Spain….aaaaah Spain. We had to go some place to acquire new Russian visas for Nadia and me and Spain was as reasonably priced as the more traditional eastern European countries where Americans will go to get updated visas. During the trip, Nadia was most interested in swimming every day and we tried when ever possible to get her to the ocean or a pool. She was a trooper during the whole trip putting up with a lot of walking and seeing adult things like museums. Papa carried her quite a bit on my shoulders so she didn’t fatigue so easily.
We arrived on July 27 and came home on August 13, staying in 6 different accommodations in that period of time and driving over 2,000 kilometers. Our last place was the best, but I am racing ahead.
Our car made it very fun. We had reserved VW Golf but Avis was out of Golf’s, so we had to settle for a six-speed BMW 118d turbo diesel. Most Spanish roads are excellent and I found myself tooling around at 140-150 kph with ease. Luckily I got no tickets. Spanish cops collect the money on the spot. This car sips fuel but is a real rocket and gave added enjoyment to our trip being able to drive a high performance car.
We flew into Madrid spending two days. We toured the Prado Museum seeing pictures by the masters including Peter Paul Rubens. Ruben paintings of chunky women, proves that cellulite was a problem in the late 1500’s. Rubens was sixty when he married his 16 year old wife; she was the subject of many of his works and appears along with her girl friends to need lipo treatments in the worst way. Seriously the paintings were beautiful…………
We also visited the Spanish Royal Palace, a “working palace” and home to King Juan-Carlos. It is a fine representation of palaces going back to the 1500’s. Exquisite rooms and furnishings with one of the biggest dining and dancing rooms anywhere; the table could seat up to 122 of your closest friends.
In retrospect, both Sophie and I agree that Madrid is more to our liking than the city of Barcelona. Barcelona is a seaside city with a lot of history but it is edgy and not as sophisticated and rich culturally as Madrid……..just our opinion and yes, Gaudi and Picasso are center pieces of Barcelona. We did however find certain areas to the north and south of Barcelona to be very interesting.
To the north we visited Cadaques and Port Ligit. The former is a quaint seaside resort where we spent three nights. It is architecturally preserved as a small village; no building is more than 4 stories tall. It has the flavor with musicians, street characters and intellectuals to be a “Spanish Key West” – very laid back, very sexy women with few cloths on. Port Ligit is a fishing village which is a 20 minute walk from downtown Cadaques. Here is where artist Salvador Dali lived 6 months out of the year. He painted many of his greatest works in this house which he and his wife/muse Gala strung together from 7 fisherman’s houses. We ventured to the town of Figures to the Dali Museum as well but did not tour the museum due to the 2 hour time in line to get tickets.
We stayed in a wonderful two star hotel in Cadaques called “Marina” run by Paco and his mother and father. We focused throughout the trip on being able to stay in accommodations that kept us at or below 60 € per day for the three of us. We were a ½ block from the beach at Marina and just loved the ambiance of our room and its proximity to the action. At the other end of our drive through the region was the Park Ledo in Rubi. Rubi is a bedroom community of Barcelona (pronounced Bar-thee-lona). The “c” in Spanish often turns into a “th” sound. Park Ledo was billed as an “ApartHotel” which provided us with a two story townhouse-condo with a full kitchen also for 60 € per night. Our only “dud” on the trip was a Rick Steves- suggested place in “Chinatown” off the La Ramblas district of Barcelona. It was a former nuns quarters converted into a hotel and was 90 € per night. Sophie didn’t feel safe here. I did find this place interesting with its 5 story atrium center with the ceiling being all skylight. I think architect John Portman may have gotten his idea for his famous multi-story atrium hotels Bonaventure in L.A. and Renaissance in Detroit from this old place.
I mentioned Rick Steves……..we had purchased from Amazon-UK, his 2007 guide to Spain and found it very useful to organize our day trips. He basically starts in Barcelona and works his way around the country in a counter-clockwise fashion. But he stops his commentary in Gibraltar, leaving the entire coastal regions from Gibraltar, moving through Valencia and up to the Tarragona wine region completely without commentary. We had emailed him and got a reply from one of his staff that they had not been there yet! We made it to Tarragona and found it beautiful with rolling hills, scrub oak and many wineries with strong histories in some cases dating back to 800-900’s. Valencia remains one our places to visit on the next trip to Spain.
Rick mentioned the pick pockets in Barcelona and we saw this first hand with our friend Karen who joined us from Denver. Her wallet with cash and her only credit card was stolen which put stress on her holiday.
We spent two days at Montserrat a Benedictine Monastery that dates to 1025. You need to Google Montserrat or check out more about it via Wikipedia. It was an inspiring stop on the trip where we were able to touch the orb of the Black Virgin. This church relic has been carbon dated to be 800 years old but it is suggested in legend that the Apostle Luke had had a hand in carving it. This places it to be more like 2,000 years old. The Virgin was hidden in caves from the marauding hordes of Muslims that moved across Spain during the 10th and 11th centuries.
Food and Beverage: We found the food actually not all that interesting. The “tapas” are small plates with different offerings. Calamari is good as are some of the vegetable offerings but the way they prepare beef was not very interesting to me. There is little spicing. Ham (Jamon in Spanish) is king. I wanted to get a whole hind quarter of pig, hoof and all, but I could not have gotten it past customs coming into Russia. The ham is excellent and is used for a variety of dishes. The red wines are very good. On our last day we found a red table (rojah) wine for 1.60 € per 750ml bottle that was excellent. As for beer I recommend Estrella Damm, creamy and really tasty with Calamari.
Bull Fighting: As you all know I am not an animal rights whacko. But I have to say with bull fighting – what an incredible waste of time. There are quicker and less tortuous ways to kill an animal. The bull fight is all about machismo putting the picadors and the matadors in the way of a bull that weighs 565kg.We watched two “fights” on TV and that was enough for us. The object is to “bleed” the animal by opening wounds in the top of the bulls back with the picador sticks. By the end of the match, the front 1/3 of the bull’s body is drenched in his own blood. The wounds in the top of the back obviously piss off the bull, making him work harder to get back at the tormentors in the arena which weakens him all the more; it’s a vicious cycle for the bull. By the end, the bull if he has not just collapsed will stand there with his tongue hanging out waiting for the matador to drive a 3 foot long sword down through his back hopefully hitting his heart in the process. When the bull is down, he is unceremoniously dragged from the arena by a tractor, off to the hamburger factory. I found myself rooting for the bull to get a horn hooked into the matador. Bull fighting is a big part of Spanish culture but seems to be less popular than in past times. I won’t tell the Spanish to outlaw this brutal tormenting of bulls but neither would I ever spend money to go see such a dreadful spectacle.
Amazingly only 3 matadors have been killed over the past 100 years; obviously this “sport” is stacked against the bull coming out on top. A sidebar to the bull fight is the costuming of the matador. They wear very tight fitting pants to avoid being skewered by the bull’s horn. It is legend how Spanish women look at the matador’s “package” ohing and ahing a the “ca-honies” as shown by the brave matador. The package is actually placed carefully to one side or the other depending on the matador’s approach with his cape to the left or right of the bull. The old saying “he has a lot of balls” in this context has a double meaning. The matador endeavors to please both the female spectators who watch the matadors “package” and the men who want to see the matador exercise his machismo – his “psychological balls” so to speak by just being in the arena with a huge, dangerous animal.
Spain is a clean modern country, Public transport is exceptional. Local buses in Madrid and Barcelona are Mercedes, the metros are well developed and clean and trains run all over the nation. Even a train from Barcelona to the Montserrat Benedictine Monastery runs twice daily.
We will return. More in a subsequent Blog on Spain.