Saturday, September 20, 2014

Paradise, also known as Llanes

I’ve discovered paradise, and its name is Llanes (as long as you’re not a vegetarian, but I’ll get to that in my next post).  The Asturian coast of Spain is incredibly beautiful and I found myself completely spellbound by the town of Llanes.  This post was going to be part of a larger description of my travels through northern Spain, but it demands its own post for the photos alone. To start with, here is the view from the window of my very low budget pension in the historic city center:

Can't beat this view!
View at sunrise
After a brief stroll around the historic part of town and the port, I head off to a local park where there is a paseo (walking trail).  It starts off as a public park with benches and viewpoints and I assume it will just go the length of town.  Then it gets a little more rugged as it continues to hug the coast line which is a never ending series of dramatic jagged cliffs.  At some point I decide to look up the Paseo de San Pedro on my phone and realize that the trail is 15 kilometers (30 km roundtrip) which is a bit much to complete all in one evening. Each view is more stunning than the next though, so I continue on for a while, finding blackberries along the way of course. Part of what makes this hike so amazing is that there is a dramatic coastline on one side of me and a perfect view of the Picos de Europa mountain range on the other.  The two photos below were taken no more than 25 feet apart, facing opposing directions!

Facing the sea.  Wait, am I in Ireland or Spain?
Same spot facing the mountains.
The valley between the coast and the mountains is dotted by little towns and farms where cows and sheep graze.  At one point, I am treated to a chorus of cow (or maybe sheep) bells in the distance that is truly musical. Eventually I reach a side trail to a little beach cove and walk down to the beach to cool off.  The low angle of the sun in the sky is the only motivation I have to turn around.  Finally as the sun drops behind one of the cliffs protecting the beach I can’t put it off any longer and I turn back to Llanes. I’m just as delighted by the views on the way back, which are all new when viewed from the opposite direction.

Happy cows.
The following day I head off on another paseo along the river.  In any other town, I would probably have found this walk charming, but after yesterday’s hike I find it boring, and quickly abandon it for a different paseo along the coastline in the opposite direction of the Paseo de San Pedro. This one is shorter, but importantly leads to the prettiest of the three Llanes town beaches.  Along the way I find this overlook and after climbing out to it am delighted to watch several schools of fish down below.  The water is blue/green and so clear that I can see everything. I think I actually witnessed a school of large fish in a feeding frenzy amongst a very large school of small fish.  They were all getting pretty jostled around by the surf against the cliff wall though, so it was hard to tell. 

Don't worry mom, this natural bridge was not nearly as high as the one in Sedona.
And like the one in Sedona, it was wider than it looks.

One fish, two fish. Hungry fish, happy fish. 
After hanging out at the beautiful Playa de Toro for a little while, I backtrack to one of the other beaches where the surf is gentler to take a dip.  I have never swum in an ocean beach with water this clear!  This beach is alive and I can watch all matter of sea life as I swim around.  There are little crabs scrambling around on the rocks and several varieties of seaweed and small fish swimming below me.  The water is just a beautifully blue/green up close. Interestingly, the entire region is also infused with a subtle floral scent. It was persistent on my hike the day before and even while I’m swimming in the water, I smell the flowers rather the usual salty/fishy smell.  Everything about this town just makes me happy and grateful to be here.

Playa del Toro

My swimming spot. It got a bit cloudy so it doesn't look as blue as it was.
I had only planned for two days in Llanes, and I’m tempted to extend my stay.  However, for once I’ve actually planned out my schedule for the next couple of weeks and have a reservation for a cave visit in Ribadesella on Sunday, so I decide not to rearrange my plans. Between the coastline and the Picos de Europa, which I won’t even enter on this trip, Asturias deserves its own dedicated trip.  I’ll definitely be returning to Llanes to hike the full 15 kilometer Paseo de San Pedro in the future.  Only next time, I’m coming with other people so we can rent an apartment with a kitchen!

View from the port

Friday, September 19, 2014

Medieval Magic (Segovia)

I left Malaga reluctantly, but was soon glad that I did.  If I hadn’t continued on my travels through Spain, I never would have discovered Segovia, which is my new favorite place in Spain.  I planned to stay for three days and ended up staying for five! Segovia, in the Castilla y Leon region northwest of Madrid is a world (ok, just a few hundred kilometers) away from Malaga.  The heart of life in Segovia still takes places in and directly around the old city walls.  A beautiful roman aqueduct, thousands of years old, runs right through the historic center. Beautiful old churches and monasteries abound.  The Alcazar (castle) is said to have been Walt Disney’s inspiration for the Beauty and the Beast castle. Beautiful green mountains are visible in the distance. All of this gives Segovia a sense of both magic and mystery. It’s a small city (pop. 50,000) so it’s very tranquil and surrounded by green spaces and two rivers.  Also, the people are really friendly!

In front of the aqueduct

When I arrived at my hostel, Blanca, who runs the hostel along with her friend Guillermo, gave me a map and pointed out all the highlights of the city.  She mentioned the location of a community garden and when I expressed interest in seeing it, she told me she and her friends have a plot, and I was welcome walk there with her if I wanted.  And so my time in Segovia began with a couple hours spent harvesting tomatoes and weeding garden beds in the most beautifully situated community garden I’ve ever seen, below the old city walls and irrigated by natural springs. Blanca pointed out to me an edible weed and asked if I knew it, and I realized it was purslane, which thanks to Martha in Silver City, I know is delicious.  Apparently I was the only one interested in eating it, so I created my own little purslane pile separate from the weeds.  Sauteed with onion and scrambled eggs, it made a great meal the following day! After gardening, I walked with Blanca and her friend Maria to a local bar en route to bring their veggies to the hostel, carrying a bag overflowing with tomatoes on one arm and a stalk of basil in my other hand. They told me I looked like a local and now I just needed to learn one phrase to sound like one too – “¿Que paja (paha), maja (maha)?”  Apparently Segovians says their “s” as a “j,” which in Spanish sounds like the English “h.” So this phrase is actually “¿Que pasa, maja?” to anyone outside of Segovia and basically translates to “how’s it going, friend?”  Armed with the magic words, I waived my basil wand and POOF, Rachel transformed to Raquel, from Segovia.

Segovia community garden (foreground) beneath the
old city walls.
Another day I took a long walk around the city, stopping every 20-30 minutes to pick blackberries from the abundant bushes.  If anyone every questions whether or not blackberries are an invasive plant, I invite you to visit Segovia, where blackberry branches climb up and over entire trees! When I left Germany I thought I had said goodbye to berries for the season, so although the Spanish berries are smaller and less juicy due to drought, this discovery was exciting. By the end of my afternoon-long stroll, I’d gathered enough blackberries to munch on for breakfast for the rest of the week. I also discovered on this walk, that the Alcazar is best enjoyed by circling the city.  I’d visited it the day before and been unimpressed by the interior and even the view from the front, but you just can’t beat this view from down below.

No, this is not a movie set backdrop - it really does
look this amazing.
Other highlights included a visit to a monastery, the massive palace gardens in a nearby town, a little museum about local cuisine, and a guided tour of a local photography exhibit in which I was the only non-native Spanish speaker, and I understood almost all of it! The old pre-Inquisition Jewish cemetery is somewhat preserved and the historic Jewish neighborhood still stands, although there’s little Jewish about it today other than the names of a few restaurants.  One restaurant, the Judería, serves Indian food tapas, and they’re actually not bad!  How’s that for cultural fusion? A tiny two-room museum about Sephardi Jews was unimpressive and not that informative unless you know nothing about Judaism, but I’m looking forward to my visit to the synagogue and museum in Toledo at the end of my trip. Magically, in a region known for its grilled meat, I found several vegetarian-friendly menus that also fit all my current dietary restrictions, despite the fact that the actual vegetarian restaurant in town was closed because the owners were on vacation. The aspect of Toledo I enjoyed the most was the people.  I had many nice conversations with Blanca and Guillermo and their friends, as well as shop and restaurant owners.  At the end of my time in Segovia, Blanca and Guillermo provided many suggestions for my travels in northern Spain and even printed out a map of the narrow gauge railroad line running across the northern coast.  They invited me to return for a longer stay and gave me my first night’s stay free for helping in the garden plot, which was a rather unexpected and nice surprise. I’ll definitely be returning there at the first opportunity I get.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Malaga, My Spanish Home

Note: I'm a bit behind on posts - so I was actually in Malaga at the end of August/beginning of September

I travel from southern Germany to Malaga, Spain at the end of August, via a trip which took as long as it would have to fly from NY.  One tram, three trains, two flights, and two bus rides later, I arrive at the door of the apartment where I lived for several months in college, seven years ago.  And I am home, sort of.  My host mother, Esperanza, is awesome as always and I appreciate being able to reconnect with her.  Her apartment is just as I remembered it and as I enter she tells me “you know where your room is.”  It feels great to be speaking Spanish again, especially after a month in Germany, where communication was sometimes challenging. Certain sensory memories are very vivid, like the smell of the kitchen and the sweet intoxicating floral smell on the beautiful terrace, which I have always associated with summer in Malaga and which I finally learn is the smell of jasmine in bloom. Please note, that someday when I settle down into a stable home again, I’d like a jasmine plant as a housewarming gift.  And depending on where I live, maybe a greenhouse to keep it alive. Oddly though, the neighborhood is busier and a little dirtier than I remember, and there are far more shops and businesses on Esperanza’s street than I initially recall.  The plaza near the house is not what I remember, although I soon discover the plaza I picture in my head is just a bit farther down the road.  I think it’s likely that over the last seven years, I’ve changed more than the city has, and certainly the plaza didn’t move, just that my memories restructured over time.  It’s so strange that this happens!  Compared to New York City, Malaga is still clean and quiet and that was probably my main point of comparison at the time I lived there. As I walk around the neighborhood and the nearby downtown “El Centro” over the next week, I start to remember more streets, businesses and other sites, including the businesses on the street where I lived, and I can’t figure out if memories begin coming back to me as I take the time to notice each storefront and plaza or I just form new ones that overwrite the originals. Probably a little of both

Over the first few days, I spend most of my time hanging out with Esperanza, her parents and her sister’s family.  Her sister Cristi’s kids who were 3, 5, and 7 at the time I lived here are now teens and pre-teens, and I get to meet sweet Alejandra, born the year after I left.  We go to the beach and have big family meals, where I completely lose track of the multiple conversations taking place in rapid fire Spanish buried under thick Malagueño accents in which entire syllables are dropped from words. I receive cooking lessons from Esperanza once again and delight in preparing gazpacho, veggie paella and farinata (this last one is Italian, not Spanish).  It’s extremely hot and air conditioning is scarce. Because it’s so refreshing one day I actually drink Gazpacho with breakfast, lunch, and dinner!  I’m more hooked on Gazpacho now than I ever was when I lived here.

One other highlight for me was a visit to La Concepcion botanical garden which I never visited when I lived in Malaga.  Esperanza’s father Miguel is the president of the local “Friends of La Concepcion” association so I get my own personal guided tour and learn the history of the garden and all its secrets like the gazebo where your voice reverberates if you stand dead center and the curved bench where you can whisper back and forth with someone if you talk into the far corners.

Miguel, me, and Esperanza outside the La Concepcion garden.

Me, Esperanza (mother), Esperanza (daughter) in the garden.
A few days after I arrive, Esperanza leaves for a month-long trip to Budapest, to consult on the opening of a Spanish restaurant by a group of investors there.  I fall into a very slow-paced rhythm.  Sometimes I go to the Mercado Central for vegetables and I chat with the vendors in Spanish.  One night I go to a language exchange at a nearby bar where I practice my Spanish with locals and they practice their English with me.  I go to the beach almost every evening, once the crowds have left and the sun is less intense. It’s one of the only times of day in which I’m not unbearably hot and a dip in the Mediterranean completely revives me.  I’m excited that the city where I’ll be living in Israel is also coastal, as I’d forgotten how much I missed it after six years in a landlocked desert.  I visit Alcazaba, the fortress/palace built in the 9th century and rebuilt continuously thereafter, which plays a prominent role in both Malaga’s history and its landscape.  It’s visible from Esperanza’s terrace and I walk past it daily to get to the beach, so for me it is quintessential Malaga.  On the evenings I’m home, I practically live on the terrace where the air is cooler and the jasmine scent surrounds me.  I feel the need to mention here that for the people who actually live here, life is not a perpetual vacation – they have responsibilities just like the rest of the world.  And, crushing unemployment combined with the slashing of public services in an attempt to stem the bleeding of a poor economy have seriously reduced the quality of life for many Spaniards, a topic on which Esperanza gives me her perspective one night over dinner.  But for me, during my brief visit, life is pretty good in Malaga.

Street view of Alcazaba
Alcazaba inner garden

As I start to plan the next leg of my trip, I realize I really don’t want to leave Malaga!  It’s familiar, relaxed, I have this wonderful apartment to myself with a kitchen, and a terrace, and my own bedroom, and the beach is within a twenty minute walk. On the other hand, I set out on this trip to see parts of Spain that I hadn’t visited seven years ago, and I’m pretty lazy in Malaga. Plus, my daily interactions seem to be decreasing the longer I stayed, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to practicing Spanish.  Still, I panic a little at the idea of leaving.  Fortunately, the next day I go to visit a great exhibit by a Spanish impressionist painter, Darío de Regoyos (side benefit – art museums have air conditioning!).  Regoyos was from País Vasco in north-central Spain and the northern landscape is the subject of many of his paintings.  They are beautiful and like nothing I’ve ever seen before in Spain.  This helps a little in convincing myself that unless I leave Malaga to travel around, I might never know the other Spanish towns that I will love.  So, still a bit ambivalent, I board a train to the north!
Street in Malaga city center (El Centro)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Prague and Judaism

I actually wrote most of this post while I was in Prague, in early/mid-August but my thoughts about the Jewish museum and my other Jewish experiences there spilled out into a four page post, so I managed to consolidate it a little.

I spent three very full days in Prague, and would have been happy to stay for twice that time, at least. Prague is a very beautiful city, which I hope to visit again.  Because it was not bombed (except for one apparent U.S. Air Force navigation mistake in 1945 – thanks Wikipedia!) during World War II, it has an incredible amount of old gothic, renaissance, and other beautiful styles of pre-communism architecture. Below are a couple of examples, but if you tried to take a photo of every beautiful building, you’d never actually get anywhere.  Additionally, it has a large number of parks and green spaces, making it easy to escape the city noise and check out a great view of the city. Overall the three main activities of my Prague experience were parks, music and Judaism.
Scenic Overlook
Fancy Architecture in the Old Town Square
Parks – On day one I went on a long walk through one park to another, where the Prague castle is located.  I found the exterior of the castle pretty boring, but the gothic church located within the complex is beautiful.  On day two, I visited Vysehrad castle, which is an ancient fortification on a hill over the river.  There is evidence there of habitation back to the 10th century and it was built upon over and other through the gothic and renaissance periods until the 19th century. More recently, a national cemetery of important figures in Czech society was created.  I saw Dvorak’s grave and then listened to some of his music played that night! I also took a nearly vertical tram ride to Mala Strana, where there are ruins of an old fortication, rose gardens, an observatory, and some other historic features. On the way down I found an old orchard!  I couldn’t resist picking a few apples for snacking, but didn’t load my bag up like in Werder.  Being in the orchard made me so happy – I think there’s a food harvesting theme to my happiest travel discoveries.
Fancy Architecture and a Park!

Music – There’s an unusual number of music concerts in Prague each night.  I suspect this is mostly due to the large number of tourists and the very affordable tickets, but the musicians are excellent and the tourism is probably a lot less dependable outside of the summer months, so it still must be a high priority in the city. On Saturday night I attended a string ensemble concert in yet another beautiful historic building and then on my way back across the Charles Bridge, was delighted to find a cello quartet, who appeared to be students at the local music academy. The following night I considered going to a free concert given by conservatory students, but in the end opted to go swimming at a local swimming area instead.  I needed some relief from the heat!

View from the Charles Bridge gothic gate
Judaism – When I arrived in Prague on Friday I decided that I really wanted to attend a Shabbat service to see what a Czech service is like. I did found a couple of liberal congregations and ended up at a tiny congregation near the Jewish quarter. A couple days later at the Jerusalem Synagogue I discovered that this congregation, Beit Simcha, was the first liberal congregation in Prague started over 25 years ago. They happily welcomed me to their service and their siddurs were in Hebrew, Czech and English. Interestingly, the service was almost entirely in Hebrew, which made it easier to follow along.  However, the transliteration was based on Czech phonetics and almost completely foreign to me, so I got a good refresher on actually reading Hebrew – mine was a little rusty after 6 years in Silver City.  After the service I stuck around for the Oneg and got to chat with the rabbi a little more as well as a congregant who was a Hungarian-Austrian Jew whose family fled to Bulgaria where they had business contacts during the Holocaust, whose grandparents are from Boston, and who has lived in Prague for 30 years. He had some interesting stories to tell! We also had an interesting conversation about the experience of survivor’s guilt in his family.

On my last day in Prague I went to the Jewish Museum, which is actually composed of several sites in the old Jewish ghetto, each focusing on a different aspect of Prague Jewish history.  These included synagogues, a ceremonial hall which now contains a display about Jewish burial societies, and the Jewish cemetery. My favorite synagogue was the Old-New (Staronová) Synagogue, which is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe, built in the 13th century.  The floor level is sunken below street level, so it feels as if you are entering a secret passage as you pass through the doorway.  It’s less ornate then some of the others but still awe-inspiring in its gothic gables and large ark and bimah. Also, this synagogue is the center of the Golam of Prague legend, adding to the sense of mystery. This synagogue is currently used by a Prague Orthodox congregation and an interesting though occurred to me as a I sat in the sanctuary appreciating that I was sitting in a spot where Jews have sat and prayed and learned for over 700 years.  If I had attended a service at this synagogue (probably even today as it appears to be used by an Orthodox congregation), I would not be able to sit and appreciate the simple beauty of this historical sanctuary – I would have been relegated to the women’s sections located on the perimeter with plain, unadorned walls, hard cement benches and completely separated except for small slits in the wall that enable the women to hear the service. Odd that as a tourist I can appreciate this beautiful site, but as a Jewish woman I would not be permitted. 

            The most powerful site for me was the Pinkas Synagogue which serves as a memorial to Bohemian and Moravian Jews killed in the Holocaust.  It is not currently used as a synagogue, but instead all of its walls in the sanctuary are covered with the names and dates of birth and death of all of the victims, organized by community. The other part of the Pinkas Synagogue is a display of artwork by children living in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) internment camp from 1942-1944.  While most of the children died, we are given a glimpse of their interpretation of life in the camp, everyday activities, and their hopes for the future.  As I continue to visit Jewish and Holocaust sites on my travels through Europe I am constantly reminded of the incredible number of Jews murdered and how this represented ~67% of all European Jews, and up to 90% in countries like Poland and Germany.  Even after so many years of reading about various aspects of the Holocaust, I’m still struck by the sheer volume. What a different experience it would be to travel as a Jew in Europe today if the Holocaust had never happened.  At some moments during my travels in Germany and Prague I find myself getting angry about this, which surprised me since I’ve been aware of these horrible events and statistics most of my life. Because the war in Gaza is also at its height during my time in Germany, as I learn more about the events of the holocaust in specific communities and sites, I struggle about my decision to live in Israel this year.  While I certainly don’t support the actions of Hamas, I also don’t understand how a government, claiming to represent the Jewish people who have lost so much, can turn around and destroy the lives of so many innocent, oppressed Palestinian civilians. Of course, we are seeing this violence and genocide across many countries right now including Syria, Iraq, Nigeria to name just a few.  Also during this time, unarmed Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, MO and as riots break out I am reminded of the incredible disparities and violence experienced by communities of color in the U.S. as well.  I’m frustrated as I take all this in, and not sure how to further articulate my thought right now, but I look forward to exploring these topics more in the social justice-focused program in which I will be participating in Israel.

            The Jewish Museum is one of the most visited sights and Prague, and completely packed with tourists during my visit. While some synagogues strike a balance between functional synagogue and exhibits, others are purely a museum, despite the fact that there are congregations in Prague that could be using them.  For background, it is said that so many synagogues and artifacts of Jewish history were preserved in Prague because the Nazis planned to create a museum in Prague of the “annihilated race.”  And in some of the sights, it really does feel like people are flocking from all over the world to learn about a people who no longer exist.  I find in both Prague and Germany that most Jewish sights focus so much on the Holocaust that they do a poor job of educating the public about the living Jewish community today.  The final site I visited in Prague was the Jerusalem Synagogue which is not part of the Jewish Museum and therefore was thankfully nearly free of tourists.  My favorite part of this synagogue, which is still in use, was an exhibit discussing events in the Jewish community in Prague and the Czech Republic from 1945 to the present.  Czech Jews, as well as Jews who fled to the Czech Republic from Poland, still faced quite a bit of anti-semitism from the Communist regime.  However, there are numerous stories of survival and perseverance.  I appreciated this exhibit because while the Jewish communities in much of Europe today are relatively small, I still have been seeking information about what those communities are like today.  Plus, I think it’s an important part of the story that should be told to the general public, that Jewish culture and practice continue in Europe today.  At the same time that we mourn the catastrophic losses from the Holocaust, I want to celebrate living Jewish communities, especially through a social justice lens.