Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Little Things I Loved About Spain

Free WiFi: I didn't notice if they had this in Seville, because we had internet at our apartment, but Granada and Malaga both had hotspots all over the city centre.

Awesome public transport: we had no trouble with buses, trains or metros anywhere, but top prize goes to the coach we took from Granada to Malaga. With its wide, comfy seats, on-board entertainment, free internet and water and snacks provided, it was more luxurious than the plane we arrived on, and all for 13 euros!

People speaking Spanish: obviously, people in Spain speak Spanish ... but almost nobody spoke to us in English. Instead, they slowed down, used lots of gestures, and were very patient with our somewhat garbled attempts to reply.

Friendly people: nearly everyone we met was cheery and helpful, but first prize goes to the lovely man at the train station in Granada, who when we asked for tickets to Malaga, very honestly told us that it was much faster and cheaper to get the bus ... and how to get to the bus station.

Tapas, tapas, tapas: I don't like drinking without eating, and I love tasting local dishes, but often a full meal in a restaurant  is to much to manage. Tapas give you control over what and how much you eat, and when your vocabulary isn't very big, offer all kinds of surprises, but rarely any big mistakes.

Tinto de Verano: watching my French boyfriend's face as we drank red wine mixed with lemonade was at least as good as the drink itself.

Orange blossoms: I love the smell and I love the colour of the fruits on the tree against the blue sky. The only thing I am confused about is how we didn't eat anything with oranges in it the whole week! Are they all just for decoration?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Nuestras Vacaciones 2: Granada

The first thing that struck me as we stepped off the train in Granada was the crispness of the  air. As we walked towards the city centre, a view of the Sierra Nevada under a cool blue sky rose up in front of us beyond the rooftops. We were definitely in the mountains now.

The second thing that struck me, a couple of hours later, was the number of young,"alternative"-type people in Granada. Where the streets of Seville, in the centre at least, were mostly populated by immaculately dressed families with boys in loafers and little girls in matching outfits with ribbons in their hair (like the Spanish equivalent of Versailles), here, a significant number were dreadlocked, wrapped in colourful scarves or walking barefoot with large dogs in the main square. Through further exploration, we realised that the different barrios of Granada each have a very different feel: the Barrio del Albayzin was young and vibrant (even on a Sunday afternoon), where we stayed, more towards the Barrio del Realejo, felt similar but quieter, while the area to the south of the cathedral was a combination of narrow streets with lots of places to eat (the Bib-Rambla), and wider shopping streets with a fairly chic feel, more international chain stores, and an average age difference of about 20 years compared to Barrio del Albayzin.

Like most tourists, our main reason for going to Granada was to see the Alhambra, and in fact we weren't there long enough to do much else. Understanding Frenchman had visited the area years ago, but, not realising that tickets for the Alhambra are limited and sell out far in advance, hadn't been able to visit Granada's most famous site. So it was a long-held ambition of his, but one that we very nearly failed to realise.

Weeks before we were due to leave for Spain, Understanding Frenchman started to talk about booking the Alhambra, and, a few gentle reminders from him later, we bought the tickets on Ticketmaster using my debit card. You choose your time slot and pay in advance, but the actual tickets can only be collected once you are in Spain. I remembered to forward myself the email a couple of days before, so that it was sitting patiently on my phone with its precious reference number ready for when it was needed. The source of our near-disaster was that, in the time between booking and the date of our trip, I was given a new bank card. The old one, which was required as proof of payment, was automatically deactivated and thus couldn't be read by a machine. This had already resulted in a distressing episode with the SNCF, when they told me that a train ticket I had bought for my mum couldn't be printed out (despite the fact that I had paid for it) and that I would have to spend 130 euros on a new one. That situation was eventually resolved, although it was traumatic enough that I haven't yet found the courage to write about it on my blog, but I was terrified that the same thing would happen in Granada, with neither of us fluent enough in Spanish to talk our way round it, and that Understanding Frenchman would once again be prevented from visiting the Alhambra.

With that in mind, we decided not to wait until our alloted afternoon time to go and pick up the tickets, but to go in the morning instead. (The fact that I had been awake since 6 worrying trying to figure out persuasive phrases in Spanish also helped.) Luckily, our apartment was just at the foot of a flight of steps that led up to the palace, so it wasn't too difficult. Even more luckily, I had hung on to the old bank card, and was able to hand it over at the ticket office along with the reference number. I held my breath as the lady typed in the details, checked the signature on the card ... and printed out the tickets. No PIN number needed, and two visits to the Alhambra were ours!

While the history of the Alhambra is both significant and interesting, the main point of the actual visit (in my opinion at least) is just to admire the beautiful architecture, gorgeous gardens and stunning views. Click on the slideshow below for a little taster of what we saw.


Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Nuestras Vacaciones 1: Sevilla

Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of 2013: work abroad. If I could offer you only one piece of advice for the future, an Erasmus year would be it.

Or a foreign language assistantship. Or even that crummy summer camp job in Italy, because when you're a decade older, you won't be naive enough to take it again, and thus will miss out on the wonderful opportunities that only came as a consequence of a few weeks of slave labour for very little pay.

It's unlikely that I will be asked to dispense any advice to this year's crop of school leavers, and even if I am, it's even more unlikely that my listeners will understand the reference in the opening paragraph. (In fact, even as a teenager of the 1990s, I didn't discover its original source until I looked it up just now.) But regardless of all that, my point remains true: one of the best things you can do in your early adult life is travel, work abroad, and make friends with people who are doing the same, because not only will you learn many things and see wonderful places, when you are older and more settled you will have fabulous friends to visit all over the globe.

My friend R. is one such person. We studied at university together, and when I moved to France for my year abroad, she went to Spain. After graduation, we once again found ourselves heading for foreign lands at the same time, and she now lives in Sevillle. I went to visit her in 2010, and this month, 3 years later, it was more than time for a catch-up. I got to see her baby boy and she met Understanding Frenchman for the first time.

Their small apartment being a bit too cramped for 5, Understanding Frenchman and I booked a little studio through Abritel, in the city centre near the Alameda de Hercules, and our 3 days in Seville were a perfect combination of baby cuddles, catch-up chocolate and churros, and sightseeing.

We went to the cathedral, whose tower, with its views over the rooftops of Seville, is definitely one of my all-time favourite buildings to climb:

Last time I went to Seville we were mostly there for the Feria, so I didn't have time to visit the Alcazar, a royal palace of a similar style to the Alhambra in Granada, which also has beautiful gardens:

We went to Plaza de Espana and visited the stunning palace that was built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929:

With the city preparing for this year's Feria, there were plenty of opportunities to admire displays of flamenco outfits. To a trained eye, there are differences in the styles of ruffles, and some people invest in a new dress every year:

The point of taking an apartment instead of a hotel room was so that we could cook at home instead of having to eat in restaurants all the time, but the abundance of tempting tapas meant that in fact we hardly ever did. And with a typical bill for two of us coming to about 25 euros, including drinks, we were able to taste all the local delicacies without breaking the bank.

One of the best places we found was in the Triana district, on the opposite side of the river from the cathedral. While it's easily accessible from the centre, it had a much more local feel to it. R. and her boyfriend also gave us good advice about everything from which wines to try to how to use the metro and the result was a smooth and relaxing visit with lots of good times and good company.

So if there's anyone out there (class of 2013 or otherwise!) who's thinking of taking the expat plunge, do it! It won't necessarily all be plain sailing, but you'll be reaping the rewards for years to come.

Easter in Brittany

After five long grey weeks in la région parisienne, by the time Easter weekend rolled around, I was more than ready for a getaway. Even I was surprised, however, by the sense of relief that washed over me as our TGV pulled out of the Gare Montparnasse last Saturday morning: clearly the crowds on the metro and the dull skies had got to me more than I thought, and a weekend in the Breton countryside was just what the doctor ordered. 

My optimistic visions of dancing daffodils and gambolling lambs were somewhat clouded as we passed through Laval and large snowflakes drifted past the windows. (I hadn't looked at the weather forecast.) It wasn't snowing in the Morbihan, but when we went for a walk in the afternoon in an attempt to enjoy the countryside, a chilly mist crept through our inadequate clothes and deep into our bones, and we didn't last long before heading home for brioche and coffee.

Luckily, Easter Sunday was sunnier, albeit relatively: Understanding Frenchman's nephews and nieces were bundled up in ski gear for their Easter egg hunt in the garden. Incidentally, in France, the chocolate is not left by a rabbit, but by passing bells (and the tooth fairy is actually a mouse) and fish are a popular design for Easter chocolate. We managed two walks round the local park, one just the two of us and the other with children, grandparents and a scooter, which was just as well, as lunch was a 6-course meal (apero, cold starter, hot starter, main course, cheese and pudding).

On Monday, UFM, his dad and I went for an afternoon stroll in the forest near Paimpont. We parked at the Forges de Paimpont, a site historique that dates back to the 17th century, which was built take advantage of the local network of rivers and lakes to carry out the metal working. This video has pictures of the forges, as well as providing a great introduction to the delights of Breton folk music:

We took advantage of the lakes too, by going for a nice walk around them.There were still no leaves on the trees, but we did see some pretty spring flowers, and I was happy to spot  a couple of lambs, even if  admittedly they were more huddling than gambolling!