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Continuing The “Cultural and Gastronomic” Vacation Series of Spain

Better late than never. LOL!

Suanne is so tired of asking me to finish off writing the our “cultural and gastronomic” vacation to Spain last summer that she doesn’t say it anymore. She just bump the drafts of these posts right up to the top of the queue just to remind me, it’s there.

Last summer we had a great time in Spain. “Last summer” as in 2009, not 2010. We toured three cities. Barcelona, Seville and Madrid. That trip opened our eyes to the Spanish culture and how the world could have been different today if the English Armada did not destroy the mighty Spanish Armada … o de otra manera estaría escribiendo esto en español.

La Boqueria on La Rambla

We started off in Barcelona (the Barcelona series here). There was not a lot of planning on our part for the trip. I was so busy at work that I only got to think about this a couple of days before leaving Vancouver. Yeah, that created a bit of anxiety on Suanne part.

We made the trip using the company’s travel passes which is one of the best perks I had. The trip costs less than $500 per person and it included flights and hotels too. Can’t beat that, can you?

Christopher Columbus Monument

Without a lot of planning, the first leg of the vacation was more than we bargained for. We went up the Christopher Columbus Monument that marks the very spot where Columbus made his triumphant return from the New World and was officially greeted by Isabel and Ferdinand.

Stage 6 of Tour de France in Barcelona

It was a total unexpected bonus to learn that the Tour de France had a stage ended in Barcelona on the second day we were there. Many years ago I was an avid cyclist and ride to work almost everyday. I also followed the Tour de France every July on TV. So it was a dream come true to catch not one but TWO stages of the Tour.

Yeah … I got a fleeting glimpse of Lance Armstrong!

The Sagrada Familia

Our jaws dropped at the magnificence of The Sagrada Familia. I had been to many many churches and cathedral throughout the world but this one is just simply the best. Gaudi started building this in the year … More on following page. Click here to continue reading

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Barcelona: Our Last Tapas at La Rambla

One last meal in Barcelona.

We thought that we should go eat tapas again but this time with a difference from our past visits.  We had always had tapas served to us at the tables, not at the bar.  OK, the one at La Boqueria techincally does not count as a bar.

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Against all wisdom and advice from guidebooks, we went to one of the many tapas bar fronting La Rambla.  We went into several and decided that this one looks great with lots of mouthwatering choices.

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We ordered drinks.  Suanne had orange juice while I had beer.  The orange juice was €5.50 and the beer €6.  I ordered beer because it makes me look macho, although frankly I prefer Coke more.  LOL!

My face all flush up even with light beer although it does clear quite quickly.  Suanne thinks I am embarassing myself only.  *shrugs*

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They have Jamon (that’s Spanish Ham) hanging from the ceiling like any well-respected Spanish restaurant always have.  See the little cups that hangs from some of them.  I think they are the oil catcher or sorts.

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We ordered this by pointing to what we wanted and so we do not know what the name is.  So we call this the Mixed Seafood with Garlic and Parsley.  This is a delightful mix of prawns, mussels, black olives, squid, peppers and artificial crab meat.  €6.

Oh … one thing we notice so far is that almost all the tapas we had were served in the same earth clay plates you see above.  It is almost like it is tradition that tapas must be served in these plates.

From the bar, I noticed that the bar tender was taking these plates out from a box.  They must have just taken delivery of new plates.  Guess what we saw … More on following page. Click here to continue reading

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Barcelona: Maritime Museum

Suanne and I debated where to go for the last day.  She wanted to visit Parc Guell.  I did not.  I had enough of Gaudi to tell the truth.  We had earlier tried going to the famous Gaudi park a couple of days earlier.  We went to the wrong station.

I wanted to go to the Barcelona Maritime Museum instead.  I love museums, particularly historical museums.  It is more so that Spain is very much a maritime nation and all of its greatness in years past is due to it’s maritime exploits.  Well, it was not much of a debate anyway because … he he he … between Suanne and I, I always win debates.  She is so sweet!

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The Barcelona Maritime Museum (known as Museu Marítim de Barcelona) is located in downtown Barcelona not too far from La Rambla.

The entrance costs €13 which also included audio guides for both of us.

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The Maritime Museum is located in the building of a very old royal shipyards.  This building dates from the 13th century.  There are exhibits of every kind — from trade, to wars and most importantly of discovery.

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Christopher Columbus, with the discovery of the New World, is the man who ushered Spain in as one of the greatest maritime nation in the world.    It was during that time that the Spanish Empire started to extend its tentacles all over the world and exerted its influence, culture and language which had lasted until today.   More on following page. Click here to continue reading

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Barcelona: Breakfast at Danone

7th day in Barcelona.

It was our last day in this city.  We had a plane to catch to Seville (or Sevilla in Spanish) in the late afternoon.

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We saw Danone the day before when we were at Dia-gonal for breakfast.  It was a restaurant that looked very different from those we had been to so far.

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We found out that this place is the first and only Danone retail outlet.  And we were quite surprised to learn that while Danone today is a French company, it actually was originally founded in Barcelona.  That was 90 years ago.  The name Danone is a Catalan name for Daniel and is named after the son of the founder.

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In this showcase outlet, there is a small section that showcased Danone’s history and products.

I guess most of you would know of Danone’s brand names.  They are big on yogurts with Activia is a common brand of yogurt in Canada.  We always have Activia in our fridge at home.  Other famous Danone product is Evian.   More on following page. Click here to continue reading

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Barcelona: Contemporary Catalan Cuisine at Alkimia

This is like a consolation prize for not getting a table at El Bulli.  This is Plan B for fine cuisine while we are in Barcelona.

We found Alkimia from researching on Chowhound.  We wanted to really go to Cinc Sentits as our first choice but they were closed.  Both were excellent new wave restaurants.

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Suanne finally got her glasses fixed.  We were at around Sagrada Familia because there is where Alkimia is located.  We found an optometrist on the way.

You know, Suanne always pushed me to do all the Spanish talking for her but this time (he he he) I told her I am not going to do that for her.  It’s her glasses and if she wants it fixed, she needs to do it herself.  Gosh, she hates me.  But she did well.  The optometrist does not speak English but he knows the problem right off.  He refused payment too even though we offered to pay.  I wished we had something to give him for his kindness.  The only thing we had on ourselves is an Angus Third Pounder coupon, good only in the US.  So Suanne said the FIRST official Spanish word communicating with a Spaniard … Gracias!  Oh, I love to see her all stressed out.  She hates me alright.

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Our reservation was for noon but we were there about 30 minutes early.  They were just setting up but were kind enough to let us in and have a table.  We were the only customer there at that time which is technically still breakfast time in Spain!

The interior is awashed in white.  Very minimalistic.  Very white.  I corrected the white balance of the picture above but the interior had a very pleasant lighting.

You know what we love best about Alkimia?  That it is strictly PROHIBIDOR FUMAR!!  No smoking.  Oh yeah!

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I like the lighting a lot.  It was as if they are strategically placed that the focus is on the food and nothing else.

As expected, service was excellent.  Very attentive, respectful and anticipative, if there is such a word.  While Alkimia is a fine dining restaurant, they did not mind that we were in casuals and jeans.

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I like their pepper and salt shakers.  It took a while for me to figure out which is salt and which is pepper.

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The knife … see how it does not lie on the sides?  Alright, I am a sucker for details like this.

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Their menu is huge, almost 2 feet long.  It’s not that it is extensive — just outrageously big.  The menu is actually simple.  Alkimia serves contemporary Catalana cuisine.

Only three to choose from:

  • The Menu Alkimia, tasting menu at €68 / CAD $105 — 12 courses
  • The Traditional Menu at €54 — appetizers, 5 mains, 2 desserts
  • The Seasonal Menu at €32 — appetizers, 2 mains, 1 dessert

We went with the Menu Alkimia.  As in most tasting menu, everyone at the table has to order the same menu.  We can’t have 1 order of Menu Alkimia and another for the Traditional Menu.  This is because of timing issues, I believe.

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Our waitress can clearly see that we were documenting the meal.  I mean the camera is hard to not notice and Suanne has a note book (not notebook!) on her side.  We were surprised that the waitress went and print out a color menu for our reference.

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We had a bottle sparkling water.  €4.50.

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The breadstick was the first thing they brought to our table.  It sure was fun … must be at least two feet long that we had to stretch to reach the top.

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It was crispy and tasted like it was freshly made.

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Next was the cured meat which came with …

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… an oily drink with some very crusty bread crumbs in it.  We were told to pop the cured meat and the “drink” all at once.  It has a very unique combination of taste and texture.

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We were still at the first appetizer course.  They call this Gorgonzola cheese, tomato, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Gorgonzola cheese is Italian style blue cheese but for this dish it is made into thick foam.

OK, this is the closest we had come so far in trying Ferran Adria’s creation.  It is the famed El Bulli master chef who first invented this style.  It is supposed to place more importance to flavour than to the other aspects of the food.

It was a very interesting start to the meal.  First course down … 11 more to come.   More on following page. Click here to continue reading

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Barcelona: Els Encants Vells Flea Market

We really did not know what to do on our sixth day in Barcelona.  The highlight of the day is lunch at one of the new fine dining restaurant that showcases contemporary Catalan cooking.  The day of devoid of a theme, if you may.  It will be a slow, unrushed day.

Suanne had a little accident the day before.  It had never happened before and it just had to happen when we are on vacation.  You see, she lost the tiny screw on her glasses.  Without her glasses, she is technically blind.

We tried fixing it in the hotel and the only thing that we had that is small enough to hold it together temporarily is … dental floss!!  Since Suanne can’t see, I had to thread the dental floss … and you know that this sort of things are not meant for a guy to do right.  I mean, men are not wired for this type of fine motor stuff.  Frustrating work I must say but got it on finally.  It was quite a neat job too if I must say so myself.

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The hotel concierge told us that we could try El Cortes Ingles to fix the glasses permanently.  There is one about 3 blocks away from the hotel at the Placa de Francesc Macia on Dia-gonal.  It was too early and the shops were not opened yet.  So we had breakfast at one of the many coffee shops peppered around the round about.

We went into this place called Kilimanjaro which is modern and spanking clean — but still as smokey.  As usual we had Cafe Con Leche.

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The service was “excelente”.  I think the guy took care of us better because we are tourists.  It was supposed to be self-service but he came around where we are to double clean our table and asked that if we wanted anything to just ask.  We felt good — nice young man.

We had chocolate pastry …

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… and croissant sandwich with ham and cheese which was a little toasted.  The croissant sandwich was delightful.  The crusty sandwich with cured meat was equally great.  Breakfast was €9.55.

I remembered it was a very relaxed breakfast like we did not have anything to do in the whole morning.  We took our time and looked out the window … people watching.  Dia-gonal is a really busy street.  There were cars, people, buses, bicycles just bustling here and there.

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After breakfast we took the subway to the flea market.  It was just a few stops away and so we thought we might as well do this.  The flea market is located at this huge flyover which from the looks of it is the only flyover in the city.  It is here there is the Torre Agbar which looks a lot like the Gherkin in London.

The Torre Agbar is perhaps the tallest building in Barcelona.  You can’t see clearly from the picture above but it is lighted with thousands of LED lights which gives it a hue of colors.  The window panes are automatically controlled by temperature sensors.   More on following page. Click here to continue reading

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Barcelona: Virgin of Montserrat

Day #5. This was supposed to be a slow day and about time too. We had walked a lot the past few days.

We went and travel afield out of Barcelona. We were going to Monserrat to see the Virgin of Monserrat.

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We had to take the regional train, R5, to Monserrat from the Plaza de Espana.

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Breakfast was in one of the restaurants on the feeder roads to the Plaza de Espana. The name of the restaurant is Bar Andrurina, not that the name meant much to us. It was just a normal restaurant. We sat outside over the issue of smoke. Moreover, it is better sitting outside — people watching.

Drinks was cafe con leche (again) and fresh orange juice. I had the egg with tomato sandwich while Suanne ordered the pork coin sandwich. There was not much flavour to the pork, Suanne said, and added that it tasted more like a tomato sandwich. Breakfast was €12.30.

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There was a counter down at the subway station that helps tourists on planning the day at Monserrat. Apparently we could make all the arrangements at the train station itself. It was not only the train tickets but also the gondola ride, entrances and even meals.

We went with the works mainly because we did not know what to expect. The package is €37 per person which works out to be around $57 Canadian. This includes the train from Barcelona to Montserrat, cable car, rack railway, audio visuals, museum and a meal.

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The train took about an hour to get to Monserrat. We enjoyed the extended ride and slept part of the way there. We were still recovering from jet lag too, you see.

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Even though we had never been here before, we knew the moment we were near Monserrat. The scenery changed and what we saw was the unmistakable jagged cliffs of Montserrat. Right up at the top, nestled between the ridges, was the famed monastery of Catalonia.

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Most tourists will get to the top of Montserrat via the bright yellow cable cars. At peak time, the lines to go up is very long. There appears to be only two cars alternating between the two stations. We were early and so we just needed to wait for the next car.

We were squished into the small car like sardines. If you were not one of the few lucky ones to get to stand by a window, it is a very uncomfortable ride. We ended up in the middle where we could not see anything at all.

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We thought this will be like some medieval castle. It was like a little town with modern buildings. Monserrat was first mentioned in history books as early as the 9th century. According to stories, Montserrat is suspected to be the location of the Holy Grail — interesting.

We saw lots of cars. It was only then we realized that there is a way up here by road. It sure did not look like there is a road from where we took the cable car.

We went first to the audio visual room. We were the only one there! But it was comfy with air conditioning and all. It was too comfy that we fell asleep. Woke up when the lights came on. We stayed to watch the video the next round.

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The day was hot and humid. One would have thought that it would be cooler at the top of the mountain. It was not.

So we decided to duck into the museum next knowing that it will be air conditioned. There were strictly no pictures here … not even at the foyer! The museum surprisingly had a good collection of paintings including Picasso and Dali. There were also early church items on display too.

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The Inner Courtyard is the oldest surviving part of Montserrat.

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We then did what many people come to Montserrat to see — the Virgin of Montserrat. We took a look at the line and thought … OK, let’s just wait in line. Everyone around us was speaking Spanish (or Catalan, whatever) that it did not occur to us to ask the most fundamental of questions. How long is the line?

From where we stood, it seems like it’s less than 50 meters to the entrance. We were so wrong!

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The line went on and on and on. We did not realize the time because the line moved from one area to another and there was something to see along the way. By the time we realize how long it will take to get to the Virgin, we had already waited for one hour. We were told … “Oh, you are close. Only one hour more”.

One more hour?!?

So we queued for TWO hours in all. We really had no choice. There is nothing much more to see in Montserrat and it was really hot outside. Moreover, we had already waited for one hour. So, what is one more hour right?

If we knew earlier we would not have queued to see the Virgin. At the end of the line, this is what we saw …
More on following page. Click here to continue reading

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6th Spanish Meal and Our Last Ditch Attempt at El Bulli

So, we got back to the hotel and thought we just take a nap and then go out for a late dinner, like Spaniards do.  We were so tired that it was 11PM when I woke up again.  I roused Suanne up.  She said she was not going and there is no way she is going to wake up, get dressed and go out again.

She had this pitiful look that I thought I better not subject her to more walking.  It had been a long day already.  Moreover, we were not hungry at all.

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I have to report that we failed in our attempt to eat like a Spaniard.  Oh well.

Will we attempt to eat like that again?  After all, it was just day #4 out of our 18 days in Spain.  The answer is NO!

Anyway, I had made a phone call and sent emails to El Bulli trying to get  a table.  I know the odds are against me but I thought if I just be presistent enough, they would remember the name “Ben” and maybe … just maybe … they might squeeze in a table for us.  I am sure they can do that.

For those of you who had not been following this blog, well, El Bulli is the #1 restaurant in the world.  Having a meal at El Bulli will certainly be the mother of meals that Suanne and I would ever had.  Really, we don’t care for the cost … we just want to taste Ferran Adria’s creation.

So, after all the cajouling, I got the response from El Bulli.  All that effort was not lost!!  I got this email response finally from El Bulli … More on following page. Click here to continue reading

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