for yaz -- ole! (yeah, voila would be more appropriate but that's not the right language)

May, 2000
[please note that this travelogue was written when the dollar was strong, the prices in Spain were cheap, and I was not familiar with this "linking" concept and digital picture hoo ha.]

Dear Constant Readers,
Yes, folks, it is that time of the year again. Time for another e-travelogue from yours truly. When I last left you, we were recovering from our adventures and tribulations south of the border, down Mexico way (for you Frank Sinatra fans).

I have recently returned from my latest trip to beautiful, sunny Spain. Madrid, Escorial, Valley of the Fallen, Toledo, Avila, Segovia, Grenada, Cordoba, and Sevilla. And now I present you with: TEN SITES IN TEN NIGHTS! (Actually, it is more accurate to say 10 sites in 10 days, but that is not as catchy and does not rhyme, so there you have it).

Cast of Characters:
Baji, our narrator, indie filmmaker, and on-the-road correspondent
LB, sister of narrator, our photographer, and queen-napper (yes, she even out-napped me);
Claudia, Discovery hotshot, master translator (she is from Chile and her language skills made our trip very smooth and manageable);
Anne, Discovery hotshot (part deux), traveling companion, birthday girl.

Day One: Madrid

The story begins with the four of us departing from Dulles Airport with seats so far back in the plane that all we had to do to get into the toilets was lean back. After spending a few hours berating myself for forgetting all my traveler’s checks back home (in a loving homage to my mother – ask her about Saudi Arabia), I got my first glimpse of Madrid, home to 2.9 meeeellion people. The air was clean and cool, the airport was well-maintained, and customs was a breeze. Our chatty cab driver whisked us to our hotel, NH Abascal, when, to our slight dismay, we found out that (1) rather than giving us two double beds per room, they set us up with one matrimonial bed per room and (2) none of the rooms were ready yet anyway and we had to come back in an hour. We explained that although we were friends, we were not such great friends that we wanted to share matrimonial beds, so after some re-arranging, we managed to snag two rooms with two beds each, but still had to wait an hour. We left our luggage in NH’s care and went out to seek sustenance. We staggered around, sleep-deprived, food-deprived, and map-deprived, and found a little dive restaurant near the hotel which was blaring some awful song by Tom Jones subtly titled “Sex Bomb”. We had our mediocre meal under the thudding monotony of the bass and then wove our way back to the hotel to address our first order of business: SIESTA!!!! Bear in mind that none of us had really slept for the last 24 hours, so LB and I conked out before the porter even brought out luggage back from the lobby. How sweet it is.

Minds refreshed, bodies showered, and clothes changed, it felt like a brand new day at 5pm. We familiarized ourselves with the Metro system (without managing to look like completely lost tourists), went down to Puerta del Sol (with which we became very well acquainted over the next few days), did some brief sight seeing, ogled the huge, beautiful ornate buildings and doors, and plopped down at a café for our first real meal. The food was great. Potato omelette (which Spaniards call “tortillas”), veggie soup, and very strong coffee. We had to get café con leche (coffee with milk) or else we would OD on caffeine as Spanish coffee closely resembles Turkish coffee in strength. Claudia and Anne had their first taste of paella (Spanish rice dish with a lot of other stuff thrown in). After dinner, we took a walk around the center to get our bearings. It was a gorgeous night which was a very fortunate thing as we had mistakenly appointed C and A to guide us back to the hotel and ended up walking in the completely opposite direction. After our legs were about to protest and go no further, we decided to take a cab back to the hotel and ended up seeing the same route we just walked whiz by. An inexpensive dollar a person ride later, we arrived back at the hotel where we made plans for the next morning over chamomile tea and more café con leche. We decided to take an 11-hour bus tour to Escorial, the Valley of the Fallen, and Toledo one day and a 9-hour bus tour to Avila and Segovia the day after that. We made do with our matrimonial beds (double beds promised for tomorrow) and slipped into a coma-like state.

Day Two: Madrid

Morning came much too early, but the Museo del Prado opened at 9am, so we forced ourselves out of bed, stood all too briefly under the wonderful shower provided by NH, and gobbled down our breakfast of freshly squeezed OJ, hot café con leche, flaky croissants, and some mystery cream-filled pastry at a diner near the museum. While we loitered near a statue of Goya and waited in line for the museum to open, Claudia chatted with some other tourists and found out about some fabulous bus tours offered for Toledo and Segovia. We paid our 500 pesetas (roughly $7) and tried to absorb as much Velazquez (famous Las Meninas or more formally, La Familia de Felipe IV), Goya (nightmarish Saturn Devouring One of His Sons), Greco (La Crucifixion), Bosch (freaky, mushroom-induced Garden of Earthly Delights), Rubens, Titian (chuckle if you remember Dan Akroyd’s sleazy character in SNL discussing famous paintings), and Raphael as we could.

Minds saturated with art (most of it bloody crucifixions, violent Greek mythology, and royal portraits), we broke for lunch. Unfortunately, we still were not prepared for how absolute the siesta-time is set and so had to walk far and wide before we found a restaurant that was open for business. We took an after-lunch stroll around the center of town (now understanding the lay of the land and recognizing our folly of last night’s meandering), checked out a long stretch of used bookstores, had some triple-chocolate ice cream bars for dessert, busted up some kids’ soccer game so that C and A could take some pictures of them, and then returned to the Museo del Prado for C and A to purchase some original oil paintings and meet the artist.

On the metro ride back to the hotel (we are now experts on the Madrid Metro system), we pumped some German kid for information on the local music scene. Siesta, relaxing showers, and pack up all the gear we had strewn around the rooms because the double beds came through! We moved our stuff to the new rooms, got dressed up (i.e. peeled off our dirty jeans and put on some clean, nicer outfits) and headed out to Prada del Sol. The first restaurant was out of cheese (go figure), and the second one (El Zorro) offered too much cheese. Rather than pull a Goldilocks stunt and look for a place where the cheese was just right, we filled ourselves up with quesadillas, guacamole, and chips.

We then set out to walk around the center of town in search of a hotel for the extra two nights we decided to stay in Madrid. But fate was against us. You see, although we had a slight idea of some festival to be held in Madrid during mid-May, we were not aware that we were going to be in Madrid RIGHT SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE of the Fiesta de San Isidro, “Madrid’s single greatest fiesta” which celebrates the city’s patron saint. The festival includes fairs, parties, fireworks, and musical performances. It kicks off Spain’s most prestigious feria, or bullfighting season, and all the hotels downtown were booked. Which means, we spent most of the night walking off all that cheese going from hotel to hotel to hotel (from luxurious to increasingly sketchy) asking if they had room for us for Monday and Tuesday nights. When we finally found one place that did have rooms available, we tried to ignore the empty lobby and the suspicious darkness around it and told them we would take it. We spent the next half hour (seemed like an eternity) standing in the cooling night waiting for a cab. We finally got one and returned to the NH hotel. Did I mention that by this time it was 3 a.m., some of our tummies were getting cranky over the intense cheese-intake, and we had planned to go on our first bus tour after three hours of sleep? No? Chalk it up to exhaustion and stay tuned to find out about the rest of the trip.

Day 3: Escorial, Valley of the Fallen, and Holy Toledo

Don’t ask me how we did it, but we managed to get up, dressed, and ready for the 11 hour bus tour by 7 a.m. While waiting for the transport bus to take us to the high-tech, AC tour bus at a nearby swanky hotel called Miguel Angelo, we asked if they had rooms for us for our last day in Madrid and much to our surprise, they did! Relief. It was expensive, but we’re worth it (as we toss our luxurious hair over our respective shoulders with a devil-may-care attitude). We settled down in our plush, reclining seats and looked out the huge picture windows as the bus tooled along to our first stop: Escorial. This palace/monastery is north of Madrid and served as the summer getaway for King Philip II. We walked through the Basilica, the Royal Palace, and the Royal Pantheons. The pamphlet the tour bus provided proclaimed Escorial to be “the eighth Wonder of the World,” but I have some reservations about that title (especially after seeing a fire-breathing Truckasaurus on ESPN). We strolled around the grounds, walked quickly around the tombs where almost all Spain’s monarchs since Carlos I rest in marble coffins, and peeked in during a service at the Basilica.

We four dawdled a bit longer than we should have at the end of the tour taking pictures and videotaping so that by the time we got back to the bus, we were met with obvious glares from our fellow tourists and a light reprimand from the tour guide (much gentler than the one that one of us – not me – received by one of the Escorial guards when she took some flash photograph of the tombs of the kings). We found out that this tour group was very precise on timing (I suspect the majority of them were Swiss) and that they had been waiting for us to get back. Oops. Desi Standard Time rules! We sheepishly took our seats and headed out to Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen. This huge monument, a mammoth cross atop a immense, concrete shrine, was built by prison labor to commemorate the victims of the Spanish Civil War. More impressive than the gargantuan structures were the beautiful countryside and the still snow-capped mountains nearby. We soaked up some more Spanish sunshine and then managed to be the very first people on the bus to make up for our previous faux pas.

We drove toward Toledo, passing intensely green fields dotted with bright red poppies and purple spiky flowers along the way. LB and I managed to sneak in a siesta on the ride and awoke when we stopped for a moment to have lunch at a restaurant high on a hill with an amazing view of the city. Music was provided by the Tuna University singers (yes, that was their name) and C & A bought their CD and got their autographs. We spent the rest of the tour on foot as we walked through the narrow alleys and crowded streets to see cathedrals, churches, synagogues, and bridges built by the Moors. We saw some Greco paintings (learned that his real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, but since he was a Greek, the Spaniards just nicknamed him El Greco; he came to settle in Toledo after being rejected for being a court artist for Escorial). We saw Toledo’s Alcazar (Arabic for fortress) high on a hill and built in the 10th century. We toured a metal factory where they forge swords with damascene decorations made in gold and silver according to the Arab artistic tradition. C & A bonded with our tour guide and got his autograph in a book he wrote on his travels. He apparently had forgiven us for our tardiness.

Arriving back in Madrid, we took our second siesta for the day (can’t get enough of those), made arrangements with NH so we did not have to stay in the dank, suspicious Hotel Paris, and headed back to our headquarters in Puerta del Sol. After dinner at our regular restaurant (so called because it was the second time we ate there), we took a leisurely stroll and did some window-shopping. We were so lulled by full stomachs and the warm night that none of us could react quickly enough to prevent a thief from snatching an old man’s camera right out of his hands and running up the street and into the night. It happened so fast, we did not even know what was going on until it was too late. The old man took off up the hill after the thief and we spent the next few moments fuming, berating ourselves for not tripping the thief or tackling him, and creating scenarios where we managed to stop the snatching, save the camera, and save the day or where the old man managed to catch up to the thief and retrieve his camera (or, as Anne came up with: we tripped the guy so he bashes his teeth on the concrete . . . ouch). Because it was the Sunday night before the festivities for the Fiesta, the streets were pretty deserted and there was not much to be seen. We took a cab back to the hotel, rested our tired legs, and slipped into sleep, hoping that Claudia would get some measure of rest this night before she turned into the female version of Tyler Durden and started beating people up from the delirium caused by lack of sleep.

Day 4: Avila and Segovia

Woke up, got out of bed, dragged some combs across our respective heads, made our way downstairs and had a cup . . . of café con leche at the Nebraska Café nearby the bus depot in preparation for our 9 hour tour to Avila and Segovia. We exchanged some greenbacks for some pesetas (rate was about 180 pesetas to the dollar, but you can only get such a good rate at the banks which are only open from about 10 to 10:15 as far as we could tell) and scurried on board the tour bus so we could snatch the best seats. We learned from our trip the day before that the seats near the middle of the bus reclined more and were near the door so we could travel in comfort AND manage to be the first ones in and out of the bus this time. However, this group was a little more laid back and relaxed than the prior one, in which we struggled to keep up with the breakneck speed of the tour guide’s walk and talk.

We drove for an hour through Spain’s gorgeous countryside, again enjoying the rich green fields, dazzling red poppies, and bright sunshine. At a brief rest stop near Avila, Anne and I quickly used the surprisingly clean facilities to relieve ourselves of the mass quantities of coffee we imbibed while LB and Claudia used up the caffeine in their systems by kung-fu fighting each other in the parking lot near the bus. Avila’s main attraction were the 11th century thick, robust walls surrounding the city. The wall was built by Muslims and Romans and has been called one of the best preserved medieval defensive perimeters in the world. The city itself was not that impressive. We visited Santa Teresa’s Convent and loitered around the walls until the bus came to pick us up.

We drove for another hour to Segovia which was much more spectacular. But first, some adventures in bargaining for our friends. As soon as we got off the bus, several large women wielding hand-stitched table cloths, napkins, and the like swarmed towards us and started spouting off prices. Anne and Claudia, finding the goods much to their liking, became their main targets since I was busy listening to the tour guide giving us instructions on how we were on our own for lunch and then giving directions to the Cathedral and LB was busy snapping photographs of the incredible Aqueduct. They were caught up in the moment and ended up buying many of the goods for a price lower than they would have paid in the US, but higher than they would have paid if they had either walked down the street or shown their disinterest for the goods until the price fell on their own. We headed down the street to find a place to eat, but once they realized they could have gotten a better deal than they did, C & A stormed back to the women and demanded restitution. In the end, they walked away with better deals and lighter spirits, and we all lived happily ever after.

We admired the 1st century A.D. Roman aqueduct which was made completely out of granite without a drop of mortar to hold up its 163 arches. We relaxed in the sun, ate our lunch, and headed up the narrow streets to the Cathedral. The Gothic Cathedral was very beautiful with intricate and sky-scraping spires and turrets on the outside and lots of shiny gold and stained glass on the inside. It was very cold (stone cold actually) and it was nice to thaw out in the sun as we walked to our next site, Alcazar. Segovia’s Alcazar (those of you who are paying attention get 5 bonus points if you remember what Alcazar means) impressed Walt Disney so much that he fashioned a similar one in Disneyland in California – Cinderella’s digs. The interior was decorated with exquisite tiles, rich tapestries, and gold, gold, and more gold that made the rooms look like jewel boxes. The view from Alcazar down the valley was amazing. We did some more sight seeing and then headed back to our tour bus which had been sitting in the hot sun for a few hours and was not as pleasant as it was before. We spent the majority of the drive back to Madrid taking one of our beloved siestas and awoke to find ourselves snarled in traffic as everyone tried to gain entry into the city for the big fiesta.

After some rest and relaxation (consisting of a steamy shower, Simpsons in Spanish, and another siesta), we trekked down to the fair. We strolled around the typical fair festivities such as bottle-knocking contests, bumper cars, and roller coasters. One ride cracked us up so much we stood there for about half an hour watching it: people climbed up on a long tube of foam with the head of a bull at the front and tried to stay on while the DJ played some rock music and triggered the bull to shift and jolt very fast to throw the riders off. Amidst laughter, screams, and a whole lot of smoke billowing out from some unseen jets, we joined the Madrilenos to enjoy the rides, games, lights and cotton candy. We watched the fireworks at midnight and then headed over to Joy, the popular club downtown. We got back to the hotel around 2 a.m. totally exhausted and had room service send up a extravagant fare of yogurt, cereal, and an orange.

Day 5: All Madrid, All the Time

Happy Birthday, Anne! We got to sleep in this day, but by sleeping in I mean we did not have to rise at the break-a-break-a-dawn. We got up early to head out to the Museo del Reina Sofia only to find out it is closed on Tuesdays. So shopping it is. LB and I roamed around Puerta del Sol, which was hopping now that we were there pre-siesta, and made our long, winding way to Plaza Mayor. We found an open bank to exchange more money (yes, it was 10:15), passed by the Royal Palace, and settled down at Plaza Mayor’s open square surrounded with cafes and markets. I finally had some paella, which was pretty decent, although that may have more to do with the fact that I was starving at this point than with the fact that it was something to eat. LB downed a couple cups of café con leche and we took it easy for a while watching the passers-by pass by. We found out from some Americans lunching nearby that there was going to be a free concert at Plaza Mayor that night as part of the continuing festival so we had our plans for the evening set. Claudia and Anne, meanwhile, were on their own shopping spree near the Museo del Prado.

We all met up at the hotel and tried to make hotel arrangements for Grenada (no problem) and Sevilla (problem). Apparently, Madrid was not the only city celebrating and having a housing shortage and most of the hotels we called in Sevilla were booked. We absorbed enough of the mellow Spanish mood to shrug off the responsibility for another day and headed out again. After some more shopping and walking and shopping and walking, we parked ourselves back at Plaza Mayor for the concert. As we sat outside sipping yet more coffee and listening to the music (which was disconcertingly more Irish sounding than Spanish sounding and even included a Weird Al Yankovic-like accordion player), the day turned into night. For the first time since we came to Spain, there was a brief storm, a burst of rain, and some thunder and lightening. Claudia leapt up to boogie with the other drenched dancers near the stage while we three remained quite content under the large café umbrella.

We toasted Anne’s birth and made her give a speech (see video). Then we sent her off to do some videotaping of the festival, the concert, and the lights only to have her return scant moments later with a bizarre mime following her. A worse mime I have never seen. His entire act consisted of smiling, nodding, and holding his hand out for money. We shooed him off and chilled for a while before heading off to THE BEST PLACE IN SPAIN (except for Alhambra). It was not a palace or monument. It was not a museum or plaza. It was not a cathedral or garden. It was (drum roll please) a chocolateria. To eat: golden, crispy churros (fried dough) to dip into mugs of deep, rich, dark chocolate. To drink: dense chocolate with a dash of whole milk. Heaven. The restaurant joined us in singing “Happy Birthday” to Anne and the waiter gave us a discount on the sinfully delicious snack. Buzzing on a sugar high and acting drunk, we wove our way to the center of town to head back to the hotel. Having a high tolerance for massive quantities of sugar, I was able to drift off with little effort. LB had a giggle fit for a while but also managed to sleep relatively swiftly. Claudia and Anne, however, later reported that they were up until the wee hours and if you want to know how they passed the time, you will have to ask them.

Day 6: Madrid to Grenada

Our last day in Madrid arrived so quickly. We packed up our belongings (which, for some of us, had doubled in size since we arrived), had our last breakfast at Café y Te, and dashed to the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia to catch Picasso’s famous Guernica. I latched onto a group of school children touring the museum so I could listen in on their guide’s explanation of the paintings; he was speaking in such simple words that even I could understand what he was saying about Senor Picasso and the history of the painting (representing the German’s bombing of Gernika in 1937). We checked out some other cool Picasso paintings (I really liked the horse with the zany buck teeth), Dali’s bizarre creations, and some Miro. Again, the fates were with us and the thunderstorm that began just as we entered the museum ended just as we left it. We made a bee-line to the bus station to purchase our tickets to Grenada (2000 pesetas each, about $11), raced back to the hotel to check out, retrieve our stored luggage, and zipped right back to the bus station in time to board the bus.

On this journey, we saw our familiar poppies, olive trees, and gentle rolling hills, but we also got a chance to see a unique site along the highway: silhouettes of giant black bulls. 2-D bulls, that is. It ends up that what we were seeing were clever advertising for sherry and brandy called “Toros de Osborne”. Made in 1957, they were almost all torn down due to a new law banning billboards near main roads, but public outcry and threats to go to the supreme court allowed the “bullboards” to remain and we got to see several of them on our trip south.

After a very comfortable five hour ride, we arrived in Grenada and went to the Hotel Washington Irving, so named because America writer Mr. Irving actually used to live in Grenada, and to be more specific, in the Alhambra palace when it was abandoned in the 19th century. The hotel was right outside the Alhambra. By that, I mean we had an unobstructed view of the palace’s red walls from our room, a stone’s throw away! The rooms were huge with FOUR beds in each room . . .perhaps to make up for the cramped matrimonial beds we had in Madrid. The hotel was built two centuries ago (meaning in the late 1800s) and the plumbing reflected it. Good ol’ fashioned pull-the-chain-to-flush toilets and hold-the-shower-wand-in-your-hand-while-you-shower shower.

LB and I walked down to the center of town and had the best meal at a Middle Eastern restaurant called Al Andalus. Falafel, kibbe, and hummmmmmmmus were so nice after being bombarded by all the Spanish jamon (ham). We sipped cappuccino while observing freaky hippies do their freaky hippie acts in the plaza. Juggling, guitar playing, hackysack kicking, dreadlock hair flying hippies. We made up various scenarios to explain the bizarre behavior of one hippie who was hovering around a car for about half an hour, checking out the lights, the tires, the doors, the lights, the doors, and the tires. We shooed off one of the many, many dogs looking in askance for some of our food and eavesdropped on the conversation behind us being held in Arabic. After the breath-taking hike back to the hotel (not breath-taking because of the scenery, but because the hill was so sharply inclined it ripped the breath out of our lungs), we called it an early night.

Day 7: Alhambra

Another bright, sunny day. We got up super early so that we could make sure we got tickets for Alhambra as all the guidebooks, websites, and literature warned us that tickets sold out within the first few hours of the day. Tickets in hand, we ventured out for breakfast since we were not allowed to enter until after 10am. We took the long, winding way around town in search of a place to eat until we ended up back at Plaza Nueva, the same plaza we were in the night before, scarfed down some croissants and café, and marched back up the hill.

Alhambra (Red Castle) is beautiful. Peaceful pools of water, meandering rose gardens, and towering palaces all within the fortress walls. We could have done without the hordes of tourists, but such was the price to gaze down onto bustling Grenada from the watchtowers and up into the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains. The Islamic architecture was so incredible and at the same time familiar. It seems like all Muslim art, architecture, and ambiance is, with slight variations, the same the world over. The balance between the intricate man-made marble and alabaster carvings and brightly painted tiles that adorned the inner walls of the palaces and the natural lush greenery of the rose gardens and hedges and the powerful mountains surrounding the fortress was awesome, in the traditional sense of the word. The gardens are an attempt (in my opinion, a very successful attempt) to depict the Quran’s description of paradise.

It was built in the 9th century as a fortress, became a Moorish fortress/palace in the 13th century, a mosque in the 14th century, a church in the 15th, a Renaissance palace in the 16th, an abandoned flophouse for beggars and thieves in the 18th, the focus of Washington Irving’s writings in the 19th, and finally the biggest tourist attraction in Spain in the 20th and 21st. The grounds are surrounded by neatly trimmed hedges, sparkling fountains, and a variety of trees: cypress, elms, yew, bay, and oak. Since we were lucky enough to be there in the spring, the gardens were overflowing with blooming roses, bougainvillea, and geraniums and the trees were spilling oranges from their branches. I cannot adequately describe the beauty and the calm of Alhambra. We left there feeling so tranquil, almost dazed, from the whole experience. I wish we could linger and savor the sights of the gardens and mountains, the smells of the flowers, and the sounds of the water and birds longer. Alas, the call of the worldly life (i.e. rumbling tummies) forced us to leave our paradise.

We refueled at Al Andalus again and then really delved back into the modern life by going shopping. Leather sandals! Fashionable clothing! Prints and postcards and posters, oh my! We returned briefly to our hotel which was in the midst of a struggle with electricity, as in there was none, stumbled around in the near-dark, and headed back down to the Plaza Nueva for dinner. LB and I, following Lonely Planet’s suggestion, went to a restaurant lauded for its vegetarian dishes. The fact that the place looked and smelled like a dive should have warned us. We ordered our food and when it came, my dish of steamed vegetables was completely flavorless except for some slight vinegary aftertaste and LB’s dish of tortilla (remember, that’s an omelette) was a vague, grey mass. We pushed the food around our plates a bit to make it look like we ate some and eventually called our waiter to get the bill. He expressed his surprise that we were finished so quickly and then, much to our embarrassment, tattle-taled to the chef who came out from the kitchen, enormous apron-covered belly first, to ask us what the matter was with the food! Thinking quickly, in much broken Spanish, I explained that it was really late (by now it was almost 11:30) and that our friends were waiting for us. He sort of accepted that explanation and left us in peace. We fled the restaurant, went in search of Claudia and Anne who had returned to their favorite restaurant for tapas, gave up on that search and instead sought out Zara (a hip Spanish store that we saw in Madrid and found out was in Grenada too) and eventually wandered back to the hotel for the night.

Day 8: Grenada to Cordoba

We spent our last day in Grenada racing down the hill, inhaling some hot coffee and croissants, doing some whirlwind souvenir shopping, and returning to the hotel to pack and catch a ride to the bus terminal. LB and I ran into Claudia and Anne several times during the morning rush as we prepared to head north to Cordoba and they prepared to head west to Sevilla. We spent a pleasant three hours driving to Cordoba in the comfortable bus seeing the olive trees, the mountains, and the Rio Guadalquivir and then caught a taxi to our hotel, Hotel El Conquistador. The streets reminded me of D.C.’s as they were rather winding and would occasionally turn into one-way streets without notice or become restricted streets that were only allowed to be traveled upon during certain hours of the day. The Hotel El Conquistador was located even closer to the famous Cordoba Mezquita, called one of the most magnificent of all Islamic buildings. Cordoba was actually the Muslim capital in Spain in 711 and in the 900s became the largest city in western Europe.

We tossed our luggage in the room, washed up, and headed out to survey our surroundings. We stopped at a nearby restaurant for tortilla patatas, gathered up our reserve energy and walked around and around and around until we reached the Plaza Tendillas and finally, after our country-wide search, found a Zara! We shopped, walked to the Juderia (Jewish quarters), and admired the huge gold doors of the Mezquita, which was all we could admire as the doors were closed. We took about ten giant steps to reach the hotel and treated ourselves to some much deserved napping. After only half an hour, the guest in the room above us decided to prance around the room in high heeled shoes and as we could not go back to sleep, we escaped the constant pounding by retreating outside and taking in the evening air. We walked around the Mezquita again, saw the Islamic Wheel (a huge, inactive waterwheel next to the Rio Guadalquivir), and had dinner of gazpacho (very yummy) before returning to the hotel. Shower, watch a little TV consisting of Simpsons, news, and then, God save us all, “Who Wants to be a (Spanish) Millionaire”. Around midnight, I heard some fireworks and celebrating going on outside, but I was just too exhausted to step outside to see this city’s festivities. The next thing I knew, it was morning.

Day 9: Cordoba to Sevilla

Now familiar with the city’s layout, we made our way easily to the Plaza Tendillas for breakfast and took our time wandering back to the Mezquita as it did not open until late morning. We peeked into a number of gorgeous patios that were filled with flowers in full bloom, flamboyant fountains, and sweetly singing birds. We returned to the Mezquita just as it was opening, student IDs in hand, and entered the mosque/cathedral. “Mosque/cathedral?” Yes. Adb ar-Rahman I founded the mosque in the 8th century and then the center was ripped out in the 16th century to accommodate the cathedral and a choir. It was very bewildering to see the combination of Islam (Arabic script, sweeping arches, and high domes) and Christianity (crosses, the ornate choir, and the chapel) in one building.

We wrapped up our stay in Cordoba by hitting a few more stores, seeing the silver district and checking out the tiles and leather goods. We had some snacks, filled our packs, and hit the tracks . . . railroad tracks that is. We were making our way to Sevilla to rendevous with Claudia and Anne by train rather than by bus. We boarded the luxurious passenger car and barely felt the train leave the station. The ride was so smooth, it was as though the train was sliding on oiled tracks. In an instant, we arrived in Sevilla. Planes, trains, and automobiles, check. Disembarked, taxied to the hotel, unloaded, and headed out to see Sevilla’s Alcazar. The entire complex is made up of rooms with outdoor patios. Although not as impressive as Alhambra, the gardens here are more peaceful and still extremely beautiful. We chilled for a while by the fountains, watched a troop of baby ducks swim around in one of the many pools, and stopped and smelled the roses. After such a hectic journey across Spain, it was so nice to walk lazily around the gardens and through the shopping center of Sevilla. We returned to the hotel via the longest way possible and met up with Claudia and Anne for dinner. We went to a fancy restaurant on the Rio Guadalquivir (same one that flowed through Cordoba). We reminisced over our adventures, perhaps drawing the attention of some other diners as we laughed hysterically about some of the misadventures, while about eight waiters stood by anticipating our dining needs and awaiting our orders. We settled all accounts, returned to the hotel, and did our final packing during our final night in Spain.

Day 10: Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

We bade Sevilla adieu in the early morning and boarded Span Air, the national airline. We came full circle by returning to Madrid, went through all the airport security and ticket lines, and tried to spend all the remaining pesetas we had on snacks. We were very lucky that we had such incredible weather during the entire trip. We got to travel all over the beautiful country during the most agreeable time of the year, experience the various festivals and celebrations, and have an all around wonderful time. Spain definitely made our top ten list.

El Fin


Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific

My friend Ms. Moneybags lives in Paris and visits DC every year around this time. And every year, she asks me what kinds of ungents, salves, and hair care products I would like for her to bring me. Yes, that's right. I'm SO fancy, that I get my beauty products imported from France. Anyway, in keeping with the listology, I present you with Baji's Favorite Lotions and Potions (including the pedestrian domestic products):

Your turn! Share your beauty secrets, faves, and wishlists.


Good Eats

The year is coming to an end and that means all sorts of lists are on the horizon. What's that? You are coming to visit me in D.C. and want to know where a good place to eat is? Here is Baji's Top Eateries Around Town:

  • Best Brunch: Rosemary's Thyme Bistro. Not only is it around the corner from us, but the pide is smashing, especially when, on Sundays, they throw a couple of eggs on top.
  • Best 24-hour: The Diner. Not only is it around the corner from us, but the root beer floats are amazing, especially when coupled with hot, crispy fries.
  • Best historical attraction and good food: Ben's Chili Bowl. Not only is it right around the corner from us (do you see a theme here?), but it's a landmark, it has a panda out front, and it's the place where KG ate just before he proposed to LB!
  • Best sushi: Kotobuki. Bite-sized morsels that melt in your mouth and at a great price.
  • Best Ethiopian: Meskerem. Maybe not as popular as the shiny new but pencil thin Etete but at least my tummy doesn't hurt afterwards.
  • Best South Indian: Udupi Palace. It's a bit of a hike to get there, but the all-you-can eat brunch with free dosas makes it worth it.
  • Best Spanish tapas: Jaleo. One of our go-to hits that pleases everyone.
  • Best Vietnamese: Nam Viet. Haven't had a bad meal there yet.
  • Best Middle Eastern: Lebanese Taverna. Another crowd-pleaser that we often visit when money-bags parents are in town.
  • Best Pizza: Vace. and Two Amy's. Vace's pizzas have gotten a little saltier but they are still great when piping hot; Two Amy's is classically made and fantastic but more expensive and harder to park at.
  • Best Bagels: So's Your Mom. Alas, since What's-A-Bagel closed in Cleveland Park, the pickin's are slim, but the bagels (and sandwiches) here are great.
  • Best Afghan: Afghan Restaurant. What the name lacks in cleverness, the cuisine makes up for in taste.
  • Best Kebabs: Food Factory. See above.
  • Best Mexican: Lauriol Plaza. Can get pretty crowded but I've never had to wait long to get a table at the multi-storied restaurant and crowds (often) = good food.
  • Best Tex-Mex: Mixtec. A-Number one flautas.
  • Best Falafels: Amsterdam Cafe. Choose your own toppings, bring cash, and load up on fries.
  • Best French Toast: Open City. Not shy with the powdered sugar and creamy butter.
  • Best Italian: Al Tiramisu. Yeah, it's pricey but it's also pretty nice.
  • Best Seafood: Grillfish. Wide selection and since they specialize in fish, you can't Linkbe steered too wrongly as, say, if you visited one of those mix of cuisine joints.
  • Best Ps'ghetti: La Tomate. The other dishes are great too but I love their ps'ghetti.
  • Best Gelato: Dolcezza. *dies*
  • Best Spring Rolls: Thaiphoon. Crunchy and veggie.
  • Best Tea: Teaism. Lovely wares and calming atmosphere.
  • Best Coffee: Murky. Look past the drama and attitude and drink up.
  • Best Cannoli: Vaccaro's. Hands down.
  • Best Croissant: Patisserie Poupon. The plain ones are light and flaky and the chocolate ones have a generous slab of chocolate to satisfy.
  • Best Crepes: Cafe Bonaparte. There are actually two places in AdMo that are rated up there too, but the best I've had is at Bonaparte.


Uncle Bhai Jan

My grandfather loves jokes. I mean, he LOVES them. He has shelves upon shelves of joke books, funny quotes, and compilations of humour (yes, he was raised under the British school system, so you get the extra "u"). He writes it, he recites it, he lives it. He's been on my mind lately and I came across this tidbit that I want to save here before it gets lost. Enjoy.

"The Flying Jogger" story

Approximately at 45 degrees across the street from our house is No.720, nicknamed No.420. . . Its inhabitants were a couple with 8 or 9 or 10 children---I don't know even after having them as neighbours for years--- naughtier than Satan.

One day as I was passing the house, I was surprised by a single jogger landing with a thud hardly a foot ahead of me. Thank God it didn't land on my head. I looked around but couldn't see anyone. I estimated that it must have come from the top floor of No.420, 30 feet above the street level. I speared it on my walking stick, carried it a few yards to our house, dumped it behind a hedge, and waited for a couple of days for some claimant to turn up but when no one came, I dumped the jogger in the garbage van when it visited our street.

A day later, Mr.420 met me and I told him of the incident, saying that I suspected one of his kids. He swore they were angels and it was unthinkable that they would do such mischief. I suggested he line them up wearing their joggers and the one having only one jogger should explain how come. He liked the suggestion and promised to do so. When he met me next, he said: "Bhatti Sahib, the kid is only five years old, so I suggest we excuse him this time." I agreed but told him that the jogger was now in the city garbage dump. "And Mr. 420, it was a size 8 shoe!"


1.21 gigawatts

[note - tomorrow is going to be hectic so I'll just go ahead and future post tomorrow's blog entry today]

Whew!  I'm so glad Obama won.  I was nervous for a while considering how certain I was during the last election that there would be no WAY the Republicans would win.  But now we have a new president in the wings and hopefully a bright future ahead of us.  

Election Day was hectic.  Up at 6 a.m. to shower, eat, and get the kids packed up for their flu shots/mist.  ZP lucked out and only had to have a little spray in his nose.  Poor AP had to have a needle jabbed in her tiny chubby thigh and after a slight delay, she let her displeasure be known to the entire office.  After passing by the polling center (which is literally right behind our house) and seeing a slightly smaller line of voters, we dropped the kids off at home and I ran off to vote while TP, anxious about getting to work first, decided to vote later.  

When I arrived at 10:15, I saw that the cluster of people outside were actually not voters at all but last minute advocates for the candidates.  I called TP to come quickly because the line was actually only about 30 people deep.  I had barely hung up the phone and opened my book when TP appeared behind me.  A woman came down the line calling out, "Anyone K through R?  Anyone S through Z?  Come on up."  Apparently the "A through J" folks were behind on their game.  I was STILL standing in line when TP (with his fancy pants "P" surname) ran in, voted, and whizzed by.  Why didn't I change my last name?!  (interro-at-least-I-can-share-our-President's-name!).  Eventually, I was permitted to enter, get my "I voted" sticker, and leave.  The whole affair took about half an hour.  I grabbed an everything bagel from Tryst, a free coffee from Starbucks (which I split with Tia), and ran upstairs to work (i.e. stare at the intense yellow and red leaves in my backyard).  

How was your experience?  And answer this for me:  I have a theory that the "A to K" line was so long because as children, we folks with surnames towards the beginning of the alphabet were used to having to go first, stand at the front of the line, be called on before anyone else.  The kids with surnames in the rest of the lower 15 letters were used to going in later.  That's why the "A to K" line was long in the morning and, theoretically, the "K to Z" lines will be longer in the afternoon/evening.  So where does your name fall and what time did you vote?