Category Archives: spain

Year end summary for 2018

According to LibraryThing, I read 28 books.  I have two others still in progress that I started in 2018 and have stalled on a little, mostly because I haven’t had the patience to settle in to a long read since about Thanksgiving.  Several of the 28 books were the Rivers of London graphic novels, which I find to be easy/quick reads, although I don’t love the art particularly. The highest rated books were Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which I read all in one go, and two pieces of non-fiction: a biography of the Widow Clicquot and The Prodigal Tongue by Lynne Murphy.   The biggest disappointments (other than DNFs that I have stopped recording) were the two In Death books I tried to read: one had victim blaming and slut shaming, while the other had transphobia and showed a complete lack of knowledge/research about civil and criminal securities fraud investigation/prosecution. Stick a fork in me, I am done.

Theater and film:  Just film this past year, because I didn’t love what was scheduled for the then-upcoming theater season and so did not renew my subscription.

  • Molly’s Game
  • Phantom Thread
  • Black Panther
  • Annihilation
  • Tomb Raider
  • Love, Simon
  • Avengers: Infinity War
  • RBG
  • Ocean’s 8
  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor
  • Crazy Rich Asians
  • Widows
  • The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Lisbeth Salander)


  • Houston
  • Pittsburgh
  • Asheville
  • Rome – primarily for the food and the Italian Open 🙂
  • Spain – Granada, Sevilla, Madrid

NWHL – all the Riveters’ home games for the end of the 2017-2018, including playoffs and the Isobel Cup Final; all but one home game for the beginning of the 2018-2019 season (it was Thx weekend), as well as the neutral site game in Pittsburgh.

NHL – an embarrassing number of games, including playoffs.  But I didn’t renew my partial season ticket plan to the Capitals; in part because they jacked the prices up in a crazy way, and in part because I’m tired of being harassed and threatened at the games.  One of my colleagues swears the harassment should stop now since they’ve won the Cup, but the two individual games I went to early in the season (Toronto, VGK) did not bear that prediction out.

For baseball, there were just three games:  NYY, Marlins, and Rays, all in June and July.

Museums and cultural events…the Walters, the Heinz, so much in Rome that I need to write about.  Two Frank Turner shows.  Sunday in the country, which I went to more to be social than because I knew anything about any of the acts.

Professionally speaking, the beginning of the year was a grind.  The middle of the year and into fall were pretty good.  And then the end of the year was okay in terms of the substance of work but a nightmare because of the furlough.  (So much work is accumulating. It will take a massive effort to dig out.  And the longer it goes, the harder it will be to get current again.)

Leave a comment

Filed under miscellanea, movies, Read or seen, spain, travel

Gaudi’s birthday

Yesterday’s Google doodle reminded me (and Internet searchers everywhere) that it was Antoni Gaudi’s birthday.

I meant to repost these but I fail. So here they are, a day late, a couple photos of Gaudi-designed things from my Barcelona trip last year.

Vents on Casa Mila, the Sagrada Familia, and Casa Batllo.





Filed under spain, travel

Please let me direct your attention

+  It’s the Fiesta de San Fermín.  (How do I get the accent to work when I’m typing directly in WordPress?)  Check out this gorgeous photo by Mike Randolph.  No bulls or crazy running men, but a lot of San Fermines gathering.  Time has a slideshow, but none of the photos are as good IMO.

~  Is it appropriate for tattoos to be considered in a visa or LPR application when those tattoos are traditionally affiliated with criminal gangs?  The WSJ writes about it today.

–  The last few episodes of NYC-22 that were filmed are being aired by CBS and then made available for viewing online (not sure how long that’ll last).  I feel somewhat ambivalent about the show (unoriginal) as a whole but am entertained by Stark Sands in the Crossing the Rubicon episode:  shout out to Tunny?  He and Adam Goldberg have great chemistry, and I love how they break out a Sharpie to draw tattoos on McLaren when he reveals that he’s an ink-virgin.

Leave a comment

Filed under spain

Te quiero, España

A while back I added Mike Randolph’s photos of Spain to my feed.  I especially loved the photo of the Tio Pepe sign.  I think I mentioned in my travel recap post that the sign was missing from the Puerta del Sol in Madrid on my trip this past February; the roof of the building looked oddly naked without it, despite being shrouded in scaffolding.  Apparently may not be reinstalled after the renovation of the building.

Anyway, going through my personal photos, I found this older photo of the Tio Pepe sign:

Tio Pepe sign in the Puerta del Sol
Taken February 2009

And here is the same building this past February, signless.  Apparently I didn’t take a photo of the naked building, although I definitely remarked upon it in my travel journal.
I’ve got a photo of the Mezquita in Cordoba in black and white that I took a while back (maybe in 2002 or so?), but it doesn’t look nearly as good as his — imagine that!  Hmm, I should find the digital back up of the photo (not on this hard drive but on disc, I think).
Sort of but not really related:  a couple of weeks ago The Economist reviewed La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World.  Which seems prescient in light of La Roja’s EuroCup2012 win over Italy yesterday.

Leave a comment

Filed under spain, travel

Wall of Avila

Medieval wall around the old town center of Avila, Spain.
Taken February 2009.

On my very first trip to Spain in high school, I took a similar photo.  The negative for the other photo is long gone and I don’t have an electronic version to share, just he 8×10 hanging in my living room.  Anyway, I had the original photo hanging on the wall in my office at my first “grown up” job; an attorney who leased space admired the photo on day and mentioned that he’d been there on his honeymoon in 1973 but there hadn’t been a footpath worn in the grass at the time.  I think it made him feel old when he realized how long it had actually been since his fondly remembered honeymoon.  (His wife was in declining health at the time.)

Although the original photo remains my favorite view, I love that in the photos from the more recent trip you can see the development going on in the area outside the center, and that you can climb up and walk along the wall.

Leave a comment

Filed under spain, travel

Barcelona: a city I’m going to want to visit again

The longer I go without writing up a travel narrative of some sort, the less likely it is that anything will be written at all.  I’ve got all kinds of notes in my travel moleskine, but they don’t count really.

While I had a general idea of things that I wanted to see in Barcelona, I had no itinerary or set plans.  Generally, on non-beach vacations in which I go to a destination, I do research in advance and compile a list of things to see/do, and then let circumstances dictate the order in which I see them (or not).  In this case, circumstances (also known as the perfidy of PHL and USAirways) dictated that I lost a day due to flight delays and missed connections, and also that my luggage arrive forty eight hours after I did.  My tentative plan to take a day trip to Figueres, Sitges, or Montserrat was lost with that extra day.  Oh, well, that just means I’ll have to go back, right? 🙂  I did get to tick off most of the big ticket items on my list though:  the Picasso Museum, the Sagrada Familia, the Olympic stadium, various works by Antoni Gaudí.

Baltimore to Philadelphia to Heathrow to Madrid.  The Iberia Airlines fellow who had to deal with those of us whose luggage was left in Philadelphia by USAirways (!!!) was very patient with both the problem and with my Spanish.  Took the Vueling shuttle on to Barcelona.  Both Iberia and Vueling fly out of the new Terminal 4 at Barajas; it is quite lovely architecture/design, but a long haul from the other terminals.  Landed in Barcelona and took the bus downtown to the Plaça de Catalunya and then walked to the hotel.   It was after 10pm and I’d been awake for more than 24 hours at that point, so I was out like a light.
 Sunday:  My tentative plan was to find breakfast, and then check out the Museu de Calçat (Shoe Museum) and Museu de la Xocolata (Chocolate Museum).   Walking down Passeig de Sant Joan toward the Arc de Triomf, stopped in at Forn Oriol and had a lovely croissant and cafe con leche.  (Drinking coffee is something I only do while traveling; I couldn’t say why exactly.)  Anyway, I passed the Chocolate Museum and decided to scope out the Shoe Museum first and save the Chocolate for the afternoon.  Walking toward the museum, which is located near the cathedral, I ran into a parade of sorts:  groups of school children and parents marching along, playing musical instruments, accompanied by figures.  They aren’t floats but are structures that a person carries, and they are known as Gigantes.  The streets in that area are pretty narrow, at least in terms of accommodating regular pedestrian traffic as well as a parade.  After some delay and a wrong turn, I found the Shoe Museum…and it was closed for renovations.  Wound up making my way back to the cathedral square and into the cathedral, which was emptying after the end of morning services.  Beautiful internal flying buttresses.  The crypt of Barcelona’s patron saint, Santa Eulalia, is below the altar, but there was a very long line.  Rather than join the queue, I admired the stonework and stained glass, and then made my way back outside.

In the plaza in front of the cathedral a stage had been set up and many, many people were gathered to watch.  Different groups of school children in costume performed dances and played music.  Next to the stage, several rows of tents had been erected, and various artisans were selling jewelry, candy, ceramics, leather goods, and handmade children’s clothing of natural cotton and wool.  I watched a glass jewelry artist demonstrate his craft, and admired the gorgeous ceramics of Pau Costa.

The Museu d’Història de la Ciutat (City History Museum) was nearby; it wasn’t on my list but the sign caught my eye.  Am glad I entered — this museum is all about the city’s history as a Roman outpost in Spain.  Instead of going up, entrants go down to the excavation below the building, where mosaics, chambers, ancient walls and roads can been seen.  I particularly loved the wine-making section, with its various vats, and one area in which the pattern of stonework looks like parquet flooring.

Roman wine-making facilities

Then the Museu de Frederic Mares.  I don’t really know what to think of Mr. Mares, except that today he would be considered a hoarder.  His collection includes loads of pipes, glasses, cigarette cases, keys, ironwork, sculpture, theater programs, playing cards, menus, cigar bands, fans, etc.  The ground floor is devoted entirely to sculpture; the collection of crucifixion sculptures is a little morbid; the rooms are lit by motion-sensitive fixtures, and I found it quite creepy to be suddenly plunged into darkness among the JCs who had been separated from their crosses.  Going up, you can see a variety of collections, as well as a study with a sizeable book collection and more scultpure, this time more modern.

Barcelona's beach

Monday:  One of my colleagues is planning on taking a Mediterranean cruise leaving from Barcelona next year, and asked me to scope out the W Hotel for her.  After breakfast at Forn Oriol again, I walked through the Arc de Triomf and  the Parc de la Ciutadella and along the edge of the La Barceloneta neighborhood, admiring the marina, until I hit the beach and could see the W in the distance.  Lots of seafood restaurants — poor planning on my part, none of them were open to try 😦  Then the long walk to the Museu Maritim, which is under renovation right now, but even the partial visit was good if you are interested in Barcelona’s history as a sea port and also the history of the shipping/sailing business.  Then up Las Ramblas: kind of tacky and over-touristy.  Worth walking up once only , unless you are interested in visiting the opera or the Boqueria.  The Boqueria was a madhouse, full of tourists and of regular people shopping for food.  The butcher stalls had beautiful cuts of meat, many that are not found in the average grocery store in my area:  tripe, pigs heads and feet, kidneys, etc.  The fruit and vegetable stalls almost all sold small cups of freshly squeezed juice, and I enjoyed  the mango with orange.  Right at the entrance, one sausage/ham vendor sold pintxos — meat lollipops of different types of ham and sausage.  Yum.

Sausage and ham stall at the Boqueria.

Fruit and nut stall in the Boqueria

Walking up Avinguda del Portal de l’Àngel, several jewelry and craft stalls were set up, including the glass jewelry maker who’d demonstrated his craft on Sunday.

View of the city from the top of the Castell de Montjuic

Tuesday: Took the bus up to Montjuïc in the morning and spent the entire day there.  The bus doesn’t go all the way to the top, where you can find the Castell de Montjuïc, but you can walk up.  It’s good work for your quads and your lungs…or it was for me.  If you have any sense (unlike me), you’ll take the funicular up from the metro station.  The view of the port and the rest of the city is gorgeous, and the fortifications have nice grounds and a small display on the history of the Spanish Air Force.  Taking the funicular down, it’s a short walk to the Fundació Joan Miró and then further on to the Olympic Stadium and a small sports museum.  Along the way, you cross a small walk of fame where the footprints of Lance Armstrong, Alberto Tomba, Pau Gasol and Rafael Nadal can be seen.

The Museu Nactional d’Arte de Catalunya is nearby, and is worth a visit for the view of the city from the front steps and for its collection of romanesque art harvested from small Catalan churches early in the 20th century before the works could be dismantled and placed in private collections.  I enjoyed the romanesque art but enjoyed the glasswork, painting and sculpture of the upper floor more, especially the metal sculpture of a dancer and of Don Quijote by Julio Gonzalez (I think) and the stained glass of Joaquim Mir.  There’s a temporary exhibit on history of coinage in Catalunya that’s quite interesting, and also a display of the engravings of Marià Fortuny

This doesn't look like chocolate, does it? A model of the sculpture from the Parc Güell.

Wednesday:  At last, I made it to the Chocolate Museum!  It’s relatively small, but takes a couple of hours to get through because of the number of displays and several short videos covering the history of chocolate, its social and political effects on Barcelona and Spain, and its manufacture.  Sprinkled in among the more standard museum-like displays are some amazing chocolate sculptures with a wide variety of subjects ranging from Barcelona itself, to the Sagrada Familia, movies, Don Quijote, a bullfighting scene, cartoons, and religious figures.  There’s an amazing Pieta in chocolate even!  I liked the model of the dragon of Parc Güell.

The Picasso Museum is worth visiting if you are a Picasso fan, I think.  I can appreciate his later work but actually like his earlier work more, especially the two portraits of women in mantillas.  It interests me, though, that he did his own iteration of Las meninas.

There’s a textile museum and a precolombian art museum in the same neighborhood, which I meant to visit but never made it back to.  Also in this neighborhood is the Church of Santa Maria of the Sea, a smaller church with lovely gothic interior.  It looks dark and dour from the outside but is surprisingly light inside.  The ceiling is still marked from a fire early in the 20th century.

Stained glass panel in Casa Amatller


Thursday:  Thursday was the day for Modernisme.  First to the Block of Discordon the Passeig de Gràcia.   I find the exterior of Casa Batlló to be somewhat disturbing – all the balconies look like masks to me, like faces looking out from the building.  Loved the stained glass wall of Casa Amatller.  Then on to the Sagrada Familia, which is huge and awesome (in the dictionary sense of the word).  The nativity facade is so incredibly ornate and busy, and it contrasts amazingly with the passion facade…which makes sense since they were executed by different people.  The stained glass is gorgeous, as are the corkscrew stair cases, and medallions on the ceiling, and the columns that fly up toward the roof like young trees.

Stained glass at the Sagrada Familia

After admiring the church and going through the display in the basement, I headed up Avinguda Gaudí toward the bus stop to get up to Parc Güell, being too lazy to hike that far.  Stopped for lunch at a cafe.  Had the fish of the day.  The waiter warned me that it was boquerones, a word I recognized as one I should know but could not define.  Sardines.  They were quite good — breaded and fried so they tasted crunchy and salty — and reminded me that I should keep an open mind about things and not just assume I won’t like them.  Because if I had remembered that boquerones meant sardines, I’d’ve gotten the pasta instead and missed out on a tasty meal.

The bus to the park included some scenic views.  I was very impressed by the driver’s skill at maneuvering the vehicle up and down narrow, one-way streets that were cramped with parked cars.  You are dropped off near the top of the park and can walk up or down.  I did both, and very much admired all the tile work on the benches, and the ginger-bread-like appearance on the buildings at the base of the park.

The real dragon sculpture of the park.

Friday:  Had to walk by the Mercat de Santa Caterina, if only to admire the colorful roof in person.  Once again was struck by the number of bicycles, mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles in Barcelona.  Seemed like there were many more of them than cars, and people of all ages could be seen riding them.  Then on to the Palau de la Música Catalana, which was absolutely worth the price of admission.  The guided tour was in English, but the guide spoke French, Catalan, Castilian, and some Italian as well, so he answered questions in a variety of tongues.  The stained glass was breathtaking.  This was an almost accidental stop — not entirely because you have to buy a ticket in advance — but wasn’t on my original plan, and it turned out to be my favorite sight of all.  Just utterly gorgeous.

Floor detail in apartment of La Pedrera


And then to visit Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera, an apartment building designed by Gaudí.  The public areas include the roof, which has a variety of levels and very distinct furnace vents; the attic, which is ribbed almost like the hull of a ship (inverted) and has a museum-like display of Gaudí’s work and furniture; and a model apartment of a middle class family from the early part of the 20th century.  I especially admired the hardwood floors in the apartment, which had a variety of patterns, and much of the furniture, which was very Art Nouveau.

Sculpted furnace vents of La Pedrera. A little creepy and mask-like IMO.

Saturday:  Walked up the Paseo del Prado and observed very long line to get into the museum at opening, and more people queuing.  Walked on to the Museo Naval, which was quite interesting.  Although it overlapped a little bit content-wise with the Museu Maritim, it focused more on the state-owned navy and colonies rather than shipping as an industry.   Then to the Puerta de Alcalá where I hopped the metro to Puerta del Sol.  Did some people watching, didn’t buy a pair of shoes that I’m now regretting (purple crocheted heels with large ribbon at the back of the ankle), walked up Calle Mayor to the Plaza, then bought a slice of the brazo de nata from La Mallorquina and took it back to Retiro Park to enjoy in the sunshine.  Watching the joggers and football players in action made me feel vaguely guilty that all I’d done was walk all day…but not guilty enough to join them 😉  After enjoying the sunshine for a while, I headed to the Museo del Prado for several hours.  The more often I see Goya’s Family portrait of Carlos IV, the more I appreciate it.  And the same for El Greco’s Caballero de la mano en el pecho.

Window display at La Mallorquina on the Puerta del Sol

Mini palmera

Food:  As I mentioned earlier, there is an abundance of cafes, bakeries, and bombonerias in Barcelona.  In addition to Forn Oriol’s lovely croissants, I enjoyed the palmeras at El Molí Vell (photo) and ogled the sweets at Fargas and La Colmena.  In terms of dining, Alfonsina grills a great steak (says the woman who seldom eats red meat) and has a charming atmosphere; the owner/bartender sometimes plays tango music and sings along.  La Rita, which was recommended by Rick Steves book, offers very good food at an extremely reasonable price.  The only truly bad meal I had was at the restaurant at the MNAC: overpriced, located in a freezing venue, the salmon was overpowered by the cheese with which it was stuffed, and the white beans were pureed and served cold, ick!  It also didn’t help that they were piped into shapes and sprinkled with purple sperm sprouts.  The view from the restaurant down into the city was gorgeous and what diners really are paying for there.

Further on the food note:  I love Fanta.  But only in Spain.  And I was less than impressed by the hot chocolate I had at a highly recommended place in Eixample — it was too pudding-y, and tasted very starchy rather than chocolatey.

Transportation:  Once again, the AVE rocks.  I’d tried it several years ago for Madrid to Sevilla and was impressed but was even more impressed on and after the trip from Barcelona to Madrid.  The max speed I noticed was 301 kmph.  Gorgeous scenery for the most part, and a clean, comfortable new train.  Nicer than the Acela, which is the best the US has to offer for train travel.

Guidebook:  Not impressed by Rick Steves’ guide, but I am probably not the target audience.  It’s written more for someone doing a big trip with only a couple days to spend in each city or region, so it only hits highlights and makes relatively few recommendations.  It was helpful when figuring out which bus to take to Montjuic and Parc Guell, but generally I find that I prefer Lonely Planet and Eyewitness Travel books.

Random observation:  I bought a hat for The Chemist, who has begun collecting them, at a hunting supply store.  The somewhat disturbing feature of the store was that although it purported to be a hunting store, most of the guns and manuals I saw were handguns.  For hunting?  Uh, okay.  Hope he likes the hat.


Photographs all by JMC.  


Filed under Out and about, spain, travel

Bookstores in Barcelona and Madrid

It’s an unhealthy compulsion, I’m sure, but I have to check out bookstores whenever I encounter them on vacation.  This trip, I justified my browsing by either reading or discarding the three books I packed, and also by finishing all the back issues of The Economist I took.  (Thank you, USAirways and Philadelphia International Airport, for the poor time and runway management! It caused missed connections, wasted 10+ hours of my time, delayed my luggage for two additional days, and cost a fair amount to reschedule other travel, but on the bright side I managed to get through the back issues while fuming in PHL, Heathrow, and Barajas.  I’m fairly confident that if I’d arrived on time, those hours would have been spent doing frivolous, fun touristy things instead.)

Barcelona has several nice independent bookstores located in the La Ribera neighborhood (near the cathedral), as well as Casa del Libro on the Passeig de Grácia (think high end retail like Fifth Avenue), the book section in the El Corte Inglés department store on the Avinguda del Portal de l’Àngel, and FNAC (a French media chain) on the Plaça de Catalunya.   Altaïr on Gran Via specializes in travel books and materials, ranging from maps and guides to fiction about travel.  There’s also an English language bookstore up on Carrer de Roger de Lluria, but I didn’t have time to check it out. (And really, English language books for ex-pats wasn’t really what I was looking for.)  Madrid has a fair number of independent booksellers, too, along with the same chain bookshops.

At Altaïr I bought Andalus by Jason Webster, which I read and then left for another reader at the hotel.  I lusted for several books on the history of southern Spain and planning guides for doing all or parts of the camino de Santiago (on my bucket list) but managed to restrain myself.  The other purchase I made at Altaïr was the in-house travel magazine featuring Peru.  Twin and The Chemist are tentatively planning a trip there (Machu Picchu! The Camino Inca!), and I thought they’d appreciate the photography and information…forgetting that they don’t read Spanish.  I’m an idiot.  The plan is to translate all the captions and articles between now and when I see them next (late March).  Just need to be careful about damaging the magazine as I do so.

Meant to go back to the independent near the city museum for a book on Barcelona’s Roman history but got distracted and never made it back.  Was tempted by children’s books, which I thought might suit some children of my acquaintance.  Popping in to the El Corte Inglés, I intended just to see what the popular fiction available in Catalan and/or Castilian might be but ended up leaving with a translation of Naked in Death (Desnuda antes la muerte).  Did manage to avoid the temptation of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli cookbook.

FNAC had a *huge* graphic novel section, as well as manga.  The YA, unsurprisingly, was also fairly large and dominated by paranormal fiction.  Saw stacks of translations of the Hunger Games series, and of Amanda Hocking’s books (are they YA? that’s where they were shelved).  Lots of fantasy, urban and otherwise, and I was sorry to see zombie/classic mashups prominently shelved. (Meh.) In terms of general fiction, Nordic mystery writers appear to be as popular in Barcelona and Madrid as they are in the US.  Translations into Spanish, Catalan, and English were available for many of the authors Keishon has reviewed.  I was tempted to buy a translation of Ilona Andrews’ Magic Strikes (La magia golpea) but it was ridiculously expensive at €17.50.  Instead, I left with a copy of Camilla Lackberg’s The Stone Cutter and Peter Ackroyd’s translation into modern English of The Canterbury Tales.

Other books on my wishlist now:  El vasco que no comía demasiado by Óscar Terol; Las siete llaves de Balabad by Paul Haven; and Memorias de Idhún by Laura Gallego Garcia.  I’ll probably regret not buying them when I had the chance and wind up paying some insane amount of money to have a copy shipped from Europe if/when I can’t find a copy in the US, which is what happened with Yo, Juan de Austria.


ETA:  Bought a little book about the Palau de Música Catalana from the Palau’s giftshop.  And was seriously tempted by books about the art of Velazquez and Goya and the history of the Prado while browsing there.


Filed under Book related, language generally, spain, spanish, travel

Incoherent travel babble

My body thinks it’s 12:00am but my watch says it’s only 6:00pm. Probably that glass of Jameson’s didn’t help.

Random thoughts about my just-ended holiday:

+ I never thought I’d admit this heresy, but it is true: I may like Barcelona better than Madrid. I’ll need to make multiple trips in order to make a fair comparison 😀

– There’s a lot of political tension in Spain right now, and attention is focused on Greece and the euro and what may happen next to Spain and Portugal. At least, I heard a lot of conversations about it and read a lot of newspapers.

– Compared to the US, Spaniards seem to strike often. Iberia Airlines staff did so two or three times last week, and a taxi driver and other transportation workers are supposed to strike tomorrow.

+ Madrid’s public transport beats Barcelona’s easily. And Spain’s Renfe, particularly the AVE, leave Amtrak looking like a backwards, shabby relative.

+ How many cafes are there per person in Barcelona? And bombonerías? I approve of the chocolate and turrón obsession btw.

– The Puerta del Sol looks naked without the Tio Pepe sign on the roof, looming over the plaza. Taken down for reno, I’d guess, based on the scaffolding of the building.

+ Fanta naranja y limón, how I love you. Yet I only consume you in Spain and don’t miss you otherwise.

– I did not love Rick Steves’ guide and would not recommend it generally. Eyewitness and Lonely Planet have served me much better in the past.

– I also do not love PHL airport, and USAirways made me pretty cranky, too.

~ What does it say about me that I recognized the architecture of the new T4 at Barajas from the Fernando Verdasco GQ photo shoot long before getting confirmation from any signage?

I’ll probably post something more organized tomorrow, and upload photos.

Leave a comment

Filed under spain, travel

La Tomatina de Buñol

I am fascinated by this festival or party — essentially a giant food fight in which people toss tomatoes at each other.

Couple kissing, La Tomatina, 2011

By German Garcia for AFP/Getty

Leave a comment

Filed under spain, Uncategorized

Travelogue – Madrid, 2009

DRAFT: need to edit for accents, links, etc.

Moleskin makes pocket-sized travel diaries. Who knew? I found one at B&N and had to have it – how convenient, with a Madrid Metro map inside and a city map in sections. It ended up being the best prep/planning I did before my trip – went with me everywhere, so I could take notes and jot things down (gift ideas, random thoughts, observations that tickled me) as I went. Most of my notes were written in Spanish, but I won’t inflict that on anyone, since it was repetitive and not always grammatical.

Friday: arrived a little later than scheduled due to some miscellaneous problem at take off from Philadelphia. Wind, maybe? Flight landed at Barajas T1. Apparently I looked helpful or knowledgeable, because two people asked me where to go while we were in the customs line. Sadly, they were disappointed, because I had no idea 1) where the taxi stand was or 2) if they had to go through customs if they were going to be taking another flight. (In retrospect, the answer to the second question was probably yes, since that was the first European leg of her trip.)

Took the Metro downtown: start out on the pink line, change to the dark blue, then again to the light blue, which dropped me at Tirso de Molina. The apartment is right on the plaza. Met Carlos, co-owner of the apartment and Letango tours. Gave me a nice sketch of the neighborhood, some recommendations and advice.

After freshening up, I went for a walk around the neighborhood to orient myself. After getting lost and then finding my way back to the plaza, I went grocery shopping. After unpacking, I went for another walk, getting lost again (I have a VERY poor sense of direction and rely heavily on maps), then finding my way to a neighborhood bar, where I had a merienda. By then, my internal clock was all screwed up, so I found my way back to the apartment, where I fell into bed for >10 hours.

Saturday: Off to Atocha train station, where I bought a ticket for a cercania to San Lorenzo de El Escorial. In retrospect, taking a bus would’ve been faster. Oh, well. While waiting, a group of high-school aged girls asked me if the train would stop at Cercedilla. Uh, the sign said so. (Again, I must’ve looked safe and approachable?) The cercania was slow, but finally arrived at El Escorial. Took the bus up to the old town, then walked around and headed toward the monastery.

The landscape on the train ride changed so gradually (from urban to suburban) that I didn’t realize how close and beautiful the mountains were. The weather was relatively warm; standing in the plaza of the monastery, waiting for entrance, was comfortable, even in a brisk wind, until the shadow of the monastery moved and cast us all in the shade and left us shivering. The sheer scale of the building dwarfs humanity; the patio outside; the gardens; even the interior patio. The museum in the basement that is dedicated to the building and the architecture was interesting, as was the mausoleum. The art collection is beautiful, of course. The room that fascinated me, though, was the gallery of maps, sixteenth century maps. The details of Mexico and Central America are surprisingly accurate, while the rest of North America, especially the west coast, is amorphous and not-quite-right. The library upstairs, with its 40,000 volumes, some dating back to the 16th century, is enough to make a bibliophile weep. The ceiling of the war gallery appealed to me, with the grotesquery art, much more than the panels of the king’s victorious battles.

Wandered back through the old town, stopping for a chicken empanada, and caught the bus back to the train station. While waiting for the bus, I chatted with a lovely couple from Iowa, who were on a tour of Portugal and Spain – Saturday was one of their “free” days, and they were on their own.

Was this the first night of Carnaval? There were people out and about in costumes, enjoying themselves.

Sunday: The day of the flea market, El Rastro. Located on Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores, the Rastro goes for several blocks, down the street and onto side streets. Up one side street, frames, oil paintings and sketches abounded. Down another were a bunch of tech related stalls – batteries, discs, gadgets. Off another side street and into a plaza was a plethora of book, magazine and comic stalls. Everything from junk to beautiful leatherwork could be found. Need a Metallica t-shirt? Find in there. Need a homemade rucksack? Also can be found there. I arrived earlier and walked down down down the street, stopping and doubling back to check out the side streets. By the time I reached the bottom and looked back, there was a sea of people up the street.

Wandering back toward the Big Three Museums, which are open and free on Sundays, I ended up hitting the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The new part of the building is very modern, which matches the collection. The temporary exhibit was of Paul Thek, whose work . . . didn’t really speak to me. Modern art just doesn’t do it for me, really. I can analyze it, but it often doesn’t interest me, and I wouldn’t want it in my home, really. The most intriguing part of this exhibit (for me) was how Thek was inspired by the mummies of Palermo, which I’d just read about in NG. In the old building, there is a beautiful patio, with benches and a fountain, where I examined the map of the building and decided where to go next. Lots of Picasso, of course. Is it sacrilege to admit that I don’t really care for his work? Whenever I see the oddly-featured people and geometric shapes, I wonder how much drugs he took. Or maybe I’m just too pedestrian to understand his inspiration and vision. /shrug/ Still, stopping to see Guernica is obligatory. I always forget the size of the work, and am surprised when I see it again. The piece that I enjoyed most was on the uppermost floor – a carving of a huge, huge bookshelf by Miguel Vasquez, titled Libros IV, of course. It was all wood, but if you squinted, it looked like books and tchotchkes and stuff, crammed onto towering shelves. Only sour note: got stuck in an elevator with about a dozen other people – a glass elevator in the new wing – we were stuck for about 15 minutes, then the elevator went back to the basement; it unnerved me enough that I walked up the four flights to get to the exhibits I was interested in, rather than try any of the other elevators in the building.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous and it seemed like every Madrileno was out to enjoy it. Had lunch at Las barandales off the Ibiza metro stop, which seemed like a residential neighborhood that I probably wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t found a recommendation for the restaurant online. After lunch, I wandered around the neighborhood, then back through the Parque de Buen Retiro. People were out on the pond rowing, and playing soccer/football, tossing Frisbees, rollerblading, biking, lounging in the sun. What a beautiful day.

Monday – Meant to get up early, but that didn’t happen. Got a late start, walking to the Palacio Real. On the way to the Royal Palace, I walked by the Almudena Cathedral; as I walked by, I realized that although I’ve visited a variety of cathedrals and churches in Spain (as monuments, not places for personal worship), I’d never visited a church in Madrid. Although the city is younger than many others, that youth is relative, so I had to wonder why I hadn’t been to the Almudena on any of my visits. (Still haven’t – it was pretty from the outside, but I didn’t go in.) Although the cathedral is near the palace, it didn’t seem as central to the city for some reason. I’m sure if I did some research, I’d learn more about the religious history of the city. Maybe next time. Anyway, the palace. Photos are not permitted. But official photos abound. My favorite rooms: the Gasparini Room, the Porcelain Room, and the Royal Pharmacy. The sheer number of clocks was a bit perplexing – they were everywhere – until the guide mentioned that one king was fascinated by them, and had acquired a very large collection. Particularly enjoyed the four portraits by Goya.

In the Royal Armory, the swords of Fernando el Catolico and El Cid were points of interest, as was Boabdil’s dagger and the display about Juan de Austria. Swords blessed by the Pope on Christmas Eve abounded; apparently they were both political tools (binding the king and church) and useful weapons.

Tuesday – Took the bus to Avila. The 8:30 bus is apparently rather late, so it wasn’t full, with fewer than a dozen people aboard. Two of them were nuns, and they were determined to see all of the important churches in the town. It took a long time to get out of Madrid proper, then suddenly we were in the country. I could see El Escorial off in the distance, and later El Valle de los Caidos, which is a bit odd and unnerving, just a huge cross among the mountains. As we approached Avila and got off the highway, there were windmills, modern ones, dotting the tops of the hills. Oh, Don Quijote, where are you? Runty trees pop out of rock-strewn ground, as if it took all of their energy just to grow at all, forget about growing tall. Cows and bulls graze among them. From a distance, the trees look like broccoli-tops and the rocks look like a toddler’s discarded building blocks.

There seemed to be more churches per square kilometer there than I’d ever imagined possible – but that makes sense, since the town was a religious center of sorts, known as the birthplace of Santa Teresa (mystical poet) and home of San Juan de la Cruz. Although I went to the cathedral, my interest was in the wall of the city – it fascinates me, dating back hundreds of years and determining the life and growth of the city. The growth going on now – all outside the wall, outside the old part of the city. Building seems to be going at a frantic pace there, but not so much in the old part of the town. The wall itself can be walked – there are four puertas where you can get access, although they are not all connected. At the Puerta del Alcazar, the steps are old, narrow and steep. A previously unknown fear of falling assailed me as I crept up the stairs. Once up I was fine, but the idea of meeting another tourist on the stairs made me nervous – too narrow, too uneven, it seemed like an invitation to disaster. Fortunately for me, it never happened.

The cathedral in Avila . . . well, on one hand, it’s just another church. But still striking. It was surprisingly cold inside, given the temperature outside. Ancient, dark, beautiful. I was struck by the incredible amount of art work and sculpture in the building, and the immense amount of work that went into not just the basic building (erecting such a huge edifice without bulldozers, etc.), but into the detailed carving. It would have been a stonemason’s life’s work, just to complete a portion of the cathedral. The vast wealth that it must have taken, in terms of labor and materials, fairly boggles my mind. The older art appealed to me – it seemed less three dimensional than the relatively newer art. And on the exterior, intrigued by the different materials used for different parts of the building. Some parts looked red and yellow and very old, while other stone looked grey. Sandstone and granite?

Also though provoking to me was the fact that catty-corner to the cathedral, across the square, was a chemist/pharmacy. And on the exterior of the building is a condom dispenser. The co-existence (seemingly peaceful) of the old church with its conservative policies and the open availability of birth control and all the sexuality inherent . . . it impressed me. Obviously, because I’m still thinking about it and the message it sends.

Outside the wall is the Basilica of San Vicente, which was remarkable to me mostly because of the figures carved on the exterior. Were they gargoyles of some sort? They were all different, and looked a little grotesque from below.

While in Avila, I bought a tin of tartas de San Juan – little butter cookies with pine nuts, marcona almonds, and walnuts – and a box of yemas. The tartas were a hit at the office; the yemas not so much – very rich but with an odd texture.

The bus ride home was a local one (servicio general or al pueblo) rather than an express (directo) — I didn’t see the sign up front until after we’d left the bus station, but it was all good in the end. Unlike the ride from Madrid in the morning,the return bus was FULL — a family was going on a trip and a group of Italian tourists were aboard. The two nuns from the early bus were aboard, as was another woman from that bus – we sat together. She’d been to Avila to visit a friend who was in hospital with cancer that had spread to her bones. We chatted for a bit, and she recommended that I visit Toledo. The bus took longer going back to Madrid, since it was a local. The first stop was a tiny, tiny town (Villacastin), and the street was so narrow that I could’ve reached out the window and touched the houses and buildings outside, but the bus driver never stopped or hesitated. We passed a small plaza mayor, where there seemed to be a festival of some sort going on. The other stops (Coto de San Isidro, El Espinar, San Rafael) were unremarkable, really, other than for the amazing maneuvers of the bus driver (three point turns! Narrow streets!) and the opportunity to view the gorgeous sunset over the mountains as we headed back to Madrid.

Wednesday – the goal for Wednesday day was to visit the Museo de America and the Museo del Metro. I got a late start and then got lost, so I ended up making in only to the Museo de America. It is located a little outside the main tourist area, near the Moncloa metro and the bus intercambio, up on the Calle de los Reyes Catolicos, past the Arco de la Victoria. (Side note: I couldn’t figure out how to get to the arco as a pedestrian – there must be a walk way to it, but I couldn’t figure it out, and it is surrounded by a traffic circle of express lanes.) The Museo de America is organized by anthropological ideas, beginning with writings of the “discovery” of the Americas, and then going through social organization, religion and communication. There were video displays, maps, artefacts, tents and cabins from various indigenous American cultures, etc. I found the last section most interesting, especially the video about languages and their loss/mix in the Americas.

Liverpool was in Madrid to play Real Madrid on Wednesday. I’d noticed the herds of boys and men walking around in red shirts, but hadn’t paid much attention. In fact, one group walked by on the sidewalk and I didn’t realize they were speaking English until they were almost a block past, because the accent was so thick. Walking to the Plaza Mayor, I noticed a significant police presence, and once in the square, I understood why. The crowd was quite rowdy and the beer (and testosterone) had clearly been flowing freely. Despite having tailgated at American football games for years, I found the crowd disconcerting – maybe because it was nowhere near the stadium? And it seemed a lot more aggressive? I’m not sure. But as I walked through the plaza, I suddenly understood the phrase “football hooligan”.

Was asked for directions to the Plaza de Espana by a couple of handsome young Italian men. Probably I got them more lost than they already were. Again, I must’ve looked approachable? Must’ve had “another tourist” stamped on my forehead 😉

Thursday: Off to Toledo, via the bus intercambiador at Plaza Eliptica. Took the express, but the local probably would’ve been a more interesting trip – it was all industrial-looking neighborhoods and farms along with highway. The Museo de Santa Cruz, off the Arco de Sangre, near the Plaza Zocodover, has an excellent exhibition about Spain from 1806-1814, which was when Jose Bonaparte was the emperor of Spain, courtesy of his brother Napoleon. Art, clothing, jewelry, weapons, all little bits of history of the age. There were performers dressed up as Fernando VII, and as campesinos and soldiers. The ladies clothing fascinated, in part because it was tiny, down to the itty bitty shoes — how did they walk on those slippers? In the patio, there was a collection of azulejos that dated back centuries, along with Roman sarcophagi and Arabic memorial stones; Toledo is a very old city, dating back to Roman times, and was an important city for the Arab Caliphate, and later the capital of Spain until Felipe II decided to move his government to the relative backwater of Madrid.

The casco viejo is a rabbit warren, and I read somewhere that the inner city is dying because it is not very negotiable for vehicles. On the surface, I would not have guessed that, based on the amount of renovation going on, but it kind of makes sense. A couple of times, I had to step up into a building’s doorway as a car went by, and at one intersection, pedestrians had to help a car make a very tight turn — another car was parked in the street, making the turn very, very tight. I could see the driver cutting the wheel hard, edging the car back and forth in minute degrees to make the turn without hitting either the wall or the car illegally parked. The streets are narrow and the buildings tall; without being able to see the spires of the cathedral, it was hard to orient myself and easy to get lost – the streets are not as well marked as those in Madrid, IMO. At one point, I was lost and ran into an older Spanish couple who were also lost – we both had maps, but couldn’t get ourselves oriented. Eventually, I made it back to the Zoco, and on the way I stopped at the Real Monasterio de Santa Ursula to buy some mazapanes made by the Agustin nuns.

I stopped in a ceramic shop and chatted with the potter/owner. Ended up buying two very different pieces to give as gifts, and received a lesson in the schools of pottery that were popular in Toledo, one being the older, Arab-influenced style, and another being the Talavera school. There’s a third, which I didn’t care for much and have forgotten the name of. Nice fellow, with a lot of gorgeous work in his collection — he let me check out all the stuff downstairs, away from the store front, and I had a hard time just selecting two smallish pieces that I could carry home. And he kept a pet rabbit behind the counter, which was certainly different.

Friday: I spent the entire day in the Museo del Prado. In retrospect, I wish I’d visited the Thyssen-Bournesmizsa on Sunday instead of the Reina Sofia, because I like its collection better. Too late. On Friday, I had to choose between the Thyssen and the Prado, and the Prado won. No contest, really. There was a temporary exhibit of Francis Bacon. Again, more modern art. Bacon interests me mostly only because of his studies based on Velaquez’s portrait of Pius X. At a certain point, the works of the masters all seem to run together. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that, really, because objectively they are extremely different works…but after five or six hours, it’s just another painting of christ on the cross or of angels or whatever. But some works always stand out: the galleries of Velazquez and Goya, among others. There was also a small exhibit of Victorian painting titled La bella durmiente, featuring one of my favorite paintings, Sir Henry Leighton’s Flaming June.

Saturday: It was rainy and overcast for the first time, which made leaving a bit easier. I bought a few souvenirs, then headed to the airport and home.

Random observations:

Loved staying in an apartment rather than a hotel; will do so for my next trip.
Madrid is cleaner than I remember, with municipal employees everywhere in their green suits, armed with brooms and dustpans.

Building and renovation seemed to be going on everywhere; cranes and scaffolding were all over.

Street performers abounded – in Sol, in the Plaza Mayor – performance artists, musicians, dancers.

La Mallorquina – oh, the tronquita (or tronchita? I can’t remember) de nata, yum.

La Txakoli (I think? specializing in Basque wines and tapas) – a bar on Calle de la Cava Baja (or Alta?) – good wine and pinxos

The Metro has grown immensely, and the entire system of metro, light rail, buses, and cercanias/trains is incredibly impressive. Clean and affordable and wide-spread. I understand the differences in geography, finances, and social orientation (park my car? /gasp/) that make the same degree of public transportation impossible in most of America, but still. Frankly, it puts the public transport of metropolitan areas like NYC and DC and Chicago to shame.

On the shuttle from Philadelphia, we never got a lot of altitude – I could see the Conowingo dam and the Susquehanna River as we flew over, which was kind of cool.


Filed under spain, spanish, travel