Sunday 11 May 2014

Andalusia - A long awaited trip to Southern Spain

It was back in 2006 that the desire to visit this magnificent part of Spain had been firmly embedded in my heart. The plan was drawn, vetted to fit in the Christmas holidays and then casually abandoned as the rest of my trip group had other higher priorities to deal with during the holidays. This was days before I got hooked on to solo travel - and this particular incident a major contributor towards my travel preference these days. The next time I planned for Spain was in 2010, but did not manage to get a visa appointment until it was too late for me to travel. Spain remained elusive. When finally this year in 2014 I had the option of taking a flexible Easter holiday, I decided, this was the chance - not to worry about the mad holiday rush and yet have my holidays, so the much rehearsed plan was put into action - hoping to make it a third time lucky. However, I hit the same hurdle - no visa appointments at the Spanish embassy in Edinburgh for the next 3 weeks! I did not know yet that Easter started a day before at the embassy. Therefore, by the time I booked my appointment I had just over 2 weeks but only 6 working days to have it processed. They asked for at least 3 weeks processing time. Despite the negative feedback I had read on the internet about the embassy, my experience was altogether different. The staff was friendly and cooperative. I was told I would get my visa by the day of my travel which would be the day after they opened post holidays. I was left with heavily over-chewed nails as I waited impatiently for my passport to drop in, hoping it would need a couple of days only going by my experience with previous applications at other embassies. But nothing appeared and my worrying got worse. Finally on the day before they closed for holiday, as I returned from work, I found the so welcoming 'We missed you' card from Royal Mail. Phew...what a relief! They had managed to process and send it back within 5 working days. Earlier during the day unable to stop worrying, I had paid a visit to the embassy and despite initially being told at the reception, I would receive it in 2 weeks time, they finally said the document had been posted the day before.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty over my visa meant I was left pretty much under-prepared for my trip. I had hoped to put in a couple of weeks for Spanish lessons prior to my travel, the same ones that I spent worrying myself over the visa, which as always later seemed completely futile. The final weekend prior to travel was spent shopping for clothes suitable for warmer weather. Edinburgh was still reeling under single digit temperature and Andalusia was way above 20 degrees. I had never thought that coming from the Indian subcontinent I would ever look forward to sun and warmth, but that's what relentless cold and rain can do to anyone! On top of that could not help myself from enjoying a welcoming burst of Scottish sun in the pretty hills surprisingly wind and cloud free, the weekend was beautiful - an almost unprecedented fair weathered Easter Sunday! Hence ended up with no Spanish lessons, neither any fine tuning of my plans.

Finally, on the 23rd April, I found a pretty nervous me on the Airlink bus to the Edinburgh airport. I knew I was not at all prepared to face a foreign land, my plans were mostly tentative hoping to find out more when I had reached. The accommodations were all confirmed and I had sent a note to all of them mentioning my tentative time of arrival and also asking for directions. And the only confirmed plan I had was for visiting the Alhambra and even here I had failed to get daytime tickets to the Nasrid palaces though I booked a couple of months in advance. Deep in my heart I hoped that being a popular tourist destination my English would help - I was very wrong! I knew more words of Italian when I visited Venice and even with that it was a struggle (My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part IV)
Moreover, it was sort of a backpacking holiday and I had never hosteled outside Scotland.

Here was my plan. The golden triangle comprising of Granada, Cordoba and Seville were in the plan, the must visit places in terms of historical essence and architecture. My arrival and departure point being Malaga, this was extended to a golden quadrilateral
Day-1: Reach Malaga at 9 pm and stay overnight at the hostel
Day-2: Early morning start for Granada. Tickets to Alhambra were booked
Day-3: Afternoon travel to Seville, would decide transport when I reached
Day-4: Visit Seville, plan interchangeable with Day-5
Day-5: Visit Cordoba
Day-6: Early travel back to Malaga, fly out at 9:30pm to Edinburgh. Back home sometime after midnight

The golden triangle of Granada, Cordoba and Seville extended to the golden quadrilateral - Malaga included
The Ryan Air flight touched down at Malaga airport close to 9pm. It was still twilight. I knew the train station was just outside the airport, however the signs leading to it suddenly stopped and I had to ask for directions - surprisingly English did not help! But managed to understand I was to go right, where everyone else went, apart from me! Also realised that way ahead was an arrow pointing downwards and not the normal upwards (I was looking for an escalator taking me down somewhere to the train station). I was starting to get the feel of being on my own again in a foreign land. Getting the train wasn't hard. The airport was on the C1 line and I had to go to Alameda Centro, the stop after Maria Zambrano which was the main train and bus station. However, the only hassle was that the English button was not working on the self service ticket machine, but I managed, even with a loud queue forming behind me. The single ticket cost me 1.75 Euros, much cheaper than the bus tickets to the city centre and a faster journey.

It was around 9:30pm when I reached Alameda Centro. I had a map to take me to the Feel Hostel City Centre, got my bearings right and confirmed with a Spanish gentleman who did not speak a word of English. It was a 10 minutes walk. I had not imagined Malaga to be such a big city and it took me a while to take it all in. Actually, I had imagined all the destinations on my trip to be heritage cities, not much touched by modernisation, guess that's what staying in UK, more so in Edinburgh does to you. I gradually realised that the pictures I had seen depicted only the historical city centre while there was a very modern city growing all around the place, the historical sites formed only a small percentage of the cities. Wasn't a disappointment as I did not have enough time to wander away from the city centres anyway.

The Feel Hostel, as mentioned on their website, was bang in the middle of the City Centre close to the Malaga cathedral. I was checked in by Chris and the first thing he said was - "So you are a Piscean? So am I". Pretty amusing way to start a conversation, but he was a nice guy, good looking too. His mother was British and father Portuguese and he was a traveller. He had spent a few days in Rishikesh and was planning a longer holiday in the Himalayas - not one of the lot who think India is Rajasthan and Goa and nowadays, Kerala. Though I was to stay overnight, got a map and my directions to go to Maria Zambrano the next day for the bus to Granada. The hostel served dinner and breakfast for a few extra Euros, but I decided to skip the pasta (Yes, I did deny pasta!) for some Spanish tapas round the corner. I guess I was too dazed at that time because however hard I may try I cannot remember what I had that night, only that I had three tapas dishes served by a lady who did not understand English. Walked around the city centre, it was busy even at 11pm. I was not sure to get my camera out at that hour and was pretty lazy and tired as well, so unfortunately there aren't any pictures from my first night in Spain. The streets, all paved up, a fact I would gradually get used to along with screeching wheels and squeaking shoes during my stay in Andalusia, was nicely lit up and would have produced rather pretty pictures.

The only bed left in the 8-bed female dormitory was a top bunk. I prefer a top bed anyway, so was lucky. There were four teenage girls travelling together and they were going to Granada next day as well. The lady sleeping in the bed below me was travelling to Seville and she was travelling solo. Both of us were planning to leave early next day. Never got to know who the remaining two ladies were or up to as they came in quite late. Washed up, rearranged my luggage for the next day and only when I had switched off the lights and climbed up to my bed that I realised I did not have a blanket. However, felt rather reluctant to go down again and disrupt everyone's sleep. So just wrapped up the bed sheets and went to sleep. The temperature was quite pleasant and my earplugs soon helped me float away to my little dreamland. My alarm was set for half seven next morning, in vibration mode.

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