These probably go without saying…depending on how much you travel

Miscellaneous tips and traps re traveling Portugal and Spain via Airbnb and trains:

  1. The US has laws about how hot tap water can be.  Apparently the EU has not–the hot water everywhere, from the modern apartments to the 300 year old house, was extremely, shockingly hot.  And, so, ALWAYS find out how to use the shower while you have the host there.  We had both annoying and one scary experience with setting the shower temperature (this was a mysteriously designed two level shower, and in the process of turning it off I got shot with hot scalding water at my groin–no harm but yikes).  And ask if you can run any water in the edifice, e.g. to get a drink or flush a toilet, while a person is in the shower.
  2.  Do not expect WiFi on trains–there was none on the high speed train Barcelona to Sevilla; if there is WiFi it will be quirky.  However we did have electricity so have your converter handy, not buried in your bag.
  3. Drink the house wine!  It was uniformly good, and often seemed especially good as food wines.  Funny aside–in Spain the server would ask in response to a request for a glass of vino tinto or vino blanco, “Dry or sweet?  Old or young?”  Never was I asked by varietal, nor were wine lists organized by varietal.  Made it fun and different, and I didn’t have a bad glass the entire three weeks.
  4. If you travel without data service on your cell devices (we do because we are cheap and you can manage without it) and therefore are dependent on the connectivity you have in your abode, remember to download offline GPS-enabled maps (many that are on Maplets, Google, special apps) for when you are out and about.  You cannot get the step-by-step or breadcrumb directions with just GPS, but you have a totally usable map to find your way.  And it’s good practice to not be blindly following step by step instructions or maps.  Look around you and get your head out of your phone!
  5. Book trains in advance to save significant money.
  6. Whenever possible go online for event or museum tickets.  Don’t be daunted by the “must be printed out on paper” warnings…these seem to be obsolete.  The difference between having a ticket you bought the night before and buying one onsite is about a 30-person line, and that was off-season.
  7. Do get the audio tours in places of interest and museums.  Worth the money every time.
  8. If you are traveling by train, DO NOT HESITATE to get on as soon as the doors open. They are not waiting for anyone or anything.  Pay attention to the car number and find it as soon as you can.  Ask a conductor if you’re not sure which direction to head–at least then an official knows you are getting on.  But be quick about it!  We also noticed that the indication on your ticket as to seat number is often labeled mysteriously (e.g., one ticket had “Plaza” as the field label for seat number).

Madrid, museum heaven–oh, yeah, and good food, too

With only four days left and pretty darned tired we arrived in Madrid…Spain’s New York City. We had been given somewhat complicated instructions to the apartment which did not correspond to the Metro maps we had, and spent maybe 30 minutes in the airport-sized train terminal looking for a tourist information desk. It was late afternoon on Saturday and no luck until we decided to just go to the Metro and figure it out. Voila, an information booth where the young woman marked exactly where our apartment was, just four or five blocks down Calle Mayor–“look for Casa De La Villa,” so simple after all.

Our destination stop was Sol, smack in the middle of madhouse Plaza Del Sol. One of those heaven-sent ticket machine aides helped us buy the card and explained we could put two riders’ worth of trips on one (like the lovely T-10 card we used in Barcelona.  Unlike our mistaken albeit inexpensive purchase of 2 rides to the airport on one card in Porto and had to buy a second card…which, when we got to the Porto airport we found there was no turnstyle exit anyway. Whatever.)  For all the complicated instructions we’d had from our Airbnb host re looking for particular routes, it turned out there is just a single metro train running through the Madrid train terminal, and in about 8 minutes we were coming up the escalator into crazy Plaza Del Sol.

Yikes. A large and crazy plaza where several streets crisscross at acute angles, both pedestrian and not, a gazillion people, but all we had to do was make sure we remained on Calle Mayor and in 10 minutes we were at our address. Alas, we were early by about 45 minutes–Roberto would meet us outside and take us up but not until 7:30. We were so tired and hungry and thirsty…looked up the street a short block and there was a bar where people were sitting in a little enclosed patio smoking and drinking.

Yeah! We sat at a small table with luggage heaped around us but there was ample room and in a quick minute David had a large beer and I a glass of cold white wine. Relief. I got up to see if I could get a menu as we really needed a snack. The waitress was very apologetic but the kitchen was closed. All I could order was one of the salads. Poor us. We had the most delicious burratta salad with cherry tomatoes and arugula, so refreshing and ample with a ball of burratta that more than generous. With a basket of bread we couldn’t have been happier and then it was 7:30 and Roberto was there.

The apartment was just as expected; we settled in and then went looking for dinner. The rather crazy tapas bar scene was just a few blocks away, but everything looked crowded and hipster. Hungry and now hungrier, we knew enough by this time about food in Spain to drop into a narrow little bar/restaurant that was anything but hip, the front section all folks drinking and watching soccer, squeezed through to a table in the back and perused the now relatively familiar array.

I had one question-what was tripe Madrid style?  It means cooked with chorizo and blood sausage. David ate the sausage and I tried my best to finish the delicious, meltingly tender tripe but it was altogether too much…half portion of course. David, with a bit of help from me, finished a half portion which was most generous of anchovies in vinagre, what we call in the US white anchovies. So good. And a small order of patatas bravas to round out the flavors. Staggered home to bed as we had a busy Sunday planned.

I think on this trip we have eaten about 200 anchovies.  Not complaining about that.

It was an accurate introduction to Madrid. We spent the next three days walking, eating, and being dazzled by the Royal Palace (10 minute walk): the Prado (20 minute walk) and the Thyssen (across the boulevard from the Prado).  All in all, though we had some complaints about the apartment itself the location was fantastic.

David had sussed out all the information about tickets, free times, and locations of our 3 sightseeing goals.  On Sunday nights the Prado is gratis from 5 to 7. We decided a visit to check off a few boxes was worth it, and it was, because we knew Tuesday was reserved entirely to see everything there. Mondays the Thyssen is gratis 12-4 but closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Our plan was set and we filled our last 3 days thusly:

Sunday

Sunday morning, El Rastro, a rambling outdoor market where basically everything is available from antiques to socks to batteries to pots and pans.  As we started down one of the side streets of the market area, lined with a hodgepodge of junk shops and antiques we passed a corner joint advertising bocadillos de calamares.  Okay, will be back for that!

We were still on the hunt for coffee and a teeny bar, Bar de Ca’ Kiko, called to us.  If this had been our first day in Iberia we would have passed, but we knew it would be a safe and interesting experience and it was.  This place was filled with a shifting crowd of men from (probably working) the market, and there was plenty of high spirited morning commotion. Every time someone left he’d (I was the only woman in the place) slap the small counter and with a “Chicos!” and was out the door.  Behind the counter were two gruff looking men making coffee and handing food over the high counter–their specialty is tostas as shown in a long handwritten menu on the wall.  Piled on a back ledge and under plastic covers on the counter were mysterious (to us) toppings on thick slices of bread, presumably toasted.  As we drank our cafes con leche (delicious as usual, and served in small glasses as usual) I tried to puzzle out what the I was looking at paired with the list on the wall.  I knew every person I asked about food, in both Portugal and Spain, would be happy to explain in Spanish I could largely follow, and the men behind the bar were as friendly as they could be proudly explaining what was what adding “Muy rico” after each.  Every few minutes an arm with a plate of more tostas was thrust through a rough hole the size of a small window in the door to the kitchen, and one of the men took it and added it to the inventory.  I kept asking, what’s this? What’s that? They even had something listed as barbacoa, a food word that has many many definitions depending on where you are in the Latin world.  (In one city I visited in Mexico has a string of “barbacoa” stands outside of town–where barbacoa means grilled goat.)  Anyway. a strange melange on bread turned out to be that, and when I asked them what kind of meat they looked at each other and said “Ternera?” (beef) so perhaps it’s beef. It all looked so good…but we weren’t at all hungry and knew those bocadillos de calamares were waiting for us when we finished at the market.

We wandered, I bought some earrings and David bought a leather billfold, and then we started looking around for that corner joint we’d seen on the way in.  It was only 11am but hey, we’re on vacation–and with some backtracking and hey-didn’t-we-come-down-this-street’s we found it.  Joint is the word, with soccer games on one tv and a weird kind of Latin candid camera show on another, and “decor” that hasn’t changed since 1960, and people standing or perched at the counters eating bocadillos, and drinking beer.  We joined in, David having beer and I a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice that you can get anywhere, anytime, and our bocadillos de calamares, a Madrid specialty sandwich comprising a long crusty roll filled with tender fried calamari rings, on which you can squirt either mayo or aoli.  A perfect brunch!

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After I ordered a fellow called out to me “You speak English!”  He and his wife were from Toronto (that’s in Canada, he explained) and had just finished a group hike on Majorca.  They didn’t speak or understand a single word of Spanish, and seemed very surprised that I did.  We had a small dish of patatas bravas, gratis with our drinks, and the woman asked what it was.  How can you have been in Spain for more than 1/2 a day and not know that?  Anyway, I gave her a piece on a toothpick which she reluctantly ate.  Poor people.

We headed to the Royal Palace and took the audio tour.  We liked the tour very much, but it was funny/tiresome that almost every explanation came around to how this or that painting or decoration “demonstrated the legitimacy of the Spanish monarchy”.  But surprisingly interesting–it includes such amazing decor as several rooms where the walls and ceiling are entirely porcelain!  As we left we heard the music of pipes and castanets outside–it was the tail end of a demonstration/parade we had seen on the walk back from El Rastro, a Basque protest, with music, costumes, enormous oxen pulling huge wooden carts and even a Green Peace sign, all demanding an end to agribusiness destroying great food and village life.  The marchers, in costume and periodically breaking out into castenet routines, all looked somewhat grim but the crowd seemed on their side with smatterings of applause.

Free night at the Prado, 5-7pm!  We headed over and joined a two block and growing queue and at 5 the line moved and we were part of the crowds inside where we got our bearings, sort of, and readied for a quick dose of art. Wow. We couldn’t wait to get back.  It would have been immensely frustrating if we didn’t know Tuesday was Prado day.

We stopped at La Plateria for a yummy dinner of judios verdes con jamon, paella (both half portions meaning of course they were huge) and still hungry (!) we each had a plato, David the hake and green salad, me grilled beef with salad. Enjoyed a bottle of wine with dinner and strolled home through the still busy streets, I guess normal for 9pm on a Sunday in Madrid.

Monday

On the chilly and refreshing Monday morning we started with a long walk past the palace and up to Gran Via, the sort of main commercial street, very big city with huge buildings, Times Square style signs, and lots of people. We were on a quest to find a pair of shoes for Hannah which were summer style and only could find them on sale racks…hence store after store had maybe one or two, but not in her very common size 39. It was fun to have a mission and an excuse to speak Spanish about shoes…and then pretty sure we wouldn’t be successful…we found them!

We had had a late breakfast so went to the Thyssen museum for the free opening at noon.  This is a very lovely, somewhat quirky assortment as museums based on a private collection tend to be.  Unlike the Prado, the collection ranges into some 20th century art which was great to see but surprising to SFMOMA members as there was basically no modern artists that in the US we consider iconic–no Jasper Johns, no Thiebaud, no David Smith, no Diebenkorn, one Lichtenstein.  We also saw so, so many artists we had never heard of–several times I thought like “Oh, that’s Braque” but it was someone totally unfamiliar.  Even the Impressionist collection was surprising, with only two small Renoir (never saw them before).  Two Edward Hopper, neither of which I’d seen before anywhere.  So Fun!

We took a midday break for a quick lunch in the museum restaurant, a beautiful, no stunning, ultra modern setting outside with okay food, then finished up till almost closing time (4pm). We were so tired, and a bit nervous about our stamina for the following day’s plan to see everything at the Prado. But we perked up with a tapas supper at Txirimiri where we not only had great food but fun conversation with the guy behind the bar and a buddy of his, both enthusiastic about explaining some food terms and menu items to me. I had so much fun talking food in Spanish! And a few glasses of cava made me feel almost fluent.  They had a wonderful array of pintxos including one that David ordered twice, thick slice of bread with a slab of smoked salmon.

Tuesday

Tuesday, our last day, and we were happy to have a plan to carry us through. We decided to wander our way to the Prado as it doesn’t open until 10, and stopped in a panaderia for superior croissants. Gosh they were good, and as fresh a can be–this is an on-the-premises bakery and I watched as a fellow was baking them in the back. A suitable ultimo desayuno.

We hit the museum at about 10:20, skipping the line as usual due to David’s going online for tickets. With audio guides in place off we went.

I cannot begin to describe the breadth and depth of the collection. It is a marvel, a joy, a revelation room after room after room…3 floors plus a small circular room at the top holding the treasures of the dauphinois. While I could probably live without seeing any more bloody crucifixes, everything was worth seeing. They have, for example, rooms of enormous paintings of historical and mythological events. Huge rooms that hold just six canvases, other rooms with exquisite landscapes, family portraits, royal portraits. Go to Madrid and give it two full days. It did, combined with all we had seen to that point, inspire us to read or audiobook the history of Iberia.

Two artists I’d never heard of and fell in love with, Marin Rico (1833-1908) and Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949).  The scene of the Alhambra below is Rico, the charming painting of his two children in the “Japanese room” by Fortuny.

We ate at the Prado restaurant, really very good, and at around 5 we stepped outside in a daze.

 

For supper we decided to try El Sur, which was maybe a 25 minute walk away into a neighborhood we’d not visited before.  We finished off a lovely bottle of wine–“3 Tempranillos” which is a blend of, what do you know, three tempranillo grapes all from the Duero valley but from 3 different elevations.  It was delicious.  A nice, homey place, nothing at all fancy, and we ate our fill, went home, and packed.

Up at 3:15am, driver arrived to take us to the airport at 4…flight to Amsterdam at 6.  All without a hitch!

 

Granada…ticking down the list

Time to leave lovely Sevilla.  We had an early bus to Granada, 8:30, and had some anxiety about the long walk with all our stuff and the changing weather. Córdoba had been lovely, really a perfect day, but Thursday promised rain.

Luckily we had had a kind of revelation coming back from the train station when we returned from Córdoba. When we had arrived in Sevilla we were so totally disoriented as to the layout of the city that we had not completely understood that our Airbnb was just like two short blocks into the old city. In other words we were two short blocks from the modern city, the one with cabs and wide streets. When we came home from the train last evening it all made sense, and handy to know because as we crept out of the Airbnb it was raining quite hard and happily we knew a cab would be easy to find and it was.

The bus was full and luggage space inadequate, it rained the whole way, and the bus took about 45 minutes longer than scheduled. We both were a bit queasy when we got off, and the city was still wet with rain spitting on and off. We got into a cab right away, and right away we felt so much better as our driver was a delightful conversationalist and though he spoke very rapidly I was able to keep up as we discussed Spain, the US, intergroup stresses in both countries, the environment, tourism, gosh, I cannot remember what all we explored. I was ecstatic that my ability to communicate had improved so much! Turns out he was from Córdoba so we talked about what we had seen there, how it was different from Granada, etc. I think the ride was about 15 minutes weaving through the complicated streets of Granada. It was raining harder when we got out. Our hotel was in a pedestrian zone so we had to walk into the square and even with his directions we were confused as we stood against a building juggling phones to get a map up. Well, Hotel Los Tilos was literally 15′ from where we stood and we hustled in.

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It was actually nice to be in a hotel, our only one of the trip, because we had a bathtub! We both took two baths over the two nights we were there! While the hotel was fairly bare bones it felt like a luxurious return to the 21st century after Sevilla, and our view out on the square delightful, with The Alhambra in the distance and the cathedral right across the way.

We needed food and a walk. Food was at Los Diamanté’s, a 5 minute walk and so good we had lunch there again the next day. A modern, slightly manic place with long shared tables on one side, bar seating on the other, and an open kitchen in back, waiters running to and fro shouting out orders to the kitchen.

The place was kind of empty when we arrived, as it was only noon, but within 15 minutes it was full and fiesta-like. We were so hungry for vegetables and they had something translated as “buds with garlic” and another of marinated tomatoes. We ordered both. Buds turned out to be little, maybe 4″, romaine heads, sliced top to bottom and doused with a marvelously tasty vinaigrette loaded with smaller-than-minced dark brown garlic. I think the garlic was sautéed, drained, and added to the vinaigrette as the taste was very fresh and not at all bitter. The tomatoes were icy cold and crisp, also small, with oil and vinegar. Absolutely delicious. And a perfect balance for the mixed fried seafood and intensely flavored,yummy razor clams.  This all followed the Spanish rice that came with our glass of beer and glass wine of wine order.

We returned for lunch the next day…and had probably the plumpest freshest mussels possible.  And the rice again…

 

Well fortified we headed out into the rain for a walk through the Arab quarter, up winding cobbled streets, almost entirely pedestrian only, staying clear of the rainwater rushing down the middle. The cobbled paving was well designed to drain quickly leaving the sides pretty passable. We had to take care but it wasn’t especially slippery thank goodness. Up and up we went, to a puerta at the top opening into a small square, so pretty.

We were pretty wet when we got back down but took a quick tour through the cathedral. The audio tour was oppressively Catholic, with rather tedious and extremely religious explanations of how each nave celebrated a particular incarnation of La Virgen. The place is enormous, shown vividly by means of a scale model. The bell tower is, however, rather stubby with no actual bell, explained in the audio tour the result that the “planned third section” was abandoned due to “stability problems.”

Thoroughly chilled after the cathedral we headed to our room for hot baths. Heaven.

Granada is known for its unique custom of free tapas with each drink order, rotating through the tapas of the day. We took full advantage that evening with a visit to La Vinoteca, eating the food that appeared as we each enjoyed several glasses and finishing with a salad off the menu of mixed greens, mango, avocado, and very sweet and flavorful shrimp, with teeny tiny squares of crispy bacon adding a surprising smoky-salty note. I want to try this at home, but it is very hard to find shrimp of that quality so this may remain a happy culinary memory only.

The Alhambra

No one goes to Granada without visiting The Alhambra. I was amazed to find it so close to the center of the city and also amazed at how very steep the walk is, through a true forest (not a manicured park) filled with birds none of which I could see in the tall trees. Up, up,and then you are there, an ancient walled castle/palace/fort with extensive gardens and multiple buildings of various eras.

Like La Mezquita it combines Moorish and Christian-western influences and spaces. Unlike La Mezquita the Christian rulers built their palace rooms right into and indivisible from the Moorish rooms. It is enormous. We walked several miles as we of course went to every building and then through the Alhambra museum, fantastic even to our over-stimulated eyes and minds. The only thing we skipped is the reportedly uninteresting Bellas Artes museum.

Exit to Madrid

We had train tickets to Madrid leaving around noon and we knew there was a bus bridge to the high speed train. The train station is right in the city, only a 25 minute walk from our hotel, so even though we would have all our stuff we headed out on foot. A boring walk but pretty easy. The station was a bit shocking after the various other terminals and stations we had been in. It is a smallish building with inadequate seating and nothing else. The room gradually filled up, suddenly there was a long queue, our tickets were gruffly inspected and we were divvied up among several buses each bound to a different station. Ours was an hour or so trip into what seemed the middle of nowhere, no town in sight, just a new station with several high speed tracks. We had seen the tracks for much of the bus ride, elevated through the endless olive groves. An hour later we were headed into the Córdoba station, so familiar from our earlier day trip from Sevilla.

I went into the small tienda that sold products of Espana to chat with the woman at the counter whom I had enjoyed talking to when last there when buying a few little gifts. We had shared a laugh when a large, unsmiling man had come to the register to pay for a bottle of beer (yes, you can buy a beer just about anywhere). He looked and sounded so grumpy I said to her when he left that he really needed a beer!

She remembered me and I told her we were leaving for Madrid and then home. We talked about our dogs (she has three), the tragedy of abandoned dogs, how much we loved them. She asserted “dogs are better than people” and we shared how sad we were when our dogs died. She insisted Spanish people are not dog lovers as there are so many abandoned dogs, and we commiserated about our respective societies’ failures. Then David and I had to rush down to the platform as we had been startled when last there at the approximately 30 seconds’ pause of the train for new passengers.

Madrid! Final stop!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we ate well in Sevilla too!

I am going to highlight just four meals, two of which were in the same restaurant, and one which sated our salad-and-vegetable starved appetites.

Yelp plus recommendations in Rick Steve’s guide have continued to serve us well. Our first night I scoured Yelp to find something a little different from tapas, tapas…poor us…and we headed to La Azotea. Right in the heart of la zona touristica a block from the cathedral, this narrow and modern place serves higher end (50-60€, including a bottle of wine) food with imaginative combinations as well as the typical, but here especially high quality, plates of Iberian ham, pork cheeks, pan con tomate. I wanted to go right away in case it was as good as the reviews promised.

It is. The first night, with a bottle of rosado, we ordered “media” (small, ha ha) portions of salmon tartare, a potato salad with capers and smoked salmon, and oxtail meatballs. These three “media” portions were a huge amount of delicious food…we were even struggling a bit to finish the oxtail meatballs which were served in a very rich sauce. We were glad we waved away olives and bread.

Two nights later we rewarded ourselves after a grueling day of sightseeing and ten miles of walking with a return to La Azotea to order  “media” portions of the potato salad, again, pan con tomate, and the burrata salad, a plate composed of two mounds of burrata and a scoop of lemon sorbet on a small head of red butter lettuce with little gelatin squares tasting of fresh basil. To top it off we had the steak tartare, little cubes of meat mixed with a tangy light mustard sauce. Ate every last bit with a bottle of Rioja (yummy and 15€).

The night before we needed vegetables so headed to El Rincon de Beirut. The enormous menu daunted us until we saw a “combo” that the waiter explained was basically all the appetizers. It came, we ate, our bodies said thank you.

Our final gustatory highlight came in Triana, the city across the river. We strolled across at lunchtime and settled on a Rick Steve’s suggestion of Taberna Miami, an old bullfighting themed place that promised to be “reliable for seafood” and sits in the middle of the pedestrian zoned street in the middle of centro historico. We were so hungry and just started ordering, again attempting to not overdo it by getting the tapas size of everything.

Little whole fried shrimp, crunchy shells and all; a huge platter of fried squid rings that we had eaten half of in a few minutes; grilled tiger langustinos that tasted like lobster and were challenging to peel; a platter of sliced chorizo; and fried bacalau so tender and flavorful we judged it the best we have had, and we have had a lot. With David’s bear, total 40€.

p.s. Returning from our day trip to Córdoba we stopped at a random place in the new city because they had a sign out front advertising paella.  Sounded soooo good, so we had the mixta.  YUM!  With beer, two glasses of wine, and a salad, 20€.

Our wackiest Airbnb

We arrived after a 6 hour high speed train ride from Barcelona, first class coach and a breakfast far superior to what we had on the plane coming over, into the modern Santa Justa terminal in Sevilla.

Following the map we trudged into town (those backpacks are great, but we were tired and a bit hot) and as the streets became crowded with sidewalk cafes, all full with the leisurely Sunday crowds we found our maps confusing so stopped a waiter to ask where Fabiola was. First answer was “Hmmmm,” and a gesture to follow him as he asked another waiter who replied “Hmmmm.” They concluded we were heading in the right direction but suggested we go to the next plaza and ask again. It took a few wrong turns, but in this part of the city the “blocks” are short and unpredictable so it was not really a problem and suddenly we had arrived.

We knocked on the narrow metal doors and our host hollered out, opened the door, and a fast talking, sort of wild, somewhat comical and frantic small middle aged man hustled us through a tiny crowded courtyard of sorts and into a dining room that was completely filled by a table, TV, and a few chairs. He spoke so quickly it was a bit hard to get into the rhythm of his Spanish, and when I replied in Spanish he gleefullly insisted he would speak only Spanish to me, an unnecessary declaration as what little English he has is incomprehensible.

“Passaportes!” David handed them over as Juan pulled out his forms and started filling in our numbers. Within one minute he had a tourist map spread in front of us as he circled one place after another, some with almost illegible names he scrawled in the margins. “Levies,” he announced, where we could get a meal at any time and was a few steps and corners away. Go here for bullfights, here for a church, and so on. When he circled a long green park and said “Heepies!” I stopped him. “Hippies?” “Si, si, pero artistica!” We discovered later it is a park called The Alameda and no “Heepies!” were in sight.

The house is a festival of hazards and quirks…we struggled to both keep up with Juan and stay out of his way. “Cocina! Bano!” He then thrust a key ring into my hand, “grande para la puerta y pequena para su habitation!” I looked at the keys…the little one for our room is like for a child’s jewelry box or diary…and, yes, the key to our room fits a tiny padlock that fits a wobbly lock that holds together two small doors of glass panes covered by a pair of thin white curtains.

The stairway to the second floor where our room is located is perhaps 5 degrees short of being a ladder, turning at the top to a warren of rooms which comprises two bedrooms, a “salon” as he calls it, a little anteroom between the two bedrooms that somehow holds two stuffed chairs, a matching couch, a blinking modem and router, and small TV. Before we could settle into our room Juan gestured us up another impossibly steep stairway to a two foot by two foot landing where he stopped to give us detailed instructions in rapid Spanish and lots of pantomime regarding keeping the key under the mat. He pointed to one door, his room, and then led us out to a multi-level hodgepodge of a rooftop with lounge chairs, clotheslines and a view of other rooftops in this very old, very crowded barrio. Looks pretty cool, but we never returned.

The entire house is built around the tiny central court, and all the rooms have large double windows, glass with thin white curtains, and inside shutters. Our room, our smallest yet, holds two single beds shoved together and a small dresser and wobbly wardrobe…all of the furniture seems handmade and ancient but the beds are firm and we slept well with tall, never to be quite closed floor to ceiling windows to the “street” (the house sits in a short narrow spur off the street proper) and as necessary opening the shutters and window to the courtyard. When a remnant of the hurricane came roaring through Sevilla one afternoon we saw that the courtyard is covered, more or less, with hard plastic which held the torrential rain for the most part but started leaking after a while. The floors are all tiled, and so uneven that in places the tiles clatter as they are not, and could not be, cemented in place. But the bathroom functions well, and as with every place we have stayed in Iberia the water pressure is strong and hot water hotter than hot. As in Évora the shower stall is tiny (though in Évora it was modern and sleek), so small that when David dropped the soap he couldn’t pick it up without inadvertently bumping into the handle and turning the water off.

I did think to ask Juan how old the house is. “200 or 300 years!” It is a wonder, and we are happy to have had this experience, and look forward to Granada where we will be in our first and only hotel of the trip.

The Surprises of Gaudí

I had seen my fair share of photos of Barcelona before visiting, and almost all show the various outside delights of the fanciful, mosaic-encrusted benches and such, giving me the impression of Gaudí as a fanciful, over-the-top, Disney-like designer of his own colorful and, to my eyes, silly but unmistakable look. I am embarrassed that I knew so little and that I did not understand just how brilliant and humanistic he was.

David insisted on purchasing advance tickets to 5 distinct Gaudí works: Sagrada Familia, Park GuellPalau Güell, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló. I objected. Too much of the same stuff! Four is plenty, or even three! You are crazy! I thought I was on a forced march that would be tiresome and boring. Wrong.

(Follow the links above–we tried to keep our cameras under control–for pictures and information.)

Sagrada Familia. Words are insufficient. While just seeing a soaring cathedral, under construction and due to be completed in 2026, is thrilling, and the exterior detail is full of surprises (for example, all the figures of saints, etc., look like real people because they were based on people of the neighborhood and individuals on the construction crew) the interior is a thrill. Gaudí believed both the design of, and strength of, the natural world was the most effective and apt basis for a monument to God, and so the columns are very plain, unbelievably tall, branching way above as a tree does in a narrow Y-shape. The effect is stunning.

David was smart to get us tickets to the towers on the nativity side. After maybe a 15 minute wait in line we got into the narrow elevator and zoomed to the top. Warning signs are clear–do not go if you have heart trouble, claustrophobia, vertigo, asthma–and one should heed them. Extraordinarily narrow and steep stairs must be navigated, and they seem to wander all over the place, yielding not only panoramic views of the city below but take you very close up the the construction underway. Well worth it if a teeny bit scary.

La Pedrera was probably our favorite of his residential work and to us best displayed his approach to design. Perhaps because he worked in a time of scientific discovery and rapidly modernizing city and political life, his work combined brand new engineering approaches with overtly naturalistic and flowing design. For example, none of the interior spaces depend on load bearing walls…his “superstructure” was put in place first, and the curving walls and abundant windows were possible because he had total freedom to put them wherever he chose. The rooms of the furnished apartment in La Pedrera are human scaled and intimate, nothing grandiose, and windows facing the outside and the interior light well/atrium make each room including servants quarters feel airy and also practical. Here and in his other more grand houses he used textured glass doors and “windows” to bring light in to areas with fewer real windows. He used subtle design cues, such as tiling the servants areas, kitchen, and children’s bedroom, with wooden parquet for the rest of the apartment. The master bedroom is perhaps 1 1/2 times larger than the maid/nursemaid’s.

La Pedrera also has a detailed museum explaining his life and his times. The museum is in the attic which, as in his other houses, was intended for storage and laundry and has a parabolic ceiling design that makes the space feel both larger and more intimate than its actual dimensions suggest.

Audio Tours

Each of his residences is managed by a different organization and so each has a distinct audio tour style and technology. Some, like at Sagrada Familia, are a bit elementary teacher-sounding with periodic questions…”Look up. Can you see the (something or other)? What does it remind you of?…” which got a bit tiresome. But Casa Batlló, which is privately owned and operated, has a virtual reality audio tour on an Android phone.  When you point it at anything in the house the little screen shows that spot furnished as it was originally.  Some were even animated, as a fireplace that has the General shape of a mushroom.  The animation shows the fireplace as a mushroom which then disappears in a cloud of dust to reveal the fireplace as it is today.  Pretty cool. And they don’t give you any hint of how it works, which was entertaining as it dawned on us what it was doing.

Eating Barcelona

Okay, maybe I should say eating in Barcelona but by our last night it felt as if we had eaten the city!

We arrived Wednesday on a flight from Porto mid afternoon and our host, Kiko, Catalán to his roots but facile in English having spent a few years working in Miami and of course also fluent in Spanish, had postponed his lunch waiting for us. We headed right out to his regular corner restaurant (where we sat outside for about an hour and a half), selected from the set menu of two courses with drink, and received most happily his introduction to El Reval and Barcelona in general. Not the sights…but the residents (Reval is a hodgepodge of cultures and to our delight a bit gritty), way of life, and even a detour into Catalán and US politics. He also told us he was leaving for a few days to look for mushrooms in the mountains and would return late Friday night. He showed us how to use the keys, wished us a good time, and off he went.

Pintxos

We had planned to use our first night in Spain to go to a pintxos bar that Mark and Hannah urged on us. We had no idea where it was, but up popped the walking route on Google maps and it was almost a straight line, perhaps a 20 minute walk. Off we went…and it was a perfect plan.

The route crossed the famous La Rambla, and then suddenly we were in a large square dominated by the Catedral de Barcelona, with a sort of market of stalls with a mix of antiques and old stuff, coins and postcards, knickknacks and such. The sun dropped away, the light became rosy, and we continued on the route not totally sure what we’d find. Wow, there it was. Though Hannah had explained “Do not throw away the toothpicks” that was all I could recall in our hungry and somewhat disoriented state. “Como funciona?” You find a spot to sit at the narrow counter around the back of the room, a woman brings you plates and takes your drink order, and you go to the double decker counter of plates each with mysterious, complicated but yummy-looking little open faced sandwiches and other canapé style things. Not only yummy-looking–it was fun choosing, eating, returning to the counter and choosing again. An excellent introduction and easy, early dinner.

Tapas, Wine, and History

Our second night was a treat–we had booked a history and tapas tour with Devour Tours. This was a brilliant plan. Ten people, various ages and all Americans, and all of whom, we gradually uncovered through a night of drinking and eating, anti Trump Democrats. Phew. Two couples from Kentucky, one from Wisconsin, and a young couple who live right outside DC (the guy is a consultant to the Justice Department).

Our guide told us we would visit three places, and after a strong dose of history as we made our way through the Gothic Quarter we landed at La Pineda. I had gazed into their window longingly the event before so I was immediately excited. In this tiny place a table for 11 was waiting and as soon as we settled in Paulina told us about the history of this family owned operation in business since the 1940’s. Three kinds of cheese, four different cured meats including jamon Iberico that was revelatory, empanadas (not the Argentine fried things) and tortilla, the Spanish potato and egg thing, sort of a frittata. And to drink, vermut de la casa with an orange slice and a salty green olive on a toothpick. Nothing like a glass of fortified wine (this is not the vermouth we put in a martini!) to get the party going.

Next stop, again after a good dose of city history, was La Plata. Similarly this is a family operated business from the 40’s. The place is so small Paulina told us often her groups eat outside, but that night we had a table that almost fit us. La Plata serves like 4 or 5 things plus their own house wine drawn from barrels sitting on the bar.

We ate several plates of fried anchovies, the entire fish and soooo good, plates of quartered tomatoes that tasted like it was July, slices of the sweetest possible white onion, drizzles with olive oil and topped with tiny green olives, pan con tomate that defined the dish, and thick slices of baguette-sized bread topped with chunks of fat sausage. We cheered the food, drank the wine, staggered out as I wondered how we would ever survive a third stop.

Survive we (almost) did, on to Bodega La Palma. People were leaving as we approached, every one of whom said “oh, this place is amazing”. We squeezed through to the back, climbed impossibly narrow, steep stairs to a tiny mezzanine which could maybe hold 15 slim people.

We crammed around the table and food started coming. The best patatas bravas possible, then jamon croquettes, then pea and mint croquettes, finally pork cheeks in a rich stew, and as I realized I felt as if not one more bite would go down the postre came, looking like creme brûlée with the carmelized, crunchy sugar top but much lighter, less eggy, and with hints of lemon and cinnamon. Oh, and several bottles of Montsant red wine, delicious. One of our fellow diners admitted she was converted from white to red with that bottle.

Fortunately as we dispersed Paulina told us she was headed our way to a metro stop, so we had a guide through the streets, parting at La Rambla from where we knew our way. The tour started at 6:30 sharp. We left Paulina at 10. Groan!

Le Reval Discovery

By lunch Thursday we needed a break from Spanish food and since I had heard there was a variety of middle eastern food, and the ubiquitous kebab shops didn’t beckon, I went on Yelp. I found or thought I had found a Turkish place close by, and we proceeded to not find the street nor, of course, the place.

Turning around David said “let’s go there” pointing to Elias & Zacaria and in we went. Busy and busier, fantastic looking prepared dishes in the case, a guy making what looked to be terrific sandwiches on baguettes, we opened the menu and found Moroccan tajines on the home-cooking page. I had kofta and rice, David chicken with potatoes, and an appetizer of eggplant and peppers that a serious-looking woman in a hijab carried out, still warm and fragrant. A plate of two kinds of olives and basket of bread appeared as the waiter ran by and we dug in.

Suffice to say as soon as we got back to the apartment I put a five star rating and review on Yelp. Best post-meal moment was when the serious, almost grim faced woman came out from the back kitchen as we left and I had a chance to say thank you, “muy rica!” and got a big smile.

For dinner we returned to tapas at Mino, where I over ordered, we ate everything, and while it was good we had been spoiled by our tapas adventure the night before. We did have our first morilla (blood sausage), so good, and found that jamon is not jamon–there’s the great, and the simply good.

Saturday morning we walked down La Rambla to the Christopher Columbus monument, with a quick detour through the lovely, large, but a bit touristy Boqueria. Oh, the food looked so good…but when we returned from the monument it was getting very crowded so we decided to go back and see if Kiko had indeed returned. He was home, no luck with mushrooms, but we decided we wanted a tour of the newly reopened market a block or so away, Mercado Sant Antoni.

As we wandered the market we came upon a produce stand which had an abundance of the mushrooms Kiko had been looking for…and they had some for sale, cooked with garlic and olive oil, on little sticks.  So we had to try them…oh, so good.  Instead of a full lunch we asked to stop at a jamon counter where they also had a few stools and a simple menu of various types of jamon, chorizo, pan con tomate and of course copas de vino. This was a return to the meltingly delicious jamon iberico at La Pineda. We got two plates of jamon, two of pan con tomate, vino tinto, and nibbled our way to satisfaction.

For dinner, needing salad and a break we went to the very highly recommended Marmalade, two blocks from our apartment, for an enormous Caesar salad and extremely good burgers. On to Sevilla.