Barcelona, Spain

Finally! My first adventure outside of Belgium since I arrived. My arrival was almost comical. Most of my American readers have never flown with the airline Ryanair before. Let me start by saying that it is hilariously cheap. The seats are close together, they don’t lean back or have pockets for placing persona items or reading material. Beverages aren’t free, in fact nothing is free. The only reason Ryanair doesn’t charge a fee for using the toilet is because it was deemed illegal.There are advertisements on the back of the headrests so Ryanair can hawk coffee and chips to a captive audience. The only moment of peace you have during your flight is take off and landing because even the employees must be seated. The rest of the time they spend trying to sell you things. Sure, I understand being sold drinks or food on a cheap airline, but they are also pushing lottery tickets, private car services and e-cigarettes. Every new item to be sold gets it’s own loudspeaker announcement in English French and Spanish. The lights are turned up to the brightness one would expect in a surgery room. It is truly obnoxious and almost not worth the cheaper airline price. If you ever fly Ryanair, I recommend bringing a night mask and earplugs as the salesmen don’t seem to bother you if you completely ignore them. The airline is okay for a flight that lasts an hour or two, but I really can’t recommend it for anything longer.

Chris ColumbusUpon arrival, we were greeted by a stereotypically nutty cab driver. He spoke no English which is fine since I had the address written down, but even still he seemed unsure of where he was taking us. Every time we got stopped at a traffic light he would start making a deranged humming sound and start tapping the dashboard. He flipped radio stations constantly and often randomly started speaking in strings of unbroken Spanish to himself, which neither me nor my companion could understand. To add tension to the scene, the cabby could not find our hotel. We ended up driving down some narrow pedestrian alleys that I was fairly confident shouldn’t have cars in them at all. I think I was proven right when we ended up trying to take a turn so narrow the car didn’t fit and we had to back out hundreds of feet. At this point, my companion and I were becoming uncomfortable and we asked to leave the cab, which I think the driver was happy about. Fortunately, I had my data plan working on my cell phone an we could walk to our hotel from where the cab got lost. Smart phones are SO valuable for navigating the winding and nonsensical streets of old Europe, I can’t recommend them enough if you are thinking of making your own journey, reader.
The hotel was a solidly one star affair. A snarky younger Spanish man who spoke good English greeted us upon our arrival. It was rather entertaining. The room itself  was tiny and ugly yet clean and functional. We never did get the heat working, but we had extra blankets and twin beds. The biggest downside were the hard beds and the high night noise level of the area. The hotel was in an alley next to the ocean nightlife area and drunk people chatted loudly int he alley all night. I didn’t mind so much since I had brought earplugs, but my companion did not so I think she had a more difficult time sleeping. I don’t mind a lousy room because the cost was low and location was fantastic! We were in a central part of Barcelona’s old quarter near the ocean. We were an easy walk from the beautiful port area complete with old sailing ships and a palm tree lined boardwalk. Though it was cold, we ended up walking up and down the ocean admiring the lit up buildings and sailboats that lined the harbor. We turned in early in order to get an early start on the following day.
Saturday was incredible. I started the day out with a pastry stuffed with chorizo and mozzarella, whichCathedral of Barcelona was really a fantastic choice. It was a little rich, but it was worth it. We then spent the whole day walking ALL over Barcelona’s old quarter. We had a tourist map so we just followed around all the landmarks from place to place, stopping to shop and eat wherever we felt like it. Las Ramblas was our first stop, it is a long pedestrian path that leads away from the ocean. The whole stretch is lined with tourist shops, cafes and markets. A notable stop was the incredible covered market of Barcelona. The whole market was stuffed with fruit, fresh meat, fish bread and candy; each catagory of food was given it’s own area. My favorite was the fruit stands, which were clearly arranged with aesthetics in mind. The fruits were arranged in rainbows to advertise the variety and perfection of the produce. Many stands catered to tourists and sold pre-made packs of assorted cut up fruit you could purchase for 2 euro or so. Other stands were constantly juicing their fruits on the stop, and would sell little take away. The variety was flooring. Coconut milk, mango, banana, watermelon, kiwi, strawberry, passion fruit and mixtures of many of these. I bought one, but I wish I had bought more because the market ended up being closed on Sunday. I was impressed by the variety and freshness of all the food being sold. Some of it would really be exotic by US standards, pigs feet, chicken feet, brains bones. It really made me think about being more adventurous about my own cooking at home.
After leaving the market, we traveled along a lively shopping area a little off the main path. I liked this Sagarda Familiabetter because the quality of the wares was better and it was less cheap printed touristy items. At this point we started making a wandering line from landmark to landmark. I can’t possibly describe each of the Plazas we visited, but each had it’s own architecture and character. Some notable landmarks we visited were the Cathedral of Barcelona, Arc de Triomf and Sagarda Familia. For those who don’t know, Sagarda Familia is a basilica designed by famed Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. He’s an interesting character if you care to look him up. Suffice to say, his style of design is striking and distinctly Spainish. Sagarda Familia is a masterpiece that has been in the process of being built for the past 100 years or so. It’s taken to long to build, that the old stone of the church is dark and aged where the newer parts the stone is fresh and white. I imagine once they finish building, they’ll have to go straight to work restoring the older stone. I can’t liken the architectural style to anything but a modern approach with color and curves. The design is whimsical for a church, with colorful bundles of fruit topping spires rather than peaks, busts or crosses. The other striking thing about it that is hard to get across in pictures or words is the scale of it. It stands tall over the city of Barcelona. If you ever go to Barcelona, you must visit Sagarda Familia. We didn’t go inside the church, as it cost more than 11 euro and the line wrapped around the square. I was content to admire the structure from afar and rest on benches on either side. We ended our tour by visiting the beach. It was far too cold to go into the water or even wear a swimsuit, but we did walk out to a pier overlooking the ocean. The view of the Barcelona beach was worth the out of the way walk.
Arc de TriomfThe Arc de Triomf was another landmark I enjoyed visiting. It stood tall over a long palm tree lined stretch of promenade. The massive scale of the red brick arch was striking and I enjoyed spending time in it’s shadow. Unfortunately, it started to rain while we were there so we sought shelter in a local tapas restaurant, which in hindsight was a fantastic idea. Since we selected a random place to eat that was right next to us, we were taking a small gamble stepping into a random cafe, but we ended up getting lucky. We ordered a variety of tapas including potatoes bravas, croquettes with mushrooms, bread coated with tomato guts, cured dried ham and a salad with fried brie and tomato jam. It was a wonderful experience and I want more tapas in my life. For dinner we tried a restaurant recommended by a local. We ordered a variety of local cheeses and meats for an appetizer and my entree was a Catalan dish which was a hollowed out onion baked with pork, beef and crushed nuts inside. I’m going to have to try that one someday at home because it was heavenly. To drink, we had sangria made with the local sparkling wine called Cavas. I was wildly pleased with the whole meal.
Saturday night was spent making new friends. My companion had some acquaintances living in Barcelona that we met up with for drinks. I had a mohito, but apparently a local trendy drink is gin and tonic! What a classic. We finally made it home around 3am completely exhausted after a full day of walking and a long night of socializing.
Undignfied
Sunday was spent visiting Parc Guell, which is on the hills overlooking Barcelona. It’s a bit like going up to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The height provides a beautiful view of the city and ocean. The trouble is getting up there. Since we had checked out of our hotel already, we were stuck climbing to the top of Parc Guell with our luggage in the rain. It really wasn’t ideal, but at least there were escalators in the middle of the street to help you get to the top. Even still, there was a lot of dragging roller bags up to the tippy top of the park. In the end, the view was worth it. At the highest point in Guell, the view is astounding. The ocean and cirtyscape falls before you.

Guell

Sagarda Familia stands up like an odd termite mound looming over the city. The palette of Barcelona is a sea of reds and tans. It really reminded me of a slightly tropical and less dusty Los Angeles. Down towards the lower end of Parc Guell was an architectural oddity that could have only sprung from the mind of Gaudi. I don’t really know how to describe it, so you should probably just look at the pictures. The salamander is an incredibly famous part of the structure, and we had to wait in line to get photographed next to it. Two odd little houses lined the structure, looking a little like something out of Dr. Seuss. Our departure was much easier, we rolled downhill this time. The subsequent cab ride and flight home were blissfully uneventful.

Tour of Ghent

I don’t even know how to keep up with all the things I’m doing. Today, I suppose I should highlight my

Our tour guide emphasized that John Quincy Adams wrote his letters to home from the spot I took this photo at.

Our tour guide emphasized that John Quincy Adams wrote his letters to home from the spot I took this photo at.

trip to the Belgian city of Ghent. The name might sound familiar to Americans, as it is where the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War was signed. It’s a city that is a 40 minute drive from Brussels. It is tremendously old and full of a splattering of different architecture styles. Canals run throughout the city; a testament to an era when canals were the lifeblood of the trading economy of Europe. Lining the canals are houses from 17th and 18th centuries. Ghent also has an abundance of cathedrals packed into a small area. Even when the city fell on hard times, glorious cathedrals were erected, trimmed in marble and gold. My companion and I first went to the heart of the city, which I consider to be Gravensteen Castle. The structure was made out of greystone and looms over a large and lively square full of tourists. The day was cold and windy but the streets were still full of visitors. I can hardly imagine how busy it must be when the weather is nice!

 

 

 

My companion and I dined at a cafe facing the castle. I insisted on sitting outside where we could view the castle’s outer walls. The restaurant offered thick fleece blankets and a space heater for us nutso patrons that want to dine outdoors. I ordered a Flemish Beer Stew with frites and a local abby beer. I really think I’ve been spoiled by the strong flavors of Tripels because the beer tasted a little weak to me. The stew was wonderful, though the broth was a little sweet to eat a lot of. I think next time I make stew at home I will add some belgian beer into the mix.

my meal and castle

After lunch, I took a walking tour of Ghent offered by the Ghent tourism office. I had the distinction of being the only American in the tour group, so whenever the guide mentioned the US, he would gesture towards me and ask for little responses on the topic he was discussing. The buildings in Ghent range from Gothic to Baroque to Rococo, sometimes even on the same building! I really enjoyed the tour, but it was to COLD in Ghent after a while I started losing feeling in my toes. Even when we entered the grand cathedral that didn’t help since the church was as cold as the outdoors. In the church a great piece of panel art was kept called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It’s called the Mona Lisa of Belgium, but I’m afraid to say that I’d never heard of it. I didn’t get a chance to see it either, because the church keeps it sectioned off and you have to pay extra to see it. Quite the commercial operation.

 

After the tour, we raced back to the castle so we could enter it before it closed. I should mention that I I spent a while here identifying which beers I had tried and which I still need to tastehave a certain fascination with castles. Perhaps this stems from my love of old buildings and the foreign concept of castles. As an American, we just don’t have castles back home. To me, a castle resembles something exotic and fantastic. Perhaps I may reflect on the numerous fantasy novels I’ve read that feature castles prominently: Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Dragonriders of Pern, Redwall etc. Castles hold a bit of mystery and excitment for me, although the castle of Ghent doesn’t have a pleasant history. After it was built, the many who commissioned it deemed it too uncomfortable to live and the castle instead became a prison. Not your every day prison, but a place for the condemned to be stored until execution and prisoners were tortured. Seriously, this place has a torture dungeon and torture museum. Sadly, I was unable to live out my dream of going inside the castle and catching the view of the parapets because by the time we arrived to get it, no more tickets for entry were being sold for the day. This handily won my award for biggest disappointment of the week.

Oh how I love thee, delicious cones.

 

For the last hour or two, I popped in and out of

shops in Ghent, specialty coffe shops, lace shops,chocolate shops and beer novelty shops. There certainly was a lot to look at. I even bought some street vendor candy called cubedons. These cone like candies are mana droplets fallen from heaven. The cone shell of the candy is filled with raspberry, grape or licorice flavored goo. You want one. Trust me. They are made almost exclusively in Flanders (Dutch Belgium) and their composition is such that they crystalize a week or two after being made. The result is, apparently  that you can only get these little cones in the area. If I go back I’ll buy a dozen more!

Orval – I think my favorite of the Trappiste ales so far, even more than Chimay. Three cheers for Orval!

Ramee Blonde – Sort of a generic belgian ale. A solid choice but I think I prefer something a little more special.

Augustijn – Abby Ale from Ghent. A little short on flavor. Very crisp. Maybe better for warmer months.