(9/8/13 - 9/24/13)
Pimiento de Padróns

Barcelona -- it's not us, it's you. We start off in Barcelona for a few days, hitting all the must-see sites. The old town, and of course we did the FULL Gaudi - Casa Batlló, Palau Güell & Sagrada Família, Casa Milà - and other touristy sites. And we have a great culinary experience at local tapas bars and restaurants (One of the tapas bars is so awesome that not only we don’t mind the 2 hour wait, but we return to it one more time.) We discover that noodle paella (Fideuá) is even better than rice paella. But what is the big fuss with Barcelona? We don't get it! We find it to be just another big city with good offerings. Perhaps we are turned off the the massive amount of chain-smoking that goes on - more than any other place we have experienced - or perhaps our opinion is jaded by the crappy experience we have with our original hotel (El Palace), one of the lowest return-on-investment hotels we have ever stayed at! They were so disappointing that the first thing we do after checking in is to cancel our trip’s last night’s stay with them (our flight home is out of Barcelona so we return at the end of the trip). Incidentally, our agent makes it up to us by booking us in a fabulous suite at Mandarin Oriental, the hotel she originally had suggested to start with (and without a “I told you so!”). Thanx Julie! You the best. And did we mention the butler? Yeah, there is a butler. But enough about that, and back to the trip.

Romanians We spend one day with our friends Adrian and Aurora (congratulations on your nuptials!). It is always great to hang out with locals and this is no exception, albeit it was a rainy day - the only rain we have all trip. They show us hidden spots in the old town, and take us to their favorite paella restaurant which, OMG, is it the best paella we have ever had! Thanx guys. It is September 11th, the Catalan independence day, which turns out to be the day they actually lost their independence to Spain! There are lots of festivities, but the funnest, and funniest, is the separatists’ lets-hold-hands-across-Catalonia-at-5:15pm (1715, the year they lost their independence) event: thousands of people line up the streets holding hands. Didn’t work. They are still part of Spain. Incidentally, both Spaniards and Catalonians believe they are getting ripped off by the other side: "They are taking our taxes!"

Guide Us All of Spain’s stereotypes are from Andalusia: tapas, flamingo, bullfighting, etc. We arrive in Sevilla to the warm sun and the laid back people. And amazing hotels! Ahhhh! Since our trip to Rome we have developed a liking to hiring local guides (Thanks Larry for the original suggestion). So we have a bunch of private tours planned and our first is an evening walking tour of Sevilla’s tapas bars. Our guide is a lovely local lady named Carmen and the highlight of the tour is a off-the-beaten path tavern where we have our first taste of jamón ibérico! Yum-mmy!

No Bulls For Us The moors sure left a strong mark on Spain! 25% of Spanish language is directly related to Arabic, including the names of a whole bunch of places, towns and rivers.

Sevilla's beautiful Alcázar is our first exposure to the strong moorish architecture and islamic influence. So much of the styles and details are also similar to the muslims' influence on Iran’s architecture: the central courtyards, the water fountains, the tiles. You see Spanish Jasmine, which is originally from Iran, all over the place. It reminds Assana of her grandfather’s garden in summer days. We do take a tour of a bullfighting arena, but we don’t have the heart to actually watch the barbaric execution of an innocent animal. Though some bulls do get to go live out on a pasture, and cultural or not, so no show for us!

Olive Sighting Each of our Andalusian destinations beats the last one! Glad we didn’t do the trip in reverse order! Soon after hitting the road with Frank, our trustee rental car, a diesel BMW who gives us 50+ mpg(!), the olive groves start: miles and miles of them, as far as eye can see, on both sides of the road… any and all roads we take. Spain produces 50% of the world’s olive oil, and the area around southern Andalusia, produces 50% of Spain’s olive oil. Needless to say it is amazing to driver thru 25% of the world’s olive trees.

Rrrrrronda Having Frank allows us to explore more of Andalusia than just the main sites. We visit teeny Ronda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has an old town with narrow streets and white washed houses, typical of the region, and a gorgeous bridge named Puente Nuevo (New Bridge - 1700s!). Like most touristy towns, all it takes to get rid of the crowd of day-trippers is just a few turns away from the main attraction, in this case the bridge! We have lovely lunch off of a lovely square with nothing but locals around us… well, except the two brits whose table we hover over until they left!

Only Mostly Ruined And then there is Alhambra. What an amazing palace, and what a shame the the French blew half of it up. Once again, we are glad to have a guide who factmo’ed us every step of the way... like how the other half didn’t get blown off (gracias Senior José García!). Our experience is further enhanced by the fact that we are staying at a parador right inside the walls of Alhambra, with a view of the Generalife Gardens. You know when you see a car in a teeny pedestrian-only street and think “where the hell is this guy going!”? Yeah, that was us!

On the way to Córdoba, we visit Baeza, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unlike Ronda, this one has no crowds, locals or tourist. Really, the whole place is empty. Pretty, but I guess not enough to get the crowds!

800 Years Córdoba’s old town is our favorite. 40,000 orange trees lines its streets , yet another tradition brought over by the moors. Though these oranges are of sour variety and have to be cooked, the blossoms are as fragrant as other citrus. Our guide María-José tells us that in the spring time one can smell the city from miles away. Must be amazing!

The old town has been inhabited nonstop for centuries, so it is the largest and most authentic. Most homes leave their front doors open to allow a peek of their lovely interior courtyards. Too bad we are not visiting during the “Patios of Córdoba” festival in May. Our guide walks us thru teeny back streets to hidden squares, nooks & crannies, her favorite courtyards, etc.

Our Favorite The Mezquita… what an interesting juxtaposition of simple and frivolously ornate! The moors use of such modest materials - stucco, brick, natural dyes, and recycled roman columns and capitals found on the site - to build such a beautiful structure… in contrast with the christians’ obnoxiously ornate alters and the massive mahogany carved choir. At least they didn’t destroy the beautiful mosaics of the "mihrab."

Power Tourists 60.7 miles of walking, 750 kilometers of driving, and hundreds of Pimiento de Padróns! What a great trip! Though Barcelona does not wow us, Andalusia does. Given the chance, we will definitely return.

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