Architecture

...now browsing by tag

 
 

No menus: A spontaneous weekend in Milan

Written by Emmy on 25 March 2014

Originally written in February 2013.

Spending the early part of 2013 in Switzerland had its ups and downs. The frequent flights were long and tiring, and being so far away from home had its drawbacks. But being in Europe is really nothing to complain about, and part of what makes it so wonderful is how close to the rest of Europe everything is.

So on the first weekend of February, I hopped on a train from Basel to Milan — a four-hour journey through the beautiful mountains and met my boyfriend Michael in the Northern Italian city for a quick weekend trip.

IMG_4121

Why Milan? Well for one, we could both get there. After my various traumas with flights in and around snowy Switzerland, I had a strong preference for a train destination. (And it was a good choice; it snowed in Basel that day and half the flights were grounded.) As a business metropolis, Milan also has frequent flights to and from the U.S. Milan also felt like the kind of city we would want to see in 36 hours — there would be enough to keep us occupied and interested, but not so much that we would be overwhelmed or feel like we had missed things. The allure of genuine Italian food didn’t hurt either.

Michael arrived early Friday morning, but I didn’t pull into Milano Centrale until the early evening. The train had been running with precision-like clockwork till we hit the Swiss-Italian border and then we seemed to putter around with no attention to schedule for a while, a true testament to the two nations’ stereotypes.

Determined to spend our few days as the natives would, we kicked our evening off with an apertivo. Italian bars traditionally put out a spread of appetizers, which a drink purchase entitles you to graze to your heart’s content. For many, this serves as a cheap alternative to dinner. We still fully planned to have dinner, but for experience’s sake, picked at a few different foccacias and antipasti while sipping our brightly-colored Campari cocktails.

IMG_4124

At the recommendation of an Italian friend of Michael’s, we found our way to the tiny Boccondivino for dinner. The restaurant is known for its incredibly expansive cheese selection, among other things, which was enough of an attraction for me on its own.

We arrived at the restaurant not entirely sure what to expect, were seated and immediately handed glasses of sparkling wine as a welcome gift. Our table was covered in a glass bowl filled with fresh vegetables — carrot sticks, bunches of celery, whole tomatoes. We were confused; was this decoration or consumable? We were promptly handed a small cup each, instructed to mix oil and vinegar in our cups, dip our vegetables, and repeat. (Passover-based jokes about dipping ensued.)

IMG_41258444979518_74717caf39_n

Our waiter came over to greet us and more or less informed us that we would have no say in the food to come. He asked if we wanted to choose our wine; the right answer was clearly that we would leave it in his hands. When we responded by turning over responsibility, he smiled and told us we would enjoy our evening.

First, we were served a very large plate of cured meats. They were arranged in a specific order and they were explained, but that quickly went over both of our heads. Armed with a new bottle of wine, we dug into our meats. As I was struggling to finish my plate, our waiter came over with a new platter of offerings. And just as we started to make any sort of reasonable dent in them, he brought over an impressively large cutting board with a big leg of something on it, and artfully started slicing. I didn’t even know what to do at this point, but the wine helped.

IMG_4131

We digested our meat for a little while — one lovely thing about the dinner was that no aspect of it was rushed whatsoever — and continued to wash it all down with wine. After a short rest, the waiter came back with two kinds of pasta. One, pappardelle with lamb ragu, was served directly out of a parmesan rind — an innovative serving dish if I’ve ever seen one. The other came out of a normal chafing dish — a cheesy mushroom risotto. Both were rich and delicious, and a small serving of each provided a wonderful tasting.

IMG_4138IMG_4139

At this point, we were about two hours in — and it was time for the restaurant’s claim to fame. Out rolled the cheese cart, and I got extremely excited. (Anyone who knows me would not be surprised by this.) After ooh-ing and aah-ing over the spread, we took in two courses. First, the soft cheeses: burrata, ricotta and mozzarella.

IMG_4142

We picked out our own hard cheeses, selecting a gorgonzola (the local region’s claim to fame), a pecorino (because when in Italy…) and whatever else our waiter recommended. And yes, the cheese came with a new bottle of wine.

IMG_4150IMG_4158IMG_4159IMG_4164

By the time dessert came, we were thoroughly overwhelmed. We were first each given a small bowl of sorbet — a light palette cleanser — but that wasn’t enough. We were then given a saucepan, filled to the brim with small biscotti, and goblets of sweet dessert wine. We were instructed to give our biscotti a bath before eating them, which turned into a really fun activity, but after losing a good number of mine to the bottom of my glass, it was time for us to call it quits. We had originally had ambitions of going out after dinner, but nearly four hours after we arrived, it was officially time to retire for the evening.

IMG_4161IMG_4171

Waking up was a bit of a challenge the next morning. After we were finally able to get up and put ourselves back together, we headed into the old part of the city. Historic Milan was built hundreds of years ago, with stunning Gothic and Roman architecture; the rest of the city grew out around it and today serves as the center of business and industry for Italy. Despite the city’s overall largess, it was manageable to see in such a short time because we stuck to just the center.

Navigating down thin cobblestone streets with every designer label you have ever heard of, we made our way to the center, home to the Duomo and several other historic buildings — including a majestic mall with incredible architecture. So what if it’s filled with modern clothing stores now?

IMG_4176IMG_4178

We spent the morning getting our bearings, walking through the old cobbled streets – and through beautiful food stores. When we got hungry enough for lunch, we located Paper Moon, a classic lunch spot recommended by just about everyone we asked for Milan recommendations.

I ordered linguini with clams, delightful in its simplicity. It tasted just like linguini with clams is supposed to taste. I was reprimanded for even asking if I could have some parmesan cheese (it is, after all, a taboo to add it to the dish), and I’m glad I was disallowed.

IMG_4186

IMG_4182Michael ordered the margarita pizza, which also arrived exactly as it should — simple, beautiful, and delicious. But a bit more food than we were able to consume, and so we left Paper Moon with leftover food on the table, but a recommendation we were happy to continue passing on.

We spent part of the afternoon at the Museo del Novocento — the Museum of the Twentieth-Century. My sister Jessica has discerning tastes when it comes to museums; in her review of Milan from a past visit, she said she didn’t remember one of the city’s museums, but found the Novocento “surprisingly good.” Taking that as more or less a rave review, we paid the museum a visit.

The museum was tucked into a corner of the old square. A tall and skinny structure, we made our way through six or so little floors of artwork – among them, some of the more impressive names in European 20th century art. Its height and position also gave spectacular views of the nearby Duomo, which we planned to climb the next morning.

After looking at some art, we naturally needed a snack. Living like the locals, we picked up two cups of gelato.

IMG_4190

We spent the remaining daylight hours walking the city, blurring the line between the old and the new parts. On one street, you have majestic buildings and cobblestones; walk through an alleyway and you are surrounded by every designer you have ever (and never) heard of. We walked into a few stores, said “buongiorno” and looked around, but you need to be far more serious than we to shop among the Milanos. The most interesting stop we made was not at the native jewel Prada or at the hilariously named Car Shoes, but at a store-slash-gallery-slash-cafe called 10 Corso Como, where we browsed art books, extremely bizarre photographs, and fun modern furniture.

For dinner, we followed another suggestion of Michael’s friend, since night one had been such a success. Once again, we did not order any of our own food and we had a delicious meal, but it turned out to be wildly different.

We walked into Antica Hostaria della Lanterna and were greeted by an older man, presumably the proprietor, who was more or less just hanging out. We tried to explain that we had a reservation and he pointed toward his wife — who was running from table to table as the only server in the establishment — and went back to minding his own business. Every review we read had discussed how Signora Paula commands the entire establishment, so we determined this must be she.

After several minutes of waiting, she directed us to a table and left us for a bit. When she came back, she started to us in a rapid-fire fashion. Only problem? Neither of us really speak Italian. And to further complicate, she was speaking a local dialect — making my seventh-grade Italian knowledge particularly useless. Upon realizing that we did not follow a single thing she had said, she walked over to a large table of young Italians and asked them loudly if any spoke English. She located a woman who did, and dragged her over to our table to translate. After a bit of back and forth, we learned that we were each supposed to choose a pasta to start. To be fair, we had caught the descriptions of the pasta dishes — we had just been a bit mystified about the ordering procedure.

With that taken care of, we were soon served one penne bolognese and one gnocchi in a cheese sauce, alongside a small carafe of a table wine. I felt like how I would imagine eating in your Italian grandmother’s kitchen must feel.

IMG_4193
IMG_4195IMG_4197

Both pastas were very simple — there were few frills to our dinner at all. But these were clearly Signora Paula’s home-cooked recipes. Both pastas were also very large — and yet, intended to be consumed as an appetizer. Looking around at the skinny Italians packing away their pastas and their main courses, we were amazed as we struggled to clear our plates. Still, do as the locals do. When Paula came back to clear our pasta plates, we made our best effort to communicate that we each wanted one of the main courses and that we would share. We had absolutely no idea what we had ordered, and only reasonable confidence that our order had been transmitted as intended.

And yet, after only a few more minutes, we received two heaping plates. With our translator gone, we were left to figure out what we had received. Based on my limited knowledge of the Lombardy region — the part of Italy that contains Milan — I knew we would encounter some heavier, almost Germanic food items. We deduced that what we had been served included a veal dish, sort of like a veal marsala, and some sort of meat stew, both with a side of polenta. We put them both in the center of the table and attempted to make a dent in the very large platters.

IMG_4201IMG_4205

When Paula came back to clear our plates and saw how much the two of us had been able to eat, she basically shook her head at us and nearly forbade us from ordering dessert. She conceded, but we were permitted only one item. (Truly — she had more options; she just didn’t trust we could do them justice.) She let us have a single tiramisu, which, OK, we didn’t even finish. But it was very good!

IMG_4209

Full and content, we went to bed.

We then started Sunday morning as any good Italians would: with cappuccinos and a pastry.

IMG_4212

Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day, making it perfect for climbing up the stairs of Milan’s duomo to take in a vista of the city. (I think duomo-climbing must be a required activity in any Italian city.)

On our way up, we encountered a few puzzling signs…

IMG_42178445010862_50d0737584_n

…and some beautiful architecture.

IMG_4258IMG_4221

IMG_4242The climb was not all too strenuous — but everything else about it was pretty spectacular. Milan’s cathedral is the fifth largest in the world, and the largest in Italy. All of the old city was designed around the structure — and eventually the new city that grew out from it — putting us in the exact center of everything, and high, high above it. Streets radiated out from below us in every possible direction, with various religious figures looking out toward the horizon.

Despite having taken a train through them, I had forgotten just how close to the mountains we were. With the sky such a clear blue, we had a spectacular view.

IMG_4241

The top of the duomo was awfully spacious, and so we spent a fair bit of time exploring it along with all the other tourists.

8443930813_d8c257b266_z

We eventually descended the stairs and strolled around square housing the duomo. We walked into Rinoscente, Milan’s major department store, where we zeroed in on the food floor, naturally, checking out homemade mozzarella, spectacular jarred vegetables and 100 euro bottles of water. (The bottles were covered in rhinestones, but still — we were confused.)

We waved goodbye to the duomo and Michael waved goodbye to Milan, off to the airport to make his way back to America.

IMG_4270

I had a few hours until my train back to Switzerland, so naturally, kept on eating. Given our wildly successful track record with suggestions from friends, I picked one last spot from our collective list, and one of the only open on Sundays. I navigated my way by subway to an adorable restaurant, filled with families coming from church. Not only was I the only solo diner, but I was the only person at a table smaller than six. But it still felt friendly to be among them. And to make it even better, I was once again welcome with a cup of crudite and instructions to dip.

I had been in the market for risotto — which Milan is known for more than pasta — but because it was Sunday, I was greeted with something slightly different. Risotto al salto is what you get on Sundays — it’s Saturday night’s risotto, packed into cake form, and pan fried till the edges get a little crispy. It’s a risotto latke! And mine came with sauteed mushrooms on top. It was not entirely what I was expecting when I went on a risotto hunt, but it was good all the same.

IMG_4259IMG_4265

Despite having just eaten my lunch, I was trained well. My departure was looming close and I had a four-hour train ride ahead, one that would land me in a country whose food I’m just less excited about. And so I sensibly did what my mother always taught me and got myself a packed dinner for the trip ahead. I headed back to Rinoscente and its spectacular rooftop food court, visited the Obika Mozzarella Bar, and got myself a to-go box. (One flaw: I forgot to get silverware and the train had none they would give me, save for a tiny spoon meant for stirring espresso. So I ate my cheese in very small bites.)

IMG_4289

As I sat in my train car, rolling north up through the Alps and passing spectacular landscapes before becoming blanketed in the darkness of the night, it was hard not to smile in reflection of a spontaneous, delicious and wonderful weekend.

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.

IMG_6880IMG_6882

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.

IMG_6888IMG_6886

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.

IMG_6894IMG_6891

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.

IMG_5797IMG_5817IMG_6910IMG_6920IMG_6928IMG_6940

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.

IMG_7208

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.)

IMG_7022

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.

IMG_6997

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.)

IMG_6999IMG_7004

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.

IMG_7006IMG_7008

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.

IMG_7011IMG_7013

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.

IMG_7016

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.

IMG_7408

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…

IMG_6482

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.”

IMG_6414

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.

IMG_6499IMG_6494IMG_6489IMG_6427

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.

IMG_6511IMG_6512

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.

IMG_6714

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.

IMG_6519IMG_6537IMG_5110IMG_6531

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.

IMG_6541IMG_6543IMG_6545IMG_6548IMG_6551IMG_6552

Another great — and delicious — day.