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Sangria…a Taste of Spain

November 21, 2011 1 comment

Prompt #20: DRINK – my eighth post in bootsnall’s 30 Days of Indie Travel project.

Just as the cuisine of a place reveals clues about its culture and history, so does its signature local drink. What’s the best drink you had on the road, and did the drink have any connection to the place where you drank it or the people you drank with?

Sangria.  There really is no question about it.  Sangria is so tied into the culture of Spain, so representative of this country.  Sangria is delicious, refreshing, light and a mixture of complex flavors, just like Spain.

I found Spain to be a refreshing break from “Old Europe”.  Not as proper as the British, by the book like the Germans nor as traveller adverse as the French.  There was a sense of history, an understanding of those that had come before but at the same time a great enjoyment of life.  It just seemed like the Spanish people were fully aware that they had a great country and were happy to share it with the world.

Spain has long been a meeting place for different cultures.  The Arabian scholars helped preserve many ancient texts here, ensuring that we would have these records of history at a time when many in the Christian church were trying to destroy them.  Over time this past has been combined with the strong Catholic influence, combining to make Spain.  That said, even when traveling to different parts of the country there is a clear differentiation between the regions.  Madrid is different from Basque country which is different from Catalonia.  While there are certainly tensions, they all come together to form Spain.  Sangria has this mix of flavors with sugar and fruit balancing the wine.  It just works.

While traveling through Spain, from Bilbao to Rioja to Madrid and finally to Barcelona, most afternoons were spent having a glass (or pitcher) of Sangria.  Sometimes hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar, just to sample the variations on this delicious drink as we were sampling the various experiences of this great country.

Cities

November 16, 2011 6 comments

My third entry for 30 Days of Indie Travel

Prompt # 15 – Cities

When traveling, I tend to be attracted to big cities.  Given the option of a beach or a city, I will almost always choose the city.  Perhaps this is because cities are usually a bit easier to get to, but I think the bigger reason is that cities are exciting for me.  I love that there is always something to do, always something to see.  The best of a country tends to be drawn to the cities.  That is not to say that there is not good to be found outside of cities, but it is a bit harder to find.

Throughout my travels I have been to many cities that I have loved.  There are the few that I find awful, but this almost always has something to do with something out of the cities control, like weather or my mood at the time.  While each great city has something to offer, these ten rise above the others I have been to.  I am not sure that I can really choose a favorite hence the two number 1’s, so instead I will give a few reasons why each of these have provided some of the best experiences I have had while traveling.

  1. Cape Town, South Africa – Perhaps the most beautiful city I have been to.  Cape Town also features great weather, a great dining scene and so many options of things to do that it was impossible to be bored.                                                                                               
  1. Barcelona, Spain – I wrote about my visit to Barcelona here.  The food, culture and architecture set this apart from most others I have been to.  This is a quintessential city that is so easy to get lost in, enthralled in the sights, sounds and history of the place.
  2. Istanbul, Turkey – Sitting at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, Istanbul has reminders of history around every corner.  Add in some fantastic food and good weather and you have a winning combination.
  3. Amsterdam, the Netherlands – I am not sure if I have ever visited a more comfortable city.  It’s charm is simply in being there, experiencing everything it has to offer.  It’s food does not stand out, the weather is chilly and rainy, it is expensive, but I am not sure if there is any other city in the world that I would like to spend an afternoon wandering around.                   
  4. Buenos Aires, Argentina – Great food, a very vibrant culture, good weather and a feel that you are in Europe instead of South America but still with South American passion make for a great place to travel to.
  5. Kyoto, Japan- Of my top 10, this is the one that caught me by surprise.  On my first trip to Japan I was looking forward to the food of Osaka, the modernity of Tokyo and the reminder of past mistakes in Hiroshima but Kyoto won my heart.  The culture and history, combined with good food and beautiful mountains make Kyoto my favorite city in Japan.
  6. Hong Kong, China – This city that feels simultaneously Asian and Western.  If visiting from China (as I have) the western aspects stand out.  If coming from the west, the combination of Asian cultures make for a fantastic Asian experience.  The pace of life, the busyness of a city are all on showcase here along with great food, good shopping and good transportation.                  
  7. Stockholm, Sweden – Set amidst the Stockholm Archipelago, Stockholm takes all of what Scandinavia is well known for and somehow improves on it.  The architecture, design, shopping, and wide range of activities make this a must visit in Summer.  Winter might be a bit cold.
  8. Chicago, U.S.A. – Close to one of my homes, Chicago is a great city with impressive and important architecture, fantastic food, great shopping, amazing museums and a cultural scene that rivals any other city on my list.
  9. Shanghai, China – A 21st century city with a long history.  This is one of the most modern cities on my top 10, but just around the corner from modern skyscrapers you are able to find older neighborhoods.  The food is great, the architecture impressive and the history fascinating.

Honorable Mention – London, Beijing, Moscow, Portland OR, Tokyo, Singapore, Frankfurt, Lhasa

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.

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