Small Town Changes

When I catch the travel bug, I get it bad. The idea - an image or a description, maybe - of a place worms its way into my brain and emits an irrepressible urge to go there and see it in person. I start planning routes and checking prices - even dreaming about the trip, in some cases. And once the seed has been planted, I can't ignore it. Going is never a question of if, but rather when.

Due to work, my travel radius has been considerably shortened, but that didn't stop me from zooming around on Google Maps last week, trying to determine the furthest possible day trip I could make without feeling too rushed, while also in the company of my uncle and elderly grandfather. 

So on a sunny weekday that I had off, the three of us piled into the family minivan and took off down the highway toward Monterey. I had never been; uncle and grandpa last visited well before I was born.

The winding two-lane highway rocked me to sleep, and I awoke to a view of boats dotting Monterey Bay. Having grown up in Seattle and driven along Puget Sound almost every day on the way to gymnastics practice, I find it comforting to be able to see water. We began our day at Cannery Row, essentially a condensed iteration of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf (read: touristy and commercialized but still oddly charming). We broke for lunch at A Taste of Monterey, a wine tasting bar and bistro with a panoramic view of the bay. As the first diners we had our pick of the tables, selecting one right by the window, which we didn't realize until later had the added bonus of a steady stream of excrement falling outside thanks to the birds perched on the roof. Ah, the beauty of nature.

Upon my prompting we took 17 Mile Drive along the edge of Monterey Peninsula, through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove, which, despite their modest names are disturbingly garish. Going southbound along the route there is beautiful, rugged coastline at the right and, on the left, velvety golfing greens bordered by faux chateaux and plantation throwback mansions with tacky names like "Villa Eden del Mar;"* the latter a blatant juxtaposition of two of the most pressing issues facing society - the drought and wealth disparity. At each scenic view point that we stopped at along the route, grandpa looked out with great interest and repeatedly lamented the lack of visible sea life relative to his previous visits.

Leaving the manicured enclave of the 1%, we continued down to Carmel to visit the Mission Basilica. Carmel-by-the-Sea, as it's formally known, is quaint and picturesque, full of cottage-style houses and a pedestrian-friendly "downtown" comprising small, local businesses. Likewise, the Mission is a lovingly restored and therefore photogenic complex with a beautiful garden, perhaps at odds with the dark history of Spain's religious conquests. 

We didn't make it as far south as Point Lobos, also on my travel bucket list, but I'm saving that for another day.

*Do semicolons belong inside or outside of quotation marks?

The Seaside

Some snaps from last week's day trip to Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea (talk about pretentious nomenclature, sheesh). Thoughts and reflections coming soon!

Mural at McAbee Beach in Monterey.

Mural at McAbee Beach in Monterey.

A seagull paces outside our window table at A Taste of Monterey.

A seagull paces outside our window table at A Taste of Monterey.

Fog covering the coast.

Fog covering the coast.

The Lone Cypress along 17 Mile Drive.

The Lone Cypress along 17 Mile Drive.

Carmel Mission Basilica.

Carmel Mission Basilica.

See the rest on Flickr.

Mount Qingcheng

Wanting to get a break from Chengdu's sprawling network of high rises, I took a day trip with my host to Mt. Qingcheng, a series of 36 peaks located near Dujiangyan City, about a forty minute train ride northwest of Chengdu. As I noted previously, the air quality in the urban center isn't much different than it is in LA, but right away when we exited the station and made toward the densely wooded hills, our lungs relished the difference. Getting there is not difficult, however we learned the hard way that train tickets should be purchased at least a day in advance (because tickets do sell out for desired times and unless going through a third party vendor you'll probably have to wait in line to make a purchase), and that a passport is necessary - for foreigners, a Chinese resident card is not sufficient.

Near the main gate.

Near the main gate.

As a revered center of Taoism dating back over two thousand years BC, this UNESCO Heritage Site is dotted with ancient temples and palaces. Some of these have been adapted to souvenir shops, but they're relatively few and far between and thus not too much of a buzz kill. There are two paths up the mountain, which the English-language tourism website helpfully refers to as "anterior" and "posterior." For convenience's sake, we took whichever one means the front.

The trek up to the top is not a hike per se - the path gravitates between walkways of wooden planks periodically penetrated by trees that the builder didn't want to cut down and old paving stones. Oh, and steps. Lots and lots of steps. It's been several days since this excursion and my calves still ache. 

Vendors in the main palace.

Vendors in the main palace.

With the slight time pressure of a late afternoon return train ticket, we didn't linger as long as we could have at each site. Some highlights: a lake with a pretty boat that ferried us across before unceremoniously slamming into a few rubber tires on the other side as if it only had two functions - moving and not moving; a furnicular whose path went over beautiful cliff paintings; elderly Chinese men with long beards and traditional garb who looked as though they could be original to the centuries-old buildings; a baulstrade thick with heart-shaped locks in a poor imitation of the Pont de l'Archevêché in Paris; a souvenir shop that, with the aid of a green screen, specialized in making videos of you and your loved one flying through the local scenery. On our way back down the mountain, I stood transfixed, utter revulsion churning inside me like vomit after binge drinking, in front of the latter until I remembered that we were running to catch our train on time. (We did).

Greenery.

Greenery.

Although there are many incongruous elements to contemporary Mt. Qingcheng, the pristine beauty of the forest; the way it absorbs sound like a sponge and the gorgeous autumnal palette that materializes when viewed from up high retain a respectable spirituality commensurate to its history. I wish we'd had enough time to go down the other path, but for that one would certainly need more than a day. Near the bottom of the mountain, guesthouses perch just off the main road as it begins to slope upward. Next time, maybe...

Monkeys and Sunsets in Gibraltar

When I checked into my hotel in Algeciras shortly after 4pm, I was anticipating a rest day; down time to go through photos and catch up on my freelance editing duties. But since the day was young (the sun sets shortly before 10pm), the receptionist encouraged me to take the bus to nearby Gibraltar, the British Overseas Territory. So after dropping my things off in the room, I set out again, heading towards a place that I really only knew by its flag from playing Geo Challenge obsessively back in the day.

Shortly after the border crossing.

Shortly after the border crossing.

Gibraltar is a bit of a mind trip - it's like being in the UK what with the same iconic red phone booths, bins for "litter" rather than trash, and crosswalks that remind you which way to look for oncoming traffic. But, then, you open your ears and hear the locals effortlessly slip betwee British English, when addressing tourists, and the local dialect when addressing each other. (It sounds like Spanish but with the sing-song lilt of Italian). 

It's famous for the iconic rocky cliff that towers over the town and port. I made my way through the city center, hoping to catch the cable car up to the top but, alas, I had missed the last one. In the parking lot I bumped into a tour guide who, for the same price as the cable car, drove visiors up to the top in a minivan. I was game, but unfortunately I was the only tourist around. 

Explaining that I only had a short time to spend in Gibraltar, the sympathetic guide told me to hop in while she tried to wrangle a bigger group. We zoomed back through the city center, with her pausing occasionally to solicit passersby, until finally admitting defeat. But the prospect of failure made me even more determined to go. I offered to pay her double the normal rate to take me up the rock alone, although I don't think money was the issue so much as that the company prefers the vans to be full. 

"It's fine," she said finally. 

"I'll just tell them that I took a break to get my daughter from the beach." 

My first sight of Africa.

My first sight of Africa.

Moody monkey. The guide said his collar is for National Geographic reesearch.

Moody monkey. The guide said his collar is for National Geographic reesearch.

And off we went, mounting the perilously narrow and steep switchbacking roads. It was really something to look down on the marina from above, and to see Africa emerging from the mist on the opposite side of the strait.  But for me the best part was at the peak, where the famed macaques live.

With the sun close to setting, we made our way back down, making other stops to admire the different views. Occasionally she paused to exchange greetings with drivers coming the other way. 

"Gibraltar is very safe, but it's so small that you know everyone's business!" 

She continued to point out the territory's other unique features, such as the tax-free shopping - which explained the many tourists I'd seen toting around cartons of cigarettes and bottles of liquor. Not to mention the cars that crossed the border just to fuel up.  It was getting dusky by the time she dropped me off near the marina so that I could finish looking around.

"Time to get back to work," she said with a wink as I shut the door. 

There's something oddly romantic about an airstrip at sunset.

There's something oddly romantic about an airstrip at sunset.

Wining in the South of Spain

Everything in Córdoba's histocal center is within easy walking distance, meaning that: a) it's pretty much impossible to get truly lost, but that b) you can cover all the points of interest in a day - maybe a day and a half if you do as the locals do and partake in the afternoon siesta. Faced with the prospect of spending my last full day tromping around the same old streets, lovely as they are, I decided I'd be better off heading somewhere else. My hostel highlighted several possible daytrips, but naturally I chose the one labeled "wine tasting."

Nearby Montilla, just an hour's bus ride away, is the sort of place that a Google search does not yield satisfactory step-by-step instructions of how to get there and lengthy discussions of what to do once you've arrived; where even while walking on one of the main streets, in breaks between buildings you catch glimpses of rolling hills of vineyards that supply all the wineries (or bodegas, as they're called here); where when you enter said bodega, the lady in the tienda will ask you if you speak English, shortly followed by, "Sorry, tours are only in Spanish." (I think it goes without saying that, additionally, in this sort of setting you can wander about as you please feeling reasonably sure that you are the only colored person within city limits. I did meet a friendly South African couple during the tasting, but they were white). 

With seven years' worth of Spanish buried beneath French, tucked away in the crevices of my brain alongside trig and mitosis and all those other things you learn in school but almost never use in real life, I wasn't too worried about the tour not being in English. Not so much because they taught us about wine in AP Spanish, but, I mean, once you've toured one winery you've pretty much toured them all. The process remains essentially the same and the only thing that's different is the tasting. Or so I thought when I purchased my ticket at the Bodega Alvear.

But, as it turned out, they do things a little differently in the south of Spain. Whereas at most of the other wineries I've been to - in Napa Valley, Portugal and France - wines are differentiated by the type of grape they contain. Here? They can make 5 wildly different wines using just one: the white Pedro Ximénez variety. I don't know how this feat is accomplished; it was all in Spanish.

If you go: Pick your bodega wisely, as by the time you finish the tour and tasting, everything shuts down for the siesta and, unlike most other businesses, the bodegas won't reopen later. Maybe this is just a summer thing because July is low season; I'm not sure because Google wouldn't tell me. 

 

Coimbra: the Medieval College Town

With lots of things closed on Monday to observe the official holiday (in reality though the city probably needed a day to recover from the hangover induced by St. John's Eve), I decided to skip town and take a day trip. What should have been a simple one-hour journey by train expanded to several hours because of delays and confusing transfers. (Note: all long-distance trains stop at Coimbra B, which is outside the city center. Tickets include service between Coimbra B and Coimbra, the central station, but these little trains don't appear to run very often).

The main attraction is the University of Coimbra, established 1290 (no that's not a typo), making it one of the oldest academic institutions in the world. It's situated atop a hill surrounded by old buildings and impossibly narrow and twisted streets, yet miraculously I saw a myriad of cars - and nearly got run down a few times because there are no sidewalks. I spent a solid afternoon getting lost in and around the campus, before taking a break in the lovely botanical garden and then heading back toward the train station.

Apparently if you go during the final exam period at the end of May you'll experience a week-long party facilitated by the school and students. Just sayin.

View the rest on Flickr.