Spanien – Barcelona

We arrived by train to Barcelona on January 6 in the late morning. I quickly remembered the metro system I had become accustomed to during my summer studying here, and we dropped off our bags at the hostel. From there, we wasted no time in going to see some famous sights Barcelona has to offer. Our first priority was lunch. We searched for my favorite Kebab place near where I had stayed in the summer of 2013. It took us a while to find it because the owner had moved his shop, but eventually I recognized the seller and we had delicious Doner.

As a first site to see, we paid a quick visit to Sagrada Familia. Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, it’s an exotic looking cathedral which has been under construction for over 100 years. Unfortunately the tickets to tour the inside were sold out, but we spent some time appreciating all of the detail and wild-looking external structures. I enjoyed being able to tell Tyke a bit about how it was structured and explain some of Gaudi’s style.

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Sagrada from afar

After Sagrada Familia, we decided to try our luck with another Gaudi creation, Park Guell. This was also packed, and we didn’t want to wait 4 hours to enter the park, so we went to the free viewing area above the paid portion. I showed Tyke some nice views of the city, and we got to see more of Gaudi’s style in the park structures. We saw several amusing street performers in the park. Our favorite was definitely a guy playing “rock and roll” but really just strumming a guitar while screaming at tourists near the top of the park. We hiked back down the hill and returned to our hostel to pick out a place for dinner and decide what to do in the evening. I convinced Tyke to go see the Magic Fountain at Montjuic.

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The entrance to Park Guell

We took the metro over to Espanya and stuck around for a few light shows. It is always entertaining to see how they coordinate the fountain to music with each display being a newly unique show. We took some time to explore the views from Montjuic and do some people-watching in the plaza. Afterwards, we grabbed some buffet-style sushi because no one in Tyke’s family likes sushi, so we wanted to give him the chance to eat a true meal of it. After dinner I took Tyke to the bar we had frequented during my summer here, Ovella Negra (the Black Sheep) where they serve 5 Liter towers of beer and sangria. Not feeling particularly bold, we opted for normal size glasses, but it was fun to go back regardless.

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The Magic Fountain never fails to impress
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Montjuic from below

The next day we went straight to Las Ramblas, where I showed Tyke the Market of San Miguel, the shops and vendors, and the street performers there. From there, we followed the shoreline to one of my favorite fresh sandwich shops, Bo De B. We ate our sandwiches outside on some steps where I had to bravely fend off some pigeons. After a tasty lunch we wandered through the Gothic quarter where we saw old churches, city walls, and narrow, winding streets. It wasn’t as old-looking as Toledo but the blending of old and new styles can create some really interesting dynamics in Barcelona. We saw the steps where Colombus was received from having “discovered” the new world, and I had Tyke try some gelato for the first time even though it was way out-of-season.

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Catedral de la Santa Cruz
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Plaza del Rei

Tyke was getting into the Gaudi spirit now, so we headed up to Passaig de Gracia to check out two more houses designed by Gaudi to reflect the sea. These were also crowded and expensive so rather than going inside, we opted to check out some place I had not been, Hospital Sant Pau. The old hopsital buildings look really neat, different from anything in Barcelona and the spot was not very crowded. I recommend it for anyone looking for a cool spot to see that’s a little off the beaten path.

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La Pedrera

 

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At Hospital de Sant Pau

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Exhausted from our long trip, we made an early night of it after getting dinner in el Raval. We took the train to the airport bound for Germany the next morning. More on that later!

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Spanien – Toledo

Today marks the first time I’m writing to you by train. We’re on our way from Madrid to Barcelona, where I’ll get to revisit the sights I saw when I studied abroad there. I want to spend today telling you about our day trip to Toledo, Spain’s historic capital.

 

We woke up fairly early to get to the Madrid train station to catch an early train to the city. Its a short trip (only 30 minutes) and runs regularly, so we weren’t concerned about getting tickets. Upon arrival we went to get our bags scanned and had the woman tell us that our train was departing downstairs. I didn’t catch most of what she had said but the point was conveyed nonetheless. As we got to the correct checkpoint, a man hurried past us and asked to cut the line (speaking incredibly quickly). I assume this is what he was saying because I understood none of it. We let him go and had no further excitement getting onto our train.

 

We caught the first commuter train into Toledo and arrived before 9:30AM. Unfortunately I had forgotten to download an offline map onto my phone, which caused us a slight hiccup upon arrival. We decided we didn’t need a map of the city because I had read that “the sights are all uphill from the train station”. Apparently I didn’t get the memo about *which* hill, and after half an hour of wandering around the wrong part of Toledo we swallowed our pride and went back to the train station to buy a map. Hence we spent the first hour of our time in Toledo thoroughly lost.

 

Looking at the map, we quickly realized we had been in the wrong part of town because the map clearly showed we needed to cross a river, which we had not done. Having gotten our bearings, we set off in the right direction and confirmed our suspicions when we saw a tour bus heading in the same direction (a universal good sign when lost). We hiked up the correct hill this time and were treated to some nice views of the old city walls and overlooks of several pretty neighborhoods.
Chelsea’s friend Rachel had given us some recommendations which we referred to regularly. We were both hungry (having skipped breakfast to catch the train) and realized we were close to a cafe she suggested which was in an old military complex in a tower overlooking much of the city. The view here was great – it was the highest we ever saw Toledo from and was a good first stop as it gave us a chance to familiarize ourselves with the map and rectify what we were seeing.

 

 

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The city from above

After our quick bocadillos de jamon, we made straight for the ornate cathedral which was in the center of many historic buildings to see. The cathedral was beautiful on the outside with intricate carvings and detailed facades. There were some temporary vendors and a merry-go-round set up in the plaza just outside the cathedral, and everyone was having Christmas celebrations. It’s nice to see that people here celebrate the Christmas season and not just the single-day holiday as we do in the US.

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A pretty facade of the main cathedral in Toledo
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We made a brief stop in a gift shop to look at some craftwork

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We found an old synagogue which (had we not been informed) we would have assumed was a mosque which had been converted. Luckily for us, we stumbled in on a tour guide giving an explanation – he said that the building had been comissioned to be built by muslims but was initially a jewish house of worship. He explained how when they were comissioning the building that the muslims had no concept of what a normal synagogue looked like, so they built the house of worship as they would build a mosque, facing mecca with open space for prayer. The style looks wildly out of place in a Spanish city but highlights a common theme we saw in many of the buildings we visited in Toledo – a Moorish influence. You could see buildings which looked Spanish, but also arches and decorations which looked to be more Turkish or even African in style. This blending of styles reflects the importance of Toledo as an old capital, and the subsequent blending of cultures.

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Inside the Muslim-influenced synagogue

We stopped into a small restaurant nearby to grab a snack of patatas bravas and churros con chocolate. Apparently we told him we had been wanting a full meal and were seated on the wrong side of the dining area. When we explained what we had wanted to order, he seemed confused and a little frustrated and had us move over to the cafe side of the dining area where he seemed happy to serve us what we wanted. I don’t fully understand what prevented him from serving snacks where we had initially been seated, but nevertheless we were happy to eat again.

 

Continuing our circling of the city, we passed a few convents and religious buildings as we made our way around. The prevalence of the church in historic Spain is always surprising and impressive. It felt like at least three quarters of the buildings we were seeing had some sort of religious purpose. I realize all of these places have their own history and names. But for me to look all of them up would not be true to how we experienced them. We had a general sense of the history of Toledo but did not take the time to research each site in detail. Rather than trying to be comprehensive and fill in all the details after the fact, I’ll just post some pictures and let you experience Toledo like I did.

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More blending of styles. I really enjoyed this part of the architecture
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Look at this parking job! I was very impressed

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Some Roman ruins we found as a detour
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Crossing the river on the way back to the train station

After we finished up touring the city, we took a train back to Madrid where we followed more food recommendations. We tried a nearby place called Meson de los Chanpinones, which served specialty stuffed mushrooms. As we have found to be the norm in Madrid, they were delicious. We continued on to get churros con chocolate at a famous place our tour guide had mentioned and were not disappointed. The chocolate was served hot, but was thicker and richer than you’d think of hot chocolate.

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Satisfied, we returned to our hostel to pack up for the trip to Barcelona. More on that later!

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Spanien – Madrid

We spent most of January 3 travelling from Iceland to Spain. Between wanting to be early for our flight and the flight itself, then getting to our hostel in Madrid, most of the day was gone by the time we were ready to do anything.

Here in Madrid, we’re staying at a hostel called “The Hat”. The location is great with tons of sights and places to visit within walking distance. After we checked in, we set out to explore the area a bit before dinner and found several large plazas and a huge shopping district. The city is quite crowded, especially when contrasted with the small city and wide open spaces we had been getting used to in Iceland. After wandering for a while we decided to try our luck with a recommendation we’d had from a friend, Restaurante Botin.

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Botin. Muy delicioso!

This restaurant has been continually running since 1725, making it the oldest restaurant in the world. It also hosted several famous artists and authors such as Goya and Hemingway as they grew up and created some of their best-known works. We stopped by the front to find it was still closed for siesta, and came back later to find a large crowd of patrons waiting for the doors to open. Without a reservation, we were seated within 10 minutes of the place’s opening. We later found out this is highly unusual and that most of the guests book reservations at least 5 days in advance, and that the restaurant is usually fully booked out.

We had to walk through the kitchen to get to a small back room with 5 or 6 tables where we were seated. We had heard the restaurant’s specialty was roast suckling pig, so we placed two orders of that and an order of sangria. The food was excellent, easily the best pork I had ever tasted. They use an old-style wood fired stove and cook the pig twice with precise timing to make sure it’s juicy and tender. They cut it in front of you so that you can make sure it was cooked the proper old-fashioned way. Full and happy, we stayed out for a bit longer with more sangria before heading to bed.

On the 4th we woke up and had a cheap but filling breakfast at our hostel before heading out on the hostel walking tour. I didn’t take a ton of photos but we got to see a ton of cool sites while the guide explained the history of Madrid with stories and legends. We learned about several nearby plazas, saw the royal palace, checked out the Cathedral of Saint Mary, and tried the local liquor, el madroño. It was fun learning about the bear symbolism of Madrid and get a feel for the history of the city, the influence of southern Spain and Moorish culture. We also discussed Spanish culture more generally, looking into flamingo dancing and tapas. The tour was long but worth it.

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The Cathedral from across the street
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Inside the Cathedral
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Historical crests of the city
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The Royal Palace with over 3400 rooms

After the tour we followed our guide’s recommendation for a place for lunch and ordered the menu del dia. The waiter spoke no English, so I was forced to struggle through making choices off of the menu in Spanish. Until I came to Spain I hadn’t realized how much I had forgotten; I find myself trying to use German grammar with Spanish vocabulary, forgetting a lot of words, and generally embarrassing myself.

We left the lunch place and made for el Prado, a world-renowned art museum. We spent several hours looking through the extensive collections, observing different styles and themes through the pieces. Religious subjects dominated most of the collections, but there were some classical Greek and Roman influences as well as some more contemporary landscape and everyday art we were able to view.

It was a lot to take in in one day and I’m sure we missed a lot of the museum. It was impressive seeing the extent of the collection at the Prado and realizing how old many of the works were. It would be too long for me to reflect on individual works here, but I enjoyed my experience of the museum and wish we’d had more time there.

We just got back from another delicious dinner, this time we had Iberian Ham and Paella. Tomorrow we are trying to get to Toledo to see some of the old architecture and the old historic capital. As always, I’ll keep you posted.

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben