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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Spain -- Barcelon 8.4 - 8.6.09

                                       * El Born                                                            * Euskal Etxea

                                       * La Rambla                                                    * Mercat de la Boqueria 

                                       * Can Majo                                                       * Barceloneta

                                       * Picasso Museum                                       * Montjuic

Tuesday 8.4.09 -- In transition:

The trip was off a good start.  August 4 was D's, my travel partner's, birthday.  After we met up in the airport, I invited her for a drink at the airport bar.  Both D and I are light weights when it comes to alcohol consumption.  A glass of white wine later, we were pretty tipsy.  We were laughing, talking to strangers, and having a great time before we even boarded.  

Wednesday 8.5.09 -- First day in Barcelona:

By the time we settled into our apartment, freshened up, and  were ready to go out, it was already late in the afternoon.  We went to get a local Sim card from Orange cellphone carrier and got some groceries from the supermarket.  Our apartment was in the El Born neighborhood, centrally located in the old city with many shops, restaurants, and bars around.  We walked around our neighborhood and checked out some clothing shops.  The weather was hot, but when walking in one of the narrow old streets of El Born, the temperature immediately cooled down.  We've heard one too many pickpocketing stories about Spain before the trip and were quite worried. However, walking on the streets, seeing people going about their daily business at ease, we felt a lot better. (It turned out to be a false sense of security, more of that later.)  

We were both tired and hungry, but it was only 7pm, too early for a sit down dinner in Spain.  Followed my Time Out guidebook's suggestion, we found a tapas bar in the neighborhood, Euskal Etxea.  The food was served buffet style.  Various bite size breads with beautifully decorated toppings and toothpicks spearing on top were displayed at the bar.  The server gave you a plate for you to pick out whatever you want.  As we were trying to pick out what to eat, (it turned out to be quite challenging as everything looked so good!),  a couple stood nearby strike a conversation with us and told us that this restaurant served pintxo, not tapas.  

Turned out, the guy was from the Basque region, he told us that pintxo was Basque cuisine.  The difference between pintxo and tapas was that pintxo was always served with bread, whereas tapas was mostly served in a clay hot plate without bread.   D and I picked out a couple of them and ordered cava (Spanish sparkling wine).  All the pintxo were very decadent and rich.  Some savory and some sweet.  It probably would cost guys a fortune to fill up, but D and I loved the small eats and the whole experience.  When we were ready to leave, a server counted our toothpicks to charge us.  

After pintxo, we were too jet legged to go anywhere for dinner.  We went back to our apartment and called it an early night. 

Thursday 8.6.09 -- a very eventful birthday

We started our day by heading to Placa de Catalunya and walking all the way down through the city's famous boulevard, La Rambla.  It was still early in the morning, the weather was comfortable, and La Rambla was pretty quiet at this time.  We strolled down the street and took many pictures of beautiful buildings until we hit the Mercat de la Boqueria. From what I read in the guidebook, la Boqueria was the biggest food market in Europe.  It was fascinating to see all sorts of seafood and fresh produce that I had not seen in New York.  I was really disappointed to find out that the famous Pinotxo bar was closed for August.  We found another eatery in the market and decided to have breakfast there.  With limited Spanish and a lot of finger pointing, we managed to order pa amb tomaquet (tomato bread - day old bread, pretty bad), tortilla espanola (potato & egg tortilla -- just okay), and sauteed mix mushroom with sea salt (totally yummy!).  

After the breakfast, we continued to walk down La Rambla until Monument a Colom.  The monument marked the spot where Columbus docked in 1493 after his discovery of the Americas.  By the time we got to the Monument,  the sun came down pretty strong, and the heat became quite unbearable.  Knowing that E, the other travel partner, would meet us at the apartment in the early afternoon, we started heading back.  La Rambla got a lot more actions on our way home with many tourists and street performers.  We stopped by the Placa Reial, Santa Maria del Pi, and went to Mercat Santa Caterina near our apartment to get some fresh fruits, cold cuts, and cheeses.  

E flew in from Lisbon to join us for the remainder of the trip.   Once she arrived at the apartment, we were starving and ready to head out again.  I requested to have my birthday lunch at Can Majo, a seafood restaurant in Barceloneta.  Without reservation, we were lucky to get a table inside the restaurant.  I was eager to try the fideua in squid ink (catalan vermicelli paella),  E ordered steam barnacles, and of course cavas for all of us!  We had no clue what barnacles were.  Once the server brought the dish over, we realized that it was the ugly animal foot like creature we saw in the market earlier.  You opened the top of the "foot", and pulled out the meat inside.  It had the collagen texture and quite salty.  Not my favorite, but I was glad I tried it.  The fideua came in a HUGE portion that we could barely finish half of it.   The squid ink added an interesting flavor to the fideua.  The dish was quite different from Paella, but we all enjoyed it.  
After lunch, we took a stroll on the Barceloneta beach.  The beach was crowded.  People suntanning, playing volleyball, kids playing the sand, and chasing the waves.  It was five o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun was still very very strong.  After 30 minutes, we had enough and were ready to leave.  

A little after 6PM, we were in the Picasso museum.  This was the only museum on my list to visit.  We got to check out Picasso's early work.  It was interesting to see how he progressed and evolved as a painter.  The most fascinating part of the exhibition was the extensive analysis Picasso did based on Velazquez' Las Meninas.  The complete series of 58 canvases were donated to the museum by Picasso himself.  At 8 PM, the museum closed, and we were ready to hit the next thing on my itinerary, Montjuic!

We got the T-10 tickets and took the metro to Parallel stop, transferred to funicular, then Teleferic de Montjuic (cable car) to Montjuic castle.  When we were buying the cable car tickets, a lady worked there informed us that it was almost 9 PM, and the cable car would stop running soon.  She told us that if we wanted to take the cable car down we could not stop at the top, and had to stay in the cable car to come back down.  She told us that there were buses running, but she wasn't sure how late the buses ran.  We asked her how long it would take to walk down the hill, and she told us that it would take about 20 minutes.  I was thinking, "20 minutes is nothing. We are New Yorkers! We can always get a cab if it's too far."  So we took the cable car up to the castle.  It was perfect timing as we caught the sunset on the cable car overlooking the city.  The view along was worth the ride.  

When we got to the castle, it was already closed.  We walked  the small path around the castle.  The breeze cooled off the heat from the day,  the sun was going down, and this was Barcelona at it's most beautiful time.  No wonder people took long siestas in the afternoon. No wonder people have dinner so late.  The summer evening in Barcelona is precious and seductive.  The path downhill had views to the seaport.  The moon was out, it was full moon that night.  The sky was still bright and blue.  We passed by an outdoor beer garden at the most romantic setting that had a gorgeous view of the sea.  D and I were tempted to stay for a drink.  However, E reminded us that we still had to get down the mountain, and it was getting dark.  And yes! I still had to catch the water fountain.   

As we left the beer garden and hit the main road, it was getting darker.  We did not see any bus stops, nor did we see any taxis around.  Looking at the map trying to find our way down in the dark with a really bad sense of direction proved to be quite challenging.  I told D and E that we should try to hitch hike. E, the voice of caution, was not sold on the idea.  However, I tried to convince her that  It sure beats getting lost on the mountain in the dark!  I figured that if some creepy driver stopped the car, we could always say no.  So, we started hitch hiking. A couple of cars went by, but none of them stopped.  

Another 2 door convertible BMW drove by, a lovely older couple sitting in the front seats.  The old gentleman put his hands up gesturing that he could not help.  We yelled, "Oh, come on!"  As we were about to give up and look for the next car, a miracle happened!  The convertible BMW stopped about 50 feet away!  We laughed, screamed of joy and excitement, and ran towards the car.  They asked where we were going.  I told them we wanted to go to the Magic Fountain.  They let us in, and it was the craziest and sweetest ride of my life!  What an awesome birthday experience!  Turned out, the old gentleman spoke perfect English.  He  worked in the World Bank and just came back from New York!  

During the whole chaos of the hitch hiking,  H, my husband, called to check in.  With so much going on at the same time, I thought I accidentally hung up on him, but in fact did not.  He heard the whole conversation we had with this lovely couple.  Poor H, gathering all the information he heard over the phone, imagined that he would have to call the police to report three missing persons, and gave them information he learned about the suspect.  The old gentleman dropped us off in front of the magic fountain just before 10 PM.  We could not thank them enough for the kind acts they had extended to three complete strangers.  

The magic fountain was crowded.   Tour buses after tour buses dropped off tourists to see the spectacular.  The energy was bubbling. Music came on, the lights changed, and the water shot out of the fountain.  Carrying on the high from the ride,  I was having an amazing time in Barcelona.  The show lasted about 20 minutes.  We lingered a little longer.  It was a long day, and we were ready to head back to the old city for dinner.   

On the way back, I got lost on the metro.  After getting out of the metro, we got lost again looking for the tapas bar we wanted to go.   Reading a map under dim street lamps on the narrow streets of Barri Gotic close to midnight when we were tired and hungry was extremely frustrating.  A British guy who lived in the area was trying to help us with directions, but he could not find the restaurant either.  

Finally, we gave up. It was past midnight.  All the restaurants were closed.  We were exhausted.  We headed home, heated up the left over fiedua, and made sandwiches from the bread, cold cuts, and cheese we bought this morning for dinner.  

When we recalled our day, we could not help but laughing.  It was insane how many activities we packed in one day.   The birthday lunch we had felt like so long ago.  It was a crazy, but really really fun day......

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