Friday, January 30, 2009

Girona to Barcelona, Day Seven

Thursday, January 29

Girona is a really lovely town. As we wandered around we found more and more interesting things to look at around every corner. There’s even a small Jewish quarter, with a Jewish museum and everything. It’s a shame that we did not have more time to spend here, though it really does not take that long to “do” the town.

Before we left we made a point of visiting the market (not bad, though nothing to compare with the markets in Barcelona) and having breakfast at the Antica Xocolateria for what the guidebook promised would be a revelatory cup of hot chocolate (they were right). We also took more photos in the morning light and then got on the road to head in to Barcelona.

Once in Barcelona we made a bee-line for the Park Güell, hoping that it would be open today. We found a parking space easily enough, but then found that all the machines to buy a parking ticket were broken so I ended up writing a note explaining our situation to any parking warden that might want to ticket us. The park was indeed open, but it was packed with other tourists (we had got spoiled during our few days on the road where there was rarely another visitor anywhere we went). The park probably does not take too long visit, and since there was still a largish portion that is inaccessible due to fallen trees, it took us hardly any time at all to feel like we had done justice to the place. So we dropped off the car, checked back into the hotel, and headed for lunch at the Cervesaria Catalana, our favorite tapas place in town.

Having had our lunch we spent the rest of the day shopping for clothing, since that’s one of the things we just cannot find in China. We then took a short break in the hotel before heading to dinner at around 8;45pm.

Remember how on Saturday we could not get into Comerç24, the very popular place run by a former colleague of Ferran Adriá? Well, tonight we had a reservation there, and though we were really not particularly hungry, we decided we just had to go anyway. I am very glad we did. The restaurant is in a sort of gritty neighborhood near Barcelona’s Arc de Triumf, in a commercial looking building that has been redecorated in a sort of minimal-modern design. There were only two other tables occupied when we got there, but as the evening progressed the place was pretty much full.

The restaurant has a menu, though the waiters recommend that people have the tasting menu, which changes daily and that can be tailored to your particular tastes. We went for that, advising our waiter that J2 doesn’t like anchovies or salmon. While we waited for the food to start to come we sipped a glass of sherry and then they brought some little nibbles, gold-flecked macadamia nuts and a pair of olives stuffed with anchovies (apparently they did not have any unstuffed olives available to give to J2). I have to say, the olives were amazing, and the anchovies really added something to the flavor. Poor J2. The waiter also brought us some wonderful crusty bread and a selection of four olive oils that they introduced to us but the details about which we completely forgot. There was also a vase of grissini with a pesto dipping sauce and some fried pork crisps with grancahina dip and a phyllo cup with parmesan cheese and yuzu sauce.

The main course of seven tapas soon followed: marinated mackerel with citrus; tuna sashimi “pizzas”; consommé with truffle, parmesan and egg; cuttlefish and morel ravioli; seabass with potato, garlic and rosemary; beach cuttlefish black rice; and an oxtail ragu with pureed cauliflower. Each of the dishes was amazingly tasty, though our favorites were the ravioli and the oxtail.

To go with our meal we ordered a bottle of Manga del Brujo wine, which was a very interesting wine that kept opening up as we drank it; we were having a hard time finishing the bottle though, so after we finished our main courses they brought us some assorted cheeses (we still did not finish the bottle).

There was then a flight of desserts: a sort of froth of passion fruit, mandarin orange and mint; an amazingly densely flavored chocolate mousse with bread, oil and salt; yogurt with passion fruit and muesli; nougat with tuille cigar, chocolate and coffee; black sesame oreo with vanilla ice cream filling; and a sable with pineapple and meringue. Again, they were all great, but the chocolate mousse and the passion fruit froth were the stand-outs.

It was a very good meal, and fortunately not too filling, so we did not leave feeling heavy as we usually have been on this trip. But we were not ready to head to the hotel, so instead we headed to the gay neighborhood of Barcelona to see what that would be like. Unfortunately, it being only midnight on a Thursday night, it was dead, so after a quick beer at one empty bar we headed back to the hotel.

Vic to Girona, Day Six

Wednesday, January 28

We woke up to find Vic had become quite chilly overnight, so taking our walk through town to take photos was an exercise in avoiding frostbite. But we soldiered on and warmed up in a cafe (which unfortunately appeared not to have received its delivery for the day yet, since the croissants were pretty stale). We decided not to linger in Vic, though, so that we would have time to drive at a leisurely place as we headed to our next destination for the night.

As we drove out of Vic, we opted to take a road that the map indicated would be scenic, but there was so much fog that we might just as well have been driving in a tunnel for the first several miles. We made a quick stop in the town of Torreló to visit the weekly market. Up until now we had not visited any Spanish market towns, even though that is the kind of thing that I usually enjoy very much when traveling. Too bad that the market here was mostly for low-cost clothes and household goods rather than artisanal foods, so we did not end up spending much time at it, and instead headed further up the road.

As we headed north we approached the foothills of the Pyrenees, and the road became more and more scenic, so we made several stops for photos. We also saw the by now familiar signs of fallen trees, and even saw some workers chopping up trees that had clearly blocked the road earlier. And as we got further and further into the mountains, we started to see bits of snow here and there.

We eventually reached the town of Ripoll, which our book said was not worth a stop, though from a distance it looked pretty attractive. Instead we took a turn to the east and headed to the town of Olot, which is the center of the volcanic district of Garrotxa and a skiing center. As we walked around the town, however, we quickly came to the conclusion (as J2 said) that the town was a whole Olot of nothing. We even decided that it was not worth staying for lunch here, opting instead to head further down the road to the town of Besalú, which sounded more promising.

Indeed, Besalú was a lovely town. Its chief distinguishing feature is a medieval stone bridge that leads to the town across a small river, though another curiosity of the town is that it had one of Spain’s largest mikvahs until the 14th century. There is nothing left there now, but there are some lovely stone buildings dotted around the town, and with the beautiful blue skies that we were lucky enough to have, there was a lot to photograph.

By 2:30 we were getting hungry so we stopped at a restaurant right next to the bridge called Pont Vell (“Old Bridge” in Catalan). Since it was so early (!) we were the only patrons when we arrived, but we received a very warm welcome and were given a seat with a great view of the bridge. The restaurant had a set menu that would have been perfect but for there being only a choice of two dishes for the main course, neither of which was the dish that the restaurant was supposed to be famous for--rabbit in sweet-sour sauce. However, they were only too happy to substitute it for one of the dishes, so we were in luck. The restaurant appears to be quite popular, since by the time we left, several more tables had been occupied.

The menu, at €20, was amazingly good, easily one of our better meals of this trip. As a starter they gave us little sandwiches with cured anchovies (J2 gave me his). After that we had a great starter of cream of vegetable soup with raviolis and a Catalan flat bread (“coca”) with ceps, cheese and tomato that was amazingly aromatic and tasty. After that, we had the rabbit and a roasted leg of lamb, both of which were outstanding (though the rabbit was the better dish). Each of these dishes was accompanied by a different glass of wine, too, and then to finish we had a chocolate cake that was doused in a ridiculously rich chocolate sauce. Frankly, after such a lunch, I wanted nothing more than to take a nap, but instead we had to continue driving.

Our next stop was our destination for the night, the town of Girona, about 90 minutes north of Barcelona. The town has become popular in recent years because the discount British airline, easyJet, flies there for next to nothing from the UK, and since it’s a university town it has a lot of youth-friendly features. It’s also supposed to be a gourmet town, with several well regarded restaurants, and as we wandered the streets in search of a hotel we remarked that it’s a very well preserved and attractive town.

We got ourselves a room in the Hotel Históric, in a 1000-year old building next to the cathedral. Once we checked in and deposited our car, we started wandering around until the light began to fade, whereupon we went off in search of a place for a beer before having dinner. There was a very inviting but empty looking Basque tavern (“Zanpanzar”) not far from where we would be having dinner, so we stopped in, and no sooner did we do so than loads of other people started to show up. One of the nice features about the place was that it had the traditional self-service selection of pintxos (Basque tapas) on the bar, many of which looked very tempting indeed (though we refrained from helping ourselves to too much out of fear of ruining dinner; I even held back when the waiter brought out little open sandwiches with blood sausage and chorizo straight from the kitchen). In case you’re wondering, they tally the bill by counting your toothpicks, so you are on your honor not to discard them as you eat.

When 9pm rolled around we headed to our restaurant for dinner. The hotel recommended Cal Ros as a good place for traditional Catalan style food, and the place did not disappoint. We were not too hungry, but we felt compelled to have a starter and main course each. J2 ordered a dish of sausage and potato made into a sort of Napoleon to start, while I had a dish of fried duck egg with ham and eggplant. We then had main courses of roast veal for J2 and lamb for me, both of which were excellent, though neither of which could we finish. We did not even have room for dessert!

Once again we stumbled back to our hotel wishing that we were awake enough to go for a long walk or something to work off some of the dinner, but instead we were so tired that we just went to the hotel and fell asleep.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Montblanc to Vic, Day Five

Tuesday, January 27

We woke up around 8am, way too early to do much of anything in town other than grab a cup of coffee/chocolate and a croissant. The weather was absolutely frigid, too, with grey skies, which made wandering the town a bit less enticing than we would have liked, since it really is a lovely town well worth a meander. After doing our level best to see what we could see without risking frostbite, we got back in the car and headed to our first stop of the day, the Monastery of Poblet, a town not too far from Montblanc.

According to the Lonely Planet guide, the monastery should open at 9, but according to the information that we got from the tourist office in Montblanc it would open at 10, so we aimed to arrive at the later hour. The drive toward the monastery afforded some dramatic views of the monastery from the surrounding countryside, along with the enormous windmills that dot the mountains to the east of the town. It’s no wonder that they put the windmills in this area, since it was remarkably windy, and here, too, we saw signs of many fallen trees from the recent wind storms. Even at the monastery there was one enormous tree that had fallen right in front of the main gate, part of which fell right on the roof of one of the buildings.

We got to the ticket office exactly at 10am, but it turns out the monastery was only going to open at 10:15, so we had 15 minutes to kill before we could enter. It was way too cold to wait outside, so we returned to the car and waited in the empty car park. Eventually two other cars showed up, so we went in when they did, which was a good thing, since we did not realize that we had to be part of a group to visit the interior.

The monastery was impressive indeed, and is still a working monastery, so we could see the refectory being cleaned up after the monks’ breakfast and some of the monks working in the library. But not much of the interior was open to visitors, and besides little of it was heated, so we were only too happy to find that the tour was not too long. However, by the time we left the monastery the sun had started to break through the clouds, and the sky started to become solid blue, so we managed to get some wonderful pictures of the monastery in the gorgeous light.

From Poblet we continued in a generally northerly direction, stopping at the Monastery of Seus Creus for a quick visit (this monastery had free admission, and no guides, so we could wander a bit more freely; they also had a lot of fallen tree problems). It was 1pm by the time we left here, and nearly time to think about lunch. We decided to wait a bit until we got to the town of Igualada, about 45 minutes down the road, since 1pm is just way too early to eat in Spain. We got to Igualada with no trouble, and parked easily, but we found that there was not a single place to eat that appealed to us in the slightest. Also, with all the shops shuttered for siesta, the town left us with the impression that we were in one of those apocalyptic movies where all the people suddenly disappeared from the town. Eerie. We decided to give Igualada a miss and head further up to the town of Montserrat, home to another monastery and located in the symbolic mountain of Barcelona.

The drive to Montserrat was along a mountain road with loads of switchbacks that looked over stunning countryside and that eventually gave a view onto the weird formation of the mountain of Montserrat itself. The mountain is one of the most unusual I have ever seen, with odd shapes along the peaks that were formed by rain, wind or frost and that give it its characteristic serrated look. As we ascended the mountain, we again saw evidence of lots of fallen trees, some of which must have blocked the road for a time. Indeed, when we got to the final turn off to head to the village of Montserrat we hit a road block from which we could go no further, so there went the idea of eating in Montserrat. By now it was approaching 3pm, so we were getting a bit desperate. Luckily at the foot of the north side of the mountain, in the town of Monistrol de Montserrat we found a promising looking restaurant right on the road (La Barca) where we had a wonderful and varied Catalan meal with a good bottle of Rioja. Phew.

Having thus staved off starvation, we continued on the road toward our destination for the day, the gourmet town of Vic, which promised to satisfy our interest in cuisine, wine and scenery. Vic turned out to be a lovely looking town, but not well laid out and extremely visitor-unfriendly, since we spent a good 45 minutes trying to figure out where the tourist office was. We finally just parked the car and walked around with the iPhone guiding us until we finally found it, and there we learned that Vic is a town with 75 restaurants but only three hotels. We were closest to the fanciest hotel so we just headed there and got a room so that we could put our stuff down and wander the town for a bit.

The town is charming, and older than I expected--it has a Roman temple that we stumbled across unexpectedly in the jumble of streets that form the old town--and it has an inordinate number of gourmet shops, two of which we stopped in to pick up some things to bring home (a dried llonganissa sausage that is typical of Vic in one case, and some packages of chocolate for drinking in the other).

We killed time until it was a suitable hour for dinner (9pm) and set out in search of a place to eat. The guy at the tourist office said he could not recommend a place, because of his position, but said that he particularly likes one place near his office. Unfortunately, it was closed for some reason that I could not make out. So was the next place on our list, and the place that I had read about in Mario Batali’s book about Spain. We finally found an open place, but it was deserted so we gave it a miss. Eventually we found a place called Basset, which had a lot of people in it, a sticker on the door indicating that Michelin recommended it, They had a fixed menu that had some appealing things on it, so we went for that, but as the food started to come we realized we just weren’t that hungry after our huge lunch. Also, the dish that J2 ordered for his main course, a traditional Catalan noodle dish called fideuà (sort of a paella but made with short lengths of thin noodles in place of rice) was too fishy for his taste, while the confit of duck that I ordered was a bit stringy, so we were just as happy not to finish them. For dessert I decided to try the crema Catalana one more time, and once again it was not as good as mine; we have come to the decision that I just should not order it anymore.

After dinner we strolled back to the hotel and once again before long were fast asleep. It cannot be good for you to eat so late in the evening, just before bedtime...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Barcelona to Montblanc, Day Four

Monday, January 26

Despite having forgotten to turn my phone onto “mute” before going to bed last night, and thus having heard the phone ring twice in the middle of the night as I received Chinese new year greetings from friends in China, we somehow still managed to sleep all the way until 7:30 this morning. We had scheduled to pick our car up at 9am, so this gave us enough time to have a quick visit to the gym before gathering our things and heading to the car place.

Once we had the car, we had to navigate our way out of Barcelona and onto the road toward our intended first stop, the Colònia Güell, just to the southwest of town. Unfortunately, we started out without a map (other than what was in the Lonely Planet Guide), so we were a bit at a loss until it occurred to us to see if our iPhones would help out. Sure enough, after entering “Colonia Guell” into the GPS thing, and asking it to plot our route from our “Current Location”, we were soon on our way. Thank you, Steve Jobs!!

When we reached the Colonia Guell site, we were amazed by the number of downed trees in the area, including some very sizable ones. It was therefore no surprise when we found out that the church--the whole reason one goes to the Colonia Guell--was not open to visitors as a result of the trees blocking the way. However, the ticket office said we could see the outside of the church, so we headed over to have a look.

The church at Colonia Guell is another of Gaudí’s works, and like several others, this one was never completed. However the work is extraordinary, and we would have been more or less satisfied with just a view of the exterior, though we would probably have tried to come back later in the week to see if we could get in. But just as we were about to leave, one of the curators was talking to another pair of visitors and it sounded like he might just let us inside. Sure enough, he did, so we not only got to visit the interior but we got to do so for free, and, since he basically just let us in with only the reminder not to step onto the altar before leaving us alone in there, we were able to take photos (not normally permitted, we think). The interior was stunning, and would have been worth the €9 admission charge, had we had to pay it.

On that note, let me add a parenthetical note about the great expenses associated with visiting Spain. I have been really stunned by how much they charge for entrance tickets, and as we drove around Catalonia the tolls they charge also were staggering (and some were in weird denominations--we paid €3.11 for one toll on the highway from Barcelona). Gone are the days when Spain was a relatively cheap destination!

From Colonia Guell we continued on our way southwest toward Tarragona. Tarragona was a Roman town, and still has a good selection of Roman ruins that you can visit. My initial impression was that it would not be a great place to visit, owing to its industrial reputation, but in fact it was a lovely town, with a charming old quarter that was a lot of fun to wander around in. We started off doing just that, roaming the narrow streets of the part of town found within the old walls. This being a Monday, a lot of places to eat were closed, which makes being a tourist in Spain a bit inconvenient. However, we eventually found a restaurant that was open that looked inviting. Our meal at this place, La Cuineta, was very nice, and relatively inexpensive (€15 each, for a three-course meal with wine).

We had hoped to visit the cathedral in Tarragona, but unfortunately the Lonely Planet guide misled us about its hours and we ended up missing it. But the walk through the town was still lovely, and we were pleased to have visited. As we drove out of town, north toward our next destination in the Montblanc area, we stopped for a look at the Roman aqueduct just outside the city limits, a remarkable structure that we were surprised to be able to walk along. Then we stopped briefly in the town of Vallmoll, which looked promising from the road but turned out to be a bit of a let-down. As we approached Montblanc, the weather suddenly turned from beautiful and sunny to dreary and threatening, so we decided to make a point of finding a place to stay the night lest we get stuck in a storm. We tried first in the town of L’Espluga de Francolí, which appealed to me primarily because of the oddness of its name, but in the end it looked like a dull town so we instead headed to the larger town of Montblanc, where we quickly found a perfectly fine hotel and soon discovered that the town itself is quite charming, again with narrow, winding roads, an imposing church, and even a surrounding wall.

The rain that seemed imminent did not appear, but the temperatures were dropping fast, so we curtailed our touring around the town in favor of visiting a coffee shop for a brief coffee and hot chocolate break. The hot chocolate here was about the thickest you could have without having to call it warm pudding, but J2 loved it (as he has almost all the hot chocolate he’s had on this trip so far). We also later on stopped for a beer at a small bar while waiting for the dinner hour to arrive at our hotel (no earlier than 9pm).

When we got down to the hotel’s restaurant we were very surprised to see so many tables occupied. While we appear to be the hotel’s only guests for the night, the restaurant seems to pull people in from all over town, as there were a good number of folks eating when we got there, and more arrived as we ate. Perhaps it’s the quality of the food that brings them in, since it was really quite good, simple, stuff. J2 had a starter of a baked spinach dish covered with melty cheese, followed by a grilled beefsteak with french fries, while I had a Catalan salad (lettuce and onion topped with a wide array of sliced cured meats) followed by Catalan grilled sausage, also with fries on the side. We both ended with flan (not as good as mine, again). Nothing fancy, but very tasty nonetheless. By the time we had finished, at 10:15pm, we were exhausted so we managed no more than to stumble upstairs to our room before falling asleep.

Barcelona Day Three

Sunday, January 25

We woke up a bit later than yesterday (no phone calls from Beijing to wake us), but still early enough that when we left the hotel to head to our first stop of the day, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia church, hardly a shop or cafe was yet open. But this might just have been the result of the fact that very little is open in Spain on a Sunday, which became an issue later in the day when looking for somewhere to eat dinner. The weather was a lot better than yesterday, a bit warmer and not nearly as windy, and the skies were a perfect blue.

As we walked to the church, however, we eventually found a place serving churros, which I thought J2 would like. I was right--the idea of filled fried dough was right up his alley--and the two that we ordered were indeed very good (cream and dulce de leche). We got to the church not long after it opened, at 9am, and easily spent the next two hours wandering the site. The architecture here is astounding, with loads to look at and both of us were mesmerized (no wonder, since we both had considered at some point in our lives pursuing a career in architecture), shooting loads and loads of pictures.

When finally we finished our visit to the church, we swung by the hotel to drop off the tome we bought on the compete oeuvre of Gaudí before visiting another of his works, the Casa Milà (or La Pedrera), an apartment building just up the street from our hotel. Here too we managed to spend a long time reading up on the architect’s vision and his methods, and snapping photos of the results of his work. Not yet having reached the saturation point on Gaudì’s works, we left La Pedrera by foot toward one of his earliest buildings, the Casa Vicens, stopping along the way for a quick bite to eat at a simple sandwich place, followed by a wonderful new (to us) concoction of a brioche sliced in half, with ice cream slathered inside, and then heated on a panini grill. Yum. Casa Vicens remains a private residence, however, so there was no chance for us to meander through the building, and in fact neither of us was as interested in this building as in his other works. From here we headed toward yet another Gaudì work, the Park Güell a bit north of the center, but when we got there we found that it was closed for some unknown reason (our cab driver supposed that it was due to fallen trees from yesterday’s winds) so we figured we’d try to come back later on and headed instead back to the Barri Gottic to visit the cathedral and wander the narrow streets of the old town.

As the afternoon started to wane, we found ourselves wandering the streets of La Ribera, and feeling less and less secure (it’s a dodgy-looking area, with loads of dodgy-looking people) so we got on the metro and headed back to the area of our hotel, stopping at the Cerveseria Catalana for a snack and then taking a short break at the hotel.

When dinner time started to approach we headed to Paco Meralgo, a place I had read about on line that was one of the few places I knew about that serves on Sunday. When we got there, at 8pm, it was not quite open yet, so we killed time until they were ready to receive us, at 8:30. Not really knowing what to order from the restaurant’s long list of dishes, we let the waiter lead the way. Here’s what he had us order:

Catalan Toast with Tomato and Garlic
1/2 Plate of Jamón serrano
Beef tartar on toast
Fried Zucchini flowers stuffed with melty cheese
Fried Seafood croquettes
Fried Chicken croquettes
Assorted grilled seafood (shrimp, clams, prawns, etc)
Grilled beef cubes with pepper

We also ordered a bottle of Spanish red wine (Ederra Crianza 2007). Though it seemed like it would be WAY too much food (and wine) it was not, and indeed all of it was excellent. We of course left room for dessert, our first authentic crema catalana (basically a Spanish version of creme brûlé) in Spain. All of it was very good, other than the crema catalana which I found a bit too grainy for my taste.

We wandered back to the hotel in a slightly tipsy state and began to prepare for our departure in the morning for a drive through Catalonia.

Barcelona Day Two

Saturday, January 24

We were awakened by a phone call from Beijing at 4:30am, from someone at work who did not realize that I was out of the country. To be fair, I was sort of awake then anyway, but having to get my brain activated for the call meant I could not possibly go back to sleep. So we read up on what we wanted to be sure to see during the day, and waited for 6am to roll around so we could go to the gym.

It’s a good thing we went to the gym, since we would end up grazing through cafes and tapas bars almost all day long. We started off with a cup of coffee and croissant and a cup of hot chocolate (the thickest I think I have ever seen) and a chocolate croissant (also very chocolaty--these for J2) at Bracafe not far from the hotel. We then continued down the Passeig de Gràcia toward the old Barri Gottic (Gothic Quarter) to wander around a bit before the shops started to open. When we got there we stumbled across a little coffee shop (El Mos) that had some nice looking sandwiches that seemed like a good follow on to our croissants. We eventually found ourselves on the famous pedestrian street, Las Ramblas, and then at the wonderful Boqueria market where we meandered among the beautiful displays of hams, fish, cheeses, and fruits for a while. Definitely will have to return to pick some things up to take to China before we leave.

As we left the market we quickly came to the conclusion that we should have put coats on when we left the hotel, since it was much cooler today than yesterday evening. Actually, it wasn’t so much that the temperature was low than that the winds were so heavy. In fact, the winds were so bad that we later learned that several people died as a result of the winds. So back to the hotel we went, taking the opportunity to visit the roof to see the view of some of the nearby buildings. As we headed back to the Barri Gottic to do some shopping, we decided to stop for a visit to the Casa Battlò, one of Gaudí’s buildings right on the Passeig de Gràcia near our hotel. The architecture is fascinating, with loads of interesting touches, decorative tricks and other little things to make the visit almost worth the astonishing €16.50 admission price.

By the time we came out of the house the shops were all open so we started poking around the stores looking for some clothes and good sales, since we often find it difficult to find interesting clothes that are in our size back in Beijing. We also figured that not many stores would be open on Sunday, so we’d put off most of our tourist activities till then. While wandering between shops we found ourselves getting hungry just as we were passing a Basque-themed tapas bar, so we had a light bite there (Txapela, on Pg de Gràcia).

During the course of our meandering through the Gothic Quarter we managed to stumble across a building that our guidebooks all recommended we visit but that I had not figured would be worth a detour. How wrong I was! The façade of the Palau de Música Catalana is a real tour de force, with very intricate and interesting carvings that made for a great photographic opportunity.

Eventually we started to fade from the onset of jet lag, so we took a break at the hotel in the late afternoon before venturing out again in search of dinner. We started off at the Cervesaria Catalana, the place where we failed to elbow our way close enough to the bar last night to be able to order anything. Today, arriving before 7pm we were luckier, and indeed the food was worth coming back for. Among the dishes we tried were a seasonal dish of calçots al romesco (ramps with spicy tomato sauce), which is only available this time of year.

Having thus staved off starvation, we headed on the metro back down to the Gothic Quarter in search of our next place to eat at. We first stopped at Espai Sucre, a restaurant specializing in desserts where we had a reservation for later in the evening, but it really did not look appealing to us so we decided to abandon that plan. We were near Comerç 24, a very well-regarded restaurant run by a chef who used to work with Ferran Adria, who invented molecular cuisine at his restaurant, El Bulli, up the coast from Barcelona, but we could not get in tonight so instead we made a booking for later in the week. Then we headed toward the restaurant Cal Pep to see about having some seafood tapas, but lo and behold, the restaurant is closed on Saturday evenings (what’s up with that??). This was probably just as well, though, since as we continued meandering through the narrow streets of the barrio we determined that we were really no longer all that hungry, so we opted to go back to the hotel for a relatively early night.

Catalonia Trip Day One

As we left Beijing for our trip to Spain, the temperatures in the Chinese capital dipped well below 0, prompting us as we left the house to wear our down coats even though temperatures in Spain promised to be quite a bit warmer. It was a good thing we did, since the Beijing airport, where we had to wait around 2 hours for our flight, was FREEZING. I have rarely been so cold in an enclosed building, and we were apparently not alone in feeling the cold, since all the staff working there were bundled up as though they were out on the street. I don’t know why it was so damned cold in there, but I hope that they did not forget to install a heating system when the built this brand-new terminal in time for the Olympics.

Our flight was OK, though I am amazed that Lufthansa gives so little legroom in their economy section. Plane was full, too, mostly of Europeans looking to get out before the holiday struck in China. Short connection in Frankfurt before continuing to Barcelona, but no problem making our flight.

Once in Barcelona we got our bags, got in a cab and drove to the hotel, a nice upscale place on Passeig de Grácia called Hotel Condes de Barcelona. After a quick shower we headed out to wander around and look at some of the sights on the avenue, including the Casa Battló, one of Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces. Before long we were feeling hungry (it was already nearly 8pm) so we ducked into a promising looking bar for some tapas. One of the place’s tapas of the day was pulpo a la gallega, a spicy octopus dish that is one of my favorite tapas, so I ordered, momentarily forgetting that for J2 eating octopus is like eating dog, since he considers them to be pets rather than anonymous sea creatures. More for me. The sherry that I had with our tapas was excellent, a red sherry that tasted almost like a port. Need to buy a bottle to bring home.

From this first place we headed toward another one nearby that has rave reviews in all the books, Cervesaria Catalana, but the place was packed and we could not get near a counter, so we bagged that and opted instead for the Jogar 5 Jotas nearby, for a pretty good plate of olives, some salami and very nice fried calamari, washed down with beer. By the time we were done with that we were fading so back to the hotel where we almost immediately fell asleep.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Off to Spain

We are on our way to Barcelona for Chinese New Year, figuring that perhaps there would not be too many Chinese there during the holiday so it won't be quite as crowded as Bali was last year. So we're sitting in the lounge at the airport in Beijing now, waiting for our Lufthansa flight, and I am about as cold as I have been in a long time. Why the brand new, multi-billion dollar airport that they built for the Olympics has no heat on one of the coldest days of the year so far is anyone's guess, but it is not too unusual. Many buildings seem to have been built with no plan to provide heating in the public areas, so often as you enter an office building the lobby will be absolutely frigid in the winter, as will the elevator, and only when you reach an actual office will you encounter actual warmth. My theory is that this is part of the Chinese government's plan to drive home their (occasional) contention that this is a developing country. Of course, when they want to act and look like a prosperous country, they can pull it off fairly well (vid the Olympics) but it is more often the case that they want the world to think of China as a poor country, and by golly, they are pretty darned good at making it look (and feel) that way!!

As my friend Ken says, this will only make our time in Spain be all the more pleasant! ¡Viva España!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lots to Report

This has been a busy few weeks here in Beijing! First of all, Ivan the puppy keeps us pretty busy, what with all the energy of a growing puppy and his and Leo's growing relationship. Whereas originally Leo was a bit indifferent to the newcomer, the two of them now get along very well, though Leo tends to like to take advantage of his much greater size to play keep-away with his little brother. What he forgets is that Ivan may be small, but he has very sharp little teeth that are well placed to nip at his big brother's ankles. Fortunately, Leo is quite even tempered, and never does anything more than growl at Ivan for the latter's indiscretions.

Secondly, I had my quarterly dental hygiene check last week, during which J2 recommended that I consider having our new dentist take a look at my mouth and see if he could anything about the increasing crowding of my teeth (I still have my wisdom teeth, which results in my teeth being tight to start with, and apparently as you age your teeth want to gravitate toward the center of your mouth, so if they are at all misaligned, the result will be a snaggletooth smile). Sure enough Dr Phil could help me out without having to extract any teeth, though he did need to "strip" a few (basically sandpaper away some of the enamel to make the teeth a bit narrower) and I'd have to wear braces for around six months. So they ordered the brackets on Friday, they arrived on Tuesday and they were installed on Wednesday, and I am now reliving the experience of my teenage years having food get caught in my dental work. Fun.

Third, last night was our company's annual Chinese New Year party, held at a new Japanese-y buffet restaurant called Todai. There was a Todai in Fairfax near our old house, which we visited a few times but did not really like, but this one is much better. Perhaps the difference is having actual Asians prepare the food, but whatever the reason, the variety and quality are far better at the Beijing branch. The staff loved it, and since it's a big buffet restaurant with lots of stations, we avoided the nightmare of last year's party, held at an Argentine churrasco place, where there were endless queues to get at the food.

Fourth, we had a new colleague join us at work. He's going to be one of our senior VPs, and he's a very nice guy who moved here from Maine with his very nice wife, so today I offered to take them to my favorite wet market to introduce them to my usual vendors, including Mr Ma, my beef and lamb guy, who always gets me the tenderest cuts of meat. They bought a bunch of stuff that got turned into a wonderful lunch, or so I am told.

Finally, with our trip to Spain for the Chinese New Year approaching on Friday, I naturally have already started to think about our next trip (I find it expedient to always have in mind where our next trip is going to be, so that when we return to Beijing or China from some wonderful place outside we have something to look forward to). I had promised J2 that I'd take him to Africa for a safari for his 40th birthday, but due to the Olympics I could not take the time last year, so we had to put it off. We had a lot of miles accumulating in our frequent flyer account that were going to expire, so we decided to use them to go to South Africa for two weeks in May, spending about a week each in Cape Town and vicinity (for the wine and food) and about 4-5 days in the Kruger National Park and then the remainder in Johannesburg and the surroundings. We are lucky enough to have good friends who live in Joburg who have kindly offered us the use of their beach house in Cape Town along with a car, and their 4x4 to use to drive from Joburg to and around the Kruger park. What could be better?? So we leave Beijing on May 13, returning via Singapore on May 29. This may mean that I get to buy another lens for my camera, too....

My next report will likely be about our trip to Spain!

Click here for some Ivan photos and here for some other Ivan photos
Click here for photos of the Chinese New Year Party
Click here for photos of the Xinyuanli market

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Different Side of Ivan

I caught this photo while Leo and Ivan were playing yesterday. The look on Ivan's face is one that we don't normally get to see, and makes him a little bit crazed... But I thought it was an interesting picture, anyway. There are more photos on the Smugmug page.

Monday, January 05, 2009

More Ivan Photos

I know you can never have too many puppy photos, so to prove it, here are some more: More Ivan Photos

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Grounds for Divorce

We have been out of the US a long time, I suppose, but can it really be that things have got so bad that this monstrosity would actually be considered an appropriate thing for ANYONE to use?? It's bad enough that it makes you look like a monk from some bizarre sect, but to think that people really cannot maneuver a blanket well enough that there could be a market for this thing is just unthinkable! I'm afraid that if J2 were to see this ad he might actually want one (he will often be sitting under a quilt on the couch while I lounge in shorts and a t-shirt) but if he did I think I would have legitimate grounds for divorce.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Pup's Progress

It's quite something to have a puppy around for a change. When we bought our Labradoodle, Leo, in 2004, he was already 4 months or so old, and had already been house trained and was a pretty decent size. In Ivan's case (or ITT, as my mother says she's going to call him, for "Ivan The Terrible"), he's only two months old, and has a lot still to learn. But, according to the websites, Shelties are the sixth smartest breed around, and they are very fast learners. Sure enough, Ivan is demonstrating that this is indeed the case.

Since getting him on Sunday he has already learned several things. First of all, he knows how to let us know that he needs to go outside. While we don't always pick up on it, he tends to start fussing a lot and making a lot of noise when it's time, and then as soon as he goes outside he immediately "does his business". At night he still has a few accidents, though I suppose at his age it's too much to ask for him to be able to control his movements for such a long time.

For the first few days that he was with us, we was completely unable to navigate our staircase, and on Tuesday I even remember saying to J2 that I wondered how long it would be before he could walk up or down the steps on his own. Sure enough, on Wednesday that trick was mastered, prompted by my having gone upstairs while Ivan was playing downstairs (he has grown very attached to me). Going down the stairs was another matter, and took another two days to learn.

He has also started to learn how to play with Leo, giving the "play bow" every so often, which tends to elicit in Leo nothing much more than a swipe of the forepaw. I am sure that eventually Leo will start to play with Ivan, but for the moment Ivan must content himself with his wide array of toys and all the delicious toes and pants hems that he has to nibble on...

Happy 2009!

We ushered in 2009 in our usual way--a quiet evening with friends over dinner. These friends live across the street from us, which had its pluses and minuses; on the plus side, it meant we could walk there rather than having to deal with traffic and the uncertainty of getting a cab on New Year's Eve, but on the negative side it meant we had to brave the frigid temperatures outside. Even though it was a short walk, the combination of cold temps and brisk winds meant that we showed up at their place looking like we had climbed an Alp. Before long, however, the good wine and spicy Indian food made us forget the cold, though we were immediately reminded again when we headed home (at around 12:30).

Ivan and Leo are getting more familiar with each other, and are learning how far they can get with each other. Ivan is learning that he needs to be more careful with his biscuits if he doesn't want Leo to steal them, and Leo is learning that little puppy teeth, while they don't do much damage, are still pretty darn sharp.

I hope that 2009 brings everyone much happiness, health, and other good things!