Spanish Surprises, Spanish Delights

A month in Spain surprised us and delighted us! Top ten of each!


1. Adjust your clock! As a Spaniard told us in the south no one would get up before the sun rises at 8:00. Kids have to be in school at 9:00. Parents go to work by 10:00. Just move your US clock up two or three hours. Breakfast at 9-10am. Lunch at 2-4pm. Dinner after 9pm. In restaurants at 8:30 you’re eating with tourists, at 10:00 with locals.

2. Crossing streets can be hazardous — not because the Spanish are crazy drivers. They seem pretty polite. But not motorized scooters and bicyclists. Proceed with caution. The crosswalks are a few yards away from the corner to give left-turning vehicles a place to go. The cars will usually stop for pedestrians in the crosswalks, but the two wheelers often do not. Be careful!

3. Spain is up close and personal. Tapas bars are crowded. Tables are close together in restaurants. They seem to like it that way! One Spaniard told us it’s as if we must feel the “breath of the people on our cheeks.”

Crowds at popular tapa bars spill out into the street

4. Service can seem abrupt. Not rude. Just very few of the pleasantries that pass for polite banter back home. In restaurants, the waiters fly around. No “how’s your day going” or “how are those first bites tasting.” In one restaurant we were reminded of the old British comedy Fawlty Towers, given the yelling and frantic pace of the wait staff. (Of course, a fine dining experience in Spain is quite different.) We’re talking about the tapas bars, the bistros and more casual restaurants where we hung out.

5. Order what you want. Ordering a 1 euro espresso and 2 euro snack is absolutely OK. One Spaniard told us there are almost no public restrooms in Spain because you just stop, have a quick bite or drink and use the WC. Want to split a dish? Not at all uncommon and, in fact, it is often expected a table would share several dishes. Not very hungry? Order a half portion or even a tapa portion.

6. Franco’s legacy lives on. And it’s unresolved—feelings still run deep. Some still admire the fascist leader, others loathe him. This should not be a surprise to those of us from a country still dealing with the legacy of slavery and segregation. Franco died more than 45 years ago. Today’s right wing politicos trace many of their issues back to what they see as a better time when Franco defined what it meant to be Spanish.

7. The Catalan independence movement is a very strong undercurrent in Barcelona. Yes, we’d read about the desire by many Catalans for an independent Catalonia, with the region split roughly 50/50 in polls. Seeing the pro-independence flags hanging from balconies all over Barcelona, the graffiti in Catalan, and the police presence on the Day of Spain national holiday when pro-Spanish nationalists paraded through the streets of the city in an in your face political march, made it very real, very immediate, very intense.

“We take power” in Catalonian and Catalonian flags

8. Catholicism is more cultural than practiced. Cathedrals and basilicas are everywhere, but often empty. The birth rate is 1.2 children. The south is more Catholic, the north less so. Another legacy of the Spanish Civil War—the Catholic Church was strongly supportive of Franco as his army moved from the south to the north in the war. Many in the north still resent the Church for its complicity in the Franco years.

9. Royal family is definitely not the icons the British royals are. The Spanish king and his family are not very visible, often criticized for corruption and are seen by many as a drain on the economy. As one person reminded us, few people would even recognize a picture of the king, queen or their children. The former king is now living in Dubai in exile and not welcome back. Again some of this attitude may go back to Franco’s death and the hasty re-establishment of the monarchy one day later.

10. The Spanish do not like spicy food—a shock to us.

The delights?

1. Spanish high speed trains! Clean, efficient, comfortable. Taking a five hour train ride was less complicated than any airplane trip we have ever taken anywhere. Easier security. Roomier. Less waiting time. Departure and arrival near the city centers.

2. Tapas and the wine scene. Usually quick, often delicious, and almost always cheap. Spanish omelette (tortilla), potatoes with a paprika sauce (patatas bravas), Russian salad (ensalada Rus), Spanish ham (jamón) or anchovies on toast were staples. But many tapa bars have their own specialties or twists on these standards. Some were simple affairs. Some were gastronomical masterpieces. And wines by the glass—often the house wine was outstanding—house made vermouths, and cavas (the Spanish version of champagne).

3. Moorish architecture. From the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita in Cordoba, the Alcazar in Seville to simple doorways in small villages, the Moorish influence infuses much of the Andulacian region. Complex, intricate designs. Gorgeous tile work. Beautiful water features. Cool garden courtyards.

4. Living the streets! The energy, the liveliness. Sunday afternoon extended families gather in outdoor restaurants for long lunches with kids running around the table. Particularly on weekend evenings before dinner, couples, families and groups of friends just saunter down the main streets seeing and being seen. In many squares, playgrounds for the kids and, conveniently, cafes or bars for the parents.

5. Flamenco! Okay we went to see a show mainly because it seemed the thing to do. We weren’t prepared to be so impressed. The guitar mastery. The singing — somewhere between the Moslem call to prayer and Portuguese fado. Then there was the dancing. We learned there are several styles reflecting Gypsy, Moorish and Jewish influences. Don’t miss it if you are in Spain!

Pictures weren’t allowed at our flamenco show but we did see this street performer.

6. The Belle Époque and Art Nouveaux in Barcelona. Blocks and blocks of late nineteenth and early twentieth century homes and apartments. Several of Gaudi’s stand out among the less experimental and fanciful designs. The broad octangular intersections to create the space for horse drawn vehicles to turn around and space for some of the best architecture.

7. The stained glass window of Sagrada Família. While the entire structure is amazing, the afternoon light coming through the west windows stunned us.

The window on the left generates the light on the right. Totally dazzling.

8. The white villages of Andalusia. We loved our “home” in Vejer de La Frontera. All the charm of Italian hilltop villages with the overlay of Moorish style.

9. Hiking in El Estrecho Natural Park. A steep climb from nearly sea level to cloud forests with views to the sea and Morocco.

10. The cost. Food in restaurants is unbelievably cheap compared to the US and the rest of Europe. Meals for two with drinks rarely cost more than 30 euros. Wine—3 euros, espresso-1 euro, tapas-2-3 euros (or free with a glass of wine). Again, you can spend much more but the quality at most moderate restaurants and tapas bars is so good, why bother. Prices do climb a bit in the heavily touristed Barcelona.

Mountains, Monks and Wine

On a day trip out of Barcelona we hired a guide to take us to Monserrat and a wine tour in the Penedes wine region — partly because we wanted to see the monastery, but mostly because we wanted to see the countryside, the mountains and become a bit more familiar with Spanish wines. Once again, we lucked out with a charming, knowledgeable and well-connected guide, Emma.

The drive to the monastery was pretty straight forward, although simply getting out of Barcelona and the steep narrow road up to Monserrat convinced us we would never want to attempt this by ourselves.

Montserrat is a working monastery and is considered one of the most sacred places in Catalonia. Destroyed by Napoleon’s forces in 1811, the rebuilt monastery doesn’t wow you as much as the views do—but amazing nonetheless. It is also famous for a world renowned boys’ choir—the boys live and study here—and for monks who still sing the haunting Gregorian chants.

Emma hustled us into the church before mass started when they close the church (if inside, you must remain for the two hour mass). While we aren’t the least bit religious, and after seeing churches in almost every city we visited on this trip we agreed Montserrat was the best—less over the top baroque, fewer tortured Christs, and only one very important Madonna and child. The Black Virgin.

While the Black Virgin is behind glass, for an extra fee you can join the devout and touch her orb.

Even here we couldn’t miss the separatists tension in the Catalonia region—a little pro-independence dressing on some statuary which we were told would be promptly cleared away as soon as a monk spotted it.

We could have ridden the gondola or taken the funicular to the top, but neither of those appealed to us and certainly wouldn’t to anyone with a fear of heights. The mountain is crisscrossed with hiking trails which had much more appeal if we had more time.

And then it was down the mountain to the Penedes wine appellation and a tour of the Albet i Noya winery. Producing about a million bottles a year, this is a totally organic production — using natural fertilizers, relying on rain for irrigation (although climate change means a drip system is being installed) and refusing to use any anti-fungal agents. If the vines get a fungus, production is simply lower. Given the variety of grapes grown, harvest is staggered so only a small crew is needed beyond the winery staff to pick the grapes by hand. It is also a pioneer in developing new varietals resistance to climate change.

We missed the harvest but did get to walk through the process, mostly powered through solar panels.

Watched the local sparkling wine bottled. Penedes is famous for its sparkling wines, cavas, but this winery doesn’t call it’s wine cava because it withdrew from the Cava Association over concerns there were too few controls on quality. Too many bad wines labeled as cava, they said. Have to say their sparkling wine was the best we had in Spain, maybe the best we have had in a long time, cava or not.

The winery was once a farm and today’s winemaker once worked on the farm before starting his winery.

Lunch began with a wine tasting of a couple white wines and then two reds. Not to get too much into the weeds of wine tasting, we were impressed. And impressed enough to go to the hassle of buying a bottle to take home to our Syrah loving friends.

We were lucky our guide knew this winery, knew the winemaker and his passionate staff! Truly one of the best days in our month long trip to Spain. We wished we had connected with her sooner to tap into one of her full day wine tours or her tour to her homeland, Andorra.

Barcelona Undercurrents

Barcelona is, without any question, a beautiful city. And an historic city. And that history has left wounds which are apparent today, even if they aren’t always obvious.

It was our last full day of our month long trip to Spain, October 12. Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day back home. In Barcelona and Spain it was the Day of Spain, a national holiday. The street in front of our hotel was closed, we were told, for a parade. (One more instance of a gap in translation — not a parade but a march). Of course we altered our plans for the day to hang around and watch the action.

A block from our hotel barricades were set up and police stood by as city workers scrubbed away graffiti on the sidewalk. Not sure what it was all about.

In Catalunya Square, the main square of Barcelona, a number of tents had been set up and music blared. The early crowd was obviously having a good time.

But we had heard that this was not a day the pro-independence Catalans celebrated. They would be staying home. A few years ago fights had broken out between factions — the pro-Spanish unity groups versus the pro-Catalonian independence groups. And there has been a controversial referendum on Catalan independence a few years ago. We don’t know the whole story for sure, but Franco’s legacy of represssing the Catalan language and speech still hurts here. One young man told us about his Catalan grandmother being exiled to France during the Franco years and Catalans being arrested for simply speaking their native language.

The ultra right-wing party of Spain. For more info on Vox
The gist of the banner, “I speak Spanish at home. Why not at college?” Apparently in an effort to preserve the Catalan language a certain percentage of college classes must be taught in the regional language. Not a surprise that this has become a political issue.
“Equal work, equal pay” with a reference to the lower wages paid in the south of Spain.

Emotions were clearly high. Complaints about Catalonia not paying enough in taxes. Signs in green — the color of the Vox right wing party — declaring no steps backwards.

Aspects of the march and rally felt like a MAGA event, but we don’t really know, except many participants carried both green Vox signs and Spanish flags. Apparently, the vote for the Catalan region to separate from Spain reflected a nearly fifty-fifty split. The issue may or may not split strictly along cultural lines.

Couple of the guys all dressed up and a very animated woman being interviewed by the media

And it does remind us that behind the historical sights, the charming cafes and beautiful buildings in almost any tourist destination, there is lies a complex set of not necessarily resolved issues.

As we walked the neighborhoods in the five days we were Barcelona, we kept noticing flags hanging from the windows—flags that supported the creation of an independent Catalonia. Despite the flashy pro Spain events of today, we know that a strong undercurrent for independence still exists.

Somehow we do have a knack for finding political demonstrations. And we do find them fascinating, often more so than the tourist sights. What does that say about us?