Monday, March 31, 2014

The real reason it's nice to visit a place a second time.

Two days ago when we walked out of the archeology museum I noted some white dots off in the gardens and made a mental note to return. Thinking that they were some sort of lily, we went back today in search of the spring gardens in the Maria Luisa Park. There were none, and the Calla Lilies turned out to be white pigeons sitting on the top of the park benches. So much for long range vision.

We spent the better part of today just roaming around. Being able to do this is an unexpected benefit of visiting a place for a second time. The first trip is dedicated to checking off all the boxes, seeing the things you have to see and learning your way around. The second trip has no schedule so you can do whatever you want. And today, like yesterday and the day before, was dedicated to just walking the streets and taking in the different sights. 

The day began as always with coffee at Las Milagritos, our number one place next to the Giralda. It was empty and pretty much remained that way until a German tour group dropped in for coffee and cokes. From there we wandered down Avenida de la Constitución towards the park and the pigeons. But we never made it, choosing instead to spend a few minutes investigating Sevilla's rather suboptimal subway system (one line, stops in weird places) and then crossing the bridge to Triana, the grittier part of town on the far side of the river. All the best bullfighters come from Triana which is not surprising. It seems like a pretty tough place. We walked through it last year, concentrating on the highlights in the guidebooks. This year we just wandered through neighborhoods.

After a break we went out again, this time towards the park and for a spin through the Plaza de España, site of the 1929 Iberoamerican Exposition. It's quite an impressive place, all red brick and colorful ceramic tile. Our last visit had been like a trip to a solar furnace - late April being the beginning summer of in Sevilla - this year's temperature was far more pleasant.

We ended the day at l'Oca Giuliva, the italian restaurant that we'd tried two nights ago. Once again the place filled up almost instantly after we sat down. I asked the head waiter about this and he told us that they had two seatings, one around 8:30 and another at 10:00. Walk-ins were almost never catered to, and so we were lucky. I had another tortellini dish, MLW Genovese pesto pasta. A couple of glasses of wine and two shots of limoncello and we were good for the evening.

By the time we got out, it was raining again so we cancelled our plans for people watching, instead heading home to sample some cookies we'd bought in a little bakery up the street. Tiny cannolis filled with a light almond creme. Perfect.

Some additional walking and some dancing

Remember two weeks ago when we rolled the clocks forward and then felt crappy for a couple of days while we re-adjusted our internal clocks? Well, the other day before leaving, I checked the time in Madrid and was confronted with the fact that for some reason, Spain was only 7 hours ahead of us instead of 8. A little bit of research uncovered the fact that they had not yet made the Daylight Saving Time adjustment and wouldn’t be doing so until this weekend. Which meant we were going to get to do it again! And so we went to bed on Saturday night knowing that Sunday would begin with a deficit. It was too hard to lose that hour of sleep, better to give away an hour midday. And since we are not governed by clocks due to being on vacation, that’s what we did.

The churches here start ringing the bells like crazy on early Sunday morning. I happened to be awake to hear one at 5AM as it clanged off its count. In the middle of that came another, this one ringing 4 which meant either some priest had failed to roll out of bed and fix his bells, or he’d decided to do it our way. In either case, it was funny to hear something that has been going on for centuries be affected by a modern contrivance, and one that everyone hates to boot.

After breakfast and clock adjustments we went out in search of coffee, ultimately stopping at our regular stop just off the cathedral square. The streets are nice early in the morning, apparently all the people that are out yelling at 2AM remain in bed to recover their vocal chords. We sat and sipped our Americanos and watched people stroll by. A couple of Chinese girls milled around bedecked in Converse high tops, tights and polka dot tops. One was smoking, the other eating ice cream.

We had no plan so we decided to do an ad lib and wander around the neighborhoods on the other side of the boulevard that defines the old town from the slightly newer version. Our apartment from last year was up in that area, but we never spent much time exploring so we went off in that direction, stopping first at the Metropolitan Parasol, that giant modern mushroom shaped public space that looks completely at odds with its surrounds. For a minute we considered taking the elevator to the observation platform but decided not to, choosing instead to visit the little museum that is underneath the base. What a great find - a well-designed, large space that displays the remains of the Roman, Christian and Visigoth cities that lie directly beneath our feet. Uncovered during the construction of the Parasol, they were lovingly preserved for display. Mostly the remains of a small cluster of houses, you could see the rooms, alleys and most interesting the sewer system that served the community. Excellent displays and explanations accompanied each stop on the tour, and beautiful mosaics, the original floors of the homes, were shown in place and elevated for the viewer’s appreciation. A well spent 4 Euros, and as it turned out, closing while we were still inside.

With the original plan in mind, we headed north into the Centro Barrio behind the main drag. What a contrast to the tourist zone, the streets and plazas were choked with locals, gathering for a beer and visiting after church. Women with a beer and cigarette in one hand, baby in the other. Older children kicking soccer balls around the square. Older folks visiting and groups of younger single men filling up the trash receptacles with empty Cruz Campo bottles. Real life in a Spanish neighborhood, not the one that runs by a different clock 5 streets away. We stopped for ice cream before heading back to our barrio for another cup of coffee and a couple of tapas – pork loin in a sweet tomato and pepper sauce along with garlic grilled mushrooms – before taking a break from the day. It was now 5PM and only a couple of hours until – Flamenco!

Last year after much research and deliberation we had chosen to go see a Flamenco show at La Casa de Guitarra here in Barrio Santa Cruz. Unlike some of the other shows where food and drinks are mandatory, or those offered in a big theater, this show is small and as they say here, muy intimato.  The show takes place in a very compact room, perhaps 30x30’ with walls lined with classic guitars. It’s a museum plus a venue. A small stage sits at the far end, and the seating is limited to about 40 people on folding chairs. We had stopped by earlier in the day to buy our tickets and had a nice chat with the proprietor about the time change and a good laugh when he “unreserved” two excellent seats and gave them to us. Making your reservations in the flesh apparently trumps doing so via the internet. A small win for Luddites everywhere.

We returned around 7:15 and took our seats. The place was half full when we arrived and filled up over the course of the next 15 minutes. The show began promptly at 7:30 with a couple of songs played on solo guitar. Next a second man came out along with the woman who would be dancing this evening. Different people than last year. A Flamenco session gathers intensity, starting with the dancer sitting. The singer guy stands and claps and sings. As the energy increases, the woman stands and begins to dance. What a difference from the previous show - this young woman’s style was volcanic. Loud, powerful and emotional, just amazing. She danced for perhaps 15 minutes and took her bows, her face covered in sweat. Last year’s dancer was passionate, but nothing like this.

The singer took a chair with the guitarist and sang two corridas with a passion that was almost embarrassing to watch. At times I expected him to pass out because he was straining his voice that much. It was quite incredible and I have to say I was a bit relieved when it was over and he had survived.

The woman returned, this time in a red outfit and the process began again. After five minutes of energy building she stood and took command of the stage, pounding out her dance with even more commitment than in the previous set. To end she jumped down and danced up the aisle and out of the room, returning after the music ended. Just wonderful, and we left absolutely satisfied.

It had started to rain so we nipped around the corner and grabbed an umbrella from our apartment - such is the benefit of living in the place you’re visiting. We went to La Giralda for dinner – duck magret, rabbit stewed in garlic and mushroom croquettes. We sat and enjoyed our beer and wine and watched as the rain stopped and people started to fill the street looking for drinks.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Walking Around

My number one goal for today was to find some waterproofing for my shoes. Yesterday’s 5 miles in the rain was just enough to overcome the Dick’s Sporting Goods spray on that I had used just before our trip to Paris in February. I’m not saying it failed, but it sure didn’t work. And while I didn’t have water sloshing around in my shoes, the leather was soaked through. So with that in mind, and after an Americano at a street side café we took off up Calle Sierpes, the main shopping street, to see what we could find.
The solution came quickly, I stopped in at a Timberland store and asked for “un producto para proteger mis zapatos contra el agua” which was far easier than trying to roll “impermeabilización” off my tongue. And as it turned out, they had it to the tune of 11€ which while expensive was probably worth it given the forecast. So I forked over and we headed on to Corte Inglés for some groceries, the ABC Prensa newspaper kiosk for the International New York Times and then back home drop all that stuff off.
Next up was souvenir, shopping first at a couple of artisan ceramic stores and then to the little shop across from Casa de Pilatos where we had picked up some fun stuff last year. We spent a lot of time there chit-chatting with the French owner about tattoos, China, pollution and Russian mobsters. It was an exciting hour of cultural exchange and amity.

After unloading that stuff we decided to go for a walk through the Murillo Gardens heading in the direction of our favorite Starbucks at the end of Avenida de la Constitución. There are a lot of ways to get there, but the best is through the Murillo Gardens that flank the east side of the Santa Cruz barrio. I stopped to take a photo of this balcony that factors prominently in Rossini’s Barber of Seville. In this particular scene, set below Rosina's balcony, Figaro advises the Count of Almaviva to climb up in search of his true love. From there it was on for coffee and people watching the latter, of which offered a great deal of entertainment and diversion.

Coffee gone, the winds picking up and the temperature not being what it could be due to scudding clouds, we decided to walk on through the area behind the Alcazar, ultimately finding ourselves back in front of the cathedral. We'd thought about visiting both of those locations again, and we still might, but today the lines were long and the streets were choked with tourists. You don't think that the day of the week has much bearing, but apparently it does given the sheer volume of poorly dressed people that we encountered. 

I took this photo in the plaza at the foot of our street. I thought it sort of represented how tourism is changing, right before our eyes.  On your left you have the last of the western tourists of indeterminate origin, and on the right the Next Wave, young Chinese carrying absurdly fancy cameras sent abroad by their now wealthy parents. The more time we spend over here, the more it becomes clear that this is where we're heading. Not only is every corner store in Spain owned by a Chinese expat, but every single attraction is loaded to the gills with them. 

Walking past a lot of half-drunk-in-the-middle-of-the-afternoon people sitting and staring into the sun in the street cafes, we decided to take a stab at finding a ceramics store we'd wandered by on day one. We didn't have any luck with that, but we did find this amazing flamenco dress store that featured of all things, a manikin that was clearly cloned from Taylor Swift. Honestly, how amazing is that? Taylor Swift, squinty eyes and all. I had to wait for the shop clerk to get out of the way to get Taylor's photo, but the wait was worth it. We failed in the quest to find the ceramics so we gave up and returned home for a couple of hours until we could, with all good conscience, go out and find some dinner.
 Earlier in our day we had checked the menu at a restaurant just up the street. Italian it was and we thought it would be nice for something different. We popped in at 8 on the dot, early by Spanish standards but as it turned out, a propitious choice. Not only did our self-assured entrance convince some menu reading wishy-washy couples outside to follow us in, but ten minutes after sitting down the place was full to capacity. It was a great choice. We started with burrata, a fresh Italian mozzarella, soft on the outside, liquid on the inside served with toast slices and tomatoes. I had Tortellini with ham and peas in white sauce and MLW had a really nice place of spinach stuffed ravioli served in a sage-butter sauce. Just delectable. Dessert was panna cotta for me and tiramasu for her. Wonderful all the way around. We ended the evening with a long walk down to the Arenal, next barrio over where we finally figured out that the Spaniards stay down there while the tourists stay up here. I took a few photos on the stroll, particularly of a pastry store that featured some interesting options like French Toast floating in a sea of honey, something that looked like divinty called Lengua de Gatos or "cat's tongues" and perhaps the most interesting thing of all, Hermanidades gummy bears. What's not to love?

Friday, March 28, 2014

A throwaway day

When I look back on all the trips we’ve taken over the years, one thing stands out – we have had very good luck with weather. Aside from a rainy day last year in Madrid, I can’t think of another instance of losing time wandering around due to the weather. Lately though, our luck has changed and starting with Paris, we seem to be drawing the short straw when it comes to the climate.
It started raining in the middle of the night, thus confirming the forecast I’d read yesterday. They called it moderate rain with totals of about one inch. One inch? At home we’d be knee deep in mud and moderate would be the last word I’d be muttering under my breath. But such as it was, we had breakfast, and went out to try and solve our ticket problem.
A month or two ago I got motivated and ordered tickets from for the Alhambra in Granada figuring it was wise to get ahead of the well-publicized rush and assuming that they’d just mail them to me for printing out like Renfe, the train company does. Well, no, they sent me instructions, in Spanish, on the various ways I could collect them here. Supposedly there are kiosks everywhere who’s location is known to everyone but not to the Ticketmaster web site. There was another option – collecting them at an authorized office of which there are many here in Sevilla. In fact, I saw a Carrefour Viajes office in the train station when we arrived on Tuesday and planned to check when we returned from Jerez yesterday knowing that its convenient location was just too good to be true. I practiced my speech for at least 24 hours before heading in there and offering it up, “Yo compré billetes para la Alhambra de Ticketmaster and me dijeron que es possible recogerlos aquí.” The attractive young woman smiled and listened politely before telling me that her office was a Corte Ingles Viajes and not Carrefour and thus not an authorized ticket dispenser. She did offer to give us instructions, we politely declined lacking a car to drive there and still surprised from going to the wrong place. The second option, the FNAC media store, was close to our apartment so we adjusted our plan and headed there this morning.
It had mostly stopped raining when we got out there so the tons of tourists wearing neon transparent garbage bag raincoats were an unexpected shock to the eyes. I went up to the information desk just inside the door and offered my soliloquy a second time. This time the cute young woman behind the desk shot back (politely) in rapid fire Spanish that Alhambra tickets can only be claimed at the Alhambra. It was lucky that MLW was with me because she caught the burden of the translation, I was too stunned to respond. We thanked her and went across the street to Starbucks to recover some of our North Americaness, a plan that was also dashed when I ordered a chocolate croissant by that name and was greeted with a blank stare. At least in this case I was able to recover, which opened the door to a brief conversation with the barista about how that same product is “pain au chocolat” in France, “croissant” in the US and a “napolitano” here in Spain. Today was going to be a day of cultural reckoning.
While we ate and drank the rain picked up again and so we decided to brave it for the moderate walk down to the Museo Arqeológico located at the far end of Parque Maria Luisa. Having wisely decided to leave my map at the apartment, we were operating mostly on memory and approximation by asking for directions at kiosks along the way. MLW stopped to ask a soldier doing gate duty at some imposing government building and received directions worthy of a video had I had the presence of mind to get my camera out. He effectively pantomimed the entire journey with expansive gestures and I had a great time standing in the parking lot just watching it. We thanked him walked away only to hear some yelling and to be told by a group of young men walking by that the soldier back there wanted us. He produced a map and showed us the way a second time, insisting that we take the map with us. Another round of thanks and we were once again on our way.
Eventually we found it, more or less where we thought it would be and as a museum is was, interesting. We decided to start on the bottom floor as it contained the paleologic and pre-Roman collections, the stuff I wanted to see. We paid and headed to the down stairwell, holding our breath while passing the rest rooms that seemed to be suffering from some sort of plumbing back up. The bottom landing was dark, and there were plywood barriers preventing entry – closed – so we went back up and asked the ticket agent and she agrees that the lower floor was indeed closed. I wondered why that tidbit had escaped the lengthy description of the museum she’d offered when I paid.
The rest of the place was chock full of Roman antiquities from many of the local ruins, including Italica which we had visited last year. It made me think how cool it would be to live in a place where marble heads, bronze coins and bone sewing needles would pop up every time you dug a hole to plant a shrub. In other words, living somewhere sitting on top of 2000 years of civilization. It was a nice collection, perhaps worthy of being improved but still a fun place to wander around on a rainy day.

Leaving, we got sort of fooled by the problem of boulevards diverging from traffic circles on the way home and wandered a bit afield before introducing a course correction and heading back into the barrio from the far side. Back home for a nice lunch of bread and cheese and paté and a bit of a rest while my previously waterproofed shoes dried out.
Last night we sat and had drinks at a tapas bar called La Sacrista, along Calle Mateo Gago, the street of our other favorites. After waiting until it got dark, we decided to go back and give them some more money, this time for drinks and food. The rain had not changed much since we came in earlier and so negotiating the narrow lanes with umbrellas was once again a challenge, albeit one that caused friendly chuckles from other pedestrians when we tried to judge who was going to raise theirs higher to allow safe passage. It’s interesting here when it’s raining - most of the restaurants that have barely begun filling by 8:15 are now full. I guess there is no point in a promenade and trying to avoid being the first person in a place when it’s cold and wet. We started at a table on the covered patio and moved to a smaller one inside to get away from a loud table of drunken men before settling at a bigger table along the wall of the bar. Beer, wine, fried calamari, a nice stuffed zucchini with a snap to it and a threesome of ham croquettes proved to be the perfect dinner. I paid and when my change came back it lacked sufficient diversity to make a good tip so I went back to the bar. The waiter there changed my 5 and promptly dropped the coins in a dish pan full of glasses. Coins and dishwater, the first time my change has been washed before being returned.
We walked around the back of the cathedral to the Horno de San Buenaventura, a pasteleria that is the one place in all of Spain where you can get a special spice cookie, the Polvaron Giralda, associated with the church across the street. Of course we took away more than one of those, supplementing our historic selection with a half-dozen other cookies covered in chocolate. I stopped to take a few photos of people strolling the rain before heading back home.
A few words about our apartment.
Last year’s place was deficient in many ways so we decided to try a new one and ended up connecting with a wonderful woman named Macarena who worked for an agency that manages a lot of properties in the old city. There were a couple in this building, on the edge of the old Juderia and across the street from one of the taperias we ate at a couple of times last year. It’s in a 16th century building and newly renovated. The main floor has a small living room and kitchen with a half bath. The second floor a nice bedroom and full bath. Both the living and bed rooms overlook an air shaft that was really more of an open atrium. The best part - clean air as no kitchen opened onto it and we never had to enjoy the aromas from the dinners of the other tenants. From our upstairs you can see the morning sun illuminating a beautiful tile room. But the best thing is a flowering orange tree and the birds -  the people across from us have five cages of small songbirds that sing all day long, starting just before dawn. And the smell of the just blooming orange blossoms makes the scene perfect. It’s a wonderful place and a genuine improvement on our previous experience.