Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sanguine Spain (The way too long of it - July 2013)

So, apologies but I'm now catching up on posting for a trip I took last year. This will also be quite a long post unfortunately. Back in July (the following week after the Belgium post I made in July) we took the opportunity to take a trip to Spain. Ironically we were just in Spain again, a few weeks ago, for another trip so stay tuned for that update soon. I started out the trip by flying directly into Barcelona after everyone else, due to scheduling. At the I was directed by the reasonably friendly airport staff to a bus that took me directly to downtown Barcelona, approximately a 15-20 minute walk from the stop to our home away in Barcelona.  Not a bad ride, so you don't need to worry about taking a more expensive taxi. The home away we stayed at was nice and was booked through EnjoyBCN.  Overall it was an enjoyable experience though we did have some delays due to a housekeeper issue.  I'd suggest you make sure you know when you can check in.

The first thing we really did was do our standard tour, the Sandeman's Walking tour of Barcelona. Again this was a big success. We had a lively tour guide who went through the history of Barcelona from the creation of the city, the story of the Chistopher Columbus to the current status of the city. One of the most amazing stops, due to the time of the year, was the Iglesia de San Felipe Neri (Church of San Felipe Neri).  We walked into what looked like a small courtyard of a somewhat hidden church.  As we walked in yellow pedals were falling all around us, almost like a movie setting.  It was really quite mesmerizing and beautiful.  I can't recommend the Sandeman tours enough, they have been amazing every time we've taken them.

In addition to the walking tour we also visited various sites of the city that weren't on the tour. The first sight that we saw was the beautiful, yet unfinished, cathedral of Sagrada Familia. While still unfinished (under construction since 1882) and designed by Antoni Gaudi, it is a beautiful example of his work and visually stunning especially when compared to other cathedrals of Europe. I was especially pleased by the curvatures and softness that was incorporated into the design, where most cathedrals are a much more jagged or square. While we didn't have the patience to wait in line to see the inside, based on external appearance alone I thought this was one of the more friendly and welcoming cathedrals I've seen in Europe. Definitely holds it's own when compared to the rest.

After the cathedral was Park Güell, the mosaic park that Antoni Gaudi also designed. An amazing and beautiful experience. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Barcelona with at least one day there. The views, garden and mosaics are well worth the trek we took from Sagrada Familia to see it.  It even had a beautiful view of the city you could enjoy as well, letting you get a feel for how some of the city is laid out. The garden was also especially enjoyable for me because it let me play with my camera in getting shots of flowers and things like that.  :-)

The final stop in our trip to Barcelona included one more site that bore the mark of Antoni Gaudi, Palau Güell, a mansion that Gaudi designed. It bore a lot of the same architectural traits that both Sagrada Familia and Park Güell bore, making it another beautiful site to see. Though I didn't enjoy it as much the other sites we visited. It was still well worth the visit. The best feature was the variety and designs of the chimneys on the roof. They were all designed and looked like they would fit magnificently into Park Güell with uniqueness of their mosaics. As a friend mentioned, it looked like they were designed for children to have fun with and claim as their own.

Throughout the whole journey to Barcelona we visited a number of restaurants for tapas and paella. All of which was fantastic Unfortunately I don't remember any of their names since they were so long ago... I'm sorry for that. But everything we tried was amazing.  In addition we did have a little bit of down time, during which we decided to enjoy the beach at Barcelona that was newly created since the Olympic games where held in Barcelona.  Finally, some actual relaxing in Europe!  Did I mention sunburn?  Yeah... Don't sleep for too long on the beach.

Once we were finished with Barcelona we started on our next journey towards Villafranca, Navarre, Spain. This was a villa we were going to stay at while going to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls. I'll get to that in a minute though. On the way we stopped at another amazing place, Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, in Monistrol de Montserrat. A monastery on the top of a mountain just outside of Barcelona. The design, site and view were just breathtaking. The food in the cafeteria is definitely overrated... Essentially just gas station sandwiches and soda.  That's ok though, this is a monastery, not a 5 star restaurant.  But everything else was just fantastic.

We were originally going to take a cable car up to the top, but ended up driving our rental car to the top. The cable car might have been icing on the cake, but it definitely wasn't needed to enjoy this trip. The entire monastery is beautiful, and the insides of the buildings you can go into are astounding as well. One of the neat items is a step like, cube structure, something like a child might build. A number of people braved the climb of this monument to take pictures on top, with the amazing view. And it definitely looked worth it, if not a little reckless from the safety of the ground. Definitely one of the most amazing monasteries I've had the pleasure of seeing.

After this, we continued on to our lodging for the next two nights, the Hospederia de Alesves inVillafranca. I have to say, in my current 18 months of being in Europe, this has definitely been my favorite place to stay. And honestly speaking, some of the best food I've ever had in my life. While this hotel is in a small town in Spain, as you can guess they mostly spoke Spanish. The daughter or niece there did speak reasonable English, and the hostess spoke a small amount. That wasn't too difficult for us though since two of our company spoke reasonable Spanish, and I with my 4 years of high school Spanish was able to hold short, yet fun, conversations with the English the hostess knew. The staff at this hotel when well above and beyond in making us all fell at home. I would stay there again in a heart beat. They even translated their menu by hand, into English as best they could to help us understand what we were ordering. Every meal was fantastic and our hosts even provided us with free wine every night. They served what I think is common in the Spanish country side of 3 course meals. We were given the choice of an appetizer to start with. One night I had a Spanish dish of tomato, drizzled with egg crumbles, cheese and a vinaigrette. The other night I had a seafood based salad, which I believer was some kind of mini eel. Every appetizer they had listed was tried by at least on person in our group, and every one fantastic. Next came the main courses. One night I had a fish dish, and the other was a pasta dish. Again every option was fantastic. Finally comes the choice of desert. One night I chose a fruit cup and the other a pastry. Again amazing. The one warning about Spain, is that they didn't serve dinner until 2200 or 10:00pm at night, but it is well worth the wait. I highly recommend this hotel to anyone visiting this area of Spain, even if you don't have a bit of Spanish in your repertoire they will go out of their way to make you welcome.

The next day, we woke up bright and early (4....am...) to go to Pamplona to get ready for the Running of the Bulls or what they locals call it San Fermin. We were there for the first bull run of the week, and already Pamplona was completely trashed from the party that had started the night before. While a few of my company were going to participate in the running, I was not.

The remainder of us went into the Plaza de Toros to get ringside seats to the Arena. If you want seats you will have to buy tickets to get in, if you don't want to run. But well worth it. After a long wait, but before the running they had a spanish marching band (ok, they didn't march) playing to entertain the crowd. Then you head the gun fire and could watch on a large screen the oncoming bulls as they charged towards the arena. Those that ran into the arena before the final bulls were allowed to be the fodder and entertainment for the rest of the crowd. 

They then let the baby bulls into the arena to play with the crowds. All in all it could be quite amuzing when a young bull would throw some of the more foolish people around. Though there were definitely moments of shock as someone took a particularly nasty toss from the bull. Luckily no one was hurt while we were there. Eventually the bulls had their fun and the people were allowed out and you wander the city until the real bull fights happen. Since we were all exhausted we grabbed some pastries, wandered around the city like tourists do, and then drove back to Pamplona for a much needed nap.

After the much needed nap we did one more thing (besides the amazing dinner that night) in the Province of Navarre. We visited the castle Palacio Real de Olite, in Olite, Spain. Castles have definitely turned into one of my favorite experiences in Europe. Every castle is soo different from the last, the castles in one country are especially different from ones in another country. Spanish castles (granted I've only seen one) looked sandy and, almost had a bright feeling to them. Probably helped that it was a bright, sunny, beautiful day. This castle seemed especially grand since you were able to wander on your own through the whole grounds and it is quite large. I think that if I had never been to Europe and you put a number of castles in front of me, and asked me which was the "Spanish Castle" this is the one that I would pick out. Amazing.

The next day we started our trek back to Barcelona for our last night before returning to Germany via plane. We had one last place to visit, which was Zaragoza, Spain. It was a reasonably quick stop. We mainly wandered around the city talking and stopped for a quick bite to eat. We ate at a little restaurant where you can order single servings of various foods from a small slider like sandwich, to hot chocolate to an assortment of other individual serving items. The big site that we saw in Zaragoza was Nuestra Señora delPilar Basilica, or Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar. This was huge, and the only thing I can say to describe the inside... was Grandiose... huge. It makes you think of how small you really are, which who knows? Maybe that was exactly what they were going for. After finishing up in Zaragoza, we continued our drive to Barcelona where we stayed one final night before flying home. I have to say that while it was relaxing, it was also a little lame. My dinner that night was at Ikea. What can I say, there wasn't a whole lot next to the airport and I didn't want to wander.

Once again, the trip was awesome. We didn't do a whole lot of relaxing besides a little time at the beach, but we did see a whole lot of things. And all of it was fantastic. The food, amazing. The hotels, fantastic. The activities, outstanding. If you get a chance to go to Spain, GO to Barcelona, go into the country side. I think Spain is one of those places where if you don't go outside of the major cities, you're missing a lot. Spain may be a little challenged (from what I hear) economically, but it is beautiful and friendly. Visit all you can.

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