Sunday, July 31, 2011

Week In Review Sabbatical Style: T-2 days!

It's the last week in review from the road--can you believe it? I start my (many) flights home tomorrow. This week I left Thessaloniki for Milan and then made my way to Seville where I spent the majority of the week. I've taken a pretty relaxed approach this week and have just been enjoying catching up with good friends and enjoying the good life while I can. Some more tidbits from the week:

  • I just finished doing what I hope is the LAST batch of laundry I do by hand in a long, long time. After doing laundry every single day on the Camino and about every third day for the rest of the last eight months, it is something that I definitely will not miss about traveling. 
  • I am also pretty sick of wearing the same 3 things over and over again. 
  • Within minutes of arrival in the bus station in Seville I already had a plate of tortilla Espanol, a cafe con leche and a person calling me guapa. I love this country. 
  • Along with tortilla and cafe con leche I have been doing a great job of checking off the traditional Spanish dishes I try to eat while I am here (and also some of the ones I never got around to trying before). I've had gazpacho, flan, tinto de verano, paella, sardinas, rabo de toro (bull's tail), jamon, typical Sevillan fresh water fish, my favorite candies and all kinds of other goodies. 
  • Food in Milan did not disappoint either!
  • It has been so good to see friends this week--both from home and from the Camino. One of the bonuses is getting to walk around cities without having to read a map (a big plus for a directionally challenged person like myself!). 
  • I've totally adopted the Spanish schedule this week--late lunch, siesta (it's seriously too hot to do anything else), and then dinner sometimes at midnight or later. It seems absurd until you are here. 
  • Juanma and Maica's son Victor took me around Seville one evening, and I swear, he knows every single corner of Seville. We poked our noses in hidden patios, made laps around the giralda, took in some of the local scene, talked a bit of politics and had some good food. 
  • What do Camino friends do when they get together? Go for a walk of course! Yesterday was the stuff Saturdays are made of. We woke up early for a walk up a neighboring hill for views of Sevilla, stopped on the way back for a breakfast of chocolate con churros, went to the spa (!), read and relaxed a while before having a bbq, took naps, saw outdoor theatre in the courtyard of an old Sevillan building and then closed the evening with a bit of flamenco. Now that is a Saturday!
  • Today we drove for a while outside of the city to take in the Gruta de Las Maravillas in Aracena. They are Spain's largest caves and were full of huge and beautiful cave formations. Bellisima
  • When I was in Milan David asked me if I liked cemeteries. Maybe it's weird--but I do. Milan's was fascinating! 
  • After successfully ordering coffee all over the Balkans...I did myself in while in Italy. I ordered a latte, the waiter asked me some question, I made some answer and figured I would drink the coffee however it came. Except when it came...there was no coffee in it. Yep, I ordered myself a glass of milk. 
  • I drank the milk like it was what I wanted. 
A lot more fun things happened this week, but seeing as it's the last day of my trip I think I'm going to go swim in Juanma and Maica's pool instead of writing anymore. Luckily though, I think I am finally ready to come home. My last two stops have definitely been softening the blow and reminding me how good it is to see familiar faces. So get ready people, my flights home (all 5 of them) start tomorrow! I'll land in DFW late on the 2nd! Hasta ahora! 

A few pictures below: 

My cup of steamed milk (...Well done, Lauren!)

Milan's cathedral. Very impressive. 

Milan's cemetery--go big or go home! (...or somewhere else?)

Maica, Juanma and our pile of fried fish goodness in Seville

Seville in the background as seen from a seminary just on the other side of the river

A bit of Aracena where we saw the caves today. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

{Maica and Juanma with Seville in the background}

They don't pose for pictures.

But they do...

allow you to swim in their pool, cook you gazpacho and flan and all kinds of other Spanish favorites, let you lounge around their house, take you to a spa, drive and walk you all around Seville, listen to you speak unintelligible Spanish and nod politely, take you for walks (of course!) with their friends, not judge you for taking extraordinarily long naps, buy you your favorite candy and make you cafe con leche after cafe con leche.  

Camino friends Juanma and Maica have been softening the blow of returning home by letting me relax at their slice of paradise just outside of Seville for a few days. It's been good to see familiar faces, both here and in Milan, and I think both have gotten me ready to come home and see the rest of you. I've still got 5 flights to go, but I'll be home in just 3 days.

I'm soaking up the good life while I can, but hasta pronto!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Beginning of the End

I'm waiting around in the hostel for a few more minutes before I swing on my backpack and make my way to the Thessaloniki airport. This officially marks the end of my tour of the Balkans, and, with my first flight towards my final destination, marks the beginning of the end of my whole trip.

This is flight one in my string of flights which looks a little something like this:



Thankfully I have a couple days in Milan and a few days in Sevilla to see some familiar faces, get out of the airport (and to eat some pizza and flan!).

So yes, while I gave extending my trip a good thought, I am in fact headed home soon. Mark your calendars for August 2nd!

Bye, bye Balkans!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Week In Review Sabbatical Style: T-10 days!

10 days left! Can you believe it? I'm starting to get my head around it as I make my last stop in the Balkans--Thessaloniki, Greece. From here I basically start the long stretch of flights home (and by long I mean 7 legs of flights long). Thankfully I'll stop to see some friends along the way in Milan and in Sevilla. I had some things set aside for the week in review last week but then didn't have wifi for a long stretch. As I'm getting towards the ends of things I thought I would see I would try to give a little overview.

So, here you go! It's the week(s?) in review:

  • I decided to pop over to Corfu for a few days when I was in Saranda, Albania. It's just a short ferry ride away and was absolutely beautiful. The number of tourists walking around was a bit shocking after spending a couple of weeks in Albania. 
  • The "easy" bus connection I needed from the port to the otherside of the island turned out to be a little less easy than I was told. I got a little lost finding the bus stop and arrived just as the buses were leaving. No problem. I was told they were really frequent. Except, when I asked (at 1:30) I was told the next one wasn't until 4. Boo. So I walked around in the heat, with my bag and killed the time. 
  • 2.5 hours later I showed up to confirm where the bus would stop at 4:00. The guy told me, no--the next bus is at 6. It's already 5 o'clock. Yep. I forgot about the 1 hour time change. Time to wait...again
  • Part of the way I ended up killing the time was sitting around with 5 crazy, old Greek taxi drivers. I shared my cookies with them and they tipped me off about the new road to Thessaloniki. They said it was ridiculous to go back to Albania to make my way to Thessaloniki (which would take a whopping 16 hours), that I could take a direct bus from Corfu to Thessaloniki in about 5 hours.  
  • I chose that one. Sorry, Gjirokaster and Korca--maybe next time. The Greek bus was only half full, had AC and passed through lots of lovely countryside (and on new roads to boot!). 
  • Only downfall? On the only half full bus, the super curious toddler ended up sitting right behind me. Along with almost constant screeching, every once in a while I would feel little fingers squeezing my arms from behind or poking my freckles. Telling myself there was something wrong with him made me more patient. 
  • Throwing out my 5 phrases in Albanian got one of two reactions consistently: proud amazement OR deep belly laugh. Every time I said good evening to my hotel owner in Himare he laughed in a way that I am sure if he had any liquid in his mouth he would have spit it all over the place. 
  • In Corfu I decided to do a little sea cave exploration. I'm not a very good swimmer (I realized that, along with riding a bike, I have basically forgotten how to swim), but I didn't let that hold me back. In the end I explored some of the caves not by boat or by canoe, but by tiny inflatable square. 
  • The owner of my hotel in Paleo, Corfu gave me a list of native dishes to try while I was on the island. The sofrito was especially delicious!
  • I finally fulfilled an item on my Albanian to-do list: swimming on a beach with bunkers. (The former ultra-communist leader had them built all over the country after he effectively isolated the country from absolutely everyone.) 
  • I sat in the shade near the Roman agora here in Thessaloniki and had a read through the latter part of Acts and Paul's two letters to the Thessalonians. Seems there is a legacy of friendliness/loveliness in the people here. 
  • Because I didn't go back to Albania as planned I have one major problem. I have $200 worth of Albanian currency on my hands. And NO ONE wants to exchange it. I checked into it before buying my bus ticket, but the bank teller incorrectly told me I would have no problem exchanging it at the main bank in town. I went to five banks, seven travel agencies, stopped 2 groups of people on the street and asked one security guide. No luck. (If you have ideas, send them my way!)
  • In Corfu town I went into the church there and got to see the mummified town saint (...kinda creepy) but then was introduced to a super friendly priest (monk?) who had spent time in Canada. Along the same lines, I have noticed a lot of really young priests/monks both in Corfu and here in Thessaloniki, which surprised me. 
  • And finally, the story of walking home so full of free-ness yesterday (see last post): I walked past the bus station and saw a guy who suddenly and visibly had something dawn on him. He threw his hands up in the air and started mumbling to himself frustratedly. He asked me something in Greek, and when I said I didn't speak Greek he told me in English that he got nervous about a situation with his girlfriend here in town and came to see her (he lived in a village outside of town). He came to try to change her mind, but she broke up with him anyway. Now, he told me, he didn't even have money for the bus ride home, was hungry and, was sad. "You know how is love." Poor guy. 
  • He asked if I might have 2 euros to get him home on the bus. The smallest bill I had was a 5, but I just gave it to him, told him to get something to eat with the change and asked if he needed a hug. I gave the guy a hug, told him everything would be ok and was on my way. 
  • Today I went to see the town's white tower. And who did I see walking around? The sad guy! Long story short, he is a heroin addict. 
  • Poor guy.
  • (I didn't really care about the 5 euros--I mostly just felt stupid for giving the guy a hug!) 
The end! A few pictures below. See you soon!

What's a few months? Right?

Beach bunkers near Ksamil

Beautiful west coast of Corfu 

The "Blue Eye" cave (the water was so blue that it almost seemed ridiculous)

My mighty, cave exploring, inflatable square!

Corfu Town, Corfu

The Rotunda (former Roman mausoleum turned church--really striking)

Roman Agora

Enjoying the sunset on the Thessaloniki port

Go Ahead, Make My Day

My dad always went around telling me, Nothing in life is free. Which, ok, I kind of get. There's often a catch in those sounds-too-good-to-be-true offers. The thing is though, sometimes, you do get things for free.

And I love to get things for free.

It's not even the money I save when I get things for free (although that's nice). I just get some kind of thrill out of it. The system glitches, you find a loop hole, or most often, someone is generous--it feels like such a win.

And yesterday was a big win as far as scoring free things goes. I got to go into a ton of beautiful archeological sites and churches for free. It was already something like 95 degrees before the morning got started so I stopped at a fruit stand to buy an orange. I chose carefully and brought the orange to the guy in charge. He then told me, you picked a bad one! (Which I'm sure was true--I am, for the most part, horrible at picking fruit.) He went and picked me out the best one, gave me a bit of a sad face and then told me that these oranges were for juice not for eating.

Oh. (Again, I'm pretty useless with knowing these things.)

I thought maybe I should get a different fruit, but he told me don't worry, it will be ok, just take it. That's right, just take it--he wouldn't let me pay.

I walked along the streets tossing it into the air feeling oh-so-proud of my free orange.

And, the orange turned out to be delicious.

Next stop: Lunch

I had a really late lunch and by the time I found a nice little restaurant I was starving. The waitstaff sent over an older Greek waiter who turned out to be their go-to English speaker. He was super friendly and chatty and I had a nice meal all around. I'm horrible at getting waiters' attention to ask for the bill and so sat eating bread and tzatziki until I could catch him.

And for some reason, somewhere between me asking for the bill and it actually coming the owner-lady came out and brought me a giant beer. I tried telling her I didn't order one, that I was actually just waiting on my bill, until she had my waiter come over and he explained that it was for me, on the house.

Um...thank you?

I don't even like beer and here was this giant one. But hey, it was free!

Then came free watermelon! Ripe, heart of the melon, served with ice watermelon. Oh man. Some of the best watermelon ever.

And then when I ate everything (again) and asked for my check (again) the waiter looked a bit sad and asked if I would like a coffee--on the house. You know if I had the time. And if I didn't want to walk around in the heat. (Which I did, and didn't.)

All right, bring on the free coffee! He got excited and then asked how I wanted it.

Finally I pulled myself out of there, so full that I could barely walk back to the hostel, but smiling the whole way back.

Nice people are so lovely.

(Also, all these free things put me in an even more than usually generous mood, which led to a quite interesting story. But more on that later!)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Camino De Santiago: Day 17 Mansilla de las Mulas-LEON!

The Camino de Santiago saga continues!

As mentioned in the last Camino post I ended up sharing an early taxi into Leon and skipping the outskirts of town and the "dangerous bridge" my guidebook mentioned (everyone who walked said the bridge is OK now). Once we got into town we dropped on passenger off at her hotel and then the other three of us followed the sound of drums and the people dressed in processional costumes to find the beginning of the Easter processions. We got to watch the very beginning of the parade with hardly anyone around. We later made our way to the cathedral, and the crowds, to watch the procession again and to see it join with the separate procession that started on a different side of town. 

While I felt a bit guilty taking a taxi into town, even though it wasn't too far, I knew it was the best choice for my ankle, and also the only way I would have gotten to see the processions--which were a highlight of the entire Camino for me. After watching the processions and taking in all the Easter celebrations at the cathedral I checked in at the nun-run hostel and caught up with some Camino friends. Overall it was a very memorable day. (For a slightly sentimental, but live from the scene take of it, you can see my Easter post.)

My first glimpse of the cathedral--one of my favorites

First "float"--and no, they aren't KKK outfits. Even though it's very hard to get that out of your mind as you watch it!

Especially these guys

The little ones seem less threatening 

John's float. 
I learned from my days of co-teaching religion classes in a Spanish high school (it's a long story) that these floats are really heavy. The people who carry them have to practice for months leading up to the processions to make sure they can all keep in step as they sway and carry the things 

Mary and the women

Grieving women

Side view of the cathedral

Just as I was commenting to myself how lucky I was to be a whole head taller than most Spaniards it started to rain and up the umbrellas went!

The floats made their way to the cathedral where they met the other procession

John again

Mary and the women

All the procession filed into the plaza in front of the cathedral where the float of Mary and the women met the float of Jesus and the empty tomb. The people carrying the float made it "dance," or do an elaborate swaying. The crowd erupted into applause and the whole thing surprised me in how moving it was. 

After a brief sermon broadcast through speakers in the cathedral it was announced that the night was over and dozens of doves were released. 

All the floats filed out, this time everyone with pointy caps removed

And the music was much more cheerful! 

A shot of the inside of the the cathedral

I'm admittedly horrible at taking pictures inside cathedrals, but I'll just say that the inside of the cathedral matched the outside--awe inspiring. 

The interior doors of the Leon cathedral


Most of us also took the next day as a rest day to see the sights in Leon and to rest our tired bodies (and hit up numerous pharmacies looking for all the right bandaids/tape/pain pills!). I really attempted to not spend the whole time walking (like I did in Burgos) and defeat the purpose of the rest, but Leon had some lovely sites!

Gaudi infront of one of the few buildings he designed outside of Cataluna 

His building plus an anti-domestic violence/sexism protest
Chillin with Antonio 

In case you forgot...Leon no es Castilla! 

Glass of horchata. Funny story: Rest days present a problem in that you have to be out of the albergues generally by 8am and you can't check back in till 2pm or so. Buuuut finding something open in Spain at 8am is tricky. We found a cafe to rest in for a while, but I had already had a big coffee (or 2?) with my breakfast. I was looking for something mildly breakfast-like and saw that they had limonada. I knew that Leon was famous for their limonada and had seen signs indicating cafes had it all over town (I also wrongly assumed that it was an Easter drink). So, at 8am I ordered what I thought was limonade (kinda like juice, no?). The waitress gave me a really strange look. Um. Ok...maybe not. I saw that they also had horchata, so I went for that. In the end the horchata was SUPER sweet (and definitely not a breakfast drink). I later found out from my Spanish friends that evening that limonada is not limonade, but actually wine. Which is why it was a little eyebrow raising to order it at 8am! 

In front of San Isidoro--one of my very favorite tourist sights along the entire Camino

A ceiling in the cloister--unfortunately you couldn't take pictures inside. You'll just have to go and see it yourselves! The ceiling frescos were out of this world!

Another courtyard shot

Sevillian pilgrim friends Juanma and Maica in San Isidro


Plaza in front of the Cathedral

Just to prove I was there!

(OK, sorry! I know that was photo heavy, but I just couldn't cut it down anymore!)