October 19, 2005

Spanish Seduction

It's about a month since I returned from my Spain, and for lots of reasons I never really got around to entering anything in my blogs about how the trip went. It's 4:30p.m. and it looks like my boss has skipped off early for today, affording me some stolen minutes to do this. ;)
Way back at the start of the summer I spotted some ridiculously cheap flights from Shannon to Girona in the Northeast of Spain, so I didnt think too long or hard about them and booked before they were scooped up! In the weeks and months that followed, I didnt think very much about the holiday - it was just a break I felt I needed from the tedium of my job and I didn't feel like planning very much for it.
I had been to Spain once before - just outside Alicante - and it didnt leave much of an impression in my mind that time. Not my kind of holiday, I suppose - the south coast of Spain (the little I saw of it) was a bit depressing really. This time around, I was expecting something more, but I was surprised at how much I fell in love with the places I visited!
Our first port of call was Montserrat. After landing in Girona, Brian and I hired a car (a Seat Ibiza, which was pretty comfy and economical) and hit the road. We had NO PLAN, which was kind of funny. We vascillated between Barcelona, Valencia and Zaragoza, eventually opting for Montserrat. The drive up the mountains was spectacular, and would have been even more so had the weather been better. Big black clouds were threatening by the time we arrived at the monastery town. While the surrounding landscape was breathtaking and the monastery very worthwhile, Montserrat itself was a little disappointing in some ways. It was completely geared towards tourists and you felt it in your pocket! We visited the monastery which was very beautiful and peaceful, took a ride to the mountain top on the cable car, and planned a trek to some of the caves and hermitages but about 10 mins into the trek, big fat drops of rain started to fall. Seconds later the sky opened and we had to scurry back to the cable car. :( We pretty quickly abandoned our plan of camping in Montserrat that night.
As we drove through the night to Madrid, the rain poured down relentlessly. The motorway was full of trucks (I've never seen so many!) which made it even harder to drive. At about 4 in the morning, we pulled into a deserted lay-by just outside Madrid and had a doze for a few hours.
Next morning, I awoke to the sound of a car purring. In a sleepy stupor I unzipped my sleeping bag and rubbed some of the condensation from the winow. I woke up pretty quickly when I realised there were two Spanish police at the driver's window. Yikes! Once they realized we had just pulled in for some sleep, they grinned at us, waved that it was okay and pulled off. :) Hehe...
What can I say about Madrid! I love the city - it is so alive. We ended up spending double the amount of time we had initially thought we would there. We scouted out a great little pension right in the centre on Calle Major. The owner was lovely, even though he didnt have a word of English, nor we Spanish...but we got by with a smattering of French. LOL! We dumped our bags, had a shower, and headed back out for some tapas and a cerveza. I wish Ireland had more of a similar attitude to food and drink as many of the Europeans do. Having a little drink with some food is so much better than having a four course meal late in the evening, then going out and binge drinking until closing time. I could get used to tapas! We tried lots of different types over the 4 days in Madrid - all delicious!!
There was so much to see and do in the city, and while we probably just scratched the surface, we managed to fit in a lot in 4 days. I probably enjoyed the Reina Sofia the best, even though I wasnt feeling very well the same day. We spent a few hours looking at Salvador Dalis, Picassos, Miros and lots more. Later on, we lazed oujtside in the sun and watched a group of percussionists who were excellent and drew a huge crowd!
One on of the nights there, we met up with a girl that I know from a travel website on-line called Steff. We spent a few hours going to the bars in La Latina, and we really enjoyed it. La Latina is definitely the most vibrant, arty area of the city - lots of great shops and bars.
I was sorry to leave Madrid, and i think I could have happily blown off the rest of the holiday to stay there. We both wanted to go South to Cordoba, Seville and Grandada, but it was an overly ambitious plan considered we had to get back to Barcelona the following week, so we agreed on Valencia next. This city was much different to Madrid - it reminded me just a little of Bologna with its old historic quarter. We hadnt booked ahead and we spent a lot of time that day just trying to find somewhere to stay. After much searching, we found a hostal near the center with one slightly psychotic and one super-friendly owner. LOL!
We spent two days in Valenica (or was it 3?) - the centre itself was quite a cosy size and we saw most of what we wanted to see quite easily. The highlight was the Aquarium - definitely worth taking in!! The Barrio Carmen was, I thought, the nicest area of the city - much like La Latina in Madrid. We found a great pizzeria on Calle des Venerables which served excellent pizza and really cheap house wine. Full of locals too!
Leaving Valencia and the heat, we drove up the coast to Tarragona, where we stopped to recharge our batteries. Tarragona is a gorgeous little town, and I'd love to go back. We only stayed a couple of hours - just long enough for me to do some shopping. ;)
The drive through the Catalyunian countryside was beautiful - it was much more verdant than the burnt red landscapes of Castille. We passed lots of inviting looking vineyards, and I just kept wishing that we had more time to take it all in, but we had to press on to Barcelona. Driving into Barcelona is far from a piece of cake, and I was lucky that Brian had done it before. We took a couple of wrong turns, and ended up getting caught for some time in a traffic jam on the main motorway into the city. When we finally got to our pension, Pension Dali, off Las Ramblas, we were both wrecked.
Las Ramblas is lovely, but it's like anything that you've built up in your head..a little anti-climatic. I couldnt really see what all the fuss was about. We found a great restaurant that night where we really relaxed over some fajitas and a bottle of wine. We took a wander around the city to get a feel for what it was like at night, but ended up back in bed before too long. Next day, we took the Metro to see the Sagrada Familia. We debated going in as both our budgets were over-stretched at this stage, but in the end we did, and boy was I glad. The Sagrada Familia is one of the most amazing sights in Spain, and I was raging that I didnt have my camera with me.
Obviously, it takes too long to write about everything we did, and this is already too long for anyone to still be reading it , but suffice to say that we made the very most of our 10 days in the country. My lasting memory of Spain is long, lazy evenings drinking or eating outside in the warm air, a very laid back atmosphere, and great shopping! The curse of the backpacker is that she cant feed her shopping addiction!
But I'll be back....

October 7, 2005

Writers Block in Madrid

I had a episode of writer's block while in Spain. I brought along my journal fully intending to document all the sights and sounds at the end of each day...but when I sat down to write anything, I found that I was a bit...well....stuck.
During one particularly acute episode in Madrid, all I could muster were banal notes like "Went to the Reina Sofia today, really enjoyed it". After a half page or so, I read back over it and realised I hadn't captured anything even remotely close to what I was experiencing. In the end, I gave up, resolving to get down to it properly when I got home to Ireland.
The conclusion I came to was that when you are travelling with other people, you really just don't have the time to write, because you're too busy chatting and planning what to do next, and even when you do find yourself with an hour or two of your own to spare, it's difficult to really settle down to the task at hand because you're wondering what they are doing and looking fwd to hearing about what they've been up to in your absence. Travelling solo affords the sort of time that is more conducive to stimulating the creative process.
Since I've returned home, I still haven't managed to actually write anything much about my time in Spain, due to being back at work and evenings being taken up with giving piano lessons. At least, that's my excuse. Maybe I still have writer's block..
To make matter's worse, I arrived back to work to discover that my boss sneakily moved me from my advantageous back-to-the-wall, birds eye view of the room position to a new desk right beside him. Fan-bloody-tastic! My blog entries will be few and far between from now on, it seems. My dossing days are over!
Anyway, back to the trip itself. Brian and I never actually made it south to Ronda or Seville as we'd initially hoped, but it was a pretty ambitious plan to begin with anyway. We ended up doing a city tour of Spain with one or two stops in smaller places along the way.
I fell in love with Madrid and, if I wasnt committed to my round the world trip now, I might even consider moving there immediately! It's supplanted Rome as my favourite European city. The city is absolutely alive, and what was even better about that was that it was not thronged with tourists.
One of the best nights we had there was meeting Steff (another TP member who've I gotten to know over the last few months). We arranged to meet her outside on of the main Metro stations near where we were staying. Had no idea what she looked like, and there was one or two almost funny/embarrassing moments where I nearly walked up to random people and asked them if they were Steff.
You always feel a little weird when you meet people for the first time, but after 5 mins with Steff you felt like you'd known her all your life. We had a great night, spent most of the night in stitches laughing. First, she took us to a little bar (I forget the name..) where they served this yummy white Basque wine.
Later on, we went to another bar in La Latina which played flamenco music and we had a few beers and some tapas. We got a fit of giggling at the barman because he had red-hair - he looked more like an IRishman than a Spaniard.
More bar-hopping ensued, and we eventually met up with Steff's Spanish friend Eva who was great fun! Steff ended up as an interpreter for the rest of the evening, but it didnt matter. We all managed to make ourselves understood, and most of the time the conversation just descended into riotous laughter.
One of our better nights out in Spain, it has to be said.
Anyway, I'd be here all day if I tried to tell you everything that was great about Spain, and none of us really want that. And what with the bad dose of writer's block, and the boss looking over my shoulder, and the laziness, it'll just have to wait. Lol!

October 4, 2005

A Cof Reflects on What It Means to Be Free...

12 more weeks of this insufferable grind. 12 more weeks and I am free!

I'm trying to get my head around what that's actually going to feel like. Have I ever really been "free" before? I think not.

In the beginning, there were play-pin boundaries and childlocks. Then came primary school (a welcome relief, its true, but a form of captivity nonetheless). Following this, began 6 long years of concentration camp-like internment, otherwise known as SECONDARY SCHOOL. Many people look back on this period of their young life with a certain degree of rose-tinted fondness. Not me, oh no! I remember....nuns..lots of nuns...and rules. I was told who I could or couldnt associate with, what career path I should choose, how I should look, and how I should speak. I've committed those times to the darkest recesses of my memory, where they remain smouldering, only to be stoked every now and then by a brief encounter with one of the aforementioned tyrants or school bullies.

The start of univeristy life heralded a period of feckless abandon, the illusion of having thrown off the shackles of secondary education, and the beginning of MY life. Ha! What a green little freshman was I! In the short space of a year, not only the bank but also the university owned my ass. Exams, resits, deadlines, account balances, overdrafts, contracts, duels at dawn.....no I was certainly not free, but I did love college.

I emerged from university as a butterfly from a cocoon, shaped, moulded, employable (snort), and up to my neck in DEBT! After a brief and ill-advised spell working in a doctor's surgery (because despite what my college tutor told me, no-one actually really wants an ARTS student. ) I was successful in applying for a position as a Technical Writer. Now I shall certainly experience true freedom, I thought. Where do I sign? Let my star-studded career commence!

Almost a year later, I have become not even an important cog in an important machine. I'm just some crap old cog, buried away in the back of the machine, trundling along, breaking down unnoticed every so often, but yet just necessary enough to have around in case one of the TOP cogs craps out. No, this is freedom neither.

So, what am I do when I am suddenly launched out into the big wide world with little or no deadlines and no one to tell me what to do? Will I be overcome? Will I go nuts altogether? Will I realise I'm just meant to be an old cog after all and turn around and come back? What will be the outcome? What does it feel like to be free?