Spain the Magnificent

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It’s raining in Paris. Three hours of sleep after the last minute edits and the emailing of my prof the essay– packing on the go, leaving in the dark. We’re perfect Parisians, chasing the metro. On the bus out of town already the cars are lining up, honking and swaying in the rain. My roommate is shivering; at the airport people are yelling at us.

            Blink and I’m on a mountain, the sun close and warm. Out across from me the houses spread out like intricate colored clay, everything in sync except for that grand Cathedral and its four spires striking up like beach shells. Against that there’s the Mediterranean sea, the kind of blue painters use (not the kind of blue that actually exists). And when I close my eyes there’s the chirp and the clicks of the insects, dirt as I run my hands along the rocks. Hey-oh, Barcelona.

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            Twelve days in Spain. Twelve days that could have been three weeks, three months, a whole year. They weren’t normal days, and this wasn’t a normal trip. The best way I could describe it was– clichéd as it is– an adventure. The word ‘adventure’ is misused and exaggerated a lot in our culture– mainly by me. I mean, look at my first blog post: I joked that almost losing my visa was an ‘adventure’. What the hell’s adventurous about sitting in front of a computer screen for forty eight hours, sweating from stress? I understand it now: Spain’s a proper ‘adventure’. Having such a busy week before it, I stepped onto that plane knowing virtually nothing about the places we were going, even the mega-popular Barcelona. Then suddenly me and four friends are renting a car and going into the heartland. For the first time during my trip in Europe, I saw incredible sights which I knew absolutely nothing about– not the history, not the thing itself. Your average North American knows next to nothing about Spain: say Spanish and we think Burritos and Sombreros. So, as we drove further inland, I felt like an explorer, seeing places no one in my family and none of my friends had seen. A part of me was at points slightly, totally irrationally, scared– proving how young I still am, how inexperienced– but then we’d see the places and it would be beyond expectation. And this is it.

            Spain is a country that can’t be generalized. There’s so much fragmented history, so many overlapping cultures, that just to drive two hours is to step into another place, another time.

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            Without further ado, here are some generalities about Spain: Spain has some of the friendliest people in the world. There’s a sense of community here I’ve only ever seen in Western Ireland. When a man with a leg brace was seen standing on the metro, two ladies stood up to ‘attempt’ to give him their spot. Upon making a joke in Spanish, everyone around him chuckled, and whatever he’d said made the lady beside him strike up a conversation. Language barriers didn’t prevent me from seeing that something was happening here that never would in Vancouver or Paris. Like the lady who, upon meeting us on top of the mountain near her village, made great effort to tell us all about the history of her village and the random castle perched on it, even though neither of us understood each other linguistically– employing her hands and her expressions– just so I could know about the village she loved. Spain is full of dramatic landscapes, of sandy mountains, rock towers, and orange groves; a place of amazing food– tapas! Palella!– amazing drinks– sangria! Estrella and Cerveza!– and amazing culture.

            One of the most important aspects in understanding Spain is that it’s a night culture. Spanish days are often so hot that shops close between two and five to take siestas, or just relax and have a coffee. There’s an emptiness to every city around three: Barcelona and only four or five cars would be driving, all the shop fronts shut. The flipside of that was their exhilarating nights. Streets are more packed at 9 PM than at any other point of the day: women yelling from balconies, men yelling from corner bars, children running across roads, crowded sidewalks. You know you’ve left Canada, and even France, when young children are still running around in their Halloween costumes at midnight. It’s a completely different kind of lifestyle. I’m not sure if I would enjoy it all the time– too little daylight might make one depressed– but I’ve never felt so alive at five in the morning.

            Between 1939 and 1975, Spain was under the Fascist dictator Franco, who practiced an isolationist policy which kept the country out of world politics. Much, I’m sure, has changed since then, but Spain has maintained its heritage and its roots more than I ever would have expected a country in Western Europe too. Sure, they have McDonalds and Burger King (lots of burger king!) now, but it feels like something to be taken at face value. Many Spanish people, after all, don’t speak English. Every province, every village is different.

            On that note, it’s too unfair to Spain to continue with these generalizations. Here you go, here’s Spain:  

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            Barcelona is one of the most popular cities in Europe, and it’s not hard to see why: with mountains, amazing beaches, beautiful architecture, interesting markets, great metro and amazing nightlife, it has everything you can want for a vacation town. But it goes so beyond that. There’s something unique about the city, something which sets it apart from other European cities; it’s more than the sum of its parts. You can see that partly in the architecture, which at first glance might look like the Imperialist style of most of western Europe, only to sneak up on you. Antoni Gaudi, the modernist architect, transformed the city. As my Barcelonan friend said, “he gave this place its soul”. His buildings have a surreal quality to them, with wavy features and sandy surfaces that make them seem plunged underwater, or winding staircases which lead nowhere or everywhere. Walking his park in the north of the city was like living in an Escher painting. They have to be seen to be believed–so idiosyncratic– much like the rest of the city. And one day his masterpiece, the looming Sagrada Familia, is going to give this city its Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty– probably being better, if the ground floor is any indication.

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            Barcelona has a way of seeping in; the more time I spent there the more I loved it. Just to walk between the narrow alleys or under the hundreds of balconies, listening to the laughing in those warm Mediterranean nights– I didn’t need to be doing anything to be having fun. Not that there’s ever a shortage of things to do; despite being a sixth the size of Madrid, there’s always new things to explore. Take our day in the Gothic Quarter. If the narrow streets, dark brick and statues of angels everywhere wasn’t cool enough, finding Roman ruins and monasteries that looked like modern skyscrapers really set this place apart. It all centered itself around the sprawling Gothic Cathedral (probably one of the only churches in the world, I’d guess, with its own swan garden). When we reached the front doors a band had assembled on the front steps, playing some very strange instruments– upside-down french horns, sideways oboes, and upright bases made for some pretty odd sounds, but the tune was beautiful. Across the plaza people danced in circles, in which anyone could join; one man leading and everyone following along, everyone understanding and welcoming. A woman in a wheelchair had been placed in the center of one so that she could be as part of the dance as everyone else. I later learned that this was the traditional form of dance in Catalonia, but I never needed a guide to tell me that what was happening here was very old and very dear to the people in that square. It was community on a level so open and so basic I was overwhelmed. I can still hear the music, that beautiful tune on those alien instruments. The next day on the aforementioned mountain I was at peace, after the insanity of Paris. I could hear myself think: did I want this? Was the insanity worth it? (Is it worth writing a blog if I’m just going to contradict myself with each post?). I don’t have that answer–yet– but it made me think.

            As we were leaving Barcelona we all felt we could have just spent our reading break there, but the car was ready and we had a big country to see. Down the coast we stopped in Valencia later that afternoon. We hadn’t heard much about the city beyond the beach, and spent most of our day there, only to discover, once it had already gotten dark, the beautiful old city and its drained moat. In the end, the spectacular part of Valencia was neither near the old town or the beach. Walking along the moat, it seemed like we were being lead to the middle of nowhere, having the place recommended by the girl at the front desk of the hostel. What could be so special about something made ten years ago in a town no one’s heard of? We passed gardens, bridges, and glass conservatories. Were any of these Valencia’s ‘big deal’? Then we saw this:

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and this:

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Yeah. One minute we’re in an old Spanish city, next minute we’re in Blade Runner. The building is so idiosyncratic it’s almost impossible to describe (so I photobomb you with pictures, how’s that for lazy?). There was nobody around us, not even the sound of cars, just the gurgle of the pool; nothing to make me think we were in Spain, in Europe, in anywhere really. If this place was so amazing, why didn’t it feature in every architecture book, every Lonely Planet guide? Us explorers made our first discovery.

            And it wouldn’t be the last. The very next day we were through the mountains and into Granada, the former major Arabic outpost of Spain. The town crawls up the edge of a mountain, the old city virtually unchanged in the past seven-hundred-or-so years, maintaining its tiny alleys and Arabic influence. Many of the streets sold rugs and fine trinkets, and there were probably about twice the number of hookah bars– adorned with tassels, thick with incense– to regular bars. Walking through, the town was always dwarfed by the very reason it’s a town in the first place: the Alhambra Castle. Looming high above on a larger mountain, the ancient walls glowed yellow in the night.

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We went there the next day thinking we’d spend two hours– max!– there before Seville. In the end we had to drag ourselves away after four. The Alhambra, a finalist for the Seven Modern Wonders of the World, is widely considered to be the most significant Arabic structure in Europe. Today you can still visit the armory, the baths, the water stairs, the garden, and the waiting rooms of the palace. All over six hundred years old. The art inside is stunning: the inlaid patterns, the vibrant colors, and the balance to which its employed makes it different from any other place in Europe (as my Lebanese friends assert, far more like the Middle East). It was also built and perfected when Christian Europe could barely hope to keep a couple of rocks together to keep out the rain. Then suddenly they lose to the Christians and they’re erased from history. Isabella and Ferdinand engaged in what can probably be called a genocide when they forced (read: murdered) the Arabs out of the country. Now the castle stands alone, reminding us what Europeans have done such a good job at forgetting. I’ve been to many castles now, but in none have I had shivers like I did here. It was like walking through a room full of ghosts. It’s a lesson a history student can’t forget.

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             It was interesting to leave the least ‘Spanish-ey’ city only to immediately go to probably the most. In many ways Seville is the cultural heartland of Spain. It’s the home of Flamenco, Bullfighting, Don Juan, Carmen, and that singing barber. It’s the most idyllic place we went to in Spain: colorful mansions, cobbled streets, palm trees, and the smell of oranges everywhere you go. Its old imperialism and value for beauty makes it the most similar city to Paris, while its atmosphere made it the most peaceful. While Seville was more about the feelings than the sights, it does sport the first bullfighting arena, the third largest cathedral in the world, and this:

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The Plaza de Espana, the site where the first Star Wars was filmed (oh, and a lot of important cultural stuff happened there too, I guess). The flamenco show we saw later really represents the city. In a small cellar with a smaller stage, the music was a drifting mix of Spanish guitars and pained wailing– the kind of thing that will lull you into sleep (though not in a bad way). Then the third guy, only clapping his hands up to that point, stands up and begins to dance. The fact that he was a guy, therefore not wearing the traditional red dress, added to the shock of seeing him suddenly tapping his feet at nearly inhuman speeds, arms and face clenched tight. All three were trapped in a performance of sustained passion, skimming under the surface. It certainly sets the context: a dreamy city, beautiful to look at, but there’s always something more– something that’ll bring me back. It’s that remaining drift of mystery which makes me say that Barcelona and Seville are the cities I have to come back to.

             Seville and Granada seemed far away from the rest of the world. The morning we left Seville we strolled along the river in the silence and sway of the palm trees. That afternoon Madrid screamed in: traffic jams, colossal buildings, homeless people practically jumping at you to wash your car, and the myth of central-city parking. Back to the rest of Europe.  If Seville is the heart of Spain, Madrid is the pulse– electric, eclectic. Often lambasted by tourists for having nothing to see, Madrid is the living city; ask a local about their little brother and they’ll say “oh Barcelona? It’s nice, but too touristy”. Madrid doesn’t care about amusement-park attractions; it’s far too hipster for that, and its alt-scene vibe reminded me more of Montreal than of a European city. At the same time, it’s one of the most centralized cities in the world: the shopping, business, nightlife and, yes, prostitution districts are all concentrated in a single road. It becomes so dense, and its imperial buildings so high, that for that one stretch it could be a bigger city than Paris.

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It also takes the nightlife aspect of Spain to a whole new level. The clubs are amazing here– probably the best I’ve been to– and you can’t truly understand this city until you see it at eight in the morning. I stumble out of the club and fog cloaks the lights– only the blue of the clocktower lights seen in the distance. But the streets are packed with groups of people my age, laughing so openly they could only be drunk, wearing cocktail dresses and ruffled suits. In the end it’s as memorable as anything I’d seen this trip; as culturally significant, only this is my culture. Madrid the modern.

              We stopped in Zaragosa the following night. Day eleven, the ugliest city in the trip, when everyone is just getting tired. That feeling of almost-over can dog you: you give up, where day eleven of a month trip is nothing. We sat in a Chinese restaurant confused and lost in translation. It played out, almost to the minute, exactly like all of my family trips: that penultimate day, thinking of your flights, when everyone’s ready to go home. So for all the notion of this being a great adventure, some things stay the same. I can’t say what made it so comforting. Maybe it was just to realize some things would always be there for me, something always familiar, even when everything’s so strange. Because Spain had changed us: we got back to Barcelona with it having dropped ten degrees and autumn being in the air. In eight days we’d gone through a whole season and saw Barcelona differently now. You can only see so many castles, go through so many different cultures, before a country starts to change you. Like this exchange in general, it’ll be a while before I realize the extent of how much I’ve really changed.

              Back to Paris, and– guess what!– it’s still raining. Good to know some things don’t change.  

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