Second Edition: The Spanish Conquest

2013-06-14 18.50.30 2013-06-07 02.23.14 EspanaFor reasons I don’t even know, Spain was never at the top of my list when it came to places to see. It seemed nothing more than a convenient place to spend a month before I started the Camino de Santiago. Retrospectively, I feel like a prized idiot for my nonchalant attitude towards this incredible country.

Thus, this is the story of the Spanish conquest over Mayra Barragan.

Housing more beautiful scenery, history and architecture than my little brain could have ever imagined, this country is nothing short of enchanting. I fell in love, over and over again with the magic this place has to offer.

Perhaps it’s a combination of the places, the people, and the experiences that have made this part of my journey so memorable. But time and time again, I’ve been impressed. I woke up every single morning not knowing what the day would bring, whom I would meet or what I would do. That sort of uncertainty is indescribable in the most phenomenal way. I remember a time when my days were all the same; no anticipation or excitement of what the day might bring. The thought of not knowing what ‘could be’ carries with it unlimited hope.

People were often shocked to learn that I was traveling alone. The funny thing is that I’ve been traveling for nearly two months now by myself, and I’ve never once felt alone. I’ve met people on the bus, at my hostel, on the street while holding a map…strangers always willing to help, fellow backpackers always willing to share their best experiences and eager to create new ones.

The minute you open yourself up to the world, it opens itself right back.

Below I’ve shared some details about each place I visited. Unique in their own ways, I decided that I associated one word to each place. Here they are:

Barcelona: Vibrant

Barcelona. What a gem. Often times I find that famous places never live up to their name. Exaggerated by stories and parties experienced by certain individuals. But Barcelona – there’s one place that absolutely lives up to it’s fame. Immediately arriving at Placa Catalunya around 9:30 pm, I was surprised to see all of the people in the streets. I know the Spanish generally do things later (like eating dinner) but the number of families with children running around on a random Tuesday had a calming effect on me. I found myself smiling at the thought of how safe I felt, especially after catching some heat from my mom about booking a flight that arrived so “late.” My hostel was less than 5 minutes away from the Plaza and I was checked-in and showered within thirty minutes. My room of twelve was surprisingly comfortable, with each bunk bed as its own individual ‘pod’ and once the curtain was closed, it was completely private.

Over the course of the next few days, I saw the world renowned Sagrada Familia (a sight to behold), Parc Guell, La Barcelonetta and Las Ramblas. I walked and walked…and then walked some more. The day after I arrived, I joined a free tour of the old Gothic quarter and I couldn’t be happier that I did.  I learned about why the Catalonian flag looks the way it does (Charles the Bald slid Wilfred the Hairy’s dying bloody fingers over his shield, thus creating the four red lines). Not only was our tour guide incredibly knowledgeable and fun, the group itself was a blast. The guides go out of their way to create a cohesive energy, and I found myself chatting to some Turkish students and a couple from Australia, who, incidentally, offered me free lodging in the Gold Coast, should I ever make it out there.

I can’t figure out if it’s because I am alone during this part of my journey, or because I’m giving off a more approachable vibe, but it’s become very easy to talk to people.  I meet new and interesting people everywhere I go. Just the other night I was sitting at a restaurant having some dinner and got to chatting to an older gentleman sitting next to me. Turns out he’s from Tenerife, speaks six languages, and imports name-brand clothes from Spain, Italy and France. I spent the next two hours talking to him about something I know nothing about: fashion. The following day as I was walking through the animated Parc Guell, I saw a girl wearing a scallop shell on her neck. I immediately knew she had walked The Camino de Santiago, so I asked her about it. We started walking and talking and decided to go have dinner together. Violette was from Montreal and her parents had walked The Camino three times before! It was incredible to meet someone who had actually done it and I got some great tips from her. It was almost like I was supposed to be up at that park at that exact time to meet her.

Valencia: Charming

The next day, it was off to Valencia. And what a good day to leave…there was a massive thunderstorm in Barcelona the morning I left.  A few hours later, I arrived at the bus station in Valencia. By the time I checked in, showered and skyped with my sister, niece and nephew, it was near 10 pm. It wasn’t even dark out yet, so I decided to go exploring. Normally I would say, as a girl traveling alone, this might not be a good idea, but I saw families and little kids in the street, and I felt completely safe.  My hostel was in the Old Town, so there were lots of people walking around. Literally three minutes into my walk, I came across a live band playing in the street! Not street performers – like a set-up stage and people dancing. I stood around watching for a bit, and then continued towards the center plaza of Old Town. All this time, I’m wearing a camera around my neck, and a few minutes later, a man comes up to me and starts telling me the best places in town to take pictures. He’s a photographer himself and noticed my camera, then proceeded to talk to me about all the details and specs of my camera. He gave me his business card and told me to email him in case I had any questions on how to use it!

The next morning, I set off to explore. As I stepped out of my hostel, an elderly man asked me what the hostel was. I explained to him that it was like a lower cost hotel, with shared rooms and bathrooms. He couldn’t believe that the rooms were so cheap because it looked like a boutique hotel and was actually in a really nice building (I completely agreed). After a few minutes of chatting, he gave me tips on where to go and what to see, and then I was off.

The streets of Valencia were really charming. People were friendly, the cathedral was beautiful and I felt like I was home. I walked into a recommended restaurant, but they weren’t serving their specials anymore, and the waiter told me to come back the next day. When I indeed came back the next day with my new roommates, he greeted me like an old friend. I was also incredibly lucky to have three amazing people sharing my room: Megan, Carly and Pete. Megan is from Oxfordshire and Carly and Pete from Canada. After exchanging tips on the different places we’d already been to, we learned it was Pete’s birthday. As any new roommates would do, we celebrated his birthday well. An ace group of people, and I was sad to say goodbye to them.

Alicante: Relaxing

Despite spending only a day at this beautiful vacation spot, I can see why tourists come here. The drive down the coast is breathtaking and the beaches are reminiscent of the Mediterranean. With a lazy beach town feel, it was a perfect pit stop to relax and recharge my batteries.

Granada: Enchanting

I can’t say enough about Granada. I am IN LOVE with Granada. I have an unhealthy obsession with Granada. There is an air of mystery and magic here. When I talk to people who have never been or are planning to go, I find myself becoming very passionate and shamelessly chiefy: “You HAVE to do this.” It’s only because I want people to have the same sensational experience that I had. Everyone told me it was amazing, and they were right.

The best three things I’ve done on this trip so far have been done in Granada: The Alhambra, the waterfall trek and the 13th century hammam.

I’ve seen many castles in my life, but nothing, NOTHING, compares to La Alhambra. The detail that went into the palaces is beyond my comprehension. The gardens remind me of an Alice in Wonderland dream. The views must be what Walt Disney imagined when he created the castle landscapes. It’s surreal being there. Somehow amidst thousand of tourists, you can close your eyes and imagine your life belonged to distant and lost time. La Alhambra holds secrets and mysteries lost a long time ago, but the walls remind you that greatness once lived there.

The waterfall trek: one of the best recommendations I received so far, and from fellow travelers Carly and Pete.  We left at 11 am, a group of maybe twelve from the hostel. We rode a local bus for about 45 minutes and then hiked up a paved road (in between my desperate gasps for air, I noticed that people at the front somehow looked like they didn’t even break a sweat). Once past that horrible road, nature showed herself, and what a beauty she was. We were tiny, insignificant specs among the stone giants that surrounded us.  A few minutes in, we came across our first suspension bridge. Only three at a time were allowed to go because of its instability. And only a minute after that, the battery in my camera died. What inconvenient timing.

Later on, our guide led us to our first waterfall.  Ice cold water, but worth dipping into for that perfect framed picture. My kind friend Simon from Germany took a picture with me, given my unfortunate camera situation.  After playing in the water a bit and taking advantage of some photo ops, we headed on our way. Now we were walking into cave-like rock formations with water running through them. At some points, the rocks jutted out farther than the path and you had to hold on to hooks and hug the rocks to avoid falling into the water below. As I was on my hands and knees climbing underneath the massive rocks, I was smiling to myself and thinking that back home, there would be guardrails everywhere for safety reasons; and I LOVED the slight dangerousness of it all. After all, what’s an adventure without a bit of danger? It felt like an Indiana Jones movie, minus the whip and fedora. At the end of it all, we ate lunch by the water and rewarded ourselves with tapas and sangria once we were back on the paved road. Fifteen euros and 7 hours later, I was back at the hostel – sunburnt, exhausted, and absolutely fulfilled in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I had heard about the Arabic baths when I got to Granada but didn’t attach much importance to them, until I passed by and saw them. They were built in the 13th century, at the foot of La Alhambra, and important business was conducted in these pools. These treasures were shut down after the Catholic rule in the 1500s and forgotten until they were reopened in 1998! Walking into this bathhouse, I felt like I was in some sacred sanctuary. The entire process, from the changing rooms to the tearoom was like floating on a cloud. There were three main pools: a cold pool, a hot pool, and a warm pool (which was the largest). There was also a steam room, and an area with unlimited peppermint tea.  Once you were done with the baths, a masseuse came and collected you to give you your 15-minute massage, complete with your choice of lavender, rose or amber oil. I chose Amber.  Despite being on the verge of falling asleep upon completion of the massage, I sauntered over to the warm marble slab and lied down. Above me was a cave with carved out stars…yes folks, I was officially in heaven. I’ve never felt so relaxed in my life. For anyone who goes to Granada, visiting this hammam is a MUST.

These three things were indeed spectacular, but they aren’t the only reason I fell in love with Granada. I found a local tapas bar called Casa de Todos where the most delicious tapas were served and complemented with a tall glass of wine – all for two euros. After only one or two days, the staff all knew me and greeted me warmly everyday, asking about my day’s activities and giving me tips on things to do. On my last day the owner said to me, with all the genuineness in the world, that I was welcome back any time and that he would always remember me. He gave me his card, and saw me off with a warm smile.  Those are the moments on a journey that you remember forever.

A funny thing happened to me in Granada, and it really got me thinking. It validated that things really do happen for a reason. I was picking up my tickets for La Alhambra and as I walked out of the store, a gypsy woman (who I noticed was being blatantly avoided by everyone else) grabbed a hold of my arm. At this point, I had a choice: I could yank my arm away, ignore her and keep walking (which would have been really rude) or I could listen to her and throw her a few euros. I remember feeling kind of annoyed that I was the one who was getting bamboozled, but just went along with it. Well after my prophecy was revealed and she handed me a plant, I went to grab my wallet and give her three or four euros. But panic immediately set in as I realized I didn’t have my wallet.  Luckily I was still right outside of the store where I got my tickets, so I ran back in and there it was, held for my by the kind, smiling woman behind the desk. Had I not stopped to listen to the gypsy woman at that moment, I wouldn’t have noticed my wallet was missing for probably another few hours and who knows if it would still be there. At the end of the day, it was just another lesson of how things happen because they are meant to happen. Incidentally, the woman expected TEN EUROS as payment for my prophecy…YEOWZERS!!! So after some haggling and offers to return her plant to her, we agreed on five. 🙂

Location is everything. My hostel was in the heart of El Albayzin – the Arabic part of Granada. The streets were narrow and zigzagged upwards and downwards. These narrow streets were packed with vendors selling beautiful Arabic clothing and accessories. I purchased a pair of peacock earrings from one of these stores, and from that day on, the storeowner would greet me every morning and spare five minutes to chat with me about everything and anything. The human warmth from strangers in Granada was felt everywhere, adding to the city’s magic.

And not only strangers. I met a lot of great people at the Oasis hostel in Granada, but I feel compelled to mention Tracie, a lovely girl who shared my room and an excellent travel companion and my partner in crime.  We went around town, searching endlessly for the perfect tapas, hunting for recommended places (some ended really well, others, well, not so well).

It was difficult to leave, but I’ll be back to visit this magical city once again.

Sevilla: Lazy

Why do I call Sevilla lazy? Not because the people are all lying around doing nothing. Rather because it’s the one place where I felt like doing absolutely nothing. And I’m not the only one. Tracie ended up coming to Sevilla as well, and we were roommates once again! We had a hard time getting out and sightseeing. This hostel, Oasis Palace Sevilla, had a rooftop pool and bar, thus further promoting said laziness. People were also really friendly which encouraged us to get sucked into the hostel life.

I feel compelled to mention a dinner I had with Tracie and some great Australians. Tracie and I had been recommended this place called Coloniales back when we were in Granada, as were the Aussies. So we set off to find it. Not a far walk, but there was a seventeen person wait ahead of us…on a Monday night! We weren’t about to give up on this recommendation, especially after seeing the line, so to kill some time we had some pre-tapas tapas a few blocks away. Delicious as they were, we should have saved our appetite, for we had no idea that our lives were about to change. When we got back to Coloniales, we each ordered one dish. The key theme was cheese, although there were a few proteins sprinkled in the mix. I swear, when the first tapa came out, you would think we had never eaten food before. It was a simple dish: Roquefort cheese with a blueberry jam and bread, yet the combination of a stinky cheese and a sweet jam were a match made in heaven. So simple, so beautiful, so delicious! From then on, the dishes just got better and better: caramelized goats cheese, asparagus and goat cheese fried into little balls with spicy pepper sauce, whiskey beef, and the list goes on. Possibly the best dishes I’ve had in all of Spain, and when the bill came, we couldn’t help but laugh out loud: thirty-three euros among six of us! So basically, for six euros each, we shared possibly the best food we had ever tasted. I’d call that a win-win.

Despite the comfortableness of the hostel, I did manage some walking around and figured my way through the city, but with more of a wandering feel instead of sightseeing with a purpose. I thought back to my Barcelona days when I got up early, armed with a map, and set out with my entire day planned.  How things had changed. I now mapped out the things I really wanted to see and do, and did them at my leisure.

Finally, after about two days of lounging around, we took a day trip to Ronda with our new friend Matt. It was Tracie’s idea to go to Ronda, and what a great idea it was. Ronda is a small town in Andalucia, known for El Tajo gorge and the majestic 18th century Puente Nuevo. The town is built upon the gorge and the views are spectacular. We paid our two euros to go into the bridge, and then hiked down towards the waterfall. I was not exactly prepared for a hike in my flip flops, but somehow managed to make it – with Matt’s help, making sure I didn’t topple him like a bowling pin on the way down! We all stared at the bridge in awe. None of us could quite understand how they built this in the 1700s because of the sheer size.  The heat was unforgiving that day (as every other day in Andalucia); it took us about five minutes to catch our breath when we finished, so we just sat in silence. And when we could speak, I’m pretty sure the first words to come out were W-A-T-E-R. Who goes down a gorge at 2 pm in Spain without at least one bottle of water? We do. At least we all made it out with all of our limbs intact. After the hike, we had a lovely lunch with way too many croquetas and caught the bus back home.

That night, Laura, Jonathan’s sister-in-law, was coming into Sevilla for a weekend visit and we had gotten an apartment. Yes, apartment. Adios hostels, we have an apartment! It was beautiful: modern, spacious and clean. Well done Laura! It made me realize that once every few weeks I should splurge on those extra few euros and have a full kitchen, washing machine and my own room. Laura arrived at night and we went for some gigantic tapas (which were actually Mediterranean appetizers) and called it a night. Thank god Laura came to Seville or I might never have seen the place properly. We went into the Cathedral the next day – what an incredible place. The tomb of Christopher Columbus lies amidst the most incredible architecture. La Giralda, which is the bell tower built by the Moors, is the only part of the structure that survived a great earthquake. We were ambitious in our attempt to climb to the top, and after a bit of huffing and puffing, we made it. We also went into the Indies Archives, which houses all of the documents dating back to the discovery of the Americas. After walking for a bit through the Santa Cruz neighborhood, we made it to our final destination: another hammam! Laura had seen my post on Facebook about the one in Granada and she was up for trying the one in Seville. This one had a few more pools; in addition to the hot, cold and warm pools, there was a Lounge of a Thousand Jets and a salt-water bath. Relaxing as before, we walked out of there feeling rejuvenated and ready to walk home.

Hilariously, in the morning we commented on how quickly we got to the center of town from our apartment. Yet on the way back, it took us over an hour to get there. It was literally the never-ending walk, possibly because we were moseying at a snail’s pace, still reeling from the calming effects of the bathhouse.

We caught up with Tracie and Matt for dinner at – you guessed it – Coloniales. I was worried I had hyped it up too much to Laura and she might not feel the same obsession as me, but thankfully, this place never disappoints. The various cheeses were once again on our plates and very quickly in our bellies.

The next day, Laura and I went to visit the Alcazar, the royal palaces. It must have been the hottest day of the year because we couldn’t go two feet without the need to go into the shade. Water just disappeared from my bottle. It was a beautiful palace inside, similar to La Alhambra, but the heat kept me from appreciating it as much as I could have.  Next time I go back, it will be winter.

Cordoba: Evocative

Poor Cordoba. Other than Alicante, it gets the shortest blurb. Not because it wasn’t spectacular, but because I was really only there for a day and that day was a Sunday (I’ve noticed that every Sunday, places close down and nobody is on the streets). The place was like a ghost town. It had a haunting beauty, but I felt like tumbleweed could pass me at any moment. I was literally the only person walking through the beautiful old town. Gorgeous architecture, spellbinding streets, and there I was, all alone. Another merciless hot day, but I trudged on, determined to get to La Mesquita. At this point, I nearly passed out. For those of you who know me, you know I have a tendency to pass out when it gets really hot. Well, this was one of those times. Thankfully, my brain worked long enough to tell me to immediately sit down in the shade, so I was able to avoid an embarrassing spill. Once I felt better, I had a terrible realization, and one that I am a bit of ashamed of. I realized that I was kind of over seeing another Arabic palace. As magnificent as La Alhambra and El Alcazar were, La Mesquita was another version of the same thing (apologies to anyone I might offend, but heat exhaustion began making the decisions). Coming from La Alhambra, it would all just go downhill from there anyway. So instead of paying an additional ten euros to go inside, I walked around the courtyard and perimeter and called it a day.

This time I was staying at an airbnb place with my own room and bathroom, so I took advantage and skyped with my parents and sister. I caught up on emails and season two of Game of Thrones. Cordoba, you are a fine-looking place, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

Madrid: Unexpected

Madrid was one of those places that I always saw as a stopover to another (better) place. I never really saw it for its merits. So when I arrived there after a four-hour bus ride, I was pleasantly surprised at what I found.

What I found was a dynamic city big enough to stir some excitement, but small enough to evoke that small town feel. My hostel was on a perfect street, close to Sol, el Retiro and central to most everything. It was a brand new hostel, not even three months old, and everything felt clean and new. My roommate Melody was an adorable American who I had loads in common with and we hit it off immediately.

The next morning, we set off for a stroll in the park and then went on the hunt for a Mercadona grocery store for me to stock up on cheap toiletries before The Camino. A few wrong turns later, we made it. Then it was off to el Mercado de San Miguel. Melody was raving about it and I was eager to get there. Once we walked in, I knew she was right: unlike the other markets I had been to which primarily sold raw food, this one sold individually unique tapas for one or two euros. Dizzying concoctions of salmon and cheeses, stuffed olives, baked clams, goat cheese rolled in wasabi nuts on a stick and other delightful culinary creations engulfed our senses. We spent a good amount of time scoping out our choices and relishing in the delectableness.

That evening, we went in search of good tapas, but found ourselves out of luck. Coming from Andalucia and paying two euros for a good tapa, we found it difficult to get on board with paying ten euros for the same thing in Madrid. Instead, we bought ourselves a bottle of red wine, a few slices of pizza, and sat in front of a graffiti wall to eat and people-watch our night away. It really couldn’t have worked out any better. With full bellies and the best views in the city, I’d say that was another win-win.

Sadly I had to leave Madrid the next day as I was beginning my house-sitting assignment in Limousin, France. As this has turned into more of a mini novel than a blog, I’ll have to leave those stories for next time.

However on the bright side, it looks like I’ll be reconnecting with Tracie and Melody in Pamplona for the running of the bulls in about a week! The world is a tiny place sometimes.

As it seems to have inadvertently become somewhat of my traditional signoff, let me leave you this time with a quote from a book I’m reading, The Pilgrimage. A gift from one of my best friends, Raz, who knew I needed to read it before going on the Camino de Santiago. I re-read this paragraph, highlighted it and folded the page in the book because it mirrored my own feelings regarding traveling – especially about being more aware and accessible.

“When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends upon them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life. At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive.”

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5 thoughts on “Second Edition: The Spanish Conquest

  1. Mayra I am so happy for you! Though your path is different than the one we took, your blog takes me right back- I think the experience and the sentiment of backpackers is universal. It is an experience that will never be matched again in your life- the unrestricted freedom and openness you will experience on this is priceless. It’s so thrilling for me to get to be a part of it and feel like I am right there experiencing the joy and adventure for the first time 🙂 Keep blogging!

  2. Kory

    Amazing! Traveling is by far my favorite thing to do. Exploring new places, trying new foods and meeting people you will never forget along the way. I’m so jealous right now! I love the blog, keep it coming! Take care and safe travels…

  3. Mayrita: I’m very happy for you! You are having a one-in-a-life-experience. Spain is gorgeous.
    Too bad you couldn’t go to Malaga. I hope you can visit Bilbao and the rest of Northern Spain. It
    is beautiful. Do you plan to visit Vigo? I have a cousin there. I’m sure she will try to see you. Vigo is a city close to Santiago. Love

    • Did you get my message?

      • I did, thank you! I will see if I can make it to Vigo and Bilbao. It’s tough because we are cycling through the north and have a certain amount of miles/kilometers to get through in order to reach Compostela by the 17th, but i will definitely let you know if I make it to any of these places!

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