Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Torla, or the time we almost froze to death

Ever since Justin saw a photo of Torla in the Spain Lonely Planet back in Toronto, he had his sights set on reaching the tiny medieval village in a valley in the Pyrenees and exploring the natural beauty surrounding it. The snow-capped peaks of the mountains that form the town's backdrop and make up the famous Parque Nacional de Ordesa draw scores of Spanish and French tourists but few English speakers, making the locale even more alluring.

Two months after that travel guide book photo caught Justin's eyeand a few bus rides away from civilizationwe found ourselves in Torla gazing up in wonderment at a sight more beautiful than the pictures. They really nailed it with their church:

We checked in to a refugio, or a very small, basic hotel primarily for hikers. A nearby bar doubled as the check-in counter. After dinner, we visited some grocery and camping stores and began to make plans to climb to another more rustic, spartan refugio in the mountains, with the goal of eventually summiting the nearby, 11,000 ft. (3,355 m.) Monte Perdido.

The refugio was booked months in advance, though, so we rented a tent. A guy at the camping store looked at us increduously when we told him we didn't have sleeping bags or sleeping pads; he said it'd get cold up in the mountains and suggested we purchase fleeces and then take blankets from the refugio.

We set out the next day on a beautiful four-hour hike that passed tons of waterfalls and wildflowers. The views were spectacular. A couple different Europeans we met remarked that the scenery probably looked like that in American national parks, effectively making them way less exotic and cool in our minds. Lame.

We eventually rose up above the tree line, passed a point where most day-hikers turn back, scaled a cliff with the help of bolts and ropes permanently tied to the rocks, and finally made it to Refugio de Goríz. Located above a valley at 7,200 ft. (2,200 m.), it was officially the most incredible place I have ever pitched a tent.

The weather was warm and so were the people. Or so we assumedthey didn't really speak English. A herd of 1,000 sheep and a toothless Spanish shepherd wandered by:

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

As night set in and the sun began to descend, the temperature started to drop. Frenchmen whipped out down jackets. "Oh, crap," we thought.

Turns out the fleeces weren't enough, and sleeping on the ground with no padding or sleeping bag is not the most pleasant experience either. Unsurprisingly, covering ourselves with random things from our backpacks didn't help too much. We asked at the refugio if we could borrow blankets. "Nope," they replied.

When our fingers still worked well enough to take photos.

After drifting in and out of sleep, wondering whether various appendages had succumbed to frostbite, we glanced at the thermometer: 8 degrees Celsius, or about 46 Fahrenheit. A plan was hatched, and we unzipped our tent and stealthily disappeared into the night.

Tiptoeing into the silent, dark refugio, we made our way to the dorm rooms on the second floor. Justin swiped two blankets, and we made a break for it. Glancing up, I noticed there were more stars in the sky than I had ever seen beforea magnificent, awe-inspiring sight. "Cool," I thought for about one tenth of a second before diving into the tent and under blankets.

I've never before stolen for survival, but I believe we did just that that night. I felt absolutely no remorse. Too bad it didn't really work. Still freezing cold, we hardly slept under the thin blankets and had to abandon our plan to climb Monte Perdido the next day.

Instead, defeated, we marched into the refugio in the morning, dumped the blankets on the ground, and then walked back down to Torla.

But not before we vowed to one day return to that godforsaken refugio and climb the elusive Monte Perdido. I think we'll bring some winter gear next time. Or reserve a space inside.

Thawing out in the refugio the next morning. Note the matching fleeces.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Vacation slideshow

So while everyone was at home swaying back and forth during Quakepocalypse 2011, I was getting ready to board an overnight bus from Sicily to Naples. Since I last checked in, I've visited Barcelona, Venice, Florence, Siena, Cinque Terra, Pisa, and Sicily (Palermo, Siracusa, and Catania). Today we're going to explore Naples, tomorrow Pompeii, and Rome after that.

As my hostel's keyboard is particularly bad, I'm going to hold off on the full-yet-concise update until later. In the meantime, here are some photos from the last few weeks:

Our bike ride guide dunks his head in a stream near Granada, Spain

 Busking on the streets of San Sebastián, Spain

Organ pipes at the Sagrada Família church, Barcelona

Venice at night

We took a day trip to Siena last week to see the Palio, a 354 year-old, violent, bareback horserace steeped in medieval tradition. I'm sure I'll write more about this, but here's a taste of what we experienced:


And happy birthday, Mom!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spain, natural and man-made

 Parque Nacional de Ordesa, Spanish Pyrenees

Third Millenium Bridge, Zaragosa, Spain

Sunday, August 7, 2011

España: Tapas and old buildings

Hola from Zaragoza, Spain, or a random, surprisingly large city that we accidentally found ourselves in thanks to weird bus schedules.

We've been having an awesome time in Spain is sweet for a variety of reasons. Top three:
  • With the siesta, they've institutionalized the nap.
  • Things actually work like they're supposed to here, i.e. cars stop for you at crosswalks. The developed world is a crazy place.
  • Tapas come free with drinks in parts the south of the country.
Here's what I've been up to over the past two weeks:

I arrived in Madrid and immediately wandered into Spain's Tahrir Square, Plaza de Puerta de la Sol. There's a makeshift tent city there; it looked like people were protesting capitalism and the general state of politics. Then I ran into a Free Cuba protest. Spain is basically like Egypt -- people protesting a lot, Arab immigrants everywhere, and lots of weddings.

Justin and Alex joined me the next day, and we took Madrid by storm. Checked out the Reina Sofia Museum, home of Picasso's Guernica, ate some delicious Indian food, and wandered the streets for hours. Listened to some AWESOME blues/soul/funk music at a little place called La Boca del Lobo ("The Mouth of the Wolf"). The following day, we  hit up the famous Prado Museum after an epic three-hour long park chill in Madrid's largest park. More wandering.

A short bus ride outside of Madrid and known for its pre-Inquisition mixing of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Toledo and its beautiful alleyways are reminiscent of Jerusalem's Old City, and it was fun checking out a couple of really old synagogues. The churches were way grander architecurally, but walking through the synagogues and the streets or the old Jewish Quarter felt much more meaningful. Our day in Toledo was also exciting because we had expected to travel straight from Toledo to Cordoba, which makes sense on a map but not in the world of Spanish trains and buses. We wasted over an hour searching for a car rental company -- they were of course closed for siesta -- but eventually made it to Cordoba by bus by way of Madrid. No problema.

I've been waiting to see the Great Mosque of Córdoba's double-tiered arches ever since I studied them in the one art class I ever took, and they didn't disappoint. Afterward, we hit up another synagogue and a Sephardic Jewish museum, where we met a young man who was one of only 25 Jews living in Córdoba today. Meanwhile, we began to detect a pattern of houses of worship flipping religions, such a a mosque-turned-church or a mosque-turned-church-turned-synagogue-turned-church-turned-Buddhist temple-turned-McDonald's-turned-cathedral. For example.

Arrived in Sevilla last Saturday night. Promptly saw a flamenco show with an incredibly distressed-looking but very talented Spanish woman dancing to some great guitar. Sampled some tapas/beer. On Sunday, we visited the cathedral (a former mosque) and even climbed the minaret/bell tower.

The Alhambra! Justin accidentally bought tickets for the day before -- thus giving me good ammunition to use against him when I inevitably make some planning mistake during this trip -- so we hightailed it over there and almost pulled off the good ol' "our friend was sick yesterday so we missed our bus and thus you should give us free tickets today" story. But alas, we had to pay, and it was really worth it. Verdant gardens, beautiful Muslim and Christian ornamentation, expansive views of Granada. Centuries of Muslim and Christian rulers got it right.

That night, we sat in a medieval neighborhood on a hillside and watched the sun set over the city and the palace grounds. Then we met a Syrian man who gave us free falafel. The next day, we did a bike tour to a small town that was actually just a bike ride on which you stop for beer and sangria halfway through. Fourth reason why I like Spain.

We flew up to Basque Country in northern Spain and checked out the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a beautiful building made of titanium that sparkles in the sun. We also visited a musuem on the Basque people, who are totally different from other Spaniards; in fact, their language, Basque, has no known links to any other Indo-European language. They also have a very strong nationalist movement going on; we saw one sign that said, "Tourist Remember: You are neither in Spain nor in France, you are in the Basque Country."

San Sebastián
We finally made it to beach/food/surfing/chilling paradise, otherwise known as San Sebastián. Home to one of the most beautiful city beaches -- and, of course, sunsets -- in the world, the old town also plays host to the most Michelin restaurant stars in the world (according to Justin's guidebook). Tapas, or small dishes, were plentiful; my favorite was steak covered with foie gras and olive oil.

We stayed two night at a hostel in the center of the nightlife, but the place had no common room or kitchen and seemed to still be under construction -- our rooms had no doorknobs until the second day, and there was constant hammering. We switched to another more homey place the third night, where we met tons of English speakers. We busked on the streets of San Sebastián with an Australian and a Londoner; Justin played guitar, and I sat on the ground and clapped. We earned enough for beers for all four of us.

Which brings us to Zaragoza. After extending our stay in San Sebastián a bit, we ended up having to spend a night in this random place on our way to the Spanish Pyrenees for spectacular hiking and camping right along the French border. We're about to head to the bus station to go to Torsa, Spain.

Photos coming soon!