Madre Mia! Part 2: Toledo, Madrid, and Barcelona (Mike)
So, where were we? Oh right, I remember. With our second-to-last day in Madrid, the whole group got up early, met at Plaza de Espana, and hopped on a tour bus to Toledo. Holy Toledo! Where does that expression come from, you might wonder. Toledo was the capital of Spain for several hundred years, until it was moved to Madrid in the 16th century. During that time, the city was an important cultural, economic, and religious center, and was the home to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all at the same time and living in relative peace and harmony (imagine that). With each religion competing to show how cool it was, the city is chock full of old cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues. So: Holy Toledo. There you have it.
The drive to the city was filled with the flat and dry plateaus that you would think of when imagining the traditional Spain of Don Quixote. In fact, the area of La Mancha is the home of the protagonist of Cervante’s satirical classic, and the area is full of Don Quixote-related sculptures and souvenirs.
For our part, we got an amazing view of the city from across the river, a tour of the city’s fortress (alcazar), athedral, a statute garden, the church which contains El Greco’s masterpiece painting The Burial of Count Orgaz, a monastery with heavy iron chains hung from the outside walls by visiting pilgrims, and a synagogue which was built by Muslims (apparently they were the best builders around at the time and were contracted by the Jewish community to build their religious center). After this whirlwind, we were absolutely famished and sat down at the first possible restaurant for a menu of the day and some cold beers.
On our last day in Madrid, the great weather held up and we spent the morning walking around Retiro Park, which is our favorite place in the whole city. The park was built for the Spanish royalty 400 years ago, but is now open for even the common man to enjoy. Only a single tree exists from the original park, which is a massive beauty and stands on the western edge of the park, surrounded by a protective iron gate. We made our way past the enormous lake, into the peacock area, past the amazing Crystal Palace (apparently originally built to house a group of natives taken from the Philippines to entertain locals with their exotic and bizarre tribal ways…weird) and then found ourselves in a huge rose garden, which of course got Mom fired up. You can go to Retiro 100 times and still find new areas that surprise and delight you. The only bummer was the Puerta Alcala, which normally is covered with beautiful flowers and is one of the most photogenic parts of the city. When we showed up with Mom, all ready ready to take a great picture we…found that it had just been bulldozed that morning. All that was left of the flower garden was an uprooted mass of barren, brown earth. Oh well, next time.
We then headed over to the Royal Palace, which is, we learned, the largest in Europe. It is absolutely impressive and it still used to host visiting dignitaries and events that require an extra level of pomp and circumstance. Apparently after Napoleon installed his brother, Joseph, as the new ruler of Spain, he paid him a visit and had a serious case of palace-envy. If you’ve been to Versailles in Paris, then you know how ridiculous that is. The palace shows off monarchical opulence at its finest and each room is stuffed to the gills with gold-plated awesomeness and the ceilings painted with massive Italian-master frescoes. The tour ends with a walk through the Royal Apothecary, where some kook used to whip up potions to keep the royal family in top shape. Its filled with ancient glass bottles filled with things like “ground red coral” and dried bees knees. Not sure how any of those things were actually healthy (although, maybe that’s how Prince Philipe can be 6’10” and speak 5 languages), but regardless, it’s cool to see and very well preserved.
After the palace, we met up with the rest of the family for another traditional asador feast, which meant eating even more baby goat and baby pig. After a while, you start to feel a little bad, but it’s so delicious that the moral part of your brain pretty much shuts down immediately when the juicy morsels arrive to your table. Everyone stuffed themselves silly and then we headed back to get packed and rested for our trip to Barcelona.
Crushing some baby sheep…and happy about it.
The next day we got up early and took the 9am high-speed train to Barcelona. When Laura and I did this trip 7 years ago, the normal-speed train took like 8 hours. This new train, which flies along at a brisk 200mph, gets you there in like 3 hours. And you feel like you are gliding on air, it’s pretty amazing. We passed the time watching the Spanish countryside fly by, getting greener and greener as Barcelona approached, played a few games of cribbage, and took a little snooze.
There was no snoozing when we got to Barcelona however. This is easily one of the coolest cities in Europe. We were immediately hit with a fresh ocean breeze as we walked up out of the Metro station, and Barcelona kept us enthralled the rest of the time. We put our bags down in our apartment and then strolled Las Ramblas, perhaps the most busy/entertaining stretch of pedestrian walkway in the world. We did a little shopping for provisions (beers, doughnuts, only the essentials), and then basically did a 45 minute forced march along the Barcelona coastline to meet up with the rest of the family at the Crazy Crab where we were scheduled to have our first paella feast in Spain. We arrived sweating bullets, but quickly cooled off with some sangria. The 3 different types of paella went down easily as we sat and watched the crystal blue Mediterranean from our outdoor terrace. Absolutely gorgeous. The debate of Barcelona vs. Madrid is an interesting one, but having a beach puts a huge plus in the Barcelona column, for sure.
Our second day we set out to tour what most of us agreed is the coolest man-made structure on earth: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. This massive church simply takes your breath away and it becomes even more interesting that it is still in construction and won’t be completed until 2026. Each time we visit, more parts are completed, but even on this visit it seemed like it will never be truly finished. There has been a lot of progress in the interior however, and the central naive is jaw-dropping as you enter for the first time from outside. The stone is light-colored (rather than the dark and depressing stone of many European cathedrals) and the hundreds of stained-glass windows let in light in a way that is just stunning. The huge central pillars reach up to the heavens and are carved to look like trees, branching out at the ceiling, which creates the effects of being inside a massive stone forest. Everywhere you look, Gaudi’s genius is present. There was a really interesting mini-museum showing how much inspiration he drew from the natural world. It’s really one of the most inspiring places you can go, and we learned that the massive towers which define the Barcelona skyline today are only about HALF the height of the planned central tower. So this thing will be enormous.
We discussed our common amazement at a cafe for a while and then popped back up to walk over to Gaudi’s other great work, Park Guell. The park is beautiful and set up on the hill with a fantastic view of the city and sea off in the distance. The only problem is that we showed up at peak visiting time and it was crawling with tourists. We had a picnic lunch off in a semi-secluded corner for a little breather from the crowds. After lunch, we heard the sounds of smooth Brazilian music floating out from an area of rocky columns. We followed our ears and were rewarded with essentially a private concert of excellent jazz musicians. One of those great and spontaneous travel moments that make traveling such a great activity. We toured around more of the park and then make our way back for a huge and well-deserved nap.
The next day, Team Hammon set off on a wine tour in the area surrounding Barcelona and Laura, Mom and I got on a train and made our way to Monserat, which is a huge old monastery sitting on top of the only mountain in the area, with commanding views of the surrounding land. You take a 5 minute cable car straight up to the monastery and from there you have all kinds of options for exploring the mountain. We took a cog train up even further to a hike that led to the ruins of an old hermitage…basically a place for religious types to reflect on God with minimal distractions. Hard to imagine that anyone could live up there in the old days without easy access to food, etc, but they did it. The ruins make for a spectacular scenery. After hiking back down to the monastery with 360 views, we went inside and were treated to a performance by a famous all-boys choir inside. It sounded something like this (click the video immediately below to get a taste of what we heard):
The pictures will tell the story from here on out (collective sigh from the readership), but other Barcelona highlights included a night out at the Palace of Music, where we heard a simply stunning classical guitarist in one of the most prominent and beautiful venues in Europe (thanks to Mom for having that idea!)…
(Below: Mom excited to finally be eating at a “normal” time for Spaniards: midnight)
…a tour of the Guell Palace for yet more insight into the sheer genius of Gaudi…
…a visit to the Boqueria market which is one of the largest and coolest markets in Europe – featuring locals slamming wine and seafood at 10:00am on a Sunday…
…and, finally, MontJuic (or Mount Jew if you prefer a literal translation) where we got a cable-car view of the city and toured the fantastic Jean Miro museum and got caught in the rain in the Greek Gardens just in time to enjoy a salami, cheese, and wine picnic from the Boqueria…
Barcelona is a city that you just can’t get out of your head and we had the time of our lives. Thanks Mom, for giving us the excuse to come back to this great place!
Final stop: Ibiza, party central