Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The University of Salamanca Makes the US Look like an Infant

Huerto de Calixto y Melibea
On my never-ending quest to conquer more of Spain, I up and booked a ride to Salamanca, Spain over the weekend! Salamanca is a city close to Galicia, about three hours away via car. It has a historic University, founded in 1134. Let's take a minute and look at that number. 1134. It's like...that should be someone's address...1134 Main Street. But it's the year the University was founded and that's pretty dang old and that's pretty dang cool! It's also the site where Christopher Columbus came to state his case for traveling west to find India. The University is truly the heart of the city, as a ton of people (30,000) study there, and everywhere you go you see students and ancient campus buildings. Also, the city has a vibrant nightlife since there are so many young people around!

Plaza Mayor
Since this was a last minute trip for me, I went ahead and explored it all by myself! I hadn't done this since my trip to Dublin two years ago and man was I out of solo-traveling shape! My kind BlaBlaCar driver dropped me off directly in front of my hostel, where I proceeded to just lay for awhile. Why did I do this? Because I wanted to and there was no one else to make me move if I didn't want to!!! :) Eventually I did get my lazy booty up to wander around the city a bit. The most impressive thing of the night: Plaza Mayor. I knew that it was a focal point of the city, but being there truly reminded me of Venice, Italy with the whole center lit up in a romantic glow! I sat there and gazed at the site for awhile. I also took the time to explore the city a bit, to get lost four times, locate the tourist office, and scope out some bars for the big soccer game the next day...

Inside the convento
Outside the convento
The next morning I hit up the tourist office to get a map, then jumped right in to my site-seeing itinerary! First stop: Convento de San Esteban. Well, I wish I could say this was my intended point of departure for the site-seeing, but in truth I got lost while looking for the entrance to the Cathedral (the biggest building in the city...I am rusty at this solo-traveling thing) and I happened upon the convent and so I went in! It was a very peaceful and beautiful place :)

Next stop was the old + new Cathedral! The old cathedral is a smaller chapel-like place, with the claustro attached. Very cute...and what's more, there was a wedding going on!! As soon as I saw the couple up at the front I started weeping tears of joy...just kidding. But I totally did take an extreeeemelyyyy long time taking my photos in there, in an effort to wedding crash a bit. I also passed through the new cathedral which is directly connected to the old one, which also had its beautiful details. You also can't beat the wonderful aroma of incense in a cathedral :)

Climbing up Ieronimus, a view of the New Cathedral
Next I stopped by a large garden with great views of the city, walked down to see the Salamanca Roman Bridge (I may be biased, but Ourense's better!) and then I continued on to a visit to Ieronimus, the tower of the cathedrals. Here I found myself, once again, climbing up a million stairs to the highest point in the city! This climb was a bit more tourist friendly, as you could stop at every floor and read a bit about the history of the Cathedral while you caught your breath. I didn't bother to count the stairs but there were a ton and I felt myself getting very short of breath and thinking I might simultaneously have a heart attack and a panic attack from the claustrophobia-inducing, steep and numerous stairs. The view from the top was great though, and I got to hear the bells chime a lot while I was up there! Totally worth it.

The last part of my day was supposed to be dedicated to a shopping mall...I Googled centro commercial quickly at the hostel before setting out. Once I got to the location I saw a large Corte Ingles...but no centro commercial of my liking!!! I asked some people about the other shopping center and they said it was outside of the city and I would need to get a car or bus. Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! So I took the time to wander around a bit more, found some tempting restaurants for the next day, and I had time to rest a bit at the hostel.

Then. It was time for a very important partido de futbol: Real Madrid vs. Atletico de Madrid.... Champions League Final. I don't want to get started on the details as to why FC Barcelona was not in this match, but just know that I was highly displeased and upset about the results this season. Anyway, I was rooting for Atletico even though they stole the Liga title from Barcelona, just because of the mere fact that I loathe Real Madrid with the passion of a million burning fires. Everyone on that team (besides maybe Casillas) could easily play the lead role of the villain in any movie. Everyone oozes evil, arrogance, and greed. UGH. Anyway. Long story short, Real Madrid won...I stomped out of the bar, went straight to my hostel, tried going to sleep but heard too much commotion on the streets of people out celebrating. BAD NIGHT.

The next day was my last, and originally I had planned to find a bus to make it out to that shopping center I was dying to visit. Before checking out of my hostel and heading there, I checked online to see the hours of the mall... of course, the stores were all closed, it was a Sunday! Ugh this is something I will not miss about Spain!! Thankfully I caught that minor detail of opening times before I got all the way to the mall! I went ahead to the next step in my itinerary: an Art Museum!

Casa Lis
Casa Lis, the art deco and art nouveau museum, was great! I was almost entirely surrounded by elderly people but the stuff in there was cool. Pictures weren't allowed, but I was able to snap a photo of the beautiful stained glass that decorates the whole building. There was a big variety of exhibits, mostly focused on ceramic figurines, glass sculptures and paintings. There was also an interesting (for lack of a better term) exhibit on vintage dolls... so you entered these two huge rooms and you were immediately getting stared down by hundreds of beady little eyes!! There were also some original cupie dolls...something I think my sisters would have gotten a kick out of :)

My last site-seeing stop was the historic University! I was hoping to arrive in time for a tour...but I got lost and arrived 15 minutes after the last tour started :( But I still got to see the famous front of the University, where you're supposed to search for the hidden frog in the midst of all the other sculptured details in the door. Everyone was crowding around the area next to the frog so it wasn't quite difficult to find. Legend has it that those who attend the University and find the frog (without the assistance of anyone else) will graduate or something like that. An old guy stopped me and said "Hey...do you want to know the REAL story behind the frog?" I shrugged and said yes. He proceeded to go into a twenty minute discourse about the king and the king's son and how the frog represented sexual immorality and the son died because of it. After I politely said thank you, he then proceeded to tell me the story about various other famous parts of the city... I had to escape so I looked at my non-existent watch, thanked him for his time, and speed walked the heck away!!!

I had a couple hours to spare so I stopped by a Mexican restaurant to get my fill (Bien Trucha is still a million times better), and laid in a park for a bit to take in the sun. Eventually it was time for me to meet up with my next driver, and I probably didn't last more than 30 minutes in the car before dozing off! I was exhausted from my three days of walking around non-stop, and I was excited to get back to my Ourense and back to my own bed :)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Oh, Valencia!

City of Arts and Sciences
During my time in Spain, I have made it a goal to become an expert in all things Spanish, covering every corner of this country and knowing every major city and even villages, being able to list off all the major traditions and the differences between the provinces, distinguish the different dialects and languages etc. And I have not even come close to achieving this goal 100%. I have humbly come to realize that it would take way more than two years to even attempt such a feat. Even so, I can still try my utmost at getting to many cities, and when the opportunity arose for us to visit Eddie's family in Valencia, I was quite excited!

We were sitting around during Semana Santa, thinking of where we could make a last-minute trip to. Unfortunately, flight and hotel prices skyrocket during this week. But then, I found a 50 euro round trip flight to Morocco!! I looked up an apartment, figured out how to get the airport, places to go in Rabat, etc, and then I went to buy the flight...and realized that I had looked at the flight for the wrong month. That's why it had been so incredibly cheap. Oops. But Eddie's cousin coincidentally invited us to Valencia soon after! So just like that we packed up, found a route to Valencia on BlaBlaCar,  and made the 10 hour journey across Spain to Valencia!

We arrived to Valencia during the late afternoon on a Wednesday. We were beyond exhausted and dirty, but were able to muster up some energy (and spray ourselves with perfume lololol) to meet with Eddie's whole family! It was cool and strange at the same time to be meeting the people I had only seen in pictures before. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly, so it was a good start to the trip. We got the chance to try Valencia's style of patatas bravas, which is potatoes with mayonnaise plopped on top and some paprika on top of that...pure, simple, genius. And that night Anabel (Eddie's cousin) made us dinner, which we had with her family and another of Eddie's cousins, Raul. The bed was calling our names pretty early that night, so we passed out pretty soon after dinner.

Sidenote: Eddie's cousin Anabel has two children, the youngest of which is 11-months old and was crawling about...he was the cutest little bundle of blonde-haired-blue-eyed joy!! And I know little Damy isn't so young anymore but the little guy still made me think of him!! DAMY I MISS YOU!
Look at these cuties!!
The first thing on the agenda for Valencia the next day was to visit the City of Arts and Sciences.  Basically it is an area a bit south of the city where there is a cluster of museums: a science museum, an aquarium, a planetarium and cinema, and I don't know what else. It's very impressive to marvel at, because its a long stretch of super modern buildings, probably the most modern stretch of land in all of Spain (well, the parts of Spain that I've seen anyway!) I still can't quite wrap my head around it, because you have this modern area of Valencia and then you go to the center of the city and it is 100% traditional Spanish with the cobblestone narrow roads, the ancient cathedrals and such.

The only place we actually visited at the City of Arts and Sciences was the aquarium: Oceanografic. I was 100% satisfied with the place! It was very impressive. We were there for a few hours, enjoying all the animals and the sun that shone that day. The best exhibits were the ones where you walked through a tunnel and were just surrounded by ocean all around you...especially the shark tank one! I'll admit that I was a bit nervous walking through that one...but to anyone who knows me it should be no surprise since I have a modest fear of sharks...
Nervous smile...

Afterwards we tried the famous Valencian Horchata drink...however I personally find the Mexican kind to be much better :) We also ventured over to a shopping center just because I love them and so good ol' Eddie endured a couple hours of me living out my shopping desires! Afterwards we went to the center of Valencia just to have a look around at everything. It is a typical Spanish city in every way, there was nothing that seemed out of place; there were the beautiful old buildings, the smaller streets, the bigger shopping streets, the bustling plazas, and palm trees! Valencia's cathedral is especially impressive, in its very ornate and beautiful architecture! It has two towers that you can climb up and get a view of the whole city. I think this is becoming one of my favorite things to do in cities...climb to the highest point usually up an ungodly amount of stairs, that way you can get a good work out and your reward at the end is a gorgeous view!! Unfortunately for me, we did not have time at this moment to make the trip up the tower because we had an appointment to get to....
Outside the cathedral
Inside the cathedral

We had another "live escape" game we had to get to! Apparently these are getting to be popular in various tourist destinations. The one we did in Valencia was called X-Door and it was similar in idea to the one we did in Munich, called HintQuest! It was quite a different theme from the Munich one, a bit less organized, but still another fun way to pass an hour! Again I can't delve into details because we're sworn to secrecy... just kidding. But it would ruin the fun for the future participants!

We ended the night by going out to this sweet gourmet hamburger place that Anabel's boyfriend works at. It felt quite American, with the variety of burgers and toppings to put on them...it reminded me of Red Robin! But it was not quite as greasy as the American version, no one touches us when it comes to greasiness. After dinner we headed home...we had had a long day and were looking forward to getting some shut eye.

Day three was the one I was most excited for because it included an afternoon at the BEACH! And we had perfect weather for it, too! And we could actually go IN the water because it wasn't -20C like the water in Galicia! Ugh, so nice. But it also made me long for some Chicago beaches, which have even warmer water and the skyline in the background!!
Not a bad view at the beach :)

Steak in some sort of tomato sauce
Merluza (hake fish?) in a creamy vegetable sauce
We were starving after a few hours at the beach, and wanted to find somewhere good to eat. Good ol' Eddie was very patient with me, because I was very picky about where I wanted to go. We even sat down at one place that looked decent but then I wanted to leave because the people at the table next to us were giving me weird vibes and the waiter didn't come to take our order after almost ten minutes of having sat down. Deuces, restaurant. We wandered for another half an hour because nothing looked good to me until we finally found a small place that was perfect! I think the wait was worth it! We ate very well and fairly cheap, and it was typical Valencian food. Eddie lived in Valencia when he was very young, and some of our food even reminded him of his childhood :)

We made our way home afterward, quite exhausted. After taking showers we hung out a bit with the family, but I also had to make time for a little nap! When I woke up it was already time to get ready for our night out. The plan was to stop somewhere to get some tapas and then go watch a Flamenco show!!! It had been far too long since I'd seen flamenco, and while I accepted the fact that whatever flamenco we saw in Valencia would probably not compare to the authentic thing in Andalusia, I went into the show with an open mind.

Before we arrived to the show, we stopped to get some quick tapas. We got a bit lost on the way to the show, so we just picked a bar that was nearby. We sat down, ordered drinks and asked the waiter to recommend some food to us. He proceeded to recommend some patatas bravas, pulpo, lacon, empanada, croquetas... we told him we were looking for something that was typical of Valencia. To which he responded: "Oh, but this is a Galician bar!" ...Really? Of all the bars in Valencia to end up at, we end up at un bar gallego. Oh well! Bring on the bravas, croquetas, and estrella galicia beer!!

GET IT girl
We ate quickly and it was all delicious (obviously.) then ran over to catch the show. It was already packed! We ended up having to stand near the back of the bar but we could still see the show very well. As soon as I heard the Spanish guitar start going, I was smiling from ear to ear. There were two women who danced...one was younger with a very distinct style of dance, she included some moves that I swear looked like she was doing the robot. But the other older woman HIT IT SO. HARD. AND. SO. WELL. I was so impressed! She also sang as she danced which I still can't quite comprehend. It was definitely a touristy place, there were some people who tried to clap along with the dancers when they started las palmas...and then quickly stopped when they saw that it wasn't the typical rhythm of clapping! The show ended around 1 in the morning and since the metros were already closed we hailed a taxi to take us home.

Our last day in Valencia was undoubtedly the greatest! We set out in the morning for the family's house out in the country, and this is where we stayed a majority of the day. It was a perfect house, secluded out in an open field, with the sun beating down as we sat out on the huge terrace! We were there with two of Eddie's cousins and their families, and also his aunt and uncle. This uncle was just the most hilarious jolly old guy. He never stopped making jokes and swearing and complaining that he gets no respect and messing around with his grand kids. He also immediately took his shirt off when we got to the house to work on his tan, no shame, I loved it. They all treated me so kindly! Eddie's uncle showed us how to make paella, so I took the best mental notes of my life:

Step 1: Gather ingredients: meat (usually rabbit and chicken), vegetables (lima beans and green beans ONLY!), tomatoes, rice, salt, coloring, oil, water

Step 2: Heat up the paella pan! (I gotta get me one of these!)

Step 3: Slowly cook the meat in the oil

Step 4: Add the vegetables to cook once the meat is almost done

Step 5:  Add the water and rice, and tomato. Let cook for strictly 20 minutes!

Step 6: EAT UP (drizzle with some lemon if desired)

I have tried a bunch of different types of paella since I've been here, and this was by far the greatest. It was so flavorful and juicy and perfect!! I hope I can recreate it when I get home!

We had a big family lunch of the paella, and sat around the table talking and having dessert and drinking licor cafe and other digestivos  afterwards while the children played around us. It was the perfect little afternoon!

That evening we walked around Valencia center one last time, stopping to get frozen yogurt to put the cherry on top of our trip. I was very happy with our trip there overall, and it was certainly more for the family aspect of it than the attraction of the city itself! As I sit here writing this, I have less than two weeks left in Ourense, and I am oozing with ganas to be with my family. So Valencia was a nice way to be with family I now have here while I wait to get back to the States :)