Ole!

Trip Start Sep 30, 2009
1
27
Trip End Sep 08, 2010


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Where I stayed

Flag of Spain  , Madrid,
Sunday, July 18, 2010

After Italy, we headed for Spain.  Fresh off their World Cup victory we expected that the Spanish would have a brief respite from their economic worries.  The Spanish stock market has fallen 18% so far this year and unemployment is close to the EU high of 20%.  In contrast to Greece, the Spaniards took much of their EU aid money and invested in modernizing the country's infrastructure assets.  As we travelled through the country, we were astonished by the excellent highways, high-speed trains that criss-cross the country and ubiquitous solar and wind farms.  To me, it reinforced a view that America has really fallen behind in terms of transportation and power infrastructure.  The economic situation did have a major benefit.  Spain has always been an affordable destination, but the current economy has made things down right silly.  It was very common to see 70% off sale signs at the retail shops, and you can get a 5 star hotel room for less than 150 euros/day.
 
Our first stop in Spain was Madrid.   Located in the central region of the country, Madrid is the capital of Castillian culture.  Tapas crawls and great museums were the plan.  We stayed in the middle of the golden triangle of museums:  the Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza.  The highlight of all the museums was Picasso's Guernica, a reaction to the political upheaval of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).  
 
Madrelinos have a different eating schedule than Americans.  Lunch is the main meal of the day and in the evening, tapas are consumed at various bars as you make your way to dinner.  I have no idea how these people can eat so much and yet remain skinny.  Tapas dining suited us as we liked the variety of flavors in small portions that allowed us to try so many different types of food.  Aside from traditional cuisine, Spain has been rising in the Michelin rankings due to its very inventive molecular cuisine.  The king of molecular cuisine is undoubtedly Ferran Adria, but his restaurant El Bulli is closing this year for an indefinite amount of time, hence reservations were impossible to obtain (I've been trying for a year).  The next best thing was to eat at La Terraza del Casino, where his protege and the head of El Bulli's Catering presides.  The meal presented us flavor and texture combinations that we had never had before, such as bourbon sorbet made with liquid nitrogen, jamon iberico foam, deconstructed olives, parmesan ice cream sandwiches, lemon meringue prepared with liquid nitrogen.  A very memorable meal - sorry we didn't take any pictures as we didn't want to look like food geeks.
 
Following Madrid, we headed up to Bilbao in the Basque region.  This is the home of the famous Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Bilbao.  The architecture is the attraction as the collection inside pales in comparison - it is mostly pieces from the permanent collection in NY that are in rotation here.  When we were there, they had an Anish Kapoor restropective, which was very thought provoking.
 
Bilbao, itself is the Pittsburgh/Cleveland/Erie of Spain.  Once a rundown industrial port, the town has managed to revive itself through art and architecture.  It's as if the town mandarins decided to call every Pritzker prize winning architect still working and ask them to design a building for the town.  Now the town gets roughly 7 million visitors a year.  Pretty good for a town of 350K permanent inhabitants.
 
The best tapas, or pintxos as they are called here, we had were in Bilbao.  Being close to France, you can see the influence of French cuisine in the cuisine.  Foie gras on toast with fig preserves was one of our favorites.  Langoustine salad with caviar on toast was another.
After spending three days in Bilbao, we took a train along the foothills of the Pyrenees to Barcelona.  The city is young, vibrant and full of merry makers.  One of my cousins lives in Barcelona, so it was nice to have a semi-local show us around the town.  Our favorite museum was the Museo Picasso.  Being from Catalonia, Picasso donated a great many sketches, preparatory drawings, sculpture, and paintings to the city when he passed away.  Here is a museum where you can really see his progression as an artist from his drawings as an art student to his final works.
 
The other famous museum here is the Fondacion Joan Miro.  Set up on Montjuic and overlooking downtown Barcelona, the museum presents the artists six decades of work.  If you are fan of Miro's art, you will be happy to know that towards the end of his life, he strove to find the simplest way to express his ideal.  There are pictures of him drawing figures into beach sand with a stick and then watching the waves wash them away.
 
Barcelona was also the site of an ancient Roman garrison, Barcino.  It is here that Augustus Caesar founded a retirement garrison for some of his soldiers.  Underneath the city hall where Ferdinand and Isabelle received Columbus following his famous trip to the West Indies, are the ruins of Barcino.  You can tour the town via the touring walkways suspended over the site.  Given its location on the Mediterrean Sea, Barcino was famous for making garum.  Garum is the juice of fermented fish.  To SE Asians you will find this very familiar, as it is very much like Vietnamese "nuoc mam nhi" or Thai "nam pla."  The Italians still make a version called "Colatura di Alici."  According to the museum, garum was a favored seasoning of Romans.  This production brought great wealth to Barcino.  Walking around the museum, you can see the major components of the production line that was used.
 
You can't write about Barcelona without mentioning Gaudi.  His highly individualist designs pushed the barriers of Modernism.  One of his most famous buildings is the still unfinished Sagrada Familia.  Sadly he was hit by a street car in 1926 and died a few days later.  The city is still trying to finish the cathedral and hope to have it done by 2026, in time for the 100th anniversary of his death.
 
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