Posts Tagged ‘Spain


What I learned on my summer vacation. Part 1.

harbor at sunset in faro, portugal

Hi, I’m Shannon, and I’m a chronic worrier. Sometimes I think it must be in my blood, that old doubts constantly circulate in my veins until they are recycled and become new, fresh fears. Travel, not surprisingly, can exacerbate this tendency. Going new places and doing new things, while exhilarating, also comes with countless new worries built right in.

Earlier this summer, my boyfriend—an optimistic Dutch fellow who purposely avoids making concrete travel plans—and I were discussing our summer holiday. We had 10 free days in July at our disposal, but we’d gotten ahead of ourselves and started talking about August, September, and anything but the matter at hand.

“Hold on,” I said. “We have to worry about July before we do anything else.”

He stopped and stared at me. “Worry? What do we have to worry about, exactly?”

Without even realizing it, I’d used ‘worry’ as a synonym for ‘think’—and it wasn’t the first time. Somewhere along the way, amidst all the life changes, decision-making and risk-taking, I’d allowed worrying to become more than just a bad habit. It had become a state of mind.

As for July, we ultimately decided–due to the cheapest flights offered by Ryanair–on flying into Faro, Portugal, traveling over land through southern Spain and taking a boat to Morocco where we would take a flight home from Fes. We didn’t book any hostels ahead of time, didn’t research transportation between stops, and didn’t bring a guidebook. For me, this was pretty new; for my seasoned travel companion, this was nothing.

To my incessant questioning—‘What if we can’t find affordable places to stay on such short notice? What if there aren’t any buses going to that town when we need them? What if I get sick from the food and have to make the bus driver pull over in the mountains? What if someone breaks our knees and robs us and leaves us for dead in a ditch?’ (That last one was an exaggeration, I swear)—he always replied, “It’s gonna be OK, really.”

And as it turns out–surprising to all of you, I’m sure–it was.

Better yet, it was wonderful.

In sleepy Faro we explored the quiet streets, white buildings dotted with big red flowers. We took refuge from the heat on a shady cafe terrace, where a tiny, white-haired Portuguese woman brought us cold beers on a plastic tray. We sat and watched the sunset at the end of a narrow, empty pier on the peaceful harbor, little boats settling into sleep as fish leapt out of the water all around us, catching bugs and flopping back down on the surface with a lazy, muted splash. We ate a 5 euro dinner, invited by locals to join some group function under the stars, and were brought a pitcher of beer and platters of rice, salad, grilled pork, sweets and coffee. We spent a day on the beach, dozing in the sand after playing like little kids in the cool Atlantic. The next morning, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Seville, wishing we’d gotten better souvenirs than the needle-sharp sunburns on our backs.

In Seville, the capital of Andalusia, a Spanish friend of Jordi’s showed us around the city, teaching us about the Islamic and Christian architecture, and how the two existed peacefully in the area for years. We stood with little Spanish children, their backs a toasted brown from the July sun, in the cool spray of the giant fountain at Plaza Espana. We ate a late dinner of heavenly tapas–randomly ordered from a menu we couldn’t read–sitting outside at a little table in a narrow alley, ancient bricks adorned with glowing sconces lighting our meal. We drank peach juice on a dimly lit rooftop terrace, the adjacent cathedral luminous in the black sky, bats circling its tower.

In Cadiz, said to be the oldest city in Western Europe, we climbed the Torre Tavira for a 360 view of the city’s white rooftops surrounded by the bay. At dusk we swam in the cliffside pool of our hotel and dried off in the evening sun, watching the waves wash against the wall below. We walked along the stone path leading through the water toward the lighthouse and saw restless boys jumping off an old bridge into the ocean.

In Tarifa, a relaxed, eccentric surf town, we ate el secreto standing up in the corner of a small, crowded tapas bar that smelled like meat and old, wine-soaked wood. We drank a 5 euro bottle of red wine on the beach, laying in the cold sand and looking at the stars near the spot where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. We swam in the calm waves the next morning, enjoying one last dip before boarding the boat across the Mediterranean to Tangier.


How can I put this…

One of many sculptures in Retiro Park. It has a secret.

Sitting in Retiro Park on my last afternoon in Madrid, all I could think about was how I wouldn’t be able to write about the city in any way that does it justice, how I wouldn’t be able to avoid a string of cliché adjectives so overused they’ve lost meaning, so I simply wouldn’t bother.

But as the street music in the park grew louder and the new April sun tightened its grip on me, I sat there soaking in the feeling you get only from the blinding energy and violent color that pump through a living city, the feeling of numbing bliss you get when traveling that convinces you for the moment that you’ll never feel it again, never be able to describe it, never truly understand what it was.

I figured this had to be worth an attempt of at least a few sentences.

So, for me, Madrid is Retiro Park – laying in the sweet, sticky grass on a Friday afternoon as a warm breeze sends a blizzard of white petals spinning and dancing through the trees. It’s a pink ice cream cone on Saturday, it’s spending a few hours letting the sun—finally free from its winter cell—heat me, cover me, wrap me up for the first time this year.

It’s standing in El Tigre, a packed, grimy tapas bar—the floor covered in wadded napkins and cigarette butts—eating hot croquetas and drinking beer amid the loud voices of hungry Spaniards just released from a week of work. My shoes stick to the floor and my shirt sticks to my back and I feel warmly welcomed to Spain.

It’s moving up the stairs of the metro station with a hot, crushing crowd of other Sunday morning shoppers on their way to El Rastro market and hearing the street music before I’ve even emerged from below ground, when all I can see is a cloudless sky and all I can hear is energy, voices, and rhythm. Seven Spanish men are there—two guitars, two accordions, a giant bass cello, a saxophone, and one just dancing, who moves and shakes as though he’d never even learned to walk before he was using his legs to dance. They play and sing and shout and sway and effortlessly fill the bodies and hearts of the crowd with a tick, an itch, a beating euphoria.

It’s laying on the little bed of our cheap 8th floor Gran Via hotel room for an evening nap, the sky turning from blue to orange to purple to black out the window as I listen to the hushed breathing of the lovely person next to me and the distant, excited clamor of the traffic below.

It’s sitting in a peaceful square in La Chueca on Sunday evening, drinking cheap cans of San Miguel on a bench as the sun sinks behind the buildings and everyone around raises their drink and bids a quiet farewell to another weekend.

It’s sitting in Retiro Park, yet again, on Sunday, that last afternoon, thinking this is too much life, too much energy and color and humanity and love to know what to do with. We lay among the giant pillars of the monument behind the lake, the sun pressing insistently on our faces, our necks, our bare feet. Blue and white boats slide across the water with each lazy stretch of an oar. People watch a big group of drummers with djembes as together they push a solid moving sound high above us all.  They pound their drums faster and louder and the beat shakes with such a force that the air itself seems to be moving, and you hear it and you feel it and everything becomes part of you and you’re blind and you’re dizzy and you’re happy and you have seen Madrid.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
January 2019
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