Thursday, May 31, 2007

Spain - Part Dos: Granada and Madrid

Wow, almost an entire month without updating. By now, you guys must be tired of reading about Europe or at least want to see what I've been up to since I've been back. I promise I will do my best to bring you all to the present in the very near future!

My idealized version of Spain finally came true in Granada. Barcelona, as gorgeous as it was, was a big let down in terms of me wanting to enjoy sunny weather, flowing sangria, and that carefree vibe the Spanish call a certain "yo no se que." Ah, but Granada was all of those things and more. Even now, when looking back on the entire trip, Granada is just about the only place I felt completely relaxed, at home, yet able to enjoy being in a completely new and strange place.

The rooftop patio view from our Hostel

Apparently, it's a common feeling among backpackers who stop there. People who initially plan to stay a couple days, often times as a pit stop before taking a foray into neighboring Morocco, end up staying for weeks. Well, we already knew we'd love Granada, so we booked five days at a great hostel appropriately called the Oasis, settled in, and enjoyed ourselves.

Watercolor of our "next door neighbor", slightly higher above us.

On our first night, we went on a tapas tour with a group of people staying at our hostel. For a euro-fifty, you can order a drink and have a free tapas to go with it. Unbeatable, really, and it was a great way to meet our hostelmates.

After our first tapas tour, a few of us went to a flamenco show. I sketched in the dark, never looking down at my sketchbook and rarely lifting the pen, trying to follow the movement of the dancer furiously moving up and down the stage.

Every once in a while, she would slow down, or hold a moment briefly enough for me to memorize and quickly transfer onto paper. The right page shows her vocalist and guitarist. Obviously, they stayed still longer.

There was definitely a much milder "spring break" presence here, despite the mass consumption of sangria. Folks were generally more laid back and friendly, and Alex and I gained some great friends out of it. In particular, there were five of us who became inseparably banded together for three days. You guys already know by now how sentimental I can be, so rather than get sappy, I hope you'll enjoy a bouquet of snapshots instead.

(click image to enlarge)

The most wonderful thing about Granada was that there was basically one major site to see: The Alhambra.

The shot everyone takes, me included.

You could spend one morning there, then ease through the rest of your time in Granada in absolutely no hurry. Take a leisurely stroll through the narrow alleyways where shops display goods from Morocco, share a hookah in a Moorish tea house, sun on the rooftop patio of the Oasis, where white bedsheets dry in the breeze and Caroline plays Blackbird on guitar, eat the hands-down best kebabs in all of Europe, or do nothing at all without ever feeling like you're wasting precious vacation time.

Left: Friday nite jam session in the Oasis kitchen (i.e.- folk guitar songs by candlelight) .
Right: Archway in the Alhambra and Alex enjoying a rooftop "siesta" back at the hostel.

Julia writing/sketching in her Moleskine on the rooftop patio.

Typical Granada Alleyscape

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye, and one by one, members of our little band went our own separate ways. This is always the hardest part, but because Alex and I were about the last ones to leave, we felt we were ready to say goodbye to Granada. All the same, it was a rather moody bus ride up to Madrid, and if it wasn't for an 'in-flight' viewing of Counterforce, the cheesiest cinematic flop of all time, to grant levity to the situation, I would probably have been even sadder.


We basically had one full day in Madrid, and it was mostly dedicated to visiting the Prado.... really the only reason we went to Madrid at all. We certainly weren't interested in the bull fights, museos del jamón, or watching Wild Hogs in Spanish.

Un cerdo salvaje among cerdos salvajes

There was one great bit of news that I received while in Madrid. I had a piece accepted into the very prestigious Spectrum Annual, which is due out this Fall. This will be my first time in Spectrum after a few attempts over the years, so I'm very excited to see where this might lead me in illustration.

And that's it for Spain! The next update will kick off in the final country of our grand European tour: Italy.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Spain, Part One: Peratallada, Barcelona, and Crime Fighting

I'm falling way behind on updating and we're not even halfway through Europe, so I'm going to step it up to a cut-and-dry pace through the next couple locations. I'll try, anyway.


We finally stop in Barcelona, Spain after a sixteen hour trainride. There's a whole lot to do in this town, but after a long day of travelling, I'm in no condition for any of it. Which is fine, because we have reservations the following day in a hotel outside of a medieval village about two hours away, a honeymoon gift from a couple close friends back home.

So after one night and a short afternoon of sight seeing in Barcelona, we get back on a train. This trainride is very different from the one the day before. It's a commuter line, jam packed with people, including a mother who has to choose between letting her two-year old scream with unprecedented abandon, or giving him the whistle from her keychain. Everyone on the train silently pleads for the whistle. I opt for my headphones.

A few hours later, Alex and I are checked into our hotel, and as you can imagine, extremely happy to be away from everything and everyone. We spend the next two days doing what we need most: recharging. I can tell you all about the long walks through dirt roads, the old farmer who teaches us how to forage wild asparagus, the fantastic restaurant we visit two nights in a row, or the rustic village itself, but the highlight of this part of our journey is being able to just spend time with Alex. When you remove all the major cities with their sights, subways, masses and museums, and all you're left with is this person in front of you, this person that you will spend the rest of your life with.... you come to realize this person is still as fascinating as the day you first met, and how wonderful it is to simply talk to her, love her.... and drive her insane with the endless number of photos you still manage to take in the middle of nowhere.


I've heard that Barcelona is always sunny with great beaches, but when we rearrive, it's gray, windy, and the beaches are shut down. Still, we find plenty to see and do and the weather clears up here and there.

One attraction I never thought I'd find myself in is the Picasso Museum, but I think I'm finally at a point in my own artistic development that I am open to figuring out why Picasso went the direction he did, and where he came from before. This is a great place to start, since it features mostly early work from his student days, plein air sketches, his time in Paris where there's a noticeable influence by Toulouse-Lautrec, and on to his later so-called 'Blue' and 'Pink' periods, before delving into Cubism. I can't comment much more on my own impressions because it would require a lengthy dissertation.... and you know how I can get lengthy. Maybe it'll get its own update for those interested in the artsy fartsy stuff.

We're staying at a hostel full of spring breakers. Barcelona is the right destination for that type of crowd. It's not unusual for a party to begin at one in the morning, after a night of pub crawling or a dinner at eleven. Alex and I initially mean to go for one night out on the town, but we don't really mesh with the kids (I'm to blame, I'm a whopping thirty after all). Instead, we spend our late evenings taking long walks through alleyways that have turned into wind tunnels due to the weather, stopping occassionally for a pint, kebab, or ham and baguette.... Friends and family strangely predicted we'd lose weight from travelling, but these 'occassional stops' are actually quite frequent, along with our balanced meal of churros con chocolate in the mornings, a traditional quickie breakfast in Spain where the sipping chocolate is so thick you can stand a spoon in it.

Given the poor weather, our busy schedule of eating, walking, sight seeing, and eating, it's a wonder I'm able to sketch at all. Though not the most scenic place, my favorite subject matter here is observing the hostel life, and the many guitarists within the alleyways.

Crime Fighting

Somewhere between one sight and another during our last day in Barcelona, we need to take a subway ride. Our metro passes are expired by now, so we go downstairs on the outskirts of a station to purchase tickets from an electronic kiosk. As we descend, a man calls at us from the top of the stairs, but he soon disappears. Alex and I are short on coins and there's no machine to break our larger Euro bills. Another man is fumbling with the kiosk next to ours, and he seems to be having similar luck. There's nobody manning the service booth, so we're left with no choice but to resurface to find some change. The man next to us has also given up, follows us up the stairs and leaves.

As we begin to cross a street, the man who was yelling down at us a minute ago reappears to stop us at the crosswalk. He says a few words in Catalan, the local dialect in this part of Spain. When he realizes we don't know what he's saying, he asks if we speak Spanish. Confused, we slowly say "Un poco." He points at Alex's tote bag and says in Spanish that her phone is gone. She swings her bag in front of her and sure enough, the phone pocket is widely unzipped and the phone is gone. The man who was next to us at the kiosk was a pickpocket. The man who stopped us begins talking into a hidden mic, we see the hidden earpiece, and realize he's a plain clothes cop.

My other immediate realization is remembering there are some embarrassing photos of me on this phone, but then I regain my senses and search my own bag. Sketchbook, check. IPod, check. Big bulky camera, check. So the thief ended up with possibly the least valuable item. Check. Then again, even phones are capable of retaining loads of sentimental value, not to mention the hassle we'll need to go through to cancel the service.

As I continue to sift through my mental checklists, the man goes on explaining what and what not to do. Don't move. Stay here. Follow me. Don't worry. Here's my badge so you know I'm really a cop. He talks into his chest every few seconds. We figure all of this is to fill out a crime report, when suddenly - wait for it - the cop's partner, Jean Reno appears from out of nowhere with the phone in his hand! ....Okay, not Jean Reno, but a close double. And besides, isn't that all Reno plays in movies these days? The detective explains (he and Alex settle on speaking in French) that they've caught the culprit, along with his three partners. The cops had been watching these guys for a while now. Now we just needed to follow him to fill out some paperwork....

If it isn't for the squad car and uniformed police that finally show up, I'd begin to wonder if this wasn't some elaborate scheme, or a tourist attraction at the very least, but instead of getting into any cars and being hauled off to an abandoned warehouse, we're escorted across the street to a plaza lined with cafés and odd stares. A third undercover cop, we'll say he looks like Dennis Franz, pulls up in a plain car to pull out crime report forms from the trunk. Alex fills out the paperwork and I secretly want to ask to take a group photo, but think better of blowing their cover- as though signing crime reports in the middle of a café square is inconspicuous enough. We shake hands, say thanks and goodbye. In the end, I claim that Alex and I brought down a syndicate of thieves in fifteen minutes.

Next: Granada