Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

Saint Stephen’s Day: that’s right, another Christmas holiday December 31, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 5:08 pm

Another day without much of anything open. However, we called a few museums and found out that the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona would indeed be open in the morning. Although Heather and I doubted the art status of many of the exhibits, a few pieces were good, and we ran into another SYA girl and her family to laugh over the ludicrous “art” with.

Heather’s parents had gone to see Barcelona’s oldest church, and we met back up on La Rambla. Heather’s mother had found a few Gaudí houses nearby, but before walking over, they mentioned that wandering around near the church they’d found the Arabic quarter, including some great-looking bakeries. Seeing as we all loved Arabic desserts, we walked back over and bought a few. I had a delicious little square of shredded phyllo dough, pistachios, and chocolate, and another diamond of phyllo dough and cashews.

The Gaudí houses were located on what came to be known as “La Manzana de Discordia”, the block of discord. However, it is also a pun on the Spanish word “manzana”, which means “apple” as well as “city block”, giving the name a double meaning due to the Greek myth of the judgement of Paris and the apple of discord.

However, rather than leading to the Trojan War, Gaudí’s houses are more likely to lead to the exhaustion of camera batteries. I haven’t ever seen buildings like his!

One block over is the “Casa de Pedrera”, another Gaudí building, inspired by the sea.

We decided to wind our way back to the center, killing time until our dinner reservation. George had made it for us at another recommended restaurant, this one serving typical Catalonian fare. Since one of Heather’s and my friend was in Barcelona with his family, we decided to invite the six of them, augmenting our reservation to a table for 10. The restaurant had no problem, since our reservation was at 8, rather early by Spanish standards. However, it was only about 5:30, so we had a multitude of time to pass.

We spied a church with its doors open, a nice-looking refuge from the drizzly outdoors.

What luck that we had stumbled upon such a lovely building!

We also found the “Palau”, Barcelona’s main concert hall. The exterior was incredibly gorgeous, and the lobby was lovely as well – perhaps I’ll try to go see something when I go back to Barcelona.

Walking down windy streets and taking gut-instinct turns to lead us back to La Rambla, I had the idea to go to Les Cuatre Gats, the café frequented by Picasso and other “bohemian” artists in the early 20th century. As we pulled out the guide book to see if the café was listed, we looked to our right and there it was! We were quite literally standing on its doorstep. Very excited, we decided to go in for a pre-dinner coffee.

The name of the café means “The Four Cats”, playing on a Spanish idiom. If you were to ask me about a concert I played in and I said that there were four cats there, it means that no one showed up or that hardly anyone came.

We arrived to the restaurant right on time and just before the Bowens. Unable to pass up what I knew would be a great dish, I ordered espinacas a la catalana again, and decided to be brave and try the traditional calçots, spring onions roasted on coals and eaten with a cream sauce. They were served in a long wooden platter, and the waitress demonstrated how to eat them: firmly hold the bottom, pull the tender center out of the charred outside, dip into the sauce, and try to eat the spring onion without causing too much of a mess. A fun and very Catalonian dinner!

We headed to a bar to continue our conversation after dinner, and once again didn’t arrive home until after midnight. Our last night in Barcelona didn’t start until our last day!


Christmas Day: Gargoyles and Parc Güell December 30, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 10:19 am

As soon as I woke up and showered, I headed to the kitchen to check on my pancake batter. It looked great; I stirred in the remaining two eggs and salt and found a cast-iron skillet. Due to our lack of maple syrup but an abundance of bananas, I put some bananas in a saucepan with cinnamon to make a bit of a fruit topping for the pancakes. I think everyone liked them – at least I did, and there weren’t any left over!

Flipping through George’s “BarcelonaWalks” book, we decided to head back to La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter, first to see if anything was open, and if not, to explore the area in daylight.

Walking through the Barrio Gótico, we came across the Cathedral of Barcelona.

The mascots of the Cathedral de Barcelona.

The courtyard had a nativity scene, a pond, and geese – just make sure you are appropriately dressed!

No sleeveless shirts! No hats! No short skirts!

We walked around the perimeter of the cathedral, discovering little bridges, elaborate carvings, and oodles of gargoyles!

The carvings on the overhangs, the ironwork on the bridge...everything so intricate and beautiful!

St. George killing the dragon

Definitely the creepiest unicorn I have ever seen. Ever.

Probably the most anatomicaly incorrect elephant I've ever well as the creepiest.

Heading back to La Rambla, we stopped to grab a bite to eat in a small bakery. Spinach seems to be a mainstay in Catalonian cuisine, so I had to get the tortilla de espinacas sandwich.

Our next stop was the Parque Güell, a park designed by Gaudí on the outskirts of Barcelona. The park is famous for its bench, undoubtedly Gaudí – a winding structure decorated with shards of ceramic and tile. However, the other aspects of the park are just as unique and wonderful: the entrance gate, the two buildings next to it, a lizard sculpture, a column-filled porch…

(photos to come, I promise!)

With a couple of hours of daylight left, we decided to go down to the beach. Although the rain from the day before had stopped, it certainly wasn’t swimming weather; but we enjoyed the sand sculptures, sound of the waves, and Gehry’s fish.

 Back at the apartment, we added noodles to the carrot and cheddar soup we’d bought, and finished up the leftovers from our lunch the day before, with Christmas cookies for dessert. Since neither Heather and I had ever seen Casablanca, we decided to watch it after dinner.

My first Christmas away from home, but it couldn’t have gone any better. I love Heather and her parents, we ate wonderful food, and although I didn’t get to hunt for a stocking with my genius sister, exploring Gaudí’s park and seeing a creepy unicorn gargoyle were pretty fun in their own rights, if not typical Christmas fare.


Christmas Eve: Encantada de la Vida December 29, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 7:27 pm

That Spanish expression, which literally means “enchanted of life” or “charmed by life”, is pretty much the only way to describe my emotion upon entering George’s apartment. Heather’s parents had managed to end up staying there due to a correspondence started through Mr. Morse and ending in his friend’s offer of his apartment. The author of Fodor’s Spain and Barcelona titles, he had left us a stack of travel guides (the majority written by him or his wife), a hand-drawn map of the neighborhood, and various notes and tips about the ins and outs of the apartment. The house was incredible: the rooms all decorated with lovely wooden furniture, bookcases and shelves filled with books and movies in Spanish, English, and Catalan, and charming aspects that kept popping up as time went by. Our first mission was to stock up on some foodstuffs, so I went for bread while Heather and her parents found the vegetable shop and the deli. We also bought some Catalonian noodles, shaped like short macaroni with one end closed. The larger sizes are stuffed, but all sizes are popular.

Our doorway looked out onto this plaça in the Sarriá barrio of Barcelona.

George had marked a place that sold prepared food, so we decided to check it out for lunch. We ordered some delicious “espinacas a la catalana” – spinach with pine nuts and raisins, “paella de verduras” – in this case, rice with caramelized onions and artichokes, and pesto tortellini.

Tired from travel, we decided to rest a bit after our epic meal – a perfect opportunity for me to make the batter for the sourdough pancake recipe I’d found, which needed an hour’s rest and then another rest overnight.

George (or Mr. Barcelona, as I took to calling him) had made us dinner reservations at a recommended restaurant, Sagardi, renowned for its Basque food and atmosphere. Seeing as all the food in the País Vasco had been so great, Heather and I were excited. We left with plenty of time to find the restaurant so that we could walk down La Rambla and through the Barrio Gótico on the way. The restaurant was located in the heart of the Gothic Quarter, and about 50 yards from the church where we’d be going to a concert/midnight mass afterwards – another of George’s recommendations.

Since it was Christmas Eve, which is probably a bigger holiday than Christmas here in Spain, just about everything was closed – but the lights and buildings on our walk were gorgeous.

A "Merry Christmas" message - along with the typical noodles - projected onto an Ayuntament building.

For our dinner, I ordered “alubias de Tolosa”, dark kidney beans prepared in the northern Basque style. Absolutely delicious!

After such a wonderful dining experience, we walked over to the church, or cathedral, as I should say: it was the famous Santa Maria del Mar. Since George was good friends with the organist (who happened to be from Texas), he had arranged for us to sit in the organist’s balcony with him. !!!!!!!!!!!! However, when the church came into view, the line to get in was winding around the block. Since we were supposed to meet the organist early, we decided to check for other doors. We found one in the back, and Heather knocked. The woman who opened the door was about to turn us away, but Heather convinced her that we actually were supposed to meet the organist and we were admitted.

What an incredible cathedral!

Santa Maria del MarThe top of the organ points to the wonderful bóvedas which made the acustics of the cathedral spectacular.

And what a view from the organist balcony!

The great view from the organist's balcony.

The programs were in Catalan, but between our Spanish skills and Heather’s family’s Italian, we could understand all of it. The program opened with an homage of sorts to birds, with a traditional Catalonian Christmas carol, an organ song imitating a cuckoo, a Vivaldi piece, and another by William Williams. The next piece was the “Cant de la Sibilla” – song of the Sybil.

The Sybil and the chorus

The Sybil was a traditional Catalonian Christmas character, similar to an oracle, who would warn people of their duties and threaten them should they stray off the good path. However, the Church didn’t approve of the Sybil, and prohibited its representation in churches. Now the Sybil has been reclaimed and is an absolutely beautiful song of bagpipes, drums, a chorus, and a female soloist – the Sybil.

After the Cant de la Sibilla, the organ burst out with “Joy to the World”, or “Joia en el món” in Catalan.

The mass flew by with all the music, and since we were up in the balcony we didn’t exactly have to maintain perfect silence. I learned that the organ was built around 1710 to 1730, and later moved to its current place in the Santa Maria del Mar. It was one of the few organs to survive the Spanish Civil War, and since it was constructed in Spain in the 18th century, it is tuned to a different key than most and only sounds really good playing Spanish 18th century music.

The service ended around 1:30, and since the metro had closed, we had to take a taxi back to our apartment. Once again, the days bled together, and it was Christmas Eve and Christmas at the same time…however, although we had just been to a Christmas Eve mass and listened to organ Christmas carols, since it was actually a “missa de mitja nit” and “nadala popular”, it didn’t really feel like either.


Back in Zaragoza December 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 12:46 pm

Barcelona was absolutely incredible.

More later!


Navidad Comings and Goings December 23, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 10:18 am
A quick update on my plans for Christmas…
Since the actual Christmas day isn’t a very big deal here, I’m going to spend it in Barcelona with a friend and her parents. Exciting!!
I’ll be back in Zaragoza for New Years, and then off again to Valencia with a friend. More excitement!!
Now off to eat some more turrón and meet some more parents – today is the school’s open house day!

Feliz Navidad! December 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 11:47 am

During a Sunday walk on a crisp fall day. The Stone Bridge (Puente de Piedra) over the Río Ebro and the Basilica del Pilar are in the background.

  • 1.325 m3 de soil
  • 800 m2 of soil for plants
  • 300 m2 of lawn
  • 10m3 river rock to decorate
  • 500 m2 of flat stone for walkways and floors of scenery
  • 8 m3 of gravel for the stream
  • 30 m3 of sand
  • 150 m2 of water

What does it all add up to? Well, throw in a few lifesize statues and model buildings and you have Zaragoza’s Belén (Nativity scene). Located right in front of the Basilica del Pilar, in the main plaza of the city, is a walk-through recreation of Bethlehem.

For some background, the Belén (which is "Bethlehem" in Spanish) has a few tents with common people eating, selling their wares, or working their fields.

After passing a water wheel and a little pond, one comes across the angel Gabriel telling a shocked Mary of her immaculate pregnancy.

And after the three Reyes Magos (kings) on camels carried gifts to the newborn child, we come to the humble manger, site of the birth of Jesus, complete with farm animals, Mary again, and the "father" Joseph.

Here we have a band that was wandering around playing some lovely festive music. Behind them is a craft-fair type market set up in the other half of the plaza.

This is how the city celebrates Christmas. When I think about the controversy sparked by a small nativity scene on a town hall lawn in the US, I can’t imagine that Zaragoza has spent a montón of money on a 2,400 square meter belén. Insanity – but lots of fun for the children.


Tapas Zaragozanas December 21, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 11:42 am

The moment I took the first bite of a delicious tapa in the País Vasco, I stopped missing home and began loving Spain. It was also the ambiance: a crowded bilingual café – or better said, bar – with a great friend on independent travel, tucked into a narrow European street with Christmas lights hung above our heads.

So when I began to realize that on my very own street here in Zaragoza one could find a grand variety of tapas, and that even more awaited us in El Tubo, the major tapas section of Zaragoza, just a few minutes walk in the other direction, I had to invite some friends to go tapa-ing with me last Saturday night.

Our first stop was “El Fuelle“, a couple blocks down my street, where the star tapas are more like little meals: migas con uvas, literally “crumbs with grapes” but actually stir-friend bread with paprika that is incredibly delicious, and patatas asadas, or baked potatoes, which are served with a delicious sauce that was surprisingly spicy. After searching for bursting-with-flavorful food here in Spain, I was worried I’d have to content myself with the ethnic restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona; but this salsa picante was just as spicy as any Indian restaurant in Madrid, and authentically Spanish as well!! I even had to buy a mosto – grape juice – to wash it down.

Next we wandered to a Basque pintxos bar on Calle Don Jaime. I chose a cute tomato-shaped pepper stuffed with cream cheese and sitting atop a slice of baguette – absolutely delightful!! The tapas here were inexpensive and various, and true to the name, just like the ones we’d seen in San Sebastian.
My host mother had also recommended a place in the Plaza de Santa Cruz, so we headed there next. We tried not to let the fried pig snout scare us, and it’s a good thing we didn’t run away, because my sauteed mushrooms with roquefort were wonderful (and vegetarian)! The bar displayed a few rounds of cheese with a sign boasting that it was “perhaps the second-best cheese in the world”.

Our next and final stop was the Cervecería Mayor, a few yards from my door. There we sampled a delicious pizza-like flatbread topped with roasted vegetables, goat cheese, and rosemary – to die for!!

Seeing as we were so close to my apartment, I invited everyone up (with prior collaboration with my host mother, of course) to finish the panettone which a friend of my host mother’s had given us the other night. He had also taught me how to prepare it in the authentically Italian tradition (which he learned while working in an Italian restaurant in London for a year), so before long the kitchen was warmed up and smelling of cinnamon and cloves and the dash of whisky which adds the winning touch to the spiced milk poured over the round of panettone. A delicious end to a wonderfully fun evening!

Also, in exceedingly exciting news, I woke up this morning and found a note on the breakfast table: “Mira la terraza” – look at the terrace! I peeked out and found it covered with a thin blanket of snow. How beautiful – and very rare for Zaragoza.