Spain. Oh, Spain.

A few links:

Shannon’s pictures of Spain.

Shannon’s blog, where he’s writing in much more detail than I have here.

I didn’t embed the pictures here, but if you like such things, check them out. There’s not very many but some are wonderful.


We slung our backpacks on our shoulders and took BART to the San Francisco International Airport. There we boarded a flight to Madrid, via Amsterdam, on KLM–the Dutch national airline. We’d packed some snacks for the flight, but they weren’t needed–KLM stuffed us so fat that I worried we’d be used to plug some leaky dam. Who needs a Dutchboy’s finger when you have a pair of fat Americans? No matter how well they feed you, it’s still an international flight, which is long and uncomfortable. (15 hours, 2 of which were a layover.) There’s no winning in international flights–only “losing less.” Which is what happened to me. To my surprise, I slept pretty well on the plane, although poor Shannon couldn’t sleep at all. He was sitting next to a guy who was all elbows. We made our transfer and arrived in Madrid on schedule. God, international airline food is great. I hadn’t realized how much I was missing on domestic flights.


We landed in Madrid at 2:15 PM local time, totally jetlagged and disoriented. We hopped the Metro to Puerta del Sol, which is the square in downtown Madrid. We located our hotel and met up with Sue Burke and her husband Jerry, whom I know from Broad Universe. They were both delightful. They treated us at a tapas bar, where we had sheep cheese and jamon iberico–ham made from baby pigs fed with acorns. (I don’t normally eat mammals, but I made an exception in Spain for local specialties.) We went to bed and crashed out for 12 hours of delightful sleep.


We woke late and still felt exhausted. I was hungry, but Shannon had no appetite (a problem which persisted through most of the trip). After a quick pastry breakfast, we toured the Royal Palace. It’s a 2000-room palace that looks oddly like Versailles due to some historical quirks. The coolest part was the Royal Pharmacy with odd jars of 18th-century remedies. We wandered through Retiro Park before having paella and flan at Café Europa. We concluded the night with crazy tapas-hopping fun. (Tapas are small appetizer plates served with a drink. You can graze your way to a meal, like the Spanish do.) So we wandered from bar to bar, dropping Euros here and there, ordering random new things at each place we visited. Heck of a party. We stumbled to our hotel, and neither of us could sleep that night. We were up until 4 AM doing crossword puzzles. It proved to be a pattern in Spain: sleep one night, insomnia the next.


Since much of Spain closes on Mondays, we planned this for a travel day. We ate a delicious vegetarian meal at La Mazorca near the Prado Museum (hooray, salad!!) and then hopped a super-fast RENFE train to Sevilla. Our hostel was a small, no-frills place hidden in the back streets–but quite delightful for the money. It reminded me of a college dorm. In Sevilla, we got lost on the way to our hostel, and then lost on the way to a flamenco show, and then lost again on our way back. Apparently the city is just like that. But we did meet a kind waiter who tried to do charades with us, and an English-speaking Spaniard with an umbrella. More about the flamenco show later.


We saw the Santa Maria Cathedral in Seville–the largest in the world. It was built as a big “screw-you” to the Muslims, who had just been evicted from the city. It took 120 years to build. We admired the enormous pipe organ, discussed imperialism over Christopher Columbus’s grave, climbed the bell tower, and got overrun by Spanish schoolchildren. Then we visited the Alcazar, a 10th-century palace with lovely gardens and fountains everywhere. It was like the Alhambra Lite–for people who couldn’t get tickets to the real thing–but nice in its own way, and we enjoyed it. That night we had chocolate con churros–delicious, pure sugar and fat–with some fried fish that was also good with chocolate. I think my arteries sealed shut.


We woke up early and caught the train to Cordoba. It’s a smallish town that was once the glorious capital of Al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain. We visited the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra, the palace which had once been built for a favored concubine. It was astonishing to see how such magnificent archways and pillars were crumbling into ruin. I don’t know much archaeology, but I liked seeing all their work in preserving the site. Next we visited the Mezquita, which is a cathedral with a peculiar history–more on that later–and had a wonderful lunch. We walked back along Cordoba’s main street, getting rained on, stopping for coffee, and agreed that Cordoba was our favorite city in Spain so far. We caught a late-evening bus to Granada. I slept for some of the trip, but I did see the lovely White Hill Towns of Andalucia. All the little towns along the way look white against their semi-arid desert background. Shannon saw something bizarre while I slept–Catholic schoolchildren dressed like the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently it’s a long tradition.


We walked around Granada for a while, just exploring the neighborhood near Plaza Nueva. We browsed a few souvenir shops looking for things to bring home and made a quick visit to a laundromat. (We only packed 2 outfits for each of us. We’d been handwashing things in the sink all this time. Unfortunately, the weather in Granada was so damp that our laundry didn’t drip-dry, so we had to find a dryer.) After a delicious lunch of paella and wine, we headed up to the Alhambra on the little shuttle bus. The Alhambra is one of the wonders of the modern world. It’s a long-standing palace and fort in the last Muslim city in Spain–before Isabel and Ferdinand drove out the “infidels.” Elaborate geometric designs, fountains streaming everywhere–and a whole family of cats who live on the grounds. Tourists were feeding them. After the Alhambra, it was night. Shannon slept while I roamed the tapas bars, where I met other people from San Francisco. Speaking English was a nice break from Spain.


We wandered through the narrow streets, heading steeply uphill, and visited San Nicolas Viewpoint. A guitarist showed up and serenaded all the tourists with flamenco music, which was actually a nice touch. We wandered through the Albayzin, which is the old Moorish neighborhood, and bought some delicious cake. Then we wandered through the shops of the Silk Market, and visited the Royal Chapel where Ferdinand and Isabel are buried in their coffins. To quote the old Islamic saying, “After the game, the kings and pawns go in the same box.” Late Friday night we took a train back to Madrid. I had just been reading about how bandits sometimes gas the train cars and rob everyone… when our train stopped suddenly. Holy crap. But it was just a mechanical problem. We made it to Madrid fine.


We would have visited the museums on Monday, but many of them were closed, so we decided to come back at the end of our trip. Luckily for us, this was the only rain all trip. We visited the Prado (classical art) and the Reina-Sofia (modern art). We had sangria and ice cream (and some food) for lunch. In the evening, we stopped by a Spanish grocery store, which was surprisingly fun, and then we went to the airport to wait for our early-morning flight. Madrid is a terrible airport to spend the night in, but we survived. We flew home and arrived mid-Sunday, stuffed with Dutch airline food and completely out of space and time.

And it’s taken me most of April to process the experience and recover from it.

The Summary, Complete With Oversimplification and Biases: Best trip of my life. It was more of an adventure than a romantic honeymoon–which turned out great. Madrid is large, cosmopolitan, and filled with pickpockets. Seriously, we counted 6 attempts that we witnessed or thwarted (we think). Seville is filled with tiny winding streets and easy to get lost in. Cordoba is a happy little town that loves tourists and wants them to have a great time. Granada is the Berkeley of Spain, where hippie kids run away from their parents. Spain is a wild country, much more backwards than I expected, and much more exotic and strange. I wouldn’t recommend it for an inexperienced traveler, but I loved it.

Most Memorable Meal: Well, the thing about Spain is ham. Ham, ham, and more ham. Punctuated by deep-fried stuff and weird seafood. Did I mention the ham? Spain was awkward for my non-mammal-eating self. But I survived. So, the meals. I think I’ll give first place to the cinnamon whitefish in Cordoba, prepared in the Mozarabic style, with Cordoba-style gazpacho for an appetizer and chocolate mousse cake for dessert at El Caballo Rojo. Second place to the seafood paella at Resaurante Sevilla (located in Granada)–perfect texture, a wide variety of flavors, and no mammal bones for me to get fussy about. Third place to the pumpkin croquettes and salad (hooray for vegetables!) at La Mazorca in Madrid. Honorable mention to the “meal” created by tapas-hopping through the Madrid bars, combined with lots of drinking–a favorite Spanish pastime. Worst meal–well, everything was so good that I barely have a candidate here. I’ll say the airport meal I had to eat when we were stuck overnight waiting for our flight out. At least there was food there.

Weirdest Thing I Saw: In the tapas bars, you’re supposed to throw your trash in these long bins that run like footboards across the wall. Shrimp are served intact (with their heads). Since most people take the heads off before eating them, the heads end up in the trash. Therefore, when you stand at a tapas bar, there’s piles of shrimp heads staring up at you from the trash bins at your feet.

Thing You’re Least Likely to See in the U.S.: Restaurant hours like these. The Spanish observe their daily siesta. Restaurants are typically open noon-4 pm for the main meal of the day, then closed for siesta. They re-open from 8 pm – midnight (!) for the lighter late-night meal. This means you can’t get dinner at what most Americans would call a reasonable hour. We adapted, but it sure was confusing. Fortunately our sleep habits were weird too…

Ugliest American: The guy in one of Rick Steves’ recommended tapas bars. I saw he had the guidebook and I leaned over and said, “You’re the fourth person we’ve seen with this book. Isn’t it great?” He glared at me and didn’t answer. Maybe he was pretending he didn’t look like a tourist. He totally did.

Where We Got Lost and What We Found There: In Seville, we wanted to go to a flamenco show. We went the wrong way through the winding streets of Seville… which cannot be described by any earthly words except “the angles are subtly wrong.” After wandering the dark, rainy alleys for an hour, we encountered a gentleman with an umbrella. In desperation I asked if he spoke English, and to my astonishment he did. He gave us very clear, precise directions–clearly thinking through every word before he spoke. But his English was perfect. I hope he walked away very pleased with himself.

What I Would Do Again Next Time I Go: Eat like a fiend. Everything I find. I swear I ate 4000 calories a day–and walked most of it off.

Favorite Moment: Drinking sangria in Los Gallos bar, watching a flamenco dancer stomp his heart out as he summoned the duende–the spirit or “ghost” of flamenco.

Least Favorite Moment: Screaming leg cramps on the first night in Granada. I couldn’t sleep because my legs were spasming in pain, probably from too much walking and then sitting on a bus for 3 hours. My sweet devoted husband rubbed my legs until the cramps stopped. Well, I assume he was devoted. Maybe he just followed the self-preservation instinct that said, “You will never get any sleep while Vylar is screaming in pain.”

Biggest Regret: Not seeing Toledo. I’ve heard wonderful things about it, and we simply didn’t have enough time. With one more day…

What I Should Have Brought One More Back Of: I brought very little back, but I wish I could have brought back pastries from the Cordoba bakery. I had a roll filled with a giant glob of Nutella. NUTELLA, people. Enough to choke a horse!

What I’ve Have Brought If I Didn’t Have To Carry It All: My massaging footbath. Man, that would have been great.

Biggest Packing Mistake: While we loved Rick Steves’ books, Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door wasn’t needed. It was useful for planning, but once we landed the only thing we needed was the Spain book. Also, we packed too much trail mix. I assumed we’d eat it all on the plane, but KLM stuffed us so much we barely fit through the airplane door.

Best Tapas Ever: The fish and salsa thing in Seville at that little place next to the flamenco show. Right after someone unzipped our pockets without us noticing.

Sneakiest Pickpocket: Whoever got us in Seville was awesome. We never even saw them. I said, “Hey, one of my coat pockets is unzipped.” Shannon said, “Hey, mine too.” It was my left and his right, which I think means that someone got us while we were holding hands. And we thought we were being vigilant, too. Fortunately, we wore money belts, so the thief found nothing.

How Much Sangria I Drank: 7 glasses. 2 at the flamenco show, 3 at a Granada bar, and 2 at a restaurant near Madrid’s Prado museum. The drinks in Granada were strong and just about knocked me out. I should have stopped at 2, but Granada still honors the old tradition of free tapas with every drink. So I was ordering drinks just to see what random food I’d get.

Weirdest Architecture: The Mezquita in Cordoba. No contest. The place is a cathedral built on Roman ruins, converted to a mosque, then back to a cathedral. The result is surreal and strangely beautiful–although the combination of Roman tiles, Islamic archways, and Catholic prayer niches is confusing to look at.

Niftiest Person I Met: The pharmacist who (thankfully) spoke very good English. She was very interested to hear about my red dye allergy and had met another customer with the same problem.

Most Powerful Moment: I already mentioned the flamenco show, so I’ll just say that looking at the Alhambra’s geometric-patterned ceiling was enthralling. But even during the visit, I didn’t fully appreciate the Alhambra. It wasn’t until I returned. I was taking a nice hot bath when I suddenly remembered the Alhambra. It overwhelmed me. I sank into the bathwater and re-experienced the awesomeness…

You Should Go Too: Spain is cheap. Our triple hotel room in Granada cost about $50/night and was quite nice. I ate like a king for about $15/dinner. A glass of wine is $1.50. If you want an adventure in a place unlike any other, I recommend Spain. Get Rick Steves’ guide to Spain (or any European country) and go!

2 thoughts on “Spain. Oh, Spain.

  1. Sí, señora, you did what a good tourist should do when visiting Spain, and it is a fun place to visit (and to live in). Cordoba is my favorite city, too. But you are lucky that none of your tapas were chopped, roasted pig ears — or maybe they were.
    Sue Burke, in Madrid, Spain


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