Our trip to Spain

In the writeup to follow, parts written by Gwen will be styled like this. Some photos are up, but the memory card with most of them got corrupted somehow Now that I have recovered almost all the photos (huzzah!) I am tagging and uploading them in batches.

Very long (7400 words) post after the jump.

23 Sept—Sat

Alex delivered us to the airport with plenty of time to spare. At Bergstrom, two hours is overkill, even on an international flight, even under threat level alert condition: OMG shampoo in your carry-on!. Check-in was through these fancy new automated kiosks that even handle tagging your checked luggage—so fancy, in fact, that helpful staff were on-hand to walk us through the automated process.

Short flight to Houston.

Looooooooooong flight to Paris—Charles de Gaulle, Terminal 2. Airbus seats are not conducive to comfortable sleeping, but I did manage to sleep anyhow.

Arrived Paris-CDG2. After some confusion as to whether we could make our connection without going through passport control, we did go through. Well, Gwen went through, and I tried. I was detained for about 20 minutes by the Police aux Frontieres, who didn’t like the way my well-worn passport was delaminating around my photo—after there was a break in the passport line, I was ushered into an adjacent cop-shop, where two cops argued the merits of my passport. Asked to see my driver’s license, which I produced. Eventually one of them left the room and saw Gwen hanging around waiting for me, asked her what she was doing, and she explained she was the wife of the guy they were detaining. They looked at her passport, decided I was OK, and let me pass. We had a tight connection at this point, so we hustled on to our connecting gate (after going through security again). The scene at CDG2 is very colorful, with lots of travellers from all over, making for excellent people-watching.

Our arrival at Barcelona airport was a bit chaotic—there was a mad press of people in the lobby, and we just wanted to get through it. We had been thinking of buying local prepaid SIM cards, but forgot. Made our way to the train into town. Got off, in some confusion, at a station other than the one we had been instructed to, but was close enough anyhow, so we decided to walk from there. The stop in question, at Passeig de Gracia, happens to be on Barcelona’s equivalent to, say, the Magnificent Mile or Omotesando. When we emerged from the underground, the first thing we saw was Gaudí’s famous Casa Batlló. Holy shit! It was Gaudí’s architecture that had drawn me to Spain in the first place, and to be greeted by that was electrifying.

Also electrifying was emerging into the midst of Barcelona’s biggest festival of the year, La Merce. Passeig de Gracia was filled with people and lined with performance stages, etc. Eventually, after a little bit of map-checking, we made our way to our pensión, located in the city’s old quarter. We were staying in an apartment building erected in 1856, on what was nominally referred to as the third floor, but to an American, this is misleading, since we start counting from the ground level. For that matter, to a Briton, this is misleading, since they start counting from the floor above ground level. In this case, the floors were ground, then a half-flight up to the entresol, then by full flights to principal, primer, segond, tercer. So we were on what I would count as the fifth-and-a-half floor. Walk-up. Anyhow, despite our travel-weariness, we did make it up. The proprietress was waiting for us with a bit of impatience, as there was yet another event about to start, Correfoc, which she was eager to get down to. Nevertheless, she greeted us warmly, got us oriented, and encouraged us to come down and watch. So after we dropped our bags and collected ourselves, we did.

It wasn’t hard to find—once we were back out on the street, we just walked the same direction as everyone else. The event was taking place only about two blocks away. We walked past a sort of staging area, where krewes were lined up, dressed in unseasonably heavy devilish costumes, some with drums and some with hand-pushed floats. Once we got past the opening gate, we saw what was going on. Each crew had an arsenal of thousands of firecrackers; these were loaded (and reloaded, and reloaded) onto spinners at the tops of pikes carried by some of the krewe members. The heavy outfits were to protect them from the sparks. The drummers were banging out something like a salsa beat. The floats had clips all over the place for more firecrackers. The pikeman waved their weapons at the audience lining the streets—those who were prepared were wearing hooded sweatshirts, sunglasses, and bandanas over their mouths—sparks flew everywhere and I damn near blew out an eardrum from all the popping. The float-pushers bobbed and weaved with their siege engines, which were made in the likenesses of dragons, turtles, rats, and an evil pig. The air was thick with the smell of gunpowder, and the whole scene resembled a street riot more than a festival.

What a fantastic welcome to Barcelona!

We watched this until breathing became difficult, and then wandered off into other parts of the neighborhood. Several of the many squares in the area had stages set up for live-music performances, including one playing what seemed like it must be a well-known local act playing lively folk music, with a bagpipe in the combo. This reminded me that the Celts were originally from Spain.

Eventually we got hungry and dined at a tapas joint nearby. Very trendy, and obviously catering to tourists, but still pretty good. Interesting menu was laid out as a matrix, with main ingredients on the X axis and styles of preparation on the Y.

Went back out into the streets and just wandered, surfing on the energy of the crowds. Streets lined with young people, sitting around in knots and hanging out. Headed home around 2:00 AM.

24 Sept—Sun

Slept in until about 1:00 PM to make up for jet lag, lost sleep, etc. Hit bricks in search of coffee and breakfast. Central Barcelona has sidewalks paved in beautiful hexagonal tiles with repeating aquatic motifs.

When we travel, Gwen and I seem to have a hard time pinning down places we want to eat, so we wound up wandering for a bit before we settled on a place called QuQu. We were seated at the counter next to a couple speaking animated Spanish to the staff, but in a NYC accent. Turns out they’re Puerto Ricans from Brooklyn. We chatted with them (in English) for a bit. They chastised the staff for treating the Chinese waiter poorly.

After this, went to Casa Batlló. Wow. Nothing like it but in the dreams of madmen. Beautiful, organic, with remarkable craftsmanship and execution. Almost no straight lines and no hard corners. Remarkable details like a wall of windows, each of which served as a frame for its neighbors, so the whole thing could be opened up, uninterrupted. Elaborately carved sliding wooden ventilation grates everywhere.

After this, we hit another Gaudí, Casa Milà or “La Pedrera”. The exterior of this building, while interesting, wasn’t as flamboyant as Casa Batlló, and the interior (as much as we saw) was actually relatively conventional. The real action is on the roof, which the terraces, chimneys, and staircase landings make into a sculpture garden. We gained an excellent perspective of the city from up here, including a good view of tomorrow’s destination, the Sagrada Família. While the educational materials at the building refer to it as being a product of “Modernisme,” they mean something very different than the Modernist school—instead, it appears to be the homegrown word for what I’d call Art Nouveau.

Took the metro to the Parc de la Ciutadella, where I’d heard I might have a chance to meet up with some fellow firespinners. No such luck—saw some jugglers, but that was all. There was, again, some kind of major festivity action in the park, some kind of family festival, with dozens of whacky music/noise-making machines and a four-person aerialist act—not very good, but the crowd was good. We enjoyed wandering the park, at any rate. We decided to eat, and again were indecisive. We wound up at a pizza joint not far away, Passatore, where we had very good pizza, with a nice thin crust bubbled and charred in spots, and good ingredients. Stopped off somewhere for coffee and xocolata (which is like drinking cake batter), and headed home.

25 Sept—Mon

A sleepless night for both Gwen and I, as our bodies try to make sense of the time change. Today was an official holiday, so almost all non-food establishments were closed. Had breakfast at a small pastry shop, very nice, where I learned that the Català word for bocadillo is entrepà, which I am pretty sure means “between the bread” and strikes me as an excellent word.

We then made for the Palau de la Música Catalana, another architectural marvel, but not one of Gaudí’s—the architect here was Lluís Domènech i Montaner. The only way to see the inside was through a guided tour, so we took that. The tour started with a little A/V show, which was minimally informative and maximally florid—in fact, all the other recorded presentations we sat through were notable for their hyperbole, and I wonder if that’s more a consequence of it being a tourist attraction, or being peculiar to Spanish narration. After that, we moved on to a guided tour of the place, led by a young guy who spoke English just as quickly as Spaniards are reputed to speak Spanish, which made him a bit hard to follow in spots. But that part of the visit was pretty good—he was witty and had a good store of information about the place. He pointed out with some awe and pride that the Palau was finished in only three years (impressive), and he made a tart joke about the famously unfinished Sagrada Família—our next stop of the day.

Took the metro there, and entered the back side (no less extraordinary than the front). Once inside, we were frankly a bit disappointed: we knew it was unfinished, but didn’t appreciate how unfinished: the entire nave was filled with scaffolding, transepts completely open at the end, and almost the entire floor (except for a fairly narrow pathway around the perimeter) filled with construction equipment, unmounted architectural ornaments, etc. All that said, the ceiling, columns, stained glass, etc, were all beautiful and original in a way that was both geometric and organic: there was a vaguely underwater effect to it, as in much of Gaudí’s work. We got to the line to ascend one of the eight (current) bell-towers, and although it was an hour wait, decided to stick it out. An elevator takes you most of the way up, and you can take a spiral staircase to the very top.

It was worth it. Nothing could prepare us for it—we were stupefied. Parapets and balconies jut from the bell-towers at every angle. The views out across the rooftop and the other towers was dizzying but beautiful. The city of Barcelona has few tall buildings, and none near the temple, so the view from about 300 feet was extraordinary. The initial feeling of disappointment—”this is as far as they’ve gotten?”—was replaced by awe—”look how far they’ve gotten!”

We descended the entire bell-tower by the spiral staircase, which narrows alarmingly partway down. Once we achieved the bottom, with great relief, we visited the museum in the basement, which shows models, sketches, and an interesting inverted load-simulation made of hundreds of small sandbags strung in a network.

From there, we went to the site of a large flea-market, but Monday being a holiday, it was closed. Apparently in Spain, “holiday” means “day off” to retailers, not “excuse for a sale” as it does in the USA.

Had a quick, late lunch of falafel on Las Ramblas, followed by coffee at a joint on the Plaça George Orwell (how cool is it that Barcelona named a square after him?). I should have taken a picture of that street sign.

Walked down a narrow street with some of the only open stores that day. Nearer to home, we encountered a tent-market with vendors that seemed awfully similar to what we’d see on First Thursday.

26 Sept—Tue

Definitely missing brewed coffee—it is completely absent here. Breakfasted at the market nearby, “the market” being “the Central Marketâ„¢” of the neighborhood. Overpriced but easy. Marveled at the availability of sheep’s head and lamb’s head, skinned but with eyeballs, and leg/hoof of pig (is it a hoof? could it be any less clean?), in the same place as very expensive gourmet items.

On to Parc Güell which was magical. Glad to come in the side entrance, as we wandered into a lovely wooded park, with cactus and pine trees and sperm trees, and only gradually happened upon crazy-cool stone fences, bridges…and then…wonderland. Huge broad plaza with curvy benches that outlined it, all in mosaic, jutting out over the edge of the hill. Walking down from that, we discovered we had been standing on huge stone columns that supported the tiled and sea-like underside. Then down stairs to candyland buildings. Loved seeing it unfold. It was definitely my favorite “sight” so far.

On to the “real” market, the Boqueria, which was closed yesterday. As opposed to American or Mexican markets, it was just food, no kitsch. Finally ate some fresh fruit.

Paid €1.85 for a coffee at Starfucks, so Gwen could pee (locked bathroom, with a combination to it printed on your receipt). Determined that Spaniards are incapable of brewing coffee.

I tried some of this and it was completely unpotable. It was as if the locals had no framework for understanding how awful it was, which was kind of surprising. Although drip coffee is not sold in any coffee shops (aside from Starbucks), we did see drip coffeemakers for sale in el Corte Ingles, a big department store—so it shouldn’t be completely alien. I was reminded of a scene in the movie Barcelona, appropriately enough.

Take hamburgers. Here, hamburguesas are really bad. It’s known that Americans like hamburgers, so again, we’re idiots. But they have no idea how delicious hamburgers can be.

Adam digestively ill-at-ease, so we heads back. Nice chat with Ruth about politics (sad state of, U.S.) and everything.Restless night for Adam’s belly.

Graffiti of the day (seen from the climb up the hill at Parc Güell): If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?

27 Sept—Wed

Having a day on my own, as Adam is indisposed w/ a malo estomago. Food allergy? After yesterday morning’s tortilla (tortilla in the Spanish sense of frittata, not the Mexican sense of flatbread), his belly has been in a state of rebellion. I wandered around the city, found myself in a few unexpected streets (Turkish/Algerian/African) that seemed slightly unsafe and sported the first straight-up hookers I’ve seen. How is it I found them on my own, and not with Adam? Unknown. Funny how you just go down different paths on your own. Not that I was especially pleased to find myself there.

Lunch from the market: salty sardines, Catalonian spicy salami, veggies, and bread. Adam still unwell.

I couldn’t contain my urge to see the sea, and went in the late afternoon. It was calm and fairly warm…had a hard time relaxing with no towel and no one to watch my bag if I jumped in. Tomorrow night we head toward a more coastal coast.

In looking for food today, I discovered the neighborhood to the west of us. Archeological dig two blocks away!! Little old man who owns the liquor store down the block has his own labeling for a nice Crianza.

Rediscovered today the knowledge that there’s a network of men with radars for foreign women walking without male companions. Consciously or not, they must move to tourist towns. I give them the hairy eyeball and am ready to throw the “respecto” word at them. Here, as opposed to Mexico, they seemed genuinely kind and minimally intrusive.

30 Sep-Sat

Spent Thursday on Montjuïc, which was pleasant enough, but not especially compelling. There are several museums there, none of which we entered, so that has something to do with my reaction. Apart from that Montjuïc is mostly parks, and a fort atop the mountain with an excellent view of everything (as one would expect). Getting up there is quite a schlepp.

Worked out way back to Passeig de Gracia (again), stopped at the Corts Ingles department store, which has a pretty good grocery in its lower level, where we picked up snacks for our upcoming train trip, and fixings for dinner. Always interested in grocery stores when I travel, as they give some insight into what everyday life is like. At this one, we were not allowed to touch unpackaged fruit—a guy inside the fruit-bin circle would bag up what you asked for.

Somewhat disappointed not to find any Mexican food there, apart from tortilla (in the Mexican sense) chips.

Had dinner at the pensión, and a nice chat with Ruth afterwards, working out the details of our return visit at the end of the trip. Then on to the train: subway to the Passeig de Gracia stop, transfer to a Renfe train for one stop to Barcelona Sants, and then transfer to our night train. This turned out not to be so easy: unlike every other train station I’ve ever seen, where all the platforms communicate with one another, at Sants, each platform has its own wicket you need to clear before you can get to another. So we were confused, and more confused by the fact that the flip-board schedule wasn’t showing our train at all, and anxious because—after an alarmingly long ride to cover that one stop to Sants, with a five-minute pause in the tunnels—we were getting down to the wire for our train to board. There was a Renfe guy standing at the platform exit giving out information (or not). Gwen tried to ask him where our platform was, and he refused to answer. Rather, he wanted to satisfy himself as to how we had gotten onto the platform where we were, since our night-train ticket wasn’t valid for any train boarding on that platform. I only caught fragments of the exchange, but I think it went something like this:

Gwen (showing ticket): Where do we get on this train?
Renfe guy: What are you doing on this platform? This ticket isn’t valid to get you on this platform.
G: We rode here from Passeig de Gracia.
R: Not on that ticket you didn’t! You have to go back to Passeig de Gracia and get a ticket from there.
G (getting upset): But we bought this ticket there, and it’s supposed to board here!
R (very snarkily): So how did you get here? Did you fly?
G (totally fucking exasperated, pulls out our local tickets): with these!
R: Oh, then go check that schedule over there.

We made our train in time.

It was a 14-hour ride to the Galician town of Ourense; our seats were in a six person litrera sleeper compartment; for slightly more money, we had the option of getting asiento seats that were three-across in an open car. This was my first sleeper train ever. A fat old guy holding up his jeans with belts and suspenders was sharing our compartment and engaged us (mostly Gwen) in conversation. He talked about working in Switzerland and how expensive everything is there (something Ruth had also mentioned). When talk turned to politics—Franco—Gwen started playing dumb. I caught about 25% of the whole conversation.

The train crew converted all the sleeper compartments from seats to bunks at 9:30. The berths were too narrow for Gwen and me to lie together—we were stacked one over the other—and they were stacked too close to sit up in bed. Two more guys took up residence in our compartment at this time, so we went down to the dining car. Passing through the asiento car, we found it to have the ripe aroma of humanity, but with the advantage that you can sit up. The dining car was cramped, uncomfortable, and very popular with everyone not interested in turning in at 9:30. We bought drinks and read for a bit. Decided to return to the compartment, but sleep was impossible. The berth was not very comfortable, and the pillow was so flat as to approach some kind of Euclidean ideal, making it useless. Loud snoring bunkmate. Compartment door opened at every stop by people looking for their berths—eventually the one open berth in our compartment was filled by a college-age guy who left his enormous suitcase in the middle of the compartment’s aisle, and came and went every 10 minutes for his first hour on the train. Not much luck sleeping either, because of the torrents of snot coursing down the back of my throat…precursor to la grippe round II.

In the face of this, I propped myself into a position where I could, barely, read—there was a pencil-beam of light I could use, if I positioned my book just so, and pressed my head against the wall. I did try to sleep a few times, and probably had 15 minutes-worth of success in total.

At some point, a bit of light was visible from outside. Gwen (who had been having as much luck sleeping as me) exited the compartment to hang out in the corridor—something a lot of people were doing. I joined her after a bit and got to see some very dramatic terrain—steep river valleys heavily wooded and misty.

Pulled into our stop, Ourense, on time at 10:00 AM, and were met a bit later by Jose. After a bit of confusion trying to get out of downtown Ourense (the signs pointing to the highway seemingly direct you in a circle), we got on the open road and saw more dramatic country, though not as vertiginous as what we’d seen before. Jose took us by some very obscure country roads, pointing out various items of note, such as a tungsten mine where Franco’s political opponents were sent to work at forced labor.

Reached Jose’s parents’ place. Jose and Susie (the former owners of our new house) have been staying there since they moved to Spain, and are just getting ready to move into the city of Santiago de Compostela. The house is a brand-new farmhouse—roomy, blocky, and well-built. Like many others in the area. Jose’s parents have a small plot of land—much too small to support a house like this—and indeed that’s not where their money comes from: Jose’s dad left Franco’s Spain decades ago to make his fortune in Venezuala. He came back to Spain some years ago, and now he’s trying to get his money out of Venezuala. Most of the farms in the area are uneconomically tiny, despite those nice farmhouses, and the story of Jose’s dad is a common one in this region.

After unloading and having a huge snack-into-lunch dining continuum, we hiked to the nearby 11th-century monastery of Carboeiro, where Jose’s dad had defaced the walls as a small boy. Despite the remoteness and non-touristy-ness of the place, they did have a docent there who could make a decent stab at English. She pointed out the grave of the founding abbot, with a stone likeness of him covering it, with its face now missing. Jose’s dad volunteered that “the face was there when I was a kid.” Gwen is convinced he had something to do with the face disappearing.

Next, on to Santiago. A walk around campus, a brief look at the cathedral and the old city, a peek at Susie & Jose’s incredibly sleek new apartment, in a new building, in a new development, just outside downtown, overlooking a tumbledown farmhouse that’s at least 300 years old. I was surprised at how tiny their kitchen was compared to what one would see in a comparable apartment in the USA. It was also much more isolated from the rest of the rooms. I guess that kitchens are viewed as social spaces in the USA, but not Spain.

We had dinner at a joint in the old city—all very good (cheese plate, seafood paella, chorizo simmered in wine), but we are starting to miss spicy food, and are a bit surprised that we haven’t encountered any. After the British colonized India, India returned the favor by invading the British palate. Spain conquered about one-third of the New World, but apart from a few Argentine restaurants (which have a style of cuisine fairly similar to Spain’s anyhow), none of the conquered nations have made significant inroads into Spain’s culinary life, as far as we could see.

Back to Jose’s parents’ place to spend the night.

So that takes us through Friday.

On Saturday, we went in to Santiago with Jose and Susie again. Gwen and I bopped around on our own for a while, while they attended to new-apartment logistics. Went to the crypt and side-museums at the cathedral.

The cathedral is difficult to take in. It is slathered in ornamentation, and encrusted with moss and mildew, making it harder to resolve anything. The absence of direct sunlight (when it wasn’t raining, it was overcast) means there’s no contrast, which doesn’t help.

Saturday night we went back to Jose’s parents’ place. A band from the nearby town of Merza was giving a special performance that night, so we went. They were quite good—like a full orchestra minus the strings, and in fact three cellos sat in on the latter two of four pieces. Joes’s dad played in this band as a boy, saying he was so small at the time the only instrument he could carry was the flute. The band itself has been around in some form for 200 years, and has achieved some renown.

Went for dinner afterwards at a family restaurant in Merza, where everyone got their own plate (a first on this trip) and I ordered a steak (a first in years). There were two steaks offered on the menu: Culeta and Culetón. Jose explained that the culetón is much bigger, so I ordered the culeta. That was huge anyhow. Also ordered pulpo (octopus) for the table—Ruth had recommended that when we get to Santiago, we seek out Pulpo a Feira, a way of preparing it distinct to the region. I’m not sure if this qualified, but it was pretty good.

Bootleg distilling is very common in this region, apparently, and we had a chance to try some this night. Related distantly to Jäegermeister, and quite yummy. Spent the night drunkenly digesting instead of sleeping.

1 Oct—Sun

Susie & Jose had more moving-prep to do today. Our plan is to spend the night at their new place tonight and catch the train out of Santiago Monday morning. Jose drove us in and Susie stayed behind with the kid; Jose would collect them later.

Gwen and I visited Santiago’s modern-art museum, the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea. The museum itself was one of the only–if not the only—modernist building in the old city, and the exhibits were very avant-garde. Occasionally witty, frequently annoying. Quality of the building’s construction: shitty.

We spent the rest of the afternoon getting wet looking for a place to eat, and wound up at a place that wasn’t worth finding. “Galeon” was mentioned in Rough Guide as being popular and cheap, which is accurate, but it was pretty bad. It was, however, dry, a big plus. I noticed an interesting distinction on its menu between “sandwiches” and “bocadillos”—apparently the former on bread sliced from a load, the latter are on rustic bread. After this disappointing experience, where we learned that ensaladilla means “potato salad” (with canned peas and carrots), we moved along to a very civilized pastry shop down the street, for sweet bits and coffee.

Caught up with Jose. For various obscure reasons, Susie and the kid would not be able to join us for our last night. Gwen, Jose, and I went to a local joint run by a friend of the family where we were served a prodigious amount of food (mostly pulpo and fresh-made tortilla) and drink for very little money.

2 Oct—Mon

Took the all-day train to Bilbao. Rolled through very diverse country—mountainous and green, hilly and brown, flat farmland, then more green hills. Reached Bilbao slightly ahead of schedule and quickly located a pensión mentioned in Rough Guide. Took a tiny, clean room with an attached bath off a blind courtyard that (we learned) seems to act as a resonator for every nearby sound. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been staying in budget pensións in city centers, but it seems as if all rooms are made with this sound-collecting quality.

The ride through the countryside was interesting in that it revealed the astonishing amount of new construction going on everywhere we looked. The town of Burgos is practically building a completely new city just to its east, with hundreds of new buildings representing thousands of new housing units in various shapes, sizes, and stages of completion. This is the most extreme example, but it seemed as if everywhere we looked, there was a construction crane somewhere in our field of view.

Noticed one ghost town called, ominously, Torquemada. Can’t say I’m sorry a town with a name like that isn’t thriving (Gwen thinks it was Torrequemada, actually).

On the route, our train went through numerous configurations. In Ourense, we had to switch cars, because the car by which we reached Ourense was being detached; later, we got stuck in the dining car right after it was closed off preparatory to being jettisoned at the next station. I’m pretty sure there were at least two other re-arrangements along the way.

In Bilbao, unlike the rest of Spain, people apparently dine early, and many restaurants near our pensión were winding up at 9:00 PM—the time when a Barcelona restaurant might be opening. We did find a restaurant with an interesting-looking menu that stayed open ’till 11:30, but when we ordered, the waiter only waited until we had asked for appetizers, perhaps due to some miscommunication. When we tried to order main dishes (from a different waiter) he told us the kitchen was closing down and abruptly walked away. But came back and deigned to take our order (this was at 9:45). Shortly after, another party was seated and ordered without hassle.

3 Oct—Tue

Today was Guggenheim day. We got off to a reasonably early start, and had breakfast at a fantastic art-nouveau restaurant, Cafe Broadway, in our part of town, the Casco Viejo. We then walked along the riverfront to get to the museum—the city had clearly upgraded this around the same time the museum went up, and it was very pleasant, with the tram running alongside in case we got lazy.

We achieved the museum before long, and it really is amazing. I don’t know if Frank Gehry is a genius or just a lucky sonofabitch, but the end product is a landmark for our era. We spent quite a long time walking around it, making a complete circuit before going in, and every perspective it offers is an interesting one.

Eventually, of course, we had to go on—to not go in would be like watching porn and turning it off before the money shot. I can’t help but note that admission fees had gone up since our (new) guidebook was printed—from €8 to €12.50. And on the day our our visit, the upper two levels were completely closed off, as they were mounting new exhibits there. Disappointing. So we saw stuff from the permanent collection—much of which we also found disappointing. Richard Serra’s giant iron-plate walk-through sculptures were interesting, and are something to experience by moving through as much as to view. Admittedly the differences between the various pieces of his there were in some cases a bit too subtle for my coarse sensibilities to fully appreciate, but I did appreciate it.

Not so much the other pieces on display from the permanent collection, which fall under the category of “wank-fest” for Gwen and me. Color-field paintings, a bunch of coal-sacks pinned to iron plates by I-beams, a giant circle of slate shards on the floor, and one of Jenny Holzer’s scrolling LED things. I was at a SOHO gallery opening with my old friend Scott some years ago, for another one of these installations. I asked Scott (a real working artist) “what point is she trying to make?” He said “that she’s a big-name artist and can do cool stuff like this and get away with it.” Or words to that effect.

In short, we liked the museum more than its contents.

Our museum visit at a logical close, we departed and found a farmacia because Gwen had come down with a cold. Spain apparently doesn’t have OTC drugs; rather, she explained to the pharmacist what was wrong (which was obvious) and he decided what she should have.

This necessity attended to, we wandered around looking for lunch, and quite by chance happened upon Cafe Iruña, a stunning 1903 restaurant done up in Moorish style and exquisitely maintained. Had the lunch set, which was OK and filling. The place itself made for tastier eye-candy.

Did some more wandering through downtown. The town has a suspiciously orderly grid plan compared to every other place we’ve seen so far—though its address-numbering system still leaves something to be desired. There’s a lot of great 19th-century architecture here (as in Barcelona), and while the guide books give it short shrift, I suspect there’s more going on in this town, though we won’t really have enough time to explore that. Still, I suspect the city would reward a longer visit.

Just as auto manufacturers build “halo models” that don’t sell in big volumes or generate big profits, but do create a more positive image for the brand as a whole, I suspect the Guggenheim is a sort of halo attraction for the city which (like so many others) is furiously a-building, and has its shiny new tram and subway system. The terminal for the regional rail line is being rebuilt by Zaha Hadid, and will wind up looking like a glass face-hugger from Alien embedded in the streets.

We learned this when (after some considerable confusion at the Renfe station and the Feve station) we hiked over to the Euskotren station, Atxuri, to scope out our ride to San Sebastian. Where we encountered more confusion. Living in Japan should have made me a past-master at extracting tickets from vending machines in a foreign language, but the Euskotren one stumpted Gwen and me: rather than showing a list of destinations on the touch-screen, it showed a map. Our destination wasn’t on that map at all. It turns out the map was showing one of two routes by region name, and to see the other route, you had to touch a screen button with the name of that region. Of course, if you aren’t aware that San Sebastian is in a different region (and the system used the Basque Euskera names for the regions, though our guidebooks mostly used the Spanish names, adding an extra layer of confusion.

From there, we rode the tram back to the Guggenheim to see it at night, since there’s a fire sculpture, and we were hoping to see it lit up. The tram itself is shiny, new, and futuristic, and actually played a few bars of something that sounds awfully similar to “The Jetsons” theme music when it rolled out of the station (after that it segued into Green Onions as it would have been covered by Henry Mancini, then Midnight Cowboy, then Misty).

When we reached the Gug, it was raining and there was no fire. In fact, the museum wasn’t even lit up in an interesting way, so that was a bust. We consoled ourselves with pastries (which Gwen couldn’t really taste because of her cold) from a very nice bakery near our pensión.

There was much nose-blowing, coughing, and swearing by Gwen during the course of the day on account of this cold, and nary a wink of sleep that night due to cold-medicine heart-racing.

I think the most remarkable part of our travels and our long train rides is the extreme constrast between new and old, and their physical proximity. Susie and Jose’s swanky new apartment overlooks a crumbling 200-300 year-old series of structures, all of which are being used. Swanky BMWs driving down farm roads past 500-year-old structures. nasty dull apartment complexes spring up next to 12th-century cathedrals. Kids fully plugged in with iPods and cellphones lounge in cafes established in the 1800s. It was most notable for me on train rides, though, passing through tiny towns and rural life.

7 Oct—Sat

Last day in Barcelona—or Spain. Went to the Museum of Decorative Arts, which showed the progress in design from roughly the 1300s to the present. Somewhat amazingly, everything was right there, not set back behind a protective cordon or behind glass (except for a few pieces with doors or drawers that people might be too tempted to open). I guess there’s just so damned much old stuff around that people aren’t terribly precious about it. Either that, or museum-goers here give curators much less reason to be concerned.

It was interesting to note at the exhibit that around 1900—around the same time (I think) that furniture-making started a transition from being a craft to an industry—that the point of interest in furniture moved away from ornament on the piece to the overall shape of the piece and how that shape revealed the function. I was especially fascinated by the incredibly detailed wood inlay work we saw on escritorios—boxes of drawers that opened up to be writing desks. Ivory in wood, various woods in wood and colored/stained wood. Very delicately worked.

On the same ticket, we were later able to enter the Textile Museum—which has fragments dating back to the 3rd century AD. Up to roughly 1600, the exhibits consisted mostly of clerical vestments; after that point, it was mostly a history of female fashion. And it is interesting to note that, also around 1900, women’s fashion transitioned away from the massively architected styles that amplify the shape and function of the female anatomy, and towards shapeless bags, especially in the 1920s.

Also interesting to note how tiny people were, right up to 1900. Gwen, at 5’2″, towered over all the mannequins in women’s dresses—after we realized this, a woman half a head taller than me walked over to the same exhibit that prompted the realization, making the case even more starkly.

Also at the textile museum, Mariaelena Roqué’s costuming for works done with Carlos Santos, with accompanying video clips and soundtracks. I was fascinated by all of it, and hope to find some video of their work when we return. Avant-garde opera.

After this, took care of some souvenir shopping, finally.

To get back to our neighborhood from the Museum of Decorative Arts, we took the Metro, and when we emerged from underground, we were practically in the middle of an equestrian parade—with a streetcleaning truck right in the middle, presumably to take care of roadside apples. Not in the rear, which would make more sense, it trailed after a particular military/regimental grouping. Of course, the horses that followed dropped off a few loads too. I had to wonder at this parade—it was the third or fourth special event we just happened upon. Barcelona is a major tourist town (in some parts, you are more likely to overhear English than any other language), and it occurred to me that the city might orchestrate these events to keep the tourists’ interest up.

Yet another tourist entertainment is going on next to our pensión, in the same place as Correfoc was: Mercat Medieval. A bunch of yer typical hippie artisans selling tea, incense, leathercraft, jewelry, textile arts, etc. All the vendors (and many of the merchants in surrounding businesses) were got up in Ye Olde Ren-Fair Garb. One nice touch was that many of them had the tools of their trades on hand. Much of the stuff was actually pretty nice, and Gwen bought two necklaces (oddly enough, the girls working that booth were Americans, though the artisan was local) and a handbag (from a Dane).

Going back a few days. We left Bilbao and the worst of Gwen’s cold, on a very slow train to San Sebastian. 70 km in 2.5 hours. The scenery was breathtaking, though: very steep mountains, lots of green rural farms and vineyards. Our pensión in San Sebastian was two blocks from the beach! (Downside: two twin beds pushed together, very uncomfortable.) A bit chilly for hanging out at the beach our first day. But I still jumped in. Very picturesque town, very expensive, lots of people who are fit and thin and very, very tanned. Didn’t do much except wander around and got in a half-day of beach lounging on day 2 before it threatened rain. It wasn’t quite the lolling-on-the-beach time that I had hoped for, but it was relaxing and I did swim in the ocean.Friday, train from San Sebastian to Barcelona for 9 hours, through Leon, Pamplona, down to Tarragona, and up the coast. Saw lots of farmland, much drier though, and mostly irrigated. Adam scored by catching sight early on of the Roman aqueduct outside Segovia—built at the end of the first century and used until the late 19th. Holy crap.

Random observations

Our travels kept us in northern Spain the entire trip: we saw none of Madrid, and none of Moorish Spain. Both of those would be interesting to hit on a future trip. What was also interesting was that Castilian Spanish was not the native language/dialect (let’s not get into what’s what) in any of the places we visited: Català in Barcelona, Gallego in Santiago, and Basque in Bilbao/San Sebastian. Everybody was capable of speaking Castilian, of course, and that’s what they spoke to Gwen (who speaks some Mexican Spanish, which itself is different), but much signage was not in Castilian at all. Exit signs, for example:
Castilian: “salida”
Català: “sortida”
Gallego: “saida”
Don’t even ask me what that would be in Euskera.

We had made a conscious decision not to bring a laptop on this trip. And while I might not want to schlepp around a laptop, or have it there as a diversion, I think something has changed, and I’d really want some kind of access to the Internet in the future. Something like the Nokia 770 or Pepper pad would be about right. We found ourselves on a few occasions realizing that the best way to get information we wanted or needed would be through the Internet, and that wasn’t really an option. There was free wi-fi to be found most of the places we went, so connectivity wasn’t an issue.

As I mentioned before, we saw construction everywhere. Spain seems to be undergoing some kind of boom. The proprietress at our pensión in Barcelona, Ruth, commented that Spain was near the bottom, economically, of the original 12 EU members, and I imagine its apparent prosperity is related to the benefits of economic integration. It seems that Spain must have been having a boom in the mid/late 1800s, as there was so much great architecture dating from that period.

Despite her protestations of limited English ability, Ruth was interesting to talk to. She commented that Americans are always talking about their “rights” but from her perspective, we Americans are missing important rights, like the right to healthcare. I said “in the USA, that’s not considered a right.” Food for thought.

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