Thursday, January 24, 2013

Paris: The Best Christmas Present

While Christmas vacation began in late December, I left my temporary home in Andalucía, Spain, for France. First stop on the list: PARIS. (Warning: long post ahead!)

Paris, France, seen from Notre-Dame Cathedral
Paris, seen from Notre-Dame Cathedral

Riding the TGV

Rue Mouffetard, Paris, France
Rue Mouffetard, near my hostel
After an, uh, unpleasant experience missing the night train in Barcelona, I had to (painfully) shell out an extra 100 € to catch the train that was leaving in the morning. In the end, I think it was worth it to miss the night train since I got to ride the TGV, or high speed train! And boy was it FAST. Like, sinfully fast—200mph. I would look out the window at a mountain way ahead of the train, return to my book for a minute or two, and when I would glance up again it would already be parallel with me. I left Barcelona in the morning and, after a transfer at the Spanish-French border, hopped off in Paris’s Gare de Lyon in late afternoon. Progress!

Orsay Museum

Orsay Museum, Paris, France
The Orsay Museum
I arrived in Paris around 4:30pm but the Orsay Museum—one of my only planned sights for the day—was set to close at 6. Thankfully, I managed to get there and purchase a Paris Museum Pass by five-o’-clock, so I raced upstairs and blew through the “must-see” Impressionists Gallery in around 15 minutes. This was hardly enough time to appreciate such tender, glowing works like Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass, Renoir’s Dance at the Galette Windmill, and van Gogh’s other starry night, but they began shooing us out around 5:30 so I had to look, sigh, and move on quickly.

As the museum was closing, I popped in to a temporary exhibition on the photography of Félix Thiollier and really, really loved it. His pictures surprised me because I had no idea that artists had already become so skilled at photography in the mid- to late-19th century; his composition and control of light made industrial France feel very contemporary, even in black-and-white.

Friday, January 18, 2013

10…Make That 24 Hours in Barcelona’s Old Town

For the two weeks Christmas vacation I got from working as a language assistant this year, I decided to take a trip to France, a trip to France by train. Living so far south on the Iberian peninsula meant, however, that I would have to spread these train trips over a few days just to get from Úbeda to Paris with some sanity (and sleep).

Catalan flag & Catalan independence flag, Barcelona, Spain
Catalan flag and Catalan independence flag
So I decided to take the trenhotel (night train) from home, arrive in Barcelona in the morning, and take another night train to Paris that evening—giving me a ten-hour layover in Barcelona between night trains. Since there is just so much to see and do in that city, I planned to limit myself to the Barri Gòtic (old town) for the day, following travel blogger Nomadic Matt’s advice. After this brief appetizer of sightseeing, I would sleep on the train, wake up in Paris, and hit the ground running.

That was the plan, at least.

La Boqueria market

The big farmers’ market in town is really a B- or C-list tourist attraction, but since I was hangry I went here for breakfast. First things first!

Dragonfruit, Boqueria market, Barcelona, Spain
Dragonfruit, Boqueria market
I was so overwhelmed by just how extensive the variety of produce and meat was there; I even saw whole chicken and rabbit hanging in one food stand—whole, as in with feathers or fur! What freaked me out (in a good way), though, was seeing dragonfruit at one of the fruit sellers. I picked a cellophane-d half up for breakfast, and while it wasn’t as good as the dragonfruit juice my host home mom made when I studied abroad in Costa Rica, it made me really happy just to enjoy this hard-to-find, outrageously-magenta fruit.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Collected Lessons Learned from a Trip to France

Last week I made my way back into Spain from a week-and-a-half journey into the French Republic. It was the first time I had left the country since arriving in Madrid back in September, and I really enjoyed the change of scenery, language, and culture I had grown accustomed to here in southern Spain. Due to time (and wallet) constraints, my travels focused mainly on Paris and northern France, but I also spent half a week in the Spanish Basque provinces and La Mancha before returning home to Úbeda.

It was my first experience traveling non-stop for more than a week out of a backpack in a country whose language I could barely speak, but it was an experience in which I grew and learned a lot. Below I’m going to talk about what I learned about the country of France, travel in general, and myself while on the road.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris
Midnight Mass, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe, Paris
Champs Élysées, Paris

What I learned about France

* The French rarely, if ever, lived up to the “rude French” stereotype, and were often actually quite friendly and kind to me. Lots of people were patient with my present-tense, five-verb French, and I was never attacked simply for being American.

* Many, many people in the tourism industry could speak English, from ticket cashiers to train station attendants to hotel concierges. Although I knew enough French to survive, it made getting around very convenient.

* Spoken French can sometimes sound just like Arabic.

* The French rail system is truly world class, so much so that inter-city bus services don’t exist. Speedy trains connected even the most isolated towns, and high-speed trains let me have breakfast in Barcelona and dinner in Paris.

* France wasn’t as .~*aMaZiNg*~. as I thought it would be and was really expensive, especially in Paris. Because of this, I returned to Spain earlier than I had expected I would.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

December Monthly Update: Happy Nativity edition

The first trimester of school has come and gone. Wait…THE YEAR’S A THIRD OF THE WAY OVER??? Cannot handle it. Still, this December was a blast!

Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain
Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba

Visiting Córdoba

The first weekend in December I took a trip to the city of Córdoba, a two-hour bus ride to the west of Úbeda. I was overjoyed to finally see one of my favorite architectural sites in the world—the Mosque-Cathedral—and to, willingly or not, get lost in the winding streets of the old Jewish quarter. This history major had a heyday hitting up the local archaeological museum as well as some palatial ruins to the west of the city center. And, of course, there was plenty of good food to be had, especially salmorejo cordobés, a cold, thick tomato-garlic soup topped with boiled egg and cured ham.

Festival de Música Antigua

Capilla del Salvador, Úbeda, Spain
Capilla del Salvador, Úbeda
From the end of November to the middle part of December, the cities of Úbeda and neighboring Baeza put on a festival showcasing all sorts of classical music, held in various auditoriums and churches across the region. I got to hear a small ensemble sing Renaissance polyphony inside a Renaissance chapel, another group sing music written by women from the Middle Ages in a medieval church, and even a traveling band from Morocco. It was a real treat to listen to such great music in such historical venues.
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