Spain (Revisited)

Walterses

Travelling through Europe, taking photos of doors and writing in cafes has made me think a lot about our trip through Spain last year (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.

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 any of his Catalan dialect, he shrugged and pulled the mirrors in and then 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 basilica, the Sagrada Familia (above) and passed three of his other works – Casa Mila, Casa Amatller, and Casa Batlló. On the 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, it 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

The evening at El Celler de Can Roca was the best experience I have ever had in a restaurant. Everything was perfect. Afterwards, we met the chef and he thanked me for my sensitivity – what I had called “our gushing” about how good everything was.

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. A small town (Orriol maybe?) smelled so fantastically like cheese it made me grin, and later a low-flying plane crossed over the road above us to land in a field which was delightful. It can be 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, but on the other hand it makes you appreciate the moments a bit more and try to remember them for later.

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 back out again! 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, 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 neat to think that these towns would have been about a day’s journey on foot between each other and we just whipped by them.

Andorra

The approach to Andorra looks so much like Bavaria or BC – 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. As soon as we crossed the border, it felt like we were in a mall. But the scenery was pretty glorious, and the road up and down the summit was incredible – the switchbacks were so severe that Matt and I were almost facing each other a couple of times. Andorrans drive like assholes, though, and there were several tracks off into the air so I took it pretty slowly. It’s hard to believe that we went from sea level to glacier on the same day, through 3 countries. By far the best day riding of my life.

By then, I was ready to be off the bike – I was tired and thirsty and headachy, and my shoulders were quite sore from getting used to the ergonomics on the bike. 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 finally we had arrived in town, but there was a river and such a long, drawn-out town you never did see.  Finally, we arrived at the hotel after 14 hours of riding but in going around the block, got ourselves stranded at the top of an incredibly steep, narrow dead end. The road just ended 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 so much, especially to be dealing with it when we were so exhausted, but we got back down the hill without issue, and then 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. We checked in, ate dinner across the street and threw ourselves into sleep.

Leaving the next day, Matt didn’t yield at a courtesy corner, braked too hard and came off his bike. He was ok but we were definitely ready to move on. 

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 there were some bits of interesting scenery (including an area that looked for all the world like Utah…except for the fields of windmills and huge toro silhouettes periodically placed on hillsides. I guess they don’t call it the Sierra Nevada in both counties for nothing). We met an excited truck driver at a gas station near Zaragosa and had quite a long conversation…while actually exchanging very little information. He was a motorcyclist too, and we watched some Moto GP videos of Rossi on his phone.

Arriving in Madrid was busy but sane. Drivers are assertive but logical and there is respect for motorcyclists. The city seems electric with energy. We were surprised that we felt so good after such a long ride 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 full of gratitude and appreciation to be able to see it in person. It’s one that really requires a visit to understand its utter immensity. 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 sheer 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 of them but Matt was getting tired so we didn’t stay too long. We left and found a nice spot overlooking the city where we could rest and have a beer 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 nice to hang out with Spaniards and watch the footy game that was happening in a field 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 just a regular Saturday night. This city is so alive! Every bar was packed to the gills and we could hear music and people out partying until almost morning. We were in bed early though – 700km and a museum and tapas was enough for one day.

Madrid

12-05-13 (Madrid)

We toured the Prado today. The whole thing. 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 tired 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 be sliced sitting 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 some that were even 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 at us – most of them were eating tapas that looked like little cheeseburger sliders.

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

Cordoba

12-05-14 (Madrid / Cordoba)

Madrid appears to be surrounded by farmland and the only ways in and out are via massive freeways. This leg to Cordoba was even more boring than the last freeway jaunt but we did see some vineyards and olive groves. It’s pretty cool to be able to smell olive oil in the air.

It is 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 and we got settled in then decided to go out and see the mosque-cathedral.  Possibly it would have been better to wait until later because even in a summer dress, it was still so hot. We were cranky and sweating before we had even made it all the way across the river.

The mosque-cathedral (way more mosque than cathedral despite the altar in the middle and the various chapels around the perimeter) was stunningly beautiful with its rows of candy-cane arches and forest of pillars.

Seville

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

The agriculture between towns is now predominantly olive groves, (with a few cattle ranches and garlic farms). The air was full of the smell of olives, and Matt smelled sherry too. Sevilla was bigger than we expected and apparently had hosted the Olympics at some point. It’s much cooler than we expected (32 degrees instead of 38, at least for now) and we’re so grateful, but also 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 Sevilla, 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. For dessert, we had a PB & jam pudding with a chocolate top that was also delicious. Simply prepared, for the most part, but it was some of the best food we’ve had in Spain. Driving out of Sevilla 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. I often say I want to return to places to see more but Sevilla is high on the list.

Andalusia

Back in the open countryside, we passed several castles. We seem to be in the part of Spain (mountainous but near enough to the coast) that has one on every hilltop. The heat was rising continuously and out in the open fields, bugs were sticking to the bikes.  We stopped in Arcos de la Frontera but we were cranky and couldn’t find anything other than a local town, so we pressed on, melting.

We had made 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 manage 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). Our new friend, Kino, had recommended a little walk into town so we could get some photos and sample some Jerez cuisine – and sherry of course).

Jerez

We hadn’t expected much 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 but I wanted to see some more of the town before dark.

Sherry

We had a lovely wander through town, 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 in the middle of the old town. The restaurant Kino had recommended was a gastro bar called Reina something or other and was so adorable. It was still too hot to eat inside, so the staff brought a table out into the street for us, along with a bottle of wine. Lorenzo our waiter was so clumsy he kept tripping over Matt and stepping on his feet but we all laughed a lot and had a really lovely evening.

Gibraltar

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

So much wind today! We were tilting at windmills for real as we got buffeted around. And it’s mercifully cool – down as low as 19 degrees today which is a shock after seeing almost 40 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 so we rode through.

Ronda

The roads from Marbella up to Ronda were SPECTACULAR; cold, warm, cold, warmer, hot, hotter / oceanside, foothills, pine tree scrub, shale, farmland, village / sea level to 3500 ft, etc. and us grinning the whole time. Ronda is a beautiful little village with the oldest and most beautiful bull ring in Spain and the Medieval bridge spanning the gorge. It seems like a popular spot for tours because there were a lot of tour buses in the parking lot, but we didn’t notice too many people as we walked around the town.

We rode through more crazy wind as we pressed on to Granada, and  then through some crazy traffic before we arrived, butwe were agog with the old town even before we got off the bikes.  We had reserved at a beautiful Moorish hotel but many of the reviews said that it was “tricky to get to”. We soon realized what was meant by this as we rode up and down and around – and also backtracked several times – 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 had a decorative pool in the courtyard and lovely wood detailing everywhere with heavy ornate metal latches. To preserve the effect, the parking garage had an elevator that we just rode into, so that was pretty neat too.

Alhambra

We hadn’t bought our tickets to Alhambra in advance because we weren’t sure which day we would be arriving, but we also knew that passes sold out quickly, so as soon as we were settled, we walked down the hill that our hotel was on (in the Albayzín district) and up the hill that the Alhambra was on. We got the information that we needed – to come early the next morning – and so were able to enjoy the walk back and take in the beautiful gardens, imposing gate, and all of the shops and restaurants and urban details of the neighbourhoods. For dinner we made the mistake of asking the hotel for a recommendation, and the concierge sent us to a super touristy 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 saw 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, the focal point was a beautiful fountain and pools or a quiet garden that looked out onto the town. I’ve been in love with this aesthetic most of my life 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 it 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.

But once we got out of the old town, the drive to the coast was not long and it did mercifully get cooler as we got towards the water. Apparently, Spain (and us) had been in some kind of heatwave that was almost over 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 (right where we were sitting – 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 into rain and we arrived at the part of Spain that is familiar to German, French and British holiday-makers. We started to see 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 there isn’t really a coastal road – you turn off of the superhighway 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.

Valencia is the home of paella. There are several types of paellas and each region does theirs a little bit differently (and also claims that it is the best), but Levante, in the suburb of Benisanó is widely heralded as the best, so that’s where we went. There’s only one hotel in Benisanó (a classy joint that has a potted plant in front of the  2-Star plaque), and so that is where we stayed – 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 acquired 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. The walls were so thin that we could hear the guy yelling at his wife from the shower. But we were excited about having paella for dinner and left to check out the rest of the town.

We arrived at the restaurant in time for dinner, but it was closed so we found a bar a few doors down and ordered some beers. A little while later I went to check but it was still closed. We had learned that the Spanish eat much later than we are accustomed to, but after being in the country for weeks we were pretty on-schedule but every time I checked, it remained stubbornly closed.  Finally, we asked the hotel proprietor and he said in very limited English that he thought it wasn’t open. That was disheartening but tried to order some from the hotel restaurant, which frankly also seemed closed.  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)

We checked out of the hotel and parked ourselves at the cafe next door to Levante. We tried not to get cranky or fill up on snacks while considering that it might not be open at all. Not this weekend, or not this month, or something else altogether.  Eventually, we hopped on the bikes and headed out.

As we rode out of town, 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 potpourri…the smell of our denied paellas cooking on an open fire of orange wood…If it weren’t for the ERT vehicles we may have turned around and ridden through it again and again. It didn’t quite make up for not eating paella but that was a pretty amazing experience.

We stopped in Peníscola (another poor Spanish town about to be overrun by sun-seeking tourists) for lunch and had a lovely meal of cuttlefish, cheese and Albariño on the beach before pressing on to Barcelona. We were so tired and achy and just desperately wanted to be off the bikes 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. 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 had rented us a nice 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. I had been trying to get to Cal Pep for tapas but it hadn’t worked out and here it was closed again, so we 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 / EVOO / sea salt dessert that we had had earlier in the trip 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 we were tired and the  jamón iberico at the hotel was excellent so we laid low and feasted, shopped, and started planning our next trip…to Northern Spain.

Prague

Charles Bridge

After Kiev, Prague felt like a fairy tale. Not a candy-coated Disney one with all the princesses, but more of a dark Brothers Grimm style, 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 / downtown and while there is a good transit system in place, I like walking so I just walked into 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 kept walking.

Tyn Church

The main square 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.

Astronomical clock

I had seen so many pictures of Charles Bridge before I arrived, and I delighted visiting it at all hours of the day, seeing different types of people coming and going – both across it and along the river.  One magical evening I was rushing to try and catch the golden hour 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 when he was finished, I saw that the lights had just come on on the bridge and a full moon was rising over it, white swans gliding silently by underneath, and lovers leaning into corners. I got an ice cream cone and walked home the long way.

Charles Bridge

Similarly, on one evening we ate dinner on a patio in the square and as the light got dimmer and dimmer, I kept taking “just one more photograph” of the beautiful black powder towers until I had amassed quite a collection.

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 in 1798 when Prague’s access to the sea would have been very limited, so it makes sense that there would be a fascination with those kinds of objects.

Weddings

FOOD

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 also 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 came 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.

Trdelnik

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 as enormous, and as 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 own this town – with their 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. But the real fun is in the beer halls.

Beer

U Fleků beer hall is the oldest in Prague and seats 1200 people. It reminded me a lot 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 spent some time in 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.

Ossuary

I took a trip out to the small town of Kutná Hora, east of Prague, to see the Sedlac Ossuary (a.k.a. the bone church). The ossuary has 40,000+ bones stacked in the basement of a church in beautiful formations. 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 arranged ornately.

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 no 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 sheer walls rise up from the water. There are live bears that are still kept at the gate, but mostly for tourist / historical purposes.  Inside, the walls are painted to look like architectural details, a technique that I liked but Matt found distracting. The town was full of local pubs and we spent the evening exploring several along the river.

Cesky Krumlov

We loved Prague and Czech and can’t wait to go back and explore it some more.

Charles Bridge