A Travellerspoint blog


Back to the Med! Barcelona

A red-eye flight from Miami to Barcelona was the obvious choice. That gave us the whole day in Miami to run errands and be sure we had everything for our trip. It also meant the kids would be sleeping for most of the flight and not demanding our attention. Mei Ling was able to sleep for a few hours as well, although true to form I didn't get a wink. Given my work schedule, of course, I'm accustomed to going 24 hours or more without sleep so that didn't present a problem. We got past customs in Barcelona around 11 AM local time Friday and contacted our Airbnb host, who gave us the unpleasant update that she wouldn't be able to meet us at the apartment until after 1 PM, even though she had known our arrival time for a month. Given all our luggage and kids we had no choice but to head to the apartment anyway, in the El Raval neighborhood downtown. It was chilly and rainy, but fortunately the little cafe next to our Airbnb was owned by a Chinese lady who was immediately charmed by Mei Ling and the kids. We got some breakfast and the ladies chatted for an hour in Mandarin while I tried to prevent Cleo and Ian from ripping the place apart. Eventually our host showed up and let us in to our building. We were on the second floor (American terminology) with an elevator, but the elevator was tiny with a door that blocked the hallway so it took us three trips to get everything and everyone upstairs. The apartment itself was good, with plenty of space and comfortable beds.
Settling in.

I'd made a list of all the produce markets in Barcelona and of course the centerpiece was La Boqueria. However, our apartment was just a couple of blocks away from the Mercat de Sant Antoni so after freshening up a little bit we made that our first stop. The market had moved across the street to temporary digs due to a renovation of the main building, but there were still a number of good stalls and restaurants to choose from.

We found a promising tapas restaurant in the market and had a very satisfying meal of snails and grilled seafood while the kids slept in their strollers.

After lunch, I got myself a Spain SIM card at Vodafone and we made our way through the Ciutat Vella neighborhood to La Boqueria. La Boqueria turned out to be even more impressive than I remembered from my last visit to Barcelona fifteen years earlier. Apparently it was renovated just a few years ago, and every stall seemed to have only the freshest and highest quality foods. The colors and smells were overwhelming even before sampling the wares. The first photo shows giant slabs of sepia steaming on the grill, one of our favorites.

We didn't have much appetite after our big meal at the last market, so we bought enough food to have a self-catered meal and walked back to the apartment. We unpacked and let the kids play around a little, then ate our monkfish, grilled mushrooms, and sea snails before collapsing into bed.

Our determination to remain active throughout the first day was rewarded when we awoke early Saturday morning, well-rested and ready to begin our exploration of Barcelona. I purchased advance tickets for La Sagrada Familia online, and then we headed straight to La Boqueria for breakfast. After scrutinizing every restaurant inside the market, we settled on Ramblero which proved to be a wise choice. We had an enormous brunch of which the highlight was a mixed fish grill.

After lunch we explored the market again, especially the seafood section which had been very subdued the previous afternoon. At 10:30 AM on a Saturday however, it was crowded and bustling.


We exited La Boqueria onto La Rambla and rambled northward through the oncoming crowds, eventually reaching Plaça de Catalunya, one of the nerve centers of Barcelona. The square was full of activity, along with plenty of pigeons for Cleo and Ian to chase.

We pried the kids away from the pigeons and proceeded up Passeig de Gràcia to La Mansana de la Discòrdia, a single block famous for four large buildings constructed in four very different styles by four of Barcelona's most famous architects. The highlight is Antoni Gaudi's surreal Casa Batlló.
Casa Lleó-Morera
Casa Amatller, Casa Batlló

We made it to La Sagrada Família in perfect time for our pre-scheduled visit. I won't get into the history of this amazing building, which is easily discovered online. Suffice it to say that Gaudi's masterpiece has been under construction since 1882 and is expected to be complete except for certain decorative elements in 2026. The church is enormous and difficult to photograph from a distance due to buildings and trees, so I imagine most professional photos of the church use wide lenses and stitching tricks. The surreality of this unique basilica is difficult to describe, and the amount of ornamental detail both inside and outside the structure is amazing.

From La Sagrada Familia we decided to walk further inland to Park Güell, partially because I wanted to see more of Barcelona on foot and partially because I was too lazy to hail a cab and disassemble our caravan of strollers. The first part of the walk was decent enough, with a stop for ice cream along the way, but I'd forgotten about the three dimensional nature of Barcelona. I spent the last quarter mile pushing the double-loaded gondola up a steep hill to the park. I was soaked in sweat by the time we got up there, but at least I got a free stress test!

I hadn't bought tickets in advance and we arrived at peak time on a Saturday, so we weren't able to visit the Monumental Zone which contains all the Gaudi sculptures. Nevertheless, we walked around the park and got some great views of Barcelona from the terraces.

We wandered down a pathway behind the top of the hill and eventually came to a playground, where the kids burned off some more energy. Fortunately we were able to flag down a taxi quickly and had him take us all the way back downtown to El Born, a beautiful old neighborhood just north of the Barrio Gotico. Our main goal was to visit another food market, El Mercat de Santa Caterina, but the driver took us to El Mercat del Born instead. This was the former market building from which the market was relocated after important archeological discoveries were made underneath the floor.

Like all neighborhoods in downtown Barcelona, El Born is pretty small, so it was a just a short walk to our true destination. El Born was pleasantly busy with shoppers and strollers on a Saturday afternoon, and Cleo and Mei Ling had some fun with a couple of street musicians.===

Unfortunately once we arrived at El Mercat de Santa Caterina we found that it was closed. Except for La Boqueria, all the markets in Barcelona close early in the afternoon. Disappointed but undaunted, we crossed back across El Born to Parc de la Ciutadella, the main park of downtown Barcelona. It was a beautiful, energetic park with gardens and monuments, full of people relaxing in the sun and enjoying themselves. In the center was a good-sized pond with rowboats and ducks.

It was starting to get dark, and having self-catered the previous night I was determined to try a real Barcelona restaurant. I eventually settled on Pla, which was close by and highly-reviewed on travel websites. We eventually found it after some meandering through the alleys of the Barrio Gotico, and fortunately at 8pm it was almost empty. Most Barcelonés won't consider having dinner before 9pm, and 10pm is usually when things get moving. The staff was great about helping us get all the kids and strollers into a little alcove to the side, and Ian and Cleo did quite well during dinner with their coloring books. The major hassle during dinner was recovering all the crayons that kept rolling off the table. On the list for the next trip: square crayons. The food was good but couldn't compare to the experience of eating at La Boqueria.

After dinner, we had to run to La Rambla to catch a cab to Montjuïc in time to see the light show at the Font Magica. The fountain was built in 1929 and restored for the Olympic Games in 1992. On the weekends, the fountain is illuminated in a series of vibrant colors and music is played over loudspeakers. Cleo and especially Ian loved the show. There was a large open area around the fountain which of course meant there was a bunch of South Asian vendors selling those cheap lighted propeller toys. Ian was totally fascinated by the toys and ran from one vendor to another trying to catch the propellers as they spun to the ground. I knew the toys were super flimsy and would be broken after a few minutes so I never considered buying one for him. Ian kept on screaming and laughing every time one of the guys launched a toy into the sky, and eventually one of them handed him a new one in the package. I was annoyed by that, figuring it was a pushy sales tactic at my son's expense, and shook my head and frowned at the guy. He gestured back that it was a freebie, which I wasn't really buying, but of course by that point I wasn't going to rip the toy away from my beaming son. I figured I'd been beaten so I asked the vendor how much it was, but he kept shaking his head and indicating he was giving it to Ian free of charge. I practically had to shove two euros into the guy's hand. I found it very touching that this guy who probably works 16 hours a day just to feed himself could still enjoy a little boy's happiness. Maybe Ian reminded him of a son he left behind in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, who knows. We never did find an opportunity to play with the toy, but I was able to get it back to Miami in one piece. It's one of our few souvenirs from the trip.

The next morning we made a beeline for La Boqueria, only to discover it was closed. All Barcelona markets closed all day Sunday, despite some online sources claiming La Boqueria would be open. Dejected, we had a lousy breakfast and headed southward on La Rambla. Lots of people dismiss this street as a nest of tourist traps, but to me it's one of the nerve centers of the city and a vital destination if you want to feel the vibe of Barcelona. The street performers of La Rambla have been copied in major cities all over the world, but to me there's nothing like the original.

It was just a short walk to El Mirador de Colom at the end of La Rambla. The tall monument to Christopher Columbus dates back to 1888, and marks the boundary between old Barcelona and the modern seaside. As soon as I reached El Mirador, I realized our best bet for the morning would be to visit La Barceloneta neighborhood and beach. We walked north along the Passeig de Colom and soon encountered a lengthy street market with artists, craftspeople, and artisanal food products. It was an unexpected win.

The market seemed to go on forever but eventually we reached Barceloneta beach, the most central and popular beach in Barcelona. It was cool and overcast, but to the kids a beach is a beach.

Walking back inland from the beach, we found a cluster of cafes. Fortunately we arrived just ahead of the rush and snagged the last table at the most appetizing of the bunch. We had a great meal of fried seafood, mussels, and shishito peppers that made up for the lousy breakfast. The highlight was a dish called jols, tiny fried fish that they call whitebait in the US. It's been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid.

Barceloneta is the only neighborhood downtown modern enough to be laid out in a grid. We explored it for a while, and eventually found a nice park and playground for the kids to get in some exercise. Once they were done, the only substantial thing I had left on my Barcelona list was Tibidabo Hill so we hailed another cab and headed back inland.

Tibidabo is a rather confusing place. The top of the hill is shared by a beautiful modern church and an amusement park. To complicate things further, there are several large rides outside the gates of the amusement park for which individual tickets can be purchased. It was already late in the day to buy tickets for the main park and we figured the kids would be too small for most of the rides anyway, so we focused on the rides outside the gates. I saw what looked like a short line for the Avió ride and took Ian there since Cleo had fallen asleep. This was an old red propeller plane that "flew" in circles over the hillside suspended from a rotating girder. Unfortunately, we were on the short line for over an hour as the airplane had a very small capacity. Ian enjoyed it once we got on, although it only lasted a few minutes.

By the time we got off the plane, Cleo had woken up so I took the kids to the Ferris wheel. Once we got to the front, the operators decided Ian was too small which I found incomprehensible since we would be sitting inside a bucket for the ride. Were they worried he would slip through the cracks? Regardless, they couldn't be swayed and Ian was dispatched back to his mother. It was all for the best though as once we were on the wheel we were subjected to gale force freezing winds. I had to practically cocoon Cleo to my chest for most of the ride, which kept stranding us motionless at the top while people got on and off at the bottom.

The Sagrat Cor church was beautiful and enticing, but there seemed to be no way to avoid the enormous flights of stairs on either side so we settled for pictures.

I wasn't sure how to get back downtown from Tibidabo. The funicular was right there, but I didn't want to negotiate the stairs in the station with the two strollers. Then I saw a bus stop, and a quick Google search indicated the bus that stopped there would take us all the way back downtown. We waited 20 minutes or so for the bus, as more people showed up at the stop with no queue forming. When the bus finally came, everyone crowded towards the doors since it didn't appear there would be enough room for everyone. Mei Ling is a valuable asset in those situations, and she managed to ram all of us through the late arrivals and onto the bus. Unfortunately, the bus drove a short distance down the hill and kicked everyone off, so we were stranded. We figured we could catch a cab so we started pushing the strollers downhill, but after a while it became apparent that there were no cabs and no good route down the hill. The only street going straight down was steep and narrow with no sidewalk, and every few seconds a car would explode upward at maximal RPM to attain the plateau we stood on. We decided that risk was unacceptable. I tried Uber, only to find that Uber hasn't been allowed in Spain. I even downloaded and tried local taxi apps but they didn't work. Eventually we had to push the strollers all the way back uphill to the funicular and navigate the steps. We'd wasted an hour and a half and exhausted ourselves just to get back where we'd started. Cleo enjoyed the funicular though.

At the end of the funicular, we transferred to a train and half an hour later we were back at Plaça de Catalunya. We headed to the Barrio Gotico to find food, but most of the restaurants in the neighborhood seemed to be closed on Sunday evening. Eventually we were happy to find an open self-service tapas restaurant and put together a serviceable if not outstanding dinner.

Cleo found herself a friend on the walk back home.

Early Monday morning, I took a cab to the Budget rental office to pick up the minivan. I was a little nervous about our first minivan rental outside the US, since none of the companies had Japanese or American brands that I was familiar with. The office staff was OK, but I got a fright when I arrived at the designated spot in the garage and found a small cargo van with an Avis logo. Fortunately, it turned out there was a mix-up and I'd actually been upgraded to a huge Mercedes Metris minivan. It seemed about a foot longer and six inches taller than the Odyssey we drive at home. I felt like I was driving a truck, and there was no rear view camera either. I figured Mei Ling would be appalled but actually she loved it. There was enough space in the back that we could fit all the luggage and both strollers. All it needed now was a name. Calling our van Titanic didn't seem like great karma, so we christened it the Iceberg instead.

Now that we had a minivan, we needed to find parking anywhere we went. Mainly for that reason, I decided to look for lunch at El Mercat de Sant Andreu, in one of the far northern neighborhoods of Barcelona. I justified it by saying to myself that we'd almost certainly be back in Barcelona within a few years, so we'd have the chances to see El Mercat de Santa Caterina and the other central markets but we might not have a car again to take us to Sant Andreu. It was a good plan, but once we got to the market there were only a couple of tired-looking stalls open and no restaurants. Monday is apparently not a good market day in the suburbs. I asked around and was directed to one of the few open restaurants in the neighborhood, where we got a decent meal. After that, it was time to leave Barcelona and begin our road trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:01 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona Comments (2)

An Iberian Exploration: Toledo and Madrid

The drive into Toledo was nothing like the approach into the great cities of flat Andalusia. The city appeared to us from far away like an apparition, a magical kingdom floating above the horizon and topped by an amazing castle. By now we were used to the daunting experience of driving into the historic center of a Spanish city, but it didn't make our arrival to our hotel next to the cathedral any easier. Fortunately we didn't get lost and none of the narrow passages were completely unnavigable so we arrived safely with a minimum of hair loss. We had spent most of the day walking around Córdoba and on the road so we only had time for a short walk in the center and dinner at our grotto-like hotel restaurant before bed.

In the morning we made the obligatory visit to the 13th century Gothic cathedral which sat just outside our door. The belltower was quite different from the Muslim-styled versions we had seen in Andalusia. Aside from that we were already cathedraled out from our stay in Andalusia and only took a cursory look around the interior.

We began climbing uphill through the winding streets of the Casco Historico until we reached a scenic viewpoint from which we could see the roof of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside. We could also see a bend of our old friend from Lisbon the Tagus River. Eventually we reached the surprisingly expansive Plaza Zocodover where we stopped for lunch.

At the top of the hill we were close to the Alcazar that crowns Toledo's iconic layout but as in Córdoba we gave it a miss. Instead we descended all the way back downhill almost to the river where we admired the Gothic revival facade of Toledo's School of the Arts.

That day we had our shortest drive of the trip so we were still feeling energetic when we arrived at our place in central Madrid. Our experience in Córdoba hadn't soured us on Airbnb and the apartment in Madrid was a huge improvement. We'd learned from our bad experience and had been much more selective this time around. After we were settled we browsed for tapas around Puerta del Sol. The wide pedestrian streets were packed with people despite the winter chill.

We began our one full day of sightseeing at Plaza Mayor, in the heart of Old Madrid. This enormous square dates back to the 15th century when it was used as a market. The square is now an expansive open space enclosed by classic three-story residential buildings including the beautifully-painted Casa de Panaderia. Plaza Mayor is a hub of tourism which sustains the surrounding arcades full of overpriced cafes and the many street performers who ply their trade on the cobblestones. By far the most entertaining of these to us was a supremely talented giant soap bubble artisan who specialized in enclosing entire humans within his diaphanous creations.

Eating at one of the tourist traps in the plaza was out of the question, but fortunately we were just a few steps from Mercado de San Miguel, which may have been Ground Zero for the food hall movement when it opened in 2009. Here we had our choice of some of the freshest seafood tapas we had encountered in Spain thanks to the seafood market that was in the same building. It was quite a bit more expensive than the average lunch in Madrid but it was worth it. The awesome experience of eating at a selection of different restaurants in a market atmosphere awakened a love of food halls that has taken us to similar venues around the world since then.

After the Mercado we continued a little further west to the Royal Palace of Madrid. We're not big fans of historical landmarks so we just admired the beautiful buildings and gardens from the outside and let Cleo stretch her legs in the central plaza.

From the palace we set off on a long meandering walk north of the center that took us through the beautiful Malasaña and Chueca neighborhoods. These cosmopolitan areas were filled with the classic, ornate multistory buildings that Madrid is famous for.

Eventually we found ourselves at Mercado de la Paz in Salamanca. This was a much different environment from Mercado de San Miguel in that it was clearly there to service a very discriminating but local clientele. There were very authentic tapas places in and all around the market and late afternoon was prime time for eating in Madrid.

A straight shot south brought us to Puerta de Alcalá, the Neoclassical gate that marks the entrance to Retiro Park. El Retiro occupies a large chunk of central Madrid and is renowned for its extensive gardens, the Crystal Palace, and the Alfonso XII monument. During the summer the steps of the monument are packed with readers and sunbathers, lazily observing the myriad rowboats in the adjacent lake, but on this cool winter evening we had the park largely to ourselves. We took advantage of an empty bench to consume the irresistible fruits we had purchased at the market.

We had made the most of just one full day in Madrid, submerging ourselves in markets and atmospheric streets without wasting precious time inside buildings and museums. In the morning we returned to Mercado de San Miguel. It was just too good to pass up compared to the pedestrian tapas offering in the touristic center. After bidding farewell to Plaza Mayor and its entertainers we set a course for the Portuguese border far to the west. Our Iberian road trip was rapidly approaching its conclusion.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:29 Archived in Spain Tagged toledo travel spain madrid family blog iberia Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Cadíz and Córdoba

It felt odd to return to Cadíz, a compact city we felt we'd fully explored a week earlier, but we hoped that the Carnaval celebration would make the detour worthwhile. The sight of the same hotel we'd stayed in before and the familiar streets of the old town reminded us that every place we ever visited continued on with its own existence parallel to ours even after we had moved along and rarely thought of it. We went out for a walk and found that while the streets of the Casco Historico may have been the same the atmosphere was quite different. The old town was already packed with revelers in the early evening, many of them in colorful and creative costumes.

As the sun went down we made our way to the ancient city gate where a crowd was gathering to watch the Carnaval parade. The floats and revelers had already begun to pass through the gate and the joyous procession continued for another hour. After dark we returned to the crowded alleys around the market and found them approaching a state of bedlam. We held out as long as we could but soon it became apparent that inebriation was becoming the dominant theme and we retired for the night.

The next morning the drunkenness had thankfully vanished but there were still plenty of festivities and costumed characters roaming the streets. This was the fourth Carnaval I'd experienced on three continents and it was amazing how completely different they all had been. The Cadíz version was more reminiscent of Halloween street parties in major American cities than it was of the Carnavals I'd seen in South America and Trinidad. The vibe was awesome and the setting in the Casco Historico was unbeatable.

The Mercado Central was closed but vendors had set up shop in the surrounding arcades so that we were able to put together a delicious meal of crabs, shellfish, oysters and sea urchins.

We hung around the Casco Historico the rest of the morning soaking up the atmosphere and participating as much as we could without ever understanding exactly what was going on. Large crowds gathered wherever there were open spaces and it seemed like things were gearing up for another huge parade but eventually we decided we had seen enough. We still had Andalusia's last great Moorish city ahead of us. We gathered the car and the suitcases and set a course for Córdoba.

In Córdoba we experimented with Airbnb for the first time. Driving through the narrow streets in the historic center was another hair-raising experience. One corner was so tight that it was impossible to negotiate. We had to turn in the opposite direction and then circle a block to get back on the right track. We found ourselves in a somewhat cramped and dingy second-floor apartment that wasn't a very good omen of what we might expect from Airbnb. The sunset brought with it the chilliest weather we'd experienced on the trip thus far and after dinner we kept our evening walk brief. One highlight was the restored Puerta del Puente which marks the entrance of the old city for travelers arriving via the Roman bridge.

It turned out that the shabbiness of our accommodation should have been the least of our concerns. On the coldest night of our trip we found ourselves without any heat whatsoever. We had enough blankets and clothing to keep the kids warm but Mei Ling and I shivered through the night with little sleep. In the morning we were glad to pack our belongings and be shut of the place forever. After breakfast in the municipal market, we strolled the colorful streets around the center. Córdoba had a distinctive atmosphere from the other Andalusian cities with whitewashed buildings and colorful trim that reminded us of the Algarve.

The focal point of the historic center is La Mezquita, an important mosque during the Moorish epoch of Andalusia. After Córdoba was reconquered by Castile the mosque was reconsecrated as a Christian church and a cathedral was erected in the center, but much of the original Islamic structure was left intact, The incongruous result is famed for its great hall supported by an array of stone columns connected by arches with distinctive red and white stripes. The minaret of the mosque was demolished and replaced with a towering classically Spanish cathedral belltower.

Córdoba has its own Alcázar but with limited time and fresh off visits to the castles in Sevilla and Granada we contented ourselves with a visit to the outer walls. Close by is the city's restored Roman Bridge which crosses the Guadalquivir, the same river which later passes through Sevilla. Here the water was muddy and brown in contrast to the blue-green we had seen in Sevilla. We ended our visit to Córdoba with lunch in the Juderia, the city's ancient Jewish quarter which is filled with narrow cobblestone streets decorated with colorful trim and wrought-iron balconies. The neighborhood contains many relics of its former Jewish identity from the days of the caliphate including a synagogue and a statue of the philosopher Maimonides.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:03 Archived in Spain Tagged travel cadiz spain family carnaval carnival cordoba blog iberia Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Gibraltar and Granada

Gibraltar is one of the more unusual places in Iberia. Aside from the fact that most of its area is occupied by a gigantic monolith, Gibraltar is also the only overseas territory that still exists within continental Europe. Spain was forced to cede it to the British in the early 18th century to end the War of the Spanish Succession, one of many humiliations the British visited upon their continental rivals over the centuries before the rise of Russia forced the two old enemies together. This quirk left over from an ancient war became strategically important during World War II when Gibraltar became a staging ground for British military operations against the German military despite Spain being sympathetic to Hitler. Spain continues to have aspirations to reclaim the territory but these have been dampened by the overwhelming desire of the natives to remain under British rule. In a 1967 sovereignty referendum, only 44 out of more than 12000 inhabitants voted to rejoin Spain.

We parked our car on the Spanish side of the border to avoid any delays at the border and then walked a mile down the featureless road past the airport towards the end of the peninsula. The sheer limestone face of the eastern side of the Rock loomed ahead of us ominously. Once we were past the border the ocean breeze felt so good that we continued all the way through the town to Europa Point at the southern tip of the peninsula. Here we found the surprising Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, a gift from the King of Saudi Arabia that is one of the largest mosques in a non-Islamic country.

We doubled back into town towards the cable car base station. As we were painstakingly ascending the road a van stopped alongside us. The driver called over in a British accent and asked if we wanted to join a tour of the Rock. We politely declined, telling him we were on our way to the cable car. He shook his head and told us that the cable car wasn't running due to high winds. We looked at each other dubiously. We were barely feeling a breeze and it seemed like a typical tour operator trick to tell us the cable car was closed. He must have guessed what we were thinking because he immediately said that down here we had no idea how strong the winds were at the top. He quoted us a price that really wasn't too bad so we didn't have much to lose by joining the tour. We were pretty tired of walking anyway.

The van took us first to the viewpoint at the Pillars of Hercules monument followed by the entrance chamber of the St. Michael's Cave complex. These touristy stops hadn't been on our agenda for the day but we took it in stride as part of the overall experience. The real prize was the view from the top of the Rock, where the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the Mediterranean like rippled glass. Shipping vessels slowly pushed through the shadows of the clouds without a visible wake. To the north were the airport and the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, a sight that resembled the view from the window of a landing airplane.

At the summit we also encountered the Rock's famed population of Barbary apes who came to the van en masse in hopes of being fed. Our guide was a good citizen and followed the directive not to feed the animals, but that didn't stop them from jumping on the roof of the van and positioning themselves very close to us. The animals are actually macaques and not apes, and their origin is uncertain although they lived on the Rock long before the first humans arrived. Decades of close contact with humans has made the monkeys quite bold and one even leaped onto the back of someone else in our group. It was neat to have this unexpected encounter with the wild animal kingdom but we had to be watchful of our babies in this unpredictable environment.

The van deposited us in the center of Gibraltar's old town which might have passed for any small English town except for the congested pedestrian street filled with brand name boutiques and of course the Rock looming in the background. We ordered lunch at a pub which looked promising but turned out to be horrendous slop that would have embarrassed any self-respecting English publican. If there was more to see in Gibraltar we missed it because we had a three hour drive ahead of us to Granada.

We couldn't appreciate Granada on the drive in because it was pouring rain. We went straight to our hotel in the center which occupied several upper floors of a high rise and once again I left the family in the car while I checked in. The hotel didn't have any parking and the receptionist showed me on a map of where I could find a subterranean garage. She must have seen the expression on my face as I contemplated hunting for my destination through the narrow old streets in the downpour and offered to have someone park the car for us. That brightened my mood considerably and made me very appreciative of the hotel which was otherwise quite ordinary. She broke out a couple of umbrellas and we hustled everyone inside while the porter drove off with our car.

By the time we were settled the rain had died down somewhat although there was still a constant drizzle. Between our plastic ponchos, a large trash bag, and an umbrella from the hotel we were able to jury rig enough protection to keep ourselves dry while we explored. We quickly found a pedestrian street lined with crowded little restaurants and enjoyed the best tapas of the trip thus far. The old Muslim quarter of Albayzín was very atmospheric at dusk, somehow somber and energetic at the same moment while shrouded in a light mist. We found a terrace with an excellent view of the majestic Alhambra stretched across the top of its hill.

On the way back home Cleo's stroller abruptly disintegrated. One of the struts had been bent in Morocco and the metal framework finally gave way on Granada's cobblestones. I was able to tow her stroller backwards until we reached the edge of the modern city where we miraculously found a small department store that was open with a large selection of strollers. They even had a toy one for Cleo to play with. We found one that was somewhat more expensive but definitely superior to the one we'd destroyed with the added benefit of a transparent rain cover.

Another benefit of the hotel was that they arranged tickets for us for the Alhambra on short notice. We hadn't been aware that reservations sometimes need to be arranged days in advance although I'm not sure if that's typically the case in winter. This sprawling fortified Moorish palace is the best known building in Andalusia and one of the pre-eminent tourist destinations in all of Spain. The Alhambra was converted from a hilltop fort into a Royal Palace in the 14th century, after the reconquest of Andalusia was nearly complete and Granada remained alone as a Muslim state subject to Castile. Once the last Muslims were expelled or forced to convert in the late 15th century, the Alhambra was converted into the Royal Court of the Castilian king with many Renaissance-style alterations to the palace. The enormous complex contains many separate buildings and courtyards in a juxtaposition of different architectural styles. We started our exploration in the Generalife, the main garden of the palace complex. Although it was cloudy and murky it wasn't hard to see the gardens' magnificence. There was an enchanting combination of the elements of vegetation, water, and architecture that made the gardens very enjoyable to explore.

The palace itself was also very impressive but had a sterile feel that we hadn't experienced at the Alcazar of Sevilla. Perhaps it was because there were more areas which were roped off and inaccessible,but the Alhambra felt more like a museum. We felt that the artwork had been more beautiful and intricate at the Alcazar as well. We spent some time passing through the different sections of the palace and admiring the views of Albayzín below us but we didn't linger much longer than we felt obligated to.

We spent the afternoon exploring the more modern part of the town center. This was more similar to other major Spanish cities such as Madrid and Valencia with majestic Victorian multistory buildings and colorful townhouses. Despite the rain which never stopped completely for more than a few minutes at a time we were impressed by the energetic vibe of the city and the way that tourism didn't seem to dominate the atmosphere the way that it did in the center of Sevilla.

The next morning we got an early start because we had to drive all the way back across Andalusia for our second visit to Cádiz of the trip, this time to experience their famous Carnaval.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:13 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Sevilla and Cádiz

After three calm days of small towns we found ourselves back in a major city again. We arrived in Sevilla a little over an hour after crossing the border into Spain. Our hotel in the historic center had advised us that GPS would misdirect us but the detailed instructions they had provided didn't serve us much better. The maze of narrow one-way streets was even more complicated than in Lisbon and a good deal more crowded, but at least there were no winding alleys that deadended at the top of a hill. Eventually we found the hotel and disembarked. Our location couldn't have been better, smack in the middle of Sevilla's pulsating touristic core and a hundred meters from the legendary cathedral.

Once we were settled we couldn't wait to get out and explore. Sevilla's old town manages to accommodate its deluge of tourists very tastefully, providing appealing pedestrian streets and outdoor restaurants without the gaudiness that afflicts many other popular European cities. We realized as much as we tried we couldn't walk more than a block away from the hotel without getting lost, but that was probably the most efficient way to explore the city. At the bank of the Alfonso XIII Canal is the medieval Moorish Torre del Oro. One of the most famous cultural aspects of Sevilla is flamenco and it wasn't long before we came across a performance right on the street.

Although the restaurants in the Casco Antiguo looked appealing their menus and reviews didn't match so we decided to walk a few blocks north to a tapas restaurant that seemed to be a better bet. Here we found Las Setas, a huge wooden sculpture in Plaza de la Encarnación that is formally known as Metropol Parasol but acquired its nickname from its resemblance to a clump of giant mushrooms.

Dinner was good although I've had better tapas in my hometown of Miami. During the night my stomach was very upset and I didn't get much sleep. I'm not in the habit of blaming any gastrointestinal problems on the local food but I'm fairly sure the trouble this time came from eating beef tartare at dinner. I had almost exact same problem after having beef tartare my first day in Paris as well, although I've eaten the raw meat dish countless times at home without any problem. This time I learned my lesson and never again tried beef tartare in Europe. In the morning I was still queasy but not enough to get in the way of walking to Mercado de Triana for breakfast. Sevilla is a great city for food markets but unfortunately at this time I hadn't developed my travel research skills extensively and we only had one on our list. On the long walk to Triana we passed by Sevilla's brightly-painted bullfighting ring, known as the Real Maestranza.

Crossing the Puente de Isabel II into Triana we might have been forgiven for thinking we were crossing the famed River Guadalquivir, the only major navigable river in Spain. In fact it was the Canal de Alfonso XIII that runs along the old course of the river before it was diverted away from the city center to avert flooding. A similar phenomenon occurs with the Alte Donau Canal in central Vienna which many mistake for the Danube. Welcoming us to Triana was the Capilla Virgen del Carmen. Although reminiscent of 16th century Mudéjar architecture, the colorfully-tiled chapel was built less than a century ago.

The two hundred year old Mercado de Triana is located at the foot of the bridge. The current version of the market was inaugurated in 2001 and blends modernity and tradition in a very pleasing manner. I was still feeling the effects of the previous night's gastronomic misadventure and even the appetizing sights of the market couldn't awaken my appetite, but Mei Ling did quite well with the Sevillano specialty of stewed snails.

We didn't stay long in Triana because we still had the city's major sights ahead of us. Seville's cathedral is reminiscent of Spain's other majestic Gothic cathedrals but what sets it apart is its sheer size. At the time of its construction it replaced the Hagia Sophia as the largest cathedral in the world and it still holds that title, although there are now two basilicas which are larger. The cathedral stands alone in a large plaza without any other significant buildings to detract from its magnitude. The vast edifice has fifteen different entrances, each with a unique ornate design. In front of one entrance is a replica of the Giraldillo weather vane that crowns the belltower. Inside the cloister is an orderly array of the famed Seville orange trees surrounding a central fountain.

It's just a two minute walk from the cathedral to the other star of the Casco Antiguo, the Real Alcázar. Although this castle has a Moorish appearance similar to other Spanish Alcazárs, most of the structure was built after the Christian reconquest of Andalusia in the Mudéjar architectural style. Inside the castle the exquisite details in the cavernous rooms and courtyard are breathtaking. The Celebration Room has enormous tapestries and colorful tile designs that extend seven feet up the walls.

Behind the castle a lengthy loggia extends into the gardens, allowing visitors an elevated view of the beautiful landscaping without exposing themselves to the elements. The exterior of the loggia is encrusted with mortar outcroppings designed to give the appearance of the wall of a cave, hence the name of Grotto Gallery.

We spent the majority of our time at the Alcázar exploring the extensive gardens but I'm sure we only discovered a fraction of the many separate sections of the estate. Overall I would be hard-pressed to compare the Alcázar unfavorably to the Palace of Versailles, and it was certainly much less crowded and onerous. Cleo was thrilled to get out of her stroller and we even found a hedge maze which she thought was hilarious.

On our final morning in Sevilla my stomach was settled so we decided to return to Mercado de Triana. This time we had identified our favorite seafood vendor and we had a plan. We bought whole sea urchins and cut them open and ate them right at the stall for an appetizer, then had a full meal at the best of the little restaurants in the market.

As we were on our way out of town we had more time to explore the neighborhood of Triana. Triana was originally a separate city from Sevilla and maintained its independence until the first bridge to be built across the Guadalquivir made Sevilla's expansion inevitable. Few tourists make it this far from the Casco Antiguo, making Triana an excellent spot to absorb an authentic Andalusian urban vibe. There is plenty of energy in the streets, but the sidewalk cafes are filled with locals and the colorful building facades are more representative of neighborhood pride than commercial hustle.

One of my regrets from the trip is that we didn't stop in Jerez for a few hours en route to Cádiz. Since that trip we've made a regular practice of stopping over in cities that we otherwise couldn't have fit into our itinerary and it has worked out quite well. I looked at Jerez a little more closely after we returned home and it was clear that we shouldn't have missed it. We also managed to drive past Ronda, one of the most uniquely beautiful cities in Spain, so I have no doubt at least one more trip to Andalusia lies in our future.

Cádiz isn't one of the most well-known Spanish cities but it has several unique characteristics. It is the oldest city in Spain, having been founded by the Phoenicians who gradually migrated from the Middle East across northern Africa before crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. The city is also practically an island, being connected to the mainland by a narrow strip barely wide enough to accommodate a beach and a highway. The strip may technically be a tombolo, a sandbar that connects an island to the mainland, but I was unable to find any reference to corroborate that theory.

The modern portion of the city that is closer to the mainland is largely composed of unattractive block housing and has little of interest to travelers aside from a beach. The landscape changes dramatically on the other side of the old city wall remnant known as Puertas de Tierra. Here in the Santa María barrio the streets become narrow cobblestone alleys that feel like canyons between solid walls of antiquated four-story buildings. Further towards the end of the peninsula the streets of the historic district become mercifully wider and there are some open squares to alleviate the claustrophobia, but overall the impression of the Casco Antiguo is one of extreme density of buildings and population. I think it would have felt quite dystopian if it wasn't so beautiful.

Our hotel in the center of the Casco Antiguo had no parking, so after depositing the bags I found the municipal lot which had been constructed to fit as many cars as possible into the smallest possible space, thereby leaving almost no margin for error. I scraped the side of the car while foolishly attempting to maneuver into a space front-end first instead of reversing, which infuriated me after we had survived our trial-by-fire in Lisbon without so much as a scratch. I put aside my annoyance with myself so that we could enjoy our evening walk around the historic center.

A bright, sunny morning chased away the ominousness of the old town. Our focus was on the Mercado Central, renowned for its fresh Atlantic seafood. The singular market was designed in Neoclassical style by native son architect Torcuato Benjumeda in the early 19th century. Produce stalls fill arcades arranged around the central market hall, which has the appearance of a ancient temple supported by Roman columns. Within the hall we weren't disappointed by the beautiful display of fish and crustaceans.

In the arcades surrounding the market we found vendors selling bags of beautiful, plump live snails. Our appetites thoroughly awakened, we found a seafood restaurant where they agreed to grill the fish and boil the mantis shrimp we had bought in the market. We regretfully took our leave of Cadíz but not before making a reservation for the night after our stay in Morocco for the Carnival celebration.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:38 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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