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Traveling To Spain In The Wake Of A Tragedy, Pt. 1: Sitges And Valencia

For the first leg of our trip we inadvertently spent a night in the gay capital of Europe, followed by several days in the birthplace of paella.

We had known for quite some time that we would be making a trip to Spain in September of this year so Anna could attend the 2017 Euretina Congress in Barcelona and we had decided to make a trip out of it. When we lived in New York, Anna had a Spanish colleague, Rosa Dolz-Marco, and the two of us got along really well with both her and her husband, Roberto Gallego-Pinazo. Rosa and Roberto have since moved back to Valencia, Spain and the pair of them are both ophthalmologists and would also be attending the conference so our plan was to head down to Valencia to hang out with them for a few days and then travel back up to Barcelona a day or two before the conference and meet up with them again when they arrived in town.
Anna and myself have both been to the Andalusia region in the south of Spain, but neither of us had ever visited either Valencia or Barcelona before so we had really been looking forward to this trip for a long time, the anticipation growing stronger as September 1, the date of our departure, loomed nearer. But then disaster struck:

On the afternoon of 17 August 2017, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub drove a van into pedestrians on La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain, killing 13 people and injuring at least 130 others, one of whom died 10 days later on 27 August. Abouyaaqoub fled the attack on foot, then killed another person in order to steal the victim’s car to make his escape.
Nine hours after the Barcelona attack, five men thought to be members of the same terrorist cell drove into pedestrians in nearby Cambrils, killing one woman and injuring six others. All five attackers were shot and killed by police.
The night before the Barcelona attack, an explosion occurred in a house in the Spanish town of Alcanar, destroying the building and killing two members of the terrorist cell; including the 40-year-old imam thought to be the mastermind. The home had over 120 gas canisters inside, which police believe the cell was attempting to make into one large bomb or three smaller bombs to be placed in three vans which they had rented; but which they accidentally detonated.

It was a terrible tragedy to hit the country and it occured less than two weeks before we were due to arrive, but we weren’t going to let this event ruin our travel plans. Anna had been working incredibly hard in the lead up to the conference and it would just be ridiculous to put that sheer amount of effort to waste. Besides, if anything it would probably be more safe to travel there in the wake of the attack because there would be a lot more police and security around and people would tend to be on their guard a bit more so we we went ahead with our plans.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017
It was my birthday so Anna had made reservations at Nouri, a fine dining restaurant that was doing a special menu called ‘4 Hands’ where two chefs, Leandro Carreira and Ivan Brehm, were making tapas using a combination of Portuguese and local ingredients and it was pretty damn good. A look at the menu should give you a decent idea.

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It was definitely a great meal, but it also wouldn’t be the last decent thing I would taste over the following weeks, not by a long shot!

Thursday, August 31, 2017
The bulk of Thursday was spent tying up loose ends such as getting Kermit to the dog hotel while Anna was at work before we made our way down to Changi Airport for our flight that was scheduled to depart at 12:30am on Friday morning. One pleasant surprise that occured during the day was when the postman dropped off a special delivery for Anna, which she promptly opened after returning home from work. An article she had written had been published in an ophthalmology textbook and she had been sent a copy in advance. Anna said she knew all about it, she just neglected to tell me, but I thought it was pretty cool. In fact, if it were me, I would have been telling anyone who’d listen!

Thursday and Friday were all downhill from that point onward; we had dinner and arrived at the airport at about 10:30pm, two hours early for our flight, which is never a good omen. After we had checked in we went into the lounge to relax, as Anna still had a bit of work to do. I went over to get some food, but they only had several curries left and it’s not that I don’t like Indian food, but more that it doesn’t particularly like me and that is a recipe for disaster when you’re going to be stuck on a plane for around 12 hours and can’t fit in the toilets.

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We couldn’t get too settled

When it came time to go down to our boarding gate, we made our way there quite efficiently and waited… and waited some more. Soon 12:30am arrived and an announcement came over the intercom claiming that there was an issue with our flight and we would be delayed by at least an hour while they tried to resolve it. We thought about going back up to the lounge, but there wasn’t much to eat and we figured we wouldn’t be up there that long anyway, so Anna continued working at the gate while I went over and watched the wrestling on one of the TV screens. At about 2:00am there was another announcement saying there was a problem with our actual plane and that we would need to wait for the next one, which would be arriving at 6:30am. Lack of sleep is one of the factors that triggers epileptic seizures for me and we were flying Singapore Airlines, an airline with whom I have had several seizures on flights in the past. Anna believes they might have flagged me as a risk for that very reason so she explained the situation to someone at the service counter and we got put up in a really nice room in an upgraded wing of the Crowne Plaza for free so we could catch a nap for what amounted to about three hours.

Friday, September 1, 2017
We got up from our little kip at 5:45am and went back down to the boarding gate, but by the time they had cleaned and refuelled the plane it was around 7:30am before we were airborne. I managed to get a fair bit of sleep, watched American Hustle and we eventually arrived in Munich, Germany for our stopover. Despite already having a planned three-hour stopover, because of the delay Anna and I were given a €20.00 (approx. US$24.00) voucher to use at any of the restaurants in the airport so we chose Airbräu for some sausages, sauerkraut, pork knuckle, and of course, beer.
When we had finished lunch we walked up to the airport lounge to kill time before getting back on another flight for a couple of hours to Barcelona. We boarded our flight and by the time we finally arrived I had extremely chapped lips from being on planes for so long, but I was also a little bit delirious from lack of sleep. Anna offered me her Burt’s Bees lip balm, something that I thought would offer more relief the more I put on, but also a product Anna didn’t bother to tell me was tinted. Instead she just laughed at me while passengers getting off the plane gave me horrified looks, most likely thinking I was a some kind of serial killer, a la Steve Buscemi in the film Billy Madison. The similarity is real.

After we went through immigration, we walked down to get the car, a Mini we had hired, however, yet again it was a case of getting a car that was too high-tech for us. It took about 10 minutes of trying to figure out how to start it, but we eventually got it going and Anna drove about an hour down the freeway from the airport to a nice little beachside town called Sitges. There were tollbooths along the way and at the first one Anna didn’t pull up close enough to grab the ticket so she had to get out of the car, leaving the car in ‘Drive’ and just putting on the handbrake while doing so. This forced the car to shutdown, causing her a little difficulty getting it started again until she attempted doing so with the car in ‘Park,’ but still, it needs to be said, Anna does an incredible job at driving on the opposite side of the road and even parallel parking.

A little about Sitges:

Sitges is a town about 35 kilometres southwest of Barcelona, in Catalonia, renowned worldwide for its Film Festivaland Carnival. Located between the Garraf Massif and the sea, it is known for its beaches, nightspots, and historical sites.
While the roots of Sitges’ artsy reputation date back to the late 19th century, when Catalan painter Santiago Rusiñol took up residence there during the summer, the town became a centre for the 1960s counterculture in mainland Spain, then still under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and became known as “Ibiza in miniature”.

That sounds pretty cool to me, the place also has 17 beaches, three of which are nude, and plenty of bars.
Factoring in the time difference, the people at our resort, Hotel Sitges, were expecting us at 3:00pm, but due to the delays it was about 9.00pm when we arrived. The good thing with this part of the world at this time of year is that it stays light until about 10.00pm so driving wasn’t a hassle. Also, we were starting to get our second wind so we checked into our hotel and then went out to grab a bite to eat and a drink. Dinner was a great lobster paella and this is a beautiful town, but there was something different about Sitges that we couldn’t quite put our collective fingers on at first, but we soon figured it out. This will help me describe it accurately:

The percentage of the Gay Transient Population= 35%

Sitges has approximately 4,510 accommodations and the majority are 4 stars hotels. They all are gay friendly.

Sitges has over 20 restaurants that are gay or gay-friendly.

In Sitges most of the beaches are gay friendly.  There are 2 main beaches that are considered gay and also 2 nude beaches where the majority of the people are gay.

2 Gay Beaches
2 Nude Beaches (gays and straights)
13 Beaches (gays and straight)

Gay couples with children can enjoy excellent International schools in the area.

Gay life in Sitges is very nice and very open.  You will see gay/lesbian couples holding hands by the beach and by the center of town.  Sitges has become a very popular destination for gays and lesbians travelers. It is one of the most gay friendly cities in the world.

Sitges becomes very gay during the months of July thru August. Fewer straight people than normal or at least you will be too busy looking at all the gays that you will not notice them.


Furthermore, our stay in Sitges coincided with this little shindig:

Towards the end of summer, in September, another popular event that takes place is the Bears Week. In the gay culture, a Bear is a large, hairy man that shows an image of masculinity. The event attracts over 5,000 people on a period of two weeks.

This could make for a fun Friday night out and some great people-watching and we definitely weren’t disappointed. Anna made one little faux pas while we were walking through one of the busier parts of town after she overheard someone describing what an ‘otter’ is — a gay man who is usually hairy, but reasonably thin or athletic. I hadn’t shaved for a while so Anna laughed, turned to me and said in her loud, shrill voice “Oh, that must make you an otter!” Needless to say, there were a lot of eyes staring in my direction and there wasn’t another woman in sight, just burly, hairy men.
We found a bar that seemed pretty cool so we pulled up a seat, grabbed some drinks and had a really fun night watching the world go by until the tiredness kicked in again and it was time to go home. Some scenes from our night out in Sitges:

Saturday, September 2, 2017
The plan for Saturday was to walk back into town, grab some tapas, and have a look around before driving to Valencia at around 3:00pm. This included checking out one of the town’s most famous landmarks, the Església de Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla, which dates back to the fourteenth century:

The Church of St. Barthlomew and St. Tecla (or ‘Església de Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla’ in Catalan) is Sitges’ most instantly recognisable landmark, thanks in part to its dramatic location perched on the Baluard headland, overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Visible all along the Passeig Maritim, its lofty presence mean that locals refer to it simply as ‘La Punta’ or ‘The Point’. Although a church has existed since medieval times on the same site, the present building was constructed relatively recently in the 17th Century, but retains two Gothic tombs from its previous incarnation, and also boasts an impressive organ and Renaissance-era altarpiece.

We woke up reasonably early, most likely due to jet-lag, and strolled along the beach into the main part of town, the same route we took the previous night. We made good on our tapas promise, wandered through the narrow lanes and alleys to do a bit of shopping and had a look at the outside of the church before checking out of our hotel and making the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Valencia. Some more sights from our last look around Sitges:

One thing we forgot to factor in when we were looking around was that Spain still has siestas, meaning that almost all shops close for several hours in the afternoon, usually between the hours of about 2:00pm – 4:30pm, but it varies from store to store. This meant that nothing was open for a portion of our time there, but it encouraged us to get in the car and make our way to Valencia after having a quick look at the beach.

We eventually made it down the freeway and navigated our way through the endless roundabouts to get to where we were staying in Valencia, but we weren’t expecting Rosa and Roberto to move out of their apartment so we could stay there. More than a little unnecessary, but thanks, guys!
Once we had taken our suitcases upstairs we took the 10-minute walk into the city and looked around before meeting up with the couple for dinner, a drink and a chat. Here are our first impressions of Valencia, I have no idea what most of these buildings are, however, a combination of my phone’s photo locations and Google helped with some of them. Anyway, we would definitely be seeing a lot more over the following days:

Sunday, September 3, 2017
We were still quite tired so we decided to take it easy on Sunday, something which is incredibly simple to do in this country. We walked into the city centre, grabbed a coffee each, Anna also bought a hat because of how sunny it was, and we decided to take a look inside the González Martí National Museum of Ceramics and Decorative Arts. It might not sound particularly interesting to many, but it was actually quite impressive, especially the façade of the building, which was designed by Hipolito Rovira and made by the Valencian sculptor Ignacio Vergara. Once inside, there are three floors and this probably provides the best guide:

Ground floor

Mostly dedicated to temporary exhibitions, in this floor is the remarkable “carriage patio” (named this way because it was the carriage house and the stables) and the main stairs.

First floor

The first floor spans the private rooms of the Marquis de Dos Aguas, decorated with stucco, wall and ceiling paintings made by artists such as Plácido Frances y Pascual, José Felipe Parra and José Brel Guiralt in the 19th century. Marble floors are of different colors, with the initials “MD”, corresponding at the Marquis de Dos Aguas.

Outstanding rooms are The Ballroom, the Red Room, the Eastern Sitting Room (also known as the Porcelain Sitting Room), equipped with part of the original furniture. Furthermore, all rooms are ornamented with works of art, lamps, clocks, vases, etc.; reflecting the elegance and style of the time.

Second floor

 Hall of ceramics from the 16th, 17th and 18th century (second floor)

Divided in several rooms, this whole floor is entirely dedicated to the exhibition of the ceramics collection, including one adapted to reproduce a typical Valencian kitchen, designed by self-Manuel González Martí, with mosaics, friezes and decorative panels of the 18th and 19th centuries. The decoration of this space is complemented with popular contemporary ceramic pots and copper objects.

Here is a taste of some what we saw, both inside and out:

After the museum we went to Horchateria Santa Catalina for some horchata, orange juice and churros. We were told to try it so we did and it was actually quite nice, but what is it?

In Spain, it usually refers to horchata de chufa, made from tigernuts, water, and sugar.
Originally from Valencia, the idea of making horchata from yellow nutsedge (tigernuts) comes from the period of Muslim presence in Valencia (from the 8th to 13th centuries).
It is served ice-cold as a natural refreshment in the summer, often served with fartons. Tigernut horchata is also used instead of milk by the lactose-intolerant.

Fartons sound interesting too so we might need to have those next time. For most people who aren’t Spaniards, probably the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the name ‘Valencia’ would be oranges. Yes, you can get orange juice quite readily in cafes and restaurants, but oranges in general just weren’t as abundant as I expected, however, that could be due to visiting at the end of summer. The orange juice was served at room temperature, which is how it is traditionally done, and is really sweet and delicious, but I think I would’ve preferred it colder.

When Rosa and Roberto saw the picture of the “paella” we had in Sitges, they weren’t even sure if it was actually paella so they decided to take us to one of their favourite restaurants, La Pepica, so we could try the real deal and it was far better than we expected. We pulled up a seat outside overlooking the beach and ordered two paellas, one squid ink and one chicken, as well as a side-dish of octopus and potato to go with Anna’s dress. Here’s a taste of our day up to that point:

We had spent a large portion of our day eating so we figured it was necessary to walk this one off. We set out on what would become a 20km (12.5 mile) trek over the course of the remainder of the day, taking us along beaches and through a really cool complex called the City of Arts and Sciences:

The City of Arts and Sciences (Valencian: Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències; Spanish: Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias) is an entertainment-based cultural and architectural complex in the city of Valencia, Spain. It is the most important modern tourist destination in the city of Valencia and one of the 12 Treasures of Spain.
The City of Arts and Sciences is situated at the end of the former riverbed of the river Turia, which was drained and rerouted after a catastrophic flood in 1957. The old riverbed was turned into a picturesque sunken park.
Designed by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela, the project began the first stages of construction in July 1996, and was inaugurated April 16, 1998 with the opening of L’Hemisfèric. The last great component of the City of Arts and Sciences, El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, was inaugurated on October 9, 2005, Valencian Community Day.
Originally budgeted at €300 million, it has cost nearly three times the initial expected cost.

We continued on into town, eventually reaching a market, Mercado Colón, where we stopped for a few drinks and some orange slices and after that it was into an older part of the town for dinner, a shisha and a few more drinks. The remainder of the day looked like this:

Monday, September 4, 2017
Monday was our last full day in Valencia so we intended to spend it walking around the city and checking out the shops when there is more open, but first we had to get some fartons because they sound interesting, however, we had no idea what they were. It turns out this is what they are:

Fartons are confectionery sweets typical of the Valencian town of Alboraya, Spain. Elongated and glazed with sugar, they are made of flour, milk, sugar, oil, eggs and a leavening agent.
This delicate and spongy sweet was made to be dipped in horchata, a drink made of tigernuts that is served cold, but fartons can also be eaten with hot beverages such as hot chocolate or caffè latte.

I don’t have a sweet-tooth, but, like pretty much any traditional Spanish food, fartons were delicious. I guess the closest comparison I could make would be if plain Krispy Kreme’s original glazed doughnuts were elongated. A couple of these and some horchata would provide the energy we would need to walk around the city, with our first stop being Mercat Central, the central market of Valencia. Predominately a food market, you can get some pretty spectacular stuff here, from ostrich eggs to steaks that have been dry-aged for over five years!

We walked around different areas of the city for the afternoon to do some shopping, then met up with Rosa after work at her favourite tapas place. I made the small error of trying to use the side of my fork to cut through something that was a little bit tough in a bowl of oil when my fingers had olive oil on them. Instead, the fork just slipped from my grip and slammed into the bowl, spraying Rosa’s new dry-clean-only pants with oil and potentially ruining them. Luckily, the bar had a can of special spray that helps remove oil from fabric after such accidents so I hope it worked.
After tapas we went and grabbed dinner and some drinks in the same area as the previous night, but we didn’t want to go too hard, as we had a bit of driving to do the next day.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017
We had a couple of things we wanted to see before we started to make our way down to Barcelona, particularly looking inside the Valencia Cathedral, but we stumbled across a flea market en route. This market extended for several streets, but like we had already noticed with most secondhand markets in Valencia, the majority of the stalls were mainly selling extremely large, used women’s underwear so we didn’t stick around long. Instead we walked to Valencia Cathedral:

The Metropolitan Cathedral–Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady of Valencia, alternatively known as Saint Mary’s Cathedral or Valencia Cathedral, is a Roman Catholicparish church in Valencia, Spain.
The cathedral was consecrated in 1238 by the first bishop of Valencia after the Reconquista, Pere d’Albalat, Archbishop of Tarragona, and was dedicated by order of James I the Conqueror to Saint Mary. It was built over the site of the former Visigothic cathedral, which under the Moors had been turned into a mosque. The Valencian Gothic is the predominant architectural style of the cathedral, although it also contains Romanesque, French Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical elements.
The cathedral contains numerous 15th-century paintings, some by local artists (such as Jacomart), others by artists from Rome engaged by the Valencian Pope Alexander VI.

The Valencia Cathedral is another example of one of those places where you just need to let some pictures do the talking so that’s what I’ll do (plus one of some used undies at the market).

Before long it was time to go back to where we were staying and load up the car for the drive to Peníscola, where we’d be spending a night on the way to Barcelona.

Stay tuned, you’ll be able to read all about that next time when I finish writing Part 2 of our trip to Spain!

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