Thursday, June 7, 2007

Barcelona Days

First off, let me get this train ride from hell off my chest. We have embraced European culture, acclimated ourselves to the customs of each country we have visited, and have done our best in speaking the native language. However, one thing I am having a difficult time with is adjusting to the evasive disregard of personal space. I will explain in just a bit.

After learning that the train ride from San Sebastian to Barcelona was going to be 10 hours rather than the 4 we assumed it would be, we decided to rearrange our travel plans so we would not lose a day in Barcelona. We felt that since I was so sick in the Basque Country, we did not want to miss anymore than we needed to in Barcelona. We examined travel schedules and noticed an overnight train leaving at 11pm and arriving the next day at 9am. We also noticed that this train had a 1st class and beds. Another point we noticed that there was a bus that left to Barcelona, but it only took 7 hours. We thought about taking the bus for the shorter travel time, but figured it would be too uncomfortable. Plus, our previous train rides up to this point were great. I reserved our tickets in 1st class, opting for individual seats rather than beds in a shared compartment, assuming we would have our two seats with a table in front of us like we did in the past. The process was easy as my command of the Spanish language has gotten better with each day we have spent here.

Nicole and I patiently await our train and notice the depot loading up with cross country travelers with the same idea as us. A long trip overnight equates a good opportunity for shut eye. We hear the whistle of the train and the chugging as this old and tired locomotive with three attached carriages labors toward us and screeches to a stop. The train is beat up, marred with scratches, paint peeling away with paper signs attached to each coach letting us know where to enter. This train looks like it was at once the pride of the Spanish railway system, that is, during the industrial revolution!

Nicole and I enter the last coach and notice that we are to share a compartment with other travelers sitting across from each other. It is not what we expected, figuring we would have 2 seats side by side, but this seating situation has not been bad in the past. We greeted our two Spanish speaking Asian travel companions with a simple hello, but could all ready feel their animosity that we have invaded their territory. The train begins to roll away. The Asians start frantically adjusting their seats trying to get comfortable. They are moving from one seat to another, placing their feet on the seat across from them and then covering their faces with clothing to block out the light. It hasn’t even been 5 minutes and they are going crazy. Ten minutes later the whole drama starts again, but this time they are muttering in Spanish that they wish Nicole would sit in another seat so that they could both lie down and be comfortable. You see, they figured out that they could recline their seats completely flat so that their upper bodies could be completely horizontal. One was able to put her feet up on a chair across from her, but the other had to share leg space with Nicole and this bothered her.

Nicole asked if she should move across from me to end it all and I said, “NO!” First off, these ladies had zero concern for the fact that we all have to share a mutual space uncomfortably with our legs intertwined. Why should they be able to be the most comfortable and without any thought of how we felt or own level of comfort. I would not compromise my position.
To add to the melee, we picked up another passenger in Pamplona. Now we have 5 passengers in a place that is big enough for 3. Imagine that and I am sick as well. I decide that I’m going to leave the light on and read because everyone wanted to sleep. Plus, I was sick so I thought coughing would get them to leave, but neither method worked. The train attendant shut off our lights while I was in mid-sentence and they opened the window to combat my cough. We were stuck together for the next 9 hours.

Well, as it turned out the 2 Asians and the girl from Pamplona all had a pleasant train ride lying back in their seats tangling their legs with ours. One girl was so out of it she was even snoring! As for Nicole and I, we got a little sleep, sitting vertically, and I developed some kind of muscular atrophy in my leg from not being able to move for 9 hours. I felt like I was confined in one of those magician boxes except the magician forgot to perform the magic to allow me to escape. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to get out of that train. Nicole and I were ecstatic that we would never have to see those obnoxious people ever again as well. Now that is off my chest, I can get to what is important – Barcelona.

Barcelona Days…mmm, I am beginning to breathe through my nose, my cough is thinning out, and my eyes are losing their gloss of fatigue and I owe to the life that the city of Barcelona has pumping through its streets at 9 in the morning. During travel we learn so much. Now, you can call me na?ve, but I was never aware that Spain fell under the Franco dictatorship for over 30 years and did not become a Democracy until the early 70s. Also, that the country was separated into various self governing states (much like the US) that fell under the democratic eye of Spain itself. When we were in Basque they spoke Euskera and now that we are in Barcelona, the capital of Catalu?a, they speak Catalan. It is similar to Spanish with French under tones while riddled with the letter “x” taking the place of the Spanish “ch”. Just like we found with the Basque, Catalu?a thrived with its own identity and culture created by the people and the cuisine of the region.

After that train ride anything would have been a welcomed change, but Barcelona was the perfect remedy. Our hotel was located on El Ravla or Las Ramblas Street the main artery of the city that fed life to the neighboring “barrios” like Barcelonata, Barri Gothic, and L’Eioxample. Las Ramblas was all ready alive with tourists, lazy shop owners, street performers and many street vendors selling everything from soccer gear and post cards to chinchillas, turtles, parakeets, goldfish, and other farm animals.

Food was a priority at this point. There were plenty choices of tapas bars selling breakfast so we entered one with the best prices. The restaurant was larger than most with a few wicker tables scattered across the dining room and a long bar serving as the centerpiece of the room. The place was busy with tourists and a lot of English speaking people who were noticeably not accustomed to the relaxed service standards that the Spaniards have. Nicole and I quickly ordered. I had the “English Breakfast” of two fried eggs, bacon, toast, French fries, cappuccino, and zumo. Zumo is the Catalan word for juice and is huge in this area. You can find zumo on almost every block and all varieties. Freshly juiced mango, kiwi, orange, guava, passion fruit, banana, pithaya and any other fruit you could imagine. My breakfast was delicious and familiar, two things I needed while my last bits of frustration from our train ride vented. Nicole tried the Tortilla Espanola. This is basically cooked potatoes in an egg custard and baked. Real similar to a frittata or a quiche without the crust. Nicole added a little salt to bring up the entire dish, but I don’t think she was completely happy with the meal. However, egg was accompanied by toasted bread that was rubbed down with garlic, olive oil, and fresh tomato. This toast, pa amb tomaquet, is truly Catalan.

After breakfast we tried to visit the famed La Boqueria market that I have read countless articles about, but discovered that it was closed. To our surprise, we found out that it was closed for a religious holiday that wasn’t even really a religious holiday. What happened was that the actual religious holiday coincided with an appointed government holiday so they just added on one extra holiday for everyone to enjoy. I have been flabbergasted, yet envious, by the low key approach that the Spaniards take to work. Between the mid day siesta, 24 vacation days per year, arbitrary holidays and annual restaurant closures one can understand the general upbeat feeling this city has.

We tried to explore, but our fatigued bodies could only take so much. We headed back to the room and had an extra long siesta…so long that it took us right into dinner time around 9pm. Based on the great advice of our concierge and Nicole’s desire to find the best Paella that Spain had to offer, we walked to a restaurant called Neysras. There was an upscale feel to this casual restaurant as it was nicely decorated by rustic brick walls, mahogany wood tables and various wine bottles filling up the shelves. Again, a long bar filled with platters of tapas served as the centerpiece of the restaurant.

Our waiter was a happy guy from Brazil with a refined technique when it came to service. He delighted us with his jokes and liked the fact that I ordered in Spanish even though he asked me, “Was that Portuguese?” Nicole and I were in dire need of vegetables, but all they had was a salad of mixed lettuces and a few tomatoes. We tossed that with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and paired with a small tapa of white anchovies and marinated olives.

The main course arrived and our smiles were big. Our waiter conducted his table side service so that Nicole would get all the great pieces of seafood including a huge langoustine. Nicole ordered the paella and I the fideua. Having worked at 2 Spanish restaurants I have had extensive experience cooking paella and it is tough job to execute properly. I enjoyed the paella I cooked while working at Basque and didn’t think one be better. Nicole has ordered lots of paella in her past and has never been truly happy, but this time we would both be blown away. The saffron rice’s aroma was intoxicating and was loaded with flavor cooked with a rich seafood stock and peppered with little bits of tender and salty jambon. The paella represented a taste of the Mediterranean with mussels, clams, langoustines, prawns, and small chunks of scorpion fish. The portion was large, but between us both it was so perfect that we did not leave one grain of rice behind.

The fideua was equally as great. Fideua is basically paella, but instead of saffron rice it is prepared with short and thin pieces of toasted spaghetti. The pasta is cooked in a paellaera, which is a round and shallow cast iron skillet, and is part crunchy, part tender, and filled with the taste of the rich and flavorful seafood stock.

This meal catapulted to the top two meals we’ve had so far. It was flavorful, perfectly seasoned, executed properly, the service was friendly, the price was reasonable and it screamed Catalu?a. Late dinners mean a late start to the night life, so Nicole and I scurried across town to the Flamenco show. Flamenco is a dark story of hurt told through the signature taps, stomps, snaps of fingers and facial expressions. The dance is accompanied by heartfelt and painful chanting and beautiful and sexy string guitars. We had such a great time with this Flamenco performance that was spilling over with such drama, pain and passion – so much so that I had to find a way to buy a Flamenco cd the next day.

Barcelona Days continue….

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