Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My First Adventures in Spain: Madrid and Basque Country

After a stressful first semester at work, I decided to embark on my first journey to Europe. I spent a few weeks in Spain. While there, I wrote a bit about my experiences. As anyone would imagine, it was like a big side step from the daily life I am used to.


I spent a lot of time sipping wine and munching on tasty olives when I was in Spain.
My trip took a long time, obviously. I flew from Seoul, to Beijing, to Amsterdam, then finally to Madrid. The middle, long flight was unfortunately terrible! My seat was in the middle of a two-story plane, looking at a blue wall, and next to a toddler. It was a bad ten hours, but it ended eventually. Beijing's airport was messy and disorganized, I and had to constantly ask around to find out what to do and where to go for my connecting flight. It was full of conflicting information from different people. Amsterdam's airport was fantastic, though. Completely the opposite, and I was impressed with everything being automated. I saw a huge tribute to the victims of Malaysia airlines flight 17 outside of the airport. The lawn was covered with flowers and stuffed animals, which I thought was sweet. I wasn't able to get a picture, though.

About 22 hours later, I finally arrived to Madrid feeling like a zombie.


For the first time, I used Couchsurfing to find places to stay. I stayed with a man in his 30s in Madrid. He was nice enough to pick me up from the airport. He even showed me around Madrid with one of his friends, taking pictures and driving me around. The best part about it was being about to discuss many topics of interest, and he more or less introduced me to politics in Spain. 
Scenes from my outings in Madrid

In Madrid, I walked around the center of the city, looking at their parks like Parque Retiro, their plazas, palaces and old buildings. My favorites were a building donated by Egypt, and a big palace. My Couchsurfing host drove me to Alcala de Henares, which is a nice historic neighborhood. It was very interesting. I had some wine, tried local tapas and talked a lot about Korea on that day.

 I tried tons of tapas with my host and his friend, and they were so good! Especially the ham, olives and sardines. My host knew I liked to cook, so he would prepare meals for me. Tried a salad with peppers and codfish. Also a breakfast with toast, tomatoes. My first meal there was a four cheese pizza, which was so good tome since it actually had four different cheeses! This is significant coming from Korea, with its unique pizza.

My first impressions of Spain were very good. The food was amazing and I loved trying the different tapas and wines. The people were also more approachable, making it easy to ask questions and it was nice to have most people genuinely try to help me.Yes, it helps to speak the language, but people were patient with me, which makes all of the difference. I can see that difference, even though I speak Spanish and my Korean is minimal. In Korea, this is harder because they aren't used to foreigners. Recently I had cab drivers kick me out of their cab, refusing to understand what I was saying. Oddly enough, they also refused to see my destination written down in their language. Incidents like this can make life frustrating.  In contrast, the Spanish folks made an effort to try to understand what I am saying when I'm less than clear. On the train ride from Madrid to Bilbao, I was asked to translate for a tourist because they wanted to help him, but didn't understand him. It makes me appreciate making the decision to take my vacation outside of Asia. It's like a breath of fresh air. 
I took a quick trip to Alcala de Henares

I'm a big fan of food, and living in Korea, it has its ups and downs. Korea has variety, offering lots of different types of cuisines at relatively reasonable prices. This is a far cry from places like Colombia, where this isn't the case at all. However, they generally aren't good at making food that isn't their own. For example, the pizzas and pastries are terrible in my opinion. It was nice to eat a good pizza for once. It's also nice to order a pastry with nothing questionable on or inside of it. For example, most pastries in Korea involve either rice, beans or sweet potato. Anything reasonable inside is in the minority.

I only went inside one museum, the Prado Museum. I went around 5pm, but was told to wait because it was free starting at 6 pm. The line was long, so I took some pictures, sat down and waited. I was happy to see the line move quickly after 6 pm. It was hot and sunny, so I was glad that I sat down in the shade. There was no reason to stand up and wait in line, really. Once inside, I found it to be really impressive. It's certainly worth paying for. The paintings were great, to say the least. My favorites were the paintings depicting Greek mythology and the portraits of members of the Spanish monarchy, including Las Meninas, probably the most famous painting hanging in this museum.

I bought train tickets to leave Madrid after a few days. The train station was easy to figure out. I went to Basque country next, which took about 5 hours total.

After Madrid, I went to Basque Country. 


In Basque Country, I stayed with a Couchsurfing host in Bilbao. My host in Bilbao was an interesting, soft spoken man that was a little older than me. He was married but his wife was out of town on vacation. He invited me in, and I explored Bilbao on my own as he worked in the daytime. 
A look at Bilbao

I thought Bilbao was peaceful, and it had a different vibe than Madrid. The architecture in the city was very nice, and made it stand out from the rest of the country.  My host handed me a map, and I took my time heading toward the tourist attractions. In Bilbao, I went to the old part (Casco Viejo), the Teatro Arriega, a couple of the train stations (ex. Estacion Santander), The Ribera Market, the Zubizuri bridge the Guggenheim Museum, and the Fine Arts Museum.  I didn't go inside any of the museums. The Guggenheim Museum has an impressive building, but I was advised not to pay to enter since it wasn't worth it. I actually wanted to go inside the Teatro Arriega, but they didn't sell tour tickets inside of the theater. I asked the ticket lady where to get them, but after following her directions I wasn't able to find the place where they were sold.

When my host returned from work, we went to the beach by the city.

The beach we went to was called Playa de Arrigunaga, and it appeared to be a calm and cool beach. It was easily accessible by metro. There, instead of going to the beach, my host took me for a walk along a nice pathway that led to cliffs that overlooked the beach and the port. He then told me about the history of the Basque people in Spain and France. 
Scenes from Bilbao

After the walk, we went back to his place. At that point, it was a bit strange because he talked about how Americans tend not to contribute much when we are brought in as guests. This came from him asking me to cook Korean food, and I told him that I wouldn't be able to without the proper ingredients. He indicated that there was a "Chinese" store, but I said that Chinese food is not Korean food. In any case, I chalked it up to a possible cultural difference and moved on.

San Sebastian

I then took a day trip to San Sebastian, which was a short bus trip away. I had arranged to meet a couple of Couchsurfers there. I had a blast in that short day! San Sebastian is a beach town that's also located in Basque Country. It had recently been rebuilt after a big storm caused an alarming amount of damage to the city. One of the Courchsurfers I met was studying to be a tour guide, and he showed me around when I got there. I went to La Concha beach, which was hot and crowded, but I loved how beautiful the water was. I was a little taken aback by some nude children and topless women, but I should have known that. I then had dinner with another man from Couchsurfing, who introduced me to his friends. There was a lot of drinking and discussion involved! We had some tapas, and then soon enough it was time for me to go. One of my biggest regrets from this trip was not having stayed longer there! 

Part of my amazing day in San Sebastian!

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