Things I Will Miss (or Not) about Spain

Marquis de Riscal winery, designed by Frank Gehry

Marquis de Riscal winery, designed by Frank Gehry

Things I Will Miss:

The food. You can get delicious food almost everywhere in Spain, often for little money. It’s heavy on fat, so it tends to be rich and satisfying. Even little holes in the wall offer yummy stuff, freshly prepared. Before I move on, I have to mention a very special restaurant, La Tertulia, in Barcelona. We ate there on the recommendation of our hotel, and it was only a short walk away. We ate outside in a charming patio. By this time, we were getting tired of meat and ordered several dishes of vegetables. All were simply delicious–and so was the menu. I took a few shots of it to treasure, as the English translations of the Spanish descriptions were adorable:

  • Mejillones con ajo y perejil al vino turbio: “Mussels, garlic & parsley to the turbid wine”
  • Paellas: “Cooked by 30% with sea water broth with healthy clams & truly sea”
  • Caldereta de arroz con bogavante: “Lobster soggy”
  • Costillar de Iberico a baja temperatura con grasa de barbacoa: “Iberian ribs low temperature with greasy smoky barbecue”

We ordered some Spanish brandy after the meal. The waiter poured us two enormous servings. There was a finger or so of brandy left in the bottle, so he shrugged and told us to finish it off, leaving the bottle on the table. Tipping is not common in Spain, but this guy got a nice one.

The people. Almost everyone we encountered was helpful and friendly–sometimes extraordinarily so. They worked hard to understand my execrable Spanish. Complete strangers rushed to help if we were having difficulties. Lovely people.

The art and architecture. Spain appears to be a country that values art, and it shows. Although I have traveled to many countries and toured many beautiful buildings, I don’t think I have ever been as gobstopped by architectural beauty before–especially the Alhambra, La Mesquita, the Guggenheim, and La Sagrada Familia. I do not expect to see anything, ever, that surpasses La Sagrada Familia.

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

The wine. As with the food, you can get good wine very cheaply everywhere. Pay a couple more Euros, and you can get GREAT wines.

What I Will Not Miss:

The food. Yes, I know I said I would miss it, but there is a downside. There’s jamon in everything, just about. I know Spain is famous for its jamon, and there are pig’s hindquarters hanging in every restaurant, but I can take it or leave it. When it comes to cured meats (except for bacon, and then it has to be cooked crisp), I can pretty much leave it. Spanish food is very meat-oriented, so if you are eating in restaurants all the time, you might not wind up with enough vegetables in your diet. I once received a platter containing a quarter of an entire lamb that boasted a single asparagus stalk. Also, the food is high-fat, which is delicious at first, but I became rather sated with it. Despite the reputation for tapas being small dishes, even when I ordered medio raciones (half portions), sometimes we received huge platters and basins of food that put American restaurants to shame for serving size. Just too much food.

jamon

Smoking. More people smoke in Spain than in my native California (though I cannot speak for other parts of the U.S.). Being former smokers, Tom and I loathe the smell–I think it’s something your brain does to help you stay clean. People no longer smoke inside restaurants, but they can smoke in the outdoor eating areas. Nothing ruins a pleasant meal in the open air more than cigaret smoke. And the ground everywhere is littered with butts. Gross.

The Weird Reservation Thing: Several times when Tom and I arrived at a more or less upscale restaurant without reservations, we were turned away–even though there were plenty of available tables. In one case, there was not another soul in the entire restaurant. I don’t get it.

That’s all she wrote, folks! I appreciate all the “Likes” and comments I’ve gotten on my trip blog. It’s back to work on the next novel, and I’ll try to think of something interesting to say soon.

Scrambling To Get It All In: The Last Day

Our last day in Spain finally arrived. We decided to get some breakfast and head down to La Rambla, a long mall that leads down to the harbor. Traffic goes by on either side of a pedestrian mall, with booths and kiosks in the middle and shops on either side of the traffic lanes (where shops are usually located, actually). We were warned that this was a prime area for pickpockets. so we were on the alert.

There were tons of people walking la Rambla. Most of the kiosks were selling the same old stuff we had seen everywhere else in Spain–cheap “Flamenco” shawls, a Spanish dancer doll (the exact same one in every city), t-shirts–augmented by Barcelona-specific stuff like Gaudi-inspired plates and keychains. Then we came to the open-air market, La Boqueria. This was a feast for the senses, and if we had not already had breakfast, we would have bought something delicious here. The stalls were piled high with fresh fish and shellfish; eggs of all kinds, from emu to ostrich to quail; the obligatory stalls with pig haunches hanging and cured meats on display; every sort of nut you could imagine; dried and fresh chilis; sweets; exotic fruits; piles of tripe, lambs’ heads, kidneys and other offal meats; spices, teas and coffees. it was overwhelming and beautiful.

Dried chilis

Dried chilis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offal meats

Offal meats

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shellfish

Shellfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every sort of egg

Every sort of egg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seafood

Seafood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this feast for the eyes, we continued down La Rambla, stopping just before the harbor to photograph the living statues. There was Don Quixote, a person dressed like a Salvador Dali painting, a Remington cowboy statue (probably the most boring, despite his dramatic pose), a demon (entertaining), a “bronze statue” of Galileo, and several more.

An entertaining demon

An entertaining demon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dali lady. Not sure the person inside the costume was actually a lady, but no matter.

Dali lady

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By that time it was hot, and we were reasonably near the Barcelona Aquarium, so we went there for a few hours. For people whose local fish museum is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Barcelona Aquarium cannot measure up, but I did see some interesting fish I hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately, labeling was kind of random. You’d see a label above one tank, with no sign of the supposed denizen, then see the same fish in another tank that had no such fish identified as being there. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant couple of hours out of the heat. I do think someone tried to pick my purse in the aquarium. I was waiting in line to buy mineral water and carelessly left the zipper open, displaying credit cards and cash. I saw a hand creep across the ledge in front of me, heading toward my purse. As soon as I clocked the hand, it suddenly became very interested in the surface of the ledge, which had nothing on it but crumbs. I zipped the bag.

Seahorses in Barcelona Aquarium

Seahorses in Barcelona Aquarium

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This iguana had such a pleasant expression that I just had to photograph him. Or her.

This iguana had such a pleasant expression that I just had to photograph him. Or her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don't know what this fish is due to random labeling, but I liked it.

I don’t know what this fish is due to random labeling, but I liked it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the afternoon, we went to Parc Guel. Gaudi had a house there (designed by someone else), and he designed a beautiful installation in the park that would look very familiar had we actually gone in. We already had tickets to see his house and we wandered around the free area of the park, which is also very Gaudi-esque, but not the iconic installation everybody was lined up to pay for. When we went through his house, I was astonished to find out that despite the over-the-top ornateness and whimsy of his work, Gaudi lived a very austere and simple life. His furnishings were simple and sparse. He cared nothing for clothes or material things for himself. A remarkable contrast.

The area of Parc Guel we did not go in, showing more of Gaudi's amazing work.

The area of Parc Guel we did not go in, showing more of Gaudi’s amazing work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kids playing with giant bubbles in Parc Guel

Kids playing with giant bubbles in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaudi's house in Parc Guel

Gaudi’s house in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom standing under a Gaudi-designed bridge in Parc Guel

Tom standing under a Gaudi-designed bridge in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We left without paying to go into the most interesting part of the park, which I kind of regret.

We had an early dinner at a boring restaurant where a large group of people (maybe 100 or so) were playing Scrabble (in Catalan? At least they’d have a ready use for all those X’s!), and so to bed.

Adios, Spain. We had a wonderful time!

More soon about a menu that made me laugh and things I will miss/not miss so much about Spain.

Inside the Light: La Sagrada Familia

Tom and I arrived home safely after a very long travel day. After decompressing a little (we went to see “the Book of Mormon” on our first night back), I now feel ready to tackle the inside of La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece in Barcelona. As it happens, this post is a lot shorter than I thought it would be because–embarrassingly, for a writer–words failed me.

While the exterior is amazing, intricate and fascinating, the inside is simply indescribable. I can’t imagine why none of the art history courses I took ever showed a photo of the interior. I’m not going to provide the statistics on how big it is, because the numbers could not possibly begin to inform as to the size, scope and vastness of this space.

The east side of the nave has stained glass windows in blues and greens, while the west side windows are in oranges, yellows and reds. We were there in the afternoon, so the light was pouring through the west windows. The stained glass is laid in abstract patterns, not representational images, but the effect of the light was magical. It lit the cathedral in a way that cannot be described with words, and the photos don’t do it justice. The light is both ethereal and dynamic, with an energy that is alive and uplifting. I would like to see the east side in the morning to experience the effect of the light streaming through the cool-colored windows.

Light from the west windows, La Sagrada Familia

Light from the west windows, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interior, lit by west windows, La Sagrada Familia

Interior, lit by west windows, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing o the west side of the nave, looking east, La Sagrada Familia

Standing on the west side of the nave, looking east, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stairs to the choir loft near the sanctuary, La Sagrada Familia

Stairs to the choir loft near the sanctuary, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even the organ pipes are transformed by the light

Even the organ pipes are transformed by the light

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the stonework and other elements are amazing and  impressive, for me, the experience was all about the light. I have lots of other photos, and I’d be glad to post them if anyone is interested, but I don’t think I can really say much more about it. The interior of La Sagrada Familia is a miracle of light that so encompassed and raised my spirit that the other details became unimportant. Finis.

 

 

 

 

 

Sand Castles in Spain

When I was a child, we used to go to the beach for a few weeks every summer. One of our favorite activities was making “drip castles” out of wet sand. We’d grab a bucket of sand and water and carefully let the wet sand drip from our fingertips, making fantastic shapes and spires. The challenge was to see how elaborate you could make your castle, and how tall your spires could reach before collapsing.

In art history, my first take on seeing a photo of Barcelona’as La Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) cathedral, designed by Antoni Gaudi, was “Drip castle!” I never blew it on the tests, either–the mnemonic was fixed forever. Apparently I am not the only one to see this resemblance, because when I searched for images of drip castles on Google, I found some photos of La Sagrada Familia as well:

Drip castle on the left; La Sagrada Familia on the right. I'm just saying.

Drip castle on the left; La Sagrada Familia on the right. I’m just saying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cathedral isn’t finished and won’t be for a decade or more, although it was begun in 1882. Up close, the exterior no longer looks like wet sand. The facade in the photo above (the Nativity Facade) is the one most photographed, I believe, and close up, all those furbelows resolve themselves into exquisitely crafted details. There are the obligatory religious figures, of course, but there are also twining vines, chickens, roses, standard Gothic features like columns that somehow turn into tentacles, rabbits, turtles and trees. It is naturistically sculpted, elaborate, whimsical and ebullient.

This turtle is one of two that hold up pillars, one on either side of what is now the main door. Kind of a metaphor for how mankind treats animals, though I'm sure this was not the intention.

This turtle is one of two that hold up pillars, one on either side of what is now the main door. Kind of a metaphor for how mankind treats animals, though I’m sure this was not the intention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rooster and hens detail from the Glory Facade

Rooster and hens detail from the Glory Facade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This little lizard is one of many creatures peering out from the bronze leaves that completely cover the main door

This little lizard is one of many creatures peering out from the bronze leaves that completely cover the main door. He is peering through a small glass pane. The reflection in the pane is Tom taking a picture of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other facades differ greatly in style. The Passion Facade, which depicts the end of Christ’s life from the Last Supper to the crucifixion, is sculpted in an austere, unelaborated and grimly modern style. some of it couldn’t be photographed because of ongoing construction.

The Passion Facade. The pillars are intended to resemble bones.

The Passion Facade. The slanted pillars are intended to resemble bones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kiss of Judas, Passion Facade

Kiss of Judas, Passion Facade. There’s a cryptogram square to the left, but I haven’t researched its meaning yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Loneliness of Christ, Passion Facade

The Loneliness of Christ, Passion Facade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, this facade was executed in an entirely different style, and it was as deliberate as the Gothic-reminiscent naturalistic style of the Nativity Facade. There are other facades, still under construction, that are more modern still.

I took three art history courses (yes, once it was because I couldn’t pass chemistry, but the other times, it was because I WANTED to!), and not once did I see a photograph of the interior. As gob-stoppingly gorgeous as the exterior is, the interior surpasses it by several orders of magnitude. I have never seen anything like it. It comes close to being unbelievable, as though someone a 100 years ago had had the ability to use CGI to create something impossible and improbably beautiful.

Unfortunately, I have to close up shop tonight and continue tomorrow (or sometime soon), because we are catching a flight to go home. I want to give the interior of La Sagrada Familia the time and attention it deserves, so buenos noches for now, and I will be back as soon as possible.

My Spanish Vacation in Bed

Frank Gehry's astonishing building at the Marques de Riscal Winery

Frank Gehry’s astonishing building at the Marques de Riscal Winery

Well, no, not all of it. But the day after we went to see the Guggenheim and I got crunched by the quieropractica in Bilbao, Tom and I had a down day. We woke up, had breakfast, and then I settled down to work on my novel. I practically fell asleep over my computer at ten o’clock in the morning, and Tom was in the same state. So we retired to our football-field-sized and comfortable bed and snored for a few hours.

When we awoke, I went back to work on my book and Tom went out to explore the surrounding area. I reread and edited and pondered, and came up with a brilliant solution to a plot problem, but didn’t write anything new. I suppose that’s some progress. Tom explored some surrounding villages and took photos. When he got back, we walked around town. We didn’t want to go back to the restaurant in the hotel; we had eaten there three times and couldn’t face it again, though it was very good. So we went to another hotel and ate there. I think we were the only people who ate there that night, and for good reason. The outdoor patio was pretty, though, and we could watch the swallows–las golondrinas–swooping around overhead, catching gnats and flies. I cheered them on.

An interesting decoration made of grapevines, dried fruit and flowers in a cafe in Ezcaray

An interesting decoration made of grapevines, dried fruit and flowers in a cafe in Ezcaray

Every night since our arrival, we had been hearing a church bell ringing at 7:30 pm, 7:45, then again at 8:00. It wasn’t the bells in the church across the street, which rings the hours and half-hours. This bell sounded different, and it was rung in a different manner. So we asked around, first in the restaurant where we were eating. No one had any idea. We went back to our hotel and asked the guy behind the tapas bar. No idea, but he gave us two free glasses of wine to compensate for his ignorance, so that was OK. Then we asked the concierge, who asked around and then told us the bell rang for the 8 pm mass at another church in town. I was astonished. Who would’ve thought that in Spain, no one would know that the bells were ringing for mass? I guess the times, they have a-changed.

So it was early to bed, and we awoke refreshed and ready for more adventures. This was the day for wineries. Unlike in the U.S., in Spain if you want to visit a winery, you have to make an appointment. When you get there, you have to take a tour of the winery–you can’t just walk in and taste.

Our first stop was Marques de Riscal. This has been a winery since 1858, but when you see the spectacular Frank Gehry building rising up from the vineyards around El Ciego, it is an entirely modern and astonishing sight. (Frank Gehry also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which is a sculptural work of art in its own right.) The winery produces something like eight million bottles of wine a year–mostly reds. The winery tour was interesting, as it included both the new parts (a lot of very highly automated equipment) and the old–like the cage where the 100-to-150-year-old bottles are kept for special events.

Old wine cellar at Marques de Riscal

Old wine cellar at Marques de Riscal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surprise!

Surprise!

Once the tour ended, they gave us quite a lot of excellent wine. I will be looking for Marques de Riscal when we get back to California!

Gehry Building

View from the vineyards at Marques de Riscal winery

The Frank Gehry building houses a hotel and a 2-star Michelin restaurant. We decided to eat there later. Tom wanted to take pictures of another winery, Ysios, which also has a spectacularly designed building–although they told Tom that they didn’t have any tours in English. When we got there, it looked like they didn’t have any tours at all (it was completely deserted), but the building is fascinating. Tom calls it “pixelated.” It’s supposed to blend into the landscape. IMHO: not.

Ysios Winery. If they had had a tour, I would be able to tell you who the architect was.

Ysios Winery. If they had had a tour, I would be able to tell you who the architect was.

We returned to Marques de Riscal and went up to the restaurant. The concierge downstairs had called ahead to let them know we were coming. When we walked in, we were greeted politely by two people who clearly didn’t expect us. Their foreheads were wrinkled with deep concern: did we have reservations? There were perhaps 50 tables there, and not one of them was occupied at that hour. However, someone who did know the score rescued us, and we sat down to the most exquisite meal we have had in Spain so far. It was delicious, but above and beyond that, it was entertaining. Example: we were served an amuse bouche, consisting of a shallow dish with fog pouring out of it and dark brown “sticks” poking up out of the fog. The waitress said it was vine twigs from the vineyard prepared for our delectation. Then she hung around watching. We nibbled on them, and they were yummy. Then she told us it was actually cheese sticks. I said, “I totally believed you!’ She was pleased.

The town of El Ciego as seen from the restaurant at Marques de Riscal. Viewing the old from the very new.

 

Everything else was presented with the same whimsey and artistry. We lingered for a long time, peering out through the Frank Gehry swirls of titanium, then we left and sat in the breezy patio downstairs until it was time for our next winery tour.

Which was in La Guardia, a tiny, medieval, fortified hilltop town. You can’t actually drive through the town–it’s strictly pedestrian–though you can drive up to it. Being clueless, we had no idea where to park or where the winery might be. Tom finally parked next to an old church (probably illegally, but no one bothered us)–and set off on foot to ask questions. We knew we were within yards of the winery, but had no idea how to find it. The first few people he asked didn’t know either, but one person grabbed the winemaker and he came out and showed Tom where to go and told him where to park.

Detail of old fountain at La Guardia

Detail of old fountain at La Guardia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The winery is called Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre. It is as sharp a contrast to Marques de Riscal as possible. The family has lived there and made wine for centuries in “caves” excavated underneath their house. The winemaker told us that every house in La Guardia has these cellars under their houses, originally dug to preserve food in their cool, dark recesses, and to hide in when there were wars, which apparently happened all the time. Sometimes La Guardia was part of the Kingdom of Navarre, sometimes the Kingdom of Castile. I suspect the residents didn’t care much, so long as the soldiers left them alone. Once things settled down, they realized they had the ideal conditions for wine storage, and most of the residents make their own wine, though not everyone sells it.

Cave of Bodega Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre, directly under the family's house

Cave of Bodega Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre, directly under the family’s house

First, he insisted on showing us a video about the wine-making process, which we sat through politely. (I told him that Tom used to make wine, but apparently this did not exempt us.) Then he took us down into the cellar. Definitely old school. Ancient stones dripping with mold. Casks dripping with mold–in one case, the mold looked like some sea creature was trying to engulf the cask it was growing on. I put my hand on the wall, and it came away smeared with wet, black mold. Then we tasted the wines–superb. When we toured Burgundy several years ago, some of the winemakers told us that the mold added to the quality of the wine, so maybe they had something there. (Shudder.)

Mold creature growing out of a barrel at Bodega Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

Mold creature growing out of a barrel at Bodega Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre

The town was in the midst of a festival in honor of San Juan, La Guardia’s patron saint, so the tiny streets were thronged with merrymakers–bands, dancers, people in traditional costume, others in costumes not so traditional. That was a treat, even if it meant that finding parking was difficult.

Festive ladies at the Festival of San Juan, La Guardia

Festive ladies at the Festival of San Juan, La Guardia

A most satisfying day. We ate at the tapas bar at Echaurren (our hotel) that night and met the chef–who, we discovered is also the chef at the restaurant at Marques de Riscal. He normally works in Echaurren’s restaurant gastronomique, but it, like most of the other top-rated restaurants in the area, was closed for vacation. I guess June is the slow season in La Rioja.

The next morning we departed for Barcelona, traveling through increasingly barren and desertlike terrain. At one point we crossed the Greenwich Meridian line. There was a modernistic arc across the freeway in an otherwise desolate landscape to mark the spot.

Tom stopped for a break at a rest area. There were a few shelters with picnic tables. We were sitting at one of these when a Spanish couple drove under the few trees for the shade, got out and asked if they could share our table. I said sure, and they hauled out a huge cured sausage of some sort and offered us some. I declined, being kind of tired of cured meats by this time, but the Spanish for the most part have been so kind and friendly.

We stopped in Zaragoza for lunch because there was a highly rated restaurant there. We parked the car in a perilous alley (because it was so narrow you had to fold in your side-view mirrors to avoid losing them) and walked to the restaurant. It was locked, though the hours indicated it should be open. I rang the bell, and it was answered by a server who–surprise!–asked if we had reservations. There were many tables, all completely devoid of patrons, but she told us they could not serve us. Because no reservations. (You would think we would learn from these experiences, but we didn’t, and ran into the same issue in Barcelona.)

So we wound up eating at “Smurf2 Cafeteria,” which was every bit as good as you might imagine, and went in search of our car, which we had a little trouble finding. Fortunately, given the heat, we only made two exploratory ventures before re-discovering it, and then we were on our way.

We stopped for gas at a place in the middle of nowhere. Literally–it was just a gas station. No town or anything. To our surprise, the gas tank cover wouldn’t open, though it had done so without difficulty every other time. The lady tending the station tried to help. Other people tried to help. We couldn’t budge it. Tom called the rental company, and they said they had to talk to their mechanic and they’d call back.

I went in to try to explain to the attendant what was going on. She didn’t understand my inept Spanish and called her son, who spoke some English. He asked me if he could drive out to help us! I thanked him for his kindness, but declined. I told his mother over and over how nice they were, how kind her son was. She understood that part.

The rental company called back to tell us that when it got very hot (which it was), the gas tank cover sometimes wouldn’t open. Good to know, but it seems like an impractical design in a hot country like Spain. The car had been sitting in the shade for a while by this time, and Tom tried the cover again. It opened without protest, we gassed up, and were on our way again.

Our hotel in Barcelona, Gran Derby, is lovely–much nicer than we expected. It even has a bathtub big enough for two–though we won’t be sharing–a sitting room with a bullhide for a rug (poor toro), and a bedroom. The shower–Tom said he wished he had taken photos of all the showers we have used. Each one has had strangely shaped controls–squares, sticks, cylinders–and each has had its own system of turning on and off, controlling temperature, etc. This one has square knobs and the drain is a slit in the flooring that runs all around the shower–haven’t seen that before. But the shower flooring is mercifully non-skid, though the bathroom tiling is made of highly polished brown marble that would be a perfect skating surface for someone with wet feet.

Window in our bathroom at the Gran Derby Hotel in Barcelona. Just thought it was pretty.

Window in our bathroom at the Gran Derby Hotel in Barcelona. Just thought it was pretty.

We selected a seafood restaurant right on the beach for dinner, Can Majo. When we got there, we were told that because we didn’t have reservations, they might be able to squeeze us in at 10 pm. (We are very slow learners.) So we made a reservation for 10 o’clock, had a snack at a seaside bar, and then walked down to the water. I dipped my feet in the water; my first-ever contact with the Mediterranean. I have hopes it won’t be my last.

At ten, they permitted us in the restaurant. We ordered paella, which is their specialty. Service was slow, which was fine as it gave us time to people-watch. I noticed a group of three people as they came into the outdoor seating area where we were. There were two model-thin women, gorgeous in that exotic Mediterranean manner, with long. black hair and smooth, brown skin and huge eyes. They were dressed beautifully and they were accompanied by a pit-bull and a man who might have been the model for the dog. I spent time making up stories about who they were and why these two beautiful women were having dinner with this ugly man. Then the two women seated at the table next to us squeaked and pointed. One of them said “Cucaracha, is that the word?” As I was looking for the offending insect, the ladies I had been making up stories about shrieked and dropped their cigarettes as the bug scuttled under their table. It proved to be a bonding experience with our neighbors and we struck up a conversation. They were from the Netherlands, spoke perfect English, and were having a girl’s weekend away. We had a long and pleasant discussion, ate the excellent paella, then headed back to the hotel.

I think it was about 1 am when we got to bed. This may be normal for the Barcelonans, but it’s kind of exhausting for me. Of course, I had had no siesta–I really should spend more time in bed.

Sexy giraffe sculpture in Barcelona. For some reason.

Sexy giraffe sculpture in Barcelona. For some reason.

Goggling the Guggenheim and Getting Crunched

The nearest chiropractors are in Bilbao, an hour and a half drive from where we are staying in Ezcaray. Having had some not-so-good experiences with chiropractors, I was reluctant to see someone I didn’t know, but my rib was giving me a lot of pain so i gritted my teeth, called one (she spoke English very well–bonus points!), and made an appointment.

We hadn’t planned on visiting Bilbao, but my appointment was in the afternoon, so that meant we could spend the rest of the day at the spectacular Guggenheim Museum. The museum had a Jeff Koons exhibition going on. My previous exposure to Koons had been a vast white ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee Bubbles. The white ceramic had highlights in gold, making it look like those awful figurines your Aunt Gertrude loved to collect.

As it turned out, I thought the exhibit was interesting and fun. My favorite was “Puppy,” a towering sculpture completely covered in living flowers that sits in front of the museum, followed by “Tulips,” also outdoors. There were several other artists represented, of course, including someone who does “fog sculptures,” and a “fire sculptor” (which we didn’t get to see because it only comes on after dark).

This view of the Guggenheim from the street shows how huge "Puppy" is

This view of the Guggenheim from the street shows how huge “Puppy” is

 

 

 

 

"Tulips" by Jeff Koons. This looks very light and insubstantial, but it's quite large--and made of steel.

“Tulips” by Jeff Koons. This looks very light and insubstantial, but it’s quite large–and made of steel.

Another installation i thought noteworthy was a gigantic ( mean VAST, enormous beyond belief) series of curving steel sculptures by Richard Serra. The title had something to do with the impermanence of time.You’re supposed to walk inside them, and it is a very disorienting experience. Sometimes, it felt like walking down one of the tiny, winding streets of Seville, but a Seville painted by Magritte–ancient and deserted, where there should be people. I actually got disoriented and started walking back through the exhibition, thinking I was going in the opposite direction. Sometimes the visual juxtaposition of the curving, rusted steel walls and the gallery itself looked like abstract paintings to me. (See the picture below.)

I saw the chiropractor, a diminutive woman who had lived and worked in the San francisco Bay Area. She put my rib back where it belonged (ayiyiyiyiyi!!!!) and charged me about one-third what my regular chiro does. I’m sore but feeling much better now.

Here’s the photos. Gotta go work on my next novel. I’m thinking about killing off one of my characters, BTW. (Channelling G.R.R.M.?)

"Puppy" by Jeff Koons. Loved this!

“Puppy” by Jeff Koons. Loved this!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closeup of "Puppy"

Closeup of “Puppy”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside a Richard Serra sculpture. Yes, you are supposed to walk inside.

Inside a Richard Serra sculpture. Yes, you are supposed to walk inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spider sculpture at the Guggenheim. I didn't see who the artist was. Barbarian that I am.

Spider sculpture at the Guggenheim. I didn’t see who the artist was. Barbarian that I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After visiting the chiropractor, we retired to this cool old bar in Bilbao for much needed copas de vino tinto.

After visiting the chiropractor, we retired to this cool old bar in Bilbao for much needed copas de vino tinto.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom in Bilbao bar.

Tom in Bilbao bar.

Velasquez Paints Peter Dinklage (Or Not.)

A few more thoughts on art in the Prado:

There’s a copy of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci in the Prado. It was definitely painted under Leonardo’s supervision, if not by the Master himself. If you have been disappointed by the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre, I strongly suggest seeing this if you get the chance. The one in the Louvre has a yellowy-green cast; this one does not, and has clear, fresh colors. The Louvre version has severe cracking in the paint and warping of the underlying poplar wood; this one was painted on more expensive and durable walnut and is in excellent condition. The Mona Lisa in the Louvre is sequestered in an acrylic box and is usually surrounded by a horde of tourists who are not at all interested in allowing you to get a closer view; the Prado version hangs unimpeded and ignored. You can walk right up and examine it as closely as you wish. This is the Mona Lisa as it must have looked 500 years ago.

I wanted to see Velasquez paintings. The great thing about Velasquez is the faces–he’s one of those artists who are able to paint the soul and personality of the subject. There was one entire room with nothing but paintings of the jesters of King Philip IV and his court. One of the paintings was of a dwarf who looked very like Peter Dinklage, down to the “Don’t fuck with me” look in his eyes.

"Sebastien de Mora" by Velasquez

“Sebastien de Mora” by Velasquez. Or a very early portrait of Peter Dinklage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is an allegorical painting called "The Triumph of Bacchus." Bacchus is highly idealized, but if you look at the other faces, they are very real, with great personality.

This is an allegorical painting called “The Triumph of Bacchus.” Bacchus is highly idealized, but if you look at the other faces, they are very real, with great personality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prado also has a number of Rubens, whom I’ve always enjoyed. First, because of his exuberance; he doesn’t just paint a horse, he paints a drama composed of glossy, bunched muscles, rolling eyes, and streaming, flossy mane and tail. (Frankly, his horses are a lot better than Velasquez’s. One or two of V’s horses looked biologically impossible.) His compositions are full of life and motion–even when the subjects themselves aren’t actually doing much. And then there’s the acres of glowing, pink flesh. The man loved ladies, and he hated to skimp on avoirdupois. The more, the better–that was Rubens. He would have adored me.

This one--I think it's the rape of the Sabine women--illustrates both my points about Rubens: horses and women. Leafing through Jansen's History of Art as a child, I used to wonder  how on earth those men were able to pick up the women.

This one–Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by Castor and Pollux–illustrates both my points about Rubens: horses and women. Leafing through Jansen’s History of Art as a child, I I thought those guys must have been INCREDIBLY strong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, enough about art.

Ezcaray, where we currently are, is a village of 2,000 residents. The village also has 12 hotels and more restaurants than you would think possible in such a small place. Apparently, there has been continuous human habitation here since the Neolithic Age, followed by Romans, Visigoths, Moors, etc. Over lunch today, we had a discussion with a family about the area–they come every year. The father is from La Rioja (the region we are in), the mother is Brazilian and they live in Brazil. She told us about a ring set into a pillar on the square. The tradition was that if a bandit, Moor, or other outcast could make it through the town (with people throwing fruits and vegetables at them) and grasp the ring, they were granted sanctuary and could settle here. Whether apocryphal or not, here is the ring. It would look more impressive without the pink flyer pasted onto the pillar:

The Ring of Sanctuary. I may use that for a book title some day--it has a nice ring to it.

The Ring of Sanctuary. I may use that for a book title some day–it has a nice ring to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It rained the evening we arrived, and it was pleasant to watch the rain fall against the backdrop of the ancient church across the way. The temperature has been in the 70’s–a nice contrast to the heat of Madrid. The town is peaceful and tiny, bordered by small rivers and sheltered by the steep valley walls. So good to be here, after so many cities.

Although all the art, culture and history tends to be concentrated in cities, I just don’t like them. There are too many people, too many cars, too much noise–just too much of everything. My idea of a nightmare vacation is New York City. Cities just kind of oppress me in some way. I like being in the country or in small towns, closer to nature.

Our first day, we just walked around the town, taking pictures. We stopped to eat at a little bistro. It was quiet and relaxing after all the sightseeing. I am happy to be here.

The view from our hotel room in Ezcaray

The view from our hotel room in Ezcaray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A pretty little fountain in a square in Ezcaray. People sit here to read.

A pretty little fountain in a square in Ezcaray. People sit here to read.