Sunday, May 29, 2005


¡Hola! Yes, it is I, returned to the blogosphere to tell you yet more of my travels and travails here in Spain. This process has been helped significantly by what I consider one of the greatest boons ever to reach Youth Hostels - Broadband. No more hanging around waiting for a connection to be made, and frantically shovelling all the spare change to hand into a machine while it attempts, over a glacially-paced dial-up connection, to retrieve one's Hotmail. Quite a few of the hostels here in Spain actually have free internet now, which makes matters SO much easier.

Anyways. re-reading back over the lump of verbal diarrhoea that was my last posting, I seem to have got as far as our adventures in Toledo, so I shall pick things up the next morning, as we head down towards Sevilla, in the heart of Andalucia...

Thursday was, in fact, a very long day. The joys of travelling on an Interrail pass are that we are constrained by the rail timetable. And when your rail-plans for the day involve heading back from Toledo to Madrid, in order to catch the AVE (Alta Velocidad Español) express to Sevilla, and RENFE (the Spanish national railway operator) is in the midst of upgrading the Madrid-Toledo line, this can be quite a constraint. Because our only morning option for departing Toledo was the 7am train (well, bus actually, for the first bit of the journey, due to the engineering work). Having only made it to bed at various times between 3 and 4 in the morning. We were not the happiest of bunnies that morning.

After snoozing most of the way back to Madrid, we adjourned once again to the cafe in the main hall of Atocha station. I didn't mention this in my last post, but this is an extraordinary room. Because it basically has a little bit of rainforest growing in the middle of it. Not what you normally expect to find in a train station, that. Spanish railways being the scarily reliable things they are (I don't think we've had a late train yet), we hd no problems boarding the 10am express. Astonishingly, it only takes 2.5 hours to get from Madrid to Sevilla, which is basically half the length of the country, as the trains go up to 300kph! Whereas it takes an hour and a half to get from Toledo to Madrid, which is maybe 50 miles or so, and nearly two hours to reach Segovia.

Anyways, we made it to Sevilla fine, where the temperature was already up in the mid-30s in late May. Our home for the 2 nights there was the Casa de Sol y Luna ("the House of Sun and Moon"), run by an English-Italian guy called Geno, from Kent. The difference in accent when he switched from Spanish to English was extraordinary. Very nice little place, though - a guest-house rather than a hostel, something with which Sevilla is not particularly blessed.

Unfortuately, the spectre of Corpus Christi came back to haunt us that day, as the Catedral was closed for the day. Given that this is obviously one of the main things to see in Sevilla, that was a bit of a bummer. On the other hand, it did mean we went straight on to the Alcazar, the palace. And boy, did we need the time. It's a truly gorgeous building, mostly built by the Mudejars (the name given to Moors who lived on in Spain under Christian rule). Think the kind of amazing stuccoed columns and the like which we traditionally associate with Arabia, Persia and the like in England (Aladdin, Sinbad, etc). And the gardens. The gardens just seem to go on for ever. I probably spent an hour or so wandering around them, despite the 30+ degree heat.

In the end, though, the place closed at 5pm, so it was a good thing we hadn't been into the Catedral, as we wouldn't have been able to appreciate the Alcazar properly (though John and I had a fascinating chat for about 15 minutes at the end in the little cafeteria with a Danish guy in his 80s, a former photographer). That evening we popped over to Triana, the district on the west bank of the Guadalquivir river, for our dinner. This is where I reminded myself just how good fresh fis can be. Having picked somewhere that wasn't ridiculously touristy, though, and not having brought a guidebook out, I had to just guess at what the different fish were. Bit of a case of "eeny-meeny...", but I ended up with a very pleasant fish dinner. I then giggled somewhat when I got back and looked up what I had eaten, to find that it was a Sea Bass (cue Austin Powers impressions). We ended up having a quick drink in a terraza down by the river, which was almost more of a garden than a bar, before heading back for a relatively early night (i.e. only about 1am).

On Friday, which was James' birthday, we went to Cadiz, which was realy cool. It wasn't originally one of the places I had planned to visit, but reading about it on the plane over I decided it sounded fun and we agreed it was worth going to. As one of the oldest settlements in Spain (Gadir was set up by the Phoenicians sometime around 1100 BC), and the heart of the Spanish maritime trade at the height of the Spanish Empire, it's certainly got plenty of history to investigate. It also reminded me a teeny bit of Portsmouth, where I was born, as the city proper is out on a couple of islands joined to the mainland by causeways (much as Portsmouth is officially out on Portsea Island).

One of the things to come out of the previous night was a realisation that we were looking for slightly different things from our holiday, and that it would make sense some of the time to split up and do our own separate things. What this meant for Friday was that John and James headed off to get some tanning time on one of the beaches around Cadiz, and I went off a-wandering around the old town, continuing to rack up ridiculous numbers of photos as I looked around some of the old harbour defences. I also made it down to the city beach, where I went for a quick paddle. I ended up heading back on an earlier train than John and James to Sevilla, so I had the chance to pop into a bookshop and pick up a copy of Lonely Planet for Portugal (after we decided that we are going to have few days in Lisbon and Porto as part of our time out here). That evening, as it was James' birthday, we had a wonderful Italian meal at a place called San Marco in the old town of Sevilla - although it's one of a chain of six restaurants in the city, this one is quite special as it's in an old 12th-century Moorish bathhouse. It also does a wonderful Papardalle Alla Matriciana, which helped fill me up after we got a teensy bit lost trying to find the place. We went pretty much straight home after that, though, as Saturday (yesterday) brought another ridiculously early start.

Yes, we had another 7am train to catch, this time across Andalucia to Granada. Again, I'm afraid I slept for a goodly part of the journey, though I woke up for the last half-hour or so, meaning that I saw us passing through some amazing valleys and cuttings, and going past what I think was one of the White Towns of Andalucia, spread around the foot of and draped up the side of one of the hills. Beautiful. And I'm sure I appreciated it more for having had another couple of hours kip.

We did our usual routine of finding our latest home and dumping our bags before heading off to do the touristy thing. The bizarre thing here is that our hosts, Manuel and Claudine, don't speak much English, but Claudine is French, so I've actually been able to communicate better with them than with any of the staff in other hostels! I certainly didn't expect my French to come in handy this far down from the border, but it's been great to get a little practice. From the outside, it looks very unprepossessing, and is basically halfways surrounded by derelict buildings or building sites, bu it's lovely inside and our hosts are some of the loveliest hostel owners I've met. It's called the Posada de Colon ("Columbus Inn") Alojamiento Backpackers. Bit of a mouthful, but worth looking at as an option if you come down here.

Still, yesterday afternoon we did what every visitor to Granada pretty much MUST do whilst here - we went around the Alhambra. Many of you probably already know this, but the Alhambra is one of the greatest monuments of Spain, and indeed of the Islamic world. And no, that's not a typo - the Alhambra was the seat of the Nasrid Sultans of Granada, the last of the many Moorish, Islamic rulers on the Iberian peninsular. Reading about the history, it's nothing short of incredible that it's even still there, after neglect, the occasional over-eagerness of some of Spain's rulers and an attempt by Napoleon's troops to blow it up!

There's four main parts to the complex: the Alcazaba, which is the original citadel that the Nasrids inherited when they took over the place; the Palacios Nazarios, which is what remains of the main Islamic palace; the Palacios Carlos V, which is the rather jarringly different Renaissance palace put up by Emperor Charles V next to the Nasrid Palace; and the Generalife, a small summer palace set in beautiful gardens. All of this perched on one of the three hills which loom over Granada (the others are the Sacromonte, which contains many of the caves in which the gitano, or gypsy, families used to live, and the Albaicin, which was the old Moorish quarter and the cause of my deep disgruntlement when John decided we would walk up it in the morning - I remain less than fond of climbing hills when the temperature is pushing 30!).

We were all pretty knackered by the time we finished up at the Alhambra so, after a quick drink in the Plaza Nueva, we headed back to the hostel. John crashed out for a couple of hours more sleep, while James and I headed over to an Irish pub in town, in the vain hope of finding somewhere showing the England game that was on last night. Alas, Los Galacticos (Real Madrid) were also playing last night so, unsurprisingly, that was the game being shown. However, the pub turned out to be nowhere near as tacky as many pseudo-Irish pubs are, with a great selection of bottled beers (we have finally found some rather nice Spanish beer!) and the usual thing here in Granada that you get a free Tapa with each drink. This is a very good way to fill up while having a few beers!

Eventually John came and joined us, and we had a few more beers before splitting off to do our different things again. I ended up in a different Irish pub, chatting to a couple of Dutch guys and then a bunch of Spanish lasses who took us on to a late bar/club, which we'd probably never have found on our own. Though I am still left frequently bemused by Spanish music, and can probably do without too many nights getting back around 6am! Partly as a result of this, I've been having a lazy day today, just mooching around in the hostel, reading about Portugal, checking the net, etc. Oh, and getting my laundry done - the joys of living out of a backpack for a couple of weeks.

So, that brings things bang up to date, and I'll call it day before I give myself RSI from all of this typing. Hope all's well with you guys.

Take care and have fun,



Thursday, May 26, 2005

¡Hola mis amigos!

¡Buenos dias! Estoy en Sevilla, en Andaluz en España. Es muy bien.

Right, that´s enough parlour-level Spanish for the moment. After 4 days here in Spain I´m now down in Seville, the regional capital of Andalucia. For those of you who associate Spain with flamenco, bullfights and it being very very hot and dry, well, this´d be the bit you´re thinking of. In fact, it´s about 36 degrees here at the moment, which we (being myself, John and James off my old degree course) have agreed qualifies technically for the term "fecking hot".

Going back a bit, the day before we came out here, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Marty and Tracy, who I went on the Shamrocker tour in Ireland with back at Easter, to help celebrate Marty´s 30th birthday. In true Aussie style, they´d decided to take advantage of the relatively good weather to have a barbecue. So, in true British style, the weather obliged by sending a series of cloudbursts through the day, obliging them to acquaint themselves with our national practice of "holding a bbq under a brolly". Overall, though, a pretty good time was had by all.

Sadly, attending the BBQ precluded me from watching the FA Cup Final on TV this year, but it was apparently not all that special, and Man Utd lost, so I was pretty happy with that anyway. I also missed the Eurovision Song Contest, for the first time in several years (yes, I am that sad - so sue me). Again, though, I am reliably informed that we (la Royaume Uni) sucked. Again. Anyone would think we weren´t taking it all that seriously or something...

Part of the reason I didn´t see it, though, was my attempts to get an early night, as John, in his infinite wisdom, had decided that our 8am flight from Gatwick required him to pick up James and I from James´flat at 5am. As many of you know, I have never been (and probably never will be) a "morning person", so that wasn´t really a great start to the day.

To make the day better, the baggage carousels had apparently broken down at Gatwick partway through gettting the luggage for our flight sorted, so we were delayed on departure.

But it all mattered rather less once we arrived in Madrid. After negotiating the joys of the Metro system (actually not being sarcastic here - Madrid´s public transport is pretty good) we settled in at our home for the next few days: the Cat´s Hostel down on c/ de los Cañizares. This is new enough that it´s still not in many of the guidebooks, but is pretty good. Key/card operated door access and safes for all the beds, reasonable numbers of bathrooms (though the water was only ever lukewarm - not an issue at the moment but wouldn´t be great in winter), and a restored covered courtyard, complete with Moorish-style tiling. Really, really nice place. Definitely recommend it to any of you swinging round that way.

The rest of our first day was spent wandering the streets of Madrid, seeing a few of the more obvious sights (Plaza Mayor, Palacio Real, Plaza Oriente, Puerta del Sol, etc etc). Ended up getting food and dinner at a nice little place on Plaza de Santa Anna, so a big thanks to Emma for suggesting that as a good place to start thje drinking of an evening.

Having worked out our itinerary (via the tried and tested "write down everything any of us wants to do and then shoehorn it all in somehow" technique), the next day saw us off on a day-trip to Segovia, a lovely little town north of Madrid. This is classic Castilian territory, with the old town perched up on top of a hill, enclosed by the old city walls. What really make Segovia stand out, though, are the Roman aqueduct, and the Alcazar (castle). The former is in amazingly good nick considering it´s nearly 2,000 years old, and the latter verges on the fairy-tale - it was one of the seats of the Kings of Castile before the capital was moved to Madrid by Philip II. All very pleasant, until the combination of the change from Cambridge to the hot, dry, higher-altitude air of Castile worked its wonders on my nasal passage and set me off with the first of another string of nosebleeds (clear today, so far...).

That evening then turned into one of those random nights out that occasionally "just happen" when travelling. We´d headed out to get a couple of bars and some tapas when we got approached by an American lad (Kevin - never encounted an American Kevin before, it´s not really struck me as a Yank name). He´s over in Spain with his family, but his little brother and usual drinking companion was being seriously ill, and his parents weren´t the partying type, so he ended up joining us for a few beers. And a few more beers. The odd spot of tapas, quite a bit of walking, another nosebleed for me and an abortive entry into a bar with delusions of club-hood later, we ended up in a classy establishment called "El Pirata". Yes, a "pirate bar". Very silly, but in the end quite good fun. So what was meant to be a moderate night out ended up, in Madrileño style, with us staggering home around 4:30am, wondering how on earth we would make it up for our train the next morning.

Astonishingly, though, we did manage it, leaving the hostel around 10:30 to get the Metro and then the train up to El Escorial. This is slightly to the north-west of Madrid, and is the site of Philip II´s personal monastery-palace. Which is big. In fact, I´d venture to say it´s fecking huge. It´s also packed with rather more art than I´d expected, so my dear Mother would have been astonished to find me wandering around actually taking an interest in some paintings (mostly military stuff and portraits, though, Mum - don´t start thinking I´ve had a serious attack of "culture" quite yet).

After our unintentional antics of the previous night, we resolved to be a bit more civilised on Tuesday night, in an effort to save both our wallets and our livers from too much sustained abuse. Hence, we spent a fair bit of the evening in a wonderful little place called "El Espejo", a terrace-cafe (terraza) along the side of the Paseo de Recoletos (one of the big boulevards heading north from central Madrid). Had a few beers, some tapas, a bit of swordfish (which is apparently called Emperador in Spanish, leading to numerous jokes from John about penguins...), all while enjoying a balmy evening and some fine lounge tunes from the resident painist (though we haven´t yet worked out why the Spanish seem quite fond of "Delilah"...). We then rather spoiled the "quiet night" attempt again by wandering across town, having a few more beers from a few more terrazas. We ended up around 1:30am in the Chocolateria San Gines, which is apparently a Madrid institution, partaking of churros con chocolade. This is basically a mug of (near-enough) melted chocolate and a bunch of sticks of fried dough (basically doughnut-sticks) to dip in it. Total sugar overload, but comfort-food of a sort.

So, that brings us to Wednesday (we´re getting there - hang in there those of you falling asleep at the back). We finally departed Madrid, heading down to Toledo, an hour or so south of there, which was the capital of Spain prior to Madrid. This is another of those classic picturesque hilltop towns, even more spectacular than Segovia. What we hadn´t realised (obviously being insufficiently religious) is that we had arrived slap-bang in the middle of the festival of Corpus Christi.

Apart from the fact that it obviously has something to do with the body of Jesus, I still couldn´t tell you what this is about, but it was the excuse for a pretty major shindig down in Toledo. All the houses along the streets, especially those lining the squares, had flags, banners and (bizarrely) tapestries hanging from them. There were stages going up in the two main squares, and the whole place was heaving.

Unfortunately, what with the heat, the altitude, the dryness and a fair amount of dehydration, my nose decided to intervene in proceedings again whilst we were in the middle of our explorations of Toledo. This led to our little group splitting up for a while, as John and James continued their tour around town, while I went and cooled off and took it easy by touring the Catedral. Now, Toledo is the home of the Primate of Spain (the equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury), and you might think this would make Toledo´s cathedral pretty impressive. And you´d be right. It´s a monster. I shudder to think of them putting that up with medieval construction techniques. Absolutely awesome, and home to some rather nice art... D´Oh! That´d be another step down the dark path towards being a proper grown-up, then.

After that, I had some lunch and explored a bit more, including the little Mosque/Church of Christo de la Luz (thanks for the tip, Hannah!) before allowing myself to slow down a bit at last and have a siesta for a couple of hours prior to meeting back up with the others. Once I did so (having avoided a passing herd of dragons - the kids´parade went past just as I was leaving our Hostal), I discovered we had acquired a new companion, a Canadian lass by the name of Kate. She had met up with the lads that afternoon, and ended up out with us for the rest of the night.

And the evening, which we had again pencilled in for a "quiet one", turned into a good one. Muchos cervezas y tapas, enlivened (for me at least) by periodically popping into the bar we were sat outside to follow the astonishing progress of the European Cup Final. How Liverpool did it still amazes me, but that helped the evening too. We ended up briefly seeing quite a cheesey band that were playing in one of the squares, before heading back to the square by our hostel to find an even cheesier disco going on there.

This was just extraordinary. Everyone, from the 2-year-old kids to the grannies, out in the square at one in the morning, with a selection of scantily-clad young ladies up on stage leading the kind of "everyone join in the dancing" numbers which are the highlight (or lowlight, depending on your opinion on these things) of wedding parties and the like everywhere. Anybody familiar with the classic hits "Bomba" or "Follow the Leader" will have some idea of the calibre of the mucial arts we are talking here.

I eventually ducked out of proceedings around 2:30am, figuring I owed it to myself to try and get at least 3 or 4 hours´sleep before we had to head out and get the 7:15am train the next morning. John and James stayed out, resumably along with Kate, until around 3:30, and things were still going on then. Utterly, utterly mad night.

And I´m now suffering journal-entry fatigue, so I shall leave out today´s adventures in Sevilla until next I encounter a computer terminal.

Take care and have fun,



Friday, May 13, 2005

Clarification for Mr McKinnell...

In response to the persistent haranguing of one of the more obstreperous of my acquaintances, let me make it crystal-clear that the fact I signed off a blog posting as "Px" does not indicate that my Y-chromosome has gone walkabout, nor does it indicate any impending coming-out. Clear enough for you, Dougal?

Not much else to add - I'm just sat here looking longingly at the beautiful sunshine outside the office window as I spend my last day working up here in Leeds. Few days time left to serve in London, and then I become free (or unemployed, depending on how you want to look at it...)



Thursday, May 12, 2005

Jack and the bus

Well, the first leg of my departure celebrations last night, and was a bit of a mixed bag.

Evening started off with the return, after 6 months, of the pub quiz for the NHS programme I've been working on for Accenture. As the reigning champions, my colleagues from Training and I made our return as the mighty "Stop the bus and let my brother Jack off", hoping for a creditable performance.

In fact, slightly surprisingly, we won again, which means I've probably left various of my soon-to-be-ex-colleagues up here with the enduring impression of me as a quiz geek! Ah well, I guess you can't hide the truth for long. Prize this time did not consist primarily of alcohol (which is probably part of the reason I'm actually compos mentis and in work this morning), but is a dinner, so we're going out again tonight. Yay!

After the quiz, the plan was to celebrate my impending departure like mad, but, like all the best-laid plans, it went somewhat awry. Ended up meeting up with another mate whose birthday it was and having a drink with him, then dragged the rapidly dwindling survivors down to Hifi Club (which I can heartily recommend on a Wed night here in Leeds). Those who were left weren't really in the mood, though, so it all kind of fizzled out.

Guess it just goes to prove the old truth that you never have a really big night when you're planning for one. Which doesn't really bode well for next Wednesday and the second leg of my leaving celebrations in London...