Sunday, March 26, 2017

Tarragona with a side of Sitges

Tarragona's Roman amphitheatre has hosted battles between gladiators and
wild beasts, public executions, and other wholesome spectacles.

Our second week of our winter 2017 road trip in Spain lands us about an hour south of Barcelona in the Mediterranean coastal city of Cunit. We can imagine that this Costa Daurada beach town would be a lively place in the summer, but this time of year, Cunit is unremarkable except for the outlandish quantity of dog doo on its sidewalks. We have no trouble filling our week, though, with several side trips. We even manage to connect with an old friend whom we met a few years ago at an English language retreat (designed for Spanish speakers to improve their English skills).

From left, nou amic Roberto, Ken, vell amic Xavi, and I meet up for
breakfast and a commemorative photo in Cunit, Catalonia.

The house we've rented is about a 10-minute walk to the train station so for most of the week, we leave the car parked and enjoy the ease of traveling up and down the coast by rail.


We stroll among 2,000 years of history as we explore the streets and Roman ruins of Tarragona. After the required stop at the tourism office, our visit starts at the Balcó del Mediterrani, the wrought-iron gates overlooking the Mare Nostrum (the Mediterranean) at the end of Rambla Nova — Tarragona's main street. We browse the street vendors' wares along the Rambla for a few blocks, before turning right towards the historic neighborhood of Part Alta.

According to one account (which you can read here), the Roman god Jupiter left one of his many wives, Tiria (a mortal) because he had fallen in love with the city that is now Tarragona. Here, Roman ruins stand beside medieval landmarks and modernist architecture — its plazas and winding streets surrounded by ancient stone walls. The city originally known as Tarraco was once the capital of the Roman Empire in Spain (Hispania Citerior), and is the oldest Roman construction in Europe outside the Italian peninsula. Tarragona has embraced its heritage and specializes in historical reenactments and celebrations, most notably the Tarraco Viva festival held each May.

Completed in 1331, Catedral de Santa Tecla Tarragona
blends Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Prophets and apostles flank the facade of Catedral de Santa Tecla Tarragona.

A group of schoolchildren check out remains of the eastern wall of the
Tarraco Provincial Forum in Tarragona. 

A Roman tower from the 1st century in Tarragona

A window looks out onto the sea in Tarragona's Roman Amphitheatre.

A bell rings above Plaça dels Angels near the National Museum of
Archaeology in Tarragona.

A mural-covered building in Tarragona's Plaça dels Sedassos 


Although we are notoriously early risers, we've slept in today and decide to spend the sunny afternoon in Sitges, a short train ride up the coast. This beautiful city is known for its ideal climate (thanks to being sheltered by the Garraf mountains) and its lively (and gay-friendly) nightlife. The city has a handful of museums, but all are closed on Monday, the day we stop by.

A pretty city sign in a wrought-iron frame in Sitges.

Just 35 kilometers southwest of Barcelona, the Sitges seaside is
a popular summer playground.

Although we can't check out the local art at Museu Maricel del Mar we manage to experience another side of Catalan culture — delicious sparkling Cava wine.

'Cris' by Marta Solsona is one of several 'women and the sea' sculptures
along Platja de Sant Sebastià in Sitges. 

Lluïsa Granero's bronze sculpture 'Dona Mediterrània'
has a young admirer, in Sitges.

Architectural detail in Sitges

Architectural detail on the Palau de Maricel in Sitges

One of six canons of the Sitges bastion that successfully defended
four merchant vessels from an attack by two English frigates in 1797. 

As we enjoy the sea views, street art, shop windows and of Sitges, we count ourselves lucky for visiting off-season. We speculate how these sleepy cities and villages we visit must be entirely different in summertime. Winter travel, apparently, is our perfect pace.

A familiar movie poster in Sitges

Colorful building-topper in Sitges

Sunday, March 19, 2017

We're game for Girona

Braavos and Arya Stark are not familiar to me, but for fans of "Game of Thrones," the names may ring a bell. The Catalan city of Girona, which we visit today, was the setting for Braavos in Season Six of the popular TV series, and it was here that the blind princess Arya Stark was attacked by the Waif., my source for the dish on Game of Thrones, says that the filming in Girona's Barri Vell (Medieval Quarter) was top-secret.

View of Girona's cathedral from the ancient murallas (walls) of the city

It's easy to see why Girona, about an hour north of Barcelona, was chosen as a locale. This is a beautifully preserved city, and on the winter day of our visit we are lucky enough to have splendid weather befitting the locale.

La Punxa in Girona, Spain, was designed by Rafael Masó,
one of the most notable Catalan architects of the
early 20th century.

After parking in an underground garage on the more modern side of the city, we take note of a nearby landmark so we can find our car at the end of the day. A striking pink Moderinsta-style structure is just down the block. We later find out out that this is La Punxa, a building designed by Rafael Masó, Girona's most famous architect, which now contains the offices of city's architectural society.

Colorful houses line the Onyar River in Girona.

With help from a local, we find our way to the River Onyar and cross into Girona's old city. The Oficina de Turismo is just on the other side of the bridge, and now that we have our map, we strategize over coffee on the Rambla de Libertat.

Pont de les Pescateries in Girona was designed by Gustave Eiffel

Girona's complex history includes periods of being inhabited by Iberians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors. The city has undergone more than two dozen sieges and been conquered seven times. A thriving Jewish population lived here in the 12th through 15th centuries, and Girona's Jewish ghetto is one of Europe's best preserved.

Stairways in Girona's Barri Vell neighborhood

Eighty-six steps lead to La Catedral, which features a Baroque facade, a Catalan-Gothic Nave and Romanesque tower and cloister. Like many churches in Spain, this was once a mosque. Also of Moorish origin are the Arab Baths, built in the 11th century and restored in the 20th century. The baths were a public bathing space for several centuries, then they were privately owned, and from the 17th century through 1929, the baths were used exclusively by convent nuns.

A section of Girona's Passeig de la Muralla (ancient walls)

It's understandable from Girona's numerous invasions, that city walls would be vital. The first walls were built in the 1st century during Roman times. In the 14th century, the walls were rebuilt under the reign of Peter III the Ceremonious. Since then, the walls have been demolished at times to allow for urban expansion, rebuilt and repaired, providing tourists the opportunity to walk along the Passeig de la Muralla.

View of Girona from the city's ancient murallas (walls)

Steps are a big part of the experience of walking along
Girona's walls.

View from Girona's ancient murallas

Our stroll along the murallas has tuckered us out, but we still have enough energy and daylight left to check out a few more sites on the way back to our car.

A site along Ruta 171, one of the monuments dedicated to Catalan's role
in the Spanish War of Succession

Girona storefront

Coffee breaks are regular parts of our day — for rest, refreshments and restrooms.

As the first week of our winter 2017 trip to Spain winds down, we turn our attention to the seaside area south of Barcelona.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Pyrenean foothill villages Olot and Besalú

Rain threatens, but the forecast for the afternoon looks promising. Today we head to the Pyrénées foothills where volcanoes and a beautiful medieval village await.

From the top of Volcà Montsacopa in Olot, we enjoy magnificent views
of some of the dozens of other volcanoes in Spain's Baixa Garrotxa region.

Located in the Baixa Garrotxa region, the small city of Olot provides a good base for exploring this region known for its many volcanoes. Wishing to avoid the traffic and confusion we had experienced in Figueres, we park on the edge of town and make our way to the Oficina de Turismo, a modern space with a glass floor that both Ken and I are hesitant to cross. The clerk reassures us that it's safe and manages not to laugh as he gives us some maps. His tells us we absolutely must hike to the top of Volcà Montsacopa, one of the city's three volcanic peaks. Despite feeling a little under the weather because of a winter cold (aren't they the worst?) we decide to give it a try.

Eyeing the sky that is turning from gray to blue, we first kill some time in a café along the Passeig de Miquel Blay and check out some of Olot's man-made attractions. I especially like Casa Sola Moral, a beautiful pink building with a Modernista-style facade.

Built in the Baroque style, Casa Sola Moral has an
impressive Modernista-style facade.

Monternitat by Josep Ciara i Avats in Olot

Caryatids along Passeig de Miquel Blay in Olot

The start of the path along the Grederes del Volcà Montsacopa is an easy upward stroll. Clearly the route has been well-tended and made accessible to all. We come across a few choices along the way. Should we climb up the stairs or continue on the path? We opt for the path up but will take the steps down. Another option of a shortcut that we end up following takes us on a steep narrow path, and we're a little out of breath when we reach Església de Sant Francesc at the top.

Església de Sant Francesc atop Volcà Montsacopa in Olot

Volcà Montsacopa is a Strombolian volcano — one that is "characterized by short-lived, explosive outbursts of past lava ejected a few tens or hundreds of meters into the air," according to San Diego State University's How Volcanoes Work website. However it's been about a hundred-thousand years since Montsacopa's last outburst, so we're probably OK.

Large succulent along the path up Volcà Montsacopa in Olot

At the top, in addition to the church are two watchtowers and, of course, a large, grassy crater. The views from here are, unsurprisingly, pretty breathtaking.

The cup-shaped Cràter del Montsacopa is 120 meters across and 12 meters deep.

One of the watchtowers at the top of Volcà Montsacopa in Olot

A shrine of some sort atop Volcà Montsacopa in Olot

Our hike has earned us an appetite so we decide to make Besalú our destination for lunch. We enter this tiny medieval village on foot by crossing an extraordinary bridge built in the 11th century. Spanning the Fluvià river, the fortified bridge is shaped like an "L" and has a gateway mid-span as well as seven uneven arches. The bridge and the views of the village from the bridge are lovely.

Besalú's stunning bridge leads to a lovely medieval village.

Just before the bridge, we had stopped at the Besalú tourist office and asked about visiting another attraction: a mikvah. This ritual Jewish bath was built in 1264 but had been forgotten about (and buried) until it was uncovered in 1964. Unfortunately we aren't able to schedule a tour, and the mikvah, cemetery and remains of a synagogue are inaccessible otherwise. (A few weeks from now we will see pictures of the site when we visit the Sephardic Museum in Toledo.)

Shoppers and tourists dodge raindrops in Besalú.

Placa Prat de Sant Pere in Besalú

We find several restaurants to choose from for our lunch in Besalú. We sit outside but luckily it is covered as it's started to rain. The shower doesn't last long and the narrow streets are nearly dry as we resume our tour. The large Benedictine monestery Sant Pere dominates the square, but its doors are locked so I can only take pictures of the exterior. A few blocks away, we stop to admire another church, Església de Sant Vicenç.

Exterior detail of Sant Pere de Besalú
Església de Sant Vicenç in Besalú

I sneeze about eight times in a row, which we take as a sign that it's time to head back to our cozy apartment in Cabanes for some rest before tomorrow's trip to Girona.

Monday, March 6, 2017

A day in Dalí-wood: Figueres, Spain

Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres, Spain

Our month-long road trip to Spain starts in the Empordá region in the northeast corner of the country just below the French border. This area of Spain is part of Catalonia — thus my Spanish/English dictionary is virtually useless here. We're staying in a tiny village called Cabanes. Our five days here will include several "field trips," and first up is Figueres.
Saint-George and the Dragon sculpture in Plaza Catalunya in Figueres
A reverse image of Dalí painted on a Figueres
sidewalk is reflected in a metal pole.

There is just one name to remember here: This is the birthplace (and final resting place) of Salvador Dalí. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, the city's Municipal Theatre was destroyed, and the artist decided to build his museum on its ruins. The artist is said to have said, "Where, if not were in my own city, should the most extravagant and solid examples of my art remain, where else?"

Detail of egg-sterior of Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres

A Cadillac and golden mannequins in the courtyard
at the Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres

A group of schoolchildren hear about Dalí's many mustaches
at the Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres.

Today, the Teatre Museu Dalí is the largest surrealist object in the world and Spain's third-most visited museum (after the Prado in Madrid and the Guggenheim in Bilbao). Our visit here is exhausting, and, I'm compelled to say ... surreal.

Painting on the ceiling at Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres

The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dalí
at the Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres

View from behind a golden mannequin at
Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres

An exhibit dedicated to the artist's mustaches
at Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres

Our ticket to the Dalí museum gets us in to another small museum down the street, Museu de l'Emorrda, and we spend a bit of time here before our walk up to the Castell de Ferran, an 18th-century fortress and the largest castle in Europe. It's closed at the time of our visit but the walk helps to clear our heads (still on Dalí-overload) and the views are not too shabby.

El pensador (1962) by Artur Novoa Cabra
at the Museu de l'Emorrda in Figueres

Whimsical windows in Figueres

Castell de Ferran in Figueres

View from Castell de Ferran in Figueres

As we walk, we plan out what we'll do tomorrow and decide to head to volcano country. More about that in my next post, but first some miscellaneous photos of our first days in Spain.

The market in Figueres offers a variety of bacallà (salted cod).

Central square in Cabanes, Spain.

Murals in Cabanes

Fountain in Cabanes

Estelades flag of Catalonia hangs in Peralada, Spain.

Claustre Románic de Sant Domènec in Peralada