Granada & Valencia, Mass Intelligentsia

I really wanted to rhyme Valencia with something, OK? But it kind of works anyway because these two cities & their tours and outings dropped some serious knowledge on me.

Granada Inn Hostel

Granada was chilly when I first arrived, and had sagged under the weight of the clouds overhead. I wasn’t much looking forward to shivering through my tours and waking up in the early mornings to stand in long lines. In the cold. In Spain. Un-bloody-heard-of and I wasn’t going to stand for it. I’m assuming my utter refusal to partake in cold weather is the single most important contribution to the weather actually warming up in subsequent days. Because clearly I am a goddess with weather powers. Weather superpowers, you might say, if you were so inclined.

Garden in Albaycin.

I ended up extending my stay in Granada in a night and pushing Valencia back because sometimes when you’re booking as you go you don’t make all the calculations about train times and check out times and time correctly. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to hit up the Alhambra, which is a huge reason to go to Granada in the first place. I’m sure Cordoba is nice, but all the people I had spoken to on the way vouched for Granada over Cordoba, so there I went. Talking to people, travelers, here is like Facebook… But in real life! Weird how that works.

Part of the Alhambra - women's quarters.

I took 2 tours with my hostel – 1 to the Albaycin neighborhood, and 1 to the Caves. I kinda wished I had had time to go to the waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada mountains, but I only have so much time. The Albaycin tour was amazing. The neighbourhood is so charming, with its gardens and pomegranate trees and tiny streets with people and motorbikes crowding through. There are so many stunning viewpoints of Granada and the Alhambra because it is on the opposing hill. Its history is, of course, intertwined with that of Moorish, Arabic, Catholic and Jewish kings and people. One would build, the other buy. One would marry, the other abdicate. And so the story goes. The fountains here spout pure drinking water. And the guide told stories about its history using Game of Thrones and other TV shows as stand-ins, so.. That was hilarious and so worthwhile.

Overlooking Albaycin.

Granada is where a huge part of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon played out: one of my favorite, twisted historical stories of two kingdoms and betrayal and cousin-marrying. And Alhambra is where they lived! Going through those rooms after standing in line for 2 hours at 6am was so… Surreal. Isabella walked through these rooms. Moorish law clerks, and princes and sultans walked on these stones. In one of the rooms, it was said that an entire royal family was slaughtered (of course I can’t remember because audio guides don’t get into my brain as they should).

Lion fountain in the middle of Alhambra

The final thing I saw in Granada was the caves up above Albaycin. These are free caves in which people live for free. I’m stressing free because while they don’t pay rent, they also don’t have running water, electricity or toilets. And they have to bring all their food and water up a huge mountain. Its insane and so cool. There are some caves in better states than others, but it all looks pretty hippy to me. You would sometimes see these “alternative” looking dudes walking around town with no shoes, dreadlocks, piercings and tattoos, and parts of their heads shaved. They were stunningly beautiful. I could barely look away, and not because of the remnants of my teenage rebellion against “typical” looking people (really against my dads ideas), but just because they were. They had an aura around them that was very hard to resist. And while their abodes were incredibly humble, they were also somewhat satisfying in their simplicity. I don’t know if I could ever live in a place like that in the side of a mountain (a house, maybe, which to be truthful, people in Russia do all the time: the compost toilet, the handmade, gravity shower, the lighting by candlelight), but only because I’d be scared of it caving in. I’d probably do it for a story though! Offer is on the table, newspapers!

The best thing about Granada, by far, is the fact that you get free tapas with a purchase of alcoholic drink in the pubs and cervecerias. Yum and weight-gain and yum.

The less known beach in Valencia

After Granada, I finally made my way to Valencia, which in many ways was my relaxation city. I read in the Park Turia (it used to be a river that they rerouted and is now a 10km stretch of parks and gardens and community areas), walked it, and finally, on my last day, biked through it and the Ciudad des Artes y Ciencias to get to an out of the way beach, which isn’t as great as the main beach, apparently. But oh well. I got a short tan on my legs from that ride, which I thought would never happen. My legs don’t tan! They are usually not those sort of legs, but Spain has made them into such things.

Paella Valenciana

In Valencia I also ate a lot of tapas and I tried paella Valenciana, because it is said that paella originated there. It was worth every bite. A few new friends and I also tried Agua De Valencia, which is kind of like a punched up mimosa with fresh OJ (using Valencia oranges) and adding some vodka and gin to the champagne already in there. It makes for a tasty, and deceptively strong, drink.

My face not reacting well to the sun on top of a cathedral overlooking Valencia

While I liked Valencia, I wasn’t in love with it. I found that the architecture lacked in comparison to Seville and now that I’m in Madrid, the feel of the city is lacking as well. Madrid has a vibrancy that Valencia lacks. I understand that they’re very different cities, but I guess I just didn’t like the feel of that one as much.

In short: Granada, yes. Sevilla, yes. Madrid, yes! Valencia, eh.

Stuck in Seville, Spain

Sevilla is kind of difficult to leave. Like, really difficult. It sucks you deep into itself and leaves you flustered and winded. It is a smallish city that moves at the pace of a big one. Its thin streets and alleys open up towards the water to become elegant boulevards on whose arms impressive facades were built. These things take your breath away, pull it from your body into balloons that you practically float on as you finish the day lost in the labyrinth.

Streets in Santa Cruz.

The neighbourhood of Santa Cruz, or the Jewish Quarter, is an exaggeration of the rest of the city. The “kissing street” is so narrow that the Spanish balconies, slightly jutting out from the windows with their wrought-iron castings, are almost touching. There is an endless collection of sad stories ground into the cobblestoned streets. There are betrayals the likes of Romeo and Juliet (but with Susona and her cruel lover), where people die and then others, women obviously, from the devastation, commit suicide. There are also the stories, enshrined in squares where synagogues should have stood, of love, of kings being shown up by homeless women in middle-age poetry slams, taking them as their wives and planting a city full of orange trees just to satisfy their new wife’s need for snow (as when the orange blossoms bloom, their flowers are tiny, white, and floating down, cover the city in a blanket of ‘snow’).

Shadow of orange trees in square.

There is an uncountable variety of cafes and tapas bars, with seniors (politically correct, or no?) who hang out in the warming morning sun with their zuma de naranja, cafe con leche, and toast with mantequilla y marmelade. In Canada, or at least where I live near Toronto, older folks gather in droves in Tim Horton’s, buying small coffees and hot chocolates, being more raucous, sometimes, than the teenagers that drop by post-partying late into the night. There is something more accepting in Sevilla about this, something expected and necessary and comforting. Like the city has made room for its wisest inhabitants openly, instead of sentencing them to cordoned off areas where they won’t disturb the general populace, which, I find, is the mindset behind the building of old-age homes in North America.


My tour guide told us that the way people behave here is mainly show, seeing as how unemployment is at about 35% city-wide. But do people ever show! Wow. Never have I been in a city better dressed than Seville. The women are immaculate at every time of day and night, donning thick, high heels without an ounce of wobble, carefully tailored (and tight) dresses in all the fashions and colors of the rainbow, and an air of confidence that made me, in my baggy shorts and flip flops, slink back into my head and pretend I was one of them. Alas, living out of a backpack, even one as heavy and densely packed as mine, cannot possibly be as glamorous as these women’s grubby slacks, as if they ever had such a thing. I could learn something from them in my real life though, which is that there is never an occasion too unimportant to not dress up for. I.e. always dress up, and own it!

The Cathedral of Sevilla as seen from the roof of La Banda hostel.

Finally, there is flamenco, and tapas, and a completely surprising mix of cultures that I would never have gleaned were I not to visit Spain or read about its history. The Cathedral’s minaret and orange tree garden used to be part of a mosque, and the beautiful, peaceful fountains were used for cleansing Muslim’s bodies before prayer. Cultural heritage, invasions and defeats and exploration, these things befuddle me when I think about how rampant racism can be in certain countries. How can it possibly exist when we are all so historically, currently, and unexceptionally linked to one another, not only in “multicultural Canada” but everywhere across the world?

Looking from the minaret of the Cathedral.

Until next time, when I’m hoping to summarize some thoughts on Granada and Valencia. Bizou!

Lagos, Portugal

You meet the most interesting people at hostels. Lost people. Found people. Determined and stubborn people. People who frustrate you and invigorate you and surprise you. Insistently surprise you.

City of roofs. Lisbon.

Lisbon tugged me into its embrace. Walking the cobblestones of an ancient seaport, of an ancient everything where life seems calmer and more urgent at the same time… It was invigorating. The fresh air and laissez-faire attitude woke me up every morning, whether I got enough sleep, or not, the night before. It is where I flew into and where I found out how to be around strangers and stay calm instead of letting my usual panic crawl up my back and sequester me.

Walking tour of Alfama.

I walked the city, alone and with others, grabbed drinks, alone and with others, and made decisions for myself and for others. I lost opportunities to do what I wanted and gained chances to do something for someone else, participate in their lives for a moment. That’s the most interesting part of this traveling so far. Because I’m staying in hostels that emphasize common areas for travelers to hang out, you are always meeting people, crossing the lines between your life and theirs.

Overlooking Lisbon.

And you can always tell the people that have been traveling for long periods of time. They are always incredibly relaxed, friendly, kind. The people new to this, ahem, myself included, are nervous and tense. But the more I do it the more I relax. I’ve been in Portugal for a week and I already feel as though I’ve been forcing myself to do things that I would usually find uncomfortable. This has made the things that are less worrisome seem even less so. I went out for a pub crawl with a horde of people from the hostel one night that I had met the previous day and that same day at the communal “Momma’s Dinner”. Going out into the night, walking Lisbon’s streets, dancing in Lisbon’s bars and talking with the people I was out with was huge for me. I was pretty saucy but it was still exhilarating in a way I could pinpoint, even while drinking. This night made the other inconveniences of sharing a living space with others practically disappear.

Belem monastery courtyard.

After leaving Lisbon behind, with its hills and custard tarts and monasteries and hills, I bought a wrong ticket to make my way to Lagos because damn, Europe, 24-hour clocks and shit. The ride was 4 1/2 hours, and I only realized there was internet about three-quarters of the way through. Oops. That being said, it was pretty painless, which is exactly how I’m hoping tomorrow’s ride to Seville, Spain will be as well. This ride will be 5 1/2 hours but will also be stopping almost at every big city on the way. Eep! But its the only option to get from the Algarve to Seville so who am I to complain?

Praias. Lagos, Portugal.

Lagos, where I’ve spent the past couple of days, has been like going to the cottage. Sore muscles from surfing, burned shoulders from tanning and an eternal pain in my calves from walking up and down the infernally wrong hills. Always. The town is drowsy and young. The bars seem to hint at avid debauchery, though I haven’t had a chance to go out here because the entire hostel was hungover from a BBQ the night before I came, and I’ve been sleeping Lisbon off ever since I got here anyway.

Cerro Das Mos, Lagos. Evening.

The beaches here are unlike any I’ve ever seen. I would have gone once more to them today, but the weather took a turn for the worse (17°C – hahahahahhaha) and I was so sore from yesterday’s surfing trip that I don’t know if I would have made the effort anyway.

Panorama of Praia de Dona Ana.

Lagos taught me to just chill. This is, unfortunately, something I needed to learn. Here’s hoping this and all the other things continue as I make my way to Spain. I’m hoping a business week in Seville will help me decide whether I want to cross over to Morocco or not. I would need to prepare for that somewhat, seeing as how after landing I realized I brought a total of 2 t-shirts, and about 17 tank tops. Oops. Last minute packing moments are not my finest, apparently. I could do with some gear rearrangement anyway, so maybe some shopping in Seville for some sexier, more “European” clothes wouldn’t hurt.

Mojito and musings on the harbour of Lisbon.

thoughts strung together by arina kharlamova


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