Why I like Barcelona (hint: not Gaudi)

May 29th, 2010 by admin 66,533 comments »

Now that we have been to all the cities we will visit in Spain, I can say that Barcelona is my favorite. The reasons why I like it are not at all consistent with the what the guidebooks would have you believe, however.

What better place for our enchanted undersea Pentecost?!

We certainly took the guidebooks’ advice and saw the Gaudi highlights at Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, and La Manzana de Miseracordia (please forgive my Catalan spelling, it is probably wrong). When I saw Gaudi’s work, particularly juxtaposed with his (more traditional) contemporaries on the Manzana de Miseracordia, I couldn’t help but think that someone found the greatest sandcastle builder on the Barcelona beach and put him in charge of everything.

Gaudi’s style aside, Sagrada Familia was a fantastic tour. For starters, how many of the world’s great cathedrals are still under construction? Also, how many are as varied and grandiose as this one? Answer to both? Not many.

Now as I mentioned, the style employed by Gaudi is certainly not my cup of tea. Gaudi’s style is dominated by natural lines and a virtual lack of corners; I prefer my lines cleaner and more modern. Must be my German side.

Even though I don’t favor Gaudi’s choices, I admire his concepts and execution. The inside of Sagrada Familia really looks like a forest. The exteriors are grandiose and fitting with the theme. The cumulative effect is one that manages to inspire both awe and relaxed contemplation, which is no mean feat.

Pretty good shot, considering I had my eyes closed

If you decide to visit Sagrada Familia, you will have the opportunity to ride an elevator to the top (both in front and in back) to get a better view of the city. I can’t vouch for the front elevator (other than to say the line was quite long), but the back elevator was terrifying. I am not particularly prone to vertigo, but there is something deeply unnerving about being up 300 feet in a narrow stone spiral staircase. There were opportunities to go out on small balconies and look up at the details of the cathedral’s frescoes, but I could only muster a few quick photos away from the edge of the balcony. Karen was about twice as terrified as I was, which is to say she was just short of flipping out. We made our was down (and down, and down, since the elevator only carries you up), and we were both happy to be back on terra firma.

Leaving Gaudi’s Barcelona, we ran into the less celebrated parts of Barcelona, and these were the parts which I really enjoyed. These include: La Rambla, the Picasso Museum, the beach in Barceloneta, and Port Olympic.

La Rambla is a touristy, Times Square-esque strip that runs for about a mile.  The street lined with stores (mostly restaurants and bars) and the large median is full of vendors and street performers. Alas, Fat Spiderman was nowhere to be found. The concentration of people made La Rambla worthwhile on its own, but it also served to take us from our hotel (at the top) to the waterfront, where Barceloneta and Port Olympic are.

My wife's beach photography has improved

Barceloneta reminded us a lot of Miami, with a large sandy beach inside a major city. Even on a cloudy day, it was very satisfying to walk from a hotel downtown to the beach. There was also a lot of nice restaurents and clubs along the beach and at Port Olympic, which we would have gone back to at night if not for the terrible inertia of the hotel room.

The last bit of Barcelona that we sampled was the Picasso museum. The museum had a pretty interesting exhibit, comparing Picasso’s work to that of Rusiñol, and tracing Rusiñol’s influence on Picasso’s early career. The museum and its collection of Picasso’s work was not overly impressive, with the exception of its treatment of Picasso’s take on Velasquez’s Las Meninas. That part was super interesting, I am glad we went to see Las Meninas at the Prado beforehand. Even Karen was impressed with this exhibit.

Between the museum, La Rambla, and the beach, Barcelona felt to us like a mixture of New York and Miami. We enjoyed the proximity of everything, and being able to walk from Times Square to Miami beach is pretty cool. Gaudi’s sandcastles were the icing on the cake, but to us the cake was sweet enough to stand on its own.

Malware Problem Solved; Pictures Added

May 27th, 2010 by admin 24,543 comments »

Cafepress has fixed the malware problem that affected their sites, including mine. Sorry about that, guys.

Since the site is back to 100% functional, I have added pictures and a gallery to the post on authenticity: http://www.alexeifler.com/?p=119.

H.P. Lovecraft, the Unknown, and Foreign Countries

May 27th, 2010 by admin 17,632 comments »

During my time in Spain, I have finally gotten around to reading the Library of America compilation of H.P. Lovecraft’s writings, titled Tales. I had been meaning to read the volume for some time, but I always seemed to have something more compelling to read. This is often the case with my reading habits, but was particularly acute in this case since Lovecraft wrote what was then (the early 20th century) called “weird fiction”, but is now be called “horror”. Horror is not the most versatile of genres, and the mood to read it never seemed to surface. Now, lack of alternatives have forced my hand, and I am quite happy they did, as I am really enjoying Lovecraft’s writing.

Horror is probably not the right word to capture the experience of reading the stories; suspense is a more fitting word. Lovecraft’s stories are typically structured like simple ghost stories, starting rather mundanely and finishing with a startling revelation.

What I really enjoy about the writing is that, despite being rather predictable, each story delves into our fear of the murky, silent, and unknown aspects of our world. Lovecraft’s horrors are mysterious, unknowable and vast, but they reside in our cellars, attics and dilapidated buildings. This combination of unknown and mundane is the central force of Lovecraft’s writing, inspiring readers to think twice before going down to the basement to get a new light bulb.

Going to a foreign country inspires in some people the same sense of mundane/horror as Lovecraft’s writing elicits. Not understand what people are saying, not knowing what the signs say, and not being able to communicate causes uneasiness, isolation, and panic in many travelers. My wife and I are intermediate Spanish speakers (though by no means fluent), and even we are apprehensive when approaching an important conversation here in Spain. Fortunately, we have found that the locals are relatively forgiving of our clumsy Spanish, and are grateful that we are making the effort and not merely speaking loud, slow English. Barcelona is a little trickier than the rest of Spain, since here the signs are are in Catalan (which bears a passing resemblance to Spanish), though all the locals speak at least Spanish as well. Even so, I do feel a bit lost at times when trying to decipher words with many more X’s than I am comfortable with.

I can’t imagine the moxie necessary to move to a country where you don’t speak the language, and the locals are not as forgiving. It gives me new respect for immigrants, who all had to face down the horror hiding behind every conversation and every street sign.

Best and Worst: Marbella

May 27th, 2010 by admin 65,771 comments »

As our trip winds to a close, I will put together a brief list of the things we liked best and worst of each city we have visited. First up: Marbella.

Yes Mom, I remembered sunscreen

Worst: Gnats, Beach Construction and hucksters

Marbella, a lovely little town on the Costa del Sol, really had a lot going for it. That being said, there were a few things we could really do without. First up, like any beach town, there was an ample supply of gnats, flies, and other bugs that picked up steam at dusk. The army of swallows that darted about overhead was not quite sufficient to keep us un-bitten, so the bugs constitute half of the worst of Marbella.

The other half would be the beach construction that was taking place during our stay. Giant earth movers and backhoes went back and forth, beeping and revving their engines. The noise often blotted out the sound of the waves, which is a big no-no in my book. It did keep the families and kids off of that beach though, since access to the ocean was cut off (only sunbathing on the back half of the beach was available. I do prefer my beach without kids, when possible. While there were no children flinging sand on us, there was a steady stream of Nigerian men hocking fake purses/sunglasses/watches, and Asian women pestering you to get a massage. While these were a minor annoyance (and frequently departed with a shake of the head), a few tried the hard sell and had to be sent on their way with a show of conviction.

Best: Service People, Zozoi, Relaxation

The shopkeepers, bartenders, hotel workers, and other service personnel in Marbella were by far the best that we have met in any of our travels so far. They were friendly to a fault, and really seemed to be in the service industry for the right reasons. Special recognition goes out to Ben at the hotel La Villa Marbella, and Mustafa at Bar7.

Being a tourist destination, Marbella’s restaurants were more able to break free from the traditional Spanish (read: dull) palette. Ben at the hotel recommended Zozoi, an eclectic fusion restaurant serving a mostly foreign clientele. We went and had the appetizer sampler for 2, which (along with the pizza bread) was enough food to preclude us from ordering main courses. The next day, we realized that we wanted to try the mains though, so we made a reservation and went back for seconds (so to speak). The entrees did not disappoint, and my rosemary and honey crusted rack of lamb was particularly good. Overall, the food was bursting with flavor, and the service staff was very friendly.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the the relaxed lifestyle of Marbella. Starting with the late breakfast our hotel provides (available from 9 am to 1 pm!); continuing to the ample, sandy beaches (bathing suit tops optional, if you’re into that); winding back to the hotel through cute touristy shops and friendly bars; and finishing with a late dinner as the sun sets. Each day was pretty much perfect for relaxation, and our usual tendency to try and pack the days full of adventure was not a concern. If you are doing Marbella, I would recommend doing it at the end of your trip, so that you can bring that relaxation back with you.

My wife is a truly inspiring photographer

Authenticity in Seville

May 23rd, 2010 by admin 23,346 comments »

Before we left Seville, everyone (and all the guidebooks) said we had to do two things: visit the Alcazar and see a flamenco show.  We obliged, and what follows is my take on them.

Arches, while pretty, do not afford much privacy between rooms

The Alcazar is an old Moorish palace/fort conquered and added to by Christian kings, and is now the official residence of the Spanish royal family when they are in Seville. In contrast with the Alhambra, the majority of the Alcazar was commissioned and built according to the wishes of various early Spanish rulers, though they maintained the Moorish look and feel in many places. Think of it as Walt Disney’s Moorish palace. The upshot is that you still have the beautiful plasterwork, tiling, and arches. While they also have all that (and more!) at the Alhambra, what made the Alcazar a more interesting visit (in my opinion) was the pristine condition that everything is in. Since the Alhambra sat in ruins for hundreds of years, much that could be carried off was removed, including all the things that make a royal palace seem royal (i.e., artwork).

Also missing from the Alhambra is all the history of the royal residents. Since the Christian rulers are well-chronicled, the tour of the Alcazar included information about events from history that occurred in each room.

While the Alcazar is undoubtedly less interesting architecturally and historically, the borrowed Moorish culture is on better display here than 4 hours east at the Alhambra.

The other must-see on our list, Flemenco, was also available within a few yards of our hotel. We saw the late show, and for the first 15 minutes it was just a guitar player and a singer playing together in a way which made it impossible to judge how much was improvised and how much was planned. While they were good, I was obviously expecting more dancing.

The next portion — the part with the dancing — was not at all what I expected. The only was to describe it would be as a mix of:

1. Improvised guitar strumming

2. Wailing Spanish vocals

3. Periods of furious rhythmic clapping

4. Stomp, the musical

Obviously, this last part was the most shocking. On the raised wooden platform, the rhythms were dictated in part by the dancer, and picked up by the singer, the guitar player, and the non-dancing dancer (who mostly just clapped to keep time). The time signature was a 12-beat crazyness with accents on the 1, 4, 8, and 9th beats (or some such). The performance was apparently very authentic, and not too boring (I find all dance performances longer than 3 minutes at least somewhat boring). Contrasted with the for-tourists castanet-heavy multiple-dancer version, is it superior? Maybe, but isn’t pleasing more people (be they kings or tourists) kind of the point?

Should You Visit Spain? A Quick Guide

May 22nd, 2010 by admin 14,781 comments »

Here are the things that everyone told us is wonderful about Spain, in order of frequency:

1. The speed (i.e., relaxed)

2. The wine

3. The food

4. The weather

Now, I’ll tackle our experience of each so far:

Fist off, the speed is quite agreeable, provided you are not trying to get something done on a timetable. While nobody being in a hurry sounds like something you’d want, consider this: among the people who are in no hurry are your waiter, your cab driver, the person blocking the aisle on the train, and others who you will get frustrated with if you are used to a modicum of hustle. New Yorkers, this means you. Type A people, you as well. Type A New Yorkers (e.g., my wife), this goes double. At least nobody is expecting a big tip.

Next, the wine. I am certainly not a wine snob, so here are our observations on the wine: it is almost universally Spanish Rioja (made with Spanish grapes); it is not very expensive; it is drinkable; it is nothing special on the palette. Like I said, I’m no wine snob, so they had me at cheap and drinkable. The beer is also drinkable, and even cheaper than the wine. We opt for beer at least half the time, and that is fairly often since drinking is a national pastime. The whole country would be drunk all the time if not for…

The food. I am much more of a food snob than I am a wine snob, so let me say this: the food is quite plentiful, and most restaurants are not very expensive (compared to New York, and factoring in the favorable conversion rate). Bars and restaurants in Andalusia will often give you free tapas (small plates) when you  order a drink. This is a nice custom. The idea of small plates is also quite lovely; you’re not always starving, but it’s nice to have something on which to nibble.

The problem with the food was a total shock to us: Spanish people dig bland food. Like, really bland. There is a national aversion to spicy food (BOOO! <whistle>) and the culinary staples, olives and potatoes, are not exactly bursting with flavor. I can count on one hand the number of dishes that didn’t have me reaching for the salt and pepper, and often that was the only option for flavor. The lone exception has been dishes with saffron or sherry, since these are also found locally. Even my wife, a connoisseur of bland food, has found the food to be overly bland. We have begun to fall into the routine of ordering items which we know will have flavor: gazpacho, paella, saffron meatballs, and cured meats. The cured meats (particularly pork products) are very prevalent, and I have contentedly munched on them during our stay. My wife finds them too fatty, however. Regardless, I don’t think you will find anyone saying: “Be sure to bring your sense of culinary adventure with you when you travel to Spain.” Consider bringing hot sauce instead.

Lastly, the weather. This aspect was not mentioned nearly as frequently as any of the above, but let me be clear: it is amazing. Andalusia in May is as good as advertised – hot, sunny, breezy, and clear. Make sure your hotel has AC though, otherwise get ready for some sweaty nights. Since AC is table stakes for us when we travel, we have been nothing but delighted with the weather. As I type this, I know the forecast calls for rain tomorrow. We’ll see how that goes.

Update: it didn’t rain, and we had a nice meal at Enrique Bacarras. Best gazpacho ever. I am willing to soften my stance on the food somewhat.

Unrest? No. Thelebration!

May 20th, 2010 by admin 20,970 comments »

Today was both our first day in Seville and our first brush with the civil unrest that worried us in the days leading up to our trip. We heard that the government cutbacks necessary to stabilize the debt could lead to rioting, as they did in Greece weeks ago. We had already been reaping the benefits of the weakest Euro in years (less than 1.25 dollars per Euro, lowest since 2006), but we had yet to feel the sting that the weakening Euro had on the population.

Carrying a flag for miles is true commitment

As we walked back from trying to find a book store that sells books in English, we came upon a group of relatively unwashed-looking young people — about 50 in all — holding a sign that read “GRECIA LLAMA” or “Greece is calling”. As we passed them they started marching and chanting. Fantastic. We turned the corner ahead of the group and saw a much larger gathering, more than 1,000 people and growing by the second. For a moment, we were worried that this group (which was much rowdier than the protesters) was also worried about in increasing economic woes. As we got closer though we could see that these weren’t unwashed hippies chanting, but were instead young people in soccer jerseys singing and cheering. You can imagine our relief. Apparently, Seville has just won the Copa del Rey, which is something obviously worth celebrating.

When the protesters were stopped by the outermost ring of revelers, they dispersed. And thus, the crowd had another win to celebrate.

On a personal note, the accent that the people speak with here is difficult for me on two fronts. First off, it sounds quite different than the Spanish spoken in the Americas. If I had to describe the differences, I would say it sounds very thick here, like talking with soup in your mouth. I am used to the Spanish of Central and South America, so it has taken some time for me to adjust to the different verbal inflections.

The biggest difference though is in how the letters z and c, when followed by an i or an e, make a “TH” sound instead of the American “S” sound. The resulting effect nearly identical to a bad lisp. This effect is especially salient for me, since I underwent speech therapy when I was younger to fix a slight lisp in my own speech. Since speech therapy is pure conditioning, I am experiencing the still-lingering effects every time try to say “thinco” instead of “cinco”. Moral of the story – I had a REALLY good speech therapist.

La Alhambra: The Grand Canyon of Moorish Influence

May 19th, 2010 by admin 126,474 comments »

Until today, we had not yet felt like tourists being horded around and squeezed for money. That ended today with our visit to the Alhambra, a 14th century fort / palace constructed by the Muslim emirs. Wars, abandonment, and time caused much of the Alhambra to fall into disrepair. Only once Grenada realized what a goldmine they were sitting on did they begin to repair it, in the 19th century. Now it is THE destination for buses full of elderly tourists.

Moors apparently love hedges and shallow pools

To be fair, the only things in the US which are this old are either carved into cliffs or inside Larry King. And like Larry King, much of the Alhambra was rebuilt to stand up to the wear and tear of many engagements.

What remains of the palace would have been greatly enhanced by artwork, tapestries, furniture, and far fewer tourists. While I love exposed brick as much as any New Yorker, I very much think the emirs would have opted for something more grand. Some parts that remain hint at the former opulence, but even those are under constant reconditioning (e.g., the famous lions circling the main fountain were off getting cleaned – this was the pinnacle of bummers).

The most interesting part of the Alhambra for me was the ingenious ways the architects designed some rooms to be cool, even in the blistering sun. It was in the mid-80s when we visited, and the sun was oppressive enough to slow the older tourists to a crawl. There were rooms in the palace however that — without any doors or fancy contrivances — were 20+ degrees cooler. Marble, it turns out, is quite good at staying cool.

As we exited the palace and explored the surroundings, we discovered that there are scores of semi-wild cats who call the palace home. We noticed that these cats had perfected the ability to perch on the rims of trash cans and reach in to pick out choice morsels. All I could think of is what an amazing bum fight we could have between these cats and the Grand Central trash-diving hobos. Winner gets a bindle full of fish scraps.

My biggest takeaway from today is that even though crossing paths with tourist hordes is inevitable, it is quite nice to watch them pack into a bus bound for the next photo opportunity while you set off to figure out a way to get back to your hotel. Sure, you may end up walking or catching a local bus, but there is some excitement in not having a guide to fall back on. Also, the tapas and beer taste a little better when you had to earn them.

The Ballad of Fat Spiderman: A Photo Essay

May 18th, 2010 by admin 34,427 comments »

Sunburn in the afternoon – also, death

May 17th, 2010 by admin 229,338 comments »

So, what trip to Spain would be complete without sampling the embattled national pastime, Corrida de Toros (or as some would have it, bullfighting). Since a corrida happens every night during San Isidro, we were able to get tickets a month or so ahead of time, as well as see a prime-time corrida.

This matador was later booed (whistled) out of the ringSince better writers than I have done this topic to death (in the afternoon), here are some observations from someone with little knowledge of the goings-on:

1. There will be very little blood and gore in the photos, but I don’t blame you if you skip them.

2. There is no real fight during a bullfight. At its most raw, it is a dance with fancy outfits and stabbing.

3. I’m sure there was a lot of machismo that I missed, but on a dozen occasions one of the torreros (often the matador) dropped his cape, turned tail, and ran flailing from the bull.

4. The bulls do not mess around. They went after everything that went in the ring. They have apparently been bred to act this way. For some reason, I was reminded of the Jersey shore.

5. When a matador does a poor job, the fans let him know about it. After one particularly poor performance, fans threw seat cushions at the matador, and left the arena en masse. It made me miss Philly.

6. We left after the 5th bull (the seat-cushion-throwingly-bad one), since the corrida had already gone on for over three hours, and we wanted to share the indignation of the crowd. Although there was still one bull remaining, we also wanted to leave on a positive note (relatively speaking). You see, on the 5th bull the allotted 15 minutes had more than passed, and the bull was still charging proudly around the ring. The matador’s attempts had proven clumsy and ineffective, so they released some young bulls into the arena, and the wounded-but-still-spunky bull followed them the gate. It was the only bull to leave on its own hooves. The crowd gave the bull a standing ovation.

7. The toughest part of the corrida for uswas hiding from the sun. I had applied sunblock to my face earlier in the day, but wasn’t expecting the sun in the arena to be that ferocious. I guess when we saw the word “SOL” on our tickets, we should have taken it seriously. Neither of us got burnt because we hid our arms under my button-down shirt, but we did look like idiots wearing a shirt like a blanket in the scorching sun. Oh well. At least we didn’t drop the shirt and run away when the sun bared its horns at us.