A Little Me Time – The Camino

I’ve always espoused the value of Me Time and today I had a lovely midday break  in amongst my busy schedule. I took time out to head to the cinema, unfortunately I couldn’t stretch to enough time for lunch too.

I went to see the movie 6 Ways to Santiago. It’s about 6 different people walking the Camino de Santiago and their experiences. Sitting in the darkened cinema with two of my fellow walking companions, we were transported back to our time on the Camino trail. Cows coming down the streetThe images were beautiful, so much so that we could almost smell the cow dung. As the pilgrims travelled their journey, I vividly recalled the aching muscles as I put one foot in front of each other.

Lucky for me, I didn’t suffer from blisters, but some of my fellow walkers did, however, we looked after each other and soothed our worries away together.

Sore feet
Soaking the footsies!

If you’re thinking of doing the Camino, I highly recommend this documentary. You can also read my blog entries about my experience here.

The Camino is a magical experience. I’m planning another walk in 2016. If you’re interested in joining a small organised group of women on the trip of a lifetime, I’d love you to hear from you.

Michelle

GOODBYE ECIJA

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With the Academy Directors

Friday night saw me bidding  a sad farewell to the last group of my lovely students who have been a part of my life since last September. I have to admit I shed a little tear (and so did some of them). My walk home, after handing in the keys to my boss, was filled with mixed feelings. I knew this was the last time that I would be treading the familiar route, one that I had walked four times a day, in all kinds of weather. As I walked I said a mental goodbye to the places I regularly walked past. Sometimes in the freezing cold, other times with sweat pouring down my face.

One of the things I am really going to miss about being there is the lovely long break in the middle of the day for siesta.  My break was usually 3 or 4 hours, depending on the timetable and whilst it was a bit strange at first, and I never used this as a siesta time, I soon developed the habit  of using these times to work on other projects or simply relax with a good book.

I arrived struggling to speak Spanish, and even more, the accent of Andalucia but now I surprise myself with how much I actually understand and am able to communicate. I think I surprised some of my colleagues and students too. Whilst I am by no means fluent I can get by very well. You can read about my early adventures in the Spain tab of my blog, but my most memorable occasion is the gas bottle episode.

I became accustomed to the fact that all the shops close for lunch and on Sundays, including many of those in Seville and Cordoba too. I learnt to organise myself around their opening hours and Sunday was truly a day or rest and recreation.

Whilst I still registered that the church bells peal out every hour, every day of the week, even through the night. I got used to it and it became a familiar part of daily life in a little Spanish town.

I loved sitting in the Salon (the main square that is more correctly named Plaza Espana) especially in the recent months when the daylight lasted until about 10 o’clock, and at the other little bars having a tapa and watching whole families or varying generations all eating together, the children and dogs all playing sociably. I didn’t enjoy the dog poo that I need to keep a sharp eye out for!

It’s been a great learning experience. Learning about the rich culture, both ancient and modern, learning about the people and the local customs. All in all it’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn first hand about life in a small Spanish town away from all the commercialism and tourist hubble-bubble of the larger cities.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience. Thank you Educalia Ecija and all the fabulous people I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with during my time there.

Michelle

 

Exploring the Albayzin – Granada, Spain

The school year is drawing to a close, at least here in Europe, which means so too is my time here in Spain. I’m making the most of the last few weekends and have been to Granada, Cordoba and Seville this month. Distances are not as vast as at home in Australia, so even though I don’t have a car here, it’s fairly easy to get about from one area to the other. I’m using buses, BlaBla Cars and lovely students who kindly give me lifts if they are headed in the direction I want to go.

Although it’s only a month since my very first visit to Granada, there’s a magic about the place that drew me back once again. My first stop was the cake shop where I indulged myself in not one, but two of the most delicious Arab sweets. It was then down to the serious business of leisurely exploring the Albayzin area, the old Arab quarter. Although I’d visited there before, I didn’t really have enough time for a proper exploration on my first visit.

It’s a very ancient area of the city, also UNESCO world heritage listed, built into the hill on the opposite side of the river to the Alhambra. A series of narrow, steep and winding alleyways offer surprise views and scenes tucked around each b20150430_155323end, including glimpses of the Alhambra in all its glory. There are some areas where cars can squeeze (and it’s definitely a squeeze) along, but for the most part it’s all very, very narrow and you can imagine donkeys being more suited for trekking up and down. I certainly wouldn’t like to have to lug my groceries home from the supermarket, although the idea of a small flat in this area has masses of appeal! I also reckon walking up and down the steep slopes would soon cancel out the sugar ladened cakes I’d be consuming each day if I lived here. Flat shoes are a must and it was with great amusement that I watched a few fashionable young tourists teeter around on their platform shoes.

There is a little bus that you can take up and down, and it’s very cheap (E1.20). We took the bus last time as we were pressed for time. This time my explorations were all on foot, both up and down, round and through the various nooks and crannies, including a visit to the mosque whose gardens are open to the public. The view from here of the Alhambra is pretty spectacular but without the crowds at the Mirador S. Nicholas which is right next door. I also took the big camera this time, so have better shots, but these here are straight from my phone.

My attic room
My attic room where I enjoyed a sound sleep.

By the time I got back to my hotel at around 11pm, my poor little footsies were pretty tired. It was a most welcome relief to slip off my shoes, wiggle my toes and settle back with a glass of bubbly in hand before dragging myself into the shower. The hotel was a converted 16 Century mini palace located right on the Darro. My room, which I’d booked at the last moment, was in what was obviously a converted attic space. I slept like a log!

wpid-20150607_110042.jpg wpid-20150607_105538.jpgSunday morning saw Wayne and myself enjoy a leisurely breakfast before doing some serious haggling for leather bags. Our purchases left us thirsty – shopping is hard work – so we headed  into yet another colourwpid-20150607_125119.jpgful square, for refreshments and watched the local townsfolk go about their regular Sunday businewpid-20150607_124841.jpgss.  In the afternoon we headed back to Ecija which is a total contrast to Granada and certainly a whole lot cheaper in terms of eating out. I guess I’ve been spoilt spending all these months in a little local place where I’ve got used to paying local prices. I reckon I’m going to be in for a rude shock when I am back in Australia again. However, I’m really looking forward to a bowl of laksa!

Michelle

Granada Part 2 – The Alhambra

The Alhambra must surely be the jewel in the crown of Andalucia, a province that is rich with monuments, yet there is something that extra bit special about this historic citadel that overlooks the city of Granada.

Majestic Alhambra
Majestic Alhambra

Nestled against the breathtaking backdrop of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, the Alhambra, rises as a majestic fortress over the city. The UNESCO World Heritage site stands as a beautiful, intriguing and stark reminder of years long since past when the Moors ruled Spain before Queen Isabella, the Catholic,  finally conquered the Moors in 1492.

Having read a myriad of books set in this period with the Alhambra as a backdrop, I wascropped-wpid-20150430_165935.jpg keen to see its marvellous beauty for myself. Imagine my disappointment when I learnt we were unable to get tickets. I was devastated to learn they needed to be booked months in advance! We’d only decided to go there two weeks earlier as it was a bit of a juggle with my teaching timetable to create the time needed for the trip.

Never someone wh20150430_155323o is easily deterred, I started to ask about amongst my tourism contacts, and despite their best efforts no tickets were available. Nevertheless, we arrived in Granada determined to make the best of things. We trotted down to the local tourist bureau, official Alhambra ticket office and also sought out the locals. The consensus was that, if we were to queue early in the morning, well before the ticket office opened, there was a chance we might be able to get a ticket as a certain quota – approximately 300 they thought, were held back for gate sales. No one was sure how many or exactly what time to start to queue, but heck, this is Spain, and there’s always contradictory information. I’ve got used to it and go with the flow.

My cousin Michael has never been an early bird in all the years I have known him, so no way was he planning to leap out of bed, not unless he absolutely had to. I, on the other hand, was determined to give it my best shot. At 6.15 am when it was still pitch dark and with not a soul in the street except me, there I was on my way up the hill to the ticket office. I had planned to walk, but it was so dark, that I decided a taxi would be prudent.

My taxi deposited me at 6.20 outside the ticket office where, to my wpid-20150501_171326.jpgamazement, there was already a queue of about 50 people! I joined the line of Italians, Americans, Japanese and Spaniards of all ages who, like me, were determined to wpid-20150501_154621.jpggain admission. We jiggle from foot to foot trying to keep warm. Some of those in front of me even had blankets on the floor, so goodness knows how long they had been there!

At 8.15, I was the proud holder of 2 tickets for the 2pm admission with a 3.30 timeslot at the Nasrid Palace. As I emerged from the ticket office, I noticed the queue was now some 200 – 300 plus deep. The authorities that manage the Alhambra have restricted the number of entries per day and split them into two sessions. Some may complain, but I think it’s a fabulous idea as it prevents the place becoming too overcrowded while also protecting this unique monument.

Michael and I spent an extremely enjoyable five hours exploring the magnificent gardens, nooks and crannies as well as the various buildings and towers that make up the Alhambra. The history of the place seeps through the walls and speaks to us of decades long past. The walls of the Nasrid Palace, echo with the whisper of a bygone era, a time when the Moors of Granada were a proud and strong race. I loved the Alhambra and would go back in a flash! It was definitely worth standing in a cold line in the pitch black to obtain a ticket.

Michelle

Granada Part 1 – evoking memories of my childhood

My recent weekend  in Granada (1st weekend in May) was a poignant reminder of my Middle Eastern childhood. A lot of things here in Spain remind me of the days in the Middle East – gas stoves, flat roofs where washing gets hung out and kids play, cobbled streets, fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, sunflower seeds, pepitas, strong black coffee served with a glass of water on the side and fragrant teas served in a glass. Actually, it’s not that surprising considering that this area was under Moorish rule for some 700 years and history has a massive impact on how countries and regions evolve.

I’ve always loved history and Granada has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, a place I have wanted to visit since I first read about it, in historical novels way back when I was a teenager. The Alhambra sounded so exotic!

One of my Spanish students did her English exam oral presentation on Granada so I also learnt a lot more from her, in the course of her practice session, about this ancient city.

SO finally, I got the chance to visit Granada when my cousin Michael arrived from Australia. The journey involved a bus ride from Ecija to Cordoba, a train, and then another bus, but it was all most definitely worth it! My earlier blog on getting organised for the journey is here.

With the fall of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, the country fell under the strict Catholic regime that resulted in many of the magnificent monuments built by the Moors being replaced with Christian churches. Fortunately, they were not all destroyed and there remains today some wonderful architecture that is testament to the fabulous skills of the artisans of those times.

Street in the Albaycin
Scenes from the Albaycin

Being in Granada is a step back in timewpid-20150430_152739.jpg. Despite the fact that it is a modern city, the history of the place is alive and well.  As I walked wpid-20150430_152707.jpgwpid-20150501_205940.jpgthrough the Albaycin the wonderful sight of Arab sweets, lanterns, fragrant tea shops, and the Arabic chatter of the local merchants transported me back to happy days spent in Jerusalem and Beirut wandering through the souks.

I’m also very happy to report that the Arab cakes I had there were the best ones I have tasted in a very, very long time. Sorry no photos of the cakes, I was too busy eating them!

Michelle

 

 

Granada – here I come!

I’ve dreamt of visiting Granada since I was a young girl reading novels set in the days of Muslim rulers, and then in the period of Isabella of Spain. My dream is finally coming true!

Getting organised to make this trip has been no mean feat!  Student timetables had to be rejiggled so I could have today off to add to the public holiday which is tomorrow. I’ve put in very long hours, cramming  in the extra lessons  as well as maintaining all my freelance deadlines.

I’m very luck to work with great people who’ve helped make this possible through their understanding and flexibility.

We’re travelling through hill country dotted with olive groves and the road climbs higher and higher past fields sprinkled with wild poppies whose vibrant red adds a bold splash of colour to the greenery. Far in the distance the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada loom and I can’t wait to reach our destination.

Michelle

Malaga – a city of contrasts

The drive from my current home town of Ecija to Malaga yesterday was. much to my surprise, so  picturesque. Very green, peppered with olive groves, scenic hill tops dotted with the occasional houses, dramatic drops and finally the views of the Mediterranean sea sparkling in the distance.

A big shout out and thank you to Nati and Javier for giving me a lift as they headed to visit their friends in Marbella.

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Looking out over the port from Alcazaba

The city is a mix of the old and new. Beautiful beaches complete with bars and restaurants, a marina, port and heaps of museums. It’s a city aimed tourists with several information points where they speak a multitude of languages, wheelchair ramps and streets that are no longer cobbled.

A myriad of modern shops and goodness knows how many different restaurants and bars! Plenty of foreign tourists and menus are in English in lots of places which I avoided like the plague!

Instead I settled20150328_152610 for a cute little place that looked much more local as everyone sitting at the bar was speaking Spanish. Special of the day was plump pulpo grilled to order on the charcoal fire.

I sat for an hour enjoying watching all the action at the bar as the staff bustled about. Tapas is a most civilised way of eating and I love being able to order a dish at a time, especially as if I spot something going past that I fancy, I can just order the same so no cases of menu envy here.

View of Gibralfaro walking towards the city
View of Gibralfaro walking towards the city

Although situated smack bang in the middle of modern-day Malaga, once I stepped into the Alcazaba I was transported back in time. To an era where life was very different. The perfume of orange blossom, lavender growing wild and the wonderful courtyards all offered a sense of serenity and wonder at the amazing people who built this wonder place-fortress that dates back to the 11th century.

The Alcazaba and Gibralfaro are testament to Malaga’s Muslim past with each boasting 360 degree views over the city, including the sea and the hill ranges and I can just imagine that in days of old they were fantastic vantage points to watch for invaders and homecoming vessels.20150328_170859

In contrast to the Muslim history is the Cathedral of Malaga, which whilst not as impressive as that of Seville, is worth visiting even if they do charge a E5 entrance fee but I am told it’s free on Sundays. Lots of wonderful stained glass and the interior is not as dark as Seville.

There are also several museums belonging to the various Brotherhoods in Malaga with displays of Semana Santa regalia. I visited Confradia de la Esperanza which was truly impressive with beautiful embroidered garments, gold and silver ornaments, a wonderful painted ceiling depicting the history of the Br20150328_190940otherhood and boasts the largest floats in Malaga. They were truly impressive. In this photo you can see part of the mural.

Last nigh the streets were being prepared for the Semana Santa parades with chairs lining the main routes and verandahs all decked out with red cloths giving a uniform look to the route. Bands are kicking off the week by parading through the streets where the somber sounds of the drums and trumpet mark their slow procession as the crowds look on. Street stalls are popping up everywhere and the city is ready for a week of celebrations.

The first paso just went by earlier this morning. Watching them walk gave me shivers, the experience is very difficult to describe. Primitive almost and at the same time awe-inspiring. Even though we are in a modern city, the feeling is that of a time when the Church was at the height of its power in Spain. It’s a very eery feeling.

The discipline and dedication of those bearing the paso is incredible. It’s also extremely hot so even more impressive. The crowds that line the route are so thick that it’s difficult to walk about.

I’m off to England now and I have to say I think a week of drums would drive me crackers! It has however been a fascinating experience and when I get back on Sunday there’ll still be parades taking place.

Michelle

 

 

 

Semana Santa

The haunting sound of a mournful drum beat has pervaded my little flat each night for the last couple of weeks. Somewhere, close by, someone is practising for Semana Santa, a weeklong event that commemorates the death and resurrection of Christ. It’s the equivalent of our Easter, but on a much grander scale.

Each of the churches I’ve popped into have been busy getting ready for this most important week of their year and it’s been fascinating to learn a little about the history of this uniquely Spanish event.

In 1521, the Marqués de Tarifa, on returning from the Holy Land, introduced the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) which has evolved into present day processions where the various scenes of the Passion of Christ are depicted.

In Andalucia, all towns celebrate the week with daily processions – yep, that’s right the processions are daily! I had originally thought there was just one big procession which everyone turned out to and all the floats, or pasos, as they are called in Spanish went past. I’ve now learnt that it’s a much grander affair. Very elaborate and highly ritualised.

Each procession is organised by the cofradías (brotherhoods). In my little town alone there are seventeen brotherhoods.  In Seville, I am told, there are over fifty. This makes for several processions a day. Each starts out from their local church (we have 21 churches, chapels etc here in my town!) and follows a route that must include the Carrera Oficial where the dignitaries and those lucky enough to have seats get a front row view.

The biggest, and most impressive, is in Seville where the centre is closed to traffic for the week. Last Saturday the infrastructure was being set up for the parade. I’ve since discovered that seats are pretty much impossible to come by as they are handed wpid-20150321_103719.jpgdown by families through the generations.
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The pasos are ornate floats, richly adorned with silver, gold, candles and statues of Jesus or the Virgin. The statues often date back centuries and no expense is spared on the rich robes of the Virgin. Costaleros, ranging in number from twenty four to over fifty of them, are hidden under the float so all you see is their feet as they bear the floats through the streets.

Nazarenos, (penitents) walk beside the floats and some even walk barefoot, which is very impressive in my book given some processions last up to 14 hours! The nazarenos are robed and hooded, giving them a strong resemblance to the Klu Klux Clan but there is no connection. Accompanied by drums, candles and burning incense the whole procession harks back to days long past.

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 Confiteri La Campana window

Semana Santa is so much a part of Seville than even the shop windows are decorated in theme and the big department store Corte Inglese had an exhibit of school childrens pasos creations.wpid-20150321_111329.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

I’m heading to Malaga tomorrow which is the birthplace of Antonio Banderas and Picasso. It seems Antonio regularly participates in the Malaga Semana Santa celebrations, not as a famous star but as a Malaga born local. Read more here about how and why he is involved. I wonder if I’ll be lucky enough to bump into him?

Michelle

Andalucia Day – 28 February

A gorgeous sunny day today as we mark Andalucia Day and the final day of February. Temperatures are on the rise so I’m a happy little Vegemite. My laundry is fluttering on the rooftop, I’ve thrown open all the windows, turned off the heating and moved back into my office as opposed to doing all my writing and sorting on the dining room table to conserve heat. It’s kind of like when the Dry Season arrives in Darwin and we turn off the aircons.

Andalucia Day is an official holiday here, it marks the day in 1980 when a referendum was passed and Andalucia became an autonomous region in Spain with its own government. Where I live is in the Seville province (one of the eight provinces of the region).

Flamenco and bullfighting, whilst considered typically Spanish, actually originated here in Andalusia. There’s a bullfight on today, but, whilst I am fascinated by the customs and history, which I understand, goes back to about 700 AD, I am abhorrent of the fact that an animal is killed in such a cruel fashion just for sport! Therefore, I shall not be attending any bull fights anywhere or anytime. There was a program on TV about this the other week and whilst I watched the interviews and admired the costumes of the matadors, I flicked channels when it came to actual fight scenes.

Flamenco on the other hand is something equally fascinating, beautiful to watch and causes no harm. I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that so many of my students actually dance Flamenco and that it’s widely taught. A few of the English teachers I’ve met go to classes, but given I’m not exactly musical I’ve not attempted them.

Michelle

BACK IN SPAIN

Today is my fourth day back in Spain; I arrived Wednesday night and have been lucky not to have suffered from jet lag despite the very long trip. It was straight back to work Thursday morning so it’s nice to have this weekend to chill out. I spent yesterday checking out the rebajas – yep, I learnt a new word in Spanish – it means discounts but is the equivalent of our sales since that’s what’s plastered all over shop windows. I also visited the supermarket plus fruit and veg stalls.

My fridge is stocked with loads of eggplant, red and green peppers, gorgeous tomatoes, beautiful mushrooms and crunchy green beans. That said, it’s so flipping cold, I don’t really need a fridge at the moment. When I step into the kitchen each morning to make my morning coffee I could swear it must be about 2 degrees!

However, once you go outside it is gorgeous winter sunshine, so it’s very pleasant walking through the streets, as I did yesterday, to get to the post office and send off a letter to Mum who is not on Facebook or any other means of electronic communications. The walk to the post office offers some lovely vista’s including the beautiful façade of the Palacio de Penaflor, which I believe, is quite something inside, but at the moment is not open to the public (I’m not sure if it ever was) and there seems to be some debate as to what to do with it. I’m really keen to get a look inside this intriguing building.

San Juan, Ecija
Approach to and views of Iglesia San Juan

On the way back from the post office I meandered past the very picturesque, Iglesia San Juan, a place I’ve visited prior but definitely worth a second visit. However, it was closed so I had to content myself with just soaking up the exterior atmosphere.

There’s very little in terms of literature in English which explains what all the fascinating buildings in Ecija are so I’m making it my mission to find out a little bit more about the ones that intrigue me the most. It’s most definitely not a touristy town although we do see the odd day tripper, and whilst it’s nowhere near as spectacular as Cordoba or Seville, the place does have a certain unique charm. I would sum it up as being natural, no touristy shops of tacky souvenirs on every corner and people go about living their daily lives without pandering to tourists which in turn translates into cheaper prices in restaurants and, of course, less English speakers.

Michelle