I got nervous when the clerk at the check-in counter paged me. There was still a crowd gathered there and they didn’t look happy. I had heard that the flight was overbooked, but I had an assigned seat. I hoped.
The clerk asked for my boarding pass and replaced it with a new one, making no comment. I glanced at the new one. Seat 11G. Something told me that, whereas my former Seat 26A was smack dab in the middle of coach, 11G was mighty close to the lofty atmosphere of business class.
Then they called for first and business class to board — rows 1 through 16.
I knew it was going to be a good trip.
I had never before experienced life behind the cabin curtains. All of my preparations for the eight hour flight — noise-cancelling headphones, gourmet sandwiches prepared at home, laptop and DVDs in case the movie sucks — paled by comparison to the simple luxury of a seat that reclines fully, a foot rest, and flight crew at your beckon call.
Dinner was prepared, not slapped from a hot tray onto a plastic tray. No foil wrapping, but actual china. Okay, so the knife was plastic, but I got a metal fork and spoon. I slept — actually slept — on the flight. I woke up and was able to wash up using a real washcloth before being served breakfast.
I arrived in Barcelona feeling rested and able to face the day — or at least the trip from the airport to Antonia’s flat. As promised, Antonia met me and we took the bus into town and the subway up the hill to her flat. Easy. Painless. I had crossed the Atlantic with energy to spare.
The terrace attached to Antonia’s sopra attico flat is a thing of wonder — a vast sea of terra cotta just high enough to provide a view of the real sea across the rooftops of Barcelona. We were soon ensconced with coffee and pastries.
Later I managed a brief shopping foray to Fnac, a European chain somewhere between Tower, Barnes and Noble, and The Wiz. I was shopping for Spanish CDs, but I could have stocked up on books, movies, computers, or personal electronics as well.
After a nap back at the flat we entertained Antonia’s friend Scott, a technical writer with whom I’d exchanged some business related email in the past.
Siesta aside, I was out like a light when we finally turned them off around midnight.
We start Saturday with a late-morning visit to Antonia’s friend Karen, bringing with us a bottle of cheap cava and a jug of citrus juice. Mimosas ahoy!
Karen’s an ex-pat Brit with the bubbly personality of a cruise director (she was one). Her sopra attico flat (super-attic, or above the top floor — these apartments are actually built on the rooftops of many buildings) is on the flanks of Montjuic, the hill near the sea where many of the olympic venues were. In fact, as we sip our mimosas we have a clear view of the olympic diving pool just up the hill.
Eventually I resolve to actually be a tourist, and Antonia walks with me to Palau Guell, a Gaudi building that can be toured. She leaves me there. After the tour I visit the cathedral, which I missed on my last trip. I have to pay four euro admission, which I later learn from Antonia is quite new, but I am able to take a lift to the roof, which is quite something.
So is the cloister with its flock of 13 geese and tranquil fountains — tranquil except for the small children who are being allowed to run screaming. Flashbacks to the US.
From the cathedral I wander through the Barri Gotic to the Picasso museum. I figure this is my year for learning to appreciate modern art. It started at the Tate Modern in London, and in April I went to the travelling Picasso/Matisse exhibit in New York. With the Guggenheim Bilbao on my itinerary, I figure I should throw in this museum along the way (which, of course, means I absolutely must get to the one in Paris soon).
A couple hours of Pablo’s works, from childhood to death, and I’m saturated. I point my weary feet toward the nearest subway, only to realize that the system Antonia lives on all originate at the Pl. de Catalunya. I’m too tired to walk that far, so I plot out a route that includes two transfers. With visions of Paris’s Metro dancing in my head I ride, and walk, and ride, and walk, and get confused, and finally find the train that takes me home. Except that I have neglected to note landmarks coming out of the subway at Muntaner and I wander the nearby blocks until I get my bearings, passing a Volvo dealer and looking longingly in the window at the silver version of my car (I only need to go a couple blocks — can’t I borrow it?).
I rest up and we go back out in the evening to join Antonia’s friend Jujo for dinner. We go to his local restaurant where he orders me steamed clams along with the bread, ham, and cheese. Then we get three enormous steaks with potatoes and chiles (known as “lottery” chiles because about one in ten turns out to be spicy). Near the end of our meal a young British couple take the adjacent table and Antonia and Jujo are clearly shocked.
“How,” Antonia finally asks, “did you find this place?”
She explains that she works with Spaniards in London and they recommended it. They don’t speak Spanish, let alone Catalan, which is the language of the menu. So Jujo orders for them, too — the same meal we had minus the clams. Their eyes pop when the enormous, sizzling steaks arrive (we take home one of the three that we ordered).
It’s time for a treasure hunt! On Sunday I entice Antonia to accompany me on a search for a Geocache in the Park Guell. Geocaching is a world-wide game made possible by the intranet. Players stash containers full of goodies (small toys, a log book, and other inexpensive items) in hidden locations, then post the coordinates and some hints on the Geocaching web site. Before heading for Spain I had printed out the two or three most convenient caches in Barcelona. The “Barcelona’s Gecko” cache seemed like the best one to try for — especially since a quick check of the web site told me that a local resident had visited it just yesterday.
I had brought a “travel bug” named Starbuck especially for this expedition. Starbuck would go into the cache, and the next person to find it would take him out and move him along to another cache. Travel bugs are also tracked on the Geocaching web site.
We took the subway to the bottom of the hill at Park Guell, then rode a series of escalators (“I can’t believe they’re working today!”) to the top. From there we used my GPS to zero in on the cache. Once within a few meters of it, it took quite a bit of thrashing around in the brush — enough that I was about ready to give up and Antonia was more than ready. But I tried a foolproof tactic, moving further away and walking in circles around the target again. And discovered the cache right where it was supposed to be, in a spot we’d somehow managed not to look in although we’d been next to it a half hour earlier.
We beat a hasty retreat to the more touristy area adjacent to the undulating mosaiced benches where I treated us to beer and water.
First thing Monday morning we pick up our rental car from Avis. It’s a diesel Seat (that’s pronounced “see-at”) with, we eventually determine, a flakey gas gauge (is this endemic to Europe or something? We had the same problem in Italy).
I drive and Antonia navigates us out of Barcelona because she hates driving there and I’m used to urban assault. Soon we’re zooming west toward Lleida. Jujo advised us to get off the highway and try secondary roads for a more pleasant trip. Jujo does most of his roadtrips on a Harley.
Nonetheless, we take his advice and find ourselves entering the town of Jaca around comidas (lunch time). We stop for a bite at a cafe across from the 11th century Romanesque cathedral.
After lunch it’s on to the tiny medieval village of Brinas, where our hotel awaits. We booked the hotels for our road trip from the suggestions on a book of small hotels in Spain. This first one is a couple kilometers from Haro, one of the biggest wine centers in La Rioja. But we picked it because of the nice picture in the book and the proximity to Bilbao (close enough to drive there, but far enough away to be rural).
This evening begins our week-long struggle with dinner.
Antonia asks Carmen, the sole hotel staff member, what time we should expect to have dinner. She says that in the country dinner is early — eight thirty would not be unusual. So we ask about reservations at the restaurant in the village for 8:30. She says they’re closed today — it’s Monday. Faced with driving more — back into Haro, we opt to forage in the hotel kitchen, which does not serve dinner but has a supply of cheese, wine, tomatoes, and fruit. Fortunately, we’d acquired bread earlier.
Tuesday morning we pay a visit to Haro, finding the tourist office which provides a town map and a listing of the local wineries. We learn that the wineries are not open for visits, however. We can make an appointment this afternoon for a visit tomorrow morning (visions of me checking a case of wine as luggage dance through my head). Ah, but there is one bodega, we are told, that offers “visits” at 11:30 and 4:30. Okay. 4:30 it is. But meanwhile, we’re heading for Bilbao.
When Bilbao built Gehry’s Guggenheim, they didn’t bother to build parking to go with it. Getting into Bilbao by highway is a snap, and we follow the big pink signs to the right exit for the museum. Then the signs vanish and we’re in mid-day city traffic. We drive around and around, seeing the unique building nearby, but unable to find a spot for the car. I keep making stupid maneuvers (nearly going the wrong way on a one-way street, stopping short, running lights) and saying “It doesn’t matter, I’m never coming back here!”).
Finally Antonia gets me to pay attention long enough to direct me into a parking garage that’s, amazingly, not that far from the museum. We walk through a lovely park, asking directions of an elderly woman, and finally get to the museum. There’s a big, flowering puppy out front. Where am I? Rockefeller Center (for non-New Yorkers, Rock Center hosted a Jeff Koons plant puppy for about a year recently).
I pay my way in, but Antonia opts to linger outside. The space is a stunning as you’ve heard (if you’ve heard). The audio tour includes notes on the interior and exterior architecture as well as the art. And there isn’t all that much art, really, not compared to the Tate, for example. I chat with a woman from Brooklyn who points out that when the building itself competes with the art, how effective is it as a museum? Good point.
But I’m glad I came in any case. I find Antonia in the cafe studying a book on Bilbao’s architecture that she bought. She’s had a very pleasant couple hours too.
Back in Haro we stop at the supermarket, wondering if we should buy extra supplies for dinner along with our cheap local wine. Then we try to use the tourist map of the town to get to the bodega offering the 4:30 tour. We find it at about 4:45. The kind front office worker leads us on a quick-step tour through vast storage rooms to catch up with the tour.
It’s all in Spanish, and Antonia translates sporadically. But wine making is hardly a mystery, so I’m content to enjoy the cool, scented atmosphere of the bodega’s massive cellars. We see rows and rows of casks holding wine up to five years old. At the end we’re granted tastes of their red and white. We’re not all that impressed. Days later we’re told that Muga wines are very good. Curious.
We return to our hotel and ask the new desk clerk to make us a reservation at the village restaurant. A while later I come in from a walk and she tells me they’re not available, but she’s made a reservation at the restaurant up the road.
We walk there, and it’s frightening — clearly a bar and tourist lunch stop. We flee to our trusty car and drive into Haro. We’re looking for the square where the tourist office is, but we can’t find it so we park — in front of a brightly lit Chinese restaurant. Then we wander, finding no other restaurants. We don’t want Chinese! Finally an elderly woman (Antonia’s favorites) directs us along a new route and we find what we’re after. Up a side street we step into the Beethoven II restaurant and have a lovely supper.
When we’re through, Antonia asks the waiter for directions back to the Chinese restaurant because she knows we can find our way to the hotel from there.
“The goal today is to get to the sea,” I point out an hour into our drive the next day. We’ve travelled about twenty kilometers on beautiful secondary and tertiary roads. Sure, it’s a lovely drive, but at this rate we’ll never got to San Sebastian. I’m navigating, so I reroute us with Antonia’s agreement and the help of my three maps.
Have I mentioned Spanish maps? Have I mentioned Spanish road signs? They don’t match. The signs don’t match the maps and the maps don’t match one another. You need a minimum of three maps to navigate any part of Spain, and even then you have to extrapolate the identities of the numbered roads.
We head past Bilbao toward Lekeitio on well-paved, heavily trafficked roads. We’re in the coastal mountain range now and the twists and turns are fun, if nerve wracking for the passenger. Antonia’s having a blast at the wheel.
We arrive at the coast and the village of Lekeitio around mid-day. Just in time to find a spot for the car and take a walk on the beach. We packed a light picnic lunch, so we find a bench overlooking the marina and relax. I notice that the rows of identical fishing boats are all tied together, not to docks. As we eat we watch a fisherman walk down the ramp onto a floating dock, then transfer his gear to a detached section of dock. He uses pre-affixed ropes to ferry this section of dock along between the rows of boats until he reaches his. When he’s aboard he lets the floating dock go. The next person can pull it back to the main dock to use. We realize that there are floating “ferry” docks between each row of boats. How very efficient!
Refreshed, we get back on the road, this time to cover the truly coastal segment. The road twists and turns along steep mountains that run right down into the sea. Every few kilometers we pass through another fishing village — some tiny, some large and resort like. All are picturesque. Eventually we run out of easy coast road — it turns, on all of my maps — from secondary to tertiary. So we divert to the highway, which has conveniently extended itself up to the coast to meet us.
In half an hour we are entering San Sebastian, our destination for the night. Typically, the terse directions from our hotel book fail us the moment we exit the highway. But we wind our way through town until we pick up the grand boulevard that it refers to. We have more than one street map of the town, and for once they all seem to match. We find our hotel and only have to go around the block once before parking illegally to check in. Antonia takes care of first contact and unloading, then I go park the car in the pre-arranged garage (thank you to whatever whim inspired me to reserve parking along with the room!).
The hotel occupies two floors of an old corner building. Outside it’s disintegrating early twentieth century. Inside it’s sleek and modern. Our room has a minibar and a pants press. Breakfast is optional and at four euros we opt out.
It’s late afternoon so we head out to explore San Sebastian. I have it on good authority that the food here is excellent. We ask the hotel clerk where to go for beer, tapas, and a view. He takes a map and indicates the waterfront for the view, then circles the old town and says “beer and tapas here.” It seems you can’t have everything, even in paradise. We stop for drinks at the outdoor terrace of the Hotel London. They don’t serve tapas.
We move on along the waterfront enjoying the atmosphere, the sun, the sea, the cyclists. . . There’s a carousel and a huge old town hall. I am inspired to create a “virtual” Geocache based on the carousel. This is a Geocache with no physical cache. The cacher has to find the location based on latitude and longitude, then figure out the answer to a question and submit it to me for approval before claiming their find. In this case, to claim finding the “Spanish Horses” cache, the cacher has to look to the north and identify what they see. [It’s April 2021 and I received a couple submissions last week. Spanish Horses lives on as a legacy of this trip more than 20 years ago.]
Further on the fishermen are closing up their storage sheds. It’s that strange hour when the work is done, but dinner is a long way off. We wander into the old quarter, eventually having beer and a plate of tapas. We study menus as we wander back toward our hotel, spotting two up the street from it that we both like the look of. They’re not in the touristy old town, but serve the business district. They remind me of comfortable, moderate New York eateries (except that the menus are in Basque).
Satisfied that dinner is assured, we retire for early evening siestas and baths. This goes on until about 10:30 when we rouse ourselves to go to dinner. We’re shocked to find the first two restaurants closed up tight. Dinner, it seems, is over. Baffled — this is Spain where dinner doesn’t start until 9:30 or 10:00 — we head back into the old town, finally locating one of the restaurants we’d seen earlier. It’s open. We don’t hesitate.
Dinner is indeed lovely. As we’re finishing the American couple who came in after us greet us. He says, “I don’t mean to interrupt be we heard you talking. What time is dinner supposed to be here?”
We cracked up. Then he asked, “And do you folks have a good map?”
Our new American friends are from Oklahoma on their first trip to Europe. He’s a wine buff who sells high-end home theatres to rich people in Oklahoma. She’s a sales rep for John Wiley and Sons. It’s a very small world.
At midnight we’re asked to leave the restaurant, which wants to close. So we move out into the narrow, echoing medieval street. We aren’t the only loud people, but we’re probably most notable since we’re speaking American English. We gradually make our way to our hotels, which are adjacent, pausing on the waterfront promenade to chat until one or one-thirty. They’re on their way to Haro for the wine, so we warn them about having to make appointments. He tells me that he won’t go to France and won’t buy French wine. I call this to Antonia’s attention and we joke that there are Americans who feel that way after all! We let the subject drop.
We decide in the morning that we’ve had our fill of San Sebastian, so we head north east up the coast. We leave the highway to go visit Hondarribia with it’s beautiful lighthouse, then we cross the border into France and visit Hendaye on the other side of the inlet.
Then we get back on the highway and buzz on up to Biarritz.
I’m surprised when the French road signs give me a sense of comfort. I did not expect French to seem more familiar than Spanish, but I suppose I have travelled on more French roads than Spanish ones. Of course, even in Biarritz there were also signs in Basque.
We parked the car in one of those lovely French lots equipped with a sign telling us how many spaces were availabe before we entered, and climbed up stairs to right onto the waterfront promenade. In many ways it was a lot like San Sebastian, but in others it was delightfully French. We enjoyed a picnic on a seaside bench, watching the surfers catch the gentle waves. Vacationing families, not, thankfully, to many of them American, strolled and sunned and sat at the cafes to watch one another.
After lunch we each wandered, Antonia braving a toe in the sea (“It’s as cold as Maine!”) and me checking out a surf shop. We both ended up buying new sandals from a pleasant French salesman. I couldn’t figure out why Antonia was struggling to speak Spanish to him and pointed out to her later that he spoke perfectly good English, in addition to French and Spanish, and probably Basque.
From Biarritz we headed back across the border and south toward Pamplona to find our final Casa Rual. We were surprised to encounter police at the border looking in to the passing cars after the toll (have I mentioned Spanish tolls?). We were waved through, but it did make us wonder about the “open border.”
I find Udabe on two of our maps, right where it should be based on the directions. But how to get there?
Antonia’s addicted to the secondary roads, so we get off the highway outside of Hondarribia and head south on one. It’s slow going through the Pirineos, but it’s also spectacularly beautiful. I’ve plotted a course that goes from secondary to tertiary road, but it soon becomes clear that the secondary road is about as dangerous as we want to get — at times it narrows down to one lane on tight mountain turns.
After a couple hours we pass the turn-off we would have taken. It looks like a goat path. I don’t even suggest it.
Then we come into a village and, since there’s a gas station, decide to fill up. After all, our gauge has been on “full” for the last 400 kilometers. I study the roadsigns in the village’s tiny traffic circle and determine which way we want to go. We go that way, and within moments reach an onramp for the highway.
“This should not be here,” I declare. “But get on anyway.” In fact, it’s a Godsend — we were looking at another two hours of mountain road at least — especially since I had misread how far along we were when we stopped for gas. At least I think I did. I’m still not sure.
In any case, the lovely highway brought us through the last bit of mountains and into the right valley and offered us an exit right where we needed it. Nice cooperative Spanish road.
Our hotel is a reformed farm house (“reformas” being Spanish for “renovations” — I’m not sure Antonia even realizes she’s using the Spanish word any more). The walls are three feet thick. It’s quite hot outside, but our room feels air conditioned. It’s quite remarkable how well massive stone walls insulate — too bad they’re so impractical in modern construction.
Antonia asks the non-English speaking staff what time dinner usually is served. She’s told 8:30. Right.
She goes for a hike. I sip a beer, read, and eventually give in and go take a nap.
We return to the garden around 8:30 — don’t want to be late for dinner, which is supposed to be quite good here. The family is nowhere to be found. There are no cooking smells. We’re worried.
Around nine grandma and grandpa turn up with baby, and gradually we begin to smell food. Around 9:30 we’re summoned to the dining room. The only other guest is a young businessman who arrived while we were in the garden earlier. He had checked in then come back out and removed a folding bike from his car. He was one of the half dozen or so cyclists we saw on the road that afternoon. What thighs!
Dinner was lovely, although the main entree was in fact what I would call Wienerschnitzel. No matter, it was tender and flavorful and the wine was lovely. As our fellow guest was leaving the dining room he said good night in English. We stopped him with, “You speak English?” The proprietress had told Antonia he did not.
Pere ordered another drink and joined us for a long chat about the region, travels, Spain, and wine.
We return to Barcelona via the highway and find our way back to Avis. When we report the faulty gas gauge, the clerk is far more interested in whether car has diesel in it or not. Antonia seems surprised at the woman’s indifference. It doesn’t surprise me at all.
We’re glad to be back on the terra cotta terrace for drinks and relaxing.
Saturday I rouse myself and go downtown for another round of music buying. We’ve listened to many of the discs I bought the first time and I’ve compiled a list of the artists I want more of. You just can’t get Catalan rock in the US — even in New York! And Amazon charges a fortune.
As I wander through the Habitat store next to Fnac I observe my mantra “The Dollar is Weak, The Dollar is Weak.” To that I add, “There’s a Habitat in Manhattan, There’s a Habitat in Manhattan.” Granted it’s not in a location I frequent, but in retrospect, that’s a good thing.
Catalans of all ages have gathered in the Pl. de Catalunya to perform the traditional dance to their anthem. Antonia had described this as the town’s “old ladies,” but I find children, teens, and adults all participating. They’re dancing to a live band and I’m one of many spectators. Nearby an old man is selling folded paper birds as hair ornaments. I’m amused, since my brother Ralph the scientist does this same thing: folding paper animals and objects at local fairs and events in San Diego.
I’m still in tourist mode, so I use my Time Out Barcelona guide to follow part of a walking tour around the Eixample, a prosperous neighborhood with many hidden gems of modernista architecture. I give up on the tour when my feet start to give out on me, and walk a couple blocks up Passeig de Gracia to a tapas bar across the street from Gaudi’s St. George and the Dragon (two buildings in dramatically different styles).
After a light lunch and a half bottle of white wine I stagger on up a couple more blocks to La Pedrera, Gaudi’s big apartment block. I toured it on my last trip, so I’m unwilling to wait in the line for admission. But last trip I didn’t have time for the shop.
“The Dollar is Weak, the Dollar is Weak.” Still, the short highball glasses etched with a gaudi design are too cool to pass up, as is the reproduction of the paving tiles used out on the sidewalk. It’s a trivet. Really it is.
A heavy trivit. Along with four heavy bottles of wine in my suitcase. Fortunately, Spanish baggage handlers and security personnel are on mauve alert, or something. They don’t pay much attention to checked luggage or how many shopping bags you carry on.
But I digress. From La Pedrera my sorry feet took me to the subway. By now I’ve learned my local landmarks and don’t pass by the convertible in the window. After a siesta Antonia and I head across town to meet Karen and friends at a jazz bar. Free drinks! Well, free cheap cava and juice. Life Jazz! Until the band packs up a half hour after we arrived. The stoned DJ who’s got the volume up so loud we can’t hear each other tells Antonia that the band my be back in an hour. We doubt it since they took their instruments with them.
We’re talking with Allain, a French ex-pat who’s determined to become a cross-cultural trainer. He wants to work for an American corporation teaching executives how to deal with their foreign counterparts — how not to offend them by using the wrong spoon or calling them insulting names without knowing it. It’s a lofty goal. I suggest that most companies will hire a consulting firm for that, so why not form one?
We move outside when the volume of sound and galois smoke becomes impossible. Karen and her Brit friends take off in a taxi, Allain heads home, and Antonia and I take the subway to the Museum of Catalunian Art, where the fountains perform a light and water show to music every half hour. It’s marvelous fun.
We head home via night bus, walking the last few blocks and stopping to look at menus along the way. We’re prepared to forage in the fridge, but then the menu at the restaurant right around the corner from the flat looks appealing. We have another pleasant, light supper at 11:30. Antonia asks if the restaurants in New York aren’t open for dinner at midnight. I try not to laugh at her assumption, and admit that maybe in the theatre district you can get a meal that late.
Sunday dawns hot and muggy. The terrace beckons. So does Antonia’s CV (that’s resume to us Americans). We work through it, honing it for presentation in today’s job market. I’m ruthless in my advice that she must focus it. She does. Then she posts it on Monster.com. She needs some contract work for July and August, when she’ll be in Atlanta (hint, hint).
We migrate to the terrace with beer. Then down around the corner to the deli for roasted chicken. We are charged for the chicken and french fries, but get some sardines, garlic mayonnaise, and deep fried veggies thrown in. The week has been like that — Antonia wants me to stay because I’m good luck. Her neighbors have been speaking to her, people have been giving us free things, her landland lowered the rent. . .
I look out across the city and think about going downtown to ride the gondola up Montjuic. Then I think about how hot and sweaty it will be getting there for those few moments in the air. I think about the other geocaches I could seek. Then I think about the dirt in Parc Guell. And the hills.
I open another beer.
In the evening we go around the corner to rent a video from the vending machine. I’m astounded that Blockbuster hasn’t introduced them in the states. You put in your card and select your movie and out pops a DVD or tape. Rentals are for as little as six hours for a couple euros. We rent an Anthony Hopkins spy thriller I don’t remember hearing about and watch it in English. It’s a relaxing way to conclude my visit.
Monday morning we have coffee on the terrace looking out at the Med. By Monday evening (afternoon New York time) I’m tooling around in the Volvo with the top down, getting some groceries and retrieving the birds from the shop where they board.
I’ve brought sun and warmth to New York, which has been under rain clouds since I left. But my Mediterranean influence only lasts an afternoon. By Tuesday it’s raining again.