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In the shadows of memories

Written by Emmy on 7 November 2011

Monday morning marked the end of the official LisSister journey through Spain. I had to make my way up to Barcelona in order to fly across the ocean Tuesday morning, though Jessica was able to fly back to Rome directly from Valencia, thanks to my favorite airline. And so we bid farewell and I took the train and arrived back in Barcelona just after 2 p.m and just in time for a menu del dia.

When I first got to Barcelona two years ago, I went through a six-hour teacher training in order to work at La Mar Bella. We received a midday break for lunch and with three of my friends, I headed to a nice cafe near the CASB building. We had heard about the wonders of menu del dia, but had not yet partaken. So we sat down, ordered our three courses, and then because the concept of day drinking legally was still novel to us, we each ordered wine, expecting a glass. Instead, we received two full bottles. The afternoon part of training was far more fun.

I continued returning to Por Sant with my friends because of the delightful outdoor seating, copious amounts of wine and unbelievably good food. When my mom came to visit, I brought her there and when Chaz came to Barcelona, we spent several happy hours on the Por Sant patio.

There was no way I could return to Barcelona and not eat there, so I went by myself for a delicious lunch. The menu changes daily, but rarely disappoints. I was pleased to find several new options available, as well as some old favorites. I started with zucchini baked with mushrooms and cheese in a light tomato sauce.

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I followed this with chicken stewed with prunes and apricots. This was always my favorite Por Sant entree and I was pleased to see it was still a menu regular. The dish is served in a sweet wine sauce, though it has a little bit of a citrusy kick.

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One of the beauties of the menu del dia and meals in Spain in general is that you will never be rushed away from your table. Lingering is encouraged, and so I sat for a while with my personal bottle of white wine and watched the quiet commotion of the streets nearby. The waitress who served me was the same waitress who always helped my friends and I. She was much nicer to me as the quiet solo diner of ambiguous origin than she was to me as a member of the crowd of loud obviously American teenagers.

For dessert I had the cheesecake, which in Spain is far lighter than in the U.S.

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From Por Sant I took a long winding walk down La Rambla, through Plaça Catalunya and into the heart of the Gothic Quarter. I paid a visit to La Manual Alpargatera, the world-renowned espadrille-manufacturing store. Espadrilles are quite possibly the most comfortable shoes in the world and I am very pleased that they have remained a fashionable item in the U.S. While you can find them in most nice shoe stores at fairly high prices, at La Manual they will stretch their handmade shoes to create a custom fit and the average pair costs nine euros.

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From La Manual I took a weaving route back to my old neighborhood. By Monday I was experiencing serious nostalgia for my time abroad. I went to my neighborhood Mercadona to pick up Spanish candy for my friends back in New York and sat on a bench in the Onix courtyard for a while. The courtyard was, as always, filled with little kids playing soccer, despite the rampant “No fútbol” signs. The adults couldn’t care less; they were all busy having a beer or playing bocci ball nearby. I saw several girls around my age walking into the supermarket from Onix and had to resist all temptations to start talking to them. I thought it might be a little creepy, so I refrained and just drank my 18-cent seltzer. (Grocery shopping in Spain is a remarkably cheap experience.)

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I had a similar reaction to returning to Barcelona as Chaz’s homecoming to Sweden, which he reflected upon after returning. Ever since leaving Spain, I have wanted to return and I built up the experience in my head. My homecoming too did not disappoint. That our high expectations were met is the only similarity between our experiences though. Chaz had remembered Sweden as the ideal country with the ideal system of functionality and it fulfilled his hopes. I have never believed Spain to be the pinnacle of success nor the perfect model of self-governance. Its current track record severely begs to differ. But what I loved about Barcelona while I was there and what I was so eager to return to was the spirit of the city and the disposition of its people.

Barcelona is a city tied to its rich cultural and linguistic past and a city constantly at odds with its surroundings. The people who live there firmly believe in themselves and all that their land stands for. They are lively and vibrant, occasionally angry, but always passionate. The city is unique and special. It’s something easy to catch onto after only a few days there, but a sentiment you come to regard as your own after enough time living there. Catalunya is not Spain, and Barcelona is like nowhere else.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering in my old territory, soaking up as much of the local energy as I could. For dinner, I headed to Ciutat Comtal, the sister restaurant of Cerveceria Catalana. Slightly less well known, it’s also slightly less crowded and they have a long bar, which makes for convenient solo eating. I fought my way toward the bar and picked out a stool at the very end. The woman next to me turned to tell me she and her husband would be vacating their seats soon, but because I was alone and had ordered a drink in Spanish, she assumed I was native and so spoke to me in English in the way my family always jokes that my father speaks to foreigners: slowly, loudly and with simple words. Trying hard not to laugh, I responded in my very New York-ish English, wished her well on the rest of her trip and turned to order my tapas en español.

The line between tourist and local was a hard one to ride in Spain and a very different experience than my other summer trips. In Asia, there was no disguising the fact that Chaz and I were foreigners. Between his blonde hair and my large camera, not to mention our maps and guidebooks, it was game over. At the Grand Canyon, of course we were tourists. Who isn’t? When I was last in Barcelona, I spent four months trying to convince people I belonged, by dressing in a nondescript way, picking up the local accent and just generally blending in. This time though, I wanted to take pictures and cause a scene — for blogging and for personal purposes — but at the same time, I still wanted to be mistaken for a local student. At the bar at Ciudad Comtal, for instance, I could have potentially passed when I first sat down alone and ordered in Spanish. But my food came and then I was that strange girl in the corner photographing her dishes, clearly not a local. And once the waitstaff start posing for your photos and using their few key English phrases, how can you argue you’re getting the authentic experience?

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Cracks about my photography aside, I did have a delicious dinner of some standard tapas favorites. Tapas for one is really difficult, so I just over-ordered and sampled from my various personal plates, which included a seafood montadito, the Catalan version of a pintxo; a pepper stuffed with tuna; escalivada, the same eggplant, pepper and onion tower we had the first night at Cerveceria Catalana; and some grilled veggies.

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Much as I love Barcelona, I know better than to traipse around solo at night and so I retired early in order to prepare for my departure, so that I could still have the morning to play.

I woke up early, but then remembered why Barcelona stays sleeping till at least 9 a.m. At 7:30, the city was still dark. I had grand ideas about storming the gates of Gaudi’s Park Güell, but thought better of it and instead of heading outside the city, dove back into its depths one final time. For as many visits as I made to the Boqueria, I had never been in the morning when it first opens and so I decided to catch a glimpse of the merchants unloading their produce and other wares before heading out. I was definitely the only tourist among the fishmongers taking their giant animals off ice and the fruit sellers unpacking cartons.

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IMG_7513For one final bite of authenticity before leaving the city, I returned to Cerveceria Catalana. Despite the fact that they fend off crowds and feed them tapas until late in the night, the bar opens at 8 a.m. in order to serve coffee and flautas to hungry locals on their way to work. I sat down at the bar and lingered for a while because I had time to spare, although in the time I sat there several cycles of people shuffled through, taking a moment to sip their cafe and read their newspapers before heading off the start the day. I had coffee and some manchego, which was a standard order, though one man to my left had a glass of wine and one to my right had a cognac. Nothing like starting the day strong. Inspired by a worker who took his sandwich to go, I requested a second flauta in tin foil — a preferable lunch to whatever Delta was going to serve me.

With my tuna and olive sandwich in hand, I made my way to the very familiar Barcelona airport terminal. Saying goodbye to the city was shockingly hard and I found myself getting a bit emotional, but it only reaffirmed what I had already determined: I would be back.

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Rice to riches

Written by Emmy on 4 November 2011

Spain is a very quiet country on Sundays. Owing to the strong Catholic tradition that still prevails (despite some modern unorthodox practices), Spain shuts down and heads to church. But I learned when I went for a morning walk that Valencia also revels in the other national religion on Sundays: fútbol.

Crowding the streets of the old city, children tote large binders and stacks of cards while their parents stand nearby ticking names off of a list. Collecting cards with soccer players on them is a huge pastime, and the parents seemed just as taken by the process as their children. One mother proudly told us that her son had just gotten a card for free that was being sold nearby for five euros. Some little girls had Hello Kitty cards in lieu of soccer players, but children of all ages — stroller through teenager — were playing the game.

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Nearby at La Lonja, stamp and coin collectors gathered to show off and peddle their wares. One stamp collector overheard us speaking in English and waved us over to show off his collection of American stamps, which featured everything from WWII-era stamps to the ubiquitous “Love” stamp. The stamps were rather expensive though, so we said thank you and moved on.

Toni and Marisa came to pick us up near the stamp sellers and we drove down to the beach. As big of a deal as lunch in Spain is on the average day, Sunday is a whole other story. With the entire day open, why not devote three hours to eating?

Valencia is renowned as the birthplace of paella. Served all over Spain and the world, paella is characterized by a yellow rice — it gets its color from cooking in saffron — and is usually filled with a plethora of ingredients. Traditional paella is less of a hodgepodge than the type often proffered in copycat establishments. Paella Valenciana, for example, which comes from the region, contains chicken and rabbit. Paella de mariscos, which I used to eat on the boardwalk in Barceloneta, contains a variety of seafood items.

The beachfront strip in Valencia is lined with restaurant after restaurant serving a very similar menu of paella and other seafood items. The true measure of a good paella restaurant is whether they make their dish on the spot and the way you can judge authenticity is when a restaurant serves paella. Despite its seemingly heavy nature, paella is meant to only be served at lunchtime. Paella for dinner would be sacrilege.

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We sat down at one of the many beachfront restaurants where Toni had made a reservation for the four of us. We left all ordering up to the masters and had several appetizers in advance of our paella. First we tried another version of esgarrat, the dish composed of red peppers and cod. This time it was served with a dried, salted tuna, which had a taste and texture similar to that of lox (but more tuna-y, obviously). We also had calamares romanas, fried calamari rings, and the same chipirones, or squid, dish that we had eaten Friday night. This time the squid was served with green beans and chickpeas, which Jessica and I were both pleased by.

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Based upon Toni’s recommendation, we had paella with fish. The official name of the dish is arròs de senyoret in Catalan, or arroz de señorito in Spanish. The name translates to mean something like “playboy’s rice” because the fish in the paella is already peeled and so it requires next to no work to eat it. The paella was placed in the center of the table still in the giant metal pan it was cooked in. Though a serving spoon was provided, we were advised that it is totally appropriate to just stick your fork in the center dish and go at it. And go at it we did.

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Just as we were finishing our paella, a waitress from the restaurant next door came in looking for Toni. It turns out that we had sat down at the wrong place and our reservation was actually supposed to be next door. To be fair, every restaurant had the same awning and identical menus. When we asked if there was a table for us and were told yes, how were we supposed to know the difference?

After handling the reservation debacle and drinking a coffee, we went for a walk along the water. Valencia has historically been one of the most important Mediterranean port cities and the waterfront is still lined with containers and cranes. Just a few paces down the coast, the scene is one of umbrellas and cabanas, rather than ships.

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But Valencia has always lagged its Spanish sister cities in tourism and has been pushing to change that. The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias was one attempt. A new high-speed train runs between Madrid and Valencia, creating a 90-minute journey to a weekend getaway. (Toni commented that the madrileños consider Valencia to be “their beach.”) Valencia hosted the America’s Cup and built several monstrous waterfront structures to house all the activity. But today, they sit empty – another sign of the money that has been poured into an industry that is currently dormant and another point of contention for the local people.

We took a stroll back down the boardwalk before hopping into the car and heading back downtown.

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We bid farewell to Toni and Marisa and made our way to the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, or IVAM as it is usually known. The museum was filled with some rather strange artwork and I was trying hard not to fall into a serious food coma (the wine at lunch wasn’t helping with that either). So we entertained ourselves while looking at the art, thanks to a fairly liberal photography policy.

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Playtime aside, we perused the rest of the museum galleries for a while. We walked one final loop around the old city, finding even fewer things open than the day before. But, one item we hand’t been able to visit on Saturday was mobbed with visitors late Sunday afternoon: Horchateria El Siglo, the neighbor and major competitor to Horchateria Santa Caterina. The outdoor seating area was packed with locals who all looked like they had just come from church activities. By this point in time, I had mysteriously lost my voice and so I ordered a tea. Jessica got in one final dose of Spanish hot chocolate.

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It took us a while to come off of our mid-afternoon sugar high (and lingering fullness from lunch), but eventually, much later, we were ready to eat again. We opted for the lightest of dinners — tapas — and a fare we had not yet enjoyed. Tapas from the Basque Region are a bit different than those from elsewhere. Up north they’re known as pintxos and all ingredients are served on top of bread. Typically, each pinto is then speared with a toothpick. Most Basque bars are do-it-yourself and so you are responsible for holding onto your toothpicks so they can be counted and tallied at the end of the meal.

Basque bars have become popular all over Spain (and recently in New York too!) and we had noted several interesting ones near our hotel. So we chose the one that Let’s Go liked too, grabbed a table and started grabbing pintxos.

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The height of our eating spree actually came at the very end, after our delicious tapas. Jessica is a huge fan of frozen yogurt, but it turns out that the Romans are not. However, the Valencians are. She capped off the day with authentic chocolate frozen yogurt, served by an English-speaking man who let her have free samples.

The food-filled adventure was a great way to spend our last day together in Spain.

Arab influence

Written by Emmy on 3 November 2011

We began Saturday morning’s walk in a corner of the old city we had not seen the day before, Russafa, which is generally considered the Muslim neighborhood. The further south you travel in Spain, the stronger the Moorish influence is, in food, architecture and population composition. Second to Sagrada Familia, Spain’s most important sight is La Alhambra in Granada, a spectacular structure that was at different moments a church, a fortress and a mosque. Here in Russafa, the Moorish influence is a bit more subtle, but evident nonetheless.

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One of our first stops was obviously the market. Like in Barcelona, Valencian neighborhoods have their own small markets, reserving the central market for mayhem, tourists and special visits. The Mercat de Russafa was more manageable, but no less filled with delicious food.

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Sitting next to the fresh fruit at several stands were pumpkin halves, lightly browned and ready to be eaten. True to Toni and Marisa’s explanation, the people could not seem to get enough of the roasted pumpkin.

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We bought a slice of pumpkin of which Jessica raved so much that we bought two more, sat on the steps of a church and ate them with our fingers. The pumpkin in the market was far superior to the pumpkin at dinner; it tasted very fresh and had a natural sweetness.

We didn’t see much else open during our brief stay in Russafa. Spanish business hours are a fickle thing. Some stores open early and close for siesta, some stores open late and bypass nap time, some stores open in the afternoon and stay open for bar hoppers to take a peak. It’s really very hard to predict (and might have some bearing on the economic struggles of small Spanish towns). In the main part of the city, everything was open by 10 or 11 a.m., but in smaller neighborhoods, it seemed to be each man’s rules for himself.

We roamed the streets, walked into another big market and a few stores and then before we knew it, it was lunchtime. (I swear we did more than just eat on this trip; the photos I have just don’t reflect that.)

We dined al fresco at a restaurant highly praised by several guidebooks, El Rall. The restaurant is largely renowned for its paella, but we already had plans for a paella feast on Sunday, so decided to sample some of the other notable items instead.

When we sat down, we were greeted with do-it-yourself pan con tomate, proving that despite Catalunya’s claim over this item, it does exist elsewhere. We ordered coca, a paper-thin Valencian bread, topped with goat cheese, onions and zucchini. We also had roasted chicken. Our lunch was delicious, but looking around, it appeared that we were doing it all wrong. While we happily ate from our two plates, our patio-mates were on at least their third or fourth course. Perhaps they hadn’t pregamed with pumpkin.

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After lunch, Jessica returned to the hotel to get a little homework done. Blissfully responsibility free, I explored the back streets of the old quarter, wandering through little squares and pausing at a tiny cafe for a cortado. I saw a ton of signage for the protests scheduled for that night, part of the international response to Occupy Wall Street. There had been signs in Barcelona too for the coordinated international event.

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Jessica and I continued our perusal of the old quarter, still finding an odd number of places to be closed. Still, we were able to check out a few local hotspots as well as some rather quirky art galleries. We got lost several times, owing in large part to our very poor map, but discovered that even locals had only a sketchy sense of direction. One shopkeeper we asked for help had to pull out an atlas in order to assist us.

We finally landed at Plaça de Santa Catalina, a gathering spot for locals of all ages. One of the items Valencia is most well-known for is horchata, an icy cold drink different from the one of the same name found in Mexico. It looks like milk, but contains no dairy — perfect for me and my milk phobia! Valencian horchata is made from ground tigernuts, water and sugar.

Two of the most famous horchaterias sit in Santa Catalina, but only one was open, so our decision was easily made. We fought our way to a table — the place was packed, mostly with families — and ordered a horchata for me, an absurdly thick hot chocolate for Jessica and fartóns, a puff pastry traditionally dunked in the two drinks.

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Following our late afternoon sugar high, we returned to the hotel to detox and digest. After a long while, it was time to eat again.

We headed to a new neighborhood, up in the organized grid part of the city near where many of the university buildings are located. Valencia too calls their more modernized section the Eixample. Our restaurant of choice had been picked from the New York Times’ 36 Hours, ever the trusty resource. The restaurant, Balansiya, offered a range of Moorish foods; the restaurant’s name is how one would say Valencia in Arabic.

We started with hummus and babaganoush, two familiar-sounding favorites of the Liss family. They were a little different here — the hummus was thicker and chunkier, tasting intensely like its chickpea base, while the babagnoush had much more of a sesame taste than I’m used to. They were served with bread, as opposed to pita.

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IMG_7169For our main course, we ordered a chicken tagine, seasoned with almonds and saffron, and a pastel de pollo. The chicken cake, as it is literally translated, looked like a cinnamon-and-sugar coated pastry when it arrived, but once we cut into it, curried chicken and nuts emerged. Both dishes were very reminiscent of the food we ate on a family trip to Morocco a few years ago.

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The restaurant served no alcohol because of its Muslim ties, but our waiter did offer to put our names on a list at a nearby hopping club. After all our eating we were feeling a bit sluggish, so we declined. I ordered tea and watched as the waiter poured it from up high in traditional fashion. Even though we had turned down his invitation to go clubbing, he also gave us a complimentary sampling of house desserts.

The night was just starting for most young Spaniards as we left, but for us, it was bedtime.

Speaking Valenciana

Written by Emmy on 2 November 2011

On Friday morning we bid farewell to Barcelona and boarded the train to Valencia. The three-hour ride was pleasant and comfortable and our train had assigned seats and in-flight entertainment, more than I can say for Amtrak or Thai Railways. The journey began and ended along the coast, weaving inland between the seaside stops. Just outside Barcelona, the landscape became totally rural, with farmhouses, fields and mountains lined with windmills.

We arrived in Valencia just in time for lunch. After quickly dropping our belongings at the hotel, we headed to Mercat Central, the large food market that claims to be the largest in Western Europe. This is a superlative I’ve heard thrown around a few times before, but Mercat Central was pretty impressive.

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We picked up a lunch picnic to eat on the steps outside the market. Jessica sampled some of the market’s prepared foods, while I went for more of an a la carte antipasto approach, purchasing manchego cheese, hummus, artichokes, sundried tomatoes and peppers.

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Valencia is organized similarly to Barcelona, with a condensed egg-shaped historic center and a more sprawling modern section built along a grid. Though Valencia has an equally large share of Mediterranean coastline, the historic part of the city is a solid 10-minute drive from the water. The old walled city kept its distance, earning Valencia the translated-from-Catalan tagline of “the city with its back to the sea.”

We had plans to explore the old center later in the afternoon, so we decided to be atypical and check out the parts of the city that do touch the sea. The main thoroughfare that begins at the old gates of the city and heads toward the water stops about a kilometer before the Mediterranean. Blocking the major avenue from continuing straight ahead is the neighborhood of Cabanyal, and this is a major source of municipal tension. El Cabanyal is the old fisherman quarters and is filled with charming old townhouses, but it has a bit of seedy reputation these days. Tired of prostitutes and poverty and interested in connecting the water to the old city, local politicians have campaigned to knock down part of the neighborhood in order to build the last kilometer of road. This has incited quite a bit of pushback from locals, who are advocating for restoration of the neighborhood instead. Clearly people are very up in arms about the whole debacle; a woman saw Jessica and I taking photos and began screaming at us in Spanish, assuming we were with the pro-destruction group.

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A mile or so down the water awaits a very different sight. Now a decade old, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias – the City of Arts and Sciences – was Valencia’s attempt to build a major tourist attraction. The architectural fantasy of native son Salvador Calatravas includes an art museum, a science museum, an underwater restaurant and several other attractions. The ticket to enter is pricey though, and really, the exterior is the most exciting part. Most tourists we saw there were doing the same thing as us: wandering the perimeter, taking photos and then leaving. This is problematic for Valencia as the complex was expensive to build, is expensive to maintain and now the responsibility is falling on local citizens. Particularly in the current Spanish economic climate, the Ciudad doesn’t exactly generate goodwill among locals.

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After walking the exterior and frolicking in the sculpture garden, we headed back to the old city to meet up with our tour guides for the afternoon, Toni and Marisa. In my final semester at Brown, I was desperate for one last chance to take a Spanish class. Normally the offerings are limited to centuries-old literature, but there was a one-semester-only course being offered on the topic of communication, with an emphasis on modern-day journalism in Spain. Syllabus unseen, I was prepared to sign up. The class far exceeded my expectations. The professor, Toni Mollà, was visiting from Spain, where he teaches at the University of Valencia and works as a journalist. Our small class formed a strong bond with him, in and outside the classroom, and I had the chance to make tapas with him and his wife Marisa in Providence. When I told them Jessica and I were coming to Valencia, they graciously offered to tour us around and share their infinite knowledge of the city.

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We began our tour in the heart of the old city, the Jewish Quarter, and visited the ancient Universitat de Valencia. The old university was built in the same style as many other European colleges that I have seen: a central open atrium, where students and professors could gather and socialize, surrounded by a ring of classrooms. Classrooms on upper floors could all be entered from a communal balcony so there would be even more space for socialization. In my experience, that’s where students gathered for a quick coffee and cigarette between classes. The old university is only used for municipal ceremonies today; the University of Valencia outgrew its old building and the different departments are now scattered around the city.

IMG_6977We had arrived that morning at the newer and uglier of the city’s two train stations, the Penn Station of Valencia. The older station, Estacion Nord, is an example of the Spanish modernismo style, which is nearly as plentiful in Valencia as it is in Barcelona. The interior of the station is decorated in a tile mosaic style typical to Valencia.

The main thoroughfare of the old city that begins at the station is punctuated by several squares. The first is Plaça del Ajuntamento, home to Valencia’s city hall. Like Barcelona, Valencia is the capital of its autonomous community, so the city is filled with government buildings from the various federalist levels. Valencia’s community is conveniently called Valencia. Bordering Catalunya, Valencia is part of the ancient group of Catalan speakers. The language is still spoken there today, but it is called Valenciana, and don’t you dare insinuate it is the same as Catalan. (But really, it is. It would be like saying the languages spoken in Boston and New York are different.)

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The next two squares are Plaça de la Reina and Plaça de la Virgen, which house the cathedral and basilica, respectively. Every Spanish city has its big cathedral and the one in Valencia was built over the span of several centuries. The thee entrances represent the three different styles used and are arranged in chronological order: Romanic, Gothic and Baroque.

IMG_6992Behind the cathedral, we found we had looped back to the Mercat, which looked even prettier at night.

Just beside the Mercat was the Lonja, an open forum where silk manufacturers once gathered to trade their wares. Today the space is used for conferences and city events, but every Sunday, stamp and coin collectors gather in the traditional fashion to make sales and trades.

By this point, we had completed our historic walking tour, but no self-respecting Spaniard dines out before 9 p.m. We planned to eat in Carmen, a trendy neighborhood within the old city walls, and so decided to get a drink first. In an almost comical fashion, our table of four began to expand as we saw people Toni and Marisa knew and we suddenly found ourselves at a table of twelve, which included Valencia’s most famous journalist and a prominent local photographer. Several jokes were made comparing Carmen to the Village in New York.

After bidding our new friends farewell, the four of us walked into Can Bermell, a restaurant in Carmen that Toni and Marisa have been visiting since they were in their 20s. They reportedly were eating lunch there the day their daughter Marina, who is my age, was born.

We offered a few suggestions forth based upon the menu, but took a very backseat approach and let the locals do all the decision making. The dishes were much larger than tapas, but everything was placed in the middle to be shared.

The food was pretty similar to what I’ve had in Barcelona, though with perhaps a bit more emphasis on seafood. I thought everything we ordered was positively delicious. The dishes came out of the kitchen individually, which made it easier to enjoy and appreciate the flavors of one dish at  a time. The first was esgarrat, a typical Valencian dish. Composed of dried, salted cod, red peppers and oil, the name translates to mean “broken” because of the aggressive manner in which the ingredients are mixed together. We were instructed to eat our food with fresh bread and learned that an upside-down roll is bad luck.

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The next dish was the house salad, a composed tower of tomato, fresh cheese, homemade croutons and basil, doused with balsamic vinegar. The delightful salad was followed by fresh mussels cooked with olive oil, which we fully demolished before I remembered to take a picture. Butter is an unheard-of ingredient in Spanish cooking; olive oil is considered king. Following my semester in Barcelona, I adopted a similarly firm stance and only cook with olive oil. (It’s a good thing I don’t bake that often; the result could be kind of gross.)

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We also enjoyed a salad of mushrooms topped with grated truffles, which one of our new journalist friends had recommended. The final dish, which was probably my favorite, was chipirones con ajos tiernos. It translates to squid with garlic, but the dish was cooked with a kind of garlic I’ve never seen before. Toni and Marisa explained it as the stem of the garlic bulb; it was green and flavorful, but not in quite the same biting way as a garlic clove.

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I was personally a bit full for dessert, but the waiter told Toni and Marisa he had a pumpkin in the oven and that was something we needed to see. Apparently in the fall, one of the most popular things to do is slice a pumpkin in half and pop it in the oven. No sugar, no cinnamon, no nothing. You just let the pumpkin roast for about an hour and then eat it as is. It was hard for me to conceptualize, but really, it would be just like eating roasted butternut squash for dessert. Pumpkin is eaten at all times of day and is very healthy. To balance out the healthy nature of the pumpkin, we also had a slice of chocolate almond cake.

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Spanish dining practices place far more value on personal pleasure than communal table manners and so there is no inhibition about just sticking your fork in the central plate. It creates an element of community and sharing to the meal and we caught on quickly. Our dinner was overall phenomenal and it was so great to see Marisa and Toni again. We picked their brains for advance on Valencian activities and made plans to meet up again on Sunday.

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A Spanish education

Written by Emmy on 31 October 2011

On Thursday, we began our day yet again on Passeig de Gracia. Jessica turned south to tour another Gaudi structure and I went north, back to Gracia. Gracia is a great neighborhood to explore because it feels so much more authentic than the other parts of the city. It’s a little less accessible by Metro and the bulk of the city’s business is conducted closer to the water, but throughout the morning, Gracia was bustling with people.

Every neighborhood in Barcelona has its own fresh food market. The Boqueria is king of all the markets, but as a result, is sort of the least user-friendly. For natives looking to buy groceries and get advice from the vendors about produce and how to best prepare it, one of the smaller neighborhood markets is far better. These markets are generally covered, featuring an array of stalls, and they stay open all morning, often closing at lunchtime for the day. Gracia features two great markets and I visited both: Mercat de la Llibertat and Mercat de l’Abaceria Central.

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After wandering around Gracia for a while, I circled my way back to L’Eixample and stopped by one of my favorite places, La Central. La Central is a glorious bookstore, packed floor to ceiling with books, and contains a cafe with reliable wireless — a rarity in Spain. I spent a ton of time here while I was abroad, doing “homework” and browsing the Spanish, Catalan and miscellaneous other language books.

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From there, I took a long and familiar Metro ride. When I was abroad, CASB formed a great partnership with the Catalan Ministry of Education and placed many of us in semester-long teaching roles at local public schools. I worked at La Mar Bella, a primary school in the once industrial neighborhood of Poble Nou. The neighborhood today is undergoing a bit of a revitalization. As one of the teachers once put it to me, the parents are workers, but the children will grow up to be professionals.

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For eight hours a week, I served as an assistant teacher in the first, third, fifth and sixth grade English classes. The primary language of schooling is Catalan, though Spanish is phased in as children get older. English is taught starting at a young age, but there appears to be minimal retention. The two English teachers – both named Ángels – told all of the children that I spoke no Catalan or Spanish in an attempt to get them to practice their English with me. It worked for most of the semester… until I accidentally let on that I understood what they were saying.

Since my time at Mar Bella, I’ve kept in touch with Ángels and Ángels and was excited to go back and visit. When I arrived, they were in the middle of hanging Halloween decorations. Halloween is not a holiday that is celebrated in Spain, but the children celebrate it in their English classrooms as way of practicing language and learning foreign culture.

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In the middle of the school day, the children all go home for lunch. Many teachers return home too, but there is also a lunch available for them at the cafeteria. In my elementary school, the only option the teachers had were the same defrosted chicken nuggets we were eating, and so most went to the local bagel store instead. Lunch at Mar Bella is a gourmet experience, because God forbid the midday meal be lacking. Trays of food are brought out and the teachers serve themselves to three courses, menu del dia style. For starter, we had the option of a seafood paella or spinach with pine nuts, raisins and cured meat. For entree, we had the choice of grilled fish or pork ribs with a side of french fries and salad. Since I last ate at Mar Bella, the school hired a new cook, who makes highly praised hand-rolled chicken croquettes to go with the main dish. For dessert we chose between yogurt, whole fruit or sliced fruit. And then because there were still 15 minutes before class restarted, we went across the street to have a coffee. Definitely beats Bagel Boss of Jericho.

While we sat outside, Ángels filled me in on what’s been happening at the school over the last two years. Spain’s dire economic situation has had a massive impact on the little primary school. The teaching staff has been cut in half, and as a result, the school day is an hour shorter for the children, but each teacher has an additional hour of instruction. On top of the extra work, their salaries have gone down. There is less and less funding for school programming, and the teachers fear it will only go down further. The gates of Mar Bella are covered in brightly colored papers, advocating for the importance of public school education and asking the government to stop making cuts. School budget cuts are among the issues that enrage Catalan nationalists, who argue that their hard-earned tax dollars are sent to Madrid and then used to subsidize education in southern Spain, while their own children suffer.

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At 3 p.m., the children and teachers returned to class and I bid farewell to my little escola. I went to meet Jessica atop Montjuic, which is the largest park in Barcelona and is effectively a little mountain rising out of the center of the city. To reach the top, you can take a glitzy cable car or the funicular, which is part of the Metro system. Montjuic is home to countless beautiful gardens, several museums, an old castle-slash-fortress once used to protect the city and many of the stadiums, pools and buildings used during the Olympics.

I met Jessica at Fundacio Miro, a museum Joan Miro bequeathed to his hometown just before he died. Several of the galleries were closed, but my favorite part of the museum is the sculpture garden, which offers spectacular panorama views of the city.

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From the museum we walked around Montjuic, taking photos at various intervals. We arrived at Plaça España just as the sun was setting. The square is lined with a series of fountains that at certain times over the weekend spurt in time with music and lights. The Fonts de Montjuic are said to have inspired the Epcot light show. It is indeed a marvelous display, but unfortunately did not take place any of the days we were there.

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IMG_6848Around the corner from the fountains is a former textile manufacturing factory that was repossessed by Catalunya’s largest bank in the mid-1900s and transformed into a free art museum. CaixaForum has retained its old world charm, and the setting makes for a unique museum-going experience.

Following our very cultured trip around Montjuic and its environs, we headed to the Born for dinner. The central square surrounding Santa Maria del Mar and the other landmarks we visited the day before turns into a hopping nighttime destination. We ate at Casa Delfin, a tapas restaurant with a slight international twist.

Because of its nontraditional nature, the dishes at Casa Delfin were also a bit bigger than those at most tapas bars. In order to avoid total gluttony, we toned down our usual ordering parade and selected three items: cod pan-fried with chickpeas, avocado salad with shrimp and strawberries and a tortilla de escalivada, an omelet with roasted peppers, eggplant and onion.

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We strolled along the beautifully lit Barceloneta boardwalk before retiring for the evening.

Happy Columbus Day!

Written by Emmy on 25 October 2011

When I was abroad, we constantly had off from school for mysterious-sounding holidays. Like my friends back at Brown, we coincidentally had no class on Columbus Day (though on neither campus did we call it that). I assumed initially that our Spanish day off was for yet another Catholic occasion, but as it turned out, we too were celebrating Columbus Day! Just from a different perspective. Unlike the American holiday, the Spanish version is tied to a particular date and so it happened to fall on the Wednesday of our stay in Barcelona. The holiday had no major effect on us, save for a large number of school children everywhere reveling in their day off.

Having done a Gaudi warm-up the day before with his apartment buildings in L’Eixample, we were ready for Barcelona’s main attraction: Sagrada Familia. Sagrada Familia was intended to be Gaudi’s opus, a massive modern church for his beloved city. Construction began in 1883, but during the process Gaudi went bankrupt and died, leaving his church incomplete. Architects and historians have argued since about what the final product should look like, and though construction has been ongoing for the last decade, it is predicted that the church will not be finished until 2023. (The anticipated end date keeps getting pushed back. It’s like Barcelona’s version of the Second Avenue subway.)

Despite its cranes and scaffoldings, Sagrada Familia is the most visited site in Spain, and by 10 a.m. the line to enter stretched around the block. The inside is impressive, but the outside is really the must-see spectacle, so we walked around the block a few times, gazing up at the whimsical towers and controversial facades.

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From Sagrada Familia we walked south about 10 blocks to do a drive-by of the building I lived in while I was abroad. Residencia Onix is an apartment building for students — no Spanish universities have dorms like in the U.S. — and so our hallways were filled with Americans and Spaniards alike. CASB uses a different building for its students now, but to me, Onix was home.

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Just beyond Onix is one of the city’s landmarks and home to my once-upon-a-time Metro stop, the Arc de Triomf. Very similar in appearance to the Parisian arch, Barcelona’s version was built for the world exposition in 1888. As one of my books noted, the only triumph that the supposedly triumphant arch celebrated was an on-time completion.

The Arc sits at the top of one of the city’s biggest parks, Parc de la Ciutadella, home to my one-time attempt to learn to like running. Ciutadella was once the site of a military citadel — where it gets its name — but it now houses ample gardens and walking paths, a field of ping pong tables, Barcelona’s zoo and the Generalitat de Catalunya’s parliamentary building. At the center of the park is a massive fountain, decorated with traditional Roman chariots and fantastical water-spewing dragons, a testament to the mix of history and whimsy throughout the city.

Ciutadella is always crowded and was particularly so because of Wednesday’s holiday. Families lined the block to get into the zoo, runners in neon apparel filled the paths and mothers sat at the fountain-side cafe with strollers parked by the water.

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We continued south of Ciutadella to the beach. Normally by October, Barcelona’s beaches are empty, but with no school and persistent 90-degree weather, bathers lined the waterfront. On our walk to the Mediterranean, we passed teenagers socializing on the boardwalk, old men playing dominos and more publicly displayed modern art than on Brown’s campus.

IMG_6617IMG_6614IMG_6654IMG_6610Clockwise from top left: Frank Gehry’s “Fish,” which overlooks the water from between the city’s two skyscrapers, Hotel Arts and the Mapfre office building; Antoni Llena’s “David i Goliath,” which was built for the 1992 Olympics; Rebecca Horn’s “Homenatge a la Barceloneta,” which was built to memorialize the oceanfront shops and restaurants destroyed for Olympics construction.

The old men playing cards under the boardwalk looked like they had been coming to the beach to do the very same thing for decades. One player saw our cameras and yelled out, in Catalan, “Take pictures! No charge!”

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From the steamy beach, we walked up the Barceloneta boardwalk, a touristy strip lined with paella restaurants and parked cruise ships. Barcelona is an enormous port for passenger vessels bound for the Mediterranean’s waters; my entire flight from New York was filled with cruise passengers. The scenic beaches are broken up by industrial docks and vestiges from the 1992 Olympics, which makes parts of the waterfront less than ideal for sunbathing. Still, the mild waters provide great relief on a record-setting hot day.

We walked inland fron the shores to la Ribera, a neighborhood also known as the Born and renowned for its food and art. Both categories were on the agenda, but after our long sweeping walk, lunch would have to come first.

We paid a visit to El Xampaneyet, an example of the old world charm of tapas bars. Packed with people, the bar is a total free-for-all. You grab whatever table or inch of bar space that you can and just start pointing at food, all of which is displayed on top of the bar. We fought our way to a little table in the middle of the action and the food just started flowing: red peppers stuffed with tuna, spicy marinated olives, tortilla española, a traditional omelette made of potatoes and onions, pan con tomate, sundried tomatoes, manchego cheese and peppers stuffed with soft cheese. I washed down my tapas with a glass of cava, sparkling wine made in Spain.

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Lunch was delicious, but eating at El Xampanyet was as much about the experience as the food.

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After lunch, Jessica paid a visit to the Picasso museum, which is housed in a series of old houses down the street from El Xampanyet. I’ve seen the art in the native Barcelonian’s museum a few times before, so I decided to go for a walk around the Born instead.

I should have expected it because of the combination of siesta and holiday, but nearly everything was closed. But as I wove my way through the Born and circled several of the surrounding neighborhoods, it gave me a chance to people-watch and eavesdrop. Everyone in Barcelona speaks Spanish, but Catalan is the city’s lifeblood. After the Franco-era ban was lifted, locals returned to speaking their native tongue, and today, it is the language of choice among many young people. Catalan is a close relative of the other regional romance languages; as one of my friends once put it, Catalan was born the bastard child of Spanish and French, dropped on its head in an Italian hospital. It’s not quite as phonetic as Spanish, which makes the accent tricky, but when written, it bears many similarities.

Many people are critical of Barcelona as a study-abroad choice because of the almost secondary place of the Spanish language. But I disagree. All of my classes were conducted in Spanish and the castellano of most people in the city is fairly unaccented, as compared to people in Sevilla or South America. I had ample opportunities to practice my written and verbal comprehension of the language. Plus, as a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain, I learned Catalan. My speaking abilities are atrocious, but I was shocked at what I had retained from a comprehension perspective, thus validating the placement of “conversational Catalan” as a skill on my resume.

Jessica and I reconnected and continued our walk around the city. Down the block from the Picasso Museum is one of the city’s more beautiful churches, Santa Maria del Mar. In contrast to the church’s Gothic style, a nearby modern sculpture commemorates those who fought for the Catalan constitution in 1714. (It’s hard to let go.)

We walked down to the water in time to see the sun beginning to set over Roy Lichtenstein’s “Barcelona Head,” a fun pop art sculpture that rises above the waterfront buildings. Down the block from the “Head” is a sculpture of the man of the day, Cristóbal Colón, as he is known in Spain, pointing out to the sea.

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For dinner we headed up to Gracia, the neighborhood north of L’Eixample. Gracia is quieter and more filled with locals than other parts of the city. The neighborhood is dotted with squares that are filled with bars and restaurants. One of its more well-known streets, Carrer Verdi, is tree-lined and closed to cars. The street is filled with young people, filtering in and out of restaurants of all different world cuisines.

We chose a Lebanese restaurant and sampled the muhammara, a dip made from red peppers and walnuts, a salad and musakaa, a dish of sauteed eggplant, pepper and chickpeas.

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Yet another delightful, delicious day.

Right back where we started from

Written by Emmy on 22 October 2011

Staying in L’Eixample put some of Barcelona’s most beautiful buildings right at our fingertips. Cerda’s streets were lined with trees and filled with spectacular examples of architectural innovation. The majority of the buildings emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s and follow the modernismo style. (Elsewhere in Europe it’s called Art Nouveau, but Barcelona likes to be different.) The main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, Passeig de Gracia, includes several houses from Barcelona’s patron saint of architecture, Antoni Gaudi. But Gaudi is not the only one to have made a name for Barcelona modernismo, and the buildings of L’Eixample have stood the test of time. Even the sidewalks in the neighborhood are highly stylized!

IMG_6745IMG_6763IMG_6769IMG_7463Clockwise from top left: Gaudi’s Casa Battlo, an apartment building, photographed at night; Gaudi’s other noteworthy apartment building, La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila; the elaborately designed sidewalk tiles found throughout the neighborhood; a wide tree-lined avenue in L’Eixample with rounded buildings on the corner.

Barcelona was a fantastic place for Jessica and I to visit together because while I caught up with old friends, she explored areas I had seen before. After gawking sufficiently at the buildings on Passeig de Gracia and Rambla de Catalunya, which turns into Las Ramblas further south, she headed to La Pedrera to take a tour of the building and I made my personal homecoming to the CASB building.

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The program I studied abroad on has the obnoxious full name of the Consortium for Advanced Studies in Barcelona, but we only ever called it CASB (or “the consortium,” said in a pompous accent when we were feeling cheeky). CASB is a partnership between seven American schools, of which Brown is one, and three universities in Barcelona. American students enroll directly in Spanish classes, braving Catalan-speaking students and highly disorganized university systems. The program is masterminded by the on-site director, Juanjo, who also teaches one course each semester. I absolutely loved the program: it was the perfect balance of no-holds-barred immersion and support. I could go on and on in my ode to CASB, but that’s a subject for another post.

IMG_6475I visited Juanjo in the very familiar office where I once sat panicking about registration and details lost in translation. It was a strange sensation to be on the other side of the desk as several current students came in to do exactly that.

After catching up (and admiring the photos of my CASB class hung on the wall of Juanjo’s office in a beautiful collage), we headed to lunch. Lunch is the meal in Spain. The way we take salads to go and eat sandwiches in the car is effectively sacrilege to people on this side of the ocean. Children go home from school and adults pause their workday in order to eat a substantial and relaxed midday meal. However, that can obviously cause some disruption to the workplace. The solution? Menu del dia. Most restaurants in the city offer this price fixe option that generally includes a first course, second course, dessert, wine and bread. Usually at an affordable price, menu del dia ensures that lunch will not be compromised, even for the working adult.

IMG_6486Juanjo and I walked around the corner to Moon, a small restaurant I had been to before for CASB-sponsored events. One of the new CASB co-directors joined us, as did Teresa, who was Juanjo’s second-in-command when I did the program, but who now runs Boston College’s Barcelona program. Teresa and I both started with the ensalada de queso fresco, a salad with fresh cheese and nuts, while the men went for arroz cubano, a dish I have never quite understood — rice covered in tomato sauce and served with a fried egg. The popular main dish was a Catalan stew of meat and vegetables. In danger of entering a midday food coma, we all opted for coffee rather than dessert.

It was a real treat to see Juanjo and Teresa. My CASB class remained particularly close after our semester abroad and my friends were quite jealous of my mini reunion. However, next year is CASB’s five-year anniversary and a celebration is in the works. I suggest Juanjo fly us all to Barcelona, but it’s a bit more likely that he’ll come stateside for the event. As long as the vino is flowing…

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After lunch I headed to Estació Sants, the city’s major train station, to pick up our train tickets to Valencia for Friday. You can purchase them online, but in my experience, if you can conduct a Spanish business transaction live, you should.

I caught back up with Jessica and we returned to El Raval, this time during business hours. Raval was historically a bit of a seedy neighborhood and not the kind of place two girls would want to be walking around alone. However, it has cleaned up tremendously in recent years and, as is often the case, is now occupied largely by young hipsters. There is also a substantial population of immigrant families and many residents fight to demonstrate that El Raval is no longer a de facto red light district. Signs hung from apartment balconies translate to read, “We are a dignified neighborhood.”

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Situated at the top of the neighborhood is the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, or as it is more commonly known, MACBA. The modern art museum is closed on Tuesdays, but that actually makes it the most interesting day to visit. The museum houses a pretty bizarre collection of art, but its mirrored exterior and large courtyard make for a great people watching location. The entrance ramps and open plaza are filled with skateboarders daily, but they multiply in number when there are no museum guards around to bother them.

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From the museum we continued into the heart of the Raval, which is filled with vegetarian restaurants, vintage stores and tons of graffiti, much of it political. Barcelona has always had a precarious political situation and it seems to have only intensified since I was last there.

The Catalan people settled in Barcelona centuries ago and built a city with a vibrant economy, language and culture. In the earlier days of its development, the Iberian peninsula was filled with several independently ruled communities who coexisted peacefully for the most part. But with the strategic union of Ferdinand and Isabella and their aggressive reign in the late 1400s (think Columbus and the Spanish Inquisition), a Spanish unification movement began to grow. Catalunya maintained its separation and independence, but in the early 1700s, fell prey to a siege and was placed under the Spanish crown. The Catalan people celebrate September 11 as the day they lost their independence, a holiday with a bit of an ironic tinge.

For the next few hundred years, the Catalan people were permitted to maintain their cultural independence under the rule of Madrid. The strong economy of the region bought its people their linguistic and cultural liberties. But as political tensions swirled in the early part of the twentieth century, the Catalan people began to suffer. The region was the last hold-out against Franco during the Spanish Civil War and so when his dictatorship began in 1939, Catalunya was punished. Because it hindered national unity, the Catalan language was banned from public use. Street signs were changed to Spanish all over the region, some of which still hang alongside their Catalan counterparts today.

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When the dictatorship fell in the 1970s, the Spanish people were charged with rewriting their constitution and redesigning their government. As penance to the slighted regions, the new federalist system granted a great deal of self-rule to those parts of the country that wanted it. Seventeen autonomous communities were drawn, Catalunya being one of them. (The region is actually spelled Cataluña in Spanish, but no self-respecting Catalan would ever spell it that way.) While some of the autonomous regions came to rely heavily on Madrid, others took on as much independence as was allowed.

The Spanish federalist system is fraught with problems and resentment. In the Basque Country, this has translated into an extremist terrorist movement fighting for independence. In Catalunya, there was always a cultural movement and a drive to maintain the Catalan way of life, but it was never quite so political. However, that has changed dramatically in the past few years. It’s no secret that the Spanish economy is a total mess. Unemployment for kids my age is nearing 50 percent. But in Catalunya, the economy has remained relatively strong. The region pays taxes to Madrid though, and does not see its money returned to the Catalan people. Instead, many Catalan people feel that their hard-earned dollars are going to support regions with no economic engine that are entirely dependent on the central government, like Andalusia and Extremadura.

The once small independence movement has grown in size, particularly among youth. I watched fights break out in my classes as students called for their peers to rise up. It is not uncommon to see “Catalunya is not Spain” written across public buildings. Demonstrations and protests are constant with locals calling for self-rule for the Catalan people.

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It seems that the movement has gotten stronger and more vocal even in the two years since I was here. As Spain continues its economic free fall, it will be fascinating to see what happens in Catalunya.

After our lesson in politics — many thanks to Jessica for enduring my musings on catalanismo throughout the trip — it was time for a snack. We visited Juicy Jones, a colorful juice bar at the southern end of the Raval. The small cafe is perhaps more noted for its decorative walls than its beverages, but my drink was pretty good too. I sampled a homemade lemonade with mint (advertised as having no sugar, it was quite tart) and Jessica tried the apple banana strawberry juice.

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Juice in hand, we walked through the Barri Gotic, stopping to peer into art galleries and take samples at an artisanal wine and cheese fair. Once we had sufficiently circled the whole area, we headed back to L’Eixample for dinner, selecting one of the many tapas bars with outdoor seating.

We had a spinach salad with goat cheese and chickpeas (so good that we ordered a second one for dessert), a chicken brochette, grilled vegetables, a shrimp and mushroom brochette and cod baked with white beans.

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Another great — and delicious — day.

Bon dia, Barcelona

Written by Emmy on 19 October 2011

Landing in Barcelona makes for a picturesque descent. Because of the city’s delicate location between the mountains and the Mediterranean, planes circle the city before touching down right next to the water. After our marathon flight to Asia, no plane ride will ever feel long to me again, but as I watched the Barcelona skyline fill my little window early Monday morning, I could not wait to be on the ground.

Once I made it downtown, it was time to get down to business. No Spaniard’s day begins without coffee, a philosophy I subscribe to wholeheartedly. I headed to a bar that serves coffee and breakfast by day and tapas by night and sat down among the regulars, enjoying their espresso and newspapers. Typical Spanish breakfast includes a flauta, a tiny sandwich made of bread rubbed with tomato and the filling of your choice. I ordered a flauta de queso and a cortado. Ordering simply cafe yields a shot of espresso, which is a little intense for my tastes, but a cafe con leche is too milky. A cortado is the perfect solution. Translated to mean “cut,” the espresso is cut by a little bit of warm milk. I thoroughly enjoyed my flauta and cortado, and because I believe in fighting jet lag with caffeine, I had a second cortado for good measure.

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Feeling rejuvenated, I set off to meet my sister Jessica, who flew in with friends from Rome the day before, so we could begin our exploration of Barcelona’s old city center. Built nearly 2,000 years ago, historic Barcelona is shaped a little bit like an egg standing upright on the shores of the Mediterranean. The district is characterized by intertwined streets and gothic architecture, giving it the name Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter. The neighborhood is bisected by one major thoroughfare, Las Ramblas. An iconic symbol of Barcelona, Las Ramblas is actually comprised of several different streets, beginning at Plaça Catalunya — Barcelona’s version of Times Square — and ending at the water.

Las Ramblas has a large pedestrian path down its middle, which is often filled to the brim with tourists. Mimes dress in elaborate costumes and pose for tips, calling out to passers-by. Frequent stalls sell typical souvenir goods and are punctuated by many booths vending flowers and, oddly, birds.

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About halfway down Las Ramblas, a quick turn to the right leads into one of the city’s great gems: La Boqueria. Barcelona is filled with fresh food markets, of which the Boqueria is king. The market is pure insanity, a place where meats, fishes, vegetables, tapas and brightly colored candies are vended under one roof. Stall owners call out to shoppers, hawking their products, while the aisles are packed full of people. I rarely did my grocery shopping at the Boqueria while I was in Barcelona — it was too far and too crazy — but it was always one of my favorite places to visit.

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Common knowledge is that prices are best at the center of the market, so we headed to the middle. Juice is a very popular product at the Boqueria, made from every fruit imaginable. I’ve never been a juice person, but when other people start making pineapple raspberry, I may convert. We also bought a paper cone of manchego cheese to nibble on while we walked.

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From the Boqueria, we continued into the heart of the Gothic Quarter, veering off of Las Ramblas and onto quieter side streets. Continuing on our preliminary culinary tour, we made another pit stop. When I was 15, Jessica and I came to Spain with our parents and she hated the food. But I was convinced that if we made different choices this time around, she too would see the wonders of a Spanish diet.

For example, many Spaniards take a mid-morning snack of hot chocolate. But Spanish hot chocolate is not watered down like the drink we know. Here it is pure dark chocolate, melted and warm, but so thick it can barely be stirred. It is typically served with churros, sticks of fried dough dotted with sugar and cinnamon, for dipping, but Jessica just took hers straight up. After a few sips she had to add a little milk, though; it was too much for even the most intense chocolate lover.

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Following family tradition, our next stop was to the old Jewish ghetto. Spain has always had a bit of a tenuous relationship with the Jews, who inhabited Barcelona from its earliest days. They lived primarily within the confines of a small neighborhood, known as El Call, where they built a small synagogue. For centuries, the community was left largely to itself. But discontent began to grow in the 1300s, and then the Bubonic Plague struck. Barcelona was hit hard as the disease came in through the port and killed the population in droves. Because of religious rituals, Jews wash their hands daily, and the hygienic practice spared most Jewish families their lives. However, it cost them their citizenship. Blamed for the epidemic, the Jews were expelled from the city, given a choice of conversion or exile. (The rest of Spain followed suit during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s.)

Two brothers stayed, converted to Catholicism and bought the old synagogue for their textile dyeing business. They installed dye vats in the front room, but prayer secretly continued in the back. The synagogue fell in and out of use over the subsequent centuries. It was nearly forgotten because of how small and tucked away it was, but historians were able to trace it and about a decade ago, it was opened as a museum. Today, the Synagogue Major is recognized as the oldest synagogue in Western Europe.

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There are currently about 1,000 Jewish families in Barcelona and four active synagogues, one of which I had the opportunity to visit while I was abroad.

Our walking tour led next to Plaça de Jaume, home to the Ajuntamento de Barcelona, city hall, and the Generalitat de Catalunya. Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. (More on this later!)

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On the outer edge of the Barri Gotic lies the city’s cathedral, Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia, or as it is more commonly known, La Seu. The cathedral is currently undergoing a renovation of sorts, which I found rather amusing. My friends and I used to joke about the ubiquitous presence of scaffoldings and cranes; Barcelona always seems to be building or rehabilitating something. Street art is also fairly ubiquitous in Barcelona and though most of it is probably painted against the city’s wishes, the square surrounding the cathedral features street art of a higher caliber: biblical images drawn by Barcelona native, Pablo Picasso.

Having done a pretty solid loop of the Barri Gotic, we were about ready for lunch. Lunch in Barcelona usually comes in one of two forms: a pris fixe menu del dia or an all-you-can-eat buffet libre. We opted for the latter and headed to a branch of the very popular Fresc Co, a salad chain found all across the city.

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After lunch we took a brief stroll through El Raval, one of the city’s more up-and-coming neighborhoods. Because most shops observe the time-honored Spanish tradition of siesta, nearly everything was closed. A bit tired and hot ourselves — normally mild Barcelona set records every day in October with temperatures well into the 90s — we decided to partake in our own siesta.

A bit later, we were feeling refreshed and took in the views and slight breeze from the rooftop terrace of our hotel. We were staying in L’Eixample, which I once thought was pronounced “le example,” but is in fact said “le-shamp-ull” and translates to mean “the expansion.” In the mid-1800s, Barcelona had begun to expand beyond the walled barriers of the Gothic Quarter. The city held a competition to decide how to build outward. The winning design came from Ildefons Cerda, who proposed a grid-like structure that would surround the egg shape of the Barri Gotic. The avenues would be wide and filled with trees, and the corners would be rounded to allow traffic to easily pass through. The grid would be bisected by several diagonal avenues, cutting across the entire city.

Cerda’s design still functions beautifully today, although the rounded corners can make crossing the street a bit of a pain.

IMG_6435Painted onto many of the city’s busy intersections, the text translates to read, “In Barcelona, 1 in 3 traffic deaths is a pedestrian. Attention! We are all responsible.”

L’Eixample is home to one of my favorite restaurants, Cerveceria Catalana. A widely popular and very authentic tapas bar, it always has a long wait and is always well worth it. When I first came to Barcelona, one of my teachers told us that if we wanted to eat real tapas like the people of Barcelona, this was where we should come.

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Jessica’s friend Anthony joined us for dinner, which meant we could up our tapas count. The general rule is two-per-person and so we were able order a parade: pan con tomate, bread literally rubbed with tomato; manchego cheese; pimientos de padron, green peppers (though they look it, they’re not spicy) blistered in oil and salt; escalivada, a tower of grilled eggplant, peppers and onions topped with cheese; pimiento de bacalao, a roasted red pepper stuffed with cod; and sauteed mushrooms.

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Normally I advocate filling up on tapas and skipping dessert, but not at Cerveceria Catalana. I had been thinking about the torta Santiago for quite some time. Almond cake doesn’t sound like much and I too was skeptical at first, but this innocent looking slice is powerfully flavorful. The cake is served with a shot glass of port and my friends and I could never figure out whether we were supposed to drink it or douse the cake with it. I prefer to go for a combo.

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Full and happy, we headed to bed after dinner. It felt good to be back.

Such a beautiful horizon

Written by Emmy on 9 October 2011

Two years ago, I spent the semester in Barcelona. Ever since, I have been desperate to go back.

Chaz had his homecoming to Stockholm earlier in the summer, and now it’s my turn. In the final checkpoint adventure before adulthood sets in, I’m returning to beautiful Barcelona. My sister Jessica is studying abroad in Italy this semester and we are meeting in Spain for her fall break. We’ll start in Barcelona and visit my old haunts and old friends before turning south to Valencia, the coast’s other large city. I leave tonight and my departure could not come any sooner.

Barcelona is a city full of life, art and music. When the city hosted the Olympics in 1992, Freddie Mercury, Queen’s leadman, wrote a song in its honor, which subsequently became a sort of anthem for Barcelona. While I was abroad, I took to listening to the song as I came back from weekend travels. Something about Mercury’s “Barcelona” reminded me just how much I loved the city every time I returned. So you can bet I will have this song on infinite repeat as my plane circles the city and touches down right next to the Mediterranean.