Ok, Spain recap. It’s pretty ridiculous that I haven’t managed to update before this, but here it goes!
We got in really early (7:30 AM) and managed to get into the city by about 10. After dropping our stuff off in the room, we went out seeking coffee, sunshine, and sustenance. A couple of bocadillos and a con leche later, we were ready to rock. We went to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, a convent for women of the royal family. They have amazing artwork and other riches that the initiates brought as their dowry for the order. The whole tour was in Spanish, which became a bit surreal with my limited Spanish comprehension, jet lag, and lack of sleep. Still, it was a nice way to begin our trip.
After a solid nap and a shower, we were ready to take on the town. We stayed out until about 1:30 or 2 AM at an Andalucian tavern, drinking fino and reveling in the amazing tapas, music, and atmosphere. The next few days were spent waking up somewhat late, grabbing a quick breakfast, and then hitting local sites, such as the Retiro, Plaza Mayor, the Reina Sofia, and the Caixa Forum. Our visit was unfortunately punctuated with the theft of Spouse’s passport, but a short trip to the Embassy remedied that situation. Madrid is crawling with pickpockets, and we concluded that his passport was swiped at some point on our second day there. Too bad, but it was barely a speed bump in an otherwise smooth trip.
We took a day trip to Toledo, and while it was a pretty town, I can’t say that I was overwhelmed with it. The cathedral was pretty lovely, but most of the sights were merely OK. The sheer number of tour groups there also made for an unpleasant visit. I’m not one of these travelers who gripes about tourists (seems hypocritical, no?), but I find that I have very little tolerance for large groups of tourists who just slither from one destination to another without attempting to soak any of it in. They seem more concerned with taking obnoxious posed pictures every which-a-way, talking loudly to their friends, and generally being a nuisance. The El Greco house was another site we enjoyed, and it was blissfully unpopulated with groups. I happen to be a fan of his art, and so I enjoyed it.
Salamanca is a super-cool medieval college town in the northwestern part of Spain (about 50 miles from the border with Portugal). The vibe here is much more relaxed than Madrid, and way less touristy than Toledo. The two major universities here go back nearly a thousand year, and both are sights unto themselves. The real highlight for us was the cathedral. It’s actually two cathedrals in one, with the older part dating back to the 13th century. The architecture and details were absolutely stunning, and it has to be one of the best in Spain, if not Europe. We also enjoyed visiting a couple of the convents, which were also architectural gems. At the Convento de las Dueñas, be sure to buy some of their homemade cookies and sweets. They are a bit pricey, but worth it. It took us nearly 2 weeks to finish off both of the boxes that we bought!
While San Sebastian is technically a Spanish city, there is very little of Spain here. People here are proudly Basque, and believe that their region should be its own country, not a semi-autonomous Spanish state. The culture is very different, and it was an interesting contrast to what we’d seen up to our arrival here. San Sebastian (or Donostia, as the locals call it) is a beautiful city by the Bay of Biscay with an estuary running through the middle. The weather is cool and misty, and the food is jaw-droppingly good. Basque chefs are considered to be the best in all of Spain, and this reputation is well-deserved. We ate so incredibly well at the numerous pintxos bars all over town. I ate some of the most innovative things here, including a rice with baby squids, salt cod cooked over a mini grill, and frozen balls of salmorejo.
We took a day hike from San Sebastian to a small village called Pasaia, where we ate an amazing Sunday lunch by the harbor after a nice 3 hour hike by the bay. On another day, we went to Bilbao to see Frank Gehry’s famous Guggenheim museum. Bilbao has apparently changed dramatically since the museum was built, and the parts that we saw seemed super modern. It really has become a hot spot for design, architecture, and art, and transformed this once drab port town into an exciting place to be. We wandered over to the old neighborhood briefly, but we weren’t there long enough to truly evaluate it.
The beginning of our trip to Cadaques was complicated by the fact that we couldn’t navigate for shit, and so I drove around Barcelona in a panic for a good half hour before we finally found our way to the highway (with the help of a kind stranger). Once on the road, we made it there quickly, and settled in. Cadaques is a beautiful little port town by the Mediterranean, and also happens to be Dali’s hometown. The buildings are all white-washed stucco and really reminded me of Southern Italy. Things are nice and relaxed here, and the food is outstanding. I developed an addiction to dorada, a really tasty fish that’s common in the Mediterranean.
We walked to Port Lligat to see Dali’s house, and ended up taking a boat ride to Cap de Creus, the easternmost point in Spain. It was a nice way to spend an hour. We ended up driving to the Cap de Creus later on to take in the sights from the top of the rocks, and enjoyed a beer with a stunning view of the sea.
On the way to Barcelona, we went to Sant Pere de Rodes and to Figueres, where the Dali Museum-Theatre is located. Here’s my rule for museums: You can either allow pictures or large groups of people, but for cripes’ sake, not both! I enjoyed the art that I saw, but I really did not enjoy my time. There were way too many people in the museum, and when you have people stopping every 10 feet for pictures, it creates very unpleasant traffic jams in spaces not designed for many people. After about 30 minutes, we really wanted to leave. We did manage to see the whole museum, but I don’t anticipate returning any time in the near future.
Barcelona was every bit as cool as I’d hoped, and perhaps a bit more. We stayed in the Barri Gotic, which is a cool neighborhood that puts you close (walking distance) to almost everything. We took a couple of Metro rides, but for the most part, we walked to everything.
At this point, I should explain that during this entire trip, a nationwide protest called the 15-M was happening. It began in Madrid while we were there, and continued throughout the country for weeks. Every town had a small encampment of protesters in some main plaza, usually young people. It’s fitting, really, since the youth unemployment rate in Spain is over 40%. The day after we arrived in Barcelona, the Mossos (Catalan state police) cleared out the main plaza (Plaça Catalunya) because they wanted to clean it up in preparation for the following night’s festivities. Barça was playing Manchester United for the Champions League final, and they said that because there would be lots of celebration, they should clean up the plaza. What they didn’t tell them is that they were confiscating all of their belongings, including laptops.
When the protesters realized what was happening, they ran back to try to get their things, and were greeted by baton-wielding police. Many were beaten, some severely. We watched this happen from inside a store. We were ordered to leave through another set of doors, and as soon as we exited, chaos ensued. A horde of running protestors was quickly approaching us, and we started running in order to avoid being trampled. We then heard gun shots, and ran even faster. Later we learned that the gun shots were only rubber bullets, but that certainly did not make it any less scary. For about 30 seconds, we feared we were going to be trampled, or worse, shot by the mossos. We spent the rest of the afternoon in our room, trying to figure out what happened and avoiding any additional violence.
The rest of our trip was certainly much more relaxed. We did watch the Champions League final, and were elated when Barça won! We took to the streets with everyone else, cheering and dancing around. The next morning, we woke up early to visit Montserrat, and we had an amazing time. We hiked for hours, and enjoyed a stunning view from the top of Sant Jeroni, the highest point in Montserrat.
As we wrapped up our trip, we agreed that it was a fantastic trip, but we were ready to come home. For once, I had something to look forward to, and we were happy to get back.