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  • Writer's pictureTim Madison

EUROPE 2024 - Spain

Updated: Apr 15

April 8, 2024

Travel Day - Leipzig to Barcelona


We’re up early to scrub ourselves and pack. The entire day will be dedicated to riding on conveyances and waiting for them.  CK has our train tickets.  A quick tidy of the flat and the luggage drag begins.


Leg 1: Catch S-Bahn to Halle Airport

Having run this route before, we feel like locals on a get-away. Across the square and down the escalator, being broken, means I must lug the bags down stairs. The train is crowded but the trip isn’t a long one.

Leg 2: Flight from Leipzig-Halle to Frankfurt

In January, CK got an email from Lufthansa informing her that this flight was being changed, that our layover would be Frankfurt instead of Munich. The ticket agent sees the change but also tells us that it isn’t in her system. Now we know that Lufthansa's scheduling system doesn't fully communicate with itself. She needs a phone call with another agent to get things sorted. This takes 5-10 minutes.


The Prosecco Bar is open at the Halle Airport at 9 am

We generally lack full confidence in European airlines to check our luggage through properly and doubly so when there's a plane change involved. Today, that's us. CK got ahead of this by finding the proper forms on Lufthansa's website. Katherina did us a real solid by printing them out yesterday.  We place them, with our data, inside our bags which helps put them back on track if they get lost. We should make our own version of this and use it every time, bypassing the download & print process.Airport security isn’t too oppressive. They pull my computer bag aside because of my cellphone power bank. They didn't confiscate it.  Yay.


Lufthansa airplane food

Breakfast is from a food shop at the Flughafen, a coffee and a bread item advertising apples. It looked like it might be nice. Alas. It was dry with only a whiff of apple. It's not that I haven't had good bread in Germany. I have. But my impression is that bread products seem less satisfying here, generally speaking. An exception was the pizza joint last night. Their crust was quite worthy. For this flight, they load us on a bus to shuttle out on the tarmac to find the plane. If it were stormy, we'd be wet before climbing up to the hatch. The weather is fine. No worries. 45-minute flight to Frankfurt. 15 minutes into the flight, the crew brings us a tray of edible items, some of which are identifiable or mostly so. There's some bread product (alas!), accompanied by mystery goo. I guess correctly that one item is a meatball, but its adornment can not be guessed. My sense of taste also fails to identify it.


Frankfurt, Germany

The dark item in the bowl is a rather nice chocolate mousse on a granular cookie. The crew lady comes by offering champagne and I don't say no. This, together with the mousse, achieves the culinary highlight of our Lufthansa experience.Frankfurt Flughafen is next.This pilot gets us on the ground in one piece, but it felt like we took a punch in the ribs from Muhammad Ali or maybe body slammed by Hulk Hogan. Frankfurt airport covers enormous space. We de-plane onto the tarmac and into a bus. The ride to the passenger terminal feels like 2 or 3 miles.


On the bus

Once there we find the Lufthansa lounge which we have access to this time.  There is quite a supply of food and booze we could plunder but we just aren’t hungry.  I spend the time snoozing.  CK does crossword puzzles and sips orange juice.  When the time comes to go to the gate, there is no jetway.  Again, we board a bus which carries us out on the tarmac for what seems like miles.  At last, we find our jet.


Leg 3: Flight from Frankfurt to Barcelona.

This is a 1.5 hr flight but they have a plate of small food for us. This is mostly identifiable, which is comforting. Hanchen (chicken), gemuse (veggies), and kuchen (cake). Everything is cold. The chicken is overcooked and nearly, but not quite, inedible. It invokes memories of midnight fridge raids when anything would do, dead cold congealed chicken parts inclusive. Again, the best bit is the cake, and I'm not a cake person. Our conclusion here is that the Germans are generally very good with pork, beef, pickles, cake, potatoes, and gelato. Actually, these dishes can be fabulous in the hands of German cooks. This is not to suggest that American fare is superior. American road food can be hideous and completely unhealthy. Two years ago, on a road trip to California, I'm sure we found the worst road food on planet Earth and even ate some of it. We are simply unaccustomed to European road food even though we have waded through it every spring for about 9 years. We never learn. I drown my non-existent troubles in a cognac & coke (they didn't have rum) provided by the beefiest crew member I've ever seen in the cabin. He's all muscle, painfully squeezed into a uniform shirt, scarcely fitting in the aisle. I want a foto but am afraid to ask. He's cool. He brings me a second cocktail. I'm glad we have a driver meeting us in Barcelona.  I’m too tired and loopy to figure out the buses.


I'm not at all sure how they meant this

Leg 4: Taxi to the Hotel

Our driver is there for us just outside of baggage claim. In no time, we’re in his Mercedes passenger van on our way to the city.  He’s a loquacious fellow and his English is worse than my Spanish.  That makes the language of choice Spanish.  I’m in a bad way about it because I’m so badly out of practice.  Still, it is good for me to focus on what he is saying. I’m doing alright, getting by.  He seems to understand what I’m trying to say.  He may be just pretending, also.  Har!


Basilica Santa Maria del Mar

Our stay is the Hotel Colon.  It is situated on the plaza directly opposite the Catedral de Barcelona.  This is an excellent location.  We’re within walking distance of a ton of must-see stuff.  It’s a shame we only have 3 full days.  Our room is up one flight of stairs which means we don’t have to use the elevator.  NICE.  On the other hand, our room does not face the plaza.  We have a view of steam pipes. 


Our driver suggests that we check out a Catalonian restaurant, 7 Portes, if we are hungry.  It’s a 10 minute walk through an interesting zone.  We pass another church, this one is Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar.  CK sees the door open, and we must have a look.

As we go I’m checking out other tapas bars and food options because we have no reservation for 7 Portes. It is good to have alternative plans. We’re just going to pop in and ask if there’s a table for two tourists.  And I do.  And they do.  I even use my Spanish, even though it is unnecessary.  They are kind to me, however; they don’t sneer or laugh.

 






This is a very elegant restaurant.  We’re sitting facing the room which gives us a good view of the wait staff in action.  Curiously they appear a little disorganized.  Indeed, there’s significant chaos going on here.  We are approached by two servers, each of whom drift away to work other tables.  When the third one arrives we take advantage and place our orders: green salad and paella. Also, we’re having the house red which is amazing. It is deliciously delicious. Same goes for the paella.  I wanted to compare their paella to my version and I must say, mine holds up pretty well.  As our food arrives, the music begins and it isn’t piped in streaming service.  We have a live piano guy who is playing medleys of familiar tunes much like Bob the piano guy at our hangout in Palm Desert.  CK is transported. We really have a lovely evening.


Gabriel y Michelle

We are both tired and need to get some sleep because tomorrow there’s a 4 hour tour.  On the way home we go exploring a few blocks up side streets to find the less traveled bars.  We find a tapas joint, a Catalonian fondue shop, and a tiny bar called Stravinsky.  It looks interesting so I go for a quick foto.  A young couple at the front of the queue pose and smile.  The fellow then asks me (in Spanish) to send him a copy (What? Do I look like a native with my sling bag and cell phone? No way!) We have a short chat. His name is Gabriel and his date is Michelle from New York City.  I get his number and wish them a happy night. Photo edited and sent, done and dusted.

 

Now, we’re really needing to get to bed and make no more detours.  And I have a blog to post! 


Catedral de Barcelona

 April 9, 2024

Barcelona

 

Our hotel room represents an adjustment.  It’s about 1/3 the size of our flat in Leipzig.  We have one chair and one very small table.  We’re feeling a little squeezed. Closets exist but they are amusingly insufficient even considering our very spare travel wardrobe. The bed is large and comfy.  It seems to take up most of the square footage.  There are only 3 places to occupy.  On the bed, on the chair, or in the washroom.  The shower is terrific, one of those overhead rain panels. If water wasn’t such a scarce commodity in this city, I’d lounge in the warm shower-rain for much longer.

 

Breakfast is provided by the hotel.  We’re reminded of our experience in Italy last year where each day we were tempted to wallow in gluttony first thing in the morning.  Here we find things very similar.  We see every kind of fruit, baked item, meat, eggs, cereal, juices, coffee, etc.  One section is dedicated to cake, donuts, and designer truffles for dessert. Dessert for breakfast. I believe a philosophical treatise could be submitted before breaking it down to a cult.


Sagrada Familia's Model Shop

Today’s adventure is assisted by an expert guide.  His knowledge covers the architecture and history of Barcelona.  Of course, our main goal is the Basilica Sagrada Familia.  His name is Oriol.  He’s a Catalan native of the city.  After introductions we wander forth to find a taxi.  This doesn’t work so well.  We’re learning that there is an enormous international convention in town.  40,000 employees and officials of McDonald’s Corporation are here, the first time they’ve had their convention outside of the USA.  They are easy to spot with their uniform jackets and official backpacks.  We abandon the taxi and go underground to the Metro.  This gets us to the church with only a short delay.  It is 10 a.m. when we check through security.  24 years ago, when I first saw this construction site there were no tickets to buy, no security.  Just walk in and look around.  It was not nearly as finished then as it is now.  Then there wasn’t even a roof over the transept. No glass in the windows.  There was a workshop in the nave.  At this stage, in 2024, they have only the top of the 600 ft central tower to finish and one of the entrances.  They might have it all wrapped up by 2030.


Our first view

Oriol is full of information, pointing out details, explaining the meaning of things.  Gaudi was intensely religious, and he was always looking for ways to fuse spirituality with his worldly observations and realize them in architecture, particularly in this project.  There is symbolism everywhere.  The supporting columns are suggesting tree trunks stretching up to a canopy of leaves.  Light plays through the roof to add to the effect.  The colored windows emphasize the changing light from morning to evening. Exterior facades around the entrances are crammed with storytelling and symbolic imagery.


From the southwest entrance

Gaudi's death mask
Viewing from nave toward the altar






There are finials on top of spires made of Venetian glass in the form of various bunches of fruit.  The interior has more overhead space than St Peter’s in Rome.  It puts a crick in my neck to look at it.  Best if I sit in a chair and just lay back as much as I can.  There are intricate details carved in stone hundreds of feet up on the towers and catwalks that cannot be seen from below.  Much of it cannot be seen at all unless one takes a ride on a crane’s hook to get near it which isn’t going to happen.  Some things are for the artist’s eyes only.  There are entrances to chapels at the side of the northeast entrance which are interesting because of their large bronze doors designed by a Japanese artist. The pattern is green ivy accented with birds, insects, and a few flowers.  Lovely stuff.




A crazy vertical panorama shot

We have another hour or so left with Oriol so we make a quick visit to Casa Mila and Casa Batllo.  Casa Mila has a controversial history.  In the 1920’s it was considered too different to fit in with the existing architecture of the city.  The rich burger who ordered it approved the design but he was eventually convinced it was an error by the negative flow of public opinion.  He tried to sue Gaudi but lost in court.  Today, tourists visit the roof where much of the sculpture exists in the form of chimneys.  Oriol guides us inside a high end clothing shop that occupies a portion of the building.  There we find an original fireplace, some original ceiling design, and staircases.  At Casa Batllo we learn that Gaudi only remodeled the facade and roof and it’s a real funhouse of stuff.  There’s a dragon on the roof and skulls for balconies with thousands of glass tile shards gleaming on the wall. 


Our guide, Oriol

Casa Batllo

Oriol takes us to a hidden feature
Another fantastic detail

Our tour comes to an end with Oriol suggesting a nearby tapas bar for lunch.  We take his advice and aren’t disappointed. I ordered patatas bravas, pulpos, and bacalao brochette washed down with very cold beer.  CK had a croquette and pear & gorgonzola ravioli. Outstanding stuff.  Not a lot of food but super rich, filling, and soooo flavorful.

 

After a short rest at the hotel, we step back out to buy a ticket for the Catedral de Barcelona, directly across the street.  Compared to Gaudi’s church, this place is a drab and gloomy pit.  It is Gothic and quite barren of décor except for the obligatory religious images.   Just about everything has that crumbling, musty vibe that gives one the feeling of wandering through a necropolis.  When we move to the adjoining cloister, we discover that it really is a necropolis.  Every step we take is on a gravestone.  The floor is made of them.


The choir in the Catedral de Barcelona

When it comes to the evening meal, we have no reservations.  The decision is to wander around the Gothic Quarter, looking for a likely spot.  We find a nice one but it’s booked.  A bit more wandering reveals more booked eateries.  We give in and head for a quick pasta joint.  It wasn’t special but it hit the spot.  Not wanting to repeat this tomorrow I dive into a charming looking tapas bar and book a table.  El Portalon, 18,00 hrs, Wednesday.

 

Not quite done with the day because I simply must find some decent gelato.  I think I’ve looked at half a dozen shops and they all suck.  CK suggests we Google Amarino.  We know this chain has the good stuff.  We’ve found them in every city in Europe except Leipzig.  Sure enough, there is one only 7 minutes walk from our hotel.  Along the way we stumble across a brilliantly lit up chocolate shop where a Señora holds forth a platter of samples. I take one and am instantly overcome by chocolate lust. We leave with a small bag of bon-bons and an almond encrusted caramel bar.

 

Gelato in hand, it’s a light and tumble journey back to the hotel.  I arrive with sticky fingers and a sugar high. It’s time to catch up on the blog and get some sleep.  Tomorrow we’re out on an excursion.

 

April 10, 2024

Barcelona

 

A monument near the bus station

The hotel breakfast banquet reappears for us but today we’re plundering it right at 7:30 a.m. because we are poised to race to our meeting point to catch a bus for a guided tour.  The goal is Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey.  We’re fed, washed, and ready to go only to learn, by way of the hotel concierge, that taxis are impossible at 8:30 a.m. because of the thundering hoard of McDonald's conventioneers. We consult Google for our options. It is an 18 minute walk vs. a 25 minute Metro.  The Metro would take longer than that because we would need time to clear our minds of temporary bewilderment. Walking it is.  Google Maps keeps us on track and on time.  Arriving at the bus station we find our guide, no trouble. For 45 minutes we ride in strangely cramped bus seats (I feel like my forehead is inches away from the back of the seat in front of me) while a charming lady with a thick Catalan accent entertains us with historical facts and jokes.  ‘Us’ meaning about 40 people.  We’re all going to the same place and will be split into 4 groups, each with a guide.

 

The Funicular Station at Montserrat

Mount Serrat earns this name from the irregular pattern of erosion of its sandstone peaks: serrated. At the base of the mountain we board the biggest funicular train I've seen. The facilities here are clearly designed to take crowds up the mountain.  I shouldn't be surprised but I am, kinda. I had a faint idea that this might be a quiet and somewhat remote excursion.  I am so wrong about that. This is a full scale, industrial tourist operation.


Riding the Funicular

These guys are equipped to deal with millions of visitors every year offering multiple ways to spend including paying a fee to join the queue waiting to touch an exposed part of Montserrat's prime relic, The Black Madonna. This 11th century wooden figurine is the genesis of the monastery.  In the 9th century a hermitage was founded on the mountain.  When the Black Madonna made her appearance, legends and rumors began to circulate about powers of healing, blessings of fertility, and the like. Soon there were so many tourists coming to visit the relic that a monastery was founded in 1025.


The plaza at Montserrat

Dani is our guide

Apostles adorn the entrance to the Basilica

Sculpture by Subirachs

Napoleon tried to destroy the abbey in 1811.  He wanted revenge for having lost a battle. He destroyed everything that didn’t require a lot of effort, so the bones of the place survived.  It was rebuilt.  During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's Franco's fascist zealots also put some effort into destroying it.  But pulling down heavy stone construction is more work than people want. A lot of stuff went up in smoke but, again, enough remained for another rebuild. Much of what we see today is a reconstruction but there’s also considerable new construction.  Next year, 2025, is the 1,000th anniversary of the monastery and the construction crews are hard at working to make things spiffy for the big party.  I’m happy we’re seeing the place now.  Today, we think it is crowded but next year, watch out.

 

This church is dark

The Black Madonna on cell-phone zoom!

The sites here consist of fabulous views of the mountain and valley below, an art museum, and the Basilica. Our ticket says we can attend a performance of the resident boy choir, but our guide says that this is a falsehood.  There’s no way that is going to happen. Inside the Basilica we find a Romanesque style church lined with hanging lamps, each one a gift from a different country.  Like other churches of this period, it is dark and gloomy.  This is because the walls are necessarily quite thick, and windows must be small. The relic, The Black Madonna, symbolic heart of the monastery and pride of the Catalan faithful is mounted several meters above the floor and well away from the nave and altar. My camera can scarcely zoom out enough to catch a blurry snap of it. Honestly, there is nothing very special about this Basilica except for the age of its walls and the remarkably creditable reconstruction of ancient things inside it.  Some artisans have a crazy talent for faking antiques and that’s exactly what they did here.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most visitors don’t know they are looking at fake stuff.  Some things aren’t fake, of course, like several sculptures by Josep Maria Subirachs, a celebrated Catalan artist, and many works of art that were donated to the monastery. 

 

Another view of the peaks

The visit here is over in short order.  Our guides herd us onto a bus (we thought we were going to ride the funicular down) for a shuttle to a winery.  We’ll have a tour of the facility after a small lunch.  Oller del Mas is the name of the estate, meaning ‘House of the Potter’.  The estate has its origins in the beginnings of the 11th century and has been a family operation the entire time. But that doesn’t mean they are old-fashioned. On the tour we see high tech grape handling and sorting machines.  I didn’t know such stuff existed.  And the whole operation looks like it could be a hospital with such tidiness.


This version of the Black Madonna guards the winery

Fermentation room
Aging room

We get to sample some of it, of course. We like it, particularly that of a certain grape called Picapoll which creates a red wine with Rosé qualities.  Later I find out that it will cost me $500 to get 6 bottles shipped home. I’ll pass.

 

We meet some charming folks, eat some good food, have good laughs.  It was a fine day.



The bus dumps us back in town just 20 minutes ahead of our dinner rez at El Portalon.  CK finds a cab just outside the bus station and we’re off.  I needed my Spanish here because the driver’s English was non-existent.  We hop out in the Gothic District with 7 minutes to spare and hoof it the next 3 blocks to arrive just on time.  We’re happy to get a glass of red and a nice salad in front of us.  CK orders a penne pasta and I go for a Catalan specialty, Rabo de Toro, Oxtail Stew.  After destroying this, we decide to detour a bit on the way back to the hotel by way of La Rambla, just to say we walked it.  Of course, it is much different than I recall from 24 years ago.  There are no more bird sellers, and the clumsy thieves are nowhere to be seen.  It was too late for the big market to be open, so we’ll miss it.

 

Time for sleep and recharge.  Tomorrow is our last full day in Barcelona.

 

Rabo de Toro

La Rambla

This Gelato being sold on La Rambla is no bueno.

April 11, 2024

Barcelona

 

Cathedral Square in front of our hotel

Sculpture near Palau de Musica

This is our last full day in Barcelona. We have only one reservation for a Catalan dining experience. The rest of the day is completely unscheduled.  We are Free Roaming Tourists today.


After a lazy breakfast we light out for 'El Palau de Musica', The Music Hall. This institution is a trophy of Catalan culture and a significant relic of the art nouveau period between the 19th and 20th century. The Catalans don't use the term 'art nouveau'. For them it is 'Modernisme'. For me, it seems like the architectural response to the impressionism of the late 19th century painters; a more open interpretation of art and creativity.  This theater is a marvel of architectural sculpture and color. Unlike any other theater from this era (or any other) it features a café. A rather large one. It's a brilliant thing, really. Everyone wants cocktails and a show. Here you can get it all. I can't believe this hasn't become the standard for all theaters.


Cafe entrance

Palau de Musica Cafe

We spend more time in the Palau de Musica than we thought we would, wandering the balcony, snapping pix. Everywhere we look, we discover something marvelous.  Wagner's Ride of the Valkyrie is carved into the proscenium. Millions of ceramic tiles compose designs on walls.  Stone roses hover on the ceiling. The organist launches into ‘Zadok the Priest’ by Handel and literally shakes the building. This place is quite a hidden gem.



Ceiling skylight



Upper right hand corner of the Proscenium: Ride of the Valkyrie

Detail of back wall of the stage
A fun shot from the balcony

Our next goal is a fixture of Catalan food culture: hot chocolate. CK selects a shop named after a particular confection, a Petritxol; a lump of deep fried cookie dough, with fillings, and adorned with chocolate or caramel.  But we aren't here for that. We want the traditional Catalan hot chocolate. It has the viscosity of Elmer's Glue and an intense flavor of chocolate that pierces the brain. An order of churros or melindros (ladyfingers) is the required accompaniment. These are dunked into the chocolate glue and devoured like a vampire biting a perfect neck. Damn. The shopkeeper is from Chile and is extremely thoughtful with her suggestions and gentle upselling. We like her. The shop is 'Petritxol'. We recommend!

 


Outside Petritxol on Carrer street we see dozens of ceramic plaques which seem to celebrate particular residents who once lived here. Here are two of them:



The top one says: Juan Magrina Sanroma, Dance master & choreographer founded his studio in number 1 of this street in 1936.

The bottom says: On the balcony you see Angel Guimera's shadow trembling.


Basilica Santa Maria del Pi

Another Madonna & Child figurine that was 'found' by a fisherman. There are many such finds in Catalonia.

We're out wandering aimlessly now which grants CK the freedom to barge into churches. In less than 5 minutes we are buying tickets for the Basilica Santa Maria del Pi (which means Pine in Catalan).  A 15th century Catalan Gothic style which replaced an older Romanesque church. Pine refers to an ancient pine tree which lived in front of the church from 1568 to 1802.  It died after a soldier stabbed it with his bayonet.  For a time, the spires were the tallest in Barcelona, which provided an excellent position for military lookouts.  So, whenever the city was being attacked by some neighboring enemy, the church was a target.  The Duke of Popoli bombarded it with cannon in 1714.  In 1936 it was sacked and burned by Franco’s fascists as were many other churches in Spain. Some art was saved but much of what we see is a reconstructed version.  As we’re exploring, we see an open door offering a staircase leading up to the bell tower.  There’s no sign telling us not to go, so we do.  About halfway up we meet a fellow who informs us we are not allowed to be there.  Drat.  I was interested in getting a view.

We never know what we'll stumble across in these old churches

Out of the gloomy church we take a walk in bright daylight down La Rambla to the Columbus Monument. He gestures toward the west, thinking he would reach China by sailing that direction. What he found wasn't China although he insisted that it was and never gave up that claim. Therefore, they say that he points the wrong way.


We walk on toward the Barceloneta zone near the waterfront. We want to find the famous beach. The city imported sand from the Sahara Desert, an effort to install a proper beach in time for the 1992 Olympics. Prior to that the beach consisted of hard shingle, stones of various sizes. There were problems. Scorpions, ants, and spiders also came with the barges of sand, obviously causing the scantily clad sunbathers considerable discomfort. Today, the sun worshippers risk skin cancer flagrantly with no fear of bugs. The bikinis have minimal effect in terms of body coverage. Some ladies dispense with the top entirely. CK searches for a spot along the beach where she can dip a finger in the Mediterranean. There's a spot near a breakwater where the surf is minimal. The surf is less powerful there so she takes a stab at it. She misses with her finger and has to retreat instantly, a surge of ocean chasing her. She almost escapes but the Mediterranean licks the back of her shoe. This wasn't how she planned it but mission accomplished! She has touched the Mediterranean!


La Rambla



Had we been more on-the-stick we would have booked ahead for tickets to Park Guell and the Picasso museum.  I thought we wouldn't have trouble getting to those places but I was so wrong. All have a paywall now and a plan for controlled visitors. It's not possible to expect an improvised, last-minute tour of the top sites. One must have a agenda governed by the tickets one can obtain. If you're planning a trip here, order your sightseeing tickets before you arrive and be prepared to obey a strict schedule. After Covid there is no longer an off or shoulder season in these parts.


Our last day here is a very relaxed one, much like our last day in Leipzig. The Palau de Musica wasn't crowded, so we got in. The Basilica Santa Maria was nearly deserted, so CK got another solid hit of musty Gothic Church. The beach is a mob scene that we melded into. The only reservation we had was for a restaurant: Arcano.  We only had one hour before they closed at 17,00 hours (5 pm). They opened again at 6 but we could only get a table at 4 pm.  A liter of Sangria made with Cava helps us decide what to order.  CK goes for rack of lamb.  I have Bacalao (Cod). I've ordered cod twice in two different restaurants but didn't get the salted kind, the one they dry and then revive. Nevertheless,  really excellent food.  We recommend!

 

Back in the Cathedral Square in front of the hotel there’s a flea market, a rotating set of buskers, some clown costumed balloon buskers, and a couple of guys making clouds of soap bubbles for the kids.  The town is throbbing with people from all over the world.  If there’s a high season more intense than this, it must be frightening. 

 

We plan to turn in early.  We’re going to attempt the impossible tomorrow morning: capture a taxi.  It’s moving day again.




April 12, 2024

San Lorenzo de El Escorial


Another moving day is ahead of us. We are tempted again by the Hotel Colon's sumptuous breakfast. Being sensible requires some discipline which we have little of, these days. Still, we have enough to resist stuffing ourselves...too much.


CK uses her considerable negotiating skills to obtain the services of the hotel driver, Gustavo. He grabs all our gear in one go, loads us into a Mercedes passenger van and we're soon rolling through morning traffic toward Barcelo-Sants, a big train station.


The station is spacious and clean. Our luggage is scanned. I'm nearly convinced that they'll confiscate a dozen things placing us in shopping mode to replace them. Nope. We grab our things off the belt, no problem. Whew. A few minutes later we observe that this so-called secure area is easily accessed from the outside by glass doors. Smokers are ducking through them to get a few drags before getting into the boarding line. They can do this because the door doesn't lock behind them. Very strange.


Estacion Barcelo-Sants

Finding our car and seat goes without trouble. We depart Barcelona on time. This is a high speed train. We'll reach speeds of 190 mph. The ride is so smooth we don't have any sensation of it.


On board, a lady with a food cart hands us a box containing two small unappealing sandwiches encased in cellophane. Likewise a bite of cake. There's also a chocolate bonbon. I leave the sandwiches undisturbed and ask for beer. I'm not yet hungry enough to eat marginal fare. I had a very decent breakfast.


We get off at Antocha station in Madrid. Here we look for the train to San Lorenzo del Escorial. A nice young lady at the Renfe Train information desk gives us the right track instantly together with a small surprise; she informs us that our ticket is good for the next train. We don't have to buy more tickets! Yay!


After more than an hour, our train appears!

Scanning our tickets at the turnstiles gets us down to the platforms. We didn't know that we just missed our train by moments. We would end up waiting for another hour.  The rail platforms in Antocha station aren't the nicest places to spend time. The dust and noise gives us a feeling that a certain unremovable grime is settling on us. It happens that I need a loo break. I make a quick scout around and realize there aren't any services past the ticket scanners and these local trains don't have them. When our train arrives it's another hour to San Lorenzo. It's going to be a bumpy ride.


I tried to get more interesting fotos but no luck!

The train ride to El Escorial is uneventful, thank you. It delivers us to the station in good order. I spot the loo. It's a one-holer and there's a queue. It's also a self-cleaning loo. The door locks between uses while the automatic cleaning system douses the stainless steel room. One by one, people do their thing, then we wait 3 minutes before the next person can get in to take care of business. The display on the wall gives us a countdown. This routine gives me plenty of time to puzzle on why a train station only has a one-holer and an intentionally annoying one, too.


The automatic loo gives a progress report

We get lucky outside the station door where we see one taxi at the stand with a green light on. We grab it. 10 minutes later we're checking into Yeguada la Perilla, our BnB.


The travel agency that set us up so wonderfully well in Italy last year, arranged this stay for us. We didn't question it much. Because of our experience in Italy we figured there was something unique about it, an interesting experience at least. We understood that the location was some distance away from the town center but presumed it had a shuttle service.  Nope. We soon discover that getting around means hiring a car or walking 45 minutes one way to town.  Our room is smaller than the Hotel Colon. It has two chairs and no table. CK specified twin beds if king size wasn't available. Here there's a standard double bed with a broken mattress and only one pillow. We need to talk.


Yeguada La Perilla
Our neighborhood

Luckily Uber functions here. I summon one to take us to town where we can find a meal. We really have an appetite now at 7:30 pm after turning down almost everything the Renfe train folks offered. While waiting for the driver we decide that this BnB on the outskirts is too far below optimal. We didn't travel 5,300 miles to be stuck on a dusty road. We really want to be in the center of civilization here. When the Uber driver delivers us to San Lorenzo we easily find a nice hotel in a good location with the proper bed setup. The room is likely to be small again but it will make for a better day. We'll only be there one night, Saturday night, but it will be worth it. We'll pack up everything and check out of this BnB at 9 am tomorrow. We'll move into Hotel Martin in the town center tomorrow afternoon.


Our evening meal is at 'Las Viandas' in San Lorenzo just around the corner from our new hotel. We make the easy decision to order paella. Of course it is different than the one we had in Barcelona. Again, I think my homemade version compares well. This one seems light on Saffron. My version has more garlic, onion, and chile pepper. It also lacks the caramelized cracklings at the bottom of the rice.  This isn't bad, but...


And one more thing: a dinner roll is brought to the table but without any olive oil. We had to ask for mantequilla (butter).  The quality is similar to other bread products I've encountered in Spain; white, dry, without character.  We will try another joint tomorrow night.


The bread item

This travel day has been smooth enough, no real disasters, only some disappointments that will be remedied by additional effort and expenditure.


We'll wake up at Yeguada la Parilla Saturday morning, have some of their breakfast, then it's adios. Yes, things should be more interesting tomorrow.


San Lorenzo, Plaza de la Constitucion


April 13, 2024

San Lorenzo de El Escorial

 

At PacoPastel

Our one and only sleep at Yeguada la Perilla was cramped and awkward.  We both had trouble achieving unconsciousness. About midnight, other guests began to return from town. Wine infused voices and door slams in the hallway are making sleep impossible. Folks from Madrid come to this town to get away, party, and enjoy some lower prices.  This being Friday night, I think we’re experiencing a piece of that. It must have been 2 a.m. before any ZZZs began.Speaking of cramped, the shower stall is no more than half of a flimsy telephone booth.  The toilet blocks the entrance. For a pair of 70-somethings this shower stall is definitely a hazard. There’s no ventilation at all so the space quickly becomes a steam room.  Toweling off is comically ineffective. This loo was hastily installed years ago in a building not designed for it. These quarters remind us of our river barge adventure in France except that those facilities were thoughtfully constructed by boat builders who knew how to deal with small spaces. 

 

We pack our things and grab some juice in the breakfast room.  The innkeeper appears as we are beginning to roll out.  I explain that we need to be near the center of town because it is just too far to walk from here, which is truth.  An Uber scoops us up 20 minutes later.  Soon we’re dropping our bags at the Hotel Martin. We are feeling a little self-conscious here. Last evening we noticed no non-Spanish tourists in the town. The voices in the hall last night, all Spanish. The lady helping us at the Hotel Martin had very little English. I'm using my modest language training in every circumstance, often clumsily but I get the job done.


El Monasterio del Escorial

Anna, our guide

We must hustle to get a coffee and bite at the only café open at 9:30 a.m, PacoPastel.  We point to a likely looking pastry in the display case.  I learn that it is a Bayonese, a puff pastry filled with a sugary goo that not even Google can describe. It’s like eating sugar with a texture of wall spackle, not what we expected.  We thought it looked like an apple filling.  We should have ordered an empanada.  We’ll correct that mistake tomorrow.  For now, we gotta go.  We meet our tour guide at 10.


Our guide is Anna and like all the guides we’ve had, she is a well-studied expert who gives an entertaining running commentary of almost everything of interest. We meet her in front of the Phillip II’s Palace, one of many Royal Spanish Residences that were available to him in the 16th century.  This one was intended to serve as a mausoleum of sorts even though it housed a large monastery, Basilica, and a palatial residence. The architecture is very spartan, Renaissance style. Precise, orderly, symmetrical. The walls aren’t buttressed so they are quite thick, unable to support large windows.

 

Phillip II (a Habsburg) thought himself a very holy fellow and was confident that all his projects would be blessed with success.  This idea was busted when he sent an invasion force against England in 1588 to destroy protestant Queen Elizabeth I.  Francis Drake led the English fleet to victory with the help of a storm. After this defeat Phillip was bankrupt. He died at El Escorial 10 years later.  

 

Phillip used El Escorial as a burial place for royal relatives.  He collected the bodies of several Spanish Kings and brought them here to be installed in an ornate crypt under the altar of the Basilica.  One section of the palace contains a necropolis populated with dozens of burials, all sorted in order of rank. Some are still empty, waiting for an occupant.  Anna tells of the methods used to inter bodies here.  They don’t embalm them.  The corpses are placed in a special place inside the palace called a pudridero, literally ‘rotting room’.  Here they lie for at least 30 years until natural mummification takes place.  When they no longer stink, into the marble sarcophagus they go.  King Juan Carlos I parents died in 1993 and 2000, so they are still in the room as we walk past.







The Necropolis of relatives

This 'wedding cake' thing is for children

The Royal Crypt under the church altar

In the 1960’s, various paintings were installed to give the place a better look and provide more interest. Before that it must have been very barren. We see works by El Greco, Titian, Ribera, Giordano and others.  Many paintings are in desperate need of restoration, their lacquer growing darker every day.

 

We visit the Basilica after waiting for services to end.  We’re lucky someone hasn’t booked it for a wedding.  We’d be locked out.  I first saw this 24 years ago, when there were no artificial lights inside, just candles and a little light through grimy windows.  It was so dark I had to let my eyes adjust to keep from slamming into pews. Today there are lights everywhere, no candles are lit, the windows have been scrubbed. A bit of a shame because it was way spookier in candlelight.

 

The church is much brighter but still very spartan.  The exception is the altar wall covered in statues of gold coated bronze.  The central feature is a large painting depicting St. Lawrence roasting on his grill.

 

The Basilica
The Library

The highlight of the tour is the biblioteca, the Library.  This room is quite stunning, an example of Renaissance attitudes and sensibilities.  Collecting knowledge was a goal, hence the aggressive book collection.  The irony is that superstition prevented understanding of basic facts.  The model of Earth as the center of the Universe is on display to remind us that medieval dogma was still strong in those days.


We have another monument to visit before lunch.  This is The Valley of the Fallen, Valle de Cuelgamuros.  Our guide loads us in a taxi for the 8 km trip.  This project was ordered by dictator Fernando Franco in 1940, completed in 1958. It is dedicated to the fighters killed in the Spanish Civil War from both sides.  Franco wanted it to be a symbol of reconciliation. There’s a huge stone crucifix on a granite hill.  Under it is a large cavern carved out of the rock.  It is uninspired architecture, meant only to impress and oppress with its enormity.  It makes one feel small, and that’s the idea.  There are symbolic statues, tapestry copies, and religious décor.  It is a Basilica, blessed by the Pope in 1960.  CK says it reminds her of subway stations in Washington DC.


Valley of the Fallen

Entrance under the mountain

Mosaic tile over the altar

This is Saturday and the traffic back to town is thick.  Lots of Spaniards are out for a weekend away from the big city.  Arriving in San Lorenzo, Anna says adios after leading us to our lunch spot.  She has thoughtfully made a reservation for us at Charoles. This has a very Spanish menu and features one Michelin Star.  The menu is all in Spanish but there are terms I’m very unclear about.  I use Google but there are some things it doesn’t know.  We order a plate of tomatoes, olives, and oil together with some croquettes.  Tomatoes are out of season and taste like it.  The croquettes are scrumptious.  We have a half bottle of house red to wash it down.  I also order another plate of what I thought were lamb ribs.  Here’s where my out of practice Spanish let me down. I had forgotten the term for ribs, costillas.  I saw the word riñones and mistakenly thought ‘ribs’.  They present me with a plate of lamb kidneys.  I ate a few of them.  Tastes like liver.  There was some wine left to help me.  I drained all of it. HA!

 

Restaurant Charoles
Lamb Kidney

The day has flown by.  Our watches say 3 p.m. and we both need a siesta before going out again.  By the time we’re back on the street it is pushing 8 p.m. The Spaniards are just getting started with the evening now. For us it should be late but even we are looking for a bite of food to end the day.  We find it at a Cerveceria called La Gurriata. We have a lovely salad of fruit and lettuce with some croquettes and cod cooked in oil.

 

This has been a long day but a good one.  Our move to Hotel Martin is quite satisfactory.  Our room has a title: Cuarto Esposas, Wive’s Room.  On the wall are prints of the four wives of Phillip II. The bed is nice and big.  There’s a bath tub for CK with jacuzzi. Our window looks out on the Plaza.  Nice digs.  Much more comfortable than last night.

 

Tomorrow is another moving day.  Never a dull moment.


Hotel Martin with Phillip's four wives
A room with a view

April 14, 2024

San Lorenzo de El Escorial - Madrid


Adios to San Lorenzo

Last night's sleep was much improved over last night. We wished in vain for an extra day in San Lorenzo just to laze around, drink goopy hot chocolate, and take siestas in our dreamy new hotel room. But this is not on the menu. We have about an hour to bask in the warm Spanish morning sun with our coffee and biscuits before hustling to the train station with luggage in hand. We have an appointment to keep in Madrid.


The local train delivers us to Antocha Station, Madrid, in about an hour and a quarter. A swarm of taxis are lined up outside. We have no trouble getting a lift to 'Only You Boutique Hotel'. The name may not roll off the tongue smoothly, but this joint is as slick as anything we've experienced. We're immediately ushered to the check-in where we are presented with flutes of Cava to soothe our traveled souls while the charming young lady takes our data.  Moments later we're moving up the ascensor our room on the 3rd floor. Very nice. Yes, we're irretrievably spoiled, there's no doubt anymore.


Palacio Real

After a brief rest we are due in the lobby to meet our guide. She is Virgina, born in Burgos but now living in Madrid. She will take us on a 4-hour tour which will introduce us to many of the main sights.First up is the Royal Palace. She says we're lucky to be getting inside because it has been closed for several days for official events and concerts. This is Sunday afternoon, and the city is throbbing with people. Quite a few of them are lined up to see the Palacio. But since we've hired a guide, we get to use the special entrance. This is one instance when 'skip-the-line' is real and we're happy for it. This also contributes to our moral corruption. Perdition here we come! At least we're sober although that’s little help.

Lamps on the parade ground
Entrance from the carriage portico
Further up the entrance
A Spanish lady admiring herself in a mirror


Ceiling detail in the Chinese Room

The Dining Room

Dining Room, shot #2

One of many clocks

Of course, Virginia is revealing details of architecture, history, and royal family facts at a pace that bewilders. Our eyes absorb the overcooked splendor of bygone eras while Virginia provides an entertaining and scholarly narrative. There's no way we're going to remember it any more than we did of Anna's excellent tour in El Escorial. We can only relax and let our zone be flooded with Spanish culture. I think I'll be able to remember that the Spaniard's favorite king was Charles III. He did a lot to improve the quality of life for the people of Madrid.  I had no idea.  Nice fellow.


A cathedral door
Pan shot inside the cathedral

Virginia asks us if we want to visit the Catedral de Santa Maria, which stands across the parade grounds from the palace.  Of course, CK isn't going to turn that down. Virginia shares a ton of knowledge about the bronze doors, the new-ish stained-glass windows but honestly, it goes in one ear and then who knows?  That info may stick in a dusty corner of my consciousness to be retrieved later, but I’m not counting on it. I'm enjoying the day, the pleasant company, and the amazing works of humans. Churches, for me, are a kind of museum and a reminder of the needy nature of humanity.


Plaza Mayor

Did I mention we have a limo driver along with our guide? We do. I don't know how CK set this up or even if she knew the details but here it is. We are being squired about in a very comfy Mercedes passenger van. Oscar is our driver. Charles III never had it so good.


La Camarera pours us some Madroño

Virginia now guides us to the old center of Madrid. We're seeing where the old city walls stood and why they stood for so long (the king could get better taxes from those inside the walls). We walk through the Mercado San Miguel. This market dates from art nouveau times but has been remodeled in a modern way. It is bursting with food items of every kind imaginable and more beyond that. Same goes for people. I snap a pic of an enormous eel but what I really want is a foto of the person who buys it. I cannot wait for that moment. What a shame. Gotta go.


Mercado San Miguel
Eel waiting for a chef to buy him

Virginia takes us for a walk through a bar and restaurant zone featuring an eatery that has kept its oven hot every day 24/7 since 1725.  The Guinness Book of World Records says so. She invites us to sample a particularly authentic Madrileño experience. It's a liquor called Madroño. She orders a dram for us each in an edible cup lined with chocolate. I like it. The taste is a little sweet but not too much. There's a lovely alcoholic bite like brandy. Too bad there's no room in my bag or I’d smuggle some.

 

She tells us of another more modern market, Mercado San Anton. There’s a ham shop there that I should (or shouldn’t) visit called Octavia.  It will have things that I lust after.  Shipping an entire Jamon Iberico back to Lopez Island would be really freekin’ silly but I’d have to think seriously about it if I went there.

 


Back in the limo and we’re doing the last part of the tour by auto. She shows us the Museo Prado where we will meet her tomorrow morning.  Next, we cruise over to the Plaza del Toros, the spiritual mecca for bull fighting.  There’s the Puerto de Alcala and the Fuente de Ceres, two important monuments.  And finally, the Real Madrid Stadium where their futbol team kicks almost everyone’s ass with no apology, gracias.  This place is too enormous to make a foto.  I would need a drone with a wide angle lens.

 

The bar in this hotel is nice so I wrote the blog there while sipping a Sangria.  I washed it down with water and a Japanese Whiskey.  The bartender took care of me and complimented me on my Spanish even though I don’t deserve any such thing.  He got a nice tip, clever fellow!

 

Time to put a cork in this and get to sleep.  Tomorrow we visit El Prado, the heart of Spanish high culture.


Looking for gelato after a tapas dinner and found this food court
Our digs in Madrid

An old poster from 1923 proclaims: Gold, Silk, Blood, and Sun!
April 15, 2024

Madrid


After a celestial night of sleep we are greeted again by sumptuous breakfast options.  Everything on the buffet looks marvelous but neither of us really takes advantage. We just aren't that hungry.  CK loves the fresh squeezed OJ, a standard procedure for Spanish restaurants and bars. This morning, next to the juice, two bottles of Cava invite us to mix our own mimosa. I can not say no but CK can. Other than that, for me, it is coffee, fruit, and a couple of cuerna (croissant). We're off for a 4 hour tour again with Virginia and a big meal just doesn't seem like a good idea.


This our last full day in Spain. We're doing Museo del Prado first, then playing by ear after that. Yesterday afternoon, when Virginia drove us past the museum, the queue for tickets was more than 1/4 mile. We already have our tickets, gracias. We hustle away from breakfast to meet Virginia and be one of the first culture pilgrims to get in. 


Virginia is our guide

Note to those planning to come here. They allow small sling bags and purses. Anything that looks like a backpack has to go into a locker. After the security scan, we're in. Our bags are small enough so we get to keep them.


For the next 4 hours Virginia conducts an art history seminar for our benefit. There are more than 1,700 paintings hanging in the museum so there's no way to visit them all. The entire collection of art tops more than ten times that number. They are in storage, loaned to other museums, or hanging in official buildings. Virginia guides us to the highlights and few of her personal favorites.


Much of the art here is either portraiture, religious, or based on mythical themes because this is what the wealthy classes would pay for. Much of the religious stuff features gruesome torture. I knew that, for sure, it's just that there's an unholy ton of it here. Royal portraits present a comprehensive collection of Habsburg chins. I can now recognize this extinct family in any painting without looking at the card.


H. Bosch

Goya

Velazquez

Goya

Goya

Rubens

Regarding the collection here, with the exception of maybe Hieronymus Bosch, Velasquez, and Goya, there isn't a lot of variety or innovation until the 19th century. There's a general rule for the two big art museums in Madrid. Art created before 1881 goes to the Prado. Art after 1881 goes to Museo Reina Sofia. If we want to see the modern stuff we have to go there. 1881 was the year of Picasso's birth.  That said, it's a special thing to be in the presence of the big masterpiece attractions.


No photography is allowed inside although I see people in violation. Two days ago, our guide Anna explained the dynamic involved: it is more effective to ask forgiveness than to get permission. But don't try this with building permits!


I was a good boy in this regard. The pieces shown in the blog are all downloaded from the Prado website. Of course I had to swear that I wasn't going to make any money doing it. No problem.



CK's lunch! Crayfish, rice, squid.

My lunch! Sea Bass sashimi under sauce, seeds, avocado, and olive oil. Outstanding.

After the tour we hike back to the hotel for a light lunch before crashing for a siesta. Today was quite a warm day, 82⁰F. We're feeling it.


Siesta managed, we have a few hours left to enjoy Madrid. The Mercado San Anton is nearby. It offers the possibility of some wine and tapas, nothing special. There is a meat shop, Octavio, offering Iberian Ham, sausages, cheese, and other delectables. It looks awesome.  If this shop was near our home, I'd be a regular customer. Prices are fairly reasonable, too.


Afterward, we go out to find the Retiro Park to join the Madrileños for a stroll in the leafy shade. There's an artificial lake there and a monument to a king. We can't hear the traffic here. Very pleasant.



Puerta de Alcala

I'm too lazy or tired to go searching for gelato. Yikes! Am I ill? Instead, I'm going to the hotel bar to edit photos and write some notes.


Retiro Park

This trip has a ways to go, yet. Tomorrow is another long travel day. This move is to the UK where, unlike Spain and Germany, we will partially shed the bubble of ignorance. Our ability to understand what the Hell is going on around us will improve to a functioning level. I mean to say, sitting in this bar full of Spaniards I can only pick up a few stray words and phrases, all disconnected, resulting in very little understanding on my part unless the chatter is slow and simple. That never happens unless someone decides to engage with me, exercising their capacity for patience just for the giggle. For CK it is obviously worse. She's going to feel a significant change, a vastly improved relaxation quotient when we arrive in a culture that speaks our language.






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