Vale. Vale, vale, vale.

ESPAÑA. May 21-28, 2011.

Ceiling detail of La Sagrada Familia
Castellano is distinctly different from the Spanish spoken in Latin America. In particular, you will almost never hear anyone say bueno. Rather, everything, everything is vale.

In 1995, I participated in an overseas exchange program to Spain. I lived with a host family not far from the center of Madrid, and they are, to this day, some of the warmest, most wonderful, generous and loving people I know. Loud, animated, expressive and full of personality, I adore them.

He dejado parte de mi corazón en España.

I returned in 1996 and again in 1998 to live with the same family, drink the same café and dance until the wee hours of sunrise, but I haven’t had the opportunity to return to Spain since. Alas, life has a way of getting in the way. So when my formidable grandmother of 81 years young called me to see if I wanted to accompany her to Spain on a week long tour, I practically fell out of my seat jumping at the chance.

My grandmother arranged the tour through Tauck, and while a scheduled/set tour was an entirely new ballgame for me (I personally prefer more independent travel), this visit to Spain was more about spending time with my grandmother than about my own personal agenda and preferences. The tour was packing a lot of ground into a single week: Barcelona, Granada, Ronda, Sevilla, Córdoba and the city of my heart, Madrid.

BARCELONA: Sat 21st – Mon 23rd

We arrived a day ahead of the tour kick off in Barcelona, changing planes in Paris and walking through three additional security checkpoints, one in which I got felt up by a French security lady.

Yippee for security.

But, in Europe, you don’t have to take off your shoes. Go figure.

The combination of a nine hour time difference from Portland and over twenty-four hours of no sleep had knocked me for a proverbial loop, so when we arrived in Barcelona I was viewing the world in a sort of surreal daze.

Grandma insisted on her American coffee

I also knew from previous experience that the Castellano accent was going to toss me on my head. And, it did. To say that it sounds different is an understatement. Not only is everything ‘vale’ but all words with z, ce and ci are pronounced with a very distinct ‘th’ sound. The world was colorful and guttural and sounded like everyone was speaking with cotton balls stuffed in their cheeks after drinking enormous amounts of alcohol.

I loved it.

After a very short nap, Grandma and I wandered the heart of Barcelona- Las Ramblas and the Barri Gòtic. Anything and everything you could possibly want can be found on Ramblas, Barcelona’s beating heart, the street that never, ever sleeps.

Escriba has the most fantastic pasteries

Winding off of Ramblas, you enter the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), Barcelona’s original central core. Dark, winding streets, a veritable maze, where one is always searching for the right street to the lead to the cathedral. Punctuating the dark, narrow walkways are small plazas full of people, terraces, cafes, palm trees and dappled sunlight. 

Barri Gòtic

Barcelona's catedral
Rosette window of Santa Maria del Pi

Santa Maria del Mar

After our impromptu walking tour, I introduced grandma to tapas.

The Spanish traditionally don’t eat until 10 pm or later. If you’re at a restaurant looking for dinner at 7:30 or even 8:30, you’re either facing a closed door or finding yourself the only patron, while the waiters gift you with sidelong, curious glances.

That said, the Spanish certainly don’t starve. In any city, from the largest metropolis to the smallest pueblo, cafes crowd the city streets and offer up a bouquet of food. Tapas are small plates of culinary delights ranging from spicy, fried potatoes (patatas bravas), mixed salads (ensaladas mixtas), croquets (croquettas), cheeses (quesos) to a variety of meat and seafood dishes. The Spanish typically toma algo (‘take something’) around 7 pm, complete with a beer or a glass of wine, people watch and participate in animated conversation with friends. Grabbing a table at one of these outdoor terraces is often a free for all, although some nicer restaurants require a waiter to seat you. On this particular evening, grandma and I sat outside at one of these cafes, enjoyed the warm Barcelona breeze, and watched a traditional Catalan folk dance being performed in front of the cathedral on a Saturday night. I think we almost enjoyed watching our waiters more, who were continuously and good-naturedly barking orders at each other on what table to clean and who ordered what. 

Another thing I got to introduce grandma to: in Spain, the waiter will never, never, never bring you the check. 

Tortilla, croquetas and patatas bravas: first tapas

Sunday we would take in La Rambla del Mar, the waterfront district, and Barceloneta. We enjoyed watching the myriad of children and families out enjoying the day, the plethora of local street artists, and dodged the continual onslaught of city cyclists who seem to have a particular talent for weaving in and out of tightly packed groups of people. We took in fresh, mixed salads drizzled with olive oil and salt, perfectly cooked cod fritters and jamón, oh the jamón

On Monday, the first day of the official tour kick-off, we passed through more of the Barri Gòtic and the Boqueria, a diverse outdoor market full of culinary delights, including suspended legs of the delicious jamón ibérico.  Andy asked if I could bring some back with me. Somehow, I don’t think this fits in my suitcase.  

won't make it through customs
Then, Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí is Barcelona, and Barcelona is Gaudí. We passed through the heart of L’Eixample, the city’s modernista district: La Pedrera, Casa Batlló, and Sagrada Familia. Gaudí’s work is fantastically strange: organic lines, inspiration from the natural world and absolutely unique in its presentation. 

Nativity Facade of La Sagrada Familia

The Passion Facade

And I didn't get a good picture of the famous snail shell staircase winding down from Sagrada Familia's bell tower, but I had to put it here:

caracol staircase in Sagrada Familia
Aye, Cataluña.