Train Through Spain

January 27 - February 14, 2007


The 14th century Alhambra, backed by Spain's Sierra Nevada.





From the Port of Algeciras on the Strait of Gibraltar, we traveled by train, first stopping at Granada to walk the winding streets of the old Albazín Islamic quarter and admire the fortified Alhambra palace, a masterwork of Islamic art and architecture with its myriad interior courtyards and amazingly detailed tile and plaster work. The whole space is permeated by water troughs, pools, and fountains creating a soundscape that sweeps you away into another time.





Sound Recording: The Alhambra (4:41)













Looking out the train window, Spain felt oddly familiar. Its rolling rocky landscapes full of olive trees and cool rainy winter weather are so similar to our Northern California. Our hotel in the medieval core of Cordoba -- a converted 16th century home -- was right across the street from the Mezquita, a mosque filled with a forest of columns and arches disappearing into the distance. Interestingly, Andalucía's history of conquest, Islamic over the Christians, and the Christian reconquest, can be can be seen and felt in the Mezquita with its 16th century gothic cathedral incongruously grafted into the middle of the 9th century mosque.

Sound Recording: Mezquita bells (2:25)











A 45-minute ride on the high speed (286 km/hour) AVE train from Cordoba transported us to Seville, a sophisticated city with a long tradition of art, architecture and philosophy. We wandered the rainy streets, surprised by modern sculptures set in its numerous plazas, strolling stylish people, and late night diners -- dinner never starts before eight, shows start at 00:30. We spent hours exploring the Alcázar, a complex of buildings and gardens reconstructed many times over the last 11 centuries, that epitomizes Seville's history. Originally a fort in built in 913, it became a Muslim palace, then the Christian monarch's residence, church, and court, and finally, a museum. Surprisingly, the Muslims and Christians seem to have cooperated -- Muslim artisans completed much of the Christian palace and peacefully coexisted until the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Fernando, came into power. They sent Columbus off to discover the Americas, conquered Granada, and ruthlessly ruled their vast empire from Seville, at that time the largest city in Western Europe.




Another day on the train, and we were transported to Basque Country -- San Sebastian, on the Bay of Biscayne. We watched huge waves roll in off the Atlantic and crash into the seawall, sending whitewater 50' up in the air. This is the most park rich city we have visited, with promenades and plazas, punctuated by playgrounds, following the coastline and Rio Urumea, and connecting each neighborhood. Everyone is out on Sunday. Grandfathers push strollers, middle-aged folks push wheelchair-bound parents, kids whiz by on rollerblades and bikes, couples in love stroll by, toddlers ride the merry-go-round, swimmers brave the cold, surfers ride the waves at Playa de la Concha, neighbors greet neighbors. We're suddenly faced with another language -- signs are in Castilian and Basque, an indecipherable language with words written in capitals and including lots of x's (JATETXEA means restaurant). With no relationship to Indo-European languages, no one quite knows where this ancient language comes from.


Kids played soccer in the Plaza del la Constitucion, a historic bullfighting arena, while joyful dogs romped on the beach. We enjoyed hiking up Mount Urgull for the spectacular views upcoast towards France and on one of our waterfront strolls, discovering a strange "blowhole" sound sculpture.


Sound Recording: Wave sound sculpture and Plaza del la Constitucion (3:23)




A day trip from San Sebastian took us to the wonderful Guggenheim Museo in Bilbao with its free flowing form covered in titanium plates. Richard Serra's massive steel sculptures were the highlight of the museum, unfortunately, no photography is allowed.





Strangely, we have not been meeting other travelers on our wanderings through Europe. In Asia we constantly met kindred spirits (mostly Europeans or New Zealanders or Australians, rarely North Americans) who were on the road from months or years. Following our ubiquitous guidebooks, we would congregate in the backpacker ghettos or foreigner hotel zones of each city or town we happened into, naturally meeting up in restaurants or internet cafes, and unified (mostly) by the english language and the shared sense of being far far from home on a travel adventure. Swapping travel stories and recommendations gave us great information about places to seek out or avoid, and made us feel like we were part of a larger community in motion. We still keep in touch over email with folks we have met, and sometimes run into compadres in unexpected places later in our journey.

But here in Europe we're missing that sense of community as we blend in anonymously (sort of, in spite of being totally out-classed on the style front -- always in hiking shoes and one of two shirts). Probably the youth hostel scene would be better in this regard, but we are feeling too old for the dorm life. But now we're looking forward to our next stop (South America) and hope to re-enter the community of nomads...




Tangier, Morocco (ferry) ► Tarifa, Spain (bus) ► Algeciras (train) ► Granada (train) ► Cordoba (train) ► Sevilla (train) ► Cordoba (train) ► San Sebastian (bus) ► Bilbao (bus) ► San Sebastian (train) ► Madrid