Thursday, January 31, 2008

[The man's perspective.]

The bus trip to Tarifa was two and a half hours of gloomy rain, punctuated by windmills and the occasional sighting of a giant silhouette of a bull.

The mile-long walk from the bus stop to the old center of Tarifa was lined with a lot of beach/surfer shops and hangouts that had that beach-town-in-January look about them. Things looked pretty dead on this particular windy, rainy Friday. We entered the old part of the town through a Moorish-looking gate on the town wall that featured this charming gentleman:

After we had settled in to our hotel and rested up a bit the rain decided to let up so we decided to take a walk around the town before heading to the seafood place that the hippy-ish woman at the front desk recommended for us. We made our way to the edge of the sea and from the old fortifications we were amazed to see the lights of a power plant in Africa twinkling at us across the water--looking not much farther away than Maryland is from Virginia south of Alexandria.

Continuing to wander around the small town we stumbled across the best belen display we saw on the entire trip. There was a small sign pointing us into what looked like a vacant building. We poked our heads in diffidently, mindful of the false belen experience in Seville. But we were eagerly beckoned to enter and they pointed out that we should go into an adjacent room. There we saw, not just a simple manger scene, but in fact an entire series of elaborate dioramas depicting Bethlehem and the Christmas story. In fact it turned out that we were just in the first of three separate rooms filled with such displays.

We finally arrived at the restaurant (which was in fact just around the corner form the hotel). We were determined to get some nice wholesome salads to balance out all of the rich and heavy foods we had been eating. Perhaps we were a bit too enthusiastic while ordering them because we were presented with two plates --platters really-- mounded up with what had to have been half a head of iceberg lettuce a piece, along with some carrots and tomatoes thrown in for color. I gave up on mine pretty quickly, but S. was determined to make a serious dent in hers. But it was taking such a long time that she was worried that the waiter would call it all off and take the plates away, especially since I had put my fork down. As a result I agreed to pretend to be enthusiastically be digging into my salad whenever the waiter came our way. The ruse lasted for a while, but eventually our main course came out and that was the end of it even though we still had enough lettuce left on our plates to fuel a small army of vegans. But it was all for the best because we needed ample room in our bellies to accommodate the delicious paella-like fish and rice dish we got.

First thing the next day we caught our ferry to Tangier. The boat was pretty large and seemed pretty nice. Handily they had a Morrocan customs official right on board to stamp your passports on the way over. The staff of the boat however seemed to have no idea what they were doing. Was this there first time doing this or what? About halfway across they realized that they forgot to check people's tickets as they were getting on the boat. So the entire staff fanned out and tried to catch everybody on the boat--maybe a couple hundred people. They eventually abandoned that and instead came up with the idea of checking everyone as they got off the boat.


Europe --> <-- Africa

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The next day Jack decided to rally, no doubt because of the previous night's dinner. We decided to save some scratch by heading off-site for breakfast. The place we went had the toast smeared with tomato and topped with olive oil as a breakfast option, so I got that along with Iberian ham and a coffee. As we sat in the window at our tiny table, a pack of teenage girls dressed as Santa, a blond-bearded guy, and a bunch of people (Arabs?) in blackface strode by on the street. Jack and I both whipped out our cameras, which got the attention of the girls, who came over to our window to pose.

Many European countries have the tradition of painting a white person's face in heavy, dark makeup and making them part of the Christmas festivities. In Belgium, and particularly in the Flemish regions, Santa is accompanied by Black Peter. Black Peter's terrifying visage appears in advertising circulars around the holiday season in Brussels, grinning maniacally from the page. I find these images quite disturbing, naturally, but (white) people here are indifferent them. I was quite surprised as well when we discovered that our hotel in Malta had a framed photo of what appeared to be a KKK rally in the hall (really a Holy Week procession), so that just goes to show that America hasn't permeated all aspects of European culture, pooping Dubya caganers aside.

So anyway, that was breakfast. We then went to take in the scene at the Alcazares Reales. This is a general term for royal palaces with Moorish influences that can be found throughout Spain. The one in Seville was built in the 14th century for Pedro the Cruel (or the Just, depending on whom you ask) using Moorish artisans. It was amazing. Everywhere you looked your eyes were greeted with richly detailed surfaces--floors, doors, walls, ceilings, windows. The place was brimming with people gawking and taking pictures.

After spending a while wandering through the warren of rooms, we checked out the gardens behind, which were very nice and for some reason almost devoid of people. There was a small cafe overlooking the garden where Jack had a coffee and I tried to order a horchata, which is prepared from different ingredients in Spain than it is in the Americas (chufa AKA tiger nut being the primary one). The woman indicated that they didn't have any and suggested I have a batido instead. Naturally I said yes, although I didn't know what it was. She opened a bottle and poured a creamy yellowish drink into a glass. I took the beverages back to our table with some trepidation.

There was nothing to fear, though--the batido tasted like good-quality vanilla ice cream thinned with milk to make a drink so it was refreshing rather than overly heavy. I later discovered that batido just means "shake" in Spanish, and you can get these things all over the place. I like to think I discovered something distinctive and delicious, though.

Once we were through looking at the gardens, which included ducks drinking from a channel inlaid in a path, fountains, ponds, grottoes, a pecan tree in the "English garden", and small buildings scattered about, including one with the most powerful hand dryer in the world, it was once again time to find food. We went to another spot recommended by the hotel for tapas. We got marinated artichokes topped with smoked salmon, goat cheese with a drizzle of flavored oil , potato salad, a tortilla with almond sauce, and "bull tail". It was all very tasty, although the tail was a bit too graphic-looking for my sensibilities, sliced into cross-sections as it was. Almond sauce is supposed to be a specialty of the area, and although I found it to be bland and not very almond-y, you really can't go wrong with the Spanish tortilla.

Jack was continuing to bear up well so we went to see Seville's bull ring. We didn't pay to enter, so there wasn't much to see, but it took us to an area of the city we hadn't been before. On the way back to our hotel we came across a building containing crafts, mostly hand-made pottery created by artisans who worked on the premises. There were lots of tiles with Moorish designs that I had my eye on, and we thought it might be fun to have ceramic numbers for our house in Alexandria, but 222 is a little dull. In the end, we purchased a green bowl with handles and a lid, and the elaborate design was created both by the glaze and by cut-out patterns in the clay. The woman who retrieved it for us took off the price tag, which also contained the name of the item. I wish I knew--it's got an unglazed 3-pronged thingy embedded in the side of the interior (like one of those things they use to keep the box from touching the top of your moltenly cheesy pizza), so it seems like it's supposed to be functional. It's great with a candle in there, though.

Our afternoon siesta was interrupted by a rock band playing loudly directly behind our building, but it didn't prevent us from chilling for a while. Later we ventured out once again to see the Christmas market. Again not taking any chances with Jack's still-fragile health, we made our way more or less directly over there to find it bustling, full of people and music. Choruses singing Christmas songs accompanied by guitar and percussion (castanets, tambourine, clay jug and stick, and glass bottle with bumpy exterior rasped by stick) greeted our ears. A woman was dancing with a young girl in a flamenco dress. The belen was lit. Very festive. The stalls were inhabited by craftspeople selling everything from leather goods to stained glass to kids' toys. All nice-looking, but not particularly Spanish, so we just window-shopped.

It was dark by this point yet still early, so we continued meandering around, encountering a piece of Roman aqueduct in a median strip, a roast chicken place that we made note of in case we needed something later, and other diverse sights. We followed signs for a belen that was mysteriously absent even though it had only closed 2 minutes before and had been replaced by some guys who stared at us and an old man playing acoustic guitar very poignantly. Every third building in the old quarter seemed to be a church with a sad-faced Mary that was slightly different from the next church's sad-faced Mary, a convent, or a monastery.

We then ducked into a flamenco joint called La Carboneria recommended by a Sevillian coworker of Jack's. In addition to a nod from a local, it had the additional benefit of being free, whereas other area places were charging nearly €20. We passed through a lovely brick-faced bar area with couches and a crackling fire and entered a nearly-empty cavernous shed protected by corrugated fiberglass roofing. A bit of a let down, but hey, they used to store coal there. We ordered the cheap local beer on tap and found a seat, not knowing what to expect. There were two large parties of people in their 20s at the back, obviously locals who were singing and shouting and...dancing the flamenco. I was surprised that the young people were carrying on the traditions by their own volition--they were clearly doing it for their own entertainment rather than putting on a show. Two other tables were occupied by tourist couples like us. So we sat, snuck glances at the party behind us, and nursed our beers.

Eventually the group started breaking up, off to their next Thursday night adventure. It was about 10 o'clock. Other touristy folks began drifting in and occupying the tables next to the stage, better-informed than we were about the start time of the real show. Or had the real-real show just exited by the front door and they had missed it? I ordered a couple tapas: ensaladilla and migas. I was under the distinct impression that I knew what migas was, being certain I had heard the term before. It was a turnover of some sort. But no, turns out it's fried seasoned breadcrumbs that had been pre-dampened so that they were slightly chewy. Jack proclaimed, "Even stuffing can be a tapa!" There was a lot of good action at the food counter while I waited: a young boy had to carry scalding hot chocolate care-ful-ly back to his table after the woman behind the counter tried to teach him to give her the appropriate amount of money from the coins he held in his hand, and an Asian girl was told that she could under no circumstances heat up her father's instant noodles in their microwave, even if he refused to eat anything on the menu (the girl herself seemed to survive on a diet of Nestle's ice cream bars and cigarettes). Health code and all. She'd have to bring it up with the stonily-silent stout woman behind the bar.

Finally, two men mounted the stage around 11:30. By this point the place was packed to the gills. One man asked for silence and began speaking about the performance to come. He refused to raise his voice when people began talking, so it was nearly impossible to hear (in addition to being in Spanish). The second man had a guitar, which he began to play. The softspoken man opened his mouth and began belting out a plumb pitiful tune, surprising indeed given his quiet speaking voice. The dancer appeared on stage looking grim and sat next to the singer. The two of them began clapping out an elaborate rhythm along with the guitar, not seeming to notice or care about the audience. Suddenly, the dancer flew out of her chair as if possessed by demons and started stomping, throwing her arms up and twirling. It really had the air of an improvised performance, as if she danced only when the spirit moved her. The singer also stood at times, putting his hand over his heart and singing as if his life depended on it. It was a very moving performance, and over too soon for those of us who needed a bit of extra rest.

The next morning we prepared to leave on the next leg of our journey. We left our bags at the bus station, got some breakfast and then pondered how to spend the next few hours. I suggested the archeology museum, but the currents were taking us in the opposite direction because Jack wanted to get an umbrella. So we wandered down to the shopping district and found the local branch of El Corte Ingles and bought one. We saw a nativity scene in a candy shop window that had chocolate for a backdrop. We wandered through the Archives of the Americas, which houses Columbus' papers and is free and exceptionally boring. It began to rain just as we entered the grounds of the University, which is located in a former cigar-making factory. We sat on one of the benches in the interior courtyard out of the rain, and a gaggle of girls passed us, handing us each a sweet and saying "Happy Christmas!" Girls there are just wild about Christmas, for some reason.

Having a bit more time to kill, we took an alternate route back to the bus terminal. Unfortunately yet unsurprisingly, once again my navigational skills were put to the test and I failed, so we ended up getting totally turned around, walking in the wrong direction and having to hustle to get there before the bus pulled out. It turns out we needn't have worried so much, because even as the bus waited for the light to change at the intersection after leaving the terminal, people were still pounding on the door to be let in. The driver scolded them all like a mother hen, but still allowed them to board. And then we were Tarifa bound.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Jack was still feeling a bit poorly as we made our way back to the airport for our flight to Seville. After a breakfast of coffee, breakfast rolls, and the worst OJ ever (it tasted like it had been cut with water and lemon juice), he napped in the airport, which was blessedly quiet that day, and again on the plane. I was fascinated by the in-flight magazine of Vueling, which was in Spanish and English (but not always both for each article), and contained very little that would make it comparable to other magazines of the same genre. There was an article where people talked about their dreams, and one where hand-written essays by random people in Amsterdam's Vondelpark were printed. A lot of content seemed to have been written by non-professionals, but the art and layout were great. It's produced by some uber-hip company named Le Cool, appropriately enough.

We touched down in Seville and caught the bus into town. It was sunny and about 10 degrees warmer than in Barcelona, feeling somewhat Floridian. We had a map in the guidebook with the hotel marked on it, but I still thought we were lucky to find it as quickly as we did, because it was located in the old town amongst the maze of tiny streets. I think that was the only time while we were there that we ended up where we wanted to be without a lot of backtracking.

We checked into the hotel Amadeus, a very nice place with a classical music theme, and got some suggestions of eating places from the woman at the front desk. As we were heading to the elevator to go to our room, a couple walked up to the desk and asked if they were still serving breakfast. Sadly, the answer was no. It was 2 p.m.

The first order of business was to procure some grub. Since one of the woman's suggestions was close to the hotel, we made our way there. To take advantage of the pleasant weather we grabbed a table in the plaza fronting the establishment . Without asking to be seated. Big mistake. In Brussels you seat yourself unless you're at a restaurant where you made reservations. Usually the staff is so busy that they just wave you in the general direction of open tables with a slightly exasperated air. There didn't seem to be any proper procedure in Barcelona, and since the approximately four staff people standing around at this Seville restaurant were ignoring us when we tried to make eye contact to get a table, we just picked one out and sat. And sat. After what seemed like enough time to melt a glacier, one guy took pity on us and gave us menus, taking our order within a reasonable timeframe.

It being lunch, we got beers and appetizers and entrees. Jack ordered fried potatoes with eggs and chorizo followed by fried fresh anchovies. I got a cold octopus salad with boiled potatoes, and then taquitos made with bacalao (rehydrated salt cod). Jack's first course was pretty good, but I thought my octopus was a bit slimy in places and underseasoned. I kept stealing the fried potatoes off Jack's plate. When the entrees arrived I was surprised to discover a plate full of nothing but cubes of battered and fried cod, with a small garnish of battered and fried eggplant. What IS a taquito, anyway? We may never know. Jack had a large plate of anchovies prepared the same way. They were both very delicious, but suffered from a lack of anything to break up the monotony. The bacalao had meatier, firmer texture than fresh fish, and the residual salt gave it a pleasant but not overly salty flavor. I definitely need to try that at home.

It soon clouded over and we thought about regretting sitting outside. We decided against it for the following reasons:
+ the lottery ticket guy, who made his way past us twice, chanting his spiel as if it was a one-note song (these guys (and occasionally women) were all over the city, we later discovered)
+ the cat with the short corkscrew tail, who could readily identify the weak spot at the tables and would place his paws on a patron's leg to try to get some food
+ the security guy standing in front of the garage next to the restaurant, occasionally giving someone a menacing glare, but mostly chatting amicably with the wait staff
+ the shoeshine guy, looking worse for the wear, who was employed by someone at a neighboring table
+ the cognac guy, who had a tower of ice, liquor bottles and snifters arranged just so, and who would approach people that were finishing their meal and offer them a sample, which he would provide without messing up the gleaming tower
+ the cognac guy giving the shoeshine guy a sample, and the latter sitting on a tree planter sipping from his snifter contentedly

We got coffees to jazz ourselves up for an afternoon of wandering, but by that time the cognac guy was on his break and/or studiously ignoring the tourists who were obviously not in his demographic target, so we didn't get to taste it. Oh well.

And so we were off to the races. Seville is much more compact than Barcelona, and in fact they have just this year installed a single tram line that extends for all of 1.4 km to supplement the bus-only transportation network. I can't imagine under what circumstances people would be compelled to use it, but they were. They are also planning on reopening their subway in the near future, which was abandoned for 25 years. But for our purposes it was easy enough to walk to where we wanted to go.

We gawked at the cathedral, the Giralda tower (left, from later in the day) and the Alcazares Reales across the street. Seville is rife with Moorish-influenced architecture, so its appearance is quite different from that of Barcelona, which has mostly stuffy classically-inspired buildings punctuated with the occasional Modernisme structure. Not wanting to visit these sites so late in the afternoon, we headed towards a green space on the map, which when we got close enough we found was interspersed with some buildings visible through the trees that looked interesting. We ended up at the semi-circular Plaza de EspaƱa, which was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition (and is apparently featured in the Star Wars II movie). A lot of national pride when into the building, which featured ceramic tile maps of all the provinces of Spain including their primary cities and products. Above the open-air passageway were the heads of famous Spaniards, none of whom I recognized except for El Cid. There was some kind of fancy belen set up in a large tent in the center of the plaza, but I was getting a weird vibe from it like they would try to convert us if we went inside, so we skipped it.

We exited the park and crossed the Guadalquivir River to see what we could see. We didn't spend much time in the Triana district west of the river, but it was a pleasant stroll. By this point Jack was running on fumes and talking about his skin hurting, so it was time for a break. Once he had rested up for a few hours, we set out again for a short walk to take in some of the sights under the cover of darkness.

The map and street signage being what they were, several missteps later we ended up at our destination, Plaza Nueva, the site of a Christmas market that had been closed for an hour by the time we showed up. We took our time walking back to the hotel, passing by the cathedral and getting some good night shots of the Giralda tower. We also saw the sister restaurant to one in DC, Taberna del Alabadero, that had a lunch menu posted featuring something in tobacco-flavored sauce and another item with prunes and pork dewlap. We filed away the location in case we needed something later in the week.

We stopped into a cerveseria for some beer and tapas for those of us who were in need of nourishment. It was a little after 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, yet we felt like we were closing the place down! A very different vibe than Barcelona. Since we had had a large lunch, we weren't in need of much, but my mushroom quiche-like concoction, topped with a thin slice of bacalao, was delicious.

The next day Jack hadn't improved much. We breakfasted in the hotel, in what used to be the building's courtyard but had been converted to the cozy lobby. We were presented with another strangely bad glass of orange juice along with our rolls and caffeinated beverages. Both times the orange juice appeared to be fresh-squeezed and tasted unspoiled, so I think they were just using bad oranges, perhaps from the ubiquitous street trees that were thoroughly laden with citrus, looking like vibrant Christmas ornaments. But it was enough food to get us started.

We made our way down the street to the cathedral, which Wikipedia informs me is the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world (but not necessarily the largest RC church). The site had originally contained a mosque, complete with a high tower that was used to sound the call to prayer. Only the tower remained, now topped by a belfry. And while the interior was clearly that of a wealthy church, Moorish craftsmen had been used, so it had a different feel than other Christian places of worship (a rear entryway leading onto the courtyard and the main building of the church in the background at left). The vaulted ceilings were festooned with intricately carved details, the doorways had that characteristic Islamic architectural shape, and so on. The church also contained the grave of Christopher Columbus, who was interred there a little over a hundred years ago, when his bones were moved there after having crisscrossed the high seas a few times on their journey between the old and new worlds and back again. There were some precious items laden with gold on view in the treasury, including this crown that looked for all the world like it had been purchased in some dollar store.

After touring the cathedral it was time to tackle the Giralda tower. Instead of stairs, the tower contained a series of ramps so that it could be ascended on horseback. Sadly, no horses were present during our climb, but we were nevertheless glad for the relative ease of climbing the ramps afforded. There were some excellent views from the top, and we were happy that it didn't strike the hour while we were up there, so we only had to endure a handful of very loud chimes for the quarter hour.

The church is one of those places that one imagines is always cold, and particularly so when the winter solstice is approaching and the sun isn't strong enough to radiate some heat through the thick walls. Upon exiting we were in need of some warming up so we went to Cafe de Indias, feeling that since we were in the spot where the whole caffeinated beverage craze began, they'd have some good stuff. Both of us opted to get hot chocolate, forgetting that in Spain hot chocolate is something that is traditionally eaten with a spoon because it is very thick. It was delicious, though, and defrosted our bones a bit.

More wandering eventually led us back to the hotel, where Jack was down for the count. Using the guide of activities for December provided by the hotel, I made my plans for the evening assuming Jack wouldn't want to go out. There was a free organ concert in the cathedral that night that I decided to check out, followed by a flamenco dancing spot if I was still antsy. So I hit the streets again.

The cathedral's cavernous interior was nearly unlit aside from the center spot, flanked on one side by the enclosed choir stall and on the other by the royal chapel, both guarded by wrought-iron gates. It was even cooler in the church by this time, and visitors who took off their coats soon realized their mistake and put them back on again. The concert by a German organist was lovely, and attracted an interesting variety of locals, students and tourists. The organ pipes were divided on either side of the choir stall and set high up, close to the ceiling. It seemed that the sound from the two sides was reaching my ears at slightly different times, which made it somewhat disharmonious, but after a while I was able to ignore it and just focus on the music.

Towards the end my mind began to wander to the topic of sustenance. I decided that if he was up to eating, Jack might appreciate some comfort food, so I went to the Irish pub across the street to see if they could handle some takeout. They could, so I ordered a cheeseburger and fries and a ladylike half pint of Guinness while I waited.

The guy sitting next to me watching Chelsea play someone on the TV struck up a conversation after a fashion, inevitably razzing me about Americans' improper use of the word "football". He was a Scotch-English merchant seaman who was vacationing in Seville. In spite of his profession, he admitted to never having been to the US, which I thought was strange.

Having procured the burger I hustled back to the hotel so it could be eaten warm. I was careful not to take any shortcuts, which I had learned inevitably would lead to another part of town and take twice as much time to correct. Jack and I ended up splitting the food and calling it an early night, which by this point was around 11, so really only early by Spain standards.

Next: Will the curative effects of the burger and fries be proven?

Friday, January 04, 2008

We arrived in Barcelona on the afternoon of the 14th, having taken the airport bus to the stop near our hotel. With the confirmation printout from the website we used to make the reservation, we walked up Gran Via to the specified address, only to discover that it was the location of a private apartment building. We were not at this Hotel Gran Via, where I thought we were staying, nor were we at this Hotel Gran Via, where Jack thought we were staying. There was no sign to indicate rooms for rent inside. While we were reviewing the information on the paper, a guy walked up to us and asked us if we were staying there. He was the front desk clerk, conveniently positioned in a sidewalk seat of the bar next door to interpret the confused looks of people who make their way to that address. He took us upstairs in the tiny elevator that resembled one of those vacuum pods they use at banks much more than a modern elevator. With the luggage and 3 people, you may have been able to fit a couple of crisp Euro notes between us, but not much else.

He checked us in and showed us to our room. As indicated by the interrupted pattern of the floor tiles, it had obviously been carved out of a much larger space, but it was still enormous: two balconies, a turret-like sunroom, a separate sitting room with an extra bed, and hardly a right angle to be found anywhere. The winter sun shone brightly into the room throughout the day. Since it was around siesta time at that point we hung out in the room for a bit and plotted our next move, which ended up being walking around, as is so often the case.

We were a bit further from the center of the action than we thought we would be, which made for some nice strolling but also some tiring walks. It was also a wee bit nippy out there, which was something we hadn't planned for. While day temperatures were generally in the low 50s, it cooled down much more than it does in Brussels at night, probably due to the lack of a stationary cloud cover from November to March. We made our way down to Las Ramblas, which is a pedestrian-oriented shopping street where all the tourists go. We then ducked into the narrow streets of the old city, wending our way through the maze of streets in no particular direction. Eventually we came face-to-face with our first tapas eating opportunity.

Everyone tells you that no one in Spain eats dinner before 9 or 10 at night, which causes a lot of fretting amongst those of us who get cranky if we don't eat when we're hungry. What they don't say is that, although dinner is late, eating opportunities abound throughout the day, so it's not worth worrying about. Tapas are served anytime. It was about 7 or 8 at this point, and we ended up at a very friendly establishment where we ordered 4 plates of deliciousness. Employing my nearly flawless Spanish hit a snag when the waiter said something incomprehensible after we had ordered. "Do you want toast with tomato?" he translated. Ah yes--they take a piece of bread, toast it, and smear half a fresh tomato over the top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Of course we want that! We had to order two more glasses of wine to wash it all down.

Subsequently we made our way over to the cathedral, where they were hosting a large Christmas market. Now, many of you have already heard Jack or me excitedly describing our discoveries regarding the Catalan Christmas celebrations: caga tio and the caganers.

Caga tio is a log with a smile. Traditionally, one would go into the forest in early December, chop off a tree limb, bring it home, decorate it, cover it with a blanket to keep it warm, feed it scraps from the kitchen, generally coddling it into a good mood before the holidays commence. On Christmas eve or day, you'd bring it into your living room and shuffle your kids out of the room for a bit. You'd stuff small presents underneath (bigger ones are reserved for the Epiphany), and then bring the children back out and give them sticks. The kids beat caga tio, singing something like "caga tio, [defecate] us some presents, and don't [defecate] us any cod." Salt-cured cod or a hard-boiled egg is the Catalan equivalent of coal. As far as we can tell, they're really saying "[defecate]" and not some euphemistic term like "poop".

The Spanish all take their nativity scenes (belenes) very seriously. There were homemade signs all over the places we visited pointing you down a street or in a door to show the way to a belen. Catalonia once again does something a bit different: they include a figure of someone pooping, called a caganer, in their nativity scenes. It seems that the Man has cracked down on official displays in Barcelona in recent years, removing the caganers. But they are still quite popular in home displays, and can be purchased in the likeness of your favorite current Pope, for example, pop star or football great, or even the current American president.

So aside from the usual accouterments for the nativity display, such as mangers, animals, waterfalls, animatronic figures chopping wood or sewing clothes, mini electric fires burning cheerily in hearths, paper printed like granite, moss, tiny loaves of bread, and on and on, you could also pick up your caganers and caga tios at this market. A good portion of the booths carried one or the other, but never both. We bought one caga tio and 2 caganers for the road.

After the market we continued to wander and ended up in some streets not wide enough for a car where open houses were being hosted in several hipper-than-thou art galleries and clothing shops--the kind that has cable-knit sweaters with bulges in strange places that would make anyone but a model look terrible. We stopped in a few of the galleries, but they mostly seemed to be parties amongst friends, and no one was doing any buying. In one, we ended up in the back where two children excitedly spied us and tried to make toast for us, but we declined, much to their disappointment.

Then it was back to our room to rest up for another big day. The apartment building did not have any sort of climate control aside from natural ventilation, so they provided an electric heater/air conditioner for our convenience. As the windows did not close well, having approximately 100 years worth of paint on them, the heater was a necessity. When you turned it on, a window in the front provided a view of fake glowing orange coals. So soothing.

The next day, after procuring breakfast (Jack ended up with a tuna sandwich) and farecards for the subway (at 68 cents each for 10 rides, one of the best deals anywhere), we took the metro out of the heart of the city to check out the Horta gardens. Even though Barcelona was big into Modernisme architecture, an untamed style that was concurrent with Art Nouveau, there didn't seem to be any connection between the gardens and the architect of the same name from Brussels. Nevertheless, it was supposed to be a lovely walk in the park, so to speak.

Once we got there we discovered the hedge maze was closed, making it not really worth the €2.05 entry fee, but we figured that we'd have the place virtually to ourselves under those circumstances, and we were right. There were grottoes and waterfalls and palm trees--all in all, very much like being in a belen. Sadly, what had been billed as a "fake cemetery" in our guidebook turned out to be just a contemplative seating area reached by going down a few steps with the door to a fake hermit's cabin built into one side of the retaining wall.

Next, using my excellent map, I decided we would walk to the Parc Guell, designed by Gaudi. It appeared to be about 3 km; no problem. The map didn't include topograpy, however, and it turned out that there was a sharp ridge between us and our destination. On our walk we encountered an awesome Claes Oldenburg construction of a flipped-open matchbook. It was more dynamic than most of his stuff, as there were several detached, partially-burned matches scattered around, some across the street from the matchbook, looking like they had been tossed there by a bored giant. Just on some random street in some random neighborhood. It wasn't even pictographically shown on the map the hotel gave us, unlike a floating octopus sculpture by some no-name we saw later.

The floating octopus was just over the apex of the hill. Not quite to Parc Guell yet. I was exhausted and starving and dehydrated by that point (there have been so many subsequent ilnesses since then that I forget whether I was feeling poorly already or not). We decided to keep pushing forward, knowing that there'd be something to eat and drink at the park. What we didn't know was that the front side of the park, facing the sea, was another hill away. We approached it from the back, which is nice and woodsy, but that's not why anyone goes there. After we scaled the hill within the park, we decided to follow the ridgeline to a good view spot, further delaying food acquisition but allowing for some rest. The best views can be had from a rock cairn that has three crosses on top, meant to represent Calvary, where Jesus and the two other dudes were crucified. There was a guy playing acoustic guitar on the spot, which tempered the annoyance of teenagers scrambling all over the place. I tossed €2 in his open case while his back was turned, which naturally led me to think about that Seinfeld episode where George tries to fish his tip out of the jar so he could be seen putting it in. Thankfully I had the strength to stop myself from doing the same.

Finally we worked our way down to the cafe that was carved into the hillside. We got beer and sandwiches--Jack's was a Spanish tortilla (eggs binding potatoes) on a roll, which was surprisingly delicious. The pigeons were fat and happy there, bumping against shoes as they searched underfoot for crumbs, and hopping up on any table that someone had glanced away from--you had to be vigilant at all times. Having been pooped on numerous times in my life, everytime a flock flew over I would shrink down and cover my head, which I think caused a bit of mass hysteria, because it seemed like other women around my age were following suit. Sorry, ladies!

Thus restored, we explored the more interesting side of the park, with the curvaceous walls and the elaborate mosaics and the organic yet unnatural shapes everywhere. Given that it's one of the few Gaudi sites in the area you can access for free, there were people overrunning the entire thing. Summer must be terrible. It was pretty exhilarating, though, to be in the middle of it all.

We returned to the hotel for our siesta and later set out to see some more sights and find dinner. The Magic Fountain near our hotel was supposed to put on a show set to music on weekends, so we went over there first to check it out. There was no music, unfortunately, but the lights playing over the water were pretty danged impressive nonetheless--they did this misty thing that really soaked up the colors well. After loitering around there a bit, we got on the metro and went back into the center to view some more Modernisme architecture by night on Passeig de Gracia. There were two Gaudis and two other Modernisme buildings in close succession, all of which were mysteriously lit at that hour. We then ended up at a friendly yet middling vegetarian place where I accidentally got a glass of non-alcoholic wine--why are vegetarian restaurants so frequently teetotaling? It ain't right.

We started out the next day at the best department store ever--El Corte Ingles. Ten floors of everything you could ever want under one roof. Foie gras? Grand Theft Auto III? Lingere? Milk? Watch repair? Lottery tickets? Bonsai? No problem. On the top floor there was a self-service restaurant right next to the full-service restaurant, so we helped ourselves to rolls, juice and coffee and enjoyed a leisurely Sunday breakfast as I perused the store's lifestyle magazine (do you know they have a combo food processor/cooker now? I'm so hopelessly out of touch). The view from the wraparound windows was amazing.

We lit out for the chilly, narrow streets to go on the walking tour in the guidebook. We were using Lonely Planet this time, and they pointed out various things as we went along, but really didn't give the level of detail I would like (as in Michelin Green Guides). But we saw some stuff we wouldn't have otherwise encountered, so it was all good. In front of the cathedral the festivities were in full swing, with a Cobla band playing energetically, a pick-up group performing Catalonia's indigenous style of dance, the Sardana. There was a giant head walking around projecting candy out of its mouth. And there was the market.

Jack had mentioned to me that there was a bagel shop in the old quarter, so we attempted to go there for lunch only to discover they were closed. In a valiant effort to stave off my disappointment, Jack located the oldest restaurant in Barcelona and we went there for instead. We were a bit on the early side (2 p.m.-ish), I suppose, which was fortunate because they were able to seat us right away. The place was seemingly overloaded with staff members in their 40s and up, and for some reason I expected them to be short with us, but they were all very nice. Since we had heard that lunch was the big meal in Spain, we went with the flow and ordered appetizers and a bottle of wine and entrees. I got sauteed spinach with pine nuts and raisins to start, which is something I enjoy at home and was pleased to find on a menu, but it was an enormous quantity. Jack had a cold mushroom mousse in a spicy sauce. I had been contemplating wild boar for my entree but ended up ordering goose with baked apples, floating in a dish of thin gravy. Jack had a sausage with some of the most flavorful beans I'd ever tasted. We both couldn't get enough of the gravy, and we kept eating it long after we were both stuffed. There was such a performance going on in there with the staff bustling about, people coming and going (and eventually being turned away at the door), and other patrons enjoying their Sunday dinner that it was difficult to tear ourselves away, so we ordered coffees to make it less obvious that we were loitering in order to gawk. A couple of the older staff members were being kept on for some reason, despite their advanced age and resulting dotage. They were mostly getting in the way, but the rest of the workers treated them with patience and respect. We got to interact with the old woman briefly when she attempted to bring us someone else's change. Eventually our time came and we left the restaurant to continue on our walking tour, with stops to check out the Cathedral interior, the triumphal arch, and the Palace of Catalonian Music, the latter being another Modernisme favorite.

We knew we weren't going to be hungry for any kind of dinner so the evening concluded with us back at El Corte Ingles buying chorizo, manchego and wine in case we decided on a snack later on.

The next morning, after grabbing a quick bite, we headed to the Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi church notorious for having been under construction forever. It was strange to pay money to go into the middle of an active construction site, with people preparing plaster molds and driving forklifts and so on. And the church itself is a very interesting place. Anarchists destroyed most of the plans for the church during the Spanish Civil War, so all they have to go on are some vague sketches about how it should be completed. The new architects haven't tried to mimic Gaudi's work but rather make it their own, which has resulted in one side looking like a melting sand castle and the other like a nightmare of robots and storm troopers. But whatever. It's one of the most original structures of its size that I've seen and I look forward to when it's completed in 2026.

Jack was feeling poorly so we took the rest of the day off to chill in the room--a nice change from the frenetic pace of the last few days. I snacked on our provisions and read a novel as he slept. I picked out a dinner place and a backup dinner place, the first of which was impossibly crowded and the second of which was closed. Sigh. So we trudged around for much longer than we had anticipated and finally ended up at this restaurant that serves only one dish: steak with special sauce. It was really a great alternative to too many choices, although not particularly Spanish. It came with fries and a salad, and they serve the steak at two times in an effort to keep the second half warm while you're eating the first, not that it works. They do bring out fresh fries, though, which were great for sopping up the sauce.

That was Barcelona. It's a huge city and impossible to come close to doing everything in that amount of time--we didn't go to the beach or take in the view from Tibidabo, much less get outside of town to see any of the surrounding sights. December was a great time to to because it wasn't crazy with tourists and there was a heightened excitement in the air due to the impending holidays. But it was colder than we thought it would be and it rained periodically throughout our stay, and virtually nothing was in bloom. One can't have everything, though.