Just DANDY. Oh my goodness. As I told Alexia this morning, it's starting to sink in that this is possibly my last long-term stay in Europe other than vacations. Il faut profiter, as Rocío says. (All the time.)
My trip started off typically. I was way too early to the train station in Ussel, and my connection in Brive went screwy because the train people farther down the line were striking so the train turned into a bus. Also Marie left her keys at our place so she had to take a train from Limoges to Brive to get them from me. And BEN was on the train to Brive too!! An oddly English conversation. I really miss that dude. He's a smart cookie. After his contract ends at the end of this month, he's going to a WWOOF (volunteer farm help) farm with sheep. Ah the jokes. Anyway. I'm on vacation, so back to the story.
My flight from Toulouse to Madrid was flawless. easyJet is a real airline with incredibly hot multilingual flight attendants. I paid for Speedy Boarding (imagine that with a French accent, it's hysterical) which meant I was first on the plane. It was a great flight.
I got into Madrid around 10:00pm. I went to check into my hostel, El Albergue Juvenil de Madrid, only to find that the reservation I made didn't start until SUNDAY night. OHHH my goodness, I was bedless?! That NEVER happens to me! Luckily, the desk dude at my intended hostel called the neighboring ones and found me a bed in the friendliest dump two blocks down. I also learned that the desk dude at Albergue Juvenil was actually French. I just about hugged him. This was an awesome hostel. I have not stayed in better hotels. Spotlessly clean, small rooms, free internet access, way too many cakes at breakfast. My roommates were three Italian translation students with impeccable English. I also met a girl from NC State!! She was studying textiles and was on study abroad in Paris.
I don't really remember the day-by-day activities in Spain, but I do know that I did the most I could in my two cities. Madrid is just a beautiful city. It's not huge but it's still a metropolis. It's Spanish but it doesn't have the cultural arrogance of the French. It was just delightful. I loved the openness of the Spanish people, the agreableness of everything. Ah it was wonderful. Things I saw and did:
- El Prado is the national museum. Here I saw all the paintings I had studied for so long in Weaver's Spanish Peninsular Civilization class. Here I saw all the Spanish history I studied. Here I saw Goya, Velazquez, Tintoretto, Goya, Ribera. I love paintings. I love good sculptures. This was beautiful. I got to see Las Meninas, but I didn't have a compact mirror so I missed doing the backwards trick. This was an amazing morning.
- Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is across the street from El Prado. It has a HUGE collection. I got to see a Modigliani exhibit, an Otto Dix exhibit, all sorts of medieval religious art (my favorite!), and pretty much the entire European history of art. The Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collection included some AMERICAN artists! Who painted pictures of Upstate New York! I totally teared up when I saw the titles of these paintings. A beautiful afternoon.
- La Reina Sofía is yet ANOTHER museum in Madrid's "Museum Mile" (they're pretty much in a straight line). It holds a huge collection of mostly modern art which I have a hard time understanding. I much prefer medieval religious art, maybe because the themes are so much more straightforward (read: Jesus and pals). However, the Reina Sofía has Guernica, Picasso's masterpiece. If you are a student of Hispanic language and cultures, you have seen and studied this painting. It is enormous in person and awe-inspring and humbling and painful and beautiful. There was also Dalí and Miró! Amazing.
- History of the City Museum was empty when I visited. It was neat to see the history of the city in artifacts and pretty cool displays. It's just really cool to see in person the things you've read about in books and studied and had massive exams and papers on. Lots of "Aha!" moments.
- Archaeological Museum was cut short because they were in full-on renovations. But it did put France to shame in terms of display. There were some really, and I mean, amazing displays of Muslim artifacts and Siglo de Oro artifacts. Increíble.
- Spain has yet another art museum: the Museum of Fine Arts! More Ribera, Pedrera, López, Madrazo, and just in case I hadn't seen enough yet, Picasso was back. Unfortunately, all that was Goya was closed. It wasn't terribly interesting. Way too snooty.
- El Parque de Buen Retiro is Madrid's answer to Central Park in New York City, Kensington Gardens in London, and the Jardins de Luxembourg in Paris. It's beautiful. There's a Palacio Cristal, a huge pond/lake/artificial body of water with paddle boats, running paths, and a garden devoted to the victims of 3/11. (Madrid's commuter trains were bombed on March 11, 2004. ETA, the separatist terrorist Basque group, was originally blamed but when it was found out it was Al-Qaeda, it completely unraveled the elections that were basically the next week.)
- I went to the Palacio Real and the adjoining Catedral de la Almuneda. I'm not terribly interested in castles and I had quite enough Jésus y amigos so I opted out of actually visiting.
- I went to a flamenco night!!! For 30€ (steep!) I got two wonderful hours and a huge glass of sangria filled with amazing dancing. This is a traditional Spanish dance that's better the farther south you go. It reminded me of Irish step dancing in that there's a lot of floor pounding - so much so that there were holes worn into the stage! It was delightful. A little pathetic to attend on your own but something I absolutely had to do.
- I had awesome food in Madrid. (All of Spain actually.) The breakfast at the hostel was fantastic. For lunch one day, I went to 100 Montaditos, which apparently is a chain but you wouldn't know it from looking at it. I got a platter of six mini sandwiches about 15 centimeters long with things like shrimp, salmon, ham, sausage in them, a little dish of pickled everything, and a jarra of beer. It was delicious but let's just say that 1:30pm is not a good time for Rose to have a jarra de cerveza española. I also had churros y chocolate from the same place Samantha Brown went to! It was delicious. There weren't enough tables for singles so I sat at a table with a single gentleman. He had a Rick Steves guidebook so I commented on it. (As much as Rick is a huge dweeb, he's a good traveler.) This gentleman was impressed that I was traveling by myself. I also visited La Mallorquina, an institution in Madrid for a huge pastry that was basically half donut and half whipped cream. Delicious. The hostel also recommended a buffet down the street. For less than 10€, I got unlimited salad and hot dishes and (bad) ice cream. The coffee sucked too. But it was very good and called FresCo, so it was really healthy stuff. Definitely a good deal.
Madrid was wonderful. Everything I wanted in a vacation.
I took an AVE train from Madrid to Barcelona. The AVE is the Spanish high-speed train. Its French equivalent is the TGV. Let's compare the AVE and the TGV, shall we?
AVE: Madrid-Barcelona, 2 hours; free earbuds to listen to eight radio stations or the in-train movie; recorded stop announcements; digital display of weather, speed, time, and anticipated time of arrival; candies at the end of the train; clean bathrooms.
TGV: Marseille-Paris, 2 hours.
Spain wins again!
Barcelona is crazy. It's just so busy. I saw so many vacationers. I firmly believe that Italian "students" never go to school. Also, British and Australian backpackers will do anything. And the American backpackers usually look the most lost and clueless. My hostel was an HI Hostel but it wasn't all that great. (I should have listened to you, Nikki!) I did not enjoy chatting with the Norwegian hippie and his disgusting dreaded beard, or playing the "What are they doing?" game with the Japanese kids in my room. But breakfast was good and I was able to shower and sleep and that's the point, right? So what did I do in Barcelona?
- Parc Montjuic is where tons of fun stuff to see is, so I did way too much of it in one day. I was definitely suffering from death by museum at the end of that day. This is also where the Olympic complex is! The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona were the first ones that I was conscious of, and it was really special for me to visit a modern Olympic city. (I'm also really angry at the boycotts against Beijing. Please keep sports and politics separate. It's about the athletes, not your agendas.) I got to see the stadium! I think I could have gone inside but I couldn't figure it out. The Olympic Museum was super cool though. It again demonstrated the Spanish knack for display. Just wonderful. Also in this park was the Catalan Archaeological Museum which showed all the neat stuff found in the area around Barcelona. Another museum was the Catalan Ethnographic Museum. This reminded me a lot of the museum in Lourdes: lots of cultural artifacts from daily life of not just the Catalan people but people all over the world. You also go to tour their store room! A really neat museum. My favorite part of Parc Montjuic was the Botanical Garden. I really missed Aunt Karla here! It was all based on Mediterranean plants and had a huge section devoted to South Africa! This is only her specialty. Man, I really needed her. It was a beautiful park with gorgeous views of the city. The last thing in Park Montjuic was the Fundación Joan Miró. The temporary exhibit of modern Chinese kitsch propaganda art was pretty sweet. Actually, it was better than Joan's stuff. I just can't get into modern art. There was also a French school group there not appreciating the opportunity. Did my high school ever go to world-famous art museums? Hmph.
- Barcelona is also the home of the Picasso Museum, which Dad emailed me about just before I left for vacation. It was really sweet. It did a really good job of chronicling his life and the progression of his style. I liked his blue period the best.
- Barcelona is also the home of Antoni Gaudí, which is where we get the adjective "gaudy" from. I don't know, I think his stuff is pretty sweet. He was trained as an architect and his creations are entirely based on geometry and unconventional lines. He has a park and at least three buildings in Barcelona. The park has his house full of the ergonomic furniture he designed. That was a disappointing visit. The Casa Batlló was the only one of the houses I visited because it was the least expensive. It was commissioned by a bourgeois couple who used it as their own apartment and rented out the rest. His use of natural light and internal supports and loadless walls and curved lines were just beautiful.
- You cannot go to Barcelona without seeing Gaudí's masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. He designed this crazy church and work started on it in the late 1800s but it's still so not done. They were predicting the first mass being held sometime this year but dude, I was there. They are not ready. It was beautiful and "typical" Gaudí style, full of non-right angles and shiny mosaics and curves. It honestly looks like if you let wet sand drip through your fingers. And my admission fee apparently helps them continue work. (What are all those construction workers going to do when it's done?)
- I also attended a Spanish guitar recital at one of the churches in the Barri Gotic, or Gothic quarter. It was fantastic. The guitarists had studied at John Hopkins in Baltimore, which to me seems like the world's biggest "Uh-BUH?!" They were excellent.
- Ok, why in my Spanish classes did I never hear about golosinas?! These are bulk candy shops and they are everywhere in Spain. Corner stores also sell salty snackies like nuts and potato chips by the kilo. Oh my goodness I ate so much Spanish candy.
- I have never seen so many KFCs and Burger Kings and Pizza Huts and McDonald's and Starbucks. Spain isn't as concerned, it seems, with "losing" its cultural identity as France is. Bring on the multinationals! Bring on the European Union! Spain is a major player, a positive force in the EU. France vetoed the EU Constitution a few years ago. Poor sports.
Spain was amazing. I'm so glad I got to see what I did, but at the same time I can't help feeling guilty that Madrid and Barcelona were all I saw. I loved Madrid and Barcelona. The metros were so clean and didn't reek of urine like Paris. People were friendly and forthcoming with English when my hard-suffering Spanish didn't cut it. Food was tasty and varied. I felt 100% safe. My French teacher card was indispensable - "Y si soy profesora en Francia?" was the magic phrase. There was more to do in both cities than I had time for. I almost missed seeing the Reina Sofía due to a scheduling mishap! The weather was warm and dry for all of about two days. It was amazing.
Again, easyJet was awesome. The flight to Paris was easy and depressing. Let's leave beautiful sunny Spain for grey cloudy cold Paris. Ugh. Oh and let's navigate the Paris metro. I don't really like Paris. I find it cold. Beautiful but unfriendly, rich but snooty, full of things to do and eat and see but boring. Wow I'm such a snob. I checked into my hostel, St. Christopher's, which is brand-new and still needs to work out the kinks. However the rooms were enormous, the bunk beds were super sturdy, there was luggage storage under the beds, there were duvets (!!!) on the beds, and there was internet access. I liked the neighborhood too. It was real Paris, not crazy touristy overrun Paris.
I made it to CDG Airport thirty minutes after Maggie's plane touched down, just in time apparently for her to have emerged from baggage claim two minutes prior. I was SO happy to see her. Magsters is the awesomest. We made our way back to St. Christopher's to dump our bags and walked a good hour in the wrong direction to get there because I read the map wrong. After that, we did The World's Most Ridiculous and Ambitious Tour of Paris' Top Five: Basilique de Sacre Coeur, lunch in the Latin Quarter (the same Antillais restaurant that Liz and Kathy and I went to!), Cathedrale de Notre Dame, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, and the Tour Eiffel. All before 7:00pm. We were DRAGGING. Jet lag didn't seem to hit Maggie until about Thursday of that week. It also started to rain right when we made our way to the Tour Eiffel, which sucked. It's great because it means short lines and still awesome visibility, but I hate rain so so so much. And I had left my umbrella in the room.
The next morning, we made our way to Rennes, the capital of Brittany/Bretagne. We checked into our HI Hostel which gave us a private ensuite two bed room (sweet!) and two free internet tickets. It was also next to a canal, which was pretty. We got lunch at a crepe restaurant which was delicious. Then we went on a walking tour of Rennes proposed by the tourism office's map. That was super fun. We took lots of silly and fun pictures. Did I mention that it was beautifully sunny and gorgeous out? My favorite part was the Jardin Thabor. So beautiful with the flowers and the fountains. Rennes was a great place to base ourselves.
The next day, we did our day trip to Mont St Michel, a Benedictine abbey built on a rocky point that turns into an island during the very fast high tides. It was low tide when we were there, so we got to walk around the mount. That was awesome! The abbey itself was really empty. It reminded me of the Palais des Papes in Avignon: "Imagine this room filled with beautiful tapestries, the sculptures painted brilliant colors, etc..." But the cloister was gorgeous and the main chapel was filled with beautiful Gothic light. (It was Gothic, right?) We had lunch at an over priced restaurant that served the famous Mere Poulard omelette (mostly air) and wasted a good hour at a cafe. This is the second-most visited site in France other than what's in Paris, so I'm glad Maggie got to see this. I've always wanted to go too.
On Wednesday, we made a day trip to St-Malo, a walled city on the north coast of Bretagne. The walled city was pretty fun. The Museum of the History of the City was lamecore and I was not translating well for poor Mags. She's patient though. This is the city where Jacques Cartier sailed from to explore Canada, so there's a statue to him on the walls (I think he's actually looking the wrong way) and in the Cathedrale there's a plaque on the floor saying he prayed there before setting sail and his tomb! Pretty cool, considering I actually did a presentation on him for my grad class last summer. We had lunch at this cute little place - I had a tartine reblochonne (open face cheese, bacon, onion, pepper and potato sandwich) and Maggie had a croque monsieur (grilled cheese and ham sandwich). Delicious and totally worth the 12€ we spent - that's for both of us. Yes. I love the provinces. The best part about St-Malo was the famed Grand Aquarium. Incredibly expensive and probably better if you had small French children (we are sans enfants) but sooo cool! Scary Atlantic fish, pretty tropical fish including Dory and Nemo, a shark tank with hyperactive shiny fish and huge desperate turtles, and all sorts of other crazy fish. After the regular tank visits, you're directed to this area called the Nautibus. What? It's named after the Nautilus because Jules Verne is from St-Malo. It's basically a theme park ride, and it was HYSTERICAL. Maggie and I couldn't get over how unreal it was. You go into this submarine-like thingy and it brings you around a huge tank filled with fish. The submarine also makes fake submarine noises. So funny!!!
Then we went to Quimper, which is at the very end of the nose of Bretagne. It's known for some serious Celtic history and porcelain. By today, Maggie was starting to feel a little tired. I'm pretty bossy and this is a stupidly ambitious whirlwind tour of Paris and Brittany. But she's (a little too) patient and as long as there was a bathroom somewhere, she was all set! (Sorry dude ;) ) We climbed up a big hill, shopped for porcelain, sampled lots of caramel and cookies at factory outlet stores, and had lunch at a great crepe place. I had one with onion "jam" and seaweed. It was DELICIOUS, no joke. We visited the Museum of Breton History and the Fine Arts Museum. The Fine Arts Museum was AWESOME. There was an interactive Matisse exhibit where we got to draw! The other art was pretty cool too, even if the artists were nobodies. The Cathedrale in Quimper is really folkloric: there's a statue to the Celtic King Gradlon on top, and the typical cross layout of the church is bent to the left at the end to mimic Christ's head turned to the right (left if you're looking AT it) on the cross. Pretty sweet. It was stupid windy in Quimper too.
Our last day trip was to Carnac. I wasn't 100% positive on how to get there, but some questions to the bus driver and my maps got us where we needed to go. Unfortunately, it was pouring. Have I mentioned how much I hate rain? Maggie was trying her darndest to be patient with me, but I was getting pretty agitated. We had lunch in a cute restaurant that was popular with normal French people. I had mussels! I love mussels. Maggie hates seafood and rated my dish a four out of ten on the grossness scale. Our purpose for going to this lost little town on a pouring rain day was to see the megalithes. Like there are random stones all around southern England (think Stonehenge, the biggest henge of them all...before that there was Strawhenge and Woodhenge...), all over southern Bretagne are purposely shaped rocks in specific patterns. The Museum we visited after lunch told us that some of them were funerary markers, but just north of the village center were the Alignements. There are hundreds of stones lined up in rows. My favorite reasoning is that Saint Cornely was being chased by Roman soldiers. Coming to the end of the "world" (Carnac is also on the beach), he turned the Roman soldiers all lined up in their ranks to stone. After multiple phone calls to the company that gives hiking tours of the Alignements, we decided that (1) we can't find nor do we want to look for the office of said company and (2) it's freaking pouring and we're cold and wet. So we ran up to the rocks, took six pictures, and booked it back to town. We caught the next bus+train combo back to Rennes. Shower and a sandwich later, we were ready to end the vacation.
We woke up at ridiculous o'clock to catch the bus+metro+train to Paris. We arrived in Paris just past 9:00am and I gave Maggie a hug goodbye, putting her in a taxi headed to CDG. I made it back to Ussel by 4:00.
That was a very charged vacation. It was amazing. I loved every minute of it, even the rainy parts (now). It was SO good to see Maggie. We talked, or rather, I talked, the whole time. We shared newbie teacher stories, and she gave me awesome ideas for my current and future classrooms. I know my family can't really come visit - mostly things involving airplanes - so it's super awesome that good longtime friends can visit me. It's not all about me, really. There is not one day that goes by that I don't think "Dad would love this" or "I wonder what Peter would say right now". You are always always always in my thoughts. When I get really lonely while traveling, I imagine that I'm Samantha Brown and there's a camera following me with an audience who really cares what I think about what I'm seeing and doing. Hahaha, I'm ridiculous.
My camera card filled up after the walking tour of Rennes, so I'm going to steal Maggie's pictures from Facebook. Picasa will be updated soon. Thanks for being patient with this post! I will see you in ten weeks and counting!!!