Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Where's that bus going?

Spain - The First Few Days

That was the question that I found myself asking Caitlin many times throughout our trip.  Sitting at the bus station in Algeciras, just back from Morocco, “Is that our bus to Malaga.”  Cold, hungry, and tired at the bus station in Ronda, waiting for our delayed bus to Sevilla, “Where’s that bus going?”  “Dan, that’s a school bus” Caitlin informed me. 

These snippets were just two of the many conversations we had while trying to secure transportation.  In total, between when we landed at the Malaga airport and returned one week later, we boarded 15 buses, 9 taxis, 7 trains, 2 ferries, and one private tour bus.  Every time, before boarding a bus to who knows where, I turned to Caitlin and, without fail, asked, “Where’s that bus going?” 

While enduring Washington’s blistering August heat, Caitlin and I had decided that, rather than venturing to the frigid Midwest for Thanksgiving, we’d head to the Costa del Sol (Sun Coast) in Southern Spain for our holiday.  Thanks to Grandpa Bob, we lined up a time share with a view of the Mediterranean for our week’s stay.  With Lonely Planet in tow, we boarded the plane in Washington on November 19, prepared for a week of tapas, medieval cities, and gaudy souvenirs.  Only once we opened the door of Unit 301 at Club la Costa did we realize how much transportation we were in for.  

In planning the trip to Spain, Caitlin and I oscillated between a resort with a view of the ocean and cheap hostels in cities spread throughout the country.  In the end, the docile look of a beach and the comfort of the price won out.  We chose a resort not far (we thought) from the town of Malaga on Spain’s Southern Coast.  Known as a tourist destination for the British, we hoped the November crowd would be less than rowdy.  We were right though probably too much.

Although our resort billed itself as located in “Malaga,” the following is what encompassed getting from our front door to Malaga proper.  On Sunday morning, we stepped out of our unit’s front door, walked the 10 minutes down to the road paralleling the Mediterranean coast.  After waiting 10 minutes for a local bus, we paid 2.5 euro for the short trip into the village of Fuengirola.  Once there, we hopped on board the commuter train, which ran every 30 minutes, and splayed out in comfort as we passed the 45 minute and 5 euro ride into Malaga.  After reaching that station, we walked the 10 minutes to the city center. A little more work than we had envisioned. 

Despite the struggle to get from our resort to civilization, the things that stayed with me from Spain were 1) the people and 2) the history of the country.  Throughout our trip, we were constantly impressed by the willingness of the Spanish to come to our aid. 

At one point, we walked out of the Malaga train station looking rather confused, as we did during most of the trip, and a local construction worker flagged us down asking what we needed.  We relayed that we were looking for the bus station.  He apologized first, asked that we bear with him, and then proceeded to tell us in halting English how to find our desired goal.  He couldn’t have been happier to provide us with that information.  And that interaction was the rule, more than the exception as to how we were treated during the entire trip.  To welcome us back to the US, a ticket attendant at JFK greeted a question like this, “I’M NOT THE ONE ON DUTY HERE.  If you need something, speak to that man down there, I’m doing something else!”  Welcome to America!

From the beginning though, we knew the people in this bastion of tourism would treat us with civility – more than we could expect from American Airlines.  As we landed in Malaga after our third plane ride, we waddled, zombie-like, to the baggage claim.  An airport employee realized we were foreigners and kindly pointed to a monitor that informed us our foreign, American bags would come through on a different baggage claim – one that met customs requirements.  Nodding graciously, we sat by that never-ending conveyor belt with a similar result: no luggage.  Waddling back to customer service, a no-nonsense woman informed us our luggage had never made it to Malaga and that it would be delivered when it arrived.  The couple waiting in line behind us, just happened to live in Rockville, MD, right outside Washington D.C. and had made the entire trip with us.  Like ours, their luggage hadn’t.  Despite their aloofness (me: Where are you staying? Them: the Marriott, in Marbella.  You don’t know Marbella?), they were helpful and we bid them adieu until the following week where they would meet us on our return trip to the states.

Without luggage, we began the train & taxi journey to our resort, where we promptly passed out at 6:00 pm.  Awake again at 1:30 am though, we were starving and without options.  That was before we found our new favorite retail store in all of Spain: the BP station.  Situated along the Mediterranean’s paralleling interstate and a 10 minute walk from 301, we stocked up on frozen pizza, eggs, bacon, ham & cheese, and orange juice for sickly Caitlin.  Asleep again by 3:30, we finally woke up at 1 the next day, ready to explore Malaga.  And explore we did, summiting the ancient Arabic castle with its view of the Mediterranean dropping off into the horizon – preceded by Malaga’s historic Bull Ring amid unhistoric 10-story hotels and condos. 

In 1881, Malaga bore Pablo Picassa and, in 2003, the world’s worst Picasso Museum, housed in a beautiful Shakespearean building.  A two-story square house rose up from a narrow pedestrian alley promising visitors world-class paintings.  What they got instead was a nice view of a courtyard from a Julietean balcony but only after enduring some less than interesting art.  Needless to say, we were not impressed.  Still, the tapas we shared afterward at Gorki were our first introduction to Spanish cuisine, and we enjoyed it.  Small sandwiches with chicken and ham were not gastronomical ingenuities, but filling and satisfying to our Midwestern palates.  Shortly thereafter, we retreated to our resort, missing the last bus and paying the 14 euro for the taxi to our front door. 

Sleeping off a cold and jet lag, we stayed in bed until noon on Monday before getting motivated enough to gallivant down to the coastal town of Marbella.  Yet again, another town rose off the Mediterranean into the hills composed of narrow pedestrian streets, plazas of orange trees, and siesta practitioners.  Caitlin and I arrived just in time for tapas (which is anytime) and sat down on a patio overlooking the Mediterranean.  A Tom Petty/Kenny G prodigy entertained our meal while a waiter did the opposite.  This time, our tapas consisted of less than great Potato Salad but better than bad mozzarella.  Satiated, we hiked the streets and dodged the mopeds back to the bus station where we embarked for the mountain village of Ronda – two hours from the Mediterranean coast.  I wanted to visit Ronda for two reasons: to see the most important Bull Ring in Spain and to descend the 200 steps beneath the world’s biggest oldest bridge. We weren’t able to do either.

In Marbella, I had asked the bus company when the last bus left Ronda.  The attendant informed me it left at 9:30, meaning that after we arrived at 5:30 we had about 4 hours before we had to begin our return journey.  Shooting out of the bus like a bull out of a gate, we descended on the Bull Ring two minutes before it was scheduled to close.  Like most of Spain, the schedule wasn’t closely followed, if at all, and we were locked out.  Ronda was the premier bullfighting locale in all of Spain in the 18th century giving rise to the first legendary bullfighter, Pedro Romero, and ensuring the transition from a sport conducted on horseback to one performed by matadors standing on the ground.  That is to say, it’s big fucking deal.  But not in November. 

The bullfighting season runs from April to October, with an end of the season festival in Sevilla.  We had missed the season but not the scenery.  Ronda is home to a 120 meter tall bridge built in 1793 as an update to the Arabic and Roman bridges covering the town’s gorge before it.  Known as the “New Bridge” we were rather impressed.  

Lonely Planet had alerted me to the Bull Ring’s meddlesome hours, but had also informed me that my 200 steps descending into the gorge beneath the bridge would be open until 8 pm.  The Spaniards we met, overlooking the Arabic bridge put it another way, “Eh, this is Spain, they close when they want to.”  Although we missed the steps, the two Spanish men were more than impressed with Caitlin and her charming smile.  They informed us that Michelle Obama had visited Ronda just this past summer.  Since the conversation was conducted in Spanish, there is a good chance we missed some things.  Still, in his knowledge of America, the mid 60s man who was rather skinny and bereft of most of his hair, told us about all the states he knew: “Minnesota, Missouri, Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin.”  Where the fuck is Iowa?  I asked him, not so antagonistically, and he had no idea what I was talking about.  Iowa’s Tom Vilsack like charisma continues unerringly.

Caitlin and I quickly conquered the town, drinking from the spring fed fountain, and ransacking the children as they exited their Christmas concert.  We settled in on the main drag in a nice warm tapas bar, ready to devour a snack before our bus departed.  Our pendulum swung back from our sea-surrounded lunch, and the tapas we had for 1 euro should have been free.  The two-year old who banged and threw his way through our dinner didn’t help the environment either.  Bladders empty and fingers back to working, we ran out the door.

Returning to the streets in search of more food, we wandered towards the bus station failing to find sustenance.  With an hour left, we summited the bar of a tiny, redly decorated cafe, in sight of the bus station.  And the pendulum swung back harder than ever in the form of four plates of tapas: calamari, ham and cheese croquets, potato croquets, and jamon iberico – the pride of Andalucia.  Now that our tongues and appendages were satisfied, we hurried off to the bus station in search of a Mediterranean bound transport. 

Closed doors and locked gates greeted us.  As we ran through the bus parking lot, we found a woman emptying the trash.

“Is there a bus to Marbella?” we asked.
“Oh no, I’m sorry, no more buses tonight.”


We ran down to the train station, two blocks away.

“Is there a train to Malaga tonight?”

It quickly dawned on us: we were stuck in Ronda.  November being the down season may have hampered our ability to see the bull ring or imperil ourselves on twisting steps, it meant all the hotels were open and desperate for customers.  Lonely Planet steered us toward one such serviceable entity, and we deposited our luggage: the Lonely Planet Brick and my Ipod.  Staying in Ronda wasn’t the worst option before us; it was half way to Sevilla and offered a light-infused, pedestrian downtown.  Not ready for bed, we set off in search of dessert and wine.  The fruit pudding I got my hands on was less than stellar, but Caitlin finally got the aceitunas (olives) she had been craving. 

Around midnight, we returned back to our hotel, waking up the night manager to let us in. 

At this point, we were on our third night in Spain and had changed our clothes exactly once.  That’s hardly a reason to stop traveling though, so we set our wake up call for 6:30 in time to get on the 7:00 am bus to Sevilla.  Sleep while you can…

More pictures here and here.