Sights in Europe

This rambling聽features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights聽that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.

Best Art Museum:聽National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 馃檪 The palatial building聽has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with聽mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…

Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks聽waterside, board聽to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.

MNAC, Croatian peninsula, view from Dubrovnik’s walls.

Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix聽cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially聽if you come across聽live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.

Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.

Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior聽is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.

Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.

Pena Palace, library at Mafra, Trinity College Library.

Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in.聽The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework聽worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.

Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.

Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.

Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.

Village Museum, Red Bull Air Race, tombs at Cemiterio dos Prazeres, La Sagrada Familia.

Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, Lisbon.聽Ghosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.

Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.聽La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw. 聽Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.

Favorite Museum Artwork: Discovering the Body聽of King Louis II by Bertalan Szekely.聽It’s a weird choice, but in person it is impressive and some parts are so realistic that it took me a while to convince myself the canvas was flat.

Most Heartwrenching聽Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but聽it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.

Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown.聽King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.

Fortress at Omis, Romania’s royal crown, book fountain, gas canisters at Auschwitz.

Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season.聽 They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 馃檪 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.

Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest.聽Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.

Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia.聽We visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.

Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.聽The large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.

Plitvice Lakes, Chester Beatty Library, Suomenlinna Island.

Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, Helsinki.聽A small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.

Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania.聽Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.

City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards.聽Outside the Gothic Quarter’s 聽tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.

Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:

Lisbon has a castle downtown! The ruined聽Carmo Monastery! The less ruined Jeronimos Monastery. Next door to the Pena Palace is the clamberable ruins of the聽Moorish Castle.

Carving at Jeronimos Monastery, Carmo Monastery, Solin’s ruined amphitheater.

Barcelona’sMontjuic Castle聽has dark and checkered history, but beautiful views. Nearby, the聽Olympic Grounds聽are a great picnic/frisbee spot.

The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement聽in Split聽still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin聽add to that argument.聽Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.

The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik聽was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying聽out to聽Lokrum Island聽also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place聽to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.

Lokrum Island, Palace of the Parliament, Peles Castle.

Bucharest聽has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.

In Dublin, the National Archaeology Museum聽and St. Patrick’s Cathedral聽聽were my other favorites. And the whole city recalls lots of great literature 馃檪 . Across the country, really just a few hours drive, are the Cliffs of Moher.聽Brave the wind and don’t get too close to the edge.

Cliffs of Moher, inside St. Patrick’s, Dohany Street Synagogue.

Budapest is impressive all around. The quirky Pinball Museum聽is great for 5 hours until your wrists give out but the massive Szechenyi Thermal Baths聽can relieve all those arm cramps. A more sombre visit, the聽Dohany Street Synagogue聽is a reminder of how the Holocaust changed Hungary.

In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of聽Warsaw聽is a WWII memorial. Walking聽anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In聽the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.

Krakow聽crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica聽is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some聽of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.

Wilanow, Krakow’s Franciscan Church, Lennusadam, Kadriorg Palace.

Tallinn’s聽St. Olaf church tower is a great way to view the Old Town and reveal a fear of heights. Tucked away in Kadriorg park is the impressive KUMU National Art Museum and the cute聽Kadriorg Palace (also housing art). The Lennusadam Seaplane Harbor has full sized boats and a submarine to explore

Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….

The Food Review of Europe

We’ve moved back to聽the Americas for the foreseeable future, leaving fall and winter behind. Sorry Europe, it’s time for some beaches in Mexico and Latin American culture. Coming snow and chill aside, I’m going to miss all the countries we visited in Europe. I thought it might be fun to do a recap of the best things we saw and ate and some of the oddities we noticed. New blogs will be light this month聽as we are staying in a beach town and well… basically going to the beach every day. This post is all about the food and drink in eight countries we visited in Europe, starting with the best food from each place.

  • In Lisbon, Portugal, egg tarts reign. Just all of them all the time; get them from Pasteis de Belem or literally any other bakery. How their eggs are so tasty is a mystery.聽Even the eggs we got at the store had richer yolks and seemed tastier than eggly possible.
  • Best meal in Barcelona is tapas, hands down. Away from the tourist streets they are much cheaper and about 483% better. Every possible combination of cheese, veggies, and meat is available. For a Euro, you can have a couple bites that taste like the equivalent of $40 meal. And usually there is a wide variety so it is perfect if someone wants hamburgers and another person wants fruit & cheese plates.
  • Ajvar is Croatia’s contribution to culinary heaven. A blend of peppers and eggplant, it fits聽between pasta sauce and salsa. Doesn’t sound too special, but it was my go-to topping for toast, eggs, chips, pasta, crackers, meat, or sometimes just by the spoonful by itself. Especially worth nothing when served on cevapi, a skinless sausage sandwich that may cause you to nearly ruin your shirt in your hurry to get it all in your face because YUM!聽I searched for ajvar聽in every European country we went to post-Croatia. (Romania has a similar food called zakusca, but it’s more soupy and forgettable.)
  • In Bucharest, Romania, the Caru’ cu Bere restaurant served up cheap lunch eats. We had superb sour kraut salad, polenta (with a rich topping of cheese, cream, and egg – it was the appetizer but basically became my main course), and tomato and cucumber salad.
  • Fish was the best bet聽in Ireland. There isn’t really any specific way to have it prepared as long as it’s fresh. Locals emphasized that Irish cuisine doesn’t have a ‘must-try’ dish. In fact, Dublin may have had the highest percentage of restaurants and shops聽focusing on cuisine from other cultures.
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    Horse and cous cous (Kevin whipped it up after a trip to the main market), egg tarts, winning chips.
  • Goulash soup was probably the highlight of Hungary. Full of meats, veggies, and paprika, it is warm and rich. It’s probably more聽suited to winter than summer, so we need to go back in a season when I can eat more of it. It’s definitely not the hamburgery noodles I grew up calling goulash. Also, in a possible tie,聽Hungary has聽deep fried potato donuts. These are exactly what they sound like: a mix of potato and donut dough, fried for a crispy outside and soft, warm inside. Though they are called donuts, they aren’t dessert, but another example of Hungary’s love of high-calorie goodness.
  • Poland claims victory on the pierogi front, naturally. I didn’t know there could be so many kinds. Duck, mushroom, salmon, and berries make excellent fillings though ruskie (cheese and potato) is the most traditional and is clearly the King of Pierogies. Done right, they are puffy, joyous food pillows that I would gleefully eat for every meal.
  • Estonia wins dessert. Never thought I would say that Estonia has the best (non-egg tart) pastries, but they pulled it off. We were just a block away from a bakery that served up supremely fluffy pastries with the richest, smoothest creamy cheese fillings and icings. And Kalev, the main brand of chocolate, makes some of the best anywhere in Europe. Sorry, Germany, Kinder doesn’t cut it anymore.
Croatian peanut crisps, pierogies!!, Hungarian langosh, Estonian chips.

Other food takeaways that surprised us:

  • Frozen veggies are tastier聽in Europe. There are Italian, Chinese, and Mexican mixes that taste as fresh as a salad. The flavors are intense – like the veggies just came out of the garden. And at $1-2 dollars a bag that would feed both of us for two or three meals, America can learn something.
  • Horse meat is really tasty. Seriously.
  • So is moose. It fits somewhere between prosciutto and beef jerky on the meat-flavor spectrum.
  • Portugal does the egg thing, but Spain must be the beneficiary of the actual chicken. Chicken in Spain tasted like a unique meat, not just a bland food needing lots of seasoning.
  • Duck is really cheap at Lidl in Hungary. And in Estonia. We shamelessly ate a lot of it.
  • We ate risottos in several countries and they are now probably a necessary part of my existence. The ones in Portugal were richer, more flavorful, and more gravy-like. At the Time Out Market near Lisbon’s waterfront, I had the best risotto of the whole trip with game hen and mushrooms. Ones in Hungary featured paprika, naturally.
  • Sushi is common in Estonia and is happy to blend local flavors and products. We even saw a full-color book of Estonian-Japanese fusion foods.
  • Peanut crisps (think Cheetos puffs with聽less corn and more legume) seemed to be the most popular snack in Croatia. They are addicting. Hrusk Crisps were my personal favorite. I now prefer them to cheese puffs, though I will admit that I got addicted to Latvian-produced nacho cheese balls in Estonia.
  • Thank Hungary for fair and festival food. They are masters of fried dough and carryable meat.

    Baklava (it also comes in chocolate), various ajvars, milk sans refrigeration in Croatia.
  • Chip flavors vary by country –聽salsa, paprika, prosciutto, mushroom, hamburger, kebab, dill, steak. There are more traditional flavors as well, the cheeses, onions, sour creams. Missing were Doritos Cool Ranch and Fritos.
  • We had goose legs for the first time in Hungary. Better than turkey.
  • All of Europe is terrible at spicy foods. The only partial exception is Hungary, which corners the paprika market, but still only reaches a small percentage of what we got used to in Southeast Asia.
  • Dill doesn’t seem to exist in most places. It was only readily available in Estonia, presumably because they have salmon in large quantities. And salmon necessitates dill.
  • Peanut butter is an exotic rarity. While it can be found in some supermarkets, it is 2-5 times more expensive than in the U.S. and is often grittier and lacking spreadability. And often hiding out in the refrigerated section.
  • Europe loves cheese. The Iberian peninsula favors soft cheeses, while Romania northward seemed much more in love with hard, aged cheeses. Even so, finding appropriate cheese for nachos in Croatia was nearly impossible. Same goes for pre-shredded.
  • Most know Spain is famous for prosciutto, but Hungary and Poland should also be on the preserved-meat fan’s radar. Especially Poland. Though the Central Market in Budapest had a stall serving what might have been the best prosciutto of the trip.
  • Instant ramen is ubiquitous (college kids everywhere survive on that stuff), but Poland took it a step further and had beetroot borscht alongside the chicken and shrimp flavors. Sure enough, same cheap noodles, but this time with a spice packet that turned the soup bright reddish-purple. And yes, it was good.

    Veggies with duck & lingonberry sauce – made by Kevin :), moose jerky, salmon, beet & herring salad, Eesti pastry.

Of course, drinks go with food:

  • Literally ALL THE WINE IN PORTUGAL IS GOOD. We drank 3 -or 4-Euro bottles almost exclusively and had no regrets.聽The best ports were pricier. We shared a single small聽glass of 30 year-old port that cost about $7US and was smooth and flavorful. If only we had enough for whole bottles of that stuff…
  • Alcohol in Spain was disappointing; perhaps it was overshadowed by Portugal’s. The wine was more expensive and not to our liking, and the beers were聽forgettable.
  • Croatian wine, especially a grape variety called plavac mali, was the best thing to drink. The best bottle (we splurged for our birthdays) was produced by聽Zlatan Otok. We’ve never seen Croatian wine anywhere else, even other European nations, much less in the U.S. We were told their industry was growing, so hopefully we’ll be able to find it in the future.
    • An aside on Macedonian wine: They made their way frequently into Croatian stores, and it turns out they also deserve to聽be better known. Some are even aged in amphorae, modern versions of the containers pulled up from shipwrecks. This makes for more earthy wines, and is a fun way to feel a little more connected to the region’s history.
  • Sweet red wines are Romania’s forte. Even wines listed as dry are not. Kevin wasn’t thrilled by this, but I took it as a sign to make wine my dessert.

    Full spectrum of Spanish wine (protip: the boxed wine is pretty terrible), Croatian plavac mali, Portuguese deliciousness.
  • Hungary’s best drinking was sweet white wines from the Tokaji region. Like Romania, lots of residual sugar.
  • It turns out Poland does make a little bit of wine, but they make much more beer and (SO MUCH!) vodka. Too many (really cheap) drinkable beers to name, but there is one vodka that stands out. Bisongrass vodka isn’t available in the US (it’s just a teeny聽bit toxic), but it is the best vodka either of us has had.
  • Redcurrant wine in Estonia. Berries take the place of grapes here;聽thank goodness they can be fermented and aged the same way. More like drinking syrup than alcohol, it is another example of their domination of desserts. Though kvass (beer made from fermented bread that tastes like toast), should get an honorary mention.

    Tallin’s hard liquor, fruit wine, kvass, and more fruit wines. Poland’s lychee beer, and Hungarian corks.

Overall, the best countries for (grape) wine were 1. Portugal – a perfect blend of inexpesive and flavorful wines 2. Croatia – for their own unique grapes and the other Balkan countries that were represented, a little pricier but still lots of deals 3. Hungary has more sweeter wines and it matches well with their cuisine.

For beer, the rankings are mostly based on Kevin’s opinion. He appreciates beer more than I do, but the more we travel, the more I find ones I like. 1. Poland wins beer. It was cheap, there was a lot of it, and there was a wide variety. And all of it was good. Nothing randomly pulled off a shelf disappointed. They also are proud of a growing craft beer industry that has produced some interesting combinations. 2. Hungary snags second place because beer there is very cheap and usually of high quality. We did find a聽few duds, but for pennies a bottle, it is easy to experiment. 3. Estonia has a much bigger craft scene, so there is a lot of variety for a small country. Their overall cost of living means beer is pricier than any other European country we went to on this trip. But it is tasty and there is always something new to try.

Polish beer cap collection, craft beers, Romanian wines.

Kevin gets to exclusively pick the favorites for harder liquor awarding first to: 1. Ireland for its smooth whisky. 2. Poland because they have all the vodka. Aisles and aisles of vodka. And all the locals love聽it. We saw an 80 year-old couple checking out at the store with chicken, three apples, a can of coffee, and about 8 bottles of vodka. Not sure if that is how they stand each other or their children or just because they are 80 and who gives? 3. Estonia has Vana Tallinn, which makes run-based liquors and some that have winter spices in the mix – cozy for the growing chill.

Europe takes alcohol seriously. Quality is important, but so is quantity… In Croatia and a few other places, wine often comes in 1 liter bottles (rather than the U.S.-standard .75 liter). And beer. Beer cans in Europe make the standard U.S. can look like a child’s toy. Mass produced聽beers also come in 1- and 2-liter bottles, because beer! In Estonia, Finns hop the ferry over to buy cheaper alcohol. Estonia obliges by providing 10-packs of vodka (aka the “Finn-pack”) at all stores near the ferry dock, as well as handcarts to make carrying it back easy.

Yummy Hungarian Dreher Bak, Irish birds love beer, Irish whisky distillery, cork collection from Dubrovnik.

One of the interesting challenges was to try to find packaging with the most languages. The winner seemed to be a pizza box we got at Carrefour in Poland with full instructions and ingredient lists in 7 languages. (Two to four seemed to be about the average.) There was also a ketchup packet that had 11, but in almost every language the translation for ‘tomato ketchup’ is ‘tomato ketchup.’

In some cities, there are still wonderfully diverse markets showcasing local produce and meats. Some are considerably cheaper than stores for in-season produce, but others are tourist-focused and overcharge accordingly. Usually they are worth going to in either case.

European markets. 馃檪

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that food has become a main part of our trip.聽We mostly ate at home, Kevin taking聽the opportunity to try new recipes (paella and ratatouille and fish), while using local ingredients. Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, eating out often in Europe would have drained our budget too fast, though I will say that doner kebab is cheap and yummy and very common. It was a little tough moving each month because we never knew what kitchen utensils we would end up with or how well our stove would work. Some of our favorite foods were ones we’ve had before but that had new twists or tasted completely different because of the quality of the ingredients. While we are happy to have moved on to a place where spicy food is again available and taco trucks are on many corners (namely ones by grocery store parking lots), Europe has so much more deliciousness to offer that we will have to head back… Even eight months was only enough time to get to a small portion of it all…

La Sagrada Familia

When in Barcelona, go to La Sagrada Familia. The church is visible from high points around the city, its yellow cranes making it even more conspicuous. But when walking at street level, it evades view until it is just a few blocks away.

Construction started in 1882, paused during the Spanish Civil War, began again in the 1950s, and is still underway.聽The current date for structural completion is 2026; a few years later for the artwork. Hopefully we will be able to take our kids to see the finished Basilica someday.

We watched one of the cranes lifting blocks skyward as we drank sangria waiting while for our entry time.

The Nativity Facade (eastern side).

The different sides look almost like completely different churches. The Nativity Facade on the east side is already showing age; the color is much darker from a hundred years of weather. It is very Gothic feeling, with lots of details and natural imagery. The four spires rise almost straight into the air.

The western Passion Facade is stark and modern with skeletal looking humans showing the scenes from the Crucifixion. Sections added in just the last few years are still bright white. Its pillars come outward and seem to welcome people in.

The Glory Facade exists in name and design posters only. A lot of concrete bases with rebar rising out the top stands where towers and the main doors will eventually go on the south side of the building.

A small part of the Passion Facade and part of a wall of stained glass.

Symbolism is rampant around the Basilica – there are scenes from the Bible and the history and saints聽of the Catholic church, representations of virtues, images of the natural world showcasing the variety of creation. There is a tree full of doves, trumpeting angels, symbols for the Apostles and Saints. Two of the eastern pillars rise from the backs of a turtle and tortoise –聽representing God’s creation and control of the sea and land.

Words on a door leading in from the Passion Facade, a tortoise holding up a pillar, seashell font, details from the doors leading in from the Nativity Facade.

The interior style is much more unified. It was completed and consecrated in 2010. Entering the nave is like walking into a forest – the pillars branch near the ceiling and seem to dissolve into a sky of stars and planets. In reality the inset circles each represent a saint or apostle.

Ceiling of the Nave, stained glass reflecting late afternoon light.

The light colors of the stone interior reflect dozens of stained glass windows, especially late in the afternoon. The windows are arranged to create rainbows of color as sunshine filters through; the entire area seems to glow.

At night, the completed facades are illuminated by flood lamps. Some of the lower details are lost, but it is easier to see the complexity of the spires. I think I prefer the exterior at night and I’m glad we got to see it that way.

The Basilica at night.


The Barcelona Cathedral is not as tall as La Sagrada Familia and will be further dwarfed once construction is complete, but it is just as breathtaking聽inside. We watched聽the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday evening. Hundreds of people gathered to watch聽the statue of Jesus be moved around the square to readings from the Gospel before being carefully ushered back into the church.

The Stations of the Cross in front of the Barcelona Cathedral.

MNACx2 & Wandering

Another free afternoon at MNAC! Still trying to make up for art聽we’ve seen but not shared…

This time we started with an even older collection of art from churches in the 1100-1200s. Dozens of murals were literally peeled off church walls in small towns in Catalonia and reattached to new backings. Arches and apses were recreated to their original dimensions, so聽it聽feels like聽a deconstructed church. I imagine the conservators working聽on the 900-year-old paint faced a very stressful job…

Angel with eyed wings from a 聽church mural (1150s),聽The Dice Players – Simo Gomez, a self-portrait, and dove from a church’s collection.

We also filled in the gaps from about聽1800 to the 1900. It is really fun to imagine the lives of those pictured, and whether the artist liked the wife he drew so many times… or if she liked him.

Maria del Pilar Casanovas Fortuny, the Artist’s Wife – Dionis Balxeras, a slightly less serious girl,聽Baix Llobregat –聽Maria Pidelaserra.

One portrait appeared to be Bill Hader from SNL hiding behind a poorly-affixed mustache. Not sure I can explain how he ended up in a painting more than a century old.

Bill Hader? Why are you here?

There were some beautiful impressionist landscapes and lots of organic lines in work that both inspired and was inspired by Gaudi.

A darker period of work from the 1930s dealt with聽the Spanish Civil War. Brightly illustrated recruitment posters contrasted with artist’s renditions and photographs of destruction and civilian suffering.

Organic-feeling stained glass, watercolor of a Spanish Civil War battle, 聽A Party on Mobilisation Day –聽Daniel Sabater, guys have been smiling goofily since at least the 1920s.

On Sunday, we again聽attempted to go to聽Picasso Museum during free times, but found the line even longer than last week. Maybe a聽third time will be the charm! Instead, we headed to the beach. It wasn’t warm enough to swim but that didn’t stop the seafront restaurants from being crowded. Sangrias, seafood, and gelato were out in force. As were yachts so large that I initially mistook them for small cruise ships or naval vessels.

The Catalonian Parliament building and the beach.

To cap off the previous art & this post, here are some sightings from our walks.

Seen on buildings and in parks around the city (publicly funded and otherwise).

Maritime Museum

Sunday was a day we sent aside to wander the city; it was sunny and many museums are free late in the afternoon. We stumbled onto the Barcelona Marathon and a talented drumline cheering on the participants. Taking some advice from an English-Spanish language exchange, we went to a restaurant serving 1 Euro tapas all day – and discovered the joy of Spanish omelets. Five small sandwiches and onion rings later, we set out to the Arc de Triomf. It is almost impossible to walk around the city and not pass by at least a few churches.聽Sant Pau del Camp聽and聽Santa Maria del Mar聽happened to be on our path.

Sant Pau de Camp, the Arc de Triomf, Cascada Monumental in the Parc de la Ciutadella

The Arc de Triomf is noticeably smaller than the more famous one in Paris, but it is made out of stunning red brick. And rather than semi-isolated placement in a roundabout, Barcelona’s version leads into a pedestrian avenue that also served as聽part of the marathon route.

South from the Arc is the massive Parc de la Ciutadella. All of Barcelona seems to use it as their living room. People were聽doing gymnastics, practicing yoga, dancing in the pavilions, and having parties under the trees. One of the main meeting points in the park is the (slightly over-the-top) Cascada Monumental. With dragons, phoenixes, water nymphs, and gold horses, what’s not to love?

Santa Maria del Mar, park and promenade around the Arc de Triomf.

Our intended destination for the afternoon was the Picasso Museum, but hundreds of others had the same idea. The line was about two blocks long. A staffer mentioned聽a 75+ minute wait to get inside the entrance. Rather than contend with that much of a crowd, we opted to go to the Maritime Museum聽instead. Just a 15 minute walk away and no lines!

I like that the top sailing chart sort of gives up on the UK and Denmark; detail on another old map; sailboats in the museum.

There were no聽Picassos, but old, quirky nautical maps聽made up for that. And the Museum is housed in a beautiful聽structure built during the 1600s; from the 1300s-1700s the area served as the Royal Shipyards.

Replica of a Spanish Galley that served as a flagship 聽and was used in battles in the late 1500s; a prettily painted fishing vessel – the eye was believed to help navigate.

The crowning jewel of the collection is a replica of聽Juan de Austria’s flagship. It is about 200 feet long and only took 59 rowers to power it, even when fully loaded with soldiers and cannon. Due to the royalty being on board,聽it has all sorts of bright paint and ornamentation to dress it up.

Smaller fishing and leisure vessels filled another hall. A third was devoted to smaller objects like navigational aids and model ships.

A Sunday afternoon market sets up at the back of the museum, and covers both sides of the sidewalk and a small square. Shopping is much easier when I know there is no聽spare room in my two bags…


Olympic Park & MNAC

As I don’t specifically remember from childhood, Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Not too far from our apartment, the main set of venues聽and park are still in use. It was all built on a grand scale with wide lawns and walkways, now good picnic spots.

Inside the Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Park and TV broadcast tower/sculpture, trails in a park on Montjuic.

Next door to the Olympic Park are the grounds聽of the 1929 International Exposition. The Palau Nacional, which now houses the Museu Nacional d’Arte de Catalunya (MNAC), was built as a temporary structure to house a portion聽of the Exposition. It was too beautiful to tear down afterward, so it was remodeled and made into the museum’s permanent home. The large fountains in front were built at the same time, and given the same reprieve.

Main entrance of the Olympic Stadium and the Palau Nacional housing the MNAC.

Many museums don’t let聽visitors to take pictures. However, the MNAC does allow non-flash photography, so here are some arts聽to make up for everything else聽we’ve seen聽but haven’t been able to share. My camera doesn’t take the best images聽in the lower, painting-preserving lighting; it was more vivid in person.

A saint having a bad day and Saint Margaret calmly slaying the dragon (representing Satan).

The museum was massive; with the time we had courtesy of an entrance-fee-free Saturday afternoon, we saw less than half of the collection. Fortunately, we will be in Barcelona for several more weeks, and will be returning.

Demon trying to make an escape and a vision of Jesus – with some priceless expressions.

We wandered through the Medieval聽section first, taking in paintings and sculpture from the 1200s and gradually moving forward in time to聽the 1700s. Almost all the pieces were based on the lives of Catholic Saints and the Bible. Only during the latter stages of the Renaissance did ordinary people and scenes from daily life appear. And by that time, the excessive use聽of gold leaf tapers off as well.

Creating a pope, A blue painting of St. John the Baptist with St. Francis of Assisi by El Greco, Saint (Elijah?) being fed by birds in the wilderness, A less-than-Biblical vision.

Wrapping up the聽Renaissance and then skipping ahead several generations to the early 1900s, there is a noticeably wider variety of subjects, most taken from daily life. There were furniture pieces by Gaudi and his followers and paintings depicting quiet moments in the home or countryside. It feels much more relatable.

Girl sewing from the late Renaissance, art from the 1900’s. The man drinking was part of a series… he always has a glass of wine and looks shifty.

Leaving the museum about 6 pm, there were hundreds of people enjoying the view from the terraces. Hawkers tried聽to sell cheap trinkets, two small stands sold聽wine and snacks, and lots of people took聽selfies. Staircases lead down to the Venetian Towers and a pre-marathon pasta dinner was finishing up with runners for Sunday’s race trying to carboload.



We’ve been in Barcelona a few days now, and most of our time has been spend wandering around the city. Our first impression was the聽towers and oversized, grandly-columned 聽buildings of the Plaza de Espana, where the airport shuttle dropped us off, followed by the Avenue de Paral-lel, one of the city’s many grand boulevards.

It is the most walkable place聽we’ve been during this trip so far, even though treks to some sights will be longer. Unlike Chiang Mai and Penang, we don’t have to dodge vehicles to cross the road聽or navigate narrow quasi-sidewalks; unlike Lisbon it is mostly flat, so no tedious hills on the way to the waterfront or the store! Of course, our 5th floor apartment is in a building with聽a sketchy elevator, so we still聽deal with at least a couple of good climbs a day.

La Boqueria Market and Santa Madrona in Poble Sec.

In Barcelona,聽life takes place out of doors. There are plenty of open spaces and playgrounds. Behind our apartment is Montjuic, a hill topped with a castle and with gardens around its sides. The waterfront also features lots of public space – amid the docks is a massive mall, restaurants, and a large promenade.

There are cafes on virtually every block with tables outside, even on chilly evenings. Fruit shops have merchandise sitting outside their doors, the city’s meat and produce markets spill over onto the sidewalks. The market nearest our apartment is Sant Antoni聽– the beautiful structure it is housed in is undergoing renovation so, for now, vendors are all squished into a glorified聽tent across the street. It is very much spiritually akin to Pike Place.We waited in a cramped line to buy a local fish, dourada, that ended up being really tasty baked whole in the oven.

Statue on Montjuic, an pretty building serving as art space, Venetian Towers聽at Plaza de Espana, the harbor.

Staying聽in town for an extended period has some extra perks, like being able to schedule our museum visits around free days. Our聽most touristy sight so far聽was Montjuic Castle (free on Sunday after 3pm!) – at the summit of a decent hike past gardens. The current castle was built during the second half of the 1700s as a defensive fortress, there are well-guarded entry points surrounded by walls 12聽or more feet thick. The under-defended seaward side was at one point shored up with massive cannons,聽the picture of ferocity聽from every direction.

We were taken by the 360 degree views of the city, the port, and the Mediterranean. A light house was documented here as far back the 1070s –聽it definitely would have been the best position for one. The port sits right at the base of the hill, and it appears as large or聽larger than Seattle’s. One of the grain terminals must have been loading rice聽because the entire area smelled like it all afternoon, making me聽hungry. There were probably 20-30 cruise docks, and one of Norwegian ships聽in port was larger than any I’ve ever seen. (And it looked like there couldn’t possibly have been enough life boats, though I’m sure they did the math.)

Montjuic Castle: the inner courtyard, the Catalonian flag, the tunnel entry, the immense ramparts.

The castle has played an important role in the history of the city, and has been used at various times by French, Spanish, and Catalan forces – oftentimes聽the cannons聽were even turned on the city itself. The democratically elected President of Catalonia was executed by Spanish forces here in 1940, and it was used as a jail and place of torture by both sides during the Spanish Civil War.

The front of Montjuic Castle, Barcelona and the port from its roof.

Barcelona itself is beautiful, ringed聽by low mountains and the sea. Aside from the Gothic Quarter and Poble Sec, it is laid out in a ridiculously consistent grid, countless lengthy blocks with 6- or 7-story buildings around聽central courtyards. A scattering are taller, but the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia towers above, as do some of the larger hotels and financial buildings along the waterfront. Montjuic would be great for sunset views… on a day with a little less chill in the air…