There I was, sitting with my beaming bride at another tapas bar on the wharf of Barcelona. Cerveza in hand, a steaming pile of paella perched on the table and the proud statue of Cristobal Colom pointing the wrong direction, pointing toward the
Please, Cristobal, don’t make me go back to America.
Lisa and I spent one week in Spain for our “honeymoon” from Jan. 3-10, 2012. Two days in Madrid, one day in Sevilla and three days in Barcelona. This was the first time either of us had visited the land of toros, flamenco and Hemingway.
If all the European countries were snug yoga pants designed to make your bum look taut, Spain would be lululemon.
We left Philadelphia on a Tuesday. Using directions written by Columbus, we first flew west to Chicago before taking the 8 hour flight east to Madrid. Security in the Madrid airport was as tight as security at a high school kegger.
We didn’t check in any luggage, which was convenient, but our wardrobe was quite limited for the next week. Jeans and fleece it was.
We arrived at our hotel at 10 a.m. and we hit the ground running. Time was of the essence, and sleep was not important. Our first stop was the palace in Madrid. It so happened we arrived on the first Wednesday of the month, when they conduct the celebrated changing of the guard.
According to Lisa’s guidebook, this entailed 100 horses and 400 soldiers marching about in full regalia. We got there and stood for an hour, jostling for placement among the large crowd that had
gathered. There were about 30 soldiers and 5 horses, and that is a generous estimate.
A little besotted, we decided to forgo the palace tour for the time being. The line stretched to the cathedral at the opposite end of the plaza, and we didn’t feel like wasting any more time. Madrid awaited.
After a caffe and a snack at Cafe de Oriente, we took the subway to Parque del Retiro.
Brief interjection #1: The transportation system in Madrid is second only to Tokyo. We never waited more than a minute or 2 for a subway, and the trains were clean and safe.
We spent the afternoon strolling through Retiro park. It was opened in 1631 as a garden playground for royalty when Philip IV was the king of Spain. There was a large pond filled with couples rowing in rowboats, as well as statues, gardens and street performers. There was also two palaces in the parque. The Valasquez Palace and the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) built in
1887 is made out of iron and glass.
From there, we roamed to the Museo Nacional del Prado, or the Prado Museum. This art museum was most notable for its treasures of paintings from Spanish artists, the most notorious being Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Francisco Goya.
Goya ruled the Prado, as he did all of Madrid. I had never heard of him before, but his artwork is astounding. His Third of May painting, a depiction of a Spanish uprising, made you step back in wonder.
We decided the next time we go back to Spain we will have to stop by Goya’s Tomb. That’s right, by the end of our first day, we had already decided we were coming back.
After the museum, we went back to the hotel to regroup with a quick siesta.
Interjection #2: At this point I want to talk about my 3 favorite things about Spain.
I’ve already touched on the subway system (super cheap btw). And second, everybody has heard about the infamous Spanish siesta. It is no myth. None of the stores are open until 10 a.m. And when you stop by a cafe for lunch, there are a good 3 or 4 men bellied up with cerveza in hand. Then at 2 p.m., the streets and shops are barren. Everyone is sleeping it off. Then the city
comes alive again after 9 p.m.
The third favorite thing about Spain was a nice surprise. Everybody there speaks English. Everybody. The shopkeeps, the barkeeps, the ticket agents, the streetsweepers, etc. And none of them look down on you for not knowing Spanish. They were all extremely helpful and always pointed us in the right direction. There were a couple of times in Barcelona that I felt a little bit swindled for being a tourist, but for the most part, we got along splendidly with the locals.
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
The rest of our time in Madrid was awesome. We visited the Reina Sofia art museum that was just up the road from our hotel. This featured more contemporary art, and more Dali and Picasso. The piece that stood above all was the Guernica by Picasso, which depicted a brutal scene from the Spanish Civil War.
On our second day we returned to the Madrid palace. We got there at 10 a.m. (opening time) and still waited in line for an hour,
though it was worth the wait. There was armor and swords, crowns and jewels, classic art, and maybe my favorite, 4 authentic Stradivarious violins and violas.
From there we walked down Calle Mayor (calle translates as “street” in Spanish. More on this later) to Plaza Mayor, the central hub of Madrid nightlife. We strolled around a bit and located a tapas bar recommended by Lisa’s guide book, and decided to stop by later that night.
We also visited Mercado de San Miguel, which was recommended to us by our friends Zach and Jeff (the two best Spain guides). San Miguel is an indoor market akin to the Reading Terminal Market in Philly. There were
rows of food vendors selling everything from seafood to ice cream to steak. Everybody carried around a glass of beer or wine, and again, it was only noon.
We joined the club and had some of both while sampling the seafood. Poor Lisa was still struggling from jetlag and wasn’t hungry, though she was dying to enjoy fresh seafood. I promised her we would come back later that night.
Well, we didn’t.
After the afternoon siesta we did some serious shopping. We started at Salvador Bachiller, a leather shop found only in Madrid. Lisa wanted a new purse and decided I needed a new wallet. It took a couple of hours, but we finally found the perfect purse, with (relatively) very little argument.
We took the subway to another neighborhood known for its boutiques and we searched the racks for dresses and more purses. At this point Lisa wanted to find a wallet for herself. At the Tribunal Plaza subway, we noticed that a gigantic crowd of people was gathering. We went to investigate and couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on. It looked as if there was going to be some famous musician performing, but I couldn’t see a stage or equipment, just the huge crowd of people.
We ignored it and continued our shopping escapades. We walked up Paseo de la Castellana, an open air shopping strip similar to the ped mall in Iowa City, only all of the shops in Madrid were along one stretch. At Adolfo Dominguez Lisa had me try on shoes. I had difficult determining my size. Apparently in Europe I am a size 48 instead of a size 9 (at least as far as I can remember). Luckily they were sold out of my size and I didn’t have to try on any more shoes.
We returned to the tapas bar at Plaza Mayor, Meson del Champinon, which is renowned for its grilled mushrooms. Half the people there were Asian and carried the same guidebook as Lisa. But it was a trippy little place designed like an underground
cave (it was literally underneath Plaza Mayor). The walls were bright green with sculptured mushrooms growing out of the ceiling. There was this wizened old man playing the keyboards accompanied by a drum machine. He sang the best version of “New York, New York” ever. The first half he sang like Frank Sinatra, and the second half he sang in a Louis Armstrong voice.
Lisa asked me if I ever tripped on mushrooms. Meson del Champinon would definitely be the place to do it.
It was getting late and Lisa wanted to return to San Miguel for the seafood. However, I forced her to walk down Calle Cava Baja, another recommendation of Zach and Jeff. Cava Baja was lined with tapas bars on both sides of the street. Young revelers were abound and we hopped from bar to bar. The first stop was a bit shady. It was brand new and served tiny tapas, with flecks of fish lighted atop two slices of French bread. The bars improved after that, and Lisa was able to treat herself to the fresh seafood she was longing for.
Which proved my point from the beginning, it is better to move on and try something new rather than go backwards and return to a place we have already been. Especially when we were operating on such a tight schedule as it was. Onward!
We returned to our hotel after midnight and the streets were still filled with boistrous revelers. As it turned out, Jan. 6 was Three Kings Day, and that was what the crowd was gathering for earlier. Spain celebrates this day as the day the three kings visited the Christ child, and they treat it as a bigger holiday than Christmas. So apparently there were all of these parades and candy was passed out to children. Then the adults got plastered at night and whooped and hollered until dawn, with constant police/ambulance sirens blaring. This is how I remember it, because I was not able to get a blink of sleep.
Jet lag had kicked in for me, and I was wide awake all night. We had a 7 a.m. train to Sevilla, and that is when I was finally able to catch some Zs, for the entire 2 1/2 hour ride, missing a glorious sunrise over the Spain countryside.
Thus begun our day trip to Sevilla/Carmona.
Let me tell you what I know about Sevilla.
- Pretty sure that is not the correct spelling.
- Not really sure how to pronounce it. Either its a long LL sound. Or its with a long EE. Like Saveeya.
- According to DNA evidence, it is the burial location of Christopher Columbus. Except it was a holiday, so we couldn’t get into the cathedral.
And this is what we did.
We arrived at about 9 a.m. We got on a bus for Carmona. Which is not a tapas bar in Sevilla. It is another town 45 minutes away. But it’s historical.
The bus dropped us off around 10:30. Mind you, we had already taken a train for 2 1/2 hours, and was not mentioned, a taxi ride to the bus stop, then this 45 minutes bus ride. And I was operating on minimal sleep.
So when we got to Carmona, to say I was disoriented is like saying Scooby Doo has a funny lisp.
According to the guidebook, in the 12th and 13th century, Carmona was a hub of Moorish dominance. They had ruins of gates
and walls and castles and some really big cathedrals. All of this strewn throughout a quaint hamburg listed on the historic registry. The residential homes are lined along skinny alleyways, with walls still painted white, a style descended from the Moors.
We wandered down the main strip, the locals were filtered on the street, like hung over Mr. Wizard clones sipping their lattes, pretending not to stare at the tourists.
Lisa asked me, “Do you know where we are going?”
“Yes,” I said. “Straight ahead.”
As mentioned before, it was the Three Kings holiday, so the museum was closed, as were many shops and cafes. After a good jaunt and seeing all of the sites, we found ourselves in a crepes cafe for lunch.
A married couple owned this modern establishment and had recently opened. They were from Barcelona, and the locals had yet to warm up to the new restaurant. The couple were extremely friendly, and the crepes were delicious. It is safe to say it was my first time ever eating a crepe. So upon my recommendation, the best crepes in the world are in Carmona, Spain.
We hobbled our way back to the bus stop and returned to Sevilla. This time Lisa slept the entire way while I stared out the window trying to get my bearings. The bus took a different route back, so I was mildly concerned we were going to end up in the wrong city.
Lucky for us, we didn’t. We ended back up in Sevilla. We strolled through the downtown villa. Then circled around the aforementioned Catedral de Sevilla, the supposed resting place of Chris Columbus. It was huge
(the third largest gothic cathedral in Europe.). We walked along the Alcazar, a medieval Islamic palace. Also closed, we just stared up at the walls. We did the same at the University of Seville, a former tobacco factory that served as the inspiration for the opera Carmen.
After fruitless hours of walking, we sat in the plaza and listened to a flamenco guitar player. He was really
good. You could tell because he didn’t have a tip jar. He was only selling CDs. Being the tourists we are, we bought one, but made him sign it first.
From there we toured through Barrio Santa Cruz, formerly a Jewish ghetto, that is now a maze of winding backstreets. We found the occasional quaint boutique, and found a one room artist’s shop where we purchased some paintings of flamenco dancers.
The day was growing dark, so we stopped by an uninspiring tapas bar (which was disappointing, because tapas were invented in Sevilla) before making our way to the airport.
The Sevilla airport has the most lax security of any airport anywhere, except the fact I was so out of it by this point, and after going through the metal detector, I had all of my luggage strewn about the terminal.
Our flight to Barcelona was on time. I had the middle seat, between Lisa and a very attractive, young Spanish girl. Lisa and the girl fell asleep immediately. Lisa leaned against the window. The girl leaned against my shoulder. I was conflicted.
Alas, we landed in Barcelona without incident. We discovered the Aerobus, which makes regular trips between the airport and downtown Barcelona every five minutes for a mere 5 euros. Unfortunately, this was the last positive experience we had with the Barcelona transportation system.
The bus dumped us off in Plaza de Catalanya at about 11 p.m. We found the subway stop and dragged all of our luggage onto the train. The train went one stop where we transferred to another train. Except the transfer was at least a half mile hike underground. After like 20 minutes, we boarded the second train. After one stop, we got off and were supposedly at the stop for our hotel.
Except, Lisa and I were both pretty delirious and frustrated by this point. The biggest point of confusion is that in Madrid the word for street is Calle, while in Barcelona, the word for street is Carrer. For whatever reason, this caused great consternation while reading the map, and we literally circled one large block searching for our hotel.
We arrived back at the subway stop and renewed our search. Luckily we walked in the right direction, and by 12:30 we were at our hotel.
We stayed at the EuroPark Hotel, which is perhaps the greatest hotel I have every had the pleasure to visit. The room was quiet and comfortable. The bathroom was huge, as was the tub. The best part was I found a music channel on the tv that played 24
hours of commercial free American music videos from the 80’s, 90’s and today. There was a speaker in the bathroom so I could listen to music while sitting on the pot.
The hotel also had a terrace on our floor (the 8th floor) overlooking the Barcelona skyline, and an outdoor swimming pool that was operational, but a little too cold this time of year. After one night at Hotel EuroPark, we were completely refreshed.
At which point we were able to commence our honeymoon in Barcelona.
If Madrid had a shady cousin who has a new job every three months, who has been to jail a couple of times for mysterious crimes like fraud and conspiracy, yet still buys you a leather jacket for Christmas or treats you at the gogo bar where he knows all of the dancers, that would be Barcelona.
There were some similarities between Barcelona and Madrid. There were great art museums (such as the Dali and the Picasso museums), grand cathedrals and bountiful markets.
The service employees were friendly and helpful. For instance, when I oafishly bent my 4-day subway pass on day 3, the ticket agent was very courteous and prompt in providing a new one, something that would never happen in America.
And the clerk at our hotel was very gracious and spoke perfect English, as were the bartenders at the tapas bars.
But there were subtle differences, and some dubious dealings with some merchants. Such as the girl at the smoothie stand who charged me 4 euro for a mango-banana drink when the sign clearly said $1.50. Or the bartender who wouldn’t show me the receipt when I asked him if we were charged for the stuffed mushrooms we never received.
There were also some seedy looking characters strolling about Las Ramblas, especially later at night when we seemed to be the only tourists dumb enough to be out and about.
But we ran into no trouble, and the wonders Barcelona had to offer greatly outweighed the hazards.
For starters, Barcelona has Gaudi.
If you didn’t know brilliant architect Antoni Gaudi before arriving in Barcelona (such as me), you sure as hell will before you leave.
Gaudi was the leader of the modernismo movement in architecture that took place between 1890 and 1910. His artsy buildings blended curved lines and organic forms easily recognized in nature.
This can be seen in the incomplete la Sagrada Familia, an extravagant cathedral that started construction in 1882 and is
scheduled for completion in 2025. In my opinion, the rounded columns resembled bones, and the ceiling looked like the spinal column of a giant beast. But that’s just what I saw. I’m probably wrong.
There were a few buildings designed by Gaudi, some being used as office space, strewn about Barcelona. The front of Casa Batllo resembles ocean waves, while the starker Casa Mila looks like an eroded rock wall.
La Sagrada Familia was the highlight of Barcelona for me, and possibly the whole trip. The genius of Gaudi was evident in every brick and mortar. Friends who visited the cathedral three years ago said the insides were still a construction zone, but today it is a usable sanctuary.
Most of the construction is occurring in the
rooftops and spires. We were able to take the elevator to the top and look out over Barcelona, with the Mediterranean Sea laying on the horizon. Then we had to walk down 350 steps. Each step seemingly taller than the previous, and going down in a spiral, so much so that both Lisa and I suffered
For Lisa, the highlight of the trip was Gaudi’s visionary neighborhood Parc Guell. His idea was for this sprawling park to be the ideal residential district, with a total of 30-some homes. However, only two houses were built, one of which was Gaudi’s own. The park featured statues of multi-colored lizards, scenic bridges and quiet foot paths, with everything sloping up the hillside.
Gaudi must have been one fit fella, because everything he designed had a ridiculous amount of steep steps.
But Gaudi wasn’t the only thing Barcelona has to offer.
Our first stop was the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter). This is an old aristocratic quarters, with some buildings dating back to medieval times. The Barri Gotic once again featured narrow streets lined with classy boutiques, and is where we did most of our shopping. Lisa found a new satchel, new shoes and gifts, while I found my new hat. One of those European golf-brimmed caps all the hipsters are
This area is also where the Catedral de Barcelona, Museu Picasso, Museu Dali, and the Mercat de la Boqueria.
At the tapas bar in the middle of the mercat was where we found our first taste of the sumptuous seafood that is found in Barcelona.
On our first night we met up with friends of Lisa’s who were visiting from London. They took us to a nice restaurant in Barcelona called Cerveceria Catalana. It was the first time Lisa and I went out to a restaurant rather than a tapas bar. The seafood was again out of this world. We had muscles, octopus, eel, and a bunch of other crap I can’t remember.
Coincidentally, for lunch the next day, we met up with some different friends of Lisa’s who happen to study at the business school in Barcelona. We followed their directions to the restaurant where we were to meet, and wouldn’t you know it, we found ourselves back at Cerveceria Catalana. I tell you, the Japanese follow their guide books to a T, and sure enough, there were several other Asians at the place.
At least it was good.
In hindsight, one thing I regret about Barcelona is not exploring more dining establishments. We ended up at Cerveceria Catalana twice, and on two occasions ate at a touristy place called TapasTapas, which is like the Applebees of tapas bars.
But they stayed open late and had a very tourist friendly menu.
Our friend Zach recommended that we try the Catalana tapas bars, and I don’t know that we ever did.
We did enjoy one local treasure Bar del Pi, which had the most diverse tapas of anywhere else we visited. Delicious spreads of various colors were smothered on French bread and were out of this world. The only problem was there were no chairs at the bar. You were forced to stand, which was burdensome after a long day of serious shopping.
We did spend a little bit of money at another touristy restaurant on the Rambla del Mar, a wharf on the Mediterranean. It was
our last day, and we finally had some real paella. The weather was over 60 degrees and I stripped down to a T-shirt. We had a gorgeous view of the sea, so we didn’t mind being sucked into a tourist trap.
Another highlight of Barcelona was our trip to the flamenco show at Tablao Flamenco Cordobes. We went with Lisa’s friends. I underestimated the flamenco. The performers’ musical talents far exceeded expectations. It started slow, with a group of four men clapping rhythmically, and singing in gutteral tones. Then one by one, the dancers performed. The first was a younger lady, with a thick body and quick feet. She used her flamenco shoes to lead the rhythm and her hips swayed like dulcimer waves.
Next came the dude. He was older, and dressed in traditional matador garb, his slicked hair loosening as his performance became more frantic. He danced with bravado. Lisa and Yukiko didn’t think he was cute enough. I found him to be very talented.
They finished with a grand finale, all of the dancers and musicians performing together. The whole production reminded me of a Japanese kubuki theatre. Very dramatic, very unique, and steeped in local culture and history.
Our last night in Barcelona was bittersweet. We weren’t ready to return to the States. I forced Lisa to stay at TapasTapas until 2 a.m. while I downed beers and her head bobbed up and down in fits of sleep.
At least our flight wasn’t until 1 p.m. so we were able to take our time gathering ourselves in the morning. The flight back to Philadelphia was full of more hassles than the flight out. Most of the problems were because of my disheveled passport, which has had one trip through the laundry. At least it is valid.
We would return to Spain in a heartbeat, and I think Lisa is secretly working on a transfer from Tokyo to Barcelona. There were a few sites we missed, like the aforementioned Goya’s Tomb in Madrid and the Fundacio Joan Miro museum in Barcelona. There are several tapas bars we missed, as well as designer stores and boutiques.
The highlights for us was the Gaudi architecture, the bold 20th century art, the tapas and the people.
Hasta la vista! Dos cervezas por favor!