Random thoughts…

Names: The Catalan language is something unlike we’ve ever heard before. From what we can decipher, it’s a hybrid of Spanish and French, with an awesome lisp on various letters. That said, we decided to take on psuedo-names for the trip. Miguel’s Castelonian name is “Sergio Sebastian de Barcelona,” pronounced “theregio thebathian of Barthelona” and mine is “Vicky Christina de Barcelona,” pronounced “vicky chrithina of Barthelona.” Evidently Vicky Christina Barcelona is actually a movie title that we’ve now added to our Netflix as I’m sure it will provide some post travel entertainment. Yeah, we’re silly, but adds to our entertainment when we hear people pronounce various words in the city.

Architecture: We spent a day touring various Gaudi architectural wonders including the Sagrada Familia and Casa Batlló. The Sagrada Familia is a church that started construction in 1882 and still isn’t finished. Currently it’s estimated to be complete in 2030. Definitely some amazing architecture, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit swindled when they charged us 13 Euro to enter a church that isn’t complete. And by not complete, I mean the entire inside of the church is blocked off with raw materials (marble/concrete, etc) on the ground and the exterior has 4 cranes. What I couldn’t understand is that we were one of a few thousand people paying entry, so I’m not sure why this thing isn’t finished yet. Mike said I was full of sour grapes.

The Casa Batlló was far more impressive, and completed. Gaudi was commissioned by Josep Batlló i Casanovas to convert an existing building, and WOW: I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was somewhat mythological while also very aquatic. Miguel took a whole lot of photos of this, which will describe it better, but we definitely enjoyed it.

Cigarettes: One of the best things about Europe is that you can smoke virtually anywhere. I mean, I’ve seen mother’s smoking with their kids sitting next to them (taboo in the U.S.) and pregnant women sitting at a table full of smokers (also taboo in the U.S.) I think I read somewhere that the life expectancy of Europeans far exceeds the U.S., but you’d never guess when you see how many people smoke here. Anyhow, we finally ran out of our last carton of U.S. smokes, so we had to go on a quest to determine which non-U.S. cigarettes were suitable. We started with Habanos (too much like a cigar), tried the French brand, Gauloises (not bad), but found our preferred brand is John Player Special White. Very smooth and comparable to U.S. carton prices.

Nigerian Prada Kings: All around Spain, at least in the cities we’ve been to, you see African men wandering around with big white bundles. These bundles are full of Prada and Vuitton knock offs, and not very good ones at that. Anyhow, the bundles, when on the ground, form a sheet where they can display their various bags for people to buy. Of course this is frowned upon by the Policia here. So to solve for this there is a string tied to each corner, and if you watch these guys they are constantly looking over their shoulders. When they see the Policia coming, in one quick pull of the string, their sheet pulls in all 20-30 bags and they are off and running. They also travel in packs, so when they come running, it’s about 20 guys coming at you at full speed. Pretty entertaining sight to see, I’m just disappointed I didn’t get it on video :)

That’s all for now. We loved our time in Barcelona, but it’s time to head to the French Wine Country :)

Tortas in Spain

Leave it to Liz to find the only place in Barcelona that serves tortas.

The concierge at the hotel didn’t understand why we would want to come here, but like Cheech Marin in Europe we were having taco withdrawls.  The restaurant is in one of the neighborhoods that was having it’s festival during our visit.  This brought up Barcelon’s already hi-voltage atmosphere to a level somewhere between Mardi Gras in NoLa and Woodstock (’89…everyone was well-dressed).

Fat Americans

So we already suffered the indignity of the Renault Vel Satis.  I tried to get either an Audi or Mercedes for the Monaco leg of the trip, but Europcar wasn’t having it.  They said that most Americans like the bigger cars, and this was the biggest they had.  This exchange happened in Marseille, and I didn’t have the language skills to debate with them.

On the Barcelona to Bordeuax leg, I wasn’t going to have it again.  First they tried to strap us with the Renault Espace.  One look at it and I told them to it was too big (it seats 9, I think).  Then they tried to move us down to a Ford X-Mas.  Basically the same car, only made by Ford and about 2 cm shorter.  Maybe the Ford only seats 8.  They actually had to bring this one from the main lot away from the airport and we had to wait 30 minutes for it.

When we balked at this one they finally gave us an Audi A4 (for the same price).  They should know that I’m not your normal everyday fool!  😀

Barthelona

This is the view from the balcony at our hotel. We’re a block off the Plaça Catalunya, a key hub in the city. Barcelona has been really great so far: easy to get around, great food, great art history and the Olympics turned it into the Spanish San Francisco/Miami.

Also, I’ve never seen such amazing interior design. Most of the elements are familiar, but the Catalans have put their own spin on it. They’ve integrated the disparate cultures of the Med (Spanish, French, Italian/Roman, Greek, Turkish, Jewish/Israeli, Egyptian and Arabic) into a cohesive whole that just feels right.

The Oldest Restaurant In The World

We came to Europe because we won, in some cosmic lottery, a reservation at the best restaurant in the world. But since we were going to be here we also wanted to see what else they had to offer. Although we didn’t know about it before we came, our guidebook tipped us off to the presence of the oldest restaurant in the world here in Madrid. That’s nice and all, but what sold me were the facts the Hemingway hung out here and that their specialty is suckling pig. The place is called El Sobrino del Botin, it was founded in 1725 and it’s featured in “The Sun Also Rises.”

The history in the restaurant is palpable, and the menu is simple. The pretty much do one thing and they do it really well. We started with some Jerez (Tio Pepe) and gazpacho. I think this was the first time either of us had tried either and we’re now big fans of both. Next came the pig, and it was absolutely awesome. I haven’t had this dish since I was ~7 years old, and to be honest I can’t remember anything about that meal other than the cool wine bottles. This time, however, I get to record it for posterity! While they didn’t deposit a whole pig on the table, there was at least a pound of pork split into three large pieces from various parts of the beast. The meat itself was tender, juicy and had more pork flavor than I would’ve expected. The meat was accentuated by a simple au jus-like broth and the skin (crackling). Regarding crackling: think wafer thin chicharones that are as crispy as fresh tortilla chips. The whole package is delectable. I’m really going to seek this out in the US.

While everything was wonderful, I couldn’t help thinking that we just ate at the Madrileño House of Prime Rib. They do one thing, they do it well, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. I kind of have to think that if we lived here we would only bring in guests from out of town. But as a traveler, it was exactly the sort of place I seek out. And as a bonus I got to walk in some more of Ernest’s footsteps!

Loving Madrid

A quick blog before we head to dinner. While I’d been here before on business, I didn’t quite get what the city was about since I was mainly hanging out with coworkers from various offices around the world. But this is definitely our kind of town. The food is fantastic (who doesn’t love heaps of chorizo, el jamon serrano and manchega) and the people are wonderful. While Paris was beautiful and Monaco otherworldly in that James Bond sort of way, it was challenging for us since neither of us speaks much French beyond “bon jour” and “merci.” In only 3 short days Michael’s Spanish is getting us around remarkably and he’s even taken to the Castillian lisp, which I fear may stick with him – the people in Mexico DF are going to love him the next time we visit – HA! Really, to hear Michael pronounce “gracias” as the Castillian’s do is hysterical (it’s “gla-th-ias”, by the way.)

Anyhow, we’re off for our last evening in Madrid. Barcelona, ready or not, here we come!

La Palacete de Roses

This image was taken outside a cute little park in Madrid.  In the park is the Temple of Debod, a real Egyptian temple given to the Spanish government in thanks for helping to catalog the artifacts in the Nile valley above the Aswan dam before it was flooded. The temple is amazing in this setting, perched on the top of the highest hill in Madrid, adjacent to the Palacio Real (the Spanish White House).

The cafe was extremely chill, and it’s also where we first discovered the joys of the Cuba Libre (rum and coke) made with Havana Club. We both wanted something cold since it was so hot, but we also wanted to get our groove on. Beer didn’t sound nice at the time, and it didn’t seem like the right environment for Jerez. Then I remembered that we could get Cuban rum here legally! This instantly became the default drink for the remainder of the trip, even after we got back to France.

Las Ventas

One of Madrid’s allures to me was the Plaza de Toros Las Ventas. This is widely considered to be the most important bull ring in the world. It’s the equivalent of Yankee Stadium for baseball or Texas Stadium for Football (which oddly enough both had a swan song last season).

This photo was taken just before the start of the parade that kicks off the corrida. Note the position of the shadow at the center of the ring. The location of this shadow is what dictates the start time for the fight because the promoters make more money by selling more seats in the shade. Our corrida started at 19:00, and as you can see we were in the shade (sombra).

Unfortunately there were no Habanos to be had since the state-run tabacarias in Madrid have been closed all weekend because of the Fiesta la Paloma. It’s basically like all of the neighborhood fairs in San Francisco were held over one weekend. Most of the stores are closed, and many of the bars and restaurants have closed for the holiday. However, in our 2 days here we have been to enough cafes, cervecerias and restaurants to last us a month at home. More about a few of those tomorrow!

Museo Reina Sophia

After we checked into our hotel (more on that over the next few days), the first order of business was lunch. Our hotel is on a square that is filled with cafes. We had our first real meal of tapas, and were happy as clams (marinated in olive oil, of course!). The next stop was El Museo Nacional, Centro de Arte: The Reina Sophia.

In one word: Wow!

Granted, this museum is only for 20th Century art, but it was absolutely my favorite so far (Liz still has Picasso, Paris, on her ballot). The famous pieces are:

  • Picasso’s Guernica
  • I bought a portfolio of the entire canvas at a 1:1 ratio…it’s a box with 600 sheets. Problem is they’re printed front and back, so I would’ve needed to buy 2 copies to assemble my own. Esta bien.

  • Dali’s Woman at a Window
  • Her calves have the most amazing lighting effect. It is indescribable.

  • Picasso’s Woman in Blue
  • He disavowed this painting because it didn’t win a National competition; only came in Runner-up.

Manejando Rapidamente

The next part of our trip called for us to drop off the French Wagon Queen Family Truckster 177 km south of Roses in Barcelona. We left Roses just a little bit late, so the optimist in me said that we could make it up on the drive down. I fell in with a convoy of speedy Spaniards in riced-out BMWs, and it turned out that we actually arrived earlier than planned!

We arrived in the Barcelona airport, turned in the car (no damage penalty on the mirror!), checked in and walked leisurely to our gate. The flight to Madrid was painless…akin to SF to LA. The drive to the hotel was equally painless. What I’m learning really quickly about Spain is that there is almost no stress. Which made it REALLY ironic to see a Church of Scientology a block from our hotel. Maybe they heard we were coming and set it up as a precaution? 😉

All in, everyone is really nice, and my Spanish is going really far.