Sunday, October 28, 2007

Spain - Parte Dos - Madrid

Now for this week, back to our 2 part of our Spain vacation in Madrid! Our train ride to back to Madrid was decidedly less hurried than the one to Sevilla. A short 2 hr journey later, we were plopped into the Atocha Station, which by the way was connected conveniently to Madrid's subway system. Spent a total of 4 nights in Madrid, so we had plenty of time to see the major sights like the Prado Museum, the Renia Sofia, and even a bullfight too! In general, Madrid was more of a bustling metropolitan city to us, compared to Sevilla which was more of a laid back walking town. Here's a shot of Madrid at 9.30pm, note the huge traffic jam at the bottom of the shot, stark contrast of downtown KC!

First day up, we went for a stroll in the Royal Palace. Its actually still being used for Royal functions today, much like Buckingham Palace in London... But fortunately for us, the Spanish Royal Family wasn't using it that day, so we got to walk around inside and admire their century old future and a weirdly huge collection of clocks and old & large self-portraits of previous kings. No cameras inside the Royal palace, so the best we could do was an outside shot!

We were the fortunate beneficiaries of a hotel date mix up with our travel agent. After a minor inconvenience of having to pay for our hotel room with a separate credit card, we did in fact score the a suite on the highest floor! It came with a patio overlooking the streets below us too! Here's a quick shot from the rooftop patio. During the day and night we could see people walking on the streets below. BTW, we also saw a couple of "working ladies" on the streets too, which unfortunately is part of any large metropolitan city in the world these days. Interestingly though, it is apparently illegal to pimp in Spain, so all of the ladies down below were private contractors publicly working out the arrangements with their clients in clear view....

A wonderful snack that we discovered over in Madrid was Churros! For those of you that are familiar with the Costco sold Churros with sugar and cinnamon, its kinda like that except without the sweet part. For the Malaysians, its like a less greasy Yau-Cha-Guai. It goes REALLY -REALLY well with melted chocolate (as depicted here), or alternatively you can also dip it into Coffee + Sugar in the morning Malaysian Style MMMMHHHMMMMM.... :) BTW, best place to eat Churros con Chocolate in Madrid is at Chocolatería Valor in Downtown. Also, don't plan on sleeping anytime soon for the next 4-5 hrs with all that sugar!

Continuing on with food, Paella is something that you shouldn't miss as well in Spain. It tastes a bit like Asian fried rice except its slightly more yellowish and a lot more watery. Probably not as appetizing any more after that description, but I assure everyone, it tastes better that it sounds! Here's a shot of Yeesin about to attack our Seafood Paella. BTW, Patio dining was amazing out there, with weather in the low 70s most of the time we were there, so plenty of opportunity to sit outside, grab a bite, and people watch for hours!

We didn't forget to scratch the shopping itch over in Madrid either. One morning we made a pilgrimage to the shopping gods by taking a subway ride over to El Rastro, probably the largest flea market in Spain! Don't expect any rare or priceless hand made art here. El Rastro only carries mass produced cheap T-shirts, CDs, belts, shoes, etc! At prices from 2-10 Euros, its a bargain shoppers paradise! Also known for its pickpockets, we kept our hands on our wallets, and shopped to our hearts delight! Yeesin bought a few Pashminas from a kind Spain stall owner that kinda looked like your neighborhood friendly uncle. Didn't really know much what he said, but he was constantly draping the pashminas over Yeesin, telling them how largo (long), grande (big), and how barato (cheap) they were!

Will close out this edition with a parting photo of a bullfight that we managed to catch over in Madrid. Bullfighting is probably the only thing that we didn't really care for in Spain. We went there trying not to judge the local culture and ways of life, but in our minds, bullfighting seemed to be more a of tourist thing that a local sport. I'll walk everyone through the sequence of a fight. Part one, the bull is led out into the ring, and 6-8 guys in matador outfits take turns to bait it, make it mad, and tire it out. Part two, the picadores, guys on horses and with spears come out and plunge spear points into the neck of the bull to enrage it even more. Finally part three is when the main matador of the event comes out on stage with the red flag and his sword. By then the bull is REALLY mad, tired, and bleeding as it tries to gore the matador. The matador does his red flag thing with the bull that most of us already seen on TV, and when the moment is right (this part rarely shows up on ESPN), plunges the sword into top part of the bull's neck, if he is good, the bull dies immediately. If not, as in our 2nd bullfight, the it gets really really messy, cos he has to try and try again. So in short, not as entertaining as we expected, we left after the 2nd fight, and frankly a little unfair to the bulls, as they don't have any way to fight back!!!
Next time.... Barcelona!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Morning Run

Taking a break from the vacation report this week to take in my 5K run this morning via the KC Marathon... Woke up at the wee hours of 5.15am to get ready for this race. Adrian picked me up at 6, and we met up with Egwin, Rach, Minh & their friend Gabe to start the run at downtown Crown Center

Did a respectable time of 26.24 this time around, a little slower compared to my previous record of 25.57 in 2005. The KC Marathon technology was pretty impressive though, with timing chips provided that hooked up to our shoes. Just a step on a red plate on the ground at the starting point, and a final step on the plate at the finishing line records your time. No worries about making sure the event staff right down your number and time correctly!

Spent the rest of the morning sitting on my butt recovering... BTW, just got emailed some pictures from my finish line shot... here they are!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Spain - Parte Uno - Sevilla

Whew! 10 nights, 11 days of trains, airplanes, subway rides, taxi trips, countless miles of daily walking, and most importantly tons of FUN and bucketloads of photos later... we back!!!! We had an awesome vacation, though we are happy to be able to read menu's without a Spanish dictionary again, and finally able to understand local TV broadcasts!

We'll blog the cities we visited over the next few weeks, starting with Seville or Sevilla as the locals call it! On the right, was our first day of arrival in in Sevilla with the Giralda tower in the background. For those of you guys in KC, you'll probably recognize this from the belltower next to the Cheesecake factory on the Plaza... After all, Sevilla and Kansas City are sister cities!!!

Nothing like being almost late for our train ride to start our hearts pumping for our adventure. Our first stop was in Seville actually came by way of Madrid. After landing in Madrid late at 9am, our Spanish driver drove formula-one style weaving in and out of traffic to make our 10am train ride from Madrid to Sevilla. Kinda reminds us of our Genting to KL taxi driver, except the cursing was in Spanish, and he was dressed WAY better, and his Mercedes was more STYLO. Still, he got us there with 15 minutes to spare, giving me just enough time to to navigate the language barrier and get our tickets validated, jump on the Train, and finally relax.

Speaking of the language barrier, we actually trained a little via Spanish language CDs in preparation for this trip. Nothing too fancy really, just basic travelling Spanish, enough to check into hotels, get transportation, order food, and find the bathroom. Interesting thing to note though for those of you that know Mexican Spanish, it differs slightly from Spanish Spanish. For Example, Cerveza "ser-ve-sa" is Mexican Spanish, while its pronounced "Ther-ve-tha", kind of like saying the word with a lisp. Different huh? Interesting myth stating that the "Spanish Lisp" came from a king that had a speech disability, unable to pronounce "s" properly he Lisp'ed his way through conversations. More on it here.

Nickelback sings "... And a bathroom I can play baseball in. And a king size tub big enough for ten plus me." Well, under the Sevilla Alcazar (Castle), the "Baths of Lady María de Padilla" are really rainwater tanks named after Maria de Padilla. Supposedly, King Pedro fell for María and had her husband killed (Talk about eliminating the competition!). María resisted his advances and in turn poured boiling oil over her face to disfigure herself to stop Pedro's pursuit (ouch). I guess Talk-to-the-hand wasn't invented yet??!!... Later she became a nun and is respected as a symbol of purity in Sevilla. I took this picture as an sweet background for my desktop.

OOOhhhh...Macarena!!! Unbeknown est to the poor church goers at Basillica de la Macarena in Sevilla, a local pop group called Los del Rio launched this greatest one-hit wonder hit song in 1995. Unfortunately, that darn song kept playing in my head as I strolled through this church, which hold Sevilla's most holy image. the Virgin of Hope - "La Macarena". Her claim to fame is her signature glass teardrops across her face, where her procession put her up on a 3-ton float to parade around Seville. Another item of note, she is the Patron of local the bullfighters, where a local bullfighter Joselito spent a fortune buying 4 emeralds for her. Too bad the favor wasn't reciprocated... He was gored to death in the bullring later. BTW, the she kept the emeralds.

And yours truly will be willing to take credit for a most fortunate event that happened on the 27th. As the sign on the left can attest, I timed our trip just perfectly to coincide with the World Day of Tourism. Short story so that we can move along, is entry to the Church and Giralda Tower was Free, aka Gratis!

Next the Giralda Tower (La Giralda), one of the most recognizable landmarks of Sevilla. You can pretty much see it from everywhere in town. The version in KC is pretty much a miniature version of the one at Sevilla. The tower used to be part of an ancient mosque, and when the Christians invaded, instead of tearing it down, they merely added a bell tower at the top. To this day, the bells actually do sound on a regular basis. The climb to the top was pretty tiring but interestingly enough there are actually no steps, just a steep walkway that winds itself around the tower until the top. The history behind it is the the Moors used to ride their horses from the ground floor all the way up to the top for the daily prayers instead of walking. That's what I call being efficient! Here's a pic from the top of the tower!

Finally, last but not least, the Star Wars fans in you guys will definitely appreciate the following fine location that we visited next, Plaza Espana a.ka. "Naboo" in Star Wars II - Attack of the Clones. Its original purpose, before hijacked by George Lucas was for the 1929 Spanish-American Exhibition and is a perfect example of Moorish Revival type architecture.... Personally, I think Naboo sounds more interesting, as we're more of movie buffs than architecture ones! It doesn't even take any imagination to see how this location works out great as the set for the movie!

In next week's Blog... Madrid!