Gorging on Gaudi

For three days, we gorged ourselves on Barcelona’s favorite son and breathtakingly brilliant architect, Antoni Gaudi.

In successive days, we visited Casa Batlo and Casa Mila, private homes two blocks apart, Colonia Guell crypt outside town and finally Sagrada Familia.

None of these attractions is a bargain. The two house museums are pretty dearly priced tickets, each about 20 for adults, and the Sagrada Familia was 51 euros for the two of us, even after my senior discount. But they all include excellent audio guides for the price, and we paid a bit more to access the tower views in Sagrada Familia. (Don’t ask Lynn about the descent down some 400 steps from the Passion Tower.)

Believe me, they are all well worth what you pay.

Sinewy, sensuous, stunning, dripping, melting, colorful, impressionistic, naturalistic, eclectic, inventive, innovative, skeletal, audacious, breathtaking, astonishing–and just describes the exteriors.

Gaudi was such a genius perfectionist that he designed his own furniture and fixtures right down to the door knobs and drawer pulls so they would naturally fit the hand. He created architectural modeling techniques a century ago that only recently have been made commonplace by computers and 3-D printers.

He understood that generational works like Sagrada Familia extend beyond a single lifetime. His workshop under Sagrada Familia is still active, with artisans working behind glass walls while we visitors gawk in. The basilica is still under construction based on his designs from 90 years ago. It is expected to be completed in 2026, a century after Gaudi’s tragic death from being run over by a tram car.

Casa Batlo actually was a renovation of a building that Gaudi had originally designed himself some 30 years before, very early in his career. Both Casa Batlo and Casa Mila were private homes for their owners with several apartments added to offset the cost of ownership. And we think we do well with a double in New Orleans.

Incredibly, people still live in private apartments in both buildings. Wonder what those rents must be.

The crypt at Colonia Guell would have been a mini-Sagrada Familia if it had ever been completed. For reasons which are never made clear in the various accounts both on site as well as in literature, the project was abandoned before it could be completed, and only the ground level was built. But the models of what would have been the upper level of the church are on display in at least three different museums we have visited.

Colonia Guell crypt would had been fantastic if completed. As it stands today, it is merely another Gaudi marvel of ethereal light and diverse materials. Gaudi even designed the pews to fit local posteriors.

The trip out to Colonia Guell is a very pleasant six euro round trip regional train ride from Placa Espana. Other than the church itself, we found the community only mildly interesting as a company town built at the end of the 19th century. There is an informative historical exhibit in the tourist information center, and the town is extremely helpful for tourists to find the center. You just have to follow the blue footsteps painted in the sidewalk from the train station to the information center.

And we did find a wonderful little place to have lunch. Overall, our trip was a very pleasant excursion that took up the better part of a day.

Then there is Sagrada Familia. This was the second time we toured there. I can promise it’s even better the second time, and I can promise there will be a third time if we ever get back to Barcelona. And a fourth. There is so much there, and more will be added over the next ten years until its expected completion in 2026. We plan to be there for the dedication of the finished building. If that ever happens.

Hint #1–don’t bother paying extra for a guided tour of Sagrada Familia. Buy your ticket online that includes the audio guide, and you can walk right through the gate at your appointed time. The advantage is you get to spend as much time as you want in the church, plus you can tour the fascinating museum underneath, all at your own pace.

Hint #2–go in the late morning, and you will hear the Angelus and Ave Maria sung in the cathedral at noon. What a bonus; hearing it would convert an atheist.

Hint # 3–see hint #1 for the two Gaudi houses. Both sell tickets online (although when we went over in the middle of the week, there was no line at all to buy tickets at either), and both have excellent audio-visual guides to take you through the buildings. The AV guide at Casa Bitlo is particularly excellent, incorporating virtual reality in the visual portion of the tour.

Enough words. Just enjoy some photos.

Casa Batlo

Not your average apartment building.
Not satisfied with just a ceiling medallion, Gaudi used the entire ceiling for decoration.
The attic is a series of parabolic arches that support the roof.
These are the chimneys atop Casa Batlo!
The so-called dragon’s back rises behind the chimneys on the roof, supported by the parabolic arches below.
Gaudi designed the light wells in the building with gradually darker tiles toward the top where more light comes in.

Casa Mila

Casa Mila is two blocks up Passeig de Gracia, still a most fashionable boulevard in Barcelona lined with with offices, residences and luxury shops like Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Burberry, among many others.
Gaudi’s light wells in Casa Mila are even larger than those in Casa Batlo.
More rooftop chimneys, these at Casa Mila. Compare the shapes of the chimneys here to some of the sculptures on the Passion facade of Sagrada Familia, created some 60 years after Gaudi’s death.
The main stairway from the ground level to the owners’ apartment on the first floor. Does that ceiling remind you of another artist? French perhaps? Monet perhaps? Both Gaudi and Monet worked in the same era.

Colonia Guell

Only the first floor of what was intended to be a mini-Sagrada Familia was ever completed.
Gaudi packed so much symbolism into this structure that it is hard to comprehend it all. But everything means something, as the audio guide explained in detail.
Even the holy water font at the entrance is a special work of art.
The Gaudi-designed pews were modified in the 1940s to add kneelers.
The rose windows that Gaudi designed are not just decorative. Notice that the two lower panels on either side are open for ventilation.
A Gaudi-inspired little planter in front of a little house along the street in the Colonia Guell village.

Sagrada Familia

The Nativity facade makes quite an entrance to Sagrada Familia. However, years from now, the main entrance will be moved to the Glory facade still under construction on the other side of the basilica.
What words could possibly add to this?
A thoughtfully placed table with a mirror gives a view of the ceiling and all its medallions, saving many necks and dangerous selfie stick usage.
Lynn gingerly picks her way down the some 400 steps from the Passion Tower view.
Some of the decorative elements are all but invisible from the ground. It’s worth the 400 steps to see these.
Gaudi’s genius in the use of light is unparalleled. This is natural light filtering through the glass. It changes depending on the time of day and even the season of the year, based on the sun’s declination.
The Passion facade is still under construction. Notice the similarity of some of the sculptures to Gaudi’s chimney “soldiers” on the top of Casa Mila.

Just another millennial town with two historic churches next door to each other

Girona is another one of those Roman/Visigoth/Catalan/Spanish/French towns in this area with a history that spans the better part of two mellennia. It is a quick half-hour ride on the high-speed train that eventually arrives in Paris five hours out of Barcelona Sants. For us, it’s a half-hour ride, about the same distance as traveling to Slidell from New Orleans.

Girona is the equivalent to Barcelona that Chartres is to Paris, a cathedral town in the far suburbs, about 20 miles out of the main city. But Girona has two historic cathedrals, not just one. And they are practically next door to each other.

To our surprise, there was no tourist information office in the train station; in fact, there was no information at all in the train station. We walked outside to the square looking for some direction to the tourism office and finally found a street sign. The office was several blocks and across the river. Once there, the very friendly attendants gave us a map and directions on the major attractions of Girona.

One of the several bridges that span the little river in Girona is one that was built by the Eiffel company of Paris. You can sort of see a resemblance to their more famous engineering marvel.

Because we visited on a Monday, the art museum was closed, and the Jewish Museum closed early at 2 p.m. They sell a combined ticket for the Cathedral, the Basilica and the art museum, so we could only get two thirds of our value. And by the time we finished touring the two churches, the Jewish Museum was closed, but that’s not why we came to visit.

To get to the Girona Cathedral, first you must climb 86 steps (their count) or 91 (Lynn’s count).

Both the churches offer excellent audio guides, and both were very interesting. Of the two, we actually preferred the Basilica, which is smaller but features eight sarcofagi in the walls that all date back to the fifth century A.D.

The Girona Basilica is seen from one of the 86 (or 91) steps outside the cathedral.

After touring both the churches, we went back toward town to have some lunch before heading to the train station. We found a local bar/restaurant that offered a full size sandwich for three euros. Lynn ordered the grilled ham and cheese (same price) that was prepared on toasted white bread. Funny thing about these parts–as good as their local bread is, we have seen lots of plain sliced white bread served in several restaurants. What gives?





Finally, a proper brunch and Bloody Mary

At last. We rose Sunday morning, excited to make the walk down to Barceloneta and the Fastnet, the Irish bar we discovered that actually knows how to make a Bloody Mary. They opened at 10:30 a.m., but we were a bit delayed and did not arrive until 10:45. Our bartendress remembered us and noted we were late. I blamed Lynn’s hair.

Her Bloody Marys were quite good by European standards. No one over here uses a Bloody Mary mix of any brand; they just open a bottle of tomato juice and add some spices. The result can be good (ours were), but they lack the horseradish, celery and garlic flavor of a mix, even though we encouraged her to go heavy on the Lea & Perrins.

Breakfast at the Fastnet was fine, although not outstanding or elaborate. Their bacon is really thinly sliced ham steaks. And the toast is white bread. Very British of them.

Fortified by a proper Sunday brunch, we walked back to the Metro for a funicular ride up MontJuic and a visit to the Castel. The funicular is part of the Metro line, so does not cost anything to ride. Once at the mountain station, you have to pay separately for the cable car ride to the top of the mountain and the Castel MontJuic. Then when you reach the summit, you pay again for a ticket into the castle itself. The castle ticket is only five euros, three for us seniors. the tram ride is quite a bit more–12 euros per person roundtrip and no senior citizen discount.

Disney wishes they could invent a ride like this. Barcelona stretches out below.

Castel MontJuic is actually not really a castle in the conventional sense that  royalty or nobility called it home. The castle was built as a fort back in the Roman era and enlarged several times after that by various rulers of the region for defense against invaders. Like so many of its type in the Caribbean islands, the castle never succeeded in its primary purpose and was conquered over and over again, most recently in 1938 by Franco’s troops. Poor Catalan, a small kingdom, squeezed between the two huge Continental superpowers of France and Spain, never had a chance.

The Catalan flag flies large and proud over Castel MontJuic.

Sadly, Castel MontJuic then became a prison and the site of hundreds of executions under the Franco regime. The most notable casualty was Luis Companys, the last democratically elected president of Catalonia. When Franco conquered Catalonia, Companys fled to France but was betrayed by the Vichy government, given over to the Nazis, who then sent him back to Spain and Franco’s justice. Companys was tried in secret and executed in Castel MontJuic the day after the verdict. France and Germany have since apologized for their treachery in the case of Companys. The Spanish government has not.

This heavy artillery doesn’t look medieval. Although there is no sign or explanation, it looks like something from WW II vintage, perhaps installed during the Spanish Civil War.

Although we had read a critical review of the castle that there was little English explanation around, we found English translations on virtually every sign around the area, which are all printed in four languages–English, French, Spanish and Catalan. There is a significant difference between the last two languages.

Our plan was to take the cable car back to the funicular stop and walk down MontJuic to Placça Espana where the fountain puts on an elaborate light show every Friday and Saturday night. The walk would take us past the 1992 Olympic complex, which is not only well preserved after a quarter of a century but is still in active use.

Not to be. We started down the wrong path and wound up in a nondescript, though obviously high end, neighborhood of large homes overlooking the city, all secured behind walls and gates. By the time we reached a Metro stop, thirst was calling.

To avoid the noise and traffic along Passeig de Colom, we walked back from La Rambla via Ample, the street in the Bari Gotic that runs a block behind our apartment. Ample is lined with restaurants (one of which is Sensi Tapas), clothing stores, the Marijuana & Hemp Museum and Penny Banger, another Irish bar.

Another Irish bar in Barcelona. We have seen establishments like this all over the city. Must be a large British/Irish contingent in Barcelona.

We knew we would like Penny Bagger as soon as we walked into the place. Two well dressed gentlemen were facing each other over a backgammon game, comfortable leather couches lined the small narrow room, and the delightful Irish bartendress accommodated us with cold Amstel beers (not Amstel Light, but the real thing).

Yes, they do make a Bloody Mary, she said, and yes, they are pretty proud of it. At 6.50, it will be a bargain, and we put Penny Banger at the top of the list for next Sunday. Bernie’s may have to wait.


Burgers at Bernie’s

Despite the weather forecast of showers all day, Saturday was warm and mostly dry. Our mission was to visit the Barcelona Cathederal and the Gaudi Museum next door, operated by the Diocese of Barcelona. And to have a hamburger at Bernie’s Diner on the other side of Via Laietana. In short order, we accomplished all three by early afternoon.

We did not remember the Gaudi Museum the last time we visited Barcelona. It  certainly looks and feels brand new, with latest smart phone audio guides and interactive touch screen displays throughout. The building itself is quite old, with Roman ruins on display through the floors and walls. So you get sort of an extra dose of history for your admission ticket.

The Gaudi exhibition is organized along the lines of his life and his work, tracing his heritage as the fourth-generation descendant of coppersmiths and his early fascination with the shapes of nature. All the rooms are relatively small but they are densely packed with artifacts, documents and models that tell the tale of Gaudi’s development as an architect. Invoices for Gaudi’s labors are on display in most rooms, adding to the real world feel of the museum.

Although the Sagrada Familia cathedral is given its due at the end of the tour, the most fascinating section discusses the design and development of the Colonia Güell church, which was never completed. Only the crypt was finished, before the fortunes of Gaudi’s patron and founder of the community, Mr. Güell, declined. Gaudi’s plans for the church were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, but scientists from the University of Innsbrook have recently been able to organize the fragmentary evidence and actually construct a model of what Gaudi intended.

This scale model of Gaudi’s church in Colonia Güell was constructed after scientists at the University of Innsbrook were able to piece together the plans that were destroyed in a fire.

The exhibit also includes Gaudi’s innovative method of modeling, in which he used strings hung with weights to show the parabolic curves he planned in the building. The models were therefore created upside down, and Gaudi would simply stiffen them and turn them right side up to make this plans.

Overall, the museum is a fascinating, educational experience that should be on your list if you have any interest in Gaudi’s architecture. In fact, I would recommend going through the museum before touring any of Gaudi’s main works, as the museum helps explain his views and techniques that form the works themselves.

The Barcelona Cathedral is next door, and we joined the steady stream of visitors walking through the front door. Lynn said we had seen the cathedral before, but I didn’t remember it. As European cathedrals go, Barcelona’s is just fine, a grand Gothic work mostly built in the 14th century.  The cathedral is built over the site of earlier churches that date back to the fourth century A.D. and the Visigoths. Interestingly, the current Gothic facade was not added until the 19th century, and the soaring Gothic towers were not built until the early 20th century.

The choir is set right in the middle of the cathedral, so it blocks the view of the altar from the entrance to the church. Still, you can appreciate the Gothic features.

The side altars are beautiful and of interest (as they are in most cathedrals), because so many historic figures are interred in the sides. Behind the main church, the cloister serves as the historic home of 13 geese. That number reportedly is in honor of St. Eulalia, for whom the cathedral is named and who is a co-patron saint of Barcelona. She was 13 years old when she was martyred, and her body is entombed in the crypt.

Our religious and architectural curiosity could no longer hold off our hunger for a hamburger at Bernie’s Diner, a thoroughly mid-century American eatery. Bernie’s also serves a Bloody Mary for 5 euros, which we will taste later in our stay here. But now it was time for burgers. And Bernie’s serves them up big, European style.

One hint about European hamburgers–they will cook the meat exactly as you order it. So medium well (Lynn’s) was pink on the inside and medium (mine) was near bloody in the center. All of which makes for a most juicy burger. And a big one at that. A 200 gram burger is nearly a half pound of meat.

After packing away a huge lunch like that, washed down with cold draft (we could have ordered Budweiser!), we were ready to head back for a Saturday stroll through the old town that spreads behind our apartment.

I was ready to explore some more, but Lynn preferred to spend her Saturday afternoon resting and reading. While she did that, I took a walk around the harbor and shopping mall complex we view right in front of our building. There at a transient slip was just about the largest private vessel I had ever seen up close and personal.

That’s one big boat–90 meters.

At 90 meters (297 feet), the Phoenix2 was built for the Polish billionaire Jan Kulczyk, who paid $160 million for her in 2010 then died in 2015 of complications from minor surgery. He started as the first Volkswagen dealer in Poland and ultimately became the richest man in Poland, worth an estimated $4 billion when he died. His boat makes the other mega-yachts in the marina look like dinghies.





A day of just being in Barcelona

One of the great benefits of staying in one place for an extended time is that you are not compelled to rush around seeing all the major attractions, especially if this is not your first visit. Since this is our third time in Barcelona and we have been here nearly a week, we began to live up to that standard.

On Friday, our first need was to visit the market up the street, Mercat Santa Cristina. Lynn wanted some chicken and vegetables to prepare dinner Saturday night. When you stay in the same place for an extended period of time and live in an apartment, you get to enjoy home cooking too.

New roof over an old building. The Gaudi-style roof was added on top of the 1848 building in 2005 when it was renovated. The Barcelona officials–no kidding–wanted a roof that would be visibly prominent from the air.

Santa Cristina is an old market with a new roof. Originally constructed in 1848, the colorful, undulating tiled roof was added when it was renovated in 2005.

Inside, the market stalls sell whatever you need to eat, including one devoted to horsemeat. And there in one of the seafood stalls, we saw a most welcome and familiar offering–boiled crawfish. Sure enough. There must be some coonasses in Spain?

At 7.80 euros per kilo, that’s only about 3 bucks a pound for boiled crawfish. But if you look closely, they are frozen. How else would they get here from Breaux Bridge?

Lynn, though, just wanted some chicken thighs, which are not sold separately in European markets. She settled for three fat leg quarters, cheerily hacked apart by the butcheress staffing the stall. I have to say I take a true visceral delight in watching European butchers whack away at meat.

After depositing our vittles back home, we took the Metro to  visit our old neighborhood Eixample (pronounced in Catalan as “Eshomplay”), where we had stayed in June 2015. We were curious to see the newly restored Sant Antoni Market. It was projected to be open in July 2015, and we were eager to see it in all its restored glory. Unfortunately, the project must be run by the New Orleans Department of Public Works, because Sant Antoni is very definitely not finished. The sign now says October 2017.

Now completion date is expected to be October 2017. Another sign announces community meetings later this year about the use and opening of the building. Come on guys, it was built as a market more than 100 years ago. What did you think it would be this time?

The roof has been replaced, and the exterior walls seem to be freshly painted. But the stalls for food and merchandise vendors are still located outside, lining the streets extending from the market building. Sant Antoni is most definitely not ready for prime time.

But when it’s finished, it will be a really nice building. We’ll just have to come back in a couple of years to see.

But we did locate Bohemic, our favorite restaurant from last year, and we made plans to go back. And we noted how much different our old ‘hood in Eixample is from our current location along Passeig de Colom. There are virtually no tourists in Eixample; it is just a local Barcelona neighborhood, about the equivalent of Uptown New Orleans. Residents sit at tiny tables having coffee outside the cervecerias, and the grocery next door to our former apartment building has now built in a sushi bar at the entrance and moved the fresh produce toward the back a bit.

We walked around window shopping, then jumped on the Metro, rode back to our more bustling neighborhood and decided to explore the old quarter a bit more than we have before. The Bari Gotic is truly a wonderful place with narrow streets winding through and around a pie-shaped area generally bound by La Rambla on the left and Via Laeitana on the right. Along the narrow streets and alleys, clothing and souvenir shops by the hundreds squeeze between large and small restaurants in nearly the same quantity.

We found a little spot named La Galeria on Caller Regomir for lunch. It offered a tapas de dia consisting of a plate of tiny empenadas and a glass of wine for 2.90. Who can refuse that?

I ordered the tapas de dia, and Lynn ordered the goat cheese salad, which was served with an entire four-inch round of warm chevré on top of the greens. Just to make sure I didn’t go hungry, I also ordered a plate of calamari. They came out thickly battered, but at least I could taste calamari and not just thick batter. I think I have finally learned my lesson after unanimously disappointing calamari dishes here in Spain: leave fried squid to Italians and Portuguese.

Including our two glasses of wine, the bill came to 17.70 plus a tip for the very pleasant waitress. Something else I am learning about Barcelona–lunch is going to cost about 10 euros a person, more or less, no matter where we eat. So make it good.

We wandered our way home through the tourist-packed streets for a quick nap and cocktails before heading out to Sensi Bistro, the third of the Sensi restaurants, all of which are located within a few blocks of our apartment. Gourmet Sensi had been a five-star blow-out for us a couple of nights ago, and we had thoroughly enjoyed the original Sensi at least twice before. So we carried high expectations to the French-style Sensi Bistro.

Sadly, Sensi Bistro did not live up to our lofty expectations. Four stars definitely but not five. The decor is very French, music very American, and the wait staff is as usual most friendly, sensitively attentive and very fluent in American English. Of the five tapas we ordered, one was mind-blowing (truffle oil will do that); two were excellent but the last two were judged a bit disappointing. The duck timbale had more timbale than duck, and the flank steak was over-salted to one diner’s opinion. The other diner in our group thought it wonderful.

We will go back a other time to see if we can give it a fifth star in our book.



Montserrat, the monumental village in the sky

We had been told not to miss Montserrat, and now we know why. It is more than a church and monastery perched up in the mountains; it is an entire village perched up in the mountains. The complex includes the school for choir boys (many but not all live up here); the monastery itself, which is not open to the public; the library, which the monks rebuilt to more than 300,000 volumes after its destruction by Napoleon’s troops in 1814; the basilica, which contains the famous Black Madonna; a museum of art and artifacts; a separate audio-visual experience explaining the history of the place; two funicular rides, one up, opne down to the caves; one tram car and of course the obligatory shop and cafeteria.

Our tour left Placa Catalonia before sunrise, and our most attractive tour guide explained that we would arrive before the large groups so we could enjoy a more private experience. The ride up to Montserrat takes about an hour on the freeway, thankfully against the rush hour inbound traffic, which stretches on for miles after miles. For a city of only 1.5 million, Barcelona is the center of commerce second only to Madrid in Spain. You can’t appreciate that until you see the traffic pouring into the city on a workday morning.

Alekxina our guide was right about avoiding the crowds–ours was the first bus in the parking lot. The entire valley below was blanketed with thick clouds that she said would burn off by mid-morning.

View from Montserrat in the early morning. By midday, all the clouds are burned off.

The guided portion of our Montserrat tour was limited to a walking history of Montserrat and the basilica, leading to stairs up close and personal with the Black Madonna. By the way, the Madonna was originally white. Scientists have determined that a coating of either metal or wax gradually turned the face and hands of both Mary and the infant Jesus a deep brown, which reportedly has now been stabilized.

The Black Madonna of Montserrat. Visitors are encouraged to touch Mary’s globe, but the rest of the statue is protected now by a case.

The sanctuary of the Virgin Mary dates back to 888, and the monastery itself was founded in 1025. The monks built a massive library and their own publishing house, so that over the centuries, Montserrat became known as a center of culture.

The Black Madonna overlooks the altar of the basilica, which predates Vatican II by nearly a millennium.

Events for the next near-millennium went along just fine more or less. However, the 19th century was not so kind, as Napoleon’s troops sacked the place and burned all the books in the library in 1814. By the end of the 19th century, the monks were able to reclaim Montserrat, but it was threatened with destruction again during the Spanish Civil War and was abandoned. The monks took it back again, and after World War II began to restore and revive Montserrat as a religious destination.

The Romanesque basilica is pretty large for a tiny community of choir boys and monks.

Interestingly, Montserrat is also the center of a major national park operated by the Catalonian government. Hiking trails and camp sites dot the terrain, and we could see cars parked obviously overnight as our bus approached the entrance to the monastery.

The guided part of the tour went only through the basilica and the Black Madonna, and we were left with about two hours on our own to explore until meeting back for a liqueur tasting in the shop. Determined to maximize our time, Lynn and I bolted for the first ride up the funicular San Joan.

A view of Montserrat’s monastery and basilica looking down from the funicular Sant Joan. There is a stairway alongside for the hardy, but most visitors–including us–choose to pay for the ride in the car.

The first ride was crowded, and we barely made it on the train. Lynn, who does not do well with heights, just refused to look until we reached the summit a few minutes later.

The views from the top of Sant Joan are spectacular, but Lynn will not get anywhere near the edge of the trail.

Five different hiking trails lead off from the funicular station, some for as little as 15-30 minutes, others as long as two hours up and two back.  Our goals were more modest. We were interested in the views but intent on getting back down to the main level for the museum and a snack before the liqueur tasting.

We fairly raced through the museum to see the major paintings by Caraveggio, Renoir, Degas, Monet and other luminaries. It’s a small museum, and the art collection is organized chronologically, so we were able to get through the high points and stay on pace. We were on a schedule. Liqueur tastings are not to be missed.

Tour buses fill the parking lot by the time we start back to Barcelona. When we arrived, we were the only bus in the lot. Lynn and our guide head the group of nine back to our bus way back in the corner. We were up early, but we were back in Barcelona for a proper lunch and were able to see all of Monserrat before the crowds ascended.

By the time we finished our stay in Montserrat, the big tour groups had pulled in. Our guide explained that the off-season had just started the day before. Their big seasons are September-October and May-July. Since we were part of a group of nine, we were most thankful for our lucky timing. Still, the bus parking lot was full, and the crowds of tours filled the courtyard in front of the basilica. We got in and out in the nick of time. The selfie sticks were out in force.


A walk around the marina in search of a gondola

All Souls Day is the day after All Saints Day and certainly not a holiday here. The crowds were measurably smaller.

Our goal this day was the Museum of Catalan History, which we could see from our apartment window, and the gondola from the harbor to MontJuic, which we could also see from our window. We made the first. Not so much the second.

The museum took all of more than two hours, but it gives an excellent presentation of the history of Catalonia from prehistoric times through the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, the early Spanish empire, the Catalan empire and finally the tragic days of the 20th century Civil War. Catalonia’s history is not a happy one, and the museum helps you understand the reasons.

Hungry and leg-weary from our tour of the museum, we repaired to the Fastnet for a bit of lunch, early by Spanish standards at 13:00. Of course, we had not had breakfast, so we were ravenous. We ordered two baguettes from the menu, thinking these would be the one-sided open-faced slice of bread with some meat and cheese placed on top.

Instead, they came out as full poor boys, cut in two totaling a good twelve inches of baguette, chicken, chorizo and cheese each. Lynn’s chicken was loaded with two half inch thick slices of mozzarella cheese on each portion. My chorizo chicken included thinly sliced pieces of parmesan with the meats. Both were delicious. Both were more than we could eat for 7 euros each.

Stuffed, we took Lynn’s half in a bag and marched on toward the gondola, our goal for the day. The gondola runs across the harbor and all the way to Mont Juic; we can see it from our apartment window, and we have never taken it.

Now we know why. It moves slowly, there is not much room, there are only a couple of gondolas in operation at one time, it is not cheap, and the line was listed as an hour when we approached.

We chose not to stand and wait.

Instead, we walked the length of the harbor, goggling at the huge yachts as big as anything we ever saw in Monte Carlo and thinking we would come out at the other end of the marina. Wrong. We walked into the working end of the port at the W Hotel (why would people pay to stay there?) and had to catch a bus back to Passeig de Colom to avoid a long walk the other way.

Did I mention there are some really big boats in the marina? The schooner on the left shines a red light all night at the top of all three masts, indicating each one is at least 100 feet high.


First day surprise in Barcelona

First full day out in Barcelona, and we noticed the streets in front of our apartment are extremely crowded, but we figured that is normal for this neighborhood in this city. After all, we are facing the waterfront in a seaside city.

Lynn’s goal for the day was to visit the Mercat Santa Cristina just up Via Laeitana from our apartment to shop for food to cook at home tonight. We walked up the busy street, found the market and discovered that it was closed. Shut. Fermé. Not to open today, because today is November 1, All Saints Day, which is a big, big holiday in Spain and most of Catholic Europe for that matter.

Lynn hopefully asked the restaurant waiter if perhaps the other market off La Rambla might be open, but he replied no, everything is closed up for the day. (Well, not everything; his restaurant was actively serving customers.) But we figured we might walk across to La Rambla to catch the scene and the Carrefour supermarket before circling back home.

On the way to La Rambla right in front of the Barcelona Cathedral, we encountered a large group of people, all listening to a band perched on the steps to the church and many in the crowd in large and small circles performing some sort of folkloric dance.

The band on the steps in front of the cathedral plays holiday music with the Catalan flag prominently on display.
And the locals form a circle to the music. They just toss their bags, clothes and gear to the center and dance around.

The Catalan flag was prominently displayed behind the band, a familiar sight all over Barcelona. Catalonia doesn’t want to be part of Spain. Later on La Rambla we would see a t-shirt that displayed “Catalunya is not Spain.” They want out, and they are not afraid to display their sentiments all over the city.

La Rambla was as crazy as ever, with the holiday crowds milling up and down the street. We found the Carrefour, our grocery destination, since the markets were closed. My Catalan Spanish was barely enough to order one kilo of beef, but there was no way to explain that we wanted the meat cut into chunks. Lynn would later have to hack away at the beautiful cut of beef with knives barely sharp enough to cut through warm butter.

Leaving Carrefour, we made the long walk down La Rambla to the waterside, passing by landmarks we had seen before–the KFC and Burger King that mark the entrance to Calle Ferran; the  Museum of Erotica with its narrow one-door entrance; the street vendors plying all sort of trinkets that everyone must have; the hotel where we first stayed in Barcelona and finally at the end of the street the statue of Columbus, supposedly pointing to the New World as he reported to Ferdinand and Isabella upon his return from the first ever Caribbean cruise.

After depositing the groceries back home, we took off for another walk to Barceloneta, the neighborhood where last night’s restaurant is located. By now thirsty, we stopped at a promising establishment named Fastnet that claims to make Bloody Marys.

What sailor in Barcelona could resist frequenting this establishment?

Inside, we were introduced to Fastnet’s heritage (Irish and sailing), confirmed with the pretty bartendress from Poland who speaks in an Irish accent after eight years in Dublin that yes, indeed they do make a mean Bloody Mary, and yes indeed they open for breakfast on Sunday at the more civilized hour of 10:30. And indeed, we plan to show up Sunday at 10:30 to find out.

Our Polish bartendress (left) is ready for Sunday. And we will be ready for her at the stroke of 10:30.

Back at the apartment and marveling at the size of the boats in the harbor (one schooner has red lights at the head of all three of its masts, indicating heights in excess of 100 feet each), we congratulated ourselves on a very excellent location so near some of our old and new favorite restaurants in Barcelona.

The three red lights in a row are on the same both. Same as the two red lights on the left. Big boats here.

It’s been a fine first day, and Lynn’s bourgouignon was as delicious as anything we have enjoyed at home the entire trip. She was too modest to let me take a photo, but it ranked with our Christmas dinner in our Paris garret.


Adios Madrid, bienvenidos Barcelona

Our trip from Madrid to Barcelona was blissfully stress-free. We walked down the hill to Plaza Lavapies and found a taxi right where it was supposed to be, rode less than 10 minutes to Atocha station and were watching the signs for our train platform with an hour and a half to kill.

The train ride from Barcelona covers 621 kilometers (386 miles) in about three and a half hours, with a few stops at major cities along the way, such as Zaragossa. At 300 kph, the mostly barren landscape passes quickly, but you really don’t feel like you are going that fast. European high-speed trains are a marvel.

The sleek AVE high speed trains run smooth and silent at 300 kph.

Our taxi line outside Barcelona Sants train station was mercifully short, and the driver only ripped me off for about 3-4 euros in the fare to the Friendly Apartments HQ, where we checked in.

Friendly’s HQ is in Barcelona, and it is a big operation. Two very pleasant, English-speaking attendants were ready to check us in, a process that took only about 10 minutes. Our Lisbon apartment was rented through Friendly as well, and they live up to their name. The company operates more than 3,000 apartments in 27 European cities, so they know what they are doing.

They even called a taxi to take us to our apartment, only about 10 minutes away. One huge benefit to smart phones is the ability to track your route in a taxi to make sure you are not getting a roundabout city tour on the way to your destination. Our driver stopped on Passeig de Colom, the major thoroughfare along the Barcelona waterfront–this was our apartment building.

I knew that we had a view of the marina, but I didn’t expect to be across the street. What a wonderful surprise.

Providentially, our building has a lift (two actually) to get us to our fourth-floor apartment (fifth floor by American standards). And what an apartment. Bright, airy, fully equipped with a view directly overlooking the bustling boulevard along Barcelona’s waterfront complex. It’s noisy with the window open but completely silent when we closed the well insulated modern window.

The view from our front window. There are some big boats in that marina.
Lynn likes the bedroom and the queen sized bed.

We’re going to like this place.

Once we were unpacked and mostly put away, we went downstairs in search of groceries. There is a small store right at our door in the building where we bought a few basics (wine, eggs and bacon) from one of the most unfriendly Middle Eastern shopkeepers I had ever encountered who did not take credit cards. We marched onward down the street to the larger store that the Friendly staff had pointed out for a better experience.

After our first cocktails in our Barcelona apartment, we ventured out in Barcelonetta, the old neighborhood around the marina, to locate a restaurant named Somorrostro that Lynn had found highly recommended online. Somorrostro is located just two blocks off the main boulevard on Sant Carles. I think we can remember that street name.

Lynn aces another restaurant. We will head back here before we leave.

Although we did not have reservations, they seated us at a small table in the back with instructions to finish by 9 p.m. for the people who had already made reservations. The staff was most friendly, very attentive, fluent in English and helpful with the all-tapas menu.

And what a menu. We ordered four tapas dishes, exactly enough for the two of us. Their version of Patas bravas is different from the usual. The potatoes are more sliced and cooked in a tiny black iron pot. The sauce has a smoky flavor rather than the usual garlicy, peppery aioli. The overall result is delicious.

We also ordered the pork rib lasagna, rich with Mahon cheese and unlike any lasagna we had ever tasted; the duck magret with passion fruit foam (trust me, it’s delicious) and a bucket of mussels in a light broth. The combination of those four was more than enough for our two appetites. With a bottle of water and four glasses of wine, the bill came to 37.60. This is a five-star restaurant, and we will return. More than once. With reservations next time.

Sated, we smugly walked back home along the main boulevard past all the restaurants with photo menus and waiters barkering the tourists in, knowing that we had just enjoyed a meal they will never experience until they walk the two dark blocks off the Tourist Trail.




Bloody Mary Sunday and get-away day

What is it about Madrid that hates Bloody Marys? Even though we had already planned to go to Max Madrid for brunch and Bloody Mary, because it’s the only place we can find a Bloody Mary and besides serves great food, we set off early for our last walk around just to see if we could find another source of our fascination.

Not to be.

We checked in at few places that looked promising, but nothing. It’s not that Max Madrid makes a bad one, it’s just that they are about the only place we can find in Madrid that makes a Bloody Mary at all. Even the cerveceria that shows a picture of a Bloody Mary on their drink menu doesn’t make one.


So at the stroke of 13:00, we walked into the completely empty Max Madrid and plopped ourselves at the bar for our chosen Sunday beverage. I consoled myself that as late as it was for us, it was only 7 a.m. in New Orleans. (Daylight Saving Time ends a week earlier in Europe, so for this one week, New Orleans is only six hours behind European Central.)

As before, Max Madrid made a most excellent Bloody Mary, after my urging to splash mucho mas brown sauce (Lea & Perrins) into the mix.

After we savored our Sunday ritual, we asked for a table to eat brunch/lunch or whatever they call the meal at 14:00 on Sunday. They graciously seated us at a corner table tucked way far in the back room. Within minutes, we understood why they parked us back there. The entire restaurant filled to capacity in a half an hour with large families, young couples, old couples and older ladies.

Max offers two levels of menus on Sunday, one for 16 and one for 20 a person. That includes two courses, dessert, coffee, wine or beer, water, bread and whatever else they may bring to your table. We ordered what we thought would be more reasonable, a split tapas of ham and cheese croquettes and one entree each.

That was a good intention, but the portions were gargantuan. My black linguine with frutti de mare was loaded with fish, whole octopus, squid, shrimp and mussels swimming in a rich sauce that was truly the fruit of the sea. I picked out every morsel of the frutti de mare, but there was still a half-bowl of black pasta left to be consumed. But not by me. Lynn’s dish of risotto and prawns with slices of orange was not quite as much to her liking as some other dishes we have enjoyed at Max Madrid but no less large. She could only finish about half herself.

The waitress came to clear our plates and wondered if we did not like the food. All I could do was grab my belly and groan “mucho grande.”

We had used our last of our Metro ticket going up the hill, so we waddled out of Max Madrid to walk downhill back to Lavapies and the party we knew would be raging when we got there.

Somewhat nostalgic already, we took the last walk down Calle Olivar past the landmarks that have become so familiar to us in the last two weeks. The tattoo parlor, the Attak gay nightclub , the renovation trash chute all become your bread crumbs home after a while. We had done the same thing earlier this year in Venice, which is notoriously confusing to get around.

Plaza Lavapies was indeed in full swing when we reached the bottom of the hill , but we were a bit disappointed to see no bands playing. Maybe the TapaPies festival that has been going on the entire time we have been in Madrid has closed down. Looking for our last experience in the ‘hood, we popped into the packed PortoMarin cerveceria for a last glass of wine in the crowd before heading up to our apartment, but not before walking past a group of Africans playing drums and dancing with an elderly lady who was grooving to the beat.

It was get-away day, so back home for a last bottle of wine, dinner of leftovers and packing for the trip to Barcelona tomorrow. Adios Madrid. We love ya.