Spain - January 2002 Megamail

Well, well, well, another year, another glorious trip to Spain, and another dreaded Megamail. Well, no sense beating around the bush, let's get to it, shall we?


Our flights on US Airways were rather uneventful, though a little late. As usual, there was a huge line to pass immigration to get into Spain, but not as bad as in years past. In fact, I made it through faster than Sam! Then we waited for our luggage. And waited. And waited. And waited until the conveyer stopped. Yep, no luggage. Upon investigating, the airline claimed it didn't make the connection in Philadelphia. We found that pretty hard to believe given how long we were stuck in Philly. But oh well. The bags arrived the next day, no worse for wear. Thankfully, we weren't bringing anything perishable this time.

Compared to previous trips to Europe, I got a little more sleep on the flight over and so I wasn't a complete zombie upon arrival. I was able to actually function this time. And function I did for Sam and her family had a lot of errands for us to do that day. The day concluded with us visiting Claris's (Sam's sister) new flat downtown. It was very small, but also very cute and had a lot of neat decorating features. Good job Claris!

Afterwards, we hooked up with her family and Sam's friend Miki and went for dinner at a place a couple of blocks away from Claris'. There we had a really good dinner and I was introduced to a new kind of cheese... cabrales or something like that. It was rather good. Given past complaints from past readers, I'll spare you all the details of each of our meals this time. Rest assured we ate frequently and well. I'll only share with you the highlights, such as this new cheese!

After dinner the youngins' (that would be Claris, Miki, Sam and myself) stopped at a bar and had drinks until, oh, three or so in the morning. Then began a search for a cab. After wandering around for a good 15 minutes (made longer by the cold and wet weather we experience during our entire trip) trying to find a busy street, we happened upon a cab. During the drive home we realized just how lucky we were. At one intersection there were hundreds of people and most of them were waiting for a cab. Our cabbie lamented: "10,000 cabs on the streets tonight, and still it is not enough!"

We slept late and picked up our luggage at the airport on our way to Serranillos where Sam's parent's country house is. There we had the traditional weekend lunches I remembered having and enjoying immensely on past trips. To recap, the Spanish lunch goes like so: wine and tapas (appetizers), following by a course of something, then usually a course of something else. Afterwards, comes a round of fruit while waiting for the coffee/tea to brew. Then comes coffee with dessert (cookie type stuff). Followed, sometimes by cava (champagne) with continued dessert. This all takes several hours and there is lively conversation throughout. If in the city, the whole thing is preceded by trips to bars with beer/wine and more, but lighter, tapas.

OK, so after lunch, it is pretty much dark already. Remember, lunches in Spain start around 3pm and regularly end between 5-6pm... sometimes later! We ended up taking Sam's niece to a Discovery Zone type place. These places are just starting to spring up in Spain and every time this place was mentioned, everybody stated that there is money to be made there. So, there, Megamails now contain investment tips so don't dis 'em!

And after that, we did something I never before did in Spain... go to McDonalds. The whole McDonalds thing is still a novelty in Spain so it was absolutely packed! All in all, the same stuff is there that is here, plus a few other things like other styles of french fries and I'm sure one can get a burger with egg on it. Eggs are really, really big in Spain. I don't understand it myself, but hey, that is why people travel the world.


After another stellar lunch, we headed back to Madrid to prepare for the following day (Christmas Eve) and all the shopping that we needed to do. We met up with Roberto and Ayako, who at one time lived in Detroit, then London, and now Barcelona. Roberto goes way back with the Bilbao family.

We went to 'the center' (downtown) for some conversation over tapas and wine. We had some very, very good tapas that night. We were near the Plaza Mayor, which I've been too before, but what was new to me this time was that we went down this street that had cuevas (caves, or in this case, wine cellars) that actually go underneath the Plaza. If you see this plaza, you will find this as amazing as I do. There are several very cool locations in this area that have incredible ambiance. I highly recommend having dinner in one of them if in Madrid.

Before turning in for the night, we stopped at a bar for a drink. Believe me, if Roberto hadn't stopped there, I would have walked right by it not knowing a bar was even there! It was very dark and well hidden. Getting inside, we found out why. Apparently, the mayor of Madrid is a saint and has been making all these rules that are contrary to the very essence of Spain. For example, now, depending upon what license an establishment has, they can only serve alcohol until 3am. Previously, these places could stay open as long as they wanted. There are still places open all night mind you, but now things are more official and, well, less fun. This bar had a note stating this fact and said they could only stay open until 3am. We left at 3:30 and things were still rocking. That made me feel pretty good :)

On the way home, we let Roberto's car (courtesy of Nissan for whom he works) impress us with its GPS system. On a popup display is a street map of Madrid and where the car currently is, complete with street names, direction, the whole works. Furthermore, you can put in an address and it will plot out the best route to get there. Believe me, this is *very* impressive in a European city. Those streets don't make any sense and this system really, really helped out a lot.

Christmas Eve day was spent mostly doing some last minute shopping. Also, we booked our hotels for the trip to the south of Spain that we would be taking in just a couple of days.

During the evening we had the traditional big Christmas dinner followed by oodles of champagne. Sam's mother was very persistent in her desire to open the presents. Finally, the rest of us caved in. I think the biggest 'wow' present was a collection of nearly 150 books of Spanish literature from the past century given to Sam from her parents. It was an amazing gift. The only problem then, was figuring out how to get it back to the U.S.! More on that later.

After the presents, more champagne and flamenco dancing. I humbly watched from the sidelines. Those Spaniards have something in their blood that makes it possible for them to move in ways most people can't! Christmas day was spent enjoying more food and drink.


Our grand trip to the south begins! The five of us (Sam and I, Sam's parents and Sam's sister) drove to Granada. This was a several hour drive made shorter by the rapid speed at which Sam's father drives. The speed limit is like 120 km/hour (75 mph), but he was regularly going around 180 km/hr. The trip is made even faster if one goes by train. However, with a bunch of people going by car is more economical.

During the drive we went through the province of Jaen, which if you don't know, is where most of the olives in the world come from. And after going through it, I believe it. Hill after hill, for hours were covered solidly with row after row of olive trees. Think Nebraska, but with olives!

We arrived in Granada just in time for lunch. Granada immediately reminded me of Grenoble, France, or Boulder, Colorado. There are mountains in most directions and very close by. But wherever you go in Granada, Alhambra, the last Muslim palace in Spain before the reconquest, towers over the city on a hill. We would be seeing Alhambra the next day, leaving the remainder of the city for today.

After being accosted by some gypsies, we visited the cathedral. If you did not understand from prior Megamails, cathedrals are a big tourist attraction in Spain. They are always old, large, and have artwork that lay many museums to shame. I thought Granada's was one of the better ones. It was extremely bright inside compared to many of the others. It is one of the larger ones and has several capillas which make it a must see. There is also a nice and graphic beheading going on in one of the scenes behind the altar. Who says religion is all about peace?!

After the cathedral we made a mad dash for Plaza de Saint Nickalaus. This square near a church is up a hill that provides the absolute best view of Granada. We tried to make it for sunset but were just a few minutes late. Still, the view was both real and spectacular! Don't miss this out of the way location. It is worth every tired step you make.

Afterwards, we pretty much just walked around the bustling shopping district. The thing about Spain is, during the early evening it seems *everybody* goes out for a walk downtown in the shopping district. They don't really buy anything, they just want to get out and see what is going on. Of course they also stop in at bars for beers and wines which is a big plus in my book. This is something I wish we adopted in the states.

The next day we visited Alhambra, a fortress/palace used by the Muslims that sits on a hill overlooking Granada. There are two main draws of Alhambra. One is the palace which has walls covered with an amazing array of tile and stucco artwork. The palace has many fountains, including one where apparently an entire family (30 or so people) was beheaded (because *one* of them was cheating with the queen) and their heads were thrown in the fountain to show the queen. Talk about stiff anti-adultery laws!

The other main draw of Alhambra is the gardens. Naturally, seeing these gardens in December is probably not the best time of the year to view them, but they were amazing nonetheless. They are more engineering marvels though, given that the irrigation system used today is pretty much the same one used hundreds if not a thousand years ago! Furthermore, it irrigates a hill in a rather dry region of Spain that makes it even more difficult.

If you go to Alhambra and it is peak travel season, be sure to get your tickets in advance. During off-season (such as December), you can get by without getting the tickets in advance (and avoid the surcharge for doing so!).

After Alhambra we had a very interesting lunch where Sam and Claris really tore into each other. Ah sisters! The catalyst was when the waiter came back saying their credit card machine was broke. I won't go into details, but I found it rather amusing.


We then drove to Sevilla and arrived just in time to begin the nightly walk around downtown. The streets were lined with thousands of orange and tangerine trees, with nearly ripe fruit! Very cool.

Sevilla's cathedral is like the 3rd largest in the world (behind the Vatican and one in England), so it is a must see. Though before the cathedral we went to the Alcazar (fortress). Like Alhambra, this was more of a palace than a fortress. And again, because it was in the south of Spain, there was a heavy Muslim influence. It reminded me a lot to Alhambra, but definitely different. It too has gardens, and these were somewhat more interesting to look at because it was more designed and organized than Alhambra was.

Afterwards, we headed across the square to the cathedral were we were greeted with a significant, but not outrageous line. The cathedral is indeed large, but rather typical except for two things. One, Columbus's tomb is contained within the cathedral. Here Sam and I got kind of peeved for all throughout the cathedral it states 'no flash photography'. And for the most part, people followed that rule, but around the tomb it was like paparazzi had taken stake! Nobody seemed to care that their flashes were slowly deteriorating the very thing they were taking a picture of!

If you are wondering why Columbus is here, it is because he started his trip to the Americas from Sevilla. Which, considering it is quite a distance from the sea is rather fascinating. The river going through Sevilla is rather large and remains a considerable international port to this day.

The other highlight of the cathedral is the Giralda (a tower). One takes 30 or so ramps up to the top and see a grand view of Sevilla. Well worth it! Another thing popular amongst southern cathedrals is a small orchard of orange trees next to the building.

The best lunch of the entire trip soon followed. It was in a converted monastery. And unlike all those restaurants you see called The Monastery, this one actually *was* one and was very cool inside. The food was outstanding across the board and the service was just as nice. If you're going to Sevilla, let us know and we'll let you know how to find it, for it is down some narrow alley out of the way.

After lunch we toured the Plaza de Espana and Parque de Maria Luisa. These are remnants of the 1929 World Fair. The Plaza was amazing. I knew about the place prior to the visit, but I did not appreciate just how large it was. It is huge! Like a football field could fit inside it or something. And it was very open and had lots of levels and pretty much it reminded me of The Terrace, but far, far larger. The entrepreneur inside me kicked in thinking somebody could make a mint by having food and drink stands around the area in the summer with live music. It would be a gold mine. However, the structure has ceramic tile all over the place that is very fragile and is in a constant state of repair. I suppose a few thousand drunks would not help matters much. Oh well, so much for my get rich quick scheme.

Soon we parted company with Claris for she had to go back to Madrid to prepare for her trip to Africa. The rest of us then continued our tour of the park and its structures, mostly now museums. But there was a whole lot more to Sevilla that we could have seen. With Granada and Cordoba, although we could have seen things in more detail, we pretty much saw what we needed to see. With Sevilla, I felt we missed a good part of it.


The day started out with a short drive to Cordoba. Once there we immediately began our tourist adventures by walking through the old Jewish quarter. I felt the old part of Cordoba had a lot of charm. Not as much as Toledo has, but certainly up there. Lots of cozy, winding brick streets with lots of shops and bars. Well worth a visit by itself.

The true crown jewel of Cordoba, however, is the Mezquita. It is a mosque that has a cathedral strangely stuck in the middle of it. Now, the story goes that when Spain reconquered Cordoba from the Muslims, instead of razing the mosque and replacing it with a cathedral, as was usually the case, they realized how impressive Cordoba's mosque was and decided to keep it... but to convert it into a cathedral. The result is what one can see today and it is truly, truly cool. One of the coolest things I have ever seen. Although the mosque portion of the Mezquita is the main draw, the cathedral portion is nothing to sneeze at either. There is the choir section that has each chair uniquely hand-carved and a poor tortured cow statue off to the left of the altar.

During our usual pre-lunch bar crawl I was introduced to some white wine that was made in the area. It tasted something like gasoline so I wasn't a big fan of it. But whenever we had a meal, it was complimentary. Personally I think they keep the good stuff for natives and give the bad batches to us tourists!

After lunch we hit the Alcazar, which again, had a garden area attached that was very, very nice to walk around. Again, I imagine it is much nicer during summer, but it was pretty spectacular, even in winter. The tower, however, was closed for renovations.

We then took a fairly long hike through the old town to some sort of palace. It was going to be closed, but thought it would be worth seeing the outside. Did I mention that it was a long ways away? Well, it was and I, being the tour guide, took us down this street and that street and a few suspicious alleys and eventually got us there to see... an old, unspectacular building! I got a big chuckle out of it at least, though nobody else seemed to be laughing.

On our walk back to civilization we encountered the ruins of a Roman temple. It was still in pretty good shape. Those Romans... they really knew how to build stuff to last!

Everybody we spoke to told us that when in Cordoba, eat at the Red Horse. And so we did for dinner. We were utterly disappointed... not so much with the food, but with the service. Everything was less than spectacular.

New Years

After returning to Madrid from our trip to the South, Sam and I began yet another shopping excursion. This time we were looking for a suit for me to wear for any New Years festivities we might attend. Spaniards take New Years very seriously and it is strictly a formal affair! After shopping all day, we concluded the day with mild success.

That evening we went to see a movie, a first for me. It was in English with Spanish subtitles. Needless to say, it really, really helped me develop my repertoire of Spanish curse words. Also, I learned that everybody in Spain curses every other word! Something strange about the theater we went to: it had assigned seats. Very odd. Oh, and the popcorn doesn't have butter :(

For New Years Eve, as is tradition in Spain, everybody eats a late dinner that ends around midnight. Then everybody tunes in the TV to watch Puerta de Sol (think Times Square) to watch the ball drop and to eat a grape with each dong of the clock. From previous experience, I knew to deseed the grapes before midnight. I am happy to report that this year I got all the grapes in my mouth with each stroke of the clock. :)

For the party, Sam and I were not able to coordinate anything specific so we just went to a local bar that didn't have a cover charge for the evening and had a very enjoyable time until 4am or so. In other words, fairly early.

The Last Days

For the final few days during our trip, Sam's uncle and his family visited from Bilbao. One evening her uncle made his secret recipe for cod that was as good as I remember. We also had a different style dessert than I've not had before: leche frito, which is essentially fried milk. It's better than it sounds, trust me. Though it was a little rubbery at first.

We spent the evenings walking around the interesting sections of Madrid including Gran Via, Plaza Mayor, Puerta de Sol and Palicio Real. Naturally, we stopped for heavy tapas and wine during this strenuous activity :) We found a number of establishments with a lot of charm. During one of our stops we ran into Roberto and so we had a chance to say our good byes.

During another one of our stops we found ourselves back at the cuevas under Plaza Mayor. This place was truly cool though. In addition to an awesome structure and decoration, the staff played the part by dressing up in pseudo-toro costumes, which were worn by historical figures similar in nature to Robin Hood. The New Year also brought the new currency, the Euro. Believe me, Bill Gates and Microsoft has nothing on this Euro advertising blitz. Every, and I mean *every* commercial break on TV, there was an ad about the Euro. And in every store, and I mean *every* store, there was a poster explaining the new currency.

To perform the switchover in currency, one can use either euros or pesetas, however stores can only give change in euros. As you can imagine, this is a little complicated and some confusion did occur, but overall the transition went fairly smoothly.

Although the size, shape and color for each denomination of money is standard, each country gets its own symbols to place on the currency. And of course, one country's currency works in the other 11 that have adopted the Euro. I thought the paper bills were too much like monopoly money. They were really small and fake looking. The coins are OK. I love the fact that in Europe one can buy a few glasses of beer and leave coins on the table to pay for it.

To our surprise, we managed to pack all the stuff going back into four suitcases, including those 160 books! Some were definitely overweight. Fortunately, Spaniards really don't seem to care about that, only their anal American counterparts. So, keep that in mind... it is easier to slip overweight baggage on the way *in* to the US.

Not surprisingly, we were delayed coming back to the US and missed our connecting flight in Philly. And we almost missed the next one too because the whole immigration/customs/rescheduling in Philly was an absolute nightmare. But, we made it home, along with some outstanding memories.

We hope you had an equally as exciting holiday season and hope 2002 improves upon 2001.


Inside the cathedral in Granada.


The Bilbaos near the cathedral of Sevilla.


Sam in front of the Plaza de Espaņa.


The Bilbaos act their age at the Plaza de Espaņa.


City walls in Cordoba.


Inside the Mezquita in Cordoba.


Orange tree in Cordoba.