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Trip Report MaiTaiTom's "Insane For Spain" - 2015

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Apologies in advance…Since it took so long just to write one chapter, this might take quite some time to complete. Hope you stick around. Just like before, I will include a link to my website each time I post that includes the story and photos (most of the really good ones were probably taken by Kim or Tracy). You can also subscribe to that website (it's free and NO advertising). Hope you enjoy our journey.

http://travelswithmaitaitom.com/beautiful-bustling-barcelona/

I don’t have any idea why it took my 19th trip to Europe to finally choose Spain as our destination. It had always been on our short list, but for some reason, it just never made the cut. I guess our recent vacation reaffirms the phrase, ”Good things happen to those who wait.”

Our three-week adventure would take us to Barcelona, Granada, a few White Towns, Sevilla, Cordoba, Toledo and Madrid.

Tracy and I would hook up with our traveling-companions-in-crime Kim and Mary in Barcelona, and it would truly be a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” trip. We also walked nearly 200 miles in those 20 days, meaning I got to hear Tracy say, “My feet are broken,” on more than one occasion.

With more “big ticket items” than we’ve seen on any previous trip, Spain more than exceeded my expectations. As you’ll see, if you hang around for this report (which should be completed before I apply for Social Security in a few years), while my three traveling companions liked Spain…I absolutely fell in love with it.

Some of the places we visited almost defy description, which is why we took too many photos, and even they don’t give proper justice to them. The Spanish people we encountered virtually everywhere along the journey were some of the most friendly and helpful folks we have met on any trip.

Our lodgings, for the most part, turned out to be spectacular. A few of these lodgings have garnered our votes as some of the best places we have stayed anywhere in the world…and they were very inexpensive. Our Granada apartment, for instance, had a million dollar view of the Alhambra that cost $999,900 less than that.

Yes, there were a few (very few) disappointments (the dreaded “Elevator List”…you’ll see later why we call it this name), but they were far outweighed by the incredible sights we witnessed. Had UNESCO implemented my ingenious (well, I think it’s ingenious) plan of a few years ago, we would have had our World Heritage Card stamped many times over.

I hope you join us on MaiTaiTom’s Insane For Spain - 2015.

CHAPTER ONE: Return Of The Sherpa, An Admiral Gets Demoted, Something To Sneeze At, Introducing Flight Attendant Ratched, Where The Hell Is Everybody, Location Location Location, The Barcelona Death March Begins, Gourmet’s Delight, No Hava The Cava, Rambla’s Rambling, Hi Chris, My First Cathedral, Up On The Roof (Part Uno), The Borne Identity, Dinner At The Moon and Duets

It seemed American Airlines had heard about our 2014 autumn Paris trip, because for our May/June flights all of our planes were fitted with extra oxygen canisters and defibrillators. Fortunately none were needed.

Our friends, Burt and Paula, who we now call our “Uber” friends, volunteered to pick us up at 5 a.m. for our flight to Miami.

Inside the terminal, I got up to go find some reading material for our flight and forgot some important items…our bags. Fortunately Tracy was aware of my momentary lapse, and she “happily” posed for a photo, reliving the Rome 2005 moment when she became my Sherpa for a few minutes at the train station due to a neglectful husband. I married well!

We flew cattle car to Miami, but the rest of the trip would be in Business and First Class after cashing in our FF miles. Outside of a good sleep on the way to Barcelona, the experience was probably not worth all the miles we spent.

In Miami, we were afforded the “opportunity” to go to the Admiral’s Club to relax in between flights. Whoever called this a “First Class Club” should be demoted from Admiral to Petty Officer Third Class.

Outside of a “gourmet” selection of cubed cheese, stale crackers and two selections of not-so-tasty soup, there was no food. Fortunately Tracy got her soup moments before a woman walked up and promptly blew her nose immediately above the soup pots.

At least when I was terribly sick on our last trip, I had the decency not to blow my nose over someone else’s food. Sometimes you can’t help where you sneeze, but you really don’t have to blow your nose directly over a pot of soup…even crappy soup.

We only received three drink coupons, and after ordering two bottles of water, they actually demanded tickets for the water. The service was abysmal, so for one of the few times in my life, I gave our bartender no tip. Our short tour of duty in the Admirals Club was now over.

We boarded our rather ancient American Airlines plane and were seated in Business (there was no First) Class. Instead of monitors, each passenger was given a Samsung Tablet and Bose Headphones.

A surly flight attendant (we called her Nurse Ratched) caused the flight to be a little less enjoyable, but on the bright side, we both slept for nearly four hours (legroom, baby, legroom) on this leg, so when we arrived in Barcelona a little before 10 a.m. we were ready to roll. We also were relieved to be leaving Flight Attendant Ratched behind and hoped we would never see that evil woman again (be careful what you wish for).

Arriving at the Barcelona airport was a tad bizarre at first. As we walked through the terminal, ours seemed to be the only plane that had disembarked. An eerie quietness greeted us and for a minute we thought we might be in a Stephen King novel, although to be fair to the airport it wasn’t located under a dome and no rabid dogs roamed the baggage area.

One good thing about getting older (yes, there are a few) is we can afford to pay a little extra for some bonus amenities in life. I had booked a driver (through our Barcelona hotel) to pick us up at the airport. After 17 hours, the last thing I felt like doing upon arrival was waiting for a taxi or taking public transportation, so we gladly paid some extra bucks to not have to hassle with transportation from the airport to the hotel.

After picking up our bags, we saw the MaiTaiTom & MaiTaiTracy placard (not our real names) displayed by our driver, and within minutes were being whisked to the Hotel Colon.

I told Tracy that if we just saw half of our hotel it would be a semi-Colon, and I realized immediately that 20 days with me might be too much for her. She’s just lucky I didn’t go into my other Colon jokes routine.

The Hotel Colon is situated across the street from the Catedral de la Santa Creu (aka Catedral Of The Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia…aka Barcelona Cathedra…so many names), which was a perfect location for exploring the city. The hotel caters to a lot of cruise ship passengers, and I would not eat breakfast there (way too expensive), but our room (with a spot-on cathedral view… €179 a night) was comfortable, and the desk people were friendly and helpful during our entire stay. I would definitely recommend this hotel as a base.

Since we had arrived early our room wasn’t ready, but in a couple of minutes we heard the familiar voices of Kim and Mary (who had arrived the day before) in the lobby. We showered in Kim and Mary’s room (not all together, of course…after all we’ve only known each other for 46 years), and because they had arrived the previous morning, they already had the lay of the Barcelona landscape. It was time to take our first Barcelona stroll on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon in May.

DIVERSION: On our first full day in Prague in 2008, I took this crew on a walking tour that nearly killed us. Kim and Mary called it “The Prague Death March,” while Tracy started filling out divorce papers during dinner that night. I thought everyone had gotten over it. Obviously, Kim and Mary had plotted seven years for their revenge.

It started out innocently enough. We walked by Els Quatre Cats (The Four Cats) Restaurant, where Tracy and I would spend six quality minutes the following night, and continued up to the Plaça de Catalunya.

The Plaça de Catalunya is full of lots of statues and a couple of very lovely fountains. Two of Barcelona’s major streets (the Rambla and Passeig de Gràcia) begin here.

We were marveling at some of the nearby architecture. I already had an inkling I was going to love Spain. Then Kim started telling me a little bit about their first day here.

They had visited a park the previous day, Parc de la Ciutedella. On top of the fountain in that park is the Quadriga de l’Aurora. Josep Fontsère, the fountain’s designer, had an assistant who would make quite a name for himself…none other than Anton Gaudí. The design of the fountain is supposed to be reminiscent of the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

Kim even mentioned that Mary met a mastadon in the park, but I just chalked that up to jet lag.

Continuing on about their exploits of the previous day, Kim added they visited the Arc de Triomphe. “You flew to Paris,” I asked?

I found out that on the way to the Parc de la Ciutedella, they had walked by the Arco del Triunfo, which was constructed as the gateway for the 1888 Universal Exhibition (World’s Fair).

Back on our Sunday sojourn, we reminisced about New York City. When the four of us visited NYC in 2011, one of our favorite places turned out to be Eataly (photo above), a mecca of restaurants and food shopping. Kim said that Barcelona contained a spot that reminded them of Eataly, so we walked over to El Nacional, Passeig de Gràcia, 24 Bis. Thanks to Kim’s mastery of the Catalan/Spanish/Mexican languages, he would refer to this street as “Gracias” for the remainder of the trip.

The El Nacional website states, “Welcome to the city’s gastronomic experience,” and walking inside we could see why it does. The interior is filled with various types of restaurants, bars and selected areas to buy cured meats (I didn’t even know they were sick). We all thought the use of space was excellent, and walked around taking photos. We vowed we would come back for dinner, and we did later in the week…complete with a taxi driver who should be playing the Catskills with his comedy routine (stay tuned to a later installment).

We moved on and passed the Casa Batlló, which we would visit later in the week (we had purchased a Fast Pass ticket online…so we were able to stop in anytime during our five-day stay). Gazing at the Casa Batlló’s exterior, I wanted what Gaudi must have been smoking when he designed it back in 1905.

People from the Fodor’s Travel Board had informed me about a good place for lunch and cava, Cerveceria Catalana. On this day, we’d be shut out, as the queue to get in was a long one. However we would be back.

We eventually made our way to an outdoor tapas restaurant, Taller Tapas, on Rambla Catalunya. Yes, it’s a chain, but we were starving by now, and it had a nice table in the shade. The food was fine, if not exceptional, but it gave us the energy to press on. I also knew from the get-go that I would not be surviving three weeks in Spain eating only tapas.


Walking a short distance after lunch, we steered ourselves toward The Thinking Bull…or was it Sitting Bull? We quickly hoofed it out of there.

Next stop…La Rambla (or Las Ramblas as the locals call it). Warned about this crowded area and potential pickpocket passage, we blended in with a few hundred of our closest friends. Truthfully, it wasn’t as crowded as I expected (although there were a lot of people), and no one looked like a potential thief. We walked past the famed La Boqueria Market (Mercat de Sant Josep), which was closed on Sundays.

Kim showed me a few photos he’d taken the previous day (above and below), and I knew we’d have to get back there soon.

Across the street, there looked to be a “lady of the evening” on a balcony, but on we trudged. It was too hot for sex, however if we wanted to later, there were some stores offering protection for us.

I also ducked into the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona’s opera house. Because we were going at such a fast tempo, we would probably not have enough time for an encore tour, so at least I got a quick photo of its classical interior. Much to my surprise, there were no Aria rugs.

We rambled down the Ramblas, ostensibly on our way to Playa de la Mer, which I assumed had something to do with water. We made a quick stop at the Monument a Colom (the Columbus Monument), which was built in 1888 to commemorate his voyage to the New World where he and his men infected thousands of indigenous people with fatal diseases.

I was hoping we might have time to discover the monument further later in the week by taking a climb to the top. I thought it would have been clever if they’d put in 1492 steps, but it didn’t look that tall.

The Maritime Port Building (built in the early 1900s) showed off more of Barcelona’s beautiful architecture.

By now, we were all starting to drag, but Mary thought she knew of a place where I could secure my first GinTonic of the trip somewhere near the beach. However, after watching a woman being interrogated by local police (she had bought some merchandise from an unauthorized guy on a blanket selling purses), they all decided we had walked quite enough for one day (we had somehow traversed Barcelona for nearly seven miles).

So, it was back to the hotel for our first siesta, although I wasn’t in the mood for a siesta (I really don’t “siesta” on vacation, much to the consternation of someone near and dear to me). So out on my own I ventured all the way…across the street.

There had been no line earlier at the Cathedral, but now the queue stretched pretty far, but it was at least moving at a quick pace. When I got to the entrance, I found out why the line had been so long.

There was a sign indicating the entrance fee to the cathedral was €7, but now it was suddenly free to enter. When our foursome stopped by later in the week, it was €7 to go inside. By the way, I went to the cathedral website upon returning home, and it says entrance is always free, so I have no idea what it will be when any of you visit (bring some euros just in case).

Like so many historical venues in Spain, both Muslim and Christian cultures intersect where the Cathedral now stands. A mosque used to sit at this site, and construction on the cathedral started in the 1300s.

The church is dedicated to Saint Eulàlia, who is the co-patron saint of Barcelona. I believe Lionel Messi (who seems more popular here than his native Argentina) is the other one, but don’t hold me to that.

According to legend and Wikipedia (which is often one in the same), Saint Eulàlia was “a young virgin who, according to Catholic tradition, suffered martyrdom during Roman times in the city. One story says that she was exposed naked in the public square and a miraculous snowfall in mid-spring covered her nudity. The enraged Romans put her into a barrel with knives stuck into it and rolled it down a street.” There is, however, no verification that they sang, “Roll Out The Barrel.”

Her body is entombed in the cathedral's crypt in the center. I stopped by the sarcophagus.

Since I knew we would all come back here at some point in the trip to ascend to the top of the tower (it was closed on Sunday), I didn’t hang around for too long.

You can still see the coats-of-arms of the Order Of The Golden Fleece in the choir stall. Now that I think back, we might have been fleeced later in the week when we were forced to pay €7 to get in.

In 1493, Columbus brought back this huge baptismal font that baptized six natives. He’s lucky it didn’t sink his ship, but I guess it does hold water.

There was also a lovely statue of the Virgin Mary.

I walked around a little while longer…

…and knew I wanted to explore the cathedral more with the rest of the group.

After a quick shower, Tracy and I joined Kim and Mary on the roof of the Hotel Colon (it’s ok, they actually let you do this). We sat at a table and chairs, toasted our continued good fortune while enjoying the views of the Cathedral as we sipped some lovely Spanish vino (I was on medication at the time…shock…but I took a day off so I could have some wine that first night…I was a good boy after that, and didn’t touch a drop of hooch until a magical moment six days later in Granada).

On the walk back to our hotel on our earlier “Barcelona Death March”, Kim and Mary had showed us a restaurant that looked cute. They said that since I had planned the trip, they would buy dinner the first night. Now that’s an offer I couldn’t refuse.

After wine time, we walked to La Luna, Carrer Abaixadors, 10, in the Bourn District. The website said, “The crowd is international, well-groomed and grown up.” Obviously our group set that bar a little lower.

It was a beautiful space, but hardly anyone was dining. They were all at the bar watching TV. That’s because FC Barcelona was playing Atlético Madrid in the quarterfinals of The Champions League. Barça fans were rewarded with a 1-0 victory, and we were rewarded with a very good dinner, which was our goal.

I started with a terrific Carpaccio with arugula, one of the best Carpaccio’s I have ever tasted (and I love Carpaccio). Tracy tried an appetizer that consisted of arugula, pistachio, caramelized pine nuts, Modena & honey vinaigrette & Iberic cured ham rolls filled with buffalo mozzarella (we would come to LOVE Iberian ham). It was as beautiful as it was tasty, and Kim caught it perfectly with this shot.

For the main course, the best entrees were the T-Bone steak with gorgonzola sauce and frites, a duck breast in a cognac and anise sauce along with a mushroom risotto sautéed in garlic and parsley. Even though I didn’t have to pay for dessert, I was too full. I hate it when that happens! It was a nice way to start the trip in a beautiful hideaway.

We slowly walked back to the hotel through the Plaça del Rei, purported to be the oldest space in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and a spot where Columbus was received by Ferdinand and Isabella after returning from his long 1492 vacation.

Some street performers who sounded as if they could be contestants on The Voice were singing up a storm, and the acoustics were perfect. Speaking of a storm, we picked up the pace when rain started to fall, stopping only to take some photos of the Cathedral. All in all, not a bad start (about nine miles of walking…thanks Kim & Mary) considering we’d only been here half a day.

Tracy and I plopped into bed a little before 11, because we all had to rise fairly early. We had 9 a.m. reservations at an iconic structure that I figured must be the work of the same people who have been toiling on an L.A. freeway transition bridge near our home. That’s because this church has been under construction for more than 130 years and still isn’t finished.

CHAPTER TWO: Take Me To Church, Seeing The Light, Silencio Por Favor, Classic Iron Butterfly, “The Elevator List”, This Old House, Feeling Blue, Up On The Roof (Part Dos), Tops Of The Tapas, Market Watch, The Dragon Lady, Born Again?, Music Courtesy Of Lluís Domènech, Suffering Sciatica, Setting A Good Eixample, Dinner #1, Pop Goes Dessert, The Dancing Fountains, My Big Fat Spanish Wedding and Our Second Dinner

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