Last bits of Spain

I always appreciate a bilingual menu. I can’t remember the last time I ate at an “American cuisine” restaurant in the states that had a menu with translations into Spanish, German or French. Apparently other countries are more considerate than we are.

However, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the translations. Restaurants in China had my favorite incomprehensible menu items of “lilly bread over snow mountains” and “Backs of beans on rosy waves,”  but here are some good ones from Spain:

Can I get the Italian creaking mass on top of the hot daggerboard back? And a side of habitats tender? Thanks so much. Sounds delicious.

I like this sign as well. I’m giving it the Princess Bride “I don’t think those words mean what you think they mean” prize.

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We drove under the Greenwich meridian marker on our way into Barcelona

Aragon SpainI didn’t realize you could physically mark time…

I love this picture from my last morning in Barcelona when I got up early to see the Picasso museum and watch the city wake up.

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And this street art from Granada.

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The painted street signs in Madrid

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Unnecessarily beautiful street lamps of Barcelona

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And the ridiculous “sidewalks” in Ronda

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Despite all these posts and pictures, there were so many things I didn’t get to see in Spain so I know I’ll be back.

This feels like a good post to end on because I’m going to take a blog break for the month of September. I’ll be back in October.

Happy fall.

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Food in Spain

It should come as no surprise that the food in Spain made a big impression on me. If that comes as a surprise you are obviously new to this blog, in which case, Welcome!

I’ll miss the breakfast churros

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And the churro makers with windows into their kitchens

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Offset the grease with some fresh squeezed juice. It comes in every imaginable combination

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Tapas, of course. I applaud the American restaurants that offer tapas style food because my ideal dinner includes a few bites of a dozen things instead of a dozen bites of one thing.

SpainChorizo braised in apple cider.

SpainAsparagus grilled with olive oil and salt

Anchovies and basil on grilled bread

And speaking of bread. It’s everywhere. With everything. Grilled and smeared with tomato and garlic

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Delivered fresh every morning in big crates

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Everywhere.

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Eat it with paella

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Alongside things you’ve never seen before

SpainI thought maybe these were Dragon claws, but it turns out they’re gooseneck barnacles.

And if the exotic doesn’t appeal, how about some jamon?

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Because seriously, ham is the only thing you’ll see more of in Spain than bread. It’s even in bars.

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And when you’re all overloaded on salt and grease, cool off with some gelato

SpainThe blue is simply called “Blue ice” so I guess blue is now a flavor.

And speaking of things that are strange, how about this guy

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His gelato is so delicious that he’s eating himself.

Oh Spain, I’m gonna miss you. Creepy gelato guys and all…

Last day in Spain

Involved a lot of driving, as I’d predicted.

I thought maybe I’d stop in Cordoba and see the Mezquita but after battling my way into the city, driving down a one way street that unexpectedly dead ended because of construction, reversing half a mile to get out of said one way street and then making 3 or 4 futile circles around the Mezquita looking for parking while Mrs. Tom Tom yelled “Turn Left. When possible turn around. Make a right turn and then a right turn. You have arrived at your destination. Turn left. When possible turn around.” until I turned her off and decided this was not the day for the Mezquita.

So… I hit the open road to Madrid, enjoying very official highway signs like this

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And ended up at the Holiday Inn Express near the Madrid Airport. Que pena!

But let’s not dwell. In my last night in this delightful country, allow me to share a few things I’ll miss most about Spain:

Drinking my morning cafe con leche (x6) on the public square

Granada Spain

And drinking my evening sangria on the public square

Granada Spain

Every city in Spain has multiple public squares. Some are little parks and some are courtyards with fountains but each is ringed with cafes and outdoor seating. In two weeks, I think I ate 2 meals sitting inside. The people watching view is much better outside.

This is the casual happy-hour standing-around portion of the day that lasts from about 4pm until 10pm. At 10, everyone gets serious about finding a place to eat dinner.

As to dinner, well, I’ll save food for my next post.

Ronda

After my day at the Alhambra, I had 2 days left in Spain before my early flight out of Madrid. The drive north from Granada to Madrid would have taken about 6 hours and there were plenty of beautiful cities to see along the way – Sevilla, Cordoba and Toledo, for instance – but in my infinite wisdom I decided to go further south to visit Ronda, one of the Andalucia white hill towns, thus ensuring that my last day in Spain would be all driving.

Sometimes I’m not very bright.

Why would I do such a thing? Well, the romantic promise of an Andalucia white hill town grabbed me and the guidebook promised a beautiful hilly little city that was quiet and peaceful, plus I got a beautiful hotel room in an Arabian style hotel and it sounded like a nice quiet way to end the trip.

The drive down to Ronda was only a couple of hours but then my tom-tom routed me through the center of town to get to my hotel, which meant driving down roads like this

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A road that may or may not have been only one direction but was definitely composed largely of cobblestones with lots of blind corners and no way to turn around should I be going the wrong direction. Not that I would know that because my tom-tom’s maps were out of date and Mrs. Tom-tom kept advising me to turn left at times when such an action would have sent my car hurtling down a hill the likes of this.

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If you look closely at that bridge, you can see a van disappearing on the left hand side, which will give you an idea of the width of the road.

This picture also serves to illustrate that when the Spanish talk about hills, they aren’t kidding around.

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They call this a hill and a gorge. A precipice perched over an abyss more like, though I doubt that description would draw the tourists. But seriously, a hill??

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At any rate, the abyss splits the town in two; thus this bridge is the town’s main attraction.

Ronda Spain

Stunning engineering, no?

And as to the rest of the town… well… there’s a bull ring…

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And there are houses…

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And… that’s it! Thanks for coming! Walk back down all those hills…

As pretty as Ronda is, had I to do it again I would have bypassed this little “hill town” and headed for Cordoba instead. But hindsight, bygones etc. Next time, right? Instead, I did a lot of hill walking and indeed had a nice quiet night in Ronda.

Tomorrow, my last day in Spain.

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The Alhambra

I’ve been without internet access for 2 days now. Like dog years, 2 internet free days in Spain equal about 200 vacation years or possibly more if you add in the lack of phone access. So much can happen in two days.

When Corey and I met up in Atlanta, he proudly announced that he was going unplugged for this vacation because he only had his iPad, his iTouch and his iPhone.

There’s no correlation between my lack of internet and Corey’s definition of “unplugged” except that the one made me think of the other and Corey makes me laugh.

And none of this has to do with the Alhambra so if you’ll stop asking me questions, I’ll post pictures! Geez… some people’s kids.

How about this for starters?

The Alhambra, Spain

That’s the Court of Myrtles in the Nasrid Palace. I’m going to apologize right now for the quality of my pictures in this post and just say that I think I forgot how to use my camera. I took a billion pictures and so few of them are any good, or do any justice to this place.

Despite what you may see, however, the Alhambra is Spain’s greatest Moorish palace built in the 14th century by Islam rulers and then taken over by Ferdinand and Isabella in the 15th century. As a tourist attraction, it has one of the more rigorous entrance rituals I’ve encountered because they only allow 6,000 people into the Alhambra per day and only 300 people into the Nasrid Palace at a time. It’s such a popular location that they only sell 1,000 tickets per day to walk up visitors and the rest are advance sales. Chances are good that if I hadn’t bought my tickets online, you would not be subjected to my terrible pictures. Aren’t you lucky? Or something?

I bought my ticket online and chose a 30 minute window to visit the palace and then had to arrive an hour before my appointment time to pick up my ticket. The website assured me that if I was late, I wouldn’t be admitted. Even arriving early for the palace, this represented about a fifth of the line

The Alhambra, Spain

The palace is beautiful with every inch of exposed space covered with exquisitely intricate decorations stamped in plaster and carved in wood.

Granada, Spain

You can still see traces of paint. It’s largely monochromatic now but apparently it used to be painted and gilded as well. The craftsmanship in the Alhambra is overwhelming.  I look at places like this and can’t imagine the amount of work, time and the number of people necessary to build something like this.

Can you imagine this ceiling as a riot of color?

Granada, Spain

or this archway?

Granada, Spain

Interspersed within all this decoration is this phrase repeated something like 9,000 times throughout the complex

Granada, SpainWhich means “Only Allah is Victorious.” I find it interesting that Catholic rulers Ferdinand and Isabella took over this palace and renovated parts of it but didn’t disturb any of these phrases. Maybe their interpreters neglected to fill them in on the meaning? or perhaps their aesthetic senses took over.

The gardens are equally as beautiful.

Granada SpainAnd though Granada has grown since the 14th century, even back in the day I imagine the Alhambra served as a green oasis in the middle of an urban area, like a Central Park for Muslim royalty.

After I saw La Sagrada Familia I felt like seeing another cathedral would be like climbing a mountain after summiting Everest. Fun. Cute. But really?

After the Alhambra, I’m pretty sure I’ve visited the pinnacle of Moorish architecture. But with little else to compare it to, I might need to visit a few hundred more just to make sure. When I get that chance, you’ll hear about it.

Tomorrow: Andalucia.

Granada Spain

Granada

This is one of my favorite cities so far. It’s gigantic and sprawls over several hills

The driving streets are a mess

and the walking streets are narrow, twisty and seemingly all uphill. But 20 Euros gets you this:

Granada SpainWhich comes with icy cold AC and free wi-fi (or wee-fee as they call it here)

I love the Arabian influence in the marketplace

And the churros

Granada Spain

And the cloistered nuns that sell dulces

And of course, the Alhambra

Granada Spain

But that’s a story for tomorrow…

The Med

Looks exactly like you might imagine. White sand, black rocks, turquoise water and palm trees

SpainBeautiful to walk along

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Beautiful to drive along

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However, the diving was less than beautiful. My Mediterranean diving experience included the dreaded trifecta of ill fitting gear, rocky seas and only one dive, which isn’t enough.

The gear, dear God. Terrible. Decent gear but mostly too big and I was so overweighted that once I got off the boat I couldn’t stay on the surface even with my vest completely inflated. The waves kept crashing over my head and the current was sucking me towards the rocks as I waited for everyone to just get off the boat already so we could get under the surface. Then my mask fogged up and my fins were so big that they were falling off my feet. Truly awful. The kind of thing that makes diving a chore instead of a pleasure. I do have my own gear, of course, but I didn’t want to haul it around when I’d only use it for one day in 2 weeks. This kind of experience will make me reconsider on the next trip.

Rocky seas – current and waves on top, serious surge underneath. We went through a small cave and the visibility was so bad I didn’t want to go in and then the surge was so bad I could barely get out.  And that was the best thing we saw out there. There were no fish bigger than my hand and tons of kelp but no coral reefs (which is hilarious since that’s usually the thing I care about least but it would have been nice to see something!) plus the visibility got worse as the dive went on so even the kelp was blurry by the end, not that I could tell through my mask! Hideous.

And then after all that we only did one dive, which was all they had scheduled for that afternoon which was the only afternoon I could go. Boooo! Of course, you might ask why I’d want to go down again when it was so hellish but most of that hellishness can fixed. I can strip off some weight, use a defogger on my mask and at least know what I’m in for when we go down. Guaranteed the 2nd dive would have been better but I’ll never know.

Instead, I got the pleasure of ending the day by driving through the foothills above the sea in a convertible and arriving at a beach bar at sunset, so the day was far from wasted.

Denila Spain

These Easter Island heads got all dressed up this month

Denila Spain

I had a lovely late night and then got up early and said good bye to the sea and headed into the mountains towards Granada.

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I’m not taking the bad diving personally. I assume the Mediterranean has more to offer than kelp and surge and I’ll find out when I manage to get back here.

Driving in Spain

Having driven all over the states this year, I figured it might be time to try driving in a foreign country. So far, every country I’ve been in where a rental car was involved, the driving’s all been on the “wrong” side of the road and I didn’t do any of it. Thank God. I have enough to worry about when I drive without also turning everything I know backwards and upside down.

Given that, I determined that Spain drove on the “right” side of the road by looking out the airplane window at the traffic as we landed in Madrid and heaving a sigh of relief. Note to self, might want to check that out slightly further in advance next time. Other things I might want to consider in the future include the purchase of a Tom-Tom or GPS device to which I can download maps. God bless Corey for leaving his Tom-Tom with me or I’d still be in Barcelona going around and around the roundabouts.

Even with a Tom-Tom, it’s tricky to get places. The Spaniards like to repeat names of towns, streets and plazas and half this country was built 1000 years ago so a generously sized one lane roads looks like this:

And my little Audi (Anika) is a compact car so… you can only imagine how petite the roads are when they allow parking on  both sides and someone’s driving a full sized anything. We’ve definitely parked Anika in some spaces where we couldn’t open both doors to get out and exited a few tight corners by way of 25 point turns. When there were two of us to read signs and look for stuff it was a bit easier. Now when I go down the wrong road or there’s a dead end, I have a strong temptation to just park the car and get out because the idea of reversing for a quarter mile or executing another 25 point turn seems a bit daunting. However, I’m getting really good at estimating my car size to within half an inch and so far, so good. Everyone please knock on anything wooden in your vicinity.

However, when I rented this car I forgot the cardinal rule of rental cars on vacation which is that they make you think you can do more and go further than you really should, which results in half the vacation time spent in a car.

This trip is no exception.

Also, PS: Spain is huge. It’s big for Europe but it’s also just big. The fastest legal speed is 120km, which isn’t that fast although it feels like it when it’s a two lane mountain road with constant switchbacks. Plus the fast direct toll roads carved straight through the mountains are frighteningly expensive (approximately 8 Euros per 100km). This all means that the best way to put the vacation back into the rental car experience is to ditch the toll roads, take the two lane roads, accept that everything will take forever (food service, travel times etc.) and save my mental energy for figuring out the road signs because there are a bunch I still don’t understand.

Here are the ones I recognize:

SpainTwo lane road going each direction, which is good information to know because you can’t tell this information from the size of the road or the way it’s striped down the middle.

SpainThis sign means “Technically two lanes but feel free to create a passing lane in the middle if the guy ahead of you isn’t responding when you tailgate him.” Corey figured this one out.

One of my favorites. I think it’s a cautionary tale about going too slow and/or going too fast or possibly about the dangers of driving a car that has eyes and a propeller.

And finally:

Yield to stick figures on seated lawn mowers.

Speaking of seeing the unexpected, I drove past a guy on a Vespa today who was chugging down the shoulder doing about 20km. He had a chest of drawers strapped to the seat behind him and he was smoking a cigarette and wearing shorts and sandals. I definitely yielded to him and I think he should get his own sign.

Churches, Chocolate and Corey

My friend Missy pointed out that I haven’t explained anything about the wheres and whys and whos of this trip and that’s unlike me. She’s right. I am remiss.

I’m in Spain for 2 weeks, one of those weeks with my friend Corey, who I toured with on The Producers

Apparently it’s my summer for hanging out with Producers’ kids (see also Ryan McAlpine).

Corey had time off and wanted to go somewhere. I always want to go somewhere and lack only someone who wants to go with me. He said Spain or France? I said Spain. Ergo and voila, here we are.

I picked Spain because some of my favorite artists came from here or worked here (Hemingway, Goya, Picasso, Dali) and I hope to absorb some of their inspiration. I’m also here to extend my “Year of the Road Trip” by driving around Spain, which is an adventure that deserves a post of its own so I’ll write about that tomorrow.

Today you’ll get the last bits of our madhouse dash through Barcelona where the sights swung the entire length of the spectrum from pedestrian to mind blowing.

The Chocolate Museum (the Museu de la Xocolata) falls into the pedestrian category even though the museum tickets are chocolate bars. This must be a new thing because they also have a ticket machine like the kind you see in the subway and I definitely saw a girl ahead of me try to stick her candy bar “ticket” into the machine before the guard stopped her and let her in the door. I wonder how much melted chocolate is in that machine…

The museum is light on information and has terrible audio visual displays involving slide carousels like a vacation from 1975, but it does display some intricate chocolate sculptures:

Barcelona Spain

And they have a cafe where we ordered hot chocolate so dense it was less a drink than a melted candy bar.

Barcelona Spain

We followed this ho-hum experience with La Sagrada Familia, which is easily the most awe inspiring cathedral I’ve seen in any country.

Designed and begun by Antoni Gaudi, who built a 1:10 scale model UPSIDE DOWN using wire and bags of lead shot to show the proper curve of the parabolas and archways.

Barcelona Spain

The scale makes it almost impossible to photograph, though the interior is easier than the exterior.

Barcelona Spain

I love that woman in front :)

The light is tremendous

Barcelona Spain

Barcelona Spain

And everyone bumps into everyone else because we’re all looking up. Stunning.

They put a couple elevators in, like the Basilica in Zaragoza, so you can travel to the top of the cathedral and then walk down a tight twisty staircase

Barcelona Spain

Looking out the windows at rooftop views of Barcelona

Barcelona Spain

That it’s unfinished makes this cathedral even more awe inspiring. Gaudi worked on it for 50-ish years and left detailed models and blueprints that were subsequently destroyed by looters during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Engineers and designers spent years reconstructing his models from the wreckage and going ahead with the cathedral construction and they estimate they’ll complete it by the middle of this century. Meanwhile, cranes and tarps interfere in every picture:

Barcelona Spain

There are a lot of things that would bring me back to Spain but getting to see the completed Sagrada Familia is at the top of the list.

It was Corey’s last night so we found a great restaurant and had paella. Ours was delicious but less photogenic than this one that I took in the Mercat

Barcelona Spain

And then Corey left at the literal crack of dawn to fly to Madrid and catch his flight back to the states. It’s been such a fun trip with him and I’d do it again in a second.

Barcelona Spain

Bye Corey!

Tomorrow: on my own in Spain.

Barcelona’s Mercat de la Boqueria

An amazing farmer’s market with delicious things:

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Scary things. Sheep’s heads?

Curious things. I think this is tripe.

Unexpected things…

A little of everything, no?