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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

The two cities are Copenhagen and Barcelona. We visited both in December--each just for a long weekend--and both were fantastic.


I have lost track of the number of times I have been in Copenhagen, but for most of the past 45 years I have spent a few days or a week each year in Denmark. Most of those trips involved some time in its capital city. Through the years I have observed many changes but also watched with wonder that some things remain constant, or renew themselves to keep up with the times--and quite often that is done in an agreeable manner. In many ways, Copenhagen has become my barometer of change and constancy.

Lyngby Storcenter - a shopping center's Christmas village. ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Surgery and rehabilitation kept us from travel earlier this year, so we decided to do the Denmark trip in early December, to celebrate a birthday and get into the Christmas spirit. It was a very quick trip. We took an early Friday morning flight from Alicante and were in Copenhagen before lunchtime, and we were scheduled to return late Sunday evening. There was a time--and not too many years ago--when all the stores would have been closed Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. That would have left us precious little time to scour the shops for books and DVDs and Christmas decorations and pass through the department stores to catch up with the trends. Fortunately times have changed and we had no trouble finding places to spend our money every hour that we were able to be out of our hotel.

Tivoli at Christmas, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012.
It was cold, and it snowed on Sunday, but that didn't stop us. We came back with suitcases filled with 30 or more DVDs in the original English or Danish--something we cannot find in Spain, where films are routinely dubbed into Spanish in the cinemas, on TV, and on DVD. We went to at least four big bookstores and even waited in line for almost an hour for an author signing at one. We saw two current films in the theater--something we never do in Spain. We ate in our long-time favorite restaurant where we almost always  enjoy a meal--usually the same kro-platte selection of open-faced sandwiches, though the sandwiches change over the years and are as good a barometer of fiscal conditions as the McDonald's index. And of course we went to Tivoli. There it was frightfully cold, and the masses of people (we really should not have left this until Saturday evening) made us realize that we have turned into country bumpkins, unused to throngs of humanity in one place.


I don't have enough years left to get to know Barcelona the way I know Copenhagen. This--three days over Christmas--was my second trip and I recognized some of the places from my first trip to Barcelona. That had been for a professional conference, however, and this trip was purely for pleasure.

Christmas Lights at Plaza Catalunya, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Did we think that we had left Christmas decorations behind us in Copenhagen? Not on your life! There may not be as many pine trees in Spain as there are in Scandinavia, but nowhere can there be more lights. We sat in the restaurant at the top of El Cortes Inglés department store Christmas Eve as the day turned to dusk and saw the colorful street lights coming on all over Plaza Catalunya at the top of the Rambla. We also spied the fairly new Apple store on the other side of the plaza, so of course we had to walk in that direction when we moved on our way. On Christmas Eve at 8:00 PM the place was jumping. Though there were people playing at all 20 of the large tables with various devices arranged in the room, we had no trouble finding a geek to answer a few questions we had.

Looking Up at Sagrada Familia, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Earlier on Christmas Eve day we had made the pilgrimage to Sagrada Familia cathedral, which we had first seen in 2009. At that time there was scaffolding in the sanctuary and construction dust all around. Since then, the Pope has been to Barcelona to consecrate the cathedral and while it is not done--and will not be done in my lifetime, probably--the scaffolding is gone and during the Christmas season, at least, there were no signs of construction. Work on the Sagrada Familia began in 1882. There is something very nice about now having seen it twice, with construction workers, and with signs of progress. It provides a connection with the millions of people who, over the centuries, built other mammoth cathedrals in Europe. This one is extraordinarily beautiful and inspiring, regardless of your faith or lack of it.

Gaudi Tiled Bench in Park Guëll, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Christmas Day itself we had reserved for the Park Guëll, since most everything else would be closed on a public holiday, but, we reasoned, a park would not. The artist Gaudi lived in a house in the park for 20 years while he was designing the public park space; Guëll was his employer-benefactor. The weather had turned hazy and so we did not have the spectacular views of Barcelona that this high-elevation park normally provides, but we still enjoyed the walk through its winding and climbing pathways and the varied vegetation. We entered from a back entrance, we discovered (we had followed the directions of the information person at the Metro and Metro is not the best way to go, we now know) and we had to walk all the way to the front entrance before finding the famed fountains and buildings and park benches with Gaudi's colored tiles.

We enjoyed many other things in Barcelona: the gorgeous displays of food at La Boqueria market, just across from where we stayed on the Rambla, and the best steak that I have had in nine years in Spain at Restaurante Ferran, which is better known for tapas and Spanish cuisine--so we shared an appetizer of tomato bread with  jamón ibérico de bellota (which means that the contributing pigs have eaten only chestnuts). I walked to the end of the Rambla and saw the Columbus statue and some Christmas market stalls, but I didn't buy anything, because enough is enough. We had a delightful interchange with a young Danish woman of Afghan-Indian heritage and her Indian novio, who happened to be our host at the hostal in which we stayed. They are going to India once her exams are over for this season--her first time in India--and we gave them Danish Christmas decorations we had brought with us and wish them the best of luck in their future life.

©Johannes Bjorner 2012
And all this was made easier because we had a hostal in a very central position on the Rambla--just opposite the Liceu Metro exit. I had never stayed in an hostal before, wary that it was a little too basic for my mature tastes, and thinking of bunk beds in dormitories. Our hostal, however, was less than a year old and was quite modern, with comfortable beds and northern European comforters, a clean and functional toilet and shower, with the usual amenities, and the best lighting on both sides of the double bed that I have experienced in awhile. Yes, it was in an old building with a very narrow stairway that you had to go up even to get to the tiny elevator, certainly the smallest I have ever seen, and remember--I have been in Denmark. The elevator (which required a key) was limited to 150 kg., so balancing two pieces of luggage (even carry-on) and two people meant that inevitably one (or more) got left out. But most of the time, there were just two of us going up and down in the elevator, and all we had to remember to do in the tiny space was, as Johannes said, "Assume intimate position" and up (or down) we would go. All this was quite appropriate since we shared a building (but not the same entrance) with the Erotic Museum.

Hans Christian Andersen Slept Here

Photo by Johannes Bjorner ©2012
Most people don't know that fairy tales were only a small part of the literary works of the world-famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen is referred to in Danish by his initials and therefore becomes H.C. Andersen. Since the letter H is pronounced "ho" and the letter C sounds rather like "say" in Danish, oral references to H.C. Andersen sound like one is talking about José Andersen, which is rather amusing and confusing when discussing Andersen in Spain. But I digress. H.C. Andersen was first interested in the theater, and he wrote drama, poetry, journals, and travel pieces, for he was an inveterate traveler during his lifetime (1805-1875). In 1862 he came to Spain, over the Pyrenees from France; he entered Barcelona by coach on September 6 and spent several days based at the Fonda del Oriente hotel.

I took my copy of I Spanien (In Spain) with me to Barcelona on my Christmas trip, 150 years and a couple months after his adventure. One of my goals was to find the hotel where Andersen had stayed, because I had happened upon a notice some time ago that a commemorative plaque had been placed at the hotel, acknowledging Andersen's visit.

It turned out that the hotel, now named the Husa Oriente, was only a few blocks down the Rambla from where we were staying. I should have guessed that, because one of the sites Andersen mentioned was the Liceu theater (no performances during the time Andersen was in Barcelona, though he was able to see the theater stage itself during a rehearsal) and that was just across the street and down one block from our hostal. The Liceu wasn't hosting any performances on the Christmas days that we were there, either, and we didn't get beyond the lobby and guard desk. 

Photo by Johannes Bjorner ©2012
The plaque at the hotel was placed by the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) of Barcelona and roughly translated from Catalan, it reads:

Hans Christian
(Odense 1805-Copenhagen 1875)
Danish Author
Observed from this hotel
the flooding of the Rambla
of September 15, 1862 

I had read Andersen's account of the heavy storms and flooding that occurred toward the end of his stay in Barcelona. It was historic, obviously, as that was the sole site or event indicated on the plaque, though Andersen's account  mentions several other areas of the city that exist to this day: Barceloneta, Monjuic fort, and the Plaza de Toros (though I don't know how that is being used now that Barcelona has outlawed bullfighting). In addition to the Rambla itself, of course, which Andersen loved for its shops and fruit stalls and trees and cafes full of people all assembling to eat regardless of class, he noted. People still love the Rambla to this day and it is a hive of activity at all hours. We even saw a whole parade of Santa Clauses motorcycling up the street at breakneck speed on Christmas morning when we were having our breakfast.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Torrevieja Tapas

I had a very busy week at my desk last week, focused on one particular project, so by the time Friday afternoon, November 30 rolled around, it seemed like I deserved to get out of the house to do something to clear my mind. It was a sunny day, and that is not something that we have been able to take for granted this particular November, which has had record cold and record number of gray days. But Friday morning was crisp and light, and after working for a few hours, we decided to go in to Torrevieja to check out the Tapas Route.

This was not the first time we have been to Torrevieja Tapas, which has a promotional "tapas trail" twice a year, but I think we missed it last spring. Many communities in the area promote these events throughout the year. Various restaurants of a town promise to offer a drink and a special tapa at a low price--usually a euro for the drink and another for the tapa, they prepare the tapas in quantity as much as possible while holding them fresh, and wait for customers to come by, try the tapa, and then move on to the next restaurant. It's a competition, you see. Customers get a stamp from each restaurant they visit, and then at the end of their tapas run--if they accumulate 10 stamps--they can enter a vote for the best tapa of that particular competition. There may be prizes for the winner, but the big benefit is the exposure all the restaurants get.

We were a little early--it starts at noon and by now it was still only 1:00--and wandered through several narrow streets of Torrevieja without finding a single bar participating in the event. We eventually happened by the Glorieta Cafe. It looked like a tea shop, and after we were invited inside (it was on the shady side of the street) we were told by the server that it is indeed a tea shop--all of the teas in canisters on the shelves were for sale in whatever quantity you want measured, as well as specialty sugars, coffees, and various decorative implements to make or serve your beverage. Just the thing for a little gift for the new lady friend of a male friend of ours who I have not yet met but will at Christmas, I thought. But in the meantime, we had a vino tinto and non-alcoholic beer, and nibbled on two different tapas. The beauty of the Torrevieja festival is that each restaurant makes a "traditional" tapa and an "innovative" tapa. According to the brochure, we were eating sarten de solomillo y foie and pimiento verde preñado. Both were excellent, although I cannot describe them more than as "sauteed tenderloin with pate" and a delicious soft something--possibly a small green pepper--with a wonderful sauce (preñado means "full" or "pregnant.").

We went on in fairly quick succession to Cafeteria Valdes, where we tried tentaciones Valdes--but I really need to start writing down detailed descriptions while I am on the "run," because I can't remember everything. The next place was Puerto Rico, and I remember these: the pelota de "Purisima" was a single large meat ball suspended in a flavorful broth, not elegant, but delicious. Puerto Rico also offered an escalope de queso con patata rellena de sobresada, three slices of potato with cheese, covered by the Mallorcan red pork spread. We decided we needed one more to fill out "lunch" before heading for home and fortunately we found Meson La Huertica on the way back to the car. Although we had sat outside for the middle two places, we were once again on the shady side of the street, so we entered the inviting old-style pub, almost, with dark wood and small tables at various heights. By now (circa 2:30) it was full and we were lucky to get a seat. Johannes ordered one of the tapas and I the other. Then we ordered a second round and reversed who got what. These tapa descriptions are too long to fit comfortably on the allotted space in the brochure. As near as I can tell it was huevos de corral rotos con patatas, foie y jamon iberico (free-range eggs with potatoes, pate, and Iberian ham) and minihambuerguesa de angus con rulo de cabra cebolla caramelizada en cama de crep de sesamo y pasas (mini-hamburger of beef with caramelized onions in a crepe bed of sesame seed and raisins).

Then we descended into the depths of the parking garage, retrieved our car, and drove toward home. We had said that we would stop at the grocery store on the way home to pick up a few necessities. Following the common advice of never shopping on an empty stomach, we did stop, bought what we needed, and did not splurge on anything that looked tempting. After all, we had already succumbed to tentaciones.


It was while we were sitting outside at Cafeteria Valdes, on the corner of two of Torrevieja's very narrow streets, enjoying our drinks and tapas, that our eyes were drawn to the car that was parked on the sidewalk next to our table. This was only our second small drink--tapas festival drinks are smaller than normal, just like tapas are smaller than entrees--so our eyes were to believed.

It was parked kitty-corner between the main and the cross street. It was white. It was small, but it was a car. Johannes got up to inspect it, and as he approached, I saw a young man eye him warily. "¿Es coche tuyo?" I asked, and he rushed over to Johannes to answer his questions--and brag--about his car, a Toyota iQ.

Photo courtesy of Toyota
Even I, one who cares little about cars, got up to look. He had bought it second-hand a year ago, he said, and on 5 euros of gas (about $6.50) he could drive 100 kilometers (62 miles). I circled the car, which appeared to have four seats, not two, though there was something that looked like a bicycle in the back seat. There was also a trunk, though it seemed as though, if you put groceries in the back area, there would be no room whatsoever for any passengers.

Later I investigated the Toyota iQ (great name for an alternative to the more-prevalent Smart Car) and learned that it was introduced in Europe in 2009 and in the U.S. in 2011. Online Conversion tells me that, according to the young man, it gets around 62 miles per gallon, though a USA Today article reporting on Consumer Reports' bad review of the iQ says the U.S. version only gets 34 mpg. How can this be?

Regardless, my current measure of a car is: 1) Can you use it for shopping around town? 2) Can you use it to get you and your luggage to the airport?, and 3) Can you use it to pick up visitors and their luggage from the airport? Yes to number 1 and 2, I determined, without further ado, but absolutely no to number 3. A fine second car, should we ever become a two-car family again, but not a first one.