Day 12 – Girona

Day 12 (6-19-17) was our last in Spain.  We took it pretty easy – after breakfast at the hotel, we drove into Girona’s center and walked around for a bit.  We saw the cathedral, a nicely preserved set of Arab baths (which are basically just the next era’s version of Roman baths), and went to the Jewish History Museum.  The museum was nice, though it was more of a read-all-about-this-topic kind of museum rather than a look-at-these-artifacts kind of museum.  It was cool to learn about this history of the Jewish neighborhood in Girona, as well as more about the Inquistion.  

After our morning, we had a lovely lunch at Probcador, near the Jewish History Museum.  We each got the set menu (salmorejo, grilled tuna, and chocolate truffles for Chris; salad, steak, and a strawberry mousse cake for me) and enjoyed our food with a nice glass of ros├ę.  It was so pleasant to just sit and enjoy – it was our last meal in Spain!  (Our last real meal, I should say – we did buy sandwiches in the airport for dinner) 

Once we had finished lunch, we hit to road and drove back to Barcelona, where we dropped off the car and then headed to the airport for our flight to Lisbon.  The drive was really nice – we could see lots of little towns and hilltop castles from the highway.  

If you’ve never rented a car while traveling before, I highly recommend it.  Depending on your itinerary, it can actually be cheaper than trains, and it allows for a lot more flexibility. Driving also makes it easier to get to some less-visited places, exactly the type of places you might want to go.  ­čśë

I was definitely scared the first time we rented a car in Europe – during our honeymoon in France – but it’s really not that much different from driving in the US; in some places, like Spain, it’s actually more pleasant!  Morocco last year was truly horrible, but only in the cities, and luckily, Chris is an amazing copilot.  It is important to make sure that you have either a paper road map or a digital one downloaded onto your phone – that’s what we do: Chris uses google maps and sometimes maps.me, both of which allow you to download customized areas, though maps.me allows you to mark points of interest while offline as well, while google maps required internet to see anything that you’ve saved.  Parking is another thing that you also have to consider, though again, Chris is amazing at figuring out where parking is before we arrive, so that’s usually not a problem for us.  

I don’t think I’ll be driving in a place like England or Thailand anytime soon (wrong side of the road!), but for now, renting a car has allowed us to really get the feel for a place and explore it a little more in depth.  

But, at the end of the day, we traded our car (a Mercedes, I should add) for a plane and flew to Lisbon!

Day 11 – Tarragona to Girona

Day 11 was another lovely day.  It wasn’t quite as jam packed as Day 10, but it was still pretty long due to our move from Tarragona to Girona.  

We left Tarragona early and arrived at Roses about half an hour later.  It’s a beach town, with a shoreline crowded with bodies bronzed from too much sun and too little sunscreen.  The main street along the beach is lined with tourist shops full of junk and cafes with bad, exorbitantly priced food.  

In other words, it’s the kind of place we, but Chris in particular, hate. 

Then we entered the site.  Roses was an important port town from Roman times through the 18th century.  In the 16th century, a citadel was built near the beach as a defense against pirates and the French. Excavations within the citadel revealed Roman fish salting vats (duh) and several houses from the medieval town, while the remains of a church and monastery from the 10th century which had been expanded and reinforced over the centuries were still visible.  There is a small museum with material found during excavations (including some really cool looking swords from the 16th century) and then you may wander the grounds inside the citadel at leisure.  

It was a gorgeous day and the walls of the citadel rose up around us, the ruins, and several rows of olive trees.  Chris got to work while I caught up on postcards and blog posts, then we wandered the walls and the 10th century church.  It was so pleasant we almost didn’t want to leave!  But time was pressing and we had another site to get to.  

After a rather lengthy lunch, we drove to the site of Emporion, near modern Sant Marti d’Empuries.  It was originally a Greek trading colony, then Roman soldiers were stationed there during the Hellenistic era, which meant that it eventually became a Roman city.  The site is huge and gorgeously situated – from almost everywhere in the site you can see the ocean, a most beautiful sparkling blue.  

We wandered around the site and found some fish salting vats which Chris didn’t know about (I call these “surprise vats” and at least it means I get to sit down for a few minutes), so he took some time to photograph them.  The best part about Emporion in my opinion is the audio guide. Audio guides have been available at a lot of the places we’ve visited, with varying degree of informational value and organization.  The audio guide for Emporion was outstanding.  It was informative as well as engaging, and gave clear directions for where the next number marker would be.  I definitely felt that someone listening to it might actually get a sense of what the Greek and Roman iterations of the town were like.  

At the end of the tour, we stood outside the pomerium, or city limits, gazing at the ruins of the amphitheater with the city wall behind us.  The whole site seemed totally empty, not another person in sight – it was almost closing time – and the only sound came from the wind whistling through the tall grass.  As I stood there, all I could think about were the people who would have made this city a bustling hub of trade and industry, and how now all that is left is a few piles of stone.  It was so poignant I felt myself getting a bit emotional, as corny as that is.  But that’s why I love what I do – getting swept up in imaging what life was like, but at the same time recognizing the fragility of it all.  Ashes to ashes, and all that.  

Anyway, emotion aside, we trekked back to the car and drove on to Girona, a little medieval town near the border with France where we would be staying the night.  After a hasty dinner at a sort of tapas buffet, we fell into bed, exhausted.  

Day 10 – Tarragona┬á

Day 10 was absolutely wonderful.  After Barcelona, Tarragona was a breath of fresh air, and I have to say: we are smitten.  

While I’m not sure how large Tarragona actually is compared to Barcelona, it is definitely less touristy and the city center is smaller and a bit more manageable.  The medieval wall actually still surrounds much of the old town, and wandering through the winding streets was a delight.  It was calm, quiet, and the buildings were beautiful.  Pair that atmosphere with a shit-ton of Roman ruins and you have our perfect location!

So yes, the main reason we loved Tarragona so much may have been the wealth of visible ruins throughout the city center.  We saw the original forum, the colonial forum (TWO fora!!), the amphitheater, the circus, the theater (ish – it’s being reconstructed so there want much to see), and we walked along the medieval walls which were built on the Roman ones and incorporated the Roman defensive towers.  

Ancient Tarraco was the first settlement of the Romans on the Iberian peninsula – it started as a military camp during the Second Punic War, and then became a Roman colony at the end of the Republic. Augustus even chilled there for a bit!  (Imagine how excited I was when I found that out!)   Thus, the crazy amount of visible remains.  We even saw Roman stonework (altars, funerary inscriptions, etc…) used in the walls of the cathedral, which was super cool.  

In addition to the ruins, we went to the archaeological museum (of course), which has a lot of interesting stuff but no English descriptions and no real organization – things are just sort of dumped into various rooms.  We also went into the cathedral, as I mentioned, which apparently witnessed a battled with Napoleon on its steps, so that’s cool.  We also saw painted walls and statues inside – I had no idea that some Gothic cathedrals had painted walls!  It was really neat to walk around and pick out all the little details of construction, such as masons’ marks on the stones or reused Roman stuff.  (Chris is very indulgent when it comes to my art history streak)

Our lunch was also really great – a little spot serving mostly Andalusian food – and instead of dinner, we opted to check out the local wine festival that just happened to be going on.  ÔéČ10 euros got us six tastings tickets each and a souvenir glass.  In addition to all the wine, there were also stalls selling cheese and sausages, as well as pastries.  It was fantastic!  We tried about 8 different wines (some “cost” two tickets) and some were truly phenomenal.  And don’t worry, we were very responsible and made sure to eat some cheese as well as a tuna and olive empanada.  

Those kinds of experience are what make travel truly special, especially since our interests are so narrow and focused.  Sometimes we forget that we are visiting modern cities, with living, breathing people who have all the same joys and worries that we do.  It’s nice to be reminded of that, to have an experience that pulls us back into the present.  It was the best way to end the day.  

Days 8 & 9 – Barcelona

I’m a bit behind in posting, due to general exhaustion but also shitty hotel internet. I’m combining our second and third day in Barcelona mostly because we weren’t huge fans of the city.  

The thing is, neither Chris nor I is a fan of huge crowded touristy cities. Or rather, I should say that it takes us more than two and a half days to start to enjoy a really touristy city. We love Rome, though of course there are very obvious reasons why we would love it despite the huge number of tourists, and we’ve been there so many times that we are now comfortable navigating our way around the city. While walking the streets of Barcelona, I was constantly on guard – even our hotel person told us to be aware of pick-pockets. So walking around became a stressful event where every person was a potential thief. 

Anyway, Barcelona was ok. We went to the city history museum at the Pla├ža del Rei, which had a nice tour of Roman remains found under a count’s palace, as well as the city’s archaeological museum, which had some really nicely displayed exhibits of the city’s prehistoric inhabitants as well as the Iberian (the culture native to the Iberian peninsula that was prominent before the Romans). Interestingly enough, there was a larger emphasis on the Iberian material than on the Roman, though there is probably a whole warehouse somewhere chock full of Roman stuff. Perhaps a statement about the desire for Catalonian independence?  

We also visited the cathedral, which was lovely – I have a particular soft spot for Gothic cathedrals, and I wasn’t really aware that Spain had any (France gets all the glory on that score). It was also nice to just get out of the sun for a moment as well.  

The most disappointing aspect of our visit was our search for visible Roman remains. Chris knew that there were a few things around that were still visible, so we walked around the city center to each one. All of them turned out to be rather lackluster – nothing too special or in great condition. At least we got our steps in…?!
Without doubt, the best part of Barcelona was the food. We ate many wonderful things but I won’t list them all here cuz that would be boring for you, I suppose. I will, however, list the places we tried:

La Boqueria – a large market similar to Findlay market but with ready made food vendors as well. 

La Cholita – near our hotel and absolutely excellent

Viana – a trendier place right off La Rambla 

After lunch at Viana, we walked to pick up our rental car, drove back to our hotel to pick up our stuff (a five mile drive that took an hour and a half, thanks to rush hour), then headed out to Tarragona. We got in pretty late, so our dinner consisted of kebabs from a local Indian/Middle Eastern place. Never underestimate the power of a good kebab! Cheap, quick, and delicious, they are the perfect ending to a long and somewhat frustrating day.  

Day 7 – Barcelona

Day 7 seemed to be more about walking than anything else.  According to my Health app, we walked 11 miles and climbed the equivalent of 25 flights of stairs.  No wonder I was so exhausted in the afternoon!  It was totally our choice, though – we could have taken public transportation, but for what we were doing, it was always most complicated than just walking AND would probably take as long.  So walk we did!

And since we did do so much walking, we really only visited two spots – La Sagrada Familia, and Park G├╝ell.  It was a Gaudi day, and frankly, I’m glad we got it out of the way earliy.  Controversial statement – I don’t really like Gaudi all that much!  His style is too much, and honestly, it just looks kitschy and almost cheap to me. I was impressed by the interior of La Sagrada Familia, but I could leave everything else.  I will say that the museum in the basement of La Sagrada Familia and the Gaudi House Museum in Park Guell were both well done and very informative.  It was neat to learn about the artistic process and to see some sketches and models that Gaudi used.  The other thing that I found fascinating about Las Sagrada Familia was how closely it’s construction paralleled that of a Gothic cathedral.  Both took forever to complete – Norte Dame, in Paris, took 183 years to compete.  La Sagrada Familia was started in  1882 and the projected completion year is 2026 – 144 years total.  It is insane to me that the cathedral is still being worked on (in fact, I’m not entirely sure why it is taking so long).  Regardless, the monumental size and scope reminded me very much of how Gothic cathedrals were built – taking a long time, requiring massive monetary support from the community (most of the ticket sales for La Sagrada Familia go into the funding of construction), and also a devoutly pious architect (apparently Gaudi prayed like four times a day and lived a very ascetic lifestyle – how easy for rich people to live like the poor).  

So, after 11 miles of trekking around the city, we checked Gaudi off our to-do list and returned to the hotel to rest.  Don’t judge us too harshly – Day 7 was the third day in a row where we had walked over 9 miles.  So a little R&R was sorely needed.  

Our meals for Day 7 were actually the highlight. Breakfast was pretty basic – pastries from a local chain while walking to La Sagrada Familia, but for lunch we found a tiny little cafe, Cafe CASI, near Park G├╝ell. It has a fixed menu, so we each had a starter, main, a drink, and also dessert for ÔéČ11.  Not a bad deal!  And the food was pretty delicious as well – it was definitely more like home cooking than the tapas we’ve mostly been eating.  Chris had gazpacho and sausages in a wine sauce and I had a seafood salad (octopus, mussels, tuna, and crab dressed with oil) and roasted pork rib.  We both had ice cream for dessert.  For dinner, we found a spot near our hotel, which is about three miles from the main city center.  Because of this, everything around us is more “authentic” – as in, there aren’t any other tourists around. On our walk this morning we passed schools and shops and lots of old women walking dogs in various parks.  It has actually been a bit refreshing!  Anyway, for dinner we went to La Esquinica, a local spot I found on TripAdvisor.  It was great!  Full of people only speaking Spanish – our waiter included!  We had a fun time miming a conversation, though when it comes down to it, pointing is always the best strategy.  We had a lovely bottle of slightly sparkling white wine from Catalonia, grilled asparagus, patatas bravas (quickly becoming a favorite), cheese marinated in oil (strange, but good!), spicy Catalan sausages called longaniza, and a plate of grilled tiny octopi that only I ate because it made Chris very uncomfortable (they were also delicious, in case you were wondering. ­čśŐ).  

So, not the best first day in Barcelona, but Day 8 will include Roman ruins and actual Gothic cathedrals, so I’m pretty excited.  

Day 6 – Seville to Barcelona

Since our flight to Barcelona was that evening, Day 6 was our last chance to explore Seville, so naturally we went to the archaeological museum and then to Italica.  First we stopped into Pan y Piu for breakfast – we had discovered it on Day 5 and we’re happy to go back again.  I had the most delicious almond croissant, and Chris had one with ham, cheese, and bechamel.  Pretty damn delicious!

Anyway, after breakfast we walked back through the Maria Luisa park to the archaeological museum.  It was nice to see the Plaza de Espa├▒a one more time – were both convinced it’s the most beautiful Plaza in all of Spain.  The museum itself is housed in a pretty gorgeous building, constructed, like the Plaza de Espa├▒a, for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.  The collection includes a lot of pieces from Italica, so it was useful to see them before we went to the site later in the day.  These included some nice statues, and a really cool collection of Latin inscriptions on bronze tablets.  The museum itself, however, is in dire need of an update, especially compared to the Malaga Museum, which we had so recently visited. The paint on the walls was peeling, the labels were faded, and all the descriptions were written in Spanish.  The exhibits themselves clearly hadn’t been changed since the 80’s.  While I’m glad we went, it would be nice to see a little renovation. 

After the museum, we packed up the car and headed to Italica (about a half hour drive outside Seville). Lunch consisted of sandwiches purchased earlier at Pan y Piu, and we had a sort of picnic in front of the site’s entrance.  

Italica, like Conimbriga in Portugal or Baelo Claudia elsewhere in Spain, is a less-well known Roman site, though it is pretty important, considering the first two non-Italian Roman emperors were born there.  The site itself is a bit weird – it is mostly unexcavated so there are vast expanses of field dotted with olive trees between the excavated portions, what little signage there is is, again, mostly in Spanish, and we might have been the only people in the entire site that afternoon, which was a bit eerie/creepy.  A Traianeum (temple used for the worship of the deified emperor Trajan) was advertised on all the sign posts, but once we trekked across what felt like several miles of field to see it, all we found was an area covered over with gravel (presumably for protection purposes??).  So, ultimately, I felt like I wandered around in the sun for two hours for no real reason, though I guess it’s pretty cool to be able to say that I’ve been to the birthplace of Trajan and Hadrian.  

Our flight to Barcelona was at 7:20, so I dragged Chris away from the site around 4:00 so we could return the rental car on time (being an archaeologist, he gets a lot more out of a site than I do, even if it is covered in gravel).  Our flight and subsequent taxi ride to the hotel was uneventful, though I have to admit I was really intimidated by the size of the city.  I know that most cities we visit are quite large, and that the tourist area is usually always the historic center, but Barcelona just seems so much bigger and more inaccessible than any other city I’ve been to.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not very familiar with what the city has to offer – besides Gaudi,  of course – but I’m a bit more nervous about our time here than I have been previously.  

But, as Horace said, carpe diem!  We’ll be sure to make the most of our time here, and Chris as dissertation work to do anyway, so at least I’m guaranteed some Roman stuff.  ­čśü

Day 5 – Seville┬á

Day 5 was reserved for exploring Seville more thoroughly, since we were only here for about 36 hours last year. The only problem turned out to be the weather – the high was 103! Luckily, there were only a few things we truly had our hearts set on, so we took advantage of the cooler temperatures in the morning to explore the Maria Luisa Park, which surrounds the Plaza de Espana, truly one of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen.  It was nice to walk around the Plaza again, but it was also nice to explore the park – the landscaping is really beautiful, with lots of different flowers and trees and fountains… We also saw the archaeological museum, though it was unfortunately closed (we’ll check it out tomorrow).  

Once it got too hot to wander around, we went to the General Archive of the Indies, which houses almost all the information collected from Spain’s Age of Exploration.  We were hoping to see some maps from that time period, maybe some navigational instruments or letters…but there wasn’t really anything on display (luckily entrance is free).  It was, however, an air conditioned building, and there was also a nice informational video about the building and how it came to house all those important documents.  It is used now primarily as a research facility, though apparently the staff do sometimes organize special exhibits.  It made me wonder if there was any effort to research and/or preserve native South American cultures, but the emphasis was definitely on how influential Spain was during the Age of Exploration.  

After the Archive, we walked over to see a wealthy private home from the 1500s.  Apparently there are several that you can tour, by we chose La Casa de Pilatos mostly because it was close to our hotel.  The house is stunning – elaborate tile work, a large atrium/patio with a fountain, and tons of Roman sculpture.  Apparently this family was ahead of the trend with the collection of antiquities – there is even a legend that one member took Trajan’s ashes from the base of his column in Rome and brought them “back” to Seville (Trajan was from Italica, an ancient city nearby which we will be visiting tomorrow!), but his maid thought the urn was full of trash so she dumped it out into the garden.  Oops.  

I will say that the extreme heat and the overly complicated language of the audio guide made it difficult if us to truly get the most out of the visit; it took so much energy to try to interpret the weirdly worded audio guide that I mostly just found myself staring blankly into space.  We both did enjoy walking through the rooms and gardens, though, so the house is absolutely worth a visit.  

Our very late lunch was had at El Pinton, another restaurant we tried last year.  We had a spinach salad with anchovies and pomegranate, Peruvian cerviche, and mushroom risotto (as I said to Chris at lunch today: “If I don’t have Italian food every few days or so, I’ll shrivel up and die.”).  Everything was excellent, if a bit pricey, though honestly it was almost worth it to sit in the air conditioning for an hour or so.  

After lunch, we had a nice siesta at the hotel – Chris needed to do some work and I was happy to lie down.  Suddenly it was 8:00 and we realized we needed food, so we ran out for a quick bite of pizza from a nearby chain.  Nothing fancy, and sometimes it’s nice to get something quick and cheap (mostly importantly, cheap).  

While our day wasn’t perfect – the heat really drained our energy more than we anticipated – I definitely enjoyed getting to know Seville better.  As wth Malaga, I found the city to be beautiful and full of interesting history.  The delicious food doesn’t hurt either!  And it’s funny because I distinctly remember last year saying that I was unimpressed by Spanish cuisine, though I’m thinking now that that was specifically about food we had in Granada, which I definitely remember being less than stellar.  Almost all the meals we’ve had  over the last five days have been excellent, so I’m excited to see what Barcelona has to offer.  

That’s our next stop!  Day 6 will see us driving to Italica in the morning then flying to Barcelona in the evening. It will be a pretty packed day – stay tuned!