Saturday, January 5, 2013

Spain Part 1: Barcelona

As soon as Fionn's vacation time started, we were off like a flash to the airport. Time for SPAIN! Part of the reason we were so eager was because there was a ton of snow covering everything in our neck of the woods-in fact, when we went out to drive to the airport, the car was covered in ice from hours of sitting out in freezing rain. And more was coming down, hard. I was terrified of driving to Munich in this weather but somehow we made it through, our flight left on time, and within 2 hours we were walking out into blue skies, Mediterranean breezes, and glorious Spanish sunshine...err, or is it Catalonian sunshine?

We were immediately captivated by Barcelona. Delicious food smells from all direction, the slightly Parisian-esque architecture, the weather...I knew it was going to be a cool place.

The first two nights we stayed with a friend of mine from my French study abroad named Marina. She's a native Catalonian and is one of the sweetest, friendliest people I know. She is always smiling and laughing. She didn't arrive til the second night, so our first night in Barna we only met her roommates. One of the girls, Maria, was so great and amazingly helpful. She used to work in a hostel, so she wrote down a ton of places to go, things to do, and awesome food recommendations, as well as a map! So armed with that, we dove headfirst into seeing Barcelona.

Our first full day in Barcelona we headed straight for Parc Guell, the park designed by the famed modernist architect from Catalonia, Antoni Gaudi. Even though he lived in the 1800s, his modernist designs are so unique and futuristic they look like something a modern artist would come up with. Parc Guell always makes an appearance in films set in Barcelona. In fact, it was the ONLY landmark I could name from Barcelona when we were planning our trip (embarrassing!). It was definitely worth it though-the beautiful colors of the mosaic tile benches and the surreal towers and stairs were so cool to explore, especially since it was a beautiful sunny day.

From the benches you can get a fantastic view of Barcelona, all the way out to the sea. We stayed up there a good long while before exploring the rest of the park. Beyond the Gaudi creations it's just a regular park, so we decided to continue and see more of Barcelona.

We read online that every Sunday the locals come together to do this Catalonian dance outside the cathedral. It's a show of solidarity and a celebration of their heritage and supposed to be very low key and cool. Despite our best efforts to get there by noon, we missed it (though if you're interested there's videos of it all over YouTube). We decided to check out the neighboring Christmas Market, which is when we noticed something...

A group of kids were crowded around this giant log wearing a blanket and a hat, hitting sticks in unison and singing a song. And they were SO EXCITED.

That's when we noticed miniatures of this thing were being sold everywhere. He was made into paper, chocolate, drawn on signs, and available in every size imaginable.

Marina's own Tio de Nadal

That night when we returned to Marina's apartment, I asked her about this creature. Her face lit up and she pointed at her own mini one sitting on the bookshelf. "You mean this guy?" Then she explained to me the story of "Tio de Nadal".

Tio is a magic log that comes down from the mountains at Christmastime to live in your house. He wears a red Catalonian hat and you cover him with a blanket to keep him warm. You feed him fruit and chocolate and then, on Christmas (or whenever you give gifts) you make him poop out your presents. Yes, poop them. And to get him to do that, you hit a log with sticks and sing him a song.

Marina and I speak French together, and while she was explaining this to me, I was almost positive I had misunderstood the story. I mean..there's no way. A magic log? Who poops out your presents? And wears a Catalonian hat? Marina said that nowadays kids get big presents from the 3 Wise Men (the tradition in the rest of Spain) and only small ones from Tio, but that when she was little Tio was the only gift giver and that it was a very big deal to kids back then!

When we were in Seville and I mentioned this story to my friend Andrea, she laughed and said that when Marina told this story to her and our other Spanish friend Soni, Andrea and Soni laughed so hard at the story that Marina actually got a little annoyed.

We didn't buy a Tio de Nadal while we were in Barcelona, in case you were wondering :)

The Christmas Market where we first met Tio was extremely crowded, so we ducked into the Cathedral to check it out. It was big but nothing too exciting, though we were surprised to see the candles for sale at the alters were all electronic. Kind of took away from the ambiance...

After some wandering we happened upon this restaurant Fionn had read about online called Sagardi. The Basque region has its own version of tapas called "pintxo" which means "spike". They're basically little bites speared on bread with toothpicks. This place had a buffet bar full of all sorts of goodies-you take whatever you want and you're charged per toothpick (I think they were around 1,60 euro each).

Everything looked amazing, so we got a place at the standing bar and went to town. Even though they're small, they fill you up! We shared 8 of them but were still tempted by the new plates that kept coming and coming.

All the things we tried were really good. Some unusual, but still good. The fish ones were particularly good, since they were so fresh!

Once we were stuffed to the gills with pintxos, we walked down to the water. It was beautiful and sunny, a perfect day for a walk. When it started getting dark we walked past the Christopher Columbus monument, walked down La Rambla, and returned to Marina's apartment to meet her for dinner.

Catalonian flags hanging from balconies were a common sight

Seeing Marina was great. The last time I saw her was in France in 2009 when my study abroad ended. We both laughed at how surreal it was to see each other again. Both our brains got a work out as we made plans-Marina speaking Spanish and Catalan with her roommates for restaurant ideas, then relaying their conversation to me in French, then me translating it into English for Fionn...

Marina wanted to take us to a real tapas place, but as we started looking we realized Barcelona had a soccer game that night and every bar was completely full. We were running out of options when Marina suggested Japanese. We were fine with that, though we did have to laugh-two Americans and a Catalonian girl, speaking French, in Spain, at a Japanese restaurant. How multikulti of us ;)

But all in all, it was a great dinner with great company. I was only sad we didn't have more time to spend with her. We headed back, got comfy on the pull out couch, and prepared for our last day in Barcelona.

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