. It's true I have a habit of taking "vacations" that don't quite earn the name: they're go go go all the time, which is fun and exhilarating but leaves little time for reflection and blogging along the way. I then find myself back home and dealing with work and all the real life things I'd put on hold. Writing about two weeks' worth of Spain and Portugal and trying to do justice to the experience at the same time is a tall order, but I have to give it a go.

I have a standing list of places I want to visit, but what to do when that list is miles long? Those familiar with my blog know I'm a sucker for combining travel and live music. I love both, but more than that, the chance to see my favorite bands can serve as the extra push that actually gets me to book a flight to a place I've always wanted to see but hadn't yet carved out the time. Which is how I came to see more of Spain and Portugal than I would have thought possible (or, perhaps, advisable) in just under 14 days.

As the true logistical implications became apparent in the later stages, I had misgivings. While planning with Paul, I attempted to put my foot down more than once. "No Granada! The routing makes no sense!" "Maybe I'll just stay in Lisbon for an extra day and bypass that three-hour rental car drive each way." "We're not going to have any time to see Santiago de Compostela!" But somehow, I could never quite resist the allure of the complete run, in all its crazed glory. "Well ... in Granada there's apparently this amazing parador in the Alhambra." "It would be a shame to skip Braga." "Maybe if we flew instead of taking a bus we'd have more time in Santiago to see the cathedral." In the end, I couldn't pass up any new place, even for a limited visit. (Except for Tenerife. I did hold firm on Tenerife - the Canaries were not in the cards for me this time around.)

And so, here's where I went during my two weeks off: London, Málaga, Madrid, Granada, Sevilla, Lisbon, Braga, Santiago de Compostela, San Sebastián, and Barcelona. Hot. Damn. London was a layover with just enough time to take a train into the city. I had a layover in Amsterdam on the way home, but there was no time to leave the airport. I had to settle for a complimentary stroopwafel on the KLM flight and a resolution to check the Netherlands off my list at a future time.

Now I've mentioned all the places I went, but have I told you about them? No. Therein lies the challenge of the recap post - which is why this is going to be Part 1. One of my chief frustrations is trying to characterize the general feeling of a city. They are all different, but there's no easy adjective to encapsulate each. So here's a mini report on my experiences, accompanied by a photo or two. Not real summaries, but impressions and random memories that may do a better job in a format short of 500,000 words.

Like I could really say anything about London based on a 2-hour jaunt from Gatwick to Victoria and back on the train. I saw Buckingham Palace, and a guard, and the Victoria Memorial. I bought a British sausage thing for breakfast. The trains left from platforms and a snack trolley came through and I kept thinking of Harry Potter. There were hot guys dressed in hula outfits waiting to board a train when I got back to Gatwick - I'm guessing it was some sort of dare and not a British quirk, but I'm in support regardless.

It's funny how impressions of a place can be shaped by exactly where you go. (Or, perfectly sensible.) I was alone for my first few hours in Málaga, going on way too many hours without sleep. I didn't have a city map, just a memory of the general layout from looking up directions to the hotel. I set out in the late afternoon for one of the main city thoroughfares. Unfortunately it was Sunday, so almost everything was closed. The river, which had been a landmark on maps and printed directions, surprised me by being completely dry. People walked around and playing games of volleyball where there should have been water.

Contrast this with my experience later when Paul and I ventured out. We got a map and recommendations from the front desk of the hotel and surprise number one was that the heart of the city - at least the old town - wasn't where I'd gone at all. Cross the river(bed), walk down some steps, around a corner or two, and presto: small winding streets and alleys, tiendas, tapas bars, churches, plazas, and plenty of people. It was a different world. I'd read that Málaga has historically been overlooked as a destination in itself, instead treated as a gateway to the various beaches and smaller towns on the Costa del Sol. It's recently been enjoying a renaissance in some older areas, and that seemed very evident to me. Things were charming and pristine; the streets laid with shiny stone that actually squeaked under my sandals. I liked Málaga, but as I remarked to Paul (especially as we walked back late each night), the old town almost felt like some bizarre sanitized theme park version of Spain.

That's not completely fair, of course. In our day and a half in Málaga, we ate tapas and paella, ducked into random shops, saw a political rally/concert at a major square, and explored La Manquita - Málaga's cathedral that took so long to build that it's a mishmash of different architectural styles. We were thwarted in our attempt to see the Alcazaba (damned Mondays) and the Picasso Museum was out for the same reason. But we saw the excavation of a Roman amphitheater, and nobody stopped us from climbing up the big hill to the remains of the Castillo de Gibralfaro. (Chalk that up as a place where you don't expect to run into anyone wearing a Brewers hat, but it just goes to show you never can tell.) The views from the walk up, and the fortress itself, were probably my favorite parts of Málaga. Plus, of course, there was a concert Monday night. Concert #1.

Next up, Madrid.