Sunday, April 20, 2014

Barcelona's Santa Eulalia Festival: A PhotoEssay

During our long weekend in Barcelona, we happened across a festival taking place in and around the area where we were staying, specifically centered around the Plaza St. Jaume, just a few blocks off the Ramblas.  The Fiesta de Santa Eulalia is an annual event that takes place around the official Saint Eulalia's day on the 12th of February, the date of her death in the year 303.  While one of the biggest annual festivals in Barcelona, it is actually a children's celebration, as Saint Eulalia, a co-patron saint of Barcelona, only lived to be thirteen years old.

We had no idea that the festival was actually taking place or what the events would be, but our paths continuously intersected with the festival happenings.  Every bit of it was a happy surprise, an incredible cultural addition to our time in Barcelona.  What follows is a photo essay on the events that we witnessed.


Our first glimpse of the festival was a parade marching down Ferran, one of the side streets off the Ramblas.  The sounds of drums pulled us towards the festivities, and we witnessed children and parents marching along - some of the children carrying small instruments, some dressed in costume, some with paper mache fruits attached to them!

Later, as we walked through Plaza St. Jaume en route to the Picasso Museum, we spotted a stage set up where various groups perform traditional dances until it began to grow dark.

After the dance performances, another parade of drummers - a consistent theme that we noticed - began winding their way around the streets surrounding the square.

A few hours later, we noticed the plaza was now jam-packed with people, as they watched animated short films that had been projected onto the facade of one of the buildings in the square.  All three of the films shown utilized the structure of the building, and all were incredibly entertaining, unique, and inventive.  

The following day, we found ourselves back in the Plaza St. Jaume after dark, and João happened to pick up on an announcement (in Catalan) saying something about the next portion involving fire and to participate at your own risk, so of course we wanted to stick around to see what it was all about.  

Suddenly we saw the start of the parade, emerging from the opening in one of the large buildings in the square, a stream of locals playing drums, followed by young children in costumes wielding fireworks, spinning at the ends of long poles, like giant sparklers creating an umbrella of sparks over the children carrying them, until the fireworks were spent, going out with small pops.  Each time the fireworks ran out, the child would go running back to an adult (also in costume), to be given a new firework that would then be lit anew.  

The children wore outfits that resembled miniature devils - colored jumpsuits with hoods and goggles and little horns, wearing large gloves, allowing them to run and leap and hop around under their showers of sparks without any potential for danger.  

As the procession made its way through the square, parents and children and casual observers (like ourselves) would dash out, ducking under the umbrellas of sparks, trying to keep up as the children danced around.  

Occasionally a figure would emerge - usually large dragons -carried, pulled, or worn by adults in the groups, with their own sets of fireworks, shooting dozens of sparks into the crowd before quickly burning out and advancing forward again.  

We stayed for nearly the entire parade, eyes wide with wonder and grinning like children as we watched and snapped photos and dashed in and out from under the sparks ourselves.  We finally tore ourselves away as it started raining, just catching one of the last of the giant figures - a sort of dragon-human figure with fireworks sprouting from its mouth.  


While completely unplanned, the Santa Eulalia festival became one of our favorite activities of our entire visit to Barcelona.  The energy and the cultural pride of the people all around us was so beautiful to witness, and the events themselves were incredible and unique, both simple and surprising, altogether awe-inspiring.

More information on the Santa Eulalia festival in Barcelona can be found here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Long Weekend in Barcelona

While I had an opportunity to travel around Spain four years ago, the one city I hated to have missed was Barcelona.  So when the opportunity came up to spend a long weekend there with João during my time in Portugal, I definitely didn't want to pass it up.  An artist himself, João had always wanted to visit the city best known for Gaudi's incredible architecture, but had somehow never made the trip.  After running across a too-good-to-pass-up fare on RyanAir out of nearby Porto and confirming that we could stay with a friend and former bandmate of João's in the heart of the city, it was impossible to turn down.  Our visit definitely focused on some of the major tourist attractions, but we also enjoyed simply wandering and people-watching, and we were fortunate enough to happen upon an incredible festival during our stay - something I'll cover in a later post :)

Day 1

We arrived into Barcelona very early on a Friday, catching an absolutely gorgeous sunrise midway through our flight.  We easily navigated our way to Ricardo's flat, just off the Ramblas, it was an incredibly convenient point for exploring the city!  Once we had some food (and coffee!), João and I hopped the metro to Park Güell to take advantage of the clear blue skies and gorgeous weather.  We wound through the neighborhood en route, stopping at a massive monastery with beautiful architecture and climbing a tall hill to reach the park.  Park Güell was constructed between 1900 and 1914, a collaboration between Antoni Gaudi and his benefactor, Count Eusebi Güell, and was originally intended to be an upper-class housing development, but has since been converted into a municipal garden.

Entering the main section of the park, we followed a designated path to the front entrance, stopping in two small houses covered in mosaic tiles, with organic, winding spires.  We toured the small exhibit in one of the houses, then continued up the ornate staircase outside, flanked by two walls of tiles, with a small fountain in the center, which included a large lizard covered in multicolor mosaic tiles.  We continued inside the hypostyle room, a covered area with tall, twisting organic columns of white, like roots of the structure above - a small plaza, outlined with benches covered in mosaic tiles above a row of gargoyles.  We relaxed in the open space, enjoying the sun and the view over Barcelona.  

We followed the path down the other side of the pavilion, which led to a sort of open tunnel - wall on one side, columns on the other, which wound around the exterior of this section of the park until it eventually formed a winding ramp leading up to the gate where we had originally entered.  (This tunnel may also be familiar to anyone who watches America's Next Top Model, as it was used in a finale runway show a number of years ago!).  After exiting the 'pay' section of the park, we continued wandering around, past the Gaudi house, and watched a street performer create massive bubbles for children to chase.

Our next stop was La Pedrera, Gaudi's crowning achievement in architecture, constructed from 1906-1912.  Unfortunately, the entire exterior was covered in scaffolding, but we were eager to see the interior and the famous rooftop.  We made our way inside to the courtyard, framed by organic waves of walls and windows, covered in white tile with a light dusting of color - greens and purples - along the walls.  We took an elevator up to the roof where the setting sun cast an incredible light on the unique shapes of the famous chimneys… some were large, bulbous creatures with human features; others appeared to be rows of soldiers, with helmets like star troopers!!  Some were smooth, sand-colored, and others were covered in a patchwork of white tile.  A single set of 'soldiers' were covered in a mosaic of broken green glass bottles.  

We slowly explored the roof for a while before venturing to the attic, which was set up as a sort of museum to Gaudi's work.  It was fascinating to see examples of the natural inspirations he used, models of many of his projects, and even a set of chains arranged in parabolic arches that, when held upside down, depicted the structural plan for one of his buildings.  Finally, we visited the apartment space, crafted in Gaudi's unique style and furnished in art deco decor.  Even the floor tiles, echoed in the sidewalks outside, were beautifully unique, like abstract fossils set into the floor.  

Beyond exhausted from our day of travel and exploring, we couldn't bring ourselves to cook that evening.  Luckily we discovered a small bar called Guru near the end of the Ramblas, close to where we were staying, where we had two of the most incredible burgers I've tasted in a long time!  Topped with caramelized onions and cheese, and served with a pile of roasted potato wedges with spicy ketchup and garlic mayo on the side, it was exactly what we needed before collapsing.

Day 2 

The next day, we slept in and decided on a more relaxing day 'close to home'.  We wandered down the Ramblas, stopping in at La Boqueria Market, exploring the aisles of fresh fruit, cheese, fish, and other assorted food products.  We picked up a couple of salads from one of the stalls and staked out a spot to enjoy them.  From there, we planned to continue down the Ramblas, until the sounds of a small parade drew us down one of the side streets, part of the festival that I will discuss next time :).  

Winding back to the Ramblas, a small local art gallery caught our eye.  Venturing inside, we slowly checked out the various pieces on display, spending an inordinate amount of time discussing a piece by artist Javier de Cea that we disliked immediately, and wanted to purchase by the time we left the shop!

Back on the Ramblas, we decided to visit Palau Güell, another of Gaudi's masterpieces of architecture, and one of his very first works!  Admission included an audio tour, so we spent quite a long time inside exploring the incredible architecture (which was both extravagant and incredibly practical) and the ridiculous amount of wealth that was exhibited inside the home!  Starting in the basement (where the horses were kept), to the impressive entryway (Gaudi used 'bricks' made of wood on the side entry where the carriages arrived to mute the sounds of the horses' hooves), to the ornately decorated rooms, especially the large interior room containing an organ, used for musical concerts and as part of actual church services!  

The home spanned multiple stories up to an impressive spired roof, which from the inside appeared to be a dome with beautiful pinpoints of light shining through, and from the outside was a spire covered in mosaic stone, topped with an iron dragon!  The roof also contained dozens of chimneys, some in brick, others in blends of mosaic tile in Gaudi's style.  

We decided to venture back down Ferran, the same street where we had spotted the parade earlier, which turned out to be the way over to the Picasso Museum.  On the way, we stopped in at what would become our favorite spot in our favorite cafe, El Fornet - a spot to indulge in coffee and watch people walking up and down the busy road, a window to the world.  We continued on, finally reaching the Picasso Museum just as it closed!  We decided to venture back later, instead grabbing coffee in a nearby cafe and broke out the sketchbook, trying our hand at some charcoals as it grew dark outside. 

Day 3

On Sunday, we got a leisurely start and took the metro out to Parc Joan Miro, where we viewed a large, abstract, colorful statue by Miro and watched locals of various skillets rollerblade up and down the concrete pavilion where the statue was located.  We spotted a cafe stand and tables in another section of the park and enjoyed a coffee and snack while we watched dogs and their owners scamper around an adjacent dog park.  From the park, we ventured to Plaza Espanya, walking towards the Nacional d'Art de Catalunya.  The museum was a massive capitol-shaped building - long, rectangular, with a central dome - set high upon a hill, above a set of platforms with fountains, making the building appear even more grandiose from below.  After making our way up, we discovered the exhibitions were closing soon, but we were able to at least go in to see the impressive architecture of the central space and one of Miro's large works before exiting.  

We metroed back to Ricardo's neighborhood and paid a long visit to our favorite cafe before returning to visit the Picasso Museum.  As we arrived, we noticed a massive queue to get in - as it turns out, the museum is free for a few hours (between 4 and 6:30) on the first Sunday of the month, and we had hit it just at the right time!  The museum housed an incredible collection - mostly Picasso's earliest works - and we were astounded by many of the pieces.  One in particular, his very first major work, titled 'First Communion', absolutely blew us away - a master-level painting completed when he was only 15 years old.  We moved slowly through the rest of the museum, seeing studies and rough sketches, Latrec-inspired works (with brighter colors and darker subjects), pieces from the blue period, an barely-started work of pointillism that I absolutely loved, and many cubist works.  

Day 4

Our final full day in Barcelona, we slept in before heading out to see the Sagrada Família.  The weather was cold and windy and foggy, but as we stepped out of the metro, the first thing we noticed was the stunning facade and towering scaffolding of the church, standing stunned for a few moments, just taking it all in.  João had decided not to go inside, but he stood in the queue with me until I reached the entrance.  Walking through the entryway into the Sagrada Família was astounding.  Light poured in through a large stained glass window in greens and blues on the opposite end, and I caught my first glimpse of the structural columns that rose up all around, like thin tree trunks branching out to support the roof above.  

I fully entered the church, noticing the enormous alterspace to my left and the expansive knave to my right, where the tree-like columns continued, made of different types of stone - some with a purple hue, others more red, still others grey or speckled white.  Stained glass windows in dazzling colors lined the knave, reminiscent of Gaudi's broken tile mosaics in geometric patterns, occasionally forming Biblical images.  The windows in the far back, like so much of the church, sit waiting, unfinished.  

The ceiling, supported by the branching columns, held geometric leaves, white geometric levels forming grooves in the ceiling which created circular spaces, where simple Christian icons were visible.  Above the altar, a circle of lights framed a suspended crucifix.  High above, light poured in through and opening in the ceiling which had been framed in gold, with small triangular images representing the trinity, the entire thing resembling a beam of light shining down from heaven.

I explored the area behind the altar, which included small alcoves for prayer with seats, some containing religious iconography, all with brilliant stained glass windows in bright colors.  I made my way back to the center, taking time to sit and just take it all in… the cathedral makes you feel so incredibly small, and everything draws your eye upward.  

I finally made my way back outside into the cold and brutal wind to view the other facade up close - the same side that had initially struck us when we stepped out of the metro.  This one depicted the birth of Christ with very organic, detailed, lifelike forms.  A sharp contrast to the other side where I had initially entered, which depicts the death and resurrection of Christ in sharp, angular, abstract forms (where the Roman soldiers echo the 'Star Trooper' look we had seen in the chimneys on the roof of La Pedera).

I finally exited the cathedral, meeting up with João to exchange details of our past couple of hours.  We had originally thought to walk back to Ricardo's to see one last Gaudi building, but as terrible as the weather was getting (it was beginning to rain again), we simply returned to our window to the world at El Fornet, enjoying sandwiches and coffee, writing and drawing, until setting out to pick up a few things to make dinner for Ricardo to thank him for hosting.  

Later that day I made up some pesto pasta with fresh veggies and a beet-apple salad on the side, and spent the rest of the evening enjoying drinks, dinner, and conversation with João, Ricardo, and their friend Pedro.  To celebrate our last night in Spain, we did go out for one drink at a nearby pub - a shot of espresso with Bailey's that is a fairly common nighttime beverage in the area.  Drinks completed, we made our way back for the night, packed, and were set for an early wake-up and departure the next morning.  


Our weekend in Barcelona was absolutely magical, and I'm so thankful that I had such a wonderful person to take it all in with, and that we had such a generous host to let us stay for a few days.  The city itself, the architecture, the art, the people, were so beautiful, the weekend was certainly unforgettable. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Eating Well in Portugal

As it is most everywhere I travel, the food and the activities centered around food were extra special to me in Portugal.  From the simple tasks of visiting the local grocery store and fixing dinner each night, to being invited into homes for incredible meals, to the wonderful nights out at various restaurants.  Since João and I shared cooking duties at home, I was able to sample a range of traditional home-cooked meals, as well as introduce him to a few of my own favorites that I was able to recreate.  One of my personal favorites was incredibly simple - fresh, sweet bread that we picked up weekly from a tiny local shop a few blocks away.  Toasted and buttered, it made a perfect breakfast or midnight snack.

A homemade Portuguese meal created by João

And a pasta dish created by me

Some of the most special evenings were those when we were invited over to join João's friends or family for big traditional Portuguese meals.  His cousin invited us over on two occasions - once just after we finished recording him and his band, and again when the video was complete.  For the first, they prepared rojoes, a savory slow-cooked pork dish with a side of roasted potatoes and grelos, a local green, which we seasoned with olive oil and salt.  We started off with bread and fresh, fresh cheese, and finished up the meal with a dessert of sweet noodles with a custard-like flavor, topped with cinnamon.  (I've noticed the Portuguese that I met topped most everything sweet with cinnamon, and everything tasted that much more incredible.)

For our second incredible meal, many weeks later, we were served soup to start with codfish, potatoes, beans, and grelos, with another fantastic dessert of a sweet rice pudding-like dish, topped with fresh chestnuts, dried fruit, and cinnamon.  During this meal some of the extended family were present, and I found myself bonding with one of the youngest members at the table (joking that we had bonded over a joint lack of understanding of what was being said), and delighting João and his cousin by attempting to read some of the childrens' books in the room, struggling with pronunciation but able to figure out at least a few of the sentences with my limited (but growing!) knowledge of the language.

Another gastronomical treat came from our friend Cristina, the owner of a beautiful vintage shop in Aveiro, who invited us over for a home-cooked traditional meal typically served in Portuguese households for Christmas.  We again started off with fresh bread and cheese (this time flavored with fresh parsley), following it up with bacalhau no forno - dried salted cod purchased directly from the local fishermen which is then rehydrated with liquid and slowly baked in the oven until it's tender and flakey.  For dessert, we had leite creme, a custard-like dish similar to creme brulee, with a bright, lemony flavor and a light caramelized sugar topping, done by placing a hot iron over the dish.

The best part of these meals was not only enjoying the actual food itself, but hearing about the origins of each of the meals, and how they tied into the Portuguese culture, especially Aveiro's strong ties to fishermen and the sea.  It was also a treat simply to be invited into these homes, to hear their experiences and share my own.  It was incredibly humbling and very dear to me that they were so willing to include me in these moments.

As another treat, on one of my final nights in Aveiro, I took over Cristina's kitchen to host a bit of a dinner party for some of our friends before I departed for further adventures eastward.  I shared some of my favorite simple dishes from back home - cooking up pasta with pesto and fresh vegetables, topped with arugula and a squeeze of lemon juice, and baking up a batch of orange and chocolate scones to share for dessert.  Between all the food and the remains of a bottle of whiskey, it was a great evening with friends, and a wonderful way (I hope!) to show my appreciation for them welcoming me into their city.


I also want to be sure to share a few of the restaurants we visited in and around Aveiro, as these were treats in and of themselves:

The very first place I visited in Aveiro, and a fitting blend of American and Portuguese culture, Ramona's serves delicious hamburgers piled high with toppings and crisp, perfectly cooked fries covered in sauce that you won't want to miss a drop of.  Perfectly washed down with one of the cold beers on tap.

Another establishment in Aveiro, Pizzarte serves deliciously unique pizzas (and other Italian offerings) in a fantastically modern space, centered around a giant chess set.

I have the owner and chef of O Batel to thank really, for my even venturing back to Portugal.  It was their (now closed) sister restaurant where my mom and I first ventured four years ago and met João.  We returned to order the same exact dish - St. Peter's fish - in honor of my return, starting off the meal with sardines and bread with cheese and marmalade, and accompanying it with a tasty bottle of wine.  The space inside is warmly decorated in wood with small, circular porthole shaped windows, giving the feeling of being below deck in a ship.  The photographs decorating the walls were artfully done, blends of the famous striped houses of nearby Costa Nova and scenes of fishermen and the sea.  

During our first venture to Porto, João's nephew took us out for dinner at an incredible restaurant, with some of the best sushi I've ever tasted.  We had an amazing meal, sampling multiple appetizers, rolls, and plates of sushi, sharing wine and conversation.

During another visit to Porto, we made a special effort to sample something called a Francesinha (literally:  a little French girl), a monstrosity of a sandwich that's a Portuguese take on a croque monsieur.  It consists of layers of bread, ham, chorizo, and cheese, topped with a fried egg, and nestled in a bed of fries, all of which is covered in a thick tomato-cheesy sauce.  It is a delicious heart attack on a plate, and I could hardly finish half of it.  Probably a better meal for a big night of drinking!


One of my final meals in Aveiro, I wanted to sample eel soup, a typical dish for the region.  We ventured out to a cozy little spot just next to the town cathedral to sample this dish.  Starting off with bread, wine, and a plate of olives, our order of soup was more than enough to split between two people!  The broth is rich and briny, filled with potatoes and chopped up eel - just be careful of the spinal column in the eel, which you'll need to remove from each piece.

This place also had paper table cloths, which we took full advantage of, creating a game of sorts where one of us drew a line or squiggle, and the other had to quickly draw a picture and create a story from it.  It actually turned into a fun little creative exercise! :)


One of my favorite little spots in all of Aveiro, this chocolate shop (known simply as Chocolate) was my daily hangout for enjoying a delicious cup of coffee and getting work done (borrowing the wifi from a nearby hotel).  The desserts and chocolate bites were also incredible, my favorite splurge being the tiny dark chocolates dusted in cinnamon (canela) from the shop's glowing display.

The Majestic Cafe 

And finally - stepping into the Majestic Cafe in Porto was like stepping back in time.  Established in 1923 at the entrance to the Rua de Santa Catarina, it lends a luxurious atmosphere, furnished with mirrored walls and ornate decor, complete with a pianist softly filling the air with music.  We splurged on a quick stop here for delicious coffee and simple but decadent scones during our final visit to Porto.