After a short flight from Stockholm, we landed in beautiful Barcelona. We were met with palm trees, sun, and the happy absence of cold, rainy weather and Lakrisol.
We’ve been in Spain for over a week now, spending five days in Barcelona, three in Valencia, and now five in Madrid. It’s fair to say that I really like Spain. I’ll try not to say “love”. I won’t be hasty. It’s a little early in our trip (we’re only about 7% finished) for that word. There may be many more places that I am much more fond of. Using “love” now would set the bar too high. I will say though, that, this is my favorite country so far.
This is not to say that I didn’t like the places we’ve seen already, of course I did. They all had their own charm and feel. Spain is just different. There is something about the laid back culture, the friendly people, wonderful food, and of course, the beautiful weather that draws me in.
The people of Spain are generally not in a hurry. There are countless cafés, bars, and restaurants lining the streets. They are never empty, but it also isn’t hard to find a cozy spot under an umbrella on a cobblestone street. It is quite tempting to pass all of your time sitting at a café, enjoying a tapa, te frio, or cerveza, and watching the people go by. Shops and stores close for a couple of hours around 2:00 so that everyone can enjoy a bit of food and drink and socialize. Muy bueno!
Maybe my fondness stems from my familiarity with the Spanish language. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing Spanish spoken around me. Living in Chicago and teaching in a mostly Hispanic school it’s impossible not to. I felt out of my element in Sweden with a totally alien language. Maybe I like Spain because it is familiar, like home.
As we’ve mentioned in our previous blogs, our Spanish expertise is quite limited. The same goes for much of the Spanish population and their knowledge of English. It adds to the charm. In our interactions, neither party is speaking the other’s language well. It has been fun trying to decipher meaning from body language, tone of voice, and limited vocabulary.
Tapas, Paella, Bocadillas, Tortilla de patatas, Sangria, cerveza, vino, aceitunas, tomates, y mas! We’ve greatly enjoyed the food in Spain.
The Catalan pre-dinner tradition is tostada (toasted bread) with fresh tomato rubbed on each piece and olive oil drizzled over the entire thing. This paired with a bowl of olives is very tasty and refreshing. I may have to substitute this for the usual toast and butter when I make meals at home! Another Catalan favorite is cured meat. Clark enjoyed the jamón ibérico more than me, but the other cured meats are quite good.
Tapas are very accessible and much cheaper than at the trendy bars in Chicago. Each little dish we’ve tried has been quite tasty. We’ve had pretty good luck just walking into a place where the prices look good and ordering a few things, not knowing what they were. So far, we haven’t been disappointed. I’ve even enjoyed fresh sardines, which was quite a surprise!
Paella is also a great tradition of Spain. This dish is similar to a rice casserole that is cooked on the stove top in a special pan. The basic ingredients are rice, onion, garlic, saffron, peas, and meat. It is a very hearty dish that can taste quite good on a cool afternoon.
Many restaurants featuring Tapas and Paella cater heavily to tourists. As in many major cities, it is best to avoid restaurants with huge photos of the dishes. We also try to avoid menus that have both Spanish and English. If you learn the basic words for certain foods and aren’t too fussy you won’t be disappointed. These places will also be much more cost effective than the cute cafe with umbrellas in the middle of the square with the waiter wearing a bow-tie.
Bocadillas are little sandwiches that can be found in shops and convenience stores everywhere in Spain. They are usually inexpensive and pretty good. You can get burned, however, at a cheaper place by the quality of meat or freshness of the pan (bread). Bocadillas that we’ve enjoyed the most are chorizo, jamón y queso, and calamari.
We had the pleasure of enjoying a fresh, homemade Spanish Omelet (Tortilla de patatas) on our first evening in Barcelona. It consists of egg, onion, and fried potatoes. There are also other variations. We’ve also had it as Tapas and in a Bocadilla. They are all quite good, but the freshly made one from Eduard was my favorite.
The Art & Architecture
Spain is a beautiful place! In each city center nearly every building is something wonderful to behold. Madrid is a beautiful blend of old and new. The art here focuses on Goya and Greco. The Royal Palace is quite a sight. It is an immense building set on a square of even grander proportion.
We took a day trip to Toledo and saw some very old buildings, city walls, Cathedrals, Mosques, and Synagogues all in one place. Well, we would have seen this if not for the extreme heat, steep inclines, confusing roads, and hoards of tourists. We did manage to take in a few sites as we fought through the crowd of day-trippers. The Cathedral was quite amazing. We had enough to see and read about for hours.
Barcelona, of course, is the home of Gaudi. Every one of his creations stands out among the architecture from the time period. His houses, churches, and parks are breathtaking and forward thinking. I will note, however, that all of the Gaudi creations are quite overrun with tourist. Park Güell was packed as full as Disney on a Summer Day. We didn’t even wait in the line to get into La Sagrada Familia or La Pedrera. However, the audio tour through Casa Batlló should not be missed! We did see all of these places from the street, which offers quite a good view.
And then there is the coastal city of Valencia. The old city center offers the same charming buildings, cathedrals, and cafés. Outside of the center is a totally modern science museum. Then, of course, there are the beaches with kilometers and kilometers of sand and beautiful dark blue water. Ahh…
We’ve been very lucky so far weather-wise in Spain. It has been beautiful, with the exception of the occasional quick thunderstorm and a little bit of heat in Madrid. We’ve enjoyed the warm sun, cool breezes, and the warm waters of the Mediterranean. We spent a heavenly day on the beach in Valencia on the eve of Dia de San Juan. This is the celebration of the summer solstice. We lounged on the sand all afternoon watching the kids play in the water and marveling at the brashness of topless sunbathers.
As the afternoon wore into evening, we noticed it slowly getting more and more crowded. Each little group of beach-goers began digging a hole in the sand with their hands and feet, piling the sand high on the edges, creating a pit. Some of the little groups were families. Some were teenagers ready to party, beer and cigarettes in tow. When the sun finally set, we began to see the glow of bonfires in each pit. More and more and more people kept arriving until there were little groupings every few feet around each fire, eating, chatting, singing, and celebrating summer. The party lasts until the wee hours of the morning.
We’re now spending some time in Madrid. This is a much more metropolitan area. The streets are bustling with shoppers, peddlers, tourists, and locals. The main shopping street reminded me a lot of Michigan Ave. Even though it is more “city-like” there is still a certain charm from the cafés and small business that seem to thrive. It is always nice to wake up to the chimes of ancient church bells in the morning.
We still have about two more weeks in Spain. Our plan is to visit Granada and Seville before heading to Portugal. I’m sure we will experience the same charm and laidback atmosphere from many of our destinations in the next 9 months. I’m quite excited at the prospect. I hope it only gets better from here!