From Barcino to Hispalis

Meia and I got back last weekend from a two-week trip to Spain, my first time outside of North America since living in Seville from age 6 to 12. My rambling thoughts are after the jump.

After a 9-hour Seattle-to-London flight where our late check-in lucked us into exit-row seats with vast tracts of legroom, we arrived in Barcelona just in time to fall asleep on European time. I’d been unable to get a hotel downtown, because we overlapped with the tail end of August vacation season, but given our later experience in Seville I’d say that was actually a stroke of luck. We stayed at Aparthotel Silver, an old-fashioned Residence Inn-type place where they still give you a manual key which you return to the desk when leaving the hotel. It was in the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona, just a block away from Casa Vicens, one of few (or perhaps the only?) Gaudi houses still in use as a private residence. We were also only a block away from the excellent Barcelona metro, and were surrounded by lots of little cafes for cheap and good breakfasts and snacking.

I absolutely loved the Barri Gotic, with narrow cobblestone roads between old buildings that lean into one another; Sagrada Familia and the other amazing buildings (Gaudi, Modernista, and more) in L’Eixample; and all the food we had, but especially the 14-course tasting menu at Alkimia. The Picasso Museum, the Pedralbes Monastery, the Cathedral (which we got just a quick peek at), and other sights were also excellent; but I really loved the city itself: its openness, walkability, diversity, and smooth integration of old and new, of homes and businesses, of languages and cultures.

Foodwise, aside from Alkimia (which at 100 EUR/head for the full tasting menu and four glasses of wine each, was a bargain), I’d particularly recommend Origens for casual dining near the tourist district, the Basque pub next to the Picasso Museum (can’t find the name) for pintxos, and La Rita for a great value on simple Spanish home-style cooking.

From Barcelona we flew to Bilbao, where we checked in to Abba Parque (more of a business-class hotel, but IMHO 4-star room and service despite the 3-star rating) and headed straight to the Guggenheim. We’d seen Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune at SAM, but it definitely worked better in the tall, cylindrical lobby of Frank Gehry’s brain-tickling building. They also had a full retrospective on Cai, none of whose other work I’d seen before. The Age of not Believing in God was my favorite, but his entire opus is moving and attention-grabbing.

I was rather smitten by Bilbao. It has a lovely medieval Casco Viejo, with the ground floors turned into hip (but not touristy) retail and a broad mix of dining. I also had my first experience there of a European town square on a weekend evening. The square was actually a large patio, completely enclosed by buildings; we ate supper at an outdoor cafe while crowds of people stood under the arcade, outside bars, and sipped on wine as their children played in the square. I was struck by the way that drinking, socializing, and childcare all joined together seamlessly in a public space, not needing to be roped off from each other as they are in the US.

We rented a car in Bilbao. They didn’t have the Citroen I’d reserved, and as automatic transmission is not very common in Spain, we got upgraded to the next automatic they had available, which was a Mercedes A150. We drove along the coast, through the Urdabai Biosphere Reserve, filled with rolling hills and rocky coast. We stayed the night at a Casa Rural (kind of like a B&B, although without breakfast; but restricted by law to being hosted on a working farm), then finished up the next day by driving to Donostia (San Sebastian), with only a couple of mishaps along the way: a detour arranged by some mixed-up cops led a long line of cars into a dead-end in a residental subdivision, leading to the longest line of u-turns I have ever witnessed; and a brief excursion through the Spanish healthcare system, as I burnt my finger on the car’s cigarette lighter and decided to get it treated at a doctor, since I had never had a burn that severe before. (It turned out to be second-degree.)

We were graced with a couple more culinary highlights during our coastal drive: our first-ever taste of blood sausage (surprisingly sweet), at a restaurant a few kilometers south of Bermeo; and some of the best steak I’ve ever had, at an ocean-view restaurant in the literally cliff-side village of Elantxobe.

San Sebastian was a bit of a disappointment after Bilbao. It’s actually a lovely town, but more of a high-class beach resort, with a strong surfer/stoner/frat/party vibe. It’s a good place to go if you need a dose of sun, like a European version of Southern California. It does have great beaches, a beautiful estuary, seaside walks, and a more ornate cathedral than Bilbao.

For last, we saved Seville, my old hometown. Seville has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but it has still kept more of the flavor of old Spain than the North has. (We stayed in the Barrio de Santa Cruz, in the eponymous Apartamentos, which were excellent except for lacking an elevator.) This was a different kind of old city than what we’d seen up until then: less ponderous old stone, more winding roads, whitewashed houses, tilework and fine craftsmanship. Most of Seville’s tourist sights are in or near the Barrio, which is a good thing for walkability (especially since Seville, while catching up, is still far behind Northern Spain as far as transit goes), but has a very bad effect on the food that can be found nearby. (We also noticed a far greater number of American tourists in Seville, whereas in the North we’d seen more Europeans; that may have also played into the food equation.) We did find great tapas (including a proper Gambas al Ajillo, which I’ve been craving for years) at a bar in my old neighborhood; and on our last night we found good seafood on Calle Betis, by the riverside. (I don’t know the name of the place, but the kitchen is in an open sidewalk stand, on the north side of the street, about halfway between the Puente de Triana and the Puente de San Telmo.)

While I don’t think I’d actually want to live in Seville again (unlike Barcelona), I did have an immediate feeling of home as soon as we arrived. I chatted animatedly with the cab driver, my Andaluz accent and gestures finally making an appearance. Finding my old apartments, my old playground (the school has closed, but we could still indentify the entrance, nothing has replaced it yet), the old Kingdom Hall… it was all moving, and satisfying. Just to find a piece of myself, see it again, reintegrate it into my reality. I wasn’t able to meet up with any old friends; most of them were Witnesses, and the one classmate I looked for had too common a name to track down. But it was still wonderful to get a sense of solidity, of renewed connection to my past.

Tourismwise, the main sights we saw were the Cathedral (absolutely awe-inspiring), the Alcazar (a good consolation prize if you can’t make it to Granada for the Alhambra), and the Plaza de España (a fun exercise in remembering my elemtary-school geography). If we get to Sevi
lle again, I’d like the see the Roman ruins (Italica) and probably more of the surrounding country.

And that was the trip. We got lucky again on the way back, upgraded to Coach Plus on our Transatlantic flight. Two bottles of Pedro Ximenez Solera made it home in my luggage intact, and we’re trying to decide what part of Europe to go to next. Probably Italy in 2011.

P.S. Meia is posting all the pics at http://s12.photobucket.com/albums/a211/meiastar/Fotos/Spain%202009/, although she’s only up to Bilbao so far.

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