Dan and I travelled to Spain and Portugal for three weeks in September of 2002 for our honeymoon. We’re not quite sure what prompted us to choose these countries, but we’d been talking about this trip ever since the plane ride home from Italy in the spring of 2001. We were both looking forward to some fun and relaxation after months of planning the wedding and all the excitement of the wedding itself.
Getting from California to Europe takes a long time, there’s just no getting around it. The flight to Heathrow was long, and it got off to a bit of an odd start. As we were preparing for takeoff, a flight attendant came and asked the man sitting in front of us to follow her to the front of the plane. She returned to get his bag, and searched through the seat pocket. Then she brought him back and and seated him a few rows behind us. People around us were getting a little bit uneasy, since no-one knew what was going on. This was all especially unnerving since it was just about a week before the anniversary of September 11th. As it turned out, the problem was simply that he was not eligible to sit in the exit row, and after the initial excitement, the flight went smoothly. We were even able to see the aurora borealis from our side of the plane, which was kind of neat.
Barcelona resembled Santa Barbara from the air: a built-up flat area nestled between the water and the hills. We had no trouble catching the shuttle from the airport to the Plaça de Catalunya, which was just a few blocks from our hotel. Although we had both gotten some sleep on the plane, we were feeling exhausted and disoriented when we arrived at the plaça. After a little bit of wandering off in wrong directions, we got our bearings, found the hotel and checked in.
We tend to be frugal travellers, and prefer to spend our money on great food (and film, in my case) rather than on lodgings or souvenirs. We made an exception in Barcelona, since it was the first stop on our honeymoon, and chose a hotel that was a cut above our typical clean-but-modest pensione. The Hotel Continental Palacete was just perfect: very pretty, centrally located in the L’Eixample dstrict, and far enough from the bustling Ramblas district to be quiet.
I managed to get a good, long rest, falling asleep at about about 7 pm and sleeping through the night with just a little bit of wakefulness. Dan wasn’t so lucky, and was up for several hours in the sitting room. He came in to wake me at about 8:45, and I got up and and joined him for breakfast. It was simple and self-serve, but good: hard-boiled egg, thick smoky ham, a juicy pear and a sweet roll. We were initially skeptical about the push-button coffee machine, but the café con leche it dispensed was surprisingly good.
Best of all was the lovely setting: the balcony you see at the beginning of the gallery. We sat overlooking the square, watching the city wake up. After we finished eating, we decided to start our explorations by taking a walk down the Ramblas and seeing what struck our fancy.
Dan spent a lot of time before we left researching the cities we’d be visiting. He discovered that Barcelona has a terrible reputation for pickpockets. When you carry as much camera gear as the two of us do, this is a big concern. After all of his “security advisories,” I was feeling quite anxious about getting robbed, and very much on edge as we walked from the hotel down to the Ramblas, a wide avenue running from the Plaça de Catalunya down to the waterfront. The Ramblas is lined with shops, and the central pedestrian strip holds booths for street vendors. The merchants group by types of merchandise: birds and other pets, flowers, magazines and newspapers, and so on.
It was tough to get into a photographic mood while worrying that someone was about to sneak up and rob me while my nose was in the camera. We did manage snap a few shots around the flower market and then at the Mercat San Josep. Also called the Boqueria, this is a semi-enclosed meat, cheese and produce market that smells quite strongly of old fish and cigarette smoke.
We decided to head from the Ramblas to the Iglesia de Santa Maria del Pi. The church is plain on the outside, but the stained glass is quite nice once you get inside. Supposedly, this rose window is the largest in Europe.
After this, we continued our wandering over toward the Catedral. We were both feeling slow and a little dazed, so we walked through the cathedral and sat for a while in the cloister. This is a spacious and pleasant courtyard, populated with geese that have traditionally served as the Catedral’s alarm system.
We were starting to feel hungry, so we decided it was lunchtime, and started scoping out the options in our guidebooks. Our first selection, Meson Jesus, was in a bleak and smelly alley near the Iglesia San Josep. It was only one, and they were not yet open. We waited a few minutes, but the vibe of this alley was making us both a little uncomfortable, so we decided to head to Café Elisabets. It was about a ten minute walk away, on one of the quieter streets back on the other side of the Ramblas.
This turned out to be a very good choice. When we arrived, the staff was friendly and accommodating, and the menu looked great. I ordered vegetables “antique style,” salmon en papillote, and flan. The vegetables—potatoes, beans, carrots, cauliflower, and leeks—were stewed with sausage and salt pork. Dan got seafood paella, filletes of pork, and cream cheese with honey for dessert, a local specialty. It was all good, though the vegetables and the cream cheese with honey were especially tasty. The whole meal cost us just 15 euros, such a deal.
After lunch, we decided to go back to the hotel for a little rest before doing any more exploring. We managed to change rooms while we were there, The new room was larger and somewhat cooler, but also closer to the kitchen, and so a little noisier. Dan took a siesta, and I ended up doing some laundry in the sink. Our grand plans for afternoon exploring turned into a five-hour sleep. Dan really needed it!
By the time we woke up again, it was time for dinner. We headed out to Qu Qu, a tapas bar around the corner on the stylish Passeig de Gràcia, for tapas. I had not had much experience with tapas at home, so these were a delicious adventure. The Gazpacho Andalus was the star of the meal, a green version of the soup with ground almonds and grapes.
I didn’t sleep as well the second night and woke up a few times. I finally decided to take a bath, and discovered that the hotel’s complimentary bath soap smelled just like stinky French cheese. This is a rather curious aesthetic for toiletries.
At about 4:30am, I woke up for good. Since we were planning to spend the day in Montserrat, I studied up in the Rick Steves’ and Lonely Planet guides. I woke Dan up at 7 so we could get an early start. We had another pleasant breakfast in the sitting room overlooking the plaça.
We left the hotel 9, and stopped at the TI for train information and then moved on to the Ramblas for a morning photo shoot. I started to feel my eye “warming up,” and got some good shots of the flower market. Many of the flower stalls have displays of little paper cones filled with very tiny flowers dyed in in bright colors. The animal stalls had some very cute baby animals for sale: itty-bitty chinchillas and tiny tortugas (turtles).
Soon, it was time to get on the Metro and navigate to the Plaça Espanya stop to catch the FGC train to Montserrat. We made it just in time!
When we got back from Montserrat, we had no luck getting a reservation at Tragaluz, the restaurant we wanted to try. This was no shock, as it was 9pm on Friday, so we went out and wandered around looking for a restaurant. We went several blocks up the busy Passeig de Gràcia, but nothing looked very promising.
Finally, we returned to the block near our hotel and decided to eat at Ba-ba-ree-ba, another tapas restaurant right next door to Qu Qu. This was another great choice; every dish was wonderful! We started with a fantastic spinach salad that came with a cold white bean and orange “confit.” and a divine molded mushroom risotto.
Another winner was the botifarra, white pork Catalan sausage stewed with white beans. It was savory, homey and comforting. The real star of the dinner was my dessert. It consisted of pureed chestnuts sandwiched between layers of crispy pastry and surrounded by a wild strawberry sauce. DEE-licious. Dan’s dessert was cream puffs with whipped cream and warm chocolate sauce, not too shabby either!
We slept quite late the next day, finally rousing ourselves slightly before 11. This is exactly how a honeymoon should be! Our plan for the day was to see the Picasso museum, and then make a reservation at one of the nearby restaurants for dinner.
Getting to the museum entailed a leisurely walk through a section we hadn’t really seen before, the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), on the far side of the Catedral from our hotel. We walked down the Avinguda del Portal de l’Angel, another pedestrian street that comes off the Plaça de Catalunya and runs parallel to the Ramblas. Some pretty ceramics were for sale at an open-air market. I passed them by, since I was skeptical that they would survive two more weeks of train travel and then the trip home.
After a couple more zigs and zags, I spotted the Palau de la Música Catalana, an example of the Modernista style of architecture for which Barcelona is famous.
The facade is covered with pillars and tile mosaics, and loaded with patterns and ornamentation. Many of the designs looked looked as though they had a lot of Arabic influence to them. They were a bit more structured and formal than the Gaudi mosaics we’d been seeing. Unfortunately, the street was so narrow, it was difficult to get any decent photos, though I did pick up some postcards. The rest of the walk through the Gothic Quarter to the Picasso Museum was fun: tiny winding streets, and lots of funky, artsy shops.
Picasso and the Sagrada Familia
The Picasso museum contained a large amount of his early work, including many very conventional-looking portraits and still lifes, arranged more or less chronologically. We could see his experimentation with different styles that were emerging when he was young, and the influence of artists like Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Matisse. This really highlighted the work that went off in an original direction. I was very interested to see his etchings and lithographs, which mainly were done later in his life. Dan thought the Cubist-style lithographs were more effective than the Cubist paintings because the flat colors in the prints seemed a better match for the the concept. We also saw a fair number of his ceramics, which we both found unimpressive.
After the museum, we located El Pintor, one of the restaurants we were considering for dinner. We just decided to have lunch there, since we were hungry and a table was free. It was a bit of a splurge meal, but it was tasty. I started with Catalan-style spinach with pine nuts and raisins, which was quite similar to Dan’s signature spinach dish. This version was saltier, and used olive oil rather than butter. The raisins had a different flavor and texture than “California” raisins, and there was no acidity. Dan normally uses lemon juice or maybe balsamic vinegar in his version. Dan’s first course was extraordinary. I realize I’ve said this about every meal so far, but we were really enjoying the food! He had a “mushroom pie” that was more like a soufflé, served with a pureed red pepper sauce. It was delicate and delicious. My main course was white Catalan pork sausage with wild mushrooms, a little on the greasy side, but good. Dan’s entrée was duck with a raspberry sauce. A small touch that I found charming was the garnish used on each dish: a little flower cut out of a slice of carrot.
After lunch, we took the Metro up to see the Sagrada Familia church. It’s massive, and very strange-looking.
Much of the Sagrada Familia is still under construction, but we were able to walk through the interior to see the work in progress. Piles of concrete pieces and slabs of decorative mosaic were lying around in stacks. One section of the site had an exhibition with photos of the original models and workshops, and several intricate CAD drawings of different parts of the construction.
My favorite part of the building was the set of bronze relief doors on the back facade. The ones you see at left were covered in lettering, mainly passages from the Bible. The others had a combination of lettering and figures, some abstract and some very whimsical.
By this time, the scratchy throat I’d had since our flight was turning into a real, live cold. We decided to take the Metro back to the Passeig de Gràcia stop so we could figure out where to get our tickets to Figueres the next day. It was a good thing we did, because where we needed to go was not very obvious. We found the platform, confirmed that we needed to buy tickets on the day of travel, and then headed back to the hotel. I decided I needed a snack after we got off the Metro. I wanted some ice cream, but settled for a fried hot apple pie from McDonalds. It was good to get this out of the way, since I must always have at least one of these on any trip to Europe. I can’t for the life of me figure out why McDonald’s bakes them in the U.S. Do they think anyone is fooled into thinking this is a healthy snack?
We napped for a little while back in our room, and then decided to go out in search of “dessert for dinner.” We walked up Rambla de Catalunya for a few blocks from our hotel, to see if any of the pastry shops we’d seen earlier were still open. No luck there, so we turned around and headed toward Café Zurich on the Plaça de Catalunya. On the way we were distracted by La Tromoia, another tapas place, and decided some real food was probably a pretty good idea. I had a “toastie” sandwich with grilled pork loin and peppers, simple and tasty. Dan had some sort of sausages. We ordered two desserts, since that had been the goal of the meal all along. The first was Creme Catalan, which is a a very eggy creme brulée. The second was Tarta de Santiago, an almond cake that came with sweet wine to pour over it. I’m hoping to find a recipe or approximate this one at home some time.
After dinner, it was home again to bed, where I slept pretty poorly. I couldn’t fall asleep until around 3:30, so it was tough to get up at 8 the next day for our trip to Figueres!
When I woke up the next morning, I was definitely feeling sick, but we were off to Figueres to see the Dali Museum! We got ourselves up and out in time to catch the train, and then had a pleasant, smooth ride out to Figueres. The route took us through an agricultural area, and we saw many fields along the way full of sunflowers. Most of them were dead, since it was the end of the summer, but one field was in full bloom. This area must be spectacular when all the fields are in flower!
The town of Figueres was a little bit dingy, with a lot of dog poop on the sidewalks. Much of the central plaza was under construction, and everything we saw in town looked a bit frayed around the edges. Dan’s GPS was not as helpful as we would have liked, but we managed to find the museum without too much trouble.
This place is completely wacky. The outside of the building is maroon and covered with small ochre-colored ornaments, set in a regular pattern. Along the top are large egg sculptures resting at various angles, along with sleek, stylized female figures holding baguettes. The inside is even more strange, with odd sculptures, murals, and room-sized works along with displays of paintings. Dan got some photos of the Mae West Room, and of the ceiling mural featuring Dali himself and his wife Gala.
The building houses another museum, dedicated to Dali’s “Jewels,” a series of jewelry pieces he made over a number of years. I really enjoyed these. They are bizarre, as you would expect from him, but also beautiful and witty. One that stands out in my memory is the tiny, jewelled heart-in-a-heart. The exterior was shaped like a Valentine heart. In the middle was a smaller one, shaped like a human heart, with a little motor in it that made it beat.
I was feeling really poorly when we got back to Barcelona, so I took a long nap while Dan went off to explore and photograph on his own. He came back later with two of the small dried flower cones for me—so cute—and two desserts to have for dinner.
Yeah, so what if we did that the night before, too? We were on our honeymoon! The hotel had left us a bottle of cava, a very dry champagne-style Spanish wine. It was very nice with the small cake and apple tart Dan brought back.
The next morning, we were up fairly early to pack our things and get ready to continue on to Madrid. We had a little extra time, so we walked the few blocks to the Block of Discord to photograph the famous building facades by Gaudi and two other Modernista architects. I had a hard time getting any good photos because of trees along the sidewalk and the specular glare on tiles, but Dan had some better luck. From there, it was back to the hotel to get our bags and catch a cab to the train station.