An Enchanting Trip to Spain (2009)

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

Disconcertingly, the trip starts off with stress. At Dulles airport, our check-in lines are moving so glacially slow. People are rudely filling out baggage ID cards at the desk, rather than doing so beforehand, and are practically in need of trucks and cranes to load their seemingly endless number of what looks like 4,000-pound suitcases. If that is not enough, the security line seems to stretch all the way to West Virginia. At DeGaulle airport, we are alarmed to learn, on arrival, that our Barcelona flight leaves in an hour. DeGaulle obligates us to pass through customs and security again. The line is once again endless. We don’t have time for this! I’m La Ramblas Barcelona 709very worried.

Somehow, we catch the flight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After dropping my backpack in my room, I manage to walk to the Pamplona town center. It is a circus. Amusement park Ferris wheels and screaming girls greet me at the entrance to Pamplona. It is 11 pm. Every place I go, streets and bars are crammed with thousands of Spaniards, every single one of which is wearing white slacks, a white shirt, a red scarf and a red sash. I feel nearly naked wearing just a white shirt and kaki shorts WITHOUT red.Pamplona4 bull run 709

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not many,” she says.

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

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

Next time. With Nike sprinter shoes…

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

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

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

A tight line of policemen has arrived. They link arms -- to hold the throng from getting too close to the bull release gate down the street. A bottle rocket is fired at 8:00, signifying the dreaded gate opening. The commencement of the bull charge. The cops strain mightily to hold back the runners. But some runners break through the line and dash toward the madly sprinting cluster of six bulls coming toward them. Apparently, it is a macho right of passage or badge of honor to be the first to meet the charging toros.Running Bulls2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valencia7 Spain 709We walk a bit of old quarter Valencia and admire the spectacular architecture. We stop at two different cafes for wine and beer (one next to a Baroque building). At a recommended restaurant, we dine on sumptuous black ink paella and marinara paella in the birthplace city of paella. We finish at a tapas bar with glasses of Agua de Valencia (a strong specialty orange drink in Valencia).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite the sandwich blunder, we then have a very pleasant and romantic stroll in the tiny cobblestone streets of the Alaycin neighborhood. Former stronghold of Alhambra13 Spain 709the Moorish and Gypsy dancers, and now mostly home to modern-day hippies.

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

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

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

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

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

We start Saturday at Plaza de Bib-Rambla, formerly a site for public executions. We dine on very fresh melon. Next, we take in a 90-minute Arabic bath/steamroom/aromatherapy – the Arabian version of the Turkish bath. Later, our recommended lunch café doesn’t open until 1:00, so we naively think a clever strategy is to explore the maze of Alcajceria – tiny shopping streets jammed with silk and jewelry merchants. Very festive. But the displays make me dizzy. Granda22 Spain 709We soon discover our mistake, however. Lunch doesn’t open for five minutes, so we check out the situation with the chapel and cathedral (our next planned destination). We are heartbroken. They are closed from 1:30 till 4:00 due to siesta! We will miss the chapel, as our train departs at 4:30. We opt to rush to the cathedral, which is spectacularly immense and decoratively gilded. We spend 30 minutes gawking with our mouths open and our heads tilted back. Granada concludes at Restaurante Sevilla – serving the obligatory yet still delicious paella.

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

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

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

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

Sevilla10 Spain 709We breakfast on churros (fried dough), eat endless amounts of paella, and drink endless gallons of Sangria – at least once with a Spanish acoustic guitar and singing during our lunch. We tour Alacazar in Sevilla. Stupendous! We amble through the cathedral and gape in utter amazement at the huge spaces and silver/black intricacies of the ornamentation inside.

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

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

Our high-speed rail arrives at the handsome Toledo train station at 4:30 pm. Fortune is with us, as we quickly find the bus that takes us to the Plaza Zocodover – the center of Toledo – and we soon learn that our top choice for a hotel has vacancy. We tour one of Europe’s great cathedrals nearby and hop on the “tacky tourist train” for a very interesting and impressive look at the river, fortification walls, town gates, aqueducts, and the ancient buildings surrounding the city. We soon discover why Toledo is known as the largest outdoor museum in the world.Toledo14 Spain 709

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

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

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

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

We high-speed train back to Madrid and taxi to our luxury hotel (thanks to an irresistible deal I had found via TravelZoo a month or so ago). In Madrid, we set out for the Royal Palace (said to be one of the most spectacular in all of Europe). We walk the pedestrianized, car-free Calle Arenal, and stop at a side street café for two large, refreshing glasses of Sangria. Next, we find our way to the large, cobblestoned Plaza Mayor, built in 1609. Each of the four sides of this square is flanked by continuous, multi-story buildings to allow the plaza to form a large outdoor room. Moorish archways permit access to each of the four sides. At the center is Philip II on horseback, who ordered the construction of the plaza. The history of the plaza reads like the history of Spain. Here, over the centuries, there were bullfights, royalty and the execution of heretics by the dreaded Spanish Madrid Royal Palace2 Spain 709Inquisition (which, Pythoners know, nobody expects). Next, we enter the palace – which contains an astonishing display of utter, unfettered royal extravagance (the dining room table, for example is as long as a lane in a bowling alley). There is even a solid silver baby rattle in one of the sumptuous rooms.

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

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

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

It is Thursday morning, and we are on a short walk from our La Ramblas-flanking hotel to the ancient quarter and cathedral. The miniature streets in the Barri Gotic neighborhood are filled with quaint little retail shops. I walk La Ramblas a few times, marveling at how much the pathway is filled with happy people. And how much I enjoy that feeling. Throughout the day, we gaze out on La Ramblas from our hotel balcony. Barcelona ped st 709

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

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

Just fabulous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a city.

What a nation.

This link shows photos from our trip. When the link brings you to the Picasa photo album page, select “slideshow” in the upper left.


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