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Monthly Archives: May 2016
Every city has that one neighborhood for me: Paris has Montmartre, Rome has Trastevere, and Barcelona, as we happily discovered, has Gràcia. An authentic, charming, local’s-only neighborhood, nestled above l’Eixample, Gràcia extends as far north as Park Güell, but the pocket we fell in love with is between Avenue Diagonal and Travessera de Dalt. We felt the same way walking around Gràcia as we did the very first time we visited Montmartre years ago: we could absolutely live here. Finding Gràcia was easily one of the highlights of the entire trip for us, more than any of the attractions we bought tickets for, or the restaurants that were highly-rated online. Just walking around and falling in love with the neighborhood, its locals, its shops and restaurants, its slightly shabby architecture, made both of us wish we could move right in and never leave.
But we had to leave, at some point, because
life is super unfair all good things must come to an end. Or something. I don’t like to talk about politics much around here, I do enough of that in real life off-line, but the upcoming presidential election might very well provide an ideal opportunity to get the fuck out of America for a few years. And I know exactly where we’ll land. Mostly because I didn’t get to actually eat any of those magical marzipan creations at La Boqueria, and I need to know if they taste as good as they look.
And thus concludes the vacation photos from our trip to Spain. Thank you so much for tolerating me these last few weeks! Now back to our regularly scheduled, not-Spain content. Boo.
Did I mentioned we loved Barcelona? The weather was glorious, all sunny skies and crisp morning breezes; there was only one afternoon where temperatures rose into the 70s, and it coincided with our visit to Park Güell to see more of Gaudí’s work. We underestimated how much time it would take to get there on the metro, and then we got lost trying to find it, and since the tickets are good only for a specific time slot, we were sort of in a panic. You only need tickets to see the Gaudí structures, and the rest of the massive, sprawling park is free to the public. Families were having picnics, there were men playing guitar, but I was frankly most excited to see the exact spot where Top Model Cycle 7 had their final runway challenge (Jamal did not understand). Park Güell was originally intended to be a private housing development, with shared green space for about 60 Gaudí-designed homes. They only ended up building 2 or 3 before running out of money, and Gaudí lived in the model home. For a man who designed such intricate, visionary buildings, he lived rather modestly; his bedroom contained a single bed, a crucifix, and one small bedside table.
We moved for our last few nights to the Cotton House Hotel on the Gran Via de Les Corts Catalanes, which was, without a doubt, the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. The hotel is a converted mansion that the original cotton magnate of Barcelona built for his wife, and was just oozing comfortable luxury. We used Jamal’s hotel points, and they surprised us with an upgraded suite with a balcony overlooking the terrace. We even saw Keith Richards in the lobby! At least, we think it was Keith Richards. It may have been a very convincing dopplegänger.
Gran Via was close to the main shopping thoroughfare of Passeig de Gracia, and only a 10-15 minute walk to nearly everything else in the city. We are already dreaming (and scheming) about going back, to that hotel specifically, but Barcelona more generally. Cute puppies, strong cocktails, chocolate-covered croissants, and gorgeous architecture? Can you blame us for wanting to go back?
Oh, Barcelona. By the time we arrived, we’d spent almost a week in Spain, visiting Madrid, San Sebastián, Pamplona, and Zaragoza, and while we loved every city for different reasons, it really did feel like we were saving the best for last. Everyone we knew who’d been to Spain kept telling us before we’d even left, as did everyone we met during our trip. Usually it sounded like, “You’re going to love Spain! All of it is so great. But Barcelona is just…” and they’d trail off, a dreamy look on their faces, unable to find the right words to adequately describe exactly what it is about the Catalan capital that makes everyone fall in love with it. Frankly, I’m having the same problem.
After dropping of our trusty rental car in the middle of town, we checked into our first of two hotels, a furnished apartment near the beach. After spending so much time in smaller, quieter cities and towns, we thought staying just outside of the main downtown area for a few nights would provide a more gentle transition, an easing-in to Barcelona. We stayed at Lugaris Beach, in El Poblenou, a wonderfully local and off-the-beatn track neighborhood north of Barceloneta. It was a five minute walk to the metro, and just a few stops to the main part of the city, but also directly across the street from a beach. The apartment had a full kitchen, which meant Jamal got to cook dinner for us one night, after we went shopping on the Rambla at small grocers. After dinner, we spotted from our window a pop-up amusement park up the beach, and knew we had to check it out. Jamal rode the bumper cars (I literally haven’t laughed so hard in years), won me a bracelet popping balloons with darts, and we shared a mojito at 11pm. The next night, we had the best meal of our lives at El 58 a few minutes from our apartment; the ceviche alone is worth the airfare back.
And of course, we visited the Sagrada Familia. We bought tickets online in advance (the only way to do it; entries are timed, and the wait could stretch up to five hours) which included an audioguide and entry to the Gaudí House Museum in Parc Guell the next day. The church has been under construction for 150 years, and was recently given a completion date of 2026, the 100 year anniversary of the architect’s death. (So we already know the date of our next trip to Barcelona.) It was overwhelming, visually, emotionally, walking into the church and taking in the scale of it. I’m not religious, not by a long shot, but as the daughter of an architect it was hard not to be blown away by the sheer magic of Gaudí’s mind.
We indulged in gelato, had too many glasses of wine, took a trip to Louis Vuitton, a morning stroll along the beach to watch the old men play competitive dominoes, and before we knew it, we had to leave El Poblenou, our lovely local ‘hood, and move downtown.
Barcelona may be all about Gaudí, but Zaragoza is all about Goya.
We stopped in Zaragoza after Pamplona, a quick hour drive to the east, on our way to Barcelona. Excitement by this point had been building for Barcelona; everyone we met at restaurants or bars would invariably ask about our itinerary and rave about the city, swearing to us that wherever we were then was great (Madrid, San Sebastián, Pamplona) but Barcelona was just better, and we were going to love it. As a result, I felt like I mentally rushed through Zaragoza, in my anticipation for Barcelona. Which is a shame, because Zaragoza is beautiful, and by far the least-touristy spot we visited.
We had the entire Goya museum to ourselves. Having seen so much of his work at the Prado in Madrid, we were prepared for how dark he could be. Or so we thought. There is one room of his lithograph etchings, mostly social commentary pieces, all with deeply disturbed, bizarre interpretations. It didn’t help that the entire room was pitch black, and the display cases of his work only lit up if you stood in front of it. Eerie to say the least. The church in the first two photo, Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, was one of the largest and most beautiful we’d seen on the trip so far, and included frescoes by Goya inside (no photography allowed).
We had lunch in the teeny El Tubo neighborhood and then visited the remains of an ancient Roman wall dating back to their occupation in 200 BC. Having been sufficiently stuffed full of tapas and Spanish food and jamon iberico by this point in the trip, and wanting to save our stomachs for whatever Barcelona had to offer, we gave into our base instincts and had Italian for dinner. After, of course, having mojitos outside at (you guessed it) a tapas bar. We stayed at an NH Collection hotel, a quick walk from all the main sights, and just a block from the main shopping boulevard Paseo Independencia, where we grabbed gelato at Amorino after dinner. Hey, I said we were full of cured ham, not dessert.
Twenty four hours felt a little fast, but Zaragoza isn’t a huge town, and we were able to experience most of it. The next morning, we loaded up our rental car and headed off for Barcelona! I’ll probably have two posts of Barcelona photos, but I haven’t even started editing them yet. Have a great weekend, kiddos!
For a Hemingway lover like myself, visiting Pamplona was the literary equivalent of taking a child to Disneyland. Ordering a glass of wine at Café Iruña, on the Plaza del Castillo, and taking a photo with the bronze statue of Papa they have in the back bar, was as thrilling as riding Splash Mountain as an eight year old; I was psyched. It didn’t hurt that Pamplona was also, unsurprisingly, lovely. Charming, quaint, quiet, and endlessly photogenic.
But if you’re going to go, I would only recommend going in the off-season, or any week of the year besides San Fermin, or the running of the bulls. Because, while lovely, Pamplona is really, really small, and there is no conceivable way over one million people could squeeze into the tiny, narrow stone streets without my claustrophobia alarm ringing a death knell. And besides being cramped and overrun (pun intended), everything becomes more expensive in the middle of July because of it. We stayed at the gorgeous Palacio Guendulain hotel, which was the former residence of Queen Isabella II and still has her many carriages on display. Our room was under €130 a night for a one-night stay in late April; in July, the same room costs €989. Per night!
Also, and I had assumed this was a creative liberty Hemingway took in “The Sun Also Rises,” but that whole bit about killing the bulls after they are chased into the stadium? That happens! I’m assuming there is no Spanish PETA.
But really, Pamplona was a dream of a town. We only spent 24 hours there, and we managed to walk the entire thing twice over, including the old fortifications and citadel. Pamplona is one of the greenest cities in Spain, with all of the old military fortifications turned into public green spaces and parks. The citadel was a hugely imposing structure, every level of which had been grassed over, and parts of which were used for outdoor art installations (and dog runs!). The Parque de La Taconera had hundreds of chickens and other wild birds roaming around (we stayed far away from the peacocks). It was a quick stay, admittedly, but we made the most of it.
Arriving in San Sebastián after almost five hours in the car felt like we had entered an entirely different country. The GPS started speaking to us in what felt like Flemish, long strings of unpronounceable vowels unlike anything we had ever heard. Welcome to Basque Country! A zone in the north of Spain along the Pyrenees and across the border into France (France was just half an hour away from where we were staying, which felt like torture! So close and yet so far!) with a distinct culture, history, and yes, language. Just as we had started to feel comfortable with Spanish in Madrid (“comfortable” meaning I shot panicked looks to Jamal whenever someone spoke to me) we were dropped in the heart of Basque Country and left to fend for ourselves. Our proximity to France, though, meant that lots of shops and restaurants spoke at least a little bit of French, but honestly, pointing at things and smiling widely compensates for a lot when you are a clueless tourist.
San Sebastián is incredible. We stayed at the historic Hotel Londres right on the beach, even though it wasn’t warm enough to go swimming. We wandered, we ate, we stopped for a drink, we ate some more, we got lost in the tiny, pedestrian-only alleys in the Old Town. We trekked across the small bridge to the Gros neighborhood, which felt much more local and off the beaten path, to have custom gin cocktails crafted for us at La Gintoneria. Jamal, unfortunately, got a touch of food poisoning after dinner on our first night, which meant that I had a few hours the next morning to kill solo. The city is divided into the quaint and cobblestoned Old Town, and the more upscale and modern Centro neighborhood, with shops like Zara Home and FNAC and Sephora. You can guess where I went.
Jamal felt much better by lunch time, so we ventured to the marina and visited the Aquarium, which was surprisingly large given the tiny size of the town. There were so many colorful and interesting fish; I have enough photos to make a totally separate post about our visit there, which I promise to do. We felt like little kids, it was such a fun afternoon.
After two days, we were off to Pamplona!
A highlight of Madrid was, without a doubt, Retiro Park. Translated from Spanish, Parque del Buen Retiro literally means Park of the Pleasant Retreat, and having spent an entire afternoon there, I can attest to its accuracy. There is a giant man-made lake where you can rent a rowboat for €6 (while Jamal dutifully rowed us gently down the stream, I sat in my trench with the hood up, and my scarf draped around me like a hijab, so that absolutely no mid-day sun rays could reach me), a magical, all-glass greenhouse aptly named the Crystal Palace, shaded, manicured walkways, open fields for lounging, and what felt like the entire population of Madrid enjoying this urban oasis. Can you blame them? We visited after a morning at the Prado, as the two are right next to each other. We could’ve (and should’ve!) brought a picnic and had a lazy lunch in the grass (in the shade, naturally). Next time. Because in case you can’t tell, we were so smitten with Madrid there will absolutely be a next time.
We spent a lot of time in the Chueca neighborhood, just north of Gran Via. There were tons of bars and restaurants, and we had a glass of wine outside and just people-watched for an hour. A very brave bird stole a potato chip right from the middle of our table, which we are still laughing about, because we have bad luck with birds. (Last spring in Paris, a bird flew into our apartment through an open window and wouldn’t leave. We were trapped in the lofted bedroom until it decided to leave.) We ate too much jamon iberico at every meal, which isn’t a complaint, I swear.
On our last morning, we gathered supplies for our four and a half hour car ride to San Sebastiàn, picked up our rental car, and were off! Two and a half days wasn’t enough time in Madrid. Don’t let anyone tell you it is (I’m looking at you, Rick Steves).
Everyone we asked before our trip was pretty unanimous in their assessment of Madrid: it’s nice, but you don’t need to spend too much time there. It’s nice, but Barcelona is better. It’s nice, but don’t expect to be wowed.
They could not have been more wrong.
Maybe it was all the forewarning about how much we weren’t going to like Madrid that made us love it so much. Lower anyone’s expectations enough and you’re sure to be pleasantly surprised. But I think it was much more than that. Madrid is vibrant, bustling, delightful, beautiful, and still retains the distinctly quaint character of individual neighborhoods (a reason I love my own city so much).
Madrid wowed us right off the bat, the moment we stepped out of the taxi from the airport (which took the most circuitous route imaginable to our hotel on Gran Via, thanks to the Madrid Marathon that morning). The sun was shining, the air was crisp, everyone was friendly, and Madrid was, well, gorgeous. It had all the charms of a big city, but still felt neighborhoody and manageable. On our first day, just orienting ourselves with the city, we ended up with cricks in our necks from looking straight up at all the stunning architecture.
We went to El Rastro, the largest weekly flea market on the continent, the first morning we were there. It was a sprawling, winding, jam-packed market filled to the brim with antiques and cheap clothes and knick-knacks. The Rick Steves guidebook we bought last year said that pickpockets were rampant, and the police didn’t even bother trying to stop it, so you were better off not even bringing a wallet. Our taxi driver, in his best broken English, told us the same thing: don’t bring a bag, don’t bring a wallet, be extra vigilant. We spent over two hours wandering and weaving our way through that thing, and let me tell you, we couldn’t have felt safer. I swear, one dumb tourist from Muncie, Indiana who’s never left the suburbs gets pick-pocketed and the whole city gets a bad rap.
We went to the Museo del Prado, a museum you’d need more than one visit to take in. Thanks to buying tickets online in advance, we were the first people in the door on our second morning. We marveled over the immense collection of Goya, and both agreed the man went off the deep end later in life. There’s a room devoted to just his “Black Paintings,” or images he painted of his nightmares, which made us both deeply uncomfortable.
We ate incredibly well, but tapas’d ourselves out early on in the trip unfortunately. There was a 24-hour sandwich shop down the street from our hotel called Oink, which served nothing but jamon iberico sandwiches for €2.50. If heaven is a place on earth, I’m pretty sure there’s an Oink there.
Next up, rowing a boat in Retiro Park!
I’m baaaack! And what a trip it was! Spain surprised me in the best way; I didn’t know what to expect, despite everyone I know who’d been there swearing it was gorgeous and amazing and I’d love it. Our itinerary was kind of a whirlwind, but we got to see so much of the country and so many charming cities I wouldn’t change a thing. We arrived in Madrid last Sunday, drove north to San Sebastián on the coast on Tuesday, east to Pamplona on Thursday, Zaragoza on Friday, and finally to Barcelona on Saturday, where we stayed until this past Wednesday. Jamal did all the driving (stick shift!) and I served as our chief navigator and entertainment coordinator, the former made possible by the pocket wifi we rented before our trip, which turned out to be indispensable. We only just got the hang of Spanish before we entered Basque country to the north, where they speak a completely indecipherable language native only to that region. And once we felt comfortable with Basque, we headed off to Barcelona, where the Catalan accents threw us off again. By default, I kept lapsing into French, and for some reason couldn’t stop wanting to say, “Ciao!” to everyone when we left restaurants and shops. Oy. Fun fact, our lisping th‘s got a lot better after a big gin & tonic, the unofficial drink of the entire country (or so it seemed. They’re everywhere, and they’re gigantic and cheap!).
Long story short, we loved Spain. The people were so friendly and helpful and patient (you can tell I’ve been to France too often when this sticks out), the architecture was astoundingly beautiful, the jamon iberico was abundant and inexpensive, the weather was a dream. Sure, by the last few days we were both saying we needed a vacation from our vacation, but really, isn’t that the best possible complaint?
I have about 375 photos to sort through and edit, so I thought I’d start small and post one from each of the five cities we visited for today’s Friday Five, just to whet your appetite. You can catch up on Instagram with the hashtag #likewantneedespaña.
I’ll be back on Monday with more photos from Madrid! Have a great weekend, kiddos!
Now, what have you been up to? I’ve missed you!