Saturday, March 22, 2014

Córdoba and Almodóvar del Río with Ben!

     I found my brother Ben at my apartment in Madrid when I got home from work. He decided to come visit me on his way to China, where he will be studying Chinese at a Middlebury program in Kunming until June. (He has a blog about it and it is very good.) Anyway, he arrived on around January 13th and, from what I knew by talking with him over Skype, he was planning on staying for two weeks. So when I walked in and he said he had booked a flight from Madrid to China for February 11th I was (pleasantly) surprised. We had a month to hang out, eat good food and travel. First up, Córdoba.

Ben Shane and Ben Maimonides in Córdoba (Medieval Jewish Spanish philosopher and rabbinic scholar)
      I don't know if you're aware, but by the time Ben arrived in Spain I had been looking to buy a good flamenco guitar for quite some time. A flamenco friend of mine has a guitar made by a guy from Córdoba, so Ben and I decided to go down there and try out a couple guitars that were at a good price. The guitars weren't as good as I had hoped, and I wasn't about to settle. But that was just an excuse for going down there in the first place anyway. The weather wasn't great, a bit rainy, but it didn't keep us from walking around.

Outside the Mezquita

Juuuust enough room. Typical street in Córdoba
     My plan was to go to Córdoba for the day and then take a bus to a nearby pueblo, walk into the country and sleep. Things didn't quite go as planned. After the day in Córdoba we took a bus to Almodóvar del Río, a town 25 minutes away. But we arrived when it was already dark. And raining. There was a castle though. 

Castle in Almodóvar del Río. Bad picture, but it was dark and raining so...
View from the castle
     We walked around the town and the outskirts for quite some time. We went up to the castle, checked it out and ate cold, tasty lentils out of tupperware while taking shelter under the castle walls. We walked back down to the town, around, went to a bar, and then decided the ground was sufficiently muddy. Where could we sleep? There was only one option, and that was to bivouac. We ascended to the castle again, in the rain, and the main portal seemed cozy enough. We couldn't pitch a tent, I only have a summer sleeping bag and it was January and raining. So we huddled under the portal, rain somehow still getting us wet, and 'slept.'

A wall in the synagogue of Córdoba
     Up before dawn and the roosters, we hiked down the hill, got some hot drinks, and caught the bus back to Córdoba. There, we walked around some more in the rain and saw what remains (not very much) of the old synagogue (remember when Ferdinand and Isabella kicked the Jews and Muslims out of Spain in 1492?). After a while we decided to take the bus back to Madrid, having triumphed in not buying a guitar and bivouacking in the cold outside of a castle from the 8th century. Overall, a success. Stay tuned for more cold camping adventures with Jake and Ben!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

London and Brighton

    We had a great time in London. Jack graciously let us stay at his place near Portobello Road in the North Kensington neighborhood. It's a really nice neighborhood, with all kinds of restaurants and boutiques. There was even a Spanish grocery store, with the same things I buy in Spain, the only difference being a 300% price increase! 

A street in Jack's neighborhood 
     We did many things. For one, we went to the British Library and saw the oldest existant Beowulf manuscript, the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and many other texts of historical importance. It's free and I definitely recommend stopping in next time you're in London. 
     Jack, Katie and I went to the National Gallery as well, a museum I first visited with Katie over three years ago. It is home to all kinds of famous paintings. Two lesser-known ones that struck my eye this time were "Sunset in the Auvergne" by Théodore Rousseau and "The Tempest" by Peder Balke. Katie and I also went to the Tate Modern museum, which had some great art. The surrealism room quickly became one of my favorite art rooms in any museum. Favorites of mine there include Francis Picabia's "Otaïti" and Max Ernst's "The Entire City," both of which were painted in the 1930s. If you don't care about this, don't worry—this paragraph is mostly so that at a later date I can easily find some paintings I enjoyed. 

Outside the National Maritime Museum
     How many museums did we go to, you ask? Well, without talking about the British Museum Jack and I spent time in my first day there, I will spend a couple of sentences on the National Maritime Museum in the Greenwich district. Katie and I went there to see a vast William Turner exhibit. Turner, a 19th century English painter, is one of Katie's favorite painters. I first saw his art in person at the National Gallery when we were in London the first time. Above all, he is famous for his seascapes. And he was good at them. The exhibition brought together the largest collection assembled of his seascapes and it was awesome. From large scale paintings to sketches, the exhibit offered a huge range of sea paintings and was mesmerizing.

      Of course, we did loads of other things in London, but we also took a nice trip to Brighton to see one of my flatmates from last year and good mate, Rue. We had some experiences with a terrible flatmate that ensured a lifetime bond. He kindly invited us down to Brighton to stay with him for a night and it was lovely. We had a nice walk around the town, ate fish and chips and reminisced. It was good to see him, and as with Jack, it was crazy to see him outside of the context we met and became friends in Spain. Hopefully one day they can both visit me on my home turf. 

Rue, Katie and I in Brighton
     And that concludes our Christmas vacation to the UK. It only took me until March to finish writing about it. It was really a fantastic, relaxing vacation and I am very glad we decided to do it and were met with such hospitality everywhere we went. Next up: my brother's month-long stay with me in Madrid! If you want a teaser, you can read the blog post he made about it. He is studying in China this semester and has started a great, funny blog. Cheers. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014


     So, I'm behind on blog posts. I'll try to change that this month. I've been busy with several things that I'll talk about in future entries. In any case, Katie and I were in Edinburgh over Christmas break, and it's a lovely city. It's very walkable and has distinct architecture. We got the best views from Arthur's Seat, a dormant volcano inside the city limits. It's a pretty short walk up the side of it and from the summit you can see the whole town and the Firth of Forth, which flows into the North Sea. 

View from Arthur's Seat

     We walked around quite a bit, went to coffee houses, used book shops and clothing stores, and of course museums. I tried the traditional dish haggis, which is mainly composed of sheep organs. It was tasty. We also had some excellent Indian food at the city's oldest Indian restaurant. 

The haggis is next to the tomato
     We went to the National Museum of Scotland, which among other things had some of the Lewis Chessmen, chess pieces discovered in the 1800s on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland and carved out of walrus ivory. They date to the 12th century. The rest of the pieces are in the British Museum in London, which I had seen the week prior. You also get great views of the city on top of the museum. 

Inside the National Museum of Scotland
     One night we went to an historic movie theatre and saw "All is Lost," the film starring Robert Redford that came out in 2013. I enjoyed the movie and Katie did as well, though she is always weary of would-be philosophical movies—she often thinks they try to muddy the waters to make them appear deep. In any case it was a nice experience to see a movie in a city to which we hadn't been. 
     We spent three days in Edinburgh and left on New Year's Eve to head back to Jack's parents and then on to London that evening. It was definitely worth the trip up. Edinburgh is unique and has a certain charm to it. And you don't feel rushed around trying to do a million things. It's a city you can visit without much of a schedule and just see what you discover.