Cordoba 2011

Spain travelogue (Cordoba and Madrid)
June to July, 2011
Stefanie Weisman
Wednesday, June 29:
We got to Madrid and had to walk for what seemed like miles to the airport exit. We took the express airport bus to Atocha station for 2 euros. On the way there the glass of the back door actually shattered. I don’t know if it was because something hit it or because it was so hot outside/ cool inside. The bus driver didn’t stop, though.

At Atocha we bought AVE tickets to Cordoba. The train ride took about an hour and forty minutes. From the Cordoba station we took a taxi to our hotel, Hospederia del Atalia, which is in the Jewish Quarter. The hotel is in a residential complex and has a lovely whitewashed patio. The man at the front desk didn’t speak much English. Many people there don’t speak English, so I got to practice my Spanish a lot on this trip. Mom said she couldn’t have gotten along there by herself. Our room had lovely décor, but the hotel had several problems: the AC didn’t work well, there was no computer in the lobby, and there was no ice machine (a problem when we were constantly dehydrated and had only hot water to drink). We had to keep going to a hotel around the Mezquita and paying to use their computer.

After checking in we walked around a little. The streets around the hotel are extremely touristy and it was very hot (over 100). We walked to the Mezquita and went into the orange grove courtyard. We saw a workshop called Meryan which has beautiful leather goods. Then we went to the most basic restaurant we could find and had a late lunch/ early dinner of pizza and Spanish omelette, which were mediocre. We were too hot and tired to do much else after this so we went back to our hotel and went to sleep.

Thursday, June 30:
The hotel breakfast cost six euros, so we decided to try our luck outside. The only place that was open sold horrible croissants and sandwiches and coffee in plastic cups. I was also surprised by how most of the locals we encountered (like the cashier) were not friendly at all.

After breakfast we went inside the Mezquita, which was free until 10:30 am. They were holding mass inside. It was very impressive, and I was surprised by the massive Baroque altar and dome in the center of the cathedral. We decided to come back later and get the audio guide.

Organ in the Great Mosque, Cordoba


Little girl with fan in the Great Mosque (Mezquita), Cordoba


After this we walked over the Roman bridge. I had an umbrella to protect myself from the sun, but it was still pretty intense. Then we went to the Jewish Quarter and saw the synagogue, which is small but fascinating. The decorations reminded me of the Alhambra. Then to the Casa Sefarad, which is interesting but like many other Jewish museums I’ve seen in Europe – without many authentic Jewish artifacts, and what artifacts there are relate to the liturgy. It also had a lot of reading, including a wall-size page of text on Maimonides. There were a lot of other American Jews there.

I think then we went to eat lunch in Casa Mazal, which is connected to Casa Sefarad and has Sephardic-style food. We got falafel and an eggplant and rice dish. The food here was the most basic, healthy and natural of anything we had in Cordoba. Next we went to Casa Andalusi, which had some nice things, including a Visigothic mosaic in the basement and a pool covered in flowers, but very little depth or information. I got the book Tales from the Alhambra by Washington Irving there. We bought tickets for a flamenco show that night at the Cardenal, outside the Mezquita. The owner of the place was very nice to us, said he wanted to polish his English and that we seemed like nice people (at first he said “well-to-do”).

We took a nap in our room and had dinner in the Maimonides restaurant outside the Mezquita. I had the Cordoban version of gazpacho, which was good as a dip; “mountain stew,” which was salty beef and kind of disgusting; and fruit. Mom got a chicken which was very plain and good, and ice cream. We walked around a little more, but when we passed the Cardenal the owner saw us and said that the show had been cancelled because there weren’t enough people. He gave us our money back and said he was sorry for us because we wouldn’t get to see it. We were disappointed, but I was glad I had already seen a flamenco show in Seville a few years ago.

Friday, July 1:
In the morning we walked towards the Plaza de las Tendillas, which is more modern and commercial. The area around our hotel is very touristy and has almost no grocery or clothing stores or anything practical like that. We found a café near a church which had a little better breakfast than the one from yesterday – but still only toast/croissant, orange juice and coffee.

Plaza de las Tendillas is pretty and has a clock with flamenco guitar chimes. We actually saw an Italian restaurant here, which was the first non-Spanish restaurant we had seen. We tried to go back there later for dinner at around 8 pm, but it was closed! We later found out it didn’t reopen until 8:30 pm, though of course there was no sign on the door with the hours.

We walked from the plaza to the Palacio de Viana, and on the way saw a lot of narrow winding streets and beautiful ecclesiastical buildings. A lot of the buildings here have an orange glow to them from the sandstone and are nicely weathered. There are a ton of convents and monasteries and medieval churches in this area. Everywhere you turn, there is another ancient building. I went inside San Miguel, where mass was again going on. All of the churches here have very lifelike, life-sized statues of saints or Christ and the Virgin. Luckily it was slightly overcast, so we were able to walk without getting overheated.

Eventually we reached Palacio de Viana, which has over a dozen beautiful patios with bougainvillea and fountains. We took a tour of the interior, which was only given in Spanish with minimal English translation. The house has a lot of beautiful, rustic Spanish furniture. I didn’t like the imported Italian and French and English furniture as much – it didn’t seem to fit.

Courtyard in Palacio de Viana


After this we walked back towards the Mezquita. We passed the Roman mausoleum, the ruins of a Roman temple (and the modern city hall right behind it), and the main plaza (which was kind of seedy). We went to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I was not too impressed with. At least one of the rooms was closed. We tried to have lunch before going to the museum. I thought there would be a lot of trendy places to eat near the museum, but I was wrong – just more tapas bars and restaurants. They’re all the same and look depressing. They offer either disgusting tapas or heavy, greasy meals for the middle of the day. I saw one tapas bar selling ox tail with chocolate! We walked around for a while and finally just decided to get some ice cream (strawberry and chocolate). At the Mezquita we got the audio guide. This time we had to pay to get in. The audio guide was very factual and not terribly exciting, but it’s good because it makes you stand in one place for a while and look around.

Then we went back to the Plaza de las Tendillas to join a night walking tour we had booked at the tourist office yesterday (when I asked the guy whether we should buy tickets in advance because it gets filled up, he just kind of shrugged his shoulders). Since the Italian restaurant was closed, we ate in a café and got sandwiches with vegetables, egg, and ham and cheese. Their food is so unhealthy. They use huge slabs of white bread, never whole wheat, and everything is greasy and/or salty. The Spaniards themselves don’t seem to eat much. All they do is drink beer, and occasionally they’ll pop a few olives in their mouths. The tapas really just facilitate the drinking of beer. We also saw them eating a lot of ice cream. I think one reason their food is so bad is because they didn’t have much immigration. There’s almost no variety here, and the restaurants are closed at such inconvenient times. We were also shocked by how many people were smoking. Very few people here are overweight, probably because they eat so little and smoke so much. It would make a huge difference in the tourist experience if the restaurants had more variety and better hours. There are a lot of restaurants in Cordoba, they just all sell the exact same things.

There were a decent number of people on the tour and most of them were English speakers. One of them was a woman from California who was doing a house and car-swap with a family from Madrid. She was there with her husband and daughter. The tour was pretty good, though it covered a lot of the ground we had already seen. We saw the very narrow streets of the Calle de las Flores and el Panuelo, which had the smallest plaza I’ve ever seen. We made a stop at an inn in the Plaza del Poltro, which was the basis for one of the inns in Don Quixote, where there was an actor dressed as Seneca who made a speech in Spanish. We also made a stop at the Chapel of Saint Bartholomew, which is tiny but very beautiful. At this stop, the same actor made a speech dressed as Maimonides. After the tour, the tour guide took us to a tapas bar where we could get a tapas and a drink. I got chorizo, which was disgusting, and water. The woman from California mentioned that she had had very good paella for lunch, but that it’s reheated for dinner. I can’t eat anything that heavy for lunch, especially when it’s over 100 degrees out.

Saturday, July 2:
I asked the lady at the front desk to book us on a tour to Medina Azahara for the day, but she said it was already filled up. This was surprising because things seemed pretty slow around there. So we had to buy bus tickets from the tourist office. We had breakfast in the hotel lobby. It was better than we expected; they had croissants, toast, orange juice, coffee, ham and cheese (which we didn’t get), fruit, and yogurt. Afterwards we walked to the bus. I stopped in the church of St. Nicholas, which had some very interesting statues of Christ and Mary. The bus picked us up outside the Roman mausoleum and dropped us off near the museum. We watched a short film on the site, which had very good computer-generated reconstructions. Then we took another bus to the site itself, which was fascinating. I’ve never seen a Muslim archaeological site. Unfortunately the main hall was closed for renovation or excavation. It was incredibly hot standing out there in the sun, so we went through the site as quickly as we could. I was the only person carrying an umbrella for shade. There were only one or two places where painted decoration was still visible. I also saw a well-preserved brick oven. There was a lot of nice vegetal decoration on the walls, though much of it is still on the ground being pieced together.

Ruins of the mosque in Medina Azahara

We took the bus back to the museum and ate pineapple and a pizza at the café. Almost everyone else was drinking beer. We had to go through the museum very quickly to make the bus back to Cordoba, but it seemed excellent, with many more computer-generated videos and artifacts. It would be nice if reproductions of the artifacts were placed in the site itself. I would have liked a half hour more at the museum, but the bus was leaving.

Note: Cordoba is full of swallows and white or near-white pigeons.

When we got back to Cordoba we took a nap, then went out for a walk around the Alcazar and Royal Stables. It was still siesta time (which lasts from around 2 to 8:30!) and the streets were almost deserted. I don’t know what they do for so long. It seemed very inconvenient to us. There are some lovely patios here, which you can see through the gates. The city walls are also quite impressive. I saw the old Moorish water mill on the Guadilquivir, but they were doing construction work in front of it. We went into the royal stables and saw them exercising the horses. We had tickets for the 9 pm equestrian show. We thought we would have dinner at Casa Mazal before the show, but we found out they don’t open until 8:15, which wouldn’t leave us enough time. So we actually went to the Burger King outside the Mezquita. We didn’t want to go, but we felt we had no choice! We got Whoppers and a salad, and it was the best meal we had in Spain!

The show at the Royal Stables was very enjoyable. We were seated on a few benches on one end of a stone building, and the horses came out one by one or in pairs and did dressage and tricks for us. The riders wore traditional outfits. For two parts, a flamenco dancer came out and danced with the horse. Kind of corny, but it was nice to watch. They introduced the horses in Spanish and played music on the loudspeakers. The show might have been cut short because they had a huge dinner party coming into the stables, as we saw when we were leaving. They had two horses with riders standing at the entrance.

Flamenco and horse at Royal Stables, Cordoba

Sunday, July 3:
The next day we ate breakfast at the hotel and walked to the train station. It’s cool in the morning so it wasn’t too hard to walk; it took about half an hour. We got tickets but they didn’t have any seats until 11:30 am, about 2 hours away. Again, I was surprised by this, since things seemed pretty slow. I also realized that with our ticket stubs from Madrid to Cordoba, we could get a 20% discount on the return tickets. However, I didn’t find this out till after I had bought the return tickets, so I had to go back and get a refund. I had to do all of this in Spanish, since they didn’t speak much English.

Outside Atocha station there were some huge bronze baby heads (by Antonio Lopez?).

Me with giant baby head outside Atocha station

We walked to our hotel, the AC Carlton, which was a few blocks away from the station. Madrid is a little grungy and much dirtier than Cordoba, where they whitewash their houses all the time. The hotel was pretty modern and comfortable, though the bathroom smelled a little. It had a mini fridge and computers in the lobby. There’s a lot more food variety in Madrid. They have Mediterranean food, Italian food, lots of Burger Kings and McDonald’s, and even Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Normally I don’t like to see chains, but they were a welcome sight to us in Spain. We went to a Starbucks outside of the Reina Sofia museum and had a yogurt parfait, a cookie and a pasta dish.

Then we walked to the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum, which has an excellent collection. I love their pre-modern stuff. They also had an Antonio Lopez exhibit that was sold out. After this we went to the CaixaForum, which hadn’t existed last time I was in Madrid. However they only had an exhibit on Russian avant-guard art, which I had no interest in seeing. I did get a peacock note-holder from the gift shop, however.

At this point everything was closed, so we just walked around. I basically retraced the steps I had taken the last time I was in Madrid. It stays light in Spain until almost 10 o’clock this time of year, which is great for sightseeing. The weather was also much cooler than we had had in Cordoba. We walked around the Prado, then went up to the Puerta del Sol which neither of us liked. It’s extremely crowded and full of freak shows. Then we walked to the Plaza Mayor. Madrid is a lively place, but I don’t like these large public areas too much. We walked back to the area where we had seen a few Italian restaurants and had pizza in a small pizza parlor. It was fresh and smelled good, but the cheese was very salty.

Monday, July 4:
We got up at 4:30 am and walked to Atocha, where we caught the bus to the airport. I had the most horrible airport experience in my life here. The loads were really bad and we didn’t know what flights we were going to get on, if any. We didn’t even know what terminal to go to; there were no signs. We started out at Terminal 2, which had lines almost out the door. It was a madhouse. This was only for European flights, however, so we found out we had to go to Terminal 1. We checked in for the US Airways flight and went through security, where the guards shout at you in Spanish and you have to carry your trays to the scanners. Terminal A, with all the flights going to the US, is miles away and takes forever to get to. They hadn’t even opened it yet when we got there, and we all had to stand or sit on the floor waiting for the guards to arrive. Finally they did, and there was no order to anything…. [A lot of stuff happened here because I didn’t have regular tickets; I was flying what they call “non-rev.” I won’t go into all the details here.]

When I went through security again one of the guards (in Spanish) looked at my plastic bag of 3-oz. toiletries and said, “This is a really big bag.” I started complaining that I always traveled like this and never had a problem, so he let me through. Made the huge walk back to Terminal A, went through security there again. I made sure I was listed for both the US Airways flight (to Philly) and the Continental flight (to Newark). The US Airways gate agent said it didn’t look good, but the Continental agent said don’t worry, you’ll get on. The US Airways flight left a little earlier, so I kept going back and forth (the gates were next to each other, though they were very far apart) until I got my Continental ticket. I don’t think they ever called me for the US Airways flight. The flight back was uneventful. There was even an empty seat next to me. I watched the 2011 version of Jane Eyre, which was excellent, and The Informant!. I was so stressed out from the airport experience. I should have known that the loads weren’t good enough and made alternate plans, or something. The Madrid Barajas airport is also the worst airport I’ve ever seen. It’s clean and modern, but the layout is terrible, the workers are rude and don’t speak English, the signage is bad, and it’s a complete nightmare if you’re trying to do anything out of the ordinary.

In conclusion, Spain is a beautiful country, but they need to improve their food situation!

Barcelona 2011

Stefanie Weisman
Barcelona journal

2/8/11:
We landed in Barcelona in the late morning and took the train to the Passeig de Gracia stop in the city. The airport’s very close to the city and the train fare was less than two euros. Overall the train system here is quite good, though it was a slow ride. Our hotel was about a 10 minute walk from the stop. It’s called the Europark hotel, though Rob kept calling it the Eurotrash hotel – just for fun, not because it was trashy or anything. It was actually an extremely nice hotel. The room was clean and comfortable, with everything done up in black and white. The bathroom had an extra large sink and a shower with good water pressure, which you almost never find in hotels. We had two balconies – one facing the street and one facing the courtyard. They had blown up old (18th century) texts in English and lined the courtyard and one wall of the bathroom with them, which was an interesting touch. I found out that the text in our bathroom was from the biography of the man who created a stocking loom. The people at the front desk were polite but not very friendly. I feel like that characterizes most people we met in Catalonia.

Rob and I took a nap for a few hours, then walked to the Sagrada Familia, which was a few long blocks away. We passed a lot of cute-looking bakeries on the way and got a black and white cookie in one of them. Barcelona is filled with bakeries and candy shops and small supermercats. It was dark by this time and La Sagrada Familia was lit up by spotlights. It was much more impressive than I thought it would be. There was a bronze figure sitting between the towers and I didn’t know if it was Christ or St. Peter. Later I found out it was Christ Ascending. There were huge cranes over the towers because they’ve been doing construction for over a century.

We started to walk towards Las Ramblas to find a restaurant for dinner, but Rob wanted to go to Barceloneta to get seafood. We took the metro and walked through the narrow streets of Barceloneta, some of which had no street lamps and were completely dark. We came across a square with a Renaissance style church and a few restaurants. We passed by the windows of one of the restaurants and saw some people eating a heaping plate of shellfish, and eventually decided to go in there. The restaurant was called Can Ganassa. There was a soccer game playing in the back room. It was a real hole-in-the-wall type place, but the food was very authentic and fresh. We ordered the same dish we had seen in the window, which was a mariscada for 2 people. It was amazing how many sea creatures were on the plate. There were calamari, prawns, razor clams, oysters, crayfish. They were grilled, I think.

Mariscada in Barcelona


I was a little overwhelmed, but I made a good meal of the prawns and some crayfish. Their meat was very nice and mild, not fishy at all. I had to take the heads and shells off the prawns. We finished everything. Rob told the waiter it was “Fantastico,” and the waiter corrected him and said, “Estupendo.” For dessert we had the Catalan version of crème brulee and a chocolate pudding. They were so-so. French crème brulee is much better. Later on I felt like the prawns were swimming in my stomach.

2/9/11
The next morning we set out for La Sagrada Familia. We got breakfast at one of the local bakeries: a (thin) Iberian ham sandwich, a black and white croissant, and some cream-filled doughnuts. La Sagrada Familia in the daylight really blew us away. I was impressed with Subirachs’ sculptures on the Passion façade, which is where you had to enter. They’re very stark and affective.

Pontius Pilate on facade of Sagrada Familia


The interior was even more amazing. I had never seen pictures of the interior (I think it was only finished in 2010), and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was a kaleidoscope of light, colors, and shapes. The vaulting and columns were completely original. There was a beautiful oculus/ skylight over the apse with a golden triangle that represented the Trinity. The columns had glass in their capitals. There were glass keystones in the vaults, too. The columns branched out like trees. Even the abstract stained glass was impressive.

Sagrada Familia vaulting


Sagrada Familia golden oculus


I don’t know why more modern architecture can’t be like this. Most modern buildings are so ugly and plain. It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s crazy to think that this church is only half complete; the main portal isn’t even open yet. On the other side of the church was the Nativity façade. This was mostly done in Gaudi’s lifetime and was in a completely different style – very ornate and flowery. It was just as impressive as the Passion façade, but in a different way. This side emphasized the youth of Christ and was covered in vegetal and animal decoration. The turtles and chameleons were especially eye-catching. I think it’s the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. I wonder if this is partly because I didn’t know what to expect, and because it’s so unique. We also walked through a museum attached to the church.

We then walked over to Las Ramblas. Rob really didn’t like it here, because it’s so touristy and crowded. It’s full of memorabilia shops that all sell the same things and whose vendors are very aggressive. There was an outdoor shop selling chicks and rabbits, and we didn’t know if they were for pets or to eat. There were also a lot of human statues that were quite creative. There was one guy with two heads, two guys without heads, Charlie Chaplin and some other movie stars, a guy sitting on a toilet, and a guy in a golden suit that was made to look like it was blowing in the wind, with the guy in mid-stride. I took some pictures of him and gave him some money, and he did a little dance and ended by wiggling his fingers at me as he froze again. The architecture in Las Ramblas is beautiful, with a lot of upscale, ornate buildings and old churches.

We found the Mercat de la Boqueria, which has an impressive colonnade around it. It’s lively, but some of the things grossed me out – lambs’ and pigs’ heads, hooves, and tongues, dead pheasants and rabbits, etc. I wanted to try some tapas but the bars here were crowded and I couldn’t figure out how or what to order anyway. I tried to order a bomba (which seems to be a potato dish) at one of them, but he didn’t understand what I was saying, and when I pointed to the thing on the menu he said they were out. Rob got some brie cheese which he liked but which I thought was disgusting (but I never like brie). They had seafood, candy, chocolates, and fruit stands. We got a fruit salad from one. It was okay but not great.

We kept walking and along the way I saw a candy store selling life-size chocolate shoes. We found the Maritime Museum, but when we went to the ticket booth they said the museum was closed for the next two years. We walked into the entrance to the museum, which is in the medieval shipyard building (Drassanes). The building is an impressive example of medieval secular architecture, with great rounded arches. They had two exhibits there, but you had to pay to see them.

We walked down to the pier and I saw a green bird gathering nuts from a palm tree. I later found out that this was a monk parakeet, and that there are lots of them in Barcelona. They apparently are descended from some pets that escaped in the 1970s. I always pay attention to the bird life of a city, and this made me happy. We walked down to the Columbus Column, then around the marina, over a bridge, and around a shopping mall on the water.

After this we turned around and walked back through the old city. We passed some medieval walls that had been built on top of the Roman walls and saw the façade of the Gothic cathedral. Then we found what we had been looking for – the Museum of the City of Barcelona. We went underground on an elevator, which took us to the remains of the Roman city. This included a fortification wall and tower (composed of rubble, cement, and tablets and slabs that had been reused), a laundry, a dyeing facility (which included a vat that was stained blue from the indigo dye), a fish-sauce factory, a winery (with imbedded clay containers for the wine), an early Christian church, and a slightly later bishop’s residence that was built on top of a Roman house with a fine mosaic floor. On top of this was a royal palace for the count of Catalonia or something like that. We saw the medieval chapel, but the great hall was closed. The outer courtyard of the palace is very pretty, with a tall loggia structure full of rounded windows. Near this site is a building that contains the agreement between Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella regarding what Columbus was entitled to, signed here before he discovered the Americas. We only saw a reproduction of this. They were playing the New World Symphony in the background.

After this we wandered around the Gothic Quarter for a bit. In a lot of the passageways, you could see the Roman brick with the medieval structures built over and around it. We made our way to Santa Maria del Mar, which is very dark and austere. It’s in the early Gothic style and contains a black Madonna. They played medieval choral music in the background, which adds a lot to the atmosphere. The altar contains a statue of the Madonna with a model of a ship at her feet. The church is beautiful and impressive, but is pretty much the opposite of La Sagrada Familia.

At this point it was night and all the attractions had closed, but we couldn’t have dinner because the restaurants don’t open until 9 pm. We went into a tapas bar and got potatos allioli and mushrooms with pork. I realized that I don’t like tapas. I thought allioli would be olive oil, but it was a thick sauce like mayonnaise. The things were okay for the first few bites, but after a while I got sick of them. We went back to the hotel and took a nap because we were exhausted. When we woke up we weren’t hungry because we had eaten the tapas and didn’t feel like going out so late at night, so we skipped dinner. Rob said that before coming to Spain he thought he was going to like eating a late dinner, but that he had changed his mind. I agree. It certainly doesn’t fit in with my schedule.

2/10/11
I got a chocolate-bread roll from a bakery for breakfast. I was also very dehydrated, since the water in Barcelona tastes disgusting and I hadn’t been drinking much, so I drank a lot of Rob’s orange juice. We took the metro to La Barceloneta, which used to be a slum but now is cleaned up and has a lot of character. Rob got some plain chicken, pasta and french fries from a fast food place. We walked down to the beach where there’s a nice promenade lined with palm trees. Everything in Barcelona is very clean. There’s almost no litter on the beaches, there’s very little graffiti, and we even saw a train station getting scrubbed clean. I walked down to the water while Rob ate his food. I was mainly looking for shells, but didn’t find anything interesting. The water was cold, and nobody was in the water except for some guy on what looked like a surfboard with a sail. I saw what I think is Gehry’s Golden Fish in the distance. It’s very pretty for a city beach. The weather throughout our trip was in the 50s and sunny – perfect walking weather.

After this we walked up to the Catalonian History museum, which is in Barceloneta. It’s a very well done museum, with interesting interactive and multimedia exhibits and artistic dioramas. The lower level of the museum, which focuses on pre-modern history, was interesting, but we kind of lost interest when we hit the modern section. There were lots of school groups in the museum and they got to try on costumes for each period of history. The museum has recreations of a full-size Roman boat, a medieval farm, a medieval tower and chapel, a Roman room, paper-mache people from different periods, medieval weapons and knight’s armor, a horse you can sit on, rooms from different decades in the 20th century, a reconstructed air raid shelter from the Spanish Civil War, dioramas showing rebellions and protests, etc. I was struck by the fact that in the late Middle Ages, after the Black Death hit, the population of Catalonia was only about 200,000.

We then walked up to the Palace of Catalan Music. The outside is very pretty and full of mosaic work, though it’s a little hard to see from the narrow street. I was upset that all their English tours for the day were sold out, but I decided to take a Castilian Spanish tour so I could see the interior. While we waited for the tour, Rob got a cornetta (sp?) from a bakery, which he loved. It’s like chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream in a cone, but it’s not cold like ice cream, just rich and creamy. Then we went on the tour. I could understand most of what the tour guide said. The main hall was beautiful, though not as impressive as La Sagrada Familia. I was a bit surprised that people had rated this as the number one Barcelona attraction on Tripadvisor. The hall has a lovely stained glass ceiling in the shape of an inverted cupola, statues representing Catalan music and Beethoven and Wagner coming out of the proscenium, and statues of women playing different instruments coming out of the stage. There was more mosaic work on the columns. The tour guide pressed a button and the organ played for about a minute. She said that the acoustics were so good that every seat in the house can hear the music equally well.

We then took the metro to Park Guell, though we got off at a stop that was pretty far and had to walk a long way uphill. This part of the city is much more modest and plain than the center of Barcelona. There were a lot of cacti and yucca plants near the park. When we got to the park, Rob went into a space-age WC with doors that whooshed open when you inserted some coins. I really enjoyed the park. There were flocks of the green monk parakeets all around, and I kept seeing little birds that may have been hummingbirds. I also saw what I think is a magpie. And of course pigeons and seagulls, but I don’t care about them. We walked up to the top of the mountain, where we could see La Sagrada Familia and the Torre Agbar, though it was kind of hazy. Gaudi’s cavernous stonework was everywhere; Rob said it reminded him of The Flintstones. We kept crossing paths with a group of nuns in blue habits who were sucking lollipops. We walked back down the path and saw Gaudi’s little pink house, which had cute mosaic towers/ chimneys and garden walls covered in more mosaics. Throughout my trip I had wanted to buy some mosaic work as a souvenir, but all I could find were cheap reproductions.

We walked down the path to Gaudi’s hypostyle hall, where a duo (cello and violin?) were playing classical music. There were some people selling crafts on blankets on the ground, and I bought two glass necklaces (they were 2 for five euros), one of which is shaped like a fish. I’m pretty sure they weren’t made in Spain, though — probably China. Then we walked up the stairs to the main plaza, with a serpentine bench covered in mosaics. It was very pretty and colorful, with a great view of the city and the gingerbread-like houses at the entrance to the park. We saw a workman breaking up whole ceramic tiles to resurface a part of the bench.

Me in Park Guell


Then we walked down to the lowest part of the park, which has the famous Gaudi mosaic sculptures of lizards/ dragons. There was another duo there playing some interesting music. One of them played the violin and the other was playing an instrument called a hang, which consists of two metal plates with indentations for different pitches, and which looks like a UFO. It has a very bright metallic sound. I got his card – he’s British and his name is Daniel Waples. The instrument is produced in Switzerland. I was having a nice time, though Rob was getting bored. After this we left the park and sat on a bench to try to find a place to have dinner. As before, all the attractions were closing, but we still had a few hours to kill before we could have a real dinner. We walked south from Park Guell with no particular destination. Rob liked it because he felt this was the “real” Barcelona. In one plaza there were some children watching a marionette show where the marionettes were playing a punk rock concert. There were several groups playing soccer in the streets. We came upon a nice-looking tapas bar/ restaurant that had apparently been there since the 19th century. We went in and asked for hot chocolate, but they were out. We got snails, “filled” (rellenos) eggs, and a plate with assorted tapas. We didn’t know until they brought them out that the eggs were filled with tuna. I was so sick of seafood. The snails are so-so, but I can’t keep eating them. The assorted tapas were more seafood, olives, pickled stuff, potatoes – nothing I like. Plus they sit around all day. I don’t see why people like tapas so much.

After this we walked down the Diagonal Avenue (in the Eixample) and passed Casa Mila (La Pedrera), and some other interesting buildings. We went back to our hotel because we still had some time to kill. After a while we found a restaurant near the hotel called Rene that looked inviting. This restaurant was more gourmet than the others and was a fusion of Catalan and international food. We got three half-portion (racion) dishes: a dish with mushrooms and Catalan sausage, pasta with foie gras filling, and Beef Wellington. Unfortunately, when I ordered the mushroom/sausage dish I didn’t say the whole thing and I think the waiter thought I meant that I didn’t want the sausage. So I never got to try Catalan sausage. The dish had a fried egg on top of the mushrooms instead, which was pretty good. The Beef Wellington was especially good.

2/11/11
For breakfast we stopped in a bar/ diner on the corner next to our hotel. I got scrambled eggs, toast and orange juice, but the scrambled eggs were horribly salty. The food was expensive, too. Rob and I were sick of Spanish food at this point. Then we walked to Casa Batllo. It has a very high entrance fee (I think 14 euros for students?), but it was probably my second favorite thing in Barcelona after La Sagrada Familia. I love all the curved lines and glass and mosaics and swirling ceilings. There’s so much attention to detail. Again, I don’t know why more modern architecture can’t be like this. I wouldn’t hate modern art so much if it were actually aesthetically pleasing and took some talent, like Gaudi’s work. Inside the building is a tiled shaftway with a skylight that helps with ventilation. There was also a room with chairs designed by Gaudi. In the upstairs rooms, used by the servants, the arches look like whale ribs. The roof was magnificent, with mosaic chimneys, the roof with dragon or fish scales, etc. Again, I had never seen anything like it. His work is so unique.

Exterior of Casa Batllo


After this we took the train to Girona, which is about an hour and a half away. We were sitting next to a group of noisy American college students who kept saying “dude” and talked about their frats, surfing, buying shoes, etc. When the ticket agent came by, they didn’t have the right tickets, and one of the guys had to ask the others where he was going (Figueres). When Rob and I got off the train at Girona, I said to him something like, “I’m so glad we’re finally away from those stupid Americans,” and two guys (I’m pretty sure they were Spaniards) gave me a funny look.

It took about 15 minutes to walk to the old city. We stopped at a tourist information office to get a map and directions. I was amazed at how medieval everything looked. I think Girona is the largest intact medieval city I’ve ever seen. Rob and I agreed that the tour guide books don’t do it justice. We walked over the bridges and saw all the orange and yellow houses facing the river (which was a pretty pathetic river).

Girona

The side facing away from the river looks much more medieval (no paint). We passed a lot of medieval churches and towers. Coming up to Girona Cathedral was amazing, because you enter the plaza from a very narrow Roman/ medieval alleyway, and all of a sudden you see this enormous white square building with a Baroque façade up a long flight of stairs. There was originally a set of Roman stairs leading up to a temple in the same location. The cathedral was completed in 1733, but much of it is medieval. We went in and took the audioguide tour. The inside is amazing too. It’s one of the highest churches I’ve ever been in. It also has the widest nave of any cathedral in Europe. We later found out that the vaults had been built over the roof of the earlier church, which was then dismantled. It has an ancient altarpiece and bishop’s throne attributed to Charlemagne. We then walked through the cloister, with ornate capitals and a floor that’s covered in tombs. We also went into the Treasury, which has the famous Beatus manuscript and the one-of-a-kind Creation tapestry.

After this we walked around the Roman/ medieval walls, which provide amazing views. All the streets around here are narrow, winding and steep. We found the Arab Baths, which are actually Romanesque Christian baths and very unique, but unfortunately they had already closed for the day. They have a lot of nice shops in Girona – much nicer than in Barcelona. I got a hand-made bowl with a flower decoration and a magnet with a Jewish star. When I went to the lady to pay, she called me “La Morena” – the dark-haired one. I liked that. But then, most people in Spain are morenos, so I don’t know why she singled me out. I’m sure that when most people saw me, they assumed I was Spanish. Next we went to the Jewish Museum in the Call, or Jewish ghetto. The building used to be a synagogue. The museum didn’t have too many original artifacts. Most of the things were reproductions, except for the massive tombstones from the Jewish cemetery. There was also a medieval mikvah in the upstairs level and a Jewish star in the tiles of the courtyard. Girona was a center of Kabalah in the Middle Ages. We stayed until the museum closed. Rob said if he had known how interesting Girona was, he would have tried to get there earlier. Oh, and for some reason, the “youths” of Girona made us feel uncomfortable. They kept giving us odd looks.

Then we went to the Museum of the History of Girona, which was closed in the middle of the day but which reopened in the evening. This museum was pretty interesting. It had a lot more authentic artifacts than the Jewish Museum. It used to be a monastery, and in the bottom level was a room with a lot of niches where they used to put dead monks to dry out their bodies (they would sit on top of drains), and when they were desiccated they would put the bodies out on display. It was pretty creepy. They also had part of a Romanesque cloister and, most importantly, a Roman mosaic showing a chariot race in the Circus Maximus, with a Catalonian man who was the victor of the races. As usual, we became less interested as we got to more modern history. Apparently Girona became a center for paper manufacturing. From the top of the museum, we had a wonderful view of the cathedral at night.

As usual, we had a problem finding dinner. We couldn’t stay till 9 pm because we wouldn’t finish in time to make the last train to Barcelona. We wandered around for a while, but there were only tapas bars and restaurants selling pizza and hamburgers. We went to the only restaurant that was serving Spanish food at that time, which we could tell was a real tourist trap. But it was only twelve euros for a three course meal. For the first course, Rob got snails (again!) and I got a tortilla, which is a Spanish omelette (eggs and potatoes). They were okay. It also came with cheap wine. For the main course, Rob got rabbit and I got Valencian paella, which is paella with pork and seafood. Rob’s rabbit was cold (it tasted like chicken), and all the rice in my paella had a fishy taste, so I didn’t like it. The pork was bony and unappetizing. We got ice cream for dessert and they gave it to us in little cardboard cups, like you would get in a supermarket! It was pretty bad.

When we got back to Barcelona, we stopped in a supermercat and got some food for tomorrow. We had to get the little chocolate-covered biscuits called Filipinos, because of the name. I later found out that some Filipinos had filed a protest over this name, which they thought was derogatory. The biscuits were tasty, though.

2/12/11
We actually got to the airport with some time to spare, because the trains were so efficient. Slept a lot on the flight and got back to Newark without incident. Overall I really liked Barcelona, and Rob liked it more than he thought he would, but I think it would be pretty boring without Gaudi. He really makes the city. My only complaints are the food and the fact that they speak Catalan and not Castilian Spanish.