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An introduction to Peru

Written by Emmy on 6 January 2013

On a Saturday afternoon in December, just as snow was finally making its way toward New York City, my family convened at JFK to fly to summer. With my office closed for nearly two weeks and my sisters off from school for the eternity that is college winter break, we boarded a plane and headed due south. And though the time zone never changed, the scenery looked radically different when we deplaned in Lima, Peru eight hours later.

My family got onto a bit of a South American kick a few years ago with a trip to Argentina, followed by a voyage to Chile last winter. I knew Peru would be very different (particularly from Argentina, which feels more European than anything else), but I was shocked at how stark the differences between the neighboring countries turned out to be. We landed in Lima’s sparkly clean and new-looking international airport, but walked outside and found no highways, streets with limited signage and ramshackle houses underneath the airport billboards. And in lieu of a taxi line, tuk tuks! (But truly. They go by the same name in Peruvian Spanish as they did in Thailand, which I found perplexing and amazing.)

We thankfully got into a vehicle enclosed on all sides and made our way through the city sprawl. Home to nine million, Lima has very few high rises, so the formal boundaries of the city extend far beyond what one can see. We drove about 20 km from the airport to an area known as San Yisidro, primarily home to hotels, embassies and office buildings. We got into bed almost immediately upon arrival to prepare for the adventure of the days to come.

We began Sunday with an interesting breakfast and eye-opener into the country we were about to begin exploring. Over local fruits and very strong coffee, we met with two women from the local UNICEF office, who talked about the wildly fragmented country and the challenges in bridging divides, lingual and cultural, and helping to spur forward movement. The majority of Peruvians do not speak Spanish, but one of a large number of dialects, keeping primarily to their own communities. In one country, there are growing cosmopolitan centers (Lima), ancient tribal communities (throughout the nation), inaccessible jungles (the Amazon, in the east), mountaintop people (high in the Andes, north of 13,000 feet up), along riverbeds and nestled in valleys filled with Incan ruins. In the days ahead, we planned to visit many of these different environments in an attempt to begin to understand the country. Hearing about how dispersed the people and cultures are, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how the whole country can be governed and provided for in a seamless fashion.

With a bit more perspective in hand, we set out to explore the nation’s capital. Despite its political centrality, Lima is regarded by many tourists as a must-miss; most visit by virtue of logistics as it houses the country’s only real international airport. Rather than treat it as a fly-over destination, we spent a day trying to see what there was to see, reputation aside.

IMG_2185Yellow is considered an important color in Peru. I also consider yellow to be an important color

Exploring the historic downtown center of Lima, it was evident in every building that this had once been a shining gem of the Spanish empire. Conquered by the explorers in the 1500s, Peru had made peace with its conquistadors. When the South and Central American colonies began liberating themselves in the mid-1800s, Peru had resisted, hanging onto its connection to the crown longer than its neighbors. But ultimately, the nation was swept up in Simon Bolivar’s continent-wide quest, setting off a century and a half of questionable governance. IMG_2193

But much of the colonial downtown is a shell of its former self. Beautiful mansions in downtown Lima are all behind fairly aggressive fences and walls, leftover from the fear inspired by the terrorism-filled 1980s. Many of the elegant old Spanish buildings, previously home to theaters and banks, are now rented out by foreign companies. Peruvian Spanish is known to be clear and unaccented and so Lima has become a call center haven, a place where Chilean and Argentinian companies can pay lower wages by hiring locals. Many elegant old financial buildings are now filled with cubicles and hard-lined phones. But a few old gems, including the country’s congress building, remain true to form, and other businesses are starting to return to the district, bringing back some of its old vibrancy.

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Venturing into one of the city’s oldest churches, we went down into the catacombs where human skulls were lined up along the walls and bones were sorted into buckets by type. And just as we were starting to get hungry for lunch… On our way out of the cathedral we walked past street vendors cooking up local dishes, and while I’m usually one to partake, we had to resist due to concerns over water (tap water in Peru is not potable; locals boil it and foreigners avoid it) and questionable refrigeration. But we made our way to a restaurant filled with local specialities to have our first real exposure to the local culture.

I sampled the aji de gallina, a local specialty. Aji is a pepper typical to the nation; it comes in a vibrant yellow color, which it maintains when turned into a sauce, but it’s oddly not spicy. Instead, it’s almost more of a nutty flavor. Served over chicken, potatoes and a few vegetables, it’s always plated alongside rice. (Note: Nearly all Peruvian dishes manage to include both rice and potatoes.)

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Other members of the family tried spiced chicken brochettes, served with potatoes, enormous kernels of Peruvian corn and multiple salsas, and lomo saltado, a dish of stir-fried beef and vegetables found in literally every restaurant in Peru.

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After lunch, we met up with Penelope, a local chef, for our afternoon adventure. Penelope is a native limeño, so her culinary palette is all local, but by hilarious coincidence, she also went to college in Providence. She’s spent time living in the U.S., but has returned to her native city to help spread the traditional recipes.

We started our afternoon at her local market, where every stall owner was a good friend of Penelope’s. We stopped to meet them all, wish them a happy holiday and check out the wares of the day. At the fishmonger’s, we took a look at the insides of each potential purchase before settling upon our final choices.

IMG_2271IMG_2273The enormous gills of a fish nearly as tall as me, and the dark side of a multi-colored easily camouflaged creature

We learned about herbs that could cure everything from cramps to cancer, and pawed through shelves of fruits and vegetables totally foreign to our eyes. Some were closer to items I had seen in Thailand than to things I’ve ever seen in my Manhattan supermarket. Something about that subtropical climate… Penelope pulled out her sons’ favorite fruit for us to try, the granadilla. On the outside, it looked like an orange. But inside, it looked kind of creepy.

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Willing to at least give it a try, we slurped up the seeds from the granadilla halves. Despite the odd appearance and consistency, the fruit tastes like the child of a pineapple and an orange with the consistency of pomegranate seeds. It was actually quite good.

We saw more potatoes than one could have ever imagined. Some 400 odd varieties grow across Peru, making it the country’s greatest asset. Despite common misconception, the potato comes from Peru; the Spanish brought it back to Europe as a prize, and it was widely adopted on the old continent. We also saw deep black corn, which is used to make children’s drinks and the native version of beer.

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And of course, we had an introduction to the local peppers. While some crazy hot peppers do grow in Peru, one of the most popular is the bright yellow one that had flavored my lunchtime chicken. We bought several of the yellow aji peppers for use in the cooking exercise ahead.

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Since it was a bit too early to begin our cooking exercise immediately upon leaving the market, Penelope took us around her neighborhood. Called Barranco, it’s considered the Brooklyn of Lima. The neighborhood backs right into the Pacific and is filled with tall apartment buildings sitting atop the oceanfront cliffs. Its town center is filled with adorable galleries and artisan shops. We took a quick cruise through the streets, but many things were closed since it was Sunday afternoon. We had a quick coffee at a local shop (the neighborhood’s first Starbucks had opened not far from it, much to the chagrin of the residents) and stopped down by the water as the sun was beginning to dip lower in the sky.

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Back at Penelope’s apartment, it was time to start cooking. We donned aprons, washed our hands and were joined by her eight-year-old son Alonso, who volunteered to help with the cooking (so long as there could be intermittent eating). Penelope made us each a pisco sour, arguing that the drink had actually been born in Peru, not Chile as we had previously been told. And so with drinks in hand, we buckled down to start cooking.

First, we took raw scallops on the shell and turned them into an artistic masterpiece.

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IMG_2336The dish, known as conchitas a la parmesana, is a Peruvian favorite and a headlining item in Penelope’s home. You start with raw scallops, which here in Peru are sold on the shell with their bright red roe. (Penelope noted that during her time in the U.S., she could rarely, if ever, find them that way.)

We started by dapping each scallop with crushed garlic, followed by a healthy swab of paste made from the aji, a swig of pisco (used in cooking here like we use wine in our cooking), salt, pepper and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. I found this peculiar during my time in Chile as well, but I’ve always been taught that seafood and cheese are not meant to be cooked together. However, I am definitely not complaining.

The whole tray of scallops went into the broiler for no more than two minutes. The scallops came out browned from the cheese, but pretty soft and squishy underneath it. (The more squeamish of the group had their scallops returned to the broiler for a bit more fire.) Using a spoon, we peeled the scallops out of their shells and popped them in our mouths in one quick bite. Delicious.

 

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Next we constructed a version of ceviche, essentially the national dish of Peru. While you can make ceviche fancy and dress it up in any number of ways, we stuck by the original recipe. We used trout and shrimp and cut the two into little pieces. While it’s commonly believed that lime is used in order to “cook” the raw fish, that method requires a 12-hour marination and is favored in Mexico. The Peruvians took a note out of the Japan’s book; oftentimes, menus call it sashimi-style to indicate that the fish is raw. We covered the ingredients in a ton of lime, which does change the fish’s color (and add a lot of flavor), but it had about a 15-minute marination period.

We added a ton of julienned red onion, various local peppers, huge corn kernels (because of their size they taste more starchy than sweet) and sliced sweet potato, and put the whole thing atop a few lettuce leaves. It was tangy, a teensy bit spicy and very good.

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Though we were starting to fill up, the main course was still to come. A recipe Penelope inherited from her grandmother, we partook in a fishy stew with langoustines and grouper, served with potatoes and asparagus and (of course) with a side of rice pilaf. The stew had been made with a homemade fish broth and the flavors all came through strongly.

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Over dinner, we talked with Penelope and her husband Mario about how the country was changing. Both had been educated in the U.S. because those who could leave Peru in the 1980s did. They had subsequently lived in the U.S. because of work, but had wanted to come back five or so years ago because they missed their native land and didn’t want to miss out on watching economic development spur before their eyes. The country is in the middle of an evolution; over the last few years, it has seen higher growth than many other countries in the world as the nation begins to really invest in its infrastructure and local economy.

We ended the evening on a sweet note, with a dessert made from local fruits and topped with a fresh meringue. I was almost too full to eat any of it, but of course had to try at least a spoonful.

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A marathon trip to London

Written by Chaz on 26 November 2012

In early September, my mother and I joined my aunt Jan, uncle Ash and cousin Maggie on a whirlwind trip to England for my second cousin Stuart’s wedding. Though we were only on the other side of the pond for about three days, we managed to see, do and eat quite a bit — and, of course, we attended a lovely wedding.

I arrived early Thursday morning from Boston and met my aunt, uncle and cousin for a winding trip through the English countryside on several buses and trains to the small town of Guildford, our home base for the first few days of our trip. My mother’s flight had hit some snags, putting her arrival a few hours later — hours that I put to good use catching up on sleep.

After we were all arrived, rested and cleaned up a bit, we walked down to Guildford’s high street and met Cathie, my mother’s cousin and mother of the groom, for a light lunch. We were all ravenous, not having eaten since our flights, and I enjoyed a beautiful and tasty sandwich of brie, grapes, walnuts and greens.

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We spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around the town, the highlight of which is the ruins of an old castle. On the castle grounds, we found some exciting rounds of a game called “bowls” taking place. After our exploration, we met the British wing of our family for a great dinner in Guildford and retreated to our hotel.

IMG_7188IMG_7203IMG_7210My aunt Jan, cousin Maggie and I.

Never ones to let an opportunity pass by, my mother and I rose early the next morning and boarded an early train to London to see the Queen’s jewelry, on exhibition in conjunction with her diamond jubilee. This was not the so-called crown jewels, but rather the jewelry the Queen herself actually wears for important events.

Our train into the city was full of British schoolchildren in uniforms. Basically it was the Hogwarts Express. Before long, we had arrived at Victoria Station, just a short walk from the palace.

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The state rooms and the diamond exhibition were stunning. Unfortunately, photography was prohibited, but we saw quite a few huge rocks, including the tiara and necklace the Queen wore in her diamond jubilee portrait. The tour ended with a walk through the palace grounds.

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A short train ride later, we were getting ready for the wedding, which was followed by toasts, dinner and dancing. It was a terrific night with our English family.

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On Saturday, we packed up and returned to London, where we were spending the weekend. After dropping our things at our hotel, we tubed to the Thames’ south bank, where my mother and I explored the Real Food Market at Southbank Centre. We composed our lunch out of several cuisines from the market’s many stands.

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We walked along the river to the Tate Modern, where we saw the Munch exhibit — which, strangely, was almost entirely on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo, which I had seen three years prior, to the point where I wondered if the museum in Oslo could even still be open. Returning to our hotel, we got in a short rest before leaving London again to join our family for a relaxed dinner in Teddington, home of the newlyweds.

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We rose early again on Sunday to meet my second cousin Elise and her husband Nadson to see the Paralympics marathon. Though the London Olympics had ended before our visit began, the Paralympics were still going on, so we were able to get a taste of the event that had captured the world’s attention a few weeks earlier. The route went right by our hotel in front of Buckingham Palace.

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As we walked back to our hotel across Green Park, we caught the wheelchair heat of the race. The whole event was very inspiring and captured the best of the Olympic spirit.

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Bidding farewell to Elise and Nadson, we picked up our things from our hotel and met Ash, Jan and Maggie at upscale department store Fortnum & Mason‘s Fountain Restaurant for brunch. I enjoyed a delicious pea soup while my mother opted for eggs benedict.

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After brunch, we took a cab to the train and were shortly on the train speeding toward Heathrow. It was a terrific short trip to England, and it was especially wonderful to be able to see our British relatives again — not to mention the sights we fit in between the festivities!

The nature of the north

Written by Chaz on 21 October 2012

Fueled by our fond memories of the road trip we took last summer, Emmy and I wanted to relive our glory days on the western highways with a miniature road trip at the end of our time in Maine. I devised a plan that would take us deep into the Canadian province of New Brunswick first, to visit Fundy National Park, then back into Maine for a stop at Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, a not-quite-state-park just shy of the Canadian border in a section of the state known as the Bold Coast. In both parks we planned to backpack into the woods and spend the night, reminiscent of our canyon days.

And so it was that we rose around 3:30 on Saturday morning, made coffee, said goodbye to my mother, threw our things into the car, pointed it east and were on our way to Canada by 3:45. As we drove along the so-called “airline route” to Calais, Maine’s easternmost moderately-sized town, we had a good two hours before the sun finally began creeping over the horizon. Unsurprisingly, we did not see many fellow travelers.

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Before long, we were in range of the end of the United States, and after a quick stop for a much-needed coffee refill and one last refuel on American soil, we hopped over the St. Croix River, stopped for a brief passport check and found ourselves in beautiful New Brunswick — or, if you prefer, Nouveau Brunswick. New Brunswick is Canada’s only constitutionally bilingual province, and nearly a third of the population speaks French, though very few of those don’t speak English. (Quebec’s language status isn’t mentioned in the Canadian constitution, and French is the only official language of that province. The federal government of Canada is also constitutionally bilingual.)

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The highway from the Canadian border was a model of infrastructure investment, and before long, the city of Saint John — population 70,000 — was beckoning to us.

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We pulled off the highway, got a bit lost and eventually found our way to the Saint John City Market, Canada’s oldest farmer’s market, which our usual sources had recommended as one of the city’s few sights and perhaps the best place to find breakfast at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Sure enough, it was an adorable market, and the various stalls were all setting up for the day’s business. We were beckoned into a small restaurant, Slocum & Ferris, by none other than the proprietor, with whom we dined and discussed our voyage north.

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We did only the tiniest bit of exploring in the small city, including a short walk through King’s Square and a quick look at the Loyalist Burial Ground, before hopping back in the car and getting back on the very impressive yet equally rural highway along the southern coast of the province.

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We pulled off the expressway onto the two-lane highway that leads to Fundy, and after a bit more driving on one of the more abandoned roads we have ever traversed, we entered the national park. We were almost immediately met with stunning views across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia. A nice French-speaking family took our picture.

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We continued down the highway to the visitor center, where we picked up our backcountry permit from a park ranger who was not as excited about our visit as we were. Adjacent to the visitor center lay Alma Beach, where we were told we could see the legendary tides of the Bay of Fundy, which are some of the largest in the world. Of course, it’s hard to see tides in one instant, but we took another look across the bay to Nova Scotia.

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Our first hike of the day was the Dickson Falls trail, a very short jaunt through lush woods. The best view of the hike may have been from its trailhead.

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Our next hike was to Matthew’s Head, a beautiful forest trail to a rock outcropping where we enjoyed a picnic lunch — sandwiches of turkey, muenster, horseradish and cranberry — surrounded by excellent views and few other travelers.

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We made a quick stop after our second hike at the Point Wolfe covered bridge. For some reason, Fundy is known for its several covered bridges.

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As we drove to our third hike, though it was only about 1:00, we were realizing that we were incredibly tired. I guess getting up at 3:30 will do that to you. So we pulled into the parking lot for the Laverty Falls trail, which was unpleasantly full, and promptly fell asleep for about 30 minutes. We were barely able to pull it back together and hit the trail. Though it was beautiful, it was unfortunately much more crowded that we were hoping for. The trail took us through forest to a trio of waterfalls, then along the stream back to the trailhead.

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From Laverty Falls, we drove to Bennett Falls, where we parked the car and prepared for our short hike to Tracey Lake, where our campsite for the night was. As we have done on several previous journeys, we had already begun to develop a new nonsensical way of referring to our belongings. We had two backpacks for the trip: one brand-new overnight pack that I had purchased at L.L.Bean on the way up, and one day pack that had previously been converted to a overnight pack for our somewhat improvised Grand Canyon backpacking trip. This day-night dichotomy led us back to yet another television show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the two bags became “day man” and “night man.”

The acquisition of a true overnight pack meant that our packs were much easier to carry than on our last backpacking adventure, but that still didn’t allow a less humiliating place for my Crocs than simply tied on for all the world to see.

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After about an hour of hiking, we arrived at our personal slice of paradise. There was no one else in sight as we set up our tent and made ourselves at home. I even took a quick swim on our private beach.

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Obviously our remote location did not lead us to compromise on cuisine, and we began with cocktail hour: red pepper dip, carrots, celery, cheddar bunnies, and a shared gin & tonic that was a bit more like warm lime water — and about as refreshing as that sounds.

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Emmy broke in our new lightweight camp stove with our shrimp fettucini dinner, mostly prepared in advance.

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After dinner, as the sun began to fall behind the trees, we realized we had to do something with our food in case of bears. Though the ranger at the visitor center had told us they had never had any problems, we still didn’t want the food in the tent with us. So I slung day-man, full of every food product we had, up into a tree a couple hundred feet from our tent. Was it the safest way? No, but it made us feel better.

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We turned in early, exhausted from our long day and truly one with nature.

From sunrise to sunset

Written by Emmy on 4 October 2012

On Thursday morning, we rose bright (well, not even bright yet) and early to see the sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain again. The weather forecast was a bit more cloudy, but since there was no rain, we made our way to the top again to see the clouds lit against the horizon line. It was a bit chillier, but still beautiful.

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Chaz, Liz and I made our way back down the mountain — Chaz on bike, Liz and I in the car. We parked along the beginning of the one-way loop road that runs through the park and each mounted our own bike, this time with me on one that actually fit, and began along the beautiful route, which winds along the park’s most scenic water and mountain views, and is made all the more conducive to biking by the relative lack of traffic.

IMG_0895Chaz, perched high above the loop road, while waiting for the slower bikers

IMG_0906Following our bike ride, we made a pit stop at Beech Hill Farm, a local farmer’s market we had been trying to visit all week to no avail. Call it flexible summer hours. But Thursday was a good day for the farm and we were able to spend some time in its small store.

Chaz made a new friend, who was highly entertained by chasing a small piece of basil. Meanwhile, we inspected the fresh produce and selected a few goodies to bring home for brunch. (Waking up for the sunrise and biking for nearly two hours left us hungry and ready for our second meal at about 9:30 a.m.)

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With the summer squash and fresh yellow onions, we whipped up a vegetable, basil and goat cheese frittata, accompanied by fresh berries.

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We ate our brunch on the patio of the house while overlooking the water, a remarkably calm and beautiful surrounding. But no rest for the weary. Once we had gotten our fill and regained our energy, Chaz and I refilled the backpacks and headed back out onto the open road. We bagged another peak; this one was Dorr Mountain, the initial ascent of which we did along the Ladder Trail, yet another aptly named vertical climb.

But a vertical climb always makes for a beautiful view, and we received one standing atop the summit.

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We found company in a number of tourists atop the mountain, and so after asking them to take our picture, quickly fled the scene.

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We sought refuge along a stream running by the return trail and pulled out our picnic basket containing sandwiches with homemade spicy chicken salad. (I had needed an activity while the frittata was cooking, and we also had begun to realize that the kitchen was full of ingredients we should probably think about using up.) Full from lunch part two, we basked in the sunlight briefly, but then packed it all back in and moved along in an effort to stay on a relatively tight schedule.

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We ran a few quick errands, took the fastest showers imaginable, and hopped back in the car to make a beeline for Seal Harbor. Charlie and Rosemary had graciously invited us to join them for a dinner picnic on board their boat, and so we loaded tote bags and coolers onto the boat and pushed off into the open seas. Liz had prepared a large helping of homemade guacamole for the voyage; we enjoyed cocktail hour in the middle of the ocean for a change of pace from our usual ocean view from the patio.

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Rosemary had prepared a lovely picnic dinner, which we spread out across the front of the boat: a selection of cocktail hour goodies, including cheese spread and vegetables; corn salad; cole slaw; and homemade chicken salad in wraps. (Let’s just call chicken salad the theme of the day.) We enjoyed our dinner with local brews while idling in Otter Cove.

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IMG_1177The water became increasingly choppy, so once we had all finished eating (and of course, taking photos of all the eating), we packed the picnic back in and headed toward shore. We had one minor mishap when a lobster trap got stuck in the boat’s motor, but thankfully were able to get it out before too much damage was done (to us or to the trap).

We anchored back in Seal Harbor, waved goodbye to our hosts and headed home to the other side of the island, just in time to catch the sunset over our own personal harbor.

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The next morning we uncharacteristically overslept, missing our scheduled 6 a.m. departure by a few hours. We had a very full morning planned, but rather than compromise on activity, found a way to compress a very packed schedule into a shortened time frame.

We loaded the bikes back onto the car and within moments, were racing toward the start of the carriage roads. The carriage roads are one of the features Acadia is most famous for; a network of gravelly paths, they were once used by the Rockefellers and their carriages for scenic rides throughout the island. Now mostly subsumed by the park, the carriage roads are used by runners and bikers, making for a beautiful and completely car-free riding experience (even if uphill gravel is a bit tough on the tires). We each completed a solo ride, able to select the length that worked best for our personal pace thanks to the multiple options provided by the vast circuit.

90 minutes and 12 miles (or 17, depending who you are) later, we met back at the car, loaded the bikes on and hopped in. We drove to the Beehive, one of the park’s most popular hikes, named for its beehive-like shape. We quickly scrambled up and took in yet another panoramic vista of the park’s surroundings.

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We hiked back down and found ourselves at the car basically on schedule, despite the late start. Taking a break from physical activity, we went into real estate mode, poking around at a few For Sale properties along the park’s boundaries. After letting ourselves into a more or less deserted house and taking a few pictures, we abandoned mission in favor of some lunch.

We returned to the Docksider, where Liz and I each had a crab salad and Chaz tucked into a fried clam roll. I had essentially made it my mission to eat only seafood while in Maine and was more or less succeeding.

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IMG_1236Despite having just finished lunch, we came home to begin work on a large scale cooking project. Chaz and I had plans to pack up the car and hit the open road very early the next morning, waving goodbye to Acadia and making our way north for a weekend road trip through New Brunswick and more remote coastal Maine. The accommodations would be less plush than our gorgeous house on MDI (read: tent), but while the checkpoint may compromise on places to sleep, never on things to eat. In order to make the cooking-while-camping experience a bit simpler, I had planned to precook several items in our very well-stocked kitchen, including pasta with fresh shrimp and tomatoes.

There was a brief moment of panic when I poured the pasta out of the box and noticed things moving at the bottom of the box. The only natural reaction was to shriek and thrust the box at Chaz. After we determined that, in fact, someone else had gotten to our pasta before we had, we handled the situation, recovered our emotions and resolved to seek out a new base for our now steaming shrimp.

IMG_1256With our various dishes cooling, we cleaned ourselves up and headed over to the Claremont, one of the island’s more historic locations and one of the venues the Obamas visited on their own trip to the island. The old hotel is in the town of Southwest Harbor with, of course, stunning water views. We took ourselves on a self-guided tour of the grounds and the dock.

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And because a view like that just begs for a scenic cocktail, we obliged.

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Following Chaz’s boring gin and tonic and my more exotic blueberry mint mojito (local flavors! come on!), we drove slightly inland to meet Liz for dinner at a Southwest Harbor favorite, Red Sky. The cozy local restaurant was filled and the owners wandered around checking on all the diners, making for a friendly, intimate experience.

We continued the strategy from earlier that week, ordering a selection of starters to share before committing to our own entrees. Up front, we sampled crispy polenta with fresh greens, a lobster-filled puff pastry and pate, served with a cranberry relish. All were as beautiful as they were delicious (even if the mood lighting of the restaurant didn’t aid my photographic efforts).

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For my main course, I decided I needed to have one last lobster before departing the island. Red Sky made it easy – no cracking or shelling required – by serving the beast of the sea over a mushroom risotto and grilled asparagus.

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Chaz looked at the menu for a whole 30 seconds before announcing he would be having the ribs, having had and thoroughly enjoyed them at this venue before. Between his bones and my decorative lobster tail shell, we had quite the discard pile building on a bread plate.

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IMG_1377Liz had the special, a steak with caramelized onions and blue cheese, served alongside the same fresh string beans and scalloped potatoes as Chaz’s entree.

Everyone was pleased with their ordering choices and though we could have left without dessert, we rationalized that we had biked around one mountain and climbed another that morning. So we ordered the lemon blueberry cake (deemed to have a better lemon-to-blueberry ratio than a similar item from a previous day) and a slice of gingerbread cake with homemade caramel sauce.

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After dinner, we drove down to the water to look up at the stars and listen to the ocean splash against the shore, taking one last look at the island before heading back to get in bed. We caught a spontaneous fireworks show, a coincidental celebration of the end of a wonderful week on MDI.

A truly South American city

Written by Emmy on 29 February 2012

After our time in the countryside, we flew north to the bustling capital metropolis of Santiago.

First order of business was — not shockingly — lunchtime. As previously mentioned, sandwiches are like a religious item in Chile. And so we headed to one of their sanctuaries, Ciudad Vieja, a tiny sidewalk cafe in the artsy part of the city well-renowned for what its able to put between two pieces of bread. The menu was widely varied and we took advantage of its many options.

Chilean Spanish has many vocabulary differences from the Spanish I know, and a large number of those differences can be found on menus. So I ordered a sandwich whose ingredients I could not quite identify, other than chicken and bread. What I got was a spicy Chilean rendition on a chicken salad sandwich filled with onions, peppers, avocado and several other veggies. It tasted a lot better than the pictures would lead one to believe.

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The dishes ordered around the table incorporated a bevy of different tastes. Alix had the carnitas, seasoned beef served with corn and guacamole, and my mom had a quinoa burger. Quinoa may be the trendy food du jour in fancy New York restaurants now, but its place of origin is more or less exactly where we were sitting.

The sandwich portions, like every other dish experienced thus far in Chile, were positively enormous.

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We spent the rest of our first day exploring the city and getting our bearings. Santiago is not really a museum city and is one better explored by walking. The balmy summer weather didn’t hurt the efforts.

We were staying slightly up the hills in one of the artsier neighborhoods and so we trekked down toward the more thumping city center. The neighborhoods are divided by a flowing river, which looked to contain more mud than water…

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IMG_7975Downtown Santiago was filled with an entrancing mix of old colonial buildings, new construction and artistic rebellion. I’ve been to Buenos Aires before and was shocked by how European it felt. I’d conjured up an image of South America but felt like I was in France or Italy. Santiago, on the other hand, matched that once-conjured image. It’s quirky and artsy, with pockets of high-rise development and neighborhoods that look like they haven’t changed in centuries.

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We spent the whole afternoon exploring the city’s sights and walking to rebuild an appetite. We had planned to investigate another Chilean epicurean standard for dinnertime: seafood. But what’s somewhat odd about seafood in Chile is that it breaks a cardinal rule I’ve always been taught to observe: seafood and cheese do not go together. But in Chile, it appears they do.

We tried two noted specialties at dinner: clams baked with parmesan cheese (manchas a la parmesana) and a crab cake (pastel de jeriba). Now, a crab cake is a known entity to me. And that’s what the Spanish on the menu directly translated to. But this was not a baked cake; this was a cheesy, gooey casserole — closer to the crab dip that aunt makes in the Chesapeake than to crab cakes in the way we think about them normally. Mmmmm delicious.

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The next morning we went on one of my most favorite kinds of adventures: a trip to the local market. This particular one — la Vega Central — is home to all the fruit in the city and there is just so much of it. Avocados and cherries are two of my favorite things, but in the winter are so expensive. The reason why? They’re imported from Chile — where they are literally sold by the wheelbarrow (and for mere pennies).

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Not too far from the fragrant fruit, it starts to smell like ocean. Not because you’re near the sea per se, but because the fish market is mere blocks away and is heaping with squirmy little guys.

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We also visited a flower market, but flowers are far less intriguing than a pile of octopi.

IMG_8053We left the markets and headed to one of the less central neighborhoods of the city. A 15-minute cab ride made a world of difference in our surroundings. Bustling graffiti-filled streets gave way to wide avenues, fancy cars and extensive greenery.

Though Santiago is not, as-previously mentioned, a museum city, one of the newer and more noteworthy landmarks is the Museo de la Moda. At first, we were all sort of suspect of a museum dedicated to fashion. But it turned out to be far more interesting than that.

Chile does not exactly have the most sunny history. It was as recent as 30 years ago that the country lived under tight political control with few personal liberties afforded to the general population. When Pinochet was overthrown in the 1980s, the entire country changed — just as the music, fashion and culture of the world was changing.

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The museum was fun and lively — when’s the last time you listened to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” while browsing an historical exhibit? The exhibits gave us a real sense of the oppression of the 1970s and the youthful liberation that followed in the 1980s. There was far more to it than a place called “Museum of Fashion” would have led you to believe.

Later that day we sat down to some more Chilean cuisine. The predominant items in all restaurants we visited were fish and wine. And so we continued to partake. We visited a restaurant called Como Agua Para Chocolate, like the book and movie (which I was exposed to in high school Spanish class).

We sampled a few different fish items (plus one meat one). My seared tuna (bottom right) was served alongside a corn-basil gratin, which was unbelievable.

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Part of what was so nice about our trip to Chile — in addition to all of the delicious food – was how much time I got to spend with my family.

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The next morning — our last day in Santiago — we decided to explore some of the city’s higher points. The city is dotted with hills, the highest of which are best reached by funiculars. The Chilean funicular is a little more open air than others I’ve ridden before, making both the ride and the destination filled with a beautiful view.

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We walked around the Santa Lucia hilltop before seeking shade below. Coming from mid-winter New York weather, it was still hard to adjust to the balmy 90-degree days in Santiago.

Before long, it was lunchtime. We decided to take a break from our sandwiches and go for another set of traditional Chilean dishes. And in line with all the prior lunches we’d had, there was definitely a go-big-or-go-home mentality to the dishes being served.

We sampled a few lunchtime stews traditional to the region. My stew (on the left) contained chickpeas, cinnamon, onion, tomato, coriander and turkey. It was amazing and flavorful. The other stew sampled at the table contained chickpeas, white beans, corn and a series of other spices. The two dishes were incredibly different, despite their similar appearances and ingredients. Both were delicious and extremely filling, but felt a bit more healthy than the colossal sandwiches of the days prior.

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The city of Santiago is unbelievably colorful, painted from top to bottom with graffiti. Some of the graffiti is overtly political in nature; others are more benign. One street has houses painted entirely in solid bright colors, each a different shade than the next. We walked the streets and played in the colorful playgrounds.

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After carousing around the city for the afternoon and basking in the summer sunlight — we enjoyed a bit of pool time each afternoon — we took an evening stroll on our way to dinner. Two parallel streets near our hotel seemed to be lined each night with table after table of people out drinking. What was amusing was that the first street was filled entirely with underage drinkers out with their friends, while the second was packed with adults out with friends. It seemed that the locals just graduate from one street to the next.

We chose a dinner spot on the adult street. We started with shrimp empanadas (again, breaking the seafood-cheese “rule”).

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The house special of the restaurant we chose was fish “a la lata” — fish grilled under a brick with tomato, onions and zucchini. I had pictured almost a sauce made of the vegetables (sauces are very big in Chile), but instead it was fish grilled with the actual vegetables themselves.

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Our three days in Santiago were delicious, colorful and cultural. A visit well spent.

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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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.

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.