Friday, July 23, 2010

Flashback Friday: Spain

In celebration of Spain's first appearance in the World Cup finals and first win, I wanted to write about my various trips to Spain. The first time was in 1987 for Spring break. My dad paid for the whole family to go on a week-long vacation to Spain's Costa Brava (the northeastern part) through the bus tour companies that offer trips all over Europe for American servicemembers stationed in Germany. Every weekend, there were bus tours to all destinations in Europe and my family took a few of them.

For the spring break vacation, we stayed in the resort town of Lloret de Mar (pictured above), which had nothing major worth seeing. It was simply a "tourist trap" of cheap hotels, restaurants, souvenir stores, and the beach. We did not do much laying out on the beach, because we wanted to see as much as possible. Besides, the sand was more like pebbles than fine grains. A pain to walk on and no ability to build sand castles. Instead, I spent my days going into one souvenir shop after another, looking for keepsakes of my trip to Spain. I found plenty. Mostly, I wanted a matador's hat for my hat collection, a flag pin to put on my German hat to represent every European country I've been to, a toy bull and matador, and postcards. At a flea market, I found an awesome reproduction of the Mona Lisa for 450 pesetas (about $4.00 at the time). That painting has been my favourite since childhood, so it was a real bargain to find (it came in a frame, so it looks like the real thing, rather than just a poster print). I also bought a marionette dog, which was pricier. It was one of those impulse buys that I regret. Didn't really play with it that much. It was one of those things to show off to guests whenever they visited, as an after dinner entertainment.

One of the things we did on this trip was attend a Medieval Times dinner. Had we known that they had these in several touristy places in the U.S., we probably would not have gone. We thought it was unique to Spain. Its the kind of restaurant where everyone shows up at the appointed hour, you're let in and find a place at the long rows of tables that overlook a jousting track. We got our picture taken, to buy later if we want, we eat chicken with our hands, and watch the jousting tournament. My dad got food poisoning, so he didn't have a lot of fun. I thought it was cool. Then again, I was 15 at the time, so of course that sort of entertainment restaurant was going to be cool. Today, if given the choice between attending a Medieval Times dinner show or a Renaissance Fest, I'd always choose the much more fun Renaissance Fest (of course, there's more to see and do, though I don't know how much fun it would be for a vegetarian craving a turkey leg).

Another excursion my family went on during this vacation was to Barcelona, where we got the standard drive-by in a luxury bus, with minimal stops. We saw the future Olympic Stadium being built, the strange looking cathedral (the one that looks like a gigantic termite mound), and stopped for a walk on the replica of the Santa Maria that was in the bay. As the bus drove around the city, I got excited when I saw my first prostitute and pointed them out to my dad. He said that they weren't, but I kept insisting that they were because they wore miniskirts and were just standing around, some leaning against a pole.

Part of our Barcelona excursion was a bullfight, which I had wanted to see ever since those Bugs Bunny cartoons. To my shock, I did not realize that the bulls were killed. There were five or six bulls killed for each "event", which occurred on Sunday evenings. It was brutal and my family couldn't believe the cruelty, as highly decorative spears were pierced into the bull and blood squirted everywhere. What a rude I thought all bullfighting was about is a man in a gay-looking outfit throwing around a red cape to entice the bull to charge and charge again, on and on until the bull got tired. Nope. There was killing involved.

After two bulls were killed, my parents wanted to leave. It was funny that we began watching by rooting for the matadors, but after two bulls were killed, we started rooting for the bull. We left to walk around the area, until the bus picked everyone up to take us to the famous fountain, which had a light show with music, as the jetted water did some amazing choreography (photo above).

Also during that trip, we saw a flamenco show, which mesmerized my sister, who wanted to buy a flamenco style dress (which dad most certainly did). I think I even got to try some sangria, the national drink of Spain. It was a pretty good family vacation, and very relaxing. I definitely had a great opinion of Spain after that trip. In fact, I was still big on Madonna's True Blue album and her single "La Isla Bonita" was a hit at the time. That song always reminds me of the family trip to Spain (I listened to her album as well as the Club Paradise soundtrack on that trip).

My next trip to Spain was with the Navy. October 1991. The island of Ibiza became my first portcall (and Ponce, Puerto Rico in October 1995 would be my final portcall in the Navy). Ibiza is a big party island, which has only gotten moreso since the mid-1990s. As far as Mediterranean islands go, there's really no reason to visit there, though a lot of Brits love to vacation there in the summer. Its overrun by Brits!

During our visit, the tourist season was over. In fact, we missed by one week hoards of gay partiers, though there were quite obviously still some hanging around.

Since this island is my first portcall in the Navy, it will always have a sentimental value to me, though its not remarkable in anyway. Sure, there's an old fortress on a hill, with tiny alleyways filled with souvenir shops. However, its easy to get bored by the place after a couple days. The island is tiny. I can't remember the details, but I believe that it was only an hour's drive to the other end.

One thing I learned about Mediterranean port towns, the advertised photos of big, juicy hamburgers are not what you will end up getting. In fact, when our orders arrived and I bit into my hamburger, I thought it was the strangest tasting hamburger I ever had. One sailor who was experienced in portvisits said, "Its a LAMB-burger." I learned pretty quickly that it was better to eat the local cuisine, rather than their version of typical American fare.

Above is a photo of the main city on the island of Ibiza. I violated the rules of the Navy in that I went off on my own, exploring the city by walking wherever looked interesting (without a map). I was merely an E-2 and just a month on board the ship, yet I was walking around like I knew where everything was. In foreign ports, enlisted personnel had to travel under the buddy system, but since I didn't really get to know anyone yet, I decided that I preferred to explore on my own. I hate the buddy system, as I learned in later portcalls in other cities. It is difficult to find enlisted guys interested in seeing the same things as me. I had more in common with officers than enlisted men, but that was a big violation of the rules as well.

I only had to worry about coming across Shore Patrol, if they saw me off by myself. However, nothing happened. I explored this town and felt pretty euphoric, because I was back in Europe again after dreaming about it during my junior and senior years in high school. The one thing I wanted to buy was a bottle of Brandy that was in the shape of a bust of Napoleon. However, since we weren't allowed to bring alcohol onboard, I did not buy it. I asked after we left port about the rules and learned that we could buy alcohol, but we had to turn it over to the Master-at-Arms to lock up until we returned to homeport (in La Maddalena, Sardinia). Darn! I would've loved that bottle.

I signed up for a special barbecue, which was at a "theme restaurant" (similar to Medieval Times). This one was a hoe down. There were a lot of obnoxious Brits there. Some single officers (in the late 20s) from my command (Submarine Squadron 22) also went along. Later, one of the officers introduced me to a British girl they were talking to and wanted me to hook up with her. I talked with her, but she was incredibly boring. She was 17, I think. The only thing we had in common was that we found the hoedown to be embarrassingly bad. She was on holiday with her parents. We exchanged addresses. I actually did not intend to write to her, but was surprised to get a letter from her. We continued corresponding for a year or so, until she politely sent me a letter asking me not to write her again. I was actually stunned and impressed. Usually, people just stop writing and I eventually give up. She's the only one who requested that I not write to her anymore. It wasn't a big loss, because she and I had nothing in common. She was about as interesting as watching paint dry.

One New Year's Eve (I can't remember if it was the 1992/1993 one or the 1993/1994 one), the local MWR office at the La Maddalena Navy station offered an awesome New Year's Eve package. We would fly from Olbia, Sardinia to Ibiza to party the night away and then return the following morning. Many sailors signed up for this. The night didn't get to a good start, when an Italian man on the plane moved from the nonsmoking section to sit in the seat next to mine, which was on the border between the smoking and non-smoking sections, and lit up a cigarette. I tried to speak to him and even used my well known Italian profanity words, but he would not budge. It pissed me off. I've always had a strong intolerance towards smokers for polluting my right to breathe clean air.

When we arrived in Ibiza and were taken to the "club" to party the new year in, we were kept waiting in the cold outside, wondering when the doors would open. Finally, at the stroke of midnight, they opened the doors to let us "inside." When we realized that it was no warmer "inside" than it was outside, and learned that it was not even a building at all, but some kind of patio with fake walls, and worse of all, only the people from the plane were at this "club", it was not a pretty sight. We realized that we had just paid money for a scheme that someone concocted. To salvage the rest of the night, many of us got cabs (this "club" was out in the boonies) and asked the driver where the parties were. We were driven to the next biggest town of Sant Antoni and there, the streets were packed with partiers. Each club was full, with spillover crowds everywhere and music blasting. This was more like it! In spite of how everything went, I actually had fun and consider it the most amazing New Year's Eve I've ever spent.

In the early morning, when we caught our chartered flight back to Olbia, some of the shipmates complained about that fake club and planned to demand their money back. A few had stayed at that dead club on someone's patio, and had no idea that others found life and amazing energy elsewhere. I feel sorry for those who did not venture out. That fake club was the saddest thing I've ever seen. I can't believe someone actually thought it was a good idea.

Pictured above is the town of Cartagena, somewhere between Barcelona and Gibraltar on the Mediterranean. The USS Orion made a portcall to this sailor town in the summer of 1992. In the ship's library was an old Fodor's guidebook on Spain and the paragraph on Cartagena was most telling. The writer had nothing good to say about the town and even asked readers / travelers to send in any suggestions if they find something cool about the town.

I had planned to take a vacation to Sevilla to attend the Expo 92. However, I learned at the USO office that in order to get to Sevilla from Cartagena, I had to go out of my way to Madrid, first. Because the ship was only in port for four days, that meant that I would have no time to see Sevilla, because it was an overnight train to Madrid and a train to Sevilla, which would take the better part of a day. So, instead of Sevilla, I thought perhaps I'd sign up for the tour to Granada, which I wanted to see. However, it was fully booked. That left me no option. Madrid it was.

Of all the European capitals I've been to (London, Rome, Paris, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Luxembourg City, Vaduz, Budapest), Madrid is my least favourite. I found the people there to be very unfriendly and rude. No one spoke any English, or pretended not to. It was also very xenophobic. There isn't a whole lot of noteworthy landmarks that other capitals are famous for. However, in spite of the problems, I did have a relaxing time exploring the city and finding interesting things to photograph. None of my photos of Spain are digitalized yet, so these photos here are lifted from Google image searches. Above is perhaps the best known "landmark" of Madrid.

I went to Madrid not knowing anything about its history or architecture or tourist sites, so this was one city that I truly got to discover for myself (no set of checklist drawn up by some tourist guidebook). Like nearly all cities, there's always one place that offers a birdseye view of the city. In Madrid, it was located in the university, in a funky looking tower. In the elevator, I overrheard to Spanish guys talking in English, which was interesting. They were probably practicing their English and likely had no idea that I spoke English, so I got the privilege of eavesdropping on their conversation. From the viewing platform, it was interesting to see that there is an actual line where buildings ended and undeveloped land began. I had never seen this before, as there usually is a gradual transition between civilization and nature. Not so on one side of Madrid. You can actually see the city limits in a straight line between buildings and grass/trees.

The above is an interesting building that is on many postcards of Madrid. I'm a fan of awesome architecture. Perhaps my favourite part of Madrid was a huge park that I walked through. There were several photo-worthy structures.

Despite being disappointed that I could not see Sevilla or Granada, I did enjoy being alone in a foreign city without bumping into anyone I know from the ship. Because of my ethnic diversity, I was able to blend in among the Spaniards, until I opened my mouth. Would I see Madrid again? I wouldn't mind, because I honestly don't remember a whole lot about it. I wouldn't mind doing a combined Spain / Portugal vacation, in which I would see Lisbon, as well as Sevilla, Granada, Toledo, and of course, Pamplona for the annual running of the bulls (on my list of things to see before I die).

On the right is one of the examples of Spanish "art" that I love: Bullfighting advertisement posters. These images have captivated me since I first saw them on my family's 1987 Spring Break trip to the Costa Brava. I think they just look awesome and definitely frameworthy. Too bad the actual sport of bullfighting is so violent and cruel.

As far as which country I like better (Spain or Italy), there's no question that I find Italy to be the far more interesting country, having the more beautiful language, and the best cuisine. Spain has its own cultural identity, though, and it was good to see them win the World Cup this year.


Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Have only been to Spain once, but loved the country and its people. Great photos, Sansego!

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