10 June 2010

New Idea?!?!?/ Post-Soviet World with a side of Turkish Delight

So my BFF Adrienne is here visiting me and she's a Media Communications major. So we were talking about my blog and I was complaining that I love sharing my pictures, but I struggle with writing the prose. I love communicating through photography, but find the text tedious. Hence, the new idea was formed. PHOTOJOURNALISM-style blog. I would love to share my photos with you along with short descriptions. I want the photos to speak for themselves. Let's see how this goes. 

The second half of my Spring Break trip with Stephanie took us to Sofia, Bulgaria and Istanbul, Turkey. 
We took a night train from Athens, Greece to Sofia, Bulgaria with no train staff and no English-speaking fellow passengers. Customs was a little rough. 
In Sofia there are natural water springs where everyone collects their water. 
Greek Orthodox religion + Russian architecture = Breathtaking.
Sofia carries signs of the USSR everywhere. There is definitely a "vibe" that is totally different from anwyhere else I've traveled.
Then another train to Istanbul complete with staff and English speakers. Yet Steph became a little exasperated by the repeated taking of our passports only to disappear. She finally declared, "I'm putting on my pants and following that character." Needless to say, side-splitting laughter ensued. 
The Hagia Sofia combines an ancient church and mosque making it a fascinating fusion of religious iconography. 
The Christian symbols were beautifully rendered yet mostly destroyed.
The Blue Mosque makes a stunning impression. And there are snacks! 
Street markets hold a place in my heart I will never truly understand. Something about the crazy energy just gets me.
The bazaar is huge and full of goodies! Turkish delight anyone?

Hope this new format works a little better. We'll see!

22 April 2010

Semana Santa: Feta cheese with a side of feta!

So my friend, Steph D, and I concocted this crazy plan for spring break. We had dreams of Greek cuisine and beaches, encounters with Bulgarian vampires, and Turkish teas in hammams. So we decided to head to  Greece and see Athens, Santorini, and Crete. Then take a night train to Sofia, Bulgaria, and finally take another night train to Istanbul, Turkey. In this blog I will try to recount the crazy adventures of the Greek leg of the trip. Fasten your seat belts! Here we go!

So we arrive in Athens and immediately realize that we cannot read any of the street signs because of course in Greece they use a different alphabet. Luckily Steph could use her experience jogging on frat row to interpret some of the signs. Athens wasn't my favorite city. It was a big jumble of unplanned streets crowded in an urban sprawl. But the way the urban was mixed with the ancient was really interesting. Right next to a huge business complex there would be the ruins of a temple.

I did enjoy seeing the Acropolis. Acropolis technically means the furthest point of the edge of the city. This is where the ancient Greeks would build the monuments. So the Acroplis contains a beautifully conserved amphitheater as well as the famous Temple of Athena. The temple was one of the largest constructions I've ever seen. It's sheer enormity was astounding.

The next day we headed to Delphi. It was a 3 hour ride on a bus and we arrived in the most beautiful mountainside town. This town has the Temple of Apollo where the Oracle at Delphi would predict the future by placing herself above a hole in the temple floor, which experts now think was emitting drug filled fumes. The ruins were interesting, but I enjoyed seeing the landscape more.

The next morning we boarded a ferry to Santorini. We got off the ferry and expected to be in the middle of a city. That would be too easy. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was the Greek version of a strip mall and that was it. So we got the last cab at the port and headed to Fira, the capitol. After settling in at the San Giorgio hotel and speaking with the hilarious George we decided to walk towards the old port to see the sunset. As we walked he kept meeting up with these awesome stray dogs so of course I made friends with them!

We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset on a Greek isle and I couldn't have been happier!

The next day we headed to the Red Beach. Santorini is a volcanic island so the beach is made up of both black and red volcanic rock. It was a rough sand beach but the atmosphere was so cool (and I've never even heard of a red beach before!).

That same day we headed to Crete with wet beach hair on another short ferry. This time we arrived exactly where we expected, Heraklio. We immediately took a bus to Rethymno, a Venetician city. It took us a million years to find our hostel, but the wandering around was absolutely beautiful. After getting into our hostel, we headed to this cafe/bar we had seen while wandering. The cafe was in a brick tunnel of sorts and the menus were in all Greek. Our first authentic experience! The waiter came over and between his broken English and our minimal knowledge of Greek food we ordered a traditional Cretan drink and some bruschetta. It was fantastic! At the end of the night the waiter came back to our table and told us that some guy at the bar had bought us a shot, but when I looked over at the bar the guy over there wasn't even looking at us. Then he awkwardly said, "Well who bought it doesn't matter. It's italian and it means pretty girls. Will you take it with me?" So cute! He was adorably awkward, and nervous. And I'm almost positive he was the one that bought the shot. It was a wonderfully authentic Greek evening. But alas we had to head to Plakias the next morning.

But Plakias did not disappoint. It was a gorgeous, natural oasis. The bus let us off right at the beach and we walked to our hostel set in the middle of an olive grove. Yes, it was as delightful as it sounds. The very first day we decided to head out for a hike. These hikes are not a joke by the way. The hostel owner, Chris, mentions on the instructions that these were originally donkey paths, but I didn't quite realize what it means. It means essentially that they are tiny, thistle covered "paths" that are incredibly hard to find. Our first hikes destination was this 14th century Venetian mill and church. We made it quite easily to the mill which was super cool.

But getting up to the top of the mountain proved a little more difficult than we expected. We got to the top and came to a gate marked "CLOSE GATE SHEEP FALL AND DIE." So we passed through the gates but just as we turned the corner three growling dogs came roaring around the bend. Two seemed to just want to make a racket. But one brindle-colored monster kept jumping at me with his teeth bared. Just as he nipped my legs and I began to pee my pants this homeless man came around the corner and yelled at this dogs in Greek to follow him. Phew, that was a close call.

We spent that afternoon relaxing on the beach after a long hike and it was joyous! The next morning we decided to embark upon an even more challenging hike. This hike involved going to where the mill was yesterday and then going down into the river and walking up in the river for around an hour and a half!! I LOVE RIVER WALKING! So this was totally up my alley. It was so much fun. But of course there were mishaps.
1. There were a lot of spiderwebs and at one point I got a spiderweb in my face along with the spider. So of course I spastically scratched my face until I realized that blood was running down my face from the nose ring that I had messed up. Great. And the blood was getting all over my fav tie-dye shirt. ugh.
2. Upon reaching the end of the river walk we had to hike straight up a thistle covered mountain. Yes my legs were covered in scratches.
3. Upon reaching the top of this mountain, I encountered a road . . . and 6 mountains goats complete with horns and bells! (kind of cool but kind of still a mishap)
4. The biggest mishap of all. After surviving the goats, we walked maybe 100 yards along the road and there she was in the middle of the road, a gargantuan momma hog!!!! It had like a million teets and a snarl like I've never seen. I was terrified. She started walking the same direction as us down the lane so we started to follow her. But she was not about to tolerate that. She turned around and stared us down until we had not only stopped walking, but moved off the path. We decided to wait until she had walked a good ways and then try to walk after her. Alas she was too smart for this ploy. Right after we started walking she came back towards us! Finally she started eating some grass on the side of the road so we climbed through the thistles on the other side and managed to get around her. I can now add another animal to the already lengthy "Farm Animals I'm Scared of List": momma hog.

Crete was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in my life. I would absolutely love to go back and explore some more. I loved that I spent every morning hiking until I was exhausted and then every afternoon laying out on the beach. It was the perfect combination. Unfortunately we had to leave that afternoon to head back to Athens. We boarded the ferry around 9pm, which is literally like a floating hotel room complete with shower and everything!

We knew the ferry was supposed to arrive at 5am, but there was a loud speaker in the room so we didn't set an alarm. Mistake. We woke up to a kind gentleman saying something to us in Greek at which point, Steph looks at her watch and in tones of panic says "It's 7am, and I think he said we are in Naxos," which is not the port in Athens where we needed to be. Of course my first reaction is to take off running after the guy down the ferry's hallway. In order for you to be able to fully form the visual, I'd like you to imagine me with morning hair wearing a blood stained tie-dye t-shirt (it was my only sleep shirt, don't judge), black leggings, and baby blue life is good boxers. Quite a sight to have chasing after you. After a few tense minutes of communication issues, I determined that we were in Athens, but had overslept by 2 hours. It was so embarrassing to walk past all the open doors with the cleaning people working. As we disembarked the dock workers shook their heads at us. What silly girls!

We spent the entire day in Athens relaxing in a park and reading English books we bought at a bookshop. It was a nice preparation for the Bulgarian adventures to come!!!!

12 April 2010

Three Broads Abroad

First we need to flashback to December to start this story. For Christmas I decided to give my mom a plane ticket to come visit me in Spain. So I taped an electronic print out into my city map book and wrapped it. When momma opened it, she couldn't figure out what it was (but of course she faked excitement). I told her to look inside the front cover. She read the print out and couldn't believe. She said, "For me?" Then of course we cried and hugged a lot. That night we decided that it would be really fun if my aunts came with my momma to giver her company. By the end of Christmas day, we had a trip planned for March involving my mom and two aunts in Spain! I've been so excited ever since.

The day finally came when my family was coming to Spain. I imagined a glorious entrance into the airport involving flamenco dancers and a parade, but I couldn't really pull that off. So I went to the airport to retrieve them. Cue first disaster of the trip: Aunt Sally's luggage was lost. Great.

But we tried to keep up our spirits and headed to the hotel. We arrive around 9am and of course our room was not ready so the ladies couldn't get a much needed nap. Cue second annoyance. We decided that mom would come nap in my apartment while I went to class and then my aunts would stick it out until the room was ready. I armed them with a map and general ideas about the area and we parted ways.

After class, I met back up with everyone and we had a wonderful evening with tapas at Mercado de San Miguel, a really pretty, new, posh "market" of sorts. Tapas are typically small snacks that come free with drinks in Spain, but at the market you can buy them separately. So we ate some lovely Spanish cheeses, ham, and empanadas, a meat pastry. After an evening stroll, I headed home because we were leaving for Granada on a bus early in the morning.

We met up near momma's hotel, and then headed to the bus station. Cue third severe annoyance: traffic jams. The bus ride was supposed to be around 5 hours. Nevertheless we were on the bus no less than 8 hours! It was so long. I think we were all contemplating getting out and walking at some point. I couldn't even believe it.

Because the bus was so late we had to grab a quick bite once we arrived and head straight to the Alhambra. The Alhambra is the Moorish castle that the Moors occupied as rulers in Granada until 1492. Granada has arguably the deepest running influence of arabic culture of any city and the Alhambra was absolutely breathtaking.

After the Alhambra we headed in for a nice night's sleep. The next day we got up to explore the city a little bit. As we were walking towards the arab quarter there was beautiful architecture and quaint charm.

At one point I saw what looked like a convent and immediately remembered a Samantha Brown episode: CONVENT COOKIES! Basically there's a turnstile window where you place your money and order cookies. Then a nun on the other side places your cookies on the turnstile and turns it back. I had never done it and I was so excited. The cookies were really intensely sweet, meaning I think I was the only one who liked them. Either way it was a good experience.

Later that day, we walked past a guitar shop really close to our hostel. So of course we had to go in to look for Uncle Mark and my dad. I instantly well in love with the classical guitars. I've played guitar for almost 10 years, but mostly rock or jazz. I kept looking around at those guitars and I had the sudden strong urge to learn flamenco. As I was playing with a guitar the shop keeper had given me to look at, I knew I wanted it, but I wasn't sure I could afford it. My aunts shocked and delighted me by offering to buy it for me for a graduation present! I'm now the proud owner of a beautiful classical guitar (even though I can't really play it all that well).

Next we visited the cathedral. It was grand and beautiful. My mom and I lit a candle for my grandmother who recently died and converted to Catholicism right before her death. I thought it was a nice gesture.

That evening we went to a flamenco show. I absolutely love flamenco's rhythms and the impassioned movements. In the end, they got me, Aunt Sally, and Aunt Susan up to dance with them.

Then Sunday morning we got up intending to go on a tour of the olive oil producing countryside, but unfortunately it was raining so we canceled. We got back to Madrid a little earlier in the evening and settled back into our hotel with Aunt Sally's newly recovered luggage.

Cue the most major disaster of all. We decided to grab a bite close to our hotel at an outdoor cafe in a plaza. Aunt Susan had her purse hanging off the arm of her chair and at the end of the meal we realized that it was gone. I'm pretty sure that I saw the couple that took it sit down directly behind us, but then they left quickly. It was incredibly frustrating.

The next morning we got up and made a police report. I hope it didn't ruin Aunt Susan's experience, because I've been robbed and it definitely is upsetting. We spent the morning shopping and then I headed to class while they went to the Royal Palace.

That evening we had a final Spanish dinner, and then I saw them off to the airport the next morning.

It was so nice getting to show parts of my experience here in Spain to my family. I hope they enjoyed it, and it helps put a visual to some of the things I do everyday. Despite the difficulties of the traveling experience, I truly loved getting to spend time with the ladies of the Ragsdale-Harris-Clayton clan!

15 March 2010

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

In the past few weeks I've been trying slowly but surely to explore different parts of Spain. I really want to leave here with an experience in most of the regions of Spain, and since I was accepted to Teach for America in Chicago for next year I feel the June 12th deadline. I have less than three months left here and I really want to make the most of it. So two weekends ago, I headed to Sevilla (yes think Barber of Seville). It's a gorgeous city but my umbrella was nearly permanently glued to my hand for the weekend. We arrived late Friday, spent Saturday going to the sites, and then came back Sunday. It was a whirlwind of a trip!

First we went to the Alcazar (castle in arabic). It was one the of the most exquisite things I've ever seen in real life. The arabic architecture is so intricate and geometric.

But the gardens were by far my favorite part. Despite the rain I spent nearly an hour wandering around. There were lush patches of palm trees, orange trees everywhere, and beautifully haunting fountains. Every surface was covered in brightly colored tiles. The whole time I just kept imagining what it would be like with a bright blue sky, although there was something beautifully melancholy about seeing the misty, rainy garden.

After seeing the Alcazar we walked to the Cathedral and the sun peeped out for a few wonderful minutes.

The cathedral is in the gothic style, which is one of my favorites. I really loved this huge silver altar, but none of my pictures did it justice. I just thought the use of silver over the more traditional gold was really cool and it had this huge crown with sun rays coming out of it at the top. It was great. The cathedral also holds the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

You can climb to the top of the bell tower and see the city laid out before you.

After this crazy weekend I was exhausted and slept forever on Sunday night!

This weekend, I decided to take a day trip with some friends to Alcalá de Henares, a small pueblo near Madrid where Cervantes was born. We took a quick train ride, 35 minutes, and were in a charming pueblo. First we visited a garden filled with sculptures, but I found the weird mossy waterfall the most interesting.

The happened upon a beautiful plaza in front of a convent. If you look carefully at the top of the building you can see the nests of the storks for which Alcalá is famous.

We tried to visit Cervantes' home, but it was closed. So instead I grabbed a photo of the Don Quixote statue with an oddly fat Sancho.

Finally we made it to the central town plaza. There were family playing games, and strolling everywhere. It's one of the things that I love about Spain. Families hang out around town together on the weekends and really utilize parks, plazas, even streets. One of the most posh streets in Madrid, Fuencarral, gets shut down on Sunday mornings so that families can roller blade, see sidewalk puppet shows, and play games. It's an awesome Spanish tradition.

At the end of the day, my good friend Stephanie, suggested we buy bread and go down to the river to feed the storks. So we bought some snacks and bread to feed the birds. Needless to say, we ate most of the bread for the storks ourselves during the walk. Then we arrived at this "river" to find it was barely a stream. It was hilarious. Steph it's such an optimistic, idealistic person that she just really wanted it to be considered a river, but there's no way!

After a fun day we headed back to Madrid!