“Please make sure your tray table is in its upright locked position”. The ever so familiar request signals it’s time to hunker down and settle in, as our plane transitions from runway to sky and the purring engine starts slowly swallowing the miles separating us from Barcelona Spain, the proud capital of Catalonia.
Setting foot on Spanish soil, we taxi towards Barcelona passing what appear 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 massive 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 out socializing on Jacaranda-lined ramblas; fantasizing over the future or chewing on the past while sipping coffee from thimble-sized cups.
As we roam the streets an intermittent ‘eau-de-sewer’ wafts up from the ancient sewer system, stuffing itself in our offended nostrils. It strikes us as odd that in a city hosting such amazing architecture, they have yet to master the science of sewage. Map in hand, we mosey under the Spanish Arc de Triomf and on to the striking ‘Cascada de Gaudi’ fountain in Parc de la Cituadella.
As we roam the streets an intermittent ‘eau-de-sewer’ wafts up from the ancient sewer system, stuffing itself in our offended nostrils. It strikes us as odd that in a city hosting such amazing architecture, they have yet to master the science of sewage.
Gaudi is the guy responsible for spawning the English term ‘gaudy’ and his creations are inescapable here. We pass the striking ‘Cascada de Gaudi’ fountain, zany Casa Batllo, and Parc Gruel; all displaying the flamboyant flair of the eccentric Gaudi being infused with a wealth of the wacky, wavy, and weird.
The most famous of his designs and the crown jewel in Barcelona’s architectural landscape is the Sagrada Familia Church; a ‘Gaudi-gone-gaudy’ colossal conglomeration of complexly carved concrete covering the currently crane-crowned church under construction for over a century!
Gaudi was unquestionably the oddball superstar of his day, but after his death the construction torch was passed, and his stunning molten wax look of the church’s exterior now seems inappropriately fused with an unflattering modernistic smooth style which even Gaudi would likely have found gauche.
In front of the architecturally beautiful Cathedral of Barcelona, a traditional Catalan dance called Sardana is underway, with a selection of stunning senoritas sassily sashaying about, displaying some pretty splendid architecture of their own!
Exploring alleyways in the Gothic quarter fools our sense of direction at every turn, but the fascinating timeworn buildings make it a pleasing area to be lost in. A small alley displaying cured hoofed hams dangling in store windows leads us into the adjoining neighbourhood of Raval, and the first thing we see is a prominent bronzed pussy of preposterous proportions known as the Botero Cat!
From Placa Catalunya, the lively square and heart of Barcelona, we stroll the leafy La Rambla; the major artery of the city and a total gong show. Manteros (Blanket Men), mostly of African descent, illegally clutter the wide sidewalks with cheap 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 as the police get within sight they can gather up their goods in a big sling made from the blanket and run.
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 setting inhabited by mythical fairies, eerie mannequins, and a haunted room with optical illusions of a floating corpse and demons lurking in the mirrors. Indeed a Bar-celona oddity!
The Montjuic Magic Fountain delights millions of folks each year; and while many leave their hearts, I leave my sole. While climbing the stairs I suddenly trip over my rubber sandal sole, 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, forcing me to endure a silly looking and sounding, thump-thwap, thump-thwap hobble-fest all the way home.
Personally, I find Barcelona a bore-snore, and after ten days I’m elated to hop the border into Portugal. Bussing to Rossio Square in Lisbon, we haul our luggage uphill over centuries-old cobblestone streets and then up another 200 stairs to our B & B. Staring in our own version of ‘Stair Wars’, our room requires three more flights of interior stairs skinny and steep enough to stress out a mountain goat.
After all this grunt work we’re dismayed by the spacial sadness of a room that even a diminutive gerbil would find claustrophobic. The sadistically sloping floor leads to a bathroom so small it requires actually going inside the shower and closing the door before turning on the water and shielding it with our hands until it warms up! Lisbon suffered great damage as the epicenter of the largest earthquake in human history, and this sad sack building looks just a shiver away from total collapse! Clever owners required our payment in advance, meaning this has to suffice as home, unsweet home, for the next three days.
In the romantic village of Sintra we hike to 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 vertical we stop while hiking down at a cute little village for a merited beer and a tasty Portuguese cherry liqueur called Ginjinha, before returning to El Rie de FrancoBistro Café in Lisbon for a glass of tasty green wine along with an octopus salad pounded to perfection.
Ambling about, we enter Lisbon’s long gone Red Light District; 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, with some poof Einstein deciding to paint the streets asphalt a provocative pink. Adding to the tackiness of the renamed ‘Pink Street’ is a full size pink plastic pig tethered upside down to the exterior of one of the former brothel’s walls!
Christine and I meander through a rabbit warren of steep staircases and alleys forming the Alfama District, for a walk through the impoverished Mouraria area which is home to some fifty-six nationalities of foreigners; mainly from Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan and Mozambique.
In the Belem district we stop at the Tower and Monument of Discoveries on the Tagus River, before training south to the town of Cascais. On rented bikes our first stop a large beach statue of a red right hand, leaving me singing parts of the theme song to ‘Peaky Blinders’. We cycle a smooth red cycling path past Boca de Inferno (Hell’s Mouth) until it ends at the boardwalks and sand dunes of Guincho Beach.
Today, after an excruciatingly long hot delay on the Lisbon tarmac, our plane finally receives clearance for a short flight across the border into the uphill-downhill city of Porto where we will spend the next six nights. Our lodging is at Porta Azul B & B, an amazing 200 year old home with walls of granite 18″ thick.
Our hosts Marta and Pedro provide sumptuous breakfasts of eggs, meats, cheeses, buns, pumpkin-walnut jam, plus a different baked cake each day! This morning Marta informs us that tomorrow she is making us “goose paste”! My initial deer-in-the-headlights expression turns into a full-on smirk when I realize what she means; thinking how horrified the French would be with this reference to their beloved Foie Gras!
The tortuously hilled town of Porto is chockablock with charm with ancient granite churches and buildings still standing proud. The majestic São Bento train station is one of many buildings adorned with over 20,000 decorative hand painted blue tiles, depicting everything from weddings to wars.
Crossing the Ponte Luis Bridge into Gaia, port cellars abound and the Douro River is decorated with a flotilla of square sailed, long-ruddered old sailing boats called ‘Rabelos’, once used to transport port downriver to Porto. We stop along the river for a dinner of Francesinha or ‘Little Frenchie’. This dish is definitely not for those with a calorie phobia, as it’s a monster conglomeration of 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. The carbo bomb is love at first bite but with the artery-hardening hodgepodge containing over 1000 calories per portion we opt to share one, and still we waddle off fuller than a centipede’s sock drawer!
Walking past Central Square on our way home, we’re surprised when some 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 a couple of aged planes, a marine inflatable, and a geriatric tank. However, it’s good to know they are 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 sitting on the same wooden bench.
At Casa Teresa, in the Matosinhos port area, our salmon and calamari dinners come with no veggies at all, just a carbo cache of nine potatoes and bread. The scurvy-prone meals, combined with a surplus of port and pastries, has us concerned Porto and portly are synonymous; evidenced by residents who mostly display varying degrees of rotundity.
Transporting our bikes across the Rio Douro River breathe in the salty Portuguese sea air while cycling the coast to the village of Miramar. A photogenic 1686 Chapel of the Lord of Stone sits atop a few beach boulders completely surrounded by beach, and even with the rumbling surf at high tide licking at its base, it has miraculously avoiding being devoured by the sea over the centuries.
Venturing further afield we ride the rails, while clinging to the edge of the river, past miles of terraced vineyards before arriving at Pinhaou Station in the Douro Valley. Here in the famous grape country, today’s forecast has a 99% chance of wine!
We’re told that grapes used in the production of the finest wines 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 little bar for some Grape Therapy, because like duct tape wine fixes everything!
Our short-term European trip has been a humdrum affair compared to the usual excites of Asia, but there’s nothing wrong with experiencing someplace new. At the conclusion of our Lufthansa flight home, a little glitch in the communication from our ‘English as a second language’ Captain results in his odd 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