Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bacelona! Where it's Warm and Sunny

even if the people who live there don't know it.  Seriously-- it's 65 degrees and they walk around in scarves and winter jackets. I'm sure they thought I was crazy walking around with no coat on-- but it was like British summer there.  I was almost sorry I hadn't packed sandals.

I met my friend Martha in Barcelona for a four day vacation that turned out not to really be four days for me since my original flight was canceled and I had to sit in Heathrow for quite a while waiting to get out.  So, I missed a lot of the first "day," though I did get there before the sun set (it sets much later than it does in England which was also nice.  There was daylight until about 6 pm instead of a 3:30 setting sun.).  After getting off the bus from the airport and wandering in circles for a bit (I was given bad directions the first time I asked), I found our hotel-- Hotel Catalunya located on the very cute C. Santa Anna, right off Catalunya Square and Las Ramblas.

(It was also nice at night, lit up for Christmas.)

I had arrived late afternoon, which meant we had time to walk along Las Ramblas and have early evening cocktails there.  We ordered sangria, which I don't love, but I figured I had to have at least one sangria while in Spain-- and we got the biggest sangrias I have ever had (the picture doesn't do them justice).

The size didn't really make me like them any better--I'm not a converted sangria drinker now, but it was nice to sit and people watch on Las Ramblas with a cocktail.  It felt like spring!  Mostly, it was people walking by but there was also a protest that passed us.

There were protesting activities in Syria-- from what I could tell (since I don't read Arabic or Spanish), I think they were protesting Spain's policies about violence in Syria.  At any rate, it was a very peaceful march.  Following our drinks, we set off to find the nearby Plaza de Relal (pictured during the day because it didn't photograph well in the dark)

where there was a bar, Tarantos, with a flamenco performance; even though flamenco itself isn't really a Catalan tradition (it's not quite regionally appropriate), it was still really cool to watch.  There were several numbers including a partnered dance

a solo performance by the woman

and by the man.

There were also moments when just the musicians were playing which didn't come out very well on video because the lighting during those times wasn't very good.

Continuing our evening of doing stereotypically Spanish things, we went for a late dinner (late for us anyway-- it was definitely after 9 pm, which is actually still early for the Spanish), we found a restaurant in the Plaza de Relal called Marrisco

and had tapas (including olives, cheese, calamari and patatas bravas) and cava.

And, then, headed back to our hotel-- we were both jet lagged.

The next day was our big Gaudi day-- we went off in search of everything Gaudi.  The two best known houses completed by Gaudi weren't very far from our hotel. They were along the Passeig de Gracia, which was on the other side of Catalunya Square from our hotel.

Catalunya Square itself is really nice--there are fountains and statues, though much of it is somewhat obscured by the ice skating rink that's been set up there.

There are these cute penguins at the ice skating rink that kids can use to help them balance.

And, there are tents of food vendors who sell meats, cheeses and pastries (which is what we decided to have for breakfast-- we were walking right past them anyway).

Passeig de Gracia has gorgeous architecture, even before you get to the Gaudi houses.

Details on the buildings are amazing.

It's like the whole street is competing to be worthy of the famous housing that brings tourists there-- which it sort of is, but not because the street was initially meant to be a tourist attraction.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the district, Eixample (which is this district) was the focal point of Barcelona's expansion and it's where the bourgeoisie started to settle.  Casa Batllo (which is simply stunning from the outside, though we didn't go in) was built by Gaudi between 1904 and 1906

and Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera (the stone quarry) was commissioned in 1906, taking about 6 years to complete.  It's a series of apartments built around two courtyards with an undulating building facade.

The building is two sets of apartment groupings centered around two connecting courtyards that the stairwells wrap around. And then, there is the fantastic roof.  The structures on the roof are water towers and chimneys-- but are made to look like works of art, integrating design and function.

All the structures on the roof use stone, except for this one

which is covered in glass from champagne bottles, just to symbolize the social nature of the rooftop terrace as well as the whimsy.  The tour of Casa Mila also includes the attic which is a guide to Gaudi's ideas and goals, going over the history of his buildings throughout Barcelona and how they were built.  What's interesting about Casa Mila is that none of the interior walls were structural in nature, so that residents could take them down or move them as they wanted in order to fit their lifestyles.  The attic history even included small things, like Gaudi created door handles-- he was really the first person to think of something other than the door knob. We owe credit for the modern door handle to Gaudi-- apparently no one before him thought to create a door handle that fits naturally into the contours of the hand.  It's one of those things that seems so simple, and yet it took until the 20th century to think of it. 

 Given how ornate the building itself is, I was expecting the apartments to be equally intricate-- but instead they were rather pared down by comparison to the exterior and roof.

The "servants" areas, like the kitchen above, were especially sparse. There is a stark contrast between the small bedroom for the maid or nanny, which wasn't much bigger than a closet, and the master bedroom which was much more spacious.

From Casa Mila, we headed towards Avenue Diagonal (a diagonally crossing road) to get to La Sagrada Familia.  Again, even the architecture before we got to our destination was amazing. We passed buildings like Casa Les Punxes

and this building (I have no idea why there is a giant owl on top).

Even "mundane" buildings are ornate and gorgeous in Barcelona.

Given how tall it is, it's not easy to see La Sagrada Familia until you're just about on top of it-- we kept expecting to see the towers from all over the city because from the roof on Casa Mila we could tell it was taller than most other buildings in Barcelona-- and yet, you really can't see it until you're close to it.  It is quite impressive (though the cranes surrounding it take away from the majesty a little-- it's still under construction, as it has been since 1882.  Apparently, Gaudi didn't realize he wouldn't live long enough to see its completion-- clearly he didn't plan for it to take significantly more than 130 years.  Or he thought he was immortal.)

We had walked quite a ways by this time and were hungry, so we had lunch in an outdoor cafe, Afiparc, in the shadow (sunny shadow) of La Sagrada Familia.  We had really good patatas bravas and choricitos, which were tiny, slightly spicy sausages that were amazing-- one of the best things we ate in Barcelona.

We wandered around La Sagrada Familia

but never actually got to go in because there was a Christmas concert scheduled for that evening (something we did not know about before hand or we would have planned our excursion better-- or gotten tickets to the concert which was probably amazing).  But, we were undeterred-- there was still more Gaudi to see so we headed off to Parc Guell.

Parc Guell looked a lot closer on the map than it turned out to be-- it was a very long hike there, which make sense since it's more than 50 acres in size.  It couldn't be in the middle of the city-- and, in fact, it is on the edge and the walk is upwards, and very steep.  But we made it to the park, which is equally as steep as the walk there. 

I, however, decided to climb up some of the hill to see the views. (Martha's feet were horribly blistered by this point, so I showed her my photos of the Mediterranean when I came down.)

(I was also trying to spot the Gaudi statues and fountain, which are also surprisingly hard to see until you are right on them-- you can see they are not in the picturesque picture.  I'm not sure how Gaudi managed to create iconic buildings and structures that are also camouflaged within their geography-- it's really an impressive feat, though a little frustrating as a tourist trying to find landmarks to navigate by.). Fortunately, the famous fountain and statues are downhill from where we entered the park (which was not the main entrance), and towards the main entrance where taxis were waiting to take us home, so we did get to see the famous tiled benches,

"ceiling" tiles,


and the large pavilion it's all a part of.

Even the house that now serves as the gift shop is incredible.

The Parc Guell was a failure when it was created-- there were supposed to be 60 houses built but only three were completed (including the one that was Gaudi's house for several years and now serves as a museum but which was under renovation when we were there).  But, it's clear how magical it would have been to live there-- it was obviously going to be a fantastical place to live.

After resting a bit in the hotel, we ventured out to find another Spanish staple, paella.  We stopped at a place on Las Ramblas, Choquito

which was probably a mistake since everything on that main road is really touristy-- there is certainly better paella to be found (as we found out the next day), but it also would have been a lot more expensive (we were told that good, authentic paella can easily cost 40 euro a person) than our meal at Choquito was.

(Notice how orange our paella is-- this will be important shortly.)  It was good, even if it wasn't necessarily top quality paella.

To start off our third day in Barcelona, we went to a cooking class (which was Martha's brilliant idea)-- it was supposed to be a large group (like, 12 people), but it turned out that only Martha and I had signed up (I cannot recommend going to Barcelona in the off season enough-- the weather is still really lovely and there aren't horrible crowds  Nor does the pick-pocketing we were vehemently warned about seem rampant-- I think it's a lot harder to steal things when there's no crowd around to distract tourists or make "bumping into" victims truly seem accidental. And, fabulous things like getting a private cooking lesson happen in the off season.).

The cooking lesson was in this really cute kitchen

and taught by Chef Candido. It's his school, run by him and his wife Emma who are both really, really nice.  The wine started flowing as soon as we got there, and we spent a couple hours prepping and cooking our amazing meal.

Our menu for the day was butternut squash and pear soup (which the chef kept referring to as a cream soup even though there was no cream in it-- it got its creaminess from the pureeing at the end) finished with chives, Gorgonzola and candied hazelnuts

a Spanish Tortilla (which is a lot like a frittata, except it never goes in the oven-- it's done all on the stove-top) and tomato bread

and chicken paella (because we were taking this class on a Monday and were told that no one who knows anything buys seafood on a Monday in Barcelona-- it's not fresh)

which is a lovely slightly yellowed color, not orange like the one we got the night before, because our cooking class paella was made with actual saffron.  I showed Chef Candido the picture of our paella from the night before and he pulled out a jar of powdered orange food coloring from a drawer and told us that any paella with that truly bright yellow/orange coloring was made with food coloring, not saffron.  (Of course, paella made with real saffron and the array of vegetables present in the one we made in class would have cost a whole lot more... so we probably got what we paid for the night before.)  For dessert, we made Catalan Creme, which is similar to Creme Brulee, but the "creme" part is a lot lighter and not quite as sweet.

We left after several hours, incredibly full, with recipes for everything we'd made and the leftover tortilla and paella to have for dinner that night (the tortilla actually became breakfast the next day) and headed over to La Boqueria, the giant food marketplace (where you should never buy fish on Monday).  This is the only place where I thought it would have been easy to have something stolen- it's really crowded, even on a Monday when it's supposedly not as busy.  The array of food is amazing; even the seafood we were warned against looked like it would be good.

There were vegetables, meats, fish, cheeses, olives, prepared foods, chocolates, fruit juices-- all the food you could imagine really. And there were these things

which looked like they might be fried oysters and and some kind of fried fish stick with other stuff in a cone. What really threw us were the eggs on top-- we don't think they were actual eggs, but rather fake ones made from passion fruit (which is apparently a thing in Barcelona), but we've never actually figured out what they are.  And, we were way to full from our cooking school feast to buy one to try.  Instead, we bought a few assorted chocolates to have for dessert later that night and went to wander a bit in the Gothic Quarter where we visited the Basilica Santa Maria del Pi

which was built between 1320 and 1391, though the interior has changed a bit over the years because parts of it have been destroyed by fire. The basic structure is original though-- and, no matter how much I travel around, it still amazes me that buildings like this

could have been built so long ago.

In addition to being an amazing example of Catalan Gothic architecture, the church also has one of the largest rose windows in the world.

After wandering the Gothic Quarter (we were actually in search of the Catedral though never seemed to be able to get there), we had big plans to finish our day of gastronomical delights at the Chocolate Museum. However, we went back to the hotel to drop off our food leftovers and purchases (after stopping off to buy a cup of the richest hot chocolate I've ever had-- and still not as good as the hot chocolate in Bath. And it was so rich I couldn't finish it.)

where I laid down on the bed and fell fast asleep for about an hour and a half.  I don't know what happened-- I was awake and discussing the metro station we needed to go to in order to get to the Chocolate Museum and then I was waking up and it was too late to go.  But since it was mostly me who wanted to go to the Barcelona Chocolate Museum (I wanted to compare it to the one in Brussels), Martha wasn't too upset I fell asleep.

Instead of continuing our day of gastronomy, we decided to preview our activities for the next day-- we were planning to got to the Picasso Museum on Tuesday, so Monday evening, we went to 4 Cats, the famed restaurant where Picasso and all of his famous painter friends once hung out. 

We had read reviews of the place which said we had to go for the history and because it's really cute (as you can see from the pictures), but not to eat there because the food was overpriced and not very good. So, I had a glass of cava and Martha had absinthe (which should be mixed with a little water in order to not be toxically harsh to swallow-- as she found out the hard way) and we had chips (actual potato chips, not fries) and olives and an order of tomato bread (mostly because we wanted to compare it to the one we had made hours before at our cooking school-- we had been told that most places use cheaper, more watery tomatoes and that you can easily tell the difference between them and the really nice, much more expensive tomatoes we used in class. And, it turns out, you can.).  Instead of getting a "real" dinner that night, we wandered back to Las Ramblas to find the woman who sells roasted sweet potatoes (really-- she just sells cooked, plain sweet potatoes.  And, they're quite yummy.) and chestnuts and bought that to go with our leftover paella.  Finally, later that night, we ate our delicious chocolates from La Boqueria.  It was a very successful culinary day.

On our last day in Barcelona, we set off in the morning for the Picasso Museum. On our way, we happened by the elusive Catedral we had been looking for the day before, so we went in.  (Again, I don't know how we missed it-- it should have stood out above other buildings, but you can't really see it in the skyline.)

Like the Basilica, the inside is astounding.

The Catedral was largely built over a couple of centuries (13th-15th)-- how they even got all the stones up that high (I don't think the photograph truly gives a sense of the scale of the building) with no real machinery, let alone how they built something that has stood, solidly, for so long is unfathomable. (I know there are scholars who know the answers to these questions and that there are explanations for how these buildings were constructed-- I have even read some of them. It makes it no less amazing.)

Having finally seen the Catedral (which was high on my list) we continued on our path (which wasn't really that long-- it was reasonably close to our hotel) to the Picasso Museum (there are no photos of this part as photography wasn't allowed).  It's set up in a series of "mansions" (really, large apartments) and contains works mostly donated by Picasso himself.  The museum is set up chronologically, charting Picasso's development as an artist.  My favorite part was the section devoted to Picasso's paintings of his friend Jaume Sabartes with pin-up girls.(You can see the most well-known one here, though it's not my favorite. I bought a bookmark with my favorite on it.)

The last thing on our list of must-dos in Barcelona was Montjuic.  Montjuic is a giant park and like Parc Guell, it's on a very steep hill. It's really too steep to climb to the top (every guide we read said you would have to be crazy or a serious hiker to attempt to do it from the bottom)-- so we took several modes of transportation to get to the Montjuic Castle: the metro, a funicular, and a cable car.  The view-- both of the Mediterranean and the city-- was totally worth it.

There is actually a lot situated on Montjuic-- so much stuff, in fact, that it really does take a pretty full day to see it all. There is the National Gallery of Art, the Olympic Park where the games were held in 1992 (though the stadium was built in 1929 as part of Barcelona's bid for the 1936 Olympics, which went to Berlin. There was actually a "protest" Olympics-- the People's Olypiad-- scheduled in Barcelona for later in 1936, but it never happened due to the Spanish Civil War.), the Fundacio Joan Miro, and lots of other things, but we focused largely on the Castle.

Montjuic, because it is so high up, has been used for thousands of years as a site of fortification-- it's historical link goes back to "prehistoric times" (I don't really get that phrasing-- if it's prehistoric I'm not sure how anyone knows what happened, but basically, it's been used as a defensive site for as long as anyone knows.).  The castle itself was built over the course of a couple hundred years, from the 16th to the 18th centuries and was used as a prison as recently as in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War when it was used to imprison political leaders. 

As you can tell from the pictures, it was a gorgeous day out, so we had lunch in the cafe in the courtyard (sitting out in the warm sun) and wandered around a bit looking at the military relics, mostly cannons,

and some of the more random sites in the castle, including this work of art located in a small room on the edge of the courtyard.

It's called "The Double Cross." There's something about the mirror positioning that make it look like the Star of David in the reflection even though the actual sculpture looks like a cross.  It was created by Carles Berga around 2004.

After we descended part of the mountain by cable car, we wandered around on for a while on a lower level of the park, past this statue

which we both took pictures of because it seemed so bizarre-- why was there a giant purple-ish cone in the middle of a garden? (We tried to Google it later-- it turns out lots of people have taken pictures of this same statue and no one really seems certain about what it is.)

For our last evening in Barcelona, we decided we wanted authentic tapas, so we headed out to find a restaurant recommended to us by Chef Candido-- Canete.  It's off Las Ramblas, but it's down a pretty narrow side street and clearly not a touristy place.  In fact, the menu was in Catalan (not Spanish) and there were no menus in English available.  What was really cool about it was that the chefs cooked out in the open, so you could watch them prepare your food.

Despite the fact that we really didn't understand the menu, we did quite well with our ordering.  We had oysters (which Martha had heard we had to try in Barcelona) and empanadas

fried Parmesan croquettes (which had a fancier name that I can't remember-- in fact, all the food had fancier names, but they were in Catalan so the best I can do is describe what the food basically was) and ham croquettes

and a chorizo, egg and potato dish.

And, we ordered tomato bread again, once again to compare.

(This tomato bread was pretty good, but we still thought what we made in class was better.)

After dinner, we walked along Las Ramblas one more time, got some gelato (which is everywhere-- there is gelato piled up in every other storefront. I thought gelato was an Italian thing, but it is clearly popular in Barcelona.  This was actually our second gelato-- we had some Sunday evening as well.) and went back to the hotel relatively early (especially for Barcelona-- after living in Oxford for a few months, where all the stores close pretty promptly at 5 pm [though not restaurants-- they stay open quite late], it's a little shocking to have so many shops open at 10 at night-- and even later) since we had to leave for the airport at 4:30 am (I'm sure an early flight seemed like a good idea at the time I booked it, but it was painful when it actually happened.). 

And then, I landed in London to find out that it had snowed overnight and there was slush and ice everywhere.  The sunny warmth of Barcelona felt really far away even though I had only left a couple hours before.  I've decided that it's not so much that it's significantly colder in Oxford than it is in the US-- I think it's that it gets colder sooner and, more important, when it's this cold in the US, I can simply go from my warm car to the warm indoors.  The cold seems much more extreme after I've been standing at the bus stop for 15 minutes and then still have to walk a ways to get where I'm going once I get off the bus.  It is prompting me to think I may want to buy wool socks.  Or, a winter home in Spain.

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