We’re in Amsterdam!

Last week was my birthday, and we celebrated by getting on a plane and heading to Amsterdam. Beginning in the fall, I’ll be going back to school, starting a part-time MBA program. With work and school, we realized our schedule would be pretty tight, so we wanted to get in one last vacation before my return to school. Considering that our Madrid trip feels like it was yesterday, I am a very, very fortunate person.

And so here we are in Amsterdam! We’re getting much more sleep here than we did in Spain, but we’re doing just as much walking, and seeing just as many museums. Below are some early photos, and I’ll be working on writing more while we’re here (and of course while we’re back).

So far, we’re having a great time. Amsterdam has a magical quality that I’ve never quite experienced, and just being here is surreal. See below for a few photos from our first afternoon in Amsterdam!

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Days 6 and 7 in Spain – Exploring the Festival of Patios in Cordoba!

The old streets of Cordoba are small, but they felt extra packed while we were visiting. Why? Because we visited during the Cordoba Patio Festival!

Here’s some background on the festival from Andalucia.com:

The Patio contests is sponsored by the Córdoba City Hall and began in 1918. But to really understand why a contest of this type was created in Córdoba you must know something about the local architecture.

Due to a hot, dry climate homes in Córdoba were built with a central patio even back in the days of the Romans. This tradition was continued by the Moors and persists in many homes even today. Filling the central patio with plants and water features has always been a way to keep local homes cool. But, thanks to human creativity and ingenuity, patio decoration ended up taking on a life all its own and at some point, someone realised that these hidden treasures were just too good to be kept tucked away behind heavy doors and iron grates. So, once a year, the doors open and everyone is invited in to see the wonders of Córdoba’s patios.

These patios not only offer a visual feast of colourful flowers, stone mosaics and ceramic decorations, but also bring out the classic scents of Córdoba: jasmine and orange blossom mixed with a myriad of scents from the many other flowers and plants that bring the city – and this festival – alive.

Because it’s Europe, there’s a limited schedule for when you can view the patios. Naturally, we missed most of our patio viewing opportunities.

Of course, we didn’t realize that. All day, as we walked around, we’d peek through a gate to view the decorative flowers in people’s patios. We giggled past people lined up to visit patios and explored what we considered to be the ‘undiscovered secrets’ of the Patio Festival.

Only later, once we met up with the rest of our group, did we realize that we had not visited a single officially sanctioned patio, and all those we had visited were not actually participating (which is pretty amazing to me, because they were truly well decorated). Our group then made one stop on the ‘official’ tour, so we could see what we’d been missing.

We wrapped up Sunday evening with dinner by the waterfront, followed by drinks in the ‘garden’ section at the bar upstairs. We went home around 2am, and then got up at 6am to catch the train to Madrid, and then our flight home.

It was a truly tiring few days, but so much fun. I would recommend visiting Madrid to anyone. It’s a great city, with lots to explore, and felt very safe. Cordoba was also pretty special, but the real highlight was spending so much time with my friend, and honorary baby sister, Zoya.

I’ve said it before, but it’s still true that nothing is more fun than seeing familiar friends in unfamiliar places. Making some great new friends made the weekend even more memorable. We’re all still making jokes together in our Whatsapp groups, and we’ll be remembering this trip for a long time to come.

A huge thank you goes out to Zoya and Shripal for being amazing tour guides and providing us with supremely detailed and thoughtful travel guides. Seeing Madrid through their eyes was the best thing about our trip.

Days 6 and 7 in Spain – Visiting the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba (the Mezquita)

The entire Iberian peninsula (inhabited for 1.2 million years) is full of complex history, and for a long time Cordoba was at the centre of some of the most significant events in the region.

The Iberian peninsula (essentially the land that makes up Spain and Portugal) was inhabited by Romans in 112 BCE, and served as a resource centre for much of their empire (Wikipedia). The peninsula was conquered and re-conquered by many different groups after that time, but the glory of Cordoba began in 711 CE:

In 711, a Muslim army invaded the Visigothic Kingdom in Hispania. Under Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Islamic army landed at Gibraltar and, in an eight-year campaign, occupied all except the northern kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula in the Umayyad conquest of HispaniaAl-Andalus(Arabicالإندلس‎‎, tr. al-ʾAndalūs, possibly “Land of the Vandals”),[24][25] is the Arabic name given to what is today southern Spain by its Muslim Berber and Arab occupiers.

From the 8th–15th centuries, only the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula was incorporated into the Islamic world and became a center of culture and learning, especially during the Caliphate of Córdoba, which reached its height under the rule of Abd-ar-Rahman III[citation needed]. The Muslims, who were initially Arabs and Berbers, included some local converts, the so-called Muladi. The Muslims were referred to by the generic name, Moors.

The Wikipedia page on Cordoba goes into greater detail:

Córdoba is a city in Andalusia, southern Spain, and the capital of the province of Córdoba. It was a Roman settlement. It was conquered by Muslim armies in the eighth century, and then became the capital of the Islamic Emirate and then Caliphate of Córdoba, including most of the Iberian Peninsula.

Caliph Al Hakam II opened many libraries in addition to the many medical schools and universities which existed at the time, making Córdoba a centre for education. During these centuries, Córdoba became a society ruled by Muslims.[6] It returned to Christian rule in 1236, during the Reconquista. Today it is a moderately sized modern city; its population in 2011 was about 330,000.[7] The historic centre was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In May 766, it was chosen as the capital of the independent Muslim emirate of al-Andalus, later a Caliphate itself. By 800, the megacity of Cordoba supported over 200,000 residents – that is 0.1 per cent share of global population then. During the caliphate apogee (1000 AD), Córdoba had a population of roughly 500,000 inhabitants,[17] though estimates range between 350,000 and 1,000,000. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Córdoba was one of the most advanced cities in the world as well as a great cultural, political, financial and economic centre.[18] The Great Mosque of Córdoba dates back to this time. Upon a change of rulers, though, the situation changed quickly. “The vizier al-Mansur–the unofficial ruler of al-Andalus from 976 to 1002—burned most of the books on philosophy to please the Moorish clergy; most of the others were sold off or perished in the civil strife not long after.[19]

In the ninth and tenth centuries, Córdoba was “one of the most important cities in the history of the world.” In it, “Christians and Jews were involved in the Royal Court and the intellectual life of the city.”[20]

During the Spanish Reconquista, Córdoba was captured by King Ferdinand III of Castile on 29 June 1236, after a siege of several months. The city was divided into 14 colaciones, and numerous new church buildings were added.

The city declined, especially after Renaissance times. In the 18th century it was reduced to just 20,000 inhabitants. The population and economy started to increase only in the early 20th century.

The above-mentioned “Great Mosque of Cordoba”, the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba in Spanish, is the main event. Cordoba is a relatively small town now, and its skyline is dominated by the the Mezquita.

On Sunday, visiting the Mezquita was our main goal, but we started out with a long walk. We stopped by a bunch of churches, and we also saw the site of an old Roman Temple. We also stopped for a delicious lunch at Norte y Sur Taberna Selecta.

Our walk took us through the ruins of the original entrance to Cordoba under Roman rule, and around the walls of the old city centre. We didn’t plan ahead, and most of the small churches and museums we wanted to go to were closed on Sunday afternoon. However, the Mezquita was opened, and in we went!

This video is in Spanish, but it visually gives an understanding of how the Mezquita expanded over time.

Here’s what we learned from the (extremely high quality) guide that they gave out at the entrance:

This space has been home to a collection of buildings among which was thh Visigoth Basilic of San Vincente (mid-sixth century), which became the city’s main Christian temple. With the arrival of the Muslims the area was divided and used by both communities.

Abd al-Rahman I built the original Mosque (786-788) in response to the growing population. Its floor plan includes eleven naves standing perpendicular to the qibla wall, with the central one being higher and wider than the side ones. Unlike other Muslim oratories, the qibla wall is not pointing towards Mecca, but instead faces south.

The period of prosperity experienced under the government of Abd al-Rahman II led to the first enlargement (833-848). The prayer hall was extended with the addition of eight south-facing naves.

Much later, in the year 951, the caliph Abd al-Rahman III began construction of a new minaret. This reached the height of 40 metres and inspired the minarets in the Mosques in Seville and Marrakesh.

The Umayyad Caliphate saw the continuation of the period of political, social, and cultural splendour which led to the city replacing Damascus in terms of importance. Al-Hakam II carried out the second enlargement (962-966), the most creative of all.

The final of the enlargements (991) was a demonstration of power by Almanzor, hajib of the caliph Hisham II. In this phase the site was extended towards the east by adding eight new naves.

With the conquest of Cordoba in 1236 the Aljama was consecrated as a Catholic church, installing the main altar in the former skylight of Al-Hakam II. In 1489 adaptation of works were carried out to reflect the new religion with the construction of a Main Chapel. Once the Transept was completed in 1607 this space became known as the Villaviciosa Chapel.

It was Bishop Alonso Manrique who ordered the building of the transept (1523-1606). The construction process was begun by Hernan Ruiz I in an imaginative way, combining the caliphal naves with the transept in the form of lateral naves. From the outside, the transept’s brickwork gives the building an appearance of verticality which contrasts with the horizontal sensation provided by the Mosque.

You enter the Mezquita through the walled orange tree garden. It’s a beautiful and peaceful space, and a great lead-in for the Mezquita itself, which is an enveloping and calming building. Walking around, it’s frequently not possible to the end of the space, and yet the entire building is open concept, so the space feels endless. The scale of it all was remarkable, and unlike anything we’d seen so far.

The Mezquita is at the heart of Cordoba’s history, and if you’re lucky to visit this city, it’s a definite must-see!

After our time at the Mezquita, Kevin and I went to meet up with the rest of the group. We spent a couple of hours snacking and enjoying wine and each other’s company at a cafe in a plaza/square.

To end the day, our group headed out to cross the bridge and see the view of the city from the other side of the Roman bridge. Our second day was wrapping up, and while we didn’t get to see everything, but we felt like we had seen enough to appreciate the magic of Cordoba.

Many, many photos below from our hours-long walk through the city.

 

Days 6 and 7 in Spain – Cordoba for the Weekend!

In my experience, people of means who live in Europe tend to spend a lot of time travelling on the weekends. In an area that has so much concentrated history, plus cheap flights and train tickets, a weekend away is the common tradition. And from keeping in touch with Zoya, I knew already that she and her friends, and her partner Shripal, often organized weekend group trips. It just so happened that they organized one such trip while we were in Madrid, and so we tagged along!

Because my work schedule was so flexible, Kevin and I didn’t do weekend trips while we were in Portugal, so this was our first experience of what I consider to be a mainstay of middle to upper middle class European culture.

Kevin and I have a good routine that we follow when travelling, and I was admittedly nervous to jump into a 10 person travel group, but we had a really great time and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Spain has one of the most thorough rail networks in the world, including several high speed rail corridors. This makes it easy for those living in Spain to get from city to city. Zoya and Shripal and their friends have thus visited many of the historic towns and cities in Spain, and Cordoba was next on their ‘to-do’ list.

Logistically, Shripal lead the way. He researched food options and booked our reservations. He also managed “the kitty”, our group fund. We all put an equal amount of cash into the kitty at the start of our trip, and all group meals and drinks were paid from this fund. When the kitty got low, we all topped it up equally. A simple concept, expertly managed by Shripal, that made all our group outings as simple as could be imagined.

This was also probably the most sleep deprived weekend of our lives. Our Friday night outing quickly bled into Saturday morning. Most of our group had gone out together the night before, and didn’t go home until after 5am. We then had to meet at the train station around 9am for our train ride to Cordoba. To say we were all tired would be a major understatement.

Surprisingly, we all rallied and made it through most of our train ride without sleeping. That says a lot of how much fun we were all having together.

After we arrived, we checked into our rooms. There was a bit of drama with mine and Kevin’s AirBnB, but Zoya helped us get booked into a new location right away, helped me move our stuff, and AirBnB gave us a full refund. It was a rocky start, but things picked up as soon as the vermouth and tapas started flowing.

And did they ever. We were all tired, but still managed to spend nearly 3 hours in the sun sipping vermouth and snacking on an incredible selection of tapas dishes.

That afternoon we all napped, and then reconvened for a typically-European late night dinner, following by several hours of drinking and dancing in a club on the waterfront. Day 1 of the weekend was officially a success.

 

Day 5 in Madrid – Friday Night! Party time!

After our day at the museum, we squeezed in a bit of shopping to help top up Kevin’s wardrobe. Then we headed off to meet up with Zoya. We met up at her apartment where we enjoyed wine in the sunshine of her back patio. It had finally stopped raining!

On the way to dinner, Zoya took us to a couple of memorable spots. First, we went to La Conservera Delistore&Tapas, a store run by the brand Frinsa. Frinsa is one of the largest European manufacturers of canned tuna fish and seafood, and was founded in Galicia, Spain. And you can actually order their stuff online!

We were able to sample a bunch of things – clams, tuna, sardines, and razor clams. They were incredibly delicious and high quality. That type of food isn’t that popular in Canada, so we’d be hard pressed to find anything like it at home. It was the perfect souvenir from our trip.

After stocking up on seafood preserves, we headed across the street to the Mercado de San Miguel. Kevin and I didn’t love our earlier ‘mercado’ experience, so we hadn’t tried this one. However, it ended up being one my highlights from the week!

Okay, so what actually is the “Market of San Miguel”? Here are the Wikipedia details:

The Market of San Miguel (SpanishMercado de San Miguel) is a covered market located in MadridSpain. Originally built in 1916, it was purchased by private investors in 2003 who renovated the iron structure and reopened it in 2009.[1]

San Miguel Market is the most popular market in Madrid among tourists since it is located in the center of Madrid, within walking distance from Plaza Mayor. The market is not a traditional grocery market but a gourmet tapas market, with over 30 different vendors selling a wide variety of freshly prepared tapas, hams, olives, baked goods and other foods. Beer, wine and champagne are also available.[1][2]

The other market we’d been to was clearly more oriented at locals and other people interested in eating a full meal. The Mercado de San Miguel embraces the spirit of tapas, encouraging you to pick up a variety of little snacks at different stations, and then grab a standup table to snack and drink. Within minutes of arriving we were drinking glasses of vermouth and snacking on an assortment of olives, preserves, and and much more.

The market was packed, and is clearly a favourite destination for tourists, so it’s both hard to move around, and easy to get jostled by others. If that’s not your jam, I’d stay away from this place. However, if you’re looking for place to stop and experience great energy and excitement as you get ready for a long night out, then I highly recommend stopping by the Mercado de San Miguel!

After the market, on to dinner!

That night we dined with Zoya and Shripal, and two of their friends (who later came with us to Cordoba), including the friend who introduced them in the first place! We ate dinner at a place called Parrila Del Mago, famous for their barbecue, steaks in particular. The food was great and the company was even better. Since it was Kevin’s birthday, we embarrassed him with a loud rendition of ‘happy birthday’ when dessert arrived.

After dinner, onto dancing!

We started out our evening at some kind of live rock show type bar. The music was so bad it was amazing, but we quickly left for a more ‘discotheque’ type experience. We loaded up with gin & tonics and hit the dancefloor to the latest in hip Spanish music, including the now-inescapable Despacito and this banger about bicycles from Shakira. Obviously they also played Drake, he’s everywhere!

By 5am we realized we needed to get home and sleep before our train to Cordoba. Photos below of our Friday afternoon adventures!

 

Day 5 in Madrid – National Archaeological Museum of Spain!

Thursday night got a bit crazy, so Friday was a late start. We woke up late to a rainy day and also realized we’d left one of our host’s umbrellas at the bar the previous night. Oops!

Anyways, sharing the one remaining umbrella we headed out to grab some breakfast before, obviously, going to a museum. It was our last day in Madrid, and we had plans that evening with Zoya and some friends, but we wanted to see the National Archaeological Museum of Spain. For the last 6 months or so Kevin has been on a deep dive into learning about Roman and Iberian history, so this seemed like the perfect place to spend our last day in Madrid, which also happened to be his birthday.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the museum:

The museum was founded in 1867 by a Royal Decree of Isabella II as a depository for numismatic, archaeological, ethnographical and decorative art collections of the Spanish monarchs.

The museum was originally located in the Embajadores district of Madrid. In 1895, it moved to a building designed specifically to house it, a neoclassical design by architect Francisco Jareño, built from 1866 to 1892. In 1968, renovation and extension works considerably increased its area. The museum closed for renovation in 2008 and reopened in April 2014.[1] The remodelled museum concentrates on its core archaeological role, rather than decorative arts.

The collection includes, among others, PrehistoricEgyptianCelticIberianGreek and Roman antiquities and medieval(VisigothicIslamic Spanish and Christian) objects.

This was one of the best no-art museums I’ve ever been to. The detail and expenses put into curating the collections are excellent. The impact of the most recent renovation is unmissable and it would be a great place for anyone with any level of pre-existing knowledge on Archaeology, including kids. The collections are extensive, and take you through the evolution of ancient western culture and civilizations.

The use of visual guides, including audio visual content, was quite impressive. Each new time period and/or topic was introduced with a video that illustrated what the community would’ve looked like at the time. It was a great way to understand the context of the artifacts presented, particularly with respect to the geographic movement and interactions of people. You can learn more about their collection here and here.

Check out the photos below, and add this one of your Madrid itinerary!

 

Day 4 in Madrid – Dinner & Drinks!

Included in Zoya’s guide to Madrid was this line:

Sala Despiece – this place is a MUST. get there early (like 20 mins before it opens) cause the place gets packed. Easily the most interesting take on Spanish tapas. The carpaccio will take you to heaven and back

After hours and hours in museums, we were ready for a long and indulgent dinner. As per Zoya’s instructions, we arrived a full 30 minutes early, and were fortunately the first in line. Waiting in line before a place opens is really not our style, and we were feeling pretty uncool, but it was worth getting there early. Within 10 minutes, there were 20 people in line behind us. When the doors finally opened, we scored a prime seat at the bar, and were able to watch the chefs in action all evening.

The thing about tapas is that you’re supposed to eat many dishes of small amounts of food. Apparently ‘tapas crawls’ are the hip thing, where you go from restaurant to restaurant eating small amounts. Again, not our style. Instead, we settled in at Sala de Despiece and ordered almost every item on the menu.

As promised, the food was excellent. The view we had was also great, though it gave perhaps a bit too much insight into the restaurant operations. At open, the entire staff and flow of the team were on fire, but by hour one, things started to slow down and taper off, and you could tell operations would become sloppier throughout the evening. So perhaps there’s some logic to tapas crawls.

Everything we ordered is showcased in the photos below. The food definitely lived up to the hype, especially the beef carpaccio. We were surprised when again we were served a dish that required us to squeeze out the head of a shrimp. This time we caught it on video:

After dinner, we attempted to explore the neighbourhood for a ‘tapas crawl’, but were truly too stuffed. We hopped into a cab and went to Macera Workshop Bar, a gin bar that Zoya had recommended. These guys infuse their own homemade gins, and when they first opened you could only order gin & tonics

As regular gin drinkers, we’re fairly attached to our classic options. It was interesting to try to these artisanal gin options, but we quickly switched to cocktails. After several ‘pink panthers’, we were having a raging good time. We had a great spot at the bar, and watched place fill up with a typically European mix of people from all ages. If we’d realized how low the bill would be, we may have stayed even longer.

As it was, we left the bar and headed to another Zoya recommendation, Bar Cock. This place looks like a stereotypical old timey bankers hangout. All wood decor, and basically in a back alley. We ordered a bottle of sparkling and ended our night right.

And when we got home, I found out I’d been accepted to the MBA program at York University’s Schulich School of Business. It was the perfect way to end a long day and a great night.