Thursday, November 29, 2012


“Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good.” --Alice May Brock

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Toledo: "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

Over dinner in the Latin Quarter on Tuesday night, Jo and I decided to get out of the city on Wednesday and take a day trip to Toledo, the medieval walled city an hour rain ride from Madrid. From the moment we exited the train, we were in love with the town. The station is an early 20th-century Moorish reconstruction that has perfected every detail of the style. The tiles are colorful and varied from the ceiling to the floor, the wrought iron is twisted and bent into floral and organic forms, the pointed arches and crenellated towers lift the eye. We took pictures on the platform; I am sure the Spaniards thought we were nuts.

We walked from the station to the old city then climbed the stairs along the existing walls to Zocodover Square where we got our bearings and planned our afternoon attack. We decided to circle the Cathedral over the course of the four hours we had before our return train and follow the narrow cobblestone streets wherever they led. And, like in Mykonos, they led to some pretty out of the way places where it is easy to lose ones bearings. Jo’s quick eye found a vegetarian restaurant called Madre Tierra (Mother Earth) down a small walkway. I knew from the sign alone that we were going to have a great meal.

We walked down a few steps into the restaurant where the warm terra cotta colors of the modern dining room contrasted with the soft madrigal music coming from the speakers. There was a distinct, welcoming feel to the tables; every place setting had a red and white wine glass beside the plate. Jo had the mushroom and black truffle risotto and I had the vegetarian sushi with green chai tea. Great meal. Great setting.

Fed and fortified for a whirlwind tour of three small museums in two hours (one ticket covered all three), Jo and I first toured the Leonardo the Inventor exhibit in which artist’s plans for machines such as the helicopter, odometer, diving helmet, tank, etc. were built according to his design. Second, we went to Torture Museum where we saw some pretty horrible instruments of pain and death. I wouldn’t even read the English translations of the devices themselves. However, I did learn a lot about why people were accused, what they were accused of, and how their trials and appeals were conducted. One of the early courts of the Spanish Inquisition was established in Seville, so I expect more horrors to come. We had a heck of a time finding our way through the warren-like streets to that location but were lucky enough to find two young cooking students who, when they realized it was easier to show us than tell us how to get there, led us directly to the front door. Finally, we went to the Knights Templar exhibition which detailed the origin and route the Knights took through the Holy Land during the crusades. The sect had connections and roots in Toledo. Nothing there was in English, so I had to decipher the titles of the placards and look at the color-coded maps. Wasn’t difficult to figure out the gist of things.

At the end of the afternoon, we raced back to the station to catch our 5:30 train. The weather had cooperated all day and the people of Toledo were delightful. I am so glad we changed our plans to see something other than a big, multi-national city.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Prado

The five memories of my three days in Spain in 1984 are limited to my buying a great pair of blue boots in Madrid, taking a picture of a young girl holding her infant sister in front of a religious icon in Avila, standing along the creek below the castle in Segovia as milkweed pods drifted, smelling brownies along the shorefront in San Sebastian, and stumbling onto Goya’s “The Third of May 1808” in an empty room in the Prado. I expected to be overwhelmed with déjà vu in the museum; I wasn’t.

We took two metro lines and followed a series of winding alleyways to get to the Prado, then walked around the museum twice until we found the correct entrance for the general collection—not a lot of help from the guards. The main hall was more beautiful than I remember with its warm gray walls and arching doorways. The sunlight pouring down from the ceiling fills the space and providing a warm glow to the room and making the royal portraits look alive. My main purpose was to find the Goya, but I didn’t want to hunt it down—I wanted to come upon it the way I had twenty-five years ago. Of course, my memory had it all wrong. It wasn’t where I remembered it was, wasn’t as big as I remembered it to be, and wasn’t shocking as the first time I saw it. But it was just as moving, especially positioned where it was next to the “The Second of May 1808” which I have no memory of the first time around—very strange considering the violent subject matter of both pieces.

We spent about ninety minutes in the museum, seeking out the paintings and artists we knew—Bosch, El Greco, Goya, etc. I was struck by the number of dogs present in so many of the paintings. The nobility liked dogs and had their routinely had portraits painted alongside their faithful companions. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch was nice to see (not a portrait, of course). I noted that although there were not rabbits in the center canvas, both the right and left sides of the triptych (heaven and hell, respectively) had rabbits present. So, wherever Heidi ends up, she’ll be happy. (That's a joke, Heidi. Hahahahaha.)

Madrid: "The count is up, but the trend is down"

We left Barcelona mid Tuesday morning arriving in Madrid a little before noon. The high speed train was modern and comfortable, offering video monitors for an “in-flight” movie and complimentary headphones. Because we had so much luck with public transportation in Barcelona, we took the Metro to our hotel on the edge of the Latin Quarter (La Latina) and dumped our bags. Making our way on foot in the general direction of the Prado—way too far to walk the whole way—we cut through an area of the city full of immigrants of all kinds, but mostly north African. The clothing stores carried long cotton dresses and head scarves to accommodate the cultural modesty of the women. I didn’t feel much like we were in Madrid, let alone Spain. That area of the city has a very different feel than anything we experienced in Barcelona.

Near the Lavapies metro stop, perhaps 3/4 mile or so from our hotel, we decided to stop for lunch. We went into an Indian restaurant because they offered several vegetarian/gf options. The small dining room was tiled and decorated with Indian posters and artwork. Definitely didn’t feel like Madrid. I ordered lentils sautéed with onions and garlic with a side of rice and carrots, which tasted delicious, until I found a small, brown, crispy slug among the fluffy grains of basmati. Jo had found one in her rice moments before I did. I tried to keep eating my lentils, but I couldn’t. We didn’t tell the waiter; we just chatted a while and left. I should mention that “Lavapies” means “wash feet” in Spanish. I don’t want to think too long about dirty feet and rice, so I’ll move on.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Flash Flash

We had a late supper at a restaurant that made me feel like I was at home. I had read about it in the Barcelona style book on my bedside table in the hotel. It was a 20-minute or so cab ride away. Established in the late 60s/early 70s, Flash Flash is an omelet restaurant serving, among a few other entrees, both savory and sweet egg dishes. Apparently, in the 70s, Paul Newman was reported as saying they served him the best hamburger he had ever had. And, if it’s good enough for Paolo, it’s good enough for me.

The walls, leather banquettes, and tables of the restaurant are all white with the only decoration repeated, larger-than-life, images of a Twiggy look-a-like taking photographs with a flash camera. (I have pictures, but I forgot my card reader, so I will post them later). The place was full of Barcelonians; we were the only tourists in the place. Two large tables of well-dressed men sat in the back, and one long table of about five very sophisticated couples in their seventies or eighties sat in the front window. I loved the place instantly. I could choose from almost everything on the menu—an option I haven’t had for almost two years. I was in heaven and proceeded to order the most expensive thing on the menu, a black truffle and onion omelet. Oh, yes, I did. I could have lingered all evening.

Flash Flash is now my little place in Barcelona. Because the evening was going so well, Jo and I hoped to move on to a discreet little wine bar, but, at almost 11:00 PM, the city had shut down. What two or three places were open were empty, so we didn’t venture in. We caught a cab back to Front Maritim and packed for our train ride to Madrid on Tuesday morning.

Busy Barcelona

After my second almost sleepless night, Jo and I woke about 11:30 Monday morning, showered, and caught the bus into the city. We had decided to take the bus to the far side of town and work our way back, in a zig-zag like fashion towards the hotel. We walked through the markets of La Rambla full of freshly butchered and dried meats, exotic fruits, nuts, and eggs toward the Columbus monument, then caught the Metro up to Park Guell where we admired the curving benches covered in mosaic tile overlooking the city and ocean in the distance. I have always liked who/what I thought Gaudi was, but seeing it in context is a completely different experience. His aesthetic (more the tiling than the architecture) has been copied so much over the last 100 years, that I thought it might seem tired or clichéd when I saw it in person. It doesn’t; in fact, it is quite the opposite. Within the context of late nineteenth-century design, nothing could be fresher or more modern. While heavily designed, surely, the finished buildings and park feel entirely un-self-conscious. The stir he must have caused in his own day must have been scandalous. Fabulous. I love it. Go Gaudi.

After the park, we passed the Casa Mila (La Pedrera), then stopped for lunch at a small outdoor café called Mauri where we had our first tapas. I had an omelet; Jo had octopus, which even if I ate fish, I never would have dared to order. She has been very adventurous with meats and fish—she had fried anchovies for lunch on Sunday. My meals for the past three days have either been goat cheese salads or eggs. Delicious but limited.

We walked down to the waterfront, then made our way along the beach and boardwalk back in the direction (though miles away) of the hotel. For the first time, I felt like we were on the Mediterranean. To my left was the urban. To my right was the sea. We walked for a mile or more among couples and families and runners and bikers below us on the sand. At one point, I heard beagles chasing and bellowing at one another. When I looked down, they were racing toward their owner who knelt on the sand with her arms wide open in welcome. Dust flew behind them as they took off down the strand. It was a beautiful sight, but I didn’t have my camera at the ready.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

La Sagrada Familia: Oh. My. Gaudi.

We climbed out of the subway and, boom, there it was. No asking for directions, no winding our way through a warren of medieval streets to find an out-of-the-way church. The basilica looms large over a city block, and because it is surrounded by angular yellow cranes, it is not hard to find. Unlike Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence which is a sad sight covered in scaffolding, part of the enduring beauty (or, perhaps, blessed irony) of LSF is its in-progress nature, now well into its third century. I thought it would look more sandcastle-like, but I was not disappointed. Unlike other Gothic cathedrals of its kind, rather than gargoyles along the parapets, I found alligators and snails. Rather than angels and seraphim at the tops of its spires, I saw colorful grapefruits and lemons. It made me smile immediately.

The inside of the cathedral must be, by far, the most glorious place for worship on earth. Again, defying my expectations of the traditional Gothic, the interior is light and airy, with marble floors and limestone columns that rise nearly three storeys into palm frond-like capitals that envelop the nooks and crannies of the tiled ceiling. Gaudi’s use of color, light and space redefines the role of personal experience in Christianity. Rather than instilling a fear of God into the process, Gaudi uses his stained glass windows to cast rainbow-like projections on white stone to dazzle one into looking upward. It was very hard for a cynical atheist like me not to be amazed by the interplay of light as it moved across the wall and feel joy.

Similarly, the choir lofts in the church are situated two levels above ground and stretch down the sides of the nave and across the back of the church. Instead of being all on one level, the choir stands on risers so that every one of the THOUSAND voices can be heard. A ONE THOUSAND MEMBER CHOIR. Even in the relative silence of the afternoon, I could hear whispers from the other side of the cavernous nave. I can imagine how glorious a full choir would sound in full hymn; I could practically hear Gregorian chanting as I glided from point to point with my mouth agape. For the first time visiting a holy site, I finally understood what it was meant to do. I think I could believe anything in La Sagrada Familia.