The Weekend of Many First

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Last weekend I did many things for the first time, we had a puente, long weekend and each day I did something new.  Normally if I’m not traveling or trying to save money I end up doing nothing, so this past weekend was a really good one.

My first new experience: Visiting a bodega in Jerez.  Jerez is the birthplace of sherry and over the last two years I have consumed liters of sherry, but until Saturday I have never visited a bodega here.  Bodegas are where they produce and create the wine, which is a little different from the term bodega back home.  Saturday morning at 11am Jamie and I toured the Lustau bodega.  Lustau was founded in 1896 and today it is considered one of the worlds best wineries ranking 7th worldwide in 2012.

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My second experience: Biking the Via Verde.  Vias Verdes are greenway cycling/walking routes located throughout Spain.  In 1993 the Vias Verde plan was introduced to turn more than 6,000km of abandoned railway lines into environmental friendly tourism within rural areas.  So far it has been a success and the route my friend Miriam and I did on Sunday is considered the most beautiful, it was voted the best Greenway in Europe in 2009.  It’s located in the mountains of Cadiz and is a 36.5km path connecting the towns of Puerto Serrano and Olvera.  We only road to about the halfway point at 15km and even if we wanted to we couldn’t have gone further.  About 1km from the halfway point in the middle of a kilometer long tunnel my front tire went flat.  Luckily we weren’t far and only had to walk a short distance, once there I was able to get it repaired.  There’s a bike rental place along with a playground and restaurant there. I was worried it wasn’t going to hold the whole way back (to walk 15km takes about 4 hours), but it did and it even got me to and from school today.

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My third experience: Visiting Setenil. Setenil is a place I have wanted to go to for a long time now, we were suppose to go in December, but a couple of days before it fell through.  Five months later, with no school on Monday I had a second chance! Jose, Jamie, James and I made the trip to the town under rocks.  Setenil is a very small town (pop 3,000) located about an hour and a half from Jerez.  Historically it played an important role as a line of defense for the Muslims region of Granada against the Christian north, its watch tower, dating back to the 12th century is one of many that dot the region.  However, people don’t go to see the watch tower, they go to see the buildings tucked into the rocky cliff face.

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The Forgotten City of Andalucia

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Nestled between the Sierra and olive fields as far as the eye can see is Jaén, the forgotten city of Andalucia. Stated by our blahblahcar driver, “You know you’re in Jaén when the road starts deteriorating” and as if on cue we hit a couple of rough patches that rattled the car. There’s no highway to Jaén, at some point only a two lane local road where you hope to not get stuck behind a truck hauling olives. After all, Jaén is the olive capital of Spain.

To say Jaén is forgotten wouldn’t be completely true, to Spaniards it’s known for having the best olives and the highest quality olive oil. It also has a tapas scene that rivals, if not better than Granada. However you wouldn’t go to Jaén just for the tapas nor for just the olives, which is why when you tell somebody you are going to visit or have visited they ask why? with a confused look on their face. If it wasn’t for my friend Mitch living there, I would have never gone.

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Since I’ve heard so many unflattering things of Jaén my expectations were low. I imagined it as a dull, deteriorating city where it’s inhabitants only ate olives and drank olive oil.  That wasn’t the case, but I was told amongst the locals most conversations seemed to always come back to olives, or they were trying to get you to buy into their cooperative. I cannot attest to the validity of this, however I can say that because of my low expectations, Jaén pleasantly surprised me. The city itself isn’t much to write home about, but it has its moments. There is a long tree lined avenue that would be beautiful in Spring time with a nicely laid tram line running through it. Unfortunately there’s no tram. If there was anything that best exemplifies the Spanish government, it is this. In 2009 the city was given money by Andalucia to install the line, just as it was finished the leading political party in Jaén’s government changed and they were against it, so they sold the tram cars to Australia (I think) and since then it has not been operational.

Situated above the city is the castle of Santa Catalina. Part of the Castle route of Jaén, which contains more Castles per square kilometer than any other place in Europe. Santa Catalina is a beautiful, mostly restored castle that was started in 1492 and has now been partly converted into a hotel.  It provides stunning views of the city and the surrounding countryside.  Also in Jaén is a park with grass! something Jerez lacks, with a view of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside as well, though not quite the same as being at the castle, it’s more accessible and a nice place in the city center to relax.

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Adding to the experience of Jaén and the reason why we went was seeing Mitch. It was also St. Patrick’s day weekend and there are a lot of Irish there. For a smaller city than Jerez, the atmosphere was good. We met his friends and his roommates and got to see the new life he’s made away from Jerez. As sad as it is to have him gone it was good to see him doing well.

Jaén definitely isn’t the most beautiful city of Andalucia, but it has beautiful aspects about it and if you go, you might just be surprised like I was.

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La Isla Bonita

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This past weekend I went to La Palma of the Canary Islands. Going to the Canary Islands is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Since it’s not the easiest to get to, I’m not sure I would have followed through if it wasn’t for meeting Richie’s cousin Nicole, who’s from there, this past summer. When you know somebody in a place you’d like to visit, it gives you more of an incentive to go; she was also going back the same time I had thought about going (which at the time I didn’t realize it was carnival because last year it was three weeks earlier), so it came together perfectly. Also, Richie’s brother Thomas was going to be on spring break and bought a last minute flight, which then caused Richie and his other brother Andrew to follow suit.  I was going to be spending a few days with one of my best friends and his brothers in Spain, with his cousin in La Palma during Carnival.

La Isla Bonita
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La Palma, called the beautiful island because of…..its beauty is the 2nd smallest island out of the 7 Canary Islands; yet you’d think it was a lot bigger. There’s so much to see I could have easily spent another week there. It has a population of 88,000, with most living along the slope of the extinct volcano; there’s hardly a flat spot to be found. As you can see, the volcano is what shapes the island, it literally is this island. Climatically it stays the same all years round and I wasn’t prepared for the wind or cold at night as I figured it to be like a Caribbean Island. but it wasn’t. It is also ecological diverse, it has various ecosystems:tropical-arid plant life along the lower slopes closer to the water, as you climb higher along the volcano you find the woodland zone with its famous Canary pine trees until eventually those give away leaving only volcanic soil and rock; if you go inward it’s like a rain/cloud forest where everything is green and mossy. Never have I experienced such a change from one to the other so rapidly, it’s like we were traversing through different worlds in a matter of minutes, or as Richie said many times, like we were in King Kong. 
 
Driving around the Island
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Driving around the island in its own right was an experience as much as visiting some of the places; the whole roadway is a scenic route, providing unbelievable views of the rest of the island. To get around, you pretty much follow one road that snakes it’s way endlessly around curves and through tunnels precariously close to cliff faces on inclines that a car with too much weight might struggle to make it up. Single handedly the worst possible place to be is in the back seat of car when you’ve been out all night drinking, which is where I found myself on Tuesday.
Nicole and Marisa
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Without Nicole, Richie’s cousin and Marisa, her mom the experience would have been nothing. Nicole was the best guide, driving us around the island and answering all the questions I had (which were a lot); she picked me up from the airport , she introduced us to her friends and countless others (I’m sure she got tired of it, I would have) and showed us an amazing time at Los Indianos. Marisa was an absolute angel and did everything she could to make us feel welcomed. She made us breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday, she made sure we had everything we needed, she dropped off alcohol when we ran out at night and picked us up in the morning the times we needed to be picked up. I felt as if I was with my own mom and never felt more at home as a guest in somebody else’s house as I did there. We were also invited to have lunch at Nicole’s grandpa’s house where we ate an amazing typical meal of La Palma. Like Nicole and Marisa, her grandpa and his partner are two of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. As beautiful as the island is, it is their hospitality which made the trip great.
Star light star bright 
I saw the most stars I’ve ever seen at night.  On Sunday night we took a break from drinking (the night before we had been out until 5am and the next day we were going to be celebrating los Indianos) and went to Roque de los Muchachos, one of the best places in the world to see stars. The observatory located there is considered one of the three best in the world. Roque de los Muchachos sits at 2426m (7959 ft) above the clouds allowing for an unobstructed viewing of space. However, before getting there you need to take a zig-zagging-continuously-bending road that prevents you from going in any gear higher than two for about an hour or more.  Nicole drove it like a champion in a van of eight people while her two co passengers, Richie and Thomas dozed off.  Since the way up is covered in pine trees until you get toward the top and since I was sitting in the middle, I could only see darkness outside. Until we got to the top and I stepped out. I was surrounded by  a 270° of the night sky and more stars than I have ever seen in my life, thousands of little lights dotting the night sky. It’s as if I was a child again, going down the stairs on Christmas day and seeing for the first time all the presents Santa had brought. I experienced a profound awe that’s almost too difficult to put into words and impossible to capture with any photos. I have never realized such a profound sense of peacefulness and if it weren’t for the almost freezing temperature and wind, I would have asked to be left up there for the night.  Sitting here thinking back on it, my mind can’t recreate or comprehend an accurate portrayal of what it looked like.
(I attempted to take some pictures, however I have not figured out yet how to properly edit them)
Los Indianos
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A celebration only found in La Palma during carnival, Los Indianos celebrates the Spanish who left the island between the 16th and 20th century for the Americas in search for a better life and who then returned with wealth and prosperity. Cuba was one of the main and principal destinations (it was a Spanish colony from 1492-1893).  During the celebration everybody wears white, traditional linen suits or shirts for the men and dresses accompanied with umbrellas for the women. As a compliment to their outfit, some people carry around 19th century suitcases filled with fake money to represent the wealth that was brought back. A mixture of Cuban and Palma/Cuban music is played throughout the day while everybody drinks mojitos. It was the first time in a long time I’ve had a mojito and I probably drank at least 3 liters of them. The strangest part of the whole celebration is the throwing of baby powder. Everybody carries around bottles of baby powder throwing them into the air and onto to people. It’s great for your skin, but bad for your lungs. The day after my skin was the softest it’s ever been.
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Another curious thing about the festival is their guest of honor and main symbol Negra Thomasa, the female black version of Thomas. I’m not sure why and how it came about (since I can’t find anything on it), but it’s the same as how Santa Claus represents Christmas. Mostly guys will paint their face black, wear big red lips and dress up as a girl in 19th century Cuban style clothes and apparently it’s not racist. From what I’m told it’s not racist because there’s no malintent. I’ll leave that to everyone’s own opinion. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for the tourist who had no idea about the celebration walking around in a colored t-shirt amongst thousands of people dressed in white throwing baby powder on each other. Someone told me they read in the paper that the number of visitors to the island equaled the total population of the island. I wouldn’t doubt it because the streets were packed. Like many of the Spain’s celebrations, Los Idianos transcends all age groups, you find little children, young children, teenagers, adults and grandparents all out celebrating and enjoying the day. One of the many reasons why I love Spain.
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Los Indianos, one of the most unique celebrations I’ve taken part in and one that I’ll never forget.   An example of what it looks like

Flamenco Fashion Show

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Beautiful women

Free Vermouth

and Flamenco

what more could you need?

Last weekend Tim and I went to the Flamenco fashion show held in Jerez’s famous Gonzalez Byass bodega. We were invited guests, brought along to take pictures or blog about the event; we had the freedom to attend one, or as many of the shows as we wanted  (assuming we asked ahead of time and gave them notice).   I went to two on Saturday (the 8 & 9pm) and Tim went to three.  The shows showcased local designers:

The dresses, a mixture of traditional and modern are primarily designed to be worn during the Feria (the week long celebration in May of dancing, singing and drinking: you can find out more about it here Feria Blog Post), but some could have also been worn during the weekend.  Each show was accompanied by live Flamenco, the 8pm show by a singer and a guitarists and the 9pm show by two guitarists.  Nothing else could have embodied the spirit of Jerez more than what we experienced during those two hours.

The photos below are the ones I took:

 

Transported Through Time

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Every year since the early 90s for one night the residents of the old part of Arcos de la Frontera put on an amazing performance of a live nativity scene “belen viviente.” Through an incredible display of craftsmanship and cooperation the residents recreate scenes and aspects of life around the time Jesus was born. Being completely free to enter the other thing you must give is your patience because of the time you’ll have to wait, we waited around an hour and a half. It was truly magnificent and surreal; wandering through the old streets of arcos in combination with the performance made us feel as we were looking into a windows of the past.  This is what we saw:

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The Month of Zambombas

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From the end of November to right up until Christmas there is a constant buzz of activity throughout the center of Jerez; streets that were empty around the normal siesta hours are now filled with people loitering about; traffic lines the streets and people congregate around the ice rink in the main plaza or take photos underneath or by the tree; bars that never have lines are now full around midnight or one.  Like NYC on New Years Eve Jerez for the month of December transforms into the city that doesn’t sleep.  Thanks to the Zambombas.  Throughout the month of December on almost any given night there is sure to be a Zambomba, with at least 10 to 20 different ones found each Friday Saturday and Sunday.

The what….?

Zambomba, pronounced”thambomba” is the main instrument used in a Zambomba, it is a taught piece of cloth pulled over a large pot with a stick through the middle that is then pulled up and down to create drum-like reverberation sound.  Water is used and needed to keep the hands moist and friction low.

Zambomba is also the name of the gathering of people to sing villancicos, or Christmas songs.  It started in the early 1900s when people lived in casa de vecinos, houses that share a common courtyard (they still exist).  The neighbors would gather together around a fire, eat, drink and sing.  For some reason it stopped years later and then was revitalized in the 1950s and morphed into what it is today, a way for many bars, restaurants and brotherhoods to make money.  Not that it’s a bad thing, it brings a lot of tourism to city, people come from all over Spain to visit Jerez during this month.  The ones in bars or restaurants aren’t bad, but they don’t have the same charm as some of the others, if you stray away from the center and into one of the older gypsy neighborhoods like the one I live in you can easily find one that’s less about the spectacle and more about keeping a tradition.   These are the ones where everybody is singing and they’re filled with a old ladies and men who seem to never fatigue.  They start the zambomba in the early to late afternoon and finish it when everybody else tires. Like Semana Santa or the Feria the most amazing aspect is the feeling, the joy and togetherness that transcends all ages from children to adults; the hushes to quiet the crowed when somebody decides to sing a solo, or flipping through the lyric book scrambling to find the right song before it’s too late and the sense of accomplishment in finding it only to realize you have no idea what the melody is.  Each zambomba is different and unique in their own aspects, that’s why I try to go to as many as possible.  I also love singing.

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Exploring an Abandoned Hotel with Tim

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The Palmera Plaza

I have been walking past the Palmera Plaza hotel everyday on my way to and from school since September of last year.  Since then, I have watched it slowly degrade from a 5 star hotel to a post-apocalyptic structure that’s seen too many visitors.  The first time I noticed a change was when some of the planter pots out front were turned over and never turned back up, a while later I noticed on the building facing the street that some of the glass windows were broken, day by day more were, until finally the glass ceased to exist; the glass roof of that same building was met with the same fate; the ornate iron chandelier rested on the floor until it recently disappeared all together;  the front door which was once shut, now loosely hangs open.

The closing and degradation of the Palmera Plazas happened so fast people who didn’t normally pass didn’t have a clue.  When I first noticed it was obviously closed I asked people what happened, only to be met with blank stares and responses that included nothing, what do you mean what happened to it.

The hotel first opened in 2002, situated next to the famous Equestrian School, the Bodega Sandeman and a 10 minute walk from the center it was in a prime location to succeed.  However even with its 5 stars it couldn’t avert the crisis that would hit Spain some years later.  In 2013 it closed due to economic problems, some 9.3 million was put back into it with the hopes of revitalizing its former glory, only to have it close 6 months later and fall into its current state of disrepair.  Its only visitors are urban explorers and vandals.

I can’t say I’ve explored many abandoned places, but I’ve always been fascinated by them.  With glass crunching under our feet and debris scattered everywhere it was like walking through a post-apocalyptic ruin.  Here is what it looked like:

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