Subscribe to Jessica's exclusive newsletter

Subscribe to Jessica's newsletter

* indicates required

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Three Days in BCN: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 7

Stanley's sweet smile with the honeysuckle near our hotel 
Barcelona is one of the most visited cities in the world, and with good reason. There's so much to see and do that's unique. The richness and the hugeness overwhelmed me and Stanley, probably because I hadn't prepared as thoroughly as I should have. I had been to Barcelona already—eighteen years before!—so that meant I knew my way around. Ha ha. 

In spite of my bungling, we enjoyed ourselves at four enchanted places I've never been to before. We started with Montjuïc, mainly because we'd read The Shadow of the Wind together and it sounded fascinating. 


Montjuïc is one of many peaks in the city and the name tells me it was the Jewish Quarter in the Middle Ages. Now, among other things, it has a castle and an enormous park with paths and little restaurants, and because you can get there by funicular, that's what we did. 


You could see the Sagrada Família from just about anywhere, it seemed. 
The city looked more vast the higher up we got. A couple of ladies from Scotland were in the car with us, and one of them insisted she would never look at the views. I sympathized that it's ridiculous to voluntarily dangle oneself hundreds of feet in the air in a rocking capsule that feels as if it will snap free of its moorings with the next breeze, but I was with my true love! What else mattered? I wasn't going to miss those views! 


It was a gorgeous day. 
The monument to the sardana, the Catalan dance par excellence 
We took the funicular all the way to the castle at the top of Montjuïc. I thought that from there, we could easily access the other attractions. We found out the exhausting way that yes, you can reach the other attractions, but "easily" is not in the cards for someone who hasn't done her research. In my memory, we spent about forty hours wandering, hot, sweaty, and thirsty, before we found someone who gave us a map of the mount and instructions for taking a bus where we wanted to go. 


The building of my childhood desire
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
The epic journey made finding the National Museum of Catalan Art all the more meaningful. I had a poster in my childhood bedroom with a photo of this building that mysteriously read, "SPAIN." Where? What? Why? I wondered and wondered (this was before the internet) for ten years or more. And now I was going inside that building, only to find that it contains some of the most wonderful things ever produced in the world of art. 


Countess Llúcia of Pallar, the noble lady who donated the money for this altarpiece,
has been immortalized in the painting. She looks like a Seven Noble Knights character for sure. 
It has a modern section, sure. But most of the collection is medieval. (Can you see the fairy dust around that word?) During the age of the American philanthropist (early twentieth century), Catalan art conservators made it their mission to save unique art that was at severe risk both of crumbling under the elements and of being carted off by rich American collectors. The result is the biggest, and dare I say, the richest collection of Romanesque art in the world. 


They preserved entire apses of churches. This is part of the masterpiece, 
Sant Clement de Taüll, c. 1123. 
I love Romanesque art. The style was produced all over Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. When the Gothic style swept through, you can bet there were a lot of Romanesque casualties. It would be like a contractor today demolishing a 1960s concrete brutalist structure to make way for whatever the latest steel-and-glass high-rise style is today. You can hardly find this stuff anywhere. If I happened to find a Romanesque piece in a museum—and you can be sure it would be a single piece—I would always linger with it the longest for its rarity and its elegant execution. 


The Lapidation of St. Stephen from Sant Joan de Boí
Stanley's question: "Why are they throwing bread loaves?" 
So my head exploded. I'd had no idea that was what was in the National Museum of Catalan Art—otherwise, you can bet I would've returned to Barcelona much sooner. How could I take all this home with me? Only in pictures. These give the barest hint of the wonder of being there. My sweet husband followed me around for hours (seemed like a few minutes to me), dazed and amused and taking photos of anything I asked him to and often without need for a request. I asked him if he was enjoying himself, if there was something he'd rather do, if he never wanted to see another medieval picture or sculpture again, and he assured me he was fine with all of it, as long as it made me happy. The whole trip is a monument to his easygoing happiness.

A whole chapel! 
There was so much left to see in the museum that we ditched our downtown plans for the next day and returned. This time I merely visited my pal, the Romanesque wing, and wandered in the smaller but just as lovely Gothic section and through the twentieth century floor.

Close up of an altar frontal from Sant Martí de Gia,
in which St. Martin repudiates the devil on his deathbed.
Thirteenth century. The artist signed his work! 
Saints and beasts and seraphim, oh my! Twelfth century. 
I'm still not sure why I, with my training in medieval studies, was not aware of the National Museum of Catalan Art with all its medieval Catalan glory. I am now, and that's what matters.

Stanley and I in Cantabria? No, it's the Poble Espanyol! 
It was all so lovely, I didn't know where to look. 
We spent the rest of that day at an attraction on Montjuïc that felt like the contents of my head brought into reality. The Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village) was constructed as a world's fair type of exhibition. I knew this, and I expected it to be kind of cardboard and superficial. But no, it's nothing if not thorough. These are architecturally exact replicas of specific buildings from all the distinct regions of Spain. Later, in Morella, we actually recognized a building whose replica we'd seen here!

Andalucía, right? Nope. El Poble Espanyol. 
We ate, wandered, saw art, had ice cream. The concentration of so many of the beauties of the Iberian Peninsula in one space amazed me. You could practically take Spain with you in your pocket. Why would you need to visit the rest of the peninsula when it's all right here? Yes, it's a tourist trap, but if I were ever condemned to live in a tourist trap, I would choose the Poble Espanyol. We rested in the shade of an Andalusian plaza and I was filled with nostalgia. We weren't planning to head to Andalucía on this trip. "Are we really in Barcelona?" I had to ask.

Mt. Tibidabo (also mentioned a lot in The Shadow of the Wind) in the far back,
on the scenic route to Park Güell. 
When we got back to the hotel that night, we came to a reluctant realization that the next day was our last in Barcelona. Time to pull away from Montjuïc and do something else I'd never done before: visit Park Güell. For this, I was half prepared. I'd poked around online, looking for an easy way to get there without too much walking or a high taxi fare. I found step-by-step instructions to more or less go in the back door. I carried the printout in front of me for the entire journey, which involved secret metro stops and hidden escalators. It was so cloak-and-dagger, we thought we might get led into some kind of traveler's trap, but it ended up being 100 percent reliable.

Park Güell was designed by the famous Antoni Gaudí as a gated residential community for Barcelona's upper crust. The development failed and only a few buildings came into being, but I think most people agree it's better this way. Through the back door, there were just a few people, a normal day at a city park, and we enjoyed the unique design elements, the plants, and the buskers.

As we progressed downhill, so did the experience. The crowds started to swarm, and the big blow came when we learned you have to pay eight Euros to hang around in the Monumental Zone. I'd seen references to the Monumental Zone in the brief research I'd done. I hadn't realized it referred the the famous spot with all the tilework—where everyone wants to be, to put it bluntly.

The part everyone thinks of. 
Stanley took great offense at the high price and the long lines and we decided it wasn't worthwhile. We'd been happier above, when it was just a city park.

Plaça Catalunya from the Corte Inglés 
After a few moments of frustration, we got on a city bus that took us past amazing sights like Casa Milà and Casa Batllò, but nevertheless seemed as if it would never end. It ended up in the Plaça Catalunya, and I got to show Stanley a little bit of the Rambla. The first time I stayed in Barcelona, my hotel was just off the Rambla, in the middle of everything.

I still admire Antoni Gaudí and his park, but there was nothing in the world that I hated more than seeing Stanley disappointed—he never asked for very much!—so the day ended with a sense of defeat. I resolved to never plan a big city sojourn so poorly again. I would get a real idea of crowds and fees and avoid them like the plague. I would make note of all the inexpensive places to eat food Stanley liked so as to never be stranded. I would hire a chariot to drive us from place to place with no worries.

Barcelona, I'm not done with you. Be ready, because next time I will be! 

A sad piece of evidence I've run across while looking through these memories (skip if sad is not your thing): Our first night in Barcelona, Stanley requested we go to a pharmacy for more ibuprofen. It was only the fourth day of our journey, and I had packed more than enough pain reliever pills for two weeks for two healthy adults even if they were walking miles and miles a day—and he had already used up all those pills. 

I was too busy interpreting for Stanley as he made his request at the parafarmacia (which could not sell us ibuprofen like a farmacia could, only aspirin) to comprehend how outlandish the situation was. When I say Stanley was not one to complain, that doesn't begin to describe it. Just over two months from the date of his quest for more pain relief, it was revealed that he had Stage IV lung cancer that had entirely blocked his right lung and metastasized to all his vertebrae, down to his tailbone. 

The most he ever said, later, in June, was that his neck felt stiff. 

That evening, the parafarmacista asked what he wanted the pills for. Did he have a headache? 

"Something like that," he replied. 

I want to say something profound here, but I think you can sense how haunting those words are to me already. End sad segment. 

Had we had an email, a phone call, a text, a telegram from Manolo García? Not yet, not yet, became our litany of the evening. Even more than I, Stanley never gave up hope. 

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here

Monday, May 29, 2017

The House That Love Built: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 6

On the hotel balcony in Cadaqués. You can see it's early:
Stanley's hair isn't even dry yet! 
When this post publishes, it will be ten months since the love of my life passed away.

On May 19, 2016, we had a schedule to maintain and got up early to marvel at Cadaqués in the daylight, in spite of thick cloud cover. Even eating the hotel breakfast was a feast for the eyes because the area had huge windows on all sides.

Cloudy day over the love mansion. Photo by Jessica Knauss
It was a short drive to Portlligat to the Dalí House-Museum, although we didn’t recognize it when we saw it. I’d always seen pictures of it in the sun; under the clouds, you had to look for the eggs on the roof. Although it’s a timed tour, with eight visitors at a time, the guide didn’t give a tour per se, but recited the rules in Spanish, French, and English and opened himself to questions. The other people on the tour, including an American and a French couple, were inquisitive and their curiosity made the experience personal.

Photo by Jessica Knauss
Jessica in the Dalí library. Photo by Stanley Coombs
In Dalí's studio. Photo by Jessica Knauss
I’d seen a lot of Dalí’s extraordinary art in museums in most of the countries I’d visited and was thrilled to be in a place that exuded his special brand of creativity. But when we moved past the library, through an anteroom with views onto the port, to the bedroom, Stanley asked a question that brought everything gloriously together for him: “Who slept in the other bed?”

Gala and Dalí slept in the same room. Photo by Stanley Coombs
In spite of Dalí’s untraditional sexual practices, Gala made her mark throughout the house. Who was Gala? The love of Dalí’s life. The devotion between them was legendary and artistically fruitful. As soon as he could detect the love story, my husband sought out the special meanings of each room, which Gala and Dalí had built to their designs. All together we spent an hour and half there, wondering and wandering, but it was timeless, a romantic idyll, like all the moments we spent together.

Photo by Jessica Knauss
Photo by Stanley Coombs
That smile was reserved for moments of true love. 
I’d heard about this house and read about it and seen travel shows about it, and I never honestly thought I would get to go there. Its location on the edge of the world felt out of reach to a lonely traveler. Obviously, I needed true love to get there.

Darkening skies. Photo by Jessica Knauss 
The weather worsened—gale winds threatened to push the car off the road—and made it impossible for us to see the rock formations at the coast at Cap de Creus. As I mentioned, Cadaqués and Portlligat are on the edge of the world, so we had to drive back the way we’d come, through the twisting mountain roads. We were starving by the time we made it to Girona for lunch, but I had enough energy to appreciate it as it whizzed by our car windows while we searched for a place to eat. We finally parked in a garage and walked down Gran Avinguda Jaume I into a place called Viena, which, it turns out, has the best sandwich in the world according to the New York Times—a jamón on scratchy, crusty bread. We didn’t get that one; Stanley already had a pulverized hard palate from the hard bread we’d been eating. We ordered hamburgers with bacon and egg and pepper sauce, with some fries and the most satisfying drink in the world according to my love, Fanta taronja (Catalan for orange). The buns were as hard as any baguette! It’s not easy to eat a hamburger in solid steel casing. But I thought it was really good, anyway. I was relieved to find they’re a Catalan company and in Catalan tradition, they had a lot of lovely pastries for breakfast. And Girona became another place I thought I would like to live.

"Enjoy the good things in life"
"The best sandwich in the world—The New York Times"
Slogans are even better in Catalan (says this linguist)
The hugeness of Barcelona struck us both. Our hotel was in the middle of a commercial-industrial area in Cornellà de Llobregat, but we took a walk and saw a Manolo poster for a concert he’d already given. Had we heard anything from him yet? "Not yet," we said, with love and hope in our hearts. 
 
Portents of things to come...
Photo by Stanley Coombs 

It’s more tiring than you think it will be when you haven’t been somewhere before. I’d been in Barcelona long before, but it was a package tour—no thinking required. Next time: I try to navigate Barcelona on my own for the first time!

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here


Friday, May 26, 2017

The Cradle of Catalunya: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 5

A palace near the gas station in Sant Ramon, because it's Catalunya
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
On the morning of May 18, 2016, my husband and I were overjoyed to eat the hotel breakfast because it included "Macedonia" yogurt. Macedonia is a special mixed fruit flavor I had to work hard to convince Stanley to try in 2015. From the moment it hit his tongue, it was the only flavor of yogurt he ever wanted to eat, and you can’t get it in the United States. 

It was a cloudy day, but we were too cheerful to let it bother us. The previous day was only the second time I’d been in Aragón, and that day was going to be the second time I’d been in Catalunya. The regions of Spain are a source of constant cultural and linguistic amazement. 

The mountain tunnels are decorated with flowers.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
It was a long drive to Ripoll, but with all the charms of castles on crags, changing landscapes, an arch that showed the Greenwich Line (opposite the International Date Line), and tons of tunnels through the mountains. We stopped at a gas station in a little place called Sant Ramon, which had a big palace. We bought a large bottle of water for only one Euro and the guy was helpful, conversing in Spanish, but the bathroom keys’ labels read dones and homes, the Catalan words for “women” and “men.” The linguist in me came out to celebrate, not to retreat for the rest of the journey.


The first droplets of water hit us on our entry into Ripoll, a place with lots of garden centers and a few shops. We went to Restaurant Can Villaura for lunch at a quarter to four, when the crowd was thinning out. I got a menu in Spanish to cope with ordering, but was reading all the Catalan on the walls. We had macarrones with gratinado and roasted chicken and fries. Roasted chicken with delicately seasoned sauce and potatoes fried in olive oil had become Stanley’s favorite dish in 2015 and if it was on offer, we couldn’t let it pass by. As soon as we stepped out of the restaurant, it started pouring insanely cold rain.

We ran under a pedestrian bridge, and the prospect of waiting for the cloudburst to pass was unattractive because neither of us had our jackets. Stanley ducked out and ran to the car to retrieve my jacket for me. It got soaked and he was frozen, but the gallantry was not lost on me. I used it as an umbrella to get to the car, where we sat in the blast from the heater for some minutes while it pelted rain.

The monastery at Ripoll after the rain
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
When the rain became normal enough, we drove to the monastery, arriving around 5 p.m. We were all by ourselves in the explanatory chapel in the tourism office and I was overwhelmed with the importance of this place to Catalan history. It all happened here! 


Small section of the main portal at Ripoll
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
The main portal at Ripoll is touted as the finest example of Catalan Romanesque sculpture. Nothing I’d read about it prepared me for how astounding it was. The photos don’t do it justice, of course. Stanley helped me record every inch of the wonder and kept me on schedule so we could see it all before they closed. The interior of the monastery had artistic contributions from the early Middle Ages to the present, and I stood, paced, and gasped, puzzling it all out in Catalan, Spanish, and English. I’m not sure how to convey the joy when I discovered that the cloister had a different capital on every marble column.


The cloister at Ripoll
Photo by Stanley Coombs 
It was a two-hour drive to Cadaqués. The map made it look close from Ripoll, but it wasn’t detailed enough to show all the mountainous switchbacks and curves. I thought we’d come out of the mountains to get to the coast, but that coast is rugged and hilly. Cadaqués is all hills, some of them so steep Stanley held onto me so I wouldn’t slide down. 


Cadaqués at night
Photo by Stanley Coombs 
We didn’t arrive until nightfall, around 9 p.m. The hotel was basic, but it was almost more comfortable that way. A five-star luxury experience could’ve been too much in such an ecstatically charming location. We walked out in the dark and the drizzle to look for dinner. We made it to the shore, with the waves crashing, restaurants, and a Dalí statue, then turned around and bought a pizza (they call them cocas) and a crispy almond honey flatbread about as big as a 33 rpm record at a bakery and ate them with peanut butter crackers back in the room. The prevailing feeling was that we should stay longer, but alas, I’d scheduled only one night there.


Cadaqués in the morning
Photo by Jessica Knauss 

Next time: the romantic frenzy of Salvador Dalí and Gala.

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Emails and Osbourne Bulls: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 4


Arriving in the early morning.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
My husband and I were diehard Manolo García fans, and in spite of a severe lack of cash that saw us in Arizona, hunched on folding chairs in a one-room apartment with little other furniture, we purchased his 2011 album, Los días intactos. Through the wonders of the internet, we heard the brilliant new songs the same day the Spanish did. But there was no way we could consider going to Spain for the million-city, small-venue tour for that album. 

In 2014, on the other hand, I had been working a regular job for some time. When Manolo García released the latest of his mind-blowingly great albums, Todo es ahora, we were able to listen for the first time together on real furniture in Massachusetts. Because it had been so long since our honeymoon in Spain (in 2009), we decided we would head over for that concert tour. I would finally see Manolo García live and fulfill my lifelong dream, which had been so thoughtlessly obliterated in 2008. 

Being an authentic artist, Manolo can’t be rushed. Instead of launching the 2014 album with a tour, he went back to the studio with his buddies and made a five-disc collection of gorgeously remastered and re-recorded old gems, which of course I snapped up with glee. We waited, but it didn’t look like a tour was forthcoming, so in March 2015, Stanley and I went to Spain for the second time together and had a grand, mostly medieval time. We spent most of the ten days in Seven Noble Knights territory, so it was fitting that the day of our return, I was surprised with an email in which Bagwyn Books accepted it for publication

Later that year, concert dates were published. We conferred briefly and my sweet, wise husband said we should take this opportunity because it doesn’t come around often. I think, empathic soul that he was, he sensed the giant hole in my existence because I had never been to a Manolo García performance. We investigated the concert venues, and they were all enormous, which felt overwhelming to our sensitive introversion. We chose to see Manolo García at the bullring in Valencia because the venue had the smallest capacity. I had never been to Valencia, though I’d always wanted to. 

Ecstatic in 2014 with an unexpectedly signed copy of Todo es ahora 
Photo by Stanley Coombs 
When the tickets went on sale, I jumped on them like the lifeline they were. Eighty Euros apiece gave us admission to a dream come true. I ceded the desk chair to Stanley and he strategized our plane tickets with memberships and miles, and I leaned over his shoulder to help him choose a rental car. Between the purchase of those tickets and the time we would use them, we moved from Massachusetts back to Arizona, so it was quite the geographic brain twister to arrange. 

Two days before our flights, on a bright Arizona May 14, I awoke to an email. (My translation follows.) 

Hi Jessica, 

Are you there? Is this your email? I’m Manolo García. I received your letter and know about the unexpected events you had when traveling. 

Please answer and tell me if you both are coming to the concert in Valencia. 

A hug from this sinner of the prairie [a cultural reference too complex to explain here], who is, 

Manuel García. 

My head exploding, I checked the from address and verified that it was coming from Carmen. Not just any Carmen, but a talented and creative Spanish music artist who happens to be Manolo García’s sister. 


Only when I was half convinced of the message’s legitimacy did I call Stanley in to see. Are there words to describe what it’s like to be contacted by Carmen on behalf of Manolo García? Not really. That day still stands out as unique. Stanley came up with a lot of scenarios, but I focused on accepting that this was enough, that even if we never heard anything from them again, we would still love Manolo and Carmen for all the joy they’d already brought us. We composed a message in reply and checked every time we could as we traveled to see if someone wrote back. Not yet, not yet, we kept saying. 

Stanley and I always divided up the labor of a journey in a way that maximized the use of each other’s talents and made for the smoothest journey. I took care of everything on Spanish soil except the rental car, and Stanley assumed responsibility for all transportation, including how to behave at the airport to get the best service. I was happy to comply with any suggestion he had because the result was always magical. 

We had some concern about making a connection at the Charlotte airport, and it turned out that even though it’s manageable in size, we arrived at the gate only eleven minutes before boarding. It felt like one more charm in a series of charmed events. For example, our tickets put us into the TSA precheck line. The flight felt long, mostly because it was on one of those fancy airplanes that pressurizes the cabin to almost normal altitude, and when there’s more oxygen it’s harder for me to fall asleep. 

T4 at Aeropuerto Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas
Photo by Stanley Coombs 
We arrived on May 17. Oh, the exhaustion! Oh, the crustiness! We knew the drill about the rental car from the previous year. It was a tiny black SEAT no one would ever want to steal. Then we went back up the flat escalator for carts, and ate donuts and a paleta de ibérico sandwich with orange Fanta. That was several things off the list already. 

We had no trouble finding where to go, even though it was tough booting up Susie, which is what we called our phone GPS navigator, in a "foreign" country. The landscape changed dramatically every few kilometers, and we passed into Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, and Aragón. We saw tons of iconic Osbourne bulls. 

You won't see these wordless liquor ads anywhere but Spain.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
When we caught a glimpse of Medinaceli, which is mentioned in Seven Noble Knights, we stopped and marveled. It turned out to be one of the pueblos más bonitos de España. Yes, this is a thing. Spain officially chooses its most beautiful towns. Next, Calatayud was amazing with thirteenth-century churches and a million castles, but we couldn’t get to any of them in the car, and were too tired to walk. Stanley did some amazing maneuvers on the small streets in that car. There was a statue of Alfonso el Batallador (notorious husband of Queen Urraca) tucked into a corner we swept by. 

Our SEAT for two weeks.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
Calatayud
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
When I was telling family and friends about this journey afterward, Stanley would contribute a story about when I was trying to get the above photo in Calatayud. Stanley didn't even want me to have to get out of the car—that's how tired were were—and, still getting used to the stick shift, he backed into a random invisible concrete block and scuffed the back right bumper. He was concerned that the rental company would charge us for the damage and started hatching a plan to avoid that. 

Our hotel in Zaragoza was in the middle of a big commercial area with trucks and malls. We had trouble finding somewhere to eat and ended up at McDonald’s. That must've been a direct result of my dad, because when he called me while we were on the way to the Phoenix airport, he asked if we were going to eat McDonald’s in Spain. As if Spain weren’t one of the best food countries in the world. But this McDonald's wasn't like any I'd been to in the United States. It had a fancy electronic ordering system, and I ate deluxe fries with curry sauce. 

The Ebro, the signature roof tiles of the Basílica del Pilar, and lovely Zaragoza
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
We slept for an hour and a half and drowsed a little more before resolving to go to Zaragoza's famous basilica. This place is the reason so many Spanish ladies are named Pilar. We went to the top of the tower with the help (but not all the way) of the attended elevator. Amazing views of the Ebro, the biggest river in Spain. We walked around in the Pilar plaza a little, and when we saw a pharmacy, we got Stanley an expectorant because he thought he had either bronchitis or Valley Fever. Then we had gorgeous lemon and chocolate/crema catalana gelato and got back in the car to take a Susie-led tour of Zaragoza’s posh shopping streets and the places only the locals go. It was so attractive, I thought I wouldn’t mind living there. We ended up at the palace, but it was so late in the day we didn't have time to go in. It’s huge! We strolled around it and enjoyed the gardens with the locals at the end of the day.

Palacio de la Aljafería, Zaragoza
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
At that point, we headed for a big mall anchored by Hipercor (one of Spain's Walmart approximations) and shopped for detergent, hand lotion, shaving cream, black shoe polish to "repair" the car, and candy. We had dinner there at a local joint, sharing a menú of esparragos blancos with jamón serrano and a scrumptious bistec with pepper sauce. Natillas for dessert—yum! 

After a day that lasted about 48 hours, we slept well.

Next time, a romantically rainy day in Catalunya. 

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here.