Spain 2017 – Tour Day 3

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By Susan Mahr

October 7

We were on our own for breakfast any time after 7:00, but had to be ready by 8:30 to meet our guide Norbert for our walking tour this morning. We headed outside to walk down the street the Hotel Cubik is on, stopping briefly to look at the music palace and silk house. He told us some of the history of Barcelona, which was the first industrialized city in Europe. There are over 4 million people in the metropolitan area. We headed off the main road to walk through the streets of the old medieval city founded by the Romans (Ciutat Vella in Catalan). One of our first stops was the Barcelona Cathedral. This gothic church was built from 1293 through the 1400s, but the façade was added in the early 20th century by a prominent businessman who wanted to make the city look more impressive for an international expo in the 1880’s. We went inside to see the vaulted ceilings and learned about the gothic and baroque chapels and alters on either side of the huge triple nave. Norbert pointed out the large white marble baptismal font where the first Native Americans brought back by Christopher Columbus were baptized. We had special access to go into the central choir stalls, with elaborately carved wooden stalls (with half seats to lean against not really sit down on) and beautifully painted coat of arms. From there we walked out through the courtyard where there is still the original gothic fountain, and outside around the corner to Plaça de Sant Felip Neri. This quiet, unadorned square with a simple fountain in the middle was the site where 30 children sheltering in the school there were killed in 1938 by Franco’s bombs.

From there we headed through narrow corridors – walking by still-closed shops with the metal roll-up security doors painted with graffiti or in some cases advertising by the shop – to go by the church of St. Mary of the Pine Tree (named for the lone pine tree in the square there) to get to Las Ramblas. This famous leafy pedestrian walkway lined with shops and restaurants and filled with people has different names depending on what is along that section, such as flower markets or the opera house. We were near the old opera house (the interior of which was destroyed in a fire, but has been restored) where the terrorist attack occurred as a man drove a van into pedestrians.

Then we walked through Royal Square with the surrounding buildings filled with bars and nightclubs, with some early Gaudí works, and on to St. James Square, the largest plaza in the city with the palace and city hall on either side, both Gothic buildings (from the 14th century) with new facades. Around the corner we passed the Cooking School where we’d return to later, and continued on to Mont Taber, the highest point in the city at 16.9 meters, commemorated with a small plaque on a building. Inside that building we viewed some original Roman columns that has been restored and were now protected inside. Back outside we headed down another narrow corridor toward the cathedral and looked up at the three unusual gargoyles – a unicorn, an elephant and a knight on a horse – high up on the back side of the cathedral. We ducked through the courtyard of another building and out into another plaza, where the Museum of the History of Barcelona is, with modern history at the top and succeeding eras on each floor below descending to Roman history of the area in the basement. From there we quickly went to see the gothic church of seafarers, Santa Maria del Mar, with its original round stained glass window (the rest of the interior had been destroyed in the civil war and restored), but had to rush through and quickly make our way over to the Santa Caterina food market where we met our delightful chef/guide Rosa from the Catalan Cookery School, “Cook & Taste”.

Rosa led us into the large market – which was remodeled in 2005 and has a colorful roof in Gaudí style, but we couldn’t see that part – where various stalls offer a variety of foods, each specializing in olives, other meats, produce, cooked beans and prepared foods, cheeses, or other foods. She told us all about jamon iberico and jamon serrano while waiting nearly 20 minutes to have owner Carles carve off very thin slices of jamon iberico for our lunch; mentioned that Spain is the leading producer of olives in the world, with 262 cultivars grown in the county; bought some fresh figs for Linda’s gluten-free dessert (and some of us also purchased our own for lunch the next day); explained the various types of fish and seafood, including the cuttlefish that would be in our lunch (although she had purchased that previously in order to prepare it and keep it in a different kitchen so there would be no risk of cross-contamination for Dan). We were running behind schedule so had no extra time to make individual purchases, and walked the few blocks back, around the cathedral, to the cooking school at Carrer del Paradís 3.

Everything was set up at a very long table with prep areas and burners on one side and individual place settings and chairs along the other. We all donned our brown aprons, washed hands, and got started with our lesson after Rosa opened some bottles of wine and water for us to drink all during the cooking demonstration and meal. Rosa began explaining the dishes we were creating (we had printed recipes for all), starting with the dessert which would take a long time to bake. Asking for volunteers, Cindy and Hannah came us to peel, core and cut up the apples, while Marta worked on the dough for the crust, mixing the prepared butter, flour and sugar with her fingers, and then pressing the mixture into the bottom of baking cups. Half of the apples were chopped into small pieces, and placed atop the dough and sprinkled with sugar, while the other halves were sliced only partway through so the slices would fan out when baked as they were set on top of the sugared chopped apples. While they worked on that, Tom, Janice and Susan began working on the romesco sauce (a nut and red pepper-based sauce that originated from fishermen in Tarragona, Catalonia, who this area to be eaten with fish), scraping the flesh from rehydrated dried red peppers and removing the skin from the pre-toasted almond (by placing the nuts in a towel, tying it up and rubbing the contents around), then squeezing out the interior of the slow-roasted garlic (cooked for 1.5 hours at 225F). Eventually all of that, along with some hazelnuts and olive oil, would be ground up into a smooth, thick sauce with an immersion blender. Next came the vegetable prep, with Dan slicing butternut squash into thin strips, Linda slicing zucchini and Charlene and Mary quartering large spring onions. All of those were placed on baking sheets to roast while we prepared the starters and paella.

We had two starters to prepare, the traditional tomato bread and a Spanish omelet. Dan and Linda were recruited to scrape fresh tomato halves over well-toasted coarse bread, sprinkle with salt and finally drizzle with olive oil. Meanwhile Tom and Janice arranged the purchased jamon iberico slices decoratively on plates, while Susan and Rosa chopped onions and peppers and Cindy grated tomatoes that would be used for the sofrito for the paella and fideua.  When all was ready we had a little break to enjoy these starters, being instructed to let the ham melt on the tongue to savor its flavor. Before we got started on the next part, a few of us slipped out to go around the corner to St. James square to look at the peaceful demonstration for Catalonian independence that we could hear but not see from our classrooms. A sea of people mostly dressed in white, with white balloons and small signs promoting dialog and peace held above the crowd filled the square.

We resumed cooking, now on to the omelet prep which included searing spinach and cooked white beans we’d purchased at the market (lifting to turn, not stirring, to prevent the produce from getting watery or mushy), always cooking with a generous amount of olive oil. Once that was done, Rosa brought in two special butane burners and large paella pans, then had Dan searing the chunks of chicken that would go into the small pan of paella with chicken for the two with dietary restrictions, and got Tom started cooking the prawns on the larger flat pan. Once the seafood started sizzling, Dan turned over his cooking duties to Linda (so he wouldn’t be inhaling seafood fumes), then the spatulas were passed on to Mary and Charlene for the constant stirring of the vegetable sofritamixtures that would flavor the paella dishes (onion and pepper for the chicken one; onion and tomato for the seafood one). While that cooking continued, Marta cracked the dozen brown eggs into a bowl and Rosa then poured the beaten eggs over the previously cooked spinach and white beans into omelet pans, cooking this until the bottom was set. To flip the omelets so the other side could be cooked, she inverted the whole thing onto a casserole lid (a plate could be used, too) and then slide the “cake” back into the pan for a few more minutes before sliding them out of the pans onto plates.

As the omelets sat cooling, Rosa returned to the paella, now adding rice and liquid stock to the pans – only realizing too late that she’d put the rice for the chicken paella into the seafood one that was supposed to have the toasted noodles. So improvising, she got more rice and added the appropriate amount of liquid to compensate for the difference. As the rice cooked a bit, she returned to the omelets, now poaching them in broth to complete the cooking process. The final ingredients were added to the paella and those were left to cook on the burners without stirring for a while. Then it was time for Susan and Marta to assemble the vegetables, placing a large dollop of the thick romesco on rectangular white ceramic plates and smearing it along its length before placing the roasted onions, zucchini and butternut decoratively in artistic arrangements on top, with a few purple society garlic flowers as garnish.

The individual apple cakes came out of the oven about the time Rosa cut up the omelet to serve in small bowls. After we’d enjoyed that tasty snack, it was time to unveil the paellas which had been resting under large kitchen towels. Rosa held up the beautiful seafood paella (which several of us were a little disappointed it wasn’t the noodle equivalent as we had been looking forward to trying this variation on paella) to admire before serving our masterpiece. Once we’d eaten as much of the delicious main dish as we could, we turned to plating the desserts. Rosa whipped up cream with a large whisk and added some plain yogurt for a tangy concoction which she dolloped and smeared along a rectangular black slate piece, and then the little apple cakes were set on one end of the plate. Linda’s gluten-free option was slices of fresh figs with the same cream mixture. Once the meal was ended, we left the dishes for the staff to clean up, retired our aprons, said our thanks to Rosa and had about half an hour before the tour was scheduled to continue. Several of us rushed off to make purchases or just wander around the historic area.

We met Norbert again at 4:00 on the corner of St. James square – all the demonstrators had dispersed earlier – and followed him through the historic district past an old Roman tower and other interesting buildings (but no time to discuss them) to the meeting place where we boarded the coach driven by Jose Antonio that would take us across town. We drove down the main street with Norbert telling us about several Gaudí-designed buildings there, including the Casa Batlló, a 1877 building remodeled by Gaudí in 1904-07 with its deep blue roof and the balcony railings looking like opera masks, and La Pedrera with its undulating light limestone façade and flowing organic-sculpture dark iron rails. Turning onto Diagonal Street we could see the Torpedo building off in the distance, but soon turned to be dropped off to walk two block to the La Sagrada Familia (buses are not allowed any closer because of congestion at this major tourist area). We went to the group entrance at this very crowded tourist attraction, and once we got through the slow lines, were given little receivers and headphones so we could easily hear Norbert’s commentary. We followed him around as he told us about this unfinished masterpiece of Antoní Gaudí, leading us first inside to the basilica with its soaring columns (of different types of stone) that were intended to resemble tree trunks with branches coming off up high and the ceiling of parabolic shapes (that provide support with less structure than other construction techniques) that are the forest canopy. Colored light from a rainbow of stained glass windows on either side filtered into the large, open space as we learned of its construction and symbolism of the various elements.  We went outside to see one of two completed facades – walking past the doors decorated with metal sculpture of green leaves with little bronze creatures including beetles, snails, spiders, wasps and other insects. We backed up as far as possible on the portico to view the fantastical Nativity façade, with stone sculptures depicting the birth of Christ and other pivotal events of his early life. We then went back through the church to see the vastly different Passion façade, with stark and ghoulish depictions of the passion and crucifixion (intended to convey the pain of the situation), surmounted by a series of columns resembling bleached bones, high above which sat a bronze sculpture representing the resurrection and ascension. We descended to quickly walk through the little museum in the base of the structure but didn’t have much time to read the limited information about Gaudí and the models of the structure that is still under construction.  We quickly walked around to the segregated sacristy, intentionally away from the congested, crazy tourist-filled basilica in a quiet space. From there we had about 10 minutes to wander on our own before gathering outside to walk back to the bus.

From there we drove 20 minutes or so the get to another of Gaudí’s projects, the idiosyncratic housing project-cum-park, Park Güell. This UNESCO World Heritage Site in the La Salut district in Graciá was a collaboration with Eusebi Güell who wanted to build a residential development in the spirit of the British “garden city” of the time. The sun was heading for the horizon when we got there about 6:30, so quickly walked through a portion of the park to view one of the weird, organic shade structures with columns resembling palm tree trunks that was one of the public spaces that should have connected the intended estates (which never got built for several reasons). From there we walled past a series of palm trees where green monk parakeets (feral naturalized populations of this South American species) were nesting to go into the restricted zone. We started out on the plaza flanked with undulating mosaic-covered benches (a large portion under reconstruction and inaccessible) up on top from where there is a dramatic view of the city below. Then we descended to view the structural support of that plaza, with numerous columns supporting a parabolic roof set with mosaic pieces depicting the sun in four seasons and smaller ones of the phases of the moon throughout the seasons. From there we walked past the one home that existed here before the park project was started, a large pink-stuccoed building with a cast iron fence of fan palm leaves, and to another structure set into the hillside, with curved design supposed to resemble an ocean wave. Walking to the next area we passed the lone human figure, a washerwoman holding a basket on her head, integrated into one of the columns. Now we were in the more fantastical section, with colorful depictions of animals, including the head of a white whale with its mouth open (where all the Asian tourists had to have a photo), a large colorful “salamander” (which looks much more like an iguana) in the middle of the staircase; a deer head against the two gatehouses that resembled crazy gingerbread houses with curved roofs, which would have been caretaker’s houses and are now a reception building and book shop. We had a few minutes free before it was time to board the coach to take us back to the hotel as dusk fell.

It was dark by the time we got back to Hotel Cubik about 8:15, and most people dispersed to their rooms to start packing for the early morning departure the next day. Dan and Susan hiked in the cool evening air back to Arros i Peix where we’d had our welcome dinner to retrieve the outer shirt Dan had accidentally left behind a few days earlier, while Tom and Janice went out to have dinner since no one was planning to gather on the rooftop terrace one last time.

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