February 10, 2012

Barcelona and the Journey East

We left Portugal on an overnight train to Madrid, then continued on to Barcelona. We spent two days there in order to break up the journey to Rome and to soak up at least one Spanish city. Barcelona proved to be a beautiful and welcoming place, full of friendly old ladies who would give us directions out of the blue anytime we were peering into our city map, delicious bars serving up mounds of tapas, and plenty of green spaces and artistic installations. We stayed at a funky little hostel and had a brief opportunity to take in the sights and use our Spanish, the one language that we both can speak with comfort and ease. After enjoying the city we took another overnight train out of the city to Milan, where we then caught another regional train down to Rome. We'll keep this short and emphasize the pictures instead. Next time we'll share from our first week in Rome. Until the next!

The sleeping berth on our overnight train from Lisbon to Madrid. Train travel is great and sleeping cabins are the pinnacle. I cannot recommend this enough. The little complimentary overnight kit we were given had us lighting up like it was Christmas morning. We betrayed our business class roots on that one... "it's even got a free sewing kit! And look, a toothbrush!"

Arriving in Barcelona we realized that the day of our arrival (Sunday) was the day when entry into the Picasso museum was free. Unfortunately every other tourist in the city also knew that apparently, and equally apparent was that even tourists are affected by the economy. We bailed and rationalized the loss. I mean c'mon, it was only his early stuff anyway.

Certainly one of the greatest, if not THE greatest beer appreciation moments of the trip for Dave. Since Estonia, all beer tastings have been done in a classy fashion, recorded in a moleskin journal with a strict adherence to recording the standard beer tasting criteria (Appearance, Smell, Taste, Mouthfeel, Overall). We found this gem in the Barceloneta section of Barcelona, the 'Vaso d'Oro' Bar, and after busting out my book at the bar to record the first offering, the bartender saw what I was doing and latched right on. For the next hour he spoke in rapid spanish about the nuances of the several beers they had on tap. We eventually learned that it was he himself that did the brewing at his own 'microcerveceria,' that it was his last name on the labels ("Fort"), and that he was damned good. When Christina asked him  how long he'd been brewing, he replied with a quote of the trip: "una vida." He seemed overjoyed to share his passion with someone who really cared, and the beer shown above represents the highlight; his experimental brew, one he's still tinkering with and which remains unlabeled. Before leaving he tucked two free bottles into my hand and we shook hands before departing. Ask to see Dave's beer journal for the review. A true highlight.

A scene from our first night in Barcelona, a glorious round of tapas-bar-hopping. This was apparently the way to experience Barcelona's cuisine, and the night did not disappoint. Empowered by (finally) both being able to speak the language, we tried to find dives that were several blocks off of the main tourist drags and then looked specifically for ones that looked crowded with locals. This one in particular had fantastic seafood, which lined the bartop in numerous pans. The fried calamari melted in one's mouth.

A view from a Barcelona park of two of the citys' more well known pieces of architecture. The monstrosity on the right is the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia that is shown in later pictures. It was staggering how much the monument-in-construction towered over the surrounding city. The rounded building on the left is the Agbar Tower, which is very stunning at night.

Some of the impressive stonework in the Parc Guell, designed by Antoni Guadi, whose work is all over Barcelona and revered to no end. We're convinced he was on drugs, but the talent is undeniable. His belief that nature had no straight lines (and thus his rejection of them) is clear in all of his work that we were able to see.

Tourists flock to the plaza that sits in the center of the Parc Guell. Just below and to the side of the plaza a group of school kids were out for recess, apparently unimpressed.

One of Gaudi's more famous buildings.

The plaza space in Parc Guell, looking out over Barcelona and the Balearic Sea beyond.

Another of Gaudi's famous creations, the lizard at the Parc's entrance.

Christina admiring some of Gaudi's extensive mosaic tiles. These were all over the Parc Guell and it was staggering to think of how much detail and work went into their construction.

Another Gaudi house. Seriously, this guy had to be on something. 

La Sagrada Familia. This Basilica was started by Gaudi (again, Barcelona LOVED him). He worked on it for 43 years and died before it finished. That was about 80 or 90 years ago, and they're still working on the thing. The central tower is apparently going to be half again as high as the current highest point. It was awe-inspring to be sure, an intricately-designed and hulking presence that reinforces a theme of this trip for us; religion more than any other impulse drives man to the biggest and most opulent displays of our artistic and engineering capabilities, by far. Nonetheless, we were actually kind of peeved at the audacity of them charging $13 Euro to gain admission to the Basilica, not only because it seems to violate the ages-old idea of churches being places of sanctuary and open worship, but also because the damned thing wasn't even done yet. 

The construction on la Sagrada Familia. Nothing says holy like a guy in a hardhat and a crotch harness. 
Christina thwarting skateboarders at the Arc de Triumpf, very similar to the one in Paris by the same name.
A photo in front of our hostel - The Garden House Barcelona. This was a great hostel where the patrons seemed to understand that we're all there to get a decent night's sleep and have a safe place to leave our stuff. This hostel was perhaps the quirkiest we've stayed in. Two of the people in our room clearly lived in the hostel - one an older gentleman who would wander the hostel in his matching red pajamas, brown slippers and plush white robe and another that the desk attendant kept calling "The Mexican."  "The Mexican" spent most nights awake watching movies on his laptop. 
On our last day in Barcelona we stored our bags at the train station and took advantage of the afternoon by visiting The Museum of the City of Barcelona. This is a photo of an old Roman castle adjacent to the museum. 
A photo of Barcelona's Gothic Cathedral. Again, we were astonished at the entry fee. It seems the idea of a church as a place of sanctuary and worship is foreign to this city. 
The Museum of the City of Barcelona was one of the best museums we've visited thus far. The basement level is built around old Roman ruins from the old Roman city of Barcino, what would become Barcelona. Dave is standing in front of what was once a former seafood processing plant. 
The ruins not only showed areas where Romans laundered and dyed clothes,  processed fish and lived, but also where they made wine. Pictured here are the Roman equivalent of wine labels.
Before boarding our overnight train to Milan we stocked up on delicious Spanish foods (bread, chorizo, machengo cheese, produce and Rioja) at the Boqueria Mercato.

At the Boqueria Market we were taken aback by these still furry animals displayed at one stall. 
A trip to Barcelona would not have been complete without a good paella. With sausage, pork, mussels, calamari, and prawns, this was fantastic. We are determined to find a good paella recipe when we get back.

Again, we cannot recommend overnight train travel enough. On our train from Barcelona to Milan we were supposed to be in separate cabins. This particular line bunks four people of the same gender in each birth.  Due to a misprint on my (Christina's) ticket, David and I were able to share a four person birth.  Here we are, enjoying our market purchased goods and a delicious glass of Rioja.

Check out the space. In a birth for four we were able to turn down our beds and still have a seating area. Oh, first class, how we love thee!

February 5, 2012

Portugal Part 2

Our final week in Portugal continued much like the first. We gardened, weeded, harvested more carobs, built another raised bed, enjoyed some leisurely meals with Sol and Willem and caught up on some reading.  Although Willem and Sol encouraged us to venture farther out than Bensafrim to Lagos, we decided to spend most of our free days soaking up this local small town and resting up for the next part of our journey (though we did make it to Lagos one warm afternoon). We made several more bike trips into the small town of Bensafrim, including a trip to a delicious local restaurant - El Tachu. 

We arrived at El Tachu one late afternoon to find a round, tanned Portuguese man sound asleep in a chair at one of the side tables.  It turned out this congenial man was bartender, owner and chef! We spent a few hours at the bar trying local Portuguese beer and port wines and then when his daughter arrived to act as waitress, we moved to the adjacent dining room to feast on some local dishes - his own recipes.  Particularly delicious was the shrimp El Tachu - shrimp pan fried in garlic and olive oil and the bacalau al Tachu, a codfish dish lathered in delicious olive oil and served with sauteed onions and potatoes. 

On our final night in Bensafrim we had a delicious meal with Willem and Sol.  Sol wowed us again with her delicious seafood dishes, including an appetizer of small clams sauteed in lemon juice, garlic and cilantro and a celebratory glass of champagne. We chatted about politics way into the night and then said goodbye to our gracious hosts. Willem drove us to the Lagos train station the following afternoon and we're proud to say we made it into their photo hall of fame! Thanks, guys. It was a lovely stay. 

Here is the phenomenon we mentioned in our previous post, a crew of older men just hanging out at noon on a weekday. This group swelled to seven at times and dwindled to two at others. We came to feel that this reflected two things equally: the pace of the economy and the pace of life, both reduced dramatically in Portugal.

A central square in historical Lagos. At our backs (not pictured) was one of Lagos' dubious claims to fame: the first European slave market, processing slaves f rom Egypt to other parts of Europe and beyond. It was hardly noticeable and not adorned with any eye-catching plaques. I'd understand if this was deliberate on the part of Lagos.

The old gates to the town of Lagos, built during the time of Henry the Navigator when Portugal was still a pioneer of the early 'Age of Discovery.'

Christina in front of a fort post in Lagos. Beyond is the Atlantic and in the immediate shoreline is the city of Lagos. It was mostly empty when we were there, but apparently it is THE tourist spot in the summer.

Looking down the Lagos coastline from the top of the fort, also built in honor of Henry the Navigator

Dave doing as the Portuguese do. From the Cafe Barbaro, this is what he saw of the passing world....

...and what the passing world saw of him.
For the Patriots vs Ravens AFC Championship game we got ambitious and made some killer snacks.  Pictured here are the ingredients for our mini pizzas made on Portuguese rolls and the ingredients for a delicious chorizo and bean layered dip. Pats won a ticket to the Super Bowl! 

Christina's pastry of choice in Portugal, the delicious 'pastel d'nata' (pastry of creme), basically a custard-filled pastry crust that was put under a torch briefly to sear the top. So good.