Tuesday, November 27, 2007

News from Spain
November 27, 2007

We're now in Barcelona, after a bit over a week in southern Spain. We're in an apartment right off the Ramblas, a big pedestrian street here, so we're in the middle of things with much of the touristic center within walking distance. This morning we did a walking tour of the gothic/Roman history part, basically the center of the center, and we kept circling around the cathedral, town hall etc that we need to go back with our maps and figure out how all the little streets and alleys weave together. There's also been a lot of excavation of the Roman ruins that are under the basements of everything in the Gothic part, which was simply built on top of the Roman town. Lots of the government buildings have beautiful courtyards with fountains, a Maeve favorite. We'll go out to wander around there a bit more later, as Mike's come down with a nasty stomach bug and didn't have the energy this afternoon. Maeve and I went out an wandered around, hitting the Boqueria, a fresh veggie/meat/fish market a couple of blocks from here. We got some fresh mushrooms, which are in season here now. In the middle of the Ramblas there is a pet market with tons of stalls selling fish, turtles, rabbits, and birds. Maeve is in heaven there. She gets so excited and keeps saying "dat" her new favorite word (from "ba") which basically means "what is that?"

Granada was great, a bit rainy and cool while we were there, but the Alhambra, the huge Moorish palace/fort complex there is really incredible. The most iconagraphic fountain there, in the patio of the lions, was under restoration, so we didn't see that but the rest of the Arabic palace had lots and lots of fountains (Maeve's favorite as she gets to say "ak'm," her pronunciation of agua and stare at the water), courtyards and amazing ceilings. I especially liked where the capitals of the columns bleed into the ceilings, there's tons of elaborate carving of many little niches that blend into the ceiling decoration. There were also many "miradores," balconys that caught the breeze and had remarkable views over gardens or the city. The Christian cathedral and a chapel that contains the burial site of Ferdinand and Isabella of reconquest, inquisition, and Columbus-sponsoring fame are also in Granada, and we checked them out. We liked the Alhambra better.

In Granada, we stayed in the Albaicin, the old Arabic quarter that still had cobblestone streets winding up and down hill, many of which were not passable in cars as there were stairs. Our neighborhood square had an AM veggie market and there were a number of commercial bakeries around. One would set up a folding table in front of the garage door entrance to the bakery, where guys on mopeds where coming up to take out bags full of breads, and you could walk in and get breads off the folding table.

Before Granada, we stayed a few nights in a small village in the mountains named Montejaque. The village had 1 bakery, 2 grocery stores (about the same size as a very very small 7-11), and a handful of bars. Every morning when we got up Mike took Maeve the two blocks to the town bakery and got us sweet breads for breakfast. Maeve always got a free roll from the baker. Montejaque is on the edge of a national park and had lots of good hiking. We went out one day, but the other days were off and on rainy and the trails are pretty rough so we decided not to hike any more after that. The one hike we did, we left town and walked out a road past goat and chicken pens that were half dug into the mountain. We then walked up a dirt (mostly rocky) road through a valley and to an olive grove. At that point we cut into the olive grove, following goat tracks, to walk around to the back of the mountain. The front is shear, but the back isn't and you can scramble up to the top from the back. When we got to the track to the top, we realized the trail was pretty rough going and didn't really want to take Maeve up, so Maeve and I hung out on the rocks in the sun and had a snack while Mike went up. When he got down 50 minutes later, he said he'd been climbing that whole time and the trail was a bit rough. So we went around the other side of the mountain, following more goat tracks until we hit another road that went back into Montejaque. It was a nice hike - we seem to have an affinity for bushwhacking and hanging out on goat trails.

On our other days in Montejaque we visited other towns - one day in Ronda and one day in Arcos de la Frontera. Ronda is the most famous of the "white villages," picturesque mountain towns. It's built on two sides of a river which makes a huge ravine, and is famous because of the old bridges that cross the ravine, as well as the pretty old town. And it's famous for bull-fighting, we saw the outside of the ring but didn't visit the inside. In the old town, we visited a mideaval house that had a stairway dug into the side of the ravine that went down to a couple of wells as well as the river and had been used in the defense of the city. The old town was a mixture of buildings from Arabic and Christian times. (photo in Ronda November 19, 2007)

We went to Arcos de la Frontera as it was raining on a day we'd planned to hike. This turned out to be a lucky thing, as Arcos is a great visit. It's a good 90 minute drive from Montejaque, and on the way there, we passed all these trees whose bark had been cut off for the first 5-10 feet and they were now bright red. We thought the color was because they were getting rained on. But it was weird. We couldn't figure it out. Then we passed trees whose bark was off but the trunks were dark brown. We finally realized they were cork trees. It turns out that the trunks are red right after the cork bark is harvested. On the way back, we saw a warehouse with piles and piles of cork barks in the yard. Interesting. Near Grazelma we went over the pass that leads from the Natural park of Grazelma (which Montejaque is also in) to the plain around Arcos. I would not recommend doing this when it's raining. We couldn't see 2 feet in front of the car, and this on a windy "2 lane" mountain road. It was much better driving on the way back home in the afternoon.

Arcos sits in the middle of a fertile plain, but is on an impressive promontory, pretty shear on a couple of sides. Like Ronda, Montejaque etc, it was an Arabic town and defense was a big deal as there were several Moorish kingdoms that were fighting each other, and then the Christians. The main square had a big church, and old palace etc and the fourth side was an overlook of the plain. Really neat. We spent the day wandering in and out of the alleyways in the town and following signs to miradores, where we could look down the cliff and over the plain.

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