Monday, October 26, 2009

León Trip, Day 2

I decided to get up really early (7 AM) the next morning so that I could have first dibs on the two functioning toilets for the 40 plus guys in the hostel, as well as not having to wait for the shower. My plan worked, and I was the only person in the bathroom at the time, but unfortunately someone had left all the windows open in there over night, so it was about 40 degrees. The showers also had a water-saving feature that you see in many sinks in public restrooms, where you push a button for the water to come on and it runs for about 20 seconds and then shuts off. You can't select the temperature, and it's really hard to get a shower to warm up when you are only getting 20 second bursts of (freezing cold) water, so after a few minutes I gave up on the shower idea and went back to my warm bed for a few more hours. We ate breakfast in the hostel and then went outside (to the cold, why?) to wait for the whole group to gather, which took a little while.

Home Sweet Hostel

We walked back to the center of town to see the sights, and our first stop was the Casa Botines, which was designed by Antoni Gaudí. I'm not sure which came first, the Episcopal Palace of Astorga or the Casa Botines, but I could definitely pick up on some of the same design features that marked his work, especially the fairy-tale towers. I haven't done my research but I believe that both of these buildings are earlier works of Gaudí's, because they appear to me more conventional than his well known buildings in Barcelona like the Sagrada Familia and the Parque Güell. Could just be though that the people who commissioned these particular projects didn't want something quite so radical.

Casa Botines

Detail above the door, don't know the significance of a guy killing a giant lizard though

Statue of Gaudí on a bench overlooking his work, kind of begs foreigners to take photos with it

After looking at the Casa Botines for a while, we turned to our right to see our next attraction, the Palacio de los Guzmanes, where the nobles who ruled León lived when it was an independent kingdom. We got a guided tour of the palace by one of its employees, but for some reason this only included the courtyard. It was still pretty informative though, and I will point out some of the things he told us within the photo captions.

Palacio de los Guzmanes, with Casa Botines on the left. It is now a municipal building of León and as such most visitors are limited to the courtyard.

The courtyard, with the well in the center. The coat of arms of the Guzman family (snakes crawling out of a cauldron) can be seen on the right side. The glass windows enclosing the walkways on the second level was added after the building was renovated in the 1800's to serve its current purpose, and is composed of a variety of scenes from around the province of León. None of the columns on the first level are original, as the originals had deteriorated and were no longer structurally sound.

The gargoyles around the courtyard are original and came in pairs that were facing towards each other, which was really typical of the architect who designed this palace. They have been damaged by the weather extremes of the province, where it's really hot in the summer and really cold in the winter (and at night in the fall, as we found out)

After the tour of the Palacio de los Guzmanes it was around noon, and we were given free time until 4 PM to walk around the rest of León and find something to eat. We headed down the main street leading to the old town, the Calle Ancha (wide street, and it was, compared to most of the other streets in town) and checked out the Cathedral. I think I mentioned this before, but the Cathedral of León has nearly 1800 square meters of stained glass windows and is one of the best examples of this craft in the world. Being a Sunday, mass was going on, but the Cathedral was big enough that tourists were still walking around without really bothering anyone.

Pretty much the same picture as before, but in the daytime now

Many of the windows had a floral pattern, but this one was my favorite because it had people and animals. Probably scenes from the Bible, but I don't know which ones . . .

Looking straight up at the vaulted ceilings, very impressive

After leaving the Cathedral the group sort of split up, with many of the more hungover foreigners who had stayed out at the discotecas until 5 AM opting to sit around on benches. My friend Miguel and I, along with his Mexican friend Rene and a German girl who doesn't speak much Spanish, decided to go check out the Basilica de San Isidoro, which according to my guide book is also a very important shrine, and one of the stops on the Camino de Santiago. This route, from France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, branches into two options somewhere east of Oviedo, so it passes through both Oviedo and León, and is marked by little gold seashells in the sidewalk. I think the route through León is more popular because I saw a ton of backpackers there with seashells hanging from their backpacks, which marks you as a pilgrim, but I haven't seen any in Oviedo.

Basilica de San Isidoro, I don't remember how old it was but it looks pretty old

I don't know how grave of a sin it is to take a photo of then inside of a Basilica during a Mass, but that's what I did . . .

At this point we headed back to the Cathedral plaza and met up with some other people, and set off looking for a place to eat lunch. This was easier said than done, because the majority of people wanted to get a menú (a multi-course meal, the actual menus are called "cartas"), but they couldn't find a place with one that was cheap enough for their taste. Our wanderings led us well off the beaten track into a neighborhood that was mostly under construction, at which point Miguel and I decided to split off and go back to a sandwich shop we had seen before. This was a delicious choice, and even more budget friendly than a cheap menú. Afterwards, since we were on our own, Miguel and I headed back towards the hostel to check out something I had seen on the map labeled "Casino". I didn't have very high hopes, because there are a few places in Oviedo called casinos that are shoe stores, but why not. To our surprise, this was a real casino, albeit much smaller than it's Vegas brethren. There was video poker/blackjack and a gaming room with table games that didn't open until 8 PM. Unfortunately this was all moot because you need your Spanish National Identity Card or a passport to enter, and we didn't bring ours along. Oh well, I guess they saved me some money with that rule.

Miguel reading a brochure about how to play blackjack in front of the casino

We still had like an hour and a half to kill before meeting up at the Casa Botines to go to the Museum of Contemporary Art, so we wandered back towards the old town and decided to follow the city walls into some of the older neighborhoods of León. We didn't really see anything of note, a few cool statues and some stray cats, and we ended up hanging out in the plaza in front of the Basilica de San Isidoro with some other people from our group until it was time to go to the meeting place.

Narrow medieval street

Fortunately for our tired legs, the bus was waiting at the Casa Botines, and it took us back to the hostel to collect our belongings before dropping us off in the new part of town where the museum is located. We made a quick stop at a 5 star hotel housed in an old monastery, and then walked a few blocks down to the museum. I want to tell you that this museum was weird, but I really feel like words are lacking to describe it so I'll try to comment on the pictures to give an idea of the place.

Parador San Marcos, cost you a cool 200 Euros a night

Entrance to the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (MUSAC)

This exhibit was called "The White Night" - it was very surreal

Hahaha this picture gets me everytime. These little girls' mother told them to go stand next to the fat dead clown so she could take their picture. I captured a moment in time in which you can actually see the terrible childhood memories being formed. Also, notice the pools of glitter at the clown's feet.

No joke, this is all that was in this room . . .

Different artist, still strange though

This was only one wall of a whole room filled with clowns. At the time I just kept thinking about how freaked out anyone who is afraid of clowns (Shannon, Beth, those little girls from before) would be in this room, especially if it was dark when they came in and then the lights were turned on.

Anyway, I had a good time in the MUSAC, even if my shallow comments show how little I really "get" "art" (yeah, they're both in quotes, deal with it). At this point we got back on the bus and headed back to Oviedo, which may have taken a long time or may not have, I wouldn't know because I fell asleep. My next trip will be to Salamanca, Segovia, and Ávila, so look forward to much delayed updates about that in the near to distant future.

Friday, October 23, 2009

León Trip, Day 1

As you can tell from the title of this post, we did so much stuff on my trip to León with AEGEE last weekend that I have decided to break it up to make it more manageable. The first day of the trip, the bus was scheduled to leave Oviedo at 9:30, but since AEGEE can't stick to a schedule, we didn't leave until around 10. I ended up sitting near the front next to a German guy named Charlie who doesn't speak much Spanish, but I mostly just listened to my iPod anyway. León is south of Oviedo so we had to cross some very tall mountains and go through quite a few tunnels to get out of Asturias, but once we got a little ways into the province of León you could really tell the difference, because it's much flatter.

Typical León scenery, I think you guys have seen enough pictures of Asturias to know it doesn't look like this

It took about two and a half hours to get to our first stop, Las Médulas, including a "two minute" (half hour) stop at a gas station so everyone could use the restroom and have a smoke. Ridiculous, if they would just get a bus with a bathroom we wouldn't have these delays. We had to cut our visit to Las Médulas short because we were running behind schedule, but it wasn't really a huge loss because we saw most of what there was to see there. Basically, thousands of years ago the Romans completely destroyed the landscape of this region by diverting rivers to wash away the soft earth and recover the gold it contained, and now that a lot of vegetation has come back it is a truly unique looking area. We walked for about a half hour to get to a giant cave that was created by the flowing water (but is somehow safe to go inside, despite the obvious instability of the dirt here) and then went back to the bus to go to nearby Ponferrada for lunch. Pictures of this moonscape follow.

Village church, first sighting of these strange spires

View from the entrance to the cave

The cave got pretty dusty with 50 foreigners walking around in it

Arsty shot from inside the cave

Venturing off the beaten path to find some cool views

Ponferrada is only about a half hour from Las Médulas, so we got there right around Spanish lunchtime (around 3:00 PM) and had an hour and a half or so to explore the city and find something to eat on our own. Ponferrada's main attraction is an imposing castle built by the Templars, and it was really one of the reasons I wanted to go on this trip. I had brought some pitas with ham and cheese, so I set out in that direction, only to find when I got there that the castle was closed for the siesta. Dammit Spain! I walked around the perimeter of the castle walls and found a place to eat my lunch with a view of the river and the new part of town. After lunch it was getting close to time to head back to the bus, when I noticed that there were people up on the tower of the castle! They had opened it back up like 5 minutes after I tried to go inside! I hurriedly paid my 2 euros and rushed through, trying to take pictures of all the interesting sites. After 10 minutes in the castle I figured it was time to leave and at the exit I found a big group of foreigners headed back to the bus, so I tagged along with them. And now for the part where I put up some pictures of Ponferrada.

Awesome photo from Ponferrada #1 (P.S. - this is a basilica)

Castle entrance, like something out of a fairy tale

Historic castle steps where I ate my lunch

Inside the castle, this is the oldest part

Awesome photo from Ponferrada #2, basilica framed in an arrow slit in the castle tower

View of the castle from the old tower

View of the new part of Ponferrada from the old tower

Me on the narrow tower steps

Castle layout

Our next stop after Ponferrada was Astorga, about an hour away, which has a very beautiful cathedral and an Episcopal Palace that was designed by Antoni Gaudí. We spent about a half hour in this town, not because we were off schedule but because after seeing these two places there isn't that much else to see. Unfortunately the Episcopal Palace was closing right as we arrived, so we didn't get to go inside, but the outside was also very impressive, as you can see in the photos below.

Back of the cathedral

Side view of the cathedral

Turn to the right and you see the Episcopal Palace

Episcopal Palace, from its gardens

Front of the cathedral

We left Astorga for León, where we stayed the night. It was another hour by bus and was starting to get dark when we got to the hostel, which was called the Pilgrim's Hostel because León is on the Camino de Santiago. It took a while to settle into the hostel since we had to split up into groups of 7, but I made friends with some Mexican guys and a guy and girl from Japan, and then a girl from Brazil joined us to round out our room. We had about an hour to shower and make our beds, with most people also changing into nicer clothes, before we walked the long distance into town for tapas. This was actually really fun, because you can order a small beer and a little snack (like cream cheese and ham on a piece of bread) for only one euro, and with the medication I am taking I got pretty toasted after 5 or 6 "cortos". We met back up with the group at 1 AM to go to a discoteca, but it was so crowded that I couldn't move and I don't even really like dancing anyway, so around 2 AM I asked my new friend Miguel if he remembered how to get back to the hostel. He was kind of ready to leave too so we set off, knowing we would find it eventually. An hour later we got back, meeting our very drunk Japanese roommates at the door, and we went straight to bed, since we were supposed to be ready to leave the hostel at 9:30 the next (that same) day to begin our tour of the city.

Goodnight, Cathedral of León!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Monte Naranco

On the Sunday after I got back from Covadonga I finally made my first trip up Monte Naranco to see the two ancient monuments from the 9th century that were built on the hillside. I don't know why the ancient Asturians chose this particular location to build these two churches, because I think it must have been pretty hard to get all the necessary building materials up there with their technology at the time, but to each his own. Equipped with my bus map and a recently purchased Bonobus pass that gives me almost half off on bus rides, I set out for the nearest bus stop along the route that goes up Monte Naranco.
I think I have already mentioned this, but Oviedo is surrounded by mountains. Monte Naranco is in the north-west and is of medium height (I was told 600 meters, however many feet that is), I believe one of the lower hills to the north-east is called the Monte Sagrado, and in the south are the really tall mountains of the Sierra del Aramo (1500 meters, I think that's almost 5000 feet). The Sierra del Aramo includes the peak of El Angliru (L'Angliru in Asturian), which is kind of famous for being one of the steepest mountains ever to be part of a professional bicycling race, and has provoked the utter hatred of some past Vuelta a España riders. Monte Naranco is also the mountain that you may have seen in the background of some pictures of my campus, with a giant statue of Jesus at the summit.
But to get back on track, I caught the L10 bus near the train station and intended to ride it to the end of the line, to a place called the Centro Asturiano, which I assumed was some kind of museum or public information center about Asturias. The climb was pretty curvy and we went through a residential area with a lot of detached houses that have an excellent view out over the city. I was surprised when we got to the Centro Asturiano, though, because it was surrounded by a barbed wire fence (facing the wrong way, like the one at Westminster Canterbury that we joke is to keep the old people inside) and had a guard at the gate. The bus stopped and the guard got on and started checking to make sure everyone had some sort of card that they were showing her. Since I was at the back of the bus I had plenty of time to wonder what the hell was going on and what the implications of me not having that card were, and when she came to me I just explained that I didn't know what this place was but I was just trying to go to the monuments. She told me it's a private sports club/spa, and then yelled up to the driver to open the back door so I could get off and said to follow the road and I would get to the monuments. OK, I kind of wish there was some sort of notification that this particular public bus route ended at a private country club, but whatever, I'll walk down the road, I don't think the monuments are too far from here.

The Centro Asturiano, I'm not sure why you guys can't play tennis at the bottom of the mountain, it's much flatter there . . .

Well it turns out that the Centro Asturiano is the last stop on this bus route because that road pretty much ends at it, at least as far as being navigable for any sort of vehicle. It really wasn't that far of a walk to the monuments, maybe about 10 minutes, but the way wasn't marked at all and looked very untraveled, which suggests to me that this isn't the way most people arrive to take in the sights. And the whole time I was wondering how I would catch the bus back to town if I wasn't allowed into the compound, but I figured I could probably talk my way in to catch the bus when the time came, since they run every hour so.

Hmm, I hope there are some monuments down here

The first monument that I came across was San Miguel de Lillo, which is situated very near another road that the bus didn't come up, where tourists can pull over their cars. I walked around for a few minutes, taking photos selectively so it looked like I was there alone, then got my picture taken in front for my mother and headed off to look for Santa María del Naranco.

San Miguel de Lillo

Apparently built by a race of very tall, skinny people

Nice pose, dork

Santa María del Naranco is only about 200 yards from San Miguel de Lillo, down the hill a little bit. To get there you follow the road, but since I didn't know that at the time I walked down a path through the woods and then had to climb up a pretty steep hill to get to it. Ended up with some pretty cool pictures because of that though, so I guess it worked out. Both of these churches were dedicated in the year 848, and both were closed so I couldn't go inside, but I think Santa María del Naranco is the prettier of the two, with all the columns and "porches" (probably not the architecturally correct term, but that's what I kept calling them in my head). It's also located in a field with a view of the city, unlike San Miguel de Lillo which is kind of behind a ridge.

Santa María del Naranco, up the hill

Side view

That little white box on the porch was engraved with some really old looking Latin writing, but I couldn't look at it up close because the church was closed. Also, I can't read Latin anyway.

Picture to show where the church is located, and also that lady's awkward picture-taking pose

Different monument, same pose

OK, time to get off this mountain and go eat lunch. At this point I had decided that I wasn't going to climb back up to the Centro Asturiano, but would be better off trying to intersect the road the bus came up and then follow that down until I found another bus stop. This wasn't a bad plan, and it would have worked, but along the way I met a lady (whose name I never asked) out for a stroll. I asked her where the closest bus stop was and she told me she didn't know, but after I told her where I was going she told me it wasn't that far to walk, and if I wanted she could show me where to catch a path that leads to that part of town. Keep in mind that I was on top of a mountain and could actually see where I was trying to get to, and it looked pretty far to me, but I said why not. We walked down the highway and chatted for about 20 minutes and then we got to the start of a pedestrian path that was pretty much horizontal. She told me to follow that for about 2 kilometers and the next road it intersected, to take that road down the mountain and I should be home in half an hour.
Well I already knew from Amparo telling me how long it would take to walk places that Spanish people and I have very different concepts of time and distance, but I thought I would never get off this mountain. I think I missed the turn onto the road she had mentioned, because I never saw the landmark flower store she had described, and I got back to the vivienda about an hour and 15 minutes later. Nevertheless, it wasn't a difficult walk and there were good views of the city, which I have included below. I also ran into a French kid I had met on the trip to Covadonga; he was going to ride his bicycle all the way to the Jesus statue at the top. I'd like to make it up there some day, because the lady who showed me the path told me you can see the sea from up there, but it's going to take the better part of a morning, if not a day. OK no more rambling, here's the view from the path.

Right half: Notice the Sierra del Aramo taller than the clouds at the far right, and the Palacio de Congresos slightly to the left of the center of the photo

Left half: If you look right above that little house/shed on the hillside, that's about where I live

The Jesus statue at the top, still pretty far away