Posts Tagged With: madrid

Spain is Splendid Again, Nov and Dec 2017

By Dom Nozzi

We arrive at the Denver International Airport. Surprised that our bus to the airport was full, as it was Thanksgiving Day. Who travels on this holiday?

Weather forecast for the coming week in Boulder will be unusually warm for this time of year. I am hoping that we will return to a lot of snow and good ski conditions, however.

We started the trip by walking Brooklyn and Manhattan. Bad idea on BLACK FRIDAY.

Barcelona

Friday, Nov 24: Our flight from Toronto to Barcelona took off at 9 pm on a Friday. By 8 pm the next day, after 11 continuous hours of travel by plane and bus, we finally arrived at our first Spain hotel in Valencia.

I have previously traveled in Spain (eight years ago). Maggie has never been. She is in for a treat…

Oddly, I have been in Spain twice and both times I had a train trip be cancelled. This has never happened to me for any other trip I have taken in the world. First cancellation in Spain had us be transferred to fly from Madrid to Barcelona. This time, it was a bus from Barcelona to Valencia. Turns out that rail workers were on strike in Barcelona.

Valencia

Saturday and Sunday, Nov 25-26: Old Town Valencia at night is lovely. We have a very charming, romantic, festive first night in Valencia. The streets are surprisingly vibrant even during a non-tourist time of year. Our tapas bar serves fantastic food at a place full of happy customers.From our hotel, Valencia, Nov 25, 2017 (1)

We start with a very tasty breakfast at a place called BBVA. Boisterous, loud Sunday morning crowd. I have the smoked trout omelet and Maggie has the salmon bruschetta. We then rent bicycles and have a very enjoyable ride along the Valencia greenway, where we pass athletic fields containing soccer games, rugby (who knew Spaniards played rugby?) and baseball. We bike to the beach. Valencia, of course, has many street trees that are orange trees. Valencia oranges. I opt for a FANTASTIC Imperial Brown Ale at Tyris Craft Beer.

At the end of our greenway bike ride, we spot several surfers surfing at the beach of the Baltic Sea. In late November! Who knew that Spaniards surfed?

The architecture in Valencia Old Town is mind-blowing. Ornamentation is stunning.

Our last night in Valencia is spent on a shiny marble piazza surrounded by fantastic medieval architecture. We dine on very tasty paella and a glass of house red wine. The view from our Valencia lodging is above. The photos I shot while in Valencia are here.

Sevilla

Monday, Nov 27:

Old Town Sevilla is a delight to stroll through DESPITE very narrow sidewalks (much of it less than 10 in. wide). The streets are so crooked and cranky that we got disoriented and lost several times. Which, of course, adds to the delight. Nearly all of streets are medieval cobblestone.

The modernists have added “tripe architecture” to Old Town Sevilla. A blight on the charming ambiance of the neighborhood, but a handy landmark for finding our apartment.

The Sevilla churches are noteworthy for containing an overwhelming amount of intricate gold. They can’t seem to get enough of it, to the point where it makes the observer dizzy.

Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain, Nov 27, 2017 (33)Alcazar boasts Islamic (Moorish), Christian, and Renaissance architecture all blended together by successive kings over the centuries. An incredible place to visit (again, for me).

Great, fun, tasty tapas are to be found in Sevilla. Our first stop for tapas is at a bar that opened a few years ago (1670, to be exact). They serve us excellent red wine and delicious tapas. A quirk is the bartender slicing thin strips of meat from a leg of a pig. And writing our check total on the bar with chalk.

So far, our biggest mutual problem on this trip is our inability to get enough sleep. We are both sleep deprived.

Nearly all of the street trees and courtyard trees and plaza trees in Seville are orange trees which are loaded with oranges. Valencia oranges are EVERYWHERE! Are the oranges harvested from street trees, or left to drop and rot?

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, Maggie is too sleep deprived to get out of bed in time for our planned day trip to Malaga. Unfortunate, since Tuesday is the window of fair weather for the next few days in that southern coastal town. She sleeps until noon, which gives us a relatively late start on our second day in Sevilla.

But I am happy to have her sleep late, as today is her birthday. On her birthday she will enjoy a full day in Sevilla. For her birthday last year, we were in Rome.

Lucky girl.

Since loss of sleep was due, at least in part, to the noisy cobblestone street traffic outside of our apartment, and because our washing machine was in disrepair, we are happy to learn that we can move to a nearby apartment with quiet conditions and a working washing machine.

First stop is the incomparable Cathedral of Sevilla. Like eight years ago when I was first humbled by what is the largest gothic cathedral in the world, the Cathedral is stunning. Built to such a crazy huge and ornamental size, according to Rick Steves, that the builders would be considered “madmen.” So huge that one feels like an ant inside the colossus – surely the intent of the Catholic designers who seek to make mere humans Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla, Spain, Nov 28, 2017 (30)seem puny in the house of their infinite god.

Again, the Cathedral is full of altars and sanctuaries that feature overwhelming gold flake. The support columns inside are too tall and wide to believe. Somehow, we are again not converted to Catholicism despite the dizzying splendor.

We depart Ground Zero Catholicism in Spain for a walk in the nearby Santa Cruz neighborhood, which is a delight. The dimensions are too cute. A lot of very narrow, Venice-like, cobblestone “kissing” streets (so narrow that people on balconies of buildings facing each other can kiss). Indeed, some of the streets in the neighborhood are so narrow that we are able to touch building walls on both sides of the street at the same time. Delightful! Romantic! Charming! And utterly inconceivable in America, where 100-foot wide roads are considered Nirvana. And the only way to prevent babies from dying in burning buildings.

After our stroll, we reach a place to rent bikes. Biking in Sevilla is relatively pleasant and safe with its okay supply of grade-separated green-painted bike paths flanking many streets. We enjoy a delightful ride through an enormous park with flat clay pathways and a lush forest, where trees there today had been planted in the 19th Century. The park contains extremely impressive military and university building towers that are linked by a crescent-shaped building system.

Over-the-top palaces seem to pop up around every corner in Sevilla. In its history, the city has seen the construction of both palaces and parks and cathedrals fit for kings.

We drop off the bikes and walk back to the Cathedral, where we are disappointed to see that only a small handful of horse-drawn carriages are waiting. Earlier in the day, we had been descended upon by an endless gauntlet of carriage drivers begging us to be their passengers. It is, after all, the “shoulder season,” when tourist customers are relatively scarce, so the begging is particularly fierce.

Now, at 7 pm, only 3 carriages are in the Cathedral plaza, and we are unable to find a driver who speaks more than a few words of English. And it is also starting to rain. This is our only opportunity for a romantic carriage ride in Sevilla, so we board a carriage with these less-than-optimal conditions. Happily, it turns out to be a pleasant ride.

The photos I shot while in Sevilla are here.

Day Trip to Malaga

Wednesday, Nov 29th: Our day starts out in an unfortunate way. After only 15 minutes of travel on our train to Malaga — a coastal town on Spain’s southern coast — we passengers must deboard the train and board an “autobus” (a bus). It is the second time we have been transferred from a train to a bus in this Spain trip. This time due to a huge flood in Southern Spain.

Why, when we bought our train tickets 15 minutes earlier, did they sell us the tickets and not tell us that there was massive flooding ahead of us in Southern Spain? Had we known, we would probably stayed in Sevilla and not boarded the train to Malaga.

This would have been a mistake, as we are to eventually learn. Malaga is a delightful place. Even in monsoon rains.

Our bus finally arrives in Malaga three full hours after we would have arrived had our train not been stopped by the biblical floods.

I am immediately struck by the large size of the city. I had thought we would be arriving in a small coastal village, but Malaga is a large metropolis.

We stroll along a festive walking and shopping street festooned with holiday lighting. The surface is a polished marble not unlike the main street in Dubrovnik. Skinny, fun, smaller shopping streets branch off in odd directions from the main shopping street. We stop at a restaurante with outdoor seating facing the amazing Malaga Cathedral and order a fish and seafood paella that is both very filling and very delicious. Rioja house wine is our beverage. An excellent choice.

The Cathedral is simply stunning. We walk inside with our faces looking straight up at the splendor looming above and around us for about an hour.

Alcazaba, Malaga, Spain. Nov 29, 2017 (66)We then explore nearby Alcazaba, a medieval labyrinth with brick passageways, small Moorish doorways, and brick steps leading in all directions. Several times we find ourselves with a very nice view of Malaga and the seaport. A delight. In its heyday, this was surely a romantic place for a walk with a loved one. To top off the Alcazaba, we stumble upon Teatro Romano, a medieval theatre that surely was the venue for many a play or performance. The photos I shot while in Malaga are here.

In the end, we find ourselves on a higher speed train than the one we were bumped off of in the morning. We are heading back to Sevilla, wishing we had more time for surprisingly pleasant Malaga. The train upgrade is a compensation from the train company for our morning inconvenience.

Day Trip to Cordoba

Thursday, Nov 30th: We awake to clear skies after the Wednesday deluge of rain and clouds. We hop on the 8 am bus from Sevilla to Cordoba.

Our first stop in Old Town Cordoba is the incomparable Mezquita. A massive former Mosque that since the 16th Century has a Christian Chapel built in the very center of it. An astonishing place. One of the Wonders of the World. Indeed, I ask Maggie how it was possible that neither of us had ever heard of the place until now. Over 800 arches areMezquita, Cordoba, Spain. Nov 30, 2017 (17) inside. The contrast between the Muslim and Catholic symbolism is striking. We spend hours wandering around in wonder.

After Mezquita, we have lunch at a small, quiet, out-of-the-way restaurant (Casa Mazal) in the Jewish Quarter. The food was DELICIOUS. Maybe the best lunch I had ever eaten.

After lunch, we stroll the lovely, romantic little cobblestone streets that move in all manner of crooked, confusing, delightful directions. The sun in the clear skies is so brilliant that it hurts our eyes.

Unfortunately, our time is rushed, as our train leaves for Sevilla in the afternoon.

Back in Sevilla, we stop at a very nice tapas bar/restaurant and dine on very good food. We nailed two consecutive tasty meals in a row today! After dinner, we walk down an impressively busy, bustling, lovely shopping street (Teutan?). So full of happy strollers that it seems like a “paseo” (an evening community stroll). I could not stop taking photos of the beautiful lighted streets and people.

From dinner, we walk across Old Town to a house now converted to a Flamenco singing and dancing venue (Tablao Alvarez Quintero). The acoustic guitar based performance is riveting. I have never before seen live Flamenco singing and dancing, and am quite impressed. The dancer and singer display pride and anger in their movements and facial expressions. Very, very good.

On the way home, we pass several bars that are overflowing with huge numbers of chatty beer and wine drinkers. We stop in one of them for a beer. The beer and wine, we notice, is in the one to two euro price range. Sevilla late at night is a party town containing what seems like the Spanish version of German beer halls.

The photos I shot while in Cordoba are here.

Madrid

Friday, Dec 1: We train from Sevilla to Madrid on a crystal clear day late in the morning. Our first destination is the infamous Plaza Mayor, historic site of much mischief in the name of the Catholic god by the immensely cruel Spanish Inquisition. At this Plaza, countless “heretics” were executed or tortured. Today the Plaza is filled with silly amusements for tourists. A stark contrast.

After failing to find a tour guide-recommended restaurant, we opt for a random place on the outer walls of Plaza Mayor based on the charming medieval arches and walls within. It turns out to be a stroke of luck, as the food and wine are stupendous.

Dinner is followed by our walking at a brisk pace (it is now icy cold and very windy in Madrid) toward the Prado Museum. Unfortunately, the line is several blocks long. Forget that! We continue down the street to the Reina Sofia Museo to visit the stunning, larger-than-life Guernica masterpiece by Picasso.

On the way back from the Museo, we cross the heart of Madrid: Puerto del Sol – an Madrid, Spain. Dec 1, 2017 (42)immense and always festive piazza. Tonight Puerto del Sol is jammed with happy people – tens of thousands crowd the piazza and nearby walking streets. We stumble upon what appears to be an annual event where a massive crush of people are squeezed into three or five street blocks to watch an animated Christmas holiday show being performed on a building façade by little mechanical elves and snowmen.

Throughout our walk in Madrid, we are stunned by the stellar, ornamental, monumental buildings and architecture. Truly a MONUMENTAL, world class city. Madrid shows off much of its architecture by lighting up the building facades at night with brightly colored lights. If only American cities had a decent collection of such lovable buildings to flaunt at night with lights!

We don’t.

Madrid

Saturday, Dec 2: Our apartment sits on a vibrant walking street in Madrid. Despite my fears, we are not awoken overnight by the 24/7 party atmosphere just outside our 2nd story balcony. But our earlier plans to enjoy bicycling in Madrid today are put on hold. It is chilly and in the 30s this morning! Spain is unseasonably cold for our trip.

“Breakfast” is at the world famous Chocolatería San Ginés, said to be the best chocolatier in all of Madrid, and a place that has had a long list of famous customers in its over 100 years of existence (including Audrey Hepburn, Penélope Cruz, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Sophia Loren, Tony Curtis and Naomi Campbell). All seats were filled when we were there, and EVERYONE was enjoying dipping their churros into chocolate sauce.

We walk to the Royal Palace (Palacio Real), which is only a short walk from our Madrid accommodations. The sumptuous splendor of the rooms (there are 2,800 of them in the palace!) is mind-blowing. When one looks up “over the top” in the dictionary, there is a drawing of this palace.

Upon departing, the sun is out and it is warm enough to bike, so we rent a couple of “Donkey Rental Bikes” to sample bicycling in Madrid. We discover that the large park behind the palace is off limits to bicycling, as are the gardens in front of the Edifico Espana palace that we stumble upon. The superb Gran Via shopping street in Madrid, we also learn, is not very bikeable at all (the occasional “sharrow” is dangerously out nearPlaza de Cibeles, Madrid, Spain. Dec 1, 2017 (20) the middle of the heavy traffic street). So we walk the Gran Via.  We enjoy the Puente de Cibeles city hall (?), which is impressively ornamental inside and out. We then enjoy bicycling in the very large Parque de El Retiro flanking Madrid Old Town.

Overall, I’d give Madrid a 2 or 3 on a scale of 10 for bicycling quality.

After bicycling, we visit the Mercado San Miguel. As it always seems to be, the place is PACKED with happy, festive customers hungrily jostling for more and more tapas to gobble down (and washing it down with great Spanish wine). We enjoy a delicious salmon tapa, sardine tapa, octopus tapa, cod fish tapa, tuna tapa, squid ink and seafood paellas tapa, and raspberry tapa. Along with a few glasses of tinto (red) Spanish wine.

We walk to La Gayalos restaurant – reputed to serve outstanding paella. Along the way, the streets of downtown Madrid are utterly JAMMED with people out walking. It is as if New Year’s Eve at Times Square is occurring on every street in downtown Madrid. I have never seen so many walking people packed onto streets before. And these were not tiny streets. Utterly astonishing.

At La Gayalos, we have black rice paella with shrimp and squid. Superb. The chef comes out to serve our paella onto our plates from the pan, and at the end of the meal brings out a Spanish brandy: Spanish Grappas. Very tasty end to an excellent meal.

Later that night below our 2nd story apartment balcony on a Madrid walking street, an acoustic guitar player and opera singer performed. An unexpected treat.

The photos I shot while in Madrid are here.

We will be sorry to be leaving Madrid.

Day Trip to Toledo

Sunday, Dec 3:  We learn at the Madrid train station that we need to be at the OTHER Madrid station to get the direct train to Salamanca, our planned day trip today. So we opt to instead go to our other day trip option: Toledo. Salamanca will be tomorrow.

Alcazar and Tagus River, Toledo, Dec 3, 2017 (3)Toledo is spectacular medieval charm, as always. The entire city, after all, is designated as a world heritage site.

We enjoy walking (and getting lost several times) on the crooked, often nameless streets. Fortunately for us, many of our church and museum destinations are free on Sunday, including the military history museum, which we very much enjoy.

The Cathedral of Toledo knocks our socks off with its splendor, as it does to everyone else who visits.

The photos I shot while in Toledo are here.

One thing we have noticed in our Spain travels overall, by the way, is that the trains are impressively spotless in cleanliness. Or as they might say, the trains in Spain are mainly without stain!

Salamanca

Monday, Dec 4: We board a metro subway train at Puerta del Sol to get to a Madrid train station. That station will take us directly to Salamanca, a charming, medieval college town in the remote northwest of Spain. The college there was established in the 13th Century and is the oldest in Spain.

It is a very chilly day in Salamanca, so we skip our plans to rent bikes. Too bad, since Salamanca has a very nice bike route system that circles the old town.

The city turns out to be far more impressive than I had anticipated. The medieval streets and buildings are wonderful – particularly the main cathedral.Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Spain, Dec 4, 2017 (16)

For lunch, we have a very, very good tapas meal overlooking Plaza Mayor in Salamanca. It is a bustling place. We order several tapas overflowing with delicious seafood. Along with two glasses of nice red wine, our final bill is $13. Surely there is a mistake. Is there a zero missing in our bill??

We have a bit of a SNAFU on our return train trips. First, we struggle to exit as our train cards are not opening the gates to let us out. Then we get on a train going the wrong direction for our destination. But we figure things out, and end up at the Mercado San Miguel again for another round of sumptuous tapas for dinner.

The photos I shot while in Salamanca are here.

Barcelona

Tuesday, Dec 5: We hop on a luxurious bullet train to be whisked from Madrid to Barcelona. The countryside shows of mountains and a very arid landscape. Looks a lot like the American southwest – albeit with olive trees here in Spain.

The trip is only 2.5 hours due to the speed of the train. We are served a large and tasty breakfast as part of our train ticket.

In Barcelona, we immediately have smiles on our faces. This is a great, fun city. After checking in at our apartment up the street from Las Ramblas, our first errand is to rent a few Donkey bikes. The weather is sunny and warm. Much more pleasant than the frigid Barcelona, Dec 5, 2017 (1)cold we experienced while in Madrid. The bicycling is fun and impressively safe in this big city. We bike down Catalunya, walk through the incomparable Las Ramblas, and get on the bikes again for a ride along the marina and waterfront (near the Christopher Columbus statue/tower). We also have great fun riding in the wonderful, historic, kissing street neighborhood of the Barri Gotic (getting lost over and over again, happily).

I would give Barcelona a 6 or 7 regarding bicycling system quality. On the downside for transportation, Barcelona is afflicted with a large number of enormous, hostile streets. Many are 4- and 6-lane one-way roads that have very high car speeds. Even when on a bike lane or protected bike lane, I found bicycling unnerving at times.

Barcelona has many sex shops. Seemingly more than even Amsterdam. We visit the Cathedral of Barcelona for another WOW experience. Outside the Cathedral, we enter a market of vendors selling a dizzying number of Christmas manger figurines. Bizarrely, I notice that on top of one of the vendor carts, there are two male figures squatting to poop. The next morning, I very coincidentally see a posting from a Facebook friend who reports on this strange Catalonian tradition. She reports that “…[f]or at least the past two centuries, the traditional nativity scene in Catalonia has included a character called a caganer. In polite terms, the best translation is ‘the defecator.’ When residents were asked what the tradition is about, they seemed confused and came up with varying answers: ‘It’s typical of Catalonia. Each house buys one for Christmas, I don’t know why (we do it), it’s just a tradition.’ or ‘There was the legend that if a countryside man did not put a caganer in the nativity scene, he would have a very bad year collecting vegetables,’ he said, claiming that the figurine is a symbol of fertility and good fortune.”

Later, after a surprisingly long search, we opt for a restaurant on Plaza Reial (considered by some to be Barcelona’s best-loved porticoed square) after comparison shopping the many restaurant options on the square. Delicious black ink seafood paella and tinto wine.

Barcelona

Wednesday, Dec 6: Our day starts with our stumbling upon a very large demonstration by Barcelonians marching to oppose the separatist efforts by the Catalonians.

We visit three of the most famous Gaudi creations in Barcelona. Today is Bizzaro World, Barcelona, Dec 5, 2017 (29)so we visit Casa Batllo, Casa Milla, and Sagrada Familia. Next, we spend a lot of time bicycling in the Barri Gotic neighborhood (see photo at left). Big smiles on our faces while we ride in this stupendously enjoyable place. Every street beckons us with its charm. I could visit Barcelona, spend weeks doing nothing but walking or bicycling in the Barri Gotic neighborhood, and have the time of my life.

We serendipitously stumble upon ancient, unearthed stone ruins and view them for an hour or so.

Next we enter Santa Maria del Mar Cathedral, which is quite impressive (as are so many European cathedrals).

We walk through an absolutely crushing number of Barcelonians browsing a vendor outdoor sale of a dizzying number of Christmas manger and manger figurines. What is it with the Spanish and mangers (and manger figurines)? We have seen so many of them sold in Spanish towns on our trip. Included was a large set of “pooping boys.” We areBarcelona, Dec 5, 2017 (35) VERY tempted to buy a set today. Especially when we saw a vendor selling pooping famous figures, like Obama, Bob Marley, Trump, etc. They are surely a collectors item. Big crowd of people gathered around this evening to snap photos of them. What an ODD tradition!

Dinner is at the very homey and locals popular Petra restaurant. I have a delicious meal of cod mixed with purple potato gnocchi, pumpkin sauce, and vegetables.

 Day Trip Montserrat

Thursday, Dec 7: We hop on a bus for a guided group tour of the highly popular Montserrat, a “serrated” mountain with an extremely important history – it was instrumental in bringing Christianity to Barcelona.

We see (and learn) much about Barcelona on our bus ride. Montserrat is unusually shrouded in a cloud, which gives it a spooky appearance. At Montserrat, we hike to the San Miguel cross high up on a ridgeline about the town, Impressive views.

Dom and Maggie, Montserrat, Spain. Dec 7, 2017 (33)I then opt to wait in a line for over a half hour to see the highly beloved “Black Madonna” in the Basilica, which was found in the 9th Century and spurred the creation of the Christian community in Montserrat.

After that, Maggie and I enjoy a Tuscan soup, and FOUR (!) complimentary shot glasses of four versions of a very tasty liquor.

The photos I shot while in Montserrat are here.

Back in Barcelona, we happily get on our bicycles for another fun ride experience in the city. Maggie spots a craft beer place, so I insist we stop so I can sample their wares. I try an Espiga (Blackcelona) Imperial Stout. It is extremely tasty. The way an Imperial Stout should taste.

We visit a much-talked-about neighborhood transportation experiment being conducted in Barcelona: The “Superblock.” The Superblock is intended to improve quality of life and reduce air pollution, noise pollution, and safety problems by reducing the amount of car traffic within connected city blocks.

According to a 2017 book I am now reading, Barcelona was substantially failing to meet European Union air quality standards, and car emissions were an important reason. The City learned that 85 percent of its public space in a typical city neighborhood was being consumed by cars. In response, a pilot program has been started to address these problems. Started in 2016, nine city blocks are aggregated into a “superblock.” Within the superblock, car access is strongly limited but not completely prohibited. Car traffic declined within the superblock by 40 percent, which noticeably improved air quality and freeing up a lot of new space for people, cafes and playgrounds.

The Superblock we visited was very interesting. A few of the very large intersections have been retrofitted to include a kiddie playground. Trees in large planters are used to close off street lanes. Single lanes in the Superblock are “sharrows” (lanes where cars and bicycles share the lane safely). It appears that only neighborhood vehicles (how doSuperblock near Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Dec 7, 2017 (63) they regulate that?) and service vehicles are allowed within the Superblock. The Superblock we saw seemed to be relatively “permeable,” which was a fear I had when I first heard of the idea – that a Superblock might be inwardly turning by putting its back to the outside world and creating what amounts to an urban gated community. But the Superblock we saw does allow car, bicycle and walking traffic to pass through.

The Superblock was quiet and seemed very safe for bicycling and walking. But it seemed rather dead and lifeless. Many blank walls and other blank building designs deaden the streets, as do the overly wide streets, overly wide sidewalks, many vacant lots, and overly generous building setbacks. We also did not see any “activating” buildings on the street, such as cafes, bars, restaurants, or retail. No “third places,” in other words. In sum, it appears that the Superblock idea might have some potential over time, but the example we saw in Barcelona seems a long way off of being a great place. For starters, the Superblock needs to have skinny, human-scaled streets and intersections.

We are in search of churros with chocolate sauce, but the THREE places we stop at in the Barri Gotic neighborhood all have very long lines of hungry customers (each place has no seating due to their capacity crowds). We have now seen these long churro lines several times in more than one Spanish city. The Spanish seem to LOVE churros and chocolate!

Barcelona

Friday, Dec 8: We get a very early start because the day before, our Montserrat guide had given us the handy tip that entry to Park Guell – a Gaudi creation – has free entry just before their official morning opening time. Unfortunately for us, the park opens at 8:30 am, not the 8:00 am we were told about. The second misfortune for us this morning is that unbeknownst to us, very steep hill climbing on our bikes will be required to ascend to the park. A tiring way to wake up!

Park Güell, Barcelona. Dec 8, 2017 (41)Curving tile formations are everywhere, as are stone pillars and caverns and caves for this hilltop park. Park Guell is a place where Dr. Suess meets Fred Flinstone. In sum, his Park Guell was very interesting, and in many ways admirable and appropriate.

Gaudi’s building designs in the city outside of the park are certainly remarkable. His design of buildings is worth seeing to check out Bizarre World. It is like being on LSD without taking the drug.

I strongly dislike the modernist (ie, innovation is the imperative) design that Gaudi was a pioneer of. Modernism is a failed paradigm, and in my opinion, Gaudi is a failed architect. We know that because successful design is replicated over and over again (indeed, replication is the biggest compliment that can be paid to a design). When touring Gaudi’s buildings, it is strikingly obvious that almost NONE of his ideas have been replicated. He threw timeless design that has been loved for most of human history out one of his weirdo windows and replaced it with things that are so impractical and unloved that none of it has been replicated.

Gaudi should have stuck to designing parks and leaving buildings alone.

We bicycle back to our apartment along a very nice, tree-lined boulevard. Little did we know that the “Fiasco of the Day” was awaiting us.

After preparing at the apartment for the remainder of our last full day in Spain, we depart for lunch. European door locks have always befuddled me, and this strongly contributed to what is about to happen.

I make it a habit to ALWAYS keep my keys in my pants pocket. But today, I opt to follow Maggie’s habit over the past few days to leave our apartment keys in the keyhole of the backside (inside) of the door. When we move through the first door of our apartment (there are, oddly, two separate lockable doors), I forget to pull the key out of the keyhole to take with us. At the instant our first door shuts behind us, a horrifying thought explodes in my head: OUR KEYS ARE INSIDE THE APARTMENT DOOR!!!!!

There are two huge problems with that. One, our apartment door automatically locks without a key when it shuts behind us. Two, we had been in the habit of locking the outer second door when retiring in the apartment each night. What that meant is that we now had the crushing, slightly panicky realization that we are trapped inside this tiny 2 ft by 3 ft vestibule with locked doors on either side of us! And no keys. Yikes.

Maggie retains her reasoning skills enough to call the hotel proprietor to inform him what has happened.

The first solution tried is to send the cleaning lady to unlock our door. We wait over a half hour for her to arrive. While waiting, I contemplate what we would have done if we had to spend days inside that vestibule prison. Try to break down the door like in those TV detective shows? Resort to cannibalism?

When the cleaning lady arrives, the next awful event occurs. Her key will not open the inner door, since our keys on the other side of the lock are preventing her key from unlocking the door!

We call the proprietor again to report the latest debacle. He informs Maggie we will need to pay for a locksmith, and the locksmith will be both difficult to find due to the holiday this day, and very expensive (due to the holiday). Maggie admirably and firmly points out to him that since we were given no clear instructions about locking the doors, we are not liable for what Dom had stupidly done (forget the keys). Fortunately, the proprietor learns that he will be covered by his insurance.

The locksmith, we are told is 90 minutes away. So we opt to find lunch in the meantime. Unfortunately, we are unable to find an acceptable place before we must return to meet the locksmith. The locksmith arrives, and in a flash he opens the locked door.

For lunch, we visit a highly popular tapas restaurant in the Barri Gotic quarter. The night before, we passed by and I noted with extreme envy that the place was PACKED with happy, hungry tapas costumers. As the Beastie Boys would say, you would have to fight for your right to TAAAAAPAAAAASSSSSSS. Just the way I prefer it! (could anything be more enjoyable?) But this afternoon, the place is nearly empty. We go in anyway and enjoy great tapas.

Happily for us, these lost hours are not a crushing blow, as we had time to burn before starting our last Barcelona experience: the Magic Fountains.

We arrive by the easy-to-use Barcelona metro subway at the Montjuic. Before the show, we marvel at the immensity of the Olympic facilities near the fountain, as well as the splendid and enormous palace that is today a museum. Impressive to what extent the city had put so much time and money and effort into their selection as the 1992 host city for the Olympics. Besides the Olympic facilities, the city actually re-located a number of large industrial operations out of the city.

It probably paid off, as Barcelona, ever since those Olympics and accompanying world exposure, has been a huge draw for millions of tourists throughout the world.

The Magic Fountain show is, as it was when I first saw it eight years ago, quite…well… magical. A masonry wall rings the fountain pool. Unfortunately, while this arrangement accommodated hundreds of Barcelonians as they joined hands and danced to the Dom and Maggie at Magic Fountain, Barcelona. Dec 8, 2017 (12)choreographed colored lights, water, and music, the wall is now roped off, so we did not see much dancing.

On Saturday morning, as we prepare to depart Barcelona and Spain, we find a restaurant in downtown Barcelona that serves us a wonderful breakfast. A fitting farewell to Spain.

The photos I shot while in Barcelona are here.

All in all, we enjoy Spain enough to want to return.

And no, we did not return to a lot of snow in Colorado, as we (actually, just Dom) had hoped. Not a flake of snow has fallen in Boulder for over a month.

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Adventure by Location, Adventure Chronologically, Beyond North America, By Type of Adventure, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Enchanting Trip to Spain (2009)

Our anticipation of the upcoming, first-ever trip to Spain combines both excitement and regret. Excitement because we are certain Spain will be wonderful. Regret because we learn that the great rock band – U2 – will be playing Barcelona a few days before our arrival in that city. And the fact that Tour de France also passes through Barcelona just before our plane arrives.

Disconcertingly, the trip starts off with stress. At Dulles airport, our check-in lines are moving so glacially slow. People are rudely filling out baggage ID cards at the desk, rather than doing so beforehand, and are practically in need of trucks and cranes to load their seemingly endless number of what looks like 4,000-pound suitcases. If that is not enough, the security line seems to stretch all the way to West Virginia. At DeGaulle airport, we are alarmed to learn, on arrival, that our Barcelona flight leaves in an hour. DeGaulle obligates us to pass through customs and security again. The line is once again endless. We don’t have time for this! I’m very worried.

Somehow, we catch the flight.

I walk from the Barcelona train station to Hotel Continental Placente on the most famous walkway in the world: La Ramblas. Immediately, I notice that the city streets are throbbing and bustling with pedestrians. And the architecture is superb.

A wonderful experience, but I’m disappointed by the many clipped intersections and one-way streets I find as I walk. Oh, well. No place can be perfect. But I can already see that Barcelona is mighty close.

We enjoy a night on La Ramblas, which is filled with happy, festive people. With street-performing buskers and hawkers. We have tapas, Sangria and wine at Irati, and an outdoor café near Placa de Catalyunda – the central transfer point in the heart of Barcelona.

On Monday morning, we sleep extremely soundly. We have complimentary breakfast on a nice outdoor balcony overlooking La Ramblas.

The city is noticeably more quiet than Rome, a city that features screaming, shrieking chaos (not to say it is not wonderful as well, however). Barcelona has a great many traveling by bicycle and scooter. There are many bike paths and bike lanes. The people are noticeably attractive and fit. The central city streets are filled with cafes, which fills me with envy.

Our hotel room is exceptionally gaudy, entirely predictable in the city of Gaudi.

The next day, I am on a train to Pamplona. The train carries a great many Americans who are, like me, destined for the annual spectacle of the Running of the Bulls in that northern town. On the way, our train passes Tarragona, which gives me a brief glimpse of the sparkling Mediterranean.

Heading west into the Spanish countryside, I can’t help but notice something I will observe throughout my two weeks of train trips in Spain: The country is extremely arid – almost desert-like.

When I arrive in Pamplona, I depart the main entrance with what is apparently a bewildered look on my face, as I am accosted by an older, short and chubby Spanish woman, who proceeds to relentlessly plead with me as she holds a small, handwritten cardboard sign saying “room for rent,” and several other words I am unable to decipher.

She nearly screams at me for 20 minutes, but I cannot understand a word she says, except “porto” and “inglese” and “autobus.” Someone standing nearby, though, understands a bit of English and proceeds to try to translate for me. I finally realize that she is offering a reasonably-priced room for me to rent at her home in Pamplona. Being without a room and not looking forward to the prospects of an all-nighter on the unknown Pamplona streets, I recklessly accept. Weeks ago, I had earlier made a reservation at a Pamplona hotel while in the US, but was forced to cancel my reservation and lose my money due to an unforeseen schedule change.

Fear grows in my mind as I follow her on a bus to her home. I’m following an old woman who I’ve never met. We cannot communicate at all. I have no idea where she lives. I have no idea whether anyone at her home speaks English, or whether the home is close by or several miles from town. It turns out that she lives in a newer, more suburban part of town. A long hike, but I decide it is manageable.

After dropping my backpack in my room, I manage to walk to the Pamplona town center. It is a circus. Amusement park Ferris wheels and screaming girls greet me at the entrance to Pamplona. It is 11 pm. Every place I go, streets and bars are crammed with thousands of Spaniards, every single one of which is wearing white slacks, a white shirt, a red scarf and a red sash. I feel nearly naked wearing just a white shirt and kaki shorts WITHOUT red.

The Pamplona town center is a wild orgy of crazed, drunken, dancing, singing celebrants, who will party until dawn in anticipation of the last bull run in this “San Fermin,” the bull-crazed, week-long festival made famous by Hemingway in his novel The Sun Also Rises. Each day of the week, the bulls run at 8 am. Pamplona nights this week all feature, in other words, a 10-hour party till sunrise.

At midnight, I walk back to my rented room and find myself confronted with an unexpected obstacle course. But it is not a gauntlet featuring enraged, stampeding toros. It is an ordeal of Spanish hookers, provocatively dressed and waiting in groups of 10 to 20 at every intersection I pass. They behave like rabid, wild animals (which, in a sense, is part of their profession). Each of them loudly, lewdly beckons me to purchase their “services.” One grabs me roughly by the arm, nearly pulling my arm off, as I briskly try to walk past her. Another boldly and bodily slams herself into me as if she is a Rollerball athlete. She almost knocks me down like a bowling pin.

Having somehow survived the prostitution firing line, I settle into my unknown bed. I find myself walking back to the town center at 4:15 am (not feeling like I got more than 10 seconds of sleep). But it is, after all, only 9 pm in the US. Guidebooks advise Running of the Bulls participants to arrive no later than 6 am to participate or observe.

Earlier, when getting out of bed, I discover to my horror that I have forgotten my running/walking shoes at the Barcelona hotel. I have only sandals here in Pamplona. Can I be crazed enough to run with furious bulls in SANDALS??? Particularly worrisome, at this point, is the fact that the first death to a running bull in 14 years had occurred the day before in the Pamplona streets. In paternalistic America, that would have ended the bull run forever. But here in Spain, the show – the spectacle — goes on…

Forgetting the sandals at the hotel ends up meaning that I am doing miles and miles of walking for the next several days in Spanish streets, as I will not be returning to Barcelona for more than a week. I don’t advise this.

I snare a perfect, elevated vantage point to observe the bull run in the heart of Pamplona. Standing next to an Australian woman (who claims she is not running due to pregnancy), I ask how many have decided not to run, given the death of a young Spaniard by bull goring the day before. She looks down at the street below us, which is crammed with wild-eyed runners in red and white.

“Not many,” she says.

At the last minute, I opt not to run (a decision that few, if any, have made, apparently). Too reckless in sandals not designed for running. And I don’t know what I’m getting into, having not seen the run in person before. I don’t even know how to get onto the street for the run. Do the Pamplona police need to “screen” me to make sure I can sprint? That I am not too drunk?

Next time, I’ll run. Sandals are not conducive to outrunning the fury of thousand-pound steer.

Next time. With Nike sprinter shoes…

Our observation point is not only an excellent vantage point to watch, but 15 minutes before the run we discover that we have the most prized spot in all of Pamplona. A woman on a ladder mounts a Virgin Mary statue and solid silver candle holders in a small alcove in the wall directly below us. She also places a board on the wall showing the flags/insignias of what I guess are neighborhoods or regions in the area (or is it patron saints?).

She lights the candles, and at eight minutes to 8:00, a man in the middle of the anxious throng below us shouts “UNO!! DOS!! TRES!!”, which induces the hundreds gathered around the Virgin/candles/flags to turn toward us. In unison, they sing and chant. Finishing with “EH!! EH!! EH!!” Clearly, the battle cry (and a cry for heavenly protection) before the “run for your life” is to begin. They do this at three distinct times in those eight minutes. Each holds a rolled-up newspaper in a clenched fist as they shout the chant/song. Their newspaper batons vigorously chop up and down – for added emphasis.

When these runners turn and seemingly look up to us from our vantage point in preparation for their chant, I feel as if I am an emperor in his throne, and the “gladiators” are chanting, “For those about to die, we salute you!!!!”

A tight line of policemen has arrived. They link arms — to hold the throng from getting too close to the bull release gate down the street. A bottle rocket is fired at 8:00, signifying the dreaded gate opening. The commencement of the bull charge. The cops strain mightily to hold back the runners. But some runners break through the line and dash toward the madly sprinting cluster of six bulls coming toward them. Apparently, it is a macho right of passage or badge of honor to be the first to meet the charging toros.

The tight clutch of furious bulls dash toward us at blinding speed. They look meaner, beefier and faster than I expect. The runners, who have been bouncing and stretching to prepare for the dash for their lives, part like the Red Sea as the hellish bulls roar by. I can see that for most of the runners, one never actually sees the bulls approaching. All you see are a great, terrified mass of red and white runners sprinting toward you with terrified looks on their eyes. Finally, you peel off and perhaps catch a glimpse of the bulls as they thunder by in the middle of the street.

There are no fatal gorings today, but I walk away astonished by the insane spectacle I have just witnessed.

Heading back to my suburban room, I am struck by the suburban nature of Pamplona’s outskirts. Unlike the charming, lovable, quaint streets of the ancient quarter in the town center, the newer and suburbanized Pamplona is the most awful, punishing, unrewarding highway design I’ve ever experienced. Way too much road capacity, high-speed design and inconvenient, out-of-the-way pathways for pedestrians. Ironically, walking in suburban Pamplona is WAY more dangerous than running with the bulls in the civic-pride-inducing town center.

On my train ride from Pamplona to Alicante, where my spouse is speaking at a conference, I notice that the Spanish countryside contains enormous forests of windmills and solar PVC panels. I am fortunate to be able to sit next to a nice Spanish woman who happens to speak English. She is happy to chat with me about Spain and her experiences in America, which I really enjoyed. She points out that in her brief visits to America, she was struck by how OBESE Americans are, and how big the food portions are when meals are ordered at restaurants. And how many homeless people she saw.

For our first night together in Alicante, my wife and I sit at a pleasant outdoor café at 11:30 pm for dinner. She has long since eaten, but joins me at the café. I order a seafood paella, but the language barrier results in the waiter returning with a huge paella frying pan full of enough food for six. As it turns out, he had thought both of us were ordering the paella. I am famished, though, and eat all the food.

Alicante is bustling with pedestrians day and night, something we are to find in all the Spanish cities we visit. Many charming, medieval, narrow cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes. Again, traits that are shared with the other Spanish town centers we are later to visit. An impressive, hilltop castle looms over the city with what we are told are stunning views. We go to a large, multi-story central indoor food and produce market filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, seafoods and cheeses to buy our train trip lunch.

On the train from Alicante to Valencia, I enjoy fresh Spanish produce (a plum, fig, peach, olives, bread, and affordably delicious red wine). The long-distance trains in Spain (which are mainly in the plain…)(sorry, but I couldn’t resist) tend to be filled nearly to capacity.

We walk a bit of old quarter Valencia and admire the spectacular architecture. We stop at two different cafes for wine and beer (one next to a Baroque building). At a recommended restaurant, we dine on sumptuous black ink paella and marinara paella in the birthplace city of paella. We finish at a tapas bar with glasses of Agua de Valencia (a strong specialty orange drink in Valencia).

Thursday starts with an excellent hotel breakfast featuring deliciously fresh Valencia orange juice. Only later do we discover that the meal is not complimentary but instead comes with a rather steep charge. We reach Plaza de la Reina near our hotel, where we spend a few hours being astonished by the impressive cathedral of Valencia. Here, finally, after a quest that is centuries long, we find the (replica) holy grail. We climb the 207 steps of the bell tower for breathtaking views of the city. A place where Victor Hugo is reported to have proclaimed that he could see 300 bell towers on the horizon. Noteworthy are the many dark blue ceramic-tiled dome roofs on the “skyline.”

We check out the endless (over 1,000) stalls of Mercado Central, and have lunch at an outdoor café just outside this market. I have a seafood salad and wash it down with “horchata,” the famous, sweet Spanish tiger nut milk. Next, we browse the Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, said to be second only to the Prado in Madrid. Curiously, a number of these centuries-old religious paintings show women breastfeeding their child, which I had not seen depicted before in such art.

Back in the old quarter, we visit La Lonja de lu Seda de Valencia – the former Silk Exchange and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the tiny, charming cobblestone streets are impressively showing a bell tower terminating the vista (excellent for photographs). We then go to the nearby National Museum of Ceramics – a former grand palace with extravagantly ornate rooms. In the “entertainment room,” I re-live the history of the room by doing a brief waltz with my spouse, with music accompanying us.

By 9 pm, we conclude the day by settling in, serendipitously, at what turns out to be a tasty, festive outdoor café in a charming, ancient alleyway near our hotel. We order a range of sumptuous dishes of tapas, ensaladas, and fish (along with a bottle of Spanish vino blanco). We all agree that the meal is outstanding.

My spouse and I bid farewell to our outstanding travel companions to embark on our all-night sleeper train from Valencia to Granada. It is 1:00 am when the train departs. The air temperature is still a steamy 81 degrees. I am amazed that I am able to sleep soundly on the train. I pull back the curtain as the light of dawn starts streaming into our car to be greeted by an immense field of bright yellow flowers and the arid Spanish countryside.

Granada, like Alicante and Valencia, has many tiny, romantic, medieval cobblestone streets in its town center. We quickly find a Rick Steve’s-recommended (and very affordable) hotel. Pension Landazuri. We are amazed to see how it is only a stone’s throw from the world-renowned Alhambra, which looms over the hotel on a hilltop. The hotel has a rooftop sitting area which we vow to use later. First thing next morning, we grab a quick breakfast at a nearby café, which unfortunately does not serve breakfast food. To our horror and gastronomical disgust, the sandwiches we order contain big wads of mayonnaise, which sits unpleasantly in our bellies for most of the day. Enviously, we see a nearby couple enjoying what appears to be a delicious bowl of fruit.

Despite the sandwich blunder, we then have a very pleasant and romantic stroll in the tiny cobblestone streets of the Alaycin neighborhood. Former stronghold of the Moorish and Gypsy dancers, and now mostly home to modern-day hippies.

Here, we find the St. Nicholas viewpoint, which provides a grand view of Alhambra, one of Europe’s great gems. As we walk back to the hotel, I can’t stop shooting photos of the wonderful little twisting labyrinth of streets. We arrive at Alhambra and enjoy the formal gardens and castle-like hedges. At 3:00, the assigned time on our tickets, we tour the stunning stalactite intricacies of Placios Nazaries. Afterwards, we check out Charles V palace and the Alcazaba fort.

To top off the visit, we find a café for some ice-cold Sangrias. For “dinner,” we dine at Bodegas Castaneda, a bustling tapas bar where we sample a vino tinto fermented on the premises. We are given some tapas gratis, but I also order a trout avocet (raw trout) and sea mussels. I must admit that the raw trout is a taste that takes some getting used to…

To finish the day in style, we join hundreds of others at the San Nicolas viewpoint plaza to watch the drama of the sun setting on Alhambra.

Earlier in the day, we stroll Paseo de lost Tristes – a narrow walkway along the Darro River. Multiple times on our strolls in Albaycin, we are enchanted by this ground-zero locale for hippies and gypsies: Calle Caldereria Nueva, a narrow, winding passageway crammed with tiny shops (teterias). It is a colorful, Turkish-like feeling that seems to suggest to us that we are in Morocco, not Spain.

We hear no sirens in Granada or Valencia, thereby giving us peaceful, restful sleep.

We start Saturday at Plaza de Bib-Rambla, formerly a site for public executions. We dine on very fresh melon. Next, we take in a 90-minute Arabic bath/steamroom/aromatherapy – the Arabian version of the Turkish bath. Later, our recommended lunch café doesn’t open until 1:00, so we naively think a clever strategy is to explore the maze of Alcajceria – tiny shopping streets jammed with silk and jewelry merchants. Very festive. But the displays make me dizzy. We soon discover our mistake, however. Lunch doesn’t open for five minutes, so we check out the situation with the chapel and cathedral (our next planned destination). We are heartbroken. They are closed from 1:30 till 4:00 due to siesta! We will miss the chapel, as our train departs at 4:30. We opt to rush to the cathedral, which is spectacularly immense and decoratively gilded. We spend 30 minutes gawking with our mouths open and our heads tilted back. Granada concludes at Restaurante Sevilla – serving the obligatory yet still delicious paella.

One thing we learn in our Spain travels: The Spaniards, like many in Europe, start relatively late in the morning. Many siesta in the early to late afternoon (when the sun is at its blazing hottest). Then eat, drink, stroll and party till late.

Sevilla, our next destination, is immediately striking. We taxi to an affordable hotel from the train station. The hotel is in the heart of the medieval quarter, where we insist on being in all the cities we visit. We start out for a drink and quickly find ourselves on a “tapas bar crawl” (or “tapas tango”) – sampling some of the best watering holes in Sevilla, which for us includes a delicious gazpacho soup.

We pass “kissing streets” – streets so narrow that a couple can kiss from windows in buildings facing each other across the street. At Plaza Santa Cruz, we saunter along an exceptionally romantic, uplit, ancient stone walled street. It is quiet, peaceful and warm. The sounds of Flamenco guitar serenades us as we walk.

Then suddenly, it is upon us. Striking. Intimidating. Spectacular. Enormous. The world’s largest gothic cathedral TOWERS over us in its uplit nighttime splendor. I am humbled and awed by it. Shocked by its immensity. Inside, as we gawk, we are a bit surprised to see a group of miners, who are on the 25th day of a hunger strike, camped out inside the cathedral.

We breakfast on churros (fried dough), eat endless amounts of paella, and drink endless gallons of Sangria – at least once with a Spanish acoustic guitar and singing during our lunch. We tour Alacazar in Sevilla. Stupendous! We amble through the cathedral and gape in utter amazement at the huge spaces and silver/black intricacies of the ornamentation inside.

Afterwards, a cold shower and siesta is just what the doctor ordered. How hot is it in Spain? In Sevilla and other cities we visit in Spain, handheld fans are sold EVERYWHERE. We find ourselves showering three or four times each day.

Unfortunately, in combination with these furnace-like conditions, Spain has a characteristic shared by other parts of Europe that makes for an uncomfortable, expensive, dehydrating situation in summer months. Unlike in the US, where restaurants always provide endless amounts of icewater gratis, and drinking fountains are found everywhere, Spain’s restaurants only provide water when bottled water is ordered (at a fairly steep price). And drinking fountains are almost never found anywhere. One result is that the visitor ends of drinking a lot of (relatively expensive) bottled water and cold wine.

Our high-speed rail arrives at the handsome Toledo train station at 4:30 pm. Fortune is with us, as we quickly find the bus that takes us to the Plaza Zocodover – the center of Toledo – and we soon learn that our top choice for a hotel has vacancy. We tour one of Europe’s great cathedrals nearby and hop on the “tacky tourist train” for a very interesting and impressive look at the river, fortification walls, town gates, aqueducts, and the ancient buildings surrounding the city. We soon discover why Toledo is known as the largest outdoor museum in the world.

Inside the cathedral, we learn that holy Cardinals are able to choose where they’d like to be buried inside the cathedral. Most are entombed under the floor, covered by a rectangular brass plate. Their red velvet brimmed bonnet is hung from the ceiling above their tomb until it rots away.

In Toledo, cafes are noticeably and surprisingly scarce – at least compared to other Spanish cities we visit. I speculate this is partly due to the lack of plaza space in this tightly compact and ancient city.

In our travels, and including in Toledo, we notice that nearly all bars and restaurants proudly hang a great many pigs legs from their ceiling, with tiny plastic umbrellas under the legs to catch dripping oil. We also find in our tour that Spain has so many olive trees in the countryside that I wonder if there are ANY trees in Spain besides olive trees.

Tuesday in Toledo is “El Greco” day for us. We inspect the Santa Cruz museum, which contains an impressive collection of El Greco’s work. I notice that an El Greco trademark is to have the eyes of his subjects gazing in fascinating, curious, contemplative ways. In Santo Tome, we see his most beloved masterpiece. “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” which El Greco himself placed in this wall location over 400 years ago. At Santa Cruz, we see El Greco’s famed “Assumption of Mary.”

We high-speed train back to Madrid and taxi to our luxury hotel (thanks to an irresistible deal I had found via TravelZoo a month or so ago). In Madrid, we set out for the Royal Palace (said to be one of the most spectacular in all of Europe). We walk the pedestrianized, car-free Calle Arenal, and stop at a side street café for two large, refreshing glasses of Sangria. Next, we find our way to the large, cobblestoned Plaza Mayor, built in 1609. Each of the four sides of this square is flanked by continuous, multi-story buildings to allow the plaza to form a large outdoor room. Moorish archways permit access to each of the four sides. At the center is Philip II on horseback, who ordered the construction of the plaza. The history of the plaza reads like the history of Spain. Here, over the centuries, there were bullfights, royalty and the execution of heretics by the dreaded Spanish Inquisition (which, Pythoners know, nobody expects). Next, we enter the palace – which contains an astonishing display of utter, unfettered royal extravagance (the dining room table, for example is as long as a lane in a bowling alley). There is even a solid silver baby rattle in one of the sumptuous rooms.

We make our way to the old quarter where we arrive at the Prado – one of the greatest museums on earth. Afterwards, we dine at the bustling, enjoyable, breezy La Plateria Bar Museo, where I enjoy an outstanding baked codfish.

On Wednesday, we drop our bags at the train station in the morning, and then walk through the huge and pleasant Parque de Madrid on our way to the Navel Museum – an extremely impressive display for a place without an admission fee. We then head for the old quarter, passing a few exceptionally lively pedestrianized streets on our way to lunch at Plaza Mayor. We chat with an Argentine fellow sitting next to us, who generously keeps filling my glass with his vino tinto. We finish our Madrid visit with a walk through the museum holding the famed Picasso masterpiece – Guernica.

Soon, we are on the train being whisked to Barcelona, but our train mysteriously stops for a long time (3.5 hours, to be exact) in Guadulajara. Finally, we see several passengers get off the train. We don’t know why, as the train announcements and passenger comments are in Spanish. Almost no one speaks English – passenger or train crew – but I somehow find a cook on the food car who speaks some English. Turns out that there is a large forest fire (which we learned later had killed about 60 people) 80 km ahead of where we stopped along with three other trains. The train company, impressively, comes up with a plan to transfer the passengers by bus to the Madrid airport, where our bus ticket will allow us to board flights to Barcelona. It was a bit of a miracle that we actually learned of the plan, due to the lack of English-speaking around us. Our “high-speed” train, therefore, turns out to be turtle slow. Our arrival in Barcelona, originally scheduled for 7:30 pm, will now be a flight getting us there by 1:00 am. In the US, of course, this sort of passenger transfer would have never happened. We’d have ended up sleeping in the train overnight, then getting stuck in traffic gridlock on our way to being dumped in, say, a Toledo (Ohio) Wal-Mart late the next day. And needing to hitch-hike to get to a Burger King restaurant for a meal.

It is Thursday morning, and we are on a short walk from our La Ramblas-flanking hotel to the ancient quarter and cathedral. The miniature streets in the Barri Gotic neighborhood are filled with quaint little retail shops. I walk La Ramblas a few times, marveling at how much the pathway is filled with happy people. And how much I enjoy that feeling. Throughout the day, we gaze out on La Ramblas from our hotel balcony.

For lunch, we buy delicious, fresh food at La Boqueria Market – a place filled with fresh veggies, fruits, meats, and cheeses. The vendors and customers are animated by it all. We stop at Plaza del Rei next to the Royal Palace to enjoy a symphony warming up, then stroll to Placa De LaSeu, where we accidentally stumble upon a famous “Sardana” dance. This dance is a patriotic circle dance demonstrating Catalan unity – and led by a small brass band. We arrive too late to join in, sadly.

For dinner, we opt for the Rick Steves suggestion of La Plata, a small, simple, highly authentic local tapas bar, where we are served delicious plates of fried sardines and their freshly fermented vino tinto. A couple near us suggest another local favorite nearby, Bodega La Palma (on La Palma de Sant Just). Our cod tapa, and a red pepper and goat cheese tapa are out of this world, as is the fermented-on-premises dry (seako) vino tinto.

Just fabulous.

We then decide to walk to the nightly “Magic Fountains” music display in the extremely large Parc de Montjuic. To get there, we follow a recommended walking route shown on our Barcelona map which, oddly, takes us through some rather seedy, scary areas. The fountains, on most evenings, show their magic starting at 10 pm. Huge, powerful fountain streams, jets and mists shoot large amounts of water into the air, which is highlighted by multiple floodlight colors. And creating what looks like a cosmic fireworks display. Thousands have assembled to watch the show this night, which is accompanied by Spanish and American music. Spontaneously, we follow hundreds who have joined arms and hands in a large ring around the fountain. We dance, wave arms, sing and shout to the water, colors and music. A thrilling, community-building experience.

The fountains are at the center of a grand axis. At one end is the monumental Montjuic National Palace. At the other end is Placa d’ Espanya. The corridor formed creates a very grand entrance to the recently completed Olympic stadium.

We depart back to the hotel riding the Barcelona metro train – an extremely transparent, easy-to-use system, even for greenhorns like us who don’t speak Spanish. On Friday morning, our last full day in Spain, we metro to “Funicular,” which transports us to Montjuic (Mount of the Jews), formerly a fortress/castle. Because it was built in the 18th Century to watch over the city and subdue citizen revolt, today we enjoy grandly panoramic views of Barcelona. Franco also executed many political prisoners here, we learn. Afterwards, we walk through the Parc de Montjuic. Back at the Barri Gotic neighborhood, we find the vegan Juicy Jones café, and have splendidly fresh juices, superb sandwiches and incredibly delicious bread.

We siesta back at the hotel for a few hours after enjoying a glass of vino tinto we had bought the day before. We saunter along the “Block of Discord” on Passeig De Garcia – so named because it contains 19th-century building facades trying to out-compete each other as modernist “look-at-me” architecture. Gaudi’s Casa Batllo has a convoluted roof that looks like the back of a dragon. A short distance away, Gaudi assaults us again with Casa Mila, which is said to mimic melting ice cream with its eaves. The balcony ironwork appears to be cobbled together scrap metal that has been shredded and assembled into a chaotic, twisted confusion.

Finally, we come upon the amazing Sagrada Familia (holy family church) by Gaudi. The famed architect spent 45 years designing this modernist effort to be as memorable and lovable as the medieval cathedrals found throughout Spain and Europe. In my opinion, the blocky, relatively austere and only moderately ornamental façade (with its soaring towers) fails to do so. I believe that 500 years from now, the medieval cathedrals will remain lovable sources of pride, while Familia is forgotten (or laughed at).

We metro back to the Sagardi tapas bar in Barri Gotic. This bar is packed with festive people. And for good reason. The tapas are endless in variety and quantity as they sit crammed along a lengthy bar. The vino tinto is, as is so typical in Spain, delicious.

Arriving back at our hotel at midnight, we share a few more glasses of vino on our balcony as we overlook the playful, noisy La Ramblas on our last night in Barcelona and Spain.

I spend a last hour on La Ramblas the next day. A Flamenco dancer smiles and dances next to me. I sit eating my lunch of fresh oatmeal bread, fried octopus and fried squid. I walk the tiny streets one more time to the cathedral and sip the last of my vino. Walking the street toward Plaza Catalunya, I look back and marvel at the grand buildings and sea of pedestrians before me.

What a city.

What a nation.

This link brings you to a YouTube video I created by using the photos I shot during my travels in Spain:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2GxU-PfD8A

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