Thankfully we got to sleep in a little this day, which was a blessing because after four full days of walking and a few late nights, we were quite worn out at this point. On our way out of Sevilla, we stopped at a little town called Santiponce. This town is the site of the ruins of Italica, an old Roman city. These ruins were pretty impressive. One of my favorite parts was the main amphitheater, which was built to seat 25,000 spectators (the third largest the Roman Empire). There were also some really cool mosaics spread throughout the ruins of different houses and buildings. It was raining when we arrived at Italica, so we were a smorgasbord of colorful umbrellas walking through the ruins.:)
Then we boarded the bus and headed for our final destination: Córdoba.
Huge ampitheater. El grupo. Umbrella+wind=fail. Pretty mosaics. Ruins of a Roman house.

This lovely city has a huge Muslim influence--it was a Roman city until Muslim invaders took over in 711, and then it became the Islamic capital on the Iberian Peninsula. Under the emir Abd ar-rahman Córdoba became the largest city in Western Europe, until in 1236 it was captured by Fernando. So, lots of historical significance here. Our entrance to the city was epic: the bus wasn’t allowed to drive into the old part of the city, so we were dropped off outside. In order to reach our hotel we had to walk across the old Roman bridge, which crosses Rio Guadalquivir. It was still raining, and it is quite difficult to cart luggage around while holding up an umbrella. Also, the bridge and streets are all cobblestone, so we sounded like a thundering herd rolling our luggage throughout the city, cold and wet, receiving many strange glances from the natives.
After settling in to our hotel, we ventured out in the rain to find the Jewish Synagogue (which is one of only three surviving medieval synagogues in Spain). It was a fairly small synagogue--basically one big room, with a little courtyard outside. There were really beautiful carvings and Hebrew inscriptions on the walls. Afterward, Landes set us loose to explore. We went into different shops, admiring the craftsmanship of different artisans. My friend Megan mentioned something she had read about this mansion that has been turned into a museum, which we then set out to find. However, the maze of streets was not very conducive to our map-reading skills. Eventually we arrived at our destination, but alas, it was closed. We headed back to our hotel, with only a few near-death experiences. The streets of Córdoba, besides being a maze, are literally 6 feet wide. Which leaves verrrry little room for one car and 11 girls. Each time a car came, we had to stand on this mini little ledge and flatten ourselves against the wall and pray for the moment to pass quickly.

Los calles pequiñitos.

Today was Meredith’s birthday, which definitely called for a celebration! All together there were about 17 of us, and we piled into this little restaurant nearby for some much needed comida. I ordered something called merluza, which is just a type of fish. (The next day at the market I actually saw a fresh one; add merluza to the list of scary-looking fish in the world). And no birthday celebration is complete without dessert, so afterward us girls set out to find a pastelería or something, to no avail (despite the help of a few locals). It was 11 PM after all, so I guess it makes sense...but we really wanted some dessert dang it! 
Birthday bash!
 On a mission for dessert...at 11 PM...in the rain. :)
Now we reach the fifth and last day of this marvelous journey. We began by going to the marketplace, which was mainly a fish market with a fruit stand and a pastry shop. It reminded me a little bit of Pike’s Place, but minus the men throwing fish around. We were kept both entertained and disgusted by a box of live clams, slurping themselves in and out of their shells.
The scary looking fish I ate-thankfully it was fried at the time, so I wasn't aware of how terrifying it actually looks. 
We keep ourselves highly entertained during our downtime.
Next we went to the jewel of Córdoba, the Mezquita-Cathedral. If this title didn’t confuse you, well, it should. A mezquita is a mosque, a place of worship for the followers of Islam. A cathedral is a place of worship for the followers of many different Christian religions. Hmmm. Obviously, this fascinating building embodies the many religious changes that have taken place in Córdoba over the centuries. It began as the site of a Roman temple, and next took shape as a Visigothic cathedral. Then in the 8th century, construction began on the mosque, and upon it’s completion was one of the biggest mosques in the world. At the zenith of it’s existence, it contained an original copy of the Koran and was a major Muslim pilgrimage site. Then in 1236, Córdoba was captured from the Moors, and it all went downhill from there. The Christians plunked one of their cathedrals smack in the middle of this beautiful mosque. Separately, the cathedral would have been very beautiful; but it just looked sooo out of place sitting in the middle of this incredible mosque. It was hard to appreciate it when I found myself being frustrated with the history of Christian conquest, and why on earth they thought it was a good idea to try to meld these two very different places of worship together. Anyway, the mosque part was absolutely marvelous.
 The minaret, the courtyard of the Mezquita, and our dear old director Landes.
It is most famous for the ‘candy-cane’ double arches that go on endlessly throughout. They are really funky and cool. These red and white arches and columns (856 of the original 1293 columns remain) are spread all throughout the center (around that blasted cathedral, of course. Just kidding...it really is pretty), and along the outside walls are these gorgeous rooms with the múdejar architecture and decoration (my favorite). Originally the doorways inside of the rooms used to be open to the outside, which would have flooded the building with light--but the doors were all permanently closed when the cathedral was put into place. And of course, the magnificent ceilings in the rooms...oh I love them so. One day, I will live in a Múdejar palace complete with breathtaking gardens and be blissfully happy forever.
Red and striped double-arches as far as the eye can see.
Absolutely beautiful Múdejar-style rooms all around the mosque.
This is the near center of the mosque, where you can start to see the difference in architecture and style where the cathedral begins. One positive thing about the cathedral: pretty stained glass windows.
After this we went to the Alcázar, which has the usual story of beginning as a palace and fort for some royal man (Alfonso X, in case you were interested). As a few of us were exploring along the castle walls, we had our second burst of illegal activity...which included hopping the chain fence and climbing the stairs to the off-limits tippity-top of the castle wall. Yeah...we are quite rebellious. Then we walked through the lovely gardens, complete with sparkling fountains and pools--I love love LOVE the gardens in Spain.
Sitting on the castle wall, and our illegal activity upon the off-limits castle stairs.
El grupo en los jardínes.
i LOVE these gardens. 
Then we got us some grub and repeated the same epic trek out of the city, across the Roman bridge, and onto our bus. Thank you bus driver Raúl for patiently awaiting our return. It was on this epic journey to the bus that all the wear and tear from the week caught up with me. I seriously felt like I had aged 30 years--my arthritic joints were creaking, feet aching, back hunched over...oiy. As you can see, we lasted about 2 seconds into the trip before we crashed into a deep slumber:
We survived the 6 hour bus ride and finally arrived on familiar territory. I have never been happier to see door 5C, with our beloved Blanca inside.
Andalucia was everything I dreamed it would be and more. I cannot wait to return someday, to see all the orange trees in bloom and the people dancing in the streets and finally gain VIP access to the closed doors and secret passageways in the castles.
Te amo, Andalucia. Algún día, regresaré.


ANDALUCIA: el medio

While en route to Sevilla, we decided that we realllllly wanted to go to a flamenco show that night. I mean, Andalucia is the land of flamenco, and we couldn’t pass that opportunity up now could we? After settling in at our hotel, our lovely director Landes informed us that he had found a show for that night, so we were all pretty pumped. ¡Fue estupendo! Flamenco is really an amazing art form--it is a fusion of different ancient cultures, and there are three major parts that make up “flamenco”: toque, cante, y baile. Or, if you will, guitar, song, and dance. And although when I think of flamenco I usually picture women in colorful, swirly dresses dancing with graceful hand motions and amazing footwork, the heart of flamenco is actually supposed to be in the song. Still, what I remember most is the dancers...sue me. It was such an amazing show--I loved seeing all the traditional costumes and pretty hair pieces, and the dancing was fabulous. I’ll try to upload a video from the show if I can get it to work...
The next day, Wednesday, was one of my favorite days of the trip. Sevilla (Seville, in English) is such a beautiful city--I love it! The city is split by the Rio Guadalquivir, and there were tons of pretty bridges connecting the two sides of the city. Sevilla is more than 2,000 years old, and had it’s golden age in the 16th century when it was the ‘Gateway to the New World.’ Because of it’s age and location, it is full of fascinating history. Actually, all of Spain’s history is absolutely fascinating. If anyone is interested in reading a great book about such things, read “The Story of Spain” by Mark R. Williams--it is fabulous. Anyways, back to Sevilla...
First thing in the morning (after eating our usual loaf of bread for breakfast--seriously, we eat sooo much ‘pan’ here), we walked to Plaza de España. This plaza is a huge half-circle of buildings (mainly used now as government buildings), and has a pretty fountain in the center with a moat and little bridges all around it. All along the buildings are these little tile alcoves, which each represent a different province of Spain. All of the amazing tile work was definitely one of my favorite parts here--all the different colors and designs made everything stand out against the gray sky that day.

 The pretty tile alcoves

Next stop: Alcázar Real (just a heads-up...’real’ means ‘royal’ in Spanish, hence why you see this title in so many of the building names. Also, ‘alcázar’ means palace or castle, I think. So there are many many Alcázares here), which was used as the residence for many generations of kings and caliphs. This was another one of my favorite parts of the trip--it was incredible! As per usual, the history lesson: this was originally a Moorish fort that the Almohades later transformed into a palace, which today stands as one of the best examples of mudéjar architecture. Later it was expanded by the Catholic Monarchs, who set up their court here in the 1480s. Construction began in 1181 and continued for over 500 years. It is amazing to think of all the hundreds of years and thousands of workers and many different materials needed to complete this place. They spent sooo much time making it the wonder that it is today-with it’s intricately detailed carvings all along the walls, beautifully painted tiles in the floors and walls, exquisite ceilings, amazing gardens...it really is a masterpiece. It is said that the Alcázar is Seville’s answer to Granada’s Alhambra, and though you’ll be able to see similarities in the pictures, the two are very different. One reason I love the Alcázar is because from the outside, it doesn’t really look all that special. It really just looks like a big fort with plain castle walls. But then you walk inside...and do a double take. Everything inside is so detailed and gorgeous, which you would never expect from looking at the outside. That is what I love so much...it’s unexpected beauty. Not only in the rooms and buildings, but also the spectacular garden area, a magical oasis within itself.
And now instead of blabbing on about how beautiful everything is and how I’m so in love with it, I think I'll just show you. :)
Beautiful arches, ponds, and room after room of this:
See why I'm in love with this place?
The 3 explorers. And the gardens that rock my world. 

On to the Cathedral: the word ‘massive’ doesn’t even do this baby justice. This is the largest Gothic cathedral and the third-largest church in the world. So if you’ve ever been  St. Peter’s Basilica (the largest in the world), you will be able to get a good grip on the size of this cathedral. If you haven't, sorry, you'll just have to use your special little imaginations! Seriously though, it is gargantuan. Originally, there was a mosque where the cathedral now exists, and the original minaret (La Giralda) still stands. Another cool fact about this place is that it houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus. And though this is a little negative, I almost feel like once you’ve seen one cathedral, you’ve seen them all. For the most part they all have very similar layouts and decorations, and they are all freezing. I totally understand why people wore 20 lb cloaks and a million layers back then--all the open space and lack of a heating system makes the interior more like an ice-box. Woof. Don’t get me wrong, the cathedrals are all really beautiful--especially the paintings and stained glass windows--but I am definitely more a fan of the Moorish architecture and styles. One of the best parts about this cathedral was the minaret, which has a pretty cool story. Instead of stairs leading the way to the top, there is a series of 37 ramps that endlessly circle upward to the top. These ramps were built so that the sultan could ride his horse to the top 5 times each day to call his people to prayer. Cool, huh??? We gleefully scampered up the ramps (secretly wishing we had our very own horses so we could feel like more the sultan) and were rewarded with an amazing view of the city from the top.
One side of the Cathedral.
 The view from La Giralda. You can see the Plaza de Toros, the oldest bullring in Spain!

After exiting the cathedral, a group of us asked an extremely kind guard at the gate for recommendations for lunch--we were starving, as usual. We followed his directions and found ourselves at a cute little restaurant, and after a bit of confusion with the menu and some interesting food choices, we left feeling fairly satisfied. However, no day is complete here without at least one stop at a panaderia for some delicious pastries, so we set out to find one (which we ended up going to a total of 3 times that day....yummm). Then we had an amazing discovery: there are tons of little bike lots all everywhere, where you can buy passes and ride bikes all around the city. With some great teamwork, we rented four bikes and then took turns cruising about Seville. While the first group was out, the rest of us sat at the river’s edge and catcalled all the rugged rowers who were out on the river.
Our boyfriends. with rippling pectorals from all that rowing. Claro.

We switched up the bike scenario, and a new quartet took over. There is a big running/walking/biking path that goes all along the river, and so we voyaged along that for a good hour. We must have gone several miles...it was SO fun! I’m sure all the people we passed thought we were crazy, as we were singing most of the time. :) We also worked up quite an appetite, and when we finally made it back to the hotel we got our priorities straightened out, ordering 2 large Domino’s pizzas. It was the perfect end to an extraordinary day!


ANDALUCIA: al principio

A few days ago we returned from one week of bliss and citrus trees, largely found in Andalucia. It has definitely been a highlight of my time here in Spain so far. We spent 5 days mainly between three major cities: Granada, Sevilla, y Córdoba. Andalucia is the southernmost region of Spain and has an amazing history, especially with the Moorish rule and culture.  We saw some really amazing sights and learned loads about the different culture and history of the South. I absolutely loved it. By the end though, my body hated me. We walked everyyyyywhere, and even though cobblestone streets are adorable, after hours and hours of walking and being able to feel each rock beneath your feet individually, you wonder what kind of super-strength Dr. Scholl’s people were wearing hundreds of years ago. We were all pretty exhausted by the end of the trip--by the last day I felt like an old woman, hobbling around everywhere with my aching body...
There’s so much to tell about this trip...and I don’t want to overload you all, so I’ll lay it down in small doses. :)
It all began last Monday, around 8 AM. We boarded the bus and made our way to the first of several stops that day: Aranjuez. We were only here for about an hour, and mainly just to see the royal palace, which was built as a summer home for the royal family back in the day. We took the necessary jumping pictures and attempted breaking and entering the palace gates, and then were on our way.
 "Kill the Beast!" (Beauty and the Beast reenactment...:))
Next stop: Consuegra, the main attraction of which is the windmills made famous by Cervantes in Don Quixote. Before getting out to admire these windmills, we read (in spanish, of course) the part of the book where Don Quixote sees the windmills in the distance and is convinced that they are giants and races off to fight them, but in the attempt he ends up falling into a pit until his trusty sidekick shows up to save him. Originally there were 13 windmills, but only 12 stand today, and they each have names--adorable. I loved them. Katie, Megan, and I raced along the hilltop from windmill to windmill until we had seen them all. Then we boarded the bus again, stopped once more for lunch, and finally arrived at our first major city: Granada.
The bus ride was really beautiful--for the most part all you could see for miles and miles were olive trees. I didn’t know this before, but Spain is the largest producer of olives in the world, which is really interesting. It explains why Blanca is so obsessed with olive oil and cooks ALL of our food with it. :)
Back to Granada: we arrived in the evening, so rather than site seeing with our director, just us girls decided to hit the town and explore the streets. Here I was introduced to one of my latest loves: shawarma. This is a type of Middle-Eastern sandwich/pita/wrap dealio made with shaved meat and vegetables, similar to gyros--SO GOOD. Definitely one of the food winners for the trip.
The next day was súper long, but SUCH a wonderful day. It began with the Alhambra, which was one of my highlights of the trip. Quick history lesson: the Alhambra was built by the Moors in the 9th century as a fortress, and then was expanded to include a palace in the 13th century. Today it is the most famous example of Islamic architecture in Spain. It isn’t even 1/5 the size it was originally planned to be, which is hard to believe because it seemed huge! I really loved the decoration and art of this building--Islamic architecture is sooo beautiful. The walls, arches, floors, and ceilings are covered with really intricate carvings and designs and beautiful colors. Especially the ceilings...they are exquisite. I don’t have adequate words to describe them, and pictures won’t quite do them justice, so I guess if you want to get the full grandiose effect you'll just have to make a trip to Spain! It is really breathtaking.
Every square inch is covered in these super intricate and beautiful carvings.  The archways and windows are glorious. 
Mesmerizing honeycomb ceilings. 
Katie and I channeling our inner Arabian...
The adorable cobblestone pathways with whom I have a love/hate relationship. Mostly love...
We explored all throughout the palace, going in to the different rooms and courtyards, and then we climbed up onto the fortress wall to get a great view of the city. Then we spent a little time in the Genaralife gardens there, and one of my favorite parts was the amazing designs in the cobblestone. There is just so much detail in every little part of this place, which I loved.
Te amo, Granada.
Next we went to the Capilla Real to see the place where King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I are laid. It’s been really interesting through our travels so far to note the influence these Catholic Monarchs have had on the entire country. Most of the places we have been you can see their symbols, insignias, and initials everywhere. Their impact was huge, and is of vast importance in Spain’s history. Connected to the Capilla Real is a beautiful cathedral, which we walked around for a little while. my favorite part was this pretty blue ceiling with stars and tons of stained glass windows. :)
After a fabulous experience of getting free tapas at our cafeteria of choice for lunch, we headed out for our next major destination.......SEVILLA!