Tag Archives: Spain

Spirits from the Past

There is an apartment in Seville. It is at the end of the callejon, past the tiny bodega where they have futbol and cups of good wine. The tiny alley is narrow and the smell of food drifts from the kitchens of the houses that line it. The days of the fish stew are the best with intense aromas that yield a mixture of sweet and sour. At the end of the alley you find a heavy framed metal gate with artistic flourishes that leads to the courtyard. The courtyard has a stone fountain and marble floor that feels cool to the touch even on the hot days, as it most always is.

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Santa Cruz

 

Three flights of stairs are climbed to reach the apartment. The stairway is accented with the famous blue azulejos tiles. The building is unusually quiet most times. In the right time of day you hear the man practicing his flamenco guitar, strumming endless chord progressions, accompanied only by the gentle tapping of his foot. The pretty girl across the courtyard leaves early in the morning and comes home late at night. She dresses well and must have a good job. She sometimes wears a flower in her hair, usually a color to match her dress.

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On the Avenida

 

Above the apartment is a terrace where the laundry is hung to dry. It is painted white to reflect the sun’s rays and is intensely hot. The residents hang the clothes early to avoid the sun themselves. As the breeze picks up during the day, the clothes blow in the wind like the sails of the wooden ships that left the port here many years before. This is the hottest city in Europe and the cloudless blue skies dry the clothes faster than any machine could. They dry stiff and feel starched and will need to be lightly ironed before they can be used.

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Plaza Espana

 

The sun rises late, after eight, so it is easy to start the day early. In the days before you adjust to the time change it is a pleasure to walk the streets while it is still dark. The lights are on and it feels romantic and slightly mystical as you make your way through the narrow cobblestone streets. With little effort you can see visions of Carmen leaving the tobacco factory to meet her bullfighter or Don Juan returning from late night liaisons with an unnamed lover. You are keenly aware of the history the ornate walls have witnessed. Columbus and Magellan walked here while planning distant voyages to exotic lands. The Catholic kings ruled here and before them the Moors and before them the Romans. Each group left their marks and with only the slightest imagination they are clearly visible in the early light of day.

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Seville Sunrise

 

Breakfast is eaten early and quickly. If your breakfast is in a café you will probably have juice and toast and a thickly rich coffee. On Sundays you might satisfy your cravings for sweetness with the churros and decadent hot chocolate from the small shop with the large line. Everyone sits outside at the casually arranged tables. The conversation is muted as many read newspapers or chat quietly. Everyone seems to smoke, perhaps daring fate itself, as many spend their lives doing here on the southern tip of Spain.

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Plaza Espana

 

If you choose to shop for yourself and time is not critical it is better to find each item of the meal separately. Visit the carniceria for meat, pescaderia for fish, panaderia for bread and maybe a small vegetable market for whatever is in season. After three visits they will remember you. People eat what is in season and what is fresh. Most visit markets daily. The best of the old style mercados have been preserved in the neighborhoods of Triana, Macarena or Arenal. They have been refurbished but have kept the original style of small owner operated stalls filled with delectable goodness. Beautiful tiles tell the vendors name and what his specialty is. Olives, oils, spices and cheeses fill jewel-like glass cases. Delicious Iberico hams and cured sausages hang as advertisements to entice the hungry. Vegetables are arranged in artistic displays of color and flavor.

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Triana Market

 

Life centers on the many plazas. One size plaza does not fit all needs. Some are large and surrounded by designer shops showcasing the latest styles. Some are filled with tourists who look hot and uncomfortable and hungry. Some are more residential and filled with children with soccer balls and bicycles. The best plazas have popular bars and restaurants filled with customers throughout the day. It is said that the tapa was invented in Seville. El Rinconcillo bar is one of more than 1000 places serving tapas in the city and credited with having invented the tapa. It has been turning out food and drinks since 1670 and may be the oldest restaurant in Spain.

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Plaza del Toro

 

Our small Seville apartment sits just outside of Plaza Alfalfa. Plaza Alfalfa is the perfect combination of all the plazas. This is where the Romans settled before there was a Spain. Surrounded by local merchants and tiny cafes it has the perfect mix of humanity to make for the best people watching. Old ladies, babies in strollers, teenagers with their first loves, diners passionately discussing subjects over large cups of sangria or small glasses of beer. The plaza is filled from early morning until late at night. It has tall trees to provide abundant shade and is blocked to traffic. Dancers often practice and a constant game of soccer goes on throughout the day, the players changing as they are called to do other things. Children on bicycles and skates play in the evening after school and before dinner. They easily weave between passing tourists following maps and looking for hard to find street names. Later in the evening diners fill the tables to enjoy drinks and tapas from one of several restaurants that all have outside tables. Everyone seems to know each other and no television could compete with the entertainment found here.

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Puente Isabella II

 

Days are spent here touring the city. It is a city built for walking. The buildings are tall and built close together to provide shade during the heat of the day. The Moors brought orange trees to the city and they line streets everywhere. They provide a wonderful smell in spring and cooling shade all year long as they keep their leaves in all seasons. Perhaps cursed by the vanquished Moors, the oranges are sour and not good to eat. Mixed with enough sugar they can be used for marmalade that the English like.

Seville has its share of world class sites. The Cathedral is the third biggest in the world and the Alcazar that housed first Moorish kings and then Spanish royalty is filled with intricate passageways and formal gardens. La Giralda stands above everything and can be seen from everywhere in town.

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Sevilla Nights

 

I believe the essence of the city is found while walking along the Guadalquivir River in the evening as the sun is setting. Couples hold hands as they walk past the bullring. The breezes are cooling and the air is refreshing. The colorful buildings of Triana reflect in the water. The lights on the Isabel Bridge come on and a magical ambience overtakes the city. Perhaps the spirits of the artists, adventurers, kings and queens of different cultures take over the city again and lead the people on journeys of their own through the streets. Spirits of bullfighters and flamenco dancers abound and help the inhabitants, tourist or local, find a true passion that life was meant to have.

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Better than Rome and Paris?

We were standing on La Rambla, the wide, tree lined, main promenade through the oldest section of Barcelona, Spain on our second day in town. We got in a little late from Paris the night before and didn’t have time to do much except unpack and fill the refrigerator with groceries and spend a little time getting familiar with our new neighborhood.
La Rambla is the most famous street in Barcelona and perhaps all of Spain. It runs for about 1 kilometer from the Columbus statue that overlooks the old harbor to Placa Catalunya, the central plaza that serves as the hub for all the spoke-like streets of Barcelona. On this day, La Rambla was crowded with a huge number of vendors, all of which are selling either roses or books. Women are standing in long lines at many of the booths to buy signed copies of books from the authors who are doing a brisk business. Men are waiting in line to buy roses, most of which are red, although some are white or blue.
It’s still quite early in the afternoon, but the crowd seems to have doubled since we arrived an hour before. Within another 30 minutes it has doubled again. The lines are long at all the vendors and it is getting quite difficult to make our way down the street. We have heard that La Rambla is always busy but this is really crazy. We look down the streets that run perpendicular to La Rambla and they are now jammed also. It seems like it must be a major holiday, but it’s April 23rd and a Wednesday afternoon and this seems more like New Year’s Eve. This can’t be normal!

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Palau Nacional at Night

We finally find out that this is Sant Jordi’s Day (St. George’s Day in English). Not celebrated in America, but easily the most romantic day in Barcelona. The legend is that St. George slayed a dragon for a fair maiden and in commemoration, men in Barcelona now give their best girl a rose. Women give men a book. The book has less to do with St. George and more to do with the fact that the romantic writers William Shakespeare and Cervantes died on April 23rd. More than half of the books sold in Barcelona are sold on Sant Jordi’s Day.
One of the fun things about travel is discovering holidays celebrated in other countries that are different than your own. This holiday took us by surprise and even though it was quite crowded, it made our first day out in Barcelona very interesting.

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Sagrada Familia

We have a small apartment in a very nice part of town just a short walk from Placa Espanya. The Placa Espanya area was developed around the time of the 1929 Exposition (like a World’s Fair). The area was further developed during the Olympics in 1992 and is very nice. The old bullfighting ring (bullfighting is illegal in Catalonia now) that dominates the plaza has been re-purposed into a nice shopping plaza with many restaurants on the roof. We are walking distance to the national art museum of Catalonia (Palau Nacional), the Magic Fountains of Montjuic and the main area that hosted the Olympics in the Montjuic area of town.

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Catalonia Colors

Barcelona has kind of taken us by surprise. Having just come from Rome and Paris, we expected to have a bit of a letdown in the beauty department. Too be honest, we are a little shocked at how beautiful this city is. The streets are clean, well lit and tree-lined. Sidewalks are wide and bicycle paths are everywhere. Benches are plentiful and placed in prime locations to view the springtime gardens, fountains and statues located nearby. The architecture of the buildings is incredible with ornate balconies and grand entranceways. In the old parts of town (Barri Gotic, El Raval, La Ribera and El Born) the narrow alleys lead past ancient churches and under low arches. Quiet plazas seem to be around every corner. Small restaurants place tables in the plazas and serve delicious Tapas, red wine or Sangria to well-dressed international and local travelers.
Getting around town is a breeze with plentiful busses and an excellent Metro. We have a bus stop outside our apartment and a Metro stop a block away. There are large grocery markets in town but most fun are the excellent bakeries, butchers or vegetable markets in every neighborhood. Like Paris and Rome, Barcelona has many unique neighborhoods. You can easily trace the development of the city, literally from the Roman era through the Renaissance and up until today.

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Barceloneta Beach

It doesn’t take long to find out that while you may have arrived in Spain, you are most definitely in Catalonia. Flags and banners are present in most squares and from many balconies. After struggling with language somewhat in Italy and France, we were excited to be able to use our poor Spanish and at least be able to read signs and find directions again. While everyone here speaks Spanish, most signage is in Catalan not Spanish. Catalan is a unique language that is somewhat a cross between French and Spanish. Luckily most signs around tourist sites are in Catalan, Spanish and English and most people speak some English too.
Unlike some of the other popular European cities, Barcelona has 5 km of wonderful beaches. The old seaport village of Barceloneta is located just off of La Rambla and is host to one of the most popular beaches in town. A wide walkway runs along the beach all the way from Barceloneta to the area where the Olympic Village was located. The beaches are filled with volleyball players, bicycle riders, sun worshippers and many people just enjoying the many seafood restaurants along the way. Benches line the walkway and provide excellent views of the sunny Mediterranean Sea.

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La Boqueria

The arts are not forgotten here either. Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro spent significant amounts of time here and both have museums dedicated to them. Long lines can be found on Carrer Montcado in the La Ribera neighborhood every day waiting to get into the Picasso Museum. The National Art Museum of Catalonia is located in the palatial Palau Nacional located in Montjuic. The museum was built for the 1929 Exposition and is a work of art in itself especially when lit at night. It is located just uphill from the Magic Fountains of Montjuic which feature colorful fountain displays nightly in summer that are choreographed to music. This is by far our favorite thing we have seen in Barcelona.
Music is everywhere, from musicians playing in the metro and tiny alleyways for free all the way to wonderful concerts played in the stunningly ornate Palau de la Musica Catalanya. Even jazz clubs can be found near Placa Reial not far from La Rambla.

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Parc Guell- Gaudi Design

Architecture reached new heights in Barcelona also. Antoni Gaudi designed many fantastical buildings in Barcelona and helped create the modernist style he is famous for. We visited Casa Batllo close to town and took a short Metro ride to Parc Guell to view his interesting designs. Of course his most famous work is the gigantic, unfinished basilica called Sagrada Familia in the La Eixample neighborhood. All of these are jammed packed with visitors and have long lines. We have of course seen Sagrada Familia from the outside (it would be impossible to not see!), but have yet to brave the long wait times to get inside.
Barcelona has so far proved to be a wonderful surprise. It is truly a beautiful city that should be high on anyone’s list of places to visit soon. We still have a couple of more weeks here and look forward to seeing more of this great city.

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Palau Nacional