Sounds of Spain – Microguagua

Madrid, Spain

Spain is a huge country with a ton of things to talk about. I could probably wax poetic for hours about jamón, days about pintxos, and weeks about architecture. The fact that I can speak enough Spanish to ask basic questions and get directions makes it an easy place to travel, and something about the way the people (who are in a terrible, terrible economy) manage to remain generally jovial towards tourists really hit me where it counts. I hope things will improve for them soon.

Barcelona, Spain

That said, Catalonia might as well be a different country. A country that I might prefer to visit. It seems like their economy is a bit better than the rest of Spain, and their culture hangs so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife. It’s a great place to visit. The architecture of Gaudí certainly contributes to the general vibe of awesomeness.

One thing I appreciate about Spain compared to anywhere else I’ve been in the world is the quality of the street performers, and one group caught my attention way more than any other: Microguagua (MEE-kro-hwa-hwa). They”re kind of a ska/reggae band with a horn section and a dude with a double bass. They have more personality in their pinkies than most music groups have in their whole bodies, and they know how to work a crowd. Also: they are available on iTunes. My recommendation for a great Spanish night at home is thus:

  1. Put this album on.
  2. Pop open a bottle of cava, or make some sangria or tinto verano
  3. Make some simple tapas
  4. Relax.
  5. Repeat.

Now, Microguagua isn’t exactly what you might think of when you think of Spanish music, but it is for me because of the sentimental memories and such. I’m always on the look out for good music to help set the mood for a meal (especially if I’m going to the trouble of making tapas or whatever.) What music reminds you of Spain? Tell me in the comments below.

Advertisements

Selfie memory: Barcelona, Park Güell

Park Güell selfie.

Look at these nerds.

So as one might imagine, as I was spending my Saturday doing fun things like violently sucking all of the dog hair up off the floor with the vacuum, waiting in line at the car wash, getting the car’s scheduled maintenance and getting my haircut, I wanted to be somewhere else today. Where? Park Güell, Barcelona’s ultra cool and beautiful park with these great viaducts and cool buildings and nice little shady alcoves to sit in and get away from everyone else.

Carolyn and I sat around for hours, enjoyed the street performers who lurked around every bend, and generally had a nice relaxing time with very little in the way of an agenda. Thank god for selfies.

Foods of Spain

Spain was one of the countries on this trip that I was most excited about, and not because of the amazing sites to see, the history of the Spaniards and the Moors and the Conquistadores, or even the Spanish inquisition. The one thing I was most enthralled by knowing that we were heading to Spain was the food. I know, what a huge surprise, this blogger was excited about food. I know.

I was completely unfamiliar with Spanish food until very recently. Although it always looked delicious on TV and all of the cheftestants on Top Chef who seemed to win had some experience working in Spanish kitchens, I never actually tried any of Spain’s delightful foods until we visited Hong Kong. Hey, after a couple of years living in Asia you’d eat at a Spanish restaurant when you visit the most western of all Asian cities too. Anyhow, the whole tapas experience excites my stomach because you can have a little bite of a bunch of different things without feeling like too much of a total pig.

In Spain, the experience was a bit different. We tried the local fare of Madrid and Barcelona, with a special lunch at a San Sebastian style Basque tapas bar for our final (and most grand) tapas meal. Everything was amazing in Spain. The ham fell apart in your mouth. The chocolate covered churros, well, I’ve already gushed on and on about those. Catalan sausage, all sorts of marinated tuna and salmon, and a wide variety of cheeses, all of it completely geared towards my palate. Spain seems to be the spot where they figured out how to use spices in a way that just screams (or sings maybe) finesse, whereas the way they’re used in Turkish or Indian cuisine screams WE’VE GOT LOTS OF SPICES AND WE AREN’T AFRAID TO USE THEM. Of course, Turkish and Indian cuisines are beautiful for that very reason.

At any rate, a picture is worth a thousand words, and I think this little gallery of images of Spanish cuisine will probably make you hungry.

Montaditos of anchovy, squid, chorizo, manchego, potato, and tortilla

Montaditos of chorizo, manchego, blood sausage, and mortadella

Cheesecake and cafe con leche

Planchado of bacon and cafe con leche

Counterclockwise from left: Croquetas, pork grilled with moorish spices, albondigas, and gazpacho

More montaditos, salads, and tinto verano.

Torrados of Catalan sausage and manchego

Pintxo of ham and vegetables with cafe con leche and a berlina.

Pizza of smoked tuna.

Empenadas of ham, cheese, and spinach.

Chocolate covered churros.

Clockwise from top: Pintxos of marinated tuna, soft cheese and pinenuts, salmon, and tortilla.

Pintxo of chorizo, served hot.

Hungry yet? Yeah. I thought so. May I suggest that you pick up some jamon Iberico and manchego cheese, and make yourself a nice sammich?

Barcelona: A treasure trove of architectural achievement

I have a million things to say about Barcelona, and I’m pretty sure that they’re all good. I know that it’s been a while, but I posted a love-fest for Barcelona on our last night in the city, and after a frustrating session of trying to resize photos and upload a blog post in a train-station McDonald’s in Marseille, I decided that blogging could wait until we got home. It was our honeymoon, after all.

Any visitor to Barcelona is going to notice immediately the architectural style(s) of the city, from the grandiose and frankly overwhelming La Sagrada Familia, to the quirks of Park Güell, the medieval architecture of the Gothic quarter, and the dissonance of The Apple of Discord you’re sure to find at least one structure in Barcelona to be captivating and stimulating for your imagination. Here are a few of my favorite architectural sights in Barcelona.

La Sagrada Familia

Honeymoon Photos 1 472 La Sagrada Familia La Sagrada Familia La Sagrada Familia La Sagrada Familia La Sagrada Familia

Casa Mila & The Apple of Discord

Casa Mila Part of the Apple of DiscordPart of the Apple of Discord Casa Battlo

Park GUELL

Park Güell Park Güell Honeymoon Photos 1 995 Park Güell Honeymoon Photos 1 964

El Barri Gotic

Barcelona's Gothic Quarter Barcelona's Gothic Quarter Barcelona's Gothic Quarter Barcelona's Gothic Quarter Barcelona's Gothic Quarter Barcelona's Gothic Quarter

Not exactly Architectural, but still awesomeBarcelona's Gothic Quarter Barcelona's Gothic Quarter

 

Here’s a little story. The day we visited La Sagrada Familia we took an evening walk through El Barri Gotic to see the ancient city of Barcelona. The gothic quarter is amazing with it’s medieval architecture, walls dating to the Roman empire, narrow alley ways, and amazing cathedral. What’s even more amazing is what happened at the end of the walk. As we rounded the corner of the cathedral we noticed something happening in the square. About a thousand people in circles doing traditional Catalonian dances. Then at the entrance to the cathedral small children started forming these really impressive human pyramids. It was pretty great. You see, in Catalonia they fly their own flag, speak their own language, and really make you feel like you’re not in Spain. It’s such a cool place though, you kinda understand why Spain wanted it in the first place.

Barcelona: A lovefest for this beautiful city

I’m not really sure where to begin with Barcelona. We arrived in this city with mixed expectations. I think Carolyn had some idea of how awesome of a place this would be, but I really had no idea what to expect at all. Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, one of Spain’s seemingly unwilling participants in the country, was obviously 100% different than Madrid before we even got off the bus. But let’s talk about the bus first.

An overnight bus trip is not a terrible thing. Eurolines buses seem to have free WiFi, comfortable seats, and stop every couple of hours so that everyone can pee. All in all, not a bad deal at all considering the ultra-cheap price of the transport. We arrived in Barcelona tired though, because sleeping on a bus is not at all like sleeping in a bed. The bus pulled into Barcelona-Sants bus/train station at 7:15am and we grabbed our bags and headed inside. We found the metro and bathrooms right away, and then decided that we were hungry enough to sit in at the McDonald’s for a bit (check-in at our hotel was 2pm…we had some time to kill.) A couple of McCafe con McLeches later and with fuller stomachs, we found our way over to Passeig de Gracia and walked about three blocks to our hotel. It was easy to find, and they were happy to take our bags so we could do a little sight-seeing without lugging all our crap around the city.

We saw nothing in depth for the next few hours, but we did enjoy scratching the surface of just how beautiful this city is. Not just beautiful in the sense that there’s lots of greenery and blue skies and it’s clean, but beautiful in that everything has been done with a really artful purpose. The architecture here is unbelievable. It’s so varied that your brain kind of wants to explode as you set your eyes on each different building. The most famous buildings here are the modernist masterpieces of Gaudi and his contemporaries, but even the run of the mill buildings are gorgeous. It seems like there isn’t a facade that isn’t painted, covered with mosaics, or otherwise altered to be more beautiful. That’s the thing here. Making things more beautiful.

You probably already know this, but some of the most important and significant artists of the twentieth century are from Catalonia. One look around and you can tell that this is a place where people really care about how things look. Everything has been deliberately designed to catch your eye in some way. The urinals in the bathroom are shaped in a very modernist way. Seriously. The bathroom door at the McDonald’s is almost unrecognizable with its Cubist influence. The Gaudi buildings, well, they’re simply amazing. I don’t want to overuse superlatives, but holy hell, the man was a genius. He used some really out-there ideas in his designs and then made them somehow work. I had no idea that his contribution to La Manzana de la Discordia was supposed to look like it had been built out of dragon bones, but somehow when Carolyn read that line of the guidebook my brain said “see, I told you it was dragon bones.” His masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, the still-under-construction cathedral is absolutely mind blowing. I’m not one to have an emotional reaction when I see something pretty, but entering that cathedral was absolutely, one-hundred-percent overwhelming. I couldn’t even speak. It LITERALLY took my breath away, and not in the asthmatic sense. Contrast that to the ancient Roman city walls and 13th century cathedral still standing in the Gothic Quarter and you’ve got a pretty amazing range of architecture to enjoy.

Now, to make it even more apparent how amazing this city is, let me tell you just a bit about the food. Spanish food is at the top of western cuisines for a reason. The food here in Barcelona has been unreal, and that’s not to knock the great stuff we enjoyed in Madrid. We’ve had all sorts of super simple dishes prepared in a rustic fashion that showcase an item in a way that gives the utmost respect to the ingredient and blows your mind at the same time. One item though has totally taken the cake. Spain is the home of the churro. You know, the star-shaped fried dough you can get at Costco or the movie theater or whatever at home. Here it’s a totally different thing. They’re perfectly crispy. I don’t know how else to describe it. I’m going to one-up that though. We found at two different Xurrerias chocolate covered churros. These are artisanal pastries dipped in artisanal chocolate. They are the best thing I have ever eaten in my life. If I could only have one bite of something before I die, I would want it to be a chocolate covered churro in Barcelona. I think Carolyn might actually say the same thing with no prompting.

I always compare the places I’ve been in my head, and my ultimate question is always “Charlie, could you see yourself living here?” The answer for Barcelona is an unqualified yes. I thought I’d like to live in Tokyo or Osaka, but Barcelona knocks those big boys down the list. I didn’t think I’d find a city (other than New York) cooler than Hong Kong, but Barcelona has it all and then some. I’m in love with this city, and I can’t wait to show you the things we’ve seen and enjoyed here. Stay tuned for a breakdown of our stay in Barcelona!

Madrid: Part II

After our first (half) days in Madrid, it was time to hit the ground running and get to the Palacio Real Madrid to see where the king lived and such before we had to move along to Barcelona. Imagine our surprise when we woke up to a temperature of 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Womp womp. Change of plans. First, get breakfast. Second, hit the H&M for a hoodie. Third, check out of the hotel and get on with the day.

20130504-232551.jpg

First stop was breakfast. We hit a fast food place called PANS (that means “bread” in Spanish, right?) and ordered up a couple of cafe con leches and a planchado (read: grilled cheese with some ham in it) for breakie. It was fast and delicious. We walked a block over to H&M, picked up some warmer duds, and checked out of the hotel with no trouble. The hotel was kind enough to hold our bags for us while we went out to see some sights before our 11:30pm (EEK!) bus to Barcelona.

20130504-233000.jpg

Next up was the Palacio Real Madrid. We waited in a very short line, paid our 14 Euro admission fees, and headed in to find that (surprise!) no photos were allowed in the Armory, Official Rooms, or Pharmacy. Womp womp! The grand staircase looked like it was straight out of Game of Thrones, and the frescoes in every room were absolutely stunning. It’s really too bad that I can’t share what we saw with you. Words can’t exactly express how breathtakingly stunning these rooms were. Words also can’t express how weird it is to see Christian and Classical stories intermingling in paintings. I mean, here’s a question…why is it okay for Hermes/Mercury to be in the same painting as Jesus? Is that weird to anyone else? Whatever, it looked amazing. We spent a couple of hours gawking at our surroundings. Some of the rooms were stunningly awful, and they were typically of a more rococo style. I’d probably live there if they told me to, though. 😉

20130504-233610.jpg

Touring a palace in Madrid can make you pretty hungry. We decided to head over to Plaza Mayor to see if we could find some tasty noms. After looking at a few cafes we decided on a place that served tapas, sat down, and made a few selections. We ordered a skewer of pork with Moorish spices served on a bed of couscous, albondigas de pollo, gazpacho, and croquettes of bleu cheese and mushrooms. Holy hell this was good. The albondigas were out of this world. The pork was excellent, in the sense that it had texture, flavor, and everything you could want out of a bite of meat. The croquettes were tasty as can be, and the gazpacho…well, it was a gazpacho. Lunch was a little spendy, but when in Spain you must eat some good tapas.

After lunch we walked up to the Museo del Prado to see some fine art. Well, wouldn’t you just know cameras aren’t allowed there either? We had to check our bags at the front, and spent the next few hours looking at everything from original Raphael paintings to tons of Goya. It was a super nice facility, the art on display was stuff that you see in textbooks (and it’s always cool to see that stuff in real life), and we were happy to stay until our brains couldn’t handle any more information. Our stomachs were ready to handle some more noms, too.

20130504-234422.jpg

A couple of blocks away from Museo del Prado we found ourselves at a 100 Montaditos again. This time we each ordered a salad and I ordered a few montaditos as well. My favorite of this round was mousse de pato (mousse of duck) with manchego cheese. How could you go wrong with that? We filled up on montaditos, salad, and sangria before heading back to the hotel to pick up our stuff. The gentleman at the front desk was very helpful, we took a few minutes to use the wifi to check our finances and email and such, and then made our way to the bus station at Avenida de America.

The bus station is much like a bus station in Korea. A few monitors showing which stall the buses are leaving from, people piling up their luggage, and mad scrambles for the bus. When we arrived I noticed there were no buses heading for Barcelona-Sants, only Barcelona-Nord. I walked around until I found the ticket office and asked if I was in the right place. The nice lady explained that I was, and when I questioned further why Barcelona-Sants didn’t show on the monitor, she explained that it was the same bus. This all happened in Spanish. I guess the sangria at 100 Montaditos worked. A little while later we were sailing through the Spanish night towards Barcelona on a fully-loaded bus, sleeping as comfortably as one possibly can on a bus (barely at all, to be honest.)

Leaving Madrid was sad, as I expect every departure to be on this trip. It’s a city steeped with so much history that ties directly to that of the place I grew up (San Antonio, Texas – if you didn’t already know), and seeing the statues of Ferdinand and Isabella, the fresco of Columbus giving them the world, and all of that other stuff struck close to every history class I took in grade school or at the university. The city is classically beautiful with ornate buildings, beautiful streets, and a flair I can only describe as sooooooooo Spanish. I think that one day we’ll have to head back to Madrid and give it a little more time, because it certainly deserves it.

Now we’re in Barcelona, a city that has a completely different feel and look. It’s in a region that may as well be an entirely different country. Stay tuned for more updates in the days to come!

Madrid: Part I

The last week or so has been a total whirlwind of visitors, nerves, wedding, nerves, nerves, and nerves, and tasks. When it all came to an end I was understandably tired. The honeymoon was planned, flights and hotels booked, but the whole thing suddenly became pretty intimidating because we’ve never been to Europe, I haven’t really tried to speak Spanish in any meaningful way since high school, and the first stop was SPAIN. How could I, the guy who just barely managed to hold it together long enough to get married, enjoy the beginning of this trip as much as I wanted to when I was so tired? Well the answer is always a good night’s sleep.

We woke up at about 5:00 Monday morning, finished packing, had final showers before the trip, and waited for my Dad to show up to drive us 3 hours over to Houston where we were to start the flying bit of the trip. It all went quite swimmingly, save for a small delay getting out of Newark-Liberty International Aiport. The in-flight entertainment was kinda meh-tastic but it did the job, and about 8 hours after we took off from New York we descended back through the clouds and landed on the most beautiful, green, earthy landscape I’ve ever seen. A quick stop at tourist information to find our way to the subway and we were off to our hotel. We checked in and about two point seven seconds later we were both asleep…for eight hours.

20130504-221708.jpg

After we woke up it was time to freshen up and hit the road, because food is obviously what Spain is all about, right? As Carolyn did her hair and makeup I checked some websites looking for tapas bars in our neighborhood, and stumbled across a chain particular to Madrid called 100 Montaditos which makes two-bite sized sammiches that you enjoy with a nice beer. Also the price is totally right. We selected about 8 montaditos and a salad and a couple of beers and nommed for a while. I don’t remember all of them, but there was chorizo, Jamon Iberico, manchego cheese, calamares, gambas, pollo asado con bacon, and a few others. It was delish. After our first outing into the world of Spain’s food, we went back to the hotel and passed out again. UNTIL 11:00AM.

20130504-225352.jpg

We never sleep late anymore, so it’s a bit out of character that we’d do it while in a place as interesting as Madrid. Weirder stuff happens though, I guess. Upon waking up we headed over to the Palacio Real Madrid and found ourselves in the midst of some sort of celebration. It turns out that May 1st is a holiday in Spain, and that the palace was closed. The cathedral across the street however, was not.

We paid a 6 Euro entry fee to get into the museum inside the church only to be told we couldn’t take pictures in the museum itself. The first few rooms of the museum were absolutely beautiful, and then there were some galleries of relics and stuff. We did see some great vistas from the balcony and the dome atop the cathedral.

20130504-225955.jpg

20130504-230137.jpg

20130504-230154.jpg

20130504-230232.jpg

20130504-230400.jpg

20130504-230411.jpg

On the way out we were finally let into the cathedral proper, and there were no signs saying “No Fotografia” so we went nuts. It was a beautiful work of light and space. The bold colors on the altar and frescoes were pretty stunning, and the sheer verticality of the whole thing was just nuts. We’re not very religious, but it’s always refreshing to see the good works that a devout belief can manifest out of people.

20130504-230955.jpg

20130504-230942.jpg

After our visit to the cathedral we stopped for a quick lunch at a little tapas bar across the street where we had a platter of charcuterie. Chorizo Iberico, Jamon Iberico, different selections of sausages, blood sausages, and cheese. It was pretty glorious. Throw in the fact that the beer was basically free and hell, that’s what I call lunch.

20130504-231226.jpg

After lunch (which was around I think 3 or 4) we headed down Calle Mayor towards Plaza Mayor, the theme-park-esque Times Square-ish kinda bit of Madrid. It’s a huge open square with all manner of street performers, pickpockets, knockoff handbag dealers, cafes, football hooligans, bars, and restaurants. Some places are made for people watching, and this is one of them. We had a coffee and a dulce de leche cheesecake while we watched the square do its thing, then we headed along to Puerta del Sol where preparations were being made for protests against austerity and celebrations of a citizens uprising against the French that happened on May 2, 1808.

20130504-231502.jpg

We moved along to Plaza Cibeles to see some impressive buildings we saw on postcards earlier that day, along with a great fountain of Neptune, and all the way up to the gate of Parque Retiro. It was getting late. Already 8pm. Still light out by any means of description, but we were getting kinda tired, and we’d been on our feet pretty much nonstop for 8 hours. We found a place to eat with pictures of paellas in the window and sat down.

20130504-231724.jpg

Paella has been on the list of things I want to eat for a while, and the fact that they had a paella de verduras and I was needing some vegetable action sealed the deal. What we’ve learned since then is kinda sad. There is some sort of mass production going on and places have a separate menu that says Paellador! Lots of places both in Madrid and here in Barcelona have the same menu. I’m pretty sure the vegetables were frozen or something, because they didn’t have a whole lot of color. It was pretty tasty, but not the beautiful food I’ve become accustomed to in Spain, ya know? My tip: Avoid Paellador paellas. Not worth the 12 Euro everyone seems to charge for them.

After our meal it was back to the hotel where we once again fell asleep quite fast. Jet lag is a bruja.