Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The next day Jack decided to rally, no doubt because of the previous night's dinner. We decided to save some scratch by heading off-site for breakfast. The place we went had the toast smeared with tomato and topped with olive oil as a breakfast option, so I got that along with Iberian ham and a coffee. As we sat in the window at our tiny table, a pack of teenage girls dressed as Santa, a blond-bearded guy, and a bunch of people (Arabs?) in blackface strode by on the street. Jack and I both whipped out our cameras, which got the attention of the girls, who came over to our window to pose.

Many European countries have the tradition of painting a white person's face in heavy, dark makeup and making them part of the Christmas festivities. In Belgium, and particularly in the Flemish regions, Santa is accompanied by Black Peter. Black Peter's terrifying visage appears in advertising circulars around the holiday season in Brussels, grinning maniacally from the page. I find these images quite disturbing, naturally, but (white) people here are indifferent them. I was quite surprised as well when we discovered that our hotel in Malta had a framed photo of what appeared to be a KKK rally in the hall (really a Holy Week procession), so that just goes to show that America hasn't permeated all aspects of European culture, pooping Dubya caganers aside.

So anyway, that was breakfast. We then went to take in the scene at the Alcazares Reales. This is a general term for royal palaces with Moorish influences that can be found throughout Spain. The one in Seville was built in the 14th century for Pedro the Cruel (or the Just, depending on whom you ask) using Moorish artisans. It was amazing. Everywhere you looked your eyes were greeted with richly detailed surfaces--floors, doors, walls, ceilings, windows. The place was brimming with people gawking and taking pictures.

After spending a while wandering through the warren of rooms, we checked out the gardens behind, which were very nice and for some reason almost devoid of people. There was a small cafe overlooking the garden where Jack had a coffee and I tried to order a horchata, which is prepared from different ingredients in Spain than it is in the Americas (chufa AKA tiger nut being the primary one). The woman indicated that they didn't have any and suggested I have a batido instead. Naturally I said yes, although I didn't know what it was. She opened a bottle and poured a creamy yellowish drink into a glass. I took the beverages back to our table with some trepidation.

There was nothing to fear, though--the batido tasted like good-quality vanilla ice cream thinned with milk to make a drink so it was refreshing rather than overly heavy. I later discovered that batido just means "shake" in Spanish, and you can get these things all over the place. I like to think I discovered something distinctive and delicious, though.

Once we were through looking at the gardens, which included ducks drinking from a channel inlaid in a path, fountains, ponds, grottoes, a pecan tree in the "English garden", and small buildings scattered about, including one with the most powerful hand dryer in the world, it was once again time to find food. We went to another spot recommended by the hotel for tapas. We got marinated artichokes topped with smoked salmon, goat cheese with a drizzle of flavored oil , potato salad, a tortilla with almond sauce, and "bull tail". It was all very tasty, although the tail was a bit too graphic-looking for my sensibilities, sliced into cross-sections as it was. Almond sauce is supposed to be a specialty of the area, and although I found it to be bland and not very almond-y, you really can't go wrong with the Spanish tortilla.

Jack was continuing to bear up well so we went to see Seville's bull ring. We didn't pay to enter, so there wasn't much to see, but it took us to an area of the city we hadn't been before. On the way back to our hotel we came across a building containing crafts, mostly hand-made pottery created by artisans who worked on the premises. There were lots of tiles with Moorish designs that I had my eye on, and we thought it might be fun to have ceramic numbers for our house in Alexandria, but 222 is a little dull. In the end, we purchased a green bowl with handles and a lid, and the elaborate design was created both by the glaze and by cut-out patterns in the clay. The woman who retrieved it for us took off the price tag, which also contained the name of the item. I wish I knew--it's got an unglazed 3-pronged thingy embedded in the side of the interior (like one of those things they use to keep the box from touching the top of your moltenly cheesy pizza), so it seems like it's supposed to be functional. It's great with a candle in there, though.

Our afternoon siesta was interrupted by a rock band playing loudly directly behind our building, but it didn't prevent us from chilling for a while. Later we ventured out once again to see the Christmas market. Again not taking any chances with Jack's still-fragile health, we made our way more or less directly over there to find it bustling, full of people and music. Choruses singing Christmas songs accompanied by guitar and percussion (castanets, tambourine, clay jug and stick, and glass bottle with bumpy exterior rasped by stick) greeted our ears. A woman was dancing with a young girl in a flamenco dress. The belen was lit. Very festive. The stalls were inhabited by craftspeople selling everything from leather goods to stained glass to kids' toys. All nice-looking, but not particularly Spanish, so we just window-shopped.

It was dark by this point yet still early, so we continued meandering around, encountering a piece of Roman aqueduct in a median strip, a roast chicken place that we made note of in case we needed something later, and other diverse sights. We followed signs for a belen that was mysteriously absent even though it had only closed 2 minutes before and had been replaced by some guys who stared at us and an old man playing acoustic guitar very poignantly. Every third building in the old quarter seemed to be a church with a sad-faced Mary that was slightly different from the next church's sad-faced Mary, a convent, or a monastery.

We then ducked into a flamenco joint called La Carboneria recommended by a Sevillian coworker of Jack's. In addition to a nod from a local, it had the additional benefit of being free, whereas other area places were charging nearly €20. We passed through a lovely brick-faced bar area with couches and a crackling fire and entered a nearly-empty cavernous shed protected by corrugated fiberglass roofing. A bit of a let down, but hey, they used to store coal there. We ordered the cheap local beer on tap and found a seat, not knowing what to expect. There were two large parties of people in their 20s at the back, obviously locals who were singing and shouting and...dancing the flamenco. I was surprised that the young people were carrying on the traditions by their own volition--they were clearly doing it for their own entertainment rather than putting on a show. Two other tables were occupied by tourist couples like us. So we sat, snuck glances at the party behind us, and nursed our beers.

Eventually the group started breaking up, off to their next Thursday night adventure. It was about 10 o'clock. Other touristy folks began drifting in and occupying the tables next to the stage, better-informed than we were about the start time of the real show. Or had the real-real show just exited by the front door and they had missed it? I ordered a couple tapas: ensaladilla and migas. I was under the distinct impression that I knew what migas was, being certain I had heard the term before. It was a turnover of some sort. But no, turns out it's fried seasoned breadcrumbs that had been pre-dampened so that they were slightly chewy. Jack proclaimed, "Even stuffing can be a tapa!" There was a lot of good action at the food counter while I waited: a young boy had to carry scalding hot chocolate care-ful-ly back to his table after the woman behind the counter tried to teach him to give her the appropriate amount of money from the coins he held in his hand, and an Asian girl was told that she could under no circumstances heat up her father's instant noodles in their microwave, even if he refused to eat anything on the menu (the girl herself seemed to survive on a diet of Nestle's ice cream bars and cigarettes). Health code and all. She'd have to bring it up with the stonily-silent stout woman behind the bar.

Finally, two men mounted the stage around 11:30. By this point the place was packed to the gills. One man asked for silence and began speaking about the performance to come. He refused to raise his voice when people began talking, so it was nearly impossible to hear (in addition to being in Spanish). The second man had a guitar, which he began to play. The softspoken man opened his mouth and began belting out a plumb pitiful tune, surprising indeed given his quiet speaking voice. The dancer appeared on stage looking grim and sat next to the singer. The two of them began clapping out an elaborate rhythm along with the guitar, not seeming to notice or care about the audience. Suddenly, the dancer flew out of her chair as if possessed by demons and started stomping, throwing her arms up and twirling. It really had the air of an improvised performance, as if she danced only when the spirit moved her. The singer also stood at times, putting his hand over his heart and singing as if his life depended on it. It was a very moving performance, and over too soon for those of us who needed a bit of extra rest.

The next morning we prepared to leave on the next leg of our journey. We left our bags at the bus station, got some breakfast and then pondered how to spend the next few hours. I suggested the archeology museum, but the currents were taking us in the opposite direction because Jack wanted to get an umbrella. So we wandered down to the shopping district and found the local branch of El Corte Ingles and bought one. We saw a nativity scene in a candy shop window that had chocolate for a backdrop. We wandered through the Archives of the Americas, which houses Columbus' papers and is free and exceptionally boring. It began to rain just as we entered the grounds of the University, which is located in a former cigar-making factory. We sat on one of the benches in the interior courtyard out of the rain, and a gaggle of girls passed us, handing us each a sweet and saying "Happy Christmas!" Girls there are just wild about Christmas, for some reason.

Having a bit more time to kill, we took an alternate route back to the bus terminal. Unfortunately yet unsurprisingly, once again my navigational skills were put to the test and I failed, so we ended up getting totally turned around, walking in the wrong direction and having to hustle to get there before the bus pulled out. It turns out we needn't have worried so much, because even as the bus waited for the light to change at the intersection after leaving the terminal, people were still pounding on the door to be let in. The driver scolded them all like a mother hen, but still allowed them to board. And then we were Tarifa bound.

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