“Please make sure your tray table is in its upright locked position”. The ever so familiar request signals it’s time to hunker down as the plane transitions from runway to sky, and the purring engines begin slowly swallowing the miles separating us from Barcelona Spain, the proud capital of Catalonia.
Touching down on Spanish soil and taxiing to Barcelona, we pass by what appears to be apartments snuggled into the slopes of Montjuic Hill. However, a closer inspection reveals the only ones calling this home have long since departed, as it is the 57 acre Montjuïc Cemetery; said to contain the cremations and burials of over one million people!
Fortunately the city radiates a much livelier atmosphere; with spunky Spaniards sitting and socializing on Jacaranda-lined ramblas, fantasizing over the future or chewing on the past, while sipping coffee from tiny cups that look better sized for a hamster.
Roaming about and letting the town introduce itself to us, intermittent ‘eau-de-sewer’ wafts up from the ancient sewer system, keeping our offended nose on its toes. It does strikes us as odd, that in a city hosting such amazing architecture they have yet to master the science of sewage!
We pass by numerous free-flowing works by Gaudi; including the ‘Cascada de Gaudi’ fountain, Casa Batllo, and Parc Gruel Gaudi. The long gone architect was unquestionably the oddball superstar of his day, and responsible for spawning the English term ‘gaudy’, and his unique creations are all infused with a flamboyant flair, featuring an unaccountable taste for the wacky, wavy, whimsical, and weird.
The most famous of his designs and the crown jewel in Barcelona’s architectural landscape is the Sagrada Familia. In all its Gothic glory, the church is a ‘Gaudi-gone-gaudy’ colossal conglomeration of complexly carved concrete covering the crane-crowned church currently under construction since 1882; already taking ten times longer than it took to build the great pyramids of Egypt!
It does seem strange that so much peculiar architecture exists in Barcelona, especially when you consider Gustave Eiffel’s offer in 1888 to have his now famous tower built here was rejected. Apparently the city was fearful the large tower would be a gauche eyesore on the city’s skyline, and that residents would disapprove; the loss for Barcelona a great gain for Paris!
In front of the architecturally beautiful Cathedral of Barcelona, traditional Catalan Sardana dancing is underway, with a selection of stunningly sensuous senoritas sassily sashaying about displaying some pretty splendid and shapely architecture of their own! The intriguing city fools our sense of direction at nearly every turn, and we spend the day getting lost, getting unlost, and getting lost again.
Hoofed legs of ham dangle from ceilings in shops along a timeworn alleyway that unexpectedly leads us into the neighbourhood of Raval. The first thing we notice is an eye-catching statue of a bronzed pussy of preposterous proportions, known as the Botero Cat! The over-nourished monster mouser is over 12 feet long, 5 feet tall, and tips the scales at a whopping 1.2 tons!
Placa Catalunya is the lively square and heart of Barcelona and the start of the leafy La Rambla; a giant pedestrian boulevard known for its with towering shady trees and the living statues and other eccentrics looking to loosen tourist Euros. Manteros (Blanket Men), mostly of African descent, illegally clutter the wide sidewalks with chintzy knock-off sunglasses, shoes, and other crap bought in bulk from Asia. Their counterfeit merchandise is spread out on blankets with a web of rope tied to each corner, so when the police approach, the scammers can quickly gather up their goods in a big sling and make a run for it.
Tucked away down a tangle of lumpy alleyways nearby is an offbeat Hobbit-like bar called ‘El Bosc de les Fades’ (Fairy Forest) that’s almost as hard to find as a real fairy forest. The bar’s innards reveal a bizarre, dimly lit artificial forest inhabited by mythical fairies, eerie mannequins, and a haunted room with optical illusions of a floating corpse and demons lurking in the mirrors. Indeed an intriguing Bar-celona oddity!
Montjuic Magic Fountain delights millions of folks each year with many people leaving their hearts. I do better – I leave my sole. While climbing the stairs I suddenly trip over the rubber bottom of my sandal, which has bid farewell to the rest of the floppy footwear. In addition to the sole, I too have become unglued, as a result of my newly acquired limb discrepancy which forces me to endure a silly looking and sounding, thump-thwap, thump-thwap hobble-fest all the way home.
Personally, I find Barcelona a bit of a snooze-fest, and after ten days I’m elated to hop the border into Portugal. Bussing to Rossio Square in Lisbon, we haul our luggage up hilly centuries-old cobblestone streets, then up another 200 stairs to our B & B, and finally up three more flights of interior stairs skinny and steep enough to stress out even a mountain goat.
After staring in our own version of ‘Stair Wars’, we’re dismayed by the spacial sadness of a room even a diminutive gerbil would find claustrophobic. Lisbon is older than Rome, and so too is the feeling of our room. The city was also the epicenter of the largest earthquake in history in 1755, and our catastrophic room seems about the same vintage, and just a shiver away from total collapse! Crafty owners required payment in advance, sadly meaning this has to suffice as home, unsweet home, for the next three days.
In the village of Sintra we check out the Palace of Quinta da Regaleira; wandering about its gardens and down into the spooky Initatic well via a dark spiral stone staircase sinking 27 meters into earth. As pleasing contrast, we then climb the Santa Maria Trail to the Palace of Pena and the Moorish Castle.
After a calorie purge on the hills we stop at a cute little village on the hike down for a merited beer and a tasty Portuguese cherry liqueur called Ginjinha, then back in Lisbon we drop in to El Rie de Franco Bistro Café for a glass of tasty green wine, along with an octopus salad pummeled to perfection.
By chance, we wander into Lisbon’s long gone Red Light District which is now turned pink! Several years ago Rua Nova do Carvalho, a once notorious gambling and hooker hangout where sailors went for a night of delight, underwent a rejuvenation creating trendy bars and eateries. At the same time, some poof Einstein decided to paint the street a provocative pink. Adding to the tackiness of renamed ‘Pink Street’, a life-size pink plastic oinker is tethered upside down to the exterior of one of the former brothel’s walls!
In the rabbit warren alleyways forming the Alfama District we climb the silly staircases so steep that pitons might be useful, and then decide to roam about in the impoverished Mouraria area, home to some fifty-six nationalities of foreigners; mainly from Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan and Mozambique.
Following a visit to the impressive Tower and Monument of Discoveries in the Belem district, we train out to Cascais and rent bikes. Our first stop is at a large beach statue of a red right hand, reminding me of the ‘Peaky Blinders’ theme song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. We then cycle past by Boca de Inferno (Hell’s Mouth) and continue until reaching the boardwalks and sand dunes of Guincho Beach.
Today, after a long hot delay on the Lisbon runway, our plane finally receives clearance for a short flight across the border into the uphill-downhill city of Porto, where we plan on spending six nights at Porta Azul B & B, an amazing 200 year old home with walls of granite 18″ thick.
Our hosts Marta and Pedro provide a sumptuous breakfast and a different baked cake each day, and today Marta informs us that tomorrow she is going to make us “goose paste”! My initial deer-in-the-headlights expression turns into a full-on smirk after realizing what she means; thinking how horrified the French would be with this interesting reference to their beloved Foie Gras!
The tortuously hilled town of Porto is chockablock with charm and ancient granite buildings still standing proud. The majestic São Bento train station is like a tile museum, adorned with over 20,000 decorative ceramic tiles depicting Portugal’s past including everything from weddings to wars. Port cellars abound when we cross the Ponte Luis Bridge into Gaia, and the Douro River is decorated with a flotilla of square sailed old sailing boats called ‘Rabelos’, once used to transport port downriver to Porto.
We stop for a dinner that’s definitely not for those with a calorie phobia. Francesinha or ‘Little Frenchie’ is a monster conglomeration is thick bread piled high with cured ham, sausage, beef, and other meats covered in slices of cheese, and swimming in a tomato and beer based gravy, with fries on the side. It may be love at first bite, but for any weight watchers, this carbo-bomb containing a scandalous 1000 calories per portion will have them paying a price for their dietary infidelity! Christine and I decide it best to share a dish between us, and still waddle off fuller than a centipede’s sock drawer!
Walking past Central Square on our way home, we’re surprised when an army ‘hi-up’ escorts us inside a cordoned off area hosting a military exhibition. The Portuguese may be full of national pride but this meager display consists of only a couple of aged planes, a marine inflatable, and a geriatric tank. However, it’s good to know they’re well equipped to defend themselves, should Luxembourg ever decide to go rogue!
We also pass by a cute little pooch trained to beg; expectantly holding a plastic cup in his mouth as his busking owner tortures the hell out of a beat up accordion. In a park nearby, another guy is playing Fado music on his guitar, serenading a seemingly infatuated seagull sharing the same wooden bench.
In the Matosinhos port area, our salmon and calamari dinners at Casa Teresa arrive with zero greens and a carbo cache of nine potatoes and bread. Our scurvy-prone meals are caloric catastrophes, and combined with the town’s surplus of sugary ports and pastries, we believe that Porto and portly to be synonymous; a theory evidenced by rotund residents with an overabundance of flesh trying to make an escape for freedom from the confines of their clothes.
After transporting our bikes across the Rio Douro River, we breathe the salty Portuguese air while cycling along the coast to the village of Miramar and its photogenic 1686 Chapel of the Lord of Stone. Sitting atop a bed of boulders and completely surrounded by beach with high tide’s rumbling surf licking at its base, it has miraculously remained intact over the centuries and avoided avoiding being swallowed by the sea.
Venturing further afield, we take a train 120 km through the countryside, following the Douro River to Pinhao Station in the Douro Valley. The four walls of the station are decorated with 24 blue glazed mosaic tiles from 1937, depicting typical scenes of the Duoro Valley related to wine production. This is world class grape country, and we’re certain that today’s forecast has a 99% chance of wine!
We’re told that grapes used in the production of any wines worth worshipping are all stomped by foot. Apparently this ‘toe-tally’ labour intensive process requires a team of two dozen, arms-across-shoulders stompers, whose efforts crush the grapes but not the seeds or stems, thus reducing any bitter flavour from unwanted debris. Fortunately, it’s always wine o’clock in the Douro, so we slide into a cozy little bar for a little Grape Therapy, because like duct tape, wine fixes everything!
Our trip has been quite a humdrum affair compared to the usual excites of Asia, but it still worthy of a looksee. At the conclusion of our Lufthansa flight back to Canada, a little glitch in the communication from our ‘English as a second language’ Captain results in his rather peculiar flight announcement; “Thanks for staying with us for the entire flight”.
W.T.F.; did he think perhaps we were contemplating jumping out somewhere over Iceland?
Mark Colegrave November 2017