Friday, September 28, 2012

Cadiz, Seville, and Granada, Spain

Although our ship arrived in Cadiz, my first visit to Spain began in Seville, as we traveled there by bus for a bullfight followed by a tapas dinner on the first day. The bullfight was a truly cultural experience and unlike any sporting event I've ever attended in the United States. The crowd is dressed up and is often reverent, calling for complete silence when the matador gets on his knees, says a prayer, and the bull is released into the ring. We were fortunate to attend the last bullfight of the season, with two of the most popular matadors in Andalucía. There were several intense moments, some dangerous, when the first bull pinned a picador to the ground, and some ecstatic, when the matador loved by the local fans was carried around the ring and out into the streets in a euphoric and somewhat crazy scene that was on the front page of the newspapers the next day. Although I didn't have a crazy Hemmingway experience, drinking with the matador in a tiny bar, the event was certainly memorable. After the bullfight we had what seemed like endless tapas at a restaurant near the Seville Cathedral. Brett, Kai, Jessa, Henri, and I finished the night walking around Seville, having a drink, and moving on to our hotels. We met up again in the morning and spent the entire next day in Seville, walking through the narrow streets, having breakfast, with jamon of course, exploring the beautiful Plaza de Espana, and viewing Seville from Triana across the Guadalquivir River, where we had tapas, drinks, and coffee. Afterwards, we walked back across the bridge and wandered through several more alleys and various stores, discovering flamenco dresses, bracelets, bullfight posters, pink shoes, attempts to convince the group to eat churros, and surprisingly grand entryways extending out into courtyards from the narrow streets. We finished the evening with yet more tapas and drinks, taking our time and enjoying each other’s company before taking the last train back to Cadiz. The next day Patrick, Henri, Jessa, Claire and I went out for a late breakfast in Cadiz, where we shared a delicious frittata and wandered through the market, where there were endless rows of various types of fresh fish. We took the long way back to the ship, passing along the coastline, where we were inspired to go back to the ship and change in order to sit out at the beach. We spent the afternoon on the beach, listening to music, reading, going out into the powerful waves, and falling asleep in the warm sun. Once the sun started to fade and the wind picked up, we went across the street for exceptionally sugary mojitos and then walked back into the city center for coffee and pastries. The night ended with surprisingly cheap cervezas y bocadillos, with others joining us from the ship and ending what was a spontaneously fun beach day and city night. The next morning Claire and I took a bus to Granada, and upon arriving at the hotel I booked using my secret librarian research skills, we quickly decided to stay two nights instead of one since our hotel was an incredibly sweet home away from home and Granada looked promising and inviting. The hotel was actually a large and charming two bedroom apartment in the middle of the city, in a narrow alley near a famous row of local tapas restaurants. We wandered this street first and continued along several others, developing a sense of each area of the city. Our wandering, or organized wandering since I read about the best spots, led us to the Albaicin, an old part of town that has maintained the medieval Moorish past, on the hill opposite the Alhambra. We walked through the maze of streets to the Mirador de San Nicolas, at the top of the hill, for a view to the opposite hill upon which the Alhambra towers over the city. We walked back down as the sunlight faded and we passed by the storefronts of Elvira Street, heavy with Moorish influence. For dinner we had our first experience with free tapas upon ordering a drink, an old Granada tradition. With each beer or mojito we were also given delicious tapas, and not bread and olives, but quality tapas. We took a long and slow route back to our hotel, stopping for coffee and desert at an inviting cafe, and stopping at one last bar where we had a perfect pairing of fried fish tapas, free of course, with our beer. The next day Claire and I were in heaven eating churros con chocolate for breakfast before going to the Alhambra, a truly impressive place, where we walked through Generalife and the Alcazaba, the former offering a peaceful walk and the latter providing a beautiful view of the Albaicin and the entire city below, where we sat on the wall and talked while enjoying the view. For the evening we had an incredible night of free tapas. Bodegas Castañeda might have offered one of my favorite bar nights of all time. The bar is well known and popular for good reason, as the interior is charming and the bartenders are moving around with high energy and a funny rapport with each other, and the food and drinks are exceptionally good. With our orders of red wine and sangria we continually received different tapas, for free of course. We ended the evening with coffee and dessert again. The evening felt as if we were locals embracing the culture and tradition of Granada. The next morning we had churros con chocolate for breakfast again, this time with a croissant con jamon to last us through the bus ride back to Cadiz, where I walked the streets with Bret, Kai, Greg, and Joe before boarding the ship. The trip to Granada was an unexpected highlight of my visit to Spain and our time together left Claire and I with great memories. For every lasting memory made during this voyage, another one seems to present itself only moments later. I am undoubtedly blessed to be traveling on Semester at Sea. What a unique experience, to say the least.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Lisbon, Portugal

The delay in writing about Portugal is probably a result of being intimidated by what I know will be a challenging act of finding words to describe a moment that took 33 years to happen. Although I clearly should have visited Portugal already, and I once sat with my Dad at an airport gate unable to get on a standby flight to Lisbon, those regrets quickly faded away when I saw my Dad and Mom standing behind the security gate at the port in Lisbon. I was finally in the country where my Dad was born. I grew up with my Dad only speaking Portuguese to my grandparents, living in a Portuguese town in Massachusetts, with their home perpetually smelling like Portuguese food, with stories and pictures from Alcobaca, with Benfica soccer games on in the background, and a strong sense of Portuguese culture. My 3 days in Lisbon were in a way, very much like going home, but for the first time. Although I already had a strong sense of what Portugal was like, to finally be there, to see the blue and white tiles, to smell the cooked fish, to see people on the streets that looked like everyone on my Dad’s side of the family, to hear the Portuguese language everywhere I went, to see the coastline, narrow alleys, red roof tiles, red wine, fishing villages, ceramic roosters, fado, and pasteis de nata, truly connected me to the Portuguese family I grew up in. We explored Lisbon on the first day, first stopping at St. George’s Castle, which provided an amazing view of the city. After overlooking the tiled roofs of the city we walked down through the charming old streets of Alfama. Before having bacalhau for lunch in the center of Lisbon, we went into a church which was burned and never fully restored, creating an eerie and magical interior. We continued to walk around the city and then went to Belem, where we viewed the Jeronimos Monastery and the Monument to the Discoveries. We also had quite possibly the best pasteis de nata I’ve ever had at the famous Pasteis de Belém. The next stop was our Cascais hotel, a converted house where an inviting and friendly owner showed us around. All of the hotels my Dad found were charming and unique. Afterwards, we went along the Boca do Inferno to view the sunset, which was stunning. We watched the waves crash up against the cliffs, bathed in the setting sun. For dinner, we went to a delicious Indian restaurant in Cascais, followed by a walk around the main streets of the city. The next day we went to Fatima, walked around the extensive grounds, went to a reconciliation center, saw where the three children were buried in the church, lit a few candles, and offered up some prayers. We then stopped at the Monasterio de Batalha, a stunning monastery with an interior as grand as the exterior. Before arriving in Alcobaca to visit family we checked into another beautiful hotel overlooking Nazare. We drove through the narrow streets never designed for cars and drove along the beach, where women were selling fish that decorated the beach with endless rows of fish drying out in the sun. In Alcobaca we went into the Monasterio de Alcobaca before meeting up with my cousins who have an amazing apartment overlooking the main square of Alcobaca in front of the monastery. We had coffee and pastries before walking around, where I saw the apartment my grandparents had for many years that is still in the family. Being in Portugal with my Dad completely transformed the experience and I can’t imagine visiting without him there. He showed me the streets my grandparents walked, their daily routines, where they walked for bread, and the life they lived. We drove to where my grandfather grew up, the open land now a hill overlooking Alcobaca, and the nearby houses of other Paulo family members, where they all lived before moving to the United States. A little further down the street we visited more cousins and ate grapes and figs from their garden as the sun set, in what felt like a true Portuguese moment. From their house I was also able to see exactly where my Dad was born, a little further down the hill in a nearby house. Although I had already met most of these cousins I was able to meet a family member for the first time when we visited my great aunt on my grandmother’s side. She quickly recalled her phone conversations with my grandmother and how I was often talked about. The day was without a doubt bittersweet, knowing my grandparents are no longer alive. I wish I could have been with them in Portugal, but I felt their presence and I felt even more deeply connected to them by traveling to their homeland and seeing the life they lived both before I was born and after I was born when they would come back to visit. We ended the night with an authentic Portuguese meal in Alcobaca. Before leaving Nazare the next morning we overlooked the town from the top of the cliffs in the area called Sitio, which offered an amazing view of the ocean and Nazare. My Dad was also able to point out the land and windmill he once owned on the hills on the other side of Nazare. On our way back to Lisbon we stopped in Obidos, a medieval fortified city that offered narrow streets, castle walls, pousadas, and lots of ginja. We ended the day back in Lisbon, exploring some of the streets we didn't wander through on the first day, through Barrio Alto, Chiado, and another part of Alfama, where we had delicious Portuguese food and wine to end the trip. Waving goodbye to my Mom and Dad back at the ship was not easy. Our brief time in Portugal was filled not just with beautiful sights, but more importantly, with family history and lasting memories. I will always remember my first time in Portugal, and although I clearly would have liked to have had two open seats on that flight to Portugal many years ago, visiting Portugal during a Semester at Sea voyage around the world was incredibly unique, and allowed the stop in Lisbon to be yet another new experience for me among endless new experiences. Lastly, having my parents meet me in Lisbon provided an even more meaningful layer to one of the best ports of this voyage. My Dad waited a long time to show me around the country where he was born, and I waited a long time to finally connect to a huge part of who I am, but what a blessing it was to finally be together in Portugal. I’m ready to move to Lisbon!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Before going to Amsterdam I went to Bruges for a day trip with some other faculty members. We took the morning train and wandered the streets of Bruges, which of course involved a stop for waffles as we walked along the canals and buildings built centuries ago. The highlight was definitely the canal ride, as we passed under low bridges and viewed the city from a different perspective. The next day I woke up a little tired from a night of live music in the alleys of Antwerp, but I decided that going to Amsterdam was a priority. Even though I didn't have a hotel room booked and I knew little about where I would want to stay, I walked to the train station and arrived in Amsterdam a couple of hours later. The trip would eventually become a highlight of our Antwerp stop, perhaps because I planned so little, traveled by myself for the first time during this voyage, and felt a sense of accomplishment in how I made my way around the city of canals and bridges and saw as much as I did, but initially I felt a little disoriented. For the previous several weeks I had been surrounded by friends and large groups on the ship and in port; all of a sudden I was in an unfamiliar city on my own, which was a necessary experience, especially in the sense of exploring, processing, growing, and leaving my comfort zone. Fortunately I had a break from my independent travel when I met up with Annalyn and Kate the second evening and third day. Interestingly, my independent self seems to be seeking less time with me, which isn't such a bad change. Amsterdam is a unique place. I stayed in a converted apartment in a quieter residential area along the Prinsengracht canal. The canals and bridges are entirely charming, and equally so during the day and lit up at night. I walked along the Prinsengracht the first night, peeking into beautiful homes along the canal. I had dessert in the Leidseplein and experienced the smell of marijuana that drifts through the streets. (For the record, I only had tiramisu.) The next morning I took the tram to the Dam Square, and viewed the Nieuwe Kerk, the 15th century church that replaced the early 14th century Oude Kerk, which I viewed next. Afterwards, I was moved by the powerful experience of visiting the Anne Frank house. My heart was affected most by seeing the pencil marks on the wall indicating her growth in height during the 2 years of hiding, and the attic window where she dreamed of riding a bike and playing outside. I felt a reminded sense of life's fragility and brevity. From the Anne Frank house I went on a canal ride and drifted through the canals and under bridges as the sun set and lit up the sky. I was by myself, but it was still quite romantic. Later at night I met up with Kate and Annalyn for dinner and a walk through Amsterdam. The walk through the Red Light District was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Seinfeld fans might appreciate the thought in my head for the women in the windows tapping on the glass at me, to not tap on the glass. At times I felt uncomfortable when drunk people in the streets became aggressive, when I was clearly spotted as a tourist, and when the narrow alley led to a much quieter street, but the uncomfortable feeling was in a way what I was looking for and only added to the Red Light District experience. The next morning Annalyn, Kate, and I met up to view the Van Gogh museum, which was a well-organized journey through his life, viewing his paintings in chronological order, where we could clearly view the brush strokes and feel more connected to his work and life. Afterwards I went in a houseboat, had a delicious Dutch apple pancake alongside a canal, and returned to Antwerp. The Amsterdam trip was an unexpected highlight of the stop in Antwerp, and a poignant reminder that the best things in life are often unexpected.    

Friday, September 14, 2012

Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp brought a welcome sense of unfamiliarity. The streets were empty at 10am and few places were open when we stepped off the ship to wander the streets. Locals stay up late and open up late. Dutch, French, and some German were heard in the streets. Mostly everyone also spoke English and delayed my eventual immersion in a country where I would truly be a foreigner in an unfamiliar country. Realizing people spoke at least 3 languages made me feel quite inadequate with my reliance on speaking English. I somehow managed to resist the first stop for waffles but my self-discipline quickly faded at the second waffle stand. (I proceeded to eat 3 more waffles during the week.) Wandering the narrow alleys of Antwerp, discovering a chocolate shop that served melted chocolate in coffee, and a big group of friends gathered together out in the streets for dinner and drinks before we all went different ways the next morning to explore different cities, some to Paris, others to Amsterdam, and some within Belgium, left me feeling charmed, fulfilled, excited, grateful, and on a slight sugar high. When we returned to the ship after dinner and drinks in the alleys of Antwerp, I sat out on the deck of the ship with my friend Claire, overlooking Antwerp on its way to sleep, and I felt a sense of peace about the journey, knowing I was where I needed to be, learning and growing. I have always wanted to get out of the box I might be putting myself in, or others might put me in, and this trip is helping me in both ways. The Antwerp experience continued later in the week after my trips to Bruges and Amsterdam, which brought a renewed level of excitement as friends returned to Antwerp with stories from traveling to other cities and countries. We shared our travel experiences with each other while wandering through narrow alleys and enjoying melted chocolate, frites, waffles, and Belgian beer. We discovered several restaurants and bars with magical interiors, including statues from cathedrals, large wooden tables, often tucked away in dimly lit nooks, and live music, where I discovered how good Trappist beer truly is, especially when served in the holy grail glass. (In Europe your beer is served in the brewer’s specific glass, a practice the United States needs to adopt.) Antwerp gave us the opportunity to get to know a less familiar country, explore beyond the port and travel by land rather than sea, and feel the welcome weight of multiple countries adding up, offering comparative thoughts, varying experiences, and more than enough memories for significant reflection on world travel.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

London and Bath, England

London baby! Of all the songs I listened to in London, The Beatles comprised about 75% of those songs. London was busy, so rather than reflect, allow me to list the reasons I left London with sore legs, despite the significant help from the Tube. Day 1 with Jacques, Emily, and Brett: Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, tikka masala in Kensington, and pistachio gelato, tiramisu, and pancakes with chocolate mousse and caramelized oranges for dessert in Chelsea (yes, all 3 in one night). Westminster Abbey was by far the highlight. I can't find words to describe the beauty, power, royalty, history, and inspiration inside those walls, not to mention the dozens of legendary writers buried inside, as well as historic figures such as Henry the III, V, and VII, and Queen Elizabeth I. Day 2 with a rotating cast of Jessa, Claire, Holly, Kim, Isaiah, Henri, Jacques, Emily, Brett, Kai, and Annalyn: Breakfast in Notting Hill, the British Museum, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, a beautiful sunset by Westminster Bridge and Parliament, dinner by the Tate, and drinks in a Kensington pub. The highlight was probably the sunset at Parliament, a fitting end to have the sun wash and fall over the city we explored during the day. Day 3: An English breakfast in Kensington, street shopping in Camden, more Indian food and coffee near Oxford Square, the Tate Modern (where Claire and I were deeply moved by watching the full flash mob performance as much as Henri and Jessa were moved by the Damien Hirst exhibit), and a ride on the London Eye during sunset to close out the day shortly before an Olympic-themed light show was projected onto Parliament from across the Thames river. The highlight was definitely friends; although the sites were amazing, the laughs and conversation along the way made the days and nights memorable. On our last day in London, Emily, Jonathan (not me), and I (me), took the train to Bath, which turned out to be an excellent decision, seeing the Roman Baths, old English charm with endless chimneys decorating the narrow streets and skyline, and an incredible lunch of shephard's pie and duck egg tapas, followed by the best sticky toffee pudding I had thus far (3 total). London was rich with history and was much more unique than I had expected. The city may have signs of modernization, but the royal and historic feelings remain. I left England with sore legs, but a strengthened and fulfilled heart thanks to a group of friends exploring England while ultimately discovering the joy of friendship and shared experiences. I had a smashing time on holiday, quite brilliant, and we certainly had a laugh!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Dublin, Ireland

Driving across the country of Ireland was indeed a brilliant decision, but since I was the driver, I patiently waited for my first Guinness in Ireland in Dublin; paired with an Irish stew it was well worth the wait! A large group of us went out to the pub and I truly felt friendships developing and a growing sense of evolving together as this unique experience brings us together in a meaningful way. The next day I walked around Dublin by myself to quickly see more of the city before our ship disembarked. I attended services at St. Patrick's Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral (I attended services for the singing and worship, but the clever avoidance of an entry fee is certainly another factor in the decision), and children in uniforms sang at St. Patrick's Cathedral, their innocent but powerful voices resonating through the high vaulted ceilings. I may or may not have had coffee and pastries for both breakfast and lunch as I walked around the Temple Bar area, Dublin Castle, and other parts of the city. Lastly, I walked through Trinity College and went to the Book of Kells exhibit. Viewing a book written so long ago was inspiring, especially thinking about the faith I believe in and how that faith was passed down to me, thousands of years later. To be honest, the old library might have been the highlight. I couldn't take a picture, although I did ask the security guard if librarians have special picture taking privileges (they do not), so look up Trinity College's old library and get a sense of how amazing the room is. The day ended with a long 45 minute walk because my "friends" Claire and Kim sarcastically waved to me from the full and last bus back to the ship, as I selflessly gave up a seat to let others on. Ireland was a fulfilling, spiritual, and memorable experience, and the country faded away on the horizon as we set sail for London.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Galway to Dublin

Our drive to the Cliffs of Moher and a stop in Ennis for dinner and a pub session resulted in a very late arrival at Dingle Peninsula. Our group did a great job of holding it together even when we slowed down to approach what might have been the correct street, only to see a sign for a burial ground. For the most part, we actually were on the right roads, even though at times we, or I, doubted our path. We were greeted by the Night Enforcer, a wonderful Game of Thrones-like name for the night security guard at the hotel, and woke up to eat crepes. I am very fortunate that my travel partners, Isaiah, Kim, and Renee, enjoyed food as much as me. We ordered one round of savory crepes followed by a second round of sweet crepes. We then drove to Killarney National Park, where we visited the Muckross House, Muckross Abbey, and Ross Castle. Pictured here are the remains of Muckross Abbey, a 15th century Franciscan abbey. Tucked away by the lake in the national park, this abbey brought all senses to life and captured my imagination. We wandered around the remains, through dark and twisting staircases and signs of baptisms and worship that occurred over 500 years ago. I felt deeply connected to those who have gone before me, yet disconnected at the same time. Their faith was challenged in ways I will never know; yet we share the same faith in God, which was inspiring and ultimately left me connected to faithful people who lived a long time ago, a long distance from the life I’ve lived in the United States. The night ended with shepherd’s pie for dinner and sticky toffee pudding for dessert, for the second night in a row. After attempting to Skype with my mom, only to be yelled at to be quiet by our bed and breakfast owner, we went to bed and awoke to a wonderful and delicious Irish breakfast from the same bed and breakfast owner, who was now back in my favor. On the beautiful drive to Dublin we passed green fields of sheep and visited the Rock of Cashel, a historic site where St. Patrick converted the King of Munster in the 5th century, and the towers were built in the 12th century. Ireland was a surprisingly spiritual experience for me, but our arrival in Dublin assured that I would not miss the other defining aspect of the Irish. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

I'm not entirely sure this photograph truly captures the magical power of The Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs are 300 million years old and 700 feet tall. We arrived on a cold and windy day with a soft Irish drizzle, but the sun found an opening between the clouds and the horizon as it set along the Atlantic Ocean, adding to the mystique of the entire scene. Our journey to the cliffs also added to the experience as we drove through the unusual Burren landscape along the coast, talked to a local Irish family outside their house, and navigated narrow winding roads. Since we arrived late, only a few people were at the cliffs. I felt like I could have stayed all night to watch the cliffs fade into the darkness. Even though I could take some pictures and take the memory with me, there was a sense of beauty that doesn't exist elsewhere, a beauty unique to the cliffs, and I didn't want to leave it behind. The visit to the cliffs also resulted in another unique experience; since we were tired and hungry, we drove through the Irish countryside until we found the historic town of Ennis, with an old church, colorful buildings, and narrow streets. We found the last pub still serving food, along with a traditional pub session of amazing musicians playing unique instruments, and to our surprise, it was some of the best food we had during the entire trip to Ireland. Seafood chowder, fried brie with a raspberry sauce, and sticky toffee pudding strengthened me to continue the journey to Dingle Peninsula for the evening. The craic was good! I'll end on a behind the scenes story, as this was the second photograph taken of me at the edge of the cliffs. I had a slightly nervous look on my face the first time around, perhaps for good reason. After all, they are the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride! I promise I was safe!