My Summer Days in Spain

Thanks to Dad and Beth's generosity this summer, the family spent the first ten days in August soaking up the sun and the culture in beautiful España.  As with our other trips to Prague and the Mediterranean, we enjoyed beautiful sights, tasty food, and special times with the family.  I will share my long-winded memories as I always do.

Some general observations about the country:

I didn't find the Spaniards spoke English as well as they do in other countries.  The French speak English because they don't want to hear our American accents when we try to speak French.  Italians like American accents and will converse with you in Italian if you want to, but their English is adequate in most public situations.  The Dutch and Germans speak so well they could pass for American.  The Czechs love the US, so English is a standard second language.  It is a cliché that Europeans can spot an American at a glance and will always address tourists in English accordingly.  I didn't find that to be true to Spain.  Many people in the service industry had weak English and often addressed me in Spanish first.  Maybe I have mastered the art of not dressing like an American tourist?  I was grateful to be traveling with my fluent sister-in-law.

So onward to my trip experience.

Day 1+  One always hopes a horrible airport experience isn't a harbinger of a bad trip.  This was the case for our flight from NY to Barcelona.  When Kevin and I went to check in at JFK, we couldn’t get our boarding passes or check our baggage. Something was wrong with the reservation.  The system wouldn't accept Kevin's credit cards.  When we were finally able to fix all the issues, we had to deal with a bottleneck at security and the rudest TSA agents ever.  Erik’s family had similar issues, so it wasn't only our bad luck.  On the positive side, the pouring rain outside didn't delay our flight, so we made it to Barcelona in good time.

We stayed at the Hotel Colon in the Gothic quarter.  It was directly across the street from the Barcelona cathedral.  Since it was too early to check into our rooms, we went out for a second breakfast.  Then we visited the cathedral. 

I am slightly obsessed with seeing all the chapels in a cathedral.  I'm fascinated by the folklore of the saints and there is always interesting artwork.  I made sure to do this in Barcelona. 

The cathedral, dedicated to St. Eulalia has a beautiful cloister inhabited by a flock of white geese.  There are always 13 because she was martyred and buried at age 13.  Her body is said to be buried in the crypt.

After observing everything in the lower levels, we all went up to the roof to enjoy the views. We were able to see all of Barcelona at once on our first day.

Once we finished with the Cathedral we were able to check in to the hotel.  I napped for an hour and then set out to explore the neighborhood a bit before we had a late tapas lunch.

I discovered the Frederico Mares Museum. He was a sculptor, but also a collector of all manner of art and cultural artifacts across the centuries (religious woks from 14th century, 19th century women’s accessories ( especially fans), cameras, old photos, church artifacts, guns and swords.  Anything that was ever collectible is likely represented somewhere in this museum. The collection was fascinating although the number of crucifixion statues at the bottom level became a bit tedious.  I arrived at the museum about 90 minutes before closing time, so I couldn't see the entire museum, but my ticket was good for another day.

I was exhausted after all the walking and so little sleep, so I took another nap.  Later that evening we met up with Erik and Penelope at the rooftop bar and restaurant to enjoy the sunset.
Day 2:  Today the six of us took a day trip for a tour of Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's unfinished basilica. The completion date 2026, which is 100 years after Gaudi’s death. 

I learned on my guided tour that a true basilica is a church consecrated by the Pope.  It is not the same thing as a cathedral.  I saw a few other churches during the trip that called themselves basilicas.  Were they also consecrated by the Pope?  I never learned.  

Sagrada Familia is like no other church I have ever visited.  Every detail is perfectly planned.  On the outside the relief figures over the eastern entrance show the nativity with the sunrise.  The western entrance depicts the passion as the sun sets.  

It is even more spectacular on the inside.  The stained glass windows have the most glorious colors that fill the the area with color and light.  The colors are grouped together in various quadrants of the church to represent earth, fire, water, and air.  The supporting pillars reach to the top with branches, to give the feel of a forest.  There are fifty-six pillars to represent all of the Sunday’s of the year with an additional four of the largest pillars to represent each evangelist and has each other their symbols at the top.  There are not many statues of saints as one would see in a typical Catholic church.  A spiky motif surrounds the balconies to represent a dragon.  They end at a statue of St. George to represent the dragon being slayed. 

I could have stayed there all day and do nothing more than take in the light and see how it illuminated the stained glass at different times of the day.  We didn't stay, but returned to the Gothic Quarter and Erik accompanied me on my return to the Mares Museum so I could see the remaining floors.  I saw Mares' study and was able to see his own work.  The rest of the place seemed like a well-organized episode of American Pickers

After lunch we set out for another long walk to Passeig De Gracia, a street famous for the number of Gaudi buildings.  We took a long stroll admiring the buildings and decided to visit La Pedrera.  The building was originally commissioned as a home for a wealthy couple.  The official name of the building is Casa Mila, but it was nicknamed La Pedrara because the rough stone exterior looked like a granite quarry.  Although the exterior is strange, once you step into the lobby, you are taken into an extraordinary world of light and color, just like Sagrada Familia.  We climbed to the rooftop, which is covered in strange sculptures and has a stunning view of the city.  Then we viewed an example of one of the apartments, which is also filled with light and beautiful views.   

After that long day I retreated to the rooftop jacuzzi.  It was a hot day for hot tubs, but the heat wasn't turned on.  It was more like a small swimming pool with jets.  It was the perfect way to relax after such a long hot day.

Day 3: In the morning the six of us went to the church of Santa. Maria de Pi.  It is a Gothic church close to our hotel.  Legend states that the church once housed a thorn from the crown of Jesus. (Pi means thorn.)  It underwent many restorations due to various destructions over the centuries, particularly after anarchists set fire to it during the Spanish Civil War.  A church dedicated to the Virgin Mary existed on that site since the 10th Century.  It has a pretty garden inhabited by two adorable cats, Romy and Lucy.  

Our next stop was the Maritime Museum.   The building once housed the Spanish shipyards where many of the greatest Spanish ships in history were built.  The museum documents the history of the Spanish shipping industry from Medieval times to today.  One of its most impressive exhibits was a life size replica of a rowing galley.  There were also collections of instruments and displays of various Spanish small craft through the years. 

After lunch we boarded the subway and headed to the the beach for a few hours.  I would have loved to have spent more time on the beautiful Spanish coastal resorts, but the rest of my family wanted to be more considerate of Kevin, who is not a beach person.  We let him relax in the hotel for the afternoon while we tried the beach right in Barcelona.  It is a crowded, gritty, beach and not a shining example of natural coastal beauty (it's not Assateague or Costa Rica or Zakynthos) but I got my Mediterranean on.  

The beach had a unique character.   There were vendors walking around the beach hawking everything.  They sold beach blankets and umbrellas.  They sold cocktails and nachos.  We could have a massage or have our hair braided.  We could even get a tattoo.  Good looking young people tried to sell tickets to parties at clubs to other good looking young people.  The beachgoers themselves were equally diverse.  Young women swam topless alongside Muslim women in burkinis.  

We had one last dinner in Barcelona and packed our bags.  It was time to move on to our next destination.

Day 4:  Before we left Barcelona we made a stop at Parc Güell. The park sits on land that was once designated for an upper class housing development that Gaudi was supposed to design.  The project ran out of money and the land was donated to the city.

Most of the natural areas of the park are open to the public.  There is a small area of the park,called the Monumental Area, containing various Gaudi structures and is a World Heritage Site. It requires advanced tickets.  We decided to to visit it before leaving Barcelona.   

There is an enormous terrace that the top of the hill.  It is surrounded by a colorful dragon bench around the perimeter.  The view from here goes all the way out  to the coast (and looks directly on Sagrada Familia of course. 

Pathways run beneath shaded arcades made from rough stone, so they blend into the natural elements of the park.

The porter's house and Gaudi's home are also open to the public for viewing and we opted to tour the latter.  Gaudi lived in the house until he moved to the city to be close to his work on Sagrada Famila.  Gaudi did not design the Gaudi House Museum. His protegee, Francesc Berenguer designed it with his approval.  It is as light and airy as the Casa Mila, but simply furnished.  Gaudi made a lot of money, but lived simply.  He was a devout Catholic with a prayer area in his bedroom.  He patched his suits rather than buy new ones.  He had servants, but insisted on cooking his own vegetarian meals.

We didn't explore the park beyond the architectural area, but all we had to do was look around to see how much natural beauty there was.  If I didn't have a train to catch in the afternoon, I could have stayed there for hours.

After lunch back in the Gothic quarter we headed to the train station and boarded the train for Madrid.  During this trip I was impressed with the infrastructure in Spain.  The high speed rail was faster than any train in the US (including the Acela).  The highways and bridges are well maintained.  They don't have police checking for speeders on the highways.  There is an automated radar system that catches speeding cars.  If you're caught, the ticket arrives in the mail and you can't fight it.  

I also noticed there is no megalopolis in Spain.  There is little urban sprawl.  Barcelona has a high unemployment rate and a growing homeless problem.  As with many cities all over the world, the cost of housing is high.  While there are as many homeless people here in NY, if the city is too expensive, New Yorkers have some options.  They can move into the cheaper bedroom communities of New Jersey or Connecticut.  The cities and suburbs all flow together.  There is housing and commerce between Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Washington DC.  Barcelona has no New Jersey. Once my train left city limits, I saw nothing but empty land and farms for long stretches of time and I saw only a few small towns dotting the landscape.  Madrid seemed to pop up out of nowhere.  (There are bedroom communities and more sprawl to the south, but we weren't coming from that direction.)  

We arrived at our hotel Catalonia Atocha in the evening.  It was a long day, so we stayed in that night.  Dad and Beth stayed in Seville while we were in Barcelona, but Sunday night they joined us in Madrid.  We could finish our vacation together.

Day 5 We left Madrid in the morning for a day trip to Àvila.  We had a private driver drive us to the city.  We ended up leaving late because he had an accident on the way to our hotel and had to get a new van.  The drive to Àvila wasn't too long so it wasn't too late when we met our guide and learned about the city.

The city is surrounded by high walls that date back to Medieval times.  These walls replaced the original walls the Romans built.  The were built when the Christians were taking back power from the Moors and they wanted to protect the city from Muslim siege.  The wall has nine gates and there is a church outside every gate. 
Originally settled by pre-Christian Celts.  There are some primative looking animal statues, thought to have been protective totems, scattered throughout the city.  

It is also the birthplace of Queen Isabella and there is a memorial to her outside the walls.  

 Àvila became the summer home of Catholic royalty and nobles. They lived in palaces within the walls.  Many palaces are still standing today and have been turned into public buildings or hotels.  There is a large unfinished cathedral within the walls (parts of walls and towers are just bricks).

Teresa of Avila is the patron saint.  She is the saint of Spanish writers.  We visited  her birthplace church, which includes the room where she was born.  The church also contains a shrine to Maria del Carmen, as Teresa was a Carmelite nun who took on corruption in the order.  We also saw her relics (her finger, two fingers of St John of the Cross, some of her writing, the bottom of her sandal, and various other holy objects including disciplinary flog.)  Then we visited the church where she was baptized, including the baptismal font.  Any place where there is a plaque containing the print of her sandal in the sidewalk, it is a place relevant to St. Teresa.  

After lunch we had one last adventure before leaving the city.  We climbed the famous city walls.  It had beautiful views and I had to check them out from every tower in the section we visited.  (If you don't check out every tower, were you even there?)

Day 6:  We stayed in Madrid this day and the whole family did tour of Prado. This was a highlights tour with a guide who showed us the major works by Goya, Velasquez, and El Greco along with Tintoretto and Titian.  The museum is 200 years old this year. I couldn't take photos inside (but I sneaked one in before I found that out).

We booked the tour in the early morning because we thought we wouldn't be able to get in later in the day.  Museum lines are long Europe in the summer.  Later that afternoon I tried to go back to the museum square so I could go inside the Jeronimos church.  It was closed for siesta and wasn't going to open for another hour.  I noticed there was no line at the Prado museum.  It was shorter than it was in the morning.  Maybe we didn't need to book the skip-the-line tour after all.

It was a quiet evening.  After spending some time on the rooftop jacuzzi, Kevin and I had dinner with Dad and Beth in the hotel restaurant.  We had another long day ahead of us.

Day 7:

Today we took a day trip to Segovia about an hour and twenty minutes from Madrid.  We met up with our guide Coral in the morning and she led us from from the bottom of the city at the Roman aqueduct to the Cathedral at the top.  The Romans built the aqueduct and it was in use until the 19th century.  I would say it is a well-built structure.

Like Avila there were several noble palaces repurposed, mostly as public buildings.  There is one palace in the Jewish quarter whose facade is covered in spikes.  The Jewish owner was tired of the locals calling it the "Jew House", so he gave it a distinct exterior so people would call it the Spike House.   There was a former synagogue that is now a church due to a legend of a monk who borrowed money from a Jewish banker who requested a host as payment.  Then he boiled it.   We also visited the Case de Abraham Seneor, who was once a prominent member of the community and rabbi. His financial skills were so useful to the crown that he was not expelled during the Inquisition.  The building is now a Jewish museum.  We didn't go inside, but explored the beautiful courtyard.

City tours seem to require a visit to the local cathedral.  Segovia was the the largest one we visited all week.  It took a long time to build, so there are a few different decorative styles.

One of the most interesting areas was the choir area.  It had king’s side and queen’s side with two organs and two choir seating areas.   Another cool room was called the called chapter room where the faithful gather to read a chapter of the Bible every day.  The walls were covered in tapestries.  We couldn't take photos unfortunately.  One well-known chapel has an altarpiece that shows various phase of the passion with a tomb on the bottom containing statue of dead Jesus moved to center of room for better viewing (and I decided not to take a photo because it was too morbid).  Every Spanish town had a patron saint and there was an area for the reliquary for that saint behind the altar.

We moved from the the castle, Alcázar.  The name is derived from the Arabic word for fortress.  This was once the seat of the Catholic kings and queens.  Ferdinand and Isabella’s thrones and portraits, the great hall, and meeting room.  One of the funniest parts of the meeting room was the hourglass. The king kept it over his desk to make sure nobody wasted too much time.  Columbus would have met with the king here.  We walked around the upper decks here for the view, but the weather was a little uncooperative. It was the coldest, windiest, and rainiest day of our trip.

We had lunch in the Plaza Mayor before heading back to Madrid.  

Day 8:
Kevin and I were on our own for the day.  We went to Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.  This was once a private collection until the city acquired it in 1993. Three floors ranging from Mediaeval at the top down to Surrealism and pop art the bottom. Almost every major artist was represented here.  We spent five hours there exploring almost every gallery.  

In addition to the permanent collection, we saw a special exhibit showing the influence of Spanish art on Balenciaga.  The exhibit showed paintings and the dresses and other outfits the paintings influenced.  

I relaxed in the jacuzzi for the rest of the afternoon and chatted a bit with a nice woman from Chicago.  It's always fun to make friends abroad.  

Day 9:
The whole family was feeling well enough to make a day trip to Toledo.  We weren't in Ohio, but Toledo Ohio is considered their sister city and they have an Ohio Square in the city. 

Toledo is one of the few cities in Spain where all three religions have coexisted over time.  The city is surrounded on one side by the rive and the rest of it is surrounded by walls.  Christians and Muslims both contributed to building and adding to them.

One of Toledo's greatest contributions to the culture is the Muslim metalworking.  During Muslim rule Syrians brought Damascus steel to the city, and Toledo has been a center of swords and knife making since then.  The swords you see in most of your favorite movies and TV shows from the Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones were made in Toledo.

We started at the Cathedral and spent a good chunk of our time there.  The site started as a church until Ottomans took over and it became a mosque.  In 14th century Christians retook the city and it became a church again, but it took 400 years to complete, so there are many different styles within.  There is a site of a miracle - visitation of the Virgin Mary.  Next to the shrine is a stone where she is said to have stood.  

The most interesting feature of the building is how the main altar is lit.   There is a hole in the back of the altarpiece.  Then in the wall behind the altar there is a large round window surrounded by beautiful paintings and sculptures.  The light comes through the window during the mass and lights up the tabernacle through the hole in the altarpiece. 

Another fun feature of the cathedral is the tombs of the cardinals.  Cardinals are buried in the floor and their hats are suspended on chains above them.  When the hat falls to the floor, it means the cardinal was taken to Heaven.  In case you are wondering, nobody's hats have fallen.  I don't know what that says about the cardinals.

Next we visited the sacristy.  It is not a priest's changing room now.  It is gallery that contains and beautiful painted ceiling by Luca Giordano and several paintings by El Greco.  Our guide said he thought Giordano was a better painter than Michelangelo because Giordano took much less time to paint the sacristy than Michelangelo took to paint the Sistine Chapel.

The cathedral also has a beautiful cloister.

We returned to the the Jewish Quarter where there the Santo Tome  church containing the famous El Greco painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz We were unable to take photos.

Next we went to old Roman ruins found when someone was trying to build a house and garage.  Excavations revealed aqueduct and baths.  

Took a view of Jesuit church opposite cathedral before having lunch and headed back to Madrid.

Day 10:

Once again the family stayed in Madrid.  We booked tickets for the family for the Royal Palace.  The palace in Madrid is the largest functional palace in Europe.  The king and queen do not currently live there, but it is still used for state functions.  

We viewed various beautiful public rooms.  My favorite was the enormous dining room (couldn't take photos).  I joked  it was my dream dinner party set up.  That was one of the rooms were I couldn't take photos unfortunately.  Another fascinating room was the Strativarius room that contained several violins and cellos.  It seemed a bit sad to see them locked up inside cases and not being played.  

Dad was taking a scooter that day, so he needed special help to view the public rooms on the first floor (Madrid has excellent services for the disabled).  They took him up in the king's private elevator.  How many people in this world can say they did that?

After our final dinner in Spain we all went out for another must-see Spanish experience.  We went to a flamenco show.  It was in a small and intimate theater so we were right up close to the dancers and musicians.  The singers, musicians, and the female dancer were all talented, but the skills of the male dancer were brilliant.  I don't know how he had the energy to keep his feet moving so skillfully for so long.

Day 11 - Departure:

All good things must come to an end.  We ate breakfast, packed our bags, and headed to the airport.  This is where our beautiful vacation took an unfortunate turn.

We arrived at the airport and headed over to the kiosks to print our boarding passes.  When Kevin started having some trouble, an airport employee informed us the kiosk didn't work for flights to JFK and we would have to wait in the check-in line.  We did as we were told.  The line wasn't too long.  We checked in as usual and when the agent gave us our boarding passes she said the flight was overbooked and we were on standby.  

We couldn't believe it.  Why were we on standby?  We paid the money to have reserved seats?  We had the confirmation weeks ago.  How could they put us on standby?  The agent told us once more the flight was overbooked.  That was the only explanation she provided.  

Never book basic economy.  Even if you pay the fee to reserve a seat ahead of time, you will still be the first one bumped and you won't have a choice about it.  It's not worth the cheap fare.  That is my piece of travel advice for all my friends.

We knew we had to get to the gate right away to make sure we were at the head of the standby queue.  This was no easy feat.  Every obstacle the airport could have thrown in the way was thrown at us.

The gate was not in the terminal where we checked in.  We had to take a train to another terminal.  When we arrived at that terminal, we had to go through passport control.  That meant waiting in another long line.

We made it through passport control and ran to our gate.  We could see it like a shining beacon in front of us.  As we began to approach, we were stopped at yet another security desk.  We had to wait in another line and show our passports and boarding passes.  

If this wasn't bad enough, the agent at that desk told Kevin he was randomly selected for a bag check.  He had to visit another desk where a security agent took him to a room to search his bag.  I was dying to use the bathroom at this point, but the line was going out the door and if I went in search of another bathroom, I would have to leave the secured area and go through the check again when I returned.

We made it to the gate.  Kevin asked the gate agent what to do and he was told to wait in line again.  There was a long line of people in front of the desk (although I found out later most of them were the queue for business class boarding). I decided to use this time to wait for the bathroom.  My sister-in-law and niece were waiting to use it as well.  They said they were not on standby.  Dad and Beth were in business class, so they were already boarding.  If Kevin and I didn't get on this flight, we would be stranded in Madrid by ourselves.

When I came out of the bathroom, the line in front of the gate agent's desk was gone.  I asked Kevin for a status.  The agent told him to keep waiting.  We watched the economy class line board.  I knew the only thing we could do was wait until the plane boarded and see if anything was left.

How would we get our luggage back if we had to stay?  Where would we stay?  When would we be able to fly back?  Would they give us any compensation?  My bag was full of dirty laundry.  Was I supposed to do another load of laundry in the bathroom sink again? I was two minutes away from collapsing onto the floor into a sobbing heap of despair.

Then the agent called us over and said he had seats.  They were two window seats in different rows, but it was a ride home.  He told us to use the business class entrance.  Our seats weren't in business class, but they were in economy comfort, so it was an upgrade.  I think we deserved it after what the airline put us through.

That afternoon we were back in New York, missing Spain but grateful to be home.  It was an exhausting trip.  We were constantly walking and the weather was hot.  We are still grateful to Dad and Beth for giving us this experience.  We saw and did so much.  We ate well (food blog post will be up soon).  Another one off the bucket list.  What will my next destination be?


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