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Spain Trip – The Splendors of San Sebastián

San Sebastián is a gem off the northern coast of Spain – a seaside escape, foodie paradise, and charming historic city all melted into one. After spending a few days in Barcelona and another couple of days in the Spanish countryside, EZ, GS, NR, and I passed through hours of stunning scenery in our rental car before finally reaching this picturesque little town.

Day 1

We entered San Sebastián through Centro Romántico,the newer part of the city. While Centro Romántico still possessed a captivating turn-of the-century aura with its stately architecture, I was surprised by how modern it felt. Rows of popular retail stores and other city staples lined the floor level to make up a bustling commercial and shopping district. Still, the contemporary culture was kept clean and compact, with none of the Big City grime and grit. And a hint of the salty sea laced the air.

A public bus chugged by, touting free Wi-Fi, and we whipped out our phones to try and catch some internet. We scoured the streets for parking near our Airbnb lodging and finally settled on a temporary underground spot beneath a market.

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Our Airbnb lodging looked like it was sponsored by IKEA –all black and white with red accents, clean lines and basic geometry. The cylindrical bathroom with circular mirrors seemed futuristic, like some portal that would beam you up. The lodging was advertised as a “beach cave,” and now we could see why – not only was it minutes from the beach, but it was partially underground…which meant that when we turned off all the brilliant white lights, everything was cloaked in pitch-blackness. It was a pretty cool space with decent amenities, but it seemed to lack true personality, somehow. And I’m not sure I was entirely comfortable with cave living. Perhaps a treehouse would suit me better…

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After we got settled in and the boys moved our rental car to a less costly parking spot, we got ready for our first night of foodie heaven in San Sebastián. You see, San Sebastián is world-renowned for its mouthwatering cuisine; many of its restaurants glitter with Michelin stars, granting San Sebastián the notable distinction of holding the second-highest Michelin stars per capita in the world. The city is particularly famous for its pintxos, which are small plates (or tapas) in the Basque tradition.

Side note – San Sebastián is located in the Basque region of Spain; the Basques are an indigenous ethnic group that inhabits this region, and they tend to overzealously employ the letter “X” in Basque language…hence, “pintxos.” The letters “TX” together make the “CH” sound, so “pintxos” is pronounced “pinchos.”

Our group set out into the cobblestone alleyways of San Sebastián’s Parte Vieja (Old Town), where most of the popular pintxos bars lay in wait for us. We were lucky to have visited during the off-season, so we didn’t have to contend with massive crowds of tourists. Most of the tourists that were there seemed to be European, especially French, as San Sebastián is a mere 12 miles from the French border.

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We strolled from bar to bar in the mild night air. Among our epicurean stops were Zeruko, Borda Berri, and Atari, plus a handful of others whose names I’ve forgotten. At each place, we ordered beer or wine, accompanied by an assortment of pintxos for sharing. Many of these pintxos were divinely crafted, with unexpected pairings of ingredients. I don’t even know how to begin to describe them, so I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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To our pleasant surprise, our gourmet gastronomic fare was actually quite affordable. These same dishes in America would have cost a small fortune!

NR and I followed up our parade of pintxos with dessert – cheesecake for her, and chocolate soufflé for me! Yum…

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After such a feast, our group needed to “walk it off.” We wandered around Old Town a bit and admired the architecture. NR felt an empty plaza beckon to her – so, of course, she immediately frolicked into the center of it.

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We continued walking until we found ourselves overlooking the beach. The dark waters ebbed and flowed with a gentle shushing sound, circled by a string of golden lights from the shoreline. Our eyelids begin to droop.

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Soon, we headed back to our lodging and got ready for bed. We looked forward to seeing the beach in its full glory the next day.

Day 2

Remember I mentioned how pitch-black our “cave” lodging became when the lights were off? Well, this deep darkness caused our group to oversleep the next morning, since it still looked like night when we first opened our eyes. By the time we realized the deception of the dark, the clock had already struck noon.

Luckily, San Sebastián was not so much a city for sight-seeing as it was an escape for leisure. So we didn’t have to rush to a museum or landmark. Instead, we took our time getting ready and ambled down to a little café, where we enjoyed some ravioli and pintxos on the sunny patio.

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We also enjoyed reading a certain item that was “lost in translation” on the menu…see if you can spot it! Definitely chuckle-worthy.

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After lunch, our group continued to walk around the city, taking in the gorgeous canal and pristine streets.

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We made our way to Playa de Gros, also known as Zurriola beach, which is bookended by two lush, green hills. Nestled against the hill on the left (Mount Ulía) were a cluster of buildings, including the Kursaal Conference Centre, along with a striking peninsula of large, cubic rocks.

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Zurriola beach is claimed by the locals, who love to surf its waters and sunbathe upon its sands. I did a double-take as I realized that most of the sunbathers were topless…and that most of these topless sunbathers were older women! How nice, to have such a positive body image at all ages and in all shapes…

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Our group was drawn like magnets to the large cubic rocks, which looked so bizarre and interesting against the natural landscape…it was as though we had stumbled upon some alien terrain.

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We continued our exploration in a nearby neighborhood, where EZ was accosted by a weird girl in a white mask. She was a part of a group of masked girls engaging in performance art on the sidewalk, hugging strangers and pantomiming indecipherable messages.

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Once past the crew of masked misfits, we popped into a “Made in China” store (a small shop crammed with all sorts of plastic items). Since my sunglasses had fallen down a well in Parc Guell back in Barcelona, I bought a pair of cheap “Ru-Bu” sunglasses (Ray-Ban knockoffs) to tide me over for the rest of the trip. We passed some more stores, including an adorable chorizo shop, and stopped by a market to pick up some cherries.

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As we approached the promenade near the other popular beach, Playa de la Concha, we were met with resort hotels, well-marked bike paths, meticulously manicured green spaces, and peculiar-looking trees springing up from the pavement of the plaza (they looked like some strange cousin of the Joshua or yucca tree).

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After getting a taste of Playa de la Concha from the promenade, our group decided that this was the beach for us – it was so peaceful and relatively vacant, although it was known to fill up with huge crowds of partying tourists when in season. We headed back to our cave to change into swimsuits and grab towels, then popped into the nearby market to pick up savory puff pastries, thinly sliced salchichon, and wine to go with the cherries we’d already bought.

Playa de la Concha was one of the loveliest beaches I’ve ever seen. The coastline was a perfect, sweeping curve of froth-tipped cerulean sea and silky sand against verdant hills tiered with beautiful buildings. The other side of Mount Ulía was also visible from this vantage point.

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We lay down on our towels and just let our worries melt away, sharing the wine and food between us. EZ listened to a podcast on his headphones and I lost myself in a book while GS and NR tanned and napped. At some point, EZ and GS got up and wandered into the ocean for a dip before returning to the warmth of their towels. In the distance, we could hear the sound of exotic percussion as street performers drummed out a rhythm that felt tropical and rousing at first, but then grew repetitive. After a while, I got up and enjoyed a walk along the shore (while EZ, unbeknownst to me, acted as my paparazzi).

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After a few sweet hours of relaxation in paradise, our group returned to the lodging to clean up and get ready for another night of fine wining-and-dining. On the way into Old Town, we encountered a beautiful little public garden-park, Plaza de Gipuzkoa. The garden was landscaped with a grassy area, glistening jade pond, clusters of violet and yellow flowers, and an assortment of other fetching plants. Elegant, white swans glided atop the pond. Not one sign of litter or vandalism was in sight, although this garden area was open to all in the middle of a city block.

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On the other side of the park, a round patch of yellow flowers doubled as a giant clock. Our group approached this clock at precisely the right time, witnessing with wonder as the big hand shifted left to strike 7:30, sparking a flurry of bell tolls. Upon further inspection, we learned the temple-shaped structure behind the flower-clock acted as a weather station.

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We continued onward as our stomachs began to grumble. Our first foodie stop for the night was actually not a pintxo place, but a San Sebastián staple we’d been eying with temptation the night before: Bar Nestor, known for its txuleta (beef chops) and tomato salad. We ordered both, along with a plate of smoked peppers and some wine. The server came to our table holding two cuts of raw meat and asked which one we wanted. We pointed, he nodded, and that was that. EZ, who was so famished he couldn’t wait for the food to be prepared, slipped away to a nearby kabob stand for a quick “snack” (he can’t resist kabob). But when he returned to Bar Nestor and our shareable meal arrived, he still managed to show a healthy appetite.

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The food was delicious and, again, quite reasonably priced. Because we were a bit full, our next few stops were for wine, sans the pintxos. At A Fuego Negro, we enjoyed a few drinks amid an artsy, rocker ambiance. A red-hot neon sign glowed on the back brick wall; one side-wall was papered with posters for rock bands, while the other side-wall featured framed drawings of pintxos rendered as famous monsters (like Slimer from Ghostbusters).

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As we continued to walk through Old Town in search of our next stop, we came upon a strange piece of modern artwork installed on a historic church. The looping, milky-white creation looked out of place against the old stone of the church. EZ was mesmerized by it. He stood gazing at the art piece (called “The Harmony of Sound”) for a few minutes in contemplation before snapping some photos.

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Our group capped off the night by walking into a completely empty dance club and tearing it up on the floor. Nearly all of the songs were current American chart-toppers, with a few Latin-pop hits thrown in for good measure. GS bust out his professional ballroom dance moves while the rest of us tried to keep up. Neon green flecks of light swirled across the walls as we all two-stepped and waltzed and twirled and dipped. The bartender watched us warily, cleaning a glass with a towel.

Finally, once we were all worn out and the club was shutting down, we made our way back to the cave. It had been a fantastic day in San Sebastián. And early tomorrow morning, we would be en route to Bilbao!

To be continued…

Start from the beginning and learn more about my travels in Spain:

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 0.5

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 1

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 2

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 3 (Gaudi Day)

Spain Trip: The Charming Countryside

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Spain Trip – The Charming Countryside

After a whirlwind three-day romp through the splendid sites of Barcelona, I was looking forward to spending a few days in the Spanish countryside with EZ’s uncles. JH and FB own a remarkable old house in a tiny rural village, and our group was excited to explore it. We planned to drive up to the countryside in the evening, since GS and NR had tickets to an FC Barcelona soccer game in the afternoon.

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Following lunch within walking distance from the apartment, our group packed up our belongings and took the metro to the car rental company. Once EZ and GS (the drivers) had filled out all the requisite paperwork, GS and NR headed out to the stadium to catch their game, while EZ and I took the car back to the apartment.

Oh…did I mention the car was manual? No automatics were available!  EZ hadn’t used a stick shift in years, but he managed to safely drive us to a parking structure near the apartment, with only a handful of instances in which I feared for my life.

Just as EZ and I began to consider which museum or site we could check out while GS and NR were at the soccer game, we received a Facebook message from GS:  “Hey, we had a little hiccup. We’re ready to roll soon. Are you at the museum?”

EZ and I looked at each other, then immediately called GS through the messenger app.

“Guys, I want to cryyyy!” GS wailed.

“What happened?” I asked.

What happened was…the game had been rescheduled to yesterday. The game had already happened. GS and NR had missed the game – by a day. And they had even bought and worn jerseys for the occasion! Poor things.

With this unexpected turn of events, our group was able to leave for the countryside earlier than expected.

The House

EZ drove for hours on the highway, past industrial warehouses, past small towns, past rippling hills, past roaming cattle. He interpreted the Spanish road signs as best as he could while I toggled between handwritten directions from JH and the Google Maps directions on the iPhone.

Finally, around nightfall, we turned onto a narrow country road that snaked through the meadows until the village came into view. The village was comprised of a small cluster of houses, at the center of which stood an old, stone church. To my alarm, EZ drove through a shockingly narrow alleyway between the church and its neighbor – I closed my eyes as the walls seemed to press in toward the car. But, mercifully, EZ managed to squeeze through unscathed, arriving at the unpaved town square situated just in front of his uncles’ house.

The house is 500 years old. The original building remains intact, but also, over the years, had been expanded via the annexation of neighboring houses and several vertical additions (the building stood at least five stories high, although you couldn’t tell from the front façade).

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In the darkness, we couldn’t see much. But we would soon discover every historical detail, every secret passage and clandestine crevice, of this extraordinary edifice. JH and FB came out to greet us and shepherd us into the house. Since there was no way to complete a full tour of the house that evening, the tour was split between that night and the next morning. But it began as soon as we entered the building…

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We walked through the massive wooden door with dual doorknobs (which required a big, old-fashioned brass key to unlock), and found ourselves in an incredible entry room from the 16th century, with packed-dirt and stone floors, wooden beams, and plaster walls. The room was crammed with assorted odds and ends, and contained the following notable features:

1. An old-fashioned butcher’s block, as well as the related butchering tools. In the olden days, the house served as the village’s butcher and wine provider. The entry room also used to store live animals at night (sheep, oxen, cattle, etc.). IMG_6172

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2. A smoking barrel. JH may not use the antique butchering block, but he does use a barrel to smoke the meats he obtains from a standing order with the village’s herdsmen. JH purchases any game the herdsmen kill while herding their sheep (e.g. large hares, wild boar, etc.) and will then skin and butcher the meat himself before smoking it in a barrel and preparing it for consumption. That’s some local, grass-fed, free-range meat!

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3. JH’s book-binding tools. Back in the day, before he was a working artist (and before books were read on Kindles and iPads), JH had been a bookbinder.

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4. A stack of logs that had been chopped from the collection of wine barrels found in an underground compartment of the house that had once been a wine cellar.  On top of this pile rested a hatched bird’s egg.

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5. A set of stone-and-dirt stairs that led down into the underground room that had historically been the wine cellar, but which JH and FB had converted into a movie theater.
JH and FB regularly held movie nights in this subterranean, cavernous space, curating a selection of films for members of their movie club. (Alas, I forgot to take a picture of this amazing space!)

6. Another set of stairs leading down to a wine cellar (one that remains a wine cellar in function), concealed behind a red curtain, which houses JH and FB’s collection of fine vintages.

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7. A trap door (hidden beneath a rug in an attached storeroom), that opens to a ladder leading down a dark, cylindrical hole, which JH described as a “genie in the bottle” space. Historically, this pit had served as a wine cistern for when the villagers came by to purchase wine. Now, the space is empty, and JH is considering adding pillows and chic lighting to create a unique, secluded hangout area at the bottom of the tank.

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8. A piece of art depicting the room using the same materials utilized to construct the room (for example: wood is used to create the wood beams, stone is used to create the stone floors, and plaster is used to create the plaster walls in the picture).

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Beyond the entry room, a flight of stairs led us up through the main body of the house. In the corner of the first stairwell was a glowing glass pane over a cylindrical hole. The hole used to be an olive oil cistern (apparently, in the olden days, the villagers who had lived in this house were also olive oil merchants, in addition to sellers of wine and meat). JH and FB had covered the (now empty) olive oil cistern with glass and added a backlight to illuminate the hole for those who wished to stare into its depths. A pretty cool feature for the corner of a stairwell…

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The first floor we reached was occupied by a pale blue chamber with black-and-white checkered flooring and authentic,16th century designs molded into the ceilings between wooden beams (as with most aspects of the house, JH and FB sought to preserve historic elements rather than modernize over them).

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This living room may as well have been a museum, for it displayed an eclectic array of art, artifacts, collectibles, and other exotic curiosities amassed from JH and FB’s travels around the world, as well as their treasure-hunting expeditions at antique shops, thrift stores, flea markets, and estate sales. JH told the story of how he had spotted a flamboyant tapestry amid cheap junk at a yard sale, and immediately identified it as a valuable piece from a famous artist…he bought it for a steal.

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JH also regaled us with tales of his travel adventures, including the time he had made friends with an interesting stranger in South America who invited him to her “river house.” Somehow, this lady convinced JH to get in a boat with her…and hours later, they ended up in her hut on a river in the Amazon, surrounded by curious-looking tribesmen!  JH was still bewildered to think how he’d let himself get into such a predicament, although he remained friends with this strange lady all these years later.

In addition to purchased items and gifts, the room also contained a few of JH’s own creations, including a large cone-headed jester sculpture with an egg-shaped body that bobbed back and forth on the floor like a precarious bowling pin.

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The connecting sitting room also housed a framed piece of his art, surrounded by smaller pieces purchased from a coastal African villager that had also sold his work to the Queen of England. (If you’re interested in JH’s artwork, check out his website at http://www.jonathanhammerstudio.com/work.php).

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The next floor up contained the dining room and kitchen, which could also be seen through a window from the stairwell.

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This slightly more modern space also featured prominent wooden beams, but the walls had been painted vivid yellow, purple and green. JH’s pieces of art (paintings, drawings, and hybrids with photo-overlays) were framed and mounted on the walls, along with a piece his father (EZ’s grandfather) had painted: A lady in black with a voluminous cloud of dark hair. In the corner was the furnace, adorned with a customized design of seashells.

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The corner of the next stairwell led to a modern, artsy bathroom. Down a nearby hallway, we found a collection of antique metal talismans pinned to a wooden panel. FB explained that these were used by French Catholics in prayer to protect against the specific ailments depicted on the talismans.

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An adjacent wooden counter held similar types of talismans, except they were life-sized replicas of the ailing body parts, rather than small metal plates. These were used by Spanish Catholics. Behind the great, white body parts were…action figures? I think… You’ll never know what you might find in a house like this!

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Up another flight of stairs, the landing contained the master bedroom/bathroom, a guest room, and – be still, my beating heart! –  a LIBRARY. The library was organized by genre and author, and also included a workspace and small guest bedrooms. I could have spent hours – nay, days – in this library…but, alas, with such limited time in the countryside and so much to see, this would not be possible.

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The following set of stairs led to the balcony and another bedroom. The balcony, where we dined for lunch the next day, boasted a gorgeous view of the countryside. It was also home to a lovely custom-designed fountain created with tiles and seashells…an echo of the sea-inspired furnace a few floors below.

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The nearby bedroom was mostly being used as storage space, but the bed was very interesting indeed. Not only was it a loft bed, requiring a ladder to access it – the bed also featured a skylight above it. At night, as you lay in bed, you could gaze up at the stars of the country sky.

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At the very top of the house, beneath the beams and rafters, was JH’s artist studio. This space was cluttered with an assortment of intriguing works-in-progress. Everywhere you looked, there were tables, lamps, papers, and containers of tools and various materials…this was clearly where the magic happened.

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The Food

After our partial tour in the evening, JH and FB served us a rustic dinner of salad, cheese, bread, and wine. All of the ingredients were the epitome of farm-fresh. The salad was crisp and flavorful. The cheese was produced from local cows and goats in or near the village. JH baked the bread himself. Everything tasted delicious – the freshest food I’d ever had. This was followed up by a divine, fluffy orange cake whipped up by FB. So this was how country folks ate!

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After dinner, JH and FB led our group into the living room, where we all talked late into the night over cava and more potent liquors. JH entertained us all with his ebullient witticisms, worldly knowledge, and amusing anecdotes, while FB offered thoughtful explanations and ideas that expanded on each topic of conversation in kind, measured tones. They complemented each other perfectly, JH and FB, a balance of vivacious and calm energies…but both brilliant, fascinating people.

This balance also emerged through their food. JH was the main chef, imparting bold and tasty flavors into each meal through his use of high-quality ingredients, deep culinary understanding, and creative flair. FB was the expert pastry chef, crafting beautiful, traditional French desserts with meticulous care to achieve nuanced flavors and precise textures – whether silky, spongey, flaky, or crispy – while leaving you craving for more.

The next morning, we had a simple but satisfying breakfast of bread, cheese, and coffee before completing our tour of the house. Then came lunch on the balcony, a delightful open-air spread of fresh chicken salad with tangy homemade dressing, cheese, bread, and wine. I was particularly excited to try the four selections of local cheeses. JH and FB explained that the proper way to approach a cheese course was to begin with the mildest cheese and work your way toward the sharpest.

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FB’s dessert wizardry made another appearance in the form of a gorgeous tart…so flaky, so tasty, so satisfying!

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And finally, dinner in the evening was comprised of JH’s own brand of witchcraft…he concocted a rural feast of stuffed artichokes, buttery mashed potatoes, and savory beef stew.

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While our country meals seemed simple, the flavors were heightened by their fresh and organic nature, as well as the love and skill with which JH and FB prepared our food. We were truly lucky for such a talented pair of chefs to host us in their home. And we learned that country-eating is definitely a culinary experience not to be missed!

The Village

In addition to the tour of the house and the delicious meals, our group enjoyed a walk through the village. We traipsed down alleyways and circled the church as JH shared juicy tidbits of gossip about the neighbors.

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JH and FB also led us down a dirt path through a copse of trees to an overgrown pond. If you looked real close, you could discern a little frog amongst the mildew, staring unblinkingly. Nearby, insects hummed idly, a dreamlike murmur. I could see how time might slow down in a place like this, thickening like molasses as your dusty skin yielded to the kisses of the sun.

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JH and FB also showed our group their latest investment: just down the road a little ways from their house was a spacious building they had recently purchased. The building looked like a big brick warehouse with rusted green doors. The former owner had used it to house sheep. Inside, a collection of sheep collars still stood in a row against the wall.

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The interior held promise, with its spacious layout and lovely brick design, but it was currently in a state of disrepair. Although the walls and foundations remained structurally sound, the decrepit roofing resulted in a pool of water collecting on the floor from leaks. Layers of dirt and cobwebs festooned every surface. Large holes gaped through the second floor. The stench of sheep still hung in the air.

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“You have to use your imagination,” JH said. It was clear he possessed a vision; JH didn’t see what we saw.

JH and FB planned to renovate the space. When they were through with it, the building would be as good as new, without sacrificing the beauty and integrity of the original design. And the piles of sheep dung that now lay before the building would be replaced by a beautiful garden.

Part of the warehouse would be used as a storage area for JH’s pieces of art. But there would still be so much leftover space! JH and FB spouted off the options for it: A guest house? A bar and lounge? An art school? A rentable venue for events? An airBnB lodging? The possibilities were endless. The uncles hinted that EZ and I would just have to visit again in a few years to see the end result.

The River

While in the countryside, GS, NR, EZ, and I also enjoyed some time at the river near the house. We walked down a country road and through a verdant meadow until we reached the river.

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Along the riverbanks, we spotted a number of rock towers…the tiered stones looked almost supernatural. Inspired, EZ and I built a rock tower of our own (it was more difficult than it sounds…we had to scout the area for rocks that were suitably shaped to balance atop the rock beneath it, but heavy enough to support the rock above it). EZ and I later learned, to our delight, that FB had been the one to create the village of rock towers.

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EZ and GS were the first to actually make their way into the river and frolic in its waters. NR and I followed suit later, a bit more tepidly, trying to feel out an entry point that was neither too slippery nor too rocky.

When JH arrived at the river to fetch us for dinner, he noted that the silky-smooth river mud was actually a pure mud that could be used as a skin softener or face mask. NR immediately began massaging the mud onto her face, while I tested it out on the top of my hand. Lo and behold, when I washed it off 15 minutes later, my skin felt sleek and supple. Hmm…maybe I should try to bottle and sell this mud in the U.S.! Though that might be frowned upon at customs…

Funky Bridge

After a second night in the countryside, it was almost time for EZ, GS, NR, and me to continue our tour of northern Spain and head to San Sebastian. But there were a few nearby stops we made first, led by our trusty guide, JH (FB was at work, teaching French literature…which also sounded pretty sweet).

Not too far from the village was a funky bridge. According to the infinite knowledge of JH, this bridge was built in medieval times, before the local architects knew the proper way to construct a single arch while still supporting the rest of the bridge. So, instead of a single large arch, this bridge was comprised of multiple smaller arches, with the top of the bridge jutting out at strange angles to help distribute the weight appropriately. Perhaps not the most efficient design, but a delightfully quirky one!

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 Graus

Next, we visited Graus, a small town nestled in the Pyrenees. Graus is globally renown for its tasty sausages, and is also notable for its historical battles and cultural events. Among these events is a celebration of meat known as “La Fiesta de la Longaniza” during which the world’s largest sausage is prepared. Longaniza is a popular Spanish sausage, famous for its exceptionally high quality and produced as long, thin salchichon.

We walked through Graus, down the little alleyways lined with shops, and to the town square, where the buildings were painted with beautiful designs and the eaves were embellished with works of art and other trimmings.

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JH then steered us to Melsa, a purveyor of gourmet longaniza and other Grausian delicacies. Here, we loaded up on cured, sliced, vacuum-packed sausages and other meats that we could take home as souvenirs. The lady behind the counter offered us free samples…and let me tell you, those deftly sliced cuts of meat tasted so fresh and flavorful, I could have devoured a whole plate then and there.

Once we had stocked up on meaty mementos, our stomachs were grumbling for a proper meal. We hit the road again as JH directed us to a restaurant along a country road, isolated amid acres of farmland: Casa Roque.

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“This is where all the farmers go for a good meal,” JH told us. And indeed, there wasn’t a tourist to be found inside (except for our group).

As the waitress/chef described the menu items with an exquisite, elegant Spanish accent, JH translated each one into English for us. Most of us ordered lamb dishes and soup or salad, but I believe NR boldly decided upon the hare. Once again, we enjoyed fresh, delicious country fare. The highlight, however, was the Tirimasu dessert…hands down, the yummiest Tirimasu I’ve ever had! The waitress/chef proudly told us that she had won awards for it, and she certainly deserved every one of them.

On the Road Again

After saying our thank yous and goodbyes to JH at the restaurant, EZ, GS, NR, and I hopped into the car and prepared for our long drive to San Sebastian. The route was scenic, with lush mountains, flaxen meadows, and sparkling turquoise rivers passing by our windows.

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But San Sebastian would be a different gem entirely. To Be Continued…

Start at the beginning and learn more about my travels in Barcelona:

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 0.5

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 1

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 2

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 3 (Gaudi Day)

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Spain Trip – Bewitching Barcelona Day 3 (Gaudi Day)

Our third full day in Barcelona was devoted to visiting the whimsical structures designed by architect Antoni Gaudi. But first, we needed to fortify ourselves with some delicious fare. EZ and I finally managed to expose GS and NR to the wonders of Quimet & Quimet, where we dined on a smorgasbord of tasty tapas. Among our toppings selections this time were salmon with yogurt and honey; salmon with caramelized onions and shredded sweet-egg yolk; paté with onions and truffled oil; swordfish with green chili peppers; and cured beef with sweet tomato. We also ordered a plate of sumptuous mussels and assorted smoked fishes, along with the essential glasses of wine. Que delicioco!

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Casa Batlló

Our stomachs satiated, we hopped on a metro to the neighborhood where we would begin our pursuit of all things Gaudi. The streets bustled with tourists and locals alike as they browsed major retail chains, popped into small boutiques, sought lunch and libations at restaurants and bars, and admired the beautiful architecture of the neighborhood.  The apartment complexes and commercial buildings were accented with lovely decorative features. And the stone benches on the street (Passeig de Gracia) doubled as fanciful curlicue streetlamps, also designed by – guess who! – Gaudi.

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We knew right away when we had reached Casa Batlló. The house stood out from its neighbors like a peacock feather in a pigeon’s tail.

“Doesn’t it look like it could be one of those houses under the sea in The Little Mermaid?” NR asked.

I agreed completely – Casa Batlló emanated an aquatic atmosphere. The undulating roof was a sea of tiles reflecting the shifting shades of the ocean in different lights of day. The curving balconies were reminiscent of white coral, while the colorful mosaic walls evoked seashells and the array of vibrant life forms below the water.  Every aspect of the house seemed laden with motion, no straight lines in sight.

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I later learned that Casa Batlló was actually thought by many to have a skeletal aspect to it, which I can certainly understand. But I still prefer to think of it as the Ocean House, rather than Casa dels Ossos (House of Bones), which is what the locals call the building.

Our group had to decide if we wanted to wait in the long line to enter the building and view the interior. We had gotten a late start to the day and still had a lot to see, so we decided that we were satisfied with viewing the front exterior.

As we walked around the corner of the building, our group passed a hardware store called Servei Estacio. I did a double take and turned back toward the hardware store after reading the sign in front of it.

“Guys, wait!” I called. I pointed at the sign. “It says the rear exterior of Casa Batlló can be viewed from the second floor of the Servei Estacio hardware store.”

EZ, GS, and NR immediately walked back over to the hardware store. A free view of another part of Casa Batlló that we thought would only be accessible by buying a ticket? Yes, please!

We threaded through boxes of duct tape and aisles of tools, then climbed a flight of stairs until we reached an outdoor patio-balcony, empty of customers, where garden chairs were displayed for sale. And there before us, just beyond a short fence, stood the Casa Batlló’s derriere. The rear façade wasn’t quite as interesting as the front, but it did have a lovely floral mosaic-tile border.

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Visitors wandered the mosaic-tile backyard, listening raptly to their audio-tour headphones and viewing their surroundings through their smartphones.

“It’s augmented virtual reality,” GS explained. “The videoguide shows the visitors what they are seeing on their smartphone cameras, but adds virtual elements on top of it. So what they see on their smartphones has added elements that allow them to see how the Batlló family would have lived in their building during their time.”

I was impressed that new technologies had been so imaginatively incorporated into a self-guided tour. Did America use this technology yet in our museums and sites? I wasn’t sure.

While GS and NR went back into the hardware store in search of electrical adapters, EZ and I purchased coffee from the gourmet vending machine on the patio and eased into the reclining chairs overlooking Casa Batllo. It was just like lounging on the beach, except that instead of admiring the ocean from the safety of the sand, we were admiring the Ocean House from the safety of a hardware store deck stocked with patio furniture.

 

Casa Mila (La Pedrera)

The next stop on our Gaudi tour was Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera. This building was much larger than Casa Batllo and lacked color, but it still called to mind the sea for me. In the pale curves of the wavy stone façade, I saw sand castles, creamy coral, white mollusks. In the writhing, sinuous wrought iron balconies, I saw dark seaweed tangled up against the shore.

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Again, time was running away from us. Instead of visiting the interior of Casa Mila, our group made the call to head over to Parc Guell, which would be the highlight of our Gaudi Day. We wanted to ensure we had enough time to explore the park and still make it to Sagrada Familia Church before nightfall. So we hailed a cab and were on our way!

Parc Guell

First, our group stopped at a touristy snack/souvenir shop near Parc Guell to enjoy some sweet treats and hydrate/wine-drate. Then we ventured into the park, which, from the outside, looked like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with its frosted gingerbread-style house and multi-colored structural accents at the front entrance.

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It is actually free to explore most of Parc Guell – tickets are only required to visit the Gaudi House and the Monumental Zone, which contains the Dragon Stairway and Nature Square. We started with the Gaudi House – that is, Gaudi’s former residence, a strawberry-pink confection with peppermint window dressing.

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Here, we viewed the furniture and furnishings of Gaudi’s house, including beautiful wooden furniture designed by Gaudi to perfectly fit the curves of a sitting or lounging body, among other unique custom furnishings. We also learned that Parc Guell was originally created not as a park, but a gated residential housing development – that’s right, it was supposed to be a whole private hilltop neighborhood full of colorful, imaginative dwellings and lush gardens. The Gaudi House and the other house built in the development were intended to be show/model homes.

But alas, the housing development was a failure. And so the Barcelona City Council purchased the plot from Eusebi Guell (who had commissioned Gaudi to design the development). Had the housing development been a success, I wonder what types of residents would occupy the fantasyland neighborhood. Artists? Celebrities? Rich hippies? The world may never know…

After touring the Gaudi House, our group roamed the public areas of Parc Guell, which Gaudi designed with Mother Nature in mind. He attempted to integrate roads, viaducts, and other manmade structures into the botanical surroundings by using stone materials and mimicking forms found in nature. For example, the columns of the viaducts were designed to resemble tree trunks.

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We traversed quaint stone paths bordered by verdant foliage until we reached the second house in Parc Guell, the other “model home.” Surprisingly, this house appeared more Spanish traditional and less quirky modernist than Gaudi’s other buildings. But it did have a hell of a view; in addition to the ocean and cityscape, the ever-under-construction Sagrada Familia Church could be spotted below, just to the left of two skyscrapers.

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As we walked, our group caught a lovely glimpse of the Monumental Zone below and the ocean beyond. We purchased tickets for the Monumental Zone, but our designated entry time wasn’t for another hour. Since we were growing hungry, we decided to leave the park for a bite and return to the Monumental Zone during our designated entry period.

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Once again, we sought to walk out of the “tourist zone,” a four-block radius from Parc Guell, in search of a more authentic dining establishment. Unfortunately, this time, we came up short. Schools, churches, and shops there were aplenty – restaurants, not so much. We settled for a small casual place, where we sat outside and ordered crispy fried anchovies, tortilla (which, in Spain, is not a flat bread but a sort of egg-and-potato omelet), and a few other appetizers along with some wine. The food was not bad, but nothing to write home about. Luckily, we didn’t order the paella.

Side note – we noticed that the place had a separate menu for paella, and that this menu was the exact same menu we had seen at a few other restaurants (without any identifiers for the name of the restaurant). It dawned on us that outside of the Valencia region in Spain (where paella originated), we would be hard-pressed to find authentic paella. If all of the restaurants in Barcelona offered identical generic paella menus, it was likely they also offered and reheated the same pre-produced paella from the same supplier. This blogger confirmed our suspicions.

After our late (and underwhelming) lunch, we returned to Parc Guell via a different entrance with a view of the leafy hillside on which Parc Guell is situated.

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We entered the Monumental Zone and delighted in the gorgeous mosaics that bedecked the Nature Square, which offered another beautiful panorama of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea.

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I fell in love with the blue-and-white checkered tower, which is warped with a fantastic rippling effect.

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The Monumental Zone also paid tribute to animals of the wild with gargoyles and statues.

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The most famous of these animals was, of course, the lizard (or dragon, depending on who you ask).  Crouched atop a fountain in the middle of a stairway, the vibrant, variegated reptile drew throngs of tourists. But, though cool, it wasn’t quite as large or impressive as we expected.

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Another fountain was topped with a different sort of beast. I’m not sure what creature this was supposed to be, but there was practically nobody admiring it. Poor thing! I’ll show you some love!

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Yet another fountain in the stairway featured a wishing well where people had tossed coins. As I stooped over the well to stare into the dark waters swirling below, the sunglasses perched on my head fell off and plopped into the pool below with a splash. Oops! At least I wasn’t the only one to make such as a silly mistake – in addition to my sunglasses, I also spotted a hat and scarf down there.

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The walls of the stairway featured some stunning tilework, with a variety of beautiful patterns and color schemes incorporated into the iridescent mosaic.

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At the bottom of the stairs, we were treated to a closer look at the gingerbread-style house, which contained the gift shop. The frosted building almost made me hungry!  We perused the Gaudi-themed trinkets at the gift shop before saying goodbye to the beautiful Parc Guell and catching a cab to La Sagrada Familia church.

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Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

The Basilica de la Sagrada Familia…ahhh, where to begin? This church is probably one of the biggest tourist attractions of Barcelona, another extraordinarily peculiar building designed by Gaudi.  Except that it was not designed only by Gaudi, because he died in 1926 before even a quarter of the church was completed. Gaudi worked on the construction for 43 years; after his death, the baton was passed on to several other architects over the past 90 years, resulting in a haphazard hodgepodge of design influences. Construction remains ongoing, with an anticipated completion date of 2026, so who knows what other influences may still be added? Because construction depends on private donations and was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, progress has been sluggish, to say the least.

From afar, the Sagrada Familia church appears to be a citadel of some far-flung, fantastical land – an unpainted Emerald City – its ball-point spires pressed earnestly up against the clouds. Up close, however, the church is garish and incongruous. At different angles, you can make out the design elements of the different architects. Oh, how they clash!

The front of the church bears the bulk of Gaudi’s influence, which combines Gothic and Art Noveau elements with its instantly recognizable pen-like spires, profuse overgrowth of intricate carvings and statues, and sprawl of stained-glass vines.

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From a different vantage point, however, another approach can be seen. Here, clean lines mark the structures, while accents of perfect circles adorn narrow, pentagonal windows. This side of the church seems more modern in its precision but more classically medieval in style. Rather than crowds of statues clustered together, only a few lone statues garnish this side of the church in carefully selected locations.  And – out of nowhere – there is a metallic cone at the top of a tower! I understand that this is supposed to mimic the conical stone segments Gaudi implemented, but the blinding mirror-like quality of this new metallic cone seems much too futuristic and completely out of place.

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Now, if you please, I’ll take you to yet another angle of the church.  From the rear, the stonework also appears cleaner and more modern. Added to this side is a selection of prominent religious statues, including Jesus on a cross. The strange and distasteful part of this view, however, is the lettering. There are words on display, tacky signage on white skeletal structures and directly on the spires, which seem completely at odds with Gaudi’s original vision.

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And finally, we arrive at the last angle of the church, which amalgamates many of the elements previously mentioned (Gaudi spires, sleek geometric designs, futuristic metallic cone, religious stone statues, and words – Poder and Honor, this time) as well as a certain other strange accent: fruit. That’s right- randomly crowning different peaks in this multifaceted structure are bunches of colored fruit carvings, like so many Chiquita Banana hats.

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It is important to note that this travesty of a building remains unfinished…so there is hope for it yet. Perhaps once all the finishing touches have been applied, the church will be magnificent to behold.

And maybe the interior of the church is more impressive than the exterior; our group didn’t get a chance to go inside. The church had already closed for the day, and we decided not to trek back out here tomorrow. So we were left with a very strange impression of the church…very strange, indeed.

Nightlife

To cap off our Gaudi day, our group decided to look for a decent bar near the Sagrada Familia church (but not too close – as usual, we wanted to avoid overtly touristy areas). After some searching, we found one that seemed lively – a group of people were gathered just outside. We walked into the bar, which had a trendy vibe and was decorated with paintings from local artists. To our surprise, the bartender immediately began fixing four ruby-red concoctions for us before we even ordered. We sipped the delicious cocktail with relish and some confusion – the bartender had not asked for payment or given us a bill. When we asked if the drinks were free, he nodded.

It seemed too good to be true…and it was. As our group wandered to the room at the back of the bar, we were met with “Happy 50th Birthday” banners and balloons, along with a young lady who was shooting us the side-eye. It became clear that we had just crashed a party. We returned to the bar, where the bartender had realized his mistake and sheepishly requested payment. After finishing our drinks and paying up, we hurried out the door, trying not to make eye contact with the party attendants outside.

Next, we sought a restaurant for dinner. We couldn’t find anything appealing in the area, so we took a metro back to our neighborhood by the apartment. Along the way, we came across an amusing sign that addressed the danger of street vendors. Every night that we had gone out on the town, we had been approached by men holding six-packs of Estrella beer, aggressively hawking individual cans for one Euro apiece. While this may have been a good deal, a cold glass of Estrella at the bar tempted us more than a warm can caressed by the sweaty hands of peddlers. Perhaps we would have felt differently if we were underage.

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Once we returned to our neighborhood at Nou de la Rambla, our group enjoyed croquettes, mussels, prawns, and other dishes at the outdoor patio of a restaurant. However, NR did not enjoy her Sangria, which – for some inexplicable reason – was mixed with Fanta. Don’t you wanna?

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After stopping by the apartment to change and freshen up, our group visited a truly notable cocktail bar: Bar 68, located in the Raval neighborhood. You would never expect to find such a hip spot in a grungy alley amid tiny Pakistani markets and shabby cafes, but there you are. Marked only by the number above the door (68), this is a cool, hipsteresque bar rivaling any of Downtown LA’s top cocktail spots.

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Not only did the place have a great vibe, with its jewel-toned lighting and stylish setup, it also served up some incredible drinks. The bartenders hailed from Argentina, arriving on the Barcelona bar scene to shake up the system. Barcelona doesn’t have much of a cocktail culture – mixology is almost a foreign term, and a mixed drink apparently entails pouring Fanta into your alcohol. So Bar 68 was born to breed innovation.

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Although I ordered a classic margarita, it was still one of the best margaritas I’ve had, with some yummy pink rock salt rimming my glass. I even enjoyed my sip of EZ’s cocktail, whose drinks are usually too strong for my taste – but this one piqued my tongue with pleasantly subtle flavors.

The coolest drink by far, however, was the shot ordered by NR and GS. The shot was concealed in a Russian nesting doll. Once NR cracked open the doll, plumes of smoke spiraled out…apparently an “herb” had been smoked within the doll to impart its flavor upon the shot. Wow! How creative is that?

After a while, NR and GS left the bar to check out the clubbing scene (which they later described as fun, with multiple rooms at the club for different types of music, although the locals didn’t really dress up for it). EZ and I were not quite up for such a lavish expense of energy, so we chilled at Bar 68 until the hour grew late.

At least we wouldn’t have to wake up early the next morning…although we did have a long drive the next evening. Our group had a trip to the countryside to look forward to!

To Be Continued…

Start at the beginning and learn more about my travels in Barcelona:

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 0.5

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 1

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 2

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Spain Trip – Bewitching Barcelona Day 2

After falling asleep at 4:00 a.m. at the end of a fun but exhausting first day, it was rough waking up mid-morning. But we had another long and exciting day ahead of us, especially GS and NR. You see, GS planned to propose to NR that night. The couple had been together for five years, and GS spent the better part of the last several months selecting the perfect ring and planning the proposal. He had recruited EZ and myself to aid and abet his scheme. My job: Store the ring securely in my purse throughout the afternoon until the time was ripe.

Port de Barcelona

First, our group rambled across town to Port de Barcelona and soaked in the seaside sights. It was a gorgeous day – the sky a crisp azure and the sun beaming down on stone plazas peppered with palm trees and statues. The glimmering ocean beckoned from the side like a field of sapphires, sending salty sea breezes our way.

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We admired the commercial buildings, including the central building of the Port of Barcelona. We gawked at the statues, some of which were ridiculously over-embellished. We strolled through an outdoor market where vendors peddled souvenirs.

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But our stomachs were grumbling; for breakfast we had only eaten a half-stale chocolate croissant left behind in JH and FB’s kitchen. So we began scouting the area for a place where we could stop and eat. The restaurants on the plaza were upscale and expensive. We treaded inland a bit to reach a more residential area. Here, a main street featured a line of shiny tapas bars populated with tourists. While this seemed promising, EZ shook his head.

“Go deeper into the neighborhood,” he said.

And so we did. Soon, the nature of the area began to shift. Instead of posh new developments, we found shabby yet charming apartment complexes where colorful laundry was hung out to dry on the balcony. As we walked farther into the neighborhood, we stumbled upon a cute market area patronized solely by locals. The only languages we heard spoken were Spanish and Catalan. We had found the real Barcelona.

The four of us entered a cute little bakery where two women helmed the counter, serving a long queue of local residents stopping by to purchase their daily bread. Among these patrons, we spotted the most adorable pair of elderly twins – they wore their gray tresses in matching hairstyles and donned identical outfits of charcoal sweaters and long navy skirts.  #Twinning!

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Our group contemplated the assortment of breads, savory pastries, and sweets behind the glass, along with the sandwiches listed on the wall-menu. Finally, we made our selections – a few of each, plus some coffee – and did our best to convey them in Spanish, as the ladies behind the counter did not speak English. They were, however, extremely sweet and helpful. After NR struggled to find sufficient change for a cheap treat, the ladies gave it to her for free. Our group shared the food at a small table in the bakery, indulging in the fresh and homey fare.

As our next stop would be Montjuic (a mountain featuring several gardens and museums, among other attractions), we decided to buy some bread from the bakery, along with cheese, fruit, and wine from elsewhere, to enjoy as a picnic at the top of the mountain. Once again, I exercised my shoddy Spanish to ask the ladies behind the counter if they knew where I could buy cheese. I thought they said there was a marketplace just down the street, though I wasn’t sure if I understood them correctly. But after thanking them and heading down the street, I was delighted to discover that I had – there before me was a clean, well-stocked, bustling marketplace. I reveled in my linguistic success. NR and I chose a trio of cheeses at the cheese block and picked up some cherries at the fruit stand while the boys went off in search of wine. They came up empty, so we found another nearby shop where we bought wine, plastic cups, and napkins.

Then we walked out of the neighborhood and back into the port area, where we found an aerial tram that could transport us to Montjuic via a gondola lift, like the Skyway at Disneyland. Unfortunately, there was a long line for the tram, and a sign indicated that the wait could be up to an hour. Also, the price was pretty high, considering we could catch the mountain tram (known to the locals as the “funicular”)  at the metro for less than half the cost. And so we decided to walk to the metro stop with the funicular that led up to Montjuic.

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The walk was much longer than we expected. Along the way, we lapsed into a state of silliness where we played with the word “funicular,” repeating it and degrading it (vernacular, ventricular, venereal, testicular, nucular) for our own amusement. When we finally reached the funicular, we were hot, exhausted, and ready for a nap. But we rallied. The tram swept us up a steep incline at a fairly rapid pace, compared to the speed of normal metro lines. And then, finally, we arrived at Montjuic.

Montjuic

“Mount Jew!” GS declared, as we disembarked the tram.

At first we laughed, thinking he was just playing around with the name of the mountain like we had played with the word “funicular.” But GS said, “No, really. That’s what Montjuic means. Jew Mountain!”

Although I still wasn’t sure if he was joking, EZ and I later confirmed with JH that Montjuic did, indeed, translate as Jew Mountain in medieval Catalan. JH informed us that Montjuic earned its name for being the home to an ancient Jewish cemetery.

The mountain was lush with trees and shrubbery. We walked down the road and up a flight of stone steps in search of the gardens and museums for which Montjuic is known.

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After some aimless roaming, we finally found a garden with a trellised stone passage overlooking the city.

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NR, EZ, and I sat in the shade near a fountain while GS left, claiming he needed to search for a restroom (in reality, he was familiarizing himself with the area to prepare for his proposal).

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I watched a group of Spanish schoolchildren frolic nearby, their carefree giggles sounding especially sweet and innocent in this idyllic atmosphere.

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Once GS returned, our group moved farther away from the children and into a sunny spot with a nice view of Barcelona.

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From here, we could identify some distinct architecture, including Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church and a modern Water Department building that looked like a whale.

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We sat on the ledge and spread our picnic out before us, taking in the scenery as we nibbled on cheese, bread, and cherries and sipped on our wine. So pleasant and relaxing!

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Our next stop was the Joan Miró Foundation, an art museum. We walked down more stairs and followed the signs at the crossroads until we reached the big white modernist building – curved structural elements over straight lines. The contemporary exhibit near the entrance featured works of young modern artists. Some pieces were rather interesting reflections on the European Union, while others were beyond my comprehension or favored aesthetic. The permanent collection of Joan Miro was easier for me to appreciate, his bold colors and childlike impressions more evocative of an emotional response.

Our group’s collective energy was beginning to flag, so we took a break in the middle of our museum tour to discuss whether or not we should continue. We decided to “speed-walk” the rest of the museum, lingering only at the most compelling pieces. And then we decided to take that long-coveted nap.

Just outside of the museum was a large, grassy space bordered by trees and graced with a few statues. A couple lay on a blanket with their dog, but the lawn was otherwise empty. Although our group didn’t have a blanket, we managed to create our own comfort by lying on our sweaters and each another. We finished off the remnants of our picnic and greeted the dog that wandered over to say hello before trotting back to his family. And then we finally succumbed to our fatigue and fell asleep.

I awoke to the sound of parrots cawing. My eyelids cracked open a fraction. Lo and behold, there up above me, flying to a tree, was a parrot.  A wild, tropical parrot. A brilliant green-and-crimson parrot.

“Parrot,” I murmured. “It’s a parrot.”

“I think she’s sleep-talking,” NR whispered to GS.

It was true I had just emerged from a deep sleep, but I was now awake. Blinking and shaking off the last vestiges of slumber, I opened my eyes wide. The parrot landed in a palm tree and instigated a shrieking war with its neighbor in another tree. A turf dispute, perhaps? Or a mating call?

“No, look,” I said, sitting up and pointing to the trees. “Parrots.”

“Oh wow…you’re right! I thought you were dreaming…”

Soon, all of us were stretching and yawning as the parrots squawked above us. We checked our phones; nearly an hour had gone by since we began our naps.

“We should check out that restaurant I mentioned,” GS said, sharing a look with EZ and me. We nodded.

“I’m not that hungry,” NR said.

“Maybe we can just do appetizers, then,” GS said quickly. The restaurant was the centerpiece of his plan.

As NR walked across the lawn to throw away the trash left over from our picnic, GS turned to me and asked for the ring. I rummaged in my purse, feigning an air of nonchalance, and slipped him the box as covertly as I could before NR turned back around.

“Let’s go,” GS said when NR returned.

Put a Ring on It

On the way to the restaurant, we saw a row of cats sitting on a low wall. This was a most auspicious sign, given that NR is a huge fan of cats. In fact, her pet name for GS is “Kotik,” which is Russian for “cat.”

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Through a nearby gate, we caught a glimpse of the Olympic swimming pool used in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (and in a Kylie Minogue music video in 2003). We also spotted some kids trying to hop the fence into the pool area, much to our amusement.

Right next to Olympic swimming pool was El Xalet, the fancy restaurant that would be the site of the proposal. The restaurant was so fancy that the doorman dismissed us when we asked to be seated for drinks and appetizers.

“I’m afraid we don’t do that. Perhaps you can try the bar down the road.”

It wasn’t until GS mentioned he had a reservation (wink wink, nudge nudge) that the man seemed to realize he was talking to the patron who had planned a very special event.

“Oh yes, of course, come right inside!”

NR looked surprised. “I didn’t know you made a reservation!”

As we walked through the restaurant, it was clear that the outdoor patio on the balcony would be the ideal place to sit. It had the feel of a luxurious yet relaxed lounge while boasting a panoramic view of the city. Unfortunately, the waiter said the patio was only open for lunch, which honestly seemed like a waste of a view. Especially since the patio was in possession of heat lamps that could combat the night cold.

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We sat down at a booth indoors, where the lighting was dim, but at least we had a spot next to the window with a view. Still, it struck me that it might feel a bit awkward if GS were to propose to NR at the table, surrounded by other diners and only two feet away from EZ and me (while we snapped photographs and recorded video at GS’s request, no less). This little table didn’t seem quite private enough.

When the waiter arrived to take our order, we requested champagne and appetizers (calamari and tuna tar tar). EZ and I then excused ourselves to use the restrooms. I returned to the table to find NR alone; apparently GS had also disappeared to the restroom. We learned later that he first approached one of the restaurant attendants to work out a strategy to let us see the view from the balcony (since we were not allowed to dine there). GS then went into the restroom, where EZ could hear from the stall as GS practiced his proposal in front of the mirror.

Once we were all back at the table, the appetizers and champagne arrived. So did the attendant. He wanted to know if we would like to go out onto the patio to enjoy the view, but GS was not quite ready yet. As we pecked at the appetizers and drank the champagne, the overzealous attendant approached us several more times to see if we were ready to enter the patio. We were all amused by his quirky enthusiasm, but GS, EZ, and I hoped he didn’t arouse too much suspicion in NR.

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Finally, GS was ready, and we joined the attendant as he escorted us to the patio. It appeared as if he wanted to stay and watch, but GS politely let him know that we would be fine out there alone.

The view from the balcony was spectacular. It was a sweeping vista of Barcelona, set against a sky melting into sunset. The patio was completely empty, except for our group. Well, almost empty…a couple of tourist girls suddenly arrived on the scene to giggle and take selfies. We waited for them to depart.

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Then EZ and I drifted off to the far corner of the balcony, granting GS and NR some privacy at the stunning overlook as GS began his romantic speech. When GS gave us the signal – a nod in our direction – we pulled out our phones, EZ to record video, and I to take a paparazzical flurry of photographs (yes, I just made up the word paparazzical). GS went down on one knee, opened the ring box, and popped the question. NR wept with joy as she said yes, then squealed giddily – “KOTIK!” GS grinned and put a ring on it (because he liked it).

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EZ and I captured the special moment without intruding on it. We moved in closer as the proposal unfolded, and we were on site to record the adorable reaction that would be used by GS and NR to announce the engagement to their families.

Once we returned to our table, EZ purchased a bottle of very nice champagne in honor of the newly engaged couple, and we all drank in celebration. The restaurant attendant arrived at our table, beaming, to congratulate GS and NR; he was genuinely thrilled that he had played some small part in their engagement.

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Before we left the restaurant, we returned to the balcony for more photographs. Violet clouds darkened the sky, and the city sprawl glittered like gems.

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We decided to walk down Montjuic instead of taking the funicular (vehicular, ventricular, avuncular…) so that we could experience the Magic Fountain. The first set of stairs led us down to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (National Museum of Catalan Visual Art), which includes another restaurant with a view that GS had considered as a site for his proposal. In front of the museum was a water feature overlooking the Magic Fountain and the bejeweled cityscape below.

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Our group descended another long staircase and then finally reached the Magic Fountain, a large round fountain surrounded by tiers of miniature fountains, all of which changed in flow amid a colored light show and ridiculous music. The jets spouted high and bubbled low in a lovely kaleidoscope of hues. However, the splendor of the fountain was tempered by the music. Instead of dramatic classical compositions or celebrated Spanish masterpieces, the fountain danced to a soundtrack of American pop hits and cartoon themes (at least, that’s what played during our time at the fountain).

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After spending some time at the Magic Fountain, our group passed through a vibrant plaza and hopped on the metro back to our neighborhood.

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Nightlife

EZ and I had been raving to GS and NR about the delicious food at Quimet & Quimet, so we all decided to head over there for some grub. The night before, we had also considered going to Quimet & Quimet, but since all the bars were closing by the time we made it back to our neighborhood, we assumed it would be closed as well. Now, on Friday night, all the bars were bright and alive, so we believed Quimet & Quimet would be open as well… Alas, it was not. We’d forgotten that the owners only opened shop whenever they felt like it, and though it seemed counter-intuitive, they preferred to avoid the late-night masses that crowded the streets.

Instead, we enjoyed tapas and beers (Estrellas, of course) at a few other bars, but they were not quite as delectable as those at Quimet & Quimet. While fun, these bars lacked personality and were mostly filled with tourists.

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But, after meandering down the street, we spotted a bar where a cluster of locals gathered: Bodega Saltó. At first we thought it was another Irish pub, given the shamrock design near the entrance. As we entered, however, we realized this was quite a different world entirely. Wooden barrels and beams, vintage signs, ropes of twinkle-lights, strange gaping dolls, shiny hanging sunflowers, quirky paintings, colorful masks, and other whimsical décor marked Bodega Saltó as a hidden gem with heart, soul, and authentic local flavor.

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In the far right corner, beneath a disco ball, was a middle-aged male DJ in a t-shirt and striped cowboy hat. Despite his ridiculous appearance, the DJ played great music in Spanish, Italian, and Arabic, including some fun fusion numbers. He was having a grand old time over there in the corner, drinking a beer while dancing to the tunes he selected, rubbing his pot belly, and blowing kisses to the ladies.

Groups of people sat at tables, eating and drinking. I snagged a table for my group and we ordered drinks of our own. The place didn’t have a dance floor, but whenever a popular song came on, random patrons would stand up and dance at their table. They felt the music, and didn’t care who saw. One lanky, debonair-haired Spaniard danced his way across the room to a young lady who had just entered. Utterly unperturbed by his footloose approach, she immediately began dancing with him. Neither of them made a romantic move – no hand on the butt, no grinding, no leaning in for a kiss – this was a union formed purely by their mutual love of dance.  Or perhaps the dance itself was a romantic expression. Either way, it was joyful to behold – our table joined others in applauding and cheering for them.

And then the music changed. The DJ switched to a Gipsy Kings rendition of Volaré. The magic and romance of the music swept over me like a spring breeze. This time, I caught the dancing bug – and I immediately infected EZ with it. We stood up and began to dance!

We weren’t the only ones – throughout Bodega Saltó, people were standing up and dancing with abandon to the beautiful, jubilant music. But EZ and I must have stood out, because later that night when our group was walking back to the apartment, we crossed paths with the debonair-haired Spaniard again.

“Ah, the dancers!!” he said to us in a rolling accent, arms spread out in magnanimous recognition.

And we thought he had been ”the dancer” !

By the time we reached the apartment, all of us were exhausted. GS and NR called their families to announce their special news. But sleep came easily to us not long after that. And we had Gaudi Day to look forward to tomorrow!

Start at the beginning and learn more about my travels in Barcelona:

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 0.5

Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona Day 1

hate

Dropping Some Truth Bombs About Mass Shootings

We fear external terrorists such as Al Qaida and ISIS that spew hatred via religious extremism, and we respond to such threats full force…yet when it comes to actual, regular attacks from domestic terrorists, such as shooters whose violent hatred stems from certain types of social extremism (e.g. racism for the Charleston shooting, misogyny in the Isla Vista shooting) and/or is distorted by mental illness, we brush the attacks off as another heart-breaking tragedy, but do NOTHING to prevent the inevitable next one from occurring.

If we are so concerned with protecting American lives, then we need to start on the home front, because these mass shootings are unacceptable…young school children, high school and college students, movie-theater goers, church members…these are all regular, innocent, American people who were torn from their loved ones and never got the opportunity to live out their full potential because a hateful, unstable young man so easily got his hands on a gun.

And I can’t understand how people are accusing others of politicizing deaths when most of those who speak out are not trying to “benefit the party,” but are only trying to figure out a solution to prevent more murders. If you don’t agree with the proposed solution, offer a more effective one of your own…but in any event, we all need to unite to create a solution to this problem because mass shootings are on the rise. And at least in an effort to quell the hate (which has become more accessible and easy to spread via the Internet), perhaps we can all agree that shutting down the hateful rhetoric is a good place to start, and try spreading the love instead.

Here’s Jon Stewart dropping some more truth bombs:

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Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona – Day 1

When EZ and I awoke the morning after our first night in Barcelona, we were offered a spread of croissants, cherries, and coffee fresh from the percolator.

“The Spanish don’t really do breakfast,” JH said.  “It’s just coffee and a pastry.”

FB had left earlier in the morning to teach his class, and JH had already eaten his non-breakfast, so EZ and I sat at the dining table and quickly filled up on some carbs and caffeine for sustenance.  Then we got ready and set out to meet up with GS and NR before our explorations began.

The Neighborhood

As JH led EZ and me through his neighborhood in the Old City, I soaked in all the small details that marked this street, this city, this country, as different from what I was used to back home.  When I visited Peru last year (check out my blog post here), I was enamored by the over-embellished street lights and gargantuan slides at the playgrounds.  Here in Barcelona, the dumpsters were the first thing that popped out to me.

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Curved, colorful, and cartoonish – these dumpsters seemed more fun and less disgusting than any I’d encountered back in the U.S. Even more impressively, they were segregated not just by trash and recycling, but by different types of recycling. One for paper, another for plastic, and another for glass. America, we need to step up!

As we walked, I noticed the roads were narrow (nobody drives SUVs around here), with tall buildings looming on either side – small businesses on the ground floor and apartments up above.  Geraniums and other plants spilled over most balconies, with flags waving down from others.

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JH pointed out an apartment designed by Antoni Gaudi, a Spanish Catalan architect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who became famous for his whimsical sensibility and integration of ceramics, stained glass, and ironwork.  Gaudi’s mark on Barcelona was significant – he is famous for several residential buildings, the outlandish Sagrada Familia church (more on that later), and Parc Guell, among other contributions. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the word “gaudy” was originally a snide reference to Gaudi, although I consider most of his works charming (does that mean I have gaudy tastes??). The particular apartment building we were passing was crowned with what looked like Christmas trees made of grapes, rainbows, and fancy foyer tiles. Ok, so maybe not one of Gaudi’s most inspiring works, but interesting nonetheless.

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JH also drew our attention to intricate ironwork on another building. Elaborate ironwork was a celebrated feature of medieval Catalan architecture, and Barcelonans attempted to create a sort of “renaissance” of this type of cultural gothic style in more modern times.

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Of course, in the Gothic Quarter, many original medieval buildings remained intact. But before we could reach the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic), we had to face….dun dun DUN…La Rambla.

La Rambla is basically the Spanish equivalent of Hollywood Blvd, or Champs Elysees. A wide boulevard full of tourists, along with touristy restaurants and souvenir shops. The center of La Rambla boasted a crop of pavement cafes, where tourists languidly sipped on oversized sangrias under sun-bleached umbrellas…with a sigh, JH lamented that this center was once occupied by a thriving bird market (wait, what?). I couldn’t spot a single local.

EZ, JH, and I stepped into the café off La Rambla where we were supposed to meet GS and NR. Unfortunately, since we could only contact each other when we were in a building or area that offered Wi-Fi, there had been some communication challenges. GS and NR were no longer at the café, likely because the café lacked Wi-Fi and they couldn’t receive our messages there. We waited for a bit, then strolled La Rambla while keeping an eye out for them and attempting to make contact at street pockets with Wi-Fi, which remained spotty. Finally, it was deemed best that we continue with our exploration of the Gothic Quarter, as GS and NR would likely come to the same conclusion, until both parties secured enough Wi-Fi to set a new meeting place and time.

Ah, the trials and tribulations of technology abroad!

Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter felt like a step back in time, with its medieval-style stone structures, labyrinth of narrow cobblestone alleyways, and quaint community squares.  One of the more popular sites was the gothic Barcelona Cathedral.  Although the façade was beautiful with its tiered doorframes, window embellishments, stone carvings, and serrated steeples, it wasn’t authentic. JH informed us that the neo-Gothic façade had been constructed in the late 19th century, long after medieval times, as part of the gothic renaissance.

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My favorite part of the cathedral was the gargoyles. These were not your average grotesque monsters; no, these were unicorns and elephants and lions, among other alluring beasts. Yet they kept a vigilant watch over the cathedral, as well as any demon gargoyle ever has. And they also served another purpose back in the day: water drains. That’s right; in past centuries, rain and other water runoff spouted out of the gargoyle mouths and onto the streets below. How delightfully vile!

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JH didn’t take EZ and me inside Cathedral Barcelona, which was crawling with tourists.

“It’s nice, but I’ve always found the interior architecture a bit clunky,” he told us. “I’ll take you somewhere even better.”

And so we ended up at Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, which was practically deserted. But the interior was indeed very lovely. JH pointed out how the slim, elegant octagonal columns lent the illusion of a higher and narrower space than what actually existed, how their slenderness created a more intricately ribbed, arched vault. In comparison, he noted, the columns at Cathedral Barcelona were stumpy and primitive.

Unfortunately, I was so busy admiring the interior of the church that I forgot to take pictures. Oops! Here’s one from Wikipedia, so you get an idea.

Our tour of the Gothic Quarter continued. We wandered through crowded squares with a central fountain and an assembly of palm trees, bordered by impressive municipal buildings.

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We snaked through cute little passageways that JH said were once lined with an assortment of unique local shops and cafes. Sadly, they have all been replaced with major retail chains. Where handmade crafts were once sold, there is now a Sunglass Hut.

We passed through the Jewish Quarter (El Call), a cluster of old buildings and a maze of shadowy alleys. In earlier centuries, a sizable Jewish community lived there and prospered in trade and money lending. That is, until anti-Semitism began to spread in the 13th and 14th centuries, led by the Catholic Church and the monarchy. Attempts to convert the Jews to Christianity escalated into outright violence. In 1391, riots erupted throughout Spain, reaching Barcelona in August of that year. The Jewish Quarter was attacked. Hundreds of Jews in the Jewish Quarter (thousands of Jews in all of Barcelona) were murdered or forced to convert, spurring many of the remaining Jews in Barcelona to flee the city.

A chill swept through me as JH gestured toward a wall in a seemingly innocuous courtyard. The wall was riddled with bullet holes. It was a haunting remnant of the appalling attack on the Jews. Rather than plastering over the wall or otherwise restoring the building, the city had decided to leave the ravaged wall as a constant, quiet reminder of the lives lost.

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After our exploration of the Gothic Quarter, the three of us walked across a sunny plaza near the rail station, still searching for a place where we might find a Wi-Fi signal. Finally, we managed to make contact with GS and NR, scheduling a lunch meetup at Mercat de San Antoni (where FB would also join us).

Mercat de San Antoni (San Antoni Market)

Mercat de San Antoni is a fun indoor marketplace replete with butcher blocks and stalls for produce, cheese, and other food items. By the time JH, EZ, and I reached the marketplace, it was just starting to wind down for siesta. However, an outdoor seafood restaurant attached to the market, on Villa Rael street, remained open.

FB, GS, and NR had already arrived. Reunited at last, we all sat down at the table and ordered drinks. JH and FB proceeded to order an array of appetizers.

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While everyone else ordered seafood entrees, I was in the mood for steak and potatoes (in this case, steak, potatoes, artichoke, and tomato). And I ate every bite…remember, I’d just done a lot of walking!  We were all pretty pleased with our dishes…we knew JH and FB wouldn’t lead us astray! They have impeccable taste when it comes to wining and dining.

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After lunch, EZ and I headed back to the apartment with his uncles for coffee while we waited for GS and NR to check out of their hotel and join us. I had an interesting conversation with FB about the use of feminine and masculine word forms in French and Spanish. He explained how some words were attributed a gender based on their direct relation to the gender (un garcon – a boy, une fille –a girl), others based on their energy or distant connection (une maison –a “domestic” and hence “feminine” object), and still others based on completely random whims (une voiture). Language can be fascinating.

When GS and NR arrived, they took the places of JH and FB, who left Barcelona to head to their house in the countryside. With the apartment now to ourselves, our group of four promptly left it in favor of more exploration. Onward!

Cathedral – Take 2

Our group stopped at the Tourist Office to pick up a Barcelona Museum Pass. The pass would be a good deal if we managed to visit most of the art museums covered by it (spoiler alert – we didn’t!). That afternoon, we planned to check out the Picasso Museum.

But first – the four of us had yet to see the interior of Cathedral Barcelona. As this was a big tourist attraction, we figured it was worth a look. We wove our way back through the Gothic Quarter, but became a little confused as to the exact location of the cathedral entrance.

We found ourselves in the cloister, a pleasant garden-courtyard shaded by verdant trees and the surrounding vaulted stone halls. Thirteen white geese floated placidly atop a green pond, near the fountain. Well – mostly white geese. Some were smeared with their own filth…which seemed a bit unholy. But there was a holy aspect to them – 13 geese were always kept in the cloister to represent the age of the patron saint of Barcelona when she was martyred, killed by the Romans.

After peeking into dim candle-lit rooms where you could pray to certain saints of choice, we wound around the cathedral and finally found our way inside. The interior was impressive, but not in the airy, elegant fashion of Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar. As JH had mentioned, the columns were a bit thicker, the vaulted ceilings somewhat ungainly, the atmosphere darker and more medieval in feel. But it was still striking in its own way.

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Picasso Museum

Once we were satisfied with our exploration of Cathedral Barcelona, our group left the Gothic Quarter in search of La Ribera, another part of the Old City, where we would visit Museu Picasso. As we crossed a plaza, we noticed a few street corners occupied by women in short and tight red dresses, six-inch heels, and *gaudy* makeup (teehee). They stared into the crowds, their eyes casting lines of invitation, fishing for potential customers. It was 4:00 in the afternoon. Broad daylight.

“Isn’t it a little early for Women of the Night?” I asked.

“Women of the Afternoon,” NR amended.

“Eveyone’s just on their way to museums right now,” GS said, baffled.

“Maybe these hookers specialize in the museum crowd,” EZ suggested.

We continued on our way to the museum (obviously not taking the bait).

Along the way, we encountered a range of street art adorning the industrial doors of closed shops (no entry fee required to peruse these pieces of art!).

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As we approached the museum, EZ suddenly stopped in his tracks.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Did you see that place? You’d love it,” he said to me, retracing his footsteps to an adorable little bar that the rest of us hadn’t noticed. “I think we all need a beer to prepare ourselves for Picasso.”

“That’s a grrreat idea!” NR declared. We were all in agreement.

The ambience of the bar was indeed one that I loved (EZ knows me so well). Cute and cozy, with shelves of books everywhere and delightful album art on the wall. Soothing music, the singer warbling in a smoky voice. Alas, I forgot to note the name of this bar. But, dear reader, perhaps you, too, will stumble upon it on your way to the Picasso Museum.

We took our beers (Estrella Damm brand, brewed in Barcelona) to the table just outside the bar. Here, we relaxed for a bit…we were beginning to learn that frequent breaks like this would be necessary for the amount of walking we did on this trip.

Once we’d mellowed out sufficiently, we continued on our way to the museum. It was a lovely rustic building built of sand-colored stone bricks, accented with potted plants. The current exhibition was fascinating: an exploration of the relationship between the works of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Though Picasso is known for his Cubism and Dali is famous for his surrealism, there are shocking similarities between some of their works, whether it be subject matter, the curves of a certain line, or flirtations with specific color palettes. The comparable pieces of art from the two artists are displayed side by side, and you fully appreciate just how much Picasso influenced Dali. For certain pairs of works, I couldn’t distinguish which artist created which piece unless I looked at the sign; their artistic sensibilities blurred together in these instances.

The other exhibits were also interesting, studying Picasso’s formative years and the transformation in his works throughout the years until he perfected the Cubist style for which he is revered. All in all, an enjoyable perusal. As we got ready to exit the museum, we were also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of costumed people running past us down the hall and bursting onto the courtyard balcony for some sort of performance piece. It felt strange to be behind the scenes, watching their backs from the balcony window as they faced the crowds. Or, should I say, surreal?

Bar Hopping

It would be a long walk back to the apartment. Luckily, NR had a brilliant idea.

“Guys, I have a brilliant idea,” she said. “What if we make our way back via bars? We can bar-hop our way back to the apartment, so it won’t feel like a long walk!”

We all agreed that this was a brilliant idea, and immediately popped into the bar closest to the museum: Café Sabor. We were greeted at the door by a life-sized cardboard cutout of Prince in a sparkling gown. Just beyond Prince, a crowd of local guys were gathered around several tables, gazing avidly at the TV screen on the wall.

“Is it a soccer game?” GS asked.

No. It was not a soccer game. It was something better.

EUROVISION.

What is Eurovision, you ask?

I asked the same thing. EZ enlightened us all: “It’s the European version of American Idol. But way bigger. Like an Olympics for musicians. Singers representing different countries compete, and callers vote for their favorites.”

The four of us snagged a table, ordered drinks (Estrella Damm was again the only beer available), and watched the spectacle unfold. Soon, we found ourselves cheering for Israel’s charismatic male singer and his male backup dancers (they were like an adorable 90’s boyband), and admiring the haunting voice of Latvia’s songstress. We spun a running commentary of each singer’s performances, identifying both the strengths and flaws. Just like the locals, we’d become engrossed in the Euro sensation. The bartender even provided us with bowls of popcorn, enhancing the cinematic experience.

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By the time we were done at Café Sabor, our group had worked up an appetite. Our next stop was Can Cisa (Bar Brutal), a wine and tapas bar that had been recommended to NR. This was clearly a very happening place with a chic yet funky vibe. Scribblings and sketches marked the walls, along with mounted marvels such as giant fish heads, pig heads, and mermaids (all fake, obviously). We sat at rustic wooden tables in front of a giant sketch of an octopus. Yet, all the food was served beautifully, with the design and precision of an upscale restaurant. The tapas were delicious, although not the most filling of meals.

For our next bar, we decided to stray off the beaten path a bit in order to avoid the tourists. After winding through dark alleyways and somewhat fearing for our safety, we found ourselves at Bar Mercaders. This place was so local that we had to speak Spanish to the bartender. The ambience at Bar Mercaders was artsy and moody, with dim colored lighting and walls decorated with intriguing paintings, posters, and drawings. Once again, we were served Estrella Damm when ordering beer…as a Barcelona brew, this was often the only beer offered at Barcelona bars…perhaps as a tribute to nationalism or city pride? Anyhow, it was relaxing to sit and sip on our beers while listening to bluesy crooners and interpreting the clever meanings behind some of the art.

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After Bar Mercaders, our group met some roadblocks (that is, closed bars). When we finally found one that was open, it was the underwhelming Cheers, a tourist-laden Irish pub that played American hits from the 70’s. This was the first bar we encountered whose beer selection extended beyond Estrella Damm, so we took advantage of this to enjoy some lagers and Guinness. But we made it quick.

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We had to stroll back to our neighborhood before finding the next open bar right across the street from the apartment: Stereo. Although tiny, this bar was crowded and the bartender was friendly. The backlit liquor bottles lent the area a colorful glow. However, the lighting from above was a little too bright for a bar.

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There weren’t too many other bars open nearby. We were a bit baffled by this; sure, it was late at night (1:00 am, maybe 2:00), but we had heard Barcelonans stayed out much later. Then we realized it was a Thursday night. Perhaps the streets would be more alive the next night.

Since our internal clocks had not completely caught up to Spanish time, we gobbled up some kabob wraps from one of the only dining establishments still open, A La Turca. Just what we needed to ease us into sleep.

To read the previous post about my first night in Barcelona, check out: Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona – Day 0.5