Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sarlat, France

Excuse the cliché, but Sarlat is a rare diamond. I remember reading Michael Crichton’s Timeline, which was set in France’s Dordogne Valley. I had read about Medieval castles perched on hills overlooking the Dordogne River and was eager to check out this part of France. Sarlat is the area’s largest town.

I spent the afternoon on a relaxing walk throughout the Medieval center of the town. The cathedral, unlike most of the ones I have seen, is not Gothic. Instead, it was built from tan stone with a gray turret. The other buildings in Sarlat were mostly built with tan stones and brown or gray roofs. The shutters, which range in color, was my favorite part.

I also got a chance to visit the interior of some of these Medieval buildings. This is because many of them have become art galleries. Thus, I got to enjoy contemporary art while also admiring architecture. The most intriguing aspect of these buildings was the spiral staircase.

I was quite disappointed to find out that Sarlat is actually not by the Dordogne River and that one needed a car to fully explore the chateau, caves and ruins in the area. However, with most of the places I have visited, there is always a next time. The first visit is merely to sample the “icing on the cake”.

Bordeaux, France

I decided to visit Bordeaux as a base to explore the surrounding wine region, which reportedly produces some of the best vin in the world. I didn’t think much of the city before visiting, but once again, I have found a tourist jewel.

Besides its typical French classical architecture, Bordeaux is blessed with a riverbank that was crowded on this hot, spring day. My highlight of the day was attending an arts festival. The festival consisted of exhibitions (art, photography), concerts and improvisational theater. My favorite was the improv as the teens who performed it were quite amusing (thanks to Mathieu for the translation!).

What is amazing about Bordeaux (and every European city/town I have visited so far) is the multitude of cultural events available to the public. There is some movie, exhibit, concert or fair going on everyday and Bordeaux isn’t even a large city!

San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian is one of my favorite cities in Spain and I will definitely come back! This city in the Basque country of Spain is blessed with incredible landscapes. Since it rains so often in northern Spain, the region is extremely verdant. My CouchSurfing host Vincent took me to the beach in bordering France and also drove me up the surrounding mountains for a panoramic view of the bay.

Another thing San Sebastian is known for is its creative and artistic pintxos or tapas. We hit a couple of tapas bars in the center of town and ate some pretty amazing creations! In fact, the food was so beautiful to the eye that I didn’t want to destroy it by munching on it!

Barcelona, Spain

I have to say I didn’t have high expectations of Barcelona (mainly because I hadn’t read too much about it) but boy did I have a hard time leaving! This city is often viewed as the stylish, modern and chic place in Spain. No wonder why there were hordes of tourists everywhere! My favorite part of Barcelona is the non-traditional architecture.

The architecture I’m implying is the late 19th to early 20th century style known as Modernism. The most famous Modernist is Antonin Gaudi. Gaudi’s and other modernists’ works are all over Barcelona (there’s even a map to show the places) and it was impossible to visit them all.

Highlights of Gaudi’s works include the unfinished church La Sagrada Familia and Park Guell. I especially enjoyed Park Guell because in addition to the famous curvy seating area, there were sweeping views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean. The L’Eixample district contains many Modernist works, including Gaudi’s famed La Pedrera and Casa Batllo.

Cuenca, Spain

Cuenca, a UNESCO world heritage site, is located three hours by train from Valencia. I decided to visit this small town to view the famous casas colgadas or hanging houses. These structures are perched high on a hill overlooking a valley. In fact Cuenca’s old town is entirely on a hill. The views down into the valley were phenomenal.

Valencia, Spain

Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, is known for paella (Spanish fried rice) and for hosting the America’s Cup (sailing event). A couple of highlights from my experience here:

First, I really enjoyed visiting the Centro Cultural Bancaja, a free museum sponsored by a bank. In Spain, several banks have foundations which have museums with temporary exhibitions year-round. These exhibitions cover art and science. In this particular institution I visited, there were two excellent exhibitions. The first was Joan Miro’s representation of the female figure. Miro’s art is entertaining as it is similar to children’s art, with scribbles everywhere. The second and my favorite of the two is an exhibition on China, which covered Chinese cities, characters, feng shui, architecture, family and environment.

I also enjoyed visiting the futuristic-looking City of Arts and Sciences. I did not expect Valencia to be at the forefront of architecture. This park contains several notable buildings, the whale-shaped Palace of Arts, the Calatrava-designed bridge, The Hemisphere, The Oceanarium and the Museum of Science.

Lastly, I had to try paella, as this is what Valencia is most famous for. I ate paella Valenciana (chicken) at a bar where they were serving it as a tapas that came with a drink. Delicious!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Granada, Spain

I had decided to visit the southern region of Spain known as Andalucia because of its Moorish past. Being a huge architecture fan, I knew that gorgeous Islamic tiles, arches and carvings would be present in cities across Andalucia. Nowhere is this more apparent that in Granada’s La Alhambra, perhaps the most magnificent building in Spain. Not having bought a ticket in advance and mindful of its popularity, I decided to start queing one hour before the ticket office opens in the hopes of visiting this temple of architecture. Nothing was going to stop me from entering the palace I had always dreamed of visiting ever since I first saw it in a high school geometry textbook!

I ended up sleeping in for one hour and thus did not get to the ticket office until 8:45am (office opens at 8am) and thus was panicking that I wouldn't be able to get a ticket. Luckily, I got one for the afternoon session.

The morning was spent wandering around the Moorish district of Albaicin. The white buildings with brown roofs and inner courtyards are all typical of what is found in Morocco. There was just a few examples of tilework but overall, the architecture was not colorful. The highlight of visiting Albaicin is the excellent views of the Alhambra from its upper reaches.

I spent 4 hours in the Alhambra and still felt like that wasn't enough! The Alhambra consists of the Generalife gardens, the Alcazaba (fortress), the Nazirid Palace (main one) and the Palace of Carlos V. The first 3 each provided a different type of highlight.

The Generalife garden contains a myriad of flowers in all shades and colors. This, coupled with fountains and trees, produced a very relaxing ambience. The Alcazaba, on the other hand, is known for the views of Albaicin and rest of Granda from its two towers. Lastly, perhaps the ultimate highlight is a visit to the Nazirid Palace, home of the sultans back in the day. There, intricate carvings, graceful arches, pristine courtyards abound. Words cannot describe the details of the carvings. The Alhambra, with its unique architecture and peaceful gardens is probably the most amazing building in the world!

Cordoba, Spain

Andalucia, the southern region of Spain, is known for more than flamenco. This region is extremely sunny and thus is abundant with olives, fruit (orange and lemon trees all over cities) and flowers (which gives The Netherlands a run for its money). The region also boasts the “best” beaches in Spain and is home to the infamous siesta (locals say that they need to rest as it is too hot to do anything in the afternoon).

I decided to visit Cordoba because I had heard that it is one of the biggest cities in Andalucia, but other than that, did not know what to expect. I’m so glad I visited as it is undoubtedly one of my favorite towns! Not only does it have Moorish-influenced architecture, it has more of a small-town feel than Sevilla. Furthermore, I visited at the best time of the year as the city was hosting the Festival de los Patios, a competition in which homes compete to decorate their balconies and patios (courtyards) with flowers, vases, fountains and statues. These Moorish-style courtyards all have gorgeous arches and tiles.

One side note about Spain. I would love to live in Spain as life there is one long festival! Not only are there constantly free cultural events (e.g., concerts in the squares, exhibitions in public buildings, photo exhibits in the parks), but also a very relaxed, easy way of life. I can’t believe many Spaniards start going to the bars at around noon!

Sevilla, Spain

Just like the pasteis de Belem and fado are a must in Portugal, experiencing tapas and flamenco is what one does in Spain. Having already tried tapas (and definitely not the last time I’ll be having it!), I decided to go to a local bar to watch some free flamenco.

The bar, La Carboneria, is very touristed, but that doesn’t mean its quality has been compromised. I watched two performances. The first consisted of a female dancer, a male singer/clapper and a male guitarist. The female dancer was garbed in a flowery dress. She stomped, clapped, twisted and waved to the rhythm of the music. It was amazing watching her enthusiasm and energy! The second performance I viewed consisted of only a male singer and a male guitarist. In my opinion, his signing wasn’t all that more uplifting than the Portuguese fado.

Evora, Portugal

I decided to spend a day visiting Evora, an ancient walled city (UNESCO world heritage) in the Alentejo region of Portugal. This is a very flat, farming area.

Apparently, Evora, like the rest of Europe, is very popular amongst Japanese tourists (though I didn’t see any). Besides the usual cathedrals, churches and squares, several places of interest in Evora are worth mentioning.

First, the bone chapel. Evora has a chapel made entirely of bones and skulls inside! There is an inscription inside the chapel that says “we are waiting for your bones”. How creepy!

Evora also has its share of Roman ruins, notably the Temple of Diana and an aqueduct. Perhaps I was most impressed by the buildings that now comprise the University of Evora. One of these buildings in a 16th century Jesuit college that has a beautiful courtyard with azulejo tiles. I can’t believe students get to study in an ambience of history!

Lisbon, Portugal

Portugal’s capital is a charming old city with gorgeous architecture. Along with red roofs, the most ubiquitous feature were the azulejo tiles. Parts of the city reminded me of San Francisco, with its hills and trams. Lisbon is one of those cities that I definitely will have to visit again for a longer period!

I came to Portugal mainly to try the Portuguese egg tart, something that I loved to eat back when I was in Hong Kong. These tarts, as I later learned are called pasteis de nata. However, the original one, with its secret recipe, is called the pasteis de Belem and can only be bought at one store in the Belem district of Lisbon. Not being a connoisseur of these pastries, the only features that I could discern was that the pasteis de Belem was flakier and less rich.

Another activity I partook in was going to a local restaurant (non-touristy) with some CouchSurfers and watching a performance of fado. This form of song is rather melancholic, with either a male or female singer accompanied by a guitar player and a Portuguese-guiter (round base) player. I watched a dozen male and female singers each express himself or herself. The most notable singer was a Japanese female singing in Portuguese. (Apparently, fado is big in Japan.)

Porto, Portugal

I arrived at Portugal’s second city wanting to try its specialty--Port wine. CouchSurfer Fernando kindly took me to a winery where I was given a tour and tried two types of Port, a dry white type and the common sweet red type.

It was also in Porto where I tasted delicious Portuguese food for the first time! I tried many types of fish, including dourada and bacalhau (codfish). Many of these fish are salted and grilled and served with the entire body on a platter, similar to the Chinese way of preparing some types of fish.

Around Madrid

Armed with my Eurail pass, I decided to explore the nearby towns in the Castilla y Leon and Castilla La Mancha regions surrounding Madrid. Both these regions consist of verdant fields and rolling hills. The towns I visited were Segovia, Avila and Toledo.

Segovia is a town with a myriad of architectural styles. The most obvious monument is the Roman aqueduct. Many of the buildings are built with bricks a Moorish-influenced style. The best example of this is the Alcazar or palace which has panoramic views of town and the countryside atop its tower.

Avila probably has the most intact Medieval city wall in the region (comparable to France’s Carcassonne). Like most European towns and cities, its cathedral is its most impressive structure.

Lastly, Toledo is probably the most touristed town outside of Madrid. It has a fairytale setting, with a castle and town perched on a hill with a bridge spanning over a moat. Inside the walled city, various types of architecture abound, with Roman and Moorish influences. The Spanish painter El Greco also has numerous works of art displayed around Toledo.

Madrid, Spain

This was my first time in Spain and I was extremely excited about diving into the culture right away. What impressed me the most about Madrid (and later, pretty much all European cities) is the amount of resources and attention devoted to culture, history and the arts. Everywhere, be it in the metro, parks, libraries, train stations, or public squares, there was something artistic. Free exhibits and performances abound. Moreover, many of these cultural events are free, along with Madrid’s great Prado Museum and Reina Sofia Museum on certain days. I wish there was a bit of this “culture” in San Diego and in most parts of the U.S.

I came to Spain not for the bullfights or flamenco, but for its tapas! Tapas, as I later learned, is any type of bar food. It can be one of three types: individual item that is paid, a plate of items that are free, or self-service in which you pay by the piece. I went to two tapas bars with CouchSurfers Inaki (Spain) and Arnaud (France) and had fun sampling the tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette), patatas avioli and a sausage stuffed with rice.

En Route to Madrid, Spain

So on April 30th, I decided to fly standby to Madrid, Spain, utilizing my friend Ming’s status as an employee of American Airlines. My itinerary consisted of connections at Dallas and at Miami. I got on the flight to Dallas easily. However, despite several flights that day from Dallas to Miami, I was either the 30th or 40th person on the standby list.

Thus, I couch surfed at Ming’s place that night in Dallas, never expecting to couch surf in the U.S.! We found out that the inaugural flight from Dallas to Madrid would occur the next day and crossed our fingers that I would get on. Also, my checked-in bags miraculously arrived in Madrid without me. (Isn’t this a security issue?)

The next day, May 1st, we checked the AA system and it appeared that I would just make it onto the Madrid flight. However, two earlier AA flights to Europe, to Frankfurt and Paris, had plenty of seats and I considered flying to either city and taking an overnight train to Madrid. I decided to gamble on the Madrid flight and breathed a sigh of relief when 40 minutes before my flight, I got a seat!

To Fill in the Gaps

It has been a while since I last updated this blog. What has happened to me since the beginning of March?

Well, I spent the rest of March and the beginning of April enjoying Cape Town, the Western Cape province (both of which is in South Africa) and then taking an overland camping trip through Namibia, Botswana and to Victoria Falls. Along the way, I saw a bunch of wildlife (e.g., elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs), sand dunes, river deltas and absolute emptiness.
I must say that the most profound moment of this trip was observing the absolute poverty in Zimbabwe-- people there were begging for clothing. This just highlights the vast inequalities in this world. Most of us have a bunch of “junk” that we could easily give away. This “junk” is another person’s “valuable”. The people there need our help and tourism. Unlike how Western media has portrayed the country, Zimbabwe is a relatively safe country.

I then spent the last three weeks of April in San Diego trying to sublet my place, which still hasn’t worked out but is looking promising for June onwards. Despite all of this, I decided to continuing my round-the-world journey as I knew that this was a golden opportunity to see most of the places I’ve always wanted to see, with the time that I had. Furthermore, I wanted an extended period of time to get away, be inspired and figure out what I want to do with my life. Thus, I decided to embark on the second leg of my trip, a 3-4 month European vacation.