¡Hasta la próxima vez, Sevilla!

el Alcázar

Our last full afternoon and evening in Seville was spent with walking around inside and outside the Alcázar de Sevilla, an originally Moorish fortress remodeled several times, and still currently in use today by the Spanish royal family. If we saw any of them while visiting, we didn’t know it. We got there kind of late in the day, and it was a little rainy and cool. We took great interest in the pottery and tile exhibit contained in the Alcázar itself. We enjoyed climbing around in the walls of the fortress and were thrilled to see a squadron of peacocks wandering the gardens; dismayed though to see them chased by kids of various ages.

el Barrio Santa Cruz

We got several recommendations to stay in this neighborhood. In the end, we ended up with a hotel we really liked outside of that neighborhood, but strolling around there on our last morning before heading back to Germany was really nice. One square in front of a church was suddenly packed with people; we think a wedding service had just let out. It certainly was charming, if a bit surreal, with the Cinderella-style architecture all nestled in amongst typical urban scumminess. Orange trees lining the streets sure do account for the most pleasant-smelling street trash I have yet to step in. Check out the last picture here — foreshadowing Fukushima?


Not recommended (only because we didn’t try them, and it’s airport gift-shop snack food fare) — ham-flavored airport stuff.

Heartily recommended for breakfast sometime while you’re there: Churros y Chocolate. Think funnel cakes, but not sweet. These are dough strips, deep-fried and greasy. Dip them into the thick, rich, sweet chocolate to sweeten them up. We followed a sign from the main drag outside the Cathedral that said something like

¡Prueba nuestros churros exquisitos y chocolate! 50 metros ➜

…so we took a chance on one of our last mornings in town and were not disappointed.

Really, by anything, in the whole region. I’d like to take a car or bus trip along the coast and check out the small town scene next. ¡Adiós, Sevilla!

España en el Temprano 2011 — el Tercer Día, Parte Dos: Moros y Cristianos

If you thought this was going to be a write up of a tasty dish of black beans and white rice, I am sorry to disappoint you (but good on you for your knowledge of Spanish-language peasant food!). This post really is about Moors and Christians in Córdoba.

After arriving via the snazztastic Spanish rail system, we consulted our trusty Frommer’s book for how to get from Córdoba Central to the town’s main attraction: the Mezquita — a UNESCO World Heritage site which has flip-flopped over the last fifteen hundred years between various religions.

The book said to get on a number 3 (or was it 5?) bus from the main train station toward the old city. It doesn’t say where to get off, so we consulted the schematics and maps at the bus stop and picked a stop we thought would put us near the Jewish Quarter (where we planned to seek out an almuerzo and visit the church/mosque/church. But, future visitors to Córdoba and toters of Frommer’s books — please, please don’t take a bus from the main train station. It’s a waste of your time. Just walk it. We spent about an hour on the bus making a huge loop around and through the modern areas of the city, up and down river banks, and it was a colossal waste of time. We gave up eventually and got off the bus when we figured we were pretty close to the old city wall (we guessed correctly) and relied on our (in this case) much trustier Navigon GPS gadget instead. Within 5 minutes we were drooling over the options at Joe’s House in the Jewish Quarter. We found out later we could have skipped the hour bus ride and done a 15-20 minute amble instead.

So, what is the Mezquita? That’s not easy to answer. Paraphrasing Wikipedia here, it was a pagan place of worship, then a Visigoth church, then a mosque as the Moors took over Andalusia, and then a Cathedral again, thanks to the Reconquista. But apparently no one could bare to completely eradicate the craftsmanship and artistry of his predecessor, so there are a lot of elements going on here, sometimes layered on top of each other.

The most striking design aspect here was obviously the prominence of the arches. I was surprised to find that all manner of photography is apparently OK here. I used my flash and tripod, trying to get the best shots. Maybe they knew that it would be (mostly) fruitless.

But there was more to it than that. The Escher-esque reptition (or is Escher’s work rather Moorish instead?) and level of detail in every dimension was astounding.

And still, despite all the Moorish design, there was plenty of grandiose Catholicism, just like you want in your European cathedral. It was quite an experience, and one not to be missed if you’re in the area. Especially if you’ve got Euro-Church Burnout Syndrome (ECBOS), the Mezquita and Córdoba’s old walled city are a great side trip from Seville.

España en el Temprano 2011 — el Tercer Día, Parte Uno: viajar en tren

Or: Spain, Spring 2011, Day 3, Part 1: train travel

Following some advice from our extremely helpful and friendly hotel staff, we opted to do our third day on this trip outside of Sevilla in Córdoba, instead of Granada like we’d originally planned. We got a very pleasant taste of the Spanish train system and had plenty of good luck with the weather and the old walled city in Córdoba.

First challenge: picking a train station from which depart Seville. The rail network connecting Seville to other cities offers plenty of frequent options in all directions and classes of ticket, so we weren’t too worried about just showing up and picking a train based on whatever looked convenient at the time of our arrival. Our concierge recommended taking a taxi to the Santa Justa train station and departing from there. At first, we thought that was a little weird, like

  1. Why isn’t there there a Hauptbahnhof?, and
  2. Would all the bus and tram lines in the city naturally lead to said missing Hauptbahnhof?

Then we remembered, this is Spain, and not Germany.

We paid about 10 or 12€ for the taxi ride from the Casco Antiguo to Estación Santa Justa and put our Deutsche Bahn skills to work. At first glance, the layout of the train station seemed pretty much like many others we’d seen in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc.: a shopping area, ticket service counters, snack bars. We tried to use the ticket automats to seek out a hin-und-zurück connection to Córdoba, but gave up quickly owing to vocabulary deficiencies (indeed, I often struggle with these in English, too).

the Spanish national rail system's nickname
So we headed off the ticket counter and were shocked and amazed to find not just one massive line, but in fact five or six different ones, organized by urgency of service need. If you need help with an immediate departure, there’s a line for that. If you need help with a departure sometime today, there’s a line for that. If you need help with a departure on another day…there’s a line for that — and it all worked (both in Seville and Córdoba). And guess what: while waiting in line — anywhere in Spain, actually — we never felt the need to define and defend our personal space. It’s not like Spain is (that much) bigger or more densely populated than Germany; it’s just that they’re not seeking every opportunity to gain 4mm on their closest competitor in the race

  • to the ticket counter
  • onto the bus
  • into the museum

I have never seen the DB ticket counters organized in such a way, and for how often their long-distance trains are delayed and passengers must be re-routed, you’d think they’d implement a system like that. But OK, this wasn’t the last instance in which RENFE impressed us with its professionalism and organization.

We headed towards the platforms much earlier than we thought necessary. As we approached the long escalator leading down to the tracks, a woman asked us show her our tickets. She checked them, and allowed us to pass onto the escalator. At the bottom of the escalator, our bags (just backpacks full of camera stuff and bottled water and guide books and other typical tourist stuff) went through an x-ray machine. At that point, we remembered what might justify the extra security “just” at the train station. Post-baggage-screening, a guy in another smaller ticket window checked our tickets yet again and pointed us to toward the train car containing our reserved seats. A smiling Zugbegleiterin greeted us there and welcomed us on board into the spacious, roomy, clean, and pleasant-smelling train car. We were travelling in tourist-class seats on a high-speed line (think ICE equivalent). Nice!

Here are some final bits of knowledge gleaned from the experience:

  • Even if you buy a one-way ticket originally (perhaps, because like us, you were travelling on a loose schedule at best), hang onto it. You might be able to show that one-way initial ticket at the ticket counter for a price reduction on the way back. It’s probably still cheaper to book a there-and-back ticket at the outset, if you can, but RENFE has some sympathy for the spontaneous traveler, expressed in the form of a discounted one-way ticket back.
  • These are the classes of trains we saw while thinking about getting from Seville to Cadiz or Granada or Córdoba:
    • AVE

      Top-level. Most similar to the ICE-level trains in Germany. But the tourist class tickets for the AVE felt like ICE first-class tickets. Seems more expensive than 2nd class ICE travel for the approximately the same distance (say, from Regensburg to Nürnberg), but it was definitely a step up in terms of customer service and personal comfort. They even handed out free headphones to watch the video playing on the ceiling-mounted monitors.

    • AVANT

      Somewhere in the mid-range of the pricing, and almost as fast as the AVE (at least for the Sevilla-Córdoba route). From the outside, these trains looked a lot like AVEs.

    • Media Distancia

      Much cheaper and slower than the other two. The ones we saw in the train stations looked like DB RE/RB equivalents.

  • Most importantly: it’s not Germany. You can’t expect to walk up the platform one minute to departure, board and seek out your seat while the train rolls out of the station; the extra security measures require more time. Expect to be on the platform at least 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure, and that ought to work out nicely.

Sevilla — el Día Dos

We chowed down at the Bar Estrella our first night in Seville, thanks to our hotel staff’s recommendation for a local, not too touristy tapas bar in the area. The waiter was hard to understand, and with our habilidades del idioma, we surely weren’t the easiest, either…but we made it work and didn’t have to fall back to speaking English. He was good-natured about our attempts, and we could see that he appreciated it. Throughout the whole trip, we never found a single case where someone tried to switch to English on us after we started out in Spanish — what a refreshing change from our first couple years of living in Germany!

The English-language menu was the only thing we found in the place that seemed the least bit tourist-oriented (they had a small, paper, English version on the table of the Spanish-language menu published in chalk on the wall and out on the street), and it was a godsend. Nuestro vocabulario de la cucina no es suficiente. Especially for excluding things like seafood or squash. We tromped around in the rain a bit, killing time, waiting for the restaurant scene to wake up for the night.

The next day was also a bit rainy, but it eventually blew out. We spent most of the day in and around the world’s third largest church building. It has a special significance to those of us familiar with Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, since its design was inspired by this cathedral. The sheer size completely wore us out, which is why we didn’t get a whole lot else done this day. Except eat some jamón. You can always do that. It’s hard not to. We were still tired from our full-day-of-arrival travel, so a quiet walk through a peaceful place was a nice way to start the first real day of vacation. It annoyed us at first that the Cathedral had an admissions fee, (they don’t require one at our Dom!) but we got over that quickly, once we got inside. I was pretty shocked and amazed that they didn’t prohibit flash or tripod photography (except in some very specific areas) inside the cathedral. We spent a good three hours walking around the guts of the place and climbing the tower — a twisty-turny continuous spiral ramp with interesting viewpoints and exhibits along the way up/down instead of 32 flights of stairs. We really could have spent more time in there, as the audio guides were rich in detail, but after about the twenty-second stop on the audio tour, we started to lose track of exactly which of the 80 chapels currently loomed before us.

Click ’em to embiggen ’em.