Spain





We had a wonderful time in Spain - great weather, great food, and great scenery. Our flight over was uneventful, and we arrived on Saturday morning too early to get into our hotel room. So we dumped our luggage in the lobby and started exploring the surrounding area. We were staying near the Museo del Prado, and close to the Atocha Rail Station (yes, THAT rail station - there was some construction going on, but no other signs of what happened), so we decided to walk down and see what the station looked like. We had heard they had a semi-tropical "forest" inside the station, but nothing prepared us for how large and beautiful it was. There were full sized palm trees over 30 feet tall, and all kinds of blooming orchids in a very hot, very humid, giant hall. They had a pond filled with water lilies, fish, and turtles - about 2 dozen turtles were sunbathing themselves on a big rock.

We found the ticket booths we would need later in the week, purchased our metro passes, then walked along the avenue near the Prado where there was a huge book fair. We found a few Simpsons comic books in Spanish and a history book for Adam's Spanish teacher. But the funniest book had to be the new copy of Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot", with a picture of Will Smith running with a gun, and the Spanish title of "Yo, Robot" ! How Philly is that :). We found that Philadelphia apparently means two things to Europeans - either Allen Iverson basketball jerseys, or "Philadelphia style" sandwiches or bagels, which meant Cream Cheese!

We also found the Museo de Jamon - a restaurant devoted to all things ham! There were dozens of huge whole preserved hog legs hanging over the bar, and every kind of ham imaginable. The ham is dry-cured, so it is a little tougher than the lunch meats we are used to, but we enjoyed it - we must have, as we ate it every day! At least once a day we had a bocadilla - small sandwich - of either jamon serrano (ham), chorizo ( tasted like salami), or jamon iberica ( ham made from pigs that eat nothing but acorns, and is 4 times as expensive as the other kind).

After killing enough time we checked into our room, washed up, and headed straight for the Reina Sofia museum of modern art. It houses a large collection of Picasso's and Dali's, but we were mainly interested in seeing Picasso's Guernica - his huge black and white tribute to the aerial bombing of civilians in the Spanish civil war. It was much more impressive than we had imagined, and even an art-idiot like me could see the violence and senseless bloodshed that he tried to convey in the disjointed images. The rest of the room was filled with the individual smaller sketches he made before putting the whole thing together. The painting was in NYC until the early 80's - Picasso told the museum to return it to Spain after Spain was a democracy again. So after Franco's death, they sent it back to Madrid.

We then ventured onto the metro and made our way over to the Puerta del Sol, the large plaza that marks the center of Spain. It has the statue of the bear on his hind legs picking at a strawberry tree, and the marker that is used to measure distances in the city and country. But mostly it is filled with shoppers and tourists! We walked along to the Plaza Mayor, an older, enclosed plaza, that had the look and feel of the Grand Place in Brussels, on a smaller scale. Then we spent the rest of the evening doing what we do best - wandering, getting lost, and discovering things. We found the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and the Plaza de Oriente just past sunset, so they were both lit up beautifully. We found the park with the Temple Debod - the Egyptian temple given to Spain by Egypt as a gift for their assistance with a dam on the Nile. The temple was in the area that was going to be turned into a lake by the new dam, so they dismantled it, shipped it to Spain, and rebuilt it in a park. It is surrounded by a pool and some fountains, and looked stunning since it was all lit up after dark.

We went back to the hotel and watched some of the Madrid - Barcelona soccer, er, futbol, game on TV before finally going to sleep.


Sunday

We slept late on Sunday (almost 8:00!), then went for breakfast at the Museo de Jamon - our third stop in 24 hours! We wanted to try Churros con Chocolate (donuts with hot chocolate), but they didn't make churros. So we had croissants with the chocolate. The chocolate is so thick it is like pudding that is almost set. You usually dunk your churros in the chocolate, but the croissants worked just as well. The young woman working the take out counter recognized us, and guessed that we were from Los Estados Unidos. She proudly told us that she too was from America - Sur (South) America - Ecuador. I guess she understood our Spanish better than the Madrilenos did. The Spanish we learned in school is passable, but there are enough differences between Spanish in Spain, and Spanish in Central / South America to make it sound different. For instance, gracias (gra SEE as) becomes (gra THEE as) and por favor comes out as por fabor. All in all, Adam did a great job of communicating in Spanish to get us what we needed.

We took the metro to El Rastro, the large flea market that takes over miles of streets every Sunday morning. We spent most of the morning wandering around looking at all of the antiques, junk, souvenirs, clothing, and almost anything you could think of. Mom would have been in heaven! By noon it was wall to wall people, so we left and took the metro back to the park near the Prado. Since it was a beautiful, sunny, Sunday afternoon, the park was also filled with people. We walked by the large pool filled with rowboats, ate more bocadillos at a small cafe, and watched a few of the many street entertainers before heading off to the Museo Archealogico. We had tried to find the metro stop for the museum, but couldn't, so we just followed signs out of the park until we found it. Like all museums in Spain, it is free on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday! It has a great permanent exhibit that traces the county's history from Stone Age, through the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and the Reconquista.

After the museum, we walked along the wide Avenue of the Arts, seeing the Plaza Cibelles and the Plaza Colon, with it's tribute to Columbus and the new world. We found a Planet Hollywood, and decided to eat something other than a bocadillo for lunch - Adam's idea, not mine :) I always find it interesting to see how "Americana" translates in Europe. Adam's grande cheeseburger was no bigger than a Quarter Pounder, and my turkey club would have been laughed out of a New York Deli for being so tiny. The food was great, but after American portion sizes, some things looked so small - but it is not because they are small, it is because we are so accustomed to huge portions that normal sizes look minute. A quick glance around most of the tables near us showed that everyone left most of their french fries on their plates! I can see why we are becoming the "largest" nation in the world.

After lunch, we finally made it to the Prado, Spain's greatest museum, and the biggest on the continent after the Louvre. We wanted to see the big three pre-modern Spanish painters - El Greco, Valesquez, and Goya. El Greco's greatest art is still in Toledo, but he has plenty of paintings in the Prado. Valesquez is well represented, also. But we were most interested in Goya. Goya was a very talented portait artist who started to go insane later in his life. His art starts out light and happy, but gets darker and filled with despair as time went on. It was such a contrast to see his early portraits of nobility, and then view "Saturn devouring his children" or "The Colossus", a painting of a giant specter that is ready to wreak havoc on barely aware peasants. We tried to take pictures, but since we couldn't use the flash, they did not come out well. Fortunately, I purchased post cards of the major paintings we had to see.

We went back to the train station to try and buy our tickets to Segovia for the next day, but found out we couldn't purchase them until the next morning. So we walked back through the tropical forest, out of the station, ate at the Museo de Jamon (again!) and called it a night.


Monday
Monday was our day trip to Segovia. First, we stopped for churros and chocolate and a bocadillo tortilla y jamon (yum). We went to the Atocha Station and purchased our tickets, then went down to the correct track. It was the middle of rush hour, and we weren't sure if we were in the right place. Every 4 or 5 minutes, another train would roll in, and most people would get on - we later found out they all went to the same places for the first few stops. Finally, at the right time, the sign over the track announced that this was the train we were looking for, and it was still filled with commuters for a few stops. But once it got outside the city, it was not crowded.

The train ride to Segovia was amazing. As soon as the city was behind us, we were in tundra with light vegetation and a lot of deer grazing near the tracks. Segovia is separated from Madrid by a mountain range, so we had gorgeous views of the mountains as we approached them, then went through them. When we arrived in Segovia, we hopped on a bus that would take us to the old town, the part of town that is up on a high plateau. After walking up a narrow alleyway, we found ourselves in the middle of the large plaza that has the huge cathedral in it. The cathedral was built immediately after the area was taken back from the Moors. The alcazar (fortress) on the other side of town was used by the Moors, and still shows a lot of Islamic influence. A lot of the older buildings in town have the Moorish influence - talented Moors were invited to stay after the reconquest, since they were masters at architecture, and their talents were put to use by the new Christian rulers.

After walking around the church, we stopped at a local bar on the plaza to eat more bocadillos - this time, I had a "bocadillo tortilla y jamon" - tortilla in Spain means omelette, so it was basically a hard roll sandwich with scrambled eggs and ham (yum!). We also had the coffee - espresso. Order it with "no leche" and it is barely a shot of espresso. Order it "con leche" and you get it with three times as much milk added to it. After lunch, we grabbed a few orange flavored sponge cake muffins from the pastry shop next door and started wandering to the alcazar at the opposite end of the elevated part of town. We walked along the old city walls in what is now a park so we could see the awesome views of the countryside.

The alcazar is an old fortress sits on the edge of the mountain. Three sides of it are shear drops to the valley below. To make it more dramatic, the highest tower juts out over the sheerest cliff farthest away from the town. It supposedly inspired Walt Disney to make his Cinderella castle in DisneyLand. The whole thing has been rebuilt in the last 100 years after a fire destroyed the original structure, but they did a remarkable job of restoring it so it looks like it did 500 years ago. The views over the plains are unbelievable - you can see everything for miles. The tallest tower is a few hundred circular steps up, with barely enough room to let people pass on the way up or down. But it was worth the climb.

We then walked down to the lower part of town to see the aqueduct. We probably should have taken the bus back, since walking down this mountain involved a lot of walking up, then down, then up, then down.....But when we finally got there, it was worth the trip. They have a huge section of a 100 foot tall aqueduct from Roman times going across part of the town. We wandered around for a while before heading back to the train station, then getting yet another bocadilla at a local bar before boarding the train home.

We spent the rest of the night walking around Puerta del Sol, looking for candy for the kids and souvenirs. We also wandered around Cortes Ingles, a huge department store with a little bit of everything.


Tuesday
On Tuesday, we went to the train station to go to Toledo. We slept a little late this morning, so we missed the early train. After determining that the next train wasn't for an hour, we took the metro to Plaza Espanya, the last of the squares that we hadn't seen. We walked around the square for a while before using the metro to go back to the train station.

The trip to Toledo started as a train trip, but half way there they stopped the train, and loaded us onto buses for the rest of the trip. We were amazed at the number of English and American tourists taking the train to Toledo - they were the ones asking all the confused questions when we found out we needed to finish the trip by bus. I guess they were working on the rail line.

Toledo is another fortress town built on a high hill. It has the added advantage of being bordered by a river on three sides. The bridges between the old town and the opposite valley are impressive and very high! When we arrived, it was almost noon, but we could still see our breath, and there was a high fog from the river. We walked over to the alcazar, and found that it was still closed for restoration. Most of the building was heavily bombed in the civil war, and has been used as a military museum since then. We knew (thanks, Rick Stetves) that it would probably not be opened when we went, but it was worth seeing it and the views of the river were tremendous.

We started walking through the narrow streets to find the cathedral. Some of the streets were so narrow that the cars looked like they wouldn't fit - we had to duck into doorways to let make sure they didn't run us over! We found the cathedral - Toledo's gem of Moorish architecture, it is bigger than Notre Dame. But it was very disappointing. It was under "reconstruction" (I swear we are magnets for renovation projects!). Half of the huge support columns were covered in scaffolding or had sheets over them. Whole sections were off limits. But the funniest thing had to be all of the signs telling you to be SILENT (in big letters, in 4 languages), while there were sounds of construction crews welding, and hammering, and yelling! It was still very impressive, but it lost a lot of its luster.

After a little while of wandering the maze of alleys, we found the building that houses the nuns of St. Rita. They make marzipan to pay for the upkeep of the convent. We went into a small entrance in a tiny alley, into a small room with samples behind glass, and a bell to ring for service. Once rung, a nun slid open a wooden shutter, that had bars over it, and took our money for a small pack of assorted marzipans!

After still more wandering, we found Santa Tome cathedral, an old mosque that was converted to a church, and still has its minaret attached. This is where El Greco painted one of his masterpieces on the cathedral walls (there were other El Greco's in the large cathedral). Even though it was a smaller chapel, it was much more impressive than the cathedral.

We spent most of the rest of the afternoon walking through the maze of alleyways. We decided that we wanted to take the open air tour bus that left every hour and did a circle of the city. It crossed to the opposite side of the river, so you could get a view of the city from above. The train left every hour on the hour, and took 50 minutes. The last train to Madrid left at 6:30. We thought we'd have no problem taking the 5:00 tour, and still have plenty of time to get back to the train station. Oh, and did I mention that we were flying to Barcelona the next morning at 8:00? Our bus tour is going well - the view is as wonderful as we expected. When we were on the exact opposite side of the city, our bus comes to a halt. There are lots of cars and blinking lights in front of us - obviously an accident. In a few more minutes, a camera crew from the local media go running by. Since the bus is filled with tourists, and we are near a "scenic overpass", we all get off the bus and start taking pictures! Fortunately, the delay was only about 20 minutes. We were able to finish the tour, hurry back to the train station, and get back to Madrid. We packed everything, and set the borrowed alarm clock for 5:00 the next morning.


Wednesday
We took a short flight to Barcelona on Wednesday with no problems. Barcelona is on the coast of the Med, in the eastern part of Spain near France. They have long considered themselves to be Catalonian, rather than Spanish. Their language is a mixture of French and Castillian (Spanish) without the Arab influence. After buying metro tickets, we then took the local train to Placa Catalunya in the center of town. Our hotel was only a few blocks away, so we could walk.

After checking in and unpacking, we went out to find Parc Guell, a park designed by Gaudi. Gaudi was a architect who rejected modern industrial age design in the late 19th/early 20th century. He claimed that design should mimic nature, and since the right angle and straight line did not appear in nature, they shouldn't be used. This led to some of the strangest architecture I have ever seen. Every picture of Barcelona includes some of his "curved" buildings, or leaning columns, or the playful mosaics. Since Gaudi was popular with the rich and well connected in Barcelona, there are examples of his work everywhere. Parc Guell was built to be a series of estates for wealthy clients on a hill overlooking Barcelona. After a lot of the design, and only two houses, the idea was abandoned and turned into a park for the city. You have to see the pictures to believe it - it looks like something you'd see in DisneyLand! The "houses" look crooked, the columns look like tree trunks, the park bench turns like a wave, and the overhangs look like caves!

After the long walk up the hill and back to see that, we came back to Placa Catalunya to walk down Las Ramblas to the sea. Las Ramblas is a main shopping street, and today, it was filled with Scottish soccer, er, futbol, fans of the Celtic team. They were playing Barcelona in a match tonight, but by noon, the street was filled with Scottish men and women wearing striped green and white shirts, drinking lots of beer! They were singing and carrying on, but considering all of the alcohol involved, were well behaved! For the rest of the day, and even the next day, there were always green and white shirts in sight. Later that evening, when we were back in the Placa, there were crews out picking up all of the empties - the whole place smelled like a frat party.

We walked down the main drag, past the "bird market" - where you can buy almost any kind of chicken, pigeon, canary, etc - to the Columbus monument that is by the wharf. We went up to the top of the monument (200+ feet with elevator thankfully) to get some awesome views of the city, the docks, and the port. While we were up there, Adam saw the pier and "wavy" bridge that is in one of his skateboard video games, so we walked over there. The pedestrian only bridge takes you over a wharf to a large mall with cinemax - the whole place is "totally awesome to skate" according to Adam. The mall was mostly empty, though, except for places to eat (that were filled with drinking Scots!)

We walked back through the Bari Gotic (Gothic Neighborhood) to see the older cathedral. We stopped for paella (rice fried in a shallow pan with seafood and veggies) in a local restaurant. The special was paella with sangria (wine with fruit), and even though we said we didn't want the sangria, they served it to us anyway. Adam had a sip and declared it "yuch" - I thought it tasted like Hawaiin Punch! We spent the rest of the afternoon just walking around, before going to see La Sagrada Familia at night and watching the soccer, er, futbol game on tv at night.


Thursday
We had Montserrat scheduled for Thursday, and even with a slow start, we managed to get there. The local, Catalonian train that goes there did a great job of hiding their ticket office. We had searched the night before, and couldn't find it - even though signs pointed in every direction. Finally, someone let us in on the secret - we needed to go to a different station for those tickets. Doh! So we did, and when we arrived at the right station, there were plenty of English speaking rail workers looking for confused tourists to help. We bought our tickets, and had enough time to get breakfast before we left. The last food that we "had to try" was Tortilla Espana - an omelette with potatoes and onions served in slices.

The train ride to the base of Montserrat took an hour, and the funicular took another 20 minutes of hair-raising, side-of-the-mountain-hugging, train to get to the top. 3500 feet above sea level is a monastery and church - and the obligatory gift shop and cafeteria. This is another one of those that you'll need to see the pictures to believe it. Once you are there is another funicular to a higher point that was not functioning today. We poked around the church for a while, and Adam bought a cheesecake from a vendor in the local cheese market - some of the cheeses looked really scary! Then we noticed the large cross on the other side of the valley. Even from our distance, you could see that it had a guard rail around it - that must mean you can go there! If you think of us being on one side of a horseshoe, then the cross was on the other side. We walked along the side of the mountain (up and down and up and down) until we finally reached it. The last 50 yards to the cross was terrifying - no rails on either side, the road was only 10 feet wide, and dropped out of view immediately! But it was worth it, and we only saw one other group of hikers attempting to do it.

When we had enough of the heights and the beautiful views, we killed time in the cafeteria until the next train. I bought another bocadillo, and Adam decided to try the pizza. Boy was that a bad idea! It looked normal, but had chunks of something hidden under the sauce. He took a bite, chewed it, then dropped the pizza on the plate and pushed it away. I guess not everyone likes TUNA on their pizza!

We went back to Barcelona and immediately went to La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's last work. It is a huge cathedral (503 feet, 1 foot less than the mountain near Barcelona) that is not finished. Gaudi died when the first of three spires was almost finished. Using tourist money, they are trying to continue with his design, and I think the second tower is almost done. They estimate that with computer aided design and modern construction techniques, it will still take another 50 years to finish! It looks "normal" - it has large spires, and from a distance looks like a large cathedral. But the carvings on the outside are all different and unique - Bible scenes, and bright mosaics to spell out phrases, and large colorful carvings on the spires. When you walk inside, you realize that one whole wall is still not built yet! Most of the windows are bricked over - waiting until construction is done to add stained glass. You can take an elevator to the top of the towers, and even cross over on open walkways between them - vertigo inducing! When you are in the towers, you realize how much detail he placed into these high towers, that people in the early 1900's would never have been able to see! You have to see the pictures to believe it. With any luck, it will be finished in Adam's lifetime.

We used the rest of the night to check out one more of Gaudi's strange buildings, then do some last minute shopping for cigars and soccer, er, futbol shirts. In one of the candy stores, we finally solved the riddle of the twigs. Earlier, in the flea market in Madrid, we saw vendors selling bundles of twigs. We had no idea what they were for. We saw them again in the candy store, and found a woman who spoke a little English. She didn't know the word, but ended up pointing to licorice sticks, and saying that is what you use to make them!


Friday was a long day. We woke up at 5:00 AM (11:00 PM Thursday night - Philly time) to get the flight from Barcelona to Madrid, then to Philly, then to Scranton. But, it was worth it, and as always, we are already looking forward to doing it again


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