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The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

When I was planning our trip to Spain, I knew that the two main focal points would be food and architecture. The food was delicious in every city we visited and the architecture was as unique and impressive as I had hoped it would be. Gaudi was a definite highlight as was the Frank Gehry designed Marques de Riscal hotel. These buildings were complemented by numerous other sights throughout Spain including the Royal Palace in Madrid, the apartments lining the San Fermin route in Pamplona, numerous alleys and streets throughout Barcelona and the mix of religious buildings in Toledo.

I checked off the building I was most looking forward to seeing on the first day in Spain, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This magnificent museum, designed by Frank Gehry opened in 1997. The opening put Bilbao on the map and made it a destination for art and architecture fans across the world. Bilbao’s success has led many cities to try the same approach, hoping that a building designed by a big name architect will help make their city a destination for tourists, helping to bring tourism money to their city. This strategy clearly paid off for Bilbao in our case. The museum was the only reason we visited Bilbao, though the close proximity to Pamplona helped as well.

The morning after we arrived we made the walk down to the river to see the museum. Like the Marques de Riscal hotel, the building features titanium panels that wrap around the building. The curves were designed to look random, making for impressive sweeping curves that line the river. We never did make it inside, instead choosing to take an early bus to Pamplona to start that adventure.

The building alone was worth the visit and lived up to the hype. The sculpture that complemented the architecture made for a great visit and a good start to a trip filled with memorable architecture.

Gaudi

I have already written how Barcelona exceeded my expectations.  While planning our trip, one of the things that I was looking forward to seeing the most in Barcelona was the architecture of Gaudi.  I am a huge fan of interesting and historically important architecture.  I still lament the fact that I did not spend the time in middle and high school studying math since I would have loved to be an architect.  Not that I regret the path my life has taken, but whenever I have played the hypothetical “what would be your dream job” game, my answer is almost always architect.

While looking at one of the numerous Gaudi designed buildings scattered around Barcelona, I overheard a tour guide claiming that Barcelona has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other city in the world.  All of Gaudi’s buildings are on the World Heritage list. We spent a day in Barcelona seeing as many of these as we could.  This made for a lot of walking, more than I think we realized when we set off.  Upon discovering how convenient the subway was the following day we were a bit disappointed that we spent as much time walking as we did, it would have been better spent seeing a few more places instead of spending the time getting from one place to the next.
Gaudi’s master work is arguably the Sagrada Familia.  Construction started in 1882 and is still not completed.  Even though his plans for the cathedral were partially destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, his vision is still evident throughout the building.  Anyone that has spent much (or any) time in Europe has probably visited a number of cathedrals.  Most are impressive, though in my travels few stand out above the rest.  The Sagrada Familia is one that does.  This unique, imposing structure really demonstrates what can happen when an architect thinks outside of the box.  The structure is unmistakably a cathedral, but inside there is so much to see, so many unique details that are not found in other cathedrals.  I was even willing to challenge my fear of heights with an elevator ride up one of the spires to see some of the internal structure as well as a view out over Barcelona.  This is a must visit site in Barcelona and well worth the time to explore every corner of the building.
Before visiting the Sagrada Familia we walked by Casa Mila and Casa Batllo, two private residences that Gaudi designed.  Due to the high cost of entering we decided to just see the outside instead of taking the tours.  This still offered plenty to see.  Gaudi was not shy about using mosaics and unusual shapes to decorate the facades of his buildings.  His works represent some of the most prominent examples of Modernism or Art Nouveau architecture.  
Following the cathedral we started to walk uphill, making our way to Park Guell, an unfinished masterpiece.  This park is set high above the city and features a curving mosaic bench that has become one of the most famous places in Barcelona.  The beautiful day brought huge crowds to the park but we were still able to find some space to enjoy the park.  Park Guell offers a different side to Gaudi’s work, though walking through the park there is no question that Gaudi designed it.The following day I decided that I still had not had my fill of Gaudi and convinced Teph to return to Casa Mila.  This time we took the subway since our feet were still sore from the day before.  After ascending the stairs we were greeted by almost human shaped smokestacks, stairway exits covered in mosaic and a view over Passage Gracia, one of the main shopping areas in Barcelona.  Inside the apartment we were able to take a restored look at what the apartments looked like in the early 20th century.

The architecture in Barcelona is fantastic, and I would argue that Gaudi is the cities biggest star.  His building showcase how interesting building can be when a creative genius is allowed to design something different from the norm.

Barcelona…city of exceeded expectations

There is something about traveling to a place that meets or exceeds expectations.  This often occurs when you visit someplace new, someplace that perhaps you have not heard much about or researched.  It is a rare occurrence when a place that you have really wanted to visit, spent hours researching and dreaming about blows your expectations out of the water.  This happened in Barcelona.

       

Barcelona has been at the top of my “to visit” list since 1992.  This was long before I had ever left the U.S., long before I was able to travel as much as I do now.  I have, pretty much as long as I have remembered, wanted to visit Barcelona.  Barcelona hosted the Olympics in 1992.  These games were when I fell in love with the Olympic movement and with it the city of Barcelona.  The pictures from the streets of Barcelona, combined with the compelling stories from those Olympics made me a fan of the Olympics for life and ensured that I would eventually get to Barcelona during my world travels.  This opportunity came this summer.

                    

Everything about the city met or exceeded my expectations.  The weather was fantastic (especially after the heat of Madrid), the food was amazing, less expensive and more delicious than elsewhere in Spain, the sangria was refreshing, the shopping was extensive, though expensive, museums were interesting and the architecture stunning.  All in all it was everything that I want in a city.
   

Throughout our time there my favorite activity was simply to wander the streets, stumbling upon hidden alleys in the Gothic Quarter, delicious restaurants throughout the city and even an occasional historical site.  We took a self guided tour of sites from Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, to give us a bit more perspective on one of our favorite books.  We stopped many times a day for a beer, sangria, wine, tapas and other delicious food, walking more than enough in between to work up an appetite.  We even made it to the places I first fell in love with back in 1992, the venues from the Olympics.

           

Barcelona was a great place to end our time in Spain, a city that not only lived up to high expectations, but exceeded them.

The life of luxury

Over the last year I have spent more and more time trying to figure out the loyalty program game. This has included hours of research online, subscriptions to blogs, time spent in online forums such as flyertalk and applying for credit cards simply for the sign-up bonus. This effort has swelled my mileage accounts, gained me elite status on United Airlines and has allowed me to travel in a bit more comfort. Starwood hotel chain recently ran a promotion that awarded a free stay at any of their resorts after every three stays at any of their hotels. To take advantage of this, I made bookings at as many Starwood hotels as I could while in Belgium and Croatia. I earned two nights which I redeemed at the Marques de Riscal Winery and Hotel in Spain. I have stayed at some nice hotels this year, but this was the best so far.

Upon approach, what really makes Marques de Riscal stand out is the stunning architecture. The hotel was designed by Frank Gehry, the designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and the Walt Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry designed buildings stand out with their sweeping lines and use of titanium and other reflective metals in their outer shells. The hotel is set amidst the winery and the vineyards, just across the road from the small town of Elciego. The colors that he used are designed to look like a Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva bottle of wine, purple (wine), silver (foil seal) and gold (mesh net that graces the bottles to keep counterfeiters at bay).

While the architecture is what first strikes your eye, our stay was defined by the helpful service and hospitality shown by the entire staff. Because we didn’t have a car, we were “stuck” at the hotel, enjoying the sun, sitting out at the spa, taking the complimentary winery tour, relaxing and partaking in the fantastic cuisine. Breakfast on the outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards was a highlight, as was the 8 course tasting menu we had at the restaurant.  Our meal started off with a cheese and truffle stuffed cracker soaked in honey and served on a river stone.  The cheese cracker might have been my favorite dish of the meal, the sweet and savory characteristics were in perfect balance.  This was followed up by croquettes which were fantastic. (no pictures).  The last of the appetizers was a foie gras cone, topped with grape caviar.The first of three main dishes was langoustine lobster in a white garlic sauce.  Simply delicious. Second up was Hake, candied in butter which was very rich and finally veal cheek which was not my favorite but still good.

Deserts featured an apple and honey ice cream dish that even for my palette may have been too sweet and finally chocolates.  To finish the meal, the sommelier came around with a tray of herbs to make us a custom infusion, featuring chocolate mint, a very sweet herb that we missed the name of and some lemongrass.  This was a great way to finish a meal that left us feeling very stuffed.

While the food was the major highlight, the rest of the stay left us feeling bathed in luxury.  The spa featured a pool, sauna and jacuzzi as well as massages that featured grapes such as a merlot seed scrub and grape oil massage.  It was the perfect place to sit out in the sun and relax before heading to Madrid and Barcelona.  If you are ever in the Rioja region, this hotel is a must visit.  It is pricey, but the food, surroundings, and staff make it worth it.   If you can, however, do it for free as part of a promotion you may want to find a way to get to Rioja to experience the life of luxury at Marques de Riscal.

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