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, found or thought I had found a Turkish place close by, and we proceeded to not find the street or, 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 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.

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 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.

Portugal and Spain—the dogs

The first difference I noted, on the very first hour as we sat in an outdoor table for lunch with our Airbnb host, was the dogs.

We had seen the typical number of dogs in Portugal (no street dogs, however) and without exception they were pulling their owners down the street or lunging excitedly at other dogs. The few times I approached them I was jumped on, slobbered on, or both. We never saw a dog off leash.  And they were all so off putting that I failed to photograph any of them!

Barcelona dogs, we saw almost all mixed breed except for a notable number of dachshunds, are muy educados, very well behaved. Some pulled or barked at passing dogs, particularly when a dog was guarding his or her building by watching passers-by from a tiny balcony. But all–I think I noted maybe 2 exceptions–trot alongside their owners or sit politely behind while the owner is in conversation. We saw many dogs off leash, both walking alongside or directly behind their people or waiting silently, staring into a shop in order to keep track of their people. A young man crosses a small plaza, a dachshund scampering around, and as soon as the man stops at the curb the dog runs over, responds to a hand signal to wait, and then trots across at his heel.

Big dogs, huge dogs, little mixed breeds or chihuahuas, basically the same assortment in the states, all well behaved. From time to time we heard an owner correct the dog in a warning tone. No lunging, no pulling. Dogs were on trains (including the high speed train to Sevilla on which I am sitting), dogs sitting in outdoor cafes, dogs wearing the Spanish flag in the parade, even a dog gazing at the Roman columns. Los perros de Barcelona son muy educados.

Porto Eats

All we can say is Spain had better be good, because eating in Portugal is a delight.  And further, we can say we sure are glad we are walkers…a lot of calories to use up!

Our three and a half days in Porto were spent about 80% walking and 20% eating. The many, many restaurants are almost entirely Portuguese food, though we saw perhaps 2 Japanese and a few French.

The food prices are so low that it was a bit confusing. For example, at Pedro Dos Frangos the menu had two prices for everything, one in a column marked “1” and the other marked “1/2”.  Our waiter almost frantically dissuaded us from ordering the serving for 1. He was entirely correct. David struggled, sure that a 1/2 serving of sardines was insufficient, but his order had four eight inch grilled sardines, plus vegetables. This followed a 5€ appetizer, a large dish of octopus salad (so tender!). My so-called half order of grilled chicken was a mountain of fries and I left a large piece of chicken unfinished. Similarly, I struggled with how much wine to order–again at the urging of the waiter I settled on the small pitcher (less than 2€) which was three full glasses and very good.

 

Walking home from our first dinner we saw a captivating window–a man scooping meat from a large kettle of thin, reddish sauce, stuffing it into a small roll, giving it a quick half dip in the sauce, and tossing it on a small plate. The restaurant, Conga, was our destination the next evening and again for our last day’s lunch. The sauce was very slightly spicy, the meat tender, the entire sandwich addictive. The bacalau fritters were a nice fried addition…ensuring the meal wasn’t unacceptably healthy.

Our first day’s lunch and last evening’s dinner were at Tripeira, just a block or so from our apartment and found on Yelp. I was eager to try the tripas Porto style, which is meltingly tender tripe with white beans and chorizo, garnished with shredded cold chicken breast. I know. Strange combo and delicious. Speaking of strange combos, David had to try the francesinha, a Porto specialty available in many restaurants including one or two that serve nothing else. A “sandwich” in that there are two slices of bread, but this is knife and fork food and almost evil in its components and great, if intense and a bit salty, taste. In between the bread is ham, pork, cheese, covered with a fried egg and a red sauce. I am anxious to ID the sauce ingredients, as it had a hint of the dried red chilies in enchilada sauce but that would be a surprising addition. The whole thing is hot, so the cheese is a melted stringy mess. We shared one the last day as no doubt this is available nowhere else in the world. Yum.

We decided to splurge a bit our final evening, returning to Tripeira. It is such a lovely restaurant and the service is attentive, friendly and welcoming. We had walked quite a bit that last day and were famished when we arrived so decided to get a bottle of vinho verde and an appetizer plate to share.

It was generous–and we ate everything. A platter of thin, fatty, intense sausage slices with Azores cheese, a dish of what the menu called stewed peas with chorizo and was the tenderest fava beans I have ever had, and octopus salad. Again, the octopus was beyond tender in a vinagrette with diced celery and sweet diced onion. Thank goodness we had bread to soak up the fava bean liquid and the vinagrette. As a main course David had the tuna, in smallish pieces and cooked rare, perhaps the best I have tasted (we traded bites), and I had the sea bass, which was two thin filets, potatoes, and a bed of roasted vegetables. A fantastic final meal in beautiful Porto.

Pastries

The variety and quantities are astounding. We ate our fill of pastels de nata, napoleons, croissants (which in Portugal are more like a sweet egg bread than a French style laminated pastry). Even with all our walking we could only fit in so much!

Conservas

Portugal, like Spain, treasures its canned fish products and the variety of types and brands is overwhelming. We walked by a few “petiscos” places, tiny snack restaurants, which had a menu of conservas offerings but we didn’t try any, wanting to save our appetites for meals. There are tourist-aimed specialty conservas stores, and delis with wine, port, cheese, and preserved meat as well as, typically, a wall of tins with the many brands and types of conservas.

B79538E5-1EC4-42FF-87AE-287E66F94928We had stopped into one in our neighborhood the first day to ask a question…the man behind the counter spoke English and answered our question so cheerfully that our last day we returned to buy our souvenir conservas from him. He was so kind to pull down a variety for us, telling us what he especially liked, and we purchased 10 or so. Prices ranges from 2-5€. Now we are condemned to carry our little shopping bag of canned fish all over Spain, but I was fairly certain “latas” in Spain will be no higher quality and more pricey. We shall see…as I write this we are on the plane to Barcelona.

Porto—Let’s Start With The Architecture

Walking through the city is visually entertaining…almost absurdly so.  The city’s building stock is a mix of the falling apart, the beautifully preserved, and obvious gentrification.  Our Airbnb apartment is sparkling new, formerly a printing business of some kind, reached by a broad refinished wood staircase and outfitted in Ikea or Ikea analog modern.  Directly across the narrow street is a renovation in progress—almost every block has such change underway.  Good time to be in the building trades!

One feature of the older buildings is the gigantic-human-figure on a large number of public or quasi-public buildings.  It is a tiny bit creepy…they loom over the population, sometimes posed to be peering down, sometimes crowning the roof.  A few of many:

 

Along with the gorgeous buildings there is an array of street art.  I snapped just a few…but don’t you love that cat?

The river winds between Porto and Gaia, with the iron bridge that allows pedestrians on both levels, walkers sharing with cars on the lower and the metro on the upper.  We walked to Gaia on the upper level, then wandered our way down to river level and crossed on the lower level back to Porto, climbing the long stairway from sidewalk, past both abandoned and occupied buildings wedged along and under the bridge, finally coming out into the city proper.  So glad it wasn’t hot!

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People and vehicles seem to mesh rather well…cars, buses, and trucks always pause for walkers as in Lisbon and Evora, with a fair bit of jaywalking well tolerated.  Many of the streets are so narrow, with extremely narrow sidewalks (one person with a shopping bag wide) that it really couldn’t work any other way.

Of course Porto buildings often show off the gorgeousness tiles for which Portugal is famous, some of which are above.  When we arrived we scooted through the train station anxious to find our apartment, but returned to take it all in and snap a few pictures which do not do it justice.

I look forward to my next post…the food!  Have to go to dinner now.