Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Due to a toxic mix of volcanic ash, make-up work, and beautiful beach weather, I've been neglecting to update.

My friends and I were initially stranded in Prague last Saturday, we took a train to Vienna where the airport was still open, and as soon as I had bought a flight out, that shut down too. I finally got back to Spain on Wednesday in time for all my final papers and projects. Final exams are next week.

My camera died, so I have no photos of Vienna or Prague, but both were beautiful and wonderful in different ways. I only really had a day in Prague, but I spent plenty of time, broke, in Vienna.In Prague, we did the New Prague tour run by Sandeman's New Europe. I recommend the free tour. Tip the guide at the end, he's worth it (and he'll ask you for it too).

The highlight for me was seeing the old Jewish Quarter, with the NewOld Synagogue where the Golem still lies in the attic, waiting for the day when he is needed once more. I hope that day never comes again, but still. It was also very moving to hear the guide talk about the Pinkas Synagogue, where the drawings of children from Terezin, a concentration camp that the Nazis used for propaganda. The truth is though, the Jews in the Czech Republic had it bad long before the Nazis. The ghetto wasn't opened till nearly the end of the nineteenth century. It's scary to think about.

On our way out of Prague, we saw the Jubilee Synagogue, which is the most lavish synagogue I've ever seen. It's still active, as are some of the others, but it's actually outside of the Jewish Quarter. It made me happy to see it, as I don't think a synagogue would ever be that obvious in Spain.

In Vienna, I recommend the Habsburg palaces; the Hofburg and Schonbrunn; which I really wanted to see and am glad I did. We also went to Schonbrunn Zoo, one of the world's oldest. I took the tour at the Hofburg, and my favorite part was just seeing some of the kitchen tools used and table settings and hearing about the courses they ate and how everything was decorated. There were separate pastry and confection kitchens, not to mention kitchens for individual members of the household. The Habsburgs' sheer extravagance and number of possessions is mind-boggling. I can't imagine how amazing it would have been to be a server there, or to be an assistant pastry chef...

I also recommend Nashmarkt, the open-air food market, where most of the foods were actually Middle Eastern. All of the stands sold olives, dried fruit, nuts, soft cheeses, various kinds of hummus, and falafel. There was borek, baklava, kebabs (available on every street corner just like bratwurst), and more cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and breads. I had flattenbrod, a flatbread so excellent I bought it twice. A word of advice though, Nashmarkt closes at 6:30 pm and isn't open on Sundays-along with every other grocery store in Vienna.

While stuck in Vienna, I engaged in some indulgent reading. My excuse is that these were my friend's books and I was too broke to buy any of my own. They're both series books, that I could go either way with continuing. My gut tells me they're not worth it, but something else just wants to chill out and have a little fun.

20. The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

A fantasy romp in an interesting world that the author has used before. The characterizations are good and you feel attached to the main characters. The plot is so-so.

21. From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris

This is the eighth book in the Sookie Stackhouse series. My only previous knowledge was that it was about vampires in the American South and the TV show True Blood is based on it. Now I feel like I know the whole series without having read the other books. That's kind of scary and I know her repeating all the plot lines would have annoyed the hell out of me if I had read the rest of the series. As it is...the narrator can be funny, which helps, otherwise it reads like the soap opera it is. Harris is good at what she does and her world is creepy and fascinating. It's just not very literary, it's all an emotional ride.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Camino de Santiago de Compostela

I am back from five days on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I walked 110 kilometers through the Galician countryside on the ancient pilgrimage that has had a huge revival in the past 20 years, despite the fact that fewer and fewer Spaniards identify as religious Catholics.

The Camino has existed at least since the ninth century, when the remains of St. James the Apostle, were "discovered" at Compostela. The legend goes that St. James, known in Spain as Santiago, came to Galicia to proselytize and established the first Christian community and church in Spain. Galicia is the northwest region of Spain above Portugal, where Gallego is spoken, a language similar to Portuguese, and one of the four official languages of Spain. Santiago then returned to Rome, where he was beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa. His disciples are said to have brought his remains back to Galicia and buried him at Compostela. In the ninth century, Santiago is said to have risen from the grave and performed miracles for Spain, including the defeat of the Moors at the Battle of Clavijo, earning him the nickname Matamoros (Moorslayer). Santiago was declared the patron saint of Spain, and Pope Calixto II in the tenth century declared a Holy Year, also known as a Jacobeo Year, every time St. James' Day coincided with Sunday. 2010 is a Jacobeo Year, so the sins of all pilgrims in this year will be absolved.

The Camino is probably the hardest thing I've done in my life so far. I walked through epic mud, rivers, in hailstorms and rainstorms, through forests and fields, beside roads, up and down hills. I learned not to think about how much farther I had to go, I just followed the yellow arrows through tiny rural towns and the middle of nowhere, thought about issues of ethics, my future, my personal relationships, anything to distract from the pain. I met many fellow pilgrims from all over the world including France, Germany, and Korea. Everybody had different reasons for the Camino, few of them exclusively religious. I was also observing Passover for most of the Camino, but I still managed to enjoy traditional Galician foods like Caldo Gallego, a soup consisting of cabbage, potatoes, and greens, and beef, which was everywhere, as Galicia is cow country. On my last night, when Passover was over, I tried Tarta de Santiago, a cake flavored with almonds and lemon and dusted with powdered sugar. The Camino taught me that I really can do anything, I can walk much farther than I ever thought possible, and when I think I'm going to keel over, I can keep on going.

When we finally reached the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, it was hard to believe it was over. I watched a pilgrims' mass, and at the end, they swing a big bottle of incense called the botafumiero. It was hard to get a picture with so many people and also it was swinging back and forth, but I tried.

Here are some pictures of the Galician countryside, my beautiful and perilous friend, and the outside and inside of the Cathedral of Santiago. The outside I have pictures of is Baroque, dating from the eighteenth century, but the original cathedral is Romantic architecture, dating from the tenth century. Unfortunately, the most famous Romantic construction, the Portico de la Gloria, was closed during my visit. I have pictures of two sides of the Cathedral, the Azabacheria or Northern facade, and the traditional entrance, the Obradoiro or Western Facade. There is also a photo of the Quintana fountain outside of Platerias, the Southern facade.