11.15.18

What I’ve been up to: 

A quick trip to Morocco and Barcelona were unquestionably the highlights this month (especially in comparison to coming down with a cold). I wandered medinas and came across all sorts of treasures, saw snake charmers and hawkers, rode in a hot air balloon, rode a camel (again), visited ancient tanneries, bought a carpet, saw the blue city and ate so many amazing tagines and couscous.

Barcelona was super nice to revisit as well and meeting up with Matt, we visited the Sagrada Familia again, went to some of our favorite tapas spots and took in a couple of flamenco shows.

Earlier we also had the opportunity to see Barbara Kingsolver in conversation at Seattle Arts & Lectures and I was (as always), charged up and inspired by her quiet politics and extraordinary storytelling. I love this quote from the program:

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do it live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides”

And finally, US elections happened while we were away and so we were keeping a very close eye on that.

What was beautiful:

Morocco was as amazingly beautiful as I ever dreamt it would be.



Barcelona also had plenty of moments.

 

What made me laugh: 

Some of the crazy dreams I’ve had lately, dog antics and lost of good laughs with Mateo (as we call him in Spain).

What I’m reading and listening to:

Finally watched The English Patient and Lawrence of Arabia to ease myself out of the desert.

How to Live a Good Life

The Rodeo Queens of Mexico

Raving as a Stress Reliever

How to just pick something (the Scientific Method)

How a human chain of helpers moved a bookstore

I have kind of an obsession with Gable Stones and House Insignia

2018 Women of the Year Honorees

Are you too sensitive?

Spain (revisited)

Walterses

Travelling through Europe again, taking photos of doors and writing in cafes has made me think a lot of our trip through Spain last year (we went in May 2012). We had such a good time, hanging out in Barcelona for a week before heading up to Girona and eating the dinner of our lives at El Celler de Can Roca and then motorcycling around the country through France to Andorra, then Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Jerez, Gibraltar, Ronda, Granada, Costa del Sol, Valencia and back to Barcelona again. That was before I had a place to keep travel notes and the like, so they’ve been floundering around  in my phone and for lack of a better idea I’m just going to post them here, largely unedited. As always, the link to the flickr photo set is at the end of the post.

Gaudi

12-05-03 – 12-05-09 (Barcelona)

Coming from the airport we passed a hillside graveyard and fields and the general unused land around airports, but then the landscape closed in tighter and tighter as we got into Barcelona and then into Barri Gòtic – the Gothic quarter or Old town where what used to be paths hundreds of years ago has now been cemented into streets by years and stone. The taxi driver tried to tell us where our hotel was (we were not in front of it) but not understanding his Catalan, he shrugged and drove us to it down an impossibly small street.

Barri Gothic

The lock was broken so we called the landlord and waited a while but then the locksmiths broke the spare lock that they brought with them so finally we left them to it and went out to dinner. We were tired so we choose poorly and ended up at something too touristy close to La Rambla (the main street, a wide promenade full of shops and tourists) but it gave us an idea of what to expect.

Sagrada Familia

I loved wandering the labyrinthian neighbourhood, navigating to our street using graffiti on closed security doors and public art in seemingly out of the way squares, and passing jamón shops with legs of ham hanging in windows every 50 metres. On the first day we walked to see Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia (above) and on the way passed three of his other works – Casa MilaCasa Amatller, and Casa Batlló. On they way back we passed a restaurant I wanted to check out – Tapas 24 – and we ate pa amb tomate and jamón, croquettes and the best dessert I’ve had in  a long time – rolls of chocolate  ganache topped with sea salt and olive oil. 

We found a cava bar we liked in El Born (the trendy restaurant district near us) called Xampanyet and ended up going there 2 more times, we visited the Boqueria market twice and ate at the Bar Pinotxo. I had made both lunch and dinner reservations at Tickets, planning to cancel one of them but we ate there twice too and tried everything on the menu.

And so our first week in Spain passed this way, feeling easy and comfortable, being amazed at how small and compact and beautiful it was but happy to already have favourites and a familiar routine.

Motorcycles

12-05-10 (Barcelona / Girona)

When I first told Matt I wanted to eat at El Celler de Can Roca I explained that it was in Girona, a couple of hours north of Barcelona and he said no problem, he would sort out how to get us there. I assumed there would be a bus or maybe a train but a couple of weeks later he had rented us some motorcycles – a BMW R1200GS for him and a BMW F800ST for me – and planned a little romp around the countryside. Because he likes driving and I like seeing things that turned into the epic adventure that follows but our first leg was pretty short – we picked up the bikes and drove to Girona, checked into our hotel and ordered some surprise dishes off the entirely Catalan menu, and then I went to bed because we had spent a little too long at the mezcal bar the night before and I wanted to be in good shape for dinner.

El Cellar de Can Roca

Then we ate at El Celler de Can Roca. It was the best experience I have ever had in a restaurant and that covers food and service. Afterwards we met the chef and he thanked me for my sensitivity – what I had called “our gushing” about how good everything was earlier in the evening.

Cadaques

12-05-11 (Girona/ Cadaques /France / Andorra)

The next day was a long one. We wanted to ride through the Pyrenees and we had seen on Google Maps that the road through Andorra was a good one. But to get there we first needed to go north along the coast and then through France. So we passed through Figueres (where the Dali museum is meant to be) but didn’t see much of interest there and then I was anxious to be off again because my clutch grip was so stiff and my hand just gave out after too long in stop-and-go traffic.

A small town, Orriol maybe? smelled fantastically like cheese and made me grin and later a low-flying plane crossed over the road above us to land in a field and made me laugh out loud. It’s a bit lonely riding a motorcycle because even when you’re riding with someone you can’t be sure they’re sharing the same experiences and it’s rare that I get to take a photo but on the other hand, it makes you appreciate the moments a bit more and makes you try to remember them for later. There’s a bit of resonance there with my hesitation to get into underwater photography, I think.

Roses, the town where El Bulli used to be, was even more strange than Girona. It was tiny and felt somewhat like Osoyoos, with hills and windy roads and dry scrub and heat..not to mention the run-down go-carting place and crazy mini golf parks. I guess a seaside town is a seaside town is a seaside town.

But that road! We laughed all the way to Cadaques, twisting in and our of beautiful corners, bright yellow broom all over the place (with that particular cellulose smell), catching our first glimpses of the Mediterranean and were still smiling over beers and bacon-cheese sandwiches oceanside when we stopped for lunch. Cadaques is all square white buildings and square blue windows reflecting light off the ocean and Gertrude Stein was right – this is a perfectly cubist village. Cubism was created by Cadaques.

Cadaques

And then we got to ride that road again, inland! Aside from a small stretch of boring highway slab in France, the twisties continued all the way to Andorra. We passed a whole bunch of beach towns with intense azure water, a Castle with a moat, the vineyards of the Languedoc-Rousillon wine region, and then several small medieval towns with towers and walls and meadows and orchards and some beautiful horses grazing as we rode through a river valley. It’s so neat to think that these would have been about a day’s journey between each town and we just whipped by them one after another.

Andorra

Unfortunately I didn’t realize that the Go Pro camera battery was dead so even when we drove practically through a castle I didn’t pull over to take any photos. We’ll just have to come through here again some day. Approaching Andorra looks so much live Bavaria or BC even (or like a mountainous region, I suppose) but with stone huts and more horses and then suddenly it was all snow and duty free shops. It felt like a mall. The air temperature didn’t drop until we were practically on top of the ski resort, though, but it was pretty glorious. And the road up and down the summit! The switchbacks were so severe that Matt and I were almost facing each other a couple of times. So awe-inspiring, although Andorrans drive like assholes and there were several tracks off into the air so I went slow.

Hard to believe we went from sea level to glacier in the same day, through 3 countries. By far the best day riding of my life.

And then I was ready to be off the bike; I was tired and thirsty and headache-y and my shoulders were quite sore from the ergos on the bike and Matt’s back had been bothering him for hours, but we were almost in Andorra la Vella and then there was another small town, and another, and another and then we were there but there was a river and such a long, drawn out town you never did see but finally we arrived and after 14 hours of riding got ourselves stranded up a steep, narrow dead end. The road was just closed off at the top of a hill so steep that Matt had to back into a corner to turn around and I had to ride up on to and off of the sidewalk, through some bollards and around a car while Matt held my bike and I freaked out because I couldn’t touch the ground. It sucked very badly but eventually we got to our hotel and almost got into a fight with a horrible Italian man who told Matt, “traffic is not bad, you are stupid!!” after honking at us then driving around us and over the median and reversing through the intersection, and the next day Matt came off his bike after breaking too hard from not yielding at a courtesy corner. We hated Andorra as soon as we arrived.

Madrid

12-05-12 (Andorra / Madrid)

Nothing much to report on the journey down the super slab highway from Andorra to Madrid. It was even more boring than we thought it would be, although in some parts there is interesting scenery – including some that looks for all the world like Utah except for the fields of windmills and periodically placed huge toro silhouettes along the way. I guess they don’t call it the Sierra Nevada in both counties for nothing. Also we met a crazy truck driver near Zaragosa who we had quite a long conversation with while actually exchanging very little information. He was rad though and we watched some Moto GP videos of Rossi on his phone. As Matt says, motorcycle people are motorcycle people no matter where you are. I love how many people wave and smile at us here. Motorcycles just make people happy I think.

Arriving in Madrid was busy but sane. People know how to drive here and there is respect for motorcyclists which is awesome and the city just seems electric with energy. We were surprised that we felt good and had some energy after a shower, beer and food  so we decided to walk up to the Reina Sofia museum to see Picasso’s Guernica. This is a painting I have been wanting to see for a very long time and so I was so grateful. It’s one that demands a visit in person to understand the utter immensity of it. It’s enormous and the effect of all those layers and textures of wood just does not come through in photos. His ability to convey emotion like that through form is just such brilliance. I could have sat there for hours.

The museum has several other Dalis, Magrittes, Miros and other famous pieces and we saw quite a few but Matt was getting tired so we didn’t stay too long and then found a nice spot overlooking the city where we could drink our beers before dinner. The light was amazing and the thing that I already love about this city is that there are almost no tourists. It was so nice to just hang out in close proximity to some Spaniards and watch the footy game that was happening down  below. Later we tried to go out for dinner on the Calle de la Cava Baja – Madrid’s tapas row and we were astounded at how many people were out milling and eating, streaming out of streets like water. We thought there was an event on but it turned out to just be Saturday night.  This city is so ALIVE!! Every bar is packed to the gills and we could hear music and people out partying until almost morning. We were in bed early though – we did 700km AND a museum and that was enough. We’ll have to come back.

Madrid

12-05-13 (Madrid)

We toured the entire Prado today! We were not as impressed with Velasquez’s portraits as I had expected and I’m not a huge fan of Goya but it was good to see the original Las Meninas after seeing so many of Picasso’s studies in Barcelona. Also, I hadn’t realized that there were so many (or any, for that matter) of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings in Madrid, so it was a real treat to see the Garden of Earthly Delights and 4 others up close. So much crazy detail in those.

We were cooked afterwards but decided it would be better to press on and eat instead of napping. So we had a couple of beers and then headed back to the bottom of the Calle de la Cava Baja where we had been the night before, ready to tuck in.

The first place we went was a chain called Toma Jamón that (obviously) had jamóns hanging all over the place and one ready to slice on a barrel in the doorway. Gin and tonics seem to be the drink of the moment in Madrid – every bar was promoting them, including our hotel – but I had vermuth again (Matt stuck with beer) and we ordered jamón, pulpo gallego (octopus), and gambas (prawns). I tried to order more but the proprietor waved me off with a laugh and then brought me to the counter to show me the prawns – there was a choice between ones the size of my hand or larger. He also brought out an order of tomato bread and small but meaty green olives so I worried that we were going to fill up on our first stop. Matt laughed at me for being up to my elbows in prawn but they were so delicious – meaty and flavourful and not like any prawn I’ve had in recent years. We were pretty full by the time we got to the octopus but we didn’t much care for it anyways. It was thinly sliced on top of thinly sliced potatoes and doused in smoky, meaty-tasting paprika. It was fine as a protein but not good enough to warrant eating my beloved octopuses.

Gulas

Bar #2 (TxoTolia Pinoteca Madrileño??) was packed but we squished in and Matt got a table while I ordered drinks and scoped out the tapas. I told Matt that there was one of the best looking ones I had seen so far (a fist-sized bomba with potatoes and mushrooms) and one of the grossest (a pile of tiny grey eels – “gulas” – on toast with a lone slice of red pepper for garnish). He told me to get one of each and I stared at him in disbelief for a moment before running to the counter and ordering before either of us changed our minds. Surprisingly, the eels were even better than the bomba that ended up coming warmed with mushroom gravy or the morcilla sausages wrapped in a fried egg on toast and even the Spaniards were shocked since most of them were eating tapas that looked like little cheeseburger sliders.

We were pretty drunk by this point but decided to try one more place. And unfortunately the one we tried one wasn’t very busy or very good but we had some anchovies (tasted as expected) and croquettes (tasted of oil) , some hazelnut ice cream (delicious) and some terrible, bitchy service before stumbling home.

Cordoba

12-05-14 (Madrid / Cordoba)

Even more boring than the last freeway jaunt except for some vineyards and olive trees. It’s pretty cool to smell olive oil in the air though.

So hot. I am melting in my leathers. Matt says him too but I look at his canvas jacket that unzips to practically nothing and think that he just has no idea.

We arrived in Cordoba and parked on the sidewalk, peeled the leathers off and left them in a damp pile on the sidewalk. The hotel was nice but we decided to go out and see the mosque-cathedral immediately instead of waiting until later so we changed and headed out but it was so hot. We were cranky and sweating before we had even made it all the way across the river.

The mosque (way more mosque than cathedral despite the altar in the middle and the various culty chapels around the perimeter) was stunningly beautiful with its rows of candy cane arches and forest of pillars and I was happy that so much of the original remained but I couldn’t help but wish that it had all been preserved. I guess that’s not the way of history though.

For some reason most of the dogs we saw in Cordoba are German Shepherds – all of them with their tongue almost touching the ground. It’s unconscionable. It’s way too hot in this town and the old quarter was full of tourists so we hid out in the hotel room and drained the mini bar until evening. We tried to go to the pool but it was closed so we took a lovely walk around the mosque and old city walls again.

Seville

12-05-15 (Cordoba / Seville / Jerez)

More freeway, we hate freeways. And more cows but now there are some garlic farms and many many more olive orchards. The air was full of the smell of them and Matt smelled sherry as well at one point. Sevilla was bigger than expected and apparently had hosted the Olympics at some point as we recognized the infrastructure pieces that seem to accompany them. It’s also much cooler than we expected (32 instead of 38, at least for now) and we’re so grateful but still astounded to see guys walking around in the sun in black suits, or a FUR shop! There are orange trees with fruit on the growing everywhere on the streets and beautiful purple flowering trees that I think must be Jacarandas. We didn’t have much time in Seville, unfortunately, but we headed to Zelai for lunch where we had jamón and manchego cheese (both delicious, but possibly a poor choice to fill up on), patates ali-oli with saffron, tuna tataki and croquettes. Simply prepared, for the most part, but it was some of the best food we’ve had in Spain. For dessert we had a PB & jam pudding with a chocolate top that I thought was pretty good. Driving out of Seville I was so distracted by the incredibly beautiful architecture and wished we were able to stay longer to explore. Gorgeous palace after bull ring after manor houses…even the tourist information booth was in a beautiful building. And then we were back on the freeway with nothing much to look at but at least we were glad of the breeze.

Andalusia

Passed several castles in the afternoon. We seem to be in the part of Spain (mountainous but near enough the coast) that has one on every hilltop. I tried to get Matt to stop several times but I couldn’t get his attention. He’s been trying to ride more and more like a Spaniard which is better for the flow of traffic but means we’re passing dramatically and I’m often left with very little space. Hopefully it will make me a better rider and not just bitter but the heat and angry pressure building meant that I was in a pretty terrible mood when we stopped in Arcos de la Frontera and Matt yelled at me for not knowing where we were. Obviously there is a need for yelling when we’re both wearing earphones but he’s the one with the GPS so the conversation was maybe besides the point. Turns out there’s nothing to see in Arcos so we pressed on, melting.

We had reservations at the Sherry Park hotel which cracked me up for its Britishness but it is apparently the best-rated hotel in Jerez. We must have looked sunburnt, sweaty and miserable (never how we must have smelled!) because the clerk, Kino (who turned out to be awesome) joked with us that riding a moto in this weather, with this gear, is more like riding a sauna with wheels. So true. I would have laughed but all I could managed was a weak smile.

In the room we cranked the AC and drank 2 beers and 2 waters each before hopping in a cool shower. When we felt human again we went down the tho pool and I ordered some fino sherry (Tio Mateo). The bartender free-poured it, filling up my glass and it cost only €1,50. l love this country! Our new friend Kino recommended a little walk into town so we could get some photos and sample some Jerez cuisine (and sherry of course). Lovely man. When I asked about sherry bodegas he asked how much of a rush we were in in the AM because it was day off and he would be happy to take us to some special ones, but we had a big day ahead of us so we sadly had to skip it.

Jerez

We hadn’t expected anything of Jerez, just a place to sleep and maybe some sherry but we ended up falling in love with it. It has such a character all its own and I can’t help but think that that’s what Barcelona was to be like before all the tourists arrived. The first place we stopped was called Tabanco Plateros and I ordered a palo cortado sherry (which Matt admitted to liking although he still ordered beer for himself) and some delicious fresh cheese – payoyo, I think it was called – with morcilla. The morcilla was hella oily but the flavour was excellent. Same with the plate of green olives that arrived with the sherry. The place was packed and full of excellent energy and an accordion player came by for a while. I could have stayed there for a week butI wanted to see some of the town before dark.

Sherry

From there we walked through the old town (drunk) and took some photos of the cathedral and the square and the crazy swallows flying and chirping all over the place – feeding, I guess – and the sherry bodegas that are right smack in the middle of the old town. The restaurant Kino had recommended was a gastrobar called Reina something or other and was so adorable. They brought a table outside onto the street patio for us because it was still too hot to eat inside and then a bottle of wine (but no ice and no opener!). Lorenzo our waiter was so clumsy he kept tripping over Matt and stepping on his feet, so we laughed a lot, even more after we got the wine opened.

Gibraltar

12-05-16 (Jerez / Gibraltar / Ronda / Granada)

So much wind today! We are tilting at windmills for real as we get buffeted around. And it’s mercifully cold – down as low as 19 degrees today which is a shock after seeing 37 inland. The Rock of Gibraltar was significantly more impressive than we expected; coming down the hill into town we could see it shrouded in mist and all the ships in the harbour, but the “town” is pretty much nonexistent.

Ronda

The ride from Marbella up to Ronda was SPECTACULAR; cold, warm, cold, warmer, hot, hotter / oceanside, foothills, pine tree scrub, shale, farmland, village / sea level, ~3500 ft, etc. grinning the whole time. And then we got to Ronda, a beautiful little village with the oldest and most beautiful bull ring in Spain and the Medieval bridge through the gorge. We also found a whole bunch of tour buses.

More crazy wind, then some crazy traffic and we were ready to be off the bikes but Granada is super gorgeous once you get up the hill into the old town. And then we saw why so many reviews said the hotel was “tricky to get to” because we were up and down and around on ancient, steep, slippery cobblestones. At one point I was watching to see which way Matt was going to turn and realized that the road only went one way – and the other way was stairs! Our hotel was amazing – a 600 year old manor house on the hill overlooking the Alhambra. It has a decorative pool in the courtyard and lovely wood detailing everywhere and heavy ornate metal latches. Also the parking garage has an elevator so that was pretty cool.

Alhambra

We hadn’t bought our tickets to Alhambra in advance because we weren’t sure which day were were going to arrive but we also knew that it sold out quickly, so we walked down the hill that our hotel was on (in the Albayzín district) and up the hill that the Alhambra was on where the ticket sellers just told us to come early in the morning. It’s a beautiful walk through the gate and gardens though, so it was pleasant enough. For dinner we made the mistake of asking the hotel for a reco and he sent us to a super tourist place whose patio looked out to the Alhambra. It was very lovely and romantic but the food was predictably mediocre.

Alhambra

12-05-19 (Granada / Calahonda)

The hours that we spent waiting in line disappeared pretty quickly once we got inside the grounds of the Alhambra. It was a fortress and a palace through several generations so there are different areas to visit that are interesting in different ways. We say the beautiful rose gardens and fountains with the ancient water delivery systems (turned over roof tiles joined together to form a trough that takes water all over the hill) and the old dungeons and watchtower and then we had a bit of a wait before we could get into the gorgeous Nazarene palaces.  I sat Matt in the shade and got him a beer and a jamón sandwich, most of which he ended up feeding to the feral cats (who figured out pretty quickly that we were a good mark).

Alhambra

The palaces are incredibly gorgeous. It’s hard to imagine the work that must have gone into the detailing, where every surface in some of the rooms had been covered. In others, beautiful fountains and pools were the focus, or a quiet garden that looked out onto the town. I’ve been in love with this aesthetic most of my lift and to see it in person was almost overwhelming. I could have spent days in there.

Calahonda

We decided not to stay another night in Granada but instead head out to the coast where we expected it to be cooler, so we got packed up and put the bikes in the elevator. It turned out to be one of our less good ideas because we were hot and tired from walking around Alhambra all day but also because the ancient cobblestones had become slick with oil and heat during the day and were at their absolute worst by mid-afternoon. As the parking garage was at the top of a steep hill, this made is something akin to riding a motorcycle down a ski hill – with cars on it. Matt did okay but my boot slipped while I was balancing on a slick part of the street and I dropped my bike. That made me cranky but even worse was that we changed our plans and just ate at a tourist shop facing Alhambra at the bottom of the hill and for the second time in two days we had a bad meal in Spain.

The drive to the coast was not long and it did mercifully get cooler as we got towards the water. Apparently Spain had been in some kind of heat wave (no shit!) that was almost over as well but it seemed like maybe poor timing now that we were finally at the beach. We stopped in the first hotel in the first town (Calahonda), happy to be off the bikes and out of the heat, then went down to the bar on the beach. We just sat there until the restaurant opened (in the same  space as the bar) and thought that we would see a menu but the waiter just brought me more wine and then started bringing us food. There was a lovely salad with smoked salmon followed by a fish casserole (caught right in front of where we were sitting) and some toro (bull) meat. When we were full, we told him and he brought us some fruit and an after-dinner drink. It was so easy and unpretentious and lovely. Also one of the best meals we had the whole trip.

Peniscola

12-05-20 (Calahonda / Benisanó) 

As we started riding up the Costa del Sol, two things happened – the “sol” disappeared in the rain and we arrived at the Spain that is familiar to German, French and British holiday-makers – tri-lingual picture menus and huge billboards advertising patio furniture rentals, etc. We had thought that we would just ride up the coast until we found another cute little town to stay in but the roads have been expertly designed to get traffic in and out of these small towns quickly and so you turn off of the super highway onto a smaller one and then onto the road that leads to your town. To get out or even to get to the next town you do the same in reverse. That sucks for motorcycling and the rain isn’t great either so we just kept going until we got to Valencia – the next town that I knew I for sure wanted to visit.

Except that we didn’t stop in Valencia but kept going on to the suburb of Benisanó. The only thing that I wanted to do in Valencia was eat a proper paella (although there are a couple of nice restaurants in that stretch that I would have liked to eat at, had we been able to get in) and so Matt looked up the primo place to eat paella and it turned out that it’s Levante, out in the suburbs. There’s only one hotel in Benisanó – a classy joint that has put a potted plant in front of the  2 Star plaque out front – and so we stayed in it, in a room that felt like the spare room at an estate museum or something. There was a dresser that looked like it had been got at a garage sale and although I think we and the people next to us were probably the only four people staying in the whole place, they had put us right next to each other and the walls were so thin that we could hear the guy yelling at his wife from the shower. But no matter, we were going to have paella for dinner and then we were going to leave so we just needed to find a couple of hours to fill until then and as we had discovered on this trip, beer does a pretty great job of filling an afternoon.

Luckily the paella place was just a few doors down so I went and checked every so often it kept stubbornly being closed.  Finally we asked the hotel proprietor and he said in his very limited English that he thought it wasn’t open. That seemed pretty obvious so after a while I asked if we could have paella there in the hotel restaurant and he looked surprised but said he thought they might have some left over from lunch. They did and we ate it while sulking a bit. Later we learned that paella is usually cooked outside over fires made with orange wood and that it’s traditionally made by men who were out working in the fields. For this reason, it’s usually a lunch dish rather than eaten for dinner. Try again tomorrow.

12-05-21 (Benisanó / Peníscola / Barcelona)

Checked out and went and parked ourselves at the cafe next door to Levante. I got crankier and crankier as we filled up on snacks from a suburban Spanish bakery and the paella place never opened. Finally we had to leave and now I will have to come back to this shit town again some day and stay in this shit hotel just to eat paella.

As we rode out of town though we passed orange grove after orange grove and the smell was intoxicating. I always tell people that motorcycles are the best way to travel because you are so connected to the land – the terrain, the climate, the smells – and travelling from Barcelona through Madrid and then Andalusia we passed through the countryside experiencing the things that we would eat at the next town; fields of garlic, olive orchards, orange groves, etc.  Some of these things weren’t pleasant (the pig farms in particular) and when we crested a hill outside Valencia and saw a fire filling the sky with black smoke, we prepared to ride fast through it and hold our breaths against the acridness. The opposite thing happened though. It turned out to be a fire in an orange grove and it was the smell of smoky perfume, spicy pot pourri…the smell of our denied paellas cooking on an open fires of orange wood…If it weren’t for the ERT vehicles we may have turned around and rode through it again and again. It didn’t quite make up for not eating paella but that was a pretty amazing experience.

Stopped in Peníscola (another poor Spanish town about to be overrun by sun-seeking tourists) for lunch and had a lovely meal on the beach of cuttlefish, cheese and Albariño before pressing on to Barcelona. So tired and achey now. I actually have bruises on my ass from riding so hard and just desperately wanted to be off the bike but as we were riding through Penedès (cava wine country) I couldn’t help but signal to Matt that I wanted to pull over and buy some. He looked pretty incredulous – we’d been travelling around Spain for weeks with strangely-shaped, un-flexible luggage the size of overnight bags and in every town I had found something that I wanted to buy. Matt would hold it up against his hard case (he had a bigger bike so therefor bigger bags) and tell me I could get the smaller one. About 2/3rds of the way through the trip he threw out some of his underwear to make room for some regional delicacy I couldn’t live without. So in Penedès he told me I could have ONE bottle of wine and that was it, then he went to the bathroom. 

The proprietor showed me around his operation, through the cellar and the storeroom and finally told me about each of the different wines. He was doing it in Catalan though, and so when he said that the bottles were €60, €70 and €90 each and I just about died because it was the most expensive cava I had ever seen in my life, he actually meant €6 – €9. I wish I had a truck.

Matt rented us a super posh hotel on the water in Barcelona so we just cruised up to the door and parked our filthy, bug-encrusted bikes on the sidewalk beside the luxury cars and went inside to drink our wine. Wanted to go to Cal Pep but it was closed so ducked out of the rain around the corner in a super cute tapas place that we hadn’t seen yet called Bastaix. We had fava beans with jamón iberico and mint, piquillo peppers with goat cheese and honey, morcilla sausage on toast with roasted apple and cheese, a plate of manchego, and some nice Albariño. For dessert there was that gorgeous chocolate ganache and EVOO and sea salt dessert and more PX (from Alvarez this time) which  Matt enjoyed. He seems to be a convert.

We had an unexpected couple of days in Barcelona that we thought were were going to spend along the coast but it was raining and we were tired and the  jamón iberico at the hotel was excellent so we laid low and feasted, shopped, planned our next trip – to Northern Spain…

 

Here are all the photos from our trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157629894497730/

 

Prague

Charles Bridge

After Kiev, Prague felt like fairy tale. Not a candy-coated one Disney one with their plethora of princesses, but more of a dark Brothers Grimm one, with something a bit sinister in it. The book I’m reading cautions about applying too much myth and mysticism to the city but it’s hard to avoid. Walking from the Hradcany castle district, over the Charles Bridge to the old town (a walk that I did every day I was there, for various reasons), there are secrets and mysteries tucked into every corner; in the almost unpronounceable language, behind the ornate house insignia in the upper old town, and of course in the architecture.

Hradcany

Prague was one of the few cities in Europe that was never bombed or burned and so you can see how the city has grown over time; Gothic, then Baroque, then Renaissance, then Neo-Gothic, then Modern…all crammed up against each other. Like most European towns, there is a castle on the high ground but in Prague the castle is a relatively modern addition and really more of a palace so what you see towering above is instead St. Vitus Cathedral.

We were staying in Smíchov, a non-touristy neighbourhood about 40 minutes away from the Stare Mesto old town / down town and while there is a good transit system in place, I like walking and was too busy to get in any runs in Prague, so I just walked to town along the Vlatava river every day, and then up to the Hradčany castle district. I didn’t mean to go every day…the first day we were exploring as a group and then the second day I went to spend more time on my own. Later I went to check out the Loreto of Prague, a baroque Catholic church and cloister and Strahov Monastery, with its grand library and Cabinet of Oddities a little farther up the hill but it got so that I enjoyed the slow transition from bustling everyday working Prague, through the dog park and past the art gallery along the river to the Charles Bridge and then into the tight meandering and steep streets up to the castle, and so I just walked.

Tyn Church

From there I would walk down through the maze of paths and streets back over the bridge to the Old Town Square. This is a beautiful spot, with Tyn Church (above), the  Astronomical clock (below) and Town Hall, several street food vendors, a Baroque church, a carriage stop and many restaurants. It’s also a fine time to mention the tourists.

Weddings

I know it seems like after Kiev, I may have been pining for a tour bus but not only do I don’t care for swarms of tourists, but I generally don’t like a lot of tourist attractions either. I hate eating non-local food when I’m travelling (unless it’s somehow relevant and culturally important), I don’t get the point of 90% of souvenirs and tourist escapades and reenactments that take advantage of / bar you from seeing historical buildings and sites fill me with rage. Prague has a reputation for being a bit of a tourist trap so I was a bit worried about it, but it turned out to be just fine. That’s not to say that I didn’t see the potential and preparedness for the tourist hoards – in the multitude of tiny museums, menus with pictures and 6 language sections and wide open spaces in restaurant back rooms and in front of ticket kiosks – so I know they must come, but during a rainy week in September it was really quite manageable.

Astronomical clock

I crossed the bridge several times a day, at all hours, and was never stuck in a bottleneck of tourists, I had no issues with scams (other than being given a heaving plate of Prague ham sold by weight when I had asked for one order – but it was delicious), and I criss-crossed town square almost every day without tripping over anyone. Yes, there were bagpipes and some offensive thing being done to Mozart on an organ and plenty of tourists taking horse-drawn carriage rides but they were easy enough to avoid and so worth dodging for the sake of looking at this beautiful church. On one evening we ate on a patio in the square and as the light got dimmer and dimmer, I kept taking “just one more photograph” until I had a collection but the beautiful black powder towers with their sky-reaching spires are straight out of that fairy tale I mentioned, especially when golden hour hits.

Charles Bridge

I had the same relationship with Charles bridge. Our first sighting of it was midday with the whole group of Matt’s coworkers so we only saw a small part of it at it’s most crowded but I came back to it several times over the next few days. One magical evening when I was rushing home after a day of wandering and shopping (Matt was sick at the hotel) I saw that it was golden hour and tried to catch the light on the bridge for some photographs. I just missed it but saw that glass-harp player Alexander Zoltan was setting up in between the artist stands and could not help but stay for a bit of his performance. He played Air on the G string exceptionally well – on water glasses! and he was funny too. So I stayed and listened then continued on my way back to the Smíchov neighbourhood, only to see that the lights had just come on on the bridge and a full moon was rising over it, white swans gliding silently by underneath. It made for some gorgeous imagery but between the swans and the music and the lovers leaning into corners and the just-right temperature of the air, it was almost too much so I got an ice cream and walked home the long way, stopping to listen to more street musicians with a dopey smile on my face. I will never forget it.

Strahov Monastery

Another favourite stop was the Strahov Monastery library at the Loreta of Prague. The chapel and cloister were closed so I missed seeing the statue of St. Wilgefortis in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows which made me so sad, but I did get to see the library’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The cabinet of curiosities is the precursor to modern museums with their collections of oddities. I’d never seen one before and I was surprised to see that more than half of the collection was marine-related, including many extinct species. This collection came to the monastery from the estate 1798 when Prague’s access to the see would have been very limited, so it makes sense that there would be a fascination with those kinds of objects.

Trdelnik

Czech food is ridiculously heavy and clearly meant to stick to your ribs; goulash (gulášovka) with both bread and potato dumplings (knedlíky), fried cheese (smažený sýr), sausage (klobása), Prague ham, lots of pork and other roasts, fruit dumplings (ovocné knedlíky) and lots of beer. There is occasionally a vegetable, although it’s usually cabbage. It all comes in enormous sizes and quantities and costs virtually nothing so it’s hard not to over-order every single time – especially as it was almost universally delicious. I had read an article before we left about a regional specialty involving marinated head cheese and Matt was trepidacious but even that turned out to be tasty.

On my last night I had to order something that I’d seen on all the menus but hadn’t had the stomach space to order yet – a Bohemian pork knuckle braised in beer with apple horseradish, mustard and pickled vegetables. It comes to the table on a tray, an absolutely massive thing with a knife simply sticking out of the top of it. I did my best but if we lived in Prague that would have come home with me to be an entire second dinner.

There is a strange round pastry called trdelnik (above) which is sweet dough wrapped on a roller and dusted with sugar and almonds before being cooked over an open flame. It’s usually sold on the street and there are trdelnik shops all around the old town so we had it a couple of times.

Patio

Czechs drink more beer per capita than anyone else in the world and so it’s easy to come by. The beer is as plentiful (and enormous, and cheap) as the food and I truly don’t understand why everyone here isn’t obese or at least very stout. Pilsner Urquell and seems to owns this town with buddies Budvar and Staropramen and every square has at least one (but usually several) patios filled with umbrellas and signs indicating the particular brewery loyalty.

Beer

But the real fun is in the beer halls. U Fleků beer hall is the oldest in Prague and seats 1200 so I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hofbräuhaus in Munich, although here their only beer is a special 13% dark beer that they’ve been making since they opened in 1499. It’s not heavy or overly flavourful, just nice and strong and the guy with the tray comes by often, handing them out to anyone who makes a move. There was also a choice of honey or herbal “aperitif” that turned out to be a shot, handed out by an adorably pushy waiter and a series of rotating accordion players, including one that looked like Super Mario.  I also went to U Černého Vola – a tavern where the decor is medieval, the beer is good and dark, and the barmen are the appropriate combination of friendly and surly – and U Medvídků.

Smoking inside is strangely permitted for such a modern European country but after picking up an ashtray in Andorra last year and looking at it from all angles before deciding it was some kind of weird vase, we were at least a little more prepared for the possibility here.

Ossuary

One of the days found me in the  small town of Kutná Hora, east of Prague, where I went to see the Sedlac Ossuary, a.k.a. the bone church. The ossuary has 40,000+ bones stacked in the basement of a church. They had been dug up from surrounding lands (that were to be used for something else) and brought to the church where they were washed by a half-blind monk and later they were made into artful piles and decorations. It looks cool but there wasn’t much of a story there so I was surprised to find myself more interested in the rest of the tour.

Kutná Hora is an old silver mining town that dates back to the 10th century. It had the deepest mine in the middle ages – 500m deep – and the only way in and out was by climbing up and down a ladder single file. A mint was created and all that silver coming through town meant that it was the second richest city in the Czech lands. It competed with Prague for centuries during which time they built a gorgeous Gothic cathedral (that still has Gothic and Renaissance paintings on the wall), a beautifully decorated Gothic home and even a Gothic water cistern. As the town became richer they moved the town hall to the Italian Court with intricately painted walls (especially in the gorgeous – but not photos allowed! – Chapel of St. Wenceslas) and built a promenade reminiscent of the Charles bridge in Prague.

Cesky Krumlov

On our last day Matt and I went to Český Krumlov, a small town that is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like all towns, the castle is front and centre but being so close to the Austrian border and at the valley’s entrance leading to Prague, this one is actually quite well fortified. The castle uses the river partly as a moat (and live bears at the gate) with sheer walls rising up from the water. Inside the walls are painted to look like architectural details, a technique that I liked but Matt found distracting. The bus trip took a couple of hours which didn’t leave us much time to look around, but it’s a small town and by the time we walked up the tower and through the grounds and down to the town we were pretty much done. It would have been nice to spend an evening checking out the pubs and restaurants but we hopped back on the bus to Prague instead.

Cesky Krumlov

We loved Prague and the Czech countryside and can’t wait to go back and explore it  some more. The people are generally pretty awesome, but they are not universally nice (which is okay because between the $2 beer and fairy tale towers there are enough tourists). People smile and say good morning to you, and there is a genuine warmth. They were out enjoying the September days, drinking beer on patios or walking dogs in parks…it was just wonderful.

Charles Bridge

Here are the rest of my photos from the trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157635563944293/

Kiev

Nesting dolls

Things I knew about Ukraine before this trip included: the painstakingly decorated Easter eggs,  the traditional women’s dress is a heavily embroidered white tunic with garlands of flowers (sadly, it occurs to me that I probably know this because of the Olympics), it is a former Soviet republic and this is the land of perogies, borscht and vodka and Chicken Kiev.

I had wanted to travel somewhere I had never been this fall. And more than that, I wanted to travel somewhere I didn’t know much about. I was searching for a place to explore and in doing so spend some time exploring myself and thinking about what my next steps are for my career and work. I had narrowed it down to Japan, India and Israel when Matt proposed another option: Kiev and Prague. He was going on a business trip and invited me to come along. Obviously I jumped at the chance.

Kiev

After being in Kiev for a week I feel like I know a lot more but I’m still not entirely sure where to start. It’s a strange town. In place of the easter eggs, flowers and Soviet stuff (although there traces of those too) is some incredible architecture. I’ve been running every morning that it’s not been raining and even on the side streets outside of town there are enormous, beautifully decorated and colourful buildings, some recently revived, some in need of repair and some in progress – with printed scaffolding over top to shop what the building is meant to look like. Probably there are modern buildings somewhere in the city but I haven’t seen many.

Lavra

The next thing of note are all the churches. The beautiful golden domes of the Russian Orthodox churches peek out from the colourful buildings at every turn, or at least it seems so from our hotel, which is positioned right between St. Sophia’s cathedral (an almost 1000 year old cathedral with its wedding-cake bell tower) and St. Michael’s Golden-domed monastery. St. Andrew’s is a short walk away and looks like it should be some giantess’ jewelry box but the inside is not my favourite – it’s too red and ornate and comes off looking a bit gaudy. Instead I love St. Volodymyr’s which on the outside is a pretty standard issue Neo-Byzantine cathedral but inside is all black and gold and candlelight, making it hard not to feel the glow.

Icon

But Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery / Kiev Monastery of the Caves is HQ for Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine. They believe it is one of four places in the world where the Virgin Mary lives and there are also 73 “imperishable relics” – the bodies of saints who were buried in the caves and who have been deemed uncorrupted. That belongs firmly on the list of things I didn’t know about Ukraine before this week. The top part of the complex is maintained by the church but feels fairly secular – there are many churches but also souvenir stands and a series of museums. I wandered around there for a bit and then went to the lower part, it was obvious that something very different was happening…by now I had noticed that women cover their heads when they’re in the church and so I had been trying to do the same on my visits but here all the women’s heads were covered and everyone bowed and crossed themselves coming through the gate. But there were no tourists, no English words anywhere and I had no idea what was going on, so I went back up to the gate and bought a tour.

Church

The first order of business was getting dressed to go underground. Women have to have covered arms, a covered head and wear a long skirt and there are wraps to be bought or borrowed for this purpose. My tour guide was lovely and patient with all of my questions but as she explained all the mysteries of the saints to me and how they died and how to pray to them, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. It was unbearably hot in the catacombs with all the people and my jeans / skirt / shirt / wrap / headscarf combo, not to mention that there are no lights – just a few candles above the relics – so everyone carries a candle in their hand, trying not to get beeswax all over the place as people jostle against each other in the narrow corridors. But that’s not what made me uncomfortable , it was because I was the only tourist in a place packed with pilgrims waiting patiently for me to get out of the way so they could access the relics.

I’m so glad I went but I will be processing it for a while….what it means to be a tourist and what a privilege it is. No photos were allowed down there (and I wouldn’t have taken any in any case) but Wikipedia has one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iliya_Muromets_Kiev.jpg.

Dumplings

There is PLENTY of perogies, borscht and vodka. Actually they are no perogies but varenyky (or vareniki), the difference being that perogies seem to be baked or fried after they’re cooked and varenyky are simply boiled or steamed. There are no perogies that I have seen but varenyky are all over the place, in all kinds of flavours, as well as pelmeni – which are filled with raw meat and then cooked whole. So far I’ve had mushroom (pelmeni and varenyky), and cabbage, potato, meat, sour cherry and blueberry varenyky and you would think that I would be getting tired of them by now but I assure you that I have a very high dumpling threshold. My favourite by a long shot are the sour cherry and I want to try the poppyseed ones before we leave but I’ve had sour cherry three times now and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to come away from it.

Borscht is predictably delicious and slightly different everywhere but it always comes with a side of garlic brioche and sour cream. Actually everything comes with sour cream and you always get a basket of bread with a meal (including with the borscht and brioche). Chicken Kiev is apparently Russian in origin but Ukrainians have either adopted it or they share a common love of cutlets because there are plenty of similar items on the menus under different names. All of the fried things I’ve had in Kiev thus far have just tasted like oil though, so I am not a fan.

And of course there is vodka. We have had lots of local beer and been happy with it (Stare Misto and Bitburger are the favourites) and there is wine from the area but vodka is everywhere. So far we’ve had regular, organic, honey-pepper, cranberry and horseradish. The horseradish smelled like it came out of a barn but on the palate it was beautiful – infused with horseradish for certain, but also honey and raisins and some other things. I’ve been told that no one drinks vodka for the taste but I might have to argue for this one because it was amazing. Unfortunately it is house-made and not available in store but our other favourite is honey-pepper. It’s infused with honey and a bird’s eye pepper and is so perfectly balanced between sweet and spicy that shooting it feels smooth and natural. This one was hard to find but I was able to source a couple of bottles. I guess it really wouldn’t be that hard to make either.

What else? There is so much bread that I’m beside myself, lots for breakfast along with cold cuts, sausage, cheeses and two kinds of smoked herring. There is also kasha, a mushy Russian granola / porridge which is interesting. For lunch I’ve been having beer and dumplings and in between there are amazing pastries – my favourites are raspberry or the new-to-me combination of pineapple and ricotta or cottage cheese. Sounds weird but it’s delicious. Almost every restaurant has shashlik – barbecued shish kebabs – cooked over an open fire and salo (lard) shows up a lot too. Basically it is just pork fat, so that takes some getting used to but it does help with all the vodka.

Embroidery

The thing that has made me the most sad is that the people have not been kind. My favourite thing about travelling is meeting new people and finding out how they live but in Kiev Matt has been working and I have spent most of the week alone. It might be that I have bright red hair now and tattoos (although I’ve tried to keep both of those covered) or that we’re staying in a luxury hotel that alienates us from both the hoi polloi and the nouveau riche, or that I don’t speak a word of Russian OR Ukrainian…or that they don’t have a culture of tourism here. But I don’t think so. I had been warned that smiling was not part of the culture but I thought that people would still be nice under their stoicism. I know many Ukrainians in Canada who are incredibly warm and I have no doubt that they are friendly with each other so I have spent a lot of time thinking about it as I move from park to cafe to park with my book.

The season has definitely turned here and there has been a beautiful fall breeze rustling the chestnut trees. For the most part I’m happy to be outside and I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking. What must it take to make an entire nation of people shut down and turn inward? What has the cost been of being kind to strangers? We come from a place of enormous privilege in North America, not only because we are able to afford to travel and stay in a golden hotel and speak our own language to the locals but because we can even afford to have a culture of tourism that enables us to travel to places only to see them. Being part of a culture that is welcoming to strangers is a privilege. Smiling easily is a privilege. I purposely skipped the Museum to the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the Chernobyl Museum and the Babyn Yar mass grave site because I am too sensitive but being sensitive is an enormous privilege. I have a lot more thinking to do about this but there will be no sitting in parks today; it is pouring rain in Kiev and we leave for Prague in a few hours.

Art market

Here are my photos from Kiev:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157635493893362/