After the full day’s eyeful feast of Gaudi’s works, I was ready for a feast of another kind. For that, I followed the recommendation of a colleague and dined at Los Caracoles Restaurant, conveniently located off the city’s famed La Rambla, just a two minute walk from Reial Plaza.
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I found this restaurant to be a combination of old world charm and very fine food. Started in 1835 by the Bofarull family as Casa Bofarull, it is run by its fifth generation under the more fitful name of Los Caracoles to reflect a signature dish of snails. As I stepped inside, I could see the long exquisite bar on the left and the big stove in the open cooking area on the right. I later found out that the coal-burning stove is over one hundred years old.
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I made my way straight through about 15 meters (50 feet), slowly and at times even stopping, turning my head left and right, to admire the beautiful bar and the impressive cooking facility. At its end, I was greeted by a gracious woman who introduced herself as Aurora.
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She led me through several floors of dining areas, some with private dining rooms of various sizes whose walls were hung with framed pictures of Spanish and international celebrities who have dined at Los Caracoles over the years. On one of the pictures, I recognized the famous Italian opera singer Luciano Pavorotti. After an appetizer plate consisting of garlic shrimp, bread with tomato, jamon (Iberian ham) and snail bread, I ordered the caracoles (snails) without hesitation.
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When they came, I could smell the sauce, and went right to work on them with both hands. I was sure the sauce mix was proprietary but could taste that it included fresh garlic, a bit of salt and black pepper, olive oil and mint springs.
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Next came the entrée, salmon “house style,” and what a dish. Just mouth watering and freshness of taste. I especially liked its accompaniments – lightly fried potatoes, green onion stalks, and tomato. While the restaurant has an extensive wines list, I opted for a pitcher of sangria and it served me well throughout the course as I enjoyed the delicious meal. For dessert, it was Catalan cream, similar to crème brulee. I had of course tasted flan, custard, or crème brulee, but this one was unusually rich and savory. All in all, a very fine dining experience for elegance and flavor.

The Barcelona Airport information agent answered my question without hesitation, “See as many pieces of Gaudi’s works as possible.” Not the food, not the shopping, not even the famed Las Ramblas. I had done my homework, reading up for my trip. Architect and designer Antoni Gaudi, who lived 1852 – 1926, is the most internationally prestigious figure in Spanish architecture. He is also one of the most revered personalities in Spain, particularly in Barcelona where his work is concentrated.
Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain in the north-east portion of the Iberian Peninsula, with the official status of a “nationality.” Its capital city is Barcelona, the center of “Modernisme,” the term depicting a cultural movement by the people of Catalonia for national identity. And Gaudi is generally considered the grand master of Catalan Modernism in its heyday. World architectural experts have hailed his work, while adhering to Modernisme, to even go beyond that, being characterized by the predominance of the curve over the straight line, the expression of asymmetry, and the integration with various crafts such as stained glass, wrought iron forging and carpentry.
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Well, one would be hard-pressed not to see it as he approaches it. And I was no exception. Casa Batllo’s front façade sure looked like a bunch of bone features to me, a layman when it comes to architecture. In fact, I later found out that the locals call it “Casa dels ossos” or the House of Bones. Built in 1877, it was restored and partially remodeled by Gaudi during 1904 – 1906. He focused on the facade, the main floor, the patio and the roof, and built a fifth floor for the staff. The facade is of Montjuic sandstone cut to create warped ruled surfaces, the columns are bone-shaped with vegetable decoration. Gaudi kept the original rectangular shape of the building’s balconies – with iron railings in the shape of masks – giving the rest of the facade an ascending undulating form. He also faced the facade with ceramic fragments of various colors (“trencadis”), which Gaudi obtained from the waste material of the Pelegri glass works. The interior courtyard is roofed by a skylight supported by an iron structure in the shape of a double T, which rests on a series of caternary aches. The helicoidal chimneys are a notable feature of the roof, topped with conical caps, covered in clear glass in the center and ceramics at the top, and surmounted by clear glass balls filled with sand of different colors. Much of the facade is decorated with a mosaic made of broken ceramic tiles (“trencadis”) that starts in shades of golden orange moving into greenish blues. The roof is arched and likened to the back of a dragon. At the first floor level of the undulating facade is a striking stone structure in the form of loggia supported by columns with frame fine windows decorated with stained glass. The ceramics and multi-colored glass mosaics of the upper part are interrupted by iron balconies in the form of venetian masks. Crowning the whole is a suggestive tile roof over double garrets, which evokes the back of a dragon. Casa Batllo gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.
Casa Mila, better known as La Pedrera, was designed by Gaudi and built during 1905 – 1910. What a humongous building, I thought to myself, as I first saw it standing at the corner located at 92 Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona’s Example district.
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The brochures available at its gift store combined with my walk-through helped me to really appreciate what a fine and unique piece of architecture La Pedrea is. Gaudi designed the house around two large, curved courtyards, with a structure of stone, brick and cast-iron columns and steel beams. The façade is built of limestone from Vilafranca del Penedes, apart from the upper level, which is covered in white tiles, evoking a snowy mountain. It has a total of five floors, plus a loft made entirely of caternary arches, as well as two large interior courtyards, one circular and one oval. I particularly noticed the roof, topped with the four-armed cross, and the chimneys, covered in ceramics and with shapes that suggest mediaeval helmets. It was a controversial design at the time for its bold forms of the undulating stone façade and wrought iron decoration of the balconies and windows. In 1984, Casa Mila was declared World Heritage by UNESCO. Another interesting fact is that Gaudi wanted its occupants to know each other so he designed lifts on every other floor only so people had more interaction and thus had to communicate with one another from different floors.
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Perhaps his most famous work, during the last years of his career, Gaudi devoted almost exclusively to Sagrada Familia, a monumental church to say the least, whose formal name, in English, is Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. I arrived at a morning hour that I thought was early, but the line of waiting visitors had already stretched from the front around to the left side of the cathedral, with more visitors to follow as the minutes ticked. Across from it, on limited open space ingenuous merchants had set up shop, selling a wide variety of souvenir items and snacks. In fact, on the sidewalk slightly from the curb, merchants had placed at various spots small tables and chairs for those who just wanted to sit, have a soda, relax and take in the majestic view of Sagrada Familia. I overheard from a passing tour guide that the wait to get inside the cathedral was going to be almost two hours. Taking a cue from other visitors, I bought a cold soda and some snacks and quickly grabbed an empty chair and claimed the table nearest to it. This was going to be my base for taking in the grandeur of the Sagrada Familia.
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Among the many expert comments I read, Sagrada Familia can be summed up as Gaudi’s achievement of perfect harmony between structural and ornamental elements, between plastic and aesthetic, between function and form, between container and content, achieving the integration of all arts in one structured, logical work. It is probably the most remarkable cathedral in Europe, and it’s not even finished yet! It was in an unfinished state at the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926, the work stopped in 1936 and resumed sixteen years later in 1952. Projected completion is in 2026, the centennial of Gaudi’s death. At completion, there would be extraordinary facades representing the birth, death and resurrection of Christ with eighteen towers or spires symbolizing the twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and the Christ. UNESCO bestowed 2 titles of World Heritage status – one for the Nativity façade and the other for the crucifixion façade. I could see that visitors may be confused into thinking that these facades represent the front and the back of the cathedral, when in fact they are actually the sides.
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Locals I encountered invariably mentioned Parc Guell, a municipal garden on the hill of El Carmel in Barcelona’s Gracia district. On a pleasant Spring morning, I started off from Placa de Catalunya, the huge square just minutes by foot from my hotel, by taking the #24 bus. I had deliberately planned this particularly long ride, with the idea of leisurely seeing the various Barcelona’s neighborhoods from one end of the city to another. Parc Guell was originally part of a commercially unsuccessful housing site; of sixty lots, only two houses were built, and Gaudi occupied one of them from 1906 to his death in 1926. Among the many examples of Gaudi’s designing genius evident here is the huge plaza, surrounding by a long winding bench in the form of a sea serpent. The bench has small semi-enclosed areas where the facing of a brightly colored ceramics creates a spectacular collage.Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, at its highest point Parc Guell offers a panoramic view of the city and the bay, including the Familia.

It was late at night when Nataliya and I arrived in Madrid on the one hour flight from Barcelona. The former gateway to the city, Puerta de Alcala,looks spectacular when lit up at night. We got off the bus at Plaza de Cibeles. In the center of the square is the iconic fountain crowned with a statue of the Roman goddess Cybele, seated in a chariot pulled by lions, welcomed us to Madrid.

Beyond the statue, on the other side of the square, the Palacio de Comunicaciones and City Hall were lit up like fireflies—the illuminated clock tower told us it was nearly midnight. We lingered for some moments, taking in the lively sights as they only looked at night. Then, we extended our suitcase handles, pulled them behind like dogs on leash, and headed down the road toward Puerta del Sol.
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Sun Shines at Night

Puerta del Sol, or “Gateway to the Sun,” was still alive with energy even at the late hour when we arrived. The people here appeared to be more locals than tourists, with cafes and shops and the metro stop
under a mirrored glass that looked like a silver moon on the cobblestone. Ten streets extend from Puerta del Sol, making it a little more confusing than expected to find our Hotel Santandar, which was off one of the ten streets. We asked the policemen who stood guard in the square (more half-moon than square, really) and they were happy to offer directions. “Look for big lions at the Congreso de los Diputados. Same street.” By the time we found the afore-mentioned lions at the home to Spain’s parliament, we had gone too far. But it only took minutes to turn back and find the big “Hotel Santandar” sign. We went to the unmarked door below the sign to find it locked. It was after midnight. “What if they’re closed for the night,” Nataliya asked. “I told them we were arriving late,” I said. Both a little worried about spending the night leaning against a monument, we looked around for another, better marked door. Turns out that the sign was only that—a sign. The actual hotel (and another well-lit sign) was just around the corner on the nearest side street.And there, we were warmly greeted in the historic building—a lobby filled with carved wood and marble and statuary—by a desk clerk who was expecting us.

Hotel Santandar is by no means a posh, luxury hotel, but it was a far cry better than the typical cookie-cutter chain hotel. Family owned since the 1920s, it is located in a historic building of the same era. Other reviewers have mentioned that, being near the square, it can be noisy at night. But our room was located above a quiet alley and we never once heard a peep from outside—even with the windows open. Our room had a western-style bed (not two twins pushed together as we remembered from non-chain hotels in London, Paris, Prague, St. Petersburg, and Moscow). The furniture was either antique or wonderfully reproduced furniture, heavy wood and stately in style. The large desk would have made a good place for writing, had it not been covered by our notes and guide books, tickets and maps. The ceilings were a good fifteen feet high, but not too far away to miss the details: a decorative middle framed by plaster molding. The bath included an extra-long soaking tub (good after a long day of street and museum walking) with a European-style shower handle that could be plugged in up top or handheld. There was even a bidet. During our days at the hotel, we encountered four friendly desk clerks. The one we spoke with most often happened to be from Cuba. Interestingly enough, he had gone to college in Russia and Ukraine, had worked in Mexico, and had only recently moved to Madrid. Being from Cuba tied him to three diverse cross-cultures: Cuba, Russia (with the former Soviet connection), and Hispanic countries, like Mexico and Spain.

When traveling abroad on our own dollar (or Euro as the case may be), we tend to want a local, non-chain hotel that is clean. No whirlpool or king-sized bed is needed—just a place to sleep during the few hours of the night that we’re not out exploring. We were happy to find that Hotel Santandar, located at Echegaray 1, was not just a place to sleep. But when we finally got settled in and showered off well west of Midnight, sleep we did.

Gateway to the Sun

We rose with the sun for our first full day in Madrid, with breakfast in Puerta del Sol. Once, there really was a gateway here, but it was destroyed in 1570. This square is also where the massacre took place in 1808, when locals were attacked by Napoleon’s forces. These days, the Gateway to the Sun comes closer to living up to its name. The atmosphere is pleasant, the energy positive. There are peaceful demonstrations, but it is mostly a square of meeting and greeting, where locals come together.

I’ve already mentioned the modern glass train station entry. The square is also famous for the bronze statue of a bear eating from a strawberry tree—often used as a symbol for Madrid. At the center of the square is a statue of Carol III astride his horse. And the building where the helpful policemen are on guard 24 hours a day, with its iconic clock tower, is home to the regional government. In past eras, it has been everything from a post office to headquarters for Ministry of the Interior.

Although we avoid chains, we did enjoy breakfast a few times in Puerta del Sol at the “museum of ham,” where they served up juice from Valencia oranges squeezed right in front of you, delicious Spanish coffee with steamed milk, and good sandwiches of meat and cheese. Like many places, you actually stand at the bar to eat and drink. Most people in the early morning enjoyed coffee and hot chocolate with churros and sandwiches and juice. But every time we went for breakfast, inevitably there would be at least one gentleman enjoying an a.m. ale with his morning meal.

Who doesn’t like to sleep in? But when we have limited time in a place like Madrid, we want to be up with the sun, at the Gateway to the Sun, each day. The best time to hit the places where lines get long is in the early morning. The Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the three great art museums of Madrid, opened at 10. We were there at 9:45.

The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza had a very modern feel to it. The collection was put together by Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son, Hans Heinrich. The location is the Villahermosa Palace, from the 18th century. As a sort of history of western art, the paintings and sculptures (more than 1,000) range from Flemish and Italian primitives to 20th century pop art.

One could easily spend a day or two perusing the paintings of this museum. We dedicated a few hours, stopping to linger over the ones that captivated us. Some of the highlights of the Thyssen-Bornemisza include Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room, and Harlequin with a Mirror by Picasso; Women with a Parasol in Garden by Renoir and Swaying Dancer by Degas. Goya, Titian, Gauguin, Rubens, Christus, Van Gough, and Dali are all represented here, along with their contemporaries.
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Promenading Paseo del Prado and Proximity

After a few hours in the Thyssen-Bornemisza, we enjoyed some time in the open air. Right next to the museum is Paseo del Prado, a long park
that connects Plaza de Cibeles and Plaza de Canovas del Castillo. The latter of these features a sculpted fountain of Neptune. Just beyond Neptune, you can see Madrid’s greatest Museum, the Prado. We would
visit the museum more than once during our time in Madrid. But for now, a leisurely stroll along the tree-lined park brought us back to the goddess who had welcomed us into the city the night before. We entered the Palacio de Comunicaciones, or Palace of Communications, where we were able to take a look at the beautiful building from the inside. We climbed the top for a nice bird’s eye view of the area. Museums can be wonderful, but they can also fill your mind with
confusion, seeing so many impressive impressions in such a small amount of time. That’s why it is important to balance museum time with
outdoor time. We spent a couple hours of our time enjoying some of the
impressive architecture of the surrounding area.

After admiring the Palace of Communications and City Hall, we took a look at the Plaza de Espana, where the most recognizable feature is the huge stone obelisk. The Spanish author Cervantes is seated in front of the obelisk, looking as though he is dreaming an impossible dream. In front of Cervantes, just below him, are his most beloved characters: Don Quixote on Rocinante and Sancho Panza on his donkey.

Another impressive building (among many not mentioned here) was the
Metropolis. Glinting in the sunlight, the bronze designs on the huge dome atop the ornate building is a sight not to miss. And if you’re walking in the city for any amount of time, chances are, you won’t miss it.

For lunch, we had tapas at a Cervicera, or a bar-restaurant, where we enjoyed some jamon (ham) sliced right off the pig’s leg, on display atop the bar. This seemed to be common at a number of bars, cafes, and restaurants—ham hocks, hoof and all, decorating bars and tabletops. Along with baguettes and soft goat cheese, we drank house wine and beer.

We ended the day in the same mode that opened it: with time well-spent in a museum. Museo del Prado is one of Europe’s (and the world’s) largest art museums, with the world’s biggest collection of Spanish paintings. Dominating the museum are the works of Velazquez, Rubens, El Greco, and Goya. (We met two of them before even entering the palace, Goya and Velazques immortalized in statuary.) There are said to be more than 8,000 paintings at the Prado. Only about a fifth of them are on display. But that fifth could take days to properly take in. We didn’t have days, we had hours. But we managed to walk through most of it in the limited hours we had, and we paid special attention to the paintings that interested us most.

El Greco is well represented at the museum. One of the most notable paintings: the Adoration of the Shepherds, a dramatic work with somewhat surreal figures in vivid colors that pop within the dark framework of the picture. The painting was intended for his own funerary chapel. In this painting, and most of El Greco’s work, one can see why he is held apart as a unique artist; unlike most of his contemporaries, he uses elongated, somehow ghostly figures who make up with vibrant color contrasts what they lack in proper dimension.

There are a great number of paintings by Rubens at the Prado, including The Three Graces, one of the last great masterworks by the Flemish painter—originally from his own personal collection. Another interesting depiction is The Birth of the Milky Way in which our galaxy is created with breast milk. Of special interest is the El Bosco (Bosch) painting, The Garden of Delights. The enormous painting shows people falling into their desires, illustrated on three panels. One panel seems to be heaven, the other hell—and in between, people in a Garden of Eden-esque setting having fun. What many viewers may not realize is that the work has yet another panel: the two side panels close over the middle garden to show the garden encircled in a sphere, seeming to be closed for the night.

The Velazquez collection is perhaps the most impressive of the Prado. His contemporaries, like Manet and Giordano called him the “painter of all painters” and his work “the theology of painting.” My favorite Velazquez at the Prado is Las Meninas, or The Maids of Honor. This work is an experimentation of perspective: a portrait of the king and queen of Spain in which the subjects are barely noticeable—unless you know where to look for them. They are in the mirror on the wall behind the painter (in self-portrait), as though the viewer of the painting is in the position of the king and queen. But it is not a vanity project: the painting centers on the five-year old Infanta Margarita, who looks out at her parents (or the viewer of the painting) as her ladies in waiting tend to her. It is an interesting examination of perspective.

And then there are the works of Goya. Of note is the set, The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, each showing the painting’s subject in the exact same pose, one clothed, the other nude. The latter Maja is regarded as one of the most famous nudes in European painting. Maja seems a content character; in fact, a number of Goya’s works are happier ones: The Parasol, and The Pottery Vendor, for example. But most of his best-known works are of a darker nature. The Third of May 1808 is one of his most well-known paintings, depicting the shootings on Principe Pio Hill. It is displayed next to The Second of May 1808, depicting the charge of the Mamelukes. These less delightful paintings are located just outside a room that houses Goya’s Black Paintings.

Goya’s “black paintings” depict the dark mood he was in during his later years of life. Totaling 14 paintings, they were originally frescoes he painted on the walls his own house, Quinta del Sordo, or Deaf Man’s Residence. The home was named after a previous resident who was deaf, but Goya himself was nearly deaf as well. Although the black paintings were not exactly intended as a series, they share some of the same unique qualities: the large paintings are somber, irreverent, and bitter, dealing with, misery, sickness, corruption, and death. At the time of their creation, from 1819 to 1823, Goya was in a dark mood himself, fearing death or lunacy. The paintings were for his own use, not intended for public display. He did not even title them himself; the titles were attributed by art historians after Goya’s death. To stand inside the room, surrounded by the dark paintings, is depressing, the weight of them on your eyes. It is hard to imagine that this is what the artist decided to surround himself with day in and day out at his home.

One of the brighter of the black paintings is Dog Drowning. Some of the darker ones include a horde of witches in the night huddled before a he-goat, and child with similar, monstrous features before them; Two Men Eating Soup shows two crazily smiling men at a table with bowls, one of them looking like nothing more than a skull in the shadows.

The painting of Men Reading seems somehow tuned into death. An old, bearded man sits with a printed page and other men gather closely around him, looking at the paper. One of them looks pleadingly to the sky, as though praying desperately. Certainly it could not have been the artist’s intention at the time, but in today’s age of the ailing printed page it almost seems to predict the demise of the printed book in an age preoccupied with screens and electronics. As a companion to Men Reading, Ladies Laughing depicts a group of old women mocking a subject. Who are they mocking? Undoubtedly the men who are reading.

It was in this pit of darkness that we met up with the husband of Cybel, the goddess who welcomed us to Madrid on her lion-drawn chariot. Saturn’s painting is probably one of Goya’s most well-known. Saturn Devouring his Son depicts just that: the beastly god devouring his own son, his hands brutally digging into the man’s back as though into crust of a blood-red cherry pie. It is a troubling painting, but Saturn, for his terrible deed, actually looks pathetic, crazed, and you almost feel as sorry for the monster as the victim. Saturn is, after all, only eating his son because he fears his own loss of power, because he is plagued by the universal fear of growing old. A person could age just examining the troubling paintings in the room. But that is what makes them fascinating, and well worth examination. It was getting dark when we left the Prado. It was time for some red wine and tapas before heading back home to Puerta del Sol.

Europe’s Largest Palace

Our tour the next morning was a little cheerier. Our breakfast consisted of hot chocolate and churros. Curros are much like the
binges of New Orleans only without the messy powdered sugar—deep fried dough, crispy on the outside and still a little wet and gooey on the inside. The hot chocolate was hardly a drink, being so thick it was like pudding. We actually ate it with a spoon, and followed this sweet treat with a cup of coffee. Palacio Real, Madrid’s marvelous Royal Palace, was designed and built with the purpose to outdo the Louvre in Paris. It stands as one of Europe’s most impressive works of architecture.

About half of the state apartments are open for public viewing, which makes it a popular place to visit. That’s why we got there early, about half an hour before the palace opened. Waiting in the short but growing line was actually fun. We were graced with the impressive views of both the palace and, across the courtyard, with the Almudena Cathedral, which we would visit after the palace. A group of Spanish nuns collected at the top of the cathedral’s stairs, admiring the decorated doors. They broke into song, singing Spanish hymns for us. Their voices carried across the courtyard and provided a nice, ten minute concert.

Then, a few minutes after they ceased, another entertainment began. Street musicians and entertainers are clever to set up next to long lines, and today’s act made me wonder why they don’t do so more often, given the captive audience. Our street entertainment for the next fifteen minutes of our wait consisted of a master accordion player and a flamenco dancer. They broke into song and dance, perhaps their best number being the bullfighting song, the accordion player even marching in step with the dancing “bull.” Many of us tossed Euro coins into the open container before them. It was one of the only times we were actually a little disappointed to see the line begin to move.

But we were leaving a peasant’s realm for a nobleperson’s. The impressive location has been the site of a royal fortress for centuries, but in 1734, after the previous fortress burned, Felipe V ordered the extravagant palace that stands now. It is still used today by the present king and queen for state functions, although Juan Carlos I prefers to live in a slightly less showy residence outside Madrid. Upon entering the palace through a visitors’ center and gift shop, we exited back into the inner courtyard before stepping into the royal pharmacy. The first few rooms of the pharmacy alone were impressive, each lined with gilded shelves of Talavera pottery and ornate drawers, filled with every imaginable ingredient for a home remedy. But room after room continued, making this what must be the most complete royal pharmacy on the face of the earth. The idea was to have everything and anything that might be needed for any ailment on hand. It seems they succeeded, and the results are still showcased today.

After a tour of the royal pharmacy, we entered the front door of the main palace. In the entrance hall, it’s easy to trip on the marble staircase because you can’t help but stare up at the Giaquinto frescos and decorations all around. In fact, even Napoleon, after setting up his brother in the palace, said, “your lodgings will be better than mine.” Circular windows brighten the large entry with natural sunlight. The throne room is another marvel, and one can imagine the king and queen seated on their scarlet and gold thrones, guarded by the Roman lions of bronze next to each. Just as stately is the enormous dining room, decorated with ceiling frescos, wall tapestries, Chinese vases,
and a vast table for large parties. The hall of columns is another beautiful room, not to mention the billiard room and smoking room. The walls and ceiling of one room are covered entirely with royal porcelain, wreaths and cherubs decorating the walls. One of the most impressive rooms to behold was the Gasparini Room, named after its designer. Used as Charles III’s robing room, the elaborately decorated salon bursts with lavish rococo chinoiserie. Fruit, flowers, and vines encrust the ceiling. The Royal Chapel in the palace is absolutely stunning with its blue and gold hues giving it a cool, reverend look and feel.

After some time in the residence, we exited back to the inner courtyard and then took a tour of the royal armory—showcasing the actual armor worn by Spanish royalty of days gone by, along with weapons and a display of armor that had been damaged in battle. The armory features more than 2,000 pieces and has been open to the public for more than 400 years. Impressive as the armory was, it seemed less so than the palace itself. So, while we were still within the walls, we decided to end our visit to the royal residence with one last stroll through the palace. By this time, a couple hours had passed, so the crowds were thickening. In some rooms, we had to swim through a crowd of people or dodge the loud lecturing of a tour guide. Our first walk through the
palace was the better, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of some of the impressive rooms once more before leaving.

The Santa Maria la Real de la Almudana is the cathedral that stands directly across from the Palacio Real. It is an interesting mix of styles. Unlike most cathedrals in Spain, this Cathedral of Madrid is a relatively modern structure. Dating back to the late 1800s (practically brand new for Spain), the cathedral was still being worked on until 1993, when it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II. When construction began, a Gothic revival style dominated. But when work resumed after the Spanish Civil War, the plans were adopted to reflect a more baroque style, to match the palace it faces. The mosaics and designs inside the church have a modern, almost “pop art” feel to them—and they really do pop!

While tourists may be used to walking into a cathedral and doing a once-around the place, this one is quite different. The tour seemed almost a maze as we went through one section after another, starting in the chapterhouse and main sacristy, then climbing to the balcony for a bird’s eye view of the Royal Palace and a glimpse of the roof-top statues from behind. Then, it was all the way back down into the neo-gothic center, passing through mini museums artifacts of the church and priests as we descend while grand and beautiful, does not exemplify what one will find inside. The unique mosaics alone made our time visiting Cathedral de la Almudana a pleasure.

The Basilica San Miguel, or St. Michael’s Basilica, is just a few minutes’ walk from the Royal Palace. When we arrived, we came to find the guard closing the great iron gate as the basilica was closing. Another group of four older people arrived at the same time as we did, from another direction. The guard, a man in his late fifties, smiled at us all, said something we could not quite understand, and extended an open-armed welcome to enter the gate, which he reclosed behind us. Carrying an enormous key ring with equally large keys, he opened the great door to the basilica and allowed us to enter. The cool room was dark when we entered. The guard was kind enough to let us in to enjoy a quick viewing of the shadowed frescos and statues, the painted dome and the circular altar. But after just a few minutes, he ushered us out. We understood that the basilica was closing when we arrived; he was kind enough not to turn away visitors who had traveled far to see the beautiful basilica.

Next, we made our way to another site we were told was not to be missed: the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. The working convent is also an award-winning museum. From what I’d read, it sounded a bit like the Sloan Museum in London: not one of the larger museums, but a smaller collection that is in some ways even more a pleasure to discover; just enough of a good thing without becoming overwhelming. When we arrived to find a long line outside, we decided to wait. To our chagrin, the line was not moving.

As we often do in such cases, one of us remained in line as a placeholder while the other shot to the front to get details on what was to come. We knew ahead of time that they maintained selective hours, only opened a few hours at a time and closing for siesta during the early afternoon. We learned now that they also had timed entries. We had about half an hour until the next group would be allowed inside. We decided to wait. Then the rain came down. The rain in Spain fell mostly on us. We didn’t have our umbrella with us—it had been sunny most of the day—so after a few moments we fled the line and made our way to a nearby restaurant. It was past lunch time anyway; we enjoyed some house wine and tapas as we watched the rain pour.

When the rain stopped pouring, along with the wine, we returned to the monastery only to find that they were “full.” We took this to mean they were full for the moment, that at the next timed entry they would allow us in. So we did some shopping along the nearby pedestrian street where kiosks and vendors sold jewelry, art, and souvenirs. About an hour later, we returned to the monastery for the next timed entry. To our surprise, there was no line. We waited at the front door, closed to us, and stared at the sign that seemed to say the next timed entry was right then. After knocking, a worker told us they were full for the day.

Carefully following the printed schedule we’d found in a tourist publication, we would return the next day when they opened after siesta … only to be told, once again, “we are full.” “Full for the 4:00 timed entry? So we can come back at 5?” “Full for the day. We are full for the day.” So, although we made three visits to Monasterio de las Descalzas, we never actually got in. Yet another reason to return to Madrid … perhaps with a local who can help us navigate the complicated schedule.

After the rain stopped, after our Spanish omelets, cheese, salmon, and red wine, after we were turned away from the convent, we found something right across the street we weren’t expecting: a special Chagall exhibit sponsored by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in the Fundacion Caja Madrid. The two main floors and several additional rooms were filled with the works of Marc Chagall, the works ranging from the early 1900s to the 1980s. In the collection were large oil paintings, sculptures, and series of engravings. Some of the most memorable pieces included War, Vava, The Red Circus, The Blue Circus, and Dance. Just when the rain and inability to get into the art collection at the monastery were beginning to get us down, Chagall unexpectedly came to the rescue.

After a day of art and palaces, we decided to begin our evening at Plaza Mayor. We’d strolled through it before, just a couple minutes from our own Puerta del Sol. But now, we decided to spend some time there. Vendors beeped and whistled with annoying toys in their mouths and shot lighted rubber band toys into the sky—not five minutes of walking in the square passed without one of them approaching us with a series of beeps and whistles, offering unwanted souvenirs that were anything but Spanish. But ignore that, and you see why the square is a popular tourist attraction. The allegorical paintings on some of the buildings are beautiful. The tile work of other buildings in the square seem to catch the setting sun and rising moon. The equestrian statue of Felipe III at the center of the square is a nice place to stand and look around at all of the buildings surrounding the square.

After getting our bearings, we took to the open hallways along the edges of Plaza Mayor and walked along the shops, cafes, and restaurants. We found a pleasant café that offered perhaps the best tapas we ate in Spain. Instead of going to the sit-down portion of the restaurant downstairs, we enjoyed our red wine and tapas at the classy stand up bar where we could look out the window onto the square. The kind bartender, dressed spiffily in black and white, did not speak any more English than we did Spanish, but he aimed to please, and he even called down to order some special tapas for us when we ordered a second round. Hearty food at a bargain price in a place that felt more formal than fast, the place offered two large open faced sandwiches (enough for a meal) and a glass of wine or mug of beer for three Euros. Two orders, and you feel like you’ve been to a buffet.

Although Madrid is one of the cities where bullfighting is still a part of the culture, it is becoming less accepted by the general public. Indeed, one of the things on our list when we first planned our trip to Spain was to go to a bullfight. It was after we got to know the sport—saw some video and pictures and did some reading—that we decided we didn’t want to go to one. On one hand, it is part of the culture and perhaps no more cruel than how animals are treated on mass-market farms and in slaughter houses. On the other hand, when you see the bulls mercilessly attacked and outnumbered, it can be hard to see it as sport instead of massacre.

So we compromised. Instead of going to a bullfight, we went to Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, a bar with a bullfighting theme. Located along inner-edge of Plaza Mayor, this clean, well-lighted place has on display many photographs of bullfighting and a good number of the beaten bulls have their heads mounted on the walls. We had some beer
and perused the photos, one series of stills showing the horn of a bull penetrating below a matador’s jaw and going up into his head, then drawing back out. (He survived to bullfight again!) We were told that one of the bulls on display in the bar was killed during a bullfight that had both Ernest Hemingway and Franco in the audience at the same time—presumably not together. It was here that I enjoyed my first taste of Anise. I expected to enjoy it, since I like licorice as much as I tend to like herbal liquors. Anise is a sort of synthesis of the two, and it went down sweet and smooth. After strolling through Plaza Mayor some moments more, we took the pedestrian street, full of vendors selling everything from painted fans and sunglasses to little statues and jewelry, back to Pueta del Sol.

Before returning to our hotel, we decided to try out a bar we’d passed several times during our visit. The bar was open to the street at one end, as many cafes and bars tend to be, but the interior was rich and lavish with heavy dark woods and decorated with gilded carvings. We started out with a beer and a wine. I wanted to try a few of the drinks we’d been told were well-loved in Spain.

Liquor 45 looked and sounded great. But it seems to have been good marketing. It tasted heavy and sweet, much like drinking a peach schnapps or Kahlua with a few tablespoons of sugar or corn syrup added. Zorco was a little better. It reminded me of the anise we’d had earlier at the bullfighting bar. It was good, although I preferred the anise. When an a couple of expats—a husband and wife who lived in England but spent some time out of every year in Madrid—came to the bar, chatted with the bartender, and walked to an outside table with a specially steamed glass of brandy and a big cigar, I took notice. I’d wanted to try Spanish brandy and hadn’t yet. I struck up a conversation with the expats and asked him to recommend one. “You can’t go wrong with anything on the top shelf,” he said and pointed. “But my recommendation? The 1866.” I ordered a snifter of 1866 Solera Gran Reserva, a brandy produced in La Mancha.

We decided to begin our Sunday morning with a leisurely stroll through the park, so we walked to Parque del Retiro. Once the private gardens of the royal family, it was often used for pageants, mock naval drills, and bullfights. In the 18th century, parts of the park were open to the public, but only for people who were properly dressed in formal attire. In 1869, the park was fully opened; these days you can enter the park in tank tops and flip flops. The people may have dressed down, but the grounds still appear to be dressed up with gardens, trees, and flowers. The Rosaleda, for example, contains more than 100 varieties of roses with a total of more than 4,000 individual roses. Some of the 18 entries into the park are worth seeing, such as the Independence Gate, which is the grandest among them. The Estanque, or boating lake, was one of the first features of the park, finished in 1631. The Palacio de Velazques and Palicia de Cristal are both worth a visit. And the Paseo de las Estatuas, a line of Baroque statues representing the royalty of Spain, makes for a nice stroll. But the park’s most memorable feature is the colonnade: a half-moon of columns at the edge of the lake in front of which towers an equestrian statue of Alfonso XII.

On the way back from the park, we stopped in at Plaza Mayor once again to check out the coin and stamp market—one of the biggest in Europe. The halls that the night before had been full of tourists were now filled with locals trading, buying, and selling collectible coins and stamps. While at the Plaza, we entered the San Miguel Market for a bite to eat. The historic place actually looks like a new market, selling everything from tapas and wine, coffee and churros, to vegetables and deli meats. We settled for a cup of coffee and some churros (sans chocolate) and headed on our way. We weren’t expecting what came next. A distinct whistle shot through the air, as though from a lookout. In an instant, the vendors and their spread-out blankets of goods for sale were no longer there; in their place, people walked around with four-stringed bags on their backs. In an inventive tactic, these not-quite legal vendors had small ropes tied to each corner of the blankets that held their merchandise. Some of them held the ropes discretely in their hands, others had them positioned for quick pick up. At the first sign of the police, it took only a second to whip up the display and go from vendor to backpacker. Mixed in the crowd, once the police arrived, were people with packs
slung on their backs. A few minutes later, once the police had walked on, the vendors were back, their wares displayed on blankets as though they’d never left. We left.

We’re told that a trip to Madrid isn’t complete without a trip to Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. As one of the three most important museums in Spain’s capitol, we knew the Reina Sofia was not to be missed. Set in an old hospital, the Reina Sofia has an impressive collection of Spanish art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Picasso’s Woman in Blue, Miro’s Portrait II, and Dali’s The Great Masturbator are among the highlights of the collection. The most important work in the Reina Sofia is also considered by many art critics to be the most important painting of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

It was our last full day in Spain, so it was time to fit in a little bit of shopping for everyone back home. It was Sunday, and we knew what that meant: the busiest and liveliest day of the week at El Rastro. El Rastro is Madrid’s most famous street market, and it has been filling the streets for more than 400 years. Located in one of the city’s oldest working-class neighborhoods, this “trail” is full of kiosks, booths, and street vendors selling everything from homemade puppets and toys to designer sunglasses and purses.

Sunday evening, I had a gig. As part of my book tour for Tracks: A Novel in Stories, I had a reading and social lined up at a bookstore in Madrid that specialized in English-language books. So after we had a nice meal between Plaza Mayor and Peurta del Sol (steak and paella), we headed for Calle del Espiritu Santo for J & J Coffee and Books. Perhaps “J & J Beer and Books” would be a more fitting name. The establishment, with a highly literary crowd, seemed as much bar as bookstore. Patrons sat around partaking in lively discussions about everything from football to literature. That was a good thing.

 

IF YOU GO
A bit of wisdom picked up during the conversation: “What’s for you won’t go by you.” A bit of insight on Spanish literature: “Don Quixote was a jerk!” I discovered, after my invitation to read, that J and J was written up in a several guide books on Madrid and Spain. They were even written up in the New York Times.

Visit J & J Books and Coffee at their website, www.jandjbooksandcoffee.com. You can catch a podcast of what I read to them. A few weeks later, I read the story again on Baltimore’s NPR station, WYPR. Find the audio reading of “Idle Chatter” at www.tracksnovel.com/radio.html. I sold out of all the books I brought with me, and signed a good number of them. It was a fine way to cap our visit.

 

Late Night Tapas
It was dark out by the time we left J & J Books. Almost as dark as it had been when we arrived in Madrid. We headed back to Plaza Mayor for one last serving of tapas and wine. Then we stopped in at our favorite pub for one last Spanish wine. There wouldn’t be time to stop for coffee at one of our favorite breakfast spots. Our flight was leaving early in the morning and we needed to be there a couple hours early. We needed to catch the bus a good hour before that. This meant getting up around three in the morning. And we still had to pack. So, full of tapas and topped off with red wine, we returned to our room at Hotel Santandar, spoke a few moments with our newfound friend, the front desk clerk from Cuba, and went to our room to pack and
prepare for our return to the United States.

We had nine days in Spain and wanted to make the most of it. Our trip began in the outskirts of Madrid. Near the airport, our overnight stay, Barajas was a nice little neighborhood to spend the night. We roamed the streets and found ourselves at a little plaza every few blocks with people seated at outside cafes under table umbrellas with beer and wine and tapas. It wasn’t long, once we’d explored the bread and meat and flower shops as well as the grocery stores and specialty shops, that we found ourselves under an umbrella enjoying beer and tapas.
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Upon traveling on from Barajas the following day, we arrived at Barcelona, which can be divided into three sections: Montjuic, Old Town, and Eixample. After an early arrival, we checked into our bed and breakfast a block from Sagrada Familia. Wanting to fit in as much as we could while still allowing time for pleasant restaurant eating and plaza lounging, we decided to start with Montjuic, which is a must see.

We love art museums, and the Museu National d’Art de Catalunya (or National Art Museum of Catalonia) is a collection well worth seeing. This art museum is housed in the grand National Palace, which was built for the 1929 International Exhibition. The highlight of this museum is Europe’s largest collection of medieval frescoes. Almost as impressive as some of the art itself is witnessing the National Palace’s great dome from inside. We had tea and coffee in the café next to the great hall just beneath the massive dome. Even more fulfilling than the drinks was the surrounding view. By the time we got to the art museum inside, we were a bit worn out. We were rewarded for our efforts on the upper floor (after taking in all the art) with plush chairs that we could almost fall asleep in. But instead of closing our eyes, they were lured to the majesty of the ceiling art.

The simple path uphill twisted, and we ended up at the Olympics Center, an interesting mix of neo-classical and modern style originally built for the 1936 Olympics (cancelled due to the Civil War) and refitted more than half a century later for the 1992 Olympics. We continued onward, the walk long and grueling. We could have taken the funicular, but decided that doing so would be a cop-out. We hiked for a good hour or so before making it to the summit of Montjuic. This 18th century castle is a fortress, which was originally built in 1640 but destroyed by Felipe V in 1705 and rebuilt after that.

We ended our day at Park Guell, which must be the most whimsical and unusual park, the kind of park where Walt Disney or Salvador Dali might visit to unwind or get inspiration! This UNESCO World Heritage Site is Antoni
Gaudi’s most expansive work of art and architecture. We entered the park through a gate that stood between a crowded gift shop and a guard house—fittingly referred to as the “gingerbred house.” The Room of a Hundred Columns is uncanny, with more than 80 leaning and twisting pillars holding up the ceiling, illuminated by stained glass and ceramic mosaic designs.The park sprawls up a hill with open areas and tunnels that look like waves of rock ready to crash down on surfing tourists and pillars and walkways that look like they are carved right out of nature. If you are anywhere near Barcelona, you’ve got to spend some time strolling through this park.
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Inside the park is the house where Antoni Gaudi lived for about 20 years, and a museum devoted to Gaudi. The park is filled with musicians: those with Spanish guitars, four-piece chamber music worthy of the Palau de la Musica Catalonia (more on that later) and accordion players strutting with flamenco flair and more.

When we reached a high area of the park with an excellent view, we could see across all the way to Montjuic on the other side of Barcelona, where we started our sightseeing. “Did we actually walk that far?” Although very tired, we did manage to fit in a tour of the Palau de la Musica Catalonia or Palace of Music, as much palace as concert hall. The stunning stained glass, detailed ceramic tile work and sculptures are a sight to behold. It is the only concert hall in Europe lit by natural light. The tour costs nearly as much as a concert in the cheap seats, so we would have preferred a concert if we’d had more time. On the way from the palace, we passed the Arc Del Triomf. This is perhaps not as impressive as the French grandfather, but this gateway to the Universal Exhibition of 1888 is a triomf.

On our second day in Barcelona we visited the Gothic Quarter of Old Town or Barri Gotic, considered the heart of Barcelona itself, dating back to Roman times, around 27 BC. We entered the quarter near Casa de l’Ardicia, decorated with a letterbox made out of marble and carved with a tortoise and swallows. This house has a charming ceramic tile courtyard and fountain and is home to the historical archives of Barcelona built on the old Roman city wall.

Barcelona Cathedral, begun in 1298 and finished late in the 19th century, is majestic, pure European Gothic, and contains 28 side chapels set between the columns which support the unvaulted ceiling that shoots up an impressive 85 feet. Beneath the altar is a crypt with the sarcophagus of St. Eulalia. The Cloisters are outdoor gardens enclosed by walls and decorated with fountains and statues.

Other sights to see in the Gothic Quarter included the Museu d’Historia, the Centre Excursionsta de Catalunya (with subterranean Roman ruins), and Palau Reial, with a 14th century altarpiece. Deeper into the Gothic Quarter is a busy plaza: Placa de Sant Jaume. There, the Palau de la Generalitat (the seat of Catalonia’s governor) faces Ajuntament (Barcelona’s Town Hall).

The place to go if you want to see the hustle-bustle of Barcelona is Las Ramblas—the pedestrian street lined with cafes and vendors and filled with locals and tourists. Unfortunately, it’s also the place to go if you want to get robbed—both figuratively and literally. Prices tend to be higher on Las Ramblas because it’s the place all the tourist go, so be prepared to be taken to the cleaners for the luxury of siting in one of the streetside cafes to watch masses flow by. Pickpockets are plentiful. The next most annoying thing about the crowded street is the number of hucksters. I’m sure what they’re selling varies with the season and when they’re able to get a huge shipment of for dirt cheap. Their only language seems to be the irritating series of quick squeaks and beeps coming from the whistles concealed in their mouths.

But Las Ramblas has much more going for it than just vendors and thieves. The tree-lined “dry river” begins at the Font de Canaletes, a beautiful lamppost and fountain, and the people flow from there down to the monument at the other end of the pedestrian street where you will find a column topped by Columbus pointing the way to America. Along the way, there were impressive sights to see: Placa de la Boqueria, a square with mosaic pavement designed by the artist Miro in 1976;an Art Deco dragon over an old umbrella shop. And one also will find the opera house, burned and restored twice, in 1861 and 1994.

The busiest and liveliest plaza in Barcelona must be Placa Reial: a large square surrounded by historic buildings and filled with palm trees and lampposts designed by Gaudi. A number of restaurants and cafes line the plaza.

Palau Guell proved to be one of the highlights. It was Gaudi’s first city-center project on such a massive scale. We marveled at the incredible sense of space and style Gaudi was able to create. The tour takes you on eight levels: the center room, complete with organ, choir stalls, an altar, and domed ceiling spaning several of the stories. Gaudi used stone, tile, and ironwork and unique columns and structures to create a home that is a museum piece of its own. The rooftop terrace, should you brave the irregular tiled floor, is crowned by twenty chimneys covered in mosaics of broken tile and designed in unusual and surprising shapes.

Sometimes referred to as Barcelona’s favorite church, the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar was built in the Catalan Gothic Style. With donations by local merchants and shipbuilders, the massive church was built in a mere 55 years—a short span of time for a classic European cathedral. (Just consider the many centuries it took to complete the Barcelona Cathedral, by comparison.) Stained glass and stone fill out this beautiful Basilica, showing in the artisanship that this was a labor of love and, indeed, the church of the common people.

Picasso Museum is located in five connected palaces from medieval times and showcases 3,000 pieces ranging from Picasso’s mid-teenage years to his old age. Surprisingly from what we traditionally think of as his work, Picasso painted in the styles of many other artists, some realism, some impressionism. And there are a number of sketches from his school days. .The most dense and fullest part of the collection is his study, dissection, and entirely unique recreation of Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas.

Our final day in Barcelona proved to be a surreal experience filled with fantastic modern architecture and design. The Great Gaudi’s Barcelona Cathedral Sagrada Familia was the sight I most anticipated, easily Europe’s (and most likely the world’s) most unusual and creatively designed church, which I loved touring. Since I love art museums, I toured this magestic creation in a way that I had not done before, seeing Gaudi’s masterwork that combined majestic architecture of old cathedrals and palaces with the aspect of touring a wonderful art museum. The exterior has frogs and lizards carved in the towers and stone along with fruits and vegetables. Eight of the 12 existing spires are topped with detailed Venetian mosaics. The church was under ongoing construction, to be completed according to Gaudi’s designs on the centennial of his death. The entrance view was something to behold. The Passion Façade features angular figures carved in stone showing the passion and crucifixion of Christ. The modern style is stunning. The brass doors to the church are covered in passages from the Bible about the passion. Inside looking up, it was like fireworks exploding above us. Gaudi’s interior columns are like colorful and textured trees, reaching the starburst-floral ceiling. Stained glass and gold leaf and jeweled areas shine down on us. No surface is smooth; everything has color and texture. You can see an example here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sagrada_Familia_nave_roof_detail.jpg

Outside again, we passed through the Nativity Façade, showing the nativity in a new way and in a style very different. Completed in 1930, it showcases doors that represent Hope, Faith and Charity. The nativity scenes carved in stone include the usual manger wise men and angels, Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child. But it also features turtles holding up pillars and birds flying every which way. In 2010 the Pope visited to consecrate it and proclaim it a “minor basilica.” Gaudi, who spent the last 15 or so years of his life working on the church and raising money to build it, would have been happy. He is buried in the Sagrada Familia’s crypt.

Where Barcelona’s Old Town is like a twisted confusion of intertwining streets. This is exemplified by Quadrat d’Or or “Golden Square.” The area contains some of the city’s best Modernitsa architecture, including the works of Gaudi and his contemporaries. The gem of them all is Gaudi’s Casa Mila or La Pedera. This “stone quarry,” an apartment building with some eight stories, was his last project before he devoted his later years to Sagrada Familia. The wavy walls of stone are accented by balconies with intricate ironwork, and the effect is unreal. The top floor of Casa Mila now houses the Gaudi Museum. The Golden Square is a great example of a melding of gothic and modernista styles. Another highlight of Quadrat d’Or is the Illa de la discardia or the block of discard. The name is given due to the surprising range of unique styles showcased on the small city block. Three highlights compete for the attention of passers: Casa Lleo Morera, crowned with an ornate tower; Casa Amatller having a façade that blends Gothic and Moorish and includes a tile-encrusted gable and stairs; and Casa Batllo nicknamed the House of Bones. The large masks covering the lower parts of the fourth, fifth, and sixth floor balconies clearly resemble skulls with drooping eyes and nose holes. From the front façade broken and circular tiles that give it a scaled look more fish than dragon, and the wavy, ceramic roof resembles the back of a scaly beast.

Casa Batllo is even more impressive inside. It is like stepping into a building designed by Gaudi but entering into a Dali painting. The entire house inside is soft and supple, with no lines to be found, no corners. Rooms seem to be pushed out of dough. Light fixtures seem to bloom naturally out of the ceiling and columns seem to sprout from the floor and blossom into ceilings of clouds. Casa Batllo is a can’t miss of Barcelona, the perfect last sight for our time the Barcelona.

After a fiesta somewhere in Spain’s northern Rioja region, where the locals welcomed us with shotglass shouts of twenty-five-cent vino rosso, while Mecano’s “Hijo de la Luna” played sweetly in the background, followed by the raucous Gypsy Kings, we only made it on the very next day about five miles and enjoyed an emergency maneuver into a parador (a historic motel), where I sat under a warm shower for a couple of hours.

With my excited paramour at the wheel of our leased “Europe By Car,” I plotted a course on our Rand-McNally European road atlas for the remote region of Extremadura, the so-called Cradle of the Conquistadors. Halfway there, we pulled over at an ancient abandoned village which looked as if it had been rocked and rolled by an earthquake–or savaged by aggro Visigoths. At least the damned demesne might have been sacked and rubbled during the Spanish Civil War, in which the meddlesome newspaperman Ernest Hemingway carefully drove an ambulance as inspiration for For Whom the Bell Tolls. An unearthly feeling stole over us, as if we were being watched by fractured schizoid ghosts from suppressed and lockboxed surrealistic paintings by Picasso or Braque.
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Guernica? Not applicable here: I’m afraid that I’m afraid.
 

Back in the “Europe By Car,” we jumped and sped off down the lonely desert highway into a chance collision if not with destiny then at least with deliverance—yes, from evil, what do you expect in this rambling prologue of an obvious morality tale writ large by the maestro, with of course a golden Montblanc byro.

 

Good luck getting my journals published!
 
Extremadura, located in Spain right on the Portugal border, is one of the harshest desert regions in all of the Iberian peninsula–and an unlikely spot to find anything else but prickly cactus and icky scorpions. Oh, and also lost cities. At great expense, with loads of Spanish doubloons changing hands back and forth, miraculous cities were impossibly imported here stone by stone to build two of the most amazing conurbations upon the planet: Trujillo and Caceres.
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Many of Espana’s most famous explorers hail from here. Hernan Cortes de Monroy y Pizzarro conquered Mexican Aztecs; Francisco Pizzaro y Gonzalez conquered the Incan Empire; Hernando de Soto searched the Mighty Mississip for the Fountain of Youth, and Vasco Nunez de Balboa happened upon the Mare del Sur (Pacific Ocean).

The native-born heros of this austere desert region honed the necessary mercenary skills for nothing else short of complete and total domination of subjugated races in The New World. So what if the Indians (a.k.a., “Natives”) evidenced an advanced sun-worshipping civilization which included ziggurats and sundials, fields of maize and tobacco, and troglodytic cave dwellings and altar-bound human sacrifices. According to the Scots, the savvy Indians even invented the game of golf, albeit with a shrunken human head. Maybe also Polo.
But more important, they had GOLD! More pre-Columbian gold even than could be safely stowed away in our wildest dreams of the lost city of El Dorado, an Oz-like oasis mirage that had evaded the grasp of every Age of Exploration Conquistador until I at last discovered it in an undisclosed real-secret-like location.

Standing among the strewn storks of Trujillo in the Plaza Mayor with a bold equestrian statue of Francisco Pizzarro and in the impressive shadow of the Palacio de la Conquistadors, I flashed a thumb’s up at my paramour’s paparazzo-like digital camera snapping, feeling a little like Zorro.
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A burly bearded gent, resembling “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the Dos Equis adverts, offered to take a picture of us both. He then pretended to run off with the camera. We gave him a few euros and laughed off the affront, but secretly we burned with revenge, Montezuma-style.

Here also we bumped into a pretty senorita, who resembled my upstairs neighbor from my expat Paris days, and wait a segundo? Could it be?! Mecano?! She led us into a coffin-like bar in the cobblestoned barrio, where we were surrounded by grinning students from the local universidad.

What else can be said about Trujillo? Moorish castles, bold palaces, and swell cobbles like the overbites of T Royls or dinosaurs straight out of Ray Harryhausen’s The Valley of the Gwangi.

But of course, as “The Pathfinder,” I took full responsibility for rediscovering the simply marveloso architectural pileup of Caceres, founded in 1477, and still relatively unvisited compared to some places in Iberico. In actuality, this city is much older than that, dating back to over 30,000 B.C. during the Bronze Age, before Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Saracens (Arabs) and Romans (Anglo-Celts) moved in.

But the pleasures of this desert depot derive more from the friendliness of the inhabitants than architecture and art and food and drink: very Catholic with Catholic tastes. If I hadn’t been saddled down with the baggage of my persistent buzzbuzz fly of a paramour, I would have had a field day.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to check out this fair city under a sky of alabaster, as my antsy fly seemed downright desperate with diahrreatic urgency to flee these smiling desperados, squinting like gunslingers from an on-location shoot of a Spaghetti Western:
“Kitcheekitcheekoo, wah, wah, wah!”
And so, after a quick Henry James look-see, we hopped back into the dust-covered “Europe By Car” and sped south toward a much-need beach vacation, which included, believe it or not, even though I am only an ex-soccer hooligan, getting involved in the historic event now known as “STOMP”!
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I have visited Madrid, Barcelona and Seville many times but recently I discovered “The Most beautiful City in Spain”- Valencia. Then my adventure took me to a familiar stomping ground- Rioja. This is the story of my 10 days in Spain.

By the time you read this story the winner of the 32nd America’s Cup will have been decided. Not since 1851 has Europe hosted this venerable race which is the oldest active trophy in international sports, predating the modern Olympics by 45 years. In 2003 the Swiss boat defeated the New Zealand entry, in New Zealand. Not having an ocean, Switzerland put up for bids the location of their defense of the cup. Valencia won with an investment of over $235 million on a new harbor, a marina for 640 boats, docks, beaches, storage facilities, restaurants, entertainment venues and spectator comforts all befitting the over 2 million people who were expected in Valencia to view the races.
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Learning about The America’s Cup is a lot like explaining cricket to an American. First there are a series of preliminary races to determine the boat that will race the Swiss. That is called The Louis Vuitton Cup. Larry Ellison of Oracle & BMW are co-sponsors of the American entry. Mr. Ellison’s 452 foot “cruise” ship Rising Sun was front and center outside the harbor. It was too large to berth. South Africa, China, Spain, New Zealand, Italy, France, Germany and Sweden competed in the elimination races. While I was in Valencia the wind died down and there were no races for several days. The finalists then compete in nine races to determine the winner of the America’s Cup.

Valencia has opened a metro line directly from the airport to the racing area and a new high speed train connects Valencia with all the major cities of Spain. It is the third biggest city in Spain after Madrid & Barcelona and the metro area has a population of around 1.8 million people. The Mediterranean climate has warm, dry summers and mild winters. The Silk Exchange from the 14th & 15th centuries has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Central Market is one of the largest (26,250 foot) covered markets in Europe. Nearby are the 13th century cathedral and several museums.
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The “golden age” of Valencia began a few years ago with the opening of the Hemispheric and its eye-shaped planetarium and IMAX theatre surrounded by a rectangle of water. The nearby City of Arts & Sciences is the largest cultural and leisure complex in Europe and contains a science museum, botanical gardens, planetarium, Marine Park (Europe’s largest aquarium) and opera house that rival Sydney’s in looks. It was designed by Valencia born architect Santiago Calatrava who is also the architect for the new Path station being built at NYC’s World Trade Center area. There is also a new Valencia Trade & Exhibition Center (Vinoelite took place here) with several multi-level buildings containing space for meetings, food service and trade shows. All of these architectural wonders did for Valencia what the Olympics did for Barcelona and the Guggenheim did for Bilbao.
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I was invited to Vinoelite, the first wine exhibit (100 exhibitors & over 5,000 trade visitors) sponsored by IVEX, the economic arm for all products in the Valencia region. There are 17 regions (states) in Spain and Valencia’s GNP is 12% of all of Spain. Think Valencia oranges, Paella Valencia, rice, wine, tourism and construction. The port is one of the busiest in Spain and handles 20% of the country’s exports. I was hard pressed to name a single wine from Valencia before attending Vinoelite. After visiting half a dozen wineries and tasting more than 50 wines my conclusion is- “the wines range from good to superb but very few have found US importers. Or, if they have, they are niche importers often covering just a few states.”
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Grape varieties included: Mazuelo, Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Moscatel and Graciano. The venue for Vinoelite was beautiful but confusing. The names of the wineries were in very small print and not visible unless you walked right up to their booth. I had to ask several people to help me find wineries I wanted to visit. The seminars and tastings were the best thing about the show. I attended a fabulous tasting given by The Family Owned Wineries (Primum Familiae Vini), 11 wineries that are in private hands and include Antinori, Egon Muller, Mouton Rothschild, Torres, Drouhin, Hugel and Pol Roger Champagne. Since Robert Mondavi sold his winery there is no longer a US member. There were also 30 Masters of Wine present as part of their tour of Spain. Invited press included importers, sommeliers and wine writers from Poland, Mexico, China, US etc.

Ribero de Duero, Rueda, Priorat, Toro, Navarra are new names in the Spanish wine scene. And then, there is the old standby- Rioja.
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My first trip was in 1964 while I lived and worked in Bordeaux. In 1977 there was a huge press trip to Jerez and then to Rioja. In the late 1990’s there was a small press trip only to Rioja and here I am in 2007. The kind folks from IVEX were happy to route my return trip to the US through Madrid so I could spend 4 days in Rioja, after the finish of Vinoelite. The PR firm handling the wines and region arranged my flight to Bilbao, my hotel stays and winery visits and got me back to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim Museum before returning home to the US. I wanted to know what Rioja was doing to reinforce its position as Spain’s number one wine region. My conclusions were more fruit forward wines, single vineyards, estate wines and cleaner, crisper white wines.

If you can possibly get a reservation at the Marques de Riscal Hotel, operated by Starwood as part of their Luxury Collection, grab it. Designed by renowned architect Frank O. Gehry, it is his second masterpiece in Spain, along with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. With just 43 rooms, this is a tough ticket. It is a part of the City of Wine complex, with the winery only a hundred feet away. I recommend dinner in the Marques de Riscal restaurant with its 7 course Basque-Riojan tasting menu, with wine. The wine list features a selection of waters of the world (9 countries); 30 wines by the glass; 11 Riscal wines, 15 other Riojas, 10 other Spanish, 24 wines from Bordeaux, 4 from Burgundy and 5 champagnes. A bridge connects the main building to more rooms and the Vinotherapie Spa featuring wine therapy treatments, a fitness center, Jacuzzi, indoor pool and steam room.
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I also visited the Dinastia Vivanco Wine Museum (El Museo de la Cultura del Vino) which is privately owned and includes a visit to their bodega. The 3,000 model corkscrew collection alone is worth the price of admission. Rioja is learning from many other countries and wine regions by erecting wine route signs.
My trip proved to me that you can teach “old dog’s new tricks” and make it work. Congratulations Valencia and Rioja, I look forward to my next trip.

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Hola fuego fans,

Around New Year’s was yet another festival, whose name escapes me but was probably something like fiesta de la asphalt, and we did a little celebrating too. My favorite part was a somewhat recurring theme from past fiestas of racing through the streets with tubes spewing fire, perhaps to resurrect the family fun of coming out to watch folks burned at the stake. The attached photo was a little tough to interpret, but my best guess was that it was a lesson that showed how playing with matches sure can be fun if you spray the flames at everyone’s head! This exercise, to seek out future candidates for flame thrower training where you get to really handle some firepower, was carried out in the streets for about an hour. For some reason, we didn’t see the appeal of guys just wanting to blow up their friends in a city sponsored event, and chose to watch from the sidelines.

The rest of the week was pretty mild by comparison, with little gunfire or bombs going off like in the rest of the civilized world. We’re pretty cozy in our apartment now, and haven’t even had to deal with the real estate lady, who we now refer to as “Her whose name is not spoken.” We tried in vain to return an unwanted cordless phone to our favorite state run company, Telefonica, but the sales lady, who graduated with honors with a degree in making up excuses to get rid of pesky customers, told her that it was such an old model that they couldn’t take it back. We explained that they had delivered it just a month ago, but Ms “Just say No” responded that Telefonica is so technologically advanced that often they don’t even hook up phone lines because they know that mental telepathy is just around the corner. So we have a new addition to our communications center, and if you think programming a cordless phone is tough, try doing one with instructions in Spanish.

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Hola terror-weary amigos,
Staying one step ahead of the pack in fashion, architecture, and most recently dealing with the threat of terrorists, Barcelona recently introduced legislation requiring all terrorists to paint and clearly mark their cars with the words “Bombers” similar to the one pictured above. While some namby-pamby civil rights groups and their respective legal urchin questioned the move, recent polls show the majority of the voters favor the requirement. Most people consider it an overdue solution to deal with the pesky issue of separating the masses from those that choose a path considered by many to be counterproductive to the vitality of the city. Early results are encouraging, as it has allowed law enforcement agencies to follow the occupants of these vehicles, and apprehend them if there is any sign of suspicious activity. One recent success story involved the timely arrest of a driver and his companion who had just purchased some shady grocery items, such as aluminum foil and baking soda, which any fan of Steven Segal movies knows can be fashioned into a bomb capable of disabling a nuclear destroyer. The well worn alibi given by the couple of “just wanting to do a little baking” fell on deaf ears at their preliminary hearing, and they were whisked away under tight security to an undisclosed dungeon, reputed to be a historic leftover from the Spanish Inquisition. A spokesman for the Central Committee of Human Misanthropes, C-CHUM for short, assured worried relatives that the accused would receive a fair trial immediately following their complimentary cruise and swim in Barcelona’s famous shark-infested harbor.