Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Valencia part 1

So, now that I have finished my exams, here is the long awaited post about my Valencia trip a couple of weeks ago... I wouldn't want to get too behind.

I went to Valencia as part of my program, with the whole group. Since there are only 8 students plus two professors, we went in this like 20-seat charter bus. It was pretty freaking sweet, and our driver, Manolo, is a little on the crazy side, which of course makes it more fun (but harder to read on the bus...)

Our first stop on the way was in Cuenca, this little town that has become synonymous in some parts of Spain with something that is stuck in the past or obsolete. It is famous for its "casas colgadas" - hanging houses - that are built right on the side of a cliff, hanging off the side. It is really a beautiful place, with great views of the countryside. Strangely enough, in addition to its old houses and tiny winding streets, it has a bit of a history with modern art. One of the old houses has been converted into an abstract art museum, and the stained glass windows of the cathedral, which had to be redone relatively recently, were replaced with abstract designs. An interesting contrast, I think. We walked across this little pedestrian bridge to get across the gorge. It was a super long way off the ground, which made things interesting. Antonio, our art history professor, informed me that it was a tradition that the youngest person in the group (yep, that's me) jump off that bridge, or be thrown if unwilling to jump. Fortunately he didn't make much of an effort to follow through with that threat!

We also went to this other town called Alarcón that has a castle that has been converted to a "Parador," a kind of state-owned tourist hotel or something. That is it on the hill on the left. The little building at the right edge of the picture used to be some kind of lookout tower for the people who had the castle. Man! I wish I lived in a country that has random castles here and there... Anyway, we had refreshments in their café, and somebody checked on the prices to stay there: something like 200 euro a night, and they only have like 10 rooms total. So a little out of our price range...

Valencia itself was really nice. We were in the old part of the city, the central part, and there are lots of cool buildings, many which have been redone but keep the old style. There are also orange trees planted at regular intervals along the sidewalk. Their oranges aren't fit to eat, but they look quite charming. One of my classmates could not resign himself to simply believing what our professor told us about the oranges, and actually climbed up onto a trash can to "steal" one. After trying it, however, he informed us that it was "worse than a lemon," therefore confirming the rumor. Ok, that is an orange tree in the picture on the right, and it has oranges on them! You just can't see them that well in the picture. Squint your eyes and have a little faith!

We went to lots of museums in Valencia, which is never my favorite part, but I suppose I am getting "culture" that I would otherwise avoid like the plague. We spent a lot of time in the Cathedral, which is, like almost every other cathedral I have seen, pretty and freezing cold inside. This one, however, has the added bonus of having a tower (in the picture at left - see how much taller it is than a four story building??), which for the low low price of 2 euro you can have the privilege of climbing. Ignoring the fact that Prof Sanchez wasn't going to climb it "because she did it once in her life and wasn't stupid enough to do it again," all eight of us students trekked up nearly a gajillion stairs to get to the top, and I am still deciding whether or not the view was worth the days of sore legs (plus some time there were I thought I might meet my maker on an endless winding staircase in Spain). On the right is a picture of all of us at the top, proving that nobody just sat on the stairs halfway up and waited for the others to come down (not that i thought about doing that!!)

We also went to this HUGE mercado (market) in Valencia. For those who are as bad at geography as I am, Valencia is on the eastern coast of the Iberian peninsula, on the Mediterranean, and therefore has lots and lots of fresh seafood, a good portion of which seems to be sold in this market. Needless to say, it was smelly, and it was also very crowded (as much with tourists as with actual people buying things, I think). I saw all manner of seafood that I kinda wish I hadn't, especially those that were still alive... One thing I had never even heard of before (perhaps because I don't actually know the English word) is sepia, which looks like squid but can be quite a bit bigger, and also kinda tastes like calamari but not as fishy. The market also had lots of fruits and nuts, which are also typical of the region (duh, Valencia oranges). (Ok confusing side note: fruta is Spanish for fruit, but frutos secos does not mean dried fruit, though one would think that since secos = dry. It in fact means nuts. So, if you happen to be in Spain and would like to buy a nice package of mixed dry fruit from a street vendor, do NOT be fooled by the ones marked "frutos secos mixtos." They are not your friends!)
We went to the beach (which is like a 20 minute train ride from Valencia) for a traditional meal of paella and arroz negro. Paella is a rice dish, soaked in some sort of broth so that the rice is really yummy, and with various other things in it, usually vegetables and some kind of meat. Often it is made with various types of seafood (particularly in Valencia), but we also had one made with chicken. My señora told me the first time she made it that it used to be the dish of like poor rural people in Valencia, and they would just put whatever leftovers they had in it, kind of like how (according to her) pizza got started. Paella is actually the name of the shallow round iron pan with handles on the side that is used to cook the dish; people now often make the mistake of calling the pan a paellera, assuming it is named for the dish instead of the other way around. Arroz negro (which I may have mentioned but can't remember) is sort of a variation on paella. It is also a rice dish (arroz=rice), but it is made with calamari and what makes it negro is - you guessed it - the squid's own ink. Mmm, tasty. I personally don't care for it that much, mostly because it tastes like calamari which I can only take in small doses. Anyway, we felt compelled to go touch the Mediterranean after lunch, which meant sandy shoes on the bus - ick!
Well that is about all I can write in one go - and I am sure nobody got through this whole post without a bathroom break! I will post the rest later. (Soon! I promise!) Glen, I hope this will hold your interest for a little while : )


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