Monthly Archives: November 2013

Missing Barcelona

I’m not saying that we missed Barcelona—we definitely “hit” it.   But we miss it now.   What a wonderful city!  From the great public transportation, to the food, to the lively night life, to the architecture and design—we loved every minute.  Even though this was not our first time in Barcelona, it was the longest time we’ve stayed in the city, and we started to feel like we really know the place now.  But, of course, there are so many Barcelona’s.

We stayed in a small apartment that we were able to rent through a company called “Easy Flat Barcelona.”  They have several apartments for rent on a short-term basis –and this one was ideal.   Clean, comfortable, modern (except for an elevator straight out of Moulin Rouge) and right on La Rambla, just steps away from the Plaça Cataluña, the biggest crossroads of the city.   The apartment is one bedroom with a sofa-bed in the living room, which came in handy as our son joined us for a few days during our stay—that made it extra-special. We got lucky once again, and the October weather was mild.    We all were surprised by how crowded with tourists the city was, even during this “shoulder season.”  I guess there is really no slow period in this high-energy city.  www.easyflatbcn.com

We concentrated on Gaudi architecture this trip—visiting the Palau Guell, Guell Park, Gaudi’s futuristic sub-division that was too far ahead of its time to be successful,  and of course the “block of discord.”  We also visited the Sagrada Familia cathedral—Gaudi’s unfinished work that may be completed in our lifetimes—but perhaps not.  Unique in all the world, it’s a place that must be seen to be believed. Last spring we had visited the Cathedral as well, and the photos of the cathedral posted here are from that trip, when the weather was colder but clearer. This news program gives a great overview: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50142539n.

A highlight for us was a visit to the Caixa Forum, a terrific museum in a former Modernista warehouse.  It  was recommended to us by the Massachusetts neighbors we happened to bump into  in Palermo—great tip!   We would not have known that the Caixa was having a special exhibition of Pissarro’s works unless they’d told us.   It absolutely blew us away—67 beautiful Pissarro’s on exhibit, and the best examples of the artist’s work I’ve ever seen—just incredible.   If you are fond of impressionist, this exhibition alone would be worth a trip to Barcelona.aOne new experience was to visit Barcelonetta, the beach area that has enjoyed quite a renaissance in recent years.  Although no longer really beach weather, the promenade was still busy with people walking and cycling along the waterfront on a beautiful fall day.  We found a really great no-frills  restaurant there Bar Villoro—we chose it because it was the only one where lots of locals were dining—large groups of men eating and drinking and playing dominoes, business people having lavish lunches and wine, and we three American tourists.   I immediately started talking to the owner because his resemblance to my late Uncle Felipe was startling.   He assured me that all his family is in Barcelona, so he could not possibly be a long-lost relative.  But he took care of us as if he were.   We had some of the best rice dishes we’ve enjoyed in Spain.   A real feast as the photo will show.   Two bottles of wine and some after-dinner drinks too—it was a low-key day after that–we all needed a siesta!

Another memorable meal was at Les Quinze Nits on the Plaça Reial.   Every day when we were in the area, we saw the long lines to get in, but we managed to walk right in and get a prime table on November 1, since it was a holiday and the lunch crowd was late getting started.   Timing is everything!   We enjoyed a starter of mixed fried fish and seafood and two great entrees—one of hake and one of fresh tuna.   Now we know why people line up.  We had a great three-course lunch with wine in an ideal location for 45 Euros!   Quite a bargain, and the food lived up to the hype.

We did our share of tapas crawls in the evenings as well.  A couple of our favorites were Basque-themed.   Even in independent and proud Cataluña, the Basque style of cooking and eating has caught on.  You can imagine the craziness on the streets—especially on LaRambla, for Halloween.   Another  post will include a video of a bicycle “parade” –shaky as it is while being jostled  and almost knocked down in the festivities.

On the day we visited the Palau Guell, one of Gaudi’s first significant architectural achievements, we walked the couple of blocks from our place and walked through the incredible building—just the beginning of a career that would transform Barcelona.   The whimsical chimney decoration on the roof is that last part of the tour, and we were lucky enough to time it perfectly with a gorgeous sunset over the city—better to be lucky than clever.   We adore the photos from the rooftop.

The visit to Guell part was also great—although there was one unpleasant surprise.   It seems only a week before we arrived, the city started charging admission to enter this formerly-public park.   A huge mistake, I think.   We spoke to someone who told us that they receive 10 million visitorsto the park each year, and that the city was being greedy by closing most of the park to the public and charging admission, even to locals.   Even within the park itself, there are still rope lines and additional admission charges for certain buildings.   A real mess.  The lines were long, the staff disorganized and as confused as we were.   Hopefully, they will work these kinks out soon, or acquiesce to the local pressure to return the park to the public.

La Boqueria market adds yet another chapter of “food porn” to our collection.  What an amazing place to visit and to sample food from the many stands and booths serving everything you can imagine—hams, sausages, empanadas, seafood, sweets, the works.   A wonderland for foodies—and again, just steps from our door on La Rambla.

The best part for us, though, was being able to explore Barcelona with our son.  We’ve been traveling a long time, and were starting to miss the family.  Having one family member come to us was a wonderful treat!

From Barcelona, we picked up the Ryndam for our long slow trip back home.   Will 14 days on a ship be too much down time?    We’ll keep you posted.

Click on a thumbnail and use the arrow to scroll through the Barcelona pictures.

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Sicily – Part two

The second part of our Sicily trip was a little more relaxed–at least until the volcano exploded.The previous post shows it on video.   From Syracusa to Taormina, the train ride was brief.  When we arrived at our hotel, high above the beaches we were surprised that our room didn’t have a sea view, since nearly everything faces the sea.  Then we realized that instead, we had a view of Mt. Etna.   Even better! http://www.continentaltaormina.com/uk/

There was an exquisite terrace and rear garden, with a gate leading to stairs that took us right to the Via Umberto, the main drag of Taormina.  It is an impossibly romantic city, something out of a fantasy.  We enjoyed a very fine dinner and as we were walking back, heard some great music drifting down from one of the steep side streets, then followed it.   A couple of cocktails and a beautiful setting, some nice people to chat with, good  music, what more could we want? How about an exploding volcano?  

We had already booked our bus trip to Mt. Etna the next day.   What we didn’t know yet, of course, was that it would erupt that very morning.   We could see the explosions all along the ride up, and when we stopped for a photo op, we were surprised that we could also HEAR them!    It sounded like an artillery range, and it was all very thrilling.   When we arrived at the 1900 meter station, we were told that the cable car to the crater could not run that day, of course, because of the explosions taking place.   But there was no problem hiking up the mountain.  So that’s what we did.

The hike was kind of steep and the terrain a little rough because it was so loose and slippery.  Ray described it as climbing a pile of cinders.  But we made it as high as 2400 meters, and were quite pleased with ourselves for our endurance and bravery!  Besides, we had to keep up the tradition of climbing something–a tower, an arena, a mountain—at least once each week.    It really wasn’t scary at all, and the locals are pretty blasé about the eruptions—it’s not all that uncommon.   Still, we felt so lucky to be able to see it happening.  Our dumb luck seems to be holding out.

Last stop in Sicily was Palermo.  We just had a day there before flying out to Barcelona.   The city itself was a bit of a shock to the system, noisy and crowded, even on a Sunday.  We knew that with limited time we should visit the Palazzo Dei Normanni and Cappella Palatina. It was worth the long walk through noisy streets, because the Chapel has some of the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics I have ever seen.   A really inspiring sight.

Now let’s talk about senior discounts.   In most of Europe, they offer discounts for “pensioners” –sometimes 60 and over, sometimes 65 and over.    But,  many places say that the discount is only for E.U. citizens.   In Sicily, we were incensed to read that the senior discount was for “EU citizens, Canadians, and Australians.”   It usually means a saving of 5 to 15 Euros per admission.   Why not US citizens, because they think we have too much money?   Haven’t they been reading the papers—don’t they know the US is broke and deeply in debt???   

So, occasionally Ray asks for the senior discount, and they refuse without proof of E.U. citizenship.  I told him to try saying he was Canadian or English.  (His Spanish and French would give him away.)    In Palermo, he tried this and received the 75 percent discount on his ticket.   We were satisfied, until we heard an American accent, standing just behind us on line, saying “I’m going to try saying that.”

Of course, Ray started up a conversation with him immediately, and asked, “Where are you from?”  Guess what the answer was?  “Great Barrington, Massachusetts.”     Two couples who lived about 5 minutes away from us, with some mutual friends.   We’ve even been to at least one party at the same time.   Why wouldn’t we go thousands of miles to meet new friends from the neighborhood?  

Check out the pics—especially the ones of the volcano, which I think are just beautiful.    Click on a thumbnail and then use the arrows to scroll through.

Sicily–a great start

We decided we’d had enough driving for awhile, so we did Sicily by train.   We were hesitant about dragging bags from place to place and making connections, and it did limit us to just a few towns, but it  worked out really well for us.   We flew into Palermo and then took the train to Agrigento.   The Valley of the Temples is such a fantastic experience, it was worth doing even though it was nearly a full day’s travel to get to our next destination.  Eight Greek temples of the ancient world remain there, some incredibly well-preserved, going back as far as the 6th century BC.  There is something so powerful about contemplating the many civilizations that have made the island of Sicily their home.

The Grand Hotel Dei Templi was not really well located, I’d rather have had a B&B in town, but we figured out the buses and managed to get where we needed to go, at least in the daylight hours.   At night, we were stuck paying for taxis.   That said, the hotel itself is in an absolute time warp—not to ancient Greece or even Sicily circa 1900—more like Oceania circa 1970. A bit weird.   The first night we enjoyed one of the best dinners we’ve had on the entire trip.   The restaurant Ambasciata di Sicilia, which has been a city staple since the end of WW I, has a beautiful terrace overlooking the city rooftops.http://www.ristorantelambasciatadisicilia.it/ The weather was mild enough to dine outdoors, so of course we did.   The Pasta con le Sarde was incredibly fresh—thick pasta with fresh sardines, wild fennel, and a touch of mint.   We wanted to lick the bowl!   Swordfish in every possible form is served all over Sicily, and we had two swordfish dishes, one of involtini, swordfish rolls stuffed with pine nuts, bread crumbs, raisins, and some other secrets I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  So yummy.  The other swordfish dish was a steak served with tomatoes, olives, capers, and wine.   Incredibly rich and flavorful.  The wine, a Sicilian Nero D’avola was just gorgeous, and we found it ironic that it was called “Castel Venus” since we were sitting there overlooking a castle with Venus rising in the night sky. Poetic! I’ll leave it to your imagination to explain why the photo of the wine label is blurry. We enjoyed the food and the atmosphere so much that we even had coffee, dessert, after-dinner drinks.  We didn’t want to leave.   But eventually, the taxi came and whisked us back to our weird little hotel where we had warm gin and tonic (the ice machine was broken) and went to bed. http://www.grandhoteldeitempli.it/

Next day, we had a long trip to Syracusa.    We knew there would be a three-hour layover in Catania, making the trip take the better part of a day.  But the good news was that the train station is quite central in Catania, so we could check our bags at the station and walk to the Piazza del Duomo, visit the Church dedicated to St. Agatha, and have a nice lunch of pizza and salad before heading back to the station.  We asked someone directions and he gave us very clear instructions: “Continue on this street until you run into the elephant.” It sounds even better in Italian.  He was talking about the Fontana dell’Elefante, featuring an elephant, symbol of the city, carved from black lava from Mt. Etna, in the beautifully-designed Piazza.  This little excursion was something we could never have done in an airport layover.   I must also note that every single person we spoke to in Sicily, from taxi drivers to strangers on the street, were helpful and welcoming, kind and friendly.

We arrived in Syracusa and settled in for the night.   In the morning, we visited the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, with its Teatro Greco amphitheater, where  Euripides’ plays were mounted and Archimedes is said to be buried.  We also had to see the celebrated “ear of Dyonisus,” the cave with ear-shattering acoustics.  And, yes, I did sing.  I sounded amazing, I thought, until an English choral group entered the cave and did a well-rehearsed dirge.   THEY sounded amazing.

On Ortygia Island, the old city of Syracusa has been inhabited for two thousand years.   The Piazza del Duomo was lovely, dominated by the cathedral incorporating architectural fragments from a 5th Century BC temple to Athena, with 26 of the original columns still in place, and the cathedral built over it.  This cathedral honors patron Saint Lucia.  St. Lucy is a very important Christian martyr, and we also have special feelings for Lucy because that is our granddaughterwe ’s name!

But the most thrilling part of being in the Piazza was the smaller Church of St. Lucia on the other side of the square.   Here, Caravaggio’s “La Sepoltura di Santa Lucia”  (the Burial of St. Lucy) is displayed.  After many years in a nearby museum, it has been returned to the church.   Artwork of this magnitude seems to have even more power when viewed in situ–just beautiful. We couldn’t take photos in the basilica or the Church of St. Lucy, but the link will give you a taste of the Caravaggio: http://stevengivler.blogspot.com.es/2011/12/viewing-caravaggios-burial-of-st-lucy.html

We also visited the Palazzo Bellomo museum, a 13th-century palace with a very good collection of paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.   After that, we took  a walk all around the Island of Ortygia. It took longer than expected and went through a couple of sketchy areas,  although the sea views were quite beautiful.  But I wouldn’t recommend doing it again.

The next day, we were ready  to chill relax in Taormina.  More about that in the next post, including the explosions on Mt. Etna!

Please click on a thumbnail and look through our pictures of Sicily, part one.