September, 2015. American expat sometimes blogger, Hamatha, has been found alive and well after her disappearance in the early summertime. When asked about her mysterious whereabouts, the sometimes writer described her absence from the online world as a necessity in the face of danger to her newborn.
When asked to elaborate, the once-in-a-while wordsmith explained that due to the high number of Spaniards who threatened to eat her precious baby after her birth, she had to go underground for an undetermined number of months.
“I just couldn’t believe it! My mother-in-law threatened to ‘comersela’ as soon as she saw the poor baby!”
The barely-a-scribbler continued, “I thought maybe she was just feeling a bit peckish when she saw her granddaughter for the first time, but she continued to say she was going to eat her over and over again! And it didn’t stop with my suegra. Noooo, everyone who saw her wanted to eat her! I mean, the uncles, the aunts, and even the young cousins! Zombies, I tell ya! All of them threatened to eat my baby as soon as they saw her. Comersela, comersela, Comer. Se. La!”
“I had to run! Don’t you people understand!?”
The scarce scribe only returned to Madrid and back to the real world once she realized that she couldn’t run very far because the entire country was apparently very eager to eat her baby, “I tried and tried, but I couldn’t get far away enough from these zombie Spaniards! Everywhere I went people wanted to eat her. From the normally-frigid pharmacists to the grumpy old market ladies. Even the crazy lady in the street lottery cube almost jumped out of her little window to eat her! Zombies, I tell ya!
“Anyway, I soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to hide from all of the hungry Iberian zombies so I came home. I just make sure that when anyone comes to visit, they get a good sniff of her dirty diaper. Works like garlic on vampires, I tell ya!”
*Blog may be on hiatus for a bit, cariños. I got bigger cagadas to fry these days.
It’s just that no matter how hard I try, I just can’t find one damn thing wrong with this country (well, except for Naples).
Sure, I know that every country has its pros and cons and it’s impossible to say that an entire country is without its own set of flaws. But, for me personally, every trip I’ve ever taken to Italy has left me with an overwhelming feeling of pure, unadulterated lovey doveyness.
Sure, the chaotic rhythm of Rome can work the nerves of even the steeliest of traveler, but, damn, it’s Rome, one of the most intriguing, energetic, passionate and historically relevant places on earth. The same goes for Florence, one of the most gorgeous and sophisticated cities you’ll ever visit. And now that we’re onto lists, Sardinia is, by far, one of the most scenic and charismatic islands in the world.
And continuing with the Italian love fest tally … there’s Lucca.
Lucca, Lucca, Lucca.
As we were driving from Bolognia to Lucca, I had the feeling that I would certainly be able to finally be able to find something wrong with this Italian town. I don’t know why. I guess that since it’s not on the list of more well-known Italian destinations, I assumed it would be nice enough, but maybe a bit lackluster.
Hamatha wrong. Hamatha sorry.
What can I say about this beautiful medievil city that goes back Etruscan time period? From its Piazza Anfiteatro to the city’s surrounding ramparts turned into green walking paths, this charming Italian city is warm, welcoming and everything you’d want in the backdrop of an Italian romance novel.
Our first introduction to Lucca’s charms was locating our hotel on one of the most romantic streets in the city, Via Degli Angeli. I know that many people may not fall in love with streets so easily in most parts of the world, but is there anything more charming than a rustic, multi-pastel colored Italian street? Curvy and colorful, I fell in love with it immediately.
After checking into our hotel, which was as amazingly romantic as the street it’s located on, we immediately headed out to explore one of Lucca’s most famed attractions, the Piazza Anfiteatro. Again, muted yellows and peaches and perfectly cracked walls make up what used to be the city’s colosseum. Pure, simple Italy.
Lucca is known for the intact ramparts that surround the city. Going back to the 6th and 17th centuries, these walls were used to protect the city from pesky invaders. Today, the walls have been converted into a long pedestrian promenade that rings around the city.
Lucca’s beautiful San Michele in Foro Church goes back to 795 and has an active plaza at its side.
Quite a few of the Tuscan villages like San Gimignano and Pisa are known for their towers. Not to be outdone by its neighbors, Lucca has one very distinctive tower that certainly stands out, the tree-topped Guinigi Tower. It’s one of the few towers left in the city and has a beautiful garden, complete with full grown trees on the top.
Lucca = Serious Bicycle Style:
Lucca is also known for the number of historic and stately Italian villas located just outside the city. But if you don’t get a chance to visit them, there’s the beautiful Palazzo Pfanner just inside the Lucca walls.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to see in Lucca than what I have listed above, including fantastic people, heavenly gelato, a vast history and just an enjoyable warm ambience of good old fashioned Italian-ness. It was a great place to visit in its own right, but Lucca also makes for a very convenient base for exploring a bit of Tuscany and the Ligurian coast.
And although we certainly saw some beautiful areas as we explored this region of Italy, all in all, I have to say that it was all about Lucca lovey doveyness for me.
In honor of semana santa and the fact that I have absolutely no time lately, I’m going to do a repost from last year, which, now that I think about it, might have been a repost from 2012. Anyway, I really love this interview that I did with my friend Jesus, a passionate costalero, and it’s definitely worth a read if you have a moment.
“I am a costalero for Her … for Her, because I love Her.”
As the Iberian Peninsula continues to suffocate from a never- ending mix of a smothering economic crisis rife with political scandals and graft accusations within the royal family, Spaniards are preparing to celebrate the most anticipated week of the year, Holy Week or Semana Santa.
However, as evidenced by the multitudes of protests and repeated calls for political resignations, it’s not a far stretch to say that the general population has clearly lost its patience and faith in the Spanish system, which, for many, may never have been that strong to begin with.
This year, as religious processions hauntingly glide through narrow Spanish streets, many may be asking themselves if the current political ills of the nation have managed to sap the faith of even the most devout Spanish Catholics.
And while more than a few pious elderly señoras may insist that now, more than ever, is the time for prayer, the popularity of the church has diminished greatly in correlation with Spain’s economic crisis. A germinating impatience with the Catholic Church has been growing among the general public due to the church’s influential role in politics and even more so, the handsome tax breaks the Catholic Church receives while painful cutbacks have been demanded of Spanish citizens.
As Holy Week approaches this year, will the current political backlash against Spain’s status quo manage to extinguish Spain’s historically prevalent religious fervor as well?
For anyone who has experienced Holy Week in Spain’s Andalusia region, it’s clear that religious zeal still exists, especially among the elderly and even among the younger crowds, if only for this special week. With masses of locals and tourists cramming elbow to elbow to solemnly watch as the heavy wooden platforms (pasos) are carried by packs of hidden costaleros, this week is an inspirational one, to say the least. Even for the most resolute non-believer, Spain’s processions are a sight not only to be seen, but a tradition to be respected and admired.
The Faith Found under the Throne
But what actually goes on behind (and under) the scenes of these revered possessions? Just who are these devoted Spaniards who train for months to blindly carry these weighty “thrones” laden with heavily decorated statues of Jesus and Virgins? Where does this devotion come from and why, in this day and age of ever-growing faithlessness, do these men commit to bearing the weight of these iconic symbols on their shoulders year after year?
To find the answers I was looking for, I simply did what the reason for the season suggests, I turned to Jesus. Well, not that Jesus. Jesús Llorens, a 31 year-old costalero who has graciously agreed to explain the process behind the Spanish procession and give us some insight to his 13 years under the throne as a costalero in Granada, Andalucía.
Jesús, how long have you been a costalero? Tell me a bit about the process of becoming a costelero.
Jesús: I’ve been a costalero for 13 years. I began when I was 18 years old because my parents wouldn’t let me start any earlier. In all of the brotherhoods (cofradías), if you want to be a costalero, you have to be 18 or have parental permission.
Before I became a costalero, I did a little bit of everything in the church. I lit candles as a monaguillo, carried candles as a nazareno, helped organize mass as a mayordomo and carried the insignia of the brotherhood as a portador de insignia. During my time spent in the church when I was young, I met the costaleros and they were a big inspiration for me. It’s an amazing experience and I’ll continue to be a costalero until my body won’t let me.
I think one is born a costalero and you start little by little at a young age. When you’re young, you see the older costaleros walking past during the processions or you watch how they build the wooden thrones or how they use small tables to practice. When you’re finally at the age when you can participate, that’s all you think about.
Explain to me the different methods of carrying “the paso”.
Jesús: Well, there are different ways of carrying the thrones depending on the city. In Malaga, there are hombres de trono, who carry the thrones using outside supports. They carry with one shoulder and there are normally quite a few of them.
Costaleros are completely under the throne and carry the weight on the nape of the neck, specifically over the seventh vertebra. We wear something called a “costal”, which helps the pressure. It’s usually made of sack cloth and a pillow that is rolled in fabric to protect the neck. For centuries, this is how it was done in Seville and for the last 30 years, it has become common in all parts of Andalucía. However, each city has its own distinct customs. For example, the pace and rhythm is different from city to city, like los horquilleros in Cádiz or the way that the throne is carried also differs like la molía in Xerez.
What are the preparations before Holy Week like? How long do you prepare physically? Do you have any personal rituals before the big day?
Jesús: We start preparing for Holy Week around Christmas time. There is always a first meeting sometime in November in order to coordinate the practice schedules and talk about important dates pertaining to the brotherhood.
From Christmas to Holy Week, each brotherhood organizes events to encourage participation, social gatherings, expositions, trips, and of course, various masses and special devotions for Jesus and the Virgin that represents each particular brotherhood.
The physical preparation is very important because we carry the throne for many hours and if one is not prepared physically, they’ll suffer for that lack of strength. Personally, I normally exercise all year, but when we begin the practice sessions, I really start to work on strengthening my legs, back and abdominals. These are the areas that suffer the most and where costaleros have to strengthen the most before Holy Week starts.
As far as personal rituals go, the day before I meet with all of my friends and we talk about the big day. Other than that, I just try to get everything prepared and rest.
Where does religion fit in with the practice of being a costelero? When you’re underneath, what do you think about? Is this a personal religious experience for most or is it more of a social event?
Jesús: Clearly, to be religious or a believer is a very important part of being a costelero. At those moments when your strength fails, you think about what you are carrying on top of your shoulders. I don’t know why, but it gives you an extra bit of motivation and you find strength that you didn’t know you had.
I know people that are costaleros because of the brotherhood; the union and the friendships that are created underneath the throne are very important. In fact, my best friends, the ones I call “brothers,” I’ve met under the throne.
Our processions last typically seven hours. So, when you are underneath you have time to think about many things. Many times, while you’re walking and listening to the music around you, you pray, or you think about your family and friends or a loved one, or someone close to you that you have lost and you dedicate that moment to them. In other moments, you concentrate on what you are doing. For example, when you are doing a complicated, tight turn, it’s important to know what you have to do to help those around you.
Other times, you simply close your eyes and let yourself be carried away by the moment. The band that is behind you is playing a piece of music that you will always remember, the smells that come from the procession: a mix of incense and fresh flowers, the cries of the people commenting on how well we are doing or how beautiful the Virgin is. Sometimes, you block everything out and just hear the simple sounds of the throne itself, the creaking wood or the sound of the Virgin’s canopy swaying back and forth.
Of course, there are a few costaleros that do this as a hobby, like a sport. But I have always been told that to be a good costalero, aside from wanting to be a costelero, you have to feel it; you have to know your own motives for doing this and for committing yourself to suffer under the throne for hours in the name of Jesus or the Virgen.
There is a quote from a book written by Father Ramón Cué that reflects this sentiment well, “I am a costalero for Her … for Her, because I love Her.” The most important thing to remember in this entire process – in what I call “our blessed madness” – is what you carry on top of the throne. Can you walk me through the day of the procession?
Jesús: The first thing you do as a costalero on the day of the procession is open the window and check to see if it’s sunny or cloudy outside. If it’s already raining, the cofradia won’t even start the procession. If it’s not raining, from the time I wake up until its time to leave for the church, I’m very nervous, I hardly eat anything, and I’m pretty quiet. I start to think how the day will be, which streets I’ll pass, what music I’ll hear.
When its time to leave, I get dressed in silence and remember to grab my good luck charms, a handkerchief, a medal, and a photograph. Once I’m dressed and ready to go, I give my mother a kiss and leave to meet the rest of the costaleros so we can walk together to the church.
The costaleros have to be there about an hour before the paso is scheduled to leave the church. We need time to put on the costals and the back braces. Once we are ready, we enter the church where we say a final prayer before leaving.
The most emotional moment is right when they open the doors of the church and the light from the street illuminates the interior of the church. This brief moment is something very special because just when the light hits you, you also hear the applause from the people outside who have been waiting for the doors to open for quite a while.
Once outside, everyone follows the instructions given by the supervisor, or el Capataz. The weight of a throne can be anywhere from 1500-2000 kg depending on the confradia. Typically, a throne with the Virgin on top can weigh anywhere between 1000-1500 kg. A typical route for my cofradia can last about seven hours, but there are some that last 12 or 15 hours.
Every city has its series of streets that each procession has to pass through. This is referred to as the Official Route and it passes by the Cathedral where the city’s Archbishop says a prayer as the processions pass by.
Once finished with the Official Route, each cofradia returns to their own church. This trajectory is where we experience the most intense moments, because you are able to go a little more slowly and you can enjoy the walk a bit more. When you go slower, people start to gather behind the throne, mimicking the rhythm of the costaleros, following you until you enter the church. This is what’s known as a “bulla” and it’s a very beautiful moment for all of us.
Finally, when everything is finished and the throne is placed inside the church, we say a prayer giving thanks to a job well done. We congratulate each other and the supervisors who have lead us through the streets. At the end, you always leave with a flower from the throne.
Spaniards have some pretty colorful vocabulary sometimes. Tell me the truth, do people swear under the thrones or is that inappropriate?
Jesús: Well, sometimes it’s just inevitable that someone uses a strong curse word here or there, especially when you’ve just passed a difficult street or you’re doing something really hard that requires a lot of strength and you’re suffering. But, if someone says something really inappropriate, they’re reprimanded quickly because, well, it’s just not the place to say some things.
At its heart, Holy Week is an ostentatious dedication to Spain’s strong Catholic roots. However, its many roles are more diverse and complex than the elaborate processions themselves. Despite economic and political troubles that seem to plague Spain on a permanent basis, Holy Week will always be a powerful key in building and restoring community spirit not just for religious celebration, but to take politics out of the spotlight, even if it’s just a brief period of time. Surely, this year, more than a few prayers for seemingly out-of-reach prosperity will be whispered as the processions pass by, but it’s health and happiness that’s on the mind of most Spaniards this week, not economics.
Thank you to my friend, Jesús, for sharing this unique glimpse into the underworld of Spain’s Holy Week Processions. As he has described, this is a massively respected event that entails months of planning and quite a bit of suffering for those physically involved.
Holy Week is an essential part of Spain’s identity and for anyone doubting the existence of Spanish faith, one shouldn’t look much further than a dedicated costalero, who carries 1000 kilograms of it on their back.
Semana Santa 2012, La Hermandad de la Cañilla, Granada
SCENE: Metro Madrid Subway, Nuevos Ministerios Station
TIME: Post Real Madrid Game, Saturday, approximately 11:30 p.m.
OBSERVING CHARACTERS: Hamatha, Husband, Visiting Brother and Sister-in-law
Crazy, Wide-Eyed Foreign Man
Mysterious Ditzy Girl in Red with ornery hair bow
Dramatic American Woman
Drunk, Angry Russian
Flustered, Angry Subway Driver
Old Spanish Man, A.k.a. “The Opportunistic Complainer”
Unseen Hooligan Group
Quiet night. Still night. Madrid metro at night. Group of four observers enter the Nuevos Ministerios metro station. Enter train wagon. Sit Down. Train moves. Gentle conversation floats throughout the train.
ENTER SCENE: Sudden, screeching laughs preceed a large dark man passing through the train rapidly. Unsteadily zipping through the train wagon, talking to himself. Crazy Foreign Man’s psychotic toothy smile is only over shadowed by wild and glistening egg-sized eyes.
As he struts through, a collective silent voice runs through each and every passenger’s mind, “Don’t make eye contact. Don’t make eye contact. ”
Crazy Foreign Man continues on his way without incident… fades out of scene.
Train stops suddenly. Calm looks are exchanged and eyes rolled. Trains stop in mid route quite often. Faint sounds can be heard from the far end of the train.
Calm looks turn into semi-concerned, quizzical glances as an acrid, chemical smell enters the train. Dramatic American Woman with heavy NY accent ( sitting next to the brother) starts to make soft, groaning sounds and covers her mouth with scarf. Brother openly mocks woman’s actions by wrapping his entire head in his new Real Madrid scarf and pretending to faint in his seat.
The smell is getting noticeable stronger, but it’s the intense echoed voices from the back of the train that begin to grab everyone’s attention.
ENTER SCENE: Squat Spanish driver slams out of his driver’s post. Short-sleeved, baby-puke-mauve-colored uniform disheveled, sweated and unbuttoned in all of the expected places. Boom, boom, boom as he lumbers to the back of the train, shaking his round head and fleshy red face from side to side.
Noise continues to rise from the back, making a rolling commotion towards our wagon. Additional noise begins to come in from the darkness in the tunnel. Someone or something is outside the train. Lingering chemical smell is getting gradually worse.
ENTER SCENE: Ditzy Girl dressed all in red comes rapidly down the train from the sound of the voices. She’s jittery and oddly dressed, like an adult child competing in a unauthorized back woods beauty contest. Sparkly eyeshadow, red shimmery lips to match her too-tight red two piece skirt combo, shiny pleather red high heels and one very fussy red bow. Holding a phone tightly, she sits in the open seat to my right.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Someone pulled the emergency break and three boys jumped out. They crazy,” she mumbles.
Brother shouts, “Hey! They’re spray painting the train!” Everyone jumps to their feet, trying to get a glimse of the rogue artists nonchalantly working their spray magic on the outside of the train.
American woman groans loudly. Burrows her head in her own body. Brother openly mocks her once again.
Sweaty, beleaguered Driver is now screaming out the door, “You sons of bitches! The police are on their way! You fucking idiots! You sons of bitches!” COÑO!!!!!!!!!!!
ENTER SCENE: Tall drunk Russian with a bearish presence approaches Ditzy Girl in Red aggresively. She is in the process of picking her fussy bow up the floor for what would be the first in a series of bow attachment failures.
“I SAW YOU! YOU PULLED THE ALARM! YOU ARE WITH THEM!”
“Que dice?”, says Red Girl, shugging her shoulders. Cowers next to me and pretends to be talking on the phone.
Drunk Russian approaches closer and closer to the red girl, staggering as his lifts his bloated sausage finger in her face, “YOU DO THIS! I CALL POLICE!”
I move over just as he bends down and hisses in her face, “DIS IS BULLSHIT!!!” Ditzy Red Girl gets up and moves out of his way. Bow drops on the floor again. She picks it up and attaches it to her ultra-shiny wiglike hair.
Meanwhile, Dramatic American Lady next to Brother is seemingly coming close to actually passing out. Even in her weakened state, however, she becomes just bold enough to scream, “Get me off this death train, please!” before she sticks her stressed face back into her scarf.
Visiting brother and sister-in-law are slack-jawed fascinated at the entire scene. They quietly begin to mock the recent scene between Drunk Russian and Ditzy Red Girl.
(“Dis is bullshit” becomes mantra for the rest of their Spanish visit.)
ENTER SCENE: Driver is aggresively marching his way back to his train control lair when he is stopped by The Old Spanish Man, A.k.a. “The Opportunistic Complainer”:
“JODER! Que vamos ya! JODER! We’ve been here forever! This is a shame! JODER! This country is in shambles! COÑO! It’s always the same: These fuckers run the world while we do nothing! JODER! Where are the police?! JODER!”
Driver: “JODER! What do you want me to do, heh?”
The Opportunistic Complainer gets in the driver’s face. It’s now getting intense between the two older men: “JODER! It’s always the same in this fucking country! Sons of bitches!”
Driver: “JODER! What the fuck are you saying? The police are coming! JODER! We have to wait or we could kill them in the tunnel!”
The Opportunistic Complainer is intrigued at this idea, “JODER! Who the fuck cares!? This country is in shambles! Sons of bitches!”
Frustrated people begin to scream at The Opportunistic Complainer, “Leave the man alone! JODER! He’s trying to do his job! Sons of bitches!”
The Opportunistic Complainer, “JODER! Sons of bitches!”
Noticeably defeated, the tense driver wabbles agressively back through our area. Drunk Russian speaks to him in a slurried English, “That girl pulled the alarm! She’s with them!”
Spanish Driver ain’t got no time for Drunk Russians and Ditzy Red Girls, keeps on walking back to his post at the front of the train. Red Girl is stooping over, once again, to pick up her hair bow off the floor. I have a strong desire to crush it with my foot next time it drops on the floor. Decide against it.
Dramatic American Woman groans louder and louder, “Good God. Somebody please do something!” Brother smiles widely, rolls his eyes, slumps in his seat and silently mocks her, again.
The noxious chemical odor is incredibly strong at this point. All doors open and close. In the scary, dark abiss outside, the grafiteros are still on task, constantly whizzing about with the dexterous movement of experienced hooligans while various passengers harrass them from inside, “Sons of bitches!”
Five more minutes pass before the doors open and close one final time. Train begins to move. Makes it to the next stop. Dramatic American Woman runs out and up the stairs, “This is the last fucking time I take the fucking metro in this goddamn city.”
The four of us depart wagon, remarking on the new green artwork on the side of the train.
Can you feel it? Yep, that’s springtime in Madrid. Let’s all take a moment and wave our hands in the air and grin like silly gooses, okay? Then, let’s all do a collective internet cloud-based, fist pump or two. Ready? 1…2…3… go!
Yep, la primavera is here. Okay, okay, maybe not technically, but it’s damn sure knocking at the door, right? And if you’d really like to bask in the sunshine and fresh air of an early Madrid springtime, I highly recommend you hightail it down to El Parque La Quinta de Los Molinos. The hundreds of almond trees are in full bloom right now and the air inside the park is the perfect springtime scent.
Sure, while it may not be on the same level as the world-famous cherry blossom in Japan, this quaint Madrileño park will have you wishing for a girly parasol and fringed shawl while you saunter across the pink- and white- kissed fields with your fella.
Warning: Many similar photos of hundreds of blooming almond trees ahead:
This beautiful city park is registered as a Historic Park and Heritage Site of Cultural Interest. Originally, the land belonged to el Conde de Torre Arias, who gifted it to César Cort Botí, an architecture professor. After his death, the family donated it to the city as a public space. Along with the hundreds of beautiful almond trees, there’s a small pond with a water mill and even an olive grove.
If you go, go soon. All of the trees are in full bloom right now and it’s just gorgeous. As I was snapping a few photos, an elderly lady said to me, “Que belleza, no?”
My trip to Japan was a good six months ago, but every once in a while, I still find myself drifting back to my rather large photo file of the trip. As I sit and click through each photo, I inevitably remember something that had slipped my mind, and begin calling out to the husband things like “Honey, do you remember when the deer attacked you in Nara?” or “Honey, remember when we had frozen beer in Tokyo?” or “Remember when we ate sushi at 6 in the morning?”
This can go on for ages or until I silently drift back into more blissful Japanese memories. Kyoto was especially memorable to me and I as went back over my Japan posts right after the trip, I decided that I owed this city at least one more homage. So, here are a few of my favorite sites to visit in Kyoto, although narrowing it down to just five was no easy feat because the whole city is just incredibly magical from top to bottom.
The Silver Temple
Temple of the Silver Pavilion is a Zen temple that goes back to 1482. Set in a beautiful natural landscape, it was built to be a retreat of rest and solitude for the Shogun. The rock garden in the Zen garden has a replica of Mount Fuji made of gravel.
The Golden Pavilion
I think the Golden Pavilion was my favorite of all of the Zen temples we visited. Just look at it! Although all of the sites have their individually distinct features, the Golden Pavilion is just stunning. Construction began on the temple in 1397 and was originally a private villa before being bought by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and subsequently turned into one of the most beautiful and well-known Zen temples in Japan.
In a searing August heat wave, the Ryoan-ji temple was kind of a bear to get to, but I’m so glad we made the effort. This is a Zen temple that belongs to the Myōshin-ji school of Zen Buddhism. Inside, the rock garden goes back to the late 15th century and is considered to be one of the finest examples of Japanese zen gardens.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Along with the Golden Pavilion, the Inari Shrine was a top favorite of mine. It required a quick train ride from the Kyoto train station to get there, but it was entirely worth the trip. The large shrine sits at the base of the mountain with the same name and ten thousand tori gates form an incredible walking path to the top of the mountain. The tori gates were all donated by Japanese businesses as Inari was thought to be the patron of business, merchants and manufacturers.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace was home to Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868 when Japan’s capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Today, the expansive grounds are open to the public and have a number of interesting, ornate buildings.
Although there are thousands of temples, shrines and sites in Kyoto, these five sites certainly have a permanent place in my heart, along with the frozen beer in Tokyo and the attacking deer in Nara, of course.
Although most people tend to spend January recapping their best or worst moments of the last year and contemplating what the new one might have in store, I’m generally thinking about one of two things around the this time of year. First, I think about the many ills facing my beloved Spain in the year to come. The crisis, the constant bad news, the corrupt politicians, Iker vs. Diego, etc.
Then, when that passes, I think about beer.
In fact, I find myself thinking about beer quite often around this time of year. Although I enjoy Madrid’s mild winters, the cold isn’t exactly conducive to enjoying oodles and oodles of lovely terrace + beer + tapas time. So, I tend to spend a lot of time daydreaming about the arrival of my precious Spanish springtime. And please understand that it’s not the alcohol I crave. Well, it’s not only the alcohol. Meeting up with a friend on a late afternoon, preferably during the week and “tomando” something is just something I love to do. You know that feeling when you decide to give La Latina yet another try on a warm, sunny day and you find a table on a terrace somewhere, which, of course, means you must stake claim to that spot for at least three hours? Magic, right?
Honestly, I try to take advantage of exploring the city as much as I can, but the truth is that I just adore that feeling of just sitting, enjoying a beer and some tapas with a good conversationalist on a crisp, sunny day. That’s my Spain … when it’s warm and I can skip out of work, that is.
And of course, although you can’t beat a little terrace time catching up with a dear friend, I have to admit that sometimes I daydream about hanging out with various Spanish celebrities famous people. Now, I could pretend that I’m looking for quality, high brow conversation that would end up being a learning experience. But, honestly, I’m just looking for a good time. And okay, so my choice of “famous” people I’d like to hang out with may not be the most impressive list, but hey, terrace time is for relaxing and laughing, not learnin’. Am I right?
So, while I watch the current blue sky closing down this chilly January day, rest assured that I’ll be oddly, yet wistfully daydreaming about spending a warm, spring day with one of these quirky Spaniards listed below.
Mario Vaquerizo and Alaska – Okay, so to some of you this might be a weird choice, but damn, I find this couple fascinating. (And yes, I know that Alaska isn’t from Spain, but she’s a huge part of Madrid’s history.) Plus, Mario really loves beer. I love beer. As quirky as these two are, I’m sure they’ve got a ton of stories to tell about Spain in its heyday. I love stories about Spain in its heyday. So, yeah, I think having a beer with these two would make for a great time.
Ara Malikian – Yeah, yeah, so maybe Ara isn’t an official Spaniard either, yet. But, he’s been in Spain forever and is on his way to becoming legit so I say he counts. I love, love, love to hear him play and entertain the audience with his charming stories. He is one of the few musical geniuses I’ve seen in person and he seems like such a nice, fun-loving guy. I need to have a beer with him.
Vincent del Bosque and his little friend, Toni Grande – Talk about stories! These two football veterans would have me fascinated by round two, I’m sure. I’m a little doubtful they’d spill the beans to this guiri, at first, but I think I could annoy them to death until they break.
Andres Iniesta – I waivered on this one a bit. Not so sure it would be the most enthralling conversation of my life, but I’ve really come to love old Iniesters since the last World Cup and wouldn’t pass up a chance to tomar una caña with him.
Placido Domingo - I really can’t believe that I’ve never seen Placido Domingo live, but hopefully I can change that this year. In the meantime, we can talk about Real Madrid and he can sing to me while we’re soaking up sun on a terrace in front of the opera house. Close enough, right?
Ana Botella – I know, I know. I just want to see for myself, you know?
So, there ya go. Which famous Spaniard would be on your terrace-beer-time list?
Madrid, Spain. January 13, 2025 — A controversial new law obliging all Spanish males to have a vasectomy on their 16th birthday was signed into law by Spain’s mainly female cabinet. The new law, expected to pass in the all female parliament early next month, will see one of the world’s first enforced “male responsibility” measures, meant to curb unwanted pregnancy.
As expected, the Spanish male population has taken to the streets to protest the questionable legalities behind the law. Although many signs were covered with strong messages such as “My sperm, my decision!”, “Protect all the sperms!”, “Keep you hands off my penis unless I say put them there!” or the crowd favorite, “Free My Willy!”, the government representatives scoffed at the idea of men in charge of their own bodies.
The Spanish Prime Minister, Maria Jesus Mibombo, remarked that the law comes after intensive studies were conducted by an educated committee made up of all female members. The members voted unanimously to take control of the burgeoning number unwanted births in the country by forcing all males to have the reversible procedure at the age of 16.
The law comes after it was decided that men are not competent to control their own bodies and often make impulsive decisions which poorly affect Spanish society. “The penis is always the victim, so by providing vasectomies to our male population, we are really protecting the penis and the sperm, which is, as we all know, half of what it takes to create a baby,” explained Paula Micoño Suarez. “We recognize that men cannot be trusted to make their own decisions regarding their sperm distribution so vasectomies are really for their own benefit. Simple-minded civil rights simply cannot trump measures that are taken for the good of the country. Spanish men should be grateful because vasectomies are reversible. Mandatory sterilization and castration were also on the table … you know, for society’s sake.”
As the so called “penis protests” swell around the country, the fine print of the new law has also come under close scrutiny. The country’s Civil Rights Commission, amazingly established just five years ago in 2020, explains that it’s not just the initial procedure itself that is unbelievable, its the steps to reverse the procedure that are being met with incredulousness.
According to the new law, the vasectomy can only be reversed upon presentation of a marriage certificate, validated by a female judge and a Catholic priest. To legally validate the marriage, a female counselor must assess the marriage as “godly authentic” after intensive investigation of both parties’ past relationships to prove the pair were virgins before marriage.
Additionally, once the administrative steps are completed, the Spanish man must consult two doctors, have four blood tests and two colonoscopies in order to begin the reversal process. Additionally, he must visit an approved eye doctor, a dentist, a heart specialist and a psychiatrist.
Spokesman for the Society of Penis and Ejaculation Rights for Males (SPERM) remarked that the stipulations are almost impossible to fulfill. “Why should men have to go through such a hassle just because they want a child? It’s natural for anyone to want to procreate, but forcing men to jump through these bureaucratic hoops in order to do so just reeks of hypocrisy.”
However, a spokeswoman for the government replied, “Men have proven themselves inept at self-control. In fact, many men make mistakes and fire their sperm at just anyone, without considering the future of that sperm. Therefore, we have a duty to protect sperm at all costs and make sure it ends up in a godly relationship. We don’t recognize the right of men to control their bodies in this instance. We are the government so obviously, we have a right to control all of the penises of the country in order to keep Spanish society righteous and just, just like its politicians have been since the very day democracy was implemented in Spain in the late 1970′s.”
Although this new law may be considered too extreme by many, since Spain’s all female government came into power five years ago, the country has seen in increase in practical societal measures. Not only has the Spanish government decided to take matters into their own hands in terms of the country’s previously willy-nilly collective penis workings, the all female government shockingly decided to make firing a women for being pregnant a crime. Additionally, Prime Minister, Maria Jesus Mibombo, made waves when she had the audacity to make bribery and political graft a crime that was actually punishable with actual jail time. Five years after the installation of the new government, the new-to-Spain law saw the country’s entire PP party incarcerated for most of their sad, greedy and self-righteous lives.
Have you ever been to a place that you weren’t overly excited to go in the first place, but then, it turned out to be so cool that you regret ever doubting it?
Well, say hello to my weekend in Belgrade. Thanks to Yvonne from Just Travelous, I was able to spend a long weekend in the city and man, did it ever surprise me.
I have to say that I really knew very little about Belgrade’s history. Yes, I knew of the horrible years of the war in this area and of course, I knew about the infamous Partizan loyality to their city. But other than that, my Belgrade knowledge was embarrassingly limited.
That being said, I was really surprised at the amount of things Begrade has to offer. Loads of history, great people, tons of meat, coconut baklava that puts Istanbul to shame, etc. Yes, Belgrade is one great city for a weekend away.
The Cathedral of Saint Sava
This beautiful Cathedral really took my breath away. It’s a new structure. So new in fact, that they’ve only just finished the exterior and the interior still has quite a ways to go. Modeled after Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, this church (more of a temple than a cathedral) is the largest Orthodox church in the world and is certainly one of Belgrade’s shining landmarks. Beautiful, isn’t it?
The Tesla Museum is a must see in Belgrade. Besides being a great little museum, the hourly tour was informative, interactive and very entertaining. Although I was trying to pay attention to the various displays, I was completely enthralled by the personable young tour guide, who was by far one of the cutest human beings I’ve ever encountered. You’ll have to take my word for it because I was too shy to take his photo!
Prince Mihailo Street and Republic Square
Much like Puerta del Sol, Republic Square is the epicenter of Belgrade. Used as the meeting point, protest point and general stroll starting point, the pedestrian area here is where all nights begin. There’s also a lot of good shopping and restaurants in the area and some incredible pastry shops.
On our first day in Belgrade, we took a walking tour around the city with a very informative guide. Our last stop of the day was the Belgrade Citdel located inside the beautiful Kalemegdan Park. With spectacular views of the intersection of the Danube and the river Sava, I can’t recommend this area enough. It’s a historically relevant area of course, but really, it was the old Serbian men playing chess that made my heart thump. Man, sometimes I wish I was an 80 year old man so I could wear snazzy hat/sweater vest combo and play chess with my buds in the park. Is that weird?
The Zemun area
Although our hotel was not right in downtown Belgrade, we were lucky to be in the historic Zemun area across the river. There’s not a lot of things to do or see on this side of town, but its worth a trip if you want to take a nice walk along the river. The area has been getting more and more popular over the last few years and is known for the many floating restaurants and bars bobbing along the riverbank. The Gardoš tower (also known as the Millennium Tower) is in this area and is quite a hike up a steep hill, but again, the views of the Danube are quite impressive.
“You just have to go to the Bohemian quarter!” was repeated to us over and over from the moment we stepped foot in the Serbian capital. I can’t say that Belgrade is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. A lot of the city is still a bit run down due to years of confict and war, but it does have its hidden charms and the Skadarlija neighborhood is exceptionally alluring. Yes, it’s a bit touristy, but the small area with its kafana (tavern) vibe still manages to be authentic and romantically pleasant all the same. There are some decent places to eat and overall, it’s a very quaint and ambient area, perfect for an evening stroll and stop for a few very inexpensive glasses of wine.
Sports fan or not, seeing a Partizan game in person is an unforgettable experience. The fans are um … vivacious and passionate? If their non-stop thunderous chants don’t make your heart skip a beat, the stifling cigarette smoke in the stadium will certainly make your lungs burst. But, it’s all part of the Partizan ambience so just go with it. That’s just the Partizan way and the team’s historic connection to Madrid is something uniquely special.
So, yes, Belgrade was quite the pleasant surprise on many levels. Specifically, I was really taken aback by how nice the people were. Everywhere we went people struck up a conversation and gave us advice on what to do and see. The staff at the lovely Falkensteiner Hotel were essential in our daily planning and even got us tickets to the Partizan game. Even when the taxi driver tried to rip us off on the way back to the hotel, he apologized for trying when we didn’t fall for it. Never had that happen before!
- “Um, this is our first time here and we don’t know what to do.”
- “Claro. I can tell from your faces that you’ve never been here before.”
This was our first trip to Madrid’s Hipodromo and we had already established ourselves as newbies just by the looks on our innocent, gamble-free faces.
Thankfully, the same cheeky lady behind the glass proceeded to tell us the low down on betting at Madrid’s horsetrack. The next race was in 10 minutes, so we quickly ran to the horse ring where they show the horses to the crowd. We did our best to evaluate the slow nags from the ones with fire in their eyes, did our calculations and proceeded to make four 5€ bets with the same lady who had explained the system to us just minutes earlier. Although I didn’t realize it until just after slapping down our 20 spot, she gave us a subtle shake of the head to confirm our sanguine naiveté. Needless to say, we lost that €20, chalked it up to bad luck, and continued with €2 bets from then on out, which we also proceeded to lose.
Although I grew up around horses, this was my first time at any horse track. Beforehand, I had two images in mind of what I would find on my first trip to the tracks. First, I envisioned a place with seedy dark corners and standoffish aged men with dark glasses and a habit of nodding to lesser-aged sidekicks in suits. Second, well, this is Madrid, so I also had images of pretentious pijo-ed couples dressed in pastels and sipping on cava.
I’m happy to report that I found both groups (well, I didn’t actually see any sidekicks in suits) and as well, a large amount of families with kids, which only served to complete the disparity of this particular environment. After my initial crowd assessment, I spent most of my time oohing and ahhing over the beautiful horses and the tiny jockeys and their weathered, but attractive horse handlers. Oh, and losing money.
Despite not having much luck on the gambling side of things, I really enjoyed my day at Madrid’s Hipodromo and looking forward to spending more time there next spring and summer, when they have night races. Also, if you go, try out the tapas if you can. I had one of the best tortilla de patatas of my life at Iván Muñoz’s restaurant Latapa Madrid. Don’t miss it!