In the first part of this trip we had spent an amusing night in Sitges, followed by few days seeing the sights, catching up with friends and eating in Valencia. Now it was time to make a move to Barcelona.
Tuesday, September 5
We packed all of our luggage into the back of our Mini and it was time to hit the road, down the freeway to where we’d be spending the night, Peñíscola. Yes, people have constantly reminded me that the place sounds like its name resembles that of a phallic-themed carbonated beverage, but this was an awesome place and not only because parts of season six of Game of Thrones were filmed there, not by a long shot. Here’s a bit about Peñíscola:
Peñíscola, anglicised as Peniscola, is a municipality in the province of Castellón, Valencian Community, Spain. The town is located on the Costa del Azahar, north of the Serra d’Irta along the Mediterranean coast. It is a popular tourist destination
Peniscola, often called the “Gibraltar of Valencia,” and locally as “The City in the Sea”, is a fortified seaport, with a lighthouse, built on a rocky headland about 220 feet (67 m) high, and joined to the mainland by only a narrow strip of land.
The present castle was built by the Knights Templar between 1294 and 1307. In the fourteenth century it was garrisoned by the Knights of Montesa, and in 1420 it reverted to the Crown of Aragon. From 1415 to 1423 it was the home of the schismatic Avignon popeBenedict XIII (Pedro de Luna), whose name is commemorated in the Castell del Papa Luna, the name of the medieval castle, and Bufador del Papa Luna, a curious cavern with a landward entrance through which the seawater escapes in clouds of spray.
My arch-nemesis, Google Maps, led us to the location without a hassle, but then decided to cause problems once we were there. The road into the old-town seemed to get quite narrow once you passed the gate at the end of the beach so we parked the car and tried to find out hotel on foot, however, as we were getting out of the car someone walked up and told us we would probably get a fine if we parked there because the parking was only for residents after a certain time in the afternoon. Looks like Anna would have to try and get us around those tiny streets, initially built 700 years ago, long before the invention of the automobile and with the purpose of catering to foot-traffic, horses and carts at the most, in mind, in order to locate our hotel, the Dios Esta Bien. Back in the 1970s, my parents drove a Mini and that’s when they were legitimately tiny cars. Both of my parents are well over 6′ (182cm) tall and this was during a time of afros and platform shoes, them getting in and out of that thing would’ve looked like a clown car at the circus. Things are a little different now, new models of Mini are on the road, such as the one we had rented, and they aren’t that small anymore. If anything, they are probably slightly larger than most small car models these days. The screenshot of the map (right) was taken later in the night on the beach after dinner, the road we were more than likely on at this particular time was the Calle Saiz de Carlos and we had to make it to our hotel. Not an easy task, especially when you’re driving on the opposite side of the road to what you’re used to on streets so narrow that you can’t even open the doors in some parts. You know it’s a tight fit when the locals on the street are cringing and curling up their faces as you slowly meander through the lanes, so Anna eventually stopped in a tiny parking lot and we devised a new plan; Anna would wait in the car in case there was a problem with parking, I would set out on foot and try to find the hotel. Those tiny streets get a little difficult to navigate when your map isn’t working so I now couldn’t find the hotel or the car, however, I decided to find a cafe so I could use their wifi, but accidentally stumbled upon our hotel in the process. The hotel manager was sitting out the front, having a smoke when I found him and burst into laughter when I told him our predicament, telling me it happens quite often. He walked down to the car with me and offered to Anna to drive it up to the Dios Esta Bien, to which Anna gave a resounding “Yes!” We had luggage on the back seat, meaning there was no room for anyone to sit so we just walked up to the hotel and met him there.
We checked in, took our luggage three floors up the extremely narrow staircase to our room and then drove the car back down to where there was a carpark we could actually use. The stressful part was officially over, we could now walk out and get a taste of Peñíscola (pun absolutely intended):
We walked around, checking out Peñíscola and stopping off at random places for the occasional latte, but before long it was time to eat again. We looked for a while, deciding between several really good looking restaurants, but then stumbled upon Taberna El Ánfora and the decision really just made itself. There is a kind of poorly translated description from the restaurant on Trip Advisor that says:
Our restaurant offers our guests a traditional Mediterranean seafood cuisine. We have our menu with a characteristic dishes of our establishment and others that vary from fresh fish, to offer our clients a different way to taste the Mediterranean fish and seafood. The chef Daniel Colom cooking style dishes “sailor fishing boat” will offer a unique experience and move you with its variety of typical dishes of sailors the world of “seafarers” We wait for you.
I guess what they were trying to say is that all of the food is freshly caught and that the chef/owner, Daniel Colom, goes diving daily for fresh shellfish as he has for the past 40 years, so if something isn’t available, it’s because he couldn’t catch any that day. Once inside the restaurant, lobster traps act as lampshades and the walls and ceiling are adorned with treasures and artefacts the chef has discovered while diving, broken antique vases from the ocean’s floor, that type of thing, however, photographs aren’t allowed unless you are eating there.
We pulled up a seat, ordered a variety of stuff, some we were familiar with and some we’d never even heard of, such as sea nettles, which tasted kind of like deep-fried oysters but a quick look at wikipedia and it tuns out that they are actually of the jellyfish family. Once we had ordered, Daniel took us inside to show us around, look at all the stuff he had salvaged and pose for photos in sailor hats similar to those worn by Donald Duck and Japanese schoolgirls.
The food was spectacular, we followed it up with some free shots of some local alcohol and then took a long walk around the beach before heading back home. Some scenes from the night:
Wednesday, September 6
Today Anna was going to have to navigate those crazy back alleys again in order for us to be able pack our luggage in the car, but that’s not something you can probably do on an empty stomach so we decided to wander around the castle and then go down to the pier area, have a coffee and get some lunch.
After walking around, looking at the buildings and watching the fish swim in the water, we settled into another great little seafood restaurant called Puerto Mar. Yet again, we ate ridiculously well, feasting on a different variety of sea-snails to usual, as well as razor clams among other miscellaneous sea creatures. I’ve always loved Spanish food, but I could eat the seafood in Peñíscola every meal for the rest of my life and be completely content.
In an effort to delay driving the car back up to the hotel, we walked around the beach for a while, just taking in the scenery, but it was inevitable; Anna would have to tackle those extremely compact laneways, but yet again she pulled it off superbly and before long we were packed and making our way to Barcelona. When we arrived we dropped off our car at the rental place near our hotel and it turned out there was a scratch in the paintwork, most likely from all of those sharp curves, but luckily she paid for full insurance to begin with. To quote the man who served us when we returned the car, “You could’ve just brought back the steering wheel and it would’ve been fine.”
Once the car was sorted, we checked into our hotel, which was located near the conference centre where the 2017 Euretina Congress was being held and, although our hotel was nice and on the beach, there wasn’t a whole lot else around the general area where we were staying. We looked around a shopping mall, Diagonal Mar Centre, that was located behind our hotel, but that was just like the countless malls back home in Singapore. Once we were done wandering around there, we had dinner and a few drinks, then decided to cash in that night and make the most of the following day. Still, it was a day well-spent:
Thursday, September 7
Anna had to present at the conference on Friday so it was best to make the most of one of our only full days together in Barcelona. The plan of attack? Get some coffee and go take a look at Sagrada Familia:
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (English: Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) is a large unfinished Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926). Gaudí’s work on the building is part of a UNESCOWorld Heritage Site, and in November 2010 Pope Benedict XVI consecrated and proclaimed it a minor basilica, as distinct from a cathedral, which must be the seat of a bishop.
In 1882 construction of Sagrada Família commenced under architect Francisco Paula de Villar until 1883, when Villar resigned. Gaudí took over as chief architect, transforming the project with his architectural and engineering style, combining Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms. Gaudí devoted the remainder of his life to the project, and at the time of his death at age 73 in 1926, less than a quarter of the project was complete.
Relying solely on private donations, Sagrada Familia’s construction progressed slowly and was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, only to resume intermittent progress in the 1950s. Since commencing construction in 1882, advancements in technologies such as computer aided design and computerised numerical control (CNC) have enabled faster progress and construction passed the midpoint in 2010. However some of project’s greatest challenges remain including the construction of ten more spires, each symbolising an important Biblical figure in the New Testament. It is anticipated the building could be completed by 2026—the centenary of Gaudí’s death.
The basílica has a long history of dividing the citizens of Barcelona: over the initial possibility it might compete with Barcelona’s cathedral, over Gaudí’s design itself, over the possibility that work after Gaudí’s death disregarded his design, and the 2007 proposal to build an underground tunnel of Spain’s high-speed rail link to France which could disturb its stability. Describing Sagrada Família, art critic Rainer Zerbst said “it is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art”, and Paul Goldberger describes it as “the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages”.
We arrived at Sagrada Familia and Anna had managed to score tickets online that allowed us to go 65m (213′) up the basilica’s Passion Towers, a process that is only possible by elevator, however, the descent back to ground-level involves walking a very narrow, winding staircase consisting of over 300 steps. Here’s how we saw our time both outside the basilica, as well as inside:
To exit the building, in typical style you must go through the gift shop, but en route to the store the walls are lined with many highly-detailed scale models of what the finished building will look like, hand crafted by designers and artists. One can’t help but think that they would be a lot more closer to completing the building if they put that effort into the actual basilica, as opposed to building so many models of it. These things aren’t small, either!
Following Sagrada Familia was to be the interesting part. We were about to spend the rest of the day shopping, making our way into the city and eventually ending up at La Rambla, the site of the Barcelona terrorist attack just three weeks earlier. If you haven’t read part one of this post or have just plain forgotten the details, here’s how it went down:
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.
We weren’t worried at all, if anything it would most likely be safer because everybody would be on their guard and there would be a lot more security around.
The two of us made our way through the city, admiring some of the bizarre architecture and happy in the fact that this was going to be our home for the next few days. Eventually we arrived at La Rambla and there were very few signs that anything had happened in recent times. La Rambla is a tree-lined pedestrian mall, closed to transport, that stretches for 1.2 kms (0.75 miles) with many shops, bars and cafes, however, there were no shrines or memorials, but a large police presence with police cars and armed officers blocking every possible entrance point. Besides that, it seemed like it was back to business as usual, people appeared relaxed and at ease. That was until a car backfired and everyone flinched in unison, that terror still present in their eyes as they mentally flashed back to what they were doing several weeks earlier when they first heard the news, but the fear subsided again soon enough.
The entire day I couldn’t work out why I was getting such dirty looks from some people, then it dawned on me — I looked like a Trump supporter. I was wearing the t-shirt I received when I bought the VIP package to see Ween on the President’s Day weekend in Broomfield, Colorado last year which has Dean and Gene Ween satirising Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln respectively, with a parody of the American flag behind them, the stars replaced with Boognish logos. To top off the look, I was also wearing a red cap advertising a pizza store that, in actuality, looked a lot like a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat on first glance. From now on I’ll actually look in the mirror before I walk out the door.
A lot of the stores around the area were similar to what we would find in Singapore, but there was still some pretty cool stuff around and Anna could’ve happily spent every cent she had. After we tired of looking at the shops, we had a couple of mid-afternoon libations in La Rambla, stopped off for some dinner and then found a shisha bar that had some pretty decent Palestinian beers, something I had never seen before.
Here’s how it all looked from our perspective:
Friday, September 8
Friday was to be Anna’s first full day at the Euretina Congress, she was also making a presentation, offering me the opportunity to explore the city by myself. I made the 45-minute beachside walk into town, stopping off for a coffee along the way, and spent most of the day in the same way as the previous afternoon, but just looking at record stores and stuff that I like to do when I’m alone in a new city, but particularly exploring the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona:
The Gothic Quarter is the centre of the old city of Barcelona. It stretches from La Rambla to Via Laietana, and from the Mediterranean seafront to the Ronda de Sant Pere. It is a part of Ciutat Vella district.
The quarter encompasses the oldest parts of the city of Barcelona, and includes the remains of the city’s Roman wall and several notable medieval landmarks. Much of the present-day fabric of the quarter, however, dates to the 19th and early 20th centuries. El Call, the medieval Jewish quarter, is located within this area, along with the former Sinagoga Major.
The Barri Gòtic retains a labyrinthine street plan, with many small streets opening out into squares. Most of the quarter is closed to regular traffic although open to service vehicles and taxis.
We had already seen a decent part of the Gothic Quarter the previous day, but because I walked into town this time, I got to approach it from a different angle and find new parts. See for yourself:
Although I could physically do it, I couldn’t spend all day walking around town because I had to attend a ball with Anna for the conference that night in Casa Llotja de Mar, a 14th-century stock exchange. Finally, the people that Anna has conference calls with every Wednesday to discuss a journal article they are writing would be able to put a face to the torso of the man who keeps accidentally walking into the background of the screen of their calls in nothing but his underwear. Again, the food was outstanding and a great night was had by all, except until I realised I was wearing the exact same clothes as the last time I ate with Professor Holz, Anna’s boss in Germany. He didn’t notice, but he got a bit of a chuckle out of it when I showed him a photo. I think in the future I might make a point out of wearing that shirt and those pants every time I know he is going to be around.
Saturday, September 9
This was to be our last full day in Spain, so we intended to make it count. We both love flea markets so the first stop was to be the Encants Vells Flea Market:
Barcelona’s Encants Vells, also known as the Mercat de Bellcaire, is one of the oldest flea markets in Europe and dates back to the 14th Century.
In 2013 Els Encants relocated to a stunning new purpose built 3 story structure opposite the Agbar Tower.
The emblematic mirrored canopy houses 500 stalls; a mixture of junk shop, antiques fair, jumble sale and old school market all rolled into one.
In addition to second hand books, ornaments, cameras, furniture and clothes, there are also stalls selling new clothes, furniture, decorative items, toois, hardware and electronics. Not to mention 2 bar/cafés, several small antique shops and a shop that sells electric bikes.
The 33,306 m² canopy was designed by Fermin Väzquez and is without doubt one of the most impressive modern market buildings in Europe.
Okay, I’m struggling to believe those dimensions as well, 33,306 m² (358,503 feet²) seems somewhat unrealistic, but this place was still pretty damn huge! Needles to say, it had a bit of everything so we were rather content for an hour or two, just pawing through other people’s crap.
After we had finished, we had the chance for one last great meal and my hair was still done from the ball the previous night, so we went down and pulled up a seat in a Michelin star tapas restaurant called Tickets. Apparently you need to book weeks or months in advance and according to the Michelin Guide they supposedly only open for dinner, but we just got lucky; it was raining outside, they were just opening for lunch for some reason, maybe something they only do on Saturdays, and they must’ve had a cancellation or something, but they were able to fit us in. But even if we had to wait months on a booking, it definitely would have been worth it! Here’s how Time Out describes Tickets (it’s also one of the only descriptions I could find that didn’t consist of a review longer than this entire blog post!):
The Adrià brothers have triumphed again with this ambitious Barcelona-based round-up of their philosophy of tapas. With four different sections – seafood, the grill, sweet treats, and little inventive surprises – you’ll get ‘El Bulli’ versions of all tapas from all over Spain. Squid in its ink with almond paste or grilled watermelon are just a couple examples. Dining here implies a trip through Ferran and Albert Adrià’s culinary wisdom, emphasizing the playful nature of eating. A true dinner party, we would say.
Here’s a look inside Tickets, a portion of the tapas we tried and a few more scenes from around Barcelona on our last day in town:
That night, a whole bunch of the doctors had dinner together and the younger ones amongst us went out to a bar for the night. Anna and myself still had to get up the next morning for a reasonably early for a flight, but we still managed to stay up and party on until the end, our dignity intact.
Sunday, September 10
Our flight was at 11:00am so we needed to be at the airport at around 9:00am. We managed to do it, albeit exhausted, and due to the time differences, it was 7:00am on Monday by the time we got back to Singapore. We caught an Uber home from Changi Airport, Anna re-packed and went straight back to the airport again in order to fly out to Myanmar at midday to do volunteer surgery in a remote village for a week. That woman is a machine!
I was left for the week with this thing, but it was too interested in the jamon bone we brought back for it to really pay attention to anyone else. Looks like I’d be spending some time at the pub
Our entire trip to Spain was a blast; Sitges was a fun night, Valencia was a nice, relaxing break, Peñíscola was breathtaking, and Barcelona was all that we expected. Thanks again to Rosa and Roberto for letting us stay at your house, we didn’t actually expect you to move out for us, and we’ll be back again for next year’s conference.
UPDATE: Just before I was about to publish the end of this story, more violence kicked off in Catalonia. From the video’s description:
Footage from the Catalonia Independence Referendum has shown what appears to be Spanish police brutality against peaceful demonstrators in Barcelona and elsewhere. Catalan officials say at least 337 people have been injured in clashes as police try to prevent voting in Catalonia’s independence referendum.
The Spanish government has pledged to stop a poll that was declared illegal by the country’s constitutional court. Police officers are preventing people from voting, and seizing ballot papers and boxes at polling stations.
In the regional capital Barcelona, police used batons and fired rubber bullets during pro-referendum protests. The toll of injured was confirmed by a spokesman for the Catalan regional government, as well as the region’s health department.
Separately, the Spanish interior ministry said 11 police officers had been injured.
Looks like we got out just in time!