Granada, Spain — Eighteen hours into a bus from Paris to Madrid, I was beginning to have doubts about Spain. The bus was not as intolerable as flying, and I was glad to be out of Paris, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was driving through the central valley. The countryside was comprised of small houses, a little smog, and nothing but dry flatland for miles around. Madrid’s bus station didn’t do much to ease my worries. The station is located in a very sterile section of town, filled with carbon copy apartments, freeways, and rows of well groomed trees. Thankfully the metro was located in the same station sparing our travel weary legs from walking. As with London, and Paris I’ve seen more of Madrid’s Metro than I have seen of the city itself. Madrid possesses one of the best metros I have ever seen. Although London may surpass Madrid in convenience and consistence Madrid’s metro is modern, clean, and spacious. After some fancy Navigation around closed lines we arrived at Madrid’s train station. The train station in Madrid echoes the metro, modern and spacious. It is hard to imagine that only four decades ago Spain was a in the throws of the Franco regime.
Even though Europe has presented challenges at every turn; reservations, transportation, and language barriers it still is extremely enjoyable. There is only one thing that completely depresses me here… the apartments. London, Dublin, Paris, Madrid; all filled with apartments that could have been made in one factory and shipped out across Europe. Six stories, square corners, slapped on exterior decoration. The worst part about these cookie cutter abodes is that they are made of concrete slabs and stone. Americans are often criticized for being wasteful; these apartments are the opposite of wasteful. Monstrosities of symmetry have loomed above the European skyline for at least the last 40 years and will be around for perhaps hundreds more. I think my depression stems from two roots. First I can’t help but feel that some of the magic of Europe is lost in the shadow of the high-rise. Secondly, as Luke Hawkins so eloquently put it, “Everywhere has the same kind of ugly”. The ugliness does not come from the architecture; the ugliness comes from what the architecture represents. Poverty, segregation, stagnation seem to emanate from the buildings. The influx of immigrants and the need to modernize have made quickly build-able apartments necessary. While there is no going back one hopes that the soul of a place will not be completely sacrificed for an easy fix to complex problems.
Excitement mixed with tiredness is a funny blend. On the one hand, you make mistakes like thinking a metro line is a river, and on the other hand you’re using the bars in the subway to do pull-ups. This blend of exhaustion from the bus ride and excitement about reaching our destination followed us as we prepared to board the AVE bullet train to Seville. A few miles outside of Madrid, I knew I was going to like Spain. The flatland had been replaced with rolling hills. The landscape was dotted with whitewashed houses, olive groves, and red soil that evoked scenes from Hemmingway and Gladiator.
When you walk out the front door of the Seville train station, you see the top of the Giralda bell tower, peaking out above the rooftops. Rick Steves said to head for the city center right under the tower, so we did. Rick Steves also told us to get a cab, but we didn’t. One hour and forty five minutes later, sun burnt, sweaty, and in search of water, we arrived at our hostel. Triana Backpackers Hostel has the best atmosphere of any hostel we have stayed at so far. The entry way leads through a teardrop archway into a lounge filled with Moorish tile work. The floors are marble and refreshingly cool durring hot Sevillian days. Two flights of stairs reach the open rooftop cabana filled with couches, hammocks, and exotic plants. I know Seville is littered with nice hotels but for €19 a night I would recommend Triana Backpackers to anyone visiting Seville. We were located in the Triana neighborhood which is where the locals live and eat. Two streets to the north west of our hostel lies Calle Del Betis; a river front street with eateries open until the wee hours of the morning. One particularly good place to stuff your face is Ali Baba’s, located about 50 meters south of the Isabella II Bridge. I have found a new love for kebabs on this trip; for €5 at Ali Baba’s you can have a huge amount of meat rolled up in a tortilla.
One of our best discoveries in Seville was the Sevici bicycle system. You pay a €5 subscription and a €150 refundable deposit and you can pick up and drop of bikes at any one of the many kiosk around the city. You are charged an hourly fee to encourage returning bikes to keep the system running smoothly but it is minimal (I paid €5 in fees over three days). Exploring Seville while dodging cars, pedestrians, and trains, is definitely a highlight of this trip. If you’re young or young at heart, Seville was made to be seen from a bicycle.
Triana Backpackers offered a free Flamenco night so we headed off through the streets of Seville surrounded by crowds of Americans and Australians looking for an “authentic” Spanish experience. As we walked we met Suzy, a girl from Canada traveling Europe for a few months. She was reading Shane Claiborne’s book Irresistible Revolution so the Lukes got to have a long conversation with her about what God was doing in all of our lives. She said that we reminded her of her brothers and that it was good to have someone to talk to about God. We arrived at a bar overflowing with tourists and sangria. I had some Tapas (small appetizers); my choices were chicken pepper salad and couscous. Tapas are pretty much the same no matter what bar you visit €2 for a saucer sized plate of one of the many different dishes. A man in his 50’s walked up to the stage and commanded the crowd to be silent. He explained the rules; no photos, no talking, and concentrate. Spanish singing is a haunting mix of an Islamic call to prayer mixed with a heavy lament. There is nothing like a flamenco guitarist gracefully strumming and picking the guitar at blistering speeds. After three songs the dancer rose from her seat and began to twirl and tap with such intensity that you felt she was always on the verge of collapse, yet she continued to dance. Even if the atmosphere of the bar did not live up to our expectations, the performers had us standing in awe of their skill.
Seville’s business hours run on the siesta clock. Open in the morning, closed in the afternoon, open till late at night. The reason for this is the sweltering summer heat of midday. We found our selves in the Barrio de Santa Cruz (the winding old Jewish district) during the afternoon heat and in desperate need of food and drink. We found one of the many cafes and decided it would be a good place to eat because of the hunks of dried meat and garlic hanging form the ceiling. The food was a little “tourist” priced but it didn’t matter because we were starving a parched, Coke has never tasted so good. I ordered a delightfully cool bowl of Gazpacho relaxed to the sounds of a blaring radio reporting football scores in Spanish. To top off the evening, a thunderstorm blew in just as we were leaving the café, blanketing the town in magnificent light and clouds.
Two things attract visitors to Seville; the cathedral and the Alcazar. The Cathedral and the Alcazar dominate the eastern end of the town square and behind them lays the Barrio de Santa Cruz. The three locations reveal much about Spain’s cultural past. The Cathedral represents the Catholic influence, the Alcazar the Moorish, and Santa Cruz is a stark reminder of the country’s Jewish past. During the Moorish rule of Spain, Christians and Jews were allowed to live but were taxed heavily. After the Reconquista, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella dreamed of a Catholic empire ruled by divinely appointed monarchs, leading to the forced expulsion or conversion of virtually all the Jews and Moors in Spain. People still suspected the converts as secretly practicing their old religions and conspiring against the Christians. People blamed the Jews for everything from sacrificing babies to poisoning water sources. Finally the Spanish Inquisition was initiated vast numbers of people (historians differ on the exact amount) were tortured, made to confess to heresy and burned at the stake.
Perhaps it is the history behind it or perhaps it was the shear grandeur of the thing itself, but entering into the cathedral was an awe-inspiring experience. Luke Gebauer said it best when we entered into the massive, arched sanctuary: “it’s like Lord of the Rings”. I have never seen architecture so grand in my life. We approached the high alter with 40 images of Christ life. The entire gospel set in wood and gold was truly a sight to behold. I have, for most of my life, been critical of the extravagance of the Catholic Church. I have felt that the money could be better used in the service of the poor or in aiding missions. Now I wonder if my criticism is the same as the disciples when Mary poured out perfume on Jesus’ feet. Looking at that alter was a truly spiritual experience.
Seville was what we needed as we reached the halfway point in our trip. Good food, great sites, and a relaxing old world atmosphere. Seville was just the gateway to our Spanish adventure which will lead us to Granada and Barcelona but that is another story, so keep checking back.