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Trip Report From Barcelona to Valencia… and the not-quite-beaten path in between

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This was our third 3-week trip to Spain over the last 10yrs. We did most of the biggies on the first trip (Madrid, Segovia, Córdoba, Toledo, Cádiz, Sevilla, Granada, etc.) and the second trip focused on the Camino de Santiago and Northern Spain (should be on everyone’s bucket list! Trip report posted in Fodor’s). The big gap in our Spanish experience was Barcelona. Furthermore, we have been throwing around the idea of relocating (using the term loosely here) to Europe and in all our travels we have not found a country that we love more than Spain (though Italy is a close second). So this was sort of a scouting trip and influenced significantly on the itinerary.

In order to better understand our itinerary, a few things should be known about us.

The Cast

DH – 60 something, Swiss-born (though he has lived in the US most of his adult life), reasonably fit, speaks enough Spanish to get along very well. He likes to drive and still somehow manages to enjoy the scenery without veering of the road (after 15yrs I still do not know how!). He was raised mildly Protestant (this is pertinent to the story). He is NOT into travel planning but follows my plans enthusiastically (most of the time). He is happy with beautiful landscapes, good food and plenty of wine.

Me – 40 something engineer with a minor on Art History, lover of anything Romanic, Medieval, reasonably fit (though far away from a Size 6), Puerto Rican (making Spanish my first language, so please be kind with my English grammar!), trip planner extraordinaire and sort of follow the Trip Nazi school of thought (for those that remember Sharon’s death marches) . I do not know how to drive a manual transmission (oh the shame!) but I am a good navigator (most of the time). I was born and raised Catholic, though I am non-practicing (again, this IS relevant to the story). Food is a big passion in my life.

Our Travel Style

We are what I consider Value Travelers. We want big bang for our hard-end bucks. We do not require (or want) luxury accommodations as we are not willing to spend our funds this way. We very seldom return to hotels during the days, so rooms can be basic as long as they are VERY clean, are reasonably quiet and have a comfortable bed and plenty of scaldingly hot water to shower.

During the day, we go see things. By this I mean, We Go. We do not like to have heavy lunches because this usually kills our enthusiasm to do things in the afternoon (probably has something to do with the copious amounts of wine consumed). We typically have breakfast, a mid afternoon snack, a few (understatement) glasses of wine while people watching after sightseeing is done and then dinner. This schedule is hard to maintain in Spain.

We do not mind changing hotels every night. We do not mind long drives as long as the road is good and the scenery worthwhile.

The Plan

For those which do not like extensive, detailed, food-centered trip reports this is a summary of our itinerary. I know it is not to everyone’s liking but it fitted us rather well. There are certain things I would change on a do-over, but that is part of the travel experience (and you will need to read along to find out which and why).

- September 14th Arrive in Barcelona and spend 6 nights. Had a rather aggressive daily itinerary which will be discussed later.

- September 21 - Drive the Michelin Green Guide Costa Brava route: Blanes ( Visit the Botanical Garden). Arrive at Girona in the early evening.

- September 22 - Sight see in Girona.

- September 23 -Continued the Michelin Green Guide Costa Brava route: Empuries (visit ruins), Roses and spent the night in Cadaqués.

- September 24 - Finished the Michelin Green Guide Costa Brava route: Cap de Creus, Monastir St Pere de Rodes, Port de la Selva and Portbou. Turned back (the route was a bit of an adventure), visited Besalú and then spent the night in Banyoles.

- September 25 - Did part of the Backroads of Spain Drive #8: Banyoles, Santa Pau, Olot, Castellfollit de la Roca, St Joan de les Abadesses, and spent the night in Ripoll in order to see the famous (well, among romanic architecture fans) monastir portal.

- September 26 - Ripoll to Monastir de Santes Creus (via Vic, via Manresa, via Igualada), then on to Monastir de Poblet, and head to Tarragona to spend the night. Route as per Back Roads of Spain Drive #9.

- September 27 - Sight see in Tarragona

- September 28 - Route was a combination of Penelpe Casas’ An Unusual Guide to Spain, the Back Roads of Spain Drive #9 and the Michelin Green Guide: visit Peñíscola and spend the night in Morella.

- September 29 - Route sort of as per Back Roads of Spain Drive #11; Morella, Cantavieja, via Allepuz, Mora de Rubielos and spent the night in Teruel.

- September 30 - Teruel to Xativa following the green roads marked on the Michelin map

- October 1st - Followed parts of Back Roads of Spain Drive #10 as we went from Xativa, via Alcoy and Via Muro de Alcoy to Denia, where we stayed with friends.

- October 2nd- Denia

- October 3rd – Go from Denia into Valencia where we dropped off the car and stayed for 4 nights.

General Impressions and Thoughts

- Spain is BIG and sparsely inhabited. I know this is hard to believe when you are in Madrid but it is true.

- Spain has natural beauty and landscape variety to stand up to any country, including the US.

- There is no need to drink expensive wine in Spain; the cheap local stuff is AWESOME.

- Spaniards take their food seriously and demand top quality. Everywhere in Spain, no matter how small of a town.

- No one can fry stuff like the Spanish. The Italians are nowhere near.

- The Catholic Church seems to be alive and well in Spain, not languishing as it is in Puerto Rico.

- Gaudí is something to be experienced, not seen in pictures. I was not a fan before going to Barcelona.

- Support for Catalonian secession is very, very high. In Barcelona and throughout the heartland.

- I have a suspicion that people that don’t like or can’t have fish and shellfish might find eating a bit limited, though the vegetarian options are excellent.

- Spanish business hours are challenging when one wants to sight-see. I still struggle with the eating hours.

NEXT: Our first taste of majestic Barcelona and getting acquainted with Gaudí

109 Replies | Jump to bottom Add a Reply
  • Report Abuse

    Hi Marigross,
    Your excellent trip report brought back our driving trip to Spain last May. We did a Parador tour and then drove some of the same costa Brava coast as you spending two nights in Cadaques and Valencia as well. I loved driving along on the highways in Spain with sunny days and empty highways absolutely pure joy. I was even inspired to give my husband a break with the driving so light was the traffic. Spain is an amazing country.

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    I'm looking forward to the rest of your report! I have quite an infatuation with Barcelona. I've spent a bit of time touring around Costa Brava and other parts of Catalunya, but not enough. I think I'm headed to Valencia in January, but just for a day trip.

    Just a note on your food comments. I credit my first Barcelona trip with a good bit of the impetus for my leaving behind 20+ years of being a vegetarian on all but two days a year. The meat was just too tempting (and not just the pork). That said, I still do not eat fish or seafood but have thoroughly enjoyed 9 weeks of great meals in Barcelona the last 2.5 years.

    Looking forward to the rest of your report!

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    Day 0: Let’s Get It Started!

    As any person that works at a corporate/manufacturing job knows, the biggest challenge of a trip is getting the actual vacation days approved. It is not so bad for a week, it is tough for two weeks and the labor of Titans for three weeks. It took me almost two months to get these three weeks approved, six months before the trip. And then my bossed asked if I could buy trip insurance. Right.

    Anyway, when I got the vacation days approved I went into a planning frenzy. I surfed endlessly over guidebooks, Michelin maps, Fodors, Trip Advisor, Chowhound, Zagat. Made hotel reservations, cancelled when better deals showed up and made new ones with full intention to keep looking. Then crisis after crisis came up at work and I was absolutely swamped for the last two months. Barely any planning was done after that point.

    On the day of departure I still had to go into work for half a day to attend to the latest disaster. My mom picked up DH at home, me at work and dropped us at the airport. It was a bit of a long combination of flights but it was the latest leaving on Friday and the earliest arriving on Saturday (and… for the least money as the FF miles are not rolling in as much as a few years ago). We flew American Airlines/Iberia from San Juan (departing at 2:30PM) to New York to Madrid to Barcelona (arriving 1:00 PM).

    There were no issues with the flights, aside from the exercises in patience, resignation and contortionism required in the cattle class. Picked up our luggage and went off to find the Aero Bus.

    It is the very first bus stand as one comes of the terminal via the Ground Transportation exit. Tickets are purchased on board (€5.75 each) and about 25 minutes later you find yourself in Plaza de Catalunya (it makes two previous stop). From there it was a 5 minute walk to our hotel, Hostal Q, where we would sleep for the next 6 nights.

    This reservation had caused me endless hours of fretting when I made it July. Trip Advisor and Booking reviews stated that rooms were tiny (of course!) and noisy (this worried me) but the location was unbeatable (yes!). The rate was a very decent €82 per night (I stated before that we are cheap), considering that we were staying 6 nights, every euro saved counted.

    I thought that mid September would already be shoulder season and prices would come down eventually, so this was actually a backup reservation. The prices did NOT go down and when I looked at the beginning of September, availability was minimal. I was really happy with my backup reservation.

    We found the hotel without problems but the room was not ready, they took our luggage and we went off in search of the Apple store as my phone was acting out and refusing to join any wireless network (disaster!!!!). The reception girl told us that a new store had opened up in Plaça de Catalunya and we headed that way. The nice floor guy sent us up the Geek Bar (or something like that) upstairs where the problem was fixed in less than 10 minutes (hooray for Apple!).

    Crisis averted, we wandered down Avinguda Del Portal De L’Angel into the Cathedral plaza. We plunked down in a non-descript bar behind the church and said our very first Salud! of the trip over two glasses of white wine. About an hour later we returned to the hotel and received the keys to Room #122. I had specified in the reservation that I wanted a quiet room so they gave me one with a window towards the ventilation patio in the back. Since there was not really a view anywhere but the busy street in the other rooms, we were happy with the room.

    We were now free to go wherever our tired, jet-lagged feet allowed us. We slowly made our way back to Plaça de Catalunya and up the Passeig de Gracia enjoying the sunny afternoon and looking at the expensive store windows (we are NOT shoppers, if you want shopping tips you might as well stop reading now).

    Continuing our way we suddenly see a mob of tourists taking pictures of something. In my jet-lagged, sleep-deprived mind it took me a few seconds to realize I was in front of Gaudí’s Casa Batlló . Yes! The dragon back rising over the roof, the proud cross of St Jordi reaching to the sky, the curving façade shimmering in a myriad of colored tiles, the balconies opening behind the bones in the dragon lair. OMG, we. were. in. Barcelona. Have I mentioned that I have a degree in architectural design and a minor in art history? I had taken tests where I had to discuss this particular building.

    Immediately got in the very short line (maybe 5 parties in front of us) and purchased our tickets. 1 Normal for me and 1 Jubilado (retired) for DH, people over 65 get discounts at almost every entrance fee in Spain, the notable exception being churches.

    This was something I had also considered when evaluating if we should purchase Barcelona Card, down to the point of making a spreadsheet (yes, I have mild OCD) and had decided not to buy as the senior discounts were much better than any of the packaged options. The senior discount will be posted but will never be offered, you always need to ask for it and sometimes they ask to see an ID, but the savings are really significant.

    Back to Gaudí now, I realize that a lot people think that if you see the outside of the buildings it is enough. Well, I think it is worth every single penny. The experience of actually looking out of those bony balconies is indescribable. The colors in the ventilation shaft are awesome. The roof is just… wow!

    What a first taste of Barcelona! I felt intoxicated… though in retrospective, it most likely had a lot to do with a very stressful departure from work the previous day, lack of sleep and a glass of wine on an almost empty stomach. So it was time to find a place to eat. It was around 6:30PM, we were in the dead zone between lunch and dinner. There was no way we would last until 8:00, when a few places begin to open for dinner.

    Out came my lovingly compiled Restaurant Map. We were reasonably close to Cervecería Catalana (C/Mallorca, #236, no website), a tapas place that offered continuous service. Bingo! We walked a couple of blocks and found the place without problems. The mob standing in the sidewalk sort of gave it away. OK, maybe it was time for Plan B but I still gave in our name (after elbowing my way through the bar to the hostess station) while we decided what to do. The hostess said it would be a 1.5hr wait. No way we were waiting that long! DH had no interest whatsoever on eating in the bar area, even though two stools opened up and we could have grabbed them.

    While DH and I discussed what our next move would I saw a (no other way to describe it) bouncer guy standing by the door. I asked him what HE thought the waiting time would be. Not more than 30 minutes he said. Hummmmm…. That sounded a lot better. We decided to wait and hope. This was rewarded very close to 30 minutes later when the hostess called our name.

    Cervecería Catalana gets mixed reviews in various boards. Some people love it; others will not have anything to do with it. Yes, it is targeted towards tourists (we fall within that group like or not), yes they have a large dining room designed to turn over people, yes you will not have the absolute best version of each item, but everything we had was a notch above good. I would compare them with a very good general doctor or internist as opposed to a sub-sub-specialist surgeon that will only operate on the second finger of your left hand. With only 5 full days in Barcelona I don’t have time (or energy after a full day of sightseeing) to hunt down the hole-in-the wall where they make the absolute best Patatas Bravas and then run halfway through town to sample the best Chopitos in a beach Xiringuito. Someday when I grow up I will, I hope, but –sigh-not now.

    Truth be told, we were delighted with our first meal in Barcelona: Pan amb Tomaquet (Deliciously grilled bread with tomato), Sepia a la Plancha (Grilled Calamari, this is possibly DH’s favorite tapa in the world and we have it whenever we can), Patatas Bravas, Pulpitos (Baby Octopus), Mixed Sausages and Hams, Huevos Cabreados (Potato Matchsticks mixed with poached eggs, this was the only slightly disappointing dish, it could have benefitted tremendously from a little salt and a lot of pepper). We also had a bottle of wine, a large carbonated water and two ‘cortaditos’ (small coffee with just a dash of milk). We were happy.

    With our bellies full and the spirit lifted, we meandered back to the hotel. I think we were asleep before the heads touched the pillows.

    Next: La Sardana, The Lost Map, and The First Death March

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    I'm hooked!

    "Mild OCD" is usually a prerequisite for the best trip reports! I wish I could figure out how to make up a restaurant map...(?)

    I will be very interested in your thoughts about which places might make possible options for relocation/long-term stay.

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    I love reading your report so far. Can't wait to get to the Costa Brava part. We spent 5 nights in Barcelona & then did a roadtrip along the Costa Brava. Overnighted in Cadaques, then spent 2 nights in Girona. We visited Dali's house in Port Lligat, Cape de Creus, Besalu, Ripoll, Rupit & vic. I'm envious that you spent a night in Ripoll. We visited the monastery there & thought it was a lovely town to spend a night. Drove through Olot which looked interesting. Wish we had more time.

    Where did you get the Backroads guides to Spain you mention?

    You have a flair for writing. Waiting for more!

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    Thanks to all for the encouragement!

    Day 1: The Barri Goti or La Sardana, The Lost Map, and The First Death March

    The main reason I flew straight out from work on Friday afternoon was to make sure that I was in front of the Barcelona Cathedral Sunday morning at noon so we could see the people dancing La Sardana on the plaza. This is the Catalunya national dance which was prohibited in the Franco years (along with the Catalonian language and anything else reprenting Catalonian identity). This was the #1 item for the day.

    In my wish list for the day, pending jet lag, I also had taking the Barri Goti Walking Tour at 9:30am.

    Hah! Wishful thinking. We began to roll out of bed by 9:45am after being awake from sometime around 1:00 am until 4:00am and did not make it out of the room before 10:30. We did hear the distant rumble of the metro that had been mentioned in the hotel reviews, but only because we were awake, it was not anywhere near loud enough to wake you up. So I was still happy with the hotel selection.

    Thankfully the coffee I had had after dinner kept the dreaded caffeine deprivation headache away and made me 80% functional this morning. So after a looooooong shower (plenty of hot water at really nice pressure coming out of a rain shower which I could appreciate because I did have a shower cap and did not have to worry too much about my hair), we were ready to head out and embrace Barcelona.

    I reached into my backpack for my daily itinerary and the wonderfully detailed, laminated Eyewitness Barcelona City Map which had been faithfully at my computer side for countless hours of travel planning. And remained there. I was map less! This Was Not Good. So I thought, OK, this is not a disaster, I have looked at that map long enough to have a good idea of where we need to go. Sort off. And so, we headed out, without my precious map. (Note: I got a ton of freebie Barcelona maps, I even bought one. None were as good as the one I had left home).

    The Plan

    Barri Goti Walking Tour 9:30 S Jaume (you already know this did not happen)
    Plaça de Pi
    Santa Maria del Pi
    La Sardana at the Plaça de la Seu
    Cathedral de la Seu
    Casa de la Pia Almoina-Museu Diocesà
    Baixada de Santa Eulàlia
    Fossar de les Moreres (graveyard)
    Plaça de San Jaume
    Santa Maria del Mar, remembering that it is closed between 1 and 4.30 PM
    Passeig del Born
    Mercat del Born
    Museo Picasso (free after 3:00 on Sundays)
    La Llotja
    Museu Historia Ciuta

    What Actually Happened

    After grabbing a very good coffee at a nondescript bar we headed in the general direction of the Cathedral (less than 10 minutes from the hotel down Via Laietana). We did wind up by the Santa Maria del Pi church and the art market that takes place on Sunday mornings. The church was beautiful with its wonderful original stained glass and stark design. The smell of incense took me straight to the Sunday High Mass of my Catholic childhood (still love the smell, not so much the Church).

    A quick look at the market did not yield any deep interest (this might have had to do something with jet lag) so we moved along. Around 11:15 we walked into the Plaça de la Seu and the dancing was already well under way to the music being played by the orchestra on the stage.

    I will not say that it was disappointing but the first thing we saw were a gazillion of geezers bused in straight out of their nursing home which could barely lift their feet, holding hands and slowly making their way around in a circle. This is a wonderful thing from a geriatric point of view, good for them! I hope I’m interested and physically able when I’m there, but it really did not add too much of artistic value. And yes, they do it for themselves and not for the tourists (but then they do go around with a collection basket). It brought to mind something like the first episode in a season of Dancing with the Stars. After a couple of minutes a smaller circle got started (people between 50 and 60yrs old) which was much more enthusiastic, with a higher spring to their step and a bit more musicality. Big improvement.

    Perhaps by 11:45 a group of 20 somethings tied up their espardilles (typical Catalonian shoe still widely used by both men and women) and started their own circle.

    They were really into it and the dancing was much better. Intricate steps and light footwork. Shortly before noon we decided to move ahead with the day’s plan. We needed to get to Santa María del Mar before 1:00PM when they closed for lunch until 4:00PM. Easier said than done. Let me set this straight: I have a great sense of direction and am an excellent navigator (when I have a map) but all I had to work with were the little maps on the Michelin Guide. And you must be better than a bat to accurately find your way around the curvy streets of the Barcelona Gothic Quarters.

    We did found the Santa María del Mar church, one of the crowning jewels of the Catalan Gothic movement. It also features prominently on the book ‘La Catedral del Mar’ which I had read recently in preparation for the trip. WOW! Such simple, elegant beauty. However, I could have just visited the the Cathedral and gone to the Basilica after lunch. This would have been a much better use of time and physical endurance. Well live and learn. The Cathedral was also very nice and worth the entrance fee.

    I never found the Fossar de les Moreres graveyard or realized I was by the Baixada de Santa Eulàlia. They will have to wait until the next time we visit Barcelona. Instead we somehow wound up by the Passeig de Colomb and its monument to Columbus located at the feet of The (Infamous) Rambla.

    This was mildly amusing to me as there was a mayor of a town in Puerto Rico that was hell bent on installing a similar monument in the Cataño municipality, to loom over the San Juan bay. It’s an inside joke, never mind.

    As we went close to the water, I thought we could see the Reiales Darsenas (Maritim Museum). After a bit of circling we found the entrance and the clerk told us that most of the museum was closed for renovation. Ok, at least we got to use a clean bathroom.

    And then what was to be the very first Death March of this trip started. ‘Let’s walk along the Passeig de Colom to Barceloneta’ I said. ‘OK’, DH went along.

    You might want to look at Google Maps to follow this, but I do not, even to this day, want to know how many kilometers we walked on our jet lagged feet. The walk turned out to be as follows:

    - Passeig de Colom
    - Port Vell
    - Around the big shopping mall, the Maremagnum
    - Past the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya (we decided not to go in when DH asked me what was there to see and I could not think of anything except the little duck legend on the Fodors guidebook).
    - Up Passeig de Joan de Borbo into Barceloneta
    - The Barceloneta Market (very decent selection of fruits and meats in an immaculate setting)
    - Walked long the beach promenade
    - Had a sandwich and Fanta Lemon by a tiny bakery (DH wanted to interview the owner on living in Barceloneta, she said it was rapidly going from bad to worse with the changing neighborhood demographics)
    - Walked the entire length of the Passeig Maritim de la Barceloneta and the yacht clubs (rather nice!)
    - Past the Villa Olimpica
    - Along Carrer de Wellington (please do not do this, there in NOTHING intereting along this stretch)
    - Into the Parc de la Ciutadella where we crashed on a bench by The Cascade to people watch for a good hour while our feet deflated. After sometime, we finally got up and walked a bit by the park.
    - Exited by the Carrer de la Princesa and with a few twists and turns wound up by the Museu Picasso

    Again, this was easily found by the super mob queuing outside to go in for free after 3:00PM on Sundays. DH got in line while I walked to the entrance to try to estimate how long it would take. It took 73 Mississippis to get to the ticket door. That is a LOT of people trying to get in.

    To my surprise it did not take more than 20 minutes to get to the ticket office. I am not a diehard Picasso fan, but the pieces in this museum will appeal to any art lover. His early works are displayed and the older ones are brought very well into context. I was very happy to visit, even with the queuing on tired feet.

    So once again we found ourselves in the Food Dead Zone. It was past 6:00PM and we knew that there was no way we would last until 9:00 or even appreciate a full meal at that time. I took out the Restaurant Map and headed in the direction of Santa María del Mar.

    Lets talk about the Restaurant Map. This sounds much more glamorous than it really is! This came along because I am an obsessive planner but, once the trip actually starts, I lag behind in execution. So I came up with using Google Maps. In the map I pin down all the places that I’m interested in trying and then paste screen shots into Power Point by area. These printouts I can shove into my bag and then say: ‘I’m in the La Ribera neighborhood, which restaurants are nearby?’.

    That is how we wound up sitting in the outside terrace of Sagardí, a Basque style- montadito/pintxo place. You pick up a plate and serve yourself from the hundreds of plates showcased on the bar. One must keep all the pintxos (toothpicks) so that the waiter knows what you have consumed. I particularly liked the smoked salmon and also a pickled tuna. The bacalao croquet was very good. It was wonderful, however, we made a tactical error: we ordered a bottle of wine. If we had ordered by the glass, we could have moved on to a different restaurant after the first round of pintxos. I thought that we would have an ample selection but had not taken into account that most even though they had hundreds of plates laid out, they were basically the same 20 dishes, with quite a few being sweet. Still, I was happy with the meal (and not quite sober from the combination of wine, jet lag and marathonic walking).

    But it was good, we were tired and we hobbled happily (albeit stiffly) back to the hotel where we never even heard the distant rumble of the metro getting into the Uriquinoa station.

    Next: Sensory Shock in Heaven (a.k.a. La Boquería), the Glamorous Liceu and Monday Closings

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    oopsy, I thought the vegetarian selections were excellent and for those that will eat eggs the possibilities are endless.

    The Spanish are masters of the egg, to the point where my single favorite dish of the entire trip was 'Huevos Amerengados' (Eggs Meringue-Style), part of the tasting menu at Restaurant Oggi in Tarragona. I can still taste it: creamy, luscious, with a golden souffle-like crust.... I should have begged and pleaded for the recipe, though I think it was not easily converted to home cooking.

    Colleen, the driving was super easy indeed. Even when we tackled the rural roads with hairpin turns they were in great conditions. I found drivers throughout the area (including downtown Barcelona) to be quite civilized and subdued.

    Kwoo, I read your wonderful trip report quite a few times while preparing for this trip. This is the link to the book, the suggested driving routes that we tried were absolutely outstanding:

    johnnyomalley, I described the restaurant map 'technique' in the second installement. I find it works out the best for us since by the end of the day we seldom are where we thought we would be and its hard to predict how hungry we will be at the time (sometimes we snack, sometimes we don't). So we are really not dinner reservation people. Having the places sorted by area is much easier, if one place is full then we will go to the next (happened only once in this trip).

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    Corrections to Day 1

    Serves me right for writing from faulty memory instead of the notes! That long walk I describe did not take place this day (yes, we had so many loooooong walks that they got jumbled in my mind!). This is what we actually did as evidenced by the pictures we took:

    After the Cathedral de la Seu and its wonderful Cloister where the 13 geese happily live in the lap of luxury, we wandered through the Barri Goti (getting completely turned around, but then, isn’t that the entire purpose?). We wound up by the Plaça Reial where we plunked down and had a drink to strengthen the spirit and rest a bit. Have I mentioned that the temperature was in the mid 80’s? Not stifling for us (we live in Puerto Rico) but certainly not the cooler temperatures I was hoping for. We did get a bit sweaty and sticky.

    When we left we somehow twisted and turned enough that we wound up walking into Passeig de Colom where we caught our first glimpse of the Mare Nostrum (Our Sea, the amniotic fluid of Western civilization, The Mediterranean). My heart always skips a beat when I see it…

    Then we walked towards the Colom monument at the feet of La Rambla and watched 10,000 confused cruisers drag their luggage while waiting to embark or disembark. I wanted to go to the Reiales Drassanes (the Maritime Museum) but most of the exhibits are closed for renovation, so we skipped. Nevertheless, their garden is really nice and they have on the outside a reproduction of the very first submarine which was actually designed and tested in Barcelona, so it is still worthwhile to walk by.

    We headed into the heart of El Raval (still maples) and eventually found (after going all the way to Paral.lel) and walking through the Hort de Sant Pau (a small garden and hanging out place of lots Barcelonan junkies) the Church of Sant Pau del Camp, one of the oldest churches in Barcelona. It looked absolutely lovely but sadly it was tightly shut. We then walked up by La Rambla del Raval (not to be confused with THE La Rambla, not that it ever could, lol!). It is a lively area with lots of ethnic butcher shops, locutorios (calling halls), laundromats and tiny eateries. I can see why people are advised not to venture in the late evening, though we never felt threatened in any way.

    After a few more twists and turns we entered the inner courtyard of the Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu. It was lovely with its high arcade stairs and orange trees. There were a lot of bums sitting around as the library seemed to be closed and we did not linger (nor did I read the sign with the opening hours for the Surgery Room).

    Once again, our feet led the way away from the place where we wanted to go and we wound up all the way up by Plaça de Catalunya. OK, almost two full days in Barcelona and we had not really set foot in La Rambla. I wanted to take advantage of the free entrance to the Picasso Museum so we made a new beeline for the Picasso Museum.

    After that point Day 1 is correct, lol.

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    Day 2: Heaven is entered through the gates of St. Josep, visiting the Liceu and Monday closings

    Monday morning, theoretically jet lag should be better but getting out of bed was not getting any easier…oh, wait, that might have something to do with the –ahem- walking of the day before. Eventually we did manage to wobble out and the sore calves began to relax as we made our way to one of the most infamous streets in the European continent: La Rambla`

    I do not know what I was expecting, perhaps a combination Disney World in mid July and all three rings of the Ringling Bros Traveling Circus marching up and down the street, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was not bad, not bad at all! Actually, it was even kind of pretty with the wide avenue and trees framing the beautiful façades! It was full of people but not anywhere near the full body contact and elbowing our way through that I expected (sort of like Vernazza in late June which made me say: ‘Cinque Terre NEVER again’). There was ample space to walk and one could actually see that La Rambla is in fact a flower market (though Ice Cream is a close competitor for primacy).

    Yes, there were souvenir stands, but not nearly as in-your-face as (giving some story away here!) Besalú or Peñíscola. Maybe since it is long and wide so the concentration of stands is diluted, we did walk on the central pedestrian section, so maybe the store front sidewalk was worse. I’m pretty sure that in July/August the experience would have been different, but we found La Rambla to be a nice place to stroll and people watch in mid September. See? It’s a good thing to have very low expectations; one tends to be pleasantly surprised.

    And so we came onto the Gates of Heaven: St. Josep de la Boquería

    I’m almost at a loss to describe the sensory overload: fruits and vegetable in unimaginable shapes and colors, freshly made juices perfectly aligned in a rainbow of taste, the smell of brines and spices, 50 different varieties of almonds, the hams hanging from the ceiling hooks, the clean scent of sea in the fish section with fish so fresh that the eyes still glimmered, the shellfish were moving on their beds of ice, eels swimming in their tanks, cuts of meat so perfectly butchered that make you want to run into the kitchen and try a new recipe….

    This is food styling at its very best. It your glossy heart out Food & Wine magazine! However, the redeeming factor, the one that makes it all the much more wonderful: this is a food MARKET. Old couples, domestic employees, and moms with their kids in tow were there actually dragging their shopping trolleys and purchasing items for their lunch! They debated with the butcher over the merits of a particular lamb shank; the fishmonger wanted to know how they planned to cook the fish and then made suggestions. This place is REAL.

    But now we needed to eat breakfast. DH flat out right refused to go to Pinotxo. He did not like the fact that it was just by the entrance and there was a three-person deep crowd hovering behind each seated person, looking like they were trying to get a stool from under you before you are done eating.

    That is how we wound up all the way in the back, comfortably seated with no one hovering over us while we had our cups of that wonderful tasty, frothy Spanish coffee. Actually, what we wanted to have was more suitable to wine than to coffee but we still need caffeine in the AM (though there were plenty of people imbibing at 9:30AM, and not necessarily tourists). The selection was so wide I had a hard time choosing, furthermore DH was not that hungry so not many things could be ordered! The final choices might not have been the absolute top pick given the location but they were what I wanted at the moment: Pimientos de Padrón (grilled small green peppers with a little bite in some of them), steamed Clams on a very light garlic and parsley sauce and a Potato Tortilla. Delicious.

    We left happy, knowing that we still had time to come back (and did!) and try more things.

    The first stop of the day was the Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu in the Raval (right behind the Boquería). I had had a very hard time finding out the opening times for this complex. And the best I could find was Monday to Fridays from 10:00AM -2:00PM. Well, you can enter and see the gardens almost at any time as there is a library and an art school, but the old surgical hall is only open on Tuesdays 10:00AM -2:00PM. Auuurgghhh! I had completely different plans for the next day so I knew we would not be able to see it. First miss of the trip. We will have to come back.

    We wandered into the Palau de la Virreina, we did not go in to see the gallery but we did look at the Gigantes used during La Mercé festival (we missed it by 1 day!). Interesting exhibit. Next was back to La Rambla and the Gran Teatre del Liceu

    This opera house was a bastion of Barcelonan high society at the turn of the century and features prominently in the history of the city.

    Their website is a bit confusing when describing the tours. The claim to have an unguided tour (express 20 minutes) and a guided tour (1 hr and 10 minutes) but the unguided tour is still escorted. We had the most tense tourguide I have ever seen, she counted the 14 people on the group every 3 minutes, but I guess that since it is a working theater, they really do not want people wandering around.

    While we were there a stage rehearsal with piano for Verdi’s La forza del Destino was taking place so we got to hear a bit of the acoustics in the theater. The visit was absolutely worthwhile in my opinion but did not quite make it to my Top Five Interior Spaces (though certainly into the Top Ten).

    After a quick refreshment by the Plaça Reial (and taking pictures of the Gaudí lamp posts) the Second Death March of the trip, previously and incorrectly included in Day 1 ensued:

    - Passeig de Colom
    - Port Vell
    - The Maremagnum
    - Barceloneta
    - Passeig Maritim de la Barceloneta
    - Parc de la Ciutadella

    After this we were absolutely beat and took the wise decision (DH’s) to go back to the room and rest until dinner time.

    On a side note, DH has a love/hate relationship with Fodor’s and overall internet dinner recommendations. He thinks that Fodor’s is full of filty rich people that will spend indiscriminately (I know that some Fodorites think that too, but, oh well!) and that recommendations will lead to overpriced and overrated food. This opinion is firmly held DESPITE being consistently led to excellent meals by the collective wisdom of these boards. Anyway, we had been discussing this as we walked by a cozy, small restaurant and he said: ‘see, we could find places like THIS on our own’. And I said, ‘sure, we could and did, but THIS place is already in my Restaurant Map, see?’. LOL. We were just walking by Allium and we both agreed that we should try it later.

    Around 8:00PM we started reviving ourselves and getting ready for dinner and headed back out to the Barri Goti and had a bit of a hard time finding a place where we could sit outside for just a drink as they were setup up for dinner.

    We walked into Allium around 8:45PM, trying our best to adapt to the late dinner hours. A glass of Cava for me to start and a white wine for DH. We had the assortment of tapas for first plate, decent but not particularly memorable except for an excellent croquet. For Segundo I had a perfectly cooked, deliciously succulent breast of duck with a wonderfully crispy skin and grilled pears. I was so enamored of my dish that I did not make a note of what DH ate. I think he had some sort of rice and he liked it very much but he does not remember either. With a bottle of carbonated water and a bottle of red wine the bill came to €59. Two thumbs up, certainly a place that we could return to as there were many dishes on the menu that I could try

    Next: We Venture into The Outer Reaches of Barcelona using the Dreaded Public Transportation

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    Wow! You are a great tourer. I don't want to say "tourist" because the connotations aren't very good. But you seem to have seen really a lot. You are making me interested in visiting Barcelona again.

    I love seeing the Sardana.

    I like your map with all the restaurants.

    I used to travel with my sister, who is the spreadsheet queen~! She'd make a spreadsheet for our hotels, another for our transportation, our budget, our restaurants. She was a great planner.

    I fail abjectly at the food thing when I'm in Spain. I'm not an adventurous eater, and I end up eating burgers. I don't drink alcohol (had my share and quit), so I'm not very likely to go into a bar for those wonderful tapas. I have nothing against bars, but it just doesn't occur to me to go into a bar for food. I have to rethink that the next time I go to Spain.

    I was interested in your comments about Picasso and museums. I don't care for Picasso's cubist stuff, so I've avoided his museums. I guess it didn't occur to me that the museum would also feature some of his early pre-cubist work.

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    Hi Peg! I read your wonderful report of Semana Santa.

    Not everyone orders alcohol in bars. Tons of people go into bars just to have a coffee. In most cases it is more of a social meeting place than a place to drink alcohol. Kids come in and have a Fanta, friends meet over coffee, couples meet after work to go home together... you catch my drift. And then, who cares what you order or what they think about it, they'll happily take you money anyway :D.

    About the museum, I have been in a few of his (again, I'm far from being a fan but I love art) and this was hands down my favorite. Same as with Dalí and his museum in St. Petesburg, FL.

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    Day 3: The Towns that Barcelona Ate and We Enter the Underworld

    There was rain scheduled for today and severe thunderstorms for the afternoon. So we tried to get an early start as I had a rather ambitious plan for the day. Furthermore, our feet and the weather made it obvious that it was time to get realistic and slash of a few things from the get go. Out of the plan came the Palau Reial de Pedralbes, the Parc de Palau Reial and the Pabellón Guell. They will be there next time we are in Barcelona, and there WILL be a next time.

    Remember that this was sort of a scouting trip, like a first audition for House Hunters International? Well, today we planned to shave a small taste of three areas a bit separate from the center of town: Sarria, Pedralbes and Gracia.

    After a quick coffee at a bar close to the hotel we walked to Plaça de Catalunya where we finally located (after asking) the entrance to the blue Metro Line (red and green are found easily but blue was hidden away). And so we entered the dreaded underworld of the Barcelona metro.

    We bought our T-10 tickets without problems and headed out to the platform. I found to be clean, safe, easy to navigate and very efficient. We were not overly crowded but this might not be the case in the season peak. I only saw a guy eying DH, I don’t know if interested in his wallet or in his nice blue eyes, but either way, I gave him The Stare and he quickly moved on.

    We emerged by the Sarriá station around 15minutes later. It took as a few minutes to get our bearings and then we started the route described in the Fodor’s Barcelona Guide Book for the little town. It was very nice and did, indeed, have a feeling of not being in Barcelona. Sarria and Gracia were both independent from Barcelona until the 19th century. Did I feel the love? Truthfully, no. It was nice, but so far the only place I would consider living was in the Eixample.

    We walked past the church and square and into the market (of course!). It was small compared to La Boquería (again, of course!) with about 20 stalls but still immaculate and would have kicked the heck out of most grocery stores I know. It included a place dedicated to bacalao (salted codfish) and another to legumes (softened garbanzo beans, lentils, etc.).

    After having a coffee and the most tender and wonderfully moist potato tortilla (I love that stuff!) in the market we headed along the Passeig of the Reina Elisenda and the beautiful houses (now THOSE I would move into right now!) towards one of the things I was really looking forward in this trip: the Monastir de Pedralbés. It is part of the Museu d'història de la Ciuta and can be entered in the same ticket:

    Disclaimer: I’m a rabid fan of churches, cloisters and monasteries. Other people might not find these things as fascinating as I do.

    This jewel of Catalan Gothic was founded in 1326 and was continuously lived in by cloistered Clarisas nuns until the 1980’s. It was built within a few years so its style is very uniform. The cloister is very big with huge pines framing a beautiful fountain and a well. There is a wonderful little chapel with Giotto-like frescoes. The kitchen was very interesting; here the past and present live together. The church is quite nice too. 100% worthwhile visit.

    I was uncertain about our next destination as the sky was solidly gray and the forecast was grim, but we are not easily scared away and we went ahead to Parc Guell. But we still had to get there. I had asked and received several suggestions.

    At the end we just got on the #22 bus a few meters in front of the Monastir (the Metro ticket is good for the bus too) and asked the conductor to tell us when to get off. He said to ask him again in about 8 stops. Hummm…how does one count that since he did not have to stop at every station if it is not requested.

    Anyway, I asked about every five minutes until he finally said that it was the second next stop. He also said not to have a heart attack when I saw the street, that there were escalators on the way up. Oh Em Gee. The first sight of the Baixada de la Gloria street is not for the faint of heart. It is like a bowl and you can see both ends, first you go almost 10 stories down and then at least 15 stories up. Without those escalators I might have given up on the whole thing. Not!

    So after a little huffing and puffing we made our way into one of Barcelona’s most iconic sites: Parc Guell.

    Now, this would have been much, much better with great weather, but still it was awesome. I had seen countless pictures of that serpentine bench, but I never knew that it dropped a good 30 feet in the back. The aqueduct is rather impressive. Once again, there were a lot of people but it was manageable and I actually got a picture with the trencadis lizard. Once again, I must say that the genius of Gaudí is not really transmitted through photography. He was a true master of Space.

    Next in the plan was a walk through the town of Grácia. I followed Fodor’s itinerary and went through the little plazas strewn through this lively little town-within-city. I think that the Spanish crisis was a bit more evident here, with many shops and restaurants seeming to be permanently closed. We sat down and had a beer (or two) in the little and absolutely adorable Plaça de la Virreina.

    The area was nice, but once again, I did not feel the love. I’d rather live in the Eixample with its almost-Parisian boulevards lined with trees (without taking into consideration the $$$). Give me one of those apartments with a lovely roof garden and a nice kitchen and I’ll be a happy girl forever.

    And so we found ourselves walking down Via Augusta and then back to the über elegant Passeig de Grácia. As we strolled down (well, dragged our feet really) we came into view of the absolutely lovely Casa Fuster ( )and promised myself that one day I would be back in Barcelona and have a drink at their terrace (when I’m rested enough to enjoy it and have the right outfit and shoes with me), and, of course lodge there if I ever won the Lotto.

    But just past the hotel, I could see these lovely turrets twisting and reaching into the sky. Was that…? I looked down and saw the crowd standing around taking pictures. Yes! We were in front of another Gaudí landmark: Casa Milá, also known as La Pedrera (The Quarry).

    My feet began to hurt less. However, DH had had enough. Even as I got in line (this was the second -after the Picasso Museum- longest line queue we -or I- had to make, he said something along the lines of: ’No, thank you, not another building, I hope you enjoy it very much, I’ll be back at the hotel, come whenever you want, have fun’. He turned around and high tailed out of there. Errrr……….OK.

    So I queued by myself while admiring the curving façade and the wonderful iron work. Now, I don’t know if it had to do something with being by myself, but a beggar came up and actually touched my arm. I jumped about ten feet away and told him not to touch me, rather loudly. At home I’m used to the beggars verbal droning, but they would never dare to actually touch anyone. It was a bit shocking. My face must have shown some strong emotions because he left immediately and went down the line to harass some gorgeous Nordic girls.

    La Pedrera is an apartment building, privately occupied except for the roof, attic and a sample apartment. I went into the tiny elevator (thought of DD, she hates these!) and up to the roof.

    Here I must make a side note: I’m afraid of heights. I have actively worked on this for years and I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made. I can do things now with only mild discomfort that would have frozen me in absolute panic 20yrs ago. I also have mild depth perception issues (I’m severely myopic).

    The roof of la Pedrera was an architectural marvel but it hit all my buttons. You go up and down like a merry-go-round along the border of the elliptical interior patio shaft. The inside border is protected by a cyclone-fence like barrier so you can see all the way down.

    Now, if I have something to hold on to while I move (which is why I LOVE my hiking poles!), the level of discomfort is greatly diminished. Or someone’s shoulder. Damn. Just the perfect timing for DH to bail out.

    The chimneys are a indeed work of art, absolutely worth the (rather steep) entrance price and also worth the discomfort I experienced while making the rounds. It did leave me frazzled (and a little annoyed with DH). I happily retreated into the wonderful attic with its catenary arches. What a marvelous, sinuous space! It is also full of models and visual presentations of Gaudí’s work. But I was tired from the day and mentally exhausted. I sat for a bit to recoup and then went down to the apartment.

    I don’t know if I was still stressed out but I thought that it was the worst audio guide that I had ever listened to. They give you the option of ‘Express’ (20 minutes) or ‘Extended’ (more than an hour long). I chose ‘Express’ but still, very disappointing and confusing signage. But please, keep in mind that I was not at my best.

    The apartment was beautifully furnished and it was very interesting to see how the interior space related to the outside.

    Now, if one is on a budget or under time constraints and could see the interior of only one Gaudí house in Barcelona I would recommend Palau Guell first (for size and variety), Casa Batlló a close second (for the sheer joy of that space) and then La Pedrera (a distant third). My two cents.

    I walked back to the hotel at a snails pace, admiring the artistic window arrangements of the designer stores along the Passeig de Gracia. I pondered on a few fashion observations:

    - Women in Barcelona do not dress as elegantly as they do in Madrid or northern Spain. And yes, I discounted the tourists. Many store attendants and museum workers bordered on sloppy.

    - No big pearls or estate-worthy jewelry on the older ladies. This has seemed ubiquitous in other parts. I wonder if it is not safe to use them, not fashionable or if they have just been sold to help out during the crisis.

    - Very few men wear ties and suits during business hours.

    After a nap back in the hotel (I might need to reconsider my hotel choices in the future if we begin to actually spend more time in the room!) I felt human again. A ravenous human. After going through several options we wound up sitting in a café across from Paco Meralgo while waiting them to open at 8:00PM.

    We started with a glass of cava for me and white wine for DH while we pored over the menu. This is what we had:

    - Patatas Bravas – very good, the aioli was excellent
    - Assorted Iberico Meats
    - Buñuelo de Bacalla – this is a little codfish fritter. It was excellent! The best I had in the trip.
    - Bomba – It is like a potato fritter stuffed with spicy meat
    - Razor Clams - DELICIOUS
    - Pa amb Tomaquet – typical bread with tomato
    - Calamarsets a la Llauna – wonderful little garlicky calamari
    - ½ ration of Pernil Iberico – awesome ham! Melted in your mouth.
    - Bacalla Esqueixat – similar to a codfish carpaccio, this was not a wise choice because we ordered it towards the end of the meal, so its delicate taste was somewhat lost on us.

    With a bottle of Mas Petit for a very reasonable €14.95, the total bill was €80.30.

    Next: Gaudí is not the only Architect in Barcelona or wading through the rain in construction hats

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    Day 4: Meeting the ‘Other’ Architect, When it Rains it Pours, and A Forest of Stone Trees

    Before falling forever in love with Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona had a torrid affair with another Modernist architect: Lluís Domènech i Montaner. He worked throughout the city on lots of residential projects and gained further recognition during the preparations for the Universal Exposition held in Barcelona in 1888 in the grounds of the Parc de la Ciudadella. Not much of his work survives but today we were going to visit two of them.

    Since our room did not have a view to the street we never realized that the weather had definitely taken a yucky turn. It was wet and gray and not all that warm. But we were on a schedule and we had to get going. Thankfully our first stop was a 3-minute walk away from the hotel. I wanted to get there early as I had not made reservations (work interfered severely with my travel planning!) and so we came to one of the most distinctive buildings in Barcelona, and standard bearer of Catalonian identity: the Palau de la Música Catalana. Even seeing just the outside is an experience, but nothing compares to the inside.

    It was around 9:05am and there were no signs in the front entrance. Finally we saw some employees and we were directed to the side entrance, where the ticket office was. We were the first to arrive, the screen outside stated that there were 21 open spaces remaining for the 10:00 English tour so we were good! Unescorted visits are not possible. By the time the ticket office opened at 9:30am, there were about twenty people in the line, so it is true that it fills up and reservations should be made in advance to guarantee entry.

    We went into the bar. Wow! This is accessible without a ticket and should be visited by anyone with an interest in architecture or decorative arts. The ceiling is vaulted with the ribs showing the original red brick. The columns have the most beautiful green tiles and delicate ceramic coral pink flowers in the capitels. At the center is a wooden bar serving overpriced but decent coffee, sweet rolls and humdrum sandwiches. Nevertheless, it might have been one of the most enjoyable breakfasts of the trip.

    The tour starts in the Foyer and continues up the stairs into the intermission room where you can see the columns and sculptures adorning the frontal façade from behind. What a beauty! But nothing prepares for the shock of entering the concert hall itself!

    As one comes up the stairs the stained glass ceiling can be seen, but this is not your every day stained window. It is a large (massive) rectangle starting in shades of blue along the edges, but the center is like a drop of golden sunshine ready to splash over the audience in a musical baptism. This is to modern glass art like the St Chapelle in Paris is to medieval glass, in both you feel like you are inside a jewel box. This IS the dragon’s treasure.

    Then you see the lower stained glass windows and the massive organ. But when you think that it cannot be better you see the pure white sculptures framing the stage. Wagner’s Valkyries meet Josep Anselm Clavé’s Willow Tree and Flowers of May. The muses coming out from the stage’s back wall are a masterpiece on their own.

    There is a unique sense of joy and pride in this space! This is the very essence of what being Catalán is. No wonder the Orfeo has been repressed at times of political unrest. Anyway, I get carried away and could write endless pages filled with superlatives. Take the virtual tour, but there is nothing that will ever compare to BEING there. This is my #1 pick for Interior Space in Barcelona. Enough said.

    With our appetites whetted for Domenech, we went to the Uriquinoa metro station and took the line up to the Hospital de Sant Pau station where we were greeted by constant rain. Out came the umbrellas but by time we left the modern hospital grounds it turned into a downpour. We took refuge in the university foyer and had a coffee with hopes of waiting out the rain.

    Close to an hour later, the rain subsided enough to make the umbrella useful and we went to find the gates to Domench’s groundbreaking Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (not to be confused with the antic hospital in El Raval).

    We made it time for the last English tour. We had to don construction helmets and fluorescent orange vests but it was very enjoyable. This is the only Modernist hospital in existence and was built following cutting-edge standards of hygiene and patient wellbeing. Patients were segregated by sex and type of illness to avoid contagion. Transportation between wings was all underground, leaving the space above park-like.

    The tour goes into several patient wings in different degrees of reconstruction (there is heavy construction work in the site), the tunnels and the church. Very interesting (even with a stinky and boring guide like the one we had) and highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Modernist architecture.

    Through the main hall gate we could see our next destination for the day, the one place we could not leave Barcelona without seeing, that has actually become THE symbol of Barcelona. Gaudí’s masterpiece: La Sagrada Familia.

    This was the perfect approach to the site, coming from the Hospital along the Avinguda de Gaudí. We could see it getting bigger and the details coming into focus as we approached. But before tackling it we took a break in a bar to revive our spirit with red wine and warm the stomach with some ham and croquettes.

    The Sagrada Familia is very well described in guidebooks, the forums and other internet resources so I will not go into details except for a few general impressions:

    - Nativity Façade - it is impressive, Christmas tree and all. It actually has bits of pieces of colors.
    - Passion Façada – well, it IS impressive but not much to my liking. It reminded me of soviet monumental sculpture. Or the church in the Valle de los Caídos (one of the most eerie places I have ever been to!). The cylons from Battlestar Galactica seem to have been at the crucifixion.
    - The interior – Now, this is something. You do not see a lot of pictures of it. The columns rise into heaven like trees breaking into branches. It is light, airy, spaciously clean like no other cathedral I have even been to. I do not recall ever seeing a picture of the parachuting Christ. YES! The entrance fee is worth it. This is my #2 pick for interior space, it was THAT good.
    - The museum – It was ok.
    - The towers were closed due to weather (thank God!)

    The day was still young (though the feet were beginning to feel old) so we once again went into the underground and headed to the Liceu station to see the one Gaudí building that was still pending on my list: Palau Güell. We emerged to bright blue sky!

    This palace is also well described, so again, impressions:

    - It is the most ‘complete’ Gaudí experience: the trencadis tile work, the mushroom like dungeon/basement, the incredible main hall, superb woodwork, the magnificent chimney garden in the rooftop
    - The audioguide is good, even DH stuck it out
    - These people were really, really rich.

    After we left the Palau we wandered through the Barri Goti (we were beginning to get our bearings) and had a drink. It was too late for lunch, too early to dinner, a snack would kill our appetitie and iif we hung until it was time to eat we were going to get drunk. So we retreated back to the hotel to rest (sorely needed).

    To make a long ‘where should we eat’ discussion short, DH prevailed and he wanted to back to Cerveceria Catalana. I agreed but I wanted to take the metro, not walk all the way back. So we did, and wound up walking through the interconnecting tunnels almost as much as we would have done above ground. Should have taken a taxi.

    After less than 10 minutes of wait we were seated in Cerveceria Catalana, this is what we had (and yes I know we ate like pigs, but we had not eaten much during the day):

    - Eiskeixada Bacalao – this time at the beginning of the meal and it was delicious!
    - Patatas Bravas – the potatoes are crunchy and that aioli has enough garlic to bite, love them.
    - Grilled mushrooms – could have used a tiny bit more salt during grilling but still good
    - Pa amb Tomaquet – of course, need to state that it is not in menu, one has to ask for it. It is slighty grilled and smokely delicious
    - Pescaito Frito – Fried boquerones (a small white fish, nicely fried on a light batter)
    - Anchoas del Cantábrico – Pickled anchovies
    - Langostinos Cocidos – Shrimp boiled in brine (deliciously sweet!)
    - Chipiron a la Andaluza – small whole calamari fried in batter (I can still taste them in my mind!0
    - Pulpitos a la plancha – grilled baby octopus, heavenly
    - Razor clams

    With a very reasonably priced bottle of Lan Crianza (€12.15) and a bottle of water, the total was €77. DH is still dreaming of this meal. We were so revived (though half drunk) that we happily walked all the way back to the hotel without giving it a second thought.

    Next: The Expensive Teleferic Ride, Less is More, and the Hunt for a Place to Eat

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    Still enjoying your report. I'm glad you visited Gracia, Sarria & Pedrables. We enjoyed all 3, especially Gracia. I remember having lunch at a great restaurant across the street from the Pedrables Monastery, & we walked around the monastery but it was closed so we never saw the inside.

    We didn't see Palau Guell, but I agree with you about Casa Battlo & Casa Mila. Battlo was our favorite!

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    I'm so glad you enjoyed Palau de la Música Catalana so much. It is by far my favorite site in Barcelona. I've been on the tour twice, to three concerts there, and frequently just stopped into the bar for a cafe during the day. Such an extraordinary work, and I feel like I catch more details each time I'm there. While I've been to the hospital twice, I've yet to take the guided tour. Perhaps I'll make that a priority for next trip.

    My order of preference on the Gaudi houses is:
    1. Batlló--I love the whimsy and the light tunnel and just so many of the details.
    2. Milà--that roof! I"m so impressed that you gave it a try despite your fear of heights!
    3. Palau Güell-just didn't do it for me. I found it ostentatious and didn't feel the homage to nature that I feel in other Gaudi sites.

    Looking forward to your next post!

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    I saw Palau Guell last Oct.....
    Some visitors find it sombre, but I thought it elegant, mysterious, and darkly beautiful.

    It was my sixth visit to the city....headed to CC several times.
    In spite of the crowds , the place has a great vibe, good food , and friendly

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    Day 5: The Last Full Day!

    And people think that 1.5days are enough for Barcelona! Where do they find the time for day trips to Montserrat? To Sitges? I still had so many things I wanted to see and taste! Four days gone in the wink of an eye. Rain was still a likely possibility.

    So we drag out butts out of bed and dive directly into the Uriquinoa metro station (10 steps away from the hotel). We emerged in the Paral.lel (love that quirky spelling!) where we followed the signs to the transfer to the Funicular de Montjuic. The transfer is included in the metro ticket. The ride is in a slanted cabin with steps inside and is entirely underground, sort like a cogwheel train. One comes out by the Avinguda de Miramar in Montjuic where can walk to the museums or take the cablecar to go up to the Castell de Montjuic.

    The plan was to go up with the cable car and walk down the park, so we purchased 1-way tickets and went up we went. This would have been a wonderful outing for a bright sunny day, but we didn’t have that and had to make do with the slate gray sky. The views were still nice, you can see the Mediterranean glimmering in the silver light and Barcelona lazily raising from the water into the far away (hazy) hills.

    The castle itself is the typical Spanish fort which can be seen anywhere in the Iberian peninsula and throughout the Americas. Interestingly pretty but not a do-or-die. We walked around for maybe 45 minutes and then had an overpriced coffee and croissant by the concession stand. It was time to start walking down but it looked like it was ready to rain any minute. DH was no game; he wanted to go back down with the cable car. My feet were grateful. It was a rather expensive visit, considering the 4 one-way tickets.

    Next stop the Joan Miró Foundation . As I said before, I’m not crazy about modern art, but I love Art. I try to take the opportunity to observe and experience art whenever I can, sometimes one is surprised.

    The building housing the museum is gorgeous. There were a few Miró pieces that I really enjoyed. The temporary exhibit by Mona Hatoum was very interesting. DH was not convinced but he did not hate it. I’m glad I did it but I don’t think it will require a repeat visit.

    Now, the next thing on the list for the day, the last Must-Do while we were in Barcelona, was the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC). This wonderful museum houses in the Romanic section the mosaics and frescos that were salvaged (though the term is controversial) from churches strewn throughout Catalonia, some that we were going to see in the following days.

    Now, this museum is not small (well, it is not even close to big like the Louvre or the MET, but it is not tiny) so from the get go I decided that we would not try to see everything. Our feet were ready to give up after 4 days of use and abuse. I would see the Romanic, Gothic and Renaissance sections and then call it quits.

    We had a small snack in the museum cafeteria while watching an army of people set up the huge cupola room for an event. They had riggers everywhere hauling up light and sound equipment. It was fun to watch. And it kept us off our feet, lol.

    The Romanic collection is considered to be one of the very best in the world and it did NOT disappoint. I think that it is also very well showcased. The frescoes and mosaics are mounted on wooden frames in the same shape of the walls as they were removed from. It was excellent.

    The paintings were not bad either! I would have liked to see the rest of the museum but I was too tired to even attempt it. Definitely a place to return to on a more leisurely visit.

    We walked down the (lots of) stairs that lead to the Plaça d’Espanya, but there was a still a little place on my wish list: Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

    I will be the first to admit that 90% of this pavilion can be seen from the outside. DH was sorely disappointed and thought he should have just waited outside for me. I loved it and think that it is a true Zen experience. It is simple and so very elegant. Mies got it 100% right. Less is More.

    With that our sightseeing was done. We had seen a lot of Barcelona in 5 days. We were tired but happy and deeply satisfied. After that we just wandered around, looked up the Avis location where we would pick up the car tomorrow and took one last look around the Manzana de la Discordia.

    I went into the archfamous Vinçon shop. I was a bit disappointed with what I saw (mostly the cooking utensil section). I thought that most of the gadgets and utensils could be found at Ikea, Brookstone or a well-stocked Target. Sacrilege, I know, but that is what I thought. Not a single purchase was made (I told you we are not shoppers!).

    It was almost 8:00pm by the time were done and it was time for our last dinner in Barcelona. But where? Back to the Barri Goti we went. Nothing looked particularly appealing. Out came the map. Aha! How could I have missed it? We should go to the famous Cal Pep. After a few circles and stopping two times to ask for directions we finally found it. It was PACKED. I asked the person who took our name how long the wait would be. Close to two hours, he replied. No, thank you and DH was not interested in eating with people hovering over his shoulder. Maybe next time.

    More wandering while looking at the Restaurant Map, we were soon heading for melt-down. As we walked past the Cathedral inspiration struck again. We were close to Cuines de Santa Caterina, a restaurant attached to the Santa Caterina Market. We went in and were promptly sat in a communal table.

    This place has a good vibe to it: clean and modern. Not minimalistic but simple and warm. The specials are advertised on a ticker screen over the large open kitchen. This is what we had (once again, we ate like pigs), the portions were not small:

    - Artichokes with ham and clams to share as 1st - this was a really interesting combination of flavors and we both liked it very much. The sauce made great dipping for the bread.
    - Mountain Rice for me as 2nd (rice with mushroom, chicken and sausage) – Very tasty and moist, had a good proportion of meat to rice.
    - Pierna de Cochinillo for DH as 2nd (roasted suckling pig leg) – Deliciously tender, crispy skin and not fatty tasting.

    Service was very good and we were pleased with the meal, we would happily return. With water and a bottle of wine and one of water, the bill came to €67.

    Next: We squeeze one last meal in, No More Walking, the French Attack Girona

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    Thanks to all for the wonderful feedback!

    I agree that Palau Guell can be a little sombre, but it is still a great work of architecture. Though, I could not even imagine living there, it would be overwhelming!

    My Top 5 Picks for Barcelona

    5. Monastir de Pedralbés
    4. Sagrada Familia (outside AND inside)
    2. Casa Batlló (not a typo, its tied for #2)
    2. Palau de la Musica Catalana
    1. La Boquería

    DH's Top 5 Picks for Barcelona

    5. Those Guadí houses that we went to
    4. Passeig Maritim in Barceloneta
    3. The inside of Sagrada Familia
    2. La Boquería
    1. Cervecería Catalana

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    Day 6: And off we go on our Roadtrip

    We had to pick up our rental car in the Avis downtown office around 11:00am. We were ready around 8:00, which left some time to squeeze in one last visit to our most favorite place in Barcelona: La Boquería for a little breakfast. Well, breakfast meaning the first thing you eat in the morning because it was more of a lunch than anything else.

    Again, DH was not interested in Pintoxo, even though there was some space in the counter. We opted for Bar Universal where there were plenty of stools available. We sat down and were immediately asked to move to the side of the bar. This was intended (I think) to make space available for the regulars (they seemed to have plenty!) but it turned out to be great because we had front row seats to see The Grill Master at work. The food was great but the entertainment was better, the bantering between the staff and the regulars was hilarious.

    We ordered coffees and limited the amount of food items because DH was not very hungry to: grilled mushrooms and razor clams. We happily ate while watching The Grill Master beautifully cook every single shellfish and fish item available for a small group of Japanese. I drooled, but just could not eat that much early in the morning after the big meal in the evening.

    The locals were on their third glass of red wine (since WE arrived) and ordered some Callos (stewed tripe). Just before it was served it got a good dusting of –of all things!- Parmesan cheese. I even asked the attendant to confirm that I had hear right. I guess it was more of Trippa a la Fiorentina than Callos a la Madrileña, lol. There were lots of sounds of appreciation and extra bread was asked for to soak up every drop of what looked to be a heavenly elixir. And the locals asked for coffee but with the steaming cups came out bottles of various liquors. We finally reached the conclusion that each of the customers ‘owned’ their bottle as they poured liberally and into each other’s coffees without anyone keeping tab.

    We could have watched for hours, remembering a similar bar setup we had in Casa Sancho in León 6 years ago which kept us entertained for an entire evening.

    (Full story to be found somewhere in here: )

    And so we said our sad goodbyes to La Boquería and walked back to the hotel to claim our luggage and get a taxi to take us to the Avis office.

    I had flip-flopped between picking up the car back in the airport or in the downtown office. I thought it would be easier to drive out of the airport though it required actually getting ourselves and our luggage there. At the end a great deal came up with downtown pick up ($231 for 12 days with drop off in Valencia) so that settled it. We did not regret it as traffic was very sedate and the roads were well marked.

    The Plan

    Follow the Michelin Green Guide Costa Brava drive (backwards) making a few stops along the way as time allotted:

    - Blanes with a visit to the Marimurta Botanical Garden
    - Tossa del Mar
    - St Feliu de Guixols
    - Calella de Palafrugell
    - St Sebastia
    - Cap roig
    - Begur
    - Girona

    What Actually Happened

    Within less than 10 minutes we were out of central Barcelona and driving along the coastal small roads on our way to our first destination of the day: the Marimurta Botanical Garden in the resort town of Blanes.

    We reached Blanes without trouble but finding the gardens took a bit of effort and the signage was not great (and I lacked driving directions). But find it we did and loved it too. The garden is separated into geographic/climate zones from Spain and the rest of the world. The cacti were particularly nice. But the plants are not the only attraction of this garden; its setting is post-card perfect. The cliff top views are just breathtaking. I would highly recommend this visit to anyone with even a mild interest in flora. We spent over 2 hours and could have easily spent a few more but it was time to keep going.

    The drive from Lloret to Sant Feliu de Guixolsis beautiful and interesting with two caveats:

    (1) It goes through a lot of ups, downs, twists and turns so I would not recommend it for people that get carsick (most of the drives we took on this trip fit into that category!) though I would not rate it as scary/nervous driving.

    (2) There are a LOT of apartment and housing ‘enclaves’ (the bane of Costa Brava) so this is not a drive of solitude and connection with nature. However, since one does not actually have to drive through them, it is not too bad. And the rugged coast IS really nice.

    By the time we made it past Sant Feliu de Guixols it was almost 5:00PM so a decision was made to drop going to Begur and Cap Roig and instead follow road #6612 (local road marked as scenic in the Michelin map) into La Bisbal d’Empordá and form there onto Girona. And scenic it certainly was! Rolling hills and agricultural landscapes… yes! Our first sighting of the rural Spain that we have come to love.

    Now, getting into Girona also required a bit of backtracking. I mean, when you see a ‘Girona Sur’ (south) sign you expect to see a ‘Girona Centro’ or at least a ‘Girona North’ sign. If there was, we did not see it
    So we were way past Girona by the time we realized we needed to turn around (did not have anything at all to do with the possibility that I might have nodded off for a few minutes!). The directions to the hotel were not great either, or at least did not seem to make sense (they sort of did after all). So we wound up parking in the first spot available close to the old University of Girona and walked to the hotel (this theme would be repeated throughout the trip).

    We made our way across the cobblestoned plazas into our hotel for the next two nights: Pension Bellmirall

    Centrally located in the old town, we had a rate of €65 per night. We did not opt for the breakfast as we thought it was not a great deal at an extra €7 pn/pp. They have a wonderful building, great common hall, simple rooms, comfortable bed, clean bathrooms and plenty of hot water in the shower. The staff was helpful and armed us with maps and dinner recommendations.

    We checked in and enquired about parking some place closer. ‘Do NOT move the car!’ they replied. All the closer spots are prohibited this weekend since the town is holding a reenaction of the invasion of Napoleon’s troops. And indeed, tricorns were observed in town throughout the weekend. So we returned to the car and packed an overnight bag (the first of many more to come!) from our suitcases.

    So around just after 7:00 we set off to explore Girona and find a place to have a pre-dinner drink (or two). There was NOTHING in the direction we headed (straight into the old Jewish quarter), I even became worried that I had seriously blundered by planning to stay two nights in Girona. We did eventually find the livelier section of town (La Rambla along the river) but the first impression was not great (our mistake, nothing to do with the town itself).

    One thing you must know about Girona’s old town: It is STEEP. Having great knees is a big plus here. The town looks very compact (and it is!) but you don’t really see the elevation on the tourist maps. We did a lot of creaking, huffing and puffing for the next two days.

    As we wandered we ran into one of the hotel’s recommendation for dinner: El Dedal (‘The Thimble’) and we decided to go in. It seems to be a hot new place because it filled up as we were eating with beautiful people and had a few parties waiting outside for a table (it is quite small).

    The place is decorated with vintage sewing theme and has the cutest wallpaper reminiscent of the pattern catalogs featuring post-WW2 fashion. They played jazzy Big Band (which I love) through the evening. This is what we had, each dish was €3.90:

    - Carrot Salad – this is how the menu described and it was the greatest understatement! It was the best salad I have had in quite some time. It had some pine nuts, red onions, raisins, bits of goat cheese (very mild, not pungent at all) and some other stuff. It was perfectly dressed. We should have ordered a second plate and I’ll certainly try to replicate it at home.
    - Meatballs – good
    - Butifarra – (sausage) really good
    - Patatas Bravas - Ok
    - Fishy Dish highly recommended by the waiter – edible
    - Tortelone – big tortellini filled with goat cheese, quite delicious
    - two other dishes which I cannot understand from the ticket and were (obviously) not particularly memorable.

    The bill was €45 with a bottle of wine. My overall impression was of very good home cooking, leaving a bit of space to bring it up to restaurant-quality. Still, a great deal for very good food in a fun setting. We began to like Girona better as we walked back to the hotel and crashed for the night (barely heard the cathedral bells next door).

    Next: The French take the Town, A walk on the walls, and a Meal to Remember (even if it was not the Celler the Can Roca, don’t want to create false expectations here!!!!)

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    Day 7: Girona

    We had a lazy start to the morning as the sight seeing agenda was not that extensive and the weather was not really great. It was windy, gray, misty and on the coolish side. DH did not want to sit outside but he did not want to wear jacket. We found a place for breakfast and I had my first slice of coca of the trip.

    Coca is a flatbread typical of the region, quite similar to a cheeseless pizza and can be topped with anything. This particular one was topped with greens and ham. The crust left a lot of space for improvement but it was good. DH had a standard ham sandwich. After the second round of coffee we were ready to start the day, happy to see that the mist/fog had lifted and the wind had subsided.

    These are the things that we saw in Girona, rated (solely on my personal interests) on a scale of up to 5 *’s:

    - The Cathedral **– After one catches the one’s breath after climbing the 90 steps that lead (and purchases the ticket) one can admire the inside of this wonderful church built in pure Catalan Gothic. The nave is incredibly wide, making it airy. It has the most impressive silver baldachin *** (like a little tent over the altar placed so that the priest doesn’t get lost in the immense space) and altar piece. Both masterpieces and unique! The wooden choir is very nice too.

    - The Cloister **– It is very simple at first sight but the capitels on the columns are truly outstanding and could keep medieval buffs entertained for hours.

    - The Cathedral Treasury ** – It showcases the usual religious outstanding works of arts but the true gem, the one piece that makes this a destination-worthy museum is tucked all the way to the back: The Tapestry of Creation ****. It is the oldest surviving Romanesque tapestry and it shows God in the center of a Mandala-like circle. It depicts the months of the year, the beast of earth, the monsters of the sea… google it up, its worth it.

    - Passeig Archeologic *** - This is a walk (not very well marked) that joins several gardens and remaining sections of the old medieval wall. The views from the little towers along the wall are outstanding.

    - Banys Arabs * - If you have seen Baths before, this one can be skipped. It does have a very nice fountain with a nice cupola over it. It is a rather pleasant quiet place. BUT it IMHO, hardly worth the €3 entrance fee. Though I have seen baths before so it was not new to me.

    These things were intermingled with much wandering around. We kept an eye out for a place to go for dinner. I had read reviews for Restaurant Nu but the menu that was posted outside did not seem particularly intriguing, especially considering the price (I should have asked if wine was included but I assumed, perhaps erroneously, that it was not). But across from it we found this place which looked interesting and we made a reservation for the very un-Spanish hour of 8:30pm.

    The Girona Rambla was definitely buzzing on this Saturday evening. A zillion kids with their proud parents were out to meet with grandparents, godparents, relatives, and everyone down to their first grade teacher. I mean, people would not advance more than 10meters on their ‘paseo’ before stopping to meet the next group of acquaintances. The entire French Army as well as the Spanish Defenders were out still in costume having their aperitifs after finishing up the battle reenactments for the day. It was fun people-watching.

    At 8:30 we returned to Restaurant Occi for our dinner reservation. We had the tasting menu and it turned out to be one of the best meals of this entire trip:

    - Ceviche and Tomato Soup to eat and drink: the fish was deliciously fresh and the ceviche was not overly sour. The tomato soup was gazpacho like and served in a shot glass, it was light with a little hint of citrus. My only critique is that this is a quintessential summer dish and we were a bit on the chilly side. But I’m nitpicking here.

    - Meringue Egg with Prawns, Caviar and Summer Truffles: DH and I both agree that this was the most deliciously remarkable single dish of the entire trip. OMG. It was the most luscious, decadent, delicate …I don’t even know how to describe it. It looked like a perfectly raised golden soufflé but the inside was creamy. Sort of like a molten lava chocolate cake. The smell of the truffles was heavenly, the saltiness of the caviar, the sweetness of the prawns all complimented the true protagonist of this dish: the wonderful egg. I did not even ask for a recipe as I had a vision of myself trying for years to reproduce this and failing without the right ingredients and restaurant-grade stove control.

    - Seaweed rice with saffron confit codfish: The fish was deliciously tender and juicy. The saffron smell enticing.

    - Veal Jarret with Mushrooms and Port Sauce: Don’t get me wrong, this was delicious, BUT after having those delicate tastes in the first three courses, the strong bold flavors almost assaulted the palate. It almost required an intermediate dish after the codfish to achieve a perfect in crescendo rhythm. Again, I’m nitpicking here. The meat was tender and the sauce silky smooth. I was not crazy about the wine pairing with this dish.

    - Assorted Cheese: The selection was superb, the maitre indicated the recommended sequence to eat and it was indeed a wonderful progression of tastes and textures. It was served with quince paste and some berry marmalade. The wine I had not been crazy about with the veal went remarkably well with the cheese. DH was ecstatic.

    - Chocolate Mouse with Orange: We are not dessert people. DH he does not like sweets in general and I usually prefer a savory lingering taste after a meal. I know, we are weird. So H opted out of this course and instead opted for a big second pour of the red wine. I should have stopped with the cheese plate (this is why tasting menus are such a bad deal for us) but the maitre convinced me to try at as it was a very small portion. The mouse was exquisite and there were some strong mint flavors in there. In hind sight I should have skipped it as I was too full but overall good.

    With wine (one big pouring of white and another of red for each) the bill came to an incredibly reasonable €75. Considering the quality and complexity of the dishes, this was an amazing deal. Especially compared to the at least €400 we (well, I, DH would have never agreed to this) would have spent at the Celler de Can Roca if we had been able to get a reservation (I tried and failed, three months in advance).

    Next: Why is there an egg on top of that house? Windbreakers are a good thing and the best Pulpo a la Gallega we have ever eaten.

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    Thanks to all that are still sticking with me!!!

    Day 8: Lets go to the beach (well, the waterfront)

    We woke up to the sounds of bells calling to Sunday Mass…. Well, not really. We woke up to the sound of canyons firing. The French Army was at it again. It was time for breakfast….IF we could find a place that was open.

    As a tourist it is sometimes hard to remember that the further you get away from the beaten path you also leave tourist amenities behind. Like having a place to eat breakfast on Sunday morning, when every single self-respective Spaniard is resting comfortable at home or watching the French Army invasion. And Girona is not even off the beaten path (wait until you hear about Banyoles).

    Eventually (with lots of step climbing involved) we wound up at the same place we had had breakfast the day before. We (climbed) checked out of the hotel, (climbed) maneuvered around the French Army, (climbed) got to the parking and were free to go.

    The bottomline on Girona (or Gerona): We liked it very much but did not fall in love with it. It was a certainly a worthwhile stop. From a visiting perspective it would have been perfectly fine with a single night. So, been there and done that and no need to return. However, from a culinary perspective, we did not even scratch the surface.

    The Plan for Today

    - Continue the Green Guide Costa Brava drive
    - Visit the Greek and Roman Ruins in Empuries
    - Go by Castelló d'Empúries
    - Visit Roses
    - Spend the afternoon and night in Cadaqués

    What actually Happened

    We set out of Girona in direction to Empuries on a pleasant but not very scenic road. In around an hour we were at the Empuriés Ruins. There are tons of spellings to this: Empuriés, Empúries, Ampordá, Empordà, so be patient with internet search engines.

    The excavation site is divided into three sections: the Greek town, the Old Roman town and the New Roman town. The setting is very nice with the sea as a backdrop (remember this when I discuss Tarragona). The museum was well presented, with a comprehensive presentation of the peoples which colonized the Ampordan region and Spain in general.

    The ruins were at just the right amount of reconstruction for my taste: not restored to the point where everything looks fake but enough to make it a great destination with a coherent flow for all ages and degrees of history knowledge.

    I will not say this to brag but to bring a little perspective: we have been to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia Antica, we have seen a lot of Roman ruins along the way. This site is not anywhere near the scale of those (OBVIOUSLY!) or nearly as impressive (remember this was a Roman OUTPOST) but it still has some nice houses, mosaics and fountains. It was actually bigger than I thought and we spent over two hours wandering around. I thought it was a very worthwhile stop (again, remember this when I discuss Tarragona) and would recommend it to anyone with even a slight interest in archaeology.

    It was way past noon by the time we left, we drove straight through Castelló d'Empúries into Roses. We followed the signs to Puig Rom and drove through very nice beach houses and gorgeous view of the Bay of Roses. We did not really find an interesting place to stop so we kept going to Cadaqués.

    The drive to Cadaqués is spectacular, even with the hazy gray weather that we were having. Once again, the internet directions I had to get to the hotel were useless (though we were very close without knowing) and we wound up driving straight through town. At this point we saw the signs for Port Lligat, home of the archfamous Salvador Dalí, and decided to go there.

    What a beautiful setting!!! You do not see the Dalí’s house from almost anywhere and suddeny you see those gigantic eggs sitting on top of an otherwise-seeming perfectly normal Mediterranean villa. There were throes of people hanging around the fish shacks though the boat trips were cancelled for the day due to the high winds.

    We tried to buy tickets but they were sold out for the day. The attendant told us that the next spot available was for tomorrow at 1:00PM. We did not get them and I’m STILL kicking myself for it (especially considering the disappointments of the next day).

    So we headed back to Cadaqués, put the car in a private garage and set out to find the hotel on foot, L'Hostalet de Cadaqués. This was achieved without problems, the hotel neglects to inform in their website that they are in a pedestrian ‘street’, no wonder we could not find them by car.

    After checking in we went out looking for a place to do our most (well, one of the most) favorite things in the world: sit down in a café to people watch while imbibing. The wind was really blowing so it seemed that outside sitting was not going to be possible but we finally spotted an empty table just behind a glass wind breaker in the Bar Melitón at the cornere of the plaza. Score! We did not move for a couple of hours.

    Cadaqués is one of those places that is touristy for a very good reason. It is gorgeous. The white washed town is set in front of pebble beach, rising rapidly on the surrounding hills. I could so see myself spending a restful week here! There were some people swimming in the water (23rd of September) but they looked Nordic to me.

    We were advised to leave the car in the paying garage (€13) as Monday is a market day and anyone parked along the street (where most of the free parking is available) would be towed after midnight. So we package (another) overnight bag and left the suitcases in the car. Then the search for a place to have dinner started.

    I had a recommendation for Restaurant Compartir (belongs to an El Bulli alumni) but we could not get a reservation when we walked in around 6:00PM. The guy said he was already overbooked for the evening. Very disappointing as the garden was closed in (it was not really cold but the wind was very strong!) and the menu looked enticing. We asked HIM for a recommendation and he sent us to Casa Anita and some other place which I cannot remember the name in the plaza (something Felix?) and turned out to be closed on Sunday night. Anita (smack in front of the hotel) just did not look appealing to me so we just kept looking for restaurants.

    We finally settled for Sa Farigola, located almost right next to Anita. It had a very nice garden protected from the wind and heaters which the owner told us could be turned on at any time if we wanted them (they were not really needed).

    We ordered a ración of Pulpo a la Gallega (a.k.a a la Feira, Galician-style octopus) to share and a seafood paella (because it was inevitable at some point in the trip).

    Now, after Sepia a la Plancha, DHs favorite tapa/ración is Pulpo a la Gallega, so we have eaten a LOT of pulpos in Spain as well as back home. This was the best I had ever had, including those we had in Galicia. Tender, perfectly seasoned, with just the right amount of oil and pimento. It entirely lacked the somewhat slimy exterior that can completely turn people off from octopus when present. We were almost sorry to have ordered the paella as we would have immediately shifted to a meal of tapas, to see what else they would offer and surprise us with.

    Now, the paella was not bad either. Not bad at all! The rice was nicely cooked: firm but not quite al dente but not squishy either. It was very nicely flavored and had enough seafood to make it interesting. Overall a very satisfying meal. However, with wine and water the bill came to €74, the same we had paid for the outstanding 5-course meal we had the day before in Girona, so it did not strike us a particularly good deal. Though that octopus was really, really good…..

    Next: The Big Michelin Fail, Bon Jour and Adieu to Catalonia Nord, the Long Unplanned Drive and the Desperate Search for a Place to Eat.

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    Loved the Tapestry of Creation and the Passeig Archaelogic in Girona! Those were my favorites. We also really enjoyed the huge outdoor market that the hotel owner recommended in Girona. It wasn't in my guidebook so I wouldn't have known about it if it wasn't for the owner.

    It's too bad you missed Dali's house. We went on the tour & it was one of the highlights of our trip & I'm not a huge Dali fan. But his house is so eccentric & interesting & weird!

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    Looking forward to read more…especially interested in your top 3 places you would consider for relocation.
    On our recent two weeks trip to Spain we truly enjoyed Valencia. Hope to stay there one day for 6 month to a year.

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    Day 9: ‘Are we there yet’ immediately followed by ‘Should we keep going?

    After a night of restful sleep we were ready to tackle the day. I had been a bit worried about this hotel because the reviews on Trip Advisor had some complaints about too much noise. There was none. Not a beep. There even seemed to have been some partying smack across the hotel but we were blissfully ignorant. The only thing that makes me give this little hotel a less than stellar review (for its location and price) is that the bathroom was not immaculate. Not dirty by any means, but there was a little mold on the tiles. Would I stay there again? Sure, if the price was right.

    There were not many places open for breakfasts when we ventured out in the morning. The sun was timidly shinning through the clouds and the wind had not quite subsided. After wandering in search of something to eat, we finally returned to the one place that was open that we had snobbed because it was too full. We got in line and when we approached the counter… it was gorgeous! 20 different kinds of bread, empanadas, cocas, sandwiches, pasties, cookies, cakes to feed armies. After flip-flopping a lot I decided on a vegetable coca (deliciously chewy/crispy flatbread topped with different kinds of greens) and an onion turnover. It was way too much but it was so delicious I ate most. The coffee was not bad either.

    We ransomed the car from the paying parking and we were on our way to our first destination for the day, the Cap Creus Lighthouse. It was worth every cubic millimeter of diesel spent on the drive! The rugged coast was just spectacular. This portion of the road is a bit narrow but I don’t think it’s a difficult or nervous drive.

    When we came out of the car we were hit by the wind. And I mean hit by hurricane-strength gales, the kind that you can lean 45 degrees into and not fall onto your face. I had considered doing a hike on this day and given up on the idea because of timing but I’m not sure it would have been fun to walk under that condition.

    After a zillion pictures we were ready to move on to the Monastir de St Pere de Rodes. Now, this was a drive. You go up, and up only to keep going up. The views of the coastline and white villages are extraordinary but I can see timid drivers being tense. We eventually caught sight of the impressive monastery/fortress and found the lower parking. There was only a single car there… I should have known then. So we walked up the rampart, admiring the gorgeous building and eating wild blackberries, until we arrived at the entrance. The firmly closed entrance. Monday closing. WHAT?!?!?! (Later review of my planning notes showed this to be clearly indicated, how I missed it? I have NO idea). What a bummer. Oh well, one more thing we need to return for. Still…. Bummer.

    We returned to the car and drove to the higher parking and visited the church and a tiny little village that is being excavated. Very interesting but still did not take the sting of failure away when we admired the monastery from above. (Add some cuss words here).

    We decided to keep driving up and join the scenic road further north. The other side of the mountain was not as steep and the views were dramatically different. The open agricultural plains melt slowly into vast forest that stretch as far as the eye can see.

    Spain is BIG and very sparsely inhabited. We would see more (lots more) of this over the next few days.

    The Plan included the conclusion of the Michelin Green Guide Costa Brava Drive by going all the way to Port Bou on the French border. I don’t know if I was in a funky mood after screwing up the monastery visit but this is the first time I have been sort of disappointed by a Michelin recommendation. It was pretty, nowhere anywhere close to the segments we had done south of Roses.

    Another thing is that Port Bou is not really a destination, by the time I realized we were past we were greeted by signs of welcome to Catalonia Nord, which really meant that we were in France. DH asked what the plan was, and I replied to go back the way we came. He almost veered off the road. ‘WHY?!?!?!?’ he said. Errrrrrrrr…. I don’t know why…. Because I thought this would be a worthwhile drive and we might want to see it in both directions?

    And so the map came out and a new route was determined. Into France direction Perpignan a big loop through (rather lovely) endless vineyards sparsely each crowned with its own little chateaux and back to Spain by the undecidedly ugly La Jonquera.

    Now, if Spain had a Tijuana, this would be it. Two streets of mobbed food and clothing stores (I guess the French come here for cheap deals) followed by hotels with huge parking lots for trucks in which prostitutes are staked out every 50 meters. Let me tell you something, after seeing these (surprisingly rather pretty) girls I will NEVER dress all in hot pink, bright red or any other colorful shade while in Spain. Just sayin’.

    Well, eventually we drove into our –gasp!- next stop: Besalú. This has been described as one of the quaintest towns in Spain. Please, as you read this, keep in mind that we were tired and make the corresponding allowances. I thought it was bland, somewhat sanitized. Yes, it is pretty! But so is Santillana del Mar in Northern Spain, Petite France in Strasbourg, France (now, that is drop-dead gorgeous in Autumn!) or Civitta Vecchia in Italy.

    Is it worth a stop, absolutely! Is it a destination? Hummmm….. Maybe I have been to one-too-many medieval town (oh! The problems of the First World!) but I was not impressed. And the pistachio ice cream was not nearly as good as in Barcelona.

    However, in a few hours I would revisit this opinion.

    You know that moment when you make a decision looking at a map, solely based on geographical sense? Because it just fits into your fabulous itinerary? Well, that was how I had decided months ago to stay overnight at Banyoles. I had initially looked at staying overnight in Besalu but had not been able to find reasonable accommodation over the internet. And so we found ourselves driving on the highway and seeing 5 different signs for Banyoles. And there, I had thought Banyoles would be a small town and I did not need detailed driving directions. NOT.

    We eventually found the Tourist Office (not in the first attempt) and got directions to our hotel. We (also eventually and only after multiple attempts during rush hour) found it and again, as it seems to be common with small, independent hotels, they were very vague about parking. DH had to go queue for a spot at the nearby public parking while I checked in at Ca La Flora.

    The little hotel was adorable and has a bar/coffee shop/neighborhood hangout place attached. The only (tiny) minus is that one is sort of feels like an invader as everyone seems to know each other and have their place to sit and people to talk to. On the (big) plus side the rooms were ample, the beds comfortable, the bathroom above clean and the hot water endless. . If I would ever be in Banyoles again (highly unlikely!) I would definitely stay here again.

    Side note: Banyoles was the ONLY place in this entire trip where people where obviously not happy to speak Castilian Spanish. I tried, but Catalan was just not flowing with me!

    So the hotel owner armed us with maps and restaurant recommendations and we set out on foot to find a place to spend the evening. Easier said than done. We easily found the old plaza, swarmed with kids and their parents. We settled in a café an asked for two glasses of ‘vino tinto’ (red wine), now what we got was a ‘Tinto de Verano’ which is ice-cold wine cut with seltzer with fruits in it. Sort of an unsweetened sangria - and a drink we would enjoy further in the trip- but it was in upper 50’s and not quite suitable to having a cold drink while seating on the outside. We were not feeling the love, however the people watching was fun.

    We scouted around for the recommended restaurants. All were firmly closed 7:30PM. Fine, we said, we will have another drink somewhere and wait until they open around 8:00. NOT. DH made another scouting round and there seemed not to be a single restaurant open on a Monday evening at 8:30. At one point (8:45) we found a Chinese restaurant and decided that we would go there if everything else failed (we were close!

    As we sat around the plaza we watched two separate group of tourists walk around, also looking for a place to eat. They began to look frantic around 8:45 as they gave up and just stood around the entrance of one of the places we had been recommended by the hotel. Around 8:57 they actually started knocking on the (still firmly closed) restaurant shutters.

    I’m happy to report that around 9:05, the rolling door to El Capitel opened up and all the tourists in town (including us) stormed the place. Even though I was at a decidedly bad mood by then, we proceeded to have an EXCELLENT meal with great service. The (rather intense) waitress was at world-class level, serving perhaps 7 parties with maybe a total of 30 people all by herself without looking frazzled for a second. This was decidedly not ‘Hi my name is Jan and I will be your server tonight’ type of service you might get at Outback Steakhouse on a Friday night. She was efficient, precise and not interested in chitchat. If I ever owned a restaurant I would hire her. Sorry, but my mind works in these mysterious ways….

    This is what we had:

    - House Salad with Goat Cheese – really good and well dressed with a big slice of cheese nestled in the greens. Again, as we had tasted before, this goat cheese was mild and creamy, unlike to the goat cheese we usually find at home (which I dislike). Excellent salad.

    - The Steak – 700 grams of medium-rare goodness sprinkled with sea salt and pepper. DH ate the entire thing, did not entirely refrain from gnawing on the bone. I tasted it and it was absolutely delicious, tender and very flavorful. He is still talking about it. Yes, it was that good. It reminded me of that pinnacle of carnivorous eating: Bistecca a la Fiorentina. FYI –this was the only time either of us had an actual chunk of meat over three weeks, and as much as we love red meat, we did not miss it at all as we favored fish and seafood.

    - Ventrezca (sp?)de Bacalao – Codfish with vegetables. OMG. It was delicious. The codfish was plump and fatty in all the perfect ways that it can be. Fatty is a VERY good thing here, it is the antonym of dry and stringy. It was luscious. It was served with a tomato and pepper confit that was absolutely delicious.

    With wine, water and coffee the bill came to an incredibly reasonable €67.25. Considering that we had been in a less-than-perfect mood when we started and we still absolutely loved our meals, this would be a place to fully recommend.

    We walked back to the hotel and fell asleep within seconds of touching heads to pillows.

    The Do-Over

    This was not one of the most glorious days of our travels. If I had a chance to do it over this would be the plan:

    - Stay 2 nights in Cadaqués, with a full day of relaxing and a visit to Dalís museum in Port Lligat
    - Go to the Monastir of St. Pere de Rodes on Tuesday
    - Drive straight to Besalú for a snack, or even better to Saint Joan de les Abadesses (which we did the next day).
    - Spend the night in Ripoll (which will be where we stay the following evening)

    Bottomline, I would not stay in Banyoles (even with the good meal), the lake was pretty but not destination worthy. The old town was not great either.

    Next: The Birthplace of Catalonia, ‘How many people can come out of that restaurant?’ and ‘Is that all we came to see?’

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    Banyoles became very well known outside of Cataluña mostly for their famous exhibit of an African warrior who was brought to the area, robbed from his tomb in France by two french brothers, it is said, but displayed in Banyoles in a museum like any other curiosity.

    He was finally put to rest in Botswana in a proper ceremony several years ago.

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    Loving this, marigross!

    Perhaps a touch of OCD is required for good trips. Hub’s and my names on that list!

    I agree with you about the Guadi interiors being as interesting as the exteriors. Do you wonder what he was like personally?

    English is my first language, 5 years of French (more literature than touristy stuff), a 6-week course in Italian and then Spanish, and weeks of pre-trip-listening to tapes gave me a good background in reading these languages but the Catalan tapes defeated me totally. When I tried a “thank you” or “please” in it, I was rewarded with blank stares across the board. How did you do with it, marigross?

    Loved your “The Plan” and “What Actually Happened” titles! So true.

    Have just finished reading the Barcelona part of your trip so will return later for the rest. Wonderful TR!

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    I had a somewhat different experience in Besalu during my trip to Catalunya in late September 2006. I spent 2 nights during a local festival. It wasn't very swarmed with tourists and I thought it was a sweet and quaint village - not a lot to do for 2 mights but the festival really was alot,of fun. I visited Santillana del Mar in 2003 planning to spend an entire day but left after about an hour of wondering around the "Disneyesque" center. I wouldn't have thought to compare the 2 based on my personal experiences.

    It's interesting how people can have very different experiences visiting the same places.

    I can relate to the search for food in Banyoles. We had a similar experience on a Monday evening visiting the village of Onati in the Basque Country. We must have walked in circles everywhere for 30 minutes until we finally found a small Galician restaurant that was open!

    Looking forward to your next installment!

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    Day 10: Further into the Heartland

    Though this seemed to the norm a few years ago, Ca La Flora was one of the very few places where breakfast was included in the rate. The coffee was decent, the bread abundant, good cheese and ham were also provided. Overall a great little breakfast. Though I don’t think that we will be staying in Banyoles again, the hotel was an excellent value.

    The Plan

    We were doing sections of Drive #8 from the Backroads of Spain book (which I highly recommend! All the routes were wonderful)

    - Banyoles
    - Santa Pau
    - Olot
    - Castellfollit de la Roca
    - St Joan de les Abadesses
    - Ripoll

    The drive out of Banyoles around the lake was very nice and it only got better as we went on the road to Olot. We began seeing some autumn colors in the trees. This is a very easy drive, recommended even for timid drivers. Once we were past Olot we decided to take the high mountain road and were rewarded with incredible views from Coll de Coubert. We drove through several towns but did not feel inclined to stop until our first actual destination for the day: Sant Joan de les Abades

    The monastery was founded in 885 by count Guifre el Pilos (Wilfred the Hairy), who build it for his daughter Emma, who later became the first abbess. However most buildings are from the 12th century. It is really interesting and contains true masterpieces of the period. It has a remarkable crucifixion sculptural group so modern and emotional that might as well be shown in any of the Guggenheim museums. There are also wonderful alabaster sculptures that are worth the trip by themselves. I loved it and thought it was destination-worthy. DH is not crazy about all these church visiting but tolerates and indulges my obsessions (we do not go to church at home).

    Now, the abbey treasury turned out to be a little jewel. Again I was surprised at how contemporary some of the medieval artwork looked. A wonderful rock crystal cross could have come straight out of this year’s Swaroski’s collection. I’m also very interested in textiles and embroidery, the pieces shown here were excellent and in an incredible state of preservation.

    The surrounding town was rather interesting and might have been a better stopover than Banyoles.

    We got back to car and drove on the incredibly scenic road to Ripoll where we would spend the night. We found free parking and found the hotel without too much trouble: Hostal el Ripolles

    It is above what seems to be a very popular pizzeria, I was tempted for about 15 minutes to abandon all things Spanish and have a pizza (We love pizza. We go out for pizza once a week.) but resisted the urge. We can have pizza at home.

    After checking in we walked up to the monastery but it was closed for lunch. So we found a place out of the wind (it wasn’t really cold but the wind was bothersome) where we could sit outside and people watch.

    It was around 3:30 and the lunch hour was beginning to wind down as we sat outside a restaurant. We got our wines and watch people leave the restaurant. And people, and more people. Businessmen in suits, older couples, younger ladies… tons of people. Most of them talking or kissing to the owner as they left. Hummmm this looked absolutely promising.

    After a while de dragged our lazy butts back to the Santa María de Ripoll monastery. The highlight of this site is the portal of the church, and amazing it is (though I know that this might not be of any interest to a lot of people). We spend a good hour sitting in front of it looking at all the biblical scenes.

    The church has the tomb of Wilfred the Hairy, founding father of Catalonia. The church and cloister were interesting but would not be a destination site without the portal. DH was not impressed by the complex and was stunned when he asked what was next and I said, ‘that’s it’.

    After the church we found ourselves a little bar to eat a little something to tie us over until dinner. We had rather good sepia a la plancha which perfectly did the trick. DH’s disappointment immediately lessened.

    Around 8:30 we returned Restaurant Canaulets to see what all those people we had seen coming out lunch were about. We sat in the cozy backroom and ordered from the fixed price menu. I had a soup as first course with tiny meatballs, it was delicious. DH had a very nice salad. I did not take notes of the meal and do not remember what we had as seconds but remember being very pleased. When we declined dessert we were offered a cheese plate, this we accepted. They were really nice and HUGE. Could have been a light lunch all by itself. Bill was €70.

    Next: Masterpieces among the Vinyards and we see the Mediterranean again.

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    Hi all! Thanks for hanging on.

    Lin, that is rather intersteing!

    TD, I completely flunked at Catalán. I think DH almost did better than I, lol. I just opened my mouth and nothing came out.

    CathyM, the point you make is interesting. We arrived to Santillana late in the afternoon as we were spending the night there and I absolutely loved it as all the daytrippers were gone and perhaps some of the souvenir shops were already closed.

    I did not dislike Besalú, I thoght it was beautiful and had a lot of little nooks and cranies to explore, but I guess mood can be a determining factor. We had had it for the day and were just tired.

    A few years ago we decided to give San Gimignano a second try, this time with an overnight stay. Even though I had liked it the first time (DH had not) I could not see what the big fuss was about. We also arrived after 5:00PM and spending the evening there made all the difference. Now, the Cinque Terre, even admitting how beautiful it is....NEVER AGAIN.

    You can laugh about it here:

    I'll post more later, once again, thanks for keeping me company as I write.

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    It's so true that mood and timing can sometimes impact your view of a destination. I had visited Cordoba as a daytrip but other than the Mezquita was not too excited about it. However, I visited on an overnight a couple of years later and fell in love with this city - have been back twice since and will return next year. Same thing with Haro. I had visited 2 years ago for the day and was not feeling well that day (but wasn't going to skip my bodega tours ;) ). I didn't care much for the village. Last month I spent 2 nights and liked it so much more.

    Next I'm going to give Jerez a fourth try :) I've visited 3 times before as daytrips - usually just to visit a sherry bodega and then leave. I've never been able to warm to the city but I know other people that absolutely love it. So next year it's 3 nights for Semana Santa!

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    Still enjoying your report. We really liked Besalu, but we didn't stay overnight. We arrived early in the morning from Girona, & were very impressed with the stunning medieval fortified bridge. We then found a lovely cafe overlooking the river & had breakfast on their patio. It was October, warm, & sunny & very quiet.

    We also loved the Beneditine monastery in Ripoll & wished we had time to stay overnight. It looked like a clean & pretty city filled primarily with locals & few tourists.

    Did you stop in Olot? We drove through there but didn't have time to stop.

    I enjoyed reading your description about the drive to the St. Pere MOnastery. We wanted to go there but didn't have the time. Was the drive scarier than driving over the mountains to Cadaques?

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    Loving your report, as we spent 2 weeks in Barcelona last summer. I am sorry you did not get to Cal Pep, as that was our favorite and we went there 3 times. We saw Bobby Flay eating at the counter there!

    I would like to go back and experience some areas outside of the city, so will be bookmarking your report for future reference. Your research seems quite thorough, so thank you for sharing in such detail.

    Regarding 'tinto de verano', as we experienced it in southern Spain one summer, it is a red wine (such as rioja) mixed with lemon or orange Fanta. We fell in love with it and got instructions on how to make it. It sounds like perhaps the northern version is not as sweet, if made with seltzer?

    How do you like traveling with just your husband and leaving the kid(s) at home? That is in our not-so-distant future, as our youngest is a high school senior. If I recall, your daughter is about the same age as my older son, 19, and it is already so different to travel without him!

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    Tinto de verano is often made with "Gaseosa" which is the calorie free Spanish old time version of a transparent soft drink.. similar to 7-up, but used to water down wine and for sangria basically.

    I use Gaseosa to make spritzers adding a little fruit juice and ice.

    They don´t use seltzer water here for much of anything that I am familiar with.

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    Day 11: Vines, vines and more vines…

    We left pretty Ripoll early in the morning as we had quite a long day planned with lots of driving. The hotel included breakfast in the rate and, after a fumbling with the coffee machine for a while, we helped ourselves to bread and sausages.

    The paragraphs that I will now write will be laden with superlatives, increasing in magnitude and intensity as the day progresses until we reach our last stop for the day (where they somewhat come crashing down). I only state this because it is important to keep in mind that these things are interesting to –US-. I love Medieval History, we love vineyards and agricultural landscapes, we like to drive and experience the road and we (though DH less than me) have a lot of stamina for museum (in this case monastery) visiting. It might not be an itinerary for everyone.

    The Plan

    • Drive from Ripoll, via Vic, via Manresa, via Igualada
    • Visit the Monastir de Santes Creus
    • Visit the Monastir de Poblet
    • Perhaps visit Montblanc
    • Drive to Tarragona where we would spend the next 2 nights

    What Actually Happened

    For once, pretty much of the plan got done, considering that I had Montblanc as only a possibility (never made it). We decided to just drive around Vic and not try to make a stop out of it as we would have such a short time that we would not do it justice.

    The drive from Ripoll to Santes Creus was pretty, but since we kept on the bigger road (not a toll road but in excellent condition!) it was not exactly a bucolic landscape. However, the one thing that made this drive remarkable was the long stretch where one can see Montserrat ferociously and unexpectedly emerging out of the plain in its magnificent glory.

    Even if one knows that Montserrat translates into ‘Serrated Mountain’ seeing the actual jagged edges cutting into the sky bring an entire new dimension of meaning. There is almost a violent yearning that completely explains the mystic fascination that Catalans have historically had with this mountain. I don’t know if the people that come here as a day trip from Barcelona get to experience these views but…. Wow. I definitely will be going to Montserrat the next time that we are in Spain.

    As we continued south and headed up back to hills, the scenery changed completely. We left the plain behind and the valleys turned lush as the little streams crisscrossed the narrow flats and vineyard followed vineyard.

    We later had a sommelier tell us that the province of Tarragona has 8 different Denominación de Origien (D.O.). I have not been able to verify this but it seemed plausible looking at all those grapes.

    We also saw tons of private hunting grounds but we found it curious that we never, even once, saw any kind of wildlife except a few birds. Nothing. This lack was also reflected on the menus everywhere we went. I had looked forward to hearty venison or boar dishes and they were nowhere to be found. I guess early October was just too soon for hunt.

    The Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Santes Creus is described in the Michelin books as one of the premier Catalonian Cistercian monasteries, second only in grandeur and importance to Poblet. But since I had not been to Poblet yet (that would be remedied in a couple of hours), I was duly impressed. As in OMG and all the stupid acronyms currently in favor.

    The entrance to the compound is beautiful (I saw this afterwards as I was running a 400m race to find the restroom after being in the car for a couple of hours). A long plaza flanked by buildings decorated with elegantly decorated sgrafitto leads into the church and then into the visitor center.

    This monastery is beautifully preserved and masterfully restored to still maintain that elusive feel of ‘village’. People lived, prayed, and worked here. Servants hustled, abbots ruled, monks kept busy. And the cloister…. That cloister is what picture books are made of. So elegant in that enticing Cistercian simplicity. For a second one might believe that it is ‘just another drop-dead-gorgeous’ monastery, but then you start seeing the capitals which adorn each column. The sculptural and representational work is amazing! From monkeys and elephants to dragons and chimeras, knights going off to the crusades and horrible images of the inquisition. It was just fascinating and I could have spent the entire day here. Truly a unique experience.

    The rest is not bad either! The church is worthy of the trip by itself and has two beautiful tombs where two Kings of Aragón lay. The older parts of the compounds are also quite interesting.

    As we walked out we were just in time for the 1:00PM Spanish multimedia presentation and were encouraged to go in. It focuses in Cistercian/Benedictine living, not on the specifics of Santes Creus. Though interesting, I thought the way it is presented could be uncomfortable for some people as it involves standing in a pitch dark room and moving from one area to another in very low light. A bit claustrophobic too, considering that there we could see a very lively rat scurrying around. Truth be told, I could have skipped it.

    After a couple of hours we went back to the car and drove to our next destination, Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Poblet.

    The approach to this monastery was enlightening by itself. Though I have been to many monasteries, these have been engulfed by the nearby towns or just stand isolated in the fields, completely out of context. On the other hand, Poblet has been preserved as a small town. Its walls have been restored and it is surrounded by all its secondary buildings. It is a clear representation of the abbot’s power above the land.

    Once the outer gate is passed, the wonders unfold. Now re-read everything I said about Santes Creus and elevate it to the second power, might as well just cube it. What a marvelous place!

    The only bad thing about this place is that you can only go on escorted visits (something of which I had not been aware of!) and I-H-A-T-E-T-O-U-R-S. The more I like a place the less I want to be guided through it. Well, no, that’s not true… the more I hate to be rushed through it is more like it. This place deserves to be soaked in and wandered through at a snail’s pace.

    So we arrive around 2:00, ticket office is firmly closed until 3:00 when the next guided visit is scheduled. Lots of time to kill because the light (cold) rain is not making wandering on the grounds really possible. So we go into the hotel located on the grounds. The restaurant there belongs to a consortium between the monastery and a culinary school and it is beautiful! Very modern-minimalistic with wide views of the monastery’s fields and orchards.

    Since we were early and it was decidedly cold outside we decided to have lunch as the fixed price menu was reasonable at €14. ‘But no wine for me’ DH says, to which I reply ‘I’ll have a glass of red’. ‘OK, maybe I have a glass too’ he answered, ‘lets look at the wine list anyway’. Naturally we wound up having a rather good bottle of red at an incredible €9. The downside was that we missed the 3:00 visit and had to wait for the next one which would be in Catalán.

    The food was decent and could have easily been improved with a little attention to detail and a good sprinkling of salt. I had a Potato and Leek gratin as first (very bland but easily fixed with salt and pepper) and a salmon with shrimp smothered with goat cheese (good) as second. This plate worked because the cheese was rather mild. DH had a salad as first (very good) followed with a chicken leg in prune sauce (again, bland). For dessert I had the worst Crema Catalana I have ever had (the custard was grainy/lumpy and the brulée decidedly burnt). So not worth the calories invested, sigh! DH was offered a cheese plate (not in the menu) when he declined dessert. Smart man.

    We joined the tour group gathering in the entrance, there were perhaps 20 people. None spoke Catalán. However, the guide must have spoken horrible Catalán because I could understand most of what he said.

    The cloister is work of art. The column capitals are decorated with the most intriguing geometric designs. The fountain where the monks washed before dinner almost belongs in the Alhambra. The octagonal tower rises delicately into the sky; the chapter house is an achievement of early gothic elegance. Given a few interesting books to copy I could so see myself living this monastic life (sure, for about 24 hours!).

    And then we went into the church. It is definitely one of my OH WOW moments. The kind that makes worthwhile every penny and effort spent getting here. Who needs a new sofa, car or Hermés bag when you can stand underneath this alabaster glory? This is the ultimate cure for a travel junkie, this is MY fix.

    The tombs of Kings of Aragón and their ladies stretch in a massive, pristine white, low laying arches between the columns. What can I say… I was overwhelmed as I walked underneath them! I had the same feeling the first time I was inside the Basilica de San Marco in Venice when all the mosaics are illuminated. But, please remember that I’m a medieval history/architectural nerd and this might not mean a thing to someone else. Though DH liked very much too.

    I could go on, and on, and on raving about each tiny detail but I’ll just say that this was decidedly one of the highlights of this trip. I considered joining the following tour group just to see everything again but it was getting late and we still had to make it into Tarragona.

    For once I had precise driving directions to the place where we would be staying for the next two nights, Hotel Lauria, and we arrived effortlessly.

    It is perfectly located just next to the Balcón del Mediterráneo and with easy access to parking and the Parte Alta of Tarragona, the old town where all the action and sites are. They say in their website that they have limited parking available, naturally it was full by the time we got there and I sort of doubt the existence of it. We wound up once again in the paying parking where they offered a discount, bringing it down to €14 per day. Adding this charge to the hotel rate somewhat made the €59 per night less sweet. However, the room was comfortable (though a bit dated) and the bathroom excellent.

    After check in, we went out to have a taste of the town. I had high expectations that this might be a place for us to stay for an extended period in the future. I had also raved to DH about the wonderful Roman ruins that we were about to see. Big mistake.

    We approached the Balcón del Mediterráneo veranda, with its endless sea view somewhat dimmed by the clouds and made a little less than perfect by the 20 freight boats waiting to be allowed to come into port. We looked down and saw the ruins of the famous amphitheater which has the water as a backdrop. DH stared at me, ‘Is that IT?’. ‘Ahhmmm…. Well, there is more, but this is supposed to be the highlight’ I replied. He did not quite say it but I could just hear his brain thinking ‘And she brings me all the way here for this?’ I guess he was tired from all the driving but he never really warmed up to Tarragona.

    We were still stuffed from lunch so we only had a few drinks in town before retiring for the evening.

    Next: Palaces and Romans in Tarraco

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    Hi Kwoo, same as you, we did not stop in Olot because we did not have time.

    The road to Cadaqués is curvy but not paritcularly steep as I remember it. The drive to St. Pere has a lot of hairpin turns and rises very rapidly, could be a challenge to someone inexperienced with a manual transmission. It does have barriers so it is reassuring to know tha you cannot drive over the edge.

    Just to give a little perspective, DH is Swiss and has always driven in the mountains. He is perfectly comfortable with narrow, steep roads. A few years ago we visited the Lagos de Europa in Northern Spain (drop-dead gorgeous) that was one of the most tense drives we have done (big tour buses contributed to the tension). Now, the Schaffer Trail in Utah brought tears of fright into my eyes, I thought we would die.

    travelgirl2, yes, our DD is 19 too. Throughout the years we have taken both family and couple trips as my mom was always willing to stay with DD and DD loved it. We did not take her to Europe (with the exception of family visits to Switzerland) until she was a teen. Before that we did lots of National Parks and more adventurous stuff. But to go to your question: I love traveling all by myself with DH.

    The tinto de verano we had in Banyoles was not sweet at all. As in no sugar. We later (when we found sunnier, warmer weather) had the pre-made bottled kind and the one made with Fanta. We enjoyed both.

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    Just checking back in to let you know how much I am enjoying this report. Love your writing style, and all the detail! And the food talk!!

    I just returned from Andalucia where I had my share of tinto de verano. Was surprised to see how many pre-made brands were on sale at El Cortes Ingles in Malaga.

    Your description of the tourists rushing the restaurants as soon as the doors were opened made me laugh! One of our chosen restaurants in Sevilla opened at 9pm. There we were be, huddled in a dark doorway, trying shield ourselves from the pouring rain while attemting not too look too much like the eager early bird tourist diners that we were, on a dark, almost deserted-looking street, only to find ourselves part of a frantic rush as soon as the worker began to lift the protective grate and the other hungry tourists that had been huddled in shadowy doorways emerged from their waiting spots to make a beeline for counter or table seats.

    just about every restaurant that we ate in for dinner was filled with a solely tourist crowd for about the first 45 minutes after opening. Surprisngly, we did not mind this much, and actually liked the more relaxed atmosphere which allowed us to ask questions of the staff that might have been impossible and the places got packed with people later in the evening.

    Another thought: I was struck by how high the prices seemed in Catalunya as compared to those we paid further south, where we had many (mostly tapas style) dinners for two in the 40-euro range with beer and wine.

    Keep up the great work, Mari!!!

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    Hi eks! Indeed, I was a bit surprised with the prices in Barcelona and to the north. Not only for eating but also for lodging. Once we went south of Barcelona the prices reduced immediately. We had particularly great value meals in Morella and Teruel at just around 40 euros.

    Thanks to all for hanging on, I have had computer issues and lots of work so its taking a bit longer than I thought.

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    Day 12: Hanging around in Tarragona

    We got up and about nice and early. Our first destination was the Plaza del Mercado for breakfast. We walked down the rambla among the weekly market stalls. It focused on clothes (this has always been a mystery to me: why clothes?) but also had some interesting kitchen gadget stalls.

    Since there were not really places to eat in the market, we crossed the street and went into a chain pintxo bar and ordered our coffees. The pintxos were displayed beautifully in the glass cases, just like the delicate little jewels they are. It is self-service and the choices seemingly endless: fresh salmon, smoked salmon, stuffed piquillo peppers, tortilla, tuna, egg and ham,…. We gorged ourselves. It was so good we came back the next morning.

    After that we headed to the Forum to start our tour for the day. Here we found one of the very first truly helpful museum attendants. I had not even noticed how ‘unhelpful’ the rest had been until we got to Tarragona. Perhaps ‘detached’ would be a better description. I must say that customer service in Tarragona was consistently outstanding; everyone exuded a sense of pride in what they did. The Northern Cataláns could learn a thing or two from Tarragona.

    We purchased our Tarragona combined ticket (€10), it provides entrance to most of the major tourist attractions in the city. The very nice lady then instructed us on the best sequence to do the visits in order to minimize walking and maximize opening times. This was important as the two palaces in the itinerary are only open in the morning. She also highly recommended the Archaeological Museum though its not in the ticket.

    The Forum. Well, it was a forum. First of all, it is enclosed in all sides by apartment houses that have banners (all of them!) with huge pictures of rats and dog poop (I kid you not!) demanding that the mayor do something to clean up the mess and rescue their Roman heritage from absolute neglect. This was a bit (perhaps a lot) of a turn off and made us notice even more the garbage and –indeed- neglect in the ruins.

    Back to the Forum, well, it is small and requires a LOT of imagination to find traces of its past grandeur. There is just not that much left. We were more than a little disappointed and spent just around 15-minutes in the site.

    The next stop in the tour was the Casa Castellarnou, a grand palace built in the 15th century and continuously occupied by the top families in Tarragona until the 19th century. I just love these palaces where you can see how the people lived and entertained. It is very lavish and rather elegant. I might have missed it if not for the combined ticket. I enjoyed it very much.

    We were then off to the Passeig Arqueologic, the rampart were beautiful and nicely tended with all sorts of flowers, plants and shrubs. We even saw some people on what seemed to be a botanical tour which looked very interesting. However, there is no signage and we only knew we could exit at the far end from the closed gate because the helpful nice lady in the forum told us.

    We had to look a couple of times at the map but we found our next stop, Casa Canals, another palace situated in the Parte Alta of old Tarragona. Talk about ‘location, location, location’. What a view overlooking the cliff onto the endless silver sea!!! The inside sort of reminded me of the Jacquemart-André museum in Paris, though at a –much- smaller scale of course and without the masterpieces. If you like this type of museum, highly recommended.

    Our next stop was supposed to be Amphitheater but DH was still not interested. He did not want to go all the way down to see what we could see from the top. In a way, I agreed, the ruins themselves did not seem to be particularly outstanding, what is really remarkable is the setting with the gorgeous sea as the backdrop. Sort of like Tulum in the Mexican Yucatán when you have already seen Chichén Itzá and Uxmal.

    DH also declined to go into the Archaeological Museum and I could not muster the enthusiasm to go by myself so we kept going and went to the Cathedral. The cloister is beautiful and the garden very different from what we had seen with all the orange trees.

    What now? DH asked…. Errrr…. That was it, I replied. We were not really having a good vacation day here. Time to cut the losses. We went back to the hotel to nap (DH) and take care of the extended toiletries (me) required on a weekly basis.

    Couple of hours later we emerged, ready to find a place to eat (I did not have recommendations, Chowhound is silent about Tarragona, so I only had Trip Advisor left). There seemed to be lots of options but nothing was serving before 8:30. We resigned ourselves to wait sitting comfortably with a glass of wine.

    We finally settled on Restaurant Arcs loosely based on Trip Advisor (I do NOT trust these reviews, you have to read a LOT between the lines!) and on the recommendation of another restaurant owner. We went in and were greeted by the one-man-show owner, Carlos Llobet. I was somewhat skeptical, thinking that the restaurant was riding on the wave of his personality but I had no reason to worry, the food was excellent and the (very tough) wine pairing was superb. We were invited to pick, choose and modify as we wanted from the menu. We gladly partook. This is what we had:

    - Arroz Caldoso de Bogavante: Directly translated as ‘Soupy Lobster Rice’, this dish was a ‘segundo’ but we decided to share it as a ‘primero’. It resembles a wet risotto and I will say that it was awesome. The ‘caldo’ was deliciously briny and the lobster meat tender. This dish was bold and fearless.
    - Canelón de Rabo de Toro: Directly translated as ‘Oxtail Caneloni’. DH had this and again, incredibly tender and assertive.
    - Codfish over Garbanzo Beans: I loved this dish. The fish was tender and flaky, delicately flavored but still standing up to the chickpeas. Delicious.

    Overall, highly recommended.

    Next: Into the Templar Lands, The Lady Guard, Its Cold Up Here

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    Day 13: On the Road Again

    A few quick thoughts on Tarragona:

    - This might be a great town for shoppers, there are all kinds of clothing, shoes and jewelry stores as well as small boutiques and interesting shops.

    - There are lots of teenagers in Tarragona, I do not know where they hide them in other places, but here there out and about.

    - There are a lot of places to eat and hangout, it could be party town but we go to bed too early to find out.

    - Driving here is very easy and parking well marked (though expensive, do NOT park in the Balcón del Mediterráneo for more than an hour)

    The sun did not quite show up in the morning but we still got an early start. After a quick dash back to the market area to gorge ourselves on pintxos at Lizarrán.

    We made a stop over at the Roman Aqueduct on the outskirts of town. Of all the roman things I saw in Tarragona, this was my favorite. However, the site was totally deserted, the paths a bit overgrown. If I had been by myself I would not have walked out to the bridge, but this has a lot to do with how my hometown of San Juan is, not with Tarragona. Still, I was a bit freaked out.

    We had a driving day ahead of us and we promptly left.

    The Plan

    Drive the coastal road to Peñíscola
    Head inland to Valderrobles
    Visit Beceite
    Stay the night in Morella

    What Actually Happened

    We got into Peñíscola after driving through a solid wall of shuttered apartment houses, unsold condos, closed furniture stores and kitchen appliances stores in liquidation. Here the financial crisis begins to be obvious. This would be even more evident in a few days when we went to visit our friends in Denia.

    This was one of the times when I really wished we had had a sunny day because the sights of and from Peñíscola were still gorgeous in the misty rain. I can only imagine how outstanding they would be under a clear blue sky. The town rises out of the water on a huge rock with a fortress as a crown. Forget Vernazza in the Italian Cinque Terre, come here (this is only a slight exaggeration).

    The town is interesting for sun-worshippers because of its sandy beaches but also to historical buffs for its Templar fortress as well as for having been the seat of the renegade Pope Luna, heir to papal chair under the Western Schism. Fascinating stuff……… to me.

    We visited the fortress and admired the walls, so similar to the ones in Old San Juan including the ‘garitas’ or lookouts. The town itself has white-washed houses with terracotta roofs. It is decidedly on the touristic side with lots of souvenir shops and little bars. It was very, very pretty and definitely worth the detour. We could have stayed longer but the impending rain chased us away.

    The road slowly took us inland and upwards, into the misty clouds. The views were hazy but still very pretty, with narrow gorges running the land. The weather seemed to be deteriorating rapidly so we gave up entirely on the Valderrobles and Beceite detour. I was not happy, but such is life.

    So we headed up, and up, and up to beautiful Morella, set in El Maestrazgo, the Land of the Templars. We never got a clear view of the imposing fortress as it remained completely covered by the clouds. We drove up the (steep) road into town and found our hotel, El Cid, just inside the gate (and a parking spot just across!) without trouble.

    We walked into the tiny reception and glimpsed into the restaurant. I bet every able-bodied man in town over 50 was in there playing cards. There were at least 6 tables with games going, with the losers or possible contenders nursing their glasses of red wine as they overlooked. There was not a single woman in there. Well, there was one, with a long face, sitting outside in the cold, keeping warm with tea. I guess she was keeping an eye on her husband or father to make sure he didn’t gamble the family farm away. It was funny (to me, decidedly not to her).

    I would so go back to Morella and stay in this hotel again. The room had a lovely balcony overlooking the wall and valley; it was beautiful even in the ugly weather. But it was Cold. Up. Here. I dug into my suitcase and found a quilted vest I had thrown in, just in case. Well, this WAS the case. Sometimes it does pay to overpack.

    Morella is another town where good knees are a big plus. As well as reaching advanced level on the Stairmaster. It is steep. So we huffed and puffed all the way up to the church. Maybe it was lack of oxygen on my brain but I was soon to experience one of the ‘WOW!’ moments of this trip.

    The church did not look particularly impressive from the outside, just your regular, gorgeous 700-yr old temple, but once you enter, everything changes. This place is barely mentioned in guide books but it is a jewel. The choir is elevated above the nave, a soaring platform joined to earth by the most magnificently sculpted spiral staircase. The balustrade adorned with statues separated by lacelike stonework. It has one of those coin-activated illumination system… I have never paid so happily (well, been so happy while DH put coins in).

    The church lacks decoration, this was a Templar fortress after all, but the altar is a striking counterpoint: spiral columns dripping in gold reaching toward heaven while angels fly down to gently meet the lost human souls. I could not have enough of it.

    The altar could also be illuminated but there were two ladies devoutly praying there so I thought we could give them some privacy while we looked at the little museum. Which was actually quite nice. When we came out one of the ladies had left but had been replaced by another, she actually stared at us while we tried to silently walk out and our shoes squeaked loud enough to wake the dead. We had time so we left.

    We walked to the cloister, which is also the way to go up to the fortress tower (lady said it was 1hr walk) but it was starting to actually rain so we could not go. One more reason to return. So we returned to the church, only to find that both ladies had been replaced by the next round of Medusas. They were keeping guard!

    So DH tired of my politeness and was ready to illuminate as a group of German tourist trampled in and broke the mood. The altar was even nicer in full light.

    We took refuge from the rain in a bar and debated whether we would hang out there and be dead drunk by the time we could go to dinner or schlep ourselves back down to the hotel (and THEN back up for dinner). We went to the hotel for a while.

    Earlier when we had looked at all the restaurant menus in town we had settled on Casa Roque, we had asked what time they opened and they had said 8:30PM, when we got there by 8:25 there were people already eating.

    We selected the fixed ‘Gastronomic Menu’ for €25. We both had the same:

    - Plate of Meats, Sausages and Croquettes: it was delicious and enough to make a light lunch.
    - Olla Morellana: This was a soup/potage made with various legumes and meats. Hearty and delicious, perfect for the cold, rainy weather.
    - Braised Rabbit: the rabbit was cooked in white wine and garlic and served with French fries. We were so full by then that we ate the rabbit and completely skipped the fries.

    Needless to say, we skipped dessert too. We hobbled down back to the hotel and dove under the covers (the heat was not yet on September). We slept with our socks on. Sexy, I know.

    Next: Are we in Zion? Are those Hoodoos? Is this the road we agreed not to take?

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    Hi Ann! Excellent, I was afraid that I might have come off as dissing Tarragona. It was actually very nice, but I guess we were having the mid vacation slump and just did not feel up for it.

    We just did not fall totally in love with it as we have done wiht other places. But one can have short flings with cities and that is OK too...

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    Perhaps you need to return to Tarragona someday :) I spent 2 nights in 2006 and really enjoyed it. I too was underwhelmed by the Forum (but missed the posters!). My 2 favorite sites were the Ampitheater and the Archeological museum (and I'm not normally a museum person) - the ones you missed. Most guidebooks don't have much on Tarragona and what they have focuses on the Roman history but I really liked the old town around the Cathedral.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

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    Marigross ...if at some future date your DH is reluctant to go with you on one of your wonderfully reported trips *** I AM AVAILABLE!!!!***. Bag is always packed ( one for warm and one for cool) Passport and shots up to date and cc and atm with nice lines of $ avaialble..I am friendly, well behaved, sensitive to others needs and as I said instantly available. If this doesn't seem like a plan then just continue to write your great reports!! Thanks!!!

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    I am a very proficient que jumper!!! Also I know how to drive a stick shift, Marigross!!! So there, annhig!!! BTW how long is the que, my days are running out and there are so many things still on my bucket list..Maybe Marigross gives consideration to senior seniors!!!

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    Also I know how to drive a stick shift, Marigross!!! So there, annhig!!! >>

    amer_can - being british, I'm fairly certain that i can out stick-shift you! [though actually i drive an automatic at the moment and DH despairs when i drive his car which has a gear-lever so maybe not...]

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    Let's play one downmanship rather than one upmanship..It can be more fun..Maybe Marigross has room for us borh..Or as I did with my sister when she said "too bad we can't meet for lunch soon but i will be in Europe next week. HAHAHA" well , did I surprise her...Met her on the steps of the Duomo!! Are you game???

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    well , did I surprise her...Met her on the steps of the Duomo!! Are you game???>>

    amer_can, I'm up for most things, or should that be down?

    sadly, however, monty python got there before us.

    "you were lucky"

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    Hi all, I'm back!

    annhig and amer_can, you are both welcome! Actually, DH looks the other way whenever I say I want to go to Paris and France... I might want some sidekicks. :D

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    Day 14: Natural Wonders and the Passes we Agreed not to Take

    I would have gladly stayed another night in cold, rainy Morella and hope for better weather but we had more things to see and reservations to keep (sometimes I miss the winging-it travel style, but we have sort of outgrown it!). The weather was really nasty-foggy so we took out the Michelin map and gave the planned route a hard look.

    I suggested to DH that instead of the mountainous roads we had planned go we could do a ‘coastal’ detour to Sagunto and visit the castle. He was not game. We noted a few re-routings to avoid the higher passes in the mountains and got ready to have breakfast.

    Now, the restaurant bar in the morning (remember the card games the afternoon before?) was another glimpse of life in the village. It was packed, again with men. The Saturday morning regulars (several tables of them) were well on their way to demolish the second bottle of wine (each). Sausages were passed taken out of brown bags and passed table to table, the kids were sent to get 3 more loafs of bread. We looked longingly but were not invited to partake.

    So I ordered a pork tenderloin sandwich. A thing about sandwiches in Spain, they are big. Unexpectedly big considering the portions in which everything else is served. This monstrosity would have served 4 for lunch and 2 for dinner. It was good though so I ate most of it (oh, the shame!). DH ordered tripe. It was delicious! Incredibly tasty, tender and not greasy at all.

    Eventually we had to stop eating and people watching and loaded ourselves into the car under the misty rain. The route for today included:

    via Allepuz
    Mora de Rubielos
    Detour to Rubielos de Mora if we had time

    I will not go over the details of the day but WOW! This route had been showcased in the Backroads of Spain book as premier natural beauty. It did NOT disappoint. It was like driving through Utah, as if Zion met Escalante with touches of Northern Colorado. It even had Hoodoos and red rock, I kid you not. The stone formations would make this a destination trip for a geologist.

    We went up and down, around and up, then up and more up, and then into the cloud layer and above…. Yup, I was so distracted that we had fallen into the original route and we were in one of the mountain passes that we had agreed to avoid due to altitude and weather. Well, the fog was not so bad after at all so we decided (not that we had much choice at that point) to just continue with the original route.
    Even with the completely overcast sky the views were amazing. The downside was that the rainy weather was not conductive to stopping in the little towns to browse and we just drove through.

    We WILL do this stretch again on a sunny day in the (hopefully near) future. It was THAT good (upper case and everything).

    We wound up in Teruel earlier than expected and, after driving a few times around town including some streets we perhaps should not have (a la MaiTaiTom), we found the underground garage and parked to go in search of the hotel. But since we did not have an exact map of how to get to the hotel (the hotel’s website directions were very ambiguous in their effort to conceal the fact that they do not have parking) we went on the hunt for the Tourist Office. We eventually did find it, but naturally it was closed for lunch.

    We sat in a ham place next to the tourist office to have a glass of wine and sample the famous Teruel ham (delicious!) so that we could use their wi-fi. Google finally gave us pedestrian directions and we were less than 200m away from it.

    The hotel prices in Teruel had been rather high when I did my search. I made, what I thought would be a temporary, reservation and hoped to catch a better deal later. It never happened. I guess it is a big weekend destination and they also had some kind of fiesta when we were there. That is how we wound up in Hostal Aragón for a very reasonable rate of €45.

    I was kind of nervous but this turned out to be completely unnecessary. They must have the worst web designer ever, because the pictures are not favorable at all, especially considering all their big pluses. They should spend the money and get better pictures and better internet presence. Aside from the fact that they had no parking (we had to pack an overnight bag AGAIN) their location is a about as central as it gets. The rooms and bathrooms are simple but immaculate.

    The thing about driving in circles (in areas of dubious legality) was that by the time we parked we had seen most of the famous Mudejar Towers, one of the main reasons to come to Teruel (aside from the ham). These towers are built with red bricks and beautifully ornamented with colored tiles. Once can see the seeds of Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana planted here.

    The town was interesting and full of Spaniards spending the weekend. The little tourist train was PACKED. But it was rainy and cold, putting a bit of a damper on sight seeing. It’s funny how that mist was alluring and mysterious in Morella and just wet and miserable in Teruel, all about perception and mood!

    Though I was happy to have come here, I did not fall madly in love with. It was nice but I don't think I need to come back, even on a sunny day. I'd rather go back to Morella, LOL.

    Again, this part of the trip had been neglected in planning (and info lacking in the internet!) so we asked in the Hostal for dinner recommendations (and checked Trip Advisor too).

    Anyway, we wandered and looked at menus. A few places that looked interesting were closed. I completely understand the thing with Monday night restaurant closings, but Sunday evening? Why? That is a huge night for restaurants back home.

    We finally decided on the hotel recommendation, Café-Restuarante Torico Gourmet and proceeded to unexpectedly have what was the best quality/price meal of the entire trip. We ordered from the fixed price menu (€12pp INCLUDING wine), this is what we had:

    - Arroz al Horno – as first course for me. It resembled the Caribbean-type rice that I’m used to (it actually tasted a bit like mine) it was fluffy and light, cooked in broth and vegetables. Delicious

    - ‘Revuelto’ Scrambled Eggs with mushrooms, asparagus and ham – 1st for DH. This was absolutely delicious! The texture was incredibly delicate but the flavors were bold. Best dish of the night. Truly the Spanish are masters of The Egg. I could have this dish once a week without getting tired of it.

    - Rabbit with Garlic and Lime as 2nd for me – definitely a hit, very different from the one we had the night before.

    - Oxtail braised in red wine – as 2nd for DH, tasty and rich, as it cooled down it bordered a bit on greasy but that is to be expected with oxtail.

    We declined dessert. All this for a whooping €24, total bill. WOW. So this was what people meant when they were talking about the great deals to be had in the Menú del Día (we were told we could have it for dinner since it was not sold out for lunch. It might not have been the best meal of the trip but it was certainly the best value.

    We dashed back to the hotel under the light rain, had deliciously hot showers and slept happily.

    Next: Next vacation we are staying in #$%(# Mariotts, that castle is BIG, and the Monday Void

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    Day 15: Visiting The Borgias

    We got up early and had breakfast at a nearby café, it was almost the only option as most places were firmly closed this Monday morning. We had a long driving day ahead of us and wanted to get an early start.

    We tried to purchase the regional Valencia/Murcia Michelin Map but it was not available in any of the tourist stands, magazine shops or bookstores. Matter of fact, I had tried to purchase this map online through Amazon before the trip but it was stocked out. I forgot to look for it in Barcelona but had tried again in several places in Spain but had no luck (we eventually did find it, in Valencia, but far from on the first try!). This was a problem as we did not have a GPS and the Michelin map we had covered only about 2/3rds of the rural route we had planned for the day.

    The Plan

    From Teruel
    via Sta Cruz de Moya
    via Utiel OR Chulilla
    via Buñol
    To Xativa

    With and alternative route using the Highway via Sagunto.

    What Actually Happened

    We had one, very long, spectacular drive through rural Spain.

    This segment of the trip was one of the hardest to plan as it included a long drive through areas which were not marked as particularly interesting or scenic. I knew I wanted to go to Teruel and then had a full day before we were to go meet our friends in Denia. Looking at the map (and the Backroads of Spain book) I was happy to find the town of Xátiva conveniently located. Since this was the birthplace of Rodrigo Borgia a.k.a Alexander IV, the infamous Borgia pope, the matter was settled.

    The drive started out pleasant enough, soon progressed to gorgeous and rather quickly turned magnificent. Same as the day before we went through red rock areas which reminded us of Utah, beautiful differentiated by sporadic white villages. Soon we climbed higher into the mountains and found ourselves surrounded by thick forests and gorges. The scenery was so Wyoming-like I took a picture of the river which I swear I could pass off as an image of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone! (At a smaller scale, of course, but still….)

    How do people not know about this? Spain is not only about beaches, sangria and paella. There is so much natural beauty, so much to admire beyond urban Madrid and Barcelona. There are more wonders past the architectural beauty of Sevilla, Granada and Toledo, so much more beauty beyond the White Villages! How can all this glory remain unseen?

    Switzerland is pristine and beautiful, the Alps are drop dead gorgeous in both summer and winter, the Italian Toscana is picture perfect with its rolling hills, the French countryside will always have its ‘je ne sais quoi’. But Spain, Oh Spain! Spain has EVERYTHING. The windy cliffs of the north, the tundra-like Picos de Europa, the semi-desert vastness in the central meseta, the endless sandy beaches of the Costa del Sol, mountains, hills, forests…. This combination of natural beauty within a relatively small area is unrivaled. And then, on top, it has great food and wine to go along with it, lol.

    The quality of the roads was excellent and the drive itself was not that difficult. Every time I asked DH if he wanted to aim for a highway he said no, he would rather keep driving and enjoying the view. Here we finally found autumn; many of the leafy trees were beginning to turn golden yellow. We saw flocks of sheep, orchards, olive groves, almond trees, kilometers upon kilometers of vineyards (I will not publicly admit to stealing a few grapes from the vines, but they were delicious!). We drove through and extensive burnt area, which was incredibly beautiful as it was set against the deep, bright turquoise of the manmade lake. It was gorgeous!

    But eventually we came to the limit of the Michelin map and had to find our way to Xativa. We stopped to ask for directions several times but each time we were instructed to get on the highway on drive to Sagunto instead of continuing our way along the mountains. Finally we decided to give up and drove all the way almost past Valencia in order to hit the big street going to Xátiva. This made for an extra long, urban drive which we were not really in the mood for. Nevertheless, we got our first glimpse of the lush Valencian ‘Horta’ (the thousands of orchards surrounding Valencia).

    The owner of the B&B where we would stay had emailed detailed (and a bit complicated) instructions of how to (1) find parking and (2) get to the hotel. They were accurate and definitely needed. After a few twists, turns and retries, we parked the car along the tree-lined avenue and found ourselves packing another overnight bag out of the suitcases in the trunk.

    For all of five minutes I wished we were the type of tourist that is content staying in big, downtown Mariott, Hilton, or Hyatt hotels, where you can easily give your car away to the valet parking attendant right by the door and your suitcases magically appear in the room while you enjoy a cocktail in the bar. Instead, we were schlepping up a pedestrian street, for the nth time, with our limited luggage. This came dangerously close to a trip meltdown. Nevertheless, we found B&B Casa Aldomar without problems and were very pleased with the room we got (after climbing a few more stairs).

    The owner greeted us warmly and gave us a bunch of recommendations. He also said that the castle, one of the main reasons to go to this town, would be closed the following day (Tuesday) so if we wanted to visit we should go ASAP. So down we went, fetched the car from the public parking, drove a few circles around town until we found the right street and started to go up the mountain. And up. And up.

    Now, being almost 3:00PM we hoped to find parking close to the top, so we drove past what looked like hundreds of cars parked along the (very steep and very long) street. We later found that a lot of local people drive up, park and then walk down for exercise (I guess they either bum a ride on the trolley or someone gives them a lift). There also seemed to be an interesting-looking archaeological walk.

    At the very top we struck gold and found a spot less than 30m from the entrance gate. We walked in to the entrance booth and there was no one there. After 5 minutes of waiting I grabbed on the brochures which were on the side and just walked in without paying.

    The castle itself is an impressive construction of mixed periods. It takes advantage of the geography of the mound where it is located, rising steeply between and on top of two peaks. We climbed only to one of the two sides, DH refused to go to the other end (and I presented no argument) perhaps earlier in the day or without the long drive we would have been in a better mood to explore (and sweat, huff and puff the stairmaster climb). The views were spectacular but there is not much castle left beyond the walls and ramparts. The exhibit themselves were very basic, focusing on medieval castle-living and not very informative about the history of the castle itself. I would certainly recommend it for kids.

    The restaurant had a beautiful garden and pergola but was closed by the time we were done, so we could not enjoy it. So we returned back to the town and tried to scout for a place to eat dinner. We looked at the restaurant list the B&B had given us, most places were closed on Monday. Our quick recognizance loop confirmed this. The town was firmly shuttered. Oh no, once again we were going to be spiral down the Monday Eating Void!

    Mercifully one of the restaurants closest to the hotel, Clavo y Canela (‘Clove and Cinammon’) was actually opening later in the evening and had been recommended by local fellow Fodorite Cehegin. We were saved! We almost stormed the doors at 8:30PM.

    The place was beautifully decorated in a modern, elegant but cozy style. A basket of bread was brought, we lazily took a bite, and OMG. This was award-winning baking. I had a tomato roll which tasted of the warm days of summer and beach vacations. It was fluffy yet chewy and delicious all over. DH had a pumpkin roll equally good. I think we had a salad as first plate but honestly, I don’t remember anything but that magnificent bread. For second plate we both opted for cochinillo (roasted suckling pig), I had low expectations but was pleasantly surprised. The skin was deliciously crunchy, the fat had been rendered out and the meat was succulent. Overall a great experience but a bit on the overpriced side as the bill was in the vicinity of 100€, I don’t have the receipt.

    We were too tired to take advantage of the B&B’s rooftop terrace, with great views of the castle, illuminated in the evening. We just crashed on the comfortable bed and slept.

    General Thoughts on Xátiva

    I don’t think this is a place to do a single-night stay. Either one does it as a sight-seeing day trip from Valencia –or- one stays in a nice hotel for a relaxing, lazy weekend. We did not do it justice by arriving late in the afternoon and leaving early in the morning.

    Next : More Mountain Driving, The German Outpost and Mari Fails at Map Reading

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    we made a half-day trip from Valencia to Xativa (an hour by Cercania)..
    We walked up the hill part of the way to a very nice hotel ( don't remember the name).
    Enjoyed the town and the views.

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    jelopez, true! One more evidence of my hopeless dyslexia, lol!

    Thanks to all for sticking it out with me.

    Lin, I can't wait to get into the Valencia part. Matter of fact, you will soon be getting an email from me. :D

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    Day 16-17: Why are we in Benidorm? Relaxing in Denia

    We had a nice, simple breakfast in Casa Aldomar, this was not a huge spread, more like a traditional Spanish fare of orange juice, coffee and rolls (sweet and savory). Before we left we were able to take pictures from the owner’s copy of the incredibly hard-to-find Valencia/Murcia Michelin Regional Map to guide us in our last wandering through rural Spain as we made our way to meet our friends in Denia.

    Please, keep in mind while reading the narrative for the rest of the day as I recount my failures as a navigator that I was reading the map from pictures taken on my phone. We had a simple plan: From Xátiva to Dénia via Alcoy and muro de Alcoy following the green Michelin roads.

    The exit from Xátiva gave us some impressive views of the castle (albeit in the rear view mirror). We drove through some VERY nice residential areas, took a quick pitstop detour through a town with the narrowest streets of the trip (brought back memories of Granada and two centimeters on each side of the rental car, lol). Not long after, well… perhaps 20 minutes later of driving through vineyards and orchards I realized that I had not seen the names of any of towns we were driving through on the map. Truth be told, the realization came when we reached an intersection which I could not find, but anyway. The first navigation failure of the day: we had driven at least 30km in the wrong direction. And so we turned around and retraced the route.

    We soon found ourselves driving through some pretty roads on our way to the town of Muro de Alcoy. Well, this was not to happen. This was not entirely a map failure; it was more of a signage issue. We actually asked two times and tried to follow the instructions to no avail (Spanish is my native language so I cannot claim it was lost in translation). We finally gave up and took the highway, only to realize that this was what we were supposed to do all along. Anyway, we continued along enjoying the scenery.

    We were supposed to be in Dénia around 4:00PM to meet with our friends, so when we reached Pego, at the end of the route we had planned, at around 1:00, I asked DH if we should find some other green road to follow. The driving and views were really nice and he said yes. This is how we found ourselves climbing the 100 hairpin turns (only a mild exaggeration, matter of fact, it could be an underestimation) that lead up to Coll de Rates.

    The rocky mountain and sea views were a sharp contrast to the green forests and agricultural landscapes we had been driving for the last few days. Very different but each enchantingly beautiful in its own way. Now, smack in the middle of ‘nowhere’, there is a restaurant with one of the best panoramic views ever named after the mountain, ‘Coll de Rates’. We had been here on our previous visit to Denia but the weather had not been nice enough to realize how truly marvelous the views are.

    One curious thing must be noted, this restaurant is the kind of place that drives home the true magnitude of the German Occupation of the Spanish Coasts. From Málaga to Barcelona, maybe even from Cádiz to Port Bou, this coast is way more German than Gibraltar is British. This, to me, might have all the conveniences that cater to mass tourism, but it is not Spain. At least not the Spain that –I- have come to love. Even my sun-loving Swiss German husband agrees that this beautiful coast is not for us.

    DH ordered in German, greeted the other patrons in German, was addressed all times in German…. I got the feel that it is not a German restaurant; it is unequivocally and unapologetically a restaurant FOR Germans.

    Anyway, we had a delicious hearty goulash soup and excellent whole wheat bread. So I do recommend the place, for food and views, just be ready to embrace the permeating Germaness. And bring a sweater, it is windy up here!

    We got back to the car and I asked DH if we should go down the same way we came up, he asked if there was another way as he always wants to drive on new roads. That is how we started the long descent from the faux-Alpine meadow, with the intention of cutting back by Callosa and back to the highway to Dénia. Well, I missed the town completely. Not only that, I missed the signs for Altea as well (if there were any).

    And that, my dear friends, is how we found ourselves almost down to –gasp!- Benidorm before we could retake the correct direction. Utter navigation failure.

    So we had to hurry back, as we were already running late, driving through kilometers and kilometers of shuttered or unsold condos, empty commercial lots, and, furniture stores, kitchen cabinetry shops and patio gadget yards in final clearance sale. This was one of the faces of the Spanish financial crisis. We did get nice views of Calpe along the way.

    We had been in Denia 10yrs ago and I thought the change was dramatic. It has grown in size and sophistication. It seemed even rather cosmopolitan with all kinds of ethnic restaurants. The new marina and sea wall are really nice. We met with our friends and were happy to spend the next two nights relaxing in good company, food and wine.

    Next: We meet our true love, how do we get to hotel, and being underdressed (finally!)

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    Day 18: The Final Destination

    After much debate regarding the time we should leave, we said goodbye to our friends around 9:30 am so we could drop off the rental car in Valencia airport at 11:00am. Now, when I made the reservation I had not counted on this as I had thought we would keep the car the entire day exploring La Albufera and El Palmar on the outskirts of Valencia.

    I guess DH was beginning to feel the euros dropping out of his pocket after 17days of vacation because he refused to risk the extra time charge for car (OTOH, it might just be his Swiss need to be on time). This was extremely disappointing to me as I was really looking forward to seeing the wetlands (and perhaps have a paella for lunch). But then, there is always next time (and I might be spilling the beans here but the ‘next time’ is coming reaaaaaallllyy soon!).

    For the first time in our 12 days of driving holiday we got on one of the big Toll Roads (A7). We picked up our ticket and basically just rolled effortlessly for the next hour. We followed the signs to the airport and paid a rather expensive 8€ at the tollbooth to exit the highway. We always try to travel on smaller roads so the price of these toll roads is always a bit shocking to me, I guess that on long distances it car really drive the cost of a vacation up.

    My plan had been to take a taxi from the airport to the hotel but the Avis attendant convinced DH that taking the train would be take the same time and cost a lot less. This might not have been completely accurate as the airport and downtown are in different tariff zones and the price p/p for single tickets jumped up to over €10. There might have been a better deal, but again, I had not researched this option at all. And then we still had to find our way to the hotel.

    So we went to the station downstairs, boarded the (immaculate and very smooth) car and 20 minutes later we emerged by the ‘Xativa’ station, just next to the Plaza de Toros with no idea of where we were supposed to head to. We were happily surprised to find a detailed city map posted outside the station and we could orient ourselves.

    A note on walking in Valencia: it is easy. The entire downtown must have been repaved in the recent past because we found all sidewalks to be level, ample (within reason, at least proportionally to the width of the street.) and have adequate ramps to go up and down to the streets. It was remarkably effortless to walk to the hotel while rolling along our luggage. We were liking it!

    Our hotel for the next 4 nights was chosen on an excellent recommendation from fellow Fodorite Lincasanova and a great price (prepaid, no cancellation) of 72€ per night obtained from Booking. Hotel SH Inglés is perfectly located next to the Marqués de Dos Aguas building, house of the Museo de la Cerámica and incredibly central for all sightseeing in town.

    (Have I said before that all hotel reservations for this trip were made using ?)

    We were too early to be given a room but we gave our luggage to the concierge and headed out to grab a quick bite. Picking a random direction we found ourselves quickly on a tree-line little plaza across from the Ayre Hotel Astoria Palace and settled down to snack on something, have a drink and people watch.

    Within minutes I realized that Valencia was different from the other places we had been to on this trip. A lot of people that were taking their lunch break, walking their dogs or just strolling around were very, very nicely dressed. The shoes, the handbags, the suits, the dresses and accessories had been kicked up a notch. And, OMG, the old ladies were wearing their pearls and heirloom gold as they walked in pairs, arm-in-arm. It was like being in Madrid. I had missed this! The French may have their cutting edge fashion and grand mastery of art of tying a scarf, but the Spanish have a certain quiet elegance and grace that is closer to my heart.

    I was definitely getting the Valencia groove.

    And this was only the beginning, over the next few days we would see several groups dressed for baptisms, first communions and weddings that would put to shame all those ‘ladies’ shown in Bravo. More, much more, on this later.

    Disclaimer: I am an admirer of fashion, style and overall elegance but I am NOT anywhere close to being a fashionista by any definition of the word. I’m not even fashionable in the way I dress. I’m too cheap, overweight and lazy to keep this up, IMO it is just too much effort, LOL. However, this does not impair my admiring it in others, lol.

    We had a nice little sandwich to share and after an hour or so returned to the hotel to complete our check-in. Our room was very comfortable and large, even by non-EU standards. The bathroom would have been perfect if it had had a bit more shelf space. We were very pleased with the hotel and its location so I would recommend it to others. The only thing is that they change their wifi code every 24hrs and one has to go by the front desk in person to pick the new one up, but this is really nitpicking.

    Once we had settled I asked DH if we should go pick up some bikes. He looked at me in horror, as if I had grown another head, or perhaps and more appropriately, completely lost the one I have. ‘What?!?!?’ he asked (or gasped). I was confused, we had talked about this. That we could rent bikes (readily available throughout Valencia to be used on their extensive, dedicated bike lanes) and go up and down the Turía Gardens. He had said ‘yes’! He denied any memory of this conversation. I was dumfounded but one of the keys to a happy marriage is knowing when a point is not worth making, this was one of such occasions.

    And so we set out on foot to explore Valencia. My first impression of Valencia being a very walkable city was confirmed. The grand boulevards were lined with trees and ample sidewalks that made strolling along a great pleasure.

    Our first walk took us past the Porta de la Mar and Puente de Las Flores into the Turía Gardens via the Calatrava bridge. We strolled along the flowerbeds, trails, fountains and soccer fields for a while until we emerged by the Puente de Serrano and the Torre de Serrano. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the temperature just right….

    We continued our walk into the old city and soon found ourselves in the Plaza de la Virgen, an open space surrounded by the Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados, the back of the Cathedral and lots (lots!) of outdoor cafés. We promptly selected a restaurant and plunked down under a tree to have our tintos de verano and enjoy the afternoon along with many tourists and a heck of a lot of what seemed to be regular Valencianos.

    We are unsure of how our reaction to the city would have been at a different time of the year as we were there in the first days of October, just past the tourist peak and into the shoulder season. But sitting in the Plaza de la Reina we could see couples meeting for coffee or drinks after work, mothers picking up the kids from school and having a snack at the bar before heading home, older women having their ‘menú del día’ lunch by themselves, business people poring over details in their paperwork. (As well as hobos and transients laying around in the corners.) The bottom line was that we could see regular people going about their daily lives without being completely overshadowed by hordes of tourists.

    I was finding Valencia to be the Little Bear to my Goldilocks: not too big and not too small, not too hot and not too cold, not too hard and not too soft. The ambiance was lively and bustling but not overwhelming, young and vibrant but still mature and calm. Yup, we were LIKING it.

    Eventually we picked ourselves up from the café and walked across the plaza into the cathedral. There is a side entrance where one can look inside without paying so we dashed in for a quick glimpse, though we were planning to do the full visit the next day.

    The only thing on schedule for today was to visit the Museo de la Cerámica, but I think that well into our third week of vacation DH had been completely museumed-out and declined to go in. He took a seat in the outdoor café across (belonging to our hotel) and happily settled for the duration.

    I must say that I enjoyed this museum more than I thought I would. The exhibits are well presented and comprehensively displayed. There was enough variety to keep things interesting even if one is not a fan of this particular artform. For most of the upstairs exhibits I was by myself with the exception of a big group of Korean tourist rushing by and a few very small groups that I’m assuming were privately guided.

    There was a very interesting temporary exhibit from the Lladró ‘artist collection’, where the company sculptors are invited to submit a piece of their own creation (does not have to adhere to the Lladró style or standards) and a very limited series is issued. This alone would have made the entrance ticket worthwhile. I must have spent at least 1.5hrs in the museum.

    Since we were basically in our hotel, we opted for a quick power nap to freshen up for the evening. I had a few restaurant recommendations for Valencia but I had not had the time to do thorough research, on top of that many of the places I had marked down were not easily reachable on foot. So we set out to see which places looked appealing and interesting.

    We went into Bar La Pilareta, we had seen it earlier that day when it was closed after lunch but the bar was lined with buckets filled with empty mussel shells and dirty napkins. The real Spanish bar experience, lol. We ordered a few tapas but the waiter completely mangled our order and the service was less than desirable (again, a real bar experience). I was not being my usual patient, forgiving self so we decided to take off without having the mussels I had been hankering the entire afternoon for. Boo hoo.

    A few more wanderings took us to a restaurant just outside the Central Market, I cannot find its name anywhere and I was remiss with note taking, just as an outside table opened up. We promptly occupied it and prepared to order ración after ración of all the marvelous things presented in the bar. We had deliciously grilled vegetables, golden breaded calamari, crunchy bacalao croquettes …and grilled sepia. With this last dish my meal came to a screeching halt as the sepias were beautiful on the outside but completely uncooked/slimy in the inside. To say ‘yucky’ is a complete understatement and I lost my appetite after that. However, overall, this was a good dinner.

    We happily walked back to the hotel discussing the fact that maybe we had finally, at the very end of our scouting vacation, found our true love, the one place in Spain where we would want to settle and be happy, in Valencia.

    Next: The treasure trove to trump all, palm trees and aimless wanderings

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    ..".the place in Spain we would want to settle"

    Interesting. Although it is not a possibility for us, we felt the same way

    As much as we love Barcelona and Madrid, Valencia seemed the " perfect size" -
    in addition to the beauty of the city, the beaches, parks, the sunny weather, Calatrava,

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    Mrigross: Did you remember? I told you you will love Valencia! Welcome to the Club! And the SH INGLES is perfect match to a charming city.
    More please! This time we are enjoying Valencia through your eyes.

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    je, absolutely! Of course I remember! Matter of fact, I was sort of concerned that Valencia would be a bit of a let down after everyone raved about it so much and I had such high expectations. It happily proved to be everything we wished for and more.

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    Day 19: Falling in Love

    We got up excitedly as we had good motivation: we were planning to have breakfast in the Mercado Central.

    Now, everyone (well, at least most travel junkies like us) has seen pictures of La Boquería in Barcelona but the Mercado Central in Valencia is mostly unknown (at least it was to me until ekscrunchy raved about it in her grand opus Valencia report). I will summarize as follows: the only thing this market does not have is about 75% less tourists than La Boquería (and perhaps as many places to eat inside).

    This place is a foodie’s dream. Fish of every size, color and shape so fresh that their eyes still sparkled in a silent plea: ‘eat me’. 1000 varieties of oysters, mussels and clams slowly opening and closing on their beds of ice, luscious eels swimming around in their tanks, loaves of bread begging to be torn and dipped into succulent sauces, beautiful legs of ham swaying as they hang from their hooks, leeks so big you could almost use as brooms, eggs that were patiently waiting to be transformed into moist omelets and spicy aioli, mushrooms in shapes unimaginable (and decidedly erotic), enough specialty kitchenware to satisfy the needs of the most demanding connoisseur….. All housed in a beautiful cast iron and glass building that would be a destination, even without the treasure trove inside.

    I wanted a kitchen and I wanted it right then. My hands itched to chop, dice, knead, slather, season, boil, bake, sauté and grill all the marvelous produce. I was in HEAVEN. And yes, in case you are wondering, I have recently read through all Fifty Shades, lol.

    After wandering through the stalls we found a place to sit down and have something to eat: Central Bar, a seemingly new, stylish little restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Ricard Camarena (of former Arrop fame). We were a bit too early to make the most out of eating in this place as they had not finished writing their specials on the walls or setting out in the showcases all the things you could have but we had two sandwiches and both were awesome, though way too big. Mine was the day’s special with pork tenderloin and sausage, DH had one with tuna. Mine was the clear winner.

    We easily could have shared a single sandwich. I would definitely return here, perhaps for an early lunch as opposed to trying to have breakfast. By the time we left they were beginning to serve delicious looking shellfish to the patrons.

    While we ate we were very much entertained by the antics of the beautiful staff. I swear EVERYONE behind that counter - male and female, chefs and waiters- could have been a model in a Calvin Klein underwear commercial. All were tall and slight, the average BMI could not have been above 17! I don’t even know if it is legal in Spain to ‘cast’ restaurant staff or they could justify it with the small, narrow working space but I’m sure that this was not just a pretty coincidence.

    After eating our oversized sandwiches and drinking our coffees we pried ourselves away from the bar, ready to tackle our first full day of sight-seeing. I won’t even try to explain what the plan for the day was, because it was not even remotely followed (because I left my notes in the hotel, among other reasons).

    This is what we did, with a lot of wandering around and trying to get into churches which turned out to be closed:

    1. – Iglesia de los Santos Juanes– – It is right next to the market so we decided to check if it was open. We lucked out when the third door I tried opened (I have learned to try every door as most times only one –usually unmarked- is actually open). The outside sculptures are interesting and on the inside we were rewarded with a beautiful, and mostly empty, baroque church.

    2. – Lonja de la Seda – (The Silk Exchange) – This building is one of the great examples of secular gothic. The columns supporting the hall are shaped like palm trees rising gracefully to meet the sky. They are truly remarkable. One can see most of the hall from the door without paying, but, to me, wandering between the columns is SO worth the entry price! The Chapter House and Chapel are very nice as well. This is a five star site. Don’t leave Valencia without seeing this.

    3. – Casa-Museo de las Rocas– – This is where the ‘Rocas’ or parade carts used in the Corpus Christi procession are stored. Since this had not been on my plan we almost walked by, but decided to go in on a whim (free entrance). It was actually quite interesting to see the (very old, old, recent and new) ceremonial carts up close with all their intricate details.

    4. Iglesia del Carmen – tried as many times as we went by to go in to no avail. Always closed. We went in next door to the Centre del Carmen (Museo del Siglo XX). It had a sort of interesting temporary exhibit about the pictorial evolution of landscape painting. The building itself was interesting enough, with a decent renovation and immaculate restrooms.


    During our wanderings we made a stop at Horchatería El Siglo because it would have been inconceivable to leave Valencia without trying this typical drink made from the juice of tiger nuts. I liked the milky taste more than DH and would certainly have it again.


    5. – Basílica de la Virgen de los Desamparados– – Once in a (very long) while, I walk into a church where the energy of devotion is palpable. The crypt of St Francis in Assisi, the pilgrims mass in Santiago de Compostela …This was such a place, a place of faith.

    Yes, there were tourists inside waiting for the turning of the image of the virgin (it swivels to face either the upstairs chapel or the main church), but here people were praying. Deep, heartfelt prayers. The kind of place where maybe, perhaps, one hopes miracles could happen. This is when DH started to worry that I might re-lapse into Catholicism (so not going to happen, but still, once raised in the Church it is hard not to be moved by smell of incense and the clinking of rosary beads).

    We never got to see the image actually swiveling, even though we revisited several times. Bummer. But we will be back.

    6. Cathedral and Treasury – I usually don’t like audoguides that much; they tend to ramble endlessly and not give the kind of information I want. This audioguide was excellent and I surprised myself by listening to the entire explanation. The church has one of the most beautiful lanterns/cupola that we had seen on this trip. There is a side chapel containing what they claim to the Holy Chalice used by Jesus during the Last Supper. You decide, but it is indeed interesting history and architecture.

    7. Almoina Archaeological Museum

    This underground museum is right behind the basilica and nicely showcases the remains of Roman Valencia. The walls, main streets, stores, cemetery are reconstructed enough to give a clear picture of what they looked like. It also has an early Christian temple and cemetery. A word of caution: there are a lot of glass-floored walkways and it could be uncomfortable for people afraid of heights or sensitive to depth.

    The nice girl at the entrance helped us google up directions to the restaurant that we wanted to go in the evening (and had searched for unsuccessfully). I must say that the Valencianos were always very helpful, to the point that locals stopped by confused tourists and offered to help with directions. Another score for Valencia!

    We found the restaurant, this time without trouble, and made our reservation for the ridiculously early hour of 8:30PM. We did need to eat a little something to get us through our afternoon wine and tie us over until dinner time.

    We went to a place that had been recommended by the hotel, I’m 99% sure it was called Vicente (on Calle San Vicente, between Plaza de la Reina and the San Vicente Mártir curch and across from Sagardí). They had a (humongous) display of jewel-like tapas set out on the counter. Heavenly. Out of the corner of my eye I suddenly spotted at the far end of the counter something I had been hankering for and had not found on this trip, as it seems to be more common in Andalucía than in the East and North. I asked the bartender if those were mushrooms (not wanting to get my hopes up). ‘No’ he replied almost apologetically, ‘those are riñones al jerez’ (kidneys in a sherry sauce). I did an inner happy dance and immediately ordered a ración. It was delicious. More scores for Valencia where South meets East! We also had a plate of eggplant and goat cheese which was excellent.

    After this we were beat and done for the day. We returned to the café we had visited the day before on Plaza de la Virgen and plunked down to enjoy our glasses of tinto de verano and people watch before heading back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner.

    Around 8:00Pm we set out for an evening walk in the general direction of the restaurant. At 8:10 we gave up on waiting and just walked to Restaurante Seu-Xerea, a recommendation from Lincasanova.

    We opted for the tasting menu (25€). The meal was truly outstanding, this is what we had:

    - Cream of Celery with Pesto – very nice and refreshing start to the meal. The

    - Fennel, Pomegranate and Goat Cheese salad dressed with sumac and yogurt – Since it also had olives in it gathered almost all of the (few) things I dislike eating: fennel (I can eat it if it is not prominent) and olives (I simply cannot swallow them). HOWEVER, the salad was very well balanced and I actually ate it (after picking out the olives, a practice I abhor)

    - Tagliatelle with Mushrooms – it was delicious, with just the right amount of sauce. I’m pretty sure that pasta was homemade. The only thing was that, as a dish, it did not quite make sense within the rest of the set menu. But this is clear nitpicking.

    There were two options for main course:

    ‘White’ rice with cockles and citric juices – DH had this and generally liked it, but it had some sweet undertones which he was not crazy about.

    Duck Magret in a Teriyaki sauce with Chinese greens – I had the clear winner dish. The duck was crispy and tender, beautifully red on the breast, the sauce was sublime (maybe I was just ready for some Asian flavors after 3 weeks of purely Spanish tastes). The greens were incredibly flavorful. I could soooooo have it again. Right now.

    - Dessert was an Apple Strudel with nuts and raisins served with vanilla ice cream – I’m not a dessert person (Than You Lord!!!!) and would have waived it had it not been included, but this was darn good.

    DH declined dessert and was offered a cheese plate which he immediately accepted. It was a bit one-toned on goat cheese but, considering that this was off-menu and put together for him, they get kudos.

    The ambiance and service were really good too, so two-thumbs up for Xeu-Serea.

    We waddled back to the hotel thinking that we were liking Valencia more and more. This love at first sight had the potential of turning into a long standing affair.

    Next: From the ocean depths, to tropical reefs and then on to kilometers of white sand.

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    Marigross:you should be rewarded with the Literature Nobel or with a Michelin Star! This report is excellent.
    Ohhhh how we miss Valencia.... Going back in one or two years, no doubts.i wish this report never ends.

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    Day 20: The Oceans of the World… and the Sands of Valencia

    The agenda for the day was short, very short: Visit the City of Arts and Sciences, particularly the Oceanographic. During the planning stage I had flipped-flopped between the different attractions in Valencia, but early on DH had clearly stated his preference for the aquarium so that was settled.

    However we needed breakfast first in a place located in the general direction we were headed to. Quick look at the map settled the issue, the Mercado Colón, ( The building is gorgeous but the market offerings were a bit slim. This place seems to be evolving more towards a modern shopping center and event venue than a traditional market. Still very nice. We had nondescript and overpriced coffee, orange juice and croissant combos.

    Should we talk about Santiago Calatrava, engineer and architect of the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias? Maybe not, enough has been said about him. He is not loved in Valencia, or very much in Spain for that matter. People have opinions about him and the sustainability and functionality of his work. However, the visual impact of his buildings and bridges cannot be denied.

    The Hemispheric is the first enticing little tidbit (hey, perspective is everything!), it the head of the exoskeleton of that alien beast that is known as the Museo de las Ciencias Príncipe Felipe. The play of space, light and shadows is magnificent. We walked by the Umbracle and all of its intricate shapes giving a big nod to Gaudí and his techniques. The Agora, or should I say Cylon Head (matter of fact, the entire complex is reminiscent of the images of Caprica for those Galactica fans out there), is fascinating.

    Just photographing the outside of these buildings could take an entire week. Actually, there were a few photographers followed closely by brides with filthy hems on their gowns and dragging along weary grooms as they posed for wedding pictures.

    The oceanographic was amazing. I will not go into the details as they can be easily googled. We spent at least 4 hours leisurely going through the main exhibits and enjoying every moment of it. I recommend it highly.

    We wanted to take a look at the underwater restaurant but were not allowed to peek in, and since the prices were ridiculously high for what seems to be marginal food according to critics, we promptly opted for the cafeteria for a little pick-me-up before continuing with our plans for the day.

    What now follows seemed to be a good idea when looking at the map. And technically, I still hold that it was not a BAD idea. We decided to walk from the Oceanographic over to beach and see if we could find a nice place to have a paella. But two things were not in our favor. First the section that we were to walk through was not particularly interesting and a bit run down, making for a looooooooooooooong boring walk, thankfully we had had many death marches on this trip and our feet were mostly up to the task. Second, and not to be as easily resolved, was that we were smack in the middle of the void between lunch and dinner.

    As we stepped onto the Paseo de Neptuno our first sight of the beach confirmed that we were going to establish a long term relationship with Valencia. A row of restaurants bordered the walkway on one side and on the other, a long stretch of sand extended for at least 300m to the water’s edge.

    I was born, raised and still live in Puerto Rico, world class beaches are my heritage. Even though I don’t go often to the beach to get in the water and swim (sometimes years might go by) we do go walking for exercise on a regular basis. I would certainly miss the ocean. Valencia has this too! Valencia wins the game.

    We walked by the remains of hundreds of paellas as the last patrons still sat on the restaurant terraces enjoying their coffees, but we were denied. The places we wanted to go to were either closed until dinner or even not open for business in the evenings. And so we kept walking along the beach. And walking. And then walked some more. We wound up all the way up to Malvarrosa Beach where we finally crashed on a beachside café and gulped our watered-down tintos de verano.

    When we got kicked out of the restaurant (they were closing at 5:00) there was no way on earth that I was going to walk back, so we found a metro stop (got a bit confused as it was above ground) and comfortably rode all the way back past the university dorms and buildings to the terminal station close to the Serrano towers. From there on it was an easy walk to the hotel, where we could rest a bit and wait until it was time for dinner.

    DH still wanted his paella but he did not want to go out of the old town so we set out to make the rounds. We saw many places where the huge paella pans are set on warmers by the bar and the waiters serve from there. I was not happy with that alternative. After what seemed to be a couple of hours we finally decided on a place located between the Plaza Redonda and the Santa Catalina church: Restaurante Ocho y Medio.

    We ordered calamari as first and then a ‘traditional’ paella Valenciana (rabbit, escargots and wide green beans). I had very low expectations of this paella. I was pleasantly surprised. By no means was this the Sunday afternoon paella lovingly cooked by lifelong friends in the family manor over a wood fire that every Valenciano dreams of. BUT it was incredibly tasty, served screaming hot and full of delicious goodies.

    I think the restaurant has them half cooked and finished under the broiler when the orders come in. This is not nearly as bad as it sounds and it is a common restaurant practice. This final cooking at high heat (following my theory), resulted in deliciously caramelized, crunchy rice along the edges of the paella, somewhat akin to the socarrat that should result from traditional cooking method. Close, but no cigar. Still, it was way better than I had expected and I would even go almost as far as making a mild recommendation.

    But there was still one more thing that I had to have before leaving Spain. Something I love but never seem to be able to fit into my eating patterns. The ultimate after-party snack and sometimes breakfast for countless Spaniards: chocolate con churros. This chocolate might be served in a cup, but has nothing to do with the common drink that we are familiar with in the US. It has more of the consistency of a ganache than a liquid and it is not cloyingly sweet.

    You are served a plateful of golden churros, perfectly fried and screaming hot (this is important, otherwise they turn greasy and the full effect is lost). The churro is then dipped into chocolate, sort of like a fondue. To enjoy this nectar from the gods we selected Chocolatería Valor, located in Plaza de la Reina.

    It was one of the few occasions where the idea one has of a dish actually becomes a reality when it was presented. I ordered the smallest portion but still was not able to finish it as much as I liked it. We happily walked back to the hotel knowing that we had found our place in Spain. Valencia.

    Next: The last day, baptisms, first communions and weddings or how many churches can we actually see in one day

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    Thanks to all for sticking it out with me for 3 months!!!! Wow! I already took another trip and am planning a return trip to Valencia, this has taken so much more time than I thought.

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    Day 21: One Last Chance and Valencia is Full of Beautiful People

    Our last day! This Saturday morning we got up really early and hit the street before 8:00am. This is usually not worth doing in Spain as nothing will open before 9:30 and 10:00 will be more like it. The thing was that I decided to do one more walk-by one of the churches I had been trying to get into since the first day in Valencia. On what must have been at least the fifth attempt I finally hit paydirt, the door to the Iglesia del Patriarca was open!

    However, it was open because they were holding Mass. Luckily they were almost done so we just waited it out while admiring the frescoes and listening to the very large male choir sing. The choir continued to practice after the service so our entire visit was set to their wonderful harmonics. Choral singing gets me every time.

    This church is associated with the Real Colegio del Corpus Christi and used to be the seat of the Antioch Bishop. It has been described as the Valencian Sistine Chapel and was just as wonderful as had been hyped (within reason, this is not Rome afterall!), alligator and everything. The frescoes were magnificent and the nicely contrasting with the tilework. Definitely worth the multiple attempts to get in.

    I wanted to go to the Colegio’s museum but DH declined, he’d rather have a coffee somewhere. The tiny Colegio del Patriarca museum was even more awesome than… I don’t know what, I’m running out of superlatives here. But, OMG, it was outstanding. It is small, just a few rooms but it was full of marvels. Ranging from Caravaggio masterpieces to manuscripts by Thomas Moore. This visit is a must-do for any self respecting art-lover.

    I rejoined DH and we took off after another round of coffees. I was bent of visiting every single church that had been closed on the previous days to make the most out of Saturday morning openings for Mass. I need not to have rushed because it must have been event-season in Valencia. Every single church that we went by was not only open, but was filled with families for baptisms, first communions and weddings.

    I mentioned before that the Valencianos were sharp dressers. Well, lets increase that by a few orders of magnitude. On the next church we visited, San Juan del Hospital a First Communion was taking place. Wonderful church, almost stark when compared to the Patriarca. Its elegance resides solely on design style and proportion.

    The same went for the people in attendance, dressed to the gills while still maintaining a strict daytime etiquette down to the women’s headpieces that could have made the Ascot horse race guests look tacky, a simplicity that most have cost a lot of Euros to achieve and have lots of high-end designer names attached. One does not achieve fit like that from the prêt-a-porter racks. The communion girl was a dream in white organza. The private photographer and event coordinator made her go through many poses they had obviously practiced beforehand.

    Next stop for today was the Almudín an old warehouse where Valencia’s wheat used to be stored and has been rebuilt as a temporary exhibit hall. It has free entrance and it is always interesting to see the conversion of old Muslim architecture to Western styles. Worth a stop.

    There was a wedding in the Church of San Esteban, though it did not smell as much of old money and inherited jewelry as the First Communion, this was not a simple affair either. I laughed because the wedding was almost over and the guests were still arriving en masse. I guess this is where the renowned Puertorrican lack of punctuality (let’s just admit it: blatant tardiness) comes from, our Spanish heritage, lol.

    In the Iglesia de San Lorenzo a baptism was going to take place. It was also full of the beautiful People of Valencia. Matter of fact, there were a few photographers standing outside carrying cameras with 24”paparazzi lenses, so I would not have been surprised if this event showed up in the glossy pages of Hola! As we walked by an ambulance was unloading an impeccably dressed older gentleman (wheelchair, oxygen tanks and all), must have been the grandfather or great grandfather of the baby coming to give his blessing. In Hispanic culture grandparents are important, and it would be almost unthinkable to have such an event without them. People were lining up to greet him.

    The children in attendance were dressed in their finest linens, all siblings beautifully coordinated: pale blue polka dots over white in one family, pink dresses for the girls and white shorts and pink shirts for the boys in another. The baby was wearing what seemed to be an heirloom ‘faldellín’ reaching down almost to the floor and a simple bonnet. The mother was runway-worthy in pearly gray.

    I got hopeful with our lucky roll of open churches so we headed back to barrio del Carmen to see if we could get into the namesake church. Closed. The same happened in the San Nicolás church. The roll had come to a screeching halt. Well, there is always next time! (Coming soon, actually in October 2013!!!! Yay!!! :D ).

    We decided to go back to secular activities (we did go by the Templar Chapterhouse Church but that seemed to be permanently closed) and headed to one of the few remaining things on my list: Casa Museo Benlliure.

    I love museum houses so I will immediately admit to be biased. I adore the Jacquemart-Andre and Nissim de Comodo museums in Paris. The Frick in NYC is awesome. At a much smaller scale but still one of my favorite places in Madrid is the Casa Museo Sorolla. Casa Benlliure is somewhat like Sorolla’s atelier. Cozy, quirky and full of interesting objects. The only thing was that the presentations and exhibits assume that one is somewhat familiar with the work and relevance of the Benlliure painters, I would have liked a bit more basic details to get a more comprehensive picture. But that can easily be resolved by Google, someday soon, when I have time.

    The garden was pretty and full of cats. It made me miss our three furry babies so it somewhat alleviated the fact that this trip would be over in a matter of hours.
    We wandered through the streets and wound up by Plaza de la Reina. We were hungry and stepped into one of the ready-made restaurants. DH had a very nice salad and I had a –gasp!- very good and big slice of pizza. It was definitely time to get back home, or at least back to our regular eating habits.

    After that we were done. Everything on the list that was to be seen had been seen to the extent of our stamina and willpower, opening hours permitting. Nothing remained but go to the Corte Inglés and purchase a few necessary food items and browse through the bookstore. We finally found the long-sought Michelin Valencia Regional Map. At least we will be ready for next time, lol.

    We went back to the hotel and packed for our (very early) departure in the morning. The end-of-vacation funk was settling in, on top of that the late lunch had messed up our appetites and we could not decide what we wanted to eat. So we went back out to have a few drinks before dinner.

    We wandered through the old town and wound up sitting in a bar just across from the Santa Catalina church where a wedding was taking place. This provided countless moments of entertainment. First of all, it seemed that everyone under 35 that had been invited to the wedding was hanging out outside the church, coming and going into the bar for drinks while the ceremony was taking place.

    Now, if dress code for the daytime events had been outstanding, the eveningwear was dazzling. The dress code looked to be semi-formal so the ladies were wearing short dresses, all in shades of cream and beige. They looked like they were ready to walk down the red carpet as they came into the bar to grab a glass of wine and speak frantically into their phones. Forget the Kardashians and the Housewives of whatever County, this was the original ticket item. Perfect makeup, made to look as they had been born with perfect skin to rival Venus’, professional jobs without doubt, airbrushes were definitely involved. Shoes, handbags and accessories that all together might cost more than my car.

    When the wedding was over and the happy couple came out the firecrackers and fireworks got going. The amount and quality enough to rival the new year’s celebrations of many small towns. The street smelled of gunpowder for the next hour, lol.

    Eventually it was time, we had to find a place for dinner. To make a long story of wandering and frustration short, we wound up going back to the Ocho y Medio for another paella. This time we sat closer to the café and next to the big screen tv where they were showing a football game. In retrospect, we should have requested to move tables as it was too loud and very annoying after a while. We had a seafood paella that was not nearly as good as the one we had before and was way too salty. But I think our overall appreciation was negatively impacted by the early onset of post-vacation depression.

    So that was it. After months of planning, reading, internet surfing, scheduling, cancelling and rescheduling, our three-week vacation was over. Our love affair with everything Spanish was renewed: the country, the landscape, the food and the people. We felt ready to take the next step in this relationship, yes, we knew, without a doubt, that we want to be in Spain, make it our home away from home. And now we knew exactly where that would take place: Valencia.


    I will not bore you with the details of the 4:00 am taxi ride to the airport, of the nice Iberia lady was able to rebook the two legs of our separately-purchased flights into single tickets from Valencia to San Juan or the long boring flight. And so, my friends, comes the end. At least the end of this chapter.

    Thanks to all for reading along. ¡Hasta pronto!

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    I've just come back to re-read this in preparation for our welcome but unexpected visit to Valencia that's coming up at the end of the month.

    So much wonderful information, marigros, I'm sure I'll be reading it again and again before we go.

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