Monday, February 8, 2016

Riding the Rail - Ronda, Spain

Before beginning my #WorldTour2015 trip, I had been training on my bicycle to prepare for cycling across Europe with the assistance of the rail system on occasion.  Following nine days committed to pedaling my way across the Province of Cadiz and along the Costa del Sol, I thought a train ride was well-deserved break.   Leaving behind my AWOL and bicycle gear I had my pack with some essentials for the next four days of adventures.  Starting my day with a high-paced walk to Maria Zambrano Station to catch the early morning train into the heart of the Province of Malaga, I was more than excited to be on my way to Ronda.  Navigating my way through the station being guided by the billetes signs, I passed through the glass doors to purchase my ticket.  I had exaggerated the wait expectation for the queue at the booking office - significantly.  I had imagined I would have to be waiting in a long line and be cutting it close to catch my desired train.  I entered into a nearly vacant room with numerous clerks eyeing me to see which one of them I would choose to assist me with my boarding pass.  Going with the most direct option from the door, I approached the middle-aged brunette lady with a cheerful smile about her face.  After saying a shaky buenas dias and my request to take the next train bound for Ronda, I was less than a minute away from waiting for 40 minutes for departure.  

With time to spare, why not catch a cup of coffee and some fresh mango?!  Satisfying my stomach, I headed back to the platform to see if I could claim my seat just yet, however boarding was not going to start for a few minutes.  In the mean time, a few of the youngsters kept me entertained as they chased each other about the station and having the occasional parent try to run them down.  As the children started to tire themselves out, one of the attendants came out of the train and called for boarding to begin.  I am not to sure why I was nervous being I had traveled by trains in Europe before but nonetheless my brain over-thought the situation and got my heart rate spiked.  Soon enough those nerves were calmed by the passing Andalucian countryside.  My view darkened without a warning as the rolling hills were shadowed by the Gorge of the Gaitanes closed in around the rails.  Those shadows soon became pitch black tunnels passing under the mountains and whenever we broke out into daylight, I could set my eyes on the Caminto del Rey.  Once considered the most dangerous trail in the world until recent renovations, that is set at the top of my return trip to Spain!  Then again, the train was passing through rolling golden hills with perfect ranks of olive trees scattered across the them unlike the white clouds crossing the sky in their chaotic order above, but all taking my breath away.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Feria de Agosto - Málaga, Spain

There were three occasions during the 145 days of #WorldTour2015 where I had to be somewhere at a certain time.  I made sure I was well rested in Munich a day before so I could see the opening ceremonies of Oktoberfest as well as being in Kathmandu, Nepal, before the second day of November to kick of my Himalaya trek!  The first date though was the 14th day of August and the destination was Málaga!  The reason behind my dream of visiting Malaga began many years before in my adolescent years of learning the Spanish language.  Going back to the eighth year of my schooling en la clase de Señora Porter, I presented my report about my city of choice: Málaga!  At that point and time, I think I chose that city due to the shear fact of saying the city name over and over again during my presentation and making the stressed á stronger each time.  Through my research years ago, I said to myself, "Someday you will see that yourself".  Aging that dream for more than a decade I found myself among thousands of brightly dressed patrons, guitar strings singing in a rapid unison, and the snapping, tapping, and clapping of spinning verdiales dancers of all ages!

Packing up my tent and gear in the cool morning air in Calahonda, I was eager to get on the road to Malaga!  The ride along the Costa del Sol that day took me aside centuries old Moorish castles, stately mosques and even a Buddhist stupa!  Distractions and all, I made some of the most impressive cycling time to my home away from home for a few days in a flat with a real bed and less than a three minutes' walk to the beach also known as incentive!  As I settled into my flat and made a quick trip to the neighborhood supermercado for groceries for the next four days, I took some rest on the beach during the cooler part of the day.  During the long three minute trek to the beach, I passed by a pharmacy sign that flashed 33° at me!  For my readers that are accustomed to the Celsius scale understand that is a wonderful temperature for going to the beach and playing in the water!  For my American patrons, that is right around 90 degrees Fahrenheit and add a cloud free sky to the mix makes for a great time to head to the beaches of the Mediterranean!  As the sun began to set over the mountains behind me, I stood up and brushed the sand off my then bronzed skin, I made my epic voyage back to the flat for a shower and get ready to partake in the first night of 524th celebration of Feria de Málaga.  
Wandering my way along the seaside walkway, I came to a quick realization that Malaga's cuisine reputation was not exaggerated.  Dozens of seaside "kitchens" made choosing a challenge between one from another, so I tried a few!  One common characteristic among these eateries was the large open wood-fire grills but each varied in their grilled specialty.  My first stop was to this one grill that served up a mean filet of fish that I presumably believe arrived to the port on one of the fishing boats I gazed at from the beach a few hours earlier.  Nonetheless, the perfected balance of spices and wood smoke made for a tasty first course!  My next stop a few meters down was a larger establishment with a larger selection of meats which is good and bad all at the same time.  Looking about this endless grill with most likely a lost, indecisive look on my face, one of the grill masters offered his assistance.  In the best attempt of Spanish, I told him I had just arrived to Malaga that day and would like to try a local favorite.  Despite dining on fish not 15 minutes earlier, he insisted I try a spit of sardines.  When the sardines are roasted, the WHOLE sardine is roasted!  Not being the biggest fan of having dinner look back at me, I gave them a try and let us just say these were consumed for the next four days.  This grill sprinkled a precise amount of spices, some onion, and a magical marinade over the as the wood embers worked their magic and with a glass (or two) of Cruzcampo beer - delightfully delicious!  That whole chiringuito experience was wonderful, but the platter of tapas that I had at a street cafe near the Plaza de la Merced.  I will spare you the nitty gritty details of the tapas selection being my mouth is salivating uncontrollably just thinking about them as tell this travel tale!   
The heart of Málaga is filled with colorful paper lanterns strung over the cobbled streets lined with booths offering trinkets, tricks or treats for fair patrons of any age.  Bigger than the fireworks bursting in the night sky over the harbor or the festive decorations adorning balconies of homes and windows of the shops was the spirit of the people.  Every direction I looked there were young girls wearing stunning flamenco style dresses of all colors with brilliant flowers set in their hair.  Watching virtuoso of the guitars and fiddles compete with friendly smiles and lively hands making music that filled the streets and encouraged dozens of dancers.  But it was not only those celebrating the traditional aspects of the fair that welcomed me into this city's culture and rich history.  One of the happiest moments I was able to capture on a sunny afternoon was that of an attendant of his small booth with small toys for children to celebrate in style.  As I walked near, I noticed he had a handheld bubble machine fully loaded and shooting a stream of bubbles outward and upward into the crowded street.  As he caught me in the act of snapping a shot, I got the most genuine smile in return followed by a few chuckles of laughter and that truly made my day!  Over the days that I explored Málaga, the fulfillment of 'living Feria' surpassed any expectation I ever could have set for the city.  Reflecting back on my stay I see that I left with the happiest of memories and I would say that is an excellent way to end a 'dream come true'.

Parroquia de San Juan Bautista - Málaga, Spain

Taking on my first day of Feria de Agosto after arriving to Malaga, I strolled my way along the wide streets of the southern district of Carretera de Cadíz to the heart of the city.  Heading north, I encountered the wide and shallow river Guadalmedina.  The name was given to the river by the Moors as they settled on the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages and the name derives from wadi al-medina (وادي المدينة) meaning 'valley of the city'.  As an Arabic speaker, there were numerous "Huh.  That's interesting!" moments as I ventured through Andalusia, which itself is etymologically Arabic as well, but Málaga was filled with them!  Crossing the river meant the wide and unbending streets of Carretera de Cadíz rapidly changed to narrow, winding lanes of the Centro District.  I was not in any rush to get to the festivities just yet so I ran the risk of "getting lost" on a few of the side streets.  Those "streets" began to twist and turn every few meters and in parts I could casually stretch out my arms and run my hands along the sides of a few of them!  I soon discovered this beautifully cobbled lane lined with small shops and brightly colored buildings that led me to one of my favorite discoveries during my near-week stay - la Parroquia de San Juan Bautista.  The Parish of Saint John dates back to the Catholic Conquest of Malaga in 1487 as one of four parishes that quartered the city.  What I saw as the bell tower came into full view was a vibrant mixture of Spanish Colonial and Mudéjar architecture standing before me.  Following heavy damage from an earthquake 335 years ago, the parish was rebuilt largely with Moorish influence during the height of the Spanish Empire giving what remains today a tasteful blend of the two styles - on the exterior!  Passing through the northern portal's large and heavy wooden door, I quickly became overwhelmed by beauty.  I arrived just in time to hear the angelic voices of a choir made up of young school children as I sat in one of the back pews admiring the mesmerizing details of the nave.  The complex pattern of golds, greys, and blacks captivated my attention against the pure white vaults of what I had expected to be a simple and austere parish as I approached the door.

As the children of the choir finished and were presumably released from all academic restraints for the day judging by the quick change from their everyday clothes into their festival attire and the elderly ladies ended their midday prayers, I soon had the parish nearly to myself.  Still in awe of this historical cornerstone to Catholic Malaga, I only fell deeper into the beauty as each step was taken to the altar.  In comparison to the famed cathedral of the city for its size and grandeur, I feel that this parish is a more spellbinding experience.  Firstly, half the adventure is getting there!  Following the white marble trellis pattern pathways leading up to the parish and the small plaza flanking to the southeast is soothing for the traveler's soul just as much as the elegant interior of the parish is to admire.  Even if seeing religious sites is not a common activity during your travels, I would recommend making this small side trek if you ever find yourself in Malaga.  One, the parish is a must-see and secondly, there is an incredible cafe tucked away in the petite plaza that goes above and beyond when it comes to making a savory café cortado.  Although, I tried to ask what the secret behind their mystical powers in making this perfected blend between espresso and "milk", all I would get was a full smile from the olive-skinned barista.  My best guess was that milk was one shade away from being butter being it was so creamy and delicious because if there was one thing I saw while living in the American South was that butter makes everything better!