Category Archives: Spain

Part 3 – Southern Spain….Granada, Córdoba and Toledo

My final Spain blog consists of the third part of our 17 day road trip this summer.  This was new territory for all of us and considerably hotter than the north of Spain.

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Part 3: Barcelona south to Granada and Cordoba , then north to Toledo

Leaving Barcelona, we embarked on our longest travel day so far – about 550 miles/900 km to Granada, estimated by the internet at about 8 hours.  Well, it took us more like 11 hours, but we had the obligatory two hour lunch stop and stroll through the old town in Elche/Elx along the way.  We arrived in Granada about 8 pm and met our Airbnb host outside of town, as driving in the city is heavily regulated and parking is difficult to find.  She took us to our apartment in the Albayzín neighborhood, which is on a hill and practically car-free and still has a bit of a Medieval Moorish feel to it.  Our first evening, we tried Salmorejo, and I will never look at cold soup the same again.  This stuff is pureed bread and tomatoes, topped with bits of ham.  Thick and creamy, like nothing I’ve ever tasted before.  And for the rest of the trip I had it everyday.  My parents even made it from scratch with their tomatoes when they got home.

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View from our toasty terrace, if you turned around and strained your neck a bit you could see the Alhambra in the other direction.
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Alhambra at night
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Touristy street right near our apartment
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Waiting to go into the Alhambra

So the main attraction in Granada is the Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex full of incredible designs and architecture.  We booked ahead and got early morning tickets (for the best light as you should know – and the heat).  We also got tickets to the Nasrid palace for the first available slot, which allowed us to tour the palace when it was less crowded.  The complex dates as far back as the 9th century, but many of the structures were completed in and after the 13th century.  Muslim art bans the use of people in their pieces, so there is a lot of geometry and calligraphy in the ornate plasterwork and ceramics.  It is an incredible place to visit, with beautiful and intricate buildings, lush green gardens and amazing views of the city.

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After a long lunch and the obligatory siesta, we wandered around Granada some more before heading up to the top of the Albayzín to watch the sunset over the city and get some night shots of the Alhambra.  And then Riki got his seafood fix with giant bowls of snails and a huge plate of octopus in a small plaza nearby.  I almost wish we were those people who take pictures of food, because this was an epic meal.

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Our last overnight stop before heading back to Madrid was in Cordoba, a mere 2 hours from Granada.  The trip was filled with rolling hills covered in olive trees as far as you could see.

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For some reason we thought we could forgo the obligatory siesta when we arrived in Córdoba in the afternoon.  So we wandered around the old quarter for a bit before the heat took its toll and we had to return to our apartment for a late afternoon siesta.

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Riki broke out the tripod for some night pics of the Mezquita

Córdoba was conquered by Muslim armies in the 8th century and eventually became the capital of al-Andalus or Islamic Spain.  It was very multi-cultural, with Muslims, Jews and Christians integrated.  This is highly visible in the main attraction – the Mezquita, which began as a small mosque and later a Catholic cathedral and is an incredible example of Moorish architecture.

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The Mosque part

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The Cathedral in the middle
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Mezquita interior

We toured the Alcazar here as well, but there was very little information provided, though it was pretty and the gardens were well kept.

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Wall in the Alcazar

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On our final full day in Spain we drove a few hours north to Toledo, which is just outside Madrid.  Toledo is set on a hill, with limited access for cars, but a great set of escalators that allows you to easily navigate right up to the heart of the old town.  Toledo is a UNESCO site and also has Jewish, Muslim and Christian heritage.  The Romans were here and it was once a Visigoth capital.  Because of its proximity to Madrid, it is full of daytrippers and that is heavily reflected in the number of tourist shops around town, way more than I remember from my first trip over ten years ago.  But it is obvious why it is so popular.

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We ended our 17 day trip back in Madrid, with just one night in town before headed our respective ways.  This whole thing was really an amazing experience and my writing doesn’t do it justice.  But hopefully the pictures do.  I have never done so much research ahead of time, but in the end it made the whole thing go much smoother and was less stressful than our normal “just wing it” mentality.

We have to thank my Spaniards for getting married and being the catalyst for this adventure.  But we have to thank our drivers, my parents, even more for giving us a reason to make such a long trip out of it.

Part 2 – Northeast Spain….Infiesto to Barcelona

A continuation of our 3 week road trip this summer in Spain.  Be forewarned – this is a long one, but the pictures from Barcelona at the end are worth it. Promise.

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Part 2 – North – Infiesto to Barcelona

The morning after the Spaniards’ wedding, which was the catalyst for this whole trip, we got back in our rental car and headed east toward Bilbao.  Luckily, we consulted with our hostess before we left and she recommended an excellent stop along the way, Santillana, which was about midway between Infiesto and Bilbao.  The views along the way were incredible and when we reached Santillana, we discovered a historic town, where we had an excellent lunch and stretched our legs along the cobble-stone streets before getting back on the road.

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I have no idea where I found out about the Vizcaya Bridge, but I’m quite glad I stumbled upon it in my research before our trip.  Just north of Bilbao, the bridge spans the Nervion River.  It is a UNESCO site in the Industrial Heritage category, the only one in Spain. Designed by Alberto Palacio, one of Eiffel’s disciples it is essentially a gondola over the water that carries 6 cars and something like 200 people.  The gondola trip takes 90 seconds and costs 35 cents for pedestrians.  However, if you want to take an elevator to the top and walk across, it costs 7 Euro and can take almost an hour, in my experience.

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I wasn’t sure how my main photographer would do with the elevation, but it seems the desire for a good view prevailed over his fear of heights, as always.

We continued inland and reached Bilbao late in the afternoon.  We checked out the old quarter, or Casco Viejo that evening and meandered along the waterfront.  With the Guggenheim being the only main attraction we wished to see, we only scheduled one night in Bilbao.

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Bilbao riverfront

The next morning we walked to the Guggenheim, enjoying the riverfront along the way.

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Just down the street from the Guggenheim, quite a contrast in architecture.

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On our way back to pick up the car, we saw an unfortunate bike accident where a lady went head first into the pavement and wasn’t moving.  My first thought was to call 911, but then of course realized that wouldn’t work in Spain and made a mental note to look up the proper number (112 in case you were wondering).  Luckily, there were many other better equipped people who rushed to her aid.

We continued south east and stopped for lunch in Puente de la Reina, where they have a medieval bridge.  This was a spontaneous stop, something we would not have seen had we been stuck on a bus, or plane or train.  The town is just south of Pamplona, which is famous for the Running of the Bulls, which was only two days away.  We decided to skip Pamplona to avoid the crazy crowds and spend more time in Barcelona.  Though we did see a fair amount of people headed there or returning from the festival.

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I spent an incredible amount of time planning this trip, having 3 companions and a set amount of time, it was quite different than what I am used to.  When I asked my parents where they wanted to go, mostly I got vague answers that centered around museums and art.  But when I asked Riki, he said the desert.  And I thought he’d gone mad, until he showed me the pictures.  Even then I didn’t really believe a desert could be located so close to the French border.  But it is, and that is how we ended up in Olite.

Olite is a tiny town with an incredible palace.  The palace is almost entirely reconstructed since a fire in the 1800s, but it is still an amazing site to see and in typical fashion, my photographer was the last one out at closing time.

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That evening, as we sat on the main plaza right in front of our hotel, we were inundated with rain and privy to an amazing lightning storm (so much water that our room’s windows started leaking).

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Back to dry the next day however

“The light will be better” is a phrase I have grown accustomed to.  And a phrase that has changed many a plan around.  This was no exception.  Our overnight in Olite allowed us to get up early and head to Bardenas Reales, the desert Riki wanted to see, “when the light would be best.” And come to think of it, so would the temperature.  The landscape is incredible and the abrupt entry into a desert environment is daunting.  The unfortunate thing is that this vast expanse of arid land was man made by deforestation.  A unique habitat was created however, and is now protected.  Evidence of the massive rain storm was scarcely visible when we arrived and even less so by the time we left a few hours later.

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The bridesmaid bouquet made its final appearance in the desert.

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We stopped briefly in Tudela for a supermarket lunch, as it was not yet 1:00, so none of the restaurants had food yet.  Then we high-tailed it straight to Barcelona, where we promptly ditched the car for three days in favor of walking and public transit to avoid the maze of one way and forbidden streets.

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Crossing the Prime Meridian

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This being my third trip to Barcelona, it would seem I would be an expert.  But, no.  Barcelona is changing rapidly and I’m not sure it’s for the best.  They simply have too many tourists.  The city stopped issuing licenses for new tourist accommodations last year, but that just drove the prices up.  The tourists are still coming, and it’s obvious why.  Barcelona is a cool place, set right on the water, with an expansive beach, it offers unique architecture, delicious food and loads of culture.  A perfect combination that they are worried will turn them into a Spanish Venice, so dependent on tourism that the locals and their businesses are driven out.

La Sagrada Familia is changing as well, but let’s be honest, it’s about time.  They plan to be finished in 10 more years (144 years after construction began).  The ticket process has  changed since my last visit (which was only two years ago).  I had assumed we would go there early in the morning, wait in the long line and get our tickets for later in the morning.  So when no line awaited us as we approached the entrance I was a bit confused.  And when the sign said the next entry wasn’t for 5 hours, I was annoyed that I didn’t check before.  It seems they have gone digital and almost everyone buys their tickets online ahead of time.  We got incredibly lucky though, a group of 4 had canceled and we were able to enter 45 minutes later, which gave us time to grab breakfast before our scheduled entrance.

  This was my third visit (my first being almost 10 years ago) and it’s incredible to see the difference.  On my first visit, the nave was completely covered in plastic sheets and we could only walk in a single file line around the edge.  The facades were not nearly as complete and the towers not as tall.  Now we were able to wander the nave with our audio guides with 1000 other people gawking at the columns, glass and structure.

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La Sagrada Familia Facade
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Stained glass in the nave
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More stained glass
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La Sagrada Familia
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And more
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Construction up above
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Lord’s Prayer in many languages
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Statue
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La Sagrada Familia Nave
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More stained glass
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Incredible colors

One of the most interesting parts of La Sagrada Familia is going to the museum in the basement to see all the models and how Gaudi designed the building.  It is too bad he won’t get to see the completion, but he would have had to live to 174 years old.

We followed up our visit to La Sagrada Familia with another Gaudi creation, Parc Guell.  However, things have changed there as well and all the tickets for that time were sold out already and we couldn’t get in for another 5 hours.  So we walked around the outside, toured the Gaudi house museum and went home for a quick siesta before hitting the streets again to wander.

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Gaudi house museum with Barcelona beyond
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Barcelona street

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Barceloneta – by the water

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My parents spent their last day in Barcelona at more Gaudi buildings, where Riki and I had already been on our last trip.  We spent the day wandering, taking pictures (him), shopping (me) and laying on the beach because the water was too chilly to swim (for both of us).

Coming soon: Part 3 – South – Granada, Cordoba and up to Toledo

 

Part 1 – On the road to Northern Spain….Madrid to Infiesto

When I asked Riki to get together pictures from our trip to Spain this summer, he gave me a thumb drive per usual with some selected photos.  But since this thumb drive contained over 1300 photos from just the first week of our trip, it has taken me awhile to get this blog together.  That, and I’ve been busy learning German.  Our 17 day road trip around Spain with my parents began and ended in Madrid, and so will this blog.  However, it will be in 3 parts due to the enormous amount of pictures.

This part will cover our first week, up until the wedding in Infiesto.  The next will cover from Bilbao to Barcelona and the last will be the south; Granada, Cordoba and then back to Madrid, via Toledo.  The photos are organized in mosaics for space reasons – just click on a picture to make it larger.

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17 days, about 1800 miles/3000 kms give or take a few.

We met up with my parents at the Madrid airport, having flown from Zurich and they having flown from the US.  From there, we took the train to Atocha Train Station and walked to our rented apartment, which turned out to be tiny and  not air-conditioned, but very well located.

A master of all things free, I had researched the free hours of the Madrid art museums and we were able to visit the Reina Sophia, Thyssen Bornemisza and the Prado all for nothing.  As the master of good views, Riki had researched the Belles Artes building and we were able to get great views of downtown Madrid from the top, though not for free.

Our trip coincided with Gay Pride week so the city was decorated with rainbows and we witnessed a festive parade in one of the squares.  The rest of our two days in Madrid were spent enjoying the heat, wandering the lively streets, and eating.

Though we really enjoyed Madrid, I was anxious to get on the road and see the rest of the country.  We picked up our rental car, packed it to the gills with our luggage and headed about an hour outside of Madrid to Segovia, a UNESCO site and home to a 2nd century Roman aqueduct.  It also has an incredible Alcazar (fortress) that we climbed for nice views (another Riki find).  It was here that we first witnessed the huge white storks, which nest on the tops of trees and buildings.

After lunch, we got back in the car and headed to Ávila, another UNESCO site, about an hour away.  Ávila is known for its 12th c. walls and we walked over a kilometer of them and through the small city before getting back in the car.

From there, we drove about another hour to Salamanca, another UNESCO site, where we would spend two nights.  Salamanca is a university town and full of small walking streets, and the mandatory Plaza Mayor.  It is an incredibly beautiful city and we were lucky enough to have two charming friends here.  We ate delicious food and even bought 2 kilos of jamón ibérico, the maximum allowed to export to Switzerland.  If only we were allowed to take the whole leg.

Our next stop was León, which is known for its Gothic cathedral with incredible stained glass.  Since Riki didn’t actually go in the cathedral, I don’t have pictures, but I have an abundance of street art and graffiti shots he took while my mom and I toured the church.  We had lunch here and then continued onto our main destination, Infiesto, the wedding location.

So the whole point of this trip was to see my Spaniard get married in Infiesto, Asturias.  But Riki doesn’t have a single photo on his camera from the town or the event.  So I had to steal some from the phone.  Infiesto is a tiny place, set in an amazing location.  The wedding was great fun, with a great view, amazing food and definitely a worthy cause.

FREE Days & Old Friends….Leaving Barcelona

I really meant to do Barcelona in just one post, but obviously that hasn’t happened.  We have been busy trying to book the next segment of our trip and I’ve put this on the backburner for a few days.  So here goes.

Sunday we had high hopes of getting an early start and hitting all sorts of attractions, but as we were actually able to sleep in…..I forgot to mention that our little apartment had no A/C so we had to sleep with the windows open and it was incredibly noisy Friday night and early Saturday too.  We could very clearly hear all the conversations around us as everyone had their windows and doors open and across the “street” (10 feet away) we could hear the TV and the bickering of the old women (incomprehensible in Catalan but definitely bickering).  This was not the case Sunday morning.  Everyone was quiet, presumably from the late nights they had and we had some peace.

After walking all day Saturday, we opted for the metro to Montjuic, which included a short funicular up part of the hill.  Were we not on a budget, maybe we would have continued up the hill with the cable car, but at 7 Euro, we’d rather walk.  And I’m glad we did because we found these really cool terraced water gardens, where there were a couple of little kids with nets looking for frogs, which was pretty entertaining.

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At the top of the hill is a castle, which according to our book was supposed to be free, as it was pretty much just walls and a couple of good views.  Not free anymore, 8 Euro.  So we walked all the way around and found an archery club with some pretty impressive bows practicing alongside the walls.

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Some amazing succulents they have here.  Below the castle is an area built for the 1992 Olympics, which includes a Calatrava TV tower.  Unfortunately, the area is underutilized and the best use of the space was some teenagers skateboarding in the empty fountains.

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There’s an art museum midway down and some great views of La Sagrada Familia.  The area at the bottom of the hill was built for the 1929 International Exposition and includes a rebuilt version of the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Pavilion, also no longer free.  The tall, red Venetian Towers mark the entry to the avenue where it meets Placa d’Espanya (it pains me to write it in Catalan).  Also adjacent to the circle is an old bullfighting ring (beyond the towers to the right in the picture) which has been turned into a mall and eatery, as well as a viewing platform, cinema AND rock museum.  Really great re-use of the space.  The glass elevator from the 5th floor down costs 5 Euro.  We took the regular one, no problem, and free.

We had every intention of taking advantage of the free Sunday afternoons at the Picasso museum.  Every intention, I swear.  But, by the time we got to the beach, well, those plans went out the window.  The beach is also free.  Having not brought a bathing suit, I waded in to my knees, but Riki was wearing his amphibious shorts (more on those to come in Asia I’m sure) and joined the entire population of Barcelona in the water.  Not kidding, Riki thinks there were more people on the beach than they have in the entire city of Cleveland.  It wasn’t even crowded when he took this picture – people had already headed out by this time.

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LAST DAY

Our flight didn’t leave until 18:00 (this is also painful to write as military time is used all over and I always second guess my conversions – Look down at your watch if you still own one – it only has 12 segments, not 24 – someone needs to get the watchmakers on the same page as the time keepers and just pick ONE way) so we had the whole day to visit a few neighborhoods we had missed.  Here’s a collection of sites, signs and graffiti from our last day – as well as a special treat at the bottom!

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Banksy-esque street art near the spot where we were meeting this girl!

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Social media is not my favorite thing, but in this case, I am SO glad we were able to connect with Isolda.  She had been in Barcelona for a week and had just found an apartment a few blocks from where we were staying.  We had a less than delicious lunch, but the conversation made up for it.  We hustled off from our lunch, straight to the airport for our flight back to Zurich.

Hope you like church…Barcelona Day 2

If you don’t know who Gaudi is, you should look him up.  I can’t even begin to go into all that he has done.  Interesting fact, though sad, he was hit by a tram on his daily walk and nobody recognized him so they took him to the pauper’s hospital.  He died two days later and his funeral was attended by thousands of people.

Saturday morning we got up early and headed to see La Sagrada Familia, thinking it being early, we wouldn’t have to wait in line.  Well apparently that is a common misconception, as the line snaked all the way around the building by the time we got there.  So we waited.  The line moved, slowly.  By the time we got to the ticket counter, the first available elevator to the towers wasn’t for 3 hours, so we booked a later ticket and decided to come back at the end of the day.  You must go up one of the elevators if you visit.  It’s incredible.

Since we were not terribly far from Park Güell, we decided to walk up to another Gaudi site.  At the top of a hill is a 50 acre park overlooking the city.  Meant to be a high-end residential development, it had 60 triangular plots that were never developed around an incredible park and community space that was constructed.

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And this is when terror struck.  The man who we asked to take the picture of us (above) managed to half drop Riki’s camera on the ground.  All seemed to be fine for awhile but it now appears the lens is messed up.  Luckily, there is an entire bag full of lenses that we carry around and we were off to more picture taking in no time.  It isn’t even that great of a photo of us.

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This is a must see in Barcelona.  Really incredible tile work and a great place to picnic.  Be advised, it appears the city has started charging for everything.  I guess if you really do hate the tourists like they say they do, charge them an arm and a leg and maybe they’ll go away?  Our book was only a year old, but it appears that many places that used to be free now cost at least $8.  Oh well, totally worth it.

We spent the next few hours before our entry ticket for La Sagrada Familia wandering around the neighborhoods with the most modernist architecture (and graffiti).

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La Sagrada Familia

I came with the Spaniard seven years ago and was excited to see how far they have come in the construction process.   Since my last visit, the floors and roof were completed in time for the pope to consecrate it in 2010.  I remember plywood lined paths around the main area of the church, in which hung huge sheets of plastic.  Cristina and I went up the Passion Tower and had amazing views of the city and a great spiral staircase trip down.

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Proof that I also can take pictures.

We opted for the Nativity Tower this time, even though Riki claims to be afraid of heights (I think he was lying to me – I saw no evidence of this and we were VERY high).  La Sagrada Familia has come a long way in 7 years, with incredible stained glass and more towers, but I don’t see them finishing in 2026 as planned, which is 100 years since Gaudi’s death.  They still have an entire side to complete (the main side) and a whole apartment building is supposed to be demolished to make the main entryway plaza.  Not going to happen.  The literature says: “Est. Completion Date – 2026?”  They know. No way.

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If you go, check out the museum in the basement.  It has great pictures of the progress of the church and lots of huge models (architecture people!).

After 10 straight hours of walking, we ate dinner at 8 pm (GASP! blasphemy in Spain) and crashed early despite the draw of the lively bars nearby.

If you know Riki….Barcelona Day 1

If you know Riki, you know he likes flags.  There are zillions of flags in Barcelona, mostly one that is inspired by the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags.  It is a combination of the Catalan flag, which is just yellow and red stripes, but adds a blue triangle with a star.  This flag is the symbol of the separatists, who are trying to get the area of Catalonia independence from Spain.  This hasn’t been going so well, and recently a former leader of Catalonia has been accused of money laundering and hiding millions (Euros or dollars – but at that level it doesn’t matter – its a lot) in Swiss bank accounts.  This area has a lot of local pride and even have their own language, Catalan, which they speak along with Spanish.

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Our first day, we arrived at 9 am from Oviedo (no significant plane trauma to report).  We met our AirBNB host to drop off our bags and went exploring.  Our little apartment in El Born was in a trendy, up and coming area with lots of little shops and lots of graffiti.  It is right near the oldest part of the city and we were able to walk to almost everything, and we did.

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The ceiling in our room – quasi Gaudi?

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There are a ton of markets in Barcelona, some more touristy than others, but all with the same bustling atmosphere and incredible colors and smells.  We went everyday to get dried meat, bread, cheese AND fruit.  We’re trying to eat something besides meat, bread and cheese, but they are the best things and can be the cheapest.

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They have an old cathedral, which we did not go in.

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There’s an incredible amount of graffiti in Barcelona, some of it very good.  Most of it not.  If you know Riki, you also know he likes taking pictures of graffiti.  So expect more to come.

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Just down the street from our apartment in the Olympic Park, built for the 1992 Olympics.  The Arc de Triomf sits at the end of a great promenade, crowded with people in the evenings.

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A note on pictures:

If you know Riki, you know he takes a TON of pictures.  We are limited on space for this blog and are trying to downsize the pictures so we can include more in the blog.  Hopefully we will have that figured out before Asia, as I imagine there will be even more than the 1500 pictures he took in 8 days in Spain.  So check back later.