Friday, December 28, 2007

December 22, 2007
Winter Palace
Corniche el Nil, Luxor

We were in Cairo last week and this week is Luxor. I’m sitting in Paul and Carolyn’s room, which is adjoining to ours, while Maeve goes to sleep. This is an older hotel, with very tall ceilings and 19th century ideals of propriety – as in no bathing suites outside the pool precinct and coats and ties in the main restaurant. But the adjoining rooms are great, the garden out back is a wonderful view from our balconies and the location right downtown south of Luxor temple is the best.

The trip to Egypt was fine. We were a bit worried as we had a 3.5 hour lay-over in London and had to go from Gatwick to Heathrow, but we had plenty of time. Mike found his parents, amazingly enough, in Heathrow. Their trip over was a bit more difficult, with some delays on their planes, but they arrived in time just a bit tired. We were met in Cairo airport by a representative of the company we’d used to book our tickets and hotels. One rep led us through the airport, and then met up with another outside that went with a driver to take us to the hotel. Apparently, you need a special permit to work in the airport. We saw president Mubarak’s residence on the way to our hotel in Giza, and finally got in to bed close to midnight. Long day.

Our hotel was the four seasons in Giza, which was the fanciest hotel I’ve ever been in but unfortunately not in down town Cairo. With no traffic, it was a 20 minute taxi ride downtown – so it’s not really that far. However, no traffic does not really ever describe Cairo. The worst ride was the day it took and hour and 45 minutes to get back – most usually it took between 45 minutes and an hour.
Cairo is an amazingly huge, trafficy and polluted city. One week there was enough, despite the many interesting things to do there. We were all very happy to get here and get the black pollution junk out of our noses and be able to see the other side of the Nile without squinting through the murky haze.

Our first day in Cairo we went to the modern part of the city to figure out guides for our day trips. We visited 3 tourist agencies recommended in the Rough Guide and decided to hire Thomas Cook for the day trips. They were the only ones that had a list of possible trips and prices. We then went out to eat kushari, a mix of pasta, rice, lentils, spicy tomato sauce, and sautéed onions. All four of us ate for 22 Egyptian pounds, and then we got a rice pudding for dessert. It was fast and yummy. One other day we went by the same place and got take out. Maeve is a super big hit with everyone, when leaving the restaurant, one of the waiters was taking her picture with his cell phone.

One day in Cairo we went to the Egypt museum. We hired a guide outside, which was well worth it to make it thought the highlights. Our guide was quite good, explaining pharonic statutes (two hands crossed on the chest is the mummy pose (often with cook and flail), one hand flat on the leg means peace, one hand is usually grasping something – a hankie, a flail or a third thing that we can’t remember. The massive amount of stuff they recovered from King Tut’s tomb is also amazing, I can’t imagine how much there were in the tombs of kings that were in power for a while and who had time to prepare and build real tombs. Tut’s is just the only one found intact, out of over 100 Pharaohs. Unbelievable. The number of beds, for example, including a fold-up one, and the layers and layers of wooden caskets, both for the body and for the canopic jars holding the organs.

Other interesting factoids we learned at the museum keep getting repeated and put to use as we see monuments. For example, I now know the crowns of upper and lower Egypt, and we often see carvings of the pharaoh on the outside of temple doors, on one side wearing the crown of upper Egypt and on the other the crown of lower Egypt. We also learned that the direction of the birds in hieroglyphs show the direction to read it, reading from the beak to the tail.

At our hotel, we asked if there was anywhere nearby in Giza we could walk to that had Egyptian food. The concierge at first recommended restaurants in the hotel, or other tourist stops, but I really suggested we wanted normal Egyptian food. So they recommended a restaurant called Gad, a chain that the Rough Guide also recommended. So we got directions from the concierge, and one day set out on foot to find it. We walked past the supermarket where Mike and Carolyn had gone to get supplies for Maeve, and Gad was supposed to be 2 minutes further on. We couldn’t find it, so turned around and got bread at the market and picnicked in our rooms. Later, coming back from the pyramids, we saw the restaurant, about 1 block past where we’d turned around. We went back there and ordered Egyptian pancakes, a couple filled with veggies and a couple sweet ones. They were good, and the sweet ones were very very sweet. We also got falafel, which Maeve loves, and it came with hot pita-like breads that were very good. I don’t know if I’d order the veggie pancake again – in the menu it was the fasting Christian pancake – as it was full of peppers, which aren’t my favorite, and black olives, which Carolyn didn’t much like, but it was good to try them. One of the sweet ones was with honey and cream cheese. Yummy.

We also spent two days at the pyramids, one at Giza and one at Saqqara. We had a mediocre guide for Giza and a good one for Saqqara, and that made a big difference. The Giza pyramids are just huge, we most enjoyed pyramid #2, which is not currently open to go in, as it was less crowded and had 3 smaller pyramids around it (belonging to wives of the pharaoh) and we could wonder around. Mike and his mom went into the great pyramid, of Cheops, and said it was not that interesting – they were only allowed to go in one tunnel to the sarcophagus room and then back out. Paul and I walked around outside with Maeve, avoiding the people aggressively selling stuff. Perhaps the most interesting part for me was the funerary temple that went with pyramid # 2. The spynx was part of this complex, and there were remains of the causeway that they used to carry the corps from the valley temple to the mortuary temple and then up to the pyramid. I didn’t know that the spynx was carved in situ, out of rock that was just there. It’s also pretty neat.

On the Saqqara day, we first went to Memphis, which was the capitol of the Old Kingdom. It’s right south of Cairo, not really in the delta, which was lower Egypt, but very close so it was chosen for the location as the kinds from upper Egypt (the Nile valley) had conquered lower Egypt and wanted to make a capitol close to the conquered lands to keep them under control. There is absolutely nothing left there – all silted over and covered by a village, but the do have an outdoor museum with a number of statues. The highlight is a huge statue of Ramses (no?) that is now lying supine and is covered in a barn. We then went to Saqqara, which is the home of the first pyramid, which was a step pyramid built by Pharaoh Zoser. Until him, the kinds were buried in mastabas, which are graves dug into the ground and covered with a big slab of rock. Zoser wanted something more kingly, so his architect, Imhotep, built him a bigger mastaba and then put smaller mastabas on top to make a step pyramid with 6 steps. Not a true pyramid, but the first step. There was also a huge temple complex around the pyramid. From there we could also see the bent pyramid at Dashur off in the distance. At the end of the trip, we went into a couple of mastabas and looked at their decorations, including the false door for the soul, and lists on the walls of all the offerings the dead guy gave to the gods. The drawings were amazing.
One dinner we went to an upscale Egyptian restaurant recommended by the Concierge. We first walked along the Corniche, which was full of floating restaurants, and at 5 took a taxi to the restaurant. Our time was not great, as that day was the first day of an Eid, or holiday, and was the fast day. Day 2 was the feast, but on that day, many people had fasted until sundown which was at 5:00, so when we got to the restaurant it was packed. We had to wait 30 minutes for a table, and then our service was very very slow, much slower than everyone else’s. The food was quite good – we got a selection of mezze, which are appetizers. Ours included falafel, tzaziki, tahini, fuul with pepper and onions, grape leaves, and several other dishes. The grape leaves were the best I’ve ever had. But, the restaurant also was a sheesha, or waterpipe bar. Lots and lots of people were smoking, and there was one staff member whose job was to service the pipes, bringing around coals and whatever else they needed. It was super-smoky. We all felt that it was interesting to see, but have no interest being in such a smoky place with such bad service ever again.
Our last day in Cairo, we visited Coptic Cairo. It’s a small enclosure, in the old Roman walls of Byzantium. It’s filled with old churches, most Coptic, a synagogue, and the main Orthodox Christian church for Egypt. The churches tended to be small, and had rooms off to the back that had relics or pictures of saints in them. The people going to these chapels took off their shoes. They also were touching the pictures of the saints and then kissing their hands. It seemed that many of the people visiting these churches were practicing Copts who were perhaps tourists but also felt the religious significance of the churches. From there, we took the metro to Garden City where we ate lunch at a Lebanese restaurant in the Embassy area. The metro is cheap – 1 Egyptian pound each, and that day, also holiday, it was full but not too crowded. Then a taxi back to the hotel to catch our afternoon flight to Luxor.

Our first day here in Luxor we went to the Luxor museum. We walked up the Corniche. Here, the Corniche is wide, with nice views of the Nile and the tons of tourist boats that are moored here. The sidewalks aren’t cracked, there isn’t much trash, and the air is breathable. What a change from Cairo. The big drawback here is the touts. I’m not sure how many times we were asked if we wanted a taxi, a felucca ride, a 1 Egyptian pound ferry to the West Bank, or a caleche ride, but almost certainly we said no a couple hundred times between our hotel and the museum. People are nice, but they all approach you and ask if you want whatever service they’re offering.
The Luxor museum is small, but very very good. The exhibits have English explanations, and it’s all high-quality and clearly laid out. We spent a good 2 hours there looking at statues, mummies, etc. I particularly liked the statues of Sekmet, the goddess of war who has a lion head. There were also some displays on architecture, included potsherds that were recycled as architectural drawings. At the end of the museum was a reconstructed wall from a temple built by Akhenaton, the Armarna heretic. The temple had been destroyed and used a pylon fill at Karnak, but had been found during excavations and reconstructed.

We had decided to have Thomas Cook arrange our day trips in Luxor, but had not been able to get to the office in Cairo to pay for the trips, as most of the offices were closed due to holidays. So the rep we’d worked with in Cairo had called a rep in Luxor and said we could get the same trips for the Cairo price quote. So we’d gone by there, and at first they were quoting us a much higher price, but we found the rep who had talked to the rep in Cairo, and he matched her price, with just a 10% markup for private guide. Mike figured that 10% just went in his pocket, but the prices were still competitive. As an incentive, he through in a free felucca ride, so we did that the first afternoon. Our captain took us across the river at 3:30 until sunset – we were back a bit after five. 90 minutes was long enough to keep Maeve entertained in a small boat. They offered us water and tea, which was strong and sweet. The oars are just pieces of wood with handles at one end, but the oaring surface area is no larger than the shaft. It seems inefficient. We also saw a small fishing boat laying out a net and then picking it up, catching very few fish. The ride was very peaceful.

Day 2 (today) we toured the East bank, which includes Luxor and Karnak temples. In ancient times, people lived on the east bank and buried their dead on the west. Therefore Cairo is East of the river and the Giza pyramids are west. Memphis is now west of the river, but it used to be east of the river and the Saqqara pyramids were to the west. For the new Kingdom, their capitol was east of the river in Luxor and the Theban necropolis was west. So today we did the East, land of the living and temples to the gods. Our guide, who we were supposed to have for 4 days, was not very good. We couldn’t hear her, she didn’t understand enough English to understand our questions, and once we could get her to understand our questions, she didn’t know the answers. We’re getting a new one tomorrow who will hopefully be better.
Nonetheless, the temples are amazing. We thought Luxor temple was big, but it’s nothing compared to Karnak, which was the main temple to the main god, Amun-Re, the sun god who is also represented with a ram’s head. The pylons, or gates, there are just huge, and Pharaohs would destroy previous pharaoh’s work to use their stones as rubble fill or building materials for their new construction. We saw closed and open papyrus topped columns, remainder of the ceiling of hypostyle halls (the temple was organized from outside in, into pylons separating halls, open-air courts where common people could go, hypostyle halls which were closed and for royalty, and the sanctuary where the god’s icon lived and was only available to high priests and the pharaoh. There is a side temple to Ramses (no?) which in miniature repeated the temple layout. There are also two obelisks left, one by Queen Hatshepsut and another by Amenhotep III, who came after Hatshepsut and tried to erase everything she’d done, either because she had been his regent and he hated her because he couldn’t wrest power from her or because he didn’t like the idea of a female pharaoh. Karnak is just so huge, it’s hard to make sense of it all.

Afterwards, we went to the temple at Luxor, which is much smaller, although still huge, and was primarily built by 2 pharaohs, although there were additions by others, including the Romans and Christians. It was easier to make sense of, in part because it followed the same layout of open air court, hypostyle hall and sanctum. The carving was again amazing, in some places you can still see the brown coloring of legs, blue sky with yellow stars, or red and green vegetation designs. There is also part of the avenue of the sphinxes, which used to lead all the way from Luxor to Karnak, as Mut and Khonsu, the wife and son of the god AmunRe, lived in Luxor and the two temples were both dedicated to the Theban triad. At the end of the tour, we dissed our guide to be able to wander around a bit more on our own and walked back to our hotel. I think we’re lucky because it’s winter. We all got some sun, but it’s quite pleasant outside. In the summer, it must be unbearable. I left Maeve’s diaper bag in the van, which we picked up this afternoon and Mike gave the driver a $1 tip. A good tip, but we were happy to have Maeve’s diaper rash cream back.

After Maeve’s nap this afternoon, we tried to go swimming. The pool is supposed to be heated and was warmer than air temperature, but still not very warm as by 4:15 when we got out there, the sun was no longer up very high. They close at sundown, which is about 5:00, but told us they were closing at 4:30. We went in for 5 minutes, which Maeve didn’t like as she was cold, got out and showered and went out for dinner. We decided to go to a restaurant mentioned in the guide book that had a view of the Souk. So we walked down Souk street, which has a wooden awning over most of it, which probably really helps make it more pleasant in the summer. It’s lined with tourist shops, every single one had a person sitting in a chair on the side of the road who would say something like “nice shop here” or “scarf only five Egyptian pounds” or “nice family look my shop” or “papyrus?” or something like that. The street was level, pretty clean, and pedestrianized. Just one block off, you could sometimes see donkeys pulling carts or other signs of non-tourist life. While we were eating, Paul and Carolyn saw a cobbler opening up his shop and setting up his sewing machine, just one quarter block off the tourist strip. It was very interesting.

Tomorrow we’ll head out early, 7 AM, with a new guide to do day 1 of the West Bank.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

December 13, 2007

Maeve eating dinner in Barcelona 11/28/07

About Barcelona,

Well, I didn’t blog much about Barcelona, so this is 2 weeks after the fact some things I remember.

Our first full day there, we signed up for a walking tour of the Gothic quarter, where all the gothic buildings were built on top of the Roman ruins. This tour was great, except for the fact that the night before Mike had gotten a stomach virus and ended up throwing up halfway through the tour before we entered the cathedral. He persevered on through, but was not feeling well.

Mike missed some of the tour, as he sat down as much as possible, but generally, it was great. We saw some old sections of the aqueduct that had just been discovered when they tore down a building. In several locations, they had excavated below street level to see the Roman town, and several columns were still left from one Roman building. The Cathedral and cloister were part of the tour, as were interiors of a couple of government buildings that had courtyards. We also saw and old hall, one of the few works of gothic civil architecture in the city, and where they assume that Isabel and Ferdinand met with Columbus. We circled around the cathedral several times, looking at squares, gargoles, and buildings, and ended up totally turned around at the end of the tour in front of the town hall. Meaning, we had no idea where we were, but we were actually about 5 minutes from our apartment, where we headed for lunch and naps.

The next day we went to Sagrada Familia, an amazing construction site. It was well worth going up in the tours and walking down to get views of the city and the façade up close. The church is massive, and now you can walk around the inside, which is almost completely covered, but it’s the facades that are most impressive right now.

One day we went to L’Exaimple to see Casa Batlo, an apartment complex remodeled by Gaudi. We really liked this one. I thought the balconies on the façade looked like skulls, and our Modernisme guide later told us that one story about the façade is that it represents the dragon killed by St. George, the patron of Barcelona, and that the balconies are the ribs of the maidens the dragon ate. Anyway, it’s all wavy lines. Inside, also there are no straight lines. All the rooms flow organically into one another. There were also lots of nifty “modern” touches, like the vents in the doors to let air flow between rooms or the skylights to let light into the stairwell and all the way down to the basement. Or the fact that the stairwell tiles changed color from dark blue at the top to light blue at the bottom. We spent a long time on the roof – Maeve particularly enjoyed the broken tile pieces that Gaudi used to make the façade.

Later we took a second walking tour that covered Moderisme. We’d really liked the first (gothic) walking tour, except for Mike getting sick, but on the Modernisme tour, our guide wasn’t as good. He talked a lot, and didn’t get through the whole itinerary. However, we did learn about the Catalan Music Hall, Casa Batlo, and La Pedrera, another Gaudi apartment building. Apparently, with La Pedrera, Gaudi completely ignored city building code regulations, and pretty much got away with building the building too tall and over the sidewalk.

Another day we went up to Montjiuc and the Miro museum. I really like his swirly lines and blobs of color. Mike was less enthused. We then went to a lookout to take in views of the city and cut through a restaurant access road to walk back down. Excellent shortcut. On the metro, we lost the map that had our list of veggie restaurants, we first circled back to the metro station we’d lost the map at. Of course it was gone. So we took the metro back to the apartment and looked up the restaurant location again. We then took the metro way up in L’Eixample, the part of the city beyond Plaza Catalunya that was built in the 1800s when the city was allowed to expand beyond the medieval walls. It was after 2 by the time we got to the restaurant, which was lucky because it didn’t open until 2:30. We’re still not used to the crazy eating times here. So we wandered around the neighborhood for a few minutes and sat in the square before going to eat. Then back for nap time, and a wander down the Ramblas in the evening.

Our last evening, we went to the plaza in front of the cathedral because it was Saturday and Saturday at 6 they do folk dancing there. However, the Christmas market was in full swing, full of stalls selling Belen figurines (parts of nativity scenes) and there was no folk dancing. Too bad.

Interesting, we brought a cell phone that is 3-band and will work in Europe, but needs to be unlocked. We first asked in Granada about getting it unlocked, and couldn’t find a place. We finally found one our last day there when we walked past the university on our way to a monastery, and there was a shop that advertised unlocking. We went in and asked, but they couldn’t have it done for another day, and we didn’t have time. There were tons of unlocking places behind our apartment in Barcelona, but we never managed to take the phone out and get in unlocked. Then in Valencia, again we couldn’t find a place to unlock the phone, although several people we asked claimed such shops existed on Calle Colon. Here in Madrid, we finally got the phone unlocked, too late for it to be useful for us to get a SIM card and use the phone here in Spain. The unlocking cost 12 Euros and took 5 minutes. Geez!
December 13, 2007

Calle Duque de Lira 3, Madrid

This has been a slow week, but not slow enough. Both Mike and I came down with pretty nasty colds. And we haven’t rested enough so we’re not better yet. Maeve has had a runny nose and been fussy when she wakes up, but otherwise okay.

So Tuesday, Maeve and I ran errands in the AM while Mike rested. We went to the post office to check and see if our credit cards had come in to the Lista de Correos, or general delivery. The mail wasn’t there. Then we went to the Banco de Espana, which is across the street from the main post office. There, we had over 10000 pesestas to change into Euros. There was one line for changing the bills and another for the coins. We got about 60 Euros for the bills and 12 for the coins – some of the coins weren’t changeable for some reason. One more thing out of our luggage. We then came back and I rested for an hour before heading out for a late lunch. We went to a vegetarian restaurant on M. Marsala street, not to far from where we’re staying. It was good – we got the fixed price Menu as usual, on Tuesday it was Italian, and one other main that had seitan. Evening was resting.

Wednesday we slept in and got out by 11 – getting close to Spanish time. We headed out to the Retiro park for an easy AM, then stopped back by the post office to check on the mail again. Still not there. On the side of the PO was the city nativity scene- called a Belen. Like in the US, where people might make a trip to see Christmas decorations or the town tree, people were lined up to see this Belen. We got interviewed by Reuters TV about it. It was nice, telling the story of the baby Jesus, the angles coming to the shephards, and the wise men searching for the baby in different scenes as you walked around it. Then we went out to lunch at Al Natural, a vegetarian restaurant recommended by Veronica Kribs, We got the Menu, as usual, and everything was great except for the minestrone soup, that was pretty much the veggie equivalent of chicken noodle soup out of a can. This was also the first time we’d been out to eat that Maeve was completely uninterested in eating and either Mike or I had to be up with her walking around the restaurant. This was probably because she’d OD’d on crackers at the post office. I got an afternoon nap with Maeve, but Mike went to sit outside Starbucks and work on line. He ended up being out for over 90 minutes, and it’s pretty cold, and came back not feeling great.

Today, we had tickets to take the high-speed train to Toledo. We talked about not going, but got up feeling okay and decided to make the trip. It was very cold there in the AM, and we were pretty unhappy campers. We took a bus from the train station to Plaza Zocodover, the main plaza, and walked from there to the Cathedral. It’s a five minute walk, but by that time we were all cold. We asked when buying tickets to the cathedral if it was heated, and they said yes. Well, it’s warmer inside than outside, but heated is perhaps an exaggeration. The cathedral is beautiful – well known for its altar and choro, but my favorite part was the “translucente” a big hole they’d cut in the ceiling to give more light on the altar and then had to decorate. It was pretty, and light. But generally, the cathedral was just cold. So we slipped inside the museum, which thankfully was heated. Maeve got happier, and we got to wander around and look at tons of paintings of different saints by El Greco. They weren’t too elongated or funky looking, but they were grey and looked El grecoish.

We then went to tourist information center and got a map, used the bathrooms, and gave Maeve a snack in the heat. Ahh, much better. Next, we walked to a church to see the El Greco painting the Death of Conde Orgaz. This is his masterpiece, and is still in situ, above where Conde Orgaz is buried. The “in situ” is true, but it’s not exactly the original context, as the area where the painting is has been walled off from the rest of the church and has it’s own entrance where you have to pay to get in to see it. So it’s really like a one-piece museum, which is a little weird. The painting shows the count dying in the bottom scene, surrounded by wealthy toledoeans, and in the upper scene shows his soul being carried to heaven where it’s received by saints and Jesus.

Afterwards we went to lunch at the insanely early hour of 12:30, mostly because I had a headache and thought I was hungry. We went to a pizza joint – good to eat warm food, and it’s hard to know where to get vegetarian here in the bars without just getting a cold sandwich. We’d thought we might take the early train home, but decided to stay until 3:25 when our train left. So after lunch, we walked back to the other section of town and went to the Synagogue of the Transit, which houses the national Jewish museum. The Synagogue building itself was amazing – it survived as a church – and has a beautiful wooden roof and mozarabic style windows. There was an upper gallery with five windows for the women – completely separate from the main worship space. There were also several rooms about Judaism in Spain, but they were most just about Judaism and had very basic information, like that Jewish people circumcise their children, get married, and have religious holidays. We thought it was kind of weird – a very basic introduction, but figured maybe the Christian kings did such a good job wiping out the Jews in Spain that nobody knows anything about their culture. There were a few artifacts, including some interesting gravestone. The women’s gallery was another room of the museum that talked about daily like, but as Mike pointed out, there was no information about Jewish women. The building was cool but the museum was a disappointment.

After the museum, we hiked down to a bridge across the river to get a view of the walls. We then headed back to catch our train. In the afternoon, it was warmer, and we were all better until we had to run, almost literally, to make the train. We were on the far side of town, and got to Bisagra Gate, the main gate leading into the walled city, 20 minutes before our train was leaving. We were going to try to take a bus or taxi, but the people at the tourist info center suggested we could walk it in 10 minutes. So we booked it, arriving at the train 4 minutes before it was scheduled to leave, tired and sweaty. Not a great end to the day. Mike by that time was feeling very sick. We came home and took naps and rested. Now I’m typing the blog – tomorrow is supposed to be our Prado day, but maybe will be a day of rest, laundry, and preparing for Egypt.
December 10, 2007
Calle Duque de Lira, 3, Madrid

About Madrid:

On Saturday, our first full day in Madrid, we toured the Royal Palace in the morning. It’s full of richly decorated rooms with painted ceilings, painted or inlay walls, and marble floors. Nice and impressive. In the afternoon we went to the Reina Sophia museum, the new modern art museum that houses Guernica by Picasso. It was the free Saturday, and the museum was crowded but not overly so. We managed to see the whole 2nd floor before Maeve got tired of not being able to touch anything, and we took a break in the central courtyard (the museum is housed in an old hospital) where Maeve could check out the fountain. We liked various pieces of art – I particularly liked the way Guernica was shown, with a number of sketched Picasso did working out particular pieces of the work or the overall composition. A number of the sketches showed brutal faces with pokey teeth, protruding tongues, and bloody tears. Almost none of this made it into the picture, as the faces in the final composition are more primitive. There was also a display of 8 photos taken in the studio while he was working on the piece and showed how many parts of the composition changed over time. Some ideas, like the lightbulb in the eye, weren’t in the original sketch for the composition, or the horse was a different direction etc. It’s neat to see how the artist was making choices over time. Maeve of course most liked the sculpture.

Sunday AM we had two things on the agenda – checking out the Rastro, the flea market held only on Sundays, and checking out the paseo in the Retiro park. We headed out about 9:30 for the Rastro (despite trying to get on Spanish time we still get up ungodly early and are always out before 10 AM, when everything opens). The Rastro was pretty much a very big but not interesting flea market selling junk. So after a 10 minute cruise through, we headed out to the plaza Mayor, in route to either the Retiro or the Prado, as Sunday is free Prado day. The plaza Mayor is an enclosed square with arcades all around, and a very impressive location. In December, however, it’s filled with the red stalls of a Christmas market selling junk, wigs, and neat figurines for the Belen, the nativity scene that adorns many Spanish homes at Christmas time. We’d seen tons of people wearing wigs – afros, purple punk styles, long and flowing pink wigs, as well as many reindeer hats. I’m not sure what the wig thing is, but certainly lots were on sale in the plaza Mayor. Maeve’s favorite thing was a bunch of mylar balloons that had gotten caught in the Christmas lights hanging overhead. We looked for Christmas ornaments, of which there were very few, and checked out the Belen figures, which were either scrawny baby Jesuses or very expensive. Again, no sales to us.

From the Plaza Mayor we headed out for the Prado, walking as there didn’t seem to be a convenient Metro path. The Metro here, by the way, is great. I don’t think we’ve waited over 5 minutes for public transportation in all of Spain. Barcelona metro is awesome and easy to use. Valencia we used buses, and again they ran frequently and were easy. Madrid same thing, easy, clean, nice. And Maeve loves the trains, she gets excited, waving her arms around and grunting every time one comes into the station.

When we got to the Prado, we saw that there was a line around the building of people waiting to get in. The line was clearly not an option with Maeve, so we walked to the Retiro, a big park that used to be royal hunting grounds, and had a snack there. We then detoured by the parque infantil, or playground. In Valencia, there was a parque infantil near our apartment, and Maeve figured out how to sit down and go down the slide on her on. So, she’s enjoying that here in Madrid as well. We then walked to the estanque, or pond, in the middle of the Retiro, which is where the Madrilenos come out for their pre-lunch paseo. There were a number of people out walking, as well as boats and kayaks on the lake and mini-puppet theaters that were just getting started at 11:30, as were the shops still setting up to sell gum etc to the walkers. Maeve was seriously into the water, fish ducks, and boats, while Mike and I enjoyed looking around at the people. We then headed home for lunch and an early nap, as we wanted to hit a veggie restaurant before it closed at 4:30 – early dinner for us and late lunch for the madrilenos.

Maeve got up early enough for us to walk to the restaurant, which as on Plaza de la Paja, a depressing little patch of cement going uphill. Most Spanish plazas have some life – a fountain, a patch of green, or at least an open sidewalk café that bring life to the open area, but this was just a couple of empty park benches and closed storefronts. At 4 pm most stores are closed, but there’s usually some life around. When we got inside the restaurant, they showed us to the non-smoking section, which was a balcony overlooking the smoking section. The air was dark and dense, and Mike started swelling up with allergies and just couldn’t face sitting in there for long enough to eat. So we headed back out to the depressing square and gave Maeve an emergency snack – we’d at the last minute thought to add a zip-lock of crackers to the backpack. We then headed back up to the Corte Ingles on Calle Princesa, one metro stop past our apartment, to look for books and go grocery shopping. When all restaurants are smoky and/or closed, we say cook!
Seriously, restaurants are open for lunch from 1:30-4:00. This is prime nap time. Then they aren’t open for dinner until 8 or 9 pm, prime going to sleep time. We’ve got Maeve on a late schedule here – we get up at 6 AM in the states and are sleeping in until 8 or 8:30 here, with a correspondingly 1-2 hour later bed time, and we’re still much earlier than the Spaniards. A couple of times in Valencia, Maeve got a 1 hour nap before lunch just to make it through. One day she just didn’t nap and went into hyper-active drive. We haven’t figured out quite how to work the schedule yet. Today (Monday), Maeve got an early nap and we tried another restaurant, El Granjero. We got there about 3:30, they stop letting people in at 4. It was non-smoking, had a menu del dia (set menu with a first, second, and desert that includes bread – definitely the cheaper way to eat here) for 9,50 Euros. A great deal, and had good food, no smoking. The soups we ordered for the first were especially good. So we had an early dinner. Maeve ate again at 7, with a nice appetite although Mike and I weren’t really hungry. We’ll see if we do that again or try to keep Maeve up until 3 or later when we eat at 1:30. That was our strategy in Barcelona and it sometimes ended up with cranky baby. Hmm.

Monday the 10th was a slow day. Mike’s down with a cold, so Maeve and I went out to look for books for both of us in the AM– I’ve read everything we brought with us and just want to get some good books for Maeve in Spanish. We checked out La Casa del Libro, a big book store on Gran Via near Plaza Callao. It’s nice. Then we went to buy train tickets to visit Toledo on Thursday – it’s the day trip we really want to make from Madrid, and Mike will hopefully be better by then. If he’s better tomorrow (Tuesday), we’ll do a half day at El Escorial, if not, then more wandering around Madrid. Not a bad fall back plan.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

December 8, 2007

Duque de Liria 3, Madrid

We're now in Madrid, in an apartment 5 minutes from Plaza Espana. Maeve's napping, Mike's reading about the Prado collection, and I'm blogging.

Last week we were in Valencia, and had a chance to visit with my host family from 20 years ago. the Villas let us stay in their "chalet," an apartment that they kept after having built a neighborhood on the outskirts of Valencia, near the Palacio de Congresos, or Convention Center. Salavador Vila, the father of the family, owns a real estate/construction company and is building like crazy as Valencia is booming. This "chalet," which is primarily used by Salvador Vila, the son, to store his jet ski equipment, had 4 bedrooms over 3 floors and was much nicer than many of the apartments we'd been staying in. Esperanza, my host mother, had stocked the kitchen with tons of food, so we had fresh squeezed orange juice once or twice every day, making use of the juicer and the two big bags of Valencia oranges in the kitchen. Maeve slept on a mattress we took off one of the beds and put on the floor, with another bed and a couple of plastic fences to keep her in. All the windows had the typical roll down blinds, so it stayed dark in the AM so we were all able to sleep in. Which was good, as we often didn't get Maeve down until 9. Crazy Spanish hours.

We took the train down to Valencia from Barcelona, a nice 3 hour ride last Sunday. When we got in, the Vilas met us at the train station and took us out to the chalet, where we put Maeve down for an hour. The whole family was meeting up at 2PM for lunch at a restaurant in El Saler, a beach between Valencia and La Albufera, a huge freshwater lake, used to irrigate acres of rice paddys and the home of lots of birds. We finally made it to El Saler, with Salvador and Esperanza, the parents, their daughter Esperanza, her husband Rafe, and their two kids, Rafito (12) and Esperanza (8). There's lots of naming kids after their parents. Also there was their daughter Cris, who spent a year with my family in SC 20 years ago, and her two sons, ?? and Rodrigo. Last but not least was Salva, the little boy who was 8 years old when I was there as an exchange student and is now 28, working for his dad's company, and a world-class jet skier. Crazy how we grow up. For lunch, there was a plethora of appetizers, including tuna with tomato, olives and little pickles - we'd determined that Maeve loves black olives so she got most of those. Then there was calimari and an egg wrapped in filo dough that wasn't completely cooked through, This filo dough package sat on top of a mixture of baby octopus and veggies. To eat this, you cut through the filo dough package, mixed the backed dough with the mostly raw egg and the octopus and veggies below. Very interesting. The sea food was apparently good there. We ordered a paella for the main dish, and since Mike, Maeve and I don't eat fish or meat, the whole table ended up eating a veggie paella. It was good - there's tons of rice grown in the Albufera, and the Valencians know how to cook it well. After about a 3 hour lunch, we called it a day and headed home.

The first couple of days in Valencia Mike spent at an Internet cafe finishing up a grant proposal. Maeve and I wandered around town, visiting the basilica of the Virgin, which was packed with people listening to a mass and pilgrimaging upstairs to see the icon of the virgin and sit and pray. A big change from many churches that don't seem to get used much. The evenings were generally used for a quick shopping run to the Corte Ingles. On Tuesday afternoon, we went over to the Villa's for another family lunch, this time without the kids as they were in school, except for Rafito who had a head ache and got out early. This was another crazy long family dinner, though a bit less so as everyone did have to go back to work. Maeve was super hyper active and did not take a nap that day, but did not completely implode until about 7 pm. Amazing. The Vilas had redone their house, which faces onto Plza Alfonso el Magnanimo. The plaza is much nicer than 20 year ago, when it housed and informal street market of north-african origin that sold lots of pot and hash. Now there are kids running around in it, like a regular Spanish square. Calle de la Paz also had no prostitutes, and the alleys of the old town in general were undergoing a good bit of construction, but were clean and busy. A nice area to walk around. In the house, the room where I stayed as a kid has been turned into a wardrobe, as the kids, except for Salva, have left the house and there's more space for the parents. It's neat to see how things have changed.

As for the people, many of their characteristics I had forgotten I know remember again, like their mannerisms of speaking etc. It cracked me up when Espe Jr left the house on Tuesday and said, pues, nada. She always said that before and still does, exactly the same way. It was great to see them all again.

On Thursday, we spent some time with a professor at the Polytechnical University of Valencia who'd interviewed Mike for a local cable access TV program. He showed us around the new Palaces of the Arts and Sciences, which is almost through being build in the old riverbed of the Turia. It was build by Calatrava, who was born right outside Valencia. It's almost all white, very modern, and car-free, which was great. The three buildings, a music hall, a hemispheric (IMAX/planetarium), and science museum, are all white, curvy, and have surfaces that change with light, reflection, and movement. I personally liked the hemispheric the best - it's in the shape of half of an eye, and the curved theater surface is the iris. It's reflected in a pool, which makes it a whole eye. Pretty neat. Apparently the original design was to have a complete eye that looked up to the sky, but this was to be visible from a tower next to it. When the government changed, the new government wanted to have a hand in the project, so they ixnayed the tower and put in the music hall instead. This took away the possibility of seeing the eye from above, so Calatrava changed the design and added the water to get the complete eye effect. There's also a shady park promenade area with sweet smelling herbs as well as lots of open park space in the Turia bed. Altogether a great public space, none of which was there 20 years ago and is apparently, along with the America's cup, helping to revitalize the Valencia tourist economy.

Fundamentally, Valencia was a debacle, as Mike says. We spent good time with the Vilas and had a great tour of the new Cuidad de Artes y Ciencias, designed by the architect Calatrava, but we also managed to scratch the Vila's car getting out of the parking garage, loose a cell phone, and I lost my wallet. Not the best track record for one city.

On Friday, we took the train here to Madrid, another nice 3 hour ride. This morning we went out, planning to spend the AM walking around the old city, but it was foggy so we went into the Royal Palace and checked that out. The first half of the tour is the most impressive, with amazingly decorated rooms from the floors (some marble inlay, lots of beautiful rugs) to the wall decorations, to the chandeliers to the ceilings. This afternoon the plan is to hit the Reina Sophia and check out Guernica on the free Saturday afternoon.

In Barcelona, I really like the church of Santa Maria del Mar, which was built outside the Roman center city but inside the medieval walls by people who had made their money from the sea. It had been burned, and was starkly beautiful. I liked the contrast between the soaring gothic columns (and the fact that there were only three apses so the church wasn't so wide) and the modern glass entry doors, modern pews etc. It's clearly a church that gets used and has managed to make an inviting space for reflection that blends gothic beauty and modern functionality. And there wasn't as much ornate gold leaf, which old churches here are often overwhelmed with, and that is not as appealing to me.