Dreaming of Spain

Dreaming of Spain

by Elena Sugiyama
Stripes Guam

Last year, I went on my dream trip to Spain. I have literally had dreams of being in Spain. I don’t know where I was, probably Barcelona because that’s where I wanted to go the most. I have been studying Spanish for a few years and my friends from my Spanish class have all been to Spain, and they all raved about Barcelona. So in my mind, there was no doubt that Barcelona is the best place to go in Spain. My favorite soccer team is in Barcelona, so that by itself made Barcelona the top priority for my trip.

I was also interested in Basque Country and Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, so I decided to do short trips along the northern part of Spain. The initial plan was to travel alone, but a friend was interested in traveling around the same time, so we decided to go together so that I wouldn’t have to spend Christmas and New Year’s alone in a foreign country. We took different flights. My friend was flying in and out of Madrid and I was flying in and out of Barcelona. So I added a couple more cities to visit: Madrid and Valencia. Madrid because it’s the capital and Valencia to visit my friend.

Since there are no direct flights to Spain from Japan, I was excited about where to make the layover. I had never been anywhere besides Japan and the U.S., so although it’s just a layover, the thought of being in a strange land made me excited. The tickets I could find were mostly in the $850-$950 range. I was willing to pay that price until my co-worker found me $550 ticket on the Japanese travel agency H.I.S. website. I would be flying Turkish Airlines, with a layover Istanbul.

The Turkish delights passed out on the flight were delicious! After a 13-hour flight, we landed in Istanbul with 4-5 hours to kill until my connecting flight. The airport was pretty big but easy to get around. It was 4 or 5 in the morning when I landed, but some shops and cafes were already open. Is that normal? I’ve never been at an airport so early in the morning. When I left Narita at midnight, the stores were almost all closed. My friend flew Emirates Airlines through Dubai for the first time, and her impression of the airport was “very pretty but needlessly huge.”

Barcelona

Istanbul to Barcelona took about 4 hours. Finally, I had arrived in Barcelona, the city of my dreams! My first travel abroad in over 10 years and my very first time in Europe. I was greeted by an unhappy looking Gerard Piqué (soccer player from Barça) look-alike immigration officer who was, in my opinion, way too interested in my financial status.

I took a train from the airport to Barcelona Sants station, which is the biggest train station in Barcelona. The train ride was about 20 minutes. My hotel was conveniently located right above Sants station. I had to try if my Spanish worked on real Spaniards so I checked in speaking Spanish. There’s not much to say when checking in, but they understood!

I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about the hotel staff, but the hotel room was clean, and the location is great because you’re right above the station. There were a few bars and restaurants within walking distance. And if you really have to eat at McDonald’s, there’s one in the station that’s open 24 hours.

The first place I went to was Camp Nou, home to FC Barcelona, a soccer team (my soccer team) that has won years five Champions League and three Club World Cups in recent years. I was greeted by a clown dressed in Barça colors who invited me to take a photo with him … and then charged me for it. I had tickets for a game the next day, but I couldn’t wait to get my soccer fix. So, I visited the on-site museum where you can see all the cups won by Barça throughout the years, along with photos, videos and memorabilia. It’s a place I would not recommend going to if you’re not a Barça fan.

I usually watch the games on cable at home in Japan, wishing I was at the stadium with my fellow Barça fans. But when I went there the next day to watch the game, I didn’t get that special feeling that I had imagined. I felt like I had already been there before.

There are many great Gaudi buildings in Barcelona, but the only one I saw was Sagrada Familia. It was beautiful. I went up one of the towers and the view was both magnificent and terrifying. I had forgotten that I was afraid of heights, but did not regret going up. If you’re going to Sagrada Familia, make sure you buy a ticket in advance that allows you to skip the line or you’ll end up lining up in the queue for who knows how long. I felt like I understood the greatness of Gaudi enough with Sagrada Familia. I’ll go see the others on my next visit.

Of all the places I went in Barcelona, the top three were Barri Gòtic (or Gothic Quarter in English), Montserrat and Montjuic.

The Gothic Quarter is like an old city. Cathedrals, old buildings and narrow streets. For those who have traveled Europe, it may be a familiar sight. But for a first-timer, this area was fascinating. There’s a cute little café called Caelum where a variety of delicious cakes, pies and tarts are displayed by the window. They also sell polvorone, turron and other typical Spanish delicacies made by nuns. This café used to be an old Jewish bath house and the décor is very interesting as well.

Montserrat is about an hour and a half away from Barcelona by train. Here, you get to see the Virgin of Montserrat, or more commonly known as La Moreneta. According to Monserrat Official Guide, “the image of the Mother of God is found, according to legend, in a cave in the mountain.” The monastery and basilica are built on top of the mountain and the view is spectacular. La Moreneta is located inside the basilica, and when I was there, there was a long line of people inside to see the Madonna and touch, embrace and/or kiss her.  I’m sure there’s a lot more to see, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time there. I will definitely go back to visit.

There`s a lot to see at the Montjuic. I read that during the Spanish Civil War, a lot of people were taken there, killed and buried by Gen. Franco’s men. Although there are many similar places where victims of the civil war are buried, I thought that Montjuic kind of symbolized what the people of Barcelona had to endure during the war and the whole time Franco was in power. It’s a sad place historically, but it’s a beautiful area to take a long, peaceful walk. Some other places of interest are the Olympic stadium, Joan Miro Museum, botanical garden and National Art Museum of Catalunya. If you take the ferrocarril and go further up the hill, you`ll get to the Montjuic Castle, once a military fort. There is a guided tour in English, so check the schedule before you go.

The second hotel I stayed while in Barcelona, Andante Hotel, was way better than the first one. It’s close to Drassanes Station, only a couple of blocks away from the busy Ramblas. All the staff are very friendly and helpful, and they all speak very good English. There’s a swimming pool on the roof, with a great view of the city.

Christmas in Spain ends Jan. 6, with the arrival of the three kings. There was a big parade in Barcelona starting at the port and making its way all the way to Catalunya Square. Families were waiting along the side of the street for hours for the parade to start. It was somewhat similar to the electrical parade at Tokyo Disneyland.

Basque Country
After six hours on the train from Barcelona, we arrived at Donostia/San Sebastian. The moment I stepped out of the station, I was filled w ith all the positive adjectives there are to describe a beautiful city. San Sebastian is famous for its film festival that takes place every summer. We arrived on Christmas day, and many stores and bars were closed. However, some were open and packed with tourists. The food was amazing. Basque is famous for its pintxos (small snack, usually on a piece of bread) and txacoli (Basque sparkling white wine).

Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)

It took over 10 hours to get to Santiago de Compostela from San Sebastian. It was a long trip, but time flew because I enjoyed the view from the train so much. You can also grab a sandwich and coffee on the train. It was surprisingly delicious!

It was already past 8 p.m. when we arrived, but I wanted to go out and explore. We were staying in the Old Town where the streets and the buildings reminded me a little of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona. The hotel owner told us that it was completely safe to walk around at night so we headed out. A few cafes and bars were still open but we decided to check out the cathedral, the holy site of Catholic pilgrimage. It also enshrines St. James the apostle.

The moment the cathedral came to sight, my jaw dropped to the ground in awe. It was the holiest thing I had ever seen. It was beyond magnificent. The next day we went back in time for mass and was fortunate to see the botafumeiro in action. Botafumeiro is like a metal vase-like container with incense inside, hanging from the ceiling. They burn the incense and swing the botafumeiro back and forth to get rid of the smell of the pilgrims in the olden days.

Madrid

Ah, Madrid, I imagined you as the boring capital of Spain. I was so wrong! There’s so much to see, and much more to eat! I could easily spend the whole day at the Prado Museum, the Buen Retiro Park, or at a market. At a market you can sample a variety of foods. It’s like a mall of small restaurants. I have a favorite bar called Las Bravas. I think there are three of them scattered in central Madrid. They serve the most delicious patatas bravas, with their original bravas sauce. If you go to Las Bravas in Pasaje Matheu, you might find a waiter who looks exactly like Ben Stiller.

Valencia
It was so warm I could’ve walked around in a t-shirt during the day.

Paella originated in Valencia. I was told that the seafood paella is for tourists and that the real paella is the one with the rabbit meat. I did not eat the meat, but the rest was delicious.

I’ve always wondered about the Holy Grail. The whereabouts and if anybody was really looking for it. I found it in Valencia. For those who are interested, it is exhibited in the Chapel of the

Holy Chalice in the Valencia Cathedral. It seems like the upper part of the grail, the cup part, is “holy,” and the handles and the stem were made during the medieval period.

I can’t wait to go back to Spain and see more and eat more.

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